Finding Marnell

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.


County_CourthouseGu

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.

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74829_169154806439926_381202_nI 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.

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10 thoughts on “Finding Marnell

  1. Les

    I hope Marnell gets to read your post. It’s funny, but I came from one of those towns where people are born, all go to the same high school, get jobs, live, and die, some never leaving the town’s borders. I’m not like that. I got out as soon as I turned eighteen. And swore that I’d never look back to high school for anyone. But there was one guy–Pete Anderson–that I’d known since elementary school. We started playing tennis together at about seventeen: I honestly don’t remember how, but we did. We’d rush down to the local public courts at 7:00 AM on summer mornings, and hit balls until the heat got to us at around noon. Ah…youth :). Anyway, Pete and I vowed to go to the US Open after we graduated. We didn’t. He played bass guitar, and wanted to get into a band. Last I heard he went to L.A. Trade Tech. That’s the last I’ve known of him. I’ve tried Googling, but there are a few Pete Andersons in the world. I’ve always wanted to sit down with him and have a beer and talk about tennis, and Van Halen, and whatever all else he’s been up to the past thirty-three years. He was a good guy, and I’m sure still is.

  2. amyg

    awww, man, this is so…honest. and heart-wrenching. and lovely. i can clearly see you two girls. arms locked.

    i don’t remember any lost friends. the first person i got in trouble with in kindergarten – also named amy (there were six girls in my kindergarten class, 4 of us were amy, hence: amyg), is still a close friend. i was braiding her hair instead of listening at story hour and we ended up having to sit at the quiet table. we got in trouble a lot more after that – most of it between the ages of 15 and 17.

  3. Catherine

    Beautifully written Teri. And I’m glad you found Marnell. I’m sure she hasn’t forgotten that day and maybe a time will come when you speak of it. It’s not your fault!
    I lost my childhood best friend because she married a racist. I couldn’t abide his views, and the choice she had made. He said some terrible things about Asian people, about gays, and he supported the Nazis! I told her I couldn’t speak to her anymore.

    I don’t even think she’s on FB. I have a feeling her life has been very hard.

  4. tedstrutz

    I love your story. Did you tell her you were a writer and share your blog with her? Amazing you found her under the circumstances… I’m glad you did. I’ll have to see if I can find you!

  5. Downith

    Teri these posts make me so anxious to read your memoir, in both senses of the word. I’m glad you found Marnell. Google led an old friend of mine from the early 70s to me last spring. We met in Newfoundland but She now lives in Australia and was on a visit to the UK. She’s been tracking down long lost class mates one by one. And I’m glad she found me. We had a great visit!

  6. Teresa Enderle

    What a coward the man in the elevator was. I imagine we can narrow him down to a few in our home town area? Sad to know we really did grow up in that world. My brothers were friends with the one and only black student, Joe at our old high school. My parents had him to dinner often, and didn’t get a warm reception from other parents at the school or in general in our town upon doing so….Good thing my Mom and Dad didn’t give a damn. So glad you found Marnell. Thanks for your stories and like Downith says – cannot wait for the memoir!

  7. Pingback: In the Half-Light of the Goodbye | Dilettante For Hire

  8. Angie LaForest

    I don’t have long lost friend
    But Iove my kitchen view of the clock of the court house lol
    Sadly the public library is closed now.
    Jackson is where Iive, but Kelso is my home!

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