Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Solemn

A Novel

Kalisha Buckhanon

St. Martin's Press

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK


ONE


 


Around time Solemn Redvine was between ten and twelve, when her favorite song was Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight,” at the turn of the century, inside merciless July, in Bledsoe, Mississippi, where the Drinking Gourd never lies and the moss always grows north of the trees, where the morning glory field has no fortress, where people connect the face they miss into the stars of the night, where an outhouse is a staple and not a shame, where feet grow tough enough to steady on gravel, where the mosquitoes can be told apart, where every walk or run is déjà vu, where mourners travel as far for a funeral hat as they travel for the mourn, where Saturday night’s last call is just a few tiptoes from Sunday school’s start, Gilroy Hassle got mad at his wife Pearletta because he thought the baby in their trailer didn’t look like him. So he tried to break her neck and knock her out. Then the baby child got lost down a Yockanookany River cobble well.


Solemn saw the last part.


That night, scent of cornmeal-coated, onion-packed salmon cakes incensed the Redvine trailer. Solemn’s daddy gulped down his cakes, with canned peas and sugared Uncle Ben’s. Then about town, he told the family. He had a duffel bag at his hip, on to one of the two or three bars to gather with the rest of the odd-jobbers, jacks-of-all-trades, and salesmen of random things. Solemn’s brother, Landon, marched to a ranch house or barn somewhere. He schemed with young Black Power resuscitators. They gathered to complain about having no civil rights. The cat, Dandy, was out and about, for a mouse or a mate. When she found one, she liked to meow like a cock to let the whole house know.


After supper, Solemn caught up lightning bugs in a rinsed-out Vlasic jar. A baby one wriggled through the slit Landon carved into the lid for their air. Just to catch it back inside with the others, Solemn went through a couple of stumbles. One ended with a gummy film of pink skin torn into her right knee. Its scab commemorated her birthday, every July, as the time or moment in her life gave rise to a frothy, slushy outlook on it all—daring and sudden dark figures in the corners of yo eyes, senses lost, head upstream of the next rumor and ahead of the outcry, bored, knowin what’s gone happen next without turnin the page or comin back after commercial, a whole new odor now—


From the trailer, it was a few diagonal acres to the flatland development’s only steep, upon a pond. Solemn’s placement in the pattern of the mobile homes was a distinction of sorts. Supposedly, she was on the better side. Down the steep lived the few trailer park folks nobody ever saw out to barbecue, drink outside, drain their tanks, mow their lawns, or pop fireworks on the Fourth. Bledsoe summers could be spectacularly cruel or gloriously pleasurable. Those ones at that end stayed oblivious either way. Those ones either could not afford to or did not think to erect awnings, post tents, attach patios and decks. Those ones never strung Christmas lights—no snow to punctuate their parts, but still. They didn’t rear tulip trees for the honeybees to flirt with. Those ones didn’t bother to scrub campers to a higher value in their eyes. They kept it spare.


Gilroy and Pearletta Hassle were among the ones who stayed in. Solemn looked for Pearletta—from time to time. She sensed remembrance of a time her father had given the woman, barefoot, a ride home. Solemn remembered the way their car had gone, the direction the woman’s trailer pointed. In her mind, she was a spy. She checked on the woman often. But when she snuck out in dark to go find that woman’s trailer, down the steep and past the well, the all-around trees with no shadows sent her home quick.


Solemn saw Pearletta was very round at a summer’s Solstice, but back slim by the following start to school. Solemn had seen plenty of pregnant ladies, but none with crow’s-feet and gray roots. Pearletta was worn. Any new mothers Solemn saw were all fresh from prom formals and yearbook photos. And other pregnant ladies gave parties. They bought home soft, colorful bags. Whether she was round or not, Solemn only saw brown grocery bags and black plastic sacks in Pearletta’s hands. She and the man in her trailer kept the blinds closed all the time—even in the day. The couple gave no shower or announcement or viewing invitations or birthday party for the baby. No one even knew if it was a boy or a girl. No one saw it until a Star-Herald obituary announced it was gone.


But let’s not skip ahead.


Solemn was close to her again, once. Pearletta hung clothes on the line until the end of the pregnancy. Pearletta thought to pass Solemn her line for a jump rope. But when Solemn thought the woman saw her through fluttering sheets, she ran away. Pearletta did see Solemn. And again. More even. Once she bumped into Solemn on one of the walks she took to manage her hips. The woman smiled at the girl she called “pretty.” She didn’t stop to talk. After the baby came, the man started to drive Pearletta to a town Laundromat. Solemn wanted to come back and watch the sheets blow, know the woman saw her, trot away, play it. Before dark, Solemn could hear the baby cry from the trailer windows. She sat on the well to listen until it got too dark. She thought to ask Pearletta if she could babysit the baby, to hold the child and stare into its eyes. But Solemn was young. And Pearletta had never shaken hands with her mother. It was inappropriate to ask without that.


To go back, these were plain black people. They made a heaven for a time.


Even when their safest part of the world began to crumble and tumble on down, it still smelled of fresh paint, like a stretch of new city projects some decades ago instead of now. They didn’t own the land. As good neighbors they had come there in spurts to hide from an untrusted ending to Vietnam, a death penalty reborn to America, a season of cicadas come down to Mississippi, and shirked offers for their hands in the tenant farms aplenty. This was cheap, so much nicer. The rest of them followed a few of them who found a distant portion of a tiny place called Bledsoe, on outskirts of the bigger place Koscuisko. There, lynchings had been possible but spared. There, none had yet erected mailboxes or signposts of ownership. There, the dejected and homeless and faithful could cover their heads. It was just there, a part of town with no townspeople. So some had come there with old rusted pickup trucks and improvised tents and donated trailers and short mobile homes HUD had just begun to regulate. But they didn’t own the land.


They piled up like pioneers headed somewhere and fugitives run away. They dug multiple outhouses to share all-around including upkeep. They cleaned and reinstated a well. They made babies and families. They pooled the kids among them to a few schools they could actually go into now, so long as they could figure out a way to get there without asking a white person to come pick them up. They didn’t vote.


There, every head of a household could be proud. They were all owners. In less than ten years they got so used to it they talked about it outside of it too much. When sounded as loud to strangers as eyes on potatoes once the pantry is spare their contentment and joy sheared down. They got found out. And they never owned the land. A young Eastern European immigrant turned tenant farm capitalist turned real estate developer in Vicksburg got mind to buy their sprawling prairie, install electricity and piping, cajole Bell South to bless them with phone lines, assure them: “Oh no, y’all can stay.” In lieu of fenced plots (“Too expensive”), he wound rope around staves. Then he charged bit by bit for the people’s rights to stay there, until their forty acres accidentally had its own spot on a Mississippi map as well as its own name: Singer’s Trailer Park.


Now let’s skip ahead.


The night a baby child was lost down the well there, Solemn helped her mother clear the table and straighten up after supper. Lucky tonight she was; no wash piled. She was restless and curious with no one curious enough to see it in her. With exception of Lutheran school and Baptist church, both of which scared her, Solemn lived to get out. She was afraid of a pattern or fate or inheritance demonstrated when only she and her mother alone occupied her home night after night after night. In Solemn’s house, the men stayed out. Night after night after night. More troubling than their absence was Solemn’s guess she was supposed to accept it but not imitate it. It was unfair.


Sometimes she found loose change in the dirt, even stuck to spilled, dried coffee or soda in the cupholders of unlocked cars. She would put it away, into her savings, she rationalized. But she didn’t speak up about it when she could tell her daddy stomped off after talking about the bills or her mama smoked after looking at them.


Starting with a dollar she found under her pillow upon losing her first tooth at seven, she kept her money collection in the secretly dismantled underside of her music and jewelry box–in–one, its lid encrusted with rhinestones and a gray unicorn affixed to a top for the handle. She saw its contents as the one thing other parts of the world kept in common with her, but maybe also over her. She counted it all that night: $91.67.


“Fixin’ to go out! Call out if they gonna play ‘Waiting for Tonight’ again…”


“Girl, we bought you the CD … I’m so sick of that song,” Bev snapped, in the part of their trailer that home tripled as the study room, den, and kitchen. She put some wooden clothespins in her mouth and stepped to the laundry rack. Then, she spit the pins out and stepped away. No wash now, thank God. Actually, Bev was pinched to ask Solemn, “Can I go?” And she should have. She and Solemn could have talked. They could have hummed choir songs. They could have cracked jokes about “dem boys.” Instead, Bev fished for the dishrag. Another night of scraping dinginess to sparkle, cajoling old to look new, fending off wishes, paying no mind to the girl child who sees the discrepancies …


The latch door of the trailer clicked and then snapped. Solemn had a wish to see the crop dusters, come by more and more over the sweet potato and cotton and tobacco fields. They were the only planes she ever saw, so she loved them.


Why would you even stay here? I won’t. I’ll fly away. Stay here if you want …


Solemn’s place with a name of “Singer’s” told her who she was and what she was supposed to do. She planned to save little by little, dollar by dollar, for her trip away from Bledsoe, with just a few diners and a gas station and slumpy houses and mechanic places, to return in a big car and fancy hat and high heels. On television there was a superstar named Oprah with her own show, and even a road and a billboard called after her in the big town. And, she was black just like them. So it was foreseeable. Solemn heard the bigger folks say “the Trace” rode all way to Nashville. She figured out singers lived in Nashville. She learned in school that Nashville was in Tennessee. She wanted to know if she could be allowed out of Bledsoe, near Kosciusko, Mississippi, and on to Nashville.


On this night, cotton wisps flew from the dandelions. A whole silver, lavender, and gray universe out there accompanied Solemn in her dance of freedom: a carefree half step one second, a brisk skip the next, a flip-flop high and wild to find something worth mentioning in the darkness, and, at last, a split—out a blue from nowhere, like a gymnast in her win or a prima donna in her audition. If she cartwheeled at the bottom of the steep, around the ones who stayed in, no one would see when her dress fell down. Solemn ran alongside the trees without a look in their direction. Like the rest of them, she took her trees for granted, with their grave stories locked in raspy trunks and long-winded roots. There was so much freedom, playfulness, happiness, beauty, and security around her, but Solemn was aloof. Even the well’s head—stuck up like a bunion on sweltering plains—was a point to make, a goalpost in her eyes.


Her family never visited the well much. Daddy just always had the water. The well was something to look at from afar, and then up close … for Solemn to see that frantic stalk of a man marching toward it. And for him to see her in turn. Maybe he could show her how to pump it, or maybe he would ask for her help with something and pay her a little bit for it. Or maybe she could dive in the well and get rescued out of nothing but a wet, ruined outfit for her parents to complain of. Solemn was pissed and vinegared, bored, curious, restless, wishful, and looking for even more to be on top of it all.


She found it.


 


Copyright © 2016 by Kalisha Buckhanon