A second helping, p.22
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       A Second Helping, p.22

           Beverly Jenkins
 
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“That’s wack. She sounds like a store in the mall.”

  Bernadine choked on a piece of fruit.

  Trent chuckled. “I heard they’re thinking of moving back here.”

  When Bernadine could breathe and speak again, she gave Amari a sideways glance, then added, “They said something similar to me the night we had the town meeting.”

  Barrett said, “The oldest looks about your age, Preston.”

  He shrugged. “I don’t like girls.”

  Bernadine asked, “Why not?”

  “Because they don’t like me.”

  “Ah.” Bernadine said, noting another issue Preston had in his makeup “They’re pretty girls, though.”

  Amari said, “Yep. I’m going to go say hi. Want to come, Preston?”

  “Only if one of them knows who Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is.”

  “Okay, I’ll go see.”

  “Amari, no!” Preston cried.

  But he was already gone.

  Amari walked over. “Excuse me.”

  Leah turned and looked him up and down.

  “My name’s Amari. Just came over to ask you something.”

  Her younger sister stepped away from the conversation her parents were having and checked out Amari too.

  “What’s the question?” Leah asked. She was a tall girl. Long hair. Brown skin. Skeptical eyes behind her glasses.

  “Do you know who Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is?”

  “Yes! Why?”

  “My friend over there, his name is Preston. The Dr. Tyson guy is his hero.”

  Leah’s eyes lit up with interest. “He is? Where’s your friend?”

  Amari pointed him out. “See the kid in the red shirt?”

  Leah checked out Preston and turned away.

  “What’s wrong?” Amari asked.

  “Why are all the smart boys short and overweight?”

  Amari’s mouth dropped. “Hey. Don’t be dissing my boy. You’re not exactly Beyonce.”

  Tiffany Adele snapped, “Don’t you talk about my sister, ghetto boy.”

  Amari checked his temper. “Okay, that’s it. Forget I even came over here.”

  “Don’t worry, we will,” Tiffany Adele said haughtily and glared.

  Amari walked away from them, grumbling, “Good thing I don’t cuss anymore.”

  When he returned, Trent looked at his face and asked, “You get shot down, ace?”

  “Forget them girls. Bunch of stuck-up snooties.”

  Bernadine looked over at the girls now talking with each other. “Really?”

  “Yep, Ms. Store in the Mall called me ghetto boy, and the other one said Preston was short and overweight.”

  Bernadine cocked her head. “Excuse me?”

  Preston said, “Told you.”

  Amari said, “Ms. Bernadine, if they move here, I’m telling Mr. James, do not put them in the classroom with me or Preston. Can we be excused? I need some air.”

  “I’ll come with you,” Preston said. “Will you all call us when it’s time to move stuff?”

  “Sure,” Trent responded. “That okay with you, Barrett?”

  The colonel was shooting daggers across the room at the stuck-up snooties, “Of course.”

  When the boys left, Barrett asked, “So what’s the deal on this family? The girls sound pretty mean.”

  “They take after their mother. Colleen’s been a witch since grammar school. Gary got shotgunned into marrying her.”

  “Was she pregnant?” Bernadine whispered.

  “Told everybody she was. He married her to do the right thing, but she wasn’t really pregnant, or at least that was the rumor.”

  “And they want to move here?” Barrett asked skeptically.

  “Yep. Colleen’s father was the first Black man with a car dealership in this part of the county. Pretty big time. Raised her like she was a princess. Next time you see Rocky, say Colleen’s name and watch her head spin around on her neck.”

  Bernadine laughed. “What happened?”

  “Fight. Eighth grade. When the dust settled Colleen was on the ground, and so were her two front teeth.”

  “Oh my goodness,” Bernadine exclaimed.

  Trent said, “Can’t imagine why she’d want to move back. After the fight, her parents moved to Franklin and enrolled her in a private school. Colleen hated the kids here and the feeling was mutual.”

  Barrett said, “I know kids can be cruel, but talking about Preston’s weight is not going to endear those girls to me.”

  “Nor me,” Bernadine declared testily. “Had to deal with skinny little hussies like that all my life.”

  Trent and the colonel were taken aback by the heat in her voice.

  Seeing their reaction, she placed her hand against the gold framing her neck and feigned surprise. “I’m sorry, did I say that out loud?”

  They chuckled.

  “Okay. Thanks for the 411, Trent. Needed to know that. Going back to mingling now.”

  And she moved on. The crew from CNN had asked to speak with her for a moment, so she searched the crowded cafeteria until she spotted them. Wanting to dispose of her plate first, she made her way over to one of the trash cans and saw Otis Miller removing the now filled trash bag inside.

  When she walked up, he held out his hand. “I’ll take that, Ms. Brown.”

  “Thanks.” She headed off to meet the CNN people. She still had the feeling she knew Otis Miller from somewhere, but so far hadn’t figured it out.

  Outside, Amari was picking at the food left on his plate and still grumbling about the Clark girls.

  Preston, sunk in his own bad mood, said, “Just forget about them.”

  “Hard to do because there goes one now.”

  Preston turned to see Leah Clark coming out of the school door.

  They assumed she was heading to the parking lot to retrieve something from the family’s car, or on another mission that in no way involved them, but they were wrong.

  She walked over to where they were sitting on the steps and stopped directly in front of Preston. “I came to apologize for what I said about you in there.”

  “Huh?” was all he could say.

  “People have called me a tall, four-eyed geek, and it really hurts, so I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

  Amari asked, “You mean that, or you just here because somebody made you come apologize?”

  “I came on my own. If we move here, I don’t want people thinking I’m like my mom.”

  Both Preston and Amari raised an eyebrow.

  Preston asked first, “What’s wrong with your mom?”

  “Crazy. Sometimes crazier. Depends on the day. Do you really know who Dr. Tyson is?”

  “Yeah. Be dumb to lie about something like that.”

  “Do you like physics?”

  “Want to study it at MIT eventually.”

  “Me too. What theory?”

  “String.”

  “I like string too, but I’m more into the magnetic fields of coronas and sunspots.”

  Preston’s mouth dropped.

  Next thing Amari knew they were talking a language as foreign-sounding to his ears as Russian. Every now and then he caught a few familiar words like particles and gravity but what or who was a planke, and was hadron really a word?

  He hadn’t seen Preston so animated, ever, and the girl looked happy too. When they started using rocks to scratch math equations in the dirt, Amari knew it was time for him to go. “I’ll see you all later.”

  Preston looked up, gave him a quick nod, and immediately went back to the equations. They were now talking about some guy named Stephen Hawking.

  As Amari reached the door Colonel Payne was stepping outside.

  “Where’s Preston?” he asked.

  “Over there with Leah. She came out to apologize for dissing him, and now they’re doing math equations in the dirt.”

  “Math equations?”

  “Yeah. She’s a brain too. They’re talking about strings or something. Not
sure what kind, but Preston’s real happy though.”

  The colonel smiled. “That’s good.

  “Yeah. He finally has somebody to kick it with and talk about all that deep stuff in his brain. He tries it with me sometimes, but remember I’m the one who just learned how to read, so most of the time I don’t have a clue, even when he calls himself breaking it down for me.”

  “So you won’t be mad if he spends time with her, if she and her family move here?”

  “Unless it’s 24/7, nope. Frees me up to be at the garage with my dad and help him work on his cars, which is what I like to do.”

  “You and your dad get along real well, don’t you?”

  “We’re working things out.”

  “How do you think Preston and I are doing?”

  “Wouldn’t you and Preston know better than me?”

  The colonel smiled. “Yeah. Guess you’re right. I came out to get you two because they’re getting ready to start the move.”

  Amari turned and yelled, “Yo, Brain. Time to move.”

  “Okay,” he called back. “Be there in a minute.”

  Amari said, “I’ll see you inside.”

  He went in, but the colonel stood outside and watched Preston and the Clark girl going at it with their rocks. He could see the happiness on the boy’s face as he wrote in the dirt, and all Barrett Payne could say to himself was Wow.

  As he waited for them to finish up, he took Amari’s suggestion and quizzed himself about the relationship he and Preston were trying to build. If he was being truthful, his answer would be a tentative okay. They’d been talking more as of late, played chess every night before going to bed, and Preston seemed to be much more relaxed around him. Barrett was more relaxed as well, and learning that he enjoyed the boy’s company, but like Amari, when Preston began talking physics, something he was very passionate about, Barrett didn’t have a clue. He should have asked Amari for the details about how the mind melding of Preston and Leah came about, but it didn’t really matter. Preston looked to be in heaven, and Barrett wished Sheila was around to witness his gleeful transformation. Her face floated across his mind’s eye. The place where she was staying didn’t allow phones so he wondered how she was doing. She’d been gone only a few days but it felt like weeks. He hoped the transformation she was seeking for herself materialized so she could come home. He was certain she was going to be pleased by the progress he and Preston were making as a unit, and when she learned he’d joined a fathers’ support group of all things she was going to fall over. In the past he never would have admitted this so readily, but just as in Florida during the reunion when he’d spent those nights in bed alone, he missed her big time.

  As people hauled books and chairs and tables and dry erase boards into the building, Bernadine, carrying a large potted plant, knew she could have easily hired a crew of workers to handle getting everything in place, but having the locals do it had been Marie’s idea. She wanted the day to be a collective memory and Bernadine agreed. The school belonged to the community and this was a novel way for everyone to take ownership.

  She saw Amari and Preston carrying in the pumps, filters, and some of the other equipment needed to get the big wall-sized aquarium in the main hallway up and running. Trent and Jack were maneuvering a flatbed dolly stacked with chairs, followed by one Otis Miller was pushing. Zoey and Devon and Eli were helping Crystal set up the art room. Tamar and her crew were in the media center stacking the shelves with the hundreds of educational DVDs Marie had ordered. Roni was in the kiva-shaped auditorium hitting keys on the piano to make sure it was well tuned, while her husband was down the hall opening boxes in the room that would serve as the in-school clinic. Even Leo got into the act. She saw him dragging a huge Sam’s Club bag filled with paper towels and toilet paper for the bathrooms. When he saw her, he winked. She rolled her eyes and kept walking. The old axiom “Many hands make for light work” was definitely in play because by mid-afternoon, they were done.

  Bernadine was tired. She’d started the week in Barcelona and now six days later, she was sitting in a chair in the hallway of the new school, saying good-bye to everyone who’d pitched in to help. Most would be back in town later to take in the movies at the rec center, but she planned to pass. All she wanted to do was go home and kick back. The weekly Saturday evening gathering would have to do without her this time around.

  However, when Mal called her at home and asked if she wanted to go, her answer was yes.

  Later that afternoon, with help from Otis, Siz, Clay, and Bing, Rocky moved into her trailer on Tamar’s land. She’d never seen a double-wide so spacious, and she was thankful for the blessing courtesy of Bernadine Brown.

  When they were done, Otis said, “You’re all set now, Ms. Rock.”

  “Thanks. You’ve been a great help.”

  “Just trying to give some payback for everybody being so nice to me.”

  Clay said to Rocky, “Bing and I are going to head home. If you need anything just call.”

  She gave her two old friends a kiss on the cheek. “You’re the best.”

  Siz had driven over in his own car. He left with a wave, so Clay asked Otis, “You need a ride back to the Dog?”

  “I do.”

  “Then come on. We’ll take you.”

  After they departed, a weary Rocky plopped down onto one of the plush couches that had come with the place. She hadn’t had a moment’s rest since returning from Boston, but now she had a sanctuary to retreat to and planned to enjoy it.

  She was unloading a box of books onto one of the bookshelves when she heard a knock on the door. “Come on in,” she called.

  In walked Jack James.

  She paused.

  “Hi. Came by to welcome you to the neighborhood and to see if you needed help with anything.”

  “Thanks, but I’m good.”

  “Sure?”

  “Positive.”

  Silence rose.

  “Um,” he began. “Tamar mentioned the movies tonight at the rec. Would you like to go?”

  “No. I’m going to finish unpacking and then relax.”

  “Okay. Well, just wanted to say hey.”

  “Appreciate that.”

  “See you around.”

  She nodded.

  He left.

  Rocky went back to unloading the books, determined not to think about Jack James, but it was difficult.

  CHAPTER 18

  Amari and Trent were standing together in front of the big bathroom mirror. Amari checked out his reflection dressed up in its fancy attire and asked in a glum tone, “Why do I have to wear a suit?”

  Also in a suit, Trent draped his tie around the collar of his crisp blue shirt “Because when you take a special lady to a special event you dress like it.”

  “Suppose she’s wearing jeans? Then I’m going to look stupid.”

  “Knowing Ms. Genevieve she won’t be wearing jeans. Now grab your tie, and let me show you how to do this.”

  Amari put the tie around the collar of his new white shirt. “Why couldn’t we get some of those clip-on ties?”

  “Because one, they’re tacky, and two, being able to tie a tie is a part of being a man. Not to mention, it’s one of those things a father passes down to his son. My dad taught me. Now I’m teaching you. One day you’ll teach your son.”

  “I’m not having a son.”

  “Probably not, but your wife will. Just do what I do. I’ll go slow.”

  It took them a few minutes, but in the end, Amari succeeded.

  “Looking good,” Trent said approvingly.

  Amari checked himself out and ran his hand lightly over the fresh haircut his dad had given him earlier. He was so accustomed to seeing himself in tees and jeans it took him a minute to recognize himself, but he had to admit he did look good.

  “So, what do you think?”

  “It’s okay. As long as I don’t have to do this every day, I’m good.”

  “You look great. Let’s g
et our coats and we’ll be ready to roll.”

  Downstairs, Trent swung by the fridge.

  “What’s this?” Amari asked, looking down at the transparent plastic container Trent handed to him after they got in the truck.

  Trent started the engine and backed the truck down the driveway. “Corsage.”

  “Looks like a flower.”

  “It is a flower. Ladies wear them on their wrists.”

  “You giving this to Ms. Lily?”

  “Nope. You’re giving it to Ms. Genevieve.”

  “Dad!” he cried. “Why I gotta give her flowers too?”

  Trent tried to hide his smile as best he could. “Because, Amari, that’s what men do.”

  “But I’m still a kid.”

  “Think of it as practice for the future. You’ll thank your old dad for this one day.”

  Amari slumped back into his seat. “If you say so.”

  Trent didn’t hide his smile that time.

  With a big tub of no-salt, no-butter popcorn in her lap, Bernadine sat beside Mal and watched the rec center’s media room fill with the evening’s moviegoers. The Garlands and Zoey came in. Seeing her, they waved and took seats up front. Crystal, who seemed to have taken Eli under her wing, came in with him and his dad. Crys waved to Bernadine and she waved back. Bernadine was very surprised to see the colonel and Preston in the crowd. She couldn’t remember ever seeing the retired marine at the movies before but she supposed he was trying to do his best by his foster son now that Sheila was gone.

  Amari and Genevieve came in. “Oh my goodness,” she breathed. “Amari has on a suit.”

  Genevieve was all decked out in a lovely blue dress, pearls around her neck and a beautiful pink and white orchid on her wrist.

  “Boy does look good, doesn’t he?” Mal responded with a grin.

  “He’s going to be a heartbreaker one day.”

  Everyone in the room turned to see them. Mal could see Clay standing and staring. Clay swung questioning eyes to Mal, who simply smiled. Clay dropped back down into his seat. Mal laughed inwardly.

  “I didn’t know they were dating,” Bernadine joked.

 
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