Jane sent me a text on Wednesday and asked me if I was busy the day after. She only ever texted me if she wanted to do something with the kids.
Jane was my age and lived in one of those neighborhoods downtown where the houses are old and dilapidated. I had spent most of my summer there getting to know the kids who lived in the area. They would come to Janeâ€™s house on the corner. It was tall and green and looked like a Christmas tree, and it had ripe red shutters and a wrap-around porch.
It was where the white girl lived.
I walked the block every other afternoon that summer and rallied the children to play kick-ball, tag, and zombies. We took them to the park and to the pool, and sometimes to our campus. But that was about as far as we had ever gone. Today was the fourth of July, and Jane had something new for them. We were going to the Falwellsâ€™ lake, she said. I imagined a great lake in the corner of some well-to-do neighborhood with a crowd of people and smoke from the barbeques, leading the children here and there and watching them play. But I was in for something new, as well.
I arrived at a little before three oâ€™clock in the afternoon. I walked the block and saw Junior waiting on his porch. He was swinging around the porch post, and when he saw me coming he stopped and put his hand in his mouth to think. He wasnâ€™t sure whether he should run to me or wait. I waved and watched him as I came down the sidewalk.
It was hot and the rain clouds were moving away. I walked through the wet grass and hopped over the stone wall into his yard. I said hello and he said:
Waâ€™ see sumpin?
What? I asked.
I neeâ€™ show yâ€™ sumpin.
I came close and he had a green balloon in his hand and he held it up to his nose and blew. It swelled and burst and I stepped back and laughed.
Ew, I said, and we laughed together.
Junior was seven. His cheeks were swollen up like that balloon and his two front teeth were large and gave his face the shape of a chipmunkâ€™s. Where are your sisters, I asked him. He didnâ€™t answer, but invited me into his house. He wanted to show me something. I went in after waiting for his mother to come to the door and invite me in. I had never been invited into the house before.
It hasnâ€™ been cleaned, she always said.
The floors were bare. There were toys shoved off to the sides, clothing and paper discarded in the corners. I thought of how the house seemed empty and like someone had lived there once but did no more. Junior and I went upstairs to his room. He showed me his snake. It was rubber and four feet long and lived in a bucket of water. I forgot to ask its name.
We went back downstairs and I told the girls to meet me outside. Junior and I went out the front door. We saw Jane coming down the street. She was smiling and ducking her head forward. She always smiled as though she tried to hide it behind her nose. She was a beautiful person, and I thought she might want to hide that for some reason, though I had never thought of one.
When Juniorâ€™s sisters Nee-nee and Daisha had come outside, I took them down the street and met Jane. She had gotten Mani and Qoia from the house next door. We only took those five. Jane had made it seem to me, in her picking and choosing of the children based on their good behavior, that we were expected to make a good impression on the Falwells. I expected that we wouldnâ€™t have the chance to meet them.
We piled into the van. I thought it would be a short drive. Jane took us into Forest. Daisha knew where we were and she said so, but Jane said that we were going even furtherâ€”beyond Forestâ€”and I thought it must be quite far. She asked me if I had ever been. I told her that I had been to a lake before and that I had heard the name Falwell with it but I wasnâ€™t sure. It wasnâ€™t the same lake.
She said that it may be the farthest the children had ever gone from home.
We drove until there were no more street lamps or traffic lights. And the trees were â€śso tallâ€ť, the children said. There were fields with corn and hay, and we told the children theyâ€™d be eating hay for dinner. They pointed at the cows and named them after us. We passed the road where we were meant to turn, and Jane turned around in a gravel lot. She told them that we had arrived, and the children looked around at the gravel mounds and the hay-bales and they laughed when we drove away.
They were delighted when we reached the house. There was a gate that swung open and spoke to us, and the girls on the other side told us the code to open it. Jane told the children not to remember the code and so they recited it to themselves until we came to the house. It was a short white house with a round driveway. The lake was just off to the side, down the hill. We wondered about sharks in the water and who was going to get in.
We had told the children to introduce themselves to the Falwells. Say hello and your name and thank you for having us in your home. When they went inside, Jerry held the door for them and stood in the entrance. They each shook his hand, and he listened as they all said what we had rehearsed.
We changed into our swimsuits and went down to the lake. I drove myself and Junior down on a four-wheeler and he scolded me for driving too fast. We went onto the dock and looked out into the water. It was brown and there was no end to it that we could see. There were jet-skis and a hot tub. The dock was big with white planks, and there were white chairs all over. High above us was another dock that they said we could jump from. The children were in the water with Jane, already, so I joined them. There was a willow tree standing along the beach and it waved with long pale strands of shaggy bark. And all around were trees and fences. The house on the hill above the lake was the only house. And we were the only ones, other than the Falwells, who had claimed the beach.
I thought it odd to talk to those people that I had not expected to meet, so I stood with the children and swam with them. I watched them splash and tumble. The girls stood on the wooden square that moved in the water. They quivered and shook their heads and refused to jump. The water was not up to my knees. I promised Qoia that I would jump from the high dock if she jumped where she was. She stood for a moment and quivered and shook, and then she jumped.
We played for hours and swam. They took us out on the tubes behind the jet-skis, and the boys jumped from the high-dive. We prodded this one and that one to do this and that that they were afraid of until most of them had done what they had not wanted to do.
Will you regret it later if you donâ€™t? Jane kept saying.
For so many hours it seemed we lived in a bubble where nothing was the same as the world outside. I knew that they had never swum like this before. Under the trees and beyond the dock that was not theirs. In the wind that blew as though someone owned that, too. Nothing was the same as they had ever seen before.
When we drove back to the house we found the kitchen full of food. I thought it looked like a magazine. The hardwood floors and the great white island in the middle and the charms and the knickknacks. And the food seemed plastic and untouchable. The meat was carved, and there was fruit with yogurt dip that the kids thought was ranch dressing, and humungous chocolate chip cookies. And for dessert was a masterwork of pudding with rows of strawberries and blueberries in a spiral at the top.
After dinner, they took the children out to the trampoline, and they showed them the clubhouse. They brought them out to the field where the tractor was and they let them ride on it. And we watched them run and play tag with the dog. When the sky became dark we could no longer see them on the trampoline. The clouds ran over the mountains and became mist over the black hills and the purple ceiling, and all we could see of the children were the bright streaks in their clothing going up and down under the blue trees beside the porch, and we could hear their laughter and the yelling.
Later, someone gathered the children behind the clubhouse and came back with a box.
Are dose cigawetts? I heard Junior say.
The one with the box said no and Junior said, You tellin me dose awnâ€™t cigawetts?
The box-man came over to us and set the box down beside a lit candle. He took out a sparkler and lit it. He gave the sparkler to Junior and said, Run! But all of the other children except for Junior ran. He gave them each one. They called them cigarettes, and they held them with wide eyes. The adults were saying things like â€śSpell your name!â€ť and shooing them away, and we pointed them out as though they had only just appeared, as they circled our chairs and danced. And we watched them flutter like lightning bugs.
When it was time to go, we gathered in the kitchen. I chased the boys through the rooms, and they filled bags with pudding for the kids to take home. Junior asked for some chicken for his father. They played music, and Qoia, Daisha, and Denisha danced. We watched them, and we said how good they were, until it was time to go. On our way out, the children went around the kitchen and gave hugs and said thank you to everyone.
I walked out with Jerry and Daisha. She turned to him before we left and whispered, This was amazing. And everything in the way she said it and the way her face moved and her eyes widened told me that she had never said it before and meant it the same.
When we drove home, we asked the children what had scared them the most and what was their favorite part of the evening. They told us of the high-dive and the jet-skis and the tractor and the clubhouse. And we told them we were proud of them for behaving so well. So, they asked if they could go back tomorrow.
Daisha said that she was surprised. She said that she thought they would be snobby. She said she thought they would not let them do things because of all that they had, and that they had been so nice and not like rich people.
We got back to the house and emptied the van. The children had not fallen asleep like we thought they would. They got out and walked across the street and down the sidewalk. I watched them wander, for a moment. They looked at each other and said things, and they seemed not to know where they were going. Junior stopped in front of Janeâ€™s house and looked around. He wasnâ€™t looking for me or Jane, or anyone else. He stood as though he had come to an unfamiliar place, unsure of whether he should be there or not.