Afraid of differences

 

I was four when I learned of my deformity. Before that, my left hand, different from my right, was still mine. It was part of me until, later, it defined me.

Mom had taken me to the playground. A Sunny day, the air filled with the happy squeals of children playing on the merry-go-round and zooming down slides, or swinging high enough to grab birds by their wings.

Bucket in hand, I chose the sandbox as my first stop. I knew the two girls already playing there were older. I liked playing with older girls. As an only child, my conversations with others were more advanced than my age.

“Want to share my shovel?” I asked the girl with the cinnamon colored hair.

“Okay.” Then, she stared at my left hand. She whispered something to her friend. Both stared.

The pig-tailed girl crinkled her nose. Red hair laughed and held her nose. “Let’s go before that happens to us.”

I looked at Mom sitting on the bench along side the sandbox. She had tears in eyes.

“Why don’t they like me, Mom?”

“Because they’re superficial. They only look at the surface of a person without getting to know them.”

“Mom?”

“See how, on your right hand, all fingers can spread apart?”

“I know.”

“Now look at your left hand.”

“I know.” I spread the fingers I could but my middle and ring fingers are melded together as if one large digit.

“Well, both hands belong to my beautiful Gracie. Your left hand is one of the many things that make you different and special. Everybody’s different one way or the other. But we all have similarities, too.

“They don’t like me because I only have four fingers on this hand,” I say, holding it up.

Mom shrugs. “Some people are afraid of differences. But true friends, people who love you won’t even think about the difference in your left hand. Like Sissy.”

My cousin Sissy has known me her whole life. She held my left hand all the time and didn’t care.

Back then, on that playground, Mom made me feel even more loved, differences and all.

But at age four, even after the pep talk, I didn’t know I’d have to endure the stares, the gasps and ugly comments.

Sunny

Cleaning a bigot’s plow

“Now what are you talking about? I know what’s right and wrong. And you hanging out with a colored is not right. What would your parents th …”

Kent’s words hang in the air, his sentence unfinished. He knows what my parents do. He knows we’ve had Mr. Overton, our new Local president of the NAACP, over for dinner. Kent saw him when he dropped by that evening last spring.

I point a finger to his chest and feel like Olvie. “It’s time for you to leave, Kent. You’ll never understand.” I turn to go inside.

He grabs my arm. “You’re full of shit, Grace. All this time I thought you were smart enough to—”

My eyes burn coal. “Let go of me.”

“Problem, Chicken Coop?” The familiar voice sounds protective.

Isaac saunters up the walkway and up to the front porch. He’s about the same height as Kent, but thinner. Yet his presence towers over Kent a hundred times over. When he looks at Kent, his eyes don’t shift, don’t blink.

“What are you looking at, colored boy?” Kent says, but his wobbly voice betrays him.

“Not much,” Isaac says.

Kent pulls back a fist then launches it toward Isaac’s face. Isaac catches it somewhere in mid air. Kent opens his mouth, then closes it.

“You see, Massa,” Isaac says. “I ain’t s’posed to fight with white folk. So, my Daddy and my Mammy both taughts me to be quick on these here feet. Ya know, to’s protect m’self from de harms dat be.”

“You stupid, nigg—”

“Nigerian, you were about to say.” Isaac says losing his accent. “Right, Kent? Because when a white person says that other word, it means they are ignorant about walking in the footsteps of humanity. I highly suggest you leave Mrs. Monroe’s porch and bike it to that theater. You show good movies there.”

Kent’s mouth opens. His chin drops. He can’t quite manage the puffing out of his chest. His posture deflates until he reaches the curb. Kent straddles his bike and points to Isaac. “Your plow needs cleaning, boy.”

As he rides off, Isaac yells, “Ain’t got one no mo’. Done sold it to my Massa.”

I turn to Isaac. “I didn’t know you were such a tough guy.”

Excerpt from WIP, Bare Bones of Justice (working title), set in 1963

Daily word prompt: Local

1963 – No law against domestic violence

I open the door for Deputy Garvey. But it’s not him. He’s pudgy around the waist and not much taller than me. His eyes squint into a fine line that matches his lips. I motion him inside but don’t ask him to sit.

“Problem?” he says.

“Who the hell are you?” Olvie’s opens another beer.

“Officer Lancaster. And you are?”

“The owner of this house. Where’s Garvey.”

“Off. So, what’s the problem?” I don’t like the way he’s staring at Isaac.

“I’m Nora Roberts and the problem’s mine. I live across the street and the problem is my husband. Deputy Garvey came to my house yesterday. I’m sure he wrote some kind of report. He hit me.”

“Not against the law,” Lancaster says.

“And that makes it right?” Olvie lets out a soft burp.

Lancaster rolls his eyes. “So, Mrs. Roberts. Something else happened?”

The three-year-old has given up trying to wake up Gladys. She leaves the couch and starts running in tiny circles.

“Mrs. Roberts?” Isaac says. “Mind if I take her in the kitchen to find a snack?”

She nods, looking Relieved. “Go with Isaac, Millie.” Mrs. Roberts turns back to the deputy. “Yes, something else happened. Tonight, Lester made another threat. He said, well, he said that if I ever crossed him again, he’d take the children and burn down the house with me in it. Then he peeled off down the street to God knows where.”

“Threats aren’t against the law,” Lancaster says looking bored.

“Doesn’t make it righ,” Olvie slurs.

“I’ll make a note. Anything else?”

Mrs. Roberts shakes her head, her eyes cast downward.

“Okay then. And who’s the colored boy in the kitchen?”

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Lancaster,” I say, opening the door.

“Officer Lancaster, young lady.”

Olvie stands and sways on her feet. “Get your pompous ass off my property and don’t come back.”

Lancaster’s eyes spark fire. “You best be respectful to me. I’ve arrested folks on less charges than speaking to me like that.”

“No doubt,” Olvie says, flipping a hand. “Now get your ass off my property. And while you’re at it, try saving someone. It will be a good change for you. Now, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.”

He points a stern finger toward Olvie. “I’ll be watching you. And,” he nods toward the kitchen, “the people inside.”

“So you’ll watch over me then, Officer Lancaster?” Mrs. Roberts says.

But he doesn’t respond. He leaves without doing a damn thing to help a woman whose husband threatened to kill her.

Olvie sighs and leans back in her chair. “Well, that was productive.”

I want to tell her that she didn’t make things any better. In fact, she probably made things worse for Isaac.

Excerpt from my WIP, Bare Bones of Justice (working title)

Relieved

Contending with Fear

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I sit next to Gladys and, without choice, allow my head to throb. My eyes are filled with invisible grains of sand. My body is limp from exhaustion. Mrs. Roberts must feel the same way, only worse. She also has to contend with two young children and an abusive husband.

And Isaac. He has to contend with the fear for his safety, and the physical proof of racism.

If I didn’t have parents who fought for civil rights, would I be a clueless white girl whose only worry was flirting with the right boy, making descent grades, wondering what fun I would have the next day? Sometimes, I wish it were that easy. But I can’t go back on what I know. I can’t ignore the plight of my new friends, including Olvie.

I see now that she is a lonely woman. She loved a man who died before she had the chance to marry him. It’s made her stiff, like the plaster-molded Gladys and Fritz. There’s more I don’t know about Olvie. What? Who wrote her those letters that Isaac and I haven’t looked at since his scorpion bite?

The door opening startles me, but seeing Isaac, I relax.

“You okay, Chicken Coop?” he says.

I struggle to shrug my shoulders.

He sits next to me and sighs. “Damn, what a fucking day.”

“A fucking day.”

He turns sideways on the couch to look at me. “You really are scared of fires. Thought Olvie just made that shit up.”

“Not this time.” I tell him about the KKK crosses on my front lawn.

“Well, if I had to come here and meet a white girl, I’m glad it’s someone who understands.”

I want to tell him how I value our friendship but I’m so tired, my lips won’t move. I also want to tell him that I don’t understand, not really. My skin’s not dark.

“Willie, Lieutenant Davis, is going to help me.”

Isaac’s words Puncture my veins with new energy. “What? How?”

 

Excerpt from my WIP set in 1963, Working Titles: The Bare Bones of Justice/Plastic Justice

Daily Word prompt: Puncture

Bare Bones of Justice

 

 

 

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I feel woozy. Isaac’s baby sister had died too young and his brother had been murdered.

“No need being mad at Uncle Elias,” Isaac says. “He’s seen more things than most of us. He knows the rules, the law of the land.”

“Yeah? And he thinks those laws are good?” Olvie says. “All he does is live day to day feeling bad that he wasn’t born white. Why can’t he stand up to things once in a while.”

“He’s just fine being a colored man. He’s just scared.”

“Scared? Everybody’s scared of something.”

I want to ask Olvie what she’s scared of. Not now. I’ve never seen her so serious.

“You’re scared for Sylvia,” she continues. “You’re scared you might be the next one to be beaten and locked up. Chicken Coop here is afraid fire.”

How did she know that?

“So, what do I do?” Isaac asks.

“Do?” Olvie picks lint off of Gladys’ moo-moo, hesitating. “What does Elias think? Not that it matters, of course.”

“This time, he’s scared for me. I told him the whole story. I had to. You know, in case a deputy comes to pick me up. After I told him, he went—”

Olvie holds up a hand. “Let me guess. He went to his Sweet Home Baptist Church to pray for his sweet home and kinfolk.”

Isaac nods. “He asked me to go, but I couldn’t.”

“Uh-huh. How’s prayer worked for your uncle so far?”

“Can’t answer that, Olvie,” Isaac says. “God and me are on the outs right now.”

Olvie sighs. “Fair enough.”

The whistling starts. The Andy Griffith Show is about to come on.

Olvie stands and, to my disbelief, she turns down the TV Volume.

“Maybe you should find an ambulance chaser,” she says, sitting back down again. “Chicken Coop? Don’t your folks know folks in the NAACP?”

“Mr. Overton. But he’s not a lawyer. I’ll ask when they call.”

“Oh, no you won’t. There’s no need for your parents to turn around and come home. We’ll figure this out on our own.” Olvie stares at Gladys. “What do you think?”

Isaac and I roll our eyes and wait for the end of their silent conversation.

“She said chopping off your finger is no longer an option.” Olvie grins. “I say we visit Overton. He’s bound to know someone. Or …” She looks up at the ceiling and sniffs something I can’t smell. “Or, we take Pontiac and drive to Birmingham. Clear this up once and for all so those cops won’t think you ran away from a crime.”

Isaac stands. “As much as you think you understand, you don’t. We cross those county lines and I won’t have a chance to clear anything but my bowels.”

Olvie crinkles her nose. “Well, that’s a disgusting thought. You just cleaned Pontiac and now your want to soil her with your scared shit?”

“Deputy Garvey,” I say. “He seems decent enough. How about we talk to him. Get his advice.”

“Good one, Chicken Coop.” Olvie heads toward the phone.

“Wait just a goddamn minute,” Isaac says. “This is my life you two are talking about. Maybe I don’t want you to call a policeman. Even one you both know.”

Olvie stops. “Okay, Wisenheimer. You think I wear a white hood when I’m sleeping?”

“I know better than that,” he says. “But police haven’t been so kind to Negros.”

“Isaac,” I say, hoping I’m right. “I’ve talked to Deputy Garvey. And yes, I know you’re skeptical of police. But I think he might just do you right. Plus, he also knew my grandmother, and liked her.”

“Was your grandmother colored,” he says frowning.

“Not that I know of.” I grin. “But she was a tolerant person who hated injustice.”

 

Excerpt from my WIP, Bare Bones of Justice (working title)

Daily Word Prompt: Volume

Sitting in the back of the bus

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I’m sitting with Isaac in the back of the bus as we pass Pease Park, one of my favorites. Daddy said Governor Elisha Pease owned the land for a slave plantation. But Pease believed in the Union’s cause so I must imagine that he treated them with kindness. Pease also owned the area the area now known as Clarksville. Freedman Charles Clark Griffin bought two acres of that land for one-hundred dollars, the land where Elias Ford has his home.

But Shoal Creek, the grass and the oak trees, aren’t what catch my eye. I’d recognize that red Schwinn anywhere. He’s staring at the bus.

“Duck down, Isaac.”

Isaac doesn’t ask why until he scrunches down in the seat, his eyes wide.

“It’s asshole. He must have followed us.”

Ours is the next stop. We don’t get off. Fifteen minutes later, we find ourselves back downtown. The bus’ engine shuts off. I have to pee in a bad way.

The driver stands up, his hands on his hips. “This ain’t no tour bus,” he yells to us.

“Sorry,” I yell back. “I must have fallen asleep. I’ll stay awake this time, I promise.”

“What about you, boy?”

“Must’a dozed off too. I’m headed for Clarksville.”

When more people climb the steps to board, Dick-Driver restarts the engine.

“I think we lost him,” I say. “He won’t find me now.”

“We’re stopping at Clarksville first,” the driver fumes out.

Isaac is the only Negro on the bus.

We pull to a stop. The brakes screech.. “Out,” Dick-Driver says.

When I follow Isaac out the door, the driver shouts at me. “Where you think you’re going?”

Fifteen passengers turn their heads and glare at me.

“Home,” I say.

“Home,” Isaac says as he waits for me to get off the bus.

“What a jerk,” I mumble.

“Shoot, that was nothing. But I don’t mind saying, it feels good to be in Clarksville again. No offense or anything. I enjoyed the movie.”

“None taken. Can I use your outhouse?”

Isaac nods. “Uncle Elias keeps it real clean.”

After the bladder relief, I meet Isaac on the front porch. “I was wondering. Mind if I look at your books. I think that’s another thing we have in common. You know, movies, books, dislike for mannequins.”

“What time is it?”

“Not time for your uncle to be home if that’s what you’re asking. Besides, I won’t stay long. I have to get back to Olive’s.”

Isaac ushers me inside. Of course, I see no TV or radio.

“A hurry to get back to the mannequins?” he says.

“Yep. Can you imagine if Gladys and Fritz only have Olvie to talk to?”

Isaac snickers and points to the books. The one open next to his sleeping pallet has no writing on the outside. “Your journal?”

“Private, if you don’t mind. Now it’s my turn.” Isaac heads out the front door.

The bright green cover is the first of his books to grab my attention. The Negro Motorist Green-Book was about how to avoid problems when travelling. I dig further—The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Harriet, the Moses of Her People by Sarah Bradford.

The last book is called Black Like Me written by John Howard Griffin. Something about this book jars a Distant memory. Is it on our bookshelf at home? I open the front cover and see that it’s a library book. I pull the yellow card from its pocket. Checked out on July 31 by Sylvia Peterson. The day she disappeared.

Excerpt from my WIP, working title Olvie and Chicken Coop, set in 1963.

 

Daily word prompt: Distant

Separate but (not treated) Equal

After Isaac puts the Pontiac in neutral and maneuvers it out on the driveway, he asks me to hand him a screwdriver. He tightens some do-ma-hickey then replaces the battery with the one he picked up at the local auto part’s store.

“You sure know a lot about a lot of things, Isaac Ford,” I tell him. “And don’t dare say anything stupid like, ‘so you think I’m smarter than the average colored boy.’”

“I read a lot. And my mama teaches at my school. The Academy for Black Youth in case you’re wondering.”

“We don’t have any Negros in my school. Not because they can’t come but because most of them live across town.”

“Separate but Equal,” he says, shaking his head.

I think of my summer reading assignment — A Separate Peace.

“Thing is, Chicken Coop. I want to make something of myself. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how. I can’t play music, I don’t want to be a preacher—”

“Then do something else. Be a mechanic. Be a teacher. Be whatever you want.”

“Okay. I’ll be a surgeon. After they let me in a university because of my a-Maze-ing chemistry and biology grades, I graduate. Then, I look for a job that will hire a colored surgeon. And, if I’m lucky enough to land that job, white folks will say, ‘I don’t want some colored boy operating on me.’ Then, I’m back where I started. Without a job.”

“You’re so cynical, Isaac.”

“Cynical?” He points a finger at my chest. “You know nothing. Nothing! What do I have to be cheery-faced about? Huh? That I can fix a goddam car? Tell Olvie it’s ready. She can drive it in the garage her own damn self. I’m going home.”

From my WIP about forging friendships during the Civil Rights Movement (1963)

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