Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Hearts of Steel: Chapter 6

Fifteen yards out, I planted my foot and pivoted a hard ninety degrees to make a lateral cut toward the goalpost. As I looked over my shoulder to check my progress, I sensed the ball before I heard it whistling through the air, I could feel it before I saw it hurdling toward me – a dark speck against a cloudless cerulean sky.

Sometimes, in practice, it paid to count on more than just your physical senses to make a play. My junior high school coach imparted that bit of wisdom to me once after I’d dropped my third pass in a crucial game.

Old Coach Reeves. I wonder what ever happened to him.

“Son,” Coach would say to me, patting me on my shoulder in restrained macho sympathy. He called everyone son. And he patted everyone on the shoulder. Sometimes, I think it was because it was easier than remembering our names. The way we were switching positions, it didn’t do to call us by our jersey numbers. Those were just going to change again when the coaches made player and position adjustments as they did after every loss.

Sometimes, I can still hear the rattling of phlegm in Coach Reeves’ throat – the sound that he made to announce that he was about to make a speech. Actually, it was the sound he made before he spat out a loogie and began making his speech.

“Son, my great granny, Lord rest her soul, could have caught that ball in her false teeth. This ain’t rocket science. It don’t make no sense for someone with as much love as you’ve got for the game to be so lousy at it. If you want to make it past a third-string junior varsity, you’d better start using that head up there for something more than bouncing that ball off of it. It’s either that, or go over and talk to Coach Thorpe about getting a spot in his soccer team”

Old Coach Reeves. I wonder what ever happened to him.

For all of the warm fuzzies he gave us during those early, insecure years, maybe he was hit by a bus. His brand of encouragement didn’t make sense at the time. I’m not sure that it makes all that much sense to me now.

But I do know this. Any player who was ever worth anything, who was ever remembered for anything, had something more on the ball than being able to use his eyes, ears, and hands to handle one.

They all had that unexplainable something. A sixth sense that helped them zig when others would have zagged, leap when others would have ducked. Whatever it was they had, it made the difference between a championship year and a see-you-next-year. I’d like to think that I have that extra something.

The sting of the leather pierced through my practice gloves, causing the centers of my palms to tingle, almost itch. I clenched my hands ever so tightly, a gentle reassurance that I’d done my job. Another pivot to turn upfield again. Simple, rote. As predictable as clockwork.

Another fifteen yards up, I stopped and threw the ball to one of the trainers before jogging back to my position at the end of the drill line. It was only nine o’clock, but the day was already starting to warm. The sun made my sunglasses hot to the touch, caused beads of perspiration to collect under my bandana The blue and white cloth darkened to a solid blue of wetness. I didn’t mind too much.

If I concentrated really hard, I could pretend that the sound of trainer’s whistles were the sounds of tropical birds, stirring the humid air with their song back on my grandfather’s sugarcane farm in Puerto Rico.

I don’t know why I’m so nostalgic about the place. I didn’t spend much time there. I’d only visited a handful of times. My grandfather had made his home on the outskirts of America and didn’t return often to the soil of his birth. Nothing nostalgic about sweating for hours in the sun, chopping cane for the enrichment of someone else.

My own father didn’t even think of having ties to the island. Not that island, anyway. 

I was born on American soil - literally. My mother went into labour near the tail end of the transatlantic flight. Born in America herself, with Ghanaian heritage, she didn’t want her children growing up among foreigners.

“Move up.”

Someone behind prodded me, reminding me of where I was, and what I was supposed to be doing. The drill line moved swiftly, methodically, and it was my turn again.

“I’m surprised to see you here, Flash,” another team member from the drill line opposite me called out. Everybody called him the Deacon, for his fanatical drop-to-the-knee-in-prayer pose after every score – even if it was the other team’s.

“What do you mean?”

“I thought you were going on the honeymoon with Paul.”

I could have taken that comment to be a crack about my friendship with Paul. We hung out together so much, we were often ridiculed. In fact, sometimes we acted like an old married couple – completing each other’s sentences, squabbling over things that didn’t matter, or letting things that should have torn us apart slide without so much as a blink.

Too many times to count, we’d sometimes show up to practice wearing almost the same outfit. To cover, we confounded the other teammates, especially the rookies, with “Didn’t you get the memo? How come you aren’t properly dressed out?”

Any other time, I would have dismissed the ragging as business-as-usual jokes. But not this time, I couldn’t quite shrug it off. A few snickers from other team members, sly and lascivious, made me uneasy. Judging from the harsh hazing that followed, I could tell that they hadn’t all been as drunk as they’d seemed to be the night before Paul and Priscilla’s wedding. Someone had seen what had gone wrong between Priscilla and me. Gossip could run through a team like this one quicker than athlete’s foot fungus.

As I came up again in line, my turn to run the sprint pattern, I wondered if there were more than two witnesses to Priscilla’s proposition. It was possible. There was so much confusion the night before the wedding. We’d rented out almost an entire hotel floor. Most of us needing privacy had returned to our rooms. . .or to somebody else’s. The chorus of “Get out!” or “Shut the door” had rung out more often than the chorus of “Get me to the church on time.”

I’d slipped away to down a couple of aspirins. The music and the mood had worn me down quicker than I’d like to admit.

Makes me melancholy to think that I can’t handle the high life like I used to. Maybe that’s why I didn’t resist right away when Priscilla found her way into my room. I’d let myself buy her flimsy excuse of needing a quiet, private place to fix her makeup. What could be more appropriate than her own suite? I’d asked her point-blank.

“Have you been to my suite lately?” She’d laughed and jerked her thumb in a direction down the hall. “Your coach should have as much enthusiasm and attendance at practice as I’ve got going on in that room.”

“Paul’s just letting off steam. A last go-round before he has to settle down and become Mr. Responsible.”

“Exactly. That’s why Paul practically worships you, J.D. You understand him. I love him, but he’s not exactly Who Wants to Be a Millionaire material, is he now? If you understand him, then you know exactly what I’m feeling. You know why it’s important for me to be here.”

Her voice had been too low, too deliberately pitched for that to be a simple agreement with my sentiment.

When alarm bells started going off in my head, I’d dismissed them as just the beginnings of the headache. That sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach had been just a physical reaction to the aspirin. It couldn’t have had anything to do with the fact that I had a sneaking suspicion that my best friend’s woman was about to come on to me.

It couldn’t have been that. I simply refused to accept that it was true, and that I’d then stood by and said nothing when the time in the ceremony came for me to object to the wedding.

I suppose if I wanted to take the moral high road, if the incident ever came to the full light of day, I could say with a clear conscience that nothing really happened. Nothing had. Not really. Something had pulled me back – whether it was the fear of discovery or my sense of propriety that was stronger, it didn’t matter. The end result was that disaster had been averted.

Priscilla was with Paul now and I wasn’t. I was here. I couldn’t help but feel that even with my perception of Priscilla’s faults, she was with Paul. He had someone. Someone who he cared for deeply. And what did I have? Who did I have? No one.


“You’ve got my back if they team up on me, don’t you ladies?”

My cousin Joy put her hand in front of her mouth, pretending to daintily dab at her lips with her napkin, as she passed along a request for solidarity to Brenda and me.

I was in midsip of my water and had to swallow quickly to keep from choking through my laughter.

“Don’t trust Brenda to hang with us, Joy,” I whispered back. “I think she’s already been subverted.”

Joy looked at Brenda, who’d raised both of her hands in protest of her innocence.

“What does she know?” Joy demanded. “Who are they going after this time? Which one of us is the target?”

“She won’t tell,” I said in disgust.

“Not even after you tickled her?” Joy asked.

“How did you know I tickled her?” I sounded surprised.

“Oh, please. That’s how you always got anything out of us, Priye. When we were kids, all you had to do was waggle your finger at us and we spilled our guts.”

“Not this time,” Brenda said. “We’re not kids anymore.”

“And we’re no spring chickens, either. That’s why we’re having this discussion,” Joy reminded us.

“Shh! Here they come.” I motioned for silence before our aunts and Grandma returned from the ladies’ room. We cousins weren’t fooled. They couldn’t all have to go at the same time. They were plotting something. I knew it.

When I’d tried to follow them into the ladies’ room, to scope out their plot, they’d clammed up so quick and stared at me as oddly as if I’d walked into the wrong bathroom. I’d almost had to back up and take a second look. Yeah. I was in the ladies’ room. I was in the right place.

Aunt Ebere had gotten a funny look on her face. Not funny ha-ha. Funny like “I’m busted” kind of funny. She’d then turned, actually done an about-face, and said, “So, Doris, do you think that the weather should be clear on the Anniversary night?”

“Oh. . .oh yes,” Mother had stammered, like she couldn’t get her lips to change directions fast enough. “Clear and warm. Perfect for the family reunion.”

What was she? An almanac? Why in the world was she trying to predict the weather almost a year away from the event? They had changed the subject. It had been obvious on their collective guilty faces.

“What are you doing in here, Priye?” Grandma had asked bluntly. 

“It’s a bathroom.” I’d stated the obvious. “I thought I’d take care of a little personal business before we started shopping.”

“There are no more shops,” she’d then retorted and stepped into the last one. “Go on outside and wait until one is freed up.”

I couldn’t believe it! She’d ordered me out of the bathroom! And after all I’d gone through to bring her those bears. Of course she didn’t know about them yet. The celebration dinner wasn’t until tonight – which was one of the reasons we were all out shopping. It was a chance for us to spend some time together, as well as spend a little money.

“We’ll be out in a minute, honey.” Aunt Rosa had patted me affectionately. At the same time, she’d steered me toward the door.

By the time I’d made it back to my seat, I’d been wearing an expression of mild irritation. They couldn’t treat me like that! I was grown. I held down a job. I paid rent. But I’d just been told when to go to the bathroom like a three-year-old. What was wrong with that picture?

As soon as I’d resumed my seat, Brenda and Joy had pounced on me, pumping me for information.

“Well? What did they say?”
“Who’s it going to be?”

“When are they going to spring a man on us?”

I’d shrugged. “You got me.”

I didn’t know any more than when I’d first followed them inside. All I had were my suspicions – and a suspect, long range weather forecast.

The rest of the luncheon went relatively smoothly, with talk centered mostly on our respective jobs and the various cities to which we’d all moved. We talked about who would likely be on which reunion committee, how exciting the reunion trip should be, and how many we expected to attend.

Even though our table waiter was cute and attentive – and who wouldn’t be with a table filled with attractive women – no one seemed to be trying to foist us off on him. Maybe my trip to the rest room had put a scare into the matchmaking militia, making them to regroup, rethink their strategy.

Maybe not.

It happened so fast, my head reeled from the shock. One moment I was reaching for a credit card, offering to pick up the tab for lunch; the next, I was instantly transformed into the “target.”

It all happened in the blink of an eye. Or rather, in the fluttering of a paper. I’d almost forgotten that I had it. Jack Deneen’s telephone number. But as I pulled my wallet from my purse, the paper drifted to the floor and made all the impact of an atomic bomb.

“You dropped something, Priye,” Joy said, reaching for the traitorous scrap.

“Oh!” I bent down to reach for it, but Joy was half-way there. As I leaned over to snatch it up before anyone could spy the contents, our heads collided.



“Watch it.”

That split-second delay in grabbing it made all the difference. Brenda’s sharp eyes noticed the Steeldogs logo and the handwritten note with the request for me to call Jack. It wasn’t as if she had supersharp sight. She was able to notice it because she was faster than both Joy and me combined.

Brenda managed to scoop the note from both our grasps. She was so fast, it reminded me of a scene from that old Kung Fu series. Snatch the pebble from my hands grasshopper.

“Priye!”she said, looking up at me with shinning eyes.

“Where did you get this?”

“What is it?” Mother asked, wanting to know what kind of dropped paper, short of a C-note, could cause so much commotion at the restaurant table.

“Nothing,” I said hastily and held out my hand for Brenda to return it. You should have seen how easily the shining in her eyes turned to the glimmer of sweet revenge. This was her payback for my tickling her. 

“Nothing,” Brenda echoed, mimicking me, then waved the paper in front of everyone’s noses, gloating. “Nothing but the phone number of one of the sexiest men in the world! Sexy and unmarried. Did I mention that he wasn’t married?”

Her admission was like waving raw meat in front of a pack of pit bulls. “It’s from Jack The Flash Deneen of the Steeldogs.”



“How did you get that?”

“What’s a Steeldog?”

Questions from my relatives came from every corner.

“It says here that he wants Priye to call him at her earliest convenience. And he’s underlined earliest.” She turned the note around for the others to see, show-and-tell style.

“Where did you get that?” Aunt Rosa asked, then snapped her fingers in remembrance. “Wait a minute. . .I think I saw him. He was on the flight from Ghana, wasn’t he? I saw a man – a long, tall, gorgeous drink of water – coming off the plane. He was literally mobbed, people asking for autographs. I knew he was some kind of celebrity, but I couldn’t connect the face with the name. So that was Jack Deneen, huh?”

“Priye, have you been holding out on us?” Joy wanted to know.

“No, of course not. There’s nothing to tell.”

“Maybe I should tickle you until you confess,” Brenda suggested, raising a finely arched eyebrow at me. “It would serve you right.”

“There’s nothing to confess,” I insisted. It was my turn to raise my hands in protest of innocence.

“Uh-huh” Grandma said, narrowing her eyes at me.

Suddenly, she broke into a wide smile and nudged my aunt Ebere. Aunt Ebere nudged Aunt Pam, who sort of winked at Aunt Rosa. It looked like a human version of a domino rally.

The only thing I could do was put my head in my hands. That was it. My fate was sealed. If it hadn’t been decided among them who would be the “target” when they all went into the ladies’ room, the traitorous scrap of paper had made the decision for them. There was no question now. I was it. The target.

“Let me see that,” Aunt Pam said, holding out her hand across the table. I had to resist the urge to snatch it out of Brenda’s hand as she held it out for them.

“You know, there’s been a lot of buzz in the local sports news about that man. They say he’s pretty good.”

“I wouldn’t know.” I said stiffly. “I don’t follow football.”

“Yeah. I hear he’s supposed to be some kind of superstar at that, too.” Joy said slyly. “I was at a club once, where a bunch of Steeldogs were supposed to hang out.”

“And what were you doing at a club, missy?” I asked, trying to throw the heat off me.

“Uh-huhh. Don’t even try it, missy,” Joy stressed in return. “I was there for a bridal shower for a friend of mine. Anyway, someone yelled out, ‘Steeldogs in the house!’ The next thing you know, the place is a zoo. You’ve never seen so many women lose their minds all at once. Screaming. Running. Dropping their own dates like they were bad pennies. It was ridiculous. There were so many bras and panties with telephone numbers thrown at those poor players that it looked like an explosion at a lingerie factory.”

“What’s the matter, Joy? Couldn’t get yours off fast enough?” I asked snidely.

“You hear that, Aunt Doris, Priye is being ugly to me.”

“Play nice, girls,” Mother said automatically, sounding as she had when we were kids growing up together. 

Aunt Pam scanned the note, shaking her head.

From there, things went from bad to worse. Grandma peered over Aunt Pam’s shoulder, reading the note aloud to herself.

“This is a crying shame,” she said softly. “In my day, when a man wanted to spark a woman, he did so with respect. He came to her parents’ house and courted openly, like a nice girl deserved.”

“George was over at our house so much, we started to adopt him,” Aunt Rosa remembered. 

Grandma laughed out so loud. It was a wonderful laugh, sort of like Brenda’s. It made me think that humour was hereditary.

She then turned her piercing gaze to me. “That’s how we did it in those days, Priye. Respectfully.” She placed her palms flat on the table and leaned forward so that her face almost brushed the centerpiece. “You are a nice girl, aren’t you, Priye? You didn’t do anything to give that man the impression that you weren’t?”

“Grandma!” I squeaked, my face as red as the cherry glaze on my cake. I could feel waves of heat wafting from my face, threatening to wilt the flowers of the floral arrangement.

“Of course she’s a nice girl, Grandma.” Joy stepped in smoothly. “Priye probably wouldn’t give that dog the time of the day. That’s why he had to push his telephone number on her. Otherwise, he’d have hers and we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Isn’t that right, Priye?”

Sweet Joy. I should have known that she’d back me up. My head bobbed up and down in agreement, like a cork.

“Well, we’ll just see about that. Somebody give me one of those phones.”

Quicker than lightening, four different telephones appeared on the table in front of my grandmother. Nokia. Samsung. BlackBerry. Android. She had her pick.

She adjusted her glasses and said, “Read that number out to me, Pammie.”

“What? What did she say? Mother, what did she say?” I asked.

My breath came out in a breathly whisper. Panic had closed my throat, making it difficult to speak, even breathe.

“She asked your aunt Pam to read that man’s number out loud to her,” Mother said calmly. She took a sip from her coffee as casually as if my grandmother had asked someone to read a selection from the menu to her.

Grandma held the telephone almost at arm’s length, trying to read the small numbers on the handset as Aunt Pam called out the numbers.

I turned pleading eyes to Aunt Rosa. It was her sister. Couldn’t she do something to stop her? But Aunt Rosa only gave me that its going to be all right look.

Grandma put the telephone up to her ear and cleared her throat deliberately, waiting for someone to pick up on the other end – while I waited for a miracle to end this. A bolt of lightening. A herd of wild elephants. Abduction. I wasn’t choosy, just as long as I didn’t have to be conscious for what could very well turn out to be the most embarrassing moment of my life. 

“Yes, hello. May I speak with Jack Deneen, please?”

“Tell me this is a sick joke,” I whispered to Brenda, tugging on her sleeve.

“Shh!” she shushed me and brushed my hand off of her.
“I can’t hear.”

“This is going to be delicious,” Joy said, rubbing her hands together. I had a sneaking suspicion that she wasn’t talking about the food.

“Mr. Deneen, my name is Mrs. Adesuwa Johnson.” She paused, then said, acerbically, “Never you mind how I got this number. What I want to know is what intentions you have for my granddaughter.” 

She paused, waiting for the response, then said, “You mean you make it a habit of passing your private number out indiscriminately, sir?”

Another pause. “Let me refresh your memory, Mr. Deneen. Priye Cole is my granddaughter. She’s a nice girl – a good girl.”

I grimaced, fearful of what Jack must have been thinking. He’d been unexpectedly kind by keeping me company on the plane. After the brush-off signals that I’d given him at the airport, he hadn’t had to do it.

Grandma then lifted her eyes to the ceiling as if listening very carefully to the response. “I see.” Another pause. “Hmmmm. I see.”

“What? What does she see?” I asked aloud to no one in particular. No one was listening to me, anyway. Their eyes and ears were all glued to Grandma’s lips.

“Is that a fact?” Grandma continued, then looked curiously at me.

“What’s a fact?” I demanded but respectfully, because you didn’t use that tone with Grandma. Not unless you wanted your lips knocked into next week from a lightning fast, backhanded slap. I personally had never received such treatment. But I’d heard things.

“Well, sir, in that case you can tell her yourself tonight over dinner. Do you like Nigerian food?”

“Tell me what? What is she doing?”

“Why are you so interested?” Brenda wanted to know.

“You don’t follow football. Remember?” Joy put in her two cents.

My own words had come to haunt me.

“Sounds to me like she’s just invited him to dinner.” Aunt Rosa said, winking at me.

I shook my head, not comprehending. The setup couldn’t be as simple as that. These women were masters at it, often taking weeks of planning to arrange a meeting between the “target” and the “intended.” They’d been in the matchmaking business for years, as long as I could remember them planning family reunions. By producing that phone number, I’d made it too easy for them. I’d taken all of the fun out of their matrimonial machinations.

Grandma said with finality, “Eight o’clock sharp at the Nobles Restaurant. Do you need directions? No, I don’t imagine that you do. It’s my anniversary, Mr. Deneen. A very special one, so please dress accordingly.”

She then closed the phone and handed it back to Aunt Pam.

The table was silent for a moment. 

All eyes turned toward me. Then, an explosion of laughter had more than a few patrons staring at us. -

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