When I was a kid, my brother and I used to call each other horrible names. Our parents forbade us saying “nigger,” so we substituted “jigaboo,” “colored,” “creole,” and “high yellow,” though not in their presence.
Still, words have ways of slipping out, just like if someone tells you never to laugh during a church service, and of course, just as soon as Dr. Winefordner begins preaching, you can’t hold back. So one day while playing puppets with my brother, my puppet, a silver donkey wearing a green hat, called his puppet, a brown horse wearing a red ribbon, a “nigger.” Our mother was in another part of the house and so didn’t hear my puppet, Frances. That was good.
What wasn’t good, however, was that our maid, Dissie, was dusting our room at the moment of the offense. I can still see her, bending behind our clothes dresser, making sure that all offending dust particles would never clog our sinuses. My brother’s mouth dropped open at the utterance, and we both looked at each other for long seconds. And then we continued our game. Dissie said not a word to us then or ever. At the nature of our offense, she didn’t even flinch.
We seemed such delicate young Alabamians back then, the mid-1960’s, when “fighting words” actually could lead there. But once, when I was feeling more powerful than normal, I called my brother a “bastard.” I am four years older than my brother, and at this time I would have been twelve. He didn’t try to fight me, however. He did what any eight-year old boy should have done.
He told our mother, who promptly dragged me away from the gang of boys who were playing whiffle ball with us, marched me inside the house, washed my mouth out with soap—yellow Dial soap—and forced me to spend the next hour in solitary confinement in our bathroom. My punishment only strengthened my conviction at the time that my brother was a bastard. But I have long since forgiven him and trust he’s done the same for me. I never used that word against anyone again.
A few blocks from our house, and on the main route we took to transport Dissie home each day, lived another boy we had a name for, a name our mother herself supplied us. This boy had a head twice as large as normal, with great blue veins sticking out on both ends of his extremely pale forehead. His close-cropped black hair only accentuated those veins, that misshapen skull that also contained eyes that were watery and horizontally elongated.
Apparently, he liked to play in his front yard, as boys like us did so naturally. Sometimes there were other kids with him, but often he stood alone, holding onto the street sign which proclaimed Clarendon Ave. When our car passed that first time, all I knew was that I had never seen anyone like this, had never conceived that a boy my age could be like this: so hideous, so deformed, so scary.
“Look at that boy,” my brother cried. “What’s the matter with him?”
For the rest of that day and over the course of the next few days when we saw him again and again, we were truly horrified. He was all we could talk about, both of us eager to see him again and ready to scream when we did.
And then we adjusted.
We adjusted to his strange wave—and he always waved at us–with fingers much too long and crooked.
We adjusted to his cries as we passed, words we never understood.
We adjusted to his attempts to run after our car, and when we came upon him without his noticing us first, we adjusted even further.
Our friend, Robert, who lived on the next block over from this boy discovered that his name was Rene.
“Rene,” we’d shout at him as we passed, and he’d look up, look for us, maybe in recognition, in salutation. Or maybe in confusion.
“Who were those boys,” he might have wondered.
“What did they want,” he might have thought.
“Why didn’t we ever stop to play,” he might have asked.
If he had only had the words.
The proper word for his condition is Hydrocephalus; water on the brain.
But in the time I’m referring to, the place of my youth—the simpler, crueler era of those bygone days—we referred to Rene as “Mongoloid,” a word we got from my mother who, as usual, was only trying to help.
“He can’t help the way he is,” she’d say.
Which of course told us nothing and surely didn’t stop our wonder, our fear, our persecution the next day and the next, and whenever we saw this boy, Rene, thereafter.
It didn’t stop us from shouting “Hey Mongoloid” from the safety of our blue, 1956 Chevy window as we passed him by. As we ventured on our way to the land of baseball games, comic books, and shopping at our mall for all the proper clothes, with our taunts echoing over and over, until that one day when he wasn’t there.
We didn’t know what to say then or in the next few weeks as it dawned on us, finally, that there are no words to describe a boy whom we would never see again.
Author’s Note: “Stories For Boys,” borrowing a title from a U2 song, is one of those memory pieces that, while you might think would be in the far recesses of my mind, has nevertheless stuck with me all these years. I think it was the word “Mongoloid” that did it. And of course that poor boy’s face and cries.