Russell Wallen, I will be nothing but a ghost come tomorrow, but once I knew things. Knew that cancer in my mother’s breast was a sign of heaven. Knew my daddy was a man of songs who somehow forgot the name for love until it was too late.
I knew you, Russell, right away. Knew what you had to give and what you did not. You believed love was glory and owning. And I knew this, too. A heart gone to nothing, one gone sad and sour and empty, is worse than owning nothing at all. And still I went there.
Ruby Loving, if you’re a fortune teller, you once said. Tell your own life for awhile instead of mine. You said that to me, Russell Wallen, and I say this.
Once I believed in cards and crystals. Believed in lifelines and morning’s red skies. I believed in prophecy straight from the spirit. But I gave my life away a long time ago. I’ve given myself away, again and again, some of that self to you. How I have waited for you, Russell Wallen. Waited and waited to be loved, like loving will be a final thing to reach, a holy truth between you and me rather than between me and any God at all.
Every night, like I still believe in it, I open the windows and turn the fan down low. I circle my eyes with kohl and pour a second glass of red wine. I drape scarves over the lamps and set the record playing again. Love me in the morning, love me at night. Love me, Radiance, honey, till long past midnight. And Miracelle says, When will they come? She means the men with their hungry faces. She means the women come to have their palms read. Here, I tell them as I put a tiny bottle in their hands. Put two drops on the center of your tongue, I say. Wait.
Today, I tell myself, will be different. It is you I will cast out, oh lover of mine. It is you I will discover, my own dark heart, the same song. Love me, love me. My heart is not my own. It is small as a bird’s. Hard as a pebble in the mouth of the dead.
This is the thing, Russell Wallen.
I have loved you and that love has eaten me alive.
Today all day, Russell Wallen, I’ve written it down. Our futures, yours and mine.
I’ve known all along how I’ll be sitting here in the kitchen shuffling my cards and hoping it’s you when some truck slides to a stop in the gravel out by the highway. I’ve drawn a card, one to hand you right when you walk in the door. The Lovers, or the Fool. Miracelle’s radio music ripples the window screen, rock ’n’ roll drowning out that song I’ve played all the livelong day. Love me, Radiance, honey.
I know how boots will thud up our back steps and the trailer door creak open. Tonight there will be thunder and shots from a sweet little gun, one and two and three. I will lie in my daughter’s arms as I die. This I know.
Like this, Russell Wallen, I have sat all afternoon writing my own death down.
But that won’t be the end of it. The end of the story is out there, ahead of us both.
All afternoon Ruby Loving, Fortune Teller, has been writing down her own future, and here is yours, too. You with snow dancing outside your truck windows. By then I will have been dead for years and you will be thinking of wind in the skeletons of trees.
You will be thinking of houses and rooms and the women you have loved.
Women like me who smelled of wine and sweetness. Ones who knew what holding means and when to let you be. One, oh, she had hair the color of corn silk. Another who tasted moist as rain. How you drank and the world got less pretty, when you liked to think beauty was true as it got. You, drinking and hearing my voice drifting over the ice-cold world.
Someday, you will light the last cigarette you’ll ever have and pitch the lit match out the window into the snow. How you will wish it were easy to say who you have always been, you and your preacher daddy. You with a mother who loved you once or twice and then not at all. You will want nothing at all the last night of your life and you will want everything.
You will be alone in your truck thinking how what you want this last time is aces. Thinking you want a penknife with a little diamond on the handle. Thinking maybe you want a prayer or another bottle of whiskey, but all you have is the memory of a song. Hold me, Radiance, honey. Hold me all night long. You will be sitting alone in the dead cold of winter, remembering the night I died and how you wanted never to think of me again.
The truth is you hated me and you loved me. You left me and you came back to me. You have said it, over and over. You want me, woman? This is what you get. This is what love is in the end and nothing, nothing more.
The truth is my own future and yours have been inside me all along like my own mama once carried a cancer in her breast.
The last night of your own life, Russell Wallen, the only truth that will count is a heater running to keep you warm. A snow-white world and the ghost arms of memory reaching out for a man who could never love. You. A blank slate.
Hurt will be fire and it will burn up inside you. Loneliness, dry as kindling. Dry as paper where are written words you will try to read one more time. These pages, these words, written ahead of time.
You will think of all you could have had. Della. Me. And her. Your daughter.
By then you will have known her for weeks and weeks. You’ll have driven her down back roads, shown her a fine old time, shown her little parts of yourself, but never the part, never the one part she wants the most. You. Who you really are.
The truth is this, Russell Wallen. You’ll lie down in the cold and dark, lie down alone, lie down thinking it’s never too late to tell her the truth. Here I am, Miracelle Loving. For better or worse, I’ve been your daddy all along. We’ll be father and daughter, happy as clams.
But it will be too late.
Right over there, the lights of the Black Cat are shining lavender, your last known radiance. The heater hums a song to lull you. The night tastes like soot, sounds like the last hush of snow.
Are women always ghosts? Our bodies empty after we send our hearts out again and again, hearts made of waiting for love. I’ve held on to love, water draining between my fingers. Wanted you to fill me up like light from fireflies in a jar. Ruby Loving, Fortune Teller, dreaming how she wants you beyond death, us meeting each other’s eyes, hungry to see each other, seeing each other like it is for the last time.
Ice will cover a windshield. Snow will fall and fall.
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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