The Summer at Childhood’s End
On the first day of August 1978, eighteen-year-old Sabella Laaksonen sat on the front porch of her family’s El Paso home with a popsicle in her hand. Sabella had a lot on her mind. Two weeks from now she would be at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi to follow in her mother’s footsteps and earn her Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
Brice Laaksonen often sang the praises of being an Aggie and enjoyed retelling the story of how he met Thyra when he was a junior working on his Bachelor’s in engineering. Thyra was just starting nursing school and was quite impressed by the handsome football player. They married a year after meeting and Sabella was born a year after her mother obtained her BSN.
“The year that your mother was able to work while I finished my Master’s degree was critical,” Brice explained. “It allowed me to advance in my field and get the job that gives us all the good things we have. If you look for a fella who’s got ambition, he’ll be able to give you the kind of life that I’ve given you kids and your mom.”
“I really don’t want to think about getting married, Dad,” Sabella protested. “I’m going to school for a BSN, not an MRS.”
“All I’m saying, Honey, is good things can happen if you’re prepared. Don’t go walking around with your head in the clouds. Keep your feet on the ground. You’re not a little girl anymore, and I won’t be around to take care of you forever. You need to find a husband to take care of you.”
Brice kissed Sabella’s cheek and went into the house.
Sabella looked out at the yard. The house she had lived in for most of her life was certainly impressive. The Laaksonens lived in a moderately upscale neighborhood at the end of a mile-long road. They owned nearly an acre of land and had four horses. There were three mares named Dandelion, Lola, and Poppy and a gelding called Granger.
Sabella sighed, remembering the argument with her parents about her higher education goals. She wanted to become a veterinarian like her Grandpa Xavier Laaksonen, but her parents believed that nursing was a more practical field for a young woman to enter.
“I know horses!” Sabella protested. “I know horses and chickens and dogs and cats, and I know enough about cows and pigs and can learn more. Grandpa Xabi was super-successful and well-respected by farmers all over Texas and at racetracks all over the South. I want to be independent and successful like Grandpa Xabi. I don’t want to waste my college years learning how to be a helpmeet to some nebulous husband who may never materialize. Anyways, not all husbands are honorable. Some of ‘em are dogs who leave their wife for a secretary with fake boobs who’s young enough to be their daughter!”
Sabella’s parents told her that she’d watched too many episodes of Dallas and that it wasn’t sensible for a woman to be a veterinarian. She was going to nursing school like her mother had, and that was that.
The popsicle dribbled onto Sabella’s hand and a piece of it fell into her lap, staining her white shorts.
“Shit,” Sabella muttered. “Red popsicle on white shorts. Brilliant. Now I’m gonna have to dye ‘em. What kind of idiot thinks that white pants are a great idea anyway?”
Sabella popped the bit of popsicle into her mouth and gazed out over the spacious backyard. The horses were grazing lazily. It was too hot to ride, but she’d go down to the stable and groom them later. Granger flopped over on the ground and rolled back and forth.
“Silly fucker,” Sabella chuckled. “I fucking love horses, and I want to work with them. I kind of hate people and don’t want to work with them. Except for babies and little kids. They’re innocent and ain’t had time to learn how to be mean yet. Anyways, I can find me a job once I get to school and I can work to pay my own tuition and go to vet school. Or maybe I can go ahead and get the dumb BSN and work part-time as a nurse while I go to vet school. Dad would say I ain’t gonna have time for that ‘cause I’m gonna be too busy popping out babies, but I ain’t ever gonna get married. The only boy I’d ever marry is Shacky-Shack, but my family don’t approve, and society would never let us live in peace, so I need to forget it.”
Sabella took off her sunglasses and walked towards the pasture.
“it’s near as bright as dream light out here,” Sabella observed. “Uriel, can you tell me how come I can’t marry Shacky when we like each other so much? He’s the sweetest fella, and he’d be a good dad and a good provider. That’s what my father wants for me, but he only thinks it’s good if I’m marryin’ a white-collar white boy. Shacky’s family owns Shack’s Famous Chicken. They got locations in El Paso, Fort Worth, Midland, Odessa, Queen City, Tyler, heck, they even got locations in New Orleans and Xico, Mexico. If that ain’t success, I don’t know what is.”
Sabella petted the horses’ noses and fed them each a handful of alfalfa.
“Me and Shacky could set up a Shack’s in Corpus Christi,” Sabella mused. “I could go to vet school during the day and help in the restaurant in the evening. I could make good money just like Granddaddy did, and eventually me and Shacky would have kids. Our kids would be darker than me but lighter than him and the most important thing is, they’d be kind, ‘cause they’d be raised kind. Anyways, I think that’s the most important thing, but some people think the most important thing is keepin’ to your class and race, and I think that’s awful.”
Sabella stroked her finger over the petals of a white flower with a yellow center.
“He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, and I know it. But the world don’t want us to let our love grow, so we gotta let it go,” Sabella mourned.
Shack’s real name was Shaquille Diklah Sanders, and Sabella had known him from the time she was twelve years old. During Sabella’s sixth grade year, a Shack’s Famous Chicken set up operations just a quarter-mile from Jubilee Catholic Preparatory Academy for Young Ladies and St. Aredius Preparatory Academy for Young Gentlemen. Students quickly took to congregating at Shack’s after school. The restaurant chain had been founded thirty years previously by Shack’s namesake grandfathers, Shaquille Sanders and Dion Diklah.
Shack was a year older than Sabella. He attended Benjamin Franklin Junior High and was having trouble passing his classes. Sabella volunteered to tutor him in exchange for free food. Shack’s mother, Fernie, and his father, Andy, readily agreed to the deal. Sabella quickly endeared herself to Shack’s family.
Sabella found herself surprised at the easy, natural way in which Shack and his relatives interacted. Shack’s parents were warm and supportive. They didn’t belittle their son for struggling scholastically, they praised him for being helpful and considerate.
Shack’s twin brother, Dion, had Down syndrome. Despite being urged to put him in an institution, his parents had raised him at home. Dion was a delightful young man with a goofy sense of humor. He enjoyed helping at the restaurant, busing tables, washing dishes, and making sure everything was stocked. Sometimes Sabella helped him with his tasks. Dion enjoyed playing hacky sack, and no-one could best him. When Dion decided that he wanted to compete in the June 1973 Special Athletes Showdown in Dallas, Sabella readily agreed to help him train.
Brice Laaksonen told Sabella that he was proud of her for helping Dion. Shakerville Petroleum was one of the sponsors of the Showdown. One afternoon while Sabella, Dion, and Scotty Tyler were training at the track at St. Aredius while Sabella’s little brother Alex and Scotty’s little brother Cyrus played, Margaret Leavitt came by with her cousins Dylan and Ned. The boys were carrying a big orange water cooler by the handles while Margaret carried a plastic bag full of disposable cups.
Margaret and Sabella were on the track team at Jubilee together and they had once been close friends, although the friendship had cooled when Margaret started spending time with a group of popular girls who made it clear that Sabella was unwelcome.
“Hey Sabella,” Margaret greeted. “We was just over at Shack’s, and Davon’s brother asked if we’d bring over some lemonade for y’all.”
“It’s Dion. But thanks. That was nice of you.”
“That nigger boy Shacky sure does seem sweet on y’all, Bella,” Ned teased.
Margaret punched her cousin in the arm.
“Ned, shut up!” she snapped. “You ain’t oughta be using that kind of language!”
“What kind of language? I ain’t mean nothing by it! He’s a negro, ain’t he?”
“That don’t matter, it’s still a bad word.”
“Okay, well, sorry ‘bout that. Here’s y’all’s lemonade. Hey, Dill-Weed, try an’ catch me, faggot!”
Margaret sighed and rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry about Ned, Bella. He thinks cussing makes him cool. He really don’t mean nothing by it. He likes everybody the same. He’s just a dumb ole oaf sometimes.”
“It’s all right, thanks for the lemonade. Hey, Dion, y’all can take a break! Shacky sent over some lemonade for us. Don’t drink it too fast, though. You don’t wanna get cramps in your stomach.”
“Okay, Bella,” Dion agreed. “Hey, Margie. How y’all doin’?”
“Just fine, Dion. It looks like your training is coming along good. Bella’s a real good coach.”
“Yeah, she sure is. She’s a good runner too.”
“Listen, Bella, I was wonderin’ if you might be in the market for an assistant coach to help Dion train,” Margaret suggested. “I ain’t seen much of you this summer.”
“Why? Are Vivien and Miley on vacation?”
“I know Vivien’s been taking up a lot of my time. I’m sorry about that. She’s got problems at home and she trusts me. I think you might like each other if y’all got to know each other better. I’m sorry for the way things happened.”
“I kinda like hanging around with boys better anyways. Me and Scotty are good friends, and I’m good friends with Dion and Shacky too. But you’re welcome to come by the track if we’re here.”
“Yeah, Margie, y’all come on by!” Dion encouraged. “We-uns can all train together. I know Scotty can’t run too fast ‘cause of his heart, but he can give us good advices.”
“I can throw things too. Heads!” Scotty called as he tossed a hacky sack towards Dion.
There was great excitement as the families prepared to attend the Dallas Special Athletes Exhibition and cheer Dion on. Shakerville Petroleum would have a booth set up, and Sabella, Margaret, and Scotty’s fathers had all volunteered to ensure that things would run smoothly. There would be a Shack’s Famous Chicken booth among the food vendors.
Sabella’s six-year-old brother Alex, Scotty’s six-year-old brother Cyrus, and Margaret’s five-year-old sister Dee Ann were already friends. They befriended Shack and Dion’s energetic six-year-old cousin Mokosh, who told everyone to call her Mo. Mo liked to wear Osh Kosh overalls because she liked the name. She had a headful of braids tied off with colorful beaded ponytail elastics and a sunny, infectious grin.
Mo’s eleven-year-old sister Madison was a very big girl, weighing at least 200 pounds. She was sweet and solicitous, bright, and very aware of the pitying and disdainful looks and hateful comments others made about her body. Her family had affectionate nicknames for her. Shack called her Big Gun. One of her cousins called her Cream Pie “’cause she’s big and fluffy and sweet as pie.’” People outside the family weren’t nearly as kind.
“I hope you girls will be more mindful of your figures than that girl Madison has been with hers,” Margaret’s mother Pia cautioned one night when the two families were relaxing in the hotel pool. “Goodness, but she certainly is a porky thing! She looks like a black barnyard sow!”
“That ain’t very nice of you, Mama!” Margaret admonished. “Maddy’s the nicest girl anyone could hope to meet, and I don’t think we oughta be talking mean about her behind her back.”
“Honey, I think what your mother means to say is that being obese like Madison is, well, problematic,” Thyra Laaksonen explained. “Madison is a dear, and I’m glad that you girls are treating her kindly. But it isn’t healthy to be that big, and when you’re as fat as Madison is, people make fun of you.”
“Anyhow, no man wants to marry a fat ole cow,” Pia Leavitt added, lighting a cigarette. “Goodness, a fella would need a crane to carry Big Madison over the threshold!”
“You’re wicked!” Margaret sniffed. “Maddie’s only eleven years old. Grown men ain’t oughta be looking at eleven-year-old girls for marryin’! Maddie’s a sweetie, and I think when she grows up there’s gonna be a fella who likes her just how she is and if he can’t carry her, they’ll walk over the threshold together. C’mon, Bella, let’s swim to the deep end. That nasty old cigarette is makin’ my stomach flip!”
“I swan, I don’t understand girls these days with their brassy back-talk!” Pia sighed, breathing out a cloud of smoke. “It’s that feminism, making our young women sassy and contrary.”
“Teenagers always push boundaries,” Thyra observed. “Margaret’s just trying to see how far she can go. Kids this age, girls especially, really aren’t much different from toddlers.”
“It’s her father’s fault,” Pia opined. “Pierce has always spoiled Mags. All she’s ever had to do is bat her eyes and hug his neck and he gives her whatever she wants.”
“I hate my mama sometimes,” Margaret confessed quietly when she and Sabella reached the shallow end of the pool.
“Yeah, I hate mine sometimes too,” Sabella agreed. “She wants me to be Little Miss Perfect.”
“’Least your ma was a nurse. Mine was Miss Texas 1956, and she don’t never let me forget. She tells me I oughtn’t be so much of a tomboy. She wants me to do beauty pageants.” Margaret made a face. “Beauty pageants stink. I just wanna run track and write songs. I wanna be a country music singer like Tammy Wynette, not tie myself in knots worryin’ about who thinks I’m pretty.”
The next morning, the contestants, vendors, and families gathered at White Rock Lake Park to prepare for the exhibition. Sabella and the other members of Dion’s coaching group passed on the plentiful breakfast treats at the hotel buffet to show their solidarity with Dion, who was a bundle of nervous energy but just as good-natured as ever.
At nine A.M., the runners were called to the starting line. The air was electric with anticipation. The younger kids bounced about happily, shouting out encouragement. The adolescents and adults exhibited a combination of trepidation and expectation. Scotty massaged Dion’s shoulders before dispatching him to the starting line with an encouraging pat.
“Just remember, Dee, y’all are a winner no matter where you place,” Scotty reminded his chum. “We-uns are all right here cheerin’ for ya, Bubba!”
“C’mon, Dee, you got this!” Madison shouted.
Shack draped his arms around Sabella’s and Margaret’s shoulders.
“Ladies, I’m fit to swoon,” he confessed. “I’m as nervous as a June bug!”
“Dion’s gonna do fine, Shacky,” Sabella promised, hugging her friend. “He’ll be happy no matter where he places.”
“Dee’s smarter than us ordinary folk,” Margaret observed. “He don’t get himself in a dither over nonsense like winnin’ contests or trophies. He just has fun, and he knows that’s what matters most.”
When the starting gun sounded, the runners were off like a shot. Scotty bounded to the side of the track and pantomimed for Dion to slow down and conserve his energy. Dion watched for Scotty’s cues and put on a burst of speed when his friend signaled him to do so. His sturdy legs churned like pistons, and he came in a close second behind a lanky lad who plowed ahead of the crowd with astounding speed.
“Shacky, I done it, I done it!” Dion called as his proud brother ran to lift him in his arms and spin him about. “I done won the silver!”
The joyful memory of what may have been the best day of her life faded into the blinding afternoon light as Sabella’s consciousness returned to the present. She was heading to Corpus Christi to enter a program that she had no real interest in. Shack and Dion were heading to Mexico City to set up a new Shack’s Famous Chicken location.
“You won the silver, Dion, and I turned down the gold,” Sabella quavered as her tears blurred the orange sunset.
“You could come with us, Bella,” Shack had suggested. “Folks in Mexico ain’t so concerned about black and white. And if you really wanna go to veterinarian school, we can save up money for you to go. I’ve loved you for half my life, Bells. I don’t wanna lose you.”
“You’ll never lose me, Shack,” Sabella promised, kissing his cheek. “I’ll be your friend until the end of time. But we can’t be together as a couple. It wouldn’t be fair to our kids to have to hear the cruel things people say about mixin’ the races.”
Sabella sank to the ground and wept as the sun set on one of the saddest days of her life.