Enjoy an excerpt from "People Change"
© by TC Thompson All rights reserved.
As I sat on a wooden stool next to Ernestine Beasley, listening to yet another story about her childhood and growing up on the bayou in the back parts of Louisiana, we were both laughing hysterically. Her arms were flailing about as she brought her past into our present.
“…I pulled out the machete and I swear to you, if he took one more step towards me, his head was gonna to be rollin’ on the ground like a bowling ball on a slicked up alley.”
Ernestine held her hand high above her head and waved it back and forth. She looked more like a cute clown trying to entertain children at a birthday party than the rugged roughneck she was trying to convince me she was back in the day.
“He backed up and started running down the street. Girl, he was so scared, I could have sworn I saw brown drippings on the back of his britches.”
“Stop, Ms. Stine, I can’t take any more!” My side was literally aching from laughing and I was waving my hands back and forth fanning myself. I barely eked out the words. “You. Think. He. Pooped. His pants?” because I couldn’t stop laughing.
“If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’!”
Once again she had me caught up in one of her déjà vu moments. She was so animated. All of her stories about ‘back in the day’ were entertaining. Her reenactment of the scenes would always result in an aching side and tears rolling down my face from laughing so hard. And the way she named dropped as if you were either there with her or that you knew all her friends and acquaintances made the stories that much more hilarious. Keep in mind that most of these people were either dead or didn’t live in Louisiana anymore. So chances are, you would never meet them nor have the opportunity to validate any of her far-fetched accounts.
And there always seemed to be a plethora of people who shared the same name. So just when you thought you knew which “Martin” she was referring, she would inform you that she wasn’t talking about that Martin. Instead, she was referring to the Martin that dated Tanya Turner back in the six grade. But not to leave you confused, she made sure to give a helpful description of the person after she said their name. She would say, ‘Bobby Ray… You know… The one that worked at the bakery that sold the good muffins’ or ‘Timothy Luke…You know…. The one with the peg leg.’ I always waited for these descriptions so that I could try to follow along. But even if you didn’t know exactly which character she was describing, you could count on a good hearty laugh about them.
Ernestine was now leaning against the counter with obvious signs of an achy side from laughing so hard at herself.
“I’m telling you, girl, I had him so nervous that he showed up at Big Daddy’s the next morning and confessed to crimes that he didn’t even have nothin’ to do with. If I ain’t mistaken he spent a year in jail behind some robbery that someone else committed. I don’t even think he was in town that day. But I guess he remembered what I said about having his head on a platter. He didn’t mess with nobody else after that”.
As I walked to the sink to put a handful of mustard green leaves in the clear water to wash the last bunch, Ernestine’s doorbell rang.
"That's probably Ruby's slow tail. She was supposed to be here early this morning." Ernestine fussed.
"Well, it's not like she's late, Ms. Ernestine. There really isn't much for her to do. Besides, she was probably tired from staying up last night playing Spades til the wee hours of the morning with you." I laughed.
"Still. She's always late." Ernestine rolled her eyes.
Moments later the front door opened and closed and in walked Ruby McCall, Ernestine's closest friend, carrying her famous five-layer carrot cake. She winked at Ernestine. Ernestine winked back and just like that, all was forgiven.
Looking around the kitchen, I didn’t know who was going to eat the army of food I had spent all afternoon preparing. Ernestine had only mentioned that a few people would be stopping by for the party.
“Hey, Shuga.” Ruby was a tall brown-skinned round woman in her early sixties. Just like Ernestine, she wore her hair in tight pin curls. I always wondered secretly why the two ladies preferred that style over combed out curls, but to each her own. They were still adorable.
I gave Ruby a peck on her cheek and took the cake from her hands, placing it on the dessert table next to the marble brownies that Ernestine had me bake. There was also two pecan pies, two sweet potato pies and one lemon meringue pie that Ernestine insisted we needed. All I could do was smile as she helped me squeeze the lemons, peel the yams, and shell the pecans that I would need to make the desserts. I would do just about anything in the world for this woman. Although we weren’t blood related, over the years, she had become very special to me.
About an hour later, I held a spoon to Ernestine’s mouth, letting her taste a fork full of the potatoes au gratin. She swallowed and gave me a wink. Ruby was taking the last bite of a brownie sample and was doing the “happy food dance” that you will see most people doing when they taste my food.
“You definitely know your way around the kitchen, girl. I don’t even care for potatoes and you have me wanting a whole bowl full of these.” I smiled and walked to the sink to wash the spoon.
Suddenly, the doorbell chimed again. No one else besides Ruby and I were privileged enough to have a key to Ernestine’s house so I knew no one else would be coming in. I grabbed a dishtowel to dry my hands and walked through the massive kitchen, down the marble tiled hallway to answer the door.
With one eye squinted, I looked through the peephole. On the other side of the door was a caramel colored man who stood about five-ten. Behind him was a yellow taxi cab pulling away from the curb. I figured this must be Cedric, the guest of honor and the reason we cooked all this food.
He wore a grey Syracuse University baseball cap, black polarized sun shades, a grey t-shirt with the same Syracuse mascot from the baseball cap imprinted on the front, grey and black basketball shorts and grey and black rubber slide sandals. He wore a black sweat jacket atop. One could definitely tell that he wasn’t from Oakland. It was overcast and almost raining outside. Yet, he seemed…cool.
“Hey.” The stranger said with a smile that showed all his white, perfectly straight teeth.
“Hey. You must be Cedric. I can already tell you that you are going to be in deep trouble for not calling Ms. Ernestine when you landed.” I unlocked the iron screen door and motioned for him into enter the house.
He extended his arms in my direction. Naturally, I gave him a hug. He smelled good. I felt as though I knew him from somewhere. It must have been the countless stories that his aunt had shared about his childhood.
Ernestine was once married to Cedric’s grandmother’s brother, Willie. While Willie passed away some twenty years ago, Ernestine remained close with his family, especially her sister in law, Viola. Once Ernestine learned that Cedric would be moving from Yonkers, New York to take a job in California, she enthusiastically offered to open her house to her “favorite, great nephew” until he found a place of his own, no matter how long that would be.
“She was all prepared to pick you up from the airport.” At that point, I realized that Cedric and I were still locked in an embrace. I stepped back and smoothed a stray hair out of my face.
“I know. I know. But my plane landed early and I figured that I would save her the trouble. I have to get to know my way around town anyways. I thought I’d get a running start.”
I shook my head no and moved my right index finger across my neck, gesturing that his Aunt was going to cut his throat. We both laughed.
“Where are my manners?” I could feel the heat rising beneath my shirt. Suddenly my skin felt sticky. Hot. I felt as if I were standing over twelve industrial sized ovens, heat catapulting from each. I knew I was blushing. Cedric was still smiling.
“I knew it! Aunt Stine has told me so much about you, I feel like I’ve known you for years, girl.” He pulled off his sweat jacket. I could tell that he worked out. He wasn’t super buffed but his muscles were defined. I reached out and accepted the sweat jacket from his hands, mentally making a note to hang it in the closet in Ernestine’s back guest room.
“Hey! Is that my favorite nephew?” exclaimed Ernestine as she approached us. Miss Ruby was right behind her.
Ernestine was wiping her hands on the same red dish towel I had just used. Realizing that I had only moved two inches since I opened the door, I stepped back even further.
Ruby smiled in my direction. I flashed a cat-with-the-canary smile back at her. She stepped over to Cedric and pulled him in for a tight hug.
“Hey, Shuga. How you doin? I'm Ruby McCall. Your auntie's best friend.” Miss Ruby seemed to hold on two seconds too long as well.
"Please to meet you ma'am." Cedric said once Ruby finally stepped away.
“Boy, I haven’t seen you in years, but you still look the same.” Ernestine was beaming and sizing him up. “Now why didn’t you call me and tell me that you were here?" Now it was her turn to hug him. "You know Viola would be on the next plane to California if she knew her grandson was wondering around the mean streets of Oakland”.
Ernestine’s voice was laced with love. She playfully swatted him on the shoulder with the dish towel.
"I know. I know. But like I was just telling Lynette here," he glanced in my direction and I still had a silly grin on my face. "My flight landed early and I didn't even think about calling you. I have to learn my way around these "mean streets" sooner or later." He flashed that same perfect smile that he gave me moments before at his aunt.
“Oh well. You here now. I can’t do nothin’ about it now. But I can feed you. Are you hungry, Baby?”
“Starving. Where can I put these bags so I can get my grub on. It smells so good in here!” Cedric rubbed his hands together as if he were trying to get warm them from the cold.
Ernestine ushered Cedric to the back guest room where he left his belongings. By the time he returned to the kitchen, I had his plate and drink waiting for him on the dining room table.
He sat down and bowed his head, praying over his food. He must have felt me staring at him. Seconds later, he lifted his head and looked me in my eyes.
“Aren’t you going to eat, Lynette?” He nodded his head towards the empty seat beside him.
I could tell that I was still blushing. There were two other people in the room, yet he said my name?
“Nah. Not yet. I‘m not hungry right now”. I could feel myself fiddling with the hem of the bright pink apron I had around my neck. It was Ernestine’s, of course, and was decorated with a cat holding a rolling pin. I walked over to the counter near the sink and wiped away the imaginary food from it.
“That’s because she tasted each dish as she cooked it.” That was Ernestine. “Isn’t it delicious?”
“Wait. You mean to tell me that you cooked all this food?” He was talking with a mouth full of greens.
“She sure did. The only thing I made was the corn bread and that was only because I needed to use up my buttermilk up before it went really bad. I had that made ‘fore she got here this morning. And Ruby made that carrot cake over there.” She pointed to the massive dessert table.
Cedric’s eyes seemed to be locked on mine while he chewed slowly. But I could have been wrong.
“Guilty” I said with a mix of confidence and a dash of bashfulness in my voice. I loved to cook but always felt a bit shy when I heard people gushing over my food. I got pleasure, rather, in seeing their facial expressions as they ate.
“I keep telling this gal that she needs to quit working down at that nine to five of hers and go into business for herself.” Ernestine looked in my direction and she spoke.
“Well, I’d definitely be at your restaurant every day if you did! This food is the bomb dot com, girl!”
Cedric shoveled another forkful of food in his mouth. He seemed to sincerely be enjoying what he was eating because he was tapping his foot almost in unison with his chews. I was enjoying watching him eat.
“So how was your flight?” I attempted to get their attention from me. I wanted to find out more about Cedric.
“Well, except for the whining brat sitting in front of me, it was alright. After spending six hours on a plane with that child, I am going to make it my mission to push for legalizing public spankings. Administered by strangers. As they see fit.” We all started laughing.
“When this kid wasn’t screaming, he was begging his mom for something and raring back in his seat. I just know I have bruises on my shins that have his name on them. I love kids. But I’m telling ya’ll, this kid made Chucky look like a teddy bear.” He shook his head back and forth as if he was trying to get the child’s image out of it.
“I can’t stand kids like that. I always want to reach out and touch them and their parents when I see that! Yes! I'd sign your petition in a heartbeat." I laughed.
“Well that mother better be glad that I wasn’t on that flight. I have been known to snatch a kid by their throat and I would have dared the mama to say one word to me. That child would have been fully trained when our flight ended.” Of course that was Ernestine.
Everyone in the room started laughing even harder. I really couldn’t imagine Ernestine hurting anyone. Like I said before, she always tried to portray the role of a gangster but she was all bark. She was more likely to give the kid a piece of candy or a book to distract him than lay one finger on them.
Just then, the doorbell chimed again.
I left the group chatting away in the kitchen and walked down the hallway towards the front door. I still had a smile on my face.
I squinted one eye, and once again, peeked through the tiny hole in the door. My smile faded a little.
It was Stephen Wade. My fiancé.
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