It was so hot that all we had found the energy to do was watch the birdhouse we built with Momma’s glue gun melting to pieces on the branch of the poplar in much the same way we were on the front porch.
When we were told to “go out and play,” there was always the unneeded, “… and don’t come back until lunch time.”
Ronnie’s head popped up and he smiled his gap-toothed smile, freckles stretched and splattered across his nose.
“Let’s go frog huntin’,” he said, and then ran to the back yard where we kept our frog hunting gear. He nearly tripped over the broomstick with the nail embedded diagonally in the tip as he dropped the net we had made outta some sorry ol’ potholders Jessica made at arts and crafts in a class called Mack-cra-may, or something. She always said it with a twist of her lips and her nose in the air like she had learned to speak French at the same time.
We giggled the whole time we pulled those rainbow things apart and knotted ’em back up so’s to make our net.
Walking down the side of the road felt hotter than sitting in the full sun of the porch. The asphalt smelled like the tar patches that ran all across the road like Grandma’s varycose veins.
Butchy got his shoe stuck when he went to leave his footprint in one. At first we was all laughin’ too hard at him hopping around on one foot to help him get his shoe out. He kept yelling that the whole road was gonna melt, and pointing off to where it disappeared over the hill. The wavy lines snaked and blurred the horizon and looked like they left a big puddle underneath. But when we got close there never was nothing but more smelly old road.
We dropped off the shoulder and followed the well-worn trail through the woods known as the Stills. Not so much because it was quiet there, which it was, but because so many bootleggers once hid from the law in there a long time ago.
When we came out onto the ridge above Scudder’s pond, Quigley snatched the spear from Ronnie and threw it like a javelin toward the pond. It sailed in a long, smooth arch out past the marshy edge and plunged straight into the center and deepest part.
“Nice going, Numb Nuts,” I said, “there goes our huntin’ expedition.”
We all dropped onto our butts, and as if planned, scooped a bunch of rocks up and began skimming them across the surface of the water.
Suddenly I felt an intense pain in my head and saw stars. My eyes tightly shut I reached back to feel the wet stickiness seeping through my hair and spilling over my fingers.
I looked back at Quigley who half hid a smile as he apologized.
“Didn’t mean to,” he said sheepishly as my brother pulled my fingers away to have a look.
“We better get back home, Momma’s gonna wanna stitch you up.”
“I ain’t getting no stitches in my head,” I said defiantly, pressing my hand harder as if that would stop the throbbing pain.
“You need to get your eyes checked, Fool.”
He thought I didn’t hear him whisper to Butchy, “That’s why I popped that smart mouth Nigger, always calling somebody ouuta their name.”
When I looked to Ronnie I could tell he had heard him too. He looked deflated, as if it was the first time he had heard the word. But it wasn’t. Just the first time he had heard it said with hate.
We had always heard relatives use the word with affection like when Dad’s buddies would show up to play cards or help him work on the car, or our Aunt would refer to her boyfriend as hers. Every once in a while Momma would ask what her little ones were getting up to when she checked on us.
“Idle hands is the Devil’s playground. Y’all little niggers better behave.”
We had played with these boys for years, but now that we were getting older things were changing, dividing, and taking us off into different Americas.
M. Zane McClellan
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