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


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.

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

We slowed down at a field and bumped along over its ruts amid all the cars. “Where are we going, Russell?” I asked about a dozen times as we got out of the truck and stumbled across the frozen earth, but he didn’t answer all the way until we were at the steps of a wooden building with a cross lit up by a moon that had begun to shine. In a big room people were kneeling, about a million of them. Heads bowed and praying, all of them at once and all of them aloud, a mighty but soft collision of voices whispering and waving of hands and fingers pointing toward heaven. I wished for Sunday-go-to meeting shoes at least as we took a pew in the back. Good pine, like the walls and the far-up-there pulpit with a piano and seats for a choir and red silk roses in abundance. 

I mouthed a question at Russell. “What place is this?” 

Beads of sweat clung to his upper lip. “Something about belief, I reckon.” 

Bare bulbs hung from the ceiling and candles were lit on every window ledge below the faces of Jesus and Mary. And the whispered words—“deliver . . . forgive . . . grievous sin”—were like tiny white doves, hundreds of words circling and tickling one another, vying for space in the dim church light. All over the place hands waved, and then there was shouting. “Jesus! Jesus!” 

At the keyboard was a young man with a Nehru jacket and pomaded hair who was doing a light riff. A spotlight shone down on a dozen other young people, their choir robes a motley mix of blue and green and purple. Moses parting a human sea was a preacher like no one I’d ever seen except on the backs of romance novels. She had bleach-blond hair teased into a beehive, and she held her hands out as mouths moved in song. “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r.” She spun, hands guiding this song from its makers, left, right, higher in the back, please. A highheeled foot turned and she held her arms out to us. “There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r in the precious blood of the Lamb.” 

Her sparkly skirt and sequined jacket set the pulpit afire. Whispered words circled into the hymn. “Pow’r. Pow’r.” 

Russell was staring at the pulpit, his eyes wide. “

We want to be here?” I said, but the main event was starting and a woman in front of me turned and made a shushing gesture. 

“Blessed children, I bring you joy.” The preacher’s hand waved at us, a kind of parade wave from the back of a float. “Blessed ones, all of you.” 

Need floated over the crowd, deciding where it would land. It snuggled up at my side like a little cat. “Listen,” the preacher-woman said. The sermon commenced. 

“Ruth was a traveler. Naomi said, ‘Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me?’ And Orpah, she turned back on the road and left them there, children. Left Naomi and Ruth, but Ruth was the one who wasn’t a bit afraid. She planted her feet in the dust and went out into a strange land to find her truth. And she, my children, she was only one of those who were not afraid.” 

The preacher did a little rat-a-tat-tat with her silver pumps. She paced. 

“And I’ll tell you, Ruth wasn’t the only one who was a traveler. Not the only woman who went forth. There were women who took to the streets,” she said. “Women who traveled to foreign countries. Women who had no families but made them. Women who stood up or sat down, who planted their feet, made themselves heard. Esther, taken to the king’s palace and made part of a harem but become queen over Vashti and become the king’s savior. 

“Oh, my sweet ones,” she said, and she pranced and turned and raised her ringed hands to us. “Even them, the women of no names. Even them, the women who are lost and countryless. Even them. 

“Abishag, who kept King David warm in the night and became the voice of songs. Hagar, who fled into the desert but gave an old man a firstborn son named Ishmael. Zipporah, who followed Moses on the road back to Egypt and said unto him, ‘You are a husband of blood.’” 

The names of women who had traveled wound their way down my throat, settled in my gut. She was looking at me, this preacher-woman, her sparkles, her rings and her mascaraed eyes. 

“I call upon you,” she said. “Jesus himself calls upon you, my dear hearts.” 

She’d picked me out of all of them in these pews. She pointed no finger, said no name that was mine, but she knew me. My belly felt it and my bones did. I tucked my head, stared at my lap. 

“Come forward and receive the gift of healing, all ye who hear the words of Christ Jesus. Come.” 

The whispers crescendoed and hymn words joined in. The crowd was a tight fist of excitement and fear and wondering. My feet itched, urging me up, but I held on tight to the edge of the pew. 

“Look.” Russell laid his hand on my arm. 

A girl. Longish hair of no color in the beam of light and the candles. Head held down to her chest, a baggy dress long enough to reach her ankles. 

“Welcome, dear heart.” The preacher touched the girl’s shoulder. “Welcome.” 

The girl was one of those Willy’s Wonderama faces. Eyes and mouth like a tangle in a jar of formaldehyde, a face wanting out. A melted face. A face like wax dripping down lit candles. A wrinkled flow-down of a face. Face made of waves and rivulets of skin that flowed down, a river of face. 

“Pray, brothers,” the preacher-woman said, her voice rising. “Pray,” she said, and her words touched us all like a sweet balm that stung and woke us too. 

“Love?” she asked, and we answered her, like we knew, “Amen!” 

“Love?” she said. “You think you know the question and the answer, children? You think you know the why and the wherefore. You think love is easy as a brand-new car. Easy as a check, first of the month. You think love is a person, a place. You think love is a fifteen-ninety-nine jacket you dress up. You think love is that sweetheart on your arm of a Saturday night. You think love comes to you for free, and I’m here to tell you the truth of it, the truth and the light.” 

“Amen!” we said. 

Prayers and words rose as we looked at the girl’s face with the light shining down on it, a face naked and so true it hurt to look at her. Wax and hurt flesh and behind it a brightness she’d swallowed, the light of her own suffering, the roads she’d been down. Roads past houses with their shut doors and their secrets. Back-of-a-hand roads. Kick-you-out-and-don’tcome-back roads, roads away from here and toward there. Houses that would never be her own, arms that had not held her at night. 

“I’m here to tell you the truth, children,” the preacher said. “To tell you about love.” 

“Amen!” we said. 

“Love is a ghost that settles inside us. A ghost made of blue fire. The light of apple wood burning. A holy spirit made of our own selves. Call it in, brothers!” she said. “Call it to you, sisters! Oh,” she said, “bathe yourselves in it. Drink it deep, children. The spirit of love.” 

“Amen!” 

“Oh, the sweetness of it. Love, oh, it blossoms in the heart of winter. Breath as warm as your own heart’s blood. Oh, and the sweetness of summer. Love like cool waters of everything. Love will comfort you, fill you, bless you, make you tremble. Love, oh my sweet lambs. Love is a ghost of all things we have feared and left behind. All things we have cast aside and could not bear.” 

“Amen!” 

“Raise it up inside you, sisters! Raise it up inside you, brothers! Love is what we most want and what we most cast out. Oh, love. Listen! Sisters, pray. Pray for the grace of precious Jesus to fall upon us. Upon this one who needs you most.” 

Around me people stood, shouted. 

“Yes, brothers! Yes, sisters!”

The hurt-faced girl in her big, baggy dress was dancing. I could feel her feet like they were my own, her pointy-toed boots scuffing rhythms on the platform where the shiny preacher took her hand. I could see her eyes now. Oh, her eyes. They were the wanting in that face melted down to its own pain. Oh, love me, her eyes said, and I wanted to cry as I looked at her, but instead I looked at my own hands, my own lap. 

“Sing praises, brothers and sisters,” the preacher said. Full-throated and off-key, she raised her hands, leading all our voices on. 

Russell shifted his leg against mine, like we could keep each other safe from this thing called healing. 

And then the girl sang, a sweetness you could taste. Her voice tugged at our coats, begged us to listen. 

The preacher lifted her hands, her nails a shiny red. “Heal her, heal her,” the preacher said. “Listen.” 

More dove-whispers from those kneeling prayers. Words farther down, inside me, underneath us. Far down in the church floor, beneath stone and solid ground, down in the earth’s pure heart, a place neither hot nor cold, in which I saw my own self, begging for mercy. 

What power lies in hands folded in prayer? Russell’s hands gripping a spoon and stirring soup. Cody’s hands, stroking the long stretch of my arm and down. And Della too. Oil-black nails and strong. Her too. Ruby. Her nails painted red. And another hand, one I didn’t know. That girl’s up there? Not hers, but a vision-hand in my mind and a palm I studied behind my closed eyes. What future had I made? A lie-future, a made-up road ahead.


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.

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

He told me stories of his daughter. When she was a girl she’d sit with him while he fiddled tunes, and she’d make him stop to listen to the call of owls. 

“Ruby loved this one hymn more’n anything.” He hummed a line of a song about traveling and a world of sorrow. 

All the evening before, we’d danced around her name. He’d not looked at me when I tried to tell him about things she’d loved. The sound of wind chimes. Music off a radio she’d dance with me to, around and around. I meant to tell him about how we’d been happy enough, but neither of us seemed to know which words to pick for telling about before. 

We were sitting now at a table piled with tools and plates and bottles, and I went to the window again, pulled the blanket back. The outside was brighter, a shape of sun from behind the rainy sky. 

“I need to tell you about that night,” I said. 

“What night?” He was a few steps behind me. 

How I held her as she died, I thought. 

“What night,” he said again. He laid his hand on my shoulder, and I shrugged him off like it hurt. 

“She was shot,” I said at last, and I told him what I knew. The sound of boots on the back steps. The way I’d run inside to her. 

“And she passed like that?” His voice was so old-man sad I wanted to comfort him, but I didn’t know how, and I suddenly felt as angry with him as I was with my own self. We stood at the window watching dusk settle, with the clutter of everything behind us. The shape of boxes. A dime-store picture of Jesus on a wall. 

He scuffed his boot toe in the dirt and told me it wasn’t safe to be out here by myself of a night. Who knew what might come out the woods, he said, but I told him I wanted to be here on my own, with the ghosts of what was. He’d be back for me by good daylight, he said at last. And there was another kerosene lamp he found for me, and the two flashlights he handed me before he drove away. 

I stood looking at gashes and ruts, rocks and spots where boulders lodged. And in between those places, if I narrowed my eyes, I saw lines of earth like lines on a palm. My heart reached out for that earth-hand like I could study the past. Swirls and twists of roots, and fissures where nothing had grown back. Desolation, but the earth told lives. Faces took shape in the shadows dirt made. That face might have been the grandmother I’d never known. And over there. That flat stretch of stones. The tree or two left standing. The land looked like faces if I squinted my eyes just right. Leroy Loving’s. My mother’s face. Ruby. Her name lodged in my throat. 

I had no idea what I’d find, but I looked for it. I opened kitchen drawers, pried a warm beer loose from a plastic-ringed six pack on the fridge’s top shelf, sipped. I poked into cabinets and shelves, then nooks and crannies, finally the hideaway spaces beneath a bed, behind a broke-spring couch. I found papers galore, old warranties on radios and hair dryers, postcards with scrawled signatures. Having a good old time here, sugar pie! Whooeee!! There were ripped-out pages from magazines. Carole Lombard. Elizabeth Taylor and one of her million lover boys. Fifties movie stars with open-toed shoes and nets drawn across their smooth-bunned hair. Way back on top of the stove, folded into the shape of a sailor’s hat, were pages from a magazine. A ripped-out page was part of a story that I read as I sat on the floor with a flashlight. We wandered through streets and streets, past houses that smelled crisply of ginger. We turned and turned, through so many alleyways I could never have found my way home. And at last she led me through a doorway made of amber-colored beads. 

I opened cardboard boxes. Rooted through piles of this and that. I even bowed open the jackets of record albums I found leaning against one wall. Frank Sinatra and Some Enchanted Evening. Guy Lombardo and Sounds of the Big Bands. What I wanted but couldn’t find were pictures of her. Ones back in the day, before I was born. 

I dug through a tool kit from underneath the kitchen sink. Found baby-food jars full of rusty screws and nails. Coffee tins full of snips of wire. A small metal box full of bullets, three of which I pocketed, just in case. I found an old fiddle case full of empty motel-room-size whiskey bottles underneath a wild-animal-smelling mattress and bed frame in the back room. In that same room was a closet, its sliding door off its track so that I had to finagle until the door tilted out and I could yank it aside. The closet was near empty but for a mouse trap baited with a dried-up slice of cheese. I climbed up on a milk crate to have a look on the closet shelf. 

The box was cumbersome, but I lugged it down and sat on the edge of the bed beside it. On top in a scrawl I figured was Leroy Loving’s, two words. Her Things. Her things were tossed in without rhyme or reason. A bunch of beaded bracelets held together with twine. A toy harmonica. A sheet from a diner with the daily specials. Ham and red-eye gravy with green beans. Underneath it all a red velvet box covered in cobwebs. I shook it, hearing what I imagined were dime-store earrings and lipsticks, Ruby-things I knew the way I knew my very own hands. As I eased the lid open, what I saw first were rose petals. Beneath them, a box of tarot cards, a woman in a robe with foxes and gryphons on the front. Beneath the deck, a pair of glossy black-and-white photos. 

A tiny child stood by a tree in some yard. I turned the photo over and back, craving more. I suddenly remembered a mulberry tree. There was the one by the trailer where we’d lived when she was shot, but this one was farther back in my memory than that. Its long, seedy fruits were blackish purple and sweet. Don’t you eat them things, some voice said inside me as I looked at the picture. Mulberries are food for the birds. The voice was older than Ruby’s, my grandmother’s maybe. I remembered hands folding the dough for biscuits, hands holding a just-washed glass up to the clear sunlight from a window. 

The other photograph made my heart do a lurch. It was Ruby, but a Ruby I’d never seen. Instead of my fortune-telling mother, this was nothing but a girl, her black hair combed and a flip of bangs across a forehead.

Underneath the photos, a paper tablet with a cover made of thin planes of wood decorated with glitter, the shapes of moons and stars and planets, and the cut-out faces of movie stars. Ava Gardner. Marilyn Monroe. A half sheet was glued to the front of the tablet and on it was big, clumsy handwriting. A girl’s script, the near-hearts of o’s and the tails of y’s. Underlines beneath words she’d meant the most. Ruby Loving. Her Property. I remembered what my mother looked like, her jotting down spells and potions in her notebook, but this was a girl’s diary, her dreams. It was full of drawings of cats made of circles and lines, drawings of big, fat moons and in between, her loopy handwriting, telling about her days. 

Near the bottom of the box, beat-up pages from an old atlas. I spread them across my lap and looked at the interstate lines going west, which is where all the map pages led. The empty spaces of New Mexico. The single town leading to single town, and there in the flat nothing of it, my mother’s handwriting. A circle and a heart drawn around the name of that town. Willette. And last of all, a couple of letters tied up with a red ribbon. I sat with the letters and the velvet box in my lap a long while, then unfolded one more thing, a single sheet of notebook paper. Four lines only. Come back to me, she said. My heart has gone out and is wandering the earth in search of you. Were you ever here, Russell Wallen? Were you some ghost-man I wanted to be real? My fingertip circled the loops and lines of the name, the shadowy red lipstick kiss. His name.


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.

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.

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

She was my mother but I called her Ruby, and I believed her hands were magic. She knew how to read cards and runes, how to find meanings in the shadows in photographs. Some people believed she could cast spells for anything from bringing a missing lover back to healing sickness, but I’d never seen the proof of any of that. The only thing I knew for sure was that my mother was afraid, partly of her own fortunes. The prophecies she claimed were enough to scare just about anyone, but I knew she was afraid she’d reveal the truth I wanted most—my own father’s name. She’d look at me, head to one side, and laugh when I asked about our past. “Just tell yourself we come from a long line of tale-tellers and fiddlers,” she’d say. She also said you couldn’t trust a thing like love, but I loved it anyway, a highway at night with the car windows down and the radio playing Jim Morrison. I loved not knowing where we’d end up, or for how long. I was fifteen, but I did the driving and studied Ruby’s hands while she surfed the air.
Once we lived in two rooms above a dry cleaner’s in Swannanoa, North Carolina, a place that smelled like a just-ironed dress. After that we headed west because Ruby loved the way a turquoise ring could look on a man’s hand. Six months later, I drove us back east and we ended up in Dayglo, South Carolina, where the factories made paint that Ruby used to draw sad-eyed women on our walls. I made the sign for the front door, that time. Ruby Loving, Prophetess and Fortune Teller. And then it was summer all over again and we rented a trailer near a spring outside of Dauncy, Kentucky.
It was the hottest spell on record in Dauncy. Ruby said it was a miracle the spring hadn’t dried up in the heat, so the minute we got up that day she set about making a potion. I helped her mince the stinging nettles and pawpaws. Helped her rummage through her things to find the rattle-tails from snakes and the bones of critters she’d found in the woods. Steam rose from the stove, and the kitchen was full of songs about wild horses and a man who loved some woman way too much. The potion simmered and I painted her nails red as she gave me a sip of her sweet wine. Then I slipped a look at that notebook of hers. On a night of the full moon, I read, whisper your beloved’s name three times to the night wind.
I wanted to be a blues singer in a nightclub in a city with a name I couldn’t pronounce. I wanted kohl around my eyes, chocolates from Paris, France. Some days I wanted to stay put long enough for a boy to love me, but the only love charms Ruby ever gave me were don’ts, little daily spells to make me safe or to make me bitter. Don’t look at them boys like that, she’d say when we went someplace they had a jukebox. But it was her doing the watching, her hands shoved deep in her pockets as we watched hips touching hips in time to the Eagles or Johnny Cash. She’d reach into some man’s pocket to feel around for a five-dollar bill. She disappeared for days at a time, and when she came back again, her eyes were heavy with want.
By late afternoon Ruby was antsy, and she paced beside the long shadows on the wall by the kitchen window. I sipped cold water and wished I could hold the ice in my palm, pretty as diamonds, pretty as Ruby, her black hair tied back with a red scarf, her face shiny from the stove’s heat. She draped a shiny cloth over a lamp, lit incense in the neck of a wine bottle. She set a record going, some woman singing the blues. Love me in the morning, love me at night. An hour passed, then two, with no one in sight, so she poured another inch of wine and flipped through her notebook till she found the lines I ought to know on a palm. Girdle of Venus. Line of Intuition. Line of Mars.
“There’s always somebody by now,” I said.
“Just don’t you mind.” She set the record going the dozenth time. Love me in the morning, love me at night. Love me, Radiance, honey, till long past midnight. I’d remember that song all the years ahead and with words that changed with every remembering, but I’d always see her behind the words, her head lifted to the open kitchen window.
The trailer’s heat let go a little, and I took the kettle off the stove, poured it into jelly jars with the lids off so the potion would cool. “Just don’t you mind,” she said as she turned the pages of her notebook, writing down the day.
Seven o’clock, eight, and coal trucks shifted gears and headed past. I thought about how some nights it was women who came to our door, wanting to see how it felt to sit across a table from somebody with hands as wise as Ruby’s. Her eyes were full of love affairs and the foreign places they believed she’d seen, but they were afraid of my mother’s hands, and they ought to have been, the things she knew. Men weren’t afraid at all. When my mother sat across from them, their faces hard, I knew they were ready to take what she had, whether she knew their futures or not. They thought they knew exactly what my mother was, a traveling woman with her strange hands and her fortunes. False prophets and liars, every one of them, Ruby said. When my mother told their futures, she looked straight at them, knowing more than they ever would.
By ten o’clock there was far-off thunder, and from the trees at the back of the trailer came whippoorwills and the scratch of June bugs. Somewhere a dog howled, high-pitched and restless, and a car door slammed as I hurried to the window. Out by the road a tall shadow stood and cupped a hand around a match’s flame.
“Who’s out there?” I asked.
Ruby turned her head to the outside sounds and waved me out. “I need to be alone for a spell,” she said. “Go on now.” I went, just to the chair beneath the mulberry tree where I could see the kitchen window, her shadow moving from stove to table. Feet kicked gravel as someone made their way around the trailer. The back door slammed, and I thought I heard the small sound of glasses clinking down.
The only thing I really know about that night is what I still imagine. Her scarf sliding off, her hair falling as she moved. Dance with me. The record going full blast and Ruby reciting love charms. Three silver spoons of brandy wine and you shall be mine, you shall be mine. Behind the curtains, shadow selves leaning toward one another. For years I would think of her hands held out, a card balanced there. In my imaginings that card is The Lovers, and I see my mother’s face, the smile there. See the card I drew for you? Then the shadow stood in front of Ruby, reached for her. How many nights I’d seen her want just that. Hold me in the morning, hold me at night. The record, playing and playing. Hold me, hold me. Their voices crossed as lightning streaked the sky.
I pulled my knees into my arms and wanted the storm to start, wished the world would be cool and fine, but it was only heat and it flashed and quit.
From the open window, voices arguing. A chair crashed down.
The truth is I remember some things and nothing at all. I remember boots running out the back door as my own feet carried me inside. I remember a floor strewn with glass and paper torn from my mother’s notebook, gone missing as hard as I looked. I remember touching my mother, the place on her throat where a pulse would be. Her skin was still so warm.
Hours later, questions filled the trailer. I sat at the kitchen table with a sheriff, saying the same thing over again. “I heard footsteps. I saw shadows.” They said I had to have seen something, and I wanted to tell them more. Wanted to tell how I ran inside, hero girl, how I pushed the chairs aside and picked up a broken bottle and held it out, saving us both.
From where and who I am now, I want to reach back and tell the truth, Ruby’s, and my own from all the years since. I want to tell them about lovers who are only parts of themselves. One man, nothing but a boy who loved music so loud it hid our voices. Another man nothing but the feel of a rough face against my own face, how raw the heart can feel. Men and years passing, and myself slipping through the spaces of years like they were a left-open door I was never brave enough to shut. Most days, I no longer know who it is I am describing, and to whom. Whose future is it that I am now living? Have I become her, Ruby Loving, become my own lost mother? Or am I only myself now, a woman who long ago learned how not to love? The truth is this. I can’t separate then from now, can’t describe the difference in lightning and thunder, my mother’s death from the sound of a shot. And that gun. That they found, mid-kitchen floor. A lady’s derringer, they called it. A fancy handle made of abalone shell.
The room was full of her blood’s scent and that song. Hold me, Radiance, honey. A needle scratched as the song played down and as I knelt beside her. She bled from her chest, and I wondered at it, how small the hole was. How to tell it, the way a body bleeds from a wound into forever? I held her, my ear next to her mouth and listened. “Sweet girl,” she said as I hushed her, made her promise not to die. How cool her fingers were, cold as rain. What I remembered forever was the sound of her breathing, and love, taken for good from the underside of my heart.


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.