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.

1 comment:

susan grimm said...

Such energy in this story already. It was nice to be reminded of AWP where you first told me about this project.