Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Hearts of Steel: Chapter Seven

I heard the telephone ringing, but couldn’t find it right away. It was stuffed in the bottom of my bag, wedged somewhere beneath my sweaty workout gear. My first inclination was to let it ring. I had voice mail. Whoever it was could wait. But something, loud and unwilling to be ignored, in my mind said, “You’d better answer that. It could be Priye.”

Instinct, maybe. Or wishful thinking. I didn’t remember being this impatient waiting for a woman to call since high school. I congratulated myself. Somehow, I’d almost managed to get through the entire practice without thinking about Priye Cole, and wondering whether or not she was thinking about me.

As the telephone continued to ring, I flipped it open and checked the caller ID before answering. It was a number that I didn’t recognize. Usually, I don’t answer those kind of calls. There are so many scams out there. You answer a call from someone you don’t know, accept long distance charges from an unfamiliar area, the next thing you know, you’re fighting an outrageous bill with little recourse because you were the idiot who took the call.

The number was unfamiliar, but the area code said that it was a local call. I took a chance.


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

“Speaking.” I paused in midstride. It was a voice that I didn’t recognize. Feminine. Elderly. There was the tiniest bit of treble, indicating advanced age. And it was colored by a soft, cultured drawl. At the same time, it was an authoritative voice. The way she asked for me made me believe that she knew that she was speaking to me before I’d confirmed it.

“Mr. Deneen, my name is Mrs. Adesuwa Johnson.”

I didn’t recognize the name. If this was another telemarketer trying to sway me, I was going to be perturbed. “How did you get my number, Mrs. Johnson?”

“Never you mind how I got this number. What I want to know is what intentions you have for my granddaughter.”

I could have dismissed her as a crank caller – simply hung up the phone and turned off the ringer. After repeatedly getting my voice mail, crank callers usually gave up. Yet something about this call didn’t feel like a crank. Most cranks that stumble on my phone number don’t know that it’s mine. That is, they don’t ask for me directly. This woman had.

“You mean you make it a habit of passing your private number out indiscriminately, sir?”

That struck a raw nerve. I should have hung up. I could have hung up. I didn’t. Instead, I stood out there in the parking lot, tired, baking, wondering who this was and what they wanted. If curiosity killed the cat, what was it going to do to this Steeldog?

I cradled the phone between my ear and shoulder as I climbed into my SUV and started the engine. I adjusted the air-conditioning to full blast cold, thinking that the jolt of cold air would also cool my temper. I was too tired, too hot for guessing games.

“There is nothing indiscriminate about my behaviour, madam,” I said, adopting her formal tone. It was indeed formal, almost regal. This was the tone of a woman who commanded respect.

“I can’t answer your question because I’m not sure who your granddaughter is and how she got my-”

She cut me off, even as the realization of who this woman might be hit me. An image of Priye, adjusting those ludicrous bears on the airplane seat, saying almost in chagrin, “Grandpa always gets the window seat.”

Those bears were presents for her grandparents. This must be Priye’s grandmother.

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

Priye! She’d contacted me. Correction – it was her grandmother who’d called. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how she’d gotten my number. What would possess her to call me? Overprotectiveness, obviously. Somehow, she’d found the number and was now rushing to her granddaughter’s defense of what her tone suggested was an evil, immoral, callow fellow.

It almost made me want to laugh. If only she knew how unnecessary her defensive response was. Priye was quite capable of fending off any unwanted advances. As easily as she could draw me to her with her reluctant smile, she could also chill me with a disapproving frown and a toss of her head.

“More than nice, Mrs. Johnson. The very essence of proper civility.” I said, and hoped that she didn’t hear the humour I tried to squelch from my tone.

“I see.”

I couldn’t tell by her tone if she was mollified or if she thought that I was full of it.

I forged ahead, unmindful of the verbal roadblocks the grandmother was throwing in front of me. It must be genetic, this coolness of verbal response. Priye was loaded with it.

“In fact, Mrs. Johnson, I’m surprised that she kept the number at all. She was very reluctant to take it. I think she did it to humour me, to get me to stop bothering her with my completely unsolicited conversation.”

“Hmmmm. I see.”

Again, the noncommittal response. Was she giving me monosyllabic replies to keep Priye from knowing what was going on?

I took a chance and asked, “Is she there with you now? She can tell you for herself.”

Either Mrs. Johnson didn’t fall for it or Priye wasn’t there with her. I kept talking, quickly, trying to erase whatever negative impression she had of me.

If I had to guess at Mrs. Johnson’s age, I would wager that she had been raised in a time when people valued manners over expediency. I wasn’t going to find out what I wanted to know by bombarding her with prying questions. It was going to take gentility. Finesse.

“Mrs. Johnson, it’s obvious that you care very much for Priye. I can hear the concern in your voice. You can rest assured that my, uh. . .intentions are completely honorable. If you know her so well, then you also know what an attractive, intelligent, well-bred young woman she is.”

Was I laying on too thick? Was I smothering my chances of ever getting to see Priye again? If Mrs. Johnson didn’t think I was sincere, she could end this conversation just as quickly as I could – with the press of a button. Click. Dial tone. No more Priye.

If Priye was as close to her family as the conversation led me to believe, then I wasn’t going to get very far with her without going through the grandmother first. I had to keep her talking.

“Is that a fact?” she said, in a curious mixture of material pride and condescension of my obvious flattery.

“An undisputed fact, madam. I’d be a sorry spectacle of a man – stone-blind, deaf in one ear, and dumb as a brick – if I didn’t at least try to get to know her better. I’d like another opportunity to try, if that meets with your approval, Mrs. Johnson.”

“ Well, sir, in that case you can tell her yourself over dinner.”

Victory! Something had worked. Either that, or she was luring me to do me in, to make sure that I never bothered her granddaughter again.

“Do you like Nigerian food?”

“I love Nigerian food.” I said enthusiastically, though I wasn’t sure if I did or didn’t. I hadn’t tried it in a long while. I had a vague recollection of needing lots and lots of water. But for the chance to see Priye again, I’d eat a platter of Pepper.

“Eight o’clock sharp at the Nobles restaurant. Do you need directions?”

“I’ve visited Lagos countless times and even have a home here,” I said solemnly, assuming that a woman like Mrs. Johnson would appreciate the appearance of stability.

“No, I don’t imagine that you do.” She used that tone again that felt oddly like a slap on the wrist – as if admitting that I knew my way around the city was like admitting that I got around.

What could Priye have told her about me to give her that negative impression? There wasn’t much she could have said. I thought I’d been my best behaviour at the airport.

“May I ask the occasion, Mrs. Johnson?” My mind raced ahead to figure out what I had in my closet to pull together appropriate attire.

“It’s my anniversary, Mr. Deneen. A very special one, so please dress accordingly.”

The phone line went dead. And just like that, I had a date. I had a date!

I slapped the steering column and crowed triumphantly to the roof of the SUV. Suddenly, I paused. Doubt crowded in. I had a date, but which one? Priye or her grandmother?

It didn’t take a Rhodes scholar to figure out which woman I preferred. But if I had to charm the older one to get to the other, well. . .a man had to do what a man had to do.

And the first thing I had to do was get the feel of the football practice off me. Even though I’d taken a brief shower after the drills, my grandfather would have called it “a lick and a promise.” I needed hygiene fortification. I needed charm power. That meant the works: haircut, manicure.

Somehow before eight o’clock, I had to squeeze in the second practice session, buy an anniversary gift for the grandparents, buy flowers for Priye, wash myself, get my car detailed, select an outfit, find the restaurant. . .

If Mrs. Johnson was as discerning a woman as she sounded over the phone, then she would scrutinize me from head to toe. Normally, I wouldn’t have worried. I am a man of discerning taste – a little gift from my mother. She would scrimp and save to purchase something of quality that she wanted, rather than settle for something of lesser value.

Sometimes that meant extravagance. But not always. She taught me the value of caring for the few quality items we had. The alternative was not caring for the cheaper items because we knew they were easily replaceable. Mother was not one for waste. Now, I choose my clothes and accessories carefully, paying as much attention to quality and style as I do to the price tag.

My grandfather taught me a long time ago that money couldn’t buy class. Class came from within. It was conveyed by the way you conducted yourself.

“Keep your head unbowed, Jackie boy. There’s nothing wrong with a long day’s honest work. A little dirt under your fingernails won’t kill you. And that’s the God’s honest truth.”

Then he’d sent me off with a pat on the back, saying, “But your mother will kill you if you come to the supper table without washing your hands.”

Let Mrs. Johnson use the white-glove test on me. I was going to pass the inspection with flying colours.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I considered the possibility of blowing off the afternoon practice session. Maybe I was taking an awful chance, jeopardizing my good standing with the coaching staff and team owner by going AWOL. We had a scrimmage game next week, which was why I was here in the first place.

What if this night turned out to be disastrous? What if I got to the restaurant and found that I couldn’t stand to be around Priye Cole and her intrusive, well-meaning, family?

I paused at a red light, my fingers nervously drumming on the steering wheel.

Why was I doing this again? I tried to rationalize why I was having recurring thoughts about a woman I barely knew. I played over in my mind our chance meeting at the airport – from my first glance at the full lipped, full hipped, honey dripping woman nestled between two bears, to the last look as I left her struggling with those toy monstrosities on the plane.

We had only been together two hours. Not much time. But packed within that two hours, I’d shared with her a gamut of emotions that left me wanting to laugh with her and love with her. In reliving those two hours, my hands tingled when I remembered the strength of her fingers as she clasped my hand in fright.

The plane had dipped unexpectedly, raising a cry from the passengers. She’d stopped in mid-sentence, and her hand had flown out to grab mine. It had been an instinctual response. One human being seeking out another when one believes that death is imminent. We were not so perfect strangers, sharing a less-than-ideal situation. The brush of her fingertips against my palms had sent a jolt up my arm, that made me want to wrap it around her tense shoulders and draw her close to me.

They say that adversity brings people together, forges an undeniable bond. Could my attraction for Priye be a by-product of that experience? Could I, in seeking her out, subconsciously be seeking the closeness we’d shared, if only for a while?

I shook my head at my foolishness. Psychobabble. I’d wanted to get to know her before I ever stepped foot on that plane - before the forces of nature ever forced us into each other’s company. Nature had played a part in guiding me to her before the storm.

My mouth turned up into a smile, remembering how she’d reluctantly laughed in polite tolerance of my jokes. I appreciated the depth of her commitment to her family. I was given a glimpse into her upbringing by her open expression of irritation at the airport hellion.

Only two hours. Two lifetimes’ worth of emotion combined into that short spam of time. I don’t remember ever before meeting a woman so open, so passionate about life.

Open is such a funny word to think of in terms of Priye Cole. Because if you’d asked her, I’d bet that she’d say that she hadn’t revealed a thing about herself to me. Her carefully modulated responses to my questions might have deterred a less persistent man.

I can attest that you don’t get far in this world giving up at the first, halfhearted block. If you wanted something, really wanted it, you kept at it.

If I was willing to brave the perils of a family in full force on a first date, then I was going to make it worth my while. Maybe I’m just crazy. One too many sots to the head without my helmet. Call me crazy, then.

I wasn’t going back this afternoon to practice. There was just too much at stake.

“Vamp,” Brenda said, shaking her head. Her expression was my prime factor in deciding against one of two dresses that I’d bought to wear to my grandparents’ anniversary dinner. We sat in my room, comparing our purchases and catching up on old times.

“Who asked you?” I muttered, holding the dress in front of me as I checked out the effect in the mirror. Traffic-stopping red. It had a high collar, but was shorter than I remembered. Its hemline was definitely nearer to my waist than it was to my knees. My mother wouldn’t approve, but I was sure Jack Deneen would. After the verbal lashing my grandmother had given him, I wanted him to know that at least one Johnson woman was on his side.

“You did,” Joy reminded me. “You asked, And I’m here to tell you, that the dress says hoochie mama to me,” she concurred. “All you need now is six-inch nail tips and sparkling gold shoes.”
“To match the gold tooth you’d need right up in front for all the world to see when you skin and grin at that football player.”

“You ladies are nothing nice,” I chastised.

“Trust me, you don’t want to wear that one,” Brenda said. She pulled off the plastic store covering protecting the second dress. That dress was more demure, but I had to admit, I liked the way it fit me better than the first dress. When I sat down in it, I wouldn’t have to worry about whether my hemline would crawl up my thigh with all the vigor of a salmon heading upstream to spawn.

The dress was black suede, and slightly off shoulder. The hemline was longer, falling just below my knees, but a kick pleat in the rear gave a tantalizing glimpse of my thigh when I walked. I ought to know. When I bought it in the store, I’d paraded up and down in stocking feet in front of the dressing room for a full ten minutes before taking it off. It had only taken me a split second to decide that was the dress I wanted – even when I saw the hefty price tag.

The fact that it appeared to slim my hips and lift my bust line was enough to blind me to the cost. Together with the open-toed, black suede pumps and the eight-inch pearl strand necklace that I’d borrowed from my mother (that is, that she didn’t know I’d borrowed), the outfit made me feel very sophisticated.

Standing in front of the full-length mirror in my room, I held the dress up to me and pulled my hair high, off my neck. Turning my head to the left and to the right, I considered the possibility that my cousins were right. This was a better choice. More appropriate for the evening. I’d feel more comfortable in this dress, more confident.

“I look good,” I lifted my chin and announced to the room.

That sent Joy and Brenda into spasms of laughter.

“Oh, you’re just jealous!” I accused them.

“I’ve got to go before Priye’s head swells, sucks up all of the oxygen from the room, and pulls us into the resulting vacuum.” Brenda stood as if to leave.

“Spoken like a true university professor,” I teased.

But before she left, she kissed me on the cheek. “You know that I’m just messing with you, Priye. You sure do look good, girlfriend,” she whispered. “Now, you go get that man.”

Joy made gagging noises. “Oh, brother. With all of this saccharine-sweet sentiment flying around. I’d better go before I need an insulin shot.”

“Come here, girl. Show us some love,” I called out to her.

We opened our arms and drew Joy into our circle. For a moment, we were kids again, swearing to be best friends forever – to never let anything come between us. And nothing did. Except of course, life itself.

Suddenly, I felt ashamed for every cursory e-maid I’d ever sent them in my halfhearted, family-obligated effort to stay in touch. I regretted the missed birthdays, graduations, and promotions. I lamented over tears we’d never shared together, losses we’d never helped each other to bear. I wanted to recant every broken promise to call, every unanswered Christmas or birthday card.

And at that moment, I resolved to try harder. To be a better cousin, a better friend.

“Get out of my room,” I said through a throat tightening with emotion.

“See you tonight, Priye,” Brenda promised.

“Later, cuz.” Joy planted a peck on my cheek and followed Brenda down.

I moved to the window, drew the curtains back, and waved at them from the window. The sound of their car engines, fading as they headed down the road, was an eerie reminder of just how easy it was to lose sight of what really mattered to me.

There was a time when there had been nothing I didn’t know about my cousins. Now, they were virtual strangers to me.

“Not again.” I made a solemn promise, one that I intended to keep this time. I turned to my stuffed animals. With them as my witness, I would have to stick to it.

 “I’ll never let them out of my life again.”

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