Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Fistful of Lies

            Things happen! Events over which you thought you were in control sometimes years later reveal themselves to you in something like a dream. Upon remembering events that happened in your youth that seemed allowable, innocuous, maybe in some way deliberate, are redefined to you as you grow older and you re-examine them from an adult's viewpoint. They play over and over in your mind in the middle of the night when you are trying to sleep. The whys and the motivations are unanswerable but still you lay there in the dark pondering the questions. Things you had neatly tucked away suddenly and unexpectedly float to the surface and confront you again. Why did you do what you did? In your head you can’t explain it in any reasonable way.

           One such event that I have wrestled with on and off for 53 years have been waking me up recently at night for the past few months. It was a lie I told.  I was one of two witnesses to a terrible traffic accident.  This lie I told was in collaboration with someone I thought was a friend.  No one in my immediate circle of friends would have understood why I lied to protect a black woman who was at fault in what most certainly a serious crime.  Certainly no one in my family would have understood my actions.  The fact that I lied to protect a stranger whom I had never seen before or since would never have been accepted or even believed in my family. "We raised him better better than that!" I am sure they would have declared.

            Only recently I had turned 16. It was a Thursday afternoon and having nothing to do I drove my father’s car over to a friend’s house to see what he was up to. The thing to do on the many sultry summer afternoons in small town south Alabama was to go to a drug store/soda shop called Northcuts’s about 5 blocks from my home and get a fountain drink. Red Northcut was the owner and proprietor of the store and was an adamant Auburn fan. He was inevitable in the store, a heavy man who always had the juicy wilted stub of a cigar wedged in the corner of his mouth. The favorite drink of the time was something called a lemon sour. It consisted of an ice filled cup with soda water and lemon juice added. When it was served you salted it with a provided shaker. The cherry cokes were a close second in popularity. Rarely did you go to Northcut’s by yourself. It just was not the thing to do. You always took a friend if one was available and had curb service in the relative steamy comfort of your car. This particular afternoon the friend I took was a boy named Milton. He was an only child who was a master manipulator even at such an early age. I knew this because I had seen him driving around with a guy that was well known to be a homosexual. Milton was anything but! Why did he ride around with this boy? Because he had a car and offered free transportation. He used people to his own personal ends and did it callously. His father was mayor of the town and he was a year or two younger than I was. I had a driver’s license and almost always had a car available, either my mother’s or my father’s. This made me a very popular boy in the small town I was from. Most of the boys had no license and those who did, had no available car. Milton was one of those boys. He singled me out because he was younger and had no transportation. We became friends, sort of. I was  between fifteen and sixteen, younger when we first met. He befriended me and we were frequent companions.  Milton was a handsome boy that had already, at age 15 begun to lose his hair. That in no way diminished his charm. Even though he was younger and less experienced than me, he was very popular with the girls.

            After picking him up we headed for the soda shop. We came to the intersection of Burdeshaw Street and Oceola just above his house when a car sped past in front of us going really fast, maybe 70 or 80. This was, of course an approximation as we were stopped at the corner for the stop sign. The speed limit there was 35 mph. Milton upon seeing the speeding car, a two toned green colored older Chevrolet driven by a black woman racing down the street. He immediately said, “Quick chase her down! She can’t drive that fast in a white neighborhood! She must have been doing 90 miles an hour of more! “He exclaimed, “Chase her down and pass her. We’ll show her!” I pulled out into the intersection and pressed the accelerator to the floorboard in pursuit of the car. “Hurry, hurry,” he shouted, “She’s getting away!” We raced after her! She was flying and had already gone out of sight over a small distant hill in the road.

            The old ford, I was driving was not a fast car. In fact it was pretty slow and smelled like a cigar. My dad bought the car from his half brother who worked at a Ford dealership in a small town 15 miles away. The uncle always had a cigar in his mouth (like Mr. Northcut) and had used this particular ford as his personal car to drive around the small town in. It had been a demonstrator car and was lower priced because of the high mileage as well as the cigar stink that permeated the interior of the vehicle. It was likely purchased by my dad with me in mind. I needed a car to learn to drive in and since it was likely I would have a number of fender benders and other assorted accidents; why not get something that was not so high priced. This car was my principal mode of transportation except on the rare occasions when I drove my mother’s Cadillac.

            Milton and I raced down the street at a prohibited speed and passed over the gentle rise in the road. Upon topping the rise we witnessed an unthinkable scene. The woman’s green Chevrolet  was stopped still, at a slant in the middle of the road.  The smell of hot motor oil and the smell of heated rubber from the tires filled the air when we came to a stop. She was down on one knee beside her car crying! “Oh my God” she screamed!” Oh my god they will kill me, they’ll kill me for sure!” At first we had no idea what had happened until I noticed a crumpled form on the side of the asphalt road. A child who looked to be about 8 or 9 years old lay perfectly still with his legs strangely splayed against the curb. His head was oddly asymmetrical. Immediately I saw that the front right headlight had a head sized indentation just back from the front bumper on the side of the car before the wheel well. The woman kept screaming.  A running man broke through the privet hedge surrounding the yard on the immediate side of the road. A look of horror appeared on his face and he turned and raced back towards his house. As he raced through the hedge he called back over his shoulder, “I’ll call the police and an ambulance!” the woman’s screams took on a pitiful whimpering sound as she sat down on the hot asphalt with her flowered dress splayed out around her. The little boy lay perfectly still and silent, adjacent the woman’s car. Except for the woman's crying it was very quiet.

            In what seemed an eternity we heard a siren in the distance. The man had returned to the scene after calling the ambulance and said, as I neared the little boy wanting to get a better look,  “Don’t touch him!” Of course I had no intention of touching what I thought was maybe a dead child but I intently looked at his sad crumpled little body. Many years before I had seen the corpse of a woman who was killed in an accident in front of my parents home at a very dangerous intersection. She was very still, like this child. The police came as did the ambulance. After some examining of the child they carefully loaded him into the emergency vehicle and exited with the sirens screaming in the steamy afternoon heat. The police helped the woman to her feet and to the shade of a nearby pine tree. They began to question her as to what had happened. She answered through sobs and hysterical pleadings as tears streamed down her face. Milton and I stood there as the only witnesses to the scene. Although we had not actually seen the collision; what had happened was pretty clear. The little boy, playing in his neighbor’s back yard had burst through the privet hedge running directly out into the path of the speeding vehicle.  The woman had not had time to brake at all until the damage had already been done. She had stopped.

            In years afterwards I wished she had sped away from the scene because it would have made her an obvious villain and things would have been more clearly defined.  It would have been so easy to say, “Yes officer I saw her! She was hauling ass and killed the little boy and raced away not even stopping for a second look. Not caring about him at all!” Then I would have added, “Throw the book at that bitch, she deserves it.” But she stopped. She did not leave the scene which she easily could have. Eventually the police came over to my friend and me and asked, “Did you see the accident?” We responded, “No but we were following her.” “Was she speeding? “He questioned first. Milton looked at me the very instant I looked at him. The black woman was partially lying across the hood of her car but jerked her head up to stare intently in our direction with a pleading look. Tears and sweat covered her face. I saw something like a shadow pass across Milton’s face. I shook my head and we both responded simultaneously saying, “No, she was not speeding.” The woman seemed to go limp across the hood of her car as a small moan came out of the side of her mouth, “Oh God, oh God!”

            Milton and I drove away after everything calmed down and the police officers said we could leave. “What the Hell did you say she was not speeding for?” he asked me. “She just looked so sad,” I responded. “Besides there was nothing it would have changed and little she could have done to prevent hitting the little boy no matter what”, I responded. “Anyway”, I insisted “You said the same thing that I did! Only because you said I first,” he returned! “OK, we both lied to the police and what the Hell difference would it have made to send that poor black woman to prison where she certainly would have gone for killing a white boy while breaking the speed limit?” I countered. “Who was that boy anyway?” He asked. I told him I had no idea and felt a drop of perspiration run from the back of my hair line down through the collar of my shirt tracing the contours of my spine as it trickled down my back. “Man is it hot!” Milton muttered.

            Later that night on the evening news the woman who announced for the local television station channel 4, was not there for the evening news. A different person came on and said that the regular announcer’s son had been hit by a car and was in the hospital in critical condition. He said that there would be more information later in the broadcast.  I chilled right down to my socks. I immediately ran to the phone and called Milton and said,” That little boy that was run over this afternoon was the newscaster’s son on channel 4!”  He responded with, “Oh no! We’re in some deep shit man!” We agreed that although we had lied, there was nothing we could do about it at that point and we had best keep it a secret for the rest of our lives; no matter what! We did just that. At dinner that night my mother looked at me and asked, “Did you hear anything about the child that got run over just up the street, Tommy?” I said, “No!  I haven't heard anything.” David, my brother responded with, “That’s funny because I passed by in the car this afternoon and saw the police talking to you and Milton on the side of the road. I guess that didn't happen either?”

            Thirty or more years later when Milton’s father died I took his mother a pot of flowers. She was very sweet and appreciative. I didn't see Milton and hadn't seen him for all that time. That was all right with me because as it turned out he was no real friend to me. This I suppose is unsympathetic of me to think this way of Milton after all the time we spent together growing up in Dothan, Alabama. It must have been very hard to start getting bald before you even turned 20 and being an only child, used to having your own way no matter what. Likely it is just that I no longer had anything he wanted or needed. He had by that point gotten a car. I can’t help but wonder what he looks like now? His father was bald and chubby and always wore a little hat; probably Milton does the same thing. I too am so like my father in so many ways. If I had only been more like him in the more positive attributes of his personality and not only the bad ones.  Genetics after all do rule. Funny how that works.

             I heard recently that there are two kinds of friends, those who inspire you and those who just use you. It is sure that a wise person can tell the difference but for some reason I never seemed to be able to.

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