Another Friday had arrived with a grinding stop. Jamal strolled into the den, tossed his wallet and cell on the coffee table and dropped on the couch. He closed his eyes, gently rubbing out the sting of exhaustion as his mind began to drift. Between school, the internship and Leila, everything was an unsettling blur. That didn't bother him. Normally he felt good after a hectic pace, much like the mellow burn in his muscles after a good workout. That night he felt like a stalled car at an empty crossroads -- and didn't know why. Although he had his logical suspicions, he didn’t want to face them at the moment.
The front door slammed, followed by the familiar jingling keys and soft-soled shoes echoing down the hall. Jamal's father walked into the den, mumbled his usual "Hey, boy" then eased himself into his Lazy-Boy chair.
Jamal peeked between his fingers. "Pops must've had a rough one", he thought. When Mr. Washington didn't bother to hit the kitchen, come into the den with a plate and turn on EPSN before sitting down, it was the sign of a hard day. Acting on instinct, he did what he always used to do as a child. He picked up the remote and handed it to him, a simple gesture that always kept the peace.
"It's Friday night and you're home," Mr. Washington said deliberately slow. "What's goin' on?"
Jamal shrugged, still not sure how to deal with his situation. "Just tired, that's all."
Mr. Washington chuckled as he flipped idly through the channels. He sensed that there was something weighing heavy on Jamal's brow. "What you know about being tired at your age?" he said, followed with his time-worn 'When I was your age' tales about things like single-handedly delivering refrigerators up flights of stairs and how he had to fight off eight Puerto Ricans and a silverback gorilla to get his job at the Transit Authority.
Jamal cut him off. "I dunno Pops, I can't call it. Just stress I guess, aight?"
"That reminds me -- how's your internship workin' out?"
"It's aight…. just not what I thought it would be." Jamal began to explain. When he first landed the internship he knew his career was about to launch, ignited by the chance to flex his know-how in real world situations. No more essay solutions to lame scenarios that came from textbooks or websites -- it was only a matter of time before he was top draft pick among the corporate MVPs. He could already see a brass nameplate beside his office door and access to reserved parking in the garage.
"I did all that scramblin' to get in just to become a gopher in a shirt and tie. Stuff envelopes. Change out the water cooler jug. Pick up lunch. The most challenging thing I did all week was drop off some paperwork uptown at the Harlem Hospital."
Mr. Washington adjusted his seat and leaned forward as if he didn't want Jamal to miss a word. "Listen, most kids your age would kill just to be where you're at right now. Why you whining and complaining?"
Beneath convenient cover, Jamal rolled his eyes. A familiar fire swelled inside him that usually followed with a loud argument. Part of him didn't feel like hearing more of the old man’s rambling stories; most of which usually conjured some sort of condemnation of youth that began with 'The problem with you kids is--'. Jamal already knew how the lecture would go. Although he'd never admit this, sometimes he secretly yearned for it. "Why I always gotta be complaining?"
Mr. Washington placed the remote on the armrest. "Maybe because you are?"
As Mr. Washington began to talk about how spoiled this younger generation is, Jamal's thoughts drifted back a few hours earlier. He was in the copy room stacking stationary on the shelves when Leslie walked in, asking where he had been hiding out all week. He responded with a series of convenient excuses about class projects. She leaned close to tell him about a gathering that night at MoBays, inviting him to catch a jazz quartet and meet some of her colleagues. The delicate scent of fresh Sandalwood and J’Adore perfume overtook his nostrils; even with the hints of smile lines and crows feet she was still incredibly hot, especially after one of her afternoon trips to the gym and a shower. Although it reminded him of his last close encounter with her when he began to stir inside his boxers, that time was different – this felt like a date, her advance was more direct and there was no easy way out. A feral gleam flashed in her eyes as if she had him figured out, sensing excited curiosity beneath that coy schoolboy respect for his elders. Just then another intern walked in with a full mail bin. Leslie's attention switched to the shelves as she casually moved away. He pulled out his phone as if it was on vibrate, stared at it for a second then excused himself from the room. On his way home, he thought about her offer and pondered what to tell her on Monday as to why he didn’t come. Although he didn’t have anything close to MoBays money, somehow he knew that if he met her there that wouldn’t have mattered.
Amidst the quiet reflection during his father’s aimless tirade, Jamal realized that he had been looking at the situation all backwards. He hadn't been avoiding Leslie’s friendly advances. The whole time he had been running from his own temptations. Part of him knew that if he just bent that woman over on her desk and went for broke he’d be set. He stood up, inwardly startled, aggravated and ready to say things he'd later regret sharing. Mr. Washington turned off the television then told him to sit down with the quiet reserve of an old school Cotton Club gangster. A knock came at the front door; Mrs. Washington greeted another female voice.
Jamal sat back down and apologized. "You just don't know what it's like out here." Catching himself and his bad choice of words, he quickly continued. "I mean you've worked for the Transit Authority since before I was born. You’re gonna retire there."
"You say that like it's a prison sentence.” Mr. Washington puffed up. “Transit fed and clothed er’body in this house! Even loaned you the money for them expensive-ass sneakers you got on. You should be grateful, baby boy."
"C'mon Pops, don't go there. It's not that I'm not grateful. Transit Authority is your game, not mine. And I'm not getting stuck in--"
Leila stepped through the doorway, interrupting their conversation with a humble smile and hello. Mr. Washington smiled and gestured for her to come on in and sit down. She tried to back out to give them their privacy but when Mr. Washington insisted she join them, she quietly took a seat next to Jamal on the couch. She could feel that whatever the topic was, the weight of it still hung in the air like smog. She picked up Jamal’s phone off the table and began to play a game. Her presence gave him additional confidence.
“Like I was about to say,” Jamal continued, “I’m going to have my first million by the time I’m 30. I can’t get there by stuffing envelopes and running errands to Starbucks.”
Mr. Washington chuckled then turned the television back on. “I may not have all these MBAs or kicked my feet up in a big time office but I do know this – if you’re expecting to go through life on the fast track and the fast buck, you not gonna get it. It ain’t that simple. You kids want to make these millions just because you went to school; some of y’all expect it just because you woke up this morning. If it worked that way, everybody would already have it.”
Jamal’s attention zoned out into an ESPN play-by-play. He didn’t like what he was hearing but he couldn’t refute it, either. To him, his father’s vision of the working world was still stuck in the Transit Authority of the 70s -- work was supposed to be hard and steady, every so often threatening to strike to get more money. Nobody ever gets rich unless they hit the Lottery. Making millions only happened to lucky entertainers, athletes, rare geniuses or corporate criminals; everyone else was just dreaming. Jamal refused to believe any of that. There was no way he should settle for a dead-end job and spend the rest of his life living in a row house somewhere. He couldn’t get his father to see that.
Leila’s game was interrupted when the phone rang. Her face flattened as the caller ID popped up.
Jamal’s eyes never left the television. "Who is it?"
She rested her chin on her hand then gave him a long, questioning stare as she passed him the ringing phone. "It’s Leslie Smith..."