Brown Paper Bags
by Sonya McCoy-Wilson
The California sun was angry. Its rays heated the shingles on rooftops of the stucco bungalows to temperatures well above 100 degrees. Waves of heat bounced off the asphalt and rose into the air, creating long, hot days and warm, restless nights. Each year, by August, southern California abandoned its mild, strolling-along-the-beach days for searing seeing-mirages-in-the-sub-Saharan-desert days. So, it was that the two-bedroom bungalow, where she lived, had no central air conditioning. There was one window-air-conditioner, which her mother had strategically positioned in one window of the house. The one window-unit was sufficient to cool the tiny house.
Blocks and blocks of bungalows and duplexes lined the streets of South Central Los Angeles. Each house was exactly five yards apart, or a stones throw away, as Malika’s mother had said, and separated by a driveway. Iron bars were attached to every window and every door of every house. Malika often wondered if these bars were there to keep everyone else out or to keep them in. Their ten-foot fence and alarm system was a meager sign of status in the working class neighborhood. Although their alarm system was not connected to the police department or any security company, it made such a screeching sound, they had hoped it would scare off any would be thieves. They couldn't afford the security contract.
"Can we go out now Mama?" Malika and her sister Nina pleaded, impatiently, waiting in front of the living room window.
"I told you girls it was too hot outside. Wait till the sun cools a bit."
"But, Mama, we’re bored," They said in unison.
"Only boring people are bored," they predicted she’d say that. "Besides, playing in all that hot sun is just going to give you a heat stroke or make you blacker."
Malika didn’t care about heat strokes or getting blacker, she just wanted to play outside. She gazed through the iron screen door, willing herself to walk through, despite her mother. Malika and Nina looked at each other; intent on getting out of the house, they telepathically decided to go into the kitchen. Their mother was stirring a big bowl of something while checking pots on the stove. The oscillating fan stood in a corner, blowing waves of hot air across the kitchen. The girls sat down at the kitchen table.
"Mama, can I have some milk?" Malika started.
Malika poured a cup of milk and drank it in one gulp.
"Mama can I have some cookies?" Nina was next.
"Mama, can I have some more cookies?" Malika added for affect.
Their mother put the box in the middle of the table.
"Mama can I –?"
"Get out, both of you. Get!" She caved quickly this time.
The two girls sprang from the house with feverish anticipation. They ran to the backyard, clad in striped tube tops, matching shorts, and white tennis shoes. They mounted matching Huffy bicycles, with streamers on the handlebars and horns that made the dogs in the neighborhood howl. No helmets, no kneepads; they were free of the government regulations of safety that would shackle the next generation.
Thirty minutes into the journey, Malika regretted her hungry quest for the great outdoors. The sun’s relentless rays burned her scalp down the arc of the part in the middle of her head. The oil in her two thick ponytails was melting, making an oily sheen on her shoulders, which further attracted the sun. Letting go of her handlebars, a trick she prided, ten year-old Malika, felt the beginnings of a sweat ring making embarrassing half moons underneath her budding breasts. After scratching furiously underneath the tube top, she hiked it up an inch and kept riding – the price of ten-year-old beauty.
Nina, Malika’s eight year-old sister, was dogging her trail on the follow-the-leader trek, in and out of driveways, and up and down the sidewalk. Nina, although younger, was shapelier than Malika, and just about dead even with her at the shoulders. Malika resented people confusing them as twins, or confusing her as the youngest, rather than the oldest. She and Nina wore the exact same size clothes, but Nina’s shorts never bagged out on the sides, and her thighbones were covered with muscle instead of just skin, like Malika.
Down the street, children begin spilling from houses left and right. Black mothers all over the neighborhood were simultaneously assessing the safeness of the sun and giving their stamp of approval. The two girls anxiously peddle to join their friends down the block. There were at least twenty other kids that lived on their block. The central gathering spot, however, was the Johnson house. They had eight kids and
"one in the oven", Malika’s mother had said. Four boys and four girls, so once the new baby came somebody was going to be the odd man out.
The Johnson house was like a small Disneyland, or at least the L.A. Zoo. The boys were always building contraptions like go-carts and skateboards motored by lawnmower engines. They were the only family on the block with a wooden fence. This made their backyard a place of mystery and intrigue. Only a chosen few had ever actually seen the backyard, since it was difficult to climb a wooden fence and peek over the top. Wendell and Gerry, the two eldest, were always coming up with new ways to keep kids out of the backyard, thus building upon the mystery and intrigue. Some days, there was a secret password of which only a select few were privileged to have. Other times, there would be foot races to decide the day’s guests. Today, the two boys were up to something altogether different. Malika and Nina had parked their bikes at the end of the Johnson driveway. As they approached the back fence, a large group of kids was huddled around in a circle. There was quite a commotion; tempers were flaring.
"Put your arm next to Tosha’s," Wendell commanded of a small, chocolate-colored boy, with a round face, and big eyes.
"See, we told you, you was darker than Tosha!" Wendell confirmed angrily. The round-faced boy seemed to tuck his tail and drag himself away from the group and out of the yard.
"What’s going on?" Malika whispered to her friend LaShawn.
"They’re only letting kids in the backyard who ain’t no darker than Tosha. They tested Tosha, and she’s the same color as that brown paper bag over there," LaShawn pointed towards the porch. "So, anybody darker than Tosha can’t come in."
Both LaShawn and Malika looked down at Malika’s arm, then back up at each other. Malika’s stomach did a dip, and her top lip began to bead with sweat. Curse her father, she thought, why did she have to look so much like him, skinny legs and black skin. Her heart raced as Nina tested her arm against Tosha’s. Malika would be next. Of course, Nina made it; she looked more like their mother, a nice copper brown in the summer, and honey brown in the winter.
"It’s your turn Malika," she heard several kids say. There were snickers and wise cracks as Malika walked over to the circle.
"Malika, you know you too black, so why don’t you just go home," Wendell said, smirking. He put Malika’s thin, dark arm next to Tosha’s thicker, lighter arm.
"The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice," Nina said in defense of her sister. Malika stood silent with her head down.
"Don’t wanna go in your old stupid back yard anyway." Malika said finally, tossing her head, her thick black ponytails waving side to side. Nina followed, equally as haughty.
"Don’t pay no attention to them," Nina offered.
"I’m not. It’s just a back yard."
The two girls rode back down the block toward home in silence. Malika dropped her bike on the front walk without putting up the kickstand, and dragged herself up the front steps. Nina, right behind her, put up Malika’s kickstand and then her own.
"You girls back already?" Their mother asked, as the girls sulked through the door.
"Yes ma’am," they both said.
"Who wants some lunch?"
"I do," said Nina. She was always hungry.
"What about you Malika?"
"It’s way past lunch time. If you don’t eat now, you can’t eat until dinner?"
"I’m not hungry mama."
"What’s wrong child?"
"Nothing," Malika said, turning on the television and plopping down on her favorite beanbag chair. "I’m just hot." Their mother furrowed her brow and returned to the kitchen to prepare lunch.