All that seems a distant memory now.
Yesterday Drew Elliott was a respected pillar of the community, revered by many, held up as a role model by all; today he is scorned by those who venerated him, and his life hangs in the balance. Drew was our golden boy, a paragon of everything small-town America holds to be noble, and by unwritten law the town will crucify him with a hatred equal to their betrayed love.
How did Drew transform himself from hero into monster? He reached out for love, and in the reaching pulled a whole town down on top of him. Last night his legend was intact. He was sitting beside me at a table in the boardroom of St. Stephen's Preparatory School, still handsome at forty, dark-haired, and athletic -- he played football for Vanderbilt -- a little gray at the temples but radiating the commanding presence of a doctor in his prime. I see this moment as clearly as any in my life, because it's the instant before revelation, that frozen moment in which the old world sits balanced on the edge of destruction, like a china cup teetering on the edge of a table. In a moment it will shatter into irrecoverable fragments, but for an instant it remains intact, and salvation seems possible.
The boardroom windows are dark, and the silver rain that's fallen all day is blowing horizontally now, slapping the windows with an icy rattle. We've crowded eleven people around the Brazilian rosewood table -- six men, five women -- and the air is close in the room. Drew's clear eyes are intent on Holden Smith, the overdressed president of the St. Stephen's school board, as we discuss the purchase of new computers for the junior high school. Like Holden and several other board members, Drew and I graduated from St. Stephen's roughly two decades ago, and our children attend it today. We're part of a wave of alumni who stepped in during the city's recent economic decline to try to rebuild the school that gave us our remarkable educations. Unlike most Mississippi private schools, which sprang up in response to forced integration in 1968, St. Stephen's was founded as a parochial school in 1946. It did not admit its first African-American student until 1982, but the willingness was there years before that. High tuition and anxiety about being the only black child in an all-white school probably held off that landmark event for a few years. Now twenty-one black kids attend the secular St. Stephen's, and there would be more but for the cost. Not many black families in Natchez can afford to pay five thousand dollars a year per child for education when the public school is free. Few white families can either, when you get down to it, and fewer as the years pass. Therein lies the board's eternal challenge: funding.
At this moment Holden Smith is evangelizing for Apple computers, though the rest of the school's network runs comfortably on cheaper IBM clones. If he ever pauses for breath, I plan to tell Holden that while I use an Apple Powerbook myself, we have to be practical on matters of cost. But before I can, the school's secretary opens the door and raises her hand in a limp sort of wave. Her face is so pale that I fear she might be having a heart attack.
Copyright © 2005 by Greg Iles.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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