Ernest Hill has always been a writer of great power and psychological depth, creating characters that resonate brilliantly beyond the boundaries of gender and race. Cry Me A River is a remarkable book. It runs deep and it runs fast. Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
An absentee father from a "no good" family, Tyrone Stokes was imprisoned for shooting a man in a convenience store. His wife saw her chance to end their marriage and raise their son, Marcus, on her own. Now Tyrone has returned to Brownsville, Louisiana, to discover that his boy needs helphelp that Tyrone is desperate to give, if he can only figure out how.
Marcus has been convicted of the rape and murder of a young white girl. An execution date is set, and it's rumored that the Governor will refuse clemency. Tyrone is convinced Marcus is innocent, despite a stack of evidence against himbut he is also wracked by knowledge of all the ways he has failed his son. Against all odds, Tyrone sets out to keep Marcus aliveand perhaps put his family back together again.
"Hill is a skilled storyteller." New York Times Book Review
"I couldn't put it down. . .Would fit well on the shelf with the works of Richard Wright and Chester Himes." Ernest J. Gaines, bestselling author of A Lesson Before Dying
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About the Author
ERNEST HILL won great praise for his first novel, Satisfied with Nothin’, which made its way onto required reading lists at universities from UCLA to Syracuse. He is also the author of A Person of Interest, It’s All About the Moon When the Sun Ain’t Shining, Cry Me a River, A Life for a Life, and Family Ties. Hill lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Read an Excerpt
Cry Me a River
By ERNEST HILL
Dafina BooksCopyright © 2003 Ernest Hill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDazed and confused, Tyrone backed the truck out of the yard, pulled the lever into drive, depressed the accelerator, and sped toward the main highway. As the truck raced past the lake, he gripped the steering wheel with both hands and stared into the twilight. Though his eyes were clear and his vision was unobstructed, he saw nothing. Not the beautiful, orange July sun that had risen just above the east bank. Not the flock of wild birds dancing in the treetops. Not the stand of fresh honeysuckle that ran parallel to the still blue water and decorated the roadside well past the point at which he turned onto the highway leading into Brownsville.
No, he did not see because he could not see. And he could not see because he was remembering the sound of the soft leather soles of his sister's slippers sliding across the surface of his mother's old wooden porch. He was hearing again the soft, steady tapping of her bare knuckles against his closed bedroom door. He was seeing the pain in her wide, bloodshot eyes just before she asked the question: "You heard about your son?"
He had suspected that something was wrong even before she told him. He did not know why. Maybe it was the way she had averted her eyes before she spoke. Or the way she wrung her fingers in her hand Or the way she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Or maybe it was because in forty years of living he had learned that good news never came this early in the morning.
"No," he said, alarmed but trying not to think the worst. "What about him?"
"He killed a white gal," she said, immediately dropping her gaze again before adding, "So the law say."
The meaning behind her words was clear. The impact instantaneous. He felt his knees buckle. His head became light. He opened his mouth to speak, but shock rendered him silent.
A space of time passed in which he tried to listen to her, but his mind could not focus. Too many thoughts came too quickly. She said a lot of things, but all he could remember was ... "He killed her ... He raped her ... And they done set the date.... He gone die in eight days."
A thousand times he had driven this route. Ten miles through the swamp ... a left at the traffic light ... right onto Hospital Road ... a double curve ... a stop sign ... a sharp right turn ... a half mile north on Highway 17 ... left across the tracks ... a short drive through the projects ... Chatman Avenue ... Death Row ... home.
His old house came into view, and instantly the last ten years of his life dissipated. Suddenly, he was heating again the fading sound of his wife's shoes striking the bare concrete floor outside his tiny cell. He was remembering the sight of her tear-stained eyes, seeing her frail trembling hands clutching the cold steel bars, hearing the tone of her unsteady voice as she mumbled, "I can't do this no mo'."
He parked his truck on the shoulder of the street, ambled out, and bound toward the house. No sooner had he crossed the yard and climbed the steps onto the porch than he heard someone call to him from the adjacent house.
"Who you looking fo'?"
Instinctively, he turned and looked in the direction of the voice. The woman was sitting on a screen-enclosed porch. The mesh wire from the screen obstructed his vision, and he could not identify her.
"Mrs. Stokes," he said, instantly wondering why he had said Mrs. Stokes and not my wife.
"Pauline?" the woman questioned him.
"Yes, ma'am," he said.
Now he recognized her voice. It was Miss Leona.
"She ain't there," Miss Leona said. Her voice was friendly, but Tyrone was sure that she still did not recognize him. But how could she? Ten years had passed since he had been sent to prison. He had been a youngster then. Now he was a man.
"You know where she at?" he asked.
"What you want with her?" she wanted to know.
"I come for her," he told her.
There was an awkward silence, and Tyrone was sure that now she was remembering him. You the one they used to call Deuce ... You the one killed that man over yonder in Cedar Lake. Suddenly, Tyrone heard the latch on her screen door snap shut.
"What your name?" she asked.
"Tyrone," he told her, ever aware that she had asked simply to confirm what she suspected.
"You Pauline's husband, ain't you?"
"She up to her mama's."
"Thank you," Tyrone said. He turned to leave, but the sound of her voice stopped him.
"You ain't moving back here, is you?"
"No, ma'am," he said. "I ain't."
"Good," she said. Then, quickly added, "I mean ... 'cause ain't nothing 'round here for you to do 'cept get in trouble. And ain't no sense in looking for trouble if it ain't looking for you."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, descending the steps and making his way to his truck. As he walked, he understood. He and his family were pariahs. They were trash to be collected and discarded. He started the truck and headed into the country, vowing that his son would be executed over his dead body.
Chapter TwoIt was seven A.M. when he stopped at the gate leading onto his in-laws' property. It wasn't much of a gate (a few pieces of scrap lumber held together mostly by wire) but it was enough to keep the chickens and cows and horses and hogs from straying.
He got out and opened the gate, then got back in, drove the truck through, and got out again. Though it was summer, it had been an unusually hot, dry month, and the long, winding road was covered with fine, loose dust. It was the kind of dust that aggravated the grown-ups. Especially if the wind was blowing, or if they had laundry hanging on the line, or if they wanted to sit out on the porch and eat a sandwich or nap during the hot part of the day.
But for the kids, these were ideal conditions for rolling tires, or riding bikes, or playing war, or engaging in any type of activity that would cause the dust to rise in their wake, adding tangible evidence of the trail of smoke conjured in their overactive minds. How many times, on days like this, had he watched as his son raced barefooted down the old dirt road, climbed the gate, retrieved the mail from the box on the opposite side of the street, and raced back to the house?
He shut the gate, climbed back behind the wheel, and hastily guided the truck through the shallow, dry ruts toward the small wood-frame house. Directly through the gate, on the right side of the road, was his brother-in-law Levi Jackson's house. (Levi and his family had lived there together before his wife took the kids and moved to St. Louis.) Behind Levi's house was a cow pasture. On the opposite side of the road, just beyond the long, straight rows of cotton, the roof of Joe Jackson's small two-bedroom trailer was barely visible. Either Levi or Joe had been plowing the field when the news came this morning. He could tell by the way the old John Deere tractor sat halfway down the center of a row with the blades of the plow still deeply embedded in the partially tilled soil.
Flanked by a thick cloud of dust, he stopped just east of the front porch and parked underneath the large tree where the chickens roosted. He killed the engine, pushed the door open, and slid to the ground. He paused for a moment, staring at the simple gray house with the tin roof and the small open porch that was supported by four wood studs. More than ten years had passed since he had seen either his son or his wife, but in a way that he could not explain, it seemed like only yesterday that he had stood across the street from his house, watching the police watching for him, all the time longing for one last glimpse of the woman to whom he had pledged his life and one last word with the son who, because of what he had done, would have to come of age fatherless in the cruel, unforgiving world they called home.
Plagued by a sense of uneasiness, he walked toward the house, ever aware of the tightness in his arms and legs. He, unlike the prodigal son, was returning to a world that had once rebuked him and that perhaps still did not welcome his presence. With each step forward, he fought against the mounting desire to turn back, and he clung to the faint voice calling from a remote part of his brain, counseling him to continue, persuading him to push on.
As he approached the steps, a strange noise caused him to halt. Startled and wide-eyed, he watched a large black dog with eyes ablaze and teeth exposed burst from underneath the house and race toward him. Instinct told him to run, but experience hastened a slow retreat. With his eyes glued to the advancing animal, he slowly eased backward until his back was pressed firmly against the bed of his truck. Tense and motionless, he eyed the large animal whose lean, terse body was now positioned only inches from his legs and whose loud, rapid barking had given way to a low, threatening growl. As the animal crouched down, indicating his intent to attack, Tyrone leaped onto the rear bumper and stepped over the tailgate into the back of the truck. Instantly, the dog advanced, barking wildly and holding him at bay. As he watched the animal prancing back and forth, angered by his presence, he realized that he was now a stranger trespassing on territory that the animal had been trained to protect.
From the safety of the truck, Tyrone heard the sound of the screen door opening, and he saw his father-in-law emerge from the tiny house, wearing a pair of overalls and leaning on a walking stick.
"Git on back here!" he heard his father-in-law yell forcefully. "Git on back here, Blue."
The sound of the old man's voice calmed the animal. His eyes softened, his ears fell forward, and his tail began to wag. In the twinkling of an eye, the large, powerful animal was transformed from a fierce predator circling his cornered prey, threatening attack, to a docile house pet obediently responding to his master's every command. Relieved, Tyrone watched the dog whirl and run toward the sound of his master's voice with his tail held high above his back, exposing the large, taut muscles in his round, powerful haunches.
"Good boy," he heard the old man say as the dog leaped onto the porch. "Good boy, Blue," he said a second time, cheerfully rewarding the dog's obedience by patting the animal's head and rubbing him about the neck.
Assured the animal was under control, Tyrone stepped from the truck and eased forward, feeling his father-in-law's eyes upon him. His father-in-law's stare made him uncomfortable, and he felt awkward and stiff as he mounted the steps and paused before the old man. He could tell by the confused look in his father-in-law's eyes that time had rendered him unrecognizable. Yes, his was, indeed, the face of a stranger.
"You looking for somebody?" his father-in-law asked.
"Miss Leona say Pauline up here."
The old man looked at him, bewildered, but did not speak.
"Papa Titus, it's me. Tyrone."
There was an awkward silence. The old man narrowed his eyes and studied Tyrone's face, looking for signs of the young man who once wore that name.
"Is she in there?" Tyrone asked, looking beyond the old man. The window curtains were drawn, but through the partially opened door, he detected a faint light glowing in the tiny living room, and he was aware of the sound of muffled voices emanating from deep inside the belly of the house.
"Git back in your truck," his father-in-law said. "You ain't welcome here."
"Papa Titus, I just want to talk to Pauline."
"She don't want to talk to you."
"I need to see her," Tyrone said, moving toward the door.
"Don't make me turn this dog loose," his father-in-law said, lifting the dog by the collar and pulling him forward, threatening release.
Tyrone halted, staring at the large dog with wide, fearful eyes.
"What you got against me, Papa Titus? I ain't never done nothing to you."
"You got bad blood in you," the old man said, staring at Tyrone with cold, piercing eyes. "And you rotten to the bone."
"I ain't never done nothing to you, Papa Titus," Tyrone said again.
"Why you come back here?" the old man asked.
"I need to talk to Pauline," Tyrone answered.
"She don't want to talk to you." He dismissed Tyrone's statement.
"I heard what happened," Tyrone felt compelled to tell him.
"That ain't none of your concern," his father-in-law said coldly.
"He my son, Papa Titus," Tyrone said, attempting to appeal to his father-in-law's conscience.
"That ain't his fault," the old man responded.
"Papa Titus, you don't understand-"
"No," his father-in-law interrupted. "You don't understand," he said sternly. "That's my child in there, and she done cried enough."
"But, Papa Titus," Tyrone tried to speak, but now his father-in-law was not interested in listening. He had heard all that he would hear.
"You shouldn't have come here," the old man said. "She got enough to deal with without having to deal with you."
Suddenly, Tyrone was besieged by a feeling of reality. His father-in-law was right. Things were as they had always been. Ten years ago, she had buried him in that part of her consciousness that denied his existence. His death, however symbolic, provided her a type of peace that their life together never had.
"She with family now," he heard the old man say. "We'll get her through this. You just need to go on back where you come from."
Wordlessly, Tyrone descended the steps and retreated across the grassless yard on wobbly, unstable legs. As he neared his truck, he heard his mother-in-law call from inside the house.
"Titus, who that out there?"
"Nobody," his father-in-law replied.
Tense and anxious, Tyrone pulled the door open, slid behind the wheel, and stared straight ahead as his large brown eyes fought back pending tears.
Chapter ThreeSomewhere between exiting the gate leaving his in-law's property and entering the city limits of Brownsville, Tyrone decided to find Beggar Man and see what he knew about Marcus's situation. There was in him no anger toward his father-in-law or animosity toward his wife, for he knew that neither anger nor hatred would change the state of things between them. In him was simply a resolve to find the truth about his son with the hope, however small, that what he had heard had not been true, and what he feared would happen would not be done.
When he turned off the main highway and crossed the tracks, he found himself driving directly into the bright yellow sun that had risen just above the thick woods a few hundred yards east of the projects. Through squinted eyes, he gazed at the world that he had once called home. Some things about the neighborhood had changed while others had not. People still parked their vehicles on the street, and women still hung their clothes on the line. But now there were fences around more yards and bars over more windows.
Excerpted from Cry Me a River by ERNEST HILL Copyright © 2003 by Ernest Hill
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.