When Jackson White and his wife disappeared from our town, no one really cared, to be honest. They had been the object of our town’s oldest running joke—a black couple with the last name—White. The situation was not helped by the fact that there was also in our hometown a white family with the last name—Black. Conversations often went this way:
“Are you asking about the Whites who are actually Black?”
“Oh, you mean the Blacks who are actually White?”
It was an old running joke, but everyone liked the joke and smiled whenever it was made because it was the kind of joke that made people in our town feel that we had transcended such mundane things as race. After all, as the town’s Librarian often said with elaborate gestures—race was a mere social construct. More on the Librarian later.
The other joke people loved to repeat was one whose provenance was now lost to the mist of time, though the joke remained a favourite. The incident in question transpired in the sixties.
It was said that a reporter for the local paper once asked a town resident what he thought about the Colour Bar. The resident had responded thusly— “we ain’t got no color bar in this town, the only bar in this town is McCormack’s.”
That, too, was an oldie but goodie.
Jackson White was the kind of Black person that everyone liked. He always had a smile on his face and his manner of speaking was often lyrical and musical. He referred to the townspeople as folks and talked colloquially about folkways. He said all mankind were kinfolk. He had a bottle tree in his yard and would tell people about the evil spirits that were trapped in the bottles overnight. He said that the evil spirits would be killed by the sun the next day. His cobalt-blue clanging bottles added colour to our town.
Everybody loved him. In the words of his wife, Jackson White was capable of having a lively conversation with a street lamp. He did yard work for folks. Mowed their lawns. Trimmed hedges. When a potential client said he was asking for too much money for his services, he would chuckle and tell them that he could recommend a cheaper way of keeping the grass low. When asked what the cheaper method would be, he would say—simply hire a few goats to chew the grass. Everyone loved him.
So why would he of all people suddenly, one day, pick up and disappear with his wife? Folks had a lot to say about the couples’ sudden disappearance.
“He always talked about moving to somewhere warmer. He said the cold here bothered him.”
“You know what he always said? He said he would always be a Southerner at heart. He said even when you leave the South, the South never leaves you.”
“He always spoke glowingly of missing Southern food. All the fried okra and grits and waffle and biscuits. He would lick his lips wistfully as he reeled off Southern menu.”
“He often spoke of his kinfolk in one of the Carolinas—North or South I don’t recall. He said in the Carolinas, people would not walk past each other without exchanging pleasantries unlike here where folks were so flinty they sometimes got offended when you greeted them.”
Some did remark that it was strange the way they just simply disappeared. That line of reasoning was quickly shut down by those who claimed to be in the know.
“His wife never quite liked it here. She was a cold one, that woman.”
“They were like light and darkness. Her husband was the light, and she was the darkness. All day she sat on the porch, never uttering a word as she cast a judgmental eye on everyone and everything. She wasn’t a friendly one. No, not friendly. Kids on their way back from school would wave at her and she would not wave back. She’d give them a dirty look.”
“But wasn’t she born here? Right here in this our little state?”
“Yeah, she was born here. One of the few times I heard her speak, she said our state motto should be: Small State, Smaller Minds.”
“Ouch. She was such a mean one.”
Ultimately everyone did agree that it was sad not to see Mr. White again, but not Mrs. White.
“You never know. Give them a year or at most a couple of years, I would not be surprised if they came running back. People leave all the time. They move to Florida, Texas, and Georgia, but before you know it, they come running back to our dear little state.”
That was how the matter was put to rest and almost forgotten.
That was until Miss Wilson, the community college Math teacher who was called Don King behind her back on account of her flaming Afro disappeared.
Miss King was not much liked. People in the town used such expressions as—uppity, angry, full of herself, and so forth to describe her.
She did not own a car and never took the bus but walked everywhere. She was fond of talking to herself as she walked. The only time she smiled was when she stopped over on her way to the Co-op to talk with the Whites. She did not shop at the local grocery store like everyone else but walked to the Co-op in another town. She was a great patron of the library. She was always taking out books, books, and more books from the town’s free library.
She was once quoted to have said that “whoever said if you want to hide something from a Black person to put it in a book” had never met her. She was a ball of energy, her greying Afro stretching as if held up by invisible hands into the sky as she went unsmilingly through her day. The only time she showed some interest in the affairs of the town was when a little black kid in the middle school was doing well in the spelling bee.
She could be heard in the audience repeatedly whispering loudly—he’s good isn’t he?
When she disappeared, many tongues wagged.
“She never liked it here from day one.”
“Glad to see her leave with her superior airs.”
“Love us or leave us.”
“We were not good enough for her. She’s gonna find out this town is a place of racial harmony compared to many other places.”
“Good riddance” etc., etc., so forth, and so on.
And then it came to pass, that Cherish disappeared and that came as a shock to everyone.
Cherish was the elementary school Crossing Guard. You could tell what season it was from the decoration on Cherishes Crown Victoria car.
Antlers and fake snow in winter.
Plastic rust colored leaves in the fall.
A smiling sun in the summer.
A plastic hand bleeding fake blood protruding from the trunk during Halloween was an object of great fun. Kids and grown-ups pretended to be scared by the hand—jumping in fright when they saw it.
“Scared you huh?” Cherish would interject with her hand covering her mouth in mock distress and genuine pleasure.
Every Halloween, she dressed as Tituba. Nobody in the town knew who Tituba was. When Cherish explained that Tituba was a black servant in Salem in the 1690s, people would respond with expressions like how cute, hmmm nice, oh wow, etc. etc., and tell Cherish that she was the best.
Cherish didn’t see colour. She used to say that she was created colour blind by the good Lord.
She was the soul of our town, albeit a black soul. Her house was the most profusely festooned with flags during the Fourth of July.
The kids loved her. She gave them lollipops in the winter and popsicles when the weather was warm. She called these act sugaring up my little sugar plums. She bought beanies and gloves and shared to kids who were not warmly dressed for school in the winter months. Everyone loved Cherish. When she became the third black person to disappear from our town, people were concerned.
“Oh, not our Cherish,” some said.
“Cherish will be back. She loves the kids so much,” others said.
“She loves this town,” another said.
Some said Halloween was never going to be the same without her.
Some wondered why someone whose favourite expression was We all bleed red would leave a town like ours. The oldest man in our town, Old Man Wiggins, who would stop to chat with Cherish during his daily stooped walk around the town was one of those who expressed concern and shock.
“We may need to do a little soul-searching,” he was said to have remarked. He wasn’t typically a man of few words — Cherish’s disappearance must have made him a little less garrulous.
The school principal, Dr. Gicardi, a bird-like woman whom nobody liked, was said to have remarked that custodians come and go but the school remains. In her view, Cherish was no great loss. She had never been a fan of Cherish and often wondered aloud why Cherish got all the attention instead of herself. The police said no missing person reports were filed so there was no course for concern.
The editor of the local free newspaper made a comment that he said was an English proverb to the effect that one swallow does not make a summer, or words to that effect. Nobody had heard this particular saying before, so no one asked him to elaborate or explain.
The town’s doctor said that in the medical sub-field of Epidemiology, there was a difference between an outbreak and a pandemic, and that the disappearances were not significant enough to be a cause of concern. He said they were more of an outbreak like the one that happened in Lycoming Oswego in the 1940’s. He encouraged people to enjoy the nice weather and take more walks.
The town’s librarian, a laconic man who spoke many foreign languages including Pashtun, was said to have remarked sagely as was his form that coincidence does not establish causality.
There was a consensus among the town’s leaders to find out if black disappearances were happening in other towns.
The answer soon came back that no other neighbouring towns were experiencing the same phenomenon. A few people resorted to clichés—always a great refuge for the confounded.
“You know what they say—the guilty run when no one pursues them.”
“No place will ever be good enough for some people”
“We’ll all be buried same six feet under the ground.”
Someone who held an office in the town talked about contacting the authorities. People wondered whom he meant by the authorities. Some said by the authorities he meant the CIA or the FBI or the Secret Service or the State Police, or the Immigration Authorities.
The idea of inviting the authorities was kicked around for a while and was then rejected because people there really saw no reason to mend it if it was not broken.
“People leave all the time,” someone said.
“It is called a free country for a reason,” another said.
“Yup, reason why we are the land of the free and people are free to move to wherever they like to live.”
Eventually, things began to change as they usually do. The school got a new Crossing Guard. The new Crossing Guard was a no-nonsense old lady who carried herself like a giant even though she was quite short. She went about her duties seriously and had no time to exchange pleasantries with anyone. She did not hand out popsicles or lollipops.
All would have been well and everything cleanly evaporated into the ever forgetful wheel of time if not for the little incident at White Lake that summer. White Lake was a man-made lake created on the edges of the Pebiscott Water Reservoir. The sand around the lake which was ferried in during the lake’s construction had been white — hence the name. It was one of the few places that had natural water of that size that was not out of a water sprinkler. In summer, most of the kids from the town who did not attend the town’s summer camp spent the whole day at White Lake. Nearby was an old tennis court that was fenced and had a couple of courts and floodlights. Nobody played tennis in the town except for two Indian doctors from an adjoining community who spent more time chatting in Hindi than actually hitting the ball. There was always talk about a tennis camp for the town so that the town could have a tennis team from the high school in the third division at least, but this plan never materialised. The tennis court continued to look bereft and forlorn.
Entry to White Lake was free for all town residents but non-residents had to pay a ten-dollar entrance fee to get in. This was written boldly on a sign at the entrance, but most of the time the sign seemed redundant because it was rare for anyone who wasn’t a town resident to want to use the lake. It was rumoured by some non-residents that the town police did not treat non-residents warmly or particularly welcomed them. This was of course, dismissed as an unkind rumour.
On the day in question, a non-resident had come with her son to the lake to cool off. It was not a particularly warm day because there was a slight breeze. The mother of the boy was happy to see her son quickly join other kids who were swimming in the lake. She brought out a novel and soon began to read the same page over and over again. Her mind was darting. She had worked through the previous night. She had too much coffee during her shift and believed it was not proper to come to the lake with a big cup of iced coffee.
She soon dozed off for a bit and suddenly she startled awake. She looked at the lake. Her son Jamal was gone and so were the boys. She rubbed her eyes and got off her beach chair. She could hear the kids’ voices from the edge of the woods. Nobody until today could explain why she turned on the video camera on her Android phone, but she did. By the edge of the woods lay Jamal. His hand and feet were bound with some flimsy string. On his belly and his back and both sides of his ribs were written in different handwriting with a Sharpie the word SLAVE. Many would later wonder who on earth brings a Sharpie to the lake.
Jamal was writhing uncomfortably, but the boys were laughing.
“Free yourself, slave,” one said.
“Use the Underground Railroad and escape,” another said.
“You’ve been owned,” another said.
“Wanna call Harriet Tubman for help?” another asked startled by his recall of social studies.
When Jamal’s mother came closer and saw Jamal, she screamed. Her scream echoed through the lake and the surrounding trees. It was like the shriek of a mother hen whose chick had just been snatched by a hawk.
“What the hell is going on?”
“We were just having fun,” the boys said and fled.
By that evening, the video had been shared at least fifty thousand times on Facebook. It blew up on Twitter where it attracted the attention of major news outlets who descended on the town.
Some of the earlier comments on the video on Facebook had been from town residents. Some said it was just a bit of horseplay between little boys that had gone out of hand and nothing else.
Others said that the boys were just jackasses and nothing more or less. They wondered why people were so sensitive and thin-skinned nowadays. The social media backlash was huge. The mayor in his first interview looked like a man who was grieving the bereavement of a close family member.
“This is not who we are in this town,” the mayor said.
That was the headline in most newspapers the next day. It said the mayor condemned the horrible racial incident and described it as out of character for the town. He said it did not represent who the inhabitants of the town were. He invited people to attend the town’s summer festival and see for themselves how warm and welcoming everyone in the town was.
Yard signs with the inscription: THAT’S NOT WHO WE ARE, were soon to be found on almost every yard in the town.
The mayor promised that there was going to be a robust and practical response to the incident. He said lessons have been learned and that the town could definitely do better. He said he was in talks with a developer to construct a couple of low-income apartment blocks right next to the lake. The land allocated was near the tennis court. The announcement was celebrated with a lot of fanfare by a few. Some wondered if this would not alter the complexion of the town—this was from the librarian.
Nothing became of the apartment complex after a while. The news petered out. There was a more horrendous racial incident in a big city that involved the death of a young black man. This was soon all over Twitter and Tik-Tok.
The piece of land for the construction returned to its previous role. Whenever one of the two Indian doctors tennis players on the court hit the ball outside and it fell into the surrounding area allocated for the apartment complex, he would ignore the ball and tell his opponent to forget about it. He’d bring out a fresh tennis ball and promise to get the other ball at the end of the play.
None of the tennis players ever went searching for the lost ball at the end of play. Soon enough, the land allocated for the apartment complex became a cemetery for out-of-court tennis balls. It became the place where tennis balls went to die.
(Black Disappearances first appeared in Pleiades Magazine)
was born in Nigeria. He won the 2009 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, and he received his MFA from Syracuse University. He currently teaches at Providence College in Rhode Island.