April 1, 2017 orangeq2017

Searching for Higher Ground

Terry Barr

 

I

The empty, Sunday afternoon mall parking lot where I learned to drive in the summer of 1972 offered no challenges really. So after I completed a series of uncomplicated turns around mammoth poles of artificial light, Mom suggested that I drive us home. Taking “the back way” through poor and segregated neighborhoods to our house on the other side of town, we passed our maid Dissie’s house. I tooted the horn and waved to her as she sat on her front porch. In that split second, I saw her full-face smile and her gold-encased upper-front tooth twinkling in the sunlight.

After the first few months of licensed, accident-free driving in my own neighborhood, my mother began allowing me to run errands for her. One of these was to drive Dissie home on Saturday afternoons when I wasn’t in school.

Grabbing Mom’s keys and making sure my wallet was tucked safely in my back jeans pocket, I raced to the front door:

“Dissie! You ready to go?”

“I’m comin’, Bob”—her nickname for me—“I’m comin’. Just let me get my bag.”

I escorted her out the door, down the front walkway to our ‘67 Tempest, a two-door model. Reaching the passenger side door, I opened it and then waited for Dissie to settle in so that I could close it securely behind her.

Dissie is a heavy though not especially fat woman. She’s big-thighed, big-hipped, and round on top. She’s getting older, though I refuse to allow her age to sink in fully. I think she’s as young and energetic as she’s ever been, though I clearly see the evidence that our windows and floors are not quite as shiny as they were when I was just a kid. She still sings in low, soft tones as she works, and her laugh is still as contagious as ever when she recounts the escapades of Lucy and Ethel on the morning reruns.

I love Dissie. I’d do anything for her.

I’m excited for us to drive through the streets of Bessemer now. We can talk and listen to the hits on WVOK. What a feeling — Dissie beside me — me driving her home!

As my vision crystallized, though, Dissie did the one thing I never expected.

I guess I never thought about it, though surely I had noticed it somewhere in the countless times my Mom or Dad drove her home. But that was then, another time, and I am me.

“Dissie, you don’t…”

But she did.

We drove on to her house in silence, WVOK playing songs that I no longer can remember.

 

II

I was a kid who never pretended, never hid my true feelings. When my family supported JFK in the 1960 national election, one of my closest friends scoffed that Kennedy was nothing but a “nigger-lover.” My silent mouth gaped as low and open as a gutted deer. Embarrassed, slightly ashamed, I didn’t know what to say, what this meant.

In the summer of 1962, when some other neighborhood kids sported folding hats made of two stapled Wallace bumper stickers, I begged for one, too.

“We don’t support George Wallace,” my parents cried in unison.

Still, they asked one of the kids for a single sticker, curved it into a circle, and placed it on my six-year old head—a new crown that I wore for the rest of the evening. Later that evening, my parents explained to me what I didn’t understand about my new “hat.”

“The same people who hate Kennedy love George Wallace,” Daddy said.

“Why do they love him?”

“Because he hates Black people. Because he stood in the schoolhouse door and shouted ‘Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, and Segregation Forever.’”

I didn’t understand the word “segregation.” But I did know “hate.”

And I began understanding then that the world I knew was changing.

When my parents told me two years later to “Act Naturally” around the first Black children to integrate our elementary school, and to speak to them only if they spoke to me first, I felt even more confused. I already talked naturally to Black people: Our maid and baby-sitters, Dissie, Georgia, and Mona Lee; the woman who helped manage my grandmother’s antique shop, Mary; the custodians of our church, Buford, Linnis, and Eugenia. When Dissie brought her nieces, nephews, and granddaughter to our house, I not only spoke to them naturally, like the friends they were, but I also played all my games with them: Parcheesi, Old Maid; whiffle-ball; and touch football.

So when my parents made a point of telling me to “Act Naturally” around Black children, my first thought was that they meant “be polite,” which I normally was. But I knew something else was occurring. Their faces looked worried sometimes, even afraid. These looks reminded me of their other warnings like: “Don’t ever get in the car with someone you don’t know,” or “Don’t you ever take candy from any stranger!”

And in my fifth grade year, on my first day of school integration, this scene: My mother’s image—robed, make-up-less, squatting at my eye-level—and my grandmother’s—stooped, bottle of Coke in hand—looming over both of us:

“You just mind your own business, and they’ll mind theirs. Then there won’t be any trouble. And if one of them does start trouble, you march right to the principal’s office and tell him what happened.”

Start trouble? What sort of trouble, I wondered? Yet, I never asked.

In those strange and anxious times, I believe I did the best I could. Since I didn’t know any of these new Black students at all, I treated them during school hours as I did any unknown kid: I said nothing to them but kept an eye out for them.

I guess I was acting naturally then.

Since I spoke up only rarely in class, afraid to call attention to myself for fear of being wrong, or, if right, being branded a “pet,” I believed that I was just a face in the class. Just another name called out in the roll each morning. So why would my fifth grade Black classmates start trouble with me or notice me at all?

But during that first year of integration in Bessemer, as I was tossing myself spiral passes one afternoon in my front yard, a Black boy named Brown Chapman came riding down our street on his banana-seated, high-handled bike. As he rode closer, I watched him steadily. Then, he lifted his left hand:

“Hi Terry.”

Though stunned at the recognition, I waved back:

“Hi Brown.”

“See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, see ya.”

So talking to a relatively unknown Black kid was OK. Nothing “troubling” happened to either of us. I wish I had told my family of this friendly encounter. But I didn’t.

So I “acted naturally” with Brown Chapman, but then I failed to act as I should have with my friends.

When my White friends used the word “Nigger,” I said nothing.

I knew I had a proper upbringing. I was taught to show respect to any and all; to never curse or take God’s name in vain; to never use words like “nigger” or even its milder variations. My parents even forbid me to use the word “hate,” as in “I just hate my little brother!” In those years my parents modeled this behavior for me every day.

But as 1966 bled into 1967 and 8, I noticed that the tenor of our rather tolerant home grew increasingly shrill at the names being used all over TV and in the papers: King, Abernathy, Carmichael. In the 1968 summer Olympics I remember my father’s shrill voice when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a Black Power fist and bowed their heads on the medal dais as “The Star Spangled Banner” played to honor them.

“That’s a disgrace to the flag, to America!”

My father was livid. His voice scared me then because I didn’t quite see what was so wrong. I wondered even then if this act was more disrespectful than what we had all been living through in our segregated world.

 

I knew my world was shifting. I also knew that the one constant was Dissie. She arrived on these sunny mornings of my childhood with a smile that warmed me more than the heat rising from the floor register I’d hover over on winter days. As she held me, I could hear my parents welcoming Dissie, their own warmth, I thought, matching mine.

This was love, truly, and I thought then that I understood the feeling well, and that it would never alter or die, just like a porch light on a crisp autumn Friday night.

 

III

“We’ll park at Dissie’s house,” Daddy says as we drive toward the stadium. I am six years old, in the first grade, and this will be my first Bessemer High School football game.

Her porch light is on for us as we pull into the dried-ruts of her front-yard driveway. She’s usually in bed by seven, she says, but on these autumn Friday nights of my childhood, she waits by her door, for us.

“Hey Mistah Alvin! Hey Bob!”

“Dissie!” And I dash up the unpainted porch steps into her shining brown arms. She’s changed her soft gray uniform for a blue flowered house-dress, but her laughing eyes are my constant.

“Is ya’ll ready for the game? It ought to be a good one. Billy and Nelly Ann’s going. They say those folk from Phillips is mighty rough.”

“Hey Dissie,” my Dad says. “Yeah, but I think Bessemer’s ready for ‘em. You oughta come watch too.”

“No sir. I’se getting’ in the bed, but I be listnin’ to Mistah Porter on the radio.”

She lets go of me then after an extra squeeze.

“Now you be good and mind yo Daddy, hear?”

“Sure I will Dissie. And I’ll root ‘em in for you! You’re comin’ tomorrow morning aren’t you?”

“Shore am, ifn the Good Lawd willin’! Nita’ll be comin’ too!”

“Oh boy, I can show her my new football!”

“She’ll love that…Now you give me a hug an’ go on with Mistah Alvin.”

“OK, see you in the morning!”

Dissie lived only a block from the showplace high school stadium that had been constructed out of brick and mortar in the 1930s and planted in the middle of the black section of Bessemer: Eight square blocks of unpainted, rundown houses, many of which did not offer indoor plumbing on the west side of town. In the ensuing decades, Bessemer High School rewarded the town’s investment by winning six or eight state championships, all before the early 1960s. And during these decades the attending faithful parked everywhere, including in the yards of the ramshackle houses dotting 4th Avenue, just across the street from the heralded stadium entrance.

I was used to seeing Black people walk through our neighborhood as it was bordered on either side by two Black neighborhoods in the hills of south Bessemer. But if 500 or even twenty cars filled with Black people pulled into my neighborhood after dark and parked there for several hours, I think I’d have been scared. I accepted that Black people couldn’t live in our neighborhood–that they shouldn’t be there after dark at all.

But I never wondered whether Black people were scared of if they wondered about “our” descending on them like we did on these Friday nights.

I never imagined then how it felt for the Black home-owners living near the stadium to be invaded by white-owned coupes and sedans most Friday nights, as if it were our natural-born right.

But Dissie had offered us the driveway to her house. And when we arrived, though she had just left our house maybe three hours earlier, I fled to her arms as if we had been parted for months, leaving my Daddy standing alone in the lower yard, impatient but smiling. Her house, as Dad described it, was the archetypal southern “shotgun shack,” an untreated clapboard, but I didn’t care. The inside of Dissie’s house comforted me.

Dissie’s house was as neat and clean as those of many of the White families I more regularly frequented. Her bed was always made, the furniture was aligned with the room, and all chairs were politely pushed under their respective tables. The several shaded lamps on these tables softened, diffused, the harsh overhead light. Maybe it was that quality of muted light, along with the comforting scent of Dissie, that warmed my soul whenever I set foot inside her door and that made me ask to spend the night there: A request that I made earlier that afternoon:

“Dissie, can I please come spend the night with you?”

“Honey, you know Miss Jo Ann need you here to help with yo little brother!”

“But she has Daddy and Nanny—can’t I go with you?”

Dissie’s laughing eyes roll a bit then over at my mother who always referred to me as “Buddy.”

“Now Buddy, don’t bother Dissie. She’s worked hard all week tending to you and Mikie. She’s tired and needs her rest. You’ll see her tomorrow morning, so don’t bother her anymore.”

I heard her tone more than her words. The pitch was high, and if I didn’t mind her then, another, higher pitch would lead to yelling, maybe even to a “switching.” But because I didn’t push things then did not mean I didn’t try again the next Friday, or the next. Finally I did get the message: Spending the night with Dissie was about as likely as our taking our summer vacation to DisneyLand. Impossible, but why? Dissie loved us, and I loved her. She took care of me in our home, so why wouldn’t she in hers?

No one ever explained, and so of course, I never got that chance.

The best I could do was to step inside Dissie’s house for a minute or two—one more moment with the woman who was like a mother to me. She might even take me inside for a piece of her homemade lemon pound cake.

But the game finally had a stronger pull. I took my Daddy’s hand–his sure, strong hand–both to ease my sadness at leaving Dissie and to ensure that in the ensuing crowds, I would never lose my connection to him. As we walked away, Dissie stood on her porch watching us. Several times I’d turn back to wave to her. Dissie never waved just her hand, however; her entire arm flagged me in a way similar to highway utility men giving the “All Clear” signal. As we peaked the slight incline that would take us down to the stadium entrance, I stole one last look at her. One last wave, and then she disappeared.

 

As hard as it was leaving Dissie, the minute Daddy and I took our seats I was his boy, relishing each play under his protective care. He explained the strategy of the game, how the linemen were they key to success on both sides of the ball. We cheered together for Bessemer, and I hoped that one day he might be watching me take my place on this field; he might see me catch the winning touchdown pass.

During time-outs, I’d take in all the fans cheering with us.

“Daddy, where do you think Billy and Nelly Ann are sitting?”

“Oh, over there in the end zone, see?”

And he pointed to our right, to the rickety, unpainted bleachers of the West end zone. There among the darker hues somewhere were Billy and Nelly Ann.

“Can I go over and say Hi later?”

“No, you better stay up here with me. You might get lost.”

The fear of getting lost was primal for me, so I didn’t question him. It was good enough to know they were there, enjoying the game as I was. Of course, it hadn’t hit me yet that though they yelled for Bessemer High, they were forbidden from attending it.

But sitting with my daddy high in the home stands, I didn’t think about who could or couldn’t go to certain schools. I didn’t wonder what Billy or Nelly Ann or their friends thought about their seats in the stadium. I didn’t know to wonder then about their perspective on the sights in front of them. It all seemed so natural to me.

Now, I wonder: Did they know that as they were watching the game, we were watching them?

Did they know that at some point during this football game of my faltering voice that I forgot about Dissie, her house, and her shining brown arms? Did they see me looking over in their direction and remember that when Dissie brought them over to baby sit or play with me, I followed them from room to room begging to hold their hands, to be “big” like them? And did Billy and Nelly Ann see me look right at them when the man sitting next to me–a friend of my father’s who would one day be my Sunday School teacher—tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to those west end zone bleachers:

“Look! There are our other fans!”

Did they see him laugh, knowingly? Did they see me laugh with him? For what else could I do?

But I did know enough to feel my shame—the shame of knowing that in her clean and tidy home just two blocks away listening on the radio to the cheers of Bessemer High’s mainly white fans, Dissie heard my puny and insignificant laugh and knew its source?

I think the final score of my first high school football game was a tie: 13-13. It figures. Dad and I left the stadium a few minutes before the final gun to get a head start on the post-game traffic. When we reached Dissie’s again, everything looked the same: the car, Dissie’s house, except that the inside lights were off. On the way home, I tried to believe that everything was the same, that nothing really had changed for me that night. That nothing would ever change my world.

And maybe it hadn’t then. For as usual, Dissie had left her porch light on for us: A light that in my imagination kept on burning through that night, long after we had driven away and I was safely tucked into my own bed, on the other side of town, in the room I shared with my little brother. I’d fall asleep then, dreaming of the tomorrow when I would be back in her arms again.

 

For over ten years Bessemer dodged the reality of 1954’s Brown vs. Board of Education integration decision. The city fathers claimed during this time that they were studying and drawing up desegregation plans with “all deliberate speed,” which was within the design of the Brown decision. “Deliberate speed” meant stalling and hoping a miracle would occur and that schools could remain as segregated as Wallace had promised. But then in 1964 or 65—when I was nine—Daddy said that Judge Pointer had decided all plans must be finalized that year. So most white citizens had choices to make: Attend integrated schools; fake addresses in parts of town where zoning ordinances had no practical effect on the racial makeup of the school; or, pull out of the city system altogether and start their own private academies.

During these “Separate but Equal” days of stalling tactics as Bessemer transitioned from separate-but-equal to whatever integration meant, I did see separate lunch counters in downtown stores, separate water fountains and restrooms. Once, when I was downtown with my friend Jamie and his family, I tried drinking for a store fountain—one labeled Colored. Jamie’s mother set me straight:

“That’s not your water. Yours is over there on the other side of that elevator, the one that says White.”

Water clearly wasn’t equal.

But Dissie used our bathroom.

The separate but equal reality was clearly hard for me to grasp.

What did register, though, was the reality of the end of this segregated era—a reality that for me began with the word boycott.

 

By 1965 it was no longer safe to go to our public amusement park or community pool. The community pool I never worried about because I was such a fearful swimmer.

Our amusement park, however, otherwise known as “KiddieLand,” was a true loss. Though I rode the Ferris wheel and the very tame roller coaster at will, I wasn’t old enough to experience “Laughter in the Dark,” the enclosed joyride through a house of horrors that beckoned you in through its twin painted clown faces: Happy, Sad. That these faces could also represent Comedy and Tragedy, of course, never occurred to me then.

When I described my previous day’s thrills at KiddieLand to Dissie—she’d listen to all my stories and say, “I wish Billy an’ Nelly Ann an’ them could see it.” I never asked her why they couldn’t.

My parents took me to KiddieLand several times each summer, and in the fall, the State Fair joined the regular attractions. KiddieLand became the only place I wanted to go if I had my choice of afternoon thrills. And then one day in the summer of 1965 when I asked to go, my mother told me we couldn’t:

“It’s being boycotted, and it’s too dangerous to go to now.”

That’s all she’d say, despite the fact that I didn’t know what a boycott was. Whenever I heard the word, I saw little boys picking cotton when they shouldn’t. It turns out that I wasn’t so far off the mark.

 

IV

On that transformative first day of integration during my sixth grade year, I came to school ready to act naturally. My teacher, Miss Horton—a young woman with lustrous red hair and a blue mole on her left cheek—lectured us about proper behavior under these special circumstances:

“Class, we must all be respectful of each other. I’m depending on the rest of you to set the proper example. Welcome your two new classmates like you would anyone else.”

She left the room for a minute, shutting the door firmly behind her. We waited, expecting what?

“Are they boys or girls,” my friend Robert asked.

“Where will they sit,” a little girl named Sandra wondered.

Before anyone could answer, Miss Horton entered again, accompanied by two girls, dressed primly, neatly. They followed Miss Horton to her desk, and when she stopped, they stared only at each other.

“Class, this is Cynthia Williams and Zepora Delk. They’ve come from Dunbar elementary. Now girls, your desk is right over there by the window. Go take your seats and get out your social studies books.”

Cynthia and Zepora trudged to their desks, looking only at the floor in front of them and never making a sound.

Over the next few days, I tried not to stare at them or do anything to call attention to myself. But one day, passing their table on the way to sharpen my pencil, I looked down at Zepora’s place and noticed that she had drawn on the back of her blue Nifty binder a Black Power insignia with those very words imbedded in the mighty black fist. My daddy had pointed such signs out to me before as he watched the TV news reports of Birmingham, Memphis, and it seemed to me, every other American city.

“That’s just going too far,” he shouted.

But I wasn’t certain exactly what was going on anywhere, or where anything was heading. Naturally, I didn’t ask, either.

“WOW!” I remarked as I passed Zepora’s desk.

She caught my eye just long enough.

“My cousin drew that,” was all she said.

“OK,” I replied as I found my seat and stared at my own binder which was itself emblazoned with various legends of “Alabama football,” “Paul Revere and the Raiders,” and boy-girl initials embraced in hearts like GTB + MJT. I envisioned at that moment Zepora’s cousin appearing in our class, looking something like H. Rap Brown–who terrified my father on the evening news each night—and causing a “race-riot,” something my parents feared more, it seemed, than they did my various bouts with strep throat.

What strange and misguided advice my elders gave me. If I had acted “naturally,” I might have ribbed Zepora a bit for her sixth grade pretensions. If she were white, our teasing might have lasted more than a moment. It might have carried over into other days, maybe even into the sort of playful flirtation I had with my white girl friends like Mary Jane and Laurie.

If I had truly acted naturally–not as my parent ordered me to during the new days of integration, but rather like the way I had been naturally raised–I might have made a new friend. Or enemy. And then, what would any of us have done?

I can’t remember now how long Cynthia lasted in the “New and Improved” Bessemer school system, but I do remember graduating with Zepora. She sat right behind me at our commencement.

I wish I could be sure that Cynthia and Zepora benefited from being the first group of Black children to enter the hallowed halls of White school nirvana–halls that Billy and Nelly Ann were prevented by law and custom from ever seeing.

 

It was a strange web to be caught in. During high school, Black kids would glare sullenly at me. I could feel the simmering rage of boys with tall Afros, Black-power combs sticking out of their back pockets. I could hear the semi-veiled threats in the hallways and cafeteria. Sometimes, I’d ask the few Black students I felt I could talk to why I, who had never done anything directly to another Black student, should bear the brunt of such hostility:

“Do you understand what it’s like to get up at 5:30 every morning,” a fellow

Humanities student named Veronica Taylor, asked simply. “To get on the bus by 6:15 and get to school by 6:45? And then to have to sit in the gym without any heat until 8? Every morning! While you all get escorted by your daddies right up to the front entrance, exactly at 7:50?”

“Would you rather go to Abrams (the still predominantly Black high school), then?”

“Would you?”

She didn’t need an answer. What answer was there anyway for the shifting grounds of our reality? For our reality was that “our” school—now named Jess Lanier High for Bessemer’s long-time Mayor and city boss—had been built originally to accommodate only 800 students, attested to by the 800 lockers adorning the hallways. 800 white kids, that is, for this new school was built outside of the original designated zoning boundary. Within this boundary, families were supposed to choose between old Bessemer High and Abrams High—with buses used to transport both races across the town to “achieve racial balance.” At least that was the theory. The white city fathers who built Jess Lanier in the most affluent section of town, however, had other theories. They saw the new school as a preserve.

As a refuge from the city’s teeming “wild life.”

But Judge Pointer saw through that scheme. Now, only Jess Lanier and Abrams High remained. And no white kid I ever knew went to Abrams.

At Sunday school each week during that same period, I mingled with friends whose parents had pulled them out of city schools altogether. One of them, Jane Robinson who was a trusted confidante, explained how she felt:

“I’m learning Spanish in a chicken coop. That’s Bessemer Academy, my school!

We use old chicken coops on some old farm for classes. And I have no choice.

Do you know how that feels? My parents are forcing me to go. I want to be with you guys. You just wouldn’t understand.”

Maybe I didn’t understand; maybe none of us did.

 

V

When I turned sixteen and got my license, my Daddy decided to let me drive to the games that year by myself. As I drove toward Bessemer Stadium, however, the charge I felt being behind the wheel of my Dad’s ’67 Buick Special almost lost its surge when I glanced at the vacant seat beside me where, in past days, I had sat quite happily.

Other changes, too, were in store. Since my high school days meant leaving home by 7:30—the school being on the complete opposite side of town from our house, some five miles away—and since it was after 3:30 at least before I arrived home, I didn’t see Dissie at all except on Saturdays. On those mornings—after I decided to get out of bed, around 10:30 or so—we might discuss the previous night’s game, which of course she still listened to faithfully.

Win or lose, though, the most troubling question was the one we never mentioned:

“Why don’t you park at my house any more, Bob?”

“Well, you see, I found this other place…it’s closer to the stadium, and easier to beat the traffic when I leave.”

For following Dad’s lead, I continued parking at the armory. I knew it wasn’t right. And now I was willing to leave aside the practical reason and hear my own voice telling me this uncomfortable truth: I was avoiding the embarrassment of having any of my friends know that I parked at my maid’s house. I was avoiding any potential conflict if a girl I liked or a boy I was jealous of saw me making nice to an elderly Black woman—a woman who loved me but could also embarrass me.

Did she understand this truth? Was she protecting me still? Or was it that through these decades she simply knew when to remain silent…and where to stand in the relative position of our lives?

 

In my last years of high school, football and everything else centered on my friends. We’d meet just inside the gate, and then proceed to our rightful place in the student section, amidst the now fully integrated “Jess Lanier High” crowd. Of course, white students and black students did not actually intermingle then, but our sections were adjoining. As far as progress went, this was the best we would do, though it didn’t stop certain white students, the so-called “bleacher-bums,” from bringing in an enormous rebel flag and singing “Dixie” a song officially banned by the school.

This was 1973. What were we all now? Separate? Equal? Integrated? At the very least we were all Jess Lanier High Purple Tigers, whether we chose to admit that fact to each other or not.

And among we Purple Tigers was Dissie’s granddaughter, Nita, the apple of Dissie’s eye. I can’t begin to grasp fully, much less describe what Dissie felt knowing the two of us were attending the same school, Nita a freshman, and I, a junior.

“Bob, you see Nita at school, don’t you?”

“Sure Dissie. We pass each other in the halls. Just the other day I saw her and asked her how she was doing. She seemed fine.”

“That’s good. I know it’s hard when you first get there.”

In summers past—long before high school or even junior high–Dissie brought Nita to our house to spend the day with my brother Mike and me.

On those summer days, we’d play Home Run Derby in our backyard, and Nita, without fail, would whomp the tar out of our pitching with arms so skinny you’d think she couldn’t even lift the bat. We had such fun on those mornings, and the fact that Nita could run faster and hit harder than we could just didn’t matter.

Of course I “knew” Nita was black, and certainly she “knew” I was white. We knew intuitively that in the Alabama of our youth, our relationship was sanctioned only under the roof of my house, including the back, but never the front yard.

We never opted out of playing together. Ever.

And this isn’t a color-crossed love story either. We didn’t think in terms of boyfriend/girlfriend as we moved into our teen years. That is, until one June day when Randy, my best friend, and Mary Jane surprised us with an impromptu visit one afternoon while Nita, Mike, and I were competing for home runs in the backyard. When my white friends arrived, their surprise—their shock—registered from their full-moon eyes to their gaping mouths. Upon seeing them, Nita, her own eyes to the ground and altogether silently, laid the bat on the board we used for home plate, and retreated inside to the kitchen, where her grandmother was rolling out the biscuit dough for our lunch. For weeks after, my two friends teased me mercilessly:

“Where’s your new girlfriend? Is she coming over again on Saturday? She sure likes you!”

“Naw, my Momma made me play with her; it’s not like I ever wanted to. I never asked her to come over!”

That was behavior fully sanctioned by proper Bessemer society—denying quickly any improper relationship with a Black person. Denying the possibility of innocent friendship.

And so after that day I knew. Despite the years of our summer place together, Nita and I had never been on equal ground.

When Nita first appeared in the Jess Lanier High school hallways and we passed each other amidst our various crowds, we did speak to each other. Naturally, and by name. I know that’s not much, and truly, I’m not boasting about it. But it was more than anyone else had, or did, at least in my school.

We didn’t always speak, but I don’t think Nita and I ever failed to catch each other’s eye in the two years we spent together in high school. To me, she seemed like just another normal freshman–and then sophomore–girl, walking with her friends, holding her books, eating that horrible cafeteria food: Just another black girl in those corridors who was ultimately off-limits to me. But then, I have no idea what she thought as we passed—how she really saw me.

 

Occasionally I saw Nita at football games. Just as I’m sure that her scholastic goals were like mine, I believe that her social goals were similar, too–goals befitting a girl who couldn’t care less about the game on the field, as was true of all the white girls I knew and had crushes on. Nita wanted to catch the eye of some boy—someone I’d never know.

I remember the night it dawned on me that she looked different from the girl I knew before. She was standing with her crowd at the bottom of the stands, and someone had a transistor radio from which a Stevie Wonder song was pulsating:

“Teachers keep on teachin’

Preachers keep on preachin’

World keep on turnin’

Cause it won’t be too long

Oh no

I’m so glad that he let me try it again

Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin

I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then

Gonna keep on tryin…”

We smiled at each other before I moved on, back up the stands to some girl who was destined to desert me later that night. But I kept thinking about Nita and what was so different about her. When it finally registered in my feeble brain, I wasn’t surprised, though I was a bit shocked. Beneath her pretty white top, Nita was sporting “falsies.”

Not that it really mattered, I suppose, to me or any of my friends who, I’m sure, never noticed a thing despite the fact that white and black kids couldn’t help but touch each other during those tentative days of early integration: The days when the stadium aisles and school corridors were simply too crowded and narrow for anyone to avoid human contact.

 

VI

The next spring, on one of the last Saturdays that Dissie and I had left before I graduated and moved off to college and she, in her seventies by then, retired, I said to her:

“I saw Nita at Class Day this week. She was laughing with her group of friends. I think it’s been a good year for her.”

To which Dissie smiled with her entire body—a smile that comes from a love and trust that are complete; a smile equal to and better than any I‘ve experienced since these terribly beautiful years of my youth:

“She should be happy. She made A’s on her report card this time. Yep, she just loves bein’ in high school.”

Maybe I loved it too, then. It’s what I’d like to believe now.

And it’s only today, in my own house and as I write these very words, that I realize I have no idea what happened to the girl with those skinny brown arms, my summer “girlfriend.” But, I do believe, choose to believe (for what other choice do I have), that wherever Nita is, she is happy and fulfilled in that place. Just the same as I am, and maybe even one row higher.

 

I never heard exactly when Dissie died. I saw her only once more, many years later, after I had left home for good. My wife and I were on the way home from Bessemer’s mall, where I had learned to drive a lifetime earlier. I spotted Dissie sitting on the porch of her daughter’s house, just around the corner from her former home. I slowed down, stopped, and then we walked up the steps to Dissie who was now nearly blind. I introduced these two women: the one still very dark and now so wrinkled; the other olive-skinned with deep ebony hair. Dissie hugged both of us that day, and we made our own variety of small talk. As we were leaving, though, she gave me one last smile:

“I’m glad to see you so happy, Bob!”

Then she waved to me like I was going to a game, as if in another few hours she’d be seeing me again, at our house in the morning.

 

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