This is a guest post from writer and editor Kriscinda Lee Everitt who contributed in response to the American Vignette: I remember call for submissions. The setting is southwestern Pennsylvania. Enjoy.
I remember, when I was nine years old—thirty years ago—we moved to my stepfather’s family home in a small former coal town in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was to be the setting of the long-awaited coalescence of our new, blended family. Blended in a few ways: the product of two divorces, two nationalities, and two races. None of these things occurred to me as important at the time.
Our property was edged on three sides thick with woods, most of which, today, is gone. But then—then it was a jungle and I could adventure for what seemed like a very long time before I reached the road, the corner of South Main and Cave Street, the geographic perimeter of my world. Across the road, a black bull grazed behind an electric-wire cattle fence. Beyond that, which I didn’t consider, the ramshackle houses of future classmates.
But until school started—another new school, the last, we’d been promised—the tangled mess that stretched between the bull and the green, mown expanse of the yard proper hid and protected me from my new grandfather’s indifference, my new brother’s loathing, and my sister’s bullying. I traded all of that, every day, for forts built of fallen timbers, the small sound of a strong, clear spring rippling over grass and twigs, and the mysterious allure of an old stone foundation, another house from long ago that had belonged to the family.
“You’re from Canada?”
“My mother’s Canadian.”
Despite the apparent black mark of my northern heritage, a girl from class agreed to come over after school. We lived just a few houses away. I remember we had been sitting on my back porch, talking, when she’d fallen silent and I looked up at her. Her expression was one of shock and fear, and without a word, she ran. Off the porch, through the yard, down the driveway—gone. I had no idea what had happened, so I got up, opened the screen door, and walked into the kitchen.
“Why did you leave?”
“There was a black man in your house.”
I could see the desperate concern in her eyes, as if she’d been up all night wondering if my poor family had survived the terrible encounter.
“That was my dad.” He’d walked into the kitchen for something to drink; she’d seen him through the door, over my shoulder. When I had explained to him what happened, neither he nor I knew why she’d left like that. I wonder today if he did.
She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day, and the next day, when I tried to talk to her, she said simply: “I’m not allowed to be friends with you.”
I had to have my parents explain to me what that meant, and I think I let the word stab me only a few times before I erupted into a flurry of fists. And once I did that first time, it was a knee-jerk reaction, immediately, whenever I heard it. Recess was exhausting and some days I’d ask to sit inside.
“But it’s such a nice day.”
It always seemed like such a nice day. And it was, when I finally got home. I would hurry homework out of the way, stick a book into my back pocket, then disappear into the woods to climb trees.
No one went into the woods but me.
Osage trees formed the tree line, planted deliberately years before the advent of barbed wire, with their long-thorned branches. Though these now grew too tall to keep anyone out, they still acted as a barrier. Their fruit—“monkey balls,” I’d learned the locals called them—littered the ground. They would soften come autumn and become slippy if you stepped on one. In the woods, maple, ash, oak, and poplar competed for sun and space, along with mountain laurel, hawthorn, and dogwood. There may have been a few pines.
At the corner of South Main and Cave Street, where the old foundation hid beneath overgrown berry vines— “jagger bushes”—the black bull grazed. Behind him, the family that owned him—the McFaddens. It was Ray McFadden who’d first dubbed me the “Stupid Canadian,” and later, the “Niggerlover.”
At the foundation, looking through the trees over the road, I’d watch the black bull, chewing, snorting, now knowing what lived behind it. I wondered if he’d ever get loose; if the electric fence and the Osage trees would be enough. I secretly hoped he would get loose—a one-bull stampede, over the wire, down South Main, growing in size to crush this town.