In Hollywood, California (she'd been told) women travel on roller skates, pull a string of children, grinning, gaudy- eyed as merry-go-round horses, brass wheeled under a blue canopy of sky. Beatrice had never lived in such a place. This morning, for instance, beside Roxboro Road, she'd seen a woman with no feet wheel her chair into fragile clumps of new grass. Her legs ended at the ankle, old brown cypress knees. She furrowed herself by hand through the ground. Cars passed. The sky stared down. At the center of the world's blue eye, the woman stared back. Years revolved, began to circle Beatrice, a ring of burning eyes. They flared and smoked like the sawmill fires she walked past as a child, in the afternoon at 4 o'clock, she and a dark woman, past the cotton gin, onto the bridge above the railroad tracks. There they waited for wheels to rush like the wings of an iron angel, for the white man at the engine to blow the whistle. Beatrice had waited to stand in the tremble of power. Thirty years later she saw the scar, the woman who had walked beside her then, split but determined to live, raising mustard greens to get through the winter. Whether she had, this spring, Beatrice did not know. If she was sitting, knotted feet to the stove, if the coal had lasted, if she cared for her company, pictures under table glass, the eyes of children she had raised for others. If Beatrice went back to visit at her house, sat unsteady in a chair in the smoky room, they'd be divided by past belief, the town's parallel tracks, people never to meet even in distance. They would be joined by the memory of walking back up Depot Street. She could sit and say: I have changed, have tried to replace the iron heart with a heart of flesh. But the woman whose hands had washed her, had pulled a brush through her hair, whose hands had brought her maypops, the green fruit and purple flowers, fierce eyes of living creatures-- What had she given her back, that woman, anything all these years? Words would not remake the past. She could not make it vanish like an old photograph thrown onto live coals. If she meant to live in the present, she would have to work, do without, send money, call home long distance about the heat.
Minnie Bruce Pratt - 1946-
The Subway Entrance
He was her guide. He lived in hell. Every day he thought he was dead. Years after he's died, she thinks it's him stumbling drunk through the subway turnstile. Just the two of them on the platform. He asks her for money, pennies for passage: In the nursing home, a palsied woman guards the door. She asks: Are you coming back? Everyone in or out must answer her. Don't leave me here. Come back. Beatrice lies to get past her outstretched shaking hand. Her father knows she's leaving him today. He waits. His dying head turns and roams the air. One tear slides from his right eye, rheumy clear regret. What has he meant? His shouts at the TV asked for death, the dogs set ravening. His way in the woods was delicate wherever he stepped. Before he takes her there, he shows the snake's rattle in his desk drawer, stretched out like a watch fob, a pocket charm to protect, a souvenir of the biggest one he's killed yet. He calls to her in the woods, Look where you put your feet. Her favorite place is low, the watery creek branch, sand rippled like snake tracks. His place is high, a stand of longleaf pine. In that long hallway, light flashes as his axe bites at a tree's distortions, rotted cankers, excrescences. His gloved hands run rough up and down the bark flanks. Her mouth fills with tincture of turpentine. On the tree's face, teardrops of rosin harden and shine. She remembers which way the bed faced. Climbing up beside him. No touching, but excitement. Like getting on a train and stories flash by. Him throwing tires like horseshoes in Michigan, him wrestling alligators in a Florida swamp. His words clack like wheels over rails, then he's snoring. She thought they were going together. Left behind. The one who waits, the one who's going nowhere in the stuffy room, with his sweat, cigarettes, spittoon. No way to tell her story. He carries her on his back across the river. Sun sparkles under her feet, and the terror of what lies under. She climbs down to stand with him at the edge, where sandy ground gives way to water. His ruined land behind her, the failed sealed mouths of coal mines, the silver dollars like tarnished moons in men's hands on election night. She knows she is leaving him today. She asks, Will you die before I come back? He says he guesses so. He sees her tears, he says, Don't take it so hard. He promised his mother he'd come back. He never promised her. In the past they step to the edge of the river and the water forgives. He never promised to meet her in the city, any one of the cities he stumbled through: On foot in L.A. in 1931, looking for a job. Left the trailer at dawn, walking. Sold cut flowers on a corner, picked up golf balls at a driving range, nickel a bucket. At the locked gates of the aircraft plant daydreamed a flight above the city like a silver angel. Asked for yard work at a house. The owner promises tomorrow. He holds his hands out, and says, as if to a brother, a sister, Don't you forget me.