The teacher had organized a “slave auction.” None of the parents objected. After lunch, after the apples and peanut butter sandwiches on white bread pulled from limp brown paper bags, after the tiny cartons of chocolate milk, after the children had been let outside and called back in, after they had kicked off their snow boots and hung their damp cloth coats on hooks in the back of the room, after the teacher counted heads, the girls would be made to line up in a row across the front of the classroom and the boys would bid their little bits of pocket money on each girl. The winner of the bidding would have the services of the girl for one day: to carry his books, maybe. That part was a little vague. She was eleven, the youngest in her sixth grade class. It was 1968.
The girl, with the help of her mother, had dressed carefully for the event. She wore black shoes, white tights, and a white blouse with long sleeves and a Peter-Pan collar. Over this was a red, wide-wale corduroy jumper with three heart-shaped buttons sewn in a vertical row at the yoke. She wore galoshes on her way to school, careful not to splash mud on her tights even when she had to scurry across busy Front Street. She had nightmares about Front Street, about a car coming after her, crossing sidewalks and lawns, chasing her down blocks she didn’t know until she was lost.
The teacher lined the girls up. The row began at the teacher’s desk. It was alphabetical, so the black girls were mixed in with the white girls, and the town girls were mixed in with the country girls. The teacher began the bidding. Boys who liked certain girls were bidding ten, fifteen cents, as much as a quarter. Kathy G. started a bidding war and went for thirty-five cents. Kathy had long straight hair, and she wore it down. She wore culottes and knee socks. She rode the bus to school, but her parents didn’t farm. She wore shoe-boots rather than galoshes. The girl in the red jumper envied Kathy those shoe-boots most of all.
She shuffled sideways toward the lectern the teacher was using as an auction block. The soles of her shiny good shoes scraped along the gritty tile floor. Outside the windows, the winter slush lay exhausted on the curbs. This small public elementary school building had once been the Catholic School. In the hallway outside the sixth grade classroom stood a large statue of the Virgin Mary. The girl never looked straight at the statue when she walked by. It didn’t seem polite. She didn’t know anything about the Virgin Mary, and the word “virgin” made her uncomfortable. The girl lived across the street from an old green house where the nuns who no longer had teaching duties lived. She was frightened of the nuns, of the windows with no curtains.
It was her turn. She sidled to the specified spot and looked out over the desks. Some of the girls were sitting down already, smiling and whispering. The boys slumped backward in their chairs: Haskell, as big as a man, squeezed into his desk; Mike, in a sweater vest, smart and shy; big-footed, big-shouldered Lenny swatted Dan G. on the arm and they both laughed about something; little Dan S. never stopped reading, flipping the pages and ignoring everything. None of them were sizing her up. No one made eye contact. The teacher called for bids. Silence. The girl had expected this. The red jumper was not enough. She dropped her gaze back down to the toes of her shoes, which were not like Kathy’s shoes at all. One of the others had dropped a blue barrette. She moved the toe of her shoe over the barrette and leaned her weight over it, felt it break. Someone in the back of the classroom whispered. The teacher called for bids again. Another pause.
“Two cents!” It was John W., who smelled like he kept his clothes in a garage. Exhaust and frying oil and old blankets. “Anyone else?” The girl could hear relief in the teacher’s voice. There was no one else.
After school, with a desperate, confused gratitude, she tried to carry John’s books. “Nah, nah, you don’t have to do that.” Those were the only words they had ever spoken to each other. They would not speak again until the summer before ninth grade. John sometimes walked past her house in the evening, ambling through a neighborhood far from his own. She sat on the sill of her open bedroom window above the green lawn she cut with the self-propelled LawnBoy, like the lawns in front of all the white houses of all her white neighbors. John would stand below and say “I’ll catch you!”
Years later, she heard John was in Jackson State Prison. She didn’t know why he was supposed to be in there; she wasn’t sure she believed it. She remembered July evenings, the asphalt shingles of her front porch roof warm against the backs of her thighs. She could see the nunnery from there. She remembered John smiling up at her, late sun laying gold planes across his brown cheeks and haloing his afro. He stood steady, holding his arms out, ready to break her fall.
Originally published at matchbook