Inez threw her to-do list on the table in disgust. Moving in three days and every crossed-off chore birthed twins. A glass of sweet tea might fortify her. She was nearly in the door of her trailer when she heard her name called.
“Miss Inez. Miss Inez.”
Her neighbor girl ran toward her past the row of mailboxes, onyx hair streaming, backpack thudding, feet kicking up clouds of red Oklahoma dust. Inez rushed down the porch steps and caught the girl in her arms. “Kayla, what’s wrong?”
The young body shook with sobs, her voice muffled against Inez’s chest. “I was so so so …”
She lifted the girl’s chin and looked into her swimming almond eyes. “Talk to me, Kayla. Are you hurt?”
She took a ragged breath and shook her head. “No, not hurt, just…”
Inez put her arm around the girl’s shoulders and guided her up the steps onto the porch swing.
“Here, sit. I’ll get some tea.” She hurried into the trailer and returned with a brimming glass. “Drink,” she said and sat down beside the girl. “Now start at the beginning.”
Kayla emptied half the tea in two gulps. “I was walking home from school and took a short cut past the old cotton gin. I saw three guys just kinda hanging out.”
A knot formed in Inez’s belly. “Go on.”
“I didn’t pay them any mind, then one of them said something and they all laughed and then someone yelled real loud, ‘Hey, nigger injun, where ya’ going? To a pow-wow?’ They started whooping and dancing like around a campfire, ya’ know?” She snuffled and swiped at her tears with her shirtsleeve.
Inez grabbed the girl’s shoulders. “Did they touch you?”
She shook her head. “I ran as fast as I could and didn’t slow down until I got here.”
Inez hugged the girl close for a moment then struggled out of the swing and pointed to the tree line. “See those long shadows over there? They tell me it’s beer time. I’ll bring you a Sprite and whip up a batch of nachos, how’s that sound?”
The girl managed a trembling smile. “Could you bring me some Kleenex, too?”
“Atta girl. Be right back.”
In her little kitchen Inez arranged the nachos on a plate and fretted over what she would say to the fragile child. Back on the porch, she placed the plate of hot nachos between them on the swing and watched as the girl devoured one handful after another.
Inez rocked gently for several minutes. “Kayla, I want to tell you a story from when I was your age. You’re thirteen, right?”
“In two months.”
“Thought so. Back then I lived in a small town whose only entertainment besides gossip was the local football team. Sound like anywhere you know?”
Kayla licked cheese off her fingers. “Like everywhere, you mean?”
“Exactly. One Friday night at an away game our team won the district championship with a last-minute intercepted pass and touchdown.”
Kayla reached for another fistful of nachos. “Bet ya’all went crazy.”
“That we did. We piled into the two buses, the coaches and players in one and the pep squad and cheerleaders in the other, and worked up appetites singing, yelling and patting each other on the back. After a few miles, the buses stopped and everyone swarmed into a little café called the Sagebrush Diner. As we spread out grabbing tables and stools, this really fat guy in a dirty apron and sweaty t-shirt stepped out of the kitchen, pointed at Bobby Ellis and yelled, ’You can’t bring that nigger in here.’ The place went dead quiet.
“Coach Allen worked his way to the front of the crowd and walked up to the man. ’Excuse me, sir,’ he said. ’We are a team and the team eats together.’ The fat guy pointed to a sign above the cash register. ‘And that there sign gives me the right to refuse service to anybody, so I’m tellin’ you to git that nigger outa here.’”
“Oh, my God,” Kayla said. “That poor kid.”
Inez touched her chest. “I felt like someone had stabbed me and twisted the knife. Bobby’s embarrassment and rage tore through my body like I was the one that man was pointing at.
“Coach Allen looked around at us. ’People. Back on the bus NOW.’ The other patrons stared into their plates as we hurried past them to the door. The football guys crowded around Bobby, murmuring things like ‘asshole’ and ‘never mind’ and ‘screw that jerk.’ We headed for home, each holding a piece of Bobby’s humiliation inside us.”
They sat quietly swinging for several minutes. “Know why I told you that story?”
“Because there have always been racist people?”
“Partly, though creeps like that aren’t people, they’re pond scum and slithery things that live under rotting logs. The important thing is there’re also plenty of good folks out there in the world. Coach Allen showed us how it felt to be the good guys.”
“So there’s more good people than pond scum out there, right?”
Inez patted the girl’s knee. “Yup, and you don’t have to look hard to find them either. You’re unique, Kayla, an exotic blend of Scots-Irish, Cherokee, French, Spanish, and I’ll wager a healthy dollop of Mayan warrior-goddess. No one else like you exists on the planet. Be proud of your heritage, surround yourself with good people, ignore the slitherers and you’ll have a rich life.”
The girl grinned. “Makayla Morris, unique warrior-goddess. Can’t wait to tell my mom when she gets home. She’ll love it.”
Inez took the girl’s hand. “If you ever feel threatened, get word to me, and we’ll see how much whooping and prancing those little creeps feel like doing with a load of birdshot in their skinny behinds.”
Kayla laughed and grabbed her backpack. “Maybe we should warn them, you think?” She leaned down and kissed Inez on the cheek. “Can I call you, Auntie, Miss Inez?”
“I’d be honored.”
“Any time, Princess.”
Inez watched until the girl disappeared into her trailer and switched on a light. It was nearly sunset. An owl hooted in the woods and a whippoorwill answered from the field. Jezebel curled up in her lap, purred once then fell asleep. Looking around the little trailer park with its lights twinkling like stars, Inez felt a stab of loss for the friends she must soon leave behind. She sipped her beer and rocked gently as the corals and golds pulled the blue over the edge of the sky.