From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

White Water

Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: “I’m with you kid. Let’s go.”

Maya Angelou

The “For Whites Only” signs over the water fountains in H. L. Green’s Store really bothered me. I’d seen the signs before, because I spent more time in Green’s than any other place. They had cloth in the back, stacked as high as possible on tables, and more came in boxes each week. Momma loved picking through the piles, and when she got off work some evenings we headed to Broad Street. If there was a new shipment of fabric, I knew how to amuse myself while Momma searched for hidden treasures.

I knew where everything was in the store, and I liked walking up and down the aisles pretending I was the boss and I pretended it was up to me to keep the merchandise looking neat. It was also up to me to count all the money at the end of the day. I pretended I had a big box of money and got someone to carry it to the bank for me. Sometimes I even looked through the cloth myself with an eye for something that would look good on my Barbie doll. Grandma had been helping me make clothes for her.

On late weekday afternoons, there weren’t many people in the stores downtown. One day, Momma and I got off the bus in front of Green’s. A clerk had told her there was going to be a new shipment of cloth coming in that morning, and Momma wanted to get into it before it was all picked over. I knew she was going to be busy for a while, so I decided to walk around the store. I walked up and down the aisles, but nothing looked special to me.

Then I saw the water fountains. All three of them sat there looking back at me. A shiny large one with a big “White Only” sign over it. Next to it was a smaller fountain with a wooden step in front. And, a few feet away, a broken-down, sad fountain with the water running all the time. The handle on the faucet was broken, and the sign above it looked just as bad. A black sign with white letters read, “Colored.” The whole thing was dingy, and somebody would have to be very thirsty to take a drink from it.

I’d seen the fountains many times, but this was the first time I’d been around them when no one was watching. No clerks or shoppers were anywhere near. It was a perfect time to finally see exactly what the white folks were hiding. I would finally get to drink some water from the “White Only” fountain. My knees shook. I knew I was taking a big step. Would white people’s water kill me? Worst of all, maybe I’d turn white and colored people wouldn’t like me anymore. I had to take the chance anyway. If anyone saw me, I would just say I was thirsty and made a mistake. Most of the clerks knew my face from being in the store so much. They would go to the cloth department and get Momma. She would probably just tell me not to try that again, I reasoned.

I quickly ran to the smaller fountain, climbed onto the wooden step and looked behind me to make sure I was still alone. The beige knob on the spigot turned easily. The water ran into the basin. It looked like regular water.

My heart was pounding fast, and my hands were so sweaty I could hardly hold onto the knob. I took a deep breath and waited for my life to flash before my eyes. I knew the water could kill me, but the only thing I saw in my mind was me sitting at my piano recital, trying to remember my piece, “Turkey in the Straw.” Maybe I hadn’t been alive long enough and what should have been a flash was just a drop. I closed my eyes, leaned down and took a big mouthful. I hopped off the step and raced to the end of one of the aisles. My mouth was filled with water, but my throat wasn’t working at all. Try as hard as I could, I couldn’t swallow!

My cheeks puffed out, filled with water, and I figured I’d better go and get help. Momma was busy digging in a box of cloth pieces. I pulled at her skirt, and without turning around, she told me we would get a hot dog before we left the store. I couldn’t talk with the water in my mouth, so I tugged again. I moaned through the mouthful of water. Thinking I was playing some kind of game, Momma turned away from the cloth long enough to place both hands on my face, smile and squeeze my cheeks. I fought the urge to spit because it would have sprayed all over Momma. I wouldn’t have had to worry about the white people’s water killing me because she would have finished me off, right on the spot! I gave one big gulp and felt the water go down my throat all at once. Momma went back to her cloth box, and I headed toward my favorite aisle in the toy department to die or turn white, whichever came first.

I carefully looked at my hands to see if I was changing color. I stopped and stared in a mirror on the cosmetics aisle. My eyes were as brown as ever. I felt the same as always, just a bit scared. Finally, Momma came to the toy department and said it was time to get a hot dog. I was happy she still recognized me.

The lunch counter at H. L. Green’s was my favorite of all places downtown—the one in the back, of course, the one up front was for white people. The stools were uncomfortable, but the hot dogs, fries and drinks made up for everything.

I was afraid to tell Momma I’d taken a drink from the white fountain because I didn’t want her to worry in case I didn’t make it. I decided it was best not to say anything.

After we got home, I checked in the bathroom mirror all evening to see if I’d changed. My heart didn’t feel weak, but I wasn’t sure how a dying person was supposed to feel. No one had to argue with me to go to bed that night.

I put on my best nightgown and took my favorite pink teddy bear to bed with me. I thought maybe I would fall asleep and wake up the next morning white as snow. Granddad would wonder where the little white girl in my bed had come from. Grandma would fall down on her knees in prayer, and I didn’t know what Momma would do. Maybe dying in my sleep would make things easier for everyone. I lay there waiting for something to happen. I was afraid to close my eyes.

The next morning, I was happy to hear the rooster crowing! I had all my parts and was still breathing. I rushed into the bathroom to look at myself. I was the same color as always and everything was in the right places. Colored people who drank from forbidden fountains didn’t turn white or die!

The next time I went into H. L. Green’s Store and saw the drinking fountains with the “For Whites Only” signs, I giggled, That’s what you think!

Jayme Washington Smalley

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