ids talked about the incident in the locker room for days. What amazed me was the fact that Rhoda did not get in trouble. Pee Wee had told me that even some of the teachers were afraid of her, but I didn’t know whether or not to believe him. But the more I thought about it, they must have been. Other kids got sent to the principal’s office left and right. Rhoda almost never did.
“Yeah, some of the teachers are scared of me,” Rhoda confirmed on our way to school a few days later. We were walking arm in arm like I saw a lot of best girlfriends do. Pee Wee was stumbling along behind us, mumbling something every now and then. It was like it was just Rhoda and me. We had a world of our own.
“Why?” I asked her. We had some pretty scary teachers at our school.
“Oh they think she crazy,” Pee Wee offered. “And, cause her daddy’s best best friend, Mr. Antonosanti—richest man in town—is a mean-lookin’ Italian with a scar on his jaw.”
Rhoda rolled her eyes at Pee Wee. “Everybody thinks I’m crazy.” She said it like it was something to be proud of.
“I don’t think you’re crazy. I just think that you’re different,” I said gently. “I wanted to be friends with you the first time I saw you because I’m different, too. I’ve never had a real girlfriend,” I admitted.
“Me neither. Not since we moved up here from Alabama.” Rhoda squeezed my arm and smiled. “French fries are on the menu today for lunch. You can have mine.”
“OK. And you can watch me eat them.”
“If anybody gives you any shit today, let me know. I’ll take care of them, or I’ll have my big brother beat them up real bad.”
“Anybody?” Life had taken on a whole new meaning. I never thought I would have my own personal bodyguard.
“Anybody. Jock can beat up every kid in our school. He might be a prizefighter one day, and he needs to practice beatin’ people,” Rhoda bragged.
“Well, since y’all too busy to pay any attention to me, I’m goin’ to the rec room and hang out,” Pee Wee informed us. We both ignored him, and he rushed off with a scowl on his face.
Once we were in front of the school, I asked Rhoda in a weak voice, “When you say anybody, you mean grown people, too?”
“Grown people?” Rhoda gasped. She gave me a hard look and glanced around before continuing. “We can’t sass grown people, let alone beat one up. I sassed a flight attendant on the plane from the Bahamas, and Aunt Lola whupped me with her shoe right in front of all those people on the plane.”
“OK,” I muttered. “But I bet your mean big brother Jock would, wouldn’t he?”
“Yeah, he would. He even sassed Reverend Upshaw last week. One time he beat up a thirty-year-old pimp for tryin’ to put one of his girlfriends on the street.”
I felt a sense of security for the first time since Mr. Boatwright had started abusing me.
“What would Jock do to somebody that was taking advantage of some girl? Like raping her and, you know, stuff like that.”
“I don’t know,” Rhoda said quietly. She gave me a suspicious look. “I guess it would depend on who the girl was. If it was one of his girlfriends or me, I am sure that Jock would kill the rapist.”
“What if it wasn’t one of his girlfriends or you?” I asked. It was hard for me to hide my excitement.
She looked at me for a long time before she responded. Teachers were looking at their watches and giving us mean looks, and I knew it was time for us to get to our first period class or face the wrath of our principal.
“Jock’s not stupid. Why would he kill a rapist for rapin’ some girl he didn’t care anythin’ about? Who is this girl? I thought you didn’t have any friends.”
“Oh nobody. I was just wondering.”
I left Rhoda standing in front of the school. Once I got inside, I peeped out the window, and she was just standing there with this puzzled look on her face. I expected to meet her in the cafeteria for lunch, but Wanda Jones told me Rhoda had left school during third period study hall to go home because she had cramps.
When I got home that evening, I had the house to myself for a few hours. Around seven Mama stumbled in the front door with Judge Lawson close behind. They greeted me, ordered me to get them beer from the kitchen, then they made themselves comfortable on the living-room couch.
“Where’s Mr. Boatwright? I’m sure he’ll want to join us,” Judge Lawson said, looking around the room. He turned his beer bottle up and drained it, then let out a long, loud belch.
“He wasn’t home when I got in,” I revealed. Just then I heard the back door open and slam shut and Mr. Boatwright’s voice yipping a spiritual.
“Well now!” he exclaimed, rolling into the living room with his arms raised like somebody had pulled a gun on him. “Judge Lawson, you lookin’ well!”
“Aahh, Boatwright. I can say the same about you.”
“Brother Boatwright, set down here with us. Annette, run get Brother Boatwright a beer,” Mama squealed.
By the time I returned from the kitchen with his beer, Mr. Boatwright had manipulated an invitation for himself to attend some of the judge’s poker parties.
“Oh, you welcome to attend anytime you’d like. But I must warn you, the stakes are pretty high,” the judge informed him.
“I can handle it, I can handle it.” Mr. Boatwright grinned.
“Brother Boatwright need more of a social life,” Mama said gently. “I feel so bad he spend so much time cooped up in the house keepin’ Annette in line when he ought to be out sowin’ his wild oats like other men.” Mama paused and sucked in her breath, then turned around to face me. “You a big girl now. You can’t continue to have Brother Boatwright all to yourself. Turn him aloose. I know you hopeless attached to him, done replaced your daddy with him, but he got to have some fun, too. You ought to be responsible enough to spend time by yourself and not burn the house down.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I can take of myself now,” I replied. I turned my head toward the wall so they wouldn’t see me smiling.
“How was your day, Brother Boatwright? You go anywhere special today?” Mama asked.
Mr. Boatwright nodded and took a drink from his beer before speaking. “Sister Goode, I picked up some Royal Crown hair grease from the store like you asked me to for when you straighten Annette’s hair.”
Judge Lawson looked amused. I hated when Black people talked about Black things white people didn’t know about. Once when Mama and I were shopping at Pluto’s five-and-dime, she asked a young clerk, “Where the straightenin’ combs at?” Puzzled, the clerk laughed, and asked,
The clerk was confused, amused, and red-faced by the time Mama finished explaining. “You people have to do all that to your hair?” the clerk questioned, looking at the knotty mess on my head. I wanted to crawl into a hole. We had to find a Black clerk to help us find the straightening combs.
Judge Lawson cleared his throat and shuffled around in his seat. “Mr. Boatwright, you might want to try a sip of this Chianti here,” he asked, removing a bag from inside his coat pocket.
“It’s real nice and potent,” Mama said. Mama was not a sophisticated woman. But she had worked for and “socialized” with enough sophisticated people to have some degree of class. She knew fine wine. From the look on his face, I knew that Mr. Boatwright didn’t have a clue as to what Chianti was.
“I read in
magazine that Chianti is Frank Sinatra’s favorite drink,” I offered.
Mr. Boatwright snapped around to look at me. “I like Chianti,” he mumbled, clearing his throat. I’d seen his Ripple, Thunderbird, and muscatel bottles in the trash, but never any Chianti bottles.
“Go get some glasses, young’n,” Mama ordered. Mama kept talking without looking at me. “They serve only the most expensive Chianti at Antonosanti’s restaurant and with him already rich and still chargin’ folks high prices for everythin’ in there.”
“Well that suspicious Dago wouldn’t have the money he got now or be walkin’ around a free man if it wasn’t for Judge Lawson here. He was lucky Judge Lawson was still on the bench all them times he had tax problems and liquor-license problems. Runnin’ wild with that flashy undertaker across the street. Unspeakable. How many times that undertaker wound up in your courtroom, Judge?” Mr. Boatwright croaked, winking at Judge Lawson.
“I’ve known Nelson for years, and he’s never been in trouble with the law as far as I know. His reputation is flawless,” Judge Lawson said with a thoughtful look on his face. I couldn’t imagine what he must have thought about Mr. Boatwright.
At times, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Mr. Boatwright. There were so many things about him I didn’t know, like his family background and how he had been raised. But it was obvious he had not had much of a life. I had not had much of a life yet either, and I resented rich people up to a point, but my bitterness was nothing compared to his. I assumed it was because of the difference in our ages. His jealousy and resentment toward rich people stunned me because the same people he trashed treated him with nothing but respect and kindness. Judge Lawson didn’t bat an eye when Mr. Boatwright drank three glasses of the Chianti. By the time all the alcohol was gone, Mr. Boatwright was so drunk Mama and the judge had to help him to bed.
I slept well that night and the next night. Mainly because the next night Mr. Boatwright attended the judge’s poker party and didn’t get home until way past midnight. When I got home from school the next day, he still had a hangover and was stretched out on the couch with an ice pack on his forehead. I didn’t like to admit it, but I was glad he felt so bad. I didn’t have to worry about him harassing me. I turned on the television and curled up on the floor.
“I can cook if you want me to,” I offered. “You don’t look too good.”
“There’s the rest of that neckbone casserole from Sunday in the kitchen you can heat up,” he moaned with a grimace on his face. I did feel a little sorry for him, but it was his own fault. A man his age had no business drinking so much.
Marilyn Monroe had been dead almost a year, and some of the television stations were still doing specials about her. One we had seen before was being run again. Mr. Boatwright gasped when they showed the scene from
The Seven Year Itch
when Marilyn’s dress flies up. I was lying on my stomach. I froze when I felt his toes rubbing my behind.
“I thought you were sick,” I snarled, whirling around to face him. I leaped up from the floor and started to back away.
sick. You know how Marilyn Monroe make my nature rise.” He stood up grinning, “Ooh wee, girl.” Before I could respond, somebody knocked on the front door. Mr. Boatwright crept over to the front window and cracked the curtain open just enough to see out. “It’s the undertaker! That uppity spook—Brother Nelson!” he hissed, running behind the couch. “Go tell him I’m sick and in the bed with a fever.”
My mouth dropped open, and I almost laughed, “I can’t fix my lips to say all that with a straight face. A smart man like Mr. Nelson would see through that lie with his eyes closed.” Mr. Nelson knocked some more. This time longer and harder.
“Well—just tell him I ain’t home.” Without another word, Mr. Boatwright dropped to the floor with a loud thud. Remembering the time Mama had hidden behind a couch from a bill collector in Florida, I checked to make sure his feet were not sticking out. I rushed across the floor and snatched open the door.
“Hi, Mr. Nelson.” I smiled nervously. He looked more handsome than ever. He had on a beige suit, a black tie, and a black hat.
“Hi, Annette,” he said, tipping his hat. He was not smiling. “Is Boatwright available?”
I was nervous and frightened, but I lied for Mr. Boatwright. “Um…nope.”
“Are you sure? I saw him on the front porch not too long ago.”
“He went to a prayer meeting, I think. He left out the back door, I think. He won’t be home ’til real late, I think. Do you want me to tell him something?” I had a hard time lying to certain people. Mr. Nelson was one of them.
“Well yes.” He hesitated. “Tell him I came to see him concernin’ a financial matter.” He started to back off the porch. I opened the door wider and leaned my head out onto the porch. It was getting cold, and the night air stung my face and ears.
“A financial matter?” I asked, puzzled.
“He’ll know.” Mr. Nelson smiled mysteriously, tipped his hat again, then left. I waited until I saw him go inside his house. I shut and locked the door and ran to the couch, where Mr. Boatwright was still crouched on the floor with his face covered in sweat.
“He gone?” he whispered, rising. He pulled out his pills and a handkerchief.
“Yeah. He said something about a financial matter,” I said levelly, helping him to the couch. Mr. Boatwright shook his head and sighed with exasperation, wiping his face so hard he looked like he was in pain. The Marilyn Monroe special was still on, so I didn’t sit too close to him. I sat on the chair facing the couch.
He took his time replying.
“In the first place, with all them simoleons he got stashed away in the bank, he got some nerve comin’ over here to pester me about a measly five hundred dollars this time of night,” Mr. Boatwright informed me. There was a look of total amazement on his face. “If I’d knowed Brother Nelson was such a shylock, I’d have borrowed from that Eye-talian buddy of his’n in the first place like his brother Johnny done.”
“You borrowed five hundred dollars from Mr. Nelson? What for?” I mouthed.
“For the poker game I got dragged into last night at the judge’s house.”
“Why would he lend that kind of money to you when he knows your only income is a monthly disability check?” I was thoroughly stunned.
“’Cause I thought I could borrow against my life insurance policy. Them dawgs down at the insurance company say there’s a thirty-day waitin’ period. Iffen they don’t have my money ready in exactly thirty days, I’m gwine to sue ’em.”
I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.
“Why don’t you tell Mr. Nelson that? Otherwise, you’re going to have to hide from him for thirty days,” I pointed out. Mr. Boatwright looked frightened. His eyes shifted from left to right like he was trying to come up with a plan.
“Scary Mary gwine to let me borrow it from her tomorrow after she go to the bank.” He sighed with uncertainty. “But I ain’t countin’ on that unpredictable heifer. She full of surprises. Told me she was savin’ up so she could buy her some reliable transportation. The broomstick she probably gwine to buy can’t cost that much.” He laughed, then suddenly gave me a thoughtful look.