TITLE: Hart & Soul, Part VIII: A Night to Remember
By RENEE GREENE
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When we arrived, the boys were marched off to the annex across from the church, and we were sent to the meeting hall just outside the Sanctuary. We prayed together, played Ol' Maid, a hand of Spades, Tunk, Rummy, snacked on Ding Dongs, Hos Hos and Little Debbie's, then took turns with the record player. Carolyn looked at me funny when she saw my record collection, so I told her my parents were musicians--my dad was a sax player and my mom played piano. The one thing they did do was instill in us a love for all types of music by love of sound rather than who the recording artist was. This was one night they were going to have to take me like I came to them, or not at all. We all took turns and swapped back and forth between black and white artists until they announced it was time to meet the guys for Bible Study. No one really wanted to do Bible Study, but it was mandatory. After all, we were in church.
I found out that Denise and Carolyn were members of a Baptist church who had never heard of AME. They found out I wasn't certain if there was a God, really. All I had ever heard in church was about a babe in a manger, a sweet little Jesus boy that no one knew who He was--according to Sister Bryan--the AME Songbird of the South, and a young boy around my age who disappeared into the synagogue one day to "teach the elders," and told His parents He was "about His Father's business" when His mother, Mary, asked Him where He had been all morning. I recalled wondering why He was allowed to smart off at His parents; but they tried to explain that He simply told His mother, who knew He was Messiah from birth, that there was no place else He could possibly be.
The lieutenant lady teaching the class was saying something about a Jesus I didn't recall hearing about at St. John. After Sunday school, and on fourth Sundays when we marched up to beautiful zion--the children's and youth choir to "This little light of mine," or "Yes, Jesus loves me,"--right after prayer, and before altar call, our minister's entire sermon consisted of talk about the Civil Rights Movement, the shameful dwindling membership of the NAACP and SCLC, how the black community was shirking on its responsibility to Dr. King, how the children were coming to disrespect all the movement was meant to be and accomplish. We needed to stand strong, maintain the course, and carry on the work of the Baptist preacher from Atlanta, he said with a mighty fist and an edge in his voice, as if he just might "whoop" and lean over the podium so far that it would nearly fall off and crash into the altar railing itself. I rarely saw a Bible in our preacher's hand, except to read a couple of scriptures before the sermon; then he spoke from his heart, or a pad of notes he clasped at the podium. All his messages seemed to be centered around the black community. Maybe talking about God and the Bible at that point was a luxury and a privilege.
The Jesus they were talking about at the moment was a grown man who went about healing the sick, raising dead folks, teaching a gospel of salvation and asking people to turn their eyes toward eternity before it was too late. I listened intently, then the talk ended with a question and answer session. A few adults and a couple of kids asked questions, but the young folks' minds were clearly on getting back to the real reason they had come--to have fun. Who is God? What is sin? Why are we born? My ears perked up at that one--why indeed?, I had wondered that many a day myself. Sitting between Denise and Carolyn,who seemed to lack any interest at all in the current discussion, I sat up to listen. Though they didn't give any answers I truly understood, it was interesting to know that other people had the same questions as me. For a long time, I thought I was the only one who wanted to know, or who even cared.
With that overwith, we all retreated back to the big meeting hall for snacks, then we were challenged to a game of kickball, volleyball, and softball by the guys. They had been playing football all day and were looking for something else to do. As night neared, the happiness I had felt all day began to dissipate. Was I going to go ahead with my plan to scandalize my family to these "white" folks so they could call the authorities and have me taken away? Skipping out against my mother's permission was one thing, but lying on them was another. For some reason, a tinge of guilt and despair slowly began to replace the anger I had felt since leaving home earlier that morning. I was going to have to go back home in the morning and face the music. Something tugged at my heartstrings. I wanted to ask them to just take me back to the house. I wondered if I should feign illness and demand to be returned to 529 18th Street, but the next thing I heard was campfire, weenie and marshmallow roast, and a game of Powder Puff against the guys. Miss Fun came back to check in with me and told me to forget about it for the night and just enjoy myself. Tomorrow would come soon enough. I could worry about tomorrow on tomorrow.
After the powder puff challenge--the girls won, natually--the sun set and all the guys got together to start the twig and leaf campfire for the marshmallows and hot dogs. My mallows kept falling off the stick and into the glowing cinders below. A guy walked over to me and introduced himself. Mike. "Hi, Mike."
"Can I show you how to do that?," he asked.
"Sure," I generously allowed. I apparently didn't know what I was doing and it showed. He likely went camping and did fun stuff like that all the time. He grabbed a marshmallow out of the bag and handed it to me with the stick, which was now burnt to a crisp on the end from all my fledgling efforts. He broke off the tip of it, then stood behind me--a little too close for my comfort--but I was trying to see how he cooked the marshmallows and kept them from falling off the stick.
He held my hand and gently moved it over toward the fire, pushing the white fluff directly into the flames. Shoot, I thought it was just supposed to be heated. I felt warm breath blowing down my neck, and a slight prickly rush of the fuzzies on the back of my neck met his breathing. For a quick second, I began to sense this guy was trying to kiss me on my neck, or something dumb like that; but I convinced myself it was just my imagination. Running away with me. He came closer, clasped my fingers into his, and described the way the white stuff would drip into the black ashes below and once the malllow turned black on the outside, it was ready. Burn it? How was I supposed to eat a burnt marshmallow?
"It's only burnt on the outside," he said. "Just let it cool for a second." I did, and he came even closer, mocking the steps I made to pull away, as we both watched the marshmallow stop glowing, meaning it was warm enough for me to pop in my mouth, so he said. He reached for it with his fingertips, ooched and ouched like it was burning, then told me to open my mouth as he tossed it in.
I was beginning to feel odd...bad nerves I told myself while the soft gooey warm mallow exploded across my tongue and started to melt inside. Was this guy trying to insinuate something? Did I need to suspect him of being overtly racist? Was anyone watching this white guy standing so close to me? Was I imagining things again? I was known for being a person who liked to tell stories. I liked telling them and writing them. This absolutely was not happening the way I thought.
I turned quickly to look at his face for some sign that he was being mean with those overblown "marshmallow" insinuations, some expression of guilt that he thought he was dealing with a dumb black girl that he could slickly insult without me knowing he was doing it. But there was nothing on his face except a slight smile, and a twinkle in his greyish-blue eyes. The quarter moon was bearing down on his face between the pine trees in the yard, and it was then that I really paid attention to him instead of the marshmallows. I inched away from him as I discovered maybe it wasn't my imagination--the guy had cuddled close to me intentionally, of that much I was certain. I didn't notice when everyone else started heading toward their respective doors for the evening. I was too busy shaking nervously and wondering what to do with this guy who seemed to like me, but he couldn't possibly.
The fifth, and last, marshmallow that he roasted while holding my hand was dropped into the dying fire that had just been put out. That fire was going and a new one started to blaze within my soul. My skin felt breezy cool, prickly hot, what someone would have called flushed. If I had been white, I'd have turned beet red. He smiled at me again, touched my cheek, and began moving backward toward the boys dorm as he heard his name being called to come on in. Now.
I headed toward the girl's dorm, walking just as backward as he in the opposite direction. No way, I told myself, as I watched his twinkling eyes disappear into the dorm building. He waved at me as they closed the door. Maybe they thought he was waving at one of the white chicks in front of me.
Nah. That wasn't it. He was just being friendly, I figured. I was certain he was just as friendly to everyone he met, he seemed like a nice enough guy. And cute. He looked better than Donny Osmond to me, at least at the moment. As far as white boys went, the cutest ones to me were Donny Osmond. Bobby Sherman, and David Cassidy; but I would never tell any of the girls at Claflin that--they had already found one reason too many to laugh at me and make me feel foolish.
Carolyn caught me at the door. "I saw you talking to that white boy."
Me? I clasped a bosom that I just noticed was starting to grow since the initial pain and pressure and subsequent itching in my chest had subsided. No...I stammered. I was...actually, he was...I didn't know how to, you know...the marshmallows...they kept falling off...he was showing me...
Carolyn laughed at me, again. "Yeah, right," she said. "I saw the whole thing--and that smile on his face wasn't a 'I just want to be your friend' smile. Get inside here before they lock us out, honey chile." She mocked me with her right hand flinging all over and smacking her lips against her teeth. At Claflin, they would have played the "she's got a boyfriend" mocking thing with me, but this boy was white and I didn't want anything more made of it than it was. I could get in serious trouble for that kind of thing. Killed, lynched, beaten to death, stoned even. Races didn't mingle down south, I knew that much; and if Carolyn was right that he was coming on to me...oh, God. I suddenly felt nauseous. The fact that I had been flattered by any boy paying attention to me, which surprised even me, was overcome by the fact that he was white, and it just wasn't possible. Nope, I imagined the whole thing and that was that.
Caroyn let me use some of her toothpaste, and I got a good look at myself in the mirror for the first time in my life. What in the world could he have possibly seen? My skin was a sort of Indian red that glowed orange when I stood under direct sunlight, my hair wasn't bone black--it was a sandalwood brown that bordered closer to black than brown, I had hazel colored eyes, dimples in my cheeks, and that darn Elizabeth Montgomery cleft in my chin that I had inherited form my mother. It often made me ill thinking of the many times I had been told I looked just like her. I didn't want to look like her. She wasn't so ugly outside except when she was smoking or came home drunk, or when her mouth took on a life of its own and she had nothing nice to say about anyone or anthing. Inside, however, I wanted nothing to do with her. I knew I would rather be dead than to be like her.
Carolyn said nothing else about the guy--Mike; but a light knock on the locked door distracted us. The lieutenant lady looked at Denise, standing on the other side, and scowled, "Where were you?" Denise told her she was walking around and lost track of the time and the woman grudgingly let her in.
When she sat down next to her sister, she whispered a slightly different story. She had really been out in the woods out back with Travis--one of the only two black guys. I put my hand over my mouth in that silly way Carolyn had told me to stop doing numerous times, as my eyes widened, "Oooh!" She had lied to the lady. In church of all places.
"Shhhhe-ush!," she said, frowning at me. Our attention was quickly diverted to the sheets that were being draped around the room, the flashlight, and the lights being shut off: Ghost story time.
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