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.

Climbing out of Guilt

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Cono Dennis, my father, at age 18

I still think it’s a crying shame that I had to spend so much time thinking it was my fault. I guess that’s what we do sometimes, take the blame for things that just aren’t our fault, especially when we don’t know any better. But back then I didn’t have a Colonel Posey to tell me any different.

Last week on the base, that responsibility was especially tough, and I don’t feel much like I lived up to it. I was right in the middle of running a training exercise when a young private missed the rope leading down from the

I still think it’s a crying shame that I had to spend so much time thinking it was my fault. I guess that’s what we do sometimes, take the blame for things that just aren’t our fault, especially when we don’t know any better. But back then I didn’t have a Colonel Posey to tell me any different.

Last week on the base, that responsibility was especially tough, and I don’t feel much like I lived up to it. I was right in the middle of running a training exercise when a young private missed the rope leading down from the Climbing wall. He fell fifteen feet to the ground, landing wrong. We all ran over and circled him like a bunch of buzzards.

“Sergeant Dennis,” he says, “My neck. I don’t feel so good.”

“Aw, you’ll be all right son,” I told him. “They’re coming to take ye to the hospital. You’ll be all right.”

But he wasn’t. Private Henderson died later that day.

So far, almost every night since then, I imagine him lying there on that hard ground, his eyes staring into mine with confusion and fear. I’d lied to him.

Colonel Posey told me I had done nothing wrong, that it wasn’t my fault Private Henderson had died. He told me I was the best sergeant he’d had so far, told me how he appreciated me. I looked at him for a second or two until all the guilt flew off my shoulder like specks of dirt in a windstorm.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story

Crazy Olvie wants things timely

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photo credit

Before Olvie gets a chance to say anything, I stare at this boys black and white railroad pants and the oversized sports coat that covers part of his white t-shirt. His black hair is cut short, but it’s curly. Not straightened like some Negros I’ve seen downtown around Congress Avenue. He gets closer. His expression sits somewhere between shame and anger.

Tanner’s not a grown-up. Maybe somewhere around my age, but it’s hard to tell since he’s not much taller than me.

Mr. Ford clears his throat. “Mrs. Monroe, this here’s my nephew, Tanner Ford. My sister’s son. Came here from Alabama for a visit.”

“So? Why would I care?” she says, rude like always.

“Miss Monroe,” Tanner says, his eyes downcast. “I threw that rock. I plan to get a job here while I’m visiting. I’ll pay for it.”

The only part of Olvie that moves is her mouth when it drops to her chin.

While we wait for Olvie’s voice to return, I say, “I’m Grace Cooper. I’m staying here until my folks get back from—”

“Overseas,” Olvie says. “And you will address me as Mrs. Monroe. You hear? ”

Tanner looks at his uncle and squints like I did when Mom told me about Olvie. Although she’d never been married, she pretends to everyone that she had.

“And before you ask, I’m not kin to Marilyn Monroe,” she say. “She’s been dead a year now and I’m still here.” Olvie finger-poke-poke-pokes his chest. “And you’re damn right about paying me back. I don’t like having my little house look like a shanty with cardboard windows. Next thing you know, some people will think it’s okay to throw appliances on my front lawn. And, you gave this girl quite a shock. I was afraid I’d have to sit up with Chicken Coop last night so she wouldn’t have nightmares. Such a shock for this poor girl. That’s right.” She turns to me. “Might still have to sit in your room till you go to sleep, right Chicken Coop?”

I shrug at her foolishness. She knows better than anyone how we have our windows broken all the time. A lot of pissed off folks don’t like my parent’s beliefs on Civil Rights.

I look at Tanner. He’s got the brightest green eyes I’ve ever since on a human being.

And all that glass I had to pick out of Gladys’ wig, poor thing.”

When Tanner looks puzzled, Mr. Ford whispers something in his ear. Probably reassuring him that Gladys isn’t human.

Come to think on it,” Olvie continues. “You can start tomorrow. My utility closet needs sorting. You’ll do it for free, of course.”

“Okay,” Tanner says.

Mr. Ford gives Tanner a soft thump to his arm.

“Yes, ma’am,” Tanner says.

“First thing in the morning. And I get up at seven.” Olvie looks up. “Oh, wait just a gosh darn minute. You’re not in some kinda trouble are you?”

From my work in progress set in 1963.

Timely

Unraveling the meaning of “an eye for an eye”

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Young Cono Dennis

Mr. Pall thinks he’s tougher than a pair of old leather boots, probably because he used to be some kinda wrestler or something. He isn’t nearly as tough as Dad, who last week had beaten a man unconscious on Main Street just because the man spouted off to him. I walk into his office, where’s he’s sitting behind his desk looking puffed up with importance.

“Cono, were you smoking in the schoolyard?”

“No sir, I wadn’t.”

“Were the Allridge boys smoking?”

I think, Why didn’t ye just call them in here like you’ve done me?, but I don’t say that. Maybe it was Mr. Pall’s brother-in-law, who Dad had beaten up last week.

“I have no idee, sir,” I say. “I reckon you ought’a ask them.”

His right eye stares a hole in my left eyeball. His left one kinda wanders around on its own, like it’s been punched one too many times. Maybe he grunts with Mrs. Berry on occasion.

He opens up his desk drawer and pulls out a rubber hose. He thumps it on the desk a few times and says, “Well, I need to whip you with this hose.”

I stare back into his bad eye with both of my good ones and say, “Go ahead, sir. But I jes’t half to tell ye that my daddy said if you ever laid a hand on me, he’d have to come up here and whup you.” I say it real nice though.

He sits real quiet in his principal’s chair, like he’s picturing himself drawing a crowd on Main Street while my dad beats the tar outta his one good eye. While he’s chewing on that idea like a piece of gum, I’m busy staring at him, thinking that his front teeth stick out so far he could eat an apple through a keyhole. After that picture in my mind, I’m not scared one little bit.

Finally, he says, “Git on outta here, Cono.”

“Yes, sir,” I say, ’cause there’s no sense in not being polite.

At lunchtime I’m eating my sandwich, minding my own business, when Tommy scopes me out and says, “Cono, what’cha got fer lunch?”

Even though he’s five times bigger than me I say, “It don’t make no difference ’cause ye ain’t getting none of it.”

“Cono, you shouldn’t a’ stuck that knife in me that time.”

I look up at him with a face as serious as Dad’s and say, “Tommy, if ye mess with me in any way, shape’r form, I’ll cut yer head plumb off with the same pocketknife I used before.”

And just as I’m picturing his dead body without a head like Wort Reynolds, Tommy Burns walks away.

School’s out for the day, and it was another discouraging one. I grab Delma’s hand and start walking back home, now having a little time to think about what happened.

The Allridge boys had been smoking like a bunch a chimney stacks, but I ain’t one to rat on somebody else when it’s none of my business. And, I like to think that Dad would beat the tar outta Mr. Pall if he laid a hand on me. But Dad never said that. If Dad ever finds out that I lied, I might as well curl up in a ball and prepare myself—or maybe just grab my axe.

Lying isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, we have to lie in order protect ourselves and the people we care about.

An “eye for an eye” is what I did today. Maybe that part of the Bible makes sense after all.

From No Hill for a Stepper, the story of my father growing up in poverty during the Great Depression.

Unravel

Don’t listen to them

How can you Heal when:

they say you’re too fat or too thin–

they ask where you’re going and where you’ve been–

they say you’re too loud or too meek?–

But if you step away from critique–

Then you win.

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painting by me

 

Out of his comfort zone (until the movie comes on)

 

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photo credit

“Well, well, well,” says asshole pimply-faced Kent behind the glass window. “Thought you were leaving for the summer.”

How could the tolerant Mr. Pryor hire this racist?

“Two tickets.” I thrust the money in the hole.

“Two? Where’s your friend?”

I don’t want to get Tanner in trouble. I also want to stand my ground. “He’s behind me.”

Kent squints at Tanner. “Now you’re friends with a …” He looks behind him. Mr. Pryor faces toward us. He’s chatting with an older lady with bluish hair. “Friends with a colored? He your boyfriend?”

“Let’s go, Chicken Coop,” Tanner whispers behind me. “Ain’t worth it.”

“My friend and me came to watch a movie. Now, sell us the goddamn tickets, Kent.”

There is that look of anger and there is a look of hatred. Kent’s wearing both. He hands me the ticket.“Next,” he says through clinched teeth.

Tanner finds a place to sit in the back of the theater. I go for popcorn and cokes. When I return, he asks if we can put a couple of seats between us.

From my Work in Progress about a biracial friendship in 1963.

Outlier