The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Erthelene saw the boy again two days later, sitting on the cinder-block steps of the trailer next door, still barefoot and wearing the same dirty overalls. He sat staring at the dusty ground, his elbows resting on his knees and his chin sitting squarely in the palms of his hands.
Erthelene lit the small gas stove and placed four neatly sliced pieces of fat-back in the black iron skillet over a blue flame. The pungent odor of sizzling pork soon filled the kitchen. Erthelene pushed the small trailer window part way open. All of her instincts told her she was inviting trouble.
Three large brown eggs well beaten in a heavy crockery bowl came next. Some leftover crumbled cheddar cheese and salt and pepper were tossed in by hand, while waiting for the old toaster to begin smoking.
The boy’s hazel eyes looked up at the half opened window, the aroma of cooking food heavy in the air. Somehow Erthelene knew the boy had not eaten and although she would not admit it, she was cooking breakfast more for him than for herself. When the food was ready and dished up on two plates, she smoothed her apron and opened the trailer door.
“You there, white boy,” she said, pointing her finger at him, “are you hungry?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m hungry,” the boy answered shyly, standing up and sliding his hands into his pockets.
“I’ve cooked more than I can eat,” Erthelene said, holding out a full plate. “You’re welcome to it.”
The boy came toward her, a smile on his face, stepping up to the trailer door.
“No,” she said, handing him the plate, “it’s better if you stay outside.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he replied softly, looking as though he had somehow been rebuked.
And so the black woman and the white boy shared breakfast together, he sitting on his steps and Erthelene sitting on hers, out in the open for everyone to see under the moss-draped Live Oak trees. “What’s your name, boy?” she asked, amazed at the ferocious way he attacked the food.
“Billy,” he replied, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Billy Joe Smith,” he added proudly, “that’s my father’s name, too.”
“I’m Erthelene Carter,” she replied. “You can call me Miss Erthelene and I’ll call you Mr. Billy Joe. That way folks will know we have respect for each other, you being white and all. We don’t want any misunderstandings.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Billy Joe answered, finishing the last of the fat back and licking his fingers.
“Where is your father, Mr. Billy Joe?” Erthelene asked, looking closely at the boy’s face for any sign of discomfort at the personal question. To her relief, none appeared. The boy seemed completely open and without guile.
“Mom says he might be in Texas or maybe California, working in the oil fields. We don’t hear from him very often. He works all the time,” Billy Joe replied, wiping his plate clean.
“When was the last time you saw him?” Erthelene asked, taking his empty dish.
Billy Joe’s reply was slow in coming and he did not look at Erthelene when he answered. “Mom says I saw him when I was born. She says he held me in his arms and kissed me.”
The black woman turned to look at the young boy, his frail body and white hair silhouetted against the morning sun in a shower of brilliant light.
“I have laundry to do today for old Mrs. Robbins. Sunday is the only day her daughter will let me come, so she can watch me,” Erthelene said. “I’ll be back before sundown. You stay out of trouble now, Mr. Billy Joe, you hear?”
“Yes, ma’am, Miss Erthelene,” Billy Joe smiled, his face flushed with happy embarrassment.
Erthelene walked the last few blocks through the oppressive heat to her trailer. It was five o’clock and it had been a long day. Mrs. Robbins daughter brought her own laundry along to be done with her mother’s. Although it meant more money, Erthelene was worn out, feeling every day of her forty-four years.
Lightning streaked the humid air as she turned a light on in the trailer. Strong drafts sucked the curtains against the screens of the open windows and the wind began howling through the giant oak trees. Erthelene feared thunderstorms and sensed this was going to be a bad one. The rain came in whipping torrents, so strong they shook the trailer. She turned out the light and sat on her bed, arms around her shoulders, rocking back and forth.
At first Erthelene didn’t hear it, but gradually she became aware of a faint pounding on the trailer door. Pushing the door open against the stinging rain, Erthelene could barely see Billy Joe huddled on the cinder-block steps.
“Give me your hand,” she shouted, bending toward the boy. It took all of her strength, but they slid back together on the kitchen floor as the door slammed shut behind them. Billy Joe was shaking uncontrollably. Erthelene pulled a quilt from her bed and wrapped the boy in it and held him tight. They sat huddled together in the dark, listening to tree branches give way over-head and to other frightening sounds they couldn’t identify.
When the worst of the storm had passed, Erthelene gave Billy Joe a pair of her cotton pajamas. He put them on in the small bathroom, rolling up the cuffs and sleeves. Then she sat beside him on the bed, drying his hair with a bath towel.
“Where is you’re mother?” she asked. “I haven’t seen her for a while.”
“She’s working, waitress’n at the truck stop,” the boy answered. “She might be home tomorrow. She had a long shift.”
“When did she leave?” Erthelene continued questioning.
“On Friday afternoon,” Billy Joe answered, his eyes down. “She never stays away more than two or three days. She’ll be back tomorrow.”
An hour later, after a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of ice tea, the boy was sound asleep on Erthelene’s bed. She left him there, quietly pulling the door closed.
Erthelene sat in the dark at the kitchen table, smoking one cigarette after another and staring out of the window at the shuttered trailer next door. She halfway expected a light to come on, but hoped it wouldn’t.
The kitchen wall clock said nine forty-five when Erthelene woke up. She had dozed off and something disturbed her sleep. A flashing red light coming through the window and reflecting on the ceiling. She moved quietly nearer the window, standing back so as not to be seen. The red light was coming from the roof of a police car and a State Trooper was standing by the open car door, talking on the police radio. At that exact moment, a strong knock sounded and a bright flashlight beam crossed the window, causing Erthelene’s throat to go dry. A second state trooper was standing outside of her trailer door.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen