A Family Affair
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The Blackboard bestselling author returns with "a loving portrait of a family sharing good and bad times" (Booklist)
Meet the Moores. Mom, dad, in-laws, all of them loving, fighting, staying together, and falling apart. As generations collide, as personal and professional lives intersect and combust, a stunning secret comes to light-and cuts deep into the heart of what really makes and breaks a family.
On the way to his seat in the den, Leonard Moore threw a playful punch at his youngest son, Myles, hitting him square in the chest. He drew his fist back, impressed.
“Hey,” Leonard said as he settled onto the couch next to Amir, “your brother has been working out.”
Amir took a sip of his soda and scoffed. “He should have plenty of energy to work out.” He eyed Myles contemptuously. “Some of us have to do real work.”
Leonard laughed and looked proudly at Myles. “Tell him, son, you work hard. Not only are you a teacher, you’re a writer.”
“Aaah, oh.” Amir set the glass back onto the coffee table, “I almost forgot, this man here is a wordsmith,” he said grandly. “Do you want me to tell you what you are?” Myles asked smartly. He picked up the remote off the arm of the chair and turned to the other NFL pregame show.
“Uh-oh, ’Mir,” Leonard said playfully, “you better calm down before Myles puts it on you.”
Amir found the notion preposterous. “I don’t care how much this cat swells up, Pop. He’ll always be little brother to me.” Amir cracked his knuckles showily.
Myles had long ago perfected the practice of ignoring Amir, but Leonard laughed so loudly that it made Myles chuckle. Ever since they were kids, their father loved pitting them against each other. Myles just shook his head as he concentrated on what the commentator was saying about the Raiders-Chiefs game to be played later that day.
“I don’t know, ’Mir,” Leonard said, enjoying himself too much to let it go. “He’s a big dude.”
“Puh-lease,” Amir said, “what’s he gonna do, Pop? Backspace me to death?” Amir lifted his leg up defensively and cringed. “Put me in the dreaded parentheses?”
Leonard was now roaring. Margaret Eva Moore came into the den, quickly surveyed the room, and walked over to the coffee table, where she slid a coaster under Amir’s drink.
“Don’t y’all have anything better to do than mess with Myles?” she asked.
“Sadly, Mom, they don’t,” Myles said. “It’s the only respite they have from their monotonous, inconsequential tedium of an existence.”
Amir’s eyes widened. “Duck, Pop! He’s gonna big word us to death.” Amir lifted his forearm. “Thesaurus-shields up!”
Even Myles and Peggy were now laughing. Peggy eyed Leonard’s near empty glass.
“You want something else to drink, Lenny?”
“Yeah,” he snarled, “I would like to have something else to drink, but you won’t let me have a beer in my own house.”
His father’s tone, Myles noticed, seemed unnecessarily nasty. He looked over at Amir. Apparently, he didn’t think much of it because he was busily munching on a handful of potato chips. Myles looked up at his mother.
She let Leonard’s rudeness go. “So would you like iced tea, juice, or soda?” Peggy asked patiently.
Before Leonard answered, he noticed Myles’ gaze on him. When he spoke this time, the surliness was gone. “No, Peg, I’m fine.”
She turned and walked back into the kitchen. After waiting a minute or two, only to not look so obvious, Myles finished his soda, got up, and walked out of the room in search of his wife. Peering out into the backyard, Myles spotted Marisa and his cousin Jasmine sitting at the wooden picnic table. They were watching his twin eight-year-old nieces put on a karate exhibition. Myles chuckled at the seriousness etched on Deja’s and Jade’s faces as they went through a series of martial arts moves on the mat.
Marisa applauded enthusiastically. Jasmine, keeping in line with a proper teenager’s sense of blasé regarding everything in the world, mustered a few claps. Myles also noticed that Jasmine was following her dictum of wearing the most provocative clothing allowed. Half of her back was showing because of her low-slung jeans and her tight blouse. Recently turned seventeen and on the cusp of womanhood, it seemed to Myles that only a minute ago Jasmine was the twins’ age.
She was also on the cusp of giving her Aunt Peggy a heart attack. Since Jasmine’s mother had had another relapse and was locked up on drug charges, Jasmine was living with Myles’ parents. Despite the fact that Myles tried to warn her, she tested Peggy often. His mother was a sweet lady and all, but she was always a short trip away from blacking out when it came to disrespectful children. Apparently, from what Myles had been hearing of late, Jasmine wasn’t heeding his warning. Maybe because she didn’t believe him. Maybe because she didn’t think she was still a child, but rather an adult on equal footing with her aunt.
If that was the case, she was in for a rude awakening.
“Not bad, not bad,” Myles said as he stepped out into the backyard. “There were some areas that need improvement, though.”
“You know karate, Uncle Myles?” Deja asked, catching her breath.
“What?” Myles looked around dramatically. “You betta ask somebody!”
So Jade did. “Does Uncle Myles know karate, Aunt Marisa?” “Um, no,” she replied.
“You betta ask somebody else,” Myles railed. “I’m a master. In fact . . .” Myles looked around. “Too bad there are no cinder blocks for me to break into two.” He cracked his knuckles like Amir had done earlier.
“I’ll find one, if you like,” Jasmine offered smugly.
“Of course,” Myles continued, keeping his attention on the girls, “since you two are just starting, I know y’all don’t want any of me. If you did, I would teach you a thing or two . . . or three or four. “
“Oh, really?” Deja asked.
“Well, don’t sing it, bring it,” Jade said.
Myles began slipping out of his boots. “Well, I’m not in competition form, but I suppose I can wing it.”
“And when they break your arm, I suppose we can sling it,” Marisa chimed.
Myles stepped onto the mat and faced the twins. Smiling, he bowed grandly to them. Their response was fixed determination.
“All right,” Myles said, “let’s do this. . . .”
“Get up, come on . . . get up.”
Having missed the mat while taking his pratfall, Myles was laid out in the backyard next to a pile of leaves. He opened his eyes a sliver.
His nieces, Deja and Jade, were standing menacingly over him with their fists clenched, looking like miniature versions of Charlie’s Angels. Myles peeped the snarl on their faces. They looked ready, willing, and more than able to dispense more beatdown. They had the unmistakable “this is what happens to niggas who loud talk us” look on their faces. Their desire for him to get up was with that idea in mind, not out of any concern for his well-being.
Myles gave an exaggerated eye twitch and moaned. Then he opened his eyes and looked at Jade. “Mommy, can I go back in the water? It’s been an hour since I’ve eaten.”
Jasmine rolled her eyes. “On that note . . .” She got up and walked into the house.
“What?” Jade asked Myles.
“You said, I can go back in the water,” Myles insisted. “I ate my peanut butter and jelly over an hour ago.”
Myles noticed that Deja had eased slightly out of her fighting stance, but Jade wouldn’t relent. She was ruthless.
“She’s not your mother,” Deja said cautiously.
Myles turned his head toward her and looked at her wide-eyed. “Mommy, there’s two of you?”
“She’s not your mother either, and you’re not at the beach,” Jade said. She took a step toward Myles.
Myles flinched. He thought he was about to catch a Lugz in his midsection.
“Now, you was talking a lot of stuff before,” Jade continued. “You ready to back it up?”
Myles fought the urge to correct her “was” with “were” and instead propped himself up on his elbows and scowled at her in puzzlement. Then he grinned knowingly.
“You’re just joking with me, Mommy,” he said confidently. “If we’re not at the beach, then how come I have all these pretty birds flying over my head?” Myles sat up and grasped at the air. “I’m going to catch one for myself. Tweet-tweet little birdies, tweet-tweet.”
The twins laughed.
Marisa joined them on the mat.
“Grandma?” Myles asked, eyeing her. “I thought you were in Georgia.”
Marisa ignored him. “Girls, stop beating up your uncle. Your mother wants you inside.” She nodded in the direction of the kitchen window. Kenya was visible through it, motioning for the girls to come in.
“Okay, Aunt Marisa.”
The girls bowed toward their vanquished foe.
“You were a very worthy adversary, but we had to teach you a harsh lesson,” Deja said.
“Yeah,” Jade added, wagging her index finger like a pint-size Jackie Chan. “Next time, be more cautious with your words.”
Myles nodded softly, his face full of contrition. Lesson learned.
“You better check on him,” Jade said to Marisa as she made her way to the house. “He’s talking crazy.”
“Will do,” Marisa said. “And thanks for taking it easy on him.”
Jade looked back over her shoulder. “We believe in mercy.”
Myles watched her nieces go into the house. He looked up at Marisa. “Tell me, wife, when did the ‘mercy’ occur? I must’ve missed that part.”
Marisa shrugged. “They said they showed you mercy. I see no reason to believe they didn’t.”
“Oh, you don’t?” Myles asked. “I guess you missed that glancing kick in the general vicinity of my balls?”
“No, I caught that,” Marisa said.
“Thank God I did, too,” Myles said, “or at least partially deflected it, or we might of had ourselves a situation out here.”
“So, is everything down there still functional?” Marisa asked coyly. She kicked at a stray leaf with her boot.
Most definitely, Myles thought as he eyed his wife, redefining outdoorsy-chic in her open flannel shirt, soft turtleneck, and jeans. And it was stiffening at that moment.
“Why don’t you come down here and find out?” Myles asked.
Marisa tossed her hair back and laughed. “You know, I have half a mind to take you up on your offer, just to see what you would say when your mother came out here swinging her broom.”
“That’s easy,” Myles said. “I know exactly what I would say.”
“Mom! Stop beating on Marisa. I know she’s corrupting me, but she can’t help it. She’s scandalous!”
“Shut up, mama’s boy,” Marisa said as she helped him up. Myles brushed himself off. Marisa slipped her arms around his waist as they slowly began to make their way to the door. “If she only knew how eager to be corrupted your freaky ass is.”
Myles instinctively looked toward the house to make sure they were out of earshot.
Marisa cackled. “Look at you. Mama’s boy.”
“So why did you marry me?”
“Because I like jewelry,” Marisa replied, casually looking at her ring, “and because you begged me.”
“Uh-uh, Cubana, that’s not how I remember it at all,” Myles corrected. “It was you who asked me.”
“You sure about that?” Marisa asked, peeking slyly at him out of the corner of her eye, “because I seem to remember it differently.”
“Yep.” Myles gave her ass a squeeze as they made their way into the house.
In the kitchen were Kenya, Jasmine, and Peggy. Jasmine and Kenya were sitting at the table, where Kenya was wrapping the leftovers. Peggy was standing at the sink, her arms forearm deep in suds. She was washing the dinner dishes by hand and then setting them aside in the second sink. Next, she would load them into the dishwasher for a second washing. She felt that was the only way they got truly clean.
Myles heard the twins’ excited voices coming from the den, where they were recounting the high points of their backyard ass- kicking demonstration to their father, Amir.
“I don’t know why you’re souping those girls’ heads up, Myles,” Jasmine said as Myles and Marisa sat down at the table. “You’re gonna have them out here in the world thinking they can really hurt someone with that karate.”
Peggy looked up from the dishes at the sound of someone coming down the steps. She heard the jingle of keys and then the sound of her husband’s voice coming from the den.
“You heading out, Pop?” Amir asked.
“Yeah, I got a couple of things I want to take care of. I want to pick up some things for the shop for tomorrow.”
Peggy noticed his voice seemed a little louder than necessary. Like he was saying it loud enough for the her to hear in the kitchen. At that moment, their eyes met through the doorway. As though she’d asked him to, he headed for the kitchen to tell her himself.
“Pop-pop,” Deja said from the den, “we took out Uncle Myles in the backyard.”
“You did?” Leonard asked, disbelieving. “Jade, y’all put it on your uncle?”
“Yep,” Jade said, “we put it on him.”
“See?” Jasmine said. “Now they’re telling your father how they punked you.”
Myles smiled. “Nothing wrong with them having a little confidence. It’s a good thing when little girls believe in themselves. Isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Jasmine said grimly, “but in the real world, there are no friendly uncles to take a dive. The real world hits back.”
Though her back was to Jasmine, Peggy could hear the pain in that statement. Most seventeen-year-old girls have a limited purview of the real world. Jasmine knew too much of it, Peggy thought as she loaded a platter into the dishwasher.
She felt the main issue with kids today was that they needed a proper adult in their lives to stay on them. Children act like they don’t want supervision, when in fact, they crave it. They equate it with caring. But too many kids had adults in their lives trying to tell them what to do whom they didn’t respect. A child isn’t going to listen to an adult who can’t even take care of themselves properly. That’s why Jasmine was having such a hard time of it. Why she now lived there with her aunt and uncle. Because Jasmine’s mother—Peggy’s younger sister, Dee—had failed her
“Peg, I’m gonna head on over to Home Depot and pick up some things.”
Peggy turned around to face her husband. He was wearing a Hilfiger parka that Amir had left over at the house a long time ago and long since forgotten about. It looked ridiculous on him. She thought a man his age had no business wearing it.
“Your family’s all here, Lenny.”
Leonard shifted his weight and reflexively checked his watch. “I know, Margaret Eva, but if I don’t get to the store soon, it’s gonna close. And then when will I be able to go tomorrow? I’ll be in the shop all day.”
That answer had come a little too smoothly for Peggy’s taste. A bit too practiced. Like it had been rehearsed in front of a mirror while he was putting on that parka. Leonard seldom called her by her birth name. Peggy wondered whether his use of it had been a calculation or a misstep—for the purpose of distraction or due to nervousness.
She wasn’t the only one who thought he was acting strangely. Marisa looked at Kenya, Myles, and Jasmine. If, like her, either of them found anything unusual about Leonard leaving a Sunday family gathering to go to the hardware store, they weren’t letting on.
Peggy gave a slight nod to her husband and then turned back to the dishes.
“Myles, if you and Marisa are gone by the time I get back, you have a safe trip,” Leonard said. “Don’t let leadfoot here speed, Marisa.”
Marisa kept her tone neutral. “I won’t, Mr. Len.”
“All right, Dad. See you later.”
“You coming up again next week?”
“We’ll see,” Myles said, looking at Marisa. “We don’t know yet.”
“Okay. See everybody later,” Leonard said from in the hallway as he left out of the front door.
Jasmine looked at Myles and snickered. “You don’t know if you’re coming up next weekend until Marisa tells you if you’re coming up. Then you’ll know.”
With that remark, Peggy forgot about her husband’s odd behavior and raised an eyebrow. Out of the mouths of babes. Myles was probably also waiting for Marisa to let him know when he was going to be a father. Peggy knew Myles was ready for children. So what was the hold up?
“Oh, you got jokes?” Myles asked. “What’s wrong with me asking my wife if she wants to come? Do you want somebody making decisions for you like you don’t have a voice?”
Jasmine motioned toward her aunt. “It happens to me every day.” “And you want it to stop once you’re an adult, right?” Myles asked.
Marisa added, “There’s nothing wrong with us discussing things, listening to each other and deciding together, is there, Jas?”
More than anybody else in the family, Marisa’s opinion resonated the most with Jasmine. Her ready acceptance of something being true if it came out of Marisa’s mouth used to surprise Peggy. By now she was used to it.
“For you there isn’t,” Jasmine replied smartly. “You get to do the deciding. He does the listening.”
“Ha!” Amir cackled from the den.
Myles looked toward the doorway. “We don’t need to hear from the peanut gallery. Like you’re running things in your marriage anyway.”
“I handles mine, brah, you best believe that,” Amir said.
Marisa, Myles, and Jasmine looked at Kenya.
“The beauty of it is, I let him think that he really does,” she whispered. “What’s that old saying? ‘If you want to grow your own dope, plant a man.’”
All three Mrs. Moores and Jasmine laughed.
“She’s talking about you, dog,” Myles called out.
“Don’t get it twisted, Kenya!” Amir said. “Don’t make me come in there.”
“Don’t listen to him, babe,” Kenya said, laughing. “I know you’re the king.”
“Exactly,” came the satisfied reply, “and I’m a just ruler, too. Justice prevails throughout my kingdom.”
“See. What I tell you?” Kenya circled her finger around her ear.
Remembering the original topic of discussion, Myles reached over and gave Jasmine a pinch on the cheek. “Whatsamatta, my precious baby cousin?” he cooed. “You want me to let you win at something?”
Jasmine brushed his hand away. “Stop it.”
“Go get the Connect Four out of the pantry,” Myles said teasingly, again pinching Jasmine’s cheek.
“Cut it out.”
Myles hesitated. “Candyland?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, but don’t you think you’re a little old for it?”
Marisa and Kenya laughed. Jasmine tried not to.
“Go somewhere with that, Myles,” she said. “I don’t need you to let me win at anything. And neither do the twins. It’ll only gonna get them in trouble.”
Marisa joined her mother-in-law at the sink and exchanged polite smiles. Marisa began rinsing off the dishes that were in the second sink and loading them into the dishwasher.
Peggy looked at her daughter-in-law as she knelt down and began putting the knives in the dishwasher. That’s not where she would have put them, but she decided not to say anything. She knew Marisa was making an effort to reach out to her. They weren’t exactly close. Not nearly as close as she and her other daughter- in-law, Kenya. Or even her and Jackie—Marisa’s friend and Kenya’s business partner. Where was Jackie anyway? She and Carlos sometimes came over for Sunday dinner. She wanted to see the baby.
“Where are the Roques tonight?” she asked to no one in particular, knowing that Kenya, Myles, or Marisa were all capable of answering.
“She and ’Los had a family thing to go to, Mom.” Myles said, “I think Jackie’s aunt is having a birthday party.”
Carlos had dozed off in Jackie’s aunt’s basement while waiting for the Eagles game to start. The big meal he had consumed earlier had acted like a sedative.
“Honey, get up.”
Carlos opened his eyes to see his wife standing over him.
He quickly glanced around to gather his surroundings. The television was tuned to ESPN and was showing highlights of the early games. Jackie’s teenage nephew Roberto was at the other end of the couch snoozing.
“We need someone to go get some more candles,” Jackie said.
Carlos stared vacantly at her, then adjusted the pillow. “Okay. Well, I wish them Godspeed and good luck.”
“Carlos,” she said impatiently.
“How did I get elected, Jackie? There’s a house full of people here.”
“Our car is at the end of the driveway,” Jackie replied.
“Yeah, that’s because we’re guests, Jackie. Let our hosts go to Pathmark and get the candles.”
“You’re weren’t worried about civility when you were gorging yourself on that lechon asado upstairs.” Jackie had one arm folded at her waist and the other dangling. In her hand rested the car keys. “You looked awfully familiar then, didn’t you?”
“I’m a guest. That’s what guests do. They arrive and eat people out of house and home. Besides, this is a party, isn’t it?” Carlos emphasized again and closed his eyes.
“Yeah, you look real festive down here snoring away with Roberto. I don’t know how you can sleep on such a full stomach anyway.”
Carlos looked over at Roberto. He was snoring peacefully, with his hands resting on his stomach. “Well, we were both having a ball until you came down here.”
Jackie playfully kicked him in the shin. “You’re a puerco, you know that?”
“Even more reason why I can’t go. How can I be expected to drive with these hooves?” he said, waving his hands in the air.
“Come on now, get up.” Jackie said with exasperation. “CJ needs to be fed, so I can’t go.”
“And you shouldn’t have to, wife,” Carlos said, his voice full of compassion. “you’re a guest, too.”
Carlos noticed Jackie’s jaw setting. He tried appealing for mercy.
“I don’t know my way around Camden. I don’t even know where Pathmark is,” he protested.
“Now you’re gonna play dumb?”
Carlos shrugged his shoulders and looked as dim-witted as he could to signify that he wasn’t playing.
“That’s pathetic,” Jackie said, shaking her head. “Feigning stupidity to get out of having to do something. Is your laziness so powerful that you would rather have others think you’re an idiot than do something you don’t want to?”
“You have no idea,” Carlos said, tugging at his belt. “We’re all lions at heart. We just want to lounge and rule while the women go out and do the hunting, gathering, and baby minding.”
“Sad. Truly sad,” Jackie said. “Fine. Roberto will go with you.” Jackie looked at her nephew. “Roberto!”
As soon as people in the house found out he was going to the store, it had become an event. All of a sudden everybody and their mama-sister-uncle needed something picked up. What had started out as a trip for some candles had transformed into his having a frigging list of shit in his pocket to get.
Who in the hell had ever heard of trying to put ninety damn candles on a cake anyway? Only Jackie’s crazy-ass family would be so extra to attempt it—or to bake a cake big enough to hold ninety candles. He hoped they were gonna give poor Aunt Doris some help blowing that bonfire out. Once you get a certain age, the shit is supposed to be symbolic, isn’t it? You throw a couple of candles on there and say, Feliz Cumpleanos! Happy Birthday, Old Girl! May you have many more. Though in your case, it’s highly unlikely. . . .
Carlos looked at the clock in the dashboard. Look at that. He was probably going to miss the start of the Eagles game. And he was uncomfortable because he had eaten too much. And . . . dammit, it’s cold out here.
Carlos considered the best way to do this errand. He decided to rip the list in half and send Roberto to get half of the stuff and he’d get the other half to save time.
He found a spot reasonably close and wheeled his Maxima into it. Carlos carefully began ripping the sheet of paper into two. “What are you doing?” Roberto asked.
“Tossing half this shit out,” Carlos replied casually. “If they’re not lucky enough to be on the half I keep, oh well.”
Roberto looked at him wide-eyed. “Word? Oh, shit.”
“Stop cursing, pendejo, before I tell your mother,” Carlos said. “Come on.”
He and Roberto got out and made their way to the store.
“All right, neph. Here’s how we’re gonna do this.” As he handed him one of the pieces, it flapped in the wind. “You get the stuff on your list, I’ll get mine, and we’ll meet at the checkout.”
Roberto looked at his list and stopped abruptly. “Yo, no way! I’m not getting these.”
Carlos laughed. “Hey, they’re for your sister.” He looked over his shoulder at his nephew. Then it was his turn to stop suddenly.
“What’s wrong?” Roberto asked.
Across the parking lot, across the street, Carlos saw Mr. Moore walking up the steps of the Oasis Motel. Carlos knew it was him; he recognized the blue parka that Mr. Moore was fond of wearing. He was with some woman. She was bundled up so Carlos couldn’t make her out, but he could tell by her lively step that it definitely wasn’t Mrs. Moore. The pair disappeared into one of the rooms.
“I’ll be damned,” Carlos mumbled, forgetting about the cold.
“What’s up?” Roberto asked, turning around and following Carlos’ gaze.
“Nothing. Let’s go get this stuff so we can get back to the game.”
They walked into the entrance, with Carlos stopping to take one more glance back over his shoulder. He shook his head.
“I’ll be damned.”
When she heard the clatter of pots in the kitchen, she walked out into the hallway to the top of the stairs. “Leonard, this child up here is trying to sleep. Don’t come in here making all kinds of noise this time of night.”
“Actually, all I hear is your yelling, Aunt Peg,” came a voice out of a bedroom.
“She has to get up for school tomorrow.”
“And if you want to see it, then I suggest you go to sleep, Jasmine,” Peggy snapped.
She waited at the top of the stairs to see if Leonard was going to answer her. When Peggy realized he wasn’t, she thought about saying something else to him to elicit a response, but instead went back into her bedroom and closed the door. She sat on the edge of the bed and picked up her crossword puzzle off of the nightstand. Peggy leaned her head back and massaged her neck. Leonard used to give great massages. For many years he offered his hands willingly. Now she had to ask, which she hadn’t done for a long time. She had gotten tired of him saying no. Of making excuses about being too tired or his hands being too sore. Of frowning his face up like the thought of rubbing his wife’s body repulsed him. So she had stopped asking.
Lord knows, Leonard getting excited over seeing her naked body had been a ship that had long since sailed. Like most couples, the frequency with which she and Leonard made love had declined as they aged, but there had still been intimacy. There had been weekend trips to the Poconos. Cuddling in bed watching James Bond movie marathons. Strolls along the boardwalk in Atlantic City. That all changed a few years ago, around the time when she was going through the change in life. It was subtle at first, but soon it became obvious—at least to her, she didn’t care how many people he tried to make think she was crazy—that Leonard no longer regarded her as a viable option to fulfill his needs. As a viable woman, period.
During the rare instances now that they had any physical contact, it was forced, hurried. Like Leonard was fulfilling an obligation that when he was done with, there would be peace in the valley until time for the arduous chore came back around again. He was a little better about putting up a front as far as going out with her to dinner or to social functions. But she knew it was still a front, nonetheless.
Forty-five minutes later, when Leonard came into the room, Peggy could smell the stench of cigarette smoke in his clothes. She and Leonard had quit smoking almost twenty years ago. Why a person who didn’t smoke would want to be around a bunch of smokers was beyond her. Again he was wearing Amir’s old parka, looking ridiculous.
“Heaven forbid you come home without stopping in Starks Bar.” “I had a beer.” Leonard slid off his parka and slung it over the back of a chair, ensuring that it, too, would now smell like stale smoke. “You don’t want me to have it in the house.”
Her husband had always drank. When the boys were young, he would keep beer in the house and have a beer or two on Sunday while watching football on TV. It hadn’t bothered her. One six- pack would last him a couple of weekends. For the last few years, though, her husband had been drinking more. And had started to drink hard liquor.
So when Jasmine had come to live with them, Peggy had asked him to stop keeping alcohol in their home. She knew Jasmine was rebellious by nature and didn’t want her getting hold of any. Peggy had appreciated her husband’s willingness to go along with her request. Now she realized why he had been so eager to do so. It allowed him to drink all he wanted outside the home, plus the freedom to do whatever else his sixty-going-on-thirty ass wanted to do.
And those clownish niggas down at Starks Bar. Lenny was definitely in the right element if he wanted to act a fool. She heard stories from the younger women in her salon about all kinds of shenanigans going on there. Wet T-shirt contests. Rump-shaker contests. A bunch of tired old men sweating over women half their age, and no doubt paying dearly for the right to do so.
“When you get pulled over for DUI, I hope you call one of your drinking buddies from Starks instead of me, Lenny.”
Leonard ignored her and went into the bathroom. When she heard a disgusting hacking sound, she decided she’d had enough. She didn’t want his stinking ass in bed with her. She put on her bathrobe, picked up her crossword puzzle, and went into Amir’s old room.
The next morning, Jackie came through the front door of the rancher that served as the group home. After hanging her coat up in the foyer closet, she spied Kenya in the small sitting area off of the main living room. Spread on the coffee table in front of her were requisition forms, payroll sheets, and expense reports.
“Hey,” Jackie said.
Jackie noticed Kenya’s coffee mug.
“Is that fresh?”
“Wha-yeah . . . um-hm.”
Jackie walked down the long hallway past the kids’ bedrooms to the small room in the back, which served as the administrative office. All five of the bedrooms were empty because the kids and three of the staffers were on a trip to the aquarium, then a Sixers game.
She wondered what was bothering Kenya, but decided it could wait until she had gotten herself a cup of coffee and said hi to the home’s nutritionist, Diane.
Minutes later, she walked into the living room, sat down in the oversize burgundy wingback chair next to Kenya, and took a few sips of her steaming cup of coffee.
“You can leave all that, Kenya,” Jackie said motioning to the pile of papers in front of her. “I’ll finish it and log the data into the computer.”
Kenya half-nodded but didn’t say anything. Jackie wondered if she had even heard her because she continued doing the paperwork. “Diane is a great hire, Kenya,” Jackie said, continuing to eye Kenya over her mug. “Not only is she a great cook, the kids seem to like and respect her.”
Jackie sat her coaster down. She was through being ignored. “What’s wrong?”
Kenya finally looked up. “What do you mean?”
“Did something happen last night to piss you off?”
Kenya had just got done working the third shift—the overnight shift. She had done so unannounced, for she wanted to catch the overnight crew in their natural state. Since they had opened the home several months back, she or Kenya rarely worked overnight.
Kenya nodded at Jackie.
“It’s Charles. I came here at one a.m. last night and he’s sitting in the living room watching SportsCenter. Jan was out doing the shopping, and Darlene was cleaning the staff bathroom—” “So no one was watching the hallway?” Jackie interrupted.
“Exactly,” Kenya said. “That’s what Charles was supposed to be doing.”
Jackie settled back in her chair and absorbed the information. Charles was competent. Good with the kids, but lazy. And not watching the kids’ hallway at night was the big no-no. The girls’ bedrooms were on one side and the boys’ bedrooms were on the other. A staffer sitting at the desk in the hallway was the only way to ensure that there was no hanky-panky going on among the teens at night.
Jackie drew a deep breath before she asked her next question. “Did Darius take advantage of it?” Jackie asked.
Their eyes met. Jackie knew that was a source of Kenya’s concern as well.
Kenya shook her head. “No, doesn’t look like it. He was asleep, luckily.”
Jackie exhaled. Darius was a seventeen-year-old who was under their care. Jackie and Kenya’s facility was designed to deal with children whose families, for whatever reason, were no longer able to adequately provide a positive environment for them; until such a time when the home situation was stabilized. A guardian could sign the kids in or the kids could be sent to them via a court order.
It also served children as an alternative to a juvenile detention facility, if a judge deemed that a structured home experience was preferable to incarceration.
Jackie and Kenya and their staff provided counseling on-site, both for the child individually and collectively with the family.
Darius had come via a court order. He didn’t know who his father was and his mother was strung out and turning tricks, last anyone had heard. Darius had been living with his grandmother until she passed five years ago, and that’s when he really took a downturn as far as behavior.
Theft, assault, and vandalism were all in his dossier. He also had anger-control issues and had been unable to finish high school because of them. He had disrespected countless teachers. Arrangements were made for him to attend night school. Unable to conform to that either, he finally got his GED.
One thing Darius had little trouble doing was attracting girls. He embodied so many of the things a young girl could want: handsome, dangerous, sharp, exciting. Both of the sixteen-year- old girls there, Melissa and Candace, had crushes on him and were seemingly just waiting for the chance to slip him some booty in a bid to one-up the other. Kenya and Jackie had instructed the staff that under no circumstances was Darius ever to be alone in any setting with any of the girls.
With the hallway unguarded, all Darius had to do was sneak into the girls’ bedroom and tap one of them on the shoulder for a clandestine meeting in the bathroom. Or commit their mischief right there in the room, if they didn’t mind an audience.
“I know it’s a bit boring, but really, how much effort does it take to sit in a hallway?” Kenya asked with agitation.
Jackie glanced toward the hallway. “And if he wanted to watch TV, he just could’ve moved the desk to the end of the hall. He can see the living room TV from there.”
“I guess he wanted to be comfortable.” Kenya said, “He was splayed out on the couch like he didn’t have a care in the world.”
“What did he do when you walked in?” Jackie asked. “Jump up?” Kenya’s eyes widened angrily. “No. He treated it as if I was overreacting, like he had everything under control. And took his time getting up.” Kenya rested her foot on the edge of the table and scratched her knee though her jeans. “I know how important it is to have a male staffer on the premises, especially overnight, but girl, I tell you, I wanted to fire his ass on the spot.”
“You could’ve,” Jackie said. “Not watching the hall is damn near a fireable offense. Besides, we don’t have to put up with any man not understanding that we’re running this. Our careers are on the line here in this venture—not his. He’ll just move on to another situation and think of ways to get over on his next boss.”
Kenya nodded in agreement. “Don’t I know it. If midnight to eight wasn’t such a tough shift to fill, he would’ve been gone last night. In the meantime, we can try and find someone else. Maybe one of the subs is looking for more hours.”
“I’ll make some calls today,” Jackie said. She noticed Kenya’s face started to look a little more relaxed. “How are the twins?” she asked, changing the subject. “You think they’re okay this morning without their mommy there when they wake up?”
Kenya smiled. “When I left last night, Amir assured me that he had everything under control.”
“He didn’t mind losing his wife for the night?” Jackie teased.
“A little, I’m sure. But he knew I was coming by here to check up on the staff, and believe me, he’s all for that.”
Jackie grunted in agreement as she picked up her coffee. “Carlos is the same way. He’s always reminding me that I have to crack the whip, how we can’t trust anybody.” Jackie took a sip. “I don’t know why they think everyone is trying to get over on us.”
Kenya gave her an ironic look. “Probably because they are always trying to get over on us.”
“Ya know,” Jackie agreed.
Kenya glanced at her watch. “Knowing Amir, the girls are probably right now settling down to a nice healthy breakfast of chocolate cake and singing songs of joy about it.”
Jackie smiled. She thought about the comedy bit that Kenya was referring to. “Bill Cosby is one funny man, isn’t he?”
“That he is.”
“By the way, how come you didn’t go on the outing with the kids?” Jackie asked.
They heard the sound of the back door opening and closing.
“That’s why,” Kenya said tiredly, nodding in the direction of the noise. “Darius decided he wanted to go off-site this morning without permission, so I’m making him rake up the leaves in the backyard.”
Jackie sucked her teeth. “Where did he go?”
“Half mile up the road, to the Wawa. He said he was thirsty.” Seeing Jackie’s puzzled expression and anticipating her next question, Kenya continued. “He said we didn’t have what he wanted in the kitchen.”
“So rather than get something else, he decides to just leave without permission.” Jackie shook her head in resignation. “Why is he so willful?”
“That’s Darius,” Kenya said, shrugging her shoulders.
They heard Darius approaching. He appeared in the doorway, perspiration beading on his forehead. “Hey, Jackie.”
“Are those leaves raked yet?” Kenya asked with annoyance.
“Yeah, yeah, raked and bagged,” Darius said. “I guess you didn’t get that notice, I know how paperwork can get lost. Anyway, the former president signed an executive order regarding such undue labor . . . I think it was called the Emancipation Proclamation, or something.”
“We need to familiarize ourselves with that,” Jackie said smartly. “Meanwhile you can familiarize yourself with house rules. One of the most important is not leaving the site without permission.”
Darius wiped his brow and shrugged. “I was thirsty.”
His nonchalance pissed the ladies off.
“Why didn’t you just ask someone to run you to the store?” Kenya asked.
“You might have said no,” Darius replied. “Then I would have looked really defiant going anyway, right?”
“That’s some convoluted logic you have, Darius,” Jackie said. “If we said no, why isn’t the proper choice then to just do without it?”
Darius paused for a moment as he pondered that. He then gave Jackie a knowing look. “You’ve obviously never had a Snapple Prickly Peach before.”
“Was that juice you just had to have worth raking all those leaves?” Kenya asked.
“Um-hm,” Darius assured her, “it was banging. Besides, a little exercise never hurt anyone.” He rolled his neck with the casual arrogance of youth. “Raking is good exercise.”
“And missing the Sixers game?” Jackie asked.
“I’m gonna use the quiet around here to get some reading done,” Darius said. “I’m working on Manchild in the Promised Land.” He eyed the two women. When he saw the intent on their faces, he knew he’d better throw them a bone.
“Look, Kenya and Jackie, my bad. I know I shouldn’t have gone off the property.”
“What angers me,” Jackie said, “is that you have far too much sense for this kind behavior. You know the hell we would catch if something happened to you off facility grounds.”
“Indeed.” Kenya studied Darius. “For all your consciousness- raising efforts and the talk of the need for people of color to be self-motivated, why would you risk the livelihood of two sistas?” You’ve known us long enough to know what we’re about. What we’re trying to accomplish here.”
Jackie decided to drive the point home. “And you’ve been in the system long enough, and you’re certainly perceptive enough, to know the difference between folks who are poverty pimping and people who have a sincere interest in affecting people’s lives positively,” Jackie said. “Kenya and I aren’t getting rich off this enterprise. There are a lot easier, less stressful ways for us to make a living than what we’re trying to do here.”
Darius’ gaze dropped to the carpet. He had known the ladies for years, particularly Jackie. She was his original case worker when he first entered the system.
“In a few weeks when you turn eighteen, you will have all the freedom you want,” Kenya said.
Darius’ eyes lifted and flashed in anger. “And you can’t wait for that, can you, Kenya? You’re probably marking the days off somewhere on a calendar.”
Kenya knew Darius had misunderstood her. In a calm voice, she said, “No, what I’m saying is that you will soon be able to make the decisions without so many restrictions because you will be an adult.” God help us all, she thought.
“And your lives will be a whole lot easier, too, won’t it?” Darius accused Jackie.
“Actually, yes.” Jackie said, “Because we trust that as an adult, you will be productive and happy—because you’re talented and sensible. Knowing that you’re doing well will make our lives easier. We are looking forward to that.”
That successfully deflected Darius’ rising fury. Jackie knew he didn’t want to feel uncared for by Kenya and her. She always found it amusing how the biggest problem children always had was feelings made of glass.
Darius glanced at the clock on the wall. “Well, I’m gonna take a shower and go to my room.”
“To read, right?” Kenya asked.
“Because I thought maybe you wanted to go the mall with Aaron when he came in to pick up his check.”
Aaron was one of their younger male staffers. He worked there part-time while he worked on completing his master’s at Rowan University.
Kenya saw the look on Darius’ face. Gotcha, she thought.
“Aaron called this morning and asked if it was okay,” Kenya explained to Jackie. “Said he and Darius had talked about it a few days back.”
Jackie chuckled and regarded Darius shrewdly. “So that’s why you didn’t want to go to the Sixers game.” Jackie knew Darius disliked being on outings with the whole group. Felt like everyone they met could tell they were “group home rejects.”
“Mm-hmm, girl.” Kenya folded her arms. “He thinks he’s slick. Thinks he’s just gonna hop in Aaron’s Jeep for a fun-filled afternoon away from us.”
“Well, I don’t see any reason why he can’t go—oh dear,” Jackie said, pressing her palm against her cheek. “I forgot about the unsupervised jaunt to the Wawa.”
“It’s positively tragic, isn’t it?” Kenya asked.
“Hold up, I was punished for the trip to the store. The yard is spotless.” Darius smiled widely and raised his index finger. “Remember, we don’t hold grudges around here. Once it’s done with, it’s done with.”
“Oh, but that raking can hardly be considered punishment, can it?” Jackie asked. “That’s merely ‘good exercise,’ right?” Gotcha, Jackie thought.
Chagrined, Darius slowly nodded. He recovered quickly, however. “I’ll leave my fate in you ladies’ capable hands,” he said. “Whatever you decide, I know it will be just.”
“We’ll let you know after you get done with your shower,” Kenya said.
Darius headed down the hallway. “Attica, Attica,” he chanted.
“That’s not exactly helping your cause, Darius,” Jackie warned him.
Darius pulled an abrupt about-face. “By the way, I’m not trying to tell you ladies how to run your business, but you might wanna do something about that cat Charles.”
Setting aside Darius’ impertinence for a second, Kenya was more concerned as to the reason he was saying it. “Why?” she asked.
Darius leaned against the doorway. “Late last night I got up to make a bathroom run, and dude was snoring away on the couch.” He shrugged expressively. “A person with less character than I might’ve taken advantage of the lack of supervision and visited one of the young ladies on the other side of the hall.” He was the picture of wide-eyed innocence. “I wouldn’t want two motivated, kind-hearted sistas like yourselves to get in trouble behind something like that. What if a teen turned up pregnant while under your care? I shudder at the thought of what that would do to your careers.”
After waiting a moment, just to see the lumps in Jackie’s and Kenya’s throats form to an acceptable size, Darius turned and headed to the shower. Gotcha, he thought.
After hearing Darius go into his room, Jackie slowly shook her head at Kenya. “Break out that calendar and mark off another day, girl.”
While Aaron was still poring over CDs in the jazz section, Darius paid for his selection and exited the Sam Goody record store in the Echelon Mall.
His haste to leave the store had little to do with a distaste for jazz and everything to do with the two girls sitting out on the bench in the mall area checking him out. Out of the corner of his eye, Darius had seen them enter the store as he was standing in line to pay for his CD. He had also seen one of the girls hit the other on the arm to get her attention and motion toward him, so he knew they liked what they saw. The two girls then scurried back out of the store to the bench in the mall area. Darius knew what that action was all about. They realized he was about to leave, and they wanted to get a better look at him and to give him the opportunity to converse with them.
As Darius approached the pair, he decided to focus his attention on the girl on the right. She wasn’t as built as the other girl. Nor was she blatantly giving him come hither signals, like her friend. But something about her sparked Darius interest. Without asking, Darius sat down on the bench next to the flashier girl.
“Excuse you,” the other girl said.
He ignored her. “Hi, I’m Darius,” he said. “And you be?” “Danae,” came the reply.
“Hi, Danae.” Darius looked past her shoulder. “What’s your friend’s name, Danae?”
“Jas leaving,” Jasmine stood up and walked into the store.
“Pe-ace.” Darius needled, trying to elicit a response as his eyes followed Jasmine—tight jeans, matching jean jacket, spotless red-and-white Nikes, smooth hazel skin, and ponytail—all the way into the store.
Jasmine hesitated for a step, then continued walking into the record store, clutching her purse.
Danae was happy to have Darius to herself. “She needs to make an exchange ’cause her cousin brought her the wrong CD. Where do you live?” She poked her chest out, intent on drawing even more attention to her body than her low neckline already had.
“Camden.” Darius never told people the truth about his living arrangements. Besides, in another few weeks it would be true because he’d be living with his cousin Malek in Camden when he turned eighteen.
“Oh, yeah?” Danae said, perking up even more. “What part?” When Darius saw that reaction, he figured he was dealing with a silly suburban girl. One who was bored, looking for a little excitement, and probably believed that every male in Camden was some thugged-out, moneyed-up, criminal. And no doubt excited about the fantasy of playing Beyonce to his Jay-Z.
Perhaps he should tell her about his juvenile arrest record. That should really get her panties wet, Darius thought. His eyes searched the store for her friend, Jasmine. He wondered if she was as silly as this one.
“What part?” Danae repeated.
“South,” Darius answered. “Where you from?”
“Lawndale—but I’m really from north Philly,” Danae assured him. “I don’t know why my moms moved us out here to this corny place.”
“Maybe she wanted a better environment for you.” Darius said flatly. “A place where you don’t have to have your grit on twenty-four seven. A better quality of life. Ain’t there less stress living in south Jersey than in north Philly?”
“Less excitement, too,” Danae said. “It’s corny like that.”
And of course that should take precedence over everything else, Darius thought. His eyes glazed over. Where was her friend?
Aaron came out of the store and approached the bench. “Hi,” he said to Danae.
“D, I’ll be in the Waldenbooks.”
“All right, yo,” Darius responded.
That was why Darius liked Aaron. He could’ve blown Darius’ cover. Said something to reveal to Danae his role and Darius’ subordinate position. But he saw Darius was talking to a young lady, didn’t want to embarrass him, and instead treated him like they were on equal footing.
Darius looked back into the store. Jasmine was now at the register.
“You got your own spot?” Danae asked.
Damn, this girl didn’t play around. She just skipped right over asking whether he had a ride.
“No, I live with my cousin.”
“Is that him?” Danae asked, nodding toward Aaron.
Darius decided to have a little fun. “No, that’s my parole officer.” He pointed toward his sneakers. “I’m due to get my electronic ankle bracelet removed today.”
Danae’s eyes widened. “Uh-uh. Let me see it.”
“I’m just kidding. He’s just a buddy of mine.”
“I didn’t believe you.” Danae tossed her hair off her shoulder. “Do you go to Camden High?”
“No, I’m done with school.”
“Oh.” Convinced now she was dealing with an older man, Danae crossed her legs, trying to appear more sophisticated.
“What exactly does ‘done’ mean?” Jasmine asked sharply. “You dropped out?”
Darius suppressed a smile. Jasmine was now standing in front of them clutching her Sam Goody bag.
“Why do you care?” Darius asked.
Jasmine snorted. “I don’t.”
Seeing her look so unperturbed and nonchalant, Darius felt his skin tingle. He wished she was standing closer. He bet she smelled good.
“You ready to go?” Jasmine asked Danae.
Danae tried to give Jasmine a “what’s your hurry” look, but Jasmine took out her cell phone anyway.
“Who you calling?” Darius asked.
“Why do you care?” Jasmine asked.
“I’m just saying,” Darius said, leaning back on the bench, “that I think I know your boyfriend, that’s all.”
“You couldn’t, because I don’t have a boyfriend,” Jasmine said.
“Do you want one?” Darius deadpanned.
Jasmine looked at him. His face was as serious as a tax audit. She did her best to conceal how much he flustered her, and tried to appear bored instead.
“Yeah, one day,” she said.
Danae didn’t like one bit that Darius’ attention had swung in Jasmine’s direction. “I am ready to go, Jas.” Danae stood up.
“I’m about to call Uncle Lenny to pick us up,” Jasmine said, turning on the phone.
“May I see what you bought?” Darius asked, looking at Jasmine’s bag. He noticed her reluctance. “Come on.” He held out his bag and looked up at her seductively. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
Jasmine handed him her bag and took his. They both looked in each other’s bag. Darius smiled.
“What?” Danae asked, clearly impatient.
“We got the same thing,” Jasmine explained. “The new Roots CD.”
“Great minds think alike,” Darius said. After taking one more look inside, he closed Jasmine’s bag and handed it back to her.
“Great minds don’t drop out,” Jasmine retorted.
“I never said I dropped out, Jasmine,” Darius said. “You said I dropped out.”
A long beat passed as they gazed at each other. “Well, at least you have good taste in music.”
“As do you,” Darius said.
“What’s the big deal?” Danae asked, agitated. “The Roots are a local band. Everybody has them.”
“Do you like Jazzyfatnastees, Vivian Green?” Darius asked Jasmine.
“Do I?” Jasmine asked, her eyes lighting up. “Those are my girls!” This time she was truly impressed. “So you appreciate good music, huh? I had you figured as strictly a hip-hop head.”
“Sometimes there’s more to people than meets the eye,” Darius said. “Like, if someone met you, they can plainly see you’re fine as hell. But only by getting to know you could they tell that you’re as smart as you’re pretty.”
Blushing, Jasmine looked like she wanted to crawl into the bag. She couldn’t think of anything to say in response.
“Do you want me to call your uncle?” Danae asked, mad about being ignored.
Jasmine relented and made the call.
What a pain in the ass Danae is, Darius thought as Jasmine was talking on the phone. Just because I don’t want her.
Jasmine clicked off the phone. “My uncle says he will pick us up in front of the food court entrance in ten minutes.”
“Well, that’s all the way at the other end of the mall. Let’s go,” Danae started walking away.
“I gotta go,” Jasmine said, smiling at Darius.
He stood up. “All right, I’ll check you out later.”
Jasmine’s eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement. She hesitated for a moment.
Darius knew she was wondering why he wasn’t asking her for her phone number.
“If it’s destined to be, I’m sure we’ll speak again,” he said.
Jasmine shrugged. If he wanted to put it in fate’s hands, so be it.
“Bye,” she said.
As Darius watched Jasmine catch up to Danae, Aaron walked over to him.
“You ready to go back to the home, Darius?” Aaron asked, smiling slyly.
“Yeah. Can I get that pen, Aaron?”
Aaron took the pen out of his shirt pocket and handed it to him. Darius scribbled down a phone number on his palm. The one he had gotten off Jasmine’s exchange receipt.
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