“Only the good die young.” Over the hedge that separated their properties, Cherise Holder locked eyes with her centenarian neighbor, Mrs. Giandi. “If that’s true, then I must be staring at evil incarnate,”she thought. From the short distance parting them, Cherise could see Mrs. Giandi’s mummified skin. It reminded Cherise of a discarded piece of tissue paper, her blue veins crisscrossing her face like a worn ribbon.
Cherise looked down at her own creamy skin and vowed to invest in more sun block.
Hedge clipping was great for her deltoids but hard work nonetheless. Cherise started to pant and was grateful that she was forced to breathe through her mouth - it helped to avoid the ever present peppermint and piss odor that enveloped Mrs. Giandi like a fog.
Cherise tired of the silent stalemate between her neighbor and waved goodbye with her hedge clippers.
“Have a good afternoon Mrs. Giandi.” Try not to die out here. Mrs. Giandi nodded back but her smile did not reach her eyes. Cherise finished the last clip on her chiseled looking hedges and nodded a goodbye to Mrs. Giandi. The old woman had fallen asleep, (at least Cherise hoped she was asleep), in a lawn chair under the Maple tree whose leaves always managed to litter Cherise’s pristine driveway.
Cherise flipped her stick-straight hair over her shoulder. The sudden drop in temperature and the rain clouds in the distance drove Cherise to her kitchen for protection. Nature conspired to turn her tresses back to their original, springy, kinky form. Cherise had no intention in letting nature take its course.
She passed under the ivy-laced archway on the westside of her traditional colonial home. She never tired of the magical feeling that bubbled within her when she crossed under. It was the same feeling she felt when she first laid eyes on her “Father of the Bride” inspired home. The realtor had no idea that Cherise would have paid double, no triple, the going price because Cherise knew that living in this house was the closest she would ever get to being in heaven.
She was greeted in her glossy kitchen by a song streaming from her iRadio. It failed to amuse her when radio stations played Toni, Tony, Tone’s song, “It Never Rains in Southern California” on rainy days. Not that the City of Angels didn’t need a baptism. It’s just that rain was an unforeseen shadow over Cherise’s bullet point plans today.
She placed her gardening gloves in a bin under the sink and washed her hands three times while she hummed, “Happy Birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday dear Cheri, happy birthday to me.” She wiped her hands on an apron and watched out her kitchen window as several neighborhood children used their umbrellas as swords while they walked past her house on their way home from school.
Such a safe neighborhood. Cherise smiled and waved as they passed by. L.A. bred kids never knew how to dress in inclement weather. She saw boots paired with T-shirts, sweaters paired with sandals. She cringed as several walked over her lush lawn but maintained her smile. They probably recognized the red door house as the one with the Rocky Road candy treats at Halloween. Cherise pulled her phone from her apron pocket, touched a reminder app and spoke into the phone. “Make Rocky Road treats for Home Owners Association meeting on Thursday. Pick up marshmallows, Penzey’s vanilla, and Godiva chocolate.”
As the incoming HOA president, she wanted to soften the blow her heavy-handed new ordinances would make and decadent chocolate treats always provided a soft landing. Cherise had baked them for her mother ten years ago when she announced that she was dropping out of high school to pursue a career in dance. She hoped they would go over better with the neighbors.
Her gaze trailed from the children to the hydrangeas that lined her walkway like obedient soldiers marching in unison. They were destined to get soaked in this wet weather. She made a second verbal note to move them under the white awning in the backyard. That way she would always have fresh flowers to put on her mother's grave.
Speaking of which, what am I going to put on her tombstone? she thought. Having no siblings, father, or other close relatives to consult, it was all up to her. It's not likely that anyone will ever visit Norma's grave site, especially if the small number at the funeral is any indication. I could put something like,
Norma Holder - Mother of One - Mistress to Many. Although mistress was a more highbrow term for Cherise's mother's profession.
Cherise finished what some would call needless wiping on her Sub-zero refrigerator. She hated seeing even the faintest fingerprints or smudges on the pristine silver surface.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the refrigerator and frowned at the reflection. The distorted café au lait image frowned back. She pulled out a coffee cup from her polished ebony cabinets and slipped it in her coffee maker. Then she pulled a silver flask from inside her sterling silver flour can. “Irish up my coffee Cheri.” She could still hear her mother's daily command in her head.
She took a deep drink and let the warm liquid flow down her throat. She had been feeling a little nauseous this past week or so and “mother's little helper” did its job when she needed it. The buzzer on the dryer interrupted her afternoon cup. She needed to hurry and fold the clothes if she wanted to prevent wrinkles. Even so, she knew she would be ironing everything, including the jeans and t-shirts. As she turned to place her steaming cup on the granite counter she stubbed her toe on a bar stool.
She cursed in pain and grabbed her manicured toe.
“Uh-oh Mommy, you said a bad word.”
Cherise turned to look at her saving grace.
“I'm sorry BJ. Did I wake you from your nap? Mommy has an owie.”
“Let me kiss it. That always makes my owies feel better.”
Cherise smoothed BJ's chubby cheek and let him give her toe a peck. The chestnut eyes that he inherited from his mom glowed with pride at success in helping his mom.
“Thanks baby. It feels better already. What would mommy do without you?”
“Don’t know, maybe play in the park all day?”
Cherise laughed. “ Probably not. Mommy only loves to go to the park with you. Speaking of parks, did you like the new one we went to today?”
Cherise tried to go on an new adventure with B.J. every week. That included finding a different park to play in, a new Farmer’s Market to scout, and a fresh recipe to create. At three, B.J. was Cherise’s constant companion and playmate.
“Help mommy fold the clothes so all our chores will be done before Daddy gets home.”
“Are we still going out for the surprise birthday dinner you’re not 'posed to know 'bout?” B.J. asked as he leaped into the pile of toasty, fresh clothes.
“Of course we are baby, now let’s start folding.”
The doorbell rang and interrupted Cherise’s folding and B.J.’s unfolding of the warm clothes. Cherise crossed her Elle decor worthy living room and stopped to straighten a gray silk pillow on the white linen sofa.
The bleary image on the other side of her glass inlaid wooden doors was not human shaped, so Cherise tip-toed up to the door and advised B.J. to hang back a bit. She peered into the peephole and a dimpled smile broke across her face, she wanted to fling the door open, but her OCD required her to touch the knob three times before opening it.
“Happy Birthday-Gram! Flowers, candy, and song for the one to whom this heart belongs.”
“Mommy! Why’s that man dressed like love?” B.J. asked.
The man in the heart-shaped costume leaned into the doorway, “This message is for, and I quote, “The beautiful Cherise Holder a.k.a. Frecks, b.k.a Babe.” Ma’am would that be you?”
Cherise giggled and nodded yes.
this song is to say,
I love you,
in every way.
You’re my girl
and I’d like to say
have a happy, happy, birthday!”
The messenger did a little dance and presented Cherise with flowers and chocolates as well. B.J. rushed to applaud and started to work on opening the box of candy right away. Cherise went to her purse to give the guy a tip and closed the door with a grin.
o “You’re the best Brandon!” Cherise greeted her boyfriend with a smothering hug and kiss when he walked in the door. At the same time B.J. rushed him like a linebacker, “Daddy! Daddy!”
“Hey, slow down” , Brandon smiled as he hugged Cherise with one arm and tussled with B.J. with the other. “Thanks for the welcome, I’m glad ya’ll are ready, let me take a quick shower, get all this dirt off me, get myself fitted and let’s hit the car and go. I’m surprising you with reservations at your favorite restaurant.”
Cherise pantomimed a “Shhh” to B.J. and feigned surprise.
“You look amazing as always Babe,” Brandon said with a smile.
Cherise modeled a tasteful cream Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. Paired with hammered gold earrings and matching gold cuffs. She spun around in her newest pair of Kate Spade slingbacks. The outfit was her birthday gift to herself. The blissful trio walked out the door and toward Cherise’s sedan in the driveway.
“You want me to drive?” Brandon asked. His arm swung to his mud covered truck.
Cherise stuck out her hand. “Have we met? Hi, I’m Cherise a clean freak who would rather die than ride in filth. Besides, I think they would rather valet my car babe. You’re bound to need a tetanus shot after riding in that thing.”
Cherise gracefully picked up B.J. and secured his hat over his ears as the little family walked down the driveway. “I know this is my birthday dinner, but I have some important news to tell you on the way to the restaurant.” Cherise said as she strapped their son in his carseat and made sure his headphones were on. She popped BJ's favorite movie in the DVD player. She placed three kisses on his forehead and tickled him before she shut the door.
“So do I Frecks.” Brandon flashed a lopsided grin and opened the driver's side door for Cherise. He popped Cherise playfully on her backside before she sat down. This was the start of their tit-for-tat game they played every day.
“Quit it boy.” Cherise pulled Brandon's baseball cap over his eyes. It made him look tough and boyish at the same time.” You know you can’t wear this in the restaurant.”
Brandon was never without his Braves baseball cap. He even wore it under his construction hat on jobs. It had an embroidered B on the front and he only took it off to sleep.
“Yeah, we’ll see. If I’m paying fifty dollars a plate for this meal, I should be able to sport my cap.”
Cherise checked over her left shoulder three times and her right shoulder three times, then backed out of the driveway and started down their tree lined street. A light rain began to fall and her car sensors responded on cue by turning the wipers on.
“Well, I know it’s ladies first and all, but my news can't wait no more.”
Cherise raised her eyebrows in anticipation.
Brandon cleared his voice and then took off his cap.
Cherise knew it was a big deal now. The cap came off.
“Babe...I know we already went half on baby and I can't love nobody more. So let's do this...” Brandon pulled out a small, velvet ring box. He took great care to crack it open to reveal a delicate gold band and a shiny, sweet diamond.
“Wha - are you asking me to marry you?” Cherise’s attention flashed back and forth from the road to the ring.
“Frecks, I love the way you take care of our son. I love how you do everything, every single tiny detail with your full heart. You got a gift for noticing the small things. Some people might find that annoying but it just shows you pay attention. You know I love your freckles. I even love how you iron my jeans. We’ve been through everything together. From eating water-soaked cereal and EBT card dining, to birthday reservations at Crustacean. You’ve loved and supported me through the lean, mean times and now I want to make you an honest woman. Now put your hand up so I can put a ring on it.”
Cherise quickly wiped a few tears from her eyes as she glanced from the road and brought her left hand across her chest over to Brandon . “Brandon, I love you so much and you know I would marry you in a heartbeat. But hear me out...because you might take back that proposal after I tell you my news.”
Brandon slowly placed the ring on her finger. He didn’t care what she had to say. He wanted to marry her more than anything.
“My boss said- what a minute. Let me make sure BJ can't hear. Call him for me.”
“Brandon Jr? Junior? Son? Nope, his headphones are on tight, and lil’ man is deep into Daffy Duck.”
“Good. Well, Sammy said a producer has been snooping around asking about me. He has seen my show three times this week and he likes what he sees.” Cherise had rehearsed this announcement over and over in her head but she hadn’t guessed that it would follow a marriage proposal.
“Of course dude does. You finer than Kim K. all day! My mocha Betty Boop.” Brandon kissed her cheek and Cherise had to stop herself from getting reeled in.
“Hold on Brandon, hear me out. Sammy says this guy thinks I have star power and potential. They want to put me in movies.”
“What kind'a movie?” Brandon leaned back.
“You know, the money making kind. Real money. The producer's name is Tony Blue from Rated NeXXXt Video. I've never seen Sammy so geeked about anything. He thinks he'll get some kind of finder's fee if I accept. I think the deal is hot. What do you think?”
“You already make more money that anybody down at Brown Sugar and you don't even have to do lap dances anymore.We moved out to the 'burbs like you wanted, got the house you wanted, the car you wanted. We doing good babe. I got construction jobs lined up and with the Mayor going all out on fixin' every pothole in LA I should be working good into next year. Why do we need more money?”
“Because I can't dance at Brown Sugar for the next ten years.” Cherise tensed her arms on the steering wheel. “They don't have a retirement plan for exotic dancers. And you can't do construction forever either. That jackhammer is already ripping your joints and muscles up. This movie money could pay us for a long time. We need to work smarter, not harder. The residuals from movies will pay us when we are old and gray, sitting in matching rocking chairs on the porch.”
Brandon was quiet for a bit as he rubbed his sore right shoulder. “So the PTA president is going to do porn?”
“It's not like that. It will be as tasteful as my show,” Cherise said in a soft voice. “And I am the Home Owner's Association president.” Cherise glanced at Brandon and began to rub his sore shoulder with her right hand. “I could be the next Jenna Jamieson or Pinky XXX. I already got some movie titles picked out. Cherry XXX or Cherrylicious or Cherry on Top. This could change our lives.”
“ I don't know...dancing is one thing. I know when I met you as a dancer, I was cool. I guess that’s because you always came home to me. If you do movies, then you’ll be in all kinds of dude’s homes. Cheri, I don't – look out!”
Cherise gripped the steering wheel as she hydroplaned through a stop sign. Her stomach seized and all her muscles tensed as she fought for control of the car. Everything seemed to slow down for three heartbeats then went into fast forward motion as she willed the German engineered vehicle to do its job. Her brakes screeched as the car swerved back and forth. For seconds it seemed like there was not enough air in the car and she couldn't breathe. Another car missed her by mere inches and she skidded to the curb.
“BJ, baby are you alright?” Breathless, Cherise got out of the car to check on her son in the back seat.
“What happened Mama?” His eyes were wide with fright.
“Just a little slip. It happens sometimes in the rain.” Satisfied that her child was safe. Cherise took a deep, calming breath, touched the handle three times and got back into the car.
“Do you want me to drive the rest of the way?” Brandon asked. He had broken out in a slight sweat. Cherise’s driving was similar to that of a hyper teenager.
“No, I got it,” Cherise laughed. “That was a close one.”
Cherise drove back to the street and made it onto the freeway. No one drove as if there was water on the road. Everyone was in the same imagined hurry.
“Look hun, I won't do this if you don't have my back. But I want to do this and I need your support. We are a team and I won’t ball hog just to be the MVP. This could be my one shot at big time money. I thought you would be happy for me, for us. Do you think you could put aside your doubt, have a little faith in me and just back me up?”
But Brandon never answered her question. The last thing Cherise remembers is seeing a red SUV brake suddenly in front of her. The sickening sound of metal and glass smashing and twisting. Then dead silence.
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