Husband of her Youth
Jamila had just finished feeding her chocolate and jet-black labs Fela and Aswad when she opened her back door and there he stood. She nearly screamed but something in his face, something familiar, checked the cry in her throat. Why was he at the back door she wondered, then remembered that their front doorbell was not working.
“Hello,” he said, and her dogs wagged their tails instead of their usual growls, as if they knew him.
She did not recognize the old man standing before her in a dark blue golf shirt, with a receding hairline and sunken cheeks. As she met his hazel eyes, they were not those of a stranger.
“May I come in?” he asked.
Her safe brain screamed “Of course not!” To her astonishment she stood back and let him pass into her kitchen.
Seeing fright and confusion in her wide eyes, he said, “Martha, it’s me, Tony. Anthony Thompson.”
Oh my God! she thought, he said my slave name. Jamila had not heard herself called that since leaving L.A. She sank into the nearest chair. It was then she knew this was her ex. He was so emaciated and pale he looked ill, only his eyes were recognizable.
“Can I sit down?” Tony asked.
“Oh, forgive me, please,” she said, pointing to a chair at the kitchen table.
“May I offer you a cup of coffee?” When he nodded, Jamila moved to the sink where she washed her hands, wiped them with a paper towel, and took a cup from the cabinet. Filling the cup almost to overflowing, she placed it on the table in front of him.
“Thank you,” he said, watching her move away from him to stand at the sink. His eyes took in the tile and stainless-steel kitchen that sparkled in morning sunlight before he picked up the coffee cup and drank.
She blurted out, “What are you doing here?”
“I had to see you,” he said, sipping the coffee.
“After all these years?” She had not seen or heard from Anthony in more than fifty years. They had married as teenagers in 1965. Both were seventeen. Jamila had given birth to their only child in 1966, and they had divorced in 1968. Although ordered to pay child support, he had never paid a penny. He finished his coffee before looking up.
“I wanted to see Kimberly but have not been able to locate her.”
“Kimberly, whose name was changed to Aba many years ago, is living in Germany now,” she responded.
“My name is no longer Martha, either.”
He looked at her and raised his eyebrow. “What is it?”
She hesitated, not wanting him to know her name or where she lived, but he did, so she said, “Jamila.”
“Ja what?” He said with a smirk.
She stared hard at him without responding.
“I just want to say I’m sorry and to make amends,” he said, avoiding Jamila’s piercing stare.
A little late for that, she thought.
“I was a lousy husband and father and I want to try to clear the air and say goodbye,” he said, absentmindedly turning the cup in his bony hands.
She had guessed that he must be ill but was unsure because his drug abuse and imprisonments might account for his dreadful appearance.
“We were so young,” he admitted. “You were my first love.”
Thinking of the summer they fell in love, she said, “We were both just kids.”
“Remember the summer we spent taking biology at Huntington Park High?” he asked, a smile tugging the corner of his thin lips.
She did. They played hang man and she had stumped him with the word fungi. Jamila had been happily married now for more than forty years and questioned why he would think she would want to remember what he was bringing up.
“Did you remarry?” she asked.
“No, never did. Had several long-term relationships but nothing permanent.”
“You know, I’m married to a wonderful man who stepped in and took good care of your daughter,” she said, hoping she did not sound angry because she had spent years taming it down. Meditating on peace and forgiveness, she had repeated a thousand Oms. She poured him another cup of coffee.
“I am grateful,” he said, shifting his hazel eyes downward to stare into steaming black coffee to avoid her look again.
“Are your parents still in California? I looked for them but couldn’t find them,” he said.
Jamila thought he must be lying because there was no one left in the old neighborhood to even ask about them. How had he found her? She did not ask because with social media almost anyone could be found. With her Facebook and Instagram photos she was visible.
“No, they moved from L.A. in the seventies, out to Fontana. Then in the nineties they came here. Both have made their transitions,” she said.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Is your dad still alive?” she asked, remembering how his father had tried to help her when Tony, his only son, had gone to prison.
“No, and my mother”, he started to say.
She cut him off. “Your mom died before I left L.A. You were in prison and couldn’t even attend her funeral.”
He flinched like she had slapped him, then asked, “Do I have any grandkids?”
She felt an acid resentment rising within to think he had missed all the major events of their daughter’s life — birthdays, graduations, wedding, and childbirth.
“Aba has two children, a boy and a girl,” she said flatly.
She had never thought of him as their grandfather, biological or otherwise, but of course he was.
After their divorce she took their child and moved away from L.A. as far as the Greyhound bus could take her. She ended up in Nashville because a childhood friend who attended an HBCU encouraged her to apply for a scholarship at Fisk University. She did receive a scholarship and enrolled in college, something Tony forbade her to do when they were together.
He thought he could make a living by dealing drugs, thought that she would stand by and allow him to endanger her and their daughter with his illegal activities. She would not and he should have known better. Unlike many of their peers, she had never even smoked pot. He had been naïve and as strait-laced as she was when they met, but he could not withstand peer pressure and being called lame or uncool. She did not care what people said, especially after their daughter was born. What was he thinking? He even had the nerve to call their baby “kilo”, connecting her to drug dealing. Had he been cool in high school she never would have looked at him twice. It had all gone sour with drugs.
They graduated in June, married in July. Perhaps it was the pressure of a wife to support and then fatherhood that drove him to believe he could be successful dealing drugs.
“What do you want Tony?” she asked as he remained silent after she told him about the grandchildren.
He stared at her before pulling out his wallet. Removing a folded paper, he said, “I just want you and Kim –I mean Aba — to have this,” and he pushed it toward her across the kitchen table.
Jamila opened the paper. It was a cashier’s check for $500,000 dollars.
Stunned, she exclaimed, “I can’t take this from you!”
“And why not?” he asked frowning. She could see from the disappointment in his eyes that he had thought she would be pleased.
“Where did it come from? Is this drug money? I can’t take drug money from you; from all the people you have hurt. What are you thinking?” She said, pushing the check back toward him and turning away.
He got up slowly, a grimace distorting his face into a mask of shadows.
“Just sleep on it,” he said, “and don’t be so Goddamn self-righteous. I know you ain’t rich!”
He turned, stuffed his hands deep in his pockets and stalked out her back door. Had he driven to her house? She did not see or hear a car. Jamila felt dizzy and questioned if she had imagined the encounter. Certainly, the check looked real and money would help Aba and her two children. Enough so she could ignore where it came from? He had not denied that it was drug money, but he also had not admitted that it was. Could she live with that ambiguity?
When Robert, Jamila’s husband, came home she greeted him at the door by waving the check in his face. He calmly took the check from her and looked at it. He sucked in his breath in shock, then seeing her worried face asked, “Where did it come from?”
When she said her ex-husband Tony had been there, the blood drained from his usually jovial face. His characteristically serene temperament changed. Robert had maintained the physique of his college football years, but now his shoulders slumped, and he looked old.
His voice grew loud. “Tony? In person? This didn’t come in the mail?” he asked, shaking the check as he talked. He loosened his necktie and sat on the edge of their sectional sofa.
“He was here in person, looking like a ghost, but he was here,” Jamila said as she paced the floor.
“What should I do?” she asked. “I tried to give it back, but he refused to take it.”
Robert pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his shining bald head where sweat was beading.
“Maybe the choice isn’t yours anymore. He never took care of Aba and this could be his way of making amends,” he said leaning back on the sofa.
“But drug money?” Jamila’s voice shook.
“How do you know how he got it?” Robert asked. “Anyway, I think you should give it to Aba and let her decide.”
“I’ll do that. I will let her decide and be done with it,” Jamila said heading into the kitchen to finish making dinner.
“I hope you will be done with it,” Robert said.
She wished she was as done as her last words had sounded. As Jamila chopped peppers and onions for stir fry, she muttered to herself about where Tony could have gotten so much money.
Aba, her husband David, and their two children were completing a tour of duty in Dresden. He was an air force captain and Aba a translator at the American Embassy. She knew they could use the money for their kids’ college fund, but should they benefit from the suffering of someone else? She wondered if she should even burden her daughter with the issue. It was a problem for Jamila, but would it be problematic for Aba? She asked herself whether she was being self-righteous as Tony thought or ethical?
Jamila called her daughter the next day. After telling her about the encounter with her father, Aba was silent.
“Honey, are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m just dumbfounded,” Aba said.
“Well what should I do? Don’t you think the money is tainted?” Jamila asked.
“No mommy. Send me the money. You do not know how he got it, and I don’t care. I am fine with not knowing. This will pay for all the days we ate peanut butter sandwiches for dinner after you two divorced.”
Aba then shared the story of when she was a college junior and she and her roommate drove to California over spring break to see Aba’s grandparents in Los Angeles. She looked up her father and found him on 97th and Central Avenue, clearly high and still living in Watts. Weeks after that spring break road trip, he called her on campus and requested that she send him some money. Aba had never mentioned it to her mother before.
“Did you send him money?” Jamila asked, shocked by Aba’s revelation.
“No mommy, I told him it was his responsibility to send money to me!”
“Well looks like he listened, I guess,” Jamila said.
Since Aba was unphased about the source of the money, Jamila agreed to post the check to her.
For weeks Jamila looked for Tony to return so that she could let him know that his daughter had the money. He never did.