Great stories about good people caught in difficult situations.


Denver Cereal - Chapter Two Hundred and Four : Fire

CHAPTER TWO HUNDRED and FOUR

Wednesday morning — 6:45 a.m.

Jeraine looked over at his father. He didn’t say a word when Jeraine got into the old truck. Bumpy just nodded and started driving.

“You were going to tell me what’s going on,” Jeraine said.

“How much do you know about my past?” Bumpy asked.

“Um…” Jeraine scratched his head. “You went to East High School. You met Seth in the jazz band. They let you try all the instruments until you settled on the standup base. Uh… I know you lived with Grannie Louise in town while Gramps and your brothers lived out east.”

“That’s all?” Bumpy said.

“Um… yeah.”

Bumpy made a guttural sound that Jeraine couldn’t decipher.

“I thought Seth would have…” Bumpy said. “Not even when you were in prison?”

“Seth?” Jeraine asked. “That man is the Bank of Information – a lot of goes in but very little goes out.”

“That’s the truth,” Bumpy said.

“And anyway, why wouldn’t you tell me?” Jeraine asked. “I know you’re sober, but I don’t know why. You told the therapist when I was in treatment that you had trouble with drugs and women too, but you never said boo to me about it. And…”

“And?”

“You’re supposed to be telling me now,” Jeraine said. “Not asking me what I know.”

Bumpy chuckled. Jeraine scowled and looked out the window. They drove in silence until Bumpy got on the 270.

“How long are we driving for?” Jeraine asked.

“Couple hours,” Bumpy said.

“If you’re not going to talk, I need to sleep,” Jeraine said.

“Why aren’t you sleeping at night?”

“I am sleeping at night,” Jeraine said. “But I have to get at least ten hours of sleep a day. I only had eight last night.”

Bumpy scowled at Jeraine as if he was lying.

“Listen, Dad,” Jeraine said. “I’ve lost every single thing I worked my entire life for. I don’t have any money. I don’t have a record company or a recording contract. I don’t even own my own house. I can’t go to med school like I planned. I’m doing everything in my power not to lose Tanesha. And Tanesha believes this treatment is going to help me because that lady Delphie told her it was going to help me. So you can believe I’m lazy or you can help me get better. It’s your choice. Either way, I’m going to sleep for an hour because that’s what my treatment plan says I need to do – regular one hour naps throughout the day.”

With that, Jeraine crossed his arms and turned his body away from his father. Bumpy looked at his son for a moment then nodded.

“What?” Jeraine asked.

“There’s no cure for asshole,” Bumpy laughed.

“That’s the truth,” Jeraine laughed.

~~~~~~~~

Wednesday morning — 8:45 a.m.

“Where you think you goin’?” her keeper said.

He didn’t look up from his newspaper. He wasn’t a particularly nice man. Her daughter called him her “keeper.” After more than twenty years, he was like a familiar tHorn in her side. She smiled but he didn’t notice. He was reading the Denver Post at a small white plastic table in the middle of the four-plex lawn.

“Today’s my monthly visit with my daughter,” Yvonne Smith said. “Did I tell you she started med school this week? My Tanni is in med school. Can you believe it?”

Yvonne beamed at the man. He shook his head at her but never looked up from the paper.

“I asked you where you goin’,” he said.

“I got twenty dollars,” Yvonne said. “Mr. Aaron gave it to me to get something for my Tanni. I’m goin’ across the street to get my Tanni’s favorite flowers and a card.”

“Can’t go by yourself,” he said. “You ain’t allowed but one trip out by yourself a month. You want to use it going across the street?”

“No,” Yvonne said. “I’m going to lunch and getting my hair done. Today’s my day with my daughter. I get the whole day off. That’s what Mr. Aaron said. I wrote it down if you want to see. Her friend Heather’s coming to get me at noon. We’re picking Tanni up at school.”

“Guess you can’t go across the street then,” he said.

“You don’t seem to be doing much,” she said. “Come with me. You know those girls don’t get up for a couple hours. We’ll be back long before that.”

He gave her a sour look. He reached for his cigarette pack and found it empty. He looked up at her.

“I need cigarettes anyway,” he said.

She waited while he hefted himself out of the chair. After years of beating on Johns and hookers, his hips and knees were shot and pimping didn’t come with great medical insurance. He moved like a man a decade older than he was. He made a show of locking the other girl’s doors before walking toward the sidewalk.

“You’re wearing your new dress,” he said.

“I always try to look my best for my lunch date,” she said. “I look forward to it all month.”

“I know,” he said.

He took her elbow and they made a slow journey across Fourteenth Avenue.

“Someday, when my Rodney is home from prison, I’m going to shop here,” Yvonne said when they reached the other side of the street. “I’m going to drive my car here, load up on groceries, and drive home to make him dinner. Maybe Tanni will come over. And someday, she’ll even bring her kids.”

Her keeper scowled at her.

“I’ll wave to you when I pass,” Yvonne said. “Only seven more years now.”

“What makes you think he’s a gonna want the likes of you?”

“Because Rodney and I are one soul, two bodies,” Yvonne said. “We belong together, no matter what.”

He grunted something that she didn’t hear. They went inside the grocery store and immediately stood in line at the service desk. He wanted a pack of Winston cigarettes. When the woman brought the pack, he decided on a carton instead. After the cigarettes, he decided to get a lotto ticket and a few scratchers. Yvonne checked her watch a few times to make sure she hadn’t missed Heather. After scratching off the tickets, buying more, scratching a few more, and finally winning five dollars, he said they could go look at flowers.

“Look who it is!” Yvonne saw a familiar face in the flower section. “Delphie! It’s my friend Delphie!”

He grabbed her arm and turned her to face him.

“Did you set this up?” he asked in a mean tone. “You know you’re not allowed visitors.”

“Of course not,” Yvonne said. “I’m going to lunch today with Tanni. Why would I risk that?”

His eyes seemed to scour her very soul.

“Plus, you’re the one who sets up visits with Delphie,” Yvonne said. “You bring me because she’s my friend and gives us a discount.”

He released her with a jerk and she ran over to hug Delphie.

“What are you doing here?” Yvonne asked.

“You know Jill is on bed rest, right?” Delphie asked.

“Tanni said twin boys,” Yvonne beamed at having remembered.

“That’s right! Good memory,” Delphie said.

“I wrote it down,” Yvonne said.

“Well, Valerie’s trainer decided she needed some different food to lose the baby weight for her next movie and Jill was craving ice cream, and…” Delphie leaned in to whisper to Yvonne. “I knew you’d be here.”

Yvonne hugged Delphie again.

“I was looking from over there,” Yvonne said. “I don’t see any yellow tulips. Do you?”

“Let’s look,” Delphie set her red shopping basket on the ground and began going through the flowers. “There’ve got to be some here. Why don’t you check over there?”

“Ok,” Yvonne trotted over to an area by the desk and began looking through the flowers. Her head was down when she heard her keeper get a phone call. She stood up to look at him. He scowled at her and gestured for her to hurry up. She smiled to herself and took her time. He would wait as long as necessary to be able to ask Delphie one question for free.

“I don’t see any over here,” Delphie said.

“I don’t either,” Yvonne said.

“What are you ladies looking for?” asked a clerk as she came out of the back.

“Yellow tulips for my daughter,” Yvonne said. “She started med school this week.”

“Congratulations,” the clerk said. “I think I have some in the back. Do you mind waiting?”

Yvonne looked over at her keeper. He was still on the phone.

“We’re fine,” Delphie said. “If you don’t mind checking, I think you’ll find some on the bottom shelf in the way back on the left.”

“Delphie’s a psychic,” Yvonne explained.

“I’ll definitely look,” the clerk gave Delphie an unsure smile and left the flower area.

Delphie and Yvonne settled in to chatting. Because Yvonne wasn’t able to remember anything she didn’t write down, Delphie did most of the talking. Yvonne knew Delphie well enough to know that Delphie was talking about nothing. Yvonne didn’t care. At noon she would see her daughter, her med student daughter. She laughed at Delphie’s jokes and listened intently to the patter of Delphie’s voice. Just listening to her friend, Yvonne felt calm and happy.

“Today’s going to be the best day of your life,” Delphie threw in the middle of her flow. Yvonne’s eyebrow raised and Delphie nodded. Yvonne smiled to acknowledge that she’d heard her friend. Delphie continued chatting

“Oh great, you’re still here,” the clerk said. “Sorry it took so long.”

“Did you find them on the bottom shelf?” Yvonne asked.

“No,” the clerk gave Delphie an irritated look. “Top shelf on the other side.”

“My mistake,” Delphie smiled and took two bundles of yellow tulips wrapped in plastic. “Sorry.”

The tone of Delphie’s voice surprised Yvonne more than the words or even that Delphie had made a mistake. Yvonne turned to really look at her friend.

Something was going on.

Delphie was never wrong. Never.

Delphie smiled to acknowledge Yvonne’s thought. Her keeper’s phone rang again. Yvonne watched his bored face shift to irritation and then worry. His eyes glanced at her.

“No matter what happens,” Delphie said to her in a low voice. “Just go with the flow. Don’t argue or fight it. Promise me.”

“Go with the flow,” Yvonne replied in the same tone. “Do I get to see Tanni?”

“Better,” Delphie’s filled with moisture. “Don’t get yourself killed.”

“Killed?” Yvonne’s hand went to her throat in panic.

“Just go along,” Delphie said. “Promise me. Repeat it because you won’t be able to write it down.”

“Go along,” Yvonne repeated what she heard. “Don’t argue or fight it and I get something better than seeing my Tanni for a couple hours. I don’t get killed. I go along.”

“Good girl,” Delphie said.

Yvonne gave Delphie a sincere nod. Delphie hugged her tight.

“Love you, Yvonne,” Delphie said.

“You too, Delphie,” Yvonne said.

Delphie gave her the tulips. She walked close to Yvonne’s keeper. He opened his mouth to ask his question but she interrupted.

“They’ll find you in Florida,” Delphie told him. “No one knows about that property you inherited from your grandmother. The lot and house in Georgia? Take your car. Get to Saint Louis by morning. That’s soon enough. You’ll be in Georgia by end of day. Start a new life. There’s a better one waiting for you there.”

He bent forward as if he’d been punched in the stomach. She pushed him upright and patted his chest.

“You’ll be fine,” Delphie said. She raised a hand to wave good-bye to Yvonne and wandered off inside the store.

“What was that?” he asked.

Yvonne shrugged and walked over to the check out.

“You got lots of calls,” Yvonne said. “You remember I don’t work today. Today, I get to have lunch with Tanni.”

“I know,” he said.

“Then what about the phone calls?”

“There’s something going on,” he said. “I’m not quite sure what. We got to get back.”

“Ok,” Yvonne said.

She gave the tulips to the clerk to check out. Because the flowers were from the back, they didn’t have a code and no one seemed to know the price. Yvonne and her keeper waited more than fifteen minutes by Yvonne’s watch before they found the clerk and got the price on her flowers. Yvonne paid and then realized she didn’t get a card for Tanesha.

“I need to get a card,” she said.

“You need to come with me,” he said. In her ear, he added, “Mr. Aaron’s called three times. He’s freaked out and wants us back.”

“Okay, Yvonne smiled.

He took her elbow for support and they made a slow journey out of the store. After walking so far, and standing so long, the journey back was slower and more painful for her keeper. Yvonne didn’t care because she still had time to make a card before Heather came to take her to see Tanni.

They were under the trees, not quite to the sidewalk across the street from the four-plex, when Yvonne noticed something strange.

“Isn’t that Shawnie? What’s she doing?”

Yvonne pointed to a figure lying half in and half out of the apartment next to Yvonne’s. She could see the woman wasn’t wearing her wig. Shawnie never opened her door without her wig on.

She was wearing what looked like a red T-shirt. But Shawnie never wore red. Shawnie said red made her look like an angry black whore.

Yvonne stopped walking. Instinctively, she shifted deeper into the shade of the trees. Her keeper leaned forward to look.

“The doors were kicked in,” Yvonne said. “Every one but mine.”

Her keeper grabbed her elbow, turned her around, and started marching back toward the store. They walked at a steady clip across the sidewalk in front of the store. He didn’t say a word until they were past the store and in a small parking lot on the other side of the supermarket.

“We’re in big shit, big shit,” he said in her ear.

“Where’s your car?” Yvonne asked.

“It’s down the street,” he pointed to the side street behind the store. “You know I never park near the apartment in case the cops come.”

“Can we take your car?” she asked.

“They’re probably waiting for us at the car,” he said. He looked like a terrified little boy. For the first time in all these years of knowing him, Yvonne felt sorry for him.

“Delphie told you to take your car,” Yvonne said. “I didn’t write it down but it’s been less than an hour. I can remember for an hour and a half.”

Her keeper gave her a long look. He grabbed her elbow and they took off at a trot. He had just started the car when they heard a muffled explosion. They ducked below the dashboard. When nothing happened, he started down the street.

Driving past the four-plex, she saw angry orange flames shooting out of her apartment. She’d spent more than fifteen years in that apartment. She had a lot of things in that apartment. Right at this moment, she couldn’t remember what, but she knew that a lot of her personal things were getting burned up. Sitting at the stoplight on Fourteenth Avenue and Krameria Street, she turned around to look. The fire was consuming the entire building. A siren sounded in the distance.

“I have a full tank,” he said. “How ‘bout if we just drive for a while?”

She was about to say that she had lunch with Tanni and Heather was coming at noon and she was going to get her hair done and she didn’t want to miss it, when she remembered what Delphie had made her repeat.

Go with the flow.

“That sounds nice,” Yvonne said. She rolled down the window and gave the tulips a little toss so they rolled next to the curb.

“Good,” he said. They continued up Fourteenth Avenue.

~~~~~~~~

Wednesday morning — 8:45 a.m.

“You don’t have to tell me in-depth,” Jeraine said.

Bumpy was startled. He hadn’t realized Jeraine was awake.

“Just the Cliff Notes,” Jeraine said. “I’ll just listen. I know you think I don’t know how to do it, but I’ve had to practice for couple’s therapy. And it’s a lot easier when I’m not doing cocaine. I’m actually pretty good at it now.”

Bumpy glanced at him. He thought for a moment, then nodded.

“I grew up on a farm out in eastern Colorado near where your Grannie Louise lives. I couldn’t read, couldn’t write, but my mom…” Overcome with emotion, Bumpy cleared his throat. “She dreamt that an angel told her I was smart. She argued with my dad for… months. Finally, in the middle of the night, she put us on a bus and we moved to town so I… could have a… life. I was twelve. They didn’t have the testing they have now and I was a big kid. They placed me at East High; that’s where I met Seth.

“Seth was just back from New York, very cool, and very open to… everything, even big, dumb me. He knew right away that I couldn’t read. Even bought me my first pair of glasses. Kind of like Charlie, you know Sandy’s brother. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t see the words. That’s why when Seth calls, I always come. I owe the man everything.”

Listening intently, Jeraine nodded.

“They called me Lennie Small,” Bumpy said.

“From Of Mice and Men?” Jeraine asked.

Bumpy nodded.

“Ouch.”

“Do you know my birth name?” Bumpy asked.

“No.”

“Leroy,” Bumpy said. “My mom said it like Lee-roy.”

“Close to Lennie,” Jeraine said.

“Close enough,” Bumpy said. “Seth named me Bumpy. Mitch was a jock, popular… I mean, everyone loved Mitch. Kind of like you. Mitch made sure everyone only called me Bumpy.”

“Where are we going today?” Jeraine asked.

“I thought you were going to just listen?” Bumpy asked.

Jeraine scowled at him. Bumpy’s eyes were on the road, but he could feel Jeraine staring at the side of his face.

“We’re going to Dearfield.”

“Dearfield?” Jeraine asked.

“It was an all black farming community from around 1910 to about 1940,” Bumpy said. “Your great-grandparents came from Texas to farm there.”

“When?”

“1911,” Bumpy said. “Dangerous time because Denver was a hot bed of KKK activity. They used to think any day they’d be wiped out by some band of nuts. But your great-great grandfather was born a slave. He was the force behind the move. His masters called him Jermaine. He changed it to Jeraine so he would have a free name. He changed the family name to Wilson after Woodrow Wilson who was the president when they lived in Dearfield.”

“Free surname,” Jeraine said.

“That’s exactly right,” Bumpy said. “That’s why you have the free name of Jeraine Wilson.”

Jeraine watched his father’s face.

“My dad was born in Dearfield. Most people left Dearfield during the Great Depression,” Bumpy said. “You remember the three Ds? Your Grannie Louise drilled it into you and LaTonya when you were a kid.”

“Economic depression, drought, dustbowl,” Jeraine said. “Kinda like now.”

“Yes, son. That’s why she wanted you to know it,” Bumpy said. “When we get home, I can show you pictures of our family if you’d like.”

“I’d like that,” Jeraine said. “Why are we going to Dearfield?”

“We still own land there,” Bumpy said. “It’s our heritage as a family, as a people.”

“What decisions do we have to make?” Jeraine asked.

“What to do with that heritage,” Bumpy said. “For our family. For our people.”

Jeraine waited to see if Bumpy had anything else to say. He didn’t.

“Thanks for telling me, Dad,” Jeraine said.

Bumpy nodded.

The Denver Cereal will continue next week

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