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I come out the back room dressed for school in the second pair khakis that I go back and forth with for the week depending on was they too much dirt and grass at the knees and ass. It red-shirt Friday and mine have an alligator on the chest that remind me, Be brutal! That one thing Ghostface Aunty say, and when she speak I listen cause she the only one who understands my destiny. Already I been heard the clamor of carrying on. That how mornings start when you got Ghostface Aunty and Mama and Uncle Montel who everybody call King though he don’t rule nobody. Talking bout that man been done fucked hisself up and run and crawled back like the dog he is. Talking what they do best, getting up in folks business. And all the while they sipping coffee and cream and bacon and eggs be frying up splatter-crack in the pan, and I wait so’s I know they already ate and so will be talking louder without they mouths full and so ain’t gone take notice of me. Walk in and pull me out a plate and fork from the dishdrain and butter toast and shovel me some eggs with salt and pepper already on top and stab four pieces bacon before Mama notice and slap my hand and say, “Darell, baby, that enough already.”
“Leave some bacon behind, boy!” say King, who just want to have something to say.
Ghostface Aunty glance at my plate with approval and something like joy at me having one big pile of bacon. I think of how Ghostface Aunty can’t never have enough, and hold out my plate toward her. “One more piece?”
Remember, boy: Don’t bow to nobody! Be the white nigger!
She smile at me, start to reach her hand and then sort of frown. “Not feeling good this morning, hon,” she say, shaking and then nodding her head solemn and slow. She have a way of moving as if offering a blessing, which seem to have more force for all the flesh that pillow off from her small pale head and neck in folds and flaps you can make out beneath the flowery expanse of her royal blue dress that she made herself in a size they ain’t got at the Dress Barn from old curtains the neighbors was gone throw away. Her skin have a glow and shine like it lit from within, and her silver hair pulled up in a purple scrunchie and then sort of let go so that the ends form a hoop like a steel halo bout her head. If she was to go in the sun I think it would shimmer like chrome spinners but she do not go outside at all since the sun set her on fire with rashes, and she don’t hardly walk anyway since her feet being burned and frozen and sung to by the Lord so that they tremble and shake with He great music. Her eyes are pink darkening to red in the center, as if light was fighting it way out of her blood. “That right, boy, you need to take on some size. You gone need it so folks can see you.”
King chuckle and chortle like he don’t know he going down the wrong road. He ain’t the quickest; he don’t know how not to pick him the low-hanging fruit, as Mama say. “Folks see him clear enough!”
“King,” Mama say with warning.
King keep on. “Folks see him like a light in the dark. He a white egg in a carton of brown!”
I hunch near the plate and tuck into the bacon and eggs and hope this the end of it, but King keep on.
“He better watch out cause he like a sheet that just been bleached. He bright like a—”
“—beacon to show us the way. Like an angel in a host of devils,” Ghostface Aunty cut in, her voice loud and certain. “Like a warning to them who think they deserve what they has. Like one who can feel the light. Like a blessing, the mark of God is on him. As it was on me.”
Mama look at Ghostface Aunty, who red eyes now going in flutter-circles as they do when she make pronouncements, and at me trying pretend we ain’t talking bout my fate, then at King who trying not to snicker. “Let the boy eat.”
They go silent at Mama’s direction, no jokes and nobody’s business now, just they eyes on me, taking in my skin that lighter than Ghostface Aunty, as pale as them white men in they tall-tire trucks on the highway. My eyes not red like Ghostface Aunty but blue as the sky. My hair so yellow-gold it disappears in the sun. I can feel they eyes, Mama with sorrow and pity and King with jolliness and Ghostface Aunty who wishing me strength, who say I got to learn to face the world as I am, to strike terror into the hearts of those who meddle me. Ghostface Aunty albino like me, but she have the CHS, which she call the Cheddar Rash but which sound like Russian and Asian folks on TV and is wrote out Chediak-Higashi however you gone say it. She made me learn to spell it because she say if you can write something down then it can’t get to you if it ain’t already. She say I lucky, that I chosen cause I like a vampire that can go out in the light. That I should count my blessings cause I don’t get me no rashes and sores, that I don’t get sick all the time. That my feet ain’t on fire and ice neither. That I special, better than her and better than everybody cause the Lord touched me but did not damn me. I can’t tell her she wrong because she supposed to be dead, that what the doctors told her. That one reason we call her Ghostface, cause she should be a ghost already, and is white as one, the other reason being the Wu-Tang Clan the only music she listen to outside of gospel. All I know is she the only one who know anything bout what it mean to be me.
I finish my eggs, lay the plate in the sink, swing my backpack on and face all of them, take my sunglasses from the bowl by the door and slip them on before I go out into the day, glad that now it so dim it almost like they gone. “Bye, now,” I say, and I out the door and free of them.
As I step into the blind hot light that shiver across my arms and hands and cheeks but do not strike me down, I hear Ghostface Aunty call after me:
“Remember, boy: Don’t bow to nobody! Be the white nigger!”
• • •
Ghostface Aunty tell me I was sent to the earth by God, as she was sent, but while she was sent to remember our sins and suffer for them, I was meant to lead the way through the darkness. She say my eyes blue like Jesus because he come to speak through me.
“Listen, boy,” she say, her hands on my shoulders, pulling me close enough to smell her breath that cherry-sweet cause all day she eats them Red Vines licorice which she joke is how she keeps her eyes to color. And then she start in:
“White folks has always been taking. Took us from Africa for to make us work and make theyselves live good. Took the swamp from the Choctaw so they’d have them some land, and stole the water away from God so they wouldn’t have to get they feet wet, and tried hide it all from God under a great white sheet of cotton. They still got the land and the riches they stole and then they went on and tried to steal everything good we still got—when the blues have our sorrow they try to take that music but they don’t play it good enough and all they end up with is some rocks and rolls. When the jazz have our wildness they try to steal it but all they get is smooth and boring saxophones. When the soul have our longing they try to take that but all they get is some disco dance that dies. When the rap have our anger at all that been done they tries to take it, too, but this time they been tricked cause all they get is wanting to be us and trying too hard. All they knows how to do is to take and try to hold on—which mean all they got is what they can keep through hiding away and through hate.”
Them towers in New York is just the start. A change gone come.
She wipe her milk-white brow, where little drops of sweat beading. “They taken too much.” She take a deep breath. “They taken too much from everybody black brown yellow what-all-ever all over the world. And now it 2002, and we gone take it back. Them towers in New York is just the start. A change gone come. And when it time for us to get ours, everybody gone recognize. From sea to shining sea, the truth gone ring. And that, boy, is why we special: cause we been took from them. We already stole they whiteness, which gone be the last thing they got. We took it and we ain’t never gone give it back. We the next evolution. Everything gone be returned to its rightful place in the Age of the White Nigger.”
I listen to her, but we still pretty far from the Age of the White Nigger here in Blessing. White folks has they land hid by cotton and they still has they big white houses. And black folks just mock us cause we don’t look like them. Ghostface Aunty say them who oppose me will learn to fear me; she show me how she do it, baring her teeth like she could bite, nose flaring like a bulldog, her eyes widening and shifting and rolling like red marbles. She say you got to be the strongest you they is—no matter who try to stand in your way. Mama say there so much of her standing in everybody way that the real problem, but Ghostface Aunty say that just mean talk. She say she ain’t had no choices bout the fate she got. Cheddar Rash, sugar taint, Lord’s fate. King say fate just an excuse for those who ain’t trying, but then, Ghostface Aunty try harder than I ever seen King do. I seen her in pain, shaking and moaning, and how she gone bite her fist till she leave a mark trying stay silent so Mama don’t worry. At least Ghostface Aunty try. She used to train to be strong. Samurai code, she say, like the Ghostface Killah preach. Strong in the mind, strong in the body. Ghostface Aunty say she got too much of her that too far gone to be strong in the body, but she make me do pushups sit-ups jumping jacks and all kind sprints from one side of the hall to the other afternoons when Mama ain’t home till I gasping for breath and can’t hardly keep my feet. “Harder!” she shout. “Faster! The Lord say victory will wait for no man! Be more than a man! Be strong! Be a beast!”
I can’t say nothing cause she have it worse than I do. I been heard her say there ain’t no guarantees with her even one week to the next bout is she gone live. All this week, I heard her moaning in the backroom all night long, her holding on to that wall in the dark. There a crack in the wall near where Ghostface Aunty sleep and when the burning and aching start to get bad and she think she gone wake up the house for crying out she reach her hands up over her head like she praying to that wall and find her a grip. She work her fingers in and then when the pain rise she pull hard as she can. She say it help. She must have been pulling a while cause the plaster splitting up toward the ceiling and down to the floor like a tree growing both ways.
“I pulling through,” she explain, and give one of them slow nods to show she mean more. To let me know she doing the same thing to me, trying raise me up and get me to take root all at once. Cept I wonder if she shouldn’t worry more bout that wall coming apart. Bout me coming apart, being held too hard.
• • •
The morning bright and clear, but it been rained last night, and now the sun strike steam out the puddles and pavement so my glasses are all cloud up and I keep having to wipe them clean. I stay in the alley that cut all the way to Mr. Ralston wooden fence with that one low post that make a good foot and then I pull myself up and over, stop by the side of the house and watch them kids in they red Friday shirts with they bags on wheels trailing behind like short little dogs, heading up the street into the gates of Blessing Upper School, and I wipe my glasses down and walk down hoping nobody gone notice. And then I see Clarice standing out front making red look better than it already do, and I don’t care if anybody watching.
Clarice Cook the blackest girl in the school. Her skin so black it eat the sun. Her skin so smooth and deep that through my shades she the color of night with no moon. She darkness shaped by perfections of dusk. In her mouth is teeth tiny and white, but everything else about her black and smooth, long easy legs and arms which always seem set to easy circles, and that long swoop-neck like a swan leaning up. She perfect. Everybody else don’t seem to know it cause they always wanting light skin even though that break down when it come to Ghostface Aunty and me. Still, it a shame that I the only one who seem to know Clarice the most beautiful girl who ever was.
I staring as I walk on through the gates and so I miss my chance to stay out the way of them boys Cantavious and Major and Haryson. They real old for fifth grade like me though I just started late cause Mama didn’t put me in school till somebody made her by which time I was seven already, while these three just kept on failing cause they bad and not good at nothing. I their best target, maybe cause I used to fight back and don’t try no more. Three against one means maybe you get a lick in, but if three be careful, somebody’s blow gone connect and somebody else gone hold you down and then they few limits to how many times a fist or foot can find a soft spot on the stomach or ribs or back that ain’t gone leave a mark that bruise up soon enough to be proof. I should have seen them coming and now they where I have to go. Try to go around but they move with me.
“Ooowee, it soap cracker!” Cantavious say. “Where you off to?”
Major shake he head. “Thought this boy name was tissue paper. Or toilet bowl.”
Haryson, the cleverest one, nod. “I not so sure.” He narrow his eyes, poke me in the chest hard, turn to he boys. “Here a riddle: How white is the clouds today?” He don’t wait for them to mess it up. “Not half as white as this here cracker!”
Now the first bell ringing. I know saying something just gone get me in a fight I can’t win, so I don’t say what I thinking, which is “How dumb is these ugly black boys? Not half as black as they is dumb.” “Y’all done?” I say, meek like I don’t mean.
“We ain’t never done,” Cantavious say. Which the truth. When they seen I ain’t gone cry over a beating they tried everything else they got. Hit me when I ain’t looking with thrown balls and rocks and even pieces of dog shit they wrapped in paper. They taken my school bag and thrown it on the roof and they torn up my coat and they taken my shoes and left them in the yard where that chained dog Crackerjack with the crazy eyes just waiting for a fresh leg to gnaw on. They tried to force my head into a toilet bowl, and they been tried to make me eat a cockroach that still alive, pushed my face into it with its legs squirming bout my lips and clenched teeth. They done what they can and they ain’t never gone break me.
I thinking I gone have to run for it when I see them boys stiffen. It that Chinaman teacher Mr. Kato come up behind me with a frown on his gold-tan face, a color I ain’t never seen that Mr. Kato must have to bear as he own mark cause I been heard them kids call him the yellow dog, Kung Fu Kato the ching-chong rice rat. He got his bag slung over one shoulder carrying a big box full of books. “Excuse me, boys,” he say.
He trying to get through the door, and I leap forward and hold the door open with my back to it.
He grin and nod. “Thank you,” he say as he go through, and as he pass I lean in and coast on with him, them boys looking unhappy but with nothing they can do. Walking behind Mr. Kato the rest of the way down the hall, I give thanks for the luck of a Chinaman come at the right time without hands to help hisself.
• • •
Sometimes, I get to wondering if maybe Ghostface Aunty isn’t wrong, since I ain’t actually like her; I look like them white children on TV more than I do like Ghostface Aunty. I can go outside and all I needs is sunglasses so my eyes don’t hurt, and some white folks like that bad robot man in Terminator 2 wears they shades all the time. I get to wondering if maybe I was supposed to be born to a white family and somebody got mixed up. If I was born in a white family I could have a mama and papa who look just like me. I would go to a school for white children and wouldn’t nobody stare and laugh. If I had a problem, all my white family would try to fix it. Sometimes, I get to thinking that maybe what I need to do is learn to speak like white folks and couldn’t nobody tell.
Sometimes I practice, watching them sitcoms and comedies and action movies over and over trying learn, saying folk’s lines with them so I can become them. That Toolman Tim on Home Improvement, going all “Ayyy-up!” like he unhappy cause he have the hiccups. Reruns of Full House, with that little girl always mouthing off to her whole family using big words but who so cute don’t nobody whup her no matter how bad she be. My favorite how in Terminator 2 that man Arnold Whatever his name don’t never show no emotions but just win cause he bulletproof. He don’t even smile when he say all them good lines like “Make my day,” cause his day made on he own terms and “Has too a Visa,” cause he got bank and he know the other guy got nothing. Seem to me like if God want to make you different, it should be blessings like that. But I can’t say nothing to Ghostface Aunty, cause she would get real emotional. Her eyes would get big and start that shaking and rolling. She would look at me like I was leaving her alone to be the only white nigger in the world. And I can’t do her like that, cause she been told me bout the burden God put on her to pave my way.
“You ain’t never gone have to know what it like to go your whole life without never having nobody put they hands on you,” she say, looking at her body as if it come to be so big for lack of love. “You gone find love easy, boy, cause you gone have all them white women wanting you, since they secretly wants the black men even though they ain’t supposed to and you have such pretty blues.”
I grin at the compliment. When Ghostface Aunty preaching her gospel, I let her testify, cause I her only witness. I don’t tell her bout Clarice. How some nights, I dream of her. How in my dreams she look at me and smile with her tiny white teeth, lay her dark hands to each side of my face and kiss the me who midnight black the way I was meant to be. I touch my face in the dark and feel the true me pulsing under the skin, but when I go to the mirror everything the same. Which make me think maybe the mirror lies. Maybe the truth stays out of sight.
If I was born in a white family I could have a mama and papa who look just like me.
After all, Ghostface Aunty ain’t always preached the gospel of Godsent. When I was young young, she was real sick, and just layed back in her room and moaned. I would hide at the door and peer in past the curtain and see the hump of her rising under a sheet, less of her then but still more than a normal grown man, and watch her thrash and kick, hear them sounds of pain that then she hadn’t learned to let be, that she fought against like anyone would the fever and the prod, the ice and the devil’s knife. She would curse and wheeze and beg and I knowed it was impolite, but I couldn’t stay away. And then one day she began to speak to me. “I know you there, boy,” she said. “I can feel your eyes on me. I can hear your heart beating. Come on in and sit with your Aunty.”
I was scared, but I went to the bedside. She put her hand down to show me where to sit, and I sat, though I was shaking cause I didn’t know what she was gone do. There was a sharp sweet smell to her that filled the room and closed you into its shadow spell, which is always how Ghostface Aunty smells, like burnt sugar and jerky, which came from maybe what Mama called “Also your diabetes you don’t do nothing bout,” but which Aunty called her salamander sweat, which would rightly have been washed clean by clear pools. Aunty would take me by the hand, and then say, “So, boy. Is the world treating you right? Is them kids meddling you? Is they doing you like they done me?”
And when I told her bout the injustices, she would shake her head and say, “I know how that is. That ain’t right,” and she’d reach up a hand and touch my cheek. It got so I’d make up wrongs done to me, things folks never said or did, just to have her touch my cheek like that, to have her care. And when she got better and was up and about again, we was tight in everything. She needed something, I’d run and get it. Mama was trying keep her from the fat and sugar, but I knowed Mama hid the Ho Hos in the dishrag drawer, the hot chips in the cupboard above the fridge. Mama would come home and Aunty would line up the empty bags around her so nobody could blame me, and while Mama carried on Ghostface Aunty would meet me with her smiling demon eyes and wink. We was in it together.
The gospel got revealed to Aunty when she got sick again, when the pains one night flared up so hot she woke us all with her screaming, and King and Mama half carried her out the door and she didn’t come back from the hospital first in Rosewood and then in Memphis for near five months. When she come back she was thinned out as if they had starved her, and paler than ever, with shadows under her eyes, and Mama took me out the backyard and told me how the doctors had said her body couldn’t fight three diseases at once, the Cheddar Rash being enough, the diabetes and obesity too much more, that nobody was to give her nothing unless they wanted to kill her. That was the start of the butter battle: each morning, Mama would try to give Aunty breakfast according to doctor’s orders, cereal with fiber, nonfat milk, an apple. Aunty would look at it, and say, “This ain’t food.” Sometimes they would have them an argument, Mama yelling bout, “Do you want to die, how can you do this to us?” and Aunty saying, “You think this is my fault? You think these eyes gone clear up just cause I ate like a bird, and gave up my one last pleasure? It’s my life. . . .” And then Mama would storm off to work, and I’d be left, and Aunty would have me fetch the sliced bread and butter and sugar and a mixing bowl, and she would spoon out great dollops of butter, and pour over the sugar until it filled the spaces the butter was not in a flat whiteness, and she would take a slice of bread like a stove-mitt on one hand and grab up a mass of butter and sugar in a sealed half sandwich and take a bite and chew hungrily, give a great sigh of happiness. And then, as she ate the rest of the loaf like that, she would tell me the Gospel of the White Nigger, of how she’d been sent to suffer that I might not, and so could lead the way to the promised land.
• • •
Them boys waiting in the lunchroom. As I stand at the end of the cafeteria line I feel them watching me. One of the boys says something and all three bust out laughing and they all looking my way now to make sure I know they talking bout me. Get my tray of hush puppies and catfish, collard greens and chocolate milk, and follow everybody to the table. As I go past I see Clarice out the corner of my eye at the table before us. She sitting by herself like usual, eating one forkful at a time like eating deserve her full attention. Her hair braided and pulled back and all wound in a circle and it look more than pretty how tight it done and make her big brown eyes seem bigger still. There a space by her, all the way down, and I slip in across from her, not just next to her so it seem I trying to be with her but a shoulder-length down. She glance up at me and nod, not really hello but noting I’m there, and then turn back to her food. I’ve sat near before, and she don’t seem to mind, which better than her saying no. I tuck into a hush puppy which salty-hot and I watch her eat, her fingers careful bout her mouth with each bite to make sure she ain’t leaving no crumbs. Her lips a little pink and shiny with some kind of gloss she put on, and she flick her tongue to a corner to get a little piece that left there. She deft and dainty all at once. She dab her lips with a napkin and take a sip of water and lean her face low to her plate and put a little more gloss on to replace what she wiped off, and I make myself take another bite and stop watching Clarice, force my eyes to my plate.
Looking down is my mistake. Haryson and Major come up behind me like they bussing they trays, and Haryson run me with a shoulder and Major reach out and sweep my tray off the table to the floor.
“Ohhh, shoot, man, we sorry!” Cantavious call as all them boys gather round like they helping me pick things up. They stepping on everything trying crush and ruin it, talking all at once:
“Did the little cracker lose his food?”
“Is cracker broke?”
I don’t say nothing, just look up into Clarice’s eyes. She hear everything they saying, and she have a look on her face that say she don’t like these boys big mouths, but ain’t gone put herself in harm’s way. She look at me and shake her head, as if to say, this a shame, and don’t say nothing. Haryson, he see me looking. He look at Clarice and then at me and smile. “Now look here. Kleenex have a dark spot. We got us some dominoes!”
Clarice glance at Haryson, and then she sort of let her breath out and slide her tray off, away from me and my trouble. She just want to eat her lunch in peace. I feel shame shake me and I look down, push off the table and bend down and take up my tray. Them boys is all talking, Major saying something bout dominoes always got a soft spot for white spots, Cantavious saying something bout dominoes go in pairs. Clarice looking down at her plate; she don’t want no part of me, of who I’m is in this skin. I hate these boys and this lunch and this life and this place and everything it ever gone be. My eyes go wide and I feel it, the tremble and tremor, and Ghostface Aunty rises in me and I bare my teeth and let it out. The howl come out my throat deep and loud as if drawn from my feet, and I start swinging. I feel that tray strike flesh and body and I keep on. When I stop the whole cafeteria gone silent, and everybody’s eyes on me. Them boys is on the ground and I can see blood on the edge of the tray and Haryson groaning and Cantavious whimpering and Major is balled up covering his head and then I see that Clarice has got her hand to her mouth as if she been hit. I step toward her to see if I hurt her and she flinches back and holds out a warding hand and I see that she bleeding from a split lip. I can see right into the open gash and in her face is terror and horror and I run for the back doors into the blind bright day and keep on out the gates.
• • •
I run and run, out the fence out the street down Farrow past houses with yards with they fences and folks looking on not saying nothing watching me go. All I can think is I hurt Clarice, and I done with these kids and done with being a white nigger. Done with being me. When I get down to the swamp, I go down the soft bank off the road and rest my back to a tree trunk, wheezing, thinking this how it feel when Ghostface Aunty have one of her spells. Though she say the worst part is the burning and freezing, first a shiver, a shift of God’s fingernail, then a thrum and throb, and the light start burning.
When my breath return I notice the sounds. Them insects drum and whir and beep. Them birds twitter and woo and caw. And then they a rumble and roar on the road past the bank where the sun a fire split by the trees and stare into the rays trying see until out of the light come a long blue Buick with a front grill like silver teeth all fresh-washed and putt-putt popping, with shiny old-time spokes that like spinners for old white ladies. That blue box pull up on the bank above real slow, and there be the exact driver who would be behind that wheel: one white-haired old white lady with her hair put in curls so tight it almost like black hair. She just look like every old white person seem to look—like them scary dead folks on Halloween, only somebody painted up a doll-face on some dough that could have been an apple pie. Lips all pinkish and little rounds like roses on the cheeks. She a lady who care, it seem to me, cause the painting careful, and her lacey dress look crisp with starch. She have a silver watch to match her Buick grill, like she blinged up to swing down to the black side of town. I know it a Buick cause King had got one and worked all kind scratch-mash crinkle kind things out the body and got a fresh grill and turtle wax to hide what was left and sold it to that dealer out the highway for what he say was bones and bones cause he say some old white ladies still think they got class and deep-end-ability stead of dent-ability. He laugh when he say it but I don’t know still why nobody gone drive no car to high water or get a car hoping to hit things and keep on, but this lady must be one of them who into getting wet or smashing up what in her path. Now she putting the window down like she fitting to say something, and I get ready to run.
“Why hello, son,” she say in a voice so warm it like pie just out the oven. “Come on up so we can talk.”
Now look here. Kleenex have a dark spot. We got us some dominoes!
I walk up the bank to the side of the road, but not too near. “Ma’am.”
“Such manners!” She smile and her teeth is so white and straight I know they ain’t hers—she have the fake grill. Silver grills on old-time cars and silver timepieces and clean bright toothsets be how white folks roll. She look at me for a moment. “You need a ride somewhere, son? You safe out on this side of town?”
I think bout how she offering cause she care. Bout how black folks don’t want me. “Yes please, ma’am. If it ain—is not too much trouble.”
She pat the seat there in front, and I run round the car to get in. The handle heavy and stiff. Inside the cab it like a fridge the AC on so high, and the leather cool and slick at once. Beneath my butt be the throb of the idling motor.
She hold out a hand. “Mrs. Deborah Thompson.”
She have heavy rings of gold and silver and all kind colored stones and diamond which look like they must take time to get on, cause she have the right-us which make her finger knows all swell-up. I take her hand careful like I might break them fingers and give a little shake. “Darrell.”
“Daryl! What a nice strong name.”
I ain’t sure what she mean for me to say, so I don’t say nothing, just look at her and smile.
This seem to tickle her. “Aren’t you a shy one! Well, Daryl, it isn’t safe to stay all by yourself,” the lady say, looking out at the Warner house with its piles of trash like it might come out the street and bury her. “Surely we can get you to a better place.”
I almost feel tears well up at how she want to take me someplace nice. At how she going out her way. I want to tell her to take me to my real home on the white side of town, where my white family waits in my house with the front door open, and in the big open garage my white papa uses silver tools on a new Buick-kind car up on hydraulics like Toolman Tim, and back in the big open kitchen with all steel-kind appliances my real mama makes me something good while I fly my cruiser bike over that smooth asphalt with my friends who have names like Bill, John, and Dave. I try to think of how to find this home, but I ain’t never once been out the other side of the tracks. Out the highway to Walmart, sure, but not where white folks live. All I can think is that I know Farrow become Main cause King been said the reason they call the street Main is they’s mainly crackers there.
“Just out Main is where I stay at,” I say. “If it ain’t too far.”
The old lady smile at me her mouth full of slick marshmallows. “Well alright, then. Mind your seatbelt. Safety first.”
I fumble bout while she watch, find the shoulder strap and get that seatbelt on and clicked. It been a long time since I been in a car, since Mama’s don’t run no more and King won’t let me in his cheap-ass Charger cause he say I’m gone mess up the upholstery but really just cause he don’t want to be seen with me out where folks would notice. In buses nobody got no seatbelts. She put the car into gear with a jerk and we start slow and then piddle our way. It so icy in the AC I begin to shiver, and the lady smile at me as if to say that we all get cold. My arms popping bumps, and I rub my hands to warm them.
“So Daryl,” Mrs. Deborah Thompson say, “you have a way of speaking that’s quite—unique.”
I fear for a moment that I’m gone be found out. “Sorry,” I mumble.
She give a smile that meant to be kind. “I don’t mean to criticize,” she says. “Y’all just speak so proper. My boy, Grayson, he says I pay too much attention to how folks speak, and too little to what gets said.”
She lets this sit, and I see she want to talk bout her boy. “Is your son—grown up?”
“Lord, yes. Forty-three years old, and two beautiful grandsons about your age!”
“Dean and Samson. Over there at the Academy in the third and fifth grade. Do you know them?”
“No, ma’am. I’m just in the fourth grade.”
She look disappointed, like she was gone try to find out they secrets. “Shame you don’t know them. Well. Lord knows I can’t help that I was raised with good habits of speech. And with you, it seems to me you sound like perhaps you’re not from around here.”
I grasp for what I know. “California,” I say. “Southern. I am—visiting my uncle.”
“Where in Southern California did you say, Daryl?”
I think bout how it say in them movie pop-up notes where Arnold live. “Lost Angels,” I say. “The Eastern Hollywood.”
“Lost Angels,” she repeat softly. “What a beautiful name.”
We crossing the highway now, on past the Double Quick and down, and now we turned where I ain’t never gone. Mrs. Deborah Thompson has slowed, and we just cruising, further out than I ever been. There a big two-story house now with them white round posts holding up a big triangle of roof, and then another, and another, long porches with couches and chairs, parking lot–size lawns of green carpet. But they ain’t no cars out front cause it daytime, and the front doors all shut and they ain’t no lights or faces in the second-story windows—nobody leaning out the window waving in they white aprons.
“Is this here the right street?” she ask.
“Yes ma’am. Just keep going.”
She meet my eyes, and hers steady and clear scary blue like the sky after a storm. “Tell me where, then. We’ll take you right to the front door.”
And so I look for the right house. Could be any of these big-column wrap-porch houses. Don’t see no bikes out front, though there a blue house with curvy white trim, and a yellow house that so bright it like dandelions and sunlight, and in front of one house they rows and rows of red and pink roses and a white lady with a sun hat and curled white hair spilling out and she turn when we come past to look at us, and I wonder, what would I say to her if we pulled up? “Hello, Grandmom—let us thank Mrs. Deborah Thompson for her kindness, and will you let me go play next week with her grandsons Dean or Daniel or somesuch?” I look at Mrs. Thompson, stare at her petal mouth which have rose-colored lipstick smeared all on it, while within is the perfect curve of fake teeth. I look at this lady out front the house, her face flat-frowned with watching strangers in trucks, and they ain’t no welcoming in her watching eyes. And then we past her and the houses start getting further apart, so that between each house and drive is long rows of cotton with the small green shoots just starting as a fuzz of green to the end of what the eye can see into the cloudless sky so wide and blue and still that not even a crow flies, not even a sparrow crosses over. I start to panic thinking there nothing else, and then a tall white house with a great wraparound porch looms ahead with a big open drive out front, a row of tall strange-leafed trees standing bout it like a fence or wall leading in. “There!” I point at the drive, feeling relief. “The next one!”
Mrs. Thompson slows even more as she turns, and I take in the gravel drive to my house, shaded by the tall trees and grand somehow like you supposed to stop and take in how high and straight they grown in the pattern somebody thought up long ago. “Beautiful old cedar,” Mrs. Deborah says, admiring the straight tree rows and the towering balcony held high and the long porch around the stretch of side yard. “Your uncle’s family must have been longstanding landowners here in Blessing.”
I feel Ghostface Aunty rise in me and I make a sound that part battle cry and reckoning and birthsong and mean death.
“Yes ma’am,” I say, as her eyes search my face. On the pruned skin above her top lip sweat beads even in the cool cab. She turns the Buick into the drive, and the gravel crunches painful slow as we pull on up. “Home, sweet home!”
We sit there, staring into the front windows where there a shimmer of curtains and dark space behind. There a second low building back in a shaded grove of trees and a thicket of tall grass down the way that still out of sight, and I glad nobody coming out from the house I ain’t never known.
“Thank you so very much,” I say, remembering my white accent.
“Now Daryl,” Mrs. Thompson says as if she have a lot to say, and now it time. She let out a long sigh.
I just look at her and don’t say nothing.
She sigh again. “Daryl,” she say. “Daryl, there are so many lost angels. My nephews, they don’t go to the Academy, because the Academy does not start until the sixth grade. And you do not live here, on this street, since it is not Main.”
I blink, but don’t say nothing. Ghostface Aunty say that when you in trouble, you don’t never say nothing till it mean something.
Mrs. Thomspon have a look on her prune-face which like a mix of aha and pity—like she think she know me. “Daryl, it is alright,” she say. “Are you in some trouble? Has someone hurt you? I am just an old woman, but I can help.”
I shake my head, press my back to the door and slide my finger to the seatbelt lock and pop it and hold the end so it don’t pull back. “Ma’am,” I say. “You have understood me wrong. I live right here.”
“No, Daryl, if that’s even your name. No, you most certainly do not. This is the Markham Museum for the History of Delta Agriculture and nobody lives here. Now stop this foolishness right now, and tell me who your family is.”
I meet her eyes. I think of how she think she want to help me, but do not. I think of her grandsons who look like me but can never be like me anymore than I can be like them. All at once, I throw off the seatbelt and push the door open, though it sticks halfway. Mrs. Thompson reaches a hand for me and gets me by the pant leg, I push back and kick at her claw hands and keep kicking, feel my foot catch her finally in her soft lips and fake grill, and she gasp and I am free and tumble to the ground.
I stand and turn back, and then I almost feel bad—the old lady is bleeding or at least her lipstick is smeared cross her face, which look like an old broken clown now. Now she not sounding like no lady, but swearing and spitting: “You little bastard! How could you! How could you—”
I almost want to jump back in and kick her again so all she do is bleed and bleed until all have been paid and they ain’t no more nice white ladies in Buicks and can’t nobody drive me nowhere that I don’t belong because everywhere is where I belong, and I feel Ghostface Aunty rise in me and I make a sound that part battle cry and reckoning and birthsong and mean death. “Y’all crackers don’t know me!” I yell. “Get back, you old bitch—or you gone pay!”
The old lady shut up. For a moment we there together in the silence of this museum or farm, and there the far-off call of a train in the still. She suck in a ragged breath, and whisper: “Sweet fucking Jesus. A white nigger.”
She cough, spit, and blood spatter over the wheel and dash—I got her good, and all of a sudden I feel sorry. Then she start to holler: “I’m gone call the police!” she yell. “Help! Help! Rape! He’s killing me!”
I turn and sprint round the house, cut through flower beds and then push through a thick hedge, and then I into long fields of sorghum and then cotton and I run from the road until I come to the tracks, and then follow the rails, the bed of track and girder and struts and gravel gone on into fields and my feet lifting dust and my breath loud and strong with training, foot forward and forward, arms up and on and the tracks running on toward town. I run and run until long after I know nobody after me.
• • •
It a long walk home, and I know I gone get it if the school called Mama and she had to leave shift, so I take my time. I paid a price, but I glad I escaped. For a while I don’t see them red and blue lights out front the house. When I see them, I run to the fence and duck down and watch—I wonder how they known I was coming. Didn’t tell that lady who I’m really is. Then I see that these lights ain’t no po-po but an ambulance. Somebody down. And right then I know who they come for.
On the lawn is two grown men in white uniform shirts, they dark skin darker up to them bleach-bright whites. They have patches on they shoulders and big belts with pouches and pockets. They have a long cart out of sight between them, and I can see the wheel ruts from where they tearing up the yard from the door. I step out the walk and march on them and they don’t see me at all till I real close. When they see me they stop and stare. One of them ambulances is short and round and his uniform dark with patches of his own sweat. The other taller, with wide shoulders and a little broom mustache and deep smile lines bout his mouth.
The short one’s mouth come open. “Look!” he say, pointing. “They’s two of them!”
The other ambulance swat the other man’s hand down and block me before I can get past and he take me by the shoulder. “Son, stop.”
“Is she—” I start, then stop cause I don’t want to say it. Cause I know.
He take a deep breath. “Son, your mama been passed. Look like she had her a heart attack. We waiting on the ambulance come from Rosewood to make it official, but it done. I sorry. Your aunty and your—uncle?—coming back. They didn’t say nothing bout you coming. They were here but they gone looking for your cousin, I guess, who gone missing at school.”
“My mama?” And then I know what he saying. “Can I see?”
“Don’t touch!” the fat ambulance say.
The nice one glance back at the stretcher and the white sheet. “He ain’t gone hurt nothing.” He step aside. “Go on. Just for a minute.”
I go to the big white sheet, reach down and draw it back from Ghostface Aunty face. The top of her dress all bunched up and a thick white leg sticking out and I think for a second how she gone burn and then know she can’t burn no more. I tidy what I can. Her eyes closed, now—maybe the red scared the ambulance and they done it, maybe she closed them herself. Her face not tight or angry or sad, just loose.
I kneel down so I whispering only to her. “Aunty,” I say. “I stood up to them boys at school who been meddling me. I gave the white devils notice. I—escaped.”
I crying under my sunglasses. “Aunty,” I say. “I’m glad you don’t hurt no more. I found out that we the same. We both got to suffer. I know what it like—now.”
I wait till I calm, and then I stand and face the men. The kind-faced ambulance look like he nearly crying, and the other have a curious expression. “Boy, don’t mean to be rude,” he say. “But what exactly—were—are—you two?”
I meet his eyes, pull my glasses free. Without their darkness, Ghostface Aunty is bright with light that never touched her before. Her hair a sparkling crown. Her skin glows and shines. Back inside, in Ghostface Aunty room, she been torn that wall asunder. She died that I might rise, and so endure.
“We the ones you been waiting for,” I say, my voice sure and strong. “We the white niggers. We inherit the earth.”
Michael Copperman is the author of TEACHER: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta (University Press of Mississippi). He has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse background at the University of Oregon for a decade. His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. He is currently seeking literary representation.
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