1st Prize Winner 2021 - Stand Up by LM Rees

Stand Up
by LM Rees

Folks here say I never did anything wrong, but I will wear my shame like a hessian cloak until the day I die. That day will come quickly enough. Lillian, the soft-spoken nurse, is on duty. She brings me a glass of water, asks if I need a trip to the restroom or if I’d like to join the others for a game of Monopoly in the day-care suite. I decline, preferring to sit and look out my bedroom window.

‘You still beating yourself up, Dorothy?’

I choose not to answer.

‘What about some television?’ she says, walking towards my tiny set on the wall.

  In a manner of speaking, the television was the catalyst, the jogger of buried memories, the initial hearing before I get to the Pearly Gates. 

‘No thank you, dear.’

‘Okay, sweetheart. I’ll come check on you again in fifteen.’

Lillian leaves without closing the door behind her. Once she’s out of earshot, I contemplate switching on the television for the first time in two weeks, since the world learned that Rosa Parks passed away into the light that I don’t deserve to see. 

I don’t deserve. 

I contemplate.

*   *   *

We rose from our seats on the bus as soon as we spotted them, the same four little black girls scampering to school, the same over-styled hair and worn-down shoes. The driver shouted at us to remain seated but we just ignored him. 

‘Run, doggies, run,’ Mary yelled through the open window.

We all laughed because the girls did start walking more quickly, because it was Mary who’d said it. Mary had somehow found out their names: Charity Smith, Rosa McCauley, Rebekah Johnson, and the other one I couldn’t remember.

‘Go fetch your sticks and bring them to master, doggies.’

I looked back just before the bus turned the corner. All four girls’ heads were down, hair ribbons and all, concentrating on their footsteps, pretending not to hear.

‘Not much use in them going to school anyhow, just so they can shine our shoes and clean our houses when they get old enough.’

I wasn’t sure whether I should join in the laughter this time, but I did.

*   *   *

Deciding I’m not in the mood for television after all, I return to my seat, hoping the birds will keep me company at my window. They help distract me from the thoughts and memories that prod me like a rancher prods his cattle. I sure was surprised a couple of weeks back when I heard about Rosa’s death on the television. I thought – assumed – that she’d died years ago. I knew her, although she was more of an acquaintance than a friend. I’d have liked to make things up to her. To a lot of people. 

Where are those damn birds? I snuck some slices of bread for them out of breakfast this morning. I’ll wait for them. I’ll wait.

*   *   *

As the bus turned the corner, we saw the four little girls, and Mary’s plan of attack on that particular day was to mock their hair. She started hollering at them through the window, I wasn’t even listening to the words. The driver told her to cool things down, but to no avail. Mary had been talking for weeks about their hair being all over-styled because it was the only way to tame it. She said we needed to “keep them colored folks in their place” in the same way they tame their hair, holding them down and tying them up, else they’d become wild and unruly. She said her daddy had all sorts of methods of keeping their house-maid obedient, to stop her stealing their things and casting spells.

If truth be told, I liked their hair. My ma brushed mine every morning and kept it clean and trimmed, but no more than that. These girls looked like their mamas spent hours each week making them look pretty, whether or not they had the time or money to spare. Their mamas put some thought into it, care, attention, maybe even love. If anything, I was green with envy, the same hue as the emerald ribbons the one called Rosa was wearing. But I wouldn’t say that to Mary or the others. What words would my friends hurl at me in return if I stood up for a younger black child? It was tough being twelve sometimes.

*   *   *

People say I’m losing my mind, and maybe they’re right. I’ve just been talking to the birds, telling them that I was glad Rosa Parks lived to the celebrated age of ninety-two, just three years younger than me. The birds wouldn’t know Rosa from me or anybody else. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here in this nursing home, on this earth. It’s too late for me to do anything now.

*   *   *

In the summer of 1926 or 1927, I forget which, I was walking home from my uncle’s store when one of those girls ran straight past me. Not Rosa, but the one whose name I didn’t know. It was the first time I’d seen any of them from the sidewalk rather than from the school bus. The girl glanced back at me as she ran; the look in her eyes made my stomach lurch. She was scared, she was tired, she was questioning, why her? That I could not answer. 

Seconds later, three white boys ran past, and the girl quickened her pace. The boys pursued her towards the patch of grass at the end of the block, where fellow white children often played on the swing while black kids were dragged past by worried-looking grown-ups. I soon found out why the boys were chasing her.

*   *   *

I hear Lillian’s soft footsteps, so I sink back in my chair, close my eyes, and pretend to be asleep. I don’t even know why I’m doing this. True, I don’t feel much like socialising today, but I’ve never minded talking to Lillian. I’m a damn coward, that’s why. Always have been. I hate myself now even more, yet I still don’t open my eyes. Lillian’s footsteps retreat into the corridor.

*   *   *

I was there on December first 1955. I was there on Rosa Park’s famous bus. Despite only having seen her a few times since my childhood days, I recognised her as soon as she embarked and paid her fare, the same Rosa McCauley. I only became aware of her new name days later when news of her arrest spread around town. She’d obviously wed at some point since leaving school; I hoped she’d married a good man. 

I smiled at her as she walked past me to the back seats, just to let her know that I had no problem with anybody, no matter what race. At the next stop, some more white folks got on, and I had to shuffle towards the window to allow a lady with a shopping bag to sit next to me. I could feel the back of my seat push against my spine as more folks sat down in the row behind. Seemed like a normal bus trip, except the driver didn’t pull away and continue the journey. He walked past me too. 

I was there. 

I smiled, but that was all.

*   *   *

I crossed the road. I didn’t need to, as I was already heading in the right direction for home. I should’ve kept going, but I crossed the road. 

When the three white boys overtook me, their shiny shoes hitting the sidewalk like hammers nailing the lid on a coffin, I heard what they said.

‘You two hold her on the ground, and I’ll shove it down her throat.’

‘Yeah, let’s feed the bitch.’

Before I crossed, I saw a huge devil-black spider wriggling in the tallest of the boys’ left hand. I told myself they probably had some beef with the little girl. Maybe she’d upset them or done something bad. They had their reasons. That’s what I told myself as I crossed the road, slowing my pace so I wouldn’t catch up with them, so they wouldn’t pick on me. 

So I wouldn’t need to see.

*   *   *

It’s those times that I think about the most, the mid-1920s, the mid-1950s. Those pictures play through my mind like a Zoetrope I can’t stop spinning, the same couple of scenes over and over again. I wish I could say they were the only memories that trouble me now, the only times I… I was never much one for words and I struggle now to express what it is that makes me feel so sick. Most people here say I never did anything wrong, and that’s kind of true. I never actively did anything wrong.

But I watched lots of people doing wrong. 

I watched and I stood aside.

*   *   *

I ignored the Selma to Montgomery march in 1964, didn’t even talk about it. I nodded when friends whined about their children fraternising with negro kids when schools integrated, even though I didn’t think it was a problem. I threw a flyer in the trash that invited me to a protest against segregation after Martin Luther King told the nation he had a dream. It wasn’t because I didn’t care, but I thought remaining uninvolved would keep me out of trouble. I tutted my disapproval of the Black Panther Party and when Shirley Chisholm ran for president, but only when socialising in a large group. I was secretly relieved when everyone loved Oprah. People say I’m losing my mind, but I remember all those times, the exact dates in most cases. I remember how I felt too, but that’s nothing compared to how I feel now. That hessian cloak is suffocating me, and I only have myself to blame. 

*   *   *

When I heard the scream, I turned my head to look across the road. Two of the boys were holding her down, and the tall one was shoving something in her mouth as she wriggled and kicked. Shoving something. I knew what it was, but I couldn’t bring myself to say the word spider. I just hurried on, taking the long route home to avoid them.

I never did find out her name.

*   *   *

It was Mary’s birthday and she was in a fine mood, so I figured that harassing the black schoolgirls from the bus wouldn’t be on the itinerary that morning. Then that glint in her eye returned and I felt anxious. She reached into her school bag and pulled out a rock with sharp edges, heavy and menacing.

“What have you got there, Mary?” I said. 

“Why, Dorothy. This is a birthday present all for myself.” 

The bus approached the street where we always saw Rosa, Rebekah, Charity and the other girl. I sat back in my seat and reached into my school bag, pretending to look for something.

“You do it, Lottie,” I could hear Mary saying. “You throw it. Knock those damn hair-dos off the top of their heads. But don’t say a word, else old grumpy-puss will throw us off the bus.”

I fidgeted with my bag, felt the breeze as Mary opened the window, heard Lottie shuffling in the seat next to me.

“There they are. One, two three.”

She had asked Lottie to do it. Not me.

*   *   *

Two weeks ago, the news was on in the communal television room, with the solemn announcement that Rosa Parks had passed away of natural causes in her apartment in Detroit. George and Mavis didn’t take their eyes of their checkers game to watch the broadcast, Harry was snoring as usual in the corner, Eileen crossed herself and started muttering about Jesus and eternal rest. As for me, I sank into the whirlpool, my lungs filling with water, the hessian cloak weighing me down, my grey-white hands grappling for survival, Lillian helping me back up into my seat.

I cried more that afternoon than I’d ever done my whole sorry life.

*   *   *

“Let me have those seats,” said the driver.

The lady next to me with the shopping bag turned around to see what the fuss was about. I looked too.

“Are you going to stand up?” the driver said to Rosa.

I was hoping someone would stand up to the driver. I was hoping someone would say, “Now look here, fella. That lady is sitting down and she’s paid her fare, so why don’t you quit hassling her and just drive us all to the next stop.” That’s what I wished. I was willing it to happen. But that was just my problem. My lifelong, all-engulfing problem. I always wanted other folks to stand up against injustice, about the way the folks at the back of the bus were being treated. I hated it, always hated it, until I felt my stomach churn. But all I did was hope that someone else would stand up. 

*   *   *

I heard the scream as the rock hit Charity Smith in the head. I saw her flat on the sidewalk, blood staining her white hair ribbons, the other three girls crouching beside her. All I could feel was gratitude and relief that Mary had asked Lottie to do it, and not me. 

*   *   *

I could still hear the scream as I turned the corner to take the long route home. I wondered how she could make all that noise with a spider in her mouth. When I got home, I found plenty of things to keep me occupied until bedtime.

*   *   *

As sure as the grass is green, if someone else had stood up to that bus driver, I would have joined in. I’m pretty certain I’d have joined in. But nobody in the front of the bus budged. We just stood by while Rosa said no.

*   *   *

When my tears finally dried up after the news of Rosa’s death, Harry the perpetual snorer asked me what was up. I expected him to tell me I’d done nothing wrong, just like everyone else did. But he said my behaviour was inexcusable, and he too carried the shame of having done likewise. He is the only resident here who stood up to me that day, and I thank him for it.

*   *   *

Lillian returns, and this time I keep my eyes open. I look to the window to see that my bird friends have gone. 

I read that Rosa didn’t refuse to give up her seat to a white man on that bus because she was tired; the only thing she was tired of was giving in. Well, I’m tired of giving in too. Tired of pandering to my cowardice, to my misconceived ideas of what other people might think of me if I contradict them.

“There’s a movie showing in the communal television room in ten minutes, Dorothy. Can I tempt you to join in?” 

I look straight at Lillian and nod. “Maybe. Yes, maybe.” 

Lillian’s smile is a ray of sunlight. “What if I get you some cookies to keep you company through the movie? What if–?”

I don’t listen to the rest. The words she uttered get me thinking, wake me up.

What if?

*   *   *

What if I hadn’t crossed the road, but kept going in the right direction and told those three boys to stop? What if I hadn’t laughed along with Mary, Lottie and the others? What if I’d taken that sharp-edged rock straight from Mary’s hands and put it in my school bag? What if I’d stood up on the bus, so that Rosa Parks didn’t have to? What if that spurred everyone in the front rows to follow suit? What if more of us had voted for Shirley Chisholm, attended those protests or helped Martin Luther King achieve his dream? 

*   *   *

With the exception of old Harry, folks here say I never did anything wrong. They say it wasn’t me who threw the rock, or forced a frightened child to eat a spider. It wasn’t me who put the Colored or Whites signs on water fountains, restaurant doors or hospitals, or decided which children could take a bus to school and which ones had to walk. It is true. I never did anything wrong, but I watched. I stood by instead of standing up. Silent acquiescence is just as deadly.

Lillian returns with a wheelchair, ready to take me to the television room.

“Help me walk, there’s a dear.”

“Good for you, Dorothy. Here, take my arm.”

“Lillian, always do what I never did. Not many people are willing to stand up alone, but somebody’s got to be the first.”