Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …
By Dave Jackson
DaShawn Bentley was tall for a nine-year-old, but to rest his knees on the dash of his grandfather’s SUV, he still had to slide way down in the front seat while he texted his friend, Robbie. “R—U—g-o-i-n-g—2—c-a-m-p—t-o-m-o-r-r-o-w-?” He hit Send. Except for that brief stay in a foster home in the suburbs, DaShawn had never been outside Chicago, especially not way out in the country, in the woods, by a lake with canoes and horses. So he was counting on some of the other guys from SouledOut Community Church going with him.
“You ever been to camp, Grandpa?”
When Harry Bentley didn’t answer right away, DaShawn looked over to see his grandfather turning from side to side as if he were trying to read the address numbers on the passing storefronts. He kept closing one eye and then the other with exaggerated winks that contorted his face like a rubber mask.
“I said, did you ever go to summer camp?”
“Uh …” The searching and winking continued. “No. We only had day camps down on the Southside. But they were pretty good.”
Realizing his grandfather wasn’t watching where they were going very carefully, DaShawn sat up just in time to see them closing too fast on a stopped truck.
“Grandpa, LOOK OUT!”
Harry Bentley hit the brakes. Tires screeched, then WHAM! The little RAV4 slammed into the back of a huge red pickup.
There was a moment of silence, like dust settling, as DaShawn realized he’d just been in his first-ever car accident. He turned to look at the baldheaded black man next to him. “You okay, Grandpa?”
DaShawn’s grandfather was staring straight ahead. “Yeah. You all right?”
“I think so. What happened?”
Grandpa shook his head. “I was just …”
His response was cut short by the cursing of two burly white men getting out of the pickup. They both wore sweat-stained T-shirts, yellow hardhats, and looked to DaShawn like twin construction workers.
“Wait here!” Grandpa opened the door and went to meet the men inspecting the damage. But a few moments later, DaShawn was surprised to hear the construction workers’ curses turn to laughter as they pointed to the back of their truck and then the front of the little SUV.
“So what happened?” one said, throwing up his hands. “Are you blind or something? Isn’t this truck big enough for you to see it?”
“Yeah,” said the other man. “We were stopped at a red light, for Pete’s sake! What’s the matter with you?”
DaShawn relaxed a little. At first the men had seemed really angry at his grandpa, but now it was more like they were making fun of him.
In a few moments, the loud voices quieted as the drivers got down to the business of exchanging licenses and insurance cards. The other driver began shaking his head as if he didn’t care about all of that, and DaShawn heard him say, “We can report this if you want, but my truck ain’t even scratched. That big hitch can take a hit and keep on truckin’, know what I mean?” He pointed at the RAV4. “You’re the one with the messed-up bumper, and it was your fault, so reportin’ it’ll only raise your insurance rates. Do what you want. But if it were me …” He shrugged.
“You sure neither of you are hurt?” Grandpa asked.
The two men looked at one another. “Nah. We’re good.” Then with a smirk, the driver added, “But run into me again, and I’ll claim whiplash and sue ya dry.”
“Hey,” Grandpa held up both hands in surrender. “I’m really sorry, guys. Thanks.”
“No problem. Just watch where you’re goin’ next time.”
The men returned to their truck and drove off as DaShawn’s grandfather came back to the car and got in. He sat there in a daze until a car behind them beeped its horn.
“You okay, Grandpa?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Harry blew out a lung full of air as he stepped gently on the gas to cross the intersection and pull to a stop behind some parked cars along the curb. He sat there staring out the front window, then glanced momentarily over at DaShawn. “Can you read that parking sign up ahead there?”
“Sure. Says, 'No parking when snow is over two inches deep. Tow zone.’”
“But … none of the letters are smeared or anything?”
“Uh, no. But you don’t have to worry, Grandpa. It don’t snow in July.”
“Course not.” Harry laughed as he continued “winking” at the sign, then began rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands. “Musta got somethin’ in my eye. Left one’s all blurry. But … hey, it’s probably nothin’.”
“That why you didn’t see that truck, Grandpa?”
“No … well, maybe. I was distracted, I guess, tryin’ to read signs.”
DaShawn grinned. “I know. I know what you were doin’. You lookin’ to find some nice restaurant to take Miss Estelle to for dinner tonight, huh?”
“Hey, that’s none of your business.” His grandfather grinned and put the car in Drive as he pulled away. Then he turned back to his grandson and arched his eyebrows while pursing his lips. “Actually, I already got plans for tonight.” He bobbled his head from side to side. “Big plans.”
“Oh yeah? What’s up?”
“Promise you won’t tell?”
“I’m gonna ask her to marry me.” He slapped his breast. “Got a ring in a little box, right here in my pocket.”
“Really?” DaShawn’s eyes got huge.
“Yep. After dinner I’m gonna take her sailing on the Tall Ship Windy. And right during the Chicago fireworks, when they’re lighting up the whole sky, I’m gonna pop the question. Whaddaya thinka that?”
“The Tall Ship Windy! Can I come?”
“Whadda ya think? You’re going over to your great-grandma’s house.”
“Aww, no fair!” But DaShawn grinned at his grandpa’s secret. He couldn’t wait till he could tell Robbie.”
* * * *
“Harry, this place is too expensive,” Estelle Williams whispered as she scanned the menu for Riva’s Restaurant on Chicago’s Navy Pier. Their table looked out over the harbor as the sun’s golden rays ricocheted off the glass and steel of the city’s magnificent skyline.
“Don’t worry ’bout it. Just order what you want.”
Estelle shrugged and returned to the menu. But there’d been an edge in Harry’s voice. In fact, ever since he’d picked her up this evening, he’d seemed uptight. She glanced at him again. “Harry Bentley … you tryin’ to wink at me?” She closed her menu and lowered her head to position herself more in his line of sight.
“No, I’m not trying to wink at you. Why would I be doin’ that? Haven’t we been seein’ enough of each other to be beyond flirting?”
“Well, I should hope so. Harry …” She reached across the table and pushed his menu down, forcing him to look at her. “What’s the matter with you?” The frown lines in his forehead were deeper than usual. “DaShawn told me you were in a car wreck this afternoon, but I didn’t see any damage. You okay?”
Harry leaned back in his chair and stared out at the boats. Then he closed his eyes, and rubbed them with the knuckles of both hands. “Yeah, I’m okay. It was nothin’, Estelle. No one was hurt. Just messed up my bumper a little.”
“Hmm.” She studied the man she’d come to love. Something wasn’t right. “Harry, what’s the problem? Come on. Somethin’s troubling you. Is it Mother Bentley again?”
“No, she’s doin’ fine. You know that. You take care of my mom more than I do. It’s just …” He closed his eyes for a moment. “My eyes been bothering me a little. Think I’m getting allergies or something.”
“Your eyes?” The implications clicked through her mind like a calculator. “Is that why you had a wreck? Maybe you shouldn’t be driving, Harry.”
“It wasn’t a wreck, Estelle. Just a little fender-bender. And I can see quite well enough to drive. Besides, it’s just my left eye. Probably got something in it.” He flipped open his menu and squinted at it. “Now, come on. Let’s put that behind us and have a nice dinner.”
“Maybe you need glasses, Harry. Most people our age do need glasses, at least to read. I should get some myself.”
“I already have a pair of reading glasses, Estelle.”
“Then why don’t you use them? I’ve never seen you wear them.”
“Estelle … don’t worry about it, okay? Just order.”
She stifled her next comment and opened her menu again. The man was nothing if not stubborn. Well, if he insisted on paying for it, she’d enjoy her meal. “I think I’ll start with some lobster bisque and one of these salads—baby greens with balsamic vinaigrette and sliced almonds.”
When the sun had finally set and they’d finished their dinner, Estelle was so full of scallop fettuccine and asparagus Parmigiano—not to mention the bites she’d snitched of Harry’s double-cut pork chop with black current sauce and his garlic mashed potatoes—that she passed on the dessert, and they just lingered over coffee. But their conversation mostly involved brief answers from Harry every time Estelle tried to introduce a new topic. She noticed he’d actually turned his chair slightly away from her and spent most of his time looking out at the boats as they came and went across the lights of the city shimmering off the water. Occasionally, he checked his watch as it approached nine o’clock and then, resting an elbow on the table, he held his head in his hand for a moment, shaking it back and forth slightly as though he were deciding the course of the universe.
She had to do something to pull him out of this funk.
“Harry … Harry, let’s top off the evening with a ride on the Ferris wheel. I’ve always wanted to do that, and it’s such a beautiful night. I bet we could see the whole city from up there.”
He looked at her blankly for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Why not?” He sat up in his chair as though relieved. “Let’s do it. I’ll call for the check.”
* * * *
Harry felt bummed. His special evening with Estelle had crashed and burned … at least in terms of what he’d planned. Why hadn’t he taken her for a sail on the Windy? Why hadn’t he given her the ring?
It was that episode of Grey’s Anatomy—the one where they discovered that a guy who was going blind in one eye had an inoperable brain tumor. Memory of it had popped into his mind just as he was turning into the Navy Pier parking garage with Estelle. He wished he’d never seen that show, but he had, and all evening he couldn’t get it out of his mind.
What if that was happening to him?
It was nearly eleven by the time he’d taken Estelle home and picked up DaShawn from his mother’s. He’d been tempted to let the boy spend the night at Great Grandma’s, but tomorrow was Sunday, and Harry had to have him packed and over to SouledOut Community Church an hour early to catch a ride in the van with the other kids going to summer camp. If it was a church camp, why did it start on Sunday? It made no sense to Harry.
Harry dumped the boy onto the bed, pulled off his shoes, and let him fall back to sleep in his clothes. He could take a shower in the morning.
Harry knew he should go right to bed himself, but he couldn’t … not yet. Not until he had more of an idea what he might be facing. He couldn’t ask Estelle to marry him if he was going blind! Or what if he died of a brain tumor? The ring in his pocket nearly burned a hole in his chest. Passing up his plans for a romantic proposal on that sailing ship tore him up. He wanted so badly to declare his love for her, but he couldn’t go through with it, not until he knew.
He sat down at the table in the living room where he and DaShawn shared a computer and turned it on. When the browser came up, he typed “blind spot in eye” into the search engine and clicked the Return key.
One Web site said everyone has two blind spots, one in each eye, but they were over to the side and corresponded to where the optic nerve connects to the eye. There was even an on-screen demonstration: “Close one eye and position your face close to the screen while focusing on the large 'x.’ Then move your head slowly back away from the screen.” When Harry tried it, the three large letters a few inches to the side disappeared and reappeared, one after the other as his natural blind spot passed over them. Why haven’t I noticed that before? he thought. “Because the other eye compensates and fills in the missing image,” the Web page explained.
Cool, an interesting distraction … but it didn’t account for the blind spot right in the center of his vision. He tried another Web site … and another … and another. Just as he feared, several mentioned the possibility of a brain tumor as the cause of a blind spot. And he couldn’t find anything to rule it out in his case.
By the time he finally shut down the computer at one o’clock in the morning, his mind was spinning with other scary possibilities: a detached retina … macular degeneration … diabetes … a stroke. On the other hand, he found a few less frightening causes of temporary visual problems … stuff like migraine headaches or excessive fatigue and certain medications.
As he finally crawled between the sheets, he tried to relax. Maybe he was getting worked up over nothing. In fact, he’d probably feel better after a good night’s sleep. Maybe something blew into his eye and scratched it without him noticing it. It had to be something like that … didn’t it?
But sleep wouldn’t come. Please, God. I don’t want to lose my sight. How would I take care of DaShawn? Didn’t you give him to me? And Estelle … don’t You know we’ve got a good thing going? I couldn’t saddle her with me as an invalid. In fact, God, I don’t think I could stand myself as an invalid. I’m too old to learn Braille. I couldn’t adjust, not at this age.
His heart pounded as he stared up into the gloom of his bedroom.
If it were a tumor, what other havoc would it wreck inside his skull before it killed him? How long would it take? Would he suffer? Would the doctors shoot him so full of morphine he’d be a zombie by the time he died? In his mind, he already had himself in the hospital, pincushioned with tubes and monitors. Huh! At least they won’t have to shave my head before operating!
But who would care for his elderly mother? He couldn’t leave that responsibility to Estelle. In fact, he probably ought to break off his relationship with her completely. He couldn’t entangle her in something like this. She already had enough problems, like that schizophrenic son of hers. She deserved a life of her own, not the burden of looking after a blind man. He couldn’t do that to her.
Harry turned over on his side and stared at the window, covered by venetian blinds. Fine strips of light from the city glow outside shone between each slat. He closed his right eye. At the point of focus for his left, the otherwise straight lines of light detoured around his blind spot like water flowing around a rock sticking out of a river. Yeah, now he was calling it his “blind spot,” not just blurry vision. He squinted, trying to evaluate what he could see. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it’d been earlier that day. He was tempted to sit up, turn on the light, and see what happened if he tried to read words from a book. Would the “missing” letters have returned? Maybe there’d be only a slight fuzziness. Maybe he was getting better.
But Harry resisted with all his will power.
Checking on it wouldn’t change a thing. He needed sleep.
“O God,” he groaned, “help me! Help me calm down and just go to sleep. Please!”
The engagement ring in its little box on Harry’s dresser had teased him for nearly a month. Most days he left it there, thinking he should return it to the jeweler and get his money back. How long did he have … a month? Two months? But then there were days like today when it tempted him to put it in his pocket and take it with him. Maybe his eye would be better. Maybe he’d find some romantic opportunity to ask Estelle to marry him.
“Grandpa! Hurry up!” His grandson pounded on his bedroom door. “I’m gonna be late for basketball camp!”
Harry grabbed a pair of socks from the top drawer. “Finish your breakfast and leave me alone, DaShawn!” he yelled back. Harry was never late for anything. Twenty years on the police force had made sure of that. He sat down and put on his socks and shoes, then went through the little ritual he’d fallen into each morning: checking his vision by staring at the slats of the Venetian window shades, then picking up the Readers Digest to try and read something with his left eye. Nope. The blind spot was still there. Apparently, more rest wasn’t the answer—what little he got of it, worrying through night after night—but the blind spot hadn’t gotten worse, either.
So, maybe he wasn’t going blind. Maybe it was just something he’d have to learn to live with. He could do that. It wasn’t all that bad, and his right eye compensated in most situations.
But it still worried him. He had to keep busy, get his mind off it. He’d quit his job as doorman at Richmond Towers at the end of July so he’d have more time to spend with DaShawn, now that the boy had come to live with him. He hadn’t really needed the job for the money. He had his policeman’s pension from when he’d been a Chicago cop. And while it wasn’t that much, he knew how to manage his money … at least he had known before taking on his grandson. How was he to know an Xbox 360 cost over three hundred dollars? And why did DaShawn need a $135 pair of Air Jordan XXIs, anyway? Wouldn’t something cheaper work just as well?
But now that he had his new routine down—taking DaShawn to basketball camp each day, doing the grocery shopping for two, cleaning the apartment, and checking on his elderly mother up in Evanston down to Rogers Park—there still seemed to be too much dead time when he ended up fretting about his eyesight.
Which is why he drove over to the Manna House women’s shelter that afternoon to see what needed doing. Volunteers … the homeless shelter always needed more volunteers. Helped keep his mind occupied by helping out where he could … not to mention giving him an excuse to check in on Estelle Williams who worked at the shelter part time as lunch cook. It used to be a volunteer job for her, but now they’d hired her to teach some life skills classes as well—cooking, sewing, that kind of thing.
Lunch was over when Harry poked his head into the dining room on the lower level of the shelter, but Estelle was still busy in the kitchen with four of the residents. He caught her eye and waved her a greeting. She stopped mid-sentence and rolled her eyes at him. “Harry Bentley! You here again? Can’t you see I’m teaching my class? Go find yourself somethin’ to do!” Shaking her head, she turned back to her class. “Now where was I … right. See here? It’s marked on the wrapper of this stick of butter. There are eight tablespoons of butter in every quarter-pound stick.”
Harry grinned to himself. What a woman! Instead of the ugly hairnet kitchen staff usually wore, she had piled her black-and-silver hair on top of her head and encased it in a green African-print wrap that set off her caramel-colored skin. Her large white apron had the words, “Kiss the cook,” beside a pair of red lips across the front. For half a second, Harry wondered if he dared try … then chuckled to himself as he climbed the stairs and headed for the closet off the large multipurpose room on first floor. Inside was a stack of old folding chairs that had been donated to the shelter. Most needed repair, and Harry spent the next couple hours sorting through them, fixing those he could salvage and carrying the hopeless ones out to the dumpster in the alley behind Manna House.
But Estelle was still busy in the kitchen when he had to leave to pick up DaShawn from basketball camp.
* * * *
Harry didn’t see Estelle again until Saturday when he and DaShawn picked her up to go over to Gabby Fairbanks’ apartment for her boys’ welcome-home and belated birthday party. Harry had become friends with the “Firecracker,” as he called the redhead who was always popping with wild ideas, while he still worked at Richmond Towers as the doorman. But when her husband, Philip, kicked her out of the penthouse, Gabby went from a do-gooder who worked at Manna House as the shelter’s program director to being a homeless resident there herself. When Philip added insult to injury by sending their two sons back to Virginia to stay with his parents in a seeming demonstration of his power over her, Harry was amazed how quickly the Firecracker rebounded to establish a home of her own so she could get her boys back.
After “losing them” for six weeks—during which time each boy had had a birthday—she’d finally worked out a deal with Philip that brought them back home to live under her own roof. It was time to celebrate!
“So you got the hot wings?” Estelle asked Harry as he held open the door of his SUV for her to climb in.
“Yep. Got two big pans in the back. They’re on the floor right behind DaShawn.”
Estelle pulled the folds of the loose yellow caftan around her and slid into the front seat then looked back over her shoulder. “Oh, hi, DaShawn. How you doin’?”
“I’m good, Miss Estelle. An’ you?”
“I’ll be fine soon as I get this seatbelt fastened.” She clicked the snap. “Mm-mm. Those wings smellin’ mighty good. Where’d you get ’em, Harry?”
“They’re Hecky’s, the jumbo wings.” He closed the door and rested his arm on the open window, a twinkle in his eye as he leaned his head in closer. “Cost me as much as takin’ you out for dinner, too.”
“Ha!” She tipped her head up and closed her eyes. “I ain’t even gonna dignify that comment with a response.” She sat there with her eyes closed until Harry withdrew and went around and got into the driver’s seat. Then she opened her eyes and turned to him. “Well, we goin’ or what?”
As Harry started the car and pulled away from the curb, Estelle waved her hand in front of her face. “Can’t we put up the windows and use the air, Harry? You know we can always put those wings in the oven when we get to Gabby’s. We don’t need to reheat ’em here in the car.”
Harry grinned at her. “Be glad to put on the air.” He pushed the buttons. “But it didn’t seem all that warm to me this afternoon. You sure you ain’t havin’ one of your hot¾”
“Harry Bentley.” She swatted his shoulder. “You watch your tongue, now.”
Harry ducked. “Hee-hee. Okay. Okay, Babe. Whatever. If you say it’s the weather, then it’s just the weather. Hee-hee.”
When they got to the six-flat, Harry and DaShawn each carried one of the large covered aluminum pans of hot wings and followed Estelle as she stomped across the street and up the steps. Harry wondered if he’d teased her too much. Her nose still seemed a little high as she pushed the doorbell.
Gabby Fairbanks was there in a moment. “Harry, Estelle, come on in.” She opened her arms wide for Estelle.
“Too hot for a hug, honey,” said Estelle as she brushed past her. “I’ll make it up to you this winter. C’mon, Harry. You too, DaShawn. Bring in those wings and stick ’em in the oven.”
Harry gave the Firecracker a wink as he followed Estelle into the first-floor apartment. Behind him, DaShawn said, “Hi, Miz Fairbanks. Your kids here?”
“Not yet. We want all the guests to get here first.”
It wasn’t long before more guests began to arrive. Mable Turner, the director of Manna House, came with her teenage nephew waving his hands and looking just too “pretty” with his cornrow braids. Harry shook his head. Maybe things had changed these days, but Harry suspected the kid still got persecuted at school. Then came Denny and Jodi Baxter, a middle-aged white couple. Denny was a high school coach and Jodi taught school at Bethune Elementary, which reminded Harry: He needed to enroll DaShawn there in the next few days … as a fifth grader. The last school his grandson had attended out in the suburbs had threatened to hold him back because he’d missed so many days of class even though he’d been able to do the work. But Harry had promised DaShawn he’d fight to be sure he’d be admitted as a fifth grader.
“Hey Harry,” Denny said as the two men greeted each other with a quick hug and a slap on the back. “Saw you at church the other day, but been missin’ you at Bible study. Everything, okay?”
“Oh yeah. Just busy, you know how it is.” Which wasn’t exactly true. Everything wasn’t “okay” with Harry. Prayer for his eye might be just what he needed. It was a cinch he wasn’t getting very far praying by himself.
“You know the guys been missin’ you,” Denny continued. “Think you can make it next Tuesday?”
“Yeah. I’ll do my best.” He might need prayer, but could he really tell these men how he’d been feeling? After all, it wasn’t that long ago he’d had to own up to his crime of breaking into the house across the alley from Denny Baxter to get back something that belonged to DaShawn. God had helped him get out of that mess, but it was rather embarrassing to admit he was in another one.
When the front door to the apartment opened across the room, Harry saw Denny’s son and his African-Honduran wife come in. Glad for a chance to change the subject, he said, “Hey, Josh …” That was his name, wasn’t it? “How’s that baby girl?”
Josh took a couple of strides across the room and thrust the baby into Grandpa Denny’s arms. “I think she needs changin’, Dad.” He turned and smiled at Harry. “Gracie’s fine. Here for her first big birthday.”
Birthday? That was the first Harry had heard about someone else sharing this party. Estelle had only mentioned Gabby’s boys.
“And how you doin’, Mr. B?” the tall young white kid asked.
“Oh, I’m good. I’m good.” Harry was about to ask how Josh and Edesa’s adoption of little Gracie was proceeding, when the Firecracker asked for everyone’s attention.
Philip, her estranged husband, had just pulled up out front of the apartment building with the boys. “Everyone come away from the windows,” Gabby said. “And Jodi, when they buzz the intercom, I’ll go out and let them in from the foyer, but when the boys get to the apartment door, you pull it open and everybody yell 'Surprise!’ Okay?”
Harry caught Denny’s eye and made a grimace as he glanced at the baby Denny still held. Yep, Josh had been right. From three feet away, Harry could smell the little tyke. At least as a grandfather Harry’d been spared the task of changing diapers since he hadn’t even known he had a grandson until a couple of months ago when the social worker from the Department of Children and Family Services had called and asked him to take nine-year-old DaShawn.
Everyone moved together into a group facing the apartment door as though they were a choir waiting to sing.
The door buzzer sounded. “Quiet! Quiet. I’m going out.” Gabby slipped into the hall to let in her boys. Harry could hear the normal greetings, but beneath it there was an obvious tension in Gabby’s voice as she spoke to the boys’ father. Funny, ever since he’d begun worrying about his eyes, Harry had been paying more attention to his other senses—smell, hearing, touch. It was like entering a new world.
He held his breath and strained to listen. If Fairbanks messed up this party, Harry wasn’t sure he’d be much of a gentleman about it. In fact, Harry was about to step out of the “choir” and go see what was happening, when the door swung open just as Fairbanks was saying, “The boys want me to see their 'new digs’ anyway.”
“Surprise!” … “Happy birthday!” … “Welcome home!” everyone shouted.
Harry had to play catch-up to join the chorus as the two boys pushed past their father into apartment where they were greeted with hugs and handshakes. He overheard Philip say to Gabby, “So … am I invited?”
Harry saw the enthusiasm melt from the Firecracker’s face. Didn’t blame her. This was supposed to be her party for the boys after her ex had sent them away for six weeks under the guise of visiting the grandparents. Oh, yeah, he wasn’t technically her “ex.” They were still married, but …
Just then Paul bounced between his mom and dad. “Oh, could Dad stay too? Please, Mom? That’d be great! Please?”
To her credit, the Firecracker quickly regained her composure and turned to her guests. “Uh, everyone, this is Philip, the boys’ dad. Paul, uh, wanted him to stay for a few minutes.” Others might not have noticed it, but Harry picked up the slight inflection that said she was only agreeing to “a few” minutes. Then she broke away from Fairbanks and began introducing her sons to some of the people they may not have known.
“P.J. and Paul, you remember my boss, Ms. Turner, the director of Manna House. And this is her nephew, uh … Jermaine. He’s starting ninth grade at Lane Tech, too, same as you, P.J. Thought you might like to meet a few kids before you start school.”
The slender black boy gave a hopeful nod, but P.J. didn’t react … at least not at first. Gabby ignored the awkwardness and turned to me. “And you boys remember Mr. Bentley, the doorman at Richmond Towers.” While she was speaking, Harry watched over her shoulder as a sneer crossed P.J.’s face and he reached his hand out to Jermaine. The boy took it only to find his delicate fingers caught in a painful vice. Harry shook his head—like father, like son. When P.J. released his grip and caught up with his mother’s introductions, Harry only barely resisted the temptation to show the kid what a real crusher felt like.
“And this handsome young man is his grandson, DaShawn,” continued the Firecracker.
Yeah, and you mess with my grandson, and you won’t even have a hand, telegraphed Harry with a steely stare.
Thankfully, DaShawn was oblivious to the whole exchange. “You dudes got a cool crib here. Thanks for inviting us to your party!” Then he looked up at Harry and whispered loudly, “We gonna eat soon, Grandpa? I’m hungry!”
It wasn’t long until Estelle came in from the kitchen and announced, “Food’s ready! It’s all laid out on the dining room table. Somebody want to say a blessing over the food and over our birthday boys?”
“It’s Gracie’s birthday, too, don’t forget!” said a vivacious young black woman, her hair done in tight little twists. Harry had seen her at Manna House, but wasn’t sure if she was a volunteer or a “guest.”
“That’s right,” added Estelle. “And you just volunteered to say the blessing. C’mon now, everybody join hands.”
Soon the guests had served their plates and were standing around schmoozing. It was what Harry hated most about parties like this—trying to look casual while not spilling food off paper plates that were too flimsy even if you snuck two of them. And how were you supposed to hold a drink? Furthermore, Estelle was too busy to help him make small talk with people.
It was just plain awkward.
“So, Bentley,” said Philip Fairbanks as he sidled up to Harry, “haven’t seen you around the past couple of weeks. You working the night shift now?”
“No, Fairbanks.” Ha! He didn’t have to call him Mister anymore. “I quit the job.” Harry turned and looked out the window as though something outside was far more interesting than conversing with Fairbanks. “Now that I’ve got custody of my grandson, I wanted to spend more time with him before school starts.”
The Firecracker overheard him. “Mr. Bentley! You quit your job? How—”
Harry shrugged. “It was just a job to supplement my retirement anyway.”
A puzzled look crossed Gabby’s face, but Harry changed the subject. “By the way, DaShawn and I are going to go to the zoo and some of the museums before school starts. Was going to ask if P.J. and Paul might want to come along too.”
“Oh, Mr. B! That would be great! I’m only working half time at Manna House until school starts—maybe we could go together.”
“Pick you up when you get off work then.” When Gabby nodded, Harry tapped his shved head a couple of times with his finger. “It’s on my calendar.”
Harry turned away from Philip’s condescending oversight and drifted toward the door. He’d had enough of this.
Outside on the porch steps, he breathed deeply of the afternoon’s humid air, exhaling tension as he gazed at the door of the building across the street. He closed his right eye to measure how much was covered by his blind spot. About the same, he guessed. Then his hand absently found the little box in his pocket. He fingered it open and felt the smooth gold and sharp diamond of the ring he wanted to give Estelle when he asked her to share his love for the rest of their lives.
But he couldn’t do that … not until he knew for sure what that life might be.
© 2013, Dave & Neta Jackson