Afternoon Miniature 5.30.22

It takes time for the world to teach a child to discriminate, for better or for worse. And so it never dawned on this child, at the tender age of six, that she should not fraternize with her young peer in the adjacent house, where cars perched like relics atop cinder blocks out front and in the drive, where the dallisgrass sent feathery shoots up around them, and where the backyard boundaries were defined by a rusted chain-link fence. A pair of family dogs lived within its confines and were left to their own devices most of the time, lumbering ceaselessly and neurotically around its perimeter, paving a dirt pathway impressed with crusty pawprints.

The family matron spilled out of a tent-like dime store shift printed in a loud floral, and wore house slippers on her feet; the child could not remember a single occasion the woman ever wore anything else, even when she climbed inside the one working car, arduously, to drive to the grocery. My doors are always open, she had screeched from her front threshold the day the child’s family were moving into their gleaming new suburban home. You never have to knockjust come on inside. The girl listened intently to the woman’s voice, noticing how she managed to add sharp edges to vowels that should have sounded round and soft; the dissonance unsettled her and so she stepped behind her mother to hide within the folds of her skirt in a way she had not in a long time.

But later on, after school let out, on the first sunny summer morning when her young mother suggested it, she finally did go on inside but tentatively, gingerly pushing open the screen door until it creaked on its hinges. The volume on the television was set so high the woman didn’t hear the door, but spied the child’s tiny figure in shadow and bellowed to hurry up so the flies wouldn’t come in. The next words exploded from her louder still, incredibly, so they might travel up the steps from the family room and down the long hallway. Get your ass downstairs! She turned and smiled at the girl. Her companion thundered down the stairway and was there suddenly, bare-chested and wearing faded and patched cotton shorts cinched around his waist with a too-long leather belt, sneakers without socks on his feet, shouldering past the girl and bolting with her hand in his through the screen door; they left it to slam shut behind them.

And in an instant, they were off in a magical world of their own invention. This scene played itself out week to week, month to month, and for several years. The discrimination came in fits and starts, slowly at first. A morning would dawn when the sound spilling through the screen door sieve and onto the dirt lawn was not a gameshow host crowing about thousands in glamorous prizes, but instead the unmistakable clap of leather meeting skin, and a single sharp, broken cry of anguish after each staccato crack of the belt. One, two, three…four, five, six. Then came the roar of a thick silence that floated through the chain link and into the sanctuary of her own household, now sullied by this unimaginable atrocity.

Next would come new boundaries drawn up by angry grownups, directed first at their children through clenched jaws and then at each other with clenched fists. But in the wake of discrimination, one day much later a single moment of redemption and clarity. The pair would climb off the school bus one behind the other, the girl with books pressed to her breast under folded arms, the boy with nothing save a single dog-eared leaf of paper that had held him transfixed on the long ride home. What is that, she finally summoned the courage to ask. Smiling from only one side of his mouth, he flashed the paper before her: Biology Midterm, it read at the top, and scrawled next to it boldly in blue ink, B+.

That means you’re smart at science, she smiled back at him reassuringly.

He smiled too, but as instructed by discriminating grownups, said nothing, and turning up his drive, walked back into darkness through the beleaguered screen door.

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