“Ain’t got no work for a kid,” Mr. Baker said, unloading boxes of Alabama sweet potatoes from an old green truck.
“I ain’t a kid. I’m thirteen years old and I can work circles around the best you have,” Marshall said blowing himself up as tall as he could.
Something about this kids’ spunk made old man Baker laugh inside. But the boy was under age and he couldn’t take on any more risks than he already had with his fresh market. Still he wished he had just one kid in his own family with as much ambition as this little guy.
“I’ll work for food…and I won’t tell a soul that I am working here.”
Marsh was desperate, and the man could hear that but didn’t let on.
For the first year Marsh took home a box of produce, dozen eggs and a carton of milk each Saturday. Many of the laborers were from the same neighborhood as Marsh and knew his uncle to be a bum. They played the game, too, and sometimes they invited the boy to their homes for a meal or to join their congregation on a Wednesday night potluck.
The second year, old-man Baker put a ten-dollar bill in the box of produce with a don’t-you-dare-tell look.
At home Uncle Albert, who spent most of his money on booze, raided his nephew’s hard earned store without any remorse. Yet the boy remained grateful that his otherwise disgusting uncle kept social service at bay.
School offered its own challenges. There Marsh faced the true reality of his life: he didn’t belong anywhere. He was too brown to be accepted by the lily-white crowd who no matter the rhetoric still considered blacks second-class citizens. And, he was not black enough, nor did he know the ways of black folks on his side of town. He was what people called “blended”. He’d lived in a middle-class white neighborhood with his mother in a more tolerant town before he landed in the Florida Panhandle.
But there was this one girl at school who drew Marshall’s attention. Shaundra Williams. A military brat, tall and willowy, with a great smile and ready laugh.
“I’m a chameleon!” she said once when they were discussing frequent moves, being “strangers in a strange land”.
“I blend perfectly in any environment.”
Marsh had laughed. But he understood the skill and its underbelly. A person survived by fitting into the local beat, whatever it was. The trade-off survival.