All I Need to Get By
By Sophfronia Scott
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 Sophfronia Scott
All rights reserved.
For six years running I've had the dream, and in the dream my brother always dies. He is cowering in a bathroom stall in the basement of some downtown club, the place lit horror blue by a fluorescent light pulsing overhead. There's sweat glistening on his chocolate brown forehead. It drips from the springy curls of his short black natural. He holds his shaking hands, fingers laced close to his mouth and from his throat seeps a mournful high-pitched utterance that pierces my heart when I realize what it is. My brother is whimpering.
Then the drug dealer throws open the main door, the sound of the metal slab exploding through the room as it slams against the wall. His face is an expressionless rock beneath dark sunglasses, his body a long trunk of black leather. His steely arm totes an Uzi like the gun was built into the appendage. He moves purposefully; he doesn't even look under the doors to see which stall Linc is in. He makes it to the right one in three long strides, kicking the door in with the fourth. And there is Linc, that stupid look on his face a mix of fear and surprise, like a startled squirrel caught in the middle of the road. It's eerily familiar somehow, perhaps because it's the look he wears in so many of the family photos hanging in our house, as though he didn't know how to prepare his face for the onslaught of light. But this time Linc's eyes grow even wider as the man raises his weapon and without a word from his silent thick lips he fires. Fires way too many times. It doesn't take that many bullets to rip a body of its poor shredded soul. My brother gasps, an inhale the force of which I feel as I awaken with the breath caught in my throat. There's no blood, no corpse to set the finality of the act in my brain. So I dream it again and again.
* * *
I bolt up from the pillows, gasping to catch my breath. I can't see. My blinds are shut tight, the curtains drawn. If there's daylight outside, it's completely hidden. The dream slips away, as it has so many times, but this time it's left something behind. Inside me. It's like a darkness, a little gray cloud placed quietly within my being. I have felt it coming on for days, but I couldn't tell where it would come from or when it would strike. Now I am floating in the space between sleeping and being awake, and I'm closer than I've ever been to understanding what might come of this darkness. I can feel a knot forming, a kind of twisting of the flesh below my ribs and just above my abdomen. My hand rises to the spot and pulls at the flesh as though it could rip out the cloud and its premonition.
The phone rings.
"Jesus!" I swallow. I pick up the phone. My clock reads 6 A.M.
"Hello, Crita, this is Mama."
Of course it's Mama. At 6 A.M. it's always Mama. Only she calls this early. She says that way she knows I'll be home and she won't waste a long distance phone call. It doesn't make for coherent conversation, especially when I'm just minutes recovered from a dream.
"How you doing?"
About as fine as I would be, I think, when I'm not supposed to be up for another ninety minutes. She starts every call the exact same way. The meat she drops in later, like beef into soup, with the answer to my question.
"I'm fine, Mama, how are you?"
"Crita, honey, I'm worried." She speaks in hushed whispers and sounds like a child hiding in the closet under a blanket with a flashlight. I wonder if that is indeed what she is doing. It isn't easy to make a call in our house without Daddy hearing it.
"I think there's something wrong with your daddy."
"What is it, Mama?"
"Well, he's had this cough. It's been going on a long time now. We just thought it was a cold he couldn't shake, you know?"
Her voice drops even lower. "Honey, he started coughing up blood yesterday. I'm trying to get him to see a doctor, but he won't go. He'll listen to you ..."
Of course he will. Daddy still thinks I'm Marcus Welby, M.D., based on the pronouncements I made years ago when I was a child and thought I wanted to be a physician. And those only came of my fascination with watching Medical Center on television, thinking Chad Everett was it, and some vague notion that I could handle a surgical instrument tolerably well. I brought home good grades in science, which fed my father's idea that we would have a doctor in the family. But those dreams had faded with college, when my interests moved more toward math and accounting than science. Still, Daddy has this idea in his head that I know a lot about medicine.
"Mama, put him on the phone." This time I'm glad I have such influence. We can't hesitate, no way. My father is a black man in his seventies with a history of smoking that stretches back to his youth as a sharecropper in Mississippi, picking cotton with a breaktime cigarette tucked behind his ear. I'm certain that such blood seeping up through his lungs isn't benign.
"Yeah, Crita," Daddy's voice sounds strained and more gravelly than usual. "How you doin'?"
"I'm doing fine, Daddy, but Mama tells me you've been coughing up blood?"
"Yeah. Sure have."
"Daddy, you have to go to the doctor. You should make an appointment with Doctor Joyce right after you hang up with me."
"Well, what do you think this is, Crita?" He sounds so unconcerned, so matter of fact, as though he's asking me, "Does that sky look like it's gonna rain or snow to you?" My response has to be pitch perfect, with enough force to make him see a doctor but not enough to alarm him. Fear in someone so massive could be dangerous, like a lion with a thorn in his paw raging through the jungle. There is no telling how he would strike out or where. And it's too soon. If there's something truly wrong with Daddy, there would be time enough for all that fear — time and a whole wide world to inflict it on.
"I don't know, Daddy," I say. "I just know that it can't be a good sign. You should go to the doctor. Mama says you've had that cough for a while and he can check you out and give you some medicine for that at least. A check-up can't hurt."
"Nettie!" I hear him calling my mother, "Find that number for Doctor Joyce. Crita here says I should see him and I'm gonna go down there today."
"Thank you, Daddy," I say when I know I have his attention again. "You'll call and tell me what he said when you get back?"
"All right, girl, I'm out the door already."
I sigh and close my eyes as I hang up the phone. Once upon a time, my mother didn't have to call someone else to get our father to do her bidding. I still remember the story, can see the image of her, standing on the corner in all her 1950s girlish glory with her cat's-eye glasses, silky straight hair, wide red poodle skirt with the frills underneath. Daddy had been in her sights, tall and powerful, his cigar-shaped fingers wrapped around the handle of his lunch box. He was crossing the railroad tracks after putting in an eight-hour shift at the steel mill. She had put on her best doe-eyed pout. "Mister, will you buy me a bottle of pop?" And he, who could resist neither her eyes nor the pout, had taken her into the air-cooled establishment where she, tugging him by the rough green canvas of his work-shirt, led him to the display. "Oh look," she had said, running a finger over the metal teeth of the bottle caps, "here's a whole case of pop on sale." And he had flashed her the look I'd seen so many times in my childhood — the look that showed he was wise to the scheme but willing to play along. He heaved the wooden case upon his shoulder and took it to the cash register. A wife for a case of cherry pop. My daddy, Henry Carter, had thought it was the best bargain he'd ever had.
* * *
The jackhammering has not yet begun. The men from Con Edison have been pounding away at the pavement outside my window for the past week, but now my room is filled with a soft silence. I make myself get up. I put on a robe and go downstairs. As I pull the pink terry cloth around my waist my fingers lightly touch the scars on my belly. There are four of them in all — three are raised asterisks, each about the size of a fifty-cent piece. The last is a long scrawl angrily bisecting my torso. I cover them, as I have every morning for the past five years.
I rent a sunny two-bedroom duplex in a Harlem brownstone stuffed with original details like the carved wood mantelpiece. I draw back the curtains to let in the morning light, then I fill a pitcher and water my six house plants. They are placed throughout the living room according to their need for sun, starting with the ivy and ending with the African violet my assistant had given me last Christmas. The violet is finally beginning to bloom, its fat purple buds curling out among the velvety green leaves. I would have loved more plants, but I have decided it is enough to care for these six, and to do it well. I pluck a yellowing leaf off the abutilon.
At my front door I kick aside the pile of mail, about a week's worth, accumulating on the floor. Then I go out to retrieve my copy of the New York Times from the stack left by the superintendent on the hall shelf.
I hear a door close and Mr. Pittinsky appears in the hall. He is so hunched over with age that he could almost be a paper clip with legs. I like to think that he has been living here ever since the brownstone was built some hundred years ago. It makes me feel comfortable somehow. Stable. He eyes me as he reaches for his paper. "Early," he says.
"Yes," I reply, hugging the Times to my chest and hoping my carelessly tied robe won't fall open. "I'm up early. I hope I didn't disturb you?"
"You don't disturb me," he says, already disappearing behind his door. His voice is flat, dismissive. I stand there wondering what could disturb him when he has probably lived long enough to see it all, hear it all.
As I come in, the bright blinking red light of my answering machine insists on catching my eye, but I ignore it as I head into my tiny kitchen and pour myself a glass of orange juice. The messages must be at least three days old by now, maybe more. I'm thinking Mama's right to call me at the goddamn crack of dawn. All right, then. I better listen to them.
I hit the play button.
"Hey, hon, this is Lisa." She draws out the first syllable just a bit, so it sounds like she's saying LEE-sa. "I know you're busy, 'cause I haven't heard from you in a while, but let's get together, okay, 'cause I miss you. So here's what my calendar looks like: I have production meetings on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Those are downtown and I could meet you for coffee or something before or after. Then on Monday ..."
I hit the skip button, knowing she could spend up to three or four minutes reciting the details of her schedule in her casually nasal Seattle accent. I'll listen to the whole thing later.
BEEP! The next voice is masculine. "Hi, um, Crita? This is Warren. I really enjoyed having that drink with you the other night. I didn't want to seem pushy, but I thought maybe I'd made a mistake. The way we left it, you were gonna call me, right? I was just wondering — no pressure! I just didn't know because you didn't — you didn't call — and I had a good time."
Of course you did. You spent the whole time talking about yourself. Delete.
"Girlfriend! It's Mari! You got my invitation, right? This party will be kickin'! The birthday of all birthdays, at least until I turn thirty-five! So are you coming? And are you gonna help me set up?"
BEEP! Mari again. "Okay, since when don't you return my calls? What's the deal, sugar?"
BEEP! "Hey, sis, it's Hazel. I just wanted to give you a heads up — Mama's gonna call you. Daddy hasn't been feeling well. I've got a class this afternoon, but give me a call if you want the lowdown. Fudge, forget that, call me anyway. By the way, did you read that article in the new Essence? It's called "The Ten New Trials of Loving a Black Man." I don't know about you, but I haven't figured out the old ones! At least Ella doesn't have to worry about that, huh?"
BEEP! "Five days and counting!" Mari again. "Now you've done it! I'm coming after your butt! Where are you?"
I am in my kitchen, eating breakfast. I have the newspaper spread out on the round black metal patio table that I dine on. I am drinking tea and I have made myself some toast and eggs, soft-scrambled, with Cheddar cheese melted and blended within. The sharp taste fills my mouth and I chew slowly. I count each chew the way they teach you to count breaths in meditation classes. I only want to think about the food. I want to stay perfectly present, right here with my breakfast. I don't want to think about Daddy's cough or Hazel's message or the office or anything that may come to me today.
The twisting is still there — the tiny bit of tightness below my solar plexus that nudges me to be alert. I cannot ignore it. Something is about to happen. I whisper back to it after a long, thoughtful sip of my Ceylon tea.
"I am not ready."
* * *
She is sitting on my front steps. Her hair falls down her back in a thick drape of silky blackness, reflecting the morning sun.
"Mari! What are you doing here? I can't believe you're hounding me like this."
"No, no, no, my dear. Hounding is when you go out of your way. Fortunately, you are conveniently located between my place and the train. Therefore, no effort whatsoever!"
I kiss her cheek and she stands, wriggling her toes further into red leather mules with two-inch heels. I met Mari a couple of years ago at the gym after an aerobics class. The exertion had been a little too much for her, and she left the room early. I, recognizing the flushed face of a first-timer, went after her and took her arm just before her body made it clear that the majority of her blood was in her legs and not her head. I kept her from falling over into a dead faint. She's hung on to me ever since.
"So listen ..." Mari takes my arm now so I have to walk, well, this isn't a walk, it's a more of a stroll, at her pace. The rhythm of walking in New York City had come easily to me. Move forward, not back, don't think about the past. Mari still walks with the gait of her native Trinidad; it is a walk of scented evenings and soft warm air, of smoke from clove cigarettes beneath tropical trees and love that aches in slow, exquisite ways. I trip over a raised lip in the sidewalk. This pace is foreign to me. "Oh, watch it dear. I hear tell that someone is throwing a birthday party for me. Oh wait! It's me!" She laughs and the sight of her large white teeth make me smile. "But I have yet to get an RSVP — no matter how hard I've tried! — from one Crita Carter."
"No, you haven't."
"Uh huh, and why is that?"
"I've been busy — distracted."
"Too busy for a two-minute call?"
"Calls with you are never two minutes!"
"Well, maybe not, but I'm not the only one you've been avoiding."
"Mari, I could kick your butt for siccing that sorry excuse for a man on me! I'll call him back when I want an update on the Federal Reserve. What were you thinking?"
"Maybe I was trying to kick you in the butt. Ever think of that my dear? I thought experiencing a Warren would inspire you to seek greener pastures."
"Yes, maybe even find another guy like the one you used to talk about. What was his name?"
"Tree. His name was Tree." Tall. Leonine features. I used to blush at the sound of his name. And I did talk about him all the time, like an accident victim replaying the scene, trying to see if anything could've been different, avoided. When enough time had gone by, I pushed my ex-boyfriend out of my mind and refused to be sorry about him another day. "Anyway, it didn't work. I told you, I'll date when I'm ready."
"But you're never ready!"
"Then that's my problem!"
Exasperated, she drops my arm. "Fair enough, honey. But why haven't you called Lisa?"
"I just got her message."
"I don't believe you! Don't you know it's serious business when a single black woman in New York City isn't heard from in days? Any number of things could have happened to you; you had me worried."
"You could have called my office at any time, Mari, and Isabella would have told you I was there." (Continues...)
Excerpted from All I Need to Get By by Sophfronia Scott. Copyright © 2004 Sophfronia Scott. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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