Read an Excerpt
"How many womens you got now, boy?"
When I was in the third grade, my daddy came to visit us. I marveled at how dapper my old man was. Head to toe, he was always clean. Daddy leaned back in our tattered, creaking love seat, then glanced over my elementary school report card. He grunted as he puffed a hand-rolled cigarette. My old man was bland about my attendance being perfect, nonchalant about my conduct being above satisfactory. He even showed a touch of enthusiasm about my finally making the honor roll. After a few draws, he put his unfiltered smoke out in the red tin ashtray with one powerful twist of his wrist, took a gulp from his leather-cased flask, sipped a time or two, then yanked me tight against his side.
He put his face close to mine and grinned. "You hear me, Stephan? C'mon, you can tell me. I'm yo' daddy."
I shook my nappy head like I was lost.
Daddy's gold tooth shined when he whispered, "How many womens you got now?"
If I told him I had one, he'd call me a sissy. Two, a punk. A punk was an upgraded sissy, I thought. A giver, not a taker. But still not a real man.
"Got me three womens now!" I bugged out my brown eyes and smile-lied, using eagerness to pump it up and make it sound real.
"Good." Daddy smiled, gripped me with his callused hands, and pulled me up into his lap next to his damp face. Mississippi's humidity kept his roan complexion dank. He beamed and said, "Then you a man now, nigger. We mens."
I smiled at his acceptance.
"When you gets to be a big boy, you know what you 'pose to do to womens, doncha?"
I shook my head.
He whispered, "Find 'em. Fool 'em. Fuck 'em. Forget 'em."
I didn't know what he meant, but the words stuck in my head.
Momma came into the room long enough to ask Daddy, "Where's yo' wedding ring at? Why ain't you got it on?"
He grinned, winked at her, then started tickling my stomach. Momma looked outside at the passenger in his car, looked back at him, picked up her Bible, held it tight to her chest, then walked into the kitchen with her eyes closed. Walked like a woman gone blind. Her lips moved, like she was praying for strength. Each step was lead heavy.
After Daddy watched our black-and-white television's fuzzy picture for a couple of minutes, he reached into his pocket and gave me all of his loose change. Then he swaggered to his Buick Wildcat and drove off with some high-yellow woman. A woman in a big pink hat. The lady who chain-smoked and stared at our house every second he was inside. His Wildcat kicked dirt clouds and spat pebbles back at us as he sped away. I waved. He never looked back.
As the dust faded, I shook my pocket. Smiled at the rich noise it made with each jingle. It rang like a child's fortune. I wasn't sure why he gave me the reward-if it was because of my grades or my womens. Either way, I was a whole dollar richer.
Momma never said anything about his dropping by off-and-on to visit us unannounced and leaving an irritated female in the car. Almost every time a different nameless female. He'd been gone all summer; that was the longest he'd stayed away. And now when he dropped by, he never hung around but a few long minutes. He never cut his car engine off. Right before he grabbed his fedora-his signal to us he was about to leave-he would try to kiss Momma on the cheek. But she'd always move and twist her face into an evil look. He'd laugh, then try to hand her a fistful of crumpled-up money. She wouldn't take it. On the way out, he'd give up a wry smile and drop the wrinkled greenbacks on the faded coffee table.
After he left, Momma always went into her bedroom, turned off the light, and closed the door for a long time. Usually the rest of the night. Quiet. She'd always be withdrawn for a few days.
Even when Daddy's game was weak and he was cold busted with another babe, Momma always let him come back. It seemed like it was inevitable. All he'd have to do was say he was sorry, I mean real fucking sorry, confused by love. Look sad. Pitiful. And be humble, on his knees right in front of Momma and his two sons. A real, stupid humble. And, if he could manage it, cry. But he never overdid the crybaby routine. That would ring out as contrived. But he cried like a man standing before his savior confessing his sins. Then left the walls of salvation, hit the liquor store, and rolled into an all-night juke joint.
My sweet mother was a real woman. A sensitive woman who more than anything believed in family. Why did she keep taking him back when she knew he was a dog? Most women got this thing called compassion. It doesn't make them foolish, just more forgiving. More capable of trying and hoping things worked out.
The day Daddy told me I was a man was the last time Momma let him see us. She'd had enough. Enough of him. Enough of the pretty women he kept on his arm. That was the last time he set foot in our house. The last time Daddy held me in his lap.
I remembered thinking I'd be like my daddy. A real man. I wouldn't be a punk neither.
Darnell and Dawn knocked on my door around nine. Dawn never used my doorbell and banged like I owed her money. I had slipped on my spandex shorts and T-shirt almost thirty minutes ago when I got up to turn on the ceiling fan. I'd left my racquetball racquet and cross-trainers in the living room by the front door so they'd know I was ready.
Dawn was an almost six-foot-tall, borderline full-figured, scratchy-voiced sister from Brooklyn. Her arrogant eyes were the first thing I saw through the peephole.
Darnell was a little over five-eleven, chestnut complexion, slight receding hairline, built like a linebacker, arms almost as big as my legs, his belly getting a little on the pudgy side.
They were dressed in matching baggy black shorts and oversized T-shirts, the sleeves rolled up to the shoulders.
"Hey, babe," Dawn said in her typical tart tone. Her assertive East Coast accent rang out. We hugged. "You smell nice."
I said, "I took my weekly bath."
"Good. I was going to talk to you about that."
"Whuddup!" That was Darnell.
Dawn rolled her eyes. She hated it when he got too stupid too soon. She stretched and said, "You ready?"
"Hold up. I need to see a man about a horse," Darnell said. He headed toward the bathroom.
Dawn went to the kitchen and made herself a huge glass of orange juice, then peeped into the bedroom.
She whispered, "Who's this one?"
"Have I met her before?"
"I think so."
"I think you met her at Kenneth Hahn Park when my momma and Pops had that family picnic. Last year when my sister Jackie came home from Spellman for spring break."
"If you're talking about last year when I met your other two brothers, then nope, that was a tall, tanned girl with long brown hair that I met. She was my partner when we played dominoes and we whooped everybody, including you and your momma."
I reminded her who that was when I said, "Brittany."
"You tell me. You need to make 'em wear name tags."
I said, "Well, act like you have met Samantha, then."
"You ain't shit."
"Love you, too."
Samantha had driven down from L.A. at four this morning, came by to get some loving before sunrise.
Dawn shook her head and walked back into the kitchen. "She's not going with us?"
"Nope. She'll probably sleep until we get back."
Samantha moaned, rolled over, almost opened her eyes.
Dawn stepped away from the bedroom door. I moved into the bedroom, eased the door up behind me. "Hey, sexy."
Samantha cleared her throat, pulled the sheets up over her bare breasts, said a weak "Who were you talking to, Stephan?"
Samantha's dark nipples were like beautiful blackberries sitting on top of small, elegant mounds of chocolate-coated joy. Her twenty kisses were juicier than a ripe berry, twice as sweet. I ran my hand across her short, curly hair, massaged the back of her neck. "You heard Dawn," I said.
She lifted her head. "Who's Dawn?"
Samantha yelled, "Hey, Dawn. Stephan told me about you."
"Hello, Samantha," Dawn called out from the other side of the door. "Nice to see you again. Didn't mean to wake you."
"It's okay." Samantha waved one of her hands in the direction of the voice. "Stephan, what're you doing?"
"Saturday morning racquetball."
"You want to go?"
She sighed. "Can I stay here until you get back?"
"Why don't you come work out? Sleep later."
She cursed. "You have an extra racquet?"
Which was good. I didn't want to leave her here in my space all by herself. She might do a Columbo and go through my condo from ceiling to carport. Find something that she didn't need to find.
She kissed me. I put my hand under the sheets, slid my finger inside her, made her moan. Slid my digit deeper until I couldn't slide it in anymore. Used two fingers. Moved them in and out in a slow, stirring rhythm. I knew how to wake her up.
Samantha wiggled and pushed my hand away. "Don't start something you can't finish."
I smiled. I yelled, "Dawn, Samantha's going with us."
Dawn yelled back. "Okay. I need some female bonding."
We all laughed.
Samantha whispered, "Have I met her before?"
"She said it was nice to see me again. I've never met her."
Samantha had a false smile on her questioning face.
I smiled, ignored that question. "Hurry and get showered."
Samantha's eyes changed, became sultry, and she asked, "Is that door closed all the way?"
She pulled my hips up to her face, reached into my spandex, and pulled out my penis. Moved it up and down, kissed it like it was a newborn child, slid it into her mouth like she was easing that baby in its favorite cradle. I gasped and made a mmmm sound. So warm. So good. Her eyes were on me as she licked around me, then slurped, pulled me in deeper.
Dawn drove us down the hill to L.A. Fitness, where she had reserved a racquetball court. We played doubles, first couples against couples, then the guys against the dolls.
Dawn was as vicious on the courts as she was in her real estate office. Aggressive, smooth. Hardly moved, but when she did, it was with a definite athletic rhythm.
Samantha looked studious and dangerous because she crouched low and wore protective goggles. She'd calculate where the ball was going to land and be there before it knew where it was going.
Darnell played too hard. He ran into the wall a lot and hit the ball damn hard, so hard every shot had the power of a kill shot, even from back court. Whenever he missed a shot, he'd look at his brand-new racquet like it was defective.
I'd find out each of their weak spots and concentrate on playing that angle. Dawn's backhand was inconsistent and sucked from deep in the court because her racquet kept bumping into the wall, cutting her return short.
Darnell would get mixed up on a three-wall shot. I'd use the back wall for awkward returns and mix it up with ceiling shots to try to break their rhythms.
Samantha wasn't as agile and swift on the court as she was in bed.
Me and Samantha won the first game by two. Dawn and Darnell won the next two without a lot of effort.
When we switched partners, guys against dolls, Dawn said, "Samantha, let's kick these bitches' asses."
Darnell chuckled and bobbed his head. "It's on."
I shouted a warning, "No mercy for those who menstruate."
Grunts, bumps, and curses: It sounded like a war.
Me and Darnell struggled and won a game, beat Dawn and Samantha by three points. The last game the dolls beat us by four.
We had thirty minutes left on the court, but we were all beat because each game had lasted almost twenty-five minutes.
Silliness took over and I staggered, overacted, like I was trying to catch a second wind. I sat and tried to stretch my already worn-out muscles. The sounds of rubber balls bounced off the walls; the screech of tennis shoes echoed around us.
My T-shirt was soaked from chin to waist because I had kept wiping my face on it. We crashed on the hardwood floor, Dawn next to Darnell, Samantha and me across the court, sharing a bottle of Sparkletts water. My back was on the floor, feet up against the wall. Samantha sat with her legs spread apart, and she stretched side to side, then face to the floor.
Dawn said, "Shit, Samantha. If I was that flexible, I'd have a baby by now."
Darnell said, "If you'd stay in bed on a Saturday morning instead of dragging everybody down here, you'd have a baby."
Dawn countered, "If you'd come to bed instead of typing on that damn computer all night, you'd be a father by now."
Samantha said, "I'm all against the wall and worn out. I used to be able to play hours on end. I must be getting old."
Dawn smiled. "We used to close out every party we went to."
I said, "I know that's right. Party all night, hit Fatburgers, then make it home just in time to go to church."
Samantha laughed. "Is this what being thirty does to you?"
Dawn asked, "You have any kids, Samantha?"
"Thirty with no babies."
"Just like me and Darnell. I'm damn near thirty-two and no heirs. If I have to wait until I'm thirty-five, I'll be in that high-risk category, and that won't be cool. Not at all."
Darnell sighed. "Don't depress Samantha, sweetheart."
I was picking up bits of chastisement from my friends, but Samantha didn't know them well enough to know that Dawn was dead serious.
Samantha laughed. "I'm cool. That's why I stopped my biological clock at twenty-five. I'm in no hurry to give up my freedom."
As she was talking, Dawn went after her husband. Darnell scooted away from her. She slid after him and started tickling him. Darnell's damn ticklish. She climbed on top of him and kissed his face. Even though they fought, they had years of something that I envied.
Samantha was watching them, smiling, then looking at me.
Her eyes were gleaming for affection.
Six months ago I met her on Pico at Roscoe's Chicken 'n Waffles. The place was crowded; both of us were alone; our eyes had mutual interest, some curiosity, so I asked her if she wanted to share a table. She smiled, said sure, we did, and we talked nonstop. That communication drew me to her. Very articulate, well read, up on all the political activities in the neighborhood. Neither of us wanted to end the conversation. More like she didn't want to stop talking. Women always make it easy for a brotha. All that crap about running your mouth and macking harder than Max Julien ain't the move. The secret of conversation is to get a woman to talk, then listen and absorb. They'll tell you who did 'em wrong, what they want, raise their eyes to yours in a soft and tender way that asks if you can meet those demands. All a brotha has to do is pay attention, nod his head a time or two and, when she's through, let her know that whatever the last man did, he'd never do that.
Minutes later me and Darnell were in the locker room, butt naked on opposite sides of the communal shower. A couple of other guys, one white and the other Asian, were in there too, but they weren't talking much. I rinsed the liquid soap off my body and stood underneath the waterfall of cool and cleansing water.
I asked, "When you gonna have some more of that story for me to read?"
"The next day or so. I'm only getting to write a paragraph here and there because work has had me tied down. And the moment I get home, Dawn starts whining for attention."
"Women will suck the life out of you."
"I know that's right. Giving a woman the attention she wants is another full-time job. But work is taking up most of my time. I'm getting ready for a hearing against Northwest out in Palm Springs. Plus I'm doing some unlawful detainers for a friend of a friend who's trying to evict some tenants out in Rialto. The tenants haven't paid a dime in rent in over a year."
"Don't wear yourself out. Finish that book. That could be a million dollars you sitting on."
Darnell smiled at my encouragement, then asked, "You talked to Jake?"
I said, "Yeah."
Jake is another one of our running buddies. He's a fireman out in L.A., near my folks' house.
That was when I remembered and told Darnell about the ski trip. On Valentine's Day Jake and his fiancée are hitting the local slopes and had extended an invitation for all of us to tag along. I would've told Darnell sooner, but I didn't want to bring it up in front of Samantha. If I was kicking it with her this weekend, I'd have to kick it with Toyomi next weekend. But if I finally catch up with Brittany, never know what I might do.
Darnell said they had plans for Valentine's Day. He was taking Dawn an hour across the Pacific Ocean to experience a few golden sunsets at Catalina Island. Their romantic weekend, the glass-bottom boat ride there and back, the five-star hotel room and champagne brunch, were already hooked up.
He asked, "Jake tell you those dreams were back?"
I let some water run over my face, into my mouth, then spat it out. I didn't want to get into talking about Jake's dreams. They were too eerie, so demented it made my flesh crawl just thinking about them.
I changed the subject, asked what him and Dawn were getting into today.
Darnell replied, "We're going to catch a couple of movies at the AMC on Fullerton Road. What you doing?"
I turned my shower off, grabbed my green towel. "Trying to get rid of Samantha."
He laughed a bit.
I shook my head, said, "When she comes out here, it's hard to get her ass to go back home."
"That girl likes you, that's all."
"I like her too."
"Yeah, but if you're seeing eight or nine other women, how will you ever know if that relationship has potential? You have to focus on one. They start to cancel each other after a while."
I ignored his calm expression of righteousness. "I know she's going to try and stay until Sunday night or early Monday morning, so I'll tell her I'm going up to see my momma. That way I can just follow her home, then bounce over to see my folks before I come back out this way."
I said, "What's funny?"
"You got your game laid out. You've got a backup plan for your backup plan. If I had your hand, I'd throw mine in."
I laughed. "If you got Dawn, you've got the best hand."
"Grass is always greener."
I said, "Not when you're taking care of your own lawn."
"With all the lawns you're tending to with that weedwacker of yours, how would you know?"
I laughed and finished drying off. After I got dressed I used the pay phone hidden in the locker room to make a few phone calls. Had to check a few traps. It took me twenty minutes to get Toyomi to cool off, but when I told her about the ski trip for Valentine's Day, everything smoothed out. Pretty much. She was still filled with disappointment. She'd get over it as soon as she saw me.
We stopped by Mimi's restaurant in Industry for coffee and lunch. Two hours after that I was following Samantha up the 10 freeway into the heart of Los Angeles. We dropped her car off, then rode deeper into territory that owned cool breeze after cool breeze. She wore shades she'd bought in Venice Beach for five bucks, a leather backpack-style purse, sandals, no bra, a Bob Marley T-shirt over a short red dress, no panties. We hung out on the promenade in Santa Monica, drove the coast north toward Malibu. Rode until the sun was setting, then parked, had sex in the car. Samantha was moving her backside round and round, up and down, right on Pacific Coast Highway, with traffic whizzing by.
We ate seafood dinners at Gladstone's. Walked out into the darkness and let the sand rise up in between our toes.
Back at her place, we oiled each other down, massaged each other while the soulful voice of Rachelle Ferrell lulled us.
As I slept, I drifted back to my childhood.
Smelled Daddy's cologne.
Heard a dollar's worth of lies jingling.
Felt that chill again.
Sorta missed my old man.
Wondered if there was a heaven for him.
--From Cheaters, by Eric Jerome Dickey. © June, 1999 , Eric Jerome Dickey used by permission.