By the time Mae Watkins came in to check on her, Cheryl was standing at the sink dabbing her forehead with a moistened paper towel.
“I figured you might need this,” Mae said, holding up Cheryl’s purse. “It came off the plane a minute ago.”
Cheryl had to stop herself from diving at the proffered purse. “Thank you. I just needed a couple Midol, is all. I get the worst cramps sometimes.”
“I know, I’m the same way,” Mae said. “Can I get you…?”
“No, I found some in the dispenser here.” Cheryl tapped her purse. “I never thought they’d make me check this. But that commuter jet, it was just so small.”
In the lobby, however, Frank couldn’t be put off so easily. He was hovering just outside the restroom door, and when Cheryl laughed away his initial questions, he trailed her out to Mae’s boat-like Buick, eyeing her closely. This charade couldn’t go on much longer, Cheryl knew, her feigning air-sickness and menstrual cramps that had never been a problem for her before. No, she needed to see a doctor and sit Frank down for a serious talk. But then Cheryl had been telling herself this for three days, ever since she’d admitted to herself that the nausea she had been feeling for more than a week was morning sickness. But three days ago she had been sitting for the New York State Bar Exam, and now, well, this was hardly the time for the discussion they needed to have. So, as they were loading their bags into the Buick’s trunk, when Frank caught her wrist to ask under his breath, “What was that all about?” she laughed again. “Girl stuff,” she whispered. “Trust me, baby, you don’t want to know.”
In the back seat, she slipped on a pair of sunglasses and turned to the window, ignoring Frank’s gaze in the side mirror. In New York that morning, the papers had been full of the news that Monica Lewinsky had handed over a stained blue dress that prosecutors claimed proved her relationship with the President of the United States. The front page of the Times, what little of it Cheryl could stomach on the plane, depicted the president as hunkered down in the Oval Office plotting to thwart the crusading special prosecutor, but as Mae’s blue Buick rumbled out of the parking lot past rows of crumbling red-brick tobacco warehouses, Cheryl found it hard to believe she was still in the same country where, two hundred miles away, the president was battling for his political life.
Five minutes beyond the city limits, they were cruising past fields of corn and tobacco out of a 1930s news reel, row after row of cornstalks planted to the edges of the steep ravines, which plumed green with kudzu. They passed the ruins of a tobacco barn, its roof caved in, tall weeds poking through the silvered wood. Then a row of single-wide trailers on cinder blocks. Then another ruined tobacco barn. Then a general store, small and bunker-like, with a hand-lettered sign over the door advertising bait fish and off-brand cigarettes. Here and there, men drove tractors or tinkered with pickup trucks, but for the most part the landscape looked not just unpopulated, but abandoned, as if a flood had washed through and the survivors had fled to higher ground.
Cheryl smiled at the thought of describing this view to her father that night on the phone. So far as her family knew, Cheryl was at that very moment boarding a plane, alone, to join her law school friends for a well-deserved vacation in coastal Spain after a grueling summer studying for the bar. That much was partly true, at least. On Monday, she and Frank would catch a flight to San Sebastián where they planned to spend a week at the home of one of Cheryl’s law school classmates, the daughter of a Spanish diplomat. But for the next two days, until they flew back to Washington on Sunday, she and Frank would be attending a reunion of Frank’s family at a restored antebellum mansion in Buford, Virginia, in the foothills of the Appalachians.
Frank tried again to catch her eye in the rear-view mirror, and again, she ignored him, drinking in the miles of sunbaked farmland. Cheryl had never been this far south, except to change planes in Atlanta, but her father’s family had lived near here, across the state line in North Carolina, in a little place called Siler City. All her life she’d heard tales of Siler City, about distant relatives who still lived there and how if you opened the town’s tiny phone book you saw page after page of Crawfords, white and black. But now that she was here, she couldn’t get over how sad it all looked. This? she thought. This played-out land, these tired old men with their rusted tractors and filthy John Deere ball caps, these are the people I grew up hearing about? These are the people I grew up fearing? She had felt the hostility in the airport in Lathrop, and it had shocked her, but the white folks she saw out the Buick’s window looked like they could barely afford to gas up their pickups, much less terrorize a race of people.
“Excuse me, Mae,” she said, leaning forward. “How far are we from Siler City?”
“Siler City?” Mae studied her, her face framed in the rear-view mirror. “Is that in Virginia?”
“No, North Carolina. Near Asheville, I think.”
“Then it’d be a couple hours at least,” Mae said. “Why? Are y’all heading down that way after the reunion?”
“Cheryl’s family is from Siler City, originally,” Frank said.
“Is that right?” Mae smiled into the mirror. “You still have people down there?”
“Oh no, they left a long time back.” Cheryl returned Mae’s smile. “A long time back.”
Mae’s broad, plain face wobbled, not frowning exactly, just uncertain how to react. “Well, isn’t that nice?” she said.
Cheryl turned back to the window. Her gut had stopped churning, and for the first time in days she wasn’t thinking about the bar exam or her relationship with Frank or the child growing inside her. Instead, she was thinking of Eustace Crawford, her great-great-great grandfather, who’d been born a slave in Siler City and escaped north at age fourteen. His portrait hung over the fireplace in her father’s study in Brookline, a painstakingly retouched enlargement of a photo taken in the 1890s, by which time Eustace Crawford was an old man grown stout and wealthy from running one of Roxbury’s most prosperous funeral homes. In the photograph, he sat stiffly in a Shaker chair, his withered right arm obscured by his dark wool suit, glaring at the camera as if he were going to ask it to step outside for a fight. The old man’s nose, flat and wide-nostriled, was like her father’s, but his small mouth, pursed in a knowing half-grin, was like her own. When Cheryl was little, the old man had frightened her, those close-set brown eyes of his so full of rage it seemed to warm the cold, pipe-smoke-scented room. But he had inspired her, too. Born into slavery, Eustace Crawford had his right arm sawed off at the elbow by a Union Army surgeon after the battle of Fort Wagner, yet there he was, his stomach bulging against his starched wool suit, the visible embodiment of what her mother and father had drilled into her since she was old enough to speak: that the world was in no way fair, especially not for girls like Cheryl and her sisters, but that if they worked hard and wanted it badly enough, those three Crawford girls could do anything.
Cheryl’s father had passed through Siler City once during his college days and pronounced it “sorry-looking,” but until she met Frank Watkins, until the day that summer it had occurred to her she might be falling in love with this smart, good-looking white boy with a family tree full of Southern relations, Cheryl had felt no desire to see it for herself. And now here it was, so tantalizingly close, less than a hundred miles from where she was sitting.
Up front, Frank poked his head between the seats. Everything okay? he mouthed.
“You’re not too hot back there, are you?” Mae trilled from the driver’s seat.
“Oh no, I’m fine,” Cheryl said. “I was just telling Frank I’d like to try to get a little shut-eye. It’s been a long day.”
Before Frank could argue, she closed her eyes, snuggling into the corner of the seat, her tightly pursed mouth self-consciously forming Eustace Crawford’s small, knowing grin.
About the author:
Michael Bourne’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, The Common, and The Cortland Review. He is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for The Millions.