Stephanie Dickinson

I stood on the highway shoulder in platform shoes waiting to thumb a ride, wind whipping through the long strands of my hair. No cars. It was New Year’s Eve on the outskirts of Marshall, Minnesota. Weston, the ex-love-of-my-life, just telephoned begging me to come to Minneapolis and bring whatever money I could. He was sick and hungry.

The campus where I played at going to college rose up on the other side of a diversion channel—the red brick dormitories deserted. The science building, domed with black plexiglass, hovered like a flying saucer piloted by grasshoppery androids. I could picture androids inside the science building examining by flashlight the genitals of cows; at the same time, I couldn’t imagine anything in those buildings teaching me how to live when the boy I adored was living with my best friend Kay Jean. “You’ve got to understand about Kay Jean,” he told me. “She has them blue eyes.”

A car turned on its lights in the dormitory parking lot. An old blue Ford with one headlight crept onto the highway heading toward me. The car jerked into reverse and bucked before stopping, the passenger’s door flying open. I slid in. The front seat smelled like beer.

“Where are you going?” the driver said in a deep voice, a voice to kiss although it didn’t match his bad skin. His brown hair straggled over the collar of his red jacket and around his unshaven face. The red jacket was casting a glow upwards.

“Minneapolis,” I said. I clutched the can opener I had brought for protection, ready to poke out his Adam’s apple or gouge his eyes.

The campus lights flattened and off we skated into the desolate prairie.

“I’m going nowhere. I’ll take you to Green Valley,” he said, pushing his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I’m Red Face. You were in my Film as Art class.”

“I know.” He was definitely the guy who sat behind me in Film as Art class who chortled during A Fistful of Dollars, when Clint Eastwood shot the serape-clad gunslingers. He raised his hand to suggest that Texas Chainsaw Massacre was better.

“I must be unforgettable,” he chuckled. “Who is that tall girl who sat beside you?” He looked at me full of hope.

“A friend.” My cheeks flamed. He meant Kay Jean.

“I used to see you guys at the student union,” he scratched his chin. “Want a beer? I have more in back.” He handed me the warm Miller pony that he’d been holding between his knees. “You’ll get a buzz faster if you drink with a straw.” Grabbing a straw from the glove box; his hand brushed my leg. Then the glove box door fell and hit my foot. “What’s that tall girl’s name anyway?”

“Kay Jean,” I said. He hadn’t asked my name, but since I liked my name, since it was a better name than Kay Jean, a name that spoke to the imagination, I told him. “My name is Angelique.”

“That’s messed up. You look like a Kay Jean and she looks like an Angelique.”

But you suit your name, I thought to myself, you look like a Red Face. I was petite; so compact Weston used to tell me I had a streetwalker’s body. I took that as a compliment. Kay Jean was willowy and almost six feet tall with cornflower blue eyes. Her eyes looked soulful and there was nothing soulful about her, my dung-brown eyes were staring like a cow’s, yet I had essence to the bone.

“I haven’t seen her around.”

“She graduated.”

“How old is she? I would have taken her for a sophomore at the most.”

“She’s twenty-three,” I said, figuring Red Face for about nineteen.

“Wow, an older woman.”

Heat pumped from under the dash. The front seat felt like melting Teflon.

“I’ve heard a rumor about her,” Red Face said, unable to leave it alone.

I would love my name to carry a rumor. Weston, my own soul-mate, had thrown me away for my best friend. I thought back to their first meeting. Leaning over the stove, wearing a thrift store cocktail dress, Kay Jean was cooking Top Ramen Noodles in the modular trailer we shared. Weston had come for the weekend. He couldn’t stop staring. I saw Kay Jean as she really was. So tall she slumped her shoulders forward to appear shorter, a space between her slightly bucked front teeth, and when she was nervous, she sucked her thumb. Her heroes were Woody Allen and Bessie Smith, but she hailed from Redwing, Minnesota, the daughter of a truck driver and a housewife prone to nervous breakdowns. She said “pardon” when she didn’t hear, not “huh?” like I did.

“I heard she was unsoiled. A virgin,” he stammered, like farm boys did around girls, or shuffled their feet, though they’d helped birth piglets, seen afterbirth flower from the humid womb of a sow.

I knew for a fact Kay Jean was a virgin; that the idea of a guy clawing at her and grunting frightened her. I had heard all her vows to remain celibate; a St. Agnes; or else she intended to save her virginity for the ghost of Rudolph Valentino. It was the most spiritual thing about her.

“Is that a big deal?” I snapped. The Teflon front seat was melting through my shawl. Hadn’t I been given the line like every girl in the world, that she had to open her legs, it was a transcendent act. Bullshit. Truth be told sex was transcendent as going to the bathroom. The big lie of romantic love.

“I’d just like to hold her hand. If she’s a virgin, I’ll give a thousand bucks to just hold her hand.”

“You think it’s worth that much to hold her hand?”

“To me it is.”

I began to seriously drink the Miller pony until I slurped the bottle dry. It clinked at my feet. Red Face steered with his knee as he reached into the back seat. Kay Jean’s hymen was precious. So were her blue eyes and her romantic breathlessness. My hymen wasn’t worth anything. I had crashed my bicycle into a tree when I was 11 and landed on the handlebar. That bar with its white grip and yellow and blue streamers had cheated me of the blood sweetness and hurt that never returns. I met Weston the spring I was seventeen at a track meet at the Sioux Falls Dog Track. He was nineteen, an older man. We were hanging around the refreshment stand. Later we hitchhiked to Dubuque to ride on a riverboat and decided to live the summer on an abandoned houseboat in the great hickories and sawtooths the backwater seeped through. It was too good.

“Too bad you don’t have a thousand bucks,” I said. “You could hold Kay Jean’s hand. That’s who I’m going to the Cities to see.”

He gripped the wheel, his cheeks flushed, then blackened like charred hamburgers. “I do have a thousand bucks. I’m a millionaire. I have exactly a million dollars.”

I unscrewed another Miller Pony and laughed. These were the days when college kids had fifteen dollars a week begrudgingly sent from the farm, where the folks were going without so you could better yourself, so you wouldn’t have to do what they did, before cell phones and credit cards and government loans.

“I’ve written a poem about her,” he mumbled. “It’s called ‘The Cornflower.’”

We rode in quiet for awhile. The emptiness of everything filled me. Then Red Face announced he would take me all the way to Minneapolis, what better way to celebrate the coming new decade. I drank to the tiny sleeping town of Green Valley I couldn’t see. I drank to Granite Falls, where the tuberculosis sanitarium sat on cliffs like a palace, remote but watchful, gazing down at the wooden bridge across the Yellow Medicine River. I drank to Redwood Falls, its grain elevator painted white like a rocket booster ready to soar up from the plain and burst into flame; to Jasper where the houses looked like dirty igloos.

“How did you get a million dollars?”

“The Santa Fe Railroad gave it to me.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

He turned off the highway heading down a section road. The headlight picked up the wind devils swirling new snow up off the old. This was before millions of dollars went to a woman who scalded herself with McDonald’s coffee, before Philip Morris gave up millions and millions, having to pay for the throatless, lungless, lifeless cigarette casualties, before a couple watched through a peephole in a Motel 6 had enough emotional damage to get a cool three million.

“Jasper, man. This is where it happened. Hold on,” Red Face said, letting up on the gas. He grabbed an ice scraper off the dash. “We were driving along like this, Dad and Mom in the front seat and me in back. Dad and I were fighting. He thought my hair was too long. There was all this snow fog. Fog everywhere then no road at all. Mom screamed, ‘Marv, there’s a train!’ Marv jerked the wheel so his side hit first.”

Red Face made a drastic left turn, the car lunged off the highway and nosed down a strange section road, executing a figure-eight.

“I’m going to be sick,” I said, feeling the beers fueled by blasting heat. We were coasting now. Moon was burning into the ditches where snowdrifts looked like bruised flesh.

“Okay.” Red Face choked off the headlights. “I know where we are but you don’t. See those flasher lights. They weren’t there.”

I cracked the door and leaned out to breathe the terrible air. White boards cross-boned with dead black gazed down from their poles. Metal plates with cherry centers. We were sitting on a railroad track.

“Marv embedded the steering wheel in his brain. Mom went through the windshield. A pickup came along and we lay Mom in the bed of the truck and drove her to Redwood Falls. She died on the way,” he half-laughed, his chin resting on the steering wheel. “I’m the sole survivor. I’m rich!”

He swigged the last of his Miller pony and tossed the bottle out, “Happy New Year Mom and Dad!” Tears were oozing down his cheeks. He banged his head on the steering wheel. “If only I’d cut my hair we wouldn’t have fought. Last thing I said was ‘Shut up, Dad.’”

“It’s not your fault.”

“A couple of weeks later I went to put on my gloves and found a piece of my dad’s brain in the left one.”

There was nothing either one of us could say after that. We drove in silence through the dwindling moonlight. Dawn hadn’t broken yet when we found Minneapolis, but Weston and Kay Jean’s place on Lake Street stayed lost until we made the block three times. The moon herself had given up on the wrecked mansions divided up into rent rooms. A lake with ice congealed like grease against the cast iron of the bank peered out from behind a carriage house.

Red Face stopped the car. In the thin light we both looked frightened. “We’re here,” he announced. “May I come in?”

I nodded and ran my hand over my sunken stomach and jutting pelvic bones. “Do you have a spare cigarette?”

He tossed me a Lucky Strike. Then I opened the car door into the coldest morning I’d ever said hello to. Wind rushed at me making me stagger over the rotted snow. I ran up the front steps of the porch and knocked. The pane of frosted glass rattled. It wasn’t glad to see me, I wasn’t worth loving. Red Face jogged up the steps cradling what was left of the case of Miller ponies. When I banged inside, he was right behind me.

Weston and Kay Jean stood at the top of a spiral staircase. Watching them float down the staircase of that frozen Minneapolis mansion in the first hours of a new decade was to the eyes what reading Revelation was like after being awake for a week.

“Who are you? Somebody’s friend?” Weston lifted his hand with fingernails filed and polished black.

Red Face seemed to tremble before Weston, the freak angel fallen to earth. Weston was everything the Midwest was against, gaudiness instead of plainness. He gripped a gallon of red wine, swung the bottle up, his Adam’s apple bobbing. I went up to kiss him. His breath in the cold air was sticky sweet like blood from a sucked cut.

“I’m Red Face. The driver.”

“Have any trouble finding the place, driver?” Weston said.

“Red Face’s parents are dead,” I said.

Weston pulled threads from the sleeve of his tuxedo jacket and tossed back his black hair that hung to his waist. “Sorry to hear that.” Under the tuxedo, he wore a midriff teeshirt and black jeans. The eye of his navel gaped while the two in his face stayed half closed. He was filthy and impure, but I couldn’t escape his allure. “Did you bring what I asked you to?” he asked.

I gave him thirty dollars. All the money I had.

“I feel closer to you than anyone in the world,” he whispered, pocketing the cash. “But I want to see the world before the silence.” That was his way of telling me we were just friends. “Kay Jean, here’s another one that’s in love with you.” Weston waved his hand in front of Red Face’s face. “I asked if you had any trouble finding it, Red Face?”

“Piece of cake,” Red Face smiled goofily.

Kay Jean tittered, “Is Red Face really your name? It’s so ugly, you must not be one of us.” She smoothed her burgundy floor-length sheath-dress and adjusted its neck of purple boa feathers. Her wide eyes sparkled like chunks of blue ice and the one smear of blackish-pink lipstick in the center of her mouth reminded me of a Chinese princess brought to the Forbidden City with a half-eaten kiss on her lips

“He’s a millionaire,” I said. “He has exactly a million dollars.”

Weston’s eyebrows arched. “So if you buy a hamburger, you’re not a millionaire anymore?”

“That’s right.” Red Face was staring at Kay Jean’s bare feet. Her toes slender as piano fingers curled over the steps.

Kay Jean smiled. “The mansion is haunted. Debutante balls were held on this staircase. Do you think I look like a deb?”

“You look better than any debutante.” Red Face sank to his knees. That’s what Miller beer had done to him. “I worship you.”

I had to admit Weston and Kay Jean suited each other, they were from Atlantis, Red Face and I were made of common dirt, things to put plows through. A million dollars would never convince Kay Jean that Red Face was a good deal though it seemed fate—a millionaire and a debutante. Then Kay Jean turned. A whimper got out before I could swallow it down. Her neck was covered with hickeys like smashed mulberries. A fist of Weston’s lip marks.

Kay Jean’s hand flew to her neck. “I have a rash.”

Weston and Kay Jean led us up another set of stairs. The ceiling in their room reached up with enough space for another room to fit between the top of my head and the light fixture, a chandelier with flame-shaped blackened bulbs. A grimy mattress sprawled on the floor and curled up against the legs of Weston’s writing desk, a slender black antique with roses carved into the drawers. On it was Weston’s typewriter, an Underwood. He’d typed 311 pages of his first novel, Mon Hysterie. The typewriter’s ribbon was pulled from its spool—the keys bent into a nest of angry metallic insects.

“The period key is worn out. What editor is going to publish my stuff when I have to separate sentences with dashes?”

I felt restless inside like my molecules were pushing against my skin. Kay Jean put her arms around Weston. “He’s writing about me,” she warbled, sweeping her boa feathers over the top of the desk. “I’m the love interest of Pure Crud.”

The window let in the first sun of the decade. Slimy and weak as a pearl onion, all the tingle and bite missing. I picked up a sheet of hotel stationery. Weston had written in longhand, — in Minneapolis I even let ’em tube me for drugs or liquor / I am a cheap little whore/

Weston studied me.

My hands were shaking.

“It’s cold as shit in here,” Red Face said, stamping his feet. He wore combat boots. “Should I build a fire?”

We all turned to the fireplace grate, where it looked like a weenie roast had taken place—manuscripts for better or worse scorched into sooty marshmallows.

“Let’s warm up in the bathroom,” Kay Jean said, her teeth chattering.

After all the years the locusts have eaten I still feel the flush of the coil heater. We listened to the wind whistle through a crack in the window. Each of us wanted to put our hands into the glass. Kay Jean huddled between Weston and Red Face on the rim of the old-fashioned tub, one of those claw and ball tubs—chicken talons gripping glass apples.

Then Red Face’s stomach rumbled. “How about some breakfast. I’ll get us a bag of Big fucking Macs,” he stammered, his face beet-red.

“Like in food?” Weston laughed.

“Weston and I have stopped eating, though I ate a pecan yesterday. We’re going to New York to act for Andy Warhol and we need to lose weight.”

That sounded like Kay Jean.

“There’s a rupture up there in her head,” Weston cackled. “We’re going to model for Dayton’s. If that doesn’t bring in some money, we’re going to kill ourselves.”

I was the only one who laughed.

“How about opium?” Red Face offered. “I have a chunk.”

The pipe went around four times. Even Kay Jean smoked. I was mesmerized by the red eye of glowing opium, like the cherry on a Black Forest cake. A red glow began to emanate from the walls; the bathroom began to throb like a summer blossom incubator. I pinched my cheek. My face felt far away. I wished I hadn’t come, suddenly.

“You wrestled, man, didn’t you?” Weston said.

Red Face blinked his thick eyelids. He kept studying Kay Jean’s feet. “I’ll give a thousand to lie with her.”

I heard the wind outside.

“You want her, driver?”

Kay Jean wobbled on the edge of the tub.

“Doesn’t Kay Jean have a say?” I asked.

Kay Jean answered, “I do what Weston wants me to do.”

“Let’s see your money,” Weston commanded.

Red Face took off a combat boot. The bathroom began to smell of hay. He drew a hundred dollar bill out from his boot and flicked it at Weston. “Can I buy a kiss with this?”

I thought of how almost a year ago Kay Jean and I visited her mother who had been committed to the State Hospital in Willmar. Her mom had the same cornflower eyes as Kay Jean and was kneeling on the ping-pong table peeling little scraps of scotch tape off the wall. I could see the terror come up in Kay Jean’s face. I understood then why she chewed her fingernails like bones.

Red Face took off his other combat boot. He pulled out more bills, all hundreds. His boots were his bank. “Kay Jean, wow, you don’t have to do this. I mean this isn’t rape.” He handed the bills to Weston who pivoted to the sink.

“Let me see,” he said, holding the bills up to the light bulb.

“Don’t do it just for me. I mean…” Red Face stammered.

“I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for Weston.” Kay Jean said, her voice just above a whisper.

“Don’t do it for me either even if we are starving,” Weston sneered.

This was the time of people sleeping together like rabbits, when it was expected that every woman would open her legs. I closed my eyes. I was asleep.

“Kay Jean, take off that dress,” Weston ordered.

“Man,” Red Face said, “don’t talk to her like that! Maybe we should just hold hands.”

“Her memory’s clicking out, but she’s got freewill.”

Kay Jean stood directly in front of me. I tried to speak to her with my eyes. No, no, no, I didn’t know what words I was trying to say.

I saw both of them from a great distance. Kay Jean taller than Red Face, who now stood in his thermal underwear. He was rolling them hurriedly down; standing on one leg, grabbing the underwear legs over his ankles. He had the tight solid haunches of a farmer’s son, the Swede farmers who broke the Minnesota prairie. He was all muscles, a dumb animal. He had a lovely ugliness.

Kay Jean tried her zipper, but it was stuck. I could see the teeth biting into the dress. She turned to Red Face. He tugged at the zipper, holding a section with his index, then guiding it down. Kay Jean hesitated then stepped out of her dress. She had beautiful legs and long breasts; she was cold and bony like a maiden ready to pour herself down the mouth of the ice volcano. When she crossed her hands over her loins, her blue eyes glittered like they had no idea what her body was doing.

I never wanted to see her again and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

I watched Red Face rub her ribs as if he was seeking the skeleton of his mother.

Kay Jean and Red Face ran across the hall back into the bedroom. I pictured them crawling into the sheet cave past the block of moldy Velveeta that a butter knife stuck up from. I heard the mattress creak. Kay Jean lying down to be crucified.

“Weston’s a genius,” she whimpered. “He’s the next...”

“Rimbaud,” I finished her sentence.

Years later I ran into Kay Jean at the Edelweiss Bratwurst House. She was standing behind the restaurant’s reservation book, jittery with the tension of seating a party of eight. The chateau’s interior was rustic like the inside of a cuckoo clock. Kay Jean had worked forever there, a middle-aged lady with lipstick bleeding into her no-longer-white teeth. When I asked, she shook her head. She wasn’t even sure Weston was still alive. I was married to Red Face who could now buy me dinner and still be a millionaire. She didn’t recognize him standing beside me.

© 2003 Stephanie Dickinson
"Virgin" first appeared in the
Spring 2003 issue of Karamu

Stephanie Dickinson has lived in Iowa, Wyoming, Texas, and Louisiana. She's now in New York City. Her poetry and fiction appear in Mudfish, Cream City Review, Chelsea, Fourteen Hills, Terminus, Nimrod, Puerto del Sol, Descant, and Tiferet, among others. Along with Rob Cook, she co-edits the new print literary journal Skidrow Penthouse. Her first novel Half Girl recently won the Hackney Award (Birmingham-Southern) for best unpublished novel of 2002.

Contact: dickinson10036[AT]hotmail.com
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