Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Excerpt - Memphis Bus Station in 1956

The following is an excerpt from my novel THE LITTLE ROCK MESSENGER.  The story centers on a twelve year old African-American boy who makes a harrowing Greyhound bus trip to Atlanta.  The year is 1956:

     Lincoln stopped to look for the Atlanta bus and saw that it would leave at twelve-thirty in the afternoon, in a little over an hour...

    Negroes weren’t allowed to use the seats in the main terminal, but he spotted a row of benches along the side of the building outside where he could sit with his lunch.  Other colored people had already congregated there, and he found himself next to an old woman who was hunched over and gnawing on a large peach.  She made loud slurping noises and paid no attention as Lincoln sat down with his suitcase, knapsack and bag of food.   
    He pulled out a package of foil-wrapped chicken, removed a leg and started eating.  His mouth watered at the flavor of the meat as he tore at it ravenously.  After the leg was finished, he gobbled up a breast, then crunched an apple until it was nothing but a brown-streaked core.  Once done, he tossed the bones and apple core into a trashcan, took a drink from a “Colored” water fountain, then looked around for the bathroom.  One of the men on the bench pointed toward an alley in back of the building, and said he would watch his suitcase while he was gone.  Lincoln thanked him, stuffed the bag of food in his knapsack and took it with him as he moved for the alley.

    Two women were waiting in line in front of him outside a door marked “Colored Rest Room”.  Neither of them responded as he greeted them courteously, so he began to occupy himself by surveying the area around him, noticing in particular the back of several old apartment buildings - ramshackle-looking places three stories high that needed paint and repair.  Along the alley next to them were rusted-out cars parked amid tufts of crabgrass and weeds.  They looked like they had been in the same spot for years, covered in a thick coat of dirt and grime.  Interspersed between the cars were dozens of banged-up metal trashcans, half of them knocked-over and spilling-out garbage. 

    As Lincoln studied the scene, he heard music come from an apartment window in one of the buildings, drums beating-out a rhythm behind a man’s high-pitched voice singing something loud and fervent.  Was it “Frutti Tutti” or “Tutti Frutti?”  He wasn’t sure which, but it was music new to him, something very different from the old hymns and gospel singing he was used to at home and at church.  In fact, it sounded like music Camilla would probably not like, something she wouldn’t want Lincoln listening to. 

    One of the women in the bathroom line began shaking her head, commenting on how shameful it was to listen to such music, how it turned young people away from the Lord’s teachings.  The other woman agreed, saying she had a nephew who listened to that stuff, and it was turning him bad.  She was sure the boy had been taken by Satan - that he would end-up soul-less and on fire in Hades.  All the young people would end-up soul-less listening to such trash, she emphasized, purposely cutting her eyes at Lincoln.  The other woman followed her gaze.  Lincoln looked away quickly, saying nothing.  

    By the time he’d finished in the bathroom, a longer line of people had formed, many of them looking anxiously at their watches, afraid of missing their buses.  There were now eight in line waiting to use the bathroom.  Two small boys were squirming uncomfortably, close to wetting their pants.  Their mothers pulled at them impatiently to be still. 

    Lincoln went back to the bench to sit down with his suitcase.  He removed his knapsack and put it on his lap, then began to think about the bag of food inside holding his mother’s generous provisions.  In his boredom, he thought about pulling something else out to eat, knowing there were four more pieces of chicken and another apple.  But he quickly decided against it.  His food had to last until he arrived in Atlanta, and he still had a long ride ahead of him.  He remembered his mother warning him to be careful about eating too much too soon.  What had she said?  There was a word she used that started with an “R”, he thought.  Yes.  She had said he must “ration” his food so that it would last-out the trip.  If he ate too much at once, he would find himself hungry later in the day – and then after that, he would be very hungry.  By the time he finally got to Atlanta, after hours of not eating, he would be in pain.  She said he must eat smart.  He must dole-out his food a little at a time – be wise about his situation. 

    At the moment Lincoln didn’t feel wise.  He was alone in a strange city, waiting to get on a bus to another strange city.  All around him were people he didn’t know, folks who didn’t seem to notice him, or care about the fact that he was only twelve years old and by himself a long way from home.  He always believed he was strong for his age, and lately had thought a lot about being grown up and out on his own. 

    The idea of being old enough to take care of himself, to be his own person and out from under the influence and protection of the indomitable Camilla was something Lincoln looked forward to.  He couldn’t wait to make this trip so he could show his mother he was becoming a man, that he was old enough to ride by himself five hundred miles by bus.  He thought the trip would prove he was no longer a boy, and that he could be independent of his mother and her daily supervision and guidance.  At least that’s what he told himself he thought.

    But now, looking at all the strange faces, hearing and smelling a place of cold utility where nothing resembled the comfort of his home environment, Lincoln knew he really didn’t know what to think.  It was all so different from what he imagined.  Maybe he had more growing to do, and hadn’t wanted to admit it.  Maybe he wasn’t ready for independence.  Not yet anyway.  Was he still a child then?  Was that what he was telling himself?

    He started to bite his lower lip in frustration, didn’t want to think about these things anymore.  He wanted to just get on with his trip to Atlanta and start his summer with his grandmama and his uncles, aunts and cousins.  There would be time enough to think about his future, what he would be as a man, and how he would live his life.  For now, being a kid was still all there was, and he might as well just give in and accept it.

Sample Reviews:

"A taut, riveting, deeply moving thriller...a novel that kept me reading at the edge of my seat until the very end...The author somehow manages to bridge a gap between Europe in World War II and the American South during the civil rights upheaval...the formula works splendidly."
- T. Bundrick, New York

"The opening chapter hooked me immediately and held my attention all the way to the end...The characters that populate the story are people you really care about, don't trust, dislike, understand, despise and root for.  The main theme of the story is justice, long overdue..."
- Larry S. Miller, California. 

"...a story every American should read.  The author does a superb job of describing the prejudice and discrimination imposed upon innocent victims by our justice system and our society in the aftermath of World War II...This is a very well-written story that reads like a masterpiece...an informative look at life in America during the mid-1950s."
- Alle Wells, North Carolina


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