Fiction: P.B. O’Sullivan
Jean-Marie walked down General Lee Boulevard holding his daughter’s hand. They crossed over into the white part of town where the Dance Inc. store was. Baptiste was skipping and singing. She let go of her father’s hand to do a pirouette. She was beautiful. As she twirled, her full blue skirt with a fake white petticoat border at the bottom, swirled out, making a graceful circle around her knees. Her one arm curved in an arc above her head. As always, Jean –Marie had carefully pinned closed the sleeve of her blouse over her missing arm. He didn’t want Baptiste exposed to the look of horror that inevitably came over people’s faces when they caught a glimpse of the gnarled mass of scars at her shoulder.
Mrs. Walker, who ran the rooming house where they lived and who helped take care of Baptiste at night while Jean-Marie was at work, had plaited her hair in two braids and tied them with big red ribbon bows. The braids, too, circled out with the movement of her pirouette.
The sidewalk became crowded and Baptiste took hold of her father’s hand again. People jostled them as they made their way to the far side of town. His first instinct, as always, was to protect her from getting bumped into or knocked down, but he restrained himself. He was determined to give her the carefree childhood every child deserves despite their poverty, by American standards, here in this southern city.
Though they had been in this new country for less than a month, it was worlds away from their homeland and the life Baptiste had been born into in Rwanda. She was a baby during the massacres and he was confident she didn’t remember any of it. He had even gone so far as to tell her that they were from Tanzania, that her mother had died of malaria and that the amputation of her arm had saved her life when it had become infected.
Baptiste was strong and poised for a child of eight. She had her mother’s agile, athletic body. Her preparation for and eventual acceptance into Madam Borofsky’s School of Ballet made Jean-Marie confident that his daughter would not let her missing arm cast her as a victim.
“Papa?” Baptiste asked. “Will I get to dance on stage?”
Jean-Maire smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Madam Borofsky told me she’s going to put you in their first performance.” He thought for a minute and added, “I want you to know that if Madam Borofsky ever acts as if she’s angry at you, it’s just because she thinks you have talent. She wants to push you to work as hard as you can.”
“Mrs. Tremont says I’m a worker bee.” Baptiste let go of his hand and patted her chest dramatically. “I love to work hard,” she said.
“And that, with your talent, is exactly why Madam Borofsky chose you for her school.”
Madam Borofsky was from Russia. She was an old- school teacher, no fuss, but she was kind. It would be good for Baptiste, he thought. American children were too undisciplined.
A group of teenagers was hanging out in front of a pizza parlor. The girls were clearly dressed up for the occasion, wearing make up and tight pants and skimpy shirts that didn’t quite cover their bodies. Seeing girls dress like that still made Jean-Marie uncomfortable. The boys hadn’t dressed for the occasion. They looked like they had borrowed their clothes form boys twice their size, and then slept in them. What would dating be like for Baptiste, he wondered? How many boys were there who could see through the adolescent pressure to ostracize what is different?
They passed a dirt lot beside an abandoned tenement where a pick-up game of soccer was being played. Boys about Baptiste’s age were skirmishing. She ran over to watch from the sidelines. Since arriving, Jean Marie and Baptiste would play soccer in the lot next to the rooming house where they lived. She was surprisingly good and sometimes, even when he was trying his hardest, she’d be able to maneuver the ball around him with her feet. Sometimes, if he kicked it high, she’d gain control of the ball with her shoulders and kick a goal against the wall right past him. Now Baptiste ran back, jumping up and down. “Can I join them papa? Please can I?”
“May I,” he corrected her.
“May I join them?”
Jean-Marie looked at his watch. There was still time to buy her ballet clothes and get back to the rooming house, where Mrs. Walker would look after her for the night, while he went to his job as a night watchman at the canning factory. Sometimes the new immigrants who lived with Mrs. Walker would argue at breakfast about their safety at night in the White part of town. In the old days, Jean-Marie’s family had had very good relations with the French. Baptiste watched the boys. They seemed like any boys.
“Please, Papa? May I join the game?” Baptiste cocked her head and looked at him, trying so hard to please him with her smile that it made him laugh. He nodded, and watched as Baptiste sauntered over to the game. First she went to the edge of the lot and started kicking a ball that lay on the side. Despite its light weight and small size, she was able to keep control of it as she ran the length of the lot. Only the tallest boy was better than Baptiste, Jean-Marie noted. The boy had blond hair that stuck out in tufts from under a baseball cap that he wore backwards.
A smaller, red- headed boy elbowed his friend and pointed over towards Baptiste. Baptiste waved and the boy smiled and waved back. Baptiste ran half way towards them, the red ribbons bouncing on her shoulders. “Hey!” she called over. “Can I play?”
The boys in the little group looked at each other. The tall one, who looked to be about ten, strode over. He stood in front of Baptiste, who was smiling at him. He took his cap off. He put the cap back on. Then he kicked the dirt twice and kept his eyes on his feet as he spoke. “We don’t allow no one- armed nigger girls in our game.” He spat on her shoe, turned around and swaggered back to the other boys.
As Jean-Marie ran over to Baptiste and put his arms around her, he could see the boys hi- fiving each other, all except the red headed boy who had waved at her. He stood apart from the other boys, with his head down.
Baptiste was crying silently. Jean-Marie picked her up. She put her one arm around his neck and buried her face against his cheek and shoulder. He could feel her tears wetting his collar. He turned toward the street but stopped and stood her on an old section of battered bleachers someone had dragged over. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “Stay here.”
He kissed her head several times, ran his hand over her hair, and then turned towards the boys. As he gathered his thoughts, he stepped closer to them. “Listen,” he said. “You don’t know what this kind of hatred leads to.”
The tall one cocked his head and said, “Where’d you get her, granddaddy? She your girl friend?”
The smallest of the boys, who looked to Jean-Marie as if he had rickets, wore a buzz cut. “Hey Ricky,” he said. “I’ll bet that dirty nigger found her in the whore house.” All of the boys snickered.
“Hell,” the tall boy said, looking directly at Jean-Marie, “I guess that’s all she good fer, eh grandpa?”
Jean-Marie grabbed the boy. He was easily twice the boy’s size. The boy’s hat fell off and when he started kicking Jean-Marie, Jean-Marie turned him around and slammed his body into the bleachers, pinning his arms against the higher seats behind the boy. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Baptiste climb down from the bleachers and crawl underneath.
“Do you think you know anything?” Jean-Marie yelled in the boy’s face. “How would you like to see your mother raped and killed in front of you?” He pulled the boy forward and slammed him again, hard against the metal steps of the bleachers. “How would you like that? Have you ever seen people get chopped to death with machetes? Babies getting their limbs cut off one by one?” He was screaming at the boy as loudly as he could. “What would you do if someone came up to you just because of your race, and told you to either murder these friends of yours or get decapitated? What would you do?”
The boy was trembling and barely able to speak. “Let me go,” he said. Jean-Marie recognized the terror in the boy’s eyes, at the same time that a stone hit him in the back of the head. He swayed, let go of the boy and turned around. The other boys were scouring the field, filling their pockets with stones and hurling them at him.
The redheaded boy who had smiled at Baptiste threw a stone at him and it hit him in the eye. He put his hand up to his eye and felt liquid. His eye was bleeding and oozing. Almost instantly his face swelled. He turned back to where he had set Baptiste down. She had crawled under the bleacher. Out of his good eye he could see her, hiding face down with her hands over her head. Another stone hit him in the shoulder. With one arm he pulled Baptiste out from under the bench.
“Put your arm around my neck, ma cheri, and hold on as tightly as you can,” he whispered. “We’ll be all right.” He ran with Baptiste across the field and back to the street. Baptiste held tight with her one arm around his neck. She looked up at his face and gasped and then buried her head against his shoulder and cried.
Another stone hit the back of Jean-Marie’s calf. He ran and didn’t stop running. Even when he felt the ground beneath his feet give way from the dirt earth to the pavement of General Lee Boulevard’s sidewalks, he didn’t stop running. He could hear the sound of his own feet pounding on the pavement.
He ran with the hand of one arm over his eye and holding Baptiste close against his heart with the other. He ran past unfamiliar stores where weekend shoppers gathered in front of window displays, ran down a street where everyone was a stranger to him and where he no longer knew what country he was in.
P.B. O’SULLIVAN is a mathematics and science educator and a short story writer. She co-founded Science Club for Girls www.scienceclubforgirls.org and founded The Mathemagics Workshop www.athemagicsworkshop.com. She studied fiction writing with Leslie Epstein as a fellow in the Creative Writing Program at Boston University. She has written book reviews in the Boston Herald, entries on writers for The Encyclopedia of Jewish American Women, and has been a judge in a number of writing awards. She divides her time between Paris and Cambridge, MA.