Stephanie Dickinson >
I am not a good girl. Those are the words my grandmother makes me repeat over and over before supper. I was born with a mark on my forehead, a smear of chicken fat, and when my mother saw it, she spat out my name Angelique, and left me. Grandma raised me, but she would have preferred to pull weeds.
The night I decide to leave is no different from any other. Grandma stuffs the doorjamb to her room with rugs, opens the windows wide, letting the cold air chill her blankets. I stand in the frost of the hallway, shouldering my backpack. When she begins to snore, I kiss her door, and then slip out of the farmhouse.
I hike to the blacktop, whistling as I walk past the reeds poking up from the ditches. The moon, blazing bright as high noon, gleams on the November fields. I’m not leaving because I hate; I’m leaving for love. I know the ditches and weeds love dogs, the chickens and me too, but I need a human. The night is part of me and I will take it wherever I go. I stand on the blacktop a long time before a pickup truck comes. It is the first pair of headlights to bear down on me. The pickup stops and I get in. The pickup takes me to the highway where I jump out. This time my thumb flags down an eighteen-wheeler. The truck takes me into a different state. Soon Iowa is far behind me. I take out my map. Spread it over my knees. I love the names of towns; I let the names spill through my fingers. Conetops, Hookerville, Tull, Sisterville and Fly. There's nothing in Job about riding this gravel road all night. I have plenty of time to think about the boy with the black eyes and black hair I met in August. The trucker tells me I remind him of a fawn. That my eyes are so big they could sit in a cow’s face. The trucker wants to know what kind of boy it is that lures a girl out on the highway in the middle of the night. But soon it’s daylight and I am in a different truck and crossing another state line. I tell the new trucker how I pumped gas at the Phillip 66 two miles from the farm, how the boy drove a white Toyota, the radio blaring so loud I could hardly see him. “Fill her up,” he beckoned me, waving a white hand from the window. Pale and arty, he wore a tuxedo jacket and tight black jeans. His black hair fell to his waist like a musician from Circus Magazine, but he wasn’t a guitarist, he was an artist. I liked meeting him in the smell of gas, the air drifting with corn chaff from the Kent Feeds Elevator next door. His name was Weston. He scribbled his address in the dust on the top of an oilcan. “Come see me,” he said.
I have not had a bath since the farm, but I am standing outside his door on Bobby Lane in Raleigh, North Carolina. Weston squints when he opens the screen to the ranch house. He’s dressed in jeans. His torso is long and pale, a dusting of dark hair between his breastbones. His slender toes look expressive like his fingers. Behind him I hear a TV. It fills the air with fake sound.
“Am I supposed to know you?” he asks, cocking an eyebrow like a question mark.
“I’m the gas station attendant. Remember?”
He starts to laugh. “Come in, honey,” he says, opening the screen. “What was your name again?” He is still chuckling.
I follow him into the small room. A mattress, maybe once part of a bunk bed, lies on the floor, bare except for a rumpled Army blanket. There is a desk, a typewriter, and stacks of paper in a semi circle around the desk. I step deeper into the room. Something is wrong with the walls, they were moving. My mouth drops. Pen and ink figures, swirl over the walls from ceiling to floor. Charcoal and ink, everything black on white. I let out all of my breath. A life-size figure stares at me. Weston’s long neck and wild black hair, undressed from the waist down. The walls vibrate with Westons of every height; his head emerges from goats and lizards. Sheep cavort. Above the desk naked bodies dance with heads thrown back, arms in the air as if some wind is inside them, rapture.
I listen to his every word. He is nineteen and has sold one painting. Soon he’ll have a dealer and a show, and he’ll have money. I hate lies more than anything but I tell him I’m eighteen, when the truth is I’ll be fifteen in three weeks.
“I’m a young modern,” he says. His black eyes shine, huge chunks of anthracite. Not even in his wildest dreams did he expect an Iowa girl, a chick he saw pumping gas and flirted with, to show up on his doorstep. None of his friends have had this happen to them. I hear him talk about me into the phone. “She’s cute,” he tells his friends. We lie in his bed on the green blanket, kiss and hug, but when his hand slips down the front of my jeans, I pull away.
“Are you new to this?” he asks.
I nod. Sun speckles his forehead, turns liquid, and bubbles on his eyelashes. His eyelashes are bird wings. I burrow into his angular body, feel his hipbone stab through his jeans like a plow blade.
“I’m a virgin.”
His eyes widen. “That’s wild. A good girl. I didn’t think there was such a thing anymore.” I listen to the refrigerator downstairs come on. I’ll lose him. “I want you to be the first one,” I say, unzipping my jeans. “Take it from me.”
The front door bangs and a woman’s voice calls out “Weston.” He doesn’t answer. I hear the jerk of a faucet; water running, water turned off. His parents have come home.
He pats my head. “I’m not sure I want to spoil you. I like you unplucked.”
I start to yawn, I’ve gone so long without shutting my eyes. “But I’m not a good girl.”
I stretch out on the long couch in the living room. He covers me with a purple sheet. “Who is she?” I hear his mother ask. “A friend,” he says. It is still light when I fall asleep, my body vibrating as if I am still riding in a truck. I am jostled into the light of the next day. The house is quiet when I help myself to towels. I lock the bathroom door and study my face in the mirror. It doesn’t take long to decide. I cut my hair at a slant with mustache trimming scissors, unscrew the brown plastic bottle of hydrogen peroxide and pour it over my hair. Then I bathe. I lie in the tub in a haze of sun. I soak until goosebumps pimple my skin. When I dry my hair, the tips of my bangs are streaked orange. My eyebrows are next. I pluck them until they are wispy lines.
“Am I still wholesome?” I ask.
Weston sits drinking coffee on a stepladder in the kitchen. He chuckles when he sees the new me. I am still cute, still just a farm girl who pumps gas. “That’s your charm, Angelique. You’re fresh. People pay money for that kind of thing,” he says, squeezing my hand.
“What do you mean?”
“Honey, your naivety is rare.”
I like the word rare, but he’s wrong about me being naïve. When your mother leaves you behind, you’re knowledgeable. Honey, he calls me honey. The word feels like salve. He wants to take me to see someone who will like me. I want people to like me; the more people who like me, the better Weston will like me. He’s sorry, but he doesn’t have a car anymore. That’s the trouble with being an artist.
His fingers snake through mine. We walk into the sultry dusk. The air here is heavy, sweet like apple blossom breath. “Being an artist is a serious, expensive business,” he tells me. His credit at the art supply house has run out. I have three hundred dollars in the toe of my boot, everything I made at the Phillips 66, but I don’t want him to know I have it; I want him to like me for me. I already think of him as mine.
He swings my hand like he can’t keep the smile out of his fingers, “Dickie wants to meet you. He likes Northern girls.”
“Is he your best friend?”
“He was in the war and lost a leg. He’s my connection. Are you up for a walk?”
We stroll down a quiet street with fancy houses, two car garages and trimmed bushes. I have never been happier. I know he loves me, I knew he would love me when I first saw him. This is how it feels when a human being loves you. He squeezes my hand and pulls me out into the middle of the street, wisps of black clouds drift over the moon. The trees are walking down the road beside us, more clouds cling to the tops of the pines. Everything has a prickle or sting in it, even the dirt sings. I follow Weston across the yard lit up by a picture window, then around to the back of the house where Dickie’s door is. He bangs and a light goes on in the basement. I don’t think I could live below ground.
“It’s open,” a man’s voice shouts.
I follow Weston down the stairs. The walls are knotty pine; the eyes seem to be looking at me. The room is big, but made smaller by cardboard boxes. Half of the room is stacked with boxes, the other half is crowded with furniture: a table and hot plate, a hospital bed a metal trapeze hangs over. Weston goes to the turntable that sits on a box.
“Ever see one of these, Angelique? It’s one of the first stereos ever made.”
I edge against him, jealous of the turntable he’s running his fingers over, the arm weighed down with a nickel.
“Dickie are you in the bathroom?” he calls out. “I brought her.”
The bathroom door bangs. A man on crutches swings himself across the room. His bushy mustache smiles. He wears a Surfer Girl tee shirt. Dark rings and wrinkles circle his brown eyes that look directly into mine. The skin is loose under his chin. I can’t tell if he has a kind face only that he is tired. He leans his crutches against the table, then hops on his solid right leg to the bed and sits. His left jean leg is pinned up. He is old, older than Weston, somewhere in those years between Weston and grandma, faraway and unreachable. His shoulders are broad, his forearms and biceps, more muscled than the Phillips 66 mechanic. Still standing I can see the circle of scalp on the back of his head like a monk, the air between each of his brown hairs.
“Do you have any liquor?” Weston asks.
“There’s some wine,” he answers in a voice strong like his arms.
Weston saunters to the tiny refrigerator. He opens it like he owns it, finds the cold red wine, swinging the bottle up. “Dickie, this is Angelique, the Northern girl I was telling you about. She’s raw and green.”
“She’s the real deal. I can see that.” Dickie smiles at me. “You’ve got a pretty name.” Dickie smiles again at me and I think of a civet cat about to spray. “Could you bring me a cigarette, Angelique?”
I search the room, peer at and examine the small things. Vitamin pills collect on a TV tray, cigarette butts float in a coffee can of water, a paring knife leans against the side of an empty peanut butter jar, pennies and nickels everywhere. Behind the bed a tapestry hangs. A deer drinks from a pool of stagnant maroon leaves. A messy lived in room. It’s not a room where someone would make you repeat I am not a good girl. I spy the Marlboros, shake one from the crushed pack, and hand it to him. “Could you light it?” he asks. “Help yourself.”
I light his cigarette before mine. I inhale the heaviness into my lungs. I smoke so well neither of them can tell it is my first cigarette. I stare at Dickie’s left leg. The emptiness alluring. Mysterious. He pats the bed next to him. “Don’t be shy.”
“ Here, Angelique, have a sip,” Weston says. He sits on the bed where Dickie’s hand had patted. “Open your throat. Don’t swallow just let it go down.”
I lift the wine, using both hands. I let it gurgle down my throat. When I come up for air, tears fill my eyes.
“ Can you sing, Angelique?” Dickie asks.
I sing Red River Valley and Oh, Bury Me Not. Cowboy songs. Mother’s songbook left in the piano bench. “Lazy, lazy,” grandma said. “Your mother didn’t practice her piano and look what happened.”
Dickie lifts his crutch, "I’ve got some windowpane LSD.” His eyes look directly into mine. “Would you like to drop some acid with me? It’s pure.”
I wish he were asking Weston, not me.
“What else do you have, Dickie?” Weston blurts. “Acid makes me paranoid.”
“Seconals.” Dickie hops to the table, opens a White Owl cigar box. He tosses a baggie of red capsules at Weston. Then he lifts out a tiny cellophane baggie and a razor blade. “Are you up for it, Angelique?”
"I've never done it before, " I say. I don’t like drugs, but I don’t want to be left behind either.
Dickie slices open the baggie, scrapes something I can’t see onto a mirror, cuts the invisible thing and licks it from his finger. Weston takes two capsules from the baggie, swallows them with wine. They both look at me. I bend over the table. On the mirror I see a bit of fish scale. I pick it up with the tip of my finger. It balances there, innocent as a fingernail clipping, a half sequin. I lick it.
“What will it do to me?” I ask.
“It will open your head,” Dickie said. “You’ll feel one with the universe.”
I laugh. Weston hunches over the stereo. “Where are your albums, Dickie?”
“They all melted,” Dickie laughs. “Put on a CD.”
The CD player is under the bed.
The songs go on a long time. My eyes feel too open; they are thawing. No one talks. We are three planets revolving in our own space. Weston is staring off somewhere into his hair. I chew my lip, biting at a scab of skin like red paint peeling off the splintered side of the barn.
“Where are you from up North?” Dickie asks.
"Iowa,” I say.
Again the room fills with silence. Dickie reaches under the bed, turns the music volume up. Someone stomps on the ceiling, jumping up and down. I blow on my fingers, my hands so cold, pale and far away.
Weston rolls his eyes at the ceiling, “Why don’t you invite your sister down?”
“Did you forget she‘s married to a cop?”
More stomping upstairs. “Turn it down,” a man shouts.
The bathroom is back behind the cardboard boxes. I shut the door. My heart beats so fast, I turn on the water to drown it out, and the water dribbles out of the faucet like dirty string. Voices rise outside. I look in the mirror. My eyes are huge. I can see the scar on my upper left eyebrow like a fishhook from where the neighbor boy threw the iron cup. The white lines that crisscross my temple like ice on barbed wire is the horse chestnut tree I fell from. Every pimple I ever squeezed has a ghost, now I see everything, the stories on my face. I pull down my jeans and settle on the toilet. I rest. I can’t go. My body is numb. Then a water faucet jerks overhead. A man and woman argue. A door slams; feet tromp down steps. Piss gushes from me. What kind of girl pisses a thick stream like a donkey? I hear the basement door fly open.
A man raises his voice. "Turn the music down. Dickie, your sister's trying to sleep."
“I pay rent. It’s my music,” Dickie shouts back.
“We’re tired of your sickness, but I’m not going to get into it, Dickie,” the voice admonishes. “Just turn it down and get these people out of here.”
“I fought, man. I lost….”
The footsteps don’t wait to hear the rest of Dickie’s sentence.
Someone knocks on the bathroom door. The knob slowly turns. I watch the knob. While it revolves I slide off the toilet and pull up my jeans. Is it the policeman from upstairs? He’ll ask me for identification. One look and he will know that I am a shed girl: straw the chickens roost in all winter long, maker of moldy Velveeta cheese sandwiches, warmer-upper of tamales dumped from a can, the gunnysack girl, not a good girl at all. He’ll send me back to the farm, where I’ll have to drag the gunnysack through the broken cornfields after the pickers have been through, finding cobs with two or three yellow teeth, filling the sack with corn for the donkey to eat. Then I remember the policeman has gone back upstairs. What is it I dread on the other side of the door? How long does Weston want to stay in this room in the ground?
I touch the still turning knob, forcing myself to open it and step into the hall. Dickie leans against the wall, one crutch shoved under his arm, the other pushed against his chest. His fleshy mouth is open. A blue vein jumps in his forehead.
“I was worried something happened to you in there,” he says.
Weston lies on the bed, his feet with the high top basketball shoes dangle over the side. Dickie picks up Weston’s legs and shifts them to the other side of the bed, then sits down. Weston lazily waves his hand. Come and talk to me,” Dickie says to me. He pats the bed next to him. He keeps trying to get me to sit. “Let’s be friends.”
“I can be your friend from here,” I say.
Weston rolls off the bed, staggering to his feet. I watch him swing his arms and roll his hips. His eyes aren’t open all the way, his hair messy from lying on the bed.
“Will you lend me some money, Dickie?” he slurs. “I need to buy some canvas stretchers.” Then he turns to me. “Angelique, sit down like the man asks. He wants to talk to you.”
“How much money?” Dickie asks.
The word money makes it quiet under the noise. The music quivers and I see breaks in the air, tadpole squiggles in the corner of my eyes. My heart skips a beat.
“Sit, Angelique, just sit,” Weston repeats.
I do sit on the bed, facing the table. I’m vibrating, shaking. Dickie lays his hand over mine. It is the touch of a human. But he isn’t the human I want. I shake off his hand; I want to run into the trees. The pine trees are just outside, needles with holes between them, crab apple trees too, and the comforting smell of rot. Again he covers my hand with his.
“Two hundred bucks,” Weston says.
Dickie lets out a long breath. “I thought you were going to ask for more than that. Get my wallet. It’s down there with the CDs.“
Weston glances at Dickie’s hand on mine. He swings the bottle up to his lips, wipes his mouth with the back on his hand, and then kneels before the box where CDs are stacked. He digs through the box like a dog scratching. Weston looks skinnier like bones, a clavicle in black turtleneck. There are holes you can vanish into, holes of disappointment.
Dickie’s arm slips around my waist. There are traces of heat on his fingertips. The room is stretching. “Are you tripping yet?”
"What?" I say. It’s like a canyon, a slough I’m calling to him across.
“The money, Dickie,” Weston yells. “Your wallet’s not here.” More words leave his mouth, sparks fly up then die away.
Dickie reaches around himself, his hand slipping into his back pocket.
Weston extends his hand. Money passes. I don’t understand.
“You’re pretty, Angelique,” Dickie murmurs. His breath is in
my face like rust. . “You’re
“Would you rub my leg? That’s all I want. A massage. There’s some lotion in the bathroom,” Dickie lets go of my hand, points to the bathroom.
“See, you’ve been waiting for an angel like her to come along,” Weston laughs.
Maybe I am an angel. A bad angel. An eerie glow comes from the toilet, but it is only wadded paper floating in yellow water. I flush it. I think of the long winters on the farm. I think of how there was nowhere to go, no one to visit, nothing to look forward to except the school bus coming. I think of how the grey fields trapped me with old snow that smelled of wet feathers, the chore boots I wore and the second hand coats. Nothing fit; nothing had been bought just for me. A board is nailed to the plasterboard with toiletries on it. I see the juniper lotion and pick it up. When I glance in the mirror, no one is there.
I kneel in front of Dickie. I rub his good leg.
“No, the other one. Believe me, I’ll feel it.”
My fingers are still pale and faraway. I pretend his leg is there. His right leg presses against me like a hot tree trunk, the muscle bulging like a rock. He oppresses me with not speaking; his eyes keep me down. I lotion my hands, make believe I pick up Dickie’s left foot, working my fingers between the imagery toes. I keep massaging long after Weston has fallen asleep. The powerful leg muscles are coming back under my hands; the pelvis anchors new meat; everything is balanced now. When I am tired of rubbing with my hands I use my wrists. The bones in my fingers swell. I am lending him my cartilage and ligaments. When my forearms begin to go I slide down onto the floor, hunch on my elbows and knees. Dickie smoothes my hair. “There now,” he whispers. “You’re a good girl. You’re the best girl.”