A Writing Exercise

By Mark Alpert


Instead of doing what I was supposed to do today — the deadline for my next book is in August — I messed around with the first chapter of an old, unpublished novel that I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s the same book that I excerpted in this space a few weeks ago, a novel about a racist Southern governor who’s pretty similar to George Wallace (pictured above).

Rather than talk about writing this week, I thought it might be interesting to present this first chapter just to see what people think of it. When I wrote it 28 years ago I thought it was okay, but when I reread it this morning I saw that it needed some work. So I made a few changes. Here’s the latest version.

May, 1963

I was there when Governor Fowler commandeered the lunch counter at the Woolworth’s. I was only six years old, but I remember it well.

It was a Saturday afternoon. My mother always went downtown on Saturdays to go shopping, although she rarely had enough money to buy anything. On this particular afternoon she was examining the discount bin at Woolworth’s, rummaging through a pile of cheap frilly blouses. I sat by her feet, on the cool linoleum floor, overcome with boredom and a growing need to go to the bathroom. I was about to yell something plaintive at my mother, something loud enough to get her attention but not so loud that she’d turn around and slap me, when all the glass doors at the front of the store swooshed open at once and a dozen state troopers marched into Woolworth’s like they were on parade, striding purposefully past the cash registers.

The check-out girls left their calculations in mid-punch. The customers waiting in line lifted their heads from their magazines.

A moment later, a pack of television cameramen and newspaper photographers barged into the store, shouting and bumping into each other. They were all pointing their cameras at a short, pudgy man in a plain gray suit, flanked by two more Alabama state troopers. At first I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, because the man wasn’t too impressive to look at. His hair was shiny and black and too carefully combed. Although his suit was neatly pressed, he still looked rumpled somehow. But it was his face that really made you squirm. It was pointy and scrunched, like the face of a ferret, with big dark eyebrows and a moist, jutting chin. After a couple of seconds I recognized that face — I’d seen it before on the six o’clock news. It was Governor Jimmy Fowler.

As soon as the governor came into Woolworth’s he started shaking hands with the customers, taking a moment to smile and wave and say a few cheery words. The folks at the cash registers were so surprised to see him there, they didn’t even think to ask him what was going on. But then the store manager shuffled up to Fowler and whispered something in his ear. The governor nodded, still smiling, still waving at the customers he knew. Then he headed for the lunch counter at the back of the store. The television crews followed close behind and the news photographers ran down the aisles, trying to get good shots of the governor between the shelves of shampoos and skin creams.

My mother stopped picking through the blouses but stayed bent over the discount bin. She muttered, “What the hell?” just loud enough for me to hear. That was a favorite question of hers, “What the hell?” spoken slow and incredulous under her breath. She watched the governor stride across the store, her eyes wary and bloodshot. At the same time, she raised her hand to her head and smoothed down her blonde hair, which was pulled back from her forehead and fastened with bobby pins.

By then, the state troopers were already lined up at the lunch counter. A big-shouldered, blue-shirted trooper stood behind each of the revolving stools, making it impossible for me to see who was sitting there. I got up from the floor and wandered over to the skin-care products aisle, where I could get a better view. Customers were starting to flock to the back of the store, old ladies hefting shopping bags and craning their necks so they could see past the photographers and TV crews.

The gray-haired waitress who usually took the lunch orders was standing at the far end of the counter with her arms folded across her chest, angry as a hornet. She glared at the boys on the stools, making her face just as ugly as it could be, giving them a look that could’ve frozen the Gulf of Mexico. And her baleful expression didn’t change a bit even when the governor came behind the counter. He whispered, very theatrically, “Don’t fret, Maggie, I’ll take over now,” and then ambled down the narrow space between the soda fountain and the grill.

Fowler positioned himself midway between two trays of donuts on the counter. The TV cameramen flicked on their lights, which cast the governor’s shadow hugely against the wall. He leaned forward, placing his palms flat on the countertop and hunching his shoulders. He looked like a well-dressed football coach about to address his team, or a school principal called in to lecture a group of unruly students.

And that was appropriate, because the twelve boys sitting on the other side of the counter were students all right, from Talacoosa State, which at that time was known as Talacoosa State College for Negroes. They all stared straight ahead, their faces so deadpan that I thought they were playing some kind of practical joke. I expected them to bust out laughing at any minute. They were wearing their Sunday best, black suits and white shirts and colored bow ties, which was a bit overdressed for a Saturday afternoon at Woolworth’s. Fowler surveyed the twelve black faces, slowly turning his head until his gaze fixed on the student sitting right in front of him. This one was painfully thin and wore glasses with wire frames.

“What do you want, boy?” the governor asked. Eyeing the cameras, he carefully swept back the wave of black hair that had crept down his forehead.

“We’d like to be served, sir,” the skinny student answered. His voice was as calm as could be, and he stared at Fowler without blinking. “We’ve been waiting here since ten-thirty.”

“What did the waitress say when you asked to be served?” the governor asked, slowly, patiently, like a school principal going over a tricky lesson.

“She said she couldn’t serve us.”

“Well, why are you still here?”

“We have a right to be served, sir.”

The other students nodded their heads ever so slightly. By this point, I had given up the idea that the whole thing was a practical joke. Now I expected to see a fight. The state troopers looked like they wanted to knock the living bejesus out of the students and were just waiting for the governor to give them the go-ahead.

Fowler smiled. “Are you boys aware,” he said, putting an ironical emphasis on the last syllable of the word, “that this is a whites-only establishment?”

“Yes, sir, but…”

“This store has a policy against serving Negroes at its lunch counter. I ain’t saying it’s a good policy or a bad policy. It’s probably a bad policy and Woolworth’s is losing a lot of business because of it. But it’s their store and their right not to serve anyone they don’t want to serve. You understand what I’m saying?”

“Sir, the fourteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees…”

“Don’t go telling me what’s in the Constitution, boy,” Fowler snapped. “You take a few courses at the state college and you think you know everything. Just remember who’s paying your tuition. It’s the state’s taxpayers. And the state’s taxpayers have entrusted me to keep the law and order around here. If I say, ‘Move your butts on outta here,’ you better damn well move ’em. Now there’s some other people here who want to get some lunch. Are you boys gonna get up, or do I have to sic the law on you?”

“Sir, we intend to sit here until we’re served,” the skinny student answered, still calm and composed. “And if you arrest us, there’ll be twelve more Negroes at this lunch counter tomorrow morning and another twelve at the lunch counter at Hanson’s Variety. We plan to peacefully demonstrate our belief in the Constitution and the equal rights of all men. We ain’t scared of your jails.”

This sounded like something he’d memorized the night before. As he finished, several of the other students half-shouted “That’s right” as if they were punctuating a sermon.

The troopers were already reaching for their handcuffs, but the governor kept his mouth shut. He just stared at the skinny black kid, who wasn’t even sweating. It was then, folks say, that Jimmy Fowler had his moment of inspiration, the moment that would transform him from another run-of-the-mill segregationist Southern governor to a national symbol of injustice. Of course, I didn’t realize the historical significance at the time. I was still hoping to see a fight.

“All right, then, I’ll serve you,” Fowler said. “If that’s the only thing that’ll make you boys go away, then I’ll do it. I consider it part of my duty as governor of this state. Now what would you boys like to have?”

The crowd of shoppers gasped and the newspapermen took a thousand more pictures, their camera shutters clicking furiously. But nobody was more stunned than the twelve Negroes sitting at the counter. If they’d known Fowler a little better, they might’ve suspected that he had something up his sleeve, but they didn’t know him. Neither did most of the shoppers who were witnessing the scene. The old ladies standing next to me in the hair-care products aisle shook their heads in disapproval. I was disappointed because it didn’t look like there was going to be a fight now. Meanwhile, Fowler tapped his fingers on the counter. “Now come on, boys,” he said. “I haven’t got all day, you know.”

The skinny kid hesitated, at a loss for words. But the fellow sitting to his right, who was the tallest and heftiest of the bunch, gave the governor a defiant look. “Sir, I’ll have the cheeseburger deluxe plate,” he said evenly. “And a coke, please.”

Fowler looked askance (a stage trick, probably something he’d picked up from the “I Love Lucy” show). “Well, well, a cheeseburger deluxe plate. That’s a mighty fine lunch.” He gazed over the students’ heads at the line of newspaper photographers. “Looks like we got some well-fed college boys here.”

This provoked a few titters from the crowd. The audience of old ladies warmed to the show, grinning slyly. Even one of the troopers smiled. Encouraged, Fowler focused his attention on the hefty student. “And how would you like that cheeseburger cooked, boy?”

“Medium rare, sir,” he replied, unperturbed. He looked the governor straight in the eye.

“Oh, medium rare!” Fowler shouted with glee. “My, my! This boy’s a picky one, ain’t he?”

More titters. Then silence. If the students could’ve conferred with each other for half a minute, they might’ve figured out a way to handle this. But the television lights glared behind them and the governor kept on tapping his fingers on the counter. After a few more seconds, Fowler’s face turned serious. “Listen, boy, you better pick something else. I ain’t got time to make you a cheeseburger. I gotta get back to the Statehouse and back to the real business of running this state, which you obviously have no appreciation of.”

“Sir, this is ridiculous!” said the skinny student, finally agitated enough to speak. “This isn’t the kind of service we want. We want to be treated like the white customers who come here.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but that’s impossible,” Fowler said. “This is a whites-only establishment and that ain’t gonna change. I know you boys have some friends up North now and they’re coming down here to stir things up. But the people of Alabama don’t want race-mixing, and I will keel over in my grave before I see it forced upon them!”

The old ladies applauded and the television cameras quickly panned around to catch it.

“Now, boys, I ain’t gonna ask you again,” Fowler said. “What do you want to eat? And don’t go asking me for no cheeseburger deluxe plates. They got some donuts here, all kinds, certainly good enough for y’all. If you don’t want any, then you can clear out. This is a lunch counter, not a public auditorium.”

The hefty student leaned over to the skinny one and whispered something in his ear. The skinny student nodded, then turned back to Fowler. “Yes, sir, we’ll take the donuts.”

The television cameras then got a chance to film one of the most ludicrous scenes since silent movies went out of fashion. The governor lifted the transparent lid off one of the trays on the counter and started tossing donuts at the Negro students. They landed everywhere. One rolled off the counter into the hefty student’s lap. Several missed the counter altogether and fell on the troopers’ shoes. The troopers picked up the donuts that landed on the floor and placed them on the countertop in front of the students. Pretty soon, the formica was littered with brown and yellow crumbs and irregularly scattered donuts, which the students refused to touch.

“Okay, you got your donuts,” Fowler said, brushing the confectioner’s sugar from his hands. “Woolworth’s don’t give credit to no one, Negro or white, so y’all are gonna have to pay me now.”

The governor strolled over to the cash register at the end of the counter. “Let’s see, at five cents apiece, that’ll be sixty cents for the donuts.” He expertly punched the appropriate buttons on the register. “Then there’s five dollars for taking up the waitress’s time since ten-thirty this morning, and four dollars an hour for each of the troopers — ain’t that right, boys? Their time don’t come cheap, you know.”

“Sir, we didn’t ask all these people to come here!” the skinny student shouted as he rose from his stool. The trooper standing behind him grabbed his shoulders and pushed him back down.

“Hold on, I’m not finished yet,” Fowler said. “I haven’t got to myself yet. For taking up an hour of the governor’s time, I’m gonna have to charge you boys my standard appearance fee of five hundred dollars. Let’s see, that all comes to” — he pressed the equals button on the machine — “five hundred sixty-one dollars and sixty cents.” The register’s bell rang and the cash drawer flew open.

None of the students spoke. Fowler ambled back to the middle of the counter and set himself up for his final pose. “I suppose you boys don’t have that much money with you,” he said. “Maybe y’all should think about getting yourselves some jobs instead of hanging around lunch counters all day long. I’m gonna have to arrest y’all for non-payment of your bill. I believe that’s a misdemeanor. Not to mention disturbing the peace and unlawful assembly.” Fowler raised his hand, giving the signal to the troopers. “You can take these Negroes away now.”

The students didn’t resist. The troopers were already behind them, so it didn’t take long to get them all handcuffed and headed out of the store. They marched single file toward the glass doors, passing just a few feet from where I stood. I kept my eyes on the skinny student, whose glasses now hung askew on his nose as one of the troopers pushed him from behind. He didn’t look outraged or defiant anymore. He just looked scared. And as I watched him stumble past, I got scared too, so scared that I backed up against a shelf of shampoo bottles and sent half a dozen of them tumbling to the floor.

Unfortunately, the noise caught Fowler’s attention. Instead of following the troopers out the door, he stopped short and stared at me.

I stood there, motionless, as he looked me over, his eyes cold and intent. He was looking at me as if I were a Negro, as if I were one of the students he’d just arrested.

Then his face broke into a vicious grin. “Better watch where you’re going, son,” he chuckled. “You’re gonna hurt yo’self.”

The grin didn’t ease my fears; if anything, it made them worse. I tried to step away from Fowler and almost tripped over one of the fallen Clairol bottles.

“Whoa, careful there!” The governor was beaming with amusement now, his crooked teeth showing between his lips. I was terrified that he would step closer and reach for me. Desperate, I sank to my knees and curled up into a ball, pressing my forehead against the floor.

That’s when my mother came out of nowhere and pulled me away from him. She nearly yanked my arm off.

“Where the hell have you been?” she yelled. “I’ve been looking all over the damn place for you!”

From the corner of my left eye, I saw her right hand sweep toward me. Then I felt the slap against my cheek, hard and stinging.

I started crying like a baby, but Mom didn’t seem to notice. She had that awful expression on her face, that red grimace of hysteria that came over her whenever she was truly frightened. “I’ve told you a hundred times, don’t you ever, EVER,” — she slapped me again — “walk away from me like that!”

I backed up against the shelves of skin creams. The governor was gone by then, but most of the old ladies were still in the aisle, and now they were staring at us. A few of them frowned at my mother, but no one said a word.

Mom grabbed my shoulders. “Are you even listening, Jack? Do you understand me? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”

She shook me vigorously, and my head jerked back and forth. That was worse than the slaps. Before I could stop myself, I was peeing in my pants.

One of the ladies in the aisle cleared her throat. Mom looked over her shoulder, ready to start cursing out the old biddy, but then she caught a glimpse of my shorts. They were sopping wet. And there were little yellow drops on the linoleum between my shoes.

Mom shook her head, disgusted. Then she muttered “Jesus Christ” and hustled me out of the store.

The last of the trooper cars was pulling away from the curb as we stepped outside. Mom dragged me toward the bus stop on the corner, and though she didn’t say anything during that long trek down the sidewalk, I could tell that her anger was subsiding. After we got in line at the stop, she made me promise in front of everyone there that I wouldn’t walk away from her again, but she wasn’t yelling anymore and her face had returned to its normal color. Then she told me to stop crying.

I tried hard to stop, I really did. But as soon as I thought I was finished crying, a sob would erupt inside my throat like a hiccup and there was no way I could hold it back. My mother looked cross at me every time it happened and some of the other people in line stared at me too. I wasn’t crying in the ordinary sense, because there were no tears. There were just the sobs bursting out of the back of my throat.

It’s tempting now to think that I’d had a premonition, that I was sobbing because I’d foreseen what Fowler would eventually do to us. But that seems a little farfetched, don’t it? More likely it was just a case of seeing things for the first time as they really were. The sobs came from a sadness that stood behind everything, a secret miserable knowledge of the world that overwhelmed me every ten seconds or so, and I choked on that knowledge, although the more familiar way to say it is: I sobbed without crying and I couldn’t stop.

After five minutes of this, my mother finally softened. She pulled me close, pressing me against her belly. “Okay, hush already,” she whispered. “We’re going home.”

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

7 thoughts on “A Writing Exercise

  1. My favorite part: “More likely it was just a case of seeing things for the first time as they really were. The sobs came from a sadness that stood behind everything, a secret miserable knowledge of the world that overwhelmed me every ten seconds or so, and I choked on that knowledge, although the more familiar way to say it is: I sobbed without crying and I couldn’t stop.”

    Can’t take off my editor’s hat, ever. Want me to send you my edits? Just picky stuff; nothing substantive because I found it gripping and wanted to read to the end… and more.

    • Sometimes I wonder about my ‘balls’ but since I’ve edited some award-winning authors and they haven’t killed me (yet), will try to find time between packing and moving.

      I find editing helps me with my own writing, too. I learn a lot by editing the work of others… and finding stuff that I fail to see in my own work.

  2. I liked it and the segregated emotions that were evoked for the reader. However, I don’t like to revisit those tragic times when individuals were judged by the color of their skin. It was a good read though.

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