Lacking Experience of Sophistication; Naive
That Sunday was a sweltering hot day in my small town. The air was still and choked with humidity. There was no movement on the sidewalks around the downtown square. I sat, uncomfortable in my thin shirt and denim cutoffs, with my back to the smooth metal Coke machine on the porch of the hardware store. Inside the store, I could hear the whirring of the ceiling fans and the faint crackle of the radio behind the counter. My brother Rob was inside the hardware store, working extra for Mr. Hines. I peeled my shirt off my stomach and wished for change for a cold drink.
The rumble of a truck engine sliced through the heated day. Dust flew in a thick, red wake behind the rattling vehicle. I watched as the truck pulled to a stop in front of the store. The driver climbed out and he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. I stared unabashedly at his dark face. His skin was a deep, dark hue that looked cool in the midst of the heated afternoon. He climbed the steps to the porch and his eyes met mine.
“Good afternoon,” he quietly intoned in a voice rich and velvety. His accent was peculiar and the gaze from his eyes was steady and even. He looked me directly in the eyes.
“Hallo,” I mumbled, scurrying my feet across the planks of the porch and dipping my head behind the sanctuary of my knees. The man strode inside the store quiet as a cat. I turned and squatted on my knees to peer inside the shadowy store. Mr. Hines and my brother were behind the counter, stocking shelves. The man approached the counter and I saw Rob’s face register surprise at the sight of this dark-skinned man.
“Whacha want Uncle?” My brother sneered at the man. Mr. Hines did not acknowledge the man. He kept stacking cans of mineral oil on the shelf.
Rob’s voice was menacing. Mr. Hinds still did not turn.
“I would like to purchase some nails, please. A sack of one hundred.”
The man’s voice was still rich and even, and it moved through the air like a live animal, reaching out to touch Rob. He visibly started and grabbed the counter.
“I ain’t selling nuthin’ to no nigger on a Sunday. This here’s God’s day. No time for tradin’, ‘specially with a dark ole nigger.”
I pulled myself down beneath the window. I had heard Rob talk this way a thousand times before in my life, either to black people or about them with his friends and with our family. But this time, I felt a feeling so strange, so profoundly new that I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling. With a flash as cooling as a breeze, I realized I felt shame.
“No sales on Sunday,” I heard Mr. Hines say. He was curt and abrupt.
I assumed my original position, back to the cool metal soda machine. The man walked onto the porch. He looked at me again. Directly looked at me in a way that nobody ever did. Not my tired mama, who was always too busy cooking for the borders and yelling at all of us kids to ever look me in the eyes. Not like Rob, whose squinty, beady eyes only lingered on you before he walloped you upside the head or told you to scram. No, he looked at me like he really saw me, Verdant Mae Scroggins, not just a nuisance of a kid. He smiled.
“Hot day, isn’t it?” He inquired gently and pleasantly. I found courage I never knew I had and I answered clearly, “Yes, it shore is. My name is Verdant.”
“Verdant!” he exclaimed with surprise. “What a beautiful name. Lush and green. Your name is a beautiful field, covered in the softest green grass that sparkles with dew.”
My eyes were round and large. I stared at the man’s face. My mama had named me after a road in town off Church Street: Verdant Avenue. I had no idea my name meant something. I felt rocked to the soles of my bare feet. I wanted to grab this man’s hand and ask him what else he knew, what else I meant but as I stared in wonder he reached into his pocket and handed me a nickel.
“Have a drink. With a name like Verdant, you must remain cool so you can remain a metaphor for lush, green vegetation.”
He smiled and walked down the steps to his truck. The engine rumbled to life and the dust flew as the truck broke the silence of the day. I looked at the shiny nickel in the palm of my hand. I clenched my fist around the coin and knew for certain there was more to Verdant for me to discover. In the distance, I heard the deep rumble of thunder. Rain was coming to break the spell of the day, to wash the air clean and provide a brief respite from the sweltering Alabama summertime that was my life. I jumped off the porch and headed toward the inevitable storm.
Kim Blevins-Relleva is a writer, Holocaust scholar, and a Montessori middle school teacher. She teaches history, literature, and writing at Abintra Montessori School. She lives in Nashville with her husband and two sons.