“Please man. Just this time… take care of me, Co?”
“Come on,” I said, and lead the man whose voice had broken the dark and the woman he had with him to the back of the store.
The woman was young and quiet, too fucking quiet. She was wearing a pair of men’s jean shorts and a sports bra. Not fat, but her middle was loose and fleshy. She had this wide-eyed look of perpetual surprise. I gave them what they needed and tried not to look her in the face.
Back in front the store this girl was talking on a battered cell phone. Arguing with someone about shoe insoles and washing powder. She was a real pretty girl, with hair that looked like if she uncoiled it from the nape of her neck, would probably reach her butt. Once she walked inside the store, she hung up on whoever she was talking to. I watched the way the black and white stripes of her leggings moved across her legs, as she walked around the store all lazy-like, picking shit up, looking at it a long time, then putting it down. She’s stared at two boxes of Jiffy cornbread mix, like it made a difference.
I went inside to holler at Fadi for a second. Maybe get a little closer to her too. “I’m done. You know her?” I asked and motioned in the girl’s direction.
“Who? Panda? Yeah. She works across the street at the club. You never seen her in there?”
I glanced in her direction. Her eyes were red. I figured she had been smoking, but she could have been crying or both.
“How much?” she asked Fadi, holding up a toilet scrubber.
Fadi made a motion that suggested she look at the sticker. “It’s not marked, must be free.”
She walked up to the counter with a basket full of things. Toothbrush, ten boxes of cornbread mix, toilet-scrubber, detergent, a pack of sponge rollers, Lysol, and hand sanitizer.
“How’s it going over there?” Fadi nodded his head in the direction of the club across the street.
“You work over at Bottoms?” I asked. “How come I never seen you in there?”
“I’m only there a couple nights. But I know him,” she flung her hand in Fadi’s direction and laughed. “But I don’t know you. What’s your name?”
“Well Corey…how about this… even if he stays home, you come see me, tonight, ok?”
“No, but I think you’re cute,” Panda reached out and gave a few of my dreads a light tug.
I should have said something back. Anything. Squeezed the side of her waist. She would have liked that. Instead, I just stood there.
Panda stared at me like she was reading my mind. My eyes followed her out the door.
“I not going to lie, man,” I said, as I watched her stripes move through the glass. “I like lil’ one’s style.”
“Slow your roll, Co. You know that girl Peanutt? That’s her sister. They’re trouble.” Fadi laughed, but I could tell he meant it.
“That’s exactly what I’m looking for, dog” I answered.
I meant that too.
The power was out. My Paw was out of town and forgot to pay the light bill. I had the money to turn the lights back on but fuck it. I was about to cop an apartment and some real work of my own. I could sleep without lights for a couple days. I lit all the candles I kept on my drawing table. I needed to clean myself. I smelled like outside. Like a puppy dog, my mama would have said if she could smell me. The hot water from the bathroom steamed up my entire room. The tiny bathroom connected to my bedroom reminded me of a cell. Once in the shower, the sweat started to pour. I had to sit down to keep from passing out.
The water rushed over my head and Peanutt popped up in my mind when I closed my eyes. She worked at Bottoms from time to time and always needed two things when she saw me. That shit to get her up, before work, and that shit to get her back down, once she was home. I didn’t know she had a sister. But I was gonna pretend like I still didn’t. I had messed around with her a few times before I realized how bad off, she was. Then there was Kalo. My baby girl. All I could do was lie to her about it all.
Damn near two in the morning, and still too hot to sleep. My Pa was trying to wait me out, make me pay the bill, probably, but whatever. He had been doing this shit since I was ten years old. Leaving and returning with little warning. I called Fadi to see if he was done at Habibti’s and felt like dipping through Bottoms. I was really trying to see that girl. When he pulled up, I was happier for the air conditioner than the blunt he passed to me.
“Xavier back from Miami yet?”
“Yep,” Fadi said. “I talked to him earlier. He said tomorrow and we’ll be all good.”
Inside Bottoms, we saw each other at the same time. Panda was leaning up against the bar talking into the side of this man’s neck. She stood in place, but moved all the loose flesh on her body, which was just enough for a good show. The man slid money in the little bag she wore around her waist. She looked past him, straight at me. Her hair was all hanging down looking like falling water. Her snow-white top and bottom were slashed all over the place, nipples poked out the holes in her top. I was impressed by how much like a bride she looked. I wished I had flowers for her. I wasn’t really hung up on the good girl shit.
When the song ended, Panda patted the guy’s shoulders, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and headed in my direction.
Fadi was already looking uncomfortable. I knew he was going to leave once he was done taking care of business. I could find my own way home, and if not, Fadi would come back for me. That’s why we were friends. When Panda made it over, I reached out to put my hand around her waist and pull her toward me a little. Not too hard, but just affectionately, to show her I wanted her.
“I think I’m good for the night,” Panda said.
“Oh yeah?” I answered. “Lucky you.”
“Yeah, let’s go. But I don’t have a ride right now. You?”
Out of her money bag she pulled out this black spool of cloth. When she unrolled it, turned out it was a real thin black dress that reached almost to the floor. I watched as she pulled it over her head. It fell soft and wavy, where it should, on her body and we walked out the club together.
“My place?” she asked.
“You talk real cute, you know that? Where you from?” I asked her, as we got into the backseat.
“Here, but I left when I was like fourteen. I just came back to New Orleans like 6 months ago.”
“Where you coming back from?”
“Barbados,” she answered.
Usually, when I was with a girl, I didn’t ask many questions. This time I did and it brought something into the small space of the back of the cab that I hadn’t intended. I had blunt in my pocket, the driver seemed cool, so I asked him if it was okay to smoke. We were his last fare, he said, and as long as he could hit it, it was all good. I lit the blunt and the comforting odor made the air around the three of us lighter immediately.
“Where you all going again?” the driver asked.
We pulled up to the duplex Panda stayed in and I tipped the driver an extra ten, good enough for a dime of his own. I got his number. He was cool people and I always needed a ride.
By the time we made it up the rickety flight of stairs, and Panda unlocked the screen door, and then the two locks on the wooden door, the entire front of my body was lit up. From the weed definitely, but from her mostly. She was so damn pretty. The tail end of her long ass hair rested at her waist. Right where her spine began to curve. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the back of her.
“Damn, man. You’re fine as hell,” I said to her, as she twisted her keys in the door.
“It’s a little messy. Don’t judge.”
Panda’s apartment wasn’t messy, so much as there was a lot going on. It was a studio with a real big screened- porch connected to it. Her bed was out there. Plugged up, she had 5 box fans and 3 space heaters. There was a desk with stacks of magazines, adhesive, glue sticks, and pieces of scrap wood stacked on top of it. She had several racks of clothes, like in a department store. A clothesline ran from somewhere on her porch to the hook on the back of her front door. There were a few half-finished projects going on, mostly involving wood, paint, and pictures cut from magazines. One work in progress was a picture of a little- girl Panda, plastered on a background of Jiffy cornbread boxes.
The piece that was complete, she had hanging on the wall. It was a mix of painting and collage. Almost floor to ceiling, it was the body of a big booty, big breasted girl, in an outfit like Panda danced in, except this girl had the head of the Virgin Mary. All around her were other girls, or just their breasts or their butts. There were guns, and jewelry, and angels. All of that was framed by a tangle of tree branches.
“I told you,” she said, sounding just a little unsure of herself.
Panda rolled her eyes at me and clicked on the stereo system that was plugged up to a splitter, whose chord ran the length of the apartment and patio. She shut off her overhead lights, clicked another button, and the room was bathed in soft blue and turned on the music. Glow and the dark moons and stars shined as best they could in the dim of the house.
“This makes the mess, a little better, don’t you think?” she asked. “I’ma fix us some drinks. Sit down. Get comfortable. Every spot in here is soft.”
“Sade reminds me of my Mama,” I said as she turned the volume up.
The makeshift sofa, which was made up of two twin mattresses with a few mattress pads stacked on top one another and covered by Bob Marley sheets. Big pillows rested against the wall. It was all bookended by two mismatched end-tables. It was comfortable. The kind of sofa you never wanted to leave. Panda opened up a closet door, which turned out to be a small galley style kitchen. I listened to her clink around behind my back.
When she was done, she came and stood in front me with a tray in her hands.
“Want some?” she asked, nodding down at the tray, and handing me my glass. The Hennessey smelled sweet and strong. She set a pewter and mother of pearl tray on the beat-up coffee table. Then I could see the perfect, parallel, white lines on it.
“I didn’t know you fucked around, I said.”
“Just socially,” Panda laughed. “You here, so this is social.”
“You bought that in Bottoms? That’s Fadi shit. Its good.”
I sat back and let the tangy, sweet tart taste enter my throat. The drip was the best part. I tried to stay away from it but some things it was hard to do sober. I gestured to the tray on my lap.
“I can cook for you. I’m here all day, and most nights.”
“I’m off that.”
She was quiet a few moments.
What the fuck was she talking about? I was Xavier’s people. I didn’t really know who the fuck this girl was, and how she knew who I dealt with, or what she was getting at. People threw crosses all the time to make you vulnerable. I thought about Fadi’s warning, looked at the door, and halfway expected somebody to kick it in. I had done the same thing myself.
“How do you know me and them?”
“So why are you telling me?”
Panda’s bedroom on the porch was everything. With the right combination of the window unit from inside, the box fans, and the one space heater she had turned on low, under her sheets was the perfect temperature. I was wrapped in her and her hair and couldn’t move. It was midafternoon. I didn’t want to.
Panda woke up and asked me to stay. She got out of bed, and I sat back, watched as she opened up her little closet kitchen, and put oranges, cheese, and French bread on the tray from last night. She brought the food over to me, and went in the bathroom, ran some water, and did another bump or two.
I tried to ignore that. She could do what she wanted, but she was right on the edge of where her recreation was turning into work. She came back out with a blunt rolled.
“You should’ve rolled up last night,” I said.
“ You told me you were an artist. What do you do?”
“Draw.” I said fixing my eyes on the scantily clad Madonna. I noticed in the daylight she was holding a child’s hand. A child, who had the body of a skinny dog and walking a lion.
“I think most men worship the woman on my wall.”
“You’re right,” I answered staring at the collaged birds Panda had embedded into the veil of the Madonna.
I had to hit Fadi up, let him know that the plan had gone sour. I had to tell him what this girl said. He had called my phone a million times. We were supposed to meet up with Xavier to pick up our shit the next morning. Kalo and my Dad had called over and over again too, but I couldn’t talk to her or him until things had calmed just a bit. If the shit was true, me and Fadi were going to have to deal with Xavier. The sure way. But first, I would chill out here.
The weed was damn good. We smoked two fat cigars of it back to back, till Panda was able to lie back down. I tossed her ass around. She liked it. She said fucking me was like ballet dancing and tackle football. I bit her on the earlobes and squeezed her on her thighs. Back under her covers, Panda’s bed felt like a womb cut out of the block. It was a place; I could never leave. Lying there face to face, finally too worn out to do it again, there was so much I wanted to say to her. So much to ask. Panda turned on her side, her back to me. I held her tight and waited for some words to fall out of my mouth.
“What do you do if it rains in the middle of the night?” I asked into her neck, finally.
Panda sighed and pressed herself into me. “Nothing. I just lie here, and let it hit me.”