We always sang a song to the fields on the bus on the way to our middle school and at the time, I wasn’t really sure how any of us came to know it, given that we were a bunch of white kids. For some reason, I thought it was a spiritual, or something from a spiritual. Even as a young girl then, I always thought there was something sad about the song, like I knew it wasn’t mine to sing or I worried there was something wrong about a white girl who wore Izod shirts and Ralph Lauren barrettes who would sing: “Now it was down in Louisiana, just about a mile from Texarkana! In them old cotton fields back home.” I only knew about slaves and cotton back then. But I finally learned when I was older and moved away from Arkansas that it was a rock song sung by some white guys and also various white guys before them.
I assumed we were treading on forbidden territory with such songs, territory I was made aware of almost daily when I was the new girl at my school, one of the few white girls in my grade. Daddy had moved us from Columbia, South Carolina where me and my brother and sister lived in a white neighborhood and went down the street to go to school with white children. At this new place, things were quite different. Like, at recess a big group of the black girls in my grade got in our faces and chanted “White cracker, white cracker, you don’t shine, betcha five dollars I can beat your behind!” I was scared, and fascinated too. I never knew you could be hated and taunted like that just because you were a white girl. They still let me play hopscotch though and jump rope. I was really good at Lemon Twist and practiced incessantly at home so there could be at least one thing I could be better at than the girls whose skin was darker, whose homelife I never knew, who taught me the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, and who loved it when I stole the basketball from them at practice.
Mama and Daddy had a maid named Maimie, a black lady who cooked for us and though the housekeeping was marginal, which Mama never seemed to mind, her cooking was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. I never told Mama that she could never cook like Maimie, but I think she knew it and would tell Maimie how she wasn’t sure what she would do if she wasn’t around to save us. She looked after us too, us kids, me, my brother, and my sister, and whatever kids we dragged in with us, and sometimes a stray dog or cat or two. I don’t know how Maimie did it, but I respected her that she wasn’t into housework. It’s like she said: I cook, I wipe up the counters, and sometimes I go fetch a kid or animal, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be wonder woman. The one thing though I know was a bummer for Maimie was that Mama expected her to polish the silver, constantly. I never understood that, but first thing, as soon as the box fans in the kitchen and front rooms were on and breakfast was under way, Maimie would be there by the sink, one of our old cloth baby diapers in hand, rubbing away with the polish until the silver gleamed.
“Child, child!” She said to me, one night, late, after everyone was in bed, and I was asleep in my room. “Maimie done need your help now! I don’t want you to say nothing to your Mama about it neither.” I put on my clothes and went with her into the night under the moon and stars. We lived in the country and our neighbors had farms. My Daddy was a preacher so we didn’t have much land but there wasn’t a building or a stop light for miles.
“I need you to drive me to take this food to the dance on the other side of Cherry Hill. You be a good girl, now and set on up there behind the wheel like I seen you do with Ms. Millie.”
Ms. Millie was the sweet old soused spinster who taught me to drive even though of course I wasn’t the legal age being I was only eleven. Maimie sometimes cooked for her too. And Maimie knew about my driving my friend Chad’s old Chevy. We drove off the road on his property. We did that and he taught me to play cat scratch fever on his guitar. I had hopes he liked me but he liked my sister.
Maimie had too much dirt on me so that I couldn’t refuse helping her and so she just sat back like a queen while I inched along the dark road. She always had the men in her life drive her, whether it be Gustus or Daddy or the Reverend at her church.
“Gustus is gonna have the bus there where all the children can hang out,” she said. I didn’t question Maimie when she told me what to do. There was something in her voice. And being that I wasn’t sure what was happening, I felt reliant on her, like she was my parent in this other world.
Gustus was Maimie’s son. He was the only dark skinned person on the bus in the mornings and he drove all us white children, never a word spoken, a hello or good bye, or a sit down and shut it. I sometimes wonder what went through Gustus’ mind while we sang spirituals and rhymes that mostly the black girls sang at school while they huddled in a circle and danced, making the white kids look stupid and clumsy and way less cool.
“You be a good girl, you hear?” Maimie said. “You’re going to black town now, little sister, it’ll put some Africa in your bones.” And she laughed.
“Why you laughing, Maimie?” I said. “I’m not scared. I go to school with lots of black kids.”
“You ain’t heard of no ghosts then, the ones we brought with us over on the slave ships long ago, that’s right and voodoo spirits and spirits of people who died in slavery or hanging from ropes in trees. But children ghosts are the scariest of all.”
“Then why ain’t you scared, Maimie?”
“You know not to say ‘ain’t,’ June bug.”
We were downtown at Main Street where lights only blinked because it was too late for traffic.
“Go on child, down on past the track.” She was pointing with her long bony finger, the one she used to crimp pies and test temperatures of hot milk.
“I’m used to it, chile, all the time, I carry some ghosts around with me and talk to them. You think I’m just talking to myself. No way, sweet Michelle, I keep in contact. Mmm hmmm.” Maimie liked to call me sweet Michele. She said my named reminded her of the Beatles song Michele, my belle. I wasn’t named for the song, but I always thought it was cool Maimie was in touch with the Beatles. I asked her once if she knew Rapper’s Delight and she started singing: “I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip-hop, and you don’t stop the rock it to the bang-bang, boogie say ‘up jump’ the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.”
We arrived at a field with bonfires and a big stage up front. There were sounds I’d never heard before, so many drums, and people wearing colorful clothes, bouncing and twirling and shimmying as if they were mainstage of a massive parade.
“Now see what the black folk do, you see what we do,” said Maimie, pointing out a place to park. “And you thought Maimie was just a boring ole house slave runnin’ a rag ’round your Mama’s silver.”
“I never said stuff like that,” I said, feeling defensive, wounded.
“I know that chile, I’m just messin’ with ya.” It was like the girls who messed with me at school, calling me a white cracker and threatening to beat my behind, although they never did.
Maimie took me to the bus where some kids were hanging out, most of them younger and in the pajamas, lying down for bed. I found a longer bench near the back. Maimie gave me some food, a little package she had worked up, with snacks. She brought me a blanket and a pillow.
“You’re not to leave, you hear?” she said.
I was worried. I didn’t know anyone. And I was worried about how all these black people would feel about me being here. And I was worried about the ghosts Maimie told me about, a big secret she kept when she was with me, in the white world with me and my family.
“Are there really ghosts, Maimie? Ones that hang around all the time?” I asked, settling down on the bench while Maimie fluffed and arranged my pillow.
“There are,” she said. “But they’re not going to worry you, honey, no way. Maimie was just giving you a hard time now, come on up in here and lie down.”
She left me there, saying she was going to dance with some of her friends under the harvest moon, but said she’d be back, and wake me up, and we’d go home, and my parents would be none the wiser.
I could hear the drums outside, but it was quiet with all the windows closed and the door closed. I could hear the other children on their benches, breathing and sighing in their sleep. It was strange to think in a couple of hours Gustus would be driving me to school in this same bus. He would pretend nothing else happened with it in his off hours and he would be same old boring Gustus though I was sure he was out there dancing with Maimie or maybe even playing the drums. I sat up watching the swirling figures in the distance until my eyes grew heavy and I lay my head on the pillow. I dreamt of dark ghosts ascending over the swirling colorful mass of bodies and I dreamt also of smaller dark bodies, ghost children, indistinct and diaphanous, racing over plowed fields where Maimie’s kin, hunched over with sacks dipped low to the ground, had once bloodied their fingers on cotton bolls.