The High Price of a Good Man

A Novel

Debra Phillips

St. Martin's Griffin

High Price of a Good Man, The
First of all, just for the record, I love me some me.
You heard right. And I'm not ashamed to say it either. I truly love Miss Queenisha Renae Sutton. The tall, well-endowed, fine honeycoated sistah that I be. Every inch of me is special, even if those inches are blown out to the fullest. Call it conceit if you want. Call it an overblown ego if you like. Call it what you want, but that's just how it is.
See, that's what's wrong with a lot of folks nowadays. Specially my ebony sistahs on the prowl. The ones that be looking for the elusive "good black man." Sistahs be tripping. Keep trying to love everybody else more than they love themselves. But not this amazon sistah. "If you can't find somebody else to love you," my mama always told me, "then you have to love your damn self." Mama should know because she and God have a close and personal relationship, and because of this, God has blessed her with infinite wisdom.
"First, you have to love yourself, and others will follow." She was always saying stuff like that, my mama, and some of it went straight over my head like a scent and mixed with the air. But some of it, the good parts, stuck to me like new skin. That's why we women lacking in the ways of love have to listen to the wisdom of our mothers. True,there may be a few mothers who never found out the truth and wisdom about life and love themselves, but on the other hand, there are plenty of mothers who did. Those, I say, are the ones to listen to.
Good old "mother wisdom." I listened as much as I could, but everything is everything with me, and my philosophy is what you see is what you just might get, but only if you play your cards right. Like me, for instance. Hmph. I can't be worrying about why my nappy, reddish-brown hair don't grow long and wavy down my ample back when a six-dollar box of relaxer and a nice laser-done weave will do just fine. And no way. You won't find me sitting around feeling sorry for my tall, sweet, honey-brown self, all of six feet tall and a size sixteen, thank you very much, just because diets don't like me and I don't like diets.
Amazon diva that I am, when I dress to kill, I strut all my stuff with my head held high like a twenty-eight-year-old proud bird. Some eyes do see and appreciate, while others--well, heck, they don't even matter. Some say I have a very pretty face, something about my almondshaped eyes being filled to the brim with a light of hope, and all warm with mischievous brown. But that ain't nothing, 'cause they're only saying something that I already know. I don't lay claim to being no professional prizefighter, but having big heavy limbs and heavy fists do have its advantage. The big and the bold, like myself, we don't mind handling our business if the need arise. If I have to throw down, so be it, and may the best woman win.
I'm the oldest of two daughters born to Odessa and Clayton Sutton. My mama left my daddy in Money, Mississippi, and headed for California when I was three and my sister, Kellie, was age one and still pulling at her tit. My daddy, Clayton, knew that he couldn't let a good black woman like my mama get away, so he tried putting his alcoholism on hold and followed suit within three months. My daddy. God rest his soul. Daddy probably would have been a professional California hoe-chaser by now if he hadn't slipped back into old ways and drank himself to an early grave. And that old saying about it takes a village to raise a child? True, and not so true. Compton was the small village that helped my mama raise me and my sister, Kellie. Helicopters hovering--the sound of bullets flying and ambulances racingthrough the murky night was as normal as the air we breathe. People never forgot to lock their doors at night, and not many of the tiny, rotten-frame houses that lined our shabby street went without security bars. The mean streets of Compton--a place long steeped in bad reputation, true enough, but it's not so bad as most folks imagine. And then again, some days it's worse.
Compton was okay, but I wanted to get out, and I did. Keeping it real with a good college education, I now earn a living from nine to five as an executive buyer for a major department store. I don't care to give the name right now. But I can say this much, though, they don't hire a lot of African-American women in the kind of position I have--but for me, they pay a sistah well, so I can't complain. Not when I'm buying my second condo in the upscale part of Cerritos, California. Not when my bank account would make the average working man wanna cry. And if I can't get a baby Benz in the color I want, no sense in having one at all. That's why I'm sporting a cold silver one equipped to the full.
I may not be the one who coined the saying that a little hard work never hurt nobody, but I know it's true. Sometimes it breaks my heart to say it, but unlike some of my fellow sistahs of today, I have no plans to take care of a man. Nope. Sorry. Not this large and lovely sistah. Not to say that I wouldn't buy my number-one squeeze a nice gift every now and then, but if he's the kind of man that's looking for a woman to pay for every date, wash his dirty drawers, buy his clothes, pay his car note, and dish out some spending cash on top--hmph!--then his eyes be bugging, and he's looking at the wrong honey-brown woman.
Which brings me to why I'm having a big problem with this fool, Marcus, sitting up here now in my face telling me that he don't have the money to pay for the cozy lunch we just ate. Ain't this a trip. I feel like pulling a Tyson on him, reaching over and biting off his ear and spitting it out on the floor. But cool, I tell myself. I can be calm. For the last ten minutes he's been sitting across and smirking at me, waiting for me to take my wallet out. And I'm waiting, too. Waiting for him to be joking with me about inviting me to lunch and having no money to pay.
"Marcus, you really got some nerve. You know that?"
"Aah, c'mon Miss Lady. Give a brother some slack. I'll set you straight when my funds roll in. I promise."
I'm making one of my faces, and I know it. Poetta swears that I always make faces when things don't go my way. She's probably right. If looks could kill, Marcus would be on the floor right now clutching his own throat.
"No, you hold on, now, Mr. Think-You-All-That Marcus. Let me hear it again so I can get this straight. I was all the way in Cerritos, relaxing at my own crib and minding my own business when you called me up. I didn't call you. You called me, and asked me out for lunch. Right?" I could feel my pulse throbbing at the side of my temples. Sometimes when I get a little excited, I have a tendency to get a little loud, but I was making a point of keeping my voice down and leaning in over the small and quaint pink cloth-covered table where the bill for our meal lay waiting like a copy of the state deficit.
"I said I'ma take care of you next time, girl. Why you sweating me and making a big deal out of it?"
"A big deal? Marcus, perhaps you don't understand the basic rules of dating. You ask the woman out, you pay. The woman ask you out, she pays." I clucked my teeth and shook my head. I couldn't believe that this was going to be the stumbling block of what could have been a nice relationship. Looks like I've been foolish enough to even think it was the beginning of something special when I should have known better. I hadn't known the man but a good three weeks, but after a few phone sessions I thought there was hope for us--a budding seed of a relationship. Guess I was wrong. Dang. I hate when that happens. And I had it all planned out in my head, too, how I was gonna rock his world between the sheets after our date. Now the only thing I feel like rocking is a big rock upside his head. "Well, how much money do you have with you?" It's the look on his face rubbing me the wrong way. That combination smirk-sneer.
"About two dollars and forty-five cents." He pushed the bill holder over in my direction. "Stop making a big deal of it, and handle our business so we can go to the pad and get our freak on, woman. You know you wanna."
"In your dreams. The only freaky thing that you and I could do right now is me struggling to remove my boot from your behind."
"Ooh, aggressive. I like that in my woman. Aggressive and kinky."
"Well, you don't have a woman at this table, so pull out some cash so we can get on with our lives." I couldn't stop glaring at him. Such a waste, too. Marcus T. Turner had been one of those chance meetings three weeks previous. Surrounded by my natural habitat, stores at the mall, and doing what I do best, I had been shopping that Saturday three weeks ago, hauling around a slew of packages and trying to have an intelligent cell phone conversation with my homegirl, Poetta, when I bumped into the tall, slender, and somewhat handsome Marcus T.
Granted, he wasn't what you could call a superfine brother. In other words, a possible diamond, but still raw and without the shine. But he was a smooth talker. Had a good look working for him with those slightly hungry-looking light brown eyes that looked like he could sop you up with some gravy and two biscuits. Clean-shaven, delicious cocoa skin, except for that floss-thin black mustache hanging over the most kissable thin lips I'd ever seen on a man. If I didn't know any better, lips like his usually came from a skilled doctor's scalpel. Marcus had the lips I dreamed of: flawless.
Okay, okay, so I have this thing about lips. Some folks have a foot fetish, but I have this thing going on in my head about lips. If a man has thin, nicely shaped lips, it's like the icing on the cake. But if a man's lips look big enough to curl up and cover his own face, I don't want no part of him. Marcus had these thin and perfect-shaped lips. When he smiled at me, I could see that he didn't have perfect teeth, but a girl can't always have everything in one perfect package. Sometimes it takes a pinch of the good parts and a dash of the bad parts to make it all worthwhile and keep it real. All I'm saying is, the man was all right.
Even as large and luscious as I am, I don't usually go around bumping into men, at least not on purpose, so I figured it had be destiny. Everybody knows that the good Lord works in mysterious ways by sending a man your way when you're not looking for one. I know 'cause my mama told me this ever since I was knee-high to a poodle and terrorizing from my crib. But honest to God, a tall and voluptuouswoman like myself hauling a bunch of packages around and trying to talk on a cell phone while strolling through a semi-crowded mall needs to pay more attention.
Marcus and I, we bumped, and packages went all over the place. I probably would have gotten mad at him if it hadn't been for the fact that it was mainly my fault and Marcus was so apologetic, and did give me a good view of his well-defined rear in those well-fitted black dress slacks he had on as he bent over to retrieve my things. A wide smile had pulled at my lips while thinking how nice his gray silk banded collar shirt looked on him. Moving swift like the wind, he had my packages spotted, swept up, checked, and back in place, the whole time he kept saying how sorry he was. Sorry this. Sorry that. And then I was saying something, too, like, "Excuse me Poetta, gotta go." Click.
Poetta hates it when I cut her off too abrupt by hanging up on her, but I felt like I had an emergency to deal with--some 911 of a possible hunk. Just looking at that man making such a fuss over my fallen things was enough to take my breath away. I didn't see no ring on those fingers, and such nice hands, too--large and well kept. A recent manicure. Another plus in my book. No nasty-looking black, bacteria and goo all up under his fingernails to possibly contaminate my intimate and special places. Things were looking up.
"Mercy me." I had to fan myself. "There's nothing to be sorry about. I'm sure you didn't mean to." After I composed myself, he helped me over to a stationary wooden bench where I perched to take inventory of my things while he stood over me smiling and looking ever so patient. Even though he didn't have perfect teeth, I liked his smile right off. Sometimes, if you angle your head the right way, even a few crooked teeth can be quite sexy. The man had to be a good six feet two, and that was another plus in my book. Six feet and two inches of testosterone towering over my six-foot frame was right up my alley. I had to look away several times to blush, which isn't the easiest thing for a woman of my complexion.
"So, what's your name?" he wanted to know.
I had looked up at him again and thought that our chance meeting might be something to check out. "Queenisha Renae Sutton. But my close friends call me Queenie."
"Well, it's nice to meet you, Miss Queenie. I'm Marcus." He held out his hand, and I took it for a brief shake. "Marcus T."
I have to admit now, that day I was impressed. In my mind, that middle T had to be for something good, like tall, teasing, tantalizing, or terrific, and the way he said his name, his confident tone, sounded like it held some kind of importance to him. He sat down beside me along the bench. After we talked awhile, it seemed the right thing to do to give him my beeper number.
"No home number?" He mocked disappointment.
"Beeper first, home next."
"Oh, it's like that, huh?"
"Yeah, it's like that." Sometimes a sistah have to learn the hard way, like I did, about giving out my home phone number. Now my number two policy when dealing with a man is, never, ever tell a man your address or home phone number until you're absolutely positive you wanna be hearing from him on a regular basis. This alone cuts down on hang-ups and phone stalking.
Marcus beeped me the very next day. Five days into beeping, and me ringing him back, and him saying the right things, he'd earned my phone number. Matter of fact, he's been calling me every day since then. Like clockwork. No sooner after I arrive home from work and have my banana-mango scented bubble bath and a spot of tea--well, more like a spot of sherry--my phone would burr with its own urgency, and to my delight, it would be Marcus. After a short while, I got to liking all the things he was saying, that tint of possibility in his words, and I guess my words were checking out, too. After two weeks and a half, he asked me out to lunch. And before I answered, I had to recheck my mental stats on the man:
NAME: Marcus T. Turner
LIPS: Thin, perfect ... kissable
MARITAL STATUS: Single, but looking for the right woman
JOB: Construction worker (pays well)
CAR: Ford Mustang 5.0 (in the shop for repairs)
LIVING ARRANGEMENTS: Sharing apartment with brother Gerald in Culver City
GOALS: To someday own his own construction company
Marcus checked out good, so I agreed to have lunch with him that following Sunday. And though I don't like the idea of chauffeuring a man around on the first date, he had explained to me how his car needed major engine work, so I agreed to drive from Cerritos to Culver City to meet him at a nice, cozy little restaurant a few blocks away from the Fox Hills Mall. After weeks of holding back our lustful thoughts like a dam holding back water, we would be on our very first romantic date. But that was then.
And here we are. A balmy-looking Sunday afternoon, late June, and I'm beginning to feel like I would have had a better time at the dentist's office having a root canal. I could have been somewhere doing what I do best, like shopping or kicking it with my best friend, Poetta, and her sister, Marva. Doing what girls do when they hang.
Instead, here I am sitting across from this lightbulb-shaped head Marcus T., who just polished off a filet mignon, a large salad, baked potato, two glasses of wine, and a nice hunk of Mississippi mud pie, and now he sitting here talking about he don't have no money to pay. He was looking good, too. Had on a nice burgundy and tan knit shirt and some nice-fitting burgundy slacks, and I'm secretly hoping he gets severe heartburn and a bad case of intestinal gas once he gets home.
"Let me hear it again, Marcus. Just in case my ears are playing tricks on me. You saying that you don't have any money with you at all? None?"
"None. Haven't received my check from my last construction job yet, but they say it's in the mail. But, Queenie, girl, don't sweat it. I'll even pay you back if it'll make you feel better."
My chicken Alfredo was turning on me. The room's drone of customer voices, the clink of silverware against bowls and plates, all faded away. I could feel the slow burn of acid reflux inching its way back up through my esophagus. No money to pay. Umph.
What kind of fool did he take me for? "Marcus, don't 'Queenie girl' me. Only my closest friends call me Queenie, and right now"--I waved a stiff finger across his face--"you are not my friend."
He looked surprised. "What? 'Cause you paying for the first date? Big deal. This is the new millennium, and women pay for dates justlike men. And besides, I'm worth every penny of it. Come home with me, and let me show you. I promise, you won't regret it."
"Maybe so, maybe not, but we'll never know, will we? I just think you have some nerve pulling a stunt like this."
"Queenie, why you wanna be that way? Thought we were going to have a nice day together? Woman, I have plans for us. Devilish plans." He winked an eye and added, "I know you like to freak, and I'm just what you need."
I didn't have to see him gyrating his pelvis beneath the table; I could feel it. The man had gall, I had to give it to him. "You mean big plans as long as I'm paying?" Gritting my teeth at the same time, I opened my purse and fished around for my wallet. I didn't know which was upsetting me most, the ease of him conning me into a lunch at my expense or his devil-may-care attitude about it. Such a nice little restaurant, too. Nice decor. Not exactly what you could call cheap. What was that name again? Chateau-à-la-'bout-to-get-an-attitude. Instead, I gave him my most sweetest look. "Okay, okay. You win this time, Marcus."
"Woman, you tripping. It's just lunch, not a car payment."
"You got that right," I added, huffy. "I am not the one who pays to have a man." And to think that I had dressed up for him with my navy blue ankle-length velour skirt and top. I'd worn my black lace shawl and light black boots thinking that the June sky, a sneaky lace of sun and a few clouds, could be unpredictable.
"I think you're overreacting a bit." His eyes danced in a head that couldn't possibly hold common sense.
"And I think," I said with much attitude and a harsh whisper as I placed a fifty-dollar bill on the bill tray, "that if I had known that lunch would be on me when you were the one that asked me out, I wouldn't have come."
He looked almost hurt by my remark, but only for a few seconds. "Why you making a big deal of it? I said I'll pay you back the next time. I promise."
"The next time? Negro man, paahleezz. What makes you think there'll be a next time?"
"A little sassy now, aren't we?" He grinned like he was enjoying every minute of it. "But that's slick. I can deal. I like that in a woman like you."
The waitress, a blue-eyed, too thin, and pale girl with long, stringy brown hair, came up quietly and took our bill and my money away. I felt sick to my stomach but smiled in spite of it.
"A woman like me?" I asked, suddenly intrigued by his choice of words. "What's that supposed to mean, a woman like me?"
Picking up his glass of white wine, Marcus smiled and sipped at what remained in the glass, then gulped it as if he were suddenly dying of thirst. Looked like he wanted to fix his crooked-teeth-mouth-self to ask for another round, but my eyes dared him. "You trying to pick a fight, aren't you?" he said.
"Tell me, Marcus," I prompted with a true eagerness that had to be showing on my face. "What's a woman like me?"
He sat there, easing back in his seat to contemplate my expression. I swear, sometimes I feel like I can read minds. Ever since I was a young girl, growing up in Compton, I've had the feeling that some folks' thoughts scroll around in their eyes like neon signs that blink and reveal their message. You have to watch carefully. It's all in the eyes. I can almost see Marcus's thoughts scattering around in his pompous head.
I'm cool, though. I'd known men like Marcus before. Men who sought out larger females, thinking that their size made them more vulnerable and so needy of a man and easy prey who'd do anything just to have and keep a man. Even if that same man treated her like the crud on the bottom of his shoes. But I don't say anything. I wait to hear him say it.
"You know." He grinned in a teasing kind of way--funning with me, using his hands to gesture width. "The-more-to-love woman. A big girl like you. You nice and all, smart, witty, and for real you have a very pretty face, but--"
There it was. That all-familiar but. Wonder what had taken it so long to come out? That one little word, but. Seemed like all my life, I have heard that same little three-letter word come from so many mouths that even when I didn't hear the word itself, I saw it passinglike some circling bird of prey in people's eyes. "You all right, Queenie, but ..." Or, "I think you're a terrific woman, Queenie, but ..."
It has taken me years to rise above it, to slap its meaning to the far corner of my life like some pesky fly that had buzzed around me for too long, and to keep stepping. Marcus T. was just another fool trying to work my nerves--another buzzing fly that needed to be put down.
"Oh, I see." I sat back in my own seat and looked out the window of the booth. The humid June sky was dotted with moving clouds, and the thick air seemed like it would never cool off. Traffic along Slauson Avenue never ceased moving. Made me think of ocean tides that never cease. One car after another, fleeing faces in colorful ships. So many people rushing here and rushing there. I wondered briefly what destination they all could be on their way to, then wondered what threads of good and bad weaved together to make the fabric of their lives. Did they, too, have to constantly fight the battle of the folks who tried to make a fool of 'em? The room was hotter. I shouldn't have worn velour.
"Hey, I--I mean, don't get me wrong," Marcus threw in after a brief quiet spell, stumbling over his words. "I mean, I ain't mad at'cha. Hell, me myself, I like a woman with some extra meat on her frame. Always have. Stuff to grab and hold on to."
A small chuckle from me. "Whew. Lord, I'm so relieved to hear that, Marcus." I do my proper Southern belle act, fanning myself. "I mean, what ever would us big-boned women do without men like you?"
"See," he snorted, and sat up straighter, looking more serious. "Why you wanna play a brother? I'm talking serious biz, and you joking."
"Guess because a brother needs to learn that all big women don't always make an easy target for a man who thinks he's doing her a favor just by going out with her. Yeah, I'll admit I like sharing intimate time with a nice, ebony brother, but make no mistake about it, Marcus, I like to be the one asking him out. It ain't that serious."
The waitress brought my change, and I left the three dollars for a tip. I got my purse and keys and stood up to leave. "I don't have a problem paying for a man's dinner, Marcus, but I should be the oneasking him out when I do so. You didn't even know if I had enough money on me to cover this meal or not. You just assumed that I did. It was nice, but I'm outta here."
He looked shocked. "But what about us spending some real time together at my place?"
"What about it?" I couldn't get myself together to leave quick enough.
Marcus didn't bother to stand up. He sat there, looking stupid, looking up at me like he couldn't believe that I was actually leaving without him.
"I got some hot videos and bubbly at the crib. A little chronic if you flow that way. Don't you wanna spend some quality time with me?" He puckered and blew a kiss at me. "Let ol' Marcus make you feel good and make it up to you."
"Maybe that's your problem right there: too much chronic and all that smoke clouding your better judgment. Thanks, but no thanks, but I don't flow that way. As for us spending some quality time together, this was it." I stepped away from the booth, turned, and walked toward the exit.
"Hey, Queenie, wait up," he called after me. "Can a brother at least get a ride back home?"
I stopped and half turned around. "You the one like to assume so much--just assume you already have one. The bus stop is right outside."
"That's cold-blooded."
"Have a nice life, Marcus. And don't bother calling me."
Was he stunned or stupid? Don't know; don't care. I didn't bother to look back at his expression as I braced my back, squared my shoulders, and walked briskly to the door.
THE HIGH PRICE OF A GOOD MAN. Copyright © 2003 by Debra Phillips. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.