M's Awakening by J. L. Higgs
A short coming-of-age story.
The screen door slammed, shaking the whole house. Dad was breathing fire. He’d been out front planting rose bushes. Now dirt was strewn on Mom’s freshly cleaned hallway floor.
“Jackie,” he shouted.
“What’s wrong?” asked Mom, rushing from the dining room. Holding a knick-knack, her eyes took in the dirt with regret.
“JACKIE!” yelled Dad, ignoring her and continuing to the stairs.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I turned on the TV.
“Mind your own business,” said Mom. “Robert, what’s the matter?”
Upstairs, the sound of The Temptations singing “Ball of Confusion” abruptly stopped.
“Get out here.”
A moment later Jackie appeared at the top of the stairs. On the front of his red, black, and green T-shirt was an image of a black man with a large Afro.
“Do you know anything about what happened next door?”
“So you weren’t involved?”
“Robert, he said no,” said Mom. He glared at her. Then immediately redirected his angry eyes back to Jackie.
“I said no!”
“Don’t you get smart with me, boy,” he barked. “The cops are over there.” He pointed a finger at Jackie, his hands in those big thick gardening gloves looking huge enough to choke the life out of a horse. “I better not find out you’re lying or there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Whatever,” mumbled Jackie.
“Is Andrew up there?”
“Tell him to come out here for a minute.”
Jackie mumbled something unintelligible and Andrew, nickname, A.D., appeared alongside my brother. He was wearing a baggy T-shirt that had a large peace symbol in the colors of the American flag on it. From atop the stairs, he and Jackie peered down looking like two lanky giants.
“Andrew,” said Dad. “Did you all have anything to do with what went on next door?”
“No sir,” said A.D., shaking his head. Strands of long blond hair fell over his eyes. He swept them backward with one hand.
Dad pursed his lips. That was followed by a sideways tilted frown. “Fine. You all can go on back to whatever you were doing. And Jackie, don’t be playing that damn crazy music so loud!”
“I can’t believe that boy’s parents don’t make him get a haircut,” Dad muttered to Mom.
“Christ, he practically looks like a girl.”
As “War” by Edwin Starr started playing Mom grabbed Dad’s arm and once again asked what was going on.
“Somebody blew up that statue thing in the Miller’s front yard.”
“What statue thing?” asked Mom.
“Oh, never mind,” said Dad. Noticing me hovering near the doorway, he paused. “Marvin?” He pointed that huge finger at me.
“Turn that damn TV down.”
Then he went back out the door taking all that rage with him. As the door slammed shut I murmured, “it’s already down.”
It was Saturday and we’d only been in the new neighborhood five days. When the clock radio’s music had blasted out on Tuesday morning I was already awake. Jackie hadn’t moved and his eyes were still closed. So, since I’d set the music alarm, I went over and turned the radio off.
As I turned to go back to my side of our room, I was suddenly smacked in the back of the head. Jackie’s pillow.
Wheeling around I said, “That’s not funny.”
Jackie laughed. One side of his ever spreading Afro was smushed against his head, the other puffed out. My hair was cut close to my head like Dad’s, what he called respectable. Jackie’s bush of hair was new, one of the many things he and Dad now argued about.
My brother was seventeen, three years older than me. Moving to a town a couple towns over from where we now lived meant a new school this fall and having to make new friends. He’d made his unhappiness about that known to everyone. I, however, was looking forward to having my own room for the first time in my life.
It wasn’t that Jackie and I didn’t get along. When I was little having him in the same room made me feel safe, protected. But now I was a teen. Thirteen. And he still called me Little M. How old was I going to have to be before that stopped and Mom no longer referred to me as her baby?
On the trip to the new house, mom drove. Jackie road shotgun. He fiddled with the car radio and stopped on WABC radio 77. We started singing along. He and I knew every song. Unlike Dad, Mom didn’t mind our “rock-and-roll.” She’d even confessed that she thought “Cousin Brucie” was funny.
I was crammed in the back seat along with a bunch of boxes containing Mom’s knick-knacks. They were breakable, so she didn’t want them in Uncle Fred’s truck with him and Dad. Uncle Fred was her brother. She’d even made him promise not to drive fast since we were following in the Buick.
A new house, school, friends, this would be a new adventure. Especially following last year, which had been crazy. There’d been that concert at Woodstock that Dad said was nothing more than a bunch of crazy white kids on drugs rolling around in mud – on the news, I’d seen some black kids were there. Then we landed on the moon, some movie stars were murdered by the Manson family, and a girl drowned in a car at Chappa something or other. At the high school, there’d been a few bomb scares as well as a few racial and war-related fist fights. Mom and Dad said things in the world were out of control and no one knew how they’d turn out. That’s why they’d made one thing clear to Jackie and me. Regardless of what happened, we were not to get involved or in trouble just because everyone else was acting up.
Still, the biggest, craziest, and most amazing thing that had happened last year was the Mets winning the World Series. Now they were World Champions. Therefore, the first thing I was going to do in the new house was put up my poster of last year’s team.
Way back, before Jackie and I were born, Dad had been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Jackie Robinson had been his favorite baseball player. Close seconds were Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella. When the Dodgers moved to LA he no longer had a team until the Mets. From the beginning, Dad, Jackie, and I had been their biggest fans. There was little Dad and Jackie agreed on anymore but baseball was not one of them. Jackie was a starting left-handed pitcher on the high school team and A.D. was the team’s catcher. Dad never missed one of their games.
Shortly after the car and truck had been unpacked, A.D. pulled up in his brother Kevin’s Trans Am. He’d inherited it when Kevin went to Vietnam. He’d been killed there. A.D. had discovered an illegal stash of cherry bombs and firecrackers in the car’s glove box. He’d given half of them to Jackie. Jackie kept them hidden behind the storage panel in his bed’s headboard.
Vietnam and the anti-war protests were also something Jackie and Dad argued about. But that had recently changed. Ever since those kids had gotten shot at Kent State, Dad seemed to have changed his mind about the war. Mom had always stayed out of their arguments. But when she learned about Kevin, she called A.D.’s mother to say how sorry she was. They didn’t really know each other, but I heard her say Dad had “changed his tune” now that Jackie would be graduating and eligible for the draft.
No one was surprised when A.D. showed up at the new house on move-in day. He and Jackie had been best friends since fourth grade and he’d practically lived at our old house. Jackie had told me that he and another boy were playing handball and got into an argument about a serve. A.D. had jumped in to separate them. That’s when the boy called Jackie a nigger and A.D. a nigger lover. A.D. had punched the boy, knocking him down. When Dad found out about the fight, he told Jackie the boy probably didn’t even know what the word meant and was likely just repeating something he’d heard.
Though most kids hung out with their own group, A.D. hung with Jackie and the other black kids. He was like an honorary black person. His favorite group was The Temptations, he was a terrific dancer, and he called everyone “brother.” Among themselves, some of the white kids called him “Black A.D.” He knew but couldn’t have cared less. Still, our move meant things would change for him and Jackie. For the first time in their lives, they were being forced onto different teams.
I was in the living room watching TV when A.D. came in. He yelled hey to me and headed straight upstairs to Jackie’s room like a homing pigeon. I heard the loud slap of their palms as they engaged in the latest handshake. Then A.D. called out “alright”, praising Jackie’s single room or brand new poster Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.
Jackie and A.D. put on the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. I had tacked the album’s poster up on my wall. The Beatles were one of the few groups both the black kids and white kids liked. The band’s breakup earlier in the year had bummed everyone out.
When the record ended, the two of them thundered down the steps like Clydesdales, each carrying a baseball mitt.
“Hey Little M,” said Jackie. “Want to play some ball?”
I shook my head as I flipped a page in Ebony magazine. At the start of each baseball season, the magazine had a section analyzing the teams. It also contained photos of all the non-white ballplayers on each team’s roster. Some had a lot. Others hardly any.
“Why are you still watching those stupid cartoons?” asked Jackie, glancing at the TV. “Don’t you think you’re too old for them.”
“I like them,” I replied. “They’re funny.”
“No, they’re not,” he said. “The black cartoon characters always have white circles around their eyes and mouth or huge lips and a bone through their nose or hair. You think yellow colored Chinese characters with ridiculous sounding accents, slits for eyes, buck teeth, and hats that look like lampshades are funny? And how come Indians, are always red and saying and doing idiotic things?”
“Jackie,” interrupted Mom, appearing in the living room doorway. “Leave your brother alone. If he doesn’t want to play baseball and wants to watch cartoons that’s his choice.”
Left in peace, I closed the magazine to watch my beloved cartoons. Sure enough, on the screen was a character who looked like a Ubangi and had a bone through his nose. In the cartoon that followed, there was a goofy sounding Chinese character. I got up, walked over to the TV and shut it off. Then I went to look for my brother and A.D.
I found them out front in the street. Jackie was pitching, A..D. was catching, and they were using my mitt as home plate. As I walked over, they stopped what they were doing and suggested we play running bases.
Jackie took off his cap, placed it on the ground at his feet, and declared it a base. With my mitt serving as the other one, I went over and stood beside A.D. Jackie threw a high one and I faked a dash. I knew his tricks and wasn’t going to let him sucker me. Then A.D. threw the ball back, Jackie wound up, released the ball, and I took off. A.D.’s return throw was offline. As Jackie lunged to catch it, I tagged his base and roared back toward A.D. Jackie then snagged the ball and rifled it to A.D. It struck his glove’s pocket, caromed off it, and bounced away. While A.D. ran to retrieve the ball, I tagged and ran back to Jackie’s base. When I got there, he was still awaiting a return throw, his hands on his hips.
“What are you doing?” he yelled to A.D. “Throw the ball.”
Standing in the middle of the street, staring at the house next door, A.D. didn’t respond.
“What’s up, man?” asked Jackie, as he and I pulled up alongside A.D. after jogging to where he was.
He shook his head. Then we saw it. Beside the front steps of the house next door was a statue that looked like a black jockey. Its face was painted jet black with over-sized white eyes, tiny black speck pupils, a large flat nose, and huge red lips. Its shirt and pants were white, vest and bow tie red, and on its head was a red and white cap.
“Man, that’s screwed up,” said A.D., looking at Jackie.
“That’s some bullshit,” said Jackie, who rarely cursed.
“It’s just a statue,” I said.
“Yeah? That’s what they’d like you to think,” said Jackie, his eyes burning with anger.
“C’mon,” I said tugging at his arm. “Let’s play ball.”
Jackie yanked his arm away. “You’re just like Dad. He’s always saying it don’t mean nothing or they don’t mean nothing by it. Bullshit! It does exactly what it’s meant to do, mock and insult people like us. If not, then why isn’t it white? Or in a museum someplace? Answer me that?”
I shrugged. Why did the white people who lived next door have a black lawn jockey in front of their house? Anyone could see it was a caricature of black people.
“Man, that is seriously screwed up,” repeated A.D.
“Yeah,” agreed Jackie. “And we should do something about it.”
I started walking back to our house. Our game of running bases was over. Jackie was mad and A.D. looked disgusted. Cartoons? This statue? Moving day had turned into one lousy day.
In my room, I sat down on my bed and pulled out my Mets yearbook. I flipped through its pages seeing black faces and white faces. They were all on the same team, but I wondered, would the white players understand how the lawn jockey made the black players feel? Finally, I just shut the yearbook.
Now, today, after all these questions had troubled me for days, Dad had charged in and accused Jackie of blowing up the statue. I turned off the TV, climbed the stairs to my room, and closed my door.
Through the wall, I could hear the Hair album. I sat down on my bed, and I stared at my Abbey Road poster. The Beatles had been the first band I’d ever liked. Now they were no longer together. Some people said Paul had died a few years before and the other band members had decided to stop using a look-alike. As evidence, people cited that Paul was the only one barefoot in the photo of them crossing the street. He was also out of step, his right foot forward while everyone else’s lead foot was their left. I didn’t know if he was dead or not, but things were changing and they’d never be the same again.
A knock on my door stopped my thoughts. Jackie and A.D. came in and closed the door behind them.
“What you doing?” asked Jackie.
They walked over and they each sat down bed beside me.
“Y’know, Li...” Jackie paused, “A.D. and I were talking. We’ve decided you’re getting kind of old to be called Little M.”
“Yeah,” added A.D. “So, from now on, we’re just going to call you M.”
Then they both rubbed my head, got up, and left.
A moment later, the door opened, and Jackie stuck his head in.
“Nice going, M.”
Then he closed the door.
J. L. Higgs' short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has had over 40 publications and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Magazines publishing his work include Indiana Voice Journal, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Rigorous, Literally Stories, and The Remembered Arts Journal. He resides outside of Boston.