My mother held her cigarette statue still, the ash growing longer, the ember glowing seductively near the edge of topple. The twilight made her disappear into a gray world lit eerily by the end of the Malboro she pinched between her thumb and index finger, like a man Granny often pointed out. She kept it precariously perched over her lap until I quietly said, “Betty June. Your ash.”
Mama sneered at me for using her first name and warned me to watch my eight year old mouth. She dabbed her cigarette into the kind of outdoor ashtray with a pointed base so it can be staked next to a lawn chair at proper smoking height. The towel she put over her webbed chair so her thighs wouldn’t look like belgian waffles when she got up waved in a slight breeze tickling her calves. She turned back to my aunt, and began retelling the story of when she made a bet with Papa, my grandfather, that John F. Kennedy was a “nigger lover” and that he would not win the presidential election. It was a small wager, and my mother had given Papa a dollar bill with a picture of Robert Weaver pasted over George Washington’s face when she lost the bet. Weaver was JFK’s appointment to the post of Administrator for the Housing and Home Finance Agency. He was also black. It was the same endless story I knew from her so well as I lay on the prickly zoysia grass beside her chair studying her ashes against the fading summer sky.
My father’s family was close knit. We gathered every Sunday afternoon at my grandfather’s house; the adults- all siblings and spouses- sat in a semicircle of aluminum lawn chairs, lounges, and gliders. Papa was always at the center, holding forth as Mama put it. Granny told her that was the pot calling the kettle black.
Some of my cousins played Freeze Tag and Red Rover, orbiting near the edge of the adults. All 12 of them were girls, and despite my best efforts to kiss my elbow and be transformed into a female, which was sworn as effective by my cousin Mickie, I remained the only boy that could carry on my grandfather’s family name. This was a point the girls seemed to take to jealous heart. They were older than me (I was called Baby until I was 11 years old), and they treated me like a toy. Their games were too rough, and the older ones only wanted to play records and talk about boys. A teenage cousin lived with my grandfather and had a large collection of 45’s by Tennessee Ernie Ford. I wasn’t really interested in Ernie or boys. My real love was Christmas carols, but I was forbidden by my parents from singing them or putting them on the record player from December 26 to November 30. So I hung out with the adults, not really having a place with my cousins.
The approaching night felt dark and moist. The grass blades itched like nettles so I got up and sat on the cool smooth concrete step leading up to the low stoop of Papa’s modest ranch house. He had long since moved out of the “big” family home where I now lived with Betty June, my father and two older sisters I swore were adopted from Hell.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see a faint blue glow from my bedroom window. Our house was only a few yards up the road from Papa’s place. I left a night light burning all the time, always with a blue bulb. It kept away the numerous supernatural critters I was threatened with daily. Blue light kept away witches, plat eyes, boogie men, and root doctors according to the maid Korean (her name was Corrine, but everyone pronounced her name with a strong diphthong: KO-ree-uhn). I loved her like a mother and never really thought of her as a negro although she was walnut brown. I thought she was a sort of refugee like the little Cuban girl in my third grade class. Korean was overflowing with tales of monsters and ghouls that got little children when they were being bad or stepping out of line. In her world naughty kids were eaten and good kids were quiet. I learned that lesson and kept silent while with my family that evening, making few comments except about Mama’s ashes. I felt generally safe surrounded by people I knew (even if they were kin) and I had been good all day. Nothing bad should happen.
My cousin ChiChi came running up to me, breathless from the game of freeze tag she was playing with a couple of the younger. “We need someone else to play Ain’t No Boogies Out Tonight. C’mon Baby! Let’s go play!”
I liked playing games, but sometimes my cousins took playing very seriously. Or maybe they were just mean. I could never tell the difference. Bored, I decided hastily. “Mama, can I go?” I said, interrupting Betty June in mid-rant about Martin Luther King being a communist.
She glared at me. “Don’t you go getting in that creek. You hear me? And you best not get filthy!”
Ain’t No Boogies Out Tonight was like Hide and Seek only the people who hid jumped out and chased the people who sought, and my cousins played it like it was rugby. ChiChi scuffed her shoe in the grass. A dog had made a mess near the curb and she had stepped in it. If she was going to be a boogie, I could smell her, take evasive action, and get back to home base. My mother turned to aunt and began talking about desegregation, people knowing their place in life, red birds not associating with blue birds. I was tired of her rants so I got up and followed my cousin to a wooded lot between Papa’s house and our place. There were scrub oaks and lodge pole pines in just dense enough concentration to make it woodsy and mysterious in the fading light.
ChiChi patted a thick pine tree. “This is home base, and these are the boogies,” she said sweeping her hand from her side.
The numbers were against the non-boogies, seven to two, just me and JoAnna, my smallest and youngest cousin. Still she was several months older than me, and several pounds heavier. She was a chicken, coward through and through. The only reason she was playing this game at all was emblazoned around her wrist- an Indian sunburn. JoAnna held on the the base tree hoping that the safety would seep out of it and she wouldn’t have to deal with girls who would take their thuggish roles in the game to heart. She was always pushing her face into a book of fairy tales or some romantic story of a princess and her rescue from evil. This evening she would have to hope her short fat little legs would carry her back to safety, not Prince Charming on a White Steed.
ChiChi called to us from across the lot and patted a tree near the border of my house and yard. “This is the other base, so you have to go from that one to this one!” she yelled as she licked her jowls, her figurative fangs dripping with saliva. She liked it rough and I knew it. Despite the danger, it was an exciting game. The boogies would hide while the victims, meaning me and JoAnna, walked from one base to another. We would sing song chant “Ain’t no boogies out tonight. My daddy shot em all last night.” Then the boogies would leap out and give chase. If we were caught, they would throw us on the ground (after spinning us around to toss us as far as possible) and leave us for “dead” which meant the other girls could run by and give kicks. They were rough, but not entirely homicidal, although ChiChi pushed the limit.
She ran back over to me. “And tonight you got to say ‘Ain’t no niggers out tonight’ and you got to say it loud!” she said. “Your mama wants you to. And I can make you say it whether you want to or not.” She thumped my ear and disappeared into the twilight.
Now there was a loaded word. Korean would tan my hide with her belt if she caught wind of me using it, and she was within earshot at my house. My mother, who used that word on a regular daily basis, would whip my legs with a switch that she’d make me pick out of the bush myself.
“I ain’t allowed and I ain’t saying it,” I said sticking out my chin and firming my feet for flight. I knew ChiChi would run back to squash rebellion. I heard her immediately crashing back through the brush, reappearing just a few yards to my right, between me and the safety of the grownup’s circle. I bolted into the trees.
“You best run!” she screamed. “We starting the game!”
The adults weren’t paying any attention. Betty June was repeating the dollar bet story to my uncle who was guffawing like it was the first time that he heard it.
The lightning bugs were out waving their lanterns over the damp banks of the small creek that cut through the back of the lot. I headed for it. If I could jump the creek, there were plenty of places to hide until Papa stood up and called us in. If I couldn’t, well, there would be any number of childhood tortures practiced upon me. I sprinted through the gray hoping to build up speed.
I smelled ChiChi before I felt her hands grabbing at my shirt. I pumped my arms, forced a burst of speed, and her fingers caught wind. I could see the creek just ahead, the glowing dots of light from the bugs leading my way. I heard more than one cousin approaching, but I was so close I knew I was going to make it.
That’s when ChiChi’s arm came out of the twilight and clotheslined me. I was going so fast that my legs flew out from under me while my chest was spinning on her forearm. “Gotcha now,” she cackled.
By force of sheer terror, I flipped back to my feet and fled from her for the banks of the stream. I pushed off with my left foot and jumped into the air, my right leg cocked and ready to land on the opposite side. Land if I was lucky. I had started my jump a few feet early. As I sailed over the creek I realized I wasn’t going to make it at the exact same moment I landed with a clunk face first in the clay bank. I didn’t even have time to grunt because the wind was knocked clear out of me. It must have looked as if I had disappeared into the deepening evening.
The shadows were long and dark. ChiChi ran up and stared over at the other side of the ditch but could not see details. A bush rustled behind her. “Come out! Come out wherever you are!” she called. I could hear the slyness in her voice even though my face was planted in moist clay. She walked towards the bush where she thought heard me, so I pulled my face out of the clay to take a breath. The wet earth made a loud slurping sound.
“A plat eye!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. I heard her crashing out of the woods towards Papa’s house, followed by the crashes of her minions. They had all been told the tales of Korean too, and believed in the monster that waited in low lying areas to catch and skin people.
The lot went woodsy quiet with the creek, a few crickets, and a croak of a frog. I caught my breath and calmed down. There was mud and sand all over me. “Betty June is gonna kill me! Betty June is gonna kill me!” I said through clenched teeth. The bank was easy to climb and I threw myself to the other side.
“If I run, I can hose off and change clothes and she won’t find out!” I thought. My mother could give out some creative punishments like making me hold hot dish washing liquid in my mouth for cursing or locking me in the linen closet or the cellar for hours for not doing my chores. For this I would probably get switched then made to sit in the utility shed all day tomorrow. My feet flew stealthily over the loamy soil as I raced home.
I ran up the wooden back steps to our house and opened the screen door to the porch. The grayed clapboard sides held two full length porches, top and bottom on the front, and a small encased porch leading creakily into the breakfast nook. The whole thing looked like it should be surrounded by live oaks and spanish moss from some cliche but instead had scrub oaks and pines, and I always thought of a haunted house when I saw it in the twilight.
Korean was inside the kitchen preparing a tray to take over to Papa’s house. She was pressing chicken salad sandwiches in her underarms then stacking them on a platter with a paper lace doily. Each cookie she placed on a second platter received the same treatment. SHe looked up once, as if she heard me, but went right back to her task. I backed off of the porch quietly and ran around to the front to find a hose. I didn’t need her raising a ruckus and giving my muddiness away.
The water was cool but it washed off most of the mucky clay. Cleanish, I slid upstairs and dressed in similar but dry clothes. While I was there I heard the back door slam as Korean walked out to take the befouled snacks to Papa’s yard. The quickest way for me to go was back the way I came, so I once again headed into the wooded lot, now dark as night, leapt over the creek successfully and walked out the woods. My cousins had gathered near the edge of the adults and gawked at me like I had survived Satan himself.
“Did you hear that plat eye, Baby?” ChiChi asked. She held her arms stiffly at her sides and bounced a little on her tip toes. She looked shaken.
I ducked her question (let her sweat) and sat next to Mama. The grass was uncomfortable, and my mother was talking about some negro she had seen driving a Cadillac. “What’s the world coming to? How did he get that money? What nigger has Cadillac money, nearby niggers, I mean.”
Korean appeared with the tray of refreshments.
“Y’all come on now. I made y’all some chicken salad and some those raisin pecan cookies Miz Betty June like.” she said with a broad smile.
“Oh Korean, I wish more of your kind would be like you. We get along fine, don’t we? We never have any trouble out of you!” My mother replied in an overly sweet tone.
“Why Yes, Miz Betty June. We shore do get on fine. Now here you go.” Korean bowed slightly and my mother took a sandwich and three cookies, along with a tall glass of lemonade that I expected had spit or pee in it. I couldn’t say anything without giving myself away.
Korean passed out the food and drink to everyone. I was last. There was one cookie left, and I sure didn’t want it. She held the platter away from me for a moment and leaned into my ear. “I heard you playing with ChiChi and them other childrens. I’m proud you know what’s right. This cookie is just for you.” she whispered. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out another cookie, not raisin pecan, but chocolate chip, my favorite. “Go on now and take a real bath before yo mama finds out and switches yo legs.”