The Washington Post
Freshwater Roadby Denise Nicholas
The critically acclaimed debut novel from pioneering actress and writer Denise Nicholas tells the story of one young woman’s coming of age via the political and social upheavals of the civil rights movement. Nineteen-year-old Celeste Tyree leaves Ann Arbor to go to Pineyville, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964 to help found a voter registration project as part… See more details below
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The critically acclaimed debut novel from pioneering actress and writer Denise Nicholas tells the story of one young woman’s coming of age via the political and social upheavals of the civil rights movement. Nineteen-year-old Celeste Tyree leaves Ann Arbor to go to Pineyville, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964 to help found a voter registration project as part of Freedom Summer. As the summer unfolds, she confronts not only the political realities of race and poverty in this tiny town, but also deep truths about her family and herself. Drawing on Nicholas’ own involvement in the movement, Freshwater Road was hailed by Newsday as “Perhaps the best work of fiction ever done about the civil rights movement.”
The Washington Post
"Breathtaking.... Perhaps the best work of fiction ever done about the civil rights movement." -- Newsday (New York)
"Hypnotic.... [Nicholas] conjures an insidious mood of fear and writes with lyrical prose." -- Entertainment Weekly
Read an Excerpt
By Denise Nicholas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOut of Memphis with night drawing up thick to the windows, Celeste felt the air pressing down. She'd dressed in a gabardine jumper and a long-sleeved blouse against the lingering cool of a June Ann Arbor morning. Now, her clothes weighed on her like a damp blanket. She closed her eyes. Before sunset, the trees had segued to a double-dyed richness of color and the loamy soil had turned blood-rust. Soft-talking voices of the train passengers mutated from the flat singsong of the Midwest to the sloping drawls of the deep South. She shuddered, remembering a life she'd never lived, then laughed at the irony. Every Negro in America had a nightmare of Mississippi, of dying in the clutches of a hatred so deep it spoke in tongues.
The conductor, a tall square-jawed dark-skinned man, his upper body leaning into the car as if primed to run in the other direction, called out, "Senatobia." He clanged the metal door closed. Earlier, he'd walked the aisle swaying with the train, announcing the names of towns, his resonant voice a clarion call to freedom. He nodded to her quiet self, scrunched in her corner, a map of the Southern states spread on the seat next to her. The mimeographed sheets from One Man, One Vote blared out in bold type, "How to Stay Alive in Mississippi." He knew why she was on this train.
She peered through the dirty window when he poked his head into the car andcalled out, "Sardis." Not a soul on the platform. They barely stopped. The train lurched forward, slow-waddling south.
Sardis. Senatobia. Idyllic names. She checked her map.
"Grenada." What's he saying? An island paradise in the Caribbean with long, sun-drenched beaches and fountains splashing cool water on lush flowers? A quick glance to her. Why does he duck his head in and out like he's hiding in a closet? His eyes are like black marbles in the murky train light.
Saliva had pooled in the corner of her mouth by the time he called out, "Vaughan." At the soft edge of sleep, Celeste dreamed of Negroes darting their ghostly selves like wild children playing hide-and-go-seek. The conductor peeked from behind a tree. She forgot completely where she was going and why. When he called out "Canton," her stomach growled in yearning for Chinese food at one of Shuck's stops in Detroit. Egg foo yung, shrimp in oyster sauce, sweet and sour pork. Shuck's diamond pinkie ring sparkled against his brown skin in the neon light as he held the white carry-out bags away from his camel hair coat.
In the foggy back hollow of her surface doze, a new voice calls out, "Jack-son, Miss'sippi." Miss Sippi lives down the street. She longs to sleep past her ticketed stop, but can't escape the appalling pictures of hunted people scattering behind her eyes. "Jack-son." When the train braked with a low howl and a long screech, she woke fully, gagging on the oily aftertaste of a Memphis ham sandwich, remembering Momma Bessie's warning that pork dreams were always nightmares.
By the time The City of New Orleans Limited rolled into the Jackson station, Celeste had been slouching upright on a worn-down seat for more than twelve hours. Counting the night trip from Ann Arbor to Chicago and the hard wait at the station there, it was closer to twenty-four. No sign of that conductor. Maybe he'd never been there at all. She hoisted her green canvas book bag onto her shoulder by the strap, wrestled her suitcase from behind the last row of seats, and stepped down to the platform. She took off toward the lobby, her suitcase banging her side, her book bag bouncing against her back.
When a rich, low voice called out, "Suh, lemme git dat fa ya, suh." Then, "Ma'am, I got dat, ma'am," Celeste turned to see a Negro porter bowing, grinning, and grabbing suitcases in one fluid intonation of the past. The porter caught her gape-mouthed stare, rolled his eyes, then flashed his pearly whites at the white passengers and continued his work. Ah, she thought, this was the real deal. Mississippi had to be the birthplace of the grovel, handmaiden to the blues, the crown jewel in the system of slavery, the kick-down place.
Celeste walked faster, her thighs chafing in the swollen heat, blessing her gym shoes with every step she took. She whizzed by lacquer-haired women wearing outdated sundresses and cigar chomping men. Out of the corners of their eyes came slices of stares, sharp as razor blades, which seemed to say, "I know why you're here, and you better go on home where you belong." The cigar smoke irritated her nose. At the end of her train, the dark well of soot-covered tracks disappeared into a pitch-black tunnel. She hurried on.
Under the yellowish glare of bare fluorescent tubes, just off the central waiting lobby of the station, Celeste came face-to-face with the first Whites Only sign she had ever seen in her life. She stared at the sign tacked to the ladies' room door, its letters hand-printed and uneven. She needed to go to the bathroom. A blush warmed her ears and acids grumbled her stomach. She surveyed the nearly deserted lobby, the stragglers from her train passing through to the street and a few bag-toting travelers loitering about, smoking. No signs pointing the way to the Negro restrooms. Anger tightened her jaws. The pressure in her bladder grew. It had been a long time since the rest stop in Memphis. Just then, another Negro woman, colorful scarf over a head of rollers, suitcase and bags beating her body, pushed herself, back first, into the ladies' room as if that sign were not there. Celeste followed her in, afraid to turn around to see if anyone noticed.
The woman moved fast, shoving her things under a washbowl and then ducking into a stall. Celeste did the same. Squatted over the dirty toilet, panties down, she imagined being grabbed by the ankles from under the door. Her mind snapped to the television news film she'd seen of young people, Negro and white, yanked off buses and beaten until blood flowed down their faces. Whites Only signs flashed like backdrops to a bloodletting. Two minutes off the train and here she was already breaking the law. Her imagination ran on full. But this was real. Her father, Shuck, used to say she had good book sense and not too much of the other. She heard the woman flush and exit the stall. She took deep breaths, pulled the flush chain, and came out into the glass-hard light of the bathroom.
Celeste eyed the ladies' room door, anxious to wash her hands and be on her way. "Is it okay to be in here?" She and the hair-rolled woman were co-conspirators. There was comfort in the assumed comradeship. At least she wasn't alone. They were in the Whites Only bathroom, had already used it. She had a story to tell, and she hadn't even gotten to the One Man, One Vote office.
The woman glanced at her sideways, digging in one of her bags, standing in front of the scum-pocked mirror. "Okay by who?" Her round eyes protruded slightly just above full cinnamon-brown cheeks. "Where you from?" Her head lurched back then settled as she worked on herself, her bag heaving up a comb and brush, toothpaste, a box of powder, a frayed puff, lipstick, rouge.
"Detroit." Negro people from the South favored the city of Detroit, that mystical blue-collar heaven of jobs. Shuck and Momma Bessie both did a lot of fussing about Negroes still coming up from the deep South searching for jobs that no longer existed, running the city services down the drain simply by the press of their numbers and needs. Celeste plunged soap containers along the line of washbowls. They were all empty. Still, she rejoiced at rolling up her long sleeves to the elbows and getting that fabric off her damp skin.
"Detroit, uh?" The woman smiled a knowing smile, as if honoring Celeste with a good check mark. "Chile, nobody pays that sign no mind no more. Course now, white ladies stopped coming in here." She indicated the overflowing trash receptacle, the dirty mirror and basins. "The law says we can come in here, it don't say they have to come in here." She squinted in the mirror.
Celeste took it in, trying to grasp the logic. "Where do they go?" She saw long corridors of bathrooms with color-coded signs, some white, some Negro, some integrated, and some unmarked. Wrong door, bad news. Maybe they gave their old ladies' rooms to Negroes and built spanking brand-new ones for themselves, left the signs up to confuse everyone. How long could they do that?
"I don't give a damn where they go." The woman applied her makeup as she talked, manicured nails glowing fuchsia. Then her deft hands quickly removed hair rollers. She brushed her hair, then applied rouge and powder to her face. "Those signs were down 'til the white folks got word about this Freedom Summer thing." She glanced at Celeste with a suspicious narrowing of her eyes, then coughed. She took a plug of toothpaste on her finger, rubbed it on her teeth, bent to get a swig of water from the faucet, gargled, then spat the residue in the bowl.
Celeste, remembering the instruction from One Man, One Vote about announcing to strangers her reasons for being in the South, rinsed her hands under the warm water, splashed some on her face, and volunteered nothing. No way to know who might run straight to the local police, the Klan, or some other enemy. Too late she discovered the paper towel dispenser was empty, too. "You from Jackson?"
"Mound Bayou." The woman paused. "Ever hear of it?"
"No." Celeste stood there dripping.
"It's a all-colored town, north of here. Bolivar County. Ain't nothin' up there but a post office and a lot of mud. But it's ours."
Wouldn't be long before Detroit was an all-colored town, too, if you listened to Shuck and Momma Bessie. Shuck always had a story about some white business or another moving to the suburbs. Still, she thought, she might like to go to Mound Bayou, see it for herself. She'd never realized how Negro Detroit was until she arrived in nearly all-white Ann Arbor. She'd missed Detroit in her bones that first semester and ran home every weekend - until she met J.D. That ended the trips home; Shuck didn't take to her dating a white guy, and he let her know it in no uncertain terms.
"You can't stay in Mound Bayou too long. Sure to lose your mind." The woman laughed. "Somebody like you, from way up there in Detroit and all, you sure to God would forfeit your mind."
The woman made Detroit sound like it was all the way to Hudson Bay, Canada.
Celeste chuckled and got a good look at her own tired face in the mirror.
"They got other ones. Different places in the South." The woman packed her things, took off her flats and slipped on pink pumps, shoved the flats into one of her bags. "Don't want to miss my train. Going to New Orleans for a few days. Get out of Miss'sippi for a minute. Catch my breath." She headed for the door, high heels clicking on the dirty tile floor. "Always wanted to go to Detroit. Get me one of them jobs at Ford's Motor Car Company."
Celeste might have told her that those jobs were now as rare as gold nuggets in a well-panned stream. She took one last glance at her sallow, travel-weary face in the mirror. Her shoulder length hair had risen to its peak of fullness and become a frizzled helmet of curls, waves, and flyaway strands. Her gray-green eyes had receded under heavy dark brows, sunk in pits of fatigue. Her lips needed color. She needed color. Whatever makeup she'd had on when she began her journey lived now on the small train pillow she'd left on her seat. She grabbed her suitcase and book bag and followed the woman to the door. Didn't want to be in that Whites Only ladies' room alone, whether anybody paid the sign any attention or not. It was still up there.
The woman bumped half way out then turned back, her face primed and ready. "What's your name, girl?"
"I'm Mary Evans. Pleased to meet you. You ever been in Miss'sippi before?" She had a dubious look on her face as she appraised Celeste.
"No. First time. First time in the South." Even in her fatigue, Celeste's face pressed forward with expectation and fear.
"Well, let me tell you something. You be careful, girl, you hear. Miss'sippi ain't nothin' to play with." She lowered her voice for the last of it, eyes doing a fast flit around the lobby. "You have a nice stay, now, you hear?"
"Thank you." Celeste angled out the door checking for any hard-eyed men in uniform with billy clubs, cattle prods, snarling dogs. "Have a good time in New Orleans."
"Sure to do that. It's a good-time place." The woman sang the words as she fast-walked away, her pink pumps gleaming in the dingy, yellow-lit station.
Celeste figured the woman had guessed why she was there by the way she'd looked at her, sizing her up. But she'd said nothing. Knew better than to venture into that conversation. She checked again for enemies in uniform then bounded across the emptying lobby, through the double glass doors into the dank air of a June Mississippi night.
A sparse parade of cars moved slowly up and down the street. In her rising confusion, she considered trying to hitch a ride. How far could it be? Not here. Across the way were closed stores, a darkened coffee shop. She waited under the hooded overhang of the station, the dim yellow lights throwing shadows on the pavement, the late-night air heavy as a stack of Momma Bessie's Kentucky-made patchwork quilts. She pulled the paper out of her book bag with the phone number and the address of the One Man, One Vote office, but she didn't want to call before she'd exhausted her options.
Anxious to be on her way, she stepped to the curb and reached for the door handle of the only empty cab. The cab jerked forward, then stopped a few yards beyond her reach. An embarrassment flushed her warm body, followed by a flash of chills. She took a sneaky look around and locked eyes with the grinning porter, who had just clanked his metal-wheeled cart onto the pavement trailed by a small pack of white people who seemed to snicker at her obvious ineptitude at things Southern. The porter gave her a tit-for-tat glance as he loaded his passengers into the waiting cab. Her cab. He rolled his cart back into the station, eyes glued to the air in front of him. Celeste stood alone on the pavement, Mississippi like a stain spreading through her body.
"Wharsomevers y'all goin', ah can fetchu."
The voice sounded like liquid, the words humbled and broken. She turned to see a dark, bent-over man standing in the yellow hue of the station lights. He had the blues all over him and not a note of music played. He doffed his black cabby hat when he spoke.
"Ah say, wharsomevers y'all goin', ah can fetchu. I's a caib."
A reminder this time, as if her confusion and fear had mounted on her face and he'd seen it. Relieved, Celeste showed him the mimeographed paper with the address, not saying a word. The cabby nodded with a hint of a smile and directed her toward his cab. Only now did she see the other taxi stand, the Negro one, down the block, a good hike from the station entrance. She followed him, the front of her head tightening into a mask of fake nonchalance as she stepped into the backseat holding her book bag in her lap like it was a child. The cab was black with light writing on the side. She needed to remember that. Easy. It was black. The cabby hefted her suitcase into the trunk then hunched himself into the driver's seat. They inched away from the station, Celeste having no idea where she was going or if she'd ever get there. She wanted to mark the place she was leaving but her neck wouldn't turn.
The slow-moving car and the heavy heat made her head loll back, though she didn't quite close her eyes; instead, she stared into the cab's dark ceiling, wondering what Shuck would think when he got her letter. He more than likely would blame her white boyfriend - now ex-boyfriend - for this decision to go south. Shuck's gaze charred the air in front of the student union when he first laid eyes on J.D. He'd ordered her into his sleek Cadillac and drove around in circles, telling her that a Negro woman with a white man would always be lonely. She'd never seen Shuck like that. "It has to do with history," he said. "And no one woman is strong enough to buck it."
Excerpted from Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas Copyright © 2006 by Denise Nicholas. Excerpted by permission.
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