Home > Boys of Alabama

Boys of Alabama
Author: Genevieve Hudson

PART 1

 

FROM THE PLANE, ALABAMA UNFURLED in green fields and thick forests. Wilder than Max had pictured. Trees went in all directions and houses were hidden among them. He touched his nose to the glass window. The aerial engines whirred. The plane banked against a shelf of sky. The landing gear slammed into place, and his mother, the fearful flier, gripped the hand rest between them. She slid her fingers over the back of Max’s wrist. They descended over a neighborhood of slanted clapboard shacks that leaned toward one another, strewn junk going rotten in the yards.

You’ve got the good seat, said his father. The plane lowered and lowered. Front row to the action.

In the airport, Max’s family bought sweet teas served in Styrofoam cups so big he had to hold his with both hands. He drank half of it and felt high. Sugar soared through him. He bought a disposable camera in the terminal kiosk from a man with marble eyes and a baseball cap with an Alabama A. Max had attended an exhibition in Berlin the previous month where an artist made collages out of pictures developed from a disposable camera and construction paper. The fuzzy, low-res images had created a nostalgic quality out of dried toast and lonely mandarins. Max held the green plastic camera in his hand. Its picture quality would pale in comparison to the power of his phone, and that was the point. Max wanted to document the drive to his new home. He wanted the pictures he took to look sentimental and unsettled.

Outside the air hung in sheets. It was heavy when he swallowed it and left a taste in his mouth he didn’t know how to identify yet. His nose started to run, his legs to sweat, and his breathing moved up into his throat. As they waited for their rental car, his family stood beside a group of men whose skin shone a porkish pink.

On the drive to their new town, Max’s mother mumbled, Oh, it’s actually quite beautiful, and Max agreed.

He thought the landscape was exotic, all those red rivers they drove past, rushing like arteries cut open across the earth. The sky was burnt blue and the trees were jagged things that huddled together. Forests fattened along the sleepy highway. Max tried to look through the trees to see what was back there, but he only saw rows of more pines pointing upward, reaching. Some had signs stapled to their trunks that warned KEEP OUT and NO TRESPASSING and SMILE YOU ON CAMERA. Others had fallen horizontal, their roots severed like veins, as if a storm or some terrible force of nature tore them from the soil, and no one had cared enough to clear them away.

They passed a billboard advertising BBQ ribs. Then a billboard advertising the Bible. A truck with monster wheels boomed past. It flew a Confederate flag from its bed. Max knew the flag from the movies, but here it was in real life. The line on a bumper sticker: GOD BLESS OUR MILITARY, BUT ESPECIALLY OUR SNIPERS. The family drove for almost an hour with their chests tipped forward. The rental car smelled like Hawaiian Aloha, a scent his father had chosen. A football-shaped air freshener swung from the rearview mirror. This is where the Hawaiian Aloha smell originated.

His mother flicked it and said, Aloha headache.

His mother lit a cigarette and blew a line of smoke at it.

The sunset was enough to make them pull over and step onto the shoulder of the road. Max brought out his camera and his father snapped a picture of him flexing his muscles in front of I-20. A glow stretched across the horizon and electric purple clouds pulled apart like sweet taffy. In Alabama, the sunset held an extra charge, everything did, because everything was new. The pink particles of light wielded their strange power. The sky appeared bigger. Maybe it was.

When the car plant came into view on the left, Max’s father jabbed a thumb at it. That’s where he would be stationed. The main building was German-looking, white, and clean, with a sleek roof made to mimic a series of coastal hills. The sterile campus and its familiar design relieved Max. He turned his head and stared as the buildings shrunk into the distance.

His father took the exit into town—WELCOME TO DELILAH—and began to laugh. Max wondered if he should laugh, too. Something about the scene did seem funny. It was funny that they had arrived. This was it. The car slowed to an inch in front of a series of traffic lights. In the truck next to them, a hard-jawed man in a cowboy hat hung an arm out the window and ashed a cigarette. They were home, if you could call it that yet. On both sides of the street, neon signs pulsed with life. They beckoned with taco burgers, catfish platters, frozen yogurt parfaits, and paper cones of popcorn chicken. There was so much brightness, Max could have forgotten it was night.

They drove down a road named after a legendary college football coach who’d led the team to many national championships decades ago. His father had heard of him. All the way in Germany he knew of the man whose street they drove down. His father seemed impressed by his proximity to the dead man’s legacy, pleased with himself for knowing.

If you want to understand this place, you need to understand the pride they have for this man, his father said. He gave them hope. And hope is a remarkable thing to give.

They passed the high school Max would attend, a prisonlike sprawl of low buildings flanked by green fields, named God’s Way. The school was a private evangelical school, and although Max’s family was not religious, the school had been recommended to them by his father’s new colleagues.

The public schools here are full of violent kids.

There’s at least one stabbing in the cafeteria each year.

Everyone’s daddy’s got a gun.

All the boys know where to find the gun.

He’ll get a better education in private.

The teachers are more invested.

We aren’t going to be able to provide housing in a good school district.

Whether it was true that the schools were as violent as they’d been told, the word gun scared Max’s parents into obedience.

The houses in the neighborhood frowned at Max from their perches. The space between the yards excited him. The suburbs. American largeness. The homes looked like they had fallen asleep, their curtains drawn, their interior lights a drowsy blue. Inside the rooms of the houses they passed, Americans did American things.

Max felt television-famous when his father pulled their rental car into the circular driveway of their new house. Houses like this existed only in the sitcoms that came careening into his TV. Ivy climbed and curled up the redbrick face, past two stories of shuttered windows. In Germany, houses this big were reserved for the rich. A stone settled in his stomach when he thought of Germany, all those hours behind him now. He remembered the two Americans he had seen on a bus in Hamburg just days before and how he hadn’t been able to stop watching them: their too big pants and the confident grins affixed to their boyish faces. They had seemed assured there in a foreign city, as if it, too, were theirs. Now Max was in America, but he did not feel that it was his.

In his new backyard, blond slates of wood formed a perfect square fence. It reminded Max of a story he had read about an American boy called Tom Sawyer and how Tom’s evil aunt forced him to whitewash a fence as punishment for skipping school. But Tom made the work seem like an honor and fooled boys into painting the fence for him. American boys are clever, thought Max. And they want to trick you. Max visualized himself washing this fence white, making friends from it. Friends. He could not imagine. His parents reeled through the rooms inside. They called out for him, but Max stayed in the backyard, taking in the purple night that seemed to glitter with kicked-up dust. He bent down and stared at a blade of rotten grass.

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