Jerine P. Watson
My world was not very extensive, back in those days. The house, the backyard, the front yard, the driveway, the sidewalk. We lived in a small bungalow on a busy street named Rice Boulevard. I loved to say the name and even today, I think it has a nice ring to it.
The brick on the house was a dark red. The front door was heavy wood with a fascinating crystal doorknob I liked to stare into. The living room was always in shadow and seemed cooler than the rest of the house. The only light from the outdoors streamed in from a narrow leaded glass panel set into the wall, beside the door.
Our front porch consisted of a rectangular thick slab of concrete, devoid of pillars or inlaid pebbles. It was smooth and satiny-feeling to my bare feet. Blistering hot in the summer, cold as ice in the winter and slick as oiled glass in the rain. On each side of the steps leading down to the front walk stood large spruce trees – the variety that was always plagued with “bag worms” encased in their tiny little gray cocoons, swaying in the breeze like dun-colored, shabby Christmas ornaments. When no one was looking, I picked them off, pried them open and watched the worms inside wiggle and try to dodge the bright light I had let in. After they ceased to be entertaining, I squashed them under my heel.
The driveway, two narrow ribbons of parallel tracks, was of special significance in my small world. Daddy came home up that driveway. When I saw his black coupe bump up over, then cross the bulging, heat-swollen strips of asphalt and cough its way up to the wooden garage in back, my heart pounded with excitement. After my afternoon nap, I parked myself astride my tricycle on the front walk, in order to be there first thing when he came home.
Between the sidewalk in front of our house and the curbing of the street was planted a four-foot parkway of grass. Leafy tallow trees stood guard along this strip, one every eight feet or so. To the right of our walk near the curb was an orange and black bus stop marker. Made of a wooden stake four inches square, it leaned crookedly in the dry dirt by the curbing, taller than I was. The word “BUS” was printed downward from the top in black letters, on the orange half.
One steamy afternoon, I had tired of squashing the worms on the hot porch and pedaled my tricycle back and forth along the sidewalk, watching and waiting for Daddy’s car. I was not allowed to go beyond the hedge bordering the far side of the driveway, nor was I permitted to go along the sidewalk beyond its intersection with the drive of the house on the other side.
That day, I looked up to see a woman and a young boy about my age, walking on the sidewalk, coming from the area beyond my permitted range. The woman was heavy-set, more than plump, and smiled at me. I smiled back and looked with interest at the boy. He grinned shyly and ducked his head. I remember the feathery length of his eyelashes, the wondrous shining of his eyes and his startlingly white teeth.
They stood by the bus stop, the boy hanging from the post by one hand, swinging himself around and around slowly, lunging out over the danger of the street in a daredevil sort of way, watching my face, his eyebrows arched upward in a teasing question. I dismounted from my tricycle and joined him, laughing aloud. When he laughed with me, dimples stamped his cheeks with a delighted mischief. His mother chuckled at our antics, her bosom bouncing as she shifted the paper package she carried in her arms.
It wasn’t long before the boy and I, with an instantaneous mutual joy, were holding hands and playing Ring-Around-The-Rosy in the afternoon sun, tumbling ourselves down on the grass at the end of each twirling time. Over and over we sang the old rhyme, over and over we threw ourselves down on the sticky grass. Our giggles were spontaneous, our rapport mystical. I couldn’t recall ever having had so much fun. I remember the slight odor emanating from his white shirt. He smelled of soap, starch and sunshine. His mother watched us, smiling her gentle approval, warning us occasionally to “be careful.”
I didn’t notice the front door of our house opening, but I remember the sound of my mother’s shriek:
“You get in the house this minute!”
I looked at the boy and his mother, bewildered. He had run to stand stiffly against her skirt, his black eyes round with fright, his face solemn. His mother’s face clouded over with something I could not understand. Her eyes narrowed into slits and she looked toward my mother, then away from me. I was filled with an inexplicable guilt as I ran as fast as I could, up the front walk and into the darkness of the living room. My mother slammed the heavy oaken door and grabbed me by the arm.
“Don’t you ever let me catch you playing with any of those filthy people again, young lady! They’re mean and dirty and you should know better!”
She jerked me around and beat my bottom with a flat hairbrush until my skin stung like I’d sat in a nest of yellow jackets and the tears streamed down my face. When her anger was satisfied, she stormed from the room, leaving me alone with my hysteria, unable to get my breath.
I remember stumbling over to the leaded glass panel beside the door. I leaned forward, trying to get a better look at the evil people outside by the bus stop. My tears and the beveled glass sections distorted the image of the outdoors, but I could make out their shapes, still waiting for the afternoon bus. I saw the boy’s round black head above his white, white shirt and his mother’s gentle brown hand resting on his shoulder, where his red suspenders crossed over. Not until that instant did I know there was such a thing as different skin color. Only at that precise, frozen moment in time did I become aware of certain persons’ “blackness.” I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, sniffled myself quietly into dry spasms and absorbed my mother’s ignorant fear with a four-year-old’s trusting obedience.
Nearly a lifetime later, I have often wished that young boy and his mother could know how I have grown from that prejudice, that ignorant xenophobic racism, of the “old South.” Now perhaps they do.
Jerine Pace Watson was graduated from Southern Methodist University with BA in English. Her work has been published in HowlRound, Brazzil, and Penthouse, and she has published several novels and chapbooks. As a Featured Writer, Jerine is willing to field questions on the esthetic and commercial aspects of being an author. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit:Girls playing in
school playground. D055647John Birdsall / John Birdsall Education / John Birdsall Social Issues Photo Library / Press Association Images / Universal Images GroupRights Managed / For Education Use Only / Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Web. 10 Aug 2016. http://quest.eb.com/search/158_2481157/1/158_2481157/cite