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Hand Me Downs

By Dan Pens

I was only five.

My mind didn't belong entirely to me yet. So much of it belonged to the world, especially to whomever I was with, and double-especially to adults, and triple especially to Grandpa 'cause he knew everything. He was so large and wise and funny and he paid attention to me. His face had bumps and valleys and lines and wrinkles and gray and black whiskers. He had yucky orange stains on his fingers from smoking Camels and he smelled like whiskey... except I wasn't supposed to notice that part. I loved my Grandpa.

It's funny now; I can't remember how it happened to be. Grandpa and I were in the front seat of his old blue Chevy, just the two of us. Just him and me. That's what I remember about it mostly. The seats were black. They were smooth and soft, the dashboard was curved like a sculpture. The glove box had a mesh grill on it that I loved to stare at. And it smelled like a car, like Grandpa's car.

I had never, ever felt so happy and special before. I had Grandpa all to myself! No brothers. No sisters. No mom and dad to spoil our fun. There was definitely something special in the air. I had my mind all the way open. I had it opened up wide so I'd be ready to catch the magic. I was soaking up the feeling. Wow. Me and Grandpa just tooling along like we did this kind of thing every day.

"Whatcha' lookin at?"

I was hunkered down in the seat and I was looking at the design on the glove box, and at the Chevrolet logo in the middle and how it looked kind of like a bird or like the emblem you see on war planes in the movies. I was diving out of the sky in my big, blue plane and my guns were going cachugga-cachugga-cachugga and I was swooping closer....

"Uh, nothin' Grandpa."

"Sit up straight. I wantcha' to see where we're goin' son."

Oh boy! Where are we going? I scoot up in the seat and look out my side window. I see downtown. I recognize it because we always pass real close to it when we go to Grandpa's house and I've been there with my mom once. We took the bus and went right into downtown and into the stores and I had to hang on to her hand so I didn't get lost.

We're not going there, though. I sit up straighter because Grandpa's driving around the outskirts of downtown, and we're on a street I've never seen before. I've never been on this side of town and everything looks new and unfamiliar.

"Do ya notice anything son?"

My mind snaps all of the way open. I can tell that tone in his voice. He's gonna show me some magic, like when we were all out in the back yard and he showed us how to make a necklace out of dandelions. I look at the buildings gliding by. They seem flat and straight and short and they have big windows and some of them have boards in the windows instead of glass and some of them are jam-packed with toasters and accordions and junk and some of them are nothing but bottles and I think maybe we're gonna stop and get some whiskey but I'm not supposed to know about that. Maybe that's what we're gonna do, maybe Grandpa is gonna tell me about whiskey. But the buildings just keep sliding by and I keep looking for something 'cause I know it must be there. Grandpa has that tone in his voice. I can just tell that something wonderful is about to happen.

"Well.... whatta' ya see son?"

Panic. I'm supposed to see something. What?!? Is it the boards on the windows? There's another store full of bottles and whiskey. Am I supposed to see that? But I'm not supposed to see that, am I? Oh gosh. What is it? He's looking at me now. I better say something or he'll think I'm dumb... but what if I say something dumb? Oh...Oh... he's gonna say something. I better....

"The boards Grandpa! Some of the windows have boards on them."

"Huh? What?" He sounds puzzled and annoyed.

Oh gosh! I did it. I said something dumb.

" Uhh... some of the windows don't have glass and some of the buildings are short and they have flat roofs and there's lots of people on the sidewalk and..."

"The people, son! Look at the people. Don't you see anything... different?"

I see a man with a floppy blue hat. It looks like the hat Uncle Bob wears when we go fishing. Other men on the street. A lot of them have white shirts on but nobody has a tie. Is that it? Is it the funny hat? Is it the white shirts without any ties? Ohhh... what am I supposed to see?!?

"Look at 'em, boy. Look at 'em! Can't you tell what's different about them? Look at their skin." He's really annoyed now.

Ahah! That's it! I see it right off. All of the people have dark skin. All of the men have short hair that's black and their skin looks dark, sticking out of the white shirts. And there's a little girl and she's dark too and her mommy is dark. Wow! Look at that! What kind of magic place is this?! All of these people who look different, and they're all here on the same street!! Ohhh... Grandpa's gonna show me how special they are. He's gonna tell me why.

"They're all dark Grandpa!!" I yelled with glee. Oh boy! I saw it. I saw it and now he's gonna show me, he's gonna show me some magic!!

"You remember that, son. These people are all dark. Do you know what they are?"

Ohhh... why does he have to do that to me?! Why does he have to make me feel dumb? "No Grandpa."

"These are niggers, son. Can you see that? Have you ever heard that word before?" His voice was cold and hard like the underside of a big rock. I was afraid.

"No Grandpa."

"Take a good look, son. These people are no good. They don't work 'cause they're lazy, and they steal and cheat and stay drunk all day 'cause they're no good.

Grandpa's voice had uncoiled like a snake and struck me dumb. My mind was paralyzed. I couldn't think. I couldn't move. I could feel the drip of venom ooze and spread through my brain... killing the innocence there. But I was frozen, totally helpless. And I sat there quietly while a part of me died.

"Don't you forget it, son."

And we drove on.

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