Ladonis Washington heard the front door chimes the second she stepped out of the shower. Jack? Had he changed his mind and come back to her? She stood there frozen in the moment, naked except for chill bumps. She could still see him standing in her bedroom doorway looking as if he couldn’t decide whether to jump her bones or beat the crap out of her.
Why couldn't Jack understand? She’d invested a lot of hard work and sacrifice, not to mention aggravation, in her job. Why would she want to move to California? Why would she want to leave New Orleans? How many black women from the Magnolia Housing Project earned an MBA and made it in the New Orleans business world? She’d cultivated relationships. Taken every opportunity to position herself for success. And he wanted her to quit?
"I've got my foot in the door," she'd told Jack. "You know how hard it is to move up."
If she relocated with Jack to California, she'd have to start over. Really start over, and without her contacts, without her friends, without Tim.
"Ladonis," he'd said. "Get real. You're someone's assistant. The likelihood of your getting beyond that in this town is slim."
The put-down was painful in and of itself. And the hurt she felt from Jack's lack of compassion lingered. How could he say something like that to someone he was supposed to love? A loud knock on the door brought her attention back to her shivering, wet body.
"Hold on," she said, more frustration animating her words than she felt.
She toweled off, wondering if she'd done the right thing. What if she ended up without a man for the rest of her life? Would a career be enough?
"Open up, it’s me," a male voice said.
Shit. She recognized the nasal tone. Her brother, HeartTrouble. Mama must've told him about the bookshelves.
She grabbed the sweats lying on a folding chair and pulled them on, then headed for the door, glancing around at the unpacked boxes. She’d been in her new condo only one day and one night. Smells of paint, sawdust and plastic still filled the air.
"I may not have a man," she declared, "but I sure as hell have a nice place to be lonely in."
HeartTrouble knocked again. She looked around for her sneakers, slipped them on and opened the door. HeartTrouble swung his lanky frame around to face her. Purple lips and pug nose, his cocoa complexion just a shade darker than hers.
"You don't have to knock the damn door down," she said.
She hated that they looked so much alike. People she didn't care to know always knew who she was. She was HeartTrouble's older sister. Lord help her.
"What kept you?" HeartTrouble said, standing in her doorway in a loud orange print shirt and brown rayon/polyester slacks.
Ladonis frowned. No time to get into an argument with her no-account, con-artist sibling. She had a broken heart to nurse. Besides, if he knew why she was dragging, he would make her feel as though she'd let the last black man on earth get away. And all because she wanted a successful career in what he and many male Caucasian executives considered white-man territory.
"What are you doing up so early?" Ladonis said to her brother. "I thought street hustlers kept vampire hours."
"What ails you, woman?" HeartTrouble said. "First you tell Mama you want to see me. Then you go lookin' for me in the Magnolia like you the fuckin' police or somebody. Now you act like I'm dog shit on your shoe."
"I gather you talked to Tiny Man," she said.
"Um-um," HeartTrouble mumbled.
She'd run into Tiny Man sitting atop a newspaper dispenser at the 7-Eleven on South Claiborne Avenue just outside the Magnolia where they'd all grown up. Her brother and his dope-head friends still hung out there. Especially Tiny Man. Some said the little man's growth was stunted because of a bout of polio. Her bet was on a lifetime diet of hard drugs.
"He told me my proper-talkin' sister was askin' about me," HeartTrouble said.
Ladonis' lips curled, her eyes rolled. Anybody who knew when to use "is" and "are" was labeled "proper-talkin'" or "white" in the Magnolia. She couldn't say which pissed her off or made her feel more like an outsider—black-folk paranoia or white-folk superiority. Everyday she had to deal with one or both. Made her life's struggles that much more complicated.
"And Mama said something about you needin' bookshelves built?"
"I do," Ladonis said. "I want to build shelves all around my living room walls. But, you know, it's honest work." She couldn't resist making the dig.
"Fine with me," HeartTrouble said. "Long as you don't think it's volunteer work. I ain't gonna do it for nothin'."
Ladonis opened her mouth to speak. The phone rang. Good. Things tended to get involved when they exchanged insults. And all she wanted from him were those damn bookshelves built. She picked up the receiver.
"Collins' office. Now," her boss, Lamar Kasdan's voice squawked through the earpiece. "We have a situation."
A situation? Shit. It had to be about her. What in the world had possessed her to go over Kasdan's head and ask Tim to present her centennial celebration idea to the CEO? She was going to lose the best job she'd ever had.
She glared at HeartTrouble like it was his fault. Then she clicked on the television. She worked in Public Relations under Kasdan, the Vice President in charge of the entire PR department. Whenever something went down, PR employees were the first called in. She prayed for some news about an incident, a "situation" as Kasdan called it, involving the Floating Palace Steamboat Company. A picture of one the Floating Palace's two paddle wheelers, the Bayou Queen, flashed across the screen. Her heart raced. But it was only a commercial, one she'd written, in fact. She sighed and recited the text along with the announcer:
"Steamboatin'—the serenity and adventure of life on American rivers, is kept alive by the Floating Palace Steamboat Company, owners and operators of the only two paddle wheelers that travel through America's heartland . . ."
Well, no situation there. She probably was about to get canned. She turned the television off in time to see HeartTrouble toss a gym sock atop a stack of dirty laundry.
"Girl, you messier than that junk man, Fred Sanford on that TV show," he said. "Better not let Mama see this place."
"Yeah, well, I'm not Mama," Ladonis mumbled. "To me, house-proud means owning it, not cleaning it."
HeartTrouble gave her the shame-on-you glare, her talking about Mama like that. But what was on her mind was more pressing. Could she talk Kasdan out of firing her? If she didn’t, she'd have to do what she'd told Jack she didn’t want to do. Start over.
"Look," she said to her brother, "I need you to build the shelves, but not today. I've got somewhere to be right now."
"Who said I’m gonna do it?" HeartTrouble's expression was a smirk somewhere between no way and maybe.
"What else have you got to do?" she said.
HeartTrouble's response was that Magnolia-style taunting, toothless grin. Ladonis felt a shiver. Thanks to the First and Claiborne Avenue dentist willing to provide dental care—extractions and gold teeth only—to uninsured and/or unemployed project folks at least HeartTrouble's smile wasn't unique. And by the grace of God, Ladonis had never needed dental care of that kind.
"Thanks for coming by." Ladonis picked up her purse and car keys from the kitchen counter. "I'll get in touch with you later about the bookshelves."
"Girl," he said. "You're a head case. You know that?"
Silence. Would it shut him up or egg him on? She couldn't let him sucker her into one of their usual I've-got-to-have-the-last-word fights.
"Can't a big shot like you," he added, "pay some licensed carpenter to build your fancy bookshelves?"
HeartTrouble was provoked, and he'd put her on the defensive. He'd gotten to her. What was it with the men in her life? First, her dad gone. Then her first love, Calvin. Now Jack. HeartTrouble was still around, but always putting her down for wanting to get ahead. It was all she could do, not to blast him. Instead she opened the door for him to leave.
HeartTrouble walked out to the carport. Ladonis locked the wrought-iron screen door behind her, sticking to her decision to offer nothing but a mute response. She hurried to her Chevy Geo and backed out watching her gold-jewel laden, Super Fly throwback brother stare after her. She'd deal with him and the bookshelves later. Right now she had a problem at work. Either she was going to be fired or something big was going down at the Floating Palace.
© 2007 Alice Wilson-Fried, All Rights Reserved
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