Read an Excerpt
Brandon, you twenty-one . . . and you ain’t got no kids?” Little Pooh Riley’s wide eyes bugged out as he searched his mentor’s face for an answer.
Seated a few feet away from his favorite student, in the front of the basement classroom off the center’s busiest hallway, Brandon Bailey shrugged. “Pooh, how many times I gotta tell ya,” he said, smiling, “you don’t have to start making babies when you turn sixteen.”
“Mmm-mmm, I don’t know ’bout that,” the saggy-faced cherub said, shaking his head feverishly. “My momma say all most men do is make babies and leave. She done already told me I’ll do the same thing, by the time I’m fifteen.”
“Fifteen!” Brandon slapped a hand over his mouth as the class rocked with laughter. Slow your roll, don’t rub the boy’s face in it, he reminded himself. “Uh, Pooh,” he said, choosing his words carefully as he held up a hand to quiet the other twelve boys in the class, “next time you talk to your momma, tell her about me.”
Pooh ran a fidgety hand over his classic Washington Bullets jersey. “Aww, I don’t know about that, Brandon, you a little young for my momma!” The other nine-year-olds erupted in another fit of amusement, some of them cupping their mouths and hooting toward the front of the classroom. “Brandon gon’ get some booty! Brandon gon’ get some booty!”
“All right, that’s enough.” Brandon kicked his miniature plastic chair aside and stood, stretching his sinewy legs and smoothing his beige Dockers slacks. “Pooh—all of you, for that matter—my point is you don’t have to make babies at any age. Most of my classmates at Highland? We’re waiting until we graduate college and get good jobs before we bring children into the world. You can, too.”
Anthony, a lean, gawky hood-in-training, sat up in his seat and twisted his neck skeptically. “My granny say all men is dogs and any who ain’t are punks. Gay, in jail, or married.”
Brandon felt his heart surge self-defensively. “Your granny? How . . .” It occurred to him he probably didn’t want to go down this road, matching wits with a grandmother who was probably younger than his own mother. He reminded himself: he was here, as he was every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon, to teach these boys basic math and pray that his “positive example” rubbed off in some way. It was just so hard to see any progress in them some days.
He had nothing to prove to them. By now, Brandon’s applications to Duke, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Johns Hopkins were all signed, sealed, and delivered. Each application had been packed with the envy of every Highland premed student: stellar recommendations from two arts and sciences deans, spanking GPA and MCAT scores, and mentions of his strong medical lineage (Pops, Brent Bailey, as well as Grandpa, Willie Bailey, continued thriving private practices). His admission to med school was money in the bank.
Yes, he thought as he closed the class with one last word problem and dismissed the boys to the courtyard for afternoon break, Brandon Bailey had done quite well for himself these past four years at Highland. So why had the ill-conceived ideas his students had about manhood bothered him so much just now? Could it be, the thought asserted itself as he wiped the blackboard clean with a moist paper towel, his growing unease about the legacy he was leaving on Highland’s social scene? “Legacy,” he said to the empty room as he tossed the limp towel into a round metal can near the doorway, “what legacy?”
Even now he couldn’t believe it; in two months he’d be leaving Highland University behind. The nation’s top-ranked HBCU (historically black college/university), Highland was the one place where amazingly beautiful sisters of every hue were a moment-by-moment fact of life. How lovely the sight, day after day: nothing but allegedly ripe-for-the-picking, deliciously desirable, fiercely intelligent black queens. Whether he wound up at OSU, Northwestern, Duke, or Johns Hopkins, he’d never again see such a selection. All that opportunity, he thought, and what did he have to show for it? He had let four years at this oasis pass him by without finding Ms. Right. Everyone knew the first reason you attended an HBCU was to grab yourself a mate.
How had he, Brandon Bailey—high school star defensive back, future physician, a guy told more than once he looked like Theo Huxtable with body—how had he managed to emerge romance-free from a campus with a three-to-one female/male ratio? His mother, Barbara, and every other woman in his family constantly reminded him how great a catch he was. That had to be more than familial bias, didn’t it?
He swept the silly questions from his head, shut the heavy wooden door of the classroom, and strode down the hallway to the nearest exit. Thrusting the door open, Brandon searched the courtyard for his boys. The circular space, covered in craggy concrete and hemmed in by Ellis’ aging brick walls, was a rowdy place today. The boys and girls, ranging in age from three to twelve, were scattered across the courtyard, running, tossing, pinching, screaming, and taunting like mad. Four other counselors and a security guard crisscrossed the area, damping the groups playing too hard and bringing order to the few kids dangling at the fringes. Brandon walked over to where Pooh and several of the boys were running around. He took Pooh aside so they could talk.
He looked to his left and right, trying to respect the boy’s privacy. “Hey, your mother doing any better?”
“Not really,” Pooh said, his eyes suddenly aimed at his shoes. “Some strange dude been comin’ over a lot, man. A Japanese-looking guy, Nico.”
“Well,” Brandon said, “are you afraid this Nico’s going to hurt your mother?”
“I don’t know. I just know he always talk in hushed tones, acting real serious. I stay out of his way as long as he don’t be touchin’ her.”
“That’s best,” Brandon said. “Listen, Pooh, don’t forget. Any time you wanna talk, I’m here—”
“Excuse me, everyone!” Sheryl Gibson had taken center stage in the courtyard, her hands cupped around her mouth like a megaphone. Brandon noticed the wrinkles in her red pantsuit and the weariness in her eyes. Her condition reminded him that Sheryl, and the center in general, needed so much help. This private-donor campaign had to work. He’d been up most every night the last few weeks coordinating a Highland alumni pledge drive for Ellis, but there was only so much time.
“Listen, everyone,” Sheryl said as the counselors herded the children toward the center and instructed them to take seats on the cool concrete, “we have two Highland students here today to give you some information about the field trip next week. Yes,” she said, shaking her head at a counselor giving her grief from a few feet away, “this will be a short trip. You’re just going to go across the street and get a full tour of the campus. But you have to have your parents’ permission to leave Ellis’s premises. These ladies are going to pass out the forms and tell you more about the trip.” She stepped forward and motioned into the crowd behind her. “Monica?”
A young woman stepped forward and began speaking in a smooth, confident voice. Her athletic figure, trim but rounded in all the right places, was nestled beneath a flattering Guess jeans ensemble. “Boys and girls,” she said sweetly, “let me tell you about a special place, a land called Highland . . .”
From his perch near the back of the courtyard, Brandon gulped like an embarrassed child. Panic crept up his shoulders as his face grew dewy with sweat and the gallop of a crazed horse beat within his chest. Monica Simone! The woman he’d worshipped from afar since his first days at Highland had invaded Ellis, his private sanctuary, a place where he could selflessly serve and be free from the vagaries of his lonely nights. Again Brandon was reminded he was not your stereotypical brother, the sex-crazed, verbally adept hound that TV and movies portrayed every chance they got. No, Brandon’s rapping skills came straight from Dear Old Dad, and even today Pops was the first to admit he’d been no Bobby Brown in his single days.
As Monica completed her presentation and the kids rewarded her with a round of frantic applause, Brandon felt a burning in his chest and tried to gather his nerves. Monica rendered him as helpless as a child suffering his first crush. He watched her turn toward Sheryl and make conversation for a moment. By the time he’d leaned over and grabbed up his Highland backpack, Monica was a foot away, making her way through the shrinking crowd as the kids were rounded up for Sheryl’s comments. His chest still heaving anxiously, Brandon checked his watch and realized he was a few minutes late to meet someone. Should he even bother speaking to her?
“Hey, Brandon,” Monica said, flashing a polite smile and pausing as his eyes met hers. “You’re a counselor here?”
Caught in the thicket of her caramel complexion, flowing ebony mane, and soft cheekbones, Brandon was a deer in Monica’s headlights. His mouth refused to work. His mind swam in an alternate reality, one where he imagined the ways he would meet her every need, calm her innermost fears, and stoke her heart’s most passionate desire, if she would only let him. Oh, if only, he thought . . . What could he say to her, when the stakes of every word, every flirt, were so high? His legs planted into the courtyard’s cement ground like two stubborn iron poles, Brandon swallowed carefully. “I, uh, yeah, I do work here, with the eight- and nine-year-olds. Math,” he said, the last word coming out with a squeak. Why couldn’t a love jones endow him with some cool for a change?
Seemingly unaware of his sudden difficulty with words, Monica twirled a lock of her hair around her right index finger. “I think the things you all do here are great. I plan to sign up and teach one of the business classes next year. Figure I may as well share the marketing knowledge HU’s taught me.”
“That’s admirable,” Brandon said, noticing his voice had regained its bass but was sounding too deep now. His mind pushed him forward. Come on, now, say something charming . . .
“I’d better go,” Monica said, shifting her weight slightly and tucking her notebook under her arm. “Bye now.”
Returning her smile and wondering if her wave was as coy as he hoped, Brandon watched Monica walk off and felt his mind fill with thoughts no Christian boy should entertain. He had it bad. As the gallop in his chest slowed to an exhausted limp, he realized he had missed yet another golden opportunity. Monica was gone. On the scoreboard of his heart, paralyzing fear had scored yet another touchdown, and Brandon hadn’t even scored a field goal since high school. Since Brandy.