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JACKSON DAILY JOURNAL, Tuesday, August 4, 1964
FBI AGENTS FIND MISSING CIVIL RIGHTS WORKERS Bodies Found in Dirt Dam
"Hey, kid. Look what I've got," shouted the mover from inside the van.
I whipped around to see him walking my bike down the ramp. I rushed over and grabbed the handlebars. I would check later to see if the movers had scratched or dented or in any way damaged my precious bike, Blue Rover. Right now, it was my ticket away from Mama, who was in one of her moods on account of us moving to Mississippi. I didn't even run into the house for my transistor radio. Usually, I didn't go anywhere without my transistor. You never knew when you might hear a Beatles song.
I ran Blue Rover down the driveway, put my left foot on the lower pedal, threw the other leg over the seat, and pumped away. Getting on my bike that way drove Mama nuts. I didn't care; I thought it looked neat, like a cowboy leaping on a horse.
Mama glanced away from the furniture on the sidewalk as I whizzed by.
"Alice Ann Moxley, where do you think you're going?"
"Exploring," I called without looking back. Time to check out my new territory.
I pedaled hard for about four blocks. It was hot. Really, really hot. Much hotter than in the house. Chicago sizzled in the summer, but the Lake Michigan breeze took the stickiness out of the air. Not here. Not the slightest whisper of a breeze. I inhaled thick, syrupy air that smelled of pine sap and cut grass. My legs felt heavy and my head started to spin. Maybe I'd better slow down. Maybe I should go back to the house.
I pictured Mama yelling at the movers. I pictured how much stuff was still in the van for Mama to yell about. I kept pedaling. Only slower.
Besides, this was my chance to make some friends. We moved a lot because of Daddy's job, so I was used to making new friends every couple of years. I never missed my old friends, because I figured I'd never see them again. They'd forget about me and I'd forget about them. That's just the way things went. I'd find friends here. No sweat.
I just had to meet them first.
Although it was ten o'clock in the morning, there was no one out and about. In Chicago, kids would be riding bikes or playing Barbies on the front steps. I didn't see a soul except a white-haired Negro man pushing a lawn mower.
I stopped short. Negroes lived far, far away from whitepeople in Chicago. You only saw Negroes downtown at the museums or waiting for the El train. Not in your own neighborhood.
I thought about the headline I had clipped from the newspaper at the motel that morning. FBI AGENTS FIND MISSING CIVIL RIGHTS WORKERS; BODIES FOUND IN DIRT DAM. Last year, my fifth-grade teacher made us keep a current-events scrapbook and I still did. These days my father, an FBI agent, was current events.
The FBI sent Daddy down South to protect black people who were registering to vote. White Mississippians didn't want black people voting, or doing a lot of other things that white people took for granted. Negroes had separate schools and public rest rooms and water fountains.
"'Separate but equal' my foot," said Daddy. We were watching the news one night in Chicago. Walter Cronkite was talking about Negroes being arrested for sitting at a lunch counter in Mississippi.
"How come those people don't want to eat with Negroes?" I asked.
"It's complicated, Pookie." Daddy sighed. "Part of it is that Negroes look different. And that white people used to own Negro slaves. Some whites think they are better and smarter than black people."
"Isn't that why we fought the Civil War? And the North won!"
"And the South will never forgive us," said Daddy with a sour smile.
What a dumb idea, white people thinking they were better than black people. But that was all Down South, far away from me. It wasn't my problem.
Then we moved to Mississippi. Suddenly, it was my problem. And I was scared.
The trip from Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi, took two whole days. Daddy had the car radio on all the way. I hoped for the Beatles, but no. Daddy punched the radio buttons from one newscast to the next as each faded away. For a long time the news was all about the Ku Klux Klan burning down Negro churches and killing civil rights workers. I knew all about the Ku Klux Klan from Walter Cronkite. They wore white robes and hooded masks and hated Negroes, Jews, and anybody else who didn't agree with them. Hated them enough to kill.
"Would the Klan hurt us?" I asked.
"Don't you worry, Pookie." Daddy patted me on the head as if I were five instead of eleven. "The Klan won't get near the Moxleys."
By Memphis, we didn't hear any more about the Klan or bombings. Instead we heard about "outside agitators, stirring up the colored."
"What's an outside agitator?" I asked.
"Anybody who thinks that Negroes have a right to vote." Daddy gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white.
"I guess that makes us outside agitators, huh?" I said.
"Let's talk about something else, shall we?" said Mama in atight voice. Somewhere between Chicago and Memphis a new wrinkle had appeared on Mama's forehead.
Eventually, our car sped past a sign: WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPITHE HOSPITALITY STATE. I held my breath, waiting for KKKers in their pointy hoods to leap out of the dark and shoot into the car. Daddy glanced at me in the backseat.
"If anybody asks, you tell them your daddy works for the federal government," he said. "But only if they ask twice."
Now, in this morning's blazing sun, I shuddered, remembering the tone of his voice. Could anything bad happen in such an ordinary-looking place? No hooded men. No burning crosses. This neighborhood didn't seem that different from my old one in Chicago.
It was awful quiet, except for the put-put-put of the lawn mower. Then, in the distance I heard ... girls chanting? I headed toward the sound.
At the end of the block, I saw five girls in shorts and sneakers, lined up on a driveway. They appeared to be about my age.
A bony-looking blonde stomped back and forth, yelling like a drill sergeant. "Straighten up, Cheryl."
A tan girl with a pixie haircut threw back her shoulders.
"Gum out of your mouth, Debbie." The blonde pointed to the ground.
Debbie was short and had a ton of hair ratted way high. "Who d'ya think you are? A teacher or something?" She had the thickest Southern accent I had ever heard outside of the movies.
Closer up, I could see that the blonde had a pointy nose andmatching chin. She jerked that chin at Debbie's pile of hair. "Maybe you think you're so cute, we can't do without you. Is that it?"
"Maybe," said Debbie, as if "maybe" were two words. She went right on chomping her gum.
"Aw c'mon, Saranne," said a tall girl, her brown hair flipped under in a pageboy. "Quit acting like it's such a big deal. It's just cheerleading Hi Y football."
The blond girl, Saranne, folded her arms over her flat chest. "All right for you, Mary Martha Goode," she said. "You think you're so tough because, because ..." Her voice trailed off.
The tall girl, Mary Martha, gave her a so-what? look.
"I'm hot," whined Debbie. "My hair is falling down."
I caught the eye of a redhead on the end. Aha! My chance to be friendly.
"Hi, you guys," I called with a big arm wave. I was all ready to ask them if Paul McCartney was their favorite Beatle, and if they thought his girlfriend Jane Asher was cute. Everybody liked Paul.
Saranne's eyebrows pushed up to her bangs. "You guys?" she repeated as if they were swear words. "I'm not a guy." She looked around at the other girls. "Y'all hear a Yankee round here? I think I heard a Yankee."
"I'm not a Yankee." Whatever that was.
"Y'are too," drawled Debbie. "Just listen to you."
The girls all giggled. All except Mary Martha.
"Oh, quit picking at her," said Mary Martha. She turned to me. "A Yankee's anybody from up North. Where you from?"
"Chicago," I mumbled.
"'Fraid you're a Yankee then." Mary Martha didn't look unfriendly. She looked curious.
"Well, Yankee Girl." Saranne tapped her sneaker toe on the driveway. "If you're all finished, we have to practice." She made a big deal of turning her back to me. "Ready? Let's do 'Turn on the Radio."'
The girls popped into line like they'd been booted in the butt. They stood feet together, knees locked, hands on hips, chests thrust out. At least Mary Martha and Cheryl had chests; Saranne and Debbie and the redhead did not.
"Ready? Hit it," barked Saranne.
The girls jumped sideways and yelled:
Turn on the radio Whaddya hear? Elvis Presley doin' a cheer You gotta F-I-G-H-T F-I-G-H-T You gotta fight, fight, fight For victory Yay!
Debbie was the best. She could kick high, leg straight, toe pointed. Saranne was pretty terrible. She couldn't get her legs higher than her waist and they bent at the knee.
"That was great," panted Saranne. I couldn't imagine what bad looked like. "Let's do 'Pork Chops.'"
That sounded interesting, but finding shade and water sounded better. I felt balloon-headed and wobbly-kneed. As Blue and I shoved off from the curb, Debbie yelled, "Let's do 'Bye-Bye Yankee Girl.'"
What went wrong? Usually I'd say, "My name is Alice, what's yours?" and I'd have a new friend. These girls didn't even give me a chance. They didn't know I loved Nancy Drew books, hated math, and was the president of the Beatles Fan Club at my old school. Oh well. Maybe things would go better once school started.
The road home was all uphill. I gave up pedaling and walked Blue home. The closer I got, the slower I walked. My hair sprang away from my face in damp coils, like bedsprings. My mouth felt gluey. I needed water, but the moving van was still in our driveway.
So was Mama, waving her arms at two movers carrying the sofa. I stopped at the yard next to mine, looking for a place to hide before Mama could spot me. The neighbors' pine tree had branches that drooped almost to the ground. I crouched under it, pulling Blue after me.
"Hey there," said a boy's voice. "Who you hiding from? You look like a scared bunny."
I jumped up, raking my fingers through my hair. They caught in a frizzy snarl over my left ear. No matter how much Dippity-Do I used, my hair just wouldn't lie straight and smooth like Jane Asher's.
The boy didn't seem to care that I looked like ten miles of bad road. He was my age, I guessed. Exactly my height, whichwas good. Last year, the fifth-grade boys only came up to my nose. He had big brown Paul McCartney eyes and light brown hair cut in a swoop of bangs over his forehead, short above his ears and in back. Not a Beatle haircut, but not a crew cut either. Only goobs had crew cuts. He was tanned, but with freckles across his nose and chipmunk cheeks. He wore a faded blue button-down shirt, sleeves rolled, tail hanging over madras shorts that had been washed until the colors bled. On his feet, scuffed loafers without socks. A silver ID bracelet rested just above his left wrist, but I couldn't read the name on it.
"You the new girl next door? I hear y'all are Yankees," the boy said. "Yankee" sounded nicer the way he said it.
"I guess. We're from Chicago."
"That's Yankee country all right." The boy looked me over, then stuck out his hand. "I'm Jeb Stuart Mateer." He paused. "I was named for the Confederate general Jeb Stuart. He's some kin to us."
I had never heard of Jeb Stuart, Confederate generals not being a big subject up North. I wasn't sure what "kin" was, so I said, "That's nice," wiped a damp palm on my shorts, and shook hands. "I'm Alice Ann Moxley."
"You go by both names?" said Jeb Stuart Mateer. "Alice Ann?"
"Just Alice. What do they call you?"
"Jeb. What grade you in?"
"Me, too. Go to Parnell School." Jeb tossed a pinecone from hand to hand.
"Funny name for a school." I wished I had a pinecone. My hands felt big and floppy with nothing to do. "Up North the schools are named for presidents or trees or Indian tribes. My old school was named Potawatomi."
Jeb blinked. "Pota-what-omi? You think Parnell's a funny name? Schools round here are named for dead principals. I think Miss Parnell used to be the principal of our school." He pitched the pinecone at a streetlight. He missed.
"What happened to her?"
"Died, I reckon."
"So who's principal now?"
"Some new guy. Mr. Tippytoe, or something like that."
Jeb cracked his knuckles, one at a time. I rang my bike bell a few times to fill the silence. Between the pine needles, I could see Mama giving a moving man what-for.
"You and your mama fussing." Jeb wasn't asking; he was telling me.
"Kind of. She didn't want to move," I said. "All that stuff on the news. People getting shot at and blown up." I was scared, too, but I'd die if anyone knew.
Jeb wrinkled his nose. "Yeah, but those are civil rights people. The ones that want nigras to vote? Y'all ain't civil rights people," he went on. "Your daddy's an FBI man, right?"
"How do you know that?" I was afraid to find out.
Jeb shrugged. "Shoot, everybody knows everybody's business round here. But like I was saying, the FBI's different. They ain't a bunch of crazy civil rights workers bossing us around."
While I was happy to know that Jeb didn't hate FBI agents, I scarcely heard him after he said that word. I figured I'd hear it a lot down South. Just didn't think I'd hear it from the first person who was friendly to me.
"Don't you call colored people Negroes?" I said. "That's what we call them in Chicago." Already Chicago seemed ten million miles away.
"That's what I said." Jeb's round brown eyes were question marks. "Nigras."
"No you didn't. You called them niggers. That's not very nice."
Jeb's face cleared. "Oh! You thought I called them niggers. I said nigras. I reckon you ain't used to the way we talk. Nobody but white trash calls them niggers."
Those two words sounded pretty alike to me, but I was willing to take Jeb's word for it.
Next door, the movers wrangled Mama's sideboard through the carport. Even from across the yard I could see a big scratch in the side. So could Mama.
Jeb tugged my elbow. "Let her yell. It's eleven o'clock. Near lunchtime. You want a pimiento cheese sandwich? By the time we're done, she'll be over her hissy fit."
Any kind of sandwich sounded great, so I parked Blue in Jeb's carport and followed him in the kitchen door. A blast of freezing air shocked my sweaty skin into goose bumps. Air-conditioning, I reminded myself. No one I knew in Chicago had an air-conditioned house. Mama hadn't even figured out how to turn ours on yet.
"Brought company for lunch, Mama," Jeb said to a woman standing at the breakfast bar. She was all dressed up in a yellow knit suit, yellow flowered hat, and yellow high heels. She pulled on a pair of white gloves, while a teenage girl in white shorts and sneakers drew Mrs. Mateer's mouth on with coral-colored lipstick.
"This is Alice Ann Moxley." Jeb hoisted himself onto a tall stool.
"Hold still, Mama," said the girl. "You're smearing your mouth."
"Hey there." Mrs. Mateer blotted her lipstick with a tissue. "You the new girl next door? Name's Moxley? Any kin to the Moxleys from Corinth?"
By now I'd figured out that "kin" meant relatives, so I said I didn't think I was, since I had never heard of Corinth, except the one in the Bible. I was pretty sure she didn't mean that one.
Mrs. Mateer laughed and patted her hairdo. "That's right. I forgot y'all are Yankees." She pulled a can of Aqua Net from a pink purse the size of a mail pouch and gave her head a couple of quick blasts. "I'm off to bridge club," she said. "There's pimiento cheese and colas in the refrigerator, and chips in the cupboard. Don't call me unless the house burns down. Make yourself to home, Alice Ann." With a click of high heels on linoleum and the lingering smell of hair spray, she was gone.
The girl in the white shorts looked me up and down. After a morning of bike riding, I felt sweaty-nasty next to her. And young. With her white lipstick and eye makeup, she had to be at least sixteen.
"That's Pammie." Jeb knelt on the breakfast bar and dug into a cabinet. He emerged with a can that said Charles Chips and hopped down. Potato chips in a can? "She's in the seventh grade and a cheerleader. She thinks she's it with a capital I."
Seventh grade? Seventh graders down here wore lipstick and eye goop?
Pammie wrinkled her nose and waved her arms. "Rah, rah, rah."
"Alice is in sixth grade, too." Jeb rooted around in the refrigerator. "Pammie, did you drink the last Nehi?"
"What if I did?" Pammie flipped her perfect hair over her ears.
"Mama'll have a hissy, you drinking her grape Nehi's."
"See if I care. It's not like there isn't a Tote-Sum right down the road."
Jeb pulled bread and a Tupperware bowl from the refrigerator. "Anybody goes to the Tote-Sum, it ain't gonna be me. I went last time."
I opened my mouth to tell Jeb that there was no such word as "ain't" but didn't. I was learning that things were different in Mississippia lot of things.
Pammie pried open the Tupperware and scooped out a perfect mound of something orange with her knife. You just knew that she did everything perfectly. I bet she had perfect handwriting, never erased holes in her math workbook, and that her hair looked as perfect in the evening as it did when she took it out of jumbo curlers first thing in the morning.
"So, Mary Alice," she began.
"Alice Ann," Jeb corrected her. "'Cept she don't go by both names." He stuck a finger in the orange stuff and popped it in his mouth.
Pammie thumped Jeb on the head with the knife handle. "Mama catches you sticking your nasty old fingers in the food, she'll wear you out. So, Alice, you met anybody round here yet?"
"Just got here last night," I said, helping myself to what I guessed was pimiento cheese. This didn't look like Kraft Pimiento Cheese Spread. This looked ... lumpy.
"Y'all have pimiento cheese up North?" Pammie watched me pick the lumps out with my knife.
"Yeah, but it doesn't look like this," I admitted. "It's smooth. Comes in a silver package from Kroger's."
"Oh, that's store-bought cheese," said Pammie. "Inez made this. Today's her day off, so she always leaves us food."
"Who's Inez?" I mashed the leftover lumps into the bread. I didn't care who made it; I didn't like lumpy food.
"The maid," said Jeb around a mouthful of Charles Chips. He caught my surprised look. "Don't y'all have maids up North?"
"Not anybody I know. Only rich people have maids."
"Well, everybody round here has one. Mama says as long as nigras work for nothing, she ain't about to scrub her own floors," Jeb said.
Pammie nibbled around the edges of her sandwich. "There's lots of sixth graders in this neighborhood," she said. "A lot of nice girls. I'm sure you'll like them once you meetthem." Pammie sounded like somebody's mother, trying to be polite and interested when she really wasn't.
"I did meet some girls this morning, sort of." I took a bite of sandwich. This slimy, lumpy stuff didn't taste like Kraft Pimiento Cheese Spread, either. "A Cheryl and a Mary Martha and a Debbie and some other girl. Saranne?"
"How did you meet them?" Pammie looked interested now.
I told her, and as the story went on, she looked less and less impressed.
Pammie frowned. "Those will be the most popular girls in the sixth grade."
"Oh yeah?" said Jeb, digging into the potato chip can. "I think they're a bunch of drips."
His sister ignored him.
"I hope you didn't make them mad," she said.
"I don't think they care one way or the other about me." I shrugged. "They're not the only girls in the sixth grade."
Pammie looked serious. "You better hope Saranne Russell likes you, or you're going to have one long year in the sixth grade. Those girls have power."
"Oh, lay off." Jeb flicked potato chip crumbs at Pammie. "Sixth grade is the greatest. We're boss of everything. You couldn't mess up sixth grade if you tried."
I looked back at Pammie.
She just shook her head and repeated slowly, "One long year."
YANKEE GIRL. Copyright © 2004 by Mary Ann Rodman.