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Excerpt for A Long Time Gone

CHAPTER 1

I was born in the same bed that my mama was born in, and her mama before her, and even further back than anybody alive could still remember.  It was as if the black wood of the bedposts was meant to root us Walker women to this place of flat fields and fertile soil carved from the great Mississippi.  But like the levees built to control the mighty river, it never held us for long.  

We were born screaming into this world, the beginning of a lifelong quest to find what would quiet us.  Our legacy was our ability to coax living things from fallow ground along with a desperate need to see what lay beyond the Delta.  A need to quell a hurt whose source was as unexplainable as its force.  

Whatever it was that drove us away was never stronger than the pull of what brought us back.  Maybe it was the feel of the black Mississippi mud or the memory of the old house and the black bed into which we’d been born, but no matter how far we ran we always came back.

I returned in the spring nearly nine years to the day after I’d left.  I’d driven straight through from Los Angeles, twenty-seven hours of asphalt and fast food, my memories like a string guiding me home.  The last leg from Little Rock to Indian Mound was punctuated by bright flashes of lightening and constant tornado watches on the radio.  I kept my foot pressed to the accelerator as strong winds buffeted my car.  It didn’t occur to me to stop.  I had a trunk’s worth of hurts piled in the car with me that only my grandmother, Bootsie, could make go away.  She would forgive those long years of silence because she understood doggedness.  I’d inherited it from her side of the family, after all.

It was nearly dawn when the storm passed and I crossed the river into Mississippi, and headed east on Highway 82 and into the heart of the Delta.  The hills and bluffs to the west disappeared as if a giant boot had flattened all the land in between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, creating a landscape as rich and fertile as it was difficult to contain and control.  This place of my ancestors was known to make or break a man, and I figured by now the scorecard was about even.

I’ve been a long time gone.  Billboards and highway lights fell away, leaving behind empty fields and ramshackle structures swallowed by kudzu, turning them into hulking ghosts haunting the roadside. Sinewy cypress swamps randomly appeared as if to remind us of our tenuous hold on the land.  The predawn flatscape flashed by me in black and white, as if the years had absorbed all the color so that even my memories were seen only in black and white.

A therapist had once told me that my hindsight color-blindness was due to an unhappy childhood.  I tried to tell him that I had never considered my motherless childhood to be unhappy.  It was more of an accumulation of years filled with absence; that perhaps black and white were simply the colors of grief.

The rising sun painted the sky pink by the time I passed the sign for Indian Mound, the first seeds of panic making my heart beat faster.  I glanced over at my purse where I kept my pills, wondering if I could swallow them dry again as I’d been doing for most of the trip.  My throat felt sore, and my hands shook.  I’m almost home.  I turned my gaze toward the dim light outside that seemed to swallow my car as I passed through it, and pressed my foot harder on the accelerator.

I slowed down, trying to avoid the increasing amounts of debris tossed across the road, the tree limbs, leaves and roof shingles that seemed to have been scattered by the hand of a careless child.  I caught up to an old, faded red pick-up truck as it slowed down at the bright flashing red and blue lights of a police car stopped in front of fallen electrical lines. A large, brindled-colored dog, his lineage as indecipherable as the vintage of the pickup truck in which he sat, stared at me with a lost expression.  A police officer guided our way around the danger zone, his other hand reminding us to slow down.  As soon as he had disappeared from my rearview mirror, I sped up, passing the truck and maneuvering past a mailbox that stood upright in the middle of the highway as if it was meant to be there.

My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and I thought of the pills again, and how easily they could take away the pit of worry that had begun to gnaw at me.  I went faster, clipping a tree limb with my left front tire and hearing a crack and a thump of the split wood hitting metal.  I kept going, realizing that I was prepared to drive on the rim of a flat tire if I had to.  I’ve been a long time gone.

I turned off the highway onto a dirt road studded with puddles and rocks.  The road bisected a large cotton field, the furrows drowning in standing water.  I remembered this road and had turned by instinct.  It probably had a name, one we’d never used when giving directions to the odd visitor.  We usually instructed visitors to turn right about one and a half miles past the old general store that leaned to the left and still had a Royal Crown Cola sign plastered over the doorway even though it had been abandoned long before I was born.

The store was gone now, but I still knew where to turn in the same way my hair still knew where to part no matter how hard I tried to tell it different.  But the road was the same, still narrow with the tall white oaks—taller now, I supposed—creating a green archway above.  Tommy and I used to race barefoot down this road, watching our feet churn up dust like conjured spirits.

My back tires spun out, bringing me back to the present and slipping my car off the side of the road.  Panicking, I gunned the engine, succeeding only in digging the wheels further in muck. Although I knew it was useless, I gunned the engine two more times.  I stared through the windshield down the tree-shaded road.  It had taken me nine years to come back.  I figured stretching it out for a few more minutes wouldn’t matter.


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