Joyland

The South |

Romeo No. 3

by Selena Anderson

Robert don’t need no help pulling girls, now. But when the Dream Date came to Burrell for its Hometown Hunks series, I just had to jump at my chance. See, I’m the type of brother that’s always taking chances. Be it quitting school to become an entrepreneur—because I’m going to have my own business one day—or be it quitting my job at the Dyimond Burger because I found it stifling to my social life. Once I let that be known, Vernecia who stay at the Dyimond Burger and will probably drop dead behind the cash register, way she carries on, she replied, “What social life?” Hardy-har-har-har. What’s funny is the number of milkshakes that girl pours per hour. I watch her taking orders with her head cocked to the side like, You been talking to me this whole time? And mopping through the hook at closing because they short on account of me and she’s steady telling me how she just can’t see it: me, that is, doing much more than the Dyimond Burger. Vernecia was at Baylor for three semesters before her mama passed and she thinks she the only one around here that can do something.

Fact is, the girl’s a naysayer. My own daddy is a naysayer too. But I have what they call an entrepreneurial spirit. And once I become a ladies' man and an entrepreneur, they’ll have to complain to somebody else. I was in the midst of telling Vernecia that when outside the front windows, the Dream Date rig pulled up South Main. That’d be the stretch of road between the restaurant and the high school, the same road that for two hundred years has only been there to guide you from one side of cow country to the other side of some more cow country. But picture my calling the way I seen it: the words Dream Date in Coca-Cola letters and “Got what it takes to be a Romeo?” in glittering gold underneath. Robert said, Sure thing. I could be a Romeo. I’m telling you, brother, it didn’t take me more than one second to figure out what to do.

Casting call fell on a Tuesday but the line outside the rec center wasn’t near as long as you’d expect. Pretty soon I was in the green room with the matchmaker: a black lady about the age of an older sister, wearing a long skirt like something from a bargain bin, and a t-shirt that showed the solar system (of course, those magumbos threw off the scale). Behind her glasses, her eyes looked like tiny pound signs on a keyboard.

She kept on blinking them as she said, “You must be kidding.”

I said, “I’m Robert.”

“But you want to be a Romeo,” said the matchmaker and with her clipboard, she motioned for me to sit.

She went on to say that the Dream Date was running out of ideas and she shouldn’t have to deal with the gimmicks. “I’m a fifth generation matchmaker,” she said shaking her head.

But then I told her about how I possessed the unique combination of having entrepreneurial spirit and being a ladies' man. “Everybody can’t have that,” I said. “Everybody can’t be special. And ain’t that what you’re looking for? Special people. Just put me on that stage and let me show you—you and everyone.”

Well, who could say no to that? The matchmaker gave me a hard look. “Why not? I hereby declare you Romeo Number Three,” she said doing some gesture like I seen the Pope do. Then she lay back in a big show of relaxation. “Hell. This my last day anyway.”

I made it home just in time to catch my daddy on his way to the packing plant. Once I told him the good news, that I was going to be a Romeo and was well on my way to becoming somebody special, he started in with the jokes.

“So you ain’t going to be the people’s lawyer no more?” He wiggled into a corduroy blazer with the patches on the elbows. He don’t do nothing but drive a fork lift and he got a uniform at work, but he has to leave the house in his corduroy blazer. “You ain’t going to get us our repartitions?”

“Said reparations.”

But Robert Sr. don’t be listening. Not to me. “Who’s going to represent me when the man comes?” he said. “Who’s going to look out for the little guy?” Robert Sr. got jokes for days, but that’s okay because the next time I figure out what I want to be in this life, he ain’t going to know nothing about it.

So then I went across town to the Dyimond Burger where my girl Vernecia is standing by the window, arms crossed, like she’s just daring somebody to come in before she flips over that open sign. She let me have a sausage biscuit, a quart of chocolate milk, and some hash browns, all for free. I tried to tell her without sounding corny that I didn’t want to spend the better part of my life here, here as in Burrell. But she cops an attitude, and said, “But you are here. Even though you say you quit.” And what can I say? She was right. That’s when I told her I was going to be a Romeo, I even rolled the R, but she just sit there watching the front entrance. About ten o’clock in the morning, the restaurant was deserted and I started to doze off on my seat.

On the stage in the rec center the other Romeos sat at their stools like two trained bears in a circus. The host introduced Romeo #1 as Chauncey Lyles, a double Howard brother with edged up dreads and loafers with pink socks. He graduated from Burrell High School and had elected to come back home to bring up other kids who showed promise, just like he had. Aaaw! After everybody got to listen to his philosophizing-preaching-blah-blah-blah, next up was Romeo #2 was Bo Johnson Jr., a dude who’s daddy owned the packing plant that employs most people in town. I couldn’t say much about Johnson Jr., except he was the only Romeo to be wearing a tuxedo. He kept shimmying his shoulders like he was really feeling that tuxedo. You’d think as the son of a factory owner he’d be used to wearing a tuxedo.

Then the host introduced me, so I sat up, adjusted my tie, and tried to smile past the lights and at anyone out there. It was funny. I knew all of the folks in the audience who was watching me. I couldn’t see them for the lights. But I smiled anyway. What’s that all about? Smiling like that when you can’t see who or what it’s even for? “Ladies and gentlemen,” said the host, “please welcome Robert F. Brinkley.” Some cheered: the librarian and that old crazy dude that’s always hanging outside the gas station telling folks to stay in school and learn as much as you can. And of course there was Vernecia too whose hog calling sets my ears on fire. But the rest of them just sit there, licking they teeth, watching me sit up there smiling. I’m telling you man, Burrell ain’t nothing but a town of naysayers.

When they brought Keri Michaels to the other side of the partition, everybody just about lost they mind. You couldn’t see her from where I was sitting, just the other prizes: a little German convertible for the winner, and for the losers: a supply of Azteca Hot Chocolate, frozen packages of grass fed beef, and some really uptown luggage. Everything but the car was set on boxes of different sizes, all of them covered in gray carpet. I mean, it was really uptown. The crowd was flipping out for Keri Michaels. She couldn’t say more than thank you and giggle before they started hollering again. It sounds dumb but all of a sudden, her voice hesitating in the microphone, that’s how I felt. Embarrassed but eating it up anyway. Hearing her and realizing this embarrassed me to the point of getting scared. I was sort of scared to lose.

The game got started. Keri Michaels asked her first question: “Romeo #2, If I were to get fresh with you on our first date, how would you react?”

“I’m a gentleman, baby,” Johnson Jr. said. “Girlie get fresh with me, I’m fit to get sour.”

“Oh, we don’t want that,” Keri said through the applause. But you could tell she was feeling that cornball, the way she dragged out the words “well” and “that.” And Johnson Jr.’s just steady doing his shoulders. “Romeo #1,” she said, “the same question.”

The pink socked brother ran his hands through his dreads. “Some men,” he said to Keri Michaels while looking at me and Johnson Jr., “consider it soft to advocate for women’s rights blah-blah-blah thinking—or unthinking, rather—that they don’t apply to you, but it’s quite the opposite, because by co-signing in silence, you actually subjugate a woman’s sexuality blah-blah, re-affirm the very roles that have been dictated to you blah-blah-blah, and ultimately facilitate the exact oppression you claim to want to escape.” Some of the girls clapped, even if they didn’t know what the hell he meant. The host thanked Mr. Lyles for that thoughtful, lame response.

“Romeo number three. If you asked me how I’d changed in the last few years, I might have to write a book. If I asked you, ‘How have you changed?’ what would you tell me?”

What would I tell her? I couldn’t think. I kept seeing Vernecia one hand mopping the floor of the Dyimond Burger. Then Robert Sr. telling me that once I become a doctor, the folks I set out the save won’t come to me. I thought I’d have a lot to say if someone just asked me the right questions, and now I felt silly to think anybody would want to listen to me in the first place. The lights and people were watching me. Finally, I said, “I don’t know.”

Silence for a moment. Keri Michaels asked the host, “Should I ask him another question?” Silence again. Then she cleared her throat (smiled) and said, “Romeo #2, if I were to pay you a dollar for how many kisses you’ve given other girls, where could you afford to take me on our date?”

Johnson Jr. sat forward, smiling and rubbing his hands together because he just knows he’s about to say something clever. “Well, we can go to Beirut, Bahrain. Iraq, Iran. We can go to the coliseum, baby—if you paying.” Everyone laughs—including Keri and the host. I can never think of something clever.

Then she lets Chauncey Lyles lecture about the dangers of false dichotomies in politics and journalism and Johnson Jr. says something really slick that makes the crowd goes off. Even that flickted host laughs into the mic—which he ain’t supposed to do. And it sets in that Keri Michaels ain’t asking me anymore questions. I set there thinking about that, watching that convertible that wasn’t going nowhere and the little ice patches melting off the packages of beef.

Then Keri Michaels calls my name. But not my real name. “Romeo number three” she says like that patient teacher who hasn’t given up on the kids. The other guys turn and look, but I ain’t studying them. Out the corner of my eye I see myself in the monitor, gulping and sweating, and looking away from myself. “If you ruled the world,” asks Keri Michaels, “which activity would you make our international pastime?”

Well, the answer’s simple. Everybody knows the answer to that. But again, I can’t say nothing. Not for seeing my big face in the monitor. So I smile. And the sound guys up there, they have a lot of fun this time. They fill the whole stage up with the type of music that plays after the death of a really lovable cartoon character. And I’m just smiling, like I could be loveable. For real.

Chauncey Lyles gets the same question and he’s quick to answer what I meant to, but in his way. “Love,” he said. Stole the word right out of my guts. “Love is the only pastime worth celebrating.” Then he winked at me. That was the worst part. Like being awake when they lower you into the ground. I mean, I could see what the dude thought of me and at the same time what was happening to me. And I’m just smiling, cause my face is stuck.

“That’s deep,” said the host. But someone’s got to be that way, because like they say, the show must go on.

“Romeo #2,” Keri said, “I go to the beach a lot and I have fun on the surf and in the sand. Where would I have the most fun with you?”

“Baby, be easy,” said Johnson Jr. “This a family show.”

Everybody eats that up. But I was sitting there waiting for them to get back to me when it started to become clear they weren’t going to get back to me.

“Romeo #2,” said Keri Michaels, “when do you think it’s smart to play it dumb with a

guy?”

But at that point I didn’t even hear what the lame said back, I was so mad. They was ignoring me. That much was clear. I said, “I think you playing it dumb right now, Ms. Michaels, if you don’t pick me.”

Then the host announced that time was up and he sounded so sorry about it too. Standing up I said, “Sure you right, time’s up.” I just wanted to get the hell out from around them mark ass marks. That’s what I called them too. “Fat heads! Lames! Lames!” They just laughed, except for the three I mentioned. The librarian grabbed at her cross, the old crazy smiled with his advice having ass. And Vernecia was just steady cheering in a way that don’t make sense anymore. I just wanted out of there, like I been saying. I pushed at the Dream Date wall though it didn’t budge and Johnson Jr.’s still on that mack-shit saying, “Be easy, baby.”

As I was leaving the rec I kept thinking if Keri Michaels just sees my face, she’ll be sorry. If she just sees my face. But she just gave me that lame look and edged closer to the host, that lame. He was still holding his old stupid, skinny-looking microphone with the fuzzy olive on top. I wanted to eat that microphone.

I saw all the prizes again and something came down and took root in me, right in the gut, something went to the middle of me. I took the Azteca Hot Chocolate and the frozen beef that were rightfully mine. I couldn’t move fast enough or get enough boxes, you see, because I was getting what was mine.

That’s when the host said, “I believe we are being robbed.”

Seeing me Keri Michaels took the stance like a girl on a movie poster that’s likely to faint because she’s come face to face with the monster. Her face was beautiful—almost geometric. Angled baby hairs, a sharp cupid’s bow on her mouth, eyebrows crashing together as she sized me up. What can I say? It was the kind of look that made you realize you were stealing hot chocolate and frozen beef.

Finally, it was like Keri Michaels had looked at me enough. She said, like she was suddenly very tired, “Oh, let him have it.” Sure enough that was pity in her voice. But Robert don’t need nobody’s pity. I went on grabbing and dropping boxes, trying to get what was mine. And then—now brother you won’t believe this—they sicked security on me.

So Robert keeps it moving. Dream Date ain’t the only game in town. The world is wide as they say, but give old Robert some time and he’ll be all over it.

That’s when I hear a girl’s voice hollering, “You don’t want your luggage? Say, Robert! You don’t want your luggage?” When I turn, it’s Vernecia. I can’t tell if she’s being nasty or if she’s still rooting for me, but she keeps on hollering. “Say, Robert! Man, get your luggage!”