Carrie Spell

Preserves

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.

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Carrie Spell’s work has appeared in many mag­a­zines and jour­nals, includ­ing McSweeneys, Black Warrior Review, The Encyclopedia of Alabama, Southern Women’s ReviewBeloit 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.