Willie and Hattie Bent only had two children. Lilian, "that pretty child with the bright eyes," and Forestine, "the big, thickset one with the nappy hair." In 1958, this was how neighbors in the Kings County projects referred to the Bent girls. Lilian, at nineteen, was petite with eyes a shade lighter than her deep-brown face. Church members commented on her grace and beauty. They admired her glossy, paper-bag curls and the way her poofy poodle skirt cinched a waist the size of a large man's fist. Forestine, on the other hand, was a year younger, three shades darker, and already over six feet tall.
"Sometimes I think a grizzly took me in the night and nine months later Forestine was born," Hattie would say to friends of her younger daughter.
No matter how much he loved her, Willie couldn't quite find the courage to come to Forestine's defense. She was the spitting image of him, and for a woman, that wasn't a very good thing. But he liked the way she laughed, especially about herself. He enjoyed how she would make up little songs and sing them just for him. Willie had recognized Forestine's gift for singing at an early age and always encouraged it.
The two were inseparable. At the end of working a full day as a doorman at the St. George Hotel, Willie would hang out with Forestine at old man Nick's apartment or Lester's Pub, where she'd stand in the back near the door watching the singers onstage, while Willie sat at the bar and got toasted. At dinnertime they'd climb into his car and she'd drive them both home.
One night, Phyllis Chubbs, a first-floor neighbor, had seen Forestine get out of the driver's seat and literally carry her father to the front door. Of course she called Hattie. Hattie decided not to raise hell right away. She'd wait until Willie's head was clear.
The next afternoon Hattie was straightening Lilian's hair in front of the stove. Forestine, trying to avoid her mother's glare, sat in the adjoining living room next to the window. Hattie had been unusually quiet most of the morning, and now her face was as hard and blank as a slab of concrete. She slammed the hot comb onto the jet and tiny flames rose up.
"You okay, Mama?" Lilian asked, pulling a fraying blue towel onto her shoulders to protect the collar of her cotton blouse.
"I'm fine," Hattie snipped.
Forestine could see by the way Hattie waved the smoking comb in the air that she wasn't fine. She could tell by the way her mother kept glancing at the closed bedroom door that she was waiting for Willie to come out. She yanked a patch of Lilian's hair and set the comb in it. Forestine could hear the sizzling of pomade.
"You sure you okay?" Lilian repeated as her head jerked back again.
"If folks do what the hell they supposed to be doin' 'round here," Hattie argued, "then maybe things be alright."
"What you do, Forestine?" Lilian asked.
Forestine continued to watch the late afternoon traffic pass through the fourth walk. Their apartment was on the third floor, so she could see straight down the walk in front of her building. Over the years she had witnessed muggings, teenagers feeling each other on the benches, fights, and drug exchanges of all sorts.
Just then, the bedroom door opened and Willie walked out. He was dressed for work in his navy uniform pants, his jacket slung over one shoulder.
"Mornin'," he mumbled.
"It's damn near evenin'," Hattie spat.
He went to the stove and filled a coffee cup. Usually Hattie would start in on him about what errands he had needed to do for her today or what he forgot to do yesterday, but instead, she just went about straightening Lilian's hair. Willie eyed her suspiciously.
"How long you been lettin' Forestine drive the car?" she asked calmly.
"Forestine drove the car?!" Lilian asked.
Willie turned away and shut his eyes. Forestine braced herself.
"I said, how long?" Hattie repeated.
"I don't know," Willie stuttered. "Couple years . . . maybe . . ." Then he quickly added, "But jes' a little ways."
"Are you out yo' mind," Hattie barked. "She ain't had license the first, ya damn drunk-up fool."
"Well," he halfway yelled back. "Leastwise she was big enough to reach the wheel."
Hattie cocked her head to the side and pursed her lips. "You know, Willie," she started, "there ain't no excuse for a man yo' age acting as stupid as that daughter of yours." She smeared thick grease on another section of Lilian's hair and gently pulled the smoking comb through.
"Forestine yo' daughter too," Willie said.
"Don't remind me." Hattie's insults were as common as the sun rising in the morning, and had been since Forestine was old enough to understand.
"I never have so much as a worry 'bout Lilian." Hattie placed the steel comb back on the flame and waited. "Lord know she don't give me a worry. But yo' daughter Forestine . . . did you know she cut two classes last week?" Willie shot Forestine a surprised look. "That's right," Hattie went on. "Runnin' 'round out there tryin' to sing something." Hattie grabbed the comb from the flame. The odor of singed hair permeated the whole apartment. "I tell you, Forestine, you got yo' priorities all messed up." She ran the comb through the section of frizzy hair. "Never did know what was important. Need to take yo' ass on to school, 'cause a girl look like you better have some sense."
Forestine leaned in toward the windowpane. She felt like she was crouching in a foxhole during an ambush.
"And she don't ever fix herself up none. Look just like a man." Hattie stopped talking to focus on pulling straight the small tight hairs around Lilian's ear. "Somebody ask me the other day how my son was doin'. I say, my what? Like to embarrass me to death. Runnin' in them streets and worse, goin' up there to see that nasty ole man . . ." Then like a staticky radio that finally clicked into a station, Hattie's words were crystal clear to Forestine. "Oh, I know 'bout that old man."
"Nick? What you know, woman?" Willie blustered.
"Seventy-some-odd years old and sniffin' after young girls like a dawg in heat. An old-ass dawg . . . hold yo' head down, sweetie . . . I tole you to stay away from that old man, Forestine. I heard things about him."
"The old man cain't even see," Willie mumbled. "How he gon' do something? 'Sides, Nick ain't big as a minute and Forestine beat the shit out of 'im if he try something."
"I heard things too," Lilian jumped in.
"All two of you ain't heard nothin' but yo' own voices," Willie said, waving them away.
Hattie wiped her hands on the towel hanging around Lilian's neck. She combed through the two sections of straight hair, stood back, and admired her work. "Always wished I had hair this long. Mostly wo' wigs when I was yo' age. But I had the body . . . Lord knows I had the body." She shook her head sadly. "That was years ago."
"Not so long ago, Mama," Lilian said.
"Been long as I can remember," Willie put in.
"Just get the hell outta here, ya fool," Hattie mumbled.
Willie slipped into his uniform jacket, but before walking out he shot Forestine a quick look. One that apologized for leaving her in the trenches alone.
"And you bring yo' ass straight in here tonight," Hattie went on. "Don't let me have to come lookin' for you."
She unclipped the next section of Lilian's hair and dotted grease in the scalp between the parts.
Hattie had always fashioned herself a woman of beauty. She came to Brooklyn in the forties from Pulpwood, Louisiana, with countless other colored folks. At just twenty, she started working at the Bushwick Cab Company as a dispatcher, but Hattie never saw herself as any kind of a career woman. Jobs were for men, and she'd only support herself until she found the right man. That wouldn't be long, because Hattie was a stone head-turner and enjoyed every glance her chestnut face afforded her. She was considered a whole package, with straight white teeth, pensive almond eyes, and lips naturally shaded like dark cherries. Her chest was small, but her other parts more than made up for it. Hattie felt no compunction about dropping her purse or hankie in front of a possible suitor so that she could turn, bend over, and reveal her true blessing from God.
There were plenty of men, but Hattie never considered any to be deserving, so she always held out for the next. It wasn't until she was twenty-five that a local player caught her attention. She was sitting at her usual table at the Night Owl, a Brooklyn social club, right beside one of the red paper lanterns that she tilted in such a way as to give her face a bit of mystery. The bar was in the opposite direction from where she sat, but men usually took the long way around, just to pass her.
His name was Searle Watson and he was a Brooklyn numbers man. He sported a high conk, and had a heart-shaped face and velvet black skin. Hattie knew right away that this was the man for her. He had money and was as pretty as she was. She quit her job at the cab company because Searle gave her everything she needed: clothes, jewelry, and a furnished apartment on Flatbush Avenue. She did without his time, his babies, and his name. Searle had let her know, from day one that these things already belonged to his wife. After a dozen years, though, Hattie needed more.
At thirty-seven, she left Searle Watson. With no husband, no family, and no home, she had to return to the cab company. Then came Willie Bent. Hattie and Willie Bent: a union that even God scratched his head over. Willie wasn't a singer, swinger, or numbers runner. He wasn't a tire salesman or even a butcher who could shower a woman in prime rib or pork butt. He wasn't any kind of a poet or preacher man; he never even went to church. In fact, at the time they met, he didn't have a job at all. He was tall and so thin that he looked fragile, but there was a tenderness in his eyes that Hattie had never seen in Searle Watson or any other man.
Hattie first heard of Willie Bent at the cab company. He'd tried to stiff a cabbie by making a dash for it after riding from Eastern Parkway to Willoughby Avenue. Cab number 862 had been headed down Ralph Avenue and saw number 477 in distress. The two drivers jumped from their cars and ran Willie down. They trussed him up, hands behind him, heels brushing the back of his thighs, and took him into the cab station, thinking this was the worm that had recently hit up some of the other drivers. Some cabbies had been cheated out of as much as a twenty-dollar meter. They called dispatch on their way in and told Hattie to round up as many of the drivers as she could find.
"Children, come on back to the bush," she droned into the radio. "Eight sixty-two wit' a weasel by the toe. Get back if you can."
They brought Willie in, his hair dented and his green polyester suit hanging from his shoulders like wilted lettuce. They untied his feet, then shoved him into an aluminum chair set beside the dispatch desk. Then one at a time the cabbies filed by and identified him as the little skunk who had stiffed them and run.
Hattie sat at the dispatch desk, cigarette in hand, smoke shimmying above her red wig. Folks who had never even filed a complaint pointed their fingers at this pathetic creature. She knew poor Willie would end up out in the back lot with a good old-fashioned Bushwick Cab Company ass-beating. Hattie phoned the police. She couldn't recall a time when someone in Bed-Stuy was happy to see the cops, but Willie cried tears of joy.
On the second day of Willie's stay in jail, Hattie went to see him. She wasn't a softhearted woman. Somehow, though, Willie and his pitiful self touched her. Maybe because she knew that he wasn't responsible for everything they accused him of, or because he had a sad face, or perhaps it was because Hattie was thirty-seven years old, lonely, and needed a man.
She sat at a long wooden table and waited for them to bring Willie out. She had gone to see Searle in jail when the numbers house was raided, but that place was different. Hattie had traveled all the way to New Jersey to visit with Searle behind clear glass. Here at the Twenty-seventh Precinct, prisoners were lead into an airy visiting room and allowed to sit right across the table from their family.
Hattie took a nervous breath and rested her hands on the wooden table. Her thumb dropped along the bottom, but she pulled it back quickly when she felt the wads of gum plastered underneath. The side door opened and Willie Bent came out. He wore that same green suit, only the jacket was unbuttoned down the front and his white undershirt soiled with tea-colored spots. He stood by the door with his hands shoved in his pockets, searching the table for a familiar face. He walked past Hattie twice before she called to him.
"You remember me?" she asked.
He moved a little closer, but didn't sit down. "JoMarie's sister-in-law?"
"No, I am not."
"You ain't no kin to JoMarie? Name is . . . ?" He leaned in a little closer. "Bev'ly . . . yeah Bev'ly. That's yo' name. Work up at the rib house, right?"
"No, I'm not no Beverly."
"Damn," he said, rubbing his stubby chin. "If you ain't JoMarie's sister-in-law then I don't know who you is." Hattie grabbed her purse to her chest and lowered her head. She had made a mistake. A desperate woman's mistake. "Whoever you is," he said, "you got the prettiest eyes the Lord ever made." Hattie looked up from her lap and saw the gentleness in his smile. He sat down across from her.
"I'm from the cab company," she said. He drew back. "No, wait," Hattie said. "I'm not here to hurt you. Just wanna know how you gettin' along."
Warily, he settled back into his seat. "Why you wanna see me, woman?" he asked.
Hattie nervously ran her fingertips over the chipped wooden table. "Them men at the cab company . . ." she started. "Sometime they like a pack of dawgs, you know. All one mind. Run together, do they business together, and Lord, don't let nobody drop a piece of meat." Willie chuckled, and Hattie laughed with him. "I believe that's what happened to you. Went at you like a raw steak. You prob'ly ain't done half the things they say you did."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Friday Night at Honeybee's by Andrea Smith. Copyright © 2003 by Andrea Smith. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.