I live in Alabama now, and I’m trying to be an Alabaman. Or an Alabamian, whichever it is. Work brought me here, but work’s not important. I recently bought a T-shirt: Fresh Alabama Tomatoes, it said. The tomatoes here are delicious in the summer, but I’m bad with fresh produce. I’ll buy three tomatoes, slicing half of one for sandwiches and letting the other half spoil while the other two grow soft, uneaten on the kitchen counter. It could be sheer neglect, but perhaps time passes too quickly for me.
Before Alabama, I lived in South Texas, on the border of Reynosa, Mexico—so close, in fact, that my husband once got lost and ended up in a line of cars crossing over. When the Border Patrol asked him his reason for crossing, he said, “I got lost.” Many of my Texas neighbors had been migrant workers as children and had parents who were still migrant workers. My father-in-law from Mississippi came from a farming family, one of eighteen children. He’s obsessed with toys now as an adult—talking dolls, video games that plug in to your TV, fart machine key chains. I don’t imagine he had any toys as a child, and I can’t picture him running or jumping, either. I see him crouched down in a field, picking cucumbers.
When my tomatoes are no longer worth eating, I toss them outside in my backyard and let the ants have at them.
I read a book once about slavery, from a slave’s point of view. At one point, poor whites raided the slaves’ quarters, and upon finding a pantry full of jars of preserves, they accused the slaves of “livin’ on ‘sarves.” That’s pretty much what I do: live on preserves. Sometimes I imagine the Civil War fought around me here, the bearded men in the drugstore checkout line as the infantry soldiers, wearing their gray, holding muskets, blowing horns, stoking the midnight fires, writing letters to women back home. The bearded men in the drugstore are served by black women. They bag up their candy bars and deodorant and Tylenol. Black men stock the aisles with two-liter bottles of Pepsi Cola, greeting cards, blow-up inner tubes.
A 93-year-old man in my neighborhood takes a walk every day at five o’clock. He wears orange suspenders, a blue shirt, navy shorts that go past his knees, and a hearing aid. He approached me as I was moving in, and I stood there, holding a boxful of books, as he invited me to the birthday party his daughter was throwing him. It was months away, to be held in the Student Center at the university. He also told me that his wife had died three years earlier, and he lived with his son, whose own wife had died, and his three granddaughters. He took the upstairs and they took the down. “They don’t keep the place clean,” he said. “I tell them their mama wouldn’t like it.” I promised I’d attend the party. I imagined he knew half of Alabama, that everyone would be there, but the party crept up without my realizing it and I didn’t make it. Later on, he knocked on screen door frame, bringing me a book he’d self-published, his life story. I added it to my box of books, which I had opened but hadn’t yet found the time to unpack.
So here I am, in Alabama now, closer to Magee, Mississippi, where my father-in-law grew up on a farm. I’m better able to get red tomatoes in the summer and I’m sixteen hours away from my neighbors in South Texas whose parents followed the crops, but closer to an old man who was about to have a birthday party. I’m sitting in an office chair right now, still thinking about a line about preserves in a book I once read about slavery. This window in here is open. It’s hot outside, the humid steam after rain rising off the street, that time when it feels like everything will stick.
Carrie Spell’s work has appeared in many magazines and journals, including McSweeneys, Black Warrior Review, The Encyclopedia of Alabama, Southern Women’s Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Gulf Stream, Nightsun. As an editor, she has worked with Southern Humanities Review, Mississippi Review, Mississippi Review Web, Pindeldyboz, and Opium Magazine. She teaches in the Department of English at Auburn University.