Sample text for Through thick and thin / Leslie Esdaile writing as Leslie E. Banks.

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Chapter One: Chicago -- March

Maxine Chadway stood in front of the kitchen sink, allowing the faucet to drizzle cool water over her partially frozen pork chops as she separated them for dinner. She'd have to break the news to her husband tonight. Kenny would have a fit about her wanting to take an evening writing class -- not because he wasn't supportive, but the man hated change. Her being gone at night once a week would alter his routine.

But hadn't there been many warning signs that it was indeed time for a change? Her sister, Bird, had just narrowly missed ovarian cancer -- and Bird's household had to adapt, just as the whole family did when some of them narrowly escaped being killed in a car accident. God had been good to her loved ones, and to her, and she wasn't trying to tempt fate. So many families hadn't been as lucky on September 11....All she'd been able to focus on since then, trying to tuck worries about her own children into the recesses of her mind, was, What if something happened to her? Who would tell her children about their rich family history, its roots?

Sure, her sisters might fill in the gaps, as would Kenny and Bird's husband, Lem. But it wasn't the same as hearing it from their mother. She looked down at the pork chops in her hands, trying to remember how her mother used to season them. There were so many things she'd wanted to ask Mama Joe, but time had passed by, and now the opportunity was gone, just like her mother was.

And that's why she couldn't continue to put off her dreams for tomorrow. She would follow through with this one; nothing would stand in her way. You just never knew how much time you had, and you couldn't take the gift of life for granted.

She'd lived with Kenny and loved him long enough to know that, as long as his daily pattern wasn't greatly compromised, he wouldn't have a problem with her wanting to try something new. Why couldn't this class have been held during the day while the bigger kids were in school, and a baby-sitter for a couple of hours would be easier to find for her little one?

But now, for six weeks, the entire household routine would be in chaos, and there would be no way that Kenny's world order would remain untouched. Maxine sighed. She did not feel like having a verbal heavyweight boxing match with him about this tonight. She wanted to write, and to learn from one of the best in a community-sponsored class. Was that so much to ask?

She glanced at her reheated greens from Sunday to see how they were advancing, and checked the moisture level in the pot of rice. Kenny would be home soon. The children were all accounted for, the older two occupied with homework and laying out their clothes for the next morning, and her baby girl happily engrossed in a Fisher-Price toy for the moment. All she needed was a few minutes to get dinner on, and then she could make the rounds to check each child's homework progress. The conversation with Kenny would be delicate; so she'd ease into it slowly, gracefully, and pray that he'd for once just concede.

Her gaze floated out the window. March had indeed come in like a lion, wind whipping the backyard hedges, scattering swirls of leaves, and making the kitchen panes rattle. There was so much to do. Was dreaming just a waste of precious energy? Soon it would be time for spring cleaning: washing the curtains in here and switching over the closets. Easter was on the way, too -- which meant she'd have to assess who had what in their closets, and do a wardrobe buy all around. Shoes, for sure; all the kids' feet were sprouting like weeds. How was she going to squeeze in writing?

Tonight she'd have to throw in two more loads of laundry, since she'd only gotten four done today -- the heavy stuff, towels and bed linens. She'd gone to the library, and then come home inspired and wasted time writing.

Ahmad's hamper was overflowing, as usual. Kenny needed uniforms -- his work duds were filthy. Kelly was getting to the finicky stage of wanting to always dress herself, and thus needed plenty of options. That child was so indecisive. Her sweet pea was the easiest one in the bunch but, as the baby, went through changes like crazy. Maxine sighed again. What had she been thinking when she'd procrastinated on dealing with the inevitable?

The phone rang, but she didn't bother to answer it. By inexplicable instinct, she could always tell when it was Kenny or one of her sisters on the line. However, with a teenaged son in the house, the telephone didn't stand a chance. Ahmad always raced for it as though the state lottery board was calling him with a winning ticket number.

Maxine waited a moment, and when she didn't hear "Mom!" yelled, she smiled, patting a chop dry on a paper towel and repeating the process with another piece of meat. At least her son was old enough now to know how to screen telemarketers. She'd give the boy ten minutes, then pick up and hang up without listening -- the signal for him to stop breathing in some girl's ear and to get back to his homework.

A chuckle found its way to her throat. She'd just been working on a short poem earlier about that very thing. God, she remembered those days -- running for the phone, hoping it was Kenny, and battling with her sisters for that one black rotary unit that sat in the center of the living room.

Her musing kept her company as she stood before the sink, her hands moving and her brain unlocking new prose. Kids didn't know how lucky they had it these days. There was no such thing as a cordless phone that allowed for private conversations. No TV in anybody's room, or computers to help correct spelling errors on reports. Hell, her son would faint if she gave him that old IBM Selectric still in the basement, the one that had once been considered modern technology and that required skill and dexterity to use -- lining up the paper just so, making sure you put the carbon paper between two clean sheets in it, purple all over your fingers if you wanted a copy...corrector tape.

And chores! Maxine laughed out loud, thinking back on how there was no such thing as no-wax floors. Baseboards were done by hand. Dusting meant this oily stuff that went on a rag, not some easy, magnetic spray that practically picked up the dust for you as you swiped a cloth by it. Vacuum cleaners were as heavy as a Sherman tank, not plastic, easy-glide contraptions that took only a few minutes to push across a floor. They didn't know what housework and Saturdays meant for the Joseph girls. Nosiree, they didn't. Oh, yeah, she had to add that bit of historical wisdom into the poem -- or maybe it would be a short story?

Supermarket shopping was a process then, too. Yeah. She remembered it like it was yesterday. There was the butcher, the fish man, the vegetable man, and then Mama Joe went to the store. Humph. Her mother did all the baking, so there was no buying cupcakes and Twinkies, and juice boxes for lunch. When lunch went to school, it was in a real brown bag, or a metal lunch box. During winters, you carried a huge thermos with mirrored glass inside it, filled with homemade soup, that you'd better not drop, lest it shatter and Mama would whip your butt for the waste.

Her kids had no concept. Back then nothing was disposable, nothing was throwaway....People weren't, either. Her Chadway crew had light duty. They shoulda been in Mama Joe's Marine Corps! Microwaves, plastic, Ziploc baggies -- everything was so easy these days. Yup. She'd go back in time and tell her story from her mama's house. Her poem would be a short story.

But some things hadn't changed since the beginning of time. Another sigh pushed its way past Maxine's lips. Teenagers still ran for the phone. She tried to jettison the warm but melancholy memory of her mother from her mind as she sprayed the large Pyrex baking dish with low-fat cooking oil and arranged the dried chops within it. Baked was better, healthier. Her husband didn't need to be eating all that old-fashioned food -- no matter what he fussed about. Fried, smothered pork chops would shorten his life. Simple knowledge like that might have saved, or at least added years to, her mother's life. But back then, who knew? Even the food charts were changing -- and her husband hated change. Yet some change was good.

Maxine glanced at the running market list held up by a magnet on the refrigerator. More chicken and fish, regardless of what Kenny said. She loved him, and he was gonna be healthy or bust. That she would fight with him about -- she wasn't taking any prisoners on that issue. Why, Lord, was everything always such a struggle with this man? The pork chops were his weekly meat quotient, but who knew what he snuck in at work? Burgers, for sure, even though she'd packed him a healthy lunch.

All she could hope was that he'd be too busy during the day, or too frugal, to stop for fast food when good food was within his grasp. She needed to add lean ground turkey to her list, too, along with more fresh vegetables and paper towels. God spare the trees, because her family had probably gone through a forest on its own. Wasting paper towels was bad on the environment, but they just snatched a towel down from the dispenser, blotted up the tiniest mess, and then tossed it. Maxine stopped moving for a moment.

Truth be told, she'd wasted her share of paper today, crumpling up page after page of typing paper. What had she been thinking when she'd used the baby's naptime messing around on Ahmad's computer? Tonight she'd pay for the hour and a half she'd spent trying to collect and compose her thoughts. Prose just didn't come during the day. Nights were when her creativity flowed, but that was next to impossible. Once the kids got settled and she'd cried uncle to the unending list of chores, then it was Kenny's time.

Maxine blinked back sudden, inexplicable tears and started moving again like a speed demon. What was wrong with her? There was nothing to cry about, certainly nothing as crazy as this mess. A deep breath steadied her as she worked.

All of this was ridiculous. She knew she couldn't use Ahmad's computer at night -- he needed it for his homework, or would be playing video games, or chatting on-line with his friends. Besides, she could barely think in his cluttered room when he wasn't in it, let alone if he were popping in and out and sweating her about when she'd be finished. Real truth be told, she needed her own little laptop -- something small and unobtrusive that she could open up on the kitchen table late at night when none of the family needed her, where she could go off into her own world and simply think, or be, or create. The old IBM typewriter was cumbersome and didn't correct mistakes easily, and the click-clack of the ball hitting the paper would assuredly drive her husband nuts at night -- and she'd hear about it. The man worked hard and needed his rest, and a laptop would be a good compromise.

But the expense was out of the question, especially when there was already one computer in the house. Still...She could hear Kenny's protest in her head before the thought even formed. "Maxine, you know I just got this new city towing contract and have to reinvest in the business that pays the household bills. We have to tighten our belts and put hard-earned money into things that last -- like the children's education, the house, the business, not foolishness. And not a hobby."

Guilt congealed with a tinge of anger -- that's why she needed her own source of capital, so she didn't always have to ask for everything. If she had just a little income of her own, she could do a few things that were not on the Kenny-waiver list. Not that he denied her anything, really. But what did she actually ask for? Her requests were always for the family: the kids needed shoes, Kelly needed a coat, Ahmad needed books or new sports gear, the baby needed a bigger snowsuit, the windows needed new frames, the storm door needed a new hinge. Maintenance. She was not on that list.

Maxine looked at her hands and down at her sweatpants and T-shirt. She didn't waste money on nails. She didn't waste money, period. Her hair was all natural, and her sister, Bird, kept her locks looking good for free. It was good to have a salon owner in the family, just like it was good to have a lawyer sister, and a husband and brother-in-law who could fix just about anything that broke. She didn't buy makeup or clothes -- God only knew the last time she'd bought something new for herself. Since she only went to school functions for the kids and to church, there hadn't been a need to buy clothes. Where did she go these days that warranted getting dressed up in the latest fashions?

"Not that I'm complaining, Lord. You know that. I'm just being realistic about what has to be done," she murmured, closing her eyes as she asked for forgiveness. "I am blessed. I am well provided for. Wants are pure vanity."

She washed her hands and went to her spice rack to select what she needed to season the meat. The chops should have been thawed earlier and already prepped to allow the flavor to get through them, especially since she was baking them. But she'd wasted time trying to write junk. She clicked the burner off under her rice and grabbed a fork, whipping the moist grains around to let the residual heat from the burner finish the process. The greens were ready, too, and would stay hot if she kept the lid on them. Forty minutes, and the chops would be ready to come out. Cornbread took fifteen minutes from out of the box to the table. Oh, well, her family knew better than to expect homemade during the week. Thank God for some inventions.

During the week -- Maxine stopped and held the pan of meat in midair. It was Wednesday night. Tomorrow Kelly needed brownies for the school fund-raiser. Ahmad had a class trip, and had to be to school earlier than usual -- so she had to drive him, which meant everybody had to leave earlier with her. Plus, tonight was Wednesday night...Kenny's midweek night. Like a Saturday night. Shit.

She flung the chops in the oven, went into the living room, spied the table, and took a deep breath. "Kelly, Ahmad, set the table!"

A series of okays echoed back through the house.

"Not later. Now, guys!"

Laundry had to go in immediately. Wednesday night. Her husband didn't ask for much. She glanced over her shoulder as she passed the playpen. Her baby was standing and reaching for her. "Mommy will be back in a second." Wails of discontent followed behind her. Just a few minutes to do what I gotta do, Lord.

She hurdled the stairs two at a time. The kids had to go to bed early; Ahmad had to get up extra early for the class trip. She should have gone to the store to put some extra goodies in the house to go with his super lunch, the lunch good moms were supposed to make for a kid to take on a bus trip. Permission slip -- did she sign that already? Damn.

The baby was crying.

"Kelly, get your sister for me -- I have to throw in some clothes!"

Maxine tore from room to room, toting a heavy basket in both arms and nearly bumping into Ahmad in the hall as she bustled toward his bedroom door.

"Dump me out your colored clothes," she ordered. "I'll throw in the whites in a few minutes once the first cycle is done."

Her son stood there looking at her with a stricken expression.

"You changed my bed," he muttered.

"Yeah, I did. Now listen -- set the table, but first dump out the colored clothes -- your uniform stuff."

Again no motion, and he still had the phone clutched to his chest. She could feel her pulse beat in her temples. "Boy, what is wrong with you? Get off that dag-gonned phone and do as I say!"

"You don't have to change my bed, Mom. I'll do my own laundry."

Jesus help her, she was going to wring this child's neck if he didn't stop pushing her buttons. She didn't have time for this mess; tonight was parent night. Shoot! When he just stared at her, Maxine narrowed her gaze to convey a lethal warning. "I'm in no mood to debate with you right now."

She spun on her heels and went to Kelly's room. Damned kids just don't know -- one day it'll be his turn to work all day like a Georgia mule and want a little private affection from his wife, and some teenager will be standing in the floor with an attitude. The mother's curse prevails -- that boy just doesn't know! Heaven help her if that boy was still on the telephone and hadn't moved by the time she got back to his room....Lord, stay her hand.

In three deft moves, she had set down the basket, collected Kelly's clothes, and was back in the hall. This was two loads right here, even without Ahmad's stuff, and she hadn't even begun to deal with the whites. Entering his room, using a foot to push open the semi-closed door, she dropped the basket on Ahmad's bed. Her son was moving like molasses in January, extracting dirty laundry item by item to drop it on the floor.

No patience left in her, she brushed past him, dug both hands in his hamper, and came away with an armload.

"Mom, don't!"

"Boy, I don't have time for your dawdling. Your father will be home soon and will want to eat; I have dinner on, and other things to do. Now what is all the hullabaloo about!"

Disgusted, she flung colored items into the waiting basket like she was an assembly-line speed sorter, ignoring her son's appalled expression. When she got to a crusty pair of gym shorts, Ahmad lunged for them, almost bumping their heads.

"I got it, I got it," he blurted out, seeming as though he'd lost his breath in a race.

Maxine stilled herself and looked at her child's stricken expression. Ahmad looked like he was about to faint dead away from embarrassment. Her shoulders slumped. Oh, right...she had a teenager in the house. A son. Lord have mercy. She softened her countenance and put her hands on her hips to preserve the boy's dignity. Her facial expression didn't change as she gave him the old "Mom is blind in one eye and can't see out of the other" routine.

"Listen, I don't have time for this, and I've been telling you to sort your laundry since Saturday. Now, I'm gonna go get the table ready, because I can smell my chops need turning. This is too heavy for me, anyway, so do me a favor and get the rest of the colored clothes in the basket and just take it all down the basement."

Her mortified child's shoulders dropped two inches, and he quickly bobbed his head in assent.

"Yeah, Mom, I got it -- no need for you to do it, okay? I got it. Shoulda had it done, like you said. Okay? I can put them in the washer for you, too, Mom. No problem. Okay?"

"Ummm-hmmm," Maxine grumbled, leaving a relieved Ahmad to finish what she'd started. "And get off the telephone!" she called over her shoulder, heading downstairs with purpose.

Although the baby's wailing had ceased, it had been replaced by fussing. Every time Kelly put a napkin down, her baby sister squealed with the delight of snatching it from the table. The more Kelly fussed, the more the baby laughed at the game.

"Mom! I can't set the table. I'm trying, but she keeps pulling the stuff off."

Maxine stared at the once-clean forks that were on the floor, and blanched at the knives scattered at her feet.

"Girl, what is wrong with you? Why did you let her out of the playpen when you had knives on the table that she could reach?"

Without listening to the plaintive reply about how the baby refused to stay put, Maxine bent, began picking up silverware, and scooped up the toddler, who was shredding a paper napkin.

With a kiss she dumped her daughter, sans napkin, back in the holding pen and marched to the kitchen to turn the chops and rewash the knives and forks. If her husband had any idea what went on around the house during the day, and what it took to bring calm before he graced them with his presence...and he wanted a showered, rested, and amorous wife on a Wednesday night? Was the man on drugs, or something?

She opened the oven, turned the meat that had browned on one side, and glanced at the clock. Multitasking, she quickly washed the flatware, dumped it on a dishtowel to come back to shortly, and began making lunches as the baby squealed in a high pitch from the other room. She knew it wasn't politically correct, but cartoons were a lifesaver. Before Kelly even grabbed the iced tea, Maxine knew it was going to fall. Mother telepathy kicked in, and she steadied the child's efforts, avoiding a mop job as Kelly wobbled back through the kitchen doorway. Oh, yeah, this was rush hour -- Kenny thought he drove his tow truck through rush hour; she lived in the zone. She had more mileage under her belt than on any radials in his garage.

Thirty minutes ticked away as lunches were made, laundry got started, Kelly's attempt to set the table was completed, and the littlest one was in a high chair with Cheerios to play with. Her son's dignity had been preserved. Ahmad was put on notice to deal with the white load -- he'd wash them, she'd put them in the dryer. Her son had looked so relieved that she'd had to turn away to hide the smile. Been there, brother, she almost wanted to say to him. Like your father and I were born yesterday? Humph. That was a discussion for Kenny to have with his son.

All the homework was done; education in the Chadway residence was in full effect. Checkpoint down, a few more to go before Dad walked in the door. The littlest needed a bath, and she prayed the hot water would hold out with laundry simultaneously draining the tank. Damn, she should have done it earlier in the day!

Okay, it was about regrouping and picking up the lost time. Bedtime for baby bird, the youngest, would be seven-thirty. Then Kelly at eight o'clock. Ahmad had been told lights out by ten, and she knew he wouldn't argue tonight; he could barely look her in the eye. Fine. But first dinner, then kitchen KP. Dry the wet clothes, fold and stack them, and bring piles of them to the rooms...except Ahmad's. She didn't walk in his door without knocking anymore; she'd just yell through it to alert him that a clean clothing shipment was on the way. Teenagers.

Nine o'clock would see her on the sofa, sitting, for that one point in the week when she could -- if she planned it right. An hour to listen to Kenny recount his day. And her divorced or still single girlfriends wondered why she no longer had time to talk or hang out, or do lunch! The old ladies from the church wondered why she was always stopping by and running errands with her car motor still running! Shoot, she barely had time to connect with her sisters. Sunday was when she could at least eat with them and put her eye on them.

Geez Louise. The other mothers knew.

Ten o'clock; lights out for the oldest. Ahmad would get over it. Then she and Kenny could watch the news and chat some more, to be sure all the kids were asleep. One hour to be sure there was a safety seal on little ears. Eleven. The washing machine should have stopped by then, though the dryer might have to run half the night. Maybe she'd take a shower; maybe not. She'd suggest that Kenny do so. He would, and would also smile. It was Wednesday night.

Then again, if there was any hot water left, maybe she'd run him a bath with Epsom salts and wash his back -- they could talk while he bathed, and she could kill two birds with one stone -- talk and pay him attention at the same time. Maybe the hot bath would total him and make him just go to sleep, so she could crash and burn. Damn, she was exhausted. But if he was feeling amorous, that would only give her fifteen minutes to mentally decompress, put on a nightgown, and breathe. She knew the drill, and writing had messed up her routine.What had been on her mind!

Maxine pushed a stray lock behind her ear and glanced down at her sweatpants and T-shirt, which had every task of the day clinging to them. She'd have to work in a shower; she was disgusting herself. Though stuff like that never seemed to bother her husband. Yuck. Cavemen. Neolithic. She laughed, glad that she had one anyway. She closed her eyes and allowed her head to drop back for a moment to chase away the tension.

Without needing to open her eyes, she could feel the presence of a small person beside her.

"Mommy, what's so funny?"

All Maxine could do was shake her head. "Nothing, baby. Go make sure your sister is okay in her high chair."

"You tired, Mommy? 'Cause your eyes are closed."

"No, baby," she whispered. The question made her chuckle and swallow hard at the same time. Moisture crept to her eyes. "Mommy's just taking a power nap standing up."

"Can I do that, too?"

"Yeah," Maxine murmured, opening her eyes and bending to kiss Kelly's forehead. "All mommies learn how to do that -- one day I'll teach you. It's a survival skill."

Her daughter giggled and raced away to do her big-girl task of watching her baby sister. Maxine looked at the child's retreating form and reminded herself of every blessing she had in her life: wonderful, healthy children; a good husband who was a great father and an excellent provider; a good family. In the grand scheme of things, her issues were minimal. Her family's happiness was essential.

There was no need to rock the boat and to be unappreciative of anything God had bestowed upon her. It was not important that Kenny understand this quest to write stuff. Creativity was for single women, or women wealthy enough to have their own help. She'd been tripping. Easter shoes, paying the mortgage, getting lunches made -- things of substance were important.

She walked over to the oven and began turning the meat again, satisfied with its progress. She wasn't going out on a limb to cause a cosmic disruption to the order of things, like other women did -- they needed to chill, if they had something good, solid, and substantial around them. Black women couldn't just pick up and do something self-absorbed when they had a family. Especially if they'd been blessed with a good man to be their husband. What had been on her mind, anyway? About to kick up some dust for no good reason, not that she could ever be some Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, anyway. If her mother were alive, what would she have said? Maxine, family first. Probably.

Maxine stood up and glanced at the motion beyond the window caused by the howling March wind. What would her mother have said?

"Did you ever feel like this, Ma?" she murmured so quietly that the words were more of a thought than a sentence.

Her hand idly stroked the pocket that contained a flyer from the Free Library within it. Poet laureate and playwright Paul Gotier would be in town on his annual trek to give back to the community by teaching a seminar for free. The writing class was only six weeks long. Six Wednesday nights. Six nights that she hadn't asked for permission to claim for herself, before she'd signed up. And even though she'd felt lucky at getting on the list, it might mean six weeks of arguments with Kenny -- who would flip about her absence at home on their night. What would her mother have done?

The word permission sent a shard of resentment through her. She was a grown woman and still seemed to require a permission slip to go on a six-week field trip, just like her son needed one from her for his school junket tomorrow. What was wrong with this picture?

The awareness was disturbing. What hidden talents and gifts had her mother taken to the grave? What things had Mama Joe left undone, or maybe just shared as loving anointments to her family's growth, but never employed toward her own fulfillment?

Maxine bent to lift the Pyrex dish from the oven. She then reached for a canister on the draining board and took out a small handful of flour as she put the stove burner on low under the meat to begin making gravy. Little by little she allowed the flour to sift from her fist, using the other hand to keep moving a fork within the thickening sauce, the way she'd learned from her mother. She knew it was healthier for Kenny not to have pan-made gravy, with all the fat drippings in it, but alas, it was Wednesday night.

It was all in the touch, so ephemeral an art -- timing, proportion, the balance of just enough of this and that -- learned by watching. Just like her daughters would learn to sublimate their gifts from watching her do it, too. Just like they would pick men, by watching the way she interacted with the one she'd chosen -- or more precisely, who'd chosen her. Maxine stirred the pan faster, not at all liking the direction her insane thoughts were going. She wiped her floury hand against her sweatpants. She was completely happy, dammit.

"Hey, Maxine! Smells good, baby!"

Tension pulled her spine to attention as she forced a smile and tilted her head, waiting for the sound of heavy boots to cross the living room and enter the kitchen. A kiss would land on her cheek in less than two minutes -- by the time the gravy was done. She was on schedule, and the household train of complete order had not derailed.

"Hey, baby. How was your day?" She called back the question by rote, her voice rising in a pleasant lilt.

"Hawk is flying high, as usual. Cold as all get-out. What's cooking?"

Maxine just stared at her empty palm, still whitened by the flour, while her other hand kept a steady, unbroken rhythm.

Copyright © 2003 by Paramount Pictures Corporation

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
African Americans -- Fiction.
African American women -- Fiction.
Female friendship -- Fiction.
Husband and wife -- Fiction.
College teachers -- Fiction.
Writing -- Study and teaching -- Fiction.
Teacher-student relationships -- Fiction.