Mom pulled our old Dodge Charger in next to the curb on a street alongside the theater. When she looked at me, her mouth smiled but her eyes narrowed. Perhaps, like me, she felt embarrassed. I kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be okay, Mom.”
“I know you will, my precious boy.”
What I really meant was, would she be okay, would she cry or laugh or both mixed up together after I got out of sight? Mom’s curly red hair flowed over the top of her bandanna, and her fingernails had dirt underneath the edges from the afternoon’s gardening. She swallowed hard. Me too. The Charger’s tailpipe puffed a gray trail of smoke. I got out of the car and headed for the theater.
As I walked through the giant archway onto the lobby’s slatted wood floor that you could almost see your reflection in, I looked one way then the other, trying to spot another usher. There were people in line at a long bar, others already heading into the auditorium. I tucked a loose shirttail into my black trousers bought just yesterday, part of the uniform, and with a hand wiped at sweat beading on my brow. That’s when out of the doorway to rows P—V, indicated by bronze letters above the inlet, came this roly-poly boy who almost immediately fixed his eyes on me. Names got exchanged and then, while explaining the head usher had put him on lookout for the “new boy” because we were working the same aisle, Gary led me inside.
Three balconies spiraled like rungs of a Slinky-without-end, this huge crystal chandelier at the dome’s center sending over the people in their seats sparkly light, thousands of little stars. Matching people’s tickets to their places wasn’t so hard with the chair-backs clearly marked by numbers and the aisles by the alphabet, even if I wasn’t sure whether to ask to see their stubs or wait for them to offer a look or just go with the flow if tickets got held close. When the houselights went down, a dark, cavernous hush descended, only the draped red curtain bathed in spotlights. Little dim lights ghoulishly lit the faces of those who began playing musical instruments down in a dugout right in front of the stage, another spotlight going to a white-haired man with a baton who waved them on. I fumbled about with my penlight, having a hard time turning the beam on and off each of the several times I showed latecomers to their seats. Me, some random comet with its tail a-flicker up and down the aisle.
When our work was done, Gary indicated the ushers’ room was upstairs on the second floor and then walked off without as much as a glance over his shoulder. The boys would hang out in there until needed again in the theater at intermission. The thought of walking into that room all by myself made me feel lost and determined to be found.
Teenagers, all of them. You had to be fourteen or older to get the job. But my aunt Charlene was married to Mark Burgstrom, and Mark’s dad, RB, handled the ushers for the Dallas Summer Musicals. My getting hired amounted to an inside job. Mom had set it up. I went into the men’s restroom, locked myself in a stall, and sat there on the pot with my pants on.
Sooner than later I had to “face the music,” as Mom always said. Even though after several minutes my stomach didn’t want to quit with the churning—or maybe because of it—I supposed now was as good as ever. While making my way out of the restroom, through the lobby, and upstairs, I began to understand more about Mom’s narrowed eyes out in the Charger. I, too, was angry at something I couldn’t quite put a finger on. But the theater and its humongous fanciness also made me smile.
As I walked into the ushers’ room, there they were, twenty or so boys, some camped around a big oval pockmarked table, some slumped on a ratty old sofa, others standing, others sitting in scattered choir chairs. The room was clouded with smoke. Big MeeMaw, my grandmother, had died with a hole in her throat from some operation that helped her breathe for a while longer once she got throat cancer. She had chain-smoked a pack or more a day for as long as anyone could remember, and even after her surgery, she would put a cigarette into that hole in her throat and puff away. Those unfiltered Camels. Even the smell made me sick.
“You bluffing, dick!” a blurt from one of the boys sitting at the table. I inwardly winced. Mom and Dad rarely used bad words, my older brother more so, but never directed at one another. Sort of yelling at walls with the cursing was our way. Kids at school got foul-mouthed, but not like they had that much conviction. Not like this.
Two games of poker were in high form. I had some loose change in my pants pocket to carry my weight putting down bets. My grandpa Opa had taught me some poker hands, betting with toothpicks. I could handle it if asked to sit in, or if I stepped up myself. My feet seemed to be growing into the linoleum floor. “Ante up,” “place your bet or fold; we haven’t got all day,” “read ’em and weep,” no one as much as glanced up from the cards.
The other boys at the table not in a game as well as the ones standing or sitting in other places seemed lost to conversations of twos and threes. Over in a corner this Black boy sat on his own, staring. One of the few not smoking.
The Black boy looked up from the floor and his eyes met mine, his gaze clear through the gray haze. He didn’t smile. And neither did I.
At the table with the others sat Gary, the redheaded boy with a belly-lap that rolled down over his belt who I had worked the aisle with in the theater. “Hey, Gary,” I said, waving a hand.
Had he not heard me? Hadn’t his chubby face almost imperceptibly tightened? his eyes drifting downward to look upon the tabletop?
For the longest I stood outside the circle of boys, invisible to everyone but the Black boy, waiting to be spotted for who I honestly was. And who was I? A sensitive specimen who nevertheless liked to color within the lines, from east Dallas, not the hoity-toity Preston Road crowd these boys mostly seemed to be from; a boy who wanted to make friends and, if given the chance, could be a good friend in return. I was big for my age, broad shouldered, as tall as most of them, though with that skinniness one can’t hide in the development of a teenage boy’s body—a good growth spurt or two away from putting on muscle, or my first facial fuzz.
I scooted a chair over, its legs scraping the linoleum, between a couple of boys and slightly behind them. Why hadn’t I simply lifted the chair to avoid the goofiness of the racket it made? I was agitating for a reaction, a what the fuck, or use some elbow grease will you, or hoping for the chairs to part so I could join the circle. I would’ve settled for anything. There was nothing.
I put on a plastic smile and despised myself for it. The smile endured, and I sprinkled in a furrowed brow of knowing interest, as well as an arched eyebrow of conspiracy.
“Where you gonna take her?” said the thick-lipped boy with a round face and dark hair parted on the right with not a single hair out of place.
“I’ll drive her out to White Rock Lake by one of the piers.”
The thick-lipped boy leaned back, tipping his chair onto its hind legs, and looked me directly in the eyes. “Gib’s the name,” he said. “Who goes here?” He took a long draw off his cigarette.
“Jimmy’s the name.”
He blew magnificent smoke rings into the hovering cloud. “Tell me, Jimmy, do you think Chad here has what it takes to pop her cherry?”
I managed something I hoped was a smirk. Chad’s hungry blue eyes seemed to blaze with every possibility of success.
“This won’t be your first rodeo, now will it, Chad?” I said.
He blinked rapidly several times and dropped his cigarette butt into the mouth of a Coke can. “Piece of cake.”
Now he dug around inside the red usher’s jacket, replete with bronze buttons, that gave us all the look of reluctant bandleaders, and came out with a pack of Marlboros. Tapping the top of the pack, he jolted two cigarettes up for the taking. He moved the pack in front of my face, almost deliberately too close.
I couldn’t shake the image of Big MeeMaw on her deathbed asking for another Camel to light up and stick in that hole in her throat.
He extracted one of the Marlboros and brought it before me upright.
Big MeeMaw blew a trail of smoke out of that hole.
“Why I do believe you’re a little virgin, Jimmy.” Chad put the cigarette between his lips, slid out a Zippo lighter wedged beneath the pack’s cellophane wrapper, and lit up.
“Of course he is,” Gib said, triumphantly. “He’s still got those darling rosy baby cheeks. How old are you anyway?”
If I told the truth now, RB would certainly have to fire me. He’d warned me to keep my age under wraps with the other ushers, something about insurance. “I’m old enough,” I said, my tone shifting into a slightly higher pitch than I cared for.
I picked up the pack of Marlboros from the table where Chad had put it, and took a cigarette.
I pinched the cigarette tight between my lips, which only made the thing begin to quiver.
Chad snapped open the Zippo and flinted another flame. He proceeded to shift the flame here and there, ever so slightly away from the constantly moving tip of the cigarette.
Both boys were laughing.
All of a sudden a hand grabbed the lighter, a black hand. He stabbed the flame first at Gib, so close in, I swear, to singe the tip of his nose; then he gave Chad the treatment. The boys jerked back. The Black boy, unrelenting, shoved the Zippo in tight. Gib grabbed his wrist. The Black boy’s eyes blazed, so did Gib’s, them locked in a clench, arms trembling, as did the flame. Without letting go, Gib sort of wrenched himself out of the chair and onto his feet. The Black boy brought his free hand up to grasp his forearm and, as if using all his strength, pressed in harder with the lighter. Gib braced his backside against the edge of the table, turned his head away from the flame now directly next to his eyes.
“You touch this kid and I’ll waste you.” The Black boy’s words came low and guttural.
Chad stood up, gave Gib a searching look.
Gib nodded sharply as if to say, “Do something, will you!”
Chad drew an arm behind his ear, his hand made into a fist.
In one simple breath the Black boy blew out the flame.
As Gib and the Black boy released their holds, Chad lowered his arm, and then he looked down at me.
“I’d watch yourself with our Willy here, kid,” he said flatly.
The Black boy flicked the lighter shut, met my eyes for the second time tonight. “Jimmy, right?”
I nodded. “And you’re—”
“William. You want to come watch my mother with me?”
“My mother—she’s in the play. I always go up in the third balcony when these assholes get on my nerves. Want to come?”
Uncannily, William seemed already to have all but forgotten the existence of Chad and Gib. I was afraid to look at them as I found myself standing up. I probably should have been on my guard with this William too, but inexplicably I wasn’t, not at all.
Gib shoved William hard in the chest. But William was braced.
Without another word, he tilted his head at me and then at the door. As we walked toward the exit, I realized that the entire room had fallen silent.
* * *
William and I took the stairs two at a time, making our way to the third balcony. I wondered whether he was more about helping me out, or himself, loneliness being what it is. A Black kid among a bunch of white boys. But then, I didn’t have any Black friends. How would I know what was really going on with him? Wordlessly, we went inside, quickly scouting out a couple of empty spots next to each other on the very back row.
I folded open the chair bottom and took my place, as did William. These seats worked like some of the nicer stadium seats I’d sat in, though, without the cold metal that gave you a backache; no, they were actually quite cushy, brown upholstered corduroy same as in the section I’d covered on the floor. Up here the crowd was different—more tights and sequined sweater women, polyester pants and golf shirt men, instead of the flower-pattern dresses with pearl necklaces and high heels, or sport coats with neckties and razor’s-edge creased slacks down there. The chandelier had become a massive web of shadows you needed to look just underneath for seeing the performers without a partially obstructed view. A plump Black woman, wearing a fancy gold-colored dress that glinted in the spotlight, walked out onto the middle of the stage. “That’s her,” William said. “That’s my mom.”
“That’s your mom” was all I could think to say. I wasn’t sure what to say. I felt anxious for her, for me and William—she was striding about, splaying her arms almost wildly, her chin raised like some kind of queen, and she looked around as if she could see into the darkness of the crowd, as if she could make contact with each one of us, when she went to swishing her skirts. In truth, she looked downright odd, over the top in most every way.
We’d gone to speaking in undertones, not to disturb those seated near us.
The audience clapped, and there were a few hoots, as though with delight over them seeing William’s mom.
She made friendly gestures while moving among the actors dressed up like people from an old-timey movie. The stage was something of a boardwalk street lined with a fish market and blacksmith shop. Some of the women held umbrellas and wore frilly dresses that bubbled in the back, their men in striped pants and button-down shirts under vests or long coats, wide-brimmed hats atop their heads along with high-polished boots for footwear—the white actors, that is. Several children, also white, boys in suspendered dungarees and girls with colorful bows in their hair, skipped about in a circle. There were several other Black people onstage with William’s mom, but they were in dirty and soiled work clothes, patched and holey, the men sort of trudging along with huge bundles wrapped in sackcloth on their backs, the women having bandannas across their brows, some knelt down at washtubs scrubbing clothes, others carrying baskets filled to the brim with what looked like the cotton balls my mom used to take her makeup off at night. It was hard to tell for sure what filled those baskets from up here in the third balcony at the top of the theater. The actors seemed to be almost in miniature, glowing like animated dolls. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a lady sitting on the far side of William who looked at the performance through the smallest binoculars I’d ever seen. I mashed an urge to ask whether she’d lend me the tiny binoculars for taking a quick look.
Emerging from the bunch of white folks came this man who was as bedraggled as the Black actors, but angry, scraggly-bearded, and with a black eye patch that made me think of pirates. He strutted over and got in William’s mom’s face.
“Hey there, nigger! Where you get that broach you’re wearing?” the man said.
“You mean this scrumptious piece of jewelry,” William’s mom said, in a tone as if waving him aside without a care.
“Where’d you get it, nigger?”
“It was given to me.”
“Who give it to you?”
“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”
Without offering the man a chance to respond, William’s mom turned away and walked with her back to him off the stage.
I partly wanted to twist in my seat and turn my back on William, become lost in plain sight. The N word lingered, giving me the shivers. But his mom handled the unspeakable so well.
“I definitely want to see more of her,” I whispered, leaning closer to William.
“Just you wait,” he whispered, his face beaming, his eyes never for a moment leaving the stage. “You like the play?”
“I do, very much.”
“We’ll do a lot more of this if you want.”
“Shhhhhhhsh,” from the lady with the little binoculars.
* * *
The two of us snuck up there most nights. After intermission, the ushers did some quick tidying of the mess we’d made in the ushers’ room, hung our red jackets in lockers, and were off duty. The other boys went home, and William and I took up our places on the third balcony. After Show Boat finished its run, Kiss Me Kate, I Do, I Do, and Oklahoma came to the boards (I picked up the theater lingo from William). It was moments before the orchestra interlude ended and the second act of Kiss Me Kate was to begin, when he told me his mother had grown up in Dallas. She ran away from home as a teenager, got herself to New York and into acting school. She met his dad while waiting tables to make ends meet. His father was once an actor on Broadway, but the drink got hold of him and he left one day never to return. That’s why his mom came back to Dallas with him as a small boy. So his grandparents could help out in his rearing.
“I want to be an actor like my dad.”
“You will be.”
I felt the lightness of friendship rise through me. Or maybe I was simply envious of him being a creative on the make and, by being around him, allowed myself to believe some of it may rub off on me.
In my mind’s eye I saw the life-size oil paintings hung down in the lobby on those dark brown wood walls of some of the stars who had appeared at the Dallas Music Hall—Juliet Prowse, Robert Preston, Mary Martin, Gordon MacRae—the frames having bronze plates engraved with the actors’ names. All of the pieces were signed along the bottom in bold splashes of paint by Dmitri Vail. What a name, Dmitri Vail. I imagined William’s likeness in one of those Dmitri Vail paintings. It didn’t seem that far-fetched. When I tried substituting me for him, the fantasy fell apart.
There happened to be a bigger world out there. And the entrance to it may as well have been through those huge doors with ornate molding at the top of fifty or so pink granite stairs that led to the hall. Each night after being let out for work by Mom, I would walk across the ample spread of crisply mowed lawn fanning out on all sides of the hall, its large domed towers at the corners of a building made of stone which rose several stories into the sky. On the way I’d pass this old graveyard with its dozen rows of badly weather-stained tombstones, some of which had tumbled onto their sides, or were crumbling along the edges. There was a Texas Historical plaque in the cemetery that said it was populated by freed slaves who had died in the years following the Civil War. I’d spotted dates on the tombstones as early as the year 1867 and as late as 1924. Sometimes I’d stay around after the end of a show and sit at one of the wrought-iron tables in the outdoor beer garden, with its circular water fountain in the middle that had a concrete mermaid for a spout. On tables covered in white cloth, there were bowls of almonds and chips and salsa and veggie trays and these little baby sandwiches—and in the middle of the garden, an ice sculpture of a dolphin or an old-fashioned key or once a tiara. One night Juliet Prowse came out after a performance and sat down with some of the other cast members, no more than two tables away. Now that she was up close, and not some doll in the distance from the third balcony, I couldn’t peel my eyes off the tall beauty, slender in all the right ways. She was an honest-to-God flesh-and-blood real person, and—it occurred to me, as if for the first time—so was I.
* * *
Five nights into the run of I Do, I Do, the first thing I noticed upon entering the ushers’ room: William was not here. Chad and Gib were lounging on the sofa, talking to three other boys who sat in chairs pulled up close.
“…we’ll run William through it,” Chad was saying.
“It’ll be priceless,” Chad again, “taking that mule down.”
My mouth went dry and for a long moment I squinted to make them a blur. Then they saw me standing there.
Every pair of eyes went to me. From the look on Chad’s face, it was clear that I had heard something not meant for my ears. I could get them all permanently fired. RB would believe me, and Chad knew it.
Where was William anyway? In less than ten minutes, we were to take our assigned stations inside the theater. He had never cut things this close.
Chad gestured at an empty chair next to the sofa. “Please join us, Jimmy, will you?”
I stood there like one of the ice sculptures downstairs, the piece unmoving and drip by drip turning into nothingness itself. I wanted to disappear.
“C’mon, let’s let bygones be bygones,” Chad went on. “We’re sorry for the way we’ve treated you. Right, Gib?”
Gib let out a sharp little sigh.
No one said anything.
“He’s sitting out there,” Gib said.
Chad passed a hand across the seat of the empty chair as if dusting it off.
The others nodded.
At a loss for words, I went over to the window and looked out at the south lawn. Sure enough, there William was, sitting by himself on a bench near the graveyard. The area looked small from up here, nothing more than a sad bunch of discolored rocks strewn about in shadows from the waning lights that made the theater’s stone walls and domed turrets come alive—and that historical marker, like a black flag, the flag of freed slaves long dead.
* * *
“You want to check out the play after seating?”
“Thanks, but I’m going to take a rain check.”
He just shook his head, eyes on his shoes.
“Whatever’s going on, let’s get together in the ushers’ room after seating and we’ll talk it out.” By degrees this would keep him away from the graveyard.
We stood there in the lobby, all those Dmitri Vail paintings of stars lining the walls. The colors seemed to fade to black and white, me and William, and something we were unable to say about being a Black and a white.
William looked directly at me again. “I just don’t have what it takes right now to be with the other ushers. My mom won’t allow me to quit this stupid job. Thinks it’s good for my acting to be near the theater.
“Come to the old cemetery. We can talk more there.”
“Let’s meet somewhere else.”
“You got something against a graveyard for Blacks?”
“Of course not. I’ll explain later. Trust me. Let’s meet somewhere else.”
“Something’s going on with you, Jimmy.”
I heard footsteps behind me. Chad and Gib were upon us.
“Time to go to work, boys,” Chad said, looking from William to me. “Idle time makes for devil’s deeds.” The blond bully steepled his hands in front of him.
Gib stood there stone-faced, his eyes burning into me, and me alone.
Ignoring them, William said, “I’ll meet you where I said.”
Not waiting for a reply, he turned on his heels and walked over through the doorway with bronze lettering directly above, Rows G—M, his station inside the theater.
“He better show up,” Gib said thickly, numbly.
“It looks like he will.”
* * *
At my station across the theater from William, as I escorted people to their seats, I kept looking his way. He wouldn’t so much as glance at me. I felt the gulf between us widening.
On the back of a ticket stub retrieved from a trash can, I had scratched out a note disclosing the bullies’ scheme and warning him off the graveyard. The ticket stub I slipped into a playbill so that a part of it stuck out the top. I had asked the runner—a girl who brought the ushers fresh stacks of playbills when we ran out—to make sure William got that particular one. She agreed, though she looked at me funny when I asked her to say that Jimmy wanted him to take a close look at the back of that stub. As she walked away I’d gone all queasy at the thought that she might read the note, and show it to the others.
Now, as she handed William a stack of playbills, they were too far away for me to see whether the stub was sticking out. She didn’t say anything to William, or if she did, I couldn’t tell. He didn’t give the stack of playbills any mind, just handed the next one and the next one out to patrons. I needed to close the gulf between us. And soon. I could ask Gary as comrades of the same aisle to cover for me. He would probably do it. But then…
You couldn’t scare William with some racist old wives’ tale about graveyards. Could you? I would go tell him in the lobby once the houselights went down. But for now it was all those little sparks of light coming off the chandelier, each one of them so happy and innocent, a night at the theater, the gathering audience in anticipation of the blood-red curtain to rise and the actors to appear onstage. It was me who was afraid of my whiteness.
When the theater went dark and I walked to the aisle’s exit into the lobby, I was met there by Chad and Gib. Five other boys stood behind them. As they shuttled me toward the nearest exit, no words were said between us. None were necessary. I twisted my neck, attempting to spot William. As if looking through a maze past the boys’ heads, I could not find him. They dumped me outside in the alley and left me there with Gib, my minder. The door slammed and the rest of the bullies dissolved behind it. I heard their laughter.
Gib gave me this glassy-eyed dark look. He cracked his knuckles.
My God, we were blocked from the view of others by a semicircle of tall shrubs guarding this staff entrance. But then, who would be out here anyway? The play was underway, and the police on hand were at the front entrance or in the lobby.
On my second stride he lunged a leg between mine, tripping me into a face-plant against the asphalt.
“Just as uncooperative as William, I see.”
He hauled off and kicked me as though with all his might in the stomach.
“Fuck you!” I gasped.
He kicked me in the head again and again.
It was all blue stars.
Afraid looking at him now would serve only to further provoke, I kept my eyes closed. There was the clap of his loafers on the pavement rapidly making tracks away from here. When I opened my eyes the tiniest slit, the shrubs and the doorway and the alley were spinning.
I had to find William, I had to warn him.
I got onto my feet and tried to run. When I cleared the alley, my bumbling steps fell heavy in the overwatered grass, the uplighting on the theater like macabre searchlights on the lookout for an escapee. It seemed to take forever to round the domed turret at the corner of the building, and then another forever to round the next turret onto the south lawn.
The ushers were all clumped together fifty yards or so from William, who sat there on that bench. He was leaning on his elbows, as though examining a spot on the ground. They walked directly toward him. No one seemed to notice me. I’d come up behind them.
Just yell out to him! Just do it!
I made not a peep.
The bullies broke into a mad dash.
William stood up and ran for the tombstones, and I saw the boys chasing behind him become silhouettes, a loose and hungry wolf pack, as they left the encircling sheen of the theater lights, then vanished into squeals and groans in the night.
* * *
William and I both showed up for work one week to the day later, shadows of bruises still on our faces, me nursing the last hints of a limp. RB had told my mom on a phone call, he understood the problem, but we would need to press charges for him to fire the bullies—a must for covering himself legally—and I would need to return to work without missing any more days. He couldn’t hold my job open any longer. It would be our word against theirs. Rumors were already flying amongst the boys that William and I had come to blows ourselves. Filing a police report could easily stir up more bad than bring anything good. Evidently William’s mom had gotten the same call. No one called the cops.
From then on, he stayed to himself, sitting on that bench out by the graveyard, not once coming into the ushers’ room. In the theater I dared not steal looks at him working his aisle. Maybe it was better this way. Mom told me it showed respect to let him make any first move to restore our friendship. One show after another, I felt emptier and emptier. But neither of us, each to his own wobbly dreams, could give up the theater.
* * *
Then the summer ended and school began, okay and boring as usual, except now I had been set adrift in a sea of almost total whiteness. It felt both wrong and oddly comfortable. For one thing, I was the same age as those in my grade and therefore a legit peer. As for race relations, the small population of Black boys and girls continued in their tight-knit camaraderie. I wished something ridiculously good would present itself as an opening to make another Black friend. Day in and day out, nothing changed.
Home life also had its way of muzzling dreams of any consequence. We lived from one of Dad’s paychecks to the next, and before the end of some weeks, the money ran out. Meals were never skipped, but such a threat hung in the air like a dull blade. Mom and Dad got into loud arguments about money, and Dad getting a better job. He worked for a drunk, in construction, but he wore a white shirt when he left our house every weekday morning. Mom sometimes cried over her “nerves being too shot” for her to hold down work to help make ends meet. She took jobs at a gift shop and then a doughnut house. For a while things would get better, her crying spells coming less often as did her and Dad’s arguments. Then she’d be at home full-time again, and we’d settle back into our weird normality. Dad didn’t like Black people. Mom said it was too bad, because growing up in the South, she was practically raised by Black women. She had a crush on a handsome Black actor named Sidney Poitier.
I didn’t want to be anything like Dad or Mom was toward Black people. I sometimes conjured to myself that beneath mine and William’s black and white skin we shared the same hurts and joys and fears. Deep down I knew better. Some strange Russian roulette of sperm made us every bit as different as we were the same. Equal in the eyes of the heart. Not anywhere else. I wanted to be an equalizer in real life.
I suppose that’s why, on a school night like any other, when RB called to ask if I would work that Saturday at a special one-night show—the Cowsills Band, a singing family with that big hit from the musical Hair—I managed to inquire whether William would also be working the concert. RB said yes.
* * *
I didn’t go to the ushers’ room pre-show and, instead, stopped at the bench beside the graveyard, where I sat down. William’s bench. The longer I sat there and he didn’t show up, the more I felt the spirits of the freed slaves loathe my white cracker cowardliness on the night William got chased through the graveyard. I didn’t bother to apologize to dead people or their bones buried six feet under. Literally, I didn’t know whether I had it in me to face William now. And the longer he didn’t appear, the clearer it became we had been conveniences of the moment for each other, nothing more.
If I didn’t head inside the theater soon and take my position for seating folk, I wouldn’t be asked back next summer. Part of me had this urge to do my job in, just to spite William saying he’d work this show and then not come. After all, we’d get no more hall passes from RB on missed days. That had been made clear. If I cost myself, in some topsy-turvy way, this would make having let William down if not less awful, then less out of balance, at least a little less.
In the end, I worked the show. I asked Gary whether he’d seen William in the ushers’ room, and he hadn’t. William was not on his assigned aisle. He wasn’t anywhere. It seemed like a cruel joke, him giving me a juke of some kind. A feeling only some entitled white kid would have, I told myself. Face it, William and I hadn’t spoken since the middle of last season.
Between seating and intermission I went back out to the bench and waited things out. I remembered William saying he just couldn’t take any more of the other ushers, so he started hanging out here beside the graveyard. Right on, William. Even the freed slave spirits had quieted down. I just wanted to finish my work and go home.
* * *
Time had seemed to slow down to a crawl, but I was finally walking across the theater’s lawn toward the side street where our curbed Dodge Charger puffed that gray smoke, Mom in behind the wheel. I loved my mom, our beautifully messed-up family. She wouldn’t know the right thing to say to make things better, but she’d say something and it would be better anyway.
When I got close in on the car, I noticed a figure in the back seat. My brother? Coming along with Mom to pick me up from work? That would be a first. I leaned down to look through the window, and there he was, William!
I opened the rear door and climbed in beside him. “I’m glad you’re here,” I said breathlessly.
“Me too,” he said evenly. “Mom drove me over for moral support. I’m done with ushering, but not before we talk.”
A glance at the Ford Fairlane I hadn’t noticed until now, parked behind the Charger, told me it indeed was William’s mom looking through the windshield directly at us.
“I’m sorry, William.”
“Being so pissed off that you didn’t warn me off those bullies when you’d just gotten your butt kicked and good.”
“I was asking too much of you.”
“You couldn’t ask too much of me. That’s impossible.” I’d never meant anything more. As in the debt I owed to William—the debt white people owed to Black people—that could hardly be repaid.
William shyly nodded his acceptance.
“We’re moving back to New York.” He bit his lip. “I wanted you to hear it from me, Jimmy.”
I blinked back a stinging wetness in my eyes. “You’ll be a star.”
“We’ll see. We’ll see.”
“Maybe we could visit each other in the summers.”
Another nod, this one with unmistakable boldness. “I’ll talk Mom into accepting some more roles here.”
“You’re as charming as a young Sidney Poitier, William,” my mom interjected.
At the same time he and I let slip nervous sniggers; then it was all belly laughs.