The Skin We’re In

by Karen Rollins

The Skin We’re In

In late 1969, when I was an impressionable four-year old, someone shot Mr. Easter’s dog Runt. Mr. Easter put his dying dog into the back of his pickup truck, and booked. He feared once the drunkard started thinking about it, he might come back and shoot him too—knowing there was no heavy justification needed to shoot a black man. He drove the short distance to our house in Dixie, an all-black neighborhood in North Little Rock, Arkansas. Moments later, he tearfully announced to no one in particular, “Those goddamned peckerwoods done killed my dog!”
His cry shattered our late autumn morning ease. At the time, my grandmother sat hemming her Sunday dress and my Aunt Lora and I snuggled close, reading books in our favorite chair. A pleasant breeze pushed the smell of coffee and cigarettes through the screens of opened windows and Sam Cooke crooned from the turntable we kept in the back room. Though I was only four, I did not mistake the voice of a man in despair. A rush of adrenaline swept through my small frame like it did when my hiding place was near discovery in a game of hide-and-seek. For a few seconds, I did not breathe. The three of us scurried through the door onto the porch and down the concrete steps to the back side of Mr. Easter’s run-down truck parked in our front yard. He was on his knees, hovered over Runt, who lay on the ground covered in a bloody green rag.
“Lawd, have mercy here! What happened?” my Aunt asked. Her thin fingers covered her mouth.
Mr. Easter cried out again, only slower with a softened bellow, “Those goddamned peckerwoods done killed my dog!” He lowered his chin to his collarbone and shook his head in disbelief. Creases of wrinkled skin under his eyes cradled tears, and his dark and worn face settled in anguish. As the first warm tear plummeted onto my cheek, I have no doubt my face settled in perplexity.
For one, I had never heard the words goddamned peckerwoods. The pictures I formed in my mind made no sense. I imagined dragons and trolls from my storybooks and the Wolfman from the Saturday matinee on television, though I had never known those creatures to talk, drive, or shoot guns. I wasn’t exactly sure what they looked like, but because of what they’d done to Runt, I knew for sure I hated those goddamned peckerwoods.
I considered the inseparable pair, Mr. Easter and Runt, my favorite people. Their presence had been a part of my life since the day I was born. My mother said from the moment I walked Runt would whiz past me, knock me to the floor, and nudge me to get up and try again. He had a white coat and patches of tan fur covering his eyes and ears, and not only was he feisty and funny, but good company too. I recall climbing into the bed of Mr. Easter’s truck to rummage, finding small foam balls for Runt to fetch or ropes for him to tug. He would act as lookout, running the length of the truck and alternating looks between me and the house where grown-ups bided time. And on Sundays, when we would go to church and my grandmother had warned me not to get dirty, Runt would get my attention by snipping at the bottom of my dress. We would occupy time smashing pecans with the heel of my patent leather shoes or stacking dominoes to watch them fall. When the grown folks shouted it was time for us to go, we would walk the block to church. Mr. Easter would stay behind with Runt. They would not allow dogs in church.
But Mr. Easter’s favorite place was outdoors anyway. He was unlikely to stay inside for any length of time, except to eat, sleep, or take shelter from stormy Arkansas weather. Outdoors, he was a rover, finding miscellaneous items on city streets or country roads he could sell or trade. Sometimes he would pick flowers to give to Aunt Lora or my grandmother or buy a package of peanuts for me. When he rode his bicycle, which he did often, he would place frogs and crawdads in the basket attached up front. He would always say they were “good eating” on the days my grandmother took a break from cooking. And when they would come in from fishing or picking pecans, they usually had a bounty to share. We never wasted what they brought. Savory pecan pies in the fall and a weekly summer fish fry were common. When it was time for them to move on to somewhere else, Runt would stop playing or even eating when he saw Mr. Easter preparing to leave. Sometimes Mr. Easter did not even whistle for him; Runt already lead the way to whatever adventure awaiting them. The next day would bring the two back to our home again, along with their special antidote for a four-year old’s humdrum hours and loneliness: themselves.
I looked on at the two not saying a word. Somehow knowing it was not an occasion to greet this kind and gentle man with a friendly hug the way I had always done. Instead I stood frozen behind my grandmother and tried not to gaze at my friend Runt, who for the first time was not wagging his tail at the sight of me. I glanced over at the truck’s tailgate. It was hanging open, smeared with dirt and blood. Then I turned to see my Aunt Lora hurry to the wooden shed behind us, as if she had taken an order from an inaudible but authoritative voice. She returned with a plastic tarp and shovel, careful and solemn while placing them into the bed of his truck. Mr. Easter, who had been softly petting Runt, began telling us what had taken place prior to his arrival.
He described how angry peckerwoods in a loud, rusty truck pulled up to his house and yelled for him to come out. He heard laughter and stepped outside onto his front porch. Three of them stood beside the truck and were “drunker than skunks.” One told him that Runt had killed one of his chickens. Mr. Easter looked for Runt, who was nowhere in sight; so, he gathered he told the truth and Runt had been up to no good. He apologized for what the dog had done and offered him bottled milk and butter to make up for his loss. When the man agreed to accept his offer, he rushed inside to fill up a brown paper sack. As the cool air of the icebox hit his face, he heard the blast of a shotgun, and soon after, the roar of their rusty truck before they sped off leaving Runt dying in a cloud of dust.
“Tsk. You never know what them crazy peckerwoods gon’ do,” my aunt muttered.
I tugged on my grandmother’s floral house coat, and asked, “What’s a peckerwood?” She looked down, only to shush me. So, I eased over behind my aunt, hoping Mr. Easter nor Runt would notice my movement. I looked up at my aunt, patted her on the thigh and whispered, “What’s a peckerwood?” She, too, looked down but whispered back, “This is grown folks’ business. Be quiet.”
And we all were quiet when Mr. Easter lifted Runt into his arms and carried him to the truck’s bed. Blood painted the front of his denim overalls and he was barefoot. He mumbled about going to the county’s edge to put his dog to rest and then home to retire. He climbed into his truck and we watched him drive off, leading a slow and sorrowful funeral procession of one.
My grandmother, Aunt Lora, the small group gathered to witness Mr. Easter’s lament, the house, the little ants I kept in line on the porch, the front yard, the trees, the stray cats, the tarred streets with no sidewalks, the ditches full of toads and crawdads, the shack across the street, the vacant lots down the way, the sky, and all I could see caused me to catch my breath again. For the first time, they were all vulnerable and subject to harm. They were subject to detach from my world and float away as easily as white cottony seeds from a dandelion, and as easily as Runt’s living soul. I was scared to death of those goddamned peckerwoods.
Later that evening, while sitting at the kitchen table in my mother’s lap, I asked, “What are peckerwoods?” My mother took in a deep breath and exhaled across my shoulder. For a moment, I believed I would go to bed without an answer. But unlike my grandmother and aunt, she did not leave me wondering. She answered, “Peckerwoods are white people.” I was disappointed with her answer. To my knowledge, white people were not atrocious enough to be peckerwoods. But my contact with non-blacks was almost non-existent; I had no sense of comparison. As impossible as it seems, I do not remember much interaction with anyone who was not black. Our neighbors were black, the mail carrier was black, the door-to-door insurance agent was black, the man who sold eggs from his wheeled cart was black, and my doctor was black. Now, Elvis Presley, Bob Barker, Ed Sullivan, and Lucille Ball, I knew well. And neither of them grew beaks, snouts, or wrinkled fingers with long crooked nails.
The next day our home was a gathering place for people to talk about the prior day’s event. To prevent me from hearing grown-folk discussion, my aunt ordered me outside. I stretched across the porch with my coloring book and crayons, and without anyone ever noticing, I absorbed every word from the other side of the screen door. Contentious conversations about how to remedy Mr. Easter’s plight filled the room. Ideas spread the gamut from pooling money together to buy Mr. Easter another dog to starting a riot. One man alleged the problem with Negroes in Arkansas was the lack of courage to take matters into their own hands. They were too afraid of peckerwoods and had no backbone, he accused. Then he proposed confronting the peckerwoods, but none of the women welcomed his suggestion fearing Mr. Easter would suffer retribution and Dixie a backlash. There was also agreement to forego getting a new dog for Mr. Easter. Miss Shirley said it was like somebody replacing a husband or wife without a proper grieving period.
From what I overheard that day, peckerwoods were the reason my Uncle A. D. was in Vietnam; they were the reason for Dr. King’s death the year before; and they were the reason we endured Dixie mud every time it rained. Most important to me, they were unapologetically the reason for Runt’s death.
A few days later, Mr. Easter emerged from his home. His first stop was at our house. I met him on the steps with a friendly hug, and he returned the favor the way he had always done. Attempts to persuade him to give the descriptions of those who had killed Runt met him at the front door. The younger guys hoped for confrontation and the older ones for organization. Mr. Easter pulled a green rag from the side pocket of his overalls and blotted the sweat from his forehead. “No, no. Let it be,” he instructed. He charged himself to be just as much at fault as the peckerwoods because he allowed Runt to roam freely that morning. Had he ever built a pen or kept him inside, Runt would still be living. His statement drew protests from both men and women. In Mr. Easter’s defense, they insisted the peckerwoods were more to blame for not keeping their chickens caged. It was in a dog’s nature to roam about and chase anything with legs and allowing chickens to wander freely through their yards and into streets only asked for the trouble they got.
“It’s just wrong for men to go onto another man’s property and kill his dog!” one man complained. “Something’s got to be done about that!”
“Amen, amen!” Mr. McNair shouted.
“It’s 1969! We ain’t gotta take this no more!” another woman declared.
Mr. Easter was steadfast. There would be no violence or retaliation. He would not identify the men.
His decision to overlook the injustice flabbergasted most who heard about it. A few times, while I sat on the porch and played jacks, I could hear the faint conversations of those passing by speak their disapproval of his choice. My aunt often recounted the story to those who could not believe Mr. Easter’s resolve to do nothing. After Aunt Lora died, I filed the story of Mr. Easter’s dog among my “life in Arkansas” stories and took over its telling.
In the end, satisfaction sided with no one. Whenever the topic of Runt’s death surfaced, Mr. Easter would walk away. After a while, the topic no longer surfaced. After a while, no one talked about the dog who almost started a riot.
The day Mr. Easter and a lifeless Runt rode off toward the country they did not go alone. The former four-year-old version of me trailed right along behind them. That girl, the old me, had a depth of understanding about as deep as a bowl of Cheerios. She was a little girl with little girl curiosities, concerns, and innocence. Her life experiences were in black and white, sketched with predictability, dimmed emotions, and bland inquiries. Like Runt, she, too, never came back.
Before the killing, I mirrored the proverbial child who lacked negative presumptions about skin color, my own or the skin color of others. I saw color, but assigned no value or significance to it. A keener sense of awareness developed after Runt’s demise.
We called whites peckerwoods because they called us niggers. We wanted nothing to do with them because they wanted nothing to do with us. We wanted to succeed, but they wanted to see us fail. They paid us pennies, but despised us for being poor. They longed for the good ole’ days, we longed for a future with equality. And the one opinion, on which everyone seemed to agree: they needed no heavy justification to shoot a black man.
It’s not like anyone ever sat me down with pen and paper to share these reasons for the animosity existing between us and peckerwoods. Often enough I learned in more clandestine ways. A glance, a wink, and rolling eyes often communicated between grown folks could be quite telling. But my newfound prejudice did not come naturally. I wanted to like peckerwoods, but so far, they’d given very little reason to.
A couple of weeks shy of my fifth birthday, my mom married my stepfather and we moved away to his home in Ogden, Utah, thirty-five miles north of Salt Lake City. The 1960s ended and so did home life with my grandmother and Aunt Lora. The culture shock was tremendous. In Utah, I spoke different, looked different, and was different. We were the first black family to buy a home on the block in an overwhelmingly white subdivision.
My parents were prompt to dissuade me from using the word peckerwood, as it had become a natural part of my vocabulary. They explained the word was impolite and encouraged me to make friends with our new neighbors. My angst was unbearable, and I cried every day. I was out of Arkansas, but Arkansas was not out of me. I was living my nightmare and wondered how my parents did not know it was best to live among our own kind. I would have traded the new home, mountains, and serenity, just to be home on my grandmother’s front porch, playing jacks, cleaning the Dixie mud from my shoes, and sitting underfoot of the old-timers I’d left behind.
By the time I started elementary school, I had met a girl named Mary. She was a white girl who lived on my block. The first time she saw me playing alone in my driveway, she rode up on her bicycle. She told me that Jesus loved my family, and that’s why she loved us. We were all children of God, she said. That was my first sermon in Utah without ever stepping a foot into a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But what she said resonated. My grandmother often relayed the same message: We are all God’s children. The homesick part of me fell for it, and Mary and I became fast friends.
Over time, the chasm between life in Utah and life in Arkansas narrowed. I slowly discovered the well-known adage that people were more alike, than they were different, was mostly true. Grown-ups in Utah felt neglected by local government who would not fix the potholes from snowy harsh winters, and there were white children who would also go home from school to an empty refrigerator, like black children did in Dixie. And though I never heard the word peckerwood used by white Utah natives, some hurled words like wetback, spic, jap, chink, brownie, and blackie, whenever they got angry and upset. Sometimes they used the words to simply degrade someone or make them feel bad. But they, too, reserved the word nigger exclusively for blacks.
After years of living away, I returned to Arkansas in the early 1990s to live permanently. Both my grandmother and aunt had died in the ‘80s. The tight-knit community of Dixie had become inundated with drugs and crime. Sidewalks on the streets were still a dream, flooding still a formidable opponent, and Poverty was still Dixie’s unwanted guest that had outstayed her welcome. It no longer felt like home, so it never became one to me again.
And, me? I had changed and stayed the same too. Thanks to a nomadic upbringing, I was lucky enough to interact with various races and nationalities throughout the rest of my childhood and youth. Along the way I made the final decision that derogatory name-calling and closed-mindedness would be no part of my life. I matured enough to know that unkindness and cruelty traveled the color spectrum.
After I reached adulthood, Mr. Easter was no longer a part of my life. My summer visits with my grandmother as a teenager, when I saw him often, had long passed. One day my mother and I ran into an old family friend who informed us Mr. Easter was in poor health and legally blind, living in a nursing home. I will always be grateful to have spent time with him before he passed away.
Mr. Easter was indeed a kind and gentle man. He taught me to be fearless of creepy crawling things; to, at least, try to fix broken radios and bicycles; and to be caring and compassionate toward people and animals alike. And although he was not a learned man, he had learned the art of making impressionable children feel special and confident. He once told me we must love the skin we’re in. Though the saying didn’t originate with him, it stuck, and that’s all that matters.
I recall dancing to some Motown music in my grandmother’s living room when I was about three. An audience of her friends cheered me on by clapping their hands and tapping their feet. Mr. Easter was there, of course, and stood up to join in. He was my first dance, holding my hand as I spun under his arm. I danced in total abandonment, simply guided by admiration and approval. As I swirled, my ruffled dress flowed like Cinderella’s. When I think of it now, I think of it in slow motion. Runt is in the mix of us all and Mr. Easter’s face fades to black.

About the Author

Karen Rollins

Karen Rollins currently lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas. For pleasure, she enjoys writing, reading, music, and traveling, when time allows. She is currently working on a memoir about her travel experiences with a Dutch friend she met online.