Jesse arrives home an hour late. The humidity grips him as he climbs the four floors to his apartment. He remembers when he could take the steps two at a time. Now he pauses on every landing. The old building smells like the collective dinner of its eight tenants, which isn’t very appealing under the oppressive heat. He comes to a standstill outside his door as he fumbles for the keys in his pocket. His hand brushes against the envelope he folded and put there just thirty minutes ago. This is the fifth time he’s checked, and it still feels like mere paper, though it carries the weight of unfulfilled dreams.
When he finally enters the apartment, he’s greeted by the aroma of Cleo’s cooking. Curry chicken and spicy peppers fill his nostrils with the Caribbean meal she promised. He hears her rattling pans and utensils back in the kitchen and leaves his work boots at the closet door before heading in her direction.
As he walks the narrow hallway, he is reminded of a maze with one way in and one way out. But the brownstone has small rooms tucked away off the main corridor. When he passes the living room, he pauses, fixing his eyes on an empty shelf in the corner. Directly above that, a framed photograph of his father draws his attention, as if the old man might speak. He smiles at the thought. His father loved being the one talking the longest and the loudest and he’d always been willing to listen. Jesse knows his father would approve of his plan for today.
He takes in the state of disarray: wine glasses on the coffee table, a throw hanging off the sofa, and the empty bowl from which he and Cleo shared popcorn last night. All evidence of their impromptu date and this morning’s late start. He’s convinced she’s been in the kitchen all day. The neat freak he married would never allow this clutter to remain.
“Hey Clee. I’m home,” he calls to her.
Trading pet names is how they set the tone for their evening banter like switching to happy hour mode, after the workday. Jesse’s smiling, already anticipating the “Boo” she’ll call him in return.
He finds Cleo standing at the stove, big poufy hair pulled atop her head with kinky coils hanging at the temples. She’s preoccupied with whatever she is whipping in a pot, as if it owes her something. After a minute or so, she looks up, giving him her full attention for only a few seconds. He’s encouraged by the hint of a smile.
No words are exchanged, as he embraces her from behind and kisses the side of her face. She continues to whip the creamy concoction that smells good enough to lick the pot. Without missing a beat, she seems to read his mind.
“Don’t you even think about sticking your finger in here.”
She smacks his hand away before he gets close enough to sneak a taste.
He hisses as he blows at the sting on his fingers.
“I’m checking to make sure you’re okay with this sweaty man swooping in to grope you,” Jesse jokes while taking hold of her hips, the diminutive span just enough to fill his hands.
She makes a show of scrunching her nose, not exactly cozying up to his affections.
“You smell just like the outside and clay dirt mixed together. Go wash off that funk before you come to the table.”
He likes her new routine, insisting they eat homecooked meals every night, with recipes from scratch, in the best ingredients. She swears it’s because home cooking is cheaper. He doubts her reasoning because it doesn’t have to come with dessert. It’s just like her to always want something sweet. Her cooking is love and he’ll take it any way he can get it. The same way he likes to give it – in generous portions.
When she turns from his arms to attend to the meal in varying stages of completion, he swats her butt with a playful pat but notices she isn’t in a good frame of mind. He can tell; she’s getting tired of the extra weight, of him.
“I guess I’ll have to miss this next session at the beauty school,” she says. “My brother can’t lend me the money ‘til next month and they’ve already given me an extension. It’s just too much. Maybe I’ll never go.”
For the first time in a long time, he hears doubt in her voice, as if she’s lost the belief it will happen. He knows she wants much more – to hone her skills and work in an upscale salon. He is awed by her talent and the steady stream of customers who’ve been loyal to her for the past five years. He considers her fantasy, to acquire celebrity clients, his responsibility. As her husband, he personally wants to help her get there and he’s already hard at work to make it happen. She just doesn’t know it yet.
“Don’t worry, baby,” he says. “Keep your hopes up. Something will work out.”
Cleo flashes him an angry look and moves a few steps out of his reach. That bites. Last night, his touch was enough to please her but now, the idea of it seems uninteresting.
“Yeah, I’ll take one handful of hopes and the other full of wishes and see how much tuition that’ll pay.”
Damn, Jesse thinks. She’s really upset… If she starts humming church songs, I’m in big trouble.
He knows all too well how hymns comfort her with the remembrance of simpler times, when she was a rebellious preacher’s kid who knew daddy would always meet her needs and whatever else her heart desired.
He watches in silence as Cleo slides a pan into the oven. Sure enough, the humming begins, in soulful sounds evoking a melancholy mood like a love song whose last note is goodbye. Jesse is familiar enough with her process to know her mind is busy behind the sadness. This is where the church and the juke joint meet, he muses. The same sorrow and pain. The same need to vent then find relief. It strikes him; she is singing the blues – in Jesus’ name.
“Cleo, if you haven’t given up on me, baby, you cannot give up on this.”
He notes the slight slump in her shoulders and wonders if it is relief or resignation.
Jesse walks off to the bathroom and starts the shower. Now he feels bad for keeping his secret. She’s so damned cute when she pouts but it is hard for him to see discouragement cloud her pretty, brown face. He can’t wait to replace that look with one of sheer joy. He pats his pocket again for reassurance. A full smile breaks through, as his tentative composure slips, not knowing how much longer he can hold this together.
His face beaming in new determination, Jesse re-enters the room and finds her sulking at the kitchen table. Moving behind her, he pulls Cleo to her feet and wraps his arms around her waist. She’s been holding them down for a while with a lucrative hustle, while he has bounced from one labor job to another. With the bad economy, he realizes the money doesn’t stretch as far as it used to. He’s learned the hard way opportunities for poets are scarce, especially the paying kind. If it were up to him, he would gladly stand on a street corner with a hat and recite poetry at the mercy of strangers. As he feels Cleo relax into him, he knows he’s made the right decision.
“Come with me,” he takes her by the hand and heads toward the front of the apartment.
“Where are we going?” Her steps are slow and tentative, but her tone turns playful, as she leans into him with a girlish giggle.
“I got something for you.” He nuzzles the side of her neck.
“Oh yeah?” And when he reaches around with the envelope in his hand, she turns to face him. “What’s this?”
“Open it, baby.” He fights to contain his excitement, careful to keep his full smile in check.
She lifts the unsealed flap to find a money order made out to the beauty school. When her gaze meets his, tears shine in her eyes.
“How did you make this happen?”
After giving him a blank stare, her eyes dart to the living room then back to him. Ida Mae is missing from her spot on the shelf.
“I can’t let you do this…let you sell your guitar.” Cleo pulls away.
“Yes, you can.” Jesse’s gentle smile is meant to reassure her.
“Your father left you that. I can’t accept it.”
“Yes. You can.” He is adamant.
Together, they look at the sum of the money order, knowing the classic guitar’s worth has not been acquired. He goes into the living room and turns on the stereo. Soon, a blues song fills their space.
“Come here, Cleopatra.” Jesse reaches out for her. He uses her full name to stroke her and because it feels so sexy rolling off his lips. Or maybe he is stroking himself for being so lucky to have found her…again. Cleopatra. It fits this intimate mood because she’s in it. When she walks into his arms, he starts swaying and talking.
“You had one handful of hopes and the other full of wishes. But you forgot about the handful of dreams, baby.”
“I only have two hands, okay?” She pushes at his arm with just enough power to make her point and follows it with a caress.
He squeezes her tighter. “And I’ve got two good hands right here,” he says, allowing them to slide down her body to his favorite part of her anatomy.
Their movement comes to a complete stop and they bond with understanding, staring into each other’s eyes.
“But…Ida Mae is your father’s legacy.”
His father, Rufus “Wootie” Brown, sang the blues and played that Fender Strat as far back as Jesse can remember. Wootie told him it was an instrument made to ease life’s burdens and his guitar made dreams come true. His daddy was right. That’s what Ida Mae had done for them. He never asked about the peculiar moniker but suspected someone dear to his father’s heart. Perhaps a woman, like the one in his arms.
“The music is my father’s legacy and his love affair with it. My daddy loved him a good dream. He wrote songs about ‘em, and carried a numbers book filled with ‘em. Hell, he would have encouraged me to cash in on one to pay for another.”
He looks over at his father’s picture. He has on a suit and is wearing the same smile as his son with Ida Mae resting across his lap. The guitar is the only material possession Wootie ever gave him, but the desire attached to it allows him to give his wife what money cannot buy, that light from her soul. They wrap themselves in the music playing in the background, his father’s whiskey-roughened voice flirting with Ida Mae through the speakers. The passion is palpable:
Got a dollar in my pocket, but I’m rich as I can be.
Said I got a dollar in my pocket, but I’m rich as I can be.
‘Cause I found me a treasure, baby, when you gave your sweet love to me.
Her smile broadens, as Jesse raises her hand above her head and twirls her around, her steps lighter and unburdened.
“Hear that? That’s what he left us.” He bends down to press his cheek to hers.
Jesse holds Cleo and listens to his father sing about a love like theirs – one of sacrifice, wins, losses, and rewards. He feels like the richest man in the world because women like her don’t always choose men like him. She could’ve married a man rich in ways and means, instead of hopes and dreams. That’s why he’ll do anything to ensure she never regrets making him her choice.
“Thank you for always supporting me,” she croons, burrowing deeper into his arms.
“Always will.” Jesse tilts her head back to receive his kiss, but she stops him before their lips touch.
“Don’t forget, you have dreams too, Boo.”
He feels a lump of emotion rise in his throat. Sometimes, he thinks, she loves him more than he loves himself. “I won’t.”
“I mean it. I want you to finish writing your book. Your poetry is amazing.”
“Okay. But this time is for you, Clee.”
They set the tone for deeper evening banter; touching and agreeing on what tomorrow might be like.
For a while longer, Wootie and Ida Mae serenade them, until the oven’s timer summons them to dinner. They wipe away happy tears, as they walk into the kitchen, where Jesse sets out the dishes and Cleo puts the food on the table.
The music has stopped playing. They join hands, bow their heads and give thanks for dreams fulfilled.
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