Oct '02 [Home]
Bookshelf: First Chapters
Stephanie Dickinson's novel, Half Girl, pulls you under at once, and when you come up for air, you are astounded to be in the same room where you began. Each sentence is a surprise—a trip in the mind of a sharply sensual and adventurous girl who is leaving home and immediately finding danger in cold, lonely places. You read in fear of what might happen to her, but also with a blind faith in her hopeful determination.
—Meredith Sue Willis
I. Grand Larceny
by Stephanie Dickinson
I cracked the door to my uncle and aunt's bedroom and stepped a few feet inside. I listened to the hall. From the living room, Nat Cole was crooning When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. It was the kind of music my uncle wanted after a day in the dental office, needed it to ease his tired feet and make him think of smoky nightclubs and Las Vegas, those grainy pictures in Aunt Maxine's movie magazines with celebrities gathered like killdeer around the restaurant table. It was the kind of music that made me want to bite a hole in my wrist.
I held a towel, turned the closet doorknob, and flipped on the light. The full-length mirror tried to check me out but I didn't look. I unwrapped the burgundy hatbox purse. Inside were the three things Aunt Maxine couldn't be without—wintergreen mints, tissue, and money. I pocketed the ten-dollar bill, thinking of all the teeth Uncle Milo had pulled to buy this closet. A hill of teeth. Molars and incisors pulled from gums at the edge of rot.
The clasp to the metal mesh stuck. I bit it, shaking the bag upside down, a mirror on a red silk ribbon spilling like a thread of blood along with a five-dollar bill. I pocketed the five. My first taste of stolen money. The mirror too. I yanked on the ribbon and ripped the lining. The blood beat in my temples. I clicked open the black purse with seashell clasp. Two fives. The pantsuits Aunt Maxine played bridge in seemed to breathe, the Eastern Star gowns, with their bows and rhinestone trains trickled down the wall like translucent ice crystals, and on the back wall were her minks. I moved the shoetree, wanting to throw the foam-soled dental shoes at the ceiling—the green, orange, and blue pumps too. I edged the wicker shoulder basket between my legs, sticking my hand in deep like it was a plucked chicken. Under a crumpled Kleenex was a ten-dollar bill. The tissue opened and I saw the bleeding outline of Aunt Maxine's lips, like she had wiped her mouth on a handful of crushed glass. More Kleenex lips. A ten and five. I shouldn't steal anymore, but it was so easy. My fingers whipped through the purses. "Come on, honey. They got money." I could almost hear Easton egging me on. Inside the evening bag with sequins sewn to it like fish scales I found a twenty. My hand shook; a twenty was real thieving. "Honey, the money can't matter to her." More wintergreen mints, a roll broken in half. I popped one into my mouth.
"Angelique," Aunt Maxine called from the end of the hall.
"Will you come set the table?"
My hair tingled at the roots. My ears could hear anything, and now they followed Aunt Maxine back into the kitchen. I let out a long breath, shook the suede shoulder bag. Another twenty. How many more purses were stacked on the top shelf, stored away in boxes? It was easy as picking corn. Soon I would be rich. I was harvesting the purses.
"You've got a long way to travel. That's not enough," Easton's voice again. "Get some more. More, honey, more." I couldn't stop my hands. I wedged my fingers into the green python tote I used to love on Aunt Maxine's shoulder when she visited Mom and me on the farm. I didn't know why I always thought of Liz Taylor when Aunt Maxine stepped out of the car in sandals, her toenails painted. They looked nothing alike. Liz's eyes were a slanting violet, and Aunt Maxine's, hazel and tiny, but each had a soft black mole on her cheek and black eyelashes, only Liz Taylor's eyelashes went on and on and Aunt Maxine's were hardly there at all. I used to compare her to Mom when they hugged, Mom, in her ribbed undershirt and pedal pushers, her face bruised from drinking, sleek Aunt Maxine reaching into the python tote for Fanny Farmer candy. I'd eat the mint patty behind the barn and save the shiny green wrapper to look at later. It was her hand inside the tote that I snatched the four singles from. She had been my Liz, and now, I hardly liked her. What would I say if she caught me? Oh, Aunt, I'm just dreaming here about the diameter of rain. I used to love you so much, and now that's ended. I love that boy I met in the park.
My jean pockets bulged. "Come on, come on." I didn't need any more help going on, I needed to stop. The telephone ringing made me stiffen. Soon Aunt Maxine's voice rushed down the hall, "Milo, Katy and Wilbur are coming. I've got to change. Milo, you change too. You look like you're wearing old fishing clothes."
The bedroom light cracked on. I winced and hit the light switch, grabbed the towel. I fumbled purses back into their sacks, piled them one on top the other, pulled the hems of the cocktail dresses over them. I'm caught. I hid behind the mink coat, making myself very small. The closet door opened, the dry cleaning bags swooshed.
"Where is my hair piece?" Aunt Maxine panted. I knew she was frowning, her hazel eyes darting up and down. Then her foot crunched on the sequin bag. I must have missed the mirror, a glittering sinker. She bent to pick it up and sniffed. Was the smell of wintergreen overpowering? When she came towards me, I wanted to push her away, shove her shoulders. I buried my face in the mink's satin lining: I couldn't see her, so she couldn't see me. Like hiding in a dream, except this was the Bible Belt and you could feel the old time religion blowing in from the fields, cutting off every direction of escape. Aunt Maxine reached between the coats; her elbows rolled closer. I looked down, saw the hem of her quilt robe. If only they had paid me instead of depositing my dental assistant wages into a savings account in their name. If only they had stopped saying, "You'll want to go to college someday." Get it and get out. Hurry up, Aunt. You don't want to find me. You don't want to know the real Angelique. I'm not the same Angelique who sought you out to curl up and read National Enquirer with, to eat ice cream bars, six at one sitting, who thought Vinton, Iowa was the center of the universe. At ten, you were my real mother. Now I'm seventeen.
But I didn't have to defend myself at all.
She lifted her hair carrier from the upper shelf. Silence. I peeked out. Aunt Maxine had loosened the pins from her ponytail. How pretty she looked with black hair waving past her shoulders. Hair softened the crease between her eyebrows, but then she twisted her hair back up, stuck in the pins, and plopped the hairpiece on top. She rubbed at the line between her eyes, switched off the light.
"Angelique, hurry up. Katy and Wilbur will be here soon." I heard her knock on the door of the guest bathroom. "We have to eat."
It was dark. I breathed. This was the dark of Highway 218 I had a date with for later. This closet was Indiana, a state I'd never been to but soon would. The names of the towns rose up from the Great Plains—Terre Haute, Lebanon, Palmyra. Aunt Maxine's evening gowns rustled in their dry cleaning sheaths, the uniforms in their fog.
I escaped into the guest bathroom and locked the door, emptying my pockets. The money stared up at me from the beige carpet, the frozen faces of Andrew Jackson, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. Abraham Lincoln was different, his face alive, and though he was homely and strange, even on a five dollar bill I could feel his kindness. One hundred and twelve dollars. I had stolen that much and yet it was still me in the mirror. I looked the same. Apple cheeks, big brown eyes, unblemished skin. I was only cute, maybe even plain, a farm girl you might not see in a crowd. But Easton had seen me, really seen who I was. That's why I had to travel alone to him. The prettiest part of me was lost under my clothes. I was beautiful there. Like Mom before the beer in her coffee mug. Undressing while the tub filled, goosebumps multiplying over my body, I rested my hand on my hip. My body was cut like an antelope's, slender haunches and buttocks, flat stomach, firm handfuls of breasts.
I unwrapped the boots I'd bought the day before at Mahood's. The overhead speakers had drifted the same kind of Henry Mancini Orchestra that Uncle Milo played. It was pitiful music, but beautiful. I had come for the lace-up boots with long narrow toes, the irresistible wisps of smoke next to the navy blue vinyl, and Hush Puppies. Mr. Mahood brushed through the cloth door; when he came back out he was carrying one box. "Six is all I have and your foot is six and a half." I made my foot go in. The brown suede boots were fawns running. Everything felt new. My jeans hung differently, and I carried my head higher. In the mirror, the orange sconce had cast a glow on me. Indian Summer radiated around my head. Now standing in money, the boots seemed to dare me to put them on and show them highway, to show them fogbows and ghost lights.
How high should I raise my arm? Straight out and even with my shoulder, or low slung with my hip? I made a fist. That wasn't it. Hip jutting, I dropped my arm, cocked my thumb. I tried again; arm not all the way down but not straight out. Look at the end of your thumb, not into the mirror where the car will be. That's how to do it, like you couldn't care less if anyone stopped. Better, like I'd done it before.
I let myself sink to the bottom of the tub, blowing out bubbles. Last bath in the avocado tub with the Rubbermate mat, so I wanted to take in everything, how the tile and soap dish and drain stopper heard my thoughts. Even in the water I was shivering; my flesh wouldn't warm up, because I was afraid. Fear was white, not a pale yellow, just bright white, the color of all the talk of what happens to girls alone on the road, how they're not just raped, but thrown into the ditch, how the night heron watches, singing them to a shallow grave. I pushed my fist into the pit of my stomach where the bright white was like a wall of ice. I pressed until the wall fell down.
Still dripping, I combed my shoulder-length brown hair that Mom always cut, used cuticle scissors to trim the uneven ends, but left my bangs hanging in my eyes. Then I unrolled adhesive tape, the kind you wrapped sprained fingers in, and crisscrossed the twenties to my thighs, one on each side. The fives and most of the tens I folded into my boot. Already I felt the money spots, like charcoal briquettes set to smolder on the inside of my legs, the tape pinching skin. I taped a ten above my navel, a ten between my breastbones. I liked myself decorated with money. If Mom were here, she'd say I was using my head by breaking the money up and putting it in many places at once. Mom told me she sewed dollar bills to her clothes when she was young and took the bus to El Paso. Her first time off the farm.
I flexed, my biceps rippling from chores and hauling thirty-pound bags of oyster shells for the chickens. The men at the grain elevator loaded the bags into Mom's trunk but she couldn't lift them out, her arms weak from not eating. Booze goes straight to your bones and that was something I knew. Her finger joints cracked even when she did the simplest things, like turning on a light switch. I put on the triangle halter, a blue work shirt over it, knotting it above my belly button, where the fear was. I could take the cold, shiver like crazy and get warm. Old people couldn't shiver. That's why they always wanted you to pile on clothes. I 'd saved the last of my Ben Hur perfume for tonight. Even if I was rich I'd choose Ben Hur; it was a seventeen-year-old girl's cheap scent. I tapped the bottle twice on each wrist and when I sniffed chewy red licorice I knew I'd put on enough. Easton's letter rested between the bath towels. I unfolded it. m equals October 1234 am
Right now I'm listening to "Chorale" off John Cale's Sabotage/LIVE
And the code of the living
And the code of the dead,
Hand in hand from the beginning to end
My money came before I could say goodbye. How's everything in that dull place? My only regret leaving your state was not getting to know you better.
PS: My friend Charlie is planning a Thanksgiving Party. His folks are in Paris so it's going to be a big shindig. If you're in the neighborhood, why doncha drop by. I wouldn't mind laying eyes on you again.
Easton / 914 Normandy Street, Cary, NC I put a sweatshirt over so no one could see what I was wearing.
"Sorry it took so long," I said when I got to the kitchen where Aunt Maxine was bending over the sink, running warm water over a tin salad mold. I squeezed by the stove island. Copper pots that had never held food hung from hooks in the ceiling. Everything sparkled, even the garbage disposal, like sterilized dental instruments. Did I imagine her sniffing when I brushed by her? Her eyes swept over me. I blushed, sure she could see what I'd done, that I had robbed her and felt no guilt, that I would do it again, that I was wearing her money.
"I can't get the Jell-O loose," she said, stopping to shake the mold upside down. Finally, the Jell-O wiggled onto the plate where a lettuce leaf was waiting. It was Aunt Maxine's special recipe. Strawberry Jell-O and Philadelphia cream cheese with miniature marshmallows. Then she looked down at my feet.
"Why do you have your new boots on? You aren't going anywhere."
I opened the silverware drawer. "I'm breaking them in so I don't get blisters. They're a little tight."
I stared out the kitchen window. A car backed out of the next-door driveway. Its headlights were calling out to me. I imagined Easton in that car, his breath whispering my name. I pushed my pelvis against the cupboard, wondering what his hand would feel like there.
"Angelique, you were so long I set the table. Just wash your hands and sit down."
It was the first week in November and Aunt Maxine had concocted a centerpiece of Indian corn, acorn squash, butternut squash and assorted gourds around a crepe paper turkey. I could see through the orange of the crepe paper tail to the driveway. I sat down at the table, but I was already standing on the side of the road. Uncle Milo's prayer matched the centerpiece. It was trying to be thankful for a world that didn't exist.
"You're not going to wear that sweatshirt, Angelique. That looks like the shirt my father wore to slop pigs," Aunt Maxine spoke up before the prayer was out of his mouth.
Uncle Milo gulped milk. "That's enough, Mother Earp." Whose mother did he think she was? She had never been able to have children.
Aunt Maxine passed the Virginia ham topped with pineapple slices and the new potatoes. My stomach shrank. I picked marshmallows out of the Jell-O salad. They reminded me of teeth. I mixed marshmallows and chunks of new potato.
"Angelique, did you look at those magazines I left on your bed? We need to cut your bangs. One of the patients even asked how you are able to see. You have such lovely eyes, it would be nice if Katy and Wilbur could look at them." The line between her eyes grew darker. "Milo, don't you think Angelique's hair would be prettier above her ears instead of all those uneven tails? Her hair doesn't seem to want to grow."
I rolled my eyes. "I just trimmed my hair."
"Mother Earp, make her an appointment at Hilda's Salon for Wednesday."
Aunt Maxine nodded and helped herself to another slice of pineapple. She still wore her quilt robe and when she leaned over the table it fell open and you saw her corset and the triple straps over her shoulders—bra, slip and dress shields. Her flesh looked melted. And I hated the pineapple on the end of her fork, the new potato on her plate, the sound of her chewing. I remembered the all night drives to Wisconsin, the far rocky corner of the state where their cottage was. Uncle Milo and Aunt Maxine would sometimes take me off Mom's hands. I always felt lucky to be along in the backseat, my face pressed to the window, looking out and imagining. It was great being awake at 3:00 a.m. I loved the rivers, North Fork Jump River, the Flambeau, the moon on the water. I never closed my eyes. The towns jumped out of the dark, Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls. Uncle Milo would smoke his Cigarillo and Aunt Maxine slept. The hills of Wisconsin rose up behind the faraway stone houses. Uncle Milo and I never said a word to each other, but we kept each other company all the way, four eyes looking out into the night.
The wall phone rang. Uncle Milo signed and got up to answer it. Not for me, never for me; my friends didn't know I was here, and besides they were all luckier than me, and had gone off somewhere else. I watched his bottom lip push out like a disappointed child, the wrinkles deepen on either side of his mouth. He held the receiver to his chest and announced, "Katy and Wilbur aren't coming. They started to leave, but the road was a sheet of ice. Freezing drizzle."
Aunt Maxine brightened. "Good. I didn't feel like dressing up."
My fork scratched a long scar into the plate. I was going no matter what. I cut my ham into smaller and smaller pieces, speared and nibbled them one by one off the fork. I chewed, tried to swallow. The taped twenties on my thighs pulled when I crossed my legs, the ten between my breastbones prickled. Freezing drizzle couldn't change my route. Highway 218. Interstate 380 from Cedar Rapids, then 240 to Davenport, 80 to Moline, stay on 80 all the way to Chicago, only don't go into Chicago; dodge around it, no, better to take I-74 to Peoria. Food wouldn't go down and the ham would stay on my plate forever. I coughed the ham into my napkin.
"Angelique, eat like a lady." Aunt Maxine lifted her arched eyebrows. "You're not on that farm anymore. Honestly, I don't know what your mother taught you out there."
"She taught Angelique to love God and not much else," Uncle Milo said. "After a year with us, she'll be rounded out. Maybe even ready for the University of Iowa."
He passed me the bowl of potatoes. That afternoon in the dental office he'd handed me an x-ray to develop and I noticed how shiny his fingernails were from being in so many mouths. They were still shiny, the ends of his fingers. But that was his problem. The minute I stepped out of this house I'd forget the two and a half months I'd worked as an assistant in his office, clipping patients' napkins, ushering them to the chairs, developing their x-rays, watching them spit into the tiny sink. The air of an eight-hour day was the same over and over until you didn't even want to breathe, only watch the clock, trying to make the hours go faster, and then at the end of the week feel the days disappear like they hadn't been lived at all. My only friend in the dental office was the dark room behind the shelves where Uncle Milo cast his impressions, models of patients' teeth floating like pale blue will-o'-wisps. I'd close the door, cut off the lights, lift the lid of the tin vat and drop in the x-ray that sank with the others like shells on the bottom of a tiny sea. Later I'd cup the developed x-ray, the long roots of teeth like shadowy gladiola bulbs.
I listened for the freezing drizzle. How long would it take before they went to bed?
Aunt Maxine reached across the table and brushed the bangs off my forehead. "We have to do something about your hair," she fussed. "In that lovely red pantsuit Uncle Milo bought you look like a co-ed."
I jammed my knuckles into my front teeth. Well, I wasn't a co-ed, was I? I was the drunken Bible-thumper's daughter, the Widow Buresh's girl. So poor, we didn't have TV. A red pantsuit could snuff out the rebellion in a girl's heart and so could envy. Mom was eaten up with jealousy, hating her sister because of what she had. But she didn't covet Aunt Maxine's house or her Russian mink and cashmere coats; she yearned for Uncle Milo, for a husband, for all those stale years of marriage, a living, breathing man to sleep with, a man to take care of repairs.
Uncle Milo hefted up the milk jug. I'd be sitting here forever, turning to dust while he poured a third glass. His milk made me furious. More milk. At last he belched, pushed his chair back and stood up. "Mother Earp, I'm going to watch TV." Even his eyeballs looked tired.
It was after ten and Uncle Milo hit his remote control and on went a rerun of the Sonny & Cher Show. I didn't like TV and tonight I hated it. Cher was sexy in a black dress that was so slinky it could have been shoe polish. Aunt Maxine set an ice cream bar in a bowl on Uncle Milo's lap. Cher reminded me of Easton; she had a body like his, bony and willowy, and she tossed her straight black hair like Easton did.
"Uncle Milo, can we see what the weather is doing?" I asked.
He flicked to the news just in time to catch the map of Iowa, the clouds swirling behind the weatherman Dave Shay's head. There was a commercial break. Ice cream had melted over the side of his plate onto his pant leg. He was only truly conscious when he stood over an ice hole, his fishing line baited, biting the Cigarillo holder between his teeth. Uncle Milo, you should leave too, put on your fishing hat and vanish.
I patted his hand. "I think I'll read." He was the closest thing to a father I'd known, this little smart man with the salt and pepper mustache.
"Don't read, pumpkin. Come here." Aunt Maxine patted the couch beside her, "Snuggle under the blanket with me. You've always been my sweet girl. I told your mother you belong to me."
Was that how life was, someone always blocking your way? I ground my feet into the carpet. I couldn't get free of them; every gesture, every sentence tangled me up in them. They were angel hair, the stuff that fell out of the sky in white sheets, long cobwebs, drifting down. I was a balloon spider trying to catch the wind and migrate. Each time the wind tossed me in the air, the webs caught me. I couldn't get away.
"Hush, Maxine." He called her by her name for the first time in a week. "Let her read."
I pressed the tape, making sure the money was still stuck before I climbed into bed fully dressed. The ceiling glittered with misty bits of hall light. When I closed my eyes the light was even brighter, making the shivers run. I was a thermometer, one second four degrees below zero, then one hundred and four, listening to the wind driving drizzle against the window. I hugged my father's Boy Scout bag, dirtied with rust stains and watermarks from hanging in the cellar since he died.
I only knew him through photos. He had dimples and a nice smile. I buried my face in the bag, hoping to catch a trace of his scent, whatever it was, but I only smelled the farm cellar and the gopher that had died there. The freezer was in the cellar too and for all my childhood everything that came from it tasted of the gopher's rotting body, particularly the lemonade concentrate and Neapolitan ice cream. The TV was still going. I drifted away.
1:30 a.m. by the alarm clock on the dresser, the lights in the hallway doused. I got up. Made the bed so it looked like no one had ever been here. I put on my blue cloth Navy coat, shouldered my Boy Scout bag and my camouflage purse. Ready. More boy than girl. Should I leave a note? Don't worry about me. I'm going to see a friend. I'll call you when I'm settled. Tell Mom I'm sorry. Thanks for everything. Nothing sounded right. My heart hurt now. Then I remembered Emily Dickinson and slipped the tiny volume into my pocket.
I cracked the bedroom door. My body trembled as I took a step into the hallway. The danger zone, outside their bedroom. More steps. Then Aunt Maxine cleared her throat. The hair rose on the back of my neck. Kleenex was ripped from the box on the nightstand.
Aunt Maxine murmured, "What are we going to do with Angelique's hair, Dad?"
"You'll have to eat it, Mother Earp. Now shhh."
I waited until there was stillness. A long time before Aunt Maxine began to snore and I moved on. The grandfather clock chimed twice. Which door? The front door in the foyer that no one ever used or the side door through the garage? My bag might grab something, catch the tine of a rake or pull a snow shovel down from the wall onto the sleeping LaSalle and Subaru. Maybe another girl would think about taking one of those cars, just lifting the keys off the hook in the kitchen utility cupboard, but I chose the front door. The thick green carpet absorbing my footsteps was my friend. Moonlight swayed in the sunken living room, making the carpet willowy. The pampas grass in its Chinese vase waved. I opened the front door and stepped outside.
(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 Jan '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.)