Monday, August 10, 2009
Virtue in a Misanthrope...and Gum
There are stories, and then there are stories. Whimsy can be found in many a post on this blog, and I continually stretch my creative license into unknown bounds. But not in this case.
In my hands I hold two keys. Everybody has at least one since the day they were born. The first key fits into a lock in my mind, a lock attached to a door. For many people the room behind this door is a slim, dark closet with metal hangers holding those past instances (memories) they don’t want to think about or reveal to the world. Sometimes those instances will swing upon the hangers, knocking into each other, to cause a grating squeal sounding like rattling bones.
There are never any good memories found here.
In my situation, I push away the hanging memories like costumes I don’t ever want to put on again, masks of embarrassment and sadness. At the very back of the closet sits a chest - one of those old-fashioned large chests you would see in a pirate movie. Are treasured memories locked inside? No. I just told you that no good memories are found in a dark closet. This piece of old luggage holds . . . the worst of the worst. A past I haven’t revealed until doing my Juneteenth post. I had unlocked the chest with the second key, opened it a crack, and darted my fingers inside for that story. Then I started to pull my arm out.
Something tugged at my sleeve.
Terrified, I yanked away and slammed the lid close. Fastening all the locks, I strode out the closet vowing never to re-enter. Yet, after I wrote my Juneteenth piece, my mind kept thinking about that chest. It has consumed my thoughts ever since as I occasionally sneak back into the closet and sit on the floor, staring at the leather bindings and rusted nails and the shadowed keyhole. My fingers lift the key, as I know that once I fully open the chest there will be no way to close the lid again. And what creature steps out I will have to deal with at this present time. Now and forever.
I throw open the lid. A small bundle sits inside with arms wrapped around bent knees and body trembling. A head lifts, scraggly black hair framing a teary face. She staggers into a standing position with her ragged clothes dirty and unkempt and rat-chewed. Scars mark her skin and discolored bruises are still tender. Her face is filled with pain as dark eyes flash in the light: one instance revealing the horrible sights she has had to witness, and the next they light up in the faint glow of everlasting hope.
My battered childhood climbs out and shivers. I open my arms wide and hold her close.
I was the typical (atypical) angry black kid hating the world and everyone in it. No, I’m not overdramatizing. I knew what I was back then because I looked it up in the dictionary. “Misanthrope - one who detests and avoids people in general.” I was filled with hate over everything and everyone including myself. I just never acted on it.
I hated my parents because they gave birth to me to go through such a dismal, dysfunctional life. I hated my siblings because they always picked fights while allowing my parents to whip me for the faults they committed. I hated other people because they would stare at me and act nervous as if I had some fatal disease called, “blackness.” I hated myself because of my looks, my embarrassing emotions, and my different mindset from the rest of my family.
I believed I was being punished for something horrible I did in a past life, and God had brought me back to relive every wrongdoing. I figured I was a male Ku Klux Klan High Dragon who raped and lynched black people while living a life of luxury. Then when I died, HE reversed me into a black female to experience my own hate.
Anyway, at that time (in my young mind), I knew how I felt. Numb. If the scenario ever happened where my family was standing on the edge of a cliff and the ground gave way as everyone else would dangle on the cliff edge waiting for me to rescue them, I would just shrug my shoulders and walk away. That’s cold. But that’s how I felt. This was my mentality during my young childhood. And this was still during the time when I attended elementary school. Yet I’m not sure how old I was. 9, maybe? 10? Old enough to know what I was doing when I walked through the store door.
There were two major highways (three actually although the one has no bearing in this story) that run near New Alexandria. Route 22 and Route 66. They crossed each other past the Equitable Gas refining plant and the Gene & Boots candy story. There wasn’t much along Route 66 besides the next town, Delmont. This was strictly a throughway to get from one metropolis to another. There was only one spot along the entire route that did any business. And it was a place my family visited often.
King’s Family Restaurant. It was the only restaurant we would eat at as a whole family. This isn’t to say we didn’t eat at other places. But this meant the kids and BOTH our parents. Right next to the restaurant, past a small service road, was a very small shopping plaza that had a convenience store, a gift shop, and two others I can’t think of because I never went in them. Behind the plaza was a place where you could buy mobile homes.
On this occasion my father had called home from work and told my mother not to cook dinner because he wanted to go out to eat. He would meet us at the restaurant. So my mother packed us all into the gray Chevrolet Vega and off we went.
Oh, the Vega. I remember that car all too well. When it comes to subcompacts, this was the car to have. When it came to a family of five, this was the car not to buy.
I’m going to digress a bit and tell you the sitting arrangements whenever the family would go on an outing together. My father sat behind the steering wheel. My mother sat in the front passenger seat. My two siblings occupied the back seat. So where did this leave me? In the back storage space, laying on a blanket like I was the family dog. No seat. No seatbelts. I was the pet that would look at the scenery passing by the windows and would occasionally take a nap.
(Damn! Sometimes I wonder if that’s how everyone saw me as - the family pet hanging around for the novelty of it. No, I suppose not. Even pets received more affection than I did.)
We parked at the restaurant and then walked across the road toward the convenience store. My mother had to pick up toiletries and other small things. They had a comic book section, a small deli at the back, and a double register at one side with a lottery machine. They also had a few video arcade games.
I had no money on me. So I just walked down the aisles, bored out of my mind and following along behind my mother. Near the registers they had those display cases for candy. I had two all-time favorite candies: Orange Tic-Tacs and Chiclets gum.
I saw the pack of Chiclets. I wanted the pack of Chiclets. But I didn’t ask my mother if she would buy them for me. In my family you never ask for things unless it was for an emergency. You do with what you have and deal with what you don’t have - no matter what.
So I stood in the aisle, wearing ragged hand-me-down clothes, broke, and hating the fact that other kids were picking up candy as they asked their parents to buy it. Then their mother or father would smile and have the cashier ring it up.
I neared the container holding the Chiclets and took one. Nervously shoving it into my pocket, I headed toward the door and waited as my mother paid for her purchases. Then we all walked out and headed to the restaurant. My father’s purple truck sat near the Vega, so we hurried inside.
I felt horrible throughout dinner. Guilty. I ordered my meal - chicken fingers and applesauce this time since I didn’t want the spaghetti (the only two things I would eat there). With my head down, I cleaned my plate without speaking. No one said anything over my quiet attitude, because this was who I normally was. Introverted. We got up from the table and paid the check. While in the parking lot, my father wanted to go over and get his lotto tickets.
So the whole family went back to the store. We didn’t have to, since my mother had the car there and he had his truck. But my father required it of us. We went inside, and I headed straight toward the candy cases. Looking around, I put the gum back. Then I glanced at the beginning of the aisle.
The deli man stood there, staring at me. I’m not sure if he ever saw me take the candy the first time. But he noticed when I pulled the pack out my pocket and stuck it back on the shelf. He didn’t say anything to me. He just gave a slight nod.
By some unknown, ingrained ritual from the beginning of time, black people will nod at each other even if they don’t know who the other person is or that they will ever see the person again. We acknowledge the other person’s existence as having a meaning to this world other than those days when all we were seen as were slaves to be worked into death. So seeing him nod (despite being white) was not a strange sight to me although he was a stranger, and I didn’t think about the other implications that the nod had - like I had done the right thing about putting the candy back.
He nodded at me. By unconscious reflex, I nodded back. He returned to his deli counter and I hurried to where my mother stood by the checkout lane. She noticed me behaving in the store by keeping at her side as my siblings were off somewhere doing god-knows-what. She asked if I wanted any candy. I nodded, picked up the Chiclet box I had stolen and returned, and she paid for it. On the ride home, I sucked on a Chiclet, enjoying the candy coating and wondering if I would have enjoyed it as much had I not been honest in the end.
Sometimes virtue is its own reward, and sometimes you get Chiclets.
Special thanks to MLGF.
Photo courtesy of oldsweetsong.com