JANUARY 23, 2012 10:00AM

Whiteness and Witnesses, II

Rate: 4 Flag

 

The lady who runs the art department where I teach kids in in the afternoon put a sign on the bathroom in the classroom, "Clay CLub,  Please use the bathroom in the hall.  -Thanks!"   It made me feel really bad.  I kept thinking of how bad the kids must feel.  How they would wonder what they did to her to deserve that.  But I didn't take it down.  It was her room.  I went straight outside and saw her sitting on the bench.  I sat down and asked her, "What did the kids do to your bathroom?"  She said, "I just got tired of them leaving finger prints on the mirrors and leaving splash marks.  And last week someone used the last of the toilet paper and didn't replace it."  I and the kids don't know how to replace the toilet paper.  Diluted clay splash marks don't appear until hours later when they dry and I have gone home.  She had said I should clean up after them weeks ago and I had looked in for towels on the floor and a flushed toilet.  I had wiped clay from the outer and inner door.  She never said anything else to me about it, just put up the sign.  I didn't understand.

 

I woke up from the dream huddled and crying, not a good sign.  For the next three days, I felt out of sorts and kind of strange inside.  Not like when I remembered the physical abuse, that always made me feel nauseous.  But bad, like a storm was brewing in my heart.

 

Slowly, the dream revealed itself.  I was playing with a sibling in the backseat of an old car, one with vinyl seats.  They had power rangers and were having them all fight, but they were all wet.  I saw my mother and her daughter come walking back to the car.  My mother was upset.  They said we would have to wait til we got home to get some food.  I started crying because I was hungry and didn't want to wait.

 

My son went for his first long visit with his little friend.  They went to local Dairy Queen arcade with me on the last outing and it was very lame, most of the games did not work, and the only toy to redeem for were old fashioned army men.  Kathy was taking them to "MacDaddy's!," a real arcade with games that work and that shake you inside and cost a lot per "ride".  I was good with that, though and Kathy was good with it, too.  I had taken her boy out for pizza and chicken and crappy arcade action.  We are just both happy that the boys have found each other at their new school and that they are becoming friends.

 

The mother was in the passenger seat and was almost crying.  The daughter was getting set to drive and gave some food to her daughter next to me in the backseat.  They kept flashing back and forth between my mother in law and me, my mother and my oldest sister Jackie, my friend Kathy and her daughter, and my mother and her old friend, JuneBug.  That was it, it was her and JuneBug, but they had not been friends for over 30 years with moving and deaths interfering.

 

The boys had a great day at the arcade.  They bowled, they ate, they played everything, twice.  The arcade gives out little plastic cards now instead of coins, so they spent about $40 between them on entertainment.  Kathy was great.  She has a good job and so she can afford it.  I provide what I have toward the sitting deal between us.  Jeffery plays with the boys and we cook and play in the pottery studio.  Seven year olds are easy to entertain.

 

The power rangers morph into a little whee-giddy, a whirly gig toy with a little man made of twigs that dances when you run a rod along the stick that holds him.  My little friend has one and I am enjoying watching her make him dance.  I don't have a toy but it is ok because she and I share our toys and play well with each other.  She is not my sister, but our mothers work together at the sewing factory and all of our siblings are in school.  We are under five and it is definitely 1971.  I can't see over the back seat of the car.  It is a car with bench seats covered in new smelling vinyl.  June Bug's car.  We were coming back from Wilson, North Carolina, where they had gone shopping to get some fabric to make us dresses.

 

I leave the sign on the bathroom door for about a week.  Time enough for all the teachers to see it and for the art teacher to get her fill of describing how we leave it a mess and I do not clean up after them.   But also time enough for  the newly attending minority students to see a sign telling them to use the other bathroom.  That last finally got to me so badly that I took the sign down and put it on her desk with a yellow post it saying, "We won't. -Thanks!"  It has not returned yet.  The kids love the chance to work with clay and it is worth a little bullshit to make it happen.  

 

The place we've stopped to eat is near the old rock quarry.  Pa and I had been there many times after fishing to get a cheeseburger and a cold Pepsi.  They had YooHoo as well and I really liked that.  We always sat at the counter where the stools swivelled around.  I would just go a few inches back and forth as Pa didn't like it when I went all the way round.  He had one leg ever since an accident chopping wood when he was about nine.  He really loved to fish and took us there and out to Camp Charles.  He always folded his pant leg up in his belt and used a crutch instead of his wooden leg because he got that when he was young and he had gotten smaller and smaller as he got old.  It didn't fit any more and he didn't see any real need of a new one.  Same with his teeth.  Sometimes, he would show it to us and snap the knee closed just as we put our finger into the joint, just like with his false teeth!   Pa was awesome.  I liked the place with the counter and little cups of ice cream with the tiny flat wooden spoons.  I could not read the signs because I was four.

 

We are waiting in the back seat of June Bug's new car after a big trip to the city to buy fabric for new dresses.  We are sitting outside in the car instead of going inside like Pa and I usually do.  Amanda is playing with the whirly gig and I am clapping along in time as the little man dances.  Amanda stops as two men approach the car.  It's new and they came over to inspect it.  We were told to stay put and not get out no matter what.  The men start rolling cigarettes as they walk around the car slowly.  The young one looks at us in the car and says, "What's that white girl doing in the backseat with that little nigger?"

 

The boys are riding back home after a hard day of school and then arcade and bowling and after finally eating pizza in the diner at MacDaddy's.  His little friend is half black, just like the POTUS.  His mom and grandmother are driving my son into town where Jeff and I are having dinner and waiting to pick him up.  His friend falls asleep and my son is over-tired, it is dark,  the car is new and strange,  and he cannot see where they are going.  He is ready to come home but doesn't want to say anything to Kathy.  He is trying to be a good guest.  He starts to cry.  By the time they have dropped him off with us, he is really unable to stop and as he crushes into my arms, he says, "I just missed you guys so much...."  He had had a long first big visit out to a strange city, got too tired, and was ready to go home.  We took him home and assured Kathy that she had not done anything wrong and that I would call her tomorrow.

I freeze in the backseat of the car.  My friend Amanda stops rubbing the toy with the stick and the little man stops dancing too.  The older man says, "Her?  That's Barbara Wells' daughter.  She's just trash like her mama.  She done had five kids off different daddies.  This sure ain't her car, must be June Bug Weeks'.  I heard she done got a new car but I didn't think ol' man Stone would sell her one.  Maybe now she can eat outside like she ort to.  I shouldn't have to eat long side the likes of her no how."  They look up and move on to their truck.  I lose my water, wetting my dress and the new vinyl seats.  Amanda's little man starts to dance.  The water puddles in the grooves of the seat but I can't do anything about it.  I start to cry and can't stop.  I didn't know.

The sign outside the door said, "Coloreds".  There was a drinking fountain outside and a door that led to the other side of the kitchen.  You could see through the pick-up window through to the counter on the other side.  Blacks where allowed to buy food at the window, but they had to eat outside in their cars.  There's no rule like that now, but it's still how people do it at Parker's in Wilson in 2012.  Whites pick up at the back door too now, though.   The old diner on 64 near Sims is a junk store, closed most of the time.  

June Bug had just come out of the colored door with a brown bag, two drinks, and hot cheeseburgers.  Barbara had come out of the regular door with nothing.  They saw the men and frowned and got in the car.  June Bug says, "They wouldn't sell you no food?"  Barbara says, "They said I had to eat inside. They don't sell carry out on that side."  "I can go back in and get you something..." They hear me crying in the backseat and my mother turns and sees the wet on the seat.  She's angry and looks straight up to the men walking away.  She says, "What did they say to you, Bay?"  Amanda looks at her toy and keeps making him dance furiously.  I can't stop crying.  I am ashamed.  I can't talk.  I didn't know I was trash.  I didn't know.

 

 

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Comments

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Masterful and painful to read.
Yeah, I felt that way too.
This is sad, and hard, and beautiful, like shards of obsidian in the sun. The writing reminds me of Dylan Thomas, circling round and round his subjects in bursts of poetic prose. I'm so sorry for those hard words so long ago, and for the hard thoughts that are here still.
not the "masterful", but publishing anything and especially this after so long absent made me want to vomit, and it was painful to remember and write.

Thanks for reading.
The sign at school was a happenstance, a trigger of a memory. The teachers clean their own bathrooms and we were making a mess and not cleaning it up. Part of the irony of the story, a meaningless sign and a meaningful one.

That bit was hard to work in. It triggered the whole memory. But I did not want to imply that the sign at school was like the sign back then. Writing is sometimes a tightrope when you consider who will read it as you edit. But the impressions you leave are your responsibility when you make art and should be well considered and edited for clarity.
Choppy and hard to follow like dreams really are. I felt that I was inside the dream too and I felt the pain and the nastiness and the shame. Well done.
Simply wonderful. Excellent way to weave the sign that triggered the memory into the story. Made me cry.
I'm totally with you, on the triggered memory - you handled it beautifully. It didn't need to have any of the intent of the other; the simple existence of a sign, carrying avaguely similar message, was more than enough.

I like, very much, the very slow realization that the friend is black, and the narrator is white, but stigmatized. The story reveals itself so gradually, in layers surrounding the narration.
This is very encouraging. I was confused about what to do with this memory and then I remembered that I write. I am a novice writer, though. I am glad the feelings got through the words.
wow. you made me cry, then sign up for Open Salon. thanks for sharing your experience and your memories. i don't know what to do about the feelings they've evoked in me, but I certainly won't be as hesitant about challenging insensitive signs left in bathrooms.