Kia Corthron worked on a play addressing solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Her book The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter won the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.
The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter (excerpt)
Setting: 1960, a small town in Georgia
The white entrance guard leans back in his chair, legs stretched, feet crossed and propped on his desk. His blue eyes glance up over his newspaper. “Thought you were waitin for that gal.” Though he’s relaxed, he is not exactly rude. A Negro boy of about twelve sweeps the floor, empties the wastebasket. Behind the guard stand two flags, one representing the state of Georgia, the other the United States of America.
“She’s five minutes late. I don’t want to lose any more time with my clients.” The impatient young attorney seems a bit perturbed with the tardy party. Beads of sweat appear on his brow, not used to heat like this in mid-April.
The guard unlocks the gate, leading him down the hall. They come to a closed door on the left, another guard leaning against the wall next to it, absently smoking.
“Donnie Ray.” The entrance guard points his thumb in the visitor’s direction. “There’s the lawyer.”
The guard throws his butt to the floor, stamps it out, and unlocks the door. The room is small, cramped, and uncomfortably warm with no windows or fan. A rectangular wooden table and chairs. They are adult chairs, yet the four grownups stand while only the two little Negro boys are seated, their legs dangling. They work in coloring books. When the lawyer walks in, all eyes turn to him. The older child sits on the opposite side of the table facing the door, which the guard now closes as he exits. The younger’s back is to the door so he has to turn around to see the visitor. He is the first person in the room to speak. “Are you Mr. Campbell?”
“Yes,” says Eliot, who takes off his hat and holds it in his hands, “I am.”
The boy scrambles out of his chair to stand and shake his attorney’s hand with the formality of the gentry. “How do you do.”
The adults are Claudette and Ronald Price, the parents of seven-year-old Jordan, and Howard and Minnie Williams, the parents of nine-year-old Max. They introduce themselves to Eliot.
“Where’s Didi?” Mrs. Price asks. Eliot is confused. “Miss Wilcox.”
“She must’ve gotten held up.”
Jordan’s mother seems stricken, as if this is yet another bad omen.
“This a fire truck, Mr. Campbell,” says Jordan. “Fire truck, I color it red.” He makes a siren sound, moving his picture through the air.
“Can I wear your hat?” Max asks, and Eliot gives it to him. Max puts
it on and it falls over his eyes. He giggles, then pushes it back on his head so he can see before resuming his coloring.
“This a Dalmatian,” says Jordan. “The page is white but white crayon make Dalmatian whiter. This is the fire man. Max make him pink but I jus leave him be, like the page white but not white like the Dalmatian. I traced it, see? I traced it, look like the real picture, see?”
“I see. What did you color, Max?” Eliot takes a chair, sitting on an end of the table between the boys.
“Train.” Max had done a very studied rendering of an engineer standing outside a passenger car, kindly talking to a porter. Both men are pink.
“That’s very nice, Max. But you know, you could have made those men brown.”
Both boys stop coloring to look up and gape at Eliot.
“My father was a porter. Like him. And colored men can be engineers and firemen too.”
The children look down at their pictures, then back up at Eliot, blinking.
Eliot asks gently, “You boys wanna tell me what happened?”
Max sighs, tired of the question. But Jordan jumps in, seeming to delight in this reversal of Children should be seen and not heard: whenever he tells this story, he has all the adults’ undivided attention. “We was playin with Ginny Dodgson an Leecy Pike, an Ginny Dodgson’s daddy’s a fire man an he the mail man too, an I don’t know what Leecy’s daddy do, an Ginny go ‘How old is you?’ an I say ‘Seven,’ an she say ‘I’m seven too!’ an Max go ‘I’m nine’ an Leecy say ‘I’m eight’ an Ginny say ‘You wanna play dolls?’ an I say ‘Dolls is for girls!’ an she say ‘You wanna play Hide n Go Seek’ an I say ‘Okay, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30’ an we fine her an Leecy in Miss Dellarose’s bushes an Ginny go ‘You wanna touch my hair?’ an I say ‘Okay,’ her hair straight an yella, an Leecy go ‘You wanna touch my hair?’ it red, an I say ‘Okay,’ an Ginny go ‘I seen Beeber and Sissy Gompers kissin,’ Beeber Ginny’s big brother, an Ginny go ‘You wanna kiss me?’ an she stick her lips out an I go ‘Okay’ an I kiss her right on the lips peck! an she laugh an Leecy go to Max an Leecy say ‘I know how to kiss’ an Max say ‘Okay’ an Leecy go to Max peck! an we find a frog we pick up that frog but it slip away! hop hop an we go home for supper an knock on the door an Mama get the door, then she go ‘Jordan! Ron!’ an me an Daddy come runnin to the door, her voice soun like we oughta come runnin to the door! an a po-lice standin there! An po-lice man say, ‘You kiss a white girl, boy?’ Po-lice man look mad! Po-lice man say Ginny tell her daddy we was kissin, po-lice man say, ‘You know that’s a white girl! You know that’s a white girl!’ an po-lice man got a gun in his pocket he keep tappin it, an then they put the hancups on me click! an they put me in the paddy wagon an Mama cryin an me cryin an then they drive, an then they park, they park a long time, an then come Max in the hancups cryin, they put him in the paddy wagon with me, his mama cryin, an in the jail they punch us in the tummy, they punch in the legs an the back a long time bang! bang! bang! my tummy hurt, an every day we say ‘Can we see our mama?’ an they say ‘Shoulda thoughta that when you go rapin little white girls’ an then our mama an daddy come an then the judge say ‘The reformatory’ so they send us here, the reformatory, an they make us pick the strawberries in the sun, hot! an they make us talk to the psychaw-jegist an the psychaw-jegist say ‘You oughta be cashtrated’ an the psychaw-jegist say ‘You know what cashtrated mean?’ and we say ‘No’ an the psychaw-jegist tell us!”
Jordan’s eyes are filled, his demeanor completely changed, as if at the beginning of his narrative, his enthusiasm in having a new adult as a captive audience had caused him to temporarily forget his story’s terrifying end. Eliot turns to the other child and speaks softly. “Now you tell me, Max.”
“Like he say.” Max had continued to color throughout Jordan’s testimony and doesn’t look up from his task now.
Eliot talks to the parents quietly a few minutes. They are interrupted by a quick knock followed by the guard poking his head in. “Two minutes.” He shuts the door.
Mrs. Price wipes her eyes. “Come give Mama a kiss goodbye.”
“No!” Jordan runs to his mother, throwing his arms around her
legs. “I wanna go home!”
She reaches down, embracing him. “That’s why we goin to talk with Mr. Campbell now, baby, that’s what we tryin to figure out.”
“You be a good boy, alright?” Mrs. Williams instructs, and she and her husband walk over to kiss Max, who never looks up, never stops coloring.
“May I have my hat back, Max?”
Max stands, takes it off and hands it to Eliot. Then he stares up at his lawyer.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course.” Eliot stoops next to the child, and Max cups his hand around his own mouth and Eliot’s ear.
“When my mama kiss me, that don’t count as ‘rape.’ Do it? It only ‘rape’ when I kiss back. Right?”
Kia Corthron worked in the Veltin studio.
Veltin Studio was donated by alumni of the Veltin School, a school for girls in New York with a highly respected visual arts department. As the plaque just outside the entrance attests, this studio was used by poet Edwin Arlington Robinson during most of the 24 summers he spent at MacDowell. Perhaps most famously, Thornton Wilder put the finishing…