After my mom died, it seemed we never had a house, unless we were living with my aunt and uncle. So mostly, I remember motels. One in particular was in Springfield, Missouri. But there were others. Arkansas, Kansas, Illinois, Ohio. I remember my father making me bologna sandwiches a lot. Bologna, or sardines and mayo, depending on if he had fixed a television and gotten some money. If he had, we got sardines. Back then, that was my favorite. If he had fixed a couple televisions, he’d make us beef stroganoff and pour it over dry toast on a plate. That was my favorite, too.
It seems that whenever I remember bologna, I also remember cockroaches.
“Don’t turn off the light, daddy!”
Many of the motels I grew up in were owned or operated by an Indian or a Pakistani. As a child, you don’t notice nationality. At least I didn’t. Not by looks, anyway. I knew that all people were different by scent. I loved admiring the beautiful Indian ladies with the red dots on their foreheads, and I noticed they had a certain scent, different than my sister and I. And a neat sounding language that we would mimic whenever we were in a grocery store, of all places. I was always amazed at how the Indians and Pakistanis in the grocery stores didn’t understand what we were saying. We thought we were speaking their language.
“Skeedel meedee vee dah cha!” I’d say. Sometimes they would look at us and laugh, and other times they seemed what I would now deem as offended. But we did it out of admiration; not judgment or mocking.
Black people have a scent, too. One time in second grade I was standing in line for lunch, and these kids behind me were bickering over who got to stand where, as if cutting two people ahead would somehow get you a better lunch. In their quarrel, they shoved me and I fell forward into a girl whose tightly curly black hair was done all in braids. I thought she was beautiful. My father had always told me he had better never catch me playing with any n*****s. To this day, I hate that word and I cannot bring myself to verbally say it, or even write it. Not even when everyone else is doing it. So when I fell into the girl in the lunch line, I immediately felt absolutely, veritably afraid of my father and sorry for bumping into the girl at the same time. I apologized to her and she said not to worry and I realized right away that she was very nice. Very nice; just a girl. Just like me. In that moment I couldn’t fathom what my father could have against the people with darker skin. By the time I got home, I had forgotten the incident. As I walked around the bed to set my backpack down, my father grabbed me by the arm.
“Who did you play with today?” he asked through his teeth. I told him my usual friends, which was not a lie.
“I smell them on your coat,” he hissed. I told him then about the mess in the lunch line, but by then he didn’t believe me. He thought I was making it up. He took off his belt, and over and over again reminded me that I was not allowed to play with little n*****s.