Call Me By My Name
The distance was to blame. It made him hard to categorize. “Is that one of them Redbones?” Curly Trussell asked, reaching for a bat just in case.
I lowered my mitt and strained for a better look. The kid was about a hundred yards away, moving past the pool and the pool house and the snowball stand, where “She Loves You” was playing over speakers attached to the roof. Then he crossed Market Street and entered the old shell road that ran between the tennis courts and the civic center. He was heading straight for us now, arms pumping, steps keeping time to the music. The way he carried himself, you had to wonder if he thought he was welcome. A splash of sunlight fell from the trees and caught him just right, and I could hear gasps from some of the guys. We’d all seen maids in South City Park before, and a few old trusties from the jailhouse pushing mowers and pulling weeds, but except for them, black people weren’t permitted. They couldn’t ride bikes or drive their cars through the park, let alone play ball there. The town had a place for them.
It was May of 1965, and school had just let out for the summer. There were hundreds of us scattered over three fields waiting for tryouts to begin. Until this moment I’d been loosening up with the other Pony League kids—playing catch, swinging a bat with a doughnut on the barrel, and running sprints in the weeds.
“Look at him, Curly!” Freddie Sanders yelled. “Look close. That’s a full-blown colored if I ever saw one.”
Then a bunch of them ran to the road and grabbed shell to throw.
I couldn’t see how the kid posed much of a threat. He was on the lean side, with an overall construction so rickety you wondered if he even ate. Give him a different skin color and he could’ve been one of us—just another kid with dreams of glory in his head. His striped tube socks climbed up to his kneecaps and his black All-Stars had holes punched in the fabric. A short-fingered infielders glove hung from his belt and shone with a fresh coat of linseed oil, and the rest of his clothes—the gray T-shirt tucked into jean shorts, the faded feed-store cap—might’ve come from my own closet.
He was showing no fear that I could make out, and maybe that added to why they had such a problem with him. “Let’s get him!” Curly shouted. “Let’s make him pay.” And now the shell started to fly.
It couldn’t have hurt much because it was mostly powdery chips and pieces, but it was enough to drop him to the ground. He curled up in a defensive posture, arms wrapped around his head, legs wheeling, as if he were riding a bike. Everybody laughed at how scared he looked, including some of the adults. These were the players’ fathers who’d volunteered to coach the teams.
“Hey, boy, nobody wants you here,” one man called out.
“What is wrong with you, little brother?” said another. “You wake up this morning hankering for a beating?”
Then Curly let out a war cry and went hauling off in the kid’s direction. He stood over him with the bat held high above his head, hands wrapped around the handle. He looked like somebody with an ax about to chop some wood, only today the wood was the kid’s head. I figured he was probably just trying to scare him, but I also knew that it wasn’t wise to take chances with a person like Curly, and so I decided to do something. I ran up to him and caught him square in the back first with a shoulder and then with a forearm. Both Curly and the bat went sailing in the weeds.
The shell kept falling and the kid kept bawling. And finally I covered his body with mine.
He was scrawny in my arms, like sticks in a sack, and his breath smelled of toothpaste, the cinnamon kind. That he was a skeleton who brushed his teeth made me feel even sorrier for him. “Don’t you know the rules?” I asked him.
“You’re in the wrong park. They don’t let Negroes in here.”
I couldn’t answer that so I let it pass without trying to.
We waited until the shell stopped coming. I got up and brushed myself off, then I lifted him to his feet and dusted him off too. I put his cap back on. Then I pointed to where we should go and started walking with him there. We went past the pool and down a path in the woods that wound to the bayou that formed the park’s western border. “You’ll be fine once you make it to Railroad Avenue,” I told him.
A pedestrian bridge crossed the bayou to the other side. He got about halfway across and turned around. “I just wanted to play some ball,” he said.
“Not here you can’t,” I said. And already I was trying to understand what I’d done, the risk I’d taken. I’d have to explain myself when I got back to the Pony League field. I’d have to argue that I still was as white as everybody else.
And what would I tell Pops if he found out?
The kid stopped again on the other side of the bridge, and this time he cupped his mouth with his hands. “My name is Tater Henry,” he said.
“Rodney Boulet,” I answered, saying it the old French way: Boo-lay.
I watched him take a dirt trail that cut between large ranch-style houses. These were houses where white people lived, which meant the trail was for whites only.
Tater was up near the street when a man appeared and stood in his yard yelling. He was yelling the usual things you heard when a black person turned up where he wasn’t supposed to be and you had to put him in his place.
Tater lifted an arm and waved as if he and the man were old friends, then he kept on his way.
I was with Angie when I saw him again a few weeks later. He was raking out clumps of grass clippings in front of one of the old mansions on Court Street. I could hear a mower coming from the back lawn. The side gate in the iron fence was open and you could see a black man through it, his bald head shining with sweat as he cut rows running parallel with the fence and the street.
Angie and I were on our bikes heading toward downtown and J. W. Low to pick up something for Mama. I slowed and wheeled back around. “How you been, Tater?”
He kept working. He didn’t say anything.
“Did you go out for baseball at the black park?” I asked him.
He shook his head.
“You can’t see? I got me this job instead.”
I watched him a while. He had his cap turned around on his head, and his long socks had fallen down to his ankles. He looked to be about my age, which was ten going on eleven. He might’ve had the skinniest calves I’d ever seen. His skin was darker than I remembered. “Is your name really Tater?”
“Tatum? So Tater’s your nickname?”
He nodded and picked up the pace with his rake. After a minute he turned his back to me. “I’m sorry, but I need to work.” And he glanced over at the gate.
“See you too, Rodney.”
I caught up with Angie at the dime store. She was in the sewing-needs section, digging around for a certain kind of ribbon that Mama wanted. “He’s the only black person you’ve ever talked to, isn’t he?” she said.
I didn’t have to think long. “Yes, he is.”
“Did it make you feel tingly all over?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” she said and then laughed.
“Have you ever talked to a black person?” I asked.
“All the time.”
“Everywhere. I ain’t scared.”
I knew it was a lie. “Pops would kill you,” I said.
“Not if he didn’t find out,” she said, which was true, of course. He couldn’t kill her as long as it remained a secret.
Then that winter we ran into Tater again. The lawnmower repairman also bought pecans, and Pops took Angie and me there to sell the ones we’d picked at our grandparents’ farm. Tater was inside the small metal building with a sack of his own. He didn’t have many. He’d wheeled them over in a toy wagon with rust-eaten holes in the bed and in the words RADIO FLYER on the sides.
He looked at me, and then he looked at Angie, but he seemed to know better than to look at Pops. I would’ve talked to him had Angie and I been alone. In a minute he was gone, the empty wagon clattering behind him.
“You pay the blacks the same amount per pound you pay the whites?” Pops asked the man who was doing the weighing.
“Now that ain’t right,” Pops said.
The man shrugged. “A pecan is a pecan.”
“The hell it is,” Pops told him.
Pops was like that—ornery, and always wondering why he had to be the one to come up short when everybody else was getting more. Now the man was telling him that black pecans were no different than white pecans. I could see Pops’s face flame red and the veins in his neck puff up. “We’ll just have to agree to disagree,” he said.
The man didn’t have to ask him about what. Instead he reached into Tater’s pile and came out with a single pecan, then he removed a second pecan from our bag laying on the scales. He held his hand out, one pecan next to the other in his palm. They looked identical to me.
“That one’s ours,” Pops said.
The man was slow to smile. “Be reasonable,” he said.
“I’m telling you, that’s the white pecan.”
The man tossed the pecan Pops had chosen into Tater’s pile, and then he dropped the other one into ours. The man hadn’t paid Pops our money yet, but that didn’t stop Pops from lunging at him. A table stood between them, and Pops nearly knocked it over trying to get at him. Pecans spilled to the floor and puddled at our feet.
“Get out,” the man said.
“Six bucks,” Pops said, and stuck his hand out.
The man removed a wad of cash from his pocket and threw a couple of bills at Pops. “Get out,” he said again.
On the drive home we sat side by side in the cab of his truck, an old Chevy Cameo. In our haste to leave, our usual seating arrangement had been confused, and now I was stuck between him and Angie. I could feel the heat coming off his body, see the sweat like dew drops in the hair of his forearms.
“I don’t like the way the wind is blowing,” he said when we were halfway home. I leaned forward and looked off at the trees even though I knew he was talking about Tater’s pecans.
The next time we saw Tater was at the Delta, the movie house in town. He was waiting in line at the colored entrance. He was wearing nice clothes—church clothes, probably—and there was a lady with him. She kept her hands on his shoulders.
Then again in somebody else’s yard, weeding a flower garden. Then standing at the colored window at the Shrimp Boat, waiting for a dinner order. Then out in front of the Coke plant, watching a white man on a forklift load crates on a truck.
Time went by, years went by, and I kept seeing him everywhere—this kid I’d never noticed before; the kind I wouldn’t let myself notice until that day he showed up in our park. How does somebody go from being invisible to being everywhere you look? How is he suddenly there when he didn’t exist before?
He wasn’t a friend yet, but he was familiar and we always acknowledged each other. Most times he just touched the bill of his cap, but on occasion he’d wave. Then he started calling out my name and I started calling out his. And eventually he even felt safe enough to call out Angie’s.
He waited four years before coming back out for baseball. It was 1969 now, and he came up the same route as before, walking past the pool and the pool house and the snowball stand, crossing Market Street, and then entering the old shell road half-dancing to whatever music was playing. My age group had graduated to the Babe Ruth League, and once again we were waiting for tryouts to start. Unlike before, nobody threw shell at him. Instead they all stood together and stared, and they really let him have it with their mouths.
“Hey, boy, you get lost on your way to the projects?” one of the coaches yelled.
“What’s wrong, my man?” another of the dads shouted. “Haven’t you heard what happened to that preacher in Memphis?” That was Martin Luther King Jr., murdered the year before.
Tater just kept coming. When he got closer and it started to look like Curly might go at him again, I stepped out a ways to make sure there weren’t any problems. Puberty had found me the year before, and I was already six-foot-two and two hundred and thirty-five pounds. I was what Mama called “husky,” and when we shopped for my clothes we had to drive an hour to Baton Rouge to find a specialty store for the big and tall. The one good thing about being so large was that nobody messed with me—ever.
“Good to see you, Tater,” I told him.
“You too, Rodney.”
I walked with him through the guys staring wild-eyed and the men chewing toothpicks, and we set up off to the side and started playing catch. He had a good arm and his throws popped in my mitt, making everyone turn for a look.
“They hate me and they don’t even know me,” he said between throws. It wasn’t that he felt sorry for himself. It was more like he suddenly needed to say something that was true.
“Don’t let it bother you,” I told him.
Then he threw the ball so hard I thought for sure he’d broken a bone in my hand.
Tater dazzled us all during the tryout, or at least those of us who bothered to pay attention to him. He still had that little oil-wet glove, and even though it was no bigger than his hand, nothing got past him. During drills, one of the coaches hit fly balls in the outfield, and we took turns catching them, and when one came off his bat too hard and sailed high over our heads and past us, it was Tater who broke from the group and chased it down, catching it at a full gallop with his back to the hitter, like Willie Mays. He could throw the ball on a rope from the outfield fence to home plate, and he was fastest on the base paths.
The coach of the Redbirds, Junior Doucet, won a coin toss and made me the first pick of the draft, and all those boys later he made Tater the last pick. Tater had outperformed the other kids and me, but he’d come to us black, and for that he had to wait. That the park allowed him to play at all was the biggest surprise, although I learned later that some of the coaches thought the federal government had sent Tater to test town leaders who’d been resisting integration.
One day that summer I got up the nerve to ask Tater why he was there.
“South City Park is closer to where I live,” he said. “It’s less than a mile away. North City Park is more like three miles.”
“We thought maybe you were sent to infiltrate the white culture and gather information for rabble-rousers bent on toppling our way of life.”
“Who told you that?”
I didn’t want to admit that it was Pops so I said, “I just heard it around.”
Tater shook his head. “It’s two miles difference, Rodney. I don’t own a bike.”
Mama worked at home as a seamstress. Pops worked as a night watchman at the plant in town where they made cooking oil.
He punched in at 11:00 p.m. and punched out at 7:00 a.m., five days a week. Even though he had to get his sleep during the day, he still never missed any of my games, including those with early afternoon starts. I’d always look for him on the other side of the fence down on the first base line, standing by himself in his blue clothes, the leather strings on his steel-toe boots hanging loose. He never cheered or said anything when I got a hit or picked off a base runner trying to steal. He kept quiet even when we won close ones. My teammates said he looked “hard to know.” I explained that he’d served in Korea and just wasn’t one for any nonsense.
I inherited my size from Mama’s people. She actually stood two inches taller and weighed about fifty pounds more than Pops. She called her business Unique Boutique, and she specialized in evening gowns. Ladies were always coming to the house to get measured, and there were always bal masque outfits draped over the furniture. You’d have to sit on the floor to watch TV so as not to rumple the pretty things she was making.
Mama suffered from lupus and didn’t feel well outside in the hot sunlight, and this kept her from attending many of my games. Over supper I’d have to tell her how they went, and whenever I described something sensational like a grand-slam home run or a triple play, she’d turn to Angie and say “Is your brother lying again?”
Angie was on the South City Park swim team and sometimes had to practice when I was playing, but she made most of my games and sat in the bleachers behind the backstop. She showed up with a sketchbook and a paint box full of colored pencils, and she made pictures of whatever caught her fancy: a player sliding into home, the pitcher coming out of his windup, dragonflies lighting on top of a batting helmet. Most people never guessed that we were twins—Angie was a green-eyed blonde and trim, while I was a brown-eyed monster who could make little kids cry if I looked at them too long—but Angie herself always said we were “one and the same and nobody without each other.”
I believed this to be true, although we probably weren’t much different from most twins. We shared a room and slept in beds pushed up next to each other until a year ago when she got her first period and Pops decided it was time to turn the sleeping porch into a bedroom. I liked having my own space, but some nights I felt so lonely I couldn’t stand it. I’d return to Angie’s room, clear out a place on the floor next to her bed, and sleep there on a pallet of pillows.
Today she was wearing a tank top and short shorts. You could see the tan lines on her shoulders left by her bathing suit, and she had a tied-off leather string hanging from around her neck with a key at the end of it.
The key opened the lock on the rear gate of the park’s pool yard. Angie wore it like jewelry, she once explained to me, because it was good luck and a source of pride and something no other swim team member had, not even Craig Fink, the boys’ captain and a state champion in the breaststroke. The key meant she could let herself in anytime she wanted, and she often did so, bicycling to the park at 5:00 a.m. to get some laps in before the pool house opened at seven. Angie was oblivious to the reaction she brought out in guys our age, but that didn’t stop them from saying things.
“God, she’s fine,” I heard Randy Billedeaux say at the start of batting practice.
“Knock it off. That’s his sister,” Tater said before I could speak up.
He and I were waiting for our turns at the plate. Five cuts were all you got before games, and things moved fast.
“We’re what’s called fraternal twins,” I told him, for some reason thinking he should know. “Mama might’ve carried us at the same time, but somehow we came out different. I was born before she was, but I never knew if that’s why I’m so much bigger.”
“I had me a twin once,” he said.
“What do you mean you had one?”
“It was a girl too. Rosalie. She came out already deceased. That’s what my auntie told me, anyway.” He pronounced it ahn-tee. “My great aunt, I should say. She’s my mom’s mother’s sister. I live with her.”
“Why don’t you live with your parents?”
“I just don’t.”
“But why don’t you?”
“Because I don’t, all right?”
I couldn’t imagine life without my parents, but life without Angie would be even worse. “All right,” I told him.
By the bottom of the fifth inning the score was 9–0. We were winning again, and the game must’ve been boring to watch because the bleachers were quiet and even Angie had stopped cheering. The league had a ten-run rule, which meant we needed only one more run for the umps to call the game. Tater was the first batter up, and I was right behind him in the lineup.
“Which one of you is going to end this thing and let us go home?” Angie called from her seat.
I was in the on-deck circle. I lowered my bat and lifted my gloved left hand over my head. Tater stepped out of the batter’s box and signaled for a time-out. Now he raised a hand too.
“Do it for me, Tater,” Angie said.
He shook off a laugh and seemed to have trouble regaining his concentration, but he still managed to crush the first pitch that came at him. The ball flew high over the left field fence for a home run, and the game was over. Tater ran around the bases at a slow jog. He crossed home plate and fell into my arms and those of our teammates. Then he casually walked over to the backstop. Angie was standing and applauding along with everybody else. Tater pointed at her. “You asked for it,” he said.
But the old lady standing in front of Angie thought Tater was talking to her. “I did?” She tapped a wrinkled hand against her chest. “Why, thank you, boy.”
I guess that taught him. Tater would hit more home runs that summer, but he never again was quite so proud of himself afterward.
We lived about a mile from the park on Helen Street, and even after Pops converted the porch, the house still had only about a thousand square feet of living space. There was one bathroom for the four of us, and it was barely large enough to hold a sink, a toilet, and a tub. The house had a TV antenna on the roof and striped metal awnings over the windows. We thought the asbestos siding was pretty, especially during a rainstorm when the material repelled water and shone with a pearl’s iridescence.
Pops wasn’t a complicated man, but I still didn’t understand him. His happiest moments seemed to come when he was by himself—out fishing at Bayou Courtableau or tending to his vegetable garden behind the house. He grew some pretty tomatoes, along with cucumbers, squash, snap beans, and eggplant. He’d put the vegetables in brown A&P bags and drive in the Cameo from house to house, knocking on doors and taking his hat off when somebody answered. “We’re about drowning in them,” he’d say as he handed over each bag. It was strange seeing him be all generous with the neighbors, especially when you compared him to the Pops we got at home. Angie always said that the only time we saw flowers in the house was on days after Pops had a moody spell and needed to make up with Mama.
We couldn’t afford to have a black lady come in and clean the house like others on the south end could. These neighbors weren’t well off either, but their jobs as bank tellers and schoolteachers and auto mechanics earned them enough to hire full-time maids and yardmen. I couldn’t imagine how little a maid and a yardman were earning if they depended on the guy from Lalonde’s Cajun Plumbing for their livings.
That first summer with Tater was just starting when one of the guys on our team, Marco Miller, pulled me aside during practice and told me he had a secret. He looked around to make sure we were alone. “Tater’s auntie, the lady he lives with . . . ? She’s our maid. She cleans our house.”
“Her name is Miss Nettie. Last night I rode with my mother when she took her home. I knew Miss Nettie had somebody she was raising, but I didn’t know it was Tater until we got there. It was starting to drizzle, and he came outside with an umbrella. I don’t think he saw me, but they live in a shack. It’s so small, it looked more like a doghouse than a house where people live.”
Tater was in the outfield shagging flies. We both looked at him.
“So that’s your secret?” I said.
“Mom told me Tater’s father shot his mother, then shot himself. Tater was just a baby in the house in a crib, but that’s how he wound up with Miss Nettie. Miss Nettie is old. She didn’t want to take him, but there wasn’t nobody else.”
Something jumped in me, sort of like the way it did that day they threw shell at him. I’d known Marco Miller since Little League and never had a problem with him. But right then I felt like laying him out. It was his tone I didn’t appreciate, the satisfaction he took in letting me know that Tater was a kid nobody wanted.
Making me feel almost as bad was knowing that Tater had kept this information from me. I’d thought we were better friends than that. “Don’t tell this to anybody else,” I said to Marco.
“Because it’s nobody’s business. And don’t let him know that you know.”
“Don’t let who know?”
“Tater. Come on, man. Who else?”
Along with the size, I had a death stare that I liked to use to instill fear in my opponents. I gave Marco Miller one now.
“I hear you,” he said, and walked off.
I didn’t go straight home after practice. Instead I rode my bike a distance behind Tater and followed him up Bertheaud Avenue to where it crossed Railroad Avenue and the train tracks to Burleigh’s corner grocery. He went into the store and came out a few minutes later with some ropes of licorice and a bottle of red pop, then he walked up Washington Street a couple of blocks to Park Avenue and took a left. The neighborhood changed now from white to black. I’d heard stories about white kids who’d had their bikes stolen out from under them when they drifted into this part of town. But it worried me more that Tater would catch me tagging behind him.
He walked up a ways under the shade of some gnarly old cedar trees and hung a right on Abe Lincoln Street. The house he went into wasn’t much, but it wasn’t as bad as Marco had described. A yellow porch light was burning and a single kitchenette chair stood on the front porch. Fig and kumquat trees grew in the side yard. The back had a wire fence keeping some chickens in, along with a small coop made of rusty wire and gray boards.
We were still inside the city limits, but the place looked like it belonged in the country alongside a road nobody drove down anymore.
I rode up closer and halfway hid behind a tree. A car drove past—either a Firebird or a Camaro, I couldn’t tell which—and I could hear music even though the windows were up.
As well as I thought I knew the town, and as much as I’d roamed it, this place was like finding a door in your home that you’d never noticed before and opening it to a room that you hadn’t known was there. It occurred to me that there was a world I knew nothing about, and this was the world of colored people. God or somebody or something had made things in two parts—the white part and the colored part, and here was that other one. They must’ve had college-educated professional people like doctors and lawyers and teachers. They must’ve had priests and preachers and morticians and accountants and insurance agents. But I had never seen those kinds among them. I’d only seen the ones who worked in the service trade. In other words, the ones who served the whites.
I was getting ready to head home when Tater poked his head out from the screen door, then bounded off the porch and came running toward me.
“Hey, Rodney,” he said. “My auntie wants to know if you’d like to have supper with us.”
“No, thank you, Tater.”
“She’s frying pork chops.”
“Did you hear me, man? I said pork chops. You’re going to take a pass on pork chops? What is wrong with you, brother?”
I left him and started pedaling as fast as I could down Railroad Avenue. I wasn’t far along when I heard him call out, “Okay, be that way then,” and finally, “Bye to you too.”
Railroad ended and became Parkview Drive, and now the houses got bigger and some were brick. I shouldn’t have raced off, but the prospect of dinner with him and his aunt had made me nervous. Pops could barely tolerate seeing Tater and me play ball together, and I knew how he’d act if he ever learned that I’d gone so far as to share food with him, too.
As I rode home, I kept wondering about the differences between the world where Tater lived and the one I came from. Four years ago Pops had been able to tell a black pecan from a white one, and that was only a starting point. I’d also heard him call dogs that belonged to black people “black dogs,” even though their fur was white or brown or some other color. A dog could be purebred with papers, but if it belonged to a Negro, it was a black dog and nowhere near the equal of the lowest mutt that belonged to a white person. Cars were “black cars” when black people owned them, and it didn’t matter if their paint jobs were actually white or green or some other. There were black stores, too, and black clothes and black music and black food. And to Pops the color always meant not as good. Even when applied to a human being like Tater.
I got home and could smell Mama’s cooking out in the carport. It was fried pork chops, and I figured there must’ve been a sale today at the A&P for the white shoppers as well as the black ones. Angie was setting the table as I came through the door, and Mama was at the sink mashing some potatoes. It got hot inside whenever they used the stove, which was a big Chambers installed in the 1940s when the house was built. Pops was sitting over by the window unit, reading the paper and trying to keep cool. He had the Astros game on the radio, and he was already dressed for work, his hair swept straight back and showing comb marks. He hadn’t put on his boots yet, and you could see his white ribbed socks folded over at the ankle.
Maybe because I still had the story about Tater’s parents in my head, but I glanced over at Pops’s Chiang Kai-shek rifle hanging on a rack on the wall. He’d taken it off a dead enemy soldier and displayed it now as a trophy for all to see. Right below it and covered with a frilly dress half-made was Mama’s sewing machine.
“Rodney, where you been, son?” Pops said, and lowered the volume on the radio.
I propped my bat with my mitt hanging from the barrel against where the pie safe met the wall.
“Practice, and then I followed Tater Henry home.”
“You followed him home? Why would you do that?”
“Just curious, I guess.”
“I don’t understand,” he said. “What could there possibly be about a colored boy that makes anybody curious?”
It was the kind of question that really was a statement, so I figured he didn’t require an answer. I sat in my chair.
Angie’s freckles came out whenever she got too much sun, and they were out now on her cheeks and the crown of her nose. Even though the house smelled of fried food, I could smell chlorine when she sat next to me.
Pops came over and joined us at the table. “Rodney,” he said, meaning he’d selected me to say grace. I made the sign of the cross and said the prayer in what felt like slow motion, knowing that if I went too fast, he’d only have me say it over again. I finished and reached for the potatoes.
“Tater invited me to supper,” I said.
“Supper, did he?” Pops said. “Imagine that—supper with the brothers and the sisters.”
“I told him I couldn’t.”
“They prefer to be called Negroes or coloreds,” Angie said.
“Were you polite?” Mama asked. “Did you thank him?”
“Thank him?” Pops said.
“It wouldn’t have been the first time I ate black food,” I said. “I spent the night at T-Boy Bertrand’s once, and his maid cooked supper. It was fried chicken, turnip greens, smothered black-eyed peas, and cornbread.”
“Was it good?” Mama asked.
“It was delicious.”
“Mama’s cooked all those things before,” Angie said. “What made what you ate at T-Boy’s black food?”
“Because the maid cooked it?” I answered in the form of a question, which let her know how ignorant she was.
Then we looked at her, all three of us, in a way that must’ve had her wondering if we’d ever really noticed her before.
More and more people started turning out for our games. Nobody said it was because there was a black guy playing in the white park, but I couldn’t think of another reason to explain it. Where in years before, you’d get one parent for every player on a team; now both parents showed up, along with siblings and grandparents, and even cousins and friends from the neighborhood. The younger people in the crowds probably came to see a special talent play, but I agreed with Pops and his theory about why so many older folks were showing up—they wanted to be there in case the Black Panthers marched on the park and the white youth needed protecting.
The bleachers filled up early, and people ringed the field with lawn chairs. They brought metal ice coolers stamped with beer logos, and they popped their cans and drank. Their feet were propped up on the wire fence.
We won all our games that month. Tater played center field and hit third; I was the catcher and cleanup hitter. If any of the guys on the other teams were ugly to him, I never saw it. However, I did hear that a gang of potheads jumped him one day when he was walking home. They’d been hiding behind a large brick barbecue pit in the picnic area, and Tater had to fend them off with a stick.
“Wasn’t nothing,” Tater said when I asked him about it.
“Did they hit you?”
“Yeah, they hit me. But I hit them back.”
Over the July Fourth weekend we faced the Steers. We were both undefeated and dominating all the other teams, and the winner would claim first place and the fast track to the town’s Babe Ruth League title. Curly Trussell was the Steers’ best player, and he’d already pitched a no-hitter against the league’s third-best team, mainly by throwing curveballs, sliders, and other junk of such quality that he had everybody rocking back on their heels and whiffing.
Half an hour before our scheduled 5:00 p.m. start, the field was packed four deep along the base lines. We were taking batting practice when I heard the first heckler. Tater was at the plate. On the other side of the fence was a man with a can of Old Milwaukee in his hand. He leaned heavily against the dented chicken wire and belched.
“Hey, batter batter,” he said. “Hey, batter batter . . .”
I’d heard the chant before, but then the man substituted the word “batter” with something else, and Coach Doucet immediately came running over and yelled at the man to watch his mouth.
“How you do that, Junior?” the man said. “Watch my mouth?” Now he crossed his eyes and looked down his nose. “Show me how you do that.”
Coach Doucet didn’t have an answer, but at least he’d distracted the man, and Tater was able to finish his swings.
“What a bunch of garbage,” I said as Tater walked past me.
He leaned his bat against the fence and walked into the dugout for his glove. “Let it go, Rodney.”
“You didn’t hear the name that dude was calling you?”
He shook his head. “Let it go,” he said again.
Coach Doucet and the coach for the Steers met with the umpires at home plate and exchanged lineup cards, and I drifted out past first base, looking for Pops. He wasn’t in his usual spot, and I couldn’t locate him on the other side of the field either. “Here, Rodney,” I finally heard him call out. And I spotted him with Angie and Mama in the bleachers behind the backstop.
It really did something to me, seeing my family there, Mama especially. She was wearing a straw hat and big, square-frame sunglasses, and she’d brought a fan to help with the heat. The lupus alone should’ve kept her home and out of the sun, but I also knew she was ashamed of her weight and dreaded bumping into people who might remind her that she was a beauty in high school and the first runner-up in the 1949 Yambilee Queen pageant.
I had Curly to worry about, so I didn’t let myself dwell on Mama for long. He was only about half my size, but he was so intense that kids in the park said he belonged in Pineville, a town in the central part of the state where there was a big hospital for mental patients. His father ran a bar on the parish line, and nobody but her customers ever saw his mother anymore. Curly might’ve been white trash, but he could really make you look stupid, and I looked extra stupid my first two times at bat when I didn’t even get the bat off my shoulder and watched one fastball after another run past me.
Tater didn’t do any better. He popped up to the first baseman and struck out, his first strikeout of the year, and now he was coming up again in the bottom of the last inning with two outs and the Steers leading 4–3. With the win so close at hand, Curly was throwing even harder than he had to start the game, and his junk pitches were working better than ever too. Tater swung and missed at two curveballs, and then Curly followed up with three errant fastballs, all of them high and away, making the count full. The next pitch was identical to the first two, and Tater did a surprising thing. Just as the ball was leaving Curly’s hand, he stepped up to the front of the batter’s box and squared off to bunt. The ball met his bat and dribbled toward third, and he outran the throw to first.
I was next. I walked out to booing and stood outside the batter’s box and looked over to where Mama and Pops and Angie were sitting.
“You can do it, Rodney,” I heard Tater call out, his voice clear to me even though hundreds of other people were yelling for me to fail.
I set up deep in the box, choked up high on the bat’s handle, and shifted my weight to my back foot. I’d decided to forgo any titanic roundhouse swings this time and to simply try to make contact with the ball. Tater took a three-step lead, and Curly looked him back one, and now the ball was coming toward me. As soon as it left Curly’s hand, I picked up the rotation, or lack of one. It was a knuckleball, widely advertised as the toughest pitch there was to hit. But this one didn’t move or bounce around much, and the reason was probably because it was the first knuckler Curly had thrown all day. From where I stood, the ball looked as big as a dinner plate, and without being conscious of what I was doing I strode forward and met the pitch the moment it crossed the plate. It didn’t feel like I’d hit it hard, and I thought I’d just lost the game with a pop-up to the infield.
But then I saw Tater leap in the air as he broke for second, and I looked up and located the ball in flight. It had already climbed higher than all the other blasts I’d hit that summer, and it was still climbing when it connected with a light tower on the other side of the fence. I heard a report like a rifle shot, and then the ball ricocheted back into the field.
All Tater and I had to do now was touch each base and home plate and the game was over, but as he cleared third I saw something flying toward him from the direction of the pitcher’s mound. It was Curly’s glove. Tater stopped to avoid being hit, but then Curly charged and knocked him to the ground. The two of them tumbled in the grass between the field and our dugout. I left the base path and ran over to help, even though by now Coach Doucet had grabbed Curly and pulled him away.
Curly was kicking his legs and swinging his arms and making sounds like an animal in a fight with another animal when it understands that to lose is to die. I helped Tater to his feet and saw a trail of blood at his nose. Then Curly’s father moved past us in a blur of ear hoops and jailhouse tattoos. I thought he’d come to defend his son, but instead he reared back with one of his biker boots and nailed Curly in the stomach, knocking him on his back. Until now I’d always thought I had it bad with Pops. He’d beaten me before with belts from his closet and switches from the ligustrum hedge, but I couldn’t recall ever taking a boot in the gut.
“Can Rodney and me cross home plate now?” Tater asked.
“Go on,” Coach Doucet said, then waved us on like a traffic cop.
We made it across, but the thrill of what we’d done was gone. Most of our teammates, afraid to get close to Curly’s father, had already returned to the dugout, and a different excitement had come over the field. The umpires were meeting on the mound with parents of some of the Steers, and then Coach Doucet joined them. If I was hearing right, he was arguing for justice, a word I’d never heard mentioned at a baseball game before. Finally the ump broke from the group and walked over to where Tater was sitting.
“You’re suspended for the rest of the summer for fighting,” he said.
“That was Curly fighting,” Tater said.
“You’re telling me you weren’t fighting?”
“That wasn’t fighting. I was trying to get him off of me.”
“You also showboated on your way to second. They might abide that kind of behavior on the north end but not here. Get your things together and go home. That’s an order.”
Tater turned to Coach Doucet. “But I just jumped a little when Rodney hit it.”
“Let’s go,” the ump said.
“For the rest of the summer?”
“One other thing. You never brought a release from your parents when you signed up to play. Without that release you don’t qualify.” The ump worked himself out of his chest protector and removed his shin guards. Clouds of sweat soaked his black shirt, and you could smell his body odor from ten feet away. “We got rules on this side of town, and if you expect to participate, you have got to respect them,” he said. “I should’ve sent you packing weeks ago.” And now he pointed to what must’ve been an imaginary door out of the park.
“What about Curly Trussell?” came a voice from the other side of the backstop. I didn’t have to look to know it was Mama.
“Curly was provoked,” the ump said.
“He was not provoked. He started it.”
“He’s suspended for one game, and if he curses or throws his glove again, he’s done, just like this one.”
“Well, you should be ashamed,” Angie said in the loudest voice yet.
“I didn’t make the rules,” the ump said, “I just enforce them.” And with that he gathered up his equipment and left the field.
The ump’s other job was working the register at a convenience store called the Fill-A-Sack, and I told myself it would be a long time before I ever went there again.
“She Loves You” wasn’t playing over the park speakers, but you might’ve thought it was to see Tater on his way out. I figured he was trying to give the appearance that everything was fine. Still, I was sick for him. I thought about running after him, but then Angie jumped down from the bleachers and took off in his direction. I waited with Mama and Pops until she came back.
“I invited him to my swim meet Friday,” she said.
“You did what, Angela?” Pops said.
Angie didn’t answer. She knew he’d heard her the first time.
“They won’t let a colored boy anywhere near that pool,” Mama said. “Rodney, ride your bike on up ahead and tell him politely that your sister made a mistake.”
“Why me, Mama? Make Angie do it.”
“Just go tell him, please. That poor young man doesn’t need another situation, and I certainly don’t need the whole town talking about the colored boy who watched my daughter gallivant around half-naked at the pool.”
“I don’t do that,” Angie said. “It’s a swim meet, Mama. I swim.”
“Rodney, go on, boy,” Pops said.
I rode through trees and past the picnic grounds crowded with barbecue pits to where Tater was crossing the pedestrian bridge over the bayou. I tried to figure out what to say to him, and I didn’t know what that might be until I finally said it. “Hey, Tater, they don’t have swim meets on the north end?”
His expression let me know the question wasn’t one he’d expected, especially from me. “What are you trying to say, Rodney?”
“They’ll just treat you bad again. It’ll be worse than today.”
“If I let things like that worry me, I’d never leave the house.” He was standing in the middle of the bridge, and he leaned against the railing now and spat at the water below. “Was it Angie who sent you?”
I shook my head.
“Your mama’s a nice person, Rodney. I heard her yelling at that ump. But it was Angie who asked me to come see her swim, and unless Angie takes the invitation back, I plan on being there.”
He spat one more time before leaving.
A tall hurricane fence surrounded the pool yard, with three strands of barbed wire running along the top. About ten feet from the fence were two stands of bleachers that were close enough to some oak trees to get shade, which made it tolerable for Mama, even on the worst summer days. Whenever Angie had a meet, we tried to arrive about an hour early to claim seats up on the top bench for the best shade and the best view. We arrived earlier than usual today, with more than an hour to spare, and Tater was already there waiting.
He was wearing a white button-down shirt with long sleeves, navy dress pants, and penny loafers with soles barely scuffed. He also had on a new cowboy belt, carved with his name, TATER HENRY, in the brown leather.
“I wish I could get you to dress like that,” Mama said, and cut me a look. It was July and hot, and I had on cutoffs, a T-shirt, and flip-flops—what I always wore on days like this one.
Pops was quiet. He couldn’t have been happy seeing Tater, and he’d had only about three hours of sleep all day. His feet banged against the board planks as he led us up to our spot. To protect against splinters, he’d brought a pair of foam seat cushions, and he set one down for Mama, then used the other for himself.
“Tater, how are you, son?” Mama asked, and looked over.
“Doing pretty good, Mrs. Boulet. How are you?”
“Will you tell your auntie something for me? Will you tell her I said you shine like a brand-new copper penny today?”
“I appreciate that, Mrs. Boulet. She’s the one that bought me this outfit. I hope it isn’t too much.”
“Of course it isn’t. Would you like to come sit with us?”
Pops started gnashing his teeth, the muscles in his jaw working. Then he pulled at the crotch of his pants, as if he’d just now noticed how tight they were.
“Come sit,” Mama said to Tater.
“Yes, ma’am,” and he tried to suppress a smile. I could smell him—equal parts hair oil and Aqua Velva—even before he slid over.
For a few minutes all you could hear was the noise from the pool. Then Tater said, “Why aren’t you on the swim team with Angie, Rodney?”
“I have baseball. I couldn’t do both.”
“You can swim, though, right?”
“Yeah, I can swim. Can’t you?”
“No. I’ve never even been in a pool.”
He shook his head.
“Not even a baby pool?”
“I tried to take lessons. I heard somebody talking about it at Redbirds’ practice, then I saw a paper on the pool-house door when I was walking home one day. I came and got in line with my dollar fifty—that’s what it cost to take them for the summer—and when I got to the desk, that old lady, Miss Daigle, said I needed to leave because they didn’t want any darkies in the water.”
“She called you that?”
“Not exactly. She said they didn’t want darkies, then she said she was going to call the police if I didn’t leave that minute.”
It was hard to hear, and I was relieved when Angie and her teammates came out to loosen up and swim practice laps. I gave a sharp whistle to let her know where we were sitting, and she answered with a wave.
The sun had combined with chlorine to streak her hair with gold strands. Bands of muscle and sinew stood out on her long limbs. Every time she came out of the pool dripping with water, I wondered how we could be related, let alone twins.
“Is he with you?” I heard somebody say. It was a park employee, standing behind the bleachers.
“Yes, he is,” my mother said.
“That colored person there?”
“That’s right, George,” Mama answered when Pops wouldn’t. “This is Tater Henry, my son’s teammate on the Redbirds.”
George Fontenot was older, maybe sixty. Dressed all in khaki, he usually handled maintenance at the park. “Yeah, all right,” he said. “He’s the one got kicked out for picking a fight with the Trussell boy.”
Tater had come wearing all new clothes and a belt with his name on it, and even they weren’t going to be enough to spare him today.
“George, your pool looks lovely,” Mama said.
“Kind of you, thanks. Every morning at seven o’clock sharp, when I skim the surface, I wish they’d built it somewhere else on account of them trees. You can get the leaves easy enough, but it’s the moss that gives you fits. Who builds a pool next to trees?”
“Only somebody with a man like you, George,” Mama said.
You could see what her words did to him. He no longer was worried about Tater. Instead he hitched up his pants and went back to spearing trash with a nail at the end of a stick.
The meet featured only three teams, ours and two others from nearby towns. Angie easily ranked as her team’s strongest individual female competitor, and she also anchored the girls’ relays. There was no limit to the number of events a single swimmer could participate in, and by the last race Angie had already won four medals, three of them gold and one silver. Tater and I stood tall and cheered like crazy people without a thought to how it might be taken by the visitors from out of town.
As Angie was stretching before her last event, a man looked back at us from his seat at the bottom of the bleachers and spoke to my father. “Is all that really necessary?” he asked.
Pops didn’t answer, and the man got up and walked over to the fence. He stood leaning against it, but I could tell he wasn’t done yet. Right before the swimmers stepped on their starting blocks, he returned to the bleachers and sat in his old place.
“Please ignore us,” my mother said. Then she brought a finger up to her lips and gestured for Tater and me to keep quiet.
It must’ve been the man’s daughter who swam the second leg of her team’s last race, a freestyle relay. When the girl in that spot hit the water, he started yelling, “Kick, kick, kick,” but actually saying, “Keek, keek, keek.” She was a strong swimmer and built a two-stroke lead, which the next girl was able to maintain for the team’s anchor. The bleachers were shaking as people pounded their feet on the boards. I whistled again right before Angie dove into the water for her team’s last leg. By the time she reached the other side, she’d already caught up to the leader. She passed the girl after coming out of her turn.
Both Tater and I had forgotten Mama’s warning to keep quiet, and we were making more noise than anyone else in the bleachers when Angie thrust ahead by half a dozen strokes to end the race. Next came the medal ceremony, and we might’ve escaped without incident had Tater not thought to add one final cheer.
“Keek, keek, keek!” he shouted.
Pushing between spectators, the man climbed the bleachers and grabbed Tater by the throat before any of us could react. Pops reached for the guy, but lost his balance and fell sideways against the boards. I landed a right to the side of the man’s face and whipped his head back, but somehow he held on to Tater. It was Mama who stopped him. She gripped his earlobe and pulled it, as if she’d lost one of hers and needed a replacement. Tater broke free and fell over coughing and spitting out ropes. Then Mama let the man go.
“What is wrong with you?” she said.
It was a while before the man could answer. “You know what’s wrong,” he muttered.
It was time to leave. “You’re not walking home alone,” Mama said to Tater. “Let’s go. You and Rodney climb in back.”
We sat on the bed with our backs against the bulkhead. The wind felt good after the moist heat under the trees, and I had a moment to think about what had just happened. I seemed to understand that for as long as we were friends and he was black and I was white, there would be apologies to be made—if not for my own words and actions against him, then for the words and actions of others.
On Abe Lincoln, Pops pulled up to the curb, and Tater jumped out even before we’d come to a stop. It was my first good look at him, and I saw the smudges on his shirt and the rips to his pants. His neck was red and there were four round marks, each about the size of a dime, left by the points of the man’s fingers.
Pops had his window rolled down and his arm poking out, the elbow bleeding from a scratch he’d suffered in the melee. Splinters stood out in the meat of his forearm.
“Please tell Angie I said it was great she won all them races,” Tater said.
Pops seemed to be trying to decide whether it was too big a request. Eventually Mama said, “We’ll do that, Tater.”
“Mrs. Boulet, I’m grateful to you for helping me out the way you did.”
“Not everybody is so full of contempt for his fellow man as that fool,” she said, although by the look on her face I wondered if she believed it.
“I’m sorry if I caused any trouble.”
“No, baby,” Mama said. “We’re the ones who are sorry. The world has a lot of growing up to do. You go on inside now and tell Miss Nettie to call me if she has any questions about today.”
Tater climbed up on the porch and stood at the door, straightening out his clothes. They might’ve been new, but they were also ruined. He tucked his shirttail back in and brushed dirt off his pants, and he made sure his belt was in place, with his name facing out from the rear to anybody who might be curious about who he was.
Mama was too upset to cook supper that night, so Angie and I ate fried bologna sandwiches on TV trays in the living room. Pops left for the plant after the news, and it was midnight before we went to bed. Even then nobody slept much.
I lay awake in the dark, trying to make sense of things I’d probably never understand. Finally I got up and moved to Angie’s room. “Poor Tater,” I heard her mumble, even though she looked to be sleeping.
Toward dawn I sat up on the pallet on the floor and glanced over at her. Angie was a person people automatically liked just because of how she looked. But what about those who brought out hatred in others for the same reason? I wondered what it would be like to have people want to choke your neck before they even knew you, and it all made me wish that I lived in another time—not in the past when things might’ve been worse, but in the future when all the madness had been worked out.
Tater stayed clear of South City Park the rest of the summer. He didn’t see us lose the Babe Ruth League title by dropping two straight to the Steers in the season’s last game and tiebreaker playoff, and he missed the awards banquet at the barbecue pits, where, in his absence, I won the trophy for the Redbirds’ most valuable player. Mama asked me if I saw him around anymore. I told her no, why would I? And that was the truth, even though it was also the truth that I’d spent a lot of time looking for him.
I rode my bike down past the barbecue pits to the bayou and whiled away many an hour on the pedestrian bridge. I spat at the water until I had cottonmouth. I stared off at the trail, trying to will him to materialize. One day I was hanging around by the snowball stand, listening to music when The Beatles came on. They were singing “She Loves You” again. It made me feel so bad I got on my bike and rode out of the park as fast as I could.
I wanted my reuniting with Tater to seem accidental, but I knew he was done with us, and the only certain way to see him again was to show up at his house.
It was the first week of August, and the park was starting to quiet down, with the baseball and swim programs finished until next year. I rode to Abe Lincoln and stopped on the corner and had a look around. I wasn’t there long, maybe five minutes, when I heard music coming from down the street. I recognized the car. It was the one from three months ago, the black sports model with white racing stripes running from end to end on the hood. It moved faster now and fishtailed around the corner. Then after another few minutes I heard it approaching again, only now it was coming right at me.
I don’t know why I didn’t try to get out of the way. The only defense I put up was to wave my arms, and then the driver’s door flew open, slamming into me and the bike and sending us sprawling against the curb. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to brace myself. I hit the ground hard, and one of the bike’s pedals dug into my shinbone just below the knee.
I didn’t get a good look at the driver, and he was long gone by the time I got my wind back and stood up again. I could feel blood from my knee running down into my sock. My shorts had split open along the seam that ran from the waist to the crotch. My right shoulder and ribcage were throbbing.
What had I ever done to that dude? I wondered.
I limped over to Tater’s and banged on the front door. It took only seconds for him to pull it open, and he immediately started calling for his aunt. I would learn later that the kind of house they lived in was a shotgun, with a total of four small rooms leading from one to the next, all the way to the back. Tater put my arm over his shoulder and led me through a living room and bedroom. Next up was a bathroom, and past it I could see a kitchen. His aunt Nettie, appearing by my side all of a sudden, was not quite as ancient as I’d imagined. She seemed familiar, and then I remembered the lady with Tater at the movies four years ago. She wasn’t wearing a domestic’s uniform but a stylish outfit with a lot of color and open-toe shoes that showed her painted nails.
I roughed out a description of the incident, and she shook her head. “Lord, that boy,” she said.
“You know him?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. Instead she guided me to the bathroom and turned on the water in the tub. It was an ancient claw-foot job with a metal hoop above it holding a shower curtain. She removed my shoe and sock and put my leg under the water. It didn’t burn for long, and then the water went from cold to warm, and I could feel the pain go away and my body begin to relax. I felt like a little kid, the way she handled me. She rubbed the tips of her fingers over the cut and puckered her lips and blew on it. “Shh, shh,” she kept saying. The pain in my ribs and shoulder was still there, but I’d been hurt worse, and the truth was I worried more about the rip in my shorts than the injury. The rip had left me exposed, my underwear showing.
“You’re going to be fine, Rodney,” Miss Nettie said in a reassuring voice.
“You sure I don’t need stitches?”
She shook her head. “You got a cut, nothing terrible. But it’s more a brush burn—you must’ve scraped it on the cement.” She said it this way: see-ment. “Some air will do you good, so let’s not cover it just yet. When you get home put some Mercurochrome on it. Will you make sure to do that?”
She dried me off with a bath towel, then used a small pair of scissors to trim the skin around the wound. Her hair was done in a long braid pulled in front of her shoulder, and it hung down almost as far as my leg.
“Now, Rodney,” she said, “you’ll need to give me those shorts. I’ll sew the seat back together and make them as good as new.”
“Thank you, but I don’t think so.”
“You’re going to need to ride your bike home later on, right?” She laughed now. “You’re a big guy. The police might come and arrest you if you go out like that. We’ll put this towel around you and you go sit in the room with Tater and relax yourself. I’ll have the shorts ready in no time.”
Old rose-colored paper with a flower pattern covered the walls. A small lamp with a canvas shade was burning on a table in a corner. A double bed with a plain spread took up most of the room, but there was a second bed, a single with a wrought-iron headboard, standing against the wall. Over that bed there was a black-and-white photograph of Bart Starr, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. The photo showed him wearing a dark number 15 jersey and pitching the ball at the camera. The picture was signed in ballpoint ink and housed in a metal drugstore frame.
“Nice, huh?” Tater said, standing behind me.
“Better than that,” I answered.
The room was so tiny that only a narrow space about a foot wide separated one bed from the other. “Sit over here,” Tater said. He nodded toward the smaller bed, then sat on the edge of the larger one. “Come on, Rodney. Take a load off, man. You can look at Bart Starr.”
And so I did that, taking in the quarterback in his black cleats, the ball pitched at a perfect spiral. I wondered why a guy Tater’s age would be sharing a bedroom with his aunt. I also wondered why Tater would hang a picture of a white player above his bed when there were plenty of black heroes he could’ve displayed: Gale Sayers, the running back; Muhammad Ali, the boxer; Oscar Robertson, the basketball player; Hank Aaron, the baseball star. The room was finished with a painted chest of drawers, an old wooden chair with Tater’s penny loafers under it, and, hanging by the door, a faded picture of Jesus.
“In case you were wondering,” he said, “I mostly sleep on the couch in the front room.”
“I wasn’t wondering. How’d you get it?” I didn’t have to tell him I was talking about the photograph.
“Bart Starr sent it to me.”
“And why would he do that?”
“Because I wrote him a letter.”
“That’s all it took?”
“I told him he was my favorite player and that I was going to play quarterback for the Packers one day. Next thing you know that picture’s in my mailbox.”
A Negro playing quarterback in the pros? I knew it would never happen, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by saying so.
“Was the car a black Camaro,” he asked, “with stripes and a big antenna coming up out of the trunk?”
I didn’t remember the antenna. “Big white stripes took up the whole hood?”
“That’s it.” He walked over to the chest and opened the bottom drawer. He dug under some clothes and found a pocketknife, which he unfolded to reveal a well-worn blade. “Nobody does that to one of mine and gets away with it. I’ll fix him.”
“How’re you planning to do that, Tater?”
“The less you know the better.”
“You’re not going to stick him with that knife, are you?”
He snorted a laugh that let me know what he thought of the question. “He’s a no-account hoodlum always looking for trouble. Everybody calls him Smooth because he’s just so cool, you know? He can’t stand seeing people get anywhere, can’t even tolerate a nice guy like me having a white friend. You’d be surprised how many other black folks feel that way. It’s not just the whites not wanting us to mix. I’ll wait a few weeks until he won’t think to make the connection, then I’ll pop one of his tires.” He closed the blade and returned the knife to the drawer. “How come you crossed the tracks today, Rodney?”
“I can’t believe y’all couldn’t beat the Steers again.”
“I know.” And now it was my turn to show him something. I reached down the front of my shirt and pulled out Angie’s key hanging from around my neck. “It’s for the lock on the gate to the pool yard. Miss Daigle gave it to Angie so she could go early in the morning and get some laps in before they opened up for the day. Angie’s season is over, and Miss Daigle must’ve forgotten to ask for the key back. I’ve been planning this since the swim meet when you told me you’d never been in a pool before. We have almost three weeks before school starts.”
“Get out of here, Rodney.”
“I already got permission from Mama. Pops doesn’t have to know.”
“You would do that, man?”
“She wasn’t easy. I had to work it hard. I told her it was a gift we’d be giving you. She finally broke down and said it was fine as long as Pops didn’t find out and we went well enough before Mr. Fontenot reported to clean the pool. There was one other thing. You’d have to get the green light from your auntie. Think she’d let you?”
Miss Nettie must’ve been standing outside the door the whole time. She leaned in and tossed my shorts at me.
“Yes,” Tater said, reading the look on her face. “I think she would.”
The night before his first lesson I put a bath towel over my alarm clock to make sure the sound was muted when it went off at 4:00 a.m. Mama had left some cold bacon and biscuits for me on a plate on the stove, and I ate them standing at the sink. I’d worn my swim trunks to bed, and now all I had to put on were a T-shirt and flip-flops. The key to the pool yard hung from my neck. I’d had less than six hours of sleep, but I wasn’t tired at all. I kept working through a checklist in my head of the different exercises I planned to teach him once we got in the water. It was a quarter after four when I heard someone shuffling toward me from down the hall. I was preparing to apologize to Mama for waking her when Angie appeared. She, too, had gone to bed in her swimsuit, although I hadn’t known this until now.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
“I’m going with you,” she said. “I’m the one with experience teaching kids how to swim. You can barely tread water.” There was a biscuit left on the stove. She sat at the table and ate it. “We have two and a half weeks, Rodney—enough time for me to teach him, but not nearly enough for you. Sorry, baby.”
We set out on our bikes a few minutes later, pedaling at the same speed and moving through clouds of bugs that swarmed under the streetlights. The only person we encountered was a newspaper deliveryman making his rounds in a pickup truck. He motored past us, holding the steering wheel with one hand and flinging rolled-up papers from his open window with the other.
We reached the pool and deposited our bikes under one of the bleachers and only about ten feet away from where Tater had been hiding in wait behind a tree. He stepped out and said, “What are you doing here?” It startled us both.
Angie shushed him. “I came to help. I’m the swimmer in the family, remember?”
“If only you knew how much this means to me, Angie.”
“I’m glad,” she answered. “But don’t you think you should lower your voice a little? All three of us could end up in jail for this.”
“There’s not a soul in this park but us,” Tater said, still using his normal tone. “I got here thirty minutes ago, and I still haven’t seen a single car pass by.”
“We have an hour and a half,” I said, whispering despite his confidence. “I checked the news last night, and it said daybreak is at seven, which is also the time Mr. Fontenot comes to clean the pool. We need to be out of here by six thirty at the latest. That’ll put Angie and me at home before Pops gets back from work.”
There was a security light at either end of the pool house, cutting the dark with a yellow-green glow. Angie led us through the gate to the lifeguard station. She and I needed only seconds to strip down to our suits, but Tater’s baggy trunks were under a layer of everyday clothing—long pants and a shirt with buttons, and brogans that needed to be untied. His shorts were new—so new, in fact, that the price tag was still on them. Not wanting to embarrass him in front of Angie, I walked over to him and pulled it off.
“Thanks,” he said. “I kept it on because I thought you might not show. I was ready to return them in case you changed your mind.”
Angie swam a couple of laps to warm up, and when she finished, she came over to where Tater and I were standing at the shallow end. “Are you nervous?” she asked him. “You don’t look nervous.”
“I’m excited. I’ve never been in water this deep.”
“You’ll experience two things when we go out a little deeper. You’re going to be concerned about touching bottom, and the weight of the water against your chest might scare you a little. See those numbers along the side of the pool?” She pointed to them. “That tells you how deep you are. Three is three feet. Four is four feet.” She moved closer to him. “Okay. So the first thing you need to learn is how to hold your breath under water.”
“I can do that already.”
“Then show me.”
“I learned in the tub when I was little.”
She nodded. “Show me.”
And so he did. He went under and stayed down for about thirty seconds. “Good,” she said. “Now I want you to watch closely and do what I’m doing.”
She held on to the ledge and extended her body out behind her, and then she started to kick her legs. Her kicking was so smooth it barely roiled the surface. I imitated the exercise and after studying us a while Tater positioned himself between Angie and me and began to kick.
“Excellent,” she said. “Now give me your hands. I want you to keep kicking, and I’m going to guide you from one side to the other. We won’t go deep. Keep your head out of the water and breathe normally. Stop when you get tired.”
She waited at a short distance with her arms extended out in front of her and her hands turned palms up on the surface. It was sharing the water with him that people would’ve objected to. And their hands touching. Their hands touching would’ve had more men wanting to strangle him. He started to kick and to propel himself forward, and they came together easily enough, and she was moving backward now and guiding him to the other side. They went round and round in this manner, and I lay on my back on the rippled surface and gazed off at the stars in the sky.
“I had me a twin once,” Tater said when they stopped for a break.
She nodded. “Rodney told me.”
“They gave her a name even though she came out already deceased.”
“I’m sorry,” Angie said.
“It was Rosalie.”
“Rosalie,” she repeated.
“I sometimes wonder what she would be like—what kind of person, you know? I never knew her, but I always knew she was missing. I could feel it.” He waited until Angie looked at him. “You could’ve taught her to swim too.”
Even in the strange light from the pool house I could sense a stillness coming over Angie. She went down under water, then immediately came back up, in a move to clear her head, I supposed. “Ready now for the next challenge?” she asked.
“Ready when you are.”
She held his hand and led him out into deeper water until the surface reached halfway up his upper torso, and she showed him how to stroke his arms. He held his hands open as she did—flat but slightly cupped, thumbs tucked—and they walked back and forth from one side of the pool to the other making roundhouse motions against the surface. “You’re a natural-born swimmer,” I heard her say. “Like a Labrador.”
“Like a who?” And then came Tater’s laughter, too loud for comfort, really, as it echoed in the trees toward the barbecue pits. “Better watch out,” he said. “I’ll be racing you before you know it, Angie Boulet.”
“Yes, you will. And beating me.”
And his laughter came again.
I’d left my wristwatch on top of my shirt, and now I climbed out of the water and padded over to the lifeguard station to check the time. We still had ten minutes left and he was already close to swimming. I leaned forward to put the watch back, and in that instant something shot past me on the other side of the fence. It was a jogger, running at a labored pace only about ten feet away. He was wearing heavy gray sweats with the hood of the sweater covering his head. He navigated the sidewalk, then cut over past the bleachers to a path that took him into the trees toward the picnic grounds. When he didn’t slow down, I figured he hadn’t noticed us. I checked my watch again—it was 6:23. If he lived nearby, we could probably expect to see him each morning at about the same time. Most joggers I knew kept to a strict routine.
And this was how it happened. The jogger returned every morning at the same time, a man as routine in his habits as the sun itself. Only the color of his sweats seemed to change as he alternated between gray, royal blue, and navy. We ended each lesson as soon as he ran past us and turned for the trees.
Baseball had brought Tater and me together, but it was those mornings in the pool when we really got close. “I can’t believe how cool he is,” I told Angie as we were riding our bikes home after the first week of lessons.
“Me neither,” she said.
“Sometimes I forget he’s black. It’s like he’s anybody else.”
“Imagine that,” she answered.
As Tater’s swimming skills improved, Angie came up with exercises to push him harder. One morning she removed the leather string from the pool key and tossed the key into deep water, and then she ordered Tater to dive for it. Because it was darker on the bottom than on the surface, he had to feel around for the key and test both his capacity for holding his breath and his ability to remain under. Angie used my watch to time each dive, and she challenged him to better his mark every time he went in.
“God, you’re slow,” I’d say to him when he popped up for air. “Is that the best you can do?”
When he’d heard enough, he said, “Can you do better?”
I’d been swimming since I was five years old, but I still couldn’t match his best time. Not pleased with losing to a novice, I challenged him to dive with me for the key at the same time.
“You mean both of us going for it at once?” he asked.
“Yes. And just to be clear, there are no rules prohibiting interference once we’re in the water.”
I was making it up as I went along. “Uh-huh. In other words, if I want to push or pull you away from the key, I can do it. And you can do the same to me.”
“What if I punch you in the mouth?”
“Sure. That too. It’s anything goes down there.”
We stood a few feet apart from each other at the deep end. Angie climbed to the top of the lifeguard station and lobbed the key in the water, then she called out, “Ready . . . set . . . go,” and Tater and I dove in together.
He beat me nine out of ten times, but I roughed him up enough under water to keep the competition close. “What about you?” he said to Angie, after he must’ve grown bored with winning so easily. “Think you can take me?”
Now it was my turn to throw the key from the lifeguard station, and I did so with what I thought was theatrical flair. Rather than simply drop the key in the water, I posed like a ballerina dancing en pointe, then I segued into a baseball pitcher’s motion as he comes with heat from the top of the mound. The key met the surface with a pa-lunk, and I waited until it had time to reach the bottom before letting them start.
Tater made it interesting, but Angie still dominated. The whole time I watched from high above, their bodies driving through the water side by side: his a dark spear probing the cloudy blue; hers a lighter one.
The winner resurfaced holding the key above her head. The loser pretended to be devastated.
I hated for those days to end, but the new school year was about to start, and it was time to give up the pool and summer.
At home Pops sat by the air conditioner with his paper and complained in a loud voice about “the blacks taking over.” What riled him was desegregation, a story that inspired bold headlines and had white parents scared for their children’s future. While the rest of the country’s public schools had integrated years before, ours were just now getting around to it, and only because the federal courts were forcing us. The situation was more than a lot of white families could accept. Over the summer two private schools had opened for those who refused to let their kids share classrooms with blacks. Rebel flags had started appearing in the back windows of cars and pickup trucks, along with bumper stickers showing the flag and the words “Keep It Flying.” Even Pops had put a sticker on the Cameo. But Mama and Angie had removed it one afternoon while he slept, peeling it off in ragged pieces with butter knives from the kitchen.
Despite his feelings about integration, there never was any discussion about where Angie and I were going to school. We’d turned fifteen on August 12, and we were set to be sophomores at the public high school—old enough to fend for ourselves. Pops might’ve railed against integration, but the truth was he and Mama didn’t make enough money to send us anywhere else.
“Is it true we’re all going to be going to the same school now?” Tater asked one morning in the pool.
“Yes,” Angie replied. “And we’ll also be classmates. I just hope we have homeroom together. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
Tater seemed to find such a scenario hard to believe. “I can remember, when I was little, we would have to step off the sidewalk if a white man was coming toward us. That man could be an unemployed drunk who spent most nights in the jailhouse. If he was white, you had to give him room.”
Our daily adventure in the pool suddenly didn’t seem as daring as it had been when we started. Angie must’ve been thinking the same thing. “If the schools are integrating,” she said, “it’s only a matter of time before the parks do too. And once South City Park opens to black people, so will the pool.”
“Incredible,” Tater said.
Angie looked up at a sky moving from night to day. “I can almost see a time when we eat in the same restaurants and attend the same churches,” she said.
Tater’s last lesson was on a Friday. I heard a soft rain ticking against the house when my alarm went off, making it almost impossible to get up and drag my sleep-deprived body to the kitchen. Angie was already at the table. The rind of a tangerine lay in pieces on an open napkin in front of her. Next to it stood an empty glass with cranberry juice darkening the bottom. No cold biscuits for me today. But I did find a stale honey bun in a paper bag on top of the refrigerator. It must’ve been two weeks old. I bit into it and felt my molars sting in protest.
Tater was quieter than usual when we reached the pool, and I wondered if he, like me, was contemplating the end of our dark, dreamy hours together. He wore a raincoat draped over his shoulders, the bill of his cap poking out from under the hood. He followed us into the yard and we stripped at the foot of the lifeguard station, and then he dove into the deep end, the first of us in. We watched him swim under water all the way to the other end, from twelve to three feet, and he didn’t come up for air once. He touched the wall, then swam back again. I marveled at his athleticism.
Angie had always worn a one-piece suit, but today she was in a bikini, a flowery number that left little to the imagination. She’d bought it only the week before, and when she’d tried it on at home and walked into the living room Pops had told her it was pretty, but sorry, he couldn’t let her leave the house with it on.
“Go cover yourself,” I told her now.
“I am covered.”
“That ain’t covered.”
She looked down at the suit. “But it’s cute.”
We didn’t say much else that morning. Tater and Angie swam laps and dove for the key, but I mostly floated on my back in the shallow end. Tater by now was probably my best friend, but I wasn’t sure about all the other blacks I was going to have to go to school with. It bothered me that Angie and I were part of the generation that was being pushed together with blacks. Why do it now? Why not wait another few years, until Angie and I had graduated and were in college?
I was still floating on my back when I heard the jogger making his approach. He was earlier than usual, but he came up on his regular route, and I lifted my head off the surface and watched him as he ran the length of the fence. He wasn’t running as fast today, and I felt my heart begin to punch against my ribs when he stopped and faced us. He stared out first at me, then at Angie and Tater. We’d made it this far. What were the odds that somebody would catch us on our last day?
He pulled the hood back, and I saw a familiar face. It was Junior Doucet, our baseball coach that summer. I climbed out of the pool and walked over to where he was standing. “So you knew we were here all along?” I asked.
He needed a moment to figure out the best way to answer. “I ran into your mother at the A&P a few weeks ago. She knew I jogged in the park each morning, and she asked me to keep an eye out, since she couldn’t.”
Angie and Tater got out of the pool and came walking over. “It’s Coach Doucet,” I told them, and then Tater repeated his name.
I felt pretty foolish at this moment. We’d thought we were being so daring, when we’d had a chaperone all along. “So you timed your run to let us know when we needed to head home?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
He was facing Tater. “I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job fighting for you earlier in the summer,” he said. “I hope this makes things right between us.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Coach,” Tater said.
Coach Doucet shook his head, as if to say he knew better. “One day I suspect we’ll remember this time and understand just how silly it was.”
And with that he pulled the hood back over his head and took off running down the trail through the trees.
That Sunday under the pecan tree, Pops cleaned a clutter of sacalait on an old cypress worktable. A lone stray calico watched from the shade of the ligustrums nearby. He was using an electric knife to fillet the fish—the same knife he used to carve the turkey at holiday meals. Inside, Mama and Angie made homemade ice cream with fresh cream and chunks of Ruston peaches we’d picked up after church at a roadside stand. I was sitting in the living room, pretending to work on a crossword puzzle. In actual fact I was trying to avoid being noticed because I was feeling especially lazy today and didn’t want them to ask me to turn the handle on the ice-cream bucket. I was using the power of my mind to make myself invisible. So far I’d been successful.
“By the way,” Angie said, her breath thin for all the effort she was putting out, “Julie’s maid told her last night that they would prefer not to be called colored or Negro anymore. She says they want to be called black now.”
“Is that true?” Mama asked. She was chopping a block of ice in the sink with a wood-handled pick. “Who makes these decisions for them? Do they all want to be called black? You’re talking about millions of people. Was there a vote?”
“Julie heard her say it. So remember that at school tomorrow, will you, Rodney?”
My shield of invisibility had been penetrated.
“Rodney? Will you remember that?”
“I’ll remember,” I said. “Whenever I see one, I’ll walk up and say ‘Hi, I understand you’re not a colored or a Negro anymore, but a black.’ I’m sure they’ll appreciate my sensitivity.”
“Rodney, come on, son,” Mama said. “Your turn to crank.”
I was giving it my all—and shaking the whole house—when Pops came in with water dripping from his arms. He’d rinsed the fish scales off outside with the hose but had forgotten to have a towel handy. He held his arms up like a surgeon who’d just finished scrubbing before surgery and was ready now for his nurse to help him get his gloves on.
“You’re going to mess up my floor,” Mama said.
“I know it’s water, Dr. Kildare, but you’ve got fish mixed with it, and you’ll leave little dots where you drip.”
I wondered if there’d be fights in the halls. I wondered if anybody was going to bring knives or guns or brass knuckles. There’d been rumors. One of our neighbors was keeping his daughter home just to be safe, as were a lot of other white parents. I didn’t believe any of the stories, but Pops did. He had me doing curls with a pair of dumbbells to make sure my biceps broadcast a certain message.
Pops had caught the fish that morning, and we had them along with hush puppies, cucumber and tomato slices, and iced tea. We also had the ice cream for dessert and ate it from cereal bowls while watching TV. The news from Vietnam came to us in grainy black and white. My uncle Bay-Bay was there, fighting with the Marines. Pops liked to pretend his baby brother was still working on a crawfish farm in Evangeline Parish, rather than rooting Viet Cong out of tunnels.
He got up and changed the channel. “Ed Sullivan’s still an hour away,” Mama said.
“In that case how about something we can digest by?” he said.
There was a hi-fi console standing along the wall, as big as a coffin. He put a Ferrante & Teicher record on the turntable with the volume turned low, and we ate our ice cream to the whisper of golden pianos.
“Pops, guess what?” Angie said. She didn’t wait for him. “Julie’s maid said they want to be called black from now on.”
I’d hoped we were done with it. She’d caught Pops as he was about to put another spoonful in his mouth. “They do? Who does?”
“Colored people,” she said. “Negroes.”
“They want to be called blacks now?”
“That’s what Julie said.”
“Then we’ll have to make sure to call them something else,” he said.
I kept looking at her. She didn’t acknowledge me.
“When I was a child,” Mama said, “I had an uncle who used to say with utmost sincerity that he had no problem with the opposite race. Isn’t that the most amazing thing? The opposite race . . . I mean, yes, he confused the expression, but don’t you think he was really revealing his true feelings about colored—” She stopped herself. “I’m sorry, I mean black people. In any case, it stuck in my head and here I am mentioning it all these years later.”
“Like there were only two races,” Angie said, “the white one and the black one.”
“Most I know around here aren’t even black to start with, like Simmons at the plant,” Pops said. “They’ve got something else mixed in—what you call cream in the coffee. In New Orleans they call that café au lait. When I was a kid we called that high yellow, but I understand it’s not polite to say that now.” He ate some more and added as an afterthought: “You hardly see any black blacks anymore, the way you would have in the olden days, when they first got off the boats.”
“The boats?” Mama asked. “You make them sound so primitive. But they weren’t the only ones who got here in boats. How do you think we got here? In jumbo airplanes? In air-conditioned buses?”
Angie: “You ever look closely at Tater Henry? He’s a lot like Mr. Simmons—a palette of many colors, all blended together. You even have yellow ochre and umber in the mix. Best of all, there’s vermilion, which I think makes all the difference. True black doesn’t reflect light, anyway, and that young man is positively radiant, so what does that make him?”
“Yellow okra,” I told her. “What the heck is yellow okra?”
Pops got up and turned off the music. “Mark my words,” he said. “This experiment won’t work—this black-and-white thing? I could blame the federal judge that’s forced it on us, but I still say it’s Abra-damn Lincoln who got this ball rolling.”
We knew when to stand up to him and when to let his declarations pass. If he looked overly tired, we let him get away with almost anything, and this day his eyelids were drooping and he slurred his words.
Angie and I finished our ice cream and brought our bowls to the sink. “It’s like he forgets what year it is,” I whispered to her as Pops kept on.
“Not only the year, but the century,” she said.