The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Things are not always black and white. Sometimes they are the color of love.
Erthelene Carter ground out her soggy cigarette butt in the ashtray on the kitchen table. It wasn’t much of an ashtray or kitchen table either, for that matter. They both came from the Salvation Army thrift store. The red plastic-topped table with scratched chrome legs cost five dollars and the heavy white woman at the checkout counter gave Erthelene the ashtray for nothing, because it was cracked.
“Here, girl,” the woman said, shoving it toward Erthelene. “This is a freebie.”
Erthelene didn’t like being called “girl.” She was forty-four. She didn’t like the forced smile on the woman’s face when she said it, either. They both knew what it really was: a white woman’s way of reminding a black woman that she was black.
Erthelene had dealt with that old cherry all of her life, just like she dealt with chiggers in the grass and white boys who pulled their dusty jeans tight to show her a hard-on as she passed on her way home from work.
Some girls from the mill lingered a while in the narrow alleys and open doorways of deserted buildings, for a quick way to make a few dollars, crumpled and sometimes sticky. When you were a black sharecropper’s daughter in Opalville Georgia, at the beginning of the twentieth century, school was a place where white children went to be educated. Black children, like Erthelene, got educated in the streets or in the dusty fields under a burning sun, with gnats and horseflies for company. Erthelene worked barefoot in the sandy soil alongside her two sisters, in worn calico slips, made by Mammy Johnson, her maternal grandmother.
Dirty dishes filled the sink. A dented pot stuck up beside a plastic iced-tea glass covered with pink polka-dots. Erthelene stared at the sink after putting the cigarette out. She told herself to get up and wash the dishes, get up and do something. You’ll feel better if you move around.
“Shake loose those blues,” Mammy Johnson used to say. “Don’t just sit there and hold the devil’s hand.”
The dish water was hot and felt good. Erthelene looked down at her dark mahogany, calloused fingers, turned grey by the water. “It wouldn’t hurt to file your nails either,” she thought.
A shrill cry interrupted the numbness of Erthelene’s mind. It was a high-pitched cry, the cry of a child. A small window over the sink was dusty and rain-streaked but she could see the weather-worn trailer next door with the screen door hanging loose.
Erthelene could also see a tall heavyset white man with pointed, lizard-skin cowboy boots and the woman standing beside him. A child clung to her waist, a boy of about seven or eight, a thin, tow-headed child, wearing bibbed overalls and no shirt. The woman kept yelling, “Let go, honey. You’re going to get me dirty,” trying to pull the boy’s arms from around her.
“Don’t go momma, please, don’t go,” the child pleaded, panic in his quivering voice. “Don’t leave me, I’m scared at night.”
The man reached down, grabbed the boy by his arm and shoved him to the ground. “You’re a sissy boy,” the man taunted. “Scared of the Boogey Man?” Then he took the woman by the arm and led her out of the gravel parking lot, both of them laughing as he slid his hand up under the back of her skirt.
Erthelene watched the boy lying on the ground, his head resting on his outstretched arms. She listened to his faint sobs and after a while, watched him slowly get up and go into the trailer next door. When she looked down, her hands were trembling, the fingers closed tightly around a well worn paring knife.
“Sure were some fancy lizard boots,” she thought to herself, “too good for what’s wearing ’em.”
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen