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John McMillan was only eight years old when his mother died and he was ripped, without warning, from his sheltered world of books and gentility. Now on his aunt's run-down tenant farm in southern Alabama, abused by his alcoholic uncle, and completely bereft, John longs for escape—his only hope for survival. He's about to get his wish in a way no one could ever predict....A twist of fate will bring John to the Bend, a black settlement that has become a refuge for outcasts, where he'll join Tuway, a black man who ...
John McMillan was only eight years old when his mother died and he was ripped, without warning, from his sheltered world of books and gentility. Now on his aunt's run-down tenant farm in southern Alabama, abused by his alcoholic uncle, and completely bereft, John longs for escape—his only hope for survival. He's about to get his wish in a way no one could ever predict....A twist of fate will bring John to the Bend, a black settlement that has become a refuge for outcasts, where he'll join Tuway, a black man who helps others leave the South and find a new life in Chicago. But neither will be ready for the brutal confrontation about to change their lives, challenge the prejudice of an era, inspire the courage of a people, and most of all, touchingly reveal the secrets of one boy's heart.
It sat before him as repulsive as anything he had ever seen, steam rising from its bottom as if it were relieving itself on the tracks. Sweat glistening on its gray-black body, then dripping off onto the crossties. Horrible grinding, clanking noises as it readjusted to its coupling harness. He felt nauseated by the sight.
Outwardly, he was desperate to appear unmoved. His eyes pretended calm study of the engine. His mouth was in a straight line of indifference, as if he were viewing the most ordinary of things. Only his fingers betrayed him. They shook as he pushed up the nosepiece on his glasses. He quickly clasped them behind his scrawny eight-year-old back.
Inside was another matter. Inside, his head was on fire with yelling. When she was alive, he had never even thought of raising his voice to her. Now his head constantly echoed with his yelling ... idiot, idiot. It was the harshest word he knew. A classmate had called him that once, at school, in a game of kickball.
Since the newspapers he read never contained anything approaching bad language and since all the books his mother had ever bought him certainly never had any coarse words, and since he had very seldom played with children his own age, other than at school, he was not acquainted with anything more vulgar than idiot.
When she was alive, it had been her job to see that he was not tainted with any of that. In the winter, she would make sure that her only son, John Gallatin McMillan III, never left the house without coat, hat, gloves and galoshes, even on the mildest days. In the summer, especially during the summers when polio stalked the town, he had stayed in the basement with all his toys and books. She had converted the cellar to a playroom. It was cool down there and he was out of harm's way. The maid brought down his dinner every day precisely at noon, a midafternoon snack at four, and when his mother came home, he was allowed to join her upstairs for supper. He had liked it down there. Staying inside all summer had not been unusual in his world. It had been ordinary, expected.
He had known other children casually, his next-door neighbor, the boy down the street. They played outside in the summer, and he felt vaguely sorry for them. They seemed not to have his intelligence, or perhaps they were burdened with mothers who didn't care as much as his mother did. He was not saying that was the case, but perhaps it was.
His head turned slowly as he scanned the engine still squatting there before him. He took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure. Then another, holding it in his lungs, hoping it would slow his heartbeat. Of course, it's bound to be just fine ... isn't it? After all, Aunt Nelda is ... you were her sister.
He tried to stand up straight and add some dignity to the cheap shorts and shirt Aunt Nelda had given him to wear. The baggy pants blossomed out around his spindly white legs. She had bought them for him the day after the funeral-had gone down to Harold's and bought them. Everyone knew that only country people shopped at Harold's. He should be wearing his dark blue suit. That's what you wore on a train.
We rode on one once before, remember? You said it would be good for me to know about such things: how to ride on a train, what to tip the porters, what to do when you spent the night in a hotel. I was dressed properly then. He felt a little better now. Just keep talking to her. Let's see. Let's see, it was the Tennesseean, out of Knoxville, bound for Memphis. You saved a whole year for that trip. Remember?
He gritted his teeth in disgust. She never answered him. No matter how much he talked, she never answered him, but he knew she was still there. He knew it was like the soldiers he had read about. They would have an arm or a leg blown off, and for days, even weeks after it happened, they could still feel the arm itching, the leg aching, the mother calling. He had heard her in his sleep calling to him, but not when he was awake. No matter, he knew she was still there, somewhere around him-watching.
Excerpted from Out of the Night That Covers Me by Pat Cunningham Devoto Copyright © 2001 by Patricia Cunningham Devoto. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 28, 2014
Posted June 30, 2003