Monday, September 23, 2013

Hearts of Steel: Chapter Thirteen

"Whose idea was this anyway?" I grumbled.

"I believe it was your grandmother's," Mother reminded me. "There, I think that's all of it."

She compared the items crammed into the boot of her car to the items on her list. Coolers filled with ice, chairs, first-aid kits, poles, tie-downs. How in the world did she get all of that in there?

"Are you sure that's all? I don't think we've hit critical mass yet. There's still a centimeter of space remaining in the far left corner of the trunk."

"Good. You can put your sense of humour in there. That ought to fill that tiny space right up," Mother replied as she slammed the boot shut. Or rather, she bounced on it a couple of times until she thought that she heard the lock catch.

"Do you have the directions to the recreation center, Priye?"

"Uh-huh." I nodded. "They're in my purse in the car." Mother looked at me with laser-beam eyes, charring me on the spot.

"Okay, okay. It was just a joke. I put a copy in the glove compartment." I relented, waving my hands to ward off the evil in her gaze.

"And what about Jack? Is he going to be able to make it?"

"He promised that he would try."

"That really was sweet of him to donate some of his personal items and to volunteer his time for our family fund-raiser."

"Volunteer? He told me that Granddad practically held him hostage and forced him to submit."

"That's Daddy for you. He never was one to let an opportunity pass."

"He could have at least waited until Jack came out of the bathroom before pouncing on him."

"I think Jack handled him like a gentleman," Mother said.

"He probably thinks we're a family of nutcases."

"And he'd be right." Mother opened the car door and tapped on the horn. "Sunny! Sunny, let's go. Time to go!"

Actually, it was more than a tap. More like a boooooooommmmmp! bomp-bomp! bomp-bomp-bomp!

Loud enough so I could see a couple of our neighbours poking their heads out of doors or peeling back window curtains to look, then shaking their heads in silent disapproval.

"Do you want me to go and get him, Mum?" Anything to stop her from leaning on the horn again.

"No, he'll be out in a minute. She leaned on the horn again. This time, if it was even possible, more obnoxiously. "He can't stand it when I do that."

"He's not the only one." I remarked.

Daddy flung the door open, working his lips at Mother. I couldn't read the words, but I understood the gist. As he approached the car, he said, "You know I hate it when you do that, Doris."

"What?" Mother said innocently, raising her eyebrows. "Oh, you mean this?"

She reached her arm inside the car door again.

"Don't do that again unless you want to draw back crowd."

"You're the boss," she said, casting a glance at me. "Let's get moving."

"We have plenty of time, Doris."

"I'm sure Mum's already there, wondering where we are and how she could have raised such inconsiderate children to keep her waiting."

"I just got off the phone with your father. That's what took me so long to get out here. They're just setting out themselves."

"Then let's hurry up and get there before they do, Sunny."

It was a constant battle between them. Mother hated to be late. She would rather arrive her destination twenty-four hours early than arrive one or two minutes late.

Daddy, on the other hand, hated to be rushed. I think it had something to do with being a roofing contractor. He learned in the early days of his business that if he rushed a job, even at the client's insistence, it usually meant that he wound up with mistakes - mistakes for which he had to eat the costs.

"I'll drive," Daddy offered. He adjusted the seat to accomodate his longer legs. Mother pulled back the seat to let me climb in. Then she took the front seat, rummaging through the glove compartment for the instructions to the recreation center.

He cranked up the engine.

The car had started right away. By the way he'd cocked his head and frowned, I expected to be leaving a trail of clunking car parts down the road.

"How long has this oil light been on?"

"Is the oil light on?" Mother sounded surprised as she peered over my father's shoulder at the dashboard.

Again, my father's lips moved, but no sound came out of his mouth. It was like watching a ventriloquist's dummy without the ventriloquist to provide the sound.

"You all right back there, Sweet Cole?" Daddy called out to me.

The floor was covered with extra bags of ice so I'd swung my legs around and bent my knees. My feet rested on the armrest of the opposite door.

"Just fine, Daddy."

"Good. Now, duck your head down while I make a reverse."

He rested his right arm along the headrest behind my mother while his left hand made tiny adjustments of the steering wheel to back out of our house.

"You sure you can see, Sunny?" Mother also craned her neck to keep watch.

"Yes dear," he replied automatically.

"Watch out for that child on the bike, Daddy," I pitched in.

"Will you let me do this? I've been driving since long before you were born, little girl."

"Yeah, but it's a lot easier using three-sixty vision when you're siiting on top of a horse, Dad." I said sweetly.

"Oh, you want to crack on your father? You hear that, Doris? That's your daughter. Do you want to say something to her about that smart mouth?"

"Shame on you, Priye. You know perfectly well that your father didn't get his driving practice on a horse," Mother said. She paused dramatically for effect, then said, "Everybody knows that the Model T's provided perfectly good viewing distances way back then."

"Oh, ho! It's going to be like that, then? I knew I should have ridden with Mike and Dozie. Let me slow down to about forty so you two can jump out."

"Daddy, you wouldn't put us out."

"Say I won't, when I will."

"We love you, Daddy!" I sang out, leaned forward, and kissed him right in the center of his bald spot.

"I love you, too. Sweet Cole." He reached behind his head and patted my cheek. "Say, what time is that beau of yours coming to the outing?"

"Beau? Daddy, no one says beau anymore."

"Your father does," Mother said.

"What do you call him, then?" Daddy asked.

"He's just a friend, Dad."

"A friend, huh?"


"A real friend would have gotten you home sooner than three o'clock in the morning, Priye."

I glanced at Mother. She cleared her throat delicately and touched her neck.

"He said that he had some things to take care of this morning, but he would be there as soon as he could."

"He'll probably be there waiting for us when we get there," Mother predicted.

I had my doubts. After the way I'd left him high and dry, I didn't think he'd be in too much hurry to see me again.

"How do you know?" I asked.

She smiled back at me; her eyes were warm and kind. "Call it mother's intuition."


I've got a bad feeling about this.

I'd heard that line in a movie once. The hero had ventured out, far away from home (in a galaxy far, far, far, far away, I think) on a foolish quest to rescue his damsel in distress. As the hero and his band of loyal followers willingly went into what he knew had to be a trap, he mustered his courage and proceeded, despite the overwhelming odds.

That's how I felt as I pulled up next to the pavilion where Priye's family had gathered. Completely overwhelmed. I was walking openly, willingly into a trap. A very cleverly disguised trap, but a trap all the same. They were going to suck me in. Me, Jack Deneen, Lone Wolf, was about to willingly volunteer to become part of the pack.

I wasn't fooled by the pleasant surroundings. A huge awning was decorated with balloons, and streamers fluttered in the strong breeze. Music blared from four-foot high speakers.

I stood by my SUV for a minute, taking it all in. There were more relatives here today than there had been at the anniversary dinner the night before. I thought I recognized a few faces, but few of the names came to mind. Maybe it just seemed like more of them, now that they were all spread out - not restrained by the confines of the restaurant.

"Afternoon, Flakes picker!"

The thirteen-year-old who'd nearly busted a gut laughing at Ivie's predicament last night shouted at me from across the field. What was that kid's name? Baal? No, that wasn't it, as much as I'd like to believe that he was the spawn of Satan. His name was Jamaal. That was it.

His arm heaved forward and launched a football at me. He had amazing distance. One of these days, he was going to make some university football coach proud. If only he could have done something about that aim. The ball arched high over everyone's heads, then came plummeting down again. Its target: an invisible bull's eye in the middle of my wind-shield.

Instinct made me reach out. The ball slapped against my outstretched palm. I didn't give myself time to think or bobble the ball. I squeezed my fingers, palming the pigskin, not unlike a basketball player palms a basketball. I snapped my arm against my chest and counted myself lucky that the sun wasn't in my eyes.

I tossed the ball back to him. "Here you go, little man."

A spontaneous round of applause broke out. Playing to the crowd, I gave a mock bow. "Thank you. Thank you very much."

"Can anyone tell me where Priye Cole is?" I called out to the nearest relative.

"Priye? I think she's under the big tent, setting up the auction."


I slung my bag filled with two signed jerseys, a football, and a stack of fresh-off-the-press program booklets over my shoulder. I shook a few more hands, then headed for the tent.

As I approached it, I saw Priye on the far side. Her back was to me - which was all right with me. I was rather enjoying the view.

She reached up high above her head, trying to catch a runway stack of paper plates sent airborne by the huge fan circulating under the tent. She wore a pair of lime-green hip-hugger shorts that clung to the curves of her round bottom so closely, it made me jealous of the material. Along with many of her relatives, she wore a purple T-shirt bearing the words JOHNSON FAMILY REUNION in script and circling a silhouette of a large oak tree. Her flair for making a fashion statement made her stand out from the rest of the crowd. A silk, floral scarf that picked up the color of her shirt, shorts, and the highlights of her hair added the perfect touch to her outfit.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder - her cousin Brenda, I think it was - and pointed her out to me.

"Hey!" Priye called out, waving to me. "You made it," she said breathlessly.

Secretly, I wished it was the sight of me that had caused the flush in her cheeks and not the virtual obstacle course she'd just traversed to make it to my side.

"I said I would," I reminded her.

"I know," she said, looking up at me. And in doing so, the scarf around her neck shifted a bit. Fashion and function, I resisted the urge to trace the purplish passion mark peeking out from the bottom of her scarf."

"Did I do that?" I whispered. My hand involuntary reached up to adjust the scarf.

"No, I was attacked by leeches," she retorted, then softened her tone. "But that's all right. It's making everyone curious about me. Thanks for coming out, Jack. I know this is a busy time of year for you, with your first game of the season coming up and all of your practices and stuff."

. . .Anything for you, Priye.
I wanted to tell her, but not under the watchful gaze of her relatives. I knew that she was being especially cordial, and equally as cool, for their sake.

I followed suit, keeping my hands firmly in plain sight.
"Not a problem, really. I'm glad I could help."

We stood for several seconds without speaking, letting our expressions tell each other what we were too cautious to say out loud. When the silence grew long enough to attract attention, I cleared my throat and coughed delicately to remind her we were about as unobserved as bugs under a magnifying glass.

"So." She drew out the word as she tucked her hands into her back pockets. "What did you bring?"

"Oh, a few things. Some T-shirts, a few program booklets. Stuff like that."

"Cool! Come on, you can lay them out over here."

I followed her to the auction table. The handmade, comforter was one of several retail-quality craft items that would be auctioned off to help raise money for Priye's family reunion.

"Wow." I whistled under my breath. Impressive. The craftsmanship of the collection of rag dolls, lace dolies, and pottery made me believe that there was plenty of creative energy and talent within Priye's family. A lot of time, effort, and love had gone into the making of those items.

For a moment, I felt uncomfortable. All I'd done was grab some things out of my closet, collect a few printer overruns, then scrawl my signature. In comparison to the devotion her family members had put into these craft items, where was the value in what I'd done?

I felt a little better when I saw a food processor, still in original packing, among all of the handmade items. As I continued down the table, a collection of hunting knives caught my eye. I lifted one of the blades, pulling it from its sheath, and admired its workmanship. Sunlight glinted off the blade as I moved it back and forth in the air.

"Who are you supposed to be, Jackie Chan?" Priye teased.

"Say, how can a brother get in on this action?" I asked.

"It's an auction," she said slowly, as if pointing out the obvious. "Did you bring your wallet?"

I couldn't help teasing her in turn for that Jackie Chan crack. So I patted my back pocket. My meaning was perfectly clear. It had the effect I wanted. Priye colored quite nicely, then lowered her eyes.

"Do you take credit cards?" I asked.

"What do you think this is? Shoprite? All transactions are cash or cheque only. And we'll need two forms of identification for all cheques over 100,000."

"Boy, you Johnsons are tough."

"We have to be. We have a lot of expenses if we want to make the next reunion a success. We're raising money to cover reunion costs, set up a university scholarship, and leave enough money left over for the next reunion committee to have some seed money to start off with." She ticked off the items on each finger as if she were noting a shopping list. "We take our family reunions very seriously. So, if I seem a little difficult, don't take it personally. It's only business." She patted my cheek.

Patting my cheek was the only physical contact that Priye would allow me while we were gathered in front of her relatives today - a considerable change in her behaviour since the party. She'd been very willing for me to demonstrate my affection for her then.

In fact, she'd seemed to welcome my less-than-casual touches during dinner. It had been as if she wore me on her arm like a charm, a prize to be displayed before all of her gawking relatives.

The mood certainly had changed. Now, she would barely allow me within a foot of her invisible boundary of personal hands or a casual, friendly hug. Anything more would reignite the passion she'd doused when she'd left me cooling in the shadows of her parents' house.

"You hungry?" She asked.

She must have read my mind. But it wasn't food that I wanted. My soul needed sustenance. I needed to take her in. All of her. I wondered if there was a way that I could convey those feelings without sending her running to the safety and security of her parents.


"We've got tons of food over there. Enough to feed a small nation."

"Did you cook any of it?"

"I'm on the fund-raising committee," she said.

"That means no," I translated. "Can you cook?"

"When I have to."

"And when is that?"

"When my credit card is maxed out, I've run out of cheques, and it's after hours for the restaurants that deliver," she said without one iota of shame.

"Pitiful." I shook my head and tsked-tsked. "I guess this means that a brother could starve to death waiting on a home-cooked meal from you, then."

"A brother had better learn how to dial for restaurants," Priye replied. She stopped and surveyed the spread laid out on the row of tables. "Or make frequent trips to my grandmother's house. You'll always have plenty to eat there."

The way she said it gave me a small ray of hope. I'd always have plenty to eat there. Always. She expected me to be there. She wanted me there. She wanted me. Maybe I was reaching, searching for a secret coded message in the seemingly innocent conversation. Let me stretch. I needed the exercise anyway.

She started at one end of the first food table and picked up a plate and plastic utensils prewrapped in a decorative napkin.

"Try some of this." She ladled a more-than-generous portion of potato salad onto my plate. From the weight of the salad as it hit my plate, I had a feeling that it was going to sit just as heavy at the bottom of my stomach. This wasn't a reconstituted mashed-potato-flake-made salad. This was the real deal. Huge chunks of potato, egg, onion, were held together with real mayonnaise, mustard, and a secret ingredient. On the recipe card in front of the dish, it actually stated, 'Secret ingredient to be taken to my grave.'

"My aunt Pam's recipe," Priye noted.

"Seems like you've sampled some of it."

"Not some - all. I personally sampled every last dish on this table. It was a tough job; but I take my duties as chairman of the fund-raising committee very seriously."

"What has the fund-raising committee got to do with food tasting?"

"Somebody has to make sure that the food is delectable, or, at least very edible. All of these recipes will go into a booklet that we'll sell at the family reunion. If the food's no good, people will remember that and won't buy the recipe book next time. There goes our revenue."

She ushered me further down the line. "Now, here is a grilled chicken dish. I think this is my Uncle Eddy's recipe. Tender, juicy. Careful when you pick it up. The meat just falls off the bone."

By the time we'd reached the end of the first table, my plate was nearly buckling under the weight.

"There's no way I'm going to eat all of this at one sitting, Priye," I warned her.

"Pace yourself," she said. "We haven't passed the desert table yet."

We had just found a seat on the outskirts of the pavilion when Priye's grandfather stood up at a makeshift podium.

"All right, everybody, quiet. May I have your attention, please?"

He banged a wooden spoon until it cranked. One piece flew off into the air. Yet the conversation continued around him until Mrs. Johnson stood up with a microphone.

She tapped it. "Is this thing on? Is this thing on?"

A squeal of feedback and a burst of static from the speakers got everyone's attention.

Mr. Johnson knelt downl to adjust the speakers' volume control.

"Oh, goodness. That's better," Mrs. Johnson said, pressing her finger to her ear. "I want to thank everyone for coming out here today. It's so good to see so many new faces. How are you doing, sweetheart?"

She waved and blew a kiss to a young mother with a cooing, waving child in her lap.

"George and I also want to thank you for all of the lovely presents last night."

"I don't know what we've done to deserve it, but the Lord has certainly blessed our family." Mr. Johnson also clasped his hand around the microphone and leaned to speak into it. "Let's take a moment now to join hands, bow our heads, while we thank Him for what he's brought to this family, and what, I know, He'll continue to bring us through."

Priye reached out and took my hand in hers without hesitation. She looked over her shoulder and took the hand of another relative.

The prayer lasted only a moment, but I could tell the relatives were starting to get restless. Many had come a long way to be here today and didn't relish the trip back. It was time to cram as much fun into the time remaining. They wanted to start the party. They wanted to get the auction going.

I originally had my eye on that collection of carving knives and was determined not to be outbid. But a four-foot woman with eyes of cold steel stared me down. Once the bidding started, she called my bluff.

"Sold! Come on up her, Ebere, and get your knives."

When she ran up to collect her merchandise, she practically gloated and stuck her tongue out at me in passing.

"Be nice, Auntie." Priye laughed. "Nobody likes a sore winner."

The auction went on for about an hour. Merchandise, money, and mayhem all exchanged hands. There was so much going on around me, I couldn't keep track of it all. Priye did what she could to keep me informed. But she had her own responsibilities, helping this fund-raiser run smoothly.

"And now," Mr. Johnson said dramatically. "The moment we've all been waiting for. . . Somebody give me a drumroll, please."

Tables rattled as Priye's relatives pounded on their tabletops and stomped their feet to give the effect he wanted.

"I want to welcome a special guest here today. Let's give a handclap of praise to - Jack The Flash Deneen! Come on up here, son."

I pointed to myself and mouthed, "Me?"

"Yes, you," Mr. Johnson insisted. "Don't be shy. Come on up here; let us see your goods."

Someone from the crowd whistled. I think it was Priye. When I looked back over my shoulder, she was standing at the rear of the tent with her thumb and middle finger poised above her lips.

As I approached the podium, I started to reach behind Mr. Johnson. My intention was to start the auction of my items with a T-shirt. But Priye's grandfather spun me around to face the crowd and patted my shoulder with wide, exaggerated motions. "Fine, fine, young man. All right, all of you unmarried ladies out there, who's going to start the bidding?"

Did I misunderstand him? Had I heard him correctly? It sounded like. . .no! I couldn't have heard what I thought I heard. It sounded as if he was going to put me on the auction block.

Panicked, I looked over at Priye. Her eyes had grown to the size of saucers. Her hands were clamped over her mouth - whether in shock or to stifle her laughter, I couldn't be sure.

"Did you know about this?" I mouthed to her.

She shook her head, lifting her hands in innocent protest, but she was laughing openly now, holding her stomach and hanging on to her cousin for support. If this was some sort of practical joke, I wasn't getting it. I wasn't getting it because I was it.

I turned to Mr. Johnson, reaching for the microphone.

"Wait. I think there's been a mistake. I'm not. . ."

"Getting any younger," Mr. Johnson glibly ad-libbed as he jerked the microphone out of my grasp. "I need a bid. What's it going to be for this Steeldog?"

"Thirty thousand!" A cry rose up from the corner of the room.

"Thirty thousand? Oh, please, don't insult our guest. Thirty thousand wouldn't buy you his shoe. I know you can do better than that."

"Fifty thousand," came the counterbid. It was Priye's cousin Joy enthusiastically waving in the air.

"Fifty? Now you're hurting my feelings. I'm not doing my job as a Pastor if I can't sell you on one of God's wonders of the world!"

He slapped me soundly on the back again. "But fifty is the bid. Who'll give me fifty-five? Fifty-five, anyone?"

"Fifty five thousand!" Priye stood up and tossed a couple of quarters to Joy.

"You're not helping me," I called out to Priye. She smiled sweetly and shrugged.

"Sixty thousand!" Another offer on the table.



The bids flew back and forth across the room like volleys of ammunition.

"Hold on a minute, now. Let me make this official. The bid is seventy. Seventy. Seventy. Seventy. Do I hear eighty! Eighty? No? What about seventy-five?" Mr. Johnson's voice was rapid in its rhythm.

"Seventy three thousand."

"Chicken change," Mr. Johnson scoffed. "Lift up your arm, boy."

He grabbed my elbow. "These ladies obviously don't appreciate a real he-man when they see one. Why don't you flex a little for the ladies?"

There was no getting out of it. I was up there. I was for sale. If I didn't go down for an embarrassing seventy-three thousand and some change, I'd better do something to sweeten the pot.

Without giving myself time to talk myself out of it, I reached for the hem of my shirt and pulled it over my head.

The cry that went up in response brought a grin to Mr. Johnson's face. "Two hundred thousand!"

"Now, that's what I'm talking about, son." He congratulated me on my quick thinking. "For two hundred thousand naira, you can have the shirt," he said, tossing it toward the woman who'd made the last bid.

She reached up to snatch it out of the air, but was elbowed by the woman with the knives.

"Two hundred. Two hundred. Can I get a two-fifty? Lord, somebody give me two hundred and fifty thousand for this man."

"Two hundred fifty."

"Three hundred!"

"Three twenty-five."

"Three hundred and fifty thousand."

"Come on now, this man is an international celebrity. I bet if he said he could arrange a date with Denzel Washington that you'd get off the naira."

"Ooh, Denzel! Make it five hundred thousand naira!"

The bidding went on for several more minutes between a group at Priye's table and another group of women across the room - all ranging in age from teen to twilight years.

By the time Mr. Johnson banged his makeshift gavel and yelled, "Sold!" My bidding price had practically doubled the amount they'd gotten for the previously auctioned items.

"Come up here and claim your prize."

I looked questioningly at Mr. Johnson. Just what was it exactly they were supposed to get? Not one word was spoken of T-shirts, program booklets, or autographed footballs. As far as getting them a date with Denzel Washington, I'd probably have better luck getting one with George Washington.

I made a mental note to Mr. Johnson's church. He must be quite a persuasive pastor. If he devoted as much passion to selling his congregation on the benefits of heavenly treasure as he did to convincing this crowd to part with their money for momentary, earthly pleasure, I imagined that his entire flock would be heaven-bound.

"Claim their prize? And just what would that be, sir?" I asked. What had he planned on delivering for his enthusiastic auctioning abilities?

"Just give each of the girls a hug and a smooch on the cheek," he muttered out of the corner of his mouth.

I looked over at Priye, but Mr. Johnson grabbed my chin and turned my attention back to the women rushing up to the podium.

"Don't worry about Priye, son. It's all for a good cause. She'll understand."

Understanding was one thing, since it was for a good cause and all. But liking was a different matter altogether. Things were still too new between Priye and me to assume that her fledgling feelings could withstand competition. Even worse, competition from her relatives.

I know that I'd be concerned if a group of men surrounded her, ogled her - expected her to give something up to each of them. As well-intentioned as Mr. Johnson was, I wasn't going to risk alienating Priye. Not even for the sake of the money.

As the first young lady stepped up to me, I reached for a T-shirt and cordially shook her hand.

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