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Yard War
 

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Yard War


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2015 by Taylor Kitchings

  Cover art copyright © 2015 by Jeff Wack

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

  Wendy Lamb Books and the colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Visit us on the Web! randomhousekids.com

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Kitchings, Taylor, author.

  The all-out yard war / Taylor Kitchings. — First edition.

  pages cm

  ISBN 978-0-553-50753-9 (trade) — ISBN 978-0-553-50754-6 (lib. bdg.) — ISBN 978-0-553-50756-0 (pbk.) — ISBN 978-0-553-50755-3 (ebook)

  1. Racism—Juvenile fiction. 2. Race relations—Juvenile fiction. 3. African Americans—Juvenile fiction. 4. Football stories. 5. Neighbors—Juvenile fiction. 6. Families—Mississippi—Juvenile fiction. 7. Nineteen sixties—Juvenile fiction. 8. Jackson (Miss.)—History—Juvenile fiction. [1. Racism—Fiction. 2. Race relations—Fiction. 3. African Americans—Fiction. 4. Football—Fiction. 5. Neighbors—Fiction. 6. Family life—Mississippi—Fiction. 7. Nineteen sixties—Fiction. 8. Jackson (Miss.)—History—20th century—Fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.1.K63A1 2015

  [Fic]—dc23

  2014040326

  eBook ISBN 9780553507553

  Cover design by Sarah Hokanson

  eBook design adapted from printed book design by Trish Parcell

  Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

  v4.1_r2

  a

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Afterword

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  For Beth, my love, light, and patient muse

  JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI

  October 1964

  Whoever invented football was thinking about a day like today. Fall in Mississippi is always hot to cool, cool to hot, like it can’t make up its mind whether it’s really fall until it’s too late and time for Christmas—but today the air was that perfect in-between that makes you run twice as fast. There weren’t any clouds and the sky was extra high and the blue was extra blue, like God had been holding back all summer.

  The guys were coming over after lunch to get up a game, and it was hard to wait that long. I went out to the front yard to practice my routes.

  Hut one! Hut two! Hut three!

  I take off down the yard, runnin’ hard, all the way to the rose bed, and when I look around, the ball is almost there, and the defender jumps up and gets a hand on it, but I jump even higher and yank it away from him and dive into the end zone, and the announcer screams “Woo-hoo, mercy!” and the crowd goes wild—and I didn’t hurt a single one of Mama’s roses.

  I’d make that catch for the Donelson Dirt Daubers if Mama and Daddy would let me go out for football. They say seventh grade is a “difficult transition,” and I have to wait till I get a little bigger and my grades get a little better—well, a lot better. “What about the fact that I was co-first-string split end at McWinkle last year?” I say. “Junior high is a whole different deal,” they say.

  I get down at the edge of the rose bed and take off the other way, even faster, with two safeties and a cornerback right on my tail, and the Rebels are losing with only five seconds left in the game, and the quarterback lets it fly fifty yards into triple coverage, and I jump higher than any split end has ever jumped in the history of football, I mean up there with the trees, and I snag the ball with one hand and crash into the end zone, and the announcer screams, “Woo-hoo…”

  “Dadgummit!”

  It’s okay to say “dadgummit”—Daddy says it—especially if you slide on the driveway and rip the scab off your knee, plus rip the jeans your mama just bought after you ripped your other jeans. I’m not afraid of blood, but I went inside to get Willie Jane to put mercurochrome on it and see if she’d do some sewing right quick while Mama was still at the country club.

  Willie Jane was ironing and watching Ginny Lynn so she wouldn’t eat her Play-Doh, which she will do, I’ve seen her.

  “Can’t fix it,” she said, barely looking up from her ironing.

  “Please, Willie Jane.”

  “Unh-unh, it’s not torn at the seam. Can’t make it look right.”

  “You can try.”

  “Child, I got work to do. What you doin’ out there sliding around in your new jeans anyway? Nobody can play football by himself.”

  “Well, Farish is down at the Gibsons’, and you’re ironin’, and Ginny Lynn is four, so who am I supposed to play with?”

  “You could ask Dee. He’s been workin’ all morning without taking a break. He could use one.”

  I looked in the backyard, and there was Dee in an old red shirt, stretching as far as he could with the rake, pulling it in hard. He’s pretty skinny and short to be almost eleven, but I never saw anybody get a yard so clean. I’m almost twelve and a half, and I could handle the mowing and raking myself, but Mama said she wanted Dee to do it because he and Willie Jane need the money.

  Okay, I thought, why not? I’ll ask Dee if he wants to pass it around a little. I stuffed the torn jeans in the closet and changed into some old ones. It should have been a simple thing to go out there and ask him. But when I started to pull on the sliding glass door, something stopped me. It took a second to know what it was: I almost never talked to colored people. I heard a lot about colored people, especially lately, but except for Willie Jane, or Meemaw’s maid or a waiter at the club or the guy at the Texaco, I didn’t talk to any. I had definitely never asked a colored kid to throw a football with me. I mean, I said hi to him, and he was Willie Jane’s son, after all, but still….

  Willie Jane came into the kitchen and saw me looking outside, spinning the ball and not going anywhere.

  “You gonna ask him?” she said.

  There wasn’t any way to explain why I wouldn’t, so I went on out there.

  “Tell Dee it’s just a short break,” she said. “I’ll make some pimiento cheese for y’all’s lunch in a little while and then he can get back to work.”

  I walked down the yard, spinning the ball high as I could get it, catching it as I went.

  “Hey, Dee.”

  He looked up from his rake and wiped his forehead.

  “Hey, Trip.”

  “Your mom said you can take a break. Wanna throw the ball with me?”

  “Oh, I better not do that.” He looked up at the house like he needed permission just to be talking to me.

  “Come on. She said it was okay, I promise.”

  He wiped his forehead some more and looked around. “Well…maybe just for a minute. Can we do it back here?”

  The backyard is no good for football. It’s straight downhill and full of oak trees all the way to the creek. Plus, Mama has a couple of flower beds running across it to trip you. Plus, the creek would have to be the goal line and every time you scored a touchdown you’d drown. But I said okay.

  I couldn’t tell if Dee really wanted to throw with me or just thought he was supposed to. He was acting pretty shy. If I never got much chance to talk
to colored people, maybe he had even less chance to talk to white people.

  Willie Jane stuck her head out the door and yelled for us to watch the flowers, ’cause Mama had just planted a bunch of daffodils to keep the moles away.

  I tossed the ball to Dee.

  “You sure do a good job,” I told him. “I never saw a yardman so careful.”

  He smiled. “My mama say if you don’t do it right the first time, you must have time to do it over.”

  We started out fairly close together, just passing it back and forth. He was throwing nothing but spirals and putting it right in my hands. Gradually, we backed up from each other, the way guys do, to see which one will say “That’s far enough.” Pretty soon he was way over on one side of the yard, and I was way over on the other, and neither one of us had said it.

  I heaved it hard as I could, and the ball landed ten feet in front of him. But Dee drew back and hit me in the hands, zip, easy as pie. I suddenly got the terrible feeling that this skinny little colored kid could throw a football better than me. Then I thought, Well, that’s okay, I’m not a quarterback, I’m a split end—I’m sure he can’t hang on to a pass like I can. And he can’t run nearly as fast.

  We got to talkin’ a little. I listened harder than usual.

  “So you play a lot of ball?” I asked him.

  “I throw a Wiffle ball at school.”

  “What are y’all?”

  “I don’t know. A bunch of kids on a playground.”

  “I mean, what’s the name of y’all’s team at school?”

  “Ain’t got a team,” he said. “I might have a team when I go to junior high next year.”

  “Well, you oughta go out for quarterback. I didn’t know a colored kid could—”

  Whoops. I didn’t mean to say that.

  “Could what?” he asked, holding on to the ball and cocking his head.

  I shrugged and looked around the yard like maybe somebody else had started that sentence and might be willing to finish it for us. When I looked back, the ball was comin’ to me.

  “Are you on a team?” he asked.

  “I was co-first-string split end for the McWinkle Weasels last year. But junior high guys are a lot bigger, and my parents are making me wait a year to go out.”

  “Weasels?”

  “It’s some kind of small animal.”

  “Small? Is it mean?”

  “I don’t know. I hope so.”

  “I don’t believe I’d want to be a weasel.”

  “So y’all don’t have any teams or coaches at your school?” I asked him.

  “Mrs. Langley makes us do jumping jacks sometimes.”

  “That’s too bad, because you’ve got a great arm. I mean, you could play for the New York Giants.”

  He smiled big, like he was already playing quarterback for the New York Giants and knew what that felt like.

  The Giants are my favorite pro team. Charlie Conerly went from quarterback at Ole Miss to quarterback for the Giants in the 1950s. My buddy Stokes told me it was Conerly who got them to wear gray pants with their red-and-blue jerseys like Ole Miss does.

  “I mean, I never heard of a colored quarterback in the pros, but that doesn’t mean—”

  Dumb again. Double dumb.

  “Maybe I’ll be the first one,” he said. He wasn’t acting shy anymore. “I’m saving up my yard-work money, every cent, so I can buy some weights. Hand weights, barbells. Every kind of weight. I’ll be one hundred percent muscle.”

  Willie Jane stuck her head out the door and yelled for us to come get our lunch.

  “One more,” I said. “Throw me one as far as you can throw it.”

  “Okay. One more.”

  I backed into Stokes’s yard next door. Dee backed all the way into the street that runs up by the end of the house.

  “Is this too far?” I called to him.

  He shook his head, took a big breath, drew back, and let it fly.

  “Holy smokes!”

  That pass went so far it would have landed on the other side of Stokes’s yard if I hadn’t jumped as high as I could and caught it with the tip of my finger. It spun end over end and came down in the tall grass along the creek bank, hiding right at the edge. I reached for it.

  And there was the snake.

  —

  Willie Jane is my other mama. When my real mama’s gone to the beauty shop or the garden club or the country club or the Junior League, my other mama is always here. I’m supposed to mind her when she babysits us, but I can usually talk her into letting me stay up real late or eat a piece of pie before dinner. She’s been spoiling me since I was born, Daddy says.

  When I was Ginny Lynn’s age, I’d sit by the ironing board and Willie Jane would tell me about how she grew up on a plantation outside Clarksdale. Her daddy was a sharecropper, which meant he had to give half his cotton to the man who owned the plantation and didn’t get paid nearly enough for his own half. Her and her two brothers and her mama and daddy all lived in a three-room shotgun shack. They call it a shotgun shack because it’s just rooms lined up in a row and if you fired a shotgun through the front door, the buckshot would go right out the back door.

  She said one of her favorite things when she was a little girl was driving into town to buy hard candy and pinwheels, which didn’t seem like much of a favorite thing to me. I told her one of my favorite things was when it rained with the sun still out, because I didn’t see how that could happen. She said when the rain and the sunshine come at the same time, it means the devil is beating his wife. That explained it pretty well.

  Willie Jane makes platefuls of Marguerites, which are crackers cooked with peanut butter on them and marshmallows melted on top. It’s the best snack ever invented. She makes lunch and supper for us, too. She cooks the best fried chicken and mashed potatoes you ever tasted. Spoon some chicken gravy on those potatoes and it’s good enough to make a hound dog hug a rabbit. That’s what my papaw says.

  When I was little, I mixed different colors of Play-Doh together until it was brown and rolled it up and snuck behind Willie Jane and yelled “Snake!” and slung it on the ironing board. She jumped and whooped and hollered, “Child! I almost fell out!” She chased me to my room, and I hid under the bed where she couldn’t reach me. We were both laughing the whole time.

  Willie Jane hates snakes, but I don’t think she’s really scared of them. She’s not scared of much. Which is good, because I about peed in my pants when I almost grabbed that thing by the creek. I’m probably old enough to take care of snakes myself, but I’ve been running to my other mama for help my whole life, and I’m not ready to give it up.

  I had to think about my sisters. What if Farish had been the one who found that snake? She probably would have tried to pick it up.

  Dee and I ran to the house. Farish was eating her pimiento cheese sandwich in the kitchen. Willie Jane was still ironing in the playroom.

  “Snake!” we yelled. “Willie Jane…snake…down at the creek! You gotta help us!”

  “We were throwing…the ball.” Dee took a big breath. “And Trip leaned down and…there it was!”

  “Lyin’ real still,” I panted. “So it can jump up and bite!”

  Willie Jane set down her iron. “What kinda snake?”

  “The kind that makes you sick to look at it,” I told her.

  “It’s light brown and dark brown with a big triangle head,” Dee said.

  “And y’all didn’t mess with it?”

  “Unh-unh,” I said. “I did what the snake man at school told us: Take three steps back and run!”

  “Where’s the ball?” asked Farish, gnawing on her sandwich with her eyes buggin’ out.

  “Still down there,” I said, “where do you think?”

  “I’m gonna go get it,” she said.

  “No you’re not!” I told her.

  “Farish, you stay here and look after Ginny Lynn,” said Willie Jane. “Boys, y’all come on. I’ll get the hoe out of the shed.”
>
  Farish won’t mind anybody unless it’s something she already wants to do or you tell her five times. She dragged Ginny Lynn to the patio so she could watch. Ginny Lynn didn’t want to watch. Farish held her hand and tried to sound like Mama, shushing and whispering that everything was going to be okay.

  Willie Jane got the hoe and we started down the yard. She waved it around as we went, in case she had to use it quick. That snake might have started crawling toward the house. We kept our eyes on the ground and stepped as quiet as we could.

  I pointed to the spot and we walked closer. There was the ball. But no snake.

  “It’s gone,” I whispered.

  “He’s still around somewhere,” Willie Jane said. “Or his friend is.” She looked like she couldn’t wait to chop up some snake salad with that hoe.

  I snatched up the ball and almost fell over trying to back up quick. We walked along the bank from one end to the other, one slow step at a time, Willie Jane swishing the hoe through the tall grass. Then we looked for it over in Mr. Pinky’s yard across the creek. No snake.

  “It must have slithered off,” Willie Jane said. She leaned on the hoe and squinted at me and Dee. It made me so nervous, I started shifting my feet. “That is, if there was a snake in the first place.”

  “There was!” we said together.

  “Y’all better not have stopped my ironin’ so you could fugaboo me about some snake.”

  “We saw it, Mama!”

  “We saw it, Willie Jane, I swear!”

  It wasn’t fair she didn’t believe us.

  “You better have.” She headed back to the house, using the hoe like a walking stick. “Here I am swingin’ a hoe around, my hip all stove up from vacuumin’ and…”

  We begged her to believe us all the way up the yard. She finally turned around before she went inside: “No mowin’ by the creek, Dee, you hear me? Don’t mess around down there. It’s liable to come back.”

  —

  Everything has pretty much stayed the same my whole life. I’ve always lived at 5445 Oak Lane Drive, the house on the corner; my phone number has always been Emerson-68692; I went to McWinkle Elementary the whole way and I’ll go to Donelson Junior High the whole way. I’ve added some sisters. That’s about all. When nothing ever changes and everybody seems okay, you don’t ask a lot of questions. But I’m starting to think the grown-ups don’t have everything figured out.

 
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