When Sean last spoke to Elijah’s mother he told her he would be over by three thirty. He knew the streets fairly well by now and the safest passage was through the vacant lots; he was pleased to see two cops patrolling – or more aptly loitering – and gave them a half salute to acknowledge them. They responded with a quick flick of their wrists.
Like the others, Elijah’s tenement was nondescript: two stories, red brick, and adorned with litter, old tires, a broken rake and vestiges of needles and condoms strewn on the ground. The windows were fitted with steel security bars and music, a blend of rap, pop and bling, blared from the tenements; music played continuously throughout the day. The battered entrance door of the tenement, once painted red but now faded to a light grey, relaxed as if it was going to topple over the narrow porch and down the three weather worn stairs; it led to a small foyer filled with the stale stench of sweat and vomit. Inside the foyer were two doors, one for each of the downstairs apartments, and an old wooden staircase with most of the paint peeled away that led to two upstairs apartments.
Searching for a buzzer and finding none, he walked up the creaky staircase, noticed a cockroach creeping by, reached the landing, saw the door for apartment number four, walked briskly to it and knocked three times. The door opened and a slender, attractive woman with deep black skin and prominent cheekbones, about five-foot-five, appeared. She was wearing a light blue blouse, jeans and sandals, her hair was pulled back in a small pony tail and she held a dish towel in her hands.
The aroma of food wafted into the hallway and made his mouth water.
Landi eyed him up and down and said stoically, “You must be Mr. Allen.” Elijah was right, she thought, it’s embarrassing to have a tutor, makes it seem as if our family’s stupid. Not only that but Jake despised the idea of a tutor, and although he was seldom around he made his feelings very clear. Landi didn’t care too much for his feelings; her goal was to make sure Elijah didn’t fall into the same decrepit life style he lived. Pathetic, she thought. Almost as pathetic as having this teacher come to my house.
She quickly scanned Sean again: he was neatly dressed – white shirt and tie, blue dress pants, stylish but business-like shoes, clean shaven, neatly combed brown hair, deep set jade-green eyes that glistened, and a slight smile.
She said dismissively, “Come in and I’ll get Elijah.”
Here’s a live one, thought Sean. What’s her problem?
“Hello Ms. Odell, I’m Sean Allen,” he said, holding out his hand for her to shake. Instead of returning her hand she turned and walked into the kitchen.
Great, this is going to be lots of fun.
“Thank you for inviting me,” he continued, trying not to show his frustration. “I’m happy to be here and hope I don’t impose too much.”
She busied herself in a pot on the stove, stirring something that she was searing.
“That smells really good,” he said, hoping to break the tension.
“Umm,” she uttered, continuing to mix whatever was in the pot.
“You can sit there at the table and work with Elijah,” she said, not taking her eyes off her masterpiece.
Elijah walked into the room from his bedroom, upset at the deteriorating scene that was unfolding; he knew Landi was upset and didn’t like it when she was like this.
“Hi Elijah, good to see you,” greeted Sean.
“Yeah,” replied Elijah sullenly. “I heard you say you like that smell. Momma’s a real good cook, ain’t you Momma?” he asked.
Landi looked up from the stove and glanced at Elijah; she had a very faint smile on her lips.
“As long as you and Tanya like it, that’s all that matters,” she said flatly.
“Momma was a cook at Jim’s for four years. She was the best,” Elijah informed Sean.
“Yeah, Jim’s Sidestreet.”
“How come no more?”
“Because Jim got too slow with the bad economy, so he had to let Momma go.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” stated Sean, “that’s too bad. I’m really sorry.”
He peered into the kitchen and his eyes held Landi’s for an instant, one of those rare times when people inadvertently and intimately expose themselves to a total stranger. The only other time Sean felt like this was when he was ten and first met Dari Worthington on their first day of fifth grade. She had the bluest eyes he had ever seen and they cut into him like a knife; his knees actually buckled. When she moved away with her family two years later he felt an emptiness that never fully left. This was the first time in years he thought about her. He felt his knees buckle.
Landi quickly turned back to the stove, upset that she left herself exposed to Sean and had almost lost her composure. She felt the same energy that Sean did and it shook her to her core. She inhaled deeply.
With as much equanimity as possible she said, “That’s right Mr. Allen. I was the chief cook for Jim and now I have no job, no one to cook for except my family.”
As much as she tried, it was impossible to hide the disgrace of losing the job she loved so much; how could she pretend everything was alright when it wasn’t, especially to a stranger who had just peered into the her innermost being, if only for a fleeting moment?
“Cooking relaxes me but not as much as before,” she uttered.
“I’m sure you’ll find something as soon as the economy turns around”, said Sean, still unsettled by their encounter.
Landi stepped back from the stove, wiped her hands in the towel and walked toward Sean with an air of hostility.
“Mr. Allen, you’re here to tutor my son. Please don’t waste his time or mine with small talk. You’re here only because I don’t him to do what his daaa…” she stopped before finishing the word ‘Daddy’.
“I’ll finish my cooking after you’re done tutoring,” she said curtly. She turned toward Elijah and instructed him before Sean could respond, “Elijah sit down here and let Mr. Allen work with you.”
She spun around and walked into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. Sean turned red, shaking not so much from her insolence but from what her eyes told him. He cleared his throat.
“I guess we should get started Elijah,” he said once she closed the bedroom door, taking a deep breath to calm himself. “We, ah. We need to work on your math and reading skills.”
In a low voice he said, “My Momma’s not like this Mr. Allen. She’s really sad after Jim let her go and she never acted like this before.”
“That’s OK Elijah. It’s tough to lose your job. Very tough. The economy is so bad that millions of people have lost theirs too. I’m sorry for your Momma and for all the others who lost their jobs.”
“How you know all the others?” challenged Elijah, suddenly defensive. “How you know millions of people?”
Caught off guard at Elijah’s abrupt change in disposition Sean cleared his throat again before speaking.
“You’re right, I don’t know millions of people. I read about them and hear about them on the news and just feel badly for them. You can feel sorry for someone without knowing them, can’t you?”
Elijah thought for a moment.
“Yeah, I guess you can. I guess you can feel sorry for someone you don’t know.”
He took the math book from the table and opened it. “I guess we should get started with the tutoring.”
From that moment they had an understanding.
Sean continued tutoring Darin on Mondays, David on Thursdays and Elijah on Wednesdays. The improvement in all three students was dramatic, particularly with Elijah. He was intelligent, learned fast, completed all his work and started doing well in school once again, notwithstanding his recalcitrance. He was after all a twelve year old with a large ego and the last thing a kid wants is a tutor. Nevertheless their ‘understanding’ began to grow, forming a bond that was more redolent of a big brother/little brother camaraderie than of a teacher/student hierarchy.
Landi continued to avoid Sean, retreating to her room whenever he arrived; Sean’s mouth continued to water from the food she prepared.
“I see your grades are starting to improve,” he told Elijah in early November. “Have you been doing more studying?”
“Yeah, I’ve been doing more. Momma makes me, won’t let me stay in the streets, only to play ball with my friends in the school yard,” he replied sarcastically.
“That’s fine, Elijah. Whatever she’s doing it’s good for you. You don’t want to stay in the streets, do you?”
“Why you saying that?” retorted Elijah immediately. “How you know what I want? You don’t know me, don’t know what I want.”
Sean leaned back in the chair by the kitchen table. Every time Elijah turned on him he was deeply disappointed; he thought their relationship was growing. Maybe not.
“Elijah, I thought we had an understanding, thought you were being opened with me.”
Elijah looked down at the floor, searching for the scratch that ran across it. Without looking up he said, “Yeah, we had an understanding. I got an attitude today, didn’t say nothing in school neither.”
“Yeah, I noticed that. What’s up?”
Elijah looked up at Sean.
“My Daddy’s not happy ‘bout you being here. He don’t think I need a tutor, and he and Momma fighting about it. I don’t like when he’s like that, he gets real mad and…” his voice trailed off.
Sean decided not to pursue if his Daddy was violent; he didn’t see Landi since she always fled to the bedroom and therefore had no way of knowing if she was bruised. He hadn’t noticed any bruises on Elijah, or on Tanya who usually stayed in the living room while he tutored. She was a cute girl, seemed to be very pleasant, always greeted him, smiled and flashed her eyelashes at him. Sometimes he wondered if she was flirting with him but never let that thought develop; that would be disastrous. Still she was a cute little girl, ten years old. Just like Dari when he first met her.
“I can talk to your Daddy. He could meet us here.”
“He ain’t around much, only when he wants something or is mad ‘bout something.”
Elijah’s eyes grew wide.
“You don’t want to be here when he’s mad.”
“I’m sure if he comes we can have a conversation and I can explain how much better you’re doing and how tutoring will help you get the grades so you can have a better future.”
“I don’t think he’ll want to talk,” contested Elijah.
“Well, I’ve never met a man who won’t talk to me. I might be a white man but I get along pretty well with anyone. Not that it means much but I do teach in a black school system and play ball every Saturday.”
“Mr. Allen, it’s not that. My daddy ain’t the talking type.”
“I don’t mind meeting him,” replied Sean.
“Well I do,” said Landi vociferously, bursting from the bedroom, surprising both Sean and Elijah. It was the first time in weeks she addressed Sean.
“Mr. Allen, it ain’t a good idea for you two to meet. Jake is different than the boyz on the court. He don’t play games, he don’t care who you know, he wants things to be the way he wants them. And he don’t want Elijah to have a tutor.”
Her eyes were wide, paradoxically obstinate and fearful.
“Why wouldn’t he want Elijah to be tutored? Doesn’t he want him to be successful?” he asked, wondering if she heard all the conversations he and Elijah had in the past few weeks.
Landi caught Sean’s eyes again; time ceased to exist for a moment. Even though seated, Sean felt his knees wobble, just as they did the first time their eyes met.
Landi lost her breath from the intensity of the encounter and had to wait for it to return before she could speak. When she did her voice was calm and soft.
“Mr. Allen, there’s certain things you don’t understand about us, about our family, about the streets. I know you play ball on Saturdays and you get along with the kids and teachers. But Jake is different.”
She lowered her voice as if someone was listening.
“He’s a gangsta, does some things that are not real nice. He wants Elijah to be like him, you know be a street kid. But I don’t want that for my son. I don’t want that for Tanya. So that’s why you’re here, to help him do well in school so he doesn’t have to do what his daddy does.”
She cast a mournful look toward Elijah.
“I want you to be different; you are different and I don’t want you to get mixed up in the stuff your daddy gets mixed up in.”
She stared at Tanya who was listening from the other end of the room. “And you neither.” She turned back to Sean.
“Mr. Allen, if Jake sees you here it may be bad.”
Sean shook his head. “He doesn’t know I come here on Wednesdays?”
“He knows,” she said quietly. “But he’s stayed away, which I told him he had to.”
“But isn’t it his prerogative to be here?”
“No Mr. Allen, it ain’t his prerogative,” she said with assertiveness. “He can’t come over here whenever he wants, he needs to ask me first.”
“Because it’s what I say. He can’t come here unless he asks.”
“I guess he doesn’t live here?”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“Are you separated? Divorced?”
“You know Mr. Allen, you’re here to tutor Elijah because I want him to succeed and education is the only way to succeed. I’m not educated, never finished high school. But you see they’re lots of magazines and books here. Cookbooks, history books, novels. I read them all because I want to learn; I never did when I was young. But I don’t know how to teach so that’s why I need you here, to teach my son.”
She looked at Elijah and turned back to Sean.
“You know a lot about math and reading so you teach others. You’re smart because you got a degree. But you’re not smart about one thing.”
“You have no street smarts. Jake is Elijah and Tanya’s daddy, for sure. But we ain’t divorced.”
She looked into Sean’s eyes again, deeper than before, and he found it hard to breathe, as did she. She fidgeted with her fingers and spoke almost in a whisper.
“We were never married.”