The foundations of our new government are laid, its
cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to
the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his
natural and moral condition.
~~~Alexander Stephens, Vice president of the Confederacy (1812-1883)
Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.
~~~Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969)
It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me,
but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty
~~~Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
There have been throughout history, mythology, fiction and show biz many Dynamic Duos. I’ve always believed my childhood friends, Zachary Harvard Weed and Adrian Roland Thompson, belong on any such list. You don’t have such a list? It just so happens I’ve compulsively kept just such a list over the years, which my editor keeps insisting I shorten:
Masters and Johnson
, Amos and Andy
, Henry the VIII
and Catherine of Aragon
, Richard Burton
and Elizabeth Taylor
, Mutt and Jeff
, Hepburn and Tracy
, Heckle and Jeckle
, Hansel and Gretel
, Gallagher and Sheen
, Superboy and Krypto
, Henry the VIII
and Anne Boelyn
, Richard Burton
and Elizabeth Taylor
, Batman and Robin
, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock
, King Arthur
and Sir Lancelot
, Dun and Bradstreet, Wheeler and Woolsey
, Starsky and Hutch
, Laurel and Hardy
, The Lone Ranger
, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
, James and Dolley Madison
, Nelson Mandela
and Winnie Mandela
, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
, Derek and Clive
, Mary and Joseph
, Mickey Mouse
and Donald Duck
, Cheech and Chong
, Donnie and Marie
, Mork and Mindy
, Currier & Ives
, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung
, Edger Bergan
and Charlie McCarthy
, Charlie McCarthy
and Mortimer Snerd
, Antony and Cleopatra
, Marie and Pierre Curie
, Alexander Graham Bell and Mr. Watson
, Dr. Watson
and Sherlock Holmes
, Pierrot and Pierrette
, Bogie and Bacall
, Tom and Jerry
, Astaire and Rogers
, McMillan and Wife
, Henry the VIII
and Jane Seymour
, Richard Burton
and Elizabeth Taylor
, Burns and Allen
, Allen and Rossi
, Martini and Rossi
, Sacco and Vanzetti
, Tippecanoe and Tyler too
, Rowan and Martin
, Martin and Lewis
, Lewis and Clarke
, Simon and Garfunkle
, Abbott and Costello
, Judy Garland
and Mickey Rooney
, Gable and Lombard
, Leopold and Loeb
, Johnny Carson
and Ed McMahon
, McMann and Tate
, Gannon and Friday
, Friday and Robinson Crusoe
, Henry the VIII
and Anne of Cleeves
, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor
, Clark Kent and Lois Lane
and Martha Mitchell
, Hope and Crosby
, Arno Penzias and Robert. W. Wilson
, Crick and Watson
, Lucy and Desi
, just to name a few.
This book isn’t about any of them. To tell this story of Zachary Harvard Weed and Adrian Roland Thompson properly, let’s jump into the Wayback Machine:
|“Hon. Thurlow Weed”
Mathew Brady (1823-1896)
Library of Congress
Thurlow Weed lived between 1797 and 1882. Zachary’s ancestor’s loved to tell the story of Thurlow, who grew up to be a famed journalist and politician, who led the Whig and, later, the Republican Party. One of the original backroom deal-makers, he was (as the WikiWackyWoo tells us) “instrumental in the nominations of William Henry Harrison (1840), Henry Clay (1844), Zachary Taylor (1848) Winfield Scott (1852), and John Charles Frémont (1856).” Although he supported the nomination of his good friend William H. Seward for the Republican ticket in 1860, he backed Abraham Lincoln wholeheartedly. Weed was so vigourous in his support of Lincoln’s war policies, he was sent abroad by the 16th President of the United States in the first two years of the oxymoronically named Civil War. Thurlow was a man with a life worth remembering. Almost nothing is known about his wife.
One son was born to the Weeds, Zachary Lyons Weed (1829–1902). This tumble Weed pushed west in the early 1850s, where he married and settled near Mt. Shasta. His dry goods business prospered and today, a century and a half later, just off Route 5 in Siskiyou County, California is the town called Weed
. Current population: just under 3,000
Zachary Lyons Weed outlived his only son Harvard (1859–1891) by some 11 years. As much as the tragedy of his son’s murder almost destroyed him (the culprit was never found), the birth of his only grandchild, Daniel Harvard Weed (1892–1950), gave him the joy missing from his early life. Until his death at the ripe old age of 73, he regaled the boy with tales of his famed father, the boy’s great grandfather Thurlow.
Long after the death of his grandparents, Daniel Harvard Weed moved southeast some 250 miles to Nevada, settling in Yerington on the shore of the Walker River. Maybe he was drawn by the name of the county, Lyon. Maybe not. Maybe he worked in the Anaconda Mine
. Maybe not. We will never know and family lore seems to skip over this Weed.
Today, a suburb of that vast metropolis of Yerington is named Weed Heights. Although we know Daniel Harvard Weed moved there, this company town wasn’t built until after he died. It’s unknown why it appears to be named for him, if indeed it was. One historian suggests it’s nothing but an odd coincidence, a synchronicity with no deeper meaning. Another historian theorizes the name “Weed” was meant to be ironic, noting the lack of any vegetation in what is essentially a desert. No matter.
Daniel Harvard Weed had one child, named after an amalgamation of previous Weeds: Daniel Lyon Weed. Although descended from hearty pioneer stock, this Weed had no taste for the rough and tumble west and, soon as he was able, moved to Detroit where Weeds were scarce but jobs plentiful.
“Dandy Lyon” was very much like the nickname given him during the war. He was a fop, a fine gentleman, a dude, beau, man about town, prig, and jackanapes. He was a man more concerned with sartorial splendour than with his only child Zachary Harvard Weed. Dandy Lyon wore, as Zac would say later, “the worst toupee inna entire world.”
His natural hair, what was left of it, was bright red. As hairstyles changed over the years, so did his rug. Brushcut for the lean, mean ‘50s? No problem. Slick Dan was here. Something for the Surfin’ Sixties? Why not the Surfer Dan look? A longer, modish style for the British Invasion? Meet Ringo Weed. A hippy style for the later sixties? Here comes ol’ Long Locks Lyon. In the back of his closet, he kept a briefcase containing all his discarded hairpieces. It looked like the ancient burial ground for laboratory animals.
I should know. I saw it once.
Dandy served his country during the Second World War keeping the western shores of Lake Erie safe from the Nazis, Japs, and the Huns. That’s where he eventually met the woman who would become his wife. Like him, she had flaming red hair. Unlike him, she had a quality that radiated life. Why she would eventually marry Dullard Dandy is another of life’s mysteries I pondered as a teenager.
|Dicentra Spectabilis aka Bleeding Heart
According to the story she told (and she told it often), it was a cruel trick of fate: When she was born to Jonathon and Erma Poppy of Toledo, Ohio, their first inclination was to name her Dicentra. It was unusual, it had that certain feminine ring to it, and it was short for the Latin Dicentra Spectabilis, the beautiful red-flowered member of the poppy family. At the last moment they chickened out and went for something a little more conventional, but not totally conventional. They named her Rose-Violet Poppy, with an eye still on the cute-factor. However, they could justify it because of her Grammy Rose and her Aunt Violet; flower names proliferated on that branch of the family bush.
The cruel twist of fate, as Rose-Violet came to see it, is that this beautiful flower would fall in love with, and marry, a Weed, forever losing her fragrance.
Her parents should have stuck to their first thought, however, and named her Dicentra because she was the original bleeding heart and that, after all, is the more common name for Dicentra Spectabilis. During her loveless marriage any man with a half-decent line could get her heart to bleed. Her red-hair and well-proportioned body made any man with glands still intact offer her a half-decent line (and some were downright indecent).
As a teenager, I was madly in lust with her and she provided me with many masturbatory fantasies.
Maybe Rose-Violet just never got over the initial shock of seeing Dandy without his rug. It must have happened on their wedding night in 1951 and would have been quite the shocker. Rose claimed to have never had “relations” with him ever again. Zachary, the issue of that encounter, was the only thing in that marriage she loved.
When Dandy died some years later Rose raged, romped, rampaged, ravished, rebounded, raped, ravaged, revelled, and reproduced (or at least went through the motions).
Incidentally, Zachary was named by Rose-Violet. She named him after his great great Grandfather as well as the Weed who died so early in life before he had achieved much more than continuing the family lineage. She had heard the history of the family line not from her husband Daniel, but from his father. For reasons unknown to her, her husband despised his Weed roots. However, Rose-Violet found it important enough to use the family history as bedtime story fodder for Zachary from birth, which is how I came to know much of it. However, I had assumed it was all bullshit until research confirmed it as reality; a reoccurring theme during the writing of this book.
Zachary, like all 5-year old kids, cared far more for the reality of Saturday morning cartoons. He was bored by the family lore, which he had heard so many times. The descriptions of pioneering Weeds sounded made up compared to the excitement of television.
|Captain Gallant was played by Buster Crabbe.
In an odd bit of synchronicity, the author has
only collected 2 autographs in his entire life.
One was from Weird Al, personally made out
to his youngest son, and the other was inscribed
personally to his father from Buster Crabbe.
Which is why early on June 1, 1957, Zachary was in the basement, warming himself in the bluish glow of Captain Kangaroo. The good captain hopped into Howdy Doody on Channel 4. After the goings-on in Doodyville—Zac knew the schedule by heart—he would turn to watch Mighty Mouse, which lasted until the Channel 7 cartoons at 10:00. At 10:30 came Captain Gallant; at 11:00, Sky King. 11:30 was the time for Sagebrush Shorty and after that would come—
“Za-ach?” Rose-Violet always managed to make it a two-syllable word.
Nothing came back. Again, this time louder, “Zac?”
Still no response.
“ZACH-A-RY!!” Three syllables loud and clear, which could not be ignored.
“Why don’t you shut that thing off and go outside t’play? It’s a nice day out. The radio says it’s going up to 80 today.” She walked down the stairs as she spoke.
“I don’t wanna, Ma. The Lone Ranger’s just startin’. C’mon, Ma.”
“No, outside with you.” She stood at the bottom of the stairs now, drying her hands on a tea towel. Her smile said it all. Zachary was the light of her life and now, at five years old, he was growing up to be quite a little man. He was almost 3 inches taller then the other boys his age, but he also acted older than any of them. However, she felt his best asset were his eyes.
They could be described as blue, but that would do them a disservice. That would be like calling Mickey Mantle a baseball player. It said the barest minimum. In fact, Zac’s eyes were the colour of Star of Sapphire gemstones; deep pools of reflection that seemed far wiser than his 5 years. Old and knowing eyes.
His hair, not surprising given his parentage, was a shock of red curls, which women pay good money to obtain.
“B’sides. Your father will be getting up soon and you know what he’s like in the morning. Anyways, I thought you’d be excited to see what’s going on across the street.”
“There’s a moving van across the street. Someone’s finally moving into the Ball house.”
Before she had finished the entire sentence, Zachary had rushed past her and run up the stairs, hitting the side door running, the words “Hi Yo Silver” echoing to an empty basement. Rose smiled again and turned off the TV.
The moving truck was parked in the drive of the vacant house across the street. Zachary knew the house’s history well. His father repeated it often enough. It had now been empty for 3 months. Its previous owner was one Doyle F. Ball. The Ball’s moved into the house when the neighbourhood was new, a few years before the Weeds. Doyle was known around the Weed house as “That Asshole.” Zac had always found Mr. Ball to be nice; Mrs. Ball always had a kind word and a cookie. However, his father referred to anyone he could not relate to as an “asshole.” With that one word, Daniel L. Weed could dismiss 92.48% of the human race.
Three months ago, without telling a soul, the Balls moved out of their house.
Since that day, the house had been vacant. No “For Sale” sign ever went up. No listing was ever made with a realtor. Dandy had checked. That was the most “assholish” thing they could have done. There was only one reason houses changed hands quietly in 1957. Dandy was convinced that lily-white Gilchrist Street was about to get some chocolate drops.
|In 1942, during war time, Detroit was already experiencing racism.
This was how block-busting was usually done in Detroit. One of the neighbours would quietly move out having sold to a real estate agent, or they would sell it privately. Either way there was a very large profit to be made by the first person on a block to sell their house to a Negro, as they were called by polite society back then. The practice that kept Blacks out of certain neighbourhoods in Motown was called redlining. However, once a block was broken, it was amazing how quickly White Flight could change a neighbourhood.
Dandy Lyon, like most men who went through the service during wartime and had developed their first working relationship with Black folk, didn’t want to live across the street from one. Hell, that’s why he fought the war in the first place! For his Constitutional Right to discriminate!
Such was life in Detroit. Such was life on the west side of Detroit. Such was life on the northwest side of Detroit.
Zachary lived on the northwest side of Detroit, on the west side of Gilchrist, in a house two doors south of the cross street, Hessel. His house was one block and two houses south of Eight Mile Road, the northernmost boundary of the city of Detroit and the county of Wayne. Everything beyond 8 Mile was suburbs.
When the Balls moved into their house, the smell of fresh paint would have still permeated the new structure. It, and all the houses around it, was built in 1947. They were post-war houses at their most lackluster built in a tract called Madison Park, but apparently no one who ever lived knew that. The name Madison Park seems to have existed only on the original planning maps. The entire housing tract went up at the same time, virtually overnight.
|A current bird’s eye view of Gilchrist
Each block contains 15 houses whose backyards meet the backyards of 15 houses from the next block. Those 15 houses face 15 houses on the other side of the street. Those 15 houses have backyards that meet the backyards of 15 houses, which look out at 15 houses on the other side of the street.
In Motown, there are blocks and blocks—stretching into miles and miles—of this type of development. Each house sits on a lot 40 feet wide by 100 feet deep. On a city block: 30 houses; 15 back-to-back with 15 others. There are eight such blocks to the linear mile.
In Motown, there are blocks and blocks—stretching into miles and miles—of this house, as there seems to have been only one basic design. Some were finished in asbestos tiles; most were brick. Some had the floor plan reversed; some had unfinished basements. Some had a finished second floor; others may have had a garage at the end of the driveway. Some had aluminium siding and the occasional house had painted brick. All, however, were the same house and from the outside looked like one of those little green houses you line up on Baltic Avenue before trading them in for a hotel.
At one time, when it was still all forest and farm, people would travel from The City to this very area. Where the West Side Drive-In once stood used to be a farm, complete with riding stables. One could rent a horse and saddle for the afternoon. Just over a mile to the west, as the crow flies or the horse walks, was Madison Park, where Zac’s house came to be built after the war. It seems a shame that so many trees, each one different and distinct, were destroyed to make way for one house—one house multiplied thousands of times.
If you say Zachary’s house was one block and two houses south of Eight Mile, you could also say it was six blocks and thirteen houses north of Seven Mile.
Such was life on the northwest edge of Detroit City.
Now on June 1, 1957, the mystery of the Ol’ Ball Plce was about to be solved for young Zachary. He wriggled into the bushes that flanked his front porch. This was his customary hiding place. He often sat, alone, beneath the bushes in the cool shade and spied on the world at large.
The world at large always seemed to behave differently if it didn’t know a 5-year old child was watching it.
This day there was far more action than usual. In fact, it was a veritable flurry of activity. Movers busied themselves carrying boxes and furniture into the Ball house.
It was the goofy family he had spied on months earlier, from this very spot, having a picnic on that very lawn.
Girls, seemingly of every size and age, helped carry the smaller and lighter objects. And, on the curb side, in front of the Ol’ Ball Place, was a boy a few inches shorter than Zac, but seemingly of the same age. He was crying. He was lying on his back on the grass, legs in the street, screaming himself hoarse. The tears were running down his upper cheeks into his ears. Zach found his empathy and carried it across the street.
When he was close enough to be heard, he spoke.
The boy froze. His crying stopped. He tilted his head and looked up.
“I’m Zachary. Can I be your friend?”
The little stranger wiped his eyes. Then he wiped his ears. Then he replied, “Are you a nigger?”
Adrian Roland Thompson’s family wasn’t big on family lore, but there was one thing he knew about his lineage: He was no nigger, whatever that was. The word had been used, often in contemptuous tones, in Adrian’s house. It had usually been whispered about some mysterious “they” and only when Adrian was thought to be out of earshot. One thing was clear: The Thompson’s were better than any niggers.
In direct contrast to Zachary, Adrian knew very little of how he came to be. He had no grandparents that he knew of. He had never heard the story of how his parents met, let alone where they were born. Adrian didn’t know how many generations his family lived in America, nor could he say if any of his kinfolk were famous. In fact, up until the age of three and a half, he didn’t say much of anything.
He never uttered a word.
Roland and Dorothy, his parents, took him to a steady stream of pediatricians, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Dorothy thought he was just “slow developing, thass all” and would catch up to his peers. She’d read Ugly Duckling to him one too many times, and believed it herself.
Randolph had his own theory. He knew Roland was “a mental retard. Other kids his age? You can’t shut ‘em up, they talking a mile a minute. Bad genes. Luck o’ the draw, is all.”
Adrian survived the battery of tests.
The experts were in agreement for the big picture, differing only in some details. Adrian’s intelligence scores were higher than average; comprehensive excellent; memory skills outstanding.
One of the more brave (or foolhardy) of the professionals suggested “a trauma—a psychological trauma—which may have caused him to withdraw. It may have been something small and seemingly insignificant at the time, but to a child might have been monumental. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, have you any idea of what may have affected him so?”
Dorothy and Randall immediately dismissed that suggestion and kept to their pet theories. “He’s just slow. He’ll catch up. You’ll see. He’ll blossom like a butterfly,” Dorothy would repeat, as much to convince herself as anyone else.
“I think the boy’s retarded. It’s a bet he didn’t get that from my side of the family,” Randolph would end one discussion after another.
Adrian had two pastimes. Sometimes he’d even do them simultaneously.
The first was pouring over reading matter. Books, magazines, newspapers. It didn’t matter to Adrian. As long as it had words, or pictures with words, Adrian wanted to look at it. Books with nothing but pictures didn’t interest him at all.
Adrian’s love of words came from Uncle Izzy. Every Sunday, like clockwork — at the exact stroke of 5 – there would be a light knock on the door. The door would burst open before anyone could answer and suddenly Uncle Izzy would be in the room. Despite the fact that he wasn’t very large for a man – slim and almost petite would best describe him – Izzy had a way of occupying all the unused space in a room.
Adrian would almost always be waiting for his arrival, waiting quietly on the chair closest to the door in anticipation. At the quiet rap, he’d jump up and race to the door, because everything about Uncle Izzy delighted the boy.
He would sweep into the room, set his briefcase – the biggest Adrian had ever seen – on the table just inside the door. If it was cold enough to wear one, he’d take off his coat with a flourish, ending with a move like that of a bullfighter and then casually toss the coat onto Randolph’s chair. It would always land, as if by magic, folded neatly in two laying over the back of the chair.
By now the 3 girls would have arrived in the living room, creating barely controlled pandemonium as Hellos were exchanged. Randolph and Dorothy would always look on quietly from the doorway to the dining room. Izzy would ostentatiously snap open the two catches on the briefcase and inside would always be presents. The children knew to line up by age, oldest first, and Izzy would squat down and distribute the gifts in exchange for a hug and kiss. The girls always got some girlie trinket, but Adrian always got a book.
Dinner would hit the table at exactly 5:15. Sundays in Adrian’s house ran like Mussolini’s trains, keeping to a strict schedule. Every other day of the week dinner would be whenever Dorothy slapped it on the table, which could be any time between 5:30 and 7. Lately, more and more, the older girls would be told to make dinner, which meant bologna sandwiches. As much as Adrian loved bologna sandwich nights, he loved Sunday more. It always consisted of roast brisket of beef, creamed corn, and mashed potatoes, but it wasn’t the food that made Sunday special. It was Uncle Izzy.
The Sunday routine never varied. One by one, as the girls finished dinner, they would be excused to go do whatever it was that girls did. Adrian would remain behind, long after he finished dinner, listening to his parents and Izzy talk, mostly his mother and Uncle Izzy. Randolph rarely said anything. The clock on the hutch would chime for 6 and Izzy would announce, “It’s time for the men to go have a smoke” and Adrian, Randolph and Izzy would get up from the table while Dorothy called the girls in to clean up.
If the weather was warm enough the men would go onto the porch. If not, they’d retire to the living room. Randolph would light up a Lucky Strike. Izzy would reach into his inside breast pocket and pull out a long stogie. First he would run the cigar under his nose and smell it from one end to another. He’d slip the paper ring off the cigar and Adrian would always thrust his hand out. Uncle Izzy would place the paper ring onto two of Adrian’s fingers and pull a match out of the side pocket of the suit jacket. At the same time he stuck the cigar into his mouth, a flame would appear with a hiss on the end of the match. It was like magic to Adrian. It was years before Adrian ever thought to watch the match and not the cigar and, only then, did he see that Izzy used his thumbnail to ignite the match. Rather than feeling disappointed, Adrian thought the thumbnail trick was even better.
Izzy would puff on the cigar as he held the match to the end and the flame would dance in tempo to Izzy’s cheeks.
Sometimes no one said a word and Adrian would watch the smoke curl above their heads or poke his finger through the smoke rings that Izzy blew.
Sometimes Randolph and Izzy talked about inconsequential things, like weather and baseball.
There were other times, however, when nothing Izzy and Randolph said to each other made any sense to Adrian. While he recognized the individual words, when strung together they didn’t amount to anything that Adrian could grasp. Years later he would guess correctly that it was a code, but when he was young he would try to decifer it to no avail. Adrian wanted desparately to understand what they were saying, because the nights that Randolph and Uncle Izzy spoke in code were the only times that Sunday deviated from the careful schedule that had been set up.
On these nights, when his father and Uncle Izzy spoke in tongues, Randolph would stab out his cigarette and Izzy would announce, “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Adrian. Your father and I have to sign some papers” and he’d pick up his briefcase and the two adults would disappear.
A few years later Adrian would learn that Uncle Izzy, Israel Sharpe, was also the family lawyer and he was almost nine before anyone bothered to tell him that “Uncle” was an affectionate, but honourary, title. Izzy was not related to either Randolph or Dorothy. A few years after that Adrian learned from his father that Izzy was “a fucking Jew who’d no sooner slit your throat than fuck your wife.”
On the Sundays when papers had to be signed, Adrian would wait quietly with his newest book on his lap.
Suddenly Izzy would burst into the room and the Sunday routine would pick up where it left off, because the same thing would happen every Sunday at this time.
“Do you know what time it is, Adrian?”
With that Izzy would shoot his cuff suddenly and Adrian’s vision would be obscured by a huge watch as Uncle Izzy pointed to the large hand and exclaim, “The big hand’s pointing to the three, so it’s a quarter past.”
He’d shoot his cuff again and reach behind Adrian’s ear and pull out a quarter that always seemed to be behind Adrian’s left ear, but only when Izzy reached for it. It was never there when Adrian looked.
As Uncle Izzy pressed the quarter into hand, Adrian would close his fist around it. Then Izzy would shoot his cuff again and the watch would look large again in Adrian’s vision. Izzy would point again.
“And the little hand’s on the 6, so it’s a quarter past 6. Story time.”
With that Izzy would plop down in Randolph’s chair, with an over-exaggerated sigh, and Adrian would scramble up onto his lap and open the book to the first page. Izzy would move Adrian around a little bit until he was in the crook of Izzy’s left arm, safe and warm. Then Izzy would begin reading the book, always starting with the title page.
In interviews during the research of this book, Adrian told me that Sundays was the only day of the week he remembered being hugged by an adult. It was not something his parents did. It was the only time, he told me, he really felt loved and protected. So much so that sometimes he would fall asleep in Izzy’s warm embrace and would wake up in his own bed in the morning without knowing how he got there.
It wasn’t getting a book from Uncle Izzy. It wasn’t being treated like a man during the smoke break. It wasn’t that Izzy always found a quarter behind his ear. No, Adrian told me, the main reason he looked forward to Sunday and Uncle Izzy’s visit was because it was the only time he wasn’t afraid. Even now, so many years later, listening to this taped interview with Adrian makes me cry. If you could hear it, you’d cry, too.
The other activity that would occupy Adrian’s time, was listening to a crystal radio. Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, the crystal radio was also a gift from Uncle Izzy, for Adrian’s third birthday.
“This is very special,” Izzy explained when Adrian unwrapped what he thought would be a large book, because it was rectangular. It was, however, a cardboard box with an illustration on the front.
“And it’s very delicate, Adrian. So you gotta treat this with extra special care.”
|The crystal radio set that Adrian was given on his 3rd birthday
Izzy opened the box and Adrian could see wires and parts that looked like some of the things he had been able to see through the slots in the back of the television, when he hid back there.
“You turn this dial very slowly until you hear something,” Izzy continued as he slipped the headphones over Adrian’s ears, “And you can bring the whole world to your ear. The world is bigger than what you can see from your front doorstep.”
Adrian slowly turned the dial and he heard some static. He kept turning and inside the static he heard what sounded like music. Then the music became more distinct and the static less. Then the music was loud and clear until it faded into static, as Adrian turned the knob some more. Adrian turned the knob back the other way until the music was clear again and stopped. He smiled broadly and took the headset off. No one else could hear what he had heard. It wasn’t like the radio in the corner of the living room. It was special. Something only he could hear.
From that day on, if he wasn’t outside he was inside his crystal set. Years later, after the invention of the transistor radio, Adrian was rarely out of radio contact with the rest of the world.
When Adrian was 1277 days old [as he told me. I had to do the math to figure out that he was about three and a half], the Thompson family gathered at the dining room table for another non-Sunday meal. Naturally Randolph sat at the head of the table, farthest away from the kitchen, with his back to the living room. Dorothy sat at the other end of the table, which was closest to the kitchen. On her immediate left was Julie-Ann in her high chair, born, as Adrian would tell me, a mere 400 days after him. Adrian would sit on Julie-Ann’s left, which put him on Randolph’s immediate right. On the opposite side of the table were Rita, 2 years older than Adrian and Lorraine, another 2 years older than that.
Meals, other than the special Sunday night dinner, were to be quietly endured. Conversation was kept to the bare minimum, which bothered the silent Adrian not a whit. No child could leave the table until every morsel – every last crumb – had been devoured.
“Adrian? Are you feeling okay?” Dorothy reached across Julie-Ann to feel his forehead.
Instinctively Adrian drew back, glancing quickly at his father who was raising a forkful of corn mixed with mashed potatoes into his mouth’s range. He was lost in thought, his eyes dull and grey, not paying attention. Adrian lent forward, allowing his mother to feel his forehead.
“I don’t feel a temperture. But, you don’t look so good. D’you feel okay? Are you sick?”
Adrian slowly shook his head from side to side. His eyes were red and he had dark circles under his eyes. He had been crying most of the day, but that was something he knew better than to let his father see.
“What’s bothering you, dear?”
Adrian fixed his mother’s eyes with his. He moved his jaw slightly, almost a quiver, as if to say something. As usual nothing came out.
No one at the table had any expectation he would say something. He never did. He glanced around the table and eight pairs of eyes were on him. He stole another quick side-glance at his father, who was scooping up more mashed potatoes with a rare piece of meat skewered on the end of his fork. He was still off somewhere else, disinterested.
Again Adrian squared his eyes with his mother’s. Again his jaw moved, this time almost an imitation of the Tin Woodman’s after Dorothy Gale oiled his joints.
Without any warning, and surprising to almost all, Adrian spoke for the first time.
“The bird died.”
Dorothy’s eyes suddenly filled with silent tears, then over-flowed when she blinked. Lorraine and Rita were frozen. Even Julie-Ann, as young as she was, seemed to know something momentous had just happened. Only one Thompson seemed unaware of the specialness of the moment.
“What fucking bird?” he spat out along with a partially chewed kernel of corn, which stuck to his chin.
Adrian had been listening to his crystal radio. “Charlie Parker. The Bird. He died last night at the age o –”
“That nigger music?” Randolph spat again. His face had already started to flush with anger. He rose and slapped Adrian on the back of the head so hard, his plate broke when his head hit it. “Don’t you ever let me hear you talk about that jigaboo music again.”
By the time Adrian had wiped the food off his face his father had already left the room. His mother went into the kitchen and returned with a warm washcloth, which she used to clean food and blood off his face. The cut on his cheek wasn’t very big, but it left a lifetime scar.
Adrian tells me he never initiated a conversation with his father again, something that I’ve come to believe. Something else I’ve come to believe, but Adrian never seems to have considered: Randolph had a greater knowledge of Black music than most. How did he known Parker was Black?
From that day on, one of the children’s voices heard on Fullerton was that of Adrian. It filtered into the windows and the sound of it often made Dorothy cry. She only ever seemed to hear him through the window, because he rarely spoke again in the house.
The quote is from Isaiah, Chapter 2, verse 4:
“And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The bible had once belonged to his Great-great-great-grandmother and on this day, January 20, 1957, Richard Milhous Nixon placed his hand upon this passage and used it to take the oath of office for his second term as Vice President of the United States of America. Eisenhower was sworn in as President and would continue to lull the country to sleep. After all, this was the year Darvon was introduced as a substitute for Codeine.
Adrian insists on telling me what Nixon was doing that day and that it be put down in this book as he describes it. That’s enough for me because, after all, this is his story I’m telling. I know he’s had a life-long fascination with Nixon, one that predates the famous Kennedy–Nixon debates, or so he has always claimed.
On the same day that Nixon was taking his oath, Adrian was up to no good as well. Firstly, he was playing with his friend Keith. He had been told never to play with that nigger.
Secondly, Adrian and Keith were playing with fire….literally. They were in the alley that ran behind Fullerton playing in a trash fire that someone had set. Back in the good ol’ days of the ‘50s, private citizens were allowed to incinerate their garbage, or anything else they wanted, without regard to something called The Environment. Behind many houses on Fullerton were oil drums, with air holes punched in the sides, where people burned whatever they wanted to get rid of. Adrian was forbidden to play in these fires, which naturally made the fires all the more attractive. Adrian and Keith would feed the fires with paper, plastic –although there wasn’t a lot of plastic in those days, leaves or whatever else they could scrounge. All in the name of experimentation, of course. Maybe they caused global warming.
The last time Adrian was caught playing in the fires, his father whooped him good. And then when he found out he had been with Keith again, he whooped him all over again.
However, when he began to have pains in his stomach he suddenly turned and ran for home.
“I’ll be back”
“Where you going?”
“I gotta go to the bathroom”
Keith was content to wait. He knew Randolph was a racist. He was the only person to ever call him nigger to his face, athough his father said white people used the word when they are alone all the time.
Adrian only got two steps when it all came running out and down his pant leg.
He ran faster.
Randolph sat in the living room listening to the radio and reading, but secretly he was hoping Adrian would smell of smoke again when he came home. He had had a bad day.
Adrian ran up the stairs, past Randolph and Dot in the living room, down the hall to the bathroom. Randolph sniffed the air. There was the scent of smoke, but there was something else. Something pungent. Something familiar.
“That kid smells like…like…,” searching his brain for the right olfactory neurons.
Foulmouthed Dot finished his sentence the way she usually did, “SHIT!”
She ran down the hallway, flung open the bathroom door to see Adrian wiping the runny, brown accident from himself.
Randolph had caught up and already had his belt out.
Not only did Dot have to clean Adrian, but had to put iodine on a few cuts. He was running a fever, so Dot put him to bed.
“Don’t wear pyjamas tonight. It’ll help. You’re burning up.” But she was more worried about the cuts on his ass.
Adrian cried himself to sleep.
Upon awakening Adrian was confused.
Feverish, his body and bed felt swampy. A slash of light pushed through the cracked opening of the door, casting frightening cubist shadows on the far wall of his room. Noise accompanied the shadows.
It also pushed into the room. Voices. Angry voices. Adrian climbed out of bed and followed the voices.
“—e’ve got to get out of this shit hole.”
“I’m trying. I’m trying.” Randolph almost whispered in a dejected voice. He never lost his temper with Dorothy. He might be man enough to dominate Adrian, but he knew he was no match for his better half. Especially when she was in a mood like this.
“You’re not trying hard enough! I want out of this house now!”
Dot was keening, as she did when aroused by something.
Adrian drew closer to his parents’ room. His mother was really worked up.
“Don’t worry. I’m saving up. I’ve got most of a down payment now. I’ll have the rest in 10 months. A year at the most if the car holds out.”
“A year! A year! We won’t have a year. Adrian will be dead within a year. We could all be dead within a year. You know Mrs. Mitchell? The one on the next block? Down Fullerton? On the other side of Linwood?”
“Her husband Matt?”
“No, that’s the family next door. She’s the tall woman with the two girls. Plays bridge with the Maynards. We had dinner there once.”
“Yeah, right. So?”
“So! So! I heard she’s still in the hospital. So she was raped last week. She was shopping on Dexter walking home with groceries and she was dragged into the alley. Adrian was in the alley again tonight. We can’t stay here another minute!”
Adrian could see his mother through the keyhole. She wore a foundation girdle, the connected garters swinging uselessly as she paced in and out of his vision. She stopped at the window, split the curtain and peered out into the darkness. Her back started to heave. The sobs came. Adrian had seen the waterworks before.
“Tonight Adrian was playing in the fires again. You keep saying, ‘Wait. Wait.’ For how long now? Nine months? How much longer do we have to wait? Until we’re robbed? Until Adrian burns his clothes off? Until one of the girls is raped? Until I’m raped? How long, Randy?”
“Please, please, understand, Dot. Izzit my fault they want so much for a down payment? Izzit my fault they’re moving onto the block? Izzit my fault Adrian’s only friend is that nigger Keith?”
“You’re not here all day long. You don’t see what goes on here while you’re gone. I can’t keep him inside all day. You’re never here.”
“That’s not fair. One of us has to put food on the table, dammit! I took that weekend job delivering papers so we could save up. When I’m not working, I gotta keep the car up so I can deliver The Free Press otherwise we’ll never save up.”
“Oh god, Randolph. Look at us. I know you work hard. They got us crazy, that’s all. It’s not bad enough they all come from broken homes. They want to break up our home too. As God as my witness, Randy, if we don’t find a house by Adrian’s birthday I swear I’ll go move in with my sister. I’ll take the kids and leave.”
“Don’t cry, Dorothy. I’ll figure out a way. I’ll ask for a raise. I’ll—“
“No! I won’t wait. I want you to ask Izzy for a loan?”
“Izzy? Hasn’t he done enough for—“
“No. If you don’t ask Izzy for a loan on Sunday, I’m leaving on Monday.”
“I don’t want to stay here any longer than you do. But Izzy?”
“That’s it, Randy. I’ve had it up to hear. You’ll do it, or I am out that door. You understand me?”
“Don’t cry, babe. Don’t cry. Don’t leave me. Please? Don’t leave. Okay. Okay. I’ll ask Izzy. I’ll do it this Sunday.”
When the household awoke to a new day Adrian was curled up outside his parents’ bedroom door. He was using the throw rug as a blanket.
As the months passed Adrian heard no more about moving. He was more careful about being seen with Keith and life on Fullerton settled back into its old routine.
April 28, 1957 began like many Sundays, but ended like no other Sunday Adrian had known. In between they played Right/Left.
It had become almost a family tradition. After Randolph delivered the bulky Sunday papers he came home to breakfast. After the clean up, they’d all pile into the family Buick and play his favourite game: Right/Left. It’s rules were simple. Taking turns, from eldest to youngest, they would each get to decide the direction the car would take next.
Father always waited until he got the car out of the neighbourhood and then Dorothy would get her turn. She could decide whether the car would turn right, left, or go straight. Rita followed. Lorraine’s turn followed Rita’s and Adrian followed them. Julie-Anne was too young to count, or speak for that matter, so it was back to Randy, Dot, Lorraine, Rita, Adrian. Repeat as necessary. Eventually they always arrived at an interesting destination, but Adrian had figured a few weeks earlier that this destination was always a place Randolph had specifically set out to reach. This actually impressed Adrian. It seemed magical that even though everyone else was giving the directions, the destination was not their own.
Magical, but unimportant. Adrian had grown bored with Right/Left and, more importantly, with the destinations. One week it would be an art museum or art show. The next week it might be a boring picnic in Palmer Park. They never went anywhere Adrian wanted. Like a playground. Or amusement parks. Adrian had read about Edgewater Park and had studied a street map in the house. He thought he knew how to get there, but with only one turn out of five, there was no way he could make the car get there.
This Sunday Adrian felt more like reading, a rare thing for any 4 and a half year old. To be honest, since he spent less time with Keith he spent more time reading and a larger world was opening to him. A world or words and vistas created for his enjoyment. Cut off from his best friend he poured over every book, magazine, newspaper or pamphlet that he could find. Later, he would say, he was amazed that he could recall it all, even though at the time he barely understood much of what he was reading.
“Come on, Adrian. It’s time to go.” Dorothy cooed as she stuck her head in his room while he sat and re-read his newest book from Uncle Izzy, “The Cat in the Hat.”
“I don’t wanna go. I wanna stay here ‘n’ read.”
“Don’t be difficult,” her voice automatically becoming more strident.
“Mom,” the little voice pleaded. “I hate that game. I don’t wanna go.”
“Is it necessary to call your father?”
Randolph was already behind the wheel of the car waiting. Adrian knew he was in for a beating if he continued to resist, but resist he did.
“I’m not going. I’m gonna stay here and read.”
“Okay. That’s it. Father will settle this once and for all,” her voice trailed off as she stomped down the hall. Adrian could still hear her. “You’re not going to sit there and tell me what you’re gonna do, or not do. I won’t stand it. I’ve got enough problems with the move without him telling me what—” the slamming of the door cut off the rest, but Adrian could fill it in. She would be telling Randolph that something had to be done now. Randolph would ask, “What?” She’d say she didn’t know, but she wasn’t going to take any more of his bullshit, that she’s “had it up to here” and Randolph, with a sigh, would heave himself out of the car. He would stomp into the house, down the hall and into the room where Adrian was reading. Adrian was already stealing himself to being picked up by the elbow, given a couple of well-placed whacks, and dragged forcefully out of the house and into the—
“What seems to be the problem in here, Sport?”
The only time Randolph ever called him “Sport” was when he was trying to trick him. Why the trickery and not a beating?
“I don’t wanna go, Dad. I wanna stay home and read. Besides, I hate that game!”
“You’re not old enough to stay home by yourself. Rita and Lorraine ain’t even old enough to stay home by themselves. Hate it? I thought you liked to play Right/Left.”
“Not any more. We never go anywhere good. We never get anywhere I wanna go.”
“How can you say that? You’re the ones telling me where to drive. Where do you wanna go?”
Something was very wrong here. Adrian knew that Dorothy had just given Randolph the old ‘I can’t take it anymore’ speech and Randy was trying to reason with him.
“We always go somewhere boring. I wanna go to that amusement park Edgewater or stay home by myself.”
“Edgewater doesn’t even open ‘til next month. Look, I’ll make you a deal. You can make all the choices today. All the rights and lefts. Okay?”
“No! I don’t wanna go.”
“What if I agree to take you to Edgewater opening weekend?
Tasting a true victory, for the first time, Adrian pushed his luck, “And I get to choose today too?”
“Sure, why not?”
Adrian slapped his book closed, ran past Randolph, and, within minutes, another game of Right/Left was underway, with one big difference: Adrian made all the choices as soon as they left the neighbourhood. Just for the sheer excitement of it, Adrian tried to get them lost.
More than two and a half hours later, longer than any game of Right/Left had lasted, Randolph pulled over.
“I don’t know about anybody else, but I could eat a goat. We might as well eat lunch. You’ve finally done it, Sport. I’m lost. I’ll study the map when we eat. I can find out how to get home.”
By Adrian’s count he had said “left” seventeen times, “right” twenty-two times, and “straight” twelve times. He was gleeful at his finally getting nowhere during Right/Left that he giggled and danced as the picnic basket and stuff was taken out of the trunk. The girls helped spread out the blankets. All during lunch everyone, except Adrian and Julie-Anne, chattered away at what a nice neighbourhood this was. How clean. How fresh. How bright.
As Adrian told me years later, it was a set piece. But he didn’t realize it at the time. He didn’t understand that everyone was playing a carefully rehearsed part.
Still, Adrian thought they were wrong. There was nothing nice about this neighbourhood, except that they seemed to let total strangers picnic on their front lawn, which had no beautiful dandelions. The lawn was almost a carpet. He looked up one side of the block and counted fifteen house. He looked on the other side of the street and counted 15 houses. Each house faced one another. Every driveway was a continuation of the one on the other side of the street. He looked up the driveway where he was. There was a small white garage and, beyond, another garage in a backyard just like this backyard. No alley?!?!
“Sport? Let’s go for a walk. I want to talk about the Sunday surprise we talked about in your room.”
They crossed the street and walked two house to the corner. Randolph pulled out his pack of Luckies, lit one with his Zippo and just stood silently looking around. Adrian couldn’t help but read the signs, which he could only do because of Uncle Izzy’s books. Gilchrist Street. Hessel Avenue.
“You know what, Sport? I wuz just thinking. We’re only about 3 miles from Edgewater Park right here. You could ride your bike there when you got older if we lived here.”
He pulled on his cigarette again and let that sink in.
“We could live here, yannow. What would you think of that?”
Adrian looked down the block to the next street. It was the busiest street he ever saw. Cars were whizzing past like a speedway. He looked down the other way. House, house, house. Where was the empty lot to play in? The alleys? The fires?
To his right he sensed movement in the bushes. He looked over to the house next door and saw a flash of red as sunlight caught something . Maybe a cat. A calico cat. It pulled back when he looked. He sort of looked away, but kept his eyes on the spot. A kid’s face flashed out of the bushes for a second and when Adrian reacted, ducked back.
“Well? Whaddaya think?”
“Think about what?”
“About moving to this place. The place you got us lost at?”
“I think it’s a funny place.”
“A funny place? Whyzzat?”
Adrian scrunched up his face. “It’s like a place ina fairy tale. It reminds me of Aunt Wilma’s living room.”
Randolph scrunched up his face. “Aunty Wilma’s living room?!?!”
“Well, you know, whenever we go visit her and Uncle Frank and her living is wrapped in plastic. So they make me play ina backyard, but I can’t do anything because of all the rosebushes and garage.
“You’d like it here, Adrian. I have a surprise for you. I bought that house across the street where we ate. We’re moving here in two months.”
“Whaddayameanno!” In a flash the real Randolph was back and he had his fist wrapped in the front of Adrian’s shirt.
“We’re gonna get two things straight right now and don’t you say another word or I’ll beat you like I’ve never beat you before.
“First. We’re moving here and if you give me any lip about it I’ll smack you into next week.
“Next. If I ever catch you playing with a nigger again, I’ll put you in your room and lock the door for a year. Do we understand each other?”
The slap was so loud it startled a bird on Zachary’s grass. A clear handprint was left on Adrian’s cheek. Another clear memory was left on Zachary.
“I! Said! Not! Another! Word!”
One the way home he heard a new song on the radio that echoed how he felt: I’m all shook up!
If that were the only unusual thing that happened that Sunday, it would have been enough for Adrian to have etched it as a red letter day in his mind, but there was one more surprise left for him that day.
As usual, Uncle Izzy showed right up on time, almost taking all the air out of the room until it was time for dinner. Dinner was quieter than usual and then the boys retired for their smoke. As soon as they sat down and Izzy’s cigar was glowing, he did the unexpected.
“What happened to your face, Adrian?”
Adrian looked at his father. His father was looking at Izzy. Izzy was looking at Adrian. Stalemate.
“Adrian?” The voice, practically the only kindness in Adrian’s, life drew him to look at Izzy. “Aren’t we friends? Friends can tell each other anything.”
Adrian glanced back to look at Randolph. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Izzy. Adrian saw something else. Fear.
“Are you worried what your father may think? Randy and I are great friends. Aren’t we Randy?”
Randy’s jaw clenched and he swallowed. “If you’re asking—“
“I’m asking if we are friends, Randolph. Not best buddies.”
“Uh, yes, we’re friends, Izzy.”
“See, Adrian. We’re all friends here. We’re all men here. No need to retire to another room. So, tell me what happened.”
Almost against his will it came rushing out, “Daddy hit me.”
“Izzat, right Randy? Did you hit a defenceless boy?”
Now Izzy stared at Randolph.
“I asked you a question.”
“He said he wouldn’t move, after all you had done for us, Izzy. I had to knock some sense into the boy. You know how boys are sometimes.”
Izzy looked back at Adrian. “Does he hit you often, Adrian?”
Adrian looked back at Izzy. “Alla time, Uncle Izzy.”
“Hmmmm. Since we’re all men here, I’m just going to come out and speak man to man to man here. Is that alright with you, Adrian?”
“And, I’m sure you have no objections do you, Randy?”
Not even waiting for an answer, he continued. “Adrian? Only a coward would hit a little boy, or pick on someone smaller than them. You’re father’s nothing but a scared coward. Aren’t you, Randy?”
“Now c’mon a minute—“
“Let’s get something straight between us, Randy. You will never hit this boy again.”
“I raise the boy, not you.”
“I don’t care, Randy. If you ever strike this boy again, it’ll be the last thing you do. You know I can have that done, don’t you?”
“You wouldn’t, Izzy.”
“You must think so very little of yourself to even say such a thing. I own you. I could ruin you in 2 minutes. Without even leaving this house. And, that would only be a beginning.”
The house breathed in silence. Izzy took a big puff on his cigar and let out ring after ring, each one chasing another across the room. He placed the cigar in the ashtray.
When Adrian was close enough Izzy scooped him up into his lap and reached inside his breast pocket. Adrian thought, for a moment, that he was going to finally get to smoke a cigar. After all, we’re all men here.
Instead, Izzy pulled out a small leather wallet, and flipped open the front, it was filled with business cards and he took two out.
“Adrian. This is my business card. If you ever have a problem with him hitting you again, I want you to call me. This other card I only give to my special friends. It’s my service. They’ll know how to reach me day or night. You’ll call me?”
“Well, nothing. If you don’t call me, you’re telling me you don’t want to be friends anymore. Friends look out for friends and you don’t want me to help you, you don’t want my friendship. And, that would make me sad. You want to be friends, doncha Adrian?”
“Sure, Unca Izzy.”
“So you call me whenever you need me.”
“One other thing, Adrian. It was my idea that your dad buy that new house. I even loaned him some money so he could afford it. I saw where you were living and I wanted something better for my friends. I’m sorry if my idea was a bad one, Adrian, but it’s too late to change it. Will you forgive your friend and help make it work?”
“I’ll try, Unca Izzy.”
“If we only knew how many times over the years we’d use the numbers on those business cards,” Adrian told my tape recorder years later as he was both dialing the number and telling me the story, “We’d’ve had them framed.”
The merry, merry month of May was spent packing for the June First move. Both Adrian and Randolph kept their promise to Izzy and it was harder to tell who had the most difficult bargain. A couple of times it looked like Randy would haul off, but then suddenly announce he was going for a walk instead.
Normally it would have been easy enough for Adrian to stay invisible, but some genius had decided to pack his books and toys first. This sent him back to the alleys for fun.
One day he was just walking down the alley kicking stones when three toughs a year or two older jumped out and started to pound him for no reason at all. Suddenly this big kid jumped out and just yelled one word, “Hey!”
The punks stopped, looked up, and just as suddenly as they appeared they took off like a shot down the alley. The big kid leaned over and helped Adrian up. Adrian started to dust himself off and the other kid helped a bit. The kid then said, “You’re Adrian, aintcha?”
“Yeah. How did you know.”
“I’s Frank. Ain’t Keith ever tol’ you ‘bout me? Ah’m ‘is brudder.”
“I din’t know he had a brother.”
“Yeah, he got two of us. He must be ashamed not to mention us.”
“Nah. He says my Dad hates him so maybe he thinks your folks’ll hate me. I dunno. Thanks for helping me. Those guys woulda killed me.”
“I did it because your Keith’s friend. That makes us almost blood brothers.”
“We exchange some blood and we’re blood brothers forever. Do you wanna be blood brothers?”
“But I’m moving.”
“Moving, huh? That’ll jes make it better. You can spread the word. A blood brother is like a friend who is family. You’d do anything for a blood brother.”
Adrian was all for it and within a minute Frank had taken out a small pocket knife, make a small prick on both their right thumbs. He pushed his thumb against Adrian’s and the few drops of blood made it squishy. They each withdrew their thumbs and licked off the remaining blood.
“Hey, whatcha doing?”
Keith snuck up on them undetected.
“I just made your little buddy a blood brother.”
“That makes us blood brothers too. Look, Adrian.”
Keith held out his thumb, which had a small scar running down the middle. It’s funny Adrian had never seen it before. A noise from down the alley caught their attention and they saw a neighbour beginning a fire, so they took off down the alley shouting behind their back to Frank.
May, 1957 had receded into history. Adrian wandered from room to room. They were all now empty. Everything was either boxed and in the hallway, or dismantled and on the front lawn. With nothing left to do, Adrian moved aimlessly through the rooms. A lighter spot on the wall was where the oval framed picture of his grandparents had been, people he had never known personally or by story. A chip in a door frame was a reminder of the time Adrian threw a metal die-cut truck at Rita. The inside door to the pantry had a height marked off ever since they had moved there. He wandered to the front covered porch and there on the other side of the street was Keith.
Adrian ran outside to his curb, where the two of them sat on opposite sides of the street and just stared at each other. Occasionally, one of them would hold up his thumb and the other would reply, anticipating Siskel and Ebert by many years. Less often tears were wiped from cheeks. For close to 90 minutes they just stared and gave each other the thumbs up. Behind Adrian was a beehive of activity as movers packed everything into two trucks. Eventually, Dorothy came and told him it was time to get into the Buick. He sat small on the backseat seat between Rita and Lorraine and never looked back as Fullerton retreated, except in his mind. There he examined Fullerton almost obsessively in the years to come.
Zachary was in his hiding place in the bushes, underneath the bay window in the living room. The operation across the street looked so comical. The movers would put the boxes on the lawn, while they carried the bulky stuff into the house. Two girls and a boy were helping sort the smaller boxes. The boy was the smallest and, whenever he’d find something manageable, one of the girls would snatch it out of his hands. The boy would return to the small boxes. Again it would be snatched out of his hands before he got anywhere near the house and the process would begin anew.
Finally the boy found a box in which he seemed familiar. He opened it and became absorbed in the contents. The box contained the books that Adrian hadn’t seen in weeks. He pulled one out and sat down and started reading. He picked a bad place to sit and when the movers were pulling the couch off the truck, one tripped over Adrian and the couch came crashing down, missing Adrian, but breaking the wooden arm.
He was sent to sit at curbside, which is where he was crying when Zachary approached.
“Hi. Can I be your friend?”
“Are you a nigger?”
Zachary jumped onto Adrian and started pummelling him. Randolph saw what was going on and pulled this strange boy off his son. Two minutes on the block and the trouble was already starting.
“Where do you live?”
Zachary pointed to the house across the street.
“You’d better get back there before I kick your ass there.”
Zachary ran across the road, where he remained, only spying the boy from the bushes.
The next day the stalemate continued. Zachary remained in the bushes and Adrian would occasionally see him poke out his freckled face and look around.
Zachary hated that new kid. He had called him the worst thing that anybody could call anybody. That’s what his father had told him just a few months ago. A cousin was visiting and they were in the process of who would be “It” in a game of tag with The Pratt Boys. Normally they’d use the very scientific “one-potato, two-potato method” of choosing an “It.”
But Zachary’s cousin started with, “Eenie-meeney, miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe, if he hollars, let him go, eenie-meeney—“
Zac’s father, who had been sitting in the porch, was the one who started hollering. He came running over and explained that he didn’t want to ever hear the boys say that word again. It was a terrible word. It was the worst thing one could call somebody else. It was a forbidden word and he didn’t want to ever hear Zachary say it again.
Ironically, Daniel was as racist as they came. He just understood there were certain ways to code these references.
Now, as Zachary spied on Adrian, he felt angry all over again. How could that boy call him the worst thing you can call anybody? He was, at that moment, convinced that Adrian was the “dumbest kid inna whole world.”
For one, he used a forbidden word without even knowing what it meant. Zachary felt superior, even though he had only learned what the word meant recently. Zachary had never used it before or after.
Another reason Zachary thought Adrian dumb was because he couldn’t ride a two-wheeler. Zachary had been riding his bike without training wheels for months as well.
He watched as Adrian, across the street, ran his bike down to the corner, turn around, and run it back again. He looked liked he wanted to jump up on it while it was moving, but he never made the leap onto the seat. After about 15 minutes, Randolph came out of the house and joined Adrian.
The bike was brand new. It was Uncle Izzy’s present to Adrian for making him move and was waiting for him at the new house. It sparkled, shiny in the late afternoon sun. Adrian wanted to learn to ride it first thing in the morning. However, since it was a Sunday, Randolph had to wake up early and deliver The Free Press first. Once he had come home, and eaten breakfast, it was time for another game of Left/Right. Hours later, after a picnic in the suburbs, they returned. Then Randolph had a nap. By the time Adrian convinced him to help him learn to ride the bike, it was almost dinnertime. If life kept the routine it always had, Uncle Izzy would be here for dinner in the next hour and Adrian wanted to show him he could ride his new bike.
As Zach watched from his hiding place, Randy put Adrian on the seat of bike and ran up and down the block yelling, “Now pedal, pedal!”
Adrian could barely find the pedals as they swung around knocking into the back of his heels. Finally feet matched pedals and Adrian’s little legs pumped up and down. Randolph kept running, holding onto the back of the seat. Then, with one last push, Adrian was on his own, wobbling south on Gilchrist. His problems were manifest. He could barely balance. He didn’t know how to brake. He didn’t know how to steer. Worse, from a 5-year old’s point of view, the bully across the street could ride a two-wheeler. Adrian had seen him racing up and down the block that morning as he waited for Right/Left to begin. If he could do it, Adrian could do it.
That was pretty much his last thought as he finally toppled, traveling less than a house-length on his own, the ground rushing up to meet his forehead.
Adrian didn’t know how long he had been unconscious, but he supposed it was just a minute or two. Randolph was carrying him into the front door when he came to. The girls were screaming all around him. He was bleeding from a cut on the forehead and the metallic taste of blood was in his mouth.
When he was stable, and his knees no longer knocked together, he was allowed off the couch to join the family at the dinner table. Although his knees no longer knocked, the food on his plate would not stay still. Adrian watched it go around and around a few circuits and finally puked onto his plate.
Years later would learn the word “concussion” and understood that he had probably suffered a mild one that night. The extra T.V. time that night was obviously a way to monitor his health and make sure he wasn’t going to die. Adrian didn’t even know that had been a possibility.
Uncle Izzy did not come over that night.
The next day Zachary wriggled into his hiding spot. It was a quiet Monday morning and nothing much was happening. Movement from across the street caught his attention. Adrian was walking his bike down the driveway. He turned onto the sidewalk and shoved the kickstand down. There he waited for his father for another bike riding lesson.
Zachary left his bush and walked onto the lawn next door to his. Again, the empathy. Zachary was one of the most empathetic people I have ever met.
“I could teach you!” He shouted across the street.
Adrian looked up. “You jes wanna hit me again”
“I only hit you because you called me a bad name.”
“No, I didn’t.”
Zachary crossed the street and sat next to Adrian.
“Doncha know nuttin’? ‘Nigger’s’ is a bad word for Negros.”
Adrian was stunned, but it all now made sense. Keith was black as night. His brother Frank was not as dark, more caramel coloured. Most of the newer families on Fullerton had dark skin. That’s when, he later told me, he figured out what his parents were running away from. While Daniel knew enough not to use the word on polite society, it was a word that slipped from Randy’s lips as easily as the word “pie.”
By the end of the day Zachary had taught him something almost as important, how to ride a two-wheeler. First he took him across the street to the fence in his backyard. Mounted on the fence was a bicycle seat that Dandy had mounted there. This would also be the first time he’d see Mrs. Cashman’s backyard, as the seat balanced the fence between Zach’s yard and the Cashman’s.
Mrs. Cashman lived on the corner, the same corner where Randolph smoked his cigarette and slapped his son just months ago. It was said she and her husband bought the house new and were the first on the block, but he had died soon after. Now she lived there alone and it was obvious keeping up with a house was too hard for her. While her front lawn looked like every other of the 29 lawns on the block, the back was an overgrown rainforest, without the rain.
“Now, you cain’t fall inat yard. Tha’s where the witch lives. She usalee only comes out at night. But I heard her screaming out there inna day, sometimes, too. Yeh jes cain’t see her in the high grass.”
And that’s how Adrian learned to balance: By not falling off a bicycle seat balanced on a fence; too afraid to fall off and be eaten by a witch. By the time they got back across Gilchrist, Adrian had acquired the balance necessary to sit on his seat, pick his feet off the ground, wobble a few seconds, before he had to stamp a foot back on the ground for support. But, it was a start.
“Now all’s ya gotta do is when it feels right, push forward, and put your feet on the pedals.”
Adrian pushed off and wobbled, but he wobbled for two houses before he had to put his feet down again.
“I seeda prob’m. Yer holdin’ yer arms straight. Ben’yer arms and use yer elbows t’ turn.”
Second try was the charm. He wasn’t fast, or anything, but he was moving under his own power and Edgewater Park was still only 3 miles away.
“I’m sorry I hit you.” Zachary said later.
“I’m sorry I called you that word.”
And, it didn’t matter anymore. A life-long connection was made.
Four days later was Adrian’s 5th birthday, but they would celebrate the next day on Saturday. Other than family (which included all the aunts, uncles and cousins he hated) Adrian’s only true guest at his own birthday was Zachary, invited at his mother’s suggestion. Adrian was only too happy to do so. Since Zach had taught him how to ride his bike, they had been inseparable. He was also pleased Randolph and Dot accepted Zachary as his friend. It was the first time they didn’t try chasing one of his friends away. That had been Adrian’s big fear. That didn’t happen until years later.
The birthday haul: a cheap baseball glove from Randy and Dot; a Monopoly game from his older sisters; three pairs of underwear from Aunt Dow, the only present she ever gave; an ugly sweater, a hand knitted gift from his mother; and, from Uncle Izzy, books. From Zachary he received a small present, smaller than the rest. He saved it for the last to open, even though it was the one he wanted to open first.
It was flat, thinner than a pancake, and 7 inches square. Adrian knew it would be a record. His sisters had a few Rockabilly 45s and even had their own record player. This package was exactly the same size as their records. After all the other presents had been opened, and the ‘thank yous’ and ‘you’re welcomes’ exchanged, he grabbed at Zachary’s gift. It was, as he expected, a record. It was a record by Elvis Presley. It was a record called “All Shook Up.”
“It’s the Number One song in the country right now,” Zachary told Adrian.
This would be the first incident of synchronicity between the boys in a lifetime filled with these bizarre coincidences. Adrian told him of hearing the song for the first time the day they came to inspect the house. He told Zachary the song had been playing inside his head ever since that day. He told Zachary how the song also came out of his crystal set.
Then he told him about Keith and all about Frank. He told him what he understood, which wasn’t much, of the ancient blood brothers ceremony Frank had performed on him.
On June 8th Adrian Roland Thompson and Zachary Harvard Weed became blood brothers and blood brothers they would remain until the blood spilled tore them apart.
© Copyright 2014 by Headly Westerfield