Fire and Wanda, Chapter 5, Scene 2

 

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I almost met the man once, several months before I decided to leave Chicago for good. Wanda wanted us to meet for some reason but something happened he wasn’t there and, well, he wasn’t there. By that time Wanda and I weren’t as close as we had been earlier, mostly because of my fiancé Vivian, who was several years older than Wanda. Wanda, and several of the nurses in the burn unit who had met Vivian, tried to warn me against getting involved with her, probably because the woman had six kids by three different men, two of whom were older than I was. But I still wasn’t hearing it. Vivian had said she was willing to get married, plus she had flat out turned me out in the sex department. Let’s just say that experience counts, and Vivian had a lot of experience of which I was the very happy and satisfied beneficiary. I had never been one much interested in virgins anyway, unlike some of my buddies who seemed to think that sexual ignorance was some kind of treasured virtue to have in a girlfriend, especially from a control standpoint. Me? I wanted someone who not only knew what to do, but who knew how to do it way better than me. I was all about education.

Looking back it’s easy enough to see that my disastrous involvement with Vivian was a replacement for Wanda, but at the time all I could see was Wanda trying to get in my business so I decided to start strong-arming her the way she’d been doing me. I could tell it hurt her, as much as she tried to keep it on the inside, and I felt good that for once it was me causing the pain and not the other way around. Anybody knows that if you really want to fuck somebody up for good, be sure to deliver your best punch when their guard is down. Sometimes they never recover.

All of which brings me to my friend John Thomas. John and I became friends over fried bologna sandwiches that he cooked on a hot plate in his room, which was down the hall from mine in Miss Bankhead’s house where we both stayed near 46th and King Drive.

But let me back up a bit.

Miss Bankhead was John’s aunt, and he’d already been staying there several years when I moved in after ending my stay with Max. As a matter of fact it was Wanda who helped me to move all my stuff on what turned out to be a really nice, but hot, summer day. I didn’t bother to ask whose big-assed Lincoln it was she borrowed for the job, but I’m willing to bet she didn’t tell him what she was borrowing it for. Or who. But there’s practically no way I would have gotten my stuff moved without it since nobody else I knew owned a car and trying to move your belongings on a bus doesn’t work too good.

After we finished the third and final trip, Wanda looked up and down the street at some of the neighborhood vultures then whispered to me to be careful and to call if I needed anything. She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, then said she’d see me later. I stood outside on the sidewalk watching her drive away until she reached the end of the block, then turned south down King Drive. When I turned around to walk up the steps into the house, I noticed John standing in the doorway with the door held partially open as he stared searchingly in Wanda’s direction. The man definitely had the look of the wolf as he slowly turned his attention to me, then eased his lips into the most predatory grin I had ever seen. He raised his chin in salutation, dark eyes sparkling like obsidian planets.

“That yours?” he asked.

“Huh?”

His smile stretched wider as he nodded his head, then stepped out onto the porch, pretending to stretch and yawn. But it was way too early in the day to be that tired.

“I hear you, brother man. I’d be keepin’ my mouth closed too if I had me somethin’ looked like that. Yeah, I hear ya.”

I started to say something, to deny the implication, especially since Wanda had worked so hard to continually remind me that nothing was ever going to happen with us again. But then something told me to just leave it alone. That way I wasn’t lying and I wasn’t telling the truth either. So I smiled back at him, then reached in my pocket and lit up a cigarette. Offered him one, but he shook his head.

“Me, I’m here to get free of my bad habits, so I damned sure don’t need to be picking up new ones. But I do thank you for the consideration.”

I shrugged, putting the pack back in my shirt pocket before sitting down on the steps. John remained standing as he told me his name by way of belated introduction, then asked what part of town I was moving from. When I told him Hyde Park his eyebrows raised a bit. I could tell he was wondering why anyone would ever leave any part of Hyde Park to move to where I was now, but once again I decided to let the silence do the talking.

“Got some nice cribs over that way,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “Real nice.”

“Um-hm.”

Another long silence. Then John started to chuckle.

“You all right, brother man. You all right. I can see you know a few things. That’s good. So we done out here? You need help moving anything else?”

“I’m done. Just gonna finish this cigarette, then I’ll be inside.”

John nodded, then leaned down until his lips were next to my ear.

“Not to tell you what to do, brother, but my aunt? She doesn’t like smokin’ too tough. So my suggestion would be to go on ahead and finish your cig out closer to the street instead of on her porch. Make your stay here a lot more comfortable. She a good woman, but she a black woman too, you know what I’m sayin? She can make your life hell times three if you give her a mind.”

I grinned.

“Enough said.”

Over the next few months I lost my job at the hospital and had a few other things go wrong, which put my money situation in a pretty desperate position while I tried to find something else. I tried my best not to let Miss Bankhead see what I was going through, and she rarely gave me a hard time when I said the rent might be a week or so late. She would just nod, sitting there with her sister in front of their ancient color TV, as they talked about the bible and sometimes argued about crazy stuff. I’ll never forget the time when Miss Bankhead was insisting that black folks used to have tails and were animals. Her sister, who had a lot more sense, practically screamed at her.

“What in the hell you think that make us, then? And here we are both black. I’ll tell you what I damned sure ain’t no animal.Why you hate your own people so much anyway?”

“Because my people crazy, that’s why. You look what them niggers done to this neighborhood and you tell me I’m lyin’.”

On and on they would go as I made my way up the stairs to my room, which was barely 10 feet by maybe six or so. Just big enough for the bed and that was it. One window looked at the narrow space between Miss Bankhead’s house and the house next door. Down below was all the trash. Once upon a time this had been a nice home, like almost all the homes up and down King Drive, and it was built of solid stone. Nothing could bring that place down except an angry God.

Day after day, after wandering around Chicago filling out job applications and walking in and out of stores and anywhere else I thought looked like a possible job, I’d come home and hide out in that room. Sometimes for hours. On the days when I didn’t go out to look for work I’d stay up there all day, trying to forget how hungry I was. Considering how well Miss Bankhead could cook, and the mouth-watering smells of spices and sauces that would creep up the stairs to tease me, this was not an easy task. But whenever she would ask me if I wanted something to eat, I would always insist I was fine. I wasn’t about to beg, and I’d already been told that tagging cooked meals onto the arrangement would cost me extra, and I didn’t have extra.

This is where John’s fried bologna sandwiches on Wonderbread come in. It was a day like any other around that time and I was lying on my bed sweating it out trying to concentrate on the magazine I was reading, when I heard a light knocking at the door. My heart skipped a little as it always did whenever I heard a knock because I knew Miss Bankhead might be standing out there waiting to ask me when I expected to have the rent. I had grown to dread that disappointed expression that always lurked in her somewhat cloudy yet fierce dark eyes whenever she looked up at me. Miss Bankhead was somewhere beyond 80 years old, but she kept her frizzy hair dyed a fire and copper red ratted out by tattletale gray roots that consistently held back the fire like a stubborn, kinky fence across the top of her forehead. Whenever I struggled to put on my everything’s-almost-OK smile, she would begin shaking her head and muttering something I could never quite understand, then stare at me some more as if waiting for my real answer. When that answer didn’t come, and I insisted on standing in the doorway smiling – always smiling – she would eventually walk away without saying a word.

But this time it wasn’t Miss Bankhead at the door. It was John.

“It’s me, brother man. Open up for a minute.”

I couldn’t imagine what he’d want, but I went to the door anyway and cracked it open.

“What’s up?” I asked.

John shrugged, standing in the hallway in worn out white painter’s pants and a sleeveless undershirt.

“Not much, not much. I was just in one of those moods to cook me somethin’ in the room, some sandwiches, and I thought you might be interested. Nice to have company once and awhile, especially since my aunt don’t let us bring in nobody from the outside.”

That was one of Miss Bankhead’s hard and fast rules. There were only a handful of people she’d even allow to pass through her front door, and that’s including her own friends and family. As for those of us renting rooms there, the farthest a visitor could get was the living room couch to sit and watch TV while they waited for whoever they were visiting to come downstairs and take them the hell out of there.

John and I both grinned and nodded.

“What kinda sandwiches is it you gotta cook first?” I asked.

“Bologna.”

Bologna? You gotta cook bologna?”

“Wait a minute. You mean to tell me you ain’t never had no fried bologna sandwich? Are you serious?”

“Are you seriously telling me you fry bologna?”

John broke out in a deep laugh, which was unusual for him since his voice usually didn’t dip much below middle-C, and he most always pronounced his syllables surrounded by a cushion of dry air. He motioned for me to follow him down the hall.

“Let me put something on, then I’ll be down,” I said.

“I’ll get the hotplate started.”

“The what…?”

By now he was walking away from me, and he was starting to laugh all over again.

“Boy, you worry me. Just come on down, all right?”

Once I made it to John’s room, I took a quick look around and admired the fact that he had at least enough room to change his mind, which was doing better than me. Seniority – and family ties – came in handy. His bed was made up neat with a worn brown spread pulled tight across its rather lumpy length and width. Three odd-sized pillows with mismatched pillow cases were propped up in orderly fashion against a huge wooden headboard that boasted a rather intricate floral design.

Standing with one hand clamped to the side of his hip, he offered me a large toothy smile as he pointed to a chair over in the corner that seemed to be crouching to one side like a whupped ghetto dog. He had a beat-up plastic fan struggling to provide relief in the corner, but it may as well have been there for decoration.

“Have yourself a seat. Dinner will be served shortly.”

“Yeah. All right.”

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kaoblues
Writer and musician.

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