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I saw him on the street one day. I was twelve, he must have been fourteen. He was at the candy store, the one my big sister took me to every Monday afternoon once school let out. He was a tall boy with strong arms, dark skin, and despite the fact that he received dirty looks from everyone on the street, he wore a proud smile on his face.
I saw him every Monday after that. The store owner had him run errands for a five cents a day. He never bought any candy with his money though, which I thought was odd. He just put the money in his pocket and chewed on a piece of sugar cane, the end part that usually gets thrown out.
We never talked to him. My sister wouldn’t even let me get within three feet of him, like he had a disease and I might get infected. The more she forced me to keep away from him, and from the hateful words she said, the more I wanted to talk to him.
Tuesday I went alone, all by myself to the candy store. He was there, sorting boxes in the back. I snuck back there and sat cross legged at his side. He seemed alarmed at me being there.
“What are you doin?” He asked me.
“I wanted to say hi.” I said.
“Hi.” He turned his head to look out at the main part of the store. “You better get out of here. I’ll get in trouble if Mr. Orville sees me talkin to you.”
“Why?” I asked.
He glared at me. “Don’t you know girl? We different.”
“Well of course we are.” I said, laughing. “I’m a girl, you’re a boy.”
He shook his head and moved to the other side of the room, continuing to sort boxes.
“So do you spend you’re money at the movies?” I asked him.
“No.” He replied. “I give it to my mama. She needs money.”
“Don’t you have a papa?”
“No, he’s dead.”
I bit my lip. “How’d he die?”
The boy set down a box and looked at me. “You ask a lot of questions little lamb, you know that?”
We stayed quiet for a moment.
“My name’s Susan.” I said.
He didn’t reply.
“James.” He sighed. “Now please, I’ve gotta get this done.”
“Okay.” I said and stood up. “See you later James.”
I came back the next day and James was there, this time cleaning tables. I sat up at the candy bar, watching him. “Hi James.”
He looked up from what he was doing. “What little lamb? We can’t be talkin. Mr. Orville will be back soon.”
“Why does he care if you talk to me or not?” I asked, crossing my arms.
“It ain’t proper.” He said, shaking his head at me.
“My sister says some pretty mean stuff about you.” I said. “But I don’t know why. You’re nice.”
He smiled at that. “I’m glad you think so.”
I kicked my feet back and forth, my shoes were shiny black from polishing. I looked at James’ feet. His shoes were worn and ripped. “Why are you’re shoes broken?”
He smiled at that too as he stacked a chair on the table. “Lots of walkin.”
“Don’t your family have a car?”
“Girl,” He laughed, polishing a bit of another table. “We have enough money to put food on the table, that’s it.”
I frowned. We had two cars and there was always food on the table. “You go to school?”
“The Negro School?”
He looked at me now. “I was beginning to think you was color blind little lamb.”
“I know you’re black.” I said. “Teacher says we should be nice to all sorts of people though. Especially because of the moon mint.”
He gave me a look like I was being funny. “Movement you mean?”
“Yeah, Martin Luffer and all of them are doing stuff.”
He laughed. He laughed so hard tears streamed from his eyes. “Yeah…yeah they are.” He paused, grinning at me. “What does your daddy think of you comin here and talkin to me?”
I bit my lip again. “He’s fine with it.” I lied.
“Yeah, right.” He stopped smiling and started to clean again. “Go home.”
I glared at him. “He doesn’t know I come.”
James pointed his polishing rag at me. “But he’ll find out, some how, some way.”
I gave him the best dirty look I could muster.
“Don’t look at me like that. You have to go-” James stopped short.
“What are you doin boy!” Roared Mr. Orville, coming from the back, red faced and waving a switch. “I told you not to talk the anyone!”
James froze, petrified. Mr. Orville leapt at him and swung the switch over James’ back, the sound of it hit to air like a whip.
“Stop!” I cried, jumping from the stool.
James yelped in pain as the switch hit him, over and over again.
“Stop!” I shouted. Mr. Orville turned to me. “You better get home, before I tell your daddy you’re being all friendly with negros.”
I left the store, tears spilling from my eyes, running all the way home.
After that, I didn’t see him till several years later. I was fifteen, he was seventeen. He was in the woods, moving a wheel barrel full of firewood. I was in the woods to escape the pettiness of my mother and sisters arguing at home. A chance encounter no doubt, and even though the years had changed him into a young man, I knew it was him.
“Little Lamb.” He said curtly.
“James, it’s you!” I laughed. “Wow you have changed.”
“So have you.”
I smiled. “How are you?”
He shrugged. “I’ve been better. Getting firewood.” He set his wheel barrel down.
He seemed unable to make eye contact.
“What’s the matter?” I took a step forward, he took a step back. “What’s wrong?”
He gave me a dirty look. “You aren’t naïve anymore Susan. You know why I can’t talk to you.”
I looked at my feet. “I’m not like my father.”
“You’re dads is in that KKK group.”
“And?” I shot back at him.
He shook his head. He didn’t have to respond. I knew what he was thinking.
“He doesn’t have to know we’re friends.” I said. “I’m friends with plenty of negros.”
He smiled at me. “You’re still a terrible liar.”
I stomped my foot. “I do! And…and we can be friends too….”
James took a step towards me now, his face pained. “We can’t be…”
He cut me off. “Because…you are the most beautiful person I have ever met.” He shook his head. “I thought about you…all these years…how you just, didn’t, couldn’t see why we was different. Absolutely blind to how I look. And now, you’re standin here talkin nonsense.”
I felt my heart speed up at every word he said. My face burned. “I…um….I….”
He laughed. “I can’t believe you’re speechless. That’s a first.” He walked over to me. “Little lamb,” He shook his head. “Do you remember when you asked me, how my dad died?”
I looked up at him and nodded.
“He was killed by the KKK. They hung him.” James’ eyes filled with tears. “The courts wouldn’t even take the case. They said he raped a white girl. She set em up.”
“I won’t do that to you.” I whispered.
“I know…” He said. “But you are just one more thing I can’t have, because that clan has taken it away from me.”
I reached up and touched his face, his brown eyes meeting mine. “I…”
He kissed me then. I had never kissed anyone. It was soft, gentle, wet. When he pulled away from me my heart raced even faster as he said. “I love you little lamb. I knew it from the moment you said hi to me.” Tears filled his eyes. “But we can’t-”
He tried to turn away but I grabbed onto him. “NO!” I shouted. “Listen to me James! They haven’t taken me away! I’m right here! Right here! Look at me!” I forced him to meet my eyes. “I’m not going anywhere.” I cupped his face in my hands. “We can work it out….together. Okay?” I felt my own tears leap from my eyes.
He embraced me in his arms. I could feel his heart beat, beating in rhythm with my own. “It’s unfair.” I muttered.
He ran his fingers through my hair. “I know little lamb. I know.”