“Cinders”

by Stephanie Dickinson




Raleigh, NC Circa 1970s



I want to look at this story as if it happened to someone else, which, of course, it did. The girl I call She was once me or I was once her. Eyes, legs, etc. we share, but She existed at the beginning and I/me at the beginning of the end.



Resurrect the girl getting off the Trailways in Raleigh, a backwater capital. The bus has stopped in every town since the Blue Ridge Mountains and the smell of the coach is steeped in cold tobacco smoke and the guts of meat lunches. The sky above the downtown’s empty streets and closed stores holds only an hour of fading light. Black gnats with their fiery red eyes hum from the lip of a bourbon bottle. She is round-faced, slender, and just turned 18. A Northerner. A farm girl. Pretty, but not beautiful, except for large (nearsighted) brown eyes. You could throw stones into them and not reach their bottoms. You could say they are enchanting monstrosities.

She’d been riding through the hackberry and black gum trees, the highway trickling off near battlefields. The Wilderness and Bull Run. Cannonball thunder still sending marrow and flesh into scarlet oaks and chestnuts. The bus threading its way on two-lane highways. Her cheek pressed the window taking in shacks, the blurry trailers between trees, the silver hot dog shapes next to railroad tracks. Fields of yellowing tobacco plants like stunted corn.

We might lose the girl in the crowd disembarking. There’s no one here to meet her and she appears uncertain. Still, she doesn’t put on her glasses. Dusk is falling. Even the fronds shading the asphalt are weary, their petals weak and limp. She asks at the ticket counter for a cheap hotel close by. They tell her she’s on West Jones. East of downtown. They tell her to walk that-a-way. The pearled petals crack off into hard black chips.

Resurrect a ghostly Woolworths where the lunch counter sit-ins still linger among the storefronts and parking meters. There’s an auto parts garage and the sound of wrenches hitting metal. The mechanic is lying flat on his back staring up into a greasy constellation of pistons and rods. Two more blocks. Fayetteville Street. Her near-sighted eyes squint up at the grime-coated red neon–Hotel. A tainted odor hangs on the air. Unwashed men. Yolky fish. The lobby feels carnivorous as if the chairs eat the skin and bones that sink into them.

When the girl walks in, the men slouched on shabby divans follow her with their eyes. They’ve been gone from their lives so long it’s as if they were never born. The rubber plants sprouting from spittoons shade their toothless vodka. At the front desk she studies the open register. No names that might belong to a she.

Where do these men come from? Eyes of dry soil. Are they veterans? The Pacific? Korea? Veterans of the tobacco fields? You can see their younger selves fondling the stalks, cradling the trumpet-shaped flowers.

The desk clerk wears a blue sweater that reaches his knees when he stands. The knotty veins in his hands could be tree roots. There’s no welcome or smile on his face even as she pays $20 for the night. Checkout 8 a.m. No one in the room but the paying guest. He, too, watches her start up a narrow flight of stairs, the spidery elevator not working. The thin door pushes in, hitting the bed. A dresser, a light bulb with a string hanging from it, a toilet, a shower. The sink is in the room near the tiny shaving mirror.

From her shoulder she shrugs off the army surplus backpack (the one the desk clerk frowned at). The old telephone book opens to the outdated white pages. The names and numbers give off that mold odor of birth and death in one breath. The boy who invited her to stop by if she was ever in the neighborhood lives on Normandy Street. The phone rings. The boy’s mother answers and tells the girl he’s not home; he might be at the Player’s Retreat.

She steps into the shower, not a strong stream, but for $20 a night, she’s glad for it. The ancient tobacco farmer who sat next to her on the bus from Asheville rises in her mind. He’d pointed to the passing fields with their peculiar yellowish-green plants. Tobacco country where the long-boned drying barns shied away from the highway. He did everything from hand weeding and harvesting and barning tobacco to driving mules. He did topping and suckering too. Breaking the yellow flowers off the plants so the soil fed the leaves. Was that how it all worked? Flowers, all showy nothing? Tying the tobacco leaves and watching the curing furnace; the cooler work, white women and men did that. Standing under the threads of water, she imagines the sweat of field work beading on her body. Mules. She dresses carefully in her shiny fawn-colored dress she cut the bottom from to wear over jeans, and puts on her lace-up suede boots. Her stomach is aflutter, she could be riding a horse, cantering, yet she’s only brushing on mascara and painting her lips a glazed pink. She’s thinking of the boy with long black hair and pale skin, the boy she’s traveled five states to see. The one she met the summer before.

At the cubbyhole front desk, she asks the clerk (he has barking eyes) where the Players Retreat is. Northerners are trouble, especially Northern girls, his scowl says. He points, tells her it’s over the viaduct. Walking in the finger’s direction she inhales ripening fruits on the brink of rot. When she comes to the viaduct-overpass the sidewalk thins. She stops at its summit before starting the long stretch ahead. We wonder what the girl is thinking, trying to find her way in a strange city without her glasses. Are they in her bag? Has she left them behind at the hotel or in the northern state?

She isn’t thinking, she doesn’t think. Ask anyone, ask her mother. Hur, Hur, you don’t think, you just do in a hurry.

The music erupting from The Player’s Retreat is what the girl’s mother refers to as jumping-up-and-down music. Inside, everything blurs—the tables, the smokiness, the partiers,

 beautiful androgens, whose faces she can’t distinguish even if she squints. She feels like a hick next to the tall girls in strapless silk dresses, mauve pinks and paisleys. Long-haired guys in leather jackets and guys with chrome-colored hair sticking up like surprised grass hug the bar. None of the faces belong to the boy. She can’t find him and hurries out into the street.

Heading back, the night feels different. The railroad track runs below the viaduct, fuzzy girders and weeds sprouting. Someone joins her on the sidewalk, footfalls ring out. Still far off, too far to see the figure clearly but then she doesn’t look. Someone in a hurry, now the footsteps are almost running. It’s abrupt, like a collision. A shirt thrown over her head. Scream, he says, and I’ll cut your throat. She doesn’t scream.

Down an embankment he half-carries, half-pushes her. She hears the cinder crunching underfoot. A car splashes over the viaduct. Loudest of all– the sound of his breathing. He stops; they are somewhere. It feels like the cinder has reached up to drag her down. He’s yanking at her jeans; they slide off her. The shirt, too, has slipped from her head and she sees his face. His eyes penetrate her. She sees the tinker toy houses edging the alley, their lights; she sees a fruit tree, a clothesline. He’s on his knees taking himself out of his pants. She offers him her money. Five dollars.

He thrusts his thing between her legs. He wants to hurt her with it, he wants her to love it. Will he cut her throat because she’s seen his face? Because she knows this place that is no place? Her arms drop limply at her sides. The strange fuck heat seeping into her blood. She doesn’t scratch or fight, doesn’t scream, she lies so still his motion makes a racket inside her, still as if she no longer there, as if she’s dead. She closes her eyes to make his face go away. Crows circle. Then he says, kiss me, it would help.

She takes his words in, but doesn’t consider them until years later. They echo, they imply an intimacy. A relationship. As if even here on a bed of cinders, she must please, she must help. Or do they signify some softness, some regret? Asking for a kiss. A humanity. The girl chose to believe the latter. He could have said, reptiles are jumping from the moon. As if he wants to make believe she’s his cinder-bed girlfriend. Sealed with a kiss.

She does not kiss him and he jerks inside her, finishing. She is lying on her back and now she’s on her feet, pulling up her jeans, ready to flee but he blocks her. He wants her money, now he asks for her $5. Please, it’s all I have, she says. Keep it, he says, and runs off, taking the blue shirt. He disappears. She runs too, although she’s not sure where she’s going. Surely, if she keeps running she’ll come to something. She feels nothing, not cold, not tears. She feels the nothing touching her. His fish milk trickles between her legs.

The thousands of tobacco seeds are tiny and black, the old farmer told her, and aren’t buried in the soil, they must have sun. They like the dry soil, those tiny black seeds do. Their flowers pink and yellow.

The streets come back, car headlights, and then a gas station. The attendant, a young blonde guy, stays behind the cash register. I’ve just been raped. He lifts a telephone receiver. Help yourself. The police arrive in a patrol car and she gets in. Believing she’s safe is a mistake. We see how she’s dressed in jeans, her hair frizzy, the Army surplus shell-carrier that she uses instead of a purse. It’s her generation’s half-baked rebellion she’s wearing. She’s also wearing his smell. The milkiness. Milk. Baby powder. A house with a baby.

They drive (not far) to the station. She gets out of the car, follows them into a room, and stands on one side of a large wooden table. She faces three detectives, all men. The detective who sits in the middle, the one who commands, tells her to take a seat. Heavier, older than the others, he wears a beige porkpie hat. His face matches the beige hat. No one offers to pull a chair around from their side of the table to hers. One of the detectives takes her bag to examine it. The girl doesn’t yet know she’s in danger of going to jail.

They too speak in soft cadences. She tells them her story, and while telling it she realizes their disbelief. They’re drinking coffee and smoking, they’re staring. They ask her name and where she’s from. What they really want to know is what she’s doing here in Raleigh. Their town. She tells them about the boy and the farm she’s from. She doesn’t mention the farm college she’s decided against or how she never went anywhere but to church. The detective spills her bag onto the table. How silly the red Maybelline eyebrow pencil and the pink Estee lipstick. The comb and her coin purse with the $5 inside. How long do you think you can live on that? Another detective fingers her wallet. He fishes out the photographs of the boy with his long black hair. Pork Pie Hat is pointing at her. Their eyes lock. His gray eyes are the sound of running water, his eyes are frost that kills the peaches, his eyes light on her like flies, they touch her with their feelers and will not be brushed away. They are filled with loathing. She disgusts him.

“We’ve been watching you since you got into Raleigh.”

They hold her shell-carrier bag up and laugh.

“She calls this a purse.”

“We think you didn’t paid and now you’re complaining.”

Were they calling her a prostitute?
“If you’re still in Raleigh in a week we’ll arrest you for vagrancy.”

She gets to her feet. “What if this was one of your daughters?”

“Don’t compare yourself to any of our daughters.”

The last sentence stings the most, but she collects each of the phrases and will carry them all the way.

One of the younger police officers walks her out of the station. No offer of a ride to the hotel. She asks him to point her in the right direction to the hotel and her question (her lostness) softens his face.

Is he thinking of sparrows and how as a boy he followed his birder father? Fox sparrow. Song sparrow. Lincoln sparrow. Swamp sparrow. White-crowned sparrow. Each different, The sleek little red-amber fox sparrow. Could he, the quiet younger detective, be reminded by her timid bravery of a sparrow when he points the way into the semi-darkness of the semi-deserted downtown, toward the hotel he knows is a bum hotel?

 Night closes behind the viaduct. A shirt is unfurled. Streetlight coming through the hole in its pocket. Unwilling.

Around her the blood-dark entrance. The men in the lobby sleep in chairs as if they’re afraid of their rooms. Necks and spines arched, rigid, their heads don’t touch the back of the chairs, they sleep as if they’re frozen. No one in the room but the paying guest. The police must have phoned the hotel to see if she was really staying there. The clerk looks at her as if she’s a viper Does she smell like a mattress thrown into a ditch seeped with rain? For all that rape stink the milkiness is what clings to her skin. Pale skin, startled eyes, she takes her clothes off and throws her silky top away. She steps into the trickling shower. A shirt is unfurled.

Shivering, she sits fully dressed in the thin bed and clutches a can opener. Her eyes listen. Her mouth listens. Her ears have never been keener and reach through the walls. The shadowy men not sleeping spend the night walking the halls. The girl can hear their breathing as they pass, and then pass again. Their mumbling she can’t understand. It must be their own language.

I look at the words spoken so long ago. “Scream and I’ll cut your throat.” “Kiss me, it would help.” “Now give me the money.” “Keep it.” Like the kiss, the “keep it” felt like a kindness. That he did not take her five dollars, all that she had, meant a great deal to the farm girl in that long ago world. Keep it.

Never bury the seeds in soil, they require sun.





Stephanie Dickinson

Stephanie Dickinson lives in New York City with the visionary poet Rob Cook and their senior feline, Vallejo. Her novels Half Girl and Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her feminist noir Love Highway. Other books include Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, Flashlight Girls Run, Girl Behind the Door, and her just released Big-Headed Anna Imagines Herself.  At present she’s finishing a collection of essays entitled Maximum Compound based on her longtime correspondence with inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey.


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