The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Things are not always black and white. Sometimes they are the color of love.
The bath water was hot, and after a thorough scrubbing, Billy Joe was exhausted. His head rested on the black housekeeper’s shoulder as she carried him to the bed.
Gladys could not help but smile when she felt his soft cheek touch hers. “Poor child,” she thought, as she laid him in the big bed with its crisp pillow cases and sheets. “You’re caught between two worlds, honey, but the good Lawd will make it all right.”
* * *
Erthelene slept very little that night. The meeting with Otilla Harrision, though she hated to admit it, had frightened her. She saw the woman clearly now and fully understood the power she wielded, being the richest woman in the county. Her connections were formidable, as were her father’s before her. From the State House down to the working heart of Opalville, people were afraid of crossing her path. She had a reputation for not forgetting an affront.
Uncle Mabus’ words also had not helped any. Perhaps she should have given way to the superior attitude. That’s what any sensible woman in Erthelene’s position would have done, but Erthelene was not sensible now. She was desperate to get Billy Joe back, and if necessary, she would fight like a tigress.
* * *
The next morning, Billy Joe was ushered into the dining room of the house on Magnolia Street at eight-thirty sharp. Gladys the housekeeper had him spick and span in a complete new outfit of clothes, including shoes and socks. His hair was neatly in place, parted and shining with Vitalis.
Otilla Harrison was sitting at the head of the table reading the paper. She looked up and smiled at him as he took his seat at the other end of the table.
“No, no, Gladys,” she motioned with her hand, “bring him up here, next to me on my right” — pointing to a chair — “so I can observe him.”
When Billy Joe had settled in at the table and a plate of bacon and pancakes was in front of him, Otilla Harrison made an announcement. “I have a surprise for you,” she said, carefully observing his reaction. “Mr. Mabus and Erthelene Carter are coming here to see you this afternoon. You can visit with them in the garden and Gladys will make you fresh lemonade.”
Billy Joe smiled as his face lit up. “How long can they stay?” he asked.
“Only a while today,” came the reply, “but they can come again when you want them to.”
It was enough for him. Suddenly the pancakes looked like the best he had ever seen and the bacon was crisp and crunchy. “Can I have a glass of iced tea?” he asked.
“Not for breakfast,” she answered, pointing to the glass of milk in front of him.
“Good try,” he said to himself, as Otilla Harrison returned to the newspaper with a half-smile.
* * *
At three o’clock that afternoon, Erthelene and Uncle Mabus stood in front of the Harrison house on Magnolia Avenue. It was large and imposing, the tapestry brick shining in the sunlight.
Erthelene started up the front walk and Uncle Mabus grabbed her arm. “Girl, you can’t go in the front door. We need to go around back,” he admonished.
Erthelene turned, looking Uncle Mabus in the eye. “I am an invited guest here today and either I go in the front door or I go home!”
Uncle Mabus looked exasperated and helpless as Erthelene proceeded to ring the door bell. “If you was twelve,” he said, standing beside her, “I’d turn you over my knee.”
The door was opened by the black man Erthelene recognized as Otilla Harrison’s driver. “Yes, ma’am,” he said with a surprised look as he saw Erthelene and Uncle Mabus standing there.
“I’m here to see Billy Joe,” Erthelene spoke up. “I was invited by Mrs. Harrison,” she added. Uncle Mabus, holding his hat in his hands, was silent and looked increasingly uncomfortable.
“Sorry, ma’am, but it’s customary for colored folks to come around to the back door,” the confused man answered.
“Let’s go,” Erthelene said, turning to leave, when a woman’s voice suddenly interrupted.
“I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, “Otilla Harrison said. “I forgot to tell Johnson I was expecting you. Won’t you please come in?”
Uncle Mabus swallowed hard, following Erthelene into the house. She led them down a wide hallway filled with antiques, then stopped at a set of French doors leading to the porch.
“Billy Joe is waiting for you in the garden,” she said turning to face them. “I hope you enjoy your visit. I have told him that you may visit any time you like.”
When the door opened and Billy Joe saw them, he raced up the garden walk, throwing his arms around Erthelene’s waist.
“I miss you,” he said, the sound of joy in his voice.
Erthelene put her arms around him as they rocked back and forth. “I know, honey,” she replied.
Otilla Harrison turned away slowly, closing the French doors behind her.
Uncle Mabus had the uncomfortable feeling that she was watching through the curtained windows as Erthelene and Billy Joe walked together hand in hand into the garden.
The three of them sat for over two hours at a shaded table, talking and drinking fresh lemonade. Uncle Mabus assured Billy Joe about Snake Dog’s recovery. Later they all laughed when he told them that the big yellow hen had taken to laying her eggs in the out-house and he had sat on one.
When Otilla Harrison opened the French doors onto the porch, Erthelene knew it was time to go. She hugged Billy Joe and whispered in his ear, “Make me proud of you and show her what a good boy you are.”
Billy Joe stood alone in the garden and watched Erthelene and Uncle Mabus leave. Panic that he might never see them again raced through him and he realized then, that no matter what it took, he would find a way to go home to Black Water Swamp, where he belonged.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen