POST 16: Gun Safety

Buddy and I had each just celebrated another birthday; I was twelve and Buddy ten. Summer break of that year came with that sweetest, rarest, and most dangerous of childhood indulgences: total freedom. No summer camp, no childcare, no babysitter. The first few weeks of summer break were wonderful - we came and went as we pleased and didn’t have grownups breathing down our necks every fifteen minutes or planning every second of our day – but as every parent knows, freedom in children quickly turns sour if given enough time, and we grew sorely bored with our daily routines. But my brother and I weren’t the only children in our neighborhood suffering from a serious case of parental neglect and boredom.

Our neighborhood was colorful if nothing else. Dysfunction Street began with Mrs. Isa Mae’s, a common sense lady with a physical limitation of one amputated leg which she often threatened to beat us with if we got on her nerves. She was a spirited woman, but kind and she often welcomed me in her home to eat saffron rice and pressure cooked ham hocks. She was married to a handsome drunk who drove an old El Camino and whose name I don’t remember. Their daughter Ashley was close to my age, very nice and pretty, but was rarely allowed to play with us neighborhood kids as her parents were very strict. Not the preppy kind of strict, like old school strict… like make-you-pick-your-own-switch-and-then-whoop-you-with-it-while-they-curse-you-out-in-front-of-all-your-friends kind of strict. They moved into their house soon after Ms. Johnson, the neighborhood chitlin’ maker, passed away a few years before.

Across the street from them were Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin, an elderly couple who mostly kept to themselves. Their grown daughter Felicia, her infant daughter and two sons, who were my age, lived next door to them. Felicia was away from home a lot and just like me and Buddy, Maurice and Devon were left to fend for themselves most days. Devon and Maurice were the two friends we spent the most time with since they had about as few rules as we did and could come and go as they pleased.

To the side of Devon’s and Maurice’s single-wide trailer lived one of the oddest of neighborhood kids Rovella. Her name alone was unusual, but Rovella was unique for other reasons too. She had the largest gap in her front teeth of anyone I’ve ever known and she also had the meanest mother anyone could ever have nightmares of having. I cringe to recall the sound of her mother calling for her, “ROOOOOVEEEEEELLA! RoVELLA!” She spoke her child’s name with venom, like Rovella was a swear word, and we all knew when her mother yelled like that the entire neighborhood would soon hear a chorus of yelling and crying that broke our collective hearts. Rovella was the youngest of eight children, all from different fathers, and the last child living at home. Even though my own home situation was no picnic, I always felt sad for her. There was no end to the ongoing list of Rovella’s chores and duties, and she always seemed sad and lonely. We were not allowed to play together generally, but when her mother would leave to run errands, we would meet under the pine trees that lined her dirt driveway and talk and read books together until we could hear the engine of her mother’s old town car round the corner. Then Rovella would scurry inside like a scared house pet and wait for the abuse that was sure to have followed her mother home. For a long time, Rovella and her mom lived in an old, cement brick house. Their driveway was just far away enough to keep Rovella from playing in the yard closest to our house, but not so far that we couldn’t hear or see her comings and goings. One year Grandpa Roby gave me an old pair of binoculars which I immediately took to his front porch to scout out the neighborhood affairs. At first I thought I was going to be disappointed with just another boring day until I spied a completely naked Rovella bathing on her front porch in a big wash tub. A garden hose ran from the spigot on the side of her house to the tub. This was a shock for me. We were all poor people, sure, but I assumed we all at least had indoor plumbing. She was happily scrubbing, unaware she was being watched, until I couldn’t suppress the urge and yelled, “ROVELLA! WHAT ARE YOU DOIN’?!” Her eyes looked up towards my grandpa’s porch and when she realized I was watching her, she let out this high pitched scream. She dunked herself under the water and then came up after a few seconds with just her wiry hair and huge eyes peaking over the side of the tub, screaming at me, “YOU PUT YO’ SPINOCULARS AWAY! DON’T LOOK! CLOSE YO’ EYES!” followed by more screaming and carrying on. I thought it was hilarious.

Across the street from Rovella lived our family, my grandparents’ house and Bud’s trailer. Next door was my grandparents’ old pack house used for curing tobacco. Beside that was a small field and pig farm owned by Mr. Roy who lived on the other side of the field. Mr. Roy was very old and I think his daughter or niece lived with him and kept the house up for him and did his shopping. They raised hogs for extra income, but I never saw any slaughtering (thank goodness). Their fence was in poor condition and it wasn’t unusual for us to chase his pigs from our yard back to his farm. Side note: Pigs are mean and not at all as much fun to ride as you might think.

The Bellamy family was another element to our neighborhood makeup. Mr. Bellamy was retired but like a lot of folks in the area he also ran a small pig farm at the back of his property. Between his farm and Mr. Roy’s farms, some days when the wind was just right the smell could make your hair stand on end. The Bellamy’s had a granddaughter named Chanelle whom I loved. We were close in age and we became instant friends the day we met. She had brother a few years younger than Buddy and while the other neighborhood girls Rovella and Ashley were not allowed to socialize often, the six of us – me, Buddy, Maurice, Devon, Chanelle, and her baby brother Michael – were inseparable pals and spent every spare moment of every evening, weekend, and school break together.

Next door to Rovella’s family lived Mrs. Eloise, an elderly lady who had lived in the neighborhood as long as my grandparents had. My grandmother told me several times how Mrs. Eloise had helped her so much with laundry and meals when she had her twin boys soon after the end of WWII. My grandparents had a growing family of seven and their home and all earthly possessions had been consumed in a tragic house fire around that time, so Mrs. Eloise spent a lot of time helping grandma sew dresses and launder clothes by hand. She talked like she and Eloise had been dear friends, but once when I asked my grandma why Mrs. Eloise never came to see her or visited for supper, grandma’s explanation stumped me, “Eloise is black and we are white. When she came to help me, she always ate outside. We were friendly but we weren’t friends.” This was shocking news to me. Everyone in our neighborhood was black except our family so the idea of someone being ostracized for their race was a new and disturbing concept. Grandma’s cavalier comment about why she didn’t let Mrs. Eloise in her home to eat with her and talk like friends baffled me, but it didn’t make sense to me so I dismissed it largely as crazy old lady talk and paid little attention to the social cue she was attempting to pass on to me. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it wasn’t only my grandmother who felt that way; the other families, the black families, in the neighborhood felt the same as well. In the beginning when I would come by a home to visit a friend, the family would make me wait outside the door. Likewise, black children were not allowed in our home. The grownups all tolerated our playing together outdoors (I suppose they realized it was inevitable) but there was an annoyance to their tolerance that I could sense, as if we were all doing something wrong but none of us understood what it was. Buddy and I totally ignored the rule about not having our black friends in our home and enjoyed summers together with our friends playing host and hostess to the neighborhood. When Bud’s light blue Monte Carlo pulled in the yard, we all dropped what we were doing and our friends left through the back door. No adult was ever the wiser, or at least if they were they ignored it.

When I was in the first grade, one of my best friends was a girl named Tocarro. Tocarro was black and I loved the way the colorful beads on the end of her braids made little clapping noises when she tossed her head. We lived in different communities so the only time we played together was at school, and we always sat beside each other at lunch time. One day at lunch we each got a pint of plain white milk. Halfway through lunch we confused our cartons and each drank out of the other’s milk container. It was a slightly comical scene because we both realized at the same moment what we had done and even though we didn’t understand why it felt awkward, we both realized we had committed some sort of egregious social faux paus -- she had drank after a white person and I had drank after a black person and for some reason that felt strange. We stared at one another for an awkward split second until Tocarro broke the silence, “I don’t got no germs. You?” “No,” I said. Then she looked me dead in the eye and took another sip of my milk carton. Well alright then. So I took a sip of her’s too. And that was that. Generations of racial misunderstandings solved between two six years olds and their milk cartons. If only adults could be so smart. Tocarro was no different than me and I was no different than her. It was a good lesson.

Until ninth grade, all (and I mean all) of my friends were black. Once I reached the fifth grade, like all other girls, I liked the idea of spending the night at a friend’s house. When I approached Bud with the proposition of staying overnight with my good friend Crystal, Bud was horrified. NO was the firm and final answer. When I pressed him as to why I couldn’t spend the night with Crystal he admitted it was because she was black. This floored me. How utterly ridiculous! I was offended and told him so. It was senseless that I would be denied the little pleasure of a sleepover with a friend simply because of her skin color. I was really hurt by this and was determined not to give in. After a lot of pressure from me over the course of a few weeks, Bud finally relented and said that I could go to her house after school but that I could not sleepover. When Grandma found out that Bud had agreed to let me ride the bus over to Crystal’s house after school, she pulled out all the punches. She called me into her living room and yelled at me up one side and down the other. She told me I was doing something that went against the Bible and that if I made friends with black people Social Services would come and take me away. It’s a little funny how she thought that was a threat – having Social Services come take me away was my secret dream. When she realized that she too could not convince me to drop the notion of having black friends, she got other members of the family to get in the mix. They all tried to sell me stories about how it was okay to be friendly with black people, just not to be friends. Hogwash, I thought. The day I came back from my first visit to Crystal’s house, my grandma cried. She cried. It was as if I had murdered someone. I didn’t care though. Crystal’s mother Ida welcomed me in her home with sincere affection and kindness. She was a great cook and I enjoyed her clean and tidy home. Crystal was fascinated by my stringy brown hair and made me pretend over and over that I was in a salon so she could curl and braid my hair and put gel in it. It was fun, and it was nice to have a friend.

So back to the original story.

This summer break we were instructed to play with our friends outside, watch TV, and by NO MEANS allow any other kids in the house. This last rule was easily broken day after day since no one was around to supervise us. Bud was gone most days either cropping tobacco or running errands to escape the bother of two wild children home for the summer, and grandma, though right next door, was a prisoner to her LAZ BOY chair and oxygen tank. One of more scrupulous shenanigans is one I mentioned in an earlier post - the time we broke into the home of the Mexican migrant workers who lived down the road. We waited until their truck left in the morning and then snuck in their house through a window, ate Doritos and watched X rated videos. I think I was in third grade. Shocking, isn’t it? We only did it once, but still – not a nice thing for children (or anyone) to do and I still feel guilty about it. But we also did more typical kid things like riding bikes and playing basketball. After lunch when the Carolina heat became too unbearable we’d go inside our trailer to watch TV and cool off in front of the one and only air conditioning window unit. In summer temperatures can often see the 100s and that one window unit got a major work out. Then in the mid afternoon when we heard Bud’s car pull up, our friends left through the back door. We followed this routine everyday for weeks.

One of these afternoons we welcomed our friends Devon and Maurice into our house for a reprieve from the oppressive summer heat. By this time in the summer we were bored with TV and video games and eventually wandered through the trailer looking for something else to entertain us. Maurice spied Bud’s guns hanging temptingly on a gun rack on the bedroom wall. Since hunting is a popular pastime, it wasn’t uncommon for people to have guns in their homes, but there is also the whole “right to bear arms” and “need to protect my land” attitude that typically translates into gun cabinets in living rooms and gun racks in the cabs of pick-up trucks decorated with tree bark camouflage colored seat covers. We had been told many, many times to never touch those guns… but we never obeyed any rules laid down for us. Why should this be any different?

Maurice and Buddy got down the .22 rifle. Buddy stood at the far end of our narrow hallway closest to Bud’s bedroom holding the rifle while Devon stood behind him. I stood to the side of the hallway in a little alcove between our beat up and seldom used washer and dryer. Maurice stood at the opposite end of the hallway. “Is it loaded, Buddy? Make sure it ain’t loaded. You know y’all are not supposed to play with those guns,” I admonished. “It ain’t loaded. I checked it,” he promised. I watched my little brother put the gun in his hands and then -- an explosion. The rifle went off. The sound was deafening as it reverberated off of the aluminum walls of the trailer. The gun going off was scary and startling but what happened next was terrifying. As soon as it was discharged (WABAM!), Maurice lit off out of the house holding his neck, screaming at the top of his lungs. Buddy, Devon, and I stood frozen in place for a few seconds. We couldn’t believe the gun went off. We couldn’t believe what seemed to be true: that we had just shot our friend with a loaded rifle.

 “He’s jokin,” I said, hopefully. “He ain’t shot. Maurice! You get back here! This ain’t funny.”

After a few more seconds we ventured to the front yard towards the direction where Maurice had ran in a panic. When we got outside we saw him standing under a tree, blood pouring from the gunshot wound in his neck. This was no joke. Tears started to brim in Maurice’s eyes, “You shot me Buddy!” He said half accusingly, half in disbelief. Oh God. What are we going to do?

“Are you okay?” “Does it hurt?” “How bad is it?” We each pelted Maurice with questions trying to decipher what in the world we were going to do with this situation.

“I need to call an ambulance,” Maurice finally wisely said. He was losing a lot of blood and his normally healthy dark brown skin was starting to look pale and his breathing was slightly irregular, though he was still able to move around and talk.

I thought about what Maurice said. Yes, he certainly would need a doctor, but how could I let him use our phone? Buddy and I had gotten into some pretty bad jams but we had never done anything like this before. I knew that having an ambulance with its siren blaring come into our driveway would certainly rouse the suspicions not only of our grandma but of the entire neighborhood.

“No,” I said, “You have to walk to a phone. We’ll get in trouble if the ambulance comes here. Can you make it up the street and ask someone else for their phone?”

The amazing part of this was that Maurice agreed. He was afraid, too, and even though he was scared for his health, even his life, the child in him clueless as to the true danger of his situation couldn’t help but think of the parental lashing that was sure to follow an incident like this one. That’s what I was thinking of too. We were all about to the catch the devil. Before he left in search of a phone, he turned to us and said, “Now don’ tell anybody what happened. Nobody.” Is he crazy? I’m not telling a soul. We thought we could just keep it a secret. Maybe no one will ask him what happened. Maurice walked down the road in search of a phone, drenched in his own blood, holding his neck to try to keep it from pulsating. The knot in my stomach grew as big as a watermelon.

Buddy and I dashed to the sanctuary of grandma’s house. We peaked in the living room – she was oblivious to everything, still resting in her old recliner, listening to the Price’s Right cranked up to 50 decibels. We each retreated to the back bedroom, knelt by the bed and prayed with all of our little kid hearts that Maurice would not die and that we would not go to prison. It was one of the most sincere prayers ever uttered. Every nerve in our body was tense with fear. We had done some very foolish, even terrible things, but we’d never shot anyone. We’d never killed anyone. We had made a societal no-no even we could see.

An hour or so passed when I started to think maybe everything would be okay after all and then a police cruiser pulled up into the yard. In a small community, on a small street, a police cruiser at someone’s house was not something people would overlook even if the police were no stranger to our house. Aside from France’s failed suicide attempt, the sheriff’s office had also made visits on a few occasions when Bud’s and France’s fighting had escalated to almost violent altercations and a then a handful of times when Frances had requested a police escort so she could come back unbothered to gather her belongings after leaving us.

I dashed out of the backdoor and greeted two mustachioed and overweight patrolmen.

“Is your daddy home?” I honestly answered no and neglected to mention my grandmother was home. They explained that a gunshot victim (victim?!) had been received at the county hospital and he had cited our address as the scene of the accident (accident?!). Gulp. I guided the officers through the trailer so they could search for the bullet casing. After they took photos of the bullet hole in the ceiling and found the shell casing, they asked me if they could see the weapon. We had hid it at grandma’s house. Buddy almost collapsed under the weight of the insight given to us by the officers that Maurice might die from his wound. It was absolutely terrifying. Eventually Buddy and I were excused to our grandma’s house while the officers finished their paperwork and waited for a lucid (ha!) adult to return home. I didn’t say a word to grandma about the deputies outside or our nearly killing a neighbor and she was blissfully blind and clueless. I had high hopes that somehow this incident would blow over unnoticed like so many incidents before. No such luck.

Within a few moments there was a gentle but audible knock on grandma’s front door. As soon as I pulled back the faux lace curtain and peered on the front porch, my heart sank. It was Eloise, the old lady from next door and I knew my goose was cooked. I sheepishly opened the door and Eloise breezed right past me with a cold and irritated stare. Buddy was hibernating in the back bedroom and I was left alone to face presenting The News to Grandma Pauline.

Eloise spoke loudly, “PAULINE? DO YOU KNOW WHO THIS IS?” Grandma’s eyesight and hearing had deteriorated due to diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma, and old age but she managed to squint enough to recognize her old friend. “Eloise, is that you? Why I haven’t seen you in years!” This was the first time Eloise had ever been received in our home as a guest and I almost felt bad that these two women who had raised their babies together and lived across from one another for over fifty years were now seeing each other for the first time in over a decade just so I could get a switch to my butt.

Eloise was annoyed by the reason for her visit, and for good reason, and kept the chit chat to an unnatural minimum. “Pauline, do you know what happened today?” “No. What?” My heart raced. “Crystal, do you have something you need to tell your grandma?” I paused. Should I come clean? “No, ma’am,” was my answer in my sweetest voice. I practically batted my eyes like on an episode of Looney Tunes. Eloise’s eyes were penetrating my soul. She was totally going to rat on me. “Pauline,” Eloise began, “they have shot that little black boy.” And with that one line I knew I was in some major hot water. The truth was out and there was no going back. Grandma of course did not understand Eloise’s statement but was quickly brought up to speed. She cried. Not too long after the proverbial bomb was dropped, Bud came home. The officers gave him a stern lecture about gun safety and how he needed to keep his guns locked away and then took the shotgun as evidence just in case there was need for further investigation.

The entire evening was awkward, quiet, and there was a real fear that hung in the air. What if we killed him? What if he died? Oh Lord.

Finally just before bed, the news was in – Maurice was alive. He had stitches, he had lost blood, he was hurt, but miraculously he had no permanent damage. I mean, that is pretty freakin’ incredible. The next day we got a very angry visit from Maurice’s mama. You have NEVER, EVER, E-E-EVER in your LIFE seen a woman as mad as a mother whose child has been shot in the neck by some trailer trash.