By David Massey
I am pacing, like a wild animal in a cage, waiting for Mr. Mason. He will be carrying a gun, and I expect to die and my whole family, too. And not one soul can save us.
You know how all this started, Shannon. Last fall during study hall we staged a noh play. I was meant to carry the play, but I let Dr. Silver down, I failed, I was horrible. He told me I would not be perfect as the shite—no one without a lifetime of study for noh drama could be, he said. The shite is the main actor, so the play spun itself around my acting and dancing. I was a female spirit seeking revenge and taking the form of a serpent, and there were no props to help me: I had to figure a serpent for the audience by the way I moved. There was a great bell suspended over the stage, newly dedicated to the temple, which the audience had to imagine since there was no temple staging at all; and I had to come onto the stage pretending to be a dancer on a pilgrimage to see the bell, do a dance for the guards of the bell to put them to sleep, then leap up into the bell and cause it to come crashing to the stage. It was pure terror to leap into the bell and crash back to the stage, I thought I would die in front of everybody. Well, anyway, I didn’t die, and when the bell falls, the guards wake up. They argue over which one will tell the abbot until one of them runs away. The one left behind has to tell the abbot about the bell. The abbot comes and berates the guard roundly before telling him the story behind the woman’s hatred. She was a woman scorned by a priest of this temple. She had believed from childhood that she was destined to be his wife and was bitter when he turned her away. The abbot fears the woman’s shade has come for revenge. The abbot and the guard examine the bell and it is hot; when they have the bell raised, I, the serpent, attack them. They say fervent prayers until I am driven at length from the stage. That, in brief, is the play. It is short and sweet, but all noh plays are.
The day of the performance, Dr. Silver told the student body noh drama is the world’s oldest continuously performed theater, very stylized, strange to Western eyes, and difficult—so do not expect our young actors to be perfect. Give them some slack, he said. He urged me in rehearsals, “When you feel a ten in your heart, Hailey, play a seven.” This will give the play the most power, he said. Think of Hemingway’s short stories, he told me. But I found it impossible to do what Dr. Silver said, Shannon, and I danced so poorly and did serpent movements like a fool. Some people tittered and others booed loudly when I was trying to be a serpent. There was light applause when the play ended, but I did not deserve it. I ruined Dojoji. “Nõ” in Japanese means accomplishment. I accomplished nada, nothing at all, zilch. I was in tears. Dr. Silver took me in his arms and held me and told me not to feel so bad; I did as well as any young person not raised on noh could do, he said. It did not help. I still feel very bad about last fall. I did not do well in Dojoji. My confidence was hurt, really hurt. I hoped to redeem myself this spring: I played the part of a young white girl in love with an African-American boy, and he with me. They provoke hatred and violence from some vile white boys. We have too many of those boys and girls in our school. You have some like that in your school, too, so you know.
I think you know the reason I’m still at Bramwell Middle School. I’m a grade ahead in courses like English, sociology, history, psychology, and philosophy, and I could have moved on to the academy this year even though I don’t excel in mathematics and chemistry and physics, but I wanted another year in Dr. Silver’s drama class, so I stayed at Bramwell. After my performance in Dojoji, I questioned my decision to stay. I was anxious in rehearsals, hopeful of doing better this time around.
Judging by our audience, I failed. We thought we did a great job, but the student body felt just the opposite.
Horatio Simms, who last year played the role of Morris in The Agonists, did the part of my lover. Horatio is the most improved actor in our troupe, Dr. Silver said, and I agree, and I think Horatio proved it in our play.
Richard Boyd, who played the racist kid who caused all the trouble in The Agonists, this time played the leader of a gang of boys who threaten and attack Horatio and me. Poor Richard keeps having to play a violent racist, and you know, he’s not like that at all. This year he bridled. He didn’t want to play the role, but Dr. Silver convinced him that nobody else in our class could do it as well, and I told him no one who knew him would ever think that about him anyway. In the end, he agreed to take the role. He’s still our best actor after me, and he knows how to sink himself in his racist persona.
You’ve met Horatio, Shannon. He is a guy anybody should like. He is a majime; that is Japanese for an earnest, reliable person. But some people despise him for that very reason, especially Simon and his gang. They do not like to see ability in a black person—and they think Horatio is stuck on himself. They’re wrong, he’s not conceited; he’s just sure of himself, and quiet. Simon hates that about him and seems offended by Horatio at some deep place in his soul. Simon and his two closest friends, Billy Tolliver and Jeremy Tucker, engaged in a relentless campaign of spite and intimidation against Horatio and me. I just hoped they would not hurt Horatio, Shannon. He could fight any one of them by himself, but if they ganged up on him—
I hated to think what might happen.
And Mr. Mason is always on my mind. He taught Simon to be so hateful—and he is coming for me. He is stoking his rage with liquor, and he is coming as sure as there is cane in a canebrake.
I should have told you about all this earlier. I just didn’t want to seem like a whiner. Let me tell you about a real scary Tuesday morning, a rehearsal morning. Horatio and I were at our lockers when Simon and Billy came up and both shoved Horatio. Billy tried to trip him up, but Horatio was too quick and strong and agile. Billy gave him a hateful look and said, “You won’t be so tough when I take the brass knuckles to you, nigger.” Then Simon hit him in the face with his forearm. I ran at Simon and tried to push him away, crying out something like, “Leave him alone, you big bully. If it was just you and him, he’d beat the tar out of you!”
Simon shoved me hard up against the lockers and slapped me like the big brute that he is, with more than a dozen people watching. “Do you really think so, Hailey?” he said. “I think your perceptions are getting a little warped from being around this African so much.” And then he used the n-word twice, asking me if I was an n-lover.
“You sure aren’t, Simon,” I said, though I could hardly see from that horrid slap. “You’re as hateful as you ever were.”
I went to rehearsal so mad—I can’t even tell you how mad, Shannon, and with my head ringing and more scared than I had been since coming to Bramwell. I told Dr. Silver what happened, and he said he would report them to the principal’s office. He didn’t have to: Peggy Harris and Oliver Gant had already told. Oliver had talked Peggy into seconding him. I was summoned to the principal’s office and found Horatio, Peggy, Oliver, and Simon already there. Billy was on his way. After we all told what Simon and Billy did, they were suspended from school for a week. But I knew Horatio and I had not seen the last of their meanness. They had even picked on my little brother the day before because he has African blood, and they don’t like my mother, either, because she married a black man. Those boys are just horrible, ignorant, and dangerous. And I couldn’t figure why Simon was singling me out as an “n-lover”; he has known me all his life and knows my family as well as anybody.
We did not meet Simon and his gang on our way home—or at least, as far as Horatio and I went together. I worried about him all the way to my yard, though. And now that I was home, I thought about something I saw that morning when I went outside. My next-door neighbor’s cat was tearing up a chipmunk. I was too late to save the little creature, so I let the mean cat kill. I thought how cruel cats are. But a cat is a carnivore. At least it is acting according to nature. The only law of nature the haters of black people are following is that of meanness, hardness of heart, and cruelty. I thought of a day when I was seven and was under Simon’s house with Simon and Billy Tolliver, playing doodle bug, doodle bug. Simon stirred the doodle bug’s house with a stick, saying “Doodle bug, doodle bug, come out your house.” He dislodged the bug from its hiding place in the ground—then suddenly raised his stick to crush the bug. “Don’t kill it!” I screamed. But Simon brought his stick down and ground the bug to death. It took only a second. I broke into tears and said, “I’m not playing anymore,” and began crawling out from under the house as fast as my hands and knees would carry me. “Little baby,” he called after me.
I did not speak to Simon for a whole two months after that, until one day he came up to me and said, “Want to play with June bugs in the back yard? I promise I won’t kill them.” I’m kind of a tomboy, you know, and I liked games like that, so I played with him and he behaved himself. But I was sure he was just as cruel as ever when he was not around me. And that is how the haters are. They hold their tongues when it is politic to play nice. But around people who think the way they do they show the nasty spirit that is in them. And they don’t care how miserable they make everybody feel. Sometimes I almost hate them, you know?
And boy, at times I truly hate Simon. He led a vendetta against Horatio and me. His father applauded, I know, because he stood on his front porch as I passed one day and yelled at me that I was a white nigger. Why wouldn’t I be, with my father and brother? I was anxious every hour about where this was going. Simon hated us for playing lovers in Small-Town Hate. Like the racist gang in the play, he and the boys who follow him just can’t stand interracial romance. It would do no good to appeal to Simon’s family. Not only was his daddy behind him a hundred percent, but I am pretty sure his mother was, too. And they live just two doors down from me, a few long, fast strides away.
You know how big Simon is, and you know he likes to wear tight jeans and a tight shirt so he can leave several buttons undone at the top and show off his big chest. I don’t have any doubt he would give Horatio a hard fight if it came to that. Billy Tolliver, his closest friend, is clumsy, and I don’t think in a fair fight he would be any trouble for Horatio—although he is tough. I saw him let Donald Hudson hit him over and over in the stomach, and Billy just stood there grinning at him as if he didn’t even feel it. My point is that these two guys are dangerous. They are tough and they are dangerous. And the gang that follows them is dangerous because it is emboldened by Simon and Billy, and this includes that slutty Ella Lanier. (I despise her. She is the worst racist of them all, and bitter and snippy toward any person with some class. She’s Billy’s woman.)
Our drama is set in the 1970s when interracial romance was not so common and many people’s reactions to it were virulent, you know—and some violent. Moreover, the setting is a small South Georgia town where feelings were strong. Horatio and I, as lovers in the play, must face almost universal hostility. There is no one to restrain the boys who persecute us.
At least there were restraints placed upon Simon and his gang.
But as I was hurrying down the hall one Tuesday after drama class, I passed Ella Lanier going in the opposite direction. As we passed one another, she kneed me between my legs, hissing, “Take that, you shit.” It was a horrid blow, it would have been a lot worse if I were a boy, but she left me breathless and dizzy, and I went down on my knees. I looked around to see if anyone was looking when she kneed me, but no one was. Some people were wondering why I was on my knees, but they had seen nothing. She had struck me with impunity and hurried away before I could say one single word to her. This is a witch who has hated me from the first time she saw me. She calls me snooty and dopey. One day she called me a little prick. Just because I speak good English! She believes I think I am better than she is. And I do, and it’s true—I am better than that evil hag.
I reported to English troubled. Ella would tell Billy and Simon what she did, and they would think they could get away with anything. Everything was going to get worse now.
I told Mother about the trouble Horatio and I were having with Simon and his gang. Mother attributes such behavior as Simon’s to ignorance, and she says it is hard to hate someone for ignorance. “No, Mother,” I told her. “It’s not just their ignorance. They have a will toward hatred and violence. This stuff has been in Simon since he was a kid. And he’s not ignorant. He does well in school.”
Mother looked at me with obvious concern, but I couldn’t tell at first whether it was for my situation or my attitude. “But you know, Hailey, his daddy is like that. But don’t keep anything from me. If those boys get violent, I’ll report them to the authorities—the principal and the police. You said Mr. Mason is behind this, too?”
I told her yes, he was. And I did not feel comforted by Mom, even a little.
I am nagged by guilt. Maybe I brought this on myself. I was haunted by how poorly I performed in Dojoji, and I threw myself fervently, fervently into Small-Town Hate. I wanted to erase the memory of that failure, which ate at me all the time. Some rehearsal days I would see Simon at the back of the auditorium, watching me and feeding his hatred. I believe I goaded him into some of what he did. And Mr. Mason would not be a constant shadow on my life if I had not plunged so fervently into a play about a racist gang of the likes of Simon and his followers.
As I left Mrs. Shaw’s history class one day, I was confused for a moment by a ruckus: Mr. Mason was in handcuffs, being escorted to the door by three police officers. One of them was the color of dark chocolate candy, and Mr. Mason was screaming, “Ain’t no black bastard go’ touch me! Make that black son-a-bitch get his hands off me!” He struggled violently until one of the white cops lost all patience and used a Taser gun on him. Everybody in the hall just gaped as the cops dragged Mr. Mason toward the door and out to a squad car. Then everybody gabbled: “They’re going to lock him up. He’s going to jail. I wonder what he did?” Some students pretended to know. It was all anybody talked about for the next two periods until Jeremy Tucker put in his two cents worth. Mr. Mason came to give Mr. Downey an earful about suspending his son, and according to Jeremy, he got too forceful.
“He had every call to bitch,” Jeremy said. “Mr. Downey was defending that nigger. Ain’t no principal in this town who’s got a right to do what that fool did.”
“He has every right, and Horatio’s African-American, not what you call him,” Richard Boyd said. “You guys are so wrong you can’t see the way the wind is blowing.”
Jeremy used the n-word again. “So you’re an n-lover, too,” he said. “And the wind ain’t blowing where you think it is, sucker. Just look at what’s happening all around the country. Listen to our President! He won’t condemn White Supremacy, no way. He’s on our side, with me and my gang. You’re going to get caught with your nose in the wrong place.”
Richard gave him a scornful look and headed to geometry class. I joined him, more worried than ever. What would Simon do now? Jeremy and Ella would tell him his dad had been arrested. He might be waiting for Horatio and me.
Dr. Silver offered to drive Horatio and me home, and I thought that was an awfully good idea. Horatio didn’t want to do it—his manhood was challenged—but I used all my powers of persuasion to convince him that this was advisable. He finally gave in, and Dr. Silver took me home, then left to deposit Horatio at his door, too.
I thought I was home free. Wrong, so wrong. I went into the back yard to let Ebony do his thing, feeling cozy and safe, when Simon came up from behind and snatched me off my feet! He wheeled and hurled me through the air to Billy, who flung me to Jeremy. They were throwing me hard from one to the other, with terrifying force, and it hurt, I thought they were going to snap my neck in two, Shannon. I was crying and trying to scream, but they had knocked the wind out of me, and I couldn’t get my breath. I heard Ebony barking. Then I saw Simon kick him. Ebony yelped and ran to the back door and started barking like five dogs. The three boys kept throwing me, as if I were nothing to them but a rag doll; I could hardly see anything as cohesive, I could not draw a breath, and I swooned into hysteria. The back door opened—and Mother came out to see why all the ruckus from Ebony. When she saw what was happening, she screamed. Simon called a halt to their hotshot round-robin and pointed a finger at Mother and said, “You breathe one word about this, lady, and I know where to find you.” Mother had her hands on her chest—frightened half to death! And me, too—I was in pain and so awful scared.
Simon turned his eyes to me; he gripped me tightly by my shoulders and said, “You’d better end this little drama about small-town haters right now.” His voice was a snarl. He shoved me hard onto the ground. “I’m disappointed in you, Hailey. I thought you knew better.”
As soon as they let me go, I ran to the door, where Mother stood frozen. “Inside, Mother,” I said. “Get inside.” I slammed the door and locked it after us.
Once inside, Mother recovered enough to say, “He threatened me! He threatened me!” She stood quivering, even her face shaking. I took her by her shoulders.
“Hurry, Mother, we’ve no time to waste. I think—I know—they’re going to Horatio’s now. Call 911. Tell them a middle school student is being assaulted and beaten. And let’s go to Horatio’s. We’ve got to warn him—if we’re not too late!”
I drove fast to Horatio’s even though I don’t have a learner’s permit, and Mother had the police on the way already. But when we got there, Simon’s whole gang had dragged Horatio from his house to a neighboring lot and were beating him like wild hoodlums. Billy was wearing brass knuckles, and his blows looked awful. Ella was lashing Horatio with a belt, buckle first. I started screaming. Simon looked at me and then Mother and said, “I warned you, lady—”
Mother turned and ran, but he outran her easily. She screamed and I screamed, but just at that moment, two police officers appeared in the yard. They had guns drawn.
“All right, you men, get on your knees with your hands behind your heads,” one of the cops shouted. “Down! Do it!”
Simon and his gang were astounded; I was, too. All of the boys got to their knees with their hands behind their heads, but Ella stayed on her feet and yelled at me, “You bitch, you damn fucking bitch! You called the cops. I’ll kill you!”
The leader of the two cops looked at Ella and said, “You, too. On your knees.”
“And what if I don’t? You going to shoot me?”
The other cop fired a warning shot at her feet and Ella jumped and turned chalk white (I think I turned white, too, or I felt like it, and I had my head clapped tight in my hands). She went to her knees and put her hands behind her head like the boys. The cop who fired the shot called for backup.
Three more squad cars showed up, and Simon and his entire gang were taken to jail. Meantime, Mother and I tried to take care of Horatio, who looked awful, his face all swollen and bruised and cut to bits.
As you know, Shannon, that whole gang was sent to reformatory for a year. I feel sorry for them because Mother is right, it is in some sense ignorance that propels them. The only one I feel no compassion for is Ella; she is beyond pity; but Mother says I am wrong, Ella is to be compassionated, too.
Horatio was healed from his wounds in time for dress rehearsal, and I had been feeling better and better about my role in this play. But Shannon, the night of the play was a bitter disappointment! I didn’t know there were so many racists at our school. They drowned out the applause with their booing and foul words. The week following the play was miserable; it seemed two-thirds of the student body gave us vicious looks.
Now the friends of Simon’s gang are emboldened by Simon’s dad and by their numbers; they know that man has it in for us, and is drinking, building to a fury, and there are too many of them, and they have gone beyond hateful looks to making horrible remarks. They may yet cause trouble if I don’t die first, but I think I’m going to die.
Oh, Shannon, every time I walk past the Mason house, I feel terror in my bones. Mr. Mason was charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest, but Mr. Downey did not even press charges. So, Mason was at home, and had been drinking since Simon was sent to reformatory, and I thought: What will he do? What’s going to happen? Yesterday at twilight I got my answer. He stood in our front yard yelling, “Hailey, Hailey Godwin. Come out here and face me! You’re the reason my son is in jail. I’m going to make you pay, you little snitch—you little bitch!”
Daddy called 911 and reported him while he was still beating on the door screaming at me, they came and arrested him, and he has been charged with trespass and making terroristic threats. He is in jail waiting to be bonded out. What will he do when he walks out of jail? He has always hated Daddy, and he despises my little brother and has never let him play in his yard. Now he hates us all. He owns Lugers, a .38 revolver, a shotgun, automatic rifles, even a machine gun, Simon showed it to me!
And he’s just two doors down. Stay on the phone, please, please Shannon, don’t hang up. I’m afraid to go to sleep. We don’t have a single gun in the house, Daddy doesn’t believe in it! The moon shines full with a fatal light, and my heart is sinking under prophecy. He is going to kill me, I know he is, and my mom and dad and little brother, too. There’s not one thing in the world that can stop him. Pray, Shannon—pray to God he won’t come, that his evil heart will turn over and change.
David Massey has a Master’s Degree in English Literature After 1660 from The University of South Carolina and while there took creative writing classes under George Garrett and James Dickey. He turned belatedly to an earnest engagement with the art of fiction but has made progress of late, having had several short stories and essays on the craft of fiction published in the past two-plus years. Before he began writing fiction, he had a long career in journalism. He lives in Atlanta with his wife of 49 years and three of his four daughters. He has a son who lives in North Augusta, S.C., and a daughter in New Jersey.