There was a Negro kid named Pokey who lived in the apartment at the far end of my building, next to the pine woods. This was in the fall of 1960, when I was seven. Pokey was a year younger than me. He was little, too, littler than I’d been when I was his age. Daddy said he looked like a dwarf. A black Billy Barty, he’d said, laughing at how clever he was. But Pokey was nothing like the jovial Billy Barty I knew from the kid’s show on TV. Pokey was mean, a bald-headed punk who seemed to love fighting more than anything else in the world. He was always picking fights with kids bigger than him, and then pounding them into the ground. He never lost a fight, as far as I knew. And he never fought with the other Negro kids, just the white ones. I once heard he had beat up every white boy that went to McLaren Elementary School, even big Dickey Jorgensen, who was in the fifth grade.
I must have been one of the first kids in the neighborhood Pokey beat up, not quite a week after he’d moved in. It could have been because I was handy, living in the same building. Knowing now how Pokey was, and how he liked to fight, I figure it was bound to happen eventually. But I also think he probably wouldn’t have come after me so soon if my friend André hadn’t told him I’d laughed at his name.
It was true. When André, who lived right next door to me, first told me about a new kid moving into the end apartment, and that his name was Pokey, I did laugh. I told him it was a stupid name. My Dad said pokey all the time. Whenever the cops came to haul him away—that is, whenever he got real drunk and started breaking things and hitting people—he’d hang his head and say he was going to the pokey for a few days, and I knew what he meant.
Why would anyone want to name their boy something that meant jail?
Anyway, for reasons I will never know, André told Pokey about how I’d laughed at his name and called it stupid. He even told Pokey where I lived and pointed me out during recess, so he’d know what I looked like. Pokey ran home after school and waited for me outside my back door.
Our apartment building was across the street from one of the school playgrounds, close enough that I could see there was someone sitting on my back porch as I left my classroom for home. I had no idea who he was or why he was there. A couple of minutes later, when I’d got to within earshot, he called to me, “Yo’ name Billy Campbell?” I was surprised to hear him say my name, and when I said “Yes,” he jumped to his feet and ran up to me and, without a word, hit me in the mouth with his fist. Hard. The punch knocked me backwards, and stunned me. Tears popped out of my eyes. My mouth was numb, and I tasted blood. I couldn’t even speak to ask him why he’d done this terrible thing. “I want you to say to my face,” he said, balling his fist for another throw, “what is so fucking funny about my name, mother fucker!” When I opened my bleeding mouth to tell him I didn’t know his name, he cracked me in the teeth again. This time I fell to my knees, sobbing. Then he stood back and looked at me, rubbing his knuckles, nostrils flaring, daring me to do something.
I looked toward my back door. I knew Mama and Daddy were both gone and wouldn’t be back until later that afternoon. My younger sister Karen, who was too small to do anything anyway, was with a neighbor lady across the street until Mama got home and went to get her. And André, whom I still thought was my friend and someone who might protect me, was still at school. I was alone. I got slowly back to my feet—then ran, as hard and fast as my legs could carry me. “I don’t know your name!” I yelled over my shoulder. The kid came after me. He could run. He chased me down Sunnydale Avenue, yelling things like stoopid fuck and dick-haid and shit-for-brains, and screaming that he was gonna kill me. He finally caught up to me behind the community center and dragged me by the neck of my shirt to the asphalt blacktop and began pounding me in the face until I thought he was killing me. There were other kids there, both white and black. When they heard the commotion, they came over and gathered in a circle around us and started yelling, Fight! Fight! No one tried to stop what was obviously going to be a bloody murder. I begged him to stop, please stop, I’ll do anything you want! Just please don’t kill me. That seemed to satisfy him—either that, or he simply got tired of beating on me—and he let me up. But he still held his fists up defiantly. “My name’s Pokey, mother fucker!” he spit at me. “Now go ahead and laugh again!” We stared at each other. I usually tried not to cry in front of other kids, but now I sobbed openly, not caring what anyone thought of me now. I turned and walked away. “That’s right, mother fucker,” Pokey hissed after me, “go on home!” A snicker rippled through the small crowd of kids and echoed in my ears. I felt their stares following me as I hobbled the long distance home, still crying, ashamed.
I made up my mind then that I would hate Pokey. Forever. I plotted ways to get back at him. I dreamt of taking a baseball bat and bashing his face in until no one could recognize him as Pokey. But one Saturday morning, not long after our first bloody encounter, he knocked on my back door and asked my surprised mother if I could come out and play, as politely as if we’d been great friends all along, and what had happened was just a failure to communicate. Mama told him to wait outside; she’d see if I was home. She came into our small living room where I was watching Hopalong Cassidy. “That kid who you had the fight with—what’s his name? Pokey? He’s out back, wants to know if you can come out and play.” She sounded as if Pokey had asked if he could come in and take a crap on the living room floor.
I looked at Mama, trying to hide the sudden terror that knotted my stomach at the mention of his name, Pokey. I didn’t know what she expected. But I couldn’t sit there and let her think I was some kind of sissy. I pulled on my tennis shoes and walked past her to the back door. She stared at me as if she thought I was crazy, but kept quiet. I was hoping Pokey wouldn’t be stupid enough to hit a kid mere feet from the kid’s mother. I stepped out onto the back porch, so terrified I thought I might throw up right there. But I needn’t have worried. Pokey, relaxed, gave me a wave and a half-smile. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” I said.
He looked at me blankly for a moment. It was impossible to know what he was thinking. Finally he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “I thought mebbe we could climb some trees or sumpin’.”
I nodded. He turned and sauntered across the back yard toward the scraggly forest of pines running alongside his apartment. I followed him, shaking inside, convinced he wanted to get me into the woods just so he could have another go at me with his stubby fists. I told myself this had to be the biggest, stupidest mistake of my life. But I went anyway. Truth was, I was more afraid not to go with him, though I couldn’t say why just then.
We climbed a couple of the sap-covered pine trees. Pokey chatted and laughed as if we were best friends. Then we went deeper into the woods and threw rocks at some plastic army men he’d brought with him. For a long while I was sure he’d wait until I wasn’t looking and clout me with a stick or a rock. Nothing happened. By the end of the day, our fight had become just a bad dream, mostly forgotten.
The following Sunday, Pokey knocked on our back door again, and we went out to the vacant lot behind our apartment building and I watched while he hit rocks with his older brother’s baseball bat. Then he showed me his collection of baseball cards, which he had crammed in his pants pockets. He had all the greats: Mickey Mantle; Roger Maris; Willie Mays. He said he’d won them from some of the kids at school in a game of toss. I noticed they looked brand new, not dog-eared the way baseball cards got when you’d been playing them, and they still smelled of bubble-gum. I figured he’d stolen them, though I didn’t say so.
“My uncle’s here,” he said to me. “From LA.”
“Yeah. That his car over there.” He pointed to a patch of dirt that served as the small parking lot for our particular building. We went over to take a look. The car was a shiny new 1960 Rambler, two-tone, white over metallic blue. The paint picked up the reflection of the sun so you almost had to wear sunglasses just to look at it. It was weird seeing it parked here. There weren’t many new cars in our neighborhood. In fact, there weren’t many cars at all, period.
“Wow,” I said. We ran our hands over the smooth paint. “Wow,” I said again.
Then Pokey got a look on his face, a sort of devilish grin. “Hey,” he said. “You wanna see something neat?”
“Sure,” I said.
Pokey bent over and picked up a rock that was nearly the size of his bald head. Then, balancing the huge rock against his chest, he pointed to the rear window of the Rambler. “I’m gonna thow this rock through that window,” he announced. Then he looked at me as if to make sure I believed him.
I didn’t. “Yeah, right,” I said, snickering.
“Damn right, right,” he said threateningly. “Don’t you laugh at me, I thow this rock right through your haid.”
This I believed. I let the smile fall from my face.
“But that’s a new car,” I said. “You’re uncle’s gonna kill you!”
Pokey shook his head smugly. “Nope,” he said. Then he reared back and took aim and heaved the rock with all his might into the window, just as he said he would. There followed a loud thud!, and suddenly a large section of the glass that had been the back window was broken into little pieces. They lay scattered over the back seat and the trunk of the car, shining in the bright sun like so many loose diamonds.
Pokey jumped up and down and cheered. “All right!” he said. “Didn’t I say I would? Didn’t I?” He laughed so hard he was bent over trying to catch his breath.
I was suddenly nervous: I figured the crash was loud enough that somebody must have heard it. But a minute later, when nobody had come out of their apartment to find out what was the matter, I relaxed and started laughing, too. But I couldn’t help feeling a little smug. The memory of Pokey beating me up was still fresh in my mind. Now it looked like he was going to get his. He’d crossed the line. His uncle was going to kill him! And part of me was hoping to be there when it happened.
“What’re you gonna do when your uncle sees this?” I said, still laughing, though I was pretty sure I knew exactly what was going to happen to him.
“Watch,” he said. “Come over my back door with me, we’ll tell him.” His stupid smile never left his face. Was he crazy? His parents probably weren’t any less inclined to smack their kids with the belt than mine were. I could almost hear him screaming now.
We ran to his door, and he turned the knob and stuck his head inside. “Hey, Uncle Alex!” he called. “Uncle Alex!” He had to call two or three times before I heard his uncle’s voice from inside.
“What? What?” said his uncle. The voice was a deep rumble. I imagined it attached to a huge man with huge arms, and strong hands that could make a belt whistle.
“I got sumpin’ to show you,” said Pokey. “Outside!”
“Damn it, Pokey,” came the voice, “I ain’t got time for—whatever the hell it is. I’m watching the ball game on TV.”
“It’s about your car.”
“My car? What about my car?” He’d suddenly lost interest in his ball game.
My heart raced.
A grunt as Uncle Alex hefted himself from wherever he was sitting, then heavy footsteps as he came to the back door. When his face appeared, he was even bigger and meaner-looking than I’d expected. A giant version of Pokey himself. I could see him reaching down and yanking little Pokey’s head right off his shoulders. He looked out at the car, confused at first, then blinked hard as his eyes focused and he saw what had happened.
“What the—? Who the fuck broke out the goddamn window!”
Pokey smiled broadly, raised his arm and pointed—at me.
“This kid here did it. His name’s Billy Campbell. He live three doors down. I tried to stop him…”
I was still smiling when the realization washed over me what Pokey had said. Now it was my turn to look confused. But something instantly went sour in my stomach and I could feel the blood drain from my face, and the spit evaporate from my mouth. My head moved slowly side to side. “No,” was all I could manage to say, followed by a high-pitched whine, the kind a dog sometimes makes just after it’s been kicked, knowing it’s about to be kicked again.
It didn’t even occur to me to run. Not that it would have done any good. Pokey had told his uncle where I lived, and I knew I had to go home eventually, where my own father would be waiting for me.
Uncle Alex’s face grew even blacker than it had been before, and he threw the door open wide enough to allow passage for his tremendous girth. When he reached out a massive hams to grab my arm, I felt as if a mountain was about to fall onto me.
“Yo’ Mama home? Yo’ Daddy?” he growled.
I never did learn what was said between Pokey’s Uncle Alex and my father. I knew our family had next to no money at all, that there was no way we could pay for the shattered window. I could barely hear the low rumble of their voices as they talked downstairs through my own whimpering and the roaring in my head. Then I heard the back door close, followed by the plodding shuffle of my father’s feet as he climbed the stairs and went briefly into my parents’ bedroom, where I guessed he was getting the belt from the hook in their closet. And when he finally appeared in my bedroom doorway, with the thing swaying in his right hand, I couldn’t help thinking his face looked the same as when Mama had last tried cooking his favorite supper of black-eyed peas and ham hocks and cornbread: as if he knew even before he’d tasted it he was going to have to hurt her, because she never, ever got the recipe right.