Read an Excerpt
Everybody’s Got a Hustle
“Would you like to say anything else before I make my ruling?” the judge asked.
Mercy looked directly into the judge’s eyes as she spoke. “Your Honor, I would just like to say that I have been a model student in spite of my circumstances and it wasn’t the state, my social worker, or any of the foster families I was placed with that made that possible. It was me, my determination, and my drive to rise above being molested, beaten, and mistreated while the state turned its back. I persevered and endured until a better day. This day, Your Honor. The day my life would be placed into my own hands without any roadblocks to hinder me. If allowed, I could be a productive member of society.” She paused a minute to wipe her eyes. “So, Judge, I am asking you—I am begging you—please grant me independent living.” Her voice went soft as she swallowed. Despair was written all over her face as she prayed for her emancipation. “I can only hope that you don’t make me go back to the group home. I am asking you to give me what no one has ever given me since I was seven years old—a chance.”
At seventeen years old Mercy stood in front of the judge and pleaded her case. Over the past ten years she had been in eleven foster homes and one group home and had never even come close to being adopted. At the last foster home, her foster mother’s boyfriend tried to molest her. He crept up on her in the kitchen and tried to stick his hands under her skirt. She grabbed the first thing she could, a steak knife. Lucky for him, the butcher knife wasn’t closer. Once she stabbed him, there were no more foster homes for her. She was hauled off to a group home, even sent to a nuthouse for evaluation at one point. Now she wanted her independence.
The judge looked her over. Her smooth walnut skin bore no makeup, and her short, flat pageboy haircut made her look innocent. However, having a file of her entire life in front of him let him know different. Their eyes met, and he quickly redirected his eyes to the stacks of legal documents before him and began to write on the court documents before him.
Look at this redneck motherfucker, Mercy thought. I know he ain’t going to have no mercy on my soul. He probably gets a hard-on every time a black person comes before him with their life in his hands. Hell, he ought to be wearing a white robe instead of that black one, and a white hood over his head at that. That damn gavel ain’t nothing but a torch, and that high pedestal he’s sitting up on might as well be a horse. Sittin’ up there calling himself a judge when he ain’t nothing but the grand marshal of the KKK. Mercy couldn’t help but grin a little, but then quickly hid her smirk when the judge looked up at her. He then looked back down at her file and began going over it again.
I don’t even know why I’m getting my hopes up about all this. How could this old white man understand my struggle? He can’t. But right now I hope he at least tries to. I just need him to cut me loose from this fucked-up life I’ve been living. Please just let me go. Release me to the wolves in this big bad world. Let me fuck shit up myself instead of appointing other people to do it for me. I guess it ain’t no more I can do. I done prayed all I could, so now it’s up to him. I hope he’s having a good day. I hope he didn’t wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I hope his wife sucked his dick good this morning or something. Damn.
“Mercy Jiles,” the judge said as he looked up from Mercy’s file. He then took his glasses from the tip of his nose and rubbed his eyes. “Ms. Jiles, this has been a very hard decision for me. Your situation is similar to other girls’ who come into my courtroom every day.”
Ain’t this a bitch? Mercy thought. I got his card. We all look alike, huh? If he’s seen one negra girl, he’s seen them all. This Ku Klux Klan motherfucker is going to send me back to that fucked-up-ass group home, I just know he is. Mercy took a deep breath and sighed.
“But, Ms. Jiles, you are different from those ‘other girls.’ For some reason, I believe that you are destined to be something. I see your determination and your hunger to rise above your circumstances. And that, I admire about you. However, you must understand because I am going to grant you your motion—”
“Thank you! Judge, thank you so much!” Mercy shouted, cutting off the judge. What else did she need to hear? She had heard enough. Mercy had never been so happy in her life.
The judge continued talking, but Mercy couldn’t focus on all the stipulations he was running by her. Thankfully, her court representative later reiterated them. She had to get her high school diploma or GED as well as maintain employment. The program would give her a state-issued check on the first of each month and provide her with subsidized living in a small efficiency apartment. Mercy would be responsible for her utility bills and all her other needs, including clothing and food. If Mercy didn’t comply, she would be forced to go back to the group home. At that point she could go before the judge and ask for a second chance. If she was denied, she would have to come back to court every year until she turned twenty-one, when the state could no longer keep her at the group home.
Mercy had no intentions of blowing it. She chose to complete high school rather than cram years’ worth of learning into just a few months. Some people say that book smarts only get you so far in life. Well, how Mercy saw it, she was pretty much nowhere as it stood, so however far school could get her was farther than she could have gotten herself otherwise.
In the days following Mercy’s court hearing, Mercy applied for jobs everywhere, from fast-food joints to drugstores to retail shops. Things looked promising when she got a call back from McDonald’s, where she even had to take a written test, which she passed, missing only one question. She kept checking her pager every five minutes that day, making sure she didn’t miss any calls. When the manager called her back the next day, she was certain she had the job in the bag.
“This is the manager who interviewed you at McDonald’s yesterday,” a man said.
Mercy took the phone from her ear, put it down to her side, and said, “Yes!” She then spoke into the phone. “When would you like me to start?”
The manager paused. “I’m sorry, Ms. Jiles. We’re not going to be able to hire you. Your school hours conflict with the hours we need you to work. But we are putting you on the list in case a position should arise with hours you can work.”
“Well, guess what?” Mercy said.
“Yes, Ms. Jiles?” the manager said pleasantly.
“You’re on my list, too,” Mercy yelled, slamming the phone down. One minute after the next it seemed as though doors kept getting slammed in her face.
“How the fuck I can’t get a job at McDonald’s?” Mercy cried. “Damn, is my luck that bad? It’s McDonald’s for Christ’s sakes. What the hell McDonald’s doing having second interviews and tests and shit in the first place when all a mothafucka gotta know how to do is say ‘Would you like fries with that?’ ”
Finally, Mercy had gotten out of the group home, and now she worried that she might not be able to uphold her end of the bargain. She was just about ready to say “fuck it” and let the state take care of her for another year, but she had to give job-hunting another shot.
The next day she met with success. She landed a job at the Ambassador Hotel, which was on the other side of town, and known for its drug traffic, but Mercy didn’t give a damn. It kept her in the independent-living program plus put a few dollars in her pocket.
A senior in high school, Mercy was finished with her classes by 12:30 in the afternoon, so she went straight from her locker to the bus stop. She took three buses to get from school to work, and her commute was two hours. After transferring twice, Mercy usually arrived at work at her 3:00 p.m. start time on the nose. However, if the bus was running late, she was late. Sometimes she was able to sneak in without being noticed by her boss, Farrah. Other times she wasn’t so lucky and she was either written up or her pay was docked, depending on how late she was.
At the hotel, Mercy was the check-in clerk. Farrah was what Mercy referred to as a BBWA (Black Bitch With Authority). She acted like she owned the whole damn company. Mercy had run across plenty like Farrah in her day, and she hated the feeling that developed in her gut every time she came around. Farrah wasn’t mean only to Mercy; she was a bitch to all of the employees. Even when she praised an employee, it was in a condescending manner. “Good job, Mercy,” Farrah would say, “but good isn’t great.”
Farrah knew Mercy’s situation and how important it was for her to hold a job. She stayed on Mercy’s case and seemed to enjoy the power she had over her. So many times Mercy wanted to snap the fuck-off on Farrah, but just as Mercy was about to beat the brakes off her, Farrah would say, “If I were you, I wouldn’t do anything simple that could land your ass right back on the doorstep of that group home you came from.”
Mercy would faithfully have to remind herself that this bullshit was only temporary. She could handle Ms. Farrah, but what she didn’t want to do was find herself back at one of those foster homes where she could barely sleep at night, trying to guard her pussy from the man of the house. And she sure as hell didn’t want to go back to the group home, where she had to fight the ugly jealous-hearted bitches while at the same time trying to stay out of the way of the manly dyke broads who had been turned out many years before. Stealing pussy was all they knew. So Mercy immunized herself against Farrah’s snide comments.
One day when Mercy rushed into the Ambassador Hotel lobby at 3:15 p.m., she was relieved to see that Farrah was nowhere in sight. Sam, who had worked there for about three years, was the only one at the front desk.
“About time, Miss Thang,” Sam said to Mercy, rolling his eyes. Sam was the tip of a lit match, flaming. He stood six feet tall and couldn’t have weighed more than a buck twenty-five soaking wet. He had smooth brown skin and eyebrows that were arched to perfection. His hair was processed with black looped curls. Both ears were pierced, but he never wore his earrings on the job. On the weekends, not only could you find him with earrings in both ears, but you could find him hanging out at Club Colors with pumps and a miniskirt, too.
“I’m so sorry, Sam,” Mercy said, rushing in, trying to hurry and take her jacket off and get in her position behind the counter. “My English teacher stopped me to discuss a book we are reading in class. I missed the 12:40 bus and had to wait on the 12:55 one.”
“Umm-hmm,” Sam said, sucking his teeth.
Just as Mercy was removing her jacket, Farrah got off of the lobby elevator.
“Guyd dayum. Here comes this bitch,” Mercy said under her breath.
“Mercy, come into my office,” Farrah said, not even making eye contact with Mercy. She was wearing her navy blue work uniform, a jacket and skirt. Her curly roller-set neck-length hair bounced with each step she took in her one-inch navy blue pumps. “Sam, I know you were supposed to be off fifteen minutes ago,” she said, stressing the words fifteen minutes, “but I just need you to stay a couple more minutes, please.”
As Farrah whisked past the two of them to make her way to her office, she left behind her scent of Tabu perfume. Mercy didn’t mind the scent at the local department store, or the softness of it when her mother used to wear it way back in the day. However, on Farrah it made her want to puke.
“I already know what this is about,” Mercy began as she entered Farrah’s office.
“And it’s a shame that you do,” Farrah interrupted. “You know there is nothing I hate more than a tardy employee. I’d almost rather you didn’t show up at all than to strut in here late like everything is okay. This isn’t your place. You don’t own this hotel, nor are you the manager. You’re an employee, and you follow the rules, my rules, or else. And poor Sam had already worked a double shift as it was.”
“I apologize,” Mercy said, putting her head down. “It won’t happen again.”
“You don’t say,” Farrah said, giving Mercy a fake smile, then quickly dropping it. Mercy stood there. Farrah looked at her as if she expected her to say something.
“Isn’t there something you want to say to me?” Farrah asked. “Do you want to try to convince me not to write you up? Perhaps you would even like to apologize a little more humbly before I complete this slip?”
Mercy rolled her eyes. “Apologize?” she said under her breath.
You better be apologizing to me for making me put up with that strong-ass perfume that smells like you bathed in it, Mercy thought. You better be apologizing to me. Bitch, step yo’ perfume game up instead of getting that shit off the three-dollar table in Rite Aid. That fragrance was the shit eight or nine years ago, but today that shit is played out like an eight-track.
“I know it’s highly unlikely, but perhaps now you’ll be on time,” Farrah said, handing Mercy a pen.
Mercy took a deep breath and signed the write-up slip. Farrah held her hand out to take it back, but Mercy slammed it down on her desk and headed out of the office.
As Mercy stormed out of the office, the first thing she saw was Sam standing there with his hands on his hips. “What did the head beyatch have to say?” he said as he began to gather his belongings to leave.
“I got wrote up,” Mercy said, pinning on her name tag.
“Child, ain’t that your third one already in four months?”
“Oh, Cruella gon’ be all over your ass fo’ sho’ now just waiting for you to fuck up,” Sam said, throwing his shoulder bag over his right shoulder. “Watch your back, girlfriend.”
“Thanks, Sam,” Mercy said. “Oh, yeah, and sorry you had to stay late on my behalf.”
Within minutes Chocolate Smooth, a frequent customer, entered the hotel lobby. Chocolate Smooth was the nickname Mercy had given him. He was only about five feet, seven inches tall, but he walked like he stood seven feet. When he strolled into the hotel, he had that authority as if he owned the place. Watching his smooth stride, Mercy smiled and thought about the cool-ass dude from I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, the one with fish in the heels of his shoes. Chocolate Smooth wasn’t dressed like he was stuck in the seventies, but that son of a bitch glided through the doors with the coolness of an igloo.
Chocolate Smooth always pulled up to the hotel in a fly-ass ride. His gear appeared to be right off the rack from either one of two places: the sales floor or the cleaners. His necklace always seemed like it was fresh out of a tub of jewelry cleaner, and his haircut looked like he had just gotten up out of the barber chair. His sideburns were like a neatly manicured lawn. Chocolate Smooth was just that fine, dark-skinned and smooth as a baby’s ass.
It never failed, each time he came to the hotel he had a different broad on his arm, sometimes two. He presented an ID that said Ralph Jones, but Mercy knew that his name wasn’t no Mr. Jones. She was sure it was an alias and that he was a drug dealer. And if he wasn’t a drug dealer, then he had one hell of a perception game.
“How are you today, Mr. Jones?” Mercy asked.
“I’m doing good,” Chocolate Smooth replied in his crisp northern accent. “But I’d be better if you’d look out for me on the price of the room, ma.”
Caught off guard, Mercy said, “I can’t.” She then looked over her shoulder for Farrah.
“Why not? You can do what you want to do,” he said. The two women he was with nodded their heads to confirm his statement.
“Yeah, but I can’t lose my job over no hookup.”
“Check it, sweetheart. I’m just trying to put some money in your pocket plus keep a little bit in mine at the same time.”
“How is giving you a hookup gon’ put money in my pocket?” Mercy said, putting her hands on her hips.
“Look, I know y’all got a vacant room up in this spot. All you gotta do is hook me up with one. Charge me half of what y’all charge for a room and pocket that shit.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Mercy said, chuckling.
“Naw. Ain’t you got no hustle about you? Hell, everybody’s got a hustle.”
Mercy thought about everything he’d said, and she bet he could see the wheels turning in her head.
“Look, it ain’t like there ain’t ten other hotels you can check mafuckas in at. If you get busted, which you won’t, and lose your job, hell, shawdy, you can come work for me,” he said, and smiled at Mercy.
“I’m serious, fo’ real.”
“Okay, look, I see you really trying to get a discount, so I’m gonna give you the Triple A discount. That’s like ten percent off,” Mercy said as she proceeded to check him in, then issued him a key to his room.
After Chocolate Smooth was gone, Mercy sat at the front desk and tried to do homework for her English class, but she found herself daydreaming instead. She imagined herself as rich as Chocolate Smooth—richer, going on trips first class to the Bahamas, riding in the back of a limo, talking on her cell phone giving orders and then giggling all the way to the bank when she hung up. She wondered, what would her life be like if her daddy hadn’t got killed? She damn sure wouldn’t have been stuck behind the counter of this place. Her father had always believed she’d make something of herself. Maybe she would, but what?
She heard Farrah approach and put away her books before Farrah could start dishing out more duties that were not in her job description.
“I wasn’t going to give you a fifteen-minute break, but I feel like being nice today even though you were late. Go take your break before I leave, and you better not come back late.”
Mercy decided to walk to the store right up the street to get something to nibble on. As she passed the hotel parking lot, she noticed that one of the girls who had checked into the hotel with Chocolate Smooth had run out to his gold Lexus to get something. She was one of the baddest broads Mercy had ever seen him with.
Damn, that girl is lucky, Mercy thought. She’s living the life. Look at her. Hair laid down, mink coat, and her shoes are right. As Mercy continued on her way, she tried to imagine that girl’s life, and as usual, her imagination took over and soon she was making up stories in her head about the girl being a high-class whore and Chocolate Smooth getting abducted by some rival dope dealers. By the time she got to the store, she had created an entire movie in her head.
When Mercy returned to the hotel, she noticed Farrah had placed a bus schedule on top of Mercy’s Sister 2 Sister magazine. “You better learn to read your bus schedule instead of that gossip column of a magazine,” Farrah said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s going to be the bus schedule that saves your orphan ass, not that gossip column.”
Mercy rolled her eyes and replied, “Yeah, whatever, Farrah.” She laughed it off just to keep from hog-spitting on Farrah. Mercy looked at the bus schedule to see if she could maneuver around being late again, but according to the way her buses ran, there was no way to have a backup plan. If she missed one bus, she was basically fucked.
“I need a damn car,” Mercy said with a sigh. “Yup, that’s all there is to it. I need a little hooptie to get me from Point A to Point B. I’m going to try to save my money and get me a little car. But, hell, what money is there to save?”
For the next couple of days, Mercy couldn’t stop thinking of ways she could cop a car. She was at the check-in counter at work plotting hard when an old dude she recognized from the hood showed up. He smiled at her as he paid for his room.
“Y’all got room service?” he asked. “I need me some champagne for my lady friend.”
“No, we don’t, sir,” Mercy said. She was sure he didn’t remember her. She glanced past him and saw his car out front with a woman sitting in the passenger seat. One glance was all she needed. There was her momma. Damn, she thought. She’s still at it. Fuckin’ around with any man who can scrape up a couple dollars to stick in her wallet. Not that her kids had ever seen any of that money. After Mercy’s daddy was killed, the good life was over. If it weren’t for the neighbors and people like Ms. Pat and Uncle Roland, those kids would have ’bout starved to death. While her mother rocked the latest fashions, she put cheap shoes and Woolworth’s clothes on her kids. While she was out eating steaks, her kids were lucky to have some Beefaroni out of the can.
The man snatched the key from her and ran out like he just couldn’t wait to get hold of her momma’s worn-out pussy. Mercy felt tears welling up in her eyes. She picked up the phone and dialed the one person she knew could comfort her, Ms. Pat.
“Child, how you doin’?” Ms. Pat asked. “Is school going good? You know, your daddy always wanted you to make something of yourself.”
Mercy couldn’t bring herself to tell Ms. Pat she had seen her mother, so she told her about her car problems instead.
“You know, I got a cousin with an old car he tryin’ to sell,” Ms. Pat said. “Let me talk to him and see what he want. It’s kinda ugly, though. You too cute for such an ugly car.”
“Look, transportation is transportation. I’ll look cute when I’m getting out of it on time to work,” Mercy said with a laugh.
When Mercy hung up the phone, she felt better. There wasn’t nothing she could do about her skanky momma, but at least Ms. Pat was going to help her find a car. But even Ms. Pat’s cousin’s ugly car wouldn’t be free. She’d have to come up with some money—not just for the car but also for the tag and taxes and insurance and all the rest of the bullshit.
As Mercy wondered how she was going to come up with the money, Chocolate Smooth entered the lobby.
“Hey,” he said to Mercy. “Let me ask you something.”
Oh, God, now what? Mercy thought.
“Look, do y’all rent rooms by the hour?” he inquired.
“Nope, we don’t.”
“Oh, I was asking because that’s how they do up top where I’m from.”
“Nope, we don’t do that,” Mercy said.
“Look, I need you to stop playing and look out for me for real, and I don’t mean no Triple A discount. I need you to let me get a room for about two hours. I ain’t really trying to pay the whole sixty-nine dollars for only two hours. How ’bout I give you thirty dollars?”
She thought for a minute about the money she needed for her car and hesitantly agreed. “Just two hours, right?”
“Yup, just two hours,” Chocolate Smooth assured her.
“Are you going to mess up the room?”
“Naw.” He shook his head.
“You gonna make up the bed right afterwards?”
He smiled and replied, “I got you.”
“Don’t leave no trash, no nothing in that room,” Mercy said in an authoritative tone.
“Look, I got you, ma.”
Mercy paused. “A’ight. Don’t fuck this up, okay?”
“I got you, I’m telling you. Why I wanna fuck up a good thang? Me and you can help each other out.” He smiled as Mercy looked over the list of vacant rooms. She handed him the key as he handed her the money.
“Two hours,” Mercy reiterated.
Chocolate Smooth winked.
Mercy looked at the thirty dollars in her hand, smiled, and then tucked it into her bra. Chocolate Smooth was right, she thought to herself. Everybody’s got a hustle. Why should I be any exception?
A monster had been unleashed. For that entire week not only did Mercy rent vacant rooms by the hour to Chocolate Smooth and others, but she took an even bigger risk and rented out vacant rooms for the entire night and pocketed the money. She made sure that the rooms were stocked with extra towels and other amenities. Since the hotel didn’t have room service, she didn’t worry about that. She had her hustle on lock.
On Friday she caught a cab to work so she wouldn’t be late. She would have hated to get fired on the day she was going to take ownership of her new wheels. That night she purchased a 1982 yellow Chevy Chevette from Ms. Pat’s cousin. She had to pay a crooked used-car salesman a hundred dollars to write her some thirty-day tags. Although the car was ugly as death walking, she drove it and it got her from Point A to Point B without her ever having to worry about being late again.
Mercy had gotten what she wanted, but just like any hustle, once that easy money came along, the shit was addictive. By the end of the following week she had money from the hourly rental of the rooms from Chocolate Smooth, as well as money she had pocketed for vacant rooms she had continued to risk renting out to others.
Now everybody in Richmond knew that if someone wanted to find a place where there were hustlers, the Ambassador was the hotel where they were all staying and dealing. That was the place the dealers made many sales and got plenty of pussy. Mercy was able to establish a relationship with many of the hustlers. For those who did legitimately check in, she’d check them in under an alias and required no ID. They would always slide her something under the table for that. So if the police or a dealer’s main squeeze was looking for him, they wouldn’t get the information from the front desk. Also, if a hustler only needed the room for a few hours to cook up or bag up, if the price was right, Mercy hooked them up as well.
Over the next few months Mercy’s funds began to grow. The day before her eighteenth birthday she was walking out of Rainbow Plus in Cloverleaf Mall looking for a birthday outfit for herself. Browsing through the racks she noticed the security guard staring at her.
“You need something from me? You see something over here you like?” she asked.
“No, not really, just wondering what’s in that bag of yours,” the short stubby white security guard said, looking at the huge bootleg Coach bucket bag she was carrying on her shoulders.
“What the fuck you mean, motherfucker? You trying to say that I’m carrying this bag to boost some shit?”
“I didn’t say it, you did.” He smiled like he was about to get a raise for that comment.
“Naw, boy toy, you don’t even get an A for effort on that one.” Mercy smiled. “You picked the wrong girl out of a lineup.” She continued rummaging through the racks.
“Oh, yeah, then if you know what people like me are gonna think, why would you bring that big bag to the mall, then?” he asked.
“Why?” She chuckled and never looked away from the clothes as she searched for a good buy.
He waited for her answer. She moved around the rack, and he impatiently asked her again, “Now, why would you do that?”
When Mercy moved to the next rack over, she looked up at him. “Well, first off, because I can. The last time I checked I can bring a suitcase in this motherfucker if I want to; it’s a free country. Next, I ain’t commit a crime,” she said, pointing at him, “and I wish you would accuse me of committing one so I can sue the fuck out of you, the store, and the company you work for. And lastly, which is truly none of your fucking business”—she went into her bag—“I keeps me a large jar of Vaseline”—she pulled the Vaseline out—“and sneakers in this bag, in case the wrong beyatch cross my path on the wrong day and she needs to get dealt with. So, basically, buddy, as long as I shop in this store, and especially in this ghetto mall, this here bag”—she pointed to the bag—“will be on my shoulder.”
The guard did not utter a word. Mercy had broke him down and not even raised her voice.
“So Mr. Toy Cop, understand: Stealing, that ain’t me. Maybe killing, but never stealing, you heard,” she said as she strolled out of the store into the mall.
A few minutes later she ran into Amy, who was one of the city’s biggest gossips and seemed to know everything about everybody in town.
“ ’Scuse me, ain’t you Zurri’s lil’ sister?”
“Yup.” Mercy nodded with a smile although she hadn’t seen her sister in years. When Zurri turned eighteen, she had promised to fight the system and get custody of Mercy, but she never did. For a while Zurri wrote to Mercy, giving her hope, but it had been several years since her last letter, when she’d told Mercy she was pregnant. Zurri’s focus had then turned to survival; she had her own family to worry about with her baby coming.
Mercy missed her sister and wanted any kind of connection or relationship she could get. So hearing Zurri’s name was like music to her ears.
“I knew you had to be,” Amy continued, “because y’all look just alike.”
“Everybody used to always say that when we were little.”
“Well, me and her used to hang out, and she always used to tell me about her lil’ sister. You still in the system?” Amy asked.
“Nope, not really. I’m about to turn eighteen tomorrow, and then I’ll be one hundred percent rid of them sons of bitches. Do you have my sister’s number?” Mercy asked, hopeful to connect with her sister again.
“Her phone cut off, but I just heard there was some drama at her place, that she got to fighting and now Social Services over there looking for her daughter to take her away. Only Zurri won’t tell them where the baby at.”
Hearing the words “Social Services” made every hair on Mercy’s body stand up. “For what?” she asked, worried about her big sister and her niece even more. She had never seen the little girl, but if the Social Services people got their hands on her, she could disappear into the system and no telling what kind of terrible things might happen to her.
“You know how they do,” Amy said, sucking her teeth.
“Look, I know you don’t know me, but please, I need you to help me. Please help me find my niece,” Mercy begged. “You know that we grew up in the system, and I can’t let my niece grow up in the system, too. Please, I need you to help me.” Mercy’s eyes began to tear up.
Peeping out the desperation in Mercy’s eyes and in the tone of her voice, Amy said, “Don’t worry. I’ll help you, girl. Yo’ sister is my girl, so I’m going to hook you up.” Amy put her hand on Mercy’s shoulder like they had known each other forever.
They walked to the pay phone and Amy made some calls. “Look, you got some dough?” Amy asked Mercy as she covered the phone.
“How much?” Mercy asked, as if to say if she didn’t have it, she’d get it from somewhere.
Amy replied, “Like a dove.”
“Yeah, I got it,” Mercy answered.
“Well, the girl who got the baby, your sister’s neighbor, said she’ll watch your niece until we get there, but we gotta take her a bag of weed.”
After Amy took Mercy to a weed spot to cop a twenty-dollar bag, they went to Zurri’s neighbor’s apartment. Mercy walked in the door and saw the cutest little three-year-old girl with her hair plaited in neat rows and sporting a matching denim jacket and jeans. The girl was playing with an old black Barbie doll with the hair all cut off.
Amy whispered the little girl’s name to her.
“Hey, Deonie, I’m your Aunt Mercy,” Mercy said. Deonie looked up at her shyly.
“I see you got your doll there. Want me to tell you a story about her?”
Deonie didn’t say anything, but handed her the doll.
“See, this here Barbie used to be a fashion model, but then she got in with the wrong crowd,” Mercy began. Pretty soon Deonie had crawled up into her lap and was listening to Mercy, completely enthralled.
The next day Mercy called in sick to work so she could get her niece situated. She also visited the Jackson Ward projects to see Ms. Pat and get her advice.
Ms. Pat came to the door in her housecoat. She was a frail-looking woman with salt-and-pepper hair and looked like a sweet little old grandma. Mercy’s daddy had trusted Ms. Pat completely. Ms. Pat had even tried to get custody of Mercy and the other kids after Uncle Roland went to jail but never could since she was on disability and lived in the projects.
“How do people do it, Ms. Pat?” Mercy asked, settling down in Ms. Pat’s living room with Deonie on her lap. “I’ve got to work, but who’s gonna look after Deonie?”
“Don’t you worry ’bout it. I’ll look after her. But you need to live closer by. I’m gonna see ’bout getting you a place here in the project. There’s a lady I know works at the housing authority, and she owes me a favor.”
“That might take a while,” Mercy said, handing Deonie a package of animal crackers.
“In the meantime, you can stay here with me,” Ms. Pat said, and went into the other room to fix up a place for Mercy and Deonie to sleep.
From the Trade Paperback edition.