A story by Joyce Carol Oates
June 28, 1952
Bobby G. struggled with Frances Berardi and yanked her to the side, as if trying to knock her over. But she twisted her small body to keep from falling. She was screaming. They were near the boarded-up cabin in Reardon Park—a refreshment stand that had not been opened that year, though painted a tart black-green that still smelled fresh—and three friends of Frances’, girls her own age, were on the wide dirt path nearby, watching, and other people in the park turned to watch, hearing the noise. Bobby G. noticed nothing. He shook Frances so that her head swung forward and back and her long black hair flicked into his face, stinging his eyes.
That seemed to drive him into a frenzy, her hair stinging his eyes.
She fell to her knees. Bobby G. was gripping her by the upper arm, and he yanked her back up onto her feet again and gave her a final shove, back at her friends. She collided with one of the girls. The girls were so surprised by all this that they hadn’t had time to cry for help until it was all over and Bobby G. was running. By then people were coming—a man who had been sitting on a blanket nearby with his wife and baby and a portable radio, and some Negro men who were fishing at the river, and some boys on bicycles, attracted by all the yelling. But by then Bobby G. had run crashing through the bushes and was gone.
That was around seven-thirty on a very hot evening in Seneca, New York.
August 9, 1971
Frances Berardi, thirty-one years old, separated now for nearly two months from her husband, stood behind the counter in her father’s music store, and thought about Bobby G. Cheatum.
In spite of the airless heat of the store, she was shivering. She stared, fascinated and contemptuous, at the prickly flesh on her bare arms.
She was helping out at Berardi’s Music Store, in its “new location”—since 1969—on Drummond Avenue. Her father was giving an organ lesson to a widow named Florence Daley, in the soundproof room at the rear of the store. Twelve free lessons came with each purchase of an organ; Mrs. Daley’s son and his wife had bought her an organ for her birthday. From time to time Frances could hear the muffled breathless shrieks of the organ, though maybe she was imagining it. The room was supposed to be soundproof. She inclined her head, listening. Yes, she did hear the shrieks. She heard something.
If Bobby G. walked through the door, she would say to him. I’m not Frances Berardi any longer. I’m Frances Laseck.
Her father’s store was small, only half the size of the shoe store on one side of it and perhaps, onethird the size of the drugstore at the corner. He had crowded it with merchandise—pianos and organs lining the walls and out in the middle of the floor. It was hard to walk around in here. There were several counters of smaller musical instruments—accordions and guitars and drums—and racks of sheet music and records, though Frances’ father made no effort to compete with the discount department stores that sold popular records so cheaply. He couldn’t compete with them, he said angrily; there, records were stocked “by the foot” according to what sold fast, and nobody cared what kind of music was being sold. He didn’t want to compete on that level, he said. But Berardi’s Music Store kept going, year after year. Frances liked helping her father because the store was so familiar, so contained, like a box seen from the inside. There were no surprises here. She loved the smell of the clean polished wood, the pianos and - organs that looked so perfect, handsome and mute and oiled, with their perfect white keys.
If she had to wait for Bobby G., she was safer here than at home.
Her eyes felt bright and glittery, her neck strangely long and thin. She had not slept well for several nights. She knew that her collarbones showed in this dress, and that she looked wispy and shrill in it, like a bird, but she had worn it anyway. If Bobby G. did come to look her up, after so many years, he might take pity on her when he saw how thin she was. After the baby she had never gained weight. After the trouble with her husband she had never gained weight.
Frances checked her watch: four-thirty. A very long, hot, quiet afternoon. She looked at the clock on the wall behind her: four-thirty. Outside, people strolled by on the sidewalk and did not come in, sometimes didn’t even glance into the window. Now someone was slowing down, lingering—a middle-aged woman in a housedress, who stared at the small $898 organ for sale there, and at the music books displayed on a velvet cloth, Gershwin’s Finest Hours, Two on the Aisle, Songs from South Pacific. The woman’s name was Mrs. Fuhr; Frances knew her daughter Maude from high school. She hoped that Mrs. Fuhr wouldn’t come in the store.
Only an hour and a half, Frances thought. Then they could close.
July 2, 1952
Again and again they asked Frances what had happened. Her face was hot and stiff from crying. If she cried hard enough they might let her alone. Why wouldn’t they let her alone? Her mother sat broad and creaking in a cane-backed chair, ashamed, silent. Her father was unable to stay in one place, kept jumping up from his seat and pacing around, making everyone nervous. “Just tell them, Frannie. Tell them again. Speak up nice and tell them, please.” he said.
They were in the downtown police station, in one of the back rooms. The police station! Frances knew that Bobby G. was locked up somewhere nearby.
“Repeat, please, what you told us. Then what? Then, after he knocked you down, then what?” a man was asking her.
Frances went through it all again.
Her upper arm was bruised, ugly orange and yellow and purple bruises—look at that, her father said, turning Frances’ arm for the man to see. Yes, he saw it. Her knees were seratched bad.☺ The policeman tried not to look at Frances’ knees. Anyway, the scratches were covered with bandages and adhesive tape her mother changed several times a day.
“She could get infection—bad infection—” her father muttered.
“Yes,” said the policeman. He was a sizable man with a gleaming bald head, her father’s age. He did not wear a uniform like the other policemen who were listening. As he talked, Frances stared at the grim creases around his mouth. From time to time he rubbed a handkerchief into these sweaty creases because it was so hot, even with the fan going. It had been hot now. up in the nineties, for over a week. Everyone in Seneca was sick of the weather.
“Bobby G. Cheatum was always a wise guy, smart-assing around,” the policeman said, “but I never thought he’d go crazy like this.”
“You just keep him locked up,” Frances’ father said loudly. “If he breaks out—”
“He isn’t going to break out.”
“No? Who says so, a jail like this? I know this town. I know how my kids and my neighbors’ kids get chased around—boys or girls, it don’t matter. Look, you see this goes to a trial—in a courtroom, with a judge and all that,” he stammered, “because there are some things this town should learn . . .”
“Yes, Mr. Berardi, that’s right. I happen to agree with you,” the policeman said, wiping his face.
Frances had no more tears left. She wondered if they had come to the end of the questioning. For four days now she had been kept in the house; her father had closed up the store and stayed home, sometimes weeping angrily in the bedroom, sometimes storming out of the house, bypassing Frances, not even looking at her. As if he hated her. Frances had cried until she was worn out. She thought in a flash of anger that Bobby G. was a stupid goddamn nigger, though he thought he was smarter than the other niggers, and the next time she saw him she would tell him so.
November 19, 1956
“My name is Herbert Ryder from Legal Aid. I came out here the other time with your sister Bonnie. Do you remember me, Bobby?”
Bobby G. Cheatum sat with his arms listless on his big knees, knees parted and tilting to either side of his body. His face was oily with a peculiar sweatless perspiration, especially the wings of his broad nose. His eyes were yellowed. Sometimes his lips were pursed, sometimes slack. He did not glance at Herbert Ryder.
“Bobby, I want to ask you a few questions. Are you listening, Bobby?”
They were in a visitors’ room, an alcove off the veranda used for arts and crafts instructions on certain days of the week. This was a Wednesday evening, the only time Ryder could come to the hospital. The alcove was quite cold. There was no one around except a nurse at the reception desk in the foyer; she was typing in brief, hacking spasms, and listening to music on a small transistor radio.
“As soon as you can be examined again, and released from here, we’ll get you on the court docket. I’m confident the charges will be dismissed. Bobby, are you listening?”
Bobby did not reply.
“Why aren’t you listening? Don’t you trust me? Your sister Bonnie came to me for help—don’t you remember, she introduced me to you? You know who I am. You want to get out of here, don’t you?”
Bobby shrugged his shoulders. “Hell,” he mumbled.
“Hell with it,” he said hoarsely.
“What do you mean? Don’t you want to get out of here?”
Bobby stared at the floor. His hair was oily and very woolly. The tight, tiny curls gave his face a look of tension that was misleading. Really he was very relaxed, slack, almost unconscious.
“Everything will be cleared up. . . . I’m confident that the charges will be dismissed. But you have to get well. I mean you have to be declared well. If you would only make an effort . . .”
Bobby appeared to be listening.
“When you’re scheduled to be examined, if you would only try to be . . . try to ... if you would only make an effort to act normal . . .”
The nurse in the foyer began typing again, interrupting the music. Bobby G. flinched: it had been the music he was listening to, not Ryder.
“Do you want to rot in here?” Ryder asked.
Bobby G. did not bother to reply.
July 6, 1952
Bounding on and off the prison cot at the downtown Seneca jail, shouting. On and off the bars, throwing himself against the bars, which he couldn’t believe in. They had dragged him here and locked him in! Bobby G. Cheatum himself!
When he got out—
He mashed his sweating face against the iron bars. His eyeballs itched with the heat and this way he could scratch them. Roll them hard against the bars, then harder, and then he knocked his forehead against them-it maddened him to think of how he was locked up while everyone else was loose. Probably laughing at him. Shaking their heads over him. His mother had predicted all this, with her used-up sour laugh. Bobby G., your troubles and mine are set to begin soon, with that lip of yours. She wouldn’t come visit him. But she sent him a message through his sister: I give you my undivided love and attention. God bless you always.
He kept hearing Frances Berardi’s scream. Why had that little bitch made so much noise? And when he looked around, sure enough Roosevelt had run, and the girls started to scream for help. Where had those girls come from, anyway? Dawdling on the path, holding back and then walking forward, fast, right up out of the awful waves of heat, heat like air easing out of an oven, and no place to hide from it. He worked all day at Allied Storage, loading and unloading vans, and what he looked forward to was the evening—strolling down to Reardon Park to see who was around.
He could shut his eyes and see everyone there, hanging around the concrete abutment, telling jokes about how Bobby G. had gotten dragged off to jail.
He banged his head against the bars, to see what would happen. Suddenly he liked the hardsoft feel of the iron, its cool flatness, the way it pushed back at his hot face. There was something to respect in those bars.
He remembered the little brash-faced Italian girls from when he’d been in school, how they joked with him and didn’t even mind sitting next to him on the Uptown bus. He had gotten along with all of them. Everyone liked him. The kids from Lowertown all stuck together, riding the bus three or four miles up to Lawrence Belknap School. Frances Berardi hadn’t been on that bus— she was younger than Bobby G. and his friends— he wasn’t sure what age she was, but she was young. The little white bitch, with that yell of hers . . .
His mouth had been cut on the inside, and he’d spat out blood, but no doctor would come to see him.
He pressed his face, his cheek, his jaw against the bars. An idea came to him slowly. He could see it, beginning as a pinprick in his head, then swelling. He watched it swell until it was too large to stay inside his head.
“You let me out!” he yelled.
The noise of his voice astonished him. It was the noise he’d heard in the fight with Frances—not really his own voice, but another, that pushed its way out of him. Now that it was free it yelled again: “You’re listenin’! You guys’re listenin’! You let me out—you—”
He paused, panting. His heart was pounding now as if it had gotten away from him, jubilant and wild. Yes, yes, Bobby G., he thought to himself, a thought that was like a shout, and something seemed to burst in his head. He picked the mattress off his cot and, grunting, threw it against the wall. Then he wheeled around and saw the frame, and seized it—it wasn’t heavy, it was disappointing, but anyway it was something to grab, a real opponent. Not like little Frances Berardi who turned out to weigh almost nothing, for all her smart-aleck taunts—he could have snapped her neck in a second.
That face of hers froze in his head. He remembered the sudden springing madness he’d felt, Frances’ face, how she’d turned against him and slapped him, right for everybody to see. He began slamming the cot against the wall. Again. And again. Beating the cot against the wall and the bars and yelling for them to let him out, until he couldn’t stop, didn’t want to stop.
“Let me out ‘n’ I’ll kill you—the goddamn bunch of you—”
July 9, 1952
Nine-thirty in the morning. He knew that from seeing a clock. All night long Bobby G.’s eyes were rolling like crazy in his head, wanting to get loose. Leather belts kept him in bed. To spite the nurse he wet the bed on purpose—let her clean it up. Sponge it up. She was a claw-handed white bitch, afraid of him, wouldn’t come near him if she could help it. He tried to throw up on her but it caught somewhere inside him—wouldn’t come up. So he had to taste it, seeping back down his throat. That drove him wild.
A shot in the left buttock and then he was up and into somebody’s clothes, not clothes he recognized. Now his head was very heavy, though he knew that it was only nine-thirty in the morning and he had a long day ahead. They walked him out to an ambulance and helped him up and closed the door on him, with more leather straps to keep his arms against his sides, and an attendant sitting by the door to guard him. A white punk of maybe twenty, staring at Bobby G. as if he expected Bobby G. to leap at him.
So they really thought he was crazy!
He had to laugh, that was such a joke. The white boy by the back door, sitting on a little stool, stared at him and said nothing.
So he was mentally unfit to stand trial—so they said—so he had fooled them, all of them —
Mentally unfit to stand trial!
June 28, 1952
Frances Berardi and some friends of hers, girls her own age, were cutting through Reardon Park; it was after supper and everyone was out. They talked for a while with some boys they knew, and Frances took a few puffs of a cigarette from one of them—a small, dark, ferret-faced boy named Joe Palisano. She smoked with a squinting, adult detachment, as if assessing the taste of the smoke carefully, and finding it not bad. She and Joe were not older than the others, but they acted older; but then he started to tease her about certain things, about something that had been written about her on a viaduct nearby, and she told him to go to hell.
She led her friends away, walking stiffly and angrily. “I don’t like guys who talk dirty,” she said. “I don’t have to put up with that crap from anybody’s mouth.”
She spoke with a tart philosophical air. She and her friends wandered down to the river, where people were fishing—most of them Negroes, boys and older men, even a few heavy black women, sitting on upended boxes and sighing with the heat. There was no one here that Frances was interested in. She and her friends walked along the abutment, kicking off Mallow Cup wrappers and Popsicle wrappers into the water. It was a very hot, airless evening.
Frances was wearing blue pedal-pushers and a jersey blouse that pulled tight over her head, pink and white stripes and a white stretch collar; she had bought it just the Saturday before, at an Uptown store. She knew she looked good in it. She was twelve years old but mature for her age, her black hair glossy and loose, her bangs falling thick over her forehead so that they brushed the tops of her thick eyebrows. She was short, trim, athletic, with quick eyes and a brief upper lip, a little loud in her laughter and joking. You could always hear Frannie from a distance, one of her sisters complained—at school or hanging around the grocery store or here in the park, always Frannie Berardi with her big mouth, fooling around. Her friends stood around her, envious and uneasy.
There was nothing to do by the river, so they headed back up toward Market Street. Joe Palisano and his friends were gone. Frances regretted walking away like that, but she had thought maybe he would follow her. Right now she might be riding on the crossbar of his bicycle, hot-faced and excited. . . . ‘The hell with him,” she muttered. She and her friends walked slowly, scuffing their feet. They all wore moccasins made of imitation leather, a bright tan, and decorated with small colored beads, bought at the same store Uptown. It was a thing they did, scuff their feet, especially when they walked on the pavement. They scuffed their feet now in the dirt. They all had the same dark-bright faces, dark eyes moving restlessly. Their minds were tipped in one direction by someone honking a horn up ahead—but it was nobody they knew—and then another way by a blast of music from someone’s radio—but it was just a married couple with their baby, lying on a blanket nearby, a cousin of Frances’ and her husband—and then in another direction by two Negro boys up ahead. Frances knew one of them, Bobby G., a big boy wearing jeans and a buckled belt and a white T-shirt tucked into the belt.
“Look who’s hanging around,” Frances called out to him, in a drawl.
He turned to her with a surprised grin. “I see a cute little fox,” he said, raising his hand to sight her through his fingers, a circle made by his thumb and forefinger.
Frances laughed. ‘That’s all you got to do, huh, hang around here? I thought you had a car. How come you’re hanging around here?”
“Taking in the sights,” Bobby G. said.
Frances looked Bobby G. straight in the eye. He was nineteen and had been in the same class with her brother Salvatore. But he acted younger and was always lots of fun. He was a good-looking black boy.
“Out for any special sight?” Frances said. She was hot-faced and bold. Her friends giggled at the way Frances walked right up to him with her hands on her hips, like someone in a movie.
“Could be we might take a drive Uptown. Want to come along?” Bobby G. said.
“Not tonight.” Frances saw that he was barefoot and that his feet were powdery with the dust. She giggled at the size of his feet. “Anyway I heard your car broke down. That’s what I heard.”
“How come not tonight? You got some special business?”
Frances shrugged her shoulders. She was very excited, almost giddy. It was as if someone were pushing her from behind, pushing her toward Bobby G. Come on, don’t be afraid! Stand right up to him!
“Hell, my father would kill me,” Frances said.
“Who’s gonna tell him?”
“I heard your car broke down and anyway I got better things to do.”
“Your father ain’t going to know about it—he never knew about it the other time, did he?”
Frances hoped her friends hadn’t heard that. A kind of flame passed over her face and she poked Bobby G. with her forefinger, right in the center of his chest.
“Somebody’s got a big mouth,” she drawled. Bobby G. just grinned. That made Frances mad. Something was beating furiously in her. She had to stand back on her heels, with her head tilted, in order to look up straight into Bobby G.’s face. She wasn’t going to back down from him.
“I got better things to do than ram around with you,” she said.
“How come you so fussy? That’s never what I heard about Frannie Berardi.”
She almost laughed. Then, lit by a sudden giddy excitement, a daring she had rehearsed in her imagination many times—slapping Joe Palisano’s face in front of everyone—Frances reared back and struck Bobby G. on the side of the face, with the flat of her hand, slapping her palm hard against his cheek—
April 23, I960
“So I slapped his face. I was just kidding around. And he grabbed my wrist and started shaking me . . . and I tried to kick him and . .
Frances hesitated, staring at Father Luciano as if she expected him to nod, to remember. But he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t see that summer evening, the park and the wide dirt path and the boarded-up refreshment stand and Bobby G. and herself . . .
“Didn’t this all happen a long time ago, Frances? Years ago?” he asked.
“Yes, before we all moved Uptown, a whole lot of us moved,” Frances said slowly. “It was like the kids themselves decided to move—you know—kids who were friends with one another—now it’s mostly all Negro down there. By the river. Eddie drives me by there sometimes and I look at our old house and it’s all colored, a big family. . . . Lowertown used to be all Italian and colored, now it’s just colored. . . . It’s funny how that changed.”
Father Luciano smiled a pursed little smile. His expression looked out of focus, not quite right. Wasn’t he listening? Frances sat forward. She had to make him understand. There was something urgent she had to explain, she must ask his forgiveness and his absolution, she must confess it and get it all straightened out so that she could forget about it and get married and pass beyond that part of her life.
“It was a long time ago, yes,” she stammered, “and I was such a brat, it makes me sick to remember myself! I was such a show-off. . . . We’d go roller-skating on Saturdays, and kid around with the Uptown boys, and ride our bicycles all over. ... It makes me so ashamed to remember myself,” she said. She took a tissue out of her purse and wiped her forehead. “And Bobby G.— Bobby G. Cheatum—he was a neighborhood kid a little older than we were. He was in my brother’s class but he dropped out. We all played together, you know, white and colored, in the park and at school and all over, and Bobby G. was pretty nice—sometimes he had a bad temper, got mad, and you had to be careful of him—but he was pretty nice—kind of daring, the way he’d climb across the railroad bridge when a train might come at any time, while the other boys just stood and watched—”
Why was she saying all this? Father Luciano didn’t know what she was talking about. Probably he had never even driven down to Lowertown. He was new to the city of Seneca itself and his parish was nowhere near the hill. He was from Buffalo, forty miles away. Frances was confused. She wanted to make him understand, she wanted to make him remember—those years in the cinder playgrounds, in the park, at Lawrence Belknap School, she wanted to make him remember again the kids in the neighborhood, who were all grown up now, a lot of them married, some still in the Navy or the Army, a few of them gone on to college, or disappeared, two of them killed in car accidents, and a few of them with crazy bad lucklike Bobby G. locked up in the state hospital all these years.
“Would you like to begin your confession now?” Father Luciano asked.
“No, not yet, no, wait ... I want to explain something , . .” she said slowly, confused. Out in the anteroom Eddie was waiting and she could imagine him smoking a cigarette, frowning. This was taking too long. She knew what was coming: a little lecture on birth control, the paper she would have to sign swearing that she would not use any artificial methods of birth control and that her children would be brought up Catholic. Yes. She was ready for that. But first she had to explain something about those years of her childhood, her young girlhood, when she was twelve years old and had bought that pink and white blouse she liked so much, when she had walked up to Bobby G. Cheatum that night in the park. . . .
“You said that the boy is in the hospital,” Father Luciano said, when Frances did not speak for a while. “Don’t you think he’s in good hands there? He’s out of danger and he can’t cause danger to others. . . . I’m sure they have an excellent staff there to help him. If he were out on his own he’d just be a threat to himself and to others.”
“But I was such a brat, I was always shooting my mouth off . . .”
“And the court showed the proper wisdom, I believe. I’m sure of it. Does anyoneelse ever talk about this incident, Frances? Does anyone else even remember except you?”
“Oh, no. No,” Frances said at once. “Not in my family. We stopped talking about it right away. And Eddie used to live outside Seneca, he’s from the country where his parents have a farm. . . . The kids are all sort of scattered now, except for some girls I see around, you know, shopping. We all moved Uptown. And Bobby G.’s people, well, I didn’t know them ... his father died a few years ago, I heard . . . but probably people don’t remember.”
Father Luciano shifted his weight in his chair. Over his shoulder Frances could see the lawn out front and the grilled iron gates decorated with golden crosses, cross after cross stretching along the sidewalk. She looked down at her hands, at the trayed damp tissue. She couldn’t remember having taken it out of her purse.
“If he were out on his own,” Father Luciano said gently, “he’d just be a threat to himself and to others. Isn’t that so?”
“I thought if I could visit him . . . maybe I could explain it to him. . . . But that would* drive my father wild, I couldn’t even bring it up. Once some lawyer came to see me; he was from Legal Aid. I think that’s what it was called. He was trying to get Bobby G. set for a trial or something. He asked me questions but my father was right there with me, so I had to keep saying the old answers. And . . . Oh, I don’t know. That was a long time ago, too, three or four years ago. I suppose people don’t remember now.”
“I’m sure they don’t,” Father Luciano said.
August 9, 1971
Frances answered the phone on the first ring.
“Frannie? How’ is it there?”
Her mother again.
“What do you mean, how is it?” she said irritably. “The four o’clock lesson came and went—the lady with the organ lessons—and it’s dead as hell in here, and hot. Why he wants to stay open till six is beyond me.”
“You sure nobody came in?”
“If you mean Bobby G., he’s nowhere in sight and what’s more no Negro is in sight or has even looked in the window all day. So. How’s everything at home?”
“Frannie, I just happened to mention that this colored boy was being released today, you know, I just happened to mention it to Edith Columbo, and she said maybe we better notify the police. I don’t mean asking for trouble, Frannie—but just sensible—to give warning—”
“You should let Eddie know, anyway. He would want to know. He would be worrying about you right now.”
Frances made a despairing droll face, that her mother should be so stupid! That her mother should think Eddie gave a damn about her! “How’s Sue Ann?” Frances asked flatly.
“Outside playing with the kid next door. You sure nobody’s hanging around there? Out on the sidewalk?”
Frances’ father came out of the back room, looking at her. She mouthed the word “Mama” to him and he nodded, his face closing up. He walked to the front of the store and gazed out at the street. Traffic passed slowly. After a few minutes, Frances said, “Mama, I got to hang up, a customer is coming in—”
She stared at her father’s back, his damp white shirt, and wondered what he was thinking. Not of Bobby G. No. He wouldn’t spend five minutes in all these years thinking of him: that black bastard, that maniac, beating his daughter up the way he did, and then running so wild it took three policemen to drag him away. . . . Frances took out her compact and checked her face. It was always a surprise, that she should look so cute. Cute. That’s all you could say for her face, but it was enough—with her short upper lip and her long thin nose and her dark, darting eyes, and the way her hair didn’t turn kinky even in this hot weather. Yes, she was cute. Short and cute. What had someone said to her once?—Bobby G. himself?—The best things come in small packages.
Once she had been under the awning at the Rexall Drug on Main Street, waiting for rain to stop, and cruising along the curb in his rattletrap jalopy was Bobby G. and that friend of his with the funny name—she couldn’t remember it now— and Bobby asked her how’d she like a ride home? Because they lived near each other. Frances hesitated only a second, then said OK. Great. And she had jumped in the back seat. She had always had a lot of nerve. They drove right down the big hill to Lowertown, Bobby G. showing off a little bit, thumping on the steering wheel as if it were a drum, but putting himself out to be nice to her. Yet he let you know, that Bobby G., that he was always thinking around the edges of what he shouldn’t be thinking. That was the day he had said, teasing her, The best things come in small packages.
Bobby G.’s friend—his name was Roosevelt— couldn’t keep up with her and Bobby G., the way they kidded each other. What a nerve she had! She knew that her father would kill her if he saw her in a car with any boys, let alone colored boys. But she had jumped in the car anyway.
Then, as they approached her own neighborhood, she began to wonder if this had been a good idea. Someone on the street might see her and tell her father. So she poked Bobby G. on the shoulder and said, “Hey, maybe you better let me out here.”
“In the rain, honey? You’ll spoil that high-class outfit of yours!”
She snorted at this—she was wearing shorts and a soiled blouse.
But Bobby G. let her out anyway, near a grocery store so that she could wait for the rain to stop. Nobody had seen her, evidently. Nobody told her father. And yet now, today, so many years later, she wanted to tell her father about that ride.
“I been thinking about Bobby G. all day . . .” she said.
Her father stood with his back to her, blunt and perspiring. He had grown heavy and bald; once a good-looking man, even when his hair had thinned unevenly, now he sagged with worry and irritability. Frances was a little afraid of him. She feared his peevish scowl, that scowl that had been directed at her over the years—because she was no good at the piano, because her marriage had been bad from the start, most of all because she had a pert, impatient, unserious scowl herself.
“What did you say?” her father said, turning suddenly.
His face warned her: Better shut up, Fran. Shut your cute little mouth.
“Nothing,” she said.
“It better be nothing,” her father said.
August 9, 1971
They had located Bobby G.’s older sister, Bonnie, who was married and living now in Buffalo. At first she had said no, no, she couldn’t take him in, she was afraid of him, and her husband was in and out of trouble himself. . . . What would Bobby G. do around the house? Wouldn’t he be dangerous?
A woman social worker told her: “Bobby has ten years’ experience, working in the hospital laundry. He’ll be able to get a good job in a laundry. He only needs to adjust himself to society again. He needs a friendly home for a while, to get him started again.”
“How long’s that gonna take, to get him started again?” she asked suspiciously.
She was a grave-faced, thick woman in her midforties, with a habit of shaking her head negatively as she thought, as if nothing seemed right to her. But in the end she agreed to take Bobby G. in.
So they brought Bobby G. to her one Monday afternoon. He turned out to be a tall, thin black man with a slight stoop, shy and apologetic. He was carrying a small suitcase. He had five dollars release money.
“Well, Bobby G.,” she said awkwardly.
They shook hands like people in a movie. Bonnie didn’t know what to do: she remembered her brother as taller and heavier, and maybe this man was someone else.
“Hello,” he said.
A voice like a whisper, so hoarse! She didn’t recognize that either.
She cleared off a place for him to sit on the sofa and he set the suitcase primly at his feet. So this was her crazy put-away brother Bobby Gaspar, the one nobody in the family liked to talk about. . . . He had a curious way of ducking his head. He would not meet her gaze, not directly. A tall, thin, scrawny bird, birdlike in his nervousness, with a glaze to his dark skin that was like permanent sweat, and a smell in his clothes of panic. Bonnie stared at him, her heart sinking. This was a mistake and she couldn’t get out of it. “Been a lot of time since we seen each other,” she said slowly. “They treated you OK there, huh?”
“Yes,” Bobby said.
“The big trouble—you know—the courtroom and all—I mean the trial—that got all cleared up, huh?” “The charges were dismissed,” Bobby G. said softly.
“Charges were dismissed, oh yes,” his sister said seriously, nodding. That was an important fact. That was good news.
She couldn’t think what to do—start supper with him sitting here?—so after a while she suggested that they go down to the corner to get some things she needed. “Just a five-minute walk,” she said.
Bobby got to his feet self-consciously and followed her out of the building—she had an apartment on the first floor, a good location—and she noticed out of the corner of her eye that he walked in a kind of crouch, leading with his forehead. He didn’t look crazy, not the way some people on the street looked, but he didn’t look quite right either, with that stiff walk of his, like an old man’s walk and not a man of—what was he now?—thirty-eight? He kept staring out at the street, at the buses and trucks.
At the intersection he froze and didn’t seem able to move. “It’s just across the street, that’s the grocery right over there,” Bonnie said, panicked herself. Oh Jesus, she thought, they brought him to me still crazy and they drove away again! “Look, Bobby G., it ain’t nothing to get across this street— nobody’s going to hurt you—”
What was wrong with him? He stood on the curb, sweating, and wouldn’t step off onto the street. He was staring ahead, his eyes wide. He stood in that crouched-over, crazy way, his shoulders hunched as if for battle. Bonnie broke out into a sweat, standing beside him. She didn’t know if she should touch his arm, or what. He looked paralyzed. And all around them people were passing, some of them staring at him—didn’t he have any shame, to act like this on the street?
“Bobby G., there just ain’t no trouble getting over there. . . .”
He didn’t look at her but he seemed to be listening. After a long wait he took one step forward, off the curb and into the gutter. Bonnie drew in her breath slowly, cautiously.
“See, how there ain’t any trouble? It’s real easy,” she said.
He took another step, slow as hell; at this rate it would take them an hour to cross the street, but anyway it was a start.
She took hold of his arm and led him. “OK, Bobby G., you see how easy it is, huh . . . ? See how easy . . . ?” He was slow as hell and she was burning hot with the shame of it, but he was her brother, after all. Her baby brother. Anyway, today was a start. □