RED HOTS AT OLLIE’S
By Susan Porter
I deliberately took the Honda, my first time tutoring. It was older and cheaper than our BMW and had a nick over the right headlight. Tamika would later tell me she wouldn’t be caught dead in that car, which would initially make me laugh because her grandmother didn’t even own a car and dressed Tamika in hand-me-downs from Tamika’s brother Graham. Graham died last year, though Tamika hasn’t told me how.
I still take the Honda, and usually meet Tamika on Saturday mornings unless a client needs me. Ordinarily, we meet at youth center not far from the housing projects where she lives, and sometimes afterwards we have lunch on some benches in front of Ollie's, the nearby hotdog stand. At the end of the road next to the center is gravel lot, vacant, except for a tilted Jungle Jim and broken swing set.It is surrounded by a badly dented chain-link fence on three sides and a bulwark of uneven concrete slabs on the fourth. A freehold now for the folly of gang members and drug dealers. Nothing like the meadows of smooth-stalked grass near my childhood home, where we played flashlight tag at nights without fear until our parents called us home.
I am late meeting Tamika this morning because Jake and I had our first appointment at the fertility clinic. The doctor looked at my age, Jake’s sperm count, then spoke in acronyms – LH, FSH, IVF, ICSI – and sent us off with a packet of information and a page-long prescription.
Tamika stands up and starts stomping her foot when she sees me.
“Where were you at girl?” she says with her hands on her hips. “Do you know how valuable my time is?” She lifts up her left arm and stares at an imaginary watch.
I beg her forgiveness and tell her I hoped it didn’t cause any problems with her busy schedule.
“Don’t let it happen again.”
“Good. You’re buying me lunch for that one.”
Her assignment this week in English is to write an essay about her perfect day.
“I dunno,” she says.
“What do you mean? C’mon. If you could do anything you want, from the time you got up, ‘til the time you went to bed, what would it be?”
She starts to chew her thumbnail.
“Okay,” I say, “What would you have for breakfast?”
“Okay. Good.Then what would you like to have happen?”
“Go to school.”
“And nobody would fight the whole day.”
“All right. Keep going, what perfect thing would happen next.”
“I dunno,” she says, looking down. “Maybe I hear my friend Rochelle’s new baby is doing better—that’d be good. Can we have lunch now?”
“Give me one more; one more perfect thing.”
“Ok.” She puts her hand on her chin. “Maybe—hmm—maybe my teacher says I don’t have to do this perfect day assignment!” She laughs.
I always feel a little uncomfortable at Ollies.Not because anyone makes me feel that way, but because I feel conspicuous being the only white person there. Tamika orders a famous Chicago Red Hot with fries and I get the same. As usual she eats about half and wraps the rest.
“You’re done?” I said, the first time she did this.
I was still hungry but decided to stop too. “Want to wrap the rest of mine as well?”
“And get your germs? Please!”
“Ok, guess I’ll just throw it away then.”
“No, seriously?” she said. I nodded yes. “Well, I could feed it to the strays.”
“Great.” I pushed it her way and she wrapped it into hers.
And so every time we go to Ollie's, we appoint Tamika as caregiver to the area’s rogue canines. Once or twice I offered to buy a whole extra sandwich for them, or even a pint of milk or some fruit. But she wouldn’t let me.
After lunch, Tamika walks me back to my car.
“So, what are you going to do for the rest of the day?” I ask.
“I dunno,” she says, looking down.
My car is parked in front of the lot next to the center and there are some teenage boys loitering there. One of them is hitting a tennis ball with a hockey stick against the concrete slabs. The rest are huddled together talking in hushed, energetic whispers, like they’re in a football game.
Tamika must have read my expression.
“Girl, you’d be better off if someone stole this car!” she says, shaking her head. I laugh.
“One of these days you’re going to let me drive you home in it. Today?”
“You're kidding right?”
I’ve never seen her apartment, nor met her grandmother.
“How’s your grandmother?” I ask.
“Fine,” she says, and kicks a sprig of rusted metal from the bottom of the fence.
“Give her my regards, ok? See you next week?”
The in-vitro fertilization (IVF) protocol requires me to give myself daily shots to hyper-stimulate my ovaries so that they will produce a dozen or so eggs in a cycle instead of one. I get ultrasounds every other day.
“I don’t like the design,” I say.I just came from an ultrasound and Jake and I have stopped in the bathroom store next door in search of a toothbrush holder for our second bathroom.
“Metal’s too shiny.” he admits.
“What about that one,” I say pointing to a green marble cylinder.
“Won’t match the floor.”
“How ‘bout this one?” he says, holding up a ceramic fish, curled around itself.
“Too cute—and weird.”
“A pewter-looking one would be good.”
“Pewter? Why do you always go for the metal ones?A marbley one would look better.”
“Here,” he says, and holds up a brushed silver one that looks like a miniature trash can.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“What’s right with it you mean!”
“It’s right for that bathroom.”
“Oh, I see, Mr. Designer, what a great authority you are on these things.”
“This one is perfect.”I hold up a plain cream-colored one.
“It looks cheap.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Yes it does.”
“How does it look cheap?”
“It just does.Fields has a better selection anyway.”
“Fine.Let’s go there.”
I volunteered to tutor a few months ago after scaling back my hours as a corporate consultant; the long work hours, the doctors told me, were not creating an optimal environment for pregnancy. I still get paid well, though, even for part-time.
They had an orientation for new volunteers at Tamika’s school.It was after hours and the halls felt damp and had a faint antiseptic smell.There was a gallery of black silhouettes on the wall near the principal’s office—Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. Mr. Schuster greeted us.His eyeglasses were taped on one side and slightly lopsided, but he carried himself like a man in a top hat smoking a pipe—except without the hat or the pipe.
“We try to send a message here,” he told us.“ That every student who goes to college will be able to get by there.Every one.” He meant well, but if he said that to a bunch of students’ parents at the high school near me, he would be fired tomorrow. Those parents expect the message to be which college will help their child become a senator or an astronaut.It’s different.
The next Saturday Tamika isn’t there.But Rochelle is—with her newborn.She tells me that Tamika’s grandmother is sick.
“She don’t eat, that crazy thing,” Rochelle says. Her baby is cradled peacefully in the crease of her elbow.
“Been that way ever since Graham was killed.”
The tutoring coordinator tells me to call before I come next week.
The color of washed sperm is pink—at least at the fertility clinic I go to. Something rich in that, I think.I show it to Jake. “How’s it make you feel to know that your masculinity boils down to this little vile of pink fluid?”He smirks at me and swats my behind. They just retrieved about 12 eggs from my ovaries. To fertilize them, the lab technicians will now cull selected sperm from the vile and inject one into each egg. After that, they’ll let the fertilized eggs rest and divide, insert them into my womb, and then we will wait, to see if one takes.
The tutoring coordinator tells me that Tamika won’t be coming for her tutoring session this Saturday either. The same thing happens the next week and then the summer break comes. Several weeks later when school resumes, Tamika is still out.I finally see her in late September. I am pregnant and starting to show.
She is standing in front of a window inside the center, looking over at the empty lot.
“You still driving that car?” she says when she sees me.
In fact I had taken our larger BMW that day to pick up some baby accoutrements—as they say—at a nearby mall.I stuffed the trunk with a crib and the back seat with a baby jogger, car seat, bouncy chair, pack and play and tummy tote.
“Yes,” I say.“You still want me to scrap it?”
“How’s your grandmother?”
“I said yes.”
“How are you doing?”
“Homework pile up a bit?”
“Yeah.You look different.”
“Well. I am different…I guess.I’m pregnant.” I feel myself blushing.
“Oh,” Tamika says. I see her swallow.She looks back toward the lot.
We work on math for a while – geometry.
“Up for Ollie's?” I ask when we are done.
“No. Thanks though.”
We walk out together and I see a group of boys peering into my car.
“Hey!” I yell and start toward them. Tamika runs after me. The boys put their hands up in the air and walk away, saying, “No harm, Ma'am.No harm.”
I turn to Tamika. She is pointing to the car and grinning at me.
“Ok,” I say. “You caught me. I brought the other car today.”
She circles the car. “My girl’s got some style after all,” she says and runs her hand along the side. Her mouth is open and her throat looks half-cocked like she’s got to swallow but can’t. She stops and peers in to the back seat. “You got a lot of stuff back there.”
“That all baby stuff?” she asks.
“Shhhheea girl,” she says, “What’s it all for?”
I survey the boxes. “Mostly for carrying the baby,” I say.
“All that just to carry a little baby?”
“Well, in different ways—one’s for when you want to jog, one’s for when you want to have your hands free, one’s for the table, one’s for—“. I pause.
Tamika raises her eyebrows, wondering if I will continue. I look down and stare hard at the ground.
“Rochelle just uses her arms,” she says.
“Yeah.Well, that’s fine, too. That’s great, actually.”
Silence. I look over at the Jungle Jim, leaning.
“You want a ride home?”
“No. Thanks though.”
“See you next week?”
Tamika’s grandmother died later that week, and Tamika was made a ward of the state and moved to a foster care facility in a similar school district on the other side of the projects.
I don’t know whether they have a tutoring program there. It’ll be hard, anyway, for me to keep it up with the baby on the way. It does take a lot to be a parent. It’s not easy. And the more help you can get, the better. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Tamika will be okay, though, I am sure. She’s a tough kid.
Susan Porter originally hails from Detroit, but has lived in Guildford, England; a small village in Senegal, West Africa; and Washington D.C. For the past eleven years, she's been living in Chicago practicing law and serving on the board of directors for a Chicago theatre company. In addition to writing short stories, she is currently at work on her first novel. She also paints, runs, cares for a cat, and co-habitates with a husband who not only supports her artistic endeavors but also--thankfully--enables her chocolate-eating addiction.