Authors: Eric Jerome Dickey
I introduced myself, then told Debra that Leonard had reserved the table. I said, “For you and whoever you brought.”
She said, “I just wanted to stop by and reimburse him for the money, from the night at Denny’s. I hadn’t planned on staying.”
“Stay for a few. At least watch his act.”
“He hasn’t gone up yet?”
“He’s next. He’s said a lot of positive things about you.”
“He said good things about you too.” She smiled, then read the pink sign on the table. “Madam C. J. Walker.”
I said, “First sister millionaire. Born in 1867.”
“You knew that?”
“Read it on the card.”
She laughed, but looked antsy. “Girlfriend made a fortune off black beauty products. And Leonard saved this for us?”
“For you especially.”
Her hand patted her leg. “That was sweet of him.”
“Thank him later. Have a seat before the comics see you standing, hit you with the spotlight, and make you their act.”
She checked her watch, glimpsed back, hand-signaled. Seconds later, another woman bumped around the tables.
I was relieved; she wasn’t butt-ugly. Last thing I wanted Lisa to see me lounging with was a mud duck.
Debra and her friend were different as night and day. but tit-for-tat in the Department of Fine. Debra waited for her friend to sit. Her friend hemmed and hawed, sat next to me. Scooted her chair a few inches away from me as soon as her butt touched down. Debra sat in the chair to the right of her friend.
They were dressed in jeans and busy cotton blouses. The other girl’s radiated with the colors of Africa. Debra’s hair was down in a shoulder-length bob; her friend’s in a ponytail with a golden pin in it. And her friend’s jeans were ripped at each knee, exposing fresh chocolate flesh.
Debra leaned forward. “Shelby, this is Tyrone.”
“Tyrel,” I corrected. “Tyrel Williams.”
“I’m sorry, Tyrel,” Debra said. “Tyrel, Shelby Daniels.”
Shelby smiled. We shook hands. Shelby had smooth dark skin and a small, cute nose. Obvious African-American features. Swan neck. Fine eyebrows. Lustrous eyes. Righteous. An authentic black woman. Not too diluted or watered down. I caught myself watching what she’d brought to the table, then staring at Lisa’s table of leftovers. Lisa had no appeal. Trust was gone and had stolen her gentle radiance. Made her harsh.
Shelby looked as beautiful as a sunrise on the beach. I told my eyes that I’d seen many a sunrise, that she was just another sister, and made my peepers stare at something else. My attention wandered back to Shelby. Wandered and wondered. Shelby caught my curious gaze grazing over her face.
I waved down the thin waitress with the super-weave. We all ordered overpriced drinks. Debra had a mimosa. Shelby, white wine. Me, Coke with no ice. They laughed at my order.
“If you pay four dollars for a drink in an itty-bitty plastic cup, you might as well get some alcohol,” Debra insisted.
Shelby said, “He can drink what he wants. Leave him alone.”
Shelby walked her eyes over me.
She turned her face away and glanced around the room.
The comic left the stage. The M.C. did Leonard’s intro.
Leonard was in command from the moment he walked into the spotlight. He came out dancing a spoof of the macarena. First he did it the corny off-rhythm way white people did it; then he did it the freaky way hoochie mamas did it. The crowd howled.
He did bits about how black people knew Tupac’s catalogue lyric for lyric, but didn’t know the black national anthem, couldn’t sing it if freedom depended on it. He acted out how brothers and sisters looked baffled when the song came on, showed how most made up words and hummed it instead of singing.
The room had been rocking like we were in a quake for about fifteen minutes when …
“… I was on a plane and I said, ‘Excuse me,
’ The bitch got an attitude.”
The crowd laughed. Leonard acted like an SWA, sister-with-an-attitude—bugged out his eyes, snaked his neck, took his voice up an octave, enhanced it with a hip-hop ghetto flare, all while he wagged his pointing finger.
“I’m not an
flight attendant. Stewardess
sounds like waitress, and I ain’t no waitress.”
Leonard held the attitude, poked out his lips, made the SWA mumble. Much laughter from the crowd. Then he switched and imitated the other side of the attendant, acted effeminate,
polite, with a very sexy gay voice as he batted his eyes….
“Now, what can I get for you? Chicken or fish? Something to drink? Maybe a pillow?”
The crowd laughed and howled in a powerful wave.
“Ain’t that a bitch?” Leonard said that to a young, amorous couple sitting on the front row. The guy nodded
in agreement and his date elbowed him, real hard. More laughter.
Leonard continued, “And I hate flying; aw, man, I hate it. All of a sudden the plane started shaking like this …”
He dipped, swayed his body, vibrated hard enough to make his lips slap, held a look of confusion on his face. More laughter.
Leonard went on, “I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ She says, ‘Air pockets.’ I said, ‘Bitch, air ain’t got no pockets.’
“Then she says to assume the crash position. So I walked over and stuck my head between her legs.”
The room filled with naughty oohs and shouts of “Hey now.” Shelby sent a smirk to Debra, and Debra blushed.
Leonard had the room in the palm of his hand: “She yelled, ‘I said crash position!’ I said, ‘This is crash position. ‘Cause if I’m gonna crash,
is the position I wanna be in.’ “
The laughter was contagious. It echoed and rebuilt itself. Women screamed. Sisters did high-fives across their tables.
“What flavor’s that?” Leonard asked. He licked his full lips. “That gotta be strawberry. That’s strawberry, right?”
Shelby nearly spat out her drink trying to hold back her laughter. She elbowed me in my ribs; I choked up my soda. Debra belly-laughed, lost control, slapped Shelby’s leg hard enough to make her jump out of the way.
Leonard grinned that grin of success and said a heartfelt “Good night, take care of the babies, and take care of our future” to a cheering crowd that didn’t want him to leave. He bowed, threw a peace sign, and exited the stage to the sounds of rap music and thunderous applause.
“He is crazy!” Debra howled. “Your friend is so stupid!”
She did the neck, pointed her finger at me, crossed her eyes, mocked Leonard’s characterization. At first her prima donna face made me think she was another stuck
up Ladera Heights sister who didn’t know she was black because she didn’t get the memo.
Shelby shook her head. “He was so serious when we met.”
Debra smiled. “I didn’t know he’d be all that.”
Moments later, Leonard joined us. Debra rose from the table, hugged him. She pulled her chair closer to his.
Leonard leaned and shook Shelby’s hand. That was when he saw Lisa watching us. Some of the grin seeped from the corners of his lips. Lisa’s eyes weren’t hawking our way anymore. Leonard’s eyes met mine for a second. I gave a nod that let him know it was no big deal. His eyes went back to Debra.
He said, “I’m glad you made it. I didn’t see you good-looking, foxy, intelligent black African, now living in America, Negro-colored, intelligent, Nubian, sassy, foxy sistuhs come in. I thought you had stood a brother up.”
They both laughed and waved off his comments.
Shelby said, “Brother, I got a bone to pick with you.”
Leonard asked, “What’s up, Miss Pundit?”
Shelby flipped her hand. “I’m through with you. The
had to be a bitch, huh?”
We laughed. I was glad both women had senses of humor.
Debra told Leonard, “Remind me to give you your money before the night’s over.”
“From Denny’s. When my charge card was denied.” Debra looked ashamed, but she went on, “You’re very funny, Mr. DuBois.”
“Thank you, Miss Mitchell.”
Leonard said, “But what?”
“Why don’t you take the b-word out of your act? Just the part when you call a woman one. It’s not too bad when you say a situation is a b-word, but it stings when you call a black woman a b-word. That’s just my opinion. A few sisters around the room cringed too. They laughed, but they looked uncomfortable. Hope you don’t mind me saying that.”
“Done deal. And thanks for the honesty.”
I imitated Leonard, “Ain’t that a bitch?”
Jackson stepped on stage. Leonard watched. Two minutes into his act, people were yawning, talking, going to potty.
When he started doing another comic’s material, the comics gathered in the back and shouted out the punch lines, messed up his already messed-up flow.
Somebody yelled, “C’mon, man, get your ass off the stage.”
We eased out a minute after that. Bumped by Lisa’s table and did a Soul Train line toward the front door. Lisa gazed up at me with a bold, call-me look. I gave her a fuck-you glower. I moved on with the party of new and improved women. We strolled out into the side parking lot and stood by Debra’s Hyundai.
Shelby said, “Well, Leonard, it’s a good thing you were funny, ‘cause I don’t think me and Debra could handle any more tribulation in one day.”
Leonard replied, “Bad day?”
Debra nodded. “Laughter was just what I needed.”
Leonard said, “Can’t laugh and be upset at the same time.”
I co-signed with, “True that.”
Shelby said, “At least y’all didn’t have lesbians trying to feel you up.”
I hoped we were about to part and go our separate ways, but Leonard asked them if they wanted to go by a reggae club down near the Venice waterfront. Offered that to Debra as a way to dance off a little more of her stress. That invitation was the opposite of my mood. Shelby shifted around a bit. Looked about as irritated as I felt. I checked my watch. Almost eleven. Early and late at the same time. But not too late. I had a cold, black book at home, one with some hot numbers.
Debra said, “Shelby has to work early in the a.m.”
“Debra!” Shelby said, then made her eyebrows dance.
Debra said, “My bad. I must’ve misunderstood you earlier.”
Debra had parked right in front of the club. Before Leonard and I made it across the street, a chunky white guy in a UCLA sweatshirt bolted out of the club. He caught his breath, pulled Leonard to the side. I waited.
That was when I noticed that Lisa had parked next to my car. About as close as we had been over the last few months. I spat on her car. Over and over I spat. A few bricks were on the asphalt, rocks knocked loose from the last few earthquakes we had experienced. I was tempted to create my own natural disaster.
Leonard and the man talked. The white man was smiling, gesturing and chuckling. He gave a strong handshake, patted Leonard on the back, handed him a card, left with an eager stride.
Leonard was unfazed. Straight-faced. He said, “Stop spitting on that girl’s car.”
“I spat on the ground but the car kept jumping in the way.”
“Stop. You wrong. You still knocking that off?”
“She’s back with her man. She made the offer. Then had the nerve to bring him down here.”
“And? You gonna get with her or what?”
“Thinking about it. Should fuck her just to be spiteful.”
“Don’t go out like that. She’ll get you caught up in some mess. Next thing you know her husband will be kicking down the door and shooting you in the head.”
I spat one last time, then said, “Who was that white guy?”
“He’s from CBS. Talking about an audition.”
“Time to celebrate.”
He flipped the man’s business card into the street. “Talk ain’t nothing but talk. A promise ain’t nothing until it’s fulfilled. Brothers get stepped to like that every night.”
I picked the card up and said, “What’s wrong?”
He nodded at the club. “I was supposed to get paid a hundred for the night, but boss woman only paid me
twenty-five. Said she was a little short and had to cut everybody’s pay.”
“Plenty of people paid to get in and bought drinks.”
“Same shit happened last time I worked here. Had me down here working, then don’t want to pay what they promised.”
I said, “Leonard. Whoa, slow down. Take a breath.”
He straightened his clothes. Glanced to see if Debra was pulling up yet. The light inside her car was on, but they hadn’t moved. Probably doing the girl-talk thing.
I said, “You’ve got a fine woman on the way over. Chill.”
For a moment he looked old. Old like his own father, Big Leonard, did when he got back from Vietnam. Worn as shoes with holes in the soles. This wasn’t my first time seeing Leonard step on a stage, have a bomb show, step off, then doubt himself and his life. Wondering when his funny gene would end. I think he needed to dance away some stress like the rest of us.
I felt immortal, but Leonard was solemn, like he was carrying the burden of life, looked like he wouldn’t live forever.
Jackson stormed out the club. Pushed the door open so hard it slapped the stucco wall. He crossed into the lot. Stopped his military-style strut ten yards away. He stared at Leonard. Looked like he was ready to open a can of kickass.
Car headlights flashed over us. I moved between Leonard and Jackson. Blocked their view of each other. Killed Jackson’s mad-dog act. I spat on Lisa’s car again. Wondered how much damage one brick could do.
Debra and Shelby pulled up in Debra’s Hyundai. Debra was smiling a big one. Shelby was putting on lip liner. I was close enough to their car to smell two kinds of sweetness when Debra let her window down. Shelby glanced my way again. Then put her eyes to Debra’s face, like she was waiting to see what was up. I thought, Bees make honey, but they also sting you when you get too close.
Leonard was getting his mack on: “Debra, why don’t I ride with you and Shelby ride with Tyrel?”
Shelby jumped into his conversation, “I don’t think so.”
Debra said, “Quit acting silly.”
Leonard got into Debra’s car. Shelby complained her way into mine. After I closed her door, she didn’t say a word. Sat in silence and leaned her body away. I ignored her. Tuned my radio to KACE and played some soft oldies,
Mercy, Mercy, Me.