Authors: Eric Jerome Dickey
“Yes, you are.”
The moment we opened our doors, the brother stepped out of the Celica. Like he timed it. Then a crunching noise scared me more. He had stepped on an empty Ruffles bag. My legs felt awkward. My eyes went to him, then darted to Shelby. I sort of rushed, but didn’t make it look like I was being hasty, pretended I was busy with my handbag and went to her side of the car. Two screams would be louder than one.
Then his soft-spoken voice came out of the darkness, its tone pleasant and cheery. Positive. But like I said, that didn’t mean a thing. Ted Bundy sounded pleasant before death row.
The brother said, “How are my sistuhs doing tonight?”
He moved into the light. Dark skin with Asian eyes. Broad shoulders, which could’ve been an illusion caused by his short leather jacket. Neat hair, cut short on the sides, longer on the top, sideburns that stopped at the bottom of his ear. Thin mustache over a nicely shaped goatee. Circular earrings in both ears, which I hated to see on a man.
We made eye contact. For a moment. A moment that felt like an eternity.
He said a light “Oh, can’t speak? See, that’s what’s wrong with the black woman. Brother says hi, sisters walk on by.”
Shelby said, “What’s up?”
I cleared my throat and released a slow “Hello.”
He said, “Hello.”
The next thing I knew, I sucked my stomach in and hoped my breasts didn’t look lopsided in my bra. Prayed my jean jacket covered it all, including whatever bad smells sitting in the sun had roasted into my body. I ran my tongue around the inside of my mouth, over the film on my teeth. I needed to brush and floss.
He smiled at me and said, “You okay?”
I said, “I’m fine. You caught me off guard.”
“Both of y’all wearing new jazz festival T-shirts,” he said. His smile and his eyes were glued to me. I unglued mine from him, chewed my bottom lip, wished I had makeup on and didn’t have raccoon eyes, got shoulder to shoulder with Shelby, and kept moving toward the door. He was right behind us. I felt his aura. Following. My reflection was rough. Smelled like a day of dried-up sweaty perfume. Felt a lump in my throat. Adjusted my jacket to make my hands busy. The brother stepped closer to us. I gripped my purse a little tighter. Fixed my mouth to scream. He stepped around us, held the door open, and let us in.
Then we were all at the counter, waiting for the waitress to find seats. Denny’s was crowded. It looked like a busload of brothers had dropped by here to flirt with the vixens and vice versa. Most of their eyes drifted toward us when we came in. Seeing them notice made
me take notice. I’d have to admit, the better lighting gave him some serious appeal. Maybe I felt safer about being out of the dark parking lot and in a crowd.
He asked, “How was the concert this year?”
I said, “What was that?”
He repeated himself.
“It was nice,” I said. “Real nice. Beautiful. Everette Harp and Wayne Shorter were slamming. Bill Cosby’s group was the bomb. Gladys Knight turned the show out.”
“Yeah? Now I
hate I missed it. I wanted to check out Stanley Clarke and Hugh Masekela. But I had to work.”
I said, “There’s still Pasadena and L.A. and Long Beach.”
He went over the list. He knew the line-up for JVC, knew about the Creole Festival in Lancaster. Knew more than I did.
I said, “Not many young brothers like jazz.”
“I’m not that young. But that depends on how old you are.”
“Okay. How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Twenty-nine. What about you?”
“You’re not supposed to ask a sister her age. Strike one.”
“Didn’t know I was up to bat. How old are you?”
I shifted, smiled some. “Twenty-eight. Strike two.”
Shelby said, “Y’all need to quit.”
We laughed. Mine was nervous. Didn’t last long.
Shelby stayed in the background with this asinine grin on her face, and without another word, knucklehead excused herself to the ladies’ room. She waited for me to tag along. That was my chance to break away, go into the bathroom with my girl, stay awhile, then ease back out and get a table in whatever section of the restaurant he wasn’t sitting in. Maybe even come out of the bathroom and leave.
I didn’t move. Stayed put. Shelby raised a brow. I held on to my growing conversation with the brother. Don’t
even know why I did, but I did. Think it was his eyes, maybe that combined with his schoolboy smile. He had a gentle demeanor. Had crept into our space without intruding. Smooth. Smooth wasn’t always good, but he made me laugh. He had manners. And he was flirting with me. Flirting hard, but not aggressively. I knew I could walk away without hassle. Might even make it back to the car without being called a bitch. I just wasn’t sure if I was reciprocating and flirting with him or not.
Maybe I was having fun and just trying to see if I could intimidate him like I did every other brother. Most of the time when I told a brother what I did, said that I was considering going back to become a doctor myself, they digressed from the conversation one way or the other. Showed their shallow sides. Brothers who were weak in the mind and just chasing the behind.
I said, “I’m Debra.”
He said, “I’m Leonard DuBois.”
By the time Shelby came back from the ladies’ room, Leonard and I were in a booth, sitting across from each other, talking about the concerts of the season. He was enchanting. Totally.
Shelby waltzed back with a
in her hand, reading while she strolled. Probably doing that so she wouldn’t make any eye contact. Straight posture. Leading with her chest, loads of feminine power in each stride. I saw other brothers’ attention sway from whatever woman they were talking to and glance at Shelby from the waist down, smile that oh-my-god smile. When they looked up to see her face was just as gorgeous as the rest, a dreamy-eyed gaze said more than they could ever put to words.
Leonard took off his short, yellow-black-gold leather jacket and excused himself to the men’s room to wash his hands. I surprised myself and damn near fell out of my seat trying to look at his mystical skin. That open staring was so unlike me. I’m subtle. His Wings cologne fragrance had tickled my fancy.
Shelby handed me a napkin.
I said, “What’s that for?”
“Wipe your mouth before you drown in your drool.”
“I’m not staring.”
“And Popeye’s not a sailor.”
“Shush your face and stop blocking my view. Nice booty.”
“Don’t matter. You’ll never see it butt-naked on payday.”
“You’re jealous because he’s nice and a gentleman.”
“Give him five minutes to show his true colors. The last thing you need is to have that stupid look in your eyes.”
“That forty-ounce gaze that makes you look higher than a kite.” She yawned. “Let’s raise up before he gets back.”
“If we stay, you pay.”
When Leonard came back, before he could sit, Shelby dabbed her mouth with her napkin and asked, “All right brother-man, since you all up in our booth taking up space, where do you work that made you miss the festival all day on a Sunday?”
“I work part-time for an itty-bitty, don’t blink when you drive down 103rd, software company over by the Watts Tower.”
“Installations, upgrades, simple database stuff. Tutoring the kids in basic computer ops most Saturday mornings.”
“That’s yesterday. What had you wrapped up till midnight?”
“I do a little stand-up comedy. I was on Sunset tonight.”
Shelby gave me that
Part of me felt the same. Brought back an instant memory of an angry waitress pulling me to the side and telling me that she was sleeping with the man who was up on stage, the man I thought I was falling in love with,
the man I loaned a few hundred to get his car fixed and never received even a thank-you.
My voice lowered along with my shy smile. My brain wanted this man to get the hell away from my table. Out of my light. But I guess I’ve never listened to my brain.
I said, “No wonder you’re so funny.”
Shelby said, “He ain’t that damn funny. You’re the one tee-heeing and ha-haing and whooping over every stupid thing he says. You a kitchen comedian or you get
He shrugged. “I get a dime every now and then.”
Shelby said, “Every brother in L.A. think he’s funny. I watch
Def Comedy Jam
, and I ain’t
seen or heard of you.”
“I was on
Evening at the Improv.
Did MTV comedy half-hour back when I was starting out.
Caroline’s Comedy Show.
“Sorry, my brotha.” Shelby shook her head. “White-folks jokes don’t count. They fall out laughing at anything.”
I batted my eyes at Shelby, then eased back into the conversation and said, “She’s right. You white funny or funny funny?”
Leonard winked at me. “Give me your number. I’ll invite you to a show, and you and Miss Pundit can tell me what you think.”
I owned no expression. Felt boxed in by the inevitable.
Shelby high-fived me and laughed out her words, “Damn, that was smooth! See how he tried to sneak up on the digits? My brother got it going on. Her name is Debra Mitchell. She’s single. Hasn’t been on a decent date since God was born. And
she goes out with you, I’ll chaperone her to the club just in case you one of those psycho brothers and get to trippin’.”
Leonard said, “It’s cool if you and your man tag along.”
Shelby said, “Don’t have no man, don’t want no man, don’t need no man.”
Leonard said, “But you do like men, right?”
Shelby said, “They are a necessary nuisance.”
He repeated, “Necessary nuisance?”
“Cheaper than batteries.”
I interjected, “Tell Leonard the three things you always say about men.”
Shelby said, “Men can’t do nothing but get you pregnant, give you a disease, and leave you for another woman.”
“Ouch.” Leonard cringed. “You need to exhale. You give a good guy a bad reputation before you know what he’s about. What you’re catching depends on what you’re using for bait.”
I said, “Shelby gets crass when she’s sleepy.”
Shelby snapped, “Forget you. Was that polite enough for your ass? You’re just acting all nice and shit because he’s here.”
I said, “Shelby? Wait in the car. Do you mind?”
“Hell, yeah.” She tapped her watch. “Wrap this shit up.”
Shelby waved her hand in a f-u fashion, scooted away. Her eyes were puffed. Bloodshot. She opened her paper to the classified. She was checking out apartments. Then she unfolded the sales pages. That changed her mood. Made her mumble a few curses and frown her worst frown.
I said, “What’s wrong?”
“My damn mattress is on sale, that’s what’s wrong. Thirty percent off. What’s thirty percent of five hundred?”
I said, “Let me get my calculator.”
Before I opened my purse, Leonard said, “One hundred fifty.”
Shelby was about to explode. She snapped, “I could’ve bought a new outfit from Macy’s.”
Leonard said, “You could’ve invested in an IRA.”
She hopped up and moved like a gale toward the pay phone.
Leonard said, “She looks upset.”
I said, “She is. She’s emotional and spontaneous.”
“That’s a tough combination.”
“Yep. Ask anybody who’s gone out with her more than once.”
When we finished, Leonard offered to treat us, but I declined. Maybe that was what he expected me to want him to do, be typical and become opportunistic at the drop of a hat. The conversation was nice; that was a reward in itself, and I didn’t know him. I pay my own way. I’m not the kind who’ll spend any man’s money just because he snapped out his wallet. Plus, if he did treat, I didn’t think he should pay for me
Shelby. Leonard gave me enough to cover the apple pie and herbal tea he had, and I gave the waitress my charge card.
Then came the second embarrassment of the day.
My Visa was denied. Just like my Unocal was earlier. Leonard was with me when the exasperated waitress brought the card back, but Shelby hadn’t come back from her rampage. I had spent my cash on T-shirts at the jazz festival. Visa was the only card I had with me. I tried to play it off with some humor. “Guess I’ll be washing dishes tonight.”
Leonard pulled the bill to his side and said, “I got it.”
“I’ll owe you.”
“No problem. Don’t need you back there busting suds.”
My nervous laugh surfaced. “This is embarrassing.”
“Don’t be. It’s happened to me a time or two before.”
“I just mailed them a check a week or so ago.”
“Maybe it hasn’t cleared yet.”
Leonard would no doubt think that either I did it on purpose, or I was a sister who couldn’t handle her basic finances. This would be a serious demerit.
I was interested in him. But I wasn’t, so it didn’t matter. This was all about principle. Perception of self.
I said, “Shit. Excuse my French.”
“I speak French myself, so French excused. What’s wrong?”
“My cousin Bobby gave me a personal check and … never mind.”
Minutes later, my shame had died down. We were loitering and laughing in the parking lot. I was next to Leonard’s car. Shelby was in the passenger side of her Z. seat reclined, back to the window, arms folded, shifting around, nodding off.
I said. “You’ve mentioned your friend Tyrel several times.”
“He’s my best friend. More like a brother.”
I asked him if he went to church. Asked him that because he wore a golden cross. He said he went to Faithful Central, mostly Bible study. I told him I went to FAME a few times a month.
He said. “Why don’t you go to church with me next Sunday.”
“You’re asking me on a date to church?”
“That’s, I don’t know, most brothers shy away from church. Say two words out of the Bible and they run for the door.”
“Sisters do too. Take off running like Flo Jo.”