It's 1959 in Benevolence, Florida, and life is as sweet as a Valencia orange for 15-year-old Dove Alderman. Whether she's sipping cherry Cokes with her girlfriends and listening to the Everly Brothers, eating key lime pie made by her housekeeper, Delia, or cruising around town with the coolest boy in school in his silver-blue T-bird convertible, Dove's days are as smooth and warm as the soft sand in her father's orange groves.
But there's trouble brewing among the local migrant workers. Mysterious fires have broken out, and rumors are spreading that disgruntled pickers are to blame. Suddenly, black and white become a muddy shade of gray, and whispers of the KKK drift through the Southern air like sighs. The Klan could never exist in a place like Benevolence, Dove tells herself. Or could it?
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November 07, 2005
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Excerpt from Devil on My Heels by Joyce McDonald
Lately I have taken to reading poems to dead boys in the Benevolence Baptist Cemetery. They don't walk away before I have finished the first sentence, like most of the live boys I know. When I read to them, their eyes don't wander to something, or someone, more interesting. I can pretend these boys are listening. I can pretend they hear me.
On Friday afternoons like this one, right after seventh period, I head straight for the cemetery. I like to sit beneath the Austrian pines in the cool shade, reading lines from Tennyson or Wordsworth, listening to the whisper of the wind through the branches--listening to the trees making up their own poems. Soft words in the language of wind and pine needles.
Miss Delpheena Poyer, my English teacher, is the reason I am sitting in the Baptist cemetery reading poems to dead boys. This marking period we are studying poetry. All kinds of poetry. A few weeks back Miss Poyer sent us on a mission to find interesting epitaphs on gravestones. That was our homework assignment. I went to three church cemeteries in Benevolence looking for verses. My favorite epitaph is engraved on the headstone of Rowena Mae Cunningham, who died in 1871, wife of Cyril Cunningham.
here lies rowena mae
my wife for 37 years.
and this is the first damn thing
she ever done to oblige me.
I think that says all that needs to be said about the Cunninghams' marriage.
This afternoon I am reading to Charles Henry Colewater, "Beloved son of Emily and Carter Colewater," who died at the age of fourteen in 1903. He was only a year younger than I am now. His parents' graves are to the right of his. Sometimes I have this eerie feeling their spirits are hovering over my shoulder, making sure I don't read anything they'd disapprove of. This is, after all, a Baptist cemetery.
I lean my shoulder against Charles Henry's headstone. If I close my eyes, I can imagine I see his face, a friendly face dotted with light freckles across his nose and cheeks, like little muddy footprints left behind by ants.
My mom's grave is only a few yards from Charles Henry's. All it says on her headstone is Caroline Winfield Alderman, 1922-1947, wife of Lucas Alderman. It doesn't say a word about her being mother to Dove Alderman. I was barely four years old when she left this earth, so I don't remember her very well. But it makes me a little sad that nobody took the time to write an epitaph for her.
This week in Miss Poyer's class we are studying sonnets. I flip through the Selected Poems of John Keats, pick out one of his sonnets, and start right in reading it to Charles Henry. Only, the first line stops me cold: "When I have fears that I may cease to be." I know those fears Keats is talking about. Sometimes I lie awake half the night, worrying that Mr. Khrushchev and those Soviets might decide to drop an atom bomb right smack-dab in the middle of Florida before I know what a real kiss feels like. Not those slobbery head-on collisions after the bottle stops spinning, with everybody looking on. I mean the real thing. Although I'm a little vague on what that might be.
Not that I haven't been kissed a few times. I have. Even been French kissed by Bobby McNeill in eighth grade at Donna Redfern's party when we were dancing and somebody turned the lights out. I was expecting a plain old spin-the-bottle kiss. The next thing I knew, I thought I had a raw oyster stuck in my mouth.
I am absolutely positive that kissing gets better than this. Otherwise I would lie down right here next to Charles Henry and pull the sod up over my head.
I rest my shoulder against the chiseled curve of his tombstone. Poor Charles Henry. He was so young when he died. This is why I read poems--love poems mostly--to boys like him, boys who most likely passed on before they ever had a chance to fall in love. If I were in their shoes, I would certainly be most appreciative of any visitors stopping by my final resting place to read a poem to me now and then.