Brittany Selah Lee-Bey
“Brnnng brnnnng.” Wallace dragged himself to the coffee table across the room and leered at the phone. Unknown. He sighed through gritted teeth and contemplated ignoring it. He was in the middle of warming up a new frozen dinner-Trader Joe’s Masala Dosa- instead of his usual Swanson’s stuffing baked turkey. His only pleasure as of late was testing TV dinners. Besides, he was expecting a call. But to cast away forlornness, Wallace decided to indulge anyone pursuant of his attention. He picked up the phone.
The voice on the other end chirped. “Wallace! How’s it going? You gotta minute?”
Wallace felt his jaw tighten. “Um, well…” Who are you and how did you get my number?
“No more than three minutes. Five tops! By the way, this is John Moore.”
“Your neighbor down in 1007. We met at the tenant association picnic back in June.
“Hey John Moore,” Wallace responded flatly. “What’s going on?”
“Yeah man, sorry to disturb you. I promise I won’t hold you much longer. I’m trying to reach my lady, but her phone is off. She’s in my unit now; could you stop by and tell her I’ll be there at 7? I have Lakers tickets and I don’t wanna leave too late. Traffic’s already gonna be a mess” John rambled. Details he could forgo, Wallace thought. Nonetheless, Wallace continued to listen intently/
“She takes forever to get ready. And I’m getting an Uber to avoid parking, so she’s gotta be on time. I tried calling her cell, but it’s going straight to voicemail. Probably dead-like always.”
He chuckled to himself at that last line. Did he mean the phone or the girlfriend? “Yeah, my fiance is the same way.”
“Fiance?” John queried. “Oh, I didn’t know you were engaged. Congrats! Do you live together?”
“Yes. Why?” Wallace turned suspicious all over again.
“I didn’t see her name with yours on the tenant registry.”
“That’s weird.” Wallace looked at the clock.
“It really is. I see her on here. Yup, she has the same phone number and address as you. Wonder why no one ever noticed that? Hmmm, no matter. Shavon can fix it tomorrow afternoon so you won’t get two Christmas cards or two monthly newsletters in the mail. Still, funny no one caught this. I’ll have to tell Shavon to check to see if others should be listed together in the directory.”
He’s rambling again. Get to the point. Wallace checked the clock again and plotted his escape from the conversation. What was it he wanted? Whatever it is, I’d say yes if it got this guy off my phone. He wanted his phone and his mind open in case Celia called.
“And I think Shavon is nice and all but she has terrible administrative assistant skills.” Another pause, then John lowered his voice. “I think she was hired for some other skills…where she excels. Ahead of the rest. Emphasis on the head.” Wallace rolled his eyes.
“Well, I really should be going. But I’ll tell your girlfriend–” Wallace paused.
“Rose.” John offered
Wallace felt a drop in his chest. That’s Ceilia’s middle name.
“Wallace? You there?”
“Yes, Rose, 7pm, be ready” he mumbled. “I gotta go, sorry” and quickly hung up.
Hearing the name Rose left Wallace with sweaty palms and scattered thoughts. He had been waiting to hear from Celia for months. She left after their last big fight; he couldn’t remember what it was about.
Wallace turned back to his dinner and thought about the favor. Why did I promise to deliver that stupid message to Miss 1007? That’d require him to leave his abode turned cave during his three-month hibernation. Instead of food, he amassed a mountain of bills, coupons, and unread New Yorkers that sat at his door. Wallace tried to picture himself walking to John’s unit, but only saw himself holding his chest as he staggered down a spinning hallway. The thought alone caused his face to flush. This was not a matter of choice; leaving his home was unthinkable.
Wallace tried to finish dinner and resolve the fact that the message would not be delivered. But fear of what lay beyond his walls was only superseded by fears of total isolation. For the first month without Celia, Wallace couldn’t sleep in their bed. It was the loneliest place in his home. He had plenty of people he could call on, even in the building; on their floor no less. But Celia’s abandonment made him distrust everyone and he stopped returning people’s phone calls.
I can’t keep doing this shit. I have to try. He walked over to the door and leaned his head against it.
Wallace peered through the peephole and its fish eye lens. The convex glass made the corridor appear bigger. Across the hallway, his neighbor’s door jutted out at him, while the rest of the off-white corridor curved softly and faded into the periphery. Despite his apprehension, he pushed himself to open the door. A late rent notice, several electric bills with a notice to terminate service, and bills for two maxed out credit cards cascaded to the floor. Wallace swept the bills into his unit with his foot before he tiptoed into the hallway. “One small step for mankind.” he chuckled to himself. He took another and scanned the hallway once more. He shuddered as he noticed that the corridor stretched much longer from outside his condo. He lived in unit number 1001, while Rose was three doors down.
That’s two too many. Wallace ran back into his unit, slammed the door, and doubled over to catch his breath. He then sat at his table, defeated. “Abort mission” he whispered, as he headed back to his Masala Dosa. He mixed the coconut chutney with a spoon before dunking the dosa in it and taking a bite. Damn, I don’t wanna disappoint John, but…He wiped his mouth with a nearby napkin and thought for a moment. Wait! Wallace suddenly considered asking another neighbor to deliver John’s message. Skimming through his phone, he vigorously searchd for his neighbor’s name. With a slight smile, Wallace beamed and started to call.
“Brnnng,” the phone cried. Emmanuel barely glanced at it, flipped it face down, and then proceeded to add another loop to a track he’d been working on for the past two weeks. He was on a deadline to finish making beats for The Diamond Distict’s next mixtape. As he slurped his last sip of Cherry Cola and bit into a cold slice of cheese pizza, Emmanuel fell back and swiveled in his chair. “Masterpiece complete.” he relished to himself. Emmanuel, aka DJ Christos had a reputation for making the dopest beats and spinning at the best parties all over the world. At 35, DJ Christos was living how a king should- with unlimited access to fame and women, and a shit load of money. Somebody once told him that more money meant more problems, but to Christos, it meant more pussy, and pussy was never a problem. The eternal bachelor, or just a king sowing his royal oats? “No matter,” Emmanuel often thought. “I’m the King of Zamunda, I do whatever the fuck I want.” His iPhone camera roll proved it. On a Tuesday, a Wednesday, and a Thursday. People often said Christos kept both the hottest records and women in rotation.
With the final touches complete, Emmanuel sat back to admire his work. He turned his speaker volume to full blast, much to the chagrin of his neighbor Wallace. He shivered at the thought of his pallidness and spiny limbs; his mated, jet-black hair, and his sunken eyes. In the years they’d lived as neighbors, Emmanuel watched Wallace damn near wither away. The man was broken in Emmanuel’s eyes, and it would be a long time until he was fixed up and whole again. So when he considered disturbing Wallace’s peaceful Sunday evening to hear his newly produced beat thump through his domicile, he thought against it and grabbed a pair of sound-cancelling headphones instead. “That dude’s been through enough.”
As he reached to plug in his Bose headphones, Emmanuel felt his table buzz before hearing the obnoxious ring of his phone. Obnoxious because he wanted to listen to his new beat. And because he assumed it was Rena calling again to see if they would get together tonight. “Damn, bitches be pressed.” he muttered to himself, as he silenced the ring. “Don’t she know the rules? Hit me up, I’ll hit you back. No need to blow my phone up.” He then smirked to himself, remembering their last rendezvous. He thought about how she begged for him, stroking an ego already too inflated. “But, can I blame her? She can’t get enough. I gotta stop mesmerising these women with my…”
Knock knock. Wallace froze, and then grabbed his gun. He didn’t know who could possibly be at his door, given that he kept his residence hidden away from most. No one ever arrived unannounced, so whoever it was couldn’t be good. Emmanuel put one eye to the peephole and boomed “who the hell is at my door?” No one answered, but he relaxed when he saw that it was Wallace. Emmanuel went back to his desk, hid his piece, and grabbed his phone. Two missed calls from Wallace. “Damn, wasn’t expecting that.” He opened the door to the remnants of what looked like his neighbor. Overstretched arms to a dingy blue sweatshirt folded across his chest, almost hugging him like a child clings to their favorite fuzzy.
Emmanuel scanned the spectre of Wallace that stood before him. A pale face hung low, and he looked up at Emmanuel with two beady pupils surrounded by blue-black rings. The hunched over figure dropped the noodle-loose sweatshirt arms, only to lift one and reach to shake Emmanuel’s hand. “Hey E. Long time.”
Emmanuel grimaced slightly in disgust. How could a man just let himself go like that? Wallace was a pretty good psychologist. How could he be this cookoo? He shoulda been gettin all da pussy, Emmanuel almost mumbled to himself as he dapped up Wallace’s open palm. Wallace returned the gesture with a one-sided smile.
“Hey. How’s it goin? Sorry I missed your call, just laid a new track. It’s fire.” Emmanuel paused. This would be the point in which he would invite Wallace in to listen. Wallace would slowly nod yes or no after hearing the whole song. Never before. But the state Wallace was in told Emmanuel he’d better forgo that this time around.
Wallace held his breath and tensed up for a minute. He looked deeply at Emmanuel, almost as if to read his next thought. He slowly released his breath and began to speak.
“That’s no surprise. You’ve always been an electro-pioneer; a virtuoso in your own right. Yet in still, you could have been a world-class pianist. Or saxophonists. I remember you used to play crazy jazz sets at the Blue Alley. But you seem…” he paused. “Are you good?”
Emmanuel shifted his weight and cocked his head to the side. “Am I good? I’m lovely. Lappin’ in ladies, like I’m LL himself. I’m Drake, no regrets. I’m…”
“You’re still corny as hell- sound like an old school rapper who thinks he’s in his prime.”
“And you still seem like you need some head. Or a blunt.”
“Fool, people mistake you for 45 all the time. And you’re younger than me.”
“I’ve lived life my friend.”
“And I’m living in the present, not the past.”
Are you? Seems like you’re stuck on stupid for a woman from your past who has cleraly moved on. Emannuel thought to himself. But he could see that Wallace’s hurt buried him, let it build up a ring of dirt around his collar and the edge of his sleeves. It sat in the limpness of his skeletal frame, and the tension in his muscles as he forced his face to hold a smile. “Good to see you man.” Emmanuel conceded. The only thing my father ever told me in life was not to beat a man when he’s down, particularly when he’s trapped in love.
“You too E. I know I haven’t been around as of late.”
“Yeah.” Emannuel hesitated again. He didn’t know if he was ready to have that conversation. “But for real, you good?”
“I’m alright. Trying to move on; that’s all I can do. But other than that, I’m well.”
Emmanuel glanced at the pile of notices at Wallace’s door. Wallace followed his neighbor’s gaze, then looked down and began tugging at the strings on the bottom ring of his sweatshirt. Emmanuel noticed Wallace’s shiftiness and quickly looked up at Wallace. “Oh yes, a little behind. But it looks worse than it is. Everything’s good.”
“Whateva’s cleva.” Emmanuel retorted.
“Anyway, can you do me a favor? John Moore, from the tenant’s association called and asked me to deliver a message to Rose in Unit 1007. He tried to call but her phone is off.”
“You mean three doors down?”
Wallace glanced at his feet, adjusting his stance. “Yeah.”
Now it was Emannuel that deeply rode his neighbor. “Why can’t you?” he started to say, but he felt his loneliness reach out to him. “Okay.” was his only word.
“Thanks E. So John will be there at 7:30 to pick her up.”
“Got it. Anything else?” Emmanuel looked at his watch. He was expecting a phone call of his own.
“No, I’ll let you get back to…frockling.”
“Sowing my royal oats.”
“Hmmm…perhaps it’s a deep yearning for emotional connection without having to fully commit. A fear of rejection, this swaggering bachelor act is a shell protecting you from vulnerability, the key to deep friendship. A precursor to-”
“Here you go. I guess your faculties are more intact than your appearance.” Emmanuel retorted.
What he really wanted to say: “You’re one to talk, all that psycho mumbo-jumbo BS. Lookin’ like you been underground for 30 days.” Instead, Emmanuel held his hand out to shake Wallace’s. Wallace smiled and dapped him up. They each waved awkwardly, and Emmaunel closed the door.
Emmanuel latched the chain lock and leaned against the door. He sighed. That was heavy. Wallace looked…he looked like shit. Emmanuel didn’t like to see people like that. Reminded him of his mom. When she would leave him and his father for weeks at a time. She’d come home, all disheveled, smelling of all the foulness of the street life she promised she’d left behind. She’d hug and kiss her “two favorite boys” and fuss over them- “Do you want your favorite meal? I can make it for you.” She looked like shit. Just like Wallace. It was all too much. Emmanuel walked to his phone and checked it. One missed call from Rena. Right on time, he grinned. He texted her back. Wyd. His phone buzzed twenty seconds later. Omw to you.
Emmanuel walked to his bathroom and jumped in the shower. He let the steam rise and overtake his mind, adding to the fogginess of his encounter with Wallace and the memories they evoked. He let the hard, hot drops slam down on his body, sliding down and carrying all the pain of the brief encounter. He cupped his hands to collect a pool of water and splashed it on his face. Leaving his hands on his face, he heaved heavy sighs of exasperation, grieving for a childhood he never had and a friend he’d nearly lost. It was all too much. And the image of Wallace stuck with him. Wallace had looked like shit.
Emmanuel turned off the water and grabbed a towel. He stepped out of the shower when he heard the gentle succession of knocks at his door. He wrapped the towel around his waist and slowly walked to the door. The knocking continued without a break. “Good, she’s eager.” For a moment, he considered calling his mom to check on her- it had been two years since they’d spoken- but decided against it after looking through the peephole. “Yep, she ready.” He slowly opened the door.
“Hey zdaddy.” Rena whispered, reaching out for his towel. He swatted her away and moved out of the doorway to let her in. He ushered her to the bedroom where she let him in. And go in he did, leaving Wallace and his mama on the mantle of his mind. Panting together like molecules combining to create chemical compounds, moving bodies like snakes climbing up and down sacred mounds, he made love like she was a wife he loved, not a Tuesday night jumpoff. She sighed after they both came. Emmanuel threw her a towel and left her in the bedroom, only half satisfied by the whole encounter. In his studio, he picked up his phone to call his mom, but suddenly remembered the favor he had promised. 6:45 the phone glowed. Emmanuel contemplated getting dressed and walking down to 1007, but he did not want to go back to the room where Rena slept. Instead, Emmanuel scrolled up from Wallace’s name and proceeded to call someone to do the task for him.
“Purrrr….” rolled up from KitKat’s gravely throat- a dinner bell, signaling Jada to stop working. On cue, she dropped her pen and turned to her favorite furry friend. She looked over, knowing KitKat’s primal urge for hunting had subsided generations ago- KitKat was a true housecat and Jada at her beck and call; she was like Benson. Maybe Jeffery, with much less attitude. KitKat held enough attitude for them both. Jada nuzzled her master, trying to gain favor. The worst feeling is when even KitKat rejects her, so she obliged KitKat’s demands and
bounced into the kitchen to prepare dinner.
“You know,” Jada started, “I’m the owner of this home.” KitKat stared blankly and stretched its back to yawn. Jada continued. “And don’t do one of your cat-eye rolls. Jada had finally chosen KitKat’s dinner- the Honest Kitchen’s grain-free chicken. A less processed alternative to canned food. She could hear E complaining as she poured the food into a kelly green raised bowl with “KitKat ” engraved on one side, and “Kitty Katherine ” on the other. “You feed that damned cat better than you do yourself” he would grumble “…or me,” under his breath. E hated the premium cat food, the personalized food bowl, and the hundreds of dollars spent on cat furniture. He would never admit that he hated the cat but didn’t try to hide his distaste for it. She set KitKat’s food in her favorite corner of the kitchen- behind the door, a nook KitKat claimed the first day they moved in.
“So, I submitted my application for the writer’s residency- the one in Wyoming. Two weeks on a cattle ranch, focused on writing sounds just like what I need.” KitKat barely offered a purr as she picked at her food. Another part of their dinnertime ritual. I buy top-of-the-line cat food, and her spoiled ass acts like she hates it for the first three minutes of dinner. “I’ll be gone, and you’ll stay with your auntie.” KitKat continued to sniff her food, and Jada rolled her eyes on cue. “Anyway, I think this will be good for me.”
Jada warmed up food for herself- curried chicken, cabbage, and plantain from Sunday dinner at her mom’s. She grabbed a small pot to make some rice. As she waited for it to boil, she turned to the wall calendar on her fridge, a series entitled “12 Types of Cats” by Lingvistor. March featured a chunky white cat laying down holding a partially-eaten sausage, eyes closed and mouth agape, as if he’d fallen asleep after strenuously taking and digesting one single bite. “Useless douche” the caption read. Jada looked back at KitKat, who had finally given her approval by eating the food. She shook her head and went back to her food preparation.
As Jada walked to the pantry for a bag of rice, her phone lit up and Rhianna’s “You Needed Me” cried out. Jada’s breath stopped; it was E. Her heart echoed in her ears, drowning out the millions of voices telling her what to do. KitKat stopped eating to gawk at Jada. “Yeah, you’re right KitKat. Just pick up the phone.” And yet, Jada was stuck.
And as suddenly as the ringing began, it stopped.
Jada exhaled. What now? Do I call him back? Ignore the call? Before she could decide the phone pinged with a voice message. She walked slowly to the countertop and checked her phone.
Visual voicemail had tried to mimic the caller’s words but the message was choppy. She stared at it, sitting atop of a list of unplayed recordings. She paused and scrolled down the list. All from the same person. Of course, the messages were from three months ago- exactly 94 days to be exact. Ninety-four days of silence, solitude that slowly caused her sleep deprivation and \ dinnerless nights. She skimmed through the lists of messages from the last three months. He’d called every other week and left messages begging to talk to her. But as of two weeks ago, no more calls. She thought it was a reprieve, and she was happy he’d moved on. She thought she too had moved on, but this call shook her, and she didn’t know why. Now she longed for the silence of the past 94 days.
But the visual mail was safe, a compromise. She could read his messages without hearing his voice. Jada wondered why E never texted but even that would be him taking up space on her phone, in her life. “Damn, why can’t he just leave me alone.” Jada muttered. She tried to decipher the jumbled message.
Jada. Baby girl, been along time miss. You I no we left on not best terms. Can we.
Anyways can you do me a favor or really Wallace. Talk to you. Miss you.
Water started boiling, its gurgle startled Jada. She quickly emptied the rice into the water, stirred, and left the pot half-covered as she walked back to her desk. Jada read the message again. This time, she fixed her eyes on Wallace’s name. A favor for Wallace? What could he possibly need from her? It’d been almost three months since they’d last spoken. Jada always said that the sanctity of their union had been an after-thought for Celia. She saw the selfishness in Celia and it disgusted her. It was the same selfishness she saw in E. The very reason she tried to avoid him, avoid hearing his voice and feeling his fingertips on the nape of her neck. Jada sighed.
She started to call Wallace herself, but stopped knowing he’d never pick up. Still, she couldn’t bear the idea of leaving Wallace in need. She, better than anyone else, understood why he was reclusive. She imagined he felt like he could trust no one and feared emotional vulnerability. At that moment she decided she’d help Wallace. She felt called to aid her neighbor in need and thought helping Wallace could be cathartic.
Holding her breath, she dialed E’s number and prepared to press call but stopped herself. “What should I do KitKat?” But KitKat lay balled up in her favorite corner, unbothered by the trivialities of human life. “Life’s so simple for you KitKat. No scorned love, no heartache. Just food, water, and shelter. Jada pressed ‘call’ before she had a chance to change her mind. “Oh shit, it’s ringing” she whispered. Two rings later, Jada almost hung up. By the fifth ring, she was sure the call would go to voicemail. At least I tried.
Prepared to drop the whole thing, Jada let the phone ring one more time before a thick voice on the other line startled her. It was out of breath, gasping for air, and it barely breathed out a hello. Jada remained silent.
“Jada? You there?” the voice panted. She squeaked out a yes. “Oh wow, I’m glad to hear your voice.” The voice on the other end of the line had settled a bit, its breathing slowing down, from which a clear rhythm emerged. The next seconds were filled with silence, aside from E’s breathing finding equilibrium. E broke the silence. “How’ve you been? What have you been up to? Written anything interesting lately? Did you ever go on that writer’s retreat you had been thinking about? Where was it supposed to be again?” Jada didn’t know which one to respond to first, so she answered them all. “I’m good E, been writing, finally published those pieces from last year, and I’ve applied to go to a retreat in June. It’s in Wyoming.”
“Wow Jada, that’s awesome. I’m glad to see you’re doing your writing and what not. You’ve always been creative, which inspires me to keep working on my craft.”
What’s with the small chit chat. This fool is shooting the breeze with me like we haven’t been apart for the last three months, like he didn’t break my heart, like I didn’t walk in on him fucking some groupie ass bitch, like I didn’t find all the naked pictures both to and from him on his iPad. But Jada said nothing more. Just waited for the voice to continue.
“You there?” he asked, trepidation dripping from his words.
Yeah, I am, like always. Should I be though? Do you deserve that from me? “Yup.”
“Well…I called because…I…ummmm.” Emmanuel now stumbled over his words, unaware of just how ridiculous he sounded. Spit it out fool. “I just needed to hear your voice. That’s all.”
Jada was stuck. Her brain couldn’t process what to think, much less say next. He always tried to open a lifeline to her. She struggled to hold her ground.
“Well, I hope you’ve got your fix.” Jada finally mustered. “To be honest, I’m tired of you reaching out like this. I’ve read your messages.” That caught his attention.
“Read my messages? Jada, I left you voicemail after voicemail; what messages did you read from me?”
“Look, I don’t want to get into this. You called to hear my voice, mission fucking accomplished. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a lot of work to do.”
Any sense of hope quickly deflated from E’s voice. “Okay. I understand. I guess there is another reason I called. But…Jada?”
Why the fuck he is prolonging this? This is painful enough as it is. “What?”
“I…I just have to say…I was an asshole. I know I’ve betrayed you, and I can never take that back. So I would never ask you to take me back. But…can you forgive me?”
Jada had had enough. “Forgive you? I can’t even stand to look at you, and you live down the hall. And now I’m here listening to you plead for forgiveness. You are insane. Fucking insane. You betta get the hell off my phone right now, playing all these games. You wanna hear a voice? Call that bitch you was fuckin’ and listen to what her ass has to say.”
“I deserve all of that. You’ve let me off easy, so I can’t really say much in response other than I still love you. I always will. I… “
“Don’t you dare. You shut the fuck up. You know nothing of love. I mean, literally nothing.” Jada whispered “now, do you have anything else you need to tell me before I hang up this phone?”
“Okay Jada. I get it. I hope that one day I can…I don’t know, just not have things how they are. Between our shit, and Wallace’s, I just feel like everything’s falling apart.”
Jada’s defensiveness suddenly crumbled “Wallace? You’ve talked to him?” Softness was at the core of her voice, surrounded by stone she had erected against E.
“I have. He stopped by today. He asked me to do him a favor, but…I’m kind of occupied right now.”
Same shit, different toilet. “You are disgusting.”
He was silent. She knew he was mulling over what to say next, how to ask. Jada sighed. “What’s the favor?”
“Some guy on the condo board is trying to reach a person in our building.”
“What does that have to do with Wallace?”
“I really don’t know. To be honest, it doesn’t make much sense to me. But he reached out to Jada. He hasn’t done that in months.”
“So Wallace is supposed to go knock on this woman’s door to let her know that the guy can’t take her on a date or something.”
“No, that was it. I’m sorry. But, yeah, the woman’s phone is off, so this guy can’t reach her.”
“Who the hell is this person anyway?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t ask?”
“Hey, I don’t know- don’t shoot the messenger” he whined.
Jada sighed again “Where does she live?”
“Two doors down from Ms. Tate.”
“What the hell E? That’s closer to you than me!”
“Damn Jada. I told you I was…occupied.”
“I told you you’re a creep.”
“Actually, you said I was disgusting. Look, can you do this for me…I mean, for Wallace?”
He had it right the first time, Jada thought. “You know what? I’ll do it. Not for you though. For Wallace.”
“Really?” She senses his exuberance, a sunbeam jutting through the phone. “Thanks Jada, I really app-”
“No.” She cut him off from throwing the weight of his gratitude at her. “You don’t get to thank me since I’m not doing shit for you. Tell Wallace to call me some time. And you, don’t call me at all. Any more.
“I said no. I’m hanging up now.”
“It was good to hear your voice.”
Savor it, she wanted to reply. But she said nothing. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. She simply hung up, leaving him alone with his thoughts and the echo of her voice.
Jada put her sneakers on and walked towards the door, ready to go to the mystery man’s unit when her cellphone rang again. She didn’t even bother looking at it, assuming E thought they randomly disconnected. “I thought I told you to leave me alone!”
“What? Jada, it’s Sam.”
Her literary agent. “Oh my god, I’m so embarrassed. I apologize, I thought you were…”
Sam stopped her. “It’s fine I just needed to share some great news with you. Is it a bad time?”
It’s a perfect time; I could use some good news. “No, it’s fine. What’s going on?”
“Your book was accepted by a publisher. They want to talk about printing early next year.”
Jada went back to her desk and sat down. “Wow! This is wonderful news Sam!”
“So let’s talk about some logistics. Are you sure you’re not busy?”
“No. I’m available. Let’s talk.”
Shit, I’m supposed to go down by Ms. Tate’s, but I really need to take this call. She looked at her watch. 6:55. She wasn’t sure how long she’d be, but she really wanted to help Wallace. So she opened her messages to text for backup.
Ping ping. Marty paused his video game and reached for his phone. Hey Marty, can you do me a favor? Marty put the phone down, unpaused his game, and continued to hunt down zombies in the ancient Roman coliseum, where his player Scarlett and her crew were recently whisked away. Pulling out the Scepter of Ra, Marty/Scarlet was preparing to blast away at a slave-turned-zombie when his phone buzzed again; a series of pings followed. He paused the game once more.
Marty, put the game down for a sec and hit me back. Marty sighed and looked up
at the screen, then back down at his phone.
Shaking his head, he responded. Whassup? Im bout to call.
Can’t talk, on phone with agent.
Thas whassup. Good news?
Yeah, someone wants to publish my work.
Oh wow, thas cool. Congrats
Did you tell E?
Is that a no?
Why would I tell him?
*EYE ROLL EMOJI*
LOL. I guess you didn’t.
The texts stopped. Marty knew he struck a nerve and she was stewing in anger. But he just had to make sure she didn’t go back. Marty saw first hand how E’s cheating hurt Jada, and he was happy she was moving on. She deserved better. He wanted to support Jada the way she had when he was having trouble with his dad. Seven years ago, when Marty was a senior in high school. She would take him out to watch a movie or grab some food. Anything to get away from his father hurling insults, bottles, and whatever else he got his hands on to hurt the people he claimed to love so much. Each throw, each jab, which cut the steel case he learned to form around his heart, was followed by the soft, pillowy talk, asking for his forgiveness, begging Jesus to be healed of this sickness, letting them know that he’s not in control of himself and that it’s not his fault, that he would go to therapy and become a changed man (which he never did), and that he would never hurt them again (which he always did). Some nights, Marty woke up screaming, drenched in sweat, reliving the violence his father inflicted on him and his mom. It was worse than anything a zombie or any weapon from Call of Duty. Some nights, he couldn’t sleep at all.
His father’s glassy eyes glared at him too hard, making Marty’s heart speed up when his father shifted in any way- a cough, a tap of his fingers, rubbing hands on his jeans. Marty knew the next movement could be a lunge- on good days, a lunge towards Marty, but too often, a lunge towards his mother. It took his mom some time before she realized she had to pick Marty and herself over anything or anyone else. After three years, she threatened to call the police and sent her husband packing, secretly worrying where he would go but afraid he’d try his hand at repentance, thrashing at himself to make them forget his thrashing against their own backs. It was that day that Marty learned a woman’s strength- the ability to leave what she loves to protect what she loves more. And he decided his mother had fought enough in her lifetime and did what he could to ensure she never did again. And over time, his superman syndrome grew to other women he loved and respected. That included his beloved big sister Jada.
Sorry I asked. For real. He texted me the other day, that’s why i asked.
It’s cool…told u, on the phone. What’d he want?
idk and u KNO idc.
(eye rolling emoji)
You should talk to him.
Ion fuck wit assholes.
*sigh* right…you needa get out…
Your right. Lets go!
LOL u tried it. Im busy. Besides, male energy or whatever
But maybe…u have something to teach him. Like u could influence him somehow.
That was an interesting thought. Not far fetched given E’s backward notions about women. Marty saw them parading to E’s door. None of them are Jada. Maybe Jada was right, Marty contemplated. I’d have plenty to teach. For one, you don’t let the good ones get away.
I’ll take it- that’s better than no.
Anyway, what’s the favor?
E called and said Wallace needed to deliver a message to the woman in Unit 1007.
Oh yeah? Wallace got a bae on the low?
(laughter emoji) That’d be something. No, some guy named John Moore says he can’t make their date.
LMAO! Woooow…thats kinda fucked up.
Tell me about it…kinda feel bad for her.
Yeah. So…you’ll tell her for me?
Hey, can I ask you for a favor in return?
Marty put down the phone and resumed his position as Scarlett. He thrusted his Scepter of Ra into the dry and compact dirt, sending out an explosive shock and killing three ancient Roman slaves. Wish I could send this wave to E and shock his philandering ass. He paused the game again and reached for his phone.
Yeah, yeah, i’ll do your favor. Whatchu need lil brotha?
Could you read something I wrote? I’m applying to UMD. Can you read my college essay?
Of course! I didn’t know you were looking at schools…I’ll help with whatever you need
Great! I’ll share it with you after this game.
proud of you for applying
Thanks Jada. Proud of you too
Marty put the phone down and resumed his game. He thought about the conversation and smiled to himself. Family, support, love. Those are the most important parts of life. He played for another five minutes before getting up to deliver the message.
Marty stepped into the hallway. Plush burgundy carpet spanned the long corridor- walking through it always felt like swimming in a glass of merlot. Soft eggshell walls lined with pictures kept him from drifting out to sea. The hallway felt worn- the carpet was saturated with grief, the walls scuffed and scratched. He closed the front door and walked down to 1007.
“Hi Miss Tate.” Virginia Tate jumped, ready to cuss someone out, but held herself back when she looked up and saw Marty.
“Boy, don’t be walkin’ up on me unannounced. Bout near gave me a heart attack.” She repositioned a grocery bag she held with one arm while pulling her keys out of her pocketbook with the other.
Marty laughed and scooped the bag out from under her arm. “My bad, Miss Tate. How you doin’? Can I carry this to your unit?”
Virginia Tate smiled and patted Marty on his cheek. “Thank you Marty. You come just in time.”
“Like an angel, huh?”
“Like Gabriel himself.” Virginia laughed at their secret joke they’d held since Marty was a preteen. Five years ago, she swore she saw her deceased mother with large wings, sitting at her sewing machine, trying to thread it. When the ghost looked up and winked, she screamed. Marty heard her and rushed to see the source of commotion. He was at her house preparing to haul some old books to Goodwill for community service. “Do you see that old woman sittin’ at my sewing machine?” “No. Miss Tate, are you okay?” Miss Tate never answered. She went into her room and lay down for the rest of the day. Marty made her tea and hot soup and stayed until Miss Tate fell asleep for the night. From that day forward, she debated Marty about whether angels existed, always reminding him he had indeed been in the room with an angel. “You’re right Miss Tate, I have” he’d say. Then he’d break into singing the hook of “My Angel” by Anita Baker. And she’d remind Marty that it is he that’s the angel, and that God most loved his beautiful creations. Marty appreciated the sentiment, but always questioned where God was when his dad whooped his mom’s ass. For Marty, the nature or existence of God was up in the air. But he did believe in angels; he said they were humans with the purest of souls.
Marty and Virginia walked in silence toward her unit. A faint yellow glow hugged the walls, highlighting knicks in the wooden picture frames. She stopped at her favorite picture- a photograph of a tree in autumn, a panoply of red, orange, and yellow leaves on a familiar neighborhood street. It reminded her of the days she walked throughout the city. Walking was her favorite activity, which she couldn’t do too much of since she had knee surgery. She tried to act like everything was the same, but nothing was. Without her city walks, she felt cooped up and alone. She was grateful she ran into Marty. A true angel.
“So Miss Tate, you know I don’t try to be up in your business, but…”
Virginia glared “So don’t be.”
Marty took a deep breath and continued “You’re supposed to be using crutches still. So what’s up Miss Tate? Why you not following doctor’s orders?”
“Boy, I’m fine. I don’t need no damn doctor’s order. Them crutches was slowing me down any how. I left them in the back of my closet where they belong.”
“Miss Tate, you gotta use them. I’m sure it’s a pain, but it’ll get worse if you don’t” Marty pressed.
Virginia rolled her eyes but secretly loved how he fussed over her. He checks in a helluva lot more than my own grown-ass kids. Mine just come around when they want money or a place to stay. She grunted, “Dang boy, you always got something to say. I’ll try to use it next time I go out.”
Marty knew she wouldn’t, but he let it go for the moment. “Miss Tate- I gotta take this message to your neighbor. Something ‘bout cancelling a date. You know someone named John Moore?
“Boy, I don’t know nobody in here. Just you and your mama and Jada. Oh, and that triflin’ ass boy she used to mess with. I never liked him.” Virginia started walking again. Marty trailed lightly behind her.
“I know. And you were right, he turned out to be an asshole.” Marty paused and glanced at Virginia.
Virginia chuckled. “I can’t think of a better description.”
“And you know more than just me, Jada, and E. What about Wallace?”
“That pitiful man still lives here?”
“What? He live here or what? Shit, I just assumed he moved on back to wherever he come from. After that girl up and left him. Didn’t leave no Dear John letter either huh?”
Marty tried to stifle a laugh. He hated that he somewhat agreed with her. “Uh, I don’t know Miss Tate, I try to stay outta grown folk business.”
They finally reached her door. She turned to face him and said matter-of-factly “Then why the hell you all up in mine?”
Marty grinned and asked “do you want me to help you put this away?”
“Nah, I’m okay. Besides, weren’t you on your way somewhere? Deliverin’ a message to some hussy next door?”
“Yes, I’m going after I help you. They can wait.”
“No, go on ahead and tell that poor girl that her man stood her up so she don’t keep waiting on like a fool.”
Marty put the groceries down by the door. He knew better than to argue with Virginia Tate. “Alright Miss Tate. I’ll see you later.” He turned to walk to the unit next door.
Virginia sifted through her pocketbook for her keys. She unlocked and opened the door and walked in her unit, dragging the groceries behind her. Then she slammed the door and growled in pain as she hobbled to the couch. She removed her knee brace and rolled up her sweatpants leg to reveal a swollen and throbbing mound in the middle of her leg. She needed ice but didn’t want to call Marty. That boy does enough for me as it is. I don’t wanna overburden him with my shit. “That’s what your grown ass children are for” she said aloud. Last she spoke to her son was a year ago when he was begging for some money to pay some court fee to keep out of jail. Her daughter had called the month before when she tried to move into Virginia’s guest room with her girlfriend. The one night they planned to stay there turned into a year; for the first half, neither one had a job. And they were slack. Didn’t clean, didn’t cook, didn’t do nothin’ but lay up under each other playing video games or listening to music. “Good riddance” she exclaimed, “caused me more stress than anything else.”
On the coffee table sat a small wooden box with the image of a clear blue-water beach. She lifted the lid and took out the rolled up plastic bag. She measured the contents with her eyes. “Yup, I can roll at least 3 more from this bag.” Virginia searched through the box until she found some rolling papers. Plopping on a charcoal gray couch, she broke the weed down, crushed floral chunks into a verdant crumble on her coffee table. A lemon citrus bouquet sat under the earthy aroma that permeated the room. Virginia inhaled in satisfaction and grabbed two sheets of her rolling paper which she folded in half. She opened the sheets slightly, just enough to fill them with the crumble. Tucking and rolling, Virginia rolled the cannabis-filled sheets into a cylinder, licked underneath a flap, and pressed it down to seal the cylinder shut. She placed the marijuana cigarette on her table and slowly stood up. Wincing, she inched her way to the kitchen to grab a bottle of water, hobbled back to the couch, and lit the cigarette. She inhaled once again, held the smoke in her chest, and slowly exhaled a dense cloud of smoke. It dispersed quickly, smoke flying in every direction throughout the room. She smiled and settled into the couch, rubbing her inflamed knee.
Virginia hated that she was having knee trouble. Not so much because of the pain, or because it slowed her down but because it reminded her that she couldn’t rely on her own kin. They lashed her with their words when they’d tell her they were too busy to come home for holidays. They choked her with the very plasma she birthed when they ignored her calls and texts, so much so that she never told them she needed total knee replacement surgery. Instead, Virginia planned to limp and stumble her way around. On her own, like she did everything else. And like always, Virginia would aussage her affliction with each draw from the rolled-up weed. She closed her eyes and exhaled, her mind becoming a blue cloudless sky. In this space, she felt free to think. Or feel. Feel anything but anxious. And lonely. On this occasion, the image of Marty sat faintly in her mind’s eye. He was smiling and waving. She smiled and waved back. And then, he extended his hand; this time, instead of batting it away, she reached back out in acceptance.
Using the coffee table and the couch arm to support her, Virginia pushed herself up on her good leg; she nearly fell forward but caught herself on the bookshelf. She grabbed one of her crutches and sighed in relief. Almost immediately, she regretted her decision. She hated the sound of the crutch hitting the floor, each knock feeling like she had an extra appendage. But Virginia knew she needed help, and there was someone kind enough to offer it despite her weeks of rejection. She walked slowly across the room where she left her purse. Pulling out her phone, she texted Marty in hopes his offer was still on the table.
Marty, you busy?
Just wanted to know if you can help me put these groceries away.
Let me know if you free. And put down that damn video game you always on.
Virginia walked with the crutch back to her couch, sat down, and smiled.
Knock, knock, knock. Rose’s head jerked up from the Essence magazine she’d been reading while she soaked in the tub. She looked around in suspicion and almost called out John’s name before she remembered he wasn’t home. Which made her think about where he was. Most likely on his way home to pick me up for this game. Which made her grab her phone. Which is when she noticed her phone was dead, so she didn’t know what time it was. She started to panic, when she heard another knock knock knock at the door.
Rose splashed her way out of the tub, threw on a terry cloth robe, and ran to the front door, phone in hand and dripping wet. She peered through the peephole.
“Hello Miss Rose. It’s Marty Ruiz, from down the hall.”
“Miss Rose, I don’t mean to bother you, but I’ve got a message to deliver to you from Mr. John.”
Rose responded “Which is?”
“Well ma’am, it seems Mr. John isn’t gonna be able to take you out tonight.”
“He said what?”
“Something must have come up; something really important.”
What the hell? I better call John. “Thanks for letting me know.”
Rose turned from the door to search for her iPhone adapter but realized she’d left it in her car, so she ran to the bedroom instead and threw on sweats, a t-shirt, and her ADIDAS slides. She ran to the door and opened it only to see Marty still standing there.
Rose froze. Shit, the kid was still out here.
Marty had been in the midst of typing something on his phone when he looked up and saw Rose standing there, her hair wet and dripping on the once-plush velvet red carpet. He gasped. “Ceilia?”
“Well, uh,” she stammered, then started again. “Uh, I think you’re mistaken, my name is Rose.”
“The hell it is. I know you. You’re Ceilia, Wallace’s girl.” Marty looked back down at his phone and continued typing.
She rushed towards him and grabbed his wrist.
“Hey!” he exclaimed. He looked up and into her eyes.
Rose caught hold of her senses and let go of his wrist. The door to the unit two doors down opened and an older woman walked out with a single crutch. Still in shock, she stared at the older woman, who glared back at her.
“Girl, what you starin’ out!” the woman snapped. It seemed the woman was getting ready to unleash a salvos of insults but stopped herself and studied Rose’s face.“Wait a minute! I know you. Ain’t you Wallace’s girl?”
Rose panicked and started to run down the hall towards the stairwell. Her eyes filled with tears that she fought to hold. Damn, I just need to get out of this building without being noticed by anyone else. In the midst of her running and thinking, Rose ran into another person in the hallway.
“I’m so sor-” the voice of a younger woman started before she paused and looked the woman in her eyes. “What the hell? Ceilia?”
Rose stopped running and spat back “Why does everyone keep calling me that? I’m Rose! I don’t know anyone named Ceilia!”
The woman stared in shock and confusion before she took out her phone and began to type something. Rose reached out to grab the woman’s wrist again but the woman’s head snapped up. “Don’t touch me” was her only warning.
Rose paused and just stared at the woman, who glowered at her for a moment before turning her attention back to her phone. Rose surveyed the hallway for other tenants; seeing that it was clear, she ran. Rose jetted across the burgundy red sea, feeling its waves crashing up against her body. She couldn’t see what was ahead of her, but she kept running.
Rose saw the door that led to the parking garage at the end of the hall. I just have to make it to that door and this whole nightmare will be over. And I swear I will never come to this building again. The thought of running into Wallace nearly paralyzed her. She knew she shouldn’t have left the way she did, but all in all, she just felt suffocated. Like getting married was a mistake but she couldn’t tell Wallace. His emotional state was too fragile, and so was hers. She couldn’t bear telling him, and even worse, couldn’t stand the thought of seeing his reaction. So one night, she quietly slipped out of his life in the hopes of discovering her own.
I don’t know why I thought I could come up in here and not run into anyone. But the thought was futile because in this moment, she was caught. And besides that, she did manage to slip in and out of John’s unit unnoticed for two weeks. Rose met John at Koffee Brown, her favorite coffee shop on 14th street. He was there with a friend, who was laughing hysterically at something John must have just said, because all she heard when she walked in was the friend choking on laughter crying “I can’t, I can’t”, and John smirking and claiming “I promise you that’s what she said. All I could do was walk away,” which made his companion laugh even louder. Rose had only planned to slip in, grab a coffee, and dash off to catch the next bus going downtown. Standing in line, she glanced over to John’s direction and realized he had been staring at her. For how long, she couldn’t tell. She quickly looked away, but not fast enough to indicate she wasn’t interested because John swooped in, demanded to pay for her coffee, and asked her for her name and number. “You look like you’re in a rush, so I won’t ask you to sit with us, but I have to see you again.” Rose obliged and met John later that week for coffee. Maybe it was how he fawned over her, or perhaps it was the great conversation and undeniable chemistry. Whatever it was, Rose felt full around him and didn’t want the feeling to go away. So when he invited her back to his place, once again she obliged, which for her, was a bold move. But it was one that paid off and left her feeling like the gravitas of her life had been lifted. It was a feeling she constantly craved, and he had no problem feeding her. weeks into the , and here she was. Running down the very hallway where she first ran out on her fiance. Always running with no destination. But today, she had a very clear destination- the portal at the end of the hallway that took her out of this alternate reality she created for herself. As it was, she was still stuck- this time, lost at sea. Her oasis sat twenty feet from her. This realization gave Rose a burst of energy and she found herself sprinting.
Rose was only ten feet from the door, when a solid figure seemed to step out from the wall. She made out that it was a man, but she couldn’t tell who. All she could see was bare brown skin covered in dark blue ink. Rose prepared to dodge the guy, but the man looked up at her and shook his head. Something about his stare mesmerized her, and she stopped in her tracks. But he didn’t run up to her, just stared at her like she was a phantasma. He fumbled around in his pocket and pulled out a phone. She turned around in hopes for another exit knowing there wasn’t one. Jada was stalking down the hallway with her hands on her hips. Beyond her, Marty yelled some indiscernible message to Miss Tate before he too stalked down the sea of burgundy. She turned back to face the man. He was looking at her again, his eyes wide and glass-like, afraid they would break if he blinked. His face seemed to fall and pull the corners of his lips down with it. He looked down at the phone and began to type. She didn’t dare reach out to stop him. Instead, Rose turned around again to see that Marty had caught up to Jada, and they both walked down towards her and the man. They blew down the hallway as if they were the wind making the waves that disoriented Rose. She felt the hallway spinning before her as she struggled to catch her breath. Grabbing her chest, she took a couple steps down the hall before she stumbled and fell back against the wall. She closed her eyes and worked to control her breathing. I have to get out of here. I can’t risk running into…
“Ceilia?” a familiar voice whispered. The voice seized her body and she stood like a glacier, cold and distant. The disembodied voice seemed to get closer the second time he called out to her. “Ceilia. Ceilia Rose.” The voice held anger but carried undertones of grief. It wavered. Ceilia Rose wanted to call out to it “No, I’m just Rose,” but the shock trampled her own voice. The other voice moved even closer and breathed a “Ceilia” that wafted softly through her ear. It soothed her enough for her to catch her breath. Body relaxed, she exhaled and opened her eyes.
“Hi Wallace. I think we should talk.”
Brittany Selah Lee-Bey is an educator and writer from the DC Metropolitan area. She enjoys teaching learners of all ages, but especially middle-schoolers, and lives by the idea that reading and writing are “emancipatory acts.” By day, she is a reading specialist and a debate coach at a secondary school. But by night, she is King Bey, one half of the rap duo Oya Blaq. Check out her first book Etymology Rules: Back to Basics, and learn more about language and linguistics on her website www.etymologyrules.com.