Danny and I leaned against the chain-link fence on the far side of the baseball diamond. “We’re going to Venezuela,” I said, reaching down to pluck a blade of grass.
“Venzoo-ayla? Where is that?” He folded his arms and squinted, his upper lip curling to expose two oversized front teeth.
“Venezuela,” I corrected. “It’s in South America.”
“Why are you going there?”
“I dunno.” I didn’t know a lot of things about why we were moving, even after Dad had explained we had joined the Peace Corps.
“Why do we have to move away?” I asked him after he announced it to the family at dinner one night.
“They need people like me to help,” he reasoned. Dad worked in a hospital, though he didn’t wear a white coat like the doctors. Mom called him an administrator. I didn’t know what that meant other than he had a big office and I liked going there with him. I’d sit in his big leather chair and push the large clear buttons on his phone until he told me to stop. When I would tire, I’d curl beneath his feet and fall asleep to the sound of one sided phone conversations.
“What about my friends?” I asked. Venezuela sounded too far away to imagine.
“You’ll make new friends Ricky.”
“I think it will be fun,” Christine added.
I shot her a dirty look. I still didn’t want to leave.
The local newspaper called to do a news story on us and visited the house to photograph the family. Mom and Dad made us get dressed up, and they asked Dad a lot of questions while they took pictures. He answered energetically while Mom sat quietly listening. Dad showed us the article later that week, featured in the 1969, Bellevue American. Dad looked handsome and confident; Mom stylish with her Marlo Thomas That Girl hairdo and a wary smile; and my sisters and I, frozen in the camera flash like possums. The picture looked like us but seeing myself in the paper felt creepy.
“Can I have your fort?” Danny asked as we walked back to class. We had built it the year before, behind his house near Bovee Park. Well hidden, we had built it beneath the cover of a rhododendron. We kept collections of our most prized possessions in the fort; old issues of Playboy kyped from Danny’s Dad, pop can pull tabs strung together like garland, and Gerber baby food jar-lid bracelets. I stacked a pile of dirt clods by the entrance, ready and waiting just in case the teenagers who partied in the clearing nearby discovered us.
“I guess,” I said, chewing on my grass blade, sucking the bitter juice from the stem.
As our departure date neared, Dad shared more details. We would move first to Lexington, Kentucky for six months of orientation and training before moving to South America. Mom said it would be like going to school.
“Do I have to go to orientation?” I asked. Multi-colored maps of the US and South America were sprawled across the dining room table for inspection. I traced my finger from our current home in Bellevue, Washington to Lexington, and then to Caracas, Venezuela. Even on the map, Venezuela appeared to be a long way from home.
“You kids will be in school,” he said.
“Why?” I whined, slumping back in my chair, swinging my legs anxiously. I won’t know anyone and then we’ll have to move anyway. I looked to Mom for support but she remained silent.
“This is stupid,” I huffed behind crossed arms, kicking the table leg with the toe of my Jack Purcell.
“Oh Lord, Ricky,” Dad sighed.
While my friends were getting excited about the coming summer, I spent the rest of June trying to spend as much time as I could hanging out in my fort. The day before we were to leave, I gathered my model airplanes and hung them from the plywood ceiling with mom’s sewing thread.
“Why are they all speckled?” Danny asked. The models were covered with lime green dots.
“My dad hired my older brother, Harris, to paint the inside of our house. ‘He needs the money,’” I mimed in a whiney voice. Poor or not, he had done a lousy job. He painted over the switch plates and left my models attached to the ceiling as he rolled out the paint. It made them look stupid.
We arrived in Lexington the next day, arriving to a large southern style mansion called the Dillard House, located adjacent to the University of Kentucky campus. Three other Peace Corps families shared the house with us and I felt relief when I saw there were other kids to play with.
We were shown to our rooms and I bounced on the bed with glee. While we had our own rooms, we had to share the bathrooms and the kitchen with the other families. Mom’s face lit up when we discovered a large sitting room facing Limestone Street with enormous glass picture windows rippled with age. A grand piano stood in the corner.
After we finished unpacking, Mom set up her paint easel by the windows. I helped Dad make the blank canvasses, stapling fabric in place as he stretched the material over the homemade frames. Sizing the fabric with gesso, we lined the walls of the room with the blank canvasses to dry while Mom filled the room with the smell of oils and acrylic. She sang as she mixed paint, making up random melodies.
¿Adonde vas? ¿se vas?, ¿se vas?
¿Adonde vas? ¿se vas?, ¿se vas?
Our munchkin voices bounced off the oak floors and ten-foot ceilings while Dad plunked sharp notes on the piano. Mom painted, her profile radiating a halo of magnesium fire from the sun streaming through the age-rippled glass. She looked like and angel and for this moment, the uncertainty of the move disappeared.
I soon made friends with one of the other kids in the house. The same age as me, Jeff had a baby brother, Dylan, who kept his mom busy all the time. Jeff’s dad scared me. He had a loud voice that boomed through the hallways and he filled the doorway when he entered a room. I only heard him laugh after dinnertime when the dads drank Bourbon and talked about sports or complained about politics. Mostly though, Jeff’s parents ignored him. He floated from room to room looking for someone to talk to like a dust bunny blown around the drafty house.
Playing outside one day, we explored a carriage house that sat on the back of the property. It had a storage room above the carriage bays that still had pegs on the wall for the horse tack, and we instantly turned it into our fort. Jeff found a stash of old magazines in the corner with pictures of naked people wearing dog collars and leather clothes that didn’t cover their privates. Giggling as we looked, we hid the magazines under some musty blankets for safekeeping. Eventually the girls found the room and we battled them daily for dibs on the space, racing up the stairs after each breakfast to see who could claim it first.
Though Mom still looked unhappy, I enjoyed the Dillard House and felt glad that we had moved. Until we were introduced to our babysitter, that is.
With long dark hair and a permanent frown, Carlotta yelled at us constantly.
“Cuidado, ninos! You will get hurt,” she would exasperate through her broken English.
We roamed the backyard oblivious to her warnings to behave. Occasionally she would gather the kids together to teach nursery songs in Spanish but Jeff and I paid no attention. We’d whisper to each other, making fun of her until she’d separate us. One day the girls found the magazines and showed them to Carlotta, pointing fingers in our direction. She shook her head in disgust, throwing them in the garbage.
“Ninos malos,” she muttered with flat black eyes.
As summer heated up, Jeff and I were allowed to venture into town to explore the five and dime variety stores. That is when I began to notice the real differences between Kentucky and Washington. People talked funny: Can sounded like cain, boy sounded boah, and I had no idea what dad-burned meant. With the warmer days came the humidity and even eating breakfast caused us to sweat so we headed to anyplace that had air-conditioning. The Kentucky Theater with its high ceilings, velvet draped movie screen and wool seats that smelled of buttered popcorn became our favorite place to go. The floor squeaked with every step down the aisle, but no one cared. We’d hunker down during the hottest hours of the day with a double feature movie of The Lone Ranger.
One sweltering afternoon we headed home after the movies, chasing pools of shade. The air thick and silent save for the constant hiss of the cicadas, even the sound of a car door shutting sounded dull in the heat. We cut through a parking lot and came upon two guys arguing. Ducking behind a Sassafras tree, we listened for a few moments and then ran home. I arrived first, exploding into the kitchen with my clothes paper mache’d to my skin. Mom stood in front of a bubbling pot on the stove.
“Mom, what is a nigger?”
Her hand froze above the large black iron pot. “What did you say?” she asked, her almond shaped eyes suddenly round.
“Where did you hear that?” She asked, facing me. Pearls of perspiration dotted her forehead.
“On the way home from the movie. A man yelled it at another guy. He used the f word too.”
I knew what the f word meant. One day last year I heard Tommie Pratt call his older brother the f word on the school bus. The Pratts were towheaded boys who looked like twins because their mom dressed them in matching clip-on ties, sweater vests and Hush Puppy suede shoes. When we got home, Christine and I played a game of tag in the house as mom prepared dinner. She tagged me just as I reached Mom. I told her it didn’t count because Mom played home base. Christine said home base couldn’t be a person so I called her a fucker and Mom washed my mouth with Lava Soap. That’s how I learned what the f word meant.
“Honey,” she said now, pausing to choose her words carefully. “The n word is another word you should never use. It is ugly and hateful.”
“But what does it mean?” I pressed.
Mom sighed, wiping her forehead. “¡Carajo, que caliente!”
“Honey, we live in the South now. For a few more months at least until our training is complete. They do things differently here. People are not treated the same. Especially black people. But times are changing and some people, like the man in the parking lot, don’t like that.”
“But why?” I asked, spying the large cookie jar on the counter behind her filled with vanilla wafers. Mom rarely had cookies for us, let alone store bought cookies, but the other moms did.
“It’s complicated, Mijo,” she said, wiping her forehead. “I need to finish dinner, honey. Go outside and play.”
* * *
Shopping for new school clothes and supplies marked the transition from summer to fall. I raced up and down the aisles of the variety store, convinced I could run faster in my new Converse sneakers. Armed with No. 2 pencils, double-rule paper and a plastic zip pouch, I wondered, what would my class be like?
The remaining weeks of summer flew by quickly and Mom walked me to school on the first day. I fingered the tip of my shirt collar nervously as we approached Picadome Elementary, an old brick building with freshly waxed concrete floors. A wall of kids fought for airspace in the tightly packed hallways as we headed to the office.
“You’ll be fine,” Mom reassured as she handed me off to the secretary. Pausing to measure my expression, she patted my cheek and then turned on her heel and disappeared into the crowded hallway. I kept my eyes trained on her through the office windows, hoping she would look back but she didn’t.
“Follow me,” a voice commanded as a teacher’s assistant appeared at my. She led me purposefully through the clogged hallways, expertly parting the bergs of chattering kids. Depositing me in a classroom doorway at the top of the stairs, all eyes fell on me as I entered the room. Quickly scanning the rows for Jeff’s familiar face, I didn’t find it.
The bell rang loudly above my head and I jumped, hearing muffled giggles from the class room. My face became warm and itchy as I prickled with embarrassment.
“Find an open seat quickly young man,” the screechy voice from the back of the room commanded.
I took a seat toward the back of the room, near the windows. Heels clicked loudly on the polished concrete floor as the teacher walked to the front of the room.
“My name is Mrs. Larch and this is the second grade,” she said, the cords in her neck sticking out and her Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. Tall and spindly, her long arms were linked with knobby joints. Beneath her skirt she wore flesh-colored stockings that bunched at her ankles. A starched white collar pinched the top of her neck. Her head looked like it would fall over if she moved too quickly.
She scanned the classroom with wild-eyed scrutiny and continued. “I am certain we are going to have a well-behaved class this year, aren’t we?” she asked without waiting for an answer. Her teeth hung like yellowed stalactites below her bright lipstick and her accent sounded as thick as dried bacon grease on a pine cone. I couldn’t understand most of what she said. Once, I asked a boy next to me to repeat her instructions.
“Can I help you with something?” she said with her menacing smile. Everyone looked at me.
“I didn’t understand what you said,” I responded weakly.
“Didn’t understand? Are you dense, little boy?” Only the last word came out like boah. She glared at me under blue painted eyelids.
“Well, you must be. Everyone else can understand.”
It didn’t ask for help anymore. From then on I picked up what I could, but my schoolwork suffered, as I became her favored target. She made me an example of laziness to the rest of the class as she handed me graded homework graced with large red D’s and F’s.
Mom asked about school after dinner one day. “It’s okay,” I said. She held her gaze for a few moments to see if I really meant it, and I wilted under the attention.
“She yells at me, Mom. All the time.” Tears leapt down my face.
“The teacher? She yells at you?”
My throat felt hot and dry. I nodded my head affirmatively.
“Mijo, lo siento,” Mom said, stroking my chin. “Your father will talk to Mrs. Larch tomorrow.” She looked over at Dad. “Won’t you, dear?”
Dad looked up from his paperwork on the coffee table. “What? Oh yes, of course. I’ll talk with her,” he said, returning his attention to his work. I went to bed hopeful, with visions of Dad marching into the principal’s office and demanding Mrs. Larch be fired.
I woke up early the next morning and ate breakfast while patiently waiting for Dad while Mom hurried to get the girls ready for school. Dad rushed into the kitchen glancing nervously at the clock then quickly poured himself coffee. Scanning the morning paper on the kitchen table, he finally noticed me.
“Why aren’t you on the way to school, Ricky? You’re going to be late.”
“But Dad,” I squeaked, “You were going to talk with my teacher today.” I gripped my Superman lunch box and swung my feet nervously above the speckled linoleum floor.
“Oh Lord,” he said glancing at his watch. “I don’t have time to take you this morning, Ricky. I’m running late for an appointment.” He gulped his coffee and stared at the yellow-stained wall for a moment. “This will have to do,” he said with a sigh as he leaned over and began to scribble on a piece of paper.
“Give this note to her.” Dad folded the paper in quarters and thrust it toward me. I stared at the folded note for a moment and then slowly closed my hand over it. “She’ll understand, Ricky. Tell her I can to talk if she needs me to.”
He drained his coffee and shot me a forced smile as he slipped his arms into his blue seersucker jacket. He didn’t want to talk to Mrs. Larch anymore than I did. “You’d better get going, Ricky,” he said, leaning over to kiss me on the forehead, blanketing me with a wave of Bay Rum aftershave.
The scent of after-shave lingered after he left the kitchen. I remembered how we used to shave together. Dad had given me an empty razor handle and standing side-by-side in front of the large bathroom mirror, we swiped the cream from our faces as his whiskers spun into the drain. He splashed Bay Rum on his face, then mine. We laughed.
We lived back home then, in Washington State, where I could understand what the teachers said when they talked to me, like Mrs. Bright, my first grade teacher who drove a green MG convertible. I had a crush on her. I fantasized driving her around in her sports car while I held a lit cigarette between my fingers, gripping the leather-wrapped steering wheel. I’d say something funny and she would throw her head back laughing, her immaculate teeth gleaming in the sunlight. I laughed along, exhaling smoke in perfect white puffs.
I stuffed the note in my front pocket and quietly walked out the kitchen without saying goodbye to Mom. I stopped for a moment and looked up at the windows of the carriage house, tempted to go and hide out. I didn’t want to face Mrs. Larch. I hated this adventure.
I walked through school, the squeak of my Converse tennis shoes echoing down the empty hallway. In the classroom heads were bowing studiously over their books while Mrs. Larch perched at her desk, leering at the class like a vulture, ready to pounce on the first misdeed. A boy ground on a pencil with the sharpener at the rear of the room.
“Come here Ricky Thomas,” she said locking her eyes on mine. I approached her desk and my eyes watered with the scent of her perfume. It smelled like mothballs.
“Do you have something for me?”
“Yes Ma’am,” I said, trying my best to fit in. Everyone said Sir and Ma’am in Kentucky, though I noticed it didn’t mean being nice; people used it to be mean sometimes. I dug the tardy slip out of my front pocket along with Dad’s note and handed both to her. She opened a drawer on her desk and pulled out the attendance log. Scanning down the list of names with her bony forefinger, she stopped at mine, then traced across the columns to the date.
“Late,” she said aloud, accentuating the t as she scribed a tidy red check mark, then placed the book back in the drawer, sliding it closed with an authoritative thump. The folded note lay on her desk like a coiled snake. I shouldn’t have given it to her.
Spreading the notepaper flat, she read, her eyes moving rapidly from side to side. Tiny whiskers twitched on her upper lip.
She shifted her smoldering gaze back to me. “Yellin’?” she said loudly as the cords in her neck drew tight. “You think I’m yellin’ at you?”
“S-s-sometimes,” I said, barely audible.
“I. AM. NOT.YELLIN’,” she yelled, launching spittle torpedoes from her mouth. “You ungrateful little boy. You are most unappreciative of the extra attention I’ve been giving you trying to he’p you while the other kids in this classroom go without. I can see now it is a waste of my time. Go on back to your seat and don’t let me hear a peep outta you or I will send you to the principal’s office.”
I shuffled back to my desk in dread. The note only made things worse and my stomach hurt thinking about how bad she would treat me from now on.
I laid low for the first few days, expecting reprisals from her. Surprisingly, they never came. Mrs. Larch all but ignored me the rest of the fall. My schoolwork kept coming back with failing grades but I didn’t care. I threw it away along with my report cards with sternly scrawled notes warning of my poor performance and uncooperative attitude.
One night, Mom asked how things were going.
“Yeah, fine,” I reassured, pasting the best smile I could manage on my face. Mom looked at me for a long moment, as if measuring my words with my expression. I thought for sure she would push further but she returned to Yolanda’s plate, cutting the meat into kid-sized bites. Dad conversed with one of the other parents, leaning back in his chair with legs crossed while perching a glass of wine on his knee, oblivious.
Later that night, as I climbed into bed, I could hear Mom and Dad arguing in their room. I didn’t know which made me more afraid—their arguing or fear that the other parents would tell them to quiet down. I listened in silence as they finally stopped. Mom came into my room soon after and sat on the edge of my bed. The light from the hallway cast her features in partial relief. Her cheeks were wet and her voice unsteady. She brushed the hair away from my forehead.
“Ricky, I know this move hasn’t been easy for you kids,” she said, looking at me intently. “We will be moving soon and all this will be behind us, no?” She attempted a reassuring smile.
I nodded and closed my eyes, leaning into her open arms. She placed her hand on my cheek. Her palm soft and cool to the touch, I pressed into it while curling into a ball on her lap.
“You are getting too big for this, Mijo!” she laughed, taking away her hand to wipe her nose.
I didn’t want to be too big. I wanted to be small. To be protected by a Dad who didn’t back down from mean teachers and a Mom who never took “fine” for an answer.
She kissed me on the nose and silently left the room.