I walked inside to inquire about where the help was needed. An old man stood behind the register. His round belly extended out further than it should have. His suspenders went down his sides instead of his stomach; no belt would have a chance of reaching around his waist. There were a few patrons in the store. A tall, slender man stood in line with a carton of milk in his hand. I took my place in line right behind him. The store looked much different from the mom and pops stores in Idlewild. No ceiling fans and no screen doors that popped when it crashed to a close. It was very foreign to me. A young woman walked past me and headed to the register where the over-sized man stood. We made brief eye contacted. I tipped the front of my hat towards her, and she smiled. The man behind the counter noticed our interaction and slapped his hand on the table,
“Josephine! Stop flirtin’ with every man that walk through here and get behind this register before I find somebody more qualified to do this here work!”
She continued smiling at me as she walked towards the register, seemingly paying no attention to the old man’s threat. The old man waddled from behind the counter. I figured he was the one I needed to talk with. I followed him towards the back of the store.
“Excuse me Mr.”
He kept walking as if he didn’t hear me. I spoke a little louder as I stepped closer to him. Still no response. He was near his office when I finally reached out and grabbed him by his shoulder.
“Pardon me, suh.”
He spun around; his belly just inches from where I stood. He had lit a cigarette on the way to his office, and it dangled out of his mouth as he spoke. His voice was raspy, and his words seemed to all come out at once. It sounded as if he was gargling his words,
“What can I do for ya?”
I took my hat off and held it in my hands,
“Well, Suh, I noticed you had a ‘help wanted’ sign outside your store. I was hoping it was something here that I could help out with.”
“Ummhmm,” he said, looking me up and down.
He blew smoke from his cigarette into the air. His goatee was almost entirely gray. He was bald, except around the sides. He had to have been close to 45 years old, but not more than 50. He touched my biceps and shoulders. I stood there, confused as to what he was doing.
“Where ya’ from?” he said, “ya’ talk like you ain’t from around these parts,” I responded as he continued checking me out, “I’m from Idlewild, TX suh.” He spoke as soon as I finished talking like he knew when my sentence would end,
“Idlewild, huh? You say Idlewild? So you come way up here to work for a mom-and-pop store?”
“No suh, I just need work for-”
He cut me off as I spoke,
“Pick up this here box,” he pointed to the bottom shelf, “and put it up here,” he pointed to the top shelf. I placed my hat on the shelf and did what he asked. “Ummmhmmm,” he said as the cigarette dangled out of his mouth. I spoke up,
“I just need something to-” he cut me off again, “This is only gonna’ be temporary until my son gets outta’ jail. When can you start?” His words were too mumbled for me to understand him, “Suh?” I asked. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and held it in his hands. “I said when can you start? Are you hard a hearin’, too?” I could only make out a few words, but I guessed at what he said, hoping I was right, “I can start today.” I guessed right. “Hold on right here,” he mumbled as he placed the cigarette back in his mouth and walked back into his office. I glanced around the mom-and-pop store. It was larger than any store in Idlewild. Josephine walked past the aisle I stood in, sweeping up the front of the market. Her dress stopped just below her knees. Her hair was cut in a bobbed shape. She wasn’t the prettiest woman, but by far, she wasn’t the ugliest. It wasn’t her appearance that intrigued me, though; it was her aura. She started down my aisle but quickly reversed her steps moments later when Leroy headed back in my direction.
“Here ya’ go,” he said, handing me an all-black apron, “You wear this when you come in tomorrow. Your responsibilities will be to help keep the place clean. Sweeping, mopping and cleaning the restrooms. Stock the shelves, take out the trash and run errands for me when I need it. Be here at 7 am. Not 7:01, not 7:02, 7 am sharp. If you are late, I dock ya’ pay for that day.”
“Thank you, suh,” I said as I held the apron in my hand. He began walking away but turned around abruptly to say his last words, “And one last thing. Do NOT mess with that girl here. That girl right up front sweepin’ up. You see that girl”, he grabbed my shoulders and pointed at her, then looked me in the eyes, “OFF. LIMITS. You hear me?”
“Yes suh, I hear you,”
I put my hat back on, and he released me so that I could head out of the store. She smiled at me again when I walked out. “Josephine!” the man yelled, “What I tell you, huh!? Finish sweepin’ and then come round’ back here and sort these papers out!” I had a feeling she would be trouble.
It was 1 am when the phone rang. I was too tired to get up to answer. It was 2:20 am when I heard aggressive knocks at my door. I lifted my head up, taking a moment to recollect myself as the knocks turned into bangs. My bare feet slid lazily across the cool, wooden floor as I crept to the door. “Who is it?” I asked in a raspy voice. She yelled, “Ehhis, open up this door! Who else is comin’ over here before the rooster crows?!” I was tempted to leave her outside, but I knew she would do nothing but bang louder until I opened up. I opened the door, and she pushed her way past me before I could get a good look at her. “Where is that Hussie at!?” She yelled as she frantically searched the apartment, “I know she’s in here! Where is she at!?”
She walked antagonistically through the apartment in a nightgown with a scarf over her head, opening and closing closet doors and cabinets in the pantry. She looked under the bed and behind furniture. I shook my head, walked lazily back to my bed and crept under the covers. She turned on the lamp in my room moments later and stood at the foot of my bed. “Ehhis, where you been all day, huh? I been calling you and calling you and you haven’t answered. I even came by earlier today. Now WHERE have you been negro?” Her anger and foolishness were momentarily hidden by her beauty. It had the innate ability to calm me down in heated moments. I answered her peacefully, “I was out looking for work.” She relaxed her stance, taking her hands off of her hips, “Oh,” she said, her voice beginning to soften. I spoke, “I don’t do it as much as I should on account of all my time going to you.” She sat down on the bed as I scooted my way into an upright position,
“Oh, so you’re gonna’ blame the fact that you don’t have a job on me?”
“Not entirely,” I said, “Besides, I found some work.”
“Well, I’ll say!”
I always thought it was incredible that she could go from extreme anger to happiness as quick a flip of the switch.
“Where bout, Ehhis? Spill the beans.”
“At a mom-and-pop store a few blocks from here.”
“Well, when do you start?”
She looked at my chain watch.
“Well, you need to be sleeping then! It’s nearly 3 am!”
I shook my head in amazement at the range of emotions she exhibited in the last 10 minutes. From rage to happiness, to concern. I spoke to her, “I was sleepin’ peacefully till’ you came in here with all that ruckus.” She gently guided me back down on the bed and tucked me in. Moments later, she turned off the light and was tucked in next to me on the other side. “Ehhis, I’m sorry for acting a fool. Sometimes, I just think the worst in situations like that. I know you a good man, but that alone makes me think every woman in Harlem wants a piece of you. I mean, not just that you’re a good person, but you’re quite a handsome fellow as well. I’m just scared of losing you.”
The warmth of her body was comforting as she scooted closer to me and placed her arm on my stomach. I responded as she readjusted herself. “Yeah, but even with that, I have to be willing to go along with them if I was to cheat. It’s all on me.” She sighed, “I know Ehhis, I’m sorry, though, ok? I’ma do better by you, I promise. Now, let’s get some shut-eye. You gotta’ get you some rest. 7 am ain’t slowin’ down on account of my craziness.”
My alarm went off at 6 am, and I slapped the clock on my nightstand to silence. The abrupt movement caused my lady to re-adjust herself in the bed. The room was sweltering. A dry, humid air rested in the room on account of the window that was left open all night. I looked at her. She was still peacefully asleep, her face slightly glistening from sweat. Her scarf had come off in the middle of the night and exposed the silky appearance of the hair that flowed from her head. I gently moved the hair off her forehead and kissed her. The sweat clung to my lips as I walked away from her. She was a heavy sleeper. I got out of bed, searched the closet for clothes and headed to the bathroom. By the time I was cleaned up, the clock had read 6:44 am. I walked back into the room. She had kicked the covers onto the floor and was sprawled out on her back. She only had on her undergarments. Her thick thighs were exposed, resting peacefully on the top of the mattress. Her breasts sat up perfectly inside her bra like they were wide awake, waiting to be released from their prison. I walked over to her, running an ice cube across her forehead. She opened her hazel eyes slowly. I kissed her on the lips, and she smiled,
“Have a good day at work.”
I smiled and left. The walk went quicker than I thought it would. The street was quiet. Much quieter than I had ever heard it. Crickets chirped loud until the moment I got closer to them. Street lights were flickering off. A few men with factory clothes on came out of their apartments and headed down the same sidewalk with lunchboxes in their hands. I looked down a little further, and a group of men with the same outfits stood at the bus stop. We exchanged silent pleasantries as I walked past. I got to the mom-and-pop store and tried to push the door open. It was locked. I cupped my hand to the glass door and peeked in, trying to see inside. Seconds later, the store’s owner appeared seemingly out of nowhere and tapped the window. Startled, I jumped back. He peered at me from the other side of the glass, lip curled up like a Rottweiler, shaking his head with a cigarette hanging out his mouth. He finally opened the door,
“Hey, you only five minutes early,” All of his words running together. I looked at my chain watch, “Yes, suh. You said sev-”, He cut me off,
“I know what I said. It’s 6:55, you may as well be late.”
He cut me off again,
“Jus’ follow me,” he said as he tossed an apron into my chest.
I tied it around my waist and headed to the back of the store with him. The girl I saw yesterday stood behind the counter as I walked past her. She smiled as I bowed my head to her behind the owner’s back. In the rear of the store, he barked out directions to me.
“Take these a here boxes and empty em’ out. Everything in these boxes right here”, he pointed, “Go in aisle 5 and 6. These a here boxes go in aisle 7 and 8.” The cigarette hung onto the edge of his lips with each word. He seemed like the type of person that preferred an early morning cigarette over a cup of coffee.
“Yes, suh,” I responded to him as he stood, waiting for me to get to work.
“Now, I needa’ run a couple of errands. You have this done fore’ I get back, hear?”
He waddled away from me, but not before he tossed me a box cutter. The slim, silver case was cold in my hands. It felt like I had officially begun my first job. I started stacking the shelves with everything from peanut butter and crackers to paper towels and dish detergent. I rehearsed poems in my head as I worked,
“This old gray haired man said he was sellin’ his soul because he was poor/and the pastor in church asked for so much offering that he thought he had to buy his way into heaven/he thought that heaven was only for rich men-“
“Scuse me,” She interrupted my train of thought. I sliced another box open with the cutter as my silence made a response for me. She spoke again, “I just figured you needed a towel or something. It can get kinda’ warm in this establishment and you are building up quite a sweat back here.” The sleeves of my white, collared shirt were rolled up midway on my forearm. I wiped the sweat from my head with it. “No ma’am, I can make it. That was a mighty kind gesture, though.” She seemed bashful, lowering her head towards the ground as she smiled. She looked young, but could’ve passed for any age between 16 and 25. Her body was fully grown, but it was her personality that threw me off. “I don’t mean to pry,” she said, “but were you back here talkin’ to yourself before I showed up?” I looked at her, picked up a box and carried it over to a shelf, “No ma’am.” I was terse with her. The owner told me to stay away from her, and I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. She followed me to the shelf. “Well, do you have an imaginary friend of some sort?” I took a few things out of the box and neatly stacked them on the ledge, “no ma’am.”
There was an awkward silence between us as I wiped my forehead of sweat and unloaded the final objects from the box and headed back to the rear of the store. She followed me again. I prayed that someone would walk into the store so she would have to attend to them. I hated to imagine what would happen if the owner came back into the store and saw us chit chatting after his explicit warning to me. I took the box cutter and sliced open the next box.
“Listen,” she said, “I don’t know if you shy or just rude. I’m hoping you just a shy country boy in a new city. How do I know you from the country? Cuz yo’ tongue is the laziest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Now, before I jump to the conclusion, I want to ask you. Did my Uncle say anything to you to have you actin this a way towards me?”
The way she spoke to me led me to believe that she was much more mature that what she initially seemed. She was a lot more aggressive and straight forward than I pegged her to be. I took another box and headed back towards the shelf. She followed me around like a little sister. I spoke as I placed more items on the ledge,
“He just said that I need to keep my distance from you, you know. And I don’t wanna’ disobey his orders. I don’t wanna’ get fired on account of speakin’ with you.” She let out a laugh from the pit of her belly, “Shoot, that old hound said that? I tell ya’, that man is so over-protective of me. Ever since my dad passed a few years back, he’s been this bodyguard type of old man for me. Well, at least that’s what he thinks he is. If he had his way, I’d die old and alone. In his eyes, no man is right for me. They all cheaters and dogs. I just say that’s karma for him, ya’ know? He must’ve been some kinda’ womanizer in his day.”
I let out a chuckle. I couldn’t imagine him being a womanizer. I believed his appearance hit its peak when he was born, and it went downhill from there. She continued, “I am a 24-year-old woman,” she put her hands on her hips as if she was posing for a photograph, “he can’t keep me away from men for forever,” I smiled,
“I understand, but as I say, ma’am, I just don’t wanna’ be the cause’ of no trouble round’ here and end up losin’ the first real job I ever had.”
“Honey, don’t worry bout’ that. As long as I like ya’, you’re gonna’ be here. I am the apple of his eye and believe it or not,” She held up her pinky, “I got Uncle Leroy wrapped around this pretty little finger of mine.” I placed more items on the shelf.
“Now, is you gonna’ tell me what you was sayin’ before I came back here or will I just have to introduce myself to your imaginary friend?”
“It was poetry, ma’am.”
“Poetry?” I headed towards the back to get another box, and she was right there with me with each step, “Yes, Poetry. Why did you respond that way?”
“Because, I’ve…never actually met a poet before. Can I hear something?”
I cut the box open and wiped more sweat from my brow, “Not right now. I’m a Lil’ busy.” I picked the box up and carried it to the aisle.“Oh, come on. You were just back here sayin’ one to yo’ imaginary friend just a few moments ago.” I stacked the ledge,
“That’s mighty funny of ya.’”
“Well, let me hear it!”
“Maybe another time.”
She twirled her hair playfully as she leaned against the shelf.
“Fine, I won’t push anymore. It’s a spot that just opened up over on 125th. They play jazz music there. Maybe we can check it out. I used to date a guy that does security for them and reckon we still on good terms. Maybe I can get us in for no charge. It might spark some creativity in you, or you could make some umm… poetry connections or something.”
She finally had gotten my full attention. I thought her suggestion wasn’t a bad idea. I could check out the place and maybe it would lead to more opportunities. Besides, I never thought of how my poetry would sound behind something like a live band. My imagination began flowing as soon as she mentioned jazz music and the excitement burst out of my mouth in the form of an unexpected question,
“How would we get there?”
“I can drive Uncle Leroy’s car. The band plays on Thursday nights, so clear ya’ schedule next week.”
“Just remember,” she said with raised eyebrows, “you owe me. But, instead of money, you can pay me in poetry. And I’d like my payment upfront.”
I smiled, “Ok, I guess I can give it to you now.” She clapped her hands as a big smile jetted across her face. Just as I began saying the poem, the bell rung on top of the front door of the store. It was the day’s first customer. She slapped her hands together,
“You lucky scoundrel!”
I laughed as she headed towards the front of the store. My words followed her down the aisle as she scurried away, “You’ll get your payment, I promise!” She turned back towards me as she continued walking, “Oh, I know I will! I’m not the least bit worried about that!” I couldn’t tell if she was flirting or if she was just a friendly person, but if I had to choose, it would be the latter. I smiled to myself when she was out of sight. After I had wiped more sweat from my head, I yelled towards the front of the store, “Oh, and I could use one of them towels now, ma’am! Please.” She yelled back, “Ok!” There was a brief pause; then she yelled again, “And stop calling me ma’am like I’m 50-leven years old! My name is Josephine!”