Read an Excerpt
Last things first
"Don't you try to move. Not one inch."
I can't believe this is happening to me. Feels like I'm stuck in a movie. Something with guns. Thelma and Louise. But those threatening words aren't spoken by Susan Sarandon or Geena Davis. They aren't spoken by one of the handful of working black actresses, either. Not Halle Berry, Vivica Fox, Sanaa Lathan or Paula Patton. Those threatening words are spoken by Nikki, formerly known as Nikki Gerald. The married name she still answers to is Nikki Darling. The third wife. She's the third woman with the last name Darling. I have a name for that pitiful triumvirate. Jacqueline. Dawn. Nikki.
I call the three Darling women the Counterfeit Wives.
Married to the same man. Destroyed by the same man.
Filled with hate because of what that man did to them. Each one of them possesses a level of hatred most folks will never own. They say there are very few things more volatile than a woman scorned. Looking at them, I have to agree.
Oh what a tangled web we weave, I think, as they surround me in my living room.
Nikki says, "You move one inch you even breathe too deeply and I swear to you, God will have to piece you back together. And that won't be easy for Her."
I say, "Her?"
"Created the entire universe in six days, only took one day to rest yeah, Her." At that, Nikki presses the cold finger of judgment deeper into my neck. She's behind me. I can't see her. But I feel her heat. Her energy. The madness flowing through her veins.
I say, "Relax, Nikki. Don't make it this serious."
I remain calm in a situation where most would abandon calm for panic. I don't panic. Panic would have me dead in a matter of seconds. I don't want to die.
Nikki says, "Too late for that shit. You made it serious."
I grasp for some hope, and ask, "Did you get my message?"
She presses the cold metal object harder into my neck. "Got it before your ass even sent it," she says through what sounds like gritted teeth.
I close my eyes. Try to focus. The hate in the room is palpable. It's a living thing. It's a poison. Deadly, like carbon monoxide. How to play this?
I open my eyes, and with just a touch of anger I say, "Move that thing away from my neck, Nikki. I mean it. It's not a toy. And this is not a game."
She responds by jabbing me in the neck again with the object. "Not a game? You must be on drugs. You made this into a game, for real. Now Nikki is going to finish this shit. I'm going to Disneyland and getting myself on the Wheaties box, too. 'Cause I'm most definitely about to win this round. 'Bout to be like the Miami Heat in this bitch."
A past champion, I want to tell her. Old news, I want to mock. But I don't.
Instead, I say, "You don't move that " I pause to get some control over myself, stamp away the indignation and anger that season my thoughts. Through gritted teeth of my own I tell her, "Move that away from me, Nikki, or you'll be finding yourself on a milk carton instead of a Wheaties box."
She laughs. It's a crazy, horror-movie type of laugh. She says, "As much as I know this must be killing your ass you can't control every situation. I'm in control of this. So shut the hell up."
She's right. I'm not in control.
I hate forfeiting power. I hate the misbalance of that.
I messed up letting these women into my home. Should have known better.
The great irony, they've got me imprisoned with my own gun.
I wonder which one Nikki has trained on me. The .338 Winchester Magnum hunting rifle usually housed in the hall rack just off the foyer? A hand-me-down from my father. He used it to hunt elk, mostly. Or the small .22 I keep snug in the large drawer in the kitchen behind a silverware compartment tray? I prefer the .22 myself. It's easy to conceal and has enough kick to stop most people dead in their tracks. Call it my peacemaker. I've got names for everything. Murderous wives. Guns.
"Let's go for a ride." That's wife number one. Jacqueline.
I tell her, "I'm not riding anywhere with you bitches."
Jacqueline says, "Oh, now we're bitches. Thought we were sistahs woven from the strong cloth of Africa. Beautiful seeds from Africa's rich soil. Queens."
I repeat, "Bitches."
Nikki cuts in with, "Save all the chitchat for Oprah. Dawn, come handle your bidness."
They're a well-oiled machine. Each one of them has a role in this mayhem. It's a scary situation. And I don't scare easily. Usually.
Wife number two, Dawn, steps from the shadows behind me. I stare at her. She doesn't return my gaze. I look at her hands. They're shaking slightly. She's my only hope. I have to break her in order to break them. Divide and conquer.
I look closer at Dawn's hands. Confusion seizes me. A wad of panty hose, a bra and a Baby Phat belt. Those are the things she's holding in her shaky hands.
Nikki says, "Come on, Dawn. Don't shut down. Handle your bidness."
Dawn snaps out of her funk, moves right up to me. She finally looks up. Her eyes are beautiful. Her best feature, in my opinion. This is too bad.
I say, "You're a stone's throw from crazy, girl. You take part in this, and you're certified. Once you get involved in something like this, there is no going back. You'll never be able to shake the rotten smell of this thing, Dawn. Never." I run out of more things to say to her. I hope what I've said has some kind of impact. Hope it edges her a bit closer to sanity.
Dawn says, "Crazy, you're right. I came by it naturally, as you know," and raises her hands. I tense. Nikki jabs at me again with the weapon. Dawn takes the bra and covers my eyes with it. She steps around me and knots it in the back. Too tight. The wire-mesh underpinning bites into my skin.
I say, "Bitches."
Nikki clucks me in the head with the gun. It stings my scalp. "Don't call us out our names no mo'."
Bitches is my last word. Dawn stuffs my mouth with the wad of panty hose. Buckles my arms behind my back with the Baby Phat belt.
Women gangsters. Thelma and Louise.
A wad of panty hose and a bra and a Baby Phat belt. Women gangsters.
Jacqueline says, "Let's move. We need you to walk straight ahead five paces and make a right."
I don't budge.
Nikki says, "I'm craving sweets and salts, which means I'm on flo-jo. I'm cranky and uncomfortable. You know what I have in my hands, too. I wouldn't be defiant today. Defiant will get you messed up lovely. Defiant will have you seeing the white lights. You want to see the white lights?"
Reluctantly I move. Count off the steps, turn left. Right into the wall. I bang my knee against it. "Shit," comes muffled out of my mouth. I sound so strange with the wad of panty hose crammed against my tongue.
A tortured laugh escapes Nikki's mouth. "We said right. Right. What you nervous? Yo' fucking house. You don't know where the walls are. So sad. Maybe that means you don't deserve this shit. Maybe that means you've gotten it in an ill, foul way. On some treacherous shit."
I want to tell Nikki that her gutter mouth is what prevents her from finding that real love she so desperately wants. No man of any substance would ever seriously consider a relationship with her. She's good for one thing. Can't take her home to Mama. Can't turn that hooker into a housewife.
But I can't tell her any of this. The wad of panty hose stuffed in my mouth prevents me from speaking clearly enough for her to understand.
Dawn says, "Let's try this again. Walk ahead another two paces. And how about you go right this time?"
She sounds confident and relaxed all of a sudden. In line with the other two. I move as directed. Dawn continues to guide me until we reach a spot where the air cools, and the smell on the air changes, too. Shaved wood and rusty nails. That's what my nose picks up. The garage, I realize. There's a hammer in here somewhere, an industrial strength staple gun, a couple of sharp saws. I could rectify this sticky situation if I could get my hands on any one of those tools.
Nikki takes me by the crook of my arm and guides me forward. I know it's Nikki's hand on my arm. It's gentle yet hard at the same time. Just like her.
She says, "We're at your whip. Duck your head down and slide in."
I do as directed and slide inside. It has that new car smell to it. An obsidian black Benz coupe, with a glovebox-mounted six-CD changer, a harman/kardon sound system, plush leather interior. I imagine the luxury of the car bothers the Counterfeit Wives. Imagine they believe it was bought with blood money. Their blood.
Nikki says, "Dawn, you drive."
"No. Roads are too congested for me."
"Oh, right. And it's awful dark. Jacqueline?"
"Yeah, yeah. I get the grunt work."
"Feel free to take this off my hands," Nikki says, "and I'll be happy to drive. I always wanted to push a whip like this anyway."
Take this off my hands. She's talking about the .338
Winchester Magnum or the .22. I still haven't seen what she's holding. And before they blindfolded me, she adeptly stayed out of my line of sight. It's scary. They seem to know what they're doing.
Jacqueline says, "No, you're right. I just got my nails done. I'm not trying to use that."
Use. I make note of that word. It isn't a promising one.
They move me over inside the Benz. Three doors slam closed. The engine roars to life, and then the sound of the stereo fills our space. Stations are shuffled. Stops on one, finally. Volume on the stereo goes way up. It makes my head hurt. Makes my head throb. Ne-Yo and Fab"You Make Me Better."
Then as quickly as it came, like a flash rain, the music disappears.
Jacqueline snaps, "I'm not driving all the way to Camden listening to rap, Nikki. Sorry."
Nikki snaps back, "And I'm not riding all the way to Camden listening to some tired ass music."
Jacqueline gasps. "I'll pretend I didn't hear that. I won't even rock your world by letting you know Tupac is most definitely dead."
Nikki says, "Is not. Somebody spotted him in Oakland a month ago."
Jacqueline says, "That boy is playing Spades with Elvis right now."
Nikki adds, "That's right. Somebody saw Elvis in Oakland a month ago, too."
Dawn says, "I'm not riding all the way to Camden listening to you two going back and forth."
Jacqueline says, "Who asked you, Dawn?"
Nikki adds, "With your crazy ass. Tying folks up with your undermentionables. A fucking bra and belt. Bitch, you ain't have any duct tape and rope?"
Nikki has a coolness to her that is endearing. Has her own vocabulary. Undermentionables.
I hear a sound. Like palms slapping. Then laughter. Three distinctive laughs. Divide and conquer is no longer a hope. The Counterfeit Wives, they are a united front. But all I can really think about is something they all said.
Largest city down in South Jersey. Working class, rough and tumble. Drugs, prostitution, gangs. All the things that plague the worst of urban communities, they are rampant in Camden, you'd think they were invented there. Camden is in the running every year for the distinction of Most Dangerous City in the U.S. First or second, usually, in play with Detroit on an annual basis. A dumping ground. A place where murder isn't front page news, it's a way of life.
Heavy thoughts. But the Counterfeit Wives aren't in heavy mode. They're still bickering about music.
Nikki says, "What we gonna do about music, then? I ain't trying to listen to no old shit, Jacqueline. I told you I'm on my period. I'm not even in the mood for that crap."
Dawn pipes up, "I got the perfect person."
Nikki groans. "Oh Lord. Who? I'm so worried right now it's gonna be Clay Aiken or some shit."
Dawn says, "I was going to suggest myself. I used to love to sing. I was very good, too."
Nikki says, "You? Two bars. I'll be the judge. But I've got to warn you, I'm more Simon Cowell than Paula Abdul."
Dawn clears her throat, sings a few lines. "Wind Beneath My Wings." Her voice is majestic. Applause fills the car when she finishes.
She sings well enough to have a career at it.
Sings like Mariah, Whitney, Mary J. Sings like Alicia, Keysha, Beyoncé.
All she's ever needed was a chance. Last thing she ever needed was a treacherous husband. Last thing any of the wives needed, in fact. Shame grips me.
Jacqueline says, "That was incredible, Dawn."
"Thanks. Thought I was going to really do something with my singing. But, well, I stopped."
"That was tight, for real. Why'd you stop?" Nikki asks.
Dawn doesn't answer. Silence fills the car, takes over for the applause from earlier.
Why'd she stop? It was stolen from her.
We ride on quietly for the next twenty minutes or so. I keep track by counting off Mississippi's. An idle mind is the devil's playground. I've let Satan rule so much of my mind, so much of my dealings with the Counterfeit Wives. It's time I cast him off.
Camden. It may be too late.
I think about the .338 Winchester Magnum hunting rifle. If the Counterfeit Wives kill me with it, I won't be the first body on that gun.
Nikki says, "Motel isn't far from the exit."
Dawn asks, "You're sure we'll be okay there, Nik?"
"Place is a fucking graveyard. Long as we don't kick any tombstones we'll be fine."
Jacqueline says, "All of this is unbelievable."
Nikki whispers, "Every freakin' last part of it."
We ride on for another three hundred Mississippis, and then Nikki directs Jacqueline to exit. The car slows. I feel the momentum of a turn.
Nikki says, "Left at the Stop sign. Ride it out straight.
Motel's on the left at the end. Right up the street from The Liquid Kitty."
Dawn asks Nikki, "That's the place where you ?"
"Yeah. That's where I shook my moneymaker for crumpled dollar bills. It was enough that they disrespected us girls by wanting to damn near shove the money up our pussies," she complained. "But then the added indignity, they'd give you the dollars all crumpled up and shit."
She can speak so well, is talented with words. I wish she chose to curse less, to settle into her intelligent side more than that off-the-hook ghetto side that she was raised under. I want the best for all of them, believe it or not.