"Time is the longest distance between two places."
I'm supposed to be driving around (but not a lot; we couldn't make much of a getaway on an empty tank), but I'm sitting in the car, rattling. So much mess jammed inside me—my head, my heart. This is worse than coming off the candy. I wish I could talk to Snooks, tell him this but he's on the phantom cell and I can't call him back.
He wouldn't listen, anyway. Not right now. When we got into separate vehicles, over an hour ago, I looked into his eyes and saw no fear.
"I'm gonna float right through this, Baby Girl" he'd promised. "Just like I had angel wings."
Snookie says he's doing this for me. Ripping off Fat Daddy. Snookie's worked for him since he was twelve years old. Eleven years. He ran most of the daily operations, though sometimes he acted as broker or collector. The bag man, picking up the money for a buy. Or if you used, but didn't pay, he went around to find out why you hadn't greased any palms, especially when Fat Daddy was keeping your nose so well-lined.
That's how I met Snookie.
I could never pay my bills, especially the one I had going for candy. Those times when I had to, I found I could live with candles warming the apartment. I could live with lugging buckets of water from a neighbor's to flush out the toilet at the end of the day. I could live eating stale crackers and dry noodles. I could live with anything, but I could not live without candy.
Three months ago, I still didn't have the money I'd owed from two months before. Fat Daddy had already cut me off, but that didn't mean he didn't want his money. Word got around that the collection man was coming to see me and, that night, I'd resigned myself to whatever was gonna happen. I just felt bad 'cause of my daughter, Ann Marie.
I'd taken her down a floor to Shirley's while I waited on the couch, the front door open. I was staring out at the empty hallway, and Junior turned up, like I expected.
He wasn't no bigger than a squat and he had these round frog eyes. No butt. It was all in front of him, a careless lump drooping over the belt, secured (just barely) by the last notch of the leather strap. He was bow-legged, an arch between his legs like he'd sat on a VW bug a minute too long. He shaved his head, and I guess no one ever told him it didn't make him look nothing but uglier.
Pay day, his eyes taunted. He had this hungry look on his face like he couldn't wait to get a piece of me. For months, he'd been coming on, willing to make a trade, but I'm no buffer. I'm a lot of things, but not that. Before Junior said anything, someone came up behind him and he yielded the doorway.
It was Snookie, but I'd never seen him before. He simply said "Hey," jerking his head back a bit as if we were old friends, though he took a moment to introduce himself. He was toffee-colored with Smokey Robinson eyes. Sounded better than Tone-Loc. Fat Daddy had sent him, he said.
Like it was news to me.
His visit, he continued, was about my "overdue pharmaceutical bill."
The money? I let him know I didn't have it.
"It's only two Ben Franklins, Baby Girl," he informed me.
"Might as well be two million," I informed him.
I couldn't read him, though Snookie was studying me hard. In time, his eyes moved, roamed the room, like he was surveying what I had, assessing its worth, and mentally calculating a total. I wanted to laugh 'cause what wasn't in pawn, what he saw before him, was not paid for and was probably going to be picked up by various rental companies the very next day.
His eyes came back to me. Hovered over my breasts, slithered around my waist, glided down the rest of my body. Inside, I squirmed, but under his gaze, I sat still so he wouldn't witness his effect on me. When he spoke, he surprised me by asking when I could have the money.
"We came for cash, not the bitch," Junior said with contempt, thinking Snookie might get what he could not.
His hand up, holding Junior's protests at bay, his eyes never leaving mine, Snookie said, "How soon should I come back?"
I could call my mother. If I said I needed money for Ann Marie, if I sounded desperate and cried, she'd wire it. I suggested two days.
Junior ranted, diverting Snookie's attention. His protests were given some consideration, but in the end, Junior was gestured on out of the room. Snookie didn't say anything else, just held up two fingers to remind me, and then he left, closing the door quietly behind him.
I had the money the next day. It wasn't easy not to go out and buy myself something: a pair of jeans, another CD, a couple of hits, but I kept thinking of how Snookie had looked at me, like he saw something there that no one else, not even me, had even bothered to consider. Although I'm not sure why, it mattered that I not let him down. So I still had the money when he came for it. He made me nervous, the way he accepted it, like he'd known all along that he could trust me.
He didn't act like he had somewhere else he had to be, so I invited him to stick around. We sat down on opposite ends of the couch, glancing at each other, every once in awhile, and smiling.
"You from here?" he asked.
I shook my head and told him I was raised in Colorado, in Denver. I was telling him how I ended in Chicago when he started laughing. Confused, I asked what was the matter.
Snookie shook his head. "Just the way you talk, like you're all that and then some. I ain't got no dictionary on me, Baby Girl."
In his eyes, I glimpsed the someone else he was looking for and I decided to try and be that girl.
I let him carry most of the conversation from then on, and when I did speak, I chose my words with care. Seemed he already knew my business and was just trying to find out what was true and what was not. Most of it, I shrugged off without comment, but Snookie got upset that I wouldn't defend myself against what was being said about me in the streets.
Again, I shrugged. "It don't matter."
"Maybe it does," he argued.
The way he said that made me really look at him. Made me wonder what it was exactly that he wanted.
"And why would it?" I asked. "And to who?"
"It just might," he countered. "And to someone." He reached out and put his hand on the back of my head, pulling me toward him. I let him kiss me, and as he did, he began tugging at my shirt tucked in my jeans.
Pulling back, I said, "You already got paid."
He leaned back against the couch, his eyes steady on me. He corrected me, saying, "Fat Daddy got paid, Baby Girl."
"I owe you too?"
He considered it, and then he shook his head. "Nah," he decided. "You don't owe me a damn thing." He leaned toward me again, kissing me, deep and slow, his tongue exploring the hollow of my mouth. "You be good, Baby Girl," he instructed as he pulled away. He reached for his jacket on the arm of the couch, then he rose and walked out the door.
I stayed there on the couch a long while, my legs tucked underneath me, relishing the taste of his lips on mine. I couldn't help but smile; I could get hooked on that boy, just like candy.
I had hoped Snookie would come by in the days following, but he didn't. I was curious about him and I wanted to ask around, but I didn't want talk to get back to him. Still Snookie, though I knew little about him, was suddenly my favorite topic of conversation and I had to talk to someone. Shirley, as always, was my safest audience. I asked if she knew anything about him, but he was a mystery to her as well.
"I don't associate with that kind of mess," she told me in the laundry room as we folded clothes. "So I wouldn't know nothing about him and his kind. Wouldn't want to know them," she said, then added, "No offense."
I told her none was taken, though I decided it was probably best that I not inform her that her oldest boy Damien also happened to be "one of those kind."
"What you need to do," Shirley advised me, "is cool your hot tail down. You got that baby to think about. That boy won't do nothing but drag you back into everything you'd be better off forgetting."
I smiled at Shirley and nodded like I agreed with her suggestion. But really, the thing about Snookie—that's exactly what I was hoping would happen.
But he didn't show until weeks later.
I was washing the dinner dishes when there was a knock at the door. The quick thuds startled Ann Marie and she started to wail.
"Just a minute," I called over her screams, toward the door. I wiped my hands on my jeans before I leaned over to pick my baby up out of the playpen. I rested her head on my shoulder and ran my hand up and down her back, bouncing her in a gentle manner. "Who is it?" I asked.
I grunted in irritable surprise. There was no way I was going to ignore him, but I took my time about opening the door.
He had his arms up on either side of the doorway, leaning in towards me and he was grinning like he knew the delay was intentional. "Hey," he said simply.
"Hey," I repeated.
He pondered Ann Marie, then gestured toward her and said, "Sorry."
"She'll be okay," I told him. Her cries had come down a few decibels to just a whimper. She lifted her head, turned and pondered him just as suspiciously as he was her. I shifted the almost two-year old in my arms and asked what he wanted, giving no sign, I hoped, that I was excited to see him again.
"I've been busy," he explained.
It was probably his way of apologizing.
"I came by to see how you were doing," he continued.
"I'm doing alright," I told him. We were both quiet, and I said, "So, I guess that takes care of that."
Snookie laughed. "Maybe I can come in for awhile."
"Maybe," I told him, stepping aside so he could enter. "For awhile."
Back in the apartment, I deposited Ann Marie back into the playpen, scooted some toys in her direction and went to the kitchen for a soda pop and some chips.
Snookie sat down on the couch, still tentatively considering my baby, like he didn't know what to make of her.
"You got any kids?" I asked, plopping down on the couch. I offered him the soda.
"Nah," he replied, taking the can.
There was this anxious look on his face that caught my attention. I tore open the bag of chips, thinking I might find some pleasure in his apparent discomfort around the topic of kids. "That you know of or you don't have any?"
"No kids," he told me firmly, after eyeing me for a good long while.
I wanted to keep on, ask if he wanted kids—if he even liked kids—but the look he was giving me told me all his business was off limits. "How's work?" I asked instead.
"Work," he said in a flat tone. He was twirling the can around in his palm, like he didn't know he was supposed to be drinking from it.
I leaned the bag of chips toward him, but he shook his head.
"So, how come I've never seen you before?" I asked, chomping on the barbequed flakes of potatoes.
He shrugged. "Most times I'm in New York. Sometimes they bring me back here. It just depends." He grinned at me. "Sometimes they need me for the special cases."
I didn't like the way he'd said that, like my situation had been beyond hope or something, so I said, with more than a bit of sarcasm,"Guess I was just lucky, huh?"
He looked confused by my tone and didn't bother to answer. "But, I work with everybody," he told me. "Junior. Cleve. Other guys."
"I know Cleve," I offered, hoping to get the conversation back on friendlier grounds.
He gave me a sarcastic grin. "Of course, you know Cleve."
Cleve was my dealer, but the way we were connected, coming out of Snookie's mouth, made it sound shameful. I stared down into the bag I was holding. I didn't want him to get to me, didn't want him to see that what he said or did might somehow matter to me.
He popped the top to the soda can. Casual, he asked, "You ever screw Cleve?"
I glanced over at him in disbelief. "Nah," I told him. "You?"
With that, I thought he'd leave, and a part of me wanted him to 'cause he wasn't even touching my fantasy, but Snookie just raised an eyebrow in surprise and then he grinned like he was amused as he lifted the can to his mouth.
Since we were getting personal, I asked, "You ever pinch any snow for yourself?"
"Ever think about it?"
He glared at me. "Am I on trial?"
"I'm just making conversation," I innocently explained.
"No," he said firmly. "I've never thought about it."
"Could you? If you wanted to, I mean."
"I could do a lot of things, Baby Girl, but I don't. Just because you can, don't mean that you should." The glare returned. "Who you working for?"
"I ain't working for nobody, " I insisted. "It's just conversation." I set the chips aside and went to the kitchen to wash my hands.
He finished the drink, set the can on the coffee table and leaned back against the couch, his attention on Ann Marie, my miracle baby. Born clean and healthy, although I barely remember ever being pregnant. She was bouncing around in her playpen, taking her cloth blocks and dropping them over the edge while Snookie watched her. Staring at her like she was staring at him, both wondering what the other was going to do next. Finally, Snookie got down on his knee and began picking the blocks up, dropping them back into the baby's mesh confines. As he did, he told her the color: red, blue, yellow, white, making her giggle with delight.
Her joy broke the heavy mood and I was glad she was there to keep him amused.
Snookie glanced over at me as I sat back down on the couch, then he returned to his play with my daughter. He asked general questions about her: her age, did she talk?
I was surprised he didn't go on and ask about her father, but I was thankful, too. I don't know where or who he is.
He got her all tired out and when Ann Marie could no longer fight sleep, I picked her up and took her to the bedroom down the hall. I had changed her diaper, put on her pink footed sleepers with the blue-embroidered bunnies dancing on the front, had laid her down in her crib and was covering her with a blanket when I felt Snookie's arms slipping around my waist. He pulled me against him, his fingers reaching for my breasts, but I shook my head, told him not in this room.
He led me back into the living room. "Lights on?" he asked and I nodded yes cause I wanted to see him seeing me.
He pushed the coffee table out of the way, then he got down on the floor, taking me with him. With each piece of clothing he removed, he ran his lips over my skin. His tongue. There was not a part of my body that did not welcome and receive him. He removed his own clothes between kisses, and then stretched his body over mine. My nerves lapped at every sensation pulsing through my skin.
When he unexpectedly sat up and turned away, I wondered what I'd done wrong, but he was just putting on a hood. That made me sad. I hadn't had sex since I got pregnant with my baby and I didn't have anything then. I didn't do needles. I wanted to tell him that he was safe with me, but I knew that that was something he'd have to find out on his own.
He returned to me with a smile. Kissed me again, his eyes looking for a say-so. I nodded and his leg guided mine apart. He lowered his head toward me, closed his mouth over mine, catching my sharp breath as he entered me, capturing my sighs as he moved in me.
My fingertips danced along his spine.
When his body shuddered against mine, he tightened his arms around my shoulders. Then, his body stilling itself, he rested his head in the crook of my neck. His words were warm against my skin when he murmured, "Sweet, Baby Girl."
Minutes later, he kissed the side of my face as he slid his arms from under me. He twisted the watch on his wrist and looked at the time. "I'm gonna have to bounce," he said.
Another light kiss and Snookie untangled himself from me. He walked down the hall to the bathroom. After a few minutes, he returned to the living room and reached for his boxers.
I sat up and watched him dress.
When he picked up his pants, a gun and cell phone fell out of his pockets. His hand beat mine to the gun and he warned me, "Don't."
I reached for the cell phone instead. "What's your number?" I asked, flipping open the device.
The sides of Snookie's shirt flapped at me, mocked me, as he reached to retrieve the phone as well. He told me quite simply: the bitch hadn't been born that had his number.
Still I thought I was "in" with Snookie and days later when Cleve was expected in the neighborhood, I was waiting for him, ready to exploit my newfound status. From my window, I watched Cleve getting ready for business across the street. Before I left the apartment, I checked in on Ann Marie, who was napping. Made sure she was okay before I turned the volume up on her baby monitor, grabbed the walkie talkie piece and bounced down the stairs, going outside, dodging cars on my way to being Cleve's first customer of the day.
He was leaning against the car looking down the street. He turned toward me when he felt my presence, then he turned away again.
I waited. He hollered out to some people he knew, but said nothing to me.
I huffed, but still he paid me no mind. "What's the problem, Cleve?" I finally asked.
He scratched the side of his head, looked up and down the street. "Can't sell to you," he said.
"What? Oh, come on, what kinda shit is that?" I had the money. I dug it out of my pocket and held it out to him. Two crumpled fifty-dollar bills. "No credit."
Cleve looked at the money like I'd just run it off the computer that morning.
"Got my orders," he said. He sounded like he didn't want to hurt my feelings.
"Since when did Fat Daddy not want to make a sale?" I whispered though my voice was harsh. I didn't want either of us getting busted.
"Didn't come from Fat Daddy."
He said nothing, but I knew.
"Is he in town? If he is, tell him I want to talk to him. Okay? When you see him, tell him he's got a customer with a complaint!"
Cleve didn't reply. Just waved me on. There was someone behind me then and Cleve had business to transact.
I could have made a buy from someone else—it wasn't that hard to find somebody dealing—but I didn't trust nobody 'cept Fat Daddy and his guys. Wandering back across the street, I shoved my hand deep into my pocket and twisted the bills. I thought I'd pleased Snookie; I couldn't understand how he would pay me back like that.
Although I hadn't expected him to, Snookie showed up that very afternoon.
Me and some neighbors were sitting out on the stoop, like we always did before supper, listening to the radio and talking, when Snookie pulled up in a light brown Jeep Cherokee. He got out, taking his sunglasses off as he rounded his ride. For a moment my heart lifted (I wished I'd known it was that easy to get him to come to me) but then I remembered why he was there and my irritation returned.
Coming up to me, he acted oblivious to everyone else around, and said, "You wanted to see me," in a tone that clearly implied that by showing up, he was doing me a favor.
I glared at him and said, "Upstairs," cause I didn't want Shirley to know what I'd been up to that morning.
As I rose, Shirley said, "Gimme that pretty gal," and she reached for Ann Marie. The look on her face told me she was expecting trouble.
I released my baby to her and went inside, Snookie following. In the apartment, when we were in the kitchen, he asked, "So what's up?"
Like the fool didn't know.
"What the hell are you in my business for?"
He glanced away, like the topic of conversation bored him.
"Perhaps you didn't read the fine print," he said, turning back to me. "We reserve the right to refu—"
"Cause you screwed me don't mean you own me," I interjected. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
"Maybe you need to learn who the hell I am," he said, getting in my face. "What do you want? To feel good?" he asked. "Is that it, Baby Girl?"
I backed as far away from him as I could, but he had me up against the sink counter.
He shoved his hand up my shirt, his palm roughly brushing across my breasts. "Didn't I make you feel good?" He pressed his lips against mine, but I turned my face away, squirmed against his grip.
"Stop it!" I yelled, pushing him away, angry tears running down my face.
"No!" he yelled back, pointing angrily at me. "You stop it! You stop it!"
I wasn't sure what he meant but I didn't care to find out.
"Get out of my house!" I hollered, stumbling into the living room, toward the front door. Before I could open it, he caught my arm, pulling me to him.
"You're hurting me," I said, clawing at his fingers.
Snookie held me against him, wrapped his arms tight. He kissed my face like he was sorry. "I don't want to hurt you," he whispered. "But if you make me," he promised, " I will."
New York remained Snookie's base, though whenever he was in Chicago, he stayed with me. He wasn't helping with the rent, still I said nothing when he started leaving his things—extra clothes, CDs, the Sports Illustrated and GQ magazines, 'cause, really, Snookie came in and out of my life with the same indecision of a child playing indoors, outdoors.
I didn't care cause most days it was more than enough just trying to care for Ann Marie and myself. The additional pressure of staying clean for him, as well as the State of Illinois and my baby, bore down on me daily. And it was Snookie who decided, after awhile, that we should play house, only to get pissed when the situation was less than he imagined.
"I thought you were gonna cook," he said, slamming the door to the empty refrigerator and returning to getting ready for work. "What happened to the money I gave you for groceries?"
"It's there," I told him, pointing to the bulletin board on the wall. The envelope with the shopping list scrawled across the front was pinned to it, the money inside.
That I hadn't used the $75 for anything else should have made him happy, but his face was expressionless.
"What have you done all day?" he asked.
I didn't know how to explain to him how much it took sometimes, just waiting for the darkness.
"Are you hungry?" he asked, coming over to the couch and standing beside me.
I shook my head, tears suddenly clouding my eyes. His hand was hanging near my head and I snatched it.
I was planning to never ask him. Ever. No matter how bad I got, I never wanted to see that sadness in Snookie's eyes, the way he was having to rearrange what he thought about me. But I did ask. Said please as I covered his hand with my kisses and tears.
Troubled, Snookie extracted his hand and wandered about the living room. "Ah, Baby girl," he murmured. After a few moments of mindlessness, he seemed to disregard me, continued moving toward his previous destination. He didn't look at me as he slipped his jacket on, but he stopped at the door and said, "I'll send Cleve by later on."
I watched him reach for the doorknob and then he was gone.
My mind messed with me all evening. Cleve knocking at the door? Nah. There was no one in the hallway but me with Ann Marie, naked and dripping, in my arms. Then again when I was fixing my baby her bottle. I shook my head. It was just the pipes.
Cleve didn't show till late. I was falling asleep on the couch, watching the digital pulse of the stereo dance across the grid, but I was alert at his knock at the door.
He was nervous acting and I thought it was because he didn't know what to make of this; he'd always rooted for my rehabilitation. He handed me a brown paper bag, the top neatly folded several times, till the package was almost flat. He proceeded to make small talk that I would have preferred to skip over.
He was trying to keep me from my candy—I was sure of it—so I lied, said I thought I heard Ann Marie crying and closed the door. I flipped on a light, joyfully dropped down on the couch and poised the bag over the table. Wrapped rectangles of Hershey's chocolate fell out, bounced against the table and onto the floor. They were followed by a piece of paper.
I picked it up and read.
"Here's your candy," Snookie had written.
I stared at the words in my hand as I fell back against the couch, unsure if I should feel cared for—or pissed.
In the morning I woke, still on the couch, a blanket draped over me. Snookie was sitting on the floor, asleep, his back braced against the couch, his head cushioned by my legs. He was roused as I sat up.
Still sitting he stretched, staring ahead. "Mad?" he asked, finally.
I told him no.
I had once accused Snookie of thinking he was better than people who used, and how could he justify being involved in the whole mess of it, accepting pay for the goods that created the very havoc he despised.
It was just business, he'd said. He simply made sure a package was dropped off in return for the cash he'd received. People had a choice whether or not to open the package and whether or not to use what was in the package. "You have a choice," he forcefully and decidedly told me.
I was beginning to feel like he was sticking around to make sure I made the choice he wanted.
"It passes Baby Girl," he told me, turning and placing his hand on my leg. "You just gotta hang on."
Snookie's mother couldn't hang on. ODed when he was five.
The concern in his voice made me anxious. I was afraid any moment, he'd say something stupid like he loved me, and that I might respond in the same stupid manner, but then Ann Marie started to cry, as if on cue, and saved us both.
He was on the phone, as usual, in the bedroom, taking care of business and I was playing with Ann Marie in the front room, on the couch. She'd just taken her bath and I was intoxicated with the lotiony smell of her skin. I blew on her naked belly, making her giggle, her laughter encouraging my own.
"I like it when you smile."
I looked up at Snookie standing in the hallway.
"You've got a pretty smile." He sat down in the chair across from us. For a while, he just watched us at play, but I knew he was trying to find a way to say whatever was on his mind. "Hey, look, I gotta go back to New York," he told me finally. He'd just gotten back the night before.
I gathered Ann Marie up in my arms. Snookie and I had been fighting all day. His stuff was always there—why couldn't he be?
"Come with me," he said, afraid, maybe, of what I might be tempted to do, angry with him and alone.
I kissed my baby's head, my lips grazing her scalp, as I whispered secrets into her curls. To Snookie, I shook my head. "I promised my mother I'd go over to the college sometime this week."
When my father died, my mother set most of the insurance money and his social security benefits aside for my college education. When I graduated from high school three years ago, I had the grades, just not the desire. My mother (who helped me set up my first apartment) had no problems sending me money to live on, since it had been intended for me, but she sent only enough to cover the very basics. I could argue an extra twenty or so out of her, hundreds if I cried emergency, though not often. She refused to send any more than would house, feed and clothe me—unless I went to college.
I had no intention of going to school, but when she called, I needed to have the information—when the semester started, when and where registration took place, did I need my high school transcripts?—to make her happy (and sending checks) a little while longer.
"You be good," Snookie said, with just the hint of a warning.
I met his gaze. "With you, I have to be," I joked. I didn't want him to have second thoughts about leaving; something inside me suddenly wanted him to go. Hell, even when he was there, I thought, he wasn't really there.
"I'll miss you," he told me.
I closed my eyes against the tears building and I buried my face in Ann Marie's neck. I had no idea how to respond to that.
Snookie showed up at the apartment and walked right on in. I gave him a look that said: What the fuck—you do not pay the rent here.
I was on the couch, hugging a seat cushion, wearing the wrinkled t-shirt I slept in. I couldn't remember the last time my hair or teeth had come in contact with a brush. He staggered when he first caught sight of me. Stumbled back in the doorway like someone coming upon a repulsive accident. He saved himself quickly, though, and closed the door. Silently, he went over to the dining table and set his cell phone down.
Easing to the chair, he eyed me cautiously like I was some rabid, crazed animal liable to attack, unprovoked and at any moment. Then he avoided looking at me.
"Where the hell have you been?" I demanded to know. He said he'd be back eight days before.
"You know I was in New York," he said quietly. "There's a lot of shit going down. I'm sorry, but I've been busy."
"You're sorry, but you've been busy? It don't matter that I've been sitting around worrying?" I asked.
When he told me there was no need for my concern, I felt like a fool.
"If something would've happened," he informed me, "somebody would've called you."
"But you couldn't've called? Just to let me know that nothing had happened."
"My bad," he said.
Snookie leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. His hands in front of him, he watched himself knit his fingers together time and again. Agitation roared in his eyes, but I wasn't sure it was all because of me. He asked about Ann Marie.
"What do you care?" I snapped. " She ain't yours."
He leaned back. "What's with you?"
I retorted with the same question, bounding off the couch, stumbling anxiously around the room.
"You're feenin'" he told me.
He asked how long I'd been like that and when I didn't answer, he asked when I last ate.
I told him to shut up.
He came over to me, clamped his hands on my shoulders. "Where's your daughter? When was the last time you held her and told her you loved her?"
"SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!"
He glared down at me. "You look like Don King . . . you smell like his ass. Damn!"
I raised my hand to smack him upside his head, but he caught my wrist and we wrestled about the living room. Him, trying to constrain me. Me, trying to break free. "What?" he yelled. "What is it that you want?"
You know, my expression told him. You know.
He didn't flinch under my accusation. He stomped down the hall toward the bathroom, dragging me along. Pulling the door to the shower stall open, he tossed me inside while he considered what faucet to turn on—scald the shit out of me or not. He decided on the cold, a million icy pricks hammering mercilessly down on me. Over my screams, he ordered me to clean myself up.
He left but I knew he'd be back cause he'd left his cell. I waited.
I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Clean ones. My hair was in a tight braid. My face scrubbed cleaner than a Noxzema model. If I were good, maybe he'd bring me candy.
He knocked when he returned, but he didn't wait for me to let him in. I'd been cleaning up around the apartment, and was coming up the hall with a trash bag when he entered. I could see him at the cabinet, getting a plate and my heart fluttered.
He set the plate down on the counter, said "I got you something."
I walked across the room to meet him. When he turned to me, his hands holding a plateful of barbeque, the red sauce thick, the sharp smell of Tabasco suddenly filling the air, I started to laugh and then cry, disappointed and surprised.
He eyed me curiously, and then he caught on and laughed as well. "No blow," he told me. "Just some chicken wings and," he added, "a plan."
Ten dealers. Two thousand dollars each. He held his hands out like that was the answer. I told him he was crazy. Fat Daddy would kill him. If he catches me, Snookie responded. I asked why, why, why and he told me to think of Ann Marie. It was time he took us somewhere.
Tears of disbelief clouded my eyes. "What's going on?" I asked. "Really—why're you thinking of doing this?"
Snookie shook his head slowly, discouraging my questioning. Knowing Ann Marie was at Shirley's, he took my hand and began leading me down the hall to the bedroom. I was stumbling, trying to keep my ground as he continued to tug me along. I questioned him even as he undressed me.
What had Fat Daddy done to bring him to this point? "Does this have to do with whatever happened in New York?" I asked.
Snookie seemed to be listening as he planted kisses across my body, and I thought of when he first came into my life. How he and Junior were arguing and how Snookie appeared to give Junior's protests concerning me, at that time, some thought. But I'd learned that Snookie did as he wanted and, like Junior's concerns, mine too were to no avail.
He was asleep, lying on his stomach, his face squashed against the pillow, his arm dangling off the mattress, and I was lying beside him, thinking about his gun. The silver pistol we don't talk about, if he's ever used it, should it be here around Ann Marie. There was something reassuring about it for Snookie. Like when I dumped shit on him, he would just sit there, listening, his hand in his jacket or pants pocket, moving along the length of it.
I crawled off the mattress, rummaged through his pants on the floor until I held the gun. I got back into bed and laid it between my breasts. Moved it slowly down the length of my body, feeling myself marvel at its presence, the jagged moldings, catching. I let the pistol rest in the vee of my thighs, then parted my legs, letting it fall between them, the barrel facing down toward my feet. I squeezed my thighs together and willed the gun to release its power, the influence it had that made Snookie feel so safe. But it was just cold. Not like Snookie. But it was solid. Not like Snookie.
Quiet tears dripped down into my ears. I crawled off the mattress again. Knelt by the bed, trying furiously to put the pistol back into his pants, then my attention drifted. I'd never seen Snookie like he was that night and I could recall the uneasiness that had filtered through his fingers as he'd touched me. I was thinking that I could commit an act of Juliet and take Snookie along with me. I could free us both, I thought, and placed the gun near his forehead, aware of the whispering inside my head that kept telling me that I could take us somewhere.
Snookie opened his eyes to find me still sitting there by the side of the bed, his expression questioning me. I'd already put the gun back. I didn't know if I could live for him, but I wanted maybe to try and do something for Ann Marie. I asked what I had to do to help him.
Something in him eased and Snookie smiled. Languid, he reached for me and I pulled myself up. As our lips met, he turned onto his back, took me by the waist and helped me straddle him. When he was moving inside me, I was hooked, willing to go anywhere he'd take me.
We didn't act for a couple of weeks. Then I called Family Services and told them I was taking Ann Marie to my mother's for a visit. She lives in Alamogordo, out west in New Mexico. My mother's second husband was in the Air Force, stationed at Holloman, and when he retired, they stayed in the area. My mother works part-time as a teacher's aide, and is a founding member of the Christians for Christ in God's Love ministry.
Snookie wouldn't let me call to let her know we were going. Less chance she'd say no to keeping Ann Marie for however amount of time I needed her to.
When we got there and I recited the speech that I had created on the interstate—that Snookie and I were moving to California for the opportunities it presented and that the move would be easier and quicker without Ann Marie—my mother said she'd be pleased to keep her.
I told her we'd be back for Ann Marie as soon as we were settled. I made Snookie promise me that.
"Whenever you're ready," my mother offered, though she narrowed her eyes at me and said, "But I thought you were going to school this next semester."
I shrugged and turned away. I was probably nine years old the last time I told my mother the truth.
"Denise?" she questioned, her tone pressing me for an answer.
I faced her and she examined my face for a long while, like she was trying to remember who I might have been.
"Why don't you just let him do the moving and he can pick the two of you up when he's done?"
I shook my head.
"You don't have to go," she said. She probably knew I was on my way to getting into more trouble.
"I can't stay," I told her, assuring her that yes, everything was alright, despite the tears in my eyes.
If Ann Marie's life is all screwed up when she gets older, the cause can clearly be traced, but me—I have little excuse.
Back in Chicago, none of my neighbors were surprised at Ann Marie's absence; my daughter has spent more of her life with others than she has with me.
Snookie called the rental companies and the refrigerator, the microwave and the television went. Again, it raised neither surprise nor suspicion. The appliances had visited my apartment often.
Nothing in my life seemed out of the ordinary except Snookie and I appeared to be our way somewhere, though I was forbidden to share that with anyone. And tonight, after the last cash pick up, Snookie will stop at a grocery store, ask Cleve to go in and buy some cigarettes. When Cleve enters the store, Snookie will take the bag with the money, walk around the side of the building and get into a waiting car, me behind the wheel.
I asked Snookie if he was gonna tell Cleve about us. He said no, cause we couldn't afford to be ratted on. He explained too that if Cleve knew, but didn't tell, he'd be in trouble. Then Snookie realized something and told me that it really made no difference. Even if Cleve didn't know, he'd still be held guilty of should have knowing.
"If he knows, if he don't—either way Cleve's a dead motherfucker."
I thought that it was too bad. The first time Ann Marie was taken, it was Cleve who came by to see how I was. He found me crying hysterically into a pile of her things—rompers, diapers, baby lotion, Roscoe, her teddy bear—that I'd thrown on the living room floor. He tried to talk some sense into me, tried to help me see that she would stay mine if I could get it together, but I couldn't listen just then. He left for a while, but returned with pizza and some beer. We smoked a joint and talked into the night until I felt a little better.
Cleve wants me to have a better life. That's what he told me that night. Whatever it takes to pull it together, he said, that's what you do.
Whatever it takes.
Still I try not to think of Cleve as I reach for the cell phone.
SORT OF LIKE CHRISTMAS. WAITING ON SANTA, the text message reads.
That's my cue to answer the phone the next time it rings and when it does, I do.
Snookie asks if I can be at the designated store in twenty minutes.
I consider it and tell him I can.
"Then I'll see you in a few," he tells me, and hangs up.
My heart pounding, I stare at the phone before setting it aside. A lot of things could happen in the next twenty minutes. My sweet baby Snooks could end up being the dead motherfucker.
I lean against the steering wheel, realizing that I could drive out of here—alone. I've got the credit cards Snookie got in his aunt's name. Her checkbook. I could pick up some things in Missouri and Oklahoma on my way to New Mexico. Pick up Ann Marie, lose the car, the credit cards and any guilt in Arizona or Nevada before me and my baby girl got lost in the California sun. Create a life for me and that child of mine, like Roosevelt, my mother's husband, keeps telling me I ought to.
But Snookie's counting on me, just like I'm counting on him, and besides he's already warned that he will hunt me down should I not make the rendezvous point, so I steady my hand and turn the key in the ignition. Reverse, then drive, and I'm easing into the evening traffic. It isn't heavy, although it's Saturday night, but I'm careful to stay a car-length behind. I monitor gauges like a nurse in an ICU. As I'm driving, something light starts to fill my head and suddenly I'm smiling like I've got angel's wings, and I take it as a sign—a very good sign—every traffic light, I'm floating right through it.
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