Dream of the Cabbage Girl


Trouble, from the minute he set eyes on her.  That kind of girl, Gemma was—a pixie, a witch, and a sylph.  She'd pull the shade in the middle of the day for a boy with a cowlick or rightly parted hair.  She didn't care.  His full pockets mattered.  She took the cake, didn't she?  She slipped the hundred dollar bill right from under the sugar bowl where it'd been placed as reminder to all the girls in the house that sweeter things existed.  Their talisman, and she took it.

Wasn't always slick and sick of the world.  She started out good as a clean day's dawn.

Gemma, the girl in the cabbage green dress, dreamed of kittens, and their full grown cat mamas, all dressed in dolly clothes, stiff armed, stiff legged.  Someone had to loosen the snarling things, so the wind did it, shredded the sleeves off their paws and silks down their furry backs, left Gemma with a wash tub full of cat hair and flies.

Their tails sparked the night where they fled, meowing, into the New Mexico desert.  Girls replaced felines as Gemma's best friends, girls draped the way the cats had lounged on furniture out in the gravel—a roadside sale.  This spread of used treasures fronted the business behind curtains, an antique store before the items were antique.

"I'll let a boy kiss until juices flow, until all's jam as jelly," one girl said.  The others tittered, tiny hands working to conceal their gap-toothed smiles.  Among these examples she grew, among these hair-tight-curled women named Lilac and Donna Mary and Dorotea.  She grew in the groove of thinking she was nothing like them.

"Mama," she said, "a man's comin' down the road.  And I'm bound to go for a ride with him.  Yes, I think I will."  She had the gift for seeing ahead.  "Can't escape it, you might as well embrace it," she whispered under candy-mint breath to her hard of hearing mama, Mama a dried-up leaf crumbled in that goodbye hug.

In another green dress, Gemma walked from her people to the arms of the stranger.  Wind ruffled her skirt, showing some shin.  His bicycle, braking in front of her, kicked up dust, an old clunker bicycle.  Call it old before it was old.  She rode in the delivery basket on his handlebars and took his vision while the hill increased their speed.  He couldn't pay her due attention and drive to steer.

"Get your elbow from my eye," he said, a-twisting his nappy head.

Yes, he was black.  That was the start of it.  She had his view, and the town's, too.  She had it all, and she cast it from her like dice.  Some women can't see how good is good.

In a matter of time she crouched behind the dresser, said, wild:  "I'm having a baby.  Tomorrow morning."  Prophesied it like an old woman.  No next morning, but months of mornings later—the world still wielded its influence—she had the baby, born dusky-colored.  They hanged him there—man, not the boy—it being Needle County, they hanged him without much ado.

She squeezed her blank-eyed baby half to death inside the hoop her skinny arms made before she set him in Maude's lap after feeding.  Maude kept track of the young one, while Gemma did her business out of the upstairs.  Determined she was, with her curled hair, freckled-up face from the sun.  She used cream to blanch it all she could.  Ironed that hair.  Became a woman, the way life-things do to a girl who ain't a girl no more.  She lay across one of the set-out antique beds, where those girls had arranged themselves, talking while waiting on men's choosing. 

Crimped hair chippies got beckoned first so the girl with flat hair was desert decoration, last pick, until the wind shifted and then nothing but straight would do for the passers-through and the lonely and the drummers with no drums, just suitcases full of their sell-jabber, newsprint lining their pants pockets. 

With her pin straight hair, pin tucks in the bodice of another cabbage green dress, they desired her.  They wanted different and newly-cast-beautiful in those dusty, unemployed, tumbleweed times, so as to forget bread and butter and milk they couldn't have.  She took Mr. Cooper, took others, up to six a day.  Took the passers-through.

Once the men had gone, Gemma sat marking it all by pencil, and the other girls said, "What's she doing scritch-scratching while we try to sleep?"

"Writing our stories," said another, "detailing dreams, unbraiding the future for us, who're needful and looking for signs."

Others' futures maybe cast clear, but into hers Gemma tottered blind, the cliff face with no hand hold and the dangerous ravine at her elbow.  Who they'd hanged—Lawrence—rose up in spirit and told her, "Step lively, girl." 

"Is it all dancing, then?"  She mocked what she'd lost so as to bear it, but she inched along while the stars watched, the stars as no guide, the stars neutral in their longing. 

Putting out her hand, she felt leaves, and the touch fired memory of how the money'd misled them, how she and he had soaked up with their fingertips the green, the inked numbers, the portrait, the whole enterprise nothing close to dream, and them daring and dreaming on it anyway.  But they'd been dreaming in Needle County, from where even the cats ran off, a burg of lawless roads. 

Gemma squinted into the air wearing the paint off her door.  New Mexico shimmered in her face, any seeing ahead she'd known fizzled.  Her bare feet ground desert into the porch.  Her right hand appeared ready to stroke a lizard gulping air on a broken brick, but instead her knuckles hit the waist high stone ledge.  Sound blurred, money changed hands, a baby cried.  Her fingers closed around the hair clip in her dress pocket as heat curled the edges of the church calendar. 

Somebody from inside said, "Cuppa."  A man begging java from the kitchen maid, or might have been her flat-footed boy asking for water.  The desert worked its way inside the walls where she stood under the lintel.  The lizard refused to blink.  Her lover whispered from the grave, "No more, girl."  

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