Barbed Wire Angel by Michael Weston
* Emancipation *
You walk to the four rows at the rear of the coach where smokers sit. A nicotine-sticky fog you’ll lose yourself in. You’re boarding in Raleigh—tobacco country where the long-boned barns keep their distance from the highway. Raleigh before the boom, before the high-tech carpetbaggers from the North. It’s still collards and sop bread around here. Tin roofs and magnolia blooms. Going home to Iowa, you’re taking the Greyhound instead of hitchhiking like you did here, letting your thumb carry you south. You sit, eighteen years old, of age and elbows drawn in. You feel soiled in your ponyprint dress and lace-up brown suede ankle boots (so chic in a small town shoe store). Your boyfriend, the one you’d hitchhiked from Iowa to see, has asked you to stay, but he won’t be faithful.
You ride through the dusk, through the jack pines and black oak, the highway traveling through the Civil War, heading toward the Mason-Dixon line, heading for the Emancipation. The past’s still out here in the hickory and honey locust. You can see shacks like ice chests, rooms made out of Styrofoam. Trailers thrown down between the trees, the silver hot dog shapes parked next to the railroad tracks where you hear the whistle and the world shakes. Pink fitted sheets with white scallops cover windows. The bus threads its way on two-lane blacktop. Silk Hope. Harmony. Sedalia. The towns stagger out from the trees. Laughter. Crickets chirping. Rumpled rooms and girls big with babies. Voices like dark rumbling rivers from history. Shrieks. Cockroaches, curses, pigs, mustard greens and fatback, black salve smeared on stab wounds. Twigs and gravel. Knots of men and women outside beer taverns. Gin mills straining to push inside. You stare out into all the gone time. Boone Cave. Fork. We’re having a rally this weekend up to the Church of the Creator. Why don’t you come? The Depression. The smell of people. Hookworm. Newspaper stuffed into windows oily with rain. Paint peeling in great sails from sagging porches. Bible ladies. Half-blind and glad they can’t see. Gut-bucket gospel stomping. They understand the dark sentences of the Lord. The rod that has to be. And he came close unto the ram and smote the ram and cast him to the ground. Don’t breathe…don’t scream.
* Blue Ridge *
Lima. Robertsburg. Dudley Gap. People get on and off the bus like hymns. White and black. The bus driver, lanky and red-haired, wants you up to take the seat behind him. He asks your age. More towns. Oceana. Looneyville. Wick. He could be a double of the man your mother married and left a year later. His looks remind you of shacks and goats eating lonesome crabapples. He points. The Blue Ridge Mountains are out there. Old Jim Crow laws. The bus winds its way up the velvety blue shadows of ancient mountains. Kimesville. Hiddenite. Caught in headlights the ghosts of grey wolves and cougars. Unicorn root. Whetstones. In the hollows are poplar and hemlock, the oak’s deep bones. A boy and his sisters hanging in the branches, fingers cut off. Double-bitted axes. Storefront window souvenirs. If you dream of us, the sisters say, even without our fingers, we will touch you.
* Enchanted City of Cornsilk *
Columbus. Cleveland. South Bend. A few more hours and you’ll be in Chicago. The greatest of Midwestern cities. It was your dead father’s hometown, you’re telling the driver, who nods raising his eyes and mouth into the mirror to smile at you. Brown-eyed, brown-haired, you might be called pretty but never beautiful. Youth itself must be what this older man in a blue uniform inhales. Dashboard lights spill over his fingers. You’re imagining traveling with your mother to visit your father’s parents in Chicago. How the train would whistle through the patchwork of timothy, soy beans, and corn. Farmland. Silos and Dutch barns watched the crops raise themselves from the soil. The fields, swaying lakes of green. In the dining car the waiter had placed a bouquet on your table. He wore a uniform made from tablecloth. Ice tinkled in the water glasses as the train rocked closer. In the window—tenements, a grey forest of wooden buildings ten stories high. Clotheslines between fire escapes. The waiter had kept smiling. Factories swarmed. Wrigley's, Purina, Squaw Woman. More tenements. Shirts flapped as you lifted your water and drank.
The bus passes through Hammond and Gary, Indiana, the steel mills’ orange smolder, sparks flying from the smelter stacks like huge fireflies. Slag heaps. Now Chicago rises up from the plains. “What happened to the tenements?” you ask the driver, who seems kinder than the long gone stepfather. Where is the grey forest, the mile after mile of slums? Twigs, felled trunks, bark. The train used to pass so close you could count the clothespins on the wash lines. “Be glad you don’t have to live like that,” your mother had said. “The city tore them down,” the driver answers. You glimpse men sitting in kitchen chairs on wraith-like balconies, men from your childhood whose eyes followed the train going by.
* Emeralds *
This is still your father’s city, the man dead since you were a baby, and your grandparents are buried here with a million other sidewalk dwellers. Your mother and you walked from the Rock Island depot to a funeral home with emerald-velvet drapes and emerald carpet, a thickening of pine needles. The casket had closed forever over the plump, kindly, round-faced woman who had never been known as a beauty. “She spoiled Daddy,” your mother had said under her breath. Longmont Drive, the wraparound porch and swing dangling from rusted links. A flag hangs from the roof. Forty-eight stars. Not a ripple. No breeze. Screens entice horseflies and the blood bruise of mulberries. Marmalade boiling on the stove, Grandpa turning pages in the Chicago Tribune.
* Machine Coffee *
11 p.m. The bus driver’s knuckled hands on the steering wheel have brought you here to the State Street depot. “Coffee?” he asks. Drop of quarters. No Starbucks, no food courts, only vending machines. A shudder, then the machine hisses coffee with sugar and cream into the paper cup. Your lip touches the scalding-hot liquid. A dark soup that tastes made from the entrails of wallpaper. Men loiter around the edges of the waiting area. Stocking hats pulled to their eyes, hands in coat pockets, they watch the passengers totter sleepily off the buses. The loiterers are not men in white-cuffed shirts, and the girls they eyeball not shimmering women with rose petal fingernails. The bus driver writes his name and address in your spiral notebook. His next bus awaits him like an ex-wife. Your bus won’t leave until first thing in the morning. He waves from gate 9 and disappears from your life. You need real coffee to give you strength. The black bottom of the pot like static drained off a transistor radio—a Little Rock broadcast, bitter rhythm, thick. You want to drink coffee until it hurts your mouth, until it rushes through you.
Midnight. You curl up in the blue TV chair, the coin slot jammed and the screen off. One of the loiterers, a squat man with dirty blonde hair wearing a brown overcoat and knit hat, has left the edge of the waiting area, and given up his vantage point, his arm that rested against the cigarette machine. In the world that is no longer reachable from here cigarette machines exist. A decal warns those under sixteen that they are forbidden to buy smokes. The man wears boots with heels that click, heels that make him taller. You try to sink into your pony-print dress, otter-brown to match your large eyes. You’ve brought daddy-long-legs with you. Blue bottles and fireflies. You smell of cricket dusks. You at the head of a farmer’s table invite every field hand to eat.
* Midas Touch go-go *
“LaSalle Street,” he says, his low voice, “you look like you belong there.” He settles into the TV chair next to you. “I’ve been noticing you. Where are you going?” His hair curls around his face, tangles with the pompom knit hat. He listens closely to you tell him your bus leaves in the morning, first thing. Before video surveillance, no one will remember the man in the brown coat sliding into the seat beside you, the mustache, the half-asleep blue eyes, the milkiness. Not the sleepwalking ticket sellers, not the passengers dozing. Clark Street. Marquette Street. Happening clubs and boutiques. “Would you like to go dancing? Piper Alley?” No, but you make sure to thank him. Sheridan. Pershing. Eisenhower. Generals of three wars king the freeways. He keeps after you. Digging the heel of his boot into the floor like a flag pole staked. Old Town stays awake all night. The edge-crowd neighborhood. Hipsters. Head shops. Paul Butterfield playing at the Blues Brothers Club. “Would you like to go there?” Your stomach rumbles and your cheeks flush. “Shoot,” he laughs, “I’m your knight in shining armor. Let’s go get something to eat.” He bets you’re starved. His hands stay in his pockets like the Ale House Diner might be there. There’s nothing to eat in the depot except the vending machine triangle egg salad sandwiches that glow insect-green and taste like janitor-in-a-drum. Food for the Creature from the Black Lagoon. “What do you like to eat? Chicago deep dish pizza? I know the place. World-famous.” The voice no longer milky, louder, closer, in your ear, a lawn mower being rubbed across the grass. He says you’re as pretty as the dancers at Midas Touch. Maybe you could be hired. You won’t go with him because you’re prejudiced against short men, he accuses, or maybe men with coyote noses who wear beige bell bottoms. Men with beginning pot bellies. No one will remember how he kept at you, wheedling, drowning you in compliments, and you a people pleaser, unable to say no, finally do say yes, say yes, like signing a guilty confession when you’re innocent. This won’t be the last time you leave the bus station with a stranger but this is the first time.
*More Emeralds *
There are not enough mourners to fill the folding chairs. “Look how few people,” your mother had whispered. “This is what happens when you live in a big city and no one knows you.” There’s a murky smell in the funeral home. What about the DeRoses, the Jonssons, the Farguhers, the Neilsons. You and your mother are invited to your aunt’s for dinner. In the brick house the rooms give off a haze and the air smells of dusky cedar. Polished wood floors and artifacts of Mesopotamia, marinated in a minaret’s wailing call. The grand piano queens the living room that your classically trained aunt plays. They are a different breed, a civilization you only dimly glimpse. Intelligentsia. Your dead father’s sister, whose name is Jane, all reddish-gold hair swept back in a bun with tendrils falling over her ears, and large colorful earrings, and your uncle, an intense man with thinning black hair and large liquid eyes, never without a cigarette. Like the Moorish Idols these diamond-shaped fish of deep tropical waters, mysterious and admired from afar. Your aunt crosses her long legs and her skirts billow around her like smoke. She sighs, listening to Beethoven and sipping wine. Your aunt swims with the red cardinal fish of music, the lantern lit in its throat lighting her inside. Her ears are filled with a choir of lilacs.
* Old Town *
The interstate’s ribbon of carlights has died behind you. You’ve gone into the city, far from the downtown State Street depot. He drives you to a blighted neighborhood; brick highrises, buildings with outside stairs face each other. “Where are we going?” you ask. He doesn’t answer. Shadows move through the garbage cans, men wearing hooded coats. Mufflers. You stare out into night, the Chicago streets emptied. Mixture of diesel fumes from the Esso. The car turns into a parking lot, stops. He says a friend lives here, one he’d like you to meet.
The chain lock falls, a dead-bolt slides. You walk into an overheated apartment—his friend, a tall man, flops down shirtless in his jeans on the couch. The walls sweat, shifting toward the open windows, one of them rag-stuffed. The lamps low, the grey wood floor stretches, a dog breathing.
You no longer remember his name, the man taking off his beige overcoat and holding out his arms for your Navy pea jacket. The one you found at an Army/Navy Surplus. The jacket your mother wanted to burn is the one you’d like to keep on, to clutch. “After all that bus travel I bet you’d like to take a bath,” the man says. His voice is again milky, like a sweet rag or a tapped maple. He leaves on his knit hat. His name has submerged in your brain where the file storage is enormous, but the retrieval system flawed. The tall man on the couch, who seems to be studying the ceiling, says, “There’s soap and clean towels.”
You shiver, hesitate before the door. “Go on,” the short man waves you in. “Take a bath.” Is there a drop-off inside? A cistern? A pit? You nudge the door slowly. A bare bulb shines from the low ceiling with a long string attached. You close the door and push the hook through its eye latch. Locked. You take a deep breath. Safe. Here the ceiling slants and shirts hang from a clothesline like the one your mother used to dry her stockings from. You look for a window, maybe a fire escape, another way out of here. Nothing. A clawfoot bathtub with a stopper dangling from its rusted chain watches you. The tub sits against a broken wall showing its lathe and plaster—root-tendrils sprouting from powdery ribs. Yet there are signs that the tall man keeps everything neat--the folded washrags and towels, the toothbrush in a spotless red plastic glass. You undress and step into the tub's dustiness. In the water you imagine you’re wading like a whooping crane between trunks of bald cypress. Moss drips green black from overhead branches.
You unlatch the door. Like the interstate’s carlights jittering, he stands right outside. He’s wearing only his knit hat. You blink. The room bubbles with blue light like Gabriel blowing his trumpet. A charge of archangels, their singing ripples over the velveteen couch. “We need music.” Not just the bleak music of wind. “Let’s dance,” he hums in your ear. His soft pudgy belly, the Blue’s Brothers Club. This is what he wanted you to see when he beckoned you out of the bus depot. This is Old Town.
* Meat *
Evergreen Park. Your aunt’s house, the one that belongs to your dead father’s sister, is now on a street too dangerous to walk down. You’ve forgotten what clothes you wore on the dinner day or what your mother had on. You imagine her in a polka-dotted turquoise sheath with pearl beads and a scarf so her hair won’t muss. Your deeply religious mother has legs like Rita Hayworth. Time to eat. At the table, a tossed salad in a wooden bowl with homemade ginger vinaigrette, and then come the steaks. Each plate holds a t-bone; at home one steak feeds four. Here the steaks luxuriate in bloody juices; here the meats are broiled rare. Your mother stares at her plate, too shocked to speak. At the redness, the blood, having never seen meat on a table in such a state.
* The House of Past Time*
The moon is fire and the man leaping is shadow. Wind binds them together. The white drifter covers her head. Breaks apart her legs, forcing himself upon her. A girl is found tied in a shirt with blood on it. They search for the man who owns the shirt. From oaks and poplars the pale robes appear and carry darkness and flames. Their eyes are cold ashes. They seize Gabriel. Knots of boys gape, then run. Women beg, growling like dogs. The robes are reaching out, elongating. The hot fog singes. They work the barb into Gabriel’s side, spearing the pinch of flesh above his hip. Like a mullet. A garbage fish, One two three repeated leaps.
* The Loop *
No bucket seats, neither of you wear seatbelts. He’s behind the wheel, turning the ignition, and you’re in the passenger’s seat smelling him on your skin but not looking his way. You’re watching the apartment building disappear in the side mirror. The big car cruises past burnt-out street lights and leafless trees. He tells you he’s taking you back to the bus depot, and then he asks if you have any diseases. You tell him no, still not looking at him. You think of your aunt’s reddish-gold hair. Her soft voice, how she enunciates her words, the books and music she surrounds herself with. Your father Philip, your aunt’s only brother, died at age 36. Perhaps, he too was different, an intellectual, but you will never know. From the darkened, silent street the car glides onto the entrance ramp of the illuminated interstate.
About the author:
Stephanie Dickinson was raised on an Iowa farm and now lives in New York City with the poet Rob Cook and two felines. By day, she labors in the belly of the cubicle beast, and by night, she writes. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her recently released novel Love Highway. Heat, a fictional interview with the iconic actress Jean Seberg, also a native Iowan, is available from New Michigan Press.