Book Excerpt: The Secret Life of Bees

It was after 6:00 p.m. when I wandered back to the house from the peach stand, having sold nothing, not one peach, and found Rosaleen in the living room. Usually she'd have gone home by now, but she was wrestling with the rabbit ears on top of the TV, trying to fix the snow on the screen. President Johnson faded in and out, lost in the blizzard. I'd never seen Rosaleen so interested in a TV show that she would exert physical energy over it.

"What happened?" I asked. "Did they drop the atom bomb?" Ever since we'd started bomb drills at school, I couldn't help thinking my days were numbered. Everybody was putting fallout shelters in their backyards, canning tap water, getting ready for the end of time. Thirteen students in my class made fallout-shelter models for their science project, which shows it was not just me worried about it. We were obsessed with Mr. Khrushchev and his missiles.

"No, the bomb hasn't gone off," she said. "Just come here and see if you can fix the TV." Her fists were burrowed so deep into her hips they seemed to disappear.

I twisted tin foil around the antennae. Things cleared up enough to make out President Johnson taking his seat at a desk, people all around. I didn't care much for the president because of the way he held his beagles by the ears. I did admire his wife, Lady Bird, though, who always looked like she wanted nothing more than to sprout wings and fly away.

Rosaleen dragged the footstool in front of the set and sat down, so the whole thing vanished under her. She leaned toward the set, holding a piece of her skirt and winding it around in her hands.

"What is going on?" I said, but she was so caught up in whatever was happening she didn't even answer me. On the screen the president signed his name on a piece of paper, using about ten ink pens to get it done.

"Rosaleen —"

"Shhh," she said, waving her hand.

I had to get the news from the TV man. "Today, July second, 1964," he said, "The president of the United States signed the Civil Rights Act into law in the East Room of the White House."

I looked over at Rosaleen, who sat there shaking her head, mumbling, "Lord have mercy," just looking so disbelieving and happy, like people on television when they answer the $64,000 Question.

I didn't know whether to be excited for her or worried. All people were talked about after church were the Negroes and whether they'd get their civil rights. Who was winning - the white people's team or the colored people's team? Like it was a do-or-die contest. When that minister from Alabama, Reverend Martin Luther King, got arrested last month in Florida for wanting to eat in a restaurant, the men at church acted like the white people's team had won the pennant race. I knew they would not take this news lying down, not in one million years.

"Hallelujah, Jesus," Rosaleen was saying over there on her stool. Oblivious.

Rosaleen had left dinner on the stove top, her famous smothered chicken. As I fixed T. Ray's plate, I considered how to bring up the delicate matter of my birthday, something T. Ray had never paid attention to in all the years of my life, but every year, like a dope, I got my hopes up thinking this year would be the one.

I had the same birthday as the country, which made it even harder to get noticed. When I was little, I thought people were sending up rockets and cherry bombs because of me - hurray, Lily was born! Then reality set in, like it always did.

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