At the end of 4th grade — after living with Slingshot Man — my mother and I moved to Jackson, Missouri, and Marnell was my best and only friend. Marnell was black, and she lived right up the street. Our mothers, both single, worked at the Hosiery Mill together, and Marnell spent her days with her grandparents.
I remember signing in to FB for the first time from my hotel room at Drury Lodge in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I was home for a week and I was hoping to find Marnell. To see her in person. To get together and talk. But my online search for her, her address, and her phone number, and her family turned up only one thing: a Facebook account.
If I wanted to find Marnell, I had to join FB. And so I did. I wanted to ask, “This is my memory. What’s yours?”
One story from our summer runs through my mind like a script. There’s me. There’s Marnell. There’s the Cape County Courthouse in Jackson, Missouri. All true, all real. But it’s the details I distrust, the details I want to go over with Marnell to see if she remembers it like I remember it. We were friends all that summer, inseparable even. But by the time school rolled around in the fall, we’d distanced ourselves. We’d stopped even speaking. And this is how I remember it.
The courthouse stands, domed and grand, in the center of the town square, and though I walk around it often enough — it blocks my walking path from our apartment to the library — I never even think of setting foot inside. Until I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
It is mid-afternoon on a hot and muggy afternoon in late July. I am walking along in the steaming heat, Harper Lee’s book in my sweating hand, trying to calculate how many days, at thirty-five cents a day, I’d be able to spend at the public pool — if I had a few dollars. Which I don’t. This thought is interrupted when three men in business suits pass by me on the sidewalk. They look important. I step onto the grass to let them pass. They’re carrying brief cases — just like Atticus Finch! — and they’re coming from the courthouse.
I’ve just gotten to the part where the trial is starting. Jem, Scout, and Dill have snuck bravely into the courthouse. I decide to be brave, too, and go inside.
When I open the glass door, I feel a wave of cold. Air-conditioning. I let the door drift closed behind me and take a seat on a wood bench just inside the door. The cool air feels good. The quiet echoes. I sit there a good ten or fifteen minutes, fully expecting the adults who pass by to question my presence: What do you think you’re doing here kid? You can’t be in here! But all they do is smile and go on their way, in and out soft-closing wood doors, up and down lone elevator.
The next day I tell Marnell we have to go to the courthouse. “What if we get in trouble?” she says. “Grandmother will skin my hide!”
“It has air-conditioning. Did you know it had air-conditioning?”
“But kids aren’t supposed to be in there. We’ll get in trouble.”
“It’ll be just like in the book I’m reading. The kids kind of slip in and nobody really notices. Tons of people walked right by me yesterday and nobody said a word, like being invisible.”
“But what is there to do there?”
“We can ride the elevator.”
For the next week, I fed Marnell the lies to tell her grandmother. “We’re going to the library,” she might say. Or, “We’re going to the drug store to look at comic books.” To which her grandmother would say, “Alright then, but y’all come straight back here.”
At first we sat inside the door, on the wood bench, exactly like I’d done my first day. People walked by and grinned, but I noticed they looked at us a little more closely than what I’d gotten used to. “Hello there,” we said, like some special greeting committee, and they’d go on their way. On the fourth day, we got up enough nerve to ride the elevator. After only a few rides up and down, we were having some good fun when an old gray-haired man — a man we’d seen a few times in passing — got on the elevator with us. We backed into the corners. He turned to face the doors. He pressed a button. He set his briefcase on the floor. I remember we were giggling. The doors closed. When the elevator started its descent, the man pressed the emergency stop button and an alarm sounded and he turned around and grabbed us both by our stick-like little arms above the elbows and leaned his face hard into Marnell’s.
“What’s a little nigger girlie like you doin’ here?!” He turned to me. “You better not be in here stealin’. I been watchin’ the both of you and I want to know exactly what you’re up to!”
I started to cry. The alarm continued to ring. Marnell whispered, “Nothin’ mister, I swear. We just like riding the elevator.”
Gripping our arms even tighter he said, “You hear that alarm? The police are comin’. They’re comin’ right now. You’re in all kinds of trouble girlie. Does your daddy know you’re running around with this here nigger girl? I bet when the police tell your daddy what you been doing he’ll whip you raw.”
Now we were both crying, too scared to talk. He let go and we both grabbed our arms where he’d been holding us. He turned his back to us and pressed the red button. The alarm stopped. The elevator continued down. When the doors opened, no one — no police, no one — waited outside the doors. The man stepped off and went on his way. Like nothing had happened.
Marnell and I left the courthouse and walked towards home. We barely talked. Her grandmother was in the yard, leaning over, pulling weeds. “Well there you are,” she said, standing up and brushing her hands on her skirt. Marnell went into the house. Grandmother looked at me questioningly. I said, “I gotta get home.”
The next time I saw Marnell it was weeks later, when school started. And we acted like we didn’t know each other.
I found Marnell on FB, and she remembered me. I was so excited! Marnell was living in Texas and had changed her first name and gotten married, which explained why she was so hard to find. She did not have a profile photo, just that “no photo available” block of a girl-like-figurehead with a flippy hairdo.
And after all that, all that searching, all of my curiosity about our story, I am embarrassed to tell you: I lost my courage and never once asked Marnell, now a grown woman with a whole new name in a whole new faraway state, what she remembered.
Do you have a childhood friend who was lost to you? And why.