Jermaine Banks sat on the side of the bathtub as his three-year-old-son, Khalil, played in the sudsy water with a green-and-white plastic boat. The boat was one of the few toys that remained from Jermaine’s own childhood. Khalil loved it and wouldn’t take a bath without it. As Jermaine watched his child’s carefree smile, he felt uneasy. He knew that, in order to keep that smile on his son’s face, he was going to have to make some drastic changes in his life. But how? He was almost thirty years old with only a high school education and absolutely no work experience. Just as he got lost in his thoughts he looked up to see his pregnant girlfriend, Erin, in the doorway.
“Are you guys almost done?” Erin whined, crossing her arms.
“We just got in, Erin. Give us a minute,” Jermaine said, shaking his head.
That girl wants everything on her time, he thought.
“I’m just checking, no need for the attitude,” Erin said as she turned and stomped down the stairs to the living room.
Jermaine shook his head again and went back to washing his son. For the most part he loved Erin and she was a good woman. She had her ways, but who didn’t? They had been together through a lot of thick and thin. Even when Jermaine had stepped out on her and got Khalil’s mother, Amani, pregnant while Erin was completing her undergraduate work at Morgan State University down in Baltimore. But then again, that forgiveness had come with a price, and now that Jermaine was trying to take a more active role in Khalil’s life, he was starting to notice that Erin was pretty ambivalent about her feelings toward his son. Sometimes she went overboard, trying to act as if Khalil were her best friend, like making sure he had a bedroom at her place, but whenever she was upset with Jermaine, her true feelings about Khalil surfaced.
The last few months had been pretty stressful for both of them: Erin getting used to the idea of being a real mom and Jermaine with the burden of becoming a daddy for the second time with no real plans for his future. Rightfully so, Jermaine seemed to be getting it the worst; it seemed as if every day someone was on his case about getting a real job and leaving his hustling days behind him. But just the thought of wearing one of those fast-food uniforms turned Jermaine’s stomach. As far as he was concerned, those kinds of jobs were for high school kids and grown-up losers. Plus, he didn’t see anything wrong with his current “job”—selling weed. As a matter of fact, he felt like he was doing Philadelphians a favor by providing a natural herb that helped folks calm the hell down.
“Jermaine. Jermaine,” Khalil called out, with his arms outstretched toward his father.
“What’s up, lil guy?”
“I’m ready to get out of the bathtub.”
“Okay.” Jermaine pulled the stopper and lifted his son onto the toilet seat. He toweled him dry, rubbed lotion all over his already soft skin, and helped him into his favorite Superman pajamas. The kind with the feet attached.
“You’re all set, my man.”
“Will you sleep with me?”
“Yep,” Khalil said with no shame.
“Man, how you gonna be a tough guy all day and a big baby at night?”
“I am tough.” Khalil flexed his muscles for his father to examine. “But I still want you to sleep with me. Please.” Khalil smiled.
Jermaine smiled too. He placed his hands on both sides of Khalil’s face and looked down at his son. Khalil looked like a miniature version of himself. They shared the same caramel complexion and the same big brown eyes. Khalil even wore his hair in cornrow braids like his father.
As Jermaine stared into his child’s eyes, he wondered if he had what it took to raise Khalil the way he deserved to be reared. An overwhelming fear came over him. Nothing else on God’s green earth scared him like letting his son down.
“Yeah, I guess I can lay down with you for a minute. But you know what? I want you to stop calling me Jermaine and call me Daddy. Is that a’ight with you?”
“Yep,” Khalil said, unaware of the powerful responsibility the word carried for his father.
Jermaine turned around and let Khalil jump on his back. He walked with him into his bedroom and laid him down on his bed.
“Jermaine, I mean Daddy. Miss Erin said I need to say my prayers.”
“And Miss Erin is right. Let’s do it.”
They both got down on their knees and thanked God for his blessings. Once they were done, Jermaine lay down beside his son, and before a good five minutes were up, Khalil was snoring. Jermaine eased out of the bed and made the dreaded trip downstairs to have the same old tired conversation with Erin.
“So is he off to sleep?” Erin asked as she reached for the remote control to turn the television off.
“Sure is,” Jermaine said, plopping down in the love seat across from her. “And I wish I could join him.” Jermaine sighed, rubbing his temples.
“You can join him but you’re going to have to face the truth about yourself one day, Jermaine.”
“What truth?” Jermaine asked wearily. “I already know the truth about me, Erin. I live it every day. But what I don’t need is for you to sit around all day figuring out ways to judge me.”
“Nobody’s judging you. But you need to get it together because we are having a baby and I’m not about to let you have my child around your drug-dealing friends while I’m at work. Now, you’ve let it be known that I can’t tell you what to do when it comes to Khalil, but that line won’t fly when the baby gets here because this child will be my responsibility.”
“Baby, baby, baby. That’s all you ever talk about. That and me turning into some kind of nerd. This pregnancy is still suspect.”
“Suspect? What is that suppose to mean?”
“All of a sudden Erin just has to have a baby. For the life of me I can’t understand why you feel like you need to compete with Amani.”
“Compete with Amani?” Erin frowned. “Please! Trust me when I say that hood rat is no competition for me.”
“Look at you. Always putting yourself up on some pedestal. If you were as high and mighty as you think you are, you wouldn’t be trying to trap me with a baby.”
Erin started laughing. Laughing so hard she had to hold her side.
“You must’ve fell and bumped your head. Jermaine, what is there about you that would make me want to trap you? You don’t have a job. You got major baby-momma drama and there’s a new police report out on you every month. Please! Now you need to come down off of your pedestal. If there’s anybody that should be doing the trapping it’s you.”
“You crazy! Your family’s got you thinking you’re some kind of prize.”
“Here we go,” Erin said, huffing, leaning back against the sofa with her arms crossed.
“That’s right, here we go. You didn’t have a problem with where my money was coming from when it was paying for those expensive books that you needed for your bachelor’s and your master’s, which you only got so your mother could brag to her corny-ass friends, but that’s another subject.”
“Leave my mother out of this,” Erin shot back.
“Whatever,” Jermaine said, knowing how sensitive Erin was about her family. “Let’s talk about that new car that you had to have, that brand-new Acura TL that my dirty money paid for, or what about when that dirty money paid your rent and all your other bills for two whole years so you could concentrate on school? But now you’re straight and I’m the bad guy.”
“I never told you or encouraged you to sell one dime bag. As a matter of fact, I begged you to stop and get a real job.”
“Yeah, after you got everything you needed. Damn hypocrite!”
“That still doesn’t change the fact that you need a job. And I can do without the name-calling.”
“What kind of job do you want me to get? You want me to throw on a suit and tie and head down to Center City and walk up in one of those high-rises? Maybe then I’ll be good enough for you, huh? You don’t have a problem spending my dough but you got a problem with where it comes from.”
“You know what, Jermaine? You are right. I didn’t always have a problem with how you made your money, but I’ve grown up and you haven’t. When are you going to grow up? You’re still doing the same things you did when we were in high school. The only difference is you went from misdemeanors to felonies.”
“So now I gotta operate on your schedule?”
“Just get a life,” Erin said with a dismissive wave of her hand. She pushed the button on the remote control, letting Jermaine know that their conversation was over.
“You self-centered, arrogant bitch,” Jermaine growled.
Erin’s eyes widened and her creamy light face turned red as an apple. As thugged out as Jermaine was, he had never used profanity around her, never mind calling her that word.
She stood and screamed, “Get out of my house! Get your child and get out of my house!” Erin pointed toward the door.
Jermaine jumped to his feet and ran upstairs. He couldn’t have thought of a better idea for the both of them, because at this point his blood was boiling and he couldn’t stand the sight of Erin one more minute. He felt used and betrayed by the one woman he thought had his back. He knew he had his issues but she wasn’t the one to talk. Here was a woman who wouldn’t know how to cross the street if her mother didn’t tell her, trying to tell him how to live his life. He raced into the room where Khalil was sleeping peacefully and quickly gathered his son and all of his belongings.
“Where we going?” Khalil asked sleepily.
“Go back to sleep, man.”
He raced back downstairs and slightly bumped Erin as he passed her. She exaggeratedly grabbed her shoulder, acting like it was broken.
“Bye, Miss Erin.” Khalil waved as his father carried him out to the street.
Erin sucked her teeth, rolled her eyes, and looked away.
Twenty minutes later, Jermaine parked his black BMW X5 on the street in front of his mother’s row house and turned off the ignition. But before he could open his door there was a huge crash and broken glass went flying everywhere. Startled, he ducked down to avoid being hit by whatever else might be coming.
“Get outta this truck,” an angry man’s voice growled as he reached into the now open window, unlocked and opened the door. He grabbed Jermaine and pulled him to his feet, pushing a gun in his face. “I oughta kill yo’ black ass right here, right now,” the man growled.
The sound of the glass breaking woke Khalil, who had been sleeping peacefully in the backseat, and he let the entire neighborhood know of his displeasure by crying at the top of his lungs.
Once Jermaine got his bearings, he focused on the face in front of him. The bloodshot eyes, the dark skin with a mole on the tip of a pointed nose, and the eighties-style Jheri curl belonged to none other than Roscoe Jones, Erin’s father. The hate subsided a little in Roscoe’s red eyes when he heard Khalil’s cries.
“You trynna make my baby girl have a miscarriage?” Roscoe whispered in a furious tone.
Slap! Punch! Slap!
“Man,” Jermaine said, doubling over in pain. “What’s your damn problem?”
“Didn’t I tell you the next time you made my baby girl cry, I was gonna kill ya? You don’t upset nobody that’s pregnant. Babies come out all deformed and shit. Now take that boy in the house and come right back out here.”
Jermaine touched his lip and looked at the blood on his hand. “Roscoe, have you lost your mind?”
Slap! “I told you to take that child in the house and bring yo’ ass back.” Slap! “I ain’t playing wit’ you,” Roscoe said as he put his police-issue gun back into its holster.
Jermaine closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. I don’t believe this broke-lookin’ Barry White out here beating my ass, he thought.
Jermaine walked around his truck and unbuckled Khalil from his car seat. He picked up his son and placed him on his shoulder, which was enough to quiet him.
“Hurry up, son. I ain’t got all night,” Roscoe said in his country accent, leaning against the hood of Jermaine’s SUV.
Jermaine walked into his mother’s house and sat Khalil down on the sofa.
“What’s going on? Why is the police out there?” Nanette “Nettie” Banks asked her son, turning away from a rerun of Sanford and Son. “And why is your lip bleeding?”
“That’s Roscoe,” Jermaine said, trying to downplay the incident.
“Wait a minute. Roscoe hit you?” Without waiting on an answer Nettie went into a rage. “I don’t play nobody puttin’ they hands on my child. Who in the hell does Roscoe think he is?” Nettie hurried toward the kitchen, no doubt going for her gun. “I’ll show that mother—”
“Hold up, Mom,” Jermaine said, grabbing his mother’s arm to stop her. He knew he had to come clean with his mother or in a matter of minutes Roscoe would be lying on his stomach in the back of an ambulance as the paramedics tried to remove a few .32-caliber slugs from his gluteus maximus. “Erin’s pregnant. That’s why he’s tripping.”
“Pregnant?” Mrs. Banks yelled, then reared back and planted one across Jermaine’s face.
Jermaine held his face and frowned. Man, what is this? Slap the shit outta Jermaine day?
“Boy, what is your problem? You barely can take care of this one here with his cute self.” Nettie alternated from ranting to calm just as she always did when Khalil was around. “I’m getting too old to be takin’ care of babies all the time.”
“Who said you had to take care of my kids?” Jermaine said, still holding his face.
“Who else is going to take care of ’em, Jermaine? Not you. I know how you make your money. You ain’t slick. Selling drugs ain’t all that dependable, you know? And what makes you think you can get away forever doing something illegal? You need to stop being so damn lazy and get a job.”
Here we go again, Jermaine thought.
“You’ve been getting slaps on the wrist all your life but one day one of those judges is going to put your butt in the penitentiary and I ain’t sending you shit,” Nettie said.
Jermaine ignored his mother just as he did every time she tried one of her scared-straight tactics. “Erin said she was on the pill.”
“Oh, so it’s Erin’s fault, huh? How far along is she?”
“About three months, I guess.”
“Three months?” Nettie yelled. “And when were you going to tell me? When the lil fucka graduated from pre-K?”
“Why you gotta cuss so much?”
“Why you gotta be trifling? Go on back outside. I should come out there and help Roscoe slap some sense into you.”
Jermaine looked at his mother. “Mom, I’mma grown man and you’re gonna have to figure out another way to get your point across besides hitting me,” he said before walking back outside.
“Well, start acting like one then,” Nettie said to her son, slamming her front door as he trotted down the steps and out toward the street.
Jermaine walked up to Roscoe, who was sitting on the hood of his truck smoking a cigar.
“Why you get my daughter pregnant without consulting me?” Roscoe asked as Jermaine walked up.
“Huh?” Jermaine frowned at the awkward question.
“You heard me, damn it. And don’t make me get up again, cuz I’m tired. I been arresting lil niggas like you all night,” Roscoe said, shifting his weight to face Jermaine. “People ask fathers for their daughters’ hands in marriage but nobody ask if they can get ’em pregnant. And that’s ass backwards if you ask me. You can get a divorce and go on about your business but when a child is involved, ain’t no going on about your life. Now, why didn’t you ask me before you went and did the nasty with my daughter?”
“What do you want me to say, Roscoe? Me and Erin been together forever, you didn’t think we were having sex?”
Roscoe raised his eyebrows and looked as if he’d seen a ghost. “Hell no! Y’all ain’t married.”
“Come on, Roscoe. As much as you wanna think Erin is a little angel, she’s still human,” Jermaine said as he walked over beside Roscoe and leaned on the hood. They had never been friends. As a matter of fact, they didn’t like each other at all; they simply tolerated each other for Erin’s sake.
“Jermaine, you know I don’t like you. I can’t stand yo’ lil skinny ass. You ain’t no good for my daughter. You ain’t no good for black people in general. When white folks look at us, they think every one of us is like you.”
“Roscoe, I couldn’t care less what white people think about me.”
“Ya see, that’s why you ain’t got nuttin’ now. White people got all the power, boy, and to get a little bit you got to know how to deal with ’em. See, you’re a part of that new dumb generation.”
“And you are a part of that step-and-fetch-it generation.”
“Shut up and listen. Some good people died just so you could have some opportunities in life, but do your ignorant ass take advantage of it? Nah. You and your little wanna-be gangster friends run around here trying y’all best to screw things up worst than they were before.”
“Oh, you think so?” Jermaine said, not trying to hear the sermon.
“I know so. Did you know that as a black man, I’m more likely to die at the hands of a nigga than any other natural force in this world? Tornadoes, hurricanes, any of that shit! I’m about nigga’d out.”
Jermaine wanted to laugh at Roscoe but the more he thought about it, the more he realized that Roscoe was right. Every act of violence that he ever witnessed or participated in involved another black face.
“When was the last time you had a job?”
“That’s not your business,” Jermaine said defiantly.
“I’m making it my business. And you need to get a haircut.”
“Roscoe, how you figure you can come over here breaking windows, throwing punches, and demanding haircuts? You got some weed in that cigar?”
“I love my wife,” Roscoe said, ignoring Jermaine. “I really do. But I was the worst thing that could’ve ever happened to her. I wasn’t worth a dirty nickel. Still ain’t much better than I used to be. But she saw something in me and it screwed up her whole life. Before me, she was on the fast track to success. She was in her first year of law school and doing just fine for herself but then here I come trynna get some and she’s never been the same. You see what I’m getting at?”
“You screwing up my daughter’s life,” Roscoe yelled.
“How you figure?” Jermaine responded calmly. He was getting used to Roscoe’s rants.
“Cuz you ain’t worth a damn! But you’ll learn. Cuz you’re taking care of Erin and that baby. Now, I got a friend who’ll hire you at his car dealership. I already set everything up, all you have to do is go—”
“Hold up! Stop! I haven’t said a thing about working at no car dealership. I’m my own man and I can get my own job.”
“Either you can take your ass up there and try to make a legitimate buck or I’ll have one of my men bust you every time you set a foot on the street. And I’m not mentioning what I’mma do to ya.”
“Roscoe, I don’t know what makes you think you can handle me like your child, but you need to stop pushing your luck. I’m really trynna to be respectful here because I don’t let people put their hands on me.”
“Jermaine, shut up.”
“Okay, but you better act like you know.”
“I don’t better nothing but stay black and pay my taxes. Now, before you went and violated my daughter, I could ignore you and just hope you went away. Lord knows I prayed you would go away, but since you done welcomed yourself into my family, I gotta make sure you live a straight-and-narrow life cuz I don’t want my grandchild around any foolishness.”
“I guess you got it all figured out, Roscoe,” Jermaine said. He knew there was no use arguing with Erin’s father. He stood and walked over to the driver’s side of his car. “Man, why you break my window?”
Roscoe stood and walked around to survey the damage. “You lucky I didn’t break my foot off in yo’ ass.”
“Roscoe, you used up all of your hit-me-free cards. You raise your hands up again and I’mma knock yo’ ass out,” Jermaine said with a steely intensity that made Roscoe think twice about how old he really was.
“Okay, tough guy. Use some of your dope money to get your window fixed,” Roscoe said as he walked over to his police car. He opened the driver’s-side door and sat down, which caused the entire car to tilt to one side.
Who hired him as a police officer? You can walk and outrun him, Jermaine thought. And how does everybody know I sell weed? I guess I do need to get a job.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Trouble Man by Travis Hunter. Copyright © 2003 by Travis Hunter. Excerpted by permission of One World/Strivers Row, 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.