Waterloo Talking by Jønathan Lyons
Hughes Avenue in Waterloo, Iowa, was not a new street, and not in a new neighborhood even back then, but with so many kids arriving on the scene, so many young mothers and so little traffic, the concrete seemed more like a playground, a surface suited more for children than for cars. That’s where we lived, we Farbens, that mid-’70s summer: in the house on Hughes Avenue where my mother had grown up. She’d hang laundry out on the line and white sheets that had flapped in the wind for a few hours would come back fresh as the breeze.
It was the first time that word had ever come between us, and it tore open a fissure between David and me that we never managed to make right.
We’d steal a flower from the riot of unchecked growth in old “Auntie” Agnes’ yard for our mother. If we only took a single flower, and only once in a while, and then only from the blossoms that pushed out over the sidewalk, through the black iron fence surrounding her raised, terraced yard, she never seemed to mind. Fritz never did.
Fritz was Auntie Agnes’ dog, a barrel-chested monster mutt who, whatever else was in his pedigree, showed clear signs of German Shepherd lineage. But there was more. Fritz was bigger than any Shepherd we’d ever seen, and his hair, though short, was a riot of shades and tints. Alongside a German Shepherd’s browns, blacks, and golds, Fritz had streaks of blonde and tan and red slashing through his coat. Fritz loved us neighbor kids. He’d draw his hulking form to the edge of the fence and, with a cautious, delicate whine, ask for our hands and attention.
My family never really had much money; my mother dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with me at 17, and my dad worked construction.
For David and me, brotherhood arrived unexpectedly when his parents became traffic fatalities on Highway 20 in a fiery head-on collision during a thunderstorm. A pickup coming the other way misjudged the slickness of the roads and hydroplaned smack into them. My friends and I wowed each other with the ghoulish details we conjured of the scene, envisioning the carnage through the lens of our imaginations: The driver of the pickup hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt. Had he launched, a human torpedo bursting through the windshield and into the car carrying David’s parents as they returned from dinner at a Cedar Falls restaurant? Did they all burn to death? What did that smell like? We imagined the whole thing like an action movie, the same collision viewed again and again from different angles.
That sort of speculation died off when David came to live with us. No one could bring himself to ask another child, especially one who looked so lost, so dazed, such questions. I was 11 years old, just three and a half months older than David. Mom and Dad were his godparents.
My father, a stern man of sturdy Germanic stock, seemed mystified as to how he’d suddenly become the father of a black child; somehow, something seemed out of whack with us. And David, ebony-skinned David, stood out like a film negative of the rest of us.
I hated him. Not at first—I mean, we were great friends when we were just friends, but it was different when he was my brother, and got all that doting and attention from my parents; they were trying to engineer a comfortable readjustment and give him space to mourn. David didn’t seem to recognize that the crash had really happened, that his parents were really dead. And in the midst of that haze of denial, my parents suddenly didn’t seem to have time to give me any attention.
The Bickner kids were a grubby, scrappy pair of boys training to follow in their father’s white trash footsteps. Their future was to become two more on the town’s long list of habitual offenders, bump from job to shitty job, land in the county jail occasionally. They lived only a few blocks away, up Argent Way, which crossed Hughes near our house. Johnny, who was held back in eighth grade, and Joey, who was about to begin sixth grade like David and I, already pedaled, sullen and sunken-eyed, around the neighborhood, trying to look like bikers, toughs, bullies. Unlit cigarettes poached from their father’s pack dangled from their lips. They used to find sticks, fallen branches, and clang them along the wrought-iron bars of Auntie Agnes’ fence, taunting Fritz into a hulking, snarling rage. I told you that Fritz loved us neighbor kids. Really, Fritz loved every kid in the neighborhood except for the Bickners, and the Bickners worked to earn that dog’s wrath.
David was the first black person in our neighborhood. There was a kid named Cullen, who was not white, but not black either, and none of us actually knew how to peg his pedigree. And we didn’t dare ask, either, for fear of showing our stupidity. Cullen had black hair in great, wavy curls atop his bronze head. His quick, confident smile, his humor and good looks, charmed us all.
Cullen welcomed David aboard on our missions to Exchange Park to climb the things we weren’t supposed to climb. I felt betrayed. I fumed in silence when Cullen, too, suddenly divided his attention between us. To me, my unexpected brother was stealing away my parents and my friends.
We climbed up the outside of the rocket-shaped platform and slide, scrambled backwards up the slide. From the outside, we wedged our feet through the bars meant to keep kids in, following the curving steps all the way to the top, 30 feet up. Simple! I remember watching from inside as David edged along the rocket’s outer bars, unaware, in that child’s way, of the danger he was putting himself in. As his bronze hands clutched the bars before me, and he braced to climb higher, I thought: How easy it would be to give his fingers a quick punch and watch him fall; it would be a terrible accident, and my parents would rush in to comfort me over the loss of my best friend, my new brother.
I didn’t do it. I wasn’t quick enough, and the moment passed, and in the aftermath, as my brother scaled the rocket, my heart clutched and my lungs ached like I’d been kicked by a horse. My eyes burned with guilty, salty tears. I had seriously considered killing David when he had done absolutely nothing to me, apart from survive his parents’ deaths. I never told anyone about that.
We’d all scrape our nickels and dimes together to buy ourselves a bottle of grape Nehi, a kid’s candy-sweet soda. Whenever any of us felt the need, we’d find the bottle sitting there, on a picnic table near the slide, and take a pull from the shared treat.
The chain-link barrier around the top of the public picnic shelter inspired us. The warning, the very verboten-ness it implied, was too much to resist. It set us to work thinking up ways to conquer the barrier and get up onto the roof. Here’s how we did it: The fencing ran along the top of the shelter’s flat roof. We climbed, following it along the edge and around the corner, to where it ended—apparently at the point Parks officials determined too ambitious a goal for troublemaking kids. The shelter always seemed to be littered with empty Old Style quart bottles in the mornings, before the cleanup crews came through.
Beyond the park, just to the west, flanked by Conger Street to the north and the Cedar River to the south, stood an old Army outpost, long disused. But gravel pits with obstacle-course tires remained, as did the boarded-up, beige-brick building we could never seem to find a way into. And the best basic-training hazard of all: the manhole-covered tubes the Army had left accessible. The steel manhole covers were heavy for kids our age, but swung up on their hinges with sufficient effort and determination. They were about eight feet deep and dank, moss clinging to pocks in the poured cement. Rounded, tread-textured iron rungs embedded in the concrete served as steps. They were treacherously slick when it rained.
Life in working-class Waterloo was a relentless saturation campaign, a marinade of attitudes suspicious of education, pointlessly aggressive, a walk tough don’t act too smart zeitgeist that knocked people down and kept them there. It was something that the population, somehow, had gotten convinced to perpetuate. We’d see a kid as optimistic as the rest of us at the end of the school year come back from summer sullen, reeking of cigarette smoke, picking fights—a kid who’d given up and decided to go nowhere. A kid beaten by Waterloo. We’d watched it happen to the Bickners’ older brother, Jerry. He took up his father’s brand of cigarettes and anger, found a shitty-wage job at the DX, and dropped out of high school. Then Waterloo took Johnny, then Joey.
But we were at the park, we Waterloo kids still too young to have had our dreams beaten out of us by the constant pressure of that attitude. Even Janet, one of only two girls our age around, had snuck down to the park with us.
When I came scraping down the too-dry slide, I found Cullen there, talking with her. Janet motioned me over with a nod that flipped aside the short, straight, raven hair her half-Japanese ancestry had bestowed upon her. “Come on,” Cullen said with that smile. So I did. They led David and me across the park, past giant concrete cylinders mounted on their sides for kids to scamper through, over to the old Army grounds. Between the two of us, Cullen and I were able to lift the lid on one. Janet descended, followed by me, then Cullen. But David wasn’t so sure.
“This place doesn’t look safe,” he said, a wave of his hand taking in the entire compound. And he was right—it really wasn’t.
“Jeez, David, no one’ll know,” Cullen said. His words did not convince my new brother. Cullen stretched out his hand, offering the bottle of Nehi.
“David,” I said, the fog of shame making me feel more brotherly toward him, “trust me. It’s OK.”
David met my green eyes with his deep, walnut-brown gaze. And he did—he did trust me. After all that. Reluctantly, he nodded. He scrambled down the ladder after us.
“What’s all this?” I said. Cullen smiled serenely. “Janet says she’ll show us if we show ours.” Janet grinned, her back straight as a bolt, her chin jutting, defiant. And so we did. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that children are free of sexuality, that they are innocent. We were not. None of us would ever have let on what I’d done with Cullen there, or he with me, or that Janet had chosen to experiment with David. I doubt I even could have said the word fuck at that age—or known exactly what the word meant. Our parents would have had some godawful punishment for us, their sexually naïve, not-yet-oriented, interracially experimental, anything goes children, if they’d found out. They would have rounded us up to make sure we all knew none of us was to see the others again, not even in school. I’m not even sure you could call it fucking. It wasn’t—not really. I think I’d have to say that it was more a negotiation, kids trying to figure out what it was all about; how, exactly, it all worked.
But summer was in its final days, and the city, in its wisdom, had drawn up a new map. To thoroughly integrate the schools, they said. Like a gerrymandered Texas voting map, a single line snaked up the hill along Argent and snatched away David and me, leaving Janet and Cullen in our old school, Lincoln, just down the hill. They could walk to school, but we’d be riding in one of the dungy school buses across town. The Bickners already went to Roosevelt—expelled from Lincoln last year. Roosevelt would be our new destination.
The neighborhood parents were not happy. Roosevelt was a black school, part of the chain of schools that emptied into East High. Because all of the white families, including those of Waterloo’s petty local politicians, sent their kids to West High, the black schools were severely underfunded. My mom and dad openly talked of East High as a firetrap. That was where they’d gone, and that was why they’d decided to keep the house on Hughes, rather than sell off her part of the estate: to keep me in the West High line of school succession. Now that plan was ruined. Death ran young in Mom’s family. Everything seemed to. The house belonged partly to my mother, but my grandparents had left it jointly to both her and her brother, Karl, who wasn’t in any hurry to get the money.
I don’t know why I went back to the park alone; maybe I was just bored—none of the other kids seemed to be out and about. David was home, playing with what were now our toys in what was now our shared bedroom. Maybe I just wanted to go and play without him around. Maybe because it had just rained a cold, hard downpour, and playing with our toys inside was getting old. But anyway, I did, I walked all the way down the hill to Exchange Park and, bored, decided to climb the picnic shelter alone. My usual handholds in the chain link were slick and cold enough from the rain that my knuckles got sore, my fingers quickly numb. The chain link along the flat, tarred rooftop was about 12 feet up. When my lead foot slipped on the slick, narrow edge of the roof, my stomach curdled. I had no easy way down. Cold, wet blacktop ran alongside the shelter. My second foot slipped before I could replant the first, and I hung there from the chain link and for a second it seemed like I could just hold on, just hang there, like maybe I didn’t have to fall. But my weight was too much for my cold, sore fingers. The fence bowed outward, dangling me away from the building, rusty snags biting into my fingers, and I just could not hold on.
I fell. My stomach squeezed in on itself. I didn’t know what would happen. I’ve since heard people describe this moment as though it were flight, but I wasn’t flying, I was a rock, a chunk of asphalt plunging toward a hard, paved surface. I must have jammed out my left arm to cushion the blow, because it met the unyielding blacktop with an agonizing crunch. The rest of me crashed down on it. I don’t remember much about the walk back to the house on Hughes, except that it was a slow, cautious process; if I twisted my body too much as I walked, the pain whited my vision over like a lens flare, and I had to stop, catch my breath, and squint back the tears. If I breathed too deeply, that hurt like hell too.
None of us were allowed to go to the park unsupervised again. My folks made calls to the other parents. My fractured ulna earned me a cast and a sling and a scathing indictment of how expensive my irresponsibility had been.
The last night before the new school year, the sun was still high up in the late-August sky at dinnertime, still, unforgivably, shining bright with invitation. This was what was merciless about summer ending so soon: Why wouldn’t the sunset get in line with the school schedule? David and I decided we would head out into the neighborhood after the meal and see who was around while we still could. It was a school night, so we had to be back early, way before sunset. David finished up ahead of me. I told him I’d catch up. I felt like I was around him all the time anyway; it was annoying. So he headed out ahead of me. This was Hughes, our neighborhood—we were safe.
Outside I heard Fritz bellowing savage oaths of wrath at something, could see him leaping up against the black wrought-iron barrier that bordered his yard.
I stepped out the front door, looking to see what was aggravating the huge dog. Half a block away I saw Joey Bickner holding David’s arms, clamping them from behind, as Johnny, the unlit smoke jumping around in his lips, pounded his finger into David’s chest, yelling. Johnny held an empty grape Nehi bottle by its neck. He swung it down against the concrete abutment of Agnes’ raised terrace. He must have seen that in a movie, thought it was cool. Fritz snarled. He lunged with everything he had, bashing his face into the iron fencing, a teddy bear turned raging beast. And incredibly, I remember thinking, Broken glass? Kids play around here.
Johnny waved the sharp, jagged edge of the bottle’s shattered bottom at David’s face, the dirty, straw-like burr of Bickner-family hair spraying out at all angles.
Johnny was sneering, dominant. The only word I could make out from him this far away was nigger. David was the negative again, no matter what. The bigger boy buried a fist in David’s stomach; David tried to double over, but Joey pulled him back to his feet.
“Bickner!” I said. “Get away from him!” I grabbed my bat from the yard and ran toward them. Johnny Bickner knew it would take me a few seconds to reach them and decided to get in another cheap shot before I could close the distance. He dropped what was left of the bottle, cocked a fist back and pounded it across David’s eye, then went after his arm, punching again and again until I was almost close enough to club them. Joey let go and David sagged, shuddering, the left eye already swelling. I swung the bat with my right arm, forcing the Bickners back.
“Whatsamatter faggot?” Johnny said, sneering. “Don’t like yer girlfriend doin’ niggers?”
The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Niggers? I thought. Faggot? I felt heat radiating from my face as it flushed with angry, humiliated red. How could they possibly know about Janet and David? We hadn’t told anyone. I swung the bat again, a wild, one-armed swing, but they were a dozen feet away, laughing. I never could hit anything with that bat.
“Maybe your mamma does black guys,” said Joey. “Yeah—how else do you get a black brother? Maybe that’s whatcher so pissed off about!”
I stepped menacingly forward, aiming the bat for Joey’s square-headed temple. Way down Argent, I saw Garland Bickner lope unsteadily onto one of the brown, dead crabgrass islands that dotted the Bickners’ cracked, dirty front yard. The man wore only blue jeans, no shirt or socks, and low enough they might not even have been buttoned. His beer belly swung liquidly, bulbously before him. He leaned unsteadily on the tireless rusted Chevy he had up on blocks. I could see that dirty gray, straw-like mess of hair atop his head even from that far.
“Goddamn you little bastards, you get the fuck down here an’ eat!” he said.
Johnny and Joey Bickner snapped to an upright, military-like posture and blanched white, their faces suddenly bloodless. Silent tears and sudden worry flushed across their faces. Their eyes flitted nervously at one another for a moment, then they broke into an all-out run, barreling with everything they had toward home. Garland Bickner had risen for the day, and he had spoken.
I reached down to help David to his feet, but he flinched away in pain; my right hand had squeezed his left, where the Bickner boys had landed so many punches.
I walked to his other side, slipped my right arm under his, and pulled his heaving form to its feet. Fritz barked after the Bickner boys from within the wrought-iron border of his domain.
David fixed his dark-eyed gaze on me, his expression full of Why? I didn’t know. “Come on,” I said, “let’s go home.”
When the first Monday of school came, my mother loaded us down with Six Million Dollar Man lunchboxes—the kind that got us laughed at by the older kids—and tote bags full of school supplies, and walked us to the front door to see us off to the bus stop. “Don’t go getting yourselves in any trouble,” my father said. “And don’t ruin your new clothes.”
The first day of classes at Roosevelt Middle School, I did not even manage to make it into the building before I went against his wishes. A horde of black kids saw David and me coming and intercepted us before we could reach the front door. I’d never seen so many, and not another white kid in sight.
The ringleader, kind of a short kid with an immense, malicious smile stabbed a finger into my chest. “Where you goin’, White Boy?” he said. White Boy. He was using it as a name for me, an insult.
I was terrified. I knew black people—well, some black people, David and his family. People always said things about them, always said they were violent, dangerous, criminal; West High kids knew not to walk around near East High. But none of that was true—I knew people like David and had known his parents. That was all garbage, stereotypes, stuff for racists.
I glanced at David, whose eyes stared back, unblinking. This was altogether new for him, too. There were about 15 kids gathered around us, laughing, jeering, but only at me—not David. It was the first time in my life I’d ever seen more black kids in one place than white.
“I said,” he said, “where you goin’, honky?” Honky? I thought. I’d never been the target of a racial slur before. The ringleader, though, was cocky, and my paralysis only made him braver. He swung a fist out, thumping it into my arm—the left one. The scene disappeared under a crushing, searing wave, my eyesight whited out by the pain of the attack on my broken, useless arm. I fell, ripping my pants and skinning my knee on the concrete. I knew how angry my parents would be at the economic assault on my new school clothes. There was a numbing strike on my mouth. When I opened my eyes again and looked up, the ringleader was looking David up and down, pacing back and forth. He could not seem to decide what to do about a black kid he’d never seen before going around with a white kid. He couldn’t seem to find a way to make sense of the two of us, together. The ringleader—whose name, I later learned, was Darnell Redd—pointed a finger at David and asked, “Fuck you doin’ with White Boy, boy?”
But his tone was half-hearted. With David too stunned to reply, Darnell Redd was losing interest. “Come on, y’all,” he said to the deafening, obnoxious group of black kids. He led them, his chest puffed out in triumph, to the playground. So that was me: the white kid. White Boy. I was the one who didn’t belong.
I thought for a second that no one in our neighborhood had called David “Black Boy,” but then I remembered the Bickners and what they had called him.
David was at my side. “Come on,” he said. “Come on, get up now.” He was careful to pull me up by my right arm, avoiding all contact with the left. “Got to be a nurse’s office here. Come on.”
The arm was fine. It ached like hell, but Darnell Redd hadn’t managed to do more damage. My lip was swollen, numb, torn against my teeth. When David and I walked past the principal’s office on my way back to class, there sat Darnell Redd, a broad grin on his face as he awaited whatever impotent punishments the principal, Mrs. Jayden, might visit upon him.
As I looked in on the smug, defiant bully, it seemed to let itself out of my mouth, of its own volition. Under my breath, I heard myself say it.
David stopped. His posture stiffened. And immediately, I wanted not to have said it, not to have thought it. I would have done anything to un-say it. But it was too late. I had betrayed him—betrayed my younger brother. I thought I saw him shudder, but he turned away from me and hurried down the dark hall.
Other students talked to me, some of the school’s meager Caucasian population. They all seemed to slink along, stealthy kids trying not to attract attention.
“Darnell’s father’s in and out of jail all the time,” said Danny Sparks, a slight kid with dirty blonde hair and a posture that said he was ready for a fistfight. “Darnell isn’t afraid of anything on earth but that man. Principal Jayden knows it, but she can’t seem to think up with a punishment that makes any difference.”
“Why don’t they just kick him out?” I said.
“I dunno,” said Dan Sparks. “Maybe they want to give him a chance not to turn into his dad.”
I nodded. I was beginning to understand. “This place does that to people, doesn’t it?” I said. “But Darnell doesn’t seem to care. Maybe he wants to turn into his dad.”
Danny Sparks shrugged, looking me over uneasily. “Look, why you hanging around with a black kid?” he said. “He’s—” I said. I hesitated, not knowing why. The words just felt out of place, somehow. “He’s my brother,” I said, finally. But I knew what he meant—the message at Roosevelt was loud and clear. Danny Sparks gave me another doubtful looking over. Then he shrugged, turned, and slunk silently away. At lunch, David and I sat together, of course. Why wouldn’t we? But we sat alone. White kids sat in all-white groups in the gym-turned-lunchroom, the black kids likewise self-segregating at other tables. We ate our bologna-on-Wonderbread sandwiches, then went out to see the playground. It was dismal. The school’s brick walls were filthy with accumulated pollution, the paved concrete schoolyard a cataclysm of faults and fissures. We made newcomer mistakes. We kept tripping as we walked, our shoes jamming into pavement raised at the cracks. Our occasional stumbles brought knowing, mocking glances from veteran students. The playground was stocked with decades-old, tarnished jungle gyms and twirl bars worn to a discolored gleam by generations of black girls, spinning end over end on them, one knee locked over the bar, as a dozen such girls did now.
As we walked along, a girl, a tall, coffee-and-cream-complected mulatto, flashed a dazzling smile at me. I walked into David, not watching where I was going, not watching anything except for the girl, her gleaming, long, black braids, her skin darker, richer than my boring, pallid vanilla, but not as dark as David’s. I smiled back, my fat lip a stretched, red bubble above my teeth. She was beautiful.
“That’s Trisha,” he said sullenly, the first words from his mouth since I’d said it. “She’s in my first class.”
I nodded. There was a sort of man-made cove along this side of the school building, a brick and concrete inlet, an alleyway with training wheels. There, in the shadows cast by the bleak, dirty school building, stood Johnny and Joey Bickner, Johnny now a year older and much bigger than any of the other kids. Couldn’t they have done something with him that didn’t guarantee that a school bully wouldn’t also be the biggest kid around? They eyed David and me as we walked, secretively, but not too secretly, exchanging comments. They wanted us to see their disapproval.
We rounded the corner of the playground to an expanse of chain link and shattered concrete, more a battleground than a place for children to play. Weeds grew, unchecked, from the larger fissures further out. And I heard David sob. He couldn’t hold it back anymore.
I wanted to say something to remove that word, get it out from between us. Un-say it. “Why’d you say it?” he said. I saw him through tear-blurred vision; the sky overhead had gone an overcast watercolor grey. I wanted to say, “That was Waterloo talking.” I wanted to say, “I’m sorry, David—I’m so sorry.” But I couldn’t. Shame cemented me in place, bound my tongue up in a regret I just couldn’t find words for. David forced himself to look at me, forced his eyes to meet mine, and with a fallen look he said, “David?” And I saw us, finally, for what we were: reflections. Reciprocals. Negatives of one another—David black, surrounded by white, and me, white, surrounded by black.
And I knew what he must be thinking; I knew that he must be rethinking my position among the people we knew, relocating me in his mind alongside Johnny Bickner and Darnell Redd, whose view of people and their place in the world was so black and white it could find no room for the in-between hues of Cullen, or Trisha, even huge old Fritz’s rampant shades and tones.
I wanted to squeeze his arm then, like I thought a big brother should. I wanted to tell him, “No more. I promise. It’s all right now. It’s OK. I’ll never say it again. I promise. You’re my brother.” I wanted to. I really did.
© Jønathan Lyons
Jønathan Lyons lives, writes, and teaches in Central PA. He is an assistant professor at Bucknell University, teaching writing and literature. His writing has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His latest novel, Minnows: A Shattered Novel, is volume 55 of the Journal of Experimental Fiction.
Join our community
Support the mission
Get the book
Writing That Risks: New Work from Beyond the Mainstream
The anthology that started it all. Available in trade paperback and ebook from most online retailers, including: