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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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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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.

Crazy Olvie wants things timely

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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

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

 

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“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

On this sad day

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Yesterday, April 3rd, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last sermons in Memphis.

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

On this day, April 4th, he was assassinated.

God Bless You, Dr. King.

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