The Switchback Boys of Drayton, Alabama
The canned goods aisle in Kroger is a good place for an epiphany. Tina’s epiphany happened next to a sales display of baked beans. She raised her hand to the raised tower of beans and touched a can. Utterly exquisite, she thought, but she wasn’t referring to the beans. The epiphany that hit her was electric. Nothing in my life matters. Everything I’ve ever touched will someday turn to atomic particles of dust affecting nothing.
Clutching the cart handle, Tina lowered herself to the cold linoleum floor and leaned her head against cans of jalapeno peppers. She pressed her hand over her forehead and tried to breathe.
“Ma’am, do you need help?” Tina looked up to see a gangly teenage boy, his body rising up unnaturally high over her.
“I think I’m dying,” she said, and immediately felt frightened. “I’m going to die and it won’t matter. Nothing I do matters,” she said more quietly, but the young man was already dialing 9-1-1 on his cell and telling someone to send an ambulance. She wanted to tell him no, that she didn’t need an ambulance. She didn’t need anything except to get away from where she was and to breathe. Just breathe. That was when she had her second epiphany, and it shocked her even more than the first, because in all her forty-two years of living in northeast Alabama, it made less sense than anything she had ever thought, yet she had never been more certain of anything. The words came over her like God’s own voice.
Join a gang.
At the hospital she said this to the doctor attending her, and the doctor made a note on her electronic pad. “We’ll get you some help,” she said, patting Tina’s forearm with her purple latex covered hand. Later, when Tina’s husband arrived to take her home she told him the same thing, and he looked at her as if she had announced she had leprosy. “You just need some rest,” he said, and asked the doctor how badly Tina had hit her head when she fell. The doctor prescribed some pills for Tina, and he drove her home where she crawled into bed and stayed the remainder of the weekend.
Each morning she awoke to the same despair. There was no reason to get out of bed and no reason to stay in it. There is no purpose to anything I do. Everything in my life is headed in the wrong direction. When she was younger she saw her life as moving forward, dismally slow, yet still heading into the future. Sometimes it stalled or veered off in another direction, but it always righted itself eventually and the overall momentum was forward, but that wasn’t happening anymore, and the blunt reality of it made fear and hopelessness roll over her like a cold wave of dirty water. The words came again.
Join a gang.
Tina squeezed her eyes shut at the very thought of something so preposterous. She spent the rest of her weekend trying to explain it to her husband. “It doesn’t matter what I do,” she told him, and then added, “What if I did join a gang?”
He put his feet on the floor, scratched his belly, and shook his head. “Well, if you did you’d be nuts.”
“I just can’t shake this thought.”
He sighed and reached in the dresser for a pair of shorts. “There are no gangs around here, and if there were, they wouldn’t take you. I gotta go to work.” With that, he took a shower, put on his clothes, and filled his insulated cup with coffee. Through the window, Tina watched him back his Acura out into the street and drive away. She took out her computer and typed in Gang Sites but found nothing other than articles on gang violence. She found no maps for gang hangouts in her northeastern Alabama town, so she decided she would have to look for herself.
Tina drove her van to Jackson Avenue, and parked in front of Smokey T’s Barbeque and Pool Hall, the very mention of which instilled fear in the bosom of every white woman in her church. She’d been warned about this neighborhood her whole life, but the street was quiet with hardly anyone about.
It was Tuesday morning, and Smokey T’s was not yet open. Tina walked to the storefront, wondering where gangs gathered at such hours. She stared at the white windowless front doors for so long it attracted the attention of a man on the far side of the street who lingered to see what the chubby white lady in the yoga pants with a baby blue pocketbook over her shoulder was doing.
“What you wanting over there?” the man called out to her. Tina wasn’t sure he was talking to her, so she glanced over both shoulders. “You looking for something?” he said again.
Tina turned around. “Do you know what time this place opens?”
An old man in a brown straw hat put a hand on his hip and looked Tina up and down with a hard jerk of his chin. He pointed a stern finger at her. “Don’t come messing around this neighborhood looking for junk.”
“I’m just looking for. I need to find. . .I’m looking for a gang.” Tina found herself gesturing uselessly.
The man flipped a dismissive hand at Tina and resumed his walk, muttering as he went, “Fucking crazy.” He turned to look back at her twice and shook his head. At the end of the street he gave her the arm gesture once more and then disappeared inside a store. To Tina’s right a woman in a shop doorway was laughing. A sign overhead read: Stadium Liquor and Win. The final “e” had fallen off. Tina walked toward her and stopped short a few yards away. The woman stopped laughing and folded her arms over her bosom, staring Tina down. For several seconds Tina waited. At any other point in her life she would have been tongue-tied, but her silence was born out of her perplexity at the laughter. The two of them appeared to be the same age, the same size, and they both wore dark stretch pants with shirts pulled down over ample hips. “You lost?” asked the woman in the doorway.
“No, I’m where I want to be,” said Tina.
The woman’s brow furrowed and she took a step forward. “You high?”
“I don’t do drugs.”
The woman’s face changed and suddenly she made the same hand gesture the man had. Tina was impressed at how similar the movement was, and she wondered if the old man was this woman’s father. “You one of those missionaries. We had plenty of them come over here from the big Baptist church on your side of town all last Christmas carrying on like they was gonna still care about us when January come. Jesus done saved us in our own church and we doing fine, so do like Mr. Turner say and get yourself on back home.”
“I’m not a missionary. I mean I go to church, but that’s not why I’m here. I want to find a gang, a real gang that I can join,” said Tina.
“You are high,” said the woman, turning to go back inside.
“No, really, I’m not. Look, is there a gang around here? Where do they stay?”
“It’s morning. Most of em’s in school,” said the woman, pulling the door shut behind her just before adding, “big dumbass.”
Tina wanted to call out to her once more, but she didn’t have anything left to say that made any sense. She was left staring through the glass liquor store door the same as she had the door of Smokey T’s. From inside the woman flipped over a Closed sign.
“Nothing matters. This doesn’t matter,” Tina said to no one. She returned to her van. “Gangs go to school,” she told herself. “Of course.” She drove home and waited for 3:00 o’clock to come.
At 3:00 PM Tina was back in front of Smokey T’s, sitting inside her van, waiting. Word had spread that a white woman had come around asking about gangs. Some said she was a cop, but others said a cop wouldn’t be that stupid. Some said she was a left-wing liberal, and others said she was a Trumper sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. All said she was crazy.
On sight of the first group of boys passing by, Tina stepped out and followed them. They carried backpacks and dressed in the style of every junior high schooler in the town. Each one sneaked glances over his shoulder at the woman in the stretch pants and yellow knit blouse traipsing along behind.
It was at this moment that Tina had her third epiphany; she no longer felt fear.
She stopped, frozen on the sidewalk. If nothing mattered, then there was nothing to fear. Not loss, not death, not anything. She breathed in deeply. She was free. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating.
“Hey, where are you going?” she called out to the group and stumbled forward to catch them.
The boys stopped en masse and cut their eyes at one another before looking back at the woman following them. “What you want, lady? We ain’t done nothing,” said a chubby boy with a Black Panther backpack.
Tina was out of breath as much from the epiphany as she was from trying to keep up with the boys. She put her hands on her knees and panted. “I’m not trying to bother you. I know it won’t make sense, but I’m looking for a gang. Any gang.” And then she added, “I’m not a cop.”
The boys snickered. “What the hell you talking about?” asked the oldest boy. He was taller than the others, and he stepped out in front. He wore a pencil thin mustache so fine Tina wondered if he had drawn it on. When he spoke he thrust his chin out in a tough gesture that looked as if he had practiced it. The chubby boy glanced up in clear deference.
“I had this vision, this epiphany, and all I can say is that I’m supposed to be here, to do this,” said Tina, holding her hands, palms facing one another in front of her chest. She suddenly saw herself, a middle-aged white woman holding an imaginary crystal ball, trying to convince a group of Black boys she was meant to be one of them. She dropped her hands. “That’s my van,” she pointed down the street. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
At this the boys gave one another confused looks and the chubby boy began shaking his head. “I ain’t going nowhere with her. She’s crazy.”
The older boy with the mustache ignored him. “You come down here to give us a ride? And you looking for a gang?”
“Do you know a gang or not?” Tina attempted to throw her shoulders back and match his tough expression.
“Sure,” said the young man, nodding slowly. “I know a gang.”
“Come on, Dee,” the chubby boy piped up. “Mama’s waiting.”
“Shut your mouth, Kev,” said Dee, not bothering to look back at his younger brother. “Go on home. Take Michael with you.” He pushed the shoulder of the smallest boy who didn’t look any older than twelve or thirteen. “Go on. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“What am I supposed to tell Mama?” Kev tugged at the straps of his backpack and gave an exasperated huff. The remaining two boys with Dee began laughing.
“You tell her whatever the fuck you wanna tell her. Now git on home!” Dee raised the back of his hand and made a menacing step toward Kev who whirled around and stomped off, mumbling something to himself. Michael looked uncertainly at Dee and then hurried off behind Kev. The other two boys lingered a moment, and then ran off as well.
Dee tilted his head up the street toward Tina’s van. “The gang’s a couple miles that way.”
“Where are we going?” asked Tina.
“I’ll tell you when we get there.”
She wasn’t afraid. A voice inside told her she probably should be afraid, but she wasn’t. Not at all. She realized she was smiling.
A couple of miles stretched into five miles. They were halfway to Drayton when Dee spoke up. “So is this some kind of thing you do? Some kinda tough love, charity thing, or something?”
Tina rubbed her fingers over her eyes to blot out the sun melting over the asphalt in front of her. “Have you ever felt like everything you’ve ever done your whole life just doesn’t mean anything, even though you’d been doing everything just the way you were supposed to? You’ve followed all the rules, but still no matter how hard you tried. . .it didn’t make any difference because everything around you is falling apart.” She glanced over at Dee a moment. “You do one thing. You do another thing, but at the end of the day. . .”
Dee shook his head and began laughing softly.
Tina eyed him, and pursed her lips in frustration. “I’ve been understanding things lately that I never saw before, and I have no idea why. All I know is I have to see this through. See what happens.”
Dee began nodding his head. “I guess if you’re a white lady you get to do that.”
“No, this is not a white privilege thing,” said Tina, waving her hand, but he was still laughing at her. She stopped talking.
“So this all news to you,” said Dee, suddenly serious. “You figure out you follow all the rules and shit still happens?” His eyes focused on something far away. He shook his head and said nothing else.
Drayton was three miles further down the highway just over the county line. The downtown was as dreary and sleepy as any other dying small town. One end of the main street was visible from the other. Tina turned left and rolled slowly past a post office, the Sheriff’s department, a toy store, a billiards hall, a thrift store, a convenience store, and a martial arts studio. “Where do we go?”
Dee’s eyes went from one storefront to another. “Pull in there,” he said finally, motioning toward the convenience store.
“This place?” asked Tina, incredulous. The store had obviously once been a staple of the downtown but was now dimly lit and the snack racks in the window that Tina could see from her parking space were sparsely filled. An old man wearing a red cap sat on a stool behind the counter watching a miniature TV set mounted high on the wall. Tina couldn’t see what he was watching, but the blue glow played over the old man’s pale face, making him ghost-like in the fading afternoon. “The gang hangs out in this place? What’s the name of this gang?”
Dee watched the storefront, silent.
“I don’t see anybody around here,” said Tina, glancing out the back window. “Are you sure this is the place?”
Dee’s eyes never moved. “Switchback Boys.”
He turned his head to Tina. “You asked me the name. They’re the Switchback Boys.”
“I never heard of them.”
Dee rolled his eyes. “How many gangs you know about, lady?”
“Well I. . .”
“S’what I thought.”
“What time are they going to be here?”
Dee rolled his eyes once more, this time adding a sigh. “They on gang time. They come when they want to come.”
“And they come to this rinky-dink place with that old white man in there?” Tina was beginning to suspect for the first time that she was being taken for a ride. “Let’s go in and wait for them. I’ll buy you a cold drink.”
Dee began nodding his head, his entire upper body moving in slow agreement. “Aiight. Let’s go.”
At the sound of the bell above the door, the old man glanced at the woman. When he caught sight of Dee coming in behind her, the old man stood up and his eyes locked on each in succession. Both headed to the back of the store: Tina to the drink coolers and Dee into the restroom on the far right. She scanned three glass cooler doors until she found what she wanted, a Mountain Dew. Looking a little further, she selected a Red Bull for Dee. Neither was cold as she liked her drinks to be. She walked back toward the entrance and placed them on the counter. The old man’s arms were crossed and he lifted his chin, gesturing toward the back of the store. “He with you?”
Tina looked over her shoulder. “We’re meeting someone,” she said, stammering a little over the words.
“What?” the old man barked.
“Any gangs hang out around here?” Tina asked quickly.
The old man’s face screwed up tighter and he put his hands on the counter. “What are you talking about? Gangs.” He reached under the counter for something.
Dee exited the restroom and was taking his time making his way to the counter.
“Where you from?” asked the old man.
“Just a ways up the road from Drayton,” said Tina. She leaned against the counter, trying to appear casual.
“Never seen you here before. What are you doing going around with that boy?” The old man sneered at Dee who stopped next to Tina.
“Never mind. Let me just pay for the drinks. We can wait outside,” said Tina.
“Ain’t no trouble round here, and you better not be bringing none in.” He pointed a finger at Dee. Tina fished a five dollar bill from her pocketbook and slid it across the counter toward the man. “Ain’t gonna tolerate no trouble here,” said the man without taking his eyes from Dee who returned the stare.
“We’re just buying sodas,” said Tina.
“Don’t put up with stealing neither,” said the man.
Tina handed the Red Bull to Dee and motioned for him to follow. The lights bled blue across Tina’s face before they could reach the door only feet away. “Oh hell! Oh hell, no!” shouted Dee. Two sheriff’s deputies leaped out of their car with guns drawn. Tina dropped her drink and ran out the door with her hands out in front of her, stammering, “Wait! Wait! No!”
The deputy in front pushed past Tina and jerked the door open with his free hand, his gun pointed at Dee. “Get down! Down!” Dee turned and made a run toward the rear, but the second officer pushed past Tina and tackled Dee a few feet from the back door. Tina followed them and saw Dee being thrown to the floor. The deputy had his knee on Dee’s back, pulling the boy’s hands behind and shouting, “Stay down! Stop resisting, asshole!” The old man was shouting and Dee was cursing. The first deputy with the gun said something into the mic on his shoulder, but Tina couldn’t understand any of it.
“Why are you arresting him? What are you doing?” she shrieked.
The deputy handcuffing Dee pulled him to his feet and put a hand out to push her back. “Lady, back away! Back away!”
“But I’m—we’re a gang. Switch,” she shook her head, trying to remember. “Switch Boys. I’m in the gang. We’re in the gang! You have to take me. Take me, too!”
“Go back to your vehicle, ma’am. We’ve got this,” said the first deputy, pushing Dee out the door. Tina tried to follow, but the deputy ordered her once more to stay back.
She stopped on the sidewalk in front of their brown Dodge, the lights still flashing. “Please, please! You can’t do this. This isn’t right. This is not what’s supposed to happen.” The deputies ignored her.
The deputy pushed Dee’s head down as they put him in the back of the car, and Tina heard him call back to her, “Ain’t nothing matter. Nothing fucking matter.” He turned his face away, refusing to look at the woman standing there on the sidewalk.
© Cathy Adams
Cathy Adams’s latest novel, A Body’s Just as Dead, was published by SFK Press. Her writing has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and elsewhere. She earned her M.F.A. at Rainier Writing Workshop, Pacific Lutheran University, Washington.