I was nine years old. It was the first day of school at Sojourner Truth Elementary School. Classes had started, and I was taking books to another classroom when I rounded the corner and saw her. She was tiny, like some of the Chinese girls, but pale white with red hair in braids. She saw me. I'm black, skinny, quick, and a smartass sometimes.
Her face went crazy angry and mixed up, and just scary messed up. Scared the shit out of me, but I could feel my face explode, and I knew I had to look as crazy as she did. We speeded up as we passed each other, but once around the corner I backed into the wall and slid to the floor. I was sweating, shaking, and my nose was running. When I touched my nose, my fingers came away bloody.
I cleaned up in the bathroom as I tried to figure out what happened to me. One thing I knew for sure was, I wanted nothing to do with that little red-headed witch.
Sojourner Truth's an elementary and junior high. It's one-third black, and about a third Asian and little less Mexican. They're only a handful of whites here. For the most part, we're all cool with each other. Mary Lou's white with bright red hair, freckles, and green eyes and I ain't never had any problems with her, and Danny has red hair, and he's OK. So I wasn't allergic to red-headed people. It was just this one little tiny, red-headed, scary little piss ant.
At first recess I saw Iona, the Baby-Huey-looking schoolyard bully, try to lean on Red. Iona had her two girls with her. I was a good ways away, but everyone could see what was going down. Red turned the table and balled up her tiny little fist and squared up like she knew what she was doing. Red didn't say much at all. Carrot top didn't look scared. She looked like she was eager to go to war with all three of the bigger black girls.
She even looked disappointed when Iona and her crew went after easier pickings.
Red turned around and looked halfway across the playground to stare directly into my eyes like she was warning me or some shit like that.
After that, we stayed away from each other. I mean, it was like we had radar and could sense each other and get the hell out of the way. It was just too hard and stressful to be around each other. Avoiding each other was more than fine with me.
* * *
I think that life in the projects and at school must be like living in an ant hill or bee hive. You don't have any privacy, and everybody knows your business before you do.
Like with me and my best friend, Yolanda Martinez, or Yo as everyone calls her. Kids will come to me and say, "Hey, man, Yo's mad at you, brother. You better check that out."
So I'll find Yo. "Yo, why you mad at me?"
"I ain't mad at you. Who told you that?"
"It was ... never mind."
Yo leans over and whispers in my ear. "We still going to raid the chicken market Saturday morning, right?"
The Chinese chicken market's right across the street from our projects. Sometimes a few of us will get up early and climb the ten-foot fence and liberate a few live chickens. We sell them door to door in the projects. We never made much money, but chicken raids were way cool.
"Damn it. Yo, I got to do Larry's paper route on Saturday. I forgot."
"Wilbur Powell, you stinking liar. Yeah, I am mad at your lying ass."
So how did people know Yo was mad at me even before she knew?
Well, it was the same way with Red. That very first day of school, Larry comes up to me. "Man, your girlfriend's tough. Too tough for TV."
"What did Yo do this time?"
"No, not Yo. Your other girlfriend, the redheaded one you scared of."
"Larry, I ain't scared of her. She ain't my girlfriend, and I don't care how tough she is."
"Come on, Po, don't get all angry at me."
"I don't know the little twerp. I don't even know her name."
But it don't matter what I say. In the minds of all the kids at school, Red and I are just as connected as Yo and I are connected, but in a different way. And they all know that Red and I are like two chemicals that are OK until you mix them. Everyone's waiting to see what happens when we finally come in contact with each other.
After the first day, I don't even try to argue the girlfriend thing. I just avoid Red, which's not too hard because she's a grade behind me.
* * *
"Your redheaded girlfriend's crazy like evil crazy."
Yo and I are sixty feet off the ground sitting on tree limbs with our backs against the tree trunk. This's our tree. I have never seen any of the other kids climb this high. We come up here to read comics or think or just to get away from everything. From here we can see the whole South Lake Park and the Skyway Bridge and downtown San Juan. Sometimes we just come up here to look down on the trees and rooftops.
"Yo, please, I just want to read in peace and quiet."
"OK, you don't have to be so grouchy."
Of course, now I'm curious. Sometimes I think I'm the only bee in the hive that gets left out of things.
"So, what did she do?"
"You know who?"
"I can't read your mind, Po."
"Red, that's who."
"What about her?"
I count to ten.
"I'm sorry for being a grouch. Please forgive me."
"She stabbed Randy in the hand with a pencil. Like, she drove it right through his hand. I mean, like, all the way through."
Randy's the other school bully, a big country-fed white boy that thinks he's tough.
"Bullshit! That would be front page news. Everybody would be talking about that."
"Everybody is. Do you go home to your native planet sometimes, Po?"
* * *
And summer vacation comes, and we run wild and free.
So, I should tell you about Yo and her family. She's my best friend ever. She sees a pitch better than anybody in the projects. Even Pepper says that and he played semi-pro ball. And she can shoot marbles and steal live chickens, and she loves to read.
She's Mexican, but not a FOB. Her family was here before California was a state. But, Yo's not like any other Mexican girl I know. I mean she cuts her hair short, and she wears farmer overalls most of the time. She's the darkest one in her family by far.
She has a real dry sense of humor and can make me laugh myself sick.
Her brother, Alberto, is six years older and is always in trouble with the cops. He's a mean boy with a nasty temper.
Her sister Jada goes to state college and thinks she's smarter than she is.
My friends and my brother, Ted, tease me about Yo, but I would not trade her for the world.
And best of all she has a mind for mischief. She's the toughest and bravest person I know.
* * *
Yo and I have our cane poles at Little South Lake in the park. We were fishing, and we have a nice mess of bluegill and perch, but we stop when we see Alberto with his latest girlfriend renting one of the little row boats.
We don't have a specific plan, but we walk to the little dock and put down our poles and our fish. We help steady the boat as Alberto steps aboard. We keep steading the boat as his big-boobed, blonde girlfriend giggles her way onto the dinghy.
At the same time, Yo and I lean over the boat and snatch out the oars. We use the oars to give the boat a big push out onto the lake.
Alberto's so mad that he's about to explode. He just stands there glaring at us like a stubby, brown volcano. He's too angry to speak. We can't stop laughing.
Pretty soon there's a crowd of people laughing and pointing at the drifting boat.
Alberto waits a week to catch us climbing down from our tree. As soon as I hit the ground, he hits me in the left eye and knocks me head over heels, for real.
He catches his sister as she touches ground. He hits her as hard as he hit me.
I try to scramble back to help Yo, but Alberto kicks me in the side. Yo and I are curled up like little balls. We can feel the heat coming off of him as he stands over us cussing and screaming.
* * *
We have magnificent twin shiners. We're sitting on Yo's back steps in the projects with bags of frozen vegetables over our black eyes. We keep taking the bags down to look at each other's shiners. We keep cracking up. We can't help it.
We're like living legends. All the kids know what we did to Alberto and what he did to us. Kids we don't even know come up to us and tell us how brave or cool we are. Even Ted thinks we're pretty cool.
My moms is a little upset. "What happened to you? Who did this to you?"
"Mom, it's nothing. Yo and I was just fooling around."
"Yolanda did that to you?"
"No, it was an accident."
"Well, you accident yourself into your room until you can tell me the truth."
But my dad liberates me when he comes home. "Babe, let the boy go. He and Yo will straighten it out. Leave kid stuff to kids."
I get out of there before the argument gets loud.
It's an excellent start to the summer, and Yo and I are trying to think of how we can top our boat trick. What we do know is we're not going to mess with Alberto anymore, but we aren't going to let him mess with us either.
* * *
About a week later, a bunch of us kids are walking back from the downtown library with armloads of books. Alberto calls Yo and me over to him and his boys leaning on their shiny cars.
Yo and I don't even hesitate. We march right up to him. We're ready for anything.
"Hold out your hands."
Yo and I exchange looks and shift our books. And we both hold out our right hands. Alberto just stands there looking from one of us to the other. We look right back at him. He finally reaches in the pocket of his jeans and pulls out two ten-dollar bills and slaps a ten-dollar bill into each of our hands.
We were ready for anything but this. We both jump back like we been slapped in the face. We turn and look at each and both look down at the money in our hands and back at Alberto and back at the money.
Alberto and his friends and our friends all crack up. It was like we were doing some kind of dance we had rehearsed or something. Yo and I were a little embarrassed, but we had the money. More money than I had for two birthdays.
We run across the street to Chinn's Market, and we treat the kids with us to ten cents worth of candy each.
This was the best summer ever -- at least up to that point.
* * *
Red didn't live in the projects. I don't know where she lived, and I didn't care. I was just starting to feel like, like free. Being around her was like living in the shadow of a volcano or on a fault line.
I had a super-cool idea for our next stunt. I was working out the details as I was opening the door to Chinn's Market when all my alarms went off full blast, and I looked up and into a pair of terrified brown eyes. Red! Everything exploded, white and screaming and pain and nothing.
* * *
I'm cold, freezing cold. "Mom, Mom I'm cold. Mom."
I have to work to open my frozen shut eyelids. I am in bed but not my bed. Not my room. A hospital! Aww, man, what am I doing in a hospital? "Hey! Hey!"
And then there's a nurse. A pretty nurse with blue eyes and it all fades away.
* * *
I'm back. A different nurse smiles at me and makes a quick call from the phone by my bed.
"Mr. Powell's awake again." She starts to speak to me, but I'm quicker.
"Nurse, how's Red? Is she OK?"
"Mr. Powell, welcome back. We hope you're going to stay with us for a while this time. I've called your doctor. He'll be here in a flash, but your family would love to see you for just a minute, OK?"
And the chubby nurse with the nice voice and sweet smile's gone. And my mom and dad are there. I have never seen them look so happy, relieved, and sappy. Yuck! I would rather have them mad at me. I let them kiss me a couple of times to kind of calm them down.
"Mom, Dad, please how is --"
"Wilbur, your sister's here also." Mom winks and whispers, "This's the only way we could get her in to see you."
And there's Yo with a big smile like she has the best trick in the world for us to pull. Man, I'm glad to see her.
She kinda bounces over to my bed and leans down and whispers in my ear, "You look like shit on a stick."
We laugh so hard it makes my head hurt.
I motion for her to lean back down. I whisper in her ear, "You look like you been shot at and missed and shit at and hit -- square in the face."
The doctor rushes in, stops the laughing and clears everyone out. As they leave, I shout, "What happen to Red?"
* * *
Later, "my sister" tells me Red's on the same floor, and like me, she's scheduled to be released tomorrow.
"I saw her, she looks, looks a little paler, I guess ... I mean she's so white already. Anyway --"
"Yo, you saw her, like in person?"
"No, dope. She was on the Ed Sullivan show. Hey, I even spoke to her."
"Wow! What did she say? What did you say?"
"She wants to be Lucy on 'I Love Lucy' when she grows up --"
"OK, OK she asked about you and I told her you had asked about her and then her mother gave me the boot. And that was that."
"Yo, why's this happening to us? I mean, it's weird. Yo, I'm scared."
Yo flops down on the bed beside me, "Po, I can do a hit for you and take her little imp ass out just like that." Yo snaps her fingers.
I grab hold of my friend's hand and hold it tight. "Yo, don't do that. I think if you hurt her you hurt me. I believe that."
But I have to be strong for my moms and pops and my brother. I can't let them see I'm scared.
* * *
"A spontaneous electrical disturbance similar to lightning, but too weak to provide any extensive burning. A rare, but documented phenomenon. The extent of the comas is atypical, but it is among the probable effects of this little electrical storm. We do not anticipate any long-term neurological or physical damage. This is truly a once in a lifetime occurrence. In a few days your son should be fully recovered."
I listen to the specialist talking to my moms and pops. I don't think he knows what happened. I think he's just making up stuff.
My pops don't believe him either, but my moms keeps asking the specialist questions. The more she questions, the vaguer the doctor gets. Finally, moms shakes her head in frustration, and we go home, at last.
* * *
When I step out of our car in front of our projects. A whole bunch of kids comes out of nowhere. It's like all the black kids, and some of the Mexican kids and even a few of the white kids are there. Yo's mom and sister are there, and Larry and his mom are there. Why? They're all patting me on the back and cheering and stuff; it's a little scary.
Where's Yo? Yo's not even here. Aww, man, shit.
And there's Yo, right in front of me. She kisses me, on the lips, in front of everybody. She had never kissed me before, never. I closed my eyes when she kissed me, and I saw Mrs. Martinez jump up like a school girl and clap her hands. I saw a dark cloud pass over my mom's face. I saw pops smile at Yo and me and pull moms a little closer to him. I saw Larry grinding his hips and pointing at Yo and me. And the kiss was over. I opened my eyes.
I was looking Yo in the eyes. I was shocked. I mean, I didn't know what to do. She looked so hurt. And then she was gone, and I was swept into our place for ice cream and cake and no Yo.
* * *
As soon as Moms has her back turned I'm out the back door streaking toward our tree. I'll be in deep do-do for running out on my own party, but I got to find Yo and apologize.
"Hey, Yo, I'm coming up."
"Don't, Po. I don't want you up here."
"Yo, I'm sorry, Yo --"
"Wilbur Powell, stay your ass down there. I'll kick you, Wilbur. I'll kick you out of this fucking tree. I will. I swear to God I will."
I'm on the limb below Yo. Every time I try to climb up to be next to her, she kicks at me.
"Yo, quit! Stop!"
She doesn't so I grab her foot.
"Let go of my foot, Po, before you make us fall."
"I don't care! You're my best friend."
"Let go, Po!"
"Yo, I never had a girl kiss me before. It surprised me --"
"You were surprised because it was me? Why?"
"You're my friend ... I just ... I don't know."
Yo stops trying to pull her foot free. I let go of her foot and climb up to my limb. We sit there for a moment. Yo has her head turned so I can't see her eyes. I think she has been crying.
"Yo, what if I had kissed you, huh? What would you have done? I bet you would have socked me harder than Alberto hit us."
"Alberto hits like a girl, like a sissy. I would have put you back in the hospital."
She still won't look at me, but she stretches out her hand. I take it.
"Yo, I wanted to kiss you that first time in the hospital. When you bent down to whisper in my ear, I wanted to kiss you. I kinda thought you wanted to kiss me too."
"Hey, your mom would have put me in the hospital if she saw me kiss you."
I remember the dark shadow crossing my mom's face when Yo kissed me.
"But you did kiss me in front of everyone."
"That was just ... Stupid ... Just stupid."
"Yo, you can kiss me anytime, honest."
Yo pulls her hand free. "You better get back. Your folks'll be worried."
"We better get back before all the ice cream and cake's gone."
"Later, Po. I'll see you later."
"Yo, if you don't come with me right now, I'll, I'll kiss you every time I see you. I'll be a kissing fool. You'll be covered in slobber and spit. You'll have lip bruises --"
"Po, Po, I'm coming, just shut up about the kissing, Ok?"
I make kissing noises as we climb down the tree, but I stop that well before we reach the ground. One black eye a summer's plenty.
* * *
So, my family's all right. I mean, I seen worse, lots worse. My moms, Eudora, is from a farm near Eudora, Arkansas. We get back there every other year if we can. Moms' is harder on my brother and me than my pops is. Moms wants us to grow up to be "good" people who do what's right and not "follow the crowd."
"Korea is the same old same old. It's a standoff. Nkrumah is trying to unite tribes into a nation in Gold Coast. Pops, moms, Ted, check this out Ed Sanders is the first-ever Negro Olympic Heavyweight Champion. Wow!"
"It's my turn to read the news at breakfast."
"I heard it on the radio last night. I thought about waking you boys up, but you needed your beauty sleep." Pops punches Ted and me in the shoulder as he talks.
Moms stands up suddenly. "Wait, Wait I have a news flash, late breaking news. Yesterday outside of Chinn's Market three Chinese boys beat up a Japanese boy just because he was Japanese. Eyewitnesses claim that two young Negro boys, among others, stood by and watched it happen and did nothing to stop the brutal attack."
We're all quiet now. Moms and Pops are both looking at Ted and me. Ted's three years older and a lot smarter. I let him try to defend us.
"We were ... It happened so fast. I heard the fight and Will said there was three-on-one, but it was over so quick ..."
Now Moms's leaning on the table looking at us. "Knocked down and repeatedly kicked. Is that right?"
We both nod yes.
Ted tries again. "Moms, you know the Japanese did horrible things to the Chinese in Manchuria and during the War --"
"That ten-year-old Japanese boy did those horrible things? Theodore, I'm ashamed of you, of what you didn't do at Chinn's and at what you just said."
"Mama, I, I just ... I'm sorry ... I was wrong."
I step up. "Moms, there was three of them and Ted is, can't see and --"
Moms raps us both on the head hard with her knuckles. "We're trying to raise smart and good young men. You could have yelled 'cops' or called Mr. Chinn. Do you think the other kids from the projects would have helped you if you had stepped in? And Wilbur, being blind does not stop your brother's brain from working. You should know that by now."
We turn to pops, but he's having none of it. It's awfully quiet for a long time.
* * *
Our pops, Winston Powell, is cool. He was a mechanic for the Yellow Cab Company, but now he has a good city job, working on the city buses. Pops's always teaching us about all kinds of stuff.
"OK, it's like this: you go out to start your tuck and rolled, candy apple red, lowered and raked, three on the tree, '41 Ford and you turn the key, and you get the sound of silence. What do you do?"
Pops has Ted and me sitting in the front seat of our 1945 Chevy Deluxe.
"Come on guys, you start with the simplest solution first."
"I got it pops. I go get Ted. He's about as simple as you can get."
"Will, you ain't no Red Foxx. You're a skinny, not so funny, black, dumb-as-an-ox fox."
"Oh, yeah, for all you know I could be built like Charles Atlas?"
"Will, you so skinny I hear your bones rattle when you walk."
"And my ears ache when I hear you two talk. You talk yourselves into the deep do-do. Who has been listening to my Red Foxx records? You know that's against the rules. Come on you babbling brooks, speak up."
I dig a sharp elbow into Ted's ribs. "Dumb ass."
He pops me upside the head.
"Pops, did you see Ted hit me upside the head? Man, he needs to go on punishment." I make it a point to never hit blind boy in front of my parents except when they can't see the blow, but when they ain't around my brother gets real clumsy.
"I didn't. I was blinded by the brilliance of your sparkling wit." Pops turns the key in the ignition. There's dead silence.
Ted and I are out of the car instantly. "Hey, where are you two going?"
I yell back at pops. "To check the battery connection to see if it's loose."
Ted adds, "Then, we'll check the battery cables, the battery, and the fuel line."
We find the clogged fuel filter and clean it. We all drive down to the pickle factory and out to the park.
Later we confess to moms about listening to the Red Foxx records. She calls us scamps, and we all agree that it is wrong to use other people's property without their permission. We promise to do better, and we do, for a while.
* * *
So, I finally tell Ted about Red. My brother's super smart. He goes to a special blind school in Minneapolis, Minnesota on a scholarship. He comes home during the summer and now for the Christmas holidays since pops got his new job.
We all talk every week on the phone. Ted and I write at least once a week. Mostly about things we don't want to talk about with moms and pops around.
He doesn't scold me or laugh at me. He understands why I was ashamed to tell him that I was afraid of a tiny little girl. He believes me. That's why he's a pretty damn good brother when he's not being a know-it-all smartass.
"OK, there's a force that's keeping you two apart. It doesn't want to kill you two. I think it could have done that easy. It wants you alive, but not together. We need to figure out why. It's most likely something you two have in common."
"We both go to Sojourner Truth."
"I think it's more than that. Write down everything important about you, your date and place of birth and the things you like to do and your friends and all of that and then do the same for moms and me and pops. You get all of that to her and have her give you the same information. We'll see if there's something that helps us understand what's happening, OK?"
* * *
"It's like ten pages of stuff, and I give it to Larry and Yo to take to her. The next day Red meets Larry and Yo in the park with her own papers. I watch the three of them from a good distance away. They keep looking over at me as they talk. Red's taller like she grew three inches over the summer. They just keep talking and talking. What the hell do they have to talk about? Shit, can't they see I'm waiting?
Yo and Larry come back looking like they are bringing home bad report cards.
* * *
Red's name's Cara Cassidy. Yo tells me that as she shoves Cara's papers to me. They sit on either side of me. Larry tells me, "You two freaks were born, like two minutes apart on June 7, 1943."
"And you both have been reading Greek and Roman mythology this summer. Po, she has a sister three years older with leg braces for polio." Yo pauses and grabs my hand. "Her sister goes to a special school in St. Paul, Minnesota."
I feel like my throat's closing up. I feel like I'm going to choke. I don't want to hear any more. I stand up, and I'm dizzy, but I walk away from them and their noise and their lies. I thought they were my friends.
* * *
I read Ted her papers in our bedroom. Cara's father was born in Arlington, Virginia thirty-five years ago. Our father was born right next door in Falls Church thirty-five years ago. Pops got his new job six months ago, and six months ago Cara's pops got sent to Korea in the Army.
"Ted, Cara and I do have a lot in common, but I don't see how it helps ... And I don't feel any better knowing this stuff. My stomach hurts every time I think about it." For once my brother does not have something smart to say. He doesn't say anything.
* * *
"Yo, go back and see if she has a best friend."
"You mean like me and you?"
"Please, Yo. It's important."
Yo pulls a square of folded lined paper like Cara and I used for our messages from her back pocket. She hands it to me.
"Sorry, Po, it was ... too much to give you all at once."
I don't read it. I put it in my pocket. I hug Yo so tight that she grunts.
I'm so scared. I'm scared of what's coming for us, for all of us.
* * *
On the first day of school. I'm looking for Cara. I see her coming through the north gate as I come on the playground from the west gate. We see each other at the same time and start walking toward each other.
All the kids are backing away from us, giving us space. They stop playing tether ball, Foursquare, and tag. They just watch us. Everybody's watching us.
Cara has a long narrow face with big eyes and hardly any lips. She looks so serious.
We stop right in front of each other and just stand there. We each take a deep breath and place our right hands on each other's left shoulder.
I see her father in a trench or foxhole, stand up, look to his left and the bullet that has been just hanging there waiting for him thumps through his helmet.
She sees my father under a lift checking an exhaust pipe and looking to his left as there's a hissing sound and the lift drops and touches my father's head.
We run home. No teacher can stop us. Nobody can catch us. No car can hurt us, and no light can slow us. My twin and I are going to try and beat the bad news home at least this first time.