Tanner finally stops. He looks around but doesn’t see me. He settles on a hefty rock and lights a cigarette. “Tanner,” I say quietly so I don’t scare him out of his railroad pants.
He flinches but recovers quickly. “What?”
“I have two things to say. The first is a question. What was in Olvie’s freezer?”
“Creepy mannequin parts,” he says staring at the creek. “Arms, legs, a couple of heads.”
Jeez! Why would she keep them in an unplugged freezer? Oh, never mind. Plastic doesn’t need to be preserved in the cold.
“Next?” he says, still not looking my direction.
I take a few steps forward and settle on the ground a good ten feet away. “I think Austin’s different from where you live. You know, maybe not as bad.”
“Maybe. But Clarksville is surrounded by whites. I don’t understand why he didn’t move to east Austin with the other coloreds. There, I could go in any restaurant, pee where I want, go to the park or to the movies and not feel threatened. I wouldn’t have to watch everything I do or say. Like in my own neighborhood in Fairfield.”
“Yeah, well your uncle and the residents in Clarksville worked hard to stay where they are. They like their houses so why should they leave?” I don’t say more because I see it. Coiled. “Be still, Tanner. There’s a rattler to your left, about ten feet away.”
He turns his head slowly. When he spots, he heaves his body off the rock and runs toward me. “Come on! Run!”
I laugh through my panting at his Panicked voice.
He stops by the street curb, his hands shaking. “What’s so damn funny?”
“Two things. You’re scared of snakes and you always wear those hickory striped pants.” I point to his denim trousers.
“They’re railroad pants. No other word for them. And, I’ll have you know, I own more than one pair. Ever heard of the Underground Railroad?
“Sure,” I say, more indignant than necessary. “It was a way to help slaves escape to safe places during the Civil War.”
“I wear these pants to remind me. I intend to drive my own life-train and not let anyone take it from me.” His eyes are focused, determined and serious.
“It wasn’t a real train with real tracks,” I say.
“Still, for me, it’s symbolic.”
“I have one for you,” I say. “Every heard the expression ‘you can catch more flies with honey’?”
“Try being nice.”
“You want me to cow-down to the white man. Let him treat me like shit because of the color of my skin.”
“You do that anyway, don’t you? In Alabama? Maybe it’s time to stop cowing down and stand up for yourself.”
Tanner spits beside his Converse’s.
“That was mean. Just when I think you might be decent enough to talk to, you end up showing your stupidity. You don’t know me at all. And,” he points a finger at my chest, “you don’t know what it’s like to be a Negro.”
Tanner doesn’t understand me either. The meanest thing I’ve ever done was kicking Donna in the ass and chasing her with a stick because she didn’t keep her promise. We’d made a deal. She was supposed to help me clean up after making brownies. As Dad would say, “deal breakers chap my ass.”
I just wanted him to know that having me as a friend might be worth fighting for. When Tanner stomps off, I don’t follow.
My WIP, set in 1963