Long orange shadows flung themselves against the beat-up bricks of Fort Scott. The bloodred sun disappeared slowly from the sky and inky ghosts of night took its place. The stars, mostly blotted out by the street lights, peeped around the lightning bugs that dotted the sky.
Two young boys walked, shoulder to shoulder, down Penn Street.
One was white, with red hair and red eyes and a hangdog look that marked him as a troublemaker. The other was darker—dark enough to be called black, in this time of segregation—with short-cropped curly hair and a battered, defeated look behind his weary grey eyes.
They hunched their shoulders to make themselves smaller as they rushed past the dark alley: A hole in the indigo street that attracted bullies and thugs like flitting bugs to a porch light. A voice called out to them from the inexorable square of dark, and they broke into a run. The boys turned onto the next street and were gone, like a breath of wind.
A low song rose from the alley, a song without poetry and beauty. It was a cacophonous buzz, a loud hurtful buzz one might heart from killer bees, a song with tendrils of threatening and anger reaching out to the world around the alley.
One lone figure turned onto Penn Street, and the song stopped.
“Hey, boys!” the singer called out. “It’s Gordon! Come on out and have a little fun!”
The figure, a slim young black boy with big, profound eyes, shuddered and slowed. He buried his face into his collar and did not try to escape when a burly boy with a red nose and white skin and a dead father grabbed him by the hair and yanked.
The burly boy laughed at Gordon and said, “Hey, you, whatcha doing out so late? Looking for trouble? The sun’s down and I bet yer pa is lookin’ for you to dig out the vegetable stand!”
And the other boys, piled on top of each other, hurt piled on hurt, sores in the soul rubbing on raw sores, bubbled into laughter, digging elbows into each other and laughing, laughing, tattered clothing draped over them, until their stomachs were aching and the burly boy was satisfied.
He lifted Gordon up by the hair, “Hey, whatcha have to say, huh?”
Gordon mumbled something into his collar.
“What was that?”
“I said, Looking for my notebook. I dropped it somewhere here this afternoon and I came back for it. I want to show dadda.”
The boy laughed. His laughter sounded like a hammer on a nail, hurtful and full of hurt. He dropped Gordon into a crumpled heap on the stained concrete below and held his full belly with his fat hands and laughed.
“You don’t have a notebook, Gordon. You don’t even have a bed.”
“Do so. I made it.”
“Made your bed? Well, congratulations. You did what every kindergartener knows how to do! What’re you, ten?”
“Thirteen. I made the notebook. I made it with the backsides of newspapers. I draw in it the things I want to photograph one day.”
The boy put on a fake expression of cunning, “Ah, you made the notebook. I see now. You made a notebook. You draw in it the things you want to photograph one day.”
Gordon was still lying on the ground, and the burly boy stepped on his foot. “Liar.”
Gordon’s face was teary and brave. His clear black eyes looked into the other boy’s without fear, indeed, with courage. His shoulders were straight and his mouth was set tight. His eyebrows were drawn close together, and though his cheek was streaked with tears and his head and ears ringing, he looked at the bigger boy without fear.
“You are going to take photos one day?”
His voice was flat and unbelieving and full of sarcasm, and when he flicked a look at the other boys, gathered together in a protective clump, they dutifully broke into laughter again.
The laughter was louder now, loud and crazed. The burly boy lifted Gordon by the shoulders and yelled in his face, “Liar! You will never do that! You are too poor, you are worthless, you are nothing, you can never do anything you want!”
Gordon closed his eyes and said nothing. He did not move, not to shield his face, not to stare the other boy down.
The boy seemed to calm himself, and released Gordon and straightened his coat. He turned away.
Then all of a sudden he threw himself back at Gordon, who was picking himself up behind him, and slammed his fat fist into Gordon’s stomach. Gordon gasped and tears started again. The other boy stood there and laughed at him as the black boy held his stomach and tried to hold in the tears.
Then the boy held something up, intelligibly, in the darkness. “What’s this?”
Gordon stiffened imperceptibly, but it was enough. The boy saw.
“Oh ho ho. Oh—haha haha! This is your precious little notebook that you want to show your daddy, isn’t it?”
He nodded reluctantly.
“Well, it looks a bit boring. I think it needs some… remodeling.”
With great handfuls he took the pitiful notebook made from newspaper and ripped it in half and half again. Gordon stood watching him, his round eyes fixed not on the notebook but on the boy destroying it.
Suddenly he took a breath and said, “Remodeling. That doesn’t make sense.”
The burly boy stopped and the other boys, in the alley behind him, craned their necks to see him.
“What did you say?”
“I said, That doesn’t make sense. Remodeling is redoing a house. Not a book. If you were ripping up—” he gulped—“A notebook, you would say, Make it look more interesting. You don’t understand. Remodeling is a house. Not a book.”
The other boy stared at him, his hands hanging by his sides in amazement.
Gordon pressed on, breath coming in short gasps as he faced the bigger boy. “You don’t believe me when I say I will be a picture-taker one day, but I will. I swear it. I am going to take pictures one day. For famous people. And for poor people, too. I will draw them all and take all their pictures.
“I’m going to be a photographer.”
That broke the spell. The bigger boy doubled over, laughing in wheezes, and the pile of boys in the alley tumbled down and out into the street into genuine laughter. Gordon took his chance and tore his mangled notebook from the boy’s clenched hands and took off running.
His tears flew behind him as the bullies laughed and laughed and laughed. He ran, heart pounding, down the streets and toward home, notebook clasped to his chest.
A great yell ricocheted off the brick buildings around him from the bully in the alleys. “The thought! Gordon Parks a photographer, that’ll be the day!”
And only the stars high above them understood the irony.