Category Archives: ThomasandGeorge

Living History

George was staying over at a friend’s house, and Thomas was batching tonight. He had everything he needed to make his potato leek soup except the chicken broth. Didn’t need much, but none was definitely not enough. The nearest store that might have it was the Country Mart, and that was no sure thing. Thomas sat on the sofa debating with himself for a good five minutes. He didn’t want to go out. He wanted potato leek soup pretty bad. It was cold and he didn’t have his shoes on. It wasn’t that far.

In the end, he put his shoes on, but not his coat, pulled out of the drive without letting the car warm up, and in six minutes was parked in the Country Mart parking lot.

He wanted a quart of the good stuff, but all he could find was Cambell’s Condensed Soup Chicken Broth.  He pulled a can off the shelf, rotated on the ball of his foot, and headed for the check-out line.

There was one person in front of him, a fat guy with a stubble beard and a raggedy plaid flannel jacket. There was half a shopping cart load of groceries on the belt.  Thomas settled in behind the cart. As he waited, he became aware of another person behind him. Turning slightly, he saw a short, fat, slightly scowly, raggedy-looking woman with nothing in her hands. Feeling fairly sure she and the fat guy ahead of him were a couple, he turned to the woman and asked, “Are you with him?”

The woman nodded. She thanked him, and the scowl faded from her face. She moved ahead of Thomas in the line.  This brought the fat man to life. With a straight face he said, “She didn’t want to come up here, cause she knew I’d want her to pay for the groceries.” The fat woman giggled, as did Thomas and the check-out girl. Thomas said something to keep the joke going, and everybody laughed some more.

Thomas became aware simultaneously of a check-out girl approaching the next aisle, and another person behind him. A voice with a slightly foreign accent behind him said, “You go? You be next, go over the next line.”

Thomas turned, and saw a small, dark-complected woman with a few items held in the crooks of her elbows. In dress and appearance, she was clearly East Indian.  She stepped back, and Thomas moved to the adjacent aisle and put his can of soup on the belt.

Behind him, the Indian woman had stopped, but not close. She watched the worn black check-out belt, watched her cans, and stared at the wall, but she didn’t look at Thomas. He wanted to thank her, but speaking to her when she wasn’t looking seemed not quite right, so he said nothing.

The check-out girl rang up his soup, and he paid her. He looked back again, but the Indian woman had her head turned away. From what he could see, she looked tired, or maybe uncomfortable.  Thomas took his sack with the can of soup in it and walked out the door.

It took him to about the count of ten before he worked out what had just happened at the check-out line. He paused, with the key in the ignition, and finished sorting it out.  Here was these two white folks that got separated, and this black guy lets the white woman go on ahead of him.  The white folks thank the black guy, and all share a joke. They’re having a good time.

Now this Indian woman’s watching it all. And then she lets the black guy go ahead of her in the line. No jokes, this time. Not even a thank you.  No good times shared by everybody.

Thomas thought again about the Indian woman’s expression, and the way she had hung back at the check-out line, making no eye contact at all. “What was she feeling?” Thomas  said out loud.  And he remembered now, he hadn’t even smiled at her.  Three hundred years of history rumbled up like a dust storm, and rolled over him with such an impact it pushed him forward toward the steering wheel.

“You oughta thanked her,” Thomas said, “you oughta ‘least smiled. Ain’t you people ever gonna learn?”

The key turned in the ignition. Thomas slipped the car into drive and eased out of the parking spot. The lot was nearly empty, but Thomas crept along,  his mind still not fully disengaged from the vignette in the check-out line.  To no one, quieter this time, Thomas said, “Ain’t you never gonna learn?”


The Poem

Sunday morning was usually do-nothing time around the house. Thomas woke up early, around 6am, but he let George sleep as late as he wanted. Then Thomas would make breakfast. Sundays it was usually fried eggs and Pillsbury biscuits, and baked potatoes with the skins on that he sliced and fried in butter.  When he heard George in the bathroom this morning, he turned on the oven and sliced three large baked potatoes .

George didn’t ask about breakfast, which was usually his first speech on a Sunday morning. His Transformers sweatshirt was on backwards, and he was holding a sheet of paper.

“I wrote something, grandpa.”

Thomas smiled. “That’s good,” he said, “are you going to let me read it?”

George simply held the sheet of paper out, and Thomas took it.

Frying Baked Potatos

They are better fried than if you are stewin them
And if you take the skins off you will ruin them.

by George Brown

Thomas laughed out loud. “That’s good,” he said, “That’s mighty good. You got to write poetry more often.”

George opened the fridge door and found a stick of butter. “I write better on a full stomach,” he said.


It was a rare afternoon that Thomas had no customers, but this day had been slow. His last customer had been a police chief who looked at the mirror-black finish on his shoes, smiled and placed an additional $10 bill in Thomas’s hand. Now the temperature was pushing 90 and neither the awning over his chairs nor the big elm tree under which Thomas had parked would protect a customer from the heat of the day.  He was considering taking the rest of the day off, when he noticed a man on the nearby park bench.

The man appeared to be about 40. His skin was a dark bronze color, and his hair was in braids that fell across this chest and extended almost to his waist. His forehead and hand appeared to be bandaged.  All these features raised Thomas’s curiosity, and when the man looked his way and smiled, Thomas’s curiosity got the better of him. He strolled over to the park bench and paused.

“Today’s going to be a hot one,” Thomas said, “no breeze either.”

The man raised his hand, palm out, and smiled again, and then gestured to the vacant end of the park bench. Thomas sat down.

“That is a fine car you got there,” the man said, “and a fine place for your customers to sit. I don’t recall ever having seen a shoe shine stand that fine, or one on wheels, either.”

“I owe that rolling-stand idea to my daddy,” Thomas said, and added, “I wouldn’t have a new Caddy even if they paid the gas and taxes, but some of the old ones were works of art.”

The man nodded, and extended the hand that wasn’t bandaged. “I’m Bill.”

Thomas introduced himself. His eyes moved from the man’s bandaged hand to his forehead, but considered it rude to make an inquiry and said nothing.  A conversation developed easily. He learned Bill was from South Dakota, he was Lakota, and many of his relatives were living on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  He had traveled south to St Louis after having been offered an assembly job at the Boeing Plant.  Once he realized Thomas was actually listening to his family history, he volunteered his Tribal Name, which was Lootah–“Flint.”  His father’s name, entirely unpronouncable, meant something like “stands-up-to-badger,” and conveyed the notion of great courage and a warrior spirit.

“Sometimes papa would carry the warrior thing a bit far,” Bill said. “He had a strong belief about counting coup. It was important to him to show he had courage. You know, in the old, old, days, the Lakota would prove they were brave by riding past an enemy and just touching him. If they could do that and get away, they earned great respect. ”

“Times change,” Thomas offered.

“I guess,” Bill said, “if you let them. Truth is, I always thought my daddy was right: respect is important. You gotta respect yourself, and you need people to respect you–even if it smarts a bit.” As he said that, Bill held up his bandaged hand.

“Sure looks like that might smart,” Thomas said, gesturing at the bandage.

“I got that from a pimp, up in north St Louis,” Bill said. He hesitated, but when he saw Thomas was prepared to wait for an explanation, he went on.  “I had been watching him. He had three girls that would come up to his SUV and give him money. He cussed one, another one he slapped. I waited until he got out, and then walked across the street and poked him in the chest with my finger. I intended to just keep walking, but this guy was fast. He tripped me, kicked me in the head, and stepped on my hand just like that.  He probably would have killed me, but some guys came by in a Jeep, and yelled and honked. He got back in his car and left.”

“Some might consider that ‘suicide by pimp’,” Thomas said.

“It was not my intention,” Bill said, “I was counting coup. It was a part of my daddy I wanted to keep alive. There aren’t any enemy warriors around St. Louis, but I could find enemies. Didn’t take me long to spot some local drug dealers. When I found one that was staking out a corner, I would park my car out of sight. Then I would walk around the block and come up on him from the other direction. When I walked by I would bump him, or maybe touch him on the shoulder. Most of them were so surprised, they just stood there. Maybe call me some names. I would just keep walking, get back to my car, and drive off. Felt good.”

“Lord amighty,” was all Thomas could say.

“It would sound crazy to most people,” Bill said, “but to me it meant that this bad person had no power over me. I was so strong, he was no threat at all.  It is a way of proving your enemy is weak. In the old days, everybody understood that. Now… I don’t think so. But my daddy understood it, and I understand it.”

Either because he was tired, or because he thought he had said too much, Bill stood up to terminate the conversation. He extended his hand to Thomas, shook it, and left with abruptness that gave Thomas time for nothing but a hasty, “see you around!”

Thomas sat on the park bench for 15 minutes, unaware of the day’s heat, processing his encounter with Bill.  Then he smiled and got up. It was almost 6pm, past his normal dinner time, and he became aware of his hunger. His favorite cafe was a block south, but he turned north, where the Alliance Credit Union was located an equal distance away.

Alliance was the employer of one of the meanest men Thomas had ever encountered in the city.  Raymond Childrington III was an arrogant, patronizing, bigot. When Thomas had applied for a loan last year, Raymond had not simply denied it, but had gone out of his way to make the rejection uncomfortable. In the space of a 5 minute conversation, Raymond had managed to include references to pork chops, watermelon, and Aunt Jemima pancakes–all clearly intended to convey the loan officer’s hatred and disrespect of Thomas’s race.  Thomas left the loan office feeling like he had been slapped.

Now he walked through the door of the loan company and paused. He had no difficulty locating the desk of Raymond Childrington III, as it supported an absurdly large polished brass name plate.  He walked across the spacious lobby,  and stopped beside Raymond Chlidrington III’s opulent black leather upholstered chair. The man looked up at Thomas with mild annoyance and curiosity.  Thomas returned his gaze, extended his arm, and with his index finger, poked Raymond Childrington III precisely on his elegantly tailored suit lapel. Then he turned, walked casually back across the lobby, and out the door. There was no response, except for a startled, “Ah! ah!” from the loan officer. No one followed him out.

Half way down the block, Thomas’s feeling caught up with him. He smiled first, and then laughed. And then he raised his fist in the air and with an intensity that caused a passer-by to take a step to the side, he shouted “Yeah!” Then quietly, to himself, he said, “Thank you, Bill.”



The Temple of the Whale-Eating Microbe

Sometimes Thomas loved George the most when he was most vexing, as when he asked unanswerable questions. This morning, George was eating cornflakes and gazing vacantly at the back of the box when he asked, “Grandpa, what’s a food chain”

“Where’d you hear that word?” Thomas asked.

“Teacher,” George said.

“It means that everything gets eaten by something else. Sometimes when they’re alive like lions eating the antelope; sometimes when they’re dead, like the microbes eating the whale.”

“What’s microbes?”

“Little stuff you can’t see. They’re all over. Some of them make you sick, that’s why you have to wash your hands. Most of them just hang around waiting for you to croak, then they eat you.”

“What eats the microbes, grandpa?”

“Bigger microbes, I guess. Don’t ask. All I know is, there ain’t nothing that doesn’t get eaten by something. Big trees fall, and they get eaten by mushrooms and such. Big things eat the little things, and little things eat the big things. If that wasn’t so, dead things would be stacked up a mile deep. But everything gets eaten, and every thing that gets eaten keeps something else alive, and it just all goes ’round. Eat your cornflakes.”

George finished his cereal, went in the living room, and pulled a history book out of his school knapsack. Thomas stayed at the kitchen table, processing what he had just said. He had never thought of the world in terms of circular consumption, but it was so. Eating something else, and being eaten, that was really the bottom line. It was all required. It was, somehow, all one thing, and the ideas of death and birth were inadequate to explain what was really going on. He didn’t know what was really going on, he concluded; never could. Not enough education. But he was stunned by the magnitude of the idea: every eating thing must be eaten, or nothing stays alive. The power and elegance of the inter-dependency shocked him.

George walked back into the kitchen, and stopped directly in front of Thomas’s chair. “The whale ate Jonah,” he said.

Thomas had no idea where that came from, but he said, “That’s different. That story ain’t about whales, it’s about God. It says God is so powerful he can have a whale eat you, and then if he wants he can make the whale spit up on dry land. Anyway, that old bible story, not many people believe it nowadays.”

On the other hand, Thomas thought to himself, maybe that story has a better explanation than I do. It filled in a gap in the puzzle of why it all happened. A picture formed in his mind of something constantly consuming, constantly renewing, like a snake eating it’s tail. But the picture was like a label, and if you peel it off, you see God.

“I read somewhere whales have little-bitty throats,” Thomas said, as if he’d never stopped talking, “and they couldn’t swallow no human being. But it don’t matter if they could or couldn’t, cause the story is just trying to tell you there is a power over things. And there is something more important than eating and being eaten. You’ll understand when you get older.” Thomas smiled then, at the irony. He was really free-wheeling on the subject and was far from understanding it himself.

“God is what eats you?” George asked, struggling.

“God is a picture people paint on the food chain,” Thomas ventured, “but he ain’t about just eating and being eaten, or about birth and death. He’s about creation.”

“I think if God loved people he wouldn’t feed them to no whale,” George said, “on the other hand, if God didn’t love people, he would have given whales big throats.

Thomas reached out and grasped the sleeve of George’s shirt. He pulled him close and gave him a hug.

“I think when you grow up,” Thomas smiled, “You are going to be the first Scientist Preacher in the world, and you’re going to get a degree from Harvard and then go out and get yourself a church where you help people figure out how it really is. I hope I can stay around long enough, so that I can sit in one of the pews.”

“I will name my church, the Temple of the Whale-Eating Microbe,” George said.

Thomas laughed. “That’s not bad,” he said, “you may have to fine-tune that a little bit, but it’s not too bad.”

Charity is like the old Auntie that gives you new socks ’cause she thinks you’re a little embarrassing in your raggedy ones.

George was fussing as he and Thomas walked down the steps of the Beulah Hall after church.  “I wish you wouldn’t make me go to that Sunday school, George said, “half the kids sleep through it, and the other half act like they been fedex’ed overnight from God to make us see the right answers. And old Master Marcus, he’s just a gooner.”

“What did Master Marcus do that got you so bent out of shape?” Thomas asked.

“He kept talkin’ on and on ’bout charity,” George said. His grandfather noticed George slipped back to street talk when he got angry or upset. He never called his attention to it. Rather, at such times, he just tried to ease over into a more neutral and grammatically-correct manner of speech, to provide a model for George.

“What’s wrong with being charitable?” Thomas asked.

“Old Marcus make me feel like if I ever needed charity, I would be some kind of inferior nigger,” George said

“Well, he’s got a point,” Thomas said, “People usually give charity to someone they consider less well off than they are. And it’s just a short step from there to setting yourself above the person you’re giving to, and setting them below you.  You remember your old Auntie Letitia, Every visit she would bring you socks, cause she knew we were on a thin budget at that time. And she’d give you the socks, ok, but then make a big fuss about how bad it was you didn’t have good ones, and how bad your grandma and me was for not buying you good socks. And she never really said it, but she always hinted that she was a fine old Christian woman for stepping in and making things right.”

George was a little startled his grand father had grasped the point he was trying to make.  “Yeah,” George said with enthusiasm, “Yeah, that’s old man Marcus all right.”

“Well,” Thomas said, “he’s doing the best he can.  He might need a little charity himself, but not the snooty kind.”

Clearly, Thomas was still exasperated about something. “I reads the Bible in those classes, I try to figure out what God’s sayin’,  and it just seems to me God’s talkin’ about more than charity when you’re a Christian.”

“Think about the problem in terms of ‘good people,’ rather than Christians,”  Thomas suggested. “Later on when  you’re older, it will make more sense.  Good people, which mostly includes Christians–well, they are concerned with more than charity, just like you’re suspecting. There are two more things…”

“One of them is love, ain’t it, Grandpa.” It wasn’t a question.

“You’re right, George. But there’s kind of a step in between, as I see it, on the way to being able to love others.”

George waited.

“Charity is mostly about you,” Thomas said, “It’s about feeling approving of yourself cause you’re able to help people less well off than you. Most people like their charity to be known, because their ego is telling them they should be proud of this great deed. They want to feel that other people will look up to them for their charitable acts. So charity tends to make the giver feel better than the receiver.  But now consider kindness.”

“To be kind,” Thomas continued, “you have to do more than see some superficial need a person has. You have to have empathy–that means you have to see them as a person, whether they’re family or not–and have some feeling for the loss or lack in the other person’s life.”

“Grandma was kind,” George said. Again, it wasn’t a question.

“Your grandma knew you like the back of her hand. She could always tell when you needed something important, and she would never rest until she got things fixed.  Most of the time, your grandma would never even tell me what she did.”

“Why not?” George asked.

“I think she felt taking care of you was between her and God, and God already knew so there wasn’t any point talking about it. She wouldn’t exactly tell you what she’d done, either, but she’d always fuss over you a little.”

“If you think about it,” Thomas continued, “kindness makes a person on the receiving end feel a whole lot better than if they got charity, ’cause most of the time in charity, you’re making another person an object, sort of, and doing something to them. But when you’re kind, the other person feels you know some little personal thing about them. You care about them. You’re not putting them beneath you. All that makes a person feel good. But there’s a problem with acts of kindness”

“Is it bein’ kind to Muslims and Hindus?” George asked.

No,” Thomas said emphatically, “a person who’s really kind will be kind to those people too. The problem is, when you’re being kind to someone, you’re still caught up with the act, and not the other person. In your head, you say to yourself, ‘that person over there is in need; I should give him this.’ But it’s all too easy to slip up and think, “I’ll be kind to them if they’re nice to me, or if they aren’t rude or unappreciative, or if they’re not my enemy.”

“Who be kind to their enemies, Grandpa? Don’t make no sense.”

“It don’t if you don’t think it through,” Thomas said, “Kindness is usually what we do when we like people, or at least when they’re nice to us, cause we use kindness as a reward for being worthy of our good will. So kindness just sees other people as bundles of good deeds or bad deeds, and most people figure it’s a lot easier and makes more sense to be kind to the good people. Like, you’re rewarding a good person for being  your kind of good, by being kind.”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with that, Grandpa.” George said.

“What if all the deeds and actions people did was just a layer around the real person?  You see the person’s  good deeds or bad deeds on that outer layer, and you judge a person  accordingly, and then you are kind to the ones that deserve it?”

When George got really interested in a conversation, he simply watched his grandfather, and waited until he started in again.

“What if there was something behind that layer of good and bad deeds, son?  What if the layer of deeds was all the world could see of you, but your real self was behind that layer,  The deeds are kind of like a big wall, that keep you from seeing what’s behind it. But behind the wall there’s your real nature as a spiritual being. As a spiritual being, you’re exactly the same as the shooter on MLK Boulevard, or the drunk who beats his wife in a trailer park.  It’s not that you’re similar, or you’re all connected: it’s that you’re all one Spirit.

“That’s a little spooky, Grandpa.”

“Well, son, you have to spend some time with it. The thing is, if you ever climb over that wall and understand that all of us are just the same thing– a river of spirit flowing through God–then lots of things look different. If we’re all one thing, the same thing, it makes no sense to put others down so that we can seem higher, and it’s not enough to reward people only for doing the things we approve of.  When you get over the wall, you see there isn’t any ‘we’ and ‘them,’ there’s just us, just the one thing and we’re all it.”

To George’s surprise, Thomas pulled a black leather case from his pocket. Inside was a meerschaum pipe, nearly as black as the leather. He stuffed it with tobacco, and fired it up.  Thomas seldom smoked these days, and he only fell back on his meerschaum when he felt in dire need of getting his thoughts straight.

“When you see we’re all just one thing, the same thing, then you have to know everybody has to be valued the same. That value is called by another name, it is called love. We have to love everybody the same, because we are all the same thing: we are the spirit that flows through God.  If our earthly deeds are bad, there should be consequences. A wife beater should be taken out of the house and given counseling until he’s fixed. A gang banger needs to be caught and locked up, at the very least.  But these people are being dealt with in accordance with their worldly deeds. Once you understand that each and every one of them is more than their deeds, you feel different about them. It’s harder to judge them as bad, or evil, or belonging to some other religion, or no religion at all. You may not be able to love them right away, but I know some people who are able to do that.  So I think when you can climb over the wall and see we are not individual bodies covered with a layer of good or bad deeds, and you understand we are nothing but a river of spirit that flows through God, then you can go to Sunday school, and nothing old Marcus can say will ever upset you.”

George took on that inward look he got when  he was trying hardest to process difficult information. Gradually his face softened.

“Can we stop by Ted Drewe’s and get a custard, Grandpa?”

“I ‘spect.” Thomas said.

Then George said, “what if that smokin’ hurt you two, three years down the road?”

Thomas said nothing, but he knocked the fire out of his pipe, replaced the aged meerschaum in its case, and put the case back in his pocket.







Don’t Give Them What They Don’t Want

George was fidgeting. The old stock broker had started talking before he got settled on Thomas’s shoe shine stand, and he  wouldn’t quit.  Thomas asked if he wanted sealer on his soles, and the old guy interrupted him. Thomas tried to talk to him twice more, and couldn’t get his sentence finished. He didn’ t try after that.  He finished the job, and waited as the loquacious customer chatted on while he paid.

George watched him leave. “He was a loud one, grandpa.”

“People usually talk a lot when they’re lonely,” Thomas said.

“Is that why he kept talking when you wanted to talk?” George asked.

“No,” Thomas said, “That’s because he really don’t know how to talk.”

“He had plenty words,” George said

“Lots of people,” Thomas said, “think talking is taking words out of their heads and putting them in some one else’s. But that’s just half the job of talking.  See, George, you can talk at somebody, or you can talk with them.”

George waited. He was daubing polish on a scuff on one of his shoes.

“Harry Brewster,” Thomas said, referring to his recent customer, “he will talk at you all day.  The only thing he cares about is transferring what’s important to him from his head to yours. But when you talk with somebody, two things happen. First, you suppose they might have something they’d like to tell you.   Second, you pay attention to whether or not they’re interested in what you got to say. If they are, you might keep talking; if they’re not, you quit. You shouldn’t be giving people something they don’t want.

Thomas took a minute to sort it out; he’d never really tried to explain two-way communication before.

“You will know when somebody’s talking at you,” Thomas said, “cause you get bored. Maybe you catch yourself thinking about other things, or you scratch an itch. But when somebody talks with you, it’s like they know you’re there. That’s a nice feeling.”

“I don’t understand it, grandpa, and if I did I don’t think I’d be able to do it.”

“Yes you can,” Thomas said, “first you listen, and then you talk.  Other people can tell when you listen. When you do, other people think more of you. When you listen good, you can tell if some body’s got something they want to say. People like that.  And listening is how you grow up.  If you never really learn to listen, you never really grow up.”

“I guess listening is more important than talking,” George said.

“It’s like breathing in, and breathing out, George. One ain’t more important. Each one is the other half of the same thing.”

“That old man you just shined up,” George said, “He cared more about words than he did about people.”

“See,” Thomas said, “You’re doin’ it.”

It’s Not About The Fish

Thomas was conflicted about attending church, but he did bring George sometimes, because he believed George was safer with the Devil he knew. Today he had taken George to the Jubilee Church, which had a White pastor, but a choir which could still put it out there. Afterwards, Thomas took George for a ride across the river.

He let the Cadillac have a say in the destination, as he sometimes did, and they ended up in Granite City, Illinois.  They stopped on Pontoon Road long enough to get a soft serve cone, and then took Route 111 south. Signs mentioned Horseshoe Lake, and Thomas turned in at Horseshoe Lake State Park.  George became alert.

The park road brought them to a sizable body of water, and Thomas turned left and drove along the margin. There were ducks on the water, and Canada geese also, and birds like egrets that George had never seen before. And there were anglers.

Thomas followed the park road along the lake until it crossed a levee of sorts, with water on both sides. Three pickup trucks were parked along the road, and beside each was a man with one or more propped-up fishing poles. All sat on lawn chairs, or the like. Thomas crossed the levee and u-turned in a picnic parking area. He retraced his route past his point of entry into the Park, and followed the road the other direction along the lake.  Now he saw blue heron, clusters of smokey-black waterbirds he suspected were coot, and more of the elegant white egret. George had clambered over the seat, and was pressed against the window, watching the show.  The road terminated at a boat launch, and Thomas drove back the way he’d come, until he found a pull-off and parked the Cadillac facing the lake.

George extracted from Thomas the names of all the birds his grandfather could identify, and then he was quiet.  Presently he said, “Grandpa, I counted 14 different fishermen, and 12 of them was Black.”

“This lake is favored by Brothers,” Thomas said.

They had parked almost directly behind a couple fishing, a Black man with two long poles propped up beside him, and a woman who seemed to be companion rather than angler. They were close enough that Thomas could make out the pattern on her print dress.

“A lot more sittin’ than fishin’,” George remarked. He had observed, without being aware of it, that many of the anglers along the lake shared a kind of style.  They were sitting rather than standing, and their poles were often secured by a metal support of some kind a few feet away.

“Maybe they’re not fishin’ exactly.” Thomas said.

“What do you mean?” George asked.

Thomas hesitated. He wasn’t exactly sure what he meant. He had noticed the same thing George had, and the scene was familiar. He knew, but he didn’t know, what he was trying to say.

“There were times in my life, when I was a boy, that we fished like that,” Thomas said. “We would go and put a line in the water. Some of my folks didn’t have money for a store-bought pole, so they would cut a cane pole along the river. They seined minnows for bait, or crawdads. They didn’t always have a folding chair. They folded up an old blanket and put it on a 5 gallon bucket, and sat on that. Sometimes they fished for food, but that wasn’t all of it. And the times I was in the South, it was the same.  You could see people fishin’ and sittin’,  but it wasn’t like they were waitin’, it’s like they were doin’ something.”

George said nothing, so Thomas forged ahead, trying to find his way.

“It’s like they were doin’ something they learned,” Thomas said,  “that they got from their folks, goin’ back through the generations. I’m not sayin’ White folks don’t do it too, I’m sayin’ that there is something about it that is us.”

Thomas could see  the outlines of the White Man’s stereotype he was flirting with: the Lazy Negro, snoozing away the afternoon on a sunny river bank, no cares and no motivation for gainful activity. It was not what he wanted to convey to George.

“Maybe,” Thomas said, “maybe it is in our roots.  Times past, a Main Street wasn’t always that safe or friendly, but a river bank, you could stake out a place of your own.  There were good things about it: you had your quiet, you had your hope of a good meal, and maybe there were friends within earshot for company.”

George gave his grandfather a look that said, “yeah, I get it–sort of.”

It’s part meditation, and part socializing, and part territorial, Thomas thought to himself, but he knew George wouldn’t understand that. A wave of sadness passed through him. He knew what it was like not to have, he knew the feeling of being excluded, of searching for something–a thing, or a place–that he could build on, or start from. As a very young boy, he had gone with his uncle to sit on the bank of the Mississippi with old fishing poles, old reels, old sofa cushions on the bank, and slick wiggly minnows sacrificed in the thick brown water. His uncle never said of the spot, but Thomas thought he heard him: “This is mine, and I be here.”

Trains of memories made their way through Thomas’s consciousness, memories of being poor and Black, memories of a sometimes-family that could pull together for strength, memories of quiet times on a river bank where there was no one to be subordinate to, and everything–the sky, the damp mossy earth, the musty brown water, the voice of a friend or family just upstream–it all included him. Nothing shut him out. “I’m here,” he could say, “this is mine, and I’m doin’ as I wish.”

Thomas shrugged. He seldom though of himself as being oppressed, or a “racial minority,” and such thoughts repelled him. But from his childhood memories, he could retrieve snatches of experience that connected him to older times and other places where he seemed to be surrounded by White wealth, and White hostility. In the towns, he constantly had the feeling, “wherever I”m at, whatever I’m doin’, it’ belongs to them.”  In such an environment, one could not take up arms, or even negotiate with one’s adversaries. The lines were drawn, the walls were up, and there were no doors. You did the best you could with what you had, in the place you were at. Sometimes that meant seeking refuge on unclaimed territory–a river bank or lake shore–and devising a worthwhile or pleasant activity that belonged to you. Then, if the young White dudes came idling past in their pickup trucks, a deer rifle racked conspicuously in the rear window, and an arm hanging out in the breeze to better display the tattoos, there was no need to put on a smile, or bob your head, or even turn around and acknowledge that They was staring at you.  All you had to do was sit there, on your folded blanket, on your 5 gallon can, and politely show them your back, on which the message was invisibly written: “Here I am, this is me, this is mine. And I’m doin’ as I wish, thank you.”

But Thomas understood that this history belonged to him and not to George. He did not see how he could sculpt the old memories and feelings into a form George could relate to.  Wait a few years, he told himself, and try again.

George, in Thomas’s silence,drifted away to the ducks and egrets, but he came back without reluctance when Thomas finally spoke.

“I can’t rightly tell you,” Thomas said. “I think what you see these fishermen doing is the ways of their ancestors, passed forward to them. It’s like their ancestors giving them a gift that don’t look like much in the box, but when you take it out of the box you see it’s something pretty special.  Or maybe it’s like handing somebody a long rope that goes a way back in the past, and when you pull it a little bit, why, way back there you can see your grandpa, and his father, and your great aunty, and those cousins who lived in Alabama a long time ago.  You got to study it, though, George. It’s like learning your personal history. When you understand what that Black man across the road is doin’ you’ll understand he’s carrying forward some things from our history. And he’s not being lazy.

And as an afterthought, Thomas said “and it’s not just about the fish.”