The Late Evening Walk
by Damon L. Fordham
After Robert was buried, Amelia returned to Mrs. Potts to have a talk about Lucas' future. It was agreed that since Amelia had no way of teaching the boy what he needed to know about manhood, that he would spend his time after school with Mr. Potts. At first, the old man accepted the idea with reluctance, since his afternoon tale-telling sessions at the tool shed with his friends were a highlight of his post-retirement days. However, he took a liking to the child as he saw the boy's potential for greatness.
One morning after Lucas went to school, two female janitors, Chloe Jones and Mandy H. Brown, entered to clean the boy's bathroom at the beginning of the day. They took their mop buckets to a nearby faucet to fill them with water.
"Lord have mercy," exclaimed Chloe. "I don't know what's worse, cleaning up before some of these children get here in the morning or after they leave a mess in the afternoon."
"You sure is right about that," replied Mandy. "Some of these brats make me sick, like that Moore boy."
Chloe turned off the faucet and placed her mop into the bucket. "Oh, you talking about Luke? What's wrong with him? He's a smart little fellow with good manners."
Mandy's face hardened as she mopped the front part of the boy's bathroom. "Yeah, that same brat whose daddy dropped dead a few months ago. He walk around with his head up in the sky like he think he better than anybody else and reading all them books! He need to be out playing ball or something!"
Chloe leaned on her mop as she smiled while listening to this tirade.
"He gonna grow up to be nothing but one of them educated fools that waste all that money on college and come back here and do nothing. Just you watch," continued Mandy as she stopped mopping at the bathroom stalls.
Chloe smiled and shook her head at Mandy. "You ain't fooling nobody. You just mad because that boy is gonna grow up and be somebody and none of your children turned out to be nothing. Those smart little boys like Luke are what we need to get ahead in the future. Last thing they need are folks like you tearing them down because your children can't do no better than the juvenile home! You got to stop that and be proud of that boy. When he grows up to be somebody, he might remember you and help you out."
Mandy looked up in fury at Chloe. Not knowing what else to say, Mandy snapped, "Girl, who you think you is?"
"Somebody with enough sense to tell you the truth," concluded Chloe as they left the boy's room.
A few minutes later, Lucas slowly opened the door from the toilet stall in the boy's bathroom. He was more stunned by what he had overheard from the janitresses, wondering why a grown woman could hate him so much. At least he found comfort in the fact that Chloe did not feel this way.
Several hours later, the recess bell rang. There were a handful of kids whose company Lucas enjoyed, but he knew there were limits to his relationship with them. They occasionally watched the same television programs, attended the same movies, and played together, but he tended to feel more at ease with adults such as his deceased father and Mr. Potts, whose conversation he found more interesting.
The children were lining up to go outside, but they rushed in a matter that squeezed Lucas out of the line. The teacher noticed this and asked the boy, "Why don't you get in line?"
"I would," the boy answered, "but it's too narrow for me."
The other children laughed heartily. "It's too narrow for me!" some of them mocked over and over in an exaggerated proper tone that mimicked Lucas' manner of speech, which lacked much of the dialect of most of the other African American students.
Lucas spent much of that recess period alone.
A half hour later, the children lined up in the playground at the sound of the bell and returned to the classroom. The teacher, Miss Newsome, was in her first year at the school and new to the area. She was not accustomed to the Southern United States and tended to view Lucas in particular with curiosity, as she tended not to expect to find bright children in this area.
"Class," began Miss Newsome, "Today we will discuss the concept of borrowing in subtraction. She took her mathematics book to the chalkboard and wrote a subtraction problem that consisted of several digits. After completing this illustration, she said, "Lucas, could you come and work this out for me."
The boy grew nervous. It was true that he tended to excel at subjects that involved the written word, but he had something of a mental block at numbers and mathematics other than the basics of arithmetic and his multiplication tables. His hands shook out of fear of being embarrassed in front of the class. He made a game attempt to solve the problem on the board after taking what seemed to be an eternity to get to the board.
The teacher looked at the answer Lucas gave and said, "That is not close to being correct. I thought you were smarter than that!"
The class laughed, particularly Gunther Yates, a not too bight bully who had repeated his grade for the third year and was the nephew of Mandy Brown. He enviously longed to see Lucas intellectually humiliated, "Guess it been too narrow for him, teacher," Gunther responded to the further laughter of the class.
Gunther quickly had an idea. While the teacher's back was turned, he fell to the floor and held his jaw. Lucas was puzzled as Gunther said, "What you hit me for, you four eyed monkey?" Lucas stood in confusion as the teacher sent him to the principal's office while the class laughed. Lucas felt a knot in his stomach as if he was headed to his execution. He imagined walking in chains toward a guillotine as an executioner with a black cape over his head was about to eagerly perform his duty before a cheering crowd.
The principal, an older bespectacled gentlemen who wore a double breasted suit and glasses with his gray hair combed backward, was surprised to see Lucas, who was about to nervously explain the situation. As Lucas told the story, his hands shook from anxiety. "Look," explained the principal. "I know what kind of boy you are and what kind of boy Gunther is, and this story sounds very much in character with both of your personalities. Anyway, school is about to let out for the day, so just go on home and don't worry about a thing. I'll talk with your teacher and deal with Gunther tomorrow."
Lucas walked to the Potts' house in dread of his mother's possible response to all this, but as he headed toward his neighborhood, he noticed Gunther trailing behind him. He wondered how the bully could catch up so closely to him after having to spend some extra time after school. Lucas was ready to run, but he saw that Gunther was actually heading in the direction of his own home.
Luke noticed from a distance as a drunken man holding an empty bottle of liquor and sprawled over a rusty, abandoned car in the middle of the tall weeds that surrounded the dilapidated house. As Gunther entered the yard, the drunken man stirred from his stupor and looked at his watch. Lucas heard the older man ask Gunther why he was so late coming in school. The boy stammered an answer while the father punched Gunther in the face and used a string of loud profanities at the boy before staggering inside.
"Serves your dumb behind right," shouted the father. "I had my ass on a job when I was your age. You ain't learning nothing in school nohow. I can't wait til you're old enough to work so you can start bringing some damn money in this house! Stupid bastard"
Gunther sat in the weeds holding his cheeks and crying when he suddenly looked up to see Lucas near the gate staring at him. The bully yelled, "What the hell you looking at?" Lucas said nothing and continued toward the Potts home.
As he came closer to the Potts house, Lucas noticed his mother's car and felt another sense of dread. He walked inside and surely enough, his mother was there standing next to Mrs. Potts and yelled, "What do you mean by fighting in school?"
Mr. Potts was just entering the living room from the kitchen and upon hearing this, said, "Did he win?"
Mrs. Potts placed her hands upon her hips and gave her husband a scowl.
Lucas sighed and asked, "Who told you that?"
"The teacher called me on my job to tell me that," replied Amelia.
Lucas sat down and put his head in his hands. "That's it. I'm not going back to school."
"Not going back? How dare you even think such a thing? I swear when we get home you'll get a good spanking that will knock some sense into you and get such fool ideas out of your head."
Mr. Potts observed all of this with his wife and said, "Amelia, tell you what. Let me take the boy outside for a while."
Both of the women stopped to look at Mr. Potts until Amelia said, "Well, the boy has a lot of respect for you, you can go ahead and handle him."
"Thanks," replied the old man. "Come on boy and put on your coat."
Lucas shivered in fear as he exited the house with Mr. Potts.
Once the two of them left the house, Lucas said, "Are you going to beat me too?"
The old man shook his head as he adjusted his collar. "Oh, I doubt if that would be necessary. So tell me what happened to make you not want to go to school anymore?"
Lucas told the old man of the day's events. Mr. Potts nodded, "Well I can see why all of that would make you upset."
"Sure, but you see, you got to handle things with sense. First of all, both Mandy Brown and Gunther were raised in ignorance. No one in their family ever tried to get an education even when they had the chance because that old way of living was all that they knew."
"But Mr. Potts, wasn't it true that long ago, most of us couldn't read or write?"
"Yes, because most of us were slaves and they didn't teach slaves to read or write because once you knew how to do that, you wouldn't want to be a slave. My parents were slaves when they were small and didn't have the chance to go to school, but they had enough sense to want me to go and do better. My granny, for example, couldn't read or write at all, but she loved to hear me read The Bible to her and they wanted me to grow and be somebody. Mandy's folks couldn't see beyond where they were. There's a difference between being ignorant and uneducated. It's sort of like this story I remember about a frog who sat in the middle of the road."
"What happened to him?"
"Well you see, he was perfectly happy where he was. So one day, another frog went up to him and said, 'Hey, there's a nice pond with fresh water if you hop on down a few miles from here.' The lazy frog said, 'No that's all right, I'm happy where I am right now.' Then another frog came by and said, 'Look here, you've been in that same spot all your life. There's a nice fresh stream with big fat flies hanging around just waiting for us to eat.' The dumb frog said, "No that's all right. I'm happy right where I am.' So the silly frog stayed right where he was in the middle of the road all his life, until a wagon came by and crushed him to death with its wheel."
Lucas jaws dropped while Mr. Potts explained. "Now granted, Mandy's people didn't have too much opportunity, but she could have done a lot better for herself and chose instead to be hateful to other people and jealous. Instead of pulling herself up, she tries to pull others down. Gunther is her nephew and he is turning out to be the same way. His daddy is filling that boy with nothing but hate and ignorance because that's all he has himself. That's why you should be thankful that you didn't have parents like that."
Lucas thought about all this and asked, "Mr. Potts, where do you get all these stories?"
The old man explained, "From two of the best sources, reading and living. Some of those books that you see in my tool shed have a lot of good stories. Others I get from just living and observing people. When you read, you learn about what life is like in the rest of the world and that's important. Getting back to Mandy and Gunther; all they know is the foolishness and bitterness around them. A child that grows up around all that ignorance will be doomed because that's all they're going to see and all they're going to know. But if a child like that reads, they'll see that there are better ways to think in this world, and will have a chance at being somebody. A person who reads will always have the advantage over someone who doesn't, because the person who reads and learns about life will know more than the person who doesn't read."
The glow of the day was darkening and the wind began to pick up as the two continued their walk. Lucas noticed that Mr. Potts still seemed rather content after hearing his story. The old man breathed the crisp air of the wind and said, "This is a good way to make you think clearly, being at one with nature."
Lucas was still lost in his gloom and Mr. Potts noticed this. "Still in deep thought I see."
"What else is wrong?"
"Nobody my own age cares about me."
"Oh really?" asked Mr. Potts, "It seems to me the solution to that is simple."
"I recall," remembered Mr. Potts, "back when I was stationed in Camp Croft up in Spartanburg during the war, I'd go over on South Liberty Street, where most of the black folks did their business. There was this building at 371 South Liberty Street that housed Mr. Joe Patton's Barber shop and a Negro Clinic, run by Dr. John C. Bull, a light skinned, heavy set man who you never saw without a cigarette in his mouth. Now as such, he was a pretty respected fellow in town, and he blacks were always coming up to him to borrow money."
"So what happened?"
"He was a busy fellow, being the doctor for the Negro neighborhoods, so sometimes he'd go outside of the clinic and sit down in his chair and go to sleep. But you want to know something? People would walk up to him while he was asleep, and put the money they owned him in his pockets, so he would always wake up with his pockets full of money from the people he trusted and cared about to lend it to them."
"So Luke, if you want to know if other people your age care about you, you need to ask yourself another question."
Mr. Potts answered with a gleam in his eye, "Do you care about any other people your age? You've got to care about other people before you can expect them to care about you."
Lucas was puzzled by this remark.
"You don't get that, do you?" asked Mr. Potts.
"Okay, then think about this. When you start doing good deeds for other people without thinking about it, I'm not talking about letting people take you for a fool and use you to their advantage, but if you go around doing good deeds when others need help, the day will come when people will remember that, and do good things for you in return. If you still don't get it, just think about it for a little while. As long as I'm making you think, then I'm doing my job."
Lucas looked up and noticed that they were about to pass the neighborhood graveyard, but Mr. Potts seemed oblivious to the cemetery.
"Mr. Potts," asked the boy, "you know that we're about to pass the graveyard."
"And?" asked the old man.
"It's getting dark."
"So? Don't tell me you believe in ghosts and witches and all that mess. That's just talk, good for nothing but stories."
"Well, no, but it is kind of scary."
"Not really, that's all in the mind. Do you know what is in there besides graves?"
"Yes, but the history of that neighborhood is in there. Every grave has stories in them that are forever lost to the world. That's why it pays to listen to folks before they die, because some wisdom dies with them too."
Lucas stopped walking for a moment. "I never thought of that."
Mr. Potts chuckled, "Young folks don't usually think about such things, so that's okay."
Lucas continued to follow Mr. Potts and the old man went on with his conversation. Lucas looked worried as they entered the gates of the graveyard as the sun finished setting and the moon began to rise, but Mr. Potts kept up his end of the discussion.
"So,' asked Mr. Potts as they walked into the cemetery, "what do you plan to do if you don't go to school?"
Lucas replied, "I don't know, but I guess I can do lots of things. I like to draw cartoons and make up stories, so I might do that. After all, I already know how to read and write so it would be easy for me to learn things without going to school. Anyway, I can do that for a few years and work on drawing for the cartoons on television or even in the newspaper. I might even write books of cartoons and maybe..."
Lucas noticed that the old man was not responding to his statements. He looked up in the dark sky and realized Mr. Potts was no longer beside him.
The boy loudly called for the old man, but to no avail. He realized that he was alone in the dark graveyard with nothing but the moon to give light to what he saw. His heart began to pound and his hands shook, but then something occurred to him.
"Wait a minute, there's a trail that leads into this graveyard. Maybe if I go back and follow that, I can go somewhere and get help for Mr. Potts."
Lucas looked downward and noticed the path on the ground. He also noticed that his shoe prints were impressed on the dirt path, so he slowly turned around and carefully began to follow the path out of the graveyard, while still worrying about the fate of his older friend.
A few minutes later, he reached the front gate of the graveyard and looked around to see if anyone was around. Once again, he called out for Mr. Potts. When no reply came, he hung his head in despair and began to go home when he suddenly felt a hand fall on his shoulder. Lucas was terrified as he heard a voice say, "Looking for me?"
He felt as if his heart would stop as he turned around and to his surprise stood Mr. Potts behind the graveyard gate.
"Am I glad to see you," sighed the boy with relief.
"I am too."
"Where did you go?"
"Nowhere, I was here all along in front of the gate."
"Before I answer that, let me ask you this, how do you think you are going to draw cartoons and stuff without school?"
"Well I already know how to read and write."
"That's true, but there's a lot more to it than that. What do you know about signing contracts and using legal language and stuff like that?"
Lucas put his head down, "Nothing."
"Of course not, so where do you have to go to learn about such things?
The boy let out his breath, "school."
"So what are you going to do tomorrow?"
Lucas replied, "I understand, go back to school."
"Glad you do. Now here's why I took you out here tonight. You were scared when you were by yourself in this dark graveyard, right?"
"Yes sir, I was."
"But what did you do?"
"I stopped to think for a minute, until I figured out how to get out of here."
"That's right," said the old man as they began to walk back home. "So there's two things I hope that you get out of this."
"Always think clearly, and never be afraid."
From the upcoming novel American Storyteller-A Novel of Folklore