David Klausmeier, April 17, 2012
My family lived in a small brick and stucco house just minutes from the Mississippi River front and downtown Memphis. Our community was close knit, nothing but middle income, white families living within the invisible barriers that sheltered us from the struggles of other races and cultures. In the late 60’s there were lots of communities like ours across the south. They were full of adults who struggled to maintain their way of life by shunning those different from them, and children who just wanted someone to play with no matter their skin color. At 19, my sister knew what life was like outside our rigid neighborhood. She was attending college and she had friends who had marched in Birmingham. She had friends who had gone off to Vietnam and never come home. She knew change was coming. It was only a matter of time.
I wasn’t old, just shy of my fifth birthday. My sister hated being a built-in babysitter, but she promised to be available on Thursdays so our parents could keep their regular dinner date with friends at their favorite downtown restaurant. She sat with me on the floor of her bedroom, listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, smoking a cigarette and drawing flowers with my crayons. Our black and white television buzzed in the other room with the weather report and other meaningless chatter. At 6:00 pm. she did her best to coax me into bed, but being five, I refused to cooperate. “I wanna hear Puff.” I whined.
“Alright, but just once,” she warned. She flipped the album over and set the needle arm to play the first song. I danced with my doll and sang along. It was my favorite song. What fun it would be to have a magic dragon to play with! The phone rang and she ran to answer it while I twirled to the music. The song ended and I was just reaching to start it over again when my sister grabbed me from behind. I started crying in protest. I didn’t want to go to bed. The TV was on, the sun wasn’t quite down and I wanted to hear more Puff. All she said was “Hush.”
She carried me all through the house, drawing curtains and blinds, shutting doors and turning deadbolt locks so deliberately they made a heavy clicking sound. Then she turned off all the lights. She grabbed my father’s transistor radio and a flashlight before carrying me into the bathroom. She didn’t say a word as she shut the door and sat me, fully clothed, into the bathtub and then climbed in beside me. I stared at her with tears in my eyes. She was crying too. “What’s wrong?” I sobbed.
“Mother and Dad said we need to hide in here because someone’s been shot and lots of people are angry. We can listen to the radio and you can look at this book.” She handed me The Three Little Kittens from a stack of books beside the clothes hamper. I was frightened so I held it tight. It was comforting and familiar, unlike sitting in the bathtub in my clothes. I didn’t open the book. I felt more secure just holding it and fanning the pages with my fingers. My sister turned on the radio, expecting to hear music from the tiny speaker, but frantic speech filled the room and ricocheted off the walls. I started to fuss so she gently placed her arm around my shoulders and whispered “Hush, I need to hear this.”
The little radio crackled with news of the shooting. There was shouting in the background as voices warned of rioting and violence. People were implored to stay out of downtown Memphis. Even though I was little, I knew my parents were downtown. I began to cry again. Where were Mother and Dad? Were they hurt? My sister shook her head and continued to listen to the radio. My five year old mind ran wild with possibilities. I didn’t want to sit in the bathtub anymore, I wanted to get up and run outside to find my parents. I wrapped my arms around the book and tried to climb out of the tub. “Sit here and I’ll read to you,” my sister said, pulling me backwards and into her lap. She began the story as the radio droned on. “Three little kittens they lost their mittens and they began to cry...”
We spent the evening sitting together in the bathtub, reading the story over and over and listening to the news reports echo all around us. The eerie crackling of the radio and the soft glow of the flashlight belied the scenes of chaos that were unfolding just a few miles away. We listened to the voices as they described the man who had been shot. He was a very important man who had many enemies. They talked about his friends who had held him as he was bleeding. They talked about his wife and his four children. His little girl Bernice was five too. I asked my sister why somebody would shoot this little girl’s daddy and she just shook her head and sighed, “Because he was different and he wanted things to change.” I didn’t understand what she meant. I could not stop worrying about his little girl. What would she do without her daddy? Thinking about her made me miss my own father who was out there, somewhere, lost in the violence and trying to get home. Chants of “We shall overcome” poured out of the little radio. I cried myself to sleep, cradled in my sister’s arms, dreaming of little gray kittens with blueberry pie stains on their mittens and me, standing alone, holding the hand of a grief-stricken little girl who cried for her daddy.
I often think of that night and little Bernice King. She could not know at the time what an impact her father would have or how his endeavors would make their mark on humanity. She only knew that someone feared him enough to take him from her. She would not have understood the desperate violence that followed his death, just the emptiness his absence left in her heart. She would have clung to her mother and wondered when he would ever come home. Her siblings were older and perhaps more keenly aware of their father’s place in history, but Bernice, like me, would have seen him as just her daddy; a gentle man who would leave a legacy far beyond her simple childhood memories.
Bernice and I were born into a biased society that favored one race over another, one sex over another, one class over another. It was unethical, but it was the status quo of the late 60’s and many people feared change above everything else. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tirelessly worked and prayed for change, not only for his own people but for all people. He knew what he was asking would meet fierce opposition, but he persevered because he knew it was necessary and right. He wanted his children to grow up in a world where peace and justice prevailed. Because of his efforts, Bernice and I became a part of that new generation of peace. As we grew up, we saw civil rights take hold across the nation. We saw the war end in Vietnam. After many years of hope we saw her father’s dream take shape and bloom as children of different colors worked and played together without prejudice. This is the gift that Dr. King left us; something tangible and true that flourishes today. It is the dream of a world where our children and grandchildren will live in genuine peace and equality. If we refuse to accept anything less, this world that he dreamed of is undeniably within our grasp.
From the moment he met her, Arthur Davies began having second thoughts about online dating.
She stood before him outside Hereford's, grinning with hand extended. Gaudy, oversized bracelets jangled about her wrist, and her nails glowed electric-orange. He found her smile unsettling: large, Chiclet teeth surrounded by full lips greased in fire-engine red. Her eyes sparkled, unblinking, beneath heavily-mascaraed lashes, which reminded Arthur of . . . something.
Spiders, thought Arthur.
“Shanti,” said the woman.
Arthur was visibly confused.
“Shanti,” she repeated, “Shanti Dubois? From the computer? Yogachick67? You must be A.Davies. Gawd, but you're a cute one!” she cackled. She gripped his hand and pumped it up and down.
Arthur was suddenly overcome with the scent of her perfume, and the sensation was not unlike being smacked in the face with a fruit basket. He managed a smile and gazed at his feet, at the boots that he'd nervously polished three times before leaving home. They couldn't have been any more dissimilar: the fifty-one year old Baptist in his pressed slacks and drab, buttoned-down shirt, and the forty-something Shanti in leopard-print lycra pants, her tight, low-cut halter top barely doing its job – or doing its job perfectly well, depending upon who you asked.
“That's right,” managed Arthur, “Arthur Davies,” and after a pause, “Pleasure to meet you.”
“The same. I hope I didn't keep you waiting long. Well, shall we?”
The steakhouse had a good crowd tonight, and happy conversation could be heard in the dim of the restaurant over tables marked with tea-lights. A perky teenager – Carli, her name tag read – seated them at a small table in the middle of the room. Immediately, Arthur noticed that his place setting had been hurriedly arranged, and this bothered him. He moved his fork to the left of his plate and turned his knife blade inward.
“So,” said Arthur, “Your profile said you're a personal trainer?”
“Oh, I teach yoga. Got my own little studio up in the mountains near Schweitzer. I've got a small but regular clientele. Mostly granola people if you know what I mean.”
“I do,” said Arthur. He didn't.
“How about you, hon? What do you do?”
“I'm an accountant.” He felt like something more should be said about that, but couldn't think of anything interesting to add to the statement. It was an answer sufficient for most people, but she looked like she was still waiting for more. Instead he gave her a smile, and then – fearing that the smile didn't really work – he stopped, and plucked nervously at the pleat on his pants.
“Well that's... real good,” she said in that tone that adults use to praise children. Just then, the waitress broke what could have become an awkward silence and took their drink orders.
“I'll have a caffeine free diet soda, please,” said Arthur, thankful for the distraction.
“Martini,” ordered Shanti, “Grey Goose. Extra olives.”
The waitress flitted away, leaving them alone again.
“I love this restaurant,” said Shanti, “Best prime rib I've ever had. Have you been here before?”
“I have,” said Arthur, “though I've never tried the prime rib.”
“Oh wow,” she exclaimed, grabbing his wrist from across the table, “you gotta try it. Make mine rare. Practically mooing. Hell, slap it's ass and run it past the table and I'll just tear a hunk off!” She pounded the table and howled with laughter. More than one patron glanced in their direction.
Arthur felt his face redden. “Your job certainly sounds interesting,” he said, changing subjects. “What else do you do for fun?”
She beamed. “Oh, I love traveling. I've done Thailand and Nepal. I hope to get to every continent eventually. Sometimes I dunno why I stay in Sandpoint. Family's here; that's mostly why. Ooh! And I love the nightlife. Not like there's much here. Some nights I just wanna dye my hair and go dancing!” She winked and flashed him a grin. “So what's a hot night in Sandpoint for Arthur Davies?”
“I... I can't say I travel much.” Arthur mentally filtered out things not to say: Don't tell her about coming straight home after work. Don't tell her about Lawrence Welk reruns on Friday nights. Don't mention how much better I feel after doing the laundry... twice. “We traveled a bit when I was younger, so maybe that's out of my system. I... read. I like to help out around church. On Sundays I sing in the choir, and I enjoy that.”
“Well it sounds like you do,” she said politely.
Arthur faked a smile, and nervously tugged at his neatly-trimmed goatee. He suddenly felt as if the restaurant was ten degrees warmer. He'd stopped talking. And now she'd stopped talking. And now they were just smiling and nodding and – oh God – the waitress wasn't coming. As Arthur smiled and nodded, he had a fleeting, childhood memory of that plastic Mickey Mantle bobble-head on the dash of his father's '62 Buick, grinning at Arthur, head bouncing as they hit potholes. And this is a pothole, thought Arthur.
“I – I know it doesn't sound too exciting,” he finally conceded. “I wish I could talk to you about travels, or dancing, or – “
“Oh no, that's fine”, she said, looking more relaxed than she had all night.
“ – it's just that, when the website paired us... well, I mean Sandpoint is such a small town and all... I was just so shocked to see – ”
“ – that we were the only two results?” they finished together.
They both had to laugh. Just then, the waitress approached with their drinks.
“Ready to order?” she asked.
“I'll do the prime rib, honey,” said Shanti. “Rare.”
“You know,” said Arthur, “I think I'll have the same,” and then with a grin and a quick glance at Shanti, he added, “or just run it past the table and I'll tear a hunk off.”
By the time they'd caught their breath, the waitress was already gone.