Leaving Atlantaby Tayari Jones
"It was the end of summer, a summer during a two-year nightmare. African American children around Atlanta were vanishing, and twenty-nine would be murdered by the end of 1981. Like all kids across the city, fifth-grade classmates Tasha Baxter, Rodney Green, and Octavia Harrison were discovering that back-to-school now meant special safety lessons, indoor recess, and… See more details below
"It was the end of summer, a summer during a two-year nightmare. African American children around Atlanta were vanishing, and twenty-nine would be murdered by the end of 1981. Like all kids across the city, fifth-grade classmates Tasha Baxter, Rodney Green, and Octavia Harrison were discovering that back-to-school now meant special safety lessons, indoor recess, and being thrown into a world their parents couldn't comprehend, one in which the everyday challenges of growing up were coupled with constant fear - and the news of the murders of one's peers." Tasha can't understand why she daily falls in and out of favor with her classmates - she isn't weird like Rodney or "too dark" and outspoken like Octavia. Then, through a sudden crush on a boy from the wrong side of town, she finds that words have the power to both heal and wound. (The next thought was that Tasha herself had brought it upon him with her hateful words. "I hope the man snatches you." And she meant it when she said it.).
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By Tayari Jones
Warner Books] Copyright © 2002 Tayari Jones
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Chapter OneMagic Words
Hard, ugly, summer-vacation-spoiling rain fell for three straight months in 1979. Atlanta downpours destroyed hopscotch markers carefully chalked onto asphalt and stole the bounce from yellow tennis balls forgotten in backyards. On the few days the rain didn't fall, children scurried to play 1-2-3 Redlight under low-hanging gray clouds. Red Georgia clay clung to inexpensive canvas sneakers and the kids tracked it into light-carpeted living rooms. Mothers slapped their narrow behinds with leather belts before dabbing at the marked floors with wet rags, worrying about the expense of carpet cleaners or loss of deposits. When the rain fell, it did so to an accompaniment of growling thunder and purple zigzag lightning. Bored kids were told to sit still. Be quiet. God is talking. The children listened to the water smack against the windowpanes and figured that God's message must not have been meant for them to understand.
But on the first day of school, the students at Oglethorpe Elementary did not sweat inside yellow plastic jackets or carry umbrellas. The eight-AM sun winked as they tromped on broken sidewalks with brightly colored book satchels and lunch boxes. The unfamiliar light turned the girls' plastic barrettes into prisms, casting rainbows on their cheeks. Everybody wished the sun had come out the day before, when they had been free to chase the ice-cream man. But this, they kept to themselves.
Perhaps someone said under her breath, but still out loud, Why the sun had to come out today when we got to go to school? And maybe God heard. For although fifth-graders couldn't understand God's language, no one doubted that He knew theirs.
By recess, the sky was as gray as it had been the day before, but the fifth-graders went outside anyway. Although they had looked forward to moving to the trailers recently added to the rear of the old school building, and standing apart from the lower grades, the windowless metal room was claustrophobic and cheerless, foiling the bright bulletin boards' attempts to welcome them back. At noon, the children stampeded out to the damp playground, but LaTasha Renee Baxter was the last to leave the trailer, carrying the heavy jump rope that had been coiled since school let out last June.
Jumping rope had been the proving ground for girls as long as she could remember, and for equally as long, Tasha had been embarrassingly incompetent. This was fifth grade, the last year of grade school; next year she would go to Southwest Middle School, which was closer to her house. Her parents had chosen Oglethorpe Elementary School because it was near her mother's work, which was good when Tasha was little. Mama could get to the school in less than five minutes if need be. But now that Tasha was getting to be a young lady, Mama and Daddy thought that it would be better for her to be on her own side of town, rather than across the street from the projects.
Because this year would be her last chance to make a place for herself among the girls in her class, Tasha had devoted most of the vacation to improving her rope-jumping technique. Because of the summer's inclement weather, she had practiced in her basement, tying one end of the rope to a wooden chair and forcing her eight-year-old sister, De-Shaun, to turn the other end. Tasha had worked on all the skipping rhymes. She was best at "Ice Cream" and could get very near the end of the alphabet before losing her footing. But she had decided already that she would deliberately falter at "P" since there was no boy in her class whose name began with that initial.
After untangling the rope, she held one end in her hand and waited for someone else to grab the other, but no one did.
"Y'all don't want to jump?" she asked.
A small kneesocked cluster of girls shrugged in unison and looked toward Monica Fisher, the best rope skipper ever seen in Georgia. She had been born in Chicago where the girls skipped two ropes at once and chanted rhymes that sometimes included cuss words.
"Nah," said Monica. "I don't have time for that baby stuff. Y'all going to make me sweat out my hair." She stroked her straightened page boy, pulled off her face with a wide headband. Tasha noticed horizontal imprints where rollers had been fastened.
Tasha dropped the rope as if it were hot. She had washed her hair for the first day of school, but Mama had not subjected her to the torture of a pressing comb. Now she was unprepared. "That's alright," Tasha said. "I didn't really want to jump. There's just not nothing else to do."
"Look at her just lying," said Forsythia Collier, Monica's best friend. Forsythia's hair was also pressed, and her oily ringlets coiled all the way to her shoulders. "She probably practiced all summer."
Monica laughed a little louder than was appropriate and continued her cackle until the other girls joined her.
Tasha decided to laugh too. Didn't Mama tell her that a person needed to be able to laugh at herself? And besides, she didn't want to start a feud with Monica and Forsythia.
Then the rain started and Tasha was relieved, although she groaned along with everyone else as they ran toward the tin box that was their classroom this year. She even cried out, "My hair!" although her tight cornrows were impervious to climate.
Inside the trailer, the noise of the rain on the roof rose into magnificent crescendos with the wind. "Let's play jacks," Tasha shouted over the weather.
"Okay," Monica said.
Tasha turned her head to hide her smile as she reached into her book bag for the purple felt sack that held twenty jacks and a purple rubber ball. Jumping rope wasn't the only thing she had practiced over the summer.
The girls made a clearing by pushing all of the desk chairs over to one corner. Most of the boys argued over comic books under the supervision of their new teacher, Mr. Harrell. Tasha sat cross-legged on the floor across from Monica while her classmates breathed over them with gumball breath. "Anybody else want to play? Up to five can play jacks."
"No," Monica said. "Let's just let it be us."
"Okay," Tasha said, tossing the tiny pieces of metal.
Tasha won, as she had planned to, but she meant to quit before whipping Monica's siditty tail. But she couldn't make herself stop showboating, demonstrating all the techniques she had perfected over the long, wet summer vacation. She even knew maneuvers that none of them had seen before, things Tasha's mother learned as a kid in Oklahoma. Midwestern jacks had an entirely different flavor.
The girls clapped when Tasha perfectly executed an around-the-world with double bounce and tap. Even a few boys came over and watched.
"Dang," Roderick Palmer, the cutest boy in class, said behind his hand. "She killing Monica."
Tasha couldn't resist saying, "Wanna play again?" although it was clear that Monica had had enough.
Monica heaved herself from the floor and crossed her arms over her chest, hiding the outline of her training bra. "That's alright." She dusted off her pants with sharp whacks. "I just let you win because my mother told me that everyone is supposed to be nice to you because your parents are getting separated and everything."
"Uh-uh," Tasha clarified. "They're not separated. They're living apart right now. It's different." She paused for a minute, trying to explain what was different about her household and Monica's, or that of any of the other kids who didn't have a father anymore. She still had her daddy. He called her on the telephone almost every night and picked her up from ballet lessons on Tuesdays. Separated was different, harsher. Almost as bad as divorce. And not once had her parents used that word.
Monica laughed and touched Forsythia with her pointed elbow, soliciting a complicit chuckle.
"It's just for a little while," Tasha insisted. A warmth spread from her chest up to her face as she gathered the jacks. "So," she shouted at Monica's back, "my mother says your parents live outside their means!" No one watching responded to Tasha's comeback. Monica, who had taken a sudden interest in the boys' comic book wars, didn't even turn around. Only Rodney Green, the weirdest kid in class, seemed to ponder her remark. With his face extended by two cheeks full of bubble gum, he studied her with scrunched brows behind his glasses, until Tasha felt uncomfortable and turned away.
She went to the girls' room, sat in a stall, and rested her humiliation in the palms of her hands. Closing her eyes hard to stifle tears the way pressing down on a cut stops bleeding, Tasha felt dumb as a rock.
Two weeks earlier, Daddy had moved out. Tasha wasn't so dumb that she didn't realize this was trouble. At first, when he and Mama came to tell her, Tasha thought they were going to tell her they were having another baby. That was what happened to Tayari Jones just last year. Tayari told everyone in class that her parents had come into her room smiling and holding hands and-just like that-told her that there would be a new baby in the house in August. So what was Tasha to think when Mama and Daddy knocked softly on her bedroom door and silently stepped over the clutter, holding hands? They never held hands or really touched each other, except a quick smack on the lips on each other's birthdays. Thank you, baby. Then the kiss.
And true enough, they hadn't been smiling like Tayari's parents. Mama held Daddy's hand tight so that her knuckles stood out and her face had worn a sorry, stretched look, like her chin was too heavy and was pulling her round face into a sad oval.
But Tasha figured this was an appropriate precursor to news about an impending baby. Where in the world were they going to put it? In the guest room? It didn't seem fair that a baby should have a room to itself while she had to share with DeShaun. And if the guest room was to be full of baby, then where would Nana stay when she came to visit from Birmingham? She knew Mama and Daddy weren't going to suggest putting it in here with her and DeShaun. There was not enough room for their two canopy beds and a crib.
"What?" Tasha said, looking at Mama's abdomen.
Daddy pulled his hand from Mama's and touched Tasha's face. "Wait till DeShaun gets here."
Tasha climbed onto her bed and hugged her knees. This was serious. Twins? Oh, Jesus. (She could take the Lord's name in vain all she wanted to as long as she didn't do it out loud.) One little sister was more than enough, really. She could imagine twins in identical prams. People would be saying how precious they were and how cute. It would be like being the only regular girl in a class full of pretty people. She got enough of that feeling at school already; having it at home would be unbearable.
Tasha wished she had X-ray vision so she could look right in Mama's stomach and see what was going on under the brown blouse tucked into the waistband of her tan slacks. Her stomach poked out a little bit, but not any more than anyone else's mother's did. Or did it? Mama ran her hand across her front, flattening the pleats.
There was the sound of a toilet flushing and DeShaun came in.
"What?" the little girl said, looking from her parents to her older sister and back.
"We been waiting for you so we can find out," Tasha said.
"I was using the bathroom," DeShaun whined.
"Tasha," Mama said, "don't snap at her like that."
"All I said was?"
Daddy cleared his throat. "Delores." He took Mama's hand again, but she didn't wrap her fingers around his. He let go to touch the sisters on the crown of their heads. His fingernails were neat rectangles against their dark hair.
"Girls," he said, "I love you very much."
Especially DeShaun, Tasha thought. She could remember the time before DeShaun was born. Mama said she couldn't possibly since they were only twenty-three months apart, but Tasha did remember and she knew that people used to love her more back then. What would life be like after the twins? She turned her face toward the wall and Daddy gently twisted her head so she had to look at his sober and unhappy brown face.
"And I love your mother too." He turned toward Mama, who seemed to be studying her knees. "But your mother and I think that it is best if we live apart right now."
Tasha looked up at him quickly. There was no baby?
"For a while," he said, looking at Tasha before turning to look at Mama.
"For a while," Mama echoed. "Just to see how things work."
"Okay," Tasha said fast. Relieved.
Her little sister DeShaun pulled a piece of loose skin from her wobbly bottom lip.
Now, Tasha felt stupid. Monica was right. Tasha was immature. And Daddy was in the wrong too. He should have said, Tasha, DeShaun, your mother and I have been playing with matches and your whole life is on fire.
After school that first day, Tasha did not wipe her feet before coming into the house. After leaving her wet umbrella on the carpet, she tramped into the kitchen leaving mad, muddy, size-six prints on the floors. She drank juice from three different glasses and didn't rinse a single one out. Frustrated, she flopped onto the couch and put her feet up on it.
"You're not supposed to put your feet up on that sofa," DeShaun reminded her.
Ignoring her little sister, Tasha placed her glass on the coffee table without a coaster. "Did you know Mama and Daddy were separated?" she asked.
DeShaun bit down on a carrot stick. "What's that?"
Tasha searched her mind. "It's the same thing as divorce."
"I don't know what that is either."
"Divorce is when the parents aren't together anymore. When the dad lives someplace else."
"I already know that Daddy is living someplace else." DeShaun looked confused. "You know that too, right?"
"Yeah, I know that much." Tasha was insulted. "I'm asking you if you knew they were separated."
"And I said what's that," DeShaun protested.
Separated was kids who only had a mother to come and hear them say a poem on Black History Day. Or the ones who had stepfathers that they called by their first names. Ayana McWhorter, Tasha's best friend, had one named Rex who didn't like Ayana or any of her friends. He was young, according to Mama, clicking her tongue against the back of her teeth, but Tasha couldn't see it. Rex was tall and thin with a narrow scar on the side of his face, which he tried to hide with a thick beard. (Unkempt, according to Mama.) Tasha wouldn't have noticed the scar at all if Ayana hadn't pointed it out: That's where someone tried to kill him. After that, Ayana always came over to Tasha's house to play because Tasha didn't like going over to her house and Mama didn't think much of the idea either.
Excerpted from Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones Copyright © 2002 by Tayari Jones . Excerpted by permission.
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