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Apple Brown Betty
By Phillip Thomas Duck
BETCopyright © 2007 Phillip Thomas Duck
All right reserved.
"I know, Nan. Hot."
George Williams stuck his tough-as-worn-leather fingers under the bathtub spigot, recoiled them just as quickly. The flowing water was plenty hot, and yet, for Nan, it probably still wouldn't chase away the chill deep in her bones.
Nancy, George's wife, rocked on the toilet seat, an oversize blue terry-cloth robe hanging off her bony frame. She shivered despite the heat rising from the floor vent. George had been pumping her full of Cup o" Noodles for the past few weeks but her eyeballs continued slowly receding into her face. Her lips were dark, like overripe plums, getting darker and more chapped by the day. But George still found warmth in those lips.
"Code," Nancy slurred, bunching her shoulders together and fumbling to close the robe tighter around her body, a body covered with marks and goose bumps. Within the hour, knowing her, she'd be sweating, complaining about how hot it was. Her body temperature, like most everything else, was shot.
George studied the rising water level in the tub. "You cold, baby? I got the heat way up. It'll just be a couple more minutes, Nan. Okay?"
Nancy rocked forward again, snuck a peek in the tub and flared her nostrils in disgust. She looked away and shook her head.
The phone ringing from the living room crawled into the bathroom. Georgebit into his lip and then rose with expectation. He brushed his hand over Nancy's shoulder as he passed her.
He cleared his throat. His voice was tinged with nerves and regret as he answered the phone. "Hello, Williams" residence."
"Holla," a young male voice said.
"Someone called me."
"I a" George struggled to form the words.
"You sound like an oldie but goodie, player. You need a blessing, Pops?"
"Got your name off my son," George said. "I need some stuff."
"Who's your son, Pops?"
"Slay." The young man's tone changed. "Slay never mentioned any father to me. Matter of fact, I'm lying, he did once. Said dude was dead."
George cleared his throat again; nerves and regret nonetheless remained. "I'm Shammond's stepfather." George closed his eyes, hoping and praying that this was and wasn't a roadblock. He did and didn't want this to go through smoothly. Complex.
"Aiight, Pops. I'll hook you up. What you need?"
"Crack," George said shamefully.
"Da rockda da da rock," the young boy bellowed. "A blessing, like I said, right?"
George ground his teeth. There wasn't any blessing in this. "You can get it for me?"
"You live in the Beach Arms with Slay's moms?"
"She lives with me, yes."
"Meet me down at the beachfront by your apartment tower, past that shitty-ass bulldozer. I'll be down by where the street-lights are blown out."
"How do I?"
Dial tone rudely ended George's query.
How do I know you? How much for the product?
Questions swirled through George's head as he placed the phone back in the cradle. It wasn't like he was experienced at this. He sighed and moved back toward the bathroom.
Nancy's blue terry-cloth robe lay in a puddle on the floor. She was submerged in the steaming-hot bathwater, still shivering. Her glassy gaze was off in the distance. She was oblivious of her husband standing nearby. George peered down at her, studying her nude form. Spindly arms, dark marks over her once-perfect maple skin, an unruly thatch of hair, flaked with dandruff, sprouting from between her bony thighs. Almost all of the beauty she once had, gone.
"I'll be back with something to hold you over," George whispered. A tear threatened his eye and he cleared his throat yet again and moved before the tear overtook him, before he changed his mind.
Despite his troubling task, he moved from his apartment tower with a spark in his step. The cold chill of the air hit him as soon as he exited the lobby. To make matters even worse, there was a strong wind blowing. He looked up at the flagpole by the streetlamp. The red, white and blue American flag and the black POW-MIA flag below it violently flapped in the wind. He rubbed his hands together and blew on them for warmth. The gesture was futile. There would be no warmth tonight. He looked both ways as he crossed the trash-strewn lot for the gate leading to the forgotten beach. He thought about years agoclose to twenty now he guessedwhen Asbury Park thrived. The carnival rides, the exuberant board-walk. All of it gone now. Back then he had a different wife and two little girls. Enduring the heartache of a woman that he didn't love and that didn't love him. Then he left it all for real love, for Nancy, Nan. Heartache was still a close friend, but love was a powerful salve. Love, he kept reminding himself in these dark hours, love.
Moving through the gate toward the sand of the beach, George kept his eyes on his feet as he walked through the patchy grass. He didn't want to step on those black bird droppings that dotted the ground like land mines. Reaching the sand of the forgotten beach, he looked back at the apartment tower, shook his head. The things one does in the name of love.
A rusted bulldozer spray painted with graffiti rested in the middle of the sandy plot of beach. He passed by it as he'd been instructed to do and moved down by the water so he could see up the other end of beach. The cold was really pressing upon him now, so he tightened the collar of his plaid hunting jacket and hunched his shoulders in to his ears. He hadn't even had time to change out of his maintenance clothes. He still wore the army-green khaki pants and long-sleeved corduroy shirt. He still had on those cheap and dangerous Honchos boots from Payless without a built-in steel toe. He continued to rub his hands together. Bouncing in place like a man who needed to urinate.
A figure moved from the shadows to his left. Tense and nervous, George jumped. It was an old bum, his pants dirty with what looked like oil stains but wasn't. The old man murmured something as he passed by, carrying a lone tire like a sack of groceries. George looked back to make sure the man had, in fact, moved on. He didn't want to get caught with his guard down and catch a screwdriver to the shoulder blade. The old man with his tire stumbled across the lot and disappeared into the alley next to George's apartment tower.
George looked at his watch, decided he might as well walk up the other end. He headed up the beach toward the non-lighted section, regret peppering his steps.
There were assorted brown and green bottles lying partially covered by sand. Crumpled cans of forty-ounce beers, too. Cigarette butts. Used crack vials. The sight of these things made George's stomach do funny things, made his insides rise and fall.
He noticed an outline move onto the beach ahead. It appeared to be a young man, smoking a cigarette or perhaps something else, so arrogant and hardened that the cold of the night didn't make him shiver or shake. George moved toward the shadow.
George came upon the young man and stood there silently, unsure, waiting on the youngster to speak first.
The young kid blew out a plume of smoke and then dropped his cigarette and stamped it into the sand. He wore a wool FUBU scully, a FUBU sweatshirt, baggy black FUBU jeans, Timberland boots and a black FUBU jean jacketa walking billboard for FUBU. Even in the darkness of the night you could see the lack of care or worry in his eyes. He stood there looking at the ocean waves, George next to him, waiting.
"You brought some coin right?, FUBU asked after a moment. George's posture changed. This was the moment. "Yeah, I got your money," he said. The words left a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Got some of my best shit inyou gonna love this, Pops."
"Not me, this is for someone else," George told him. FUBU turned and looked at George. "That's one I never heard before."
"You probably wishing it so, Pops."
For some reason, George felt impelled to explain. "It's for my ladyshe's got a bit of a problem. I'm just trying to help her out until we can figure out how to get her set right."
FUBU smirked. "I feel you, Pops. Screw rehab, right?, George grimaced from the cut of judgment in FUBU's voice. Of course the kid was right, but life sometimes wasn't as simple as it should be; sometimes it was way too complex. George cleared his throat. "Not to rush you or anything," he said, " but it's cold out. My lady is waiting, this ain't exactly real estate we transacting here. I'd like to get on my way."
"Pass off the coin, then," FUBU said. "Twenty beans for two pops." He was trained to keep it cryptic so he'd never find himself pinned against a fence, his hands pulled painfully behind his back while he was read his Miranda rights.
Twenty beans. Twenty dollars, right?
Embarrassed to ask, George reached into his pocket, pulled out a crumpled twenty and handed it to FUBU. Overtime money, flushed down the drain. FUBU took the bill and placed it in the side pocket of his jacket. He lowered his head as if in thought, reached into his pocket again and pulled out a Newport. Pulled his lighter and deliberately lit the Newport. Shook his head and dragged on the cigarette.
"Aren't you forgetting something?, George asked.
"You got any other children than Slay, Pops?"
"I told you I wanted to move this along. You got my money. Can we finish up here?"
"You got any children other than Slay, Pops?, FUBU repeated.
FUBU cut him off. "Simple thing to ask, Pops. Answer the question. You got any other children?"
George sighed. "Two daughters from my first wife," he said. "My lady now has Shammond and his sister, Cydney. I consider them mines. I'm all they known since they was young. They daddy, Dare, um Darius, was a friend of mine and II kinda stepped in when he passed on."
"Is that so?, FUBU said. He took another drag on his cigarette. "You sound like a for-real cat, Pops. Banging your boy's old lady, claiming his seeds and making sure his old lady don't have to come out in the cold and suck some nigga's dick to get her fix on."
George's chest tightened. He pointed a crooked finger at FUBU's chest. "This is bullshit. Give me my stuff, boy."
FUBU dropped his cigarette, stamped it into the sand like the previous one. He didn't acknowledge George's anger, didn't appear to fear it. Turning away, he started to walk off.
"Hey. Where are you going?, George called.
FUBU kept his step without looking back or answering. George rushed him and grabbed ahold of his shoulder. FUBU wheeled around at the touch, something black, cold, steel, in his hand. He pressed that black finger of judgment into George's chest. Released that white heat into George; the shot lifted George up like a boxer's uppercut punch. Two more pops and George slumped down to his knees. FUBU stepped back and let George tumble face-first into the sand with the green and brown bottles, the crumpled forty-ounce beer cans, the crack vials.
"Sucka nigga," FUBU said as he spit on George and walked off with a strut of arrogance. The gunplay hadn't been a part of the job but he figured it wouldn't be frowned upon. he'd more than earned his money.
George moaned in pain for a moment, his eyelids heavy. He wondered how long it would be before he was found. His breaths came slower, just a drip of life left in him. Farther up the beach, in the other direction, was the rusted bulldozer spray painted with graffiti. Just beyond that was the bare grass with all those little black droplets of bird feces. Then there was the trash-strewn lot. The red, white and blue American flag and the black POW-MIA flag blowing violently against the flagpole. Then, at the end, the apartment tower, twenty-five floors in all. George wondered, as his last breath came, if Nancy, on the thirteenth floor, knew how much he truly loved her.
Excerpted from Apple Brown Betty by Phillip Thomas Duck Copyright © 2007 by Phillip Thomas Duck. Excerpted by permission.
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