"I'll catch up with you baby, I just wanna check out these belts," Ronnie slowed down and looked at a table filled with leather belts like his father and grandfather wore when he was a child. The owner of the booth glanced in his direction as he perused the merchandise but did very little to instigate a sale. Everyone around the flea market seemed pushy and desperate for the next sale, so the opportunity to really take his time was welcomed.
His eyes settled on a worn leather belt, burnt sienna in his heyday, closer to clay now. He lifted it, checked the weight, the buckle, the holes and decided this would be his gift to himself today.
"Say, how much do you want for this one?" he asked in the general direction of the shopkeeper, who was still not paying him attention.
"For you, $12," the answer shot back quickly.
Ronnie reached into his pocket and took a blind inventory of the bills stored there. There was a twenty, two tens, three fives and four singles. He picked through his billfold and produced the ten.
"Let it go for $10?"
The nod was hard and the smile building in Ronnie's chest was tough to suppress. There was a sense of accomplishment, a win in not paying the listed price for the belt. Most Saturdays he dragged a few steps behind Yvonne as she worked deal after deal at the different booths, but he generally paid the prices listed for anything he wanted and most of the time felt cheated. However, with a good quality belt in hand and two dollars to spare, he felt like a big winner this Saturday.
"So, whaddya get?"
Yvonne was going through her bags and separating what she was to keep, gift and a pile that grew weekly, that Ronnie never quite understood. Ronnie dug into his single bag and pulled out the orange colored belt, complete with a beaming smile.
"What are you going to do with an orange belt?"
"It's not orange exactly. It has a grit to it, like what my daddy and granddaddy wore".
"If you say so," Yvonne stifled a laugh and went back to her work.
Over the next week, Ronnie watched that belt hanging in his closet and began to feel some close kinship to it. He was almost transfixed by it; the color, the craftsmanship, sheer look of it. He finally decided to try it out that Friday and he and Yvonne had their monthly dinner with Willie and Sylvia.
After carefully selecting his outfit and dressing, he went for the coup de grace, his new belt. As he worked the belt through the loops in his pants, he began to feel uneasy. Overtaken by dizziness, he sat on the edge of the bed with his head in hands.
He stayed in that position for what seemed like an eternity and when he finally pried his eyes from between his fingers he was in another place, another time, another body. Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" was playing loudly in the background, its failing volume failing to reach the laughter coming from the front room of the small apartment.
It was 1976, Ronnie was 9-years-old, and the scene was familiar. His parents were having another of their legendary parties. The script was the same for each party; help set up, greet the first few guests, have a plate and then be jettisoned to his parents' bedroom for the night while God knows what went down out front.
The smell of fried chicken and incense mixed with the marijuana and Marvin lulled Ronnie into an easy sleep that night. Of course, the occasional loud noises from the fun out front jolted him out of his dreams, especially when Skeeter won a hand of bid whist. The card games, weed and music were his parents' way of fellowshipping with their friends and sharing the little bit they seemed to have.
Not feeling like he had enough to eat, Ronnie made his way from the bed and started weaving his way towards the kitchen. There were couples dancing, kissing and doing things he had no idea of what at that age. The lights around the house were now red or blue, with lava lamps in the corners. Everywhere but the kitchen. The same bright lights burned over the table where the cards were being played and the food being served.
"What you need sugar?" a faceless voice asked.
"I just wanted a piece of chicken," Ronnie answered.
A chicken leg materialized on a napkin and Ronnie said thank you after his first bite and waded through the apartment towards the bedroom. The voices, the smells, the faces, the shapes he watched moving to the music all faded away when he saw his mother slapping at his father's face as he sprawled out on the toilet.
There was panic in his mother's voice and tears in her eyes.
"Wake up Earl," she yelled.
She slapped at his face and yelled again, but there was no response. Suddenly, she turned around and saw he only child standing in the doorway, a large chicken leg in his hand crying. She collapsed to the floor and Ronnie was able to fully view his father's lifeless body; his left leg was at an awkward angle and his left arm hung loosely to the side, with a huge needle stuck in it and fitted with a bright orange leather belt.
Forty years later, the vision sits between his palms holding tears and sweat. How had he forgotten? What was he thinking? Of course, the belt meant more to him than some sense of fashion. It was the last vision of his father, that bright orange belt around the lifeless arm.
"You okay baby?" Yvonne appeared at the bedroom door and stared at her husband. He didn't bother to look up. He shook his head in hands and she sat next to him, comforting him without question.