A Game of Taunt
a short story by Nichole Potts
About the Author
Nichole Potts is a native of South Carolina. She was recently published in an anthology titled Inheritance: Selections from the South Carolina Fiction Project. Her work has appeared in Yemassee, Iodine, Windhover, Cold Mountain Review, and other publications. This story is part of a novel-in-progress titled Every Good-bye Ain’t Gone. In her other life, the one that pays a salary, she is a social worker.
” ‘A Game of Taunt’ is wonderful. Every detail, so lovingly selected, moves the story forward and engages the reader fully. It is no surface story, but deep and meaningful. Thank you for posting it online,” — V.P.
Cindy, this white girl from school, sneaks into Paradise from Haven. Well, there ain’t much sneaking to it, since the only thing that separates Haven from Paradise is a wide two-lane street and a patch of trees, but it feels like a long way off. I know; I’ve gone to Haven a few times to pick up somebody or drop off somebody who works there. After you cross the street and make it up the hill, it opens into Haven.
White folks call it Haven because there’s no black people there, which is funny because Paradise is called Paradise because there’s no white people here. I used to think the name had something to do with Heaven, but when I asked Mama she looked at me like I was flicted and asked, “Do you see any white folks around here bothering you?” The only white people in Paradise are the ones that say they’re Indian and Grace’s mama. Grace is my half-sister.
In Haven, the houses look like God placed them Himself. They’re far enough apart to put a whole other house between them. They have neat little flowerbeds shaped in boxes or circles, and grass as thick as a dog’s coat. Some of the yards even have little ponds or yard junk, like cement rabbits and ducks. It’s quiet there, a real heavy silence. You don’t see any kids playing in streets or running through the yards. There is no music blasting from someone’s back yard and hardly any front porches where people sit to watch who passes by. But people are watching, from behind drapes and cracked doors. Watching until you have driven off the street, down the hill, and back into your own Paradise.
Cindy escapes Haven and sails down to Paradise on her pink and green bike to see us. She says that we are the only black girls that she likes. She thinks that she has some special claim on us because her father runs the hotel where our granddaddy gets most of his taxi fares. I don’t know whatall Cindy has to go through to get here or where her parents think she’s at, but she is always breathless when she finds us. Cindy is a sight to see. She is reddish-brown all over – red hair and bunches of brown freckles. Sometimes, when she gets here, she’s so excited that Grace and me almost feel as if we should stand up and clap. It’s as if she gotten away with a ton of devilment.
Cindy’s bike is a vision, better than anything is in the Sears or Western Auto catalogue. It has a little white basket on the front with four yellow plastic flowers stuck to it. Even though she got the bike last Christmas, it still has the white and pink streamers flowing from the handlebars. And right next to the pedal, on the metal plate, it has in wavy letters Sunray Rider. It was the day after Christmas that Cindy came to show us her bike.
“It rides real smooth. See?” she said as she rode around in a big circle in the street.
Grace and I both agreed, ready to have a turn.
“Well, whatall you get?” she asked. She was pleased, and we were pleased too. To have a friend with a bad bike was almost as good having one yourself. Grace and me had got some good stuff that Christmas. Daddy had even gotten us matching dresses, but nothing as nice as a bike named Sunray Rider.
“We’ll show you later. Let’s take turns riding first,” Grace said and reached for the handlebars of the bike.
Cindy jerked the bike away like Grace had dog doo on her fingers. “I’m not letting anyone ride my new bike.” She looked like she smelled something bad.
“Elouise,” Grace said all shocked-like, “she thinks she’s too good to let us ride her raggedy bike.” Grace shoved her hands into the pockets of her new pink jacket and stomped away from Cindy. Grace was frowning hard and squinting through narrow slits at us. Although, Grace’s mama is white, sometimes her eyes turn ink black when she’s mad, and she can spook you. Grace has long wavy hair that she tries to keep in a rubber band, but it’s wild and won’t stay bound. The wind blew some of her hair into her face, and with one jerk-like swipe, she swept it all back into place.
Cindy looked like she was going to cry and then said that we could “touch but not ride.” “Touch but not ride” rung in my ears. I looked at Grace to see how she was taking it – she rolled her eyes and looked like she tasted something nasty. Touch but not ride. We did not ride the bike. There was something wrong, something we didn’t know how to put a name to. The whole thing was so confusing that we didn’t talk about it, but instead we talked about what a phony friend Cindy was.
Cindy still comes from Haven, but we are not glad to see to her. For her punishment, we ignore the bike. Even when she put straws on the spokes, we wouldn’t give it the attention that it deserved. We act secretive around her. Even when there is nothing to tell, we act like we are hiding candy in our mouths. She has since offered the bike, but now we have pride and won’t even look at it.
Whenever Cindy finds us now, she watches us under a cool steady gaze and makes us feel like we should be ‘doing’ something when whatever we were doing before was perfectly fine. The only game we play with Cindy is “taunt,” where we are as nasty as we can possibly be without having to fight. We are like puppies nipping at each other, afraid to break skin.
Today is a lazy type day. The type of day that Cindy will try to find us. We won’t hide, but we won’t be easy to find either. I stop by Grandma’s house to get Grace. One good thing about this situation is that I can hang with Grace whenever I want. Before, it was only when Daddy went to pick up Grace for the weekend.
Grandma is straightening her hair to settle the “in-betweeness”. Grace is not used to the heat and she keeps sliding down in the chair, but her hair is sleek and pretty when Grandma is done.
“So, how should we do it,” Grandma asks.
Grandma’s silver hair is twisted up in the back and loose curls hang down the side of her face.
“Like yours,” Grace says.
“That’s too old for you,” Grandma laughs.
Grandma looks in the mirror and smoothes her hair up. Granddaddy has sneaked up on us and is watching from the doorway.
“Look at you prissing like a school gal,” he teases.
Grandma talked to us in the mirror, “Don’t let that old man fool y’all. I still got the goods.”
He comes up, squeezes Grandma from behind, and kisses her neck. Grandma giggles and pushes him away. “Stop that, you old goat, you see these children sitting here.”
Granddaddy pats my head and leaves the room laughing. He doesn’t look at Grace once.
Granddaddy says things about white people, when Grace is not around. He becomes different when he speaks about them. He leans in too close and hisses words. He points and jabs the air. He told me about how Daddy was accused of stealing the company car the last time he went out of town on business. He says that happened because he is black and driving a nice car. He makes me say I understand. Granddaddy says that white people cannot be trusted, even “when they grin and call you friend.” He thinks they take their skins off at night to lay down with the devil. I don’t know what this means for Grace, if anything. But somehow I know not to tell anyone else about these talks.
Grace has been staying with Grandma since her mother left town. I’m always careful to say that her “mother left town”, not “left Grace.” Her mother has already been gone for four whole weeks. Daddy says that it is not a lot of time, but to a kid like Grace it’s like twenty after school days, sixteen Saturday mornings, and twenty-eight just before bedtimes. But I believe that Grace’s mother will be back, because that’s just what a mother would do. Grace still gets letters and phone calls from her mother, but she has stopped speaking her name. I don’t press Grace about this because she is faithful to her mother like I am to mine, but she is mad. She is mad because she has believed, and served, and waited, and still her mother has not returned.
Grace is different at Grandma and Granddaddy’s house; she moves around like a wind up toy. I know that it’s very different because Grandma gets up way early in the morning. They eat breakfast while the sun is still struggling to rise. Granddaddy says that wallowing in bed will sap your energy and make you lazy. He believes in work. He thinks you learn to work the same way you learn the alphabet. Grace has chores, something her mother did not make her do. Grace must tidy her room, sweep the porch, pick up any trash that has been thrown in the front yard, and wash the dinner dishes. Grandma always compliments a good job, and Grace’s reward is five dollars at the end of the week. Grace never complains about the chores. She just works and wishes.
Grandma pulls Grace’s hair into a ponytail and hot curls ringlets into it. Her hair really is pretty, and if I didn’t have braids, I would want mine done. Grace takes a couple dollars from her stash, because it is her turn to treat at the store. Greene’s Corner Store, which is painted white and trimmed in green, used to be a shotgun house. If it weren’t for the red sign above the door, it would still look for all the world like any other house. But Uncle Isaiah and Aunt Tyree turned it into a real store with shelves that reached all the way up to the ceiling and a jukebox. It has a full-length, wood-railed front porch and high-backed rocking chairs. The porch is always visited with people trying to catch their second wind, folks looking for a piece of gossip and teenage couples that “just happened” to run into each other.
When we get there, Grace rushes over to the candy case, but I linger at the door. I like the feel of wobbly floorboards beneath my feet and the damp cool darkness. I take stock of the shelves stacked with things people never seem to buy, like cans of Blue Bay Salmon, Tender Bake Corn meal, bags of Quaker grits, and Morton’s salt with the silly girl spilling the salt as she walks. The counter is lined with jars of pickled pig feet and neat stacks of sardines in a can. We buy penny candy, some Nu-grape, some Mary Janes, and street chalks. Our cousin, Jaylan, is watching the counter for Uncle Isaiah. Jaylan says that he is really an artist, but he has not found his form yet. So in the meantime, he does light jobs that he says are humbling, but good for his art.
“Hello, darlings,” he calls to us.
Jaylan is wearing a denim jumpsuit with plaid patches randomly stitched to it. Some of our other cousins call him “Gay Land.”
“I see you two are buying enough candy to jack up an elephant and break out a whole crew of people. You really should do better. You’re never too young to take care of your body or skin.”
“Tomorrow,” Grace promises.
“Tomorrow,” I agree.
“Well, today’s the day of your salvation,” he said as he placed the items in the bag. “Oh, I saw that little white girl that likes you all so much ride by on her little bike. I bet she’s still looking for you.”
Grace and I smile at each other and race for the door.
By the time Cindy finds us at the apartments, we are way busy with the design of the world. We know we’re too old to play like this, but we’re grown enough to know it’s our own business. We are using chalk to make the world on white pavement behind the apartment’s utility building. Our world is as big around as a wading pool. Well, really Grace is designing, and I’m taking orders. Whenever I make a suggestion, she just ignores it. So, I’m telling the story as I color in what she tells me to. Normally, I don’t let Grace tell me nothing, but she is best at this. Everything that Grace draws looks real, like it could tear itself from the page and walk around. The picture will be good, and I’ll feel sad to see it washed away. In our world there is a red Kool-Aid stream that flows from a pink cotton candy cloud, and the animals talk and make friendly. There are fairies with soft purple bodies, bored with the lack of mischief. Under a tree, with just one red apple, there are golden dogs with their paws around each other and heads bent close together. I say they are singing dirty songs, but Grace argues they are plotting. This is the talk that we keep still when Cindy rolls up on her bike.
Already Cindy’s face is flushed red and her neck is blotching up. Grace always thinks this is a hoot and names the shades, “Cindy your neck is blow-pop red,” “Your face is beat-up red.”
Cindy gets real still when she does this, like she can will the flashes to stop, but it doesn’t help. Sometimes she screeches at the top of her lungs for Grace to leave her alone, but this only makes for deeper shades of red, and Grace laughs so that she can’t even look at her. Besides, Grace only quits when she’s tired of it. I usually go along with the laughing, not so much to aggravate Cindy but to be on my sister’s side. I think all that red flashing looks like an affliction. To tell the truth, I’d let Cindy work her way back in with us, but whatever it was that we couldn’t name, Grace still feels it.
Cindy wears a green short set with white tennies. It’s something that Grace and I would both wear, but today we’re in our old faded play clothes. But we still feel pretty sharp because Grace is wearing her grown-up Candies’ sandals, and I’ve got my hair cornrowed into a maze, and each braid ends in a string of white and black beads. It’s so pretty, Grace wanted hers done, but her hair is too white-like and wouldn’t stay plaited.
“Hey, y’all. What’cha doing?’
“Nothing much,” I answer.
She circles around the drawing, sitting on her bike, pushing with her feet. She looks disappointed.
“What’cha doing that for?” Cindy asked.
“Because we want to,” Grace says like Cindy is stupid, “That’s what for.”
Grace does not look up from her drawing, but continues to draw a dog with long hair. She is frowning with the effort, concentrating hard. We watch as she uses black to make shadows behind the dog, and then uses her finger to smudge it just so. Grace then rubs light strokes of red into the dog’s hair. She pauses during this to cut her eyes at me. I sniffle a giggle.
“What’s so funny?”
Grace and I make an effort to look confused.
“What?” we shrug.
Grace goes back to her tinting. She draws white tennies and a green collar on the red dog, and I could fall over laughing. Cindy’s face looks hard, and her neck is blotching.
“Hey, you know what?” she asks.
Out of sheer stubbornness we don’t respond.
“You know what?” she asked louder.
Grace lets out this long sigh, rolls her eyes and sits back on her heels.
“My momma knows your momma, Grace.” There is something nasty in her voice. She lets the statement hang there for a while as Grace stares at her.
“My momma says that she can’t believe what your momma has come to.” Cindy looks like she is about to crow.
We’re not sure of what is meant by “come to,” but we can feel the sting of hatefulness in what she is saying. We know it must have something to do with our daddy being black and Grace’s mama being white, or maybe it’s about her mama having lived over here in Paradise, but we do know what ain’t suppose to be spoken. I’m half-way expecting Grace to tear up, because she’s so tender-hearted, but when I look at her, I see that she got her fur up. So, I jump to my feet, “You don’t come over here talking about somebody’s mama.”
Cindy grips the bars of her bike and just for a second look scared, but she holds her own.
Grace stands up, and when she speaks, it’s like a low growl, “Well, my momma knows your momma too and says that she’s just a fat, red, cow.” I’m so shocked I laugh. But tears slide off Cindy’s red cheeks, and I feel a little bad. Then, she throws down her bike and stomps on our drawing, scuffling it up with her tennies. Grace yells like she has been punched in the stomach and tears are burning my eyes.
Cindy is crying and choking out, “You shut up! You shut your mouth.”
I shove Cindy away from our drawing and something between Grace and me rises as thick as creme. We know she’s scared, and it tickles a deep place.
“And you’re going to be a fat cow too,” Grace spits out.
Cindy rushes toward Grace, but Grace head butts into her, and they both fall to the ground. Just as fast as lightning, Grace jumps up, but Cindy lies there for the longest second not moving. Her eyelids finally start to flutter. Her mouth gaps open. We stand over her, big-eyed because she doesn’t look like she is breathing. Then she makes soft gurgling noises and gulps air. Cindy is shaking and crying, trying to get up from the pavement, but we do not help, instead, we’re backing away, holding hands. Cindy is crying these pitiful little sounds as she gets to her bike.
“I’m going to tell,” she whimpers, “I am.”
Cindy can barely pedal, so she gets off and pushes the bike. We watch her disappear down the street, making her way back to Haven. We are shaken, not so sure of ourselves and only a little shamed.
“A Game of Taunt” Copyright ©2001 by Nichole Potts.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.