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The Company You Keep
By Angela Henry
Kimani PressCopyright © 2006 Angela Henry
All right reserved.
I, Kendra Clayton, am usually a very easygoing person. A laid-back sister. Mellow is my middle name. But even I have my limit. After waiting for more than an hour in a deserted parking lot in the middle of the night, I'd about reached it. I'd long since grown tired of arguing with my hardheaded friend Bernice "Bernie" Gibson. My feet were killing me, and you know when your feet hurt, everything hurts. I looked over at Bernie and saw that her bottom lip was poked out and her eyes were narrowed. The expression was a cross between a pout and a scowl. Truth be told, it was not girlfriend's most flattering look. If I wasn't so pissed at her, I'd have told her never to make that face again.
I'd finally reached a point where patience and common sense were fighting a hard battle. After telling me she wanted to wait ten more minutes, patience got its ass kicked as I felt the last of mine disappear into the night air.
"Look, Bernie. This is ridiculous. I'm taking you home now! Not in ten minutes or ten seconds, right now! It's getting late, and I'm tired. So quit fussing with me and get in the car!" Rarely am I this annoyed, but tiredness and foolishness, especially hand in hand, had a way of doing a number on my disposition.
"Well, all right then, if you're sure it's not too much out of your way," she saidmeekly as she opened my car door and got in.
Actually, it was out of my way -- way out of my way. But I wasn't about to let her keep waiting for her boyfriend, Jordan the Worthless Wonder, to pick her up when it was obvious an hour ago that he wasn't coming.
"I really do appreciate this, Kendra. I just don't know what could have happened to Jordan tonight. He's got my car. His is in the shop," she added quickly, just in case I thought he had free run of her car, along with her house and her money, which I already knew he had.
"I called him several times, and he's not there. I sure hope nothing's wrong." She sounded close to tears.
I had a pretty good idea where Jordan was: out creepin'. But I wasn't about to voice my opinion to Bernie. Bernice Gibson has been a coworker of mine at the Clark Literacy Center for the past three years. I'm an instructor with the General Educational Development program, and Bernie is the center's tutor trainer and coordinator. We're the only two black women employed by the literacy center and have become friends outside of work as well.
Tonight had been the literacy center's annual recognition program honoring all of this year's GED graduates and all the students who had worked so hard throughout the year. The ceremony had gone smoothly. It wasn't until the reception afterward that I noticed that something was bothering Bernie. First of all, she didn't eat, which definitely wasn't like her. Bernie and I have a shared love of food, especially sweets. Most of the time when we get together socially, it's at Estelle's, my uncle Alex's restaurant, or at one of our homes to try some new recipe.
"Girl, you better go get some of that carrot cake before it's gone," I had told her.
"Oh, I will," she said absently as she looked around the room.
"Who you looking for?"
"Jordan said he'd come tonight. I thought he'd be here by now."
"I'm sure he wouldn't miss it for the world," I said. But I couldn't quite manage to keep the sarcasm out of my voice because Bernie gave me one of her "don't start on Jordan" looks and walked away.
Bernie and I get along very well -- except when it comes to Jordan. It's not that I'm jealous or anything like that. It's just that I hate to see a woman as nice as Bernie being taken advantage of by a slick, worthless brother like Jordan. Jordan Wallace came to Willow, Ohio, a little more than a year ago. Bernie met him when he started renting the house that she owned and had lived in before she moved in with her mother, who became ill several years ago and died not long afterward of cancer.
Everything about Jordan is a little too extreme for me. He's extremely fine -- in a smarmy sort of way -- extremely well dressed, extremely charming, and extremely phony. He also doesn't seem to have a job. Bernie says he's self-employed as a business consultant. I'm not buying that mess for a minute. All anyone needs is a business card and, bam, you're in business. From what I've seen, the only business Jordan seems to be involved in is using his good looks and charm to get what he wants out of women. He tried it on me once when Bernie wasn't around. But I'm just a little fish with nothing he considered valuable to offer. In other words, I'm broke, so it had been a half-hearted attempt at best. Besides that, he'd been drunk, and I think maybe it was my threat of bodily harm that had really put him off.
Bernie and I drove along in silence. I decided to avoid all mention of Jordan.
"I thought Regina gave a great speech tonight, didn't you?" I asked, trying to make conversation.
"She sure did, didn't she?" Bernie agreed. "I'm so proud of that girl," she said with the first real smile I'd seen all evening.
Regina's a student in the GED program. She could barely read when she first started coming to the literacy center when she was eighteen. Now, two years later, after a lot of hard work and help from Bernie, who's her tutor, she is at a high school reading level and is about to take her GED exam. The speech she had given at this evening's program had been about how her self-esteem and self-worth had risen along with her reading level. It had been so moving that there was hardly a dry eye in the house.
I started to comment on the wonderful job the caterers had done on the reception, when suddenly a car pulled out from a side street and cut right in front of me, coming within inches of hitting my car. I slammed on my brakes. Bernie and I flew forward in our seats. I instinctively threw my arm across Bernie's chest. I don't know why people do this. It isn't like it would keep anyone from flying through the windshield if the impact were great enough. I looked up in time to see a carful of teenagers, rap music blaring, speed off down the street.
"I swear these damn kids are going to kill someone one day!" My heart was beating so fast I thought it might jump right out of my chest.
I looked over at Bernie. The smile that was just on her face was gone and had been replaced by a very tense look.
"Well, I'm about sick of this shit!" she said suddenly. I was shocked. I rarely heard Bernie curse.
"I know what you mean. These kids drive like damn fools."
"No, I'm not talking about that," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I'm talking about Jordan."
Now I was really shocked. As bad as Jordan treated Bernie sometimes, I'd never heard her say one negative thing about him.
"You know this isn't the first time he's done this to me, Kendra," she continued angrily.
I knew all too well how many times Jordan had disappointed Bernie and had stood her up. I decided to keep quiet and let her vent.
"And I know where he is too, with that little white heifer who I've been renting my house to!"
So she did know about Jordan and Vanessa Brumfield. I always wondered how she couldn't know when it seemed like everyone in town did.
Vanessa Brumfield's a petite brunette who started renting Bernie's house after Jordan -- at Bernie's insistence -- moved in with her. Bernie's mother had left her the family home and a large sum of money when she died. Bernie never sold her own house and used it as a rental property.
I remembered Vanessa from high school. She had been one of those disgustingly peppy chicks who had been involved in everything from drama club to cheerleading. I do remember hearing through the grapevine that Vanessa's father had disowned her when she married a black man. Vanessa is now separated from her husband, which is why she's renting Bernie's house.
"Kendra, will you do me a favor and take me past my old house?" Bernie asked.
I smelled trouble and was not about to get in the middle of it. I conjured a mental image of two grown women rolling around fighting in the yard while Jordan stood there with that shark's tooth grin of his. It didn't seem normal for any one person to have that many teeth.
"Listen, Bernie, why don't you go home and cool off first before you go confronting anyone? He may not even be there." She looked at me as if I'd lost my mind.
"I'm not going to confront anyone! All I want is my car. She can have Jordan, and she can cart his sorry ass around until his car is out of the shop!"
Well, it was about time she finally saw the light. Although, I couldn't help wondering what brought on this sudden change of heart. Something told me that our brush with disaster a minute ago didn't have anything to do with it.
"Where's all this coming from? First you're about to cry because he didn't show up, now you're ready to kick him to the curb, and all in the space of a half hour!" I glanced over at Bernie. She was twisting the leather strap of her purse in both hands as if she were trying to wring a good answer to my question out of it.
"I'm just tired of feeling like a fool, that's all. Ever since he moved in, things have been going downhill between us. He borrows money from me left and right, he won't lift a finger to clean up after himself, and he expects me to wait on him hand and foot!"
I was bursting to say "I told you so." But I could see how miserable she was and didn't want to kick her when she was down, so I kept my mouth shut.
"I know how much you hate Jordan, and I didn't feel like hearing 'I told you so," she said as if reading my mind. "I kept hoping things would get better but they haven't. I found out about two weeks ago that he's been messing around with the girl who's been renting my house. I should have known something was up when he started volunteering to go over there and pick up the rent. The first time I asked him to do it he acted all put out and told me he'd only do it once because he wasn't a damned errand boy. After that, he was always over there any time she had any little problem with anything, which was all the time. Now I know what's really been going on!"
And it was about time, too! "Well it's all for the best, Bernie," I told her. "I'm just surprised you put up with him this long. I'd have sent him packing a long time ago." I wouldn't have gotten involved with him in the first place. But I felt it best to keep that to myself.
Bernie's head whipped around so fast I half expected it to snap right off her neck.
"Well when you get to be my age and you're trying to hold something together because you're tired of being alone, we'll see how much you're willing to put up with!" she said, glaring at me.
Excerpted from The Company You Keep by Angela Henry Copyright © 2006 by Angela Henry. Excerpted by permission.
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