The Gray Area

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Chapter One

Alabama, 1962


A crowd of about seven gathered around John’s side, a likable white baseball player, while only the two of my friends, Darren and Keith, were next to me. The opposite side was cheering loudly, making some passersby interested for a couple of seconds before they went on their way. John rolled up his torn denim jacket sleeves, as Darren massaged my shoulders and Keith tried telling me things I already knew.

“Ya know he has to win, right?” Keith whispered into my ear. “Don’t beat him too har’ now, Raymond.” I nodded, knowing for sure that if I were to injure a white man, I’d be beaten and jailed.

The high school boys chanted and whistled, exciting John. Pocket change was tossed to the side in a bet pile, even though it was useless. It wasn’t a fair fight, and they knew it. At the end of the day, though, they still have to compensate for the fight. My heart was racing in my ear. Momma would ask me so many questions once I came home all bruised and battered. Darren let off my shoulders and Keith backed away. I walked towards John’s tall stature and waited - somewhat nervous, somewhat excited. I lifted my fists up and shuffled around him. One of the white boy’s in the crowd pushed my back, making me fall onto John, and that’s when he went in for the first painful punch.

John grabbed my shirt collar and took his other hand and punched me straight in the cheek before I could even react to the first hit. His crowd roared in the alleyway as I fell back a bit and rubbed my cheekbone. I brought up my fist and laid one straight on his nose. Just as much as the other group, Darren and Keith whistled and waved fists in the air. Before I could even throw in another punch, John whipped his leg around and smashed it against mine. I crumpled towards the ground and yelped.

“You stupid black boy!” Someone hollered from the background. The remark only made me angrier, but I knew I had to suppress it. The setting sun beat down on our sweating foreheads as I stood back up. Keith was encouraging me, while Darren quietly bit at his nails.

John hollered at me. “Punch me again. Watch, you filth.” He wiped away his bloody nose and brought his hands to the front of his face as he watched me. “My father didn’t raise no fool!”

Keith shouted from the back. “Get up an’ punch him, Ray! You know he still gotta pay you no matter what.” He was shifting his balance from one leg to the other. I looked at him with my hurt, brown eyes, and smiled.

I took my fist and uppercut John in the gut. He let out a puff of air before he fell to the gravel beneath us. The crowd started shouting some slurs towards my friends and I. Keith cheered, and Darren remained the same way. “You think you’re real tough, huh?” John said from the ground while rubbing his stomach. I looked down at him with one eyebrow raised. Although I didn’t show it, I was concerned that I may be in deep trouble.

In the blink of an eye, John stood up and punched me in the face so hard I barely knew what happened for a solid minute. When I regained my senses, my eye was throbbing, my sight was red, and I was on the ground. The crowd of John’s friends cheered, hollered, and laughed at me as they walked the opposite way. Darren and Keith were beside me, asking if I was alright. I brought my hand up to my brow and winced. I was cut, that’s for sure.

“Look,” Darren said as he waved a dollar in my face. My eyes quickly regained focus once I saw the green bill. I took the dollar from Darren and pushed it into my pant pocket. I tried to get up but winced at my knee.

“You’re all banged up, look at ya.” Keith grabbed my arm and wrapped it around his shoulder, then began dragging me and helping me out of the alleyway. “Money should be the least of ya worries, boy. It won’t be goin’ to survivin’ as much as it will hospital bills.”

I laughed, then pushed away from Keith. “I’m fine, Keith. Thanks for your concern.”

Darren looked me up and down as we walked down the road towards my house. “Ya really did put up a good fight, ain’t gonna lie.” He crossed his arms and smiled triumphantly. Keith kicked a rock.

“You think so?”

“Yeah. You have the right to beat me up if I was ever lyin’ to ya.”

Keith smacked his lips. “You wouldn’t know the difference between a punch and smack if it killed ya; how could you ever fight?”

“Don’t doubt me,” Darren spoke as he pushed down his hair. We all three laughed.

As the laughter died down, Darren whispered, “Ain’t you afraid of getting jumped? Ya did beat him up real good.” He looked at me from the sides of his eyes as he was walking all slouched with his hands in his pockets. I ignored him. “I hope that’s a yes or somethin’.”

----

An hour or so after the fight, and getting cleaned up over at Keith’s house, I was finally home. The outside of the house wasn’t the cleanest, and we were right on the boundaries between the poor and rich neighborhoods, so it was better than nothing. The wooden bars on our porch were either broken off or just starting to. The fencing beneath our porch was kicked in and torn off due to a lot of the white children looking for trouble. They really didn’t like my momma, sister, and I living so close to their nice houses. According to them, we make the neighborhood look bad.

Once I reached the door, the sun was nearly below the horizon. It was just dark enough that my mom put on the porch light. I looked into the window and tried to see past the yellow curtains. I could see momma’s silhouette setting the table and my baby sister’s little head peeking up from the edge of the old, wooden table my father bought shortly before he was shot.

About two years ago, my dad was heavily in the justice scene. He was out all throughout the day, protesting, marching, and fighting for our rights. The only time I ever got to see him was at night. Momma didn’t like it, only because it was dangerous and she never got to see him. I admired him to all sorts of levels because I wanted to be that stronge and passionate about something. However, I remember the day he passed very well. He was out all day, and came home really tired. He said, “I have a place to go tonight, but I should be back before the early morning.” Though, he never returned. My very own father was shot somewhere, left to die. No one helped him. It took a day or so before we knew what happened. To be honest, I lost track of time and really can’t remember much else from that week.

I took the handle of the screen door and swung it open. It creaked, and when I stepped inside and out of its way, it slammed shut. Momma peered behind the wall of the kitchen and snickered. It was a mad snicker, but a ‘thank-god-you’re-safe’ snicker just the same. Ever since my father passed, she’s been so iffy about allowing me to stay out so late.

“With that brain of yours, ya should at least know to be home early!” She spoke as she put potato au gratin on my sister's plate. Momma was right about that - she always says I'm going places; I'm literate, speak well, and carry myself well, and among all else, get good grades.

I ignored her, and walked into my kitchen that was lit by a disgusting yellow light. Our kitchen was bare, but it had everything it needed to be fit to live in. I grabbed my plate off the table and plopped a spoonful of the diner onto it. “Hey, bubba!” Susanne called from the table. She lifted up a small, fat hand, and waved. Her braids fell just below her shoulders, and her blue dress matched the ribbons in her hair. I returned one.

Momma watched me as I sat down. “What’s with that there bandage?” She pointed towards her eyebrow as she explained her observation. Susanne looked at me curiously.

I reached into the pocket of my filthy jeans and placed the bill on the table. Ashamed, I fell back into my chair. My mom shook her head disapprovingly. “I thought I raised you right, boy; ya can’t keep fightin’ for money, especially with them white boys.” She shook her head again. “You can get in a lot of trouble!"

Out of instinct, I shot up. My emotions were sort of built up, and now I could express how I felt. “You can’t survive off no maid money, momma. We barely make it as is.”

“Beatin’ up boys for kicks ain’t no solution neither.”

“Who else is supposed to bring in any money, momma? Father’s dead; Susanne can’t help.” I slouched in embarrassment as I stood there, getting looked at. I didn’t like being the center of attention like I am right now. Momma was about to say something when I interrupted her. “I’m going to be on the porch.” Momma ignored me, then directed her attention to Susanne. Her short, greying, black locks bounced a tad when she turned. Before I limped for the porch, I pushed the bill towards her.

Once I reached outside, the sun was barely there now. The porch light illuminated the set of old white wicker chairs that sat near the edge of the deck. Clouds that seem to only arrive at night covered the dark sky, and street lamps that lined the sides of the small road had turned on. Their orange light bounced off houses on the good side of town. Those street lamps were not so common on our side of town. I reached my chair, sat down, and let out a long sigh.

My freshly shaven head took in the soft winds. I shivered as I clipped off my overall straps from my pants and set them aside and rolled down my white dress shirt sleeves, which now had a new design; there were stains of dirt and blood just about everywhere.

I nearly dozed off on the porch when a soft, warm voice sounded from the front of the steps. “Excuse me, sir?”

My eyes widened once I noticed the owner of the voice. It was a petite white woman. Her brown hair was down to the tips of her round ears and coiled upwards near the end. She had jewelry in her ears and around her neck. In her small hands was a nice, cherry red pocketbook that matched her a-line skirt. Her face was heart-shaped, and her nose was a bit crooked, but still small like a button. Her doll eyes met with mine.

“What do you need ma’am?” I was surprised I could let out a sentence. Her beauty was absolutely mesmerizing. "Make it quick though, I don't want you hurt or anything."

She looked me up and down. “You’re the boy that fought John a few hours ago, right?” The young lady confidently went up the steps a bit more. It was like she knew I wasn’t of any danger to her wellbeing.

I nodded and picked myself up from the chair. “Yes, ma’am.”

“You put up a great fight and a spectacular show.” She giggled at her remark. “I just came to you to give you a fair.” The lady reached her tiny hands into her pocketbook and pulled out a few dollars. My jaw nearly fell open. I was truly surprised. “You deserve this, even though anyone else would deny the fact you do. A dollar for compensation is ridiculous, especially with all you go through to get it.”

I stammered, “You sure?”

“Absolutely.” She shoved the dollars more towards me, and I took it with some hesitation, concerned it was some type of trick. The woman smiled as I put the bills in my pocket. “Say, what’s your name?”

“Raymond. Raymond O’Dell, miss.” I put my hand to my chest and bowed slightly; much like how any gentleman would. “Yours?”

“Sarah Hall,” she answered. Sarah chuckled a bit and stepped backward some. She brushed back some of her loose hair shyly. “Raymond; may I say something?” I looked up at her. “There is so much divide here in Alabama. It’s not fun hanging out with the same people all the time.”

“There is,” I retorted as I went to go sit back down, waiting for a follow-up to her statement. Sarah followed and sat right next to me. She pushed down her ruffled skirt and sat up straight, gently laying her pocketbook on her lap.

“I was thinking, you and me, try to break this divide. My family may not like it, but this sort of injustice is just not right. It feels so wrong. This hatred and segregation needs to stop. We need to prove that all colors can get along.” Sarah looked down at her feet. She had on nice black flats with a button on each side. “Thursday; meet me at Daniel’s Candy Shoppe with your money.”

I hesitated, “We can’t do that.”

“Seeing all of your people hurt and treated poorly is not fair, whatsoever. I might sound insane, but someone’s got to take a stand, Raymond.” Sarah stood up and started walking towards the edge of the porch. “This divide has to come to an end sooner or later. Why not us? We could be the movement.” Before I could let out a word, she left. Sarah turned down the opposite end of the street and quickly made her way towards her house.

I stood up and smiled at her as she did so. She got further and further away. My hand was ruffling the money in my pocket as I stepped into the house. Susanne was watching toons on the television. My mom called from the kitchen, “Who was that young lady?”

I hollered back as I joined my sister with the brightest smile. “No one, momma, no one.”

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