Sunday, April 27, 2014
Q and A
“Hey!” Whoever it is isn’t talking to me. “Hey!” Then again, maybe she is. I stop and turn to see a little girl, about three, I’d guess, sitting in a buggy, legs dangling through the square steel holes. Her skin is the smooth brown of a Hershey bar and her eyes are round and dark.
“Are you talking to me?” I ask.
She nods without smiling and then points to an empty buggy in the aisle ahead of her. “Whose that?” she asks.
The young woman I presume to be her mother pauses in her examination of the 50-percent off Easter candy to figure out what the child is doing stopping and asking questions of a stranger. I give the woman a quick glance, the glance that asks, “Is it all right for me to talk to you child?” I receive in return the glance that says, “I can see you are not a kidnapper or child molester. Yes, you may talk to my child.”
I take a step closer to the buggy. “I don’t really know,” I offer. “Now let me ask you a question. Why did you ask me?”
She shrugs her shoulders and tilts her head, lifts her tiny little hands so that, for a moment, she looks like the Bird Girl in Bonaventure Cemetery.
“Do I just look like somebody who would know the answer to questions?” I tease. She nods shyly. “Well, in fact, I do know the answer to every question in the world. Except that one. I do not know who that buggy belongs to.”
I take yet another step closer. “What’s your name?” She tells me. “I’m Kathy,” I say, extending my hand. “It was very nice to meet you.” We shake hands and wave goodbye. I walk off smiling.
Not long ago, I came across a news article that included a black-and-white photograph that grabbed not just my attention, but my gut as well. It took my breath, it seized my heart, it possessed my conscious world for the few seconds that was required for my brain to absorb the story it told:
He stands, not at attention or even parade rest, but with one knee just barely bent. A paunch, only a slight one, hangs over his belt. It is warm weather, maybe even hot. I can tell because the sleeves on his uniform shirt, the creases pressed into them by a hot iron, are short. A patch in the shape of the state of Georgia is sewn on his left bicep; the state seal is embroidered on the patch, along with the words “Georgia State Patrol.”
He is wearing aviator sunglasses and a helmet, the kind with the hard plastic visor. In front of him is a riot shield. It is propped on the ground, held steady by two large hands. He wears a watch and a wedding band.
Despite the helmet, the shield, and the heavy weaponry strapped around his waist and over his shoulders, he does not appear to be on edge. Whatever threat prompted his turnout, along with that of the other similarly outfitted men around him, is not great or imminent.
Standing in front of his shield is a small child, two or three years old. The child – It is impossible to tell whether boy or girl. – is wearing tennis shoes, the kind with a thick, spongy tongue. The shoestrings are long and hang in loose loops that touch the street. The child is wearing a white robe tied at his waist, a white cape tied at his neck, and a tall white cap, the unmistakable tall white cap of the Ku Klux Klan.
The child’s attention has been caught by a reflection in the riot shield, his own reflection, and the photographer freezes the exact moment when the chubby hand of the child meets the chubby hand of the reflection, the moment when the two hands touch. The State Trooper is watching, looking down at the child in the Ku Klux Klan cap as he reaches for himself.
The State Trooper, in case I forgot to mention, is black.
I stare at the image and the only thought I can articulate is, “ What kind of person dresses a toddler in hatred and puts him in a parade?”
I love words, but images can be equally powerful. I look at this one over and over and, on this night, I feel a compulsion, an instinctual impulse to go find the little girl who thought I could answer her question, to search as long and as far as it takes to be able to look into her sweet, sweet face and tell her that for some questions there are no answers.