Archive for July, 2010

Nothing Changes

July 16, 2010

Part I

Hody crept out down back through the window to the tenement fire-escape. The pale November sunlight extended its fingers between buildings as downtown Detroit dawn awoke. When Hody hit the ground, he stepped into an inky shadow and vanished.

Seven weeks later, Belen Palariet, puzzling over the nausea she felt each morning, realized she hadn’t had her period in some time. A few months later, May 14, 1940, she gave birth to a boy. She named him Harold Ickes Palariet, after his father and the Secretary of the Interior, a name she had heard repeatedly on the radio. She thought of abandoning the baby and sneaking out of the maternity clinic. But when she stood she found legs made of butter. The attending OB told her this baby had torn her womb and there would be no more.

Harold progressed like a sidewalk weed; the stench-filled winds blowing him this way and that. Winters brought deep but filthy snows with grit and soot embedded in the ice crystals. Summers were heavy, humid heat stifling to breathe. The smelly, squalid streets of the city were hard taskmasters for young Harold.

He gravitated toward the contemptible gangs of inner city Detroit, along with other fatherless boys. Harold was fine-featured, like his father, and attractive to girls. He had a cocky devil-may-care attitude that enticed easily-persuaded maidens. He lost his virginity at age thirteen to Tawdree Gibson, a twenty-year old professional associate of his mother. The result was an over-inflated ego and boldness beyond his station.

Belen found she had difficulty disciplining her son.  She had been raised in the Deep South where girls mattered little except for their abilities in bed. It was the only skill Belen had mastered. She had left the emptiness of Dixie behind to seek her fortune with Hody in the Big City. But girls who eked out an existence lying on their backs were much too numerous.  The Michigan State Department of Public Welfare paid for groceries and the occasional reefer, though.

“You go to school today, li’l Hody?” Harold hated that name.

“No, Ma, why I want to go to school?”

“To get a education so’s yo’ c’n git somewheres.”

“Shoot! I’ll git somewheres my ownself.”

“I thought that once but look at me. I ain’t got nothing!”

“Yo’ got about a hun’erd boyfriends. Someday I gonna have me a hun’erd girlfriends!”

“Make sure yo’ charges ‘em enough! Haw haw!”

In the August when Harold was fifteen, Belen decided to visit her mother in Louisiana. She reasoned it could not be hotter than Detroit, but she was wrong. A three-day, stifling bus ride later they arrived in Scraggsboro, Louisiana. The tiny shotgun house in Darktown had once housed twelve children, but then, the girls didn’t count. With sweat drooling off her, Grandma Chlorindy Palariet resembled a badly tarnished, burnished brass Buddha.

Harold was fond of wearing a brown derby hat jauntily slouched over his left eye. He affected a red silk shirt and a purple sport jacket. Dark tan, saddle-stitched, pegged-pants and patent leather boots completed the outfit, but marked him as an inveterate city slicker. The other boys, shirtless and in tattered denim overalls regarded him curiously. Another Yankee thinks he’s hot, they thought. Worse, his grandmother Chlorindy could not stand his looks and attitude. She expected men to be hardworking and honest. This boy was not maturing to her satisfaction. He reeked of the men who had corrupted her daughter. She blamed Belen for that. Chlorindy barely tolerated Harold’s presence, a judgment which made Harold ever-more rebellious and belligerent.

“What’s dis chickendung boy? He old enough to hold a job? He don’t look like much in that fancypants get-up. Humph!” Chlorindy played the matriarch and as such was accustomed to giving orders. “Fetch us some kindlin’ fo’ da’ cookstove, boy.”

Harold knew not “kindlin,’” but when he found out it was located in the woodpile where dog-sized spiders lurked, he refused. His grandmother whacked him on the side of his head with a piece of the wood. It sent his hat sprawling.

“Tomorrow we gonna set yo’ up choppin’ cotton. Git some good L’uzee-anna red clay under them sissify nails. I hopes yo’ brought workin’ clothes. Now gits the table set for the noon meal.” Harold sat with arms folded across his chest, his protruding lower lip pursed into a pout.

“Take off that dam’ hat and sit up whiles yo’ eats yo’ dinner!”

Marinated crab claws, fatback, collards and crawfish pie in the middle of the day were not Harold’s idea of scrumptious, comfortable cuisine. Defiantly, he spat out the latest mouthful onto Chlorindy’s spotless table cloth. That elicited an explosive outpouring of vitriol from his grandmother.

“Wha’ the. . .Belen! Discipline that brat of your’n!”

Harold pretended not to notice. But he understood her stature in this neighborhood, something his mother lacked.

“You ain’t but a good-for-nothing priss. Spittin’ out good food I done slaved for? I never seed such a useless pile of horse-crap! If’n yo’ was my boy I’d have had yo’ straight by now. Go set in a corner som’eres til yo’ c’n be tol’ated by polite c’mp’ny. Shuh, no account sumbitch.”

Stung by the scalding scolding, Harold stormed out. The screen door, held to shut on its own by a skinny, shiny, black spring, was pushed wide open. By the time the door slammed closed, Harold was halfway to town, the brown derby hat propelling him along like a topgallant sail. The palpable humidity formed a living, gray mist that moved menacingly across the sun; atop the moisture sat great glowering cloud clods.

Scraggsboro had an elevated splintery-board sidewalk. The purpose was to keep its citizens from slogging ankle-deep in a river of mud that the dirt road turned into during the frequent, violent, torrential rain-and-thunder-storms. In a dark, petulant mood, angry at his mother and grandmother, Harold walked without seeing, his derby hat and his sullenness interfering with sight.

An aristocratic woman, hair the color of spun glass, came toward him. As she went past, the toe of Harold’s boot caught the tip of her cane and she nearly fell. She swung around and began a vehement, vituperative tirade. She went on with this castigating denunciation for an entire five minutes.

“Shut up, you nasty old whore!” Harold finally spat out. He swung an open hand at her, but she was deft with her walking stick. She blocked his threat, but the crook of the cane caught her crimson crepe-de-Chine blouse and ripped it down the front.

“Rape!”

Harold stood aghast. He hadn’t really touched her.

“Rape!” she cried again. “Help! Rape!!”

A crowd had begun to assemble. Harold Palariet was noticed and identified as a stranger. He bolted like a field pea flung from a fork. But a breach of etiquette was inexcusable. Eyes watched when Harold ran home to Chlorindy’s house.

After midnight, men wrapped in bed-sheet robes broke through the screen door leaving the skinny black spring sprung. They found Harold’s bed and two strong men lifted him by the arms beneath his shoulders and carried Harold Palariet into the woods. They knew nothing about him except the color of his skin.

Part II

Chick Awp chose to live in Poison Spider Gulch, Arizona because it was seventy miles from the nearest person of dark-hued African heritage. The Gulch was a settlement of thirty unpainted, disheveled, splintery-wood plank buildings nestled in the desert undulations. The searing white-hot sun sent exploring fingers between rocky columns to sprawl dark shadows on the ground.

Chick’s wife, Peetra, had given birth to a son she named Christian, on May 14, 1940. Chick ‘n’ Peet, as the couple were gender-ambiguously known, had no other children.

“Miz Awp! Miz Awp!” It was Skipper Phenol, aged five. “C’n I see your rooster?”

“What rooster are you talking about, Skipper?”

“You know, everyone says go on over to the Awps and see ‘Chicken Pete!’”

“Christian! Come play with Skipper.”

Streaked with high thin clouds the sky was the color of boiling water. Stones, rocks and giant boulders were reduced to shimmering Jell-O sculptures. Twelve year-old Christian searched for shiny black beetles which he placed in a mayonnaise jar, much to the delight of Skipper. Then dust-devils began to appear; yellow columns of swirling sand, they coalesced into a rolling mass of dust-cloud and obliterated the sun for a few seconds like a malevolent, living being.

“Christian!” It was Chick Awp this time. “Why do you have that boy out in the wilderness when a storm comes up?”

Rushing into the house for protection, Christian received a stinging swat from his father’s belt.

“I swear, boy, you ain’t got the sense of a road runner! Now clean up that child and throw out them bugs! I catch you out in storms ag’in, I’ll make it worth your while!”

Chick Awp and the desert were hard taskmasters for young Christian. There were no other boys his age in Poison Spider Gulch and few girls. A loner, Christian Awp retreated into books from the County Library. He often became so engrossed; he was unaware of the stifling heat, sometimes reading for hours with perspiration dribbling from the tip of his nose.

On Christian’s fifteenth birthday, his father said:

“You’ll come to the mine with me this summer.”

Chick Awp worked in the Cardinal Copper Mine outside of Paramount, Arizona. The work was hard and dusty with the heat unbearable. Christian came home one blistering evening head-to-toe in dust. The only girl worth looking at in the Gulch was Desiree Harple. She laughed when she saw him, hard enough to throw herself into a choking spell. Chick Awp laughed, too.

“Good thing it ain’t coal mining, haw haw, or wouldn’t you look like somethin’?”

But weeks later he said:

“You ought to quit that school and come work for Cardinal with me. The pay is good and we could sure use the money. I’ll sign papers to git you out of that high school, you being fifteen and all. You’d like that wouldn’t you, boy? Ninth grade is more’n I went.”

“I can’t work in that mine, Daddy. I want to go to college and study to be somebody.”

“College! Hell if I’ll pay for no college!” A stick of wood was by Chick’s elbow. He picked it up and began wailing into Christian. “You’ll do as I say and like it!”

That August, 1955, Chick Awp had found a two-week old Phoenix newspaper with a front-page story of a lynching in small-town Louisiana. After reading the account, Chick bought several bottles of whiskey and went on a two-week celebratory bender.

The discarded paper was blown by the scorching Arizona wind to behind the barn where Christian found it. The lurid account was accompanied by a photograph showing a burned and unrecognizable figure suspended by the neck from a tree. An unscathed derby hat had been placed jauntily on the seared skull. Pointy headed men in white were holding old-fashioned home-made torches of torn rags soaked in kerosene and wrapped around tall sticks. The tongues of flame threw gruesome shadows on the charred body, delineating the desecration of a boy the same age as himself. Christian, consequently, vomited; partly from the ghastly scene and partly from the first cigarette he was trying.

Christian Awp, with his reading background, developed into a good student with a bent toward writing. After graduation from Cholla County Consolidated High School, he managed to gain entrance to Arizona State University, where he studied Journalism.

In the summers, he was reluctant to return to depressing Poison Spider Gulch and instead traveled to sweltry Mississippi and Alabama to join other students protesting civil rights abuses. He earnestly wanted to aid the downtrodden, but there was also a rebellious streak in him to oppose anything his father espoused. He marched, arms intertwined, with Roy Wilkins and Julian Bond.  He sang spirituals while listening to the strident voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. He became a Freedom Rider in 1960 and joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.

In the summer of 2010, Bond organized a fiftieth-year reunion of SNCC and Freedom Riders to be held in New York City. Hotels in the City were too expensive, so Christian Awp stayed across the river in Northern New Jersey. On Tuesday, he walked from his motel to a nearby McDonald’s for lunch. The fast-food establishment was mobbed with students from the local high school. Christian ordered his meal and meekly took his paper cup to the fountain to get his drink.

A fifteen-year old girl, her hair done up in narrow corn rows that led to braids weighted down with colorful beads was talking on her cell phone and not paying attention to any other thing. She appeared to be undecided as to which soft drink to select. After a few minutes, Christian tried to move past her to the cola vending machine. In the crush of the crowd, the tip of Christian’s boot accidently raked across the naked back of the sandaled heel of the girl. She wheeled on Christian and began a violent, vituperative tirade. She went on with this castigating denunciation for an entire five minutes.

“Quiet, you stupid girl!”

“Who yo’ calling ‘stupid?’ Huhn?”

Christian raised his hand in defense, but it accidently brushed her breast.

“Rape!” the teen yelled. “This pervert is trying to rape me!”

The large group of students became silent. Christian Awp was noticed and identified as a stranger, but a breach of etiquette was inexcusable. Eyes watched as Christian returned to his motel.

After midnight, boys from the Tombz gang coerced the night maid to surrender her pass-key card. Dressed in the white bandana head-wraps signifying their turf, they entered into the room of seventy-year-old, professor emeritus of Sociological Journalism, Dr. Christian Awp. Strong hands lifted him by the arms beneath the shoulders and carried him out. They knew nothing about him except the color of his skin. . .

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