Fire and Wanda, Chapter 4, Scene 1

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About a month after Berve and I had our little conversation, Charles headed back to Florida and it was time for me to find someplace else to live. I didn’t mind leaving the place one damned bit. We had mice upstairs, rats in the basement, and you had to take your bath in the morning before the roaches rolled out of bed if you didn’t want them doing the backstroke in the water with you while you were trying to get “clean”. We even had roaches in the refrigerator. In addition to that we didn’t have any screens on the windows.

It wasn’t like we didn’t complain to the landlord, some slumlord named Noah who worked out of an office somewhere near downtown, but he didn’t do shit except say he’d get somebody down there when he could. That’s where Ray came in. Even though she was hardly ever there, Ray wasn’t the type to put up with a whole lotta mess from anyone for any length of time – except for certain men. But Noah wasn’t one of those men, so Ray decided one day it was time to call the man on the carpet and threaten him with a black woman’s Armageddon if he didn’t come down and do something.

Understand that Ray was straight from the ‘hood, and tough as a bag full of railroad ties. She’d come up near 47th and Langley watching her father beat her mother on a regular basis, and one time was actually shoving the woman’s head into a lit oven. Ray, who was 12 years old at the time, jumped on the man’s back, who then promptly snatched her off and threw her like so much garbage through an open door out into the street. Then he went back to trying to kill his wife. By the time Ray was 16 she was pimping white girls to black men in the neighborhood and making enough at it to help her mother pay the rent and keep the family fed, plus buy herself a bunch of nice clothes from some of the better stores. By the time I’d met her she was 22 and just out of college, having already worn out two or three lifetimes.

Ray was also dark and lovely as a woman had any right to be. The combination of all those hard edges mixed up with all that grace and those curves drove me crazy, but more on that later. Right now this is all just to explain how it was that someone as young as Ray was already so good at intimidating grown men. So when Noah called that one day to say he was on his way down and we’d better be there when he got there, both me and Charles were feeling more than a little bit nervous. Technically we were grown, but on the real side of things, Ray was the only one who had actually lived a grown person’s life. Which explained why when we called her over at her mother’s house to tell her Noah was coming, she started laughing.

“Y’all scared, huh? I can hear it all in your voice, Alton.”

“Well damn, Ray, the man is the landlord. Shit, he might be coming down to throw us outta here, so then what are we supposed to do? He was soundin’ really pissed, like he was coming to do some serious damage.”

“You kill me. Look, if he was gonna put us out, he wouldn’t be coming all the way from downtown to do it. He’d get somebody else to do it. Much property as that mothafucka owns, you think he spends his time running all over Chicago telling folks they got to pack up? Think, Alton. The man coming down here ‘cause we got him scared. He see a lawsuit comin’, and that’s the only reason his fat white ass is comin’ down to the South Side. You can bet this is probably the first time he’s been down this side of town this whole year to check up on anything he own with our folks livin’ in it. All we are to him is a monthly rent check, and that’s why I called him up and cursed him out. ‘Cause I want his ass to see and look for himself at what it is he’s doin’ and why it is we gonna fuck him up if he don’t take care of business. He ain’t no big and powerful white man, he just a Jew don’t like niggers and thinks he can treat us any kind of way and we won’t say nothin’. Well, he shouldn’ta rented out to this bitch ‘cause I’m gonna be all in his shit, hear? He just don’t know. I’m on my way.”

Which was really all I wanted to hear.

 

********

 

About 10 minutes before Noah showed up, Ray walked through the door, a lit cigarette dangling professionally from her lips as her eyes slashed back and forth across the room like bush knives cutting away the underbrush in search of prey.

“He ain’t here yet, Ray,” I said.

She relaxed visibly and fell onto the sofa across from where I was standing against the wall, lighting up a cigarette of my own.

“Good. Give me time to get ready.”

When Noah did show up, I noticed he was as big as his voice made him sound. Standing about 6’3’’ tall, he wore thick glasses with basic black frames, which enlarged the fury running rampant in his coal-black eyes. But what made it hard to be but so scared of the guy was the dark green plaid pants he was wearing, and those scuffed up brown shoes. I’d seen a lot of gangster movies, and I can’t remember one where the bad guy was wearing plaid pants. Still, his deep voice smashed through the earlier false quiet like a battering ram through plywood. He and some equally uncomfortable-looking white guy with bad acne and a bull neck he’d brought with him were looking around the room at us as if we were roaches with attitude.

“So? Show me all these horrible living conditions I’m subjecting you guys to!”

“Where you wanna start?” asked Ray, walking right up to him like she was about to lay him low with a straight right. “You wanna start with the muthafuckin’ roaches in the refrigerator? Or you wanna start with no screens in any of the windows, which is why we got all these flies buzzing around in here? If you wanna see the no screens, just look your ass around. You find a window with a screen in it, you let us know. If you wanna see the roaches in the refrigerator, the kitchen’s that way.”

Noah was looking down at Ray like he was trying to figure out exactly what his next move ought to be. Her aggressiveness had clearly caught him off guard, which meant he had pretty much assumed he was going to storm up in the place and intimidate us into trembling little blobs of jello, then turn around and leave without doing anything.

“Seems to me, young lady, that if you guys have got roaches in your refrigerator, then maybe you need to clean your refrigerator. Don’t you think?”

“Seems to me that we’ve been cleaning those roaches out of that refrigerator ever since we moved in here, but they just keep going back. And we ain’t never left enough food up in there long enough for it to go bad. Whatever food we put in there don’t last long, believe me. Some folks can’t afford to let food go bad, you know? Besides, how many cold-weather roaches you ever heard of?”

When Noah looked inside the refrigerator, as much as he tried to keep his angry mask fastened on tight, it was clear the sight of those dead roaches lying at the bottom of the fridge shook him up a bit. As for there being no screens, well, all you had to do was look, just like Ray said.

“OK, so maybe this isn’t so great in here. OK. I guess there’s some things need doing, and we’ll get them done.”
“You been saying that all summer,” said Charles.

“This guy here’s name is Chuck. He’s gonna leave his number with you, and he’s gonna be out here tomorrow to get started. That’s all I know to tell you. Write your number down Chuck, then let’s go. I got some more stops to make at some other properties before the end of the day.”

“Are your other properties this fucked up?” asked Ray.

I could tell Noah wanted to backhand her so bad he didn’t know what to do, but instead all he could do was squint his fleshy eyelids tight until they were barely visible beneath those bushy eyebrows looked like caterpillars.

“Little lady, if you only knew what I have to put up with from you people. C’mon, Chuck.”

And with that, he was gone, slamming the door closed behind him.

“Did he just say what he had to put up with from ‘you people’?” I asked.

“You heard him,” said Ray. “But fuck it. That’s just the way they talk. Long as he send that Chuck back here tomorrow then he can call us ‘you people’ long as he want. Just handle your business, that’s all we’re asking for.”

Chuck did actually come back the next day – when we were all gone – and he did put up screens in all the rooms with open windows. Of course, not all the screens fit – in fact only one or two looked like they were actually meant to go with the apartment – but at least it was something. With the ones that didn’t fit we just jammed them in best way we could and figured the hell with it. That’s the way Charles and I looked at it anyway. Ray wanted another go at Noah, but Charles and I both voted to leave it alone since we were going to be out of there in a relatively short while anyway.

When the time did come to leave, I had managed to talk a friend into letting me stay with her and her 12-year-old son in her fairly big apartment, which was located in a better section of Hyde Park not too far away from where I’d been before. But I still had to allow about 30 minutes to walk to work each way.

For the most part the arrangement worked out fine, and me and the kid – Max – got along real well. Kind of like big brother to little brother, but not quite. To be so young, Max knew a lot of stuff that most kids hadn’t even heard of when they were twice his age, which made it easy to talk to him about the thing I had for Wanda. Since he and I shared his room, we’d just wait until his mother, had gone to sleep, then we’d start talking about women – meaning whatever girl he had his eye on in school and Wanda – until one of us started to snore.

As the months passed the discussions got considerably more interesting as our level of trust grew over and above what normally would have been an insurmountable age gap. For Max’s part, it was frequently both outrageous and hilarious listening to his exploits with these young girls – and sometimes much older girls – who for the most part had no idea that the somewhat chubby, geeky-looking kid with the Malcolm X glasses and the big fro had a lot more going on in the rap department than they would have ever imagined. The game of sex, as most folks know, is essentially warfare, and in warfare sneak attacks simply can’t be beat. Max was a young master of the sneak attack.

On my end, I found myself falling deeper and deeper in love with a woman who considered my ecstatically delirious condition both amusing and, at times, useful when puppy love came in handy. I think I considered myself blessed to be the subject of a Bill Withers song; just keep on usin’ me ‘til you use me up. But then the more we talked the closer we became, and the more her guard started to drop, which I don’t think was what she had intended. The thing is, I was so much younger – and she was so certain nothing could possibly happen – I guess she considered it safe. Which, of course, is the last thing any man ever wants to find out. Being ‘safe’ is right up there with ‘You’re just like my brother.’ But I was so far gone I’d take whatever I could get however I could get it. Just give it here.

After awhile, I was a fairly frequent visitor at the run-down little house over on 63rd and Langley, which was only about a ten-minute walk from the hospital. Sometimes, even when she wasn’t working a shift, Wanda would call me at the job and start running off at the mouth, usually about how pissed off she was at some man – usually a married man – and then she’d ask my advice about what to do. Sometimes I’d ‘joke’ that she could try a real man like me, which always got a gentle ‘you’re so cute’ kind of laugh, followed by a request to bring her by a pack of cigarettes when I got off work.

Sure. OK.

It got to where I’d even hang around work for five or ten extra minutes if Wanda hadn’t called in the hopes that the phone might just decide to ring. The fact that she was nearly 20 years older than me didn’t mean a thing, even though I’d read a good friend of mine the riot act not quite a year ago for doing the same thing. He wound up marrying the woman, after which she twisted his brain into so many unrecognizable perversions that it took him a good year or two to find and then unravel the knots and remember who he’d been originally.

But that’s another story for another day. The way it normally went with me and Wanda on the days when we weren’t working the same hours is she’d ring me up at the job about 10 minutes before it was time for me to leave, I’d listen to her cry and complain about whatever the boyfriend du jour had done – or hadn’t done, or should have done – and then I’d hang up, tell everyone good night, and pick up my pace down the hallway as I tried to keep from singing myself a tune. Once outside, I’d always head to the same gas station about two blocks away from her place, pay for the cigarettes, then practically jog over to 63rd and Langley. Once I got there I’d usually wind up hanging around for at least an hour or so. Sometimes Wanda and I would just sit around talking, or I’d follow her around while she took care of whatever chores she needed to handle around the house. These times were some of the best memories I had with Wanda, even though nothing particularly special happened. The first time I’d ever seen – and smelled – chitlins being prepared was over at Wanda’s when we were up talking at around two o’clock in the morning as she sat attentively on a stool listening to me describe what it was like sitting in at the clubs with George, who had taken me under his wing and was teaching me not only guitar but what it took to be a working musician. If you judged by the look in her eyes you’d think she was listening to the most fascinating story ever told.

Other times, when she was either too tired, in a bad mood, or depressed, I’d whittle away the time wrestling with her kids or giving them piggy back rides up and down the short hallway that stretched from the front door back to the kitchen. No matter how much noise we made, Wanda stayed scrunched up in a fetal position behind her bedroom door with the television set cranked up loud enough to keep the nightmares away while she smoked one cigarette after another.

Then came that one night, the night I thought I’d been waiting for. What was so strange about it all was how normal it seemed at the beginning when Wanda called me at the hospital to bring her some cigarettes. The usual. But once I got to the door, and Corinne answered, everything downshifted into slow motion. Wanda never let Corinne answer the door at night, and that ‘s when the dissonant notes began screeching inside my head. The way the child was looking at me made the strange music ring even louder. At 12 years old, Corinne was far too young to be looking so sad and disappointed. And disappointed at what?

“Momma’s in the bed,” she said, as she opened the door to let me in.

But I just stood there, not quite sure of what to do. Something wasn’t quite…

“Alton?”

 

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kaoblues
Writer and musician.

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