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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photo credit

 

Retaliation of the wrong kind?

Isaac grabs Olvie’s arm as she reaches the doorknob. “Olvie, don’t you do it. I don’t need protection just because a man’s called me names. I’m used to it. And you marching over there and giving him a tongue lashing will only make things worse.”

“He’s right, Olvie,” I say.

Then I realize. Isaac’s endured this kind of treatment his whole life. So have his friends and family and so many others. I also realize that the bigoted man across the street is using Isaac to calm his own domestic storm, to diffuse the quarrel by placing greater importance on what he doesn’t know as his personal fear and stupidity.

We didn’t hear the rest of the conversation. And now, Deputy Garvey has driven off.

Something else occurs to me. “Olvie? You used to harass Isaac’s uncle every morning.”

“What? You think I’m no better than Roberts of Asshole? Is that what you’re trying to say?”

It’s a thought worthy of her Pursuing. “No. I’m just wondering why you stopped messing with him.”

Olvie shrugs. “Guess having his nephew work for me is a good enough retaliation.”

“Well, that makes me feel peachy,” say Isaac.

“Oh, Wisenheimer, don’t be so sensitive. It has nothing to do with you. You, I happen to like. Your uncle and me have had a beef a long while now.”

“Why? What did he do that was so bad?” Isaac asks.

Although Olvie turns to the side, I see the tears puddle in the corner of her left eye.

“That,” she says so quietly I can barely hear her, “is a long story. It’s also my story.”

 

Work in Progress – a novel about diverse friendships in 1963.

Daily prompt: Pursue

Snake panic, friend panic

 

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photo credit

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’?”

“So?”

“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

 

Snoopy of Dog Pile asks a question

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“TV Guide says Mayberry is calling to us,” Olvie says. “I don’t much care for Aunt Bee. She’s a prude. But I like it when she lectures Andy. Still, Andy and Barney are country bumpkins. But that Opie Taylor? He asks questions that make sense. And he teaches Andy more than he teaches his son. Chicken Coop, You could learn a lot from Opie Taylor.”

I could learn as much from Opie as I could from bumbling Barney Fife. Right now, I need real advice. I need my parents.

“When is Mom calling back?”

“Why? You can’t talk to me?” Olvie says. “You know me better than most now that you’ve seen my boobs. And I know you better, too. On the rag, you get bitchy.”

I picture telling Olvie about Tanner’s troubles, about the police showing up at her door any minute to ask for him. In my head, I hear her tell me to grab the bat under her bed and hit the deputy in the head if he tries to take away her employee.

Which reminds me. “Did you pay Tanner his wages?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, Snoopy of Dog Pile. But no, I forgot. Wonder why he didn’t ask. He asked for the job, didn’t he? Any person who asks for a job expects to get paid. If they don’t, they hold out their palm. And here I thought he was better than Elias Ford who fords not across the river when he could stand up right and stop acting like a slave.”

I hear Mom’s words. Now, more than ever, I know. Olvie might be a lot of things, but a racist isn’t one of them. Still, as Daddy once said, “When it comes to another human being, how can you truly judge them if you haven’t walked in their shoes? And not just for a mile, either. You’d have to walk in their shoes a whole lifetime. Otherwise, you’d never know where they’d been, what they’d seen, what’s important to them …”

When Daddy kept talking, I finally put up and hand and walked to my room. I don’t really know anything about Mr. Ford. Or Olvie for that matter. I suppose I’m only trying to know myself. At least that’s a start.

“Olvie,” I say a bit hesitantly. “Can I ask you a question?”

“A long or a short one?”

“Does it matter?” I say, sounding like her.

She glares at me.

“The question is short. It’s up to you how long your answer will be. That is, if you want to answer at all.”

“Gotta love having Control of a situation,” she smiles. “Well, go on then.”

“Have you ever been discriminated against?”

“Me? Discriminated against? More times than I can count.” Without saying more, she leaves for the bathroom saying, “Can’t watch a show on a full bladder. They gave me so much of that IV crap that I can’t stop peeing.”

 

Excerpt from “Olvie and Chicken Coop” (working title), set in 1963

 

 

Driving home from the hospital

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We’ve only been waiting a few minutes when Tanner pulls the green and white Pontiac up to the front of the hospital. He hops out of the car, his teeth glistening in the dim light of dusk. Soon, I’ll be the one who makes his smile go away.

He opens the passenger door for Olvie. “Miss,” he says, ushering her inside like a real chauffer.

“How many dents and scratches did you put on Pontiac?” she says.

“Only one.” He smiles. “Buffed out easy as pie.”

Olvie lets out a hoomph. “Think you’re funny, don’t you Wise Guy?”

“Yes’m. Sometimes, my funny bone pops out an’ jes’ makes the white folk laugh.”

“Stop talking like Elias. Your uncle thinks he’s living on some plantation in Mississippi picking cotton for his Master.”

Tanner starts the car and pulls away from the hospital. “Uncle Elias’ Roots are still in his ancestors cotton field. And it’s Massa, not Master.”

I catch Tanner smiling at me through the rear view mirror.

“Don’t you dare stink up my car with slave dialect,” Olvie snarls.

“As long as you don’t dress me up in a moo-moo or as an Injun.”

“Don’t be crude, Wise Guy. I’ll have you know that Fritz is no ordinary Indian.”

“That’s for sure,” Tanner mutters.

Olvie huffs. “He’s an Indian Chief, and don’t you forget it.”

 

“How do you know Fritz likes being a Chief?,” he continues. “Maybe he just wants to be a mannequin.”

“Why you!” Olvie squeaks.

“Okay, maybe he liked being a Churman and wearing those lederhosen.”

“Shows what you know. The German Fritz got tired of thinking about the damn Nazis’.”

If I hadn’t watched the news, hearing their banter would have put me in a state of euphoria. Tanner seems totally happy, almost like a new person. But, knowing what I know, nothing in the world is funny.

Excerpt from my Work in Process, Olvie and Chicken Coop (working title), set in 1963 during segregation.

Haters

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photo credit

I can’t see anything out of the ordinary, only Olvie’s backyard. But I hear it. Words my mother has heard slammed in her direction.

“<N…> lover!” the boys chant.

Five of them emerge from the backyard bushes and run towards the front yard.

I grab a frying pan and head for the front door.

“Cooking out tonight?” Olvie says.

I ignore her and run outside.

Boys scramble in the cab and the back of the pick-up truck and shoot me the bird. Kent, the last one in, glares at me. “Beam that Fry pan over your own head, Grace. You’re not thinking straight.”

They peel off. Hearing the frying pan slam the sidewalk gives me a bit of satisfaction. But not enough.

“Chicken Coop?”

Olvie stands on the porch, her eyes pinched and curious. “Somebody got shot?”

 

The damp cloth feels good on my forehead, but I could forego Gladys’ positioned arm against mine.

“Want me to call that imbecile Garvey?” Olvie says sitting next to me on the leopard skin couch.

I shake my head. “He couldn’t do anything anyway. Name-calling’s not against the law.”

“So, who were those ragamuffins?”

“I only know one of them. They called me a <n….> lover.”

“Next time,” she says, “Don’t be so stupid. Pull out the cast iron skillet instead of that cheap enamel one. No, never mind that. You’re too scrawny to lift it. Be best if you grab the baseball bat under my bed. But if you swing it, don’t miss.

“I don’t want to be violent,” I say, trying to sound like my parents.

“You hear what I said? Don’t miss.”

 

 

The unenlightened neighbor

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Olvie pours herself another cup of Folgers while I start the pancake mix. “I think that was the door, Olvie.”

“Come in, Wise-Guy,” Olvie yells.

“Well, that was pleasant,” Tanner says, wearing a clean pair of “underground” railroad pants.

I pour circles of batter into the hot skillet. “What?”

“Man came charging toward me from across the street. Said I didn’t have any business being here. Guess he doesn’t like Negros.”

“Asshole,” Olvie mumbles.“That’s because he doesn’t like himself, that stupid son of a bitch.”

Pondering her words, I wonder if Olvie is really smarter than the rest of us. Mom and Dad told me people are often scared of things they don’t understand. And instead of trying to figure out what they’re afraid of, they resist anything new, anything different. Mr. Roberts must not have any Negro friends. If he did, he wouldn’t be afraid of a teenage boy.

“What did you tell him?” I ask.

“Nothing. I ignored him.”

“Why’d you do a thing like that?” Olvie says. “Should have told him off.”

“And why would I do that?” he says. “I don’t want trouble.”

Olvie huffs. “You sound like your uncle. ‘Don’t wants to cause any trouble, ma’am. Yes’m, anything you want, ma’am. Ain’t no good stirring the pot, you see.’ Ugh.”

“You think Uncle Elias should stand up for himself? Like I told Chicken Coop, he’s old school. He’s still afraid of the white man’s world.”

“Oh, and you’re not?” Olvie says.

“Oh, yes’m, I is alright,” he says in dialect. “Jes’ try nots to show it.”

Olvie stops in mid Chuckle. “Elias still thinks garlic hanging over a bed will cure a cold. If you tell him otherwise, he won’t listen. Speaking of, how’s that finger, Wise Guy. Need me to chop it off? You hung those tools up real nice in the utility room. I can find my saw easy now.”

Tanner squeezes his hand. “No thanks. Think I’ll hold on to it for a while.”

This makes Olvie laugh. She has a good laugh, one I’d like to hear more often.

Excerpt from my work in progress set in 1963.

 

NOTE: The photo is of Emmett Till who reminds me of my character, Tanner Ford. This novel will be in honor and memory of Emmett.