Children are rarely given the heads-up on what’s going to be so it was a surprise to find out that we would be going home with Lorraine. Our mother gave up no clues, and when Lorraine arrived, as she did every morning that summer she cheerfully said, “Girls, Lorraine is taking you to play with her children.” Then noting our consternation, said, “Oh, just for today, you sillies,” and she laughed her playful what-a-party-it’s-going-to-be laugh, disregarding our confusion.
We looked up into Lorraine’s dark brown, smooth diamond face for signs of truth, and for signs of softness. Her dark eyes told us nothing essential, only that we would be going with her, the severe and impenetrable Lorraine. “Get your things, now,” said our mother. We, at four and five had no things to bring, but she handed Lorraine a coloring book and small box of crayons, then gave her several silvery coins for the bus ride, all of which Lorraine put in her small handbag, and with handbag securely on her forearm, she offered each of us a white-gloved hand and we set off for the who-knew-where bus stop. Into the desert, really.
I looked back at the yellow painted cinderblock bungalow. We had been to the desert across the street to watch the giant tumbleweeds spinning wildly in a sudden windstorm, and we had explored some of the neighborhood desert, just an alley with some wild dogs, but we had never seen where it ended. We had never left the area except by car. The powder blue and white Buick with a Cinderella and Coach medallion affixed to the inner door frame. And now we were walking toward the horizon, holding onto the bulwark of Lorraine, who we were pretty sure would never harm us at home, but here we were a-sail in unknown seas.
We wouldn’t have known, then, in 1956, that she was more afraid than we. The picture we made might have provoked controversy should the unexpected arise. We did not know that her impeccable demeanor and dress were, in part, a protection, a suit of armor. She came to our house every day that summer in some version of a two-piece suit, either navy or light gray, with a slim skirt and collarless three-quarter sleeve jacket. And always a white blouse with a collar and sometimes lace and glass buttons. Even on hot Tucson days she wore nylon stockings with the well-worn navy blue low-heeled pumps that matched, as closely as possible, her handbag.
She was formidable. We had known nothing like her before. Before she became our summer nanny, the only truly darkly colored people we had known were the tall Ethiopian students we were introduced to in the Student Union at the University where our father ate lunch every day and we all ate hamburgers with sesame seed buns and listened to the lilting, laughing voices of the African men. We had never seen Lorraine even smile. Maybe once. When she threatened a boy we called Bad Johnny, who was in process of being bad, with specific and unforgettable strip-you-down-and-peel-you-like-a-carrot-if-you-ever-mess-with-my- girls-again language. We saw the bravado slide down his pink white face. His weapon drooped in his hand. Lorraine made a move toward him and he ran. Forever, I think. She looked a little shook- up, too, but there might have been a little smile in there.
We passed the laundromat, exuding its hot breath of bleach and wet cotton. I never knew it was so close to home. Mirages were everywhere. On the choppy steaming asphalt, and the sandy empty spaces. We stood for a while on a piece of cosmic hot Tucson cement, under the hot blue sky. A bus whooshed up eventually and the driver stiffened as Lorraine took the change carefully from her purse. He relaxed with the clinking deposit of coins in the fare box.
We tried to sit perfectly still on the joggedy bus ride, until Lorraine stood up and took us each by the hand and walked us from the longaway bus stop, off and into her territory. Though it was early morning, the pale peachy sunlight bore down with indifferent intensity. Her territory was vast. A bigger desert than ours. We trudged across a dusty park. Probably a park. Grass grew only in tufts here and there. Swing sets painted orange stood rusting. And a low cinderblock building with clouded windows, watched. I felt Caroline’s fear and held more tightly to Lorraine, to send courage perhaps, through to my sister.
We walked a bit farther, reddish dust covering our white leather sandals, toward a village mirage. A fairyland in the distance, yet as we approached we knew it was a place not even told in stories. Dwarfy mud houses without doors, only dark openings, huddled about in a random pattern, civilized order not readily discernible. A small dusty child in clean white underpants roamed in the yard, by chance finding a spot of shade, then, like an animal, wandered away forgetting where the coolness was.
Maybe a dozen houses, maybe more, clustered expectantly there under the cloudless sky. A woman about 40, maybe 20, came out from around a hut. She was only a little taller than we, and as wide as she was high, with thin brown hair pulled up and straggling down. The folds of flesh at her midsection acted as a belt to her thin gray cotton dress. She scooped up the sun-dizzy baby. I tried not to study those feet for too long, with toes of varying shapes and sizes and directions.
“What you got there, Mizz Lorraine?” A tooth was gone. I wanted to stare into that black doorway.
“These my children I told you about.” Lorraine offered us up a little closer for introduction. “Say hello to Mizz Lucy.” We stared and said hello like ventriloquist’s dummies.
Lorraine’s house, through a curtained doorway, was cool, dark, cavelike. Voices floated around like dim radio signals from outer space. She kept us close. We crossed the small entry way, on a solid dirt floor through another curtained portal, into a closet-like space filled with a bed with a grasshopper green blanket , no window, and a curtain-draped cupboard.
Lorraine did a shocking thing then. She stepped out of her shoes and rolled down her stockings and took off her navy blue jacket. The effect for us was like we were watching a crab climbing out of its shell, one leg at a time, going raw, completely vulnerable, and what would we do with it?
We watched, concerned, hoping she would stop taking things off. Finally she seemed content in the short-sleeved white blouse and navy skirt and truly happy in bare feet, surprisingly feminine and long, with dark maroon red nail polish, unexpected. So we would not have to fear for her soft innards, nor, any longer, for her crusty sternness. She seemed rather nice now, even touchable. I extended my hand and experimentally grazed her skirt. It was a stiff and smooth material, worn shiny in places. She moved abruptly at my touch then looked down and smiled a big un-premeditated smile and patted my little bouncy curls. It tickled. And then placed her strong hands on each of our shoulders to move us out of the tiny room. “ Come meet my babies,” she said.
The mud cement-like floor, a step down from the alcove and through another curtain, opened onto a larger area with a couple of high up glassless windows. Light streamed down on the family assembled together around a couch in this beam of light, stopped in a freeze-frame, stopped in time for a moment like a painting by Vermeer. Several children clustered about a reclining figure on the couch, all laughing and talking quietly, reverently, as though to not disturb someone. One little girl turned toward us in that beam of light and smiled the same smile her mother had. She looked to be about 10 years old. Her head was covered with a dozen little tightly braided pigtails.
“Come on over here, girl,” Lorraine said. Our white young ears were confused by the respectful tone of the voice mixed with what we understood to be a dog call.
“These your little white babies, Mama?” said the girl.
“This one’s Jeanne,” said Lorraine.
“And this one Caroline?… I’m Charlotte. You wanna play with me?” Caroline and I nodded “Yes.”
“Don’t you go by the schoolyard, you hear?” said one of the older girls.
Dark experience lurked about her eyes. Something terrible making her wise, past or future, it was hard to tell.
“Lindy, she scared of everything,” Charlotte leaned in close to tell us.
“You hush, now,” the eldest, biggest of the sisters disengaged herself from the family tangle. She was very tall, like her mother. “I’m mo watch you three,” she said, slyly looking over at Lorraine. Some secret knowledge passed between them. “You won’t never know where I be, but I be there,” she gave a little boo-start toward Charlotte, then said to us with a laugh, “You don’t have to be afraid of big Francine, but she do,” pointing a thumb into Charlotte’s air space.
Charlotte said, “Come on, “ and glared at Big Francine. A burble of laughter came up from the couch. A light brown colored blue-eyed man reclined at the center like a queen bee. He wore gray work clothes, sleeves rolled up. Lindy and two young boys sat like courtiers ready to serve. He sipped on a bottle of beer. We had never seen a man at home in the daytime before. His face was worn, but the lines were carved in a pattern of cheer and good will. He was lithe and compact, though now clearly at rest.
“Let your Daddy sleep now, he got to go to work,” said Lorraine. “Henry, Willie, you come help me with the wash.”
We followed Charlotte into the narrow kitchen, a small galley; gray light from one glassless window. The dirt floor was cool and powdery. Charlotte took three little clear wax bottles from a cupboard, each containing a different color liquid. She handed us each one and then led us out into the sheer metallic heat, through the little village maze and on to the open playground. The low cinderblock building stood on the far side. I feared it was the school and this the forbidden school yard.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” I said, and clutched at Charlotte’s arm. She looked at me out of the side of her eyes with a bit of patient scorn and gently shrugged me away.
“Long as Ol’ McCarthy not here it’s okay.” She turned and glanced back toward home. We walked solemnly over to the swings with Ol’ McCarthy on our minds. Their frames stood like giant horror film spiders, rusting arachnid cilia, chains broken on two of them, the broken wooden seats dragging on the ground. Two swings beckoned. Charlotte graciously allowed Caroline and me to take them and filled the big sister host role of pushing. This seemed to make her happy. Some inner instruction caused her to decline my offer to push her after a while.
Caroline swung high and reckless, and then nauseous. We sat and leaned against a spicy fragrant mesquite tree, its lacy leaf pattern sprinkling us with a cool frothy shade. We broke open the little wax bottles. The sugary blue and red and green liquid did not last long or satisfy thirst. I knew moisture could be gotten from the prickly pear cactus growing all around, but my butt still had the memory of a spiny encounter. A gila woodpecker threw its squeaky-toy call at us. I wondered if there were scorpions under the rocks, and sat in edgy one-ness with my sister, and puzzling out our new — in all ways new — companion.
We mostly chewed the wax containers and looked at each other. A diamondy film of perspiration formed on Charlotte’s milk chocolatey forehead. It made me thirsty. I wanted to drink water. I wanted to do something. I wanted to get Ol’ McCarthy out of the way. “Let’s get a drink,” I said, and stood up. We had walked past a fountain on the cool side of the low building. I looked down over my shoulder at Charlotte and Caroline.
Charlotte shrugged her lips and said, I dunno, okay, let’s run, and we ran like a six-legged dog and laughing and being not afraid, and doing what nature commanded us to do.
The sky above was a dark blue pool of light. You could believe you were seeing the stars that Chuck Yeager saw after breaking the sound barrier and passing through our atmosphere just at the edge of Space and then returning moments later to the big sunny- roofed Earth. Where bad things sometimes happen, because just as we screeched on our brakes at the white ceramic water fountain, Ol’ McCarthy appeared around the corner of the school building. I knew it was Ol’ McCarthy because Charlotte froze and said, “Lordy, Lordy,” in a kind of whimper.
I wondered if we needed to be afraid of him, because he looked like an old bum. Like he had no energy left in him. “Scat! You Niggers!” He spat in a low growly voice and laughed a short ugly laugh when we flinched but did not otherwise move. His face was hot and red, his eyes pale blue and watery. He smelled like dirt and gasoline. Old gray yellow hair stuck out from around his cap. He wasn’t too big but he looked like he might kill us just for fun. Only he seemed a little wobbly.
Charlotte was too scared to move. I grabbed her and Caroline and turned to run. But I had one more thing to say to him because he made me mad. “You mean Negro? You mean you are a Negro?”
Did It make sense? Maybe. He swatted at us with his chunky, pink hairy hand, the force causing him to totter as we ran around the building and directly into Big Francine. We all wrapped around her and clung to her like she was a big tree. She sort of took us up in her branches and scooted us back to the wagon-circle of huts.
Lorraine and Henry and Willie hung clothes on a communal clothes line strung between two little scraggly Live Oak trees. She just slowed down and looked sideways at Francine without stopping her work.
We drank lemonade and played marbles and jacks and lay low until the room came into shade. Mr. Eddie awoke from his nap and the children gathered around again. Lorraine brought him a plate with pork chops and some corn. He looked so happy and the children began to dance a Bunny Hop around the room. Lorraine brought Caroline and me into the tiny kitchen and sat us up at the window sill with plates of cut up pork chops and some corn.
The sky was lavender now and some night bugs started up. Mr. Eddy said goodbye and went off to catch his bus to work. Lorraine said we had to wash up and comb our hair because our mother would be coming soon.
Burr writes: “I grew up in Arizona, Trenton, and Princeton, graduating from Princeton High School in 1969. I am a writer and filmmaker. I have three grown up kids, all following their own stars.”