At the Top
Because they were seniors and had earned the right, Jim and his buddies stood on the small landing at the top of the school steps, squarely in front of the red double doors. Every student entering the building, boy or girl, had to go around them to get inside. The boys pretended not to notice that they were in everyone elses way, and moved aside only when a teacher climbed the stairs. They had ruled Aliceville School for less than a month but now held this high ground more or less comfortably. The first few days of school, Jim had halfway expected some older boys to come along and tell them to get lost, but during the preceding three weeks, he had gradually come to appreciate that there were no older boys. He and his friends were it.
The school overlooked the town from atop a steep hill. Jim tilted his face slightly into the clear sunlight and tenderly considered the world below him. At the foot of the hill the houses and barns and sheds of Aliceville lay scattered around the towns small tangle of streets. Near the center of town the uncles three tall houses stood shoulder to shoulder. (Jim lived with his mother and her oldest brother, Uncle Zeno, in the middle house. Uncle Coran and Uncle Al, who were twins, lived on either side.) Beyond the town itself, across the railroad track, the uncles corn and cotton crops filled the sandy bottoms all the way to their arable edges; beyond the fields the neatly tended rows unraveled into the thick gnarl of woods through which the river snaked. The corn, still richly green, stood taller than any man, and the dark cotton rows were speckled with dots of bright, emerging white. West of town the engine smoke of an approaching train climbed into the sky.
Jim could not see Uncle Zeno or Uncle Al in the fields, nor Uncle Coran in the store, but he knew they were there, the same way he knew that when the time came to pick cotton they would not ask him to skip school to help. Just as he wondered what his mother was doing, Mama came out the front door of Uncle Zenos house with a bucket and dipper and began watering the chrysanthemums blooming in the pots on the porch steps. She glanced at the orange bus from Lynns Mountain as it turned off the state highway and ground its way up the pitched drive. Jim was glad she didnt look all the way up the hill toward the school. Had she seen him and waved, he not only would have been embarrassed, but he would also have been tempted to weep with some mysterious, nostalgic joy. The warm sunlight on his face seemed to remind him of something but he couldnt explain what and some vague but pleasant longing filled his chest. Already he could sense the end of these good days rapidly approaching, like a mail train filled with unexpected news.
Hey, Jim, Buster Burnette said, theres your mama.
Dennis Deane squinted as he looked down the hill. Whats she doing?
Daggum, Dennis Deane, Jim said. You cant see a lick, can you?
I dont need to see, Dennis Deane said. Ive got an extra eyeball.
Everybody grinned, but nobody said anything. They all knew better.
Dennis Deane batted his eyes innocently. Aint you going to ask me where it is?
Jim shook his head. Aint no way.
Cowards, Dennis Deane sniffed. The whole bunch of you. He cleared his throat. Now, where was I?
The secrets of women, said Larry Lawter.
Oh, yeah. Like I said, I know the secrets of women. I can make any female I want to fall in love with me.
Bull, Buster said.
Im telling you, Dennis Deane said. Im the Large Possum. The King of the Squirrels.
Excerpted from The Blue Star by Tony Earley. Copyright © 2008 by Tony Earley. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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