The Playground © Margie Shaheed

KENYA JONES

“Where do you live?

Down the drain.

Wat do you eat?

Pig feet.

Wat do you drink?

Black ink.”

Soul Food settles on North Parkway

Thank God her boss let her leave work early today. It’s a holiday weekend and the bar is sure to be jumping tonight. Heaven knows, folks are eager to shed the skin of another week of hard labor. Deep down, Kenya believes the bar is medicine for what ails you. She still has to cook a dish for the party, get dressed, and drop the kids off at her sister’s house. She is running late.

Standing in her kitchen she smiles as she stirs a big pot of her famous pig’s feet. Emma, her drinking buddy joked the last time she cooked some, “gurl, somebody oughta shine a spotlight on your pot of pig feet cuz it’s mighty funny—all des negroes in the bar claim they don’t eat pork but befo’the night is ovah tell me why den it ain’t even a damn bone left in the pot? Somebody’s lyin’ cuz they sho nuff be cripplin’ some pigs aroun’ here!” Kenya laughed aloud this time as she put the top back on the pot so that the meat could cook down low. She hollered upstairs to the kids to get ready to go to their Auntie’s house and be sure to pack enough clean underwear.

After a quick shower she sprayed a mist of patchouli all over her body.

She had read somewhere that patchouli awakens the sex hormones in men. She walked into her bedroom to get dressed. While she lotioned up she stopped to admire her nakedness reflected in the full length mirror. She turned to look at her wide thick hips shaped like an upside down heart. To look at her you’d never know two children had sprang from her loins. Yes, she is a woman whose panties men yearn to touch. And, she chose to emphasize this fact. She picked out a pair of jet black leggings and a low cut blouse made of black silk and lace. The blouse barely swept the bottom of her small waist. She rubbed silver glitter across her collar bone and applied makeup to her face as an adept artist would paint on fresh canvas. She pursed her candy apple colored lips, laced up her stilettos, and called out to the children to gather their things because Mama is ready to go party!

About an hour later Kenya arrived at the bar. The party was in full effect because she had a difficult time finding a parking space. A few people dressed up and looking brand new stood out on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes and talking shit. She stopped momentarily to speak but decided to go on in because her pot was still hot. After she found a place on the food table for her pig’s feet she made a mental note to get some collard greens later because Emma had cooked them and she loved the way her friend made them with crushed red peppers and white onions.

“Can Ah buy you a drink Ms. Lady?” Kenya looked up and swept her quick weave aside to get a better look at the brother standing in front of her. Damn, he’s fine. I ain’t nevah seen him in heah befo’, she thought to herself.

“Sure. Ah’ll take a vodka straight up wid water on the side. And please, axe the barmaid to put it in a purty glass for me. OK?” She smiled and batted her eyes at him.

“It’s a bet,” he said as he smiled back at her and headed for the crowded bar.

When he returned with their drinks he suggested they go find a seat so that they could talk. Kenya followed him across the dance floor where dark bodies stood poised in various states of brilliant gyrations. A crescendo of crashing notes led them directly to the only seats left in the bar—right next to the jukebox. He allowed Kenya to sit down first by extending his hand before he took his own seat. She crossed her legs when she sat down.

“Wat should we toast to?” he asked.

As he raised his brandy sniffer the smell of cognac cut softly across the air. Kenya liked the smell of cognac because it reminded her of her deceased father a man she admired and respected.

“How about to good times and good friends,” she said as she placed her right hand on his forearm.

“So it is,” he replied. Their glasses touched and each took a sip.

Not long after, Emma stopped by their table. Kenya looked up at her friend and gave her a smile. After introducing her to Jamal, she excused herself from the table so that she and Emma could go to the bathroom together. Kenya knew her friend wanted to get the 411 on who that fine brother was sitting with her.

“Come on gurl, tell me everything,” Emma sweet-talked Kenya on their way to the bathroom. “Eeeuu.” Both women stopped in their tracks once inside. The bathroom was a mess. Someone had vomited all over the toilet and wall. After alerting the barmaid of the disaster, they decided to step outside instead so that they could continue their conversation.

His name is Jamal. He’s a tall, slim, walnut-hued brother who lives only a few blocks away from Emma. He was invited to the party by the birthday boy Dennis, who had lots of money pinned on his jacket, and who by now was drunk and having a good time. In this town, it’s customary for guests to pin money on the honoree instead of giving them a gift wrapped present. Both men worked for the city as housing inspectors. Kenya told her friend that Jamal seemed to like his job a lot because whenever he mentioned it he got real animated. She liked him very much and was genuinely interested in listening to what he was saying but she had to admit that she found herself mildly distracted because when he talks he keeps licking his lips like LL Cool J does when he gives television interviews. Kenya thought this was sexy as hell and said she had to struggle to keep from staring at his mouth. Emma let out a high shrill.

“Gurl, you ain’t no damn good,” she said to Kenya.

After she and Emma finished talking, Kenya decided to go back to the table to see if Jamal wanted to go with her to fix a plate since she was starting to feel a little hungry. Kenya is a firm believer that in order to keep from getting drunk or sick while drinking, you have to feed your alcohol. When she got back to the table she was pleasantly surprised. Jamal had already gone up to fix himself a plate. Of course she had to see what he was eating. She looked over at his plate and there they were—her famous pig’s feet swimming atop a pile of collard greens, macaroni and cheese, potato salad and cornbread.

“Jamal, Ah see you ain’t skeered to eat no pig feet!” she kidded with him.

“Nope,” he said. “When Ah was a little boy, my mama useta cook ‘em for us alluv the time.”

“Ah hope you like ‘em den cuz Ah cookt these!” she said pointing her finger with pride.

“You did? Dey good,” he said between bites.

Watching him as he sat there eating her pig’s feet made her feel warm inside.

She couldn’t help but flirt with him briefly before breaking away to go fix her own plate. After she left she planned to hurry back so that they could finish talking and getting to know each other better. She had a good feeling about how the night was shaping up. To her, it seemed full of promise, and she intended to enjoy every minute of it.

SILAS BREEDLOVE

“Ah wish Ah had a nickel

Ah wish Ah had a dime

Ah wish Ah had a girlfriend

to kiss me all the time”

The clicking sound of the cigarette lighter startled him but he refused to move. His naked body formed a narrow mound in the bed as he played possum lying there beside her. She had fallen asleep after they’d made love but he figured the shadow-like thoughts inhabiting her mind must’ve cascaded down into her dreams and as always she pushed them back with another hit of crack. He felt her sweltering body slide back down into the bed as she covered her head with the wooly blanket.

He looked at the clock sitting on the night side stand.

Its red eyes mocked him.

In about an hour he would have to leave to go back to the bar before it closed to pick up his wife who was working there. Earlier that night he made a cameo appearance before slipping out of the side door to go around the corner to be with his lover. Now we all know an apple a day keeps the doctor away but a stiff drink a day keeps the demons at bay. As he sat up in the bed he grabbed his bottle of Jack Daniels off of the floor and took a long hard swig. He needed to think.

Although his stature is small for a man’s he’s never had a problem getting a woman. In fact, he knows he’s what Stock Photo Smoke from a Black Woman's Lipssome would call a pretty boy—dark wavy hair, burnt peanut butter brown skin, jet black piercing eyes, and a childish-like grin. Surely, he’s not scared of pussy but it goes against everything he knows in this world to be true to let one whip him. This affair of his (if you can call it that) has been going on for three years. That’s a long time but he’s clear—they have a symbiotic relationship. Or do they? He’s a small time drug dealer who lives by cardinal rule #1—you never use your own product. In this equation, he needs sex because his wife, the mother of his two children, stopped giving it to him a long time ago. He just can’t seem to remember when the flame between them went out. But it did. Although he and she still share the same bed they sleep together as brother and sister. His lover who lies in the bed next to him now is a crack head who needs the cocaine he trades with her for sex.

He’s afraid though his wife might find out about his affair since the two women do know each other and share many of the same friends. He’s not concerned about the men in the bar saying anything to his wife about it because although they know exactly what’s going on they have a silent pact, and quiet as it’s kept each and every one of the men secretly long for the power he wields over his attractive lover. On occasion, each of them has approached her for sex when he wasn’t around. They dangled the carrot of crack before her eyes but she flat out refused their offers. It seems as if she is exclusive to him. This strikes a nerve deep down in the center of his bones as he ponders what keeps him coming back.

It’s rumored, and he believes it to be true, that his wife is sexually involved with the roofer. He’s convinced by the knowing way the roofer looks at his wife whenever she serves him a drink at the bar that something more is going on between them. The man tries to throw him off of his trail by looking him straight in the eye when they meet, shaking his hand, a show of respect, and just by being overly friendly towards him—but he’s not fooled. He just lacks tangible proof. Of course, his wife adamantly denies it whenever he brings up the subject to her. Quite often they have big arguments over it because he really wants to know—if she’s not giving it to him then who is she giving it to?

Stock Photo Black WomanHe finds himself standing at a crossroad with signs pointing in all directions. On the one hand he can’t deny his marriage is a pile of ashes being swept away by the wind. But it’s predictable.

It’s neat. It’s honorable. On the other hand, he is sexually involved with a woman who everybody knows is a crack head. The thought embarrasses him and he doesn’t trust her motives. Besides, they have an arrangement. Fair exchange ain’t no robbery. Right? He also knows that it’s more complicated than this because even though his lover gives him as much sex as he desires, and he forks over the cocaine that she craves so badly he still feels unfulfilled. It’s seems as if there’s something stronger holding them together. Otherwise, why would she not have sex with the other men in the bar when they too offered her crack? And, why on earth can’t he find sex somewhere else? Why must it be with her?

He’s in the pure presence of thought now and the demons start to creep up on him again so he takes another swig from his bottle. Fact of the matter is, whatever he’s feeling for her it wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s a terrible mistake but he has developed a liking for her that reaches far beyond the arms of sex and crack. He’s slow to admit it but this thing he’s feeling for her more resembles love. Although it’s an abstract memory fading below the surface of his mind he knows what love looks like because its recognizable face is the one thing that makes him feel less primitive. He’s an ogre without it. Could she possibly love him too?

He looks at the clock again.

Time is up.

He must return to the bar to do his duty. In the narrowing space of silence he dog-ears the revelation blinking on and off in his head so that when he reopens the book he can easily find this page. He throws the blanket off of his body and hits the light switch on the wall. He turns to look at his lover to see if she has awakened. She has not so for comfort he quietly counts her metered breaths. Then, he stops counting. As he gets up to put his pants back on a soft voice whispers in his ear—Silas, there are no easy answers. He finishes getting dressed and gently wakes up his lover so that she can come and lock the door behind him.

MS ELLA AND BENJAMIN

“It’s rainin’ it’s pourin’ the old man is snorin’

he went to bed and bumped his head

and couldn’t git up in the mornin’ ”

You don’t have to go to church to see God because Him and Her was all up in here tonight! Ms. Ella decorated the bar with large white balloons and shiny gold streamers. Small white candles lined the bar and the tables had been covered in white cloth. Her play brother, Benjamin had gotten eaten up by the streets the year before. A single bullet to the head. BANG! It was over just like that!

The party was a way to mark the first anniversary of his death, host a benefit for his surviving parents who are elderly and poor, and to honor the memory of a man who was loved by many. Ms. Ella gift wrapped two empty shoe boxes to hold donations, and she requested guests to wear all white because she deeply believed folks had a better chance of receiving angels if they came in with pure hearts.

Benjamin, who was a numbers runner, had been a good man and a loyal friend. He owned a small tobacco shop not far from the bar. Although he wasn’t a big drinker he could be seen there regularly after he had closed up his shop usually talking politics, a subject off limits to most but it was the fuel that stoked his fire. He had a lively sense of humor, and he liked telling a good joke. Every Christmas he donated fifty turkeys to needy families. His generosity endeared him to the community.

Ms. Ella set up a special place at the bar for him—it was his regular seat by the window. He liked sitting there because he could see everything going on in the bar while he simultaneously held court. As she worked setting up the bar, she played Mahalia Jackson’s, Soon I Will be Done with the Troubles of the World. The lyrics coupled with Mahalia’s warm contralto tones perfectly set the mood she was trying to create for this evening’s affair. She sang along with the recording as she poured a double shot glass of Crown Royal, placing it on a stiff white napkin alongside a crystal vase of white carnations. Ben’s obituary and a poster-sized sign framed by a solitary string of white Christmas tree lights hung on the wall above his chair. The sign read: We love you Ben. May you Rest In Peace.

Ms. Ella had just finished setting up the food tables when Ben’s parents arrived. His father’s face was contorted with pain and he trembled. His mother’s eyes were downcast and glassy. The dreadfulness of having to bury one’s own child was etched on their faces forever. They sure did look like a pair of milk chocolate angels though, all dressed up in white, each one holding the other steady. Shortly thereafter, guests started filing in one by one, each in joyous reflection of their own mortality. A jazz singer accompanied by piano serenaded the blues away. After she played the first selection, Don’t Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me, she told the audience that the famous poet, Langston Hughes had requested this same Duke Ellington composition be played at his own funeral. Talk and laughter buzzed at a low hum. People drank as usual but everybody was on their best behavior. The room was transformed. It harbored no space for fights or disagreements.

Folks stopped by to greet Ben’s parents and to stuff dollar bills into the shoe boxes. Before the food was served, Ms. Ella took the microphone and asked that everyone pause for a moment of silence followed by prayer:

“Lawd, we thank you fo’ Ben’s life. We are grateful, Lawd
Look in on his mother and father who are lonesome, Lawd
Look in on those worst off than ourselves
And, Lawd, put yo’ word on the heart of the sinner who
took Ben’s Life. Whip him Lawd, bring him to his knees and to justice
Finally Lawd, look in on us who are sinners too and forgive us.
These and other blessin’s we ask in Jesus name. Amen.

She reminded the audience why they were there. Not to be sad or to lament over the death of a brother but to celebrate his life by focusing on the good, and that by living their own good life, in spite of its winding roads, they would become Photo Cemetarybetter people for themselves and for others. With that she invited folks to come forward to say a few words about Ben—to speak their peace into the atmosphere.

The first person to speak was Ben’s buddy Willie Johnson. Slightly nervous, he spoke about how Ben always brought laughter into the bar with him. It was as if he carried a bottle of it in his pocket. He remembered the last joke Ben told him and said he wanted to share it with the audience so that he too could bring laughter into the bar as his friend had done so many times:

“The story is tole dat a man had three sons. His first two sons were strong, handsome,
and smart. His third son he had great concerns over cuz he was weak, ugly and dumb.
As he lay dyin’, he grabbed his wife’s hand and lookt her straight in the eyes and said,
Tell me the truth. Is our third son our son? His wife squeezed his hand and lookt him
straight in the eye and answered, “our third son is your son.” The man closed his eyes
and died. His wife let go of his hand and said, “Whew! Ah’m so glad he did not ask
me about the first two!”

The room filled with laughter. Folks really got a kick out of that joke. And, people kept coming to the microphone testifying and sharing stories about a life lost. When the last person finished speaking, Ms. Ella thanked everyone for coming. She motioned for the DJ, who had been waiting in the wings to pump up the music. It was time to get this party started.

Margie ShaheedMargie Shaheed is a poet and writer. Published in numerous anthologies, including a Coal Publishing title, this is an excerpt from her unpublished manuscript “The Playground: Poems, Snapshots and Childish Babble”.