Introduction This is a work of fiction. Now that I have stated this particular parameter, I can say that much of this story actually happened as described. Then again, there’s a lot that is pure story telling. The American South where my family lived in the 1950s and 60s was mostly a quiet-but-seething battleground between people striving for their civil rights and others—the white supremacists— determined to thwart them and remain in the nineteenth century. Naturally, they would never think of themselves as such because they knew they were good Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Church of God parishioners. The origin of this novel began over a decade ago as an informal short essay on my high school years, written for my two daughters whose senses of humor were finely honed. My wife Catherine found some of the tale so hysterical that she suggested I should “flesh it out a bit more,” but maybe leave out the stupid parts. So this novel is the fleshed-out version, the one with all the pain of love, anguish of youth, and terror of being killed or maimed. The narrative is hung on lived and researched history, the words and memories of elders who provided first-person recollections of how things really were in rural North Carolina. I owe a tribute to a host of historians who have written vivid accounts of what has happened in the Southern Piedmont. Both my parents have died, and this story is a tribute to them: two New England middle-class textile-worker Baptists who, in the 1950s, quietly helped numerous African-American families and schools. As a child, I never paid much attention to what they were doing, but later in life it dawned on me just how far out on a limb they had gone to help their friends. This is their story.
I use the terms “colored” and “negroes” in the novel because it is accurate to that time in the rural South. Of course “nigger” or “nigra” was prevalent among whites, but never spoken in our home. Black or African-American had not entered the Southern lexicon in 1960-61, the time of this story. I also use language both particular and peculiar to textile mill workers; a way of speaking I knew well in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Chapter One Muscadine Road In the last mile of the long, dry walk from school, Shirley cut through the cotton field bordering the twelve acres her family sharecropped. The day seemed special; she had finally turned sixteen and her dad had promised to teach her to drive tomorrow. Moreover, she was now the editor of the student newsletter—a surprise development learned at the pre-semester student newsletter meeting earlier that day. Shirley entered the gently down-sloping cotton field and squeezed through one of the rows, careful to not break any of the black branches laden with bolls now opening their fluffy white mouths. The expanse of cotton looked like a flat milky way, little white dots bursting from ebony bolls. Beyond, at the bottom of the field, a dirt road lined with dense muscadine vines led towards home. A man walked there. She watched him as she continued through the cotton, but nothing about him alarmed her. A sometime neighbor who helped various sharecroppers like her dad, he lived part of the year in a spare tinroofed bunkroom at Reverend Ramsey’s place. She couldn’t remember his name—she thought it might be Leroy. He waved at her. She smiled and waved back. The hot afternoon sun blasting off the sandy road highlighted his iridescent blue-black, a color that brought to mind her sweet Grandpa Wade. Skirting around the muscadine thicket after reaching the bottom of the cotton field, she startled a flock of thick-beaked crows busily attacking the soft, ripe muscadines. “Evenin’,” she said as she reached the sandy track. With the suddenness of a crazed mule, he grabbed her shoulders with both work-hardened hands. Before she could make any sense of it, he dragged her behind the thicket and threw her down at the edge of the cotton field. Like a cornered bobcat, she clawed his face through to running blood. She screamed, and the man smashed his fist into her mouth with stunning force. A second, third, and fourth pounding
reduced her to a quivering stillness. Blood spurted from her nose and mouth. Her face felt broken and burned with pain. She choked, but couldn’t cry out with his big hand engulfing her mouth and his steellike thumb pushing her cheek between her teeth. She gagged as he yanked up her yellow flowered dress; the one her sister Yvonne had finished sewing for her. Chilling guttural moans and deep serrated gasps erupted from the man’s throat. There were no words. Only the terrifying sounds of a deranged animal, one who now drooled on her. Pain, dry and scraping, in and out, in and out. If only she could go someplace safe, go be with the Lord. Her mouth was caked with blood and the fine red dust from the field where she lay. She felt fear heavier than the man’s body pounding inside her. This was surely the end of things. Her screams and will to live flew away like the crows. She would never see her mother again.
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Published on Jul 20, 2015
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