Book Excerpt – A Day Late and a Dollar Short
A Day Late and a Dollar Short
by Terry McMillan
Copyright © 2004 by Terry McMillan. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.
Way I see it can't nobody tell me nothing I don't already know. At least not when it comes to my kids. They all grown, but in a whole lotta ways they still act like children. I know I get on their nerves-but they get on mine, too-and they always accusing me of meddling in their business, but, hell, I'm their mother. It's my job to meddle. What I really do is worry. About all four of 'em. Out loud. If I didn't love 'em, I wouldn't care two cents about what they did or be the least bit concerned about what happens to 'em. But I do. Most of the time they can't see what they doing, so I just tell 'em what I see. They don't listen to me half the time no way, but as their mother, I've always felt that if I don't point out the things they doing that seem to be causing 'em problems and pain, who will? Which is exactly how I ended up in this damn hospital: worrying about kids.
I don't even want to think about Cecil right now, because it might just bring on another attack. He's a bad habit I've had for thirty-eight years, which would make him my husband. Between him and these kids, I'm worn out. It's a miracle I can breathe at all. I had 'em so fast they felt more like a litter, except each one turned out to be a different animal. Paris is a female lion who don't roar loud enough. Lewis is a horse who don't pull his own weight. Charlotte is definitely a bull, and Janelle would have to be a sheep-a lamb is closer to it-'cause she always being led out to some pasture and don't know how she got there.
As a mother, you have high hopes for your kids. Big dreams. You want the best for them. Want 'em to get the rewards from life that you didn't get for one reason or another. You want them to be smarter than you. Make better choices. Wiser moves. You don't want them to be foolish or act like fools. Which is why I could strangle Lewis my damnself. He is one big ball of confusion. Always has had an excuse for everything, and in thirty-six years, he ain't changed a lick.
In 1974, he did not steal them air conditioners from the Lucky Lady Motel that the police just happened to find stacked up in the back seat of our LeSabre way out there in East L.A. Lewis said his buddy told him they belonged to his uncle. And why shouldn't he believe him? All of a sudden he got allergies. Was always sneezing and sniffling. He said it was the smog. But I wasn't born yesterday. He just kept at it. Said he couldn't help it if folks was always giving him stuff to fix or things he didn't even ask for. Like that stereo that didn't work. Or them old tools that turned out to be from Miss Beulah's garage. Was I accusing him of stealing from Miss Beulah? Yes I was. Lewis was always at the wrong place at the wrong time, like in 1978 while he waited for Dukey and Lucky to come out of a dry cleaner's with no dry cleaning and they asked him to "Floor it!" and like a fool he did and the police chased their black asses all the way to the county jail.
For the next three years, Lewis made quite a few trips back and forth to that same gray building, and then spent eighteen months in a much bigger place. But he wasn't a good criminal, because, number one, he always got caught; and, number two, he only stole shit nobody needed: rusty lawnmowers, shovels and rakes, dead batteries, bald tires, saddles, and so on and so forth. Every time he got caught, all I did was try to figure out how could somebody with an IQ of 146 be so stupid? His teachers said he was a genius. Especially when it came to math. His brain was like a calculator. But what good did it do? I'm still waiting for the day to come when all them numbers add up to something.
Something musta happened to him behind them bars, 'cause ever since then-and we talking twelve, thirteen years ago-Lewis ain't been right. In the head. He can't finish nothing he start. Sometime he don't even start. Fortunately, he ain't been back to jail except for a couple of DUIs, and he did have sense enough to stop fooling around with that dope after so many of his friends OD'd. Now all he do is smoke reefa, sit in that dreary one-bedroom apartment drinking a million ounces of Old English, and play chess with the Mexicans. When ain't nobody there but him (which ain't often 'cause he can't stand being by hisself more than a few hours), he do crossword puzzles. Hard ones. And he good at it. These he do finish. And from what I gather, he done let hundreds of women walk through his revolving door for a day or two but then all he do is complain about Donnetta, his ex-wife, who he ain't been married to now going on six years, so most of 'em don't come back. And don't let him get a buzz going. Every other word outta his mouth is Donnetta.
He talk about her like they just got divorced yesterday. "She wanted a perfect man," he claimed, or, "I almost killed myself trying to please that woman." But even though Donnetta was a little slow, she was nice, decent. After I'd left Cecil for the third time, I stayed with 'em for close to a month. By the second week, I was almost ready for the loony bin. First off, Donnetta couldn't cook nothing worth eating; she wasn't exactly Oprah when it came to having a two-way conversation; cleaning house was at the bottom of her things-to-do list; and that boy needed his ass beat at least twice a day but she only believed in that white folks' "time-out" mess. She didn't have as much sense as a Christmas turkey, and how you supposed to lead a child down a path when you lost your damnself?
I understood completely when that chile turned to God, got saved, and finally stopped giving Lewis dessert at night. A few months ago she sent me a pink postcard from some motel in San Diego saying she got married, is seven months pregnant and they already know it's a girl, and her new husband's name is Todd and he wants to adopt Jamil, and what do I think about all this? And then: P.S. Not that it should matter, but Todd is white. First of all, who she marry is her business, even though Lewis'll probably have a stroke when he find out. But one thing I do know: kids love whoever take care of 'em. Lewis been lost since she left. And he blames everybody except Lewis for his personal misery.
Can't find no job: "I'm a threat to the white
man," he says.
"How?" I ask.
"You more of a threat to yourself, Lewis." He huffs and puffs.
"I'm a victim." And I say,
"I agree. Of poor-assed planning!"
And then he goes off and explains the history of the human race, and then black people, and then finally we get to the twentieth century and the castration of the black man that's still going on in society today because just look at how successful the black woman is compared to us! This is when I'd usually hand him another beer, which finally either shut his ass up, or he'd nod off into a coma.
Tragedy is his middle name. For years I fell for his mess. Would lend him my Mary Kay money. My insurance-bill money. Even pawned my wedding ring once so he could pay his child support. But then it started to dawn on me that the only time he call is when he want something, so I stopped accepting the charges.
Last week he come calling me to say another one of his little raggedy cars broke down on the side of the freeway, way out in redneck country, where Rodney King got beat up, and I guess I was supposed to feel sorry for him, which I did for a hot minute, but then I remembered he ain't had no driver's license for close to a year, and then he asked could I wire him $350 till his disability check came, and this time, this was my answer:
"Hell, no!" He got mad.
"You don't care what happens to me, do you, Ma?"
"Don't start that mess with me, Lewis."
"You don't understand what I'm going through. Not one bit. Do you?"
"It don't matter whether I understand or not. I'm your mother. Not your wife. Not your woman. And I ain't no psychiatrist neither. What happened to Conchita?"
"Comosita, Consuela, Conleche ... whatever."
"We broke up."
"I need your help, Ma. For real."
"So what else is new? You ain't even supposed to be driving, Lewis."
"Then how am I supposed to look for work or get to work?"
I decided to just pretend like I didn't hear him
say the word "work."
"I don't know. Call one of your friends, Lewis."
"I ain't got no friends with that kind of money. It's tough out here for black men, Ma, and especially if you handicapped. Don't you know that?"
"I didn't know you was handicapped."
"I got arthritis."
"Uh-huh. And I'm three months pregnant with triplets."
"How come don't nobody ever believe me when I tell the truth? I can't hardly ball up my fist, my knuckles is so swollen. And on my right wrist, the bone is sticking out.... Oh, never mind. Ma, please?"
"I have to go now, Lewis. I ain't got no three hundred and fifty dollars."
"Yes you do."
"You calling me a lie?"
"I'm telling you. All my money is spent."
"Barbecuing. Where you think?" I say, lying my butt off.
"Could you ask him? And tell him it's for you?"
I just started laughing. First of all, I ain't seen Cecil in over a month, but I didn't feel like getting into it right then. He groaned.
"How about two hundred dollars, then?"
That's when I slammed the receiver down, because I couldn't stand hearing him beg. My hands was shaking so bad and my heart was beating a mile a minute, so I reached in the kitchen drawer, grabbed my spray, and took two or three quick puffs. Seem like he ain't gon' be satisfied till he use me up.
That thought alone made me start crying, and I don't like to cry, 'cause it always do me right in. I couldn't get no air to come through my nose or mouth, and I clenched my fist and said in my head, "God give me strength," as I made my way to my room and sat on the edge of the bed, turned on my machine, grabbed that plastic tube, and sucked and sucked until my palms got slippery and my forehead was so full of sweat that I snatched my wig off and threw it on the floor. I love Lewis. Would give him my last breath. Lord knows I don't want nothing bad to happen to him, but Lewis got problems I can't solve. It's some things love can do. And it's some things it can't do. I can't save him. Hell, I'm trying to figure out how to save myself.
Now, Charlotte. She a bull, all right. And I wish I didn't feel like this but I do: half the time I can't stand her. I don't know how her husband can tolerate her ass either. I feel sorry for Al, really. He's one of them pussy-whipped, henpecked kinda husbands but try to pretend like he Superman in front of company. Everybody know Charlotte is a bossy wench from the word go. We ain't spoke this time going on four months. I think the record is five or six. I can't remember. But, hell, all I did was tell her she need to spend more time at home with them kids and she went off.
"When was the last time you worked full-time,
took care of three kids and a husband, ran a household and three Laundromats,
"Never," I said.
"So how can you sit there on your high horse telling me what you think I should be doing?"
"Get some help and stop trying to do it all yourself."
"Do you know how expensive housekeepers is these days?"
"Oh, stop being so damn cheap, Charlotte. You don't have no trouble spending it."
"Cheap? Let me ..."
"I heard Tiffany got expelled and Monique is running her mouth so much in class that she might be next."
"Who told you this-Janelle? With her big mouth? I know it, I just know it. Well, first of all, it ain't true."
"It is true, and it's your fault for not being there to keep their behinds in line."
"I'ma pretend like I didn't hear that. But let me tell you something, Mother. Tiffany did not get expelled. She got sent home for wearing too much perfume, 'cause half the class-including the teacher-started getting nauseous. And for your information, Monique just told a joke that made everybody laugh."
I knew she was lying through her teeth, but I
didn't dare say it, so I just said, "Un-huh."
"And since Janelle's running her mouth so much, did she bother to tell you that Monique is also having a tough time 'cause we regulating her medication?"
"I got her medicine, all right."
"Mama, you know what? I'm so tired of your sarcastic remarks I don't know what to do. Sick of 'em! You never have nothing nice to say about my kids!"
"That's bullshit, and you know it!"
"It ain't bullshit!"
"When they do something good, then I'll have a reason to say something nice."
"See, that's what I mean! Has Dingus thrown a touchdown pass lately? And what about your darling Shanice: did she get straight A's again? Go ahead and throw it in my face. I could use some more good goddamn news today!"
"You better watch your mouth. I'm still your mother."
"Then don't call me until you start acting like a mother and a grandmother to my kids!"
And-bam!-she hung up. The truth always hurts. This ain't the first time she done slammed the phone down in my face or talked to me in that nasty tone: like I'm somebody in the street. I ain't gon' lie: it hurts and cuts into me deep, but I refuse to give her the satisfaction of knowing how bad she makes me feel. To be honest, Charlotte just likes people to kiss her ass, but I kissed their daddy's behind for thirty-eight years, I ain't here to pacify my kids. No, Lordy. Them days is over, especially since they're all damn near middle age. Charlotte came too quick. Ten months after Paris. I did not need another baby so soon, and I think she knew it. She wanted all my attention then. And still do. She ain't never forgiven me for having Lewis and Janelle, and she made sure I knew it. I had to snatch a knot in her behind once for putting furniture polish in their milk. Made 'em take a nap in the doghouse with the dog and fed 'em Alpo while I went downtown to pay some bills. Had 'em practice drowning in a bathtub full of cold water. How many steps could they jump down with their eyes closed without falling. The list goes on.
Now, all my kids is taller than average, as good-looking as they come and as dark as you can get, and I spent what I felt was a whole lotta unnecessary time and energy teaching 'em to appreciate the color of their skin. To not be ashamed of it. I used to tell 'em that the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice, 'cause everybody know that back then being yellow with long wavy hair meant you was automatically fine, which was bullshit, but here it is 1994 and there's millions of homely yellow women with long straggly hair running around still believing that lie.
Anyway, no matter what I did or said to make my kids feel proud, Charlotte was the only one who despised her color. Never mind that she was the prettiest of the bunch. Never mind that she had the longest, thickest, shiniest hair of all the black girls in the whole school. And nothing upset that chile more than when Paris started getting breasts and learned how to do the splits and Charlotte couldn't. She was the type of child you couldn't praise enough. Always wanted more. But, hell, I had three other kids and I had to work overtime to divide up my energy and time. What was left, I gave to Cecil.
Reprinted from A Day Late and a Dollar Short by Terry McMillan by permission of Viking Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Terry McMillan. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.