Black or White

March 1, 2009

This story won the 2005 fiction award in the graduate writing program at Portland State University.

“Your dogs is prejudice,” the kid said. He was speaking to my brother and me as if chatting with friends about the weather. I knew the word prejudice dripped venom when black people said it. So how he said it surprised me as much as his arrival behind our house in the thin shade of palm trees. No black kid had ventured up our long driveway in the two years since we’d moved to Florida in 1961. We didn’t know any black kids, and I didn’t remember seeing anyone black in New Hampshire. I was thinking about this and trying to figure out what to say to the kid. He stared at Dan and me, and I took the crease in his otherwise smooth forehead as a sign of concentration.

“Don’t make no sense, them black dogs hatin’ colored folks,” he said. This was true. We didn’t understand why our two Labrador retrievers had chased every black person who dared pass our house. Just as baffling was why they let this black stranger pedal up here on his bike, a dented and rusted wreck except for the gleaming angel-wing handlebars that he could barely reach. Rogue and Sadie were curled up at his feet, panting in the steam bath of spring. The dogs went wherever we went. If we swam, the dogs swam. If we ran through the endless rows of orange groves out back, they ran ahead of us. Now Rogue and Sadie acted as if they belonged to this kid. He was waiting for us to say something, but the only sound was wind through the palms. I wanted to ask what kind of voodoo he’d worked. The kid reached down and scratched Rogue on the neck where the jet-black coat was thick and lustrous. Rogue wagged his tail and looked up at him. It was how Rogue usually looked at me. In his wet brown eyes I saw a smile.

The kid kept twisting his hands back and forth on the handlebar grips like he was riding a bad-ass chopper on the highway. The sleeves of his white t-shirt were rolled up to his shoulders in neat symmetrical folds, and his cutoff jeans were frayed. He looked a few years younger than us, and I suspected the growth spurt gripping Dan and me lurked just around the corner for him. He was ten, maybe eleven years old, but already muscled. His age didn’t matter, seeing how he enlarged himself with words and gestures. “Man, y’all is whiter than bread,” he said. “Y’all is so white I need my shades.” From a faded canvas bag slung over his shoulder he pulled out wraparound sunglasses with mirrored lenses. He lifted them toward his face with both hands, slow and deliberate as if executing a maneuver requiring extraordinary precision, then at the last moment set them atop his head. When they were finally in place, I realized I was holding my breath.

We had been playing basketball when we heard him coming. Our dogs were barking down by the lake road in front of our house. They stopped and there was a sound like a motor—it turned out to be playing cards flapping against bike spokes—and then a voice. The words were indistinct but rhythmic. Dan stopped dribbling. We turned toward the voice, and as the kid came into view we made out what he was saying: “John Henry’s my name, what’s yo’ game?” He chanted this as he rode toward us, the dogs trotting in his wake.

Looking at him now I saw Cassius Clay in miniature. His hair was trimmed short and squared off flattop style. Dark, almond-shaped eyes widened a moment before he spoke, as if signaling to pay attention to whatever came next. His eyes never stopped moving, soaking up everything even as he talked. “Hey man, where yo’ parents at?” he asked, his gaze glancing off me to the garage.

Instead of answering, I asked: “Where’d you get that name? You look kinda small to work for the railroad.” He didn’t laugh but Dan did. I’d heard the folk ballad about John Henry —a steel-driving black man in the 1870s who outworks a steam drill in a railroad-building contest but drops dead in victory. How could anyone not like the legendary John Henry? The idea of doing something heroic, no matter the risk, appealed to me. Maybe that’s why I’d read every Tom Swift and Hardy Boys book I could find.

“Man, I don’t work on no railroad. I’m too smart for that,” John Henry said. “But people gonna remember me just the same. Y’all gonna remember me.” With that he looked up into the palm fronds and sang out in a voice that sounded like a man’s: “You can hear John Henry a mile or more. You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring. Lord, Lord. You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring.”

Dan clapped, not with enthusiasm but in a mocking cadence. John Henry pedaled away to the garage, where the driveway was extra wide, and began riding in tight circles. “I’m from T’ville,” he said, as if this were big news. All the black people, three hundred or so, lived in T’ville, or Tylerville. Many traveled past our house since the road was the shortest route to work in Lakewood, our white town. T’ville was a quarter-mile away on the cove at the end of the lake. On Easter dawns, choir members of the black church congregated at water’s edge. Their hymns drifted along the misty surface and climbed with the sun to our house.

The road snaked around the lake for a mile. We had traveled it by car with our parents to get to the highway that cut T’ville in half. When it didn’t rain for several days, washboard bumps and ruts would shake and rattle our station wagon like it was coming apart, making teeth chatter in the heat and dust billow up in choking clouds. During tropical downpours the road was a quagmire that reached out and grabbed the car until the tires spun free in a spray of mud. Driving back toward home, we couldn’t miss the welcome sign that announced we were crossing into our town, population 1,023. Even without the sign everyone knew the dividing line between black and white: it was where the asphalt began.

John Henry, still riding in circles, said he traveled that road nearly every day. He didn’t say why, and we didn’t ask. Like other black kids, he’d learned to pedal up a full head of steam just before reaching our place, hoping the dogs would react too late to catch him. At some point he’d decided—or so he claimed—to change things. “I been trainin’ yo’ dogs, you know, talkin’ to them an’ stuff when they chase me. Didn’t take long for them to listen.” He let go of the handlebars but kept riding in circles. He ran his hands over his hair. At first I thought he was preening. Or was he showing off skills he knew we didn’t have? “Now they like me better than you. Pretty soon they won’t be chasin’ colored folks. Betcha fifty cent they won’t. What you say white boys? Y’all got fifty cent?”

Before we could answer, he threw down his bike, snatched the basketball from Dan, and began shooting at the hoop on the garage. After a few minutes he handed me the ball and rode away with a mumbled, “Y’all see me tomorrow.” We never thought we’d see him again.

* * * *

For two white boys suddenly transplanted to the South, black people were mysterious, and John Henry had only added to the intrigue. When we passed blacks on the road or said hello to the women who fished with cane poles deep in the weeds that ringed the lake, they were tersely polite if they spoke at all—not friendly or unfriendly, but aloof. It was hard not to wonder about them. No one in my family disliked black people, or at least admitted it. We knew we were better off, but coming from the North we felt no responsibility for this disparity, as if our roots absolved us. Before we met John Henry, Mom went through a brief phase of saying nigra, which she picked up from one of her new lady friends. I knew it was a gentrified way of saying nigger, but to me it sounded just as bad. Then one night at the dinner table I blurted out nigger during an argument about politics. The word was thrown around a lot at our all-white school as protest marches popped up in the big cities. That was my excuse. Dad put his hand gently on my shoulder and called me Charlie—usually when I made him mad I was “Charles” and he’d squeeze my shoulder until I winced. He explained why using that word was wrong. He even invoked God’s name although he’d stopped attending church. He didn’t yell, which was odd, and the look in his eyes made me feel small.

It seemed Rogue and Sadie saw something in black people that we didn’t. The moment one walked or bicycled near our property, the dogs would howl like wolves and race down the front yard to the road, fur all bristled up, and stop a few feet from the unlucky traveler. They wouldn’t stop barking and snarling or retreat until the person made it to the neighbors’ property. It was as if our dogs sensed the troubled times in the South and assumed we must not like anyone black. They reminded us of the police dogs Bull Connor was siccing on civil rights marchers in Alabama, only Rogue and Sadie never bit anyone. None of it made sense—our dogs behaving this way or the violent images on the nightly news. It embarrassed us. Sometimes we’d drag them away from their victims and apologize. From one hundred yards they could tell whether a passerby was black or white. Not once did they bother a white person.

* * * *

John Henry wheeled up on his bike the next afternoon as promised. For a few weeks he showed up nearly every day. We had never known anyone so talkative. He spewed brash words, challenging words. They shot out in rapid bursts with barely a pause between sentences: “Hey man, play me in basketball. Hey man, y’all can’t keep up with me. Hey man, what y’all got to eat? Hey man, y’all got big ears. Hey man, where yo’ mama work?”

Basketball was his emissary. He was good too, though not as good as he pretended. John Henry liked being a one-boy team, liked taking on the two white boys. He used our makeshift basketball court like a stage. Slowly he’d dribble forward, one arm raised and holding up two fingers, telling his invisible team what play to run. Before every free throw, he’d touch the silver cross hanging from his neck to his lips and tuck it inside his t-shirt. That was John Henry, always making things dramatic.

We had trouble beating him once or twice; he was tough for his size. His strength surprised me the first time I tried to wrestle the ball from him. He was every bit as strong as Dan, who was a year younger than me but stockier. We were nicer than we would have been to a white kid. We figured if we gave John Henry too much crap he might not return and we’d lose our new novelty, our window into the black world. Having him around also made me feel high-minded, superior to my bigoted white friends, not that I’d told them about him. So we let John Henry talk a lot of trash and show off.

His questions never stopped. We didn’t bother answering most of them. I had a lot  to ask him that I didn’t because I feared he might not want to reveal how he lived. And I didn’t want to get too close—having a black friend would single me out as strange.

We took a break from a basketball game and went inside to cool off. John Henry began walking from room to room as he often did, with the dogs and us following close behind. He informed us that he didn’t believe in air conditioning because “it ain’t natural.” Then he said, “Hey man, why y’all got two dinner tables?”

“One’s for breakfast and lunch in the kitchen, the other’s for supper in the dining room,” Dan said, his tone telling John Henry that any fool knows this.

“I ain’t talkin’ to you white boy, I’m talkin’ to Charlie.”

“You guys cool it,” I said. “And why are we still in the house? Time for another game.”

“Hey man, why don’t y’all have a Negro woman clean your house? Y’all look plenty rich enough.” He was eyeing me but petting Rogue. He knew our family wasn’t wealthy, but middle-class must have looked appealing. In a hallway John Henry opened a closet and looked inside. In the living room he opened an end table drawer. I pushed it shut. This was not the first time he had poked around too much. But until that moment, I hadn’t realized he was using us like we were using him. It made me wonder what exactly he saw, whether he was telling his friends about how this other half lived in the big place on the lake.

“Okay, we need to get out and play ball,” I said.

“Ya’ll scared yo’ mama’s gonna see me inside, ain’t ya’?”

“How many times do I got to tell you, John Henry? She don’t care.”

Right away the game became something else. John Henry kept driving to the basket, bulling his way through us. Dan was letting his elbows whip around on rebounds. We began fouling John Henry every time he touched the ball but denied it when he protested. He and Dan started arguing, tough talk that escalated to screams. Veins in Dan’s neck bulged out. John Henry clenched his fists. Then Dan shoved John Henry, and he pushed back harder. “Fuck you, white boy,” he said. John Henry cocked his head back and narrowed his eyes. He was up on his toes, stretching himself to look bigger. Neither had a shirt on and their bodies shined with sweat. Dan, a few inches taller, stood chest-to-chest with him, white skin against black skin, glaring a silent but clear message: don’t fuck with this white boy. I tried to step between them but neither budged.

“Don’t need this shit,” John Henry finally said, turning quickly and pedaling away. He shouted something unintelligible as he headed toward T’ville. It was as if we had taken both sides as far as we could, given what was swirling through the South. Or maybe we had learned as much as we wanted to learn about each other and decided to move on.

Occasionally we’d see John Henry riding past on the lake road, acting as if he didn’t know us or had never been inside our house. Rogue and Sadie didn’t chase him but followed next to his bike like escorts.

* * * *

Sadie didn’t chase anyone after Rogue went missing. One day, a month after John Henry stormed off, Rogue just wasn’t there. And as hard as we looked and called his name, there was no sign of him. After a week, we pretty much gave up. Messing around in the grove, I still expected to see him come running up. In the middle of the night I’d reach down from my bed to pet him. Sadie hardly left the house, spending most of her time under the kitchen table. Mom mentioned getting another dog, but I knew she didn’t mean it.

Dan and I were moping at the kitchen table after school, staring out the window and ignoring the homework spread out before us. Sadie was under the table. I rubbed my bare feet against her back and her fur pushed between my toes. Both dogs used to flop down there and never minded serving as foot rests. After a while Sadie roused, went to the back door, and whined. I heard the squeal of a bicycle braking, and then someone yelling.

“I seen him! I seen him!” It was John Henry.

“What do you want?” I said through the screen door.

He opened it and pulled me out by the arm. “Hey man, I seen Rogue. He’s tied up in this man’s yard. I’ll show you.”

“How do you know it’s him?” I said. John Henry looked bigger, and I was wary of what he might be up to. Dan watched us through the door.

“Hey man, y’all want your dog back or don’t ya? It’s him. No lie, man!”

I looked at Dan. He nodded.

Our bikes jolted hard where the asphalt became dirt. To keep from bogging down in deep sand, we stayed in the center of the road. Dan and I had never walked or biked through T’ville. We followed close behind John Henry. I saw a row of wooden houses—old and worn, but with yards that were trimmed and tidy. People on the porches gawked at us, and a woman in a rocking chair stood up and shouted something. She looked angry, and I wondered whether we shouldhave waited for Dad to come home. John Henry waved and smiled, a gesture I interpreted as “Everything’s okay. The white boys are with me.”

We crossed the two-lane highway onto a path that led beneath a canopy of oak trees.

Spanish moss draped from them in tangled gray beards. The afternoon sun illuminated dust in the air. John Henry was pedaling fast. He glanced over his shoulder and hollered at us to keep up. He swerved onto a dirt road, this one barely wide enough for one car but lined with more small houses. Some places had vegetables growing in the front yards. A black-faced scarecrow peeked out of tall corn. Yellow hibiscus blooms draped over a chain-link fence in front of one house. At another the porch sagged like the backbone of a plow mule. Two little girls in white shorts, wearing curlicues of red ribbon in their hair, squatted next to the road. They were digging with sticks until they saw us and ran. Somewhere meat was cooking. I had no idea so many people lived this close to us, but so far out of sight. It was another world, alive but hidden.

I heard the first bark behind us, and then more off to the right. From somewhere two dogs raced after us, growling between each bark. Their paws made a sound in the dirt, like a scratchy drumbeat. I caught a glimpse of one just off my back wheel. Pedaling furiously to escape them, we swerved right on another dirt street, and they abruptly stopped running but kept barking. We were moving deeper into the town, and I felt as if everyone in T’ville knew we were there. I wanted to rescue Rogue, but I was afraid we wouldn’t make it.

Up ahead next to a towering pine, another dog barked and paced next to the road, waiting. He lunged as we approached, and I knew this time there would be no escape. But he jerked back to earth. He paused for a second, and surprise crossed his face as if he had forgotten the rope tied to his collar. Then he resumed lunging and barking, flecks of drool flying out. I thought about turning back but knew what John Henry would say.

Now riding between Dan and me, he laughed suddenly even though he was panting to catch his breath. Not just a chuckle but a belly laugh like someone had told him one hell of a joke.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Them dogs never bother me,” John Henry said. “And I ride here every day.”

He raced ahead of us again. Dan and I looked at each other. We turned another corner and there was Rogue, whimpering and straining at the end of a thin chain in the middle of an overgrown yard. Rogue seemed unsure whether to bark or wag his tail. His coat had lost some luster but his eyes were bright.

“Now y’all believe me, white boys?” John Henry wasn’t smiling.

I started to untie Rogue but heard voices in the house. John Henry’s eyes opened wider than I’d ever seen. “Y’all best be gettin’ outta here. Right now! Come on back with yo’ daddy and his car.” I started to thank him but he was already moving toward his bike and waving for us to follow.

That evening at dusk, Dad bumped the station wagon over the road to T’ville. He drove faster than usual. I sat up front, and Dan in back. Dad wanted to know where John Henry was, and I told him that he followed us as far as the highway and said he had to head home. Dad pulled up slowly in front of the house and told us to stay in the car. The engine made a ticking sound as it cooled, and our sweaty legs stuck to the vinyl seats.

Dad walked into the yard and trudged through parched weeds. Mom had told him to call the dog pound and let them handle it. He knelt beside Rogue, stroked his face with both hands, and began working to untie the chain from his collar. He wasn’t hurrying like I wanted him to.

I heard the screen door open. A man wearing blue coveralls stained with black streaks appeared on the porch. He watched but said nothing. A toothpick danced from one side of his mouth to the other and back again. I was afraid there might be trouble. The man began tapping the toe of an unlaced work boot, not fast like he was nervous but once every few seconds. Rogue was shaking now. Dad gave up on the chain. He unbuckled the collar, and the dog tags rattled as they fell to the ground. Not once did Dad look up.

I opened the door, and Rogue jumped in with me. He was still shaking but licked my face. I remembered his smell. The screen door creaked again. I looked up into the fading gray light, and just inside the door stood someone, a boy, watching.

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