It’s hot again today. It’s always hot here though, in the summer time. That’s because we live in the desert. I used to think they were saying dessert, like what you eat after your dinner but it isn’t the same thing, it just means that it’s hot and there aren’t very many trees. Instead of trees there are stickery things called cactuses and sagebrushes and other pokey things that you don’t want to run into or they’ll hurt your legs. I remember where we used to live before this when I was really little had lots of trees. It had so many trees that you couldn’t even see the sky in some places, and our house had grass and flowers and my momma even made some stuff to eat out in the yard and you could go and pick berries off some bushes that also had stickers but weren’t cactuses. And there was a horse that lived across the street behind a fence and I could go over and feed him some carrots and stuff. That was in California. We came here because my daddy has trouble with his breath and he felt sick all the time in California. We used to live in a bigger house there and my daddy worked at the car place fixing cars but now he works at the gas station. My momma didn’t go to work in California but now sometimes she has to go and clean some people’s houses and that’s her work. She only does it sometimes but she looks tired all the time. My cousin Linda says that we’re poor white trash now but I don’t know what that means. Sometimes I wish we could go back to California but most of the time I like it okay here. I was too little to have any friends there, but here I have a lot of friends and we can play out in the desert by our house if we’re careful and look out for snakes and bugs with stingers on them. And don’t fall on the stickery bushes.
The people here look different than the people looked in California. Here some of them have brown skin and even more browner skin and different hair, and my friend Laurie Lee whose momma and daddy own the seven eleven has really skinny eyes and her momma and daddy are from somewhere really far away called Ko-ree-uh. My momma showed me where that was on the big colored picture she has in a book that shows the whole world. My daddy was in a war there before I was borned and Laurie’s daddy told her that my daddy was a hero like John Wayne in the movies but when I asked my daddy about it he wouldn’t tell me if it was true. He doesn’t like to talk about it much. Laurie talks just like me but her momma and daddy talk funny and I can’t hardly understand them. They’re nice though. Laurie teached me how to play a game with marbles and a board with holes in it, and her momma gave me these long sticks that they eat with. They’re called chopsticks which is also a song that my friend Rayleen can play on the piano. She gave them for me to keep and take home and they’re really pretty with pictures on them, but I can’t eat my dinner with them yet. I kept trying for a while but then my dinner was getting cold and my daddy made me stop trying. My momma said I should put them away so they’ll stay nice and I can have them for a keep sake.
My other best friends are Steven and Maria and Rayleen. Steven looks like me because he has yellow hair and blue eyes and his skin isn’t very brown. He has six brothers who are older than him and his brother says he shouldn’t play with girls all the time because that means he’s a fag. We don’t know what that is, but Steven never listens to his brothers anyway. They’re all boogers and really mean to all the little kids that are in first grade like us. Steven doesn’t have a daddy, only a momma, and I’ve hardly ever seen her. She’s always gone to work at night and then she sleeps in the day and Steven isn’t allowed to go in his house at all. My momma lets him stay in our house a lot and Rayleen’s momma lets him stay in their house and that’s good because we can play all the time.
Maria is really pretty and she has long black hair and she’s browner than me and Steven but not as brown as Rayleen. She’s Mexican and her momma and daddy can’t speak any English so they have to always have Maria or one of her sisters or brothers tell them what people are saying, and then they talk in Mexican and Maria tells us what they said. It takes a long time to talk to them but they are really nice too and Maria’s momma makes little cookies she fries in a pan and puts stuff on like my momma puts on cinnamon toast. She gives us this milk stuff that tastes kind of funny but I drink it because my momma says it’s manners and you have to have manners no matter what. I think everyone’s momma must tell them that because I know Maria doesn’t like white milk either but she drinks it when my momma gives it to her. When Maria’s little sister had her birthday party I got to go and they had this donkey made out of paper that Maria’s daddy put up in the tree and her momma put a blindfold on us and we tried to hit it with a big stick. When Maria’s cousin Joe finally hit it really hard it broke open and candy came out all over the ground but we could still eat it because there was wrappers on all the pieces. That was the best party I’ve ever been to except my own birthday parties. Those are even better because my momma always makes us do really fun things.
Rayleen is my very bestest friend in the whole world. Her skin is the darkest of all of us and her hair is really weird but still pretty. Her momma puts braids all in it and I asked her to put braids like that in mine too but she laughed and said that it wouldn’t look right in white hair and anyway my hair was so soft and pretty that I should leave it down so people could see. I don’t like my hair though. I wish I had black hair and when I’m big I’m going to get a box of stuff like my momma puts in her hair and make mine turn black. And I wish I was brown like Rayleen too but no matter how much I stay outside all day I never get that brown. Rayleen is really smart and knows all the words to lots of songs and teached us how to dance to them like the people on TV. Rayleen is going to be a singer in a group like the Soo-preems when she’s big. Her daddy works at the gas station all day and then sometimes at night he works in a group playing piano. That’s how come they have one in their house and her daddy is teaching Rayleen and her brother to play songs on it. He said he would teach me too but I’m scared it would be too hard and I would feel shy, even though I think I know how to play some of it from watching Rayleen. Rayleen’s momma and daddy are friends with my momma and daddy and in the summer we get to sleep over each other’s house almost every night.
Rayleen’s momma and daddy are really nice and her momma hugs me a lot and calls me Baby Doll and always gives me candy and my momma says she is going to spoil me. But my momma does the same things to Rayleen so I don’t think she really cares. My momma and daddy go to see Rayleen’s daddy play in his group sometimes at night and we stay at their house and Rayleen’s big sister Ronda watches us. Rayleen has a baby sister named Patty and she is so pretty and fun to play with, only it isn’t really her sister it’s Ronda’s baby. Mrs. Washington who lives next door to them and is the meanest lady on our street said to me and Rayleen that Ronda is a hore and she’s going to end up just like Steven’s momma. We don’t know what a hore is but the way she said it we didn’t think it was nice and when I asked my momma what it means she said if she ever heard me say that word again she would skin me. I hate Mrs. Washington. She is brown like Rayleen but she says to me that I shouldn’t be playing with little niggers or we’ll both come to no good. Nigger is another word that my momma would skin me for saying. She says it is a worse word than damn even. One time when I was at the store with Rayleen and her daddy I heard a man call them that and her daddy was mad for the whole rest of the day.
Last year we were all in first grade but when we go back to school we’ll be in second grade and that’s good because we won’t be the second littlest kids at school any more. It was good last year because we weren’t in kindygarden any more but this year will be even more good. But it’s a really long time before we have to go back to school, more than three weeks my momma says, and all we have to do is play all day.
Steven and Maria and Rayleen and me got to walk to the seven eleven today by ourselves to get ice cream. It’s only a few houses away and if we promise to be good and watch before we cross the street we get to go sometimes. Rayleen and Steven and me were playing in her house this morning and we wanted to go really bad because we had some dimes from taking our pop bottles back to the store on Saturday.
“Go ask your mom can we go,” Steven says. He always says mom because momma or mommy is too much like a girl would say.
“We can’t axe her now, we has to wait until her story be over or she get mad and won’t let us go at all.”
“When is it over?”
“It be over when it’s the beginning of the hour, you know that. Then we has to run in and axe her quick or another story start and she be watching that one then.”
“Let’s go play with Patty until it’s time.” I always want to play with Patty. She’s like a doll only better because she’s alive and laughs all the time.
“Nah, she be sleeping, we can’t wake her up or momma’ll paddle us. Let’s dance again and act like we the soo-premes.”
“Can I wear your shoes again?” Steven likes wearing the red shoes with the really big heels that Rayleen’s momma gave her to play with.
Rayleen has her own record player and she’s allowed to play it whenever she wants as long as it isn’t too loud. I don’t have my own record player but I’m allowed to play my records on my daddy’s if I’m careful. I have Alvin and the Chipmunks and Mary Poppins and some other baby records. Rayleen has good records. Some of hers are really big records and the covers they go in have pictures of the groups on them. They’re all brown like she is. She says that it’s called are and bee and that’s what she’s going to be when she’s big, a are and bee singer. They get to wear really pretty clothes and have their hair made up all the time. Steven said once that me and him and Rayleen could be in a group together but she said that we couldn’t because we’re white and you have to be black to be in a are and bee group. I don’t know why they call it black because to me Rayleen doesn’t look black. She just looks brown.
When the story is over we run in to ask can we go to the seven eleven to get ice cream. Rayleen’s momma is folding the clothes she brought in from the clothes line.
“Will y’all be careful and come right back with your ice cream?”
“We promise, momma.”
“And don’t y’all be talking to anyone either, just get the ice cream and come right home.”
“Yes momma, we will.”
Her momma looks at me and Steven funny and I don’t know how come because she never looks at us like that unless we’re in trouble.
“And don’t y’all be listening to any trash anyone be saying to you, hear me? People is just ignorant, remember what I tell y’all.”
We all say yes, we’ll remember, even though we don’t know what she means. Grown ups say a lot of stuff and we don’t know what they mean. But I wish I knew why she was looking at us like that, like she’s sad about something. I can’t remember anything bad that we’ve done that she might have found out about.
We start to run out the door but then we remember that Steven still has on the red shoes and it makes us laugh really loud.
“Shush! Y’all wake that baby up and I’ll take a switch to you,” Rayleen’s momma says. “I don’t know about y’all sometimes, you is crazy things. Boys in high heeled shoes, does y’all think you be that Miltun Burrull off the television?” She’s smiling at us when she says this so we know she isn’t mad. This makes us laugh so hard that we have to put our hands over our mouth while Steven runs back to get his thongs, even though we don’t know who Miltun Burrull is.
When we’re walking down the hot sidewalk Mr. David and Mr. Blummer come out of their house too.
“Hey little ones, is it hot enough for yooz?” Mr. Blummer always says the same thing to us, except not in the winter when it’s cold. Mr. Blummer is in a wheel chair because he lost his legs in the same war my daddy was in. I used to think that meant that he put them down somewhere and then couldn’t find them but that was when I was a stupid little kid. Now I know that it means that someone made his legs fall off with a bomb. I asked him one time if it hurt and he said he never could remember it which is a good thing I guess. Mr. David is his friend and he is blind which means he can’t see anything, not even in the bright sun like today. But he didn’t get blind in the war, he was blind when he was a little baby so he’s never seen anything that he can remember. I think that would be very weird but he doesn’t seem to mind it. He says that him and Mr. Blummer are a perfect set because he can push and Mr. Blummer nab-a-gates, whatever that means. They are always nice to us and give us dimes sometimes, but Steven’s big brother says that they are fags and they will go to hell. I wish Steven’s brother would go there sometimes.
“Where are yooz off to? Does your mudders know where yooz are?” Mr. Blummer asks us. He always says yooz instead of you and other funny things and my daddy says it’s because he’s from New York.
“We’re going to seven eleven, Mr. Blummer. To get ice cream. Rayleen’s mom said it was okay. Lizzie’s mom is at work today and my mom is asleep.” Steven always answers when people ask us questions because sometimes he acts like a bossy boy.
“You kids be careful now and don’t talk to anyone you don’t know,” Mr. David says.
“We won’t,” Rayleen says. But we all look at each other funny because the grown ups never say stuff like that if we’re just going to seven eleven. Mr. David and Mr. Blummer go off down the sidewalk toward the bus stop and we start walking to seven eleven.
“How come people keep saying weird stuff to us?” Rayleen asks.
“I don’t know, grown ups are weird.”
“Hey, maybe there’s a si-koe killer going around killing little kids!”
“Shut up Steven, there is not.” Rayleen punches him in the arm. Steven watches too many scary movies at night because his brothers don’t make him go to bed.
“There could be.”
Mrs. Lee is working at the counter when we go in the seven eleven.
“Hi Mrs. Lee. Where’s Laurie?” I ask her.
“She go stay with grandma. Camp in mountains, walk all over in big trees. Come back next week.”
That’s funny because she never told me she was going to visit anyone. Mrs. Lee gives Rayleen a funny look like she always does. I don’t think she likes her because she never lets Laurie play at her house or anything. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t like Rayleen though. I don’t think Rayleen’s momma likes Mrs. Lee either because she always looks mad when she talks about her and one time she called her a word like jinx only not that and it sounded like another bad word to me.
We have enough money to get two ice creams to share so it takes a long time to decide which ones to get because Rayleen and Steven always fight about it. I like almost everything except banana popsicles so I don’t care what we get as long as it’s not that. While we are deciding, a man comes in and starts talking to Mrs. Lee and after a minute he gets so loud we can hear what he’s saying all the way over to the ice cream case.
“Them niggers will burn up this place just like they’s burnin’ up el lay,” he says. “Goddam niggers, they should just go in there and shoot all of ‘em. Teach all of ‘em a lesson because they’s gettin’ real uppity.” My momma would spank him for sure, because he just said three bad words right there and he looks real mean too. I look over at him and he’s awful ugly. His clothes are all dirty and he looks like someone my daddy would call a bum. The way his face looks when he says that word, nigger, I know why my momma says it’s even worse than damn. His face looks like it almost hurts to say that word he’s so mad, but he still just keeps saying it anyway.
Mrs. Lee looks madder than him though. “You go way now! No start trouble my shop! Go on! Outside!” Her voice sounds really funny when she gets mad, squeaky like Alvin and the Chipmunks and sometimes she talks in her funny language really fast.
Rayleen and Steven look scared and I feel scared too. We don’t know why that man was saying all that stuff and why Mrs. Lee is so mad at him either. We grab two ice creams and go up to pay so we can go home.
“No no, you take. No pay, just take. Go home quick. No talk that man, go home now.” She’s looking at Rayleen when she says this. “Solly! You shouldn’t hear, little girl. Bad man. Bad man.” Now I feel really scared because Mrs. Lee never talks to Rayleen.
What were they talking about?” Steven asks when we get back outside.
“I don’t know. They scared me though.”
“Grown ups are crazy,” Rayleen says. “Bugshit crazy.”
“Rayleen! That is a bad word you said!”
“I don’t care.” She looks really mad now, but like she might cry too.
“Let’s go home,” Steven says. “Grown ups are mean. You can have my part of the fifty fifty if you want, Rayleen.”
“No, that’s okay.”
On the way home we see some big boys who are always walking around the neighborhood. They don’t usually scare us very much, they’re not mean like Steven’s brothers. They don’t even usually talk to us at all. But today they do.
“Hey little sister, why you be hangin’ with these white kids? They don’t care nothin’ bout you, you only end up bein’ they maid or they ho. Except now the revolution come and maybe they know what it like to be us. You go find some brothers and sisters to be with, be with you own kind. You go on home, little white kids.” Now I feel really scared. How come you can get so scared by words that you don’t even know what they mean?
Rayleen starts to cry, then I start to cry and our ice cream is melting and dripping all over the sidewalk. Maria’s daddy comes out of their house and starts yelling at the boys in Mexican.
“Stupid spick,” one of the big boys says. “We burn your house too. Burn baby burn! The revolution has started in el lay!” They walk down the street and around the corner.
Maria’s daddy talks to us in Mexican but we can’t understand what he’s saying. Maria and her momma and the other kids are in church. They go to church almost every day, although the rest of us only go on Sundays. He takes out his big white handkerchief that he always has in his pocket and waves it at Steven, and shakes his head up and down like yes. Steven looks at me and then shakes his head no at Maria’s daddy.
“I don’t know what he means.”
Maria’s daddy pretends he is wiping his eyes with the handkerchief and then we understand. Steven takes it from him and then gives it to me to wipe my eyes and then I give it to Rayleen and she wipes her eyes and gives it back to Maria’s daddy. I don’t know why he had to give it to Steven first though. Maria’s daddy pats us all on the head and says something in Mexican, and then he says, “Go home now. Bad boys out here.” It’s the only thing he’s ever said that I could understand. I wonder if he knows any more English words. Maybe he’s too shy to say them the same as I’m too shy to play the piano because I think it won’t sound good.
That night when we’re eating dinner I tell my momma and daddy about the man in the seven eleven and the mean big boys. They look at each other funny like they do when they have a secret that I can’t know.
“Don’t listen to anything those people say. They’re ignorant,” my daddy says.
“But how come they were so mad at us?”
“They’re not mad at you,” my momma says. “They’re just mad and they’re taking it out on you because you’re there. Some colored people in loss an-ju-luss are mad at some white people, but it’s nothing to do with you.”
“Is loss an-ju-luss close to here?”
“No, it’s in California.”
“Is it by where we used to live?”
“No, it’s a long way from there.”
“How come they’re mad at the white people? Were they mean to them?”
“Yes, some white people are mean to colored people,” my momma says.
“Lizzie, eat your dinner now and be quiet,” my daddy says. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Grownups always say kids wouldn’t understand when they don’t want to talk about it. I don’t know how they think we’ll ever understand anything if they tell us to shut up all the time.
“Rayleen gets mad at me but then I act nice to her and she stops being mad. They should just try being nice.”
“Lizzie, I said to be quiet now.”
So I eat my chicken drumstick and don’t say anything else.
That night when I’m asleep I hear some yelling outside and I wake up. For a minute I think that I’m having a bad dream but then after a while I can tell that I’m awake and it’s real and I get really scared. At first I think it’s those mean big boys who are mad at us and have come to hurt us, but I can hear the voices and they are yelling niggers over and over. I think they’re yelling at Rayleen’s house and then I’m even more scared. I get up and run to my momma and daddy’s room, but they are already up and my momma is standing in the hall. She picks me up and takes me to the chair in the living room and holds me on her lap. Some other people have come out in the street and are yelling at the bad men and then I hear some glass breaking and even more yelling.
I hear Mr. David’s voice yell out his window, “Go home! I’ve called the police and they’ll be here any minute! Get out of here if you don’t want to go to jail!”
“Shut up, queer! You and your gimp boyfriend, we’ll get you too. You’re all nothin’ but a bunch of nigger lovers. Don’t you know they’ll burn your houses and kill you and they don’t give a shit! Get them before they get us or we’ll all be burnt in our beds.”
“Do something,” my momma says to my daddy. Now she’s crying too and this scares me more than I’ve ever been scared, ever.
“It would only make it worse,” he says. He sounds like he would be crying too if he was a girl instead of a boy.
Finally I can hear the police car coming and there is more yelling outside and then I hear people running down the sidewalk. When the police car stops in our street the yelling starts again but this time it’s people yelling at the policemen and I cover my ears up with my hands so I won’t have to hear all the mean things and bad words they’re yelling. After a really long time the yelling finally stops and then I don’t remember anything until I wake up in my bed again and it’s daytime. I wonder if I did have a bad dream and it wasn’t real at all.
Later that day my momma starts to pack some clothes in the orange suitcase. Not the really big one but the sort of big one. Not the little one we always use when we go to spend the night with my cousins who live in the city.
“Are we going on a trip?”
“We’re going to stay with Aunt Bonnie for a few days. Won’t that be fun?”
“How come? I don’t want to go. I won’t get to play with Rayleen if we go to Aunt Bonnie’s.”
“Rayleen will be here when we get back. It’s not up for discussion anyway. We’re going.”
“Will we be back before school?”
“I hope so.”
“Is daddy coming too?”
“No, daddy has to work. He’s staying here.”
“I don’t want daddy to stay here. I’m scared for him.”
“He’ll be fine. Now please Lizzie, stop bothering me while I’m trying to pack.” Momma looks like she has a sick tummy like I do.
Rayleen and Steven and Maria come over a little while after that. Steven says that some of the mean big boys threw a rock through their window and broke it last night when everyone was fighting. His big brother was so scared that he started to cry and his other big brother wet his pants.
“He did not!”
“He did! I swear to God. But he said if I told anyone he’d kill me.”
“But you just told us,” Maria says.
“You don’t count, you’re just little kids like me.”
“I have to go visit my cousins.”
“When are you coming back?” Rayleen says.
“I’m not sure. Before school.”
“Is it the cousins who have a pool?” Maria says.
“Yeah. They live in the city. We have to take a bus there.”
“Lucky dog,” Steven says.
“I don’t want to go.”
“I wish I could go with you,” he says. I wish he could too. It’s scary that people threw rocks in his window.
When my momma and I walk to the bus stop Mr. Blummer and Mr. David are there too. They talk to my momma for a while but it’s big people talk and I don’t understand a lot of it. They keep saying one word a lot though—wats. At first I think it’s like what’s, what’s for dinner, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s a place and I think it’s the place where the colored people and the white people are fighting but I thought that was in California. Sometimes I don’t want to understand what big people say because it’s too scary.
“Will you be okay here?” my momma asks Mr. Blummer and Mr. David.
“I guess we’ll have to be, we got nowhere’s else to go,” Mr. Blummer says.
We stay at my Aunt Bonnie’s for almost a week. It’s okay but I don’t really like my cousins because they’re bigger than me and they make fun of my clothes and stuff and they don’t want to play with me when Aunt Bonnie tells them to. My mom looks sad all the time and I hear her tell Aunt Bonnie that she’s worried about my daddy and that makes me worried too. I’m glad when we’re finally going home.
When we get off the bus I start to run to my house, but when I look across the street I stop running because Rayleen’s house is all burnt up and there are big boards where the windows used to be. I feel scared and my tummy feels like it’s going to fall out on my feet. I run back to my momma and hug her.
“What happened to Rayleen’s house, momma?”
“There was a fire.”
“Some bad people started it.”
“Is Rayleen dead?” I know little kids can die because Steven’s baby sister died last year.
“No, of course she’s not dead, no one is dead.”
“Are they going to fix their house? Where will they live while they’re fixing it?”
“They’re going to live with Rayleen’s grandma and grandpa,” she says.
“For how long? Is she going to go to school with us?”
“No, I think she’s staying there for a long time. She can come back and visit you though, maybe she can sleep over some weekends.” I don’t know how to tell her so she’ll understand, but that won’t be the same.
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