The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
The large brick house on Walnut Avenue overpowered the street, just as the woman who owned the house overpowered the town of Opalville, Georgia. Her name was Otilla Harrison, a spinster lady and head of the garden club, ladies auxiliary, Opalville Public Library and just about anything else of social standing you could name.
The house at 106 Walnut Avenue had been built sixty years earlier by her father, Rufus Harrison, founder of the Harrison National Bank, Harrison Drug Store and Harrison Hardware and Lumber company. It was a large and imposing building constructed of yellow tapestry brick in the Victorian style, popular at the turn of the century, a three-story structure with fifteen rooms, worthy of the man who built it and the woman who now occupied it.
The speculation in town was that Otilla Harrison never married because no suitor could live up to her father’s expectations. A rumor circulated for a time that, in her youth, she was in love with a handsome blond infantry officer who was killed on the battlefield in France shortly before the end of World War One. If true, it was a well-kept secret, for she was never known to speak of him.
Her life over the years became a solitary one, concentrated on managing the family enterprises and her several charitable interests. She employed three negro women for cleaning and cooking inside of her home. One black man named Otis Johnson was employed as a gardener and her driver, whenever necessary. Although it was generally understood that she was fair to her employees, it was also well known that she did not believe in contact on a social level with negroes. Black was black and white was white, and in the world of Otilla Harrison, that’s how it belonged.
The only object of lasting interest and pleasure in her personal life was a large white poodle named Fifi Louise, a beautiful animal that inspired compliments whenever Otilla walked it through Harrison Park, always accompanied by a black employee to take care of the dog’s business if necessary.
This morning, it was shortly after nine and Otilla Harrison was finishing her second cup of coffee at a large polished mahogany dining room table. A fresh bouquet of garden flowers scented the room and shafts of bright sunlight streamed through the tall windows with their open chintz curtains. A black man stood in the wide doorway, waiting for recognition.
“Johnson, there you are, come in. I have something to ask you.” She looked up from the morning paper.
The black man approached, stopping at a respectable distance from her. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
“Have you heard anything about a colored woman living out near Black Water Lake with a white child?” she asked.
The man looked down and replied slowly, “Yes, ma’am, I hear there is such a thing.”
“Do you know where she lives, Johnson?”
“Yes, ma’am, I believe so.”
“Good.” She smiled. “You can drive me out there. I want to meet this woman and the child.”
* * *
Billy Joe sat in the middle, between Erthelene and Uncle Mabus, in the old red pick-up. The boy was scrubbed pink, with a straight part combed in his wavy blond hair. A starched white shirt under a pair of clean blue overalls and polished shoes completed the picture. Erthelene wore her best dress and something the boy rarely saw her wear, shoes with high heels.
Billy Joe had changed in the months since he and Erthelene first arrived in Opalville. He had grown almost two inches and put on enough weight to fill out his beautiful face. The sad days and nightmare-filled dreams were mostly gone now, and it showed in his happy disposition. He was thriving and so was Erthelene.
They were almost into Opalville on the old river road when Uncle Mabus rounded a turn and had to make a steep swerve to avoid a dark green Oldsmobile sedan. It was parked along the left shoulder of the road, a black man bending over the left rear tire.
“Lord!” Erthelene breathed, her hand over her heart as the truck came to a stop. “You alright, Uncle Mabus?”
“Yes’m,” the old man replied, opening the door. “Let me see if these folks need any help.”
“Can I go too? Please!” Billy Joe begged.
“Alright,” Erthelene replied, “but stay out of the way and don’t get dirty!”
Billy Joe stood behind the two men, listening to their conversation as they changed the flat tire. The automobile’s left rear window came down slowly and a woman’s face appeared inside the car. She wore a dark hat with bird feathers on it and a fine black net covered most of her face.
“Hello young man,” she said to Billy Joe. “Won’t you come and keep me company for a while?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Billy Joe replied, going around to the other side of the sedan and climbing onto the seat, next to the woman. Erthelene watched Billy Joe get into the car and hoped he would be on his best behavior.
Twenty minutes later the two black men had the spare tire on and shook hands. The rear window came down again and the woman offered Uncle Mabus a five dollar bill for his help. He tipped his straw hat and thanked her, politely refusing. “Don’t believe in being paid for a good turn,” he said, calling for Billy Joe to come along.
Uncle Mabus knew who the woman was: Otilla Harrison, the last person he hoped would see Billy Joe. He felt very uneasy but said nothing to Erthelene, not wanting to upset her. “We’ve met the dragon,” he thought to himself.
Erthelene walked into the Harrison National Bank while Uncle Mabus took Billy Joe around back to the colored carry-out window of Harrison’s Drug Store. They both ordered double vanilla cones and sat down in a tree box, waiting for Erthelene to come out of the bank.
The bank teller, a thin balding man with glasses, looked surprised when Erthelene asked to open a savings account. When she handed him the eight hundred dollars from its leather pouch, he looked even more surprised. “Just a moment, please,” he said to her.
He was quickly replaced by a gray-haired man in a suit and tie. “I understand you want to open a savings account,” the gray-haired man said, looking squarely at Erthelene.
“Yes sir, that’s right,” she replied, meeting his eyes.
“Well now, this is a lot of cash money. You see we don’t usually get deposits this large from coloreds. Where did you get this money?” he asked.
Erthelene clenched her fist around the red plastic pocketbook she held, until she felt the metal frame bend. “I worked for it, sir,” she replied, staring him down the way she would a stray dog.
“Alright then,” he replied. “Mr. Jones will be happy to help you.”
The dusty green Oldsmobile sedan pulled up at the front steps of the county courthouse. Otis Johnson hurried around to open the passenger door.
“Johnson, I’m going up to see Judge Horton. Take this car home and wash it immediately. I’m ashamed to be seen in it,” Otilla Harrison said as she stepped out. “I’ll call you when I’m ready to be picked up.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the black man replied, shaking his head as she walked away. “There’s trouble a-coming,” he said to himself.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen