Without me, p.16
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       Without Me, p.16
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         Part #5 of Men of Inked series by Chelle Bliss
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  “What did you say?” Thomas asked as he sat down in an empty chair.

  “If I would’ve done that to Max or James to Izzy, we’d get a knee to the balls.”

  “Maybe you should’ve been more selective with your choice,” Thomas replied as he rested his foot on the opposite knee.

  “Shut it,” I shot back at him, and stared at the television.

  “How is she?” Mike asked.

  I zoned out as I watched Jason Statham kicking some bad guy’s ass.

  “Yo! Earth to Anthony.”

  I glanced over at Mike and realized he was talking to me. “Sorry. I’m out of it.”

  “Clearly,” he replied. “How’s Max doing?”

  “She seems okay. The waiting is making me crazy. I can’t imagine how she feels.”

  “Yeah, Mia said it takes a while. That’s tough, bro.”

  “Harder than anything I’ve ever done in my life.” I tried to smile, but I didn’t feel it. I took a deep breath and let out a silent exhale.

  I felt a bit worn on the inside. Even though it wasn’t my health at stake, I felt the heaviness of the situation. Max had been put on this earth to be with me, and to think that she could be ripped from my life at an early age just pissed me off. I wish I had met her earlier. We both had wasted so many years with bullshit.

  “Dinner!” Izzy yelled from the dining room.

  “Thank God. I’m starving,” Suzy said as she tried to get off the couch again. Joe helped her up with a push on the back of her ass. “Thank you,” she said as she tried to steady herself on her feet.

  Weeble wobble.

  She looked like a Weeble as she tried to stand and then stay upright. Her weight displacement was off, just like those damn toys I played with as a kid.

  I walked into the dining room and saw Max holding the bowl of meatballs. She had a smile on her face. One that burned brighter than I’d seen in a long time. It had to be my mother, or maybe just being with the girls. They seemed to be a support system for each other.

  I stared at her with a matching smile. Knowing that she was here with me and things were finally calm between us brought me a sense of peace. Maybe, just maybe, things would work out in our favor.

  “You look sexy in that apron,” I said as she placed the bowl down on the table next to me.

  “Don’t get used to it, buddy. I’m not a chef. I prefer to eat out.”

  “Lucky for you,” I said with a sly smile, “so do I.” I winked at her before pulling her to me and giving her a kiss.

  For the first Sunday in a long time, I felt completely happy.

  14

  Into the Fire

  “Stop being such a baby,” Max said as we approached her mother’s house.

  I’d never had to do this before. Meeting the family signified a relationship, and I hadn’t been in one of those since high school.

  “Last time I met your brother he was a total dick.”

  “You’d act the same if some asshole was bothering Izzy. Let’s just try and move beyond that night. Denzel is a nice guy, and he knows that I like you.”

  She liked me? I had been hoping for a little more than that as a description of how she felt about me.

  “You just like me?

  “You know how I feel about you, Anthony. Do we really need to get into this right now?” she asked as she knocked on the front door and glanced at me over her shoulder.

  “Fine.”

  “Hey, sis,” Denzel said as he opened the door. His smile faded when he saw me. “Hey,” he said as he tipped his chin to me.

  After Max walked past him, I held out my hand and hoped to make peace with Denzel.

  “Hi, Denzel.” My stomach dropped when he looked down at my hand before his eyes returned to mine.

  “What’s up?” he replied before taking my hand. “Scare ya for a minute?” He laughed, bending at the waist and slapping his leg.

  “Hell yes, you did. Are we okay?” I asked. I wanted to be okay. I wanted everything to be smooth.

  “Shit for real with my sister?” He gripped my hand tighter, trying to crush my fingers.

  I knew the script. I’d done it more times than I could remember with men who’d wanted to be with my sister.

  “I love your sister,” I replied, still standing outside as he blocked the doorway.

  “You love her?”

  “I do.”

  “I’ve been trying to get her to take that damn test forever, man. She always refused, but for you, she did it. That’s saying something.”

  I hadn’t thought about how her family felt. Hell, I’d forgotten that Denzel could have it too.

  “Did you get tested?”

  He nodded and released my hand. “Yeah. About a year ago.”

  “And?”

  He moved to the side. “Come on in.”

  As I walked into the house, he told me what he found out.

  “I was negative. The test isn’t one hundred percent accurate, though. There are forms of ataxia that don’t show up through genetic testing. They said even though I was negative, there was a chance I could still develop it later in life. It’s going to depend on what my sister’s results are.”

  “What do you mean?” There was a chance that Max’s results could be negative too. Maybe she was just like her brother.

  “It’s like this, Anthony. If my sister tests positive, then my father had a type that’s testable. If she’s positive, then I’ll always be negative. If she’s negative, we can both still get it later because it’s one of the types that they don’t have a test for yet. Know what I mean?”

  “Yeah, I think,” I lied. I didn’t want to seem like an idiot.

  “I’ll explain later after we have a beer.” He smiled at me and slapped me on the back. “Let’s get outside. They’re all waiting to see you.”

  When we had been talking, I’d forgotten about everyone else, but as soon as he reminded me, I began to sweat.

  “Right,” I mumbled, and tucked my hands in my pockets.

  “They aren’t that bad.”

  “Who’s this, baby?” a beautiful redhead asked as she slid her arm around Denzel.

  “This here is Max’s man, Anthony.”

  Her eyes raked over me, moving slowly from my feet to my face. “Hey,” she said as a smile spread across her face. “It’s nice to have a new face around here. You can be the new focus of the Washington family and take some of the heat off me.”

  “Heat?” I tilted my head, hoping I’d heard her wrong.

  “Yeah.” She giggled. “You’ll see. They’re good people. Don’t ever think otherwise. I’m Brenda, by the way.” She held out her hand and grinned.

  “Nice to meet you, I think,” I said as I placed a kiss on the top of her hand.

  “That’s enough touching my woman. You have one of your own. Let’s go meet the family,” Denzel said as he pushed down Brenda’s arm as it hung in the air.

  “Who’s here?” I asked as I followed them through the house.

  The smell was amazing and different than my parents’ house. I could smell the South. Butter, bacon, cheese, and so many other great things that I craved when I went to dinner. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Italian food, but sometimes, I needed something other than Ma’s homemade sauce.

  “Everyone is here. Aunts, uncles, cousins all came to meet the man who’s dating Max. Nita and Malia are around here somewhere too.”

  “Is it that unusual?” I asked as we rounded the corner to the living room. Through the sliding glass doors, I could see more than a dozen people standing in the backyard.

  “She hasn’t dated anyone in a long time. So, yeah, it is.” He didn’t give me any more time to collect myself before he opened the sliding glass doors. “He’s here!” he announced as all the eyes in the backyard focused on me.

  I needed to play it cool. “Hey!” I said, pulling a hand from my pocket and waving.

  “Anthony,” Ruth said as she walked toward me. “It’s good to see you ful
ly clothed this time.”

  My face turned red. I really hated that she’d met me under those circumstances, but at least she could chuckle about it.

  “It’s good to see you too, Mrs. Washington.”

  “Ruth, please.” She hugged me, running her hands down my back.

  I felt a little molested.

  Max was giggling behind her as she watched my face. “Mama, let him go,” she said as she pulled her mother off me.

  “It’s just nice to feel a man in my arms again, Max.”

  Her statement made me sad. She’d lost her husband and had to be lonely.

  “You can hug me any time, Ruth,” I said before giving her a wink.

  “Now, who do we have here?” an old man asked as he approached. He was hunched over and walking with a cane. Even though it was warm out, warm enough that I wished I’d worn shorts instead of jeans, he had on a flannel and pants that were pulled up way too high above his waist.

  Ruth turned and smacked him on the arm. “It’s Anthony, Earl. I told you about him.”

  “Who?” he asked as he came closer and squinted.

  “Get those damn glasses fixed. It’s Anthony!” she yelled in his ear.

  “I’m not deaf, woman. I’m blind. Why are you yelling at me?”

  “You ol’ coot. I told you Max’s boyfriend was coming over.” She looked at me with a weak smile.

  “But this here is a white man,” Earl said as he looked me up and down.

  “Not so blind now, are ya?” Ruth asked before she snorted.

  “Does it matter, Uncle Earl?” Max asked as she walked next to me and hooked her arm with mine.

  He shook his head as his brow furrowed. “Suppose it doesn’t, Max.”

  “Good answer,” Ruth said.

  “Son, I’m not racist. No one told me you were white.”

  I felt a bit uneasy, but I chalked it up to his age. “It’s okay, sir.”

  “Sir?” he asked, and smiled. “I like this boy already.”

  “I’m sorry,” Max whispered, gripping my forearm tighter.

  This was her family and I’d love them no matter what. I had some uncles that often spoke their mind too. I thought it was an age thing. People became freer with their words as they grew older. They didn’t worry as much about offending anyone—or at least it seemed like it.

  “Maybe if you’d get a damn hearing aid, you would’ve heard your sister say he was a white boy so you wouldn’t act like an idiot like you are now, Earl,” an older woman teased him as she walked up behind him. “I’m Clara, Earl’s wife.”

  Earl rolled his eyes in much the same fashion Max always did. “Maybe I just don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

  Clara smacked him on the back of the hand as Earl snickered. “Anthony, it’s nice to meet you. Don’t mind my husband. He’s not entirely with it anymore.” She smiled, and it was so warm and genuine that I couldn’t help but smile back at her.

  “Go make me a sandwich, woman!” Earl demanded as he pursed his lips. “Don’t fawn over the boy.”

  “He’s not a boy, Earl. That right there is a man.” Clara’s smiled changed, moving from sweet to flirty.

  I cleared my throat, feeling the heat creep up my neck before filling my cheeks. I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t want to seem like an idiot.

  “You have yourself a man. I don’t have me a sandwich.”

  “Earl,” she said as she put her hands on her hips.

  “Why don’t you go introduce him to everyone else, baby, before you help me finish dinner,” Ruth said.

  “It’s not ready?” Max asked before we walked away.

  “Saved a few things for us to do together. When you’re ready, Anthony can stay out here and get to know the family better.”

  “Do not leave me out here,” I whispered to Max as I pulled her closer to me.

  “You’ll be okay,” she said as she pulled me toward a large group sitting at a picnic table.

  “Max, please. I’ll come cook.”

  “You know you can’t cook, and it’s girls only in my mama’s kitchen.”

  “Fuck,” I muttered. It was like being at my mother’s. Men weren’t welcome to help prepare the food. I’d always been okay with that. It was less work for me, but at Ruth’s, I wanted to run away and hide in the kitchen with Max instead of being left outside with strangers.

  Max introduced me to her uncles and cousins, and I knew I’d never remember their names. Six men sat at the table, sipping their beers and looking at me with curiosity. Denzel stood at the opposite end of the table with a giant smile on his face. He seemed to sense my uneasiness and took pleasure in it.

  “Guys, can you take care of Anthony while I go inside and help Mama finish up?” Max asked.

  I stared at her, pleading for her to take me with her using only my eyes. My stomach knotted, and a nervous sweat broke out across my forehead.

  “Sure, Max,” Uncle Bob replied, shooing her with his hands. “We got him.”

  “I’m sure you do. Go easy on him, boys.” Max took a step. “Malia and Nita, are you coming?” she asked, looking over at Nita and Malia, who were watching with big, sappy grins.

  “Nah, we’re good,” Malia replied as she started to sit in an empty chair.

  “Get your asses up. Let the guys have some time together,” Max shot back at Malia, waving for her and Nita to follow.

  I grabbed her hand, stopping her. “I can cook. Let me show you.”

  “No,” she replied before standing on her tiptoes to give me a kiss. “You stay out here and get to know everyone.”

  My mouth felt dry and scratchy as I tried to swallow. I’d rather cook than deal with her family.

  “You’re such a bossy bitch,” Nita said to Max as they walked away.

  “Anthony, want a beer?” someone asked as I watched Max sashay toward the house.

  “Sure,” I said, closing my eyes for a moment before turning. “I’d love one.”

  Bob reached in the cooler, pulled out a Coors Light, and held it out to me. I snatched the beer and refrained from holding it to my head to cool myself down.

  “Want to sit down?” Denzel asked as he grabbed a lawn chair from under the tree.

  “Sure,” I said, because I thought maybe, if I were at eye level, I wouldn’t feel like everyone was staring at me.

  “Tell us about yourself,” the man she’d called Junior asked.

  I cracked the beer open and took a large gulp before I answered. “I’m a tattoo artist.”

  “That tells me what you do, son, but I want to know who you are.”

  The question threw me for a loop. I’d always described myself with my work. I didn’t have anything else to really say about myself that most people were truly interested in hearing.

  “Tell us about your family,” Bob said.

  Clearly, I hadn’t hid the fact that his question had confused me. “I have a large Italian family with three brothers and a sister. We own a tattoo shop together.”

  “Parents still together?” Earl asked as he plopped down in a lawn chair next to me.

  “Yes, sir. They are.”

  “How often do you see them?”

  “Every week. My mother has dinner for the family on Sunday.”

  “So, family is important to you?” Bob asked as he rubbed his chin and studied me.

  “Yes, very.”

  “Good answer. Max said she met you at a bar after you played a concert. Are you one of those crazy rock stars?”

  “No. I just like to sing with my band on the weekends. It’s more of a hobby.” I toyed with the beer can. “My real passion is tattooing.”

  “Do you do drugs? I’ve heard those rock stars do a lot of drugs,” Earl said.

  “Yeah. And they have girls falling all over them,” Bob added.

  “That’s not true,” I lied. I wasn’t into drugs, but the girls, they were real. “And no, I don’t do drugs.”

  “I watched that Behind the Music on VH1 and I know how
musicians are,” Earl added as he ran his hands over his plaid pants.

  Even though Earl was being difficult, I liked the man. He was funny and said the craziest shit.

  “I can assure you that I haven’t hit that status.”

  “If I were younger, I’d be a musician. They get all the women,” Bob said as he tossed his beer can into a trashcan a few feet away. “Denzel, why don’t you be a musician?”

  Denzel blanched. “Uncle, you know I want nothing to do with music. I love my work, plus I have Brenda. I don’t need other women.” He grabbed two beers from the cooler and threw one toward Bob, who caught it.

  “Son, it’s always good to have options.” Bob cracked open his beer, took a long sip, and sighed. “This is the life.”

  “I’m a one-woman man, uncle,” Denzel said before he chugged the rest of his beer.

  “I like the girl,” Earl said. “But she has a flat ass. I don’t trust any woman that doesn’t have an ass to hold.”

  Denzel started to spit out his beer. “You must be shitting me.”

  Earl shook his head. “That’s why I picked my Clara. Her ass was so round.” He held out his hands, pretending to be grabbing an ass and squeezing. “I knew I was in love.”

  “What the hell does that have to do with trust?” Denzel snapped at his uncle as he gawked at him squeezing the air.

  “It’s like that song. I like big butts and I cannot lie.”

  “You make no fuckin’ sense, old man.” Denzel laughed, throwing an empty beer can toward his uncle, and it landed in his lap.

  I couldn’t help but laugh. This was one of the oddest conversations I’d heard in a while.

 
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