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The Stories

Sharks

I’d never much liked them anyway, even before they said the words.

It would be a lot better if the blacks weren’t there.  I don’t know why they have to come and mess up everything.

They spoke in a rapid-fire tandem, this pair, peppering our high school conversations with generic diatribes about the blacks, every bit of it delivered in a shrill off-kilter harmony, bad angels in a racist choir.  Even living where we lived, an aggressively conservative town where I’d long before gotten used to the attempts to save my doomed and dirtied soul Young lady, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior? delivered by what in my memory is always a nameless series of pale faces, turtlenecks and cheap neck ties and too white smiling teeth, the college kids brand new to town and ready to notch a fresh mark on their heavenly bedpost, even there, our small and loudly conservative home, their racist language stood out.  

It’s not fair that the black girls keep winning homecoming queen.  I mean, they’re not even pretty or anything.  It’s only because there’s so many of them.

I’d sit at the pocked lunch table with my French fries and paper carton of orange drink, the back of my head itchy from their words.  Freshly creased copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X stuffed in my Jansport, I felt militant and smart.  I wasn’t though.  George Bush’s dad was still president and I was just another white girl who didn’t have the language to challenge two racist girls I’d known since we were all babies. That nobody else sat with us at our nicely integrated school should have clued me in but I didn’t think about it.  None of my good friends shared that lunch period so I sat with these two out of habit, the idea of “friends” still very much based on tradition, those teenage years before you learn you can actually choose. 

For a few months that year I did challenge them.  I’ve never been one to be too quiet, but they never waivered.  I’d always assumed that people were mostly thoughtful.  That if you presented them with data that suggested their idea of thinking might need to be revised and reconsidered that they would adjust accordingly, that the default is decency.  I was wrong.  I learned over lunch when I was sixteen years old that there is a vein of ugliness that runs through some people, like a burl through a piece of maple, a twisted lump in an otherwise perfect log.  I hung in there for a couple of months until I couldn’t take it any more.  Then I retreated to the library where I sat alone with the sandwich and chips that my mom packed me, every day pulling the same copy of Jaws from the shelf behind my favorite table, slowly working my way through it as the school year progressed, the sharks there at least predictable and known and utterly helpless to their own vicious natures.


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