I have a recurring dream in which everything is perfectly serene. It’s a peace that is exceptionally ordinary and, at the same time, distinctly real. I’m always outside, the weather is invariably ideal, and then, out of nowhere, the sky blackens and begins to fall into a terrible flood. The chaos only lasts for a matter of seconds, but it throws me into a panic. I don’t fight the chaos—I never resist. I allow it to overtake me. I always wake up at the exact same moment, excited by the brush with death, afraid I don’t care enough to live.
My mother tells me that my dreams are premonitions. She has vivid dreams as well, but as often as we talk on the phone about them I never tell her how frequently I have this one. I tell her about my new home, how it reminds me of Grandma’s house down south. The towns are identical, I say, except the one I now live in has sidewalks—undoubtedly for the university students—and two more grocery stores in closer proximity than they ever were in our old town. I also tell her about the violence.
I don’t throw a word like “violence” around without understanding its implications; so when I say it, I am being deliberate. I didn’t know the woman beyond the requisite introductions made to acquaint ourselves. Yet, after sitting with her—in the same room, for three nights per each of the prior two weeks—I could feel it coming. And soon enough there we were: her crying because I’d used what I thought was the appropriate word to describe our conversation, and me attempting to explain what I’d meant. I know it didn’t come across the way I’d intended and the word had failed to convey my feelings. Violence, though, is accurate—referring to actual behavior, actual force. It wasn’t “danger” I was concerned about, the mere possibility of being harmed; if so I would not have moved to South Carolina—not with any intention of living very long. Violence and danger are different, and I much prefer the latter to the former, though, if I am forced to endure the former, I would rather it be exacted overtly, in a direct fashion. Still, danger isn’t the reason I avoid driving at night or going out often. It’s violence.
The woman I barely knew hadn’t quite understood me when I’d said it. I tell my mother about my exchange with this woman and how it had ended with the woman in tears.
“What did you say to her, son?”
I really don’t remember what I said other than something about violence. The woman told me she’d met a Black woman at the grocery store and struck up a conversation. She said she “loves old Black women.” Her chat with the “old Black woman” concluded with an invitation to a Black church. The woman from my class asked me about Black church protocol. She wanted to know if it was cool if she went to this church and to whom she should speak first when she arrived in order to not offend anyone. It was clear — although too late for her to do anything but cry about it — that she had offended me. The woman apologized through her tears by telling me that she felt comfortable around me, that she too had almost dropped out of high school (though “too” was odd because I had never considered dropping out of high school), and she too had grown up in a poor family (presuming information about me a stranger couldn’t possibly know), and she just wanted to be friends.
“She was white?” I can hear the concern in my mother’s voice … and that she has missed most of the other details in my explanation.
“Mother, everybody here is white.” Eighty-four percent of the campus, evidently.
“I told you … leave them people alone.” Which she had. And I did.
The woman had approached me, had asked me the asinine question, had become upset at my explanation that Blackness wasn’t a set of innate knowings of such things, that I hadn’t been to a church in South Carolina, that it was reckless to assume, and that if she were talking with my mother their exchange would have been much different. The woman asked how. I couldn’t explain how. I just told her assumptions like hers insinuate violence. I can only imagine she took that to mean my mother would physically fight her, though that’s not what I meant.
I think I meant that my mother would have responded to the woman the way she is responding to me on the phone.
“So what did you say to her?”
“I told her I didn’t know and that I don’t go to church here.” I still can’t remember my exact words. “I also told her she shouldn’t ask strangers questions like that, and that if she would’ve asked somebody like you that question she would get cussed out. Then she asked why and I said something about it being ‘violent.’ That’s when she started crying.”
I’ve inherited my mother’s hostile impatience with banality. I know this because she’s now behaving the way I do when I decide I’m finished talking to someone. I get on with it and tell her that, after the crying started, I found the quickest exit — through seemingly endless apologies and dismissals — from the conversation.
Mother warns me again to leave “those people” alone, which I have every intention of doing; I change the subject, telling her about the rest of my unremarkable adjustments to my new home. She asks if I’ve been eating and sleeping okay.
I lie twice, with one “Yes.”
Once, while driving Down Home, Mother got a speeding ticket and had a court date to which she couldn’t drive. My folks are from the part of Illinois between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers called Little Egypt—the village of Sandusky, specifically, which is about an hour south of Carbondale. Southern Illinois is distinct from the rest of the state because of its curious history, which not only includes the racial violence in Cairo, but it is also one of the very few places in what is now known as the Land of Lincoln where slavery was permitted—the salt mines near a town called Equality. Likely a product of the state’s ‘Black Laws,’ this part of Illinois feels more like the Deep South than it does the Midwest. Her ticket was issued a little farther southwest of Equality, in Union County. That town is called Anna, which, according to regional lore, is an acronym for “Ain’t no niggers allowed.”
I drove my mother on the morning of her hearing, and we arrived to town early enough to stop for breakfast before court. We had driven three hours, and decided to go into a restaurant. I recall joking with her as we walked in, though I don’t remember about what. More prominent in my memory is that it was about 6:45 a.m. and the only patrons were a group of older white men sitting at a table directly across from the entrance. I thought they must have been a bowling team or part of a softball league. The man with his back to the door wore a bright royal blue sateen team jacket emblazoned across the back with fire-engine red embroidery that read “Mississippi Burning.” I mouthed the words on the jacket as the men’s conversation halted.
My mother was already at the counter ordering her food at twice the volume it would take for the cashier to hear her. She practically yelled “for here” when asked if we would be dining in, prompting even more intent stares from the still-quiet men at the table. She ignored me when I told her I didn’t mind eating in the car or at the courthouse. She chose a table too close to theirs, and her every word was about how racist the entire place was—by which I assumed she meant a combination of the town, the state, and the country—and how “hillbillies don’t know no better.”
The men stared as my futile attempts at quelling the conversation only fueled Mother’s fury. I ate quickly; she barely touched her food. At her suggestion that one of the men might be the judge she was on the way to see, I stood up and started to clear our table so we could leave. My mother walked out in disgust. We rode in silence to the courthouse.
She laughs dismissively whenever I remind her of that trip, but our conversation about the woman in my class reminds me of that situation I perceived as both dangerous and teeming with everyday violence—as well as her response to it. In that restaurant, she did the exact opposite of “leave them people alone.” I’d dare say she openly antagonized them. Yet, she was chastising me for participating in an unsolicited conversation and warning me against any others.
Nevertheless, the woman in my class cried twice more in such conversations with me, the last ending with my telling her that I came to South Carolina for many reasons, but making friends wasn’t one of them. That was the last time we would talk. Before the end of the academic year, the woman I made cry was shot and watched her shooters kill her boyfriend during a robbery of their home. The murderers were caught, tried, and convicted. She never witnessed this justice be served, though, because she had already taken her own life.
The weight of my guilt is infinitesimal compared to the loss I assume pressed upon her and will likely continue to burden her loved ones. I think about her often and wonder if there was something I should have done differently. The refusal of friendship—even for unseen, intuited reasons that are justified—can seem callous, and the rejection must surely feel awful. Even worse, perhaps, is my attempt to glean some meaning from the memory of someone whom I disregarded in her living presence. Perhaps that, too, is dangerous … or violent.
This is certainly not a conversation to be had with my mother, at least not in any way that she’d understand or that I can properly articulate. I’m not sure if I even know. If nothing else, I hope I can learn or feel something more on those nights when I drift off behind heavy eyelids and my subconscious mind paints a scene of peace on the horizon.