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. I wanted to make a big splash. The other side joined hands, and as the teacher led everyone in a singsong voice I was overcome. I was dying to show them all what I could do. When my name was called, I ran toward the other side, determined to break those hands apart. Instead of bursting through, though, I decided to do a front handspring. I dove into the other team hands-first and tumbled, so proud of myself in that split-second.
Then 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. The teacher grabbed my arm and told me I’d 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 shook with 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.
In high school, my friend Vicki never said so much as a word to anyone unless she was directly addressed. Even then, she would answer in the sweetest, softest, whispery tones. Listeners would furrow their brows, cup one hand around an ear, and 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-printed 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, head down while both arms hugged books to her chest, unnoticed like a gossamer ghost too afraid to haunt anybody.
There was no smell in the house. This was how white people lived.
Her father was dead. At 16, I didn’t know someone our age could even 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 his presence 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. When she left me unattended within its walls, I would wander through a living room they never used, hands clasped behind my back like I was walking the halls of a museum. There was no smell in the house. This was how white people lived.
The room was fussy with plants and flowery furniture, dark even in the daytime. It was a funeral home with plush carpeting so clean I knew instinctively to remove my shoes. On the mantle, 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 allowed to cross the threshold of his home. But death froze him inside that frame. The large white hands gently holding his baby ached to be wrapped around my neck. Death had frozen his body, but his eyes followed me around the room.
I knew without knowing that he hated me. I knew his absence and his widow’s permissiveness were the only reasons I was this close to everything he had worked so hard to build. His death was the reason Vicki did whatever she wanted.
My mother didn’t trust Vicki. Each time she picked me up for school in her new car, my mother would stand in our doorway in her bathrobe, frowning over a cup of coffee. Vicki would wave and my mother would pretend not to see her. Our town was divided in two: black people on one side and white people on the other, just like in the Red Rover game.
At the dinner table, both my parents thoroughly warned me to never play with white children. The games white children played, they cautioned, were not games in which I was ever to take part.
Every time I climbed into the passenger seat of Vicki’s car, 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 she raised me under the thumb of constant chores. I never had any money to do anything or go anywhere. I hated the way she never talked to me, how she never listened. She was always too tired and too quick with a harsh word, always correcting.
At the dinner table, both my parents thoroughly warned me to never play with white children.
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 even then that her life looked nothing like mine. The home she shared with her mother was set back from the road down a long driveway and hidden by trees. Everything in it seemed new and unused, and I could feel the dead father money. My house was falling apart, caving in on itself and ugly as a rotting tooth. It was a tiny, tumbledown hovel that wasn’t even big enough for the five of us. Vicki had her own car, a Chevette which may as well have been a Camaro. It was an ugly brown color but had a cassette deck and we turned the volume all the way up. At my house, we only had one car, a rust bucket that broke down on the side of the road every other week. It was a cringeworthy hooptie my mother used to pick me up from band practice. And then there was my mother with her slumped shoulders and tired expression, the woman for whom I was nothing more than something else she had to do.
Vicki’s relationship with her mother was unlike anything I had ever seen. Her mother was short and plump, with the same pale complexion and hair as Vicki. She was wholly terrified of her daughter. In that soft, whispery voice, Vicki said things to her mother that I would never dream of saying to 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 the dead father would silence her.
The dead father was also responsible for her mother ignoring me. She tolerated me. She said hello and then slunk off to her room. I could feel her wishing that Vicki would find more suitable 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, one she’d rather take cover from than try to defuse.
But Vicki did whatever Vicki wanted. She took off in that Chevette any time she pleased. Chores, to her, were burdens only teenagers like me had to bear. Wordlessly, her mother placed money into Vicki’s flat palm before going to hide in her bedroom. I’d never seen anything like it. If I had ever met one of my parents’ orders with anything other than silent compliance, I would be sitting at the foot of Jesus soon after. My parents worked all the time, yet we never seemed to get any further ahead. My parents existed in varying degrees of irritation and exhaustion, and they had no time for my adolescence. But Vicki had freedom. I was just happy to get a taste of it.
I was determined to break through those hands and be allowed to join the other team. Red rover, red rover.
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. Because of this, no white boys ever paid attention to her. She was too portly. She had no real friends to speak of, other than me. And so 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 makeup. She had crushes on boys who didn’t even know she was alive. I ached to tell her that I did, too, but I was too afraid. Still, 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, dressing and undressing right in front of me. Hers were the first breasts I ever saw, apart from my own mother’s. They 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 — not her mother, who lived in perpetual fear of her, or my parents, who lived 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, to hang out in the parking lots of schools with the highest percentages of black boys — and those boys sure seemed to think she was pretty. When she was around those boys, her shyness withdrew a little. Her airy voice took on a little more vibrato. 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 drank liquor and smoked cigarettes with them. She came home stumbling drunk and destroyed her mother’s perfectly situated Hummel figurines in the middle of the night. The next day, she would return to innocence. Hair in curls, she’d tell me tales of smeared lipstick and torn blouses.
We would strut through the mall, laughing. She and I went there most weekends after her Friday night adventures. To me, the Eastwood Mall was a castle, an escape from a home where I scrubbed dishes until they squeaked. If you looked skyward, you’d see walkways full of people and stores filled with color. The bustle of commerce and delicious smells. The echoing fountains. This was freedom.
I tried to look as casual as I could each time we entered the mall. I felt so normal sauntering around, as if I had money to buy anything — Vicki and I both knew I didn’t. But she did. Enough for the record store where we bought our cassette tapes for car singing and for the food court, where she bought hot pretzels 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 so I could launch my attack.
The sound Pac-Man made was satisfying, like the squeaking of a clean dish, but I was miles away from those dishes and the furnace that always left the house smelling like fuel. To be among all this clean was intoxicating. I breathed deep.
One day, we’re leaving the arcade and I spot Duane walking toward us through the crowd. At school, he calls Vicki fat and me a fag. He’s spat these words at us in the hallways or, even worse, whispered them to his friends, resulting in gales of poisonous laughter. He walks toward us and neither one of us shrink. He is a blue ghost. He gets closer and we can see the look of malevolence in his eyes; I can hear the Pac-Man sounds in my ears, faster and faster. His hatred for us is written all over his face but he is bound by the presence of his parents from expressing it. He passes us and I gobble him up for 300 points and Vicki and I giggle at his mother’s fussing over him. He is reduced to a child before our eyes, 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 as 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. I maneuver 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, at which point I 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 that I am a good person. Eventually, they give up and attend to others.
I walk to the rear of the store and find Vicki kneeling on the floor. I ask her what’s wrong.
She’s stuffing tank tops into her bag. I look around frantically but no one is watching her. I was a helpful distraction while she was filling her backpack but 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 the clerks talking to each other behind the cash register. I tell her 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 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 is 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. I walk quickly until my heartbeat returns to its rightful place. I walk to the food court with that 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, 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 is still on my shoulder. All eyes on me, proving that I am exactly what they already believe me to be. I walk through mud 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 are 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, and the policeman’s hand is on her shoulder. She is strangled by dramatic and pitiful sobs. She covers 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.”
This is what you get when you hang around with “those people.”
I step inside the room and the spoils of Vicki’s pillaging are laid out on the table like animal guts. I remove the candy-cane cloth from my underpants. It is soaked in sweat. I know she has made her tearful apologies. Cried. I can already feel that she’s told them it was all me. As I sit here, I know she is already in her Chevette, 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. The security guard and the policeman both lead me to the exit. I don’t even look for the Chevette.
Red rover, red rover, let Brian come over. 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.
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 I am still a good person. I picture Vicki driving up her long driveway in her Chevette. She will give her mother a kiss on the cheek as she sits at the kitchen table. Her mother’s hand will flutter to the spot where the kiss landed. 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 “those people.” And she will believe her Daddy for the rest of her life.
An earlier version of this story was published in The Coal Hill Review.