TIPTOE STANCE by ATTILA PÉTER

 

Four

 

LABOR DAY FINDS ME crouched over a stack of books and magazines Lorraine has brought home from her office. We made up after my ludicrous suggestion that we leave everything behind and move to France, and her immediate reaction to the news that I had been given the sack got me thinking: there is nothing wrong with writing a book. Integrating the works of N**** thinkers with those of canonized ancient philosophers, the idea I pitched to the dean still sounds feasible, but now I am inclined to turn my back on the likes of Plato and Aristotle, and concentrate solely on America’s contribution to the discussion about freedom. And they don’t need to be colored either. To be sure, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois ought to be included, but I’m bound to discover some white theorists as I delve into my research. In fact, some of the scholars who may be of interest weren’t even American citizens, like Paine or that other British fellow, the founder of Georgia, what was his name again? I’ll need to read up on history in general, dust the cobwebs off my old notes and books. God, what was his name? I ask Lorraine, who is curled up on the sofa, a cup of coffee in her hand, waiting for the news to start. She says she has no clue, and I know it’s going to annoy me no end. Cronkite comes on and announces that this is the first daily half-hour news program. As if fifteen minutes of this wasn’t enough... They’ve got a report from Tuskegee, he says, so I sit down beside Lorraine to watch it. Alabama, Governor Wallace, delaying integration. That son of a bitch, she hisses.

*****

It's pouring down as I maneuver into a parking space outside the library. Getting soaked through is the last thing I need. I stop the engine and, with one foot out of the car, sit still for a while and stare at the rain beating against the windshield. Am I really going to bail now? What pathetic excuse will I offer when Lorraine asks me about what I saw at Graymont Elementary this morning? That I didn’t go because of the rain? I shut the door, turn the ignition back on and drive another mile or so. There is a large number of cars right outside Legion Field but, what with the rotten weather and it being the first day of school, it doesn’t strike me as odd. I park the car, turn up the collar of my jacket, cross the road and head toward the school in long, purposeful strides. The sight that greets me is so bizarre that, caught totally off guard, I let out a few expletives. The street outside the building is thronged with crowds that are waving Confederate flags and signs protesting integration. They’re booing and jeering, some shouting ‘‘Go home n*****s!’’ or ‘‘Hang Boutwell!’’ while others are hurling abuse at Communists, Jews, the Kennedys. I stare at them, frozen with shock. White adults with a fair few women among them, their eyes riveted on the school, which they demand be kept white, are looking right through the policemen who have formed a cordon to ward them off. The cops are just standing there, mute for the most part, like trees that have taken root, the rain bouncing off of their helmets. It all feels like a surreal dream, and my perplexity only increases when a man who is wearing dark sunglasses appears out of thin air and strikes up a conversation.

*****

 

‘‘That's a whole lot of drinks for two guys.’’

 

‘‘Actually, there's seven or eight of them in the back, ’’ I say and check the time. ‘‘James is never early, is he?’’

‘‘Is something wrong? You look fidgety.’’

 

I’m about to say that I wish we weren’t alone when I notice the young fellows, now the whole group, as they approach us like a pack of wolves closing in on their prey. The blood rushes out of my face.

 

‘‘We want no n*****s in here,’’ a short, wiry fellow in a military jacket snaps.

 

‘‘Or n*****-lovers,’’ another adds, making all of them snicker.

 

‘‘That’s right. So, get the hell outta here, the pair of you!’’

 

Lorraine’s hands shake as she reaches for her purse. We both rise and I put my arm around her, careful not to touch any of the gang on our way out. What do we do now? I turn back and see that they’ve stayed put and are still watching us, so I just begin to stride, guiding her along. After about fifty yards, I realize that the boulevard is in the opposite direction. Alarmed, I spin on my heel wordlessly, lugging Lorraine along like a dog on a leash. What are you doing, Ray, she whines. The boulevard is that way, I say, fighting back a sudden, violent urge to defecate. Oh God, no! We can see the punks rush out of the restaurant and, shouting obscenities when they spot us, they break into a gallop. Instead of turning around to make a bolt for it, I just stand there, petrified. Lorraine is tugging at my sleeve, yelling at me to move, but I won’t budge, my eyes fixed on the men, who I know are going to turn into assailants within seconds. They are charging down the street, their legs moving in perfect unison as if they’ve been rehearsing attacks like this. Maybe they have. She’s trying to pull me away, but it’s no use, I’m rooted to the spot. Do I figure I’ll get off more easily if I just stand here? I don’t know, it could cut both ways. They may think I’m a coward and hit even harder, or they may only give me a half-hearted beating because milksops like me are contemptible, unworthy of their kicks and punches. Nah, they’re not going to spare a n*****-lover. What about Lorraine? My gut says to tell her to run, run as fast as she can, but what good would running do?

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