The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Things are not always black and white. Sometimes they are the color of love.
Billy Joe was crying as the woman forcibly led him into the large house on Walnut Ave. She pulled him by the arm, down a wide entrance hall lined with green palms, until they arrived in a room like nothing Billy Joe had ever seen. Shelves of books lined all of the walls, from floor to ceiling and even between the tall windows at each end of the room.
A large polished mahogany desk stood in the center of the floor and Otilla Harrison, wearing glasses and talking on the telephone, sat behind it. Finally the woman released her hold on Billy Joe’s wrist. She pushed him forward until he stood almost touching the desk, his cheeks wet and tear stained.
“I was just talking to Sheriff Rogers,” Otilla Harrison said, hanging up the telephone. “Why didn’t you stop the car when you realized you had struck the dog?” she addressed the woman.
“I thought it was more important to get the boy here without further delay,” she replied coldly, “before the situation became difficult.”
“What you have succeeded in doing is making the situation very difficult for me,” Otilla Harrison replied, standing up and removing her glasses. “You may leave now and please close the door behind you.”
* * *
Uncle Mabus followed the sheriff’s car, making good time. Snake Dog lay on the seat beside him, his flesh torn and oozing blood over his right hind leg. The old man rested one hand on the animal’s head, stroking it as the dog whimpered.
“Lord, you’ve given us a mountain to climb,” he said to himself, watching the dusty road ahead. “Seems unfair to me that this poor animal has to suffer too, when all he did was give love.”
The veterinarian was waiting for them when they arrived, forewarned by a call from the sheriff’s office. After Snake Dog was taken in, Uncle Mabus sat down on the wooden bench beside the door, resting his head in his hands. The old man’s shoulders drooped as his gentle sobs filled the room.
* * *
Erthelene pushed hard on the scrub brush, sending soapy water out in a running circle over the floor. The sound of the bristles against the wood echoed in her ears, blocking out the silence of the empty cabin. The harder she scrubbed, the better she felt, until after an hour of labor the kitchen floor had been gone over twice and her back and shoulders ached from the exertion.
Erthelene’s bare feet and skirt were wet as she sat in the middle of the floor. Anger and frustration welled up inside of her, anger at herself mostly, for getting into this situation in the first place.
All of her life, white people told her what to do, where to sit, where she could eat, what water fountain to drink from and even what bathroom to use. It occurred to her she had always been imprisoned, even though there were no visible bars on the doors or windows. How could she have reasoned, in her wildest dreams, that they would allow her to raise Billy Joe as her own.
Her only defense was the depressing emptiness of her life before the boy came into it, her years at the mill, coming straight from the fields at fifteen, with hardly enough schooling to read or write, then after nearly twenty years of hard work, the mill owners shutting down the cotton looms, without notice and telling everyone to go home.
The hardest years came next, when she had to leave Opalville to find work. Black women, poorly educated and unskilled at any meaningful job, were a dime a dozen, only fit for cleaning houses, doing laundry or in her case, cleaning poor white folks’ dirty trailers.
Those years had mostly been a blur, until she looked out of the window one day and saw a helpless child being abused, just as she had been abused her whole life. That was her excuse. Like it or not and no matter what happened now, nothing could take away or change the bond of love forged between a lonely black woman and the small white boy.
* * *
The woman behind the desk sat down and put her glasses back on. “My name is Mrs. Harrison,” she said, looking at Billy Joe. “We met a few days ago. Do you remember,” she smiled, “when you came to sit with me in my car? We had a long talk then and I hoped we could be friends now.”
Billy Joe looked puzzled for a moment. Then placing her, he replied with tears in his eyes, “No, you are not my friend. Erthelene and Uncle Mabus are my friends. You hurt Snake Dog and I hate you!” A cascade of tears followed, as the boy sank to the floor, overcome by fear and exhaustion.
Otilla Harrison opened the library door and called for the housekeeper, a heavy-set black woman who appeared promptly.
“Take the boy upstairs, Gladys. Give him a warm bath, then put him to bed. I have a visit to make and the sooner the better,” she said, watching Billy Joe being led upstairs.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen