On the top row of the splintered bleachers at Booker T. Washington High School, David Tilson, one of the city’s brightest students and, thanks to his parents’ role in business, politics and social life, one of Shelby County’s most well-known sons, clenched his fists. David was only sixteen and already in the twelfth grade. “The boy with the dreams,” that’s what his classmates called him. Late last night, David’s life took him beyond books, ambition and ideals. Last night, David became a witness to a murder.
Leaning forward on the bleachers, David frowned. He felt numb while he watched the basketball game unfold in front of him. His sisters were more than ardent basketball fans; they were two of the best girl basketball players in the state of Tennessee.
David watched his sisters sprint up and down the court stealing balls, blocking shots and scoring. Despite the fact that the game was close, he knew that his sisters would find a way to earn their team a win. While he stared at the court, making sure to nod and smile every now and then in effort to mask his mounting fear, he asked himself why he came to the game.
He could have easily walked to his girlfriend Margaret’s house and spent the afternoon with her. “No,” he whispered shaking his head. He didn’t want to trouble her with a heavy heart.
Family, friends and classmates surrounded him. The bleachers were crowded, and yet David felt alone. He knew no one else around him had ever seen a murder. What his eyes had seen and what his ears had heard set him apart forever. When it came to what he was forced to experience simply because he had chosen to be out late last night drinking, he knew that he would always feel alone. He couldn’t tell what he’d witnessed last night, ever — not to a soul. If he did, he knew that people would always want to know more, would always think that he was concealing something. The more he told, the more they would want to know. It would become a story that had no end.
He’d been up on the railroad tracks drinking with a new teenager in town. The boy’s family consisted of no more than the boy and his father. They hadn’t been in town for two days when David and the boy struck up a friendship. The boy told David that he’d gotten into trouble with the law for petty thefts and other non-violent misdemeanors while his father and he had lived in Chicago. Then, one day three weeks ago, his father walked inside the house, told him to start packing and said, “Come on. I’ve had enough of all this trouble and carrying on up North. We’re getting out of here. We’re going back South.”
Cheering fans distracted David, pulling his attention back to the basketball game. David’s sister, Melinda, scored and David raised his hands and cheered when everyone else did.
A second later, David started recalling last night’s events and his thoughts about why he’d found himself at the wrong place. For starters, he’d been raised to believe that drinking was a sin and that sin brought punishment, hard, unrelenting punishment straight from God. It would have been enough had he been made to bear this burden alone, but he’d brought the new boy in town into it by encouraging him to go up on the tracks with him so that they could drink freely without being discovered. They’d laughed, talked about the gossipy women in town, told each other what they disliked most about their parents and drank pure Tennessee whiskey straight out of the bottle.
In the bleachers, David cursed beneath his breath. He was exhausted. The night had proved long, and it was taking a lot out of him to convince himself that he’d imagined everything that he knew he saw last night. He’d been drunk he kept trying to tell himself. He only thought that he saw a truck pull up against the edge of the tracks about one hundred yards away from where he and the boy had drank whiskey. He kept trying to convince himself that it was all in his mind. Nothing really happened last night. He was just dreaming again.
A second later, a chill raced up his spine and he told himself that he’d seen the ghost older folk talked so much about. “Yea,” he whispered with a nod while he watched his sisters jog to the side of the court after their coach called a time-out.
He’d seen Bobbie’s ghost. He’d seen the ghost. He smiled. He had seen nothing more than a ghost, and he was right for coming here. Being at the game would distance him from the cops.
He wouldn’t be home if investigators came pounding on his parents’ front door again. He’d only made one mistake last night. His wallet had fallen out of his pant pocket.
He was running so hard after he saw what looked like a body being dumped into the river that stretched along the back of the railroad tracks. He didn’t realize his wallet was missing until he woke this morning and stuck his hand inside his pockets, hunting loose coins.
“Damn,” he cursed beneath his breath. “How could I have been so dumb? I should have gone back first thing this morning to hunt for my wallet.”
A second later, he swallowed hard and told himself that seeing something wrong was not the same as doing something wrong, and besides, he wasn’t even sure that he saw what he thought he saw. He’d been drinking.
Hearing his friends and classmates talk kept his mind from racing with detail over crazy events that he knew he’d never fully make out. He clenched his jaw and stared at his hands. Even now sitting in the bleachers, he knew that if he lived to celebrate the age of forever he would never forget the shrilling screams that came out of the girl’s body while a group of men hoisted her into the air. He would never forget seeing the men clasp their hands around the girl’s flailing arms and her swinging legs.
He closed his eyes and squeezed back tears. He didn’t look up until his girlfriend sat next to him.
She crossed her arms. “Are we still going to the dance, David?”
Before he could answer, another student called out, “David?”
David turned sharply and faced the top of the bleachers. It was the new boy. “I gotta go,” David told his girlfriend, Margaret. “I’ll be right back.”
“But—” Margaret started to say as David stood.
“I didn’t even know you were here,” David tried. “I thought you said you weren’t coming to the game. I’ll be right back.” When her gaze didn’t soften, he leaned over and kissed her softly on her forehead. She smiled and he nodded at her. “I’ll be right back.”
Then, he hurried to the top of the bleachers. “Why are you all the way up here by yourself?” he asked the boy.
The boy stared at his feet. “My dad said we’re going back to Chicago.”
“Yea,” the boy nodded.
“But you just got here.”
The boy shook his head. “Too much is going on,” he told David. “I told my dad what we saw last night.”
David’s eyes ballooned.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell nobody else. I won’t tell another soul as long as I live. I’m gonna work hard to forget what we saw last night. I’m never talking about it again. I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen. But my dad said we’ve got to go. He doesn’t want to be a part of this. When the hammer comes down, somebody’s gonna pay real good. I ain’t staying around to let it be me.”
“But we didn’t do anything—“
“–Doesn’t matter, David. Don’t you get it?”
When a few of the students sitting at the back of the bleachers looked in his direction, the boy lowered his head and his voice. “It doesn’t matter what we did. We saw something bad happen. If they never catch who really did it, you might as well say that we did.”
“We were there.”
“But we didn’t—”
The boy shook his head. “You’ve been living in a small town too long. You don’t know how it works.”
David stared at the boy.
“We can be placed at the scene. We were there. If the cops don’t find out who really did it, and they find out we were there.”
“Yes. Yes,” David nodded. “Now I understand.”
“So, my dad said we’re out of here. Going back to Chicago.”
“Three weeks, Man.”
“I know,” the boy said. “My dad and I were only here for three weeks, but after this, we can’t stay to live out a fourth week here.”
“Well,” David said, looking down the bleachers at Margaret. She continued to watch the game. “If you have to go, you have to go. But keep in touch. When you get to Chicago, mail your number or something. No reason we can’t stay friends just because you’re leaving. As a matter of fact,” David added while he reached inside his back pant pocket. “Here. I’ll write my number and house address down for you. I can write it on the back of this envelope.”
The boy chuckled when he saw the heart shaped drawings on the envelope. He looked down the bleachers at Margaret. “She really likes you.”
David smiled. “Yea.”
“You two live in the same small town and you write each other letters?”
“She was just writing me something. You know how girls are. It’s no big deal.” Shrugging, he handed the boy the envelope. “That’s my address on the top part, and my phone number is on the bottom.”
“All right,” the boy said with a nod and a smile. Seconds later, he waved to David one last time, then he walked down the bleachers and hurried away from the basketball court leaving the sting, the cut, of a hard memory as far behind him as he possibly could. At the edge of the school grounds, the boy crumbled up the envelope and threw it onto the ground, then he started running. He didn’t stop running until he reached home. Before the basketball game ended, he and his father were in their car on their way out of Tennessee.
“Who was that?” Margaret asked when David returned to her side on the bleachers.
“Just a friend. It’s no big deal.”
“Well, why didn’t he come down here with everybody else?”
“Margaret, you see how crowded it is at this game, in these bleachers. Besides, like I told you, it’s no big deal. He was telling me something. Plus,” he told her, “I don’t ask you everything you and your friends say to each other.”
“Okay. I was just asking. I wasn’t trying to be nosy. Sometimes you can be so to yourself, like you don’t want anyone to bother you or talk to you or be around you or anything. You remind me of my father when you get like that.” Tears pooled in her eyes. Silence moved between them like a ghost. They couldn’t see what was separating them, but they both knew that something was there and they were too afraid to face it. They sighed when they heard one of their classmates talking behind them. It wasn’t until the girl mentioned the old Lenox barn that David stopped thinking about the railroad tracks and listened intently to what the girl sitting behind them was saying to a group of friends.
The girl was always creating stories, saying things that everyone knew couldn’t be true. David tried not to listen, but the girl had clearly mentioned the old Lenox barn. Despite his efforts to ignore the girl, he couldn’t distance himself from the sound of her voice. It worked like a magnet and drew him further into the story that she was telling.
Even while he listened to her, he thought about how the last story that the girl told had cast such a shadow over her family, her mother thought about sending her up North to spend the summer with her aunt. Yet the girl stuck to her story. For two straight weeks, she’d told classmates that she’d had a run-in with a ghost.
She’d said that while she’d been outside playing alone one hazy afternoon, she rode her bicycle over a little girl’s grave up by Lenox’s, an abandoned barn that hadn’t been used in more than fifteen years.
“I didn’t know it was a grave until my tires got stuck going over the hump of the tombstone. Soon as I looked down and saw — Bobbie Long — March 21, 1922-August 28, 1930, I took off. I mean, I got in the wind. I pedaled out of there like I was crazy. It wasn’t even three nights later before I was in bed at night trying to fall asleep when I heard my door creak open. I looked up and this little Coloured girl was standing in my room. I sat up and asked her what she was doing there and how did she get in. She just walked right toward my closet kind of like she was floating and took a sweater. Then, she left. Next night it was a shoe. Next night it was a dress. One night I followed her and you know she went right back to Lenox’s and put those clothes and that one shoe under a tree close to that tombstone. It wasn’t until I promised her I would never, never, never step on that tombstone again that she stopped coming to steal my clothes late at night.”
Margaret shook her head and tsked while she listened to the girl talk. “Always looking for an audience,” she whispered.
David peered at Margaret. “Soon as the game’s over, I’m outta here. You hanging around or are you coming with me?”
“Where are you going after the game’s over?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought 1 might go for a walk. You know,” he shrugged again. “Maybe I can walk you home.”
“Okay. That’ll be nice,” she smiled.
When they were silent again, they heard the girl talking behind them.
“I don’t care what you all say, I am never changing my story,” the girl said. “I know what I saw up by that old Lenox barn. My mother couldn’t even make me change my story. You see something like that and you wouldn’t change your story either. I saw that little girl. I saw her ghost. She walked right in my room. I know what I saw.”
David heard another girl say, “Donna, you’re always making stuff up. This is probably just as made up as those poems you’re always writing. You’ve just got a big imagination.”
“That’s true. I have a big imagination,” Donna said. “But I didn’t make the story up.”
“You’re always fishing for attention. You’re always trying to get somebody to brag on something you’ve done. That’s the only reason you put so much time into those poems you’re always writing.”
“I like to write. What else am I going to do? I’m the only child in this whole town who doesn’t have a brother or a sister. My mom’s always sending me off to my room. If I didn’t write, I’d probably lose my mind.”
“One thing I know is you better stop using that word inyanga’ in all your poems,” another girl told Donna. “English teacher already told you. I heard her tell you to never use that word again. She wasn’t playing either. I heard her when she told you, and you know better than to use that word anyway.”
Donna folded her arms and rolled her eyes. “I’ll write what I want to write.”
“And you’ll believe what you want to believe too,” Margaret mumbled.
“Hi, David and Margaret,” a trio chorused.
David looked up at Melinda, Janice and Jonathan. “I see you all won again, Melinda and Janice. Congratulations. And where have you been, Jon?”
“I was down by the court. You and Margaret always sit so far back.”
Melinda reached out and hugged her oldest brother. When she stepped back, Janice embraced him next. “This was a hard win.”
“It didn’t look that way to me,” David laughed.
Melinda chuckled. While she wiped sweat off her forehead with a towel, she looked up into the bleachers and asked, “So, is everyone going to the dance tonight?’
Donna answered first. “I am, Melinda.”
“Why don’t you and Evelyn come by our house? You two live so far from here. I get scared sometimes knowing you both walk so far to get home.”
Donna chuckled. “Besides a ghost or two, there’s nothing to be scared of. Ain’t nothing in Greasy Plank except a whole lot of nothing fun to do. But yes. I’ll come over. It’ll be nice to see your mom and dad again.”
Jonathan looked at Donna. “So, you’re going to the dance?”
Despite her smile and high-pitched laughter, Jonathan saw how much pain Donna had known. It showed all over her face. He’d heard students at school making fun of her. They said that she was spoiled, jealous, selfish and always looking for attention. The youngest son of powerful parents who’d given their last bit of extra time to their children a few years after the twins were born, Jonathan was acquainted with hurt. He learned of the times his parents played outdoors with their children through his siblings. Tammy nor Philip ever played with him or took him for long nature walks the way they had with David, Melinda and Janice. He’d been born after the store became a success, after his mother’s and his father’s days filled up with one too many chores. He’d been born too late. Donna’s pain intrigued him. He wanted to be able to do or say something to make her pain go away. But he didn’t try. Instead, he asked her, “So, are you going to the dance or not?” again.
“I just told your sister Melinda I was going. I’m coming over to your house to get ready for the dance. I just have to go home first and let my parents know.”
David laughed when he looked up at his brother. Soon other students in the bleachers started laughing too.
Janice teased, “Jonathan must be sweet on Donna, wanting to know if she’s going to the dance and all.”
“Doesn’t matter. Everyone’s going to the dance,” Donna snapped.
“Donna, you still pass Lenox’s when you go home?” Janice snickered.
Other students laughed.
“ Yes, Janice.”
“That place is old.”
“I know, Janice,” Donna said. “Let’s don’t get started on that again, please.”
“All the old folk claim they’ve seen a little girl’s ghost up there,” Janice said. “I think they’re just superstitious. That ghost story is older than we all are.”
Donna looked at Janice for a long time. When she spoke, her words came out slowly, almost as if they were being dragged up onto a long, muddy riverbank. “You all better not go up there by that barn. You all better not.”
Her friends turned, looked at her and burst out laughing.
Two hours later, David was home, stretched across his bed. He wished that he hadn’t walked Margaret to her parents’ house. If he had waited, let a few days pass, he was certain that when he walked to school on Monday the envelope would have been gone. The wind would have picked it up and pushed it across the road into the woods.
At first, Jonathan had offered to walk with them being that Donna lived out by Margaret, then suddenly he changed his mind and turned around. It wasn’t long before Margaret and David were alone. David took Margaret’s hand inside his. He told her that he would return to get her and take her to the dance at seven o’clock that evening. “Be ready,” he told her. “Be on time.” They exchanged light conversation and enjoyed the frequent cool breezes that brushed their skin and blew through their hair until they reached the end of the school grounds. It was there that the wind blew the envelope over the top of David’s shoe. He picked up the envelope that he’d given his Chicago bound friend and flattened it in the palm of his hand. He stared at his own name, address and telephone number until a hard lump formed in his throat.
He’d made the discovery over an hour ago. Now at home and shaking away thoughts about his walk to Margaret’s following the basketball game, David sat up on his bed when he heard his mother call out, “Dave.”