That was the winter I was dropped off at my cousin's house in the city. My cousin Marilyn lived in a four-room apartment with her husband and three children. Somehow they made room for me in an old enclosed porch off the living room. I was always being dropped somewhere back in those days, and this was my third stop that year, I think it was 1958.
The school year was starting and this was my second stint in fourth grade. I had flunked second grade too so I was too old and too big for fourth grade. But if I kept my head down and didn't make eye contact maybe I'd be all right. When I did raise my head to look around the first face I saw was Butchie's. Butchie was bigger than me. He had been held back last year too. He sat in the next aisle two seats ahead and every time I looked up his big round face broke into a huge white smile. He had the biggest brown eyes and the whitest smile and the blackest skin I had ever seen.
His name was Obadiah, but everyone called him Butchie. We fell in together and would work the empty lots looking for empty bottles and other unmentionable treasures. Butchie lived in the first of the city high-rise projects. His apartment was always full of people, his mom, his sister and her friends, his aunt, and neighbors. Music was always playing on the record player. It was there I heard music that I never heard before, ate different food I never heard of, sat and listened to the chatter and banter of a people I had never known before.
I came to love those afternoons at Butchie's house, listening to Big Mama Thornton and Ivory Joe Hunter and Butchie's sister calling me Crisco and giggling until she fell off the couch. I ate things like shrimp and grits and corn bread and deep fried ribs and Butchie's mom would feed me until I couldn't move. After moving around so much in my life I really felt at home with these folks, and I secretly adopted Butchie as my little brother, even though he was so big.
One day after school I brought Butchie home with me. Marilyn was washing dishes at the sink and when she turned around and saw Butchie I thought she was going to give birth. I had never seen prejudice before but I somehow recognized it right away. Marilyn's face paled and her eyes grew wide and she stared at Butchie a long time before offering a weak hello. I'm not sure if Butchie noticed the look on Marilyn, I hoped he didn't; we retreated to the outdoors and played on like we always did.
That night Marilyn and her husband sat me down at the kitchen table and explained to me that even though we all lived in the same neighborhood, and even though they were sure that Butchie was a very nice boy, it was best if everyone stayed in their own backyard, and please don't bring him here anymore. I agreed, I never brought Butchie home again. After all, it wasn’t my home, I was just a guest there myself. Even so, I felt like I had betrayed Butchie. That was my first life's lesson in prejudice.
Over the next few weeks I continued visiting Butchie’s house. His sister kept on teasing me. And his mother fed me chicken with grits and when I tried to leave the greens; she admonished me and made me clean my plate. She had that same big white smile as her son. All the while those scratchy old blues records played on and on. People would come and go and the shouting and joking and bantering were endless. It was a fun place for me. I was the only white face around but no one ever mentioned it. Except Butchie’s sister would call me Crisco and roll back and forth on the couch giggling.
I felt at home at Butchie’s house; those were good days for me. Then a few weeks later my mother came and gathered me up to live in a new foster home. I never saw Butchie again.