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Let's get something straight. I'm not one of those girlie girls. I don't ooh and ahh. I don't giggle and blush. Dresses cramp my style. Petticoats make me itch.
Mama and Daddy wanted a boy named Billy. When I popped out, they shrugged and changed the y to ie. So I'm Billie — Billie Sims. I ride bikes and climb trees. I shoot off firecrackers. On Saturdays in the fall, Daddy and I throw the football and listen on the radio to John Forney, play-by-play announcer for the Alabama Crimson Tide.
One afternoon in May 1961, I sat cross-legged on my bed and gazed out the window. I checked my bus schedule, which was smudged and wrinkled from use. When I looked up, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the glass. I'm thirteen, but I look older. Maybe it's because I'm tall. It could be my eyes, which according to my friend Grant say, Don't mess with me. My hair is what they call strawberry blond. I tie it back to keep it out of my face, but it always seems to come loose.
I glanced at the bus schedule and then at my watch. Folding up the schedule, I put it away, hopped off the bed, and went outside. Our house was at the top of a hill on the Birmingham Highway, about five miles west of town. It was a white bungalow with a wide porch and a hedge along the front. Next door was a home built with river stones, and its tan, lumpy walls reminded me of a gingerbread house.
In front, crouching by the steps, was my best friend, Grant McCall. Grant was a month older than I was and thought it gave him the right to boss me around. You'd think he would know better by now. Grant was a little taller than me, with black hair that stuck up in back. He had a long, friendly face, when you could see it. Most of the time it was covered up by his camera, which was as much a part of his body as his nose or eyes.
Grant had moved next door with his mom and dad a few years back, when Mr. McCall had been hired as the lead reporter at the Anniston Star, our local newspaper. They had come from Cincinnati, where Mr. McCall had worked on a big paper with lots of reporters. Grant said his father had been looking for a small town with a good paper, a place where he could make a difference, and had found it in Anniston. Sometimes Mr. McCall's reporting made people mad, but they read it anyway, because even when they disagreed, they knew he would tell the truth. Once I asked him what he liked about Anniston.
"Important things are happening here," he'd said.
"Here?" I asked. "In Anniston?"
He smiled. "Open your eyes, Billie. Look around."
I headed across the yard toward Grant. I hadn't bothered to put on shoes, so the grass felt warm and dry beneath my feet. It was a sunny spring, and I'd been wearing shorts and a T-shirt for weeks.
"Hey!" I yelled.
Grant ignored me. He does that a lot. It's not that he's mean or anything. It's just that when he shoots photos, he's in his own little world, with a white border and glossy finish.
I tapped his shoulder. He juggled his camera, then stood up and wheeled around.
"Billie, how many times do I have to tell you —"
"I know, I know. 'Don't bother me when I'm taking pictures.' Well, you're always taking pictures. You might as well attach that camera to your head. Just graft it right on like a pear branch."
I snapped my fingers in front of his face. "Hello! Can you hear me? There's a world out here."
"Look, I'm busy. What do you want?"
"It's Friday," I said.
"Just give me a minute, okay?"
"What are you taking pictures of?" I asked.
"Flowers. I'm trying out a new close-up lens."
"There's a special lens for close-ups?"
"There's a lens for everything," he said.
Grant snapped a few more pictures, then took the camera strap from around his neck, showed me the camera, and was off to the races, talking about his favorite topic. Blah blah blah Minolta. Blah blah blah aperture. Blah blah blah telephoto.
I noticed that he had a couple of freckles on his nose and a mole on one cheek. Do you call it a beauty mark if it's on a guy? A few beads of perspiration dotted his upper lip, and one of them dropped off as he spoke. His teeth were shiny and straight. His lips were soft. Okay, I didn't know that for sure.
"Well?" he said.
I shook my head. "Sorry, I didn't hear you."
"My new wide-angle lens. Do you want to see it?"
I said, "Of course."
He took off the close-up lens, then reached into his camera bag, pulled out a shorter lens, and clicked it into place.
"This one takes a wider picture," he said. "You know, for landscapes, things like that."
"Could I see?" I asked.
He handed me the camera. "Be careful. It's expensive."
I was surprised at how heavy it was. I thought of it almost as a toy, Grant's fancy toy. But it had weight and heft. Bringing it up to my eye, I looked through the lens and swiveled slowly around. Everything seemed far away, framed like a picture.
"Try looking over there," said Grant.
He touched my shoulders and turned me gently to the north, until I was gazing out over hills and trees. It looked like ordinary countryside, but I knew better.
"The army depot," I said.
The official name was the Anniston Ordnance Depot. It covered fifteen thousand acres, just down the hill from us. The people there serviced tanks and antiaircraft guns. At least one of them shuffled papers. I knew, because she was my mother.
I told Grant, "I want to take a picture. Could you show me how?"
"Just push the button," he said.
"Which one? How do I hold it?"
Grant rolled his eyes, then stepped behind me and guided my hands on the camera, my left hand supporting it and my right hand poised above the shutter button. I felt his breath on my cheek. It smelled like lemonade.
"Okay, push," he said.
There was a click, and the image blinked.
"Nothing to it," I said.
"That's the easy part. Now you have to develop the picture."
"Could you show me how?" I asked, leaning against him.
Grant stepped away, and I stumbled backward.
"Hey, watch it!" he said. "I told you, that's expensive."
He grabbed the camera and cradled it in his arms the way you might hold a puppy, or a girl if you had a clue.
I looked at my watch. "Come on, it's almost time. Let's go."
"Okay," he said, "but I'm bringing my camera."
* * *
"Here it comes!"
Grant pointed. I grinned and tied my hair back. On the horizon, beyond the trees and houses in my neighborhood, a speck appeared. It got bigger as we watched, moving along the road and up the hill. It formed a shape, fuzzy at first, then long and rounded, like one of the medicine capsules Mama took for her headaches. It disappeared behind some pine trees, then rounded a turn, and there it was.
It was a bus — not one of those beat-up city buses, but a gleaming Greyhound, with silver sides, a long blue stripe, windows that leaned forward, and five license plates, one for each state it went through.
"Now!" I yelled.
We pushed off from the hilltop and down the other side, pedaling like nobody's business. I owned a Schwinn, and Grant had a ten-speed racing bike, but to do this right, what we needed was gravity.
It was like a magic trick. I'd noticed it one day coming back from church with Mama and Daddy. Church wasn't Daddy's favorite place, so he tended to return home at high speed. He had pulled around to pass a car on the highway, and as we came up even with it, there was a moment when our speeds matched and our worlds clicked into place. In that instant, I could see their family as clearly as mine. The father frowned as he drove. The mother looked away and out the window. A little boy sat in back. He glanced at me and smiled. I was in another car, another world, but just for a second I was right there with him.
Grant and I had decided to try it with the bus. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. We had to time it perfectly. If we left too soon, we would beat the bus to the bottom of the hill. If we started too late, the bus would drive by before we got going. But if we timed it just right, we got a ride to remember.
Picking up speed, Grant and I raced side by side down the two-lane highway, like the chariot drivers in Ben-Hur, a movie we'd watched at the Ritz Theater. Looking over our shoulders, we saw the bus reach the top of the hill and start down. It came up behind us and, little by little, pulled even. It was right next to us, huge, throwing off heat, tires whirring on the asphalt.
The wind whipped my hair. I gripped the handlebars, hard. Then suddenly, everything changed.
We were the ones standing still, and the highway sped by. Trees, houses, mailboxes flew past, racing up the hill. Meanwhile we were motionless, suspended in space, the bus floating alongside like a silver bubble. Bus passengers watched us through the windows. A little girl tugged her mother's sleeve. A man in a brown hat walked along the aisle, bracing himself on the seat backs.
I wondered where the passengers were going — Montgomery, Monroeville, Mobile. Miss Harper Lee lived in Monroeville. That very morning her picture had been in the paper, with an article saying she had won something called the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird, a book she wrote. They said she had an apartment in New York City and lived in both places. I wished I could live in two places. I would live another life, an important life, doing things that mattered. I loved my family, but I wanted more. I didn't know what, but I needed it desperately, sometimes so much that it ached.
For a moment, I imagined what it would be like not just to chase the bus, but to get on it and leave. I'd travel to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, or to Monroeville to visit Miss Harper Lee. Maybe she would take me to see her apartment in New York City. I could go anywhere and do whatever I wanted. I would be free.
Free. Mama said the word sometimes. Her eyes would light up and she'd gaze off into the distance. I wondered what she saw. Did it just mean getting away, like taking a trip? Maybe it was like summer vacation. During school, the summer shimmered in the distance. Then it arrived with a rush, and classes were over. We could sleep late and roam the hills. We could do whatever we wanted, even if it just meant lying in the grass and watching the clouds. Is that what freedom was?
The bus edged forward, and the bubble burst. I was back on my bike, and the bus rumbled on. Grant and I skidded to a stop at the bottom of the hill, in front of Forsyth's Grocery. Grant lifted his camera and snapped some pictures of the bus as it disappeared down the highway.
Isn't it strange how things work? Soon Grant would take pictures again, but the bus wasn't driving along the highway. It was broken down by the road, sides battered, tires slashed. Glass shattered. People screamed. My rosy dreams gave way to a nightmare of blood and flames.
And it all happened on Mother's Day.
We dumped our bikes in front of Forsyth's Grocery and hurried inside, where it was cool and smelled like melons. Mr. Forsyth stood behind the counter, and his wife, Cleo, was busy arranging fruit in the produce section.
I called out, "Hey, Mrs. F. Save a kumquat for me."
A few customers wandered the aisles. Old Mrs. Todd was squeezing the bread. Bubba Jakes, a skinny kid in my class at school, was looking over safety razors, as if he needed one.
When we approached the counter, Mr. Forsyth shot us a tired grin. "So, kids, what'll it be?"
"The usual," I told him.
He reached under the counter, pulled out an open box of 45 rpm records, and set it in front of me.
"Have at it," he said.
The box contained the latest Top 40 hits, shipped in a batch every week so people like me could snap them up. I spent most of my allowance on records, and Daddy didn't like it.
"Paying for noise," he would grunt. "That's all you're doing."
At least it was better than Grant, who spent his allowance on bubble gum. Of course, it wasn't just any bubble gum, as he was quick to point out. It was Topps, and inside every package were baseball cards.
He bought five packages, the way he always did, ripped open the first, and thumbed through the cards inside.
"Frank Robinson!" he exclaimed, stuffing the gum into his mouth and chewing like a cow on caffeine.
Every week, Mr. Forsyth clipped a list of the Top 40 records from Billboard Magazine and taped it to the side of the box. Today the list showed that Elvis Presley had both the #2 and #3 records: "It's Now or Never" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" I elbowed Grant and showed him.
He snorted. "I can't believe you listen to that mush."
"It's not mush," I said. I had to admit though, I liked Elvis better when he was singing about jails and hound dogs.
Records cost more than bubble gum, so the most I could afford was one a week. I flipped through the box and found a song I had enjoyed on the radio.
Grant peered over my shoulder and burst out laughing. "'Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini'? I'd like to see you try one of those. You've got nothing to hold it up."
I felt my face get hot, but I didn't want him to know it. I ducked over to the cash register, reached into my pocket, and paid Mr. Forsyth.
"You kids are my best customers," he said. "Just spend more, huh?"
He gave me my change, then tore off a row of S&H Green Stamps and handed them to me. "Paste those in your coupon book. If you fill it up, you'll win something."
S&H Green Stamps were Mr. Forsyth's new scheme for promoting the store. You got some with every purchase, and if you filled enough coupon books, you could send off for a prize. He had planted an S&H sign out by the highway, where people would see it and come swarming in.
"Like bees to honey," he told me.
Or flies. Or mosquitoes. Or ants, like Grant and me.
Across the store, I spotted Janie, the youngest of the Forsyth kids. She was twelve years old and a seventh grader at Wellborn Junior High. Janie had dark hair and glasses and usually could be found in a corner studying. Sometimes I thought she studied because it was the one thing that kept her parents from making her work in the store. But the studying must have paid off, because just a few weeks earlier Janie had won the Calhoun County spelling bee. Tomorrow she would go to Birmingham for the state bee, and half the neighborhood would be there to cheer her on.
I walked over and caught her eye. "Roll Tide," I said.
It was the state football cheer, but I thought it might be good for spelling too.
Janie flashed a shy grin. "Thanks, I guess."
"Ready for the big day?"
She showed me the book she was studying. It was a dictionary.
"Problem is, there are too many words," she said. "Darlene's been helping me though. I reckon I'll do all right."
Darlene was Janie's older sister. She had won the county spelling bee a few years before at age ten. Those Forsyth girls knew their alphabet. They were spelling fools.
"Janie?" said Grant, who had come up behind me.
She looked up, and Grant snapped her picture.
"Hey," she said, "I wasn't ready."
"That's the idea," said Grant. "It's candid. That means you don't pose. The picture shows what you're really like."
"So, what am I like?" asked Janie.
Grant gazed at her thoughtfully. "Smart. Nice."
There was a bump and a crash behind us, and Mr. Forsyth strode over toward the canned goods. We followed and saw a young Negro man about my age. I was surprised because we didn't usually see many Negroes in our neighborhood.
He was kneeling in the soup aisle, with cans on the floor, and I realized immediately what had happened. Mr. Forsyth's motto was "One-Stop Shopping," which meant he stuffed his shelves with as many different products as they could hold in hopes that people really would do all their shopping at his store. People didn't, but they did bump into the overloaded shelves, like I had a dozen times. Obviously that's what had happened to the young man.
I heard someone behind me and turned to see Bubba Jakes. Behind him, Mrs. Todd squinted through her thick glasses. I had smiled when I'd seen them before, but no one was smiling now.
"What are you doing, boy?" Mr. Forsyth demanded.
I happened to know that Mr. Forsyth was a softy deep down inside, but he sometimes put on a gruff front, especially if he thought it might impress one of his regular customers like Mrs. Todd.
"Sorry, sir," the young man mumbled. "I'll get it."
Janie pushed past us and crouched down beside him. "I can help," she said.
Mr. Forsyth grabbed her arm and pulled her up. "Let him do it."
"You shouldn't be here," Bubba told the young man. His voice was low and gruff, as if he was trying to act grown up, the way he'd been doing when he shopped for safety razors.
"Why not?" said Grant. "It's a free country."
Excerpted from "Night on Fire"
Copyright © 2015 Ronald Kidd.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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