My First Racial Lesson:
You have to be carefully taught...
Our radio was next to the bread box. I sat on the kitchen stool waiting for The Shadow to start.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”
I lowered the volume when the scary laugh started, and reached to switch on the stove light. I felt braver with a little light. With my elbows on the counter and my chin on my fist, I leaned as close as I could to hear with the volume so low. Momma promised to kill me if I started the baby crying again. She’d been upstairs for an hour walking the floor with Kristin.
I turned the radio off after the show ended and, for a moment, the only noise was ticking of the clock on the stove, then Butch, my dog, sat up to scratch a flea, ringing his tags. He and I heard the crying at the same time. I thought it was Kristin starting up again, but Butch growled.
Someone was sobbing.
Butch growled again, and I followed the sound of his toenails clicking across the kitchen linoleum out onto the back porch. He went to the screen door, whined and scratched like he did when he wanted out. I had my hand on the handle, when I saw something move on the other side of the screen. Someone was sitting on the back step. My heart thumpity, thumped as I put my arms around Butch’s neck and pulled him away from the door. Whoever was there was shapeless against the little bit of moonlight filtering through the orange trees.
Butch broke away and pressed his nose to the screen.
“I needs help.”
It was a colored lady’s voice.
“Momma?” The door to Kristin’s and my room was closed. I opened it a crack.
“Jesus, what is it, Ginny?” I heard her groan as she got up then a sliver of her face appeared at the crack.
“There’s a colored lady crying on the back step,” I whispered.
Momma flung the door wide. “What?”
“She says she needs help.”
“Oh my God. Did you lock the door?”
“Lock what door?”
“The kitchen door and check the front one, too. Oh my God.” She glanced back at Kristin in her crib, pulled the door closed, and ran on tiptoes to hers and Daddy’s bedroom. “Go,” she snapped at me, then disappeared into their dark room.
“Please help me,” I heard the woman say, as I shut and locked the kitchen door, then ran through the dining room, across the living room and locked the door that opened onto the front porch.
Behind me the stairs creak, and I jumped nearly out of my skin. It was Momma, and she had Daddy’s 38 pistol.
“Are you going to shoot her?”
“Don’t be a fool, Ginny, and turn off those lamps. We’re like fish in bowl with the lights on.”
I darted from lamp to lamp while Momma crept down the hallway toward the downstairs bathroom. There was a window in there that looked out on the back steps. I tiptoed after her, with Butch behind me, toenails clicking on the pine floor.
“You think she wants to kill us?”
“She could be a decoy, trying to lure us out of the house.”
“I don’t know. To rob us.”
“Momma, if there was someone with her, they coulda just come on in. The back door was open and the screen door’s not hooked.”
Momma shushed me, and opened the bathroom window. “What do you want?”
“Don’t want no trouble, ma’am,” the woman said. “I just need help. He’s done broke my arm this time.”
“I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”
“Could you call my sister to come get me? She live just down the road.”
“Yes. I can do that.”
Momma motioned me toward the door, then called out the number while I dialed it. Nearly everyone had a party line, but we didn’t. Momma refused to live this far out in the country when she was pregnant with Kristin without a private line. The same was not true for the colored lady’s sister. It took me four tries to get through.
“Lordy, I was afraid this was gonna happen,” her sister said. “Whereabouts is she?”
“She’s crying on our porch steps.”
“And where might those steps be?”
“We’re the white family on the other side of y’all’s cemetery.”
“Well ain’t you fine people to help. I’ll send brother right down to fetch her.”
“I’ll tell Momma.” I started to hang up.
“He’ll be walking,” I heard her say. “So it will take some time.”
“I’ll tell her,” I said.
“Can sister walk back, you think?
“It’s her arm that’s broke; I’ll have to go ask about her legs.” I put the receiver on the table and ran down the hall.
Momma was sitting on the toilet seat with the side of her head against the wall. The gun lay on the floor by her right foot. I stepped up on the side of the tub. “Lady,” I whispered, trying not to wake Momma. “Your sister wants to know if your legs are okay? Can you walk back home with your brother when he comes?”
I tiptoed back to the phone, and told her sister.
The phone was on a table under the stairs. From where I stood, when I hung up, I could see the lake out the front windows, and a car’s headlights coming along the road. We had the only house at this end of the lake. People wanting to go into the town of Eatonville, which was a half mile to our south, didn’t come this way. Our road was dirt; the main road into Eatonville came in from Winter Park and was paved. Even though there was only the colored cemetery between us and Eatonville, our address was Maitland. Momma made sure of that.
Daddy’s car whizzed by the turn off to our garage. Out the dining room window, I saw his brake lights as he stopped the car, reversed and backed up. He turned in, just missing the grapefruit tree and followed the two ruts into the garage. I went through the kitchen, and unlocked the back door. I wanted to see his expression when he found the colored lady sitting on the step. I pulled the string to turn on the light bulb in the porch ceiling. It shone right through the screen onto the back steps. She was gone.
Daddy had half our backyard to cross as he wove toward the steps. He shaded his eyes against the light. “Is that you, Ginny?”
“Shhhhh, Daddy. You’ll wake the baby.”
He lifted an index finger and waggled it through the air until he found his lips. “Shhhhh. Don’t wake the baby,” he said.
“Did you see the colored lady?”
He stopped. “What colored lady?” He swayed and squinted at the light.
I wondered if maybe he ran over her out on the road when a floorboard creaked and I turned. Momma was behind me watching Daddy with her arms crossed, the gun in her apron pocket.
I remember thinking ‘poor Daddy.’ But then I was only eight. The tampering with my love for my father, and my world view, were still incomplete.