The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Things are not always black and white. Sometimes they are the color of love.
Erthelene pulled her green chenille robe up tightly around her neck and opened the trailer door. She was blinded by the trooper’s flashlight and brought her free hand up to cover her eyes.
“What’s your name?” the trooper asked gruffly, lowering the flashlight and taking a small note pad out of his shirt pocket.
“Erthelene Carter,” she answered, swallowing hard and trying not to tremble.
“Since when did old man Thompson rent trailers to coloreds?” the trooper asked, still writing in the notebook.
“I clean the empty trailers when folks move out, and I do Mr. Thompson’s washing and ironing. He lets me stay here for my work,” Erthelene answered.
“I’ll just bet he does,” the trooper laughed, his hand rubbing his crotch. “I didn’t know the old buzzard still had it in him.”
Erthelene kept her face down, so the trooper wouldn’t see the anger and disgust in her eyes.
“We’re looking for the kid that lives next door with his mother, have you seen him?”
“What’s happened?” Erthelene asked, hoping for some information.
“His mother was killed this evening. She and the man she was with were struck by a tractor-trailer. They were pulling out of the parking lot of the Dixie Moon Lounge, over on Route Sixty. The bartender said they were both pretty high when they left. A waitress who works there said the woman lived here with her kid in trailer number seven.”
“He’s not here,” Erthelene blurted out quickly, surprising herself.
“Do you know where he is? We need to turn him over to the juvenile authorities,” the trooper asked, looking up at Erthelene.
“His father picked him up this afternoon, about three o’clock,” she lied. “There were California license plates on the car he was driving.”
“How do you know it was his father?” the trooper asked suspiciously.
“I heard the boy call him ‘Dad’ when he put a suitcase in the car.”
“Well that settles it,” the second trooper chimed in, “a win-win situation for a change. We’re off the hook and the kid doesn’t get sent to a state orphanage.”
“You sure that’s what happened, girl?” the trooper asked, looking hard at Erthelene.
“Yes, sir, I’m sure,” Erthelene answered, meeting his eyes straight on.
As the police car pulled out of the parking lot with its red light blinking, the trooper rolled down the window and pointed at Erthelene. “You keep an eye on yourself, girl, and don’t let that old buzzard have too much!” he shouted, laughing as they drove away.
Erthelene closed the door, her legs giving way. “My God,” she whispered, panic rolling over her. “What have I done?”
The rest of the night was spent in the chair by the radio, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Things were happening too fast and now she was caught up in a serious lie, a lie that could get her in a lot of trouble. She told herself whatever she was going to do, it had to be done soon.
The next morning, after making sure Billy Joe was still asleep, Erthelene went into the trailer next door, relieved to find the door unlocked. The air was musty, smelling of cigarettes and liquor. There was an unmade bed pushed against the wall and a small chest with glass drawer pulls. She opened the chest carefully. Inside were some inexpensive women’s undergarments and a bundle of papers held together by a rubber band.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Erthelene opened the bundle and halfway through the papers found what she was looking for: a birth certificate. It was made out in the name of William Joseph Smith and dated May 23rd, 1939. It was Billy Joe’s birth certificate. She would need that to register him for school.
Erthelene read down the document, expecting to see William Joseph Smith Sr. listed as his father. Instead she read the words, “Father unknown.”
It was bad enough the boy had lost his mother. Now he had no father. Erthelene did not try to hold back the tears starting to roll down her cheeks. Sometimes life was hard not only on black folks.
After a silent breakfast of oat meal, toast and strawberry jam, Erthelene cleared the table while Billy Joe sat watching her. Then she poured the last of the coffee into both of their cups, putting extra canned milk in the boy’s cup. She reached across the table and took Billy Joe’s hand in hers, in an unusual display of affection. Trying to find the right words, she hesitated, “I have something to tell you about your mother.”
“She’s dead,” Billy Joe interrupted, rubbing his eyes.
“How did you know that?” Erthelene asked in a shocked tone.
“I heard the policeman tell you last night,” the boy said crying. “It’s OK. I don’t think she loved me very much anyway.”
Erthelene broke her own rule by lifting the boy onto her lap. His head nestled against her shoulder.
“I don’t think my father is ever coming to get me,” he sobbed. “You won’t leave me, will you?”
“No baby, I won’t leave you,” Erthelene whispered, rocking him in her arms while all of the neglect and unhappiness in his young life flowed out.
Billy Joe slept most of the afternoon while Erthelene worked. She quickly gathered and packed the things they needed into three battered suitcases, one which was kept closed by a length of old clothesline tied around it. A note for Mr. Thompson was left on the kitchen table. In the note, Erthelene explained that a relative had taken ill and would need her help indefinitely. She thanked him for his kindness to her and left no forwarding address.
Lastly, she opened the kitchen cabinet beside the sink, removing a loose piece of siding from the wall. Behind it was a clear jelly jar filled with folded bills. She emptied the money onto the kitchen table and counted it carefully. “Eight hundred and sixty dollars,” she said to herself. “Four years of savings for a rainy day or the start of a new life. We’re not poor, Mr. Billy Joe, no sir, not by a long shot.”
The station was crowded and they arrived just in time to buy their tickets and board the bus, which meant less chance that someone might recognize Billy Joe. The bus driver punched their tickets and asked Erthelene if they were traveling together.
“Yes, sir,” she answered. “I’m watching him for his mother.”
“Alright then,” the driver said, “but you can’t sit up front with the whites.”
“Yes, sir, I understand,” Erthelene replied.
Billy Joe sat in the last row of the “white only” section, so he could turn around and smile at Erthelene, sometimes waving his fingers.
Opalville, Georgia was one hundred and ten miles away and it took a little over three hours’ driving time. The bus pulled into the small station just before eight p.m. and the two travelers were happy to stretch their legs. It was a short walk to the house on Magnolia Street, a two-story frame with a long front porch. There were two rubber tire planters painted green and white sitting on the lawn. A rope swing hung in the yard, and Billy Joe assumed children lived there.
The door was opened by a tall black woman in a faded house dress. “My Lord, Erthelene, baby sister!” she laughed as the two women threw their arms around each other.
“This is my sister, Cordella,” Erthelene said, putting her hand on Billy Joe’s shoulder. “And this is Mr. Billy Joe.” Erthelene smiled at her sister. “We’ve come home to stay.”
An hour later, after leftover fried chicken and cornbread, Mr. Billy Joe was asleep on the freshly made up sofa. Cordella and Erthelene sat cooling off on the front porch under a soft rain, their two old rocking-chairs creaking in unison.
“Baby sister,” Cordella spoke with a worried look, “you’re not in any trouble are you?”
“Only what I brought on myself,” Erthelene answered with a sigh.
“It’s that white child, isn’t it?” Cordella said. “Where are his parents?”
“His mother is dead and his birth certificate says ‘father unknown,’” Erthelene replied. After a long pause, she continued. “That child has had enough misery in his life and I promised not to leave him. I’m going to raise him.”
“But he’s white, Erthelene,” Cordella retorted, shaking her head. “Some folks around here won’t cotton to a black woman raising a white child. I pray to God you know what you’re doing, honey.”
“I want to see the old cabin,” Erthelene said, changing the subject and turning to her sister with a smile. “I want to live there with Mr. Billy Joe and to make it our home. It’s the only thing we have left to show for a lifetime of hard work. It’s the place where we were born and where Daddy died.”
“Nobody’s lived out there for over twenty years,” Cordella replied. “Uncle Mabus has kept the roof up pretty good and he goes by once in a while to chop the weeds, but it’s mighty run-down. Lord knows how many snakes and alligators are in that swamp back there. That’s why most folks stay away.”
“That suits me fine.” Erthelene smiled. “We don’t want visitors. We have plenty of work to get done. I’m going to run a big garden for most everything we’ll need. Can you ask Uncle Mabus to drive us out there tomorrow, me and my son?”
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen