Alexander van der Pool awoke like a man crawling out of a deep, dark hole. He yawned, stretched, rubbed crusts of sleep from his eyes, and flipped off the radio that crackled with more static than jazz. The weather had changed since he’d been holed up in his sister’s spare bedroom in Stovall, the middle of nowhere. Late September descended upon West Tennessee, blanketed it in shorter days, cooler temps. He knew that meant the frenzy of high school football, bright lights at the county fair, and fields woven with intricate designs of cotton. Alex knew this part of the country well and hated it. He was born and raised in Stovall and couldn’t believe after all these years he was now back where he started.
He blinked twice and everything sharpened into focus: four pairs of pants clung to the back of a chair, three short-sleeved shirts draped a dresser. Several torn-out pages from a legal pad haphazardly covered the bed. Books — poetry, novels, textbooks — were strewn across the bedroom floor as if nothing more than an afterthought. Some were dog-eared, others lay open on their bellies, and many were stacked upon one another, but all were the by-product of his sister’s four years at State College. In the last two months, Alex had read everything in the room, had reread Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Hemingway, and Steinbeck, but he fell asleep with Richard Wright’s Native Son across his chest. He groped like a blind man for the book beside him and when he did, it thudded against the floor.
Alex bolted upright and sat on the side of the bed. He jerked his head around as if someone had called his name but couldn’t determine which direction it came from. He held Native Son like a rosary while his eyes settled on a photograph of himself, his sister, and his mother on the dresser. The image was as fresh as it was seventeen years ago.
He closed his eyes and savored the memory as if it were a slice of deep, rich chocolate. He was nine years old, his sister Margaret, fourteen, and their mom between them with her arms draped around their shoulders. It was a Saturday afternoon in April and he was happy. Again. The three of them smiled as if Marshall Park was heaven and they had halos over their heads. Happy. He and his sister ran for the swing set, used their legs to break the bonds of gravity, and raced toward the sun. Her legs were longer and stronger and sometimes she sailed so high and wide, he thought she would orbit the planet at any moment. The basketball court was another matter. What he lacked in height and length, he compensated with speed and quickness. Alex faked left and drove right to get around Margaret and lay the ball off the backboard and through the net every time. Afterward, his mother returned from their car, stretched a blanket across green grass down by the lake, and the three of them bowed their heads and blessed a picnic basket of fried chicken, potato salad, fruit, and slices of chocolate cake. They washed it down with cold bottles of orange soda and smacked their lips.
His mother became recumbent against the earth and used an open book to shield her eyes from the sun. Margaret waved at a classmate, Elise, who met her halfway to discuss Mrs. Sutherland’s English class, and Everett Bond, who sat in the third row. Alex meandered by the lake, the late afternoon light warm and ethereal upon the water. He walked down a pier where kids his age used it as a diving board to splash in and out of the water, their laughter yellow and round as it bounced across the park. The wind rolled off of the day like a bedtime lullaby, and no amount noise could drown out its sweet harmonies. He sat on the bank of the lake, lingering in the peace he’d found there. When he walked back towards his mom, four ducks flapped their wings and waddled after him. Noticing he had nothing to offer them, the ducks stopped and watched as Alex stumbled up a hill. When he reached his mother and sister, Elise joined them, holding his mother’s camera. He still remembered the inflection in Elise’s voice when she said: “Say ‘Cheese’.”
His mother and sister were all he had and all he needed. Before he was nine, there was a father in the house, but when he left, Alex, his sister, and his mother stretched the fabric of their own lives to cover the hole and make the pattern complete again. The only thing that he possessed that belonged to his father was his last name and an old photograph. Most days he even managed to push those out of his mind. His sister and mother were the only family he’d ever known and loved. It was as if he was born at nine years old. Anything before that was too painful to remember.
Alex lay on his back with an open book across his chest, rolled his eyes towards the ceiling, and watched his childhood in Stovall descend light upon him. He wasn’t raised in the rural part of the county like where his sister lived now. They lived in the middle of Cartmell Street with a Baptist church on one end and Berry Courts Housing Projects on the other. Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, his mom led him by the hand to the house of the Lord where he attended Sunday school, sang in the youth choir, and was a junior usher. But Monday through Saturday the streets tugged at his shirtsleeve: fast-tailed girls agreed to show him theirs if he showed them his, fifty bucks was easy money just to look out for the police, and kids his age or younger were already drinking and carrying guns.
When Alex was a teenager, the BCs ruled the block, and in order to walk that end of the street without getting a daily beatdown, you had to pay a tax: join the gang. Alex was about to pay up one day when he was cornered by two BCs after school. One of them, wearing an undershirt with a purple bandana tied around cornrows, pinned Alex’s arms behind his back while the other, dripping with gold chains around his neck, snarled a mouthful of invectives through his gold teeth. He slapped Alex and took target practice on his navel with his fists. Alex doubled over and when he looked up from his knees, his sister Margaret had high-heeled shoes in both hands and wailed away at everybody that didn’t look like him. She invited them to join the van der Pool gang as they scampered away, rubbing the knots on their heads. She pulled Alex to his feet, admonished him for crying. Alex stayed away from that end of the street, and the gangbangers stayed away from his big sister, who vowed that when she got older, she would find some land in the country where she wouldn’t have to fight for the sake of fighting. A good pair of stilettos is too expensive to get repaired every other day.
By his junior year in high school, Alex played on the football team and caught two touchdowns against Farragut. After the game, he waited at the kitchen table for his mom to come home to share the news. She willed herself through the door and he didn’t recognize her. She aged ten years since leaving home that morning. Her hair had grayed. Lines formed around her eyes, and her shoulders drooped from working as an elementary school secretary by day and cleaning offices at night. He rushed from his chair, helped her remove her coat, and kissed her on the jaw. He wished her a goodnight, and she replied that she loved him as she dragged herself to bed. The next day Alex quit the football team and got a job bagging groceries after school at the Piggly Wiggly. He thought about quitting school altogether to work full time, but Mom threatened to break his left leg and Margaret, away at college, his right if he did so.
Copyright © 2022 by James E. Cherry. From Edge of the Wind, second ed., with a foreword by Charles Dodd White (Stephen F. Austin University Press). Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
James E. Cherry is a native of Jackson, Tennessee. His books include the short fiction collection Still a Man and Other Stories; three poetry collections, including Loose Change; and the novels Shadow of Light and Edge of the Wind. He is president of the Griot Collective of West Tennessee.
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