“Excuse me, but do you have any more brochures on prison reform?”
Darren’s head was under the cloth that hung from the table in his booth at the town fair, so he stuck up a hand high enough so the visitor could see it. “Be right with you, okay?” Even to him, his voice sounded muffled.
Having extracted a pile of the brochures he wanted to replenish, he groped rightward to the box in which the prison reform brochures were kept and grabbed a few. Then he stood up and looked straight into the face of the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
In fact, she was probably the most beautiful woman in the world. Slim and graceful, she appeared to be just a few inches over five feet. Her dark brown afro hugged her beautifully shaped head. Bright brown eyes, filled with amusement; long, long black eyelashes; smooth café-au-lait skin, and red lips pressed together. She looked as if she would burst out laughing at any moment.
Aware that he looked like the nation’s prize idiot, Darren stammered, “H-how can I help you?”
“Prison reform brochures,” she repeated and could barely conceal a smile as he handed them to her.
“D-do you need anything else?” Wildly, he looked around the booth, hoping to find something that would tempt her to linger, to chat.
“No, thank you,” she said firmly, “I have what I need. Good day.”
She turned and began to walk off. She mustn’t get away! Hardly aware of what he was doing, Darren left the booth and called after her. “Wait!”
She turned. “Yes?” Her tone was cold.
“May I ask you a question?”
She looked bored. “If you must.”
He took a deep breath. “How would you rate my chances of taking you out to dinner next week?”
Her eyes widened. “That’s not at all what I expected!”
“What did you expect?”
“I thought you’d say something like, ‘Have you ever dated a white guy’ or a more vulgar variant thereof.”
Darren’s lips tightened. “I would never say anything vulgar to you or to any woman.”
“Glad to hear it,” she said, and turned to walk away.
“Wait,” he called out. “Is there anything I can do to convince you I’m a nice guy who just wants to know you better?”
She half-turned, appearing to consider this for a moment, then shook her head. “No, not really.”
Chastened, he watched her walk away. He’d never get to know her. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met and he’d never get to know what made her tick, what kind of music she liked, whether she enjoyed long walks in the woods.
Please, Goddess, don’t let her go out of my life!
She’d proceeded a few yards when she suddenly paused. Turned. Walked back until she stood just a few feet away.
“You know, I don’t have time for most white guys, but I’m getting a vibe from you that says—well, never mind what it says. So…yes. There is something you could do to prove you’re serious.”
“Come to dinner at my grandmother’s house on Sunday.”
Despair turned to delight in seconds. “I accept with pleasure!”
She pulled a small notebook from her handbag, wrote something on it, and handed it to him. He scanned it rapidly, noting the address, the phone number, and the date and time he’d be expected. “My name’s Darren Peterson,” he said. “And here’s my number, in case you need it.”
She entered it in her mobile. “Thanks. See you Sunday.”
“Oh, by the way,” Darren called after her as she began to walk away again, “what’s your name?”
She looked back at him over her shoulder. “Collette.”
On Saturday, liberated from his weekday job at a nonprofit organization, Darren gave serious thought to the dinner he would attend the next day at the house of Collette’s grandmother. It would be proper to bring a present for the hostess, he thought. Flowers? Most people chose to bring flowers. But what if she were allergic? What if even walking by a tree brought on nonstop sneezing?
All right, then, he’d bring a bottle of wine. Wine was always acceptable, except that he didn’t know what was on the dinner menu. Should he bring red wine or white? And what if the grandmother turned out to be a teetotaler? There were grandmothers who thought drinking anything alcoholic was a sin. All right, then, no wine.
A box of chocolates, that was the ticket. Everyone liked chocolate, especially women. But again, there was a problem. Dark chocolate or milk? Truffles, nuts, or creams? And what if the grandmother were diabetic? The last thing in the world she’d want would be chocolates.
He did want to make a good impression on both Collette and her grandmother. He’d programmed the address into the GPS of his car, so that was all right. He’d check the route and the traffic reports to make sure he would be on time.
Deciding what to wear was no problem: a sports jacket and an open-collar shirt with khakis and cordovans would be appropriate. He didn’t want to look as if he were trying too hard, but neither would it do to appear too casual.
By the time he knocked on the door Sunday evening at six p.m., Darren was sweating with anxiety. The neighborhood looked a little run down, but not badly so. All the houses had front porches so the residents could take the evening air in warm weather. The house he was visiting looked neat and well kept, with fresh green paint on the shutters and mulched flowerbeds on either side of the path leading to the front porch.
The door opened in answer to his knock and there stood Collette, as lovely as ever. “Hello—my goodness, you are weighed down! Come in and meet my Grandma.”
He followed her into the house, carrying the bouquet of flowers, the bottle of wine, and the box of assorted chocolates. He figured she’d like at least one of the three; she could always give the other offerings away if she wanted to.
“Grandma, this is Darren. You remember I told you we met at the town fair last week. Darren, this is my grandmother, Mrs. Zenobia Johnstone.”
Collette’s grandmother didn’t look the way he’d expected her to. Well, what had he expected? This was the twenty-first century, after all. If he’d envisioned a comfortable, motherly-looking woman in a dark Sunday dress with a white lace collar and clumpy shoes, this woman was nothing like that. She wore her longish, straight salt-and-pepper hair drawn back from her face, tied at the back. With her high cheekbones and hawk-like nose, she might have had Native American ancestors; otherwise, her brown skin and full lips bespoke her African blood. She was wearing a bronze-colored silk caftan that fell to her ankles.
“How do you do, Darren?”
“Very well, thank you, Mrs. Johnstone. Thank you for inviting me to dinner. I’ve brought you, ah, this…”
“Thank you kindly. Collette, could you put the flowers in a vase and take the chocolates to the dining room? Thanks, love.”
Mrs. Johnstone turned the bottle of wine in her hands and looked at the label. “A Malbec! How nice of you.”
Darren smiled, but felt slightly surprised. He hadn’t expected her to know much about wine.
“I spent a summer in Argentina many years ago as part of a cultural exchange,” Mrs. Johnstone went on. “But here I am, keeping you on your feet! Please come with me to the dining room.”
Darren followed her into the dining room and sat down where she indicated. Collette came into the room, bearing a tray loaded with dishes, which she set down on a sideboard.
“I’ll get a corkscrew for the wine, Grandma,” she said, and left the room again.
The meal was traditional Southern cooking, Darren thought. Sliced ham, sweet potatoes, collard greens, hot biscuits with butter, and a dish he’d never encountered before. It looked like cornbread, but when he helped himself with the serving spoon he found that beneath the cornbread were melted cheese and cooked green cabbage.
“Grandma invented that dish just for me,” Collette said. “I’m a vegetarian. It’s my favorite.”
“It’s delicious,” Darren said truthfully. He smiled at Mrs. Johnstone. “Congratulations on your invention!”
“Do you like Southern cooking, Darren? You don’t mind if I call you Darren, do you?”
“Not at all, and yes, I do like Southern cooking. My mother’s from Georgia. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted anything as good as this.”
“There’s more,” Mrs. Johnstone said.
Darren wondered how on earth he’d manage another bite, but here came Collette carrying a tray with two desserts on it.
“Lemon meringue pie or fruit salad?” Collette asked.
Darren chose the pie. As he watched Collette help herself to fruit salad he thought it was no wonder she was so slim.
After the meal was over, Collette turned to him and smiled. It was a charming smile. “Guess what,” she said. “We are now going to do the dishes so Grandma can rest. She’s been on her feet all day, cooking this dinner for us.”
Darren rose to his feet. “I’ll be very glad to help.”
“Not ‘help,’” Collette said as soon as he followed her into the kitchen. “You are going to wash and I’ll dry.”
“It seems odd that your grandmother doesn’t have a dishwasher.”
“Oh, we offered to buy her one, but she refused. She said if we were going to spend money on her, we might as well get her something she really wanted. So we bought her a djembe instead of a dishwasher.”
In fact, he could hear the sound of a drum being played in the front room.
“All right, here’s the sink, the dish soap, and—”
“I have a special way of washing dishes,” Darren said. “You won’t need to dry them with a dish towel. Where’s your kettle? I’ll need some boiling water at the end.”
As he ran the warm water into the sink and squeezed the dishwashing liquid into it, he mentally went over the checklist: the least dirty things were washed first. Wine glasses, then cutlery, then cups and saucers—if any—then dinner plates, and last of all, the serving dishes and saucepans. As he worked he told Collette about his job as communications director for a nonprofit devoted to defending civil liberties, and she in turn told him about her job as a community organizer and #BlackLivesMatter activist.
Darren rinsed the dishes and put them in the dish drainer. “Boiling water?” he asked.
Collette handed him the steaming kettle. Darren emptied the sink, put the dish drainer in it, and poured the boiling water over the dishes. “There we are! Everything is nice and sanitary,” he said, lifting the dish drainer out of the sink. “They’ll air-dry now.”
“Excellent,” Collette said. “Let’s go back to Grandma.”
While they’d been in the kitchen the drumming had been soft and steady, like the beating of rain on a roof. When they pushed through the swing door of the kitchen and came back into the front room, the drumming suddenly became sharp, insistent, as if Grandmother were conveying a message.
Darren saw Zenobia Johnstone and Collette exchange glances; Zenobia nodded and Collette smiled.
“The members of Grandma’s drum circle will arrive shortly, so we need to take ourselves off,” Collette said. “Would you like to go down the street for coffee? There’s a very good café there.”
“Great,” Darren said. He took his leave of Mrs. Johnstone, thanking her for the excellent dinner and saying how much he’d enjoyed meeting her.
“Is the café within walking distance, or should we take the car?”
“Let’s walk,” Collette said. “It’s not so hot now the sun’s gone down.”
As they waited for their coffee, Collette said, “Remember how you asked me to rate your chances of taking me out to dinner soon? Well, right now I’d rate them pretty high.”
Darren felt himself grinning. “Why did you change your mind?”
“Two reasons.” Collette looked at him steadily. “You accepted an invitation to dinner with two black women in a neighborhood you’re not accustomed to. You brought flowers and chocolates. You praised my grandmother’s cooking. You did the dishes without complaining.” She paused. “In short, you behaved like a gentleman. Some things never go out of style.”
“And the other reason?”
“My Grandma’s drum said you’re okay. Remember I told you that I was getting a different vibe from you?”
“Yes, but you didn’t tell me what the different vibe was,” Darren said, trying not to sound like the happiest man on Earth.
Collette smiled. “The vibe told me that if I didn’t get to know you better I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”
Thank you, Goddess.