The Girl in the Black Dress
My feet were worn and blistered from the long walk. The July sunlight burned down on dry yellowed grasses. Small plants crunched and gave way beneath our bare toes. It was the kind of day that armies of dust blew around in little torrents and cicadas hummed in the dying brown treetops. Theo and Buddy, my two best friends, walked loyally by my side. Theo's head towered a good three inches higher than mine, but Buddy and I were the same height, about five nine. Not bad for seventeen.
We'd made it the two miles to the river. I could smell the water, slightly sulphuric from the backwash of too many processing plants and factories. But still, it was water for swimming on a hot day. A rickety bridge supported an ancient line of railroad tracks safely across the river. The makeshift swimming area lay just beyond that bridge. We paused a few yards ahead, peering over the side of the high steel beam rails at the swimming hole. The waters were dark and calm.
"I feel like someone's watching us." Buddy lifted his head and held it slightly to the side. Like a brown tick hound pup. He was the brain of our group anyway, and he always seemed to catch onto things before anyone else did.
Theo and I watched him intently. He seemed to decide it was safe, after all, and we continued on through the rest of the old bridge.
I reached down and grabbed one of the iron rails, attempting to determine whether or not a train was coming. No vibrations at all. It was safe. We kept walking. Thirty feet later, the street lay before us, swirling mirages of heat rising from its surface. A black old Model T sped out from around the curve and nearly swiped Theo's arm off.
"Outta my way ya dirty niggers!" A tiny grandmother yelled at us from the speeding vehicle. She looked completely wholesome, like a cartoon you would see on a cookie box. Cute, really. So odd to see that little wrinkled mouth contorted into a cruel snarl. Her words sent a burning sensation down my spine which had very little to do with the heat of the day.
We were used to it. 'Alabama has a past' Everyone would say. I still recalled the time when I was five when I first saw the men in white hoods. Almost like ghosts, yet more ominous. I asked her why they were trying to scare us and she said some folks just don't like things that are different.
There used to be a war, they told us at school, and the South lost a lot in it, the white folks thought it was our fault. The colored school was taught in a tiny ill-equipped building by Mrs. Taylor, an elderly black woman with a lot of fatigue lines across her face. She'd seen some hard times. I remembered seeing the lynch mob that year, and old Mr. Taylor hanging lifelessly from a tree. He caused too many waves, they said in town, trying to buy property in a white neighborhood.
We heard all the words they used on a daily basis. Coon, Spook, Nigger, Crow... but the signs everywhere only said "colored". Pretty little fences with notices that said "White entrance, colored entrance around back". Separate but equal- most importantly separate.
We finally reached the swimming hole, a shaded oasis curtained by graying sycamores and Spanish moss. The water was dirty, with lots of sediments lightly grading my palms as I scooped through its depths. But still it felt good. It was slightly cool, but not quite cold enough. I allowed myself to float just under the surface, only my nose and face exposed, like an alligator.
Often I had come here as a child and wished that I could just disappear under the waves, escaping into a better world maybe, one where I could go to college and become a doctor. I wanted to save people. It wasn't a question of the fact that I was black. I never wanted to be white- I was proud that I looked like my father. But still, I dreamed of college. Maybe I could follow in my father's footsteps and join the army. I'd been thinking about that lately. Only problem was, my father had been killed in the army, fighting Hitler. Mom would never let me.
"I'm gonna sit on top of the general store's roof and watch the parade and fireworks tonight." Buddy promised. It was Selma's heritage day, and 1957 marked some special anniversary. I sighed in boredom. A parade being merely an excuse for the rich white girls to dress up like southern belles, pretending it was 1857, the idea just didn't interest me. I was in no hurry to indulge their fantasies of the "Glorious Old South". They might as well have never freed the slaves, the only difference now was a technicality.
Negroes always had to ask permission. Just as the rich whites had controlled us a hundred years ago, and in the South, people have a very long memory. If you stepped out of line, they'd kill you. It wasn't murder- the police never called it like it was. If a black man was found hanging in a tree, well he was probably using the rope to try and break into a house, slipped on a branch, and the rope must have wrapped itself around his neck. Lots of Negro men had "accidents".
The other two had climbed out and were sunbathing in one of the sycamores.
"I'm not going to the fireworks or the parade" I declared to them from the water.
Theo seemed to think it over more weighingly. "I don't know, Seth, fireworks are romantic. It could be a good time to pick up girls. You know how I met Buddy's cousin there last year. She really liked me"
Theo never had popularity problems. He'd already been laid by about six different girls. Or so he claimed, anyway.
"I'm not looking for girls right now. I've been thinking about joining the army."
"Yeah right- your Mother would kill you before the commies would." Buddy laughed. He looked up at the hillside. A very white face watched us from over the iron railing. A young girl, maybe about our age, wearing an over-sized robe of a dress. It looked like she had just come from a funeral or something. Her face looked reddish. She looked very thin and poor but had kind eyes. Strangely, she didn't give off an air of tense mistrust, as most white folks did when looking at boys like us. She merely sat there, gazing in innocent curiosity.
"I know who that is." Theo said. "It's Loraine Bennet, I work for her grandfather. She's from Maine, and she's an orphan. I saw her at the general store. She just moved in with her grandfather, he's the only family she's got left."
We all looked back at her. Maybe she'd been watching us all along. Buddy had felt someone earlier. he turned to me to say something, but his voice was drowned out by a thunderous rumbling which grew steadily louder. It was a familiar sound to all three of us. A train was coming.
The girl must have been stupid. Who wouldn't know not to stay on a train track? Or maybe she was suicidal. She didn't budge. 'Oh my God-- She's trying to kill herself' I suddenly realized.
With jettisons of water streaming and splashing around me, I jumped out of the swimming hole. My body was soaking wet, but I ran as fast as I could. The massive black engine came steaming around the curve. I could hear the conductor frantically blowing the warning whistle and applying the breaks in useless desperation. The train had far too much momentum to stop in time.