by Christopher Dalton
July 8, 1906 – Smalltown, IL
I may never sleep again.
Every time I shut my eyes all I can see is the young man pulling at his skin.
It haunts me.
I can still hear him crying, too. And I can remember hoping that he wouldn’t smother himself with his pillow.
“Shef, it’s okay. I don’t mind. You can cry. Let it out,” I whispered to him in the dark of our hotel room.
“No, coach, it ain’t okay,” came his muffled reply.
We had this exchange a few times during the night. Each time, he would grow quiet for a spell. Then, when he thought I’d fallen asleep, he’d start up again, crying into his pillow.
I could feel the floor of the room shake as he lay sobbing in his little bed — if you could call it a bed. The bastard downstairs couldn’t even give the giant kid a decent sized cot, let alone a roll-a-way bed.
No, they found the smallest, thinnest, oldest piece of garbage they had and Shef wept on it, the aluminum supports creaking, the thin canvas threatening to snap, his legs dangling off of it at his knees.
I blame myself for the bed.
Shef was my only catcher. A lean, muscular young man, he was my best hitter and my best player. We wouldn’t have been much of a team without him. He could hit the ball a country mile and run like the wind. When he rounded second, headed for third base, he looked like he was on skates.
Jackie reminded me of him all those years later.
Shef had a cannon arm, somehow attached to his body by muscle and sinews. I once witnessed him throw out, from his knees, a runner who was standing three steps off second base — the runner never saw it coming.
His character was rock solid: he never swore, said please and thanked you, never said a mean word to anybody, never acted out in anger. And he was the funniest kid I ever knew. Made everyone laugh, even if they didn’t like colored folk.
But laughter was nowhere to be found in that hotel room that night.
That night wasn’t the first time he had faced bigotry. Being the only black player on our team, he’d heard plenty of racial garbage from the stands, other players, his team. He’d endured his share of abuse and never reacted to it outwardly.
I thought he brushed it off.
I thought they all did, folks of his color.
I was wrong. I was wrong because I been refused the use of a public restroom.
We had never stayed at that hotel before. I wasn’t familiar with the management. It was our first time playing that college in their hometown. I knew the managers or owners of the hotels of many of the college towns we played in and they’d give Shef a proper room, to himself, as long as he came and went through the back door.
Seemed fair to me. I never asked Shef if he minded. I assumed it was enough for him that he had a room.
That night the team entered the hotel as usual: loud and rowdy – they where college guys. We’d won the night before, and the euphoria was still in the air. Most of the guys went to the check-in desk and got the keys to their rooms. I hung back making sure they got their gear and luggage and didn’t ruin the lobby.
One by one, the team bounded up the stairs – except for Shef. He sat alone, on a bench against a wall.
“Shef, what’s going on?” I asked.
“Don’t know. The man at the counter said to sit over here and wait.”
The man he was referring to stood behind the counter, oblivious to Shef and I. By now, the room was silent, and I distinctly remember the shadows on the floor as I approached the counter. They stretched like long fingers across the floor. Only a clock ticking on the wall above Shef made any noise.
The man was the clerk: a skinny fellow. White as a sheet, a droopy left eye, thin patch of hair on a triangular shaped head, and a green visor perched on the edge of his forehead.
I’ll never forget him: the tobacco drool hanging from the patch of blonde hair on his chin, the missing lower teeth, the stench of his breath. His once white shirt stained from dinner and the blackest fingernails I’d ever seen. My stomach turned standing in front of him.
I stood at the counter for a good minute or two, waiting for him to acknowledge me.
His chin rested on his chest, his eyes were closed.
Finally, I said, “Excuse me?”
The clerk’s eyes opened one at a time. He looked up at me. He chewed a massive wad of tobacco leaf and didn’t say a word. He stared blankly at me and, without hesitation, spat over my shoulder, hitting the floor a few inches from Shef’s feet.
Startled, unsure what to say, angry, tired, wanting to go to bed, I asked, “Where’s this young man’s room?”
The clerk kept on chewing his wad. No sound, just the clock ticking and Shef breathing slowly behind me.
“I asked you where the key is to this young man’s room?”
“Son, you deaf or something? Where’s the key to this young man’s room?”
The clerk stuck his tongue out, and he licked his lips. He proceeded to smack his gums and blink at me. His eyes narrowed, and I noticed about then that his head was moving ever so slightly from side to side: no, he nodded.
“You telling me he doesn’t have a room? I booked twelve rooms, one is just for him, and one for myself. Now, he can come and go by the back door, I’ll keep tabs on him at all times, and you can rest assured I’ve never had any trouble with him,” I said.
Thinking over what I had said, it was like I was talking about one of my dogs.
“No niggers here,” the clerk snapped in response.
Now, I had grown up hearing that word. My father and grandfather, men of faith and preachers to boot, rationalized the use of the word and threw it around often. My friends, other coaches, strangers, and my team – everyone said it. But to me, it’s a nasty, vile word and it never sounded more disgusting than at that moment.
When it came out, it felt like a two by four hitting me square in the stomach. I lost my breath for a spell.
“What?” I asked after gathering myself.
“No niggers here,” he repeated. His eyes narrowed, tobacco stench filled the air out as he exhaled through his gaping mouth.
“He’s with me,” I replied.
My face flushed red. I could feel Shef’s eyes on the back of my head. I glanced over my shoulder. Shef shook his head slowly: he didn’t want me to press the issue. He bit his lip. I could see his fists clenched.
But I ignored him. This S.O.B. behind the counter was going to give me a room for Shef no matter what.
“No niggers here.”
He spat past me again, hitting Shef’s shoe this time.
I grabbed the counter to keep from hitting the man square in the jaw. I shoved my rage down into the pit of my stomach. “What if he rooms with another boy?”
The clerk, blinking all the while, nodded no.
“What if he stays in my room? Sleeps on a bed I take up there for him. We keep his name off the register. You keep your rules; I keep my team together.”
The clerk’s eyes shut slowly, and his ugly head fell forward, his chin coming to rest on his chest again. Tobacco juice dribbled on his shirt. His breath was shallow, as if asleep.
I snapped. I couldn’t see straight anymore. I reached across the counter and grabbed the clerk by his collar. I pulled him up halfway over the counter, and his head nearly jerked off his body as I shook him.
Through clenched teeth, I said, “Give me a key to my room and find me a bed for the boy. Now!”
The man’s eyes were as wide as saucers. I shook him and shook him, his head bobbing. He yelped, and only Shef stopped me from beating his head against the wall.
Shef’s voice cleared my head, and I realized what I was doing.
I stopped shaking the clerk, but for good measure, I shoved him back across the counter. He fell and quickly got up, grabbed a set of keys and handed them to me: his hand and the keys were as cold as ice.
“Keep the boy hid,” the clerk said over his shoulder and quickly disappeared into a dark room behind the counter.
To this day, I have no earthly idea why he didn’t call the cops on me. Should’ve. At the least, he shoulda kicked us all out of the hotel. But he didn’t.
I stood in front of Shef, holding the keys out to him. He sat motionless on the bench.
“Shef, take the keys, go on up. I have to lock the bus.”
He didn’t budge.
“Go on, son, it’s okay.”
He eventually took the keys, and I left to check on the bus in the parking lot.
When I reached our room, the full weight of what I had done to the clerk hit me. I was a grown man, in charge of a group of college guys. I coulda went to jail. My knees felt wobbly. I found the cot outside the door. Disgusted, I looked it over: I could see through the canvas. But I was too tired, too angry, but, mostly too afraid to go back downstairs and demand something else.
I put the cot under my arm, knocked and entered the room. Darkness and a moaning sound greeted me as I went in. The room was pitch black, but I could hear Shef inside.
I flipped the switch and saw Shef, squeezed into the far corner of the room, huddled on the floor, facing the door. He cried and moaned and rocked and pulled violently at his skin, trying to tear it from the bone. He didn’t take his eyes off me, and he didn’t blink.
“Shef? That man do something to you?” I threw the cot down.
He began mumbling something. I couldn’t hear him. I knelt in front of him and set my hand on his arm.
“It’s my skin, coach; it’s my skin,” he groaned. “It’s my skin, coach; it’s my skin.”
I sat next to him, my arm around him. He wouldn’t stop pulling at himself. The skin on his forearms was red and raw. His fingers dug into the dark brown flesh and tore away. I could see where he’d pulled the hair off areas of his legs, which bled in a few spots, and a bloody bald spot on his scalp showed where he had torn a chunk of hair out.
“Shef, stop it, son.”
“It’s my skin, coach. If I could just pull it off, I’d be like everyone else. I’d be okay, ” he chanted.