Visiting the Lorraine
South Main was car lined-- parked bumper to bumper as Daddy pulled me along the sidewalk. We passed Central Station, and I wanted to stop and look at the trains, but he towed me.
"I hate to be late," he said.
"Daddy? Why'd we have to dress up? It's too hot and we're not goin' to church, are we?"
"No, but we always dress up for important things," he said.
I almost wished my tights had snagged. Maybe then I could've taken them off. But with Daddy pulling me up and brushing me off the way he did, I was happy they hadn't gotten too dirty. It might have made him sad. We rounded the corner of the Arcade Diner with its bright red and white sign. I could see the shiny silver edges of the counter and stools, and I asked to go inside for a chocolate malt.
"After we go through the Museum," he said.
"The one on down here." He pointed ahead of us and I saw the crowd.
"See the sign? Can you read it? Kiiivvviiilll"
Within moments, we were engulfed, and the sign disappeared from my view.
It seemed to me the city folks weren't dressed right, if this thing Daddy dragged me to was so important. They were all in tank tops and shorts, t-shirts and jeans; their expensive sunglasses perched on their heads throwing reflections when they turned. But then there were the country people, like us, dressed up. I saw flowered dresses with white lacy collars, men in navy and tan suits, their coats off and sleeves rolled up. It reminded me of the revivals we had at church with the new preachers from Freed-Hardiman or Harding or Magnolia Bible College, people coming in from all over the county trying to impress these young men.
There was one man in a purple suit and black shirt. He wasn't wearing a tie, but had shiny shoes that looked to me like the gator ones we'd seen in the shop windows down in New Orleans.
"That's Croc," Daddy said.
I thought a crock was what Momma cooked our chili in. As we neared the building ahead of us, the crowd pushed in. Daddy gripped my hand even harder. The woman in front of me had a large round backside and I didn't want to bump face-first into it. It was covered in a yellow full skirt the color of bananas and reminded me of two giant Nerf footballs. When I noticed the bulge of her girdle waistband just below her belt, I wondered how much bigger she'd be if she hadn't stuffed herself into a Playtex. I watched my Momma on Sundays pull and tug her way into hers so she could be proper and not bounce around like a heathen.
Daddy and I were out of place. People looked at us funny. I waved my hand so he could lower his good ear to me.
"Daddy, we don't belong here, I don't think."
"Naw. Dr. King died to make it so we all belong everywhere. That's why we're here."
"To see Dr. King?"
"No, sweetie. You see...a bad man killed him. Don't you remember?" I bit my lip, trying to recall what we'd learned in Mrs. Richardson's class.
"He was a preacher, like you, right?"
"And he and Miss Rosa made it so black people didn't have to sit at the back of the bus."
"Well, not just that..."
"I don't get it. I like the back of the bus!"
The big yellow lady in front of me stopped, turning around. I plowed right into her belly, but she only laughed and put her hand in my hair.
"Such curls! Little lady, you like the back of the bus because you have the choice to sit there. What if somebody made you sit way up front every single time?"
"I wouldn't like it much. Our bus driver isn't a nice lady."
"Well, you pay attention in the museum today. I'm glad your Daddy brought you down here. Where y'all from?"
I grinned, aware that my front tooth still hadn't come all the way in.
"My, my! All the way from there! So it's real important you pay attention and remember, since you come all that way across the Big River."
We entered the building in a single file line, then scattered among the exhibits. It reminded me of being in a library or at a funeral. I couldn't read a lot of what was written on the displays, but Daddy explained the importance of each of them.
We came to a case with a homemade sign. Somebody had scrawled on it, "Go home, nigger."
"That's not nice, Daddy. Why would they put that here?"
"To show how some people aren't nice."
"Like those people that lived on Glendale Street?"
He turned to look at me and his shoulders slumped. "Yep, like those people on Glendale Street.
We hadn't talked a lot about the men who still showed up wearing white robes in my dreams, coming to take me away from my family. When they'd moved in, my brother and I stopped by on our bikes, out of curiosity at the new neighbors mostly, but with the excuse to welcome them to town.
They'd been sitting on the pulled down back of their pickup, drinking bottled beers which Daddy always frowned upon. I didn't think we should say anything, since they didn't look like church people, with no shirts on, dirty and sweaty, and drinking alcohol, but Scotty insisted. He'd waved and yelled a hello. The younger of the two men squinted and stood up, stepping in our direction. Instead of saying hello back, he spit at me.
"I wouldn't have moved here if I'd a known there're yer kind aroun'. You tryin' ta pass wit that white skin but you blacker than night underneath. That nigger nose gives ya away. Yer nothin, but a half-breed monkey, are ya girlie?"
I was confused by his words, but the venom in his voice scared me. I didn't want to find out what he meant, instead speeding away as fast as my feet could pump the pedals. Scotty followed, howling with laughter.
"He called you a monkey! Nigger nose! Monkeyyyyyy!"
I lived with the new nicknames for a little over two weeks, until Momma overheard him and washed his mouth out with soap. She then took him into his room and shut the door. I could hear them in there talking, but couldn't understand what they were saying. After that, Scotty would only say that the names were really bad and we weren't supposed to use them anymore. But every now and again, he'd get mad at me and hiss like the guy on Glendale: "Monnnnkeeeeyyy!"
It took a night at Memaw Walters' when her friend, Miss Arnell, was visiting for me to find out what the "n" word meant. Miss Arnell was the only black person I'd seen on a regular basis. Her family had worked on the Walter family's farm for generations before the big companies out of Memphis had come through and bought it. She and Memaw had grown up together, through the depression, the wars, and all the changes that had occurred in Northern Arkansas over a thousand years, or so it seemed to me.
We were sitting around Memaw's fancy table, the one with a turquoise top, flecked with gold and rimmed with chrome. I always loved it because it looked like the ones on old TV shows. We each had coffee cups, mine with more milk and sugar than coffee, and were sharing homemade chocolate chip cookies that I'd helped with, even though Miss Arnell said it was her grandmama's secret recipe. I listened to them talk and felt big, grown up. Memaw sent me into the kitchen for more sugar, and I heard them whispering about what happened to Miss Arnell's nephew. He'd bought a new house closer to town, but a bunch of men in white sheets had shown up and burned a cross in the front yard. She said she was scared half out of her mind at what they might do to him. She'd told him just to come on back home where he belonged, but so far, he'd refused. He was one of those young stubborn ones, she said.
"Why'd anybody be scared of silly ghost costumes, Miss Arnell? They don't even scare me at Halloween. They're so lame!" I was proud to use a new word.
"Oh, sweetie. I wish they were just ghosts. But these are men, grown hateful men, who do things so bad they gotta cover their faces."
"Why ain't I seen 'em? They haven't bothered us none."
"That's because your skin--your skin's white."
"No it ain't. That man over on Glendale said it wasn't."
The two women looked at each other and Memaw leaned down. "What did that man say to you, sweetie?" I didn't want to say it, because Momma had told me not to, so I whispered it from under my hand with which I'd covered my nose.
"He said I had a nigger nose and called me a half-breed monkey, that if he skinned me, I'd be black underneath."
Miss Arnell let out a cackle and fanned herself. "Oh Lawd! Them people are crazier than I thought! You'd glow at night if you were any whiter, child!"
"But he said --"
"Ain't no matter what he said." They went on to tell me what the word meant, how it was used and why my Momma had said it was a bad thing to say.
Daddy and I continued winding our way through the museum, me asking about pictures I recognized as Memphis or Washington and Daddy explaining why they were there. I liked watching the other visitors' faces. Some seemed so proud, pointing things out to their own children. Some wiped tears from their faces. It was cold enough in the museum I didn't think it was sweat. I didn't understand why they were sad, unless maybe the sign behind the glass made them that way.
When we got ready to exit, Daddy told me that we were coming out at the Lorraine Motel. We stepped out onto the concrete and I saw several women wiping at their eyes. People were taking pictures of each other leaning against the railing. Daddy pulled my hand that direction, but the backs of my knees began to tingle. It was the same feeling I got in graveyards and hospitals. My Mam always said that it was 'the gift' in me, that I could feel restless souls. I yanked my hand from Daddy's.
"We've got to pray!"
He looked down at me and tried to take my hand again, but instead I knelt down and pressed my palms together in front of me. I wanted to thank God for sending Dr. King. I asked Him that He help people understand Dr. King's message even if I really didn't.
I heard people around me whispering, and I could feel them pointing at the little white girl praying where Dr. King was murdered. I also felt my Daddy kneel beside me. I didn't open my eyes until I heard him say softly, "Amen," but when I looked around, there were others lined down the walkway, bowing in their own silent prayers. The big yellow lady was way down the line and started to sing "Amazing Grace." Hers didn't sound the way we sang it at Sunday School, but I didn't mind. I actually liked the way she made her voice go up and down with each of the words. The way her double chin bobbled, she reminded me of my canary when he'd warbled his favorite song. I really hoped a big orange cat wouldn't eat her too, since she sang prettier than Wee Bird. When I got up, my stockings snagged, making a big cottony blob on my knee. I didn't care. I didn't think Dr. King would mind if it snagged while I was praying. He was, after all, a preacher. I tugged on my Daddy's coat and showed him my knee.
"Your Momma's gonna be mad. She said that was your last pair of white ones."
"I can wear my pink ones."
"You don't like pink."
"It's okay, I guess. Daddy?"
"You were right. Dr. King made it so we fit in."
"And why do you think that?"
"Because we all looked the same while we were praying."
"Love doesn't have a color, right? So it doesn't matter."
"Dr. King said that he wants you to take me to the Arcade Diner for a Malted Chocolate."