Clockwise, p.20
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       Clockwise, p.20

           Lee Strauss
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ROSA WHIPPED UP SCRAMBLED eggs and toast to feed all of us at breakfast. I felt bad that I was eating their food, knowing how hard they all had to work for it. Mama had already left for her job. Fortunately, it was Sunday, so Samuel didn't have to go to school. I don't know how I would've managed to shadow him there.

  “I have to work today, Cassandra.”

  “I’ll help.” He nodded, understanding I needed to stay close. Then I remembered the thugs I’d outwitted the night before. Actually, despite Samuel’s reassurances, I was surprised they hadn’t come to this apartment. Then I thought of Mama. Maybe it wasn’t so surprising. I’d bet this whole complex was afraid of her. Still, she wasn’t here now.

  “Um, Samuel, what about those boys from yesterday?”

  “Jerome and his idiots? Don’t worry about them. They don’t get out of bed until dinner time.”

  We started in the building next to the one the Joneses lived in. Samuel had to sweep and mop all the common areas, including the main entrance where the post boxes were. There wasn’t any carpeting, just light-colored pattern linoleum with a gray path worn from the door to the mailboxes and up the stairs. The soapy disinfectant Samuel used to scrub the floors helped to erase the unpleasant stale smell.

  I stuck as close as humanly possible, only bumping into him twice so far.

  “How often between trips, usually?” I said, while wiping the railing with a wet cloth.

  “Sometimes two days, sometimes two weeks, sometimes two months, sometimes longer. I never know when it's going to happen.”

  The anxiety I felt for Nate tightened my chest steadily. I needed to get back ASAP.

  “Do you find anything in particular that triggers it? I mean, with me it seems to be stress. It can be good stress or bad, but when my heart gets going over something, boom, I'm a goner.”

  Samuel brushed dirt from the steps into a dustpan and tossed it into the garbage can. “I suppose. Seems like life is always about some kind of stress. I don't like going back. It's a worse time for blacks in the last century than it is in this one.”

  He paused to pick up a cigarette butt off the floor. “I'm afraid I'm going to die there. Then what would happen to my family?” He was afraid because of how his absence would hurt his family, not because he feared dying. I couldn't help but admire him. I’m sure he had a lot of admirers, probably a dozen alone living in this complex.

  “You got a girlfriend, Samuel?”

  He huffed. “I don't have room in my life for a girlfriend. Even if I did, how could I, you know, be close to someone without taking her...without endangering her life?”

  I nodded. I felt the same way about Nate. Thinking of him made my stomach spin webs of worry. What was he doing now? Was he afraid I’d left him in the past forever?

  We were on the second floor when Yolanda burst into the lobby, calling out for Samuel. “Sam! Sam!”

  “Up here!” he shouted down.

  “Sam, come quick. It's Rosa!”

  We both dropped everything and ran down the stairs. Yolanda slipped by a tall dark shadow just before he blocked the doorway.

  “Get out of the way, Jerome!” Samuel shouted.

  Jerome grabbed my arm. “You didn’t keep your promise.” His breath was rancid.

  “Let her go!” Samuel rushed at Jerome, even though Jerome was larger. He wrapped his arm around Samuel’s neck, letting go of me to do so. I jumped on his back like a monkey. Jerome loosened up on Samuel just enough that he was able to pull away. Jerome shook me off his back, pulling me to his chest, and wrapped both arms around me tight.

  “You can go, Sammy boy, but it’s my turn with your white whore.”

  What did he just call me? I had Rosa’s spiky shoes on, and even with my toes hanging over the front edge, I could slam the pointy heel down on the top of Jerome’s canvas sneaker. Which I did. Hard. Jerome let out a grizzly bellow and fell back against the mailboxes. Samuel grabbed my hand and pulled. “Come on!”

  We were panting when we got to the Joneses apartment. And we weren’t the only ones. Rosa lay on her back on the rug in the living room. Her face was purple and glistened with sweat.

  “Sam, the baby's coming.”

  “Did someone call the ambulance?” I said.

  “We can't afford a hospital, Cassandra,” Samuel answered. “Has someone gone for Mama?”

  Rosa's panting kept her from answering.

  “Coretta’s gone for her,” Yolanda said, standing in the corner trembling.

  I quickly put my arms around her and gave her a squeeze. “Your mama will be here soon.”

  I could see panic rise in Samuel's face.

  “It's okay, Samuel,” I added bravely. “I've helped to deliver a baby before.”

  I took charge, praying that Mama would burst through the squeaky door any moment. “Yolanda, sweetie, put the kettle on the stove and then bring me clean towels.”

  Rosa cried out in pain. Samuel grabbed my arm, tighter than he meant to. I really didn't want to deliver another baby. I’d almost fainted with the last one.

  “I think it's coming!” she shouted.

  Then the miracle I prayed for happened. Actually, two miracles. First, the door sprung open and Mama bounded in. Then Samuel pulled me into the kitchen and I felt him quiver as we disappeared into the light.

  When the dizziness stopped, I let go of Samuel. I had my “nightgown” dress back on, though he still wore his own clothes from the sixties. We were in the middle of a grove of trees, the way nature was before the apartment complex Samuel lived in was built.

  “Wow,” I said. “What a rush.”

  “It was a wild ride,” he said softly.

  “I'm sorry, Samuel. I know that was a bad time to leave.”

  “It's okay. I'd probably just be in the way anyway. Besides, I'm not going to miss a thing.”

  I smiled. He was right, of course. When he returned the only thing missing would be me. “I’ll walk you back,” Samuel said. I was happy to comply, since he seemed to know the way. Before I knew it, we stood by the water pump right where we'd left.

  “I gotta go now,” Samuel said.

  “You’re not staying? Cobbs is gone.”

  “I know, but I’ve met other good people who’ll look out for me. I like to spread myself around.”

  He glanced shyly at his feet. “It was good getting to know you, Cassandra.”

  “Bye, Samuel.” I couldn't let him go without giving him a hug. I swallowed hard as I watched him disappear into the forest. I might never see Samuel again.

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