Toni Ann Johnson
Monroe, New York 1974
We knew about the Arringtons before they got here. Irv Silverman tap-tapped on our back door the day the moving truck driver refused to venture up his black diamond-run driveway. Irv asked if the guy could use ours. Of course we were accommodating. We were good neighbors. Ours stretched down from Oakland Avenue in the back, instead of up from Stage Road in the front, and it was a bunny hill compared to his. So, the driver came that way and the truck pulled onto Irv’s property from ours. There was never a “for sale” sign and Irv waited until then, when it was obvious, to tell us he was moving.
Now, of course, a neighbor should give you advanced notice. We would. That’s just common courtesy, but we couldn’t be too ticked off. Irv’s eldest son, Aaron, who, like the Arringtons, was around our age, had died a few months earlier right before Christmas; not in the house, in the hospital, pneumonia, and it was very sudden. He’d been living there with Irv, who was a widower, and with his own young daughter, Alice, who was about six.
The rumor ‘round town was that Aaron’s wife had run off and left him and the little girl, and there were all kinds of stories whirling around about why. Aaron never mentioned the wife, and we certainly weren’t going to ask, because there were plenty of stories dancing in the dust about us, too.
We were sad he passed. Nice guy. Loved kids. He let our boys climb all over his daughter’s swing set and all over him, too. We could hear poor Irv next door, sobbing every day for at least a week when Aaron died. We met his younger son David who came to stay and help look after Alice. He was sweet and seemed a bit swishy, but we weren’t bothered by that. We thought he told us they had to “sit and shiver,” which left us flummoxed. We asked if they wanted to borrow our electric heater. It was quite cold that December. Later we learned what “sitting shiva” was, and then, oh boy, did we have a good laugh at ourselves about that.
After the moving truck was finally parked in Irv’s backyard, that’s when he came over a second time. He had something to tell us. We invited him in for coffee, but he didn’t want any. He stood on our back porch, a hand braced on the railing, and stared over at our oldest son’s tricycle because he couldn’t look us in the eyes as he said the word “Afro-Americans.” We almost giggled. Not because the word was so funny, but because of the way he was saying it. He stuttered and the man didn’t have a stammer that we’d ever heard. “Aa-Aa-Afro-Um-um-ericans.” And even though he wasn’t looking at us, he stuck his leathery neck out, defensive, like he was daring us to . . . something. Yell at him? Hit him with a bat? He kept saying what a “nice” family they were. Must have said it four or five times, and he said the husband was well educated, he’d gone to some Jewish university, Irv was proud to say. And the wife was attractive. She dressed like Jackie Kennedy, and he said she knew about all kinds of artifacts or objects of art. She was pregnant, too, and since we were due to have our third that June, our kids would be the same age. This was his sales pitch.
We smiled and nodded and didn’t let on that we were offended, but we were because we’d never been anything but nice to the Silvermans. And they were Jews. We weren’t bigots and we didn’t come from such. Not bad ones, anyway. We went to church in town and we judged people by their deeds, not by anything else. Now, we might not have known much about Jews, obviously, but we were good neighbors to the Silvermans. We shoveled their sidewalk when we did our own, we shared vegetables from our garden, we took in their mail and watered their yard when they went on vacation, and we always had little Alice over to play with our boys.
Irv didn’t know this (that we knew of), but there’d been a neighborhood meeting down the hill, where some of the families tried to rile the neighbors up before the Silvermans moved in. It was at the Gore’s house and we thought it was just a barbecue until we got there. We walked in and walked right back out and took our hotdogs and buns with us when they started talking about keeping out the horns and tails. We didn’t go for that kind of talk.
Audrey, the elderly bohemian lady who lived in the big house on the other side of the Silvermans walked out right before us. She had long white hair to her waist that she kept in a braid and she flung it and almost hit us with it as she swooped out the door. Her dead husband had been a writer in New York City and they knew plenty of Jews. And Negroes, too. She wanted no part of the silly meeting, and neither did we.
When the Arringtons moved in that spring, we did end up going, as it turned out, to another one of those “meetings.” We’d been invited for coffee. Weren’t told the occasion.
After word spread about our marital issues, we’d been shunned by the locals for a while (as if they were so squeaky clean). Not the new neighbors, like the Silvermans or old hippie Audrey. The ones from here. The ones we went to junior high and high school with.
There was a time we’d all get together for beers down at Fisherman’s Feast. We’d play checkers or cards or take our babies into town to feed the ducks or for ice cream custard at The Three Bears. And everybody used to bring their little ones to our house the week before Halloween to jump in the leaves and have hot cocoa—that was our thing before we even had kids. But come the fall of ‘61 after our summer of straying, if you will, none of the old gang invited us to anything and no one came when we invited them.
At first we didn’t mind so much. We had our siblings and cousins in other parts of town. But when smiles and waves weren’t returned on the sidewalk, or at the A & P, and no one wanted to let their babies play with ours, we started to feel the sting. When we did get that call from Sally (this was summer of ‘63), we thought we were being welcomed back.
So, we walked into the Gore’s dining room. It was always dark in there because of all the trees outside, and the house never failed to smell like a stale fridge. We came hand in hand to show them, no, we were not broken, in case the big belly we brought with us, announcing our third munchkin on the way, wasn’t proof enough. The belly got a few raised brows. They must have been doing the math in their little minds, figuring out if this was a fraction of us, or a whole.
Sally’d made a giant pot of percolator coffee bitter as she was, and the Ferrells brought their homemade scones known to be so good that the bakery in town used the recipe and sold out of them on Sundays after church. The Jacksons were there, too, and the Potters, the O’Neils, and that odd Austrian family at the end of the block that didn’t usually interact with anyone, except to let their dog piss on our hedges and turn the needles yellow.
Soon all eyes were on us. What was our plan to make the new colored family unwelcome? It was up to us, they said, to save the property values for the rest of them, because of course they knew old Audrey would be no help in that regard. In fact, she was apt to tell them all to take a hike to hell.
Well, that sentiment crossed our minds, too, once we understood we weren’t there because they wanted us back as neighbor-friends. Our hands squeezed tight together and Gina kicked inside like she wanted out, same as us.
We told them we respected their right to feel the way they did, but we were not going to make anyone feel unwelcome unless they did something to make us want to, and they hadn’t. We’d met the Arringtons by then.
We fell in love with Livia first, because who can resist little girls? She was smart and curious, with cheeks plump like ripe tomatoes, and that was fun, because we missed little Alice next door. Our Gina hadn’t yet arrived. We only had boys, two and three years old, when the Arringtons moved in on a Saturday in May.
That next day, when we got back from church, Livia strolled over into our yard carrying a sketchpad. She said hello and started drawing our porch. Velma yelled at her to come back and leave us alone, but we waved her over, too. Her swollen belly gave us something in common right away. We could offer advice, since this was her first and we’d been around that block twice already.
Phil wandered over, too, in a spotless white t-shirt. He was shorthaired, clean-shaven, and the color of butter, so light you could barely tell what he was. We had cousins on the Megna side darker than him. We offered ice cream and Velma waddled back to get some soft cookies. We put ‘em together and had ice cream sandwiches at our picnic table on the back porch.
They were a personable couple. Friendly. They liked to have a drink and chat, same as we did. Sometimes we did our porch, sometimes theirs. We’d sit out late and watch the fireflies sparking in the dark under the stars in the sky. It was very pleasant.
One time, though, after both Gina and Maddie were born, we were sitting around and Phil told Velma not to talk so much. She was short on sleep and we’d all had a couple of cocktails, and good Lord, did she give him a face full of grief about that. “You don’t tell me when the fuck I can talk!” Right in front of us, too. Woke the babies and everything.
You’d think we’d be put off by that kind of display. Nope. Didn’t mind it, because that meant we didn’t have to be so perfect around them all the time either. Our marriage was fine by then, but what couples don’t squabble with each other once in a while? It was nice to have them right next door for company. Color didn’t come up. Honest to God. We talked about our families and house stuff, maintenance and decorating, babies and babysitters. We gossiped. Told them everybody’s business and a bit about ours. Just people stuff.
Some of the other families stayed mad with us for not helping them get rid of the Arringtons. Sally Gore, especially. God, she was the worst—nasty as she could be—but as far as we knew, no one did anything meaner than be unfriendly, and Phil and Velma were tough, they could handle not being smiled at. If anything worse went on, we didn’t hear about it.
At first they didn’t seem to socialize with anyone but us and Audrey, who liked to talk with Phil about books. Then Phil joined the tennis club down the street and made friends with a few people, including the Miltons, across the road, who had a boy Maddie and Gina’s age. Our sons were Gina’s best friends and Maddie felt left out sometimes, so she played with the Milton kid until she and Gina joined the same Brownie troop.
Honestly, we never gave too much thought as to what life was like for the Arringtons here in town. Oh, we’d hear neighbors talk about them—they saw the different cars parked on the street and in their driveway, people going in and out to see Phil, and they’d speculate that he was selling drugs, selling guns, selling Velma. We’d just laugh at them.
Now, there was one time when they had a family barbecue. We didn’t love that. It was loud—music and talking—and it spilled into their front yard from the back and there were at least fifty colored people standing on the grass outside the house for hours. Picture that. In this neighborhood. The only white people there were our kids. We were invited, too, but were inside on the phone, because it rang all day long.
Oh, you should’ve heard the neighbors. They said things we’d never repeat. And we didn’t disagree with all of it. Most of it, yes, but not all. We worried we might’ve been wrong about the Arringtons. Their yard was full of Negroes. So many. Too many. Everyone thought it was the beginning of some kind of invasion, and the locals took it out on us, saying they told us so, and we ruined the neighborhood. And as much as we liked Phil and Velma, we realized we wouldn’t be comfortable with a whole bunch of Phils and Velmas. And that was our neighbors’ fear. It wasn’t the one family, it was more families coming and changing the neighborhood.
The police were called, no surprise there, but the squad car just kept riding up and down Stage Road and didn’t even stop, like the cops were scared. People at the barbecue began waving at them. The music got turned down, but the crowd stayed, thick as a swarm of ants, until it got dark.
We were going to say something about it. We wanted to. But that was tricky, because we didn’t want to ruin the relationship, especially since it was such a good one. So we thought about it. How could we say it delicately? Please don’t have ALL your colored people coming here at once. If there’s a good way to say that, we weren’t clever enough to come up with it, so our lips stayed locked.
And then we figured out something about the Arringtons: they didn’t want their relatives moving here any more than we wanted them to. They’d moved away from them! If they’d wanted to live around a bunch of their own, they could have stayed in the city. And there were actually a couple of colored families in Monroe. Not a lot, and none in our neighborhood. They were mostly on the other side of town. We didn’t know them well, but we knew of them. They seemed to be fine people. No crimes or anything like that. That kind of thing was a problem in Newburgh, and maybe Middletown, but not here.
Well, Phil and Velma never sought them out. Not as far as we knew. Maddie played with a couple of their kids, but Velma didn’t invite the colored parents over to visit, at least not that we ever saw, and we would’ve noticed. We didn’t see the Arringtons make any effort to befriend those people at all. Except for one man. The dentist. He was at their barbecue. And he was the only one we’d ever heard anything “negative” about.
The story we heard was that the Negro dentist, Dr. Beaumont, bought his humongous house up on a hill with cash, and paid for it with fifty thousand, one-dollar bills. They had to be counted by hand at the bank in town where the seller was depositing the money. Rumor was, that same bank wouldn’t give the dentist a mortgage on another house he wanted, so he saved up and paid for this one in cash, small bills, just to mess with them.
Now, we liked that story. It wasn’t negative to us. The bigot who told us (guess who) thought the colored dentist was disrespectful and should have known his place. He was all right with us, though. We both had a dentist in town we’d seen since we were teenagers, but we once went to Dr. Beaumont for check ups just to shake the man’s hand.
Phil and Velma didn’t have any more parties on their lawn and people eventually got over that day. After a while, when other neighbors saw that the Arringtons added onto their house, kept it up nicely, and didn’t, in fact, bring crime or squalor or whatever it was we were worried about, everyone settled down.
It wasn’t until Livia stopped coming on weekends—she went off to college—and Gina and Maddie were about seven or eight, that we realized Maddie wasn’t being accepted the way Phil and Velma finally were. Gina was upset at dinner one day and said that a couple of the mean boys from down the hill told her she shouldn’t play with the Arrington girl because colored people were trash. Our boys, Matthew and Anthony, were quiet at the table, looking down at their peas. We knew from the past they didn’t like those kids. They’d said they were bullies and from the way they’d said it, we had a feeling those bullies had talked smack about us, too. Their parents gave us crap about our affairs, even though it didn’t affect them in any way.
We’d gotten over it. We were good. The truth is, there was never any serious problem between us. We’d been “us” since seventh grade. By our early thirties, we had a mortgage, two screaming babies, and no romance. We agreed we needed something. So we got it. Not right in the neighborhood and not with any locals. Tourists. Up for the summer in the bungalows. We enjoyed ourselves, and then we came back together. That was the plan, all parties knew, and we stuck to it. There were some complications at the end, but there was an end, that was the main thing. Finito.
We asked Gina what she said to those boys, and she brushed her red bangs back and squinted at us. “I told them to shove it,” she said, “and to mind their business because Maddie’s my friend and I can play with whoever I want.”
We weren’t singing hallelujahs about her saying “shove it,” but she was our girl all right. Gina was nobody’s follower.
The next year, it was October of ‘72, we noticed Maddie seemed down when we had our annual leaping in the leaves party. She’d gone through a depression the year before and that day she seemed out of it again. The way she threw herself off the swing into the leaves seemed like an adult jumping off a bridge. It was strange to see a kid act that way. We asked Gina about her and that’s when she told us that there was a mock election in their fourth grade class and that Nixon won twenty-one votes to only seven for McGovern. She said Maddie was one of the seven and that one of those bully-boys said only “niggers” and “nigger lovers” liked that pussy McGovern and he would never win.
Now, that really did stun us. We’d taught our kids to be nice. They’d grown up around Maddie. They knew she was colored, but they’d known her from the time she was born and we hoped they’d never say something like that. We thought everyone taught their kids to be nice. Even the ones who were prejudiced, because who wants their kids going around saying those kinds of things? It’s bad parenting. And what color had to do with McGovern we didn’t understand. His thing was getting out of Vietnam, we thought. But there must have been something to it. The kid got it from his parents.
There were people around here we knew who didn’t like the idea of Negroes being equal, civil rights and all that. You couldn’t avoid seeing that business on the news, the marching, and bodies being hosed and beaten. Now and then we’d hear someone get loud, down at Fisherman’s Feast or over at the bowling alley, giving their opinion, but we didn’t pay all that much attention or think about the Arringtons having anything to do with that. It wasn’t happening here.
Well, when Gina told us what happened in their classroom, we wondered if we should say something to Phil and Velma. Let them know that Maddie could count on Gina. Our family didn’t think the way that bully kid from down the street did. We mulled it over for days but we just couldn’t. Phil and Velma didn’t talk to us about that sort of thing. Maybe it was too uncomfortable—called attention to the fact that they were different. Velma would sometimes mention that she’d gotten into it with Sally, but she would stop short of mentioning anything about color. We knew it was about that, and she knew we knew it was, but she didn’t say it. Didn’t have to. Everybody knew what Sally’s problem was. And Phil never mentioned anything at all. In fact, it wasn’t until years after they’d been here that we heard about the way they were treated over in Walton Lake Estates. We were shocked to learn it happened right in our town. We didn’t think Sally would’ve even stooped that low. It’s one thing not to want a whole bunch of colored people moving in and changing your way of life. It’s quite another to throw eggs and hateful words at them.
The Arringtons didn’t come here to change anyone’s way of life. That’s the thing we realized. They came to live pretty much the way we live—to be good neighbors, to enjoy the peace and beauty of our small town, and to raise their family in a safe place. After a while, we really didn’t see color anymore.
Toni Ann Johnson’s essays and short fiction have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Hunger Mountain, The Emerson Review, Xavier Review, and Callaloo among other publications. Her novel, Remedy For a Broken Angel, published in 2014, was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author. Johnson’s novella Homegoing recently won Accents Publishing’s inaugural novella contest. The book is scheduled for release in late 2020. Johnson is a produced screenwriter and the recipient of numerous awards for her screenwriting including two Humanitas Prizes and a fellowship to the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. She teaches screenwriting at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.