At age 12, most boys' fancies turn to girls and football. At least that's the way it seemed in my neighborhood of 20-plus one-check-from-welfare families in Little Rock. Girls and football were on my mind as well, but so were death and going to heaven.
I had heard, and the Lord only knows where, that if a child died before age 12, he or she would go straight to heaven. Even though I didn't know much about heaven, I knew it had to be better than what I faced daily in a tiny four-room clapboard house at 520 E. 21st St. My main fear about heaven was that my mama and grandma might not be there right away. Somebody had to stay and look after my family,
which included Daddy, my sisters Anita and Shane and my new baby sister, Jan.
When Mama was pregnant with Jan, I prayed often for a little boy, feeling a little brother might make my life easier. I wanted a little brother so I would no longer be the only boy in a house full of women. I didn't count Daddy, since he was staying away from home more than usual. I wasn't completely disappointed with Jan's arrival because she did share the same yellow skin tone as I did, and so I felt a special bond with her.
I had another fear related to dying, a fear of never having the chance to go with (the term for dating in the '60s) Rose Colesse Crater, the first girl who made my heart skip every time I saw her. Rose was a beautiful, butter-colored girl with a dazzling smile. Her father was the Booker Junior High football and track coach, and her big brother played quarterback for the Booker Jaguars, even though he was built more like a basketball player, which he also was. Rose was one of the few seventh-graders on the varsity cheerleading squad and had no earthly idea that I existed. But maybe if I died, I thought, she might at least wonder who I was. On the other hand, I'd never see her again. My first love affair, and I was in conflict.
My fascination with death had begun when I was about 8, with the deaths of President Kennedy; Miss Whitfield, my favorite Sunday school teacher; and Mr. Joseph Nunn, a family friend who lived next door to Grandma with his wife and three children. I couldn't understand why three people loved by so many could die so young.
Back then I had strange notions about life and death. One of the strangest had to do with words -- the potency of words. I thought that in the beginning of life, you were given a set number of words, and when you used up that number you died. I figured that the president, Miss Whitfield and Mr. Nunn had died so young because they had used up all their words. I knew Miss Whitfield talked a lot in Sunday school and was always giving speeches right before the sermon. I had seen President Kennedy on television talking constantly, and Mr. Nunn not only talked a lot but sang solos in a beautiful voice almost every Sunday at church.
With two years to go before I would turn 12, I didn't want to die, so for weeks I was silent, speaking only when I absolutely had to. Even when I had to speak, I would count the words in my head and eliminate any that were not necessary to get my point across. I looked at my sisters and mother in disbelief and alarm when they talked needlessly. Didn't they know what I knew? I didn't tell them because I didn't want them to warn Daddy.
The more he talked, the better. His drinking didn't bother me during this time, because when he drank he talked a lot. His vocabulary consisted of profanities and awful names he would call my mother and me. I prayed silently that he was close to his limit. I wished that his cussing and name-calling would somehow count double or maybe even triple against his limit. I had just learned to read silently in school, and I figured at some point someone would tell my sisters about the limit or they would figure it out on their own. After all, no one had had to tell me.
A couple of weeks and another beating later, I decided death was better than life with Daddy, and I began to talk and talk and talk. Once during a beating all those terrible words I had heard Daddy use raced through my mind, and I hoped those words, though silent, would count double against my limit. I wanted to fight Daddy back, but I knew he would kill me and words wouldn't matter. I didn't want to become a victim of Daddy's hand and belt. I preferred God's death, because I felt it would be swift and gentle, without pain.
I became a regular motormouth, using new words I learned at school and from the Childcraft and World Book encyclopedia sets Mama had purchased from a door-to-door salesman. My excessive talking got me in trouble not only at home, but at school as well. Even Mama would get mad at me. "Keep it up and you gonna talk yourself into a good old-fashioned butt-whipping," she would say. But I didn't care, because I was certain that I was close to my limit. Besides, Mama usually whipped us with switches we picked out ourselves and always treated us extra-special after.
On my 12th birthday I was terribly sad when the day ended and I was still in the land of the living. Mama and my sisters didn't understand why, since birthdays had always been joyous events. I didn't tell anyone because I felt empowered by my secret knowledge about God and death. But a couple of weeks later, right as the July heat and mosquitoes invaded Little Rock, something happened that made me happy I had stayed around. God answered a prayer. I got a belated birthday present.
Daddy was drinking again, so much that Mama had to hire a babysitter even when he was home. Which was always, since he was again unemployed. Mama was working two jobs and taking night classes at Capital City Business College, so she was hardly ever home. She was still unaware of the beatings I was getting almost daily from Daddy. No one really knew except my sisters and our regular babysitter, Marilyn Jean.
Jean was our "play cousin." Our families had known each other since the first day we moved into the neighborhood. Her family stayed upstairs from a grocery store right across the street from my grandmother's house. We became so close that we told everybody we were cousins because we loved one another like family.
Jean was a pretty chocolate-brown girl with long hair and big legs. She was the first girl from our neighborhood to make the drill team at Booker Junior High. Most of the girls on the drill team and cheerleaders came from Granite Heights, a middle-class enclave in the southeast section of the city. After practice, Jean would strut down our street in her blue gym shorts, white blouse and snow-white majorette boots, flashing her kelly-green-and-white pompoms like she was leading a parade.
One day while Jean was in the kitchen washing dishes with me underfoot, Daddy called from the living room for me to bring him some cold water. Jean silently reached into the cabinet, which I couldn't reach, and pulled down a purple tin tumbler Mama had gotten with Top Value stamps. We knew Daddy liked his water cold. We looked in the refrigerator for ice, but the trays had only recently been filled, so we ran the tap until the water numbed our fingers. With the tumbler filled to the brim, I raced from the kitchen to Daddy's permanent spot on the aqua vinyl sofa. After a few gulps, that look of scorn I had seen more times than I would like to remember crossed his face.
"This damn water ain't cold," he said. "Didn't I tell your dumb ass that I wanted cold water?"
I shook my head in dismay and told Daddy how Jean and I had made sure the water was cold. What did I say that for?
"What did I say, you little sissy?" he yelled.
"Huh?" I answered.
"Huh, hell. Didn't I say cold water? Don't you know the difference between cold water and tap water? This water isn't cold." He dumped the remaining water on me and my white undershirt. It felt cold to me.
"You are going to learn to do what I say if it kills you," he said. "Go get my strap."
As I turned toward the bedroom where Daddy kept his leather whipping strap, he grabbed me and starting hitting me with his bare hands. Huge bare hands. When I started to cry, he seemed to hit harder. He was beating me like he was in a prizefight with someone his own size. When he got tired of using his hands, he ripped an extension cord from the wall and told me to drop my pants. Screaming, I pulled down my pants and underwear, and he forced my small head between his huge thighs, tightening them like a vise. I could barely breathe as he beat my naked bottom with the electrical cord. When he finished, he howled at me to stop crying, told me to pull up my pants and take my behind to bed.
From my bedroom window, I saw Daddy leave by the front door and jump into his car and drive off. In pain I went into the bathroom to look at my battered behind. It appeared raw from the whipping, almost pink. As I gazed in dread at all the welts on my small body, Jean walked into the bathroom with rubbing alcohol and a white face cloth. When she saw my backside, her face mirrored the horror I felt inside. Of all the whippings Daddy had given me, none had ever left any marks. He had never used an extension cord.
"Let me put some of this on you," Jean said.
I asked Jean if the alcohol would make the welts and the pink go away, and she smiled sweetly and nodded. When she swabbed the cold liquid on my fresh wounds, I started to cry uncontrollably. I could hear my sisters outside urging me to stop crying. Jean promised to make Kool-Aid popsicles, one of my favorite treats, if I stopped crying. But I didn't want any kind of popsicles, homemade or store-bought. I wanted my mother to hug me and tell me that everything would be all right, that it would be okay for me to use all my words and just die. I wanted her to tell me she and my sisters would be just fine, that God in all His wisdom would understand that I was a little bit over the age limit and still allow me a place in heaven.
When Jean finished swabbing my wounds, she told me to go and put on clean underwear. That's when I noticed my jockey shorts were covered with blood. I was staring at my stained underwear when Jean said, "Lynn, don't worry about Uncle Ben." She hesitated a minute. "You know, maybe he's not even your real daddy."
She was looking directly into my eyes.
What was Jean talking about? Of course he was my real daddy. He was the only daddy I had ever known. Besides, if he wasn't my real daddy, then who was?
Through my sniffles I asked Jean what she meant. Jean said confidently that no father would treat a son the way Uncle Ben had treated me. My tears stopped as I allowed myself to think that Jean might be right. That Daddy was not my daddy. Such a thought had never crossed my conscious mind.
Suddenly I was thinking about how I could find out whether Jean was right without asking my mother; a picture of Mama's gray cardboard box entered my thoughts. She kept the box hidden in her closet. We were told never to open it because it contained grown folks' business.
I told Jean about the box, and minutes later I found myself on her narrow shoulders reaching for it amid Mama's shoes and hatboxes. When I located the box I grabbed it too quickly, and in my nervous excitement I fell from Jean's shoulders. The box flew from my hands and crashed on the floor. Jean and I glanced at each other with tender smiles and then started giggling.
I quickly started rummaging through the papers, looking for my birth certificate. I didn't have any notion of what I was looking for, really. I had never laid eyes on that piece of paper before. Whenever school had asked for birth certificates or other important papers, Mama had always delivered them personally.
Jean told me hers was on black paper that looked like a copy. She grabbed a stack of envelopes and opened them up one by one and then carefully closed them back up. I saw papers with the names of insurance companies printed on them, payment books for burial plots, old layaway receipts, but nothing on black paper. We reached the bottom of the box before we saw a sheet lying there face up. A black sheet covered with white lettering.
Jean quickly placed it in my shaking hands. I saw my name, Everick Lynn, and then I started scanning the rest. In the blank for the last name I saw Williams. Williams was not my last name. It was the last name of my Uncle James, my mother's older brother and my cousins, but it was not mine. I kept scanning, but Jean read ahead of me.
"Look here," she said.
"Look where?" I was shaking.
"Where it says `father's name.' "
My eyes followed her narrow fingers, and I saw it: Jeter. My eyes moved to the first-name space, and I saw James. James Jeter was my father. Ben Odis Harris was not. But who was James Jeter?
"He's not your daddy," Jean said as I stared in stunned silence. "Uncle Ben's not your daddy. Now we know why he treats you so bad."
Yes, I thought, in the stillness that covered our house. The only light came from a sliver of the hazy setting sun and the small black-and-white television playing in the living room. Jean was silent as I sat cross-legged, rocking from side to side, holding my proof tightly, silently thanking God.
My discovery didn't stop the beatings, but it took away Ben's power to hurt me. When his blows landed, it felt as though I had detached myself from my body, like magic. The awful potency of his cussing and name-calling drained away. For the two more years he was around, I owned his secret. I stopped counting words and started imagining the possibilities in my newfound story.
E. Lynn Harris's most recent novel is Abide With Me. He lives in Chicago.