Authors: Eric Jerome Dickey
When I went into the closet, I thought about Debra and Leonard. Thought about all the things we did, all the movies, and dinners, and evenings we sat around playing Jenga. How we played dominoes and talked about each other like we were crazy. Thought about all the fun that felt better than sunshine on a cloudy day. Thought about all the things my girlfriend and her husband wouldn’t be able to do now.
My friend’s soul mate had died, and here I was standing around, worrying about how my ass looked. I’m such a fool. Such a selfish bitch. Forget the stupid monkey bites too. The reality of the trivial things that I was tripping out over rushed over my nerves and slapped some sense into my scatterbrain.
Then I couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe.
My arms numbed from my shoulders to the tips of my fingers. My knees started to bend. Legs began to wobble. Lip trembled uncontrollably. Dizzy. If I found the strength to hold on, there was nothing to grab for support that wouldn’t drop on me.
Garments slid from my hands. I reached for something to keep me up. Everything—boxes of shoes, hats, magazines—rained down on me, hit me over and over. Buried me. My soul was so heavy, had always been too heavy, but now I couldn’t hold it up. I collapsed, hit the floor, and cried. Moaned my tears.
Shelby will be here tomorrow.
Debra’s words were stuck in my head.
Lorna almost replaced Shelby. Almost. And she would’ve, if the lies hadn’t risen to the surface. It’s hard to forget. I’d been seeing Lorna for almost two months. It was a Saturday meant for riding the Great Highway into Golden Gate Park and visiting the riding stables.
That morning I went to the bathroom to take a leak, and it burned like I was being cauterized. The sudden pain knocked me and my scream down to my goddam knees. Found myself on the floor, grabbing the edge of the toilet. I panted, panted, panted. While I lay there sweating and cursing, what scared me the most was that I’d only let out a small squirt and my damn bladder was full. So, like it or not, the rest had to go, and that meant the pain and fire had to come. I was dank, gobs of sweat popped up from my hairline down to my toenails. My teeth clenched so hard I saw sparks.
When I finished and the pain eased up, I washed my face, cleaned myself up, then limped to the phone and called Lorna. I told her how bad I was hurting, and she dropped the phone and cackled like it was some kind of a joke.
Calmness fled and my temper came through. She realized my four-letter words were real, then denied everything and hung up.
About three hours later, I was walking out of the
doctor’s office with a bottle of 500mg antibiotics in my hand. All afternoon and all evening, I dialed Lorna’s number; she didn’t answer. Paged her. No calls returned. Her cellular phone was turned off, so the calls I made all rolled to the message center.
I went by her town house in Pacific Heights. Her BMW was there, but she wouldn’t open the gate. First thing Monday morning I rang her office, all I got was her voice mail.
Since she was a PK, I knew where to find her early on a Sunday morning. The same place she was every Sunday morning, rain or shine. I waited until church service started, drove around the parking lot and mixed with the late crowd. Hung out in the lobby until the golden-robed choir danced their praises down the aisle. I waited for a song to end, the one where everybody was singing because they were happy, chanting because they were free, then strutted in while their eyes were on the sparrow. That was right before Lorna’s father started his second sermon of the day.
I eased down the red carpet, moved toward the pulpit in front of a beautiful mural of a black John the Baptist baptizing a black Jesus, and found myself an end seat close to the front.
Lorna came through the side door by her daddy’s office, spry and all smiles, happy-walked to the podium on the right side of the pulpit, stood before the congregation, prepared to do the announcements. She adjusted the microphone, raised her palms to the sky, and spoke a very uplifting “Praise the Lord!”
The room brightened up and the congregation spoke the same spirited phrase back to her in unison. Lorna was up there in an angelic cream suit, spreading a bucket of grins, a mask for her sins. I waited until the room had fallen quiet, played the quiescent role until Lorna was about to open her mouth, then I shouted a very spirited “Praise the Lord.”
I unbuttoned my coat, stood, stomped my foot, waved my hand like an old black minister at a late night summer revival. Everybody clapped and co-signed with a
The organist kicked in. All around, hands waved side to side. Even her daddy hopped up long enough to cut the rug with a sanctified dance. Lorna choked on the spirit. A bucket of holy water couldn’t wash down the lump in her throat.
I sat down and nodded at her. She swayed, fanned herself.
Lorna bumbled her words and sped through her speech, sped through the announcements, then skipped three out of four steps and dashed through the side door without raising her face.
She’d grabbed her Bible, but had fled without her purse. By the time I took her bag from the usher and casually strolled out the side door, Lorna was at her car. Patting her pockets.
I said, “Hard to get in without keys.”
She turned around. The sun was warm, but the air was brisk and breezy. It could’ve been the wind, might’ve been my stone-face, but something made her shudder when she saw me walking toward her. I raised her purse.
“You can either talk now,” I held up a bottle of penicillin I’d pulled out of her bag, shook it side to side like a tambourine, “or we can go inside and when it’s time for people to confess, we can take a number. Might make your daddy proud to see his daughter tell the truth. He might even change his sermon.”
Her lip twitched, “You wouldn’t dare say anything in front of my father’s congregation.”
She wilted. “I think we should take this somewhere else.”
“Off sacred grounds?”
Lorna drove the streets of Oakland and ended up near my place on Lakeshore, across from Lake Merritt. Jogger after jogger toured around the tranquil water. She pulled down the visor to block the sun, wiped her eyes, told me about the baseball player whom she didn’t know how she got involved with.
Lorna said, “It just happened.”
“Given the right conditions, things just happen.”
“We agreed, both of us said we were going to be one-on-one.”
“Tyrel.” Her page boy bounced. “Tell me something.”
“Are you in love with somebody else?”
“Why you ask me something like that?”
“You’re always distracted. Always. When we’re together you get real quiet for no reason and start to stare off into space. I ask what’s on your mind and you always claim you’re just a little tired, not thinking about anything. Sometimes you look at me like you’re seeing somebody else. You never say anything, but I get a feeling that you’re comparing me to somebody. Who?”
“Sounds like I hit a nerve.”
“I’ve been stressed over the last few weeks.”
“A few times I called and you didn’t sound as happy to hear from me. Not like you used to. A couple of times you told me you’d call me back and I didn’t hear from you for two days.”
She was quiet for a long while. So was I. When she spoke again, her voice was more bitter. She said, “Outside of us just fucking, I have to squeeze quality time out of you.”
I stared out the window at the rows of one-level bookstores and coffeehouses. Watched crowds come and go. Saw nothing worth seeing. If what I was searching was just physical, Lorna would’ve fit the bill. My needs were way beyond that. So deep-seated that they might not be realistic.
She touched my leg in an unkind way, said, “You want to hear more?”
“Regardless, I didn’t sleep with anybody else.”
“You might as well have,” she said wistfully. “I’ve never been your woman. Just an escape.”
I chuckled, wondered if anybody ever could. “Escape?”
“Call it what you want. Escape. Relief. Am I wrong?”
I wanted to disagree. “You’re right.”
The bitterness left her voice and it went back to a feathery tone, “Is our business finished?”
I didn’t say anything else. Neither did she.
Lorna dropped me off at my car, gave me a loving hug and said, “I love you. Probably will for a while.”
She said that like heartbreak was nothing new for her either.
She bobbed her head, said, “But I’m a big girl. I can handle this feeling until it’s gone. I don’t have a problem dealing with reality. I’m just sorry about what happened to us. You know if I had’ve known about, you know, I would’ve told you.”
In my rearview mirror, I saw her wipe her eyes and wave a strong good-bye. She straightened her clothes, held her head high, floated back inside her daddy’s sanctuary.
Whitney Houston was grooving on the radio while I rushed and watered the pothos, English ivy, and Boston fern plants that filled my apartment. I was breaking my neck so I could get out of my cave in the next five minutes. I hurried, bumped into the dresser and hurt my hip, limped and double-checked that I’d crammed everything I’d need to survive the next week inside my luggage-on-wheels and garment bag.
I had on a beige blouse, and a brown vest the color of my slacks, then put on a studded baseball cap and pulled my ponytail through the back.
The doorbell rang.
I looked through the blinds and was pissed twice. Richard had come back.
he’d brought his momma. Something had told me to let my plants rot and leave
ten minutes ago. After I counted down from ten, I went back into the bedroom, took the ring case from the bottom of my underwear drawer, and slid my engagement ring back on. Then I counted down from twenty before I opened the door and painted a phony look of welcome on my face.
I said, “Good morning, Mrs. Vaughn.”
“Good morning, Shelly.”
Last week I was Sheila. The week before Shirley. She can remember every word in the Bible, but she can’t get my name right. She adjusted her sky-blue hat, which was filled with rainbow-colored fruit. The sight of her Fruit Loop-looking hat made my stomach growl. The woman was five feet tall, just as wide, and weighed in at about one-eighty; she’d weigh about one-ten if she scraped some of her makeup off. Her eyebrows were sketched in like the arches at McDonald’s.
“How’re you feeling?” Richard asked me.
He strolled by and kissed my cheek like nothing negative had happened between us a few hours ago. Ignored my feelings.
He said, “Love you, Shelby.”
I wiped his kiss from my face, then ran my fingers across the crack of my butt.
Mrs. Vaughn scrunched down on my queen-size black futon. She had a foul-scowl on her face that made me think she’d just inhaled a fart.
“How’ve you been, Mrs. Vaughn?” I said and kept moving toward the bedroom. Like I really cared.
“Just fine. I’ve been just—”
“Would you like something to drink?” I was talking, not listening. “I’ve got water and juice.”
“No, thank you, Shirley.” Mrs. Vaughn cleared nothing from her throat, then whispered louder than necessary, “Why she always dress like a tomboy? Got on a man’s vest and carrying on. Don’t have no decent dresses. At least I ain’t seen her in none since your daddy’s funeral. You ought to tell her to fix her hair up like that pretty girl you used to go with.”
I leaned against the dresser, folded my arms, unfolded
them, then made my hands busy stacking and restacking my James Baldwin and BeBe Moore Campbell novels. I did a silent countdown from fifty. Did it twice. I mumbled, “Stinky, ugly, smelly, decrepit, hideous ho. Your daddy should’ve used a condom.”
“Need some help?” That was Richard yelling down the hall.
“Nope, I got it.”
I closed my bedroom door and sat on my dresser, took a last inspection of my neck. People would think I’d had an interview with a vampire. I wrapped a paisley scarf around my neck.
When I huffed and puffed and dragged my stuff into the living room, I caught Mrs. Vaughn running her f-u finger through the thin layer of dust resting on my table.
She said, “Umph. Trifling.”
“I’m sorry, were you talking to me?”
She moved side to side but didn’t have the decency to give a sister some eye contact when she said, “I ain’t said nothing, Sheila.”
I smiled over clenched teeth and said, “Shelby.”
“What was that?”
“My name is Shelby.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
Richard was in the kitchen. The cabinet clicked open, my glasses clacked together. He was pouring something to drink.
I said, “Paper cups are on the counter.”
Richard swallowed and belched. “What’s that?”
Mrs. Vaughn stared at my cap like it was heinous. I gave the same look, double-or-nothing, at her curly brown wig. Then she spread her glare toward my disorganized entertainment center. I’d picked up so many trips that I hadn’t had time to clean or reorganize my CDs or videotapes.
“What do you and Richard have planned today, Mrs. Vaughn?”
“Me and Richard?” Mrs. Vaughn shifted around like she was scratching the crack of her butt. “After I drop
y’all off, I’m going right back home and cook me something t’ eat.”
“Oh,” Richard called out. “I was just about to tell you. I’m flying down to L.A. with you. I booked a ticket for the flight you’re on. I’m checking in with you so we can sit together.”
I know I didn’t hear what I just heard. Something percolated inside my body and tried to erupt out of my head. I had to use every ounce of strength not to drop my bags.
“You all right?” Mrs. Vaughn asked.
I made a noise like a Gregorian chant. I said, “I’m fine.”
“You needs to eat.”
I know we didn’t discuss going together because I’d avoided bringing that up as an option. It wasn’t an option. The most I’d ever said was that he could take me to the airport. And I was gonna bail out curbside. He hadn’t planned on going, I know he hadn’t, and I had the marks on my neck to prove it.