Charlie

His face be pale white, like after all this time, he just didn’t realise it before now. I smooth down my white uniform, as is habit. “Black children ain’t meant to play with white children.”
“And that’s law, is it?”
“I don’t know ‘bout no laws, suh.”
“All I’m saying is, there are laws about black children in white schools, white diners, white libraries, white water fountains… Where are the laws about black children playing with white children?”
“Them kinda laws don’t be in no law book, Charlie. Them kinda laws just be Mississippi laws.”

Lila is a thirteen year old maid, working for a family in Coldwater, Mississippi. Charlie is a sixteen year old boy, living in that family.
Life is fiercely divided: especially amongst the children of the state.
But charlie isn't like any other boy.
The two of them embark on an unforgettable journey: to Washington, to march with Dr. King to save their Mississippi.

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8. Chapter Seven

The sun dappled delicately on the pot of paint I dipped my brush into. Lawrence was sittin’ on an upturned oil can, rusty from the Mississippi rain season, and lookin’ at me with nothin’ but mild facination. It be eight o’ clock at night, long ‘fore the time I get to go sleep, amd Miss Lucinda be in a good mood for once, so she let me go with Lawrence to make her somethin’ special for her birthday in two weeks time.

“What are you thinking about, Lila?” Lawrence ask me.

“Nothin’, suh,” I answer, my voice still real quiet cause I don’t think Miss Lucinda want me and Lawrence talkin’, and I don’t wanna be takin’ no risks with that lady, in case she try to poison me again.

“I’m thinking about the day you first came into the world,” Lawrence say, after a while. I look at him then, my eyes real big. The paint brush dangles in my hand, and all I can hear is the steady drip, drip, drip as the paint splatters on the tiles; ‘fore I be frozen for a second. “Suh?”

“The day you were born, Lila.”

Now, I wonder if Lawrence should really be talkin’ ‘bout this. I mean, we all know what happened, I just didn’t see no need for it to be said out loud.

“I miss your mama, Lila. I really do.” Lawrence sighed. “The way she used to sing while she cleaned. How she took such good care of Charlie. How she knew her boundaries, yet still felt like part of a family.”

His head had been down all that time, but now he raised it to look at me. “Your mama really loved you, Lila. She told me every day for three months how you were going to look, what clothes she was going to buy you, what songs she was going to teach you...”

“Suh...”

“And while she was trying to push you out, I was holding your hand and she kept telling me,” he put on a black accent, “Mr. Lawrence, you got no need to worry. Everything’s gonna be just fine”. I think that was the last thing your mama said to me, Lila.”

He stop cause he see me cryin’ real pathetic like into my hands. I try stoppin’ myself but the tears, they just kept flowing. Lawrence’s voice be soft now.

“If there was anything we could have done to save her Lila, we would have.” Lawrence place his hand over mine, gentle. “She didn’t leave you in this world on purpose, you know.”

“I know it.” Sadly, I sniff. “I be sorry that I’m crying, Mr. Lawrence, but I can’t help myself when someone talks ‘bout my momma.”

There be a stillness in the room for a moment, an’ I reckon I can hear a baby hollerin’ in the black neighbourhood. Lawrence, he look like he can hear it, too. He look like he fixin’ to say something, but I jump in first.

“Lawrence, do you reckon the world ever gonna change?”

It was a risky question, an’ I knew it. Was the sorta question that got kids beaten, dogs kicked, men shot in front of their families. But Lawrence be no member of the KKK, he be as close to a daddy I ever gonna get. I add some more blue to the sky while I waitin’ on Lawrence to answer.

He take his hat off and run a hand through his oil slick hair. I try not to look at him and focus on my painting, but I see he be wondering why I ask such a question, and he be watching me and for a second I wonder whether he gone get Miss Lucinda to kill me.

“Charlie got attacked again today, Lila.”

I stop. Look up at Lawrence.

“Charlie... what?”

“He got beaten up, Lila. It happened before, and it’s going to happen again so long as he’s a nigger lover.”

“Suh...”

And that was the first time I heard Mr. Lawrence say that word. It made me wanna vomit right there and then on his posh work-man’s shoes, but I restrained myself. I needed to know what happened to Charlie.

“It was after school. Charlie was late, coming back from football. Miss Grace’s boy, Robert, and some of the others I think, came up behind him, kick him to the ground.”

My heart be beatin’ so fast that I have to make effort to breathe. I can barely put together words in a sentence. “But Charlie, suh... is he...?”

Lawrence look straight at me, hard, like he be shocked why I even ask such a question. “He’s fine. Dodged the knife.”

“Knife?!”

“Just got a bad arm, and bruised back.”

Now I can’t say anything, just look at Lawrence an’ feel as guilty as hell. Lawrence look like he gettin’ ready to say a speech.

“It’s like this, Lila. Charlie, he acting as though he’s going to change the word. Hanging out with black folk and such. But what happens when he does? He gets hurt. If the world was going to change, everything would have to change. We would have to rethink our entire way of living. Hundreds of buildings would have no use. We’d have empty schools, public bathrooms, shops, movie theatres... just because we integrated society. We would have no use for black buildings anymore. And think about T.V, too. That American Bandstand dance show you kids watch every week? There’d be no negro day anymore. It would be ruined. So tell me, Lila. Would you really want things to change? Have white people in your grocery store? In your library? Sitting next to you in a movie?”

My voice was cracked. Wobbly. “Yes, suh. I’d like that very much.”

Our eyes be stuck together for a moment, as if we tryna stare each other out. It be as if there be some imaginary force holding my gaze to his. Lawrence’s hands be clasped together, his ankles knotted around each other at the bottom of the oilcan.

“You finished, Lila?” His voice was crisp.

“Yes, Mr. Lawrence. I be done.”

He look at my painting sideways. I ain’t sure if he like the picture of me an’ Charlie standing on a hilltop, holding hands like we best friends, siblings even. The only difference between us is that I’m black and he be white. But I don’t care if Lawrence like the picture or not. This evening has taught me that there are some people in the world not worth caring about.

The sad thing was; I never thought Lawrence was that kinda man.

He look at me now, hard, an’ I know he wanna say something ‘bout the painting; the way his lips be set in a tight line across his white face.

“Go and fetch the paper Lila.”

He say it to me like I’m a dog.

I left the room hurriedly, my maid shoes crackin’ across the tiles. I reach up to turn the handle of the door and think, I’m never gonna be here to grow tall enough to reach that.

A stray dog be hollerin’ as I reach the porch. It be a nice evening, one of those rare ones in Mississippi where it not be too hot and not be too chilly neither. The sun had set a long time ago, and now the moon be glistening in it’s place. I open the mailbox and take out the paper. I guess when I see the headline it be one of those moments where you think God just gone an’ sent a message down to you.

MARTIN LUTHER KING TO SPEAK FRIDAY AT MARCH ON WASHINGTON

I look once over at the fence seperatin’ Stevie from me, an’ I pray that he be happy, that the baby Jesus look after him forever, and no matter what happens to me, Stevie gone be just fine.

 

                                                  * * *

I knock on Charlie’s door. He open it, his curly hair dishevelled and beautiful, his blue eyes like that of a cherub. “Look at this, Charlie.”

I showed him the paper. He read, it don’t take him that long. Charlie raise his head to look at me. “We going?”

I nod. Once. “We going.”

And we were. I watched Charlie throw his belongings in his ratty old backpack an’ thought, we are. We really are getting’ out of this hellhole.

We were gonna march with Dr. King, to save our Mississippi. 

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