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Sweet Virginia

January 15, 1991

10:45 P.M.—Lamar Boulevard, Southbound

Rubin watched Jennifer as she breathed in and out through her mouth, puffing clouds on the car window, stripes of light wiping over them from the bright signs of stores and restaurants, past gas stations and convenience stores, past the gloomy horror of the State Hospital.

"Are you warm enough back there?"

"Yes, Mom," he said.

Jenny said, "Yes."

Their mother kept a woolen blanket in the back seat for these times, chilly nights on the way home from movies or restaurants or city council meetings, when the heat didn't reach the back seat. Rubin and Jennifer sat buckled up in back with the blanket pulled up over their legs as Mom drove and listened to the radio.

"...was inaugurated today under the cloud of impending war, the second female governor in Texas history and the first since 'Ma' Ferguson left office in 1935. Meanwhile, the president's deadline passed for Saddam Hussein's withdrawal from Kuwait. A White House official was quoted as saying, 'Only a miracle can prevent war now.' In Austin, local churches rallied for peace..."

Their mother whispered to the radio. "Talk about the meeting. Talk about the meeting."

And Jennifer turned to look at Mom, baby round cheeks, lips pursed in a curious expression, as if to ask, What's that? What's next?

But how can you explain that to a little girl! Rubin was old enough to know that something was next, and it was always bad.

"Mom!" he asked. "Is there gonna be a war?"

"Yes, baby."

"Will you be drafted?" "No."

He turned the idea around. "Will I?"

She looked at him in the rearview mirror and smiled. He had said something cute, but he didn't know what it was. He smiled back.

She'd brought them to Threadgill's again for a late dinner. Rubin could see the hostess's face pull tight like they always did when his mother asked for a table for three. In the silence that followed, his mother kept her own polite smile: she was the customer, she was a slim, pretty lady; and, if it came to that, she was a lawyer. Mom explained all this to them a hundred times, how white people were secretly afraid of them. But they never looked afraid to him, only angry. And while she was slim and pretty and a lawyer, he was short and fat and a fourth grader and he wanted to disappear. They were always the only black people, and she was always making a stand. Easy for her.

Mom had turned from the hostess and smiled at Rubin and Jenny like she'd won, then followed the hostess's clipped steps with her own graceful ones, past the tables and the posters and the lit-up jukebox toward the back dining room.

"No, I think we'd like to sit in front," his mother said. Mom's voice wasn't very big, but the hostess heard it, and held her breath.

"Those tables are reserved."

"All of them?" In the hostess's silence, his mother winked at Rubin and marched them all toward the front of the restaurant, past the jukebox, between the tables, flashing smiles at the white families. Rubin glanced back at the entrance and caught the eye of a scuzzed-out woman in a ratty coat. The woman glared at him and scratched. Even though she had a dirty neck, a hostess was leading her to the fancy chrome counter with a smile.

Rubin took Jenny's hand and followed mom to the very front table, in front of a bay window surrounded by old concert posters and pictures of some slutty hippie lady from the sixties. Green neon lights buzzed over the table. He helped Jenny into her chair. "That's my good little man," Mom said as she settled in. The hostess slapped three menus on the table and huffed away. A flash of wrinkled nose from Mom like they were in on some joke together. But he wasn't in on it.

Half the time, she seemed to miss it, the angry stares and the whispers. The other times she rolled in it, like, "Look how smart I am, look what I got away with!" She left the neighborhood every morning to go to work. He was stuck there, surrounded by the same white kids from the block who hated him, and he walked Jenny to school. How was he supposed to protect her from a bunch of big white kids? Sometimes six white boys would surround the two of them. He couldn't fight them. He couldn't run, not with Jenny there, and they'd catch him anyway. His skin burned as he stood through his punishment. Today his books were knocked down. Yesterday they punched him. Sometimes they'd just stand there and call him names, in front of Jenny, to remind him they were in charge, they could do anything they wanted.

There were days he'd drop Jenny off with her class and almost choke as she looked back at him, helpless, her face reading, "How can you leave me here?"

Mom was always planting time bombs and walking away, making the neighbors mad and sending him off to school, yelling at his teachers and leaving him alone with them. She didn't understand anything.


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