November 27, 2010
KINGDOM OF JACKRABBITS
It was 1910. At fifteen, he was in love with a white girl, dark haired, beautiful in the trashy section of Gould, Arkansas, four blocks down from where he lived. She had pale hair and was tall and slender like something from a field. She reminded him of one of those figurines in the white houses that his mother cleaned. His mother caught him looking at the girl who had situated herself on a picket fence in the black section of town, trying to talk to him. Her outfit was cheap and the blouse, thin as chiffon..
“That girl’s trash. Don’t think her papa won’t tar and feather you if he finds out what you’re looking at. My boy’s too good for her.”
Bradley’s father was leaning over his newspaper, listening. The man said next to nothing and when he did, it was such a shock that both Bradley and his mother remembered every word.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Her papa has killed two people in knife fights. You be the next.”
Bradley knew it was a lie. Her father was too drunk to kill anyone. Still he paused. He felt that at fifteen he had paused too much.
When the girl followed him home after school and suddenly threw her arms around him, the whole neighborhood knew about it the following day. It was then that Bradley knew what the saying “living on the dying trail” meant. Three boys, high school, thick muscled, all brothers of the girl, nameless like something from the woods, trapped him at the railroad junction, bound his legs with chains, handcuffed the hands to both sides of the tracks where he lay in the middle. He saw the center of the tracks as the center of his body — linear, quiet with a scream that was almost out. The boys stood over him, watching, squinting from the sun, and one said something that sounded as if it came from the bottom of a well. The words were blurred and Bradley strained for meaning because his life depended on the meaning of his words. He watched the boy’s boots, scuffed, soles worn, torn socks coming over the top like another flap. Bradley’s mother shined his shoes, mended the socks. The difference between white trash and black.
They left. Bradley’s hands twisted and twisted into a vine and he lay there, talking to himself and his god, hands yielding a thousand pulses. He screamed. From the sky, he heard singing, Baptist songs, his people, each note unbearable, wrenched from some cloud socket, hymns he hadn’t heard in years. Salvation, redemption. He spit into the tracks and knew it was not spit but venom. More than anything, he wanted to walk among crowds and never be noticed again. Tears stung his lips but he was not aware of crying. He yanked again and again until the cuffs tore at his skin. He screamed again and again, his sound mimicking him down the steel belt, the wrists were bleeding on his face and his legs could not move an inch under the weight. He thought he heard the sound of a train coming down the funnel of steel. No. It was not yet four o’clock. The townspeople said the train never ran on time.
Then it happened. The tracks began shaking, the heat rising up from the steel, the ground a brown blur. The warmth was unbearable, a crimson color coming off the tracks. The grill of the front of the train was in view. He cursed every white boy in the universe, gave up, cursed again, waited. An idea came to him: there was no God and this was hell.
She came up behind him in her shanty dress and a cheap perfume, the white feet encased in sandals.
“I waited for you. Then I heard what all my brothers did to you.”
She stood there as if no train were coming, arms crossed.
“And I knew that I couldn’t save you, cause they’d just come back and get you again.”
He turned his head around to the voice. She was crying. An eye blackened by mascara or bruise.
“I waited two hours for you. You understand I can’t save you, it’ll be worsen for me. Goodbye.”
The motion from the tracks lifted him.
“Baby,” he moaned.
He thought he heard her walking away from the tracks. Then the sound of the train. Suddenly, the handcuffs jolted, the back of his legs flew up, his head went back. She untied the legs, shaking them like rags as if they were separate from the rest of his body.
“Goodbye. ” And she was running.
The train cut one handcuff as he rolled off the tracks and one shoe flew off his foot and landed beside his head. His scalp was singed and the eyes blurred under dirt and gravel. He stumbled up from the ground, feeling like he was sideways and the world was straight on. He paused, saw the girl running into the woods. He didn’t follow. It wasn’t instinct but survival.
Years later, he would look back at this as a revelation, the idea that you could run out of a situation without following the person that had set you free.
He began running. Then came exhilaration, the crashing beat, the high march, knees to stomach, feet not touching earth, the flying adrenaline, the body changing into another kind of animal. He had never felt so alive. He was running back to his house, the scenery a bright blur, sweat running off him, the heart large enough for a canyon. Perhaps he was crazy, but he would never be still again. When he opened the front door, sat down at the oil cloth table, told his father, his mother, not looking at these faces, but at the clear area from the railroad tracks to his home, three miles of freedom, not thinking, but being just one long movement. In his mind, he was still running when his father and mother walked with him to Sheriff Eddie Dupree’s police station, watching the Sheriff stifle a yawn, rub his gun belt as they told him about the attempted murder. A few days later, Bradley was running on a dirt track at some high school, watching an arena of cheers when the Sheriff told him that the girl’s family was nuts and full of guns and one just out of prison and he wouldn’t touch them with a yardstick, and besides how could he believe Bradley? Any witnesses? Here, the Sheriff looked at Bradley and his parents as if they were wooden dolls. The mother put her fist on the desk as if she wanted the Sheriff to examine it for meaning and quietly told him that they paid taxes just like the white people do.
Arkansas native. Currently working in the Traffic and Criminal division of Marin County. Published in Connecticut Review, Fourteen Hills, New York Quarterly, Poet Lore, Spoon River Review. Owns a small farm in Arkansas that blooms with the weather.