January 6, 2006
Louis, the baseball player, and the
Louis and I swam at the Swope Park Pool where thousands of kids took swimming lessons each summer. After my lesson, my mom and I used to play Crazy Eights while we waited for my sister's lessons to end. We sat on a wooden bench under the concrete canopy on the patio above the pool and slapped the cards down between us. She would shuffle. I sat mesmerized by the cards blurred in her fists.
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 get a break from the chatter, screams and blood from all those skinned elbows, hands and knees.
When we went into the pool, I always looked for Louis, a child with skin as velvet smooth and black as cloudy nights in the country. We dived and splashed, swam and dunked until we could hardly breathe.
But in the summer of 1971, things changed. My mom found out the kid I was always taking about was black, and she told me not to play with black kids. The next week, after my lesson and Crazy Eights game, I waited until my mom wasn't looking, dodged my brother and sisters, and fled into the frenzy of splashing kids with Louis. When she found me later, she forbade 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 next months, I often heard my parents and their friends talk about black people. It was strange, like my ears had been opened to hear a new sound. Before my mom’s scolding at the pool, I had never heard them talk about black people before.
"I don't trust them," my dad said once over the fence to Mr. Jenkins, the next-door neighbor. I don’t know how the subject came up. They had been mowing grass. I just knew what it was about.
"Yeah," Jenkins said, leaning on his lawnmower. He sold houses for a living. My dad worked downtown. "They’re prone to it — crime, you know. It’s in them to take when you aren’t lookin’. I once had a nigra kid working for me, you know, and long as I was watching, he did fine. But as soon as I turned my back…well, tools came up missin’, customer’s stuff from their houses. It was a mess. ‘Sides, they smell and look the same, mostly."
My parents and their friends talked like this all the time. Conversations over when “they” were going to start moving into our south Waldo neighborhood. Jokes about doormen, janitors and elevator operators. Fred, the man who lived across the street, had his car broken into. He and my dad loved guns and talked about them all the time. This time, however, Fred came over and asked my dad what kind of gun he would use if he were to go on a “nigger hunt.” I asked my dad what that meant. He only told me never to use that word. He told Fred he wasn’t going on any hunt. But he would keep his eye out for “them.”
Then, later, my little brother and I stood at our back fence watching a group of black men doing yard work and trimming trees for Mr. Jenkins. They were shaking an apple tree before pruning it. The three of them with their hands on the trunk, moving their bodies in unison. They were laughing and laughing. Apples fell all around them.
"Say, son, you want to take some apples to your mom?" the biggest of the men asked me. 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?" 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. He told me to have you wash them first." My brother stood mute next to the table.
"Don't you ever take things from a stranger," she said. "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 happy to find Louis right away the next summer after my first swimming lesion. I figured Mr. Jenkins was wrong: Louis 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.
That fall, after a game of Cub Scout hardball where our pack played a team of black Cub Scouts, I threw the ball with a friendly kid from the other team. We were waiting for our parents after the game. A few other kids on my team were sitting on the bench. My mom was supposed to pick us 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 taste of electricity flooded my mouth. The kid looked confused. The rest of his teammates had gone. With the five of us on the field, the black kid and I were alone, suddenly separated from each other. I desperately wanted my teammates to leave, so I could say I was sorry to the kid and go back to playing catch. But I was the fat kid they always made fun of, and I wanted them to like me.
I walked up and took the ball from that kid. "I forgot," I said. I wanted 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 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 smells like niggers,” Jim said. “I can't wait until we get out of here, chile. That's what's niggers call their kids, ain't it? 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, you fat bastard? Why is she late? We are out here in a nigger park and she is late. I can't believe it. 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 the four of them 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. I fought back tears. Suddenly, I wanted that kid, with whom I was having so much fun, 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? What are you gonna get for Christmas, chile? Black dollies? Huh, chile."
I said it over and over again, poking the kid in the side sometimes with my ball glove. I said things I had heard Fred and Jenkins and my friends say, hoping they would make me feel whole and bring admiration from my teammates. But my throat hurt; I had gravel and razor blades in my voice. He sat there on the back of the park bench, fidgeting, looking toward the street and hoping his mom would show up soon.
Cicadas buzzed in the trees, and yellow and orange sunset rays fell in the park. I kept it up, with my teammates behind me, until that kid started to cry. It didn't make me feel better. My friends, I could tell, were laughing at me. I jeered even harder to keep the hurt from spreading inside me like poison.
Later, we left behind 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 and cheeks wet with tears. He ran down the street after our car. He threw rocks that skid up behind us. We drove out of his neighborhood back home, where it was whiter. I never felt so empty.
I never made fun of anyone like that again. I tried to forget that kid, and Louis, and hundreds of other bad memories. But I still lay awake at night thinking about them. I pray they are well and happy. I wonder what I would say to make it right, now and back then, to make amends for my insecurity. I dream about what it would be if we were never scarred, if we were never injured.
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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