No Strings Attached
By Robert C Price
When I turned ten years old, my father decided to take over my development. He said to my mother, “The only way a boy is going to learn how to be a man is from another man.”
She laughed in his face.
“Let me know when you find one and I’ll send him,” said Earlene.
He wasn’t amused.
After twenty minutes of deliberations, my mother folded like a degenerate gambler. Her hazel eyes looked heavy as she told me to put on my coat and make myself presentable. I saw Ray Sr. caress Earlene’s shoulders, but she turned away. When I came out the house, he gave me that broad grin that’s known to charm people out of their hard earned cash.
There was no doubt I was happy. It had been years since my parents lived together. My father came to see me during holidays or occasional visits. Dice games, women and illegal activities preoccupied his mind. No time for a square’s life. Always time for the hustle.
That happens when you don’t want for anything. I blame my grandmother for that. Ray Sr was her only child after three miscarriages. She spoiled him rotten and street life personified that need.
Earlene tried to tame him. Keep the beast in check. It just made him pace the floor like an animal until she kicked him out. His love for the streets had no end.
Funny thing is as faithful as he was in debauchery, he applied the same effort in his teachings on life. He always told me, “Ray Jr., I may not live with you and your mother, but boy, I know what you doing all the time. I’m like God. I know all and see all.”
We got in the car and drove to a house on the other side of town. When we arrived, I observed all manner of men go in and out the front door. Ray snuck me in through the back and hurried upstairs. In our haste, we ran into a tall, skinny woman that sauntered out one of the rooms.
She wore heavy makeup that clung to her face like a mask and red underwear that left nothing to the imagination. They argued, exchanged curses until he waved her off. As we headed to the room, I asked him, “Why was she dressed like that?”
He paused at the door, turned and looked me straight in the eye, “She sells sex, boy.”
Paused again and asked, “Do you know what sex is?”
I didn’t have to answer. He saw my face fall to my chest.
We went into the room and he sat me at the foot of the bed. I noticed the room had little furniture; a bed, table, chair, chest-of-drawers, and a picture of me.
“You live here, Pop?”
“Yeah. I know the lady who owns this house. She lets me stay and I help her out ‘round here when things get a little outta control. Also, there’s a bar downstairs so I tend to it from time to time,” replied Ray.
He pulled his oak wood chair over to me and lit up a cigarette. I felt tiny next to his thick chest and muscular build. He pulled a long drag, rested his elbows on his knees and spoke to me as if I was his equal.
“First off the bat, this is a whorehouse. All these women living here are called prostitutes. We call ‘em ho’s or hookas in the street. Now, Ray Jr., they sell sex to men and sex is when a man and a woman get together and have fun. I want to be as truthful with you as possible, so I’m going to show you a picture of what they do here in this house,” said Ray Sr.
He pulled a magazine from under his mattress, which the name escapes me, and flipped the pages to a picture of a man and a woman having “fun.” My eyes grew big as golf balls and I turned away with heat rising to my cheeks and my eyes locked on the hardwood floor.
“It’s natural, boy. That’s what men and women do, but don’t mistake these pictures and what these chicks do as love. Do you know what love is?” as he grabbed my chin to lift my head.
I understood the word as any ten year old could. I knew I loved my mother and grandmother because they were family. The opposite sex wasn’t on the radar.
“Let me explain it the best way I know how. These women here sell a little piece of themselves each time they lay down with these men. Both of them don’t want to know each other. It’s just business. But when you love someone, you give yourself freely. No strings attached. Now sometimes love is good and sometimes bad. Your mother and I had good love at one time. Enough to make you,” said Ray Sr.
We both heard banging on the door. He told me to keep quiet.
“Ray, you in there? We need you downstairs,” said the man breathing hard behind the door.
Pop whispered a curse, “What is it?”
“Some crazy lady downstairs waving a knife, looking for her husband. She screaming about calling the cops and it’s scaring the customers.”
“I’m not on right now. You suppose to handle it.”
“Come on, brotha. You know how to handle these crazy broads.”
He looked at me, gave a don’t-you-move glare, and left with the voice. I waited a few minutes until I knew he was downstairs and snuck out to see what happened. Not one prostitute left their room. Some peeked through their doors to see the commotion, but none stepped out.
I sat at the top of the stairs and watched it unfold. The woman held a young prostitute by knifepoint. She demanded that her husband come and face his demise. With all the excitement, johns and half-naked prostitutes ran out the backdoor. From the top step, I saw my father with his hands above his head.
“Who’s your husband, ma’am?” asked Ray
“Joe Thomas!” she screamed. “I know he’s here. I see the car outside. That old raggedy ass Lincoln. I hate that car just like I hate him.”
“Girl, I know Joe. He ain’t here, baby.
“Don’t you lie for him. That no good Negro is here. Using our money for these ho’s.” She pushed the knife harder on the neck of the young girl until it drew blood.
“Listen, baby, I’m telling you he ain’t here. That car out there is mine,” said Ray.
“You think I’m a fool!”
“No, suga. I think you love your man enough to kill anyone who would try to take him, but I bought that car off him. He ain’t want you to know he got laid off. He needed money. I needed a car. Now, where he’s at, I don’t know. But he ain’t here.”
I peeked from the top step and saw Mrs. Thomas stare at my father for a long time. She searched for a glimmer of deceit in that smile of his. After a while, she released the girl and stormed out the house.
My father turned to head upstairs and I rushed to his room. When he appeared, I tried to look as if I never moved. He chuckled, “I saw you when you ran, boy. You can’t fool me.”
He sat back in his chair and continued the conversation.
“That you just saw downstairs was bad love,” he said, “She was willing to kill someone over what she thought was the truth. That’s not love, son. That’s possessiveness. She don’t love that man. She just wants to own him. Remember, Ray Jr., nobody owns you and you don’t own them. A true man don’t do that.”
Later that day, we got into that raggedy Lincoln and headed to one of his favorite take-out spots. He bought two hoagies and two Frank’s orange sodas. We rode out to the park, ate our food and watched the sun fall asleep behind the hill. It was late into the evening when he brought me home.
Before I left the car, Ray told me not to tell Earlene what happened. We’d keep it our secret. The last thing he needed was an interrogation.
He put his arm around my neck, pulled me close, and kissed the top of my head.
“I love you, son,” he said “And everything I’ve told you today is to get you ready for this world. You can be so much better than me. More than I am to myself.”
He told me that line every time until the day he passed away. In the end, Cancer took him from me. I guess when you’re out hustling, you’re bound to make enemies and teeter on the edge of death. But he survived it only to be attacked from the inside.
I wasn’t surprised.
He wasn’t either.
I told him, “Pop, the only man that was gonna knock you down would be God himself.” He laughed, “That would be the only man I would respect other than you.”
Ray Sr. never hid anything from me. He told me straight and for that I am truly grateful. The love he poured into me now flows through his grandchildren.
I’m reminded each day as I patrol the streets as a police officer that love works both ways. Some good. Some bad. My father and I had the good. No strings attached.