There are multiple ways of interacting with silence: purposefully leaving something unsaid, breaking the silence around a topic, or, quite simply, getting tongue-tied. For this week’s challenge, we want you to take the theme of silence and explore it in your own way.
The summer of 1956 was a most memorable summer for young Brady Holt. Brady was a precocious ten year old from Peru, Indiana and he was out of his element in the balmy, sticky, humid climate of southern Alabama.
Rarely had Brady been outside of his tiny hometown except a few times for a wedding or a funeral or something he didn’t really care about in Indianapolis, just an hour or so to the south. Brady wanted to go places to see them, not to attend stuffy formal events and be cooped up all day long inside. He had the typical mind of a ten year old boy that wanted adventure in the exotic places of the world like the Wild West tracking down Geronimo or perhaps the deserts of Egypt making his way to see the Great Pyramids.
It was with this spirit that he could hardly contain himself when his father announced one day that the family was going to Pensacola, Florida to visit his relatives. It was going to be the adventure of a lifetime for Brady. He’d meet cousins his own age for the first time. He’d be near the ocean! Well, as near to the ocean as he’d ever been anyway, and the Gulf of Mexico seemed just as big as the ocean when you were in its presence.
So the tiny family of three, Brady and his father and mother, packed the car and headed south along US route 31which ran straight through the middle of Peru through ninety percent of the trip to Pensacola. It was early evening on the second day of the journey when the family stopped for gasoline and dinner in the small town of McKenzie, Alabama about a half hour north of the Florida state line.
They stopped at Floyd’s Station and Brady’s dad told the man to fill it up, check the oil and top off the radiator. He said they’d be back in a little bit after grabbing some supper at the diner across the street.
Brady reluctantly held his mother’s hand as they crossed the street, protesting the whole time that he wasn’t a child and he could cross the street himself. In the end his mother won and only let go of his hand once they walked into the diner.
It didn’t seem like anything new to Brady, but he was excited nonetheless. Elvis’ new hit Heartbreak Hotel played incessantly on the jukebox and the smell of hamburgers and fries wasn’t new to him either. But it still held a mystique to young Brady because it was in a far off place called Alabama. He knew more of this state because of baseball than what he learned in school. The extent of his knowledge was that Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were from Alabama and the capitol was Montgomery. And he had heard plenty about Montgomery and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lately with the bus boycotts going on.
Brady had heard about it from the evening news he sometimes listened to on the radio with his dad and he sometimes heard a passing comment his dad made to his mother while reading the newspaper. He often wondered why the “negro’s” would boycott the busses and why they were treated differently than regular people. He sometimes tried to ask his dad about it, but he rarely gave him a satisfactory answer stating that “they” were just different and these laws were there to protect them because white southerners weren’t ready for integration yet. Brady never got an answer as to why the white people weren’t ready for integration or how black people were different than white people. To him, the only difference was the color of their skin. But then again, in a small rural area of central Indiana, Brady had actually never seen a black person in the flesh.
Brady went to the counter where there was an extra seat. He sat down claiming his stake at the “bar” and begged his dad to let him sit there. He agreed and he and Brady’s mom sat down at a nearby booth.
Brady noticed the waitress take a plate from the window that the cooks would put orders on a ring the bell and thought she was the prettiest woman he’d ever seen. Her chestnut hair fell in loose curls over her shoulders and she had the biggest brown eyes he’d ever seen. She walked over to him and smiled.
“Hi there, sweet pea,” she said in the most beautiful southern belle accent this ten year old boy had ever heard. “What’ll it be?”
“Um, hi,” Brady stammered. “Can I have a plain cheeseburger and some French fries,” he asked. He heard his father clear his throat somewhere behind him and Brady added, “Please?”
The perky high school senior smiled, “You sure can, honey. You want anything to drink like a Coke or a Dr. Pepper?”
“I’ll have a Coke,” he said. “Please,” he added before his father could clear his throat again.
Brady looked around again, soaking in this new experience so he could tell all his friends about it when he got home. How he had visited Alabama and went to the same diner that Willie Mays might have gone to! Even sat in the same chair!
Brady hadn’t realized that the Jim Crow laws would have prevented Willie Mays from ever sitting right where he was sitting. Even now that he was in the big leagues, Brady would never have known that Willie Mays probably wouldn’t even be able to get a Coke from a place like this. But he would soon learn.
The waitress brought his cheeseburger and French fries over and a chocolate milkshake over and set them down in front of Brady. “I made this milkshake by accident, honey, and didn’t want it to go to waste. Do you like chocolate milkshakes?”
“Yes, ma’am! Gee, thank you!” Brady took the cheeseburger in his hands and took an unhealthy fist size bite out it and chewed with the biggest grin on his face. He was really here. Far away from home and everything he was used to. In the morning he’d be at the ocean and going on adventures with his cousins. He swallowed and sucked for a second on the straw in his thick chocolate milkshake that was melting fast in the evening heat of the deep south.
He heard the slam of a screen door in the back but paid it no mind as a Patti Page record started to play on the jukebox. He took another bite of his cheeseburger and turned his head to a commotion he barely perceived in his young impressionable mind. What he saw made his eyes widen and he swallowed his half chewed cheeseburger hard.
By the back door of the diner was the door to the kitchen and there stood a wiry black man who was just about as old as the pretty young waitress that had just served Brady. He looked frightened as two big and burly farm boys flanked him. Brady could hear one of them talking to the black man but he couldn’t hear what he was saying. He strained, but try as he might, he couldn’t hear what was being said. The black man kept looking down at the ground but wouldn’t say a word.
Suddenly, the farm boy closest to the door took hold of the kid and shoved him up against the wall. Then he threw him into the main dining room and the kid fell right at Brady’s feet. Brady looked at the terrified kid’s eyes and didn’t know what to do. He had never seen a real fight before and had never seen a real black person before. This was all new, but it seemed so very wrong to young Brady. What had he done? He was just standing there as far as Brady knew. Why had they pushed him against the wall and then shoved him down?
Brady held his gaze and started to do the thing he felt like he should. He got off his stool and held his hand out to help the kid up, but a strong hand lifted him up and put him back on the stool. He had no idea what had just happened, he kept looking at the terror in the black kid’s eyes.
“What’re you lookin’ at nigger,” one of the farm boys yelled. “You lookin’ at Cindy? That’s my girl, nigger! You lookin’ at my girl?”
“No sir,” the kid stammered and shuffled backwards on his hands as the farm boys approached him. He stumbled and fell on his rear, his feet trying to gain traction to keep pushing himself backwards. He was nervous as all eyes were on him and he didn’t know how to get out of this mess he had somehow found himself in. “Please, sir. I jus wanted a Coke. I’m jus passin’ through, sir. I don’t want no trouble.”
“’I don’t want no trouble suh’,” one farm boy mocked. “Well you got trouble, boy. This here diner don’t serve no niggers. Never has, never will.”
“I am sorry,” the kid managed and finally was able to stand up. He turned around and was ready to high tail it out the front door when one of the farm boys pushed him from behind and the kid went crashing through the screen door, getting tangled in the metal mesh of the screen and tumbling again to the hard concrete sidewalk.
Brady turned back to the counter and noticed the smug look on the pretty waitresses face and all of a sudden, she didn’t look so pretty to him anymore. He took another bite of his cheeseburger and went to the booth where his parents were and sat down next to his mother.
“Dad,” he asked. “What did that kid do wrong?”
His dad looked at him and said, “Not now, son. We’ll talk about it later.” He leaned over and looked past the booth and out towards the front door and didn’t see the kid or the two farm boys. “You done with your dinner? We have another hour or so until we get to Uncle Kevin’s house and I don’t want to get in too late.”
“Yeah,” Brady answered. “I guess I’m finished.”
He got up and his mother followed and Brady’s father went to the counter and handed the pretty waitress that wasn’t so pretty anymore a bill and some change for the meal.
When they left the doorless diner, they had walked only a few feet when they heard more commotion across the street nearby the gas station they were headed to. Brady ran across the deserted street without looking and stood on the curb not able to take his eyes away from the horror of what he was watching.
There stood the black kid, being held up by one of the farm boys. The other, the one whose girl was the waitress, was punching the kid in the gut and giving hooks that Brady thought Joe Lewis would throw, to the kid’s jaws. With one hook, Brady saw a spray of red and something white come flying out of his mouth.
Brady wanted to yell at them to stop. That the kid said he only wanted a Coke and that was it. He didn’t want any trouble so stop beating him up. But nothing would come out of his mouth. He took a step forward and tried again. He opened his mouth but nothing would come out.
His father had stepped up behind him and tried to steer him towards the car, but he shrugged him off. He knew this was wrong and yet how could he stop this? What could he do as a mere ten year old kid? Tears started streaming down his cheeks and he looked up at his dad, pleading with him to stop this. He couldn’t do anything, but his dad could. He was an adult. Hadn’t he always said to go to an adult if something bad happened or he had trouble with an older boy at school? His dad looked at him sympathetically and said, “Come on.”
He once more tried to steer him toward the car and once more Brady shrugged him off. More defiantly this time since his dad seemed to not want to help. He turned and saw the kid crumpled on the ground and the farm boy that was holding him got his two cents in by kicking him full in the gut before the two of them walked away.
Brady took another few steps forward, as if he wanted to help the kid, but didn’t know what to do or how to help. He could hear the kid coughing and groaning and could see the blood on his clothes and around his mouth in the cold light of the street lamp.
Brady wiped tears from his eyes as the kid staggered to stand up. He stood there for a brief second and looked up at Brady and for the second time their eyes met. He gave Brady such a haunting look that it would never leave his mind for the rest of his life. It was a look that said, “You’ve just been shown only a little bit of what my people have had to go through and are going through now. Don’t just stand there next time. Don’t just stand there in silence and watch. I’m no different than you except the color of my skin.”
The kid staggered and stumbled back to some house or some car from where he came. Only when he disappeared around the corner did Brady turn around and slowly walk to the car. In that moment in young Brady’s life, he resolved to never again be silent.