(A preface is necessary here. This is a true story from my childhood and a defining moment in my life. I grew up in S. California. My mother was a real, died-in-the-wool, racist. Not a day went by without hearing the “N” word. In fact, I didn’t even realize “nigger” was a derogatory term until the day of this story.)
It was sweltering, steamy hot. Not unusual for Tallulah, Louisiana in July. It was the mid ’60’s and I was seven or eight. A skinny little thing. I wore a pastel colored, light weight, summer dress made of cotton which was the only outward indication I was female. My mother had a habit of cropping my hair so short that people couldn’t tell I was a girl, which gave the kids even more ammunition when they taunted me and made me cry. I didn’t like being mistaken for a boy. It was truly an embarrassment. I was long and tall with big feet for my age, which my sister enjoyed pointing out, on a daily basis. She said it looked like I had skis for feet. Every part of me was unruly and I was an easy target for bullies. It’s a fact that I spent most of my time, at school, avoiding other kids and finding places to hide away and read books about far away places, where I imagined, someday I would travel to and never come back.
We spent one month of every summer in Tallulah. It’s where my mother was from, but her family was scattered around the state. Her cousin, or I should say, one of her many cousins, owned the biggest hardware store in town. Buster was actually married to the real cousin but once married, you too, were considered blood. Buster was a friendly, outgoing kind of guy. He had a crew-cut and was quick to smile. People talked about how he was a war hero and his wife seemed pretty proud of that fact. He and his wife had several kids, who all seemed to think of me as somewhat exotic, since I came from California. Their youngest kid, a little boy, about four, told me that I had a “Yankee accent” and that people from California all thought they were big-shots. I tried to understand what he meant but I couldn’t get my mind around it. I never thought of myself as a big shot. I thought of myself as someone who would like to disappear.
So, on this particular hot, Louisiana day, I was hanging around the hardware store with Buster’s kids while my mom went out for the day with her cousin, Buster’s wife. They said they were going over to a town in Mississippi to have lunch and cocktails. They dressed fashionably, their shoes and their pocketbooks matched and they talked about how their hair would be a “big, flat, mess” in all that humidity. I watched as they got into the car and my mother’s cousin drove them away.
In the store were several fans with bright colored streamers blowing from them, some on stands and some table top models that were out, on display. These fans served two purposes, the first was to show, just how much cooler you could be if you owned one or two and the second was to, (as my momma put it) keep Buster from sweatin’ his balls off. Buster had strategically arranged them near the cash register where most of the time, he sat on a tall stool and pretended to read the paper.
I liked wandering the aisles of the hardware store. At the back of the store was a long aisle where bins with nails and screws, of all sizes, were sold by the piece or by weight and at the end of that aisle were door and gate hinges and doorknobs and locks. An aisle with household items was particularly fascinating. Cast iron skillets and graniteware bowls, plates, cups and coffee pots. Roasting pans and electric waffle irons and toasters. Dishtowels and hot-pads. Barbecue tools and grills to be put together after you bought them, still in the box. That aisle, was so full of stuff that I never tired of searching it. Besides, it kept me alone, away from Busters kids and their endless questions about California and my short, “pixie” hair cut.
The door to the shop had bells, that jingled whenever it opened, indicating someone was either coming or going. I heard the jingle and peered around the end of the aisle with the household items, to see who had just entered. I saw it was two little colored kids. The older one was a girl my age, who held tightly to her brothers little hand. She wore a starched cotton dress, not too different from the one I wore. It was crisp and ironed. Her brother had on some neatly creased shorts with a bright, red t-shirt. They, like all of us kids, were shoeless. That’s just the way it was, we hardly ever wore a pair of shoes, in the summer in Louisiana. The girl pulled her brother along, through the store, back to the aisle with the nails and screws, where she filled a small, brown paper bag with some small finishing nails. The little boy took advantage of the moment when she let go of his hand and danced to the music that played from the radio. He smiled and clapped his hands. He did the twist right down to the last moment when his sister grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the cash register.
The little girl timidly handed the small bag of nails up to Buster at the counter. The fans with the streamers blew toward them and the little boy turned to face the breeze, holding out his hand to touch the strips of red, white and blue paper that rode the current. “Is that going to be it?” Buster questioned. The little girl, too shy to speak just nodded. Buster weighed the nails “That’ll be fifty cents.”, the cash register made the cha-ching noise and the girl laid two quarters on the worn, green, formica counter top. I had come up close to watch them as they left. The little boy broke free when they got outside, he spun in circles with his arms outstretched and then ran after his sister as she skipped down the sidewalk holding her little, brown sack of nails.
I wished I had been able to follow them. That’s when Buster’s voice broke through the steamy, hot Louisiana air. “Damned, dirty, little niggers.” He strode to the back of the store and brought out a metal tub on wheels with a mop. The Pine Sol fumes made the air even heavier as he swabbed the deck where those two kids had just walked. Busters three kids chanted in a kids sing-song tone; “Dirty, little niggers! Dirty, little niggers!” Buster caught me staring “Them niggers could bring in all kinds of germs on their filthy feet. You don’t want to get sick and die from nigger germs do ya?” I answered “They looked clean to me.” Buster shook his head and called me a stupid yankee.
Busters kids also called me a stupid yankee. I slipped out the back door, into the alley and went in the direction of those colored kids, toward the bayou.
The Bayou was just two blocks from the hardware store and I followed the road over to the other side of the murky water into a tree lined neighborhood of little, wooden houses. Most of them painted white. Along the way, I found a long, skinny stick that I picked up and drug behind me in the dirt. The stick made long, wavy lines between my bare, foot prints leaving a long, serpentine pattern all the way back to the asphalt covered road I had turned off of. Up ahead, I heard someone using a hammer, as I got closer I heard a deep voice, woefully singing a gospel tune that I had heard my mother sing on occasion. I wove my way along the dusty, little road and came upon a big, dark man wearing a white t-shirt and a pair of worn out overalls. He sang as he repaired a gate that he had stretched across a pair of rickety sawhorses. He had a short, yellow pencil behind his ear and every once in a while he would reach into his pocket, pull out a nail and tap it into the gate with a small hammer. Behind him, in the driveway, I saw the two kids who had come into the store to buy the nails, the little one, with the red t-shirt saw me and waved. I stopped, raised my hand and waved.
The man looked up from his work and caught me watching and gave me a big, friendly grin. “I never seen you ‘round here ‘afore. Where ya’ll from?” I hesitated for a moment then answered, “Los Angeles, California.” The big man cocked his head to the side and repeated “Los Angeles, California! I do declare, how come ya’ll are here in this backwater town?” He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his brow. “Well sir, my mama, she grew up here and we come to visit every summer.” He shook his head and thought for a little bit; “You ever see any famous people, movie stars or the likes, where you come from?” I thought for a moment “Well, I watched that guy, Cal Worthington, make a commercial at his car lot once about two months ago.” The man shook his head, “I ain’t never heard of no Cal Worthington.” I looked down at my feet. “Well, he’s on the TV all the time where I come from.” The kids had come up close now and the little girl asked; “You want to jump rope with me?” I said “It’s kind of hot for rope jumping.” She hung her head, a little disappointed. “You like to fish?” I perked up; “Heck ya, I love to fish.” The man smiled and turned back to his work and singing.
The girl disappeared into the garage and came back with a tackle box and a couple of cane poles “Daddy, I’m taking this here can of worms and we’re a fixin’ to go fishin’” she motioned with her eyes at a coffee can clamped under her arm. “Here.” She held out the poles to me and I took them. “You can use one of these poles and we’ll fix that stick of yours for my brother, he don’t care.”
And so, off we went. I carried two cane poles and a long, skinny stick. That little, shy colored girl carried a small, green, metal tackle box and an old Folger’s coffee can full of worms and the little boy skipped and danced along side as we walked toward the bayou and onto a narrow path parallel to the bayou. I said “My name’s Pam” She looked back on the narrow, worn path and said “I’m Natty, that’s short for Natalie. My momma, she named me after a movie star.” I smiled “I don’t know who I’m named after, I never met another Pam.” Natty shrugged, “I never met a Pam before either.” We walked on, the bugs were buzzing and tiny flies swarmed in the shafts of sunlight between the big, old trees. I broke the silence, “What’s your brother’s name?” Natty shrugged, “Oh, heck, that’s Daniel. He’s named after a man in the Bible, the man that was trapped with the lions.” I answered; “Hmmm, ya, I know about him.”
After walking for about ten minutes along the bank of the bayou, we came to a wide spot on the trail and a place that dropped down near the bank. A big rock jutted out and created an overhang in the shady spot where Natty climbed down to. She turned back and whispered “This is a secret fishin’ spot.” She said it in such a hushed and hallowed tone that I was convinced that I was the only other person, on this planet, besides Natty who had ever been there.
(To be continued)