Charles was my first friend from that other world, the one my father had tried to protect me from. He was conventional in all the ways and for all the reasons my father despised conventionality: he talked about football and popular bands more than the End of Days; he loved everything about high school; he went to church, but like most Mormons, if he was ill, he was as likely to call a doctor as a Mormon priest.
I couldn’t reconcile his world with mine so I separated them. Every evening I watched for his red jeep from my window, and when it appeared on the highway I ran for the door. By the time he’d bumped up the hill I’d be waiting on the lawn, and before he could get out I’d be in the jeep, arguing with him about my seatbelt. (He refused to drive unless I wore one.)
Once, he arrived early and made it to the front door. I stammered nervously as I introduced him to Mother, who was blending bergamot and ylang-ylang, clicking her fingers to test the proportions. She said hello but her fingers kept pulsing. When Charles looked at me as if to ask why, Mother explained that God was speaking through her fingers. “Yesterday I tested that I’d get a migraine today if I didn’t have a bath in lavender,” she said. “I took the bath and guess what? No headache!”
“Doctors can’t cure a migraine before it happens,” Dad chimed in, “but the Lord can!”
As we walked to his jeep, Charles said, “Does your house always smell like that?”
“Like rotted plants.”
“You must have smelled it,” he said. “It was strong. I’ve smelled it before. On you. You always smell of it. Hell, I probably do, too, now.” He sniffed his shirt. I was quiet. I hadn’t smelled anything.
DAD SAID I WAS BECOMING “uppity.” He didn’t like that I rushed home from the junkyard the moment the work was finished, or that I removed every trace of grease before going out with Charles. He knew I’d rather be bagging groceries at Stokes than driving the loader in Blackfoot, the dusty town an hour north where Dad was building a milking barn. It bothered him, knowing I wanted to be in another place, dressed like someone else.
On the site in Blackfoot, he dreamed up strange tasks for me to do, as if he thought my doing them would remind me who I was. Once, when we were thirty feet in the air, scrambling on the purlins of the unfinished roof, not wearing harnesses because we never wore them, Dad realized that he’d left his chalk line on the other side of the building. “Fetch me that chalk line, Tara,” he said. I mapped the trip. I’d need to jump from purlin to purlin, about fifteen of them, spaced four feet apart, to get the chalk, then the same number back. It was exactly the sort of order from Dad that was usually met with Shawn saying, “She’s not doing that.”
“Shawn, will you run me over in the forklift?”
“You can fetch it,” Shawn said. “Unless your fancy school and fancy boyfriend have made you too good for it.” His features hardened in a way that was both new and familiar.
I shimmied the length of a purlin, which took me to the framing beam at the barn’s edge. This was more dangerous in one sense—if I fell to the right, there would be no purlins to catch me—but the framing beam was thicker, and I could walk it like a tightrope.
That was how Dad and Shawn became comrades, even if they only agreed on one thing: that my brush with education had made me uppity, and that what I needed was to be dragged through time. Fixed, anchored to a former version of myself.
Shawn had a gift for language, for using it to define others. He began searching through his repertoire of nicknames. “Wench” was his favorite for a few weeks. “Wench, fetch me a grinding wheel,” he’d shout, or “Raise the boom, Wench!” Then he’d search my face for a reaction. He never found one. Next he tried “Wilbur.” Because I ate so much, he said. “That’s some pig,” he’d shout with a whistle when I bent over to fit a screw or check a measurement.
Shawn took to lingering outside after the crew had finished for the day. I suspect he wanted to be near the driveway when Charles drove up it. He seemed to be forever changing the oil in his truck. The first night he was out there, I ran out and jumped into the jeep before he could say a word. The next night he was quicker on the draw. “Isn’t Tara beautiful?” he shouted to Charles. “Eyes like a fish and she’s nearly as smart as one.” It was an old taunt, blunted by overuse. He must have known I wouldn’t react on the site so he’d saved it, hoping that in front of Charles it might still have sting.
The next night: “You going to dinner? Don’t get between Wilbur and her food. Won’t be nothin’ left of you but a splat on the pavement.”
Charles never responded. We entered into an unspoken agreement to begin our evenings the moment the mountain disappeared in the rearview mirror. In the universe we explored together there were gas stations and movie theaters; there were cars dotting the highway like trinkets, full of people laughing or honking, always waving, because this was a small town and everybody knew Charles; there were dirt roads dusted white with chalk, canals the color of beef stew, and endless wheat fields glowing bronze. But there was no Buck’s Peak.
During the day, Buck’s Peak was all there was—that and the site in Blackfoot. Shawn and I spent the better part of a week making purlins to finish the barn roof. We used a machine the size of a mobile home to press them into a Z shape, then we attached wire brushes to grinders and blasted away the rust so they could be painted. When the paint was dry we stacked them next to the shop, but within a day or two the wind from the peak had covered them in black dust, which turned to grime when it mixed with the oils on the iron. Shawn said they had to be washed before they could be loaded, so I fetched a rag and a bucket of water.
It was a hot day, and I wiped beads of sweat from my forehead. My hairband broke. I didn’t have a spare. The wind swept down the mountain, blowing strands in my eyes, and I reached across my face and brushed them away. My hands were black with grease, and each stroke left a dark smudge.
I shouted to Shawn when the purlins were clean. He appeared from behind an I-beam and raised his welding shield. When he saw me, his face broke into a wide smile. “Our Nigger’s back!” he said.
THE SUMMER SHAWN AND I had worked the Shear, there’d been an afternoon when I’d wiped the sweat from my face so many times that, by the time we quit for supper, my nose and cheeks had been black. That was the first time Shawn called me “Nigger.” The word was suprising but not unfamiliar. I’d heard Dad use it, so in one sense I knew what it meant. But in another sense, I didn’t understand it as meaning anything at all. I’d only ever seen one black person, a little girl, the adoptive daughter of a family at church. Dad obviously hadn’t meant her.
Shawn had called me Nigger that entire summer: “Nigger, run and fetch those C-clamps!” or “It’s time for lunch, Nigger!” It had never given me a moment’s pause.
Then the world had turned upside down: I had entered a university, where I’d wandered into an auditorium and listened, eyes wide, mind buzzing, to lectures on American history. The professor was Dr. Richard Kimball, and he had a resonant, contemplative voice. I knew about slavery; I’d heard Dad talk about it, and I’d read about it in Dad’s favorite book on the American founding. I had read that slaves in colonial times were happier and more free than their masters, because the masters were burdened with the cost of their care. That had made sense to me.
The day Dr. Kimball lectured on slavery, he filled the overhead screen with a charcoal sketch of a slave market. The screen was large; as in a movie theater it dominated the room. The sketch was chaotic. Women stood, naked or half naked, and chained, while men circled them. The projector clacked. The next image was a photograph, black and white and blurred with age. Faded and overexposed, the image is iconic. In it a man sits, stripped above the waist, exposing for the camera a map of raised, crisscrossing scars. The flesh hardly looks like flesh, from what has been done to it.
I saw many more images in the coming weeks. I’d heard of the Great Depression years before when I’d played Annie, but the slides of men in hats and long coats lined up in front of soup kitchens were new to me. When Dr. Kimball lectured on World War II, the screen showed rows of fighter planes interspersed with the skeletal remains of bombed cities. There were faces mixed in—FDR, Hitler, Stalin. Then World War II faded with the lights of the projector.
The next time I entered the auditorium there were new faces on the screen and they were black. There hadn’t been a black face on that screen—at least none that I remembered—since the lectures on slavery. I’d forgotten about them, these other Americans who were foreign to me. I had not tried to imagine the end of slavery: surely the call of justice had been heard by all, and the issue had been resolved.
This was my state of mind when Dr. Kimball began to lecture on something called the civil rights movement. A date appeared on the screen: 1963. I figured there’d been a mistake. I recalled that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in 1863. I couldn’t account for that hundred years, so I assumed it was a typo. I copied the date into my notes with a question mark, but as more photographs flashed across the screen, it became clear which century the professor meant. The photos were black and white but their subjects were modern—vibrant, well defined. They were not dry stills from another era; they captured movement. Marches. Police. Firefighters turning hoses on young men.
Dr. Kimball recited names I’d never heard. He began with Rosa Parks. An image appeared of a policeman pressing a woman’s finger into an ink sponge. Dr. Kimball said she’d taken a seat on a bus. I understood him as saying she had stolen the seat, although it seemed an odd thing to steal.
Her image was replaced by another, of a black boy in a white shirt, tie and round-brimmed hat. I didn’t hear his story. I was still wondering at Rosa Parks, and how someone could steal a bus seat. Then the image was of a corpse and I heard Dr. Kimball say, “They pulled his body from the river.”
There was a date beneath the image: 1955. I realized that Mother had been four years old in 1955, and with that realization, the distance between me and Emmett Till collapsed. My proximity to this murdered boy could be measured in the lives of people I knew. The calculation was not made with reference to vast historical or geological shifts—the fall of civilizations, the erosion of mountains. It was measured in the wrinkling of human flesh. In the lines on my mother’s face.
The next name was Martin Luther King Jr. I had never seen his face before, or heard his name, and it was several minutes before I understood that Dr. Kimball didn’t mean Martin Luther, who I had heard of. It took several more minutes for me to connect the name with the image on the screen—of a dark-skinned man standing in front of a white marble temple and surrounded by a vast crowd. I had only just understood who he was and why he was speaking when I was told he had been murdered. I was still ignorant enough to be surprised.
“OUR NIGGER’S BACK!”
I don’t know what Shawn saw on my face—whether it was shock, anger or a vacant expression. Whatever it was, he was delighted by it. He’d found a vulnerability, a tender spot. It was too late to feign indifference.
“Don’t call me that,” I said. “You don’t know what it means.”
“Sure I do,” he said. “You’ve got black all over your face, like a nigger!”
For the rest of the afternoon—for the rest of the summer—I was Nigger. I’d answered to it a thousand times before with indifference. If anything, I’d been amused and thought Shawn was clever. Now it made me want to gag him. Or sit him down with a history book, as long as it wasn’t the one Dad still kept in the living room, under the framed copy of the Constitution.
I couldn’t articulate how the name made me feel. Shawn had meant it to humiliate me, to lock me in time, into an old idea of myself. But far from fixing me in place, that word transported me. Every time he said it—“Hey Nigger, raise the boom” or “Fetch me a level, Nigger”—I returned to the university, to that auditorium, where I had watched human history unfold and wondered at my place in it. The stories of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were called to my mind every time Shawn shouted, “Nigger, move to the next row.” I saw their faces superimposed on every purlin Shawn welded into place that summer, so that by the end of it, I had finally begun to grasp something that should have been immediately apparent: that someone had opposed the great march toward equality; someone had been the person from whom freedom had to be wrested.
I did not think of my brother as that person; I doubt I will ever think of him that way. But something had shifted nonetheless. I had started on a path of awareness, had perceived something elemental about my brother, my father, myself. I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.
I could not have articulated this, not as I sweated through those searing afternoons in the forklift. I did not have the language I have now. But I understood this one fact: that a thousand times I had been called Nigger, and laughed, and now I could not laugh. The word and the way Shawn said it hadn’t changed; only my ears were different. They no longer heard the jingle of a joke in it. What they heard was a signal, a call through time, which was answered with a mounting conviction: that never again would I allow myself to be made a foot soldier in a conflict I did not understand.