Louis Dumkowski and his friend, Cleatus Washington, had settled comfortably in their roles as loan-sharks-in-training. Under the tutelage of their boss, and new-found friend, Vincent “Vinnie the Enforcer” Williams, they had found their calling. Vinnie, who had once tried to kill Louis by shooting him through a door, and who had never had a black friend, was happy with his new associates. He had become especially close to Cleatus. He often said, “You know, Cleat, I never knew you dudes could be good at anything ‘sides singing and dancing.”
Cleatus, who couldn’t carry a tune in a box, and who avoided the dance floor to avoid being accused of assault and battery, was for his part becoming accustomed to having a white friend other than Louis, with whom he’d grown up. Besides, he often thought, Louis didn’t even know he was white. He talked, walked, and acted like a very light skinned and somewhat inept black person. Louis was, Cleatus had decided, not too bright, but he had a good heart, and would always be his best friend.
The three of them were sitting in the cubbyhole in the back of the pool hall that Vinnie used as a headquarters of his loan sharking operation, drinking Jack Daniels and coke, and going over the receipts for the week.
“We done really good this week,” Vinnie said. “Ten thousand bucks more than last week.”
“Yeah,” Cleatus said. “When Salt and Pepper hit the streets, people fork over the bread.” Salt and Pepper was the nickname people had given him and Louis; they were the only interracial loan sharking operation in Detroit. Cleatus played the part of the angry young black man and Louis put on the crocodile tears; and between fear and sympathy, they had reduced the number of people who tried to welsh on making their weekly payments.
Louis was getting accustomed to the fiery whiskey, and was busy emptying his glass, so he paid no attention to them. His mind was on Cara Lee Wills, his latest romantic conquest. Actually, Cara Lee was his first romantic conquest, unless one counted the two hookers Vinnie had hooked him up with; but that encounter turned into such a disaster, Louis blocked it from him mind.
Cara Lee, a waitress at the café two blocks from the pool hall, had taken a liking to Louis. Louis was at first suspicious, then amazed that she would notice him. Their first time together had been a fumbling, grunting mess, but to Louis it was heaven. It was also nice, he thought, because she always took the initiative. Louis liked not having to make decisions or initiate anything. It was much nicer when other people did the thinking and acting, and all he had to do was follow instructions.
He was just pouring himself another drink of the Jack and coke when his hand phone rang. Putting down the bottle, he took the phone from his pocket and flipped it open. At first, he didn’t recognize the number; then when it came to him, he paled and handed the phone to Cleatus.
“Is it for me?” Cleatus asked.
“N-not really,” Louis said. “It’s my momma.”
“Your momma ain’t got no reason to be callin’ me,” Cleatus said. “It’s got to be for you. You answer it.”
“Aw, man, can’t you answer it for me? Momma don’t never call unless she got something to say I don’t wanta hear,” Louis said plaintively. “You answer it and find out what she want.”
“Shit, Louis, you can’t even wipe your own behind without somebody else helping you.” Cleatus took the phone anyway. “Hello Miz Dumkowski, this is Cleatus. How you doing?” He frowned as a tinny voice came out of the receiver. “Yessum, Louis around,” He said. “Why sure, Miz Dumkowski, I get him on the phone right away.”
Cleatus put his hand over the phone and glared at Louis, who was shrinking back in his chair, staring at the phone as if it was a bottle of nitro.
“Come on, Louis,” Cleatus said. “Yo’ momma said she want to talk to you, and you better answer.” He pushed the phone across the table.
Louis looked at the phone for a couple of seconds, then gingerly picked it up. “Hi, momma,” He said. “I was just in the bathroom, and that’s why Cleatus had to answer the phone. No, momma I ain’t tellin’ no lie. How you been?”
He listened with his eyes screwed tight as the tinny voice ran on and on. His end of the conversation went something like this: “Yes, ma’am. No, I didn’t do that. Yeah, I remember to floss. You know I don’t write good letters. I been meanin’ to. Okay, I’ll be over in a coupla hours.” Then he hung up. He looked as if he wanted to cry.
“What she want?” Cleatus asked.
“Well, near as I can figure, what with all the other stuff she sayin’ ‘bout me not coming to visit, and not flossin’ my teeth, was she got somethin’ important to tell me, and I gotta go over to the house and hear it. Oh yeah, and she said to tell me to tell you to say hello to your sisters.”
“Yeah, thank her for me when you go over,” Cleatus said.
“You can thank her yourself,” Louis said.
“How I gonna do that? I don’t wanta be callin’ your momma.”
“Cleatus, man, you gotta go with me.”
“Aw, Louis,” Cleatus said. “What for I gotta do that? ‘Sides, what she got to tell you she couldn’t tell you on the phone, anyway?”
“I don’t know, bro, but for sure it ain’t gonna be somethin’ I want to hear. Come on, man, you gotta go with me. Maybe with you there, she won’t tell me.”
Vinnie sat watching the byplay between the two of them with a feral grin on his face. “You two dudes really a couple pieces of work,” He said. “Scared of a woman.”
“You ain’t never met Louis’s old lady,” Cleatus said. “That woman scare a pit bull.”
“Yeah,” Louis said. “And, if she don’t scare it to death, she talk its head off. Come on, Cleatus man, we gotta get a move on.”
Vinnie chuckled as they left; glad he’d never known his own mother.
On the way to the bus stop, Cleatus talked Louis into stopping at the little gift shop on the corner to buy his mother a gift. “You need a peace offering,” He said. “Man, you ain’t been to see yo’ momma in a long time. Might make her forget how bad a son you can be some time.”
Now that he had spare cash in his wallet more often than not, Louis agreed. He bought a little charm bracelet with little gold-colored elephants on it. The ten dollar price tag was more than he’d usually spend, but he figured Cleatus was right. A little gift might placate his mother. He passed on the two dollar gift wrapping offered by the shop and just put the cardboard box in his pocket.
They took the cross town bus to Louis’s old neighborhood, on the fringes of a formerly black area that was beginning to gentrify, which, in Cleatus’s terminology meant, “They pricing the houses out of range of most black folks.”
Louis paused in front of the door, his finger over the bell. Cleatus batted his hand aside and pushed the bell.
Ruby Dumkowski answered the door.
“Louis,” She said, as she pulled them into the foyer. “It’s been so long, I almost forgot what you look like. Hello, Cleatus. How’re them sisters of yours? I been meaning to drop in on them, but I just get so busy. Louis, why haven’t you been to visit?”
It went that way all the way into the living room. Ruby talking non-stop as she always did; and Louis just trailing along behind her bobbing his head and occasionally muttering something incomprehensible. Cleatus followed in Louis’s wake, keeping silent.
She ushered them toward the overstuffed sofa in the middle of the room. “Ya’ll sit yourselves down,” She said. “Can I get you some ice tea or lemonade? I got both. You must be thirsty. My, my, Cleatus, you have grown into a fine looking young man. I’m so glad to see you keepin’ neat and all. I wish Louis would take more after you. Did I ask after your sisters?”
“Yes ma’am,” Cleatus said. “They both doing fine. Got jobs and all.”
“You still living at home?”
“No ma’am. Me and Louis got us an apartment over near where we work.”
“Oh, that’s nice, I think. I didn’t know that,” She said, giving Louis a narrow-eyed look. “Louis never calls, so I never know what’s goin’ on anymore.”
“I been meanin’ to call, mama,” Louis said. “We just been so busy, I never get the time.”
“You been too busy to call me,” She said. “But, you seem to have plenty of time for that girl friend of yours.”
Louis’s mouth dropped open. “Mama, how you know about Cara Lee?”
“Fortunately, she’s a lot more considerate than you. My own son; and you don’t even tell me you got a girl. When’s the last time you talked to her?”
“We went to a movie last night,” Louis said. “Why you ask?”
“What did you do after the movie?” Ruby asked.
“Aw, we just went back to her place and listened to tapes for a while,” Louis said. His cheeks colored slightly.
“I reckon that ain’t all you did,” She said.
Louis’s face was now a bright red. “Mama! Ain’t no call talkin’ like that,” He said. “I’m a grown man now.”
“Well, that’s good to hear. I hope that means you gonna act like a grown man.”
“I always do,” Louis said. He paused and glanced at his mother. Something in the tone of her voice sent off warning bells in his mind. “What you mean exactly by that anyhow?”
“Boy, you mean to sit there and act like you don’t know what I’m talkin’ about? Don’t you go playing the innocent with me. It’s too late for that.”
“Mama, I don’t know what you talkin’ ‘bout. Too late for what?”
“Land o’ Goshen,” Ruby Dumkowski said. “I do believe you’re tellin’ the truth. You don’t know what I’m talkin’ about. She ain’t told you yet?”
“Ain’t told me what?”
“Oh Lord,” She said. “Boy, the girl’s pregnant, and you’re the papa. You done growed up more than you know.”
Now it was Cleatus’s turn to stare open-mouthed. “Holy shit, Louis – sorry, ma’am,” He said. “Good grief, you done knocked the girl up?”
Louis sat dumbfounded, his head swiveling from side to side. “Naw, that can’t be right,” He said. “She can’t be pregnant.”
“You mean you two didn’t do nothing?” His mother asked.
“Well, not exactly,” He said. “But, I thought she took precautions. Ain’t that what women do?”
“It ain’t a one-person show, Louis,” Ruby said. “You responsible too, you know.”
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” He said. “What am I gonna do now?”
“Little late to be asking for advice. But, since you asked,” His mother said. “You gotta do the right thing. You got to make an honest woman out of that girl. Can’t let no baby be born without a legal daddy and all.”
“You mean, get married?”
“Usually, people get married first, and then make babies,” She said. “But, it ain’t exactly unknown to do it the other way ‘round. I’m sure your daddy will say the same thing when he gets home.”
“Does he know?”
“Not yet, but I mean to tell him soon’s he gets home from work.”
Oh shit, Louis thought, now I’m gonna be in for it. He’ll give me that stone cold stare of his. “I wish you wouldn’t do that, mama,” He said. “He don’t really need to know.”
“How can you say such a thing, Louis Dumkowski,” Ruby said. “You ‘bout to make him a grandpa, and you don’t want to tell him. Now, if you was to call that girl and make things right before your papa gets home, it might just be a little easier to tell him.”
Louis sat staring at his mother. Cleatus, sitting beside him, kept his face straight and his mouth shut.
“I guess I could call her,” Louis said finally. “I don’t know ‘bout gettin’ married, though. That’s a big step.”
“You don’t think gettin’ her pregnant is a big step? Louis,” Ruby said. “You got to do right by that girl. Now, you go on and call her. I got an idea; why don’t you invite her to come over, and we can have a family talk.”
He nodded dumbly and went into the foyer to use the phone. A few minutes later he came back into the living room. “She just got off work,” He said. “She oughta be here in about half an hour.”
“Good,” Ruby said. “I’ll go out to the kitchen and fix us some snacks. Your papa’s gonna be hungry when he gets home anyway.”
She bustled off to the kitchen, leaving Louis and Cleatus sitting on the couch.
“Man,” Cleatus said, after she’d gone. “You really screwed yourself up good now.”
“What am I gonna do?”
“Well, the way I see it, you ain’t got a lotta choices,” Cleatus said. “If she want to have the baby, you gotta get married. That sho’ is gonna mess up our livin’ arrangements. I ain’t wantin’ to be stayin’ in no ‘partment with a pregnant woman, or a baby. Damn, I gotta be lookin’ for another place to stay.”
“That all you can think about? Shit, man, I’m in a mess, and all you can think ‘bout is yourself,” Louis said.
“Look who talkin’. Heck, Louis, all you ever think ‘bout is yourself,” Cleatus said. “Well, now you gonna have to be thinkin’ ‘bout somebody else.”
That brought the conversation to a halt. Louis couldn’t really argue with his friend. He had to admit that he seldom thought about anything other than his own comfort. Now, his comfort was definitely being threatened. He enjoyed having Cleatus as a roommate. Cleatus was something of a neat freak which meant that every part of the house, except Louis’s bedroom, was kept pretty clean.
“Shoot, Cleatus,” Louis said. “You know I like having you as a roommate. You and me been best buds since grade school. Heck, man, we Salt ‘n Pepper. I don’t wanta break up a team like that.”
“You mean, you don’t wanta have to live with somebody who might make you pick up yo’ dirty drawers off the bathroom floor, is what you mean.”
“Aw, now that ain’t fair,” Louis said. “I pick up in the bathroom sometimes, too.”
Cleatus snorted. “Don’t matter no how,” He said. “Way I see it; you gotta do the right thing and marry the girl.”
“You joking, right?”
“Naw,” Cleatus said. “I ain’t jokin’. You go knock a girl up; the only right thing to do is marry her. Can’t have no baby bein’ born a bastard. ‘Sides, how she gonna hold her head up with her friends you don’t marry her?”
“I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout bein’ married,” Louis protested.
“Don’t nobody know nothin’ the first time,” Cleatus said. “You just gotta learn as you go along.”
“Okay,” Louis said after a long pause. “I guess that’s what I gotta do. Soon as she gets here I’m gonna ask her.”
“That’s my man.”
Ruby, who’d been listening at the living room door, rushed in and pulled Louis into her arms, nestling his head against her ample bosom. “Oh, Louis,” She said. “I knew you’d do the right thing. I just knew my boy would do the right and proper thing. I’m so proud of you.” She looked over the top of Louis’s head at Cleatus. “My boy is lucky to have a friend like you, Cleatus.”
Cleatus was saved from having to put on a modest act by the ringing of the doorbell. Ruby released Louis and rushed to the door. She came back in a few seconds with a thin blonde in tow. She was about an inch taller than Louis; thin of face, with a bit of a bump in her aquiline nose, and watery blue eyes that gave her the appearance of someone about to break into tears. She was still wearing the pink thigh-length dress with blue apron of the café in which she worked; appropriately named “Pink and Blue Café,” for reasons that no one remembered. Her lank blonde hair drooped from beneath the pink and blue cap all employees of Pink and Blue Café were required to wear.
Clara Lee Wills was not what one would call beautiful, but neither was she unattractive. She was more or less just plain.
“Hi, Clara Lee,” Louis said.
“Hi, Louis,” Clara Lee said.
“Uh, Clara Lee,” Louis said. “There’s somethin’ I gotta talk to you about.”
“Yeah,” She said. “I got something I need to say, too, but why don’t you go first.”
Now, while Louis wasn’t always the most considerate of people, he had been taught by his mother to always allow ladies to go first, and his carnal relationship with Clara Lee notwithstanding, he thought of her as a lady.
“Oh no, Clara Lee,” He said. “You go first.”
Clara Lee shuffled from one foot to another, looking down at the floor. “Well, actually, I have something to tell your mom,” She said. “But, I guess you got a right to hear it as well.”
“Should I be leaving the room?” Cleatus asked from the sofa.
“No,” Clara Lee said. “As Louis’s best friend, you got a right to hear it too.”
“Well, go on girl,” Ruby said. “We’re on pins and needles to hear what you got to say.”
“Uh, Mrs. Dumkowski, it’s not what you think,” Clara Lee said. “You see, when I missed my period, I guess I panicked. I couldn’t tell Louis, so I called you.” Her cheeks colored bright pink. “Any way, after I talked to you, I went to the doctor. Turns out I’m not pregnant after all, just a little irregularity’s all.”
Ruby Dumkowski looked downcast. Cleatus sat on the sofa with his mouth open. Louis felt as if his legs would collapse beneath him.
“I, I guess that’s good news,” Ruby said.
Clara Lee turned to Louis. “You said you had something to tell me?”
Louis looked at his mother who looked at his feet. He looked at Cleatus who looked at the ceiling. He looked back at Clara Lee who stood looking at him with an expectant look on her face.
Louis didn’t like having to make decisions. He was faced with one of the biggest decisions he’d ever had to make. His stomach began to bubble. He had trouble breathing. Then, he took a deep breath and looked Clara Lee directly in the eyes. “I was gonna ask you to marry me,” He said. “You bein’ pregnant and all.”
She leaned forward and kissed him on the tip of his nose. “Louis, that’s so sweet of you,” She said. “I mean, really sweet. Most guys would be looking for the door. Anyway, since I’m not pregnant, and I don’t think either of us is really ready for marriage, let’s talk about it later.”
Suddenly, Louis could breathe again. He could feel his legs under him. “Uh, yeah, sure, Cara Lee,” He said. “I guess you right. Maybe we oughta see how we feel later. Yeah, that’s what we should do.”
“Mrs. Dumkowski,” Clara Lee said. “I’m sorry if I caused you any trouble. I hope you can forgive me.”
“Oh, hush, child,” Ruby said. “You ain’t the first girl made a mistake like that. Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing.”
“Okay,” Clara Lee said. “If you folks don’t mind, I need to go home and shower and get out of my work clothes. Louis, we going to the movies tonight?”
“Sure,” Louis said. “That new double feature. I can pick you up in two hours.”
And, just like that, she was out the door. Louis’s mother, looking not a small bit disappointed that she wouldn’t be a grandmother after all, returned to the kitchen to fix his father’s supper. Louis and Cleatus said goodbye and left. As the door closed behind them, Cleatus clapped his friend on the shoulder.
“Louis, dawg,” He said. “I never thought I’d be sayin’ this, but, you the man. You done manned up; and I’m proud to be your friend.”
Louis puffed out his chest, and walked on down the sidewalk, occasionally bumping shoulders with his friend.