The Ginger's Contagion
My identity was caught in the same way that people catch the flu—through direct contact with a virus. I was infected at the age of six on Christmas Eve, unaffected by the chill of Minnesota in December. Six foot snowbanks slowly ate away at the sidewalks, waring them down over the course of a winter into one-foot wide walking paths. It was a natural part of life, the ubiquitous snow; Christmas couldn’t exist without plows flinging it out of the street and into our yards.
I colored a Christmas tree at the dining room table as Dad and Pat cooked Christmas dinner a few feet away in the kitchen. Pat talked to me about coloring in the lines before leaving to prepare the turkey. For a moment I truly tried, until my motor skills got the best of me, sending my green crayon across the black borders of the tree into the uncharted space that was unmarked white paper.
“How you doin’, Darlin’?” Asked Dad. He looked out the window into the mountains of snow, now covered in dirt and bits of tar chipped away from the asphalt in the road.
“Good,” I cooed, smiling up toward my father. My hand slowly drifted over the portion of the paper now covered in green, a product of my unruly hand. I knew that if Dad saw it, he would tell Pat, and then we would be back to square one once more.
“Looks chilly out there, don’t it?” He asked.
“Yeah,” I said, trying not to break his eye contact so he wouldn’t look down.
“And how’s the art coming along?” His hand moved to the page, which I quickly ripped away and hid behind my back.
“It’s a surprise,” I said to him, attempting to cover my tracks. Dad raised his eyebrows to what would have been his hairline, had he any hair left to lose.
“Well, my apologies. I’ll get back to cooking, then. Can’t disturb Michelangelo, huh?” “That’s right.”
Dad looked out into the white world once more, peering up the road. The street was set on a slight incline to adults and a mountain to children, and he stared to its summit.
“Yeah,” I said, picking out a new Christmas pattern from my coloring book to ensure a more steady and intricate work to show off later that night.
“Tell me if somebody comes to the door, okay?” “Why?”
“‘Cause I asked you to.”
As a child, I dreaded this answer. Now, as an older child, I still do. It is a clear brush off, a statement of perpetual seniority. It locked me into submission, and gave only one option for an answer:
The red crayon broke in half as I began to work feverishly on the shirt of an elf, its cheeks already rosy from the “Tickle Me Pink” I selected a moment earlier. I sighed at the sight of another one of my artistic brethren, broken in battle. The house smelled of turkey and of pricey cologne, with just a hint of cigarette smoke that lingered on Dad’s clothes. He only smoked on the back patio, but the scent clung to him, brought into the home from the outside world, like the stresses of work or snow tracked in on a pair of boots.
Warner, our neighbor, made his way down our urban mountain through the snow, scraping a cheap plastic shovel on the small clearing of sidewalk. Though comfortably in his late sixties, he managed to shovel the whole block after every snowstorm without ever being asked to do so. Whenever I asked him why, he told me that it was good “to stay in shape, no matter how old you get.” As one who is vehemently opposed to working out I still cannot fathom this sentiment; nevertheless he scraped, loudly and with feeling, outside Dad and Pat’s snow-covered bungalow.
“Is there someone out there, Kira?” Pat asked from the kitchen.
“Yeah, Mr. Warner is shoveling again,” I replied. With another loud heave, Warner threw a pile of snow from the shovel onto the six-foot pile of snow lying atop what was now the memory of a boulevard. Half of the snow fell back onto the walk as he stepped forward and scooped again. He with a shovel the way that I worked in crayon, the way that that Michelangelo who Dad talked about worked in paints.
“Okay, Honey, just tell us if someone comes to the door?” Pat called out. “I told her, don’t worry,” Dad said to Pat, muffled in the kitchen.
“I’ll tell you,” I told him.
I heard hatred before I saw it. It was the sound of boots grinding into thin layer of snow that fell back onto the sidewalk in Warner’s wake. There were varied footsteps, I could hear two, maybe even three sets of feet, coming down the thin strip of pavement. Some were lighter than others, but all parties were determined in their destination. The sound of their feet hitting the ground was rhythmic, rehearsed.
They stopped in front of our door. Living in the city, I was brought up to never answer the door to strangers, but that day Dad and Pat were especially insistent. I turned to the window to see who was standing at our front steps.
My virus was a three-foot-five ginger, standing in a navy blue coat that was three sizes too big. He was engorged in fabric like a tick in the negative windchill, standing at my door with a smile on his face.
He was shorter than me. Surely, this was not the doorbell ringer that Dad and Pat warned me about.
There is a moment in every child’s life when they first actively decide to cause trouble. With full knowledge of the right decision, morality completely in line, there is a defining moment in which every child discovers the thrill and sting of disobedience. There is no understanding why we betray our parents, but one by one, we do. After a while, “because I said so” just doesn’t seem to work.
And so I pulled the heavy lock to the left, swung open our oak door quietly. I stepped onto the front porch to face the child.
The freckled boy was a year or so my junior, and smiled too cutely for my tastes. He had to look up at me to find my eyes, his hands clasped behind his back in an anxious attempt to look proper in the presence of an older child. I stared him down, waiting silently for him to speak.
“Do the Fags live here?” he asked me.
“No,” I replied matter-of-factly. Scott and Pat live here. “I don’t know the neighbors’ names, though. If you want the Fags, you might want to try next door.”
“My Dad says that the Fags live here and that I have to give them this,” his hands swung around from behind his back, holding out a small booklet.
I looked down at the piece of paper without taking it from his mittened hands. Surely, this was not for me. My fathers were Scott and Patrick. The orange glow of fire on the glossy pamphlet burned around a cross that bore a suffering Jesus. I’d seen the suffering Jesus before, though we never once went to church. Jesus suffered on crosses above the bedroom doors of my friend Ava’s house, and a huge suffering Jesus was displayed on the back of a church we drove by on the way home from the YMCA that held weddings almost every Sunday.
“This isn't for us,” I told the boy, still holding out the paper to me. “God hates fags, but you can be saved,” the boy blurted at me.
“I told you, the fags don’t live here. Their names are Scott Smith and Patrick Prochaska,” I took the pamphlet from his hand, “Listen, I’ll take this, but I want you to know that—“
“Kira! Get inside right now!” boomed my father, running through the dining room, bursting through the door. He pulled on my wrist hard. It didn’t hurt, but it was more forceful than I was used to.
“You take your son and get the hell off of my property, or so help me God I will call the police! Is twenty-four years of this not enough for you? Now you’ve got to get my daughter, too? You sick bastard!” I heard Dad scream out into the snow.
The little redhead sprinted back to his father, standing on the sidewalk in front of our lawn. His father patted him on the back.
“Merry Christmas, fags! May God save you, and that little girl of yours too!” The bearded man on the street yelled to Dad. I could hear the man’s voice, though it was faint because of my unsteady and panicked breathing. Tears flooded my eyes the moment I ran inside; perched on the couch, I hyperventilated, grabbed my lightly hurt wrist and cried into the sleeve of Pat’s shirt.
“Fuck you, too!” I heard Dad scream, slamming the door. The pamphlet, fallen on the floor under his feet in all the commotion, was slightly creased from where the little boy’s nervous fingers had been. Dad picked up the pamphlet and ripped it in half, letting either side of the severed cross and suffering Jesus fall to the ground and stay there.
His face was red and was out of breath as he locked the door. There was rage in his eyes as he turned to look at me.
“Kira Sinclair, I told you not to open this door,” he said, walking toward me. His voice rose with every word. He squatted down in front of my face; I clung to Pat’s orange shirt, a silent plea to be saved. Dad’s eye twitched, a trait we both exhibit when we are truly incensed.
“I told you not to open the door, and what did you do, Kira? You—“
“Dad, what’s a fag?”
That was all it took. It was the first time my father cried in front of me, his face falling from fury to the watery-eyed face of a small child. Dad threw his arms around me, and for the first time in my life I had someone else’s tears marking the soft cotton of my shirt.
“I’m so, so sorry.” He sobbed into my shirt. Pat reached out a hand to touch his shoulder. He lifted his face to meet my eyes, and I realized it was one of the rare occasions when we looked just alike. Our blue eyes were bright and watery, our cheeks red with tears and shame and words left unsaid. There are times, despite crosses and closed doors, that we cannot be saved.
“I’m sorry, my Kira girl.”
That was the day I learned of hatred, a virus that inhibited my freedom and innocence. Fear is a germ that can be caught without knowledge.
Kira Yates is a first year at Mount Holyoke College where she studies religion and English. In her spare time, she cares for her four dogs and attempts to maintain pacifism in their war waged with the UPS guy.