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Rita was sitting on the sofa with Bobbie. She never thought of herself as a dealer. He was the dealer. She was just doing what she had to. She had already tried shoplifting for the money to get what she needed, but it had never amounted to enough. And then she’d been arrested for stealing underwear from JCPenney. Her father had managed to get her out of the charges.
She had just turned seventeen and, in an attempt to escape her own life, had already done all the three-letter drugs—PCP, LSD, MDA—but Bobbie wouldn’t let her sell any of that. Just pot.
Whenever Rita came to Bobbie’s place in The Projects to get another quarter pound—it was all he would give her—she would sit and smoke with him. His hair had gone gray above his ears, but his dark skin was smooth. He always had music on and the pot was so good that the universe melted into notes and made her patient, waiting for him to measure out the baggies she would keep in the trunk of her car and sell at high school.
He fingered the sticky buds over the rolling paper, letting the seeds drop back into the bag, and rolled a thin joint. He licked it with just the right amount of saliva, closed it up, and licked the outside of the entire thing, sucking each end of it for a perfect seal. He worked slowly, as if there were an art to it that shouldn’t be rushed. He laid it on the table to dry and started dividing the large tangle of buds and leaves, putting each baggie on the scale one by one.
People came and went from the apartment in a constant flow, but Rita had never seen another white person come through the door. The room had two long sofas and a big low table between them. Beside the sofa that faced the door, where Bobbie always sat, was a turntable he attended with the same slow grace he gave to rolling joints and measuring baggies. Today Roberta Flack was singing “Killing Me Softly.”
Bobbie picked up the drying joint, poised it at his lips with his delicate fingers, and lit it, drawing his breath in sharply. He passed the joint to Rita, using his long nails as a clip as it quickly burned shorter. When she handed it back, his fingers brushed hers and he took the fast-diminishing joint carefully, as if it were an endangered bird.
It was a hot spring day, and the smell of redbud and sweat filled the room. Everything began to soften, even the sharp edges she carried with her. Roberta Flack’s gentle voice filled her up, like the redbud, right to the ticklish filaments of her lungs, to the blood that crossed them.
In all the times Rita had sat on Bobbie’s couch, there had never been another woman here, either, white or black. Only their voices.
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published 15 January 2012