I slid to the side and leaned against the wall behind the door. The open door shielded me but allowed enough air for eavesdropping. I kept count of the seconds and spied her movements through the crack of light between the hinge and panel. My eyes sought how she would signal they were not alone. Attitude walked into the apartment as if he lived there. He placed the large duffel bag he shouldered in front of the coat closet, right of the entrance. Their strong hug and her jubilation brought memories of two disparate souls who somehow locked each other into a familial ring. The first thing he noticed further substantiated the care, the constant worry for her. The picture of Ken and Barbara on their most recent vacation, a small frame holding a five by seven snapshot, depicted a comfort level, of a woman’s bare shoulder under the lightness of a hand that would always be there. They streaked no smile, baring teeth to show an overflow of joy. Their pose did not match, Attitude’s question, “You still with that duck?”
An odd thing to hear him say as he and Ken never bickered over her, even in the most trying moments. Two years passed and the most visible changes made him look younger: a bare upper lip, jaw line and scalp. The cut of his dread locks and unkempt beard meant a change in identity, a confirmation to what I suspected and feared the last time I saw him.
That day and night propelled me to a new dimension. I needed to see Ken to put the puzzle together. The four of us became a square, a chess board with four remaining black pieces battling insurmountable odds. They worshipped Barbara in a way that the naked, untrained eye would mistaken her for a queen, the way Bliss had, the last time I saw her and Attitude. Ken was the king. Attitude played the role of bishop, a monk who took a vow of celibacy just as he vowed, only to, himself to become my knight. Unfortunately, he never fathomed the impossible truth: I abdicated my throne to give him safe passage. Now they, all three could potentially use me to save Barbara, a mere pawn.
I was not in the mood for Attitude or any of his games, until he asked, “Is Monk here yet?”
“If he was, where do you think he would be?” My voice turned him toward the bedroom door but he did not see me, not yet. I stepped out into the hallway. His short smile and steady gaze at my lips, and the slight tilt of his head led his pretense, a detached cool play that he expected to see me here. The irony, the counter of such an act cleared his name in my book, meaning whatever Barbara’s scheme for calling me this morning did not involve him. Yet she welcomed his return, as he pretended my being here to be the most natural thing. We exchanged a soft hug, a feeling, and then I sized up his anxiety, the blink of his eyes, the muffled way he asked for Monk, the street-slang he had used to disapprovingly describe Ken while questioning their union.
Attitude knew something, and needed her to push Ken out of her mind.
Attitude left over two years ago and never followed up, never reached out, at all - not even a postcard. True, the rumor; I came to accept that he was dead. But this return meant he needed to clear his slate, start over, the way one overwrote a memory file. Yet, why start here, her apartment at midnight. Perhaps her place personified a place prodigal sons, distant relatives and the like came. And, he showed upon his return, with no worry or thought to ask whether Ken would be here. Even though I put my arms around him, I truly was not happy to see him. When he let go, I did not give him a chance to get his bearings. “What? You don’t know anybody? You leave and nothing? Nothing!”
“Relax, sister! Yours was my first call and the number I had for you is disconnected.”
Not exactly my primary concern, but it did feel good to know he tried to come to me first. “No! Not just tonight! Where have you been?”
He simply stared into my eyes then chuckled. His eyes coupled with the slight upturn in the right corner of his lips gave me the information, the hint I needed. He was dead but he could not admit this, not in front of her. All he said, “When I left I told you I was going on tour and will probably end up staying in Switzerland. I come back and the last number I had for you no longer works.”
The brother had disappointed me in so many ways that I could not hide the hurt. “How did you find Barb’s number? She moved also.”
“I called Monk and he gave me her number. How come Monk doesn’t have your number?” Barbara walked to the kitchen and started boiling water. She knew the routine. To show love Attitude and I sparred, hard. We battled over everything, even though we shared very similar views. We sat on the sofa, facing the entertainment unit. I read his movements while he held his silence. The jittery fingers drummed against the arm of the brown leather sofa. The right knee moved in rhythm but not that of the music, Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’.
As Barb brought the three cups of tea to the living room, the downstairs doorbell rang. Attitude said, “Make that four cups!”
She chimed in, “Nah, Monk doesn’t drink tea.”
My mind rotated right, to reconnect dots from the past, of actual events and gaps for events I might have missed.
“How much do you wanna bet?” They made a simple wager of one dollar. “I’ll get the tea. You get the door.”
I joined in, “No, I will get the door.” The playful tone overtook me, the way toddlers spread germs to each other. Plus, I wanted to get Monk’s reaction when I opened the door to Barb’s apartment. I used my most flirtatious tone, the one that led to seduction, fast and hard, no teasing. “Hi stranger, where have you been all my life?”
I could tell no matter who opened the door, he would be this angry. “Hiding!” He stepped over the threshold and gave me one of those quick hugs for people who could barely stand each other, complete with the non-rhythmic two taps to the shoulder and well above the lower back. He came to a complete stop as he stepped into the living room and scanned his surroundings. His eyes moved a bit then stilled as if giving his ears a chance to seek out faint sounds. “Is that Wes Montgomery?” An inconspicuous body, Monk moved through life unfettered from rules because he lived by the book. Yet, he entered this room, where all signs pointed to a final battle to come. He then exchanged a hug and handshake with Attitude. I looked for a clue but could not detect whether they exchanged the frat grip. I needed to know whether Monk was a MAX boy, whether he had taken the oath. He asked Attitude, “What brings you here?”
Monk sported a black trench, not the classical Columbo detective style but a heavy denim blend with small metal buttons. He took it off and tossed it onto the love seat near the window. It gave me slight pause – enough to break out of character and sequence, to think specifically of two years ago when those two, Monk and Barb, first met.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Attitude’s excitement broke my concentration. I watched him run to the closet and take a knapsack out of the duffle bag. Then, he took out a square gift box from in there. Barbara returned to the living room and chiming with her best melodic voice, poised to win the wager, until she caught Monk’s serious look. I told her about that look but she had only laughed. His flat lips seemed to extend past his cheek bones, betraying the slenderness of his face. His charcoal gray sweater, a crew neck revealing a white tee under it, blended, more like disappeared, under his Adam’s Apple; its firmness when he stayed silent and froze into that icy glare; that look froze me the first time I met Monk. Attitude handed her the gift box. “Open it in private!”
The secretive tone in Attitude’s voice released her from Monk’s hold, only to put her into a different quandary. I loved it. She handed Monk the cup of tea. “We’re drinking tea, and I made you a cup.”
In the space to say he didn’t drink tea, Monk stared at her real hard until she broke eye contact. With his right hand, he motioned her to him. She approached. As he took the cup and saucer from her hands, she greeted him with a soft peck on the lips.
“When did y’all get that friendly?” I failed to focus on it, when Attitude told how he got Barbara’s number. I tried to soften my inquiry. “Did I miss something?” I lied to keep and reestablish my cover.
Monk placed his tea on the coffee table and stepped to me. “What’s the matter, baby, you want a kiss too?”
I did not answer. He took two steps to me and leaned down a little. A soft kiss. His tongue explored only a bit, up to the little space behind my teeth, as I had not fully opened my mouth. My body swayed.
The kiss pushed me back two years to 1991, to Attitude’s opening reception at Bienvenue Gallery. A night that was more of a closing, a chapter in my life that being here with the three of them threatened to reopen. I had not seen them two since but here I stood in the room with these two men who complicated my life, my love of it, my amorous intentions more than any other.
I remembered when Monk entered the gallery. The space blared an emptiness, a duplex, loft with a balcony, white walls, bright lights, refinished hardwood flooring, nearly three hundred people looked in his direction even though he wore an unassuming look complete with an even gait. They all turned away for he stood by someone who had no bearing on the scene being played out. As the crowd lost focus on them, I stared and read Monk and Barbara’s lips. He simply leaned next to her, against the smoked glass plane near the entrance and asked her, “Do you know me?”
“You look familiar. TGI, right?”
“No, I’m Monk from Semline. Theodore Perkins.”
The smile came naturally and showed that she was impressed. She never believed me when I raved about this young boy from Semline, who carried tradition so lightly. Though not handsome in the classical sense, his contrast to the definition of soft male beauty melted my heart the minute I first landed eyes on him. Barbara joked, “What’s up, you want some pussy?”
Not stated as a joke, but more of an audacious quip she once told me to use on him, so I could rid my nerves the next time I found myself near him. He smiled and seemingly bonded with her. Her offer had nothing to do with why he made the next offer. “I’ll take a rain check. Check it! I’m not sure what you’re doing here, or how you got so deep into these people’s story. There is no easy way out but I will promise you this. If anyone ever asks you for a name, any name…you give them mine. Theodore Perkins.”
She repeated his name, “Theodore Perkins. Monk from Semline.”
He nodded. “If they don’t already have it, they will ask for my phone number. It is…” She made to reach for a pen and paper from inside her bag. He told her, “No. Memorize it. Brooklyn’s current area code. 555-1917.”
She said, “Got it!”
“Now if you are ever in trouble and need immediate protection, call that same number and simply ask, ‘May I speak to Monk’. Not my real name. Just Monk. Whoever answers will take care of you until I can come.”
She repeated with a silliness yet she still held the seriousness of what he had conveyed, “Are you sure you don’t want some pussy?”
He chuckled. “No, but next time you see me, give me a soft kiss on the lips.”
As he made to walk away and deeper into the gallery, he caught my eye dead center and looked left.
Though I knew it to be no more than ten seconds of thought, it allowed me to connect the past two years, so I knew precisely where to pick up as if I had earmarked them. Barbara flipped through television channels as my mind moved like a CD changer on random.
For Monk to have her number, she would have had to call him recently. Seeing Monk’s smile made me want to go back deeper into the past, to ask the question I held inside ever since we first met. The very first night I met him and learned that if he took the oath, he would be the seventh generation for his family in the Society. So, I interrupted by asking it point blank. “So, Monk, why do you fill the hatred you feel with a lot of superficial stuff?”
“That’s really deep.” He paused to find the right way to code it so that only I would understand the scope of his reply. “I have read some of your published pieces. Your analysis never really attacks the artist, but the line you cut through the work does make it seem like it is personal.”
His retort, a loaded statement gave light to the fact that he read the magazine where I worked. He cared that much but never showed it. I played along. “What does that have to do with my question?”
Attitude answered, his face holding the same seriousness as when he first walked in. “It’s simple, Sis. Race is a game of Truth, Dare and Consequence. Whether you speak the truth or live a lie; dare to change or live “race,” the consequence is death.”
“I live to uphold this legacy.” Monk then said it as if it were common knowledge, “And, that’s why Bliss is dead.”
Barbara jumped out of her seat. “Bliss is dead?”
She overreacted so it meant she knew. I studied her for years and had her pegged. Now the real question was how far back did she know? Did she call Monk because Ken left or because she heard of Bliss’s death? “How you’re gonna come in here all casual then after all of this small talk drop this news like it’s nothing?”
Monk spoke while staring at Attitude. “I thought y’all knew because when I walked in, he was already here. Why do you think I drank the tea? I thought it was some sort of communal thing to soothe our nerves.”
“How come y’all don’t know Bliss is dead? It happened this morning. The news has been spreading like wild fire.”
“I haven’t been home all day.” I threw in my disclaimer to stand as far away from Barbara as possible but did not include I’ve been here, with her all day.
She jumped in as if I would become her alibi. “I had my ringer off until a couple of hours ago, and I have my answering machine off as not to accept any calls from Ken.”
I stood up and called her bluff. “You know who killed her, right?”
“Come on! You’re always in the know about stuff.”
She leaned away from me like my breath stunk or something. “Chick, get a grip!”
Attitude stepped between us. “You two are scaring me. Her death has been labeled a suicide. She took a butcher knife to her gut.”
Monk stepped closer to me. “Yeah, but you two are talking as if something was in the works.”
I deflected his suspicion. “Why are you looking at me and not her?”
“Because you slept with Devon and Bliss saw you coming out of the motel room with him the night after Semline’s Charter ceremony.” He said it so fast the accusation entwined with any disclaimer I could use.
Attitude and Barbara asked at the same time. “Is that why you abdicated your throne?”
Thoughts bunched up from the corners then raced to line up to the front of my mind. Those two men had a clear misunderstanding of how SUM women operated. My next thought begged me to deny Monk’s claim but he countered before I could utter the words. “Call me a liar! I dare you! And, no, Devon didn’t tell me and neither did Bliss.”
I pondered whether Monk planned to help me by putting my cards on the table. “Then how do you know?”
“It doesn’t matter how he knows. Does Miranda know about this?”
Barbara knew better than trying to get me to tell the ending of a story that goes back to 1860, as if my small piece were the first chapter, especially when my having sex with Devon really did not matter to her. MAX boys knew this, and as a SUM woman, she knew sex with a MAX boy did not matter unless you planned on marrying him. But did Monk know this? If yes, then he must have taken the oath to officially be a MAX boy and should know I only slept with Devon to protect his legacy, the one minutes ago he claimed to live to uphold.
“Bliss is dead?” My sobs coughed out the words and tears flooded my face enough for them to think it was a performance. I wanted them to doubt my sincerity. I looked at each of them, shook my head from side to side and ran to the bathroom to compose myself. In the five or so minutes it took me to gather myself, I listened at the door to pick up on anything being said that would help me decipher this day. Their silence flowed over the keys of Horace Silver and remained so as I came out and headed to the closet to get my jacket and purse.
She ran toward me and made to grab my arm. “What’s wrong? Where you going at this hour?”
Unsure of what Barbara knew and when she came to that knowledge, I made it clear I wanted no part of it. “As far away from you as I can.”
Those words gave Attitude and Monk enough pause, and warning to look at Barbara in a different light.