My co-leader, Ozzie, pulls the Parks Department van into the Safeway and, like always, our crew of kids is already there, clustered around Junior’s lowered Civic at the farthest end of the lot from where we roll up. Like they want to delay dealing with us white guys for as long as possible. But this time, they are knotted up. Their limbs are freshly kinetic, Ozzie and I having just missed the square up and ensuing crack or lunge that kicks bodies off into brawling.
At the center of the action, two of the kids, all elbows and angles, pull and grasp at each other. Limber and long-limbed Shavonte is reaching and demanding—Gimme that, BOY! and little Peter—of course, Peter—balled up around something, is screaming—Bro, get the fuck off me, bro! Don’t fuckin’ touch me! Leave me alone.
Ozzie brakes and flies out of the van, arrowing himself into the fray while I lope haltingly forward, lingering on the outs. To keep perspective of the situation, I tell myself. To be ready to call the cops if things escalate.
“I’m not giving you my milk, dog!” Peter screams, wrenching himself out of his shirt, Shavonte still gripping the collar. In the crook of an elbow, Peter’s cradling a bottle of chocolate milk—a must-have of his to get him going on the morning of each week’s final workday.
Shavonte stalks after Peter, pushing the other kids out of his way. “You’re being a little bitch! That milk’s mines. For ya’ll freeloading on my stash. You a couple of monkey-assed mooches.”
Simon, Peter’s brother, paws at Peter’s side, coaxingly. “Just give it here. C’mon. Give it to him. I’ll get you another one, I swear on God. Just…”
Sliding between the two, Ozzie chest-checks Shavonte. “Dude. Cool it.”
Shavonte is not having it. “Don’t ride up on me like that, you fucking clown. I’ll deck yo ass right now for the fun of it after all this shit.”
Peter posts up. “Yeah, that’s right. Hide behind that white boy like a bitch.”
Simon hisses for Peter to hush his mouth.
“You’re really doing this? On our last day?” Ozzie asks.
But Shavonte shoves him aside and tears after Peter who is halfway up the chain-link fence bordering the lot when Junior steps in.
A head taller than Shavonte and muscle-stacked, Junior body-blocks Shavonte while he uses his free hand to sly the chocolate milk bottle from Peter’s loosened grip. Junior then lobs the bottle over the scraggily elms lining the fence and into the neighboring abandoned lot. As the bottle’s arc descends, it catches a spike of August sun-glint before it pops onto one of the concrete cinderblocks, splattering the sweet, taupe-colored liquid out in flecks for the flies.
“Fuck!” Peter screams and storms off, still shirtless, into the Safeway, hiding his tears with the back of his hand.
Simon charges into the market following Peter, after nabbing Peter’s shirt off the ground where Shavonte discarded it.
Shavonte has become a distant figure headed towards MLK Jr. Way, shaking his head and muttering. Broke-ass motherfuckers.
Ozzie demands to know what the fuck’s going on. “It’s our last day, guys. Really? You can’t hold it together for a minute more? God damn!”
The rest of the crew is silent. They slump against the bumper of Junior’s car, purse their lips, and shake their heads in a look that tells us they don’t want to tell us what happened because they know we wouldn’t understand. They stir and take sips off their cans of Orange Crush.
The kids—all youth of color from the surrounding South-end neighborhoods—are our employees in an eight-week pre-employment program through the Seattle Park’s department which pays them a small stipend to spend their summer digging up invasive weeds from Rock Belt Park. We, two North-end white boys, are supposed to be their supervisors.
Ozzie is pacing and shaking his head and not supervising. So I clear my throat and tell them we’ll head out in five minutes.
“Whoever isn’t in that van in five minutes,” Ozzie adds, “gets cut from the party tomorrow.”
I am twenty-one. The Group Leader job for Seattle Parks is just a summertime gig. A steppingstone to bigger and better things. I am going to become an Instructional Assistant and then Public High School Science Instructor. I am going to be a lifelong educator in public schools just like my mom and dad. And I don’t care that they think I can’t do it.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” my dad asked.
When I asked him why not, he went quiet.
Mom piped in, “We just thought you might want to teach at a private school. Like maybe at Cedar Shore Prep. Principal McArthur has such a high opinion of you and…”
But I want to teach regular kids. Kids who haven’t had the same opportunities as me.
“Openings in public schools can be pretty competitive,” my mom cautioned. “And usually only in pretty tough schools.”
That’s exactly what I want.
“Cliff…” My dad’s forehead was wet and red as rosehip from driving the riding mower over our property all morning in the heat. “You’ve got a good heart. But son. Do you know what those kids are like?”
I have never had a friend who didn’t live in a house. I have never had any black or brown friends or coworkers. I have never had a black teacher or mentor—other than the authors of the books they’ve made me read. From those books, I’ve learned my white islandedness is because of societal factors that denied black and brown people the chance to accumulate wealth and buy houses and go to schools in places like Mercer Island. But change is coming. And I want to be part of that change. Just like my parents have been. I mean, what better way to make change than by being a public-school teacher?
My parents were both quiet as I spoke.
What I didn’t tell them is that at twenty-one, I don’t think teaching a classroom full of black and brown kids will be that big of a deal. I am smart. And tough. More than my parents think. Besides, I’m not racist. Though I wouldn’t say something as obviously false as “I don’t see color,” I don’t think race matters much. It was a bogus concept created by faux scientists who wanted an excuse to oppress black people for money. In my Multicultural Studies class in college, I read all about it. Besides, it’s 2008—the waning years of the Bush administration. There’s a handsome black Senator from Chicago my parents and I and all the white people I know are excited about, mostly because if he becomes President, it’ll prove that race doesn’t matter that much.
The kids pile into the van: Junior, Taytay, Luanna, Simon, and even Peter, stretched collar and all. He’s icing his left temple from one of the thumps Shavonte gave him.
As Ozzie drives, he sucks on the Dum Dum Pop that is always in his mouth. He likes to drive the van despite its bulk because he doesn’t have a car and normally has to ride his bike around everywhere. I ride shotgun and we all bounce the bumps of the road in silence all the way to Rock Belt Park.
Rock Belt Park lies adjacent to the south side of the I-90 bridge—the concrete “rock belt” that divides Lake Washington into north and south bodies. The way the winds and the currents move, the waters on the north side of the bridge run smooth while the south side’s wind-harried waves buffet against the divide like frenzied protestors flinging their bodies into police barricades. Still, the kids have begged and pleaded with us all summer for us to let them go for a swim.
“Quit your bellyaching,” Ozzie has told them. “You go jumping in there and one of you’ll go belly up and we’ll get sued for not being lifeguards.”
Ozzie steers the van into the shaded parking lot on the upper terrace’s northern shoulder. The kids shuffle out and crowd around the brown, metal tool lockers while Ozzie and I stay in the van to check-in.
“Don’t forget to stretch beforehand so you don’t get sore,” Ozzie hollers. “We’ve got to make a good go of it today to get our final acre cleared.”
The kids groan but comply, hopping one-footed while they stretch their thigh muscles. Everyone but Peter who idles by my door. Other than being tussle-rumpled, he’s in his usual clothes: a faded purple shirt, a pair of blue jeans, and an aggrieved expression. Peter cocks his head back and his eyes narrow at me. I do not wonder if he is maybe staring at the green, venous roots snaking beneath my sun-pinkened skin. I do not wonder if Peter is seeing me with greater clarity than I have yet to see myself. I do not wonder this because I’m twenty-one, and skin color doesn’t matter that much.
“You’re not going to get us anything to eat on our last day?” Peter asks. “Not even those day-old donuts or nothing?”
“After the fight this morning? I don’t think so. Besides, this is only the last workday,” I correct. “Completion Celebration’s tomorrow.”
Peter clicks his tongue. “You guys aren’t going to get us anything then either.”
“We’ll order pizza today for lunch. Not that we have to,” I say. “You guys are getting paid.”
“Some bullshit,” Peter says evenly, as if not wanting to waste the full force of his ire on me. He shuffles off towards the others while saying he’s not going to do shit today.
“Just chill out,” Simon chides. “Here! You’re all ashy.”
“Bro, don’t touch me. Just give it to me.”
Simon gives his brother the lotion bottle. As Peter coats his dry elbows and kneecaps, Simon reminds him to get behind his knees. “Like Mom says.”
“I don’t give a fuck what she says.” Peter glowers, even as he does it.
The lush emerald sea of leaves sways in the breeze sweeping in from the lake, shimmers of which we can see through the trees. The waters lapping on the shores have the culling effect of a beautiful woman’s laughter that makes you want to forget whatever you’re doing and run towards it.
Ozzie is already sucking on his second Dum Dum, its white stick a wagging stand-in for a cigarette.
Ozzie abused alcohol in high school to the point that he needed to sneak vodka into Powerade bottles just to function. A school resource officer discovered him, expelled him, and court-compelled him to go to AA meetings. Ozzie kicked it sure enough, but the early addiction has left him with a constant craving for sweets. Ozzie pins all his alcohol abuse on his mother’s imprisonment, not on his own choices. Typical. I shake my head.
“How do you think the day should go?” I ask him.
Ozzie puts on his old, ratty Mariner’s cap. This makes his curly hair puff clownishly out from the sides of his head.
“Start work. Break at ten. Make ‘em work till—I don’t know—noon? And if they’re doin’ good, call in the pizza. Eat at one. Then, assuming they help us clean up okay, let ‘em play around in the water till two. Then we can call it a day. Get out of Dodge early.”
Ozzie’s speech is peppered with old-fashioned phrases like that, inherited from the grandparents who raised him. The phrases each have deep histories rumbling beneath them that I’m not aware of, which makes me uncomfortable since I suspect that Ozzie is also not aware.
I nod at Ozzie’s plan but suck in a breath of fresh air from my open window to organize my thoughts. Instead of helping me think, the green-scented air just makes me dizzy.
“What?” Ozzie asks.
“You don’t think…” I begin. Even before Peter threw me all of his shade, I thought it might be better to just have the kids clean up for a half-hour, then let them take the whole day off to hit the beach. Make them happy. Avoid any more conflict. Leave them with no reason to remember us as hard asses. Leave them with no reason to remember us at all. But I know Ozzie will argue that his plan is magnanimous enough and stick to his script: we are trying to instill a good work ethic in the kids. We are trying to impart the importance of follow-through. This is a job training program.
“You don’t think what?”
“You don’t think we should call the pizza in at 11:30?” I finish, not wanting an argument.
Ozzie agrees and suggests we get going. “So, we can all hurry up and forget each other. By next week, they won’t know us from Adam.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?”
“Don’t you want to make a difference in their lives?”
“We have,” I say with the tentative voice of my mother. But it’s to Ozzie’s back. He’s already stomping off toward the kids to open up the lockers.
Ozzie distributes the gardening equipment—hand trowels, sheers, shovels—then leads the charge down to the amphitheater. Following in Ozzie’s general direction, Junior and Simon jump in and, around the trail, flick pinecones at the girls who bat them away. Peter’s loppers drag in the dirt. I follow from the rear.
“Why you trying to start more drama?” Taytay shrieks at Simon who stuffs a pinecone down the back of her shirt.
“I didn’t start it,” Simon insists.
“You did though,” Peter says.
“How? We both hit it,” Simon says.
“You was hitting it the most. That shit was disgusting. And you said, you’d handle it.”
“It’s not my fault mom didn’t believe us,” Simon says, giving that guilty grin.
“She didn’t believe me,” Peter corrects.
I glean from their continued banter on the subject, that the previous night, Simon and Peter snuck out to go smoke weed at Shavonte’s house. Simon promised to pay Shavonte back the next morning. When Shavonte asked for collateral, Simon promised Peter’s chocolate milk. Peter had nodded off by then and couldn’t argue. The next morning, when they’d asked their mom for the money, she asked what they’d needed it for. And, come to think of it, why had they snuck out last night and come back smelling like some stale-ass cheeba? She had figured it out and, as always, pinned the whole thing on Peter.
But I don’t think much of all of this, chalking it all up to petty complaints of his. I have work to do. I am busy working out the day’s groups in my head.
Since Ozzie drives and leads team-building exercises on breaks, I’ve taken on the task of configuring small groups—trying various combinations of kids, assigning them to different areas, and giving them different roles. But whatever combination I try, the kids eventually congeal in inefficient quadrangles of shit talking and idleness.
Though they all signed up and interviewed for the program, and the program has paid them a stipend, laborious gardening has been a tough sell to the teens. Though most of them live a minutes’ drive away, none of them had been to Rock Belt Park before us starting work, and, though we’ve encouraged them to, none of them visit on the weekends in between to show their families the fruits of their labor—a cleaner, more inviting understory, free from strangulating, fly-infested ivy and thorny bramble.
When we ask the kids why they never come to the park, they all shrug. But on a mid-morning break in the third week of the program, the reason reared its head.
Simon and Junior were looking admiringly at the mansions on the hill, overlooking the park and the water beyond.
“I’ma have me that one.”
“Nah, that one’s mines.”
But Peter put in, “They going to call the cops if you keep staring. If they haven’t already.”
Ozzie took the dum-dum out of his mouth. “Way to be a buzzkill, Peter.”
“Well, that’s what they do,” Peter said. “Like that time that white lady ran up on our moms for letting us sell some lemonade by the bus stop.”
“Don’t worry P,” Junior nodded at us. “They won’t call the cops with our overseers here.”
“That’s fucked up,” Simon laughed.
“We love you too, Junior.” Ozzie shook his head.
“I’m joking!” Junior extended his arms to Ozzie. “We love you!”
Simon kept laughing while Peter narrowed his eyes at us.
When we arrive at the rough-hewn amphitheater set just off-trail, the kids fling down their backpacks and sack lunches and take seats on the benches to hear their mornings’ assignments. They open and clench their fists to loosen up the stiff work gloves—most of them too big for the kids’ hands. The waters of Lake Washington call to us to lose ourselves in her. The kids are always asking to go for a dip. Please, just for a minute. We remind them we’re not lifeguards. Besides, they could go swimming on the weekend! Bring your families, we tell them. Show off your good work!
“The work you be making us do,” Peter says.
“Your parents will be proud of you for it! Nobody is going to call the cops on you for chilling at a public park,” we say.
“I’ll think about it,” Peter always replies, while the others remain disconcertingly quiet.
Despite their protests over the tedium of the work and their frequent devolutions into distractions, our crew has stayed on target, clearing about half an invasive acre a week. The amphitheater, for instance, when we started, was unusable—suffocated in the octagonal tendrils of Himalayan blackberry. Now you can sit on the benches and see a widening circumference of clean understory with perky sword ferns, Salal, and Thimbleberry. I took before and after shots and used my own money to blow them up into posters, which I presented last week on our penultimate Thursday. I told them how the Native flora could grow unencumbered, which would allow Native animals with waning populations like the Douglas Squirrel and the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet to replenish by feeding on their preferred plants. But the kids just rubbed their itchy legs and pursed their lips.
I am still confused by their reaction. I am here to help. Why are none of them thanking me or wanting to know more about what motivates me? This makes me not want to be around them.
After divvying them up into workgroups, I try to motivate them by saying we would take our midmorning break either at ten or after eight tarps-full—whichever comes first. With that, the kids get started.
We measure our progress in tarps-full. When one of the dark green tarpaulins is completely covered, two kids fold and carry the tarp off to the base of a black cottonwood on the field, where they dump it onto a refuse pile that the real Parks Work Crew loads into yard waste trucks the next day.
With Ozzie off with Taytay and Luanna like usual, Simon paired with Junior, and Peter stuck with me, the canopy fills for a while with the sounds of the loppers snipping and shovels chupping amid the acidic dirt batter of earth and rock where blackberry tubers hide their toxic hearts.
About a half-hour in, the kids start talking shit to each other. Their shit-talking goes in rounds and is never with any real malice. It starts after Simon and Junior return from dumping a tarp-full when Junior pauses to inspect his full and velvety goatee in his cellphone. From his adobe-colored skin, the dark goatee stands out and I, who can’t yet grow a full mustache, secretly admire it.
“Why you worrying about how you look so much?” Peter asks. “You look like a road-killed, Mexican teddy bear.”
Junior is half-Mexican.
“Yo head look like a burnt tater tot,” Junior shoots back.
Taytay gets into it, “Well, at least he not like Luanna. She look like a day-old honey bun.”
Luanna has the warm, round features of the islands—Samoa or Hawaii. She isn’t as quick-witted as the others with insults, so she chews on her lower lip to hide her embarrassed smile while biding her time cooking up a good comeback.
“Taytay, you look like….” Luanna begins. “You look like a dirty Q-tip.”
“Ooooo, snap!” Junior laughs. “She gotchyou bad though!”
“Yeah, well. You got a white people name, Lu Anna,” Taytay snorts, saying Luanna’s name as someone from the South might say it.
“Shut up,” Ozzie tells Taytay.
“Yeah, shut up,” Luanna mocks.
“How about be quiet please?” I say.
“Yeah, be quiet please,” Taytay parrots in a white boy voice, before going on. Her giggles gush through her words. “Why not Jay’luanna. Or Dee’luanna….”
“You stupid.” Junior shakes his head, probably thinking about how Taytay’s full name is Tabitha.
“Less flirt, more dirt!” Ozzie trolls by.
“This tarp’s full.” Peter tugs at my sleeve.
“There is no way that tarp is full.” Ozzie points at our tarp, edges of green still showing.
“You’re not even supposed to be over here. Go hang out with your girl, Luanna.” Peter’s face sours in Ozzie’s presence.
“I’m not his girl! Ew,” Luanna laughs.
“Can’t even do it, Peter. Not till you fill up that tarp.” Ozzie squares up his shoulders. He is a half foot taller than Peter. “Then you can go back to playing the dozens.”
Peter turns to snip some more blackberry while mumbling, “There you go picking on me again.”
“Cuz you act like an asshole,” Simon hisses.
But Peter continues, “Always gotta be acting like a fucking opp.”
“What?” Ozzie snaps.
Peter wipes his brow with the back of his big glove before going back to snipping the vines, his mouth sliding into a small smile.
Opp. It’s Peter’s abbreviation for opposition.
“Oh, you heard me. You an opp. That’s all.” Peter shrugs.
“You’re the only one who’s got a problem with me,” Ozzie says.
“I’m the only one who says the problem,” Peter replies.
Ozzie stomps off, muttering woefully about the constant disrespect a man must endure just to make a buck.
“What do you expect? Got us workin’ on the last fuckin’ day,” Peter says. “Make me want to break some shit.”
By the third week, arguments were breaking out over what constituted a full tarp. The kids learned that they could hasten their way towards a break if they emptied their tarps half or a quarter full. They also lingered at the dumpsite, tanning themselves and daydreaming about owning mansions and boats. Ozzie dealt with this by timing them: if dumping a tarp took longer than 7 minutes, each additional minute was taken off their break. Also, Ozzie instituted a tarp-check system where the kids would need to check with us before a tarp could be considered full. But these perfections in oversight have increased squabbling between him and the kids, which has meant him getting irritated and lecturing more and more about good work ethic.
I also notice kids cutting corners: snipping blackberry vines to the ground, then failing to dig at the root; missing sprigs of ivy at the base of newly freed ferns; leaving a holly root poking out of the ground like a grey middle finger to understory health. But I choose to turn a blind eye. The tangles will creep back sure enough, but by then we will be long gone. I fear mockery from the kids and Ozzie’s overreactions, which have gone so far as threatening to dock their pay. Those altercations make me squirm and worry about how we will cross the finish line and how we’ll part ways.
I don’t want anything to happen on this stepping-stone of a job that will jeopardize my career plans. Ozzie moans about how we’ll all forget each other. Forgetting each other is exactly what I’m hoping for.
Playing the dozens isn’t the only thing Peter starts that he can’t finish.
By the second week of the program, Peter emerged as our unspoken least favorite. But it became an openly spoken understanding between us the Monday of that third week.
Ozzie had come back from a long weekend, having taken the Thursday and Friday before off to hang out with his mom, who had a pass home from prison, where she is serving a long sentence for a drug-dealing charge. “Meth,” Ozzie freely admitted to me.
“We missed you!” Junior announced upon Ozzie’s return.
“Why’d you take time off for your mom? She okay?” Simon asked.
“Yeah. It was just to—you know—be together,” Ozzie said.
“He said he took time off to be with her,” Peter said.
“Bro,” Simon shook his head.
Ozzie didn’t respond but went on a shovel-armed skirmish against some blackberry.
Though Ozzie and I both live in northern parts of the city, Ozzie lives in a dark crease of dilapidated apartments in an industrial area along the canal bisecting Queen Anne from Ballard and Fremont. Ozzie calls this area Queen Free-Lard. His studio apartment sits above a used-up retail front always changing hands—a donut shop, a taco stand, a pizza parlor. Ozzie always smells like questionable, nose-curling leftovers.
Peter has commented on that too but behind Ozzie’s back.
Because Ozzie and I live in the north-end, we’ve met for work each morning at Program Headquarters in the old Armory—a big, white molar of a building at the southern shore of Lake Union. We pick up our crew’s van, and Ozzie drives it south to the Rock Belt Park Safeway.
We have a rule that in the morning we can talk about anything but work—girls, sports, politics, family, etc., but nothing about work or the kids. After work though, on our drive back, it’s open season and we complain about the kids—mostly about Peter—all we want.
“They’d all love me if it weren’t for him,” Ozzie complains. “He makes everybody miserable. Including himself! I have never once seen that kid smile. Not counting that wily little shit smile he has when he knows he’s pushed one of my buttons.”
At the end of each workday, we have made a point of dropping everyone off at their houses or apartments. As a thank you for their hard day of work. Simon and Peter’s house has always been our last stop before hopping on the I-5 back to our north-end haunts. The sun would be high and hot, beating down upon the scrubby, yellow grass that clung to the ground like straw shavings. A wrought iron fence lined the front yard of the boys’ clapboard rambler, the driveway empty of cars—their parents still at work.
Ozzie tells them to have a good rest of the day.
Simon smiles and says thank you. Peter stares at us with his head cast back and says, “I’ll think about it.”
“I wonder what his deal is,” I said last week, as Ozzie flew the van down Beacon Hill to the freeway.
“His momma don’t love him,” Ozzie said.
“Jesus, Ozzie,” I said, laughing nervously.
“Well. She doesn’t.” Ozzie shrugged. “Didn’t plan on having him. Think about it. Simon Peter. Simon. Peter. Like an afterthought. Because she had to name him something.”
We tailed the bumper in front of us in the stop-and-go crush of traffic.
I had already been wondering about Ozzie. His cultural appropriating. His in-your-face attitude toward the kids. Could he be a racist?
“Boy, they sure are lazy,” I said to Ozzie, wondering what I could draw out.
“Lazy lil’ assholes,” Ozzie agreed.
“Then again, I guess they all are.”
“Who do you mean?” I asked.
“Teenagers,” Ozzie sighed. “I was.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Me and them,” Ozzie said, shifting his tattered Mariner’s cap. “We’re the same.”
I know he fancies himself as the same as the kids. I saw it on one of our Friday field trips. We went to the University of Washington and one of the Suzzallo library docents showed the kids a video about Seattle’s civil rights history, covering the sundown districts, the Black Panthers, the Chicano movement, Wing Luke, and all that. I used the time to plan group arrangements for the next week, but Ozzie sat with them and watched it all, leaning forward in his chair, like he’d never heard any of that before. He probably hadn’t, as he’d been too drunk to listen in class. He was so absorbed in the docent’s video, he forgot to get on the kids for not paying attention—for slouching, for flicking paper clips at each other, for playing the dozens in whispers.
“How’s that for some inspiration? Y’all got fires lit under your butts now? Monday, I want to see you guys working with that kind of energy,” Ozzie said, pointing to the screen, which had gone dark.
We take our break at ten o’clock at the base of the hill overlooking the sloshing shallows of Lake Washington. The unctuous, fruity smell of suntan lotion wafts around and mingles with body odor and exhaust from the speed boats. Geese overhead honk in their rusty-gate sound. Our sore limbs flag in air that seems to thicken by the minute.
I sit over a clipboard, reconfiguring workgroups as Ozzie calls the kids to circle up for a team-building activity—a game. Probably Stank Eye, like usual.
“You coming?” Simon asks me.
I thank Simon for the invite but explain that I have to plan out the rest of the day.
“He never comes and hangs out with us,” Junior says. “He racist.”
“He is racist,” Peter says, tentatively, as if trying it out as a truth to see how it would feel in his mouth.
“No, he’s not,” Luanna says. “He’s just—him.”
“Let’s go, slowpokes,” Ozzie says. “Circle up!” His arm is already around Simon, and he’s waving the stragglers on with his other hand.
“He look like he about to cry,” Taytay gestures at me.
“I was just joking,” Junior says. “Gosh Cliff, can’t you take a joke?”
“Uh, if it’s funny,” I say, but they are already circling up with Ozzie. Ozzie who slips into easy BVE, culturally appropriating as much as he breathes while my voice gets whiter and chalk-dry, crumbling and cracking whenever I have to talk to the kids—which I try to minimize, so I don’t say anything stupid or worth making fun of.
Ozzie puts his other arm around Luanna. She is wearing a yellow, form-fitting t-shirt, and flats. We have given up trying to get them to wear appropriate work clothing. We instructed them to use a little of their paychecks to go buy some work clothes, but they said the money was so little, they couldn’t afford to. Our moms take most of our checks, Peter said. I get my milk money and that’s about it. Junior even brought the issue up with our bosses, the Parks managers, and they relented, saying they would provide some work clothing. But the supplies have yet to materialize.
“Eww, Ozzie,” Luanna says. “You stink!”
“The cologne of hard work,” Ozzie shrugs.
“Can we jump in the lake?” Luanna asks. “To get off the hard-work cologne?”
“Come on. Puh-leezzzzz!” Taytay begs. “It’s been eight fuckin’ weeks!”
“We do be stanking,” Simon agrees.
“We’re not lifeguards and…”
“Yeah, yeah. No one going to give a shit if we drown! Come on now,” Taytay retorts.
“No dice. You can come with your family on the weekend. We’ve been telling you,” Ozzie says.
“And we been telling you they won’t like it.” Peter motions at the mansions.
“This weekend, I might just mosey on down here then. I’ll get your back,” Ozzie says. “I’ll bring a pizza. I might even through in some of that orange drink y’all like. And chocolate milk for a certain someone.”
“Speaking of pizza. Shouldn’t you guys chop-chop and get to calling that shit in?” Junior asks.
“Who said anything about pizza today?” Ozzie smiles slyly.
“He did,” Peter points at me. It’s funny how the kids never call me by my name—as if speaking my name would call me into the reality of their lives in a way they are unwilling to do. As if having one more silly, underqualified white dude as a gatekeeper in their lives would be just too much to bear.
“If we keep a good pace until 11:30, it’ll be on the way,” Ozzie says. And with magnanimity on his face, he starts the Stank-Eye game.
Stank-Eye is one of Ozzie’s more successful yard games in which you look at the ground and think of a person in the circle to lock eyes with. When the leader says, go, you look up at the person, and if that person happens to be returning your gaze, you scream as loud as you can.
During Stank-Eye, the kids always dissolve into puddles of laughter—even Peter. But today, Peter isn’t having any of it.
“Go!” Ozzie calls out and looks square at Peter.
Peter glares back.
Ozzie screams as the game’s rules require.
Peter smirks. All the kids laugh.
“He probably is afraid of him,” Taytay says.
Ozzie’s face reddens. “Play the game, dude.”
“I don’t care dude,” Peter sneers.
Ozzie unslings his arms from Simon and Luanna, “Play the game, or we’ll all just go back to work.”
“You would pull that shit.” Peter takes a step toward Ozzie. “Pin it all on me. Like your dumbass game isn’t to blame none.”
All the kids stare at Peter.
“Pete,” Simon says. “Just do what he say.”
“What’s he gonna do? Fight me?”
Peter takes four more steps towards Ozzie, getting right in his face.
I stand up, my clipboard clattering to the ground.
Junior grimaces as if he’s just swallowed something rancid, “You are kind of trippin’, Lil’ P. It’s just a game.”
“We…” I clear my throat. “We don’t want to fight you, Peter. We—we want to fight for you—for your future.”
They all cock their heads at me.
My face reddens as the stinky cheese smell of my assertion wafts into my face.
Peter steps back. “The fuck you talking about my future for? You don’t know shit about me or my life. Not now. Not ever. Think I want to come to some white people park on my weekend?”
Ozzie continues, “What kind of job you think you’re going to get with that shitty attitude of yours. Huh?”
Peter turns from Ozzie and pushes his way out of the circle.
“If you can’t even pick up some weeds and play a little game while getting paid for it, how you going to work a job?” Ozzie calls after him, but Peter is outro—running back into the woods.
Simon starts after him. But Ozzie tells him to leave him be.
“Just—Please—I’m sorry,” Simon stammers. “Just please don’t dock his pay. Our mom needs that money for—”
“We’re not going to dock his pay on the last day,” I tell him.
Everyone looks at me.
Ozzie glares at me icily. “Well. I guess we’re not now.”
“I was never going to,” he will tell me later. “It was just a threat—which they probably didn’t believe anyway. Which is part of the whole damn reason all this went to shit.”
With the game imploded, Ozzie gives the kids ten minutes of free time.
Simon and Luanna have a stone skipping contest while Junior and Taytay throw grass clods at each other—the little chunks that the riding mower has left after the weekend’s mow of the dry grass.
When the break is over, the kids follow us out of the sun and into our bowered work area, gloving up and walking with shovels and loppers slung over their shoulders.
“One last push, guys.” I squint back at them.
They look at me dubiously, as if doubting we would ever cease our demands of them.
The incident between Ozzie and Peter unsettles our crew. Their movements go in slow-mo, as if working against invisible webbing thicker than the vines we are trying to uproot. After a half-hour back at work, they are all at barely a quarter tarp-full. I notice this from my knees as I root around the dirt for the tuber at the base of a ruined blackberry crown. I sink my spade at it and wrench it out, tossing the plant’s dry, spindly carcass onto one of the tarps, leaving a thin mist of dirt on my sweat-laden brow. The satisfaction! Where’s their appreciation for it?
“C’mon y’all,” Ozzie calls out. “Less trouble, more shovel.”
They used to laugh at Ozzie’s cheesy calls to work. Now, they don’t even hear him. Taytay balances along a nurse log. Junior rests his chin on the butt of his shovel. Simon breaks sticks over his leg, looking around for Peter.
I tug up a shag carpet of ivy, the ropy strands coming out like the end of our rope with these kids. I hope Ozzie will just let us call it a day.
“Ouch!” Luanna cries. She’s stickered her hands on a blackberry tendril.
Ozzie brings her over to the amphitheater and takes out the first aid kit. Luanna winces as she holds her clam-colored palms skyward and Ozzie cleans up the thorn gouges on her hands. He dabs some Neosporin on with gauze.
Peter appears and sits by them.
“Hey. Look who decided to join us,” Ozzie calls out. “Now, back to work.”
“Boy, he sure likes you,” Peter says to Luanna, who ignores him.
“Wouldn’t you do the same for a sister?” Ozzie asks.
“She not your sister,” Peter says.
“Less chat, more of that.” Ozzie points at the ground.
“Sucks you got partnered up with this corny opp all summer, Luanna. He probably just likes you cuz you too slow to talk back.”
“I’m. Talking. To. You!” Ozzie stomps over to Peter with each step.
Peter stands. “I hear you. I can’t NOT hear you.” The boy holds his hands over his ears as if Ozzie has just boxed them in. “But it’s our last fucking day! We’re kids! We—”
Ozzie steps away, holding his hands aloft to the group. “I want to say something. To all of you.”
Don’t say it. I think. Whatever it is, just don’t say it. Give it a rest. Just give them a break. It’s the last day! We’re almost clear. Scott-free!
“Ozzie…” I say.
I stammer. Forget it. If he wants to make an ass out of himself, fine. See if I care. The kids, after all, are being asses and deserve whatever he’s about to say. “Nothing.”
Ozzie declares, “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first day, 15th day, or the last day. In this life, when you’re on a job, you gotta slave.”
“The fuck did he say?” Taytay asks.
Ozzie moves forward, “You gotta earn every dollar as if someone was out to take it from you. Because they are.”
“Hold up.” Junior flings down his shovel. “What the hell did you just call us?”
“You got to work hard is what I meant.”
“Then why didn’t you just say that then?” Simon asks.
“You gotta work hard. Slave away. Same difference.”
“He said it again. He just called us slaves!” Taytay shouts.
Peter sits back down, leans against a tree trunk, and gives a slight smile, taking it all in.
“That’s not what I said,” Ozzie huffs. “That—that’s not what I meant. And you know it.”
Just say sorry, I think. But I don’t say it. I see in a flash Ozzie blame Peter for his slip of the tongue. And such is his contempt for the boy who has him caught in his error that Ozzie will not apologize. I see the bad feelings writhe and breed within Ozzie like leeches making him stamp his feet and grit his teeth.
“This opp think we all a bunch of his slaves,” Peter laughs.
“Oh yeah, Peter. That’s what I think,” Ozzie spits. “And I go to Klan meetings on the weekends.”
“This shit is fucked up,” Junior says.
“I put on the hood and the bedsheets and all. I’m a regular fucking Klansman,” Ozzie barks, spittle foaming on the sides of his mouth.
The kids all stand arms akimbo, shaking their heads.
“Ozzie…” I say.
“Fuck off, Cliff,” Ozzie shouts. “Now, all of you. Back to work!”
No one moves.
Ozzie’s breath goes ragged, “One more chance. Get. Back. To. Work!”
“No one’s going to do shit for you now, opp,” Peter says.
Ozzie breathes laboriously through a quaking chest. “No pizza!” he pronounces.
There are gripes all around, except from Taytay. Her face is set in a sublime state of confirmation. “I knew they was going to do us like this.”
“They probably would have no matter how hard we worked,” Simon says, looking at the ground with furrowed brows.
“Guys,” I stammer, looking around. From the bases of every sword fern and kinnikinic patch, I see leftover ivy curling out like the fig leaves portending original sin.
“Well,” Luanna continues, already walking towards the waters. “Guess we might as well jump in.”
Like supplicants culled by some hypnotic baptismal call, they stride down to the lapping waters, shovels over their shoulders. At the shore, Junior pogos his shovel into the grass. Luanna and Simon follow suit. They undress, boys to their boxers, girls to swimsuits they’ve been wearing beneath their clothes, perhaps planning to do this all along. Then they step over the concrete retaining wall to pick their way gingerly over the jagged rocks of the shallows, moving carefully on their tender feet. And when the waters round their waists, without protest or hesitance, they dive in, becoming a sepia-toned rainbow, shimmering in the shallows while the three shadows of the shovels lengthen.
Perhaps not knowing what else to do, Ozzie and I follow them to the retaining wall at the waters’ edge, where we watch them swim, splash, and whoop.
“You can go in if you want.” Ozzie’s voice sounds distant. He takes the sucker out of his mouth as if removing a stick from the gears in his brain, which now freed, can turn smoothly enough to realize what’s happened.
“It’s alright,” I say to Ozzie.
But Ozzie has already turned from me, the sun, and the children—now shrieking with laughter and paddling free. He walks towards the trees to slip into their silent, swaying shade.
Much to my surprise the next day, the kids all come to the Completion Celebration—along with all the other kids of color and their white Group Leaders who have all been working in various parks throughout the city all summer—isolate satellites suddenly come together. The kids devour the picnic food our bosses—the Parks Department heads—grill up for them: cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and sweet corn. The other group leaders and I stand around, talking about what’s next for us. Ozzie is standoffish and avoids us.
Before serving up cupcakes, our bosses have us line up and call our kids up by name to receive certificates of completion printed out on linen paper. The kids from the other groups saunter up, for the most part happy to give dap to their leaders and get their pieces of paper. But when our group’s names are called, their faces go ashen and they slink up to us, giving us limp handshakes, and taking their awards, not knowing what to make of Ozzie’s call to “bury the hatchet” and “let bygones be bygones”.
“I’ll see y’all at Rock Belt Park sometime, huh?” he asks each one.
They can’t bring themselves to even look at him, let alone reply. They don’t look at me either.
“Have a good summer,” is all I can manage.
While the others don’t reply and evaporate from my life without another word, Peter murmurs, “I’ll think about it”, not realizing just how much he is giving me to think about—Peter, the one who refused us smiles, who refused to let us pass, who insisted on ensnaring us publicly in personal wounds that people like me would rather he keep secret.
Peter’s is the first tell-tale voice that suggests to me that I’m not going to be able to be just like my mom and dad as an educator. The bulk of my work will be excavating hard and enduring root bulbs planted deep in the soil of my subconscious. The situation with the kids at Rock Belt Park will play out in my Bio and Chem classes which will be polka-dotted with black and brown faces just like Taytay and Peter who don’t want to learn what I have to teach them yet want to graduate. And I will struggle to figure out how to engage them. Many of them will complain about my dry teaching; they will fail my classes; and I will be put on a training track to amend my racial bias, of which this reflection is but a small part.
Meanwhile, to the consternation of me, my parents, and all whites “who are not racist”, the unthinkable happens: a B-list celebrity gangster with autocratic tendencies who’d gotten his dubious realty career started by evicting black people from drafty tenements in the Bronx, clenches the White House in sausage-shaped fingers—fingers licked clean, washed, and manicured by throngs of white people who look just like me. And then, a few years later, a cop who looks just like my dad will use his knee as a blunt guillotine to the neck of a black man who looks just like a grown-up Simon while we all watch. And when I think about the vacancy George Floyd leaves in his community, I will think oddly of Ozzie, who looked so vacant the last time I saw him. Vacant without the kids. As vacant as I’ll be without Ozzie or the kids as my friends.
But I don’t know that now. Today, at our pre-employment program’s completion celebration, I am twenty-one and not racist. I have been marred unfairly by that racist, hot-headed Ozzie’s fuck up. Besides, it’s the summer! Forget them. Forget them all.
The next day, I’m on my dad’s boat, drinking a wine cooler while he cuts across Lake Washington—on the south side for a change. We’re having fun in the chop. The sun burnishes the waters into a blue-gold syrup that peels away in hummingbird wings off the prop. The scent of motor oil blends with the beer’s fizz on my palate to create a cologne-like cloud of good-life ease around me as I live the dream.
I ask my dad to buzz by Rock Belt Park, so I can point out the work I hassled those pain-in-the-ass kids into doing all summer long.
As we cruise by, we can’t see the cleared land because of the tree cover, but I do see Ozzie, sitting alone on the retaining wall, his feet in the water. Sitting beside him is an untouched feast: an extra-large box of pizza, a six-pack of Orange Crush, and a bottle of chocolate milk.
About the Author:
Shaun Anthony McMichael is the editor of the following collections: The Shadow Beside Me (2020) and The Story of My Heart (2021) poetry by youth affected by trauma, mental illness, and instability; and Unyielding Roots (2022), an anthology of Black women’s hair stories. Since 2007, he has taught writing to students from around the world, in classrooms, juvenile detention halls, mental health treatment centers, and homeless youth drop-ins throughout the Seattle area. Over sixty of his short stories, poems, essays, author interviews, and book reviews have appeared in literary magazines, online and in print. He lives with his wife and son in Seattle. Follow him on Instagram (@samcmichael), LinkedIn (@shaunmcmichael), and Twitter (@McmichaelShaun).
Feature image by FreeFunArt / Pixabay