A Sizzling Summer by The Bay - Part Two
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A Sizzling Summer by The Bay - Part Two
May 1987 – Richmond, Virginia
The moment the stranger walked into their tiny apartment, Estelle sensed that he was important. He was dressed in what Momma called Sunday best. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. Momma’s eyes lit up when the stranger gave her a polite hug and handed her the bouquet of flowers. The same way her eyes sparkled when her or Jamar colored her a pretty picture or brought home a perfect spelling test.
“Estelle, Jamar, this is Mr. Dale Reeves,” Momma said.
The man named Mr. Reeves seemed to Estelle, to be as big as the old oak tree on their school playground. He knelt to eye level with her. His blue eyes reminded Estelle of a clear morning sky. He had white skin like Momma, not like their Daddy, who passed away in the work accident two years ago.
Estelle had few memories of her life before Daddy died. She was only four years old, but she remembered that when Daddy and Momma hugged and wrapped their arms around each other, it made her think of an Oreo. It made her giggle, and Daddy would always ask what was so funny. She would laugh so hard she could never say it out loud. She loved it when Daddy would pick her up and spin her around after work. She thought it was romantic, like the fairy tales in her picture books. He had smelled like garden dirt when he first came home, and then ivory soap after his showers before dinner. He’d always tuck her in and read her the books she couldn’t quite read the words to yet.
She remembered her daddy’s smooth skin was so dark, she could the whites of his eyes gleam like a cat in the dark, and her Momma’s skin was so white she always burned when they went to the river on Summer days. The contrast of her parents’ skin was something she remembered distinctly from her formative years, and that memory would carry into adulthood. Yet, in those early days, she felt their love for each other, so strongly, their striking physical contrast was interpreted as pure unadulterated beauty. She would always hold it in her heart as such, even after she learned that the world saw it very differently.
She didn’t have a lot of memories of her Daddy, but the ones she had, made her feel a strange tightness of warmth and sadness in her chest.
Dale looked at Jamar first and then her. “How old are you two?”
Jamar spoke first. “Eight, sir.”
“Well, you are the man of the house, aren’t you, son? I can see you are taking good care of your Momma here.”
Jamar puffed his chest out and cracked a small smile.
Dale’s voice softened. “And how old are you, sweetie?”
Estelle’s eyes darted to the floor. “Six, sir.”
“Well, you are pretty as a sugar plum princess if I ever saw one. Just as pretty as your Momma.”
Estelle’s eyes darted up to him, and she saw him looking at Momma. Momma’s face had turned pink like it did when they came home from the river.
“Make yourself at home, Dale. Can I get you some tea?”
“I’d much appreciate that, ma’am.”
“Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes.”
“Well, that seems like just enough time to shoot some hoops.” He looked at Jamar. “Your momma says you love basketball. That true?”
“I’m going to be in the NBA one day!” Jamar exclaimed.
“Go get your basketball, and let’s see what ya got.”
Jamar jetted down the small hallway and returned with his careworn orange ball.
“You want to go with us, Estelle?” Dale asked.
Estelle looked up and nodded once. He took her small hand into his. His big hand was calloused but warm.
“C’mon, we can play Horse.” Jamar was alive and babbling about some basketball thing on T.V. that Estelle didn’t care too much about. She let the big man named Dale lead her behind Jamar as they trailed down the stairs and to the old back parking lot behind the apartment complex. Someone had turned it into a basketball court. The old roll away hoop was rusty beyond its original color, but somehow remained upright and standing.
The air was warm and sweet, summer grass commingling with the aroma of BBQ smoke.
Two of Jamar’s friends were there, and they all gave the big man, Mr. Reeves, a wide berth when they saw him.
“Who’s the guy?” Samuel asked cautiously.
“This is my momma’s friend, Dale. He’s going to play Horse with us. Wanna play?”
The two boys named Samuel and Avery shook their heads in unison.
Estelle sat at the side of the court, just on the edge of the asphalt. There were tiny wild daisy’s popping up in the grass. She began to pick them and then pluck off the petals like her friend Sally did at school chanting, ‘loves me – loves me not.” Sally said if you landed on the last petal and it said ‘loves-me,’ then the prince loved you. If it landed on ‘loves-me-not,’ then you were doomed to live the rest of your life in the tower locked up by the evil witch. They love to play games like that – Sally and her.
She loved recess, but she loved school more. She especially loved library time. Once a week they’d all go down to the library, which had such a distinct smell. Even in her adult years, it was the scent of that warm and safe place, a mixture of aging paper and childhood dirt, that would instantly pop into her mind when she picked up any random book. Old Mrs. Henderson would sit in the rocking chair and read to them as they sat on the carpet around the chair. Then they got to wander around. They didn’t get to check out books yet. You had to be in third grade before you could hold that sacred privilege.
So she begged Jamar every Tuesday at breakfast. He’d roll his eyes. He hated library time. P.E. was his favorite part of school. Yet, every week he checked out a book for her. They’d stand at the bus stop, and he’d flash her a mischievous grin. He’d produce a new book from his backpack, and she’d throw her arms around him and squeeze him hard. He’d grumble, “Don’t Estelle,” and wriggle free of her grasp. Samuel and Avery would snicker at her unbridled affection towards him. She didn’t understand why they always laughed at her. He was her second person most favorite person in the whole wide world.
Estelle looked up upon hearing her Momma’s voice. “Dale, Jamar, Estelle, dinner’s ready.” She was wearing her apron and wiping her hands on it.
“Just one more minute. Please, Momma. I’m about to win!”
“Alrigh’ finish up, and I’ll be waitin’. Don’ take too long, or it’ll get cold.”
“Yes, ma’am, we’ll be right up,” Dale said.
Jamar did win, and Dale beamed at Jamar as he said, “I think you could very well go pro one day, young man. You’ve got quite the talent at the hoop.”
At dinner, Estelle watched Momma and Dale closely. She couldn’t exactly explain why this seemed important, but the behavior of the adults was different. Momma’s smile seemed to light up her whole face. She was always so tired from working at the restaurant. But tonight, she seemed to have loads of energy.
After dinner, the trio made their way down to the hoop again. This time it was just Dale and Jamar had the court all to themselves, as Avery and Samuel weren’t there. Dale gave Jamar pointers on how to stand, how to hold the ball, and how to dribble. Estelle took up her space on the side of the court again and watched. She wished she’d brought a jar. The fireflies were back again. She remembered them last summer. Her and Jamar would catch them in an old mayonnaise jar, then let them all go at once. She liked to pretend they were little fairies.
When it started to get dark, the children and Dale went back up to the apartment. Momma declared it was time for bed.
“But we have a guest, Momma, and he’s teaching me all kinds of cool things,” Jamar protested.
Dale placed a firm hand on Jamar’s shoulder. “Listen to your momma. If she says it’s time for bed, it’s time for bed.”
“Yes, sir,” Jamar’s posture slumped, and he sulked off to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
Estelle tugged on the big man’s hand.
Dale looked down and smiled.
“Will you read us a bedtime story, like my daddy used to?”
Estelle watched his face. She wasn’t sure if this was okay, but she sensed this new man in their home could be that daddy they’d been without for so long. His expression changed, and something flitted across his face. At first, she felt nervous, but then his eyes warmed, and his smile widened. “Yes, honey, I’d love to read you a bedtime story. If that’s okay with your momma?”
Estelle’s eyes moved to Momma for approval, and she was taken aback by tears gleaming in her mother’s eyes. Her momma nodded, “Of course. That’s fine, dear.”
“Well, get ready for bed, sweetie, and maybe there’ll be time for two.”
Estelle’s heart gave a little leap, and she ran off to the bathroom to get her teeth brushed and her pajamas on.
Once they were all tucked in bed, Dale came in and sat on the edge of the bed. Momma stood in the doorway.
Estelle already had two books picked out. One from her own little library of books Momma had bought her for Christmas and Birthdays, and the other from the library that Jamar had gotten her.
Jamar sighed dramatically. “I hate reading,” he grumbled.
Dale shot Momma a look, and she shook her head and cracked a small smile.
“Ya know young man, I played basketball at The University of Florida my first year there. I was pretty darn good until I done hurt my knee real bad.”
“You did?” Jamar’s voice was filled with reverence.
“But,” and Dale lifted a finger to drive home his point, “I wouldn’t have been able to play if I hadn’t gotten good marks in school. You follow what I’m sayin’ Jamar?”
Jamar sighed dramatically, “Yeah, I know. If I want to play basketball, I gotta do good in school.”
“I just think it’s boring,” Jamar mumbled.
“Books aren’t boring,” Estelle came to their defense as if he’d just offended her best friends. “I want to learn to read so I can read books all by myself.”
“And you should, Estelle. It’s good to grow up smart and educated. If a woman’s got a head on her shoulders, she’ll be a stronger wife and mother to her family. You keep practicin’ Estelle, and you’ll be as smart as your Momma. You’ll make a fine mother one day – just like her.”
Estelle noticed that a certain smile pass between Dale and Momma. It was like they were sharing a special secret between only the two of them.
Dale turned his attention back to Estelle. “Which one first?” He asked as he picked up both books.
Estelle pointed to ‘Where The Wild Things Are,” and Dale opened the book and began to read.
November 1987 – Richmond, Virginia
Mr. Reeves started showing up on a regular basis. He could only visit every couple of weekends in the month because he lived in another state called Florida. Estelle knew of Florida, but she didn’t know where that was exactly. Jamar piped up and announced he knew where that was! He’d been studying geography in his new fourth-grade class. Estelle knew Florida must be a long way away because when Dale came to visit them, he’d sleep on their pull out couch. He insisted on staying in a hotel, but Momma was most insistent that it was a waste of money – especially when she had perfectly fine sleeping accommodations. Momma would say, ‘it was already enough that he’d flown all the way up there to visit, the least she could do was help keep his expenses down.’
The kids were now allowed to call him Dale instead of the more formal, Mr. Reeves. True to his promise, he’d always tuck in Estelle and read her books before bed. The best part was he always brought them gifts too. He’d bring Estelle a new book and Jamar basketball cards.
Momma would chide Dale – “You don’t have to do that, Dale. Not every time. You’re gonna spoil them.” Her words never seemed to match the gleam in her eyes, though.
The children understood now that Momma and Dale were dating. Jamar thought it was funny that grown-ups could date, especially Momma. He told Estelle the next day at the bus stop that he was pretty sure only teenagers dated. Like Avery’s fifteen-year-old sister. He shrugged it off, though. He was just as happy as Estelle that Momma seemed to be less tired than she used to be. She had a light in her eyes that she wore like a regular accessory alongside her little gold cross and hoop earrings.
Dale’s visit this time was much longer than usual. He stayed for their Thanksgiving dinner, and every time he complimented Momma on her cookin’, she’d turn that bright shade of red again, like she had a sunburn. Estelle would quickly put a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles.
That night after Dale had been especially indulgent in reading her four books, Estelle hunkered down, but couldn’t sleep. There seemed to be a weird charge in the air – like that feeling before a big storm rolled in. She tossed and turned, but couldn’t sleep.
Feeling annoyed that Jamar was snoring, she pulled back the covers and padded quietly out of bed to the bathroom. She didn’t want to get into trouble. She wasn’t supposed to be out of bed. Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep, she’d get in and out of bed for drinks of water, then she’d have to pee several times. Momma would get frustrated and finally huff, ‘Estelle stop stalling and go to bed!’
She could hear Momma and Dale talking. She stopped in the hallway, crouched down, and peeked around the corner to listen for a moment. She had only intended to listen for a few seconds, but she became rooted to her spot upon hearing Dale’s tone. They were having a serious grown-up talk, and she sensed it was important. Dale’s normal, slow, smooth drawl was fast, anxious, and hurried.
“Donna, I had plans. I think we both know it’s reached that point where I want you to be my wife. I want to be your husband, and by the sun and moon, I swear I was gonna take you out somewhere fancy, and get down on one knee to ask you proper. And by God as my witness, you’re still going to get the proposal you deserve, but I have to talk to you about this now.”
“Okay, Dale. What is it? I’m listen’n.”
“I been savin’ a good lil’ nest egg of cash since I got hired on at the ranch. Anders Ranch has grown pretty big, and I’ve grown with it. But you know I’ve always had a dream to start my own ranch. I didn’t expect that opportunity to come up for years. I didn’t have enough savings, but now—” He paused and inhaled sharply.
“Now?” Donna asked.
“Well, Don said he’s got this nephew out in California that was a big Silicon Valley investor. He lost a lot on Black Monday. The man had just purchased land and all the trimmin’s of doing a grass-fed ranch. He was struggling as it was, but now that he’d done lost all his equity, he needs to liquidate fast. He’s willing to sell this to me below rock bottom asking rate. There’s another potential buyer, though, so…” Dale’s voice trailed off.
“Oh,” Momma said.
Estelle could just barely see Momma’s face from the doorway in the hall. She couldn’t see Dale’s as he was perched on the edge of the couch facing Momma. Momma’s face looked scared. Estelle became scared. Her tiny bladder, which had to go before suddenly seemed more urgent. She didn’t know why that was, but when she got scared, she quickly developed a sudden and urgent need to pee. She held her breath as she waited for what the grown-ups were going to say.
“Donna,” Dale got down on the floor on one knee in front of Momma. He pulled out a little box from his pocket and opened it in front of Momma. Her face changed immediately. “I was gonna wait to do this more properly and such, but you see the predicament I’m in.”
He took her hand, and his voice became stern. “Look, I need you to understand something first. I love you more than life itself. I know God brought us together.” He chuckled as he reminisced. “I was so angry when I had to miss that semi-final championship, but it was for a reason. That reason was meeting you in that restaurant you work in. God does work in mysterious ways. If this is too sudden, and you don’t want to go – you don’t want to uproot your family – I will understand completely. I will walk away from that deal. I will wait and sit on my money, and God will bring another way into my life for me to fulfill my dream. My dream is you, and those kids I’ve grown so attached to. I won’t take this offer if it doesn’t include you and the kids. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize losing you.”
Momma’s eyes filled with tears. She threw her arms around Dale’s neck and hugged him. “Yes, Dale! Of course, I’ll marry you. Of course, this is God opening the flood gates of heaven and blessin’ you with abundance because you deserve it. How could I deny you that?”
He hugged her, then pulled her away, “Deny – us – that Donna. He’s blessed both of us.”
He put the ring on her finger, and she was full-on crying now, but Estelle knew they were happy tears. She wanted to hug them too, but she was afraid their mood would change, and they’d get angry if she made her appearance known. She sensed their moment was supposed to be private and she shouldn’t have been spying, but she couldn’t help herself.
After they hugged and kissed, Momma pulled back from Dale and said, “I know God brought you into my life as well. I know when I married Jamar, we were just kids, but I loved him, and I’ve prayed so many long nights that God would bless those kids with a good man in their life. That they could have another hard-working, kind-hearted father like Jamar was.” Momma’s tone shifted then. “I don’t see the fuss about the color of one’s skin, and I hate that so many people do. I can’t tell you how it warms my heart that you don’t care that those kids’ in there are half black. It’s not right that people treat them poorly because of that.”
Estelle had never heard Momma say anything like that before. She pondered for a moment if that was why those boys in her class were mean to her sometimes, or why Sally was the only person who would be her friend?
The grown-ups sat back down, and Momma settled into Dale’s shoulder against his side. He brushed the hair away from her face. “I don’t agree with it either, Donna. It’s not God’s way. People think the story of the Good Samaritan is about kindness and goodwill, but they’re wrong. If they do a bit of studyin’, they’ll realize it’s a parable to teach against racism. The New Testament doesn’t condone racism. God doesn’t see color, and neither should we.”
“I love you, Dale. You’re a good man, and I can’t believe I got so lucky.”
“You were blessed Donna because you’re a virtuous, chaste, woman, who loves and serves God. And God sure blessed me!” He kissed her then, and Estelle felt a tickle coming on in her nose like she was going to sneeze. As quickly and quietly as she could manage, she crept back to the bathroom and carefully closed the door behind her.
She was going to have a new daddy! She was so excited it took her a long time to fall asleep. She couldn’t wait to tell Jamar.
The next morning when Estelle woke up for breakfast, Jamar was already in the kitchen having a small bowl of cereal. He complained he was going through a ‘growth-spurt.’ It was his go-to complaint when he didn’t want to wait for Momma’s cookin’ and he needed a snack now. Momma would indulge him with a little half sandwich or a little bowl of cereal.
Estelle sat down at the table. Dale was already dressed in his blue button-up denim shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He must have gotten up very early because Estelle knew it wasn’t that late in the morning. Jamar always seemed to be up before her so that he could shoot hoops before school.
“Children, we’d like to ask you a question,” Dale said.
Estelle squirmed in her seat, trying not to look like she already knew what Momma and Dale were going to say.
Momma put her spatula down, turned the stove off, and put the pan of home fries on the table. She had a wide grin on her face, and she nodded for Dale to continue.
“Kids, your momma and I would like to get married. We want to know how you feel about me bein’ your new daddy when your momma and I get hitched?”
Jamar’s eyes lit up, and he swallowed his bite of cereal down in a hard gulp. “Really! Does that mean you’d be here every weekend?” Jamar asked.
Estelle didn’t say anything – just grinned her approval at Dale and Momma.
The grown-ups laughed. “Yes, sir, that does mean I would be here every weekend and every weekday. But there is something else we need to talk about.” Dale’s tone changed to that serious way when grown-ups know you’ve gotten into a little trouble, and they aren’t mad, but they want you to know it’s important.
Jamar put down his spoon. Him and Estelle looked up at Dale expectantly.
“You see, sometimes God brings us blessings in the strangest of ways. You two know that I work at a cattle ranch down in Florida. Well, it’s been a life long dream of mine to own a ranch and have a family. It would seem God has opened the heavens, and the blessings are pourin’ forth. In addition to Him blessin’ me with a whole new family,” Dale paused and smiled up at Momma, then continued, “I have an opportunity to buy a ranch in California.” Dale paused and searched the children’s faces.
Estelle didn’t know where California was, but her immediate thought was – it would be fun to visit a new place.
Jamar, on the other hand, began to cry.
Momma rushed over to him and threw her arms around him. “Oh, sweetie, it’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.”
“That means I gotta leave Samuel and Avery behind?” Jamar sniffed. He was making a brave attempt to staunch the tears, but they flowed none the less.
“That’s the way of it, son. I’m sorry about that part. I know it will be hard to leave your friends behind,” Dale soothed. He stood up and pulled Jamar’s chair out. He squatted down to eye level in front of Jamar. “I know leavin’ all your friends and school is gonna be hard, but I want to make it up to you.”
Suddenly it just sunk in with Estelle that she would also have to leave her school and friend Sally. “I won’t get to have library days anymore?” Estelle blurted out frantically.
“Oh, no, hon, you’ll have a new school in California, and it will have a library there too.”
“But Sally won’t be there?” Estelle was trying to process this whole moving to California thing. It didn’t make sense.
“No, I’m fraid not, hon,” Dale said. “But, look kiddos, when adults get married, they usually have what’s called a honeymoon. I already explained to your Momma here that on account of this change bein’ pretty big and all, we’re gonna postpone our real honeymoon for a while and take you kids with us on a big celebratory vacation. I wanna take y’all to Disney Land in California. I know y’all never got to go to Disney World, and they say Disney Land out in southern Cal is just as fun. Would that be a good trade?”
Jamar’s eyes lit up a bit. He sniffed and wiped his nose on his pajama sleeve. Estelle noticed that Momma didn’t scold him like she usually would have. “That might be fun,” Jamar whispered.
“What about you Estelle, would you like to go to Disney Land and see all the princesses?”
Estelle nodded. She had a strange mixture of emotions brewing in her chest. She wanted to feel happy. She’d always wanted to go to Disney Land, and having Dale as her new daddy would be the best thing ever, but she didn’t want to leave her school, or her library, or her best friend, Sally. She felt scared about all these changes.
“I have one other thing I need to ask you kids. If I’m gonna be your daddy for keeps, I wanna adopt you two, if you’ll have me.”
Jamar and Estelle looked at each other and then to Momma. They were both confused with this request.
“You see children, if Dale becomes your official daddy on paper, and it’s legal, we can change your last name to Reeves like his. It will make it easier for you when you go to school.”
Estelle didn’t understand any of this. It was so much. She nodded her head to say yes, and Jamar followed suit.
That day Dale took all of them to see a movie called ‘Three Men and a Baby.’ It was a pretty funny movie. Momma had taken them to the movies sometimes before Dale came along. They’d always had to sneak in their home-popped popcorn, and it was usually cold and chewy by the time the lights dimmed. Estelle always wanted to sit in the middle, but Jamar argued that Momma should sit in the middle so they could both sit by her.
This time the kids did not argue about seating arrangements. Strangely they just sat down, and it felt right. Momma sat on one end, and Dale on the other, with Jamar and Estelle in the middle. Dale had bought each of the kids their own tray of fresh-popped popcorn, Red Vines, and soda.
Something had shifted and felt different, but by the time they got home, the children were too worn out and exhausted to consider it. They fell into bed completely unaware of the grandiose changes that were about to take place in their young lives.
Just before Christmas, in the second week of December, Momma and Dale got married. They had a small ceremony inside their little Sunday chapel. Momma looked beautiful in her baby blue, tea-length wedding dress, and simple shoulder-length veil. Estelle relished her shining moment, where she got to wear a pretty pink dress and throw flower petals in the aisle before her Momma walked down it. They took pictures, laughed, ate cake, and it was such a wonderful day, that Estelle thought her little heart would burst out of its chest from all the excitement.
Then within the next week, they were loading up a truck and on their way. “Bound for California, or bust,” Dale had said.
Estelle thought it was strange she could be so happy only just a week ago, and now she felt like her entire heart was going to shatter from the sadness of leaving her home behind.
As they traveled over the course of several days, they observed the sights and strangeness of each new state they entered. Estelle’s emotions seemed to follow suit with the ever-changing landscape of the countryside, a rolling menagerie of hills and flatland, ups and downs, soft curves and sharp angles.
By the time they got to Disney Land in southern California, the sadness of leaving her home felt buried in a small place inside her. It was still there, but each passing day it shrank in size, replaced by the new memories she was making with her new family.
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