To Make my Word a Better Place

Last week, I saw a woman begging on a street corner in the rain. I held a couple of ones out of the car window for her, and when she reached for them our hands met briefly. Two of us the same age, one a tall elderly lady with silver hair wearing pink; the other stooped and old, cold rain running in rivulets down a sodden gray sweatshirt, hands as cold as ice. Then she looked at me, and for a moment …

… all I could see were her eyes,… black eyes,… helpless,… sad.

Why do I keep thinking about this woman’s eyes?

What comes to me is from forty years ago. A creature—is it a seal?—stands? sits? upright in a smallish murky pool of chlorinated water at the entrance to a dilapidated zoo. There is no way out of the pool, nowhere to hide. I watch as a teenage boy, laughing, hurls an almost full aluminum coke can, which hits the creature with a sound I will not remember.

How often have kids thrown things at this creature? How often has it stood there hopelessly while they laughed at its pain?

I am haunted by its eyes, black eyes that are very human and completely without hope.

But what I’m trying to remember is further back. It is a memory that I don’t want but that has never left me. It is something that occurred when I was no more than 8, and it has something to do with eyes. Black eyes….

My memory shifts from wet, cold to … dry, hot. It was so hot in Georgia. Imagine the hottest day you’ve ever known, dry heat that burns your skin and leaves your lips and eyelids parched, that burns your brain and makes you so thirsty you think you might try licking tree trunks. You are in the woods exploring, as you do most summer days. You’ve just stepped out of the dense briar patch that passes for a Georgia forest into a powdery, desiccated red-clay clearing.

There, I have the memory now: Heat that hurts me. Eyes that wound me. Eyes that no longer beg, no longer want, no longer live.

The eyes are black. He is black. Sweat runs in rivulets from his forehead down his cheeks and drips onto his chest. He is naked to the waist. Muscles in his right arm ripple as he releases hold on an axe and it falls to the dust.

There are chains on his ankles. He is chained to another black man whose gaze focuses on me like a lizard turns and looks at prey. If the lizard tongue were to snap from its mouth, I would cease to exist, and black eyes would stare at nothing where I once was.

Black eyes. There might be 10 men, maybe 12. They are all in chains.

No, there is another man, a white man in a uniform with a rifle up and pointing in my direction. And there is one more white man in a truck over there who is just reaching for his rifle. Except for the arcs the rifles make as they sight on me, everything is still. All eyes are fixed on me.

I think I turned and ran.

By the time I got home, I had thought about what I’d witnessed and decided those men needed my help. After a long drink of ice water, I announced to my mother that I needed to empty her ice trays so I could have enough cold water to take to “all those men.”

“Men? What men?” queried my mother.

I told her about those black eyes and the sweat and the chains and ended with, “They’re thirsty, Mom.”

“Chains,” said my mother.

I told her all about the chains and the rifles, too, and again said, “They’re really thirsty, Mom.”

“Rifles,” she said. Then, “No, you are not going back there.”

“No? But Mom, they’re really, really thirsty.”

Can you imagine: me blundering into that clearing with a pail of water and a cup and some man with dead black eyes grabbing me? He would use me as a shield in a desperate attempt to escape that horror.

My mother was ordinarily amenable to discussion if I thought she might be making a wrong decision. Not this time. “Promise me,” she demanded, “right now promise me that you will stay away from there, that you will not go back there. You promise me right now.”

So I promised. And I didn’t go back there.

But all my life since then I have had this persistent yearning to make my world a better place.


Published originally in Our Memoir Collection: Everybody Has a Story and later in Setting Forth–on a Literary Itinerary