Nov '02 [Home]
Bookshelf: First Chapters
by Stephanie Dickinson
[continuation of Chap. II]
"You have a flat stomach. I used to have one too," she said, holding out a shot glass. "I brought you something." She wore her jeans tight, like a shoehorn had scooped her hips into them, but her stomach was rounded from the baby.
From out in the bar, the jukebox went on and filled the air with drumbeats. She set the drink on the shelf, bared her teeth in the mirror and jerked the toothbrush out of the glass. Such a little tube, travel-size Pepsodent that had been squeezed from the bottom and rolled up around a toothpick. I eased up my jeans and stood beside her at the sink.
I saw myself. Wavy brunette hair past my shoulders, brown eyes so big my brothers called me 'Cow Eyes,' summer day eyes when I wanted sultry tornado skies, and freckles, funny freckles, because they weren't orange but black.
"You're pretty. What are you doing with him?" she asked.
"I'm not with him. I'm hitchhiking."
"Better get out of here and start hitchhiking again. Drink this. It'll warm you up." A tiny scar ran between her eyebrows. I inhaled her perfume—a gush of lilac. Shouldn't an Indian girl smell like wind or antelope or jackrabbit? It surprised me too, her red fingernail polish.
"You remind me of Rita Coolidge." I said, wanting some of the loneliness I carried to evaporate.
"A singer who's part Cherokee."
"Never heard of her."
"That's because she's from a long time ago. My mom's time."
"Listen, I don't want to know anything about you," she grimaced, and spat into the sink.
With that, the bridge I was trying to build of cobweb crumbled. I was left inside myself with a memory. Mom's old albums were all cracked or melted, but somehow she'd kept their jackets immaculate. For my birthday she'd given me the cover to This Lady's Not For Sale, and I had tacked lovely Rita above my bed; her high cheekbones, her tiny ears that turquoise earrings hung from like peacock eyes. A clay-colored goddess.
"Well," Josie said, rinsing her toothbrush, "are you going to drink?"
I lifted the glass and tried to throw the liquor to the back of my throat and gulp so I didn't taste it. The whiskey burned all the way down, then came back up and furred my tongue. I stared straight ahead, eyes on the tampon dispenser glutted with rust, its dime slot jammed with a nickel. I'd taken my own virginity with a Tampax. But then, some girls' mothers brought them to a doctor to have it done with a metal instrument. A friend had been bugging me to go swimming. When I told her I couldn't, she said, "Use a Tampax." I'd tried to push it in, but it wouldn't go, so I shoved it. I hurt for days afterwards.
The Tampax dispenser was the last thing I'd ever see if Josie had poisoned the whiskey. In the mirror, my face scrunched up.
Her laugh sounded like an old board splitting. "Now you better get out of here, away from my brother."
I hardly recognized Leonard when he swung the door open. He was smiling, but his mouth didn't appear friendly. He'd taken his jean jacket off; his tee-shirt read, X-treme Dreams.
"I think the girl has a lot of money." Like that gave him the right to be in the Squaw Room.
"Right, Leonard. She sure looks like she's rich," Josie said sarcastically.
"Lift up your shirt, Angelique."
My heart was a drumbeat in my mouth—Run, run, run!—but I froze.
The baby cried and Josie made for the door but Leonard kicked it shut.
"Stay put. The kid will live. Now, I'm going to have to charge you twenty dollars for the ride to Illinois. In advance, Angel Eyes."
"I've changed my mind about Illinois." I steadied my voice. "But I sure thank you."
"Shut up. Take off your clothes. Your boots too."
"Come on, Leonard. She's just a kid. Let her go if she wants to." Josie's voice had a weary edge like she'd recited this in her sleep.
"Sis, I asked her for gas money and she gave me three bucks. Three bucks was what she thought I was worth. I caught a whiff of your cash in the car. Remember when I rested my head in your lap?"
I knew about knives and was sure he had one by the way his arm crooked around his back. You handled blue steel like that, blue steel with a curved blade. My brothers and I'd caught a snapping turtle once. It'd taken all three of us to drag it in, hissing and clicking. I was the oldest, elected to cut its head off. I didn't think I'd ever been forgiven.
"I've got a couple twenties. You're welcome to them."
"Leave her alone, Leonard."
So he brought girls here to make them afraid. Fear made him happy. Fear drove me forward. If there's something dangerous in the dark, something darker than the dark, scare it. I widened my eyes, thrust my arms out at him and marched, like a sleepwalker, to the door. I was another person, like myself, but not me, and not alone: Josie would help her.
"What the hell you doing?" He yanked my arms down, shoved me up against the sink. The baby started to shriek, lightning bolts of screams.
"Go to him then. Get out!" he yelled. Josie shouldered her way out with no backward glance.
Fear locked my arms, my knees and elbows ready.
"Stay still." His breath burned my eyes, his pointed weapon, not blue, a shard of ice, a white lily, urgent at my throat. I'd find my way out of this one, like out of all my running dreams. In them, I could fly, lift the ceiling and swim through.
Mary Dyer had to watch her friends being hanged, awaiting her turn. I knew how to talk to angry drunks: Look them in the face when they speak; always look directly at them. After Maynard had stabbed Mom in the breast, she'd said to me, "But you should see his face. I scratched him up pretty bad." A Leonard couldn't murder emptiness and wind.
His fingers groped my waist until they found the adhesive tape that held two twenties. "Well, here it is," Leonard chuckled as he tore it off.
A twenty fluttered to the floor like a dead leaf, then another. "This is your whole stash? And here I thought you were running drug money."
He relaxed his hold on me to peel off bits of tape sticking to his fingers. "Chicken change. Fuck." He bit tape from his thumb. "I wouldn't have bothered for forty bucks. Pick it up."
I heard his fist thud the same instant I saw it coming. No pain. Blood spurted from my nose. I didn't mind. It'll be all right, I thought, arching against the wall.
"Don't tilt your head back like that unless you want black eyes." He rinsed his hands, smoothed his hair, and walked out.
As I leaned over the sink, a white plastic fork splintered under my boot.
Outside, I missed the baby crying. I missed Josie's smell, the stink of a tomcat spraying his heat on the ditch lilies. The parking lot was dense with snow. Everywhere ghosts like me roamed. A joke had been played on all of us. I was on Hiawatha Street: rundown houses, long grass chiseled with frost. The wind picked up. I had shamed myself by cowering before a throwaway fork, but the wind forgave me. Wind didn't need love; wind was its own mother. I crouched as it filled the sleeves of my jacket.
Sidewalks disappeared, along with most of the street. Everything belonged to me: all the dark and light. It was warm inside this whiteness. I'd head due east, get back to the highway, and follow it out to the fields. No one could stop me. I'd keep walking until I caught another a ride. Whether I'd walk to Rhode Island or North Carolina I couldn't decide. The muskrats and screech owls waved me on my way. I kept my hands out in front of me. I sang. Ice under the new snow caught my boot heels, sending me spinning. The snow wafted smoke. Palominos with ice bridles and breath hanging from their nostrils galloped by. I wouldn't whistle for them until I was truly tired.
~ . ~ . ~
[Return to beginning.]
[Go to Chapter I.]
(Stephanie Dickinson was raised in rural Iowa. Her poetry collection, Corn Goddess, appeared in 1997 (Linear Arts). Other work has appeared in Mudfish, Chelsea, Washington Square, Nimrod,and in the anthology, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Hudson Pier Poets, which resulted from a ten-year association [excerpts in the Feb '01 issue]. Dickinson lives in the Bowery, where she co-edits Skidrow Penthouse, and is currently at work on Portuguese Man of War, her second novel.)