1992 – Of Hobos and Rainbows, Paintbrush
"You know Wicked Annabelle!" Jason had
said to me.
"I do not!" I liked it when Jason was
wrong. Being a year older, Jason knew a lot I
didn't, so whenever he was wrong I liked to rub
it in. "I do not. Never heard of her."
"You know that house on Railroad
"That house that's half boarded up. It
has that raggedy ol' couch out front where all
those cats sleep."
I knew the house. "What about it?"
"That's where she lives." If it weren't
for his curly hair and flat broad nose you'd of
taken Jason for white. He was the only boy I
knew with a colored dad and a white mom though
his dad was dead. Or so Jason had said. Only
much later did I learn different.
It was the year after Kennedy had been
killed. I was nine. Jason had dragged me to the
Projects, forbidden territory for us white kids.
He led me to a wooded area just out of
visibility of two intersecting highways. There
we found O'Henry.
"What you bring that white moth'rfuc'er
here for?" O'Henry was thirteen, big and dark as
chocolate. He wore a derby hat and jabbed at a
dead birch with his stolen pocketknife. I stood
as far from him as I could.
"He don't believe me about the witch
"Who? Annabelle? Shi--it. Annabelle'll
eat that little white boy for breakfast." A
chipmunk approached us, stopped still in its
tracks, studied O'Henry a second, then scurried
up a hollow elm. "What you hanging 'round a
whitey for, Albino?"
"I ain't no albino." Jason said.
The hell you ain't! Your mammy white
ain't she?" O'Henry brandished his pocketknife
as Jason reached for a rock. "Go ahead, Albino."
The faint breeze that had been blowing
held its breath while the three of us stood like
statues. "We wanna hear about Wicked Annabelle,"
I spoke, surprised at my boldness. Jason dropped
his rock. O'Henry lowered his knife.
"What you telling this whitey colored
folk's business for? Annabelle ain't none of his
"Annabelle is colored?" I asked.
"Colored! She's as black as night. Why
I'm white as you standing next to Wicked
"Don't nobody go near Annabelle," Jason
said. "Not even her family. She puts voodoo on
dogs and cats and little babies. And when you
hear dogs bark late at night, for no
reason---it's because Annabelle is somewhere
stealing babies from cribs."
"To eat 'em," O'Henry said. "And cook
their eyeballs in her witch's brew." As he said
this he crept closer and stuck his face near
mine. His teeth were rotten and his breath
stank. I moved away. "She don't come out 'cept
at midnight. You wanna see her you gotta go
then. And on a full moon."
A few days later, during school recess,
Jason ran over to where me and Pee Wee
Montgomery were playing catch. "You know what
tomorrow is?" he asked.
"Yeah." I felt sick to my stomach.
"The full moon," he said, his hazel
eyes wide and hopeful.
A fly was buzzing around my face. I
slapped at it, then threw the ball I was holding
to Pee Wee. Pee Wee missed and had to chase
after it. He ran clumsily through some girls
playing hopscotch. When they chased after him
Jason called out: "Leave him alone!" Then he
looked at me. I avoided his eyes.
"You ain't scared, are you? . . .Good,
cause I told O'Henry you wasn't. . . You tell
your mom 'bout me staying over?"
I nodded. "Of course Jason can spend
the night," Mom had said when I asked her. She
and Dad liked Jason. "Such a well-mannered
little boy," Mom always said. Dad always gave us
quarters. They never said anything about Jason
being colored but I knew they were pleased I had
befriended a Negro boy. That's what they called
colored people: Negroes.
Jason tapped me on the shoulder then
ran back to his game. The fifth grade boys
played softball in the dirt field while we
others stayed on the asphalt or by the monkey
bars and swings. "Lookout!" Pee Wee called. I
turned in time to protect my face but jammed my
finger on Pee Wee's throw.
"I'm sorry," Pee Wee pouted. He looked
as if he were going to cry. "That's alright," I
said. My dad would have called Pee Wee the runt
of the litter. He was the smallest person in the
fourth grade, smaller even than the shortest
third grader though his head was large and his
complexion a creamy milk white that seemed to
glow. It was Jason's idea to befriend Pee Wee.
Jason felt sorry for him. Sometimes I wanted to
hit Pee Wee he was so stupid, but like Jason I
came to feel sorry for him.
"Let's watch Jason," I suggested as an
excuse to nurse my throbbing finger. Jason
stood, legs apart, in left field. He was good.
So were Roberto and Jonathan, the two other
colored fifth graders. They could catch without
mitts. When Roberto came up, he hit a grounder
to shortstop. He ran fast but not fast enough.
Still, the teacher wasn't watching so he argued
he was safe. There was some yelling and some
pushing and in the end Roberto was allowed to
stay on base. Later, Jason used the same tactic.
"It works," he told me that Friday
night. We had already climbed into our pajamas
so my folks would think we were going to bed.
"If you act tough enough," Jason said, "The
others'll back down. Try it."
A little past eleven me and Jason
crawled out my bedroom window. I had never snuck
out of my house before and half hoped we'd get
caught. But that hope vanished as we crawled
under the garden fence and I watched the orange
light in the family den disappear behind the
dark shadowy trees. Our plan was to meet O'Henry
at the abandoned railroad station, then make
our way to Annabelle's. I could picture my
father asleep in his pajamas in front of the
t.v. while Mom rocked and hummed softly in her
favorite chair as she crocheted something she
would later mail to a distant relative. My fear
increased when I realized I was moving beyond
their reach. My fate was sealed.
O'Henry was late. I shivered on the
stone platform of the boarded up railroad
station, not from cold but from fear. The
station smelled of stale urine where Jason said
winos and hobos had slept. Everywhere you
stepped was broken glass. The full moon watched
us like a huge pale face and provided the only
light next to the weak beam of a flashlight
Jason carried. "I think this thing needs
batteries," he kept saying. I wondered if Jason
was scared too. When I asked him he looked like
he wanted to hit me.
Then we heard something moving in the
shadows. At first we pretended not to notice.
But the rustling persisted. Jason picked up a
stick and investigated. I followed. "It's in
those bushes," he whispered, pointing the
flashlight. We moved closer. Jason was prodding
the large bush with his stick when something
jumped out at us. "Boo!" I screamed and we
clutched each other. O'Henry was laughing.
"Boy, youse was some scared
moth'rfuc'ers. That white boy nearly jumped
outta his skin."
"We wasn't scared, " Jason said. I
realized I had grabbed onto Jason's shirt. I let
go. "Com'on" Jason said to me. We headed toward
Annabelle's not caring if O'Henry followed or
"Youse better collect you some rocks,"
O'Henry called to us. "In case ol' Annabelle
comes after your white butts."
There were plenty of stones along the
railroad tracks so we took his advice. The
moonlight glistened along the rails, moving with
us as if leading the way. Behind us came the
scrunching of O'Henry's sneakers while he
snickered, ooh'd like a ghost and howled like a
sick coyote. I stayed close to Jason who kept
one hand on my shoulder.
When we entered Railroad Avenue and
neared the streetlight illuminating Annabelle's
house, O'Henry shut up. He came up next to us,
his hands in his pockets, his derby hat no
longer cocked but pulled over his forehead.
I had seen the house many times
although I never really looked at it. Some of
the windows were boarded where glass had been
shattered. A faint bluish light, like from a t.v.,
shone through one of the few windows left
unbroken. Other than that the house was dark. A
weathered, lopsided couch sat out front with two
cats resting on it; one an orange calico licking
itself, the other a small Siamese staring back
at us. The paint on the wooden house was cracked
and had fallen off in chunks. A broken drainpipe
dangled from one side, perhaps held up by one
last hook. No grass grew in the front lawn and
both sides of the house were flanked by tall
bushes and weeds that defied passage. A thin
film of smoke slithered ghostlike from the
O'Henry pointed. "See. She's making a
I held onto Jason's shirt. "Com'on,"
O'Henry said. He led us around the block,
cutting across a gravel driveway and climbing a
low, barbed wire fence. We dropped into a
freshly mown lawn. "Keep down," O'Henry
whispered. Like Indians we dashed to the center
of the yard under some kind of fruit tree. Then
I realized where we were---Annabelle's backyard.
The pale moon stared down on us as we crept
nearer the back porch. The wood of the raised
porch had rotted and it was possible to crawl
"Give me the flashlight," O'Henry said.
He pointed in the crawl space. A mother cat with
yellow eyes was feeding three or four kittens.
Two other kittens were wrestling nearby.
"Com'on." O'Henry crawled in, dragging me with
him. "Listen up, Jason. Git behind that there
tree again and make like youse calling for help.
Not too loud though. Don't wake up the whole
damn neighborhood. Just sose Wicked Annabelle
can hear." O'Henry pulled me in front of him so
I could see. He handled me roughly. My arm hurt
but I didn't say anything. Jason began calling
softly, gradually getting louder, hamming it up
like only Jason could.
A light came on, flooding the gray
porch steps and the dirt walkway that edged the
green, evenly cut lawn. Overhead the
high-pitched squeal of an opening screen door
cried out. Slow, heavy footsteps dragged along
the floorboards above us. "Little boy," a tight
raspy voice called out. "Are you all right?"
Then came the groan of the wooden steps
as she descended each step in turn. First I saw
her legs---thick and solid like tree trunks. As
her slippered feet touched solid earth I saw her
hunched back and her thick wild dark hair. I
tried to inch back but O'Henry's firm rocklike
presence wedged me in. He squeezed both my arms.
"Pssst," he called. Annabelle turned, her black
face visible in the light. Half her face was
swollen, puffed to almost twice the other side.
One eye moved in its socket while the other
seemed dead, or under a spell. I cringed. Then
O'Henry shoved me forward. Dirt clung to my lips
as I landed at Annabelle's feet.
I should have crawled away but I wasn't
thinking. Instead I stood up. Annabelle's cold
wet hands grabbed me. I screamed. I wiggled. I
batted at her. She held me firmly with big
strong hands. "It's okay. It's okay." Her raspy
voice was unexpectedly gentle. "Yes, I know I'm
ugly. Just don't look at me. I won't hurt you.
Are you okay?"
I stopped struggling. I wanted to cry.
Not from fear or terror, but from shame. I felt
I had been caught playing some stupid joke and
the only thing I could do was stand and take my
"Tell me where you live."
I couldn't speak. I didn't dare. I was
about to cry when something flew passed and
echoed as it struck the porch floorboards. "Let
go of him you dirty old witch!" It was Jason. He
threw another rock, nearly hitting me before it
clunked on the wooden steps and rolled in the
dirt. Annabelle loosened her grip. I ran. I ran
towards Jason and passed him. A leg tripped me.
O'Henry's leg. I tumbled in the grass, at first
too stunned to move. I looked behind me at two
silhouettes, one thin and graceful, the other
large and rocklike, waving their arms furiously,
each wave sending a black stone hurling at
Annabelle standing in the porch light. With her
thick black arms shielding her face, Annabelle
struggled up the steps and into her house.
"Stop it," I yelled. "Stop it!" I
caught Jason's raised arm. He stopped. Then I
tackled O'Henry, my weight nearly knocking him
over as I pelted him with my small ineffectual
fists. O'Henry's hammer of a blow caught my jaw.
The earth felt like a giant unmoveable rock as I
collided into it. My face stung but I held my
Annabelle shouted from behind her
screen door. "Why can't you damn kids leave me
"Shut up you damn witch." That was
"Yeah, shut up," Jason mimicked.
"I ain't done nothing to you,"
"Oh, shut up you old hag."
"Yeah, shut up."
Annabelle slammed her door and
disappeared. O'Henry said we should leave before
she called the cops. "Pick up that damn white
boy," he added. "The fool was possessed. Ol'
Annabelle went and put her voodoo on him. But I
tell you this white boy, spell or no spell, next
time you put your moth'rfuc'ing hands on me,
I'll kill your ass."
I said nothing. Jason said nothing. I
got up by myself. When we were back at the
railroad tracks, Jason and O'Henry walked
together. Jason was wearing O'Henry's derby hat.
I followed at a close distance, not that they
seemed to notice. Then O'Henry took his hat and
left. Jason, his flashlight burnt out, said
nothing all the way home. We had both crawled
into my bed before I ventured to break the
"Jason. She was no witch."
"Shut up. Sure she was."
"No she wasn't."
"How do you know? You were under a
I didn't know what to say. When I
finally got the nerve to speak again Jason had
gone to sleep.
© SETH 1992