I kicked a little white girl in the head. Her name was Kendra and we were in kindergarten playing a game of Red Rover in an effort to learn each other’s names and I wanted to make a big splash. The other side linked their hands and the teacher led everyone in that sing-song and I was overcome. I was dying to show them all what I could do. When my name was called, I ran toward them determined to break those hands apart and, instead of just bursting through, I decided to do a front handspring. I dived into them, hands first and tumbled so proud of myself in that split second that I was upside down and the hands before me snapped open under my weight to let me through. I landed on my feet, turned around and waited for the applause. But there was no applause. Just screaming.
I was confused at first. Then the teacher grabbed my arm and told me that I had kicked someone. That my foot had connected solidly with young Kendra’s skull. She was inconsolable. The whole class surrounded her and I was told to go sit in the corner. They called my mother. When she came to pick me up, her whole body was in a controlled rage. She spanked my butt on the way to the car as I cried and tried to explain that I didn’t do it on purpose. “It was just a game,” I told her. She told me never to play games around white children. I didn’t understand. It was just a game.
In high school, my friend Vicki never said so much as a word to anyone unless she was directly addressed and, even then, she would answer in the sweetest, softest whispering tones. Listeners would furrow their brows and have to cup one hand around an ear, lean forward to make out what she was saying. Everything about her was alabaster, perfumed, and feminine. She preferred pastel cable-knit sweaters in baby blues and soft pinks with floral-print shirts underneath. She was shy, round-faced, and freckled all over with shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair. She slipped silently through the hallways of our high school from class to class, head down and both arms hugging her books to her chest. She never spoke unless spoken to and when she did, her eyes remained focused on the floor and hidden behind a veil of powder-blue eyeshadow.
Her father was dead. At sixteen, I didn’t even know that anyone our age could have a dead father. I didn’t know how he died. Vicki and her mother never spoke of it and I knew by their behavior not to ask. They never spoke of him, but the tension of him hung in the air of their home as if he had just stormed out after a loud argument. The house Vicki shared with her mother was reverentially heavy with silence. It was set back from the road down a long driveway and was hidden by trees. Everything in the house seemed to be new and unused. I could feel the dead father money. When she would leave me unattended within its walls, I would sneak in and wander through a living room that they never used with my hands clasped behind my back like I was walking the halls of a museum. The room was fussy with plants and flowery furniture, dark even in the daytime: A funeral home with plush carpeting so clean that I knew instinctively to remove my shoes. There was no smell in the house. This was how white people lived. Each porcelain figurine a symbol of how satisfying white life was. It was all so clean and new and it made me feel dirty and suspicious of myself. I didn’t belong there. My family’s house was falling apart. Caving in on itself and ugly as a rotted tooth. A tiny, tumbledown hovel that was always in disarray and wasn’t big enough for the five of us. A house I never felt comfortable in.
On the mantel of their immaculate living room, baby Vicki sat on her father’s lap looking chubby and dazed. His pink face glared at me from inside the prison of the picture frame, serious and angry. He was angry that he was dead, and he told me with his eyes that, if he were alive, I would have never been permitted anywhere near his daughter much less been allowed to cross the threshold of his home. But, death took him and froze him inside that frame. Death had frozen his body but his eyes followed me around the room. And I knew without knowing him that he hated me. The large white hands gently holding his baby ached to be wrapped around my neck. I knew that his absence and his widow’s permissiveness were the only reasons that I was this close to everything he had worked so hard for. His death was the reason why Vicki did whatever she wanted. Her soft voice and shy smile served as cover for a girl who was deeply spoiled. I wished that I had her life.
Our town was divided in two. Black people on one side and white people on the other just like in the Red Rover game. I had been thoroughly warned over the dinner table by both my parents to never play with white children. My mother didn’t trust Vicki. Each time she came to pick me up for school in her new car, I would look up to see my mother standing in the doorway of our home in her bathrobe frowning over her cup of coffee. Vicki would wave and my mother would pretend not to see her; I could feel my mother’s disappointment. She told me outright that I was friends with too many white people. She refused to accept that it wasn’t the 1950s anymore. This was the 1980s and the world had changed. I hated everything about the way I was being raised under the thumb of constant chores and never any money to do anything or go anywhere. I hated the way she never talked to me, never listened. Always too tired and too quick with a harsh word. Always correcting. It wasn’t like this at Vicki’s house. White people raised their children with love and I wanted somehow to “come over.” I was determined to break through those hands and be allowed to join the other team. Red Rover, Red Rover.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances under which Vicki and I became friends. I don’t remember the first time I went to her house, but I knew that her life looked nothing like mine.
Vicki had a relationship with her mother unlike I had ever seen. Her mother was a short, plump woman with the same pale complexion and hair as Vicki and was wholly terrified of her daughter. Vicki spoke to her mother in that soft, whispery voice in ways that I would never dream of addressing mine. She talked back. She cursed. She didn’t ask, she demanded. She dismissed her mother with a forcefulness that bespoke contempt. Each time she did this, I would wait trembling for her mother to strike back but dead father would silence her. Dead father was also responsible for her mother ignoring me. She tolerated me. She said hello and then slunk off to her room and I could feel her wishing that Vicki would find better-suited friends. White ones. She didn’t trust me any more than my mother trusted Vicki. She kept her purse on her at all times in my presence. My blackness frightened her and she regarded me like a lit grenade underneath her roof that she’d rather take cover from than try to diffuse. But, Vicki did whatever Vicki wanted. She took off in that Chevette any time she pleased; chores were the burdens that teenagers like me had to bear. Her mother was acquiescent, handed over money wordlessly into Vicki’s flat palm and then she went to hide in her bedroom. I had never seen anything like it before. If I had ever met any one of my parents’ orders with anything other than silent compliance, I would be sat at the foot of Jesus soon after. They worked all the time yet we never seemed to get any further ahead. My parents existed in varying degrees of irritation and exhaustion and had no time for my adolescence. Vicki had freedom, and I was just happy to get a taste of it.
Her face wasn’t good enough to be pretty. It was as if it almost got there and then gave up a little less than halfway through. She was portly. No white boys ever paid any attention to her. She had no real friends to speak of other than me, and we sat in her room and dreamed of the day we would escape. She wanted plastic surgery and to move far away from her mother. She tried every diet there was but would always end up back where she started. She wore too much make-up. She had crushes on boys who didn’t even know she was alive. I ached to tell her that I did too but was too afraid. But, I felt like she knew. We would sit in her messy bedroom and she would try on piles of brand-new clothes with the tags still on them dressing and undressing right in front of me. Hers were the first breasts I ever saw apart from my own mother’s. Hers were pale and bouncy with big, raspberry nipples. If I’d ever wanted to have sex with Vicki there would have been nothing to stop us what with her mother living in perpetual fear of her and mine living at the mercy of a punch clock. And Vicki had learned how to love black boys because black boys loved Vicki. She asked me once why black boys were the only boys who paid attention to her. I told her that I did not know.
The Chevette gave her the freedom to explore our town’s black areas, hang out in parking lots of the schools with the highest percentages of black boys and those boys sure seemed to think that she was pretty. It was at those times, that her shyness withdrew a little. Her airy voice took on a little more vibrato the more attention she received from them. She kept me apart from her other black boys but would tell me how much of herself she gave to them in the back seat of the Chevette. She would tell me about them as I lived her life vicariously. She drank liquor and smoke cigarettes with them and came home stumbling drunk to destroy her mother’s perfectly situated Hummel figurines in the middle of the night. But, the next day, she returned to innocence. Hair in curls to tell me the tale of smeared lipstick and torn blouses that needed to be replaced with new ones.
We would strut through the Eastwood Mall laughing. She and I went there most weekends after her Friday night adventures. To me, the mall was a castle. An escape from my home where I scrubbed dishes until they squeaked. If you looked skyward at the mall, there were walkways full of people and stores filled with color. There was the bustle of commerce and delicious smells. The chlorinated fountain water roared. This was freedom. I tried to look as casual as I could. I pretended to be normal sauntering around as if I had any money to buy anything when Vicki and I both knew that I didn’t. But, she had money for the record store where we bought our cassette tapes for car singing and the food court where she bought a hot pretzel with mustard. She had quarters for the games in the video arcade. Games I couldn’t afford to play. She gave them to me freely and I played Pac Man like all the normal kids. I leaned into the joystick and buried my face in the screen lit up with flashing ghosts hot on my heels. I maneuvered adroitly around tight corners and made quick escapes as I gobbled up dots and ate power pellets to turn ghosts blue at which time I would launch my attack. The sound Pac Man made was satisfying to my ears like the squeaking of a clean dish, but I was miles away from those dishes and the furnace that always died leaving the house smelling like heating fuel. To be among all this clean was intoxicating and I breathed deep.
We leave the arcade and I spot Duane walking toward us through the crowd. He calls Vicki fat and me a fag at school. He’s spat these words at us in the hallways or, even worse, whispered them to his friends as he passed us before they all burst into a gale of poisonous laughter. He walks toward us and neither one of us shrinks. He is a blue ghost. He gets closer and we can see the look of malevolence in his eyes and I can hear the Pac Man sound in my ears faster and faster. His hatred is bound by the presence of his parents, a fetter by which Vicki and I are unburdened. We are grown-ups. He passes us and I gobble him up for 300 points and Vicki and I giggle at his mother’s fussing over him and he is reduced to a child before our eyes and stripped of all his power. We laugh harder as she grabs my arm and pulls me into a store with bright neon signage. She is in the mood to shop.
The eyes of every sales clerk are locked on me when Vicki and I enter the store. Over time, I have learned to overlook this lack of subtlety. They make no attempt to disguise it at all. They position themselves right on my heels and I maneuver adroitly around tight corners with them hot on my heels. They make no attempt to whisper when they tell each other to “keep an eye” on me which causes me to have to remind myself that I am not a thief. I have never stolen anything that I can remember. I fight to keep my hands at my sides. Sometimes I tease the sales clerks and then I ingest their disappointment like power pellets. I lead them on chases around the store into corners and around the racks like I am Pac Man. I touch an article of clothing and they come striding over quickly and then I move on proving to them over and over again that I am a good person. Eventually, they give up and go attend to others.
I walk to the rear of the store and find Vicki kneeling on the floor and I ask her what’s wrong.
She’s stuffing what look like tank tops into her bag. I look around frantically and no one is watching her. I have been a helpful distraction while she is filling her back pack and now I’ve joined her and put the whole operation in jeopardy. Her thievery appears to be random. She is hurriedly stuffing clothes into her large bag and I am excited to be witnessing this.
“Is anybody coming?” she whispers urgently without looking up at me.
I turn to shield her and see that the clerks are all talking to each other behind the cash register. I tell her that the coast is clear. She is agitatedly waving a swath of red and white striped cloth at me and I don’t know why.
“Put this under your shirt. Hide it!”
This is exhilarating. I don’t think twice about it and stuff the candy cane shirt down my pants so quickly that it feels like someone else is doing it. It is a power pellet.
“Leave before me. Leave now!”
I walk so casually at first that I can feel each individual toe inside my shoes, but my mind is racing. My mouth is dry. My heartbeat is in my neck and I can hear my own breath. The store has lain itself out in front of me like the maze that it is. All racks and corners. I hear the Pac Man sound like squeaky dishes. I hear a drumbeat. Waka Waka. It’s getting louder and faster and my feet want to keep pace but I can’t draw attention to myself. I cast a sideways glance at the shop staff still talking behind the counter and I can see the mall bustling just outside the shop entrance. The last pellet just by the door and when I step over the line into the bustling crowd, I am fixing my muscles to run. I am waiting for alarms to sound and lights to flash and people to come running from all over to apprehend me. But, nothing happens. I blend into the crowd walking quickly until my heartbeat returns to its rightful place. I walk to the food court with a lump of candy-cane fabric in my pants trying to look as natural as possible. I know Vicki will look for me here. I stand nervously until I feel a hand clamp down on my shoulder from behind with force covering it from collar bone to shoulder. A hand that spins me around so fast and with such ease that I swear my feet momentarily leave the ground. I look up into the pink, angry face of the man who has finally escaped the prison of his picture frame.
“They ain’t gon’ call it mischief when you do it. They won’t call it no horsin’ around, no rough-housing. They ain’t gon’ call it no growin’ pains when a black kid do it. You cain’t play games like them white kids do. It ain’t a game out here for you.” I can hear my mother’s words as they march me down the hall. The hand still on my shoulder. All eyes on me proving that I am exactly what they already believe me to be. I walk through mud on numb legs that want to run but carry me against my will down a long hallway where they already have Vicki sitting just outside a room. She has a real policeman standing beside her and my blood runs freezing. My extremities nowhere to be found. Her face is defiant and angry contorted into a scarlet mask of outrage. I don’t see any fear there. My eyes sink to the gleaming white floor while hers stay fixed and alert. Challenging. They take her inside the room first.
I sit in the hallway nervously running my hands up and down my jeans. I hear Vicki wailing inside and the hushed voices of men. She is led from the room crying with the policeman’s hand on her shoulder. She is strangled by dramatic and pitiful sobs and covering her face with her hands. The policeman gives the security guard a nod and he leads her away. She looks back at me with tears in her eyes. I know they’re not real and it sends a chill through me. The look behind her eyes tells me without question that I am on my own. That she has somehow communicated that this is all my fault.
“Take Elvis Presley,” my mother would say. “All they do is use black folks when they wanna be a rebel. They just use black folks when they get tireda bein’ white. When they wanna be ‘dangerous.’ Then they just go back to bein’ white. You cain’t play games like they do. Don’t get caught up in they games.”
I step inside the room (Red Rover) and the spoils of Vicki’s pillaging are laid out on the table like animal guts (Red Rover). I remove the candy cane cloth from my underpants (Let Brian) It is soaked with sweat (come over).
I know that she has made her tearful apologies. Cried. I can already feel that she’s told them it was all me. I know it as I sit here that she is already in her Chevette and headed home. The policeman’s face is pink like her father’s. He shouts at me in a way that I didn’t hear him shout at her. He tells me to leave the mall and never come back. He calls me a “fucking crook” until I cry and wipe my eyes on my shoulders. He ignores my every attempt at defense. Red Rover, red rover, but the hands are locked and no amount of somersaulting will enable me to break through them. They are sealed shut with white girl tears. The security guard and the policeman both lead me to the exit. I don’t even look for the Chevette.
I walk home. It’s a long walk. I picture the face of the policeman and the smug smirk of the security guard. I try to tell myself that I am still a good person. I don’t think that I am.
I picture Vicki driving up her long driveway in her Chevette. When she enters the house, she will give her mother a kiss on the cheek as she sits at the kitchen table. Her mother’s hand will flutter surprised to the spot where her daughter’s kiss hasn’t been felt for so long Vicki will walk to the living room where dead father’s face will stare out at her and assure her that none of this was her fault. That this is what you get when you hang around with “those people.”
And she will be done with all this foolishness. All this blackness. She will be done rebelling and will believe her Daddy for the rest of her life.