When Friends Become Enemies: 1958

Melanie Marino, writer

“Come on Mary-Jane, you’re gonna make us late again!” Thomas yelled from the window of his firetruck-red 1955 Buick Convertible. It was a gift from his daddy on his 17th birthday and sometimes I suspected he loved that car more than he loved me.
“I’m coming!! Just grabbin’ my shoes,” I replied, hobbling down the steps while attempting to wiggle them over my thick socks. Today was the 21st of October, making it just over a month now that Thomas and I had been commuting the hour and a half drive to Hazen, Arkansas. It was unfortunate, considering my house was less than a block from Central High, but it wasn’t like I had a choice. Without an education, the world would chew me up and spit me out, just like it had done to my deadbeat father.
Back in September, I had heard on the radio that Governor Faubus closed Central and the rest of the schools in Little Rock “to preserve the peace of the community” (The). Aunt Rose told me that wasn’t true. She told me that he was just a stubborn man who wanted to keep society stuck in their backwards ways. She told me that he was wrong, and that if my momma were alive, she would have wanted me to treat everyone the same because black or white, we were all God’s children.
* * *
“Did you see the new kid in class today MJ?” Thomas questioned, eyes focused on the road ahead of him.
“Janet? Yeah, we have 3rd period together.”
“She seemed nice.”
“She seemed nice?!” Thomas drew his lips into a thin line and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. “MJ, she’s a negro. It’s bad enough that Central closed, but having to spend our senior year in this overcrowded, integrated dump just makes me lose my cool. If it wasn’t for those students last year — I hear they’re calling them the ‘Little Rock Nine’ now — we might still be at Central. It’s their fault all the schools closed you know” (The).
“No,” I replied flatly, “it’s Governor Faubus’s fault the schools closed. I guess he thinks it’ll keep the school from integrating”.
“Yeah? Well good,” he huffed, shooting me a smug smile that used to make my knees give out but was currently making my blood boil.
I glared at him. “Thomas, you don’t mean that. You can’t really believe the color of your skin makes you better than people. If you do. . . you’re just as ignorant as your daddy.” His head jerked towards me and immediately I knew what I had said, however true it might be, was a mistake.
“What did you say?”
“You heard me,” I mumbled as I avoided meeting his now blazing green eyes. The car slowed to a halt.
“Get out of my car Mary-Jane.”
“But I—”
“I SAID GET OUT!” he shouted, his face cherry-red with rage. “I won’t have blacks in my school now or ever, and I sure as hell won’t have someone that sympathizes for them riding in my car.”
* * *
It felt like I had been walking for ages before I heard the car pull up beside me. Wearily, I turned my head to glance at the driver: a boy about my age with wavy, dark hair that refused to be slicked back and faintly familiar eyes that stood out from behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
“Hey there, do ya need a ride home?”
“Uhh, do I know you?”
“I’d like to believe so,” he chuckled, “I mean we’ve only been neighbors for, what, eight years?” I cocked my head in confusion for a second before finally connecting his familiar face with a name.
“Ohh, I’m sorry Charlie. I hardly recognized you. You’re so tall a-and big now,” I stammered.
“Yeah, that tends to happen when you grow up. Well… are you gonna get in? Don’t worry, I’m not as mean as I look,” he joked, a boyish grin plastered on his face.
“Sure. Aunt Rose will be worried sick if I don’t get home before dinner, so thank you.”
“Why, I’m just glad to help Mary-Jane.”
“Please, call me MJ.”
* * *

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, Right down Santa Claus lane, Vixen, Blitzen, all his reindeer, Pulling on the reins. . . The holiday tune crackled through the dated radio, pulling me back into consciousness. I yawned and rubbed the sleep from my eyes.
“Oh, I love this song!”
“Gee, so now you’re awake?”
“Give me a break,” I said jokingly, “I was up for ages trying to study for Mrs. Steven’s semester exam! Not everyone is a genius like you, Charlie.” I pressed my nose up against the foggy window and gazed out at the glittering white landscape. It was now the 15th of December, and just as school had begun to settle into a routine, it was shaken up again by the arrival of the holiday season. After my ordeal with Thomas, I had seemingly lost my ride to school, a.k.a. my only hope of finishing a high school education. Though Aunt Rose worked ‘round the clock and I had taken a weekend job at the Skyline Diner, there just wasn’t enough money to send me to one of the private schools many of my friends were attending (The). Luckily, Charlie also happened to attend school in Hazen, so he stepped in and offered to be my ride. After all, I was his next door neighbor. How I never noticed him and his old station wagon arriving at the same school as me before baffled me, but I guess that goes to show how much you miss when you set your focus on the wrong person.
“Hey MJ, where’s that soda fountain you work at again?” Charlie questioned, pulling me out of my thoughts.
“The Skyline Diner? Oh, it’s right on the corner of 5th and Main Street.” Abruptly, Charlie smashed on the brakes and veered onto a side street that led to town.
“Wait, Charlie where are you going?!”
“We are going out to eat.”
“Out to eat? But it’s a school night and I—”
“Relax, it’ll be fine. A little fun never hurt anyone right?” With a silly smirk on his face, Charlie parked the car and pulled me inside the diner. We placed our order at the counter, then made our way towards an empty booth. The atmosphere inside the diner was lively, with kids sipping their milkshakes and the jukebox blasting Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue”.
“My cousin is married to him you know,” Charlie mused after finishing off his plate of French fries.
“Who? Buddy Holly?”
“Yep, my mother’s sister’s kid — María. He popped the question on their first date back in June. (Buddy)”
“No way! I can’t believe you’re nearly related to the Buddy Holly.”
“Crazy, isn’t it?”
I nodded my head vigorously while munching on my chocolate donut.
“Hey MJ. . .lets dance.”
“This is a diner, Charlie. People are watching.”
“That’s kinda the point.” He grinned and ran to over to the jukebox. “Come on, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ is about to play! I know it’s your favorite. . .” Reluctantly, I agreed, and before I knew it I was completely swept away by the song’s happy melody. Charlie was a surprisingly swell dancer, his feet moved with the music, bopping and twisting to each beat. He looked me in the eye and grabbed me by the hand, laughing as he swung me around the diner floor. We were immersed in the moment for what seemed like forever until a commotion at the counter interrupted the music.
“I’m telling you for the last time, I can’t serve y’all here. Didn’t you see the sign out front?” Charlie and I pushed to the front of the crowd, curious to see what was going on. At the lunch counter sat three black students, two boys and a girl. The girl I recognized immediately. It was Janet, one of my schoolmates.
“Charlie,” I whispered while keeping my eyes on the scene, “Remember last year in June when those black church members sat at the Royal Ice Cream Company over in South Carolina and refuse to leave? I-I think that’s what’s happening here”(Daniels). The three teenagers sat at the counter, unmoved and unfazed by the obscene language and racial slurs being hurled at them.
“If you kids don’t get outta here I’m going to call the police, you hear?”
“Go to a different diner! You know your place.”
“This is a whites only counter. Can’t you read?” Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, a teenage boy came up behind the three students and dumped a half-melted vanilla milkshake on Janet’s head while his accomplices smeared ketchup into the hair of the boys sitting beside her. Horrified, I turned to look at Charlie but he was already walking towards the scene with fists balled and a fire in his eyes that I had never seen before. I watched wide-eyed as he grabbed the boy by the collar and yanked him around so that they were standing face to face. Immediately, my stomach was filled with a sinking feeling as I recognized the smug smile and angry green eyes.
“You treat all women like that?” Charlie seethed through clenched tenth.
“Nah. Only ones who have an itch for hanging around places they don’t belong.” Thomas chuckled and looked my way, locking eyes with me before shifting his gaze back towards his opposer. “Do we have a problem here?”
“N-no, everything is fine,” I offered as I broke though the front of the rioting crowd. “We were just leaving. Right, Charlie?”
“Yeah. Right,” Charlie mumbled, looking down at his hands. I nudged him towards the door, then dragged him out of the diner and over to the side wall. We stood there in silence, our rapid breaths clouding up the frigid air.
“Really?” Charlie turned to face me, arms crossed and trembling with rage. “Everything is fine?!”
“Relax, Charlie. I was just trying to get us out of there. You know how dangerous those crowds can be.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry.” Charlie sighed and slumped down against the wall. “Why were they being so cruel MJ? We are all people for goodness sake.” As he spoke, I could see his expression shift from sadness to frustration. “This can’t be how God wants us to treat each other. It’s just not right.”
“Your right, Charlie. It’s not.”
“I’m glad you guys think that.” Both of our heads lifted upwards to meet the face of the new voice that had abruptly entered our conversation.
“Janet? Are you alright? What are you doing out here?” I questioned, scrambling to my feet.
“I’m fine. The only reason my momma let me come tonight was if I promised her I wouldn’t get into no trouble and it’s getting pretty heated in there. I figured I should head on home.”
“We could give you a ride home if you’d like,” Charlie offered, getting up to stand beside me. “It’s not safe for you to walk home alone at this time of day.”
“Why, thanks Charlie. I appreciate it.”
The three of us made our way through the crowded parking lot, discussing what radio station to play on the way home. We had almost reached the car when Charlie stopped dead in his tracks. His body tensed as he pushed Janet and I behind him. Leaned up against the station wagon was Thomas, a sinister expression on his face and a wooden base-ball bat lying at his feet.
“Look Thomas, we don’t want any trouble. I’m just tryna get these ladies home.”
“That’s not gonna happen.”
“Please, just let—”
Thomas picked up the bat and swung.