The Story of Thurnell Alston

Illustration of Thurnell Alston

Illustration by Patricia Ford

Appalachia mountains

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 1, "Who Owns Appalachia?" Find more from that issue here.

The town flattens under the white sky of midsummer. In the restaurants, coke-water sits in the uncollected glasses. Government employees quietly shut their office doors and doze, their belts unloosed. Secretaries tiptoe in their stocking feet along linoleum hallways to the soda machines. In the air-conditioned, magnolia-shaded houses, white women will pull closed the curtains of their bedrooms and browse through a mail-order catalogue; and black women out in the kitchen will sit down and eat leftover meatloaf off a paper napkin, with the soap operas going.

But there is nothing to do, and all the families feel it, except perhaps the families whose pink-cheeked children head out to college in Statesboro or Atlanta. For the rest, the beaming senior portraits get dusty and are packed away, and the manila programs from commencement end up as coasters for beer bottles.

In the country, the dirt yards bake. There is the sound of gasoline chainsaws, but the fields along old U.S. 17 are pock-marked by gravel piles and weeds. Summer vacationers in air-conditioned cars once looked at the roadside families through closed car windows: families on kitchen chairs in the yards, shelling peas. Now, few tourists cruise the town for its fish houses, antique stores and Spanish moss. A new interstate — 10 miles west of old highway 17 — arches above McIntosh County and shoots toward Miami and Disney World. The cool four-door cars from the North choose the super-route where they are serviced efficiently by Howard Johnsons, Stuckeys and Gulf. Only mishaps or confusion will pull them to the old two-lane, the bottomland, where they scrape along like rescue-crews dragging a river, grim-faced and pessimistic. The local pickup trucks line up, like steers at a trough, outside the Eulonia convenience store — shotguns bar their rear windows. In the Dairy Queen, bouffant-haired waitresses mother the high school football players and lower paper plates of the Bar-B-Q specials before them where they lounge in the booths. Two hundred miles of coastal pine trees rake the dry sky.

The U.S. 17 motel owners douse their establishments with pink or lime-green paint, and the Tourism Department plants signs that urge: Stay and See Georgia. But the lawns crack and yellow, the windows blear, the neon signs burn out. Women in the nickel postcards wear ponytails and ankle-length skirts, and the aging waitresses lean on their damp sponges and reminisce. Half the guests at Plantation Estates, or the Old South Manor, are shrimp or lumber businessmen who eat the diet lunches and leave after a night. The other half are near-forgotten children, down to 60 claim an inheritance and see an old relative buried, or to show off a Northern spouse and kids. The last flamingoes topple and lie rusting in the driveways.

The old highway becomes a long hot daydream of Florida. At night the motel owners dream about the shiny cars and New England families whooshing south on the interstate, and the vigil continues with daylight, and finally they sell their places or board them up, and move to mobile home parks along Palm Beach. There they wait for the red beach crowds to sate their yearning. The timberland is purchased by paper companies and felled sparingly, and time or pollution thins the shrimp crop and slows the canning factories. But the county holds.


July, 1971

Ed Finch showered at the factory and came cruising out of Darien at dark, rich with aftershave. He was easing on the brakes near his girlfriend’s house when his stomach clenched — before his mind realized — there was a patrol car in her front yard. He whirled off the road, left his lights on and door open, and came hop-running across the highway into the yard, half-tripped over the barking mongrel and stumbled toward the porch toward the chief of police.

Hutchinson filled the doorway. “Now you can turn around and go back where you came from,” said the white man.

Like that, Finch knew, breathing hard.

“If you don’t get, I’ll have to arrest you,” said the smiling white man.

“What you here for?” said Finch.

“I done told you to get out of here,” said Hutchinson, and casually, the way he would toss a softball, he pitched a tear-gas canister at the man’s face. Finch stood amazed in the smoke. Hutchinson stepped into the yard and closed a handcuff around Finch’s wrist; the black man started to fall backward, reaching behind him. Hutchinson later said he saw the handle of a hoe in the dirt so he took out his pistol and stuck it in Finch’s mouth and shot him, shattering his jaw.


The family room was dark and blue with television light and the sleepy boys circled, rubbing their eyes. They kissed Mama goodnight with their toothpaste mouths, then Daddy, then roamed off to bed. While Becca picked up milk glasses and saucers from around the room, they heard cars crackling on the gravel driveway and a gathering murmur at the front door. Men were talking and banging the glass. “Thurnell!” whispered Becca and she moved toward the boys’ room until she heard his name called outside: “Thurnell! Thurnell!” They opened the door to a crowd of neighbors and kin, red-lipped in the dark, tearful, and furious. “They done shot Finch,” they said, entering, taking off their caps and nodding to Becca. They stood around the kitchen table attentive as soldiers. When the little boys assembled at the kitchen door in their pajamas, the men lifted and held them, and Becca gave each a cookie, absently. They grinned at each other over the men’s backs, at the late hour.

At midnight throughout the county, with voices and lamps low, men oiled their guns. In the morning they drove into town, a slow cortege of station wagons and trucks, and their numbers increased at every side road and driveway. Two hundred black men waited for the mayor at City Hall; their circle of cars and trucks was ringed by a larger circle where white men sat watching through their windshields, shotguns across, their laps.

A white man strolled up to Thurnell and advised: “I hope you all ain’t gonna start no stuff, because the sheriff done authorized the stores not to sell no ammunition to no blacks.” He nodded at the black men, turned, and walked off. Then there was bitter laughter among the black men as the story was handed down the line. “They think we come all the way here? from all over the county? carrying guns, and ain’t got no ammunition?!” They laughed at the notion of black men politely lining up by the hundreds to purchase cartridges from the white stores.

The mayor arrived disheveled from his job at the docks, and he waved at the whites in the pickup trucks to calm them, and led the silent black men up the stairs to his office. They faced him grimly. Thurnell said they wanted the chief of police removed from office pending investigation of the incident. Of course, yes, said the mayor, ruffling his desk papers. We appreciate your concern. We’ll give you a call.

They trooped back downstairs, went to their trucks amid jeers, and drove home to pull anxious wives from the phone and learn that Ed Finch had been arrested.

“That was a breaking point for me,” said Thurnell Alston later. “There wasn’t no excuse. If I’m that close to you with a .38, I’ll knock you over the head with it.”

Ed Finch was tried for resisting arrest and served four months’ imprisonment. Chief Hutchinson was removed temporarily from patrol duty.


Afterwards, the smallest things stung Thurnell: a heavy-faced blonde cashier plunged coins into his hands without looking at him, and stuffed his ground beef and jello fast into the bag and shoved it from her. So he glanced behind him, as if called to, at the row of tired white girls in striped uniforms. And turned again in the parking lot, astride dark puddles and spilled cereal, to look at the front of the store. Neon blazing, plastered with signs, it blanched the night sky.

It froze him, too, walking downtown and sensing himself sidestepped by plump secretaries and housewives doing errands. Or to be hailed, heartily, by the white men who knew him: “Hey there Thumell! How you getting on?” while they plied their lips with toothpicks, and he smelled the gold salt of catfish on them and knew they’d lunched at Archie’s, where he’d never been except before desegregation, when he’d been to the side door.

Or he’d steer, almost accidentally, down a blacktopped residential street in Darien on his way to pick up the boys from baseball. Accidentally, without forethought: streets trellised with oak leaves, sunlight jittery among them, and the wind sweet with peach and honeysuckle. The houses were sober and columned, and birdbaths like Grecian fountains stood in the grass.

He could feel, if not actually see, pin-striped young men home at 5:30, unbending tall from a bright Audi, welcomed by the cheers of a five-year-old or coos of a slim wife gliding along an oak hallway from her all-electric kitchen.

Pain quenched any desire in him. Not for him.

Home in the sluggish heat to find Becca and a friend propped against pillows in the dark family room, while a blurry Lone Ranger galloped over rocks. Faces damp with heat, bare feet flattening their house shoes.

“You want dinner, Thurnell?” said Becca.

“Oh let me get up,” said the friend and struggled erect: a short obese woman with painful veins and ankles, she worked in the shrimp factory. “Hey Thurnell,” she said vaguely and went out, softly scuffing.


May, 1975

The only black member of the school board retired. Black ministers, teachers and parents sent a plague of letters to the grand jury, pleading that a black man or woman be appointed to replace the black man. In response, the grand jury, all white, appointed a white man. So the question arose: who appointed the grand jury?

Thurnell Alston, Sam Pinckney and Reverend Nathaniel Grovner organized a meeting.


June, 1975

First they met in garages. They circled around garden hoses and metal barrels in the grey and cobwebbed light. A hundred people gathered quietly, and there was immediate alliance among them, simply for having ducked out of the midday sun into the queer, grimy darkness. Men with crossed arms were crowded back into the cement walls and onto hanging rakes and shovels, obligingly, like men in an elevator. They paid a dollar apiece and elected officers. They made modest proposals into the dusty air and skinny, spectacled Reverend Nathaniel Grovner printed them on a pad with a magic marker: Black Representation on the School Board, More Police Protection at School Crossings, Recreation Programs for All Children of the County, More Paved Streets. Folks shook hands all around when the meeting adjourned. Then several were stopped by police on the way home and berated for drunken driving. “Been to a meeting?” the policemen asked.

So they moved to a church social hall and gathered every warm cricket-filled night. They sat on folding chairs under the basketball hoops, and their voices echoed off the vast floor and tiled walls. A nonchalance rooted in Thurnell, and he hauled in crates of Cokes and bags of cookies, and served the old people tea in styrofoam cups. Night after night, in the neon light, with green summer darkness humming at the open doors, they made a reckoning: in a county 50 percent black, there was no black mayor, city council member or county commissioner. There was no black sheriff, judge or jury member, and never had been. No black store owner, clerk, salesperson or cashier. In the poorest county in the state, there were no black employees at welfare or Social Security, or at the fire department or the post office. Or at the phone company, the power company, the courthouse or the convenience store. They pounded the tables with their litany. They shouted at one another.

He came home drenched and hoarse every night for a summer. He stood alone in the dark kitchen above the mottled clutter of soaking pots, with the brown gleam of bourbon-coated ice in the glass before him. And Becca would come calling in search of him through the rooms, dragging a housecoat about her, and soften her voice when she found him: “It’s late, Thurnell, come on now.” And jam the Old Granddad back behind the cut-glass punchbowl in the sideboard on her way out. He could be furiously silent those nights.

It pained her to look at him so stricken. And he: even the white-tassled roadside weeds had become prison walls to him. His own ignorance starved him. And the older men of the county — if pressed, if angered, might unjam a match stick from between their teeth and remind him of days when the white men would as soon spit on a man as reason with him, and just as soon lynch him as either. His roving took him nowhere: past the same stores and fields, through the living rooms of county men who saluted him proudly and sat him down, tossed sweating beer cans to him and made their children hush.

He was tall and black-skinned, with a crest of straight, back-combed hair. He, almost alone among them, had an outside income: he’d won a pension as a boilermaker for a bad back. How this freed him, he was just beginning to tell. He had nothing to offer but his own restlessness, and it kindled theirs. If he stayed late, refusing dinner, whole families stood in their front doorways, blocking the light, to see him to his car. And Becca’s supper pots were warm on the stove and his place neatly set when he traipsed home: becoming weightless, sleepless, becoming mute. She put up the food.

Then, an elderly woman needed food stamps, and rather than spend another winter spitting and complaining and eating collard greens, she threatened to get a lawyer. The caseworker smiled indulgently. The old woman seized her cane, hacked her way out of the office, and sped grumbling through the halls. To her own surprise, she found a lawyer. “She a sweet little white girl,” the old woman told Thurnell. “Don’t know where she come from, but she say she from Brums-wick.”

So, abruptly, there was a lawyer among them, smiling and thin, taking notes. And then there was a carload of lawyers among them — disheveled and friendly — young white men from Georgia Legal Services in Brunswick, taking notes. Their eagerness amazed him. He and Sam Pinckney and Reverend Grovner visited their office.

They were abashed and polite at the first visit, though the lawyers and paralegals crowded into the library to get a look at them, and sat on top of the file cabinets and tables wearing boots and blue jeans, eating potato chips, apparently willing to talk all night.

Within a month they were driving to the legal aid office every day, and boisterously occupying the library with their feet on the tables. They shouted to each other down the hall and from room to room while the lawyers, paralegals and 63 secretaries happily circled them, taking notes.

Each was just what the other needed. The lawyers — from San Francisco, El Paso, Atlanta — circuit-rode hundreds of miles and spent their days in tiny borrowed offices in towns with such drawling names as Jessup, Nahunta, Blackshear and Waycross. They amassed more divorce and welfare cases than their car trunks and back seats could carry. They propped their minds awake with afternoon coffee and labored till midnight amid stacks of manila folders that rose like snowdrifts on their desks and blew from room to room.

And into this red-eyed, baffled and isolated group the McIntosh men came, wild-eyed and wound-up like natives of some hinterland that the attorneys had dreamed about, but never actually seen, or read about in Faulkner and Agee and Welty, but never quite believed in.

For the McIntosh men, for Thurnell, these educated white boys might have been young angels: a type of white boy they may have speculated about, but never met, a type of white man and woman the preachers said existed, though even the preachers weren’t exactly acquainted with any.

Becca liked one of them, because when he came to circle the backyard with Thurnell, debating, and he got hungry, he simply sat down in the kitchen and made himself a sandwich and kept talking.


September, 1975

They sued the county.

The surprising thing, for Thurnell, wasn’t learning that the grand jury was composed from tampered-with voting lists; nor was it the fact that they filed the suit. Once desperation like thirst or grief beset him, he knew it would have outlet. Nor did it shock him — despite the countless mute and craven years — that at the last moment a group of dark-eyed plaintiffs showed up at Club Seventeen and soberly signed the thing and witnessed one another’s signatures, darkly, as they witnessed a fatal act, a brawl or a burial. What his mind balked at was how the lawyers had listened to all his rattled stories, and how they had smoothed them into a proper complaint.

“This action arises under the Sixth Amendment and the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the lawyers wrote, and affixed his name to their inventiveness. “This is an action for injunctive and declaratory relief to secure the right of qualified adult black residents and adult female residents of McIntosh County to be fairly chosen for grand jury . . . service in McIntosh County without discrimination as to race and sex ... to correct the continuing effect of past and present race and sex discrimination against adult black and adult female residents of McIntosh County. . . .”

The stunning thing, of course, was that they were quite right. Was such knowledge, then, harvested from books? And what did it mean that itinerant outsiders could so label and quantify the events of his life that a federal judge could be moved to pronounce him victimized? (A sensation like trying on a factory-made suit for the first time, and learning that a mass-produced commodity might slip easily over one’s own private body.) Simply: that it had all happened before, and had happened elsewhere; and that the wrath and indulgence that he and his neighbors and their white people generated toward each other was common stuff.


The city council fired all but two of the black city employees, or a grand total of five sanitation workers and a policeman.

Thurnell stood in his backyard digging into the family lawnmower, which coughed and ate rocks and shoved back when shoved across the yard. He laid its secret parts along a bench by the driveway and then enjoyed its defenselessness. It had been a quiet month until — interrupting his operation on the machine, again — neighbors filled his driveway with their cars and ambushed him under the trees. He listened to their news with his black-oiled hands held aloft.

When they left, he wandered down to the highway and stared down it. The blows were falling already, but on other men. One could gauge the force of one’s threat, really, by the force of the blows that fell in return. The reaction told them their strength. It was like a brass gong battered once and in ignorance, that did not sound immediately, but months later, without warning, the countryside felt its resonance.


February, 1976

Was it possible then, he wondered, to change their axis? To revolve around some midpoint of their own choosing, instead of the bland and friendless shops of Darien?

Two hundred people met that Saturday night in a cool and dusty church in Crescent. Already white oleander flowers were lolling open in the liquid spring evenings, and the families met on the gravel in the mild darkness: smiles and copper-colored arms curling out of the dusk. They filled up the hall with a solid presence, and Thurnell had to push open an aisle by sidling up the middle and shaking hands. Old men in loose-fitting brown suits thwacked him with their newspapers and the broad-faced women rattled their beads and beamed at him. The young men lined the walls like lieutenants, their T-shirts and bare folded arms a uniform.

Thurnell, beneath the high dim light bulbs, regaled them with possibilities: now that they’d sued the county, docility was no longer even a choice. He was tired and jittery and shy when he finished talking, and made room for the other speakers; then the men’s choir arrived on the stage, tilted and crooned together while the audience clapped, and by the end of the evening they had invented a boycott of the white stores of Darien.

It was like harvest time 50 years ago. They shared milk, eggs and sugar from house to house; and the old highway stayed lit up past midnight with crowds in the yards and children playing hide-and-seek under the porches. Neighbors ruined each other’s lawns by sinking large idling cars upon them, and women spread newspapers flat like quilts on their dining room tables and parcelled out the news. “Say ain’t been a black soul near one of them stores be four weeks Saturday.” Or, “Somebody say she seen Bertha Hines go ducking out of that Smart Shop in town.” They rode three abreast in the long cars to Brunswick and Savannah, and tied the trunks down with twine over crammed shopping bags. So they would snip together this new life, and still have steaming beans and hamburgers and corn to ladle from their stoves.

By the time the city council trumpeted the rehiring of the fired black men, the outlying community had plunged deeper than pain at that surface affront. “We want more blacks hired in businesses, banks, supermarkets, offices, cafes, motels. We want black people hired proportionately for city and county jobs,” they wrote, and the Darien News erected their lists between the Sheriff’s Report and the Scouting News.

“AN OPEN LETTER TO THE BLACK CITIZENS OF MCINTOSH COUNTY: WE APPRECIATE AND NEED YOU” flew in a banner headline paid for by the Chamber of Commerce: “The merchants here like to believe that they have contributed much over the years for the good of all citizens here. We had thought we were appreciated by all our citizens. . . . The objectives of the Blacks against the merchants in the hiring of more Blacks is hurt rather than helped when buying in stores is stopped. If the boycott continues longer, sensible businessmen will be forced to discharge their present employees, Black and White alike. . . .”

In the provinces they were belly-laughing, and stripping green beans. They had decided to run Thurnell Alston for county commissioner.


August 28, 1978

Local saying: Even the dead white folks vote in McIntosh County.

Yellow watery sky, mattress of pine needles underfoot: at sunrise on Election Day, Thurnell stood alone in a roadside clearing. He was running for a seat on the county commission. It was the second time. The first time, two years before, he had lost by three votes. An estimated 157 black voters had been turned away. (The poll workers had checked the names. . . . They were sorry, they said, some mistake, but no voting for you today.)

Half the county still slept, blackbirds and squirrels chased up and down the dirt roads. The August incandescence began. Half the county was yawning out of bed; some shuddered into the chill of air-conditioned bedrooms, others lay bare feet onto warm wood floors and, in a moment, were out the cabin door into the weed fields of their front yards. Thurnell, erect in the buzzing thicket, waited for the carloads of black voters.

Seven years, he figured, to get here.

At 6:45 a.m. he had inspected the voting machines in the cinderblock building exactly 250 feet down the gravel road from where he stood. He saw for himself that the machine registered zero zero zero, and the white woman had demonstrated that the yank of the lever registered one vote. As if it were a new idea, he thought later, smiling. One thin black woman in a pantsuit had busied herself among the others, and his eyes had glanced across hers, once. Then he had retreated to the clearing. He waited for the black carloads.

He had left home impatiently. The boys had sat kicking in their chairs at breakfast, sticking forks through the toast and patting the grits with their fingers. The sink rang with pots and water. Becca, with her hair stuck out sideways, set down a platter of scrambled eggs and suddenly there they were, with the baby under the table, and eggs and sausage steaming before them, and not an appetite in the house.

“All right,” he had said gently, or maybe it was Becca. “Get going.” And the oldest boy, pleading: “Daddy do I got to go to school today?” and the 66 second boy smacking himself in the forehead: “Oh man! he think he gonna get out of going to school!” but raising his eyebrows hopefully just in case.

“I’m going,” Thurnell said, and stood, and left his full plate; and Becca, with her back turned, elbow-deep in the dishwater, said, “All right then.”

He kissed the boys goodbye on top of their heads and walked out and slipped under the steering wheel, not seeing the house or road or trees; and she, as he backed out, left the tepid water and came winding a towel around her hands to sit alone at the littered steaming table to watch him drive off.

Thurnell checked off the black carloads against his memory and his list of registered voters. A line of trucks and cars dug off the main road crunching onto the gravel and moved in second gear past Thurnell in the clearing. White men wore hard hats and balanced styrofoam cups of coffee on their dashboards. “Morning, Alston,” some said, nodding. The black men in overalls slowed and bent through their windows to clasp his hand. “All right, brother,” he said, smiling and nervous. This morning his mind was an abacus. As soon as they freed his hand he was squinting up the road, looking for more.

Some, white, lurching forward, in pickup trucks, or idling in air-conditioned sedans, ignored him. Thin, straight-backed, copper-haired women in navy or black dresses chose the moment of passing him — outstretched smile, tall and handsome in the green clearing — to look out to their right, to study the drainage ditch.


Local story: A black man with a Harvard law degree went to the polls in Georgia to vote. The registrar said he had to take a reading test. All right, said the black lawyer. They gave him a section of the state constitution, and he read it aloud and interpreted it for them. Then they gave him a section of the U.S. Constitution to read, and he read and interpreted that for them. Then they consulted each other, came back, and gave him a Chinese newspaper. “Can you read this one, boy?” “Yessir,” said the lawyer. “It say ain’t no black man gonna vote in this here election.”


By noon, 200 people had passed, and the sky was white with heat. The clearing whined with flies and mosquitoes. Workmen in white overalls jammed the convenience store and shoved together into the soda and ice cream coolers. The day’s only relief was in bending to delve for a popsicle with the icy air circling the arm. Then the black men, with uplifted Coke bottles, ambled toward Thurnell’s clearing.

“How’s it going man?”

“All right, all right,” he said, jittery, watching the road, not thirsty until someone shoved an open Coke into his hand. They watched him down it without a breath.

“Hey man,” he said, “where’s your mother been?”

“She’ll be here, Thurnell.”

“Arnold, haven’t seen your cousin.”

“They coming tonight after they get off.”

“Good afternoon, good afternoon,” Thurnell was saying to the slow-passing cars, squeezing the hands of delighted old ladies and socking men on the shoulder.

Local saying: You may as well vote white, cause they’re lynching the nigger tonight.

At seven o’clock the last carload crept off the highway. Bland smiling faces drew up to chat. “You better get on up there and not let those damn polls close!” everyone yelled. They went cracking out of sight over the gravel. By seven o’clock, Thurnell had long been stunned by the daylong siege of white sky, sunlight striking him blind off the car chrome, and all the damp merry faces. It weighed on him now: fatigue, an impatience, and what an ordeal it had all become. He would have preferred to sleep off the half hour while they counted, or to be wakened at dawn by sons climbing onto his chest, so that he could, finally, get to work.

He rolled the list of voters under his arm and walked toward the poll-site. The neighbors and young cousins followed on foot, or funereally in the big cars, their faces quieted by dread. And rising in him? A kind of sullen anger, that began to burn out everything else.

The sun, by 7:30, was an orange globe, the streak of white heat dispersed. The cinderblock building was buried in chirping greenery when Thurnell, his friends and a group of whites parked and stood leaning against their car doors. Officious humming filled the neon-lit place.

The pine trees at dusk shadowed the clearing. The whites and blacks stood in separate groups, though Thurnell suspected he had some of their votes — a few had called him, once or twice at home; and one man occasionally pulled into his driveway after work, casually, and with great nervousness. A few, though, in the last days of the campaign, had reworked the plastic billboards in front of their service stations and dairy huts to read: “All you honkies get out and vote!”

A vigil. Reverend Grovner and the young kinfolk 67 drawn by the light and bustling in the building, stumbled closer and stood two feet from the doorway. Thurnell watched the sky grow ragged and dark with clouds. The whites, too, were silent; farm people, they crossed their arms over their stomachs.

Reverend Grovner and a white man were invited inside to witness the final count. The reverend ducked out once from the doorway and jumped his eyebrows up and down, then bent back inside. “Now what the hell do that mean?” said the young men in the dark, exhaling, and looked over the pine trees, their eyes rough like the branches.

Then Reverend Grovner sang “Whoop!” and dashed out of the doorway like a tangled colt, carrying his flat hand over his mouth. He did a jig in the soft grass while the others surrounded him intently. He lowered his hand, his eyes leaping, his face laughing: “We got it! We got it!”

And no shout rose from the group, though their arms lifted in surprise and every face craned toward Thurnell’s face. Louise Holt, a school teacher in her forties, murmured, “Well praise God,” and two of the high school girls squeezed each other’s hands, laughing. And every one of them was shocked to the bone. Except Thurnell Alston. A seizure like glad lust, or revenge, had shot through him at the word, but in the immediate aftermath he feared, for the first time, that he’d worked too hard for it. He’d killed every other possibility within himself, and what if it were the wrong thing? Unlike the others, he was not surprised. That afternoon he and his white opponent had waved affably at one another and he had called, “I think I got you this time!” Now that it was certain, he wondered for the first time what he could have said all summer to these people, to get them there. He found no rejoicing in himself at having won.

Louise, in pearls and plaid double-knits, put her arm around his neck. He walked stiffly beside her but felt himself watching the white people. A sunburned woman in a green blouse scooted off the hood of her Mustang, threw open her door, pulled it to and backed off with the tires furiously throwing gravel. A group of large men in white shirts, arms and faces clean and puffy as dairymen’s, ambled to the far side of the clearing. He saw one shake his opponent’s hand. What if the election turned out to be a fraud, something the blacks had been taught to crave so the whites could give it up with pomp and regret, as if it were a thing of great value? What if the round-faced men were simply going to close their portfolios and withdraw to another chamber one more door removed? He felt an almost blinding eagerness at the thought; he wanted a fight. A fight was clear. It was the apparent simplicity of winning that alarmed him.

His friends had turned away from the building in tears and were making their way back to the cars. Soon they would begin the evening’s business of believing the thing, and drinking and shouting to bring down the stars.


A red-lit gyrating night: Club Seventeen throbbed like an artery. Dancers seethed in the red smoke. Louise Holt drank and clapped in the middle, repeatedly knocked by the hearty crowd circling around her. Thurnell came tiptoeing through the disarray of chairs and little tables, pawed and kissed at every turning. The paneled walls bobbed with the dancers’ shadows. A flat wooden building that mildews faintly after a rain, Club Seventeen serves, on Sunday mornings, as the local representative of Sin. Prayer-book-toting matrons, stepping across its parking lot on the way to church, expel “Humphs!” and glare at the backs of oblivious husbands or sons. But on election night, half the blacks in the county gathered there and shouldered through the doorway crowd into the single deafening room. And the other half was fed the throbbing bass-line, like a flutter in the bloodstream, across cropland and forest. Children in flannels hopped wonderingly in their doorways miles away, and elderly couples on front porches waited until all the constellations were circling overhead before retiring out of the warm resonant air. It was a clear night; the country sky was fuzzy with stars, and everyone knew: they were celebrating at the club. Church ladies — aglitter with earrings and beads, since it was an occasion — appeared for the first time inside Club Seventeen. The wall of regulars in the doorway parted politely to let them through. Inside, the thunderous heat and music wilted them, and they shuddered when friendly bourbon bottles were poked in their direction. But it was an occasion, so they placed their pocketbooks neatly under a booth, touched their hair and flounced to the dance floor. “Look at Miss Watson!” cried Willie Pearl, alarmed, but the president of the Ladies Auxiliary had her eyes closed and her great hips rolling. “She doing it up!” cried the younger dancers. “Shake it, Miss Watson!”

For the young people on the dance floor, it was a strenuous happiness. They danced until they were breathless, deafened, loose-limbed and wet. They got drunk and threw their arms around each other. If they had a thousand secret questions, Thurnell Alston had at least answered a few of 68 them: what happens when you wake up sick to death of your own poverty. What happens if you are torn between punching, and kneeling before, the bony old beggars who drag into the churchyard from the highway? What if the high-voiced choirs wrench your breath away and leave you bitter and panting? What if you wear a fine outfit to town, and speak in a well-modulated voice, and pretend you have forgotten that you are black? What if your posture changes?

Blasted by music, reeling with alcohol: they conspired, by shoving together in the hot beery place, to raise a sound like roaring. They smiled at each other blandly, and it was like they all pumped in the furious red darkness to pummel something underfoot, or like the building itself rose several feet off the ground.

The workmen had wedged tight at the bar. They slid glasses over pools of ice water standing on the polished wood. The bottles looked chrome and copper in the half-light, with labels like foreign flags or royal seals. “You damn right the sheriffs surprised,” they said aloud to no one in particular, because the sheriff’s stranglehold on the county had been busted up forever. “You damn right,” they said, raising whiskey glasses in toast to invisible partners. The picture of Thurnell as a suave black man letting himself into the commission meeting grew upon them. Then they moved on, with the music exploding around them, toward the soft interior explosions of liquor in the bloodstream.

“Hey nigger!” they said when they saw him.

“Come here, man!” and they opened a place for him at the bar, but he was breathing hard already, already well-lit, they could see. He stood holding onto the counter. They saw him through a brown fog, with the leaping figures in the background.

Their hands hungered. This he understood by their silence and their drinking. Red-eyed, muscles like stone under their damp T-shirts: they would be up at dawn, stamping into boots to clear their minds, but they were laborers, and therefore mute. Not one of them filled his arms, chest and eyes with loved work. They worked for wages. They came home caked with cement or sheetrock, or with the scream of metal tools in their brains, or reeking of fish. They worked for white men. Getting Thurnell downtown was one thing: the lid of the pot which compressed them lifted, a little. But meanwhile they were getting older and their hands hungered, and it was only a lousy drunken Tuesday night.

Thurnell was sober, but the crazy hurling music kept him moving, like a swimmer in a lake with no beach. What could he do, for the moment, except affectionately slap the back of the man next to him at the bar, and paddle back through the crowd?

At the door he stood watching. The church ladies, not wanting to presume, blotted their foreheads and around their eyes with paper towels, retrieved their pocketbooks and wobbled toward the door. They stopped to take Thurnell’s hand and squeeze it tearfully before hurrying out. Thurnell watched the young people hopping on the dance floor, and considered that they were celebrating a fact many years beyond him.

“Dance with us, man!” they yelled.

He waved.

What did they know of the process, that they could fling into a frenzy of joy-making at a moment’s notice? He wondered this, indulgently, until the picture of his friends at the bar — each shoveling deeper into a private grief — reminded him how little he had to do with the night’s rituals. He could slip out and be gone, and the same men and women would still toss up the bottom of their glasses with the same despondence, or whirl in the drumming music until their muscles came untied. He was nobody’s savior.

He turned and crossed the parking lot. The cool air assailed him. The driver of a carload pulling out tilted a forefinger at him and winked. Alone, his head was a cannonball, heavy and flying. He had read the signs that appeared to him, and so became county commissioner. That was all. He might have made different choices and become a shrimp worker. How similar the obstructions were, either way.

He headed home where Becca waited with his wide-awake sons. He knew the party behind him was reddening the night sky. If he risked a bit more than another, then he was merely among the first sparks given off.