My mother always went on about the latest local murders and told us (me and my two brothers) every day, to watch out for strange “peoples” whenever we left the house. “I dreamt that this man was chasing you at school with a butcher knife,” she said to me as I was leaving the house for school one morning. That was the day I met Ridgeley, an ex-convict. He was 28 years old, six-foot, four inches tall, and he had a beard like the men Viola and I drooled over at an all day rhythm and blues concert the week before. His uncultured voice was so deep and thick, that his slurred words were almost unintelligible—like he was drunk. In short, he looked like an ex-convict and just about grunted when he spoke. The third time I saw Ridgeley, he told me he had done time for armed robbery in a juvenile facility (“Baby, I got something serious to tell you.”) He and a friend stuck up a liquor store. Viola called him an “honest crook.” Viola ought to know. Her boyfriend, Bernard, was a drug dealer with a math degree.
“What kind of ice cream you like?” Ridgeley asked.
“What?” I asked.
“Ice cream. What kind you like?”
“Strawberry,” I said.
“Strawberry? Strawberry ice cream? What’s that?”
Fingering the pinhead brown mole beneath my right eye, Ridgeley said I was classy, especially for a girl from round the way. My mother called him a skinny, long-necked nigger and said that he looked like a giant banana. Ridgeley said that he liked that she asked him, “what are your intentions towards my daughter?” No one had asked him that in years. He worked for a construction company that built mausoleums. He bragged about the different cemeteries he had been to and asked me if I had ever been to some fancy cemetery I had never heard of. He couldn’t drive the company rigs because his license had been revoked. He was a helper instead. He talked all the time about hiring a lawyer to get his record expunged. When he wasn’t talking about that, he talked about being separated from his wife. She was his childhood sweetheart. The mention of her name always seemed to require a moment of silence afterwards. He said he had been “doing it” since he was thirteen years old. Within the last six months before meeting Ridgeley, I had lost my virginity on the hood of a dark green Camaro to some guy I didn’t even like that much, learned that my favorite aunt was cheating on her husband with another woman, and rejected an offer of money for sex by a strange, frumpy, middle-aged white man in a business suit tossing a coin in the air.
As he smoked a Virginia Slims, Ridgeley told my mother the same thing about his family that he had told me: that he grew up down the shore and that he was the oldest of three kids. His parents were still married after forty years, but he and his siblings were all divorced or separated.
“Whereabouts down the shore?” she asked.
“Oh, I see,” she said in her most suspicious, stern voice—the affected gesture of a gullible woman pretending to be street-smart. My mother, who never left the city except to go south to visit her family, did not even know where Neptune, New Jersey was.
Ridgeley even told her something that he had not told me: that his wife had a nervous breakdown at the mall, that she kept saying that she saw Jesus and wanted to give her life to God. Ridgeley said she even wanted to jump over the rail on the third floor.
“Really?” I asked.
“Don’t you know that crazy people see Jesus?” my mother asked, as if we were both stupid for not realizing that profound truth. We both waited for her to expound more truth but nothing else came.
* * *
I first met Ridgeley while walking home one warm April night from work at the Jesuit residence. I was going to catch the bus. Nancy, one of Father Piñata’s former patients, had called and threatened again to commit suicide, like she always did, if she could not talk to him. Father Piñata, who only wore his collar on special occasions and never answered the switchboard page, “Priest for confession,” never took her calls, saying, “No she’s not. She’s been saying that for years.” She had called all evening and had left Father Piñata a batch of messages. Ridgeley said “hello” as he rode his bike past me and turned around when I returned the greeting. I told him my name was Mary Price, that I was the first person in my family to go to college, and that I was a Classics major—in fact, one of the only two black Classics majors at a Jesuit college where my white Jesuit advisor seemed to gloat over telling me that my family, despite their working-class values, lived in a ghetto.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ridgeley asked.
I immediately heard again my mother snapping at me earlier in the day. “You don’t know what the hell you want to do? Who the hell you ever seen go to college and don’t know what the hell they want to do?” A high school dropout, my mother had not gone to college nor did she know anyone who did.
“I don’t know,” I replied, embarrassed that I didn’t have an answer.
I was also paying my own way by working on campus part-time at the Jesuit residence and applying for grants using my parents’ tax returns that my father lied like crazy on. (My father minced no words in saying, “Nobody helped me,” meaning that I, not he, would pay for college.) On the street that night, Ridgeley touched my hand with his index finger, and we traded telephone numbers. He didn’t look so tall that night because he straddled his bike. I didn’t have to wait by the phone long. He called me the next day. The next time I saw him, he towered over my five-foot, four-inch frame. Walking with him was like walking with the Empire State Building as he held my hand. He walked slowly so I didn’t have to race to keep up with him. I was excited to display to the world that I was with a man almost ten years older than me, although I felt uncomfortable, intimidated, and self-conscious. I didn’t know what 28-year-old men expected from 28-year-old women, and I didn’t know how 28-year-old women behaved. In addition, I was anxious about being myself, being quiet and serious, and not knowing what to say to him or to any man.
Two nights later, Ridgeley arrived on time to walk me home from work. Father Piñata, a suspected alcoholic, had come downstairs to retrieve a delivered box of liquor he had ordered from a neighborhood store. After he had dumped the newest batch of pink slips containing Nancy’s messages into his pocket, Father Piñata doubled over in laughter. At me. Why? Proud of my namesake and trying to impress him, I had bragged that my father named me after the Virgin Mary. Father Piñata’s irreverent response shook me. It would be years before I shared the origin of my name again and only with another woman named “Mary” who said first she was also similarly named. By then, it would be a confession. Picking up his order, Father Piñata then said good night to both of us as I locked up. Ridgeley had rescued me from a love affair with a dead Sam Cooke. “Never settle for second best,” my father always said. In Ridgeley, I did not. He was handsome. His light brown eyes looked like my tiger eye earrings. Ever since I started college, my father hardly came home anymore, preferring to spend his nights elsewhere, and forcing my mother by herself to awkwardly pick apart Ridgeley and the one other guy I dated before him.
“Sex isn’t everything,” she said about my relationship with Ridgeley, her face strained and tear-worn from my father’s absence. She had found my rinsed diaphragm in the shower.
“You’re just saying that because you aren’t getting any,” I snapped back at her. We hardly talked about anything anyway. Mostly, I exercised restraint and tolerated her intrusive random ramblings. Unfortunately, this time I resented by implication her heretical comparisons: my father to Ridgeley, herself to me, her resignation to my hope.
“You think you’re better than me because you’re going to college.” My mother grew up cleaning houses to help her family make ends meet before she married my father and strutted the fact that she was a housewife and a Christian to her family and friends. “College don’t mean nothing if you ain’t saved and going to heaven, and you ain’t saved and going to heaven like me.”
* * *
“Are you in love?” Sister Grace asked me out of the blue a few weeks later. She ran the writing lab where I volunteered to tutor students in English three times a week.
“You seem depressed.” She was right. I was in love with Ridgeley and was miserable like I was having PMS and on drugs at the same time—a thick hormonal haze. I thought only of him. When was I going to see him again when I wasn’t with him, and when I was going to see him again when I was. As soon as I left him, I longed for him again, a perpetual longing that seemed to deepen each time I left him. Hours lengthened into days, days lengthened into weeks, and weeks lengthened into months. He called me every Monday on his day off and on Wednesdays only. If I missed his call, he would not call back. Only my mother’s message, “Ridgeley called,” would carry me through the week. I usually ended up at his house, where he used to live with his wife, once a week on Mondays, eating for lunch store-brand peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread. His house, which was about three blocks from the school, was forever ripped apart from remodeling. He never called or saw me on weekends. He prided himself on beating me at backgammon.
“No,” I assured Sister Grace. “I am not in love.” How dare she think that?
“You sure you’re alright? I haven’t seen you around campus in a while.”
She was right. I had stopped going to class because I was also depressed about life in general. I was seeing Father Piñata at the Student Counseling Center. He worked there as a therapist when he wasn’t dodging Nancy. We talked mostly about existential stuff like who was I and what was I going to do with my life, which meant I spent most of our sessions staring at the poster of arranged daffodils on the wall in his office and not saying much.
Viola, a sophomore like me but older than me, like Ridgeley, sat in the Writing Lab office waiting for me. I thought it was cool that she had salt and pepper dreadlocks and had had seven abortions. The one time I went to her apartment near campus, I left because she answered the door naked, sporting breasts shaped like inverted bowling pins, and I was afraid I would be arrested in a drug raid with her drug dealer boyfriend, Bernard, naked in the next room. (“I don’t know anything about any drugs. I hardly know these people,” I envisioned myself pleading with the jaded arresting cop as he led me away in handcuffs. “Yeah, yeah, tell it to somebody else who doesn’t know any better,” he would crack.)
“You’re in love with him,” Viola said, inspecting my face as I approached her. Her demeanor firm, unlike Sister Grace, she would not be put off.
I burst. I smiled, I gushed, and I laughed.
“Enjoy it,” she said. Only she was not smiling. Her reticence scared me. “How do you know he’s not still seeing his wife?” She had doused my glee as quickly as she had stoked it. Realizing that she had misspoken, she patted me on the knee. “Forget that.” She continued, her words measured. “Men come and go. You have choices.” I had never seen her so pensive, so glum, as if she had regrets about her own life. “You have to be true to yourself,” her voice trailed off. She was talking to me but to herself.
“What?” I said to myself. It took me a few seconds to process her remarks. Even though I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, I knew I wanted to do something bigger than simply graduate, get a job, and get married. I had even gone on a job interview recently to work as an optometrist’s assistant. If I wanted the job, they would send me for training. I knew during the interview that the job was not for me and terminated the interview. Though tempted to probe Viola’s remarks, I declined to ask her what she meant. I didn’t want her to know that I was seeing Father Piñata. We then reviewed a recent graded essay.
The semester ended right after that. I spent the summer bathing with Ridgeley, receiving full body massages, and sweating from sex in heat-wave-like temperatures with no air conditioning. He told me that he found me to be a very exciting woman. I laughed because I knew I was barely a woman and not exciting. I met his best friend, Lloyd, who was loud like Ridgeley and looked worn out from too much partying, especially around his bloodshot eyes. They looked hollow like no one was home. And he spoke with a raspy voice like he was making an obscene phone call. On second thought, he looked like an ex-convict, too. Ridgeley said the robbery had been Lloyd’s idea. I could see that. Lloyd had more brainpower and nerve than Ridgeley and seemed more calculating and cold-hearted. I didn’t know what to say to Lloyd so I said nothing.
“She’s quiet and don’t talk much,” Lloyd said to Ridgeley about me like I wasn’t even there. “Why don’t she talk to me?”
“That’s just the way she is,” Ridgeley said. “She’s thinking about things. Leave her alone.”
* * *
Ridgeley told me more scattered stories about himself. If I could have wrapped myself around him like a boa constrictor, I would have. Instead, I sat next to him on the sofa with my head on his shoulder. He sucked on a Virginia Slims.
“I didn’t talk much when I was little, you know. I was afraid of people.”
I looked at him, my eyes half closed. I didn’t believe him.
“Oh yeah,” he continued. “My father used to beat me all the time because of it. All I did was bring home my report card from school when I was in kinnygarten and give it to him. You know, I didn’t even know what a report card was except that it was blue like the sky. Next thing I know, the old man snatched off his belt and beat me without a word. Look like this,” he said lifting his shoulder so that I would look up at his face looking down at me. He had bared his top teeth and fastened them to his lower lip.
“For years, I never even knew why. When I got old enough to read, I found the report card because my mother had saved them all. Guess what? I got a ‘U’ in behavior because the teacher said that I wouldn’t talk, even when she spoke to me. Beat me because I was shy.” He laughed and then continued. “My mother said whenever she took me to the park, I wrap my little big old body around her leg all the time like this (he grabbed my thigh with both hands and I laughed) and wouldn’t let go.” He shook his head and stamped out the cigarette in the ashtray on the coffee table. Parallel streams of smoke exited his nostrils, reminding me of dragon. “One good thing about the old man. He did teach me to respect women. Took me in the basement when I was thirteen and jacked me up. ‘When a woman says “no” you listen to her. You hear?’” he said, shaking a pointed finger.
While Ridgeley never told me why he and his wife separated, I always got the sense that she dumped Ridgeley against his will, and that, like discarded chewing gum, he was still stuck wherever she dumped him, waiting patiently for her to one day take him back.
“What are these?” I asked him, pointing to the wooden ducks on the mantelpiece over the fake fireplace in his living room.
“I know they’re ducks. Did you make these?” I had seen them before but never bothered to ask about them until now. The plumage of the one I picked up included a burgundy chest and neck and an iridescent green back, red eyes, and a dark head striped with white feathers. His downwardly angled beak sported spots of yellow, black, red, and white.
He smiled. He said when he wasn’t at work, he carved and painted wooden ducks. He learned how in prison.
“It makes me relax just like you do,” he said. He said he would make one for me. He never did.
“You made these?” I asked. “They’re so beautiful.”
* * *
The summer came and went fast. It seemed like every September, I returned to school to another scandal of another priest running off with a student. Last summer Father Regular, who always whined incessantly that the quality of the school dropped when women were admitted, ran off with one of his female English students. The summer before, Father Chippendale ran off with his female graduate assistant. This time it was Father Piñata. He had run off with one of his patients from the counseling center, a married woman who had been emotionally abused by her husband and hospitalized in various psychiatric hospitals off and on throughout their marriage. Father Piñata must have been randy for a while, because at my fifth session with him he tried to tell me that a dream I had about Ridgeley sitting on a plane was really a dream about him. I said, “No it wasn’t,” and never returned to counseling.
By the time school started, my parents, including my father when he made an appearance at home, usually to change clothes and pick a fight with my mother or to give me a hard time about using his tax returns to apply for school grants, again said I needed to forget about college and take my hide around the corner to the sheet factory where Miss Hollis worked and get a job so I could pay rent or get the hell out and get my own place. My mother also said they were hiring at the daycare center down the street where Miss Martin worked. One evening after school, they took coordinated turns shooting their mouths off at me at the dining room table where I sat filling out financial aid forms. Sitting across from me, my father, who had been working since he was fourteen to support himself, showed up first to shoot off his mouth.
“You know what the hell you’re doing? I don’t think so, Miss Mary. I don’t think you do at all. ” I just let him shoot until he emptied his mouth like I had learned over the years whenever he derailed into a maniacal ranting. My father and I had dueled constantly over the years. We both needed to have the last word. It was the unfortunate dynamic that fueled our relationship. Usually he trumped me because, by virtue of his rank, he could. Today, however, I would not be trumped anymore.
“Your mother and me didn’t go to no college,” he continued.
“I want to do something with my life,” I said, my voice firm, my eyes continuing to look at the forms I was working on.
My father left shaking his head, like I was crazy. My mother came in right after him and sat in the chair he had just vacated, aimed, and fired off her mouth.
“There’s bills that got to be paid. Expenses.”
“I want to do something with my life,” I said again with the same firmness and detachment. My mother slinked out of the room like she didn’t want even me to know that she had been there.
“What the hell does that mean?” I heard my exasperated father say later to my mother in the kitchen over a hurried and noisy dinner of clanging silverware and dinnerware and slurped iced tea.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never seen her like this before.” My mother then told my father that he needed to meet Ridgeley.
“Who?” my father asked like she was wasting his time.
“Some old nigger Mary met.”
“Don’t bother me with no foolishness,” my father said and later left for parts unknown.
Ridgeley said he wanted to do something with his life, too. But somehow I knew that for the rest of his life, he would be building mausoleums, if he, duped by Lloyd, did not end up back in jail again. When we met, he told me he loved to read also. I meant Shakespeare, Faulkner, and O’Connor. He meant the local paper, which was written on a third-grade level, and supermarket tabloids.
“I want to be a writer,” I told Ridgeley one Monday while lying in his and his wife’s bed, my nude hourglass body freshly rubbed down with baby oil and shod in my navy blue sandals I bought on installment out of a catalogue. My mother had given me a heightened sense of language. She chopped up words with her tongue like she was wielding one of the many butcher knives she had cut her hands with while cutting up chicken over the years, blood sprouting from her thumb like oil from a newly sprung well. In time, I learned not only to distrust her Southern dialect pronunciations, but also to decipher the dictionary recognizable word. Ridgeley said his wife was a writer, i.e., that she wrote catalogue descriptions for a living. He bought me pens and a box of notebooks. He didn’t understand what I was talking about. He always accused me of thinking too much.
“You heard me. Your big old head is going to bust wide open from all the ideas running around in there.”
“My head is not big,” I said. He had hit a sore spot. My mother mocked me for years for having a big forehead. I believed her.
“Oh, what’s the matter, baby. You know I’m just playing with you,” he said, except he pronounced “with” as “which.” “Let me give your big head a kiss,” he quipped. He lit up a Virginia Slims and took a swig from the pint bottle of cheap whisky he carried with him. Sometimes I drank cheap, super-sweet wine that tasted like boozed up Kool-Aid, if he had any. He talked again about saving up enough money to afford a lawyer to get his record expunged.
“And then what?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“And then what? What are you going to do next?”
“I’ll be able to get my license and vote again.”
“And then what?”
“‘And then what?’ That’s enough, ain’t it?”
“No, it’s not.”
To soften the sting of my words, I hit Ridgeley on the chest like I was challenging him to a duel, and then we wrestled until we had sex again. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be feeling, but I suspected that I was not feeling what I should have felt. Unfortunately, the years of being the obedient daughter my parents raised had worked. It would be years before I could relax and enjoy sex without hearing their forever scolding voices in my head.
* * *
“Baby, make demands on me.”
Ridgeley said he wanted to talk about us getting serious, about us spending a future together. We sat in his wife’s car in the park, watching the boats sail in and out of the harbor, watching people walk by. I loved to watch people, to the point of staring at them so hard that they might threaten to kick my behind. “What the hell you looking at?” Lately, I no longer waited for him to call on Mondays and Wednesdays and even deliberately missed a few of his calls by being at Viola’s house. Last Monday I didn’t go to his house at all because I didn’t want to. I just listened to the phone ring that morning in my room.
“Did you hear what I said? Baby, I’m trying to talk to you.”
This time his baritone voice no longer made me tingle. I didn’t want to live his life or make a life with him, regardless of the fact that he was gorgeous, had testicles the size of large Grade A eggs, and carved and painted beautiful wood ducks. I wanted to live and make my own life, the way he made ducks. We both got quiet as he took my chin in his hand and turned it away from the harbor towards him. I looked away from his light brown eyes and down at his hand. He let my chin go, and we drove off from the park in silence. I was surprised that I immediately started to stir from missing him. Did I make a mistake? I stifled the urge to recant my decision. He coughed. Was he choking on tears? I stole a peek at his face. He had lifted his right hand to wipe a tear from his eye. My insides churned with tears. As we pulled up in front of my house, I wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” but said nothing. I bolted from the car and did not look back. He pulled off in his wife’s car without beeping his horn. My mother scared the tears out of me when she snatched open the door. I gasped.
“Who’s that? Ridgeley?” she asked, stooping to peek into his car as he pulled off.
I didn’t answer.
She looked at me. “What’s the matter with you? Mary, you hear me talking to you?” she called after me as I walked past her into the house. “That child Viola called you.” It was quiet for about ten seconds as I ran up the stairs to my room. “I dreamed last night that you were graduating college. It looked like when you walked down the aisle, people were throwing money like you throw rice at a wedding. Dollar bills like, with your face on them.”