from issue #6: ‘Sissa’ by Jon A. Jackson

SISSA: An extract from Not So Dead

by JON A. JACKSON

 April 14, 1931

THIS IS A STORY told me by Miss Harriet (Sissa) Hartsfield, of Butte, Montana, when she was about 35 years old. I composed this from memory, within an hour of the relation of the story, when Miss Hartsfield had left. I didn’t take notes during the telling, but I don’t believe I left anything out and this seems to be just what she said. —B.S.

I was just sixteen when old Mrs. St. Ives carried me up to Montana. I was born in Texas, in the town of Singletree. My Mama was housekeeper for Mrs. St. Ives.  So when Mrs. St. Ives went to visit her son, Mr. Gaylord St. Ives, not long after his marriage, she got the notion that he needed a proper housekeeper. My Mama must have told her that I was trained for that, because she took me up there and I have never been back to Texas, since. I can’t say that I care about that, except that I only saw my Mama one more time before she died, when she came up to Butte a few years later, with old Mrs. St. Ives.  She died two years ago, and I feel just awfully sad that we never got to spend any more time together than we did. She was a good Christian woman, she had a good life with people who loved her and who she loved, and I know she is in Heaven now.

The thing that most sticks in my mind about that journey from Texas, which was the first time I ever rode on a train, is that the minute I got to Butte it seemed like Mrs. Hazel St. Ives didn’t want me around. But it must not have been clear to the old lady, Mr. St. Ives’s mother, because she left me there after she went home a month later, and I don’t think she knew what was likely to become of me.  She must have thought I would work into the job of keeping Mr. St. Ives’s house. I don’t think she would have left me there if she didn’t think I was going to work out.

That was in 1911, about a week before Christmas, when we got there. Lord, was it cold! Some say it was twenty-below, but it was colder than I knew it could be. The train had to run very slow at times because they had to heat the switches so that they would work, so I was told. I could see the men out on the tracks, building little fires. When old Mrs. St. Ives left it felt even colder.

I don’t know why Mrs. Hazel didn’t take to me. Some girls I got to know later would smile and shake their heads, as if I was silly. They said it was plain as day why she didn’t want me around. It was all about Mr. St. Ives.  But I never hardly saw Mr. St. Ives until after his mother left and the very next day he took me downtown to Ma Ling’s house.  I should have known then, but I was only sixteen and I’d been brought up proper in my Mama’s house down in Singletree, a good church girl. I went all the way through the eighth grade and always did well, but they don’t tell you about these kinds of things in a country school, or Sunday School.

But even a good church girl knows something, especially if she’s a Negro. My Mama told me some things, and my aunties, and my girl friends, what they call “the facts of life.” So I guess I understood a little bit about what was going on. And to tell you the truth, it scared me to death. But it was kind of exciting, too.

Ma Ling was a Chinawoman. She was the first Chinese person I ever knew. She was always very good to me, but I guess most people would say she was not a good woman.  She owned a whorehouse, but I didn’t know it was a whorehouse, right yet. It wasn’t on Venus Alley, downtown, but it was in an apartment building close by. Let me say right now, Ma Ling did not let anything happen to me. I mean nothing at all. On the way down there I sat in the back of Mr. St. Ives’s car and he never said a word until we got down there and then all he said was I had to stay there, it was the best he could do for now, and if I needed anything, I should just ask Ma Ling. So I just stayed there. Ma Ling didn’t tell me much. She was a close-mouthed woman at all times, and Mr. St. Ives must have told her to keep her mouth shut. Maybe he didn’t know himself what he was doing. So while it was freezing and the wind was howling outside and you couldn’t hardly see down the mountain, I just stayed in Ma Ling’s place with nothing to do but read magazines and books and sit and fret.

There were several other girls in that place, some of them quite a bit older, grown-up women, but I didn’t visit with all of them, just three or four. They all seemed to me to be very pretty, even beautiful. They wore mostly fancy bedroom clothes, dressing gowns and kimonos and chemises, but sometimes they got dressed up very elegantly, when they were going out. One of them that I got to know was an Indian girl, about eighteen, named Veronica, and the two others that I mostly talked to were white girls, Mary Lou and JoBeth. Veronica was from Montana, from somewhere “up on the High Line,” she said. She was a Cree Indian. Mary Lou was a jolly blonde girl from Seattle and JoBeth was a skinny dark-haired girl from California, from a town I never heard of, but I think it was in the mountains, where a wagon train of settlers got snowed in and ate each other. The others I didn’t see much and never got to know them. They came and went. They were all whores, but I didn’t know that, at first.

I guess I must have known what a whore was already, but it wasn’t real clear to me. I had heard of the Whore of Babylon, in church, but I didn’t see any connection to these girls. But I soon understood. The girls I knew had little apartments, not like mine, which had a parlor and a bedroom with its own bath.  They lived in single bedrooms and shared a bath down the hall. But they entertained men in another room, any of several rooms on the other side of the building.

What is there to say? I know what it was all about now, but it’s hard to recollect just how much I knew then. I believe I knew more than I was supposed to know, for a good little church girl. I didn’t know everything, but I knew about boys and girls and babies, and whatever Veronica and Mary Lou and JoBeth told me, it seemed like I already knew it. But maybe I’m just not remembering it right.

Anyway, I was quite a few weeks in that house, being bored, even working around the house for something to do, cleaning, dusting, washing up, do some sewing, helping out, even though Ma Ling said I didn’t have to do any of that. And all the time I didn’t know what was going to happen and I was wondering if my Mama knew where I was, even. I didn’t have any letters from her, or from my aunties, and I was very worried about what was going to become of me and what they would be thinking. I didn’t write anything, or even ask to. I was too afraid. Ma Ling told me to be patient, everything would be all right.

And then, one night, Mr. St. Ives came. He was about thirty-five, a handsome man, tall and slim. He was always so very well-dressed. He had kind of a dark look, like he was frowning all the time, and sometimes he could seem like he was mad, or sneering. But that night he was drunk. Not falling down drunk, but not steady on his feet, neither. And he was talking loud. I heard him talking to Ma Ling. Her apartment, which was quite large and grand, was right before mine, directly down the hall. Anybody coming into that building would have to go by her apartment and down a narrow passage to get to my own rooms. I imagine that is why I was in those rooms.

I heard Mr. St. Ives talking and I went and cracked the door and peeped and I saw him out at the end of the hall, next to the big staircase in the middle of the entrance lobby. My hallway was dark, as always, so I knew he wouldn’t see me. Ma Ling was standing inside the door to her rooms, so I couldn’t see her. He was leaning on the doorway with his arm outstretched, talking into the opening, arguing, and sometimes he would lurch back and lean against the staircase. He was saying that he wanted to see me, that “it was time.” But Ma Ling seemed to be arguing against it. I couldn’t hear her words, but I caught the sing-song of her voice. I think she was telling him to go away. And she must have tried to close her door, but he lunged forward and held it open.

“Well, by God,” he bellowed, like an old bull, “I’ll just take the little bitch out of here, then!”

But then, suddenly, Ma Ling’s hand reached out and pulled him into the rooms and the door closed and nothing happened. I finally closed my door and locked it and sat in a chair for a long time. I tried to read. Ma Ling and some of the girls had given me some novels to read, to help pass the time. The one I was trying to read was A Girl of the Limberlost, which was about a young girl in Indiana who catches moths. The girls thought I should like it, but it seemed very strange to me. Anyway, I put it down. I couldn’t read now. But nothing happened and finally I went to bed.

The next morning, Ma Ling came to see me and said I must be prepared to entertain Mr. St. Ives. He would come to see me, but she didn’t know when, how soon. She asked me if I was a virgin. A week or two before this, I would have been embarrassed by the question. Now, since I had talked to Veronica and Mary Lou and JoBeth, I was almost embarrassed to admit that I was. Ma Ling was not going to take my word for it, however. She insisted on examining me. Now I was embarrassed. But she was the kind of woman who doesn’t make any big show of things. She was firm, careful, and businesslike. That calmed me. She was satisfied after her examination and she gave me some advice.

“You don’t know what to do,” she said. “That’s okay. He expect that. Do you not want to give in?”

I didn’t know what she meant. “Give in… what?” I said.

Ma Ling suddenly became angry. “I will not have it,” she said. “If you refuse, I will not have it in my house. He cannot make me.”

I was afraid now. I thought she meant that I might have to go. But where? I had heard the girls talk about being “out on the street.” They talked about it with fear. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but if I had to go out on the street… It was so cold! So bitterly cold! I would die.

I think Ma Ling realized that I had misunderstood. I was scared, she could tell. She said something about ”rape.” She would not tolerate rape.

I knew what rape was, or I thought I did. Mama had talked about rape. I don’t mean she talked to me about it, but I used to hear her talking to my aunties about it, and her friends. Seemed like they talked about it a lot. It was a serious thing. It was against the law, but it was also very bad for the girl who was raped. Rape was very bad, awful. It was painful and it caused bleeding. That’s what I understood, but I didn’t know what was involved, obviously. A girl was always in danger of it, it seemed like. I had an idea that some girls got raped and it was their own fault, something they did that was wrong.  ”She brought it on herself,” was what I heard. This was an idea that my girlfriends down in Singletree talked about often. I wasn’t sure how it applied to me, now. I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I didn’t think. I wasn’t doing anything at all.

I told Ma Ling I wasn’t sure, but I would try to be good and not be raped. But Ma Ling looked at me and she just shook her head. I was scared, but not unwilling to do what she thought I should do. I wasn’t refusing to entertain Mr. St. Ives.

Ma Ling was still upset, but she said maybe it would be okay. Maybe it would be for the best. She told me that Mr. St. Ives was a very rich man, very powerful. “If he wants you he will have you,” she said. But she warned me that men are stupid. She said, sometimes a man like Mr. St. Ives, if he didn’t know how to get what he wanted by talking, by acting like gentleman, like with his wife, he might get tough. He might take what he wanted by force. “You don’t want him to act like that,” she told me. I could get hurt, if he got angry. “You got to help him to get what he wants,” she said. But then she warned me: “Remember! Don’t act like you already know! He don’t like that.” I was so confused, I had no idea what she was talking about.

So Ma Ling showed me how to act: to be shy, to resist a little but not too much, to not seem knowing, to let him show me what he wanted, to be patient, but if he got confused I should lead him on without seeming to. This was the way. And she showed me just what might happen. She would be nearby, just in case. I was not to worry.

But I was very anxious and naturally I asked the girls. Veronica laughed. It was easy, she said. “Don’t you worry. He’s got his mind on one thing. He won’t notice what you’re doing, as long as you don’t scream and run away.” And Mary Lou said if I was lucky and he wasn’t drunk it would be all right, no problem, just like Veronica said, but JoBeth thought it would be better if he was a little drunk. They argued about that. In the end they thought that there was nothing I could do about that. I couldn’t act like a professional and offer him whiskey. I’d just have to wait and see how he showed up.

Two nights later he returned. Ma Ling brought him to my door, then left. I was alarmed at that, but she had told me she would be just outside the door, just in case. He came in and sat down, then got up and wandered about, looking at things. He said he was just checking on me, to see how I was getting along. He asked me if I was comfortable. I said I was. He said he had heard from my mother. I was so excited! What did she write? But he said it was just that she missed me, she was thinking about me, she was well. I should write to her and tell her that I was all right. Did I have a pen, paper? Stamps? Did I know how to write?

Oh, yes, I assured him that I could write good. But, I told him that I didn’t have any stationery or pens or stamps. And he said he would see that I had some. I thanked him but I said I didn’t know what I should write. Could I tell her that I was staying with Ma Ling? Could I tell her about Veronica and Mary Lou and JoBeth?

Oh, God no, that wouldn’t do, he said. He seemed to be confused, or worried, standing there trying to think. Then he said I would be up at the house, eventually. He didn’t know how soon, but pretty soon. In the meantime, there was no point in making my Mama worry, or his Mama, for that matter, ‘cause she was bound to hear about it from my Mama if I said anything. He said that under his breath, almost, but I understood and I nodded to let him know. He seemed grateful.

He explained that his wife, Miz Hazel, he called her, was a bit high strung. It had nothing to do with me, really, but with his mother and Miz Hazel’s feelings about her own house and having her own people about her. I told him I understood. He was glad to see that I was such a smart and mature young lady, he said. He was happy that we could talk so comfortably. He asked if I minded if he took off his overcoat. I said no, of course not. Then he sat down with the coat folded in his lap. Pretty soon he fished out a little leather-covered flask and asked me if he could bother me for a glass. There was a little room back by the bath, which I called my kitchen. It was no bigger than a closet, hardly, but there was a sink and some cabinets and little table where I sometimes ate the dinner that Ma Ling would have her servant bring me. I had some nice little crystal glasses that Ma Ling had provided. I ran and got Mr. St. Ives a glass.

When I got back, he had set the coat aside and was holding a cigar. He asked if I minded if he smoked. I said no, of course not, and fetched him a saucer to use for an ashtray. He poured himself some whiskey and lit his cigar and began to talk.

That night he told me about growing up down in Texas. He knew the little village of Singletree very well, he said. He had often ridden over that way. There was a famous well over that way, he recalled. Did I know it? I must. I told him I did, of course. It was the artesian well, or spring, at Nahor. He used to go bird hunting over that way, he said, and he would water his horse at the spring. He laughed in a shy way and said some of his friends used to flirt with the girls who came to get water at the well for their houses. Did I ever go to the well? I told him I went to the well, to get water for my Mama’s house. He said he supposed the boys still came to the spring, to flirt with the girls. Did I ever go with any of those boys? Oh, no, I said, my Mama would have whipped me. He said that was good. My Mama was right.

He knew right where our house was, in Singletree, near the railroad tracks. “I believe your daddy was a railroad man, wasn’t he?” he asked. I said I guessed that was so, but I hadn’t known him. He had died when I was little. Mr. St. Ives said he knew my whole family, my Daddy, who he said was a fine man, a good worker. Uncle Dub, he called him. It was a bad accident that killed him, he said. He knew my older brothers, who were in the army and served honorably, and my older sisters. He knew their names. And my aunties. He remembered Aunt Sister, especially. She was the pretty one. Everyone called her Sissa and I looked very much like her. Would I mind if he called me Sissa?

I laughed. I’d called her Aunt Sissa, too. It seemed funny that he would call me Sissa. But I said he could, of course.

He told me how he missed Texas, especially in the morning. He had strong memories of morning in Texas, of the way the light was. Especially in the fall, the late fall, November. “It’s not the same light here,” he said. “Here the light comes over the mountain. Out there, it gradually grows, covering the sky, and then the sun just pops up out of the earth.” He went on about that. How the sun rises out of the earth, gathering its strength, gradually growing like a symphony orchestra, almost. It was like poetry, the way he said it. I had never heard a symphony orchestra, at that time, but I seemed to hear it, the strings, quiet at first, then getting louder, and finally the horns joining in. And then a great crash of the cymbals. It was thrilling to hear him talk about it.  But all of a sudden, he got up and put on his coat and left. Just like that, without another word!

I was a little disappointed, to be honest. I had gotten over my fears when he turned out to be so friendly and all, and then I got to remembering what Ma Ling had coached me about and had gotten myself all ready for something different, but it hadn’t happened. I thought, he doesn’t like me. I wondered if it was because I was a Negro.

The girls were amazed when I told them. I made up some things, I admit. I said he hugged me and he kissed me, but he hadn’t even touched me. I couldn’t pretend that anything else had happened. They said that he was just shy, that he would be back.

And they were right. He came back the next night. He started right in where he had left off, about being a boy in Texas, going out in the morning to the horse barns. He loved the smell of the barns, of the horses. He had some horses here, he said, but he had to keep them at a ranch that was miles away and he couldn’t just go and visit them whenever he wanted, not every morning.  He grew up on army posts, he told me. His father had fought in the War Between the States, on the Union side, and after the war had risen to the rank of colonel. I knew there was a Fort near Singletree, but we always just called it the fort. I never knew the name. And his daddy was the colonel, the commander of the fort!

Mr. St. Ives came almost every night for two weeks and he would sit and reminisce while he sipped his whiskey and smoked a cigar. He really seemed to like me, to like my company. Maybe it was because I was from Texas, from his home, and understood what he was talking about. The girls laughed when I told them that. They said it was because of my bosom. Well, it was true, I had developed early. And it was true that Mr. St. Ives would stop and look at me from time to time and shake his head and say, “You’re so mature, Sissa.” But I honestly don’t believe he meant that I was mature that way. I think he meant that I understood him so well. But the girls laughed at that and said, Why do you think his wife wouldn’t have you in the house?

One night, Mr. St. Ives said he felt so bad about keeping me up to all hours, that a pretty young thing like me needed her beauty sleep. I said I was fine, that I enjoyed hearing him talk about “down home”. But he insisted that I go to bed. He told me I should go put on my nightie and he’d come in and tuck me in when I was ready. So I went and slipped into my nightgown in the bathroom. I thought that something would happen now. But when I got in bed I didn’t know what to do next, so I just lay there. Pretty soon he came and knocked on the door and I said, Come in. And he tiptoed in and made a show of tucking me in. Then he kissed me on the forehead, said goodnight and left.

After that, each evening he would sit and drink and smoke and talk and then tell me to go get ready and be sure to call out when I was ready. And after a couple of nights of this he said he thought he would just lie down next to me and talk a bit until I fell asleep. He would lie on the bed fully dressed, and talk until quite late. The first couple of nights I pretended to fall asleep and he would get up and tiptoe out. But then I got where his voice droning on and on in the darkness actually put me to sleep. And finally, after a couple of nights of this, he said it was kind of cold and did I mind if he just slipped under the covers. I said I wouldn’t mind so he took off his shoes and got in beside me, fully dressed. And that night, at long last, he began to touch me, asking if I minded if he did this, and then that. And, oh, what a long exhausting process it was, of fumbling, touching my breasts, my belly and hips, of kicking off his own clothes, then promising not to hurt me, of oh so careful positioning, and at last, of a bit of pain and finally relief.

Something else was happening, about the same time. I can’t be sure now if it was before Mr. St. Ives first came to visit me at Ma Ling’s, or if it was a week or two later. But about that time another man came to see me. It was a policeman. He was a very tall Negro man, one of the biggest men I ever saw, named Eberhard Mason. First he came to see Ma Ling. She brought him to see me. In my presence, she told him that I was simply a guest, a young girl who had been brought to her by a respectable man who wished to find a safe place for me to stay while he made arrangements for my employment. There was no question of my working in the house, she told him, in her broken lingo. It was just that it was difficult to find a proper temporary residence for a girl of my sort. Meaning a Negro, of course. The policeman could understand that, she was sure. The policeman seemed half-convinced, but he said he’d have to question me, privately.

Ma Ling withdrew. Officer Mason got right to the point. “Who brought you here?” When I told him what I knew I could see he understood the situation, right off. It was a touchy business, he told me. Mr. St. Ives was, as Ma Ling had said, a very powerful man. He worked for the Company and the Company pretty much ran Butte. They had a lot of influence, he said. They had gotten the mayor run out of office and they had their own men in the police. But they didn’t control him. That was almost the only thing they didn’t run, not yet, anyway.

He asked me how old I was. “I want the truth,” he said, and looked me in the eye very sternly, like a preacher. I told him I was sixteen. I couldn’t tell if he believed that. Finally, he said, he’d have to contact my parents. I told him about my Mama and about my Daddy being dead. I told him I was afraid my Mama would be mad, or upset, if she knew what had happened. But Officer Mason said he would check up with authorities in Singletree and find out what he could. He couldn’t promise that my Mama wouldn’t hear about it, but he would try to be discreet, and he’d warn the Singletree police about saying anything, but he couldn’t guarantee what they might say or do. Then he went away, saying he would be back to talk to me again as soon as he learned anything.

I was scared, but I didn’t say anything about Officer Mason’s visit to Mr. St. Ives, and I don’t believe that Ma Ling said anything. I had already written two letters to my Mama, with Mr. St. Ives standing right there to see what I wrote and even telling me what to say. It wasn’t the truth. I said I was working in the house and everything was nice, I missed her and my sisters and brothers and Singletree and all, but the folks up here treated me nice and I was happy. And Mr. St. Ives would take the letters to mail them. I didn’t say what house I was in so, in a way, it wasn’t a black lie, just a white one. That’s how I thought, then.

Officer Mason came back the next night, and every night, after that, in the early evening, before Mr. St. Ives would come. He told me to call him Eberhard, his first name. He liked me, I could tell. At first, he was just interested in finding out about my “situation.” He was very patient, very gentle. He soon got it out of me that Mr. St. Ives had not “touched me,” as he put it. But what, he wondered, were his intentions? I couldn’t say. At least, not then. It looked to me like all the man wanted to do was talk. I told him all about the late night conversations about Mr. St. Ives’s boyhood in Texas.

Eberhard was puzzled. He didn’t seem totally convinced, but what could he do? The man was evidently trying to do something on my behalf, trying to ease a difficult domestic situation. Eberhard was like the girls, he said with a smile that he understood why Mrs. St. Ives had refused to have me in the house. But he said, he was surprised that Mr. St. Ives continued to visit me. If Mrs. St. Ives ever found out, he said, “there would be hell for him in his own house.” He warned me about mentioning his visits to Mr. St. Ives, that it would make him angry. “Better to wait until I hear something from down in Texas,” he said. So each evening, Eberhard would discuss with me what had happened the previous night, what I thought might happen next, and what would be best to do for me.

All of this attention made me even more excited. From being terribly lonely and bored, at first feeling abandoned, not knowing what would become of me, I had gotten pretty used to the house. I still didn’t know a thing about Butte, because I was never let out, except to take the air in the back yard, or walk around the block with Ma Ling, or sometimes go with her to visit some of her Chinese friends. It was still bitterly cold out, but sometimes it would be sunny and I would see children playing in the streets—they were often poor children, not very warmly dressed, but they didn’t seem to mind. They stared at me. I think there were not a lot of Negroes in Butte. As for the girls, I talked to them a lot, of course, and learned about their activities, about their gentlemen callers. But I was not quite wanting to join them in their activities and anyway I understood that I was in some kind of special limbo, thanks to Mr. St. Ives’s interest.

The girls were quite drawn into my situation. I now had two men very interested in me—they knew, naturally, about Eberhard’s visits. Of the two, there was no question that Eberhard was the more interesting. For one thing, he was not so old as Mr. St. Ives, being about thirty. Also, he was a man of my own race—I felt that I could talk with him—and he was very handsome, very attractive indeed. He was the most handsome man I had ever seen.

They were also thrilled about Mr. St. Ives. To them, he was the most interesting, I guess, because he was well-known, and powerful. I was also attracted to Mr. St. Ives. He was elegant, well-dressed, very well spoken. He was from my own part of the world and he knew my family. He spoke about them, often. I was grateful that he was helping me to write letters to my Mama—not that I couldn’t have written them, I had done well in school, but he knew just what to tell her. He would describe some of my duties at the house. “Don’t worry, it’s what you will be doing, maybe soon,” he explained. As strange as it seems, I had gotten used to all this. Even a child soon adapts to strange situations.

I am pretty certain that it was just after the first time that Mr. St. Ives finally made love to me that Eberhard came to me with information he’d gotten from Texas. It may have been a day or two later, but it was pretty close. The fact was, after that first time, the conversations about Texas pretty much stopped and Mr. St. Ives would want to go to bed with me as soon as he arrived. Perhaps later we would lie in bed and he’d talk a bit. But now, Eberhard said he’d learned that I wasn’t sixteen, I was only fifteen. That made a big difference, he said. I was only a child, legally, and I shouldn’t be in the custody of Ma Ling.

I insisted I was sixteen, but Eberhard didn’t believe me. He said he had good evidence, from the state of Texas, that I was only fifteen. If this was true, and he was sure it was, any man who touched me would be guilty of rape. I was horrified. I knew I had been doing something that was probably wrong, but I couldn’t believe it was rape. I didn’t want to be raped. I didn’t want to be one of those kinds of girls.

And then, Eberhard knew that I had been with Mr. St. Ives.  He was furious. He said he would have to talk to the judge. I pleaded with him. I was scared more than I had been. Ma Ling would throw me out on the street, I told him. He thought that was probably so. Ma Ling would be scared that she, too, would be brought into the rape case, for providing the accommodation for debauchery, as he put it. The house might be closed down. All the girls would be out on the street. I was thunderstruck. Oh, please, please, please, I begged him, don’t do it.

I could see that Eberhard was moved. He said he would have to think about it. Maybe he could talk to Mr. St. Ives. That scared me even more. I knew Mr. St. Ives would be furious. I had seen his face get dark, sometimes, if he talked about things that upset him. That was when he talked about the miners and about “Reds.” He was not a man I wanted to anger.

Something happened then. First, the following night neither Mr. St. Ives nor Eberhard came to visit. All of a sudden the house was silent. Ma Ling came and looked at me, but she didn’t say anything, just shook her head and went away. None of the girls came out of their rooms. When I went to visit their doors were closed and no one answered when I knocked or called. A girl who worked for Ma Ling, a scullery maid they called her, brought me some food. Her eyes were very big. All she would tell me was that there was big trouble. Then she ran away.

The next night, Mr. St. Ives came and got me. It was still very cold, very snowy. He had a couple of men with him. He seemed very business-like. He told me I must move from this house. It wasn’t a proper place for me, he said. He told the two men to pack up my things. Then he put on my coat and took me away to a little house down the hill from the city.

Now Mr. St. Ives came every night. I lived by myself in the little house, which was nice. He would bring me nice things. Furniture, groceries, clothes. Things got a little rough, at times. He sometimes got angry with me. He would get drunk. He told me that Mason had died. I was upset, then he got angry with me. He said, “That son of a bitch told people he was going to marry you!” He demanded to know if we had married. When I said no, he said I’d lied to him, had plotted behind his back. He was drunk and he slapped me in the face. I was shocked, then furious. I told him to leave. But then he raped me.

Later, I learned that his wife had died. Then he quit coming to see me. At first, he just stayed away a few days. Then he’d come and apologize and everything would be nice. But he’d get drunk and he’d drag me to the bed.

Along about this time I began to realize that something was wrong. I wasn’t having my monthlies any more. I went to Ma Ling and she told me that she could help me get rid of my problem, but I was scared. I didn’t want to do it. And when Mr. St. Ives started coming back it wasn’t long before he found out. That was big trouble then. He was sure the baby wasn’t his, but I told him it had to be his. I don’t think he believed me. He just quit coming by.

Ma Ling was so kind. She got the mid-wife to come to me when it was my time. And after the baby was born she would come and show me how to take care of it… my little Deborah, a beautiful, beautiful child. But she warned me. Mr. St. Ives would never, never accept my child. He would throw me out on the street, she said. And sure enough, by and by some men came and said I had to leave the house.

What could I do? Mr. St. Ives never came around. I didn’t know how to get in touch with him, even. But the men came and told me to pack up my clothes and they took me up to Ma Ling’s. Ma Ling was kind, but she said now I’d have to go to work. I was old enough, she said. But she could not take in the baby. It was no place for a child. The other girls were on my side and pleaded with her. They all loved little Deborah. But Ma Ling said she didn’t dare keep the child. Mr. St. Ives would be angry and there was no telling what he would do. And I thought to myself, it was like King Herod and the innocent children of Bethlehem, like I’d read in the Bible.

The hardest thing I ever did was write to my Mama in Texas and tell her the whole truth. Mama and old Mrs. St. Ives came up a week later. There was a terrible to-do, my Mama told me, when Mrs. St. Ives and Mr. St. Ives got in an argument. In the end, though, Mama and Mrs. St. Ives took Deborah back to Texas with them. That was the last time I ever saw my Mama. But she took good care of Deborah and Mrs. St. Ives paid for her to go to school, for which I am grateful and give thanks to the Lord.

This is all that Miss Hartsfield told me on this occasion. —B.S.

Later: some problems here. Originally, I’d heard that Sissa and Mason were only betrothed. Then I heard that they had been married by a Baptist preacher in Centerville. —B.S.

June 12, 1933.
Sissa says she did marry Mason. She says the baby was his, but she foolishly thought that it would be better if St. Ives thought Deborah was his, that he wouldn’t harm the child and might even provide for her. Her biggest mistake, she says.
I wonder if she even knows who the father was. B.S.

July 1, 1934.
I showed ms. to Sissa. Possibly mistake. She admits she left some things out. I think especially about the incidents around the marriage. I found a marriage license recorded in Whitehall! But didn’t say anything to Sissa. Q? When could baby have been conceived? Insists the baby, Deborah, was Mason’s child. Says she was pregnant when St. Ives moved her to the house on Walleye St. B.S.

Nov. 36—She has seen Deborah! Beautiful girl, in college, it seems. St. Ives was away, on trip to Chile. Sissa went to Chicago, met D. I agree to act as her postman.—B.S.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

JON A. JACKSON is the author of the Detective Sergeant Mulheisen Mysteries. He tells us about himself and his novel-in-progress, Not So Dead: “I was born in Detroit before WW2, then spent my early years on a farm upstate in Michigan, before the family returned to the big city. I served in the Air Force mainly in the Detroit area and went to college there. Eventually, I moved to Montana and I’m still here, more than forty years later. But Detroit is still present in my mind… in fact, that Detroit only exists in my mind, now. But I have a great love for Montana and this novel, as well as its precursor, Go By Go [Dennis McMillan Publications, 1998], are set in the unique western city of Butte, a kind of alpine Detroit, previously exploited by Hammett in Red Harvest. I’m hoping to publish this Butte novel before too much longer.”

Advertisements

from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt II)

license_20121024002750_50440

[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the second of several excerpts.]

MRS KINGFISHER SAYS “Goodnight” cheerfully enough as Ida follows Arturo’s Maglight down the garden path to his studio at its furthest end. He unlocks its door, switches on its lights, and points towards an easel at its centre, to which a canvas is secured. The first thing Ida notices is that the model is naked (save for a discreet scrap of white towelling).

“You didn’t mention anything about me having to take my clothes off,” observes Ida.

“That’s because it’s not obligatory,” replies Arturo.

“How many have kept them on?” asks Ida.

“None,” replies Arturo, “but that’s because they are determined to demonstrate that no mutilation can stop them remaining objects of desire.”

“Bollocks,” laughs Ida, “they strip because you’re a bully.”

“You are suggesting that I threaten them with my fists, or put a gun to their heads?” he asks in mock-outrage.

“Don’t be an idiot,” says Ida. “You know as well as I do that the relationship between painter and sitter is a form of wrestling. In the end one has to submit to the will of the other. Which is why—despite the entreaties of Ruddy—I have declined to accept commissions from the likes of Elton John. I fear that his very presence in my studio would force me to produce a representation, something that would be much more to his liking than mine. So I stick with sunflowers, anemones, and anonymous models. That way I can make paintings.”

“I am not blind,” says Arturo, “I know that your paintings are a thousand times better than mine, that you have true greatness in you. I can also see that you are not impressed by my work, that you think it is shit. Of course you are right. The example you are looking at is more soft-porn than portrait. My only real interest in the sitter was to show that women can have mastectomies and still have great looking breasts. But you are far too English to tell me so yourself. Perhaps that is why your paintings still fall short of their potential. Some vestige of that Englishness stays your hand at the last moment, prevents you from delivering the coup de grâce. I have the temperament, but lack your divine gift. If only I knew how to teach, I would teach you how to strike without fear, how to take without guilt.”

“You are absolutely right,” she replies, “I need to learn how to take.”

“And to give, and to give your all,” cries Arturo, “Damn it Ida, let me paint your portrait. Fuck the other women with breast cancer. Let me do it for my own enjoyment. Sit in that chair over there.”

And Ida sits, like Missy the poodle.

She watches as Arturo dismisses Breast Cancer Survivor No. 19 from the easel and replaces her with a blank canvas. How is he going to prepare it, she wonders, watching him open an earthenware jar and tip something that resembles red-brick dust on to a marble work top. Of course she identifies it immediately as Armenian Bole. Who would have thought it, she muses, he is going to prepare the canvas exactly as I would have done?

“I see we are going Dutch tonight,” she observes. “I am surprised. I had you down as a German Expressionist.”

“That is because my other sitters were flighty things, women of the air. Whereas you are an earthier creature.”

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

contrappasso2_frontcover_tn

from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt I)

license_20121024002750_50440

[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the first of several excerpts.]

“HERE COMES ART,” says Mrs Kingfisher, as her helmetless husband roars down the Sapsuckers’ private driveway on his green-and-cream Harley Bobber. “Now we can eat.”

The others continue to stand on the lawn, lazily sipping white zinfandel from flutes, which glow in their hands like electric light bulbs. Only the English couple, Zachary and Ida Siskin, regard the new arrival with curiosity, as he leaps from his bike and embraces his wife like a sailor home from the sea.

“Do you know him?” asks Zachary Siskin.

“By reputation alone,” says his wife. “He’s a mediocre painter. Worse even than me.”

“Mr & Mrs Sapsucker would beg to differ,” Zachary replies, “at least on the self-assessment.”

Dedicated collectors of his wife’s work, they have volunteered to host a dinner in her honour, though the true Master of Ceremonies is Ruddy Turnstone, proprietor of the Turnstone Gallery, where Ida Siskin’s new show has just been hung (hence her presence in Atlanta).

Mr Sapsucker is a pain-relief specialist, and his wife a psychiatrist. Both are obviously successful, since they inhabit a mansion on West Paces Ferry Road, but neither is a good advertisement for their particular skill. Mr Sapsucker looks like a man with a bad toothache, while Mrs Sapsucker comes over as a crazy woman. Who else but a crazy woman would think of dressing like Ophelia saved from drowning, with various fresh flowers pinned to her dress, and magnolias in her hair?

One of the live-in maids comes running from the house to whisper something in her ear, whereupon Mrs Sapsucker beckons her guests to follow her into the house. She offers a brief tour, the purpose of which is to show off the five Siskins the Sapsuckers already own. Being keen to make it an even half-dozen Ruddy Turnstone has brought along a self-portrait from the new exhibit. He hangs it above the mantelpiece in the dining room (replacing an amateur effort by Mrs Sapsucker herself) so that all can admire it in situ while the meal is consumed. Hired help serve the expectant diners with cold soup. Pacific Rim Gewurztraminer (chilled to the bone) is poured.

Arturo Kingfisher, who also shows at the Turnstone Gallery, examines Ida Siskin’s portrait with a professional eye. She paints herself as though she were the child of darkness and shadow, he thinks, and what has emerged is dishonestly presented. Her lips are pursed, her features pinched. Something essential has been held back, deliberately secreted in the darkness and the shadow. She looks like… I know… she looks like a chatelaine. The chatelaine of her own psyche, the jailer of improper and improbable desires. He takes a candid look at the original. For God’s sake, he thinks, the woman is the double of Simone Signoret. If I were Mr Siskin I should make haste to pick that lock, lest someone beats me to it.  He dips his spoon in the white soup. It tastes of custard and vanilla, and is an unpleasant reminder of the Zupa Nic or ‘Nothing Soup’ of his detested homeland. He hears his wife asking Zachary Siskin about the flight from London.

“Entirely predictable,” the Englishman replies, “even the dream I had was the sort of dream you’d expect to have at 30000 feet above sea level. It went like this. I entered a row of ruined terraced houses turned into a Theatre of the Grotesque, and showed my ticket to an usherette, who wordlessly tore off the stub and led me up innumerable flights of steps. Reaching the top at last she switched on her torch. Its beam penetrated the darkness, and I saw that my seat was not in a row of velvet-covered push-downs, but on a narrow ledge attached to the building’s back wall. Facing the bricks I shuffled along the plank, which was made of varnished wood. Not unlike a bookshelf, it occurred to me in the dream. I rotated anti-clockwise on my heels, and lowered myself cautiously, until my backside was resting on something solid, though my feet were dangling over the void. I could just make out my wife, far below in the stalls. She was obviously trying to tell me something, but I could neither hear nor lip-read over such a distance. By now I was not alone on the ledge. A young woman was sitting to my left. For the longest while nothing passed between us. Finally I said, ‘Remind me not to stand up…’ At which point a stewardess shook my shoulder, said something about clear air turbulence, and ordered me to fasten my seat belt.”

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

contrappasso2_frontcover_tn

from issue #2: ‘Safe, Reliable, Courteous’ by Mimi Lipson

arizona

SAFE, RELIABLE, COURTEOUS by Mimi Lipson

KITTY FALLS into a deep, instant sleep outside San Diego as the bus labors up the El Cajon pass. The whine of the engine invades her dreams. She’s trapped in the cargo hold of an airplane. She’s engulfed in a swarm of insects. She’s crawling on hands and knees through an air-conditioned tunnel.

When she fights her way back to consciousness, she finds herself wedged into a fetal position with her head jammed into the carpet-covered wall. It’s still dark out, and the bus is idling somewhere. She sits up and looks out the window. They’re in a concrete bay outside a depot. A line of people waits under the fluorescent lights: a young woman holding a sleepy child in pajamas; two box-shaped Mexican men wearing brightly colored knit shirts, their pants sharply creased; and towering over all of them, a skinny white kid with a nylon gym bag. He looks about Kitty’s age, or maybe a few years younger—eighteen or nineteen. He has frizzy, shoulder-length hair. He wears paratrooper pants tucked into engineer boots, and a leather jacket that is much too small for him, exposing several inches above his wrists. The door sighs open and the line shuffles forward. Kitty lies back down and pretends to be asleep, and by the time they reach the interstate she’s drifted off.

When she wakes again, the bus is flooded with light. They are traveling across a high plain. Her neck hurts, and she’s very thirsty, having forgotten to bring anything to drink. She takes a fat paperback out of her backpack: The Executioner’s Song. On the cover is a flat western landscape at sunset. A silhouette of power lines vanishes into darkness. Kitty plans to lose herself in the book while they cross the vast interior of the continent, but now she’s distracted by the glare outside her window. She traces an overpass to a distant town and tries to imagine living in one of the white ranch houses, a mile or so beyond the highway. After a while her eyes go out of focus. She falls asleep again.

*

AN ANGRY VOICE from somewhere in the back of the bus jolts Kitty awake:

“Fuck off, you fucking zombie!”

Another voice, raised to keep up with the first:

“Now that’s a shame. Truly a shame, because the Lord wants you to join him—”

“Leave me alone!”

A boy stands up on the seat in front of her to look. The boy’s mother pulls him down, but she’s staring too.

“He wants you with him in the kingdom of Heaven. All will be forgiven—”

“I didn’t do anything, genius, so why do I need to be forgiven?”

Heads are craned all the way down the aisle, but Kitty doesn’t need to turn around. She knows, from a sullen note in the first voice, that it’s the skinny white guy she’d seen getting on the bus last night. The voices get louder until, finally, the driver pulls onto the shoulder and comes up the aisle, leaning his bulk on every other seat. He looks more bored than irritated.

“If you gentlemen can’t keep it down, you’re both getting put off this bus in Flagstaff. You hear me?”

“I didn’t do anything,” the sullen voice protests. “This clown won’t shut up.”

“Okay, you, come with me.”

The driver puts the skinny kid in the seat next to Kitty and lumbers back up the aisle.

“I fucking hate Christians,” her new seatmate says as the bus merges into the traveling lane. He takes a sketchpad and a pencil out of his gym bag and begins drawing. When the little boy pops up over the seat again, staring at him with frank interest, he says, “Take a picture. It’ll last longer.” Again the boy’s mother yanks him down again. Kitty can see him peering out between the seats. “Kids like me because I’m weird-looking,” her seatmate says. He goes back to his drawing—some kind of futuristic car. He works quickly and expertly, shading with the side of his pencil lead.

The boy stands on his seat again. “Can you draw me something?” he asks. This time his mother leaves him alone.

“Yeah, okay. Do you like dune buggies?”

“I don’t know,” he says shyly.

Kitty’s seatmate draws a dune buggy. And then, on command, a dog and a truck. “Now I’m gonna make something scary,” he says. He draws a skeleton. After considering it for a minute, pencil to lips, he adds a pirate’s hat and a sword, dripping with blood. He tears the sheet off and hands it to the little boy.

“You know what’s scary?” the boy, says. “A bat!”

“Skeletons are scarier than bats,” he says with authority.

“No, bats are scarier.”

He snorts. “You’re nuts.” He puts his drawing pad away.

“Bats bats bats!” sings the boy, and his mother yanks him down again.

In Flagstaff everyone gets off the bus to stretch their legs. Kitty buys some cheese crackers and a soda from the vending machines in the station. Back outside, she finds her seatmate smoking a cigarette. He offers her one, but she shakes her head.

“How far are you going?” she asks.

He’s going to his father’s house in South Jersey, a town called Cherry Hill.

“I’ve heard of that. What’s it like?”

“Cheery Hell,” he says by way of comment.

Actually, she thinks, he’s not weird looking at all. He has classically handsome features: a long, straight nose and hazel eyes, a Dudley Do-Right dimple in his strong chin. There’s motility to his face, though—changing with each new thought. That must be why kids stare at him.

“I’m Kitty,” she says.

“Isaac.” He crushes his cigarette under his boot.

Ten minutes later they’re in their seats waiting for the stragglers to board. A young man in a dark suit gives Isaac a baleful look as he passes. He has short hair, and his face is pink with razor rash and acne.

“Have you heard the good news about Satan?” Isaac asks him in a chipper voice.

*

KITTY SEES A SIGN for the Petrified Forest an hour outside of Flagstaff, but there’s no evidence of it in the landscape. She thought Arizona would look like a Krazy Kat cartoon: buttes and mesas etched with deep orange and blue shadows, undistorted in the dry air, so that they would seem unnaturally close, as if they were passing in slow motion just outside her window and she could reach over and brush them with her hand.

Though the actual scenery is boring—flat and grey, with rubbly hills in the far distance—she doesn’t look away until the sun has crossed the sky. Isaac has been, by turns, napping and drawing. He’s working on another futuristic car now. When he notices Kitty looking, he positions his sketchbook to give her a better view.

“That’s really good,” she says. “It looks like a real industrial drawing.”

“I can draw anything.” It’s not a boast, just a statement of fact. “I was supposed to go to the Art Center in Pasadena. It’s the ultimate school for auto design.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. Why bother?”

“I guess so you can design cars?”

“That’s true,” he says, as though it hadn’t occurred to him.

She pulls out her book.

“I read that,” Isaac says. “Gary Gilmore. He kicks ass.”

Kitty has no patience for serial-killer worship. It reminds her of high school boys in Charles Manson shirts.

“A kid offered me ten thousand dollars to kill his brother,” he says. “But I was too much of a pussy.”

She lets it pass. Opens her book and begins, at last, to read.

*

THEY HAVE A HALF HOUR in Gallup to get something to eat. Kitty walks outside the station, hoping to find a store of some kind. She looks up and down the wide street and sees nothing but motels and gas stations, so she gets a cheeseburger at the Burger King in the station and eats it leaning against the wall outside. When she gets on the bus, Isaac’s seat is empty. She climbs over his gym bag and buries her nose in The Executioner’s Song until the motion of the bus breaks her concentration. She scrambles back over his bag and up the aisle yelling, “Wait! Wait!” and the bus comes to a stop again.

The driver is irritated this time. “You got three minutes to get him, Miss, or I’m leaving the both of you here.”

She finds Isaac inside the station, staring at a rack of car magazines.

*

KITTY’S EYES follow the power lines, bobbing rhythmically against the dimming sky. The ground beneath recedes into shadows. After a while it’s too dark to see anything outside. She doesn’t feel like reading, so she turns to Isaac and asks, “Did someone really try to get you to kill his brother?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because his brother was an evil thug, that’s why. It’s a long story. You want to hear it?”

“Sure.” She leans back in her seat.

“So, this kid, right, he was a friend of this guy I was hanging around with. His parents died in a car accident and left everything, the house and everything, to him and his brother. But his brother wouldn’t give him any money. Wouldn’t even let him stay in the house. Made him sleep on a lawn chair in the fucking garage and beat on him whenever he tried to get inside. So this kid decided the only way to get the money was if someone killed his brother. He was looking for a stranger, someone who couldn’t be linked to the crime, and, but, also, he, the kid, would be at work and have an alibi. That was his concept. He saw it in a movie—he had a portable TV in the garage. One of those little things with a six inch screen and a handle. It was fucking pathetic. But like I said, I was too much of a pussy.”

Kitty thinks of the phrase scary drifter, but it doesn’t seem to fit Isaac—maybe because he’s so chatty. “Where was this?” she asks.

“El Cajon. Have you ever been to El Cajon? It’s totally beat.”

“Is that where you got on?” she asks, but she knows that can’t be right. It was a big bus depot.

“No, that was Phoenix.”

Kitty wants to keep him talking. “What were you doing in El Cajon?” she asks, and Isaac tells his story.

He graduated from high school last spring, in Cherry Hill, but instead of going to the car design school in Pasadena he drove to Phoenix, which is where his mother lives, in a VW bus that he’d fixed up at the garage where he worked after school. His mother said she could get him a job, but when he got there it turned out the job she had in mind was packing crates in a tile factory for three dollars an hour less than what he was making at the garage. On top of that, he got kicked out of his mother’s house after only two weeks.

“Why did she throw you out?”

“Who knows? Her mongoloid boyfriend probably wanted me out so he could fuck her on the couch.”

So he took a room in a wino hotel. Then he saw an ad in the back of the paper: the National Parks Service was hiring seasonal workers. He went out to Sequoia and got a job washing dishes at a big lodge. He had a room in the dormitory, but his roommate got them both thrown out for selling acid. After that, they drove the VW to San Francisco and parked it in the Haight and slept in Isaac’s bus. They met some “really nice fags” who fed them and let them take showers and didn’t even hit on them or anything. But then Isaac’s friend got picked up for shoplifting a hairdryer from Woolworth.

“A hairdryer?”

“Yeah.” Isaac snorts. “He was really into his hair.”

The cops told them they’d be arrested for vagrancy if they saw Isaac’s VW in the Haight again. Isaac’s friend was from El Cajon, and he said they could probably get jobs there. But El Cajon was totally beat. There was nothing to do there but kill that other guy’s brother, and Isaac was too much of a pussy. So he drove back to Phoenix because he couldn’t think of what else to do. He got a job washing dishes at a Denny’s and moved back into the wino hotel. But then his VW bus shit the bed, and he got disgusted with the whole situation and called his old boss at the garage in New Jersey, who wired him money for a bus ticket.

“I don’t think my dad’s gonna let me move back in, though. He’s still pissed off about the Art Center. I’ll figure something out when I get there.”

*

THEY HAVE an hour and a half layover in Albuquerque. Outside the depot, Kitty feels the October cold for the first time and wishes she had a warm coat. It’s only 9 p.m., but nothing seems to be open. She walks through an empty plaza. Frail saplings in concrete tree-wells suggest a recent campaign of civic revitalization—apparently unsuccessful. The only street life is gathered on the sidewalk outside a 7-11. Kitty stocks up: a loaf of squishy rye bread, a squeeze jar of yellow mustard, a pack of bologna, two bottles of club soda. When she boards the bus again she’s relieved to see Isaac already in his seat. He offers her a chocolate donut from a box at his feet.

“Look what else I got,” he says, opening a black plastic case. Tucked into the foam lining is a laser pointer and a set of interchangeable tips. He takes the pointer out, clicks it on and off, waggles it back and forth. He changes the tip. Now, instead of a dot of light, a little red smiley face zips across the seats in front of them.

“I hope you didn’t waste too much money on that,” Kitty says.

“I love this kind of executive crap.”

They eat bologna sandwiches. They talk and Isaac draws, until Kitty notices that the bus has gone dark around them. Everyone else is quiet. When they reach up to turn out their lights, she feels a pro forma flutter, a possibility of sexual contact, but nothing happens. Isaac reclines his seat all the way back. Kitty balls up her extra sweater into a pillow and leans against the window. She rests her eyes on the shapes of the hills, a shade blacker than the sky.

She sleeps. She sleeps through Tucumcari. The lights of the Amarillo depot wake her, but Isaac sleeps on, turned toward her in his seat with his mouth hanging open.

They transfer to a different bus in Oklahoma City. They’re traveling together now. They’ve figured out that their routes won’t diverge until Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where she’ll head north and he’ll keep going east. It occurs to Kitty that the passengers on this bus can’t tell that they didn’t know each other 36 hours earlier. Isaac makes friends with a little boy, a few years older than the “bats bats bats” kid. He lets the boy play with the laser pointer. They collaborate on a comic strip, passing the drawing pad back and forth across the aisle. Their comic is about a giant crab monster.

“You have to make one claw bigger,” Isaac says. “Crabs have one big claw and one smaller one, because they’re left-handed or right-handed, like people. Did you ever see a crab swim? I did. They swim upside-down in the water with their claws pointed down. They paddle around with those little back feet.”

Kitty listens while he tries to explain black holes to the boy, and the Trail of Tears, and carburetors vs. fuel injectors. When the boy and his mother get off in Joplin, Missouri, Isaac puts his pad away and looks out the window with Kitty. He points out an abandoned gas station covered with spidery vines on the two-lane road alongside the interstate.

“That’s Route 66,” says the man who has taken the seat across the aisle. He has a steel-grey flattop and wears work pants and a hunting jacket. “We’ll follow it all the way to St. Louis. Then it dog-legs north, on up to Chicago.”

“Get out,” said Isaac, “That’s Route 66?”

“Sure it is. Like the song. If you’re planning da-da-da motor west, take the highway that’s the highway that’s the best…

Kitty watches the roadside with new interest while Isaac falls into conversation with their neighbor. He tells Isaac about a long-ago road trip he took with his first wife, in a red Toronado with a white landau top. As the man talks about the places he and his wife stopped, Kitty realizes that they’ve been shadowing Route 66 since Flagstaff.

*

THE BUS STATION in St. Louis, where they have an hour-long layover, is a shock after the cinderblock bunkers and temporary sheds they’ve seen in the last couple of days. It has a high, vaulted ceiling supported by ornate columns. Isaac guesses it’s a decommissioned bank. They walk around with their heads craned, looking at the art deco clocks and milk glass chandeliers. On the ground level, though, all is bus station squalor. A sawhorse blocks the entrance to the men’s room. A bum inventories an overflowing trashcan next to the shuttered newsstand. The candy machine has been emptied of everything but gum. Kitty is content to refill her club soda bottle at the drinking fountain and snack on some peanut butter and bread they got earlier that day in Springfield, Missouri, but Isaac needs cigarettes. She gets back on the bus and reads her book while he goes out looking for a convenience store. She knows about Gary Gilmore, so she knows where the story goes. The book runs on inevitability rather than suspense—from frustration, greed, loneliness to murder, trial, firing squad. She finds it almost unbearable, but she’s gotten sucked in anyhow. She wants to reach back there and knock Gilmore off the path he’s on.

Where, she wonders, is Isaac? Finally, he gets on the bus and sits down. He stares at the seat in front of him. Kitty asks if he found a store, and he grunts in response. It’s obvious that something has happened, but she doesn’t know him well enough to coax it out of him. They’re silent as the bus crosses the Mississippi, past East St. Louis, into the moonless Illinois night. Kitty sees a road marker for Historical Route 66. She thinks of pointing it out, but Isaac is still staring at the seatback, so she says nothing.

After a while they turn east on Interstate 70, leaving Route 66 behind. The bus stops in Effingham for a 20 minute break. Kitty, grasping for conversation, asks Isaac if he’s going outside to smoke.

“No, I am not going outside to smoke, because I don’t have any smokes,” he says.

“You didn’t get cigarettes in St. Louis?”

Finally it comes out. Before he even got two blocks from the station in St. Louis, Isaac was mugged for his wallet and all the money he had left after he bought his bus ticket.

“Oh my God, Isaac. Did he have a gun?”

“He had something under his sweatshirt. Maybe it was just his hand, I don’t know.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“What am I supposed to say? I’m a big pussy?”

“What are you gonna do? Can you call someone?” Kitty asks, and then realizes Isaac hasn’t made any plans beyond getting off the bus in Cherry Hill or wherever he’s getting off the bus. She isn’t sure anyone in his family even knows he’s on his way home. “Can you call your father?”

He doesn’t answer.

“Your mother?”

He snorts.

“Well, don’t worry. I have enough money for both of us,” she says, and she understands now that they are not parting ways in Harrisburg. Isaac will come with her, or she will go with him, and she’ll make him see that nothing is inevitable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

mimi-pic

MIMI LIPSON lives in Kingston, New York. She completed an MFA in creative writing at Boston University in September. Her work has appeared in YETI, Chronogram, and various places online. She has a story in the Significant Objects anthology (Fantagraphics, 2012), and her chapbook, Food & Beverage, is available from All-Seeing Eye Press. She is writing a novel about sociolinguistics.

Header Photograph (CC) Bark @ Flickr

Story © 2012 Mimi Lipson. All rights reserved.