Book Excerpt – Not All Dogs

Not All Dogs
by C. Kelly Robinson

    Publication Date: Aug 12, 1999
    List Price: $14.99
    Format: Paperback, 349 pages
    Classification: Fiction
    ISBN13: 9780967320809
    Imprint: Against the Grain Communications
    Publisher: Against the Grain Communications
    Parent Company: Against the Grain Communications

    Read a Description of Not All Dogs

    Copyright © 1999 Against the Grain Communications/C. Kelly Robinson 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.

    Chapter One: Choirboy
    Chapter Two: Smooth Operator
    Chapter Three: Sinister Minister
    Chapter Four: Bootstrapper

    Prologue (top)

    Sheryl Gibson’s heart simmered as she met Nico Lane’s cold, narrow stare. She would never forget the hopeful, engaging eighth grader he had once been, but the sight of him this morning nearly drove those days from her mind. She breezed past him into her office on the second floor of Ellis Community Center, trying to hold onto the fading memory of that promising child. Gritting her teeth, she opened the rickety blinds of the window over her desk and turned to face him. "Nico, I have a busy day ahead of me. What do you want?"

    Picking carefully at a piece of lint on the right arm of his navy blue blazer, a piece of tailored fabric that could have been designed by Versace, Nico strode towards Sheryl and helped himself to the sunken wooden chair opposite her desk. "Sheryl, you didn’t even give me a chance to say how fine you’re looking this morning." His eyes burned with restrained glee as they danced up and down her wrinkled red pants suit. "You know, I just realized I haven’t been here in a while. It’s impressive, the way the place has grown. I just stopped down in the basement. You can fit hundreds of kids in that dance studio, and how big is that pool? You’ve done quite a bit here, my sister."

    As Nico stroked his smooth, oval chin, Sheryl shook her head. Now twenty-six years old, Nico’s baby face and multiracial heritage drew constant comparisons to a sinister, bulkier Tiger Woods. The boy was a living, breathing contradiction; his articulate phrasing and proper use of English made him sound like Bryant Gumbel, but he wasn’t fooling anybody. Word on the street was Nico was the most feared dealer in D.C.’s Shaw Park community. Sheryl had even heard last week that Nico was now officially off the street. He was an investment banker of the drug world, overseeing trades of street dealers and remitting the receipts to the men near the top of the food chain, those who likely worked hand in hand with the DEA and CIA.

    As she eyed her unwelcome visitor, Sheryl’s mind whirred in anger and confusion. This child had spent the early years of his youth at Ellis, winning Knowledge Bowl Competitions, science fairs, and math contests. And what had he done with it? Used it for exactly what she and the Ellis volunteers had hoped he would avoid.

    She fixed him with a glare designed to send him fleeing from her office. "You remember Tommy Benson, one of the boys you tutored in algebra, before you stopped coming around?"

    Folding his hands in his lap, Nico smirked. "Sheryl, save the guilt trip. I know Tommy was found with a hole in his head last night." He sighed innocently. "Word has it he had fallen in with the wrong crowd. Shameful." Apparently sensing that Sheryl’s patience was shot, Nico matched her weary stare. "Let me get to the business at hand. You know I was born in the projects that border this land. I appreciate what Ellis has done for this community. All the summer and year-round academic programs, the free swimming classes, the basketball programs, all this stuff kept me and my boys off the street when we were coming up."

    "Not that it did much good in your case." Sheryl crossed her legs and tapped her desk impatiently. She refused to let Nico have all the fun.

    "Come now, Sheryl, stop and think about what you’re saying. I’m one alumnus of Ellis who pays all of his bills on time. I don’t get nasty calls from my creditors - can you say the same thing about Ellis?"

    Tired of Nico’s antics, Sheryl waved a hand in front of her lightly perspiring brow. D.C.’s spring weather, unpredictable as always, was unseasonably warm for March. She would have to go buy herself a fan this evening; there was no room for one in Ellis’ budget.

    She knew she must look a mess. The stress of the last few weeks, since the Center had lost the majority of its funding from the D.C. government, was taking its toll. She knew her maple complexion, her broadly sloped nose, and jutting cheekbones, all of which had turned more than a few heads in her day, were losing their luster. She had enough on her without being taunted by Nico Lane. "Nico, the Center’s financial status is none of your business. What is your point?"

    Chuckling, Nico stood to his feet and extended his arms toward her in a gesture of invitation. "Sheryl, I want to make life easier for you. You’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears into this place for over fifteen years, and for what? So brothers like me can still wind up selling crack and brothers like Tommy Benson wind up using it. And now, to add insult to injury, the mayor had to discontinue your funding. I read, you know. I know the District was responsible for over seventy-five percent of your budget. Exactly how do you plan to make up the shortfall, sister?" The final word was a violent stab to Sheryl’s heart.

    She put on a brave face. "For your information, we’re getting a lot of interest from private donors. In addition, we’ve hired former councilman Rolly Orange as our business manager, and we’ve got four Highland University students raising money from the private sector. I expect we’ll have a solid base of private capital in the next six months."

    Nico twisted his mouth into a frown. "Sister, please. Don’t try to snow me. I know damn well that in this day and age smaller government is in vogue. That means free-market enterprises like the Annenberg Center are supposed to pick up where dinosaurs like Ellis will leave off. If the Post is to be believed, Ellis’ doors should be shut right now."

    Sheryl’s heart pounded as she reeled from Nico’s insult. He had to go and mention that damn Annenberg Center, the recreation club funded by a group of Fortune 500 corporations and their nonprofit foundations. She had fumed over the infamous editorial in the Washington Post last week, the one which lauded Annenberg for its innovative design and suggested that Ellis and other urban centers be closed and folded into Annenberg. Wishing she could leap across the desk and strangle Nico into submission, Sheryl pressed her right thumb and forefinger together and recalled her Acts of Faith reading for the day. She had to stay in control. "Nico, a corporate behemoth like Annenberg could never serve the children of Shaw Park the way Ellis can. Everyone knows that."

    "Sheryl, you and I both know that’s neither here nor there." Without looking at her, Nico abruptly reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a gold-trimmed, leather checkbook. The room filled with the obnoxious smell of cowhide. He continued his response while pulling a Cross pen from the other pocket.

    "I believe in being real, Sheryl, so I’ll be blunt. Ellis Center is cutting into my business. Every few weeks I get calls from my street dealers, asking me to help pull back recruits who drop out, after they get involved in activities at Ellis. I admit, I’m impressed. Before you took over, back when I was little, kids who came here usually still ended up slangin’ rocks or using ‘em, it just took a little longer. But, you, you — well, there’s something different about what you’ve taught these kids. Some of my dealers have actually had kids tell them that they’re stupid for dealing, that they should come here and find out about all the ‘positive’ things they can do in life! Can you imagine that?"

    "Nico, get out, I’m calling security." Sheryl reached for her phone. She didn’t like where this was going.

    Startling her, Nico reached across the desk and slammed the phone down before she could finish dialing. His eyes were filled with the uncontrolled hatred she’d seen on young Nico’s last day at the Center… the day after his long-lost father sent him away and told him never to come around again. As Nico squared his jaw, the vernacular of the street began to seep into his voice. "You didn’t let me finish. Sheryl, Ellis’ days are numbered, one way or the other. I suggest we both save ourselves a shitload of trouble. It works like this; you take this check I’m ‘bout to write you. Fifty thou should hold you while you resign from Ellis and search for a new job, right? I know you need the money. Your daughter got herself knocked up, your husband pulled a disappearing act a few months ago, I know things are tight. Just take the check and help yourself to some happiness, Sheryl. You’ve earned it."

    Sheryl stared at him in disbelief, her disgust choking her ability to respond. As her nostrils stung at the sharp smell of Nico’s Polo cologne, she stared right through him, to the cluttered wall opposite her desk. She was not going to dignify this with a response. She let her eyes and the twist of her neck, along with a barely audible "Hmph!" do the talking.

    Meeting the hate in her eyes with his own, Nico released his grip from her hand. Before Sheryl could utter the epithets that had built up inside, he staggered back from the desk and swiped his Derby hat from her wooden chair. "It was worth a try, wasn’t it? Guess I’ll have to take other measures." Huffing and puffing like a humiliated child, he swaggered to the doorway of her office before flicking a white business card towards her desk. "If you change your mind, use the cell phone number on there — that’s the one for my Mercedes, the S350. Bye, Sheryl. And I do mean Goodbye."

    As Nico slammed the door shut behind him, Sheryl stood to her aching feet, folded her arms across her chest, and closed her eyes in desperate reverence. Heavenly Father, she prayed, if I ever needed you, I need you now. Trying to collect herself, she turned and faced the sunlight streaming through her window. Sighing in determined angst, she stared out at the white steeple sitting atop Highland University’s Founders Library. Maybe, she thought, the young men on that campus — Brandon, Larry, O.J., and Terence — could be the difference in the uphill battle Ellis Center faced. Someone had to help her and Rolly Orange, and she prayed these young men might make the difference. The community would be counting on them.


    Chapter One: Choirboy(top)

    "Brandon, you twenty-one … and you ain’t got no kids?" Little Pooh Riley’s wide eyes bugged out as he searched his mentor’s face for an answer.

    Seated a few feet away from his favorite student, in front of the basement-level classroom on the Center’s busiest hallway, Brandon Bailey shrugged his shoulders. "Pooh, how many times I gotta tell ya," he said, smiling, "you don’t have to start making babies when you turn sixteen."

    "Mmm Mmm, I don’t know ‘bout that," the saggy-faced cherub said, shaking his head feverishly. "My Momma say all most men do is make babies and leave. She done already told me I’ll do the same thing, by the time I’m fifteen."

    "Fifteen!" Brandon slapped a hand over his mouth as the class rocked with laughter. Slow your roll, don’t rub the boy’s face in it, he reminded himself. "Uh, Pooh," he said, choosing his words carefully as he held up a hand to quiet the other twelve boys in the class, "next time you talk to your Momma, tell her about me."

    Pooh ran a fidgety hand over his classic Washington Bullets jersey. "Aww, I don’t know about that Brandon, you a little young for my Momma!" The other nine year-olds surrounding them erupted in another fit of amusement, some of them cupping their mouths and hooting toward the front of the classroom. "Brandon gon’ get some booty! Brandon gon’ get some booty!"

    "Alright, that’s enough." Brandon kicked his miniature plastic chair aside and stood to his feet, stretching his sinewy legs and smoothing his beige Dockers slacks. "Pooh, all of you, for that matter – my point is you don’t have to make babies at any age. Most of my classmates at Highland? We’re waiting until we graduate college and get good jobs before we bring children into the world. You can, too."

    Anthony, a lean, gawky hood-in-training, sat up in his seat and twisted his neck skeptically. "My Granny say all men is dogs and any who ain’t are punks - gay, in jail, or married."

    Brandon felt his heart surge self-defensively. "Your Granny – how …" It occurred to him he probably didn’t want to go down this road, matching wits with a grandmother who was probably younger than his own mother. He reminded himself; he was here, as he was every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon, to teach these boys basic math and pray that his "positive example" rubbed off in some way. It was just so hard to see any progress in them some days…

    He had nothing to prove to them. By now, Brandon’s applications to Duke, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Hopkins were all signed, sealed, and delivered. Each app had been packed with the envy of every Highland pre-med student: stellar recommendations from two Arts & Sciences deans, spanking GPA and MCAT scores, and mentions of his strong medical lineage (Pops, Brent Bailey, as well as Grandpa, Willie Bailey, continued thriving private practices). His admission to med school was money in the bank.

    Yes, he thought as he closed the class with one last word problem and dismissed the boys to the courtyard for afternoon break, Brandon Bailey had done quite well by himself these past four years at Highland. So why had the ill-conceived ideas his students had about manhood bothered him so much just now? Could it be, the thought asserted itself as he wiped the blackboard clean with a moist paper towel, his growing unease about the legacy he was leaving on Highland’s social scene? "Legacy," he said to the empty room as he tossed the limp towel into a round metal can near the doorway, "what legacy?"

    Even now, he couldn’t believe it; he’d be leaving Highland University soon, the nation’s top HBCU (historically black college/university) and the one place where amazingly beautiful sisters of every hue were a moment-by-moment fact of life. How lovely the sight, day after day: nothing but allegedly ripe-for-the-picking, deliciously desirable, fiercely intelligent Black Queens. Whether he wound up at Northwestern, Duke, or Hopkins, he’d never again see such a selection. All that opportunity, he thought, and what did he have to show for it? He had let four years at this oasis pass him by without finding Ms. Right. Everyone knew the first reason you attended an HBCU was to grab yourself a mate.

    How had he, Brandon Bailey – high school star defensive back, future physician, a guy told more than once he looked like Theo Huxtable with body – how had he managed to emerge romance-free from a campus with a three to one female/male ratio? His mother, Barbara, and every other woman in his family constantly reminded him how great a catch he was. That had to be more than familial bias, didn’t it?

    He swept the silly questions from his head, shut the heavy wooden door of the classroom, and strode down the hallway to the nearest exit door. Thrusting the door open, Brandon searched the courtyard for his boys. The circular space, covered in craggy concrete, sat in the midst of Ellis’ aging brick structure, hemmed in on each side by the center’s inside walls. It was a rowdy place today. The boys and girls, ranging in age from three to twelve, were scattered across the courtyard, running, tossing, pinching, screaming, and taunting like mad. Four other counselors and a security guard crisscrossed the area, damping the groups playing too hard and bringing order to the few kids dangling at the fringes. Brandon walked over to the corner where Pooh and several of the boys stood, knelt down, and took Pooh aside so they could talk.

    He looked to his left and right, trying to respect the boy’s privacy. "Hey, your mother doing any better?"

    "Not really," Pooh said, his eyes suddenly aimed at his shoes. "Some strange dude been comin’ over a lot, man. A Japanese-looking guy, Nico."

    "Well," Brandon said, "are you afraid this Nico’s going to hurt your mother?"

    "I don’t know. I just know he always talk in hushed tones, acting real serious. I stay out of his way as long as he don’t be touchin’ her."

    "That’s best," Brandon said. "Listen Pooh, don’t forget. Any time you wanna talk, I’m here — "

    "Excuse me, everyone!" Sheryl Gibson herself had taken center stage in the midst of the courtyard, her hands cupped around her mouth like a foghorn. Brandon noticed the wrinkles in her red pants suit and the weariness in her eyes. Her condition reminded him that Sheryl, and the Center in general, needed so much help. This private donor campaign had to work. He’d been up most every night the last few weeks coordinating a Highland alumni pledge drive for Ellis, but their was only so much time…

    "Listen, everyone," Sheryl said as the counselors herded the children towards the center and instructed them to take seats on the cool concrete, "we have two Highland students here today to give you some information about the field trip next week. Yes," she said, shaking her head at a counselor giving her grief from a few feet away, "this will be a short trip. You’re just going to go across the street and get a full tour of the campus. But you have to have your parents’ permission to leave Ellis’ premises. These ladies are going to pass out the forms and tell you more about the trip." She stepped forward and motioned into the crowd behind her. "Monica?"

    From behind Sheryl, a young woman stepped forward and began speaking in a smooth confident voice. Her figure, athletically trim but rounded in all the right places, was nestled beneath a flattering Guess Jeans ensemble. "Boys and girls," she said sweetly, "let me tell you about a special place, a land called Highland…"

    From his perch near the back of the courtyard, Brandon gulped like an embarrassed child. Panic crept up his shoulders as his face grew dewy with sweat and the gallop of a crazed horse beat within his chest. Monica Simone! The woman he’d worshipped from afar since his first days at Highland had invaded Ellis, his private sanctuary… a place where he could selflessly serve and be free from the vagaries of his lonely nights. Again Brandon was reminded he was not your stereotypical Brother, the sex-crazed, verbally adept Hound that TV and movies portrayed every chance they got. No, Brandon’s rapping skills came straight from Dear Old Dad, and even today Pops was first to admit he’d been no Bobby Brown in his single days.

    As Monica completed her presentation and the kids rewarded her with a round of frantic applause, Brandon felt the pain of hot lava burn his chest and tried to gather his nerves. Monica rendered him as helpless as a child suffering his first crush. He watched her turn toward Sheryl and make conversation for a moment. By the time he’d leaned over and grabbed up his Highland backpack, Monica was a foot away, making her way through the shrinking crowd as the kids were rounded up for Sheryl’s comments. His chest still heaving anxiously, Brandon checked his watch and realized he was a few minutes late for a meeting. Time to go. Should he even bother speaking to her?

    "Hey Brandon," Monica said, flashing a polite smile and pausing as his eyes met hers. "You’re a counselor here?"

    Caught in the thicket of her caramel complexion, flowing mane of ebony tresses, and soft cheekbones, Brandon was a deer in Monica’s headlights. He tried his mouth but found it refused to work. His mind swam in an alternate reality, one where he imagined the ways he would meet her every need, calm her innermost fears, and stoke her heart’s most passionate desire, if she would only let him. Oh if only, he thought… What could he say to her, when the stakes of every word, every flirt, were so high? His legs planted into the courtyard’s cement floor like two stubborn iron poles, Brandon swallowed carefully. "I, uh, yeah, I do work here, with the eight and nine year-olds. Math," he said, the last word coming out with a squeak. Why couldn’t a Love Jones endow him with some cool for a change?

    Seemingly unaware of his sudden difficulty with words, Monica twirled a lock of her hair in her right hand. "I think the things you all do here are great. I plan to sign up and teach one of the business classes next year. Figure I may as well share the marketing knowledge H.U.’s taught me."

    "That’s admirable," Brandon said, noticing his voice had regained its bass but was sounding too deep now. His mind pushed him forward. Come on, now, say something charming

    "I better go," Monica said, shifting her weight slightly and tucking her notebook under her arm. "Bye now."

    Returning her smile and wondering if her wave was as coy as he hoped, Brandon watched Monica walk off and felt his mind fill with thoughts no Christian boy should entertain. He had it bad… As the horse’s gallop in his chest slowed to an exhausted limp, he realized he had missed yet another golden opportunity. Monica was gone. On the scoreboard of his heart, paralyzing fear had scored yet another touchdown, and Brandon hadn’t even scored a field goal since high school. Since Brandy.

    He ran a hand over his forehead, ran back to the center of the courtyard to slap hands with Pooh and the other boys, and bolted through the front hallway until he came to main entrance. His cousin Bobby Wayne, a fellow Highland senior and also pre-med, was leaned against the inside wall. His arms were crossed impatiently but his eyes – the same wide, piercing ones that Brandon and most every member of the Weaver side of the family had – were dancing with mischief.

    "Okay first of all," Bobby said, straightening the legs of his Levi’s, "you’re late. I have to get downstairs and teach my class at four sharp, man. Now I’m late. You got the dang clippers?"

    Brandon sighed and reached into his backpack, producing his best pair of Wahl hair clippers and slapping them into Bobby’s palm. "There. You just make sure you clean ‘em good before bringing ‘em back. I ain’t got time to be picking your dandruff out of my stuff."

    "Oh ha, very funny." Bobby rolled his eyes. "I got another beef with you, cuz. I just saw Monica walk out of here, without my love Tara of course." Bobby had been in hot pursuit of Monica’s best friend Tara Lee since sophomore year, to no avail. Brandon had never told Bobby, but he was pretty sure his cousin had had a good shot until he’d opened his mouth; Bobby had beat him out in the girls’ "Looks" polls in high school back in Chicago, but he’d also been consistently voted Class Clown. His goofy ways never failed to sabotage his Game.

    "The question is," Bobby continued, stepping toward Brandon and blocking the door, "did you rap to Monica? You know we’ve only got so many months left in the year."

    Brandon shook his head and removed a pack of vanilla Snackwell’s cremes from his backpack, preparing for the trek back to campus. "Look, Bobby, Monica’s not exactly known for being the most spiritual woman on campus. You know I need a woman who’s strong in that area."

    Bobby snatched a cookie. "She’s a churchgoer, ain’t she?"

    Chomping on a cookie as he spoke, Brandon waved a finger at his cousin. "Bobby, there’s some of everything up in the church. Look, I can tell when a woman is at my spiritual level and when she’s not – what are you laughing at?"

    Bobby was shaking his head, which was neatly framed in with a professional box fade. A smirk was plastered on his coffee bean complexion. "Boy, life as the Choirboy must be great! If I had your powers of perception, life sure would be simple. Imagine, to know through osmosis whether a girl is right for you or not, just by lookin’ at her! No need to call her or talk to her. Why risk rejection anyway?"

    Brandon pushed his cousin, a playful shove. "Forget you, man. I couldn’t understand half of what you said anyway." He and Bobby liked to razz each other about the newfound ethnicity they’d adopted at Highland. Granted, no one would be mistaking them for Tupac or Snoop Dogg, but they’d come a long way. Back in the suburbs of Chicago, their private schools and white middle-class subdivisions had left them with mannerisms and styles of dress the city kids dubbed "White." Even some at Highland had initially questioned their authenticity freshman year. Not two weeks into that first year, Bobby had rushed into Brandon’s dorm room one afternoon with a look of pain across his face.

    "Brandon, do I stand white?"

    Resting in a rickety chair near his window, Brandon had squinted his eyes in confusion. "Stand white? Exactly how would one do that?"

    "I don’t know," Bobby had mused, "Tara told me I carry myself like a white guy. Now I’ve heard that I ‘talk white’, even ‘dress white’, but ‘stand white’? She said the way I lock my knees and hold my back erect, looks like ‘white guy’ posture. Are real brothers supposed to stand with their knees bent and their hands on their nuts? I don’t get it."

    Neither had Brandon. That had been the first of many times he’d suggested Bobby release his fascination with Tara. Any sister who couldn’t love a brother the way he was, "standin’ white" or not, was not the Right One.

    As Brandon opened the heavy front door and stepped out into the fading sunlight draping Ellis’ front steps, Bobby continued to pick at him. "You know and I know that you haven’t tried rapping to Monica ‘cause you are SCARED! Be a man, just admit it."

    Brandon paused in the doorway and grimaced. "Well, I have such an encouraging example in you, Bobby. Tara’s never even given you one ounce of Dap. Why would I wanna be like you — spend my life getting shot down?"

    "Ah, so it’s like that, cousin? Well, I know one thing - when I’m kickin’ butt in med school next year, I won’t be losing one bit of sleep about what could’ve happened if I’d let Tara know how I feel. What you got to say to that?"

    "How about this - let’s just agree it’s nun y’on - none ya bizness. I gotta get over to the library, man."

    Bobby stepped forward. "All I got to say is man, don’t let this year get away without makin’ some moves, even if you fail. Stop beatin’ yourself up over Brandy —"

    "So you know," Brandon said, shaking his head and looking away, "you’re officially over the line now."

    "Whatever, Holmes. I better go. My class is calling me."

    Brandon’s pursed lips matched his rueful tone of voice. "Yes, they are. I need to go myself, get some studying in before tonight’s Black Impact meeting."

    "Oh really," Bobby boomed, "well, you have fun now! I thought you had joined me in self-imposed exile from that group of Pharisees! You know, it’s that group that has you scared to ask out a girl like Monica in the first place."

    Brandon stepped through the doorway and let Bobby catch the door. "Terence finally agreed to attend a religious meeting with me. I may not be in the Disciples’ inner circle anymore, but I believe in their message, man. If they can help Terence, my discomfort will be worth it. I’m out!"

    Turning on his heels, Brandon hopped the steps, tore across the busy thoroughfare, and stepped onto Highland’s hallowed ground. Focusing his thoughts on his upcoming studies, he crossed the expansive concrete diamond separating Just Hall from the ivy covered brick steps of the Highland Undergraduate Library. The sun was just beginning its descent, a faint orange glow hovering above and to his right. As Brandon moved towards the steps, he shot off several "What’s Up?" nods to assorted friends and acquaintances milling about in the afternoon crowd. Students of every hue, height, weight, and style filled the diamond, and in his eyes they were all beautiful. Dreadlocks, Afro Puffs, extensions, S-Curls, Box Cuts, Fades, Skin-Tights, Ponytails, Naturals, Bobs, Weaves, they were all here. They were accompanied by visions of Polo, Hilfiger, Versace, Claiborne, Karl Kani, Sears, JC Penney, and every regional bargain basement chain. The varied visions of black folk merged into one enthusiastic, ambitious whole. Highland, one of the top historically black colleges in the country, was a vibrant sea of Afrocentric-flavored diversity; Brandon couldn’t imagine attending college anywhere else.

    Once he had slapped a few more hands, he walked through the central sliding glass door leading into the library’s main lobby. The main floor, jam-packed with book stacks, computers, and furtive groups of earnestly whispering students, was a buzzing cauldron of social activity. Some work was getting done here, but it was in very gradual increments. Anyone who was anybody couldn’t count on getting five minutes of study in, without someone walking up and starting a conversation.

    Planning to seek a hideaway on the less popular basement level, Brandon was distracted by a table near the front door. Seated there were Larry Whitaker, Mark Jackson, and Ashley Blasingame, huddled in deep and animated conversation. Ashley, her black suede CiZi jacket and vinyl pants drawing immediate attention, sported long, flowing locks of feathery hair that were professionally primped and formed into place. Her unblemished oval face, outlined with high cheekbones and colored with a sunny beige complexion, completed the picture. Even on a campus full of the entire spectrum of black beauty, Ashley never failed to catch Brandon’s eye. Seated next to Ashley, his friend and housemate Larry looked like exactly the type who should pull a woman of her beauty (which he had, shortly before the end of last school year). Tall and tan-complected, with a fine grade of hair some referred to as "good", Larry tired of being told he looked like Will Smith. "Fresh Prince ain’t even in my league," was always his brusque reply.

    "What’s up, people?" Brandon rolled up on the group, even as he felt his study time slipping away.

    "The future Doc himself, what up man?" Mark, a five foot ten, solidly built wrestling champion with a high yellow complexion and a near-bald haircut, greeted Brandon. Larry and Ashley continued to feverishly consume a copy of the Highland Sentinel, which was spread in front of them.

    "Just tryin’ to squeeze in a few minutes of study before a meeting," Brandon responded, noting the look of consternation on Larry’s face. Something was obviously up.

    Seemingly realizing he had left his boy hanging, Larry leaned back from the paper and acknowledged Brandon’s presence. "Choirboy, What’s up, man?" The two exchanged their secret "house handshake", slapping hands, following up with a quick grip, sliding their fingers against each other’s palm, and closing with a quick snap of the fingers. Nothing special, but it made for its own method of male bonding.

    As they wrapped up the handshake, Ashley finally deemed him worthy of recognition, issuing him a weak smile. "Hey, Brandon."

    Larry rubbed his eyes and sighed. "Man, we’re just sitting here trippin’ off the latest Sheila Evans Work of Art."

    Brandon remembered he hadn’t seen a copy of the Sentinel this week. "Oh Lord, what has she done now?"

    His trademark cockiness oozing between the lines, Mark piped up with a quick summary. "Seems Ms. Sheila has fired her latest round of editorials designed to give the Sentinel endorsement to our opponent, the good ‘Reverend Jackson.’ She got some nerve, man, claimin’ that our boy here is a member of the Young Republicans chapter, that he was on the administration’s side of the big student protest last year. She’s got him misquoted, misplaced, you name it, it’s just ugly. But she’ll get hers."

    Brandon was intrigued, but remembered his need to get a few minutes of study in before the Disciples Meeting. He turned to Larry, adjusting his backpack as he did so. "I’ll have to pick up a copy of the paper. I’ll find out more about your response tonight. By the way, we need to rap about that Ellis Center meeting — you’ll be home tonight, right?"

    Casually, Larry leaned over to his left, resting his weight against Ashley’s silk blouse. "Well, you know that depends on what Ms. B here has to say…"

    Delivering a mock smack to the side of Larry’s head, Ashley finished her man’s sentence. "Brandon, if he’s home tonight, I’m sure he’ll let you know."

    Taking the hint, Brandon gave a good-hearted laugh and stepped towards the elevator. "Peace, people." Turning over his shoulder for one last glimpse, he observed the picture-perfect couple for a moment. Sighing, Brandon tried to repress a gnawing sense of regret. He had no concept of what life at Highland was like with a fine lady by your side. He was starting to think he’d never know that pleasure, at Highland or anywhere else. When the elevator doors sprung open, he stepped forward and tried drown the thoughts cluttering his mind. Maybe the boys at Ellis and their mothers were right. Maybe all men were really dogs, and he – with no woman and definitely no kids – was less than a man.

    A punk.


    Chapter Two: Smooth Operator(top)

    "You’d think the brother could have shown a little more interest," Mark remarked indignantly once Brandon was out of earshot. "Is he going to be helping you out with this campaign, bro’?"

    Leaning forward, Larry chuckled in response. "Brandon believes in the power of prayer over politics, Mark. I don’t view him as a political tool, he’s my friend. When I see him back at the house he’ll wanna hear all the gory details. Like it’s any of your business anyway? Who are you now, the thought police?"

    A faked grimace crossing his face, Mark winked at Ashley before upbraiding his partner. "Boy, don’t you know I am your campaign manager? My one and only job is to see to it that you are elected to the presidency of the Highland Student Association - nothing less, nothing else. That job includes sizing up those around you, that’s my only reason for prying. You sho’ nuff sensitive today. Ashley, take this boy home and give him something to relieve that dam of stress he’s built up."

    Clearly amused by his remark but too proud to admit it, Ashley leaned back in her chair and saluted Mark with her middle finger. Remnants of a stifled smile seeped around the corners of her perfect mouth.

    Again Larry was glad he’d chosen not to live with any of the brothers in his closest circle of friends. Mark was the best friend he had at Highland, and as close to a kindred spirit as he had ever known, but he’d always known his ability to tolerate Mark’s antics would not survive their sharing the same house. Besides which, Ashley had made it clear to him last summer that she wouldn’t stand for his sharing a house or apartment with Mark. She knew all too well of Mark’s reputation as a man about town, and she also knew how many girls he and Larry had in common.

    "Larry, no man of mine has ever even thought about going back to an old girlfriend once they’ve been with me. So don’t even think of living with Mark - you and I both know he’d have a constant parade of your ex playthings going in and out, at all times of the night. I don’t play that."

    Larry had found Ashley’s protective instincts somewhat amusing. He knew he hadn’t been involved with anywhere near the number of women Mark had. Unlike his boy, he had very high standards, at least where the physical realm was concerned. Any woman sharing Larry’s bed, from his first encounter as a ninth grader up to the present, had fit a carefully defined M.O.: feathery, shoulder-length hair; a well-developed, firm frame free of any noticeable body fat; and a beige-or-lighter face that made men lose their minds. Anyone who couldn’t make a living as a movie actress need not apply. Larry’s standards were high, but he knew with Ashley, he’d outdone himself. His own father, the man who taught him the criteria by which to choose a woman, had gone out of his mind with envy the first time he met Ashley. Larry knew he had a good thing, so he’d let Ashley have her way regarding where he could live. The price was worth it to have a woman who made the perfect trophy.

    "Shall we get to the business at hand?" Rolling up the sleeves of his denim Calvin Klein oxford and checking the time on his gold Wittnauer, Larry tried to put an official tone into the crackle of his fluid tenor. "I was ten damn points behind Winburn in the latest election poll, and now I’ve got an editor who’s out to spill my political blood. Sheila knows I was a member of the Young Republicans in name only; hell, we all make sacrifices in the name of networking. She also knows I chose to refrain from the sit-in at the administration building because President Billings is a close business associate of my father’s. Everyone knew I was with the protesters in spirit — come on, I helped broker the final agreements between Kareem, Tasha, and Billings."

    "Baby," Ashley interrupted him, "you know the truth makes no difference to that girl. She crafted this precisely so all the facts are true, even though the implication is obviously false."

    "It’s a classic case of the unfounded, negative political attack," Mark groused. "Throw enough mud against the opponent, and pray something sticks. But this one’s coming right back at her, Larry. I want you to review ‘dis!" Mark thrust a printed sheet of paper at his friend, hot off the press from his Compaq laptop. As he read, Larry was unable to stem the tide of a grateful smile as he read his friend’s articulate, straightforward, and savvy prose. Mark’s words stabbed back at each of Sheila’s assertions, reasserting truth after truth, then offering his interpretation of the correct conclusions.

    "Oh no you didn’t!" Larry came to the section where Mark implied that Sheila’s arrows stemmed from a "sour grapes" complex following her own defeat in running for the presidency last year. After changing a few words for maximum impact and softening a couple that bordered on the obscene, Larry hurled the memo back at his manager, his signature of approval stamped at the page’s bottom.

    "Guys, I am so sorry I’m late." Janis Kelley, the student president of the School of Business and a tight ally of Mark and Larry’s, snuck up on them and seated herself before they realized she was in their midst. "I’ve read the editorial, Larry, and I think you’re best off not responding at all. Anyone who cares enough to read Sheila’s article is just as likely to be at the debates. You know that’s where the real election is decided, at least as far as public forums go. I don’t see how her remarks deserve to be dignified with a response."

    "Well, try that on for size," Larry said, as Mark slid his letter in front of Janis. As her face registered some of the same emotions Larry had experienced a few moments earlier, Larry continued to think out loud. "I think Janis has a point. People know what’s up, right? Maybe we go with this letter, and just leave it there."

    Janis was wrapping up her review of Mark’s rant. "I agree, go with the letter, let Mark be the Bad Cop. It puts the truth out there forcefully, but anyone offended by it will be able to separate Mark’s personality in it from yours. What ever did you do to Sheila Evans in the first place, Babe?" She smiled playfully at Larry, her pert little pug nose shining innocently.

    Smacking his lips in defiance at his friend’s taunt, Larry threw his hands in the air. "You got me, J. She’s had it in for me as long as I can remember."

    "I can hazard a guess," Ashley said, her green eyes dancing with mischief. "Penis envy. She knows she’ll never get yours or anyone else’s!"

    After enjoying a good belly laugh, the team reviewed Larry’s current platform and debate strategy. There were two other serious contenders in the race, only one of whom Larry was particularly concerned with.

    The non-contender, Winston Hughes, was an ambitious junior political science major. Known for an amazing intelligence level, Winston’s staggering intellect was outmatched only by his complete lack of personality. In public forums such as the upcoming campaign debate, the boy usually radiated the warmth of a block of ice. Coupled with his inability to match his ties to the Sears suits he always wore, Winston’s lack of charisma spelled certain death in Highland’s image-conscious political arena.

    The opponent who kept Larry awake at night, the one whom he knew Sheila Evans was laboring to put into office, was David Winburn. Winburn was affectionately known campus-wide as "Reverend Jackson", in recognition of his obvious desire to be Generation X’s Jesse. He stood six feet tall, almost even with Larry, and cloaked his lanky frame in professionally tailored suits and loud ties that invoked the image of a smarmy televangelist. He had a rectangular head, one a bit too large for his long-limbed frame, and his face was legendary. Winburn’s maple complexion, wide eyes, sparkling white teeth, and well-groomed mustache (which Larry swore had been processed with the same S-curl juice Winburn used on his hair) had graced campaign posters across the Highland campus for the past four years. Larry knew David’s face better than most, because that face haunted him every time his head hit a pillow.

    He and Winburn had entered Highland with the same class, stayed in the same dormitory, even traveled in the same social circles early on. Larry had won the presidency of the School of Business at the end of freshman year, while David stormed into the same office in the Liberal Arts College. From there Larry served in the HAS cabinet while David served as student representative to the university’s Board of Trustees. Everyone who’d known them had expected this year’s Battle of Titans over the HSA office. Larry, for his part, had absolutely no intention of losing. As his father was fond of reminding him, Whitakers Didn’t Lose.

    In exactly the way he knew Winburn was doing with his own campaign team, Larry and his friends always reserved a healthy chunk of time to dissect their key opponent’s major assets and liabilities. In the arena of policy, they had decided to focus on Winburn’s cozy relationship with the university administration, and the role that allegedly played in several decisions he made as Undergraduate Trustee. Mark was the lead soldier on "Operation Pull the Covers Off."

    Full of bravado, Mark briefed them on his latest mission. He’d wooed a former assistant (and rumored ex-lover) of David’s last night, sweet-talking Shannon Moon as she’d crossed campus and talking her into an impromptu date. The night had ended at El Cerrito’s in Georgetown, where Mark had filled the girl with quesadillas, margaritas, tequila, and more margaritas. By the time her tongue had been completely loosened, she’d given Mark an earful of allegations about David’s stewardship as University Trustee: an agreement to "go along and get along" on the most crucial issues of interest to students, in return for a few amenities, such as the snazzy new Accord he’d started sporting that year. Supposedly Shannon had access to memos and other documents to back it all up.

    Feeling a prick of his conscience at the manipulation of an innocent sister, Larry waved it aside in the name of political ambition and let Mark continue. Sometimes he wondered if the price of following in his father’s footsteps as HSA President would be worth it. He banished the thought: of course it was. It hadn’t served Larry Sr. too poorly, had it? His father had gone from running a student body to spearheading a multi-million dollar business enterprise. For Larry, the HSA presidency was just the next rung towards the top.

    As they continued their plotting, it occurred to Larry that the revelations about David’s political deals were far from surprising. Winburn’s alleged actions were far from heinous; in fact they sounded like the bargaining of a natural politician, if that was a good thing. But Larry knew this would mean jack to the average naive, idealist Joe Student. They would find Winburn’s abdication on important policy issues entirely inexcusable. This was a good thing; at this point, Larry would take every edge he could get.

    Twenty minutes later, he clapped his hands loudly. "My brother and my sisters, thanks for another productive War Room session. Let’s get outta here!"

    Mark eyed Ashley and Janis as they began gathering their things. "Word, word. Larry, can I, uh, talk to you privately for a minute, bro’?"

    "What you need, man?"

    Mark heaved himself back from the table. "What say we rap outside by your car? The ladies can meet us out there in a minute?"

    In a few seconds the men had gathered their briefcases and windbreakers and were on the brick walkway outside the front lobby. Larry walked to the curb and set his leather satchel near the front right tire of his Lexus. "What’s up, man? What crazy woman you messing with now? I gotta bail you out again?"

    Mark cut his eyes at his best friend. "Nothing like that. Look, I gotta be real with you, Larry. I don’t know if this thing about David’s misdeeds will be enough to save your ass."

    "Why not?"

    "Five letters, Larry. E-l-l-i-s. You got to get off your soapbox, money."

    Larry wriggled his neck and squinted his eyes. "Wha? What are you talkin’ about, Mark?"

    "Larry, come on. This thing about adding a campaign promise requiring all Highland students to perform community service at Ellis or one of its affiliate centers, if you’re elected President? You really think folk want their time infringed on like that?"

    Larry leaned gently against the gold gloss of his ride and crossed his arms. "Mark, I believe we all gain when we give something back. Plus, the more I can circulate Ellis’ name and get people interested, the better. You know why I treasure institutions like Ellis, man."

    "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Aunt Rae, I know."

    "Damn right, Aunt Rae." Larry smiled at the sound of his late great aunt’s name. It had been Aunt Rae, his grandmother’s sister and a popular baker in north Chicago, who had taken him and his younger sister Vera to the Rosewood Community Center every summer when they would visit for several weeks. Larry’s grandparents, Chaney and Lola Whitaker – a family physician and interior designer who still lived in Hyde Park, folk of old money who behaved like it – had taken them in each summer but always made sure they saw some "real life" through Aunt Rae’s eyes.

    Larry would never forget the sense of belonging the Rosewood staff instilled in the kids there, many of whom hailed from single-parent homes and had seen nothing but the armpit of life. Every summer he’d gained from Rosewood, learning the latest slang and fads (which he’d quickly taken back home to the Cincinnati suburbs and co-opted in order to solidify his "cool" credentials), but it was the spirit of the kids, and the way the Center fostered that spirit that stuck with him. As long as those images were fresh in his mind, Larry couldn’t let Ellis Center fold. There was too much good to do.

    He patted Mark on the back and yelled over the roar of a passing truck. "Mark, playtime is over where Ellis is concerned. They need a hundred and twenty five thousand bucks to meet their next loan payment, by September 1st. The bank’s already given them several extensions, but these guys are not saints. Ellis has to deliver this time or the doors could be closed."

    Mark choked back a phony sob and put a hand to his chest. "Larry, just remember I play to win. All this time you’re spending trying to save Ellis – the schmoozing with local CEO’s, holding fundraising banquets, it’s all very … cute, but it ain’t gonna win no votes. Highland students want you to deliver in three areas: financial aid, housing, and security. They don’t need you to tell them that in addition to working their way through school, staying in broke down dorms, and studying their asses off, they gotta log eight hours a month minding somebody else’s bad kids."

    Larry sighed in relief when Ashley and Janis rolled up, interrupting Mark’s rant. He smiled lazily in Mark’s direction and decided to fight this battle later. "Player, I appreciate the sentiment. Now good night."

    As he slapped hands with Mark and placed an arm around Ashley, Larry decided to worry about his poll standings, as well as Mark’s ominous views on Ellis, in the morning. It had been a long day; right now he needed to let his spirits be lifted by the revelations about Winburn. No matter how temporary it might be, he was going to enjoy the feeling. He would chill at Ashley’s downtown apartment, watch the Wizards’ game against L.A., then blow off his steam in exactly the way Mark had suggested earlier.

    A good woman was the best form of stress release going.


    Chapter Three: Sinister Minister(top)

    10 blocks west of Highland’s library, the Light of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church family was kicking its Wednesday evening service into high gear. Housed in a month-old stone and glass structure covering a five-acre lot, the congregation was proud of its new home. Just a year ago, the ground beneath them had been awash in beer bottles, syringes, and cigarette butts. The church’s new sanctuary and Christian education center now employed four additional people, all of them local residents who had previously been homeless or on public assistance. This self-proclaimed "small town church in a big city" was slowly but surely moving into the big leagues.

    At the front of the crowded sanctuary, a raised platform stage rose ominously from the sunken floor, towering over the congregation. In the center of the pulpit sat five high-backed chairs draped in cushy red velvet fabric. In front of the center chair, in which Pastor Otis Grier reclined, sat a solid stone and marble column from which arose a glass lectern and a bank of silver-tipped microphones. Whenever Grier or one of the associate ministers of the church climbed the short stone steps that led up to the lectern, they were immediately reminded of the awesome nature of their calling.

    Reverend Oscar Jarvis Peterson, Jr., lovingly known as "O.J." to most, sat to Grier’s right. Winking at his Pastor, O.J. matched Grier’s pace and bopped his head to the rhythm of the Youth Choir’s raucous performance. Seated on an incline of six rows with ten chairs each, the young people were driving the church mad with their rendition of Kirk Franklin’s "Melodies from Heaven." O.J. still marveled at how little Kirk had somehow managed to do the unthinkable - make music that enthralled everyone from the jeep-hoppers out in the street, to the old folk in God’s house. He was growing a little tired of this particular tune, though. He swore that every church he’d visited in these last few months had sung that dang song at some point in the service. There were other contemporary artists out there, but somehow Kirk had all eyes on him.

    The director of the choir was winding the kids’ performance down. A reedy young man of average height, Carl Shockley was a member of the Highland University Gospel Choir and a classmate of O.J.’s in the Liberal Arts College. Despite persistently scandalous rumors about Shockley’s nocturnal activities, O.J. admired the vigor with which the young man pushed and prodded his choir. Large beads of sweat cascaded down Shockley’s beaming face, several of them coming to rest just above his thin, crusty lips.

    "You betta sang that one mo’ time!" Catching Carl’s exclamation, the choir let loose with its final line.


    Now Carl ushered in the close. "MELOOOOODIEEEES!" He piped, spurring the choir to respond.

    "MELODIES FROM HEAVEN! (Pause) RAIN DOWN ON ME! RAIN DOWN ON ME!" As Carl shushed the choir into silence, members of every age and gender burst from their seats in the sparkling sanctuary. O.J. knew they were praising God for another day, and for the talent of their teenage choir members.

    O.J. smiled as the time for the evening’s sermon arrived. Pastor Grier, a tall, bald-headed man whose beige complexion was obscured by a face-full of razor and acne scars, rose to address his congregation. As the overhead lights bounced unfavorably off of Grier’s blemishes, O.J. thanked the Lord for his own baby-smooth, cocoa-brown complexion. Combine that with his heavily-pomaded head of waves, courtesy of Dax, and O.J. knew he was pretty. Grier was his mentor and a great role model, but the man was no sight for sore eyes.

    Grier eyed the crowd enthusiastically. "Did I hear somebody say they wanna praise Him?" A buzz of "Yessirs" swept across the sanctuary.

    "Er uh, wait a minute," Grier said, smacking his lips and rolling his tongue around in the back of his mouth. "I don’t think you heard me, chu’ch, I said, you ought to get up and praise your Lord right now!" As a wave of applause and "Hallelujah"’s began to fill the air, Grier pressed on. "You just heard a choir full of your own chil’ren stand up and praise the Lord our God, asking to be filled with His Spirit! Not, I mind you, selling drugs-"

    A deep, rippling note of emphasis went up from the church organ.

    Grier continued. "Singing about ‘freakin’-"

    again the organ hummed –

    "stealin’ from the corner store, or from the local bank, fo’ that matta -"

    The third ring of the organ brought the audience to its feet, filling the sanctuary with shouts of joy. "You oughta be praisin’ Him for these young folk, for your jobs, for this new sanctuary, for all the things He brought you through!" Grier ceased his oratory long enough to take in the adoring, pumped-up crowd. Clearly satisfied that he had lathered up the people for his pupil, he set into his introduction.

    "Bringing you the word tonight will be one of my prized associates!" Hearty laughs greeted Grier’s playful tone of voice. "No, no, ya’ll know I don’t play favorites among my ministers, but, when it’s their turn to preach, I believe in turning the spotlight up! This young man has been a real find for the ministry of this church, a preacher’s son himself, a man of the people about to receive an English degree from THE Highland University, and, soon enough, to be admitted to Dallas Theological Seminary for his Masters of Divinity!" A rush of "Mmm"’s, "Well alright"’s, and "You go, boy"’s met Grier’s proclamation. O.J. wished again that Grier would stop announcing his interest in seminary like it was a secure fact. He had yet to be admitted to one seminary. "Give the Lord a hand of praise and encourage our brother, O.J. Peterson!"

    Shaking Grier’s hand as he rose from his seat and ascended the inspiring steps, O.J. smoothed his satiny black robe and stepped to the lectern. As he sucked in the smell of burning candles and Afro Sheen that permeated the sanctuary, O.J. knew he was Home. The Black Church would be the office from which he was going to build a lifelong career, one that would someday bring him his own Mercedes and BMW, a beautiful wife, and a fancy house outside of Atlanta, probably in good ol’ Buckhead. For a moment, he let himself bask in the silent adoration of the congregation. His thoughts suddenly turned to his late mother. Mama, you’d be proud of your baby.

    As the audience waited reverently on his first word, O.J. realized it was time to start the show. He’d stayed up too late with his "Freak of the Week" the last couple nights to craft a new sermon for this service, but he’d been inspired this afternoon. He was going to do a revised version of the message he’d delivered at Mt. Vernon Baptist’s revival last month. Far as he could recall, no one from Light had been in attendance that night; a few new sprinkles, and this would come off as a completely different message. The Lord was good.

    "Praise the Lord, Saints!" Almost five years into his preaching career, O.J. was free of the nervous mannerisms and tentative openings of most preachers his age. To keep his concluding remarks from sounding stilted, he decided to open in the sing-song cadence he loved to close with.

    "Well, uh, church, giving honor to the Lord God and our Savior Jesus Christ, I just wanna let you know that I stopped by tonight with a Word! A word from Who, ya say?" O.J. paused long enough to ride the wave of adoring encouragement the congregation lavished on him. They were eager for his next words, just the effect he lived for. "The Lord talked to me last night and told me, He said, O.J. - someone at Light is hurting! Someone just had some disturbing news brought their way! Maybe a loved one is ill. Maybe a wayward child got their rusty butt locked up in jail. Maybe it was something as simple - God forbid - as hearing that a fellow member is bad-talkin’ you behind your back! But that would never happen here." O.J. grinned mischievously as a ripple of laughter washed through the sanctuary.

    "But seriously, my brothers and my sisters, you may right now be in the midst of a trial, something that makes you feel like you’re dying a slow death. Well, the Lord told me to stop by and deliver you the following message: He can give you life after death, no matter how difficult the experience or the trial may be. He specializes in Life, and He’s an expert at overcoming death. Please join me in turning your Bibles to the following scripture…." Like a veteran clergyman, O.J. eloquently read and then began to interpret his I Kings passage. With a seamlessly smooth delivery, he broke the essence of the words into easily understandable morsels, making the audience feel the Holy Book had been written especially for them.

    Twenty minutes later, O.J. was lubricating the audience to the breaking point, evidenced by the swooning and swaying of women, young and old, as he huffed and puffed through the climax of his message. In his wildest dreams as a pudgy pre-teen, he’d never imagined he could have this effect on women, godly or otherwise. Even as he leaned hard into the microphone and raised his right hand heavenward, he couldn’t stop the thought that crept through his mind. Some of these same women wouldn’t have given my chunky behind the time of day a few years ago. But I’m showing ‘em, that’s for sure. No woman says no to O.J. Peterson anymore.


    He pressed forward, knowing the plateau was near. "God has an answer for your trouble! He showed how well he overcomes death when He let Jesus lay in that grave Friday and Saturday before raisin’ Him up on Sunday, oh that marvelous Sunday! Jesus died that horrible death so that we can live today, regardless of the trials! In Him, we can overcome anything!" Overcome with enthusiasm, O.J. grabbed the microphone from the lectern and began to croon a baritone version of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow", slaying the few remaining members who had kept their composure.

    Minutes later, thunderous applause filled the sanctuary. O.J. descended the steps back to the main platform, pumped his fist heavenward and collapsed into his plush chair. He was reminded again of the powerful high he got from delivering the Word, a high second only to the rush of romantic passion. Maybe he’d never be anything more than a C student in the classroom, and he’d certainly never be respected for his athletic abilities, but one thing he knew: no one could touch him when it came time to perform.

    After the conclusion of service, O.J. stood in line with Pastor Grier and the other associates, receiving the gratitude and prayer requests of members as they made their way past the clergy. He stood between Grier and Rev. David Archibald, Grier’s official right-hand man. Archibald didn’t seem to care much for him, but O.J. was still in the dark as to why. He had no ambitions of ever taking over the reins at Light of Tabernacle; he knew his father’s home church in Atlanta would be ready and waiting for him when he got out of seminary. Pastor Peterson Sr. had already seen to that. Maybe he needed to assure Archibald of this. He was tired of the judgmental glances and frowns the little man would shoot his way when he thought O.J. wasn’t looking.

    "Rev. Peterson, thank you for the inspiring message. God sho’ is blessing you, boy," came the encouraging words of Sister Myrna Phillips, one of the most senior members of the Body. Though her back was bent over at what looked to be a thirty-degree angle, the radiant inner beauty and peace that shone on her cardboard-colored complexion was always what struck O.J. most powerfully. Life had not dealt this woman a fair hand in his book - widowed, abandoned by her second husband, and preceded in death by her only daughter, this saint continued keeping on. It was people such as this woman that reminded O.J. there were real lives that needed the encouragement he and colleagues provided. Pastoring wasn’t entirely a Game.

    "Sister Phillips, thank you so much." O.J. leaned down and wrapped his arms around her person. "How are you feeling this week? You’re lookin’ just as lovely as always!"

    "Thank you, baby, the Lord’s been good," Mrs. Phillips responded. "Keep me in your prayers."

    O.J. flashed a wink to the elderly matron. "Only if you promise you’ll do the same for me. God bless!"

    "Reverend, you headed for the seminary, huh?" Anticipating Grady Wells’ infamous vise-like grip, O.J. tried not to wince as he took the man’s hand. A mailman with over ten years of faithful service to the civil service, Wells was not quite thirty years old, and could have passed for O.J.’s age if he so desired. Despite a salary that was far from staggering, Wells appeared to be a confident leader and provider for his wife and their four children, ages one to nine. "So when you become the ‘Reverend Doctor’, try not to forget us peons at ‘the little church’, OK?"

    Jovially delivering a slap to the bigger man’s back, O.J. laughed his comment off. "Hey, Grady, you know and I know a minister ain’t nothing but a servant. We all got our own ministry, you know. I’ll never forget where I came from ‘cause I’m always gonna be where I come from - God’s church!"

    "I heard that," Wells exclaimed. "Seriously bro, we’re all proud of you. Now I hear you even working to help save the Ellis Center!"

    O.J. beamed. "I’m just doing my part. Someone’s got to keep that place open. The harvest is plenty, but the laborers are few, my brother!"

    Wells clamped a taut hand onto O.J.’s shoulder. "Well, you keep servin’ in God’s name, O.J.. We need more role models like you. Whenever my oldest boy David fights me about staying up to do his homework and make the ‘A’ grades I demand, I point to you. I tell him, ‘You hear how Rev. Peterson talk so good and powerful, even though he even younger than your daddy? That’s cause he is educated — about to graduate with a college degree, and now I can tell him, another one from seminary! Keep up the good work, young blood, little ones are looking up to you."

    Too flattered to respond, O.J. whispered his thanks and turned to his right as Wells began his customary banter with Pastor Grier. The sight of the next person in line made him want to crawl under the communion table. Keesa Bishop, a short honey dip with an attractive and healthy figure, was dressed in a stone washed jacket, mock turtleneck, and a matching knee-length skirt. The short brown locks of her hairdo, freshly permed, complemented her perky but plain facial features.

    O.J. was not in the mood to appreciate the new Doo. For the last five days since he had kicked her out of his bed, Keesa had taken to harassing him. Although he’d made it clear that their relationship was over last Friday, she had left a total of six messages on his voicemail since then, insisting he return her calls. She had not shown up at service on Sunday, much to his relief, but now, suddenly, here she was, in front of him.

    "Good word, Rev," she said, shooting a crooked smile that was obviously painted on solely for the Pastor’s benefit. The glare of the four gold earrings in each of Keesa’s ears threatened to knock O.J. off his feet.

    "Thank you, sister, thank you," he replied, shaking her hand for appearance’s sake and turning his attention to Odessa Carp, who stood behind his former lover. O.J. could feel his right hand shaking. He’d never been confronted by a woman he’d done wrong in church before. Most of the time they had enough sense to respect his need to keep business and pleasure separate. He knew Pastor Grier would never tolerate a minister who had women chasing him down in front of the congregation. He prayed Keesa would keep stepping and keep her mouth shut.

    "Oh, O.J.," Keesa said as she took Grier’s hand, "we will talk before you leave tonight. I’ll be waiting by the door. I hope you don’t think you can ignore me forever, boy." Whether she was aware of it or not, the twist of Keesa’s neck, in plain view of Pastor Grier himself, was unmistakable. O.J. felt a small bead of sweat form on his forehead. Has this girl lost her mind?

    Pausing in mid-shake, Pastor Grier looked from Keesa to O.J. with a playfully amused expression. "I’m stayin’ out of that one!"

    Cracking a phony smile at Grier’s quip, O.J. turned and grabbed Odessa’s hand as if it were a life preserver. "How’s my favorite girl?" he oozed to the little Biblical scholar.

    The eleven year-old girl’s eyes met O.J.’s, reverence brimming in her voice. "I enjoyed your message, Reverend. What was the text again? I want to take it home and share it with my mommy and her boyfriend."

    Amazed again at the little girl’s maturity, O.J. relaxed and plunged into an exposition of the scriptural texts from his message. He would do whatever it took to wait Keesa out; he’d deal with her on his own terms, and no one else’s. It was time for Keesa to recognize he had a reputation and a future ministry to protect.

    Keesa had been a pleasant diversion once, but she was not going to ruin his career.


    Chapter Four: Bootstrapper(top)

    Terence Davidson was having a bad dream. It was Pledge Night in early September, and he was a freshman again. Terence and four of the other thirty-three "pledges" of the Gentlemen of Quality Social Club were several blocks from campus, braving the harrowing labyrinth of streets surrounding Highland. Their heads shaved skin tight, their bodies covered in faded blue jeans and white Fruit of the Loom T-shirts, Terence’s group of "little bro’s" raced through one block after another in a state of panic.

    Tonight was the big scavenger hunt, and Terence’s group had spent the night scampering through Highland’s hood – the Highland Grille up the block, the General Highland statue that sat near Alabama Avenue, even the banks of the reservoir near Children’s Hospital – all in search of items chosen by the "big brothers" of GQ. They’d located as many items as they could find before realizing they were running late for the check-in at Johnson Hall. The last team to arrive could forget the prize of GQ membership and all they’d thought it would bring: access to campus leaders, numerous in-crowds, and of course, women.

    As they hurtled toward Johnson, an off-campus dorm deep in the heart of Briar Hollow, the project-packed community bordering Highland, Terence and his "bro’s" shouted at one another with growing impatience and unease. They were late, and already Terence’s mind was full of the nightmares he knew the others shared: endless push-ups as punishment for their tardiness, blistering verbal abuse, and finally, humiliation in front of Johnson’s finest coeds.

    By the time they rounded the corner of 12th and T, two blocks away, Terence felt his wind growing short but refused to show it. He smiled wearily as Aaron James sped past him. "They gonna make us look like punks," Aaron sputtered, his feet flying, "it ain’t about getting their late, y’all!"

    "We almost there now," Terence gasped, "move your legs and shut your mouth, man." The sudden backfire of a car down the block silenced Terence’s crack. He shrugged it off and tried to forget how stupid it was for five Highland students to be on this street, at this hour. Johnson’s neighborhood of decaying row houses and miniature projects was the worst of any off-campus Highland dorm. After-dark sojourns through here were a legendary, unwise move: the only folk traversing this terrain after dark were usually ill-informed freshmen or overconfident upperclassmen.

    As they crossed another block, diving into the heart of Briar Hollow, Terence felt his chest pump with a new anxiety; fear was seeping in. Imagine, him: a brother who’d spent his formative years in the nearby Shaw community, in his Granny’s rented two-bedroom row house. He had plenty of experience in these hoods. As the grunts and groans of his "bro’s" closed in on him, though, Terence knew what was different this time. He wasn’t surrounded by the most reliable aides: far as he knew, all of these other dudes were from one-light small towns or cushy suburbs. Even his boy Brandon Bailey, who he’d made fast friends with a couple weeks back, was turning white with fear. These brothers couldn’t handle themselves in Briar Hollow. What were they doing?

    "Oh freak!" The group paused in the middle of the street as Brandon paused under a dingy street lamp, checking his watch. "We’re late. It’s two after ten!"

    Panicked, Aaron desperately pointed a high-yellow finger to his right. "Look, if we cross over and cut through there, we’ll save two blocks and come out right at Johnson!"

    Terence followed his friend’s gesture and winced at the small elementary school halfway down the block. To its right sat a large, weed-filled yard that stretched over to Johnson Hall’s block. Terence knew it would save time, but he also noticed the series of idling cars lining the block in front of the school. Standing beside the autos - cracking jokes, smoking blunts, and imbibing on 40-ounce Red Bulls - were a group of neighborhood residents. For a moment, Terence felt more at home than he had so far in his first few weeks at Highland. Here were some down-to-earth, unpretentious folk, just bein’ themselves, damn what the rest of society thought. They were almost his homies, after all. He canceled that thought when he noticed their suspicious glares. Who was he kidding? To these folk, he wasn’t Terence from around the way; he was just another faceless, uppity Highland student.

    He played with the idea of protest before letting his pride take over. "A-alright, let’s do it fellas! Follow me!" He put his chin down and charged toward the schoolyard entrance, dodging the sidewalk straddlers as he scurried ahead.

    "Damn, ya could say s‘cuse me, spoiled brats," came a predictable reprimand from a whiskered man with beer sopping his patchy beard.

    Near the yard entrance, a spike-haired sister squatted on a cement staircase. She eyed Terence and yelled at the top of her lungs. "Who these muthafuckas?!" she asked, to no one in particular.

    The heavy smell of marijuana stung Terence’s nose and eyes. It was no more pleasant to him today than it had been when his younger brother, Biggie, started using it. Expelling the rank air from his lungs, Terence sensed a growing restlessness in the crowd. As Brandon and Aaron pushed ahead through the opening of the ten-foot chain link fence surrounding the yard, the night lights overhead glanced off the shiny noggins of their bald heads.

    "Who you little shits think you is, comin’ on our territory!" A teenage boy dressed in a loud Nike sweatsuit sneered and began to run alongside Terence, hatred filling his eyes. Terence pumped his muscled legs, which had propelled him to glory on nearby basketball courts, and decided to play deaf. A few more yards, and they’d be out of harm’s way. No need to provoke the silly ass brother by answering his trash talk.

    "Hold up, nigga, I got somethin’ for em!" The threatening voice, which came from behind Terence, was loaded with malice.

    Terence’s eyes grew wide with shock. "Brandon, get down!"

    His warning was too late. Brandon’s pace was cut short as a 40-ounce projectile glanced against his bald head. He had been leading the pack, but the sensation of blood oozing from his right temple stole his fire, leaving him wobbling in place and clutching at the mushy wound. The other "bro’s", clearly out of sorts, continued past their fallen comrade, ducking and weaving for their own lives. From behind, Terence heard the cock of a gun barrel. "Go on, y’all," he yelled, wondering if they even heard him, "I got him!"

    He sped over to Brandon, who had dropped to the ground, and grabbed his arm, barely slowing his stride. "You want your momma to get a call in the middle of the night? Get the hell up!" Before he had even finished the sentence, Brandon was at his side and matching Terence’s pace with ease. Neither one dared look back. They were almost through the yard when a shrill ring pierced Terence’ eardrums.

    With a start, he awoke from his afternoon nap. He reminded himself — that’s in the past now. Though he’d survived his share of moments more harrowing than that night, those events recurred in his dreams ever so often. He didn’t view the dreams as nightmares so much as reminders of the trials he and his boys had survived to make it this far. They were going to beat the odds, and a dream like this one drove that truth home. As Terence rubbed sleep from his eyes, he heeded the shrill purr of the cordless Motorola on his chest. As he pressed the Flash button, he could feel morning breath cake his gums. "Um, yeah."

    "Terence Marshall Davidson, is that you answering the phone, like some ill-mannered slob?" There was no mistaking the crunchy voice of his Granny, the woman who had almost single-handedly raised him.

    "Oh, uh, hey Granny, this is me. I’m sorry if I sound ignorant, I just woke up. An unplanned nap." Without opening the blinds or flicking on his desk lamp, Terence clumsily stood to his feet, stepping into the nearest pair of size thirteen Grant Hill Filas.

    "Now look, boy, you know I raised you better than that. What did I teach you, Terence? A man should always behave as if he’s at least one step higher up the ladder than he really is. When you do that, you’ll never stop advancing."

    "And I believe you, Granny. Come on, this is your prized grandbaby here!"

    "Don’t I know it. Look, baby, I had to sneak away from the social hour so I could make this call, so I have to make it quick. I just wanted you to know I’m workin’ on a way to get you some tuition money. I know those Financial Aid people been getting rude with you, and Granny’s not gon’ sit by and see her baby mistreated."

    His hands on his hips, Terence stopped dead in his tracks. "Granny, how many times I gotta tell you, your money’s no good where I’m concerned? You got to trust me when I tell you my job is paying me plenty. I can handle my bills. ‘Sides, you get to movin’ your savings around, and the Manor might try to put you out for lack of assets. Granted, you could always move in with me, but I don’t think you really wanna do that…"

    "Oh, baby, stop that nonsense. Granny would never burden you with putting her up, at least not ‘til you make your first million and get you a little mansion! But I am gonna get you some money now -"

    Not that it mattered, but Terence was shaking his head insistently. "Granny, anything you send me, I’m sendin’ back."

    "I’m calling your bluff. Terence, my concern for you didn’t end the day I got sick, or the day you started college. So you look for the money. Anything that lightens your burden is worth my trouble. But I got something else I need to tell you."

    Suddenly remembering that he was supposed to be up on campus right now, Terence gently prompted. "Uh, Granny, what is it?"

    "Well, I was reading this article in Essence yesterday. Actually, it wasn’t a full article, but one of those inspirational passages by the girl who edits the magazine, you know the one. Real pretty girl, I think her name is Susan something? Anyway, baby, it was titled ‘Embracing Commitment’ , and I’m mailing you a copy today. I think you need to show it to that Lisa of yours."

    Rolling his eyes as he could only do over the phone, Terence gingerly opened the blinds over his desk. "OK, Granny." The problem was, Lisa was not his right now, but there was no point arguing that fact with Granny. She had pegged Lisa as a heartbreaker from Day One, not that her prediction had helped free him from Lisa’s spell. "I’ll be looking for it in the mail. I need to go, OK?"

    "I’ll let you go, baby, but don’t forget your Granny’s words. You are so special, son, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps like you have. That’s what’s so important about that work you’re doing at the community center. You having any luck getting those Bean Pie Boys to support the Center?"

    "Granny, they’re the Nation of Islam – Muslims. Ellis needs their support as much as the church’s. The Nation be takin’ care of business. Don’t sell them short."

    "Whatever, child. My point was, you got to pull some more folks up with you. When I think of how many boys who grew up on our block are dead or in prison … but you still have some learning to do, trust me. Read that Essence article. One day you’ll appreciate my overflowing wisdom! Love you, baby."

    Setting the phone down and clicking on his desk lamp, Terence checked his watch. "Ah, damn!" He had overslept. He’d gotten off work early from Technotronics today, decided to treat himself to a rare nap before going up to campus to attend the Disciples of Christ meeting with Brandon. From there he would be attending a business dinner with his mentor from work, Jerry Wallace. He remembered, through the groggy haze clouding his thoughts, that the Disciples’ meetings started at 7:00; his plastic neon clock told him it was 7:58. And he had told Jerry to pick him up at Highland’s front gate at 9:00 sharp. Brandon would never let him hear the end of it, but there was no point trying to make the meeting at this point. Now he had to get dressed and make it up to campus in time to meet Jerry. He picked up the phone again and dialed a number. On the third ring, the owner of the cell phone picked up.

    "This ‘s Larry."

    "Larry, what’s up Big Dog?" Terence sank back into the tempting cushions of his squeaky twin bed.

    "Is this Terence?" Larry’s voice was jovially indignant. "Boy, I told you not to make me waste my valuable cell phone batteries taking calls from my housemates. You can talk to a brotha anytime."

    Terence continued to awake from his hibernation as he traded quips with his friend. "Yo, I need you to stop over at the Student Center and let Brandon know I can’t make that Disciples meeting."

    Larry chuckled. "Bro’, you know I got no place up in the midst of the People of God."

    Terence hee-hawed conspiratorially. Larry had to be the most slang-using Buppie he’d ever known. "Well, I think they have an intermission at eight. Just stop over and let him know so he doesn’t spend the next couple of hours cursin’ me."

    "I got you covered, T. I’m in the midst of a big strategy session now, I’ll check you out later, awright?"

    Terence clicked the "Flash" button on his phone and stretched out his long right arm, resting the phone on the rickety wooden table a few feet from his bed. He was still tired, but he threw back the plaid sheets that lay over top of him and swung his legs back onto the sturdy oak floor beneath. Activating his Marvin Gaye’s Greatest Hits CD on his Emerson boom box, he decided playtime was over. Because he was putting himself through school by working a lucrative internship at Technotronics, Terence could only attend classes Tuesdays and Thursdays, meaning those days were packed full of electrical engineering classes featuring quizzes, exams, presentations, and the demands of class discussion. This very night he was going to have to write a paper and review for two exams. But that would have to wait until he returned from tonight’s dinner.

    Dragging his six-foot-two frame through his doorway and taking the few steps required to reach the bathroom, he bent over the miniature porcelain sink and turned on the sputtering spigot. He splashed cold water onto his Pepsi-colored face and the shiny pate of his clean-shaven head. The sounds of Marvin’s "Trouble Man" percolated throughout the hallway, helping to clear the fuzzy clouds blocking Terence’s thoughts. The weight of what he had to accomplish in the coming weeks hit home. In addition to completing his latest project at Technotronics and passing his courseload for the semester, Ms. Simmons, Highland’s Financial Aid Director, would require his attention.

    He had lied to Granny about his financial status; he was one step away from financial ineligibility. He shuddered involuntarily as he hung his red washcloth on the support bar next to the sink. To think that witch Simmons held his future in her miserly hands made him crazy. He had to stop thinking about it. Granny was always telling him that his father had a chronic case of high blood pressure, and Terence had no desire to worry himself into an early grave. He had won Ms. Simmons over so far, and he would have to keep employing the Davidson charm until he had time to earn the rest of his tuition money at Technotronics. But he knew time was getting short. If he didn’t get his back tuition paid off by the end of the year, Ms. Simmons had made it clear he could forget registering next fall. He stared blankly into the mirror and admitted to himself what he was going to have to do.

    An hour later, Jerry Wallace pulled up to the red brick front gate of Highland’s campus. Terence was waiting faithfully, dressed snappily in his only full suit, a J. Riggings pinstripe he had purchased over Larry’s bourgie objections. He tugged at the tight collar of his Van Heusen white oxford and wiped the last few beads of sweat from his forehead. He had made the eight block walk from Le Droit Park in five minutes despite being dressed like he was going to church, but it had come at a price. He hoped he didn’t look too rumpled.

    Rolling down the driver’s side window of his burgundy Lincoln Navigator, a high-end jeep that drew immediate attention from the other students lining the front gate, Jerry winked at Terence. Even from several feet away, Terence’s nostrils tingled at the new car smell emanating from the Navigator. Leaning out his driver side window, Jerry yelled over the roar of house music flooding the street. "Hey, Terence, my man, hop in. We’ve gotta beat Burton there if we wanna keep our reps up!" A millionaire vice-president of Technotronics, an upstart software engineering firm and a current darling of Wall Street, Jerry was as self-assured as could be expected, even in the midst of a neighborhood most thirty-two year old white men would find intimidating.

    As Terence peeled off a warm smile and climbed into the passenger’s seat, he and Jerry made small talk. Terence wasn’t sure if it was simply Jerry’s personality or the security he had by being wealthy enough to retire, but Jerry had seemingly taken a genuine interest in his career from the first day of his internship three years ago. Assigned to be Terence’s mentor, Jerry regularly treated him to fancy lunches and even social gatherings at his lavish home in Alexandria, where he would clue Terence in to the politics of Technotronics and suggest new technologies he should include in his studies. Jerry was the first white man Terence had known who acted in a way that took his mind off of skin color. Terence still didn’t grant the man complete trust, of course. Truth was, Jerry looked a hell of a lot like one of those sneering, inbred white boys who at his private grade school… the ones who had rained racial epithets on him until he had flexed a few muscles and sent them scurrying into their dark corners like sprayed roaches. He wasn’t going to forget that stuff overnight.

    White man or not, though, Terence figured he was too desperate to be proud. It was time to seek Jerry’s help with his financial problems. Boldly, he laid out his situation for Jerry and asked if the company might provide an advance on his future salary, so he could pay down his Highland bills.

    "Terence, I would love to help ya out," Jerry replied. "But we’re only allowed ta offer advances to full-time employees, and ta be honest, it’s rarely done even for them." A native of Boston, Jerry’s remarks were accented by a salty blue-collar touch belying his current status in life. "How much do you owe?"

    Terence felt his eyes slide to the floor of the luxury jeep. "I owe back tuition of three thousand dollars, and I have to come up with another four thousand to pay for this spring semester."

    "Lordy!", came Jerry’s anxious reply. "Terence, what type of advance would you be looking for? An advance on your first year of full-time employment?"

    Terence bit his lip in frustration as Jerry whisked his jeep around Dupont Circle. The glaring lights of the CVS pharmacy and the hip eateries surrounding the circle aggravated his percolating headache. He was not in a mood to appreciate the meaty Scot’s attempt at humor. "I just know I need to get a major down payment on the balance before the Director of Financial Aid eighty-sixes me." He cursed himself for using such obvious slang in front of Jerry. Good job Terence, he told himself, just encourage the man’s stereotypes, why don’t ya.

    Showing his concern, Jerry asked how Terence had managed to make it so far with unpaid tuition balances. Checking his level of trust, Terence told him how inefficient Highland’s Financial Aid office was, how they managed to bungle students’ loans and grants on a daily basis, something to which he had fallen victim plenty of times. The only positive was the fact that Annabelle Simmons, the Director, happened to be a distant family friend, and had agreed to play dumb regarding his unpaid balances, up to a point at least. He didn’t mention that her help had come with an embarrassingly high price tag. But Terence was refusing to go there with her anymore. A brother had to retain some pride, broke or not.

    "How about this?" Jerry smiled in a reassuring, fatherly manner as he guided the Navigator to a curb near the four-star Prime Cut Restaurant on M Street. "I’ll ask Burton if we can give you an advance of $500 a month. Maybe that could keep your Director friend happy for now."


    I need the money right now, not parceled out in small-ass piecesI need the money right now, not parceled out in small-ass pieces, Terence thought. Jerry was offering him a band aid for a gaping, festering wound. Damn! How was he going to get out of this hammerlock? Just last week he’d been harassed again by some old high school friends trying to bring him into their crack operation.

    "A couple deliveries a week, T. Two, three hours of your time at best, nigga. You could clear a few extra G’s a week, bro’. Think about it." Terence had told them to get out and go to hell, and now he felt like telling Jerry Wallace the same thing. Wishing he could be honest, he turned towards his mentor and forced a smile as he shook Jerry’s hammy hand. "Thanks, Jerry. I really appreciate it."

    Wallace grinned and climbed out into the street, quickly circling the car and meeting Terence at the curb. "You just make sure you do a kick-ass job on the Reveal Project. You’re the star intern of your class so far, keep making me look good, OK? Oh, by the way, let me know this week if you’re up for an Orioles game next month. I’m taking some of the execs in a couple weeks, and thought it’d be good exposure for some of the interns and new hires."

    As they ducked under the velvet awning of the restaurant, Terence frowned to himself. Another outing? Wasn’t tonight enough for a while? Corporate America really demanded more of you than nine to five. He wanted to tell Jerry he had better ways to spend his time, but he knew a "Have-To" when he heard one. "Sure, I’ll let you know tomorrow." As Jerry slapped him on the back and they stepped into a smoky lounge filled with Technotronics employees, all of them lily-white residents of suburban Virginia, Terence gritted his teeth and reminded himself to turn on the charm. Just two hours, he told himself, and then he could return to his normal world. Maybe the monthly advances could hold Ms. Simmons off for the rest of the year. He’d try not to worry about that tonight, but he’d still have a ton of work waiting on him. And once he got that straight, he’d have to spend yet another night in bed without Lisa.

    Terence tried to remind himself to be grateful for the small things. Sometimes that was all that kept a brother going.

    Read Against the Grain Communications’s description of Not All Dogs.