|TFR Home Page||Contents||Prev. Page||Next Page||Comments|
By R. Thomas Hogg
"Sit in the car," Daddy said, then closed the door behind him. I rolled my window down for more air and watched as he crossed the lawn to where Mr. Hall stood with his buddies. They were drinkin beer, just as always, so sweaty it looked like they'd poured Budweiser all down their big hairy chests. They didn't pay any attention to Daddy, at first -- not until Daddy called out. Mr. Hall put his beer down. "What do you want, Fontenot?" he asked. Daddy walked up to him and didn't say nothin for a long time -- he just stared Mr. Hall in the face. None of Hall's buddies made a move. They just stood and watched, waitin to see what would happen. They wanted to see someone get hurt. I don't think they cared who.
Daddy started yellin. Mr. Hall started yellin back. I thought he was drunk on account of him teeterin a little on his feet, but he still got awful mad awful quick. I don't really think he even knew why Daddy was there -- he sure didn't act like it. Daddy raised his finger up to Mr. Hall's face and called him a no good son of a bitch. Mr. Hall grabbed Daddy's hand, and that was it. Daddy hit him hard in the stomach with his other hand. It must have hurt bad -- Mr. Hall bent over, fightin for air. Daddy looked at him for a long second. Too long. Mr. Hall stood up and swung at Daddy -- caught him right on the jaw. I remember yellin out. I started to get out of the car. Daddy heard me yell. He turned round and looked at me in the eye with a face that said "Stay put, if you know what's good for you." Mr. Hall nursed his knuckles, gettin some more courage from his friends. Daddy turned back around and charged at him. He grabbed Hall, threw him to the grass. Mr. Hall wrapped his legs around Daddy and pulled him down with him. The two of them rolled around, snarlin like a couple of bulldogs. Mr. Hall got a few good shots in, but Daddy ended up sittin on top -- he pinned Hall's arms to the ground with his knees. Daddy slugged him in the face. Once, twice, three times. He pounded away at him, with this monster look in his eyes. His lips curled back and his eyes went rabid. He's gone crazy, I thought. That's not my Daddy. Mr. Hall couldn't do nothin but take it. He made this noise like a horse bein' put down. His friends all backed off -- not a single one of 'em wanted to cross Daddy, with his crazy man's eyes.
It seemed like forever, but Daddy finally seemed to get tired. He blinked, got up and brushed himself off. He walked back to the car, leavin Mr. Hall lyin on the ground all bruised up and bloody. Mr. Hall kept makin that squealy horse noise, and I realized that he was cryin. It was hard to tell who he was, with all the blood.
His breath still comin hard and fire still in his face, Daddy sat down next to me and started up the engine. He squeezed the steerin wheel with bloody hands. I shrunk away. I thought I should say somethin, but couldn't for the life of me come up with a single word. I never saw him like that before -- never saw him like that after. I couldn't recognize him no more'n I could Mr. Hall.
"Promise me you won't tell your mother about this," Daddy said as we drove off.
I didn't say anythin right away, and so he tol' me again: "Promise me."
I watched Mr. Hall's wife come out and scream at his friends, watched her start to clean off the blood with her dress. I looked away to the trees. "I promise."
But I guess that's really only the middle of the story. It began for me when I first heard about Vera Johns at school. We were on recess -- Mr. Samuels didn't tolerate no talkin in class, so that's where the gossip happened -- when Billy Preston said he'd seen her on his way to school that mornin'. He didn't know her name, but he lived close to the colored neighborhood, so he saw her most days, I guess. I had seen her often enough, too. She was a pretty girl, a couple of years older than me, skinny but just startin to turn boys' eyes with her new bulges and such. She had lighter skin, more like a cane syrup than a molasses, and I remember she always used to walk about with a stiff back and a high head. Her clothes always looked a little nicer than the other kids who came from that part of town. One time I heard some colored boys givin her hell about it, sayin she thought she was a white girl -- she just ignored them and walked on her way, head high as ever. She had beans, that girl, I remember thinking, but that's pretty much all I had ever thought about her before that mornin.
Billy walked up to me and Dennis in the schoolyard. We were playin marbles, and I was glad for the interruption on account of the fact that Dennis was makin a mean showin. Billy watched Dennis shoot two of my marbles out before he said anythin.
"You know that colored girl? The one who wears all them pink things, lives up on Branton Road?"
Both Dennis and me said yeah, we knew who he was talkin about. Billy squatted down next to us, as if he had a secret. "You know I see her most mornings on her way to school, right? Well I didn't see her all week until this mornin, when she was back just like always."
"So?" Dennis asked.
"She was awful busted up. Got a black eye, a split lip. Had some big nasty lookin bruises on her arms, too, and maybe a broken nose."
"Who you think did that?" I asked, startin to gather up what marbles I had left. Dennis gave a huff -- he wouldn't have been happy unless he'd got every single one I had.
"Dunno. I thought you fellas might know somethin."
I thought about it. "No, not really. Coulda been Jimmy Adams and his cronies. I heard 'em makin fun of her one time."
"Nah," Dennis said. "Jimmy's all bark. I never seen him hurt no one. His pa would give him a good lickin if he did."
Billy thought about this. "Maybe it was her daddy. Maybe he's one of them that gets liquored up a lot, like Red Tilly's pa."
I shrugged. "Maybe. I never seen him."
"What're you so worked up for, anyway?" Dennis asked as he finally started to collect up his own marbles. "It don't matter nothin."
"I felt bad for her, was all. She seems nice enough -- I don't think she deserved a lickin like that, whoever gave it to her."
"Forget about it," I said. "It's not like you could do anythin."
Just then the recess bell rang, so we all lined up to get back to our classrooms -- back into our prison cells. You know that feelin that comes over every little kid who has to go back indoors, when April is turnin into May and summertime and bare feet are callin to 'em from just over the horizon. It's a shame to take kids out of a warm spring day and put 'em in a stuffy old classroom with a teacher that don't really like 'em all that much. Cagin wild rabbits, is what you're doin.
So, just like every other ten-year old boy on that fine spring day, I sat in the classroom for the rest of the afternoon and went through all the motions of tryin to pay attention, when thoughts of fishin and baseball -- the earth under my feet and the sun on my face -- kept pullin at my sleeve. After several hundred-minute hours (that now seem like they passed in an eyeblink, but I guess that's the way of things), the final bell rang. We ran out of the building, forgettin our arithmetic and our social studies as best we could so we could focus on more important things. The days were gettin longer and we didn't have any homework that afternoon, so a bunch of us boys got together to play ball in the schoolyard. We played until dinnertime, then headed home with our spirits high and our stomachs good and empty.
During those Depression years, of course, a good dinner could be hard to come by, but my daddy always made sure we had somethin on the table. He kept chickens in the yard and grew the best vegetable garden I think I ever saw -- okra, tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes. Not rich fare, I guess, but it kept me and my two brothers growin. I had my hopes set on fried chicken as I walked up the road with Billy, laughin and jokin around, smackin each other with our mitts. The smells of grass and wildflowers walked with us -- though every once in awhile we'd get a whiff of car exhaust -- as the sun went down low in the sky.
I said good-bye to Billy and turned up the drive to our three acres of land, whistlin as I went along. The house seemed heavy as I got there, as if someone had sat on it. I came through the back door as always, shoutin out to Mama that I'd made it home as I tossed my baseball mitt in the basket on the floor. Our house was generally a happy place. We all cared for one another, our daddy had a good job down at the oil plant (he was one of the few who never got laid off), and we were at church every Sunday, regular as clockwork. That's why the heaviness scared me so much that afternoon -- I'd never experienced such a thing, but I could feel it in the air, like somebody died.
Nobody was in the kitchen. I smelled chicken and dumplins on the stove, and looked out the window to see Momma on the side of the house takin down the laundry. She had a tired look on her face, so I decided not to bother her. I went into the den, where I saw Daddy talkin all heated with someone on the telephone.
"Yeah, that's right. Lester Hall."
He stopped while the other person said somethin. "I know, I know. But I can't think of anyone else it could be."
I could hear the voice on the other end as I stood still in the doorway, not wantin to bother him. He had a look in his eyes like I'd never seen before. He was boilin, but sort of sad at the same time. It scared me.
"Will you at least look into it? Ask some questions? It's your job, for Christ's sake!"
I'd heard Daddy cuss before, but I'd never heard him take the Lord's name in vain. I gasped a little -- Daddy looked up and saw me. He put his hand over the mouthpiece and told me to go to my room and study until they called us for dinner. I obeyed, knowin that this wasn't one of those times when I could argue with him.
I went into the room I shared with my big brother Harold, who sat on his bed readin comic books. He had a long look on his face. I asked him if he knew what had happened, and he told me he didn't, but that whatever it was it must've been somethin real bad. My heart sank -- I'd hoped to get some assurance from my big brother, since I couldn't get none from the grown-ups. Since I didn't have homework, I tried to read comics. Neither of us could concentrate -- we worried in the way that only kids can worry. You remember it: you don't understand what's goin on around you, but you have that vague sense that somethin awful is happenin. You can feel it, even if you don't understand it. That feelin is what makes you afraid. It's foresight without focus -- like animals who can smell the smoke of a far away forest fire. Our eyes glazed over the pages without seein the pictures or the words. Our room faced west, so we had a few more minutes of light as the shadows kept growin longer and the birds began to quiet down for the night. I looked up to feel a warm, humid breeze that came in through the window -- just in time to see a firefly light up its yellow-green bottom over the bushes outside. I felt that giant's weight pressin down on our house, imagined his big bloodshot eye starin into our window. I had no defense against it.
Our oldest brother, Freddy, came home a little bit later from basketball practice. Bein bigger, he didn't have that animal reaction that me and Harold did, but he still looked a little worried. He put his stuff down in the corner, ran his hands through his hair, and said that Momma had called us all in for dinner. So we all headed into the kitchen, with me feelin like I was goin in for a test that I hadn't prepared for.
We all sat down at our regular places, with Daddy comin in last. Even though chicken and dumplins was one of my favorites, I knew I'd have a hard time eatin. My mouth felt like I'd just spat out a handful of sawdust. I spooned a lot more of the gravy onto my plate than I normally would have -- it would take a lot of it to choke this meal down as fast as I could. Daddy hunched forward in his seat without sayin a word. I looked at Momma and saw lines in her young face for the first time. She looked tired, like she had finally gotten sick of dealin with the same troubles over and over. Old, familiar summer thunderstorms of trouble that came back every year.
Momma said a short blessing and we all began to fill up our plates. My hunger came back, thankfully, as soon as I tasted food, though I had to chase down every bite with a sip of water. Daddy kept his eyes on his plate the whole time, while Momma never took her eyes off of him. I realized that whatever had happened had more to do with Daddy. He seemed the harder hit, and I could tell that part of Momma's unhappiness came from worry over him. His eyes were distant, the veins in his forearms had got all bulgy and blue from squeezin his hands too tight. They looked like a roadmap.
Momma began to ask us about our days, accordin to our usual ritual. Freddy told us that his coach had put him at point guard, Harold talked about his math test, and I talked about my baseball game at the end of the day. I thought of tellin them about what Billy had said at recess, but I remembered that Momma and Daddy didn't approve of gossip so I checked myself. Instead I said that I had enjoyed science class that mornin.
"So what happened today?" Freddy asked. "Not hard to tell that somethin's wrong."
I'd always known that Freddy had a lot more courage in him than me. At that moment I respected him more than anyone else in the world -- it took a lot of beans to be able to ask about adult business like that. David against Goliath. He had a serious look on his face, as if he'd just as much right to know as anybody else. That moment stayed with me a long time.
"It's not for you three to worry about," Momma began, but Daddy interrupted her.
"Why not?" he looked up, just like a dog comin out of his thoughts. "It's serious business -- somethin you boys should know about, if you're gonna grow up to be good men."
Momma looked at him with that sharp stare of hers that we usually got when we'd done somethin bad, but she didn't say anythin.
"Somethin bad happened over in the colored neighborhood last week. We've only just found out about it -- it's a bad thing for the whole commun'ty."
He paused, and I tried out my small bit of knowledge. "Is it about Vera Johns?"
Daddy looked surprised. "How did you know about that?"
"Billy saw her on the way to school this mornin. Said she'd been busted up pretty bad."
"That's right. She did get busted up pretty bad. Broke her nose, gave her Indian burns and bruises. But I'm afraid there's more to it than that, boys. Somebody did more than just beat her -- they did just about the worst thing you can do to a woman, short of killin her."
None of us said a word.
"A lot of folks aren't all that interested, on account of the fact that she's a colored girl. Now I ask you, is that any way for a good Christian to act? Is that followin The Lord's most important commandment?"
"Love your neighbor as yourself," Freddy piped up. "No, sir."
Daddy nodded. "Right. These people only want to follow the scriptures when it pleases 'em. Hypocrites, every one, and…" he stopped himself, blinked, and looked around the table, seein that we'd all finished. "You boys clean up while your mother and I have a talk," he ordered, and we jumped to obey. Normally I probably would have argued that it wasn't my time to clean the kitchen, but this sure weren't any time to cause trouble. We finished as quick as we could -- it didn't take near so long with all three of us -- while Momma and Daddy went out to the back porch to have their chat. Every once in a while we'd hear Momma's voice, as if she was tryin her hardest not to yell but still had somethin fierce to say. We left them alone. Adult talk was a sacred thing, and none of us wanted to get caught anywhere near the holy of holies. We respected it, we feared it. Whether they were talkin about taxes or politics or the grocery bill, we wanted nothin to do with it. It was a contagious disease that came on you with age.
After the kitchen was clean we went in to listen to the radio for awhile. I hardly paid any attention to the programs, I was so caught up in the whole affair, worried about Momma and Daddy and wonderin what, exactly, that unspeakable thing was. My brain came up with a whole bunch of different possibilities, but of course none of them were near as bad as what had really happened to Vera Johns. It took several more years for me to learn about it, and when I did, the first thing I thought of was Vera. I pictured what it must have looked like with her and Mr. Hall. It made me sick -- it still does, every once in awhile, when I'm relaxin and gettin near to sleep and see him standin over her, zippin up his trousers while she lays on the floor like a stunned rabbit, twitchin and frozen at the same time. Thank God I didn't understand it then, much as I wanted to.
Freddy and Harold didn't get as bothered as me. They were talkin durin the commercials, makin some sort of bet that I don't recall and startin to argue over it. They ended up wrestlin on the floor, and nearly knocked over Momma's favorite lamp. She came in just when that happened and got awful mad. Her eyes were red and her hair all messed up. She yelled at us and told us to go to bed -- even me, when I was just layin there on the sofa. I felt the unjustness of this treatment, but Momma was a pretty gentle woman by habit. Seein her like that made me even more afraid, and like all kids I wanted to get out of the tornado's path as quick as I could. I followed my brothers and got in bed, wide awake though I was.
I woke up to a bright Saturday mornin' to find both of my brothers already out of bed. Normally, the smell of Daddy's pancakes on the griddle would have awoken me, but I could only sniff out the familiar mustiness of our house. That smell had built up over years and years of Southeast Texas humidity -- the kind of humidity that makes you feel you're in a steam bath, the kind that gets under your skin and makes you feel twenty pounds heavier. Normally the smell comforted me, but kids don't like breaks in routine. I pulled on my clothes for the day, makin sure to leave my shoes under the bed, and went to find everybody else. Freddy and Harold sat at the table eatin some oatmeal that Freddy had fixed. Momma was nowhere to be found, but Daddy stood outside the kitchen window talkin to the sheriff. He looked like a bull that had just been poked with a bullfighter's sword -- I tried to see the steam comin from his nostrils.
"What's goin on?" I asked.
"Don't know," Harold shrugged. "They been out there talkin since I woke up. We're fixin to go into the woods -- grab yourself some oatmeal."
I watched for another minute or so. "Where's Momma?"
Harold swallowed his last bite and got up to wash out his bowl. "She went downtown on some errands. Said somethin about needin to be by herself today."
My stomach growled. I scooped some out of the pot, put some cane syrup on it, and sat down at the table. I ate slowly, hopin that Daddy would finish with the sheriff and explain what had happened. Not that I expected him to -- I was a boy and boys hardly ever got explanations like that. Sometimes I felt that grownups thought of us like cats or dogs.
"Hurry up, peeshwank!" Harold said. "We gotta meet Gabe out by the tree fort!"
"Y'all go ahead. I'll catch up with you there."
My older brothers both agreed and ran out the front door to the woods across the gravel road. I didn't see how they could go play when somethin important was clearly goin on just outside. Did they not understand? Or maybe they did understand, and just didn't want to be a part of it. That was probably the smart choice, now that I look back. As for me, I determined to act grown-up -- to stick around when trouble came knockin, to be there for Daddy in case he needed me.
When the other two left I snuck up to the back door and poked my head out just in time to hear the sheriff say: "There just ain't any proof besides the word of a nigger girl. That's what it comes down to. I can't arrest anybody on that, and you know it."
"What you're sayin," Daddy answered, "is that she don't get the full protection of the law on account of the fact that she's a Negro. Lester Hall's got some money, drunk that he is, and that's good enough for everyone. He coulda killed her, and it still wouldn't matter."
"I agree with you, Jerry, but you know as well as I do that nobody in this state would convict him -- specially not round here. It's a waste of tax money to even bother puttin him in jail in the first place."
Daddy waved his hand. "Fine, whatever. Thanks for your help, Willis. I hope your conscience don't bother you too much with this."
The sheriff went back to his car and Daddy started up towards the back door. I tried to get back to the kitchen just a second too late -- Daddy opened the door and saw me in the mud room.
"You heard that?" he asked. I knew I was in trouble, but knew I'd be in for a lickin if I lied.
I looked to the floor, tryin to keep away from those red-hot eyes. "Yes, sir. Just the end."
"Good," he said, and moved on into the dinin room. He dropped down at the table and sat starin out the window for a long time. I sat down with him and finished my oatmeal, even though I felt sick inside.
Daddy finally looked at me. He looked distant, as if he'd gone to sleep with his eyes open. "Somethin like that just can't go unpunished. I won't allow it." He stood, fists clenched. In my mind there had never been a man stronger or braver than my Daddy. Now that he gathered up that strength I saw him like a titan. The ground seemed to shake beneath him, I could feel his rage boilin in his veins. When I read about that Greek Achilles and all his anger when I was in high school, I thought of that moment. I was afraid of Daddy for the first time in my life, even though I knew he'd never do anythin to hurt me. I was probably just as much afraid for him.
"Come with me," he ordered. "I've got a lesson for you to learn."
The next part you know already. I got into the car with Daddy and we drove over to Mr. Hall's house, where he and his buddies were already drinkin and gettin ready to listen to the big game. Daddy punished him and left him there for dead. I was afraid that he had killed the man, at first -- I almost sighed with relief to see him sit up in the rear view mirror as we drove off.
I had always seen my Daddy as a patient, kind man -- not too heavy on the rod, generous with help to others. I didn't understand. How could he suddenly be like that? Where had it come from? Surely Mr. Hall had deserved it -- I stuck firm to my faith that my Daddy was just about as impeccable as Jesus himself. The whole way home he didn't say a word, and I felt too numb to ask any questions. I wondered over and over what I'd say to Gilbert Hall at school the next Monday. I liked Gilbert -- it didn't matter if his daddy was a drunken violator of little girls, whatever that meant. The scene played over and over in my head like a fuzzy movie. I'd never seen violence like that before. I looked up at my Daddy and wasn't sure if I was seein an angel with a flaming sword or a troll with a spiked club. I decided on the first one -- I had to decide on the first one, to keep that perfect image of my Daddy intact. He had done what nobody else would do. He had been righteous. End of story. Right?
We went back to a silent home. Daddy sat with his hands around the steerin wheel, his knuckles still dark with Mr. Hall's blood. I started to get out -- opened the door and put my foot on the grass -- but paused to look back at him. He kept his eyes fixed on the wheel and told me to go ahead and play. He stopped me again as I got out, looked at me with a heavy face.
"I'm sorry, son," he said.
"It's okay, Daddy," I answered, though I really had no idea why he was apologizing.
That night, after dinner, the whole family was sittin on the porch to watch the fireflies come out and give us a lightshow. Daddy had seemed more relaxed after some time alone and with our bellies full of food we had few real complaints. He asked me to come sit on his lap -- I pretended not to hear him as the tiny green stars began to dance in the raspberry bushes one by one. An occasional bat whispered by overhead and the frogs began their nightly concert. Freddy was readin his school assignments under the porchlight, while Harold and I sat playin with our toy soldiers.
A pair of headlights flickered at us through the trees as they approached up the road. When they turned into the driveway we could see that it was the sheriff's car. I put aside my fear and looked up at Daddy, but he didn't act as if anythin untoward was goin on. The sheriff got out of the car and came up to the house with that swagger that most Southern sheriffs have. He took off his hat and greeted us all by name, givin a smile to Momma.
"What's goin on, Willis?" Daddy asked.
"I'm afraid I have to ask you to come with me, Jerry. I tried to convince Mrs. Hall otherwise, but she insisted."
"What's this about?" Momma asked. All three of us boys had stopped what we were doin.
"Seems your husband took matters into his own hands, ma'am."
Daddy sniffed. "What am I in for, Willis?"
"It's only a formality. Lucky for you, Mrs. Hall don't know much about the law and her husband don't want to raise a stink. I can charge you with a misdemeanor, you'll spend the night in jail, and that'll be the end of it. Unless you want to fight it, of course, but it'll make things a whole lot worse for you if a judge gets involved. You broke bones, Jerry."
Momma sat there with her mouth wide open. Looking back, I don't think she should have been nearly so surprised.
Daddy leaned forward. "Just one night?"
The sheriff nodded.
"All right," Daddy said. "I'll come." He looked back to Momma. "It'll put all this behind."
Momma still didn't make a peep. I couldn't tell if she was mad, afraid, or what. Freddy and Harold just looked stunned. I had to do my best to make myself look that way, so I could keep my promise to Daddy -- who, I kept tellin myself, had done the right thing. Who hadn't been taken over by a monster, but who had acted like a righteous man. Who didn't deserve to go to jail.
Nevertheless, Daddy stood up bravely and went with the sheriff, askin Momma to come pick him up first thing in the mornin. She agreed, and Daddy rode off in the front seat of the police car lookin as brave as I'd ever seen him. I felt myself relax -- felt my eyes unsquint and my toes unclench -- as soon as the car had gone out of sight. I told myself that I had been afraid of what the sheriff would do, but didn't find the lie very convincing.
Momma stared off after the car, lookin madder than I'd ever seen her before. She hardly seemed to pay any attention to my brothers and me. "I knew that woman was gonna give us more trouble one of these days," she said, and stormed off like a thunderhead wantin to do its business somewhere else.
Momma left early Sunday mornin' to go pick Daddy up. She told us we wouldn't be goin to Church that day -- I figure she was worried that people'd be all gossipin about what Daddy had done and where he'd gone. Best thing to do, probably, was to let the gossip die down. Instead, we were to watch the house until she and Daddy came back.
None of us had been able to sleep well the night before -- Freddy and Harold kept talkin about what had happened, what they thought Daddy had done and why he did it. As for me, I kept my Eve's apple all to myself. I said not a word. I didn't want to give myself away, didn't want to have to answer their questions. It was hard enough just listenin to the two of 'em, goin on about how glad they were that Daddy could do what no one else was man enough to do, and that he shouldn't have to go to jail for that. I figured it was best to let them keep that perfect image in their head of Daddy wearin his white hat and cleanin up the West. Best not to tell them about the blood. It hurt too much, otherwise.
While Momma was gone that mornin the three of us had a breakfast of eggs and then went out into the yard to play. We decided to stay near the house, so we ran around the yard, surrounded by trees and a few other houses. We got out all of that nervous energy we'd built up over the night the same way all other kids do: by runnin and climbin and jumpin until we were too excited to care about the grown-up world anymore. It stayed in the back of our heads, I guess, but at least we managed to get away from it for a little while. Our neighbor Gabe -- who never went to church -- came over to play football with us. He and my brothers were havin a riotous good time when Momma and Daddy finally drove up to the house about an hour later.
It seemed like they'd gotten all their talkin in already. Momma was still steamin, and Daddy looked as if his brain were in the next county, but they weren't cryin or fightin or any of the stuff that I'd expected. They were pretty calm, to tell you the truth. Freddy and Harold took off to see Daddy -- to give him a hug, to ask him what it had been like -- leavin me and Gabe to look on from where we were. Daddy told them that he'd rather not talk about it and that he was just glad to be back home.
"Nothin interestin happened, anyway," he said. I told Gabe that he'd probably better run on back to his place, seein as how Momma and Daddy had been so jumpy, and would probably want some peace and quiet. Gabe agreed, but the rest of us stayed outside regardless -- we had no desire to get sucked back in to that grown-up world.
We had an awkward lunch where neither of our parents said a word, though Freddy tried to lighten things up a bit with some jokes he'd heard at school. I don't think we would've found them funny even if Momma and Daddy didn't have so much tension. We ate our fried chicken and creamed carrots and went back outside to head for the woods, but I stopped when I saw a pair of colored women in their best Sunday dresses comin up the road, neither of them much taller than Freddy. Freddy and Harold had been racin each other to the tree fort and didn't take any notice when I fell behind. I slowed down at the edge of the woods, watchin with a fascinated eye. I suddenly felt swept up by the adult world, no matter how hard I'd tried to avoid it all mornin. The two women -- actually a woman and a girl, I saw -- came nearer, and I panicked.
I hid behind a tree so they wouldn't see me as I watched them head to the front of my house. Vera Johns, with her bandaged nose and her black eye, walked up the steps of my porch alongside her mother and knocked on the door. She was carryin a large covered basket -- the kind you take on picnics. I couldn't help but wonder what was in it, and without even realizin it I stepped out of the woods and onto the road -- drew up to the house so I could hear better what was said.
Momma answered the door. She looked angry at first, and I could tell she was about to yell at them, but when she looked at poor beat-up Vera her face fell like a bad Angel food cake. Daddy took her place at the door. He had this look in his eyes like he'd been the one beaten as he accepted Ms. Johns' basket and thanked her for it, as he ruffled Vera's hair and gave each one of them a hug. He hugged Vera just a second longer than her Mother, then said good-bye and went back into the house. Vera and her mother came back up the road, and before I knew it they were right in front of me.
"Hello, baby doll," Ms. Johns gave me a warm smile and patted me on the head. "You got a good daddy, you know."
I couldn't say anythin. I looked up and squeaked out somethin to thank her. I felt a pair of eyes hard on me as they started off, and turned to see Vera starin right at me. This close, she was really pretty, with that long face and coffee-colored skin. Even through her broken nose and her black eye, I could see that. I stared back at her for what seemed like forever, but couldn't get any kind of feelin from her. It was like she was a closed book, and wouldn't nobody ever read her. I looked right in those eyes, tryin to figure out what had happened to her, and just for half a second before she turned away it occurred to me that she had eyes the exact same color as me -- bright green. I hadn't ever seen eyes that color on a Negro before.
But Vera did turn away, wishin me a whispered good-bye as I watched her and her momma head on back up the road. I blinked a couple of times and walked very slowly back up to the house, tryin to put things together in my head. I opened the front door -- I never went through the front door -- and saw somethin that I never had seen before and never saw afterwards: I saw my Daddy with his head on Momma's shoulder, cryin. Not sobbin, not makin any noise, but cryin. The monster had gone, but so had the titan -- they left only a man in pain. I froze. Momma looked at me and nodded slowly. She put her finger to her lips and pointed to the door, tellin me gently to go outside before Daddy saw me. I backed away, feelin like I'd just been spun around on a carousel. Just as I got through the door I heard my Daddy say: "It's not fair. It's not fair."
Right then I knew that it never had been.
© Copyright 2004, R. Thomas Hogg, All Rights Reserved
© Copyright 1997, 2019, The Fairfield Review Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Document last modified on: 01/06/2007