Tiger walked home from school, a knot in his gut he hoped a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would ease. The knot had nothing to do with hunger, but he’d found that almost anything between two pieces of white bread made the worry a bit smaller. In the slanting light, his shadow trudged beside him, long and thin when they walked beside parking lots; short, fat, and folded when they passed in front of stores and houses. He could see lots of things in his shadow: the bulging wood buttons on his coat; the fuzzy edge of his boots where they met his pants; the fringes of his scarf that fluttered with the breeze and his movement. He tried to see the outline of his face in profile – the shape of his nose, the full lips the girls all envied – but when he turned to try to catch it, the shadow turned, too. He was left staring at the outline of his ear, with the bulky fold of his cap just above it.
It was too warm for the coat and the hat, he’d argued that morning with Grangie, but his granny always got her way. If she planted her feet and reared back her head, it didn’t matter what came out of her mouth after that. She was the boss. As he went back to his room to grab the coat, he’d mumbled something about the flowers in the yard.
“I hear you, smart ass,” Grangie said. “But it’s gonna rain today and bring in a cold front, the weather man say. First of May don’t mean jack.”
“It means May Day,” he said, tucking a grin into the coat.
She shook her head at him, but smiling. “Well, it won’t kill you to carry it over your arm if I’m wrong, Tiger man.”
“Other kids don’t have to wear coats now.”
“Right. Cause other kids come from trash. They’ll be out at the emergency room or whatever, waiting three hours to have someone tell them they got pneumonia.”
He thought about what Grangie said as he came to the community center. She’d been right about the rain and the chill. The pavement was dry now, but only on account of the cold breeze. He dug his hands into the pockets of the coat and the left one found the shape of something in a wrapper. He pulled it out with a smile, a pack of Reese cups from Easter time. He wondered if Grangie put it there for him. She might have done.
Looking over his shoulder, he decided to sit for a minute and eat the candy by himself. He climbed the steps of the old community center and found a dry spot at the front door. There was a cover over head, a kind of porch roof, but it didn’t have any posts. It just sort of reached up heavenward, like it was always looking for bad weather. It was like Grangie, never letting the other shoe fall, always holding out a hand to catch it by the laces in the nick of time.
The paint on the center was new and old ladies like his grandma were proud of how it looked. They always brought it up in the line at the grocery store. Didn’t the green on the windows come out nice? Made the place look kind of summery. Thank you, Mr. Kennedy, they said, leaning in to share a laugh that Tiger didn’t understand. Grangie and her friends seemed to know another language. It used most of the words he already knew, but they put them together differently. Sometimes they stopped talking all together when a kid came into the room. Or else they started down one road with their words, then paused, giving each other a look. Whatever else they were going to say was routed to their eyes. The others would press their lips together and nod.
“Mmm-hmm,” they’d say. Or, “Well, I told her that would happen.”
Sometimes, “But ain’t that always the way it goes?”
He liked being with Grangie’s ladies sometimes. They didn’t seem to mind him lingering in the room. Without missing a beat, they switched to the language of their eyes and half sentences. Some of them had such big round eyes, when they rolled them, it made Tiger want to laugh. The biggest, roundest, darkest eyes must have all kinds of funny things to say, he supposed, because the other ladies laughed, too. He’d stand at Grangie’s side, resting his cheek against her shoulder and listening and not listening. She might reach across the table, take the lid off the cookie jar and hold one out for him, all without looking at him or breaking the chatter.
If the ladies started to talk about him, it made him happy and worried all at once.
“Angie, ain’t he got your Joe-Joe’s eyes?”
“Little boys are sometimes prettier than the little girls, you know what I’m saying?”
“Look at them lips. Ruby red.”
“Oh, girl. Now he’s blushing.”
“Preening more like,” Grangie would say. “Now stop fluttering your lashes like a you know what. Get on out of here, Tiger man. Go play with Teeny’s girls. They’re out on the porch. But play nice or I’ll get you.”
Then she’d add a look that sealed the promise. He’d leave them with heavy feet, dreading playing with the other kids. He wasn’t like anyone else, he felt too keenly, and it made it hard for him to warm up. Kids at school said he was a snob. Or else a sissy. Two older boys had taken to taunting him in the halls.
“Queer,” they’d whisper as he approached his locker.
They were tall boys, handsome already, dressed better than most. If there was a new kind of shoes, they were the first to wear them. Had they lived just one street over, he understood, they’d be going to the big school out near the library. Instead they went to his school like a handful of other white kids.
One of the boys already had a shadow over his lip where a mustache would want to grow one day. The other had large hands with broad knuckles that could make a hateful fist, but still they fascinated Tiger. He didn’t know why yet, but he always noticed those hands, how the fingers were long, how the knuckles were dusted with golden brown hair like a man’s hand. When he saw the pair of boys coming along the hall toward him, he had two thoughts, one chasing the other: first he thought how good-looking they were, like boys on album covers at the record store; then he remembered anew who they were and what was to come. Each of the two thoughts left him with the knot in his stomach. He lowered his eyes and tried to think of other things, hoping they would not notice him. He longed to be invisible until they parted like the Red Sea and moved around and past him.
Lots of things left him with a knot in his stomach. He was used to the feeling of one gathering and thickening there, not long after the last one had slipped loose. His face, one of Grangie’s ladies once said, was a worried face. “Some children do more than others,” she said, her own old face looking sad and heavy. She tucked her chin close to her neck, her jowls making her into a kind of hound dog for a moment.
Grangie had given him a long look, then frowned into her coffee. She slid her flask out from her apron pocket, gave the mug a little pinch of encouragement, and sipped the brew again. “Well, I try to keep things together, girl, but you know…”
The Reese cups were good. He pushed out the center with the tip of his finger and ate that first. It was best to save the thick, chocolate edges for last. “It’s like they’re little peanut butter pies with chocolate crusts. I love them,” he said softly to himself. The breeze made the little baby leaves on the trees whisper even as he noticed the sound of a train rumbling through town in the distance.
In a month, they’d be out of school, he thought, letting the chocolate melt between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. The summer would begin for kids. Grangie would take him to the community pool, then make him wash with lots of soap when they got back.
“I don’t care what anybody says,” she’d say. “Chlorine or whatever it is don’t make a bit of difference if people be peeing in the water. Don’t you ever let that shit in your mouth, Tiger-man, you hear me?”
He liked the water but he always got the knot when he thought about all those other kids there.
“Go find your friends,” Grangie would say, rifling through her bag for something or other.
Tiger didn’t know how to tell her he didn’t really have any. She’d give him that sad look of hers and it would make him cry. Before long, she’d be crying, too, and they’d both be what she called a mess. So he’d sidle up near kids he sort of knew from school, standing just to the outside of their circle, miming a quiet laughter as they laughed. Silent so they wouldn’t mind his intrusion too much; but the look of laughing with them, in case Grangie glanced up from her novel and noticed.
It was hard to imagine the pool days coming so soon, sitting there outside the community center in his coat, the tip of his nose going cold in the chilly wind. He ate the second Reese cup a little slower, the sugar cheery like sunshine. When he lifted his hand to take a bite, his shadow did the same, the two of them tucking away the last bites of Easter.