Read an Excerpt
January 1, 1970
Here is the first thing you need to know about me: I’m a bare- foot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma, and all the marble floors in the world will never change that.
Here is the second thing: that young woman they pulled from the Arabian shore, her hair tangled with mangrove—my husband didn’t kill her, not the way they say he did.
There is so much, now, that you will want to know, that you believe I will be able to tell you. If not, why even begin?
Because I can’t stop thinking of her, not yet eighteen, per- fectly, immutably silent, just as they wanted her to be. It is the dream of her face shining up from the sea like a watery moon that still haunts me. Not even her mother will speak her name.
Because, among these Roman people whose language flows like a river over rocks, my own name drops heavy as a stone, no husband, no father, no family or tribe to tether me.
Because I don’t know who I am anymore and have forgotten who it was I meant to be.
Let me tell it from the beginning, then, remember the truths of my own story so that I might better bear witness to hers, trace the threads to that place where our lives intertwined—one of us birthed to iron-steeped clay, the other to fallow sand, each of us brought to this place by men born of oil.
In the beginning—these three words my daily bread, recited at the kitchen table in our shack in Shawnee, the Bible open in front of me. Before then, just as the Korean War was beginning, I remember my mother humming honky-tonk as she fried spuds for our dinner, two-stepping to the table in an imaginary waltz. She was the daughter of a Methodist circuit preacher who extolled separation from the world, and his wife, who bowed her head in submission and held her tongue even as she secreted away the money she made selling eggs, a penny at a time added to the sock hidden beneath the nest of her beloved Rhode Island Red, a hen so fierce and prone to peck that my grandfather gave it wide berth.
My mother loved to tell the story: how my grandmother scraped and saved until she had enough for a train ticket back to her family in Pawhuska, then rose one morning, fixed her husband a big pot of pork hocks and brown beans—enough to last him a week—made bacon and extra biscuits so he wouldn’t have to go without breakfast, ironed his handkerchiefs and starched his shirts, then told him that one of the ladies of the church was having female troubles and needed her care. My grandmother walked out the door with a bundle of biscuits under one arm, her infant daughter in the other, went straight to the train station, didn’t even leave a note. My grandfather refused to divorce her, would never forgive the way she had deceived him, but maybe he should have known—the way that women have always lied, risking their souls to save their sorry lives.
It was eighteen years later when my father, two weeks hitchhiking Route 66 and still no job, came looking for work at the Osage County Fair and first laid eyes on my mother—a rodeo princess pitching cow chips for charity. He must have fallen in love with her right then—the way she could clean up pretty as a new nickel or muck down on her knees in manure, that sunshine smile never breaking. She brought him home to meet her mother, and I like to imagine that moment: the three of them at the table, the late light warm through the window, and all of them laughing at their good fortune—to have found one another, to share the sweet fruit of that pie.
My parents were married that winter, and the next winter, I was born. When my father was drafted, my mother and I moved in with my grandmother to wait out the war. Two years later, the official from the State Department arrived, telling how my father had died in the Home-by-Christmas Offensive, that the president was sorry, as was the nation. My only memories of him reside in the stories my mother told.
And then, that summer I turned seven, the cancer came up through my mother’s bones like it had been biding its time, took what smile was left, took her teeth and blanched her skin to parchment. I would lie in our bed and cradle my dolly in a tea towel while my mother wept and prayed that God would take her and my grandmother offered another spoonful of laudanum. When, finally, God answered my mother’s prayers, and then, only a few months later, my grandmother was felled by a blood clot that the doctor said had bubbled up from her broken heart, I was ordered into my grandfather’s custody.
He came to the city orphanage in his old Ford pickup, and I watched from the doorway as he approached, a lean man, sinewy and straight, with a strong way of moving forward, like he was forcing his way through water. Pinched felt hat, starched white shirt, black tie and trousers—only the seams of his brogans, caked with mud, gave him away for the scabland farmer he was when not in the pulpit.
My nurse had dressed me in a modest blouse and jumper, but I refused the hard shoes she offered and wore instead my mother’s old riding boots, an extra sock stuffed in each toe. The first thing my grandfather did was have me open my suitcase. My doll, my mother’s rhinestone tiara, her wedding ring—all worldly, my grandfather said, the devil’s tricks and trinkets, and he left them with the orphanage to pawn.
I wailed all the way to Shawnee, but my grandfather didn’t speak a word. By the time we took the road south that led to the flat edge of town—that marginal land where the poorest whites and poorer blacks scraped out a living—I had cried myself into a snubbing stupor. He held my door, waited patiently as I climbed down and stood facing the narrow two-room shack with its broken foundation and sagging roof, the outhouse in back a haphazard construction of split pine. I trailed him through the kitchen, its walls papered with newsprint, pasted with flour and water, stained dark with soot, and into the bedroom, where he placed my suitcase on the horsehair mattress. He peered down at me, laid his hand on top of my head. “God will keep us,” he said, pulled the door shut, and left me alone.
From the room’s single window, I saw that he had changed into his patched work clothes, and I watched as he hitched the jenny mule, threw the reins over his shoulders, and returned to the plot he’d been plowing. What I found in that house was little: tenpenny nails in the wall, hung with my grandfather’s good hat and suit; a two-door cupboard that held Karo, flour, sugar, a salted ham hock; an oilcloth-covered table and two weak chairs; a short-wicked kerosene lantern; a potbellied stove streaked with creosote; the cot that my grandfather had set in the kitchen and covered with an old wool blanket so that I might have the bed. I moved to the porch, found the washbasin, the straight razor, the leather strop, and a cropped piece of flannel that he used for a towel. I sat on the single-plank step and watched him chuck the mule up one row and down another until he put the plow away, came and stood in front of me, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Where’s my dinner, sister?” he asked gently. I hadn’t thought to feed him, didn’t know how. He led me back to the cupboard, showed me the cast-iron skillet, the knife, how to make red-eye gravy with the ham drippings, flour, and salt. Over the next week, we would eat that ham right down to the bone, boil it for soup on Saturday, crack it for marrow. I learned what it meant to be hungry, learned that Sundays meant more food and a healthy helping of God’s word.
Because he now had a child to care for, my grandfather left the circuit, and he counted it as God’s goodwill that a small congregation east of the city was in need of a pastor. The parishioners, some white, most black, folded us in, and though I had no siblings, they called me Sister Gin. I wasn’t yet old enough to understand what the townspeople might think—that poor little white girl—and spent the Sabbath wedged in a hard oak pew between skin that ran from pale pink to sallow, dusky to dark. My grandfather’s dictates were absolute, but in his eyes, all of God’s children, red and yellow, black and white, were bound by the same mortal sin, given the same chance at redemption. I sat in fascinated horror, the sanctified moaning around me, as I listened to my grandfather’s hellfire sermons that foretold the woe of every unsaved soul. Blood to the horse’s bridle, flames licking the flesh—the punishment that would come my way if I didn’t repent, but no matter how hard I considered my deeds, I didn’t yet know what sins to confess.
After the hymns had been sung—happy are the faithful dead!—the churchwomen prepared a fellowship meal at one shack or another. Your color didn’t matter when it came to who was served and where, but whether you were male or female did. The men were fed where they sat, their wives fixing their plates before their own, wise to their husbands’ predilections: Brother Fink ate only the chicken’s legs, thighs, and the tail he called the pope’s nose; Brother Jackson required that his food be layered—a mound of potatoes topped with meat and smothered with a generosity of gravy. The boys not old enough to be in the men’s circle and the girls too young for kitchen help were called in next, made to scrub their faces, and put to the table. Only after the men and the children were served did the women eat: bread heels, chicken backs, the wateriest remains of corn pudding. They ate with babies nursing at their breasts and whispered their hushed stories of hard births and cancerous wombs, jumping up when called to bring another biscuit or glass of sweet tea to the men, whose talk was of dropping wheat prices, Nazi spies, and the local criminal element that ran bootleg out of the bottoms and carried razor-sharp knives. I sat quiet in whatever corner I could find, acting like I wasn’t listening, but what I heard told me all that I needed to know: that the world was fallen, that my only hope lay in the grace and glory of God, that Satan was waiting for me to falter at every turn, that he might appear to me as the Angel of Light, deceive me with his wicked tongue, and lead me to hell as his bride.
How many times did I rouse from some nightmare, call out for my mother to save me? I might have left the trappings of my old life behind, but my grief had packed up and moved right along with me, shaped and weighted as though it had a life of its own. I woke one night so sure that the devil had found me that I ran to the cot in the kitchen, told my grandfather that I could feel that grief lying right there beside me like a panting black dog. He lit a candle, took a vial of oil from the corner of the cupboard, made the sign of the cross on my forehead, and pressed his palms to my ears. “Demon, by the authority given to me by the Lord Jesus Christ, I command that you leave this child!” He gripped my head tighter, shook it like a gourd. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, come out of her, I command you!” He drew his hands away so quickly that the suction nearly deafened me. When I opened my eyes, I saw the tears pooling in the dark shallows of his face, his mouth arched as though that demon had leaped right out of me and into him. I went back to my bed, now cold, and wished I had never left it, had kept my hurt to myself. Silence was a lesson I learned well—how to mute my body, my voice, my heart.
That fall, my first day of school, my grandfather rode me to town on the mule because the pickup had broken down and no amount of prayer would fix it. As we approached the playground, I saw all the white children pointing and laughing until the pretty young teacher came out to scold them. If I hadn’t understood it before, I knew it then: we were different, I was different, not only a member of the Holy Roller church but an orphan from the south edge of town who lived where most whites wouldn’t. I slid from the mule’s broad back, kept my head down, and followed the teacher into the room, where she showed me my desk and placed a picture book in my hands. “You can read for a while,” she said kindly, and left me to lose myself in the pages even as the other students filed in and began reciting their numbers. From that point on, books became my solace, my escape. I brought them home from the library, hid them from the eyes of my grandfather, who believed that only the word of God had a place in his house, that stories outside of the scripture might lead me astray.
I completed elementary, kept growing, went with the junior high nurse to buy what my grandfather called my unmentionables—soft-cupped brassieres, panties, sanitary belts and napkins—then stood in my bedroom, confounded by the hooks and straps, ashamed when my grandfather would no longer meet my eyes when I came in from the outhouse. From him, I learned that I was the daughter of Eve, a danger to myself, a temptation to those around me. Couldn’t wear pants, only skirts that covered my knees. Couldn’t wear makeup or jewelry to draw the attention of men. Couldn’t cut my hair, which was my veil of modesty. Couldn’t preach because Paul said so. Suffer not a woman. When revival came and the Spirit descended, the sisters who were slain fell flat on their backs, arms raised to heaven, ecstatic in their possession, and I was the one whose charge it was to hasten forward and cover their legs with the lap cloths that they themselves had sewn so that their modesty might be maintained. What would it feel like, I wondered, to give myself over so completely, to fall under such a spell? But not even the fear that I would spend my eternal life in hell brought the call that would lead me to kneel at the altar, lay myself at the feet of the Lord, and the church people noticed. I learned to pretend the conviction I did not feel, to pray with my mouth open, my eyes closed, my hands raised to heaven. I was saved—couldn’t they see? Born again. It was a lie I didn’t realize I was living, a way to survive the surly dictates of that thing called faith.
Who knows what gives rise to our sensibilities? Maybe it was some seed of resistance sown in me by my grandmother that allowed me to keep my soul to myself. Maybe it was just the way I was—turned funny, I heard them say. They didn’t even bother to hide their mouths. No matter the color of my skin, I was the kind of girl they watched from the corners of their eyes, the kind of girl that brought them to predictions—headed to ruin if I didn’t get my head straight, my heart right with God. I wasn’t like them, wasn’t like anybody I knew.
It was the characters in books who spoke to me, reflected some secret part of myself. When the librarian handed me To Kill a Mockingbird, I read it straight through, then hid it beneath my bed. “I lost it,” I told the librarian. “I’ll work check-in and checkout during recess to pay.” She was satisfied, and so was I. It was a sin that I was jealous of and wanted to keep—the worst sin of all.
Walking home from school one afternoon, the September air thick with gray aphids, Anne of Green Gables open in my hands, I found a girl asleep on her sack, cotton tufting her hair. Fall harvest meant more hours in the field for the black children of South Town, the season’s sun beating down, the long, long sack trailing behind like an earthbound anchor. Maybe that was when I began to understand that, no matter how different I was, my life would never be as hard as hers. I sat at the edge of the patch and watched her for a long time, then tore away one page of the book and then another, planting them in the soil beneath her bare feet as though they might sprout like Jack’s magic beanstalk and carry her aloft, as though I were feeding the girl her dreams.
When the librarian discovered the ruined book, she said that two was too many and sent me home with a bill. That was the first time I lied outright to my grandfather. Ignoring any lessons I might have learned about false accusation, I described in detail how Tug Larson, the schoolyard bully, had knocked the novel from my hands. “He grabbed me,” I said, “and pushed me down.” I cried and showed my grandfather the bruises I had pinched on my arms to convince him how wounded I was. He grew solemn, said he would talk with the boy, but I insisted it would only make things worse, that he was already being given detention, and shouldn’t I forgive? My grandfather was placated, and I felt a surge of relief and tingling possibility. I had transgressed, might confess and be forgiven, but I had discovered something that intrigued me even more: I could lie and not be struck dead in my shoes.
I remembered my grandmother’s ways, used the last of our flour and lard to bake half a batch of sugar cookies, told my grandfather I was taking them to Sister Woody, an elderly parishioner who lived down the road, and he nodded his approval at my charity. I felt like skipping as I made my way out the door. I had no destination, only a desire to be free. I walked an easy two miles, ate half the cookies, fed the rest to the crows, turned around, and came home happy with the news that Sister Woody’s health was improving.
I became braver, told bigger lies, and walked the farmland for hours or hid with my book in the neighbor’s barn. In gym class, I let my body have its joy, leaping and sprinting ahead of my classmates. When my teacher suggested I try out for girls’ basketball, I forged a careful note home that said I was helping clean the blackboards after school. I made the team and for the first time felt part of something, like I might be someone’s friend, running up and down the court and hollering back and forth like it was a normal thing for a girl to do. I skipped the communal showers, unable to imagine letting myself be seen naked, left my knee-length trunks and sleeveless top in my locker, and ran as fast as I could, hoping to beat my grandfather home. He would sit down to the dinner I made him and never say a word about my wild hair, my ruddy skin, and I believed I had fooled him until the evening he rode into town on the mule and appeared at practice still in his farm clothes, pulled out the worn Bible, and filled the gymnasium with his voice. “ ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God!’ ” He clapped the good book closed, pointed me to the door, and I slunk out, shamed not by my sin but by the looks of pity on the faces of my teammates. Once home, he sent me to my room and sat at the foot of my bed, studying me with intense sadness, as though he might see the workings of my deceitful soul. “I can’t let you burn in hell,” he said, and raised the leather strop. The fierceness of his whipping came up through my bones, rattled like dry seeds in my ears. After, he held me and cried. Maybe that’s why I can forgive him. He only meant to save me.
Why couldn’t I just obey? Drinking, smoking, dancing, bowling, playing cards, going to movies, wading with the Butler boys down at the creek—all sins. To question my grandfather’s rules and the law of his God was mutiny, any plans to rebel an act of treason. Yet even with the punishment I knew was coming, I’d slide open the sash I’d waxed with paraffin, drop to the ground, and walk to Chester’s Drug, where I would sit at the end of the counter and watch the boys peacock, the girls preen while the jukebox played Elvis, Roy Orbison, the Miracles.
The only one who paid me any mind those times was Juney Clooney, a white girl too pretty for her own good, the church ladies said, but I envied her grace, the way she tipped back her soda, ponytail hanging down like a plumb bob. She would pour me a glass of her Nehi, something in her smile almost sad. Maybe I was the only one who wasn’t surprised when her place at the counter came up empty, one of the few who knew the truth of what had happened between her and Baby Buckle.
Buckle was a childlike man, rolled flesh at his neck, rounded shoulders and soft hips, waist cinched by a wide leather belt and a brass buckle the size of a saucer. He worked right there at Chester’s Drug as a delivery boy. Chester and his wife always said that Buckle showed up one Christmas Eve, abandoned as a baby on their doorstep, cold as slab marble, but rumor held he was Chester’s son by Hazel Twig, a young mixed-race woman from our side of town who cleaned the store once a week until she up and disappeared. Because that is what happened when girls got themselves in trouble. They were sent to the home for unwed mothers or simply sent away, anything to erase the family’s shame, absolve the father’s guilt.
It was Juney’s twin brother, Jules, who came stumbling into the store one day, his shotgun loaded, hollering that he’d gone home for lunch and found Juney crying. She told him that Buckle had come to make a delivery, caught her alone frying gizzards, and dragged her into the pantry. I sat stone still as the other boys piled into their pickups. They found him beneath that big walnut tree at Bowman’s Corner, asleep with his pants at his ankles. They didn’t stop to ask, just noosed him up with his own belt, buckle splitting his mouth like a bit. It wasn’t but a few days later that I came in on Juney’s mother, confessing to my grandfather that it wasn’t Buckle who had raped her daughter but Juney’s own daddy, who told her to blame Buckle or he’d kill her and her mother too. All that Buckle did was pick the wrong tree to do his business behind. But what good would it have done for me to tell, and who would believe me? I had read the stories of courage and conviction, but sometimes the truth seemed worse than the lie. I sat quiet at the counter, kept my secrets to myself.
What I remember of high school: not the football games and dances I wasn’t allowed to attend, not overnights with the girl- friends I didn’t have, but the romances and mysteries that kept me company. My grandfather demanded from me humility, modesty, and temperance, but when I read Little Women, Gone with the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express, I entered into the realm of everything knowable, anything possible, if only I were smart enough, pretty enough, and brave.
In my imagination, I had traveled to that place of dark-haired princes and veiled sultanas, knew the thousand and one tales that kept Scheherazade alive, dreamed that I might do the same, weave a web of stories so enthralling that the man I loved would be spared the agony of having to kill me, but if someone had told me that I would soon be living in Arabia, I would have laughed. And no matter the number of romances I read, I never dreamed that someone like Mason McPhee would kiss me—my long skirt, those awful shoes, straw from the henhouse tasseling my socks. But Mason. Highest-scoring point guard, on full-ride scholar- ship to Oklahoma State, once and former prom king, the pride of Shawnee! Homecoming, the first parade of my life, Mason an honored guest riding high in a convertible Chevrolet, everyone calling his name. Only our hometown astronaut, Gordo Cooper, had a bigger crowd, and he’d orbited the Earth in a spaceship.
I wore my best wool skirt, rolled it up just a little. If my grandfather had seen me that way, he’d have whipped me into next Sun- day. I thought I might look like Rita Hayworth, auburn hair to my waist, loose and undone, and maybe I did. Maybe that’s what Mason saw. “Virginia!” He cupped his hands like a megaphone. “Ginny Mae Mitchell!” I was struck dumb, as though he were the first ever to call my name.
Here’s the truth of it: watching him smile and wave from that car, I made the decision right then. When he asked me out for a Coke, I thought, This is it, my one chance with a man like Mason McPhee. I waited until my grandfather was asleep and slid open my window, not a creak or scratch to betray me.
That Coke was the sweetest thing. I couldn’t believe I was there at the soda fountain with Mason, the other boys slapping his shoulder. The girls looked at me like they’d never seen me before. Maybe because I didn’t know what to say, Mason talked and talked. About basketball, all the hours he had practiced in back of his house, a bicycle rim bolted to a pine. How his share- cropper father would come in off the tractor, challenge him to a game of Horse, and they would play past dark, nine games, ten, until Mason’s mother called that she was feeding their dinner to the hogs. Mason always knew he would go to college and was studying prelaw, meant to be the finest public defender to come out of Pottawatomie County, maybe even a judge. He was sure that he could make a difference. He railed against the war in Viet- nam and segregation, told me about the marches and protests he attended. “This world right here isn’t real,” he said, and tapped the café table. “You,” he said, resting his hand over mine, “you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. We’ve got to think bigger, do bigger things, like the Reverend King says.”