Among the first purchases my father made upon moving into our olive drab duplex on Fort Hood Army Base was a Teac turntable on a cherry wood base, a silver-faced Marantz receiver with LED lamps that turned the radio dial on the AM/FM tuner arctic blue, and a pair of Ohm speakers with eight-inch woofers and two-inch tweeters that he concealed behind Danish teak lounge chairs and on which my mother set her dieffenbachias. On a Saturday morning in the fall of 1968, I watched him remove the cellophane from Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass’s The Lonely Bull and pull the record from its sleeve, careful not to mar its waxy finish. He set it gently on the platter, rotated the tone arm until the needle hovered over the lead-in groove, and with the finger lever lowered the stylus onto spinning vinyl. I was seven, and to me the whole process seemed like a lot of work, especially since our old Sylvania console could play one side of up to ten albums in a row, dropping each onto the one before it from where they hovered at the top of the stacking spindle like the observation decks of the Space Needle, built for the World’s Fair in Seattle the year I was born. But as the hisses and pops segued into cheers from the bullring and Herb Alpert’s magnificent trumpet, I imagined the creature about whom the melody had been written, there behind the closed gate of the puerta de los toriles, its head and horns lowered. Did it know, I wondered, that it would be prodded to exhaustion and that its death, all but certain, would be by a sword between the withers? Or would it enter the coliseum confused, denied clarity until the moment it collapsed, buckling at the knees and elbows?
In Chaffee Village most of the kids’ fathers were drafted doctors or dentists who, like mine, had been stationed at Darnall Army Hospital, a few minutes away by car on Tank Destroyer Boulevard. But Fort Hood, Texas was also home to the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions, their nicknames “Old Ironsides” and “Hell on Wheels” the names of a major east-west artery, and in the other half of our duplex lived Mrs. Burnett, the wife of a lieutenant in the 198th Infantry Brigade deployed to Vietnam and the first-grade teacher I wished I had. Unlike Mrs. Le Grand, in whose first-grade class I was, whose husband, she was fond of telling us, was a decorated colonel in a command post in Germany and who when cheerful called us “the little soldiers in her battalion” but who, in her natural state of paranoid irritation, treated us as if we were plotting inmates, Mrs. Burnett was calm, trusting, young, and pretty. She said that since I wasn’t one of her students I could call her Emily, and on Saturday mornings when my mother baked peanut butter drop cookies with Hershey’s Kisses planted in their centers, I’d put a baker’s dozen still warm from the oven on a paper plate, cover them in plastic wrap, and bring them to her as an offering.
If Emily was out running errands, I’d leave the gift on her front stoop, a mirror image of our own but with a pair of folding chairs and a wrought iron table, on the top of which decorative tiles formed an image of the sun and moon. If home, she’d holler, “Coming!” through the screen door and out she’d bring Arnold Palmers on a tray, ice cubes clinking in Mason jars, the lemonade at the bottom and the tea at the top comingling in wisps in the middle. There she’d ask me about my week, and I hers, which was how I learned that her husband Brian would return home again for a visit of indeterminate length between tours of duty.
My father sat in the living room in his flannel bathrobe—likely, he’d been called to the delivery room during the night, for only then did he sleep-in on his days off—sipping coffee from an avocado coffee cup and tapping ash from a Viceroy cigarette into an orange glazed, leaf-shaped ashtray. Never in my short life had music more ignited my imagination. From the bull awaiting its contest to the death to soldiers dispatched to the jungles of Quang Ngai Province with orders to search and destroy, to POWs in bamboo cages submerged to their nostrils in water, each note carried me to a scene of deprivation and suffering but with, to those who survived, the promise of delights as scintillating as they were mysterious. If the government was sending troops by the thousands to Southeast Asia, it was with the song “Mexico,” its wistful melody whistled to a relaxed march between refrains of boisterous horns and interludes of quiet strings, that it rewarded them upon their return. Or so in my child’s brain I imagined, and by the end of Side A, I’d undergone a catharsis of operatic proportions.
My perceptivity heightened, the timer ticking on the stove, kids blasting caps with rocks on the driveways, chats chortling in the forsythias became music of its own. Beyond the far wall of my parents’ bedroom, lending syncopation to it like a washboard played with spoons, box springs creaked. I’d forgotten about Emily.
“What about Side B?” my father called to me. In the kitchen my mother’s cookies were arranged in columns on metal racks on the counters, and in jeans and a blouse she stood over the sink washing a mixing bowl. My sister Karen, four, was baking smaller versions of her own, each with a chocolate chip at its center, in an Easy-Bake Oven, a Christmas present from Santa, in whom we both still believed.
I took a paper plate from the pantry, but before I could put a single cookie on it, my mother said, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Making Mrs. Burnett a plate of cookies?” If I called her Emily, I’d receive a lecture about the respect adults, just for being adults, were due.
“Not this Saturday you’re not,” my mother replied. “The poor woman hasn’t seen her husband in over a year.”
“Lieutenant Burnett is back?” I scratched my head. “How do you know? Did you see him?”
“I don’t need to see him,” she replied.
My father poured himself fresh coffee from the percolator. “Why don’t you help me move the old Sylvania into your bedroom?” he said to me. “That old record-player is yours now.”
“Really?” I said. “And the records, too?”
“The records, too.”
Of course, my father made me promise that I would neither touch the new stereo system nor listen to any of the new records he bought for it on the old. “Old records, old record player,” he said. “New records, new record player. We don’t want cross-contamination. Do we understand each other?”
I nodded. Though my bedroom was not mine alone, for I shared it with my sister Karen, the walnut Sylvania and the albums in the record bay would be. Soon I could listen to Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits, The First Family featuring Vaughn Meader, The Serendipity Singers Sing of Love, Lies, and Flying Festoons, the Broadway recordings of Hello, Dolly, My Fair Lady, and Fiddler on the Roof, the soundtrack recordings of Funny Girl, Doctor Zhivago, and Barefoot in the Park anytime I wanted.
“What are we waiting for?” I asked, how my mother had known that Emily’s husband had returned no longer of vital concern.
My father flipped the record and to “Struttin’ with Maria,” turned up loud, we inched the behemoth down the hallway toward the bedrooms. But as we did, the clanging box springs only grew in volume until the ruckus couldn’t be ignored.
“Are Mrs. Burnett and her husband jumping on their beds?” I asked.
“You’d think they’d know better,” he replied, and I could tell by the resignation in his voice that he knew exactly what they were doing and, though I did not, no way in hell was he going to tell me.
Because she’d overheard ‘nigger’ drop from Lance Willis’ lips, my mother told me that under no circumstances was I ever to use it. Chaffee Village was mostly white, but at the end of our block lived the Howards, an African-American family with a boy, Darden, my age, and a girl, Jenice, a kindergartner. Usually I walked to school with the Spenser twins, Hugh and Merle, whose father was a maxillofacial surgeon, and the whole way there they’d talk about how much better their lives would be in a year when their father’s service commitment was over and they could return to their beloved Boston. But when I was late and Hugh and Merle were already on their way to school, I’d walk the half mile up the hill to Meadows Elementary with Darden and Jenice, who rarely left their house on time and were marked tardy by their teachers nearly every day, the reason, according to Darden, how long it took their mother to do Jenice’s hair.
Unlike the families of draftees with whom the neighborhood was filled, Major Howard was enlisted and career military, and Fort Hood was the only home Darden and Jenice had ever known. And yet, though they’d been there before any of us arrived and would remain after all of us were gone, I thought of them as newcomers, Darden holding Jenice’s hand as he peppered me with questions about boys in the neighborhood, wanting to know what sports they played and hobbies they enjoyed, what dishes their mothers prepared for supper, how their homes were decorated. While I preferred our conversations about the present to those with Hugh and Merle about the past and future, I nonetheless found them disconcerting. The duplexes with kids living in them as open to me as ours was to them, after school more than a dozen of us flowed like an amoeba between them, snacking in the kitchen of one before watching TV in the den of another.
On one of our walks to school I told Darden about Hugh and Merle Spenser, how their mother refused to free their living room furniture from the moving company’s packing materials because she didn’t want it ruined in such a dusty hell hole and when you sat in shorts on a sofa still swaddled in stretch wrap the backs of your legs stuck to it. On another about Jack and Jim Kraft, two and four years older than Darden and me, who lived across the street from me and whose parents, horror movie buffs, had turned their living room into a shrine to Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff and hung garlic braids over the doors to keep out vampires. On the rise overlooking our backyard lived the Halls, a Mormon family of seven, the youngest of whom, Simon, dreamed of being a fighter pilot and “bombing” enemy villages with soccer balls, Frisbees, and yo-yos so that children might experience joy even during wartime, and on yet another walk to school I told them about him.
Because I didn’t want Darden and Jenice to fear us, the kid I didn’t tell them about was Lance Willis, who in the middle of a game of chess had picked out a Brazil nut from the bowl on our coffee table and asked me, “Know why these here nuts are called nigger toes?” It sounded like a joke, and when I wagged my head, he said, “Because they’re near impossible to crack. Get it? Black don’t crack?” He handed me the nutcracker no one but my mother ever touched, and even then only when she dusted. “Go ahead,” he said. “Try to crack one. Betcha can’t.”
In the kitchen my mother shredded iceberg lettuce for Taco Night. “They aren’t even real,” I said and contended that like the fruit on the dining room table they were made of plaster-of-Paris. In my family, if someone wanted nuts, we opened a can of Planter’s.
“Oh, they’re real all right,” Lance said, chose a walnut and cracked it in half before my eyes. He pried the meat out into his palm with the metal pick and slapped the pieces into his mouth. “See?”
One morning after telling my mother that I could not bear another day with Mrs. Le Grand, which led to an argument about everything in the military being substandard, including first grade teachers, and the sacrifices all of us, not just my father, were making to the nation, a speech by my mother so impassioned that she and I both lost track of time, I caught up with Darden and Jenice as they were turning the corner onto Wainwright Drive.
“You’re so lucky,” I said to Darden. “I’d trade places with you in a second.”
“With me?” he replied. “Why?”
“You’re in Mrs. Burnett’s class.”
Not since her husband had returned had Emily and I enjoyed Arnold Palmers and cookies together, and if I could no longer have her undivided attention, being her student would be the next best thing.
“If you want to know the truth,” Darden grumbled, “Mrs. Burnett’s not all she’s reputed to be. I’ll grant you she’s better than Mrs. Le Grand, but who wouldn’t be? Phyllis Diller?”
We laughed, and it felt good to have garnered Darden’s sympathy, especially since our entire friendship was based on the sympathy he’d garnered from me. In the two months I’d lived in Chaffee Village not once had I seen him with any of the boys he knew by name, not even during recess, and I doubted any of them knew his.
“If you don’t mind,” he said, “there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
“Shoot,” I said.
“You’ve told me something about just about every boy in the neighborhood. But there’s one you haven’t mentioned.”
Ah shit, I thought, he was going to want to hear about Lance Willis, and my mind raced for innocuous details I could assign to a kid I liked the least of any of them: that his father was an anesthesiologist, that from Beaumont, Texas, he’d traveled the shortest distance of any of us to get here, that he’d tried to convince me that rooks moved diagonally and bishops up, down, and sideways, which even I knew to be false.
“Who?” I asked.
“Me? I’m an open book,” I said. Nevertheless, I told him about the old Sylvania my father and I had moved next to my bed, the albums dating back to the 50’s that had come with it, and I gave him my Johnny Horton impression, “In 1814, we took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip,” which I’d perfected in the shower. I told him about Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and how my father, after hearing The Lonely Bull, had bought Volume 2 and South of the Border and now owned the entire catalog. “The only problem is,” I said, “I’m not allowed to play them on the Sylvania and I’m not allowed to touch my dad’s new Teac turntable, so the only time I get to hear them is when we have company.”
“That sounds like my dad and Otis Redding,” Darden said and sang, “I’m a hawg for you, baby, I’m gonna root all around your door, I’m a dirty hawg for you, baby, and I’m gonna keep on rootin’.”
“What’s rootin’?” I asked.
“What’s rootin’?” he parroted. By then we had only to cross 27th Street to be on school property where I pictured Mrs. Le Grand at her desk in front of the classroom smirking as she drew a fat zero across from my name in the attendance ledger. While Mrs. Burnett had no doubt noted Darden’s absence, I couldn’t imagine her taking any joy in it. Darden checked up and down the street for oncoming traffic, then told Jenice to cross without us as he withdrew an envelope from his pants pocket. He told her not to worry, that we’d follow her into the building soon enough, that we weren’t Tom Sawyers playing hooky, and when she stopped glancing over her shoulder at us with an eyebrow arched, he handed the envelope to me. In it were black and white Polaroids, 24 in all, and at first I couldn’t have said what was depicted in them, though it would turn out to be the same in each—black skin that reflected the lamplight, curly black pubic hair, nipples, navels, midsections connected by a shaft of veins and muscle, but as if the man and woman had been cut up and their parts rearranged, the camera so close it was hard to tell where one body ended and the other began.
“Rootin’,” said Darden.
Though I still didn’t know what he meant by the word, I felt as if it had been as wrong of him to share the photos with me as it was of me to look at them, and yet I didn’t want to stop looking at them, believing the secrets of the universe and perhaps all of creation would be availed to me if only I looked at them long enough.
“Who are the people?” I asked.
“My mom and dad,” he said. “It’s what they do. Pass the camera back and forth. I haven’t seen them do it, but they’ve got hundreds of pictures like these, the oldest dating back to before I was born.”
On the envelope he pointed out the date, penned in the upper left corner, which made me wonder if my own parents had a similar stockpile and one day when I was snooping around where I shouldn’t there they’d be, but I knew my parents and how they were with each other and couldn’t imagine that ever happening.
“If you don’t believe me, come over to the house sometime,” Darden said. “I’ll show them to you.”
“Ok,” I said, though I did believe him and knew I wouldn’t. I returned the photos to the envelope and handed them back to him. After that, I was never late to school again.
As much as I wanted to complain to my mother about Mrs. Le Grand, I’d concluded she was my burden to bear. An argument with my mother about her not only could not be won, it would mean leaving the house late and having to walk to school with Darden and Jenice. While I would’ve given anything to see the photos he’d shown me again and in class daydreamed about the hundreds I might see if only I dared to ring his doorbell, I didn’t want him or anyone else near me when I looked at them, uncertain what their effect on me would be. What was in the photos seemed private, and if by looking at them at all I was violating the privacy of his parents, by wanting to do so alone I was respecting it, even as the very thought of it made me feel like a ghost.
Mrs. Le Grand—matching shocks of gray that twisted around an auburn beehive, chin wart, bifocals perched on her beaklike nose—was a holdout, one of the last proponents of a teacher’s right to use corporal punishment in the classroom, and not a day went by that she didn’t make students stand in the corner or order one into the hallway for a spanking she delivered with the Tri-Delta paddleboard she kept propped against her chalkboard. Added to her roster two weeks into the semester, I’d boosted the number of students in her class above the maximum capacity negotiated by the teachers’ union, and for this reason she called me “Thirty-one.”
“Thirty-one,” she’d say, “stand in the corner” after a pea blown from another kid’s peashooter landed in her hair. “Thirty-one,” she’d say, “meet me in the hall” after she’d overheard a cussword murmured by another kid during rest time. “Thirty-one,” she’d say, “go to the nurse’s office” after the girl seated in front of me spun in a hundred eighty degrees to avoid vomiting on her own notebook and desk. When I explained to Mrs. Le Grand that I was not to blame for the pea, the cussword, or the vomit, she accused me of lying. “Don’t think I haven’t seen your type before, Thirty-one.”
One afternoon during silent reading I raised my hand and asked to use the lavatory. “You’ll wait like everyone else until the bell rings,” Mrs. Le Grand replied. “And because I know you don’t really have to use the lavatory, you’ll stand in the corner until it does.”
“But I’m not lying,” I said, which made a few kids laugh.
“How do I know you aren’t?” she asked.
“Because I’m not a liar.”
“You mean to tell me you’ve never lied, not once in your whole life?” she asked, and when I couldn’t tell her in all honesty that I hadn’t, not once in my whole life, lied, she said, “I thought as much. Now stand in the corner.”
If I’d raised my hand with urgency, once consigned to a corner with my face to walls that came together at a bulletin board to which a capital “P” was impaled with a stickpin and a window beyond which waves of heat roiled like surf over the playground, the need only worsened. Time stopped. I jumped up and down, danced a little jig, all to stave off the burning only exacerbated by my clenched abdomen. One kid laughed, then another, and though I couldn’t see them, I imagined the entire class looking at me, and when I saw myself as they did, dancing a little jig, I laughed, too, and my bladder opened.
“Look,” said a boy in the front.
“Ew,” said a girl in the back.
My pants drenched, I stood upon a small, turbulent sea. Behind me, Mrs. Le Grand drove her nails into my shoulders. “You did this to spite me,” she said, “didn’t you?” and when I turned around to face her, she wasn’t the witch I’d believed her to be but rather just another sad, angry person like a lot of people became in Fort Hood, Texas, my mother among them. “Now get out of my sight,” she said. “Don’t bother collecting your things.”
In the schoolyard, under a blanching sun, the wetness felt cool against my thighs. As I walked home, I knew my mother would be as livid about what had happened as Mrs. Le Grand had been. “Take off your clothes and get in the shower,” she said after I’d recounted the incident to her. “Now,” she said as she hefted Karen from the floor, clutched her purse and keys. “I’m going to give Mrs. Le Grand a piece of my mind she’ll not soon forget.”
The screen door whacked shut, and our new station wagon sparked to life. It hardly mattered that Mrs. Le Grand was the object of my mother’s fury when her fury itself was so terrifying. Alone in the living room I pressed the power button on my father’s stereo, removed the dust cover from the turntable, pulled from the bookshelf the apple green record on the jacket of which the most beautiful woman I had ever seen sat enveloped in whipped cream, a dollop on her head like a lifted bridal veil. It was the B-Side of Herb Alpert’s latest release I wanted to hear, beginning with “Love Potion No. 9” and ending with “Lollipops and Roses.” As I stripped off my clothes, dropped them in the washer, and stepped into the shower, the boozy swagger of each song transported me to a refuge where the traumas visited upon one in childhood burst into dandelion spores and, appearing in their place like a shimmering Xanadu, a world of adult pleasures awaiting discovery. Though I couldn’t have said what the pleasures were exactly, they would be worth the wait, Herb Alpert’s trumpet triumphantly proclaimed.
By the time my mother came home, I’d returned Whipped Cream and Other Delights to its place on the bookshelf and turned off the stereo I’d promised my father never to touch. “Your wish came true,” my mother announced in the kitchen. “Mrs. Le Grand and I had words, and the principal agreed to transfer you into Mrs. Burnett’s first grade class. Starting tomorrow, you’ll never have to see that horrid excuse for a human being again.”
My mother didn’t ask why I wasn’t happier to learn of this development. If she had I wouldn’t have known how or what to tell her, but hearing my mother use the very words I myself had used to describe Mrs. Le Grand made me feel sorry for us all.
The next day at school Mrs. Burnett greeted me with a smile and directed me to a desk next to the only one left vacant. When Darden sat down at it, as I knew he must, I whispered across the aisle to him, “Don’t ask me anymore about boys in the neighborhood. If you want to be a part of us, be a part. If you don’t, don’t.”
“Ok,” he said and shrugged.
Who doesn’t recall a first exposure to racism? In my case, we were playing whiffle ball on the street the afternoon Darden tried to make friends with us. Hugh and Merle Spenser from next door were there. Jack and Jim Kraft from across the street were there. Simon Hall and Lance Willis were there, too. There were others whose names and faces I’ve forgotten, for we had enough hitters to advance runners home, infielders to man the bases, and Jim who pitched regardless of who was batting. He was in fifth grade and tall for his age, with a mop-top like the ones boys older than him wore, and I imagine chumming with us first-, second-, and third-graders fed his superiority complex, though except for this once I don’t remember his ever being cruel.
Surrounding Chaffee Village were open fields where troops trained, and from one we’d dug up flat pieces of limestone that we used as a baseball diamond. When neighbors came home at the end of their workdays, we dispersed to the sidewalks, and even Lance Willis’s dad, who sported a silver MGB, could drive over our infield without scratching the undercarriage. Of course, everyone knew what had happened to me in Mrs. Le Grand’s class, and while they’d teased me mercilessly for a day, all agreed she’d been the one at fault. Hugh and Merle Spencer, the only ones beside myself to have witnessed the scene firsthand, even commended me on being removed from her classroom and mused aloud, if pissing my pants was all it took, why more of her students weren’t pissing theirs every chance they got.
With the plastic, oversized bat Hugh swatted a hit over Simon’s head and charged to first, advancing Jack and Merle to second and third. I took a practice swing and stepped up to the plate, but something wasn’t right. Clutched in Jim Kraft’s hand, the ball looked heavier than the hollow, perforated plaything it was, and with the scowl on his face he might’ve been waiting to bowl and irritated by a slow pinsetter. When the bases were loaded, there weren’t enough of us for a catcher, but sensing the presence of one, I turned around and there stood Darden.
His sister Jenice practiced backbends on the Spensers’ lawn, her braids tied off in a dozen pink bows. Though Darden and I had sat side-by-side in Mrs. Burnett’s class for weeks, we’d said nothing to each other since my first day.
“Hey, everyone,” I said, “this here’s Darden. He lives six doors down, on the corner. I told him he should join us after school, and here he is.”
“We all know who he is,” Jim said and left the pitcher’s mound as if called to home plate by the umpire. The others mobbed behind him, though I could see from their expressions that only Jim held Darden in contempt. Even Jim’s brother Jack, who was in third grade, looked more worried than perturbed.
“If Darden plays,” I said, “there’ll be enough of us for a catcher.”
“What makes you think he’s one of us?” Jim asked
“Because he lives in Chaffee Village, the same as us,” I said, surprised by courage that, once shown, fueled my belief in a principle that until then had seemed abstract and inapplicable to life as I knew it. The others stood behind Jim and I before, and behind me stood Darden. Though Jim’s strength and reach were easily twice my own, I was ready to fight Goliath, and would have if Darden hadn’t pushed me aside.
It was as if he’d come bearing alms. From his pants pocket he withdrew an envelope. Whether it was the same one he’d shown me or a different one, I couldn’t have said, for Jim snatched it from his hand as soon as he saw it.
“Now what have we here?” Jim said, Polaroid photographs fanned out like a hand of rummy, the whiffle ball he’d been holding clacking on the street until it quit bouncing and rolled into the gutter. “You know what?” he said. “These are good. These are very good. They leave nothing to the imagination.” He held each at arm’s length, as if he were a purveyor of fine art and arbiter of refined taste, and Darden flashed me a withering smile. Unlike me, Jim knew the worth of what he’d been given, and Darden wanted me to know it. “You can see everything.”
Jack, hoping to look at them, too, clung to his brother’s forearm, but Jim only held the photos higher above our heads. When he’d inspected each, he returned them to the envelope and shoved it in his pants pocket.
“You can’t keep them,” Darden protested. “I only gave them to you to look at.”
“Well, they’re mine now,” Jim said, “possession being nine tenths the law.”
“What’s in them?” Jack wanted to know.
“What’s in them?” Jim mimicked. It was as if he’d seen, in the time he’d spent looking at the photos, how much older he was than the rest of us, and as he turned toward the tan duplex in which his mother sat in their air-conditioned living room wrapped in blankets watching Dark Shadows on TV, he was the 175-year-old vampire Barnabus Collins skulking away from a kill. Darden’s eyes filled with rage, but he said nothing.
“You give them back to him, you hear,” hollered Lance, but Jim kept right on walking, and as angry and filled with venom as I’d been, I felt as if my own blood had been drained.