LIGHT AND EFFORTLESS MOVES BETWEEN POSTINGS WERE NOT MY FORTE. The rush to get to my British Air flight to Johannesburg started with me lugging two giant suitcases and two carry-on bags down two flights of stairs and halfway down the block.
London taxi drivers are an odd bunch, predisposed to pick up certain riders at certain corners and intersections. But that didn’t bother me. I hailed a taxi within five minutes, threw my things in the trunk, and pointed him towards Heathrow. It felt odd to know I was leaving with everything. The rest of my belongings, a lot of stuff, had been packed up weeks before to be shipped to Johannesburg. I was light, free, and ready to move on.
I took one last look at the west Covent Garden apartment building I’d called home for two years. Then I turned my head towards the front and never looked back, even as my taxi raced across Piccadilly and up Regent Street for about ten blocks.
My God, I’d loved shopping in London and spent many hours walking up and down Regent Street. I had always seemed to be rushing back and forth to work, but I still found plenty of time to shop. I have always had time to shop.
Luckily, the taxi driver veered off Regent before we got to the Mayfair District and the turn I took to and from the embassy. That was one place I did not need to see again, or at least anytime soon. The rest of the trip was old news, and I barely even looked out the window to take in sights for the last time. The further the taxi got from Central London, the more eager I was to see Heathrow and be on my way.
I was so excited when I finally walked into the terminal with my cumbersome assortment of luggage, paid a ninety-pound weight overage charge, got my boarding pass, and entered the plane. As I found my assigned seat, the pilot’s warning of a long, bumpy flight over Africa was the last thing I wanted to hear. I didn’t need to hear about a nine-hour flight that would be turbulent as we flew over such a large, desolate place. It’s the worst part of travel—long and uncomfortable flights, all alone, and scared to death of what lies below. After I watched a movie—during which I enjoyed two glasses of red wine and a not-so-good dinner, I turned off the monitor in front of me and settled in for unbearable boredom.
The airplane wasn’t full since it was Christmas Eve, so I put on the frumpy oversized tee shirt I’d stuffed into my bag, wrapped myself up in a couple of blankets, and fluffed a pillow under my head. I felt relatively comfortable as I stretched across the three seats I’d call bed for the night. Then I started reading the book I’d bought earlier.
AT THE VERY START, MY FACETIOUS ATTITUDE SOON SHOWED ITSELF. I found myself making fun of people I knew very little about. Oh Lord, please have mercy on those fools. Those poor Southern women sure know how to make up stories about the poor and less fortunate. And it became clear by the time I’d read the first forty pages that a white woman named Harper Lee was going to show me again why poor folks will always be the victims. Through the narration of Scout Finch, a young white girl in Maycomb, Alabama, I was going to learn about black and white culture in a poverty-stricken community many decades ago. Thanks to Mother Mary and the virgin baby, we have a white, probably wealthy, woman’s version of life to base our heartaches on, I thought as I read more. Am I really ready to digest all this mush…tonight?
Despite my sarcastic thoughts, it was good reading from the start, and so inviting. Jem, Scout’s brother, was talking. “Yawl hush,” Jem growled, “you act like you believe in HotSteams.”
“You act like you don’t,” Scout replied.
Then an even whiter boy named Dill, a small, curious child who seemed to fit in best in the little town of Maycomb, asked the inevitable question.“What’s a Hot Steam?”
I KNEW THE BOOK WAS GOING TO BE A GOOD READ, AND LONG OVERDUE. I knew the book I’d heard so much about as I grew up in rural, racially-mixed, North Carolina would provide some pleasant distractions during my long flight. Lord, please have mercy. That white woman sure knew how to make us look stupid to all the white folks reading her book. Boogiemen, superstitions, and Hot Steams…no wonder it’s taken us so long to move on. Why can’t we get the past out of our heads? Out of our lives forever?
It was all interesting to me, a lot of folk talk, old scary talk that reminded me of where I came from, and childish talk that made me want to go back. I found it hard to put the book down.
Jem answered Dill’s question, hoping to keep the younger two wrapped in fear. “Haven’t you ever walked along a lonesome road at night and passed by a hot place? A Hot Steam’s somebody who can’t get to heaven, just wallows around on lonesome roads an’ if you walk through him, when you die you’ll be one too, an’ you’ll go around at night sucking people’s breath.”
I wondered why Jem didn’t add frightening details like my brother had done with his scary tales. My brother never let anything go unspoken, and by the end of one of his stories, I was shaking with fear of something completely imagined.
Yes, the young, eager-to-grow-up Jem had Scout and Dill wrapped around his finger. He put a monster in their heads, and thus, that monster officially existed…even if no one had ever seen, heard, or touched a Hot Steam or someone like Boo.
“How can you keep from passing through one?” Dill asked.
Jem’s reply was ominous. “You can’t. Sometimes they stretch all the way across the road, but if you halfa go through one you say, ‘Angel bright, life-in-death; get off the road, don’t suck my breath.’ That keeps ’em from wrapping around you.”
I wondered how long it would take, but I knew—with them being in rural Alabama in the 1930s—something had to give. I’d seen the “N” word in the first chapters, and felt I’d probably see it throughout the book. Use of this word came so effortlessly, without remorse. The way it spewed from Scout’s mouth mildly sickened me. It was almost as if she’d read the word in the Bible, a dictionary, or another book on a dusty shelf. What compelled Scout to use such a vulgar, repulsive word? Why doesn’t she try to improvise a little? Improve herself a little? Where are these country bumpkins from? And why am I reading a book about the lower South, during a long period of racial intolerance in America, when I am heading to post-apartheid South Africa?
Deep down, I knew the truth: racism was everywhere back then, nothing more, nothing less, just accepted as is. But for some reason, getting to know the say-anything Scout made it easier to swallow. In fact, it didn’t take long to get to know the tomboyish girl. I saw myself in her in many ways. I found joy in the book on one page, but on the next, the sordid history bled out again, an open wound that just would not clot.
In the past, if I’d read such a book, I would have thrown it down right away. If it were a movie, I would have turned off the TV or walked out of the theater. Not this time, though. I didn’t flicker. I read with unusual enjoyment, sucked up Maycomb’s idiosyncrasies, and wondered what else Scout might possibly say. I imagined her as if she were right in front of me, sitting on the front porch of that house—a terror, a welcome sight, a brutally honest angel, head to toe.
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