The summer before my parents sent me away to camp, my aunt’s maid Hazel brought Liza Pearl across the street to play. It was a busy thoroughfare but like me, Liza Pearl was only eight years old. She had tight black braids and a shy, sweet smile. She said she liked to play house and paper dolls and jacks. I liked to play Buck Rogers and kickball. We compromised with hopscotch, a game drawn with chalk on the sidewalk. Once in awhile, she won.
Liza Pearl wore hand-me-down clothes. I could tell because her shirt had my school’s name on it and I knew she didn’t go to my school.
Sometimes we would crawl under the lilac bushes out of the hot sun and tell stories. Hers were filled with castles and magic and far away lands. She would get a distant look in her eyes and stop at the most exciting part. She’d giggle when I’d poke her to continue and I could see the pink of her mouth and her big white teeth.
My best friend Caroline (emphasis on the line) and Liza Pearl didn’t know each other. Caroline loved to climb trees. One day we decided to try to reach the top of the twin poplar trees in the empty lot behind my house. We each weighed about eighty pounds so the slender limbs of the trees seemed to hold us as we shimmied to the tops. I waved at Caroline from my treetop and just as she started to wave back, the limb on which she stood broke. I watched in horror as she crashed to the ground and landed with a thud.
Before I could climb down my tree, I saw Liza Pearl, arms swinging, dash across the street. She rushed to Caroline who lay flat on her back gasping for breath. Liza Pearl quickly rolled Caroline her on her side and patted her on the back.
I watched, paralyzed with fear. “I think she’s turning blue,” I cried.
Liza Pearl hit her again, harder. This time, Caroline took a deep breath and coughed. Her color returned and after a few moments, she sat up.
“Anything broke? Liza Pearl asked.
Caroline gingerly felt her arms and legs.
“Shouldn’t be climbing no spindly trees,” Liza Pearl said.
Relieved, I laughed and pointed to the one I’d slid down. “Looks like I took all the leaves with me.”
Caroline stood up and brushed herself off.
Liza Pearl grinned. “My mother just baked some cookies. Bet she’d give us some.”
Caroline shook her head. “I’m not allowed to play with niggers,” she said.
I stared at her, shocked. The smile faded from Liza Pearl’s face. Then, eyes lowered, she walked back across the street.
I watched her go, my heart hurting. “Why did you say that?”
“Because it’s true. My father says we can’t associate with them.”
I found my legs and ran to the curb to call after Liza Pearl. I saw her and her mother standing in the doorway. Her mother looked at me before she and Liza Pearl, their heads held high, walked to the bus stop. The bus came and holding her mother’s hand, Liza Pearl climbed aboard. She didn’t look back.
That’s how I learned the pain of prejudice.
Caroline and I drifted apart. I never saw Liza Pearl again.