by Ronald M. Gauthier
His little sister slipped and spilled words bubbling with family secrets, and now he could get expelled from the Richard Wright Academy, a special charter school that had a coveted waiting list to get in. His usually tough young face softened and turned dark and worrisome, his roving eyes mere slits glinting with fear. He was a rough kid, having seen a brief lifetime of absurdities and cruelties, but nothing prepared him for expulsion from a new school. His parents, who worked hard to get him enrolled here, would be mortified, he thought, the neat brown skin of his forehead deeply furrowing in worry. Other thoughts flashed past him and forced him to wince and shift nervously in the hard chair outside the Principal’s Office. And the decision to oust him, uttered with surprising contempt from the principal in the same manner as the kids who mocked and taunted him, seemed final and irrevocable.
The principal’s voice dripping with sarcasm, resounding, like a rich baritone if it didn’t have the contempt, drilled, “This is not the right place for you with behavior like that.”
The tall, imposing man towered, his grayish head almost surpassing the door frame, his hair crinkling in the light and glowing the color of fresh oysters. He spat his words, almost hissing, shaking a disdainful finger as if to strike the boy. “If you don’t get yourself together,” he continued, his dislike disclosed “then you will end up like the rest of them. People here are getting tired of your kind.” And the boy delved his head down in disgrace, pulling an apologetic face upward, looking past the principal and at the huge portrait behind his desk. It seemed like the man leering behind him, etched in brilliant water color, vibrant with searching eyes was more frightening, terrifying even, than the principal and his huge face spoke silently, fiercely.
“Do you know what that great man endured to get an education?” The principal almost bellowed, pointing a mighty finger like a dagger at the portrait, following the boy’s transfixed eyes. “He suffered racism so hard and harsh he barely survived. But he did better than that; he not only survived, he prospered and became a success, a proud mighty man that this school is named after. And here you are with education given on a silver platter and you have the audacity to turn it away.”
The principal smirked, his huge brown face combustible with rage, his head shaking in disgust from side to side. The boy peered harder at the portrait, his eyes vacillating from man to painting, like they were both scolding him, the intensity of their stares suffocating, making him squirm uncomfortably and predict the worse – which he always seemed to do and it turned out that way most of the time. Even when the principal turned his head away, peering out the window at a lush, manicured garden, the man in the portrait stared stonily and the boy thought the eyes even moved once. The face was oval and clear with deep-set eyes, silvery and significant, the figure seated with a sort of exalted bearing, arms relaxed, stance rigid and proprietary like he owned the school and everything around it, his skin richly dark drown with natural recaptured luster like the polished casing surrounding him.
This disgustingly new experience was challenging and the boy wished he could reclaim his earlier years and a sense of belonging and at least knowing disappointment before it happened. If he could just shake off his feelings of displacement in this raw and brutal world maybe he could learn not to despise it more each day. He longed for yesterday, even with its uncertainties and proclivity to ambush him with surprises.
“Maurice, what’ve you gotten into this time?”
His mother, a slim, unpretentious woman with his same large, roving eyes was suddenly standing over him and shaking her head sadly, her arrival so sudden that he wondered if she crept in crouching and hiding her face.
“You know we ain’t got too many more places we can get to take you in.”
He peered up at her and saw his father trail behind, his footsteps heavier and directed by his fury. His parents stood side by side, their own faces morbid and eyes blazing, blaring like a raging storm, then dropping and pinning wearily on the young boy. Conspicuously poor, but not tawdry or trashy, their clothing cheap but tidy, their demeanors embattled and defeatist but faces sharp and dignified, they were the types of people who took pride in what little they had and hated losing such a significant gain. Their boy’s education at a good school, one of the few positive gains in a lifetime of rainy days, was thrust into jeopardy and they could feel success slipping through their tough, overworked hands.
“What’s wrong with you man? “His father’s voice, slow, tired, and methodical dropped down to him, a familiar anger encasing his words. “Like ya momma telling you, man, this a good place and you messin’ up. I thought we could trust you, man.”
The young man looked critically at his son, who avoided his eyes and dropped his own to the floor with his lowered head. He mumbled something unintelligible and rubbed his eyes with his fists.
“Look up at me, man, when I’m talking to you.”
The boy quickly jerked his head up into the stern face of the rugged man and starred with trepidation into angry eyes glaring with disappointment. The man had that natural fierceness of someone surviving in neighborhoods where nobody should live, his rough skin scarred and scraped with dark circles under eyes of a thirtyish person too young to have them. The boy watched him cup his hands then rub them across his face as though washing it with air. He then shot a glance at his mother; the thin, serious woman draped in a second hand dress and cheaply coifed hair, her stance too proud to give the poverty any potency.
“What happened that this man kicking you outta school, man?” His father repeated, his voice whispery and ominous.
“I ain’t had no choice, because my sister slipped,” he explained, his head quickly circling around the room as though he were searching for someone. He gleaned the waiting room, a large, natty place with impeccably polished furniture and colorful bulletin boards, all illuminated by heavy overhead lights.
“Slipped about what?” His father prodded.
“About our buz ‘ness, ya know, what you told us not to talk about.”
The man and woman shot alarmed glances at each other then threw reproachful eyes back on the boy, simultaneously, like precision pieces in an orchestra, their faces were filling with rushing thoughts and they paused to ponder a few while searching for words. This couldn’t be happening after all they taught their children, how they warned them to be careful, to not let anybody catch them talking too much.
“And they started with me, daddy,” the boy asserted, his body popping up and his face filling with resolve. “They was teasing me in the cafeteria and stuff, and then they started with me on the playground. So, I hit one of ‘em and we started fighten and stuff. They was talking about my baby sistah.”
The man stared at his son and his face softened a bit but his eyes remained hard, glinting fiercely, and the boy didn’t know if the anger was still for him or shifted to the boys he fought. The man breathed heavily then rubbed his hands across his face again.
“Lord, have mercy, I didn’t think this was gonna happen,” his mother whimpered, her own face flushed with worry. “You still shouldn’t a been fightin, though. You know how hard it was to git you in this school, boy.”
“Momma, I ain’t had no choice, “he pleaded, his voice rising then lowering at the authoritative gaze his father threw on him. Then, more slowly, almost in a whisper, he said, “I ain’t had no choice. I wasn’t gonna let them pick on me and hit me.”
The man looked critically at his son then stared up at the ceiling as though answers could fall from nothingness, the light casting a glow on his dark and chiseled face, rough like leather. He looked over at the closed door of the Principal’s Office and imagined the pompous man sealing their fate by throwing his son out and away, taking the only opportunity they had. This school took him in, in spite of his barely average grades and lackluster track record from his previous school, so he was one lucky kid until now. The man stood bolt upright, and both the boy and his mother wasn’t sure what he would do but hoped he wouldn’t confront the principal. The boy was threatened with expulsion and sent home for the day, and his dad bashing the principal could only make matters worse, ensure that he got expelled. The man’s eyes crossed their faces, read their agonized thoughts, and then he turned, preparatory to leave.
“Let’s go git our daughter outta here,” he grunted. “This place fulla shit.”
The kindergarten classroom was the last room near the Principal’s Office, contiguous to rows of others stretching down an expansive, long hallway. One of the teachers, a tall woman with an aerobics-toned body and flushing red hair, stood at the doorway staring with benevolent blue eyes. A quiet, shy girl stood next to her, her very young face worry wrought and her large eyes darting about, searching for something and trying to understand everything.
“Thank you for keeping her, Ms. Scott,” her mother said, quickly taking her daughter’s hand and pulling her gently toward her. “We appreciate it.”
“Oh, it’s my pleasure. She is one the smartest kids here and loves to read. You should see here perk up during read aloud assignments.”
The boy watched his parents move a little away out of earshot and talk to the teacher. He stood next to his sister and held her hand, squeezing it softly, trying to reassure even if he wasn’t sure. He watched a few kids from his grade saunter by and make their way out of the front entrance, and he threw a hostile stare, despising them all. He touched his sister’s head and stroked her shoulder lightly, the way big brothers do when they conquered something.
“You know you not supposed to say that, baby,” her mother said, waving a cautionary finger, but not unkindly. They were standing outside in the parking lot, watching the late model cars, huge SUVs, and briskly walking students and teachers wane as the day ended. “We supposed to be forgetting about that.”
The small girl dropped her head innocently, her braided hair tight and parted and cascading down her back like unleashed waterfalls, the cracks in her moistened scalp much like dry land surrounded by twisting, gurgling bayous.
“They getting so, they just tired of us,” the mother continued, her voice soft and knowing. “Some think we took too much from them already, like we got what belong to them.”
“Aww, let’s just get outta here,” the father ordered, waving a dismissive hand at the school and its land. “She just a seven year old child. That’s alright if she said something they ain’t gotta know, and nobody got no right to lay they hand on my children or mess with ‘em.”
The father pulled the old station wagon, a donation he got from a family that felt sorry for his, jerked out of the parking lot and dragged out of the neighborhood, its aging, sagging engine purring and rattling and rumbling across the quietude of the Georgia suburbs. The family was silent as they cruised down a sloping, winding road that poured onto Highway 78 and its maddening traffic. A sharp patch of light swung a glaze the color of tangerine on the windshield, and the father thrust on his shades to block the jolt of the sun. The sharp hill of Stone Mountain jutted into the air then spread out in the distance, its muscled shoulders brushing against the sky and the family watched it duck behind the highway and out of sight as they pulled further out of the city.
It was a long ride the and boy, Maurice, pushed himself deep into the back seat, his mind scurrying with thoughts, marred by apprehension. His school, a good one here in Georgia, out in Stone Mountain was an hour away from their humble apartment in East Point way out at the airport in Atlanta, and his parents, mainly his father, drove him this way every day for a better education. They left the housing projects in one city and winded up in a mean neighborhood in Atlanta almost like what they left behind, but Maurice’s parents insisted on getting their kids into a good school. And they found it in the Richard Wright Academy, an hour drive but worth the effort to pull their kids up. And now the long ride could be for nothing and Maurice winced in the back seat at how screwed up life was. His family was always taking these journeys to nowhere, more like they were running to some unknown destination only to find that it never existed in the first place.
The last long ride filled with this stifled silence, coated in misery took most of a day after they ran from a city that turned on them, became hostile and unlivable. They ran with thousands of others after their neighborhoods flooded and waters menaced and threatened to kill them. Policemen ran them away from bridges, wouldn’t let the cross and forced them back into the city, and thugs ran them out of dry neighborhoods that they got busy ransacking. Nowhere was safe and they kept running and slipping in sordid water that sometimes grew from the ankle to the waist, and their mother wasn’t well, but had to make the trek and it made her worse and weary and angry.
Maurice watched her helplessly as she moaned and even shrieked, her weary voice cutting against the vicious heat, rolling across the stifled silence, echoing and piercing. He was more frightened by the helplessness that swept across the faces of the other adults who milled around while his mother struggled. He loathed that ineptness etched on their faces as they wallowed on rooftops, pondered wearily in rescue boats in muddy water and now stood awestruck in the darkened, smelly halls of the dilapidated Convention Center. Power slipped out of their hands, and he always thought it was barely there anyway, and everything around them was in disarray and out of control, and his mother writhed in peril and they couldn’t help her. It wasn’t safe to be a kid anymore – it really wasn’t too safe before this, really – and his last modicum of childhood innocence slipped away from him.
A paramedic in town for a convention and stranded by a brute hurricane was his mother’s savior. The young, tough nurse was used to urban trauma from a big city and guided the thin woman through childbirth on a dusty floor amid sweaty, haggard but concerned faces, insurmountable frustration as thick as the humidity that encased it, and primitive conditions. A baby squealed and wailed, her voice reverberating and suddenly intermingling with the sigh of relief of over a hundred huddled adults. Maurice watched glumly as his sister was born and then only an hour later both mother and daughter whisked away in an emergency helicopter. He stayed with his father and all of the other stranded, beleaguered folks until busses came days later and rescued them.
That was that long ride he remembered over seven years ago, a hulking bus filled with hoarse, defeated people who slurped greedily on bottled water and chomped crackers and cookies. He sat close to his father and stared in amazement out of the window, watching the city swamped and in virtual ruins, buildings in downtown New Orleans eerily empty and powerless, as the bus careened further away from the city. He looked above the buildings on a late evening and saw cute pinkish clouds lurk on the horizon like giant cinnamon rolls sweetening the sky but leaving the bitter waters lashing and vacillating.
An especially cruel week over seven years ago and now the events seared in Maurice’s mind forever. He remembered how kind and welcoming the people were in Atlanta when they disgorged from a lurking Greyhound bus smelling of unwashed bodies into a nest of smiling volunteers with curiously benign eyes and an obsequiousness he saw from waiters on television but never ushered on his family. His family had never been to a restaurant, barely making it with food at home. Those volunteers worked hard to take some of the sting out of the crisis, and they were ubiquitous, all over town at every shelter helping evacuees find housing, schools, food, and a host of social services. Maurice’s family decided to stay, take a chance on moving up and away from the violent projects in New Orleans once and for all, but then the years unfolded and the compassion waned. CNN stopped reporting daily the evacuee crisis and volunteers went back to their own lives and other new projects. Residents became resentful, blaming an upsurge in crime on the evacuees, and they started lamenting how these strangers got preferential treatment for jobs, housing, and good choices for schools, and how they were depleting the food banks and United Way clothing stations.
“Don’t tell nobody where you from,” Maurice’s mother cautioned when she got him in the Wright Academy in Stone Mountain. “They tryin’ to blame us for they problems. Shoot, they had crime and stuff here long before we came. Just don’t talk too much, you hear me Maurice and Katrina?”
Maurice nodded affirmatively and blurted a respectful “yes, momma”, and his little sister only stared quietly, already tedious from trying to figure out adults. Their mother ushered them into their new school, a quaint first grade class for her daughter and vigorous fifth grade classroom for her son. But the little girl didn’t know then that Katrina would haunt them, hundreds of miles out of New Orleans, her very young mind forgetting the family secret and blurting that they “was in a hurricane” and “my momma had me in a hurricane.” She was innocently standing with her brother, waiting for their father to pick them up, when it just slipped, came out in front of his classmates in front of the school.
“Wassup, water boy,” a mean, bullish kid said in the cafeteria the next day.
He snickered and Maurice smiled ironically, fury from a boy from the projects coursing through his slender body and bubbling. No stranger to conflict, he warned the bully then readied himself for him on the playground just outside the cafeteria.
“Yep, I say water boy, you got mud in ya ears from that swamp in N’awlins,” the bully teased, his broad face puckered in delight, his smile fiendish. He had the arrogance of a kid who was given too much and would later be a pushy jock in some elite prep school, the type who kept his rascality out of the sight of the adults. Maurice was a poor boy who came from almost nothing and lost even that in the storm. He had nothing to lose.
“Watch ya mouth, bruh, befo I’m forced to put the beat down on ya,” Maurice teased, his young body preparatory for battle.
Two other spoiled kids jumped in and Maurice rushed into them with raging feet, furious hands, and a fearless determination. His father taught him to box, and the boys in the projects made sure he got practice, so when the teachers finally quelled the melee; he had less blood on his shirt and face than the others.
“I’m proud of the way you stood up for ya family, man.”
His dad’s face now peered resolutely through the rearview mirror, his tough voice more soothing than Maurice ever remembered it being. His mother smirked disapprovingly, then smiled knowingly, shooting a sideway glance at her son then shaking her head helplessly. She said nothing, never interfering when the males in her family talked to each other.
“Okay, daddy,” he mumbled, excited, his whole body exhilarated.
“Isn’t nobody better than us,” his father continued, his eyes now staring more stonily on the road ahead, as though he were talking to someone on the dashboard. “We just as good as anybody. I’m gonna talk to that principal tomorrow and clear this all up. You gonna get back in school.”
Maurice nestled back deeply into the car and breathed inwardly a long needed sigh of relief. He glanced out the side window as the lush trees and thin highway of rural Georgia transformed into the massive eight lane highway with towering buildings clawing into the belly of the sky and shimmering in the sun. This place might work out, after all.
Ronald M. Gauthier is a librarian and author living in Atlanta, Georgia, and working on a collection of short stories commemorating the literary brilliance of Richard Wright. He is the author of Killing Time: An 18-Year Odyssey from Death Row to Freedom, which won the Innocence Project 2010 Media Award, the 2010 Indie Award for Best Fiction, was selected by the Chicago Sun Times as one of the best books of 2010 and was a finalist for the Lillian Smith Award. Gauthier has had articles and short fiction published in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, The Times-Picayune, The Atlanta Voice, Library Journal, American Libraries, and his short story “Modern Black Boy” was a finalist in a contest by Glimmer Train. He was a librarian and social services counselor in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina resulted in his relocation to Atlanta.