At the park across the street from where Jane lives
The black children descend. Jane has crackers, a rubber ball, a bottle of water, a book. They pile around, share the crackers, throw the ball, laugh and talk. Jane is helpless to their eagerness.
They exchange relations, house locations, ages. Two, three and a half, four, five, six, AND HE IS THIRTEEN, they say—pointing to their cousin. HOW OLD ARE YOU? Thirty-three, she says. MY MAMMA’S THIRTY-SOMETHING TOO. Jane nods; it makes sense.
The only names she can pick out are Boo and Laneesha—and that is because Laneesha is six and can spell it. All the others are tricks of the tongue. Jane shakes her head and says, I am sorry but I cannot understand your names. THAT’S OKAY, they say, and tell about themselves instead. They like crackers. They like their cousin. They like kittens—they have some at home. Six or maybe eight, but no, Laneesha says it is just four. AND A MAMMA KITTY, the littlest one leans close to say. Her teeth are tiny and white and her breath is hot.
They play Hot Potato with Jane’s ball. Their cousin places his headphones in the center of the circle and pauses his walkman to put them out. OUT. OUT. OUT. Jane is glad to be put out; she did not really want to play. The littlest refuses to be put out but nobody complains—when she gets out it doesn’t count. Jane’s cheeks ache from smiling. One boy gets sand in his eye and the cousin calls to her. Jane holds the boy’s head in her hands and covers his eye from the sun and tells him to blink until it feels better.
They play Tag. They play Going Halfway Up the Fire Pole. They play Rolling the Ball Back and Forth, Throwing Flip Flops Down the Slide, and Don’t Step on the Broken Glass. They play Don’t Read the Graffiti.
MARIA TAKES WHAT IN THE ASS? Laneesha asks.
You can read? Jane says. That is really good reading.
I LOVE READING, Laneesha says. MARIA TAKES WHAT IN THE ASS?
Shit, Jane mumbles. It is dirty. I don’t want to tell you.
OH. Laneesha says. THAT’S OKAY.
Jane picks a clover flower and bites the ends one by one. The children are amazed. They empty the park of the clover flowers. Their hands are warm and soft as they place the flowers in hers, force her fingers into position, insist a game of How to Pull a Clover Petal Out the Right Way & Where to Put it in a Mouth & How to Bite the End Gently in Your Teeth.
TASTE THAT? she asks the one called Boo.
Boo stares up at her and shakes his head. He cannot taste the clover. No one can taste the clover. Jane cannot taste the clover. It is a trick. There is no taste. Only a smell, a feeling on your teeth, and a lightness on your tongue.
Laneesha yells, I CAN TASTE THE CLOVER! One by one, they each claim to taste the clover and tell her It Tastes Like Honey. It Tastes Like Water. It Tastes Like Sunshine.
For a moment, Jane worries that maybe black children should not eat clover. Maybe it is poisonous to them. Maybe they will die or get stomach cramps or start hallucinating and then it will be all her fault. Someone will come. Someone will ask her, What Are You Doing With These Children? These Are Not Your Children. Why Did You Come To The Park Where All These Children Are And Why Did You Bring A Ball And Share Your Crackers? And what will Jane say?
Their cousin walks them home. They carry clover, yell goodbye, ask if she’ll be back tomorrow. When their cousin walks back through the park, alone, he says BYE JANE. He shows off: jumping up and grabbing the bar the swings hang from, dunking the ball over the bar, asking her, DID YOU THINK I COULD JUMP THAT HIGH?
Nope, Jane lies. I didn’t think you could jump that high.
Jenniey Tallman lives in St Paul MN with her husband and three sons. Recent writing can be found in Alice Blue, The Collagist, Slice Magazine, and Annalemma.