I started this story in the spring, intending to enter it in a holiday story contest. I didn’t read the rules carefully enough: It was a Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday contest, and this is a July 4 story. It’s not done and a little incomplete. I’ll finish it soon, in time for next July 4.I don’t have a title, but it has an old man, a Black kid and a wrecked baseball field. It’s about how we get along.
A lifetime of working memory lived in his hands. It flowed from his fingers as he looped a three-inch length of 16-gauge steel wire around the gap in the chain-link fence, twisted it twice and then with a long nose pilers, added three more twists as the gap closed. Sixteen-gauge wire was enough. Easier to bend than 10-gauge, but strong enough when looped to hold.
He worked mechanically, humming the chorus of an old tune from the war that his wife used to sing while she baked, something some country singer played or maybe Sinatra, he never really paid attention, a little snappy raise the spirits number. Her hands would be white with flour and sticky with dabs of dough when he kissed her neck. Ralph Mason, not while I’m baking, she’d scold. Is the charcoal ready? They’ll be here after the parade.
The kid arrived under the swish of the occasional car driving the square centered by the park and the tinny vibration of the metal fence.
“You ain’t from around here, are you, Mister?”
The tiny voice blinked Ralph back to the present. Before him stood a thin, scrub-faced kid in a dirty white t-shirt and dragging blue jeans holding a stick that he twirled hand to hand until he pointed it to the ground and leaned on it.
“Could be I was,” Ralph said. “Why do you think that I’m not?”
“Cause you old.” The kid smirked. “And you white. My Daddy said that all you whites moved out years ago, got into your G.I. Joe Fords and took off for the suburbs and your swimming pools and three-car garages.”
Ralph grabbed the fence and pulled himself up from the stool, feeling his arthritic knee clench then release.
“We did, did we? Makes me wonder whose house I sleep in every night. What’s your name, son?”
“Jaylen. Crew calls me ‘J.’ He stabbed the stick at the fence, trying to find a hole, but more often than not hitting metal. He spit out a breath and stopped.
“Well, Jaylen, I’m Ralph. Glad to meet you. And, well, yes, my white friends did move out, or they died, but I live in the house my grandfather built at the turn of the last century and that’s where I’ll die. This is home.”
Jaylen drew a square or something on the ground, dragging the stick quicker and harder in the dusty soil.
“Ain’t that special,” he muttered. “You the last white man.” He turned to leave.
“Actually it was, special. My grandparents had eight children, they had twenty more between them. We had enough brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins to fill out two baseball teams on July 4th. We’d play here. My father and his brothers put up this fence to keep the ball from rolling down the hill.”
“Why they do that? No one plays here. It’s just weeds and junk.”
“Wasn’t then.” Ralph shrugged. “You just do it. Where do you live?”
“Ah, luxury.” Ralph nodded. Tension breaker.
Jaylen shook his head and offered a smirk. “Yeah. Top notch.”
Ralph buried a grin. It worked. “What do you do on July 4? Family get together?” he asked.
The kid leaned his back to the fence. “Naw. Just me and my older sister. Old man’s gone. She’ll head the Shore with her friends. She’ll get in trouble and my Mom will have to take a day off from work to get her. She works at the warehouse, works a lot, my mom does. Pay’s better, but she’s never home. I’ll hang with my crew, Maybe go down to the river and swim, but Rodney drowned …”
Jaylen leaned his head back and stared in to the sky; he closed his eyes. “What you gonna do?”
Ralph shifted the stool and sat. “Maybe I’ll get in my G.I. Ford and head to the suburbs and hang around my friend’s pool.” He awaited for a response, a scowl, a word, but none came. Too much. “The fence is about done, finish it today. The holiday’s a Wednesday. My son lives on the West Coast and my daughter, she’s an Army captain stationed in Germany. So, if the weather’s good I’ll come here and tackle the weeds. Something to do.”
They sat in silence. Ralph stood; he knew he needed to move or his knee would lock up. “How old are you, Jaylen?”
The kid shook his head to waken. “Thirteen.”
“Too young to be the man of the house. You play ball?”
Jaylen stood and flipped the stick in the air and caught it. “No. No body… you know. No stuff.”
“I’ve got my kid’s gear in the garage. Come by here Wednesday and it’s yours. Bring your crew.”
Jaylen turned away and rattled the fence with the stick as he walked. Over his shoulder, “Yeah.”
Anyway…more to come …