During the winter, the Koones let their two cats shit on the basement floor when it was too cold to leave them outside. The Koones lived one block down from us and they had four kids. My brother Allan said ‘coon’ was slang for ‘Negroid,’ and that their whole family was White Trash. Maybe he was right: Mrs. Koone had gypsy blood, was cross-eyed, and spent her day drinking beer and smoking on the bed in a black slip, with her face all made up. But Antonia Koone and I were friendly because we were in 6th grade together, and we both loved the Beatles.
“We’re gonna to have a séance,” said Connie Koone, Antonia’s older sister. “And bring back my grandma from the dead.”
We all huddled in their cluttered attic and turned out the lights. Little Donny and Big Ronnie, and Ronnie’s teenage friend Ivan the Immigrant, set up the OUIJA board. We all laid two fingers on the needle. Still, the needle moved itself. We got scared as the words “D-i-e N-i-*-*e-r” spelled themselves out on the board.
“That’s her, that’s Grandma!” Connie Koone exclaimed.
I asked, “Why would your grandma say that?”
“Because her husband cheated on her with a real coon,” Ronnie chimed. Little Donny laughed. Except for Ivan, we all laughed. “Ain’t it the truth. Who’d want to touch a real coon?” Donny said.
When I got home, Mom said I smelled of cat pee. She told me to take a bath. I came out of the bathroom and looked in the back yard, and there was a colored boy there. He was wearing a trapper hat and work gloves, helping Dad unload tanks from the van.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s Byron. He’s going to be working with Dad after school and on Saturdays. He’s a nice boy that lives in one of uncle’s houses. He’s Elsie’s son, do you remember her?”
“Your dad says he’s a good worker,” Mom said.
“Does that mean Allan and me don’t have to go with Dad anymore?”
My mother just shrugged. “Depends on how busy he gets.”
Byron came every Saturday morning all winter and helped Dad load up the van. After they spent the day fogging houses, he came back and helped him unload. Sometimes I watched them out the window. Byron was dark-skinned and tall for 14. He lifted the heavier tanks and foggers. On those few times I’d gone outside to say ‘hi’ to Dad, Byron hadn’t said much. He didn’t even look my way. Each weekend after his shift, his mom and brothers came to pick him up. They drove a blue dented Impala with a black hood. They didn’t turn in our driveway, but pulled to the curb underneath our Elm and waited for him there. We didn’t see coloreds on our block. If we did, it was likely Byron. Whenever Byron’s family parked out front, the Norwegian next door would rush to his indoor porch and stare at them out the window, to be sure their car wasn’t the slightest bit in front of his house.
One Saturday in the spring, Antonia and Connie picked me up on the way to the bowling alley. “There’s coloreds parked out front of your house,” Antonia said.
“That’s Byron’s family. He works for my dad on Saturday.”
“They owe your dad money or
something?” asked Connie.
“No. He’s just a really good worker. He can lift things.”
Connie made a face. “Man, I love Motown. But I wouldn’t have one at my house.”
The next time I went to the Koones, I had to pass by Mrs. Koone’s room on the way to the kitchen. I always tried not to stare in because she usually wasn’t all dressed. But this time she called out in her husky, bossy voice. “Elaine, come in here.”
I went in. Clothes were strewn on all surfaces and every ash tray was overflowing. She handed me her empty beer glass to carry to the sink.
“I hear your dad’s bringing Jigaboos into our neighborhood,” she said. “He a Jigaboo lover?”
“No,” I felt defensive. “No, he isn’t. He just hired one that’s all, he doesn’t love them.”
“But your Dad works in Ni**ertown all the time,” she said. “My kids told me.”
I stared into the empty beer glass, with its smear of deep red lipstick on the rim, and hurried off toward the kitchen.
Antonia and Connie were in the living room with Ronnie, making fun of Ivan the Immigrant, who’d just left. Ronnie, who was 16, said Ivan, who was the same age, was a Russian spy, and that was why he was so quiet.
“He always smells like cabbage,” Connie said. “I bet his grandma wears a babushka.” They laughed and I usually laughed with them. But today they didn’t seem funny. Because I knew when I left for home, they’d laugh at my dad, calling him a Ni**er-Lover, saying we all were at home doing the Watusi with Black Sambos. Of course they would. I knew they would, because they made fun of people all the time. I’d done it too, along with Antonia and Connie—made fun of Ivan’s Russian accent. Laughed at James Brown’s ‘caveman’ forehead. Called Mick Jagger “JiggerLips.” Making fun of all of them. But it wasn’t funny today. No, it wasn’t. And my eleven-year-old self knew it. I even knew that the reason Ivan the Immigrant didn’t say much, and didn’t laugh at our jokes, was because he could barely speak our language.
I left the Koone house that evening, wishing that when I started seventh grade that fall, I’d find some new friends besides the Koones. Friends who made less-mean jokes. Friends who had litter boxes for their cats.