1951: Junior Johnson
His cocked elbows on the banister, his chin nestled in the palms of his hands, he watched from his porch as the five Negro kids—three boys and two girls—played softball. He’d seen them playing in the alley before and thought they lived in the recently converted, now multi-flat building across the alley, where not too long ago Sharon Duffy lived with her mother and the Gogulski twins lived with their parents.
“’Ey, Leroy hit dat ball!” The largest of the group was sitting on the broken cement incinerator calling encouragement to the batter.
Closing his eyes, “Oh, God,” his lips moving in a whispered prayer because he believed that unless he prayed out loud God wouldn’t hear him, “please, God, let it be Norman and Phyllis and Big Rosalind and the Gogulski’s, and God, please, God, let things be like before!” Closing his eyes, tighter, One… two, he counted silently, three…
“’Ey! You, boy!”
Four… five… Slowing, giving God more time, six… seven…
“You! Da white boy on the third floor!”
“Eight…” Knowing his concentration had been broken, knowing his prayer wouldn’t be answered, opening his eyes, he looked at the boy.
Standing in the yard, “’Ey,” the boy called again. “Wh’ch’ya doin’?”
Thinking, Praying for you to disappear. “Uh, nothing,” he said.
“Don’t’j’ya be doin’ that!” The boy said in a loud, friendly tone.
“Standin’ way up there doin’ nothin’! Come on down, boy. We’s only five an’ needs us another player.”
“Me?” Poking his chest with his thumb, “You want me?”
“Lordy! Yeah, you!” The boy threw the ball. Surprised at the accuracy, Mitchell instinctively caught it. “We won’t eat’ch’ya! Come on down!”
Actually, Yeah, I do, wanna play ball with them, he thought. But actually, having no reason to be, he was afraid of them. But if I don’t go down and play with them, they’ll think I’m prejudiced or something, and I sure don’t need a bunch of shvartzer kids, especially that big one, thinking I’m prejudiced.
“So, ya comin’?”
Throwing the ball back, “Yeah, why not?”
Opening the screen door, “Mom,” he yelled, “I’m going downstairs to play ball!” Letting the door slam shut, he clumped down the stairs.
“Hi!” Feeling intimidated, holding his hand forward, “I’m Mitch Lipensky.”
“’Ey, Mitch.” Big, six-foot-three, with thick, muscular arms, “I’m Junior Johnson.” Grasping Mitchell’s hand, shaking it in a strong grip, “An’ this here’s my sister, Katie.”
“Junior? I’d sure hate to see senior.” Smiling, turning, looking at the tall, angular girl, “Hi, Katie.”
Nodding her head, “Mitch,” the girl said shyly.
“An’ this here’s my baby brother, Baby Joe.”
Warming to the group, smiling again, “Do I call you Baby Joe?”
Smiling back, showing two missing front teeth, “Not lessin’ you wants’a be missin’ your teef, too.” A smaller, younger duplicate of his big brother, “You jus’ call me Joe,” the boy said.
“An’ this here’s Leroy. Leroy lives over there,” pointing in the direction of the old Duffy apartment.
“Leroy,” holding his hand out, “hi.”
Leroy hesitated a moment, then, a smile coming to his thick lips, accepting the handshake, “Yeah, hi.”
“An’ this is…” Junior said proudly, “my girlfriend, Lousy.”
“Louise?” Mitchell looked at the girl. “Did he say your name’s Louise?”
“Yeah. Dat’s what I said,” Junior repeated. “Lousy.”
The ebony-colored girl was small, about five-three, and maybe fifteen years old. She had a thin, Caucasian nose with wide, flaring nostrils, sensuous—though not overly, by Mitchell’s standards—full lips and, for a girl her size, unusually large breasts. Her almond-shaped black eyes looking up from under long, thick lashes. “Hi.” she said.
He had watched her from three stories up, especially when she ran the bases, and thought she was pretty then but, close up, God, she’s beautiful! His eyes flicking from her face to her chest, Mitchell saw that Louise was not wearing a brassiere, and could actually see the clearly defined, circular projections of her nipples under the tightly stretched, white cotton T-shirt. Swallowing, forcing himself to keep from licking his lips, sensing a tightening in his crotch as his thumping heart pumped blood downward, the dual thoughts of the dark intensity of her nipples and, if her pubic hair matched the tight nap of the hair on her head, simultaneously flitted through his mind and, Oh, God! I’d love to see her naked! I’d love to f…
Prodding him with his elbow, “Real looker, ain’t she?”
Forcing his eyes from the girl’s chest, looking at Junior, “Uh,” not sure how to respond, “yeah, she sure is.” he said, thinking, He’s got to be fuckin’ her! And Mitchell felt two things: a deep jealousy of this black boy, and at the same time wondered, Is there something wrong with me for even thinking of fucking a shvartzer girl?
“…Ain’t much of’a ball player, are ya, Mitch?”
The game over, the others gone, Junior Johnson and Mitchell were sitting on the incinerator smoking.
Thinking of the hundreds of times he’s sat on this exact spot. Nostalgically remembering when he was a kid sitting on the building block opposite home, looking down Phyllis’ and Sharon’s blouses whenever they’d had their ups. Mitchell looked for the block, but it was gone. “Sometimes I play better than other times,” he answered.
“Yeah, part-time, at a shoe store on Cermack. You?”
“Duz I work? Sheet, yeah! I goes wif my Pa every day!”
“You don’t go to school?”
“Sheet, no! What I needs wif school?”
“How old are you, Junior?”
“Almost sixteen! Shit, you sure are one big guy for almost sixteen!” Really, he’d much rather ask about Lousy, but thinking better of it, “What do you do with your dad, uh, when you go to work with him?”
“Me’n’him works over on Hoyne, in a junk yard. We’s wreck cars.”
He looked at him. “Wreck cars? How in the hell do you wreck a car?”
“Mostly there’s machines that do it. But I’s use a sledge a lot, an’ haul lots’a steel shit ’round in a ’barrow.”
Mitchell looked at the knotted muscles beneath the taut, brown flesh of Junior’s arm. “Well, that kind’a work does great things for your body, I guess.”
“Sheet!” Lifting Mitchell’s arm, “Y’all wouldn’t last a minute wif scrawny things like this.” Smiling, he let the arm drop. “’Ey, Mitch, you wanna come up an’ have a beer wif me?”
“Beer? Your mom’n’dad lets you drink beer?”
“They’s better! I pay half the rent!” Digging in his pocket, removing a shiny object, tossing it in the air, Junior caught it. “So?” Tossing… catching. “You gonna have a beer wif me?”
“I’d like to,” surprisingly, he would, “but it’s about supper time and my mom’ll be calling me any minute… Ain’t that a bullet?”
“Shoo ’nuff.” Handing Mitchell the bullet. “I found it ’tween the seats of an’ ol’ Chevy.”
An inch or so long, the lead slug comprised about half the stubby bullet’s length. Turning the brass cylinder, he looked at the bottom. There was an indentation to the side of the silver percussion cap telling him it had been fired. The tiny imprinted lettering around the base of the cartridge read: Smith & Wesson, Caliber .45.
Bouncing the bullet in his palm, feeling the weight. “I was in the National Guard for three months before Korea.”
“No sheet!” Junior interrupted.
“Yeah, and they gave me a .45, but I never got a chance to fire it ’cause the day I was supposed to, the bastards gave me KP…” Not sure if Junior knew what KP meant, “work in the kitchen. And would you believe this is the first time I’ve even seen a .45 slug.” Hefting it one last time, he handed it back to Junior.
“No, man,” pushing his hand away, “you keep it.”
“No shit! You mean it?”
“’Ey, even if I had me a gun, wo’fo I needs a ol’ shot bullet?”
“That’s really nice’a you! Thanks. Thanks’a lot!”
“Yeah, an’ you fo’ comin’ down an’ playin’ ball wif us.”
“It’s okay, I enjoyed it.”
“Thinks I’ll get me that beer.” Bounding off the incinerator, cutting diagonally across the long yard, “See ya sometime, Mitch,” Junior called over his shoulder.
“Yeah, you too!” Running across the alley, into his yard, “Hey, Junior!” he called from the first floor landing.
Up to his second floor landing, stopping, Junior looked back.
“Hey,” waving the hand holding the bullet, “thanks again!”
That night, in bed, That wasn’t so bad, Mitchell thought.
Never having more than a fleeting contact with people of the Negro race, it was not as though he’d had any preconceived conceptions about Negroes—he’d had no conception at all, and not knowing is what had frightened him.
Those kids aren’t all that different from us. He further thought. Yeah, the way they talk is different, and they have different ideas about going to school and the way they live.
Not knowing that with most people prejudicial and economic conditions dictate the way they’re forced to live.
Ain’t nothing wrong with them! Mitchell concluded, They’re just kids with brown skin… And, God, that Lousy!
Mitchell spent the next twenty minutes concocting a passionate, although totally impossible scenario where he and Louise, to the best of his imagination, were naked together and, shvartzer or not, yes indeed, they did fuck.
(A "Becoming" Excerpt)