Shooting the Horses
Winner of the 2010 Boulevard
Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers
The cool March night Marshall Pritchard bled to death on the sidewalk outside the high school, I was trying on outfits: the flowing cotton shirt with the little green flowers from JCPenney that I’d wear on our next date. The pink miniskirt that slid up my thigh when I sat, the one Marshall confessed drove him crazy during English class back in the fall, when we were just friends. The long white peasant dress with the embroidered smock I thought I’d wear to graduation.
He’d cancelled our date for that night. The reasonable side of me understood: He’d gotten a lot of flack for not attending the last meeting, the one where the white kids waited outside with baseball bats, and three black students went bleeding to the hospital, including his best friend, Samson. He wanted to show solidarity. I said I’d go with him to the meeting, but he said no whites allowed. New rules. He didn’t look me in the eye.
The other side of me, the one that was seventeen and madly in love, was spending Friday night before my mirror, dressing and undressing, singing along to “Say a Little Prayer,” trying to conjure up his wicked smile, those eyelashes that curled up like a girl’s, until I was overwhelmed by that shiny, buzzing feeling I got whenever he was nearby. He couldn’t be all there, at the Students for Equality meeting, if some part of him was here, telling me how pretty I looked.
I kept checking across the street to his bedroom window for a light signaling he had arrived home. On a corny high after drinking milk shakes at Romer’s Drugs, we’d bought two night-lights shaped like candles that we’d each turn on at night when we were falling asleep.
I was trying on the green beaded minidress my mother bought me at Macy’s and green sparkle eye shadow when I saw the red and blue lights reflected in the mirror. They spun crazily on the ceiling and the wall above my bed. They spiraled across the fluted lampshade, stenciled headboard, Beatles poster, and me.
I remember each one of the stupid thoughts that crammed my head. How sinister the Fab Four looked in red and blue. How I looked garishly sexy, like a go-go dancer in a psychedelic light show. Like Twiggy with long brown hair. How it would be nice to have lights like that in my room always so that, if we could ever get around my mother, Marshall and I could lie on the floor, a little high, maybe, and listen to the Stones or the Velvet Underground.
And then I thought of a story he told me. How, back when they lived in the city, he once came home after school to his apartment, and it took him a full five minutes to realize that the window on the fire escape had been pried open and they’d been robbed. That they took the stereo, the TV, and the blue and gold china bowl passed down from his grandma. Because, he said, the brain always wants to sort information in a way that is rational and familiar. It looks first for the pattern, not the exception, the missing piece, the tragedy. That was when I forced my feet across the carpet.
Once I looked out that window, my world fractured and fell apart. Of course, everything fell apart that spring, and my grief flattened and shrunk in the chaos that erupted. Some days, it felt like it wasn’t mine to hold. At those times, I would relive our moments together with such precision that I might at well have stuck myself with a knife; finding comfort, a reminder of how alive, how full of love I had once been, in the sharpness of the pain.
It was not love at first sight. We stood in the empty breakfast nook, the man, the woman and me. Pool water dripped all over the yellow and white linoleum from my sopping bra and underwear, my hastily buttoned, now soaked shirt and shorts. The kitchen was large, with white cabinets and yellow counters. A chandelier shaped like blooming daffodils hung down a few feet from my head, waiting for a table to light. Everything smelled scrubbed and lemony and full of cheerful possibility.
“I’d offer you a place to sit, but as you can see, you’ve arrived before the furniture.” The man swept an arm across the room. Sweat poured down his temples, had left wet moons at his underarms. ￼
The back door swung open and we all turned. It was a boy about my age. He was tall, with thick, dark rimmed glasses, and a short Afro. He wore a tight blue collared shirt and jeans. His face shone with sweat, too.
“What is going on?” he demanded.
“I told you to stay in the car,” the woman said, firmly.
“It’s steaming hot in the car, and I had no idea what happened to you all!” He glared at them. I took a step back from the door.
“It’s all right, son. Everything is fine,” the man said.
“Well, who’s that?” He pointed at me.
The theme from Bonanza played from a nearby window. A sprinkler spit jagged circles: shush, shush, shush. It could have been any Friday night in August, except that my head felt like a balloon, floating up past that daffodil chandelier, looking back down on me, a skinny, wet rat clutching to her right arm, dripping all over the linoleum of a bright kitchen belonging to a family that looked much like mine, or any other family in Monroe you might see clipping their hedges, or buying groceries at King Kullen’s, or cheering a football game at the high school, but for the fact that they were Negroes.
“Carolyn,” I said, shrinking away as I said it, “Kincaid.”
“Carolyn had a little swim in our pool tonight,” the man said, still looking at me.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “We only wanted . . . ” I was about to say only wanted a break from the heat. In truth, we only wanted a break from moldy suburban basements, movies at Monroe Fields Mall, burgers at Empire Diner — something mind-blowingly different. Only wanted to trespass and be a little scared, softly calling “Marco!” “Polo!” in the murky pool behind the house that had sat empty all summer. I shrugged and winced at the white-hot pain that shot from my elbow. The man’s brow furrowed.
“What’s wrong with your arm, Carolyn?”
“I fell. Off your fence.” “
Marjorie?” He looked to his wife sharply. “Mrs. Pritchard is a nurse.” She was already next to me, pressing gently against my forearm. I flinched. She said she thought it was a fracture of the radius and brought out an old pillowcase — clean, she assured me — from under the sink. ￼
I gave Mr. Pritchard our number and he called while Mrs. Pritchard fashioned a sling. I tried to follow the phone conversation, but Mrs. Pritchard’s breath was warm on my neck. Her breasts brushed my shoulder as she tied a knot at my back. She smelled like lavender.
“Yes, we’re directly across the street from you,” Mr. Pritchard was saying.
The screen door slammed, and the boy was gone. The Pritchards exchanged glances. Seconds later, my father was at the door. He stopped just inches inside the kitchen. He was sweating, too, and his eyes roamed the walls like nervous little animals.
“I hope you’ve apologized, young lady,” he said to the chandelier.
“She has. She has,” said Mr. Pritchard, stepping forward to introduce himself. Alonzo and Marjorie Pritchard. Moving in tomorrow. Handshakes were had all around.
“Jeffrey Kincaid,” my father said. He was already halfway back out the door, holding his hand out for me as if waving a plane down a runway. “Thank you SO much for calling.”
“Well, of course. Of course we called.” Mr. Pritchard’s voice was slightly high and puzzled.
“Well, THANK YOU,” he said, as I followed him out. Then through the screen door:
“And good luck with your move.”
It took forever to cross the street. Our house had a startled look, the lights blazing in all the front windows. I wondered where the Pritchards’ son had gone.
My mother was waiting for us by the back door, smoking, elbow resting in the palm of one hand, the top of her shiny black hair lit by the overhead bulb. She was still dressed in her sharp, black, sleeveless cocktail dress. She must have been putting Tommy to bed.
“Just what did you think you were doing, young lady?” she demanded, before we were even halfway up the drive.
“I’m sorry,” I said, suddenly exhausted.
She pointed her cigarette at me. “You’re going to have to do something for that couple, like mow their lawn.”
“For Christ’s sake, Nan!” my father said, opening the passenger’s side door to his brown Oldsmobile. “How is she going to mow their lawn with a goddamn broken arm?” ￼
“Well, she is definitely grounded.”
“We can discuss it later.” He held my left shoulder firmly and steered me into the car.
“We don’t trespass in this family.” My mother took a deep drag on her cigarette. My father slammed my door shut.
Mrs. Pritchard was right: I had fractured my radius, which meant no cross-country, no hiking to school, no concert band for six weeks. My mother and I brought Mrs. Pritchard a pineapple cake and drank lemonade at her kitchen table beneath the daffodil lamp. I was never grounded.
Their son’s name was Marshall. He was a senior and also on the advanced math track, so we shared all the same classes. There were a lot more Negro kids in our school that year, but he didn’t talk to anyone, Negro or white. I waited for the bus each morning on the back steps where he couldn’t see me, looked away when I saw him in the hallways, and sat up front in class. In this way, we didn’t exchange another word until October.
My mother looked at me queerly, dressed and made-up as I was, when I went into her room and told her a police car was parked outside the Pritchards’ house. She changed out of her nightgown while I stood there listening to the knell of the phone: ring ring, ring ring, ring ring. She helped me up off the floor when I crumpled at the news.
Her hand hovered in my direction, like a broken wing, as we crossed the street. I knew she wanted me to, but I didn’t reach for it. It was only a week before that she’d sat me down on the stiff couch in the living room to tell me she knew “what was going on and, well, no good could come of it, even if, of course, he was a very nice boy and they were a lovely family. Things were as things were. Someday, I would understand.
Mr. Pritchard’s whole body shook as he held me; the cries coming from him were like a small boy’s. Mrs. Pritchard was upstairs, someone said, in bed. The house quickly filled up with parents and kids from school, almost all of them black. I sat on an armchair and the mourners circled around me in hushed orbits. Baseball bats. White cops. Shots. My mother patted my hair.
I excused myself and went into the powder room. Mrs. Pritchard kept a bowl full of dried flowers on top of the toilet, making the tiny room the essence of the sweet, musky smell of Monday, Wednesday, Thursday afternoons, books spread over the shiny kitchen table. Jiffy Pop, Beverly Hillbillies on the couch in the den, and, later, eventually, limbs entwined in his single bed, disappearing in his hard body, his soft lips. I pressed my face into a blue flowered hand towel and screamed and screamed. When it was all out of me, I washed my face, shuddered at the reflection of the ridiculous green dress, and left the room. I crept past the den and through the kitchen, crowded with mourners. I slid out the back door, went out past the pool, and lay down on the dead leaves in between the fence and the holly bush, willing time to crank backwards.
The first time we really talked was in October, one night when PJ, Pam and I were on our way back from a movie at the Mall. On the other side of the Meadowbrook Parkway, heading north, I recognized first the Pritchard’s green Buick, then Marshall, bent over a flat tire. We stopped and got out. PJ called to see if he was OK.
“Aw, yeah. I’m all right.” Marshall was standing in the dark with the metal bar to the jack held upright in his hand. “I swerved to avoid hitting some deer and ran off the road.” He half-laughed. “It’s been one of those nights, you know? But, uh, glad you stopped.”
We all stood there, blinking in the Buick’s lights, stunned by the string of words that had just flowed from Marshall Pritchard’s mouth.
“You want some help, man?” PJ asked. They knew each other from football.
“Nah. I’ve got it. It’ll be all right. Thanks, though.” His words came out like he was the one punctured. He squatted back down into the shadows next to the deflated tire. He’d only got the jack up about a half-inch. He pushed his glasses up his nose and began cranking the bar up and down. He was biting on his upper lip. I had noticed this gesture before, during physics labs, or while he waited for the bus in the soft morning light, one arm cradled around the Norton Anthology, unaware that I was watching. How strange to know such an intimate habit but nothing else about a person.
“Why don’t I get a ride with Marshall?” I said. “Then you guys don’t have to drop me off.”
“You sure about that?” Pam said. “It’s NO problem to take you home.” Marshall paused for a moment and looked up. “I can give you a ride.” I turned to watch as PJ and Pam pulled back onto the highway. The sound of their motor faded only a few seconds after their taillights disappeared. In its place, the wind picked up and a rush of orange and yellow leaves skittered across the road. I put my hands in my pockets and shrugged up my shoulders. The normally busy road was deserted at this time of night. “So,” I asked, “Where were you headed at this hour?”
He sat back on his heels and gave me a blow-by-blow of the party his friends in the city were throwing, taking the car without asking, the shock of the deer, the slide off into the shoulder, how his father was going to kill him.
“You know you could have taken the train, right?” I said, as he got back to work.
“Yeah, I know I could have taken the train.” He cranked harder and the jack went up another inch. I sucked in a breath and was ready to apologize when he chuckled. “Taking the train would be shooting the horses.”
“You saw Stagecoach?” He sat back. “Ever wondered why the Indians don’t just shoot the horses when they rob the stage?”
“Yeah, but, no, I’ve never wondered that.”
“I read once the director said, ‘you shoot the horses, there’s no movie.’ Right?” He reached over for the tire iron. “No drama.”
I paused for a moment, afraid of making him defensive again. But I couldn’t resist saying, “Although in this case, your horse got shot.”
He had a big laugh that ended in a giggle. “I would definitely flop at the box office.” He looked up at me. “Hey, are you cold? You can sit in the car if you’re cold.”
“Nah, that’s OK. I’m just sorry I can’t help you,” I said, holding up my cast. The moon had come out from behind a cloud and my arm gleamed white. Marshall inserted the tire iron and began loosening the first lug nut.
“Do me a favor?” he said. “Hold on to this for me.”
“Sure,” I said, reaching to take the lug nut from him. It was cold, heavy and smooth.
“I was dying to ask about the arm,” he said. “But, you know, the horses and all.”
I told him about how boyfriends had pushed girlfriends over the fence and then vaulted over, leaving me alone, scuffing my sneakers against the new pine. How my arms went rubbery when I heard his dad yelling across the lawn, I let go and crack! That was it.
“All for that slimy pool?”
“Summer in the suburbs gets pretty boring.”
“So does fall.” He handed me two more lugs and blew on his fingers. We both looked up, hearing a motor in the distance. The car slowed as it approached, until we raised our hands to shield our eyes from the headlights. Then it quickly sped away.
I watched the taillights fade and then turned to him. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, why the need for the drama?”
“Ah, my folks. They’re worriers. First the riots, then we were robbed, then some other stuff. They were over the edge worried. They decided to move, and it was like they cut my balls off. Pardon the expression.” He handed me the last lug, wiggled the tire off and got to his feet. He heaved the tire up and held it in front of him, arms straight, legs stiff, and puffed up his cheeks.
“Like I was one of those super hero balloons in the Macy’s Parade, and they just stuck a big pin in me.” His shoulders shrunk, and he dropped the tire next to the trunk. “Reduced me to a pile of rubber on the pavement. I’ve been mad ever since.”
I was quiet for a moment. “Is that why you didn’t talk for an entire month?”
He stuck his head back in the trunk. “You think it’s easy starting all over senior year?”
“Of course not,” I said quickly.
He stood back up for a moment and let out a long stream of air. “Nah. You’re right. It was stupid. Plus, it was painful not talking. Like holding in a fart for an entire Mass.”
I cringed at the joke but managed a soft snort. He pulled the spare out and put the flat in its place, then fit the tiny spare on the wheel studs.
“Here,” I said, pulling a lug nut from my pocket and holding it out to him on my palm.
By the time he finished and we drove home it was close to my curfew. The big sycamores reaching across our block were almost bare at this time of year. The lawns stretching back from the sidewalks glowed blue in the moonlight. The houses looked cozy, tucked in for the night between shrubs and evergreens: Marshall’s with its white clapboard, black shutters, and shiny brass knocker; mine with its fieldstone and big picture windows. Ours was, I always thought, the nicest street in Monroe.
My dad was still up in the den, watching the news and reading the paper. When he asked about the evening, I dug my sneakers into the carpet and told him I stopped with PJ and Pam for ice cream at the Empire Diner.
The day after Marshall was killed, the principal closed school for a week. I think he was scared of another riot. The windows needed to be replaced. The blood cleaned from the sidewalk.
The funeral was at a church in New York City. Closed casket. I drove in with my parents, and we sat near the back. The service lasted nearly two hours and all I remember is my father’s knee jiggling. I cornered Samson at the reception, desperate for some kind of explanation. Samson wore a suit that was too long in the arms, too broad at the shoulders. It always surprised me that he was on the football team, he was so small, but Marshall said he was scrappy.
“He wasn’t all there, at the meeting, you know,” Samson said, his eyes dull and sad. “He was acting all cranky and shit, until I told him you were moving.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t give me that. My momma saw your momma standing in your front yard with one of those realtors, the guys with the cheap shirts. And then she ran into her at Romer’s and got it confirmed.”
“And you told Marshall this?”
“Yeah. After he heard the news, he was fired up. When those pricks from our class showed up, he was ready to smash heads.”
We were in the church basement, next to a table piled with fruitcakes, tea sandwiches and pitchers of iced tea. The air was close and smelled like coffee and ammonia.
The realtors had been everywhere that year. Once, when Mrs. Pritchard gave me a ride home, I saw one at our mailbox. You could always tell them by their clipboards and ties. He had looked up as we pulled into the Pritchards’ driveway. When I crossed the street, he kept going down the block, opening mailboxes. The little leaflets he’d left for us screamed: SELL! SELL! SELL! BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!!
Samson turned to talk with someone else, and I scanned the room for my mother, dressed today in a slim Pucci dress, her hair pulled back from her face. I couldn’t imagine her talking to one of these men. She’d been smug, almost, when she told me she was joining the group that met at the Synagogue to stop the blockbusting. I’d heard her on the phone, offering her edits on a petition, tallying up the signatures she’d collected.
I spotted her against the wall, a cup of coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other. My father was next to her, hands in his pockets, eyes on the ground. Her eyes were already on me, green, shining. She tilted her head to the side and arched her eyebrows, mouthing, “OK?” I turned away and pushed my way to the ladies room, shut myself in a gray stall, perched on the edge of the toilet, and let the sobs rise.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that proximity played a huge role in our friendship. My cast came off and I started cross-country again, so sometimes we’d bump into each other outside the gym after
practice. We’d walk home in the dusk, me pushing my bike. Some days, we’d study for an hour or so at the Pritchards’. We’d sit in the den on opposite ends of the brown-checked sofa, eating popcorn or Pepperidge Farms gingerbread men, watching TV with our books on our laps but mostly talking.
One cold evening at the end of November, after basketball had started, we ran into each other outside the gym. My hair, wet from the showers, was already clumping into icicles. I hesitated when he asked if I’d walk with him; I was looking forward to pumping my way home quickly on my bike. He suggested riding double. The seat was too short for him, of course, and his knees came up comically high as he pedaled. I couldn’t manage to keep the toes of my boots on the bolt at the center of the back wheel, so had to hold my legs out to the sides.
We wobbled off through East Monroe, past the ranches and split- levels that populated this side of town. When we crossed the Jerusalem Turnpike, I got a charley horse in my left leg. I screamed for him to stop, and then, after hopping up and down and rubbing my thigh for several minutes, suggested that I pedal for a while. He thought I was joking, but I reminded him with uncharacteristic swagger that I might be the shortest, but I was still the fastest girl on the basketball team. I could handle him. So he straddled the rack, long legs held out stiffly to the sides, hands clutching my hips. I did all right until we reached the little hill on Evers Street. I stood up on the pedals, pumping my legs hard.
“Keep it straight!” he called as I began to veer to the left. I pulled up harder on the handlebars.
“I’m trying!” My legs felt like jelly and the bike started to wobble. I think I may have screamed as we ran into the gutter and toppled over the curb. I landed hard on my left hip and something sharp dug into my hand. We lay on the cold ground for a minute, the bike on top of us, before I started giggling.
“It’s not funny,” he said. “You could have killed us.”
“I wasn’t going fast enough to kill us, you sissy.” Our legs were touching, his mouth so close to my ear.
“This is a lesson to all men. Never let a woman drive. A woman riding a man on her bike is like an elephant trying to tap dance.”
I pushed myself up to sitting and rolled the bike forward off our legs. I brushed little bits of twigs and gravel from my hands. He sat up slowly and held his glasses up to the streetlight. His breath was silvery in the light.
“I think you ruined my damn glasses.”
His eyelashes were so long, his face open and vulnerable without the dark frames that normally sharpened his appearance. It was like I’d caught him naked.
“Hey,” I said softly, “you’re cute.”
“Damn right I’m cute,” he said, putting on his glasses and staring at me. “Damn right.” He jumped up into the street and righted the bike. For a moment it looked like he might ride away.
“I didn’t mean —I just — ” I held my breath in. He looked away and then turned back to me.
“I’m a stone cold fox and don’t you forget it.”
We stared at each other for what felt like a long time. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh or apologize. He had one hand on the handlebars. Slowly, he reached the other out to me.
“And, now, I’m driving.”
I took his hand, and he pulled me to my feet. Maybe he pulled a little too hard, or maybe I swung a little too far forward, but I hit his chest and then his arms were around me and I was looking up and we kissed. It was warm and soft and he squeezed me hard when it was over. Wrapped in his strong arms, cheek pressed against his chest, a nuclear bomb could have gone off and I’d still be safe, alive, and giddy.
We rode silently down Babylon Street. Last week a bunch of white kids had chased after a realtor driving a Negro family down this street, smashed two of his windows with rocks. But, for tonight, the tally of For Sale signs on these blocks meant nothing. Still-white. Mostly-black. Intact. Flipped. I held tight to Marshall’s hips, rested my cheek against his wool jacket as we whizzed by under the streetlights.
When I got home, the kitchen smelled like Thanksgiving. The island counter, my mother’s usual perch, was littered with recipe cards, notes scribbled from The French Chef, dried herbs and drippings from the baster. My stomach fluttered. Usually, I loved dropping my books and helping her cook, but Marshall’s kiss has left me feeling like I could go without food for days. Tonight, I just wanted to run straight up to my room. To catch the light flicking on in Marshall’s room, maybe a hand pressed on the glass. I wanted to lie in bed, hugging that kiss close. As I swung around the comer to the stairs, my mother’s voice made me jump.
“Hi.” She was standing in the living room with a drink and a cigarette, fingering the waxy leaves of the jade plant in the picture window.
“Hi,” I said, freezing with my hand on the banister, one foot on the bottom step.
“Was that you, in the street?”
“Yes, just now.”
“Yeah. Marshall and I rode home together.”
“On one bike?”
“For a little bit. To get home faster. It’s so cold!”
She paused, sucking hard on her cigarette.
“Your father called. Apparently he has to work late again.”
“I roasted a chicken. We could eat that. I was going to make haricot and mashed potatoes.”
“Sounds great.” My stomach lurched.
She stroked the leaf, pulled on her cigarette, then turned to me as if she could see I was filled with knots. “Or we could get steaks at Marlin’s.”
“Whatever you want.” I started up the stairs.
She was looking out the picture window. Headlights shone down the street, slowing as they approached. It was Mr. Pritchard’s Buick. He was always prompt.
“I don’t want to see you riding your bike like that again.” Her eyes followed the headlights up their driveway. “You’re too old for that sort of thing.”
Four days after the funeral, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. I was spending the night at Pam’s, helping her pack up her room. They were moving to Levittown. She’d given me a box and put me to work on her books. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, A Tale of Two Cities, Resnick’s Physics I.
I took the physics book in my lap and ran my palm over the shiny red cover. We’d been on the couch, quizzing each other on the thermodynamic cycle on the day I first took my shirt off. We didn’t hear the car in the drive — I barely had my clothes back on, the heavy textbook back in my lap, by the time his mother opened the door to the den. Later, we laughed: Resnick’s was upside-down, open to the chapter on linear momentum. My bra was unhooked behind my back, my nipples still hard from the memory of his fingers.
I put Resnick’s in the box by my side. My breasts ached.
Pam was telling me that the pool in Levittown was awful, and their house smaller, but that it was a shorter drive to the mall. That was something. Still, she was glad we’d be leaving for college in the fall. Then, her mother screamed. We went down to the den and spent the rest of the night watching TV.
The next day, my mom called to say I shouldn’t walk home: looters were wrecking stores up and down the Jerusalem Turnpike. By nightfall, it was like the TV was on fire. Every channel revealed another city gone up in riots. By then, we could smell the smoke.
My mother picked me up the following morning. We took the long way home, avoiding Jerusalem. But when we crossed over the Turnpike I could see Romer’s, charred and smashed.
Then, of course, there was the first time.
Valentines Day that year fell on a Wednesday, but Mr. Pritchard reasoned that a night out in the city on Thursday would be much more romantic. “If by more romantic you mean cheaper,” Mrs. Pritchard said to me with a wink.
“They’ll be gone for five hours,” Marshall said, when he walked me back across the street. “Five. Hours. Maybe even six.” I shuddered at the thought of a full evening, in the dark, alone, in his room, his bed. There was one obstacle: Mrs. Pritchard had told my mother all about their planned trip to the city at Mass on Sunday. We had to figure out a way around her.
And then we got just the lucky break we needed: the Students for Equality Association announced a meeting in the school library for Thursday night, to discuss tracking and curriculum. We could say we were going there, then sneak back to his house. Marshall chucked his chin back into his neck and pushed his glasses up his nose when I suggested it.
“I was thinking I’d go to the meeting,” he said.
“But you yourself said: five hours — alone — in your house.”
“This is important stuff. Erica talked to someone from SNCC. We’ve got a list of black authors, black historians, black mathematicians, black scientists a mile long they aren’t teaching.”
The flutter in my stomach opened to a hole. I couldn’t name one black author. SNCC was for the evening news. My head ached from the effort of keeping him from slipping away.
“I thought you’d be excited to spend the time with me. I thought we could make it . . . special.” I hadn’t planned it, hadn’t even considered it, but there it was, powerful and sneaky. I had never felt this before, the buzz in my head, the shake in my fingers. This intense desire to reel him in close. Catch and never release.
“Special,” he said.
He helped with the planning. They sat at the same table every day, debating over lunch. A few times I waited for him, leaning against a pillar across the room. I caught snippets of him through the crowd streaming out of the cafeteria: his hands chopping the air, eyes narrowing and widening, head thrown back in a laugh. And then one day while I stood there, a dull thud jutted my shoulder as another body smashed into me. I whirled around and dropped a book. It was Jimmy Blanco, with his long, wiry arms, cold blue eyes and short-cropped hair. I didn’t really know him — he was on the vocational track, and he’d been kicked off the basketball team when the coach found uppers in his locker. He put his mouth next to my ear.
“I hear you’re drinking the jungle juice.” His breath smelled like cheap deli meat. A freeze seized my chest. “Call me when you come to your senses, you little slut.”
I bent to pick up my book and couldn’t stop from turning my head, like a rubberneck at the scene of an accident. He was walking backwards away from me through the cafeteria, a slash of a grin across his face. “I’ll be waiting,” he called, stretching his arms out wide. Students parted for him on either side. When I turned back, Marshall was watching me intently from across the room.
“What did that asshole say to you?” he asked when he joined me for the walk to Social Studies.
“Nothing. He just bumped into me.”
“I don’t believe you. You looked scared.”
“Nothing! He just gives me the creeps is all. What did you tell them about Thursday?”
“I told them I have to go into the city for a family thing.” He was uncharacteristically quiet for the rest of our walk.
That afternoon, I went to Monroe Fields Mall and bought new underwear. Pink lace. They were silky, scratchy and not entirely comfortable. I never told him about Jimmy Blanco. It was the one secret I ever kept from him, even though I lived in fear that Jimmy might say something to him. Or, worse, catch me alone.
On Thursday night we met out in the street. It was a frigid night. We both wore hats pulled down almost to our eyes, our collars turned up over our mouths. My mom was still at the kitchen window, doing the dishes. We walked in the direction of the high school. I touched his elbow.
“You sure you want to do this?”
“I’m starting to feel bad about the meeting.”
“Look, that stuff will always be there. A night alone with you will not.”
We snuck around the back of his house and over the fence. He made a crack about how now I had a man to help me. I wanted to spring over on my own to prove him wrong, but I was more nervous than the night I broke my arm.
We had to keep all the house lights off, so my mother wouldn’t suspect anything. We giggled and bumped into each other, fingertips tracing the walls so we wouldn’t trip.
When we reached his room, he went straight away to put on a record. Even in the dark, I knew just what it looked like: a real hi-fi stereo, not a record player, like the white and blue portable in a little suitcase with blue flowers on it that my parents had given to me for my sixteenth birthday. His was big and boxy and made of wood, with sleek silver knobs and black switches. It sat on his desk below the football, basketball, and debate trophies, the Encyclopedia Britannica set and rows of physics and math books. Even with his back to me, I knew he was biting his upper lip. He lifted the needle arm, thin and elegant and made of silver metal, between his finger and thumb and gently placed it down on the record, fiddling with the silver knobs with his other hand. A crackle that made my skin burn burst from the speakers and then Jimi Hendrix filled the room. I stood in the middle of the room, quaking, almost. He was just standing there, looking at me.
“Say something,” I whispered.
He shook his head. Speechless for once. “Take off your clothes,” he finally said, softly. I leaned down and unlaced my moccasin boot, grateful for the direction. My fingers fumbled with the knot. I looked up.
“You do it, too.”
He mirrored me. Shoes. Socks. Sweater. Pants. Shirt. Pink lace. Slowly. Up to now, I’d just seen pieces of him, always an article of clothing or a blanket hiding some part away. He put his glasses on his desk. It filled me with awe to see him in his entirety. Nothing more could have happened that night and I still would have felt like a vast mystery had been unveiled.
It killed, but it was worth it for that last shudder, his weight crushing above me, for his hands on either side of my face, searching my eyes, for his swooping embrace afterward, every muscle relaxed against me. Murmuring my name in my ear.
The needle clicked back to its resting place and the record stopped. Only our breathing filled the dim room. It smelled like sweat and erasers. Jimmy Blanco, the Students for Equality, even my mother, just across the street, were an ocean away. “
Aren’t you glad,” I couldn’t help whispering, “that you didn’t go to that meeting.”
By April, when she still hadn’t said anything, I thought my mother would tell me it was all a big misunderstanding about selling the house. Instead, she took me for a drive through Merrick.
Our new house was a ranch, built more recently than our house in Monroe but somehow shabbier in its squat flatness. It had, she told me, an updated kitchen, greater square footage, and loads of room for a garden. I’d have my own bathroom. We could move in June. All that was left, really, was to pick out paint colors.
She stopped at a hardware store on the way home. I trailed behind her, the packed aisles of nails, screws, hinges, steel wool, shovels, garden hoses, and welcome mats blurring together in a domestic fog. She stopped in front of the paint displays, pulling out brochures. The one she opened was titled “A Festival of Color.”
“Latex Satin Finish or Low Lustre? What do you think?”
“I don’t care about paint colors,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest, wishing I had stayed in the car.
“Excuse me?” She turned and lowered her chin.
“I don’t care about paint colors. And I don’t want to move!”
She looked down the aisle and then practically hissed at me. “Don’t you speak to me that way! Your father and I went to a lot of trouble to find a better neighborhood for you and your brother.”
“Better? Better would be if Marshall were still alive!”
“Oh, honey. Of course. Of course it would be.”
“If he hadn’t heard you were selling the house, he never would have got in the middle of that fight!”
“What are you talking about?” A Festival of Color! flapped angrily in the air between us. She sucked in her stomach and stood up straighter. “What happened to Marshall had nothing to do with me. Wasn’t I the one who went to all the meetings, knocked on all the doors, made all the phone calls?” She leaned in so close I could smell her frosted lipstick. “What did you do to prevent this, come to think of it?”
“I loved him! Shouldn’t that be enough?” A sob caught in my throat, and I wrapped my arms around my body.
“Oh honey, I know you did.” She reached out and lightly squeezed my arm. “It was a terrible, terrible thing that happened.”
“How could you change your tune so fast about moving, if you were so into saving things?
“Listen to me.” She dipped her head, gripped both of my shoulders so I would have to look into her wet, green eyes. “I’m your mother. I would die if what happened to Marshall happened to you. It’s not worth me trying to save something if you’re going to get hurt in the process.”
I threw up an arm and thrust her hands away. A Festival of Color! and the other brochures scattered on the floor.
“I did get hurt in the process!” I nearly spat at her. We stared at each other for a moment. Footsteps were approaching as I wheeled away, stumbling toward the exit. Behind me I heard a clerk saying, “Let me help you with those, mam.”
It had rained that morning, and the sidewalk was still wet in patches. It was windy and gray and I had only a thin jacket, but I was determined to walk down Merrick Avenue until I hit Sunrise Highway and could cross over into Monroe. I imagined my mother trailing after me, calling through the passenger window. I would ignore her. Walk faster. And when I got back to Monroe, I wouldn’t go home. I would go over to the Pritchards’. I would drink tea with Marjorie under the daffodil light, wait for Alonzo to come home for dinner. Maybe spend the night in Marshall’s bed. I had spent very little time with the Pritchards since Marshall’s death. Alonzo told me early on that seeing me made Marjorie too sad. Today, we could be sad together. I could imagine spending my Thanksgivings with the Pritchards, even my Christmases. I could imagine never seeing my family again.
When I turned on Sunrise, it started to drizzle again. The rain smelled like it was coming off the ocean. The cars swooshed past faster along the four-lane highway. I crossed the street so I could walk under the train tracks, where only the occasional drop, tasting like iron and grit, hit my face. To my right were the rows of red brick apartment buildings along Park Avenue, the southernmost border of Monroe. Trash collected in the gutters along Park like sleep in the corner of eyes.
A car crept toward me and slowed. It was a familiar car, the kind of old model, rusty sedan often parked in the high school lot. I locked eyes with driver and for a moment did not register the chilling blue. A familiar freeze gripped my heart and I picked up my step. I looked behind me. The car was still moving, so maybe I was mistaken and it was not Jimmy Blanco.
Just to be safe, however, I crossed Park and turned up a side street, breaking into a jog. I was out of shape, the light rain fell in my eyes, and my heart was pounding hard enough that I could barely run. I jogged for six long, huffing blocks until I reached Lakeview Avenue. Ten blocks from our street, I slowed to a walk. Lakeview was deserted for the late afternoon, everyone at work or school, or shuttered inside against the rain. I would be wet when I arrived at the Pritchards’. Rain-soaked and sweaty and still scared. How could I explain Jimmy Blanco to Marjorie? What would I say? I was suddenly grateful that I would be leaving for college in a few months. That I would be far from Monroe, from Jimmy Blanco, from everything that haunted me.
I could leave. Everyone who was white could leave, and would. The Pritchards could have left, too, but the violence would have packed up right along with them, slunk into their boxes and hitched in the van.
All the beautiful, soft moments I had stored in my heart — the crack in the ceiling above Marshall’s bed shaped like a spoon, the beauty of our hands interlaced, the soft heaviness of my head on the pillow as I fell asleep under the glow of my night-light —the moments I used to beat away the hate; the moments that whispered, you’re right, you’re right, you’re right, when everything around us screamed, “you’re wrong!” None of it could have kept Marshall safe and alive. That I could have been so naïve — so stupid — struck me so hard that I stopped in my tracks. For a moment, I could not breathe.
I looked over my shoulder, but no cars were coming. My mother sometimes took Lakeview. Perhaps she had stopped for another errand and would be passing soon. With all my heart, I wanted nothing more than to collapse in the dry, safe passenger seat of her car and breathe. To lean my head against the brown headrest and tell her about Jimmy Blanco. To cook dinner and talk about paint colors and packing for college and her new garden. To look forward and not back.
One night in late August, as I packed for college, I came across the white dress I’d planned to wear to graduation. I’d skipped the ceremony, so I’d never really worn the dress anywhere. I stood
in front of the mirror and tried to conjure Marshall, wearing a Nehru jacket and that smile, waiting for me at the Boston train station, eager to show me his dorm, his new friends, his engineering classrooms, all the possibilities he wouldn’t shut up about last March.
All I got back was my reflection. I’d lost weight, and the dress was loose on me. The flowered smock mocked me with its hopefulness.
Cigarette smoke drifted through the screen. My new room looked over the backyard and I could see my mother out there, surveying her backyard like a painter standing back from her canvass. Earlier in the day, she’d borrowed a rototiller and ripped through the corner of the garden that already bloomed. It formed a neat black scar at the corner of the yard. Loud shrieks pierced the backyard, and she turned her head sharply in the direction of our neighbor’s house. In the next lot over, three little girls in bathing suits the bright colors of Lifesavers took turns jumping from the steps of a ladder into an aboveground pool, screaming. ￼