My grandmother rushed into the parlor where I sat watching Sesame Street. She hurried to the curtains and pulled them closed even though it was a bright fall day. I had been sitting warm and comfortable in a healthy patch of sunlight on the rough embroidered rug in front of the TV.
“Shhh!” she said. “Be quiet!” My grandmother peeked through the curtains. She stepped back and made sure they were completely closed. She sat down on the couch. She got up again. She came over and lowered the volume on the television set to a whisper. This was 1970, a time before cable and remotes. I was 7 years old. She returned to the couch.“Shhh!” she repeated. “Come here!” “What’s the matter?” I asked. “Shhh! Don’t say anything. He’s coming up the stairs.”
I didn’t hear anything. What was coming? I sat, puzzled by my grandmother’s behavior. I felt... I’m not sure what. It’s all these years later. But perhaps I didn’t know then, either. I know I didn’t feel scared. She looked toward the closed curtain, an expression of contained fear on her face, then straight ahead at no particular object. Nothing seemed wrong except I couldn’t hear what Oscar was singing about on Sesame Street. This made me argumentative.“What’s the matter?” I asked. “What’s the matter?”“Shhh!” my grandmother said in a whisper.“A black boy’s outside on the porch. He’ll hear you!”
Black boy? I pictured a boy colored black, like the black crayon in my crayon box. I started to feel real impatience. I couldn't hear Sesame Street. Now I watched a silent Cookie Monster.
A knock on the kitchen door. Pause. Another knock. We sat in the drapery-filtered dimness. My grandmother fought dread. Is dread too strong a word? Substitute plain fear if you like. But I still remember the look of trapped helplessness on her face, and I deny any charge of false memory. When you’re seven, bizarre behavior from a trusted adult makes a lasting impression.
I couldn't hear Sesame Street. Finally, I grew impatient enough to stand up. My grandmother also stood. I felt her relief. The atmosphere in the room lightened. She said, “He’s leaving.”
My grandmother came over to the TV. She gave the Sesame Street muppets back their voices. Then she hurried to the kitchen. I walked to the window, parted the heavy curtains, and looked out. The boy the color of a black Crayola crayon, the dreadful thing that scared my grandmother, had gone. I’d missed it. There was nothing to see out there now except a boy a couple years older than me with brown skin knocking on the door of Aunt Clara’s house across the road.
I heard my grandmother coming back and closed the curtains. I don’t recall, but I’m sure she brought a snack, cookies and chocolate milk perhaps, to reward me for being quiet the day the terrifying black boy came to visit.
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