The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Wanting Radiance by Karen Salyer McElmurray

When I was little, I’d search through drawers like I’d find my own self there. Drawers full of stockings and the silky feel of underwear. What did I think I’d really find? A photograph of some man, his face hidden by a hat’s brim. Some man I’d imagined again and again and again. A man with a father’s face I could never call my own. You can’t trust love, she said. Love was a worn-out toothbrush someone left behind. An empty bottle you’d pitch out a car window as you drove alongside a steep, steep bank. Love was a page from a book, ripped out and torn into a million pieces and thrown away. Love was a no-name father, a man I wanted to know and did not want and wanted more than anything. What did it mean that Cody Black told me I was safe now as he drifted off to sleep? What did it mean to be safe in this world or that world, none of them ever entirely my own? 

Toward morning, I thought of the things from my past I knew for sure. Strings of love beads, red and orange and green, hippie beads on a string hung from a rearview mirror. Love songs on the radio. Help me, I think I’m falling, in love again. When I get that crazy feeling, I know I’m in trouble. How we’d driven along highways and back roads, Ruby Loving and me. She’d stop and buy me syrupy drinks with ice, ones so sweet and cold they froze inside my nose. Oh, you’re too young, she’d say. Too young to think about love. But I thought about it. Love was like fishnet stockings and skirts so short you had to pull them down again and again. Love was free. Love cost too much. Love was my mother, her face gone so sad, and I’d reach for her like I’d do this or this or this to make her better. Wait, she’d say. And I had. I’d waited forever and now here I was. 

Here I was lying beside a boy so kind, a good, good man who saw right through me and might still like what he saw. Here I was, waking in one more motel room but readier than I’d been before to be still, hold on. Ready to give love a name and a face, ready to open my mouth and speak of love to Cody Black. Here I was half awake and half dreaming, remembering a love charm, one from all those years and years ago. On a night of the full moon, whisper your beloved’s name three times to the night wind. Ruby Loving had conjured those words again and again, dropped them into the potions she made, hoping against hope for love, casting her spell, and it had worked, settled, made me who I was. 

I sat up, rubbing my eyes, shaking the night out of my eyes. The bed beside me was empty. “Cody?” I said. 

He came from the bathroom, his T-shirt and face damp from the shower, sat on the edge of the bed near me. “You slept some.” He’d made us coffee in the pot beside the bathroom sink, and he settled beside me on the bed with the cups. 

“Dreamed more than slept.” The tip of my tongue burned from hot coffee. “I need to show you something, Cody,” I said at last. 

I went to the dresser drawer, the bottom one where I kept a few things I seldom looked at. I hardly noticed the reflection of my own naked self in the dresser mirror, though that was something I was shy about. 

“There,” I said as I took out a box, a small round metal one decorated with winter things. Fat little Santas, their noses red from the cold. A reindeer starting up from a snowbank, flying across the dark sky as I came back to the bed. 

“Christmas in summer?” He leaned against the headboard of the bed and sipped his coffee. 

As I pried the lid off the box, I felt the way my face was, the set of my mouth, the way my dreams had settled inside me. I scattered the torn pieces as if they were confetti, a celebration, but there was none. 

He held a torn square up to his eyes. “What’s this?” 

The pieces were jagged puzzle pieces that had never fit, one against the other. Pieces of a map I had long not known how to read. Paper shreds with spatters of blood gone brown with time, gathered that night she was shot. I stirred the pieces on the bed beside him. Halves of sentences. Halves of words and letters. A. By. If you only would. 

“What is all this?” he said again. 

“I guess it’s my mother, or what I have left of her.” 

“Your mother?” He set his cup on the nightstand, picked up more of the scraps, held them up to the light. “Sometimes it’s hard to think you ever had a mother, Miracelle.” 

“Her name was Ruby.” 

“She would have a name the color of a heart.” 

I tucked my legs under the covers and we sat like that, the heap of paper tears between us. “She died when I was just fifteen,” I said. “And she had hands that could tell a fine fortune.” 

He took hold of my own hand. “Hands like yours?” 

“Let’s just say they were fortune-teller hands more complicated than mine.” 

“How did she die?”

“I guess that depends,” I said. 

“Don’t be so cryptic, Miracelle. Tell me.” 

“She died under mysterious circumstances.” Nobody said anything for a spell. 

“All right,” he said. “And what did you do after she died? You were a kid.” 

“You do what you have to, Cody.” 

“You do, at that. Who was this mother?” 

“She taught me to read cards,” I began. 

“Cards are one thing, but who was she?” 

The black hair. The long, fine fingers holding a glass of cheap red wine. “You know about as much as me.” My voice felt small. “You want to know? She was shot.” 

His voice gentled. “Shot?” 

“Killed and I held her while she died. I never knew who did it—all I saw were shadows and a pair of boots that might have been my father’s.” 

He scooted next to me. “All these bits of writing.” He sifted through the tears of paper. Mountains. Eyes the color of sand. After he left. “What are they?” 

“My mother kept a notebook. And these pieces of paper are all that was left of it on the night she died.” 

“You were just fifteen. What did you do? Where did you go?” 

“I did what you see me doing, Cody. What I’ve done ever since.” 

“And your father? Who was he in all this?” 

“That I never knew.” I went back to the drawer and reached in where I’d hidden it from myself at the bottom of the box. The clipping. I took it out and smoothed it against the blanket. “Until this. I found this in some research files in the basement at Willy’s.” 

He took it from me and read it, let it lie on his lap, read it again. “Leroy Loving. You think it’s him?” 

I took the clipping up again, held it against my chest. I could almost feel it, the music on that porch, the way a fiddle’s strings must have quivered beneath his fingers. But I shook my head, a silent yes, not sure I could say the words. My father. Maria Murdy had said as much that day on the phone. A town like light. 

“And then there’s the bigger question, Miracelle.” 

“And what would that be?” 

“Who are you?” 

“I would have thought you’d know that by now.” 

He sorted through the torn paper like he was looking for what to say next. He held up a square to the lamplight. “You’re like this,” he said. 

The bit of paper had one word on it, a word ghostly with years-old ink. Radiance. He laid it in my palm. 

“All that light underneath your skin. Like you’re full up to here, in love with someone or something you’ve never even met.” 

“I don’t have the least notion what you mean, Cody Black,” I said. 

The paper word in my hand felt hot. Alive. Radiance. The word fit against the clipping from Willy’s basement and I could nearly hear the sound of pieces falling where they ought to be. Leroy Loving. I studied the fiddle player’s face in the clipping like I had known it all my life. Was it that easy, finding my father? My father, like a song from the past I couldn’t quite recall.


This selection comes from Wanting Radiance, available from The University Press of Kentucky. Purchase your copy here! Our curator for this selection is Gokul Prabhu.

Karen Salyer McElmurray won an AWP Award for creative nonfiction for her
book Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey and the Orison Award for
creative nonfiction for her essay “Blue Glass.” She has had other essays recognized
as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays, while her essay “Speaking Freely”
was nominated for a Pushcart Award. She currently teaches at Gettysburg
College and at West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low-Residency MFA.

Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.

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