Just My Luck

( 2 )

Overview

Today is no ordinary day for thirty-eight-year-old Lanita Lightfoot. Today represents the culmination of years of struggle and sacrifice. Today she graduates from college. But first, Lanita?s husband treats her to a day of beauty at an upscale black salon in Los Angeles, during which she shares her story with the staff and the other customers?and what a story it is. . .

Talk about an entrance. Lanita was born in a little corner store in the thick of the Watts riots. Her untimely...

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Just My Luck

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Overview

Today is no ordinary day for thirty-eight-year-old Lanita Lightfoot. Today represents the culmination of years of struggle and sacrifice. Today she graduates from college. But first, Lanita’s husband treats her to a day of beauty at an upscale black salon in Los Angeles, during which she shares her story with the staff and the other customers–and what a story it is. . .

Talk about an entrance. Lanita was born in a little corner store in the thick of the Watts riots. Her untimely entry into the world saved the joint from being sacked by looters–and the shop owner showed his gratitude by giving Lanita’s mother, Aretha, a decade of rent-free residence. But when the reward dries up and Aretha takes to the bottle and a no-good loser boyfriend, Lanita’s life takes a sharp turn for the worse. Forced to live in a cramped, dingy apartment, Lanita longs for her real daddy to ride to the rescue. But when he finally shows up, she finds he isn’t quite the knight she’s dreamed of.

Still, Lanita is determined to make something of herself. A straight-A student throughout high school, she is accepted to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and marvels that she’s finally escaped the ghetto. As Lanita embarks on the journey of becoming a woman, she encounters icons including Michael Jackson and Todd Bridges, who help transform her perception of her own life. But one year short of graduation, she must return to Los Angeles to care for the ailing Aretha–an unpleasant reality that leads her to join in a sordid West Hollywood strip club and farther away from her dreams–until the fateful night her high school heart throb shows up at the club and shows her that the easy money she makes comes with a high price.

The bestselling author of The Night Before Thirty, Tajuana “TJ” Butler delivers one of her most richly imagined, complex, and beloved characters yet–and delves into the void that many young women spend their lifetime trying to fill: the one left by a father’s absence.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for The Night Before Thirty

“Fun, upbeat and modern . . . Butler brilliantly depicts the surprising relationships that develop among five women.”
–Atlanta Daily World

“Engaging . . . You keep on turning those pages.”
–Baltimore City Paper

“[An] enjoyable read . . . [Butler] tackles some very important issues about life, self-esteem, sexuality, and relationships.”
–QBR

“Sweet . . . a tightly structured work that offers a realistic look at the ‘life issues’ many of us confront.”
–Upscale

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812967999
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/25/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 8.03 (w) x 5.25 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

TAJUANA “TJ” BUTLER is the founder of Lavelle Publishing and is also a writer, poet, and public speaker on women’s issues. In addition to Hand-me-down Heartache, Sorority Sisters, and The Night Before Thirty, she is the author of a collection of poetry, The Desires of a Woman. She attended the University of Louisville. She lives in Kentucky.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

As Lanita approached the salon, she could barely contain her excitement. It had been a long time since she’d had the extra time or money to even get her hair done, let alone indulge in the pampering she was about to enjoy, but her husband had insisted she spare no expense during her visit. Today was their special day. Today they would celebrate what had taken years of struggle and sacrifice to complete—their college education.

As Lanita reached for the salon door, she looked down and noticed four quarters scattered on the sidewalk. Smiling, she bent down to pick them up. Another small gift to remind me of who I am and what I’ve accomplished, she thought. She tossed the quarters from one hand to the other and then placed them in her pants pocket before opening the door.

Already feeling more relaxed, Lanita approached the receptionist, a pretty young woman with immaculately groomed hair and a cheerful, welcoming smile. “Hi, my name is Lanita, and I’m scheduled to see a stylist, nail tech, and facialist. I’m not sure in which order,” she said with a small laugh, “but I know I’m supposed to begin at ten. I’m a few minutes early, but I believe it’s better to be a few minutes early than a few minutes late, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure,” said the receptionist. “Have a seat over there. Someone will be with you shortly—but are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Lanita said. She touched a hand to her hair. “Why do you ask?”

“I saw you bending down outside. It looked like you’d lost something.”

“Oh, that,” Lanita said with another laugh. “Thanks for asking, but I haven’t lost anything in some time. I was actually reaping my blessing, that’s all.” Smiling warmly at the receptionist, Lanita glanced around, noting the tasteful, expensive decor. “Wow, this is really a nice salon. It reminds me of the ones on those reality shows where they take people to get makeovers. This setting really makes a person feel like she’s privileged to be here.”

It was the receptionist’s turn to laugh. “Well, we are one of the top salons in Los Angeles, the crème de la crème. Our clients include a number of celebrities and their families. I think you’ll find our staff is top-notch.” The young woman winked at Lanita, giving her a knowing smile.

“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve been pampered—in fact, almost twelve years—but believe you me, there was a time when I would go to places like this weekly.” Lanita sat down, easing herself into her chair and unconsciously assuming the air of someone accustomed to the luxurious setting. A heavy sigh followed, and before she knew it, she had fallen into deep thought. As excited as she was about what the day would bring, she couldn’t help but remember the events that had led her there. She shook her head, choosing to distract herself by enjoying her surroundings and focusing on the present. After all, that was what today was all about—the present and the future. “So what’s your name?” Lanita asked the receptionist.

“I’m Natasha,” she responded. “By the way, would you like something to drink?”

“Sure. What are my choices?”

“There’s bottled water, sparkling or flat, red and white wine, or orange juice.”

After a moment of thought, Lanita said, “I’ll take the sparkling water. I’m graduating from USC today, and I don’t want to begin celebrating too early, if you know what I mean.” Lanita snapped her fingers, all but dancing in her chair.

“Congratulations!” Natasha said. “Are you sure you don’t want a glass of wine? You should start the day off with a bang.”

Lanita instantly felt somber. “To be honest with you, I never touch the stuff—alcohol, I mean. Not after what it did to my mother and me.”

Natasha looked down at her phone, seeming unsure of how to respond. Then she said, “I’ll get that water for you.”

Across the room from Lanita was a large chrome-trimmed mirror. After Natasha left the room, Lanita got up and slowly walked over to it. Gazing at her reflection, she saw an aging woman wearing red Capri pants, a yellow T-shirt, and a silver chain with a silver-dollar pendant. Frowning at what she saw, she ran her fingers through her hair. “Girlfriend,” she said, “you’re in a bad need of a relaxer, and when was the last time your thirty-eight-year-old self had that dead skin removed from your face?”

She grabbed the pendant and kissed it. Then she placed it so that it lay just so against her chest.“Flat as pancakes,” she said of her breasts. Sliding her hands over her body, admiring her trim figure that otherwise had curves in all the right places, she smiled. She then turned her back to the mirror, looked over her shoulder, and placed her hands on her hips, shaking her derriere in the mirror. She might be close to forty, but her backside still looked just fine.

Just then Natasha came back in the room, carrying a glass of water. She cleared her throat unobtrusively and Lanita abruptly stopped dancing. She was caught. She managed a nervous giggle, saying, “You’ll have to excuse me. I’m usually more dignified, but I . . .”

Natasha laughed. “No need to apologize. Sometimes you just have to celebrate in your own way.” She handed Lanita the water.

“I’m so embarrassed,” Lanita said, feeling the flush in her cheeks.

“Don’t worry,” Natasha said, squeezing Lanita’s shoulder. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper and said, “I won’t tell anyone.”

“Thank you,” Lanita said, her cheeks still hot with embarrassment. She took the glass from Natasha and again turned to view herself in the mirror. “For the past few years, I’ve been doing my own hair. I use my husband’s clippers to keep the ends trimmed. I’m not good at all, but I’ve gotten better.” She smoothed her hand over her short-cropped hair. “Recently I’ve been going for the Halle Berry look, but I’ve had so much going on these past few weeks, with finals and all, that I’m definitely missing the mark by a long shot.”

Still staring into the mirror, this time Lanita noted the effects of years of living. “Time waits for no one,” she said under her breath before looking at Natasha. “I hope the stylist here will hook me up. You know, make me feel beautiful again.”

“We have exceptional hairstylists, the best in town. I’m sure they’ll do a good job of reminding you just how beautiful you are.”

“I sure hope so, because my husband is a good man and he’s spending a lot of money on me today, money we really don’t have to blow.” Lanita turned to look at Natasha. “Don’t get me wrong,” she continued. “We pay our bills. We’ve just been putting a lot back saving for another house.” She took a sip of water. “He doesn’t have much, but he treats me like I’m a princess. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of one day marrying a prince. Let me tell you, the man I married is as chivalrous as any of those men in the royal families over there in Europe—maybe even more so. He’s handsome, considerate, loving, and dashing. You know what I mean?”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “I wish I did. They don’t make many men like that anymore, especially not in Los Angeles.”

“Girl, he’s broke compared to the rich men I dated once upon a time. He doesn’t have two pennies to rub together to make a dime. He cuts glass for a living, you know, for mirrors and tables and shelves. We’ve invested a lot of money into our education. We both decided to go for broke and get our degrees.”

Lanita walked past Natasha and sat back in her chair. “We’re gonna be just fine. After today I’ll have my degree and he’ll have his. We’ll both be able to begin new careers.”

The phone rang and Natasha rushed to pick it up, resuming her seat behind the front counter. After listening for a few moments, she said, “Okay, I’ll let her know,” and then hung up.

She turned to Lanita, saying, “You were supposed to be getting your facial first, but Miss Lina is running a little late, so you’ll see Jimmy Choo first. He’s going to style your hair. He should be here in a couple of minutes, just as soon as he’s finished up in back.”

“Jimmy Choo?” Lanita said. “You mean the guy who makes those thousand-dollar shoes does hair too?”

“Well, no,” Natasha said. “They do share the same name, but they are two different people.”

“Is Jimmy Asian?”

“Yes, he is,” Natasha said. “Is that okay?”

Lanita almost jumped out of the chair. “I don’t mean to overreact, but is he educated about caring for African-American hair? Everything has to be right today. I’ve had some real horror stories in the hair department. Once a French lady gave me a relaxer and my mane shed for weeks. I nearly went bald until my mother gave me a protein treatment.” Lanita frowned. “I’m sorry, I’m just a little scared. I mean, I can’t go across the stage looking all crazy. When I take off my cap, my hair needs to be bouncing and behaving, not embarrassing and shaming.”

“Trust me,” Natasha said. “Jimmy knows what he’s doing. As a matter of fact, he does my hair.” She reached up to fluff her smooth, shiny layered bob.

“Well, your hair looks good,” Lanita said. “Now that I think about it, the guy who does Halle Berry’s hair is Asian too, isn’t he?” At Natasha’s nod, Lanita said, “Now, that’s a good sign. Maybe he’ll be able to make me look as good as her.

“So, how late is he going to be? I have to meet my sweetie on campus at one o’clock sharp. Graduation begins at one-thirty.”

“He should only be about ten more minutes.” Natasha’s warm smile put Lanita at ease.

“Oh, that’s not bad at all,” Lanita said, relaxing back.

Natasha took another call. When she was finished, she looked up and asked, “Do you have any plans after graduation, or are you going straight into job hunting?”

“We’re considering a short vacation,” Lanita said. “We hope to begin working at the end of the summer.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“The French Polynesian islands,” Lanita said, sighing.

“But how could you two afford that? I thought your money was tight. I don’t mean to be forward . . .”

“That’s okay. Yeah, the islands are pricey, but a girl can wish, can’t she?” Lanita smiled, crossing her legs. “You’ll be surprised at the amazing things that have happened in my life that weren’t supposed to.”

“But, Tahiti and places like that.” Natasha shook her head. “That’s a lot to wish for just out of school.”

“You’re right, but stranger things have happened in my life. My mother always said that just enough of King Midas’s blood runs in my veins to turn hard luck into gold, but not enough to keep it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. I was born lucky.”

“Lucky?” Natasha said, skepticism creeping into her voice.

“Yes. I consider myself an intelligent and levelheaded woman, but honestly, I’ve had a streak of luck that has followed me since birth. I was born during the Watts riots of 1965, and my birth prevented a man’s store from being burned to a crisp.”

“You were born in Watts, California, during the actual riots?” The skepticism in Natasha’s voice was beginning to turn to awe. “That must have been crazy for your mother.”

“Yeah, and because that man’s store didn’t get burned down, he gave me and my mother a place to live rent-free for years. Isn’t that lucky?”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Natasha said. “I remember reading about the Watts riots back when I was in high school. It seems like your real luck was making it out of there alive.”

Lanita tilted her glass and took another sip. She made herself comfortable and began easing down memory lane. “Since we have a few minutes before Jimmy Choo will be ready for me, I’ll tell you about my birth. It’s one of my favorite stories. My mother loved to tell it whenever she and her friends sat around and got drunk on cheap liquor. She told it so many times that I sometimes feel like I saw it with my own eyes.”

Two

Two T

The night of August 11, 1965, was hot and humid. The day had been depressing, but the night would prove to be even worse.

Earlier that day, my mother, Aretha, had spoken on the phone with her friend Marquette Fry. Both were broken up because of their financial condition. Marquette told my mother that he had been trying to get a job, but nobody wanted to hire him.

“It seems like everybody I know cain’t get no work,” my mother replied. “I’m so close to being evicted, my baby and me might be homeless soon. Even if the doctor hadn’t ordered me to take bed rest, I still wouldn’t have a job. I don’t know what me and my baby are gonna do after it’s born.”

“My mother moved us up here from the South because she thought me and Ronald could at least find some work making a dollar twenty-five an hour,” Marquette said. “But it ain’t no better here than down there. With the delay on that federal antipoverty program, what are we supposed to do? I don’t want to spend my day hanging out on the street corner. I want to work, Aretha.”

“I know you do, Marquette. Just hang in there. Things can only get better. They have to get better.”

“I hope you’re right, Aretha, I just hope you’re right.” Sighing, Marquette changed the subject to a lighter topic. “So what you gonna name your baby?”

“I was thinking Lamont if it’s a boy and Lanita if it’s a girl.”

“Lanita. That’s a pretty name.”

“I hope it’s a girl. In fact, I pray it’s a girl because I don’t want her to have to deal with what y’all men have to go through with the police.”

“But this is the West,” Marquette said. “It’s supposed to be better, right?”

“Nah, Marquette, North or South, East or West, this world ain’t no place of peace for colored people, especially a Black man.”

“I guess you right about that. That’s why I’m gonna let loose tonight, forget about all the madness,” Marquette said. “If you weren’t about to drop that baby, you could hang out with Ronald and me. So, Aretha . . . who’s your baby by?”

“None of your business!” Aretha snapped. “Stop being so nosy. So what y’all gonna do tonight?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Man, just get a few drinks to chase the blues away,” he responded.

• • •

That night, Marquette Fry did just that. He and Ronald partook of that no-good firewater, trying to forget about the woes of life. Then Marquette got behind the wheel of his ten-year-old gray Buick. He and Ronald had just turned down Avalon Boulevard, not far from home, when they heard a police siren behind them.

Ronald, twenty-two at the time, said, “Marquette, what did you do wrong?”

“I didn’t do nothing wrong,” Marquette, younger by one year, responded, frustrated that they were being pulled over and that his older brother was blaming him.

“I told you, you should have let me drive,” Ronald bickered.

“Just sit back and don’t say a word, big brother. You’ve had more to drink than me,” Marquette said.

The cop who pulled them over at the corner of Avalon and 116th Street was a patrolman named Officer Lee W. Minikus. He approached the Buick and asked Marquette and Ronald to step out of the car. They cooperated. When the officer asked Marquette to take a sobriety test, the poor man saw his life flash before him. He’d been drinking too much and jail was the last place he wanted to be. It would take a miracle for him to pass that test.

Not only did he fail the test, but he had an audience to witness his humiliation. Because 116th and Avalon is in the heart of Watts, every time something happened, a group of people gathered to watch, mumbling and pointing and discussing what was going on and why.

After Marquette had finished making a spectacle of himself, trying his hardest to pass a sobriety test when he was stone drunk, Officer Minikus announced, “I’m gonna have to take you to jail.”

The crowd, which had grown increasingly larger, booed and hissed at the officer.

Egged on by the crowd, Marquette resisted the officer’s attempt to arrest him. “You’ll have to kill me before you take me to jail,” he shouted, struggling against the patrolman as he tried to handcuff the drunken young man.

Shocked by Marquette’s reaction and startled by the yelling and screaming around him, Officer Minikus looked at what seemed to be a mob surrounding him and panicked. Fearing things would soon get out of hand, he called for backup.

Within an hour, several patrol cars were on the scene. As more police cars pulled up, more people got involved, the crowd from the neighborhood swelling to several hundred, including Marquette’s mother, Rena, and my mother, Aretha, who given her condition shouldn’t have been out at all. But there’d been so much commotion outside her apartment window that she had to go down and see what was going on. It seemed like everybody who lived in the neighborhood was out there, expressing their anger and frustration that it was taking so many police officers just to arrest one man.

Aretha pushed her way through the crowd to see Rena pleading with Marquette to go ahead and get in the car with the police. However, the officers were handling him too roughly and Rena couldn’t stand to watch them abuse her younger son. Before she knew it, she was trying to pull the officers off him. When Ronald saw his mother fighting with the police—well, that was all he could take. He joined in, helping his mother try to get all those policemen off Marquette.

Unfortunately, there were more police officers than there were Fry family members, and soon all three of them were handcuffed and thrown into a police car. This sight of a woman and her sons in the back of that car was too much for the crowd to take. Somebody shouted, “It’s just like Selma!”

With the words “just like Selma” ringing in Aretha’s ears, she felt just like she had when she’d first heard the news about Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. How six hundred civil rights marchers had made it to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be pushed back by state and local officers, who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas, driving them back into Selma. When she heard “just like Selma,” she died inside. Her blood pressure skyrocketed. Before she knew what she was doing, she’d spat on one of those redneck policemen. “That’s for Dr. King,” she whispered.

When she realized what she had done, Aretha backed up quickly and hid in the crowd. But the cop was determined to find the woman who’d spat on him, so he forced his way through the crowd. He didn’t find Aretha. Instead he got somebody else, a girl Aretha had seen in the neighborhood before, but didn’t know well, Joyce Ann Gaines, who’d rushed out of the salon, where she was getting her hair done, to see what was going on. The officer must have assumed she was the one who’d spat on him because she was laughing when he got to her.

He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her toward the front of the crowd. Resisting, she fell to the ground and refused to move. The cop, stronger than she by far, pulled her off the ground and carried her off. She was kicking and screaming as if he was killing her.

Someone yelled, “You wouldn’t treat a White woman like that!”

While the officer forced Joyce Ann into one of the cars, Aretha looked out of the corner of her eye and saw Gabriel Pope, a nineteen-year-old from the neighborhood. He slung an empty soda bottle, glass shattering everywhere. Following his lead, people began to pick up whatever they could find—rocks, bottles, whatever—and started hurling things at the cops. Then the chants began: “Burn, baby, burn! Burn, baby, burn!”

When the cop cars pulled off with Marquette, Ronald, Rena, and Joyce Ann in their cars, the crowd’s fury didn’t stop. It grew to more than a thousand angry people. The brothers and sisters of Watts united out there on Avalon Boulevard, pounding on the car of every White person who drove by in their fine cars. The policemen tried to contain the mob with their nightsticks, but the crowd was too big to control.

That night things got completely out of hand. Nineteen policemen and sixteen citizens were injured. The uproar drew the attention of the media, some of whom also fell victim to what turned out to be the beginning of a weeklong riot.

Still shaken by what she’d witnessed, Aretha went back to her dismal apartment, only to find another eviction notice posted on the door. She pulled it off and balled it up. Inside, she looked at the tattered old couch and the rickety kitchen table balanced on three legs. A fourth unattached leg was carefully propped in place to keep the table from toppling over.

“How am I gonna do this?” she cried. “I am not ready to have a baby—not in times like these. How can I bring such a beautiful miracle into such a dreadful place?” Consumed with worry, she walked through the small apartment and crawled into bed to sleep off the anguish of being Black, being hated, being broke, being evicted from her run-down apartment.

What hurt the most, although she’d kept it a secret from her friends, was that the man who’d impregnated her was nowhere to be found. My daddy, the fast-talking, good-looking gambling man from Nevada whom she’d met while he was in Watts for two weeks visiting with his cousin, never even knew she was pregnant. He never knew he had a baby on the way. But my daddy—that’s another story.

Aretha finally managed to fight through her anxiety and fall into a deep sleep. The next day she stayed in bed and drifted in and out of sleep, having the strangest dream. It began with the events of the previous night, Marquette getting arrested, her spitting at the police. Only this time, when she turned to run from the police officer, my daddy grabbed her by the hand and together they ran into a casino. My handsome daddy had a pair of dice in his hands. “Aretha, blow on the dice and make a wish,” he said.

She did. He rolled, and the dice landed on seven.

“We win!” my daddy yelled. “We win!”

Aretha awoke to the sounds of yelling and breaking glass—and the stench of smoke.

She dragged herself out of bed, which wasn’t the easiest thing to do because her belly was so big. She wobbled over and peeped out. From her window, Avalon looked like a war zone. The day was over and dusk was drawing near. A hoodlum was smashing a bottle into a liquor-store window, shattering glass everywhere. Five or six people went inside and filled pillowcases with whatever would fit. The building next to it was burning to the ground. “It’s still not over,” Aretha said to herself.

Suddenly realizing that her building could be the next to burn, she rushed out into the street. She looked around for someone sane, someone who could tell her what had been happening, but she saw no one except good people gone crazy. Walking to the corner, she saw a sign in the middle of the street, reading turn left or get shot. Aretha swallowed hard. She looked around her, seeing that everyone seemed to be moving in harmony. What was happening here? Had there been a meeting she didn’t know about?

Before she could complete her thoughts, a wave of pain shot through her, cramping so severe that it nearly took her to her knees. She bent over, hands on her knees, and tried to take deep breaths. She looked up, trying to find somebody who could help her—but no one was standing still long enough to take notice of her. Down the street, about a block away, she saw a man standing in front of the corner store, waving his hands. He’s my only chance, she thought. So she made her way down the block, stopping every few minutes as another wave of pain swept over her.

That night, a distance that usually took only a few minutes seemed to stretch on forever, taking Aretha nearly thirty minutes. As she made her way toward the man, she prayed that he wouldn’t go inside or that I would wait and come another time.

She got one of her wishes.

As soon as she reached the store, a pain shot through her that hurled her forward. She wrapped her arms around the neck of Mr. Silverstein, the Jewish man who owned the store, and pleaded, “Help me! I’m getting ready to have this baby.”

It took a while for Mr. Silverstein to understand what she wanted because he was hysterical. He was yelling, “I am not the enemy. Please don’t rob my store!”

Aretha was yelling, “Please help, I’m having a baby!”

When Mr. Silverstein, who had been guarding his store, realized Aretha was in labor, his hysteria grew. “I want to assist you, young lady, but if I leave my store, they’ll rob me blind.”

“I understand, but even though I don’t want it to, my baby is coming. Please help!” my mother huffed between breaths. She grabbed the elderly man by the hand and squeezed firmly.

The pain ensued. This time Aretha did fall to her knees. “I can’t move!” she cried. “This baby is coming right now!”

As she pleaded with me to wait, I was dead set on being born on that day, at that very moment, and nothing was going to stop me from coming, not the looting or the fires, let alone the fact that she was at a corner store, not a hospital.

“Not here. We must at least get you into the store,” he insisted.

As he tried to help my mother up, his wife, who had been peeking out through the door, rushed out to help him bring her inside.

As soon as they got Aretha through the door, water started draining down Aretha’s legs.

“Her water broke,” his wife said. “Plus she’s too heavy. I can’t go any further. We’re going to have to deliver the baby right here.”

So they closed the door, and right there in front of the door, Mr. and Mrs. Silverstein began to bring me into this world.

Mrs. Silverstein rushed to the back of the store and came back with sheets and a pail of hot water. They somehow got the sheets underneath my mother and had her propped up and ready to deliver when a bot- tle flew through the storefront window, shattering the plate glass and scarcely missing my mother’s face. An angry young man was getting ready to come inside through the window when he saw Aretha and the Silversteins on the floor in front of the door.

“What’s going on in here?” he demanded.

“She’s having a baby,” Mrs. Silverstein said.

“Ah, man, that’s Aretha,” he huffed when he noticed her.

Aretha looked up, seeing that the face belonged to one of her neighbors.

He yelled over his shoulder, “Aretha’s in there, and she’s having her baby. We can’t take this place.”

“Bobby, is that you?” Aretha asked.

“Yeah, Aretha. It’s me.”

“Go and get your sister and tell her to come and help,” Aretha said before she cried in anguish with the pain of another contraction.

“Okay, Aretha. We’ll be right back,” Bobby said. He yelled over his shoulder again, “Somebody stay here and make sure nobody tries to rob this place.” Then he took off to get his sister.

“Do you think you can push?” Mrs. Silverstein asked timidly.

“I’m scared,” my mother replied.

“You’re going to have to push,” Mrs. Silverstein insisted.

So my mother began to push.

By the time Bobby came back with his sister and a few of the other girls from the neighborhood, I was here, alive and screaming and kicking even more fiercely than Joyce Ann the day before, when that cop hauled her off to jail.

• • •

A man Lanita assumed to be Jimmy Choo had walked in toward the end of the story and stood by the receptionist’s desk, listening.

“Amazing,” Natasha said. “I can’t believe you and your mother were okay through all that.” She shook her head, looking impressed and horrified at the same time.

“Yeah, it was pretty amazing,” Lanita said. “Even after my birth, the word was out that no one was to touch Mr. Silverstein’s store. The best part was that Mr. Silverstein owned a few multiplexes in the neighborhood. He was so grateful his store had survived because I was born there that he allowed me and my mother to live in one of his apartments, rent-free, until my twelfth birthday.”

“Fascinating,” the man said, extending his hand. “Hi, I’m Jimmy Choo, and I’ll be responsible for styling your hair today.”

Lanita shook his hand. “I’m looking forward to it. My name is Lanita, and I’m feeling kinda homely, so let’s go to your chair so the magic can begin.”

Jimmy smiled, grabbing Lanita’s hand and escorting her to the back of the salon, where his chair was located. She sat down, adjusting herself until she was comfortable.

“So what are we doing for you today?” Jimmy said, looking over her shoulder into the mirror, his face above her head.

“The works,” Lanita said. “I need a relaxer, a trim, and a style.”

“No problem,” Jimmy replied. He grabbed a black drape and placed it over Lanita’s shoulders, clipping the back together. As he pulled out a large pail of relaxer and began working on her hair, he asked, “Did you and your mother really live rent-free for twelve years? I would do anything to have free rent for even one year. The prices in this city are ridiculous.”

“Well, it was close to twelve years. When Mr. Silverstein died of a heart attack, his son blamed it on his father’s association with Watts and told my mother that there was no way she should have been allowed to live there for free for so long. He said she was lazy, and he demanded that she begin paying rent or else he would kick her out. When she told him that she didn’t have a job, he threw us out without notice or the time to find anything else.”

“No!”

“Yep. We’d had it pretty easy until then. After that, life became rough.”

Jimmy spun Lanita’s chair away from the mirror to begin relaxing the front of her hair.

“If she wasn’t working before you got kicked out, how did she pay her bills?” Jimmy asked. “He gave her free rent only, right? What about groceries and utilities and things like that?”

“Oh, well, the word about my birth spread in the Jewish community like ivy. Mr. Silverstein’s store was the donations headquarter for about a month afterward. We received diapers, formula, food, clothes, furniture, and money, lots of money. We were even given five thousand dollars in savings bonds. When I turned seven, my mother cashed those in, and we were in the money again. Not to mention that the utilities were waived with the rent. My mother’s only bill was the telephone, so sometimes we had a phone and sometime we didn’t. I even had money put aside to pay for my college tuition, provided that I graduate from high school. My mother said that back then we were living the life of Riley.”

“Riley?” Jimmy asked as he smoothed liquid through her hair.

“Riley. You know, Chester A. Riley? No, you’re probably too young. I’m nearly too young, but it was a television show in the fifties, The Life of Riley. The funny thing about that expression is that things never went right for Riley. No matter what kind of good luck he had, everything got twisted eventually. Just as with him, things wouldn’t go right for us either. They might have started out good, but in time they became just as bad as could be.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

As Lanita approached the salon, she could barely contain her excitement. It had been a long time since she'd had the extra time or money to even get her hair done, let alone indulge in the pampering she was about to enjoy, but her husband had insisted she spare no expense during her visit. Today was their special day. Today they would celebrate what had taken years of struggle and sacrifice to complete—their college education.

As Lanita reached for the salon door, she looked down and noticed four quarters scattered on the sidewalk. Smiling, she bent down to pick them up. Another small gift to remind me of who I am and what I've accomplished, she thought. She tossed the quarters from one hand to the other and then placed them in her pants pocket before opening the door.

Already feeling more relaxed, Lanita approached the receptionist, a pretty young woman with immaculately groomed hair and a cheerful, welcoming smile. "Hi, my name is Lanita, and I'm scheduled to see a stylist, nail tech, and facialist. I'm not sure in which order," she said with a small laugh, "but I know I'm supposed to begin at ten. I'm a few minutes early, but I believe it's better to be a few minutes early than a few minutes late, if you know what I mean."

"Sure," said the receptionist. "Have a seat over there. Someone will be with you shortly—but are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Lanita said. She touched a hand to her hair. "Why do you ask?"

"I saw you bending down outside. It looked like you'd lost something."

"Oh, that," Lanita said with another laugh. "Thanks for asking, but I haven't lost anything in some time. I was actually reaping my blessing, that's all."Smiling warmly at the receptionist, Lanita glanced around, noting the tasteful, expensive decor. "Wow, this is really a nice salon. It reminds me of the ones on those reality shows where they take people to get makeovers. This setting really makes a person feel like she's privileged to be here."

It was the receptionist's turn to laugh. "Well, we are one of the top salons in Los Angeles, the crème de la crème. Our clients include a number of celebrities and their families. I think you'll find our staff is top-notch." The young woman winked at Lanita, giving her a knowing smile.

"Well, it's been a while since I've been pampered—in fact, almost twelve years—but believe you me, there was a time when I would go to places like this weekly." Lanita sat down, easing herself into her chair and unconsciously assuming the air of someone accustomed to the luxurious setting. A heavy sigh followed, and before she knew it, she had fallen into deep thought. As excited as she was about what the day would bring, she couldn't help but remember the events that had led her there. She shook her head, choosing to distract herself by enjoying her surroundings and focusing on the present. After all, that was what today was all about—the present and the future. "So what's your name?" Lanita asked the receptionist.

"I'm Natasha," she responded. "By the way, would you like something to drink?"

"Sure. What are my choices?"

"There's bottled water, sparkling or flat, red and white wine, or orange juice."

After a moment of thought, Lanita said, "I'll take the sparkling water. I'm graduating from USC today, and I don't want to begin celebrating too early, if you know what I mean." Lanita snapped her fingers, all but dancing in her chair.

"Congratulations!" Natasha said. "Are you sure you don't want a glass of wine? You should start the day off with a bang."

Lanita instantly felt somber. "To be honest with you, I never touch the stuff—alcohol, I mean. Not after what it did to my mother and me."

Natasha looked down at her phone, seeming unsure of how to respond. Then she said, "I'll get that water for you."

Across the room from Lanita was a large chrome-trimmed mirror. After Natasha left the room, Lanita got up and slowly walked over to it. Gazing at her reflection, she saw an aging woman wearing red Capri pants, a yellow T-shirt, and a silver chain with a silver-dollar pendant. Frowning at what she saw, she ran her fingers through her hair. "Girlfriend," she said, "you're in a bad need of a relaxer, and when was the last time your thirty-eight-year-old self had that dead skin removed from your face?"

She grabbed the pendant and kissed it. Then she placed it so that it lay just so against her chest."Flat as pancakes," she said of her breasts. Sliding her hands over her body, admiring her trim figure that otherwise had curves in all the right places, she smiled. She then turned her back to the mirror, looked over her shoulder, and placed her hands on her hips, shaking her derriere in the mirror. She might be close to forty, but her backside still looked just fine.

Just then Natasha came back in the room, carrying a glass of water. She cleared her throat unobtrusively and Lanita abruptly stopped dancing. She was caught. She managed a nervous giggle, saying, "You'll have to excuse me. I'm usually more dignified, but I . . ."

Natasha laughed. "No need to apologize. Sometimes you just have to celebrate in your own way." She handed Lanita the water.

"I'm so embarrassed," Lanita said, feeling the flush in her cheeks.

"Don't worry," Natasha said, squeezing Lanita's shoulder. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper and said, "I won't tell anyone."

"Thank you," Lanita said, her cheeks still hot with embarrassment. She took the glass from Natasha and again turned to view herself in the mirror. "For the past few years, I've been doing my own hair. I use my husband's clippers to keep the ends trimmed. I'm not good at all, but I've gotten better." She smoothed her hand over her short-cropped hair. "Recently I've been going for the Halle Berry look, but I've had so much going on these past few weeks, with finals and all, that I'm definitely missing the mark by a long shot."

Still staring into the mirror, this time Lanita noted the effects of years of living. "Time waits for no one," she said under her breath before looking at Natasha. "I hope the stylist here will hook me up. You know, make me feel beautiful again."

"We have exceptional hairstylists, the best in town. I'm sure they'll do a good job of reminding you just how beautiful you are."

"I sure hope so, because my husband is a good man and he's spending a lot of money on me today, money we really don't have to blow." Lanita turned to look at Natasha. "Don't get me wrong," she continued. "We pay our bills. We've just been putting a lot back saving for another house." She took a sip of water. "He doesn't have much, but he treats me like I'm a princess. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of one day marrying a prince. Let me tell you, the man I married is as chivalrous as any of those men in the royal families over there in Europe—maybe even more so. He's handsome, considerate, loving, and dashing. You know what I mean?"

Natasha rolled her eyes. "I wish I did. They don't make many men like that anymore, especially not in Los Angeles."

"Girl, he's broke compared to the rich men I dated once upon a time. He doesn't have two pennies to rub together to make a dime. He cuts glass for a living, you know, for mirrors and tables and shelves. We've invested a lot of money into our education. We both decided to go for broke and get our degrees."

Lanita walked past Natasha and sat back in her chair. "We're gonna be just fine. After today I'll have my degree and he'll have his. We'll both be able to begin new careers."

The phone rang and Natasha rushed to pick it up, resuming her seat behind the front counter. After listening for a few moments, she said, "Okay, I'll let her know," and then hung up.

She turned to Lanita, saying, "You were supposed to be getting your facial first, but Miss Lina is running a little late, so you'll see Jimmy Choo first. He's going to style your hair. He should be here in a couple of minutes, just as soon as he's finished up in back."

"Jimmy Choo?" Lanita said. "You mean the guy who makes those thousand-dollar shoes does hair too?"

"Well, no," Natasha said. "They do share the same name, but they are two different people."

"Is Jimmy Asian?"

"Yes, he is," Natasha said. "Is that okay?"

Lanita almost jumped out of the chair. "I don't mean to overreact, but is he educated about caring for African-American hair? Everything has to be right today. I've had some real horror stories in the hair department. Once a French lady gave me a relaxer and my mane shed for weeks. I nearly went bald until my mother gave me a protein treatment." Lanita frowned. "I'm sorry, I'm just a little scared. I mean, I can't go across the stage looking all crazy. When I take off my cap, my hair needs to be bouncing and behaving, not embarrassing and shaming."

"Trust me," Natasha said. "Jimmy knows what he's doing. As a matter of fact, he does my hair." She reached up to fluff her smooth, shiny layered bob.

"Well, your hair looks good," Lanita said. "Now that I think about it, the guy who does Halle Berry's hair is Asian too, isn't he?" At Natasha's nod, Lanita said, "Now, that's a good sign. Maybe he'll be able to make me look as good as her.

"So, how late is he going to be? I have to meet my sweetie on campus at one o'clock sharp. Graduation begins at one-thirty."

"He should only be about ten more minutes." Natasha's warm smile put Lanita at ease.

"Oh, that's not bad at all," Lanita said, relaxing back.

Natasha took another call. When she was finished, she looked up and asked, "Do you have any plans after graduation, or are you going straight into job hunting?"

"We're considering a short vacation," Lanita said. "We hope to begin working at the end of the summer."

"Where do you want to go?"

"The French Polynesian islands," Lanita said, sighing.

"But how could you two afford that? I thought your money was tight. I don't mean to be forward . . ."

"That's okay. Yeah, the islands are pricey, but a girl can wish, can't she?" Lanita smiled, crossing her legs. "You'll be surprised at the amazing things that have happened in my life that weren't supposed to."

"But, Tahiti and places like that." Natasha shook her head. "That's a lot to wish for just out of school."

"You're right, but stranger things have happened in my life. My mother always said that just enough of King Midas's blood runs in my veins to turn hard luck into gold, but not enough to keep it."

"Really?"

"Yeah, really. I was born lucky."

"Lucky?" Natasha said, skepticism creeping into her voice.

"Yes. I consider myself an intelligent and levelheaded woman, but honestly, I've had a streak of luck that has followed me since birth. I was born during the Watts riots of 1965, and my birth prevented a man's store from being burned to a crisp."

"You were born in Watts, California, during the actual riots?" The skepticism in Natasha's voice was beginning to turn to awe. "That must have been crazy for your mother."

"Yeah, and because that man's store didn't get burned down, he gave me and my mother a place to live rent-free for years. Isn't that lucky?"

"Yeah, I suppose so," Natasha said. "I remember reading about the Watts riots back when I was in high school. It seems like your real luck was making it out of there alive."

Lanita tilted her glass and took another sip. She made herself comfortable and began easing down memory lane. "Since we have a few minutes before Jimmy Choo will be ready for me, I'll tell you about my birth. It's one of my favorite stories. My mother loved to tell it whenever she and her friends sat around and got drunk on cheap liquor. She told it so many times that I sometimes feel like I saw it with my own eyes."

Two

Two T

The night of August 11, 1965, was hot and humid. The day had been depressing, but the night would prove to be even worse.

Earlier that day, my mother, Aretha, had spoken on the phone with her friend Marquette Fry. Both were broken up because of their financial condition. Marquette told my mother that he had been trying to get a job, but nobody wanted to hire him.

"It seems like everybody I know cain't get no work," my mother replied. "I'm so close to being evicted, my baby and me might be homeless soon. Even if the doctor hadn't ordered me to take bed rest, I still wouldn't have a job. I don't know what me and my baby are gonna do after it's born."

"My mother moved us up here from the South because she thought me and Ronald could at least find some work making a dollar twenty-five an hour," Marquette said. "But it ain't no better here than down there. With the delay on that federal antipoverty program, what are we supposed to do? I don't want to spend my day hanging out on the street corner. I want to work, Aretha."

"I know you do, Marquette. Just hang in there. Things can only get better. They have to get better."

"I hope you're right, Aretha, I just hope you're right." Sighing, Marquette changed the subject to a lighter topic. "So what you gonna name your baby?"

"I was thinking Lamont if it's a boy and Lanita if it's a girl."

"Lanita. That's a pretty name."

"I hope it's a girl. In fact, I pray it's a girl because I don't want her to have to deal with what y'all men have to go through with the police."

"But this is the West," Marquette said. "It's supposed to be better, right?"

"Nah, Marquette, North or South, East or West, this world ain't no place of peace for colored people, especially a Black man."

"I guess you right about that. That's why I'm gonna let loose tonight, forget about all the madness," Marquette said. "If you weren't about to drop that baby, you could hang out with Ronald and me. So, Aretha . . . who's your baby by?"

"None of your business!" Aretha snapped. "Stop being so nosy. So what y'all gonna do tonight?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Man, just get a few drinks to chase the blues away," he responded.



• • •



That night, Marquette Fry did just that. He and Ronald partook of that no-good firewater, trying to forget about the woes of life. Then Marquette got behind the wheel of his ten-year-old gray Buick. He and Ronald had just turned down Avalon Boulevard, not far from home, when they heard a police siren behind them.

Ronald, twenty-two at the time, said, "Marquette, what did you do wrong?"

"I didn't do nothing wrong," Marquette, younger by one year, responded, frustrated that they were being pulled over and that his older brother was blaming him.

"I told you, you should have let me drive," Ronald bickered.

"Just sit back and don't say a word, big brother. You've had more to drink than me," Marquette said.

The cop who pulled them over at the corner of Avalon and 116th Street was a patrolman named Officer Lee W. Minikus. He approached the Buick and asked Marquette and Ronald to step out of the car. They cooperated. When the officer asked Marquette to take a sobriety test, the poor man saw his life flash before him. He'd been drinking too much and jail was the last place he wanted to be. It would take a miracle for him to pass that test.

Not only did he fail the test, but he had an audience to witness his humiliation. Because 116th and Avalon is in the heart of Watts, every time something happened, a group of people gathered to watch, mumbling and pointing and discussing what was going on and why.

After Marquette had finished making a spectacle of himself, trying his hardest to pass a sobriety test when he was stone drunk, Officer Minikus announced, "I'm gonna have to take you to jail."

The crowd, which had grown increasingly larger, booed and hissed at the officer.

Egged on by the crowd, Marquette resisted the officer's attempt to arrest him. "You'll have to kill me before you take me to jail," he shouted, struggling against the patrolman as he tried to handcuff the drunken young man.

Shocked by Marquette's reaction and startled by the yelling and screaming around him, Officer Minikus looked at what seemed to be a mob surrounding him and panicked. Fearing things would soon get out of hand, he called for backup.

Within an hour, several patrol cars were on the scene. As more police cars pulled up, more people got involved, the crowd from the neighborhood swelling to several hundred, including Marquette's mother, Rena, and my mother, Aretha, who given her condition shouldn't have been out at all. But there'd been so much commotion outside her apartment window that she had to go down and see what was going on. It seemed like everybody who lived in the neighborhood was out there, expressing their anger and frustration that it was taking so many police officers just to arrest one man.

Aretha pushed her way through the crowd to see Rena pleading with Marquette to go ahead and get in the car with the police. However, the officers were handling him too roughly and Rena couldn't stand to watch them abuse her younger son. Before she knew it, she was trying to pull the officers off him. When Ronald saw his mother fighting with the police—well, that was all he could take. He joined in, helping his mother try to get all those policemen off Marquette.

Unfortunately, there were more police officers than there were Fry family members, and soon all three of them were handcuffed and thrown into a police car. This sight of a woman and her sons in the back of that car was too much for the crowd to take. Somebody shouted, "It's just like Selma!"

With the words "just like Selma" ringing in Aretha's ears, she felt just like she had when she'd first heard the news about Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. How six hundred civil rights marchers had made it to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be pushed back by state and local officers, who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas, driving them back into Selma. When she heard "just like Selma," she died inside. Her blood pressure skyrocketed. Before she knew what she was doing, she'd spat on one of those redneck policemen. "That's for Dr. King," she whispered.

When she realized what she had done, Aretha backed up quickly and hid in the crowd. But the cop was determined to find the woman who'd spat on him, so he forced his way through the crowd. He didn't find Aretha. Instead he got somebody else, a girl Aretha had seen in the neighborhood before, but didn't know well, Joyce Ann Gaines, who'd rushed out of the salon, where she was getting her hair done, to see what was going on. The officer must have assumed she was the one who'd spat on him because she was laughing when he got to her.

He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her toward the front of the crowd. Resisting, she fell to the ground and refused to move. The cop, stronger than she by far, pulled her off the ground and carried her off. She was kicking and screaming as if he was killing her.

Someone yelled, "You wouldn't treat a White woman like that!"

While the officer forced Joyce Ann into one of the cars, Aretha looked out of the corner of her eye and saw Gabriel Pope, a nineteen-year-old from the neighborhood. He slung an empty soda bottle, glass shattering everywhere. Following his lead, people began to pick up whatever they could find—rocks, bottles, whatever—and started hurling things at the cops. Then the chants began: "Burn, baby, burn! Burn, baby, burn!"

When the cop cars pulled off with Marquette, Ronald, Rena, and Joyce Ann in their cars, the crowd's fury didn't stop. It grew to more than a thousand angry people. The brothers and sisters of Watts united out there on Avalon Boulevard, pounding on the car of every White person who drove by in their fine cars. The policemen tried to contain the mob with their nightsticks, but the crowd was too big to control.

That night things got completely out of hand. Nineteen policemen and sixteen citizens were injured. The uproar drew the attention of the media, some of whom also fell victim to what turned out to be the beginning of a weeklong riot.

Still shaken by what she'd witnessed, Aretha went back to her dismal apartment, only to find another eviction notice posted on the door. She pulled it off and balled it up. Inside, she looked at the tattered old couch and the rickety kitchen table balanced on three legs. A fourth unattached leg was carefully propped in place to keep the table from toppling over.

"How am I gonna do this?" she cried. "I am not ready to have a baby—not in times like these. How can I bring such a beautiful miracle into such a dreadful place?" Consumed with worry, she walked through the small apartment and crawled into bed to sleep off the anguish of being Black, being hated, being broke, being evicted from her run-down apartment.

What hurt the most, although she'd kept it a secret from her friends, was that the man who'd impregnated her was nowhere to be found. My daddy, the fast-talking, good-looking gambling man from Nevada whom she'd met while he was in Watts for two weeks visiting with his cousin, never even knew she was pregnant. He never knew he had a baby on the way. But my daddy—that's another story.

Aretha finally managed to fight through her anxiety and fall into a deep sleep. The next day she stayed in bed and drifted in and out of sleep, having the strangest dream. It began with the events of the previous night, Marquette getting arrested, her spitting at the police. Only this time, when she turned to run from the police officer, my daddy grabbed her by the hand and together they ran into a casino. My handsome daddy had a pair of dice in his hands. "Aretha, blow on the dice and make a wish," he said.

She did. He rolled, and the dice landed on seven.

"We win!" my daddy yelled. "We win!"

Aretha awoke to the sounds of yelling and breaking glass—and the stench of smoke.

She dragged herself out of bed, which wasn't the easiest thing to do because her belly was so big. She wobbled over and peeped out. From her window, Avalon looked like a war zone. The day was over and dusk was drawing near. A hoodlum was smashing a bottle into a liquor-store window, shattering glass everywhere. Five or six people went inside and filled pillowcases with whatever would fit. The building next to it was burning to the ground. "It's still not over," Aretha said to herself.

Suddenly realizing that her building could be the next to burn, she rushed out into the street. She looked around for someone sane, someone who could tell her what had been happening, but she saw no one except good people gone crazy. Walking to the corner, she saw a sign in the middle of the street, reading turn left or get shot. Aretha swallowed hard. She looked around her, seeing that everyone seemed to be moving in harmony. What was happening here? Had there been a meeting she didn't know about?

Before she could complete her thoughts, a wave of pain shot through her, cramping so severe that it nearly took her to her knees. She bent over, hands on her knees, and tried to take deep breaths. She looked up, trying to find somebody who could help her—but no one was standing still long enough to take notice of her. Down the street, about a block away, she saw a man standing in front of the corner store, waving his hands. He's my only chance, she thought. So she made her way down the block, stopping every few minutes as another wave of pain swept over her.

That night, a distance that usually took only a few minutes seemed to stretch on forever, taking Aretha nearly thirty minutes. As she made her way toward the man, she prayed that he wouldn't go inside or that I would wait and come another time.

She got one of her wishes.

As soon as she reached the store, a pain shot through her that hurled her forward. She wrapped her arms around the neck of Mr. Silverstein, the Jewish man who owned the store, and pleaded, "Help me! I'm getting ready to have this baby."

It took a while for Mr. Silverstein to understand what she wanted because he was hysterical. He was yelling, "I am not the enemy. Please don't rob my store!"

Aretha was yelling, "Please help, I'm having a baby!"

When Mr. Silverstein, who had been guarding his store, realized Aretha was in labor, his hysteria grew. "I want to assist you, young lady, but if I leave my store, they'll rob me blind."

"I understand, but even though I don't want it to, my baby is coming. Please help!" my mother huffed between breaths. She grabbed the elderly man by the hand and squeezed firmly.

The pain ensued. This time Aretha did fall to her knees. "I can't move!" she cried. "This baby is coming right now!"

As she pleaded with me to wait, I was dead set on being born on that day, at that very moment, and nothing was going to stop me from coming, not the looting or the fires, let alone the fact that she was at a corner store, not a hospital.

"Not here. We must at least get you into the store," he insisted.

As he tried to help my mother up, his wife, who had been peeking out through the door, rushed out to help him bring her inside.

As soon as they got Aretha through the door, water started draining down Aretha's legs.

"Her water broke," his wife said. "Plus she's too heavy. I can't go any further. We're going to have to deliver the baby right here."

So they closed the door, and right there in front of the door, Mr. and Mrs. Silverstein began to bring me into this world.

Mrs. Silverstein rushed to the back of the store and came back with sheets and a pail of hot water. They somehow got the sheets underneath my mother and had her propped up and ready to deliver when a bot- tle flew through the storefront window, shattering the plate glass and scarcely missing my mother's face. An angry young man was getting ready to come inside through the window when he saw Aretha and the Silversteins on the floor in front of the door.

"What's going on in here?" he demanded.

"She's having a baby," Mrs. Silverstein said.

"Ah, man, that's Aretha," he huffed when he noticed her.

Aretha looked up, seeing that the face belonged to one of her neighbors.

He yelled over his shoulder, "Aretha's in there, and she's having her baby. We can't take this place."

"Bobby, is that you?" Aretha asked.

"Yeah, Aretha. It's me."

"Go and get your sister and tell her to come and help," Aretha said before she cried in anguish with the pain of another contraction.

"Okay, Aretha. We'll be right back," Bobby said. He yelled over his shoulder again, "Somebody stay here and make sure nobody tries to rob this place." Then he took off to get his sister.

"Do you think you can push?" Mrs. Silverstein asked timidly.

"I'm scared," my mother replied.

"You're going to have to push," Mrs. Silverstein insisted.

So my mother began to push.

By the time Bobby came back with his sister and a few of the other girls from the neighborhood, I was here, alive and screaming and kicking even more fiercely than Joyce Ann the day before, when that cop hauled her off to jail.



• • •



A man Lanita assumed to be Jimmy Choo had walked in toward the end of the story and stood by the receptionist's desk, listening.

"Amazing," Natasha said. "I can't believe you and your mother were okay through all that." She shook her head, looking impressed and horrified at the same time.

"Yeah, it was pretty amazing," Lanita said. "Even after my birth, the word was out that no one was to touch Mr. Silverstein's store. The best part was that Mr. Silverstein owned a few multiplexes in the neighborhood. He was so grateful his store had survived because I was born there that he allowed me and my mother to live in one of his apartments, rent-free, until my twelfth birthday."

"Fascinating," the man said, extending his hand. "Hi, I'm Jimmy Choo, and I'll be responsible for styling your hair today."

Lanita shook his hand. "I'm looking forward to it. My name is Lanita, and I'm feeling kinda homely, so let's go to your chair so the magic can begin."

Jimmy smiled, grabbing Lanita's hand and escorting her to the back of the salon, where his chair was located. She sat down, adjusting herself until she was comfortable.

"So what are we doing for you today?" Jimmy said, looking over her shoulder into the mirror, his face above her head.

"The works," Lanita said. "I need a relaxer, a trim, and a style."

"No problem," Jimmy replied. He grabbed a black drape and placed it over Lanita's shoulders, clipping the back together. As he pulled out a large pail of relaxer and began working on her hair, he asked, "Did you and your mother really live rent-free for twelve years? I would do anything to have free rent for even one year. The prices in this city are ridiculous."

"Well, it was close to twelve years. When Mr. Silverstein died of a heart attack, his son blamed it on his father's association with Watts and told my mother that there was no way she should have been allowed to live there for free for so long. He said she was lazy, and he demanded that she begin paying rent or else he would kick her out. When she told him that she didn't have a job, he threw us out without notice or the time to find anything else."

"No!"

"Yep. We'd had it pretty easy until then. After that, life became rough."

Jimmy spun Lanita's chair away from the mirror to begin relaxing the front of her hair.

"If she wasn't working before you got kicked out, how did she pay her bills?" Jimmy asked. "He gave her free rent only, right? What about groceries and utilities and things like that?"

"Oh, well, the word about my birth spread in the Jewish community like ivy. Mr. Silverstein's store was the donations headquarter for about a month afterward. We received diapers, formula, food, clothes, furniture, and money, lots of money. We were even given five thousand dollars in savings bonds. When I turned seven, my mother cashed those in, and we were in the money again. Not to mention that the utilities were waived with the rent. My mother's only bill was the telephone, so sometimes we had a phone and sometime we didn't. I even had money put aside to pay for my college tuition, provided that I graduate from high school. My mother said that back then we were living the life of Riley."

"Riley?" Jimmy asked as he smoothed liquid through her hair.

"Riley. You know, Chester A. Riley? No, you're probably too young. I'm nearly too young, but it was a television show in the fifties, The Life of Riley. The funny thing about that expression is that things never went right for Riley. No matter what kind of good luck he had, everything got twisted eventually. Just as with him, things wouldn't go right for us either. They might have started out good, but in time they became just as bad as could be."
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2013

    Encouragment

    This book was amazing, it make you think of how grate we all should be. The things the young girl had to deal with almost made me cry. This book is truly an encouragment

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2008

    Wonderful Book!!

    This is the best book I have read in a long time. I absolutely could not put it down.. I burned my husbands dinner and my son got himself stuck in the bathroom before I was able to put it down!!! It was the inspiratin for me to go back to school. It helped me to appreciate my husband and son more. I was really touched by this book. very talented author.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2005

    A Delightful Journey

    Ms. Butler has a gift for writing. She created a beautiful story of one woman's journey. I look forward to more from this author.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2005

    Lanita Lightfoot Is Blessed

    I fell in love with this character, her journey, and the people she meets.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2005

    Very different setting

    Very creative setting for this book. TJ showed her creativity in this book. I liked the way she brought it all back together. I loved the book and have recommended to all of my friends. Keep it up!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews

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