|Apr/May 2016 Spotlight|
We got this part second-hand: Laurice sat in the back seat of her father's Chevy Impala—the cream one with thick white walls and tan interior—singing along to the radio, singing loud because of the open windows, and Hinson, her daddy, driving fast enough that the air flowed through the car like a warm hurricane. Maybe Hinson told her to be quiet, that he couldn't hear the real song, but Laurice kept on singing because that's the way she was. She hated being told what to do. Laurice had a temper, and she came by it honestly.
Seven years old, the Impala was beginning to show its age. A tiny crack in the dash had opened up on the passenger side. The lighter wouldn't light, and the glove box stuck unless you banged it just right with the heel of your hand. The air conditioner worked, but Hinson didn't much like the smell of fake air. He suspected it might be unhealthy. So the windows were open, even though it was the afternoon of July Fourth.
Hinson and Laurice drove toward the river, to Scout Cabin, to set up for that evening's fireworks show. Every summer Hinson volunteered to launch the show from the beach in front of the cabin. He knew to point the fireworks upriver and a little over the swamp. Even in the driest July, the swamp was boggy with wet pluff mud and smelly water, so there was never a danger of a fire with a decent aim. Even so, one of the pumper trucks always showed up, mostly to wind its siren at the beginning and end of the show.
Hinson always paid for all the fireworks. He hated the Chinese, he told us, because of some unspoken, personal occurrence during the Korean War, so he tried as best he could to buy stuff made in the USA, but it was next to impossible. Everything loud came from China—even Dixie Boy firecrackers were made in Macau. Sometimes, Hinson would jump around because he found a case of streamers from that English company, Pain's, at a stand in Myrtle Beach. Or he'd order buzz bombs from Standard's in India in March, so he'd be sure and have them by the Fourth. And it wasn't just the fancy airborne fireworks Hinson bought. He'd fill a second crate with Black Cats and Cobra Snakes and M-80s he'd hand out like candy to teenagers whose parents let them play with explosive things. He had sparklers for the little kids so they wouldn't feel left out.
That afternoon, Laurice rode, singing, stuffed between the two crates. Maybe she was thinking about the fireworks show to come, the way charred bits of paper the size of snowflakes—the remnants of the Astro Fortune Cones and Star Glitters—floated down Black River for a good ten minutes after the siren sounded. Or the way her daddy's show lit up the bone-white beach at night. She probably wasn't thinking about the heat outside or the way the wind through the windows was beginning to feel hotter and hotter. Or the bend in the road to Scout Cabin her Daddy had to brake for.
Sometimes things, people told us later, have to be just right to go that wrong. The slowing down for the curve. The cigarette lighter that wouldn't light. Hinson tamped a Marlboro from his hard-pack and tossed it on the seat. With both hands close on the wheel, he tore a paper match from a book and struck it. Then he probably remembered how stupid it would be to smoke with an entire fireworks show piled in the back seat. So perhaps he laughed and fanned the match and tossed it out the window. In that little bit of blowing space, the match caught some unfortunate wind, flared into flame again, then blew through the back window, landing in one of the crates.
I don't know if Laurice had a second to connect the dots, to realize amid the rush of wind and the whine of the radio, what a lit match might do in the big wooden crate of fireworks. I feel better thinking she saw nothing out of the ordinary, only heard what sounded like sudden drums beating out time that didn't match the song until the world around her exploded.
But we'll never know, because we got all this second-hand, because Laurice remembers next to nothing, because her daddy doesn't talk about it much, except on the weekends, when he drinks.
My mother forced me to visit Laurice in the hospital because that's where my mother worked. She was on duty the afternoon the ambulance brought her in. She was surprised Laurice wasn't burned more. "I think Hinson had more burns on him than she did," Mom said.
Laurice was hurt places other than the surface of her skin. Slow trails of blood dripped from both her ears. My mother said her eyes were wide open and unblinking, "like she'd just had the biggest surprise of her life," she said. And her mouth was open, too, an interrupted mid-scream. "I don't mean to be flip," my mother said, "but your little friend looked like a cartoon who'd just stopped all of the sudden."
The people in the emergency room figured Hinson drove the car off the road into the bog, snatched his daughter from the deafening midst of the unexpected fireworks show in his back seat and tossed her into the brown, shallow water. They had to peel her out of wet clothes smelling rank and decayed, like the swamp. But despite the fact he grabbed her as quick as he could, damage had been done. Both Laurice's eardrums were shredded by the noise, and eventually Hinson lost an eye from a bottle rocket launched at close range.
Hinson went home after a couple of nights, but Laurice stayed in the hospital waiting for her eardrums to scar over, waiting to see what would happen to her hearing. That's why my mother made me visit. "I see that poor girl watching the door every day. She doesn't get visitors much. Her daddy's almost embarrassed to show up," she said.
I have, from a young age, disliked hospitals. There are a handful of reasons, the most important being I am uncomfortable with unexpected misery. Every time I walk into a hospital, I see some new form of torment inflicted upon a human being, a sight for which I am always unprepared. An odd half-limb or misplacement of facial features, even perhaps a unique sound of agony from behind a closed door. I am not comfortable with the surprises of suffering.
This, of course, I have come to realize over the years. Back then, I just knew I didn't want to see a girl whose head had been stuck in the loud, fiery core of a fireworks show, a girl who had to be dunked in swamp water to save. But my mother was a nurse, which meant she had a knack for convincing people to do uncomfortable things. So I followed her to the second floor of Kelly Memorial one afternoon and walked into Laurice's room.
I expected tubes and machines, but there she sat, not hooked to anything, cocking her head at me like a dog searching for a train whistle. Tiny red and black pock marks dotted her face and neck and arms. The marks weren't uniform, the largest the size of a quarter, and they glistened like they'd been dabbed with a clear, oily cream. Here and there, a band-aid appeared, but I wasn't sure what they were covering. Her left eye drooped half-closed as though she were tired on one side of her face. She smiled, happy to see me, and that made me feel better. I didn't realize how unimportant my feelings were at that moment. Laurice screamed "HEY!" at me. My mother had filled me in about her hearing, the fact she couldn't pick up much of anything, but that it seemed to be slowly returning. For a while, though, she would be all but deaf. I expected the mottled, blunt speech the hard of hearing use, but Laurice was clear as a bell. Just really, really loud.
She yelled she was going home in a couple of days, and she was sick of eating jello. She hollered she didn't remember the fireworks going off in the back of the car. She screamed the last thing she remembered was the song on the radio before all the noise and heat and color crashed in on her. It was "Joy to the World," by Three Dog Night. "ISN'T THAT FUNNY?" she yelled. "JOY TO THE WORLD."
We kept trying to give Laurice signals she was plenty loud enough, but nothing worked. She kept on. My mother closed the door. She'd brought a little pad of paper with her, and she dug a pen from the pocket of her nurse's uniform. She wrote down: Hon, we hear you fine, and Laurice screamed, "THAT'S GOOD."
My mother whispered to me, "I don't think she's had anybody to talk to much." She wrote a note; Where is your mother? And Laurice hollered, "I THINK SHE WENT TO HAVE A CIGARETTE." My mother made a little growl in her throat. "You think they'd give up smoking after what happened," she whispered behind her hand.
Maybe it was unfair to talk about Laurice's parents right in front of her. She was suddenly from another country and didn't speak our language, and all she wanted to do, I could tell, was make some noise. I thought about borrowing the pad from my mother and writing questions to Laurice. Like, was she mad at her daddy? Or did she think she was going to die? Or what would she do if she was deaf forever?
But I didn't ask any of those. I just wrote down I would see her later, when she got out of the hospital, which was true. I knew I'd see her riding her bike down my street. Or when my brother and I rode across Highway 52 to the Bantam Chef, I'd see her in the magnolia tree she always climbed. She would be different this time, though. She'd be the girl who got burned and couldn't hear us coming.
My mother's shift wasn't over for hours, so she walked me down to the parking lot where I'd left my bike chained up. When she worked and my father was off on what my mother called one of his "tangents," my bike was how I got around town. On the way out, we passed the little steel table where people sat and smoked. Hinson was the only one there, his Marlboro pack in front of him. He looked across the parking lot like he was trying to spot something way off in the distance. He didn't notice us standing there for a good two or three drags on his cigarette.
"Oh," he said, stubbing out the butt like a man caught doing something wrong. "I need to go back inside, I suppose."
I was glad my mother spoke. "Hinson, we're so sorry," she said. "Thank god nobody was hurt terribly. This could've been worse, trust me."
Hinson turned more toward us, so I could see the patch on his eye from a new angle. It wasn't pirate-like or sinister, like the ones in movies. It was more sad, like the fingerprint of a mistake. Made of gauze and tape, everything held in place with a thick rubber band.
Hinson turned back toward the parking lot. "Worse?" he said. "I got one eye and poor Laurice is deaf as a stump. Tell me what's worse." My mother patted him on the shoulder, and he shrunk away like an animal scared of a new beating.
"At least y'all are still here. That's a blessing," she said.
Hinson dug into the Marlboros for a new one. He tore the top of the hard-pack. "Blessings," he repeated. Now, I realize the expression on his face. Hinson was a man looking for somebody to be mad at, somebody to blame. But everybody was being so nice to him, he couldn't reach that place where he blamed himself, no matter how hard he tried.
Laurice kept to herself the rest of the summer. Even after her week in the hospital, she never showed up much on our street, just an occasional glimpse of her taking the corner fast on her bike. My mother said she heard Laurice's eardrums were better, but she would always be hard of hearing, that she would miss some of what was going on around her, "which may not be such a terrible thing," my father added. He was home and sour about the world in general because the upcoming school year was going to be different. It was the first year they were going to mix us all up. Black kids were coming from Cades and St. Stevens. We'd heard I would be having some black teachers, which scared me a little but also gave me a chill of excitement. At that point in my life, a black person had never told me what to do, never graded me on anything. My father dreaded the school year, not because he had anything against black people. He just hated change of any kind on general principle. Change caused his repaired, half-stomach to act up, which usually turned him belligerent and toward the door for another tangent away from us.
A new private school in town was set to open in the fall, too, so a lot was going on, lots of people shuffling and resettling and fleeing in general. It wasn't so hard for us to decide what to do. With my mom's nurse salary (the only decent money coming in), my brother and I were, no doubt, going to the public school. I knew Laurice would be there too. Her daddy hadn't even replaced the Impala yet. Hinson still drove it around town, the interior smudged and charred, like a kind of badge of shame, or maybe just a reminder of how quickly things could blow up.
Like I suspected, Laurice was there on the first day of school, tanned, like she'd been to Pawley's Island right up until that morning. All of us had parents dropping us off, just in case of trouble, but like most of the black-fears our parents had, they never amounted to much.
"Where's your momma and daddy?" I asked her. She cocked her heard so I repeated myself louder. She got it.
"They wouldn't walk me, and I ain't riding in that car ever," she said. I noticed she wasn't as loud as she'd been in the hospital, but it was still too loud for school. She walked away like she'd said all she needed to, and I lost her among the bodies and heads roaming around, looking for room numbers and teachers' names—all the parents and their children, all the black and white heads. The whitest thing in the hallway was my mother's nurse uniform, and I was suddenly embarrassed. We stood out too much on a day when that wasn't a good thing.
My mother grabbed Eli by his hand and said she had to take him to his classroom. "You know where you have to go, right?" she said, but it really wasn't a question. She knew that even in the sixth grade, I—unlike my father— had no problem with change. I didn't want anybody holding my hand when I went to the classroom, number 326, which belonged to a Miss Frierson.
When I walked into Miss Frierson's room, everything was quiet like church. All of the desks seemed to be filled by white kids and black kids, none of them talking, all of them staring in different directions. The room smelled like pine cleanser and mold. Rusty Thomasson peered out the window on the far side of the room, an empty desk behind him. I headed for it. Miss Frierson was the blackest woman I had ever seen, her skin so dark all the features on her face disappeared. She wore sunglasses, so I couldn't tell if she was watching me or cutting her glance elsewhere. I walked by Laurice's desk on the back row, and she rolled her eyes at me. I was positive Miss Frierson could've seen her make that face, and for the first time that morning, a jolt of fear ran through me.
I only knew about half the people in the room. The other half were the new kids, black boys and girls I'd never seen before and a couple of underdressed country boys with skin rubbed red and raw from an unexpected cleaning. We were a roomful of sudden strangers. Rusty didn't say a word when I slid into the desk. Nobody knew the rules yet. Nobody knew which way Miss Frierson was looking.
For two or three minutes, we didn't challenge the silence in the room. We just stared. The shelves were neat with history and social studies texts, the walls bare of posters and charts. I thought I smelled a hint of new paint mixed in with the cleanser. Miss Frierson's desk was free of any clutter, just a big white Bible perched near her right hand, a coffee mug near the left. A bell finally sounded, and we all jumped. A black boy near the radiator laughed, and Miss Frierson cut her sunglasses at him, shutting him off. She pulled a sheet of paper from somewhere—her lap or maybe a hidden pocket—and began to call the roll. Her voice was steady and a little higher pitched than I would have guessed. She barely moved her lips when she spoke, a thin slice of white teeth peering through the darkness of her face. The words floated out over us without any emotion to carry them. She didn't look up from the paper, just made a mark with a pencil when we answered.
Laurice's last name was Weir, so she was near the end of the list. I'd kept my eyes on her after my name was called. Laurice had lost interest and begun to doodle on the notebook in front of her. "Weir," Miss Frierson all but whispered, and no one replied. Laurice rubbed her nose with the end of her pencil and went back to her sketch. "Weir," she said again. "Weir." From a distance, I tried to will Laurice to answer, but she was off somewhere, lost in whatever she was drawing. I raised my hand. Miss Frierson's head twitched slightly in my direction.
"Are you Weir?" she asked.
"No, ma'am," I said. "I answered already."
"You may not go to the bathroom," she said, not more than a murmur.
"I don't have to go to the bathroom," I said. "Laurice didn't hear you."
"Who is Laurice?"
"Weir," I said and pointed at the back of the room. The movement made Laurice look up. She shot me a wondering sort of expression.
Miss Frierson didn't say a word, just rose from behind her desk. She was a tall, thin woman, almost what you'd call bony. She walked toward Laurice, who still had no idea what was going on. Miss Frierson stopped over Laurice's desk. Her head seemed to be turned toward the window, as if she were staring at the playground. But we couldn't see her eyes.
"Why didn't you answer me?" she whispered out of the slit in her face.
Laurice looked from me up to Miss Frierson's. Panic rushed behind her eyes when she realized she'd missed out on something.
"Are you trying to show me up?" Miss Frierson said, and I finally made out some details on her face. The skin on her cheeks tightened up. Her voice quivered a bit. "Are you?"
Laurice did the worst thing she could've. She raised her hand and pointed to her ear. And she smiled. I knew Laurice, so I knew the smile meant to say she was sorry. Miss Frierson saw it different. She saw a white kid with a bone to pick on the first day of class.
"She can't hear you," I hollered, probably too loud. Miss Frierson spun on me.
"You, shut your mouth," she said quickly, the most energy she'd shown all morning.
"But she doesn't know what's going on," I said. "I mean, you got to at least speak up for her to hear you. She had an accident."
That's when Laurice reached up—while Miss Frierson looked in my direction—and touched her on the arm. Miss Frierson wasn't ready for that, and she screamed. She ran to the door of the classroom and screamed again, this time calling what sounded like names into the hallway. Her shouts echoed and hung in the heavy air of the hall until two big white men ran in the room, took me and Laurice by the arms and steered us to the principal's office.
I didn't think too much about it. Mr. Patrick, the principal, had a scared look on his face years before black teachers showed up at school, so it didn't surprise me that he'd do anything to avoid trouble so early this particular fall. He told the two of us to just stay home until Monday. "You'll only miss a day," he said. "We won't call it a suspension. We'll call it a delayed beginning for you two." Mr. Patrick didn't want to start anything.
Which was fine by me. I didn't much care for school back then, and I wasn't real sure I wanted to head back to a classroom run by a woman in sunglasses. I considered Mr. Patrick's proposal a gift. Laurice's dad didn't see it that way.
He arrived at school already mad, and even though it wasn't much after nine in the morning, I believe he'd been drinking something that fueled all the things bothering him. He wore a higher quality patch on his eye now, a black one, and when he told the secretary behind the counter that the principal better "drag his ass out where I can see him good," he cocked his good eye at her like a gun.
Patrick stuck his head ground-hog-like from his office door, and Hinson charged behind the counter, waving his finger. "First day," he hollered, "first day and you got to pick on a pair a white kids."
Every time Patrick tried to answer or defend himself, Hinson cut him off with the finger or the patch. Laurice sat by me on a wooden bench. She leaned over and said too loud, "I can hear him okay," but nobody paid her any attention. Hinson seemed overly mad for what had happened in the classroom, like he'd flipped on a switch he couldn't find again to turn off.
"I want to see that teacher," he said, and it struck me funny, him wanting to see all these things when he was wearing an eye patch. Plus, Laurice being the cause of everything because she couldn't hear. The deaf and the blind, leading the way. It became too funny for me. I tried to keep from laughing, but I couldn't. I clapped my hands over my mouth, the sound bursting through my fingers like escaping water. In a short pause in all the yelling, the only sound people heard was me, giggling like a crazy man, trying to cram the laughter back into my mouth. Hinson turned on me.
"You think something's funny?" he hissed, and I smelled his breath. I know alcohol, and this was bitter stuff, something close to flammable.
"Nossir," I said, but I couldn't stop laughing. He looked like a lost pirate, and his little girl with her pockmark scars and mostly-confused expression on her face was something I couldn't dodge. I glanced up at Mr. Patrick for help, but he had pulled his head back inside his office, probably happy I had somehow given him an escape route.
"This funny to you?" he said, but before I could answer this time, he went on. "This is happening, you stupid kid. This is a real thing. And the last thing we going to do is laugh at it."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but there wasn't time for an explanation. The same two white men came in and told Hinson he and Laurice better go. They laced their big arms across their chests.
While I waited for my mother, I found out the two men were coaches hired that year to teach P.E. and show us the sex-education movies and make sure the wrong kind of people didn't stay on school property. They were new, but they were already good at their jobs.
This part, I got first-hand, not because I wanted to, but because Laurice made me, really. She came by my house the next Sunday in late afternoon, knocked on my door and yelled I needed to follow her. Her bike leaned against the porch steps, and she'd been riding for a while because I could see from behind the screen door her face was shiny with sweat.
"You got to see this," she hollered and jumped back on her bike. She was a half-block away before my feet found the pedals. She turned down the street that ran beside my house and dead-ended at the railroad tracks a quarter mile away. I kept her in sight enough to know she was heading for the place we called The Dunes, a little strip of unused land between the end of the street and the elevated tracks where the city dumped any of their spare construction dirt. We had big, clay-colored hills to climb on all year long, hills close enough to the tracks we could throw dirt clods at the trains passing above us.
Laurice rolled her bike into a hill of dirt and took off on foot for the tracks. When I wasn't breathing hard from chasing her, I could hear tiny, delicate pops in the distance, like far-off hunting rifles, some of them slightly louder than others. Laurice raced up the slope of gray rip-rap, slipping once on the rocks. She ran the tracks for a hundred yards, then came to a quick stop. She pointed ahead of her like an explorer sighting new territory, and when I reached her, the pops had turned into absolute roars of quick thunder. For a second, I thought I might be hearing the rumble of a train, but the tracks under my feet weren't vibrating. I sighted down Laurice's arm in the direction she pointed.
There, on the narrow, flat edge at the top of the slope, sat Hinson, facing the other side of the tracks, his newest fireworks show lined up and sparking from the thin strip of railroad right-of-way, all of his noise and fire aimed at the small, wooden shacks sitting too close to the tracks. Like an artillery gunner, he adjusted the trajectory of the Roman Candles so the trail of smoke streaked over the roofs. The bigger fireworks, the sky rockets and repeaters, normally aimed high over the swamp on the Fourth of July, exploded far below us on rooftops. From where we stood, we could see people, black people, scrambling ant-like for cover. Laurice covered her ears, her eyes wide. She became that cartoon again.
I took a step toward Hinson. I don't know why. I had no idea what I wanted to do. Maybe I just wanted a better look. Laurice pulled me back. She had reached her limit. She could go no closer to the sounds and to her father and didn't want me to leave her alone. She yelled something at me, but it didn't matter what she said. I couldn't make out words among all the noise.
Then Hinson saw me and his daughter standing there. He stopped lighting fuses. The sun had dipped below the tree line, but there was still enough dusk to see Hinson's face, flickering in the flame from his lighter. The stink of burned gunpowder drifted over us in a heavy haze. The quiet fell down around us, and Hinson said, "I'm just trying to scare them. Not hurt them. That's all I want." He turned back to his lineup of rockets and paper cannons.
Before he lit the next fuse, I heard a sheriff's siren somewhere on the black side of the tracks, the wrong side if they wanted to catch Hinson. When I turned to Laurice, she was starting to cry, tears brimming her eyes. "What did he say?" she asked, and she didn't yell it. "What was it he said?" It was close to a whisper. But I heard her clearly. I remember wondering if I should lie or keep my mouth shut, so I did.