TITLE: "The Green House"
By Patricia Sheets
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It's strange, the things that cross your mind at 3:00 a.m. in a hospital emergency
room. On this mid December night the dimly lit waiting area is crowded. There is a
cruel wind blowing, and every minute or so the doors swing open and a gust of brutally
cold air escorts another sick patron inside.
Mom is sitting beside me, waiting to be treated along with at least thirty other people. I've spent a lot of time here since she moved in with me several months ago. She has a chronic illness and her future is uncertain. I would much rather be somewhere else, like at home asleep beside my husband in our warm bed, but I know my time with mom is limited, so I make the most of each moment with her, however and wherever that moment might occur.
Mom rests beside me in a wheel chair, dozing in and out of sleep. Her face is pale
and worn; she looks especially old tonight. During one brief moment of consciousness, she looks around the room and says in a loud, clear voice, "There sure are a lot of colored people in here!" Her ability to reason has been affected by the disease, so she often blurts out inappropriately. I lean over, pat her arm, and say, "Yes, there sure are." Her head rests once again against my shoulder and she quickly falls back to sleep.
A smile creeps across my face as my mind wonders back to an emergency room scene some forty years ago. My memory is of another time, another generation, when Mom was young and strong and I was the one who spoke out of turn.
I spent the early years of my life in a small mining town in western Virginia. The populous of the small community was poor and simple. Most of the men worked in the mine digging for limestone, and the women stayed at home to care for the all-too-many children they reared. Families lived in white clapboard houses that were provided by the mining company as part of a frugal wage. It was a cradle-to-grave community. People were born there, lived there, and died there without ever leaving the city limits. Everything they knew, loved, and hated existed within the confines of that small radius they called home.
My dad worked the night shift at the mine, which meant our days revolved around his sleeping schedule. Five years old, impish, and far too energetic, being quiet was difficult for me. I was no stranger to the wood shed or a "hickory stick" against my backside. On days when I was especially rambunctious and loud, Mom would wrap my baby sister in her arms and we would walk down a dirt road and across a wooden bridge to Janie's, a general store where everyone in the community shopped.
I remember walking the bridge on hot summer days and looking down through the cracks. I was always afraid I'd fall through and drown in the muddy river beneath, so I raced a few steps ahead of Mom to get over the bridge as quickly as possible. By the time we reached Janie's, I would be parched and thirsty.
Mom would buy me a Coke, the kind in the small bottle, and a raisin cake, then sit on the front porch of Janie's and talk to whomever fate sent our way. As I sat on the front porch drinking my Coke, I'd pick all the raisins from the cake and toss them on the ground. I thought they were flies, and I'd die if I ate one. Week after week, I'd pick the "flies" from my raisin cake, flick them on the ground and drink my Coke, never once considering an alternative to the insect ridden pastry.
One hot summer afternoon as we set about our walk to Janie's, a huge red car backed out of a driveway just ahead of us. It was the biggest car I had ever seen. I asked my mom, "Hey, why don't we ask them people for a ride. It's awful hot, and we'd get to the store a lot quicker in a car."
Mom looked straight ahead and kept on walking. "Don't mess with them people. They're the
Greens, the coloreds. We don't mess with no coloreds."
"The Greens?" I shouted. "Why can't I ride with the Greens?"
I had heard about the Greens for as long as I could remember. They were the only "colored" family in town. I had never actually seen them, but everything I had heard about them intrigued me. I
knew they liked fried chicken and watermelon, both things I liked. I knew they smelled funny, but that didn't bother me at all. Jake, my grandpa's dog smelled fanny, but I liked him just fine.
The thing that astounded me most was that they practiced black magic. My daddy said they came from the jungle, where they practiced voodoo and cast spells. From that information, I concluded they could magically change themselves, including their color. In my five-year-old mind, a family of people called "The Greens" who were "colored" must be the color green.
I wondered if they could possibly be green polka-dots, or perhaps stripes, like a zebra. And since they practiced black magic, could they change into any color? I wanted to see these green people and eat watermelon and chicken with them. I was even thinking about asking them if they could cast a spell on my baby sister so she wouldn't cry so much.
When we finally arrived at the store, Janie herself, a large woman with curly black hair and an apron that was always dirty, met us at the door. She whispered to Mom, "Them coloreds are in there, better watch your young'uns." That was another fact about "the coloreds"; they stole children. Now, to my knowledge, there had never been an abduction in this town, not even a runaway or even someone who stayed too long in the outhouse, but for some reason, "the coloreds" were rumored to take small children. I never heard what it was they did with the children, but with witchcraft and the like, I figured they probably turned them into dogs, or cats, which I didn't think was such a bad thing. After all, I had to start school in the fall, and if they turned me into a dog, I'd be off the hook!
Despite Mom trying to hold me back, I bolted through the screen door and ran smack into a pair of knees. Slowly turning my head up, I looked into the face of the first black man I had ever seen. I must say I was stunned by this dark-skinned man but what I really wanted was to see the green people. I ran past the black man and his wife and began to search, but there were no green people in the store. I walked up to the black gentlemen and stood looking up at him, but he turned his head. I walked around him until
I caught his gaze again.
"Hey, Mr. Black Man, you see them colored Greens?" He looked at me with a half smile. "We the Greens," he said, as he and his wife continued shopping.
"You ain't green!" I yelled. My mom raced over to me and grabbed my arm.
"You get on over here!" she snapped.
"But, I want a raisin cake and a Coke!" I protested.
"We got no dime for that today. We'll split a Coke!"
I started to cry. I really wanted a raisin cake. Mom dragged me, kicking and screaming, to the front of the store, sat me in a comer and went to the Coke box. I sat in the comer and sobbed until the Greens came to the counter. I watched them with interest as they paid for their groceries. "Hey, you coloreds gonna buy some watermelons?" I asked through a tear-streaked face.
Mr. Green smiled and winked. I smiled back but quickly became aware that everyone in the store was glaring at me. I hid my face in my hands to avoid their stare. A second later, I heard something drop on the floor beside me, but I didn't look up. When I heard the screen door slam, I figured the Greens must be gone, so I opened my eyes and looked on the floor to find a bright, shiny dime. "Black magic!" I thought. Yep, Mr. Green had made a dime fall right out of the sky and land beside me! Now I could get my raisin cake! I really liked those colored Greens!
That was the last encounter I had with the Greens until later that summer. One a hot afternoon, after Dad had taken the car and left for work, my baby sister became very ill and needed to see a doctor. Mom sent me to get Grandma, who lived just a few blocks down the dirt road, to take us to the hospital in town.
I scurried down the road and ran into my grandma's house. "The baby's sick, Grandma,, and Mom wants you to take us to the hospital."
Grandma grabbed her keys and went out to the old black Chevy, but the motor wouldn't turn. "Go get Mr. Cagle next door to see if he can get this thing running," she shouted.
I hastily started to comply with her request, but in the short distance to his house, I remembered that I wasn't fond of Mr. Cagle. His nose was crooked and he had hair sprouting from his ears. He kept his hands in his pockets, possibly to hide his hairy hands and claws. I strongly suspected he was some sort of
werewolf. Taking matters into my own hands, I ran right past Mr. Cagle's house and knocked on the front door of the infamous "Green House".
Mr. Green was in the back yard tending his garden. He came around the comer of the house. "What you want, child?”
"My baby sister's dying, and my granny's car won't start, and Mr. Cagle might be a werewolf, and we need a ride to the hospital!"
Mr. Green must have interpreted the urgency in the scrambled message. "Wait here," he said as he went inside the house, but I was right behind him. I wanted to see how these green people lived. I wanted to see if they had voodoo dolls or maybe a shrunken head!
As the screen door closed behind Mr. Greene, I pressed my face tight against the mesh. I was disappointed to see that the “green house” looked like any other house except for a picture hanging on the wall. It was a picture of Jesus, exactly like one at my house, only the man in this picture was black. Everybody knows Jesus is white, so who was this man?
As Mr. and Mrs. Green bounded out the door towards the car, I ran behind them. "Hey, why'd you turn Jesus black?" I asked.
“Get in the car, child,” Mrs. Green said. I slid into the back seat of the huge red car and she closed the door. We backed out of the driveway and drove past my grandma, who was still waiting beside the car for me to return. I leaned out the window and yelled, "Hey granny, look at me; I'm riding with the colored Greens!" I'm sure I saw her teeth fall to the ground.
During the short ride to my house, I had a million questions to ask the Greens. "How come you're black sometimes? Can you turn Mr. Cagle into a frog? Can you make my sister disappear? Can you turn me into a princess? 'Cause I really want to be a princess, with a white dress and a crown, and ..."
Child," Mr. Green interrupted, "You talk too much to be a princess. I ain't never seen no child talk so much!"
When we reached my house, Mom was waiting on the front porch with my sister. She stared at the car in disbelief. I got out of the back seat and raced to her. "Granny's car won't start, and there ain't nobody else to take us. You better come on, or sissy's gonna die, and it's gonna be your fault! If she dies, daddy might get mad."
Mama walked to the car. Mrs. Green asked, "Where we need to go, Mam?"
Mama answered, "To the emergency room." Those were the only words spoken until we
reached our destination.
As we walked into the hospital, Mr. and Mrs. Green stayed a few paces behind us, still not speaking. When we entered the emergency room seating area, mama pointed to a seat and said, "Sit there and don't move." I obliged, and she went into a small office to fill out some papers.
The Greens went to the other side of the room and sat with one other black lady. When mama finally came out of the office, there was nowhere for her to sit on "our" side of the room. I though it strange that on this side there was no vacancy, but on the other side, there were empty chairs. Mama stood just a few minutes before a nurse called her. "You sit here and behave 'til I get back, ya hear me?"
I shook my head with every intention of obeying her request, but as soon as she rounded the corner, a young man who looked like a cross between Elvis Presley and Howdy-Dowdy caught my
eye. When he returned my glance, I stuck my tongue out at him, just because I couldn't think of anything else to do. He smiled and stuck his tongue out at me. I wrinkled my nose and made an "oink, oink" sound at him, he did the same back. Now that we had become friends, I asked in a loud, clear voice, "You here 'cause of that big zit on your chin?" He grabbed a magazine and opened it in front of his face, thus ending our brief friendship.
I looked over at Mr. Green, who was laughing out loud, though I couldn't imagine why. I waltzed over as every eye in the waiting room watched. I could sense I was doing something wrong, although I wasn't sure what. Mr. Green looked very uncomfortable as I walked up to him and said, "Can I sit in your lap? I want to take a nap now, 'cause I'm tired. “
I'll never forget the look that came across the big black man's face as I stared into his eyes and waited for an answer. It was a look of despair, hopelessness, and hurt. It was a look that said, "Little girl, I would love to rock you to sleep, but we are not at liberty to break the boundaries set by generations gone by.
"Missy," he said, "blacks and whites don't mix."
I smiled and said, "That's easy; use your black magic and turn yourself green, and turn me pink. Pink and green would look mighty nice together, kinda like a flower!"
The black man's brown eyes were moist and rimmed with red. "Child, this side's for coloreds. You best go on back over yonder to your own kind 'fore you get me in trouble."
My heart was broken. I turned and started to creep back across the room. The entire waiting room had witnessed the scene. One older gentleman smirked as I walked back to the "white side". "Young'un, I think you best stay away from the likes of them coloreds."
In no mood for advice, I retorted, "Yeah, well, I think you're a stupid dummy!" I felt a slap on my backside and my mom dragged me back to the chair she had assigned. As 1 sat there sobbing, the Elvis/Howdy Dowdy look alike winked at me and smiled. "You're right, kid. Pink and Green would look mighty nice together."
I fell asleep and woke up the next morning in my own bed. There was no mention of the prior evening's events.
I never saw or heard from the Greens again. I always hoped to catch a glimpse of my friend when we walked past his house, or maybe meet him again at Janie's. Unfortunately, that never happened.
As I sit in this crowded waiting room some forty years later, I sadly realize that things haven't changed all that much. There are no longer designated areas for blacks and whites. Even worse, we now segregate ourselves by our own free will. With few exceptions, black patients enter the room and congregate to the side with the most blacks, and white people stay in another area with their kind.
The only explanation I have for have this irrational behavior can continue is that prejudice is generational. We tend to believe the information and misinformation passed on to us as children. Ignorance, however, is no more an excuse today than it was forty years ago.
If we are to accept the teachings of our forefathers, we must also consider the words of our Heavenly Father: " The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Gal. 5:14)
God created one race, the human race, in His magnificent image. Cultural differences should enhance our existence here on earth, not provide a purpose for hate. If we pray together, worship together and seek the face of God together, then maybe we can find the wonderment God granted us through our diversity. Perhaps this was best expressed by wise young man with a zit on his nose who said, "Pink and green would look mighty nice together."
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