Partners in Crime, Part Three

February 13, 2023
2900 words

When I was four-and-a-half, Jimmy brought home the measles from school. I caught them from him. He got better, but I had difficulties. My ears began to hurt and an extremely high fever wracked my body. My mother knew immediately what was wrong and took me straight to the Emergency Room. While we were waiting to see the doctor, I started having seizures. She yelled at the nurse, "Do something! She has meningitis!" She knew this because her first daughter, Johnny's younger sister Carolyn, had had the same symptoms at the same age, complications of the measles. And Carolyn had died.

The nurse whisked me into a back room of the ER and the doctor started treatment with penicillin. Because the staff wasn't sure if I was contagious or not, they put me in isolation. Nurses bustled in and out covered in so much protective gear they looked like mummies. Some child cried the whole time I was in isolation. I wished the crying would stop.

Eventually, the penicillin kicked in and I got better. The nurses moved me out into the Children's Ward. I got to eat food again. The food showed up on a tray. Suspicious, I picked at the corners of each section with a spoon, but I left most of it alone.

When my mother came to take me home, we were both happy. Outside, on the corner of the street, she had me stop and look back at the hospital. It looked like twenty of our apartment buildings stacked together, a real monolith. On the bus, she sat me on her lap and commented that I'd lost so much weight. "All your baby fat is gone," she sighed. But that didn't matter as much as I was still alive. I don't know if Carolyn could have been saved. I never asked if the doctors diagnosed her correctly or whether they tried penicillin, which in theory would have been available after World War II. I just know she was a daughter, like me, she was born in May, like me, she had an older brother who brought home the measles, like mine, and she got sick and died. I was lucky. I lived.

My mother hadn't wanted another child when she got pregnant with me. She already had a teenaged son, a toddler son, and a husband who was halfway out the door. Although my birth was not planned, I was able to give my mother another chance at raising a female. This time, she go through the same crisis that had stolen her first little girl. That was something that counted for joy.

I also looked like my mother, with her gray eyes, although my hair was blond. I had her thin lips, her facial structure, her small size. I'm sure at times she saw herself in me and was pleased. In the bottom of a drawer, I found a picture of my father. Jimmy had the same blond hair, but it was straight, not curly. Otherwise, Jimmy looked like himself. Because Billy's birthday was in late November and Jimmy's was on December 1st, they shared a birthday cake on Billy's birthday, because he was youngest. She explained we didn't need two cakes so close together. That didn't seem fair to Jimmy. Mom had me, Dirk had Billy. Jimmy had nobody.

While Billy was still a baby, my mother called Jimmy and me to sit down with her at the kitchen table. I knew that meant serious business and I started to go over in my mind what she'd caught us doing wrong this time. She saw the look on my face and reassured me. No, we hadn't been bad. She said that, although we now called Dirk, "Daddy," he wanted to be our real father and adopt us, which would mean going to court to make it legal.

"It's very important to him," she said. I looked past her. Dirk sat in the big upholstered chair, skimming the newspaper, turning the pages, oblivious to us. I wondered if it was so important to him, why was he sitting way over there on the other side of the room. Why wasn't he the one asking us?

"You would have to chance your last name," my mother said.

I erupted with "Susie" and Dirk's last name. Skeptical. Incredulous.

Jimmy and I were already at school and using our last name, Ferron, the one that bound us together. Somehow it didn't seem right to change the one thing Jimmy and I shared together to include that man, somebody I wasn't sure I liked, even if it meant being having the same family name as Mommy and Billy. Dirk probably heard me. Later I wondered if my refusal was the beginning of our war with each other. After my outburst, Jimmy said nothing. And that was the end of the subject.

When we first moved into the Projects, the apartments were mixed about half White families and half Black families. The White teenage boys wore jeans and white t-shirts with cigarette packs rolled in their sleeves so you could see the label of the brand through the fabric. "Camels" were the most popular. At least that's the one I remembered because I couldn't read yet. I only saw the drawing of the animal. The White boys were sassy and foul-mouthed. If one of the Black boys made them angry, they would yell, "Go back to Africa, where you came from." I had no idea where Africa was. I wondered if it was safer than the Projects where gangs of White boys ran around making trouble. The White boys also brought home firecrackers from Chinatown and put them in tin cans which they blew up high in the air. When the boys started putting firecrackers in bottles, we younger kids learned to back off so we wouldn't get hit with glass shards when the bottles exploded.

Mom said our job was to get along with our neighbors, no matter what color they were. That was fine with me. My best friend Debbie lived at the other end of the same building. When Jimmy and I weren't together, Debbie and I hung out since she and I were the closest in age and proximity. Our mothers agreed we were allowed to play anywhere on the concrete in front of the building as long as we didn't mess up the laundry hanging on the clotheslines. We spent a lot of time jumping rope and, when we got tired of that, playing jacks.

When more Black families moved to the Projects, my mother became nervous. I guess she was worried we wouldn't get along with them, because she told Jimmy and me a fable that everybody was made up of all races. Since Jimmy and I had blond hair and light colored eyes, I objected. I didn't look at all Black and, besides that, I had really round eyes, not like my friend Joel and his Chinese family. And we couldn't stay outside for a long time like Debbie without our pink skin turning red and blistery. When Debbie and I compared our skins, hers was dark chocolate with the palms of her hands and soles of her feet a deep tan. My skin was pale pink and spotted with brown freckles. But when we fell and skinned our knees on the concrete steps between the buildings, our blood was the same red.

One time at a birthday party, a woman who was very pregnant attended. Debbie whispered she was told the woman got that way by eating watermelon seeds. She said the woman's husband laughed at that, so we agreed that probably wasn't true. But we weren't sure.

After hearing that, we were careful to spit out every watermelon seed. I asked Debbie, "What if you swallow a black seed, you get a Black baby and if you swallow a white seed, you get a White baby?"

"No," she said. "I think it depends on the mama."

Our local school was Sir Francis Drake Elementary on Harbor Road. It was a straight shot just a few block from our apartment. I was the only White kid in my second grade classroom, according to my mother. Jimmy was "outnumbered," too, but somehow that didn't bother her as much. She kept mentioning me as the "only White girl" in spite of Jimmy being the "only White boy." This made me wonder if sex was involved, as if I might end up with a Black boyfriend when I got older.

The kids may have been Black, but all the teachers and administrators were white, except for one Black third-grade teacher. The rumor on the playground was she had to be meaner to the students than the White teachers to prove she was as good as they were.

On the playground, I watched the girls playing jump rope and sometimes Debbie and I would join in with the younger girls. I never got much past "Mabel, Mabel, set the table, don't forget the red hot peppers!" Those red hots were too fast for me. The older girls were great with Double Dutch jumping, the hypnotic ropes going two ways at once. "Cinderella, dressed in yella, went downstairs to kiss a fella, how many kisses did she give? One, two, three, four. . . ."

In the Projects, I learned to read letters. The first word I remember reading was MILK on the plastic covered carton. There were other words on the carton as well. Some phrases I eventually puzzled out, like "Push Here to Open" on the flaps of the spout. Some words were too long even to try. Later I would decipher Homogenized and Pasteurized, but it took forever. Cereal boxes helped me learn to read, too: "Cheerios, the Oat Cereal Ready to Eat." I don't remember Jimmy remarking about being able to read, maybe because he was two years ahead of me and reading was not new to him. To me, it opened up a whole new world. I started to love going to school where I could learn even more words.

I walked with Debbie to school. Often we would play kick the can, taking turns to see who could kick it the farthest. As we walked along, we picked up other friends, Yolanda in the next building and Joel after that. When my mom said Yolanda wasn't White, I objected, saying she looked just like me, with blonde hair and gray eyes. My mother said she was Puerto Rican and that didn't count as White. That made no sense to me. Yolanda could speak both Spanish and English, which I thought was cool. When we first met her, she would say a couple of sentences in Spanish and then translate them to English for us. The Spanish words sounded so different from English, so smooth and musical. After awhile, she got tired of being quizzed all the time and we just spoke English together.

Joel's family might have been from China, but his mom made the best peanut butter cookies I'd ever tasted. She made them with crunchy peanuts and real butter. Most everybody baked with margarine. Cookies made with butter were amazing, crispy on the edges and soft in the middle. Joel said at home they ate "regular" food and Chinese food. If they were eating Chinese food, they would eat with chopsticks. I'd never heard of chopsticks before and I couldn't imagine not eating food with at least a spoon. "How can you eat with sticks?" I asked.

"Practice," he said. When he was little, he explained, his mom wrapped the chopsticks together at the top with a rubber band with a wad of paper between the sticks, so he could use them like pincers. Eventually, he could manipulate them well enough and he used them separately, just like his parents did.

While Debbie, Yolanda, Joel and I would walk to school together, Jimmy walked by himself. This left him vulnerable to the older White boys who would threaten him for his lunch money, which he handed over without a fight. He never complained, but he couldn't hide his ravenous hunger at when he wolfed down his food at dinnertime. When my mother found out what was happening, she solved the problem by buying the plastic lunch tickets directly from the school and doling them out to us every day. The older boys didn't want those.

Mom would often send Jimmy to the store when we ran out of bread. After several incidents of smashed packages, she would send him off, reminding him how she wanted the loaf of bread brought home.

"Carry it like a baby," she said.

I would make a face at him and he would make a face back at me, because neither one of us had been allowed to carry baby Billy. Then mom would show him how to cradle the package delicately on the crook of his elbow. "And don't squeeze it!"

"Okay," he said. He took the bread money and headed off. The store was down from our building and across to the other side of Harbor Road. The easiest place to cross was at the top of a small hill. When he'd been gone about five minutes we heard a revving motor, then a squeal of tires and a thud. We ran to see what had happened. A heavy woman walked Jimmy up the stairs to our building, clutching his elbow. He was white and shaking from head to toe. The car hadn't hit him straight on, just knocked him down and drove off.

The woman saw Jimmy look both ways, but the car was speeding and came up the hill so fast he couldn't get out of the way. Mom took him to the Emergency Room. Fortunately, he only had bruises, nothing broken.

Directly above us in our apartment building was the only other White family we knew, a divorced woman with two teenage boys. She worked as a nurse. Every night, the boys would play Frankie Avalon singing "Venus." The song would play, Jimmy and I would hear the scratchy revolution of the 45 RPM record at the end for a few seconds, then one of the boys would move the needle to the beginning and the crooning would start again. The sounds of romantic love to last a lifetime made us drowsy and sent us off into the arms of the god of sleep. You could almost hear the longing for love dripping through the ceiling. "Hey, Venus, make my wish come true. . . ."

Jimmy and I decided their mother must work the night shift because we didn't think she would have put up with hours of that love song. Maybe the boys used it to convince themselves that romance still existed in spite of their mother's divorce.

When that family with a single mother moved out, my mother became more anxious to leave. It drove her crazy they were able to quit the Projects while she was still stuck there. And she was a married woman! Our length of stay might have had something to do with Dirk. For several months, my mother drove Dirk to the Shipyard and back home at the end of his shift. He left soon after we got home from school and we were strictly forbidden to go outside during that time, only allowed to watch TV and make sure Billy stayed in his playpen. I asked my mother why Dirk couldn't drive himself anymore. She said his driver's license was taken away.

"But why?"

"Because he was drinking alcohol and driving."


She explained he would be able to get his driver's license back soon. I don't remember him drinking at all when we lived in the Projects. Maybe he was scared if he drank he would get caught behind the wheel again and have his license suspended permanently. When it was dark, we were asleep when she picked him up after midnight.

Then there was his ulcer. While we were still living in the city, he had stomach surgery. Mom said people who got ulcers worried too much. I didn't understand what he had to worry about. He was an adult; he got to do what he wanted. He had a job welding that paid him good money. When he came home from the hospital, he showed everybody his stomach scar as if it was some kind of war wound. The scar was red and made his skin all bunched up and ugly. I thought his behavior was embarrassing.

I was just getting over chicken pox when the rest of the family went to visit Elna and her family in the San Joaquin Valley for the day. They left me at home so I wouldn't infect the other children. I was supposed to stay inside. Once they were gone and I got bored, I went out to play by myself. One of the neighbors saw me and reported back to my mother. My mother had Dirk turn me over his lap and spank me. It was the first time he'd ever laid a hand on me. She said, "This hurts me more than it hurts you," but I knew that was a lie. She didn't feel his thick hands holding down and striking her.

I went outside, crying. Jimmy tried to console me. "We didn't have fun there, anyway."

© Copyright 2022, Bonnie Ferron