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Authors: Charlotte Carter

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BOOK: Drumsticks
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Of course I was assuming that old, not fresh resentments were plaguing him. Sweet surely had a thousand legitimate complaints about life as a black cop—a black man. But, outside of his anger over the rap murders, he had never spoken with me about them.

Leman Sweet was a tough nut to crack. Obviously a bright man. Obviously a sharp cop. But his assumptions about me and mine were infuriating, and his quicksilver temper—the violence in him—scared me. Besides, even if Aubrey's charms were working on him, and even if he'd decided I might be useful to him with the Felice Sanders thing, he and I were not destined to be buddies. Whatever it was he thought he saw in me, he plainly despised it.

I waited patiently for him to finish his nasty laugh and get to the point.

“I saw that little girl at Black Hat's funeral. Sure, she was upset. What would you expect? Her fiancé was dead. But she wasn't no more crazy or ‘lost' than any other kid would be in her place. She was crying and wailing. So what? It was a funeral.”

“Listen, Leman. You wanted me to check out Felice's history at the school and I did. Dan Hinton seems like he cares about her. If he says she's kind of a loose cannon, I would tend to believe him.”

“Okay, Cue. I don't have time to argue about that.” He finished the last of his soda in one amazing gulp. “Anyway, maybe this Hinton is on to something. Felice's mother still hasn't heard from her. And come to think of it, the girl did go off on Black Hat's mama and daddy that day.”

“What day?”

“The day of the funeral. I was there. Wanted to see if any of the rappers who showed up might be suspects in the shooting.”

“How did she go off?” I asked. “Over what?”

“She was blaming Jacob and Lenore Benson, Black Hat's parents, for his murder. Said if they had listened to him, respected him, it never would have happened.”

“What did that mean?”

“How do I know? Nobody seemed to know what she was talking about. She probably didn't know either. She was screaming at them—stuff about how she was going to pay them back for dissing him. How she was going to get revenge on them.”

Revenge. More needless havoc was wreaked in the name of getting even than anything else I could think of. And what did revenge mean in this case? I should think losing Kevin was enough of a revenge on the Bensons. Well, it had probably been an idle threat anyway.

“What about Ida?” I asked. “Does Loveless have anything new?”

“I put a call in to him this morning. Haven't heard back yet. So you just going to have to cool it till he calls me. Meantime, no more second-story jobs—understand? Or I'll throw your ass to the dogs.”

“Yassuh!” I spat out.

Leman went back to work, without thanking me for my efforts, I might add. I forgot that slight soon enough, though. I had a number of other things to think about.

For one, I had a date with Dan Hinton.

CHAPTER 9

The More I See You

What was I—a Cosby kid? The night's appointment with the beautiful Mr. Hinton was taking up way too much space in my head.

So I went out early that morning and played on the street.

I did a bunch of fast, muscular, hard bop numbers—even some aggressive, head-banger kind of improvising. I made next to no money. But that was all right—I was just playing for the sake of playing. Playing for the practice. Trying to get myself centered. I just didn't want to be acting like a silly broad all excited over the prospect of a date with a cute man.

My copy of the photo with Ida and Miller was in the sax case. When I had exhausted my macho man repertoire, I jumped on the subway and went up to Ida's old West Side neighborhood. I bought a big carry-out container of coffee and hit the streets, showing the picture to some of the local merchants and any of her former neighbors who deigned to speak to me. A few neighborhood denizens were engaged in dog walking, grocery shopping, and the like, and I pushed the photo to them wherever I found them. With a little prompting from me, the shoe repair man said he recognized Ida from the photo, but he'd never set eyes on Miller.

I took a brisk walk through Central Park and emerged at Columbus Circle, where I got back on the BMT and headed downtown once more. In a few minutes I was back at Union Square Park, currently the hub of my life, it seemed.

The farmers market was lovely with winter flowers and exotic pears and apples and brown breads warm from the oven. I walked among the stalls and continued to flash the photo at the regulars. No one knew Miller.

Man. That guy must have been a genius at covering his tracks—and his ass. Maybe he and Ida had both done the crimes. But it was only Ida who'd done the time. Miller had no prison record.

I had a reunion with my greasy old boyfriend, as Ida had teasingly referred to him. The homeless old gent who cadged money from shoppers and ran errands for some of the vendors pinned me down as I was leaving the park.

“Can you help me out?” he asked. “I'm
this
close!” The smell of alcohol and unwashed privates rose up off him like bayou swamp gas.

“This close to what?”

He opened his hand and showed me the six or seven quarters in his palm. “A Big Mac,” he said. “I just need—”

I slapped a dollar bill into his hand. “Here you go. Don't you buy anymore juice with that.”

The day was getting away from me. I ran over to Aubrey's hair guy, who bitched and fussed about the lack of notice but wound up giving me a terrific super-short haircut.

Back at home, I mixed and matched every piece of clothing I owned. Finally I settled on—surprise—all black. A reliable old skinny dress that showed off my butt and legs but wasn't too dressy.

Shit, why should I sweat it? Dan would probably be turning more eyes than I would anyway.

We were having dinner, of course. But our first stop was a little hole-in-the-wall theater in Hell's Kitchen, where an old friend of Dan's was having his play done. “Don't worry,” Dan had assured me. “It's only one act. And funny, not heavy.”

He didn't lie. I laughed out loud a couple of times; I'd seen lots worse. Even with the obligatory meet and greet the author, we were out of there and claiming our corner table at the French seafood restaurant on King Street less than ninety minutes after the curtain went up.

It smelled just right in there: garlic! butter! Coltrane on the sound system. Low lights anointed Dan's skin—and mine, if I was lucky—like an adoring handmaiden in a Renaissance painting.

I laid down one rule. “No talking about me when I was Daddy's favorite little whiz kid.”

“I can live with that,” he said. “I'd much rather hear about your latest adventure in Paris anyway,” he said.

Oh no, I told him firmly. That subject was also taboo. The last thing I wanted to do was relive my busted affair with Andre, let alone the Vivian nightmare.

His curiosity about my Paris trip made me realize that Daddy must have kept the story of Vivian's death a secret from him. So maybe he and Hinton weren't quite so tight as I had thought. Maybe Dan didn't even know “Eddie” had a sister.

We still found plenty to talk about over our funky bouillabaisse, endive salad, and house red. Like both of us often being lonesome and desperate as the only child. Both of us often being lonesome and desperate as black Ivy Leaguers—him some ten or twelve years before me. Both of us having a taskmaster for a father, a striver for whom failure was not an option—not for himself and not for his child.

I was letting my guard down. Maybe even showing off a little. It was risky to tell him about playing on the street. Neither of my parents knew about it. But I did it anyway. I knew he'd never rat me out to my father. He was too proud of his image as the good guy grown-up.

“Are you serious!” was his immediate reaction to my revelation. Equal parts shock and admiration.

Just the kind of response that little Nan craved.

I was off and running with stories about the fantastic assortment of characters I'd met on the street; the narrow escapes from muggers; the all-night parties with musicians and assorted other fiends; the sax player I'd picked up who ended up dead on my kitchen floor. Escapade after escapade, any one of which would curl my daddy's hair if he knew about it.

I painted myself as a cross between La Femme Nikita and Edith Piaf. Danny Boy was eating it up. Much raucous laughter emanating from our little corner.

“That's incredible stuff, Nan. You're really fierce.”

I probably batted an eyelid or two.

“No, I mean it,” he said. “You're so different from the picture I had of you. I mean, based on what I know about Eddie—and the things he says about you.”

“You thought I'd be a black debutante, didn't you? A real BAP.”

He fumbled for a politic answer.

“That's okay, I forgive you,” I said. “I figured you for one, too.”

Yes, I'd say my guard was definitely lowered. Somehow it no longer seemed important to dislike Dan Hinton just because my father did like him.

A mustachioed waiter went whizzing by with the dessert cart. Maybe a real femme on a first date would pass on dessert. But I got a good look at that pear tart and I knew I had to have it.

We shared it, laughing all the way through the last dollop of cream. I saw Dan raise his hand. But he wasn't calling for the check, or even for that end-of-the-night espresso. Instead he ordered another bottle of wine, with my hearty approval.

I was just as agreeable when he moved out of his chair and onto the small banquette with me.

We were only one glass into the new bottle when he mentioned that he was divorced.

“She left you, you said?”

He nodded.

“So—what was the matter with her?”

I was gambling with that line, hoping he would realize I was making a joke.

He did. And after enjoying his laugh, he took my fingers and kissed them lightly, and thanked me for saying that.

It took a long time for him to release my hand. He didn't let go, in fact, until after he had kissed me lightly on the mouth. So very lightly that in the kiss there was just as much
hello, dear cousin
as there was sexual interest. The thing sent a tiny tremor across my top lip. I didn't kiss back, I didn't not kiss back.

I had a bit more wine and then said, “You've been with a lot of women, haven't you? Had sex with a lot of women, I mean—to be blunt.”

I could see him calculating, trying to figure what kind of answer I wanted to hear.

In the end he merely shrugged and said, “Yeah.”

Well, that was honest. Kind of like my father—you gotta tell the truth even when it might work against you, and certainly without regard to how it might affect anybody else.

“Is that what happened with your marriage—too many other women?”

I had made another joke, unintentionally. If you're married to a guy, how many other women does it take to add up to “too many”?

“We didn't break up over sex,” he said, and I thought I caught a trace of patronization in his tone. “I know you think I'm Mr. Straight Arrow. But from the very beginning Michele and I had an understanding about attractions to other people. Michele was very enlightened about it. We had a more or less open marriage, as they used to call it.”

Loosely translated: I was a real boody fiend.

So Michele merely smiled and said skip that lipstick, eh? Ha.

I averted my head until I could wipe the smirk off my lips. Was I being unfair to Dan Hinton? People were hard on pretty men. It just seems so difficult to believe anything they say. Maybe it was an especially thorny problem for pretty black men, a lot of whom—let's face it—don't give too much of a shit whether you believe them or not. They know you're going to give it up anyhow, am I lying?

My attention had wandered a little. Dan was winding up his explanation of why he and Michele had split. I caught only the part about her not being able to accept that he had no intention of quitting his job to work for a corporation.

We got back to more immediate matters: a police raid on the wrong apartment that had ended in the death of a young man and his girlfriend, the names we gave as children to our imaginary siblings, did I really hate my dad's wife Amy or was it just the idea of her, what did I think of Wynton Marsalis.

It was late, one-thirty, when we paid up and left the restaurant. The manager bid us good night and bolted the door behind us.

We stood on the sidewalk, close together, not talking.

After a while he drew me to him, another kiss, not much cousin in that one.

“Should I put you in a cab?” he asked.

I thought about it for a second and then shook my head.

“Walk you home?”

“We could walk,” I said, “but not home.”

He didn't quite know what I meant. Even so, sexual anticipation flicked on in his eyes. I couldn't blame him. This was the moment when two people who've had a great evening together decide yes or no.

“I don't think you should see me home,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because I'd probably ask you upstairs and jump straight into the sack with you.”

“And that would be bad because …?”

I laughed. “Yeah, I know, I didn't really answer you.”

“Is it because of Eddie? Because I work for him?”

“Believe me, it's not that. I just—shouldn't—tonight,” I said. “Look, we're only a few blocks from where my friend Aubrey works. I think I'll stop in over there. Maybe I'll spend the night at her place.”

Gentleman Dan pushed no further. We turned south on Sixth Avenue. The wind nipped mildly at his open raincoat and he kept me near to him with an arm over my shoulder.

“This is it,” I said when we arrived at Caesar's Go Go Emporium.

“Are you serious!” he asked for the second time that evening.

BOOK: Drumsticks
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