Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do (10 page)

Lu looked at Aretha and frowned. “Clothes and makeup and stuff. CDs. He's her favorite uncle. She's even named after him.”

“I thought her name was ShaRonda.”

“It is. Her mama's name is Shaunice, and DooDoo is her mama's baby brother.”

“So how does that translate into ShaRonda?”

“Shaunice and
Ronald
. His real name is Ronald.” “So why did she call him DooDoo?”

We passed a huge garden plot with an old woman and an even older man bent over checking something in the soil. Aretha waved, and they waved back.

“Everybody calls him DooDoo. ShaRonda said it's because when he was little, somebody said, ‘That boy is always starting some …’ can I curse?”

“Go ahead.”

“Some shit,' and his grandmother said, ‘Don't be cussin’ in my house,' so the person who said it changed it to ‘doodoo,’ and it stuck.”

I wondered briefly what it was like to go through life with a name like DooDoo. I guess ShaRonda lucked out when you think about it. She could have ended up ShaDooDoo.

“I don't think he's a good guy,” Aretha said again. “You already said that. What do you want me to do about it?”

Aretha looked at Lu, then smiled away her concern. “Nothing, lil' bit. You just be a friend to ShaRonda, and I'll keep an eye on DooDoo.”

Lu giggled.

“What's so funny?”

“It sounds silly when
you
say it.”

“It sounds silly when
anybody
says it! How you gonna be a grown man and call yourself DooDoo?”

“You should marry him. Then you'd be
Mrs. DooDoo
.”

Aretha crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue, and Lu giggled helplessly.

“Mr. and Mrs. DooDoo!”

Now they were both giggling. I fell a few steps behind them to watch. There are moments that you want to remember exactly. Moments like this one. The three ofus, walking home on a warm, almost spring afternoon, giggling away the danger that is always nipping at our heels.

14

W
HEN
I
GOT HOME, SOMEONE
had slipped an envelope under my door. I opened it up and inside was a plain white card with black-and-white stripes around the border.

“Mr. Blue Hamilton and the usual suspects request the honor of your presence at their annual gathering. Come out. Drink up. Give back. Eight o'clock until. Club Zebra.”

On the back ofthe card, he had written:
“I look forward to seeing you on Saturday. No sake will be served. Blue.”

I held it in my hand for a minute, enjoying the weight and texture of the paper and wishing I was like one of those psychic creatures on TV who can hold something and instantly know the whole history and intentions of the person who touched it last. Failing that, I closed my eyes and tried to project myself into next Saturday so I could check myself out at the party.

There I was, all right, walking through my own imagination like it was a movie. Getting dressed in a beautiful blue dress that clung where it was supposed to, and fluttered where it was supposed to, and made me look really sexy. My hair was cut in one of those little feathery numbers that Halle Berry works better than anybody, and I was even wearing a new pair of shoes with pointed toes and amazingly high heels.

I don't even wear high heels much anymore, but in this vision, I was fearlessly working some pumps that looked like the ones on those
Sex and the City
girls. Now there I was going downstairs to meet Flora, who was wearing a peach-colored silk tunic and some black silk palazzo pants. I saw us riding over in the limo, sipping champagne like we did this every day. I saw us walk into Club Zebra and then— That's where it stops. I can't actually get my mind past the front door. I can't conjure up the moment when Blue Hamilton comes over to greet me in my beautiful dress and I look up into those amazing eyes and say—
See what I mean?

Good thing I have a week to prepare
, I thought, giving the invitation a place of honor on my refrigerator door, right next to the picture of me and my mom on the front porch of the house when I was about nine. She's got her arm around me, and I look really happy, just like Lu does in the picture she took with her dad. Every kid should have those moments. Those moments when you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that your mama adores you and your daddy thinks you hung the moon.

But that was a long time ago. The question on the table right now is, where am I going to find that dress by next Saturday night?

15

S
UNDAY MORNING IS ONE OF MY
favorite times of the week. I'm also fond of Wednesday night and every other Thursday afternoon, but that's just me. Aunt Abbie and I had our weekly catch-up call as she headed out to whatever church she was visiting that week. She never joined one, but every Sunday she let the Spirit guide her to a place where she'd feel welcome. This morning, she was torn between the Catholic congregation around the corner from the house and the Baptist church a few blocks away.

As we signed off, I secured a promise that she would offer up a prayer for me wherever she landed, and she laughed.

“Why do you think I keep worshipping with these Negroes every Sunday in the first place?”

I laughed, too, but knowing that I had at least one person actively lobbying for my immortal soul made me feel good as I walked over to the West End News and picked up the Atlanta paper, the
New York Times
, and the
Washington Post
, then came back home and put on a pot of coffee. I enjoy newspapers a lot more since I started exercising more control over what I allow them to put into my brain. It started a couple of years ago during all the news stories about a guy who was eating people.

You remember that cannibal guy? Well, one morning I found myself at the breakfast table, drinking coffee and reading the most horrific details about how he was killing, cooking, and eating random young men in his apartment. When I got to the part about how he dismembered some of them and froze his favorite parts for later, I closed the paper, poured out the coffee, and left the news alone for a couple of days until I could figure out an approach that didn't leave me full of scary information I don't need about unfortunate people I don't know.

I decided to apply a simple test. Before reading any story purporting to be news, I ask myself one question: Is this story a personal tragedy or a community challenge?

For example, as a responsible citizen of the world, I need always to remember that babies are being killed
right now
in whatever wars the men are fighting. I need to keep that awareness uppermost in my mind so I'll take personal responsibility and be an active voice for peace. On the other hand, a front-page story about what human body parts are favored by an isolated madman whose insanity manifests itself as cannibalism is not required, or even particularly helpful. My mother always said a steady diet of scary bad news was just a right-wing plot to make people afraid to trust one another, and I used to laugh, but I think maybe she was right.

I wasn't going to read the whole paper right now anyway. A quick glance at the Arts and Leisure section of the
Times
while I drank a cup of coffee, and it would be time to go downstairs to Flora's. I had heard the sound of Al Green coming from her place earlier, so I figured Aretha was right. Al Green singing gospel music is the perfect background for a catfish Sunday brunch.

I had gotten a good bottle of champagne from Mr. Jackson's liquor store up the street, and happenstance had sent me an offering I was sure Lu would appreciate even more than the sparkling apple juice I had for her. Late last night, going through a box of photographs, some labeled, some with notes on the back in Son's famously illegible scrawl, I came across a photograph of him with his arm around a guy whose open face and reddish cloud of hair looked familiar.

Son was in his shirtsleeves, and the other guy had on a T-shirt that said believe. They were standing in a group of boys around eight or nine and they had the believe shirts on, too. Son and the guy were both grinning at the camera in a way that made me know the person taking the photograph was an attractive woman. They weren't flirting. She just caught them in the act of being two fine black men and they were as happy about it as she was.

I flipped the picture over to see if there was identification on the back and Son had written:
“Hank Lumumba. Good guy. Smart! Congressional material. Keep in touch.”
And at the bottom:
“July 2001, Detroit.”

It was Lu's dad, and he had made a big impression on Son. I thought she might like to see it and tell her dad what Son had had to say, so I tucked it in a folder to be carried downstairs with me at the appointed hour. I remember the first time I saw an old FBI photograph of my father making an impassioned speech from the steps of Frederick Douglass Hall in the middle of the Howard campus.

The students were getting ready to occupy the administration building, demanding black studies, and my father was firing them up for the confrontation that lay ahead. I remember being shocked at how young he looked and amazed that the FBI thought he was enough of a threat to start a file of his activities that continued for decades afterward, although he was never arrested or charged with a single crime.

It's exciting to bump up on somebody you love walking around in history. It makes you proud. Maybe I'll give this picture to Lu. Maybe she'll show it to her children, and her children's children, and say, This man is the reason your grandfather decided to run for Congress in the first place. Maybe she will teach them to say Son's name. I think he would have liked that. I think he would have liked it a lot.

16

B
RUNCH AT
F
LORA'S WAS AN
extended perfect moment. The food was sublime, starting with the fried catfish, cheese grits, and hot, homemade biscuits, proceeding through a bowl of the sweetest strawberries I've had in ages and some freshly whipped cream that literally melted in your mouth. The conversation was nonstop and convivial, with background music provided by the Right Reverend Al Green, who made loving Jesus sound so seductively secular that I was afraid the Lord would smack me down for the lust in my heart while I listened.

Lu was delighted with the picture of her dad and Son. She showed it to Flora with such excitement that Flora had to shoo her out of the kitchen where a frying pan of very hot grease and a four-hundred-degree oven made uninhibited displays of emotion less than practical. Lu couldn't wait to tell her dad.

It was Hank Lumumba's habit to call his daughter on Sunday afternoon for a good long chat. He spent the mornings, Lu told me, at a different church every Sunday to update one congregation or another on his progress against the dealers that had terrorized them for so long. He knew that the long trial process was mysterious to most of the people for whom the outcome would mean the difference between hearing birds or automatic weapons from their front-porch swing. So he asked each pastor for a few minutes of his or her time to say: “It's going our way. Don't worry. Don't be afraid. It's almost over. They can't win if we stick together!” Then he'd hang around afterward to talk to the old people who were the most scared and thank the pastor and make a small contribution to the building fund. Maybe Son's prediction was a prophecy. He was still a prosecutor, but Hank was already keeping a politician's schedule.

It was almost one o'clock and we were nibbling at the last of the strawberries when Aretha casually asked Flora what she was wearing to the party next Saturday.

Flora groaned. “Don't start!”

Lu rolled her eyes. “She's threatening to wear her overalls!”

Aretha looked at Flora and wagged a disapproving finger. “There will be no overalls worn at this party. Just because Hank can't get here this year doesn't mean you're supposed to come looking like a bum!”

“She's exaggerating,” Flora said. “All I said was if I don't find something soon, I'm going to be
forced
to wear my overalls.”

Lu stood up and started clearing the dishes. “Ask her where she's been looking,” Lu whispered to Aretha, sotto voce, as she headed for the kitchen with a load of plates expertly balanced on her arm.

Flora frowned after her daughter. “That is beside the point!”

“Ask her!” Lu's voice floated in on a laugh from the kitchen where we could hear her loading the dishwasher.

“Where have you been looking?” Aretha's voice was sweet as honey.

“At the Goodwill,” Flora said, raising her chin defensively. “There is no reason to spend good money on a new dress I'll probably only wear once or twice.”

“I told you,” Lu said, coming back for some more dishes.

I wanted to tell Flora the outfit she had on in my imagination had looked good on her. Maybe she'd have more luck if she could narrow her search down to a peachcolored tunic and a pair of wide-legged pants.

Aretha turned to me like Flora wasn't sitting right next to her. “See, what we've got here is a woman who is well intentioned, but confused. She thinks she's being righteously frugal and a true woman of the people by picking through the few festive outfits the Goodwill has on hand, but, in fact, what she's doing is denying a woman who truly has no other resources the opportunity to take advantage of what would otherwise be available in her price range.”

Lu was standing in the kitchen door, wiping her hands on a dish towel and grinning. So easy and natural was their teasing that they might have been three siblings.

Aretha turned back toward Flora. “Leave the Goodwill alone, Flo, and come shopping with me tomorrow. Two hours in Little Five Points and I guarantee we'll find something as comfortable as your favorite overalls, and much more flattering.”

Flora looked hopeful but not convinced. “Two hours? And not a second more?”

“I promise.”

“Okay. It's a deal.”

Lu clapped her hands and gave her mother a quick kiss on the cheek. “Finally!”

Flora grinned at me and poured the last of the champagne into our glasses before we could decline. “With all my other fine qualities, you'd think these girls would forgive me a lack of serious interest in the world of high fashion.”

“How fancy is this party anyway?” I said, wondering if I should ask to be included in the two-hour shopping spree.

Aretha shrugged. “Pretty fancy, I guess. After-five stuff, although some of the ladies go formal. Mr. Hamilton and his guys always wear tuxes. The other men wear tuxes or dark suits and,” she smiled indulgently, “for the truly Afrocentric among us, a nicely embroidered ceremonial robe is always appropriate!”

“Remember that guy from Liberia who came last year?” Flora asked her. “He had those shoes that actually turned up at the end like a genie in a bottle.”

“Too bad he won't be there this year,” Lu said, grinning in Aretha's direction. “Maybe you could ask him to grant you three wishes.”

“I don't need anybody to grant me three wishes, lil' bit,” Aretha said, tossing her head so her long silver earrings danced and sparkled around her face. “I'm doing just fine, thank you!”

I wondered what she was wearing to the party. With her height and that lovely long neck, she could probably go as dramatic as she wanted to and not get lost in her look the way a smaller woman might. I'm only five three, so I have to be careful.

“Don't you want to make a wish about Kwame?” Lu was clearing up the last of the brunch feast without wasting this opportunity to tease Aretha.

“Who's Kwame?” I said.

“He's Precious Hargrove's son,” Flora explained, “and a friend of Aretha's, so I hear, which is why my daughter is signifyin' so hard!”

“Ree and Kwame, sittin' in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g!” Lu sang from the kitchen.

Flora grinned at Aretha, whose slight blush told me Lu wasn't far off the mark. “Any truth to these rumors?”

“We're
friends
, just like you said.”

“Uh-huh.”

“He's been away in graduate school for two years,” Aretha said, looking at me and ignoring Flora and Lu, who were now openly in cahoots. “He's coming back to start working on his mother's campaign.”

“Is that the only reason he's coming back?” Lu asked her mother. “What do you think, Mom?”

Before she could answer, Aretha cut in, cool as you please. “I guess you and ShaRonda found another place to watch the cable while we're at the party.”

Lu immediately retreated. “No way! You said we could stay at your apartment until Mom got home.”

The phone rang, and Lu checked the caller ID. Hank Lumumba was as good as his word.
Another perfect Sunday.

“I'll take it in my room!”

“Saved by the bell!” Aretha called after her, laughing.

Lu closed her door behind her, and the three of us sat there for a minute, savoring what we all knew was the beginning of our friendship.

“There's some coffee left if anybody wants some.”

“No thanks,” I said, knowing I was as full as I could get without being uncomfortable. “Everything was wonderful.”

“Thanks,” Flora said, her eyes checking Lu's closed door and turning to Aretha. “Now what did you want to tell me?”

Aretha lowered her voice, and I leaned in to hear her clearly. “That DooDoo fool was up at the school on Friday when we went to pick up Lu.”

“Who's we?” Flora's eyes went cold.

“Gina was with me. She saw him, too.”

I nodded, glad we were alerting Flora to potential danger around her child.

“What was he doing?”

“He came to pick up ShaRonda.”

“Lu's friend?”

“He's her uncle.” Aretha's voice hissed out the word.

“Where's her mama?”

“Back in rehab. She wants to get clean so she can have another baby.”

“She can't even take care of this one!”

“I know. That's why I figured we'd better pull ShaRonda in a little closer. He's already buying makeup for her.”

Flora set her cup down harder than she meant to and shot another quick glance at Lu's door to be sure her daughter was still on the phone. “Do you think he wants to put her on the street? His own niece?”

“On the street?” I said. “As a prostitute? She's eleven years old!”

“They got eight-year-olds working over on Stewart Avenue,” she said.

Aretha nodded in agreement. “ShaRonda's uncle works for King James Johnson. He's one of the worst of the pimps, and everybody knows it, but somehow he always gets off.”

My head was spinning. What kind of man pimps a tenyear-old girl? What kind of john pays for one?

“They're getting bolder and bolder,” Flora said. “Two more of the growers right over the line said some of his young hardheads have been trying to get them to plant reefer in the gardens.”

“Anybody on this side of the line?”

Flora raised her eyebrows. “They're bold as hell, but they aren't crazy.”

“What line?” I said.

“Mr. Hamilton doesn't cover any neighborhood outside of West End,” Aretha explained quickly. “He doesn't have enough men to do more.”

“The problem is, these growers are right on the border. They're technically not inside the area that Blue takes responsibility for, but these women have been with us since the very beginning, and they need to be protected. King James could grow weed anywhere. He doesn't need these old ladies to do it for him. He's just messin' with Blue, and Blue knows it.”

“Which means he'll handle it,” Aretha said. “In the meantime, let's keep an eye on ShaRonda in case she needs some help.”

“She already needs some help,” Flora said, reading my mind. I kept seeing the girl's slim, spandex-clad body leaning into the poisonous circle of her uncle DooDoo's embrace. “But let's change the subject before Lu comes back. I don't want her to start worrying about—”

Before her mother could complete the thought, Lu burst back into the room, grinning from ear to ear. “Daddy says call him back when your company's gone. He'll be home the rest of the day.”

“How's he doing?” Flora would have her Sunday slice of Hank later.

“He's fine.” Lu turned to me. “And he said thank you for sharing the picture and the note on the back. I read it to him. He wanted to know if maybe he could make a copy, if you don't mind.”

“It's yours,” I said, knowing it wasn't my place to be giving away the collection, but also knowing there couldn't be a better caretaker for this particular piece of Son's story.

Lu's eyes widened. “Thanks!”

“You're very welcome.”

“What else did he say?” Aretha prompted. “He said, next year, I'll be old enough to go to the party.”

“He's wrong,” Flora said calmly. “You have to be sixteen.”

I could imagine Lu in a couple more years. She'd be in full bloom. Ready for a perfect dress and a party where the men wore tuxedos and called her “Miss Lumumba” to give her a taste of the social rituals that used to define interaction between grown-ups, but seem hopelessly oldfashioned now.

“Daddy Blue said if you let me come next year, he'll sing for me.”

Daddy Blue.

“Then we should let you come this year,” Aretha said. “I'd be willing to put up with you for a few hours in exchange for seeing Mr. H on the stage again.”

“Have you ever seen him sing?” I said. It hadn't occurred to me, but she probably had. Flora almost certainly had.

Aretha nodded enthusiastically.
“Twice!”
she said, as if that placed her among the luckiest women on the planet. “He's absolutely amazing. One of the best ever. He's … he's …”

I looked at Flora, who was grinning at Aretha's efforts to capture in words Blue Hamilton's wonderfulness as a performer.

“Tell her, Flora!” Aretha threw up her hands in frustration. “You saw him in his prime.”

“What makes you think this isn't his prime?”

“Tell her!”

Flora looked at Lu. “Do you still have that picture he gave you?”

“The singing picture?”

“That's the one. Go get it for me, please.”

Lu dashed back to her room, and Flora laughed softly. “I've seen Blue perform a hundred times. He was still doing clubs when I met him, and Hank was his lawyer, so we went down to the Royal Peacock to see his show.”

The Royal Peacock was a legendary nightspot on Auburn Avenue, pre-integration Atlanta's main drag.

“I'm figuring, okay, this is my boyfriend's buddy. That's cool, but he's definitely going to be local talent. I've never even heard of him, right? But the place was packed and—what's that they always say about the air feeling charged?”

“The air was
electric
!” Aretha said, like the kid who knows her favorite bedtime story by heart. “Go on!”

Before she could obey, Lu came dashing back with a color photograph of Blue on the stage and handed it to me. Aretha leaned over to look. Blue was wearing a white dinner jacket and holding the microphone in one hand while he reached out to a woman in the front row with the other one. The area around the front of the stage was crowded with young women in cocktail dresses and elaborate upswept hairdos. Some of them were reaching toward the stage. Some of them had been caught in midshriek by the photographer. Some seemed to be swaying in a private ecstasy with their eyes closed, even while their hands were still reaching, reaching, reaching. …

Blue looked just the same. His hair was a little longer, but he had the same mustache drooping around the corners of his mouth, and, oh yes, there were those eyes. He looked sexy as hell, and, based on the photograph, he hadn't even broken a sweat.

“That's how it was that night,” Flora said. “That's how it always was. The minute he walked out there to sing, women would lose their minds. That first night I saw him, a girl actually
threw her panties on the stage
!”

Lu covered her ears. “Gross! You never told me that!” “I figure if you're almost old enough to go to the party, you're old enough to know about the drawers,” Flora said.

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