When it was first published fifteen years ago, Jeffery Renard Allen's debut novel, Rails Under My Back, earned its author comparisons to some of the giants of twentieth-century modernism. The publication of Allen's equally ambitious second novel, Song of the Shank, cemented those lofty claims. Now, the book that established his reputation is being restored to print in its first Graywolf Press edition. Together, the two novels stand as significant achievements of twenty-first-century literature.
Rails Under My Back is an epic that tracks the interwoven lives of two brothers, Lucius and John Jones, who are married to two sisters, Gracie and Sheila McShan. For them, their parents, and their children, life is always full of departures; someone is always fleeing town and leaving the remaining family to suffer the often dramatic, sometimes tragic consequences. The multiple effects of the comings and goings are devastating: These are the almost mythic expression of the African American experience in the half century that followed the Second World War.
The story ranges, as the characters do, from the city, which is somewhat like both New York and Chicago, to Memphis, to the West, and to many "inner" and "outer" locales. Rails Under My Back is a multifaceted, brilliantly colored, intensely musical novel that pulses with urgency and originality.
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Rails Under My Back
By Jeffery Renard Allen
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2000 Jeffery Renard Allen
All rights reserved.
LONG BEFORE JESUS ENTERED THE WORLD, blades of southern grass sliced up the soles of his grandmother's feet. Her blood leaped from the danger, drew back into the farthest reaches of her heart, and the roots of her soul pulled away from the sharp earth which had nurtured her. But nothing escapes the laws of gravity. We martyr to motion. In step with the flowing sweep of her garments, an undercurrent of rhythm, she cut the final strings of attachment, her children, and on a rich spring day cut a red path to New Mexico — what business had a nigger there; New Mexicans had yet to invent the word — for a man eternally bound to a rakish fedora, his sweet face like a mask beneath it, pinstripe suit, diamond horseshoe tiepin, and two-toned patent-leather shoes. Drawn by the power of nostalgia — Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour — she swept back two years later without a word about her lover, the father of R.L., her oldest child. A decade later he would be thrown through the windshield of his sparkling green (red?) Edsel (Eldorado?) — the squeal before the thud, the skid after — his decapitated body slipping the surly bonds of earth, sailing kitelike over a California highway, arcing over and beyond a thicket of treetops, to touch the face of God. Jesus was convinced that her exodus had strangled any impulse her surviving children — his mother and aunt — had to get close to her, and had ripped open his life, for an eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow. The years only deepened the sorrow his family had in common. Even a hatred like hot ice could not halt destiny.
Jesus thought he could never recover from his grandmother's betrayal. While his mother and aunt had long purged their thoughts and feelings of the act — it escaping through the back of their heads, into space — it continued to haunt him, a wallet photograph that he carried everywhere. He moved with a sort of amazement in the world, anger fueling the furnace of his heart. With ceremonial rigidity, each day he wore red, symbol of his unflagging fury.
He leaned over and spit. The saliva held and gleamed, suspended, rust-flecked, then curved down to the pavement. Crashed, sizzled, and cooled. A red coin. He leaned over to pick it up, but the coin refused his touch. Sirens sailed into the sky, a spiral of red sound. He drew himself erect. A strip of white asphalt stretched hot before him. He walked. Only his brain moved. Tall earth-rooted wrought -iron fences hovered before a cluster of houses. And beyond the fences, black and green rhythm of trees. Trees full of birds, plentiful as leaves. The vapor-kissed spires and steeples of North Park. The sky in fanning torches and soaring flames. And heavy white clouds hovering, flying saucers. The street opened into a broader one, the space between two massive rows of skyscrapers black with a continuous throng, two busy streams of ants. He walked with long scissors stride for Lawrence Street, where he would catch the train to South Lincoln. The cradle of the week, the sunny street filled with competitive radios, anxious engines, car horns, hawking of wares, footsteps, and conversation — disembodied voices — a kiss blown from the lips of the square, floating, rising, and hanging above it. The sidewalk steamed with city sprinklers pulsing wet rhythm. Jesus sang:
Shine went below deck, eating his peas Til the water come up to his knees.
He felt air currents from the movement of cars, shoes, skirts. Rumble and rustle tingling the blood in his rubber -soled feet. Suits and ties and skirts and heels were beginning to change color in the spring heat. A constant weight in their faces, the suits and ties lugged briefcases, newspapers tucked under the left arm. The skirts and heels sported ankle socks and gym shoes — tennis shoes, his grandmother called them — as if they gon shoot some b-ball in the office, arc crumpled bills (fives, tens, twenties) into steel wastebaskets. Cut a V for the express train into Central, slowed somewhat by purses bulging with thick paperback novels. A flyer curved around a lamppost: MOTHERFUCK THE WAR! A hang-tailed hound jogged out of an alley — Jesus hoped he would stray within range — and past a knot of beggars hunched over in a corner doorway, rained-on ghosts.
Kind sir, could you —
Hell nawl. Jesus did not pause in his walking. Get a job.
Go to hell and take yo mamma wit you, just for company.
Jesus kept walking.
Jesus kept walking.
Bitch, Jesus said, stopping, turning at the beggar, facing the spit-thickened beard. Wash the fart out yo draws. He continued on.
He hadn't gone far when stench stopped him. Eighth and Lawrence, the subway entrance — A blind man could find it. Follow your nose — a funky mouth, with worn, broken, and dirty stairs like neglected teeth, descending to a dark throat. The subway breathed him in. He tugged at his ear, his fingers rough against the diamond there. He knew all about the purse and chain snatchers who rode the trains. Rough niggas versed in all tricks of the trade, killin, stealin, and gankin to get paid. Once, he saw a thief hack off a woman's earlobes with a straight razor to loot her diamond earrings. The thief wiped the blood from his razor onto her blouse, slowly and smoothly, as if buttering a bread slice, and Jesus wondered if the woman screamed from the sight of blood, from the pain, or from the sensation of reaching for her lobes to discover they were no longer there.
He had heart, a lot of it — fires could not burn it, water could not drown it, winds could not bend it — and would sport his jewelry. He thought: Cutthroats. Praise them. Got to have heart to cut mine out. But ain't nobody gon fuck wit me. Jesus Jones. They are clay. I am stone.
Two rails of level steel, the only clean things in the subway, ran from the darkness at one end of the tunnel into the darkness at the other end, ran over the piles of filth that filtered down from the street two levels above. Two rails that glittered like silver needles in the darkness, awaiting the shiny thimble of train.
A dark pulse at a distance. Jesus could feel it under his feet. He saw pale light, then deep shadow, then glistening train, train that came boring out of the tunnel, bellowing in the distance. Carrying distance to him. The doors opened quick and noisy like a switchblade. Jesus slipped inside the silver sleeve. Muscled a window seat, the window black, nothing to see, metal brightness around him. Suits and ties rested their briefcases across their laps. Skirts and heels parked with their legs crossed. Then, fresh motion. The train moved over greased tracks, a steady rumbling beneath the floor, the car shaking from side to side. The black subway tunnel was a hollow subterranean string stretching under Tar Lake and joining North Park and Central. And the car, an aquarium with passengers for fish. Better yet, a reverse aquarium, with the fish kept in and the water out.
Jesus curled up in his seat, jacket draped across his shoulders, neck, and chest, baby-snug. The car was cold, cutting to the bone. Lucky he had worn his thick socks. Still, the cold bit through; he shivered, a pinned butterfly. The train swept along the curve of a blind river (one of the city's twelve). Long after the curve had passed from vision, it boomeranged back, remained imprinted on his inner eyes, two spinning black half-moons. He liked double-decker trains and wished this were one. Kind sticks to kind. But you almost never saw them in the city anymore. Only in the suburbs. Every summer, the family — you, your cousin Hatch, and your aunt Sheila — used to board a silver double-decker for West Memphis, where Lula Mae live, riding high above the rails, your thermos heavy with cold soda pop, and fried chicken stuffed in a greasy shoebox, the aroma strong enough to haunt future passengers for years to come, odors of food and rhythm of rails. Eat that chicken, then lie back fat in your seat, gazing out the window. High hills rolled all the way to the horizon. Scraggly trees like squirrel tails. Cows still as stones. Each rail tie demands attention. The conductor would shout out a litany of stops. And you and Hatch would get happy.
Stop all that jumpin like monkeys in the jungle, Sheila said. You know better. Show some home training. Do that again and I'll beat the living daylights outa you right here on this train.
Lula Mae would be waiting at the station, accompanied by a redcap. A woman thick in the waist, taking up space. Tall, commanding vision from a toadstool of height. A creature of no color, so pale many believed her an albino. You were afraid of her white skin, the smell, the touch. Feared her black snakelike veins. And the figured scars on her calves. Ole cotton patch. Crazy Junebug giggled giggled at her calves. Ole cotton patch. Tar baby. Tar baby.
She saw you and kindled instantly. Over here! Waving. Go get their bags.
Yes'm. The redcap rushed forward. Loaded the suitcases onto his cart.
Give yo granny a hug. The thorny hairs on her bosom snatched you before you could comply or decline.
Why you don't shave them hairs?
Meanness rooted up in the black veins of her neck. Cause they only gon grow back longer.
Come switching time, she would make you go out to the yard and strip your own branch of leaves. Whip the hard branch soft against your hard-headed behind. Whip your butt and legs with the ease of a conducter waving his baton. After a thorough switching, sweat greased the creases of her face. But if she had no energy to switch, if exhaustion had sunk into her bones, she settled for a quick open hand slap across your chops. Water would dam at the back of your tongue, a multitude of days threatening to spill out. You ran out the house and escaped to the red gravel road. Found there, frogs hard and flat as soda pop cans in the desiccating sun. So you would kick them — metal sound, scraping across the sunbaked road — or, if your fingers had heart, pick them up and fling them, Frisbee fashion, bouncing and skipping like a pebble on water.
BUT JOHN GAVE IT TO ME. For my birthday.
Yeah. His daddy gave it to him. My Uncle John gave it.
I turn seven.
I don't care if Jehovah himself give it to you, Lula Mae said. Take that scorpion outa here.
He ain't no scorpion, Hatch said. He a chameleon, a lizard.
Houston got scorpions look jus like lizards.
This ain't Houston.
Lula Mae drew back her hand. I don't stand for no back talk. Sheila might, but I don't. Now take that scorpion outa here.
You and Hatch carried Dogma the chameleon out to the red gravel road.
He get crushed, you said.
No he won't. He a chameleon.
He can change color. Red. The color of the road.
You laughed. What good that gon do him?
He be invisible. Cars can't see him.
STOP THAT CHUNKIN! Lula Mae screamed.
Damn! Can't have no fun!
Yeah. No fun.
Lula Mae was tight on you, shoes. Watchin you hard and hateful from her brick porch. You could see her eyes, looming, though the road was several hundred feet away. Preacher eyes trying to burn the devil out of you. The sun looks through your western window. Carries the record of human deeds to the Lord each night. Legs might escape her body — run to the yellow field across the road, high grass tall and safe, or so you thought — but nothing could escape her eyes. Even when you climbed high in a tree — a yolk sun cooking the sky, burning and blinding you, with cool air singing in the branches — her high-flying eyes would find you. Hurtful eyes that followed you everywhere, rocks in your shoe.
Stop all that runnin! Yall catch heatstroke. Her skin was transparent under the sun, revealing a red tracery of veins. She snapped open her umbrella. Held back the day with her body, scraps of sky peering in past her arms and trickles of light at her feet. She started into the road, red gravel crunching underfoot. You and Hatch followed behind her.
Why yall walkin behind me! Gon up there where I can keep an eye on you.
Small houses, kin to Lula Mae's, lined both sides of the road and Lula Mae greeted the occupants one and the same.
How you duce?
Alright. How you duce?
Entered the barbershop, a bare floor, dust and splinters, a single white cloth apron draped across a single red leather chair, and a black plastic comb submerged — pickled — in a container of green alcohol, causing you to recall Lula Mae's false teeth at the bottom of a water-filled mason jar.
These here my grandsons. Cut them nice. Start wit the red one first.
The barber positioned you in the chair, pinned the apron behind your neck, and set to work. You sat there under the buzzing weight of the clippers, eyes peeling motion, a circle of red hair at the circular base of the barber's chair, skin from an apple. Then the barber resuscitated the drowned comb. Grabbed a fistful of grease. Set to work. There, he said.
Look nice, Lula Mae said. Real nice.
You fidgeted in the chair to chance a glance in the mirror. Your red hair: high and crenellated, a rooster's comb.
THE DOORS CRACKED OPEN LIKE BONES. Federal Station. First stop in Central. The car emptied. Jesus sneezed, coughed, Lula Mae's suffocating odor on his skin. Her rhythm inside him, is what he is. Ill will persisted in his blood. Someday — the promise stagnating, unstirred — he would pay her a little visit, yes, surprise her. Surely, she would stop in the middle of whatever she was doing, caught in his thick, molten rage. What would she say? Do? Invite him to her bosom, that valley of thorns? What would he say? Say anything at all, other than to pronounce sentence? What would he do? What could satisfy him, right the ancient wrongs? A white smothering pillow? A knife clean between the ribs? A shower of stones? A quick spray of gunfire and hot bullets bubbling the flesh? Or something slow? The body straining against a thick pony-tail length of rope, the pulley creaking, and the feet and legs lowering into a leech-filled well? Today might be the day. Board a train for West Memphis. Better yet, fly down there swift as thought and serve a death sentence.
Doors shut, closing the world out. He exhaled, expelling the rage, eased back in his seat, and tried to relax. He still had a long ride ahead. A long ride. All the way to South Lincoln. Red Hook. Two hundred blocks. Four hundred. Who could say? But nothing better to do today. Might as well chill with No Face the Thief. Puff live. He even toyed with the idea of taking No Face under his wing and schooling him. Thinking this with last night in mind.
YOU CAME ALL THE WAY from Red Hook to find me? Jesus tightened his one-handed grip on the steering wheel, strangling a snake to bring it under control, let it know who's boss.
You the man, No Face said from the back seat.
The words, like the vibration of a silver wire, sent a glow of light into Jesus's heart. Oh yeah?
Yeah. No Face pressed his face close to the back of Jesus's shoulder, close enough to kiss him. Jesus could smell his sewer breath and hear his heavy elastic breathing, which came and snapped back, came and snapped back. That's what they say.
No Face pinched the Buddha's unlit end and offered it to Jesus. Jesus took the hot end between thumb and forefinger and watched No Face in the rearview mirror. The dark magnified every detail. Jesus didn't look anything like No Face the Thief and was proud of it.
No Face resembled a baited fish someone had snatched from the line and thrown back into the water. Short dreads like dynamite fuses. Face a ravaged landscape of dark hollows, craters and caves where the flesh had collapsed in on the bone. A checker-thick black eye patch. Word, nigga poured acid into his eye to win a bet. A nappy mustache, round nose boogers. Uneven brown teeth deep in his gums, ancient ruins. He tried to move near you when he spoke. You'd move and he'd move closer. You'd move again and so would he. Jesus trained his eyes back on the road. Hungry feelers, headlights searched the night. He took a long and slow suck on the Buddha; red warmth spread through his body; the streetlights brightened, then gleamed in full glory.
That's what they say.
Why they say that? Jesus looked at No Face, so clear a moment ago, now a small black oval on the rearview mirror. He turned his eyes back to the road. Aimed the unlit end of the Buddha at No Face's voice. No Face took it. Jesus smelled the seashells of No Face's armpits. Considered lowering the window to let the night in. But a frail yellow moon stuck to the windows and sealed them.
You know. No Face took a long toke, a deep sea diver sucking at the mouth of his Aqua-Lung.
Motion hummed a wave through Jesus. He and No Face floated in white space. Floated. He lowered his head, ducking danger — the car's angled hood.
That's what they say.
From what they say, Jesus said, you the man. Everybody knew No Face the Thief. Knew his rep. Bandit. Robbin folks wit his finger stuck inside a dirty paper bag.
Me? I'm jus a young brother strugglin in stride. No Face watched Jesus with his one bright headlight of an eye.
Where's the Buddha? The wheel was easy in Jesus's hands. He barely had to touch it. The bobbing headlight beams curved, pulled the car around a corner, and hit another car in the distance.
Ain't no mo.
Excerpted from Rails Under My Back by Jeffery Renard Allen. Copyright © 2000 Jeffery Renard Allen. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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