Circa 1950, six years old, maybe seven, St. Louis. I loved Mrs. Iris Banks, and she loved me. While my parents were at work, she helped raise my brothers and me in our all-white neighborhood. In her mid-thirties, her face had a delicate beauty; her brown skin was luminous, her cheeks tinged with light pink. She was thin, even slight, and wore simple cotton dresses with pads in the shoulders. Her black hair was parted in the middle, and gathered in a loose bun.
Iris was, in a way, part of our family, and one special effort was made for me to be part of hers.
I was a little boy on a summer day when my mother was home, and Iris Banks brought her niece to our apartment. We were the same six or seven years old, and our two families had decided we would play together. She wore a pretty, white dress, and her black hair pulled back in braids. Her Auntie Iris and my mother told us to walk to the drugstore, sit at the counter, and have something cold to drink, in circa 1950 St. Louis, when people the skin-color of my playmate and her Auntie Iris were permitted to sit only in top balconies of those “white” movie theatres that admitted them.
To get to the drugstore, Iris Banks’s niece and I had to walk down the alley behind our apartment building. The alley was a favorite hangout for neighborhood kids, none of whom were around that day. There were ash pits for bonfires, dark garages for hideouts during Cops and Robbers, and tons of rocks which became golf balls to smack with a bent, left-handed club we had found near a trash can. The alleys were linear playgrounds, pathways to safe places where, on ordinary days, no harm was done to anyone.
Clutching the coins my mother handed me, I led the way down our alley that passed by the loading dock of the grocery store, where slatted wooden crates emitted the unmistakable odor of discarded produce sitting in the summer heat. We hurried through the store’s parking lot, turned left at the sidewalk, and arrived at the drugstore. Even there, no other kids were around.
Frightened that the drugstore adults will be angry if my playmate and I enter together, I think I’m protecting her–and myself–when I tell her to wait outside. And she does, alone on a wide sidewalk in a strange neighborhood, just a little girl in a pretty, white dress, and her black hair pulled back in braids.
Inside, I ask for two colas, and a woman places them on the tan marble counter where I have spread out my nickels and dimes. I drop a straw into each paper cone; careful not to squeeze too hard, I lift them from their metal holders shaped like hourglasses. Using my hip and shoulder to open the heavy glass, swinging door, I carry the drinks outside, and we sip them while retracing our steps past the decaying produce, dark garages, and ash pits, until we’re safe with my mother, and her Auntie Iris.
2017. Sixty-seven years have disappeared since that ill-conceived adventure. Had my mother and Auntie Iris not considered their two little innocents might have been ordered to leave the drugstore? And then what?
I live in another city now, with its own alleys. I need only to walk by one to wonder if Iris Banks’s niece remembers me as the boy who had tried to protect her–and himself–or the boy who had done nothing but abandon her on the sidewalk. Does she even remember me, at all?
More than often, I reimagine that summer day so very long ago. Iris Banks’s niece skips as we rush down the alley to Citron’s drugstore. The woman who makes our drinks places the paper cones, secure in their metal hourglass holders, on the tan marble counter. My playmate and I giggle as we twist left and right on the revolving stools, and enjoy our drinks. When just the right amount of cola remains in the paper cones, our straws make that awesome sound kids love and grownups can’t stand. We laugh at this, and we know we’ve become friends.
A little boy in shorts, and a little girl in a pretty white dress, and her black hair pulled back in braids, take their sweet time walking up the alley, holding hands all the way home.