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By high school, I was a poet, if you can believe that. And the very words that had stumped me as a child became my strongest allies. I stumbled upon the art form quite by accident. I mean, I'd always loved music and the sounds of words when you put them together. But when I panicked over a creative writing assignment from Mr. Gaskins--a new and handsome English teacher I suspected was an environmental activist--I wrote the poem above to get into his good graces.
Before I knew it, he had submitted it to the state paper's student contest, and after it was published, the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce hated my teenage guts, and Papa Great (my grandfather, my father's employer, and the head of the textile mill) all but disowned me.
Two years down the road it was by default that Principal Dingledine asked me to give the valedictorian address in the crumbling gymnasium one June morning in 1989. I was actually third in the Williamstown High School senior class, but the rightful valedictorian, Georgianne Mayfield, was six months pregnant, and the would-be salutatorian and my senior dance date, Lazarus Greene, had moved to Norfolk on account of his daddy's port transfer. So it was up to me to address the faculty and students whom, to be honest, I hoped I'd never see again.
"Pickaninny's girl," Charlene Roe said as I made my way to the front of the class processional.
My cheap turquoise graduation gown was open at the bottom, and when I reached down to pull it closed, the first page of my speech slipped out of my folder and landed at the foot of the second-biggest Philistine in the class, Bubba Ratliff.
"Pipe down, Piper," he said, eyeing me hard as I snatched the paper out of his hand.
Averill Skaggs, the ringleader of the bunch, had coined that catchy chant when I ran for class president our freshman year. My campaign (which focused on creating a healthier learning environment) threatened to move the smoking section to the back corner of campus so that every member of the student body wouldn't have to walk through a cloud of burning cancer sticks on the way to class.
Averill and his smoking-section hoodlums hated this idea, as well as my plan to curb the dust from the shop class, where he spent most days feeding pieces of pine through dangerous machines to build gun racks and boxes for his snuff. He had been the first to raise his hand with a question during that freshman-year campaign assembly, and if I closed my eyes, I could still see him standing at the top of the bleachers, his peach fuzz of a mustache tucked between his pursed lips as he called out, "What's that on your forehead, Piper? Bird dropping?" The freshman class had erupted with laughter.
I lost the race. And I often blamed Averill for the fact that no boy from my class ever asked me out. With one glorious exception, the only head I'd ever turned was my second cousin's, Randy Stubbs, who finagled his way into most family gatherings and tried to woo me with fishing stories, Gamecock football trivia, or his copious collection of country music.
Thankfully, I could boast of one truly romantic evening last summer at the Charleston Governor's School, where a young Italian violinist from the Spoleto Festival orchestra took me to dinner after attending my poetry reading.
Luigi Agnolucci. Mon amore.
He bought me a palmetto frond that a black boy with a gold tooth had sculpted into a rose before pushing us on a porch swing at the end of the Water Front Park dock. And there, beneath the dull lights of Fort Sumter and the thin sliver of the Carolina moon, he cupped the back of my head with his long, gifted fingers and pulled me in for the kiss of my life . . .
Since Luigi was an ocean away and I refused to take my cousin to the senior dance, I'd bucked protocol and asked my favorite male classmate, Lazarus Greene, to be my date to the senior dance. He was the editor of the yearbook and my study partner in AP English, and he always made me laugh with his impersonation of Principal Dingledine's morning announcements, so I figured, why not?
You wouldn't have thought that in 1989 a white girl asking a black boy to a dance would have caused a stir. But Williamstown, a once-honored city of the country's Founding Fathers, had nose-dived during the industrial era into a backward village of cretins, and the mill boys made sure that all eyes were on me and my bright and handsome friend when we entered the gymnasium door five weeks ago. Me in a strapless lilac gown that Mama copied from a Jessica McClintock advertisement, and Lazarus in a white dinner jacket with a coordinating lavender bow tie and cummerbund.
Now Principal Dingledine motioned for me to hurry up and take my place behind the flag bearer who led the procession. I quickly reorganized the papers of my speech and didn't flinch when I heard Averill Skaggs call a simple "Don't brick!" from the back of the line.
Philistines. Cretins. I was so ready to be rid of them.
And I had my ticket out.
It had come in the form of a thick, gold-crested acceptance letter from Nathaniel Buxton University, an elite liberal arts college in Virginia. Ever since it arrived last March, I had pictured the redbrick buildings with their mammoth white pillars as the answer to all that I longed for: knowledge, wonder, enlightenment, and a worthy environment in which to tear open the cocoon I was in and start living.
I took my place on the stage by my friend and Miss Williamstown High, Jif Ferguson, who kept flipping her golden bangs and asking me to look between her teeth to make sure a poppy seed from her breakfast muffin wasn't lodged somewhere in there.
"Beep." Jif sounded her alarm. "Holy Roller alert. Beep."
Shannon Pitts, my best childhood friend turned born-again Christian, leaned down and whispered in my ear, "God be with you, Adelaide," before taking her place behind us.
Thanks, Miss Wear-My-Faith-on-My-Sleeve, I thought to myself. But this one is in the bag.
Principal Dingledine was the first to address the audience with his uninspired thank-yous and watered-down best wishes for our futures. We had plumb worn him out, and it was common knowledge that he would retire with the class of 1990 next year.
Now, me, I was no troublemaker in the conventional sense, but I did cause a bit of a stir with my choice of a date for the senior dance.
When Averill's crew tried to pick a fight with Lazarus on his way to the parking lot the night before the dance, Principal Dingledine had called me into his office.
"I'm not saying those boys are right, Adelaide," he'd said. "But I don't know why you have to go and throw gas on a fire."
And then there was the pollution poem. After it hit the state paper, some of the Williamstown business executives (including Papa Great) had a sit-down meeting with Principal Dingledine, and before I knew it, the creative writing class was off the curriculum and Mr. Gaskins was teaching below-average English to Averill Skaggs and the rest of the lowlifes.
I came out of the whole matter unscathed. In fact, the poem's publication earned me an invitation to the prestigious Governor's School summer program for the arts, and before you knew it, I was a poet sent off to hone my craft each summer at my state's Emerald City of history and culture, Charleston.
Now I was standing before my classmates on this beautiful Sunday morning in June, and I was worrying more about whether folks could see through my white linen dress than about the merits of my speech.
"Good morning, Principal Dingledine, Vice Principal Chalmers, faculty, family, friends, and most important, the class of 1989."
A cacophony of throat clearing began, and I repositioned the thinly covered mortarboard that Juliabelle and Mama had safety-pinned to my head, not caring whether my jewel was showing or not. As the rusty air conditioner rattled above the bleachers, I took a deep breath and began.
"Our historic Williamstown makes up the heart of the tidelands where four rivers converge on the intracoastal waterway before pushing out into the Atlantic Ocean.
"Like the rivers that quietly begin behind the ridges of the North Carolina mountains, each of us has cut a different path to this momentous day. And our lives have converged for four years before, like the rivers that empty out into the ocean, we pour into that unchartered abyss known as adult life.
"Today, as we walk across this stage to receive the formal document that marks the end of our river days, and step through the creaking gym doors into the outside world, we must not forget this place where we came together.
"Remember the classroom where the encouraging words of a dedicated teacher stirred the current in our minds? Or the pat on the back from a friend who dried our tears with the stiff hand towels in the bathroom after a typical teenage trial? That pat showed us we were not alone on our journey to the ocean.
"It wasn't all bliss, of course. There were failed tests, detention hours served; there was that close Williamstown Dolphins football game where we lost the state championship in overtime, and, of course, those cruel words doled out by peers that, like the harbor silt, weighted down our very bones.
"But even the challenging times taught us how to brace ourselves for the big water that is coming. A vast frontier where we can only guess that high seas and strong winds may threaten our very existence."
(Count 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi; then posture for main point.)
"While we expect the big water to be daunting at times, we also trust that it will be a life lined with many a calm surface day, and we await with great expectation those glorious sunrises on the horizon that give us reason to keep on as the tide pushes us farther out to sea.
"As I see it, we are on not a hapless journey, but rather a quest for the answer to these two crucial questions before each of us: one, who am I? and two, where am I going?"
(Count 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi-you're home free. Now push it on through to the finish.)
"Search with all your might, my fellow classmates, to find the answers to these two questions that propel us day and night from the bottom of the seabeds of our souls.
"And when the darkness comes, retain the memory of this gentle tideland where we came together for a moment in time before moving out to sea.
"Bon voyage, class of 1989. Congratulations! I honor you."
It did feel like a moment of convergence when the applause broke out and Principal Dingledine breathed a sigh of relief that a third-string girl like me didn't use the microphone as an environmental soapbox and that no one had yelled out a racial slur.
Nostalgia crept up in my throat like indigestion as I took my seat. Jif read my body posture and thumped my thigh as if to say, "Now, come on, Adelaide. You have no intention of looking back to the tidelands."
Then Principal Dingledine started to call out the graduate names in alphabetical order, and just as I was about to make a mental belch, I glimpsed a shadowy figure ducking out from the audience and through the gym doors. I could tell by his uneven shoulders and his purposeful gait that it was my friend Lazarus Greene.
It should have been him giving this speech instead of me and my mouthy maritime metaphors. What a louse I was to have added the third strike against him. (The first was the color of his skin, and the second was his above-average intelligence, which landed him in the small honors classes with the uppity college-bound white girls, not to mention the president's scholarship to the University of South Carolina, where he would be come fall.)
Lazarus and I did go to the senior dance, and we had a great time swaying to the tunes of Liquid Pleasure and gawking at the slutty gowns and creepy tattoos our classmates sported. But he wasn't at school on Monday, and when he came back on Tuesday, he moved to the back of the English class and avoided me. I figured Averill and his mill village thugs must have threatened him. I'd known he was moving to Norfolk the next week because of his daddy's port transfer, but he didn't bother to say good-bye. And I hadn't heard from him since.
The last joke of the day was on Averill Skaggs when the local newspaper called a handful of graduates back for the class superlative announcements and a photo shoot for the front page of the Williamstown Times.
Jif was voted Best All Around, along with the popular black basketball point guard, Cedric Gibbes, who had a scholarship to Clemson come fall.
I was selected for Most Likely to Succeed (though it would have gone to Georgianne if she'd been here), and what should have been Lazarus's went to the dullest crayon in the box, Averill Skaggs.
When the vice principal named him Most Likely to Succeed, Cedric laughed out loud and slapped his diploma on his knees in disbelief. Jif smirked and I guffawed, and Averill looked this way and that like a trapped bobcat on center stage as the clueless newspaper photographer took him by the elbow tip and led him over to where I was already sitting beneath the lights in front of a Williamstown Dolphins backdrop. He bit his lip and flicked a piece of gray fuzz off his crudely tattooed forearm as the photographer asked him to take a seat.
"Y'all are next," the photographer said as he set up the tripod and held a tinfoil board over the camera. I waited for what seemed like whole minutes for Averill to insult my speech or poke fun at my jewel. First, I avoided eye contact and stared down at his metal-tipped boots. Then out of curiosity I tried to make out the image on his arm, which was supposed to be some sort of web with skulls in the center, but looked more like a crooked tic-tac-toe board with blurred X's and O's.
Still, he said nothing.
I cleared my throat, and the question came to the tip of my tongue before I even had a chance to resist it. "So where are you going to be come fall, Averill?"
I didn't exactly know where that was going to be, but I guessed that at best it was the North Myrtle Beach Technical College, and something in me wanted to make him say it.
He wiped his arm across his nose and said, "Forget this." He had not yet looked me in the eye, and now he stood up nonchalantly and walked away from the backdrop, thumping the camera on its tripod before trotting down the stage stairs.
As he tucked his diploma somewhere beneath his gown, my face reddened with a mixture of guilt and satisfaction. Mama always told us two wrongs don't make a right, but she also said I was a chronic stirrer of the pot.
"Mr. Skaggs?" the photographer called out to him in disbelief. "We haven't taken the photo yet."
Averill turned back long enough to give him the classic bird right in front of Principal Dingledine and Vice Principal Chalmers, then kept walking toward the shaft of light from the open gym door.
"What's with him?" Jif said, blotting her pink lips on a Kleenex after I said "college" four times into the camera.
"I don't know. Guess he was picked as a gag."
"Yeah." I shrugged. "That, and I asked him where he would be next year."
Jif watched the shadow of her profile as we walked off the stage before turning to me.
"Don't you know what he's doing, Adelaide?"
"He's working at the steel mill, Miss Rivers of Convergence. Third shift."
"Ouch," I said. My cheeks reddened, but it was only from guilt this time.
Sure, I had wished Averill Skaggs to Hades more than once in my life, but shoveling coal into that furnace every day seemed the grimmest fate on earth. Not to mention dangerous. Two men had been killed there in the last nine months. One was actually incinerated in the fire after passing out from the heat. I had written a poem about it. About the man's very cells floating over our city, settling in the oak trees and the slate roofs and the salt marsh.
Jif and I walked out into the gravelly parking lot where the asphalt had been chewed up by the Friday afternoon drag races and the roots of some grand live oak trees that refused to be tarred over. It was a glorious Sunday morning. The mills were closed, and there was no black smoke or rotten-egg stench settling over the town.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Daddy and Papa Great waiting for me by Mae Mae's white Cadillac (anyone over fifty with two dimes to rub together drove a Cadillac). She, Juliabelle, and Mama had scurried home to get things ready.
"See you in a little while," Jif said as she fluttered to her car, letting the hot wind open her gown so that her short floral sundress billowed out above her tanned knees.
"There's my valedictorian!" Daddy said, waving me over to them. He had recently been fitted for a prosthetic, and he looked like all the other fathers today, his arms filling out the sleeves of his seersucker suit.
"Not exactly," I said.
It was awfully humid, as usual, and Papa Great was patting his forehead with a yellowed handkerchief before loosening his suspenders.
"Let's go," he said to me as he tucked his handkerchief into the back pocket of his orange linen pants.
At best, I puzzled him. Like a doe that runs into an open field at dusk, even though a shot has been fired in the distance. At worst, I was the symbol of his life's greatest disappointment--no grandsons to keep the mill going after Daddy's generation.
"Going to bite the hand that feeds you?" he had said my sophomore year, slapping the state newspaper with my poem in front of me one Sunday. "I'm going to jerk a knot in your tail next time you pull a stunt like this, young lady.
"Mouthy girl," he whispered before storming out of the dining room. "Juliabelle! Bring me mine in front of the television!"
Now a screech from the back of the parking lot made me jump, and when I made a visor over my eyes, I could see that it was Averill Skaggs hot-wheeling around in his jacked-up pickup truck. He hurled full speed toward us and our Cadillac, and I could see that his gown was off and he had donned a gray work suit with a name patch beneath the left collar. A steel-mill uniform.
"I am so proud of you, I could burst," Daddy said, hugging me tightly, oblivious to the truck as my eyes met Averill's from behind the windshield. If my football legend/Vietnam vet father had not been holding me, he might have run right over me, but instead he took a hard right just before us and flew out of the parking lot.
"What the heck?" Papa Great looked over his shoulder to see what the screech was about. The smell of burned rubber seemed to sting his nose, and he shook his head as Daddy turned to him.
"Now, come on, Papa--didn't I tell you this girl would do good?"
Papa Great snorted and tried to think up a compliment while I watched Averill's truck disappear beyond the curve. "Sure she did," he said to Daddy, opening the driver's side door. "Now let's get to that brunch Mae Mae has been planning all week before your uncle Tinka eats all the deviled eggs."
"All right," Daddy said, knocking his plastic hand on the hood of the Cadillac. But he couldn't dim his pride. "It was something, though, Papa. My gal got Most Likely to Succeed too!"
It had taken only a moment for the hot sun and the humidity to take their toll, and I could already feel a ring of perspiration forming under my turquoise gown as I opened the back car door.
"Get in!" Papa Great said.
While the Cadillac spewed out its smoke of cold air into the backseat, I spotted a red-tailed hawk landing on a live oak limb at the edge of the school gates.
I pulled my folder close to my chest and pictured Averill shoveling coal as I nibbled on shrimp and deviled eggs.