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THURSDAY, OCTOBER 2
My agent had just said the impossible words any actor would kill to hear. But before I could be sure my ears weren't fooling me, I saw the gun.
It was noon, and Sunset's West Hollywood sidewalks swarmed with cell phone-symbiote lunch zombies. When Len Shemin called, I was scouting a handsome oak desk at a secondhand furniture store's curbside, killing time before I had to get back on set. The dark-stained wood was bolstered by iron struts at the legs and base. It squatted on the sidewalk like a massive pirate chest, something that might have graced Andrew Carnegie's office back in 1900. I was wondering how it would look in my den when my phone buzzed.
"Ten?" Len said. "Just heard from Lynda Jewell's office. She and Ron want to meet you tomorrow. Right across the street from where CAA used to be, at the Peninsula."
Impossible, I thought, as someone brushed against me. Two wiry, tattooed arms in front of me looked like green snakes, and one of them lunged for a low-hanging waistband. The jerky movement made me freeze and forget I'd just heard my fortune told.
"Ten?" my agent said in my ear. My killer was right in front of me, not a step away. I knew at least four ways to stop him before he drew the weapon, but reflexes don't work when your brain is locked in emotional carbonite. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't move. It was the best day of my life, and I was about to die.
A freckled hand emerged from the back of his pants, pointed in a mock pistol's L shape. The gunslinger was a pimple-splotched kid, about fifteen, grinning at me like a fool. "I know you!" the gunslinger said.
But even after I realized the weapon was only in my head, my gut and the knot of muscles at the small of my back tensed when he squeezed the invisible trigger. A year after some very serious professionals had tried to plant me in the desert, I still expected someone to put a hole in my head one day. History never dies.
I couldn't smile for the kid. I gave him a wave I hoped was polite.
"Did you hear me?" Len mosquito-whined in my ear.
I stepped beneath the awning's shade to lean against the shop's white-brick wall. My father used to stop and lean against a wrought iron gate when we walked from the church parking lot to the sanctuary, when his heart didn't feel right. Sometimes you need to stop whatever you're doing to help your heart remember its job. The tattooed kid yammered to a Prius-load of college kids, pointing me out as evidence.
"Lynda Jewell?" I said. "Ron Jewell, too? Tomorrow?" Repeating the basic elements was like pinching myself to be sure I was awake. Anyone else? Stevie Spielberg would make it a Trifecta.
"A meet-and-greet at the bar. Five. What's your schedule?"
Meetings like that didn't happen to people like me. That kind of meeting was an anecdote an actor might recall on Letterman, or on Oprah. My schedule was wide fucking open.
"That's what I thought." Len's voice wavered. Len Shemin is glad when good things happen for me, which is more than most people can say about their blood relatives. "Her assistant's called twice already. We sent in your packet for Lenox Avenue, and that's her passion project. Ron's writing the screenplay, of course. Everyone's after it: Denzel. Will. Terence. Don." The Afrostocracy's single name club. He didn't have to say Washington, Smith, Howard, or Cheadle.
I didn't know I had a "packet," but Len's agency was trying to brand me since I got cast on Homeland. All those years, I'd had it backward: I had to get the work first, and then I'd get my agent's attention. I got a guest spot on Homeland after the exec producer saw me kickboxing at Gold's. He didn't know I was an actor; he just thought I looked like an FBI agent.
A guest spot ballooned to a regular gig with occasional dialogue. I was just a desk jockey or scenery in the training hall, but with three or four lines or a little stunt in every episode, it was my steadiest work in a decade. And I was a celebrity in the twentysomething set after a series of five commercials running on Cartoon Network and Comedy Central, where I was the pleasant face of Progress. "The future looks bright!" the ladies purred. Laugh if you want, but those ads sell a lot of Smartphones.
Month by month, I had enough money to pay my bills, even the surprises, and I was stashing a few dollars in a new category called "Savings." I hadn't realized how good I had it at the time, but that's why they call it hindsight.
Now, Lynda Jewell was calling. In Hollywood, there are only two women with the power to greenlight a movie to say Make it happen and Lynda Jewell at FilmQuest Studios is one of them. Her husband, Ron, is a two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter, which only adds to the shine. Maybe she'd said Hey, call that black guy from So-and-So, and her staff called the wrong brother. I was sure it must have happened before.
"Fuck why. Lynda Jewell is a who. Just be on time."
On time? Hell, I would be two hours early. I'd eat peanuts and bring my Kindle. No traffic jam or hailstorm or other act of God or man was going to get in the way of my meeting with Lynda Jewell.
The tattoed gunslinger passed me again, still grinning. "Hey...Future looks bright!" he said. Three teenage girls joined his side, all Gothed up with no house to haunt. I flashed them The Smile, and they grinned, making "Hail, Hail" bows in a row.
Didn't I tell you I was a god in the late-night twentysomething world?
I was the face of the future.
Rush hour was the major disadvantage to steady work. With the sunset glaring into my eyes, I spent thirty minutes snailing Hollywood Hills's narrow cliffside roads before I reached 5450 Gleason. I was home.
As I drove up, Marcela Ruiz was smiling as she climbed down my coral steps past the cactus garden. Her latest diet had stripped off twenty pounds. Newfound confidence made her walk with a swing in her hips as if she had shed twenty years, too. When I first met her at my father's nursing home, I thought Marcela was plain, almost homely. But smiles focused Marcela's round face, bringing out her cheekbones and eyes. All along, she had been a pretty woman hidden behind her worries. I hadn't seen a sign of those worries in months.
"Buenas noches, Ten," she said, kissing both of my cheeks. "Captain Hardwick bet you'd be late for dinner, and I'm glad I finally won. He waits, you know."
"He does understand that I'm on a series now?" I raised my voice, hoping that Dad might hear me through the open doorway.
"Just glad you made it," she said. She cast a fond glance toward the doorway. "He's doing so good." She blinked rapidly, as if beating back tears.
I squeezed her shoulders. "Gracias a ti." Thanks to you.
Marcela shook her head and pointed skyward, blowing a kiss to God. I stared after her as she climbed into her white VW Rabbit and drove off after a last wave. I liked Marcela, but I still wasn't sure I trusted that smile.
Inside, Dad was in the kitchen. Homeland had paid for remodeling my counters: Now they were low enough for his wheelchair. When I was growing up, we were strictly a Banquet-chicken and macaroni- and-franks kind of house. Dad had always been good on the grill, but now he had a library of cookbooks, an elaborate spice rack, and nothing but time on his hands. In the months between the heart attack and the stroke, he'd taken up watching cooking shows on the Food Network.
By coincidence, the two Hardwick men knew our way around the kitchen more than most women do nowadays. If it weren't for cooking and the Raiders, I'm not sure if Dad and I would have had much to talk about. But it was still better than we'd done in years.
The muscles on Dad's forearm flexed when he pivoted his wheelchair toward me. I'd learned to see past Dad's chair to notice the things worth celebrating, like a sturdy muscle in motion. Dad was about to turn seventy-seven, but his face had filled out again, not caving in on itself. A year before, Captain Richard Hardwick (Ret.) had been practically paralyzed in his nursing-home bed, unable to sit up and feed himself, a slave to the bedpan. Now, Dad was wheeling himself through the house manually, insisting on the exercise. Rescued, as Marcela put it. Sometimes I wished Dad was living across the street instead of under my roof, but moving him in with me saved his life.
"Marcela in town for the holidays?" I said.
Dad's suspicious eyebrow shot up. "Why you ask?" He still hated the slight slur in his voice, but he could make himself understood when it mattered.
"Thinking about Thanksgiving."
Dad hacked at an onion with his knife. His hands were steadier than they'd been in a long time, but I still felt nervous when he picked up the cutlery. "You askin' her to work on Thanksgiving?"
"Just wondered if she'd be around."
I also wondered how long I was supposed to pretend Marcela was still only Dad's nurse, and how long she would call him "Captain Hardwick" around me instead of whatever pet names she used during their hours alone. If the secret was on my account, I wanted to tell him to forget it. My mother died when I was only ten months old, and I didn't feel any need to guard her place in his heart.
However, Dad being Dad, I occasionally struggled not to imagine their intimate time together. Too Much Information. I just hoped I wouldn't have to lie one day when Dad asked me what I thought about Marcela, who was twenty-six years his junior. In the nursing home's sea of piss and apathy, Marcela had seemed like a godsend now, there was an uncharitable voice in my head that questioned the motivations of a younger woman apparently attracted to an elderly man. Dad didn't have many resources other than his pension and insurance policy. Could that be more attractive than his heart and mind? Snakes hissed and coiled behind that mental door, along with a self flagellating jealousy: You just want him all to yourself.
At least I'd been smart enough to say nothing. Dad and I were just getting to know each other, and there's no quicker way to kill a relationship than to question another's chosen. Percy Sledge had it right: Turn his back on his best friend, if he put her down...
Best friend, or son.
"Family in Florida, like April," Dad said finally. "She's goin' down south, too."
I recognized Dad's tactic: You stay out of my business, I'll stay out of yours. Dad had told me it would be fine with him if I flew out to Tallahassee with my girlfriend, April, to spend Thanksgiving with her family. He said April wanted me to invite myself along, and when I asked how he knew that, he insisted that anyone could see it.
April's name prompted me to check my phone. No voicemail. It was Thursday night, but that wasn't always a guarantee, not anymore. I felt anxious, and I didn't like the feeling.
"Thursday dinner," Dad said. "She'll be here."
To change the subject, I considered telling Dad about my Friday meeting with Lynda Jewell, but I was feeling superstitious. Could loose lips kill luck? Chances were high that this meeting wouldn't amount to anything, but sometimes an actor gets lucky.
"What are we making, Dad?" I said, picking up ingredients lined up military-style on the counter: Onions. Tomatoes. Peppers. Marcela was influencing his cooking, too.
"Salllllsa," Dad said. "Wash your hands."
That word "sir" used to hang me up. Behind truancy, that word was probably most responsible for the ass-whippings of my youth. Dad had demanded "sir" from me the way his father had, but the word kept getting caught in my throat. Back then, I hadn't been man enough to show my father respect in a language he understood.
We went to work at the kitchen counter, side by side, our knives snapping against the cutting boards with clocklike precision. His, then mine, and his again. We still enjoyed each other most when we didn't talk, and maybe that would never change.
But that was all right. Words aren't big enough for every occasion.
April didn't use the doorbell anymore, not since I had given her a key. At ten after seven, she let herself in after two quick, shy knocks.
Who is THAT? I thought in the millisecond before I remembered she was my girl. April had changed her hairstyle, framing her face with chin-length braids in the front, elegantly styled into a shorter pageboy style in the back. Her haircut made a dramatic shift on her face, from cute and girlish to queenly. For a year solid, I hadn't touched anyone else. Monogamy was the last thing I'd expected in this lifetime.
My girl. My girlfriend. My life had a new vocabulary.
April undressed herself bit by bit as she crossed the room toward me; her jacket on the coat rack, her hat on the sofa. April's ivory sweater, stretched tautly across her bosom, made me wish we were on our way upstairs. April docked herself against me. "Sorry I'm late," she said. Her lips brushed too quickly across mine. "You won't believe..."
I interrupted her, holding her still for a kiss with a little flavor. Her lips relaxed, offering nectar. Then she pulled away shyly, as she always did when Dad was nearby. April was smiling, but she wasn't planning to stay. I could see it in her eyes.
"So get this: The brother's car blew up," April went on. "They chase him for nearly eight miles, and his Ferrari flips into a ditch. This poor old lady he broadsided on La Cienega might not wake up, but of course he walks away without a scratch."
April's stories from work made me feel tired. After staring down a gun barrel in the desert that day, I felt no schadenfreude. But April hadn't been with me in the desert. She was a police reporter, and death entertained her just fine.
"They're lucky nobody got killed," April went on. "These police chases are out of control. Yeah, he robbed a bank, but sometimes guilty people go free. Deal with it."
"Saw it on TV," Dad called from the kitchen.
Dad had hooked April up with police sources more than once, old buddies from his Hollywood division, many of whom had risen high on the ladder and were willing to speak off the record. Retired Captain Richard Allen Hardwick and April Forrest were becoming a formidable team.
"Where's Chela?" April asked me.
"Chess club, till eight thirty. She said not to wait."
April lowered her chin, skeptical. "Chess?"
"I bribed her into giving it a try."
"How much of a bribe?"
Dad wheeled himself into the dining room, a large plate of warm nachos on his lap. Suddenly, I was surrounded by observers.
"An iPhone," I said. "Let's eat."
"Plainfoolishness," Dad said, or something like it. With words at easy disposal, Dad would have been ranting. A nascent rant glimmered in his eyes. April sighed, too. Tag team.
The fact was, it was Chela's second chess club meeting in a month, which was more commitment than she had given the drama club. Chela needed to buy into something new, and chess had a nice ring to it. Better, by far, than her alternative. Besides, Chela hadn't come around to liking April yet and wasn't sorry to miss Thursday dinner.
For now, separate corners worked best.
Dad mumbled grace too low to hear, the only time he spoke at length without self-consciousness. We couldn't quite make out the words, but the gratitude in his voice needed no translation. "Amen," he finished.
April's face lit up. "Oh, Ten, don't forget the Tau fund-raiser is tomorrow night."
I searched my memory and came up dry.
"The scholarship fund, remember? You signed up for the celebrity booth. People come up and take pictures with you. The committee chair loves Homeland, and she was so excited when I said you'd come. Give me the dates for your episodes, and she'll have all our sorors TiVo you."
I'd forgotten all about the fund-raiser. When April's workweek ended, her community work began. Her exhausting schedule was one of the reasons we saw so little of each other.
"So you're tied up tomorrow night?" I said.
"But if you're there with me..." she said playfully, and grinned. Her dimples wrestled the disappointment right out of me.
"Okay." It was hard to say no to April, another growing problem.
I felt Dad beaming silently across the table. He must have thought he'd arrived in Heaven early. If police captains had the same powers as ship captains, he would have married me to April on the spot. Dad had just heard me commit my Friday night to a scholarship fundraiser hosted by one of the country's most prestigious black fraternities, Tau Alpha Gamma. Dad was a Tau, too, but I had refused to pledge during my year in college, mainly because I knew how badly he wanted me to. Dad never left the house except to see his doctor, so I knew better than to invite him.
"Thanks, Ten." April draped an arm over me when she kissed my cheek, which gave me hope that she might come upstairs after dinner. "Guess who else committed today? T.D. Jackson." Her voice soured. "He must be on a goodwill tour before his trial. You know it must be for a good cause if I can stand to be in the same room with him. I'll have to meditate first."
T.D. Jackson. Fallen football and action star, accused of murdering his ex-wife and her fiancé. Despite a mountan of physical and circumstantial evidence, he'd been acquitted in the criminal trial six months before. No surprise there. The rich and famous rarely go to prison. Justice would have another crack at him, though: The civil trial would begin in a week.
Twenty years before that, T.D. Jackson lived in my dormitory suite for about three months while I was at Southern California State. He was a star from the moment he set foot on campus. What I remember most was the parade of girls to and from his door. Once, I ran into him in the bathroom as he flushed a condom away at six in the morning. The lazy sneer on his face said: Most of you losers aren't even out of bed yet, and I've already been laid.
T.D. Jackson made April crazy. The thought that he had gotten away with abusing and finally killing an upstanding sister seemed to keep her awake at night, as if his very existence set back the progress of civilization. Her teeth were already grinding.
"Innocent until proven guilty," I reminded her.
Dad and April both made comments, but they kept them under their breath. The guilt or innocence of T.D. Jackson and what his case did or didn't say about the roles of race and gender in the criminal justice system had already brought too much arguing to dinner.
But I was glad I would run into T.D. again. I didn't expect him to remember me, but I looked forward to shaking his hand and staring into his eyes. Wondered what I would see there. If I was right, T.D.'s eyes would probably broadcast the same thing April had just told me herself: Sometimes guilty people go free. Shit happens.
Deal with it.
Copyright © 2008 by Trabajando, Inc., Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes