The double doors opened, and the guests stood as Deidre Clark came into view. She was a vision in white. Small clusters of sparkling beads accented the front and back of the bodice and traveled down the wrap of the skirt. Her veil was covered with the same sparkling beads that accented her gown. The princess-style headpiece was pinned to her hair as the veil flowed down her back. Her mother had asked that she not cover her face with the veil. Loretta Clark’s pastor had taught them that the veiled bride held secrets that the husband would have to uncover. But Deidre’s mother didn’t believe that a husband and wife should have secrets.
The musicians began to play and the soloist stood.
“Are you ready?” Deidre’s uncle asked.
She looked at her uncle, who was standing in for her beloved father, who had died way before his time. She pondered her uncle’s question for a moment. Was anyone ever ready for such a thing as matrimony? She looked down the aisle at her groom, Private Johnson Morris. He’d told her when they met that he was career military. His dream was to one day wear general stripes like his hero, Colin Powell. Johnson had lots of dreams, and Deidre wanted to help him achieve them all. She nodded. “I’m ready.”
Still behind the double doors and not quite in the sanctuary yet, Deidre took a step as the soloist sang, “At last, my love has come along.”
Although some might say that this particular song wasn’t appropriate for a church wedding, Deidre requested it anyway. She had been terrified that no one would ever want to marry her. But Johnson had come into her life and swept her off her feet at last. She took another step and then her wedding coordinator stopped her.
The woman lifted the veil and put it over Deidre’s face. “There . . . simply beautiful,” she said as she gently pushed Deidre toward the sanctuary.
“My lonely days are over,” the soloist continued.
Deidre kept walking as the veil was placed over her face. But as she neared her groom, Deidre’s thoughts turned to a conversation she had with her mother earlier that day.
Loretta had walked into her dressing room, kissed her on the cheek and then asked, “Did you tell him?”
Deidre turned toward the full length mirror and smiled at her image.
“Did you tell him?” Loretta asked again.
“Not yet,” Deidre said. She could see her mother’s eyes fill with worry as she glanced at her. She turned back to the mirror, choosing to ignore her mother. This was her day—her never-suppose-to-be day—and she wasn’t going to let anything spoil it, not even reality.
She was standing next to Johnson now. They recited their vows, and the preacher pronounced them husband and wife. Deidre let out a sigh of relief as Johnson lifted her veil of secrets and kissed her.
Twenty-three and played out. Like the words of a tired, old, blues song, Kenisha Smalls had been strung and rung out.
“Too young to give up,” she chided as she pulled herself out of bed. But when her feet hit the floor, and her knees buckled from unexplained pain, she reminded herself that she had actually lived a hundred dog years, lapping at the crumbs from underneath other folk’s tables, and being kicked around by more good-for-nothings than she could count. A few years back, Kenisha thought some good would have to come into her life to even out the bad. But when James, her first baby’s daddy got arrested for armed robbery, and then Terrell, her second baby’s daddy got himself shot and killed trying to be a kingpin, she’d stopped praying for the sun to shine through her drab days, and resigned herself to embrace the rain.
Guess that’s how she’d hooked up with Chico. Kenisha had been dazzled by his olive skin, wavy hair, and bulky arms. Dazzled by his corporate job and technical school education. Of course, all that dazzling occurred before her responsible boyfriend started hanging around her crack head brother, Kevin Carson. By the time she had given birth to her third child, Chico had quit his good-paying job so he could give crack his undivided attention.
Now, the only time Kennedy saw her crack head father was when he made his first of the month visit. Begging for a loan that he knew his broke behind couldn’t pay back. She remembered the first time she refused to give Chico her rent money. He’d punched her in the face so hard her teeth clickety-clacked. Grabbing the iron skillet that she’d been frying chicken in, she’d chased him out of her house. When she walked back in, and saw Jamal, her oldest child, standing in the kitchen holding a butcher knife, as his eyes blazing with fury, she swore right then that she would have nothing more to do with Chico and his crack demon. Shaking her head to ward away bad memories, Kenisha grabbed a washcloth and towel from the hall closet. Jumping in the shower, she allowed the hot water to assault her weary bones. As the steam filled the small bathroom, she wallowed in the horror story her life had become. What next? How much can happen to a person before the Almighty decides it’s time to pick on someone else?
“Ah, dawg.” She knew she’d forgotten something. Bumping her head against the tiled wall of the shower, she turned the water off and stepped out. She had an appointment that might make her late picking up Jamal from school. Not wanting to leave it to chance, she decided to call her sister Aisha Davis to see if she could pick up her son.
Before she could get her clothes on and make it to the telephone, Chico knocked on her back door. She was familiar with his knock. It was the first of the month, “baby, can I please get a loan” kind of banging that rolled through her head twelve times a year.
“Don’t I have enough to deal with?” She picked up the pink frilly robe James had bought her on her fifteenth birthday. It had been soft and pretty, but the drudge of life had worn on it. Thought she would have replaced it long ago. But the kids kept coming, and the men kept leaving.
She picked up Jamal’s leather belt, secured her tattered robe, stalked down stairs and flung open the back door. “What do you want, Chico?”
“Ah girl, quit tripping. You know you’re happy to see me. Them hazel eyes of yours sparkle every time I come over here.”
She ran her hands through her short layered hair as the skeleton strolled up to her, and puckered his lips. The five-day stench and sunken cheeks made Kenisha back up and give him the hand. “If it’s money you want, my welfare check hasn’t even arrived yet.”
Crossed eyes, and a deep sigh accused Kenisha of misjudging him. “How you know I didn’t come over here to see my beautiful little girl?”
“Did you happen to get a job and bring your beautiful little girl some child support? ‘Cause, Kennedy likes to eat.”
“Why you got to be like that?” He leaned against the kitchen sink. “See, that’s why I don’t come by more often. You always trippin’.”
Kenisha opened the back door. “Boy, who do you think you’re fooling? You don’t come by more ‘cause the first only comes once a month.” A strong wind blew her robe open, exposing two bony thighs.
“Girl you need to quit selling them food stamps. You know I like a woman with meat on her bones.”
Kenisha rolled her eyes and waved him toward the coolness of the outdoor wind.
“Oh, so it’s like that?” Pushing himself off the sink, he told her, “Just get Kennedy down here. Let me see my baby girl, and I’ll be on my way.”
“She ain’t here. They spent the night over at Aisha’s.”
Walking toward her, he got loud. “How many times have I told you not to have my daughter over at your sorry sister’s house?”
“When the telling comes with a check, that’s when I’ll start listening.” Still holding the door open, she motioned him outdoors again.
He poked his index finger into the middle of her forehead. “Make sure my daughter is home the next time I come to see her.”
He walked out. But before Kenisha slammed the door, she told him, “Yeah, right. We’ll see you in thirty days, Chico.”
She sat on the couch as her body shook with rage. Her rage wasn’t only directed at Chico. But at all the men who’d promised her sweetness, then made her swallow dung. She was tired. Wished she’d never met any of them. She sure wouldn’t be in the fix she was in now if she’d waited until marriage to have sex. Maybe she should have signed up for karate classes when she was six or seven. That way she could have broken her mother’s boyfriend’s neck that night he took all her choices away.
Clicking on the TV, she hoped to find enjoyment in somebody else’s drama. Dr. Phil was putting a smile on a woman’s face whose house had been robbed and ransacked. “Ain’t that ‘bout nothing? My life is raggedy, but I don’t see nobody offering me so much as a needle and thread to stitch it up.” She turned off the TV and stood. Might as well just deal with it. She picked up the phone and dialed Aisha.
The phone rang three times before Aisha’s angry voice protruded through the line. “What have I told you about calling my house so early?”
Caller ID wasn’t meant for everybody. It was 10:45 in the morning. And Aisha’s lazy behind was still in bed, screening calls. “You need to get up and fix breakfast. My kids have a hot meal every morning.”
Aisha yawned. “Your kids ain’t no better than mine. They can walk downstairs and fix a bowl of cereal just like the rest of them monsters.”
Rolling her eyes, Kenisha wondered why she’d agreed to let Diamond and Kennedy spend the night over at her sister’s house. But she had been too tired to get on the number eight bus and pick them up. Blinking away unwanted tears, she allowed her fist to smash against her living room wall.
Ever since her doctor had told her about the cancer eating away at her body, her walls had gotten punched. When her doctor told her that having sex at an early age was one of the factors for cervical cancer, she’d wanted to kill the men that had paraded through her life, took what they wanted, then left her diseased. “I need you to pick Jamal up from school today.”
“Oh, no. I’ve already got two of your kids over here. Dawg, Kenisha, I’ve got four kids of my own. What makes you think I want to baby sit another?”
Grabbing some tissue, and wiping the moisture from around her eyes, she said, “Look Aisha, I’ve got an appointment.” Kenisha’s third radiation treatment was scheduled for today. She’d missed her second appointment when Aisha promised to pick up her kids, but never showed. “It’s important or I wouldn’t ask.”
Kenisha heard the rustling of the sheets as her sister sat up in bed.
“What’s so special that you can’t pick up your own son?”
“Nothing special. Just another rainy day.”
Deidre Clark Morris sat behind her oak desk trying to decide whether to respond to her emails. At last count, she had seventy unopened messages. She just couldn’t make herself read another parent complaint about the athletic programs she was forced to cut. And she didn’t have the patience to deal with teachers complaining about old textbooks. The superintendent had already given her his sorry-about-your-luck look the last time she told him that she needed to replace the textbooks.
Today, she didn’t have the energy to fight. Deidre had other things on her mind. Consuming things. Things between her, Johnson, and God. Please God, don’t let it come.
It was her monthly cycle. Due yesterday, but thankfully absent. If it didn’t show up today, maybe she’d finally have some good news to report to Johnson.
Another email appeared in her inbox. This one was from Johnson. The header read, “How are you doing?” On an ordinary day, a simple message like that from her husband would have put a smile on her face. Would have made her think of the “When a Man Loves a Woman” song.
But today was not ordinary. This was the day she would either get her period or be pregnant. So she knew that her wonderful, loving husband’s email really meant “After seven long years of wishing, and waiting, are you finally pregnant?”
Leave me alone. Those were the words she wanted to shout back across the email line. But salvation in the name of Jesus, and a couple deep breaths stopped her tirade. Consigning Johnson’s email to the same devil the other seventy could go to, Deidre signed off her computer. It was 3:30; the students had been gone since 2:50.
“It’s time to go.”
A knock at her door stopped her from packing up. “Come in.”
Mrs. Wilson, the stern-faced, second-grade teacher, walked in with little Jamal Moore in tow. Deidre knew Jamal. Had greeted him several times in the hallway. He was always well groomed. One of the first things she noticed about Jamal, after his signature zigzag cornrows, was that his pants fit. Either he or his mom didn’t buy into that sloppy, hanging off your backside fad that most kids were wearing.
“What’s up?” Deidre asked.
Pointing at Jamal, Mrs. Wilson told her, “His mother didn’t pick him up. I need to leave him with you.”
“I was just getting ready to leave, Mrs. Wilson. I can’t stay with him today.”
Mrs. Wilson gave Deidre a piercing glare. “Now I understand that you are the principal of this school, and therefore more important than the rest of us, but you are also the one that closed down the after-care program—”
Deidre held up her hand. “The superintendent closed down our after-care program, Mrs. Wilson. Not me.”
With hands on healthy hips, Mrs. Wilson told her, “I don’t care if it was you or the superintendent. You didn’t stop him. And you promised to take turns watching these errant children. Well, it’s your turn.”
Deidre looked toward Jamal. With the exchange going on in front of him, he couldn’t be feeling very wanted, or cared about. For goodness sake, his mother had left him to fend for himself. Abandoned him. He didn’t need to listen to this babysitting tug-of-war. “Go home, Mrs. Wilson. Jamal and I will be just fine.”
“What’s your number?” Dismissing Mrs. Wilson as she harrumphed out of the office, Deidre smiled at Jamal. “We’ll get your mom on the phone. She’ll be here in no time, you’ll see.”
She opened her desk drawer, grabbed the Reese’s Cup she’d been saving for a special occasion, and tossed it to Jamal. She stood and picked up the telephone. Her smile disappeared. The oozing warmth between her legs screamed, “Failure.” With as much composure as she could muster, she put down the phone. “I’ll be right back.”
Picking up her purse, she ran down the hall to the teacher’s restroom. In the stall, sitting on the toilet, her worse nightmare was confirmed. “Oh God. Oh God, no.” She did everything right. She’d used that chart religiously. She and Johnson had waited until her body temperature was at the right level. How could she not be pregnant? Banging her fist against the restroom stall, she declared, “It’s my turn, God.” But, no matter how much she wanted it to be, it was not her turn. Would probably never be her turn.
She put her elbows on her thighs, hands over her face and cried as if she’d carried a baby to full term, watched him play in the backyard, grow into a young man, then held him, as he slowly died in her arms.
Twenty minutes later, Jamal found her that way. He tapped on the stall door. “Mrs. Morris, what’s wrong?”
“I-I g-got my period,” she blurted between gasps. She clamped her hand over her mouth as her eyes widened. The superintendent had been itching to fire her. He’d certainly do it now. How could she blurt such a thing out to a seven-yearold child?
Jamal smirked. “My Mama always screams, ‘Thank You, Jesus’ when she gets her period. The only time I heard her cry was when Mr. Friendly – that’s what Mama calls it – came late one month.”
Although she hated to admit it, Jamal’s statement caused her to be upset with God. Women who didn’t want children seemed to spit them out, while she and Johnson remained childless.
She closed her eyes, blinking away the remnants of tears as she thought of her husband. The day they met, he’d overwhelmed her with his deep dimpled smile. Scared her, when he declared that he believed in destiny, and she would be his wife. But the following week she was hooked, so into him, that when he told her how many children he wanted, she couldn’t bring herself to tell him that two doctors had pronounced her infertile.
She should have told him. But he was all she’d ever wanted. Their love was so new, she’d been terrified of losing him. After the Lord saved her soul, she’d thought that if she charted her fertile periods and prayed . . .
Sniffling, Deidre wiped the tears from her face. “I-I’m sorry, Jamal. I’ll be out in a second.” She blew her nose, took the pad out of her purse and lined her underwear with it. Flushing the toilet, she adjusted her clothes before opening the stall.
As if he were talking a lunatic down from a ledge, he asked, “Do you need me to get you anything?”
Washing and drying her hands, Deidre shook her head.
“When I’m sad, Mama holds my hand. That always makes me feel better.” He stretched his hand. “Do you want to try it?”
Deidre’s heart swelled with love for this little boy who reached out to her when she needed it most. She grabbed his hand as they walked back to her office.
He squeezed her hand. “Feel better?”
A tear trickled down her cheek. “Much. Thank you, Jamal.”
Back in her office, Deidre put her files in her briefcase. “If you don’t mind, Jamal, I’d like to go home. I’ll call your mom and give her my telephone number and address.”
“That’s fine with me. Just as long as you let her know where I’ll be. I wouldn’t want her to worry.”
Deidre almost told him that she was sure his mother wasn’t all that concerned. If she were, she wouldn’t have forgotten to pick him up. That was the other beef she had with God. She and Johnson would be great parents. They’d never leave their children to fend for themselves. But alas, the babies were gifted to the unfit, while she, Deidre Clark-Morris, babysat.