Why couldn't I just obey? Drinking, smoking, dancing, bowling, playing cards, going to movies, wading with the Butler boys down at the creek - all sins. To question my grandfather's rules and the law of his God was mutiny, any plans to rebel an act of treason. Yet even with the punishment I knew was coming, I'd slide open the sash I'd waxed with paraffin, drop to the ground, and walk to Chester's Drug, where I would sit at the end of the counter and watch the boys peacock, the girls preen while the jukebox played Elvis, Roy Orbison, the Miracles.
The only one who paid me any mind those times was Juney Clooney, a white girl too pretty for her own good, the church ladies said, but I envied her grace, the way she tipped back her soda, ponytail hanging down like a plumb bob. She would pour me a glass of her Nehi, something in her smile almost sad. Maybe I was the only one who wasn't surprised when her place at the counter came up empty, one of the few who knew the truth of what had happened between her and Baby Buckle.
Buckle was a childlike man, rolled flesh at his neck, rounded shoulders and soft hips, waist cinched by a wide leather belt and a brass buckle the size of a saucer. He worked right there at Chester's Drug as a delivery boy. Chester and his wife always said that Buckle showed up one Christmas Eve, abandoned as a baby on their doorstep, cold as slab marble, but rumor held he was Chester's son by Hazel Twig, a young mixed-race woman from our side of town who cleaned the store once a week until she up and disappeared. Because that is what happened when girls got themselves in trouble. They were sent to the home for unwed mothers or simply sent away, anything to erase the family's shame, absolve the father's guilt.
It was Juney's twin brother, Jules, who came stumbling into the store one day, his shotgun loaded, hollering that he'd gone home for lunch and found Juney crying. She told him that Buckle had come to make a delivery, caught her alone frying gizzards, and dragged her into the pantry. I sat stone still as the other boys piled into their pickups. They found him beneath that big walnut tree at Bowman's Corner, asleep with his pants at his ankles. They didn't stop to ask, just noosed him up with his own belt, buckle splitting his mouth like a bit. It wasn't but a few days later that I came in on Juney's mother, confessing to my grandfather that it wasn't Buckle who had raped her daughter but Juney's own daddy, who told her to blame Buckle or he'd kill her and her mother too. All that Buckle did was pick the wrong tree to do his business behind. But what good would it have done for me to tell, and who would believe me? I had read the stories of courage and conviction, but sometimes the truth seemed worse than the lie. I sat quiet at the counter, kept my secrets to myself.
What I remember of high school: not the football games and dances I wasn't allowed to attend, not overnights with the girlfriends I didn't have, but the romances and mysteries that kept me company. My grandfather demanded from me humility, modesty, and temperance, but when I read Little Women, Gone with the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express, I entered into the realm of everything knowable, anything possible, if only I were smart enough, pretty enough, and brave.
In my imagination, I had traveled to that place of dark-haired princes and veiled sultanas, knew the thousand and one tales that kept Scheherazade alive, dreamed that I might do the same, weave a web of stories so enthralling that the man I loved would be spared the agony of having to kill me, but if someone had told me that I would soon be living in Arabia, I would have laughed. And no matter the number of romances I read, I never dreamed that someone like Mason McPhee would kiss me - my long skirt, those awful shoes, straw from the henhouse tasseling my socks. But Mason. Highest-scoring point guard, on full-ride scholarship to Oklahoma State, once and former prom king, the pride of Shawnee! Homecoming, the first parade of my life, Mason an honored guest riding high in a convertible Chevrolet, everyone calling his name. Only our hometown astronaut, Gordo Cooper, had a bigger crowd, and he'd orbited the Earth in a spaceship.
Excerpted from In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes. Copyright © 2012 by Kim Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
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