There was a reason Jennifer, once of Jenny’s Barnyard Adventure, sat in the back of my head for so long before she became an airline pilot. She sat there with a kid named Louis and a boy who used to play Cub Scout baseball on a team our pack faced back in 1971.
Louis swam in the same park pool where thousands of kids took swimming lessons each summer. My mom and I used to play Crazy Eights, a game my mother mostly made up for me, while we waited for my sister’s lessons to end. We sat on a wooden bench under a concrete canopy and slapped the cards down between us. She would shuffle, and the cards blurred in her fist mesmerized me.
After my sister’s lessons were over, mom would send us all into the pool to swim with the other kids. As a parent now, I realized she let us swim so she could sit there and think without a bunch of children, four of us in all, clogging up her senses with chatter, screams and blood from all those skinned elbows, hands and knees.
When we went into the pool after lessons were over, I always looked for Louis, a child with skin as smooth and dark as cloudy nights in the country. We dived and splashed, swam and dunked until we could hardly breathe. Each time, my mother would scold me for losing my younger brother and sisters to disappear into the pool-wide fray of splashing children.
She only found out about Louis toward the end of the summer and warned me not to play with black kids. The next week, after my lessons and Crazy Eights game, I watched my mom until she wasn’t looking, dodged my brother and sisters and fled with Louis to the far side of the melee in the pool. When she found me later, she forbid me to play with black kids. We skipped the last week of swimming lessons and didn’t go back to the pool until the next summer.
Over the next nine months, I often heard my parents and their friends talk about black people. It was strange, like my ears had been opened to a new sound. Before that scolding, I had never heard them talk about blacks before.
“I don’t trust them,” my dad said once over the fence to Mr. Jenkins, the next door neighbor.
“Yeah,” Jenkins said. “They have that funny smell to ’em. And you can’t pick out of crowd; they all look the same, you know.” It’s hard for me to remember exactly what they said now, but the language of racism doesn’t change.
My parents and their friends talked like this all the time it seemed.
Then, once, my little brother and I stood at our back fence watching a group of black men shaking an apple tree in the neighbor’s yard. The three of them put their hands to the trunk, and moved their bodies in unison. They were laughing, apples falling all around them.
“Say, son, you want to take some apples to your mama?” the biggest of the men asked. He had a nice smile and friendly eyes. My brother looked at me, his red hair glinting in the afternoon sun.
“Sure,” I said. The man filled my shirt with ripe apples, his hands like mitts around the fruit. He seemed gentle, and his hands were rough and cracked. I wanted to touch them.
My mother was surprised when I came inside. “The men out back gave us these apples,” I said, spilling them out on the kitchen table.
“Where did they get them? Did they steal them?” she asked, looking out the kitchen window.
I was confused. She asked, quite frightened, “Did you eat any of them?” Her face was close to mine.
“I wanted to, but the man brought over a bunch of them and asked me to hold my shirt out.” My brother stood mute next to the table.
“Don’t you ever take things from a stranger,” she said. “You have no idea what’s on that fruit. You don’t know who those black men are, or what they want from you. I ought to make you take them right back out there. You stay away from them.”
She put the apples in the sink and washed them with a brush. My brother and I went outside and sat on the stoop. We watched those men cut that tree down.
I was surprised to find Louis right away the next summer when we started swimming lessons again. He didn’t smell funny and he looked like Louis. The water beaded on his hair and dripped down over his wide smile. We ditched our siblings to play in the deep end of the pool, where we really had to swim to stay alive. The whole summer, I was careful never to let my mother see us together.
I never saw Louis again after that summer and missed him. But that fall, after a Cub Scout game of hardball where our pack played a team of black Cub Scouts, I played with a friendly kid who reminded me of Louis in the way he talked, who even looked like him a little bit, but not in the way I had heard others say. Both of us were waiting for our parents after the game. There were a few other kids on my team there. My mom was supposed to pick me and my teammates up right after the game but was nowhere in sight. Evening fell across the ball diamond, I remember. I played catch with the kid until my teammates came up to us.
“What are you doing with the nigger,” Jim asked. He was our team captain. Everyone looked up to him. “We beat them ‘cause they can’t play. Niggers weren’t made to play baseball.”
I was stunned. The kid looked confused. The rest of his teammates had gone. With the five of us on the field, the black kid was alone. I desperately wanted my teammates to leave us be. But I was the fat kid they always made fun of, and I wanted them to like to like me.
I walked up and took the ball from that kid. “I forgot,” I said, wanting that to be the end of it.
But it wasn’t. “Look at them nigger eyes,” a kid named Keith said. Keith was the best athlete on the team, and one of the most popular kids at school. “And that nigger hair.”
The taunted kid sat on the back of a park bench at the edge of the field. “What are you guys going to do about it?” he said, not looking at anyone in particular. “We were playing just fine until you guys came up. You can’t do that.”
“Sure we can,” Angelo said. “You’re a nigger and we can do anything we want.”
“But this is my park,” the black kid said. “This is my neighborhood.”
“Your park and your neighborhood,” Jim said, “smells like niggers. I can’t wait until we get out of here, chile. That’s what’s niggers call their kids, ain’t it? Nigger chile.”
“Chillen, that’s what they call them, chillen and chillens,” Robert said. “They can’t even talk right. Ol’ man river, and all that, with lots of chillens in there.”Angelo turned to me, “Where the hell is your mom? Why is she late? We are out here in a nigger park and she’s late. I can’t believe it, you fat bastard. Why don’t you go call your fat bastard mom and get us the hell out of here? I know . . . you’re a fat bastard and can’t walk to the phone.”
All of four of my teammates laughed. It was mean laughter that cuts a person in two, the kind of laughter that echoes for decades.
I looked at the black kid squirming on the back of the park bench. My face burned as I fought back tears. Suddenly, I wanted that kid, whom I was having so much fun with, to be hurt. I wanted to make him cry. I didn’t know what else to do with my mom late (as usual) and having crossed a line with my only friend on the field.
“Yeah, chile,” I screamed, fighting back tears. I tried but couldn’t call him what my teammates had called him. “What do you want for Christmas, chile? Is that what Santa says to you? What are you gonna get for Christmas, chile? Black dollies? Huh, chile.”
I taunted him over and over again, poking the kid in the side sometimes with my ball glove. I said things I had heard my parents say, hoping they would make me feel whole and bring admiration from my teammates. But I heard gravel and razor blades in my voice, and my throat hurt. He sat there on the back of the park bench, fidgeting, looking toward the street and hoping his mom would show up soon.
I kept it up, with my teammates laughing behind me, until that kid started to cry. It didn’t make me feel better. I kept jeering at the kid to keep from feeling his hurt spreading like poison inside me.
When my mom finally showed up, we left what I had done at the park as we crawled into my mom’s car. My teammates didn’t seem to feel bad. They chattered and laughed in the back seat as I watched that kid cry into his elbow. When we started away, he jumped up suddenly, eyes red. He ran down the street chasing after the car. He threw rocks that skid up the street behind us. He looked so much like my lost friend Louis. We drove out of his neighborhood back home, where it was whiter. I never felt so empty.
It takes a long time to heal a bad memory. I never made fun of anyone like that again. I tried to forget that kid, and he wound up with Louis, and finally with Jenny and hundreds of other bad memories I locked up in a festering dark place in the back of my head—a wound that would not heal until I was far too old.
Now I wish I could find Louis and the other kid. I would take them trout fishing and tell them I was sorry. I would teach them to read the skin of a cutthroat or wander among the iridescent red and green spots along a brown trout’s back. Everything would be all right, now and back then. There wouldn’t be a scar because we were never injured.