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Carpool
Down in the Dirt, v149
(the September 2017 Issue)




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Carpool

Carpool

Marcia Eppich-Harris

    Shannon didn’t know the boy she was picking up. Earlier that morning, his mother had frantically emailed the other parents:
    “Can anyone take my son, Xavier, to play rehearsal? I have a work conflict that I can’t get out of.”
    The maps app said they lived about ten minutes from Xavier. Maybe Ben could make friends with this kid. So she replied to the desperate mom’s email, saying she’d be happy to help. After a series of phone calls and reassurances between the moms, it was all set up.
    “Thank you for helping out,” Xavier’s mom, Karen had said. “I can give you some gas money.”
    “Oh, please, don’t,” Shannon said. “We’ve all been there. It’s fine.”
    Shannon drove with her two kids, Ben and Kit, to the idyllic neighborhood just on the other side of the freeway. These were the real suburbs – picket fences, custom homes. Shannon watched the houses for the address, noting the manicured lawns in various patterns. The kids talked about superheroes in their obsessive way. She had to interrupt to get Ben’s attention.
    “Okay, Ben. We’re here. Why don’t you go get Xavier? Your brother and I will wait in the car,” she said.
    Ben stared out the window for a moment, then suddenly comprehending her request he said, “Okay,” and opened the door.
    “Ring the doorbell,” she called after him. He left the car door open.
    Ben stood waiting on the front porch of Xavier’s house. Then, remembering he was supposed to do something, he knocked on the door. Shannon sighed.
    “Mama,” Shannon’s six-year-old son, Kit, said from the back seat, “Why doesn’t Ben ever follow directions?”
    Shannon looked at Kit in the rearview mirror. Ben was four years older than Kit, yet somehow Kit’s normalcy made him seem older.
     “He’s too busy in his mind, I guess,” she said.
    Ben and Xavier approached the car. Xavier was a skinny, dark-skinned kid – bookish looking.
    Shannon said, “Ben, how about you let Xavier sit up front?”
    The car was cramped. Better to let a guest have the front seat for the leg room. They got in, and as soon as Xavier was seated, she recognized him and her heart sank.
    Xavier put on his seat belt and folded his arms across his chest.
    “Hi, Xavier!” she said, way too cheerfully. “How’s it going?”
    “Hi,” he mumbled, looking at her sideways.
    “I talked to your mom this morning,” Shannon said. “Did she tell you we were picking you up?”
    “Yeah,” he said.
    “Okay, great,” Shannon said. “She’s planning on picking you up after rehearsal.”
    “I know,” he said.
    Shannon backed the car out of the driveway, wondering if Xavier’s mom knew about the incident. They hadn’t been in rehearsals for very long. Maybe Xavier didn’t know all the kids’ names yet. She wondered how Xavier reacted when Karen said that they were picking him up. But she had received no follow-up call, so maybe he had kept his feelings to himself.
    “You have a lovely neighborhood,” she said.
    “Thanks,” he said, his voice sounding like an accusation.
    Shannon had recognized Xavier from his glasses. They had swirling blue plastic frames that stood out in strong contrast to his dark brown skin. He had been standing on the landing at the theatre last week when Ben came running down the stairs, giggling and breathless, red cheeks in shocking contrast to his white skin. He was sweating.
    “Mom!” Ben had shouted. “You’ll never believe what just happened!”
    “What?” Shannon asked, grinning.
    Ben gripped the banister of the stairwell and shouted, “Destiny asked me on a date!”
    Shannon laughed. They were only ten, for Christ’s sake.
    “What did you say to her?”
    “No!” he shouted.
    The general hum of post-rehearsal pick-up time in no way dampened Ben’s extra loud voice. He twisted around the open banister and started running back up the stairs. People had to avoid him as he leapt around.
    “Ben,” Shannon said, slowly climbing after him, hoping that her proximity would slow him down.
    “I said, ‘No!’”
    “Okay,” Shannon said. This is how Ben led her through the conversations he planned in his mind. He would always repeat what he last said until she asked why he did what he did. That was his methodology. She steeled herself for the worst, asking, “Why did you say ‘no’?”
    “Because she’s black!”
    The chatter in the room dipped, held, and then swelled around her.
    Shannon clutched the bannister to stop herself from stumbling. What the hell? This was worse than usual. No matter how well-meaning and liberal they were, Shannon and her husband could never predict the inevitably shocking things that Ben would say. She always reassured herself, We didn’t teach him that. But occasionally, she had to admit, We didn’t teach him otherwise, either.
    Once steady, she jolted up the stairs two at a time. She reached for his arm. He twisted away. On the second try, she grabbed his sleeve, pulling his jacket half off. He stumbled and looked at her.
    “Hey!” he shouted.
    “Come on,” she said.
    “What? I just don’t want to date a black girl.”
    She looked up at and saw an African American boy with blue, swirling glasses frames perched on the landing. He clenched his jaw and stared back at her. She wanted to defend herself: We are not racist. I don’t know where he learned this. Instead, she winced as if slapped. She turned, shame quickening her steps as she hauled Ben down the stairs.
    In the car, Xavier’s glasses reflected the late afternoon sun, occasionally throwing a blinding beam of light toward Shannon.
    She wanted to find something to say – that she thought racism was taught, and they hadn’t taught their children to be racist. That they had friends who were in interracial marriages, and it was no big deal. That she had dated a dark-skinned Indian man in college – didn’t that count for something? That, after the incident, she had talked to Ben about how his words can hurt people, and she told him never to say something like that again. And maybe she got through to him. Maybe he understood. But the cars slowed in rush-hour traffic, demanding her attention. Besides, what could she say that wouldn’t sound like an excuse?
    A flashing sign said there was an accident at 22nd Street, and the left two lanes were blocked. The five-lane highway squeezed down to three. In the distance, a church tower rose out of the low-lying buildings on the western quarter of downtown – the church was across the street from the theatre. She trained her focus on the tower. Oh God, if there is a God, get us out of this traffic.
    She couldn’t concentrate on her children’s unconcerned chatter in the back seat with her peripheral vision holding vigil on the silent child beside her. Xavier stared straight ahead, quietly poised. Her stomach churned and she breathed as quietly as she could through her mouth. It occurred to her that she used to do the same thing on those restless nights when Ben was much younger and couldn’t sleep through the night. At the time, nothing could have convinced her that those early years were the easy part of parenting. Once Ben became verbal, a year or more later than his peers, the things he would say were much harder to contend with than a teething infant, especially since he didn’t seem to comprehend the impact his words had.
    The church tower grew larger with their approach, until finally, she could no longer see the spire. She parallel parked. Xavier and Ben got out.
    “Do you need me to walk you to the door?” Shannon asked.
    Xavier shook his head and said, “No.”
    “Bye, Mom,” Ben said, adding with practiced duty, “Love you.”
    “Love you, too. See you in a bit.”
    She watched them until they made it to the entrance, Ben trotting, oblivious, and Xavier marching, shoulders squared. Xavier looked back at the car from the open theatre door. He stared a moment, then turned, and went on.
    Shannon pulled into traffic without looking. Someone honked.
    “Christ,” she spat.
    “What’s wrong, mama?” Kit asked.
    None of this had gone the way she planned.
    “Nothing,” she said. “Sorry. I’m just ...not myself.”
    Not who I want to be, she thought.
    She pulled up to a red light and leaned against the window. Traffic splashed across the road, a sea of brake lights. The signal turned green. No one moved.



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