They grew up in a town that was more than a little backward. A visitor from anywhere else would feel like a time machine’s dial had at least been set back to the ‘70s upon arrival there, and very few faces were a hue other than white. Anyone of color stayed indoors after the sun’s setting.
No actual laws stated non-caucasians shouldn’t venture outside at night, but people took the not-so-subtle hints to safeguard their families. Why tempt fate? Ugly sidelong glances on the street in the daytime were enough to make black people uneasy, much less the remarks made by passersby with racist sticks up their asses.
Ellen knew how to recognize that look from someone who wouldn’t quite meet her gaze, one who peered only from her neck down with a crisscrossed scowl. Old school. Her white grandmother warned her about those types.
She was mixed race, with a white mother who died when Ellen was in her early teens and a black father she never met. Plenty was said about him in his lifetime of absence, none of it good.
Grandma shared cautionary tales about the scandal when Ellen’s mother started seeing her father. Disapproving of the relationship, her own brothers trapped the couple in the boy’s car, one threatening him from outside the locked doors with a bat and the other proffering only fisticuffs. “It was just the times,” her grandmother said. “Your uncles didn’t like your daddy and didn’t want their sister mixed up with his kind.” Ironically, Grandma couldn’t say what was so objectionable about him other than his skin color.
The “whites only” signs from Grandma’s time had since disappeared, but prejudice lingered long from the area’s past and well into its present. Kids learned early in life to hate other children for no reason. If asked why they picked on classmates or called them names, the kids could give no sensible answer. Only, “that’s the way it is.”
Plenty was said behind Ellen’s back at school, mainly sneers and unprovoked taunts meant to hurt her for no apparent reason. Naturally shy, she tried to ignore the kids who harassed her. Other quiet classmates tried to keep the attention off themselves by ignoring Ellen’s plight. But they didn’t speak up for her either.
It all began to fall apart for Ellen when her brother got into a fight at school protecting her from bullies. Robbie defended Ellen from a group whose cruel bravery was relative to its size, as mob mentality usually works. Robbie came home with an eye swollen shut from the beating he took at the two oldest boys’ hands.
Ellen and Robbie had different fathers, but at least he knew his dad. Robbie’s white father was also in a short-lived relationship with their mom, but Ellen was biracial and considered a bastard. She ignored the mocking, but Robbie couldn’t stand it. He was sick and tired of the girls who made fun of her curly hair and the boys who called Ellen all the names he and his sister had been taught not to say in their home.
Black, yellow, brown, or red - it was just brutality for the sake of sick fun. Even their uncles had apparently enjoyed it.
Robbie planned to end the hateful epithets once and for all. He waited for them in the parking lot after school, hiding behind one boy’s truck to use the element of surprise to get back at both of them. His sucker-punch plan didn’t work and actually backfired on him.
Grandma was so upset when she got the news, Ellen had to drive her to the hospital where Robbie was undergoing surgery for internal injuries. The girl practically carried the frail woman into the emergency room waiting area as she sobbed uncontrollably. She cried, “Why can’t Robbie just leave better off alone? It’s just the way things are! He’s never going to change how those boys think.”
Ellen bit her tongue and sat with her grandmother while they waited for the ER doctor. She hugged her and replied, “No, Grandma. We’re never going to change their minds.” She looked up to see her uncles walking in the door and muttered, “Or anyone else’s.”
*This week’s Studio 30 Plus writing prompt was “it all began to fall apart,” an original phrase from Stephanie.
(photo credit: Huffington Post)