IT WAS SOMETHING to be proud of, how I'd made a name for myself, even if it wasn't merely hard work and focus that got me here. And, in the back of my mind, that's just what I think about--how lucky I am to be who and what I am. I can't help thinking that my grandfather had a lot to do with what I know and where I'm at today, considering how (from age eight until I was a teenager) he had custody of me. So while Dad was away for six years, Gramps taught me the family's handyman trade and made sure I knew how to act by using that leather belt on my ass early and often. As much as I dreaded the old-school ways of my grandfather, almost twenty years later, I realize it was good medicine. And, I might be imagining things, but ever since the older men in my life passed on, it feels like even more work has been coming my way. It's as if "the hood" was showing some kind of combined condolences toward my situation. Miss Sally wants me to fish out a ring from her drain for the umpteenth time, a new resident needs me to come in and seal any holes that might be the welcomeentrance for the mice in her apartment, and Marcia Thomas needs me to change another lightbulb. Now, if you think those calls are silly, there's way more that are worse. Leaking faucets, air conditioners on the blink, seal this or fix that. And there's my favorite nuisance request that comes up from time to time: is there a way to stop that smell from next door? And "next door" usually amounted to nothing but the baby's soiled diaper or the dog poop that hadn't been cleaned up for a day. It all adds up to air pollution, no matter how you look at it. Sometimes the air in these buildings is just a step away from the Projects: thick enough to slice with a butter knife. But the whole concept of Park Chester is supposed to be on some agenda of next-level living. Whatever that means.
I've met plenty of families who moved out of the Projects and into these buildings thinking they were movin' on up, like George and Weezy. But after a few years of this, they come to realize it's the same old trap, just a different part of the neighborhood. Smart people doin' smart things, and dumb people keeping their titles. Still, just because I might be able to snuff out these simple maintenance issues they call me for, doesn't measure up to some of my clients who are older men and women. Some are too busy, and a few are just plain lazy. And me--I end up being the good-deed doer, or the glue that keeps our neighborhood together. I'll go in for a plumbing job and I'll end up fixing a wall outlet that some kid stuck a toothpick in. Think about the blocks and blocks of apartment buildings that keep me earnin' a livin, and so many tales, dramas, and tragedies to go with it. Domestic violence, child welfare issues, and even petty crimes that I turn my back on, or else I'd have totake things personal; or else I'd be labeled a tattletale. And who needs that?
Regardless, I still gotta be on my grind; I still gotta get paper. They call me, I get paid; no credit, no barter. So, how can I argue with any of this if there's legitimate money on the table? And, by the way, I couldn't help noticing the ants crawling throughout your place--need me to handle that for you?
MY LIVING arrangement has been pretty much the same ever since I left college to take care of my father during his last living days. We were the only New York members of the Garrett family, and we sort of depended on one another for those remaining eighteen months of his life, so a two-bedroom apartment in Park Chester worked out just fine. "Team Garrett," the neighbors called us in his healthier days, how we always knocked out whatever handyman issues came about; no matter what, there wasn't a job we couldn't handle. But then the prostate cancer set in for my dad, like his dad before him. Then the funerals came (more or less) back-to-back.
SO I'M solo now, and I'm getting the feeling I need to insulate myself some. Call me a sucker if you want, but your self-esteem points drop into the single digits when you lose someone close to you. I guess you'd have to live it to know it. But everything could've taken a different turn--I could've just as well worn the "I don't give a damn" attitude. Or I coulda been swallowed by drugs, or worse, suicide. So,considering the choices of a stand-up dude from the Bronx who wasn't forced by circumstance to rep a gang or group, I done pretty good for myself.
SINCE I do so much work for these different Park Chester residents (mostly women), I've been trusted with keys to their various apartments so that while they're at work I can go in and fix the problem. This was the case with Ms. Thomas in building 14, apartment 7B. There are times when she never realizes I came through. I'll do my customary knock, but when there's no answer I figure all is safe and I go right in. Ms. Thomas isn't the only one with a dog, either. She has a poodle that's mad noisy when I go into her place. But, for whatever reason, there was no barking this time. I figured lil' Sparky was out with Ms. Thomas, at the vet or with a friend. And, quiet as I tried to keep it, that was a good thing for my allergies. Allergic to dogs, don't like 'em, and that's all there is to it. Cats are even worse, since their fur gets all over the place and I can't help but breathe that shit in. Before you know it, I start sneezing and my eyes turn watery. I'm sure the lonely pet lovers of the world see it all different, but I got enough of life's weight on my shoulders to carry more. God bless 'em.
"SPARKY! HEEEERE, Sparky!" The moment I stepped through the door I called out for the dog, just to be sure the mutt wasn't about to ambush me and (maybe) bite my leg off. Paranoid, I know--but you'd have to walk in my shoes to understand how my nervous system starts acting up. Itstarts in the brain, like my senses start tingling or something, and from there my body starts acting up. I spiral into itching and goose bumps. The twitching and the sneezing just take over, and it spirals from there. Like I said, call me a punk, but that's just how it is. And I gotta deal with it.
So, when I didn't hear anything, I stepped right on in, as if it was my own place. I always liked Marsha Thomas's crib, but not until now did I snoop around some. It started with my flipping through the two-month-old Ebony magazine on the coffee table by her vinyl-covered sectional couch. Why do they do that to couches? I mean, if you can't sink into the total comfort of the couch, what's the point? And if you're preserving the couch for a rainy day (like, maybe your sixtieth birthday?) and then you decide to remove the plastic, just to experience the "full value" of the furniture for the remaining days of your life, then it seems to me you went through a lifetime of pain for two minutes of pleasure! Ms. Thomas, the masochist?
I DIDN'T get to flipping halfway through the magazine before hearing what I thought was a squeal from farther back in the apartment. I ignored it the first time, but there was a second squeal that seemed to graduate into a cry. Stepping farther on into the apartment, with no daylight to follow me from the living room, I noticed flickers of light reflecting against the master-bedroom door. Common sense told me it might be a TV that had been left on. I tried to switch on the hall light, but it didn't work. So I found myself saying, Duh, Danté. Why'd you think she called you here in the first place? Still, the back of the house and therest of the hallway drew me ever closer until I reached the entrance; until my mouth fell open and my eyes grew wide. No longer blinded by the dark, I could see Ms. Thomas lying on the bed naked, and flickering on the TV at the foot of her bed was an old recording of Soul Train. How did I know it was old? Not only because they discontinued the show, but because Marvin Gaye was singing live to the crowd. And that nigga dead. So, unless the squeals were of audience members on the TV, it was easy to guess where the noise came from. And now it was obvious--obviously luring me in, that is. The imagery made me think of some old 70s blacksploitation flick. Or even the glow-in-the-dark indoor golf franchises with the black lights all over the place so that just about every speck of dust would show up in neon. The only difference here was that I was at the center of it all, about to glow in the dark my damn self.
Meanwhile, there was this glistening hue of purple that changed what I knew to be Ms. Thomas's mocha-brown skin. The reality was that the lighting on the Soul Train stage had a purple hue, as if the TV needed some correction. The other reality here was that Ms. Thomas was fingering her snatch, more than engrossed in the act as her body seemed tense, stretching, frustrated.
As of now, I thought her eyes were closed, or that she was focused on Marvin gettin' it on with his own magnetism. I thought that my presence had gone unnoticed and that the rich odor of her sex went undisturbed. How wrong was I when I tried to backstep and tippy-toe away. Maybe it was my tool belt knocking against the wall or something, but those beautiful, sensual forty-six-year-old eyes of hers opened even wider and appeared to dare me to take anotherstep back. And the dreamy state I was in turned dizzy when she sang:
"Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on, baby."
--And I knew good and well she was talking to me. But if there was no other indication that this was the case, there was always the twitching in my boxer-briefs, a reality I could not get around even if I tried.
"Sorry, Ms. Thomas. I knocked, I swear." Stuttering and disheveled, I respectfully turned my eyes toward the dark wall nearest to me, ready to break the record for the hundred-yard dash to the apartment entrance.
"Excuuuuse me!" she cackled as I attempted to remove myself from her presence. "Danté, darling," she cried out in an off-key, singsong kind of way. "Don't you be a little coward now. You're not a coward, are you?"
I got a little bold and backpedaled to her bedroom threshold. Okay, I'll admit that I had peeped at her grapefruit jugs and that bottle-shaped figure with the outrageous ass, but I never gave a second thought to being in her bedroom while she was playing with herself! I never thought I'd be introduced to these brand-new sensations in my loins, not to mention the airborne scent of Ms. Thomas's fruity body juices. And now that I thought about it, if she was offering me the view and paying me, then why not get my gaze on? Really, I never had a problem with the ladies. I got no kids so far, and I'm pretty good-looking (if I do say so myself), with my thin, flexible, 168-pound body and my matted crewcut always groomed like my goatee. Lookat a GQ magazine and look at me, and you can agree I belong there.
Just as confidently I replied, "Ahh, Ms. Thomas, I am the last person you can call shy. I just, well, I'm respectful of my elders." I didn't think she saw the smirk on my face, but nevertheless, she propped herself up some and bounced back quick.
"Elders, huh?" The urge for retaliation was fresh in her eyes, like a challenger in a sword fight, only without the blood and gore.
She went on to say, "I wasn't too old last week when you were here."
The question mark on my face was as sincere as her voice was determined.
She went on to say, "Oh, don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about. I saw you checking me out, Danté; checkin' my ass out as I left the room. Don't deny it."
While I didn't give in, I was ready with a lie.
"I don't think so, Ms. Thomas."
"Well, my eyes don't lie, you strappin' young Mandingo you. And I'll put a month's rent up as a bet that you are not a coward. I think you're smart enough to know what I want. I think you're strong enough to give it to me. And I know you're equipped to do the job right. So stop bein' so nervous. Step into my bedroom and relax a little. Kick your shoes off and let a real woman give a hardworkin' handyman a massage. No strings attached. Promise."
Smart enough? Strong enough?? Am I equipped to do the job right??? Was she kidding? She must've thought I was stupid to go for the psychology tricks, tryin' to make me feel deficient, so that maybe I'd feel I had something toprove to her (and myself). Besides that, her words were poppin' in and out because my capitalist-conscious mind was still calculating her wager of a month's rent, and the challenge that came with it.
Does she mean that?
I LEFT Ms. Thomas's apartment well after nine that night, feeling a little out of place from the drinks that followed dinner. And if it wasn't dizziness I was feeling, then I was probably what you call mellowed out or spent after our first-ever sexual encounter. All the while I kept thinking that I know better--the idea and the act of sex is supposed to be gratifying, satisfying, and electrifying, with partners who can't wait to return for more. I mean, you'd think at least we should be in love. And yet, it wasn't that way for me. Instead, it was her orgasm that was an explosion, compared to mine; the mere oil spill. Hers was the desire that (in hindsight) seemed to be that dire need, while, on the other hand, I couldn't wait to get it over with. And here's the worst thought I was left with--I'm not sure if it was the egg scent that somehow rubbed off her body and onto my own, or what I took to be some flowery cheap perfume she wore. But either way, it was a push-and-pull endeavor that was much too difficult to enjoy.
Now, besides all that, there was a downside that left me with a kind of mental dehydration where I carried some ugly weight on my mind; as if something was dragging me down from the pleasure that I would usually enjoy after sex. It was easy to know that I didn't love this woman, that this was but a thrill and that there would be no futurebetween us. However, my best guess in regard to the emotional spin I was going through amounted to nothing more than giving. I had given something away when I stepped past that threshold to her bedroom. I had exposed my greatest assets when I undressed before this woman--so clever with her sensuality and promise of ecstasy squared. I had invested my time and energy when I lay with, touched, fondled, and penetrated this woman. But as different and as intoxicating as she made it seem at the outset, the truth was more evident than ever once I came. After I came I could think clearly, and the thoughts were not clouded by desire or my lack of sexual satisfaction. In the end, the fact was that her lovin' was just ordinary, with extraordinary or a different wrapping--that's all. And, she was right in saying that there was no attachment, not emotionally and not physically. I didn't feel a thing, even with the great dinner she later cooked, or the awesome back massage she gave me before the sex.
But there was one memory I think I did intend to keep, that engrossing, juicy-wet blow job she executed. I think about it now and I can say, Okay, so maybe there was a plus to this encounter. Regardless of how selfish it was.
It was an impulsive moment that caught me off guard and pulled me back in like a fish--another thrill that I surrendered to. After all seemed to be said and done, I still had on my boxers, sitting at the dinette table with my bare chest and with one last scoop of apple pie and vanilla ice cream.
Ms. Thomas said, "After all this, you still haven't changed the light bulb." And the way she said that was so authoritative, as if I'd done something wrong and there was somemeans of discipline I'd face; someone she could report me to, or that my reputation might somehow be jeopardized. I honestly thought she was kidding, but there was that stern disciplinarian's look in her eye that (I have to admit) intimidated me some. I haven't seen that face since my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Fraoli, disciplined me. Nevertheless, I kept my urge to fire back a secret, and I busied myself with that last scoop of dessert before immediately getting up on my ladder to change the light bulb in her hallway. True story here--she snuck up on me, slipped my used beef from my boxers, and began to suck on me like this was a normal activity. And how could I argue with what had to be the most spontaneous, exciting, and sensationally impulsive sexual encounter that I'd ever experienced? Not to mention the moments when I nearly buckled; nearly thrown off balance as I continued working on the fixture overhead.
I eventually came down from the high. I was not "converted" into a lover. I was not convinced that our indulgences were worthwhile enough for me to return for more. And, if anything, Ms. Thomas helped me get some backed-up weight off my shoulders (or out of my loins). So, I might call what happened in her apartment a win-win event. But, no bullshit--I could've gotten the same satisfaction jerking off in the shower.
BURNING DESIRE. Copyright © 2009 by Relentless Aaron. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.