Today is Sunday and tomorrow is Charlie’s birthday. He’s going to be ten. His rural road is quiet. There is a breeze blowing down from the hills, causing the leaves in the trees to flutter. Mockingbirds dart through the air and whistle into the morning. The sky is bright blue, almost blinding. Charlie is laying in his bed, listening to the tap-tap-tatter of his neighbor’s sprinklers.
It is August in Pelsor and nothing much in particular will be happening today.
It’s late afternoon. Charlie’s friend, Jeremiah, is picking at a rock with a stick he’s found. They’ve just finished eating lunch and can’t think of anything to do. It’s hot and wispy clouds float overhead. Charlie’s mother suggested that the boys go fishing, but that’s all they’ve been doing the whole summer, so, instead, they decide to sit underneath the walnut tree in Charlie’s front yard. It’s humid. Charlie can’t breathe and he thinks that maybe he’s asthmatic.
“You’re stupid, Charlie,” Jeremiah says. “It’s just the air. You ain’t no asthmatic. All we’re doing is laying here anyway. What’s there to be asthmatic about?”
Jeremiah has his father’s hat on, a wide-brimmed cowboy sort of hat with a snake skin tied around the crown. The hat is a little too big and sits sideways on his skull. Jeremiah says his father killed the snake when he was out hunting years ago. It’s too hot for the brown felt and sweat is dripping down Jeremiah’s face and neck. Charlie doesn’t say anything, but he thinks it’s gross. Jeremiah’s father died last year. Out of nowhere Jeremiah groans and wipes his face with his muscular arm. “Arkansas stinks. There just ain’t nothin’ to do here, Charlie.”
“I know, Jay,” Charlie mutters and tosses a rock across the road. It hits his aunt’s rooster, waking it from its nap. The bird squawks loudly, flutters a bit, then skitters away toward the hens which are picking bugs in the grass. “But what do you want me to do about it? Tomorrow’s my birthday, anyhow. Shouldn’t we be doin’ something special?”
Jeremiah lifts his head up. “Like what?”
“Well… I dunno.” Charlie throws another stone at the chickens. The fowl scatter at first, then return to the rock to see if it is anything they can eat. They are at once disinterested. “Like have a party or something. My older brother’s always writing me letters from his college in Little Rock. Always telling me about the great times he has at the parties down there. About the girls he meets.” Jeremiah perks up at the mention of girls, but he, like the chickens, is at once disinterested. There are no girls in the state he has the fondest interest in.
“Pssh,” Jeremiah waves his hand at Charlie. “Nobody has parties around here. The only parties we have are Sunday lunch parties, and then it’s only ‘cause the church is the only place with good air conditioning. And those aren’t really parties, because Pastor Dave’s always telling us to be quiet and to sit still. You’d think God didn’t like having folks run around a bit, using the legs he gave us.” Jeremiah throws the stick into the road. It bounces once then skitters to a stop. The asphalt is cracked and dull. The chickens look up at the disturbance, but they don’t move this time. They’re learning.
“My momma always told me when I was little to get outside and blow the stink off me.” Charlie chuckles to himself briefly, then adds, “I guess she still does. Says I sit around too much reading books.”
“Yeah? Well, my momma tells me I don’t read books enough.” Jeremiah finds another stick and pokes at the ground again. “I hate school, Charlie—”
“I know, Jay.”
“—and I hate that summer break’s over—”
“I know, Jay.”
“—and I hate that my daddy isn’t here to tell Mrs. Phillips a thing or two about giving me a hard time about my spelling. I ain’t no writer, Charlie, and I don’t wanna become none.”
Charlie doesn’t say anything. He picks up another rock from the ground. Aunt Joy has emerged from her house and is standing in her doorway, wiping her hands with a towel and holding the screen door open with her hip. She glares at Charlie. Charlie pretends not to see her and throws the rock behind him.
It’s getting near three o’clock. The sun is beating down on Charlie’s head. His scalp feels like its burning. He brushes his hand over his hair and dust puffs out like smoke.
“Quit, Charlie!” Jeremiah makes a face and pretends to choke from the dust.
“Ha, ha.” Charlie feigns laughter and begins throwing rocks again. He lost his hat a month ago, when he and Jeremiah went fishing. Jeremiah had pushed him into the water; Charlie’s hat fell off and went drifting down the creek without him. They tried chasing it, but it was no use. The didn’t catch any fish that day, either.
Jeremiah squints over at Charlie. He has to tilt his head back to get a good view from underneath the brim of the over-sized hat. Charlie thinks he looks like a gnome—a pink, sweaty, wild west gnome without a beard—but he’s jealous anyway. At least he looks something like a cowboy. Charlie doesn’t even have a hat anymore.
“Your daddy ain’t got you a new one yet?” Jeremiah points at the void above Charlie’s head.
“Nope.” Charlie puts a hand on his head again, as if to make sure he’s right. “He said if I was stupid enough to lose it, I can be stupid enough to learn my lesson by going without one for a while.”
“Hm.” Jeremiah leans in closer. “You got some pretty bad sun burn. Your face is looking like Mr. Gregory’s.” Mr. Gregory spends a lot of his time with Jack Daniels. Jeremiah motions to poke at Charlie’s forehead. Charlie slaps his hand away.
“Yeah. I know,” he growls.
After a pause Jeremiah asks, “Did you tell him it was my fault?”
Charlie looks over at his friend and smiles. “Heck no! You know my pop. He would’ve made you give up your hat to me.”
“Yeah,” Jeremiah nods his head and stands up to brush the dirt off his jeans. “I know.”
Charlie watches as his friend goes to retrieve the stick from the middle of the road. “You leavin’ already?”
Jeremiah sighs as he inspects the stick. “I ought to.” He drops it back onto the ground. “Momma’s gonna be mad if I don’t clean up proper for school tomorrow. She likes seeing me nice.” He looks up and grins. “You know how women are.” Charlie smiles back. He knows that’s what Jeremiah’s father used to say about his mother. It was all in good fun. Mrs. Huntington loves her husband dearly. She and Jeremiah miss him a lot. “I’ll see you in the morning so we can walk together to school.” They wave goodbye. Just before Jeremiah runs around the corner he yells down the road: “And don’t forget to ask for a new hat for your birthday!”
It’s the first day of school, Monday, hot and humid. All the windows in the classroom are open but the air isn’t moving. A couple of the girls look like they might pass out and are fanning themselves with little paper fans they’ve just folded. Charlie’s mother had him wear his church clothes to school today—“To make an impression upon Mrs. Anderson,” she’d said—but his back is dripping with sweat and his polyester socks make his feet smolder.
There’s a new student in class, a new member to the community. His name is Edward Thomas and he’s a black boy from Little Rock. He’s the only black student in the class and he sits to the left of Charlie. Mrs. Anderson introduces him by reminding the class about the high school integration incident in Little Rock last September. Charlie is listening absentmindedly, but remembers what Mrs. Phillips said last year, and he remembers his brother Daniel wrote to him about it when it happened:
How are you? You don’t write too bad. I got your last letter a week ago. Tell Mrs. Phillips to help you with your cursive. Your ‘r’s look funny.
I bet mom and dad have been talking about all the stuff on television. I don’t know if they’ll explain it to you proper, I know sometimes they think you won’t understand and won’t tell you anything at all. Just know that there’s been a few Negroes at some high school out here in Little Rock who are trying to integrate and go to school with white kids. It’s the law, after all, but Governor Faubus’ made a mess of it. I don’t know what your teacher is telling you, if anything, but don’t listen to them when they say integration is bad. Black folk are just like us, Char—they got the same blood and the same brains—and God never said anything about dark skin making a person an advocate of the devil, like some of these people I go to school with say. Just read your Bible like Pastor Dave has always told us. You’ll see for yourself. Besides, remember how we always used to get real tanned in the summer when we worked the hay fields with Uncle Joe? I think that, maybe, the Negroes are all dark because they used to work hard in the sun, all day long and all their lives, in Africa a long time ago, and their skin just sort of got stained that way. Has Mrs. Phillips taught you boys about that yet?
See you at Christmastime, Char. And tell that no good Jeremiah to keep practicing his reading.
Charlie, amid his daydreaming, hears the scratching of pencil to paper and turns to look at Jeremiah, who is sitting two seats behind him. Jeremiah’s nose is only an inch from his notebook and his pencil is sketching something furiously. His tongue pokes out from his mouth and he is forgetting to blink.
“Charles.” Charlie keeps looking at Jeremiah’s paper. He’s curious. “Charles.” Charlie turns to face the front of the room. Mrs. Anderson doesn’t look happy; she has her arms crossed over her chest and is scowling at him. He’s used to women scowling at him. Strands of her red hair have fallen loose from her clip and are sticking to her forehead, which is wet with perspiration. Charlie has disrupted the class. “Charles, are you listening to me or are you looking at what Jeremiah is doing?”
“I… uh… I was…”
“I know. You were looking at Jeremiah.” Mrs. Anderson is mean. She steps closer to his desk. Charlie is suddenly aware of sitting of very straight. The other students in the room stare. Some whisper. Edward Thomas is trying not to look. “There was a reason I separated you boys this year—Mrs. Phillips told me about you two—but apparently it doesn’t matter where I seat you. I’ll have to call your father about this. Maybe he’ll have a say as to what to do.” Charlie moans and lets his head fall and hit his desk.
Mrs. Anderson shows no mercy. Not even on a boy’s birthday.
It’s lunch and the cafeteria is muggy and loud. Things haven’t changed since last year, except now the first graders seem smaller than before. Pelsor is a small town. There’s only one school which all the grades share, high schoolers with first graders and vice versa. It stinks for Charlie because all the teachers are together and keep track of his antics, year to year. He never gets a break. Charlie is angry about being distracted by Jeremiah and slumps on the cafeteria bench. He’s not feeling hungry and simply stares at his brown paper sack.
“I’m sorry, Charlie,” Jeremiah pleads. “I didn’t do nothin’ wrong to you. I didn’t make you turn around and look at me! I was only drawing. I always draw in class, you know that. I don’t know why you had to look. You shoulda paid attention to Mrs. Anderson. You know how she is; she’s got hawk eyes. You shoulda paid attention, Charlie.”
“Hush up, Jay. Why you always gotta draw, huh?”
“It’s the only thing I like, Charlie. Don’t get mad at me. T’aint my fault.” Jeremiah turns aside and pouts.
Just then Edward Thomas walks in with a little Negro girl. She looks like she’s in first grade. Maybe second. Her hair has been braided into pigtails and she’s wearing a ruffled blue dress. Edward Thomas is holding her hand, leading her to a spot in the corner where they can sit and eat lunch by themselves. As they make their way down the line a few of the students, a group of boys from the sixth grade, throw lettuce and tomatoes smeared in mayonnaise from their sandwiches at them. A leaf of lettuce hits the little girl on her head. She flinches. Edward picks it off, but a gob of the white condiment has stuck to her hair. A mass of students laugh. The little girl begins to cry. A tomato slice has left mustard on her dress and, in an attempt to wipe it off, she has gotten it all over her hand. Edward picks her up and quickly carries her out of the cafeteria.
“That’s right!” one of the white boys yells. “Get out of here!” Charlie and Jeremiah watch as the boys give each other high fives. Many other students are applauding; some stay quiet but smile; the adults who are supervising the lunchroom pretend not to notice the commotion. A few students shake their heads, disapproving of the scene, but are afraid to say anything.
“What do you think that was all about, Charlie?” Jeremiah whispers.
“I guess,” Charlie says, opening his paper sack, “that some people just don’t know what blood looks like.”
Charlie’s parents have decided to throw him a birthday party this weekend.
“Not at church?” Charlie asks.
“No. Right here, in our house. I know it’s a little late, Charlie, but it took some convincing to get your father to want to do it. I had to promise that I’d let him have a poker night.” She winks as she pulls a bag of flour from the cupboard and sets it on the countertop. Charlie sits in a stool, watching his mother scoop several cups of flour into a big mixing bowl. He is impressed with her; she despises gambling. “Now,” Charlie’s mother wipes her face with her apron and a streak of flour sticks to her forehead. She drops her hands and smiles at him again. He smiles back, but doesn’t say anything about the flour because he likes how it looks on her. “What flavor icing do you want?”
The next morning Charlie is on his stomach in the living room, watching Captain Kangaroo on CBS, when his father approaches from behind and turns off the television.
“Got a call from Mrs. Anderson yesterday.” Charlie heaves himself up onto his knees and tries to avoid eye contact with his father, who is kneeling on the carpet next to him. “You not paying attention in class, Charlie?”
“I was watching Jay draw.” Charlie hangs his head, ashamed. “I’m sorry, Pop.”
His father snickers. “Blast, boy. You got the most wandering mind.” Charlie’s father begins to laugh, but then clears his throat. He is not very good at being stern. “You’ve got to pay attention to your teacher, Charlie. She’s trying to teach you things so you can go to college like Daniel. So you can get out of this town and make somethin’ of yourself in the world.”
“Alright.” Charlie’s father glances at his watch. “Your mother tell you about this party we’re going to have for you?”
“Yessir.” Charlie looks up, eager to discuss the details of the event.
“You know how many kids you can invite?”
“Momma said five.”
“That’s right. And she told you their parents need to call us?”
“Can I invite anyone I want?”
“That’s right, boy. It’s your birthday, after all.” Charlie’s father stands up and brushes the lint off his pants. He grabs his cap from the sofa and slips it on his head. “You can invite anyone you please.” He glances at his watch again. “Shouldn’t you be getting off to school by now?”
At lunch in the cafeteria Charlie and Jeremiah are discussing that morning’s episode of Captain Kangaroo. Charlie mentions that his parents are going to throw him a party on Saturday and that Jeremiah is invited.
“Really? Did you ask for the hat, Charlie? Did you? I told you to ask for it.”
“Naw, Jay. I couldn’t ask for a hat.” Charlie opens his sack and pulls out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The jelly has squished out from the sides. Charlie’s hand is sticky and he wipes it on his overalls. He didn’t have to wear his church clothes today. He guessed he’d already ruined his chances for impressing his teacher. “Not after Mrs. Anderson got me in trouble by calling home and telling my parents I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t want to risk it. Besides, Jay, those hats ain’t cheap. I’m better off waiting ‘til Christmas. Maybe Daniel will buy me one from Little Rock.”
“Hey!” Jeremiah points a finger at his friend. “Maybe he’ll give you his old one. That’s gotta be the coolest hat. It’s got Indian feathers on it an’ everything.”
The students get loud as Edward Thomas enters the cafeteria with the little girl again. Charlie sets down his sandwich. Jeremiah stands up on his seat to get a better look at the action on the other side of the room. Food is flying again but this time the little girl doesn’t cry. Many students are shouting—“Go back to where you came from! Why don’t you just say home? Get outta here!”—and the yard duties are, again, voluntarily blind.
Charlie gets up from his seat and makes his way to the group of boys who started the whole thing. One of them is about to throw a jelly-laden slice of bread when Charlie grabs his hand. Charlie is younger than him by a year. He’s known this kid since fourth grade and has hated him and his snobby-nosed friends from the start.
“What the…?” the boy stutters.
“Don’t do it,” Charlie demands. He is angry and wants to punch the boy in the face, but he doesn’t. Instead, his face just turns red and his eyes bulge a little.
“What?” The boy laughs. His friends scoff and chuckle amongst themselves. Jeremiah comes up from behind. He’s tall for his age but something of a coward.
“Hey, Charlie?” Jeremiah takes hold of Charlie’s shirt sleeve and tugs it. “Whatcha doin’? Trying to kill yourself? Don’t get in the middle of this.” Charlie brushes him away. The cafeteria has grown quiet.
“Listen to your friend, idiot,” the boy says. He’s tall for his age, too, and stout, so it makes him seem real big. The boy jolts his hand from Charlie’s grasp and slings back his arm to throw the bread. Charlie grabs the bread from his hand and slaps it, jelly-side down, onto the boy’s shirt.
Charlie goes home with a bloody nose and a busted lip. Jeremiah, because he was simply a witness and Charlie’s friend, is sent to make sure Charlie gets home OK. They both know it’s really because the teachers hate Jeremiah. Charlie can get home fine on his own.
Charlie’s mother is waiting for him at the door. Charlie thinks there must have been a call. His mother looks like she’s been crying but she smiles at him as he comes up the walk, holding out a hand. She doesn’t say anything as he and Jeremiah come inside. They don’t say anything either. She simply cleans him up, puts him in new clothes, and sends them both back to school.
“Hello, Charlie.” Mrs. Anderson welcomes him back to class. He can hear the reluctance in her voice. She frowns at him, but he ignores it and takes his seat. He has arrived in the middle of a long-division lesson. Charlie pulls out his notebook and starts writing a letter to his brother in Little Rock:
I got into a fight today trying to do what you told me. There’s a Negro boy who is in my class now. His name is Edward Tom Thomas. I wish you could have been here to see me. I put up a good fight! Some kids were throwing food at Edward and his kid sister (at least I think it’s his sister) and I tried to put a stop to it but
“Charlie, what are you doing?” Mrs. Anderson snatches the letter from Charlie’s desk and reads it over. “Hm.” She reads it then squints at him. She takes the letter to the front of the room and stuffs it in her bag. Charlie moans and holds his head in his hands, dropping his pencil onto his desk. It rolls off and clinks with a hollow sound onto the floor. Charlie watches Edward pick it up.
Mrs. Anderson clears her throat. The class looks up from their work. “Since Charlie doesn’t want to follow rules, he’s going to be cleaning our chalkboard erasers for us this afternoon. Everyone say thank you to Charlie.”
The class obeys and, in unison, mumbles, “Thank you, Charlie” before immediately returning to their work.
“I never got to say thank you.”
Charlie has to fan away the chalk dust before he can open his eyes. When he does, he sees Edward Thomas standing in front of him. The little girl is holding his hand again. Today she is wearing a red dress. She smiles up at Charlie. Charlie thinks that her teeth look very white. He grins back. White dust is smeared in the sweat on his face.
“What?” Charlie tries to wipe the dust from his lips, but instead gets some into his mouth. He spits to the side. This cracks the dried cut on his lip and it starts to bleed again. He licks the blood off and hopes the little girls doesn’t see.
“I said,” Edward says again, this time a little louder. “I never got to say thank you.” He holds out a pencil. It’s Charlie’s pencil. Charlie tosses the erasers onto the grass and takes the pencil from Edward’s hand.
“Well,” Charlie shrugs. “I couldn’t talk to you with all of them throwing stuff like that.”
Edward looks at him funny. He squints a little and looks like he’s going to ask Charlie a question but he doesn’t. The little girl is getting bored and begins to fidget. Charlie looks at her. She looks like she needs to go to the bathroom. Edward tugs on her arm and she stops moving. Edward speaks up. “What did you want to talk to me for?”
Charlie claps his hands together to get the dust off. “I wanted to know if you and your little sister were doing anything on Saturday.”