Nov '02 [Home]

Bookshelf:  First Chapters

Stephanie Dickinson's novel, Half Girl, pulls you under at once, and when you come up for air, you are astounded to be in the same room where you began. Each sentence is a surprise—a trip in the mind of a sharply sensual and adventurous girl who is leaving home and immediately finding danger in cold, lonely places. You read in fear of what might happen to her, but also with a blind faith in her hopeful determination.
—Meredith Sue Willis

[Chapter One appears in the Oct '02 issue.—Eds.]
[Photo Credit]

Half Girl
by Stephanie Dickinson
II.  Wee Blue Inn

I'm not going to make the same mistakes as Mom, passing herself from man to man, every one of them using more of her up, their names—Kype, Red Dog, Jimbo, Maynard—like a trail of broken tears. Tonight I asked her how many men she'd slept with. "About two hundred," she slurred, running a hand through her splintery hair dyed three colors, her looks starting to go. Neither the Miss Clairol box in the bathroom nor the indoor tanning cream that turned her face orange were helping.
          I started to cry when she told me. I cried because she was dressed in a tight jean skirt with a ketchup stain. The skirt showed off her potbelly from all the beer and her chicken legs from not eating. Maynard was taking a beer from the refrigerator. She said I was like her, 'turning into a woman early.' That the only difference between us was that I liked to read. I wasn't like her at all, I shouted. When she slapped my mouth, Maynard laughed.
          "We're running into snow, Angelique," Leonard said, wiping a circle in the frosted up windshield. "Maybe even a blizzard. But we'll tough it out, won't we, road partner? We'll make Illinois no matter what." He was thin with pretty boy features, and in the orange light of the dash he could have been a damaged angel, lighting a new cigarette from the old one like smoke was his air, and he had to keep a cigarette going to breathe.
          I stared out into the night. It was the we I didn't like. I wasn't part of a team and I didn't ever want to be one. Tonight the wind was below zero. I could have told him:  There's the half-burnt Black Angus Steak House on the left, some of the walls and roof are standing. Behind those walls, cops hide their radar. The hard plastic Black Angus steer that still decorated the roof reared back, snow swirling out of his nostrils. I kept glancing into the rear view mirror of the Monterey but all I saw was snow and darkness. Should I get out and walk? I trusted snow and darkness.
          "I bet you still don't trust me," Leonard laughed. "I just danced the Snow Pow Wow in Tama on the Res with my people. I'm shining with spirit right now."
          "Are you an Indian?" I asked, wondering whether he was an albino Indian. Blond hair and pale skin, his green eyes had a startled look, like they were lost in mist or walking through a forest of aluminum doors.
          "I'm a poetical Indian." He pointed into the back seat at a stack of notebooks. "That's where I leave my own words. But who are you, Angelique?"
          I pressed my face to the window; it matched what was outside:  Chase's junkyard. I could make out the cars, the cracked windshields, the antennas playing wind. Dodges and Studebakers. A John Deere tractor. All the miles freezing. I saw the barn house where the Chases lived, one light on like a wad of fog. I knew the country out there, even the country that wasn't there anymore but once had been, like the box elders and shagbark hickories cut down to make highway, and the creek that crossed into the recluse acres where the old couple lives, the ones who never left the woods once smallpox took their children. I knew the girl and boy too; smooth-skinned, they shine like daffodils. And when they ran, not even the field mice could catch them.
          "You probably raided your mother's purse before you took off. What'd you get?" Maybe Leonard had asked me that question more than once. Finally, I heard it. I close people out, and then little by little let them back in.
          "I don't steal," I said. But he was right. I had three hundred dollars taped over my body in separate places and each place the money was burned.
          "So you're a big girl?"
          "Eighteen." Another lie. About to turn fifteen.
          "I bet you worked at a waitress job," he winked, "and saved up money for your trip."
          A shiver made its way down my spine. His questions were making the money on my body burn hotter. I watched my breath steam the glass; defroster on the blink and the only working wiper was on the driver's side. Still, he must have worked hard on this old car. It ran strong. No rattles. Leonard tapped his foot on the gas. When the car swerved, I shut my eyes. I heard the fields on either side:  rodents and rabbits scuffling in the brush, a dog barking, a screech owl hooting. Animals and trees opened for me, but not human beings. People stayed mysterious. They kept their meanings and when I did get near enough to hear inside them, they disappeared. I only knew the things they did that hurt. Trees creaked from fence lines, the dog had been calmed. I must have reached for the seat belt then, but part of it was missing. I held on to half of the strap.
          Leonard took a swig of Gatorade, "Relax, Angelique, I can't find my seat belt either." He steered the car back into the lane.
          Almost to Cedar Rapids, the snow flurries hit hard and Leonard pulled off the road. His hands shook from clutching the steering wheel. "Can I rest my head in your lap?"
          I put my Boy Scout bag in my lap so nothing of his head touched me. His ear's pink reminded me of a cat's flinty tongue. He didn't seem to mind the bag's buckle working itself into his cheek. There was something dangerous in his skin and eyes. I felt his breath on my fingers like the transparent wing of the moth that leaves no shadow. His eyelids flickered as if there were a movie going on under those lids.
          Five minutes and he sat up, flashing me a beautiful smile. "I'm good for another five hours. You wouldn't have a few bucks for gas?" He clicked on the overhead light and ran a comb through his silky locks.
          I gave him the three dollars I had in my pocket. "This is all I have." He rubbed the money under his nose before he pocketed it. Snow swirled around the antenna like silken dragonflies.

Cedar Rapids came at us. First, a few low-hanging lights, then the Giant Discount and Roller-Rama and Henry's Hamburgers. When Mom worked the line at Quaker Oats, we used to live on the south side of town, so I knew the rusting Iowa Iron Works, Wilson's Meatpacking Plant, and Little Bohemia where the meatpackers boozed in their long black aprons. Mom would go there after her shift and drink too. I smelled sour cane as we drove by Penicon Ford where the sorghum fermented into molasses. The old 16th Avenue Bridge with its balustrade and broken lions was just ahead. My brothers and I used to fish from the bridge. Sometimes on the weekends when Mom would vanish, we'd catch a carp, which tasted good wrapped in cornhusks and smoked on coals, but mostly we caught bluegills, too small to eat so we'd throw them back. I hadn't seen my brothers since they went to live with their father, who isn't mine. I could have drifted a long time just thinking, but we were passing the mighty Cedar River. Leonard slowed the Monterey, then stopped on the bridge.
          "Do you ever see a bridge and want to jump from it?"
          "Not when the water's frozen below."
          Leonard jumped out of the car, leaning over the railing that couldn't be too solid. I got out. Wind knifed through my jacket and flannel shirt and thermal underwear. Some of the bridge pillars were already fallen. Leonard kicked a pillar into the frozen river. Thousands of processed poultry feathers were caught in the surface of the ice, like a tree broken from the bank.
          "She's still beautiful," he stared into the river, "no matter what the ghosts do to her."
          "Who are the ghosts?" I asked, wondering whether his ghosts were the same as mine. They're everywhere, I knew, the ones who were here and still are, and when you stare hard enough, you can see their faces in tree bark, their hands in lengths of string.
          "White people," he spat. Maybe he is an Indian. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he was sure the palest one I'd ever seen. Arms raised, his feet pounded the snow like he was war dancing. I wondered how come he wasn't cold in his thin jean jacket and tee-shirt. A siren shrilled from somewhere not that far off.
          His hands flopped to his sides. "Let's get out of here. "
          The Monterey careened to a stop behind the Wee Blue Inn. Garbage cans sat on the back step and scruffy weeds poked up in the snow. I remembered Mom talking about the Wee Blue. "It's an Indian bar," she'd said. "Pretty rough. Better never let me catch you or your brothers in there." That was the last thing she had to worry about. The place must have been deserted inside—not one car in the parking lot.
          Leonard shut off the motor. "Ready?" he asked, dragging the comb through his hair again. "Let's go in for a few minutes and warm up. My sister owns this place."
          "Where's her car?"
          "Around front."
          "Is she your younger or older sister?" It was cold in the car but the tavern looked snowbound; didn't seem to be any lights on inside. But how would I know since the back side of the tavern was windowless tarpaper? No one liked to go into places that were supposed to be lit and then weren't, like they put out their lights especially for you.
          He lifted his pale eyebrows, a frown like a cut in butter furrowing his forehead. "Younger."
          "I'll stay here and wait for you. I hate taverns."
          "Listen, we'll leave after I borrow a few dollars from her. I promise."
          The same shiver that had never really left my spine traveled down the back of my jeans and dumped a fistful of crushed ice. I promise. I never trusted people who said that. Mom's boyfriends always made promises. I hadn't asked for a promise, so why would he try to give me one? I heard the clicking of the dashboard clock or maybe it was my heart. A little nerve twitched in my left eyelid like an engine trying to turn off.
          "Unless you have, say, twenty-five or thirty dollars for more gas," he added, laughter lighting up his emerald eyes. "Then we don't have to go in."
          He climbed out of the car, coming around to my door. Snow hit me in the face; my hand tightened on my Boy Scout bag.
          "Leonard," I said between chattering teeth, "I don't…"
          "My sister is a beautiful person." He took my hand.
          "Okay, okay."
          Leonard banged on the back door, rapping the lid of the garbage can like it was a drum. The door cracked open. "I have someone with me," he said. The door stayed open but I heard feet hurrying away. I followed Leonard in.

The tavern's narrow hallway smelled of Vanilla Wizard instead of stale cigarettes and unhappiness like most such places. Whoever let us in had faded away. Leonard bumped against a payphone that hung crookedly from the wall. Already, it felt way deeper than just the other side of midnight. Like I had jumped off a bridge girder and entered the underwater. It must have been 2 a.m., making it Tuesday, that peculiar day, always hidden between Monday and Wednesday, a neither here nor there day, when nothing ever happened. My eyes took in the knotty pine walls. I never forgot anything I wanted to remember and I could make things go away that I needed to forget. The hall turned into a room, gloomy except for the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer clock over the bar giving off a cobalt glow. I didn't know yet whether I was somewhere I wanted to remember or to forget.
          An Indian girl stood at the end of the bar. "What do you want, Leonard?"
          The light was bad but I took all of her in:  black hair to her waist, skin permanently tan, jeans, lavender turtleneck, square black boots that looked like Army issue. She couldn't be Leonard's sister, but why would he lie? I was nothing to him, just a hitchhiker. Warm here, I was thankful for that.
          "We just stopped in to visit you, Sis," Leonard said, trying to hug her. She swerved toward me, a highway sign wobbling in the wind. I sensed her thoughts like I did those of animals, then not at all. I couldn't tell whether her dark eyes seemed asleep or were lying awake in an unheated bedroom. "Josie, this is Angelique." Leonard took a pack of Newports out of his front jacket pocket.
          "Hi," I said with a smile, sorry that Josie didn't answer. A baby started to cry and relief flooded through me. This had to be a safe place.
          "Shh, shh," Josie coaxed. "Keep your voice down, Leonard." She hurried to the bassinette, the oddest thing you'd picture to be here between the jukebox and fussball table. I pulled a stool up to the bar, wondering why Mom felt so at home on one of those. Instead of a drink, right in front of me sat an opened Gerber jar of strained asparagus and a silver spoon. "Good baby," she cooed.
          Leonard joined Josie by the bassinette. "I'm part owner in all this." Cigarette in the corner of his mouth, he swung the baby up. The dark-haired papoose yelped.
          "Get that cigarette out of his face," Josie snapped.
          He handed me the Newport to stub out in a clean ashtray. Lysol filled my nostrils. It struck me how neat this bar room was, immaculate.
          "Give him to me, Leonard," Josie ordered, her eyes riveted on the baby. She untucked a fringed blanket from the bassinette, smoothing it over her shoulder. "Give me my little man." The baby quieted in her arms. What kind of place is this? I asked myself as Josie sat on a stool behind the bar and pulled up her turtleneck. In the blue gloom her breasts were rising bread. Her eyes half closed when the baby's mouth found her nipple. I had to look away. When the baby made a sucking sound, I felt like I was walking into fog, thick soft pieces of it sticking to my jacket. Mom had nursed my brother in the big bed, her hair spreading over the pillows. It frightened me—one body feeding from another—because she'd sobbed the whole time.
          Leonard strolled behind the bar and found a bottle and glass.
          Josie patted the baby's back. "Did you pick her up at the powwow?"
          Her eyes narrowed like Mom's did when she fought with one of her boyfriends. A certain kind of man and that's all you did:  accuse him of being with other women. She rocked the baby, settling him back in the bassinette, her eyes avoiding me.
          "No, she's a little hitchhiker."
          "Leave, Leonard," she heaved angrily. "You promised you wouldn't come here."
          He poured himself a drink. The liquor was brown like Lake McBride. It looked sandy in the shot glass. "We're half brother and sister, Angelique. Different mothers." He threw back the shot. "Want a drink?"
          I could have been standing in a field of long grasses, an empty field. I shook my head. The air was smoky, still burning like the last embers of an arsoned house.
          "Where'd you tell her you were going? Illinois?" Josie asked. I froze. How did she know? Josie scooped up the diaper bag that sat on a bar stool, screwed the lid on the Gerber food, dropped it and the spoon into the bag. It looked like she was packing to get out of here. Why would she leave? I had to stay watchful. This could be a jungle and I was here with the scorpions and snakes and butterflies that only pretended to be themselves. Josie might be a girl—or she might be an insect.
          I stood up. "Where's the Ladies Room?"
          "Road partner, the bathroom's the same way we came in."
          Leonard coaxed himself another drink, his fingers curling around the glass like a venus fly trap.
          The bathroom kept itself down the hall by the crooked telephone. I figured after I used it I'd head straight out the back door and keep walking, all the way to Rhode Island.

That was one of my secret destinations:  Rhode Island, founded on religious independence and tolerance. I'd been around bigotry all my life. I wanted to see the lowland bay, the dark blue water, the lavender sky, and the paper birches. Rhode Island gave Mary Dyer refuge before Massachusetts sent her to the gallows, skirts tied around her ankles and a handkerchief over her face. And Providence was home to Sissierette Jones, the soprano. I had to get out of this place if I wanted to see Providence. I'd used to go to the cornfield cemeteries and shout the pioneer women's names to the air:  Viola! Thelma! Maybe I wanted a new mother. Suzanne! Fannie! I'd imagine their faces under the rock headstones:  solemn women who never took a drink in their lives, women who tied the reins around their waists and plowed, women who didn't hang out at the nearest bar or fall asleep with a cigarette between their lips. My second secret destination was North Carolina. I knew a boy there now:  Easton. But the last thing I wanted was to be like Mom, running after men. Still, I'd like to hike Cape Point at Hatteras Island on a stormy day, explore the dreaded Diamond Shoals, its trembling sand bars. I intended to go all the way east, then flip a coin:  heads to Rhode Island, tails to North Carolina. I wondered whether North Carolina might be the opposite of charity and lenience. There was the Quaker, John Fox, preaching to the Indians on the spirit and light of God:  If they did what was evil, He would burn them.
          Someone had scratched 'SQUAW' right through the word 'LADIES.' I pushed in and took a deep breath. The toilet didn't have a stall around it and sat up on a wood pedestal. A water glass peered down from the shelf above the sink, with a toothbrush and toothpaste:  Josie's things. I felt sorry for the toothbrush, so neat and alone in the beery coldness. Rust dripped from the sink when I twisted on the water. I let it run it clear before I cupped my hands and drank. I took down my jeans, and sat on the toilet. The seat was cold, the toilet paper colder. I shivered, listening to Josie scold, "I don't want my baby to be around this. Don't you ever bring one of them here again."
          I leaned forward, elbows to my knees, closed my eyes, resting them for a second. You need coffee, the bitter black liquid at the bottom of Mom's pots. You're homesick for the Maidrite Café mug; homesick for bismarks, the first bite, and the sweetness. I liked to poke into the jelly and draw it out through a finger tunnel, licking all the powdered sugar off the fried dough. That was a Mom breakfast—bitter coffee and day-old bismarks.
           "Hey." I blinked. Josie was standing directly in front of me, her dark eyes trying to be mean as a badger's. I snapped my legs shut on the money taped to my inner thighs.

[Bookshelf, cont'd, this issue.] Photo Credit