Momma, who was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, which is a mere hundred and fifty miles from Atlanta, exclaims, “I knew I should have listened to Moses Henderson!” Moses is an old boyfriend whom Momma gave up to marry Dad, and she jokingly says that she was “a young girl who made a bad choice.” Dad, who loves to clown around, starts telling stories about Moses, who had been nicknamed “Hambone” because of his oddly-shaped head. The family, including Momma and even Byron, laughs uproariously. On a more serious note, Momma recalls that in Birmingham, “life is slower, the people are friendlier.” When Dad reminds her that black people are not allowed to use the same facilities as white people there, she concedes that conditions are not perfect, but that on the whole, “people are more honest about the way they feel” and, in a comment directed at Byron, “folks there do know how to respect their parents.”
Dad decides that it is too cold in their house to stay the night, so he calls Aunt Cydney…
Kenny, on the other hand, is “just another fourth-grade punk.” In his own estimation, Kenny has two things wrong with him that make him the focus of teasing and ridicule at the hands of the other kids. The first thing wrong with him is that he loves to read. in the past, they have exploited his ability to read well by taking him to different classrooms to show off his skill and use him as an example.
Kenny remembers a terrible day two years previous when he, a second-grader, had been taken to read in front of Mr. Alums’s fifth-grade class. Kenny was horrified soon to know it was Byron’s class; to make things worse, Byron had been looking at his brother with “fire [in his] eyes.” Byron had always been a poor student, and when Mr. Alum had told him that he would do well to emulate his little brother, Kenny had known that the whole thing was a very bad idea. After school, Byron and his best friend, Buphead, had caught up with Kenny and a crowd had formed, anticipating that Kenny was about to get beat up. Surprisingly, when Buphead made a characteristically threatening remark, Byron had told him to “leave the little clown alone.” He had then punched Kenny softly on the arm and had told him, “At least you oughta make ’em pay you for doin’ that mess.” Kenny had been shocked to realize that Byron was proud of him. When the other students had seen that Byron wasn’t going to do anything to Kenny for being smart, they decided that they had better not do anything either. Although Kenny still had to endure being called names alluding to his studiousness, such as “Egghead” and “Poindexter,” things would have been much worse—except for Byron.
Kenny plans to stay as far away as possible from the new boy, Rufus, but things do not work out that way. The principal seats Rufus next to him in the classroom, and Kenny is worried because he thinks the kids, instead of focusing their cruelty on the new boy, will now pick on both of them—and do so twice as much. Even though Kenny does not talk much to him, Rufus keeps “jabbering away at [him] all through class” and follows him out to lunch as well. Rufus has apparently forgotten to bring something to eat, so Kenny gives him one of his peanut butter sandwiches; Rufus gobbles down half of it and folds the other half carefully back in its wrapper. Rufus then asks Kenny about his lazy eye, but his tone is different from that of the other kids, who only bring the subject up torment him. Rufus asks out of simple curiosity and concern. He then sees a squirrel sitting in a tree across the street and marvels at how fat it is. In Arkansas, where he is from, Rufus would have shot the squirrel, which would have provided a delicious meal for his family. Kenny has a hard time believing that Rufus really knows how to shoot a gun, but Rufus’s brother, Cody, joins them and confirms that it is true. Kenny notices that Rufus gives the other half of the sandwich to Cody and guesses that Cody forgot his lunch, too. Rufus begins coming over to Kenny’s house in the evenings, and their favorite thing to do is play with Kenny’s little plastic dinosaurs. Kenny does not mind because Rufus does not cheat or try to steal his toys. The only other boy Kenny used to play dinosaurs with was L.J. Jones, who had pilfered from his collection constantly. One day, L.J. had suggested to Kenny that they have a huge dinosaur war and tricked him into bringing out his entire collection, which was against Momma’s rules. Kenny and L.J. had had a great time annihilating the monsters with pretend atomic bombs. When the carnage was complete, L.J. had told Kenny that the dinosaurs would…
Momma, having been born in Alabama, is unused to the frigid weather in Flint; “she (doesn’t) really know anything about the cold.” As a consequence, she forces Kenny and Joetta (Joey) to wear layers and layers of clothing when they go out in the winter, bundling them up so much that they can hardly move. It is Kenny’s job to help Joey out of her outerwear once she gets to school, so Kenny dutifully goes down to the kindergarten every day after he has taken off all his own “junk” to tend to his little sister. Although the children have tried to tell Momma that she is keeping them way too warm, Momma is unmoving, telling them that the cold “is very dangerous, people die in it all the time.” Kenny complains to Byron about all the whining and crying Joey does when he tries to help her out of her clothes, and Byron, with uncharacteristic cooperativeness, says he will talk to Joey. Byron tells Joey that there is a good reason why Momma makes her wear “all that stuff” and brings her attention to the garbage trucks with big doors on the back that come through the neighborhood. He says that the streets are indeed “full of dead, froze people” every cold morning and that the garbage people come and take the bodies away in the trucks. Byron tells Kenny and Joey that the victims are generally from the South, where they have thinner blood. Since Momma is from the South, half of her children’s blood is afflicted with this condition, and so they are prone to freezing to death very quickly in the bitter climate in Flint. Kenny does not believe all of what Byron says, but Joey believes every word; Kenny notes that Joetta does not cry anymore when she has to get into her winter clothes. Every year, Momma buys the Watson children two pears of leather gloves each to get them through the winter. If they lose the first pair, they have to wear their second pair to school “kindergarten style,” with the gloves pinned to a string pulled through their coat sleeves so…
Byron has a dangerous habit of playing with matches, and Momma is acutely aware of the potential deadliness of matches. She often tells a story about when her house caught on fire when she was a little girl, and she and her brothers had to wear clothes that smelled like smoke for years as a result. Momma and Joey get “all sad and sobbed” when she tells this story, but Byron and Kenny have heard it so many times that they think it is “kind of funny” and have even given it a name: “Momma’s Smokey the Bear story.” Momma had caught him lighting matches the last time about a week previously and had put him on punishment for a month, and she swears that the next time she catches him starting fires, she is going to burn him.
When Momma asks Byron and Kenny to go to Mitchell’s store to get some milk, bread, and tomato paste for her, Byron predictably complains, but Momma makes him go with Kenny anyway. As the boys are leaving, Byron asks for money to pay for the groceries but Momma tells him to just sign for them. Byron immediately concludes that the family is on welfare. Momma tells him that although the family has received government aid in the past, they do not now. The Watsons have simply negotiated an arrangement with Mr. Mitchell to pay their monthly grocery bill all at once, on payday. Byron does not quite believe Momma, and he continues to carp about how embarrassed he will be to sign for welfare food at Mr. Mitchell’s store. Momma, angry at…
One evening, Momma is making dinner and Kenny is doing his homework when Byron walks in with a hat on. Seeing them, he tries to make a quick exit. Momma stops him and makes him take off his hat, only to discover that his head is covered with a blue and white handkerchief. Momma knows immediately that Byron has done something that his father has explicitly forbidden him to do: he has gotten a “conk,” a process that has left his hair “reddish brown, straight, stiff and slick-looking.” Momma, furious, asks Byron:
Is this straight mess more attractive than your own hair? Did those chemicals give you better-looking hair than me and your daddy and God gave you?
When Momma tells…
After their telephone conversation with Grandma Sands, Momma and Dad start acting “real strange.” Momma starts writing copiously in a notebook, and Dad starts buying all kinds of things for the Brown Bomber. After a few days, the Brown Bomber looks terrific, and Dad says that it needs only one “final touch.” With his typical flair for the dramatic, Dad brings home a special something in a small bag, calling it “the height of technology…the ultimate in American knowledge…the pinnacle of Western civilization.” The amazing item turns out to be a “smelly green pine tree,” and while the rest of the family groans, Joey is delighted to receive the honor of hanging it from the rearview mirror.
On Sunday, Kenny again gets up early, and he finds his father in the Brown Bomber listening to records on the Ultra Glide. Kenny joins him, and after they sit companionably through “a couple of jive songs,” Kenny asks Dad if Byron really has to go to Alabama. After thinking for a minute, Dad tells Kenny that though they will all miss Byron, he has some important things to learn, and despite all that Momma and Dad have done in an effort to guide him, Byron is not progressing in the right direction. Dad asks Kenny if he remembers some of the things he has seen on the news about events going on in the South right now, and Kenny recalls seeing “really mad White people…screaming and giving dirty finger signs to some little Negro…
When the Watsons finally cross the border between Michigan and Ohio, they pull over at a rest stop just outside of Toledo. The children are impressed with the area, which looks like it is “chopped right out of the forest and [has] picnic tables made out of giant logs.” They are disgusted by the outhouses at the rest stop, however; there is no running water, and the toilets consist of a seat placed over a “great big, open black hole” from which emanates a terrible smell. Momma tells Byron that he had better get used to this type of outhouse because that is what Grandma Sands has at her house. Grandma Sands thinks “a house is a whole lot nicer place if the facilities are outside.”
Byron, Kenny, Joey, and Momma sleep for most of the rest of the way as Dad drives through the night and into the next day, covering nearly a thousand miles over eighteen straight hours and bringing the family safely to Alabama. The Ultra Glide stops working, and Dad, exhausted, resorts to listening to country music (which he hates) on the radio. Kenny wakes up and spends a little time keeping Dad company as they traverse the final miles of the trip, but he falls asleep again before they reach their destination. Finally, he awakens to the sound of Momma honking the horn of the Brown Bomber “like she [is] crazy.” The Watsons have arrived at Grandma Sands’s house. Looking out the window, Kenny is surprised to find that Birmingham…
The heat is stifling in Birmingham. When Kenny awakens after a fitful sleep on his first morning at Grandma Sands’s house, he finds that Byron is already gone from the bed they share. Looking out the window, Kenny sees Byron, Dad, and Mr. Robert standing under a tree with a dog, and he quickly runs out “to be with the guys.” Mr. Robert tells the boys that they will soon become accustomed to the heat. He says the dog, Toddy, “won’t hunt no more.” Mr. Robert relates that, in his day, Toddy was “the best coon dog in all Alabama,” but now, just like Mr. Robert himself, the dog has gotten old and is at the point where “his mind [tells] him to do [something] but his body [won’t] cooperate.” Showing his obvious fondness for the dog, Mr….
Kenny had only “halfway listened” when Grandma Sands had warned them about going to Collier’s Landing
to swim, so when he and Joey and Byron come to the crossroads that requires them to choose between the Landing and the public swimming area, he is anxious to choose the former. A posted, handwritten warning signed by Joe Collier only intensifies his curiosity, but Joey and even Byron have no inclination to explore the forbidden area. Grandma Sands has said that there are dangerous whirlpools at Collier’s Landing that recently caused the death of a young boy. When Joey asks what a whirlpool is, Byron obligingly explains that a “Wool Pooh” is Winnie the Pooh’s “evil twin brother,” who resides underwater to “snatch stupid kids.
Kenny spends the next few days in a state of shocked lethargy. Byron has made him promise not to tell anyone what happened at Collier’s Landing, and the family simply assumes that Kenny’s weakness and malaise is just a reaction to the heat. On Sunday, when Joey leaves for church, Kenny says good-bye to her and notices that she is wearing “little lacy white socks and her shiny, shiny black shoes.” He then goes outside and sits under a tree; he is just dozing off when he hears a sound “like a far-off thunderstorm coming,” followed by an eerie silence. Dad and Byron look out from inside the house, wondering what has caused the noise, but Kenny, too tired to even be curious, leans back against the tree and closes his eyes. He is…
Joey does not know what a close call she had when her church was bombed in Birmingham, and the Watsons all return to Flint before she has a chance to find out. Momma and Dad are most worried about Kenny, who continues to exhibit signs of shock. They do not know that he almost died at Collier’s Landing. Although they suspect that he might have seen something in the aftermath of the bombing at the church, they are not sure because he insists that he only left Grandma Sands’s house that day to tell them Joey was all right.
Kenny has been disappearing for long periods of time, and no one knows where he goes. He has been hiding behind the couch, in the quiet, dark area that Byron used to call the “World-Famous Watson Pet.