FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN WHITE AND BLACK in 1950s Tennessee. Tony Johnston draws on her own childhood memories to limn a portrait of a sensitive and compassionate boy fighting for a friendship his father forbids.
David's daddy is determined that his son will grow up to be a doctor like himself. David studies the human bones, and secretly teaches them in turn to his black friend, Malcolm. In a rage, Dr. Church forbids Malcolm to ever enter their homeand threatens to kill him if he does. David tries to change his daddy's mind. but when Malcolm crosses the line, Dr. Church grabs his shotgun.
About the Author
Tony Johnston, author of Any Small Goodness, grew up in the South and now lives in San Marino, California. Bone by Bone by Bone is her first book for Roaring Brook Press.
Read an Excerpt
Bone by Bone by Bone
By Tony Johnston
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2007 Johnston Family Trust
All rights reserved.
The ghost possessed the liveliest eyes I had ever seen. They gleamed through the cutouts of the grimy sheet he was wearing like sparkly black diamonds.
I knew he was a ghost because it was Halloween. I knew he was a boy from his voice.
The boy was in trouble. Hell-with-Feathers (Hell for short), the world's meanest rooster, was attacking him without mercy. Hell had already caused him to spill the few sweets he had collected in a small, sorry sack. Now the old demon drubbed the sheet with pecks like the strikes of a spike, squawking all the while. And all the while the boy squalled, nearly pulling down the evening sky. He sounded little and scared.
"Git!" I hollered. "You just git!" I flapped my arms at Hell. He lunged and took after me. I picked up a stick and chased him through Harold Jasper's picket fence. From there Hell glared out, squawking murder.
In no time the boy recovered himself.
"One day I'm gonna eat you, squawk an' all!" he told the rooster.
He reminded me of Brer Rabbit, my favorite storybook character, full of spunk and sass. For the most part, Brer Rabbit could outwit animals like Brer Fox, whose only thought was to grab him for supper. In this case, I speculated, the Brer Rabbit boy needed outside help, on account of being snarled up in that sheet.
"Hey," I said. "I'm David Church. Who're you?"
"Malcolm Deeter," the boy said. "You saved my life. I'll be your friend."
The whole time he spoke, he tried to wriggle free of his costume. Before he could do that, my daddy strode up. He and I were on our way home to get me set to go trickin' and treatin'. He'd lagged behind to visit with Jude Haggard, owner of Haggard's Drugstore, the only one in our town. Time to time my daddy had dealings with Jude on account of my daddy being a doctor.
"I am a modern-day Aesculapius," he often said in a jovial way. Aesculapius was the Greek god of medicine. He'd told me that umpteen-ump times. Daddy wanted me to become a doctor, too, "a chip off the old block." I could hardly wait to have my own doctoring bag. To spread open its dark mouth and fish out all the doctor paraphernalia — stethoscope of course, thermometer, rubber-tip hammer, pinpoint-sharp scissors, little brown bottles of Mercurochrome and iodine, syringes and all manner of ointments and plasters, and bundles of cherry-flavored suckers for the little ones. I could hardly wait to slip out like a bat on mysterious nighttime missions of mercy. Like Daddy.
My daddy was Franklin Church. He was extremely old. Forty-two years old in that year of 1951. He was of medium height and build, with large, blunt hands. His nails were flat, as though he'd let a hammer slip on each one. Ten whams total. His hair was a color called ginger, his eyes a blue that seemed to have been thinned with milk. Folks said I was his spitting image.
Daddy was dressed as immaculately as ever. Starched white shirt, stiff as rigor mortis. Dark pants, creased to the sharpness of a knife blade. Brown fedora. Bow tie, red as a rooster's comb. In my way of dress I didn't even slightly resemble him. In my untucked plaid shirt, baseball cap, and rumpled short pants, I looked like I'd been shot out of a cannon.
My daddy had a temper on him. Minute to minute you never knew which Daddy would be standing in his skin — good-humored, mean, or somewhere in between. The slightest thing could provoke him. You had to be careful how you talked to him; his hands were quick.
Right then I had the edgy feeling he was gonna blow. Sure enough, he commenced hollering, snatching at Malcolm's sheet. "Jesus Christ, boy! You can't wear that!"
I gasped. He did not understand the situation.
"Malcolm's a ghost," I said. "For Halloween."
"Take that damn thing off." Daddy's voice was flint.
Malcolm removed it slowly, like it was his very skin. The sheet sloughed to the street. He stood there, a very little boy and skinny as a rake. His eyes were wide with fear.
Daddy pitched the sheet into a trash receptacle.
"Leave it be, hear?"
"Mama'll wear me out." Malcolm was nearly dissolved.
"You shoulda thought of that."
I hoped his mama would swoop down like a miracle and take care of him. But she didn't. She'd probably ducked into a nearby store to visit with an acquaintance.
I couldn't understand what was happening. I felt flushed, embarrassed.
"My daddy doesn't —"
Before I could explain, Daddy grabbed my hand and hustled me toward home. I looked back at Malcolm. Eight years old, I reckoned. And forlorn. My mind spun. The one thing I clung to was his Brer Rabbit-ness. I told myself, I bet that little ol' boy'll hang around and recover that sheet. I just bet he will.
"He's littler than me, Daddy," was all I could think of to say.
"He can't wear a sheet."
Mystified, I gulped and swung the talk to something else.
"He seems to be a nice boy," I half whispered. "I'd like him for my friend."
"He can't be your friend." His voice was so hard I flinched, expecting him to strike me.
"Why not, Daddy? He's nearly my same age. And he's full o' jingle."
"He's a nigger."
* * *
We walked on, neither speaking. Evening was deepening. The moon was on the rise. Stars clustered in the limbs of the walnut trees. I loved the hush of wind in the leaves, the scuffle of walnut husks under my feet.
I was familiar with each house we passed. Each was a friend I had known my whole life. Each had its own kindly face. I had known Daddy my whole life. I thought his face kindly at times. But with Malcolm it had been the face of a stranger.
Daddy had a way about him. When he wanted something, his voice turned to butter. Then he could coax radishes to becoming roses on their way up through the soil. He used that tone now.
"You're awful quiet," he said.
"I don't feel good."
He crouched and peered into my face.
"You hurt here?" he asked, poking my midsection gently for signs of bellyache.
"Here?" He checked my brow for fever.
"Where, then?" His tone turned sharp.
I couldn't tell him that my heart hurt.
"Shoot, David, ain't nothing wrong with you that a little trickin' and treatin' won't cure. Slip your costume on. You'll bounce right back to your own self again. I guarantee it." Like a slick snake-oil vendor, he shot me his flashiest grin.
The entire month of October, I'd thought of nothing else but Halloween. Halloween made me wild. Sometimes I got too excited to eat, just thinking about being allowed to stay out late. The dark hid the familiar. Replaced lampposts, houses, trees with hulking and fearsome things. Waiting.
Halloween, the dark grew deeper. I grew fearful and eager. I imagined the spookiness of Cherokee Street, where we lived, wrapped in the jack-o'-lantern gloom of that night, and the bounty of treats I'd get. Like a Milky Way bar or two, if I was lucky. I enjoyed breaking them apart, stretching the caramel out slowly, farther, farther, farther, till it became two separate pieces, each with a tiny thread at the end like a sweet wisp of cobweb. Boy, did I love Milky Ways.
* * *
Our household would have been weighted toward women, but my mama died at my birth. I had only one picture to know her face. Grandmother Church, my daddy's mother, lived with us. And Old Ma, her mother, close on to a hundred years old. She was so enfeebled, she was stuck upstairs abed. Everybody said when I was real little, I'd misheard her name and called her Gold Ma. From then on she was Gold Ma to everybody.
Though she didn't much love sewing, Grandmother Church worked me up a Halloween costume. She was pretty good at it, having learned early on from Gold Ma.
That year, I recall, my heart's desire was to be a hobgoblin. The notion had come to me from a snatch of conversation I'd heard someplace. But nobody in our family had any idea just how such a creature might look.
"Sounds nasty to me," said Grandmother Church. "I'm not certain ..." She looked anxious, as if even a costume of the thing could jump up and throttle her.
"You may be one hell of a seamstress, Mama, but even you can't create a costume that'll bite," said my daddy. "Go on, conjure one."
My grandmother mumbled, "Don't curse, Franklin."
* * *
As we entered the house that Halloween, my daddy roared with mirth, "Mama, where's that hobgoblin suit? This boy needs it to perk him up."
In no time I was in it.
"Well now," he said, giving me a little turn, "I believe we have here the hoblinest goblin in the whole damn state of Tennessee."
"Franklin, I wish you wouldn't curse," said Grandmother Church. She spoke as if each word cost her.
He turned to her, peeling off his charm. "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," Daddy said.
* * *
After supper, Daddy and I went out into the night. Shoot, I was nine. I wanted to go alone. But, as usual, my grandmother insisted Daddy go, too. She was certain that hooligans would take advantage of the dark to murder, or at the very least, maim me.
That hour of the evening the air was chill, with an autumn tang. Dead old leaves went scraping their way down the street, whispering dead old secrets. Straggles of other trick-or-treaters giggled themselves along. Some had bars of soap to goop up windows where nobody was at home. I'd have loved to soap windows, but Daddy'd have blistered me good.
The moon was up. Silent and huge and gleaming. The color of a persimmon. For a long time I looked at it hovering over our town.
My breath held itself.
"What is it?" Daddy asked.
I wondered if Malcolm Deeter was out, too, with his daddy, under the enormous globe of light. Sure he was. He had vinegar. Right now he was probably floating up to somebody's door, trailing that ratty-tat sheet he'd fetched back, moaning Booooo! The thought made me feel a little better about his encounter with my daddy.
Seemed funny. What was so criminal about wearing a sheet? Wasn't as if Malcolm'd stuck up the Piggly Wiggly.
By then my sweets sack, a pillowcase, was pretty heavy. I hefted it now and then, trying to guess just how many Milky Ways were in my loot. There were plenty of houses to come. So we walked on, Daddy and I, clear through Halloween, wrapped in the haunted silence of the moon.CHAPTER 2
It was friendship at first sight. From the time I met Malcolm Deeter, my other friends took a backseat. I'd see them, of course, but Malcolm, he was my heart-friend.
Malcolm and I could no more be separated than green from grass. My daddy had forbidden me to play with him, on account of his being colored. Though little by little I came to understand the barriers between Negroes and white folks, back then I knew of no rule about two boys not being friends. I convinced myself that Daddy'd been in a deep state of derangement when he'd lashed out at Malcolm. He'd gone crazy from the stare of the Halloween moon.
So, despite his warning, we played together. I didn't give a hoot about doing it, so long as I didn't get caught. Daddy'd probably thrash me with his leather bootlaces. Stung like the devil, but I'd lived through it before. Sometimes I worried that he might do something worse. But till he finally did, I had no idea how hateful a punishment could be.
* * *
I remember that summer. Our town was melting in the heat. "Hotter than three fat boys," according to my daddy. Heat shimmered on the roads. Heat shimmered in the grass. Heat shimmered off the leaves of the magnolias. People moved more slowly and spoke more slowly than usual, doing their utmost to keep from turning to puddles. It was so hot, the tar on Cherokee Street softened up and got gummy. It smelled like the world before history, full of oozy pits that sucked big old animals in.
One early morning I heard something. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. June bugs thumping my window screen? Nope. Too many thumps for bugs. Malcolm, flinging gravel. I groaned and got up.
"Hey, David," he said soon as I was outside, "wanna go to Jesus Pond?" That Malcolm was a firecracker, always popping with plans.
"Hush up or we'll get caught sure!" I whispered.
"We can play somethin'," Malcolm whisper-yelled, "in the cool. Come on!"
"Hush up, fool!"
Our household was still asleep. I ran back to the kitchen and grabbed us two doughnuts apiece. Then Malcolm and I sneaked off to Jesus Pond, named on account of the water striders that easily skimmed the surface, like Jesus.
It was cooler there than in town, though not much. We dabbled in the coffee-colored water, one eye out for cottonmouths, pretending we were ducks. Then we flopped on the bank, watching thin blue snake doctors zing themselves through the air. Gnats buzzed in our ears. Our T-shirts were plastered to us in wrinkles, like the damp skins of frogs. I felt sticky-hot all over, as if I'd been dipped in warm honey.
"David," said Malcolm, his voice jumping a notch.
"Let's have us a pissin' contest."
I grinned. "I can out-piss you clear to Chattanooga."
Zzzzzt. Zzzzzt. Zippers slid down. Two yellow splurts of water arced over the pond and made a sizzing sound when they hit. We squirted ourselves dry, happy as two pups in a fire-hydrant factory. I gave it my damnedest, but Malcolm won.
Malcolm looked around, his black eyes perking with inspiration. "Wanna play Brer Rabbit?"
That was our favored game, even though we were kind of old for it. From an early age, my daddy had read me stories about that long-eared bamboozler, who mostly bamboozled ol' Brer Fox.
"What's that mean?"
"Means I cain't move," I told him.
"Don't be a ol' toad poop."
"I'm no stinkin' toad poop, but anyways, we got no tar for the Tar Baby."
Malcolm's eyes glittered over the scenery. "Nope," he said. "But we got mud. Cool mud." Once he fixed on an idea, there was no holding him. "You be Brer Fox an' I'll be Brer Rabbit."
"You're always Brer Rabbit," I complained.
"Okay, you be him. Now let's make us a Mud Baby."
Since he gave in without a fuss, I knew he was excited about it.
Malcolm and I took real care fashioning our Mud Baby. We were both barefoot. We squooshed close to the edge of the steamy pond, delighting in the loud slurps the mud made. Black muck oozed in a thick paste between our toes and soon covered our feet. We knelt down and clawed at it, like two big ol' cooters scooping out their nests.
Then we lugged armfuls of clay a short ways away, heaped it up and patted it to dark perfection. When our Mud Baby was done, we leaned against a cottonwood and considered him.
"Somethin's missing," Malcolm said.
I plopped my baseball cap on the Mud Baby's head.
"Somethin's still missing."
Malcolm studied on it a long time. At last he took a stick and poked in a belly button. He smoothed it with a finger.
"Reckon that's how God made people?" I asked.
"Prob'ly," said Malcolm. "But I wonder how He got the light inside."
"You mean the life?"
"I mean the light."
Ever after I wondered about that.
* * *
Malcolm knew the Tar Baby story by heart. He'd heard it about ten trillion times from his grandmother. He delighted in the impossible words, wrapping his tongue around each one.
The whole time he was spilling it out, Brer Fox — Malcolm — acted it out, too. With considerable huff-and-puff, he struggled with the Mud Baby and plopped it down in our "big road." Then he lay low in the reeds, just bustin' to see what Brer Rabbit — me — would do when that baby got uppity and refused to say howdy.
I threatened to "bust 'er wide open" and ended up with all fours gummed. Of course, I "butt 'er cranksided" and my head got stuck, too.
Malcolm and I, we hooted so hard we cried.
The world was someplace else. We were there. Beside the bank of a pond named Jesus. Gooped with mud. Talking, laughing, talking some more. Two boys in Tennessee, in summer.
* * *
Our game was over. Malcolm and I were caked with nearly all the mud of Jesus Pond. Only our closest kin could possibly recognize us. We looked at each other and busted up again.
Came a sudden crashing in the cattails.
"Duck!" I hissed.
Malcolm must have seen the man, too. He didn't need to be told twice to take cover.
Slur Tucker came reeling along with his fishing gear. And a gutting knife. He was bald-headed, with small, wide-apart eyes, so he looked like an evil and monster potato bug from where we were crouched in concealment. Slur was always so lit with liquor, his words had to lean on each other. That's how come he got his name. He was a devil, all right. The kind who'd stomp your guts out for fun — especially if you were a Negro. Even a glance from him could harm a person, maybe sear the flesh on his very bones. I believed that and looked past him.
Excerpted from Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston. Copyright © 2007 Johnston Family Trust. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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