Friday, November 30, 2012

The Letter, Part 3

Today, the story turns back to Amy and her plight: locked up in the attic of a brothel.  When we last left her, she had found a scrap of paper, written a letter to her mother and slipped it through a crack between the boards of the building.  What follows, is what Amy's mother did when she received the letter.  Hope you enjoy!
Amy's Mother: I Would Rather Have Wings

I would rather have wings then sit in this cold, slow train. The landscape slides by as if it is on ice.  Outside, trees jut like questions out of iced swamps and  fog breathes near the surface.  The rolling hills are covered in bare trees.  The whole landscape seems to foretell this terrible tragedy.  William and I sit still side-by-side in the train, silent, as if we are afraid to speak.  William, who as a pastor, turns first to the lord’s word as guidance.  His finger is stuck in his worn bible, as if by touching the verse he'll be able to connect it's meaning, to our terrible cause.  It has only been 18 long hours since we received Amy's letter.  A small part of me feels relief to hear she is alive.  But the rest of me is so worried I can’t think straight.  Time seems to be nothing but an enemy now. Who knows how and when she posted the letter.  But her circumstances are dire and we need to get to her as quickly as possible. 
We had little to go on, a post mark from a city we've never heard of: Pithole, Pennsylvania. My memory of that moment is blurred - riding Amy's roan horse furiously into town to find William and to tell him the news.  Then, running up the wooden steps to the little lean-to office at the back of the Methodist Church where William sat engrossed in his studies in the low lamp light. When he saw my face, which must have been white as a ghost, he looked alarmed. 
"What is it?"  He said.  I couldn't speak, and instead handed him the crumpled letter I didn't know I had been clutching until then.  When he read the words, he sat down hard in his wooden chair, muttering low, "no, no."  He was paled as I was but stood up almost directly as if suddenly possessed to lead a charge.  “We have no choice but to leave immediately.  We have to find her.” 
Within half an hour we were at the train depot ticket counter. William was breathless when he spoke as if he had been galloping, not the horse.  "We need tickets to this place," he said pointing to the post mark.  "You know how to get to place called Pithole, Pennsylvania, fast?"
The ticket master just looked at us strangely.  We must have looked a sorry pair! My hair was had fallen down in wisps and moons of sweat grew beneath my arms.  William was red-faced and equally drenched in sweat. The man at the ticket counter just shook his head from side to side and then slowly looked down into his books. After what seemed like a hour, he muttered back up to us without looking up, "hmm…looks like that city is near Oil City, Pennsylvania, but there are no trains to that town.  Closest I can get you is Oil City.  Quickest way I can route you there is this: take the 5:00 pm train to New York City if there are still seats left.  Let me check. Yes, looks like there are a couple of seats.  Then, you’ll need to transfer to the Pittsburgh line from Grand Central Station.  From Pittsburgh there’s a train to Oil City leaving the following morning."  He said in one long continuous breath.

"We'll take it.”  William said reaching into his billfold,  “two tickets please." After he passed the money through the iron grates he looked down nervously at his pocket watch.  It was 4:45 pm.  It was at that moment that I realized I hadn't muttered a word.  I'd only shown him the letter, and then followed his lead.  The train whistle screamed behind me startling me and tearing me awake from the dazed shock I’d settled into.  "Amy" I said, under my breath. "We are coming to save you."

Now we are here, my head against cool glass, William's free hand grasping mine, staring at the mute trees rising from the swamps somewhere in Pennsylvania.  According to our tickets we should arrive in Oil City in less than an hour.  From there, we have no idea how to get where we are going.  According to the ticket master in Pittsburgh, there are no trains to Pithole from Oil City, there are only coaches and wagons to hire. 

The farther north we travel the more the passengers on the train change.  There are less and less women.  Before, most of the seats were filled with ladies wearing proper attire, carrying themselves in fine dresses, their male companions or chaperons and occasionally, a few children. There had also been men but they were properly dressed in suits and usually reading newspapers.  Now, the train is filled more and more with hollow cheeked men with dirty coats and dead eyes.  There are still a few women, but less and less are accompanied more and more look as hollow and lost as the men.  The closer we get to this town, the more I began to realize where we must be going.  I'd read about these places in the papers: a boom town, a place where men go to get rich, a place were morals and food and lodging were scarce.  I can only imagine what a terrible place our Amy is in. 

With that thought spinning though my mind, I turn violently to William grasp his shoulder and look him pleadingly in the face.  "Oh William!  What will we do?  What kind of place is this that we are going to?  What has befallen our daughter?”  William, instead of being startled, just smiles, clutches his hand in mine. I can see the cool calm in his eyes that’s settled so many people at their time of need.  I think of all of his parishioners who have come knocking on our door late at night, begging for strength in their times of need.  In his deep water voice he says, “Let’s pray dear.”  So, we both look down towards the ever moving floor of the train, toward the orange peels and dirt and discarded shells.  "Dear Lord," he says as we close our eyes, “please guide us with your everlasting strength.  Please grant us our greatest joy, our daughter, and let us find her in whatever circumstances that have become her.  Grant us the courage and strength to rescue her from whatever has befallen her in this place."

With these words we sit in silence.  I will my mind to think only of love and strength and memories of home.  I close my eyes again and try desperately to will that love and strength to Amy, to reach her wherever she is now.  And just the thought of this action makes me feel as if the train is traveling a little faster, makes me feel hope pushing us along.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Girls Who Would Be Birds, Part 1, Continued 6

Today, is the last segment about Widow Ricketts and Diana before the story switches back to Amy and her mother and it is a day when they make an incredible discovery.  This story is actually one of the "real" stories I gathered from Pit hole about the legendary Widow Ricketts.  I'm not certain she actually exsisted, but it's such an incredible story, I couldn't help writing about it! Hope you enoy!--------------------------------
Widow Ricketts: Impossible Oil
After realizing there ain’t a drop of water we can use to make coffee in this house and feeling a tremendous thirst, I walk back out to the well to see if any water has risen back into it.  When I drop the bucket this time it ain’t dry anymore.  The bucket I pull up is full alright, but not with water, it's full with OIL!  Well, when that happened I just about split my side I let out such a large guffaw. We struck oil?  Well, how do you like that?  I smile right up to heaven first.  As if those grey clouds are George himself.  Then, I run into the house to tell Diana.  She’s still sitting there in her chair, but I tell her to get dressed and come out to see the well.  It’s just impossible to tell, so I tell her she’s got to see it herself.  She puts the clothes I’ve lent her on quickly and meets me outside.  When I show her the bucket full of oil she touches the surface with her finger and places it in her mouth.
That’s oil alright Widow Ricketts.  She smiles.  You is one rich woman now. 
I just look back at her and laugh.  You kidding me? We are business partners now.  I’m gonna need somebody to help me haul this crude up and ship it off for proper payment.  You want the job?
She just looks back at me blank.  Likely, she’s too shocked to reply.
I’ll take that as yes!  I say.  Now that we are business partners, I continue, I’m gonna need you to call me by my first name, Emeline.  People call me Emmy for short.  You think we can start off this partnership with a run for water?  Now that we got oil running in our well, we are plum out of water.  You think you could make a run down to Pithole creek for a few buckets of water? Then, once you get back we can boil up some coffee and have a proper talk about what we plan on doing with all this luck.
With that she just smiled and nodded.  Good glory, I certainly never thought a day like this would come!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Girls Who Would Be Birds, Part 1, Continued 5

This morning the world feels underwater there is so much rain!  Today's segment of 500 Days features Diana remembering part of her backstory - her life growing up in North Carolina. 

Diana: How to Live Like a Ghost in your Mind

When I woke up I was confused where I was.  This ain't my room?  I think?  What time is it?  Where am I?  Then, I look up and see Widow Ricketts standing right there looking right at me. At first, I was startled, and then, soothed.  There's just something about her face and the way she looks at me that tells me she ain't judging me.  That she knows where I'm coming from.  When she leaves to make coffee though, the dreams come back.  They come back and wash over me.  Girls who try to run away and whose legs instead turn into trees.  The flames all around me and my wish to walk into them.  Something inside me feels lost.  Like a part of me was never found in them woods when I lost Mama.  It was so long ago, I hadn’t thought about it for years, but this morning, sitting real still in the chair, feeling the electricity in the air from an oncoming storm, I remember the day like it was yesterday.  Momma and my brother setting the wool horse blanket down on the ground and setting down the fried chicken and biscuits Mamma had brought from our restaurant in town.  We’d ridden about a half hour out of town.  Papa had only been gone a few weeks, but Momma was so sad she’d stopped getting out of bed.  We’d have to wake her up and push her out the door or she’d not forget to open the restaurant.   Mama thought of the picnic as a vacation from our lives.  So as we sat around her, my brother John and I smiled at her.  Hoping our smiles would reflect light and joy back into her like sunlight.  But, after she set down and was still, we saw the sadness sink back into her.  First, her eyes dulled, and then her body.  We ate the chicken and biscuits and talked between ourselves.  Sometimes, Momma would flicker back and smile before she’d drift back out to wherever she had to go in order to keep sane.  I know that place now, but when I was a child I was mad not to be able to just climb into her lap and feel safe.  Not to be able to feel her arms melt around me as they always had.  After a little while she said she was going to take a nap.  John (who is a few years older than me) ordered me to stay put as he gathered wood.  But, after he left, something grew in me.  And I got it in my mind that I should make my Momma pay for all of the hurt she’d caused me.  So, I got up and started walking into the darkness of the woods.  As soon as I walked from the clearing, the darkness of the woods wrapped around me. I walked and walked until I felt I’d gone far enough to make her scared and I sat down and waited, thinking I’d be found soon.  But, hours passed and to my surprise, no one came for me.  The woods got even darker and I felt the noises around me press in.  When I cried out, Mamma, I’m sorry.  Come get me.  John, I’ve over here.  Come and rescue me out of the woods. All I heard in return was the hollow sound of a screech owl.  That feeling, of the dark world swirling in on me, and being utterly alone is what is creeping up inside me now.  Sure, I was found in those woods.  After hours of searching my big brother had had the sense to ride the horse into town and find the Sheriff.  He’d gathered a posse and combed those woods all night long until they found me near dawn, huddled in a hollow tree.  My Momma, she never came back from that, from the idea of losing me.  After that, when I returned, it was as if she couldn’t stand loving me, for fear she’d lose me again.  Imagine that, being seven years old and not having a mother to hold you?  But here I am again in a dark wood with no Momma. 

Just then Widow Ricketts walks in.  She’s laughing like her sides are gonna split.  I look at her, perhaps revealing the darkness that’s been pouring over me, but it doesn’t make her skip a beat.  “Diana,” she says.  “You’re gonna want to put on your clothes and come see this!”

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Girls Who Would Be Birds, Part 1, Continued 4

This morning, I woke up in a fogspell.  The whole world was lost behind a veil.  It's an eerie place to revise stories dug up from the past.  But finally editing this manuscript is giving me so much joy.   Perhaps, after I finish, I can finally put Pit hole to rest.  The story continues after the night of the fire when Widow Ricketts wakes up to a surprise.  Hope you enjoy!
Widow Ricketts: Rain on Sunday
I can feel in my bones when I wake up that there is going to be rain on Sunday.  My joints ache as I rise and sit on the edge of my bed. It must be near noon by the way the light in glowing in bright through the windows.  I can’t remember the last time I slept this late.  Have I ever slept this late?  Certainly, never since I've moved to Pithole and taken up this unrelenting task of washing.  I don't dare look at the state of the shirts I'd set out late afternoon to dry and hadn't yet taken in before the fire.  They'll likely need wash again.  At least Diana is safe.  I wonder if Ben even noticed she was gone?  He is probably too busy picking up the pieces of his business to make sense of the fact that she is even gone yet.  The way that hotel blazed in the night!  My throat feels raw from inhaling all of the smoke. 

I take a bucket down from the wall and head out the front door to the well.  Light is streaming through the trees and I feel its pattern etched in warmth on my face.  When I approach the well, clip the bucket on the rope and throw the bucket into the inky dark, instead of hearing a splash as I normally would hear, I hear a dull muddy thud.  A waterless thud. 

Oh dear I think.  We’ve gone dry.

Must have been all of those buckets we took to try and put out the fire last night.  One of the fire lines went straight to this well and we were up half the night pulling water from it.  No wonder it's gone dry.  But what will that mean?  What will that do? How will I take in wash without water?  I suppose I could carry up water from Pithole creek, but that trek is at least a half mile.  I'm strong, but am I strong enough to carry all the water I would need to run a wash business? My mind is still tied up in the logic of how to survive and how to save my business when I walk back into the house and see Diana, peacefully asleep sitting up in my reading chair.  Face down on her lap is the very text I had been reading last night before the fire, the very text I'd been reading right for the last week as I tried to figure out a way to help get a few girls like Diana out. The book that had for so long given  George and I comfort as we read the interwoven tales.  It took years for me to be able to read the text without weeping.  At first, it was unbearable even to look at.  But now, when I open the book and hear not my own voice but his deep voice reading the words, I treasure it.  I consider it at gift that I can still remember the exact pitch after all of these years.

As I'm lost in thought, I hear a shuffle and look up to see Diana opening her eyes.  She's confused at first, I can see that clearly in the storm that crosses briefly across her face.  But, then, seeing me, she calms and I smile. 

"What a night?!"  I say and she smiles weakly back.  "I'm just about to boil up some coffee.  How would you like a cup?"  At this she gives an enthusiastic nod.  Still smiling, I turn on my heels and head to the kitchen to get the fire going.  I'm all the way in the kitchen before I remember the dry well.  How the heck am I going to make coffee without water?

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Girls Who Would Be Birds - Part 1, Continued 3

Diana: Kiss me on the Back of the Black Night

When I wake I am still wrapped in my dream of George.  His lips were still lightly brushing the back of my neck until I realize it is just a piece of straw stuck through my mat.  I'm still thinking of George and how safe I felt in the weight of his arms when I remember he is dead.  I remember the letter from his captain telling us of his gallant death.  I know I will no longer sleep so I sit up.  That's when I smell the smoke.  When I stand, I see it's thick in the room.  So, I crouch back down and crawl to the door.  When I open it, I see the whole first floor is covered in flames.  Part of me is still so deep in my dream I want to walk into it: into the other life where George might be waiting.  Who would know?  Who would care?  George, Kiss me on the back of this black night.

That's when I hear the glass shattering behind me.  A man grabs me like a rag doll and carries me out.

Outside, there are people standing everywhere.  Fire pours out windows and doors. I stand, dumb, shivering, even next to this inferno.  Who should come up the slope, but Widow Ricketts flanked by several young men. "Let's form a fire line" she says.  "I've got a well and some buckets.”

And with that, I snapped back.  It's as if the fire had been a dream until she arrived.  They handed out buckets and asked people to line up, arms stretched out to form a brigade.  And so we did.  For six hours we stood, passing buckets of cold water from hand to hand until the water was poured on the blaze.  At first, the water didn't do much.  It fizzled and steamed on the wood.  Then, after a few hours, the fire started to back down.  By the time we were done the hotel was a few dark embers sticking up against the dawn sky.  People started to shuffle about not knowing what to do.  In that commotion, Widow Ricketts came up to me.  We were both black with soot, wearing only our night clothes.  She grabbed my shoulder with her warm hand and said, "Diana, come with me."  I just followed her lead.  We walked down to her house.  She passed me a handful of wool blankets and made a bed for me in her front room.  "Let's get some rest," she said, motioning to the bed as she walked back to her bedroom and closed the door.  As I closed my eyes, all I could see were those flames and the dark part of my heart that wanted to walk into them.  It seemed impossible to fall asleep after what we had seen.  So I lay back, opened my eyes and looked around me.  On every wall, between mounds of dirty and clean laundry were piles and piles of books.  I could smell the must from their covers.  Next to me, was a wooden chair, a little oak table with an unlit kerosene lamp and on the seat of the chair, sat a book, pages down.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Girls Who Would Be Birds, Part 1 Continued 2

Today, Diana remembers her past, and Widow Rickets stop by to chat. Hope you enjoy!

Diana: The Restaurant
Its noon by the time I wake up.  There was a lot of customers last night.  One of the wells must have hit payload because the men had money to burn in their pockets.  Most of them were pretty drunk by the time I lay with them. 
Not many are lining up over at Wiggins restaurant for their lunches.  They must still be sleeping it off.  I wrapped myself in a blanket and am sitting on the dusty porch watching the street and  drinking a tin cup of coffee.  Some days I feel so far away from where I started. 
“Good Morning Diana” says a quiet, but firm voice and I look over to see the sturdy build of Widow Ricketts rising the wooden steps to the porch. 
“Good Morning Ma’am” I say smiling.  “Why don’t you pull out a chair and have a cup of coffee with me?”  She just smiles and nods, drags out a chair and sits down. 
Sometimes I think Widow Ricketts has the sixth sense.  Her house ain’t far away.  Just over the ridge under a couple of hemlocks.  I hear she’s one of the few around here that actually owns her place.  Most just lease from the landlords that live far away in Philadelphia or New York.  Widow Rickets always seems to show up when I’ve had a hard night.  She don’t say much.  Just sits and keeps me company.  I get her a steaming cup and we sit like that talking about how cold it’s getting and how winter’s likely to arrive soon for half an hour.  She talks about her work and how her well is still good.  Then, she tells me the most incredible story I’ve ever heard.  She’s been reading in a book about two women who turn into birds.  I love it when she tells stories about the books she’s reading.  She knows not to ask me too many questions.  And let’s me just smile and nod, keeping our conversation hovering on the surface of our lives.
Then, just as quickly as she showed up, she rises to leave.  Before she does though she turns to me and says real sincere: “Diana, I know you’ve got a hard life here.  You ever want to leave, take up washing, I could use an extra hand.” 
It’s a real sweet thing to say and by her troubled face I can see she’s been working herself up to saying it this whole time.  “That’s real kind Widow Ricketts,” I say.  “I appreciate the offer, but I got no choice here to leave.”  When I say those last words a cold lump rises to my throat. I don’t often think about how I can’t go and it surprised me the words even flew out of my mouth.    Every night, I trick myself with the idea of escape.  It’s how I’ve learned how to sleep in this place. 
Widow Ricketts just looks at me real long and sad and says, “I see.  I’m real sorry to hear that Diana.  I didn’t know.”
The cold lump stays in my throat all afternoon like a cold stone I've swallowed and can't get down, even after I’ve gone back to work.  After a few hours I sneak back to my trunk and pull out the two photographs I brought with me when I left North Carolina.  One is George in his army uniform looking so serious into the camera.  (How he kept that straight face for so long I don’t know).  And the other a still shot of my family’s restaurant.  I can almost smell the biscuits.  Taste their light fluff in my mouth.  I feel George’s warm, strong arms around me.  Then, I lie back down on my straw bed and cry.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Girls Who Would be Birds: Part 1, Continued

Today, you get to meet Emeline Ricketts, a.k.a. Widow Rickets.  She is based off of a real life character who lived in Pithole in the 1860s.  Hope you enjoy this section.

Emeline Ricketts     

Death looms over the streets of Pithole – day and night.  It rises like a pale moon on the clear, cold horizon.  When I sit on my porch at twilight hanging out the wash from a long day’s work, I hear it in the thick voices of the boys as they holler “Hello Widow Ricketts” or “Goodnight Ms. Ricketts” as they trod past.  End of the day they are raw-skinned and soaked in oil.  Even the horses they lead back to the Livery stable don’t look clean.  They are soaked in oil and hairless as if they've just crawled out of hell itself. 
When I first came here, I wasn't much younger.  Lord knows this town hasn't been around for long.  Lord knows how long it will stay.  Why, it wasn't much more than a couple of oil wells pitched on the Hampton Homestead ‘til word got out.  When I crested that hill in my wagon, I felt like I was diving into a frenzy of bees.  I’d been taking in washing down in Franklin when Mr. Ricketts drowned in that gray river.  After a while I couldn't stand looking at that seam of water anymore—so I packed up and settled here.
Now, it’s a different kind of death that haunts me.  Not the sudden, accidental kind that swept my Charles away.  No, this town feels tied up in a different kind of death and we are just passing through it like shades.  Maybe that’s why its death I think of as the boys parade back into town toward whiskey or dinner or whatever else their appetites might desire. It’s as if to them these girls, this life, is just a mirage they are passing through to another, better life.  Me, I just keep my head down and my mouth shut.  I've got a good well (those are rare around here--water is scarcer than oil) and a solid frame house.  And lord knows there is no shortage of wash to take it.  It’s the dreams that haunt me.  Dreams of that same swift river rising up to find this town and washing all of it clean and we’re all swimming for our lives.  A tangle of lost bodies grabbing at each other for help and none of us knowing how to hold on.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Girls Who Would be Birds - Part 1

Happy belated Thanksgiving!  I hope you all had a good holiday.  My book is made of two interwoven narratives: the letter and the girls who would be birds.  Amy story is told in the letter and Diana and Emeline's story is told in the girls who would be birds.  This is the opening passage from the girls who would be birds where you are introduced to Diana, who is a prostitute working in  Pithole.  Emeline Ricketts (Widow Ricketts), who is a middle-aged woman who runs a successful laundry business out of her home, is also introduced.  Hope you enjoy this section.

Diana: The Dark Voice of Crickets

I can see the whole dusty street from my seat in front of the Syracuse hotel. The young men walk by still blackened by oil and dust.  I can’t imagine what it’s like to sleep in the eaves of the Derricks.  Over the constant rhythms of oils’ give and take.  Bet they dream of lobster and champagne, velvet curtains and hard wood floors.  After they pass me, they line up for a good meal over at Wiggins Restaurant.  I feel real lucky for the straw bed I’ve got in this joint.  Not to mention the solid walls (though there are some big gaps between the boards).  I’ve seen eyes starting through those cracks on many of night when I’ve laid down with a customer.  And it would have embarrassed me months ago.  Now, when I’m with a John the world goes cold and slack as a winter sky.  He don’t look me in the eye.  I’m nothing to him and I know it.  Why open up my mind? Them is my constellations.  A few more weeks of this and maybe I’ll have saved enough to get out.  At night, when I’m finally alone on my straw bed, I close my eyes and listen to the crickets.  Pretend their dark voices are weaving my song of escape.  If I could just catch a ride back down the hill to Oil City, I could catch a train back home.  Don’t know if I could ever go home though.  What would I say?  Who would believe me?  And then there’s the problem that I keep missing my time.  I know how some of the girls have taken care of it.  Widow Ricketts got some strong herbs she’ll give you so as to keep you from keeping your baby.  I’ve seen girls, pale as sheets, heading down to Pithole Creek to dispose of what they lost.  It ain’t right.  I know it.  But, can you blame them?  Who could raise a child in this muddy mess.  And where would you keep your child while you work?  I’m so torn, I try to just not think about what’s growing inside of me. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Letter Part 1 - Continued 3

Here is another segment in the book where the heart of Amy's story is revealed: Amy's Letter.

Amy: The Letter

Today, I’m so weak when I wake I decide I have to find a way out or die.  I don’t know how many days it has been.  Its dawn and the attic glows in a pink stained light.  From my pallet, I can see dusty crates. I decide that my days work will be to scour every one. Find some way out.
At first, my search is fruitless.  All I find are old hats, and some deeds and records. Then, I find a journal with a few empty pages I quickly rip out.  Then, I unearth an old quill pen and a half-empty bottle of ink and the idea hits me. The one thing I know how to do better than anything is to put down words on a page.  I can’t tell you how many times my Momma scolded me for sneaking off under the stairs with my journal.  I know how to put down words on the page and now I have a page.  As quick as the thoughts come to my mind I write them down.  I write the letter to my Momma as if she were in the room. I tell her about getting off the train, the two figures rising from the steam on the platform with smiles that were filled with ill-will.  The Madame in her thin, heeled boots and her strong man, tall and looming.  I tell her about how they spoke of the hotel the entire buggy ride up the hill: the velvet curtains, the fine china, the men and women from all over the world.  Then, how quickly things had changed once we’d arrived.  How we walked in the door and the truth slapped me across the face.  Where we stood was not the fine hotel they’d been describing: it was a brothel and I was told I was now a prostitute whether I like it or not.  I told Momma I couldn't do it. I told her how I stood up to them, told them there business was evil, and that I'd never agree to do it.  (She'll likely understand, she knows how my mouth is, how sometimes I can't keep the words from flying out).  And that's when they hit me so hard the room went dark.  I woke up locked up in what I’ve realized over time is the attic.  I told her where I am (as best as I could piece it together) and how much I love her and how I wished she’d find a way to get me out.  Then, quickly, before I could think or revise, I folded the note into thirds and wrote our address neatly on the outside of the envelope.  I crawled over to the far wall and I stuck that sad little note through the cracks.  Once I let it go, once I saw it fluttering helplessly toward the muddy, deserted street, I realized how ridiculous my plan was, and I collapsed in a heap on the floor. 

Amy: Voices at Night Made me Realize Where I Am

The world has blurred into a stream of seamed days that fly around me in whir.  Oh why did I ever get on that train?  This town is a town where no good sounds.  It’s a patchwork of voices I hear woven through the night through the window.  Desire rises like a songbird.  Or, swoops down piercing and hawk-like. Rough voices (muffled through walls) and sometimes the higher peals of female voices.  There are voices that rise like nets of fear, then there are shots or screams. Sometimes, there are sounds of tortured horses.  Or, the yelp of a kicked dog.  There are never any sounds of real birds.
Some nights I stop listening to the world outside my window and listen instead to the sounds I remember hearing from my window at night at home.  The repetition of owls, the scrape of my mother’s chair below my room as she settled into her work in front of the stove to mend clothes, the velvet silence that wrapped around the house like a salve.  I don’t think I knew I heard these sounds while I was there. Now, I sink into them for comfort.
The letter I wrote so passionately, then dropped between the slats just three days ago, in hopes that it would make it to the ground, in hopes that some kind citizen would pick it up and take it to the post, in hopes that the letter would somehow reach my mother so far away in New York, seems now to be a ridiculous farce.  Seems impossible.  The hope that bloomed around the idea like a far off kite, that billowed in the wind of escape, has now gone slack and flat.  What kind of chance is there that someone saw the letter falling down to the street.  Or, saw it as they passed by on the wooden sidewalk.  What would make them think, this is something I should mail?  And worse, what if it isn’t some stranger who finds the letter,  what if it is the Madame (who I now know is French Kate) who sees it lying there.  What kind of beating would her strong man give me if she found it?  Oh, if I could only hear the sound of my mother’s voice through the slats. That difficult woman I’ve screamed at until I was red in the face. Who smoothed my coat and pushed me in directions my entire life until now.  I’ve never really heard her words until now.  Never heard the dull, steady undertone that pulsed through each and every one: love, love, love.

Amy’s Mom: The Letter Arrives
When the letter arrived today I sat down on the floor I was so shocked.  Amy has been gone for nearly three weeks.  And now, here in front of me are words written in her hand.  A tight, thin scrawl that pitches too far to the right.  When I unfold the letter and read what is there I am surprised by the howl of an animal. A deep, guttural groan that rises out of the earth, until I realize it has come from me.  My daughter, locked up in an attic?  My daughter, forced into prostitution?  As soon as I can stop my hands from shaking I read the letter again.  Then, I put on my shoes, run to the stable, place a bit on Amy's horse Willow (she's the fastest) and tear off into town towards the Methodist church where I know I'll find Amy's Pa.  We are coming Amy.  I scream into the air as loud as I can.  We are coming to save you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Letter - Continued - 2 More Segments

I was busy this weekend editing this section.  Amy's story is based off of a "true" story I heard while I was at the museum at the Pithole site.  It's hard not to be haunted by stories like these! Hope you enjoy this next segment.

Amy’s Mother

After only a week, the house echoes my steps.  The tall pines lean in like dark fingers.  Amy is gone and there is no word from her.  All of her life she’s been filling this house with the crystal shards of her voice, the dust of her anger.  It’s not like her not to write.  It’s been 14 days since I hugged her stiff body and watched her board the train.  She took little with her and promised she’d write as soon as she arrived at the hotel.  But the days keep growing into each other, becoming a larger and larger silence her Pa and I carry.  Where are you Amy?
Last week, the neighborhood ladies came to our house for tea.  I’d tried to put on a good face.  Put out my best china.  We don’t have much, but what we have I was sure to display.  As we sat eating the sweet cakes I’d baked, the ladies took turns oohing and ah-ing about Amy’s adventure.  Or, lamenting my loss.  She was such a good girl!  They’d say.  What do you think you did to drive her away?  What’s not said as I paste a tight smile on my lips is my response.  How about your Joe?  He’s been gone since the war. You hear from him lately? We are all islanded in our own grief.  But, what flows around us is the same dark sea: a generation of sadness.  I’m new to my island.  But I recognize we are all here.  We are all waiting for words to wash up on our shore:  I’m alive Momma.  I’m missing you.  I’ll see you real soon.

Amy (After 10 Days Captivity)

Last night when I woke, it was still dark and the air was cool with fall’s breath.  When I looked through the cracks of the wall the whole street shone like sieves of golden light.  Every day I listen for his heavy footsteps on the stairs, the weight of his step.  Knowing, if the door swings open I will have to face his question again.
Are you ready to fuck now?
How can I sleep, knowing that is all that waits for me?  He must be the Madame’s partner.  He usually comes in the late afternoon reeking of whiskey and dirt and oil.  He’s so tall the top of his dark hair brushes the low ceilings of the attic.  Every time he asks, he half smiles, a crooked smile, and shoves a pie tin filled with a slice of stale bread spread with grease toward the corner I cower in. 
You start fucking and the food will get much better girl. He says as I lower my head.
At first, he only threatened, made rude movements with his hips.  Now, when he comes in, he slaps me across the face.  Then, throws his weight against me.  I scream and scream but there is no one to hear me.  Only a darkness I wish upon myself.  An escape from my stolen body.
When it is over, he stands, pulls up his canvas pants and laughs. 
Here’s your food bitch.  Can’t say you did much to earn it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Letter: Part 1

Amy (After 3 Days Captivity)

Time has always been a wide, carpet I've ridden on to no end.  The thick-pained glass windows were always open in our two-story house.  I liked to sleep with the smells of the pine trees and crisp, cold air sweeping through my dreams. Now, I’m blanketed in my own sweat in heat that wraps and strangles me even in sleep.  There are no windows that open, only the dime-sized cracks between boards and the muffled voices of the Madame and her hired muscle down stairs, the faint laughter and moans of girls.  Some nights, I feel so alone.  I place my hot face on the sticky, sweating boards of the outward facing walls of the attic, just to feel the idea of movement and air.
     Back in Millerton, New York, time was thick as molasses and I had felt stuck in it.  When I found my ticket out, I seized it mad with the idea of change.  The paper flew through the air like a white-winged promise of escape, as I walked down main.  I remember I was walking to the dry goods store to pick up new buttons Mother had ordered through the Sears Roebuck catalog.  She’s always working on some project.  She finds dresses in the catalog we could never afford, and then sets out to sew the dress herself (of course with a lot of help from me!).  I was so tired of her words: Amy, go ahead and sew up these seams. Amy, go fetch me my new pack of buttons from the dry goods store.  Amy, stop fidgeting at that window.  The paper was crumpled, and dirt streaked.  I’m sure I hadn’t been the only one to see it.  Since the war, so many restless young people have left town. The wording on the notice was clear:
Looking for gainful employment in a new, vibrant town? We are looking for young girls to work in the NEW booming hotel trade in OIL BOOM TOWN.  We pay for travel.  If interested, send notice to the Dew Drop Inn, PA.
What I would do to re-read those words, to see those words as they really were.  My face grows hot just thinking of my ignorance.  Now, I am here, my head pressed against thin boards and no one knows it.  I didn't even have the sense to tell my mother I was leaving town.  She must be worried sick.  And my father?  He must be beside himself.  His only daughter leaving town without a goodbye.  What’s worse is I have no idea exactly where I am.  I know I’m somewhere near Franklin, Pennsylvania.  But, after that, I didn't know where they were taking me.  All that I know is that I've never felt more helpless in my fifteen years.  I’m trapped in the attic of a brothel and no one in this world knows where I am.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Want to Follow My Lyric Novel as it Unfolds?

This week, I unearthed something I wrote last Decemeber, 500 Days.  The manuscript is a lyric novel written about several women who live in Pithole, PA in the 1860s.  Pithole was an oil boom town in Western PA where extreme wealth was won and lost at high costs.  I became fascinated with this town while I was working at Clarion University and I found an "history" of the town written by the local newspaper reporter, Crocus.  There were so many fascinating stories about Pithole that I started to write a series of poems about the town.  But, after writing over 40 poems, I still felt like I hadn't told enough of the story.  So, that's when I sat down to write 500 Days500 Days tells the interlocking stories of four women: Amy, a young girl drawn to Pithole to work in a hotel who is instead enslaved in a prostition ring, Emmaline Rickets, the local washerwoman who discovers oil in her well, Diana, a working prostititue from North Carolina and Jane, a young prostitute from Grove City, PA.  Why am I telling you all about this story?  Because as I method of revision I am going to be posting it segement by segment on my blog.  In the hopes that some of your will follow it, ask questions, or give feedback.  So, if you read this and are interested in reading this story (told in many tiny bites) please follow my blog.

To begin, here is the prelude to the lyric novel... hope you enjoy!


When you walk the streets of Pithole dust and mud will cover you.  It will pour into every part of you until you no longer recognize who you have become.  At first, we were a town of settlers.  Small army-issued tents freckling a green field near the derrick on Thomas Holden’s farm.  Those were the days when Mrs. Holden still made three meals a day for the workers in her sunlit kitchen.  We'd sit, a dozen, then two or three, at the table, or on the wide front porch.  Our meals pitched on our laps.  She always made something warm and filling, only asking for a dollar a meal.  We were grateful.  We who had begun to live the derrick life.  The up at dawn to the rhythm  of oil’s passage.  The field was wide and all around it trees crowded.  These were the early days.  When we believed we were temporarily there.  Mrs. Holden's dinner bell would ring marking the passage of time.  At seven am, at noon, then again at six.  We carried out our tasks still thinking of the homes we’d left behind.  Still haunted by the battles many of us had fought.  But the oil was relentless.  It poured and poured out of the well.  And the more that it poured, the more the American Oil Company executives smiled and visited.  Soon, the blue prints for the next well were made and circulated.  With the expansion, more manpower would be needed.  So the Oil companies put ads in the papers, luring young Civil War veterans, with promises of OIL! RICHES!.  Within two weeks of the second well, the place was overrun with new prospectors.  There were tents everywhere.  And those who didn’t have tents, used blankets, broken barrels, whatever they could find.  Poor Mrs. Holden couldn’t keep up with the demand for food in her kitchen (even after hiring a few young girls to help her serve and cook).  So, a wagon started serving beans and stew twice a day.  Soon, there were men everywhere.  The trees began to be chopped down and split into lumber while they were still green.  When Prather came to town he hired a few men to rope off lots across the field just over the ridge from the Holden farm.  Then he sold off the lots.  The building rose in what felt like hours.  Still green and dripping sap and quickly filling with what we needed: hotels, general stores, bars.  But we didn’t care.  We were grateful to finally have shelter.  Straws beds were rented out.  A restaurant went in.  The trees receded farther and farther back.  The streets were thick with oil and mud.  There was never enough water.  Every well we sunk filled with oil.  We were so thirsty.   We were so lonely.  More streets were carved out.  More wells were dug.  More men came to town.  The teamsters took over the oil shipments making us pay outrageous amounts for hauling the oil out of town and down to the river where they could be floated down to Pittsburgh to be sold on the open market.  No one had ever seen this much oil so fast.  No one believed it would stop.  Especially not the oil executives.  More and more of them would visit each week.  They stuck out like sore thumbs – dressed to the nines in white, crisped shirts.  When the girls started arriving in town we were so grateful.  It had been so long since we’d seen anything except dirty young men, desperate to make it rich, that we lined up to visit them, that we’d pay any price.  But just as there wasn’t enough food, or water, there weren’t enough girls to go around.  The only thing Pithole seemed to have enough of was mud.  It stuck to everything.  Even after the plank sidewalks were thrown down to make walking easier the mud would seep through.  So when the girls began to become younger and younger we didn’t care.  We kept fucking them when it was our turn.  We wrote letters ferociously.  Dear --- All is well here in Pithole.  I’ve been working hard to earn enough money so that we can buy our own farm when we get married.  We lived in-between our lives. We drank insatiably.  The bars were always full, day and night.   Young men sat on wooden stools, some slumped in corners unable to stand up.  Almost every night there would fights in the streets.  One man stole a whore, or a beer, or a bed from another.  The world was ten by ten blocks long.  Oxen and horses pulled sleds laden with barrels of oil that were being brought to the Teamsters wagons, then carried down the hill for sale.  Those animals were by now hairless from being overworked and constantly coated in oil and mud.  The walked down the streets looking like animals driven from hell.  Each week, stage coaches and open wagons would pour into town filled with more and more men and more and more niceties they’d begun to desire.  The hotels were built and lined with carpets, their windows filled with velvet curtains.  Those who struck it rich, or those who were rich and were just visiting their investments in Pithole filled the most lavish hotels.  Ate lobster or roasted duck and drank champagne.  Inside the hotels they’d dress in starched cleaned clothes, at white-tabled clothed tables.  They’d hold balls and dance with women (not our whores, but other women, they’d brought in from neighboring cities and towns) dressed in floor length gowns.  We could see them through the cracks.  As we sat across the street in the muddy-floored bar, or as we lay down next door with a child whore on a straw stuffed bed.  We’d write false letters home about the comfort, about counting the days until we’d see our girlfriend, or our wife, or our children who by now must look so different.  And the days would pile on our chest thick as stones.  Until when we’d hardly know ourselves.  Winter burned off into summer.  Summer swelled into the fall.  Then snow started to fall again on the lean-tos and derricks.  Snow would fall through the cracks of the buildings built of green wood.  Soon, we’d been lost in Pithole for over a year.  When we looked in the mirror hung behind French Kate’s salon we saw men who were no longer ourselves.  We saw men who no longer came from small towns in New York State or down the river in Beaver.  We saw what could be carved out and drained out like the land we sat on.  We saw the eyes of those hairless horses as they trudged down the muddy streets carry too many barrels of oil.  We saw the distant faces of the girls we fucked.  We saw no way to get back home.