This story is by Kate Birchenough and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Straining her body backwards at an almost impossible angle, Jennie willed the red wagon to loose its stuck wheels and follow her. It did, with a jolt over the slate sidewalk crack. She fell back, dropping the handle to catch herself, growling as her wrist jammed into the sidewalk and the skirt of her dress flew up over her knees. The stupid neighborhood boys catcalled as they watched from up in the big elm. She yanked the skirt back into place, face reddening with all her six-year old fury. The wagon rolled back down the incline, its cargo of glass clattering. Jennie leap-frogged after the handle as it lurched away. She almost caught it but then the wagon arced around, a back wheel hanging off the sidewalk, tipping… tipping…oh no! In slow motion the whole shebang caved over, dumping all the glass bottles and jars onto the grass with the sound of smashing applause.
Those useless boys clapped and guffawed at her. She hissed at them like a baby wildcat. Then they switched their jeers to someone else. “Hey! YOU! Get out of our neighborhood! Scram!” Looking, she saw a boy crossing to the other side of the street with a package in his arms and he went up the stairs onto the porch of the nuns’ house. He was the only Negro boy in her elementary school in this small town in Central New York, so she knew his name was Terence. She’d never seen him in her neighborhood. He rang the nuns’ doorbell and turned to wait. Seeing Jennie, he gave her a small wave and she waved back, but then she looked away because she wasn’t supposed to talk to him.
She righted the wagon and gathered her load, amazed that, out of all the glassware she had gotten from the cellar, there was only one with its neck broken, a thick green Coke bottle. She had a fleeting impulse to put the jagged piece under the tree so the boys would cut themselves, but she knew Jesus wouldn’t do that so instead she slipped it into her dress pocket and kept on her task. This time, she pushed the wagon up the hill, determined not to lose her cargo again. It was hard, keeping it headed in the right direction. She conquered the incline and leaned, head down, on the back rim to catch her breath. When she opened her eyes, she saw her bare feet were bleeding. Tiny rock crumbs clogged the scrapes. Never mind. She ran around the front. Picking up the handle, she marched that wagon along the sidewalk, right under the elm tree’s big branches, humming loud to block the rude things the boys blurted from their cowardly huddle in the tree.
The clatter of the wheels on the slate slabs beat out a rhythm. Jennie felt like that guy who goes in front of a parade with his big wand. What was he called? A mayor? No, a major… majorette! She pushed her matted blond hair off her forehead and lifted her chest as she walked in time with the clacks, her imaginary baton punching the air with every other step.
Bump—from behind. She yelped as the metal hinge hit her calf and caught her ankle. Lost in her parade fantasy, Jennie hadn’t noticed the subtle shift from level to downhill. She fought to keep the wagonload in check but now it was pressing her. She dug in her heels and spiraled around to face the demon vehicle. The black metal handle waggled on the ground, jumping up like a mad snake.
Lifting her head with a grimace she saw, through one opened eye, Terence running down the sidewalk. Her second eye popped open as he grabbed the back rim and heaved against the load. The wagon slowed, then stopped just before it left the sidewalk where it would have crashed into Mrs. Carol’s rose bushes. Jennie noticed Mrs. Carol watching from her closed window, one gnarled hand clenching the sheer curtain to the side. She was hollering something and her mouth moved like a ventriloquist’s puppet.
Jennie knelt in front of the wagon, outstretched arms pressed against the front rim, her feet cooled momentarily by the soft grass between the sidewalk and the roses. Terence sat behind, pulling against the back rim. There was a suspended moment while they calibrated the situation, then each, like two birds who lift off at the same time, rose to their feet while keeping the cart steady.
Jennie took a deep breath. “Thank you,” she said, screwing her eyes shut again, expecting to be skewered by the devil’s pitchfork. When that didn’t happen, she opened her eyes and saw the boy’s big grin. Her heart fluttered open.
Wordlessly they began to trek again towards town. Terence’s knobby knees jutted out to either side as he grasped the back of the wagon to keep it from ramming her. Jennie walked in front with the handle pressed against her behind to help keep the carrier in check.
She mulled things over in her six-year old head as she walked. Once, she’d asked her mom why she shouldn’t talk to this dark-skinned fellow, but Mom couldn’t answer that question, and then she made Jennie go to church twice that week. She decided to ask her grandfather because she’d seen photos of her grandfather when he was young and lived in Alabama a long time ago, before he moved up north. In one photo, there were lots of black boys standing with him in front of the cotton mill. She had heard him talking about things that happened with Negroes in a place called Selma a couple of months ago, so she figured he’d be the best one to ask about talking to Terence.
The terrain leveled out and Jennie turned to smile at Terence. Just then, he let go of the wagon, gave her a wild-eyed wave and dashed off through a vacant lot. She swiveled her head around and saw the boys from the elm tree carousing down the hill. They cut through one of the back yards in the same direction he’d run. She wondered where Terence lived.
Heaving against the load to get it moving again, Jennie continued towards the store. As she neared, she saw Mr. Johnson folding boxes by the back door. Wouldn’t you know it, he was talking to one of those boys. The kid saw her and ducked behind the dumpster. Nonetheless, she walked right up to Mr. Johnson, to turn in the bottles for change.
He eyed her heavy load and raised his eyebrows at her, putting one of his thumbs up like she had done something amazing. He counted out the bottles and added up the amount she should get back.
“Mr. Johnson, could you please put it in two?”
“Divide it? Why would you want me to do that?” He asked, looking her up and down like he was trying to figure out where she was hiding a secret.
“Because I want to share it with… with… someone.”
He let out a slow low whistle. Then he said, “I heard that Negro boy tried to grab your wagon and steal your bottles.”
“Did NOT!” She blurted it out and she felt her fury rise up again. Those bullies!
She and Mr. Johnson stared at each other. She felt her face reddening and her stomach felt hot. She knew she was supposed to look away and submit to an adult, that was the rule. But NO! Her little body vibrated as she stood her ground, glaring at the grown man.
Mr. Johnson put his hand in his pocket and jangled some change. Jennie pictured the painted turtles she planned to buy so she could set them free. She watched as Mr. Johnson took two muslin bags from the wooden stand by the door. He slowly counted out the change, and showed her a Buffalo nickel before he dropped it in the bag. Then he held the small sacks out in his fists like they were bank bags holding a fortune.
“I’d be careful if I were you.” He opened his fists and let go of the bags. She dropped her eyes to catch them in her palms. Fishing them into her pocket, she felt the broken bottle neck and she jerked her hand back out.
Jennie blinked her eyes up at Mr. Johnson, wondering which thing she was supposed to be careful of. There were so many! She took a deep breath, grabbed the handle of her emptied wagon and started for home. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the boys run from behind the dumpster into the trees, paralleling her route. She hoped she’d find Terence so she could give him the money. Maybe they’d go get turtles and set them free.