I am pleased to use this format to present to you some of my shorter writings. A new story will be added from time to time. Some stories are for little people; some are stories, essays, or other pieces for adults.
A lonely schoolgirl is bullied because her skin is too dark and she runs too fast, but she has one ally—a horse.
A read-aloud story for children and adults. “Keep Eyes Behind” and “Lonely Horses” have a similar theme. In both children must struggle and rise above prejudice and bigotry imposed upon them.
Illustration by Cora Hays
Hassler Health Home was a hospital for tuberculosis patients. Set among the hills above the Hetch Hetchy reservoir south of San Francisco, it was isolated from any population. Its view was expansive, taking in redwood groves, golden hills clad with scrub oak, and animal pastures. It was beautiful, but lonely for a ten-year old girl who wasn’t supposed to be there. My mother was a nurse on the night shift. She left for work in the afternoon just before I got home from school.
After school I ran from the bus stop, up the road, down a trail through the woods, around the back of the hospital, and into the nurses’ quarter, which was our home for a while. I changed out of my school clothes. I finished my homework. I waited for Mother to bring me a dinner tray from the hospital cafeteria during her fifteen-minute break. Then it was my favorite time.
I looked out of the only window in our one room. I watched five horses atop the grassy knoll across the woods behind the hospital. The horses occasionally pranced about, flicked their tails and nudged each other, but mostly they just grazed lazily or slept. In my mind they were racehorses. I had named them School Is Out, Sky So High, Make It Home, Tomorrow's End, and my favorite, a frisky filly I named Flaming Red. Soon my mind took me right over to them. We practiced our moves. We high stepped. We trotted. We pranced. We galloped, and we ran, and we ran, and we ran until it was dark.
My horses were like the horses Daddy had talked about when he returned from the Kentucky Derby. That was a long time ago when I had a real family in Cleveland. I couldn't remember what Daddy looked like anymore, but I remembered his stories about the racehorses with their wonderful names. He played with me like he was the winning jockey. He would grip his hands around pretend-reins; bend his head low over the pretend horse's neck, roll his shoulders in a slow circular motion. His pretend horse always beat the others by two lengths, and then it was my turn to jump up and down, and shout: "We won! We won!"
I was so involved with my racehorses that I barely heard Mother come in again during her half hour dinner break to say goodnight. It was dark by then—one of my worst times of day. I didn’t like going to bed alone. I didn’t like the voices and the steps I heard going in and out of the other rooms. All around me was dark and strange. No one was supposed to know I was there, so I couldn’t make noise. Mother woke up early to bring our breakfast on a tray. I didn’t want to answer her question, “How was school yesterday?” Instead I told her a good horse story until it was time for me to leave.
I ran behind the hospital, along the trail through the woods, and down the road until I reached the school bus stop. During my run to the school bus my horses joined me. They were brilliant, beautiful thoroughbreds. Among them was my own Flaming Red. She flicked her long, luxurious tail. She tossed her beautiful head in greeting to me every morning. We ran, and we ran, and we ran until we reached the bus stop; then she disappeared.
The bus driver was nice. Every day he said the same thing. “Good morning, little lady. How was your run today?” The first time he asked I wondered how he knew I ran all the way to the bus stop. After my first week at school he saved a front seat for me across from the driver’s seat. He looked at me that morning and smiled like he meant it. “You sit there next to me.” I guess he didn’t want me to have to walk past those boys who were not kind.
In the middle of the school year Mother and I had moved, and I had changed to Emerson Elementary School. My teacher’s name was Mr. Peterson. All the other kids already knew each other. The first few days some of the kids in fifth grade approached me and asked, "What are you?" I wasn't dark enough for them to be sure I was negro, but I was too dark to be like them. When I answered, "I'm American." the girl who had asked pinched up her nose like I smelled bad, and walked away from me. Her friends followed, and none of them spoke to me again.
I sat outside alone on a bench during morning and afternoon recess. I ate lunch alone in the cafeteria. It seemed like a long time had passed, but maybe it was only a few weeks before anyone besides the bus driver spoke to me like a real human being. Her name was Emily. She hadn’t ever talked to me either, but I knew she was one of the nice girls, because sometimes she smiled shyly at me. She had long braids like me and long skinny legs like me, but she had freckles. She and I usually got the best grades on our work. That day when lunchtime was almost over I felt Emily standing in front of the bench where I sat alone. At first I didn’t look up. “Do you want to run?” She asked. I guess I was too surprised to answer. She asked again, “Do you want to run?” I looked up. She seemed nervous, but her eyes felt okay, so I answered, “Yes.”
“Let’s run over there,” she said. She walked towards the fence that divided the upper classes and the little kids’ playgrounds. It was away from the area where the boys played roughly. Emily ran beside the fence. I followed. She called behind to me, “Come on. Let’s go fast.” She ran around the only redwood tree, and then beside the fence. “Come on!” She called again. I guess something in me decided I could trust her. I ran faster and caught up with her. I could have run right past her, but I didn’t. We ran side by side to the end of the fence, around the redwood tree, and back to the bench. We ran, and we ran, and we ran until the end-of-lunch bell rang. We lined up to go back into class. Emily wanted me to stand near her at the beginning of the girls’ line. I usually stood at the end of the line where I didn’t have to feel the other kids’ eyes watching me from behind. Emily didn’t seem to care what the other kids thought.
From that day on we were together every recess and lunchtime. I barely touched my cafeteria food any more. I hurried outside to join Emily. She brought her own lunch in a nice lunchbox. She saved half of her sandwich for me, and when there was something beside Jello, I brought dessert for her from the cafeteria,. After we ate, we ran, and we ran, and we ran back and forth from our bench to the fence.
One Monday morning during recess Emily sat even closer to me on our bench. “Do you like horses?” She sounded breathless like she’d been running, but she hadn’t.
“Of course,” I answered. By that time I knew that Emily and I liked a lot of the same things, but I still had not told her about my five horses.
“My uncle came last night. He’s a jockey.” She was excited and talked fast. “He’s going to take me to the race track and show me his horse. He said I could bring you.”
“How does he know me?” I didn’t trust what I was hearing.
“I told him you were my best friend. “We’ll go Friday right after school.” She acted like everything was already arranged.
“I’ll ask my mother,” I forced my voice to sound calm.
The rest of the week seemed like forever. It was forever before the classroom clock showed ten minutes after three. Mr. Peterson took forever to check everyone’s desk to make sure it was neat before he finally said, “Girls line up.” “Boys line up.” “No running in the hallway.” “Girls dismissed.” The girls were halfway down the hall before the boys were dismissed.
As soon as I got off the bus that Monday horses exploded in my head like they’d been waiting forever to be let loose. School Is Out, Sky So High, Make It Home, and Tomorrow's End burst through the starting gate. I held back on Flaming Red because she needed time for her legs to catch up with her head. She did her best run after the second wide curve on the track. We took the inside; then she broke out. No way could the other horses catch her. We ran, and we ran, and we ran. We ran faster than ever up the road, down the trail, through the woods, past the hospital, and right into my mother’s room. Flaming Red won by two lengths.
Friday finally came. Emily and I had our plan. Her uncle would meet us in the school parking lot right after school. We would sit close together in the front seat. We would drive away in her uncle’s Chevrolet station wagon before the school buses left. I couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like at the Bay Meadows racetrack up in San Mateo, but I knew it was going to be the best day in my life.
After we ate lunch Emily boldly called out to Kevin, the fastest boy in fifth grade, and challenged him to race with us. Kevin decided we would run a relay race. He got his best friend, Russell, to run with him. They found two sticks for batons. The boys set the course—from the lower end of the fence, around the redwood tree, up to the little kids’ playground, back down around the tree, and back to our starting place. One of the boys who had been watching us took a piece of chalk out of his pocket and drew the start and finish line. All the kids began to gather behind us to watch. Kevin decided that Emily and Russell were first. Each one took a stick baton and knelt side by side at the starting line. Kevin and I stood at the halfway line with the redwood tree between us. He had the advantage for turning because he was on the side of the tree that was closer to the fence.
The boy with the chalk stood next to Emily and Russell and officially announced: “On your mark.” “Get set.” “Go!” Behind them the kids cheered for Russell. He was about three feet in front of Emily when he reached the tree and passed his baton to Kevin.
It seemed like the whole upper school was watching now. “Kevin!” “Kevin!” “Kevin!” “Kevin!” They shouted in unison.
Emily passed the baton to me. “Catch him,” she said breathlessly.
I wasn’t thinking; I just ran and ran and ran. I didn’t notice when I moved in next to the fence, passed Kevin, turned, and passed the redwood tree. I didn’t notice when I passed the finish line. I didn’t notice that only Emily was cheering, and all the other kids were silent with their mouths open. The end-of-lunch bell rang, but I didn’t notice that I ran right to the front of the girls’ line. I only knew that Flaming Red had won by two lengths. I wasn’t thinking about anything else until I felt a fist thud hard between my shoulders.
Russell was in front of me; Kevin was behind me. The hand that I lifted to protect my back from another blow was grabbed and twisted behind me. It was Kevin’s voice. “Nigger!” “You cheated.” I turned my whole body around so fast to face him that he had to let go of my arm. I swung my other arm around and felt my fist smash into his face.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Mr. Peterson shouted from the classroom door. “Sit down this minute, girl!” He was talking to me. I saw Kevin limp to his desk like he was really hurt. I had hit his face, not his legs. Mr. Peterson was still shouting at me. “You’ll stay after school for this, girl.”
I somehow reached my desk. It felt like every kid’s eyes were on me. I wasn’t going to cry. I couldn’t see Emily. I wondered where she was and why she didn’t say anything. She saw exactly what had happened. The agonizing hours of the afternoon passed so slowly I thought I was going to die. I didn’t look up at the clock. I didn’t know anything or feel anything except misery. I didn’t care when Mr. Peterson said, “Clean your desks.” “Girls line up.” “Boys line up.” “Girls dismissed, except you, girl, stay there.” I kept my head down. I didn’t want to see Emily leave the classroom.
As soon as the last boy left, Mr. Peterson turned to the black board and wrote: Civilized girls don’t fight. “Take out your paper and write this two hundred times, and don’t ever let me see you raise your fist to another student. Do you hear me?”
It felt like a knife was stuck in my throat. My eyes burned, but I wasn’t going to cry. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. At last I stood up and went to Mr. Peterson’s desk. Without even looking at me, he threw away all of my papers with Civilized girls don’t fight written two hundred times. He didn’t even look at them. He crumpled them, and put them into the trash basket next to his desk. He didn’t say anything. I went back to my desk and took my things. I left the classroom. I walked down the hallway, past the principal’s office and through the side door facing the parking lot. Emily wasn’t there. Her uncle’s station wagon wasn’t there. All the cars were gone, except for the one I guessed was Mr. Peterson’s. All the school buses were gone.
I walked down the street away from the school, past the Post Office, past all of the shops, and out to the outskirts of the city. I had no money to take a bus. My mother would think I was with Emily and her uncle at the racetrack, so she wouldn’t miss me. It was nearly dark when I reached the school bus stop. I walked down the road until it intersected with the trail through the woods. I couldn’t see through the tears that flowed down my face and right into my neck, so I didn’t know Flaming Red was waiting until she stopped right in front of me. She brushed her nose against the top of my head. She bobbed her head up and down. She flicked her tail and shuck her hind end like she was dancing. “Let’s go,” she was telling me.
As soon as I was on her back she turned and lifted her body into the air. In one smooth leap she landed and burst into her fastest run. We ran, and we ran, and we ran. We ran down the road towards the town. We ran past all the shops, past the Post Office, and onto the street in front of the school. We ran right up the front steps, right through the front doors, past the principal’s office, past the lower school, through the hallway to the upper school. We ran into Mr. Peterson’s classroom. Flaming Red reared up high on her hind legs and lowered her front legs down just right to kick over the trash basket next to Mr. Peterson’s desk. All my papers with Civilized girls don’t fight written two hundred times flew right out the open window.
Flaming Red turned and knocked Kevin’s desk upside down into the aisle. Then we ran back down the hallway, past the principal’s office, down the stairs, through the front door, down the street, past the Post Office, past all the shops, and right out of town. We ran, and we ran, and we ran until we reached the trail through the woods. We ran behind the hospital to the nurses’ residence, and right into our room. The light in the room was on. Mother had left a note saying, “Get ready for bed. I’ll bring you a nice hot dinner, and we’ll eat together. I want to hear all about the race horses.”
Later Mother told me that I must forgive Emily, because it wasn’t her fault that she had to leave me at school that Friday. I did not stay in Emerson Elementary School much longer. Mother took a nursing job in San Francisco, where she worked the day shift. We had dinner together every night in our own apartment. Emily and I wrote letters to each other until she became too sick to write to me any more. She died from leukemia before she finished sixth grade. I still have her fifth grade school photograph.
This story is partly autobiographical. It happened before the San Francisco Peninsula became Silicon Valley, before telephones became smarter than their owners, and just before the civil rights movement bent the common weal ever so slightly towards justice in the racially divided U.S.A. The name of the school I attended for a few months during sixth grade was not Emerson Elementary. Hassler Health Home really was a TB sanatorium in the location described. My mother was a nurse there, and I lived in her room in the nurses’ quarters. My teacher, Mr. Peterson, was not as mean as depicted. He and Kevin and their actions are composites of racially motivated bullying I experienced throughout my school life. Bay Meadows Racetrack did exist in San Mateo, California from 1934 to 2008. Emily was my only real friend during my first eight years of school. Her death, like my father, was my early experience of losing someone I loved.
Lonely Horses © 2014 Beverlee Patton