Alfonso stood on the patio outside the ASA office. He observed the scene within while blowing smoke into the air. Cynthia sat on the desk and talked on the office telephone. Cecelia hogged the couch, her legs fully stretched out, reading a book. Same old same old.
Jameel walked away from the edge of the patio, where he had been scanning the walkway below, and up to Alfonso.
“You’re quiet,” he said.
Alfonso heard the translation: you’re not acting all hyper, typing ASA business at the computer with your headphones on, while chain drinking Red Bull and bobbing your knee like a freak. No, Alfonso thought, I’m not. For once he declined to put on his usual mask and instead opted for silence. His mind meandered through the moments of the day, from Henny Penny’s antics to his mother’s quiet touch. He also thought about Bill, and wondered if he would in fact come.
“Just chillin’,” he said. “You and Victor meeting for hoops tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Jameel said, squaring up close to Alfonso. “You coming?”
“Probably,” Alfonso said.
Their words expired and silence tensed the air with voiceless thoughts. Jameel occupied Alfonso’s body space and held him in a gaze with his dark brown eyes. Alfonso had been down this path enough times to know its sinkholes and wanted no part. He moved out of the zone and towards the standing ashtray to snuff out his spent fag. As he started for the patio door, he saw Bill standing inside the office. A smile blossomed as he walked towards him.
“Hey, Bill! Glad you could make it.”
“Did I miss it?” He looked harried, sweaty, and sounded breathy.
“Nah. We’re just chillin’,” Alfonso said.
“Oh. I was worried, cause I’m late.”
“It ain’t like that here, man,” Jameel said. “We’re on CP time.”
“This is Jameel. Jameel, this is Bill, a new student. He tutors at Reverend Johnson’s church.”
“Alright, man,” Jameel said, shaking Bill’s hand.
“Hey, brothers,” said a voice from behind Bill, entering the room.
“Yo, Victor,” Jameel said, sliding the skin with him.
“Will you guys gather around?” Cynthia said. “We gotta start this meeting.”
“You off the phone?” Victor said.
“Yes, I’m off the phone. And where have you been?”
“This was taking too long and I had to hit the can.”
“Where’s Leon?” Jameel said.
“He’s not coming,” Cynthia said. “Had to go home about something.”
“We need to start this thing up,” Cecelia said, curling her feet under her so that others could share the couch, “‘cause I gotta finish reading this by tomorrow.”
“Right, Cecelia,” Cynthia said. “Come on, let’s do this.”
Jameel sucked his teeth. “Cecelia, you ain’t gotta study yet. It’s the first week.”
“At least I study,” she said.
“Alright, then. We don’t need to go there. I’m cool.”
“Jameel, you’re so cool you bore yourself.”
Bill took a seat in a small chair next to the glass door to the patio. Jameel sat between him and Alfonso. Cynthia tried to get everyone together to talk about the freshman reception next week. Folks started to tune in one at a time. They switched from dissing each other to dissing the plans for the reception. That’s the wrong food. We did that last year. Can’t we decorate different? Does he have to come and speak again?
“Why can’t your father speak?” Cynthia asked.
“He has a standing meeting on Thursday nights,” Alfonso said.
“Can his office send someone else?” Cynthia asked.
“That’s not the same,” Cecelia said. “Besides, Reverend Johnson’s coming. That’s enough representation from the community if we can’t get Alfonso’s father.”
“Alright, then,” Cynthia said. “Cecelia’s right.”
Bill glanced at Alfonso, trying to gain some type of footing. Their eyes met a couple of times, and they usually smiled, but Bill said nothing during the whole meeting. Towards the end, when it seemed like things were wrapping up, Alfonso stood up to announce Bill to the group.
“This is Bill. He tutors at Reverend Johnson’s church and he’s a history major here.”
“You’re a freshman,” Cecelia said, “do you think this will be a good program for people?”
Suddenly all eyes fell on Bill at once. He existed, the spokesman for his class. He felt ridiculous.
“It sounds pretty cool,” Bill said.
“Well, invite all your friends to come along,” Cecelia said, her eyes turning back towards her book.
“Thanks, Cecelia,” Cynthia said. “Thanks, y’all, for coming.”
The room fell back into relaxed chaos. Bill felt rudderless, as he had the whole meeting. He walked towards Alfonso, who stood with Jameel and Victor.
“I’m telling you,” Jameel said, “Cliff is history, alright? He doesn’t speak for this group anymore, so we don’t need to include him in the program.”
“He is on the Student Council, man,” Victor said. “And he was part of this group for a long time.”
“Was is the operative word from that sentence, my brother,” Jameel said. “He ain’t here no more. And anyway, I doubt he plans on coming without a special invitation. We don’t need to be playing his game.”
Victor sucked his teeth. “Jameel, you’re too doctrinaire, like most of the brothers in The Party. He ain’t Clarence Thomas, you know. He’s made sure we got the funding we need from the Associated Students.”
“Yeah, he’s a good guy,” Alfonso said.
“Yeah, whatever,” Jameel snapped back. “He still ain’t speaking. Yo, so when are we going to eat?”
Alfonso noticed Bill and smiled. Bill responded in kind.
“We usually go to dinner down in the Commons after the meeting,” Alfonso said to Bill. “You wanna join us?”
Bill felt torn. He knew he should. After all, that’s what his mother would insist. Connections, connections. But he couldn’t talk himself into it.
“Actually, I think I need to get home to do some reading for tomorrow,” he said.
“Oh, that’s alright. Next time, then,” Alfonso said.
“Yeah, thanks. See you brothers later.”
“Good meeting you, Bill,” Victor said. “Come around whenever, alright?”
“Later, Bill,” Jameel said.
Alfonso had a change of heart. “Hey Bill, you mind if I roll back to the hood with you?”
“Of course not,” Bill said.
Jameel gave a sideways, ‘what’s-this-all-about’ look. “Yo, you don’t wanna hang out, ‘Fonso?”
“I’m pretty tired, too. Long week.”
“Dude, it’s the first week,” Jameel said. “Why you so tired? Too early for pulling all-nighters.”
Jameel was trying to guilt-trip him. He heard it in his voice. In any other context, he probably would have given in, but with Bill standing next to him, he felt a surge of strength to resist.
“You’ll have to beat me in the arcade some other time, Jameel,” Alfonso said. “I’ll catch you later.”
“Later, Alfonso,” Victor said.
Jameel barely gave him a head nod. He and Bill went out the room and down the stairs to exit the Student Union. As soon as they got outside, Alfonso took out a cigarette to light up, then he stopped.
“You mind?” he asked.
“No, man, go for it,” Bill said.
“It’s a shitty habit,” he said, as he lit up.
“You sure you don’t want to hang with them?”
“Jameel seemed upset.”
Alfonso sucked his teeth. “He’s always giving me attitude. I don’t let him bother me. It’s been too rough a week to deal with his bullshit.”
Bill nodded, thinking of their moment in the john together.
“I’m doing alright,” Alfonso said. “Thanks for holding me up that first day, brother.”
“Of course, man,” Bill said, giving him a fist bump.
“So what did you think of your first meeting?” Alfonso said.
For a while, as they walked towards the bus depot, Bill wore a faint grin. He stared at the fountain in front of the Psych building as they walked by it.
“It was alright,” he finally said.
“Ah, OK. Come on, Bill. Out with it.”
“Naw, it’s cool. It’s just that, you know, I didn’t know what to expect. And it was my first meeting.”
“And. . .”
Bill started smiling again.
“Bill,” Alfonso said, “you can say whatever you want to say. Think of the space around us as a no bullshit zone. Alright?”
“Well,” he said, “I don’t know, the group just didn’t seem all that to me, you know what I’m saying? It seemed, I don’t know, sort of jaded. Tired. Reverend Johnson had built it up as this group of movers and shakers, but it didn’t feel like that to me.”
Alfonso took a long drag then blew it out over his head.
“What did it feel like to you?”
Bill looked at Alfonso, then looked forward as they crossed the last campus road before reaching the depot.
“It felt like one of those groups in high school where if you say something stupid, then folks will jump all over you. I remember that shit. Usually avoided it.”
They reached the bus depot and looked for Line 21. None were in waiting yet, so Alfonso got to finish his stick.
“Like a clique?” Alfonso said.
“Yeah, exactly. What?”
“Nothing, brother. You nailed it.” He took a long drag, then blew it out into the street. “I went to high school with all those folks you saw in there. Nothing’s changed. They still carry on like they did back in the day. It can be alienating. And then new folks stop coming to meetings and shit. Take Cliff, for example. You heard Jameel and Victor talking about him?”
“A little bit. Jameel didn’t like him.”
Alfonso rolled his eyes. “Cliff is this real together brother. He’s starting a business, wants to get his MBA after he graduates. Real sharp, real sharp. But you heard Jameel tell it. He thinks he’s a sell out, an Uncle Tom. And if Cecelia had chimed in, she would have made a point of noting that Cliff’s girlfriend is white.”
“So?” Bill said.
“Right? But some folks have a real problem with that. It got even worse after they had a kid.”
“Shit, for real?”
“That’s what I’m telling you, Bill. In their minds, Cliff’s trying to be ‘white.’ He ain’t ‘black’ enough.”
“Shit,” Bill said. “So what does that make us?”
“What, indeed, Bill.”
Bus 21 rolled up and a couple of folks got off. Alfonso dropped his cig and snuffed it out, and then he and Bill boarded along with a half dozen others. The driver then got out to take a smoke break and chat with a colleague.
“Victor’s cool,” Alfonso said. “He’s kinda of the Zen master of the group, you know. He just rolls with shit. He plays a mean game on the court, though.”
“I’ll have to take him on,” Bill said.
“We play on Fridays at the gym. Come tomorrow, if you can. But then you got Leon, Cecelia, and Cynthia, the gestalt.”
“Where does Jameel fit in?”
Alfonso paused for a moment. Jameel was a difficult puzzle to figure out. “He’s part of the gestalt, too, sort of. Yeah. But he’s got a different agenda. He belongs to this group of radicals called ‘The Party.’ Neo-Black Panthers, I guess you’d call them. Like Victor said, Jameel can be pretty doctrinaire.”
Bill just listened and nodded.
“Bill, look. I’ll confess. I was hoping you’d come to the meetings, cause, well, I was tired of being ‘the only one,’ if you know what I’m saying.”
“I hear you,” Bill said.
“I felt like we spoke the same language, from the first. And I need people like that in my life right now. So I have selfish reasons for you being part of the group. And I know your mother and Reverend Johnson want you to get involved. They have their reasons, and I’m sure they’re good ones. But look, this is your first year. You’re a freshman. You got a lot more important things to worry about then trying to fit in a group you’re not comfortable with. So if you don’t show up to any meetings or whatever, you know, then it’s all good. Believe me, I’ll understand.”
“Can I ask you something?” Bill said.
“Why am I in the group?” Alfonso said.
“Yeah, I’m some great recruiting secretary, ain’t I? I’m all ‘get out while you can’ and shit.”
Bill laughed hard and Alfonso joined him.
The driver entered the bus and started the engine. After a couple of late entries climbed aboard, he closed the door and pulled away from the curb. The bus began its way down the windy road along the east side of campus.
“It’s my legacy, Bill. My family has a long tradition of public service. My grandfather, Al Berry, Sr., was the first black elected to the state legislature.”
“Yep. If you take a class in state history, he should show up somewhere.”
“That’s sick, bro!”
“Thanks. I’m proud of my heritage, Bill, but it has certain expectations, like going into politics. That’s what’s expected of me. My dad wanted me to run for ASA president this year. And he gave me some major attitude when I didn’t.” His father’s words soon filled his head –“You’re not trying hard enough, Alfonso.” – along with the pinched-lip silence that usually followed their utterance. “But I knew that it wasn’t gonna happen. No one would have taken my candidacy seriously. That’s not how folks see me. I’m just the mascot, and the gofer. I don’t really exist in that group, Bill. When they look at me, they see my father.”
“That ain’t right, Alfonso,” Bill said.
Alfonso smiled. “Well, beside the Sididdy Club, how has the first week been?”
Bill began smiling again, the kind of smile that usually accompanied a blush. Alfonso got a comfortable look on his face and stretched out his legs while putting his hands behind his head.
“Alright, who is he?” he said.
“Don’t know, yet,” Bill said. “Someone I met in history class. We sort of clicked, I guess you could say.”
“I ended up walking him to his next class. That’s why I came running into the room at such a tear. I thought I was real late and shit. I felt sort of guilty. I don’t know why.”
“First week and you got a man in sight. Congratulations, Bill.”
“Will this be your first?”
“Well, assuming something happens.”
“Just staying positive.”
“Naw, he won’t be the first. Had a boy back in high school, back in the small town I grew up in. He was a year ahead of me.”
Alfonso shook his head. “You are way too real for me, my brother. You gotta show me how to live the life.”
Bill just knew he was blushing. His cheeks felt red hot.
“So what’s pretty man’s name?” Alfonso said.
Alfonso sat up suddenly and stared at Bill. “Ferreal? Is he sort of tall, skinny, and has red hair?”
“Yeah! You know him?”
Alfonso laughed. “Hell yeah, I know him! We were in high school together!”
They both clapped and giggled like a couple of long-time girlfriends.
“OK, OK,” Bill said, “so tell me all about him. What’s he like?”
“Fierce. Roy is fierce. He’s like, ‘closet, what’s that?’”
“OK. That fits. What else? What kinda food does he like?”
“He’s a vegetarian, Bill. Total vegetarian.”
“That’s cool. I can roll with that. I know he acts, ‘cause I walked him to his theater workshop.”
“Oh yeah, he’s born for the stage. He acted in high school, too. Like I said, he’s pretty fierce.”
“What are his parents like? Are they cool with him?”
Alfonso paused. He didn’t know how far to go.
“You know, I don’t think I know, Bill,” he said. “But, you know, he still lives at home, so it must be OK.”
“That’s cool. He told me lived on the north side of Huckleberry Park, right across the street from it.”
“Yeah, he does,” Alfonso said.
“What is it?”
Alfonso sighed a little. “His mother died when he was young. He lives with his father.”
“Oh. OK. I see. That’s sad. He did say something about living with his dad, but I thought, you know, that his folks had divorced, like mine.”
“Oh, really? So it’s just you and your Mom?”
“And my baby brother, Derek,” Bill said.
“Uh-huh. Don’t tell Roy I told you, you know, about his mom. I probably shouldn’t have said anything. Truth is, Bill, I didn’t hang with Roy like I should have back in high school. I was too scared to. He was way more real than I was ready to be.”
Bill put his arm around Alfonso’s shoulder. “You’re more real thank you think, babe,” he said. “And, you know, if I don’t go to meetings, that doesn’t mean that we can’t hang out together.”
Alfonso took Bill’s hand as it draped over his shoulder.
“Thanks, sistah,” he said.
* * *
Roy stood behind the counter at the register, reading Gilgamesh. A lady in a pale green pants suit and yellow head scarf came to the counter. A large black camera case draped around her neck.
“Hi, Auntie Vera,” Roy said.
“Hello, Roy,” she said. Her voice sounded both friendly and aristocratic. “Subbing for Sammy tonight?”
“Naw. He’s just running an errand. He’ll be right back. You need something?”
“Yes. I ran out of the house without batteries for my flash. Can you believe it? Ugh!”
Roy smiled. “Let me see. He keeps the small stuff back here. Size N?”
“Are you shooting something tonight?”
“Yes, the exchange at the park.”
“Exchange?” Roy said.
Sammy came in, bladder much relieved. He hated going into one of the bars, and usually just went back to his apartment three blocks up on Carver Street.
“Hey, Miss Vera,” he said. “I thought you’d be at the party tonight.”
“I’m heading there now. I was running around frantic all day, lots of photo shoots, when Bingo called and told me that it was a go. So while rushing to get out there, I realized I brought the wrong damn flash with me, the one without working batteries.”
“Well, you know I try to keep your batteries in stock, Miss Vera.”
“You’re an angel, Sammy. An absolute, life saving angel. Here, Roy.”
Roy counted out the change and placed it on the counter. She took it with her long fingers.
“Thank you so much, fellas.”
“What exchange?” Roy said.
“The Clinic is holding its needle exchange out the back of Harry’s van,” Sammy said. “That’s why I’m here at the store tonight and he ain’t. They’re setting up shop on Lincoln, right across from the Clinic.”
“Hell yeah!” Roy said, giving Vera a high five.
“Yes, I’m glad they’re doing it,” Vera said. “Well, I gotta go take photos. Though I expect the press will be there, but you know, I like to be at these things.”
“It ain’t official unless you’re there, Miss Vera,” Sammy said.
“See you kids later.” She went outside and hopped in her yellow convertible parked at the curb in front of the store. After a couple of engine revs, she sped off.
“Thanks for holding the store, Royboy,” Sammy said. “Your father home tonight?”
“No, sperm donor went off in the truck this morning. He’ll be gone ‘til at least Sunday.”
“Uh-oh, it’s sperm donor tonight, eh? Y’all have a spat?”
“Just more of the same. ‘Oh, you’re still doing that acting stuff.’ Yeah, I am, Dad. Remember? The scholarship? Whatever. At least he liked the dead animal I cooked for him Sunday night.”
Sammy grunted. He walked behind the lower counter and sat down. He put on his horn rims then looked at the crossword he almost finished.
“That’s so cool that they’re doing the exchange,” Roy said.
“Yeah, I’m glad they’re going ahead with it. Harry said they debated whether to do it ever since the fire happened.”
Roy couldn’t help but think about Alfonso whenever the clinic came up. “Did I tell you I ran into Alfonso Berry on the bus to school on Monday?”
“No, you didn’t. You don’t tell me nothing.”
“He was pretty messed up about the fire. And Carlton, of course. And Eddie. Is he still in a coma?”
“Yes,” he said, without looking up.
“I told Alfonso he should hang out here, you know, just to get away from his family. Well, I didn’t put it like that, but you know what I mean.”
“He was here Monday, before going to school. This morning, too, come to think of it.”
Roy got a smirk on his face, though he was glad to hear it.
“Bitch didn’t even tell me!” he said.
* * *
Alfonso threw his backpack to the floor and flicked on the TV after entering his bedroom and shutting the door. He tapped his Magic Pad and awoke his iMac from slumber. Tweets and Facebook filled the screen.
“And now a live report from Huckleberry Park and the site of the Huckleberry Community Clinic on Lincoln Avenue where members of the clinic collective are holding their needle exchange across from their burned out headquarters. Tara, what can you tell us?”
Alfonso immediately switched attention from his computer to the TV.
“The exchange continues, despite the loss of the office where it took place,” the reporter said. “The staff and volunteers who run the exchange are set up outside the back of a van here on Lincoln opposite their burned out office.”
“That was fast,” Alfonso said.
“I have with me here Reverend Tamera Woodson of the All Huckleberry Community Church, who is one of the sponsors of the Clinic.”
Alfonso attended her service once. A friend begged him to go with her and he couldn’t turn her down. It blew him away. It had an energy Reverend Johnson only wished he possessed. Nigerian talking drums backed the sermon that day. No one sat still. He wanted to go back but knew better than to ask his parents to go. The aristocracy of the community rubbed elbows while singing hymns at Johnson’s church. In suits, not sweats, and in ties, not tie-dyes.
On camera, she looked as sharp as ever. Clearly upset about the loss of the Clinic, she nonetheless checked herself and radiated calm determination.
“We will not allow intimidation or acts of terror to drive us away from our neighborhood or our work. And make no mistake: this was an act of terror. The fire department has already declared that the fire was ‘intentionally set.’ That’s just a polite way of calling it an arson. And we mustn’t forget that apartments upstairs were also damaged, displacing families. This was a cowardly, criminal act.”
The reporter turned to someone else and the name Philip “Bingo” Cincinnati appeared on the screen.
“The response here tonight clearly answers the question, is the exchange a community service,” Bingo said. “Most of the people here tonight live in this neighborhood, some in this very park. So you can’t say, like Councilman Berry argues, that this isn’t a community-based project. Because, in fact, it is.”
Alfonso beamed. The news moved on to the next story, but he so liked what he saw. Then he heard a slamming noise from downstairs. He got up and peeked his head out the door. His sister Belinda did the same from her room, three doors down.
“What was that?” Alfonso asked.
“I think it was Dad, going into his office,” Belinda said.
His shouting voice confirmed it. “Shut them down now, do you hear me? I said, shut those fuckers down!”
“Wonder what he’s so mad about,” Belinda said.
“Uh-huh,” Alfonso said, going back into his room.
He leaned against the closed door with his eyes closed. He wanted to go to Belinda’s room, shut her door, and give her the run down of what’s going down. But he couldn’t do it. He didn’t know if he could go there with her, and that saddened him. His insecurity saddened him the most.
The TV went off and headphones came over his ears. He dialed up Erykah Badu. In no time the thumping rhythm and her ethereal voice freed his mind and levitated his body. Gyrations flowed effortlessly from his arms and hips. The music transported him to a place far away from the slams and shouts his father made in his study below. He danced alone, just as Carlton often did back in the day.
“‘Oh, on and on and on and on,’” he sang with her and the beats.
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.