by Dell R. Lipscomb
“Today’s the day, steppin’ up to the big time!” Roland Myers boomed.
“Maybe. Wouldn’t bet on it,” Cory Morrow responded from behind the counter in H & S Market, the neighborhood convenience store.
“C’mon, man, you’ve gotta believe. The guy at Power 91 wouldn’t have called you if he wasn’t impressed by your audition tape.”
“Guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll get hired and actually get to keep the job.”
“This isn’t an internship like what you had at V100. If you get the job it’ll be because you’re good enough to get paid for it and that should count for something.” Roland shook his head. “I’d like to know how Larry Chambers would’ve felt about a new boss coming in and telling him the station couldn’t risk having amateurs on the air when he was doing an internship or trying to break into the business.”
“I see your point.”
Roland noticed two giggling girls in their early teens waiting to pay for the gum, snacks and bottles of soda in their hands. He stepped aside. The deep, mellifluous voice emanating from Cory’s slender frame, the voice that had impressed Roland on cassette tape and in the few commercials Cory got to do, was now reciting the prices and change due for store items. Roland stepped up to the counter when Cory was done with the girls. “Lemme have a pack of Newport 100s.”
“Jaleesa still hasn’t gotten you to break the habit,” Cory remarked.
“Nope, but not because of lack of trying. She asks about you a lot.”
“Tell her I said hello.”
“You can tell her that and dedicated a song to her on the air at Power 91. She usually listens to R & B and sometimes gospel but she’ll tune in to whichever station you’re on.”
“That’s assuming I get hired once they see I’m black.”
“They oughtta know that you might be since your tape is from V100.”
“Maybe they’re calling me in so they can tell the EEOC that they interviewed a minority.” That had occurred to Roland but he didn’t want to plant a cynical thought in Cory’s mind. Cory already had enough of those. “Doesn’t matter how you get your foot in the door. Just make them want to let you all the way in. When is the interview?”
“At two. Mr. Hassan is letting me leave at noon so I can go home and change.”
“I want him to get another job,” Mr. Hassan proclaimed in a Syrian accent as he walked by with a cardboard box cradled in his arms. “He is too good a worker, I need to replace him with someone worse so I can have a challenge.” Mr. Hassan laughed. Roland paid for the cigarettes. “You’re gonna be okay,” he said to Cory. “This day in 1991 is the day your star rises!”
Cory shrugged. “Hope so.”
“Let me know how it goes.” Roland exited the store, dropping the pack of cigarettes into the pocket of his work shirt. His car’s air conditioner blasted cool air and the car stereo blared sound with a turn of the ignition key. He’d rebuilt the 1982 Chevy Camaro himself at the auto body shop he’d inherited from his uncle nearly a year ago. The song on the stereo was fading out and Roland was damn glad about that. It was getting lots of airplay even though it was a typically awful hip hop song: crude instrumentals and somebody shouting instead of singing lyrics. Roland hoped this wasn’t the start of a long trend in the music business. The deejay started talking as the song ended, giving the song information as well as a short statement about upcoming songs.
Now an ad talking about a hair care product being able to make hair full of luster and manageable. The deejay had a good voice and strong delivery but not as good a voice as Cory’s. He didn’t have Cory’s wit, either. Cory could be witty on and off the air. He used to crack people up at Gospel 1410, the radio station where they used to work together. Same with Jaleesa whenever she dropped by to see Roland. But Larry Chambers didn’t find out about what Cory could do when Chambers took over as program director at V100. He got rid of Cory and the other intern, told them he needed to boost the ratings and he couldn’t risk having amateurs on his staff and especially not on the air. And Cory had been doing well, was eager about the internship even though he wasn’t getting paid. It was an opportunity to work at an FM station, to get away from the foolishness at Gospel 1410. Now Cory was getting paid by Mr. Hassan but not very much and not doing what he’d been going to the community college for.
Jaleesa and Roland Jr. were in Roland’s small, cluttered office when he arrived at the auto body shop. Jaleesa was sitting in front of the desk with Junior on her lap. Junior was trying his best to get his hands on the Rolodex near the edge of the desktop but couldn’t quite reach it. “Thought we’d drop by and say hello before we go to the supermarket,” Jaleesa stated. Roland kissed Jaleesa’s lips and patted his two-year-old son’s head. Jaleesa eyed the bulge in Roland’s shirt pocket af ter he sat down. “I see you’ve been to H & S Market,” she observed.
“Cory said hello, by the way.”
“How is he?’
“He’ll be better after today, I hope. He has an interview at Power 91 this afternoon.”
“For a full-time position?”
“Yeah. Overnight shift but a full-time FM job will look good on his resumé. AM music radio stations are fading from the scene. Nobody wants to listen to music on an AM signal when they can hear it in stereo on the FM dial.”
“I hope he gets it.”
“Me too, after all the crap that went down at Gospel 1410 and V100.”
“Oh by the way, Sharon Barker was at church last Sunday. She and Nate are back together.”
“Hmmph,” Roland responded. “So she took him back again. Is he working?”
“Sharon didn’t say.”
“If Nate’s working hard it’s a new experience for him. When he was program director at Gospel 1410 he chased skirts and did a lot of other things not related to the job. Didn’t bother to evaluate Cory’s tapes and give Cory feedback like he said he would. Wouldn’t even get on somebody’s case when that person didn’t show up to relieve Cory at the end of Cory’s shift. Nate’s party buddies never got punished. Bad enough Cory’s show kept getting interrupted by Reverend Carlton’s beg ging for money on the air. Asking for ‘donations for the cause.’ That Holy Roller owns the station and a half dozen others but begs to people who have less.”
The disapproving look from Roland’s churchgoing wife halted his tirade.
“I mean, a legit preacher who has enough money doesn’t do like that.” Roland’s tone was slightly subdued. “I got out of there because of the nonsense. Cory finally got out of there. I at least had this business to go to.”
“Your main reason for getting out was me bein’ pregnant with Junior,” Jaleesa replied.
“Yeah. Couldn’t see us getting married and supporting Junior on the money I was making at the station.” He leaned towards Junior. “Sorry about not having any caviar baby food for you when you were a baby, but you’re growing up big and strong anyway.”
Roland despised paperwork but that’s what needed to be done after his wife and son left. Like it or not it was part of any business including running auto body shop. But he was grateful that Uncle Dexter let him apprentice at the shop, showed him the ropes and let him work there when he got fed up with the nonsense at Gospel 1410 and needed to provide for Jaleesa and Junior. Roland took over the business when his uncle passed away. Uncle Dexter didn’t have kids or any other immediate family who’d done that kind of work. Roland gave up the dream of being a radio deejay. Cory stuck with it. Radio was his thing. Cory was happy to land the internship at V100 even though it didn’t pay and he’d still have to live at his momma’s house. He was going to get the required college credit and was finally inside a professional FM station instead of the clown operation Reverend Carlton and Nate were running.
But Larry Chambers figured that an intern, even one with some previous experience, shouldn’t be trying to learn his chosen profession at a station where Larry was attempting to make a name for himself. So now Cory was working at the store, doing what any fool with a sixth grade education can.
But maybe Cory could get his foot in the door at Power 91.
Roland was nearly out of cigarettes at quitting time; his mechanics had bummed all but one off him. “I oughtta take it out of y’all’s paychecks,” he declared to his laughing employees as he left the shop and headed for H & S Market.
Cory was behind the counter when Roland entered the store.
“Why the hell are you here?” Roland asked.
“I didn’t go,” Cory replied.
“That’s what I figured. Why not?”
“I told him he could leave early but he didn’t,” Mr. Hassan said with a shrug as he made his way to the back of the store.
The skinny young man standing under a flickering fluorescent light was grim faced. “Why make the effort just to be disappointed?”
“They called you for an interview. You had a chance.”
“Yeah, and I might’ve gotten the job only to have it taken away somehow.” Frustration choked Cory’s marvelous voice. He cleared his throat and shouted to the back of the store. “Can I go now?”
“Sure,” Mr. Hassan responded. “I’ll be up there to take over in a minute.”
Roland sighed and trailed behind Cory as he walked out of the store. “You don’t know how things would’ve turned out this time.”
“I know from experience.” Cory kept moving and was nearly halfway across the parking lot when someone stepped in his path. Roland watched as Cory and a dude of average height who seemed to be near Cory’s age talked. The dude seemed to be pleading. Cory kept shaking his head. Cory started walking again and the dude stuck with him. Cory whirled and faced the dude. “For the last time, no!” Cory bellowed. He turned away from the dude.
The dude kidney punched Cory. Cory shrieked. The dude reached into his pocket and Cory let out a gasping scream each time the dude plunged what looked like a blade into Cory’s body. The dude was stabbing whichever part of Cory’s staggering frame he could get to. Cory was on the ground and the dude was backing away when Roland got to them. Roland knelt and cradled Cory in his arms. Blood gurgled from Cory’s mouth and his eyes were wide open—he was probably going into shock.
“Dammit, Cory, you should’ve gone to that interview,” Roland sobbed.
Roland didn’t care to have a conversation with Nate Barker but he wanted Nate to know why he was at the barbershop. “Nate Barker, right?”
“Yeah,” the middle-aged man in the barber’s chair responded. Nate’s hair was graying and he’d put on some weight but there was still handsomeness in his face.
“Thought so. I used to work at Gospel 1410 when you were program director. Roland Myers.”
“I remember now. You quit to work at your uncle’s auto body shop when you became a daddy. My wife goes to the same church as yours.”
“I’m in the church now.” Nate’s voice was barely audible over the hair clipper’s buzzing. Small tufts of coarse black and gray hair tumbled from his scalp. The sly gleam that used to flash in his eyes when he started or spoke of some debauchery wasn’t there. His eyes were solemn, mirthless. “Staying close to home and spending more time with the wife and kids. The kids are almost grown.”
Yeah, after Sharon took you back for the umpteenth time; that’s what he felt like saying to Nate. “I’m getting a trim because I’m speaking to the parole board tomorrow,” Roland said to Nate. “Marcus Coleman is up for parole again.”
“He killed Cory Morrow, didn’t he?”
“Uh-huh. And he’s probably gonna tell the board the same thing he’s been telling them for over twenty years. Coleman will say that his crack addiction made him crazy and desperate for money when he killed Cory but he’s okay now. I’m gonna say what I always say. Coleman may be all right now but he still ought to do the time for his crime. That’s justice. You can’t let people off the hook because they say they’re okay.”
“It’s been over twenty years,” Nate said. “They might let him out this time. He was very young back then. I mean, that’s no excuse but the board might look at it that way.”
“Cory was young too, but he didn’t screw up like Coleman did,” Roland replied.
The barber grunted in agreement to what Roland said.
“Marcus Coleman wasn’t a baby, he was old enough to know how not to behave.” Roland’s glare was withering, letting Nate know that this particular excuse wouldn’t work for him either as far as Roland was concerned. Not for the way Nate was at Gospel 1410 back in the day.
Nate didn’t reply, just sat still as the barber continued his work. Roland occupied himself with a back issue of Ebony until it was his turn in the barber’s chair. A fairly recent issue of Vibe, the edges of its cover dog eared, was under the copy of Ebony. Junior subscribed to Vibe. Junior would be running the auto body shop tomorrow while Roland testified before the parole board.
Nate gave a subdued goodbye as he left. When the barber was finished Roland was glad to get away from the smells of hair oils, tonics and gels but didn’t appreciate the music that flowed out of his car stereo when he cranked the ignition. V100 was going to the dogs. A few years ago it was purchased by a white man who, according to what Roland heard, never had a black acquaintance that wasn’t waiting on him hand and foot before he became the owner. He’d brought in a program director who knew almost as little about black folks and R & B music as the owner.
Larry Chambers was long gone. A friend of Roland’s who was still in the business saw an article about Chambers in an online trade publication. Chambers was the program director for a nationally syndicated weekly show. In the article Chambers talked about the importance of mentoring the next generation of radio professionals. Now he had that attitude. Or maybe he was just trying to enhance his public image. Sincere or not, he couldn’t help Cory or anybody else he’d sent packing. Gospel 1410 had been sold and turned into a right wing talk show station. Now the station had Rush Limbaugh spitting out almost any type of racially inflammatory thing about blacks and the president a person could think of. And Dennis Miller, that ex-comedian who became a conservative talker when he flopped as a Monday Night Football analyst. He used to be funny when he badmouthed people; now he was just another snotty Republican butthole.
Roland’s iphone rang after he pulled out of the parking lot. It was Jaleesa, asking him to pick up a loaf of bread after he left the shop. Roland said he would and ended the conversation with “Love you, baby.” He still felt that way about Jaleesa. Many of their acquaintances who were married or in a serious relationship when Jaleesa and he got married were no longer together. Their marriage had survived into the iphone era and so had the auto body shop.
But Cory didn’t survive.
Roland steered into the parking lot of what used to be Mr. Hassan’s store. Mexicans owned it now. A Vietnamese family ran it for a while after Mr. Hassan gave it up. A couple of dudes Roland went to high school with used to talk about opening a store of their own but never did. When Roland got out of the car he found himself drifting towards the spot where Cory got killed. The splotches of dried blood weren’t there anymore. Roland recalled Cory’s mother arguing with his father about what to do with Cory’s remains. She wanted Cory to be cremated and he wanted Cory to be buried. His mother’s desire was to keep his ashes in her home. The family sided with her and she got her way. Roland was present when one of the heated discussions took place. “You were hardly ever around when Cory was growing up,” Cory’s mother wailed. “Now you want to make this final decision about him.”
There was that word again…now.
Roland wasn’t concerned about cars and cycles having to maneuver around him in the parking lot. He didn’t care about the honking horns or people laughing and shouting at him to get out of the way. He was going to keep standing there with his head bowed because he was standing at a gravesite, an asphalt gravesite. Cory’s ashes were in an urn at his mother’s house. Cory’s aspirations and potential had been put to rest at this place.