Authors: Phillip Thomas Duck
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyesâ¦.
âPaul Laurence Dunbar
These thoughts were supposed to have been in my last year's release,
Grown and Sexy,
but due to unforeseen events didn't make it. Funny thing, I touched it up a bit but little has changed. The same people are in my corner that was present with
Playing with Destiny
Whispers Between the Sheets,
Grown and Sexy
and now this joint. So to all that were disappointed by last year's omission, this is long overdueâ¦.
Writing a book is often described as a solitary accomplishment, but no endeavor truly is accomplished without the hands of others. First and foremost, I give honor and thanks to the Creator, from whom all blessings flow, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Known around my home as God, I thank Him for the drive, talent and window of opportunity He cracked open on my behalf.
To my wife, affectionately known as Jay, the hours in my office writing and not by your side are forever lost. Thank you, despite this, for your constant encouragement and never-diminishing love.
To Ariana, you inspired me while working on
Playing with Destiny.
I'm forever grateful for “Daddy's Little Girl.” In many ways I was lost until you came along on December 9. Happily, from the 10th on, my way has been clear and focused.
To my mother, my greatest desire is to buy you a house, pay your bills, attend to your every need and whim, satisfy all your wants and desiresâ¦and even then it would just be the interest on your loan of love. I think Tupac put it best: “Even though I act crazy, I gotta thank the Lord that you made me.” Thank you.
To my brother, Michael, I know it's a lot to ask for you to read this entire book. (Smile). I should have named it
(LOL) I know you can get through these Acks though, right? You make me proud. Make yourself proud, as well. Good things soon come.
To Uncle Joe, for all intents and purposes you have been my father, because my biological one wouldn't bother. The mark of a man is in his words and work. You speak well and labor long. Thanks.
Aunt Ruth and Uncle Eddie, you're gone in the physical, pictures on my wall and memories in my heart now. But both of you added tremendously to my essence. Love y'all. RIP.
Family, on my side and in-laws, I thank you all for your support and love. That means the Duck family, the Hughes family, the Acal family, the Jaggassar family. I can't count you each by number, but you all hold a special place in my heart.
My aunts: Dorothy, Jackie and Janice, much love.
My uncle Pat, much love.
My cousin Vern (my twin) and his lovely wife, Vanessa, much love.
GGB (Gary Garfield Birch) and Pook (Wendell Logan), my brothers from a different mother. Your friendships are greatly appreciated. And yeah, we need to hang more, I know.
My goddaughter, Elania, the only little girl as beautiful as my own.
My entire HealthSouth family, especially my comrades-in-arms: Adrienne Dangler, Maggie Sessoms, Maureen Pressley, Ginny Dimmick, Becky Manning and Micha (finally somebody spelled your name correct!!!!). What we do is “underappreciated” by man, but smiled upon by God. Remember that.
My agent, Sara Camilli. Knew I wanted to do this after reading
Milk in My Coffee
by that other writer you represent. (Smile) It's still a trip to me that all these years later you are my literary guardian, and a darn good one too. Thanks.
Speaking of that other writer, Eric Jerome Dickey, thanks for that early inspiration. I swear I ain't know brothers wrote books. Thought it had to be some classic stuff, my beloved James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, or somebody. Thank you for the remix.
My editor, Glenda Howard. I've brought you wet clay three times so far; you've rolled up your sleeves every time and helped mold it. Thanks.
Linda Gill, for the opportunities and belief. Thanks.
My writer family.
Starting first with my “Literary Momma,” Margaret Johnson-Hodge. You were the light when my writing life was utter darkness. The only thing that trumps your kind heart is your mighty pen. You write like the devil, Momma.
Timmothy B. McCann. Miss you much. “The game needs you.”
Keith Lee Johnson. You are my writer-buddy for real. And for the record, Cool Keith, so many “situations are critical” concerning this biz, but we got this. It's been a ride since the ATL, ain't it? And look how many fell off the roller coaster. (Smile) Keep reaching for those heights. See ya at the top.
Monica McKayhan, TaRessa Stovall, Philana Marie Boles, Eric Pete, Victor McGlothin, Earl Sewell, Brandon Massey, Karyn Langhorne, Marcus Major, Tracy Price-Thompson, George Pelecanos, Franklin White, Trisha R. Thomas, Joel McIver, Gregory Townes, Robert Fleming, Cydney Rax, Victoria Christopher Murray, Brian Egeston, Vincent Alexandriaâ¦and all my brethren crafting stories. One love.
Tee Cee Royal and RawSistaz. Book-remarks. SistahCircle Book Club. Avid-Readers. The Romer Review. The Backlist. Thumper and the aalbc.com fam. APOOO. The Essence board. Gilda Rogers at The Beyond Group. And everyone who supports not just me but African-American fiction as a whole. One love.
Pilgrim Baptist Church; Reverend Terrence K. Porter.
I know I've missed someone. Charge it to my head and not my heart.
Lastly, but certainly not leastâ¦my readers.
APPLE BROWN BETTY
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 cups dry bread crumbs
4 or 5 tart apples, peeled and sliced
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
Dash of salt
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/3 cup water
Mix melted butter and dry bread crumbs. Combine apples, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Put part of bread crumbs on bottom of greased casserole. Add layer of apples with bread crumbs, alternately, crumbs on top. Pour combined lemon juice and water over all. Cover and bake at 350ÂºF for 1 hour. Uncover and bake half hour to brown. Makes 5 generous servings. Rhubarb or berries can be substituted for apples.
know, Nan. Hot.”
George Williams stuck his tough-as-worn-leather fingers under the bathtub spigot, recoiled them just as quickly. The flowing water was plenty hot, and yet, for Nan, it probably still wouldn't chase away the chill deep in her bones.
Nancy, George's wife, rocked on the toilet seat, an oversize blue terry-cloth robe hanging off her bony frame. She shivered despite the heat rising from the floor vent. George had been pumping her full of Cup o' Noodles for the past few weeks but her eyeballs continued slowly receding into her face. Her lips were dark, like overripe plums, getting darker and more chapped by the day. But George still found warmth in those lips.
“Code,” Nancy slurred, bunching her shoulders together and fumbling to close the robe tighter around her body, a body covered with marks and goose bumps. Within the hour, knowing her, she'd be sweating, complaining about how hot it was. Her body temperature, like most everything else, was shot.
George studied the rising water level in the tub. “You cold, baby? I got the heat way up. It'll just be a couple more minutes, Nan. Okay?”
Nancy rocked forward again, snuck a peek in the tub and flared her nostrils in disgust. She looked away and shook her head.
The phone ringing from the living room crawled into the bathroom. George bit into his lip and then rose with expectation. He brushed his hand over Nancy's shoulder as he passed her.
He cleared his throat. His voice was tinged with nerves and regret as he answered the phone. “Hello, Williams' residence.”
“Holla,” a young male voice said.
“Someone called me.”
“I aâ” George struggled to form the words.
“You sound like an oldie but goodie, player. You need a blessing, Pops?”
“Got your name off my son,” George said. “I need someâ¦stuff.”
“Who's your son, Pops?”
“Slay.” The young man's tone changed. “Slay never mentioned any father to me. Matter of fact, I'm lying, he did once. Said dude was dead.”
George cleared his throat again; nerves and regret nonetheless remained. “I'm Shammond's stepfather.” George closed his eyes, hoping and praying that this was and wasn't a roadblock. He did and didn't want this to go through smoothly. Complex.
“Aiight, Pops. I'll hook you up. What you need?”
“Crack,” George said shamefully.
“Da rockâ¦da da da rock,” the young boy bellowed. “A blessing, like I said, right?”
George ground his teeth. There wasn't any blessing in this. “You can get it for me?”
“You live in the Beach Arms with Slay's moms?”
“She lives with me, yes.”
“Meet me down at the beachfront by your apartment tower, past that shitty-ass bulldozer. I'll be down by where the street-lights are blown out.”
“How do Iâ?”
Dial tone rudely ended George's query.
How do I know you? How much for the product?
Questions swirled through George's head as he placed the phone back in the cradle. It wasn't like he was experienced at this. He sighed and moved back toward the bathroom.
Nancy's blue terry-cloth robe lay in a puddle on the floor. She was submerged in the steaming-hot bathwater, still shivering. Her glassy gaze was off in the distance. She was oblivious of her husband standing nearby. George peered down at her, studying her nude form. Spindly arms, dark marks over her once-perfect maple skin, an unruly thatch of hair, flaked with dandruff, sprouting from between her bony thighs. Almost all of the beauty she once had, gone.
“I'll be back with something to hold you over,” George whispered. A tear threatened his eye and he cleared his throat yet again and moved before the tear overtook him, before he changed his mind.
Despite his troubling task, he moved from his apartment tower with a spark in his step. The cold chill of the air hit him as soon as he exited the lobby. To make matters even worse, there was a strong wind blowing. He looked up at the flagpole by the streetlamp. The red, white and blue American flag and the black POW-MIA flag below it violently flapped in the wind. He rubbed his hands together and blew on them for warmth. The gesture was futile. There would be no warmth tonight. He looked both ways as he crossed the trash-strewn lot for the gate leading to the forgotten beach. He thought about years agoâclose to twenty now he guessedâwhen Asbury Park thrived. The carnival rides, the exuberant boardwalk. All of it gone now. Back then he had a different wife and two little girls. Enduring the heartache of a woman that he didn't love and that didn't love him. Then he left it all for real love, for Nancy, Nan. Heartache was still a close friend, but love was a powerful salve. Love, he kept reminding himself in these dark hours, love.
Moving through the gate toward the sand of the beach, George kept his eyes on his feet as he walked through the patchy grass. He didn't want to step on those black bird droppings that dotted the ground like land mines. Reaching the sand of the forgotten beach, he looked back at the apartment tower, shook his head. The things one does in the name of love.
A rusted bulldozer spray painted with graffiti rested in the middle of the sandy plot of beach. He passed by it as he'd been instructed to do and moved down by the water so he could see up the other end of beach. The cold was really pressing upon him now, so he tightened the collar of his plaid hunting jacket and hunched his shoulders in to his ears. He hadn't even had time to change out of his maintenance clothes. He still wore the army-green khaki pants and long-sleeved corduroy shirt. He still had on those cheap and dangerous Honchos boots from Payless without a built-in steel toe. He continued to rub his hands together. Bouncing in place like a man who needed to urinate.
A figure moved from the shadows to his left. Tense and nervous, George jumped. It was an old bum, his pants dirty with what looked like oil stains but wasn't. The old man murmured something as he passed by, carrying a lone tire like a sack of groceries. George looked back to make sure the man had, in fact, moved on. He didn't want to get caught with his guard down and catch a screwdriver to the shoulder blade. The old man with his tire stumbled across the lot and disappeared into the alley next to George's apartment tower.
George looked at his watch, decided he might as well walk up the other end. He headed up the beach toward the non-lighted section, regret peppering his steps.
There were assorted brown and green bottles lying partially covered by sand. Crumpled cans of forty-ounce beers, too. Cigarette butts. Used crack vials. The sight of these things made George's stomach do funny things, made his insides rise and fall.
He noticed an outline move onto the beach ahead. It appeared to be a young man, smoking a cigarette or perhaps something else, so arrogant and hardened that the cold of the night didn't make him shiver or shake. George moved toward the shadow.
George came upon the young man and stood there silently, unsure, waiting on the youngster to speak first.
The young kid blew out a plume of smoke and then dropped his cigarette and stamped it into the sand. He wore a wool FUBU scully, a FUBU sweatshirt, baggy black FUBU jeans, Timberland boots and a black FUBU jean jacketâa walking billboard for FUBU. Even in the darkness of the night you could see the lack of care or worry in his eyes. He stood there looking at the ocean waves, George next to him, waiting.
“You brought some coin right?” FUBU asked after a moment.
George's posture changed. This was the moment. “Yeah, I got your money,” he said. The words left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Got some of my best shit inâ¦you gonna love this, Pops.”
“Not me, this is for someone else,” George told him.
FUBU turned and looked at George. “That's one I never heard before.”
“You probably wishing it so, Pops.”
For some reason, George felt impelled to explain. “It's for my ladyâ¦she's got a bit of a problem. I'm just trying to help her out until we can figure out how to get her set right.”
FUBU smirked. “I feel you, Pops. Screw rehab, right?”
George grimaced from the cut of judgment in FUBU's voice. Of course the kid was right, but life sometimes wasn't as simple as it should be; sometimes it was way too complex. George cleared his throat. “Not to rush you or anything,” he said, “but it's cold out. My lady is waiting, this ain't exactly real estate we transacting here. I'd like to get on my way.”
“Pass off the coin, then,” FUBU said. “Twenty beans for two pops.” He was trained to keep it cryptic so he'd never find himself pinned against a fence, his hands pulled painfully behind his back while he was read his Miranda rights.
Twenty beans. Twenty dollars, right?
Embarrassed to ask, George reached into his pocket, pulled out a crumpled twenty and handed it to FUBU. Overtime money, flushed down the drain. FUBU took the bill and placed it in the side pocket of his jacket. He lowered his head as if in thought, reached into his pocket again and pulled out a Newport. Pulled his lighter and deliberately lit the Newport. Shook his head and dragged on the cigarette.
“Aren't you forgetting something?” George asked.
“You got any other children than Slay, Pops?”
“I told you I wanted to move this along. You got my money. Can we finish up here?”
“You got any children other than Slay, Pops?” FUBU repeated.
FUBU cut him off. “Simple thing to ask, Pops. Answer the question. You got any other children?”
George sighed. “Two daughters from my first wife,” he said. “My lady now has Shammond and his sister, Cydney. I consider them mines. I'm all they known since they was young. They daddy, Dare, um Darius, was a friend of mine and IâI kinda stepped in when he passed on.”
“Is that so?” FUBU said. He took another drag on his cigarette. “You sound like a for-real cat, Pops. Banging your boy's old lady, claiming his seeds and making sure his old lady don't have to come out in the cold and suck some nigga's dick to get her fix on.”
George's chest tightened. He pointed a crooked finger at FUBU's chest. “This is bullshit. Give me my stuff, boy.”
FUBU dropped his cigarette, stamped it into the sand like the previous one. He didn't acknowledge George's anger, didn't appear to fear it. Turning away, he started to walk off.
“Hey. Where are you going?” George called.
FUBU kept his step without looking back or answering.
George rushed him and grabbed ahold of his shoulder. FUBU wheeled around at the touch, something black, cold, steel, in his hand. He pressed that black finger of judgment into George's chest. Released that white heat into George; the shot lifted George up like a boxer's uppercut punch. Two more pops and George slumped down to his knees. FUBU stepped back and let George tumble face-first into the sand with the green and brown bottles, the crumpled forty-ounce beer cans, the crack vials.
“Sucka nigga,” FUBU said as he spit on George and walked off with a strut of arrogance. The gunplay hadn't been a part of the job but he figured it wouldn't be frowned upon. He'd more than earned his money.
George moaned in pain for a moment, his eyelids heavy. He wondered how long it would be before he was found. His breaths came slower, just a drip of life left in him. Farther up the beach, in the other direction, was the rusted bulldozer spray painted with graffiti. Just beyond that was the bare grass with all those little black droplets of bird feces. Then there was the trash-strewn lot. The red, white and blue American flag and the black POW-MIA flag blowing violently against the flagpole. Then, at the end, the apartment tower, twenty-five floors in all. George wondered, as his last breath came, if Nancy, on the thirteenth floor, knew how much he truly loved her.