Facing North (2005)
Once I Had a Sweetheart
She had not been in town very long, drifting there on her way east. As cities go, it was big enough, seemed to have something going on—you feel that kind of thing in the air and you see it in the turn of the rivers, hills behind hills, houses, steeples and belching factory stacks coming into view and disappearing behind statues, trees, gleaming Russian domes, more steeples and other hills. They weren’t mountains by any means, but for a girl who’d headed out from eastern Oklahoma, they were as good mountains as she’d ever seen. A little like home, but more closed in. Besides, it was prettier than Cleveland, and loaded with rivers, though it lacked a lake. She thought again that it had probably been Cincinnati, not Cleveland; but when she realized she had chosen wrong, she moved on. He never stayed any place long. With three rivers in one city, Pittsburgh felt like a sure thing.
Always on the move the way she was, she liked to think of herself as a gypsy, not culturally, but as a sort of poetic vocation. Ambition had nothing to do with it, just the way her lifeline ran, crooked destiny as reliable as following the banks of a river to the sea. The truth of it was that she had been searching for Sam all these years, all these miles. You could see it as a dance, the thing she loved most to do—she and destiny, Sammy and rivers, strawberry fields and the craziness of cities—it was all a dance. Daddy liked to tell people she danced before she walked; though she was pretty sure it wasn’t true, it sounded like a good story. Even as a child, she watched folks dancing and picked the steps up, made them her own, elaborated, created something new. A tiny black-haired dervish twirling in the parlor to the wireless radio, night-time orchestra concerts, Big Bands out of Chicago. The child improvised with her feet, her body picking it up till she flew right out of any notion of time. Get her head into it, try to think about it, and the whole thing got skewed, but the feet knew what they were about.
There was no form of dance she didn’t absorb. She’d seen Indian dances at Stilwell’s powwow, envied the peacock beauty of the competition costumes, loved how the drumbeat ran through the proud bodies. The County dances at the Fire Hall brought out guitar-playing farmers, banjo-pickers and fiddlers who could play off a jig or a waltz or a square dance, whatever you wanted. Too young to want a boy to hold her close for waltzing, she threw herself energetically into square dancing. Every Saturday night, she’d fetch out the red-checked dress and shiny black shoes that she wore with white lace-trimmed anklets, her wild hair tamed into a ponytail like the girls in the glossy magazines. For a twelve-year-old out the strawberry patch, she felt very high-class.
Back then, hot hash was all the rage. Her cousin Curt, from the Missouri kin, was one of the most popular hash callers on the circuit. He had that canny North memory that made it a cinch to juggle calls and dancers, pattern by pattern, a get-in and get-out from anywhere, any time. Curt was a sight caller whose patter was the stinging music of sleet on a tin roof. It so excited her girlish heart to match and follow the voice, to wind a knot with the folks she passed or was handed to, never to falter or lose a step. She’d end the night red-faced and limp, her curls a little damp, but full with a body joy like colts must feel when the warming spring breeze sends them careening up the ridge with their tails held up. Once she’d seen a photo of a ballerina in Look magazine, pink tights, pink satin shoes that laced up her leg and a gauzy dress that trailed like fluttering scarves behind her. A grown woman suspended high in the air as if her glorious, muscular legs had become wings. She knew that feeling, lived for it, that moment when the spirit soared, caught in the wind of the unexpected. That was home days growing up; that was the past. She no longer believed in the future.
Later, after she’d left the farm, hell-bent on her own wayward path, she got an irregular dancing education in Little Rock, St. Louis and Chicago as she drifted through them. She’d lately come from Cleveland, though she hadn’t stayed long; there was nothing she hadn’t seen too many times before. At first, she’d feared that Pittsburgh might be the same thing again, but when she stepped off the train, there’d been a different scent alive on the breeze, which had been proved out when she spotted Sammy up top of McBroom’s.
Little Sam, her second oldest brother, her best friend, her protector. She had a photo from over a decade past, him and two of the others, in check shirts and Levis, skinny farm boys with peach-fuzz cheeks, squinting in the sun. Where her hair was a black mass of ringlets, Sammy’s was sandy and fine, standing up often as not in a halo of electrostatic. All the brothers, bigger and smaller, carried that fine hair, but darker than his, browns, chestnuts, sable. The whole lot of them Norths, and a good piece of the kin, shared the same long, straight nose, round, full mouth and strawberries-and-cream complexions. She had a little mole on her right cheekbone. They were all-around a good-looking lot.
The North brain, however, tended to be a thing of curiosity, as if brains were new to creation, an arrangement still being tried out. Like a generational game of dice, book-smarts and photo-memory played craps with craziness. As a child, she never had a take on Sammy’s mental-wiring, except that he told a lot of stories and was gentle with her. Smarts were never hers, and she was safe so far when it came to wild self-destructiveness, but she was proud of her memory. It was like carrying a flickering rack of photographs, a jukebox of records of everything she’d ever seen and heard, a marvelously responsive, interwoven contraption that kept the past as fresh as the present, a time machine that only traveled one way.
She, of the gypsy heart, traveled every which way, a journey with no end in sight. Had it all begun at that hard-scrubbed, warped plank table in the old farm kitchen? It was a terrible thing to ascribe any kind of guilt to a table, especially for so curious a thing as insanity, if that was the word for it. How could mute wood know anything, even if it was a close-grained oak that had seen its share of years? Acorn, leaf and branch might have come of age in the days of the Indian Wars, wept tears in parched sunlight, tried squinting off to far horizons so it might forget that its roots were steeped in blood. Maybe a sawn and finished board of wood did know what went on around it, what had gone into its making. Noise and hate and violent endings—we all were handmade things. Sammy had told stories of that sort of thing all the time, as if sky and earth, trees and hubcaps spoke to him. She wasn’t inclined to disbelieve him.