I stood outside the apartment I came to look at, and my first impression was that the building was beautiful. That is, until I walked inside and saw that stairwell. Talk about old. The railing looked as rickety as the ones you see in horror movies, and the stairs were so dusty that when I put my foot on the first step, a claylike powder puffed up like a cloud under my dress, and I could've sworn they were going to collapse. I was making a mistake I knew that already. Something had told me the ad sounded too good to be true: "Large one-bedroom, fully renovated brownstone, 10-foot ceilings, all new appliances, exposed brick, southern exposure, 10 minutes to Wall Street, close to shops, subway: $500."
I heard the sound of hammering from the top of the stairs, so I took my chances and ran up. Sawdust was flying around the white room like gold snow. I looked down, saw a curved red back, then a long arm flying up, thick black fingers grasping a hammer, and when it swung back down, the sound of the impact scared me. I jumped.
He looked up, then stood. "What can I do for you?" he asked.
"Lord have mercy," was all I heard inside my head. I couldn't move, let alone speak. I really couldn't believe what I was seeing. This man had to be six foot something, because he was towering over me. His eyes looked like black marbles set in almonds. He wore a Yankees baseball cap, backward, and when he lifted it from his head to shake off the dust, his hair was jet black and wavy. That nose was strong and regal, and beneath it was a thick mustache. His cheeks looked chiseled; his lips succulent. And those shoulders. They were as wide as any linebacker's. His thighs were tight, and his legs went on forever. He was covered with dust, but when he pushed the sleeves of his red sweatshirt up to his elbows, his arms were the color of black grapes.
"Did you come to look at the apartment?" he asked.
I cleared my throat and heard a word come out of my mouth. "Yes."
Then he smiled down at me, as if he was thinking about something that had happened to him earlier. "Well, we running behind schedule as usual and I don't know when we gon' be finished. I been trying to figure out how all these damn mice been getting in here. Ain't found it yet. And I don't know how the roaches and water bugs getting in here either. Tribes of 'em. We gon' have to fumigate this place good before anybody even think about moving in here."
Mice? Water bugs and roaches? This place is brand new. Was he joking? "Are you the owner?"
"I wish I was. He's back there," he said, pointing down a long hallway. "Hey, Vinney!" he yelled. "Somebody's here to see you, man."
Before I started in that direction, I did notice that the living room was big and shaped like an L. Three tall windows extended from the ceiling almost to the floor, which meant sunshine. The kitchen was over in a corner, but I could live with that. Halfway down the hall was the bathroom. I peeked in and turned on the light. I couldn't believe it. A sea-blue bathtub, toilet, and sink! And clean white tile on the floor and walls, and one of those orange lamps in the ceiling to help you dry off . So far so good. When I entered the doorway at the end of the hall, I was standing inside a sunny bedroom, with two more windows.
"Hello, Miss Banks," the owner said, then reached out to shake my hand. I shook his, even though it was filthy.
"Let me say first off that we'll be finished in a day or so. You like what you see?"
"The man up front said he didn't know when you'd be finished. He also said there were problems with bugs and mice."
"That's bullshit. First of all, like I said, we'll be finished in a day or two. And we ain't seen nothing crawling around in here except men. The place has been completely gutted everything in here is brand-new. Frankie's known for being a jokester, but today he's pushing it."
Frankie? What a stupid name for such a striking man. "What's this little room over here?" I asked.
"Oh, that's just sort of a extra-large closet. It's too small to call it a bedroom, which is why we didn't put it in the ad. Perfect for a kid, though. But you said you didn't have kids. Use it for storage, whatever."
It was a tiny room, but I guessed I could squeeze my piano in. I walked over to the window. At least there were trees back there, even if they were in other people's yards. I looked down at the wooden planks under my feet. "What are you going to do to the floors?"
"We're laying the finest carpet available in every room except the kitchen area and bathroom. Sort of a beigy color neutral, you know. That suit you?"
"There's no way you could put in hardwood floors?"
"You want the apartment? There's plenty of interest in it already. I coulda rented it this morning, but I knew you were coming, and I wanted to be fair, you know."
"If you can put in hardwood floors and guarantee that the stairwell won't look like it does now for too much longer, I'll take it."
"First off, when you renovate a whole building, you always save the stairs till last, or they'd be worse off with all the ripping and running the men do up and down 'em. And hardwood floors? It'll cost you a few dollars extra for the labor, and'll add a few more days to the job."
"How much extra?"
"Not much, if you get pine. Don't worry, we can work something out. You positive you want wood? They collect dust like there ain't no tomorrow."
"I'm positive." I didn't care about the dust. When I first walked in here, I had already pictured shiny wood floors, not some drab carpet. And I hate beige. It's so boring.
"Frankie," he yelled. "Come in here a minute, would you?"
He walked back into the bedroom, ducking his head under the arch. I tried not to look directly at him, because I was thinking that I wished he came with the place. I tried, instead, to look indifferent.
"What's up, boss?" he asked sarcastically.
"Why'd you tell this young lady all those lies?"
He threw his arms up in the air and grinned. And had the nerve to have dimples. "I was just kidding, boss."
"One day all your kidding is gonna cost me money, Frankie. Anyway, she wants wood floors 'steada carpet. I want you to get over to Friendly Freddy's and get a estimate today. Can you have everything finished in four or five days?"
"Maybe," he said, lighting a cigarette. He blew the smoke upward, and my eyes watched his lips close around the filter again. I wished I was a cigarette.
"He'll have it done in five days," Vinney said. "If that's soon enough?"
"Come on down the street to my office, and we can tidy up the particulars. Oh, hell, I ain't got any lease forms. I have to run to the stationery store and pick up some. You can help yourself to a cup of coffee. This wont take but a minute."
"Watch him," Frankie said to me. "He's Italian." I started to follow Vinney down the hall and had to brush past Frankie, because he acted like he didn't have any intention of moving out of my way. My breast wanted to brush against his chest, for the pure warmth alone, but I did just the opposite. When he saw this, he flung his arms up over his head and pressed himself stiffly against the wall. I ignored him and gave the place another once-over. Yep, I thought, I could definitely live here.
"Vinney just sold you a bunch of crap. You the first person to look at this place. This is a racket, they just call it business. See you in three weeks," Frankie said. He was back in the living room, driving more nails in the floor.
When the mover pulled up to my new home, Frankie was sitting out on the stoop in a tight white T-shirt, smoking a cigarette and drinking a Heineken. I swear, he looked like a black Marlboro Man without a hat and horse. Orchards of soft black hair were peeking out from the V, but I didn't want to stare. And muscles? They were everywhere. I wondered if he worked out or just worked hard. His face was drenched with sweat, and it looked like black tears were falling from his temples. I can't lie: I had to stop myself from walking over and patting them dry.
"Your bedroom floor is still wet, so you gon' have to put all this stuff in the living room."
"What? Vinney told me it was finished."
"It is finished; it just ain't dry."
Shit. I turned to the driver of the truck and explained the situation to him. He got out to open the back, and I put my hands on my hips and looked up at my windows. "Well, I'm here," I said, to no one in particular.
Frankie just kept on smoking.
When I'd hired the guy to help me move, he'd told me there'd be two of them, but this morning only he showed up. I'd asked some young guy who happened to be passing by if he wanted to make a quick forty dollars, and he jumped at it. Of course I didn't want him to know where I was moving, so I didn't ask him to come to Brooklyn. I had carried enough boxes myself, and now I was tired at the thought of hauling all this stuff upstairs. "Moving sure is hard labor," I sighed.
"Yes, it is," Frankie said, and took a sip from his beer. I thought maybe he'd at least offer to help, but he didn't.
"Would you mind giving me a hand?"
"I don't work for free."
Not only was he a handsome creep, I thought, but he was nasty. Even so, I couldn't carry all those heavy boxes up the stairs. "How much?"
"Not much," he said. He flicked his cigarette about three feet away and at the same time jumped off the stoop. For the next hour, I watched him lift and pull things off the truck. Those muscles kept popping up in his arms and shoulders, and he was sweating like crazy. And every time he walked past me, all I could think about was that I bet some woman loves to roll over into those arms at night.
It took close to two hours for us to get everything except the trunk upstairs. It was full of records, and I knew it was too heavy for one person to carry, so I offered to help, but Frankie refused. He slung it up in the air, balanced it on one shoulder, then walked on up the stairs like it weighed twenty pounds.
I paid the driver and ran upstairs. Frankie was busy pushing the larger things against the living room wall. Boxes were stacked everywhere, including on top of the couch. I walked back to the bedroom and stood in the doorway. Sunlight was streaming through the windows, and the floors looked like strips of gold. When I felt his presence behind me I turned around, and my nose grazed those soft black trees on his chest. My lips felt moist, and my heart was about to jump out of my chest. I inched away from him and almost stepped onto the wet floor, but Frankie grabbed my elbows and pulled me back into the hallway.
"Don't you mess up my floor," he said.
I was nervous, but I willed my mouth to talk. "You did a fantastic job on the floors, Frankie. Really. I didn't expect them to turn out this beautiful."
"Thanks," he said, turning back down the hallway and winking at me. "I try to do everything good."
I guess this was supposed to be his way of flirting. It must've been working, because all the air in the place seemed to be disappearing. I took a deep breath and prayed I could say what was necessary without sounding like I was going through any major changes. "How much do I owe you?"
"How much did you pay the white boy?"
"I gave him a hundred dollars."
Now, why did his eyes light up like that? "Was that too much? All the movers in the Voice asked for about the same."
"Naw, that wasn't too much."
"I've only got about thirty dollars in cash left, but if there's a cash machine in the neighborhood, I can go get more. I really appreciated your help."
"Keep your money."
"No, really. You earned it, and you said yourself you didn't work for free."
"I know what I said. A little charity every now and then won't kill me. So tell me, are you a Miss or a Mrs.?"
He sat down on a box and crossed his arms. Before I could tell him it was none of his business, I blurted out, "A Ms."
"Oh, so you one of those feminists?"
"What if I am?"
"I just asked. Does that mean you like women?"
"Give me a break, would you? Do I look like I like women?"
"Looks don't mean nothin' in this day and age. But to answer your question, no."
"Then you've got your answer." I started looking at box labels, to see which one had the dishes in it, not that I really needed a dish right then. He was making me nervous. Shit. Talk about being direct. I had to do something anything to keep moving, because he didn't act like he was getting ready to leave, and even though what he just asked me was tacky as hell, I didn't want him to leave yet either.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Only if it's personal."
"Is your real name Frankie?"
"No. It's Franklin. Why?"
"You just didn't look like a Frankie to me."
"You can call me Franklin if you want to."
Had I already given him the impression that I planned on seeing him again? Men. Not only are they presumptuous, but this one here can read minds.
"You ain't never been married?" he asked, lighting a cigarette.
"No," I said tartly, and started looking for something he could use for an ashtray.
"Don't get so touchy. I was just curious. What you gon' do with all this space?"
"Put it to good use."
He would have to make it sound like I'm a damn spinster or something, wouldn't he? "Yes," I said, and handed him a rusty can I found under the sink. It already had ashes in it, which meant it was probably his.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it seems awful funny that a single woman would pay this much rent with all this space and live here by herself, that's why."
"I sing and play the piano, and I need all the space I can get. And compared to Manhattan, this is cheap. Does that answer your question, Franklin?"
He smiled at me. "A singer, huh?"
"Yes, a singer."
I spotted a box that looked like whatever was in it would look like I needed it. As I went to lift it, Franklin jumped up to help me. Damn, even his funk smelled good,
"What's your name again?" he asked, putting the box on top of the counter.
"Zora. Zora Banks."
"That's a helluva name. Suits you. I know you heard of Zora Neale Hurston, then, right? The writer?"
As much as I hated to admit it, I was becoming more impressed by the minute. "I was named after her."
"You recorded any albums? I'm pretty up on all kinds of music, and your name don't ring no bells."
I knew one thing his grammar was terrible, but everything else seemed to be compensating for it. "Nope. No albums yet. I'm working on it."
"Well, what kind of music do you sing?"
"All kinds," I said.
"Is that what you gon' tell a record producer? That you sing all kinds of music?"
"You know, you sure ask a lot of questions."
He smiled. "How else you suppose to learn things if you don't ask?"
God, his teeth were white. "Well, to be honest, that's exactly what I'm working on, developing my own style."
"I always thought it was about feeling the music. Sing me a few notes."
"Sing you a few notes? Be serious. First of all, I've just barely got inside the door of my new apartment, I don't even know your last name, I'm not in a singing mood, and I'm tired."
"My last name is Swift. I can understand you being tired and everything, but I'd like to hear you sing one day. I don't meet many singers."
Swift was putting it mildly. He stood directly in front of me. He was doing this on purpose, I just knew it. Probably just wanted to see how long it would take me to melt. He was much too good at this. "So you're assuming I'll be seeing you again after today, is that it?"
"I can guarantee it," he said, walking toward the door. "We getting ready to start on the building two doors down."
Then he was gone. I stood there looking at the door like a fool, as if I was in a trance or something. I swear I couldn't move. I felt affected. And that door kept opening and dosing, and each time it opened he would just stand there, looking right through me. To snap out of it, I had to shake my head back and forth until the door stayed dosed. Then I went over to the sink and dangled my fingers under the water until they could feel that it was too damn hot.
I wanted to unpack my books, but I needed toggle bolts to put the shelves up. I'm terrible when it comes to doing things like that. There are some things I really don't want to learn how to do. I couldn't put my stereo together, because there's too many wires. Which means I'll have to pay somebody to do it, just like I've always done. The phone company was supposed to have been here by now, but of course they're late, so I couldn't call anybody. And last but not least, I was starving.
I walked down the dirty stairs and noticed that the door to the first-floor apartment was cracked open, so I peaked inside. I saw a disgusting shade of yellow tweed shag carpet. I'd been told two women were moving in tomorrow. "Dykes probably," Vinney had said. "Don't bother them, and they won't bother you." I walked out the front door and locked it.
The heat was piercing and the humidity thick. I was trying to decide which way to go. When I looked far to the right, I saw lots of traffic, which meant businesses, so I went that way. At the corner was a fish market, where I bought half a pound of scallops. Right next to it was a produce stand that sold everything from vegetables to Pampers. I bought broccoli, fresh mushrooms, scallions, a large bunch of flowers, paper towels, toilet paper, and white grape juice.
I decided to walk home around the block, to get a better feel for the neighborhood. Some gay guy was standing out in front of this gorgeous little gourmet shop, trying to entice people to come in.
"Free coffee samples to celebrate our grand opening," he said. "You look like a lady with good taste. Come on in, honey. Try some. It's divine."
"Thanks. Maybe another time." I'd only taken a few steps when the rich scent of coffee lured me back. He handed me a finely printed piece of peach-colored paper that described the store's specialties. All kinds of delicacies, imported foods, breads, every kind of cheese you could think of, dried fish, and pickled everything. I went inside, and staring me in the face were samples of white Scandinavian chocolate.
"Go ahead, it's fabulous," he said.
My fingers itched with desire, but I said, "No. I can't."
"Oh, come on. One little piece won't hurt. Go on. Splurge."
The next thing I knew, not only had I eaten a piece, I'd bought a quarter pound (which I vowed to stretch out over a week or two). I also got some dilled Havarti cheese, liver pâté, some kind of crackers I'd never heard of, and a pound of Vienna roast mixed with mocha Java.
"Come back again," he said, and I assured him I would.
Most of the neighborhood was still run down, and even though there were scaffolds everywhere I looked, it would be years before this area was pretty. "You moved here at the right time," Vinney had said. "In a few years everybody and their mother'll be flocking to Brooklyn from Manhattan. Who can afford that rent? This is what you call a changing neighborhood. It's the pits now, but stick around a few years, you won't even recognize it. You're getting this place at a steal, you know."
By the time I got home, I was drenched. I found the box with the towels in it and took a cool shower. Afterwards, I found the box with the cleansers and scrubbed the kitchen shelves inside and out. I didn't care that they were brand-new. I didn't ever want to see another roach. Then I pulled out the pots and pans, cooked dinner, and sat down on top of a box to eat. I sure wished I had some music. I put the flowers in water in my coffeepot and set them next to my plate. Lord only knew when I'd be able to afford a dining room set. The piano comes first.
That night, I slept on the living room floor. The couch was buried in boxes, and my platform bed wouldn't do me much good because I had thrown the mattress out. I made a pallet of three blankets and flipped one of them over me like a sleeping bag. Sometime during the middle of the night, I woke up. I heard a sound, like movement, but I couldn't tell where it was coming from. I was afraid to move, so I just lay there as still as I could. This was the worst part of living alone: when you're scared and don't have anybody to turn to. The noise was coming from the refrigerator. Please, God, don't let it be a mouse. Just the thought of seeing a ball of gray fur made my stomach turn. I got up slowly and went and knocked on the refrigerator door. If it was in there, it could run out the way it came in, and I wouldn't ever have to see it. I waited a few seconds, then opened the door slowly; the only thing inside was my leftover dinner and the things I'd bought. I felt relieved, but to be sure, I opened the freezer. A plastic box was filling up with oval-shaped ice cubes. I had completely forgotten about that damn icemaker.
I lay back down and stared at the white walls, which now looked blue because of the street light shining through the windows. I closed my eyes, but they wouldn't stay shut. They kept seeing blue. I got up and went over to the counter and broke off a piece of chocolate and lay down again. This is how it always starts, Zora, I thought, then stomped to the bathroom and flushed the entire contents of the bag including what was in my mouth down the toilet.
I turned on the fan and stood in the middle of the living room, listening to it oscillate. The blankets felt cool on my bare feet, but it was hot as hell in here. I lay on top of the blankets and tried to go to sleep, but then my breasts started to throb, and I watched them rise and fall. Not tonight, I thought. I don't have the energy. My nipples hardened. This was their way of letting me know they needed to be touched, kissed something. Without realizing it, I cupped both hands over them and started to massage them. I can't lie: I pretended they were Franklin's hands. Then a heart started beating between my legs. His hands slid down my belly, stroked the inside of my thighs until my body was electric. I couldn't help it when my legs flew open. And by the time his hands found the spot, moved in, and pressed down, I felt like a hot wet sponge being squeezed. My body jerked, and I couldn't stop shivering. I wanted him to kiss me forever, put his arms around me and hold me, keep me warm and safe. I gritted my teeth and squeezed my eyes tighter so I could keep him there. That's when I felt the tears easing out from my lids, and my hands dropped to the floor. "I'm so tired of this," I said out loud. So I wiped my eyes, got under the sheet, and pulled it up to my chin. But I could've sworn Franklin said, "Don't stop now," so I pulled the pillow inside my arms until it felt like a man.
"Come on, baby," I heard him say. "Give it all to me."
And that's exactly what I did.
In the morning, a knock at the door woke me up. I was lying in front of the stove; the blankets were over by a stack of boxes. I looked at my watch. It wasn't even seven o'clock. I got up from the floor, put on a cotton bathrobe, and opened the door without even thinking to ask who it was. Franklin was standing under the arch. I wiped the sleep from my eyes. "You drink coffee?" he asked. "Yes," I said, and let him in.
Copyright © 1989 by Terri McMillan