An Urban Story

Margo Price played softly on the radio as Da’Shana and Carol talked about their weeks. “Another glass of Chardonnay?” Carol asked, her blue-green eyes widening, her voice carrying the “a” sound in that Georgia drawl that warmed Da’Shana.

“Please,” Da’Shana said softly, nodding. Carol’s left hand brushed Da’Shana’s black hair away from her face in the shadow of the dim light, and Da’Shana cringed.

“You’re a tease,” Carol said. But Da’Shana barely heard her. The image of her ex-husband’s square jaw with the jagged scar from an old bullet wound crossed her mind. Smooth-talking Rever, whose wide grin used to fill her up, might be driving the streets of North Avenue or establishing a presence on some East Baltimore Street in the hope that it would discourage Friday night crime. She had only made love once since she had left Rever two years ago, and that short romance had ended acrimoniously after her temporary lover had added himself to her Netflix and Spotify accounts.

“Where are you?” Carol asked, again touching the smooth skin of Da’Shana’s cheek.

“With you,” Da’Shana said wistfully, smiling and taking another sip of the Iceland wine. With you, she said again to herself wondering if she could do in real life what she had fantasized. Shania Twain now sang “Black Eyes, Blue Tears” in the background. The sweet melody seemed incongruous with the sour fear and anger that surged through Da’Shana. Carol leaned over and kissed Da’Shana softly on the lips.

“No,” Da’Shana said firmly and flatly. “I can’t.”

Carol looked disappointed. “I can’t,” Da’Shana repeated, more to herself than Carol. She couldn’t have a female lover. There were a million reasons. But recently, vivid images of imaginary sex with women had replaced those with her ex-husband.

“You can’t or you don’t want to?” Carol asked gruffly, tossing back a blond curl in her slightly sloping bangs.

“Let’s go out for dinner,” Da’Shana finally said after an awkward silence, giving Carol’s hand a soft rub. Da’Shana rose from the blue angel chair, and Carol started to call for reservations. “Dam, my cell phone is dead,” she said, looking at the blank screen.

“Use OpenTable. My laptop is on the kitchen table.” Da’Shana pointed toward the kitchen.

“Samika,” Da’Shana yelled into the shadow-filled upstairs hall as Carol walked into the kitchen. “Get ready. We’re going out for food.” The three ate pepperoni pizza and drank cokes at O’Brien’s Pub on nearby Charles Street, which occupied a corner lot that had seen many changes at the University of Baltimore. Five-foot six Samika bit off large bites of the greasy bread and cheese. The muscular boy who had twisted and teased his curly hair into dreads before dinner kept his eyes on the television behind the bar. Carol curled her nose, and Da’Shana guessed it was a reaction to Samika’s socks, which he had worn since football practice. The boy, although quiet, seemed troubled. He refused to look Da’Shana or Carol directly in the eyes.

The dark-paneled wood and cold ale of O’Brien’s reminded Da’Shana of her ex-husband. “Deals are made here,” he told her as they split a cheeseburger and drank Guinness Ale on a Friday night much like this one several years earlier. She needed Rever’s help with Samika. He had shown some influence over the boy before the divorce. Samika had loved looking at Rever’s gun collection during half-time breaks in Raven’s games on Da’Shana’s sister’s Sunday after-church visits.

An e-mail ping interrupted Da’Shana’s sigh, and she glanced at the message from Home Depot. She had not bought anything there since she and Rever had purchased a Reel push lawn mower two summers ago. It wasn’t until Carol left and Samika went up to his room that she opened it.

“Congratulations on your new Home Depot account,” it read. “You should get a written confirmation in the mail within eight to ten days.”

Confused, Da’Shana started preparing her Tuesday lesson plan. Twenty minutes and five pings later, she checked her e-mail again.

“Your change of address has been made,” one read from Baltimore First Bank. “If you did not make this request, please notify us by mail immediately.”

“Congratulations on your new Lowe’s account,” another read.

Lil Wayne’s “No Love” blared through the dark wood door to Samika’s bedroom door. Mid-song, Samika turned the music off. Still holding her phone, Da’Shana sipped the remaining white Panda from earlier in the evening alone in the kitchen. She had had a pleasant evening with Carol although Da’Shana knew Carol had wanted to spend the night. Da’Shana shook her head as she recalled Carol’s kiss. What would her Methodist parents say? She knew the answer and wondered if the intense desire she felt under the covers of her bed and anonymous safety of her mind was real or some manifestation of the stress from school.

She called Lowe’s, spent twenty minutes navigating the prompts, was switched to Synchrony Bank, the lender which financed the account, and tried a handful of push options before getting an after-hours message. Although hesitant to call Rever, she had no one else. Rever had been a selfish husband, an awful friend, and a less than adequate lover, but he had worked the fraud unit for a year.

“Call Experian,” he said in his typical baritone, which created the image of a black man much taller and stronger than he appeared in person.

“Tomorrow, call Synchrony Bank again, but file a police report first.” Rever gave Da’Shana the direct dial number to the Department’s cyber fraud unit. “You may also want to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission,” he added.

She scribbled the information on a sheet of notebook paper. “Who could have done this?”

“Shit, it could happen a number of ways.”

Da’Shana walked upstairs to Samika’s bedroom and peeked through the dark crack as he slept. T-shirts and dirty towels lay in cluttered piles. As she started to close the door, a shiny glimmer from a metal object shimmered briefly in the sliver of hallway light that penetrated the room’s darkness.
_____________

Saturday morning, Da’Shana ushered Detective Crumple into the small crowded kitchen at the back of her rowhouse. Samika slept. The smell of cooked pancakes lingered, and Da’Shana sought to control her fear as the memory of Carol’s kiss still burned. The Detective, a pleasant white middle-aged man with a thin smile and receding gray hairline, had invited her to keep him apprised of developments as she accumulated more information but seemed pessimistic about any real chance of catching the cybercrook. He told her the police report provided a case number for any future legal proceedings in which she may need to prove she had not opened or used the fraudulent accounts. The whole process with the detective only took about twenty minutes. Then, she called the bank again.

“Thank you for using Synchrony Bank,” the first message said. “Please enter your account number.”

“I don’t have an account number,” Da’Shana shouted into the phone. “Please give me an agent.”

“I am sorry. We did not understand that. Please enter your account number so we may serve you better.” The woman’s voice providing the message was even and unemotional. There was something foreign about the tone that heightened Da’Shana’s anger.

“Give me a fucking agent!” Da’Shana screamed and then pressed zero, placing a dirty plate into the sink.

“Da’Shana,” Samika called from upstairs.

“I’m on the phone,” she yelled. “In the kitchen.” Da’Shana put the notes from her conversation with Rever on the granite countertop as she heard the approach of Samika’s impatient stomping.

“Da’Shana, you got five dollars you can lend me?” Samika wore a faded jean jacket. A gold chain Da’Shana had never seen before hung around his neck under long dreadlocks.

“For what, Samika?” She pressed zero five times as she spoke to the fourteen-year-old, trying to disregard the recorded symphony music she heard on the call.

“I owe that nigga up the street five dollars.”

“Don’t speak to me with that ghetto talk. I’m your aunt, not your friend.”

“You’re doing too much. I knew you wouldn’t help me. I’m going to Tailor Avenue.” He said and turned suddenly like a rabbit.

“Maybe, if you asked me…” Da’Shana’s stern voice trailed off as her nephew disappeared through the faded, cracked front door onto St. Paul Street. Samika’s sadness and frustration bit into Da’Shana’s gut.

“This is Theresa, thank you for using Synchrony Bank,” the voice over the phone said suddenly.

“I don’t have an account number…”

“I need an account or social security number,” the faceless agent told Da’Shana.

Although worried about Samika, Da’Shana tried to focus. It had only been a month since Da’Shana’s sister had died. But Samika’s initial composure had broken badly. Da’Shana had learned not to permit defiance and disrespect in her classroom. She needed to take some action with the teenager.

“Da’Shana Skyson. My social is 098-66-3245,” she said into the receiver. “I’m the victim of identity theft. I don’t have a Synchrony Bank or Lowe’s account number.” As she spoke, Samika’s words from breakfast, “You’re not my mother,” floated into her consciousness. She made a fist with her left hand in an effort to stop it from trembling.

“I don’t see any account with that social security number,” Theresa said.

“Well, I don’t know how that’s possible. I’ve received notices about a fraudulent Lowe’s account and Synchrony Bank is identified as the lender on my credit report.” Salty tears slid from the corners of her bloodshot eyes. A hundred dollars. That’s what she saw. The number one hundred in the balance column of her checkbook. She didn’t have the time or money to deal with more debt, let alone fraudulent debt.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” Theresa said. “Without an account number or a social security number that matches the account, I won’t be able to help.”

Da’Shana disregarded the agent’s suggestion that Da’Shana call Lowe’s again and asked for a supervisor. Ten minutes later, after a conversation with Theresa’s supervisor, Da’Shana was switched to the bank’s commercial fraud department and discovered that a person had used her name, social security number, and a fake Georgia driver’s license to open a business line of credit in person at two Lowe’s Georgia stores near Atlanta.

Then, something Rever had said popped into her head. “That young woman I saw you with, the one with the short, wavy blond hair, how well do you know her?” At the time, Da’Shana had laughed at the irony of Rever talking about trust. But she now remembered that she had recently allowed Carol to use her computer, and Carol was from Georgia.

An hour later, amidst intruding memories of Carol’s fragrance, Da’Shana jotted notes to record her conversation with Annie in Synchrony Bank’s commercial fraud department. In a kind voice, Annie had told Da’Shana that Annie herself had been the victim of identity theft by someone who stole her medical information shortly after Annie had given birth to her second child. Annie collected Da’Shana’s personal information, including her address, telephone number, and social security number. Annie advised Da’Shana to contact the credit agencies to correct any inaccurate information, but she also asked Da’Shana to provide a copy of a utility bill and the police report. Da’Shana explained she had no easy access to a fax machine or scanner but would send them by certified mail.

Now, after 2:00 p.m., Da’Shana drove to the Dunkin Donut’s near University of Baltimore for an ice latte and glazed doughnut. She powered her phone off after seeing three e-mails from Home Depot and a voice message from Carol. Sitting at the white table waiting for her Saturday coffee, Da’Shana wiped muffin crumbs off the plastic surface and wondered where Samika had gone. She had not seen him in four hours and a strange ominous feeling crept over her, like the one she had had before discovering Rever in their bed with his white female bitch cop partner.

But feelings could be wrong. After all, she had trusted Carol.
__________

That night, Carol came over unannounced. “Do you want company?” Carol asked from the front stoop in the deep shadow of streetlight under a moonless sky. Her red cloth blouse and ripped blue jeans clung tightly to her petite, athletic body. Smiling, she shook her hair back and took a step toward the threshold.

“If I lied and said no, would you leave anyway?” Da’Shana asked, motioning with her left hand for Carol to enter. Da’Shana had intended on calling Carol anyway. She needed to confront her.

Carol walked into the plain living room where faded oak steps led to the second floor. “Sit.” Da’Shana commanded and gave the faded blue couch cushion next to her a hard pat. Carol stared into Da’Shana’s scrutiny.

“Honey, you look like you’ve had a bad….”

“Don’t.” Da’Shana interrupted harshly. “Don’t patronize me. Just tell me why me. Did you think I’d be an easy mark?” Rever had told Da’Shana how cyber crooks often select vulnerable victims.

“The overworked, busy tenth grade government teacher with her sister’s delinquent son…” Da’Shana continued, but she now barked sounds in a guttural shriek like a near-dead animal. “Tell me why. Tell me how?”

Carol just sat there, listening. Then, after a full two minutes of silence she put her Dasani bottle in her purse and walked to the hall closet to get her jacket. “I have no idea what you’re talking about you fucking paranoid bitch. We met at the library. You remember. It was a chance encounter. Until now, I thought it was a lucky one. What exactly do you think I’ve done?” She asked, as she pulled the jacket over her shoulders.

“You’re the only one who has had access to my computer.”

Just then, the phone rang. Da’Shana answered it instinctively. Carol shook her head in disgust and pulled the door open, letting a burst of street noise and garbage smell invade the living room.

“Don’t leave. I need…We need…” Da’Shana said, holding the phone to her chest. She motioned to Carol to sit as she replaced the phone to her ear.”

Da’Shana’s eyes widened. “What? When?” She said into the receiver.

Carol looked at Da’Shana questioningly.

After a few minutes of listening intently, Da’Shana said, “I don’t understand. Is he being charged?”

“Thank you Rever. No, I’ll come over and get him,” Da’Shana said several seconds later.

“What happened?” Carol asked.

“Samika was picked up by the police. But I really don’t know much.”

Carol tilted her head. “For what?” Carol’s understanding demeanor impressed Da’Shana given that Carol was twenty-four years younger and had no children of her own.

“Resisting arrest. I don’t know. He has had some real trauma recently,” Da’Shana added. “His mother, who had been his primary caretaker, died of a brain aneurysm.”

“Oh God, I’m so sorry, sweetie.” Carol placed her left hand softly on Da’Shana’s arm. “Was it expected?” Carol asked.

“No, very much unexpected. It happened after a car accident.” She did not volunteer the subsequent medical complications or the Hopkin’s ER doctor’s negligence.

Da’Shana also did not volunteer that Samika her half-white, half African American nephew still considered his mother’s death a murder. An eighteen-year-old University of Baltimore college student from Frostburg, Maryland had run a red light and rear-ended Samika’s mother’s old black Cadillac. The emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the renowned and competent Johns Hopkins, had released her, notwithstanding the small crack in the back of her cranium. A day later, a Saturday morning, after Samika’s mother’s headaches had become more intense and more frequent, the emergency room advised her during her follow-up visit to take Tylenol and see her primary care doctor. The next day, Sunday, October 10, 2018, Sha’nea Brown, a ten-year veteran of the Baltimore City Police Department, collapsed in her one-bedroom apartment. She died an hour later, shortly after arriving at Maryland General Hospital by ambulance.

Da’Shana slipped the cell phone into her tight black jeans and looked up at Carol. Before Da’Shana could say anything, Carol said, “I know you’ve got other things to worry about right now, but about those false credit card charges, maybe you should look closer to home.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Da’Shana snapped. A waft of cigarette smoke and urine penetrated the small entryway as Carol reopened the front door.

“For starters, maybe you should ask Samika where he got the gold chain with the crucifix and diamond earring. How does a fourteen-year-old without a job afford those things?”

Carol left frowning and hurriedly, and Da’Shana walked upstairs to Samika’s room feeling like someone had just punched her in the stomach. She saw nothing unusual. But later that night, while washing Samika’s clothes, she found a crumpled napkin with “O’Brien’s Pub” and “Thanks Samika. Glad it went well” scrawled on the faded paper. The dollar amount “$1,000” and a smiley face appeared below the barely legible note. She stuffed the napkin in her pocket. Like a cat, she crept quietly into Samika’s bedroom. Notwithstanding the clutter, it didn’t take Da’Shana long to discover the partially covered crucifix in the glint of the night light. She would continue searching for the diamond earing after picking up Samika.

Still thinking of Sha’nea, Da’Shana recalled Rever once saying, “She is a fucking clean cop.” At the time, Da’Shana had struggled to understand the slight anger in his inflection, ultimately attributing it to his frustration over Sha’nea’s cooperation with Internal Affairs about reports of his gambling.

During the fifteen-minute drive to Rever’s recently purchased Federal Hill rowhouse, Da’Shana wondered why everything she touched seemed to turn into shit. Her fifteen-year marriage had ended abruptly. Her high school teaching job now felt overwhelming and frustrating. Her sister lay dead. Da’Shana had no money. Now, her sister’s son was acting out, and Da’Shana was the victim of identity theft. She felt a familiar, stifling sense of low self-worth suffocate her.

The fifty-two-year-old tried to organize her thoughts as she walked up to Rever’s row house. She wanted to be clear about the expectations she had for Samika. At the same time, she knew how easy it was for a black boy to get arrested even if he hadn’t done anything wrong. As she tried to measure and select the words she wanted to say, she stepped inside and took a gasp. “Wow, new furniture.”

Rever smiled. Samika sat on a new blue sofa in front of a six by eight-foot flat-screen television.

“Is this oak?” Da’Shana asked, pointing toward the wood floor.

“Just refurbished,” Rever said.

“I love this, Rever.” Da’Shana sat on the sofa next to Samika and put her arm gently on his back. Samika’s tall body jerked away instantly.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened.”

Rever nodded toward Samika. This indication of control irritated Da’Shana.

“We was buying food at Royal Farm near Frederick Douglass where Dat lives.”

“Dat?”

“You don’t know him. We used to play ball together before his family moved to Edmondson Village.”

“Dat was laughing loud at some girls he knew and eating his chicken basket sitting on the curb, not doing nothing you know, and this police come up out a nowhere.”

“The cop asked his name. Dat answered him. But the cop was just pressed. Dat hadn’t been a wise guy or nothing, and the cop threw him against the pavement and told him to shut up.”

“Where were you?” Da’Shana asked. Rever walked from the railing near the steps to the kitchen.

“I was coming out of the store door.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing. The pig just threw me against the car, told me to put my hands behind my back, and cuffed me.”

Rever returned with bottles of cold water for Samika and Da’Shana.

“Did you act smart? What did you say?” Da’Shana felt exasperated.

“Nothing.”

“Samika.” Rever said deliberately in a low tone, slowly emphasizing each syllable of Samika’s name.

“I didn’t say nothing. I just asked what the cop was doing,” Samika said, raising his voice. After a moment of silence, Samika added, “I also said you can’t just arrest him for eating chicken.”

Da’Shana looked at Rever. “How did you find out about this?”

“I just happened to be in the station. Your nephew said his uncle was a policeman. When he told the station sergeant on duty, they paged me.”

When she turned back to speak to Samika, Da’Shana noticed the diamond earing. “Let’s go home,” she said to Samika abruptly. “We will talk about this further,” she said. As Da’Shana got up to leave, she remembered the napkin from O’Brien’s. “What’s this?” She asked Samika, pulling the torn paper from her jeans. Samika’s eyes widened, and he looked towards Rever’s ashen face.

Samika shrugged, and Rever looked down at his expensive new floor.

“Don’t play games with me, young man,” Da’Shana said to Samika in a scolding tone, pointing her index finger at him.

“It’s a napkin,” Samika said with a disrespectful laugh. Da’Shana recognized the rebellious tone.

“Why does it say a thousand dollars on it?” Da’Shana asked.

“Bust that bitch,” Samika said in a low voice under his breath.

“What did you say,” Da’Shana yelled incredulously.

“I didn’t say nothing,” the teenager replied with a straight face.

“Da’Shana, give the boy some slack here. He’s had a rough night.”

Da’Shana stared at Rever in disbelief. She hated that condescending attitude, which reminded her of why she and Rever no longer were married. “Let’s go,” she said to her nephew calmly, but sternly.

“Have a good night. Let me know if you need help,” Rever said, trying to recover the cordiality he and Da’Shana had shared earlier as he walked his ex-wife and Samika to the door. Da’Shana thanked him coldly, and as she did so she noticed for the first time a diamond earring in his left ear.

__________

“I’m sorry Carol,” Da’Shana said apologetically into her phone later that evening as she leaned against the refrigerator after Samika went up to his room for the night. She could hear “Toes” by DaBaby playing on Alexa behind Samika’s closed door. After telling Carol what she discovered, Carol agrees to come back to talk. Da’Shana met Carol on the front stoop. They stood for a moment in the drizzling rain. Then, walking inside hand-in-hand, the two women shared feelings for several hours. They woke together in Da’Shana’s queen-sized bed wrapped warmly in a black and white checkered comforter Rever’s mother had given Da’Shana.

“Let’s play this morning,” Carol said with a mischievous grin.

“I’ve got errands, honey,” Da’Shana said, wondering if Carol, meant play in bed or something else. Da’Shana also was starting to feel pressure to finish her lesson plans for the week. Then, she heard Samika downstairs. She jumped out of bed and into the hallway. “Samika,” she yelled.

“I’m going for wings,” he barked back.

“Samika, we need to talk….,” Da’Shana screamed, before hearing the door slam. She ran to the window in Samika’s room, looked out onto St. Paul street, and saw the boy’s black durag disappear as he stepped into Rever’s mud cached new black Mustang.

Doug Canter, a retired attorney, teaches World Literature at Western High School in Baltimore City. His writing has appeared in Hedge Apple Magazine, Evansville Review, Talking Writing, 20-Something Magazine, and Public Utilities Fortnightly, among others, as well as on Solstice Magazine’s Feature Blog. Doug received a Master of Arts in Non-Fiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. When he is not teaching English or writing, Doug is walking the local trails on the C&O Canal near the Potomac River.

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