A journal of narrative writing.

Listen to "Smoke"
read by John Riley


On his last day of high school Jackie York woke up to the smell of burning books. He didn't know it was his last day of high school. He did know the smoke coming through his rusty window screen was book smoke.

His mom had told him the night before she would be burning all of her Frank Yerby books, and when she said she was going to do something, especially if it was a little bit insane, she did it.

Jackie pulled on his clothes. Maybe he could stop her before she burned the ones she hadn't read, or had only read once. Mom wasn't the easiest person to get along with in the best of times. He hated to think of what she'd be like without her novels.

She was standing beside the brown metal drum in the corner of the backyard, poking the smoking drum with a broom handle, the worn straws bouncing by her silver and black hair. Jackie was sure her hair had started graying faster since Christmas, when his older sister Susie had come home from Florida with her pregnant belly stretched tight as a drum head. Now Susie was living in Mom's old bedroom with little Billy. Billy was three months old and cute as new money, even when he was crying.

Four or five paperbacks were left on the ground. The frayed covers lifted and fell in the still chilly April morning breeze. She had bought the novels from the Goodwill for a dime or fifteen cents, and they were her main pleasure.

After she got home from the mill and supper was finished, the dishes washed, she sat in her corner chair, ignoring the television blasting out “Life with Lucy” or “The Partridge Family,” and read until she fell asleep. She had read through all the Zane Greys with their page after page of descriptions of the single Judas Tree in the desert and then read through Taylor Caldwell, but none of them took her away like Frank Yerby.

She would finish one and sigh and gently lay it on the floor and say the same thing every time. “He sure can tell a story.” If it was an especially good one, she would open it back up and before you knew it she had read it again. She could really speed through a book. When he had been a little boy, Jackie had marveled at how fast she could read. Now he could read faster. He knew because he had raced her without letting her know.

Jackie stepped up to the barrel. “What are you doing, Mom?” He had begged her the night before not to burn her books. He had tried everything. “That's what Goebbels did!” he yelled, but it did no good. He might as well have been talking to little Billy.

“Books don't burn worth a damn,” she said.

“Yeah, you gotta reach Fahrenheit 451. That's pretty hot.”

She looked at him for the first time that morning. He knew she thought he was smart because she was always saying “You're too smart for your own good.” She wanted him to go to college and become a lawyer, fight all the rich people and get rich himself in the process.

“I learned that from Ray Bradbury. Great book. Maybe you'd like it. I know for sure Bradbury is white.”

The night before, Aunt Shelia had dropped by. Shelia was Mom's younger sister. She was even shorter than Mom and had little eyes that were dark brown but seemed black because her pupils were always dilated from the “black beauties” and “west coast turnarounds” she got from her truck driver friends. But her eyes hadn't been dilated lately. Jackie wished they were.

Shelia worked on production as a knitter and sometimes made nearly a hundred and fifty, even two hundred dollars a week. She drank 16-ounce Budweisers and smoked Benson & Hedges.

When Shelia dropped by it was usually to start trouble. This time was no exception. She walked in without knocking, right after supper, put her beer in the little brown bag on the table, lit a cigarette and blew the smoke toward the sink where Mama stood washing dishes. Jackie was sitting at the table reading a story in the afternoon newspaper about a big trial that had gone to the jury the day before.

“Hello, Shelia,” Mom said.

“Hi, back to you,” Shelia said and took another long drag off the cigarette, ground it out in the tin ashtray and said, “Frank Yerby's a nigger.”

Mama didn't say anything for a minute. She went on washing the dishes. Finally she said, “What?”

Jackie stopped reading, watched his mom closely. She was rattled. Usually, Shelia couldn't get to her but this time. . .

Shelia smelled blood. “I said Frank Yerby's a nigger. I saw his picture on the back of a book when I was buying my True Confessions. I couldn't believe it at first so I asked the cute boy who works there. He said it looks like it but it didn't matter. I said it'd sure matter to my sister.”

Mama pulled the rubber plug out of the sink and started rinsing. As the water sucked down the drain she said, “Thanks for coming by, Shelia. Run on along now. I promised Jackie I'd help him with his homework.”

She hadn't helped him with his homework since the fourth grade.

Shelia's face sagged. She had hoped for a fight, maybe even a chance to drag Mama down to the newsstand to prove it to her. Anything but to be told to run on home.

She wasn't ready to give up. “I've got to ask you one thing. Couldn't you even tell, reading the books? That he weren't no white man? I mean, didn't he give himself away even once?”

Mama went on rinsing the dishes. Shelia glanced nervously at Jackie but didn't like what she saw and jerked her eyes away. After a minute she picked up her beer. At the door she stopped and said, “I only told you 'cause I knew you'd want to know.”

“Thank you,” Mama said.

After Shelia left, Mama finished up the dishes and then walked heavily around the house gathering up the paperbacks and dropping them into a brown paper bag. She sat the bag on the table and said, “I'll burn them in the morning before I go to work.”

Jackie begged and pleaded, but it did no good. Once her mind was made up you couldn't change it with an act of Congress. “Shelia would never give me a minute of rest,” was all she offered by way of explanation.