Monday, May 5, 2008

Playground vignette

Flush with hemoglobin and crystalline spring sunlight, I stride out on to the playground to find B. after school instead of, as I often do, lurking around the fringes waiting for someone to bring him to me. I find him next to the swings on a big stack of tires, co-existing but not really playing with his friend M__. When she sees me, M___ swivels with an accusing look on her face. Her hair is glossy and black and tied back in a thick pony tail. "B. says you have cancer," she says in roughly the same tone she would say, "B. says you let him ride a motorcycle to school" or, "B. says your family has a giraffe for a pet instead of a dog."


Her question flashes me back maybe five years. B. is two or a little shy, and he's sitting in a cart seat at TJ Max while the clerk fills our with bags and engages him. Suddenly, the little B. takes the measure of the bagger and says, loudly, "You're black!" I have the feeling that someone has instantly squeezed all the air from my lungs, even though B's comment is a) factual; b) inevitable in one of the whitest states in the country; and c) not pejorative in the slightest. Still -- it's amazing how the mind races, even when suddenly deprived of oxygen -- the clerk may be offended, it's got to be hard dealing with all the comments, some of them probably nasty. But the old guy laughs and says, "Yes I am!" The air floods back into my lungs. Later I laugh about the clerk's grace and my surprising clumsiness.


On the tire stack, I try to summon the TJ Max clerk's wisdom. "Yes, I do!" I say cheerfully. M___ turns away to scrabble higher up the tires, her pony tail bobbing. I can't imagine what she is thinking. What is cancer to her -- something that killed a grandparent? Something scary overheard from adult whispers? Nothing at all? I want to give her some of my kid spiel about cancer -- that you can't catch it from me or Bay, doctors can often cure it, etcetera -- but I refrain. B. is tugging on my hand and beginning to tell me about how he beat a second grader in chess by promoting a pawn into another queen.

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