The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Things are not always black and white. Sometimes they are the color of love.
Under a mat of tangled hair hanging over his shoulders, the old man maneuvered his boat through the murky water, ever mindful of large gators.
It was hot. The mosquitoes and gnats were rising from the mud flats of Black Water Swamp, tormenting every living thing. Even the white heron wading along the shallows looking for frogs and crawfish was not spared.
The skiff rode easily between large grey cypress trees, in some places so thick they dimmed the sunlight. A maze of black water channels and floating islands stretched over the twenty miles of ever-changing swamp. It was a no man’s land of snakes, alligators, bobcats and all manner of wild things, a world in which it would be easy to become lost and never return.
Flocks of parakeets and a myriad of bird calls filled the sun-dappled air. The small boat continued its silent journey, propelled by the lone passenger, until both disappeared in a thicket of palmetto palms and swamp grass. It was as if they had never existed, swallowed up by the yawning jungle.
* * *
Uncle Mabus and Erthelene unloaded supplies from the old truck into the cabin while Billy Joe and Snake Dog made a bee-line upstairs to change clothes.
Later, Uncle Mabus and Erthelene relaxed in the old rocker on the front porch with glasses of iced tea, while Billy Joe and Snake Dog rolled in the grass.
“Who was the woman in the car this afternoon ?” Erthelene asked, turning to Uncle Mabus.
It was a question the old man had been waiting for all day and dreaded answering. “That was Otilla Harrison,” he finally replied. “She owns the bank, the drug store, the hardware store, and half of the buildings in downtown Opalville.”
“Billy Joe spent a long time in the car with her,” Erthelene said. “Do you think she will make trouble for us?”
“It’s possible,” Uncle Mabus replied softly. “If she does, it won’t do any good worrying about it now.” In his heart the old man feared there wasn’t any “if” about it at all, just a matter of “when.”
* * *
Otilla Harrison took the elevator to the fourth floor of the County Courthouse Building, stopping in the ladies’ room . She adjusted her hat in the mirror and applied fresh lipstick. She pulled at the tight curls peeking out from under her hat, until they satisfied her. Lastly, she brushed off the shoulders of her dress and washed and dried her hands.
Otilla Harrison walked with the determination of someone used to getting her way. The name in gold letters on the large mahogany door read “Judge William Horton.” She knocked rapidly, without hesitation.
When Judge Horton heard her voice in the anteroom, he came out immediately. “Otilla, how nice to see you,” he said, taking her hand in his and leading her toward a comfortable chair in his private office.
“Something is bothering me, William,” she said, as he drew up a chair across from her. “I want you to investigate a colored woman living in a shack out near Black Water Lake. She’s raising a white child out there.”
“How do you know about this, Otilla?” he said, taking a pencil from his shirt pocket.
“Well, at first I thought it was just a rumor,” she answered, “but today I saw the boy and talked to him for quite a while.”
“It’s a boy then?” Judge Horton said, writing it all down.
“Yes,” Otilla Harrison replied, “about eight years old I would guess. He is a beautiful child, quite intelligent also.” Then her voice became serious. “I want to know where the child’s parents are and why he’s living out there in that swamp with black folks.”
“I’ll put Sherriff Roberts on it first thing tomorrow,” Judge Horton said, as his guest rose to leave.
“Good, and don’t forget you and Agnes are coming for dinner next Friday.” She smiled on the way out.
* * *
Billy Joe was awake early the next morning. He and Snake Dog stayed in bed counting each of Big Red’s day-break crows. There were seven in all, beginning just as the sun touched the roof of the chicken coop.
By the time Billy Joe was finished with chores and breakfast, it was eight o’clock. Uncle Mabus had promised to take him fishing, so he was sitting on the front porch with his fishing pole when the old red truck came up the driveway.
Erthelene packed a lunch pail and an apple cider jug full of water. She placed them both on the truck seat next to Billy Joe.
“I made you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she smiled, looking up just as the black and white Sherriff’s patrol car turned into the driveway. “Oh Lord,” she said to herself, looking at Uncle Mabus, who was already out of the pickup truck.
“Whatever you do, tell the truth girl,” the old man said, putting his arm around her. “Now’s the time to put your trust in the Lord.”
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen