Fire and Wanda, Chapter 5, Scene 3


A partially opened packet of bologna and a half-loaf of Wonderbread lay on a small scratched-up table jammed up against the radiator. Balanced precariously on top of the radiator was the heating pan he planned to use to fry up the meat. Why he chose to have the pan on top of the radiator instead of the table was a question I started to ask but decided against it. I assumed it had something to do with how rickety it was, but propping up a heating pan on top of an old radiator wasn’t exactly the most stable arrangement I’d ever witnessed either. But whatever. Despite the haphazardness of it all, once the skillet was finally heated up and the bologna was fried up, I had to admit the sandwiches tasted fantastic. The fact that I was starving probably added a little extra flavor, and John’s eyes grew wide as he watched me wolf down six sandwiches in a row, but I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Not at that moment. And even though I know John’s finances couldn’t have been much better than mine, he never once told me to go easy on the helpings. All he did was grin, laugh, and tell me to go ahead eat until I was full.

“Bologna ain’t that hard to come by, brother man. Not even for poor folks.”

“I’ll have to remember that.”

“Naw. What you need to remember is you don’t never need to go hungry in this house. Not ever. You sittin’ up there in that room wastin’ away and thinkin’ nobody’s noticin’ is just plain crazy. Everybody, and I do mean everybody up under this roof has gone through what you goin through and much, much worse. Believe me when I tell you. So we know the signs because we’ve been there. But sometimes you’ve got to be willing to reach out and ask. That pride will kill you.”

All I could do was grin and nod. Then I burped.

“Hear that? That’s what happens when you got something in your stomach. That’s not a sound you wanna forget, all right?”

I nodded again.

John and I had always exchanged casual greetings, usually while passing one another in and out of the house, or in and out of the bathroom we shared. Sometimes we’d share a laugh downstairs watching TV, especially when Ms. Bankhead was gone and we could actually watch something we wanted to see. But it wasn’t until that night that John and I really became friends. We stayed up most of the night talking and laughing, and I couldn’t help but notice how much easier it was to bear the heat and humidity when there was someone else there to bear it with you. Lying on top of an empty bed staring at the ceiling in an itty-bitty room made time take on the qualities of cold molasses.

From that day forward, whenever John or I didn’t have something else lined up – which was most of the time since neither one of us was working – we would spend time just hanging out and talking. The more he trusted me, the more John would tell me about his life, and about how he had landed in his current situation. Basically John was an ex-pimp and hustler down on his luck, trying to get back on steady ground. Although he didn’t have much interest in returning to the life, especially since there were some folks scattered out there who would be more than happy to bump into him for all the wrong reasons, he still couldn’t shake that side of himself. He had somewhat adjusted to the fact that he needed to find normal employment of some sort, and he needed to find it relatively soon, but John was the kind of guy who would always be searching out the angles and calculating the odds. To him, everything else would always be part-time employment.

Since John was closing in on 50 years old, he knew he didn’t have a lot of time to be figuring out too many more scores, or to be making too many mistakes. He knew if he gambled too much on the wrong move at this stage in life, he would most likely be through. So he figured that a white woman with money, the right kind of white woman, was the perfect ticket out. Matter of fact he already had her picked out was what he told me. She lived somewhere in Indiana, was loaded, and was crazy about him. More than that, she was crazy about how he worked her over between the sheets. Unlike her husband, John took sex seriously.

That’s because sex was business to John, and sheet-burning sex with his white woman was nothing more than part of his long-term business plan. The money was from her side of the family, not her husband’s, and she was about ready to toss hubby to the side just as soon as she and John had worked out the details of how they were going to work this deal. After all, he couldn’t exactly just strut up there, an ex-pimp and hustler, and marry this wealthy white woman just like that. Right? That could cause complications, he said. There were details to be worked out, and complications to be uncomplicated. But once it was all done? It was gonna be beautiful. John could already see it in his mind’s eye, and it would be his best score ever. The one that would provide for his young son while providing John with a retirement plan at the same time. He and his white woman had been seeing each other secretly for several years now, but John estimated it wouldn’t be too much longer before everything would fall into place. She had the husband just about where she wanted him, and John was setting things up on his end. All they needed was just a little more time. Just a little more time…

But in the meantime, while he waited for the big payday, John was always on the lookout for a little something to tide him over. Nothing that would cling, just something that would spread and release. In recent months he’d been running into a bit of a dry spell was what he’d been telling me, but he was sure it was only temporary. Besides, it wasn’t easy attracting females when you were closing in on 50, when you were renting a room from your elderly aunt in the ghetto, and when you didn’t have a job. If it wasn’t for his commendable verbal dexterity and accompanying skills that he’d acquired over a number of hard-earned years in the street, he probably would have been forced to embrace celibacy as his lover.

After listening to John mention this particular dilemma several times in the weeks following our bologna feast, I decided I might be able to be of some assistance to him in finding companionship. I first mentioned my desire to help him out one evening when we were sitting on the couch downstairs watching TV. John grinned but his eyes never left the screen. He obviously couldn’t believe there was any way somebody like me had the hookup required to get him what he needed. I was too green. But that’s where making assumptions about folks can get a person into trouble.

“You remember that chick that dropped me off here when I first moved in? The one you watched drive away all the way until you couldn’t see her any more?”

John wasn’t looking at the TV anymore. His eyes, dark and burning, were now fastened on me as if I were the most important object in the known universe. His lips peeled back into a smile that immediately made me familiar with how Little Red Riding Hood must have felt when she was lost in the woods.

“What’s on your mind, brother man? What you got cookin?”
“Nothin’ yet. I mean I was just thinking about some things is all. You’re always talking about you can’t get the right one, and I know Wanda’s been sayin’ the same thing ever since I’ve known her.”

“That a fact?”

I grinned.

“Oh yeah. It’s definitely a fact. Fine as she is, she can’t ever seem to find herself the right guy is what she’s always sayin’. That’s why she’s always running around with those married guys. She says it’s because she can always send ‘em home whenever she feels like and she doesn’t have to be worried about any kind of commitment, but then in the next breath she’s cryin’ about how she can’t find someone to take care of her. Wanda’s confused, man, but I think she’s someone you might like.”

John looked at me for a long while without saying a word, his smile seeming to grow even wider until I wondered if it was about to stretch around to the back of his neck.

“What?” I asked.

“Oh I dunno. I guess I’m wondering why it is you’re feeling so charitable toward me, giving me your woman and all. What did I ever do to deserve this?”

“My…? What in the hell are you talking about, John? My woman? Man, Wanda’s damned near 20 years older than me, and ain’t no way she’d ever even let anyone think I was her man. I don’t know where you getting this idea about her and me..”

“Because it was all over your face the first day you showed up here. You remember what I said to you that day? You remember, right? I asked you if that was yours? Yeah, well I asked you that question because that’s the vibe you were putting out, whether you knew it or not. Listen, I may not be good at a lot of things, and I may have screwed up my life in a lot of ways, but after all these years I do know the few things that I am good at. And I’m damned good at reading people, especially women. I had to be good at that to be able to take care of my business. Out there if I couldn’t read a bitch then I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t pay my bills. Same thing with a trick. Say what you want about the pimp game, in the end all it is is just about knowing what people want, sometimes before they even know it’s what they want. Out there I knew a woman could make me some money – and that she wanted to make me that money – before she knew the thought was even rattling around inside that pretty little head of hers. Let me tell you, boy; I was damned good at what I did, and I ain’t a bit ashamed of what I did either.”

I believed him on both counts, and I knew I had been raised to feel repelled by what John was admitting to me about himself and the way he had led his life. But if I wasn’t repelled by Wanda, then how was I supposed to be passing judgment on John? John knew how to manipulate minds and twist women’s brains into knots that would make a pretzel look like a Kansas interstate. But I knew Wanda could do the same because she’d done it to me more than once, sometimes for amusement. She’d always feel sorry about it later, but I couldn’t forget the time when she admitted it was hard to keep from messing with me because “You’re just so damned easy.”

“You know Wanda used to do the same thing as you. She did it for quite awhile.”

John squinted his eyes and nodded real slow. The TV droned uselessly in the background.

“Now that I think about it, she did have that look about her. Yeah, I’m not surprised.”

“I thought you only got a glimpse of her.”

“Doesn’t take long, and the life leaves its mark. Believe me. So why you telling me all this about her past anyway?”

I shrugged.

“You know. Figured since you all had that in common it might make it easier to get something goin’. I dunno.”

John started laughing, which made me nervous.

“Boy, whenever you get you a day job you be sure and keep it, hear? Don’t never decide you got what it takes to be a matchmaker. So you were honestly thinking that because I used to be a pimp and Wanda used to be a ho, that the two of us would just naturally hit it off just like that? Start laughing and joking about the good times we had out there on the track? Comparing notes?”

“Look, man, I was just..”

“What she do to piss you off, brother man? I know she did something, and you might as well level with me ‘cause I’m gonna know if you ain’t. Keep in mind I ain’t hardly sayin’ I won’t fuck her, but I need to know the real deal about what’s goin’ on here before I get myself all tied up in this shit. So talk to me.”

More or less I told John the truth because there wasn’t any other way around it. I told him about the way Wanda and I met, about how we’d become friends, about how I’d wanted more than that but Wanda wasn’t having it because of the age difference and, I suspected, some other things as well.

“So that’s it? That’s the story?”

After taking a bit of a deep breath, I told John about the one night, then about how I later figured out that my big night of passion with the woman of my dreams wasn’t much more than Wanda letting me fill in as a human vibrator for sex toy therapy. After her married boyfriend Donald once again didn’t show up for duty as promised, I was suddenly placed on speed dial first call to scratch that itch down there in the bush. Nothin’ like a horny puppy to get the job done.


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