Excerpted from Ringside, 1925 by Jen Bryant Copyright © 2008 by Jen Bryant. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
That morning, Jimmy and me had hiked
clear to Connor's Pond, halfway up the mountain,
and back again. I hooked four bass
and three brown trout. Jimmy, who loves fishing
more than just about anything, caught
a dozen bluegills and a huge catfish his mother
promised to fry us for dinner. Soon as we got
back, we stashed our poles under the porch
and ran to Robinson's store for root beer floats.
We were sitting at the soda fountain,
sucking on our straws and listening to
Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" on the radio,
when Mr. Walter White asked: "You boys seen
Mr. Scopes?" With school being out and it being
summer, we figured the new science teacher
must be in trouble. But Mr. White is our
school superintendent, so we figured
we'd be in bigger trouble if we didn't tell.
"We saw him a half hour ago," I said,
"heading over to the school."
"Dressed for tennis," Jimmy added.
He hurried back to the table where
Mr. Robinson and Mr. Rappleyea waited.
Then the Hicks brothers, both Dayton lawyers,
showed up in their jalopy
and all five of them jabbered
like magpies at a picnic.
Those big ol' houses at the edge of town . . .
Pa says they were once grand and beautiful.
Now they're mostly heaps of bricks,
wood planks, broken glass. Some got
trees growin' right out the roofs, vines
twistin' out the doorways.
Pa says back before I was born, when the mines
were open and the furnaces made metal
for the railroads and tall city buildin's,
white families lived there--
"lace curtains in the windows, easy chairs
an' daisies on the porches in summer," Pa says.
Well, that sure ain't how it looks this summer.
There's skunks in the cellar,
bats in the attic,
mice in the kitchen sink.
When I'm not helpin' Pa, I come here
to root through the hallways and closets,
searchin' for somethin' I might be able
to fix up and sell--a flower vase,
a tin box, a watch face left behind
when those families moved to places
where jobs come easier.
'Most every year
the town council changes the number
on the little wooden sign
sayin' how many folks live here:
3,000, 2,600, 2,100, . . . and last year 1,800.
Pa and me, we don't got much need
for big numbers. I'm not sure what they mean,
'ceptin' I know that the first one
is biggest and the last one is smallest
and that means people are leavin'.
Twelve. Now that's a number I'm used to.
I was born here twelve years back:
May 1913. I ain't never lived anyplace
but Dayton, Tennessee,
so that last number
still seems like plenty of folks to me.
But maybe someday, if I move to a big city
like New Orleans, Chicago, or Detroit,
get me a steady job,
I'll live near even more people,
and a lot fewer
mice and skunks.
Jimmy Lee Davis
Tarnation! Poor Mr. Scopes!
He didn't know why
Mr. White came
to fetch him from
his tennis game
& bring him into Robinson's.
Me & Pete sipped
our sodas & listened
as he confessed
that back in the spring
when we were still in school,
he assigned us
the chapter on evolution,
which explained how
all the animals on earth
had started as simpler creatures
millions of years ago,
& how, over time,
they changed & developed
into the insects, birds,
fish, & mammals
we see today,
& how, even now,
they were still changing.
(I try not to think of
fish as my ancestors
when I'm cleaning them.)
Mr. Robinson held up a copy
of Hunter's Civic Biology,
which is the book we used
in school, which is also
one of the books he sells
in his store, & asked:
"Did you use this in class?"
Calm as Connor's Pond,
Mr. Scopes said: "Sure I did, Fred.
You can't teach science
at Rhea County High
without using that book!"
Mr. Robinson smiled
wide as a catfish unhooked.
"Well, John, the American
Civil Liberties Union will pay
to defend the first person
who challenges the new law
against teaching evolution
in Tennessee. So we were
wondering if you'd mind
being arrested, to get
the whole business
right out on the table,
right here in Dayton."
Lordy! My ears
were burnin' & Pete near
choked to death
on his root beer.
Mr. Scopes saw us eaves-
dropping. He winked &
tipped his cap. "Sure, I guess
that'd be all right--
long as I can finish
my tennis match."
The men took turns
patting him on the back,
thanking him, telling him
not to worry; they'd send
someone down to
later that afternoon.
I helped Marybeth Dodd with her groceries
and told her about Mr. Scopes. "Poor man,"
she said. "If he's a criminal, then I'm Babe Ruth."
We both laughed at the thought of that.
"Thanks a lot, Pete," she said, her smile flashing
in the sunlight. "Anytime, Marybeth," I said,
feeling the color rise in my cheeks. I quick
pedaled to the end of her street so she
didn't see. (What's gotten into me?)
Turning the corner, I rode fast and hard
across the tracks, up the hill, till
there were no more stores and houses,
just the farms spread out on either side,
like patchwork blankets as far as I could see.
I pedaled faster. Just about the time my thighs ached
and I needed a break, I came to the big oak
at the foot of Walton's Ridge. I leaned the bike
against the trunk, laced my shoes on tight, hiked
the steep dirt path made by the Cherokee
before there even was a Tennessee. At the top,
there's a flat rock called Buzzard's Point, where you
can stand and look out over the Tennessee River Valley,
watch the steam rise from the Southern Railway line
as it snakes its way from one end to the other.
Used to be, I'd climb up there to dream about
my future . . . running my own hardware store,
settling down with someone from school.
From the Hardcover edition.