Jesse Dorris
The Alabama Station

 

She found the instructions, smudged and crumpled in her backpack, another reason to run:

1.Keep a journal for a short period of time. On one side of each page, keep a factual account of your life during that period. On the other side, try to describe what the life was like. Then write a paper describing the differences you see between the two versions.

It was almost her last day there. The farm's grass was burned brown and she kept seeing anthills pop up between her feet as she ran, trying not to stumble too much, down towards the lake. Granny had been stuttering as she told the stories during lunch, and Leila broke a sweat trying to keep her eyes from going in and out of focus on the checkered plastic tablecloth. Grandpa poured ice tea, glass after glass, and the sugar buzzed through her like fireflies; grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup from a can even though it was ninety-five degress out. "Your mom c-c-can't hide up there forever," Granny finished, and Leila took the cue to escape.
The sweat collected in her shirt as she ran. She could already feel the difference in the air down here, closer to the lake. Bees from a neighbooring hive buzzed faintly. They sounded like the night when an electrical wire fell from its post outside her mom's apartment. Leila spent that night listening to it hum. Brooklyn was like that, weird noises always everywhere. But the memory of the hum sounded less and less like bees the more she thought of it. She kept running.

2. What are some lives that seem to you potentially worthwhile subjects for
biography? Why? What is your relation to the subject? Given your relation to the subject, and given the fact that biography seeks a public audience, what can you say about the kind of biography that would have to be written?

Soon she was at the bank of the lake, and the air really was damper and less sort of solid than it was on top of the hill. She was amazed that running for a few minutes could make such a difference out here in the middle of nowhere. Last night she climbed up to the roof of her grandparents' house. You could get there from the back porch, just climb up the lattice and watch for rotten planks. The farmhouse sat on top of a hill, so on the roof she could practically see all of Alabama, with dozens of yellow stars above her. "The roof's not sturdy, won't support a girl's big as you," her grandpa said. But she sat there, safe, swatting mosquitos and watching for cars on the dirt roads spinning around the property. Two, maybe three passed the whole night. She kept thinking where is everybody, why isn't anybody going anywhere? Or are they all just watching like me? She decided next time she'd bring a flashlight, maybe she could signal someone.
One night her mom brought her to the Promenade. This was right when they'd first moved to Brooklyn. Mom showed her the city skyline and told her how every light she saw corresponded to someone: a car, an apartment, a streetlight someone built and someone repairs. Here in Alabama she could sit on a roof for hours and not see any light but the stars. "The south the south, I hate it," her mom said, "all that empty space. All the people just going through their lives and not ever seeing a soul who's not family. You'd think your grandparents would get so tired, living like that." But they didn't seem tired, grandpa riding his tractor twice a week even with the glaucoma and bad back and arthritis. And granny read her mystery novels and, mom said, was Clinically Depressed, and cooked and kept the house spotless and told the same stories over and over when she couldn't remember Leila's name.

3.Find some documents of your past life—old letters you wrote and received, transcripts, notes, papers—and use these documetns as a point of departure for a description of what life was like then. Do the documents surprise you in any way? How confident are you that you know now what life was like then?

This was the second time she'd visited, the second summer in a row, so the novelty of cows and opossums had faded a little. It was starting to feel less like a visit and more like she was just flipping between parallel lives, like each one went on separately without her realizing it. She was soaking wet now and wiped her forehead with the faded blue T-shirt from Camp Winnachuck. It's like, what if she were just changing channels, the Alabama Station to the Brooklyn Station, if the whole world really was just like cable and you could go back and forth like that. It'd be pretty cool.
Pretty stupid. This is why the kids rag on me, she thought, I say stuff like what if life' just like cable. Blech. She looked around. Her mouth felt greasy from the sandwhich. She sat down right where the ground got muddy, washing her jeans would give her something to do tonight. The lake was deep green and covered with algea and little bits of wood. She had fished it, once, her and grandpa in his rickety old boat that she kept imagining holes in. He caught a large, spotted fish in between stories of the War, and it flopped on the boat's floor as it died. They had been out there since dawn and she wanted to go inside and eat lunch, maybe take a nap. But grandpa could spend a whole day in the boat, easy. Eventually Leila stopped baiting her hook and just casted into the water, letting the line sink down to the bottom of the lake as gently as possible so the fish wouldn't notice.

4.Many people at some point (often when it seems almost too late) develope an interest in the lives of their immediate ancestors. Write a biographical sketch of a relative. After you have begun the work, you might arrange to meet in groups with others doing the same kind of work to discuss the problems you are having collecting information, achieving the necessary detachment, developing the necessary imaginative sympathy, and making your tale interesting to an audience beyond those immediately involved with the life.

Her mom had insisted she spent a few weeks there. Her grandparents were getting old and all that. Not that she would join her, mom didn't really get along with her parents. Being around the three of them was like being in the boat: a few hours of boredom interrupted by sharp fears of sinking. Would it have been worse to refuse and be in Brooklyn for the summer? She threw a stone into the lake and listened for the plop. Ripples edged out towards the mud. A guilt trip from mom would have been inevitable, and also spending every day trapped in the apartment because she was too freaked out to let Leila explore the city alone. Her friends were at camp or working at their parents' stores. She would have read a lot of books, watched too much TV, not much of a vacation really. But it might have been better than just killing time here, putting up with her grandparents because they weren't dead yet.
Ouch. She didn't mean that, she thought. Boredom and heat were making her cranky. She got up and walked around the lake for awhile. A big log was slowly sinking into the mud, its bottom end a deeper brown than the top. Bits of it floated around like desert islands. "Remember the time," granny had said during lunch, "when you kept calling Hawaii a dessert island? There wasn't a thing to convince you that you could be wrong." Leila stared at her grandmother and wished that every time she remembered something it wasn't some kind of put-down. She kicked the log and another inch sank into the mud, water sucking and rolling up to the surface.

5.What kind of person would you most want to be like? Is this person fictional or real? How do you know? What do you expect to happen, what kind of person do you expect or hope to be later? Try to write so as to let yourself and your reader participate imaginatively in the lives you describe.

A cloud of mosquitos appeared, the lake must be drying up. In the boat, granpa tried to explain how you can tell the depth of a lake by the number of mosquitos around it—the more there are, the less deep. So she should quit complaining about being bit and start realizing this lake won't be here much longer. So how come there aren't any mosquitos in the city, she asked, there's not much water in the ponds there? That's not water, that's trash, he shot back and cast out his rod.
She sniffed her arms to make sure she hadn't sweat the insect repellant off. Her skin smelled like coconuts, salt, and tomato soup. She wasn't sure what the mosquitos would make of that. How long had she been out there? A few hours, probably, because the sun was pretty low in the sky. Grandpa's hosing down the patio, granny wants to know what to make for dinner. Chores and food. She could call her mom later, if she wanted to, or not. Grandpa would tell some stories about when they lived in Alaska or Kansas, or try to get information about her mom. She would put a sweater on when it got dark and the heat burnt off. Granny would ask if she wanted to play c-c-cards or p-p-put a p-puzzle together. The three of them would eat dinner and go to bed, suddenly realizing how tired they all were, Leila listening at the door for a chance to escape.

That night, after the dishes were put away and the hum of the washing machines replaced the hum of the dishwasher, Leila sat on the couch and waited for them to fall asleep. Granny's hands were trembling over a half-finished puzzle, little puppy heads making their way through the ripped, dog-eared cardboard pieces. Grandpa was watching golf and every few minutes his neck would jerk as he woke up. An hour passed that felt longer than any of her last twelve. She thought of the flashligt tucked under her pillow, ready for her to grab and take to the roof. Goosebumps rushed over her as the air conditioner came on. Granny had brought her mom up six times during dinner, pretending each time she had forgotten the last, but Leila said nothing. On the couch was a thin blue blanket granny's grandma had made, and she wrapped it around her as she waited.
Finally granpa grumbled and limped his way past her,.down the long hallway to the bedroom. Granny sighed and pressed another piece into place. "Don't be up all night, hear?" Leila smiled and she lied, no I'll be in bed soon, and tried not to gag at the lavender perfume as granny kissed her cheek.

6. Read two accounts of the same person by two different people. What
differences do you see? Set these differences out as specifically as you can. How do you account for the differences? Are they a matter of one person's greater knowledge of the facts or of a particular bias? How can you compromise, collate, and consolidate these accounts to arrive at a third portrait of the subject?

The heat on the roof was amazing. She couldn't understand how it could be so much colder inside, she knew a little about freon and all that but it still didn't make sense that just like four feet away the world could be so different. Just like down at the lake, all these worlds together. She made her way to the flat part where the two sides of the tar roof met and thought about this one day out on the boat when grandpa gutted a fish right in front of her. He said something about just 'cause she's a girl she should still know something about blood and guts, to not be like her mother. The fish had the same color eyes as this weird girl in her Geometry class last year who always had her hands covering her mouth. Leila tried to talk to her a couple times but never really managed to say anything, she'd always get too nervous 'cause the girl never said anything back, to anyone ever, and Leila would break out into a sweat and have to run into the bathroom. Just thinking about the girl now made her almost loose her footing on the roof and she had to get onto her knees to keep from falling.
What was going on in Brooklyn? Was her mom passed out right now, her empty wine bottle on the floor next to her? Was it this hot there? Were the mosquitos bad? It felt like she had never even been to Brooklyn, two weeks here and New York was like a movie. She knew in a couple days she'd feel the way about Alabama, the yellow stars and the logs and the boat. It was like this last summer too. She reached the top of the roof, her knees burning from the crawl, and straddled the edge.
Somewhere a dog barked. No cars were on the roads. Something that felt like a bug crawled over her thigh, and the sound of her slap echoed into the fields. Why was she thinking about that girl right now? The worst part about getting older was not being able to understand why she thought about the things she did. And how she couldn't talk to anyone about it—the other girls at school just wanted to talk about boys or what cup size they wore or who was the bigger slut, or that weird girl in the corner who never said anything. Her mom would just groan and say you think you're old. Leila sighed and tried not to notice how much it sounded like granny's sigh back in the living room.

7.Using the journal or the documents you've collected, write a description of "the person to whom these things happened." Who is that person in relation to the person now writing?

Leila dug in her pockets for the small rubber flashlight. Turning it on, she passed the weak circle of light over the fields and wondered if it would reach the road on the other side of the fence. It didn't, but it was still the brightest thing other than the stars that she could see. She made a figure eight, the grass looking burned in the weak light. She turned it on and off a couple times, trying to make the light strobe, but it just looked like someone turning a flashlight on and off as fast as she could. Leila lay back, anchoring the roof between her thighs, and shined the light up into the sky. Thousands of stars lit the sky, mocking the white light she shone back. In Brooklyn you never see stars, that's how bright the city is. But so what. She sat up, trying to figure out the first thing she'd do when she got back, but all she could think of was how to lie to her mom, the perfect way to tell her she had a good enough time that maybe she wouldn't have to come back next summer. And no, granny and grandpa didn't ask about her.
She shone the flashlight into the trees in front of her. They surrounded the fields around the lake, but for some reason she had never explored them. She bent forward, trying to get the light deeper into the forest, but all she could see was bark. She sighed and turned off the light.

8.Have you read one of the many fictional works that have been written as if they were biographies? What difference do you see between that fictional work and a true biography? How do you account for these differences?

But the light was still there. A little brighter, even. It was like a reflection, except her flashlight wasn't on. The leaves were lit up like christmas lights, their bark brown and glossy. Little shards of light broke through onto the grass, criss-crossing and slowly reaching out towards the house. The light grew from a pin-point into a small circle, bisected like a geometry problem by the tree trunks, as it began to move up towards the roof. Leila counted the seconds until it reached her, paralyzed, her legs burning from the heat of the tar roof. It was a spotlight. Somewhere a car honked its horn, and the sound fell over the insects buzzing and dogs barking as the light grew brighter, and then the sounds died and she could hear feet crushing the burnt grass. And as the light hit the edge of the roof and began to touch her legs, Leila leaned forward as far as she could, out over the roof and onto the fields below, and the light flashed a few times as she saw the small outline of a body walking towards the house.
The shock forced Leila off the roof in half the time it took to get up there. Sliding down one side, she felt pieces of skin scrape off. She jumped from the bottom of the roof to the ground and crumpled, grass pricking the back of her neck and cooling her legs. She raised her head and looked around for her flashlight, but it was gone. And the other light was gone too, like someone had put a hand over it, and there was only the sound of insects. That girl's name was Sandy, their moms knew each other. What was she doing right now? Leila closed her eyes and pictured her lying in bed, the grass becoming pillows and sheets, and there were no cars on the roads here, no alarm clocks or remote controls to tell them where they were. Her legs began to ache from the fall, and they jerked a little as she lay there, they flopped like she was trying to swim instead of falling asleep here, mosquitos ready to bite. She'd never come back, she'd never tell her mom a thing.

9.Looking back, what are the big moments, the milestones, in your life? Do you perceive any "movement," any direction in them? Have you changed your idea of what the big moments in your life were? How did this happen? Has your sense of the direction of your life changed? Do you expect it to change any more? How?