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Authors: Chris Crutcher

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BOOK: Whale Talk
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I consider our personnel. Most of them won’t beat anyone on the other team and will only pick up third-place points in the events I’m not swimming or in events where the other team swims only one swimmer. I say, “How about just if they don’t drown?”

Simet laughs. “Somewhere between lies a compromise. We’ve got time to think about it. We have to be careful; the athletic department has a lot of pride at this school, and a lot of clout. The letter jacket is the ultimate
prize. I’m going to have to be judicious if I want respect in the coaching fraternity.” He is only half joking.

“Well,” I say, “somehow we have to put it within reach.”

 

There is something seriously messed up about Rich Marshall being around as much as he is. Since he’s now the head guy at Marshall Logging, he seems able to take off as much time as he wants to play school, which he’s been doing to some degree since the year after he graduated. I mean, the guy never left, was roaming the halls back when I was a freshman. I understand why the football coaches want him around; he was a real monster when he played, and he’s a good guy to introduce psychopathy to the other players. But he also volunteers in PE classes sometimes, which puts him in the halls during the regular school day way more than I’d like. He’s kind of a cross between a kid and an adult, and I mean that in the least flattering terms of either. You see him in the coaches’ room being treated like an assistant, but you also see him hanging out between classes with Barbour and the more arrogant members of the football team. A couple of times I’ve caught him staring at me with the same look he had when I wore my bloody T-shirt to school, and he makes continual references to
the fact that they could sure use me out there on the football field,
if I had the heart for it
. He also remarked recently on the number of black guys in the swimming hall of fame. Because of the deer incident my freshman year, my parents have offered to raise hell that he’s there at all, but I don’t want that. Hey, when he’s here, at least I know where he is.

And now he’s popping up in even more corners of my life. I stop by Georgia Brown’s house after workout a few days after my conversation with Simet about the letter jackets, just to see what’s going on. She doesn’t answer the door, but I have walk-in privileges, so I snatch some Gatorade out of the fridge, turn on Sports Center, and make myself comfortable on the couch. Within seconds, big commotion spills down from upstairs, which tells me Georgia’s in the thick of a therapy session, and I sneak a few steps up to see if I can get a glimpse into the playroom. Georgia sees me through the stair railing and motions me on up.

Play therapy, as practiced by Georgia Brown, is done live and full scale, meaning she will drag in anybody available to play the roles that allow the kids to work out their life traumas. Most times I’m a bad dad they want to tie up and put in prison, so my job is to struggle and struggle and never get loose while still protecting
my nuts. As I said before, I’ve been on the other end of this, so I never refuse.

Inside the playroom a girl of about four or five, with almost my exact coloring, plays with dolls. Georgia whispers, “This is Heidi. Think we’re gonna need a bad dad here.”

Heidi has dragged a plastic basket full of dolls to the middle of the room, where she sorts them by color, placing the fair-skinned ones into cradles, tucking them in tenderly, singing bits of lullabies. The darker-skinned dolls don’t fare so well; flung across the room, stuffed behind toy appliances, some beheaded or otherwise dismembered. She looks up.

“This is T. J.,” Georgia says to her. Heidi looks at me,
through
me, and turns her attention back to the white dolls. She sings, urges Georgia to do the same. Occasionally she glances at me but quickly turns away, gives the dolls bottles, nurtures them like a nurse.

Suddenly she stands and marches right to me, grabbing my hand. She says, “You be the bad dad.” I’ve played it frequently, know the role. Interesting that the kids all use the same term.

I say, “Okay, I’m the bad dad.”

“Find all the nigger dolls,” she says.

Georgia nods.

“You mean the dark-colored ones?”

“The
nigger
dolls!” she screams at me.

Georgia nods again.

I say, “The nigger dolls.” I retrieve two.

“Scream,” Heidi orders.

“What should I scream?”

“Stupid black bitch!”

“What?”

“Stupid bitch!” she yells again. “Black bitch!”

Again Georgia nods. I don’t like this particular bad dad role.

I look at a doll, raise my voice, and call it a stupid black bitch.

“Me!”
Heidi screams. “Yell it at
me!
” She turns to Georgia. “Make him do it right!”

In a calm voice Georgia tells me I’m supposed to yell at Heidi for letting the black dolls in the house, and I finally piece together from Heidi that I’m also supposed to find them one by one, scream at Heidi for letting each one in (“Get these nigger babies out the house! They stinky!”), and throw them out, and it wouldn’t hurt if I kicked or punched them while I’m at it. It’s a lot easier to hear that word than to say it to a little kid, because I know the impact when you aren’t steeled against it. But Georgia knows what she’s doing.

As I get deeper into my role, Heidi turns back to the white babies, tucking them tighter, rocking them as she rocks herself, never engaging me unless I lose zeal for my task.

I find the last doll crammed inside an igloo dog house Georgia has turned into a cave for some other kid and jerk it out by the arm, open the door to the hallway, and fling it, only to see someone disappearing down the stairs. I am caught for one moment in mid-scream, but Heidi screams, “GET THESE GODDAMN FUCK NIGGER KIDS OUT THE HOUSE!!!” and the dead come alive and I am back in business. I hear the front door slam.

 

Minutes later in the living room, Georgia touches my shoulder. “You okay, baby?” Since I was two she’s called me baby.

“Yeah, I’m okay.” I nod toward the kitchen, where Heidi plays. “I can think of better things than nigger to holler at a kid.”

“Over and over I tell you, racism is—”

“Ignorance,” I say back.

The sound of running water brings our attention to Heidi in the kitchen, squeezing dish soap into the filling basin. She pulls herself up onto the lip, stretching
to snag a bristle brush, then begins scrubbing her arms. Georgia sighs, closes her eyes, whispers, “She thinks if she can wash it off, her daddy will love her.”

Heidi’s eyes focus on her brown arms, scrubbing. Georgia moves to the sink and kneels beside her, draping her arms over the lip next to Heidi’s. Heidi stops scrubbing. Georgia says, “Hey.” Heidi doesn’t answer, but glances down at Georgia’s arms, then runs her fingers softly over Georgia’s forearm.

Georgia motions me over and I take the clue, kneeling on the other side of Heidi, soaping up my arm.

She looks sadly into my eyes. “You’re a dirty nigger, too.”

Georgia’s look tells me this is not a time for political correctness. “Yeah, I guess so.”

Heidi’s sudsy hand touches my face. She looks sorry for me.

I take the brush, begin scrubbing my own arm. “Dang,” I tell her. “I don’t think it comes off.”

She says, “Wait,” and pulls herself again over the lip of the sink, stretches to grab a soap bar, then squirts the liquid soap over it and hands it to me. She says, “Two soaps.” I wash my arm like crazy, then rinse. We both stare at my arm. “Nope,” I say, “what else can we try?” Georgia backs away, and for the next few minutes Heidi
and I try every kind of brush-soap combination she can imagine, including turning the water in the basin cold.

Finally I say, “Know what?”

“What?”

“I think we’re stuck with it.”

Heidi takes a long last look at my arm, then walks me to the hand towel hanging from the refrigerator handle. I dry my arm and she does the same.

My forearm is red and raw on the spot where we’ve been performing our ethnic cleansing experiment. I say, “Know what else?”

“What?”

“If we keep this up, we could hurt ourselves.”

Minutes later, Heidi on my shoulders, I two-step around the living room to a Bob Marley CD I have convinced her is the hottest thing since Barney. There is nothing of the rage and desperation of the last two hours in her eyes, but I’m aware of Georgia’s continuous assertion that the only pure evil is nothing. For this moment, high atop my shoulders, Heidi squeals, visible and proud. But I know she’ll come crashing down the moment she is degraded again. I know—just because I know—that despair moves in like a flash flood when she is diminished. It isn’t even about race, really. It’s about nothingness.

Georgia emerges from her office with a form and a
pen, lifts Heidi off my shoulders, hands me the form, and says, “Sign this.”

“What is it?”

“A confidentiality oath.”

“What?”

“It’s a signed statement that you won’t tell anyone anything that goes on here in therapy,” she says. “So I can have you work with Heidi, or any other kid who needs you when you’re around.”

“You’re hiring me?”

She laughs. “For
far
under minimum wage. I’m keeping my license safe, baby.”

I glance at the written oath, dated two weeks ago. “This is old.”

“Predated,” she says back. “Sign it before Heidi’s mother gets here. She’s already seen you with her.”

I don’t get it.

“Didn’t I see Alicia in the hall when you threw the doll out?”

“Alicia
Marshall!” Click!
I look at Heidi. “Alicia Marshall’s your mom?”

She looks away.

“This is Rich Marshall’s kid? He did this?”

“Watch your tone,” Georgia says. “You’re a professional.”

I start to answer, but Georgia glances at Heidi and quickly back at me with a look that says
later
.

I disappear into the kitchen when Alicia returns, after which Georgia extracts two of the finest homemade oatmeal cookies currently in production from her cookie jar. “Here,” she says, “You deserve these.”

“I’m getting paid in cookies?”

“Get used to it.”

“Jesus, I knew Alicia had a mixed-race kid, but it didn’t even
occur
to me that was her.”

“You know a lot of mixed-race kids in this town? Guess I better bring you up to speed, darlin’.”

I know part of this story already, but now Georgia fills me in on the rest. When he graduated from high school against all odds, notorious deer-slayer Rich Marshall went to work in the woods setting chokers for his dad’s logging company, passing up the chance to play football at the local community college long enough to bring his grades up to an even 0.00 so he could attend an NCAA Division I school. His girlfriend, Alicia Dalton, signed up at the beauticians’ school at Spokane River Community College, dumped Rich, began dating a black defensive back named Willis Stack, and got pregnant.

I won’t go into the white supremist militia dogma
Rich began spouting in response to “this interracial travesty in our midst,” but Alicia was in love, and she and Willis decided to get married. Then Willis was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of a crushing hit he laid on a wide receiver from Wenatchee. The story goes he couldn’t bear to think of raising his kid in that condition or of saddling Alicia with his care, so in the middle of the night, about three weeks after he was released from the hospital, his brothers loaded him into their van and spirited him away, leaving Alicia heartbroken and lost. She dropped out of school, had the baby—which she named after Willis’s sister Felicia—and went to work as a checker at Jensen Brothers Foods, where good old Rich shopped for his frozen TV dinners and Cheetos and Budweiser and started courting her again, every bit as pissed off as he was the day she started dating Willis.

In her defeated state, Alicia believed Rich when he said nobody would have her “nigger baby” but him, and they entered into wedded bliss, legally changed Felicia’s name to Heidi because it was the “whitest” name Rich could think of, became parents to twin boys nine months to the day from the wedding, and settled into a life of what Alicia described to Georgia as hell on earth. That gives hell
and
earth a bad rap in my book. Heidi was
not allowed to touch food other family members might eat, or play with her younger brothers’ toys except on special occasions, which occurred when Rich said they occurred, or when he was out of town or passed out on the couch. This guy was every girl’s parents’ nightmare, a control freak with an I.Q. three points lower than his belt size.

Child Protection Services got involved through an anonymous report when Rich decided Heidi had earned twenty-five “spanks” with his belt—ten for forgetting to clean her room, five for dropping her dessert on the floor after he’d told her to be careful, and ten for not washing out the dog’s bowl—and demanded that Alicia deliver the blows to his specifications. When Alicia turned out not to have the heart for it, Rich took over and Heidi was black and blue from the middle of her back to her knees. Rich’s parents got him an attorney who was able to plea-bargain him down from an assault charge, and the kids were placed out of the home until Rich learned to manage his rage and meanness and Alicia learned to protect them from his rage and meanness.

Now this is where I don’t get it about males and females in so-called civilized America. Alicia Marshall is a good-looking woman, and she’s smart enough that she sure didn’t have to settle for whatever emerged from
the nearest manhole. She told Georgia she
loved
Willis Stack, and Georgia says it’s clear she loves Heidi. What could be inside a person that could allow an asshole like Rich Marshall to come along and take her kid apart? Georgia says it’s what
isn’t
inside a person.

At any rate, they both started into mental-health treatment, but Rich blew out of it in the first week. Anger management group and parenting classes got in the way of his drinking beer, a problem he solved by giving up the classes. Alicia got the kids back with the promise that she would stay in treatment and would never see Rich in their presence. That was perfect for Rich because he didn’t like the kids all that much anyway, and he could see her often enough to make sure she knew she’d never learn to live without him. In my view, learning to live without Rich Marshall is like learning to live without cholera, but nobody asked me.

BOOK: Whale Talk
7.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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