I will always dream about the dirt roads through a meadow where the only landmarks are occasional trees, stables, and farmhouses, the rickety old cows mooing beneath the wooden bridge we drove over that night.
I’d agreed to wear a red dress the night I was to meet them. He’d said there would be six of them—counting him. What good might it have done me, “his” lady in red, to estrange myself so I could have a chance to do things over again, to do it right, though I was never sure what I had done wrong.
In the hilltop living room, we were building cocaine dream castles before cruising toward the sunset.
Out on bail, selling most of his cars to pay for his lawyers’ fees, he’d asked me to be his plus-one at the orgy. Orgy? I’d said, thinking how quaint, how very retrograde. Then, assuming I’d heard wrong or that he was only joking, I’d laughed. It’s no big deal, he’d said, and I didn’t want him to know it was a big deal to me. I’d never been to an orgy before and I’ll probably never go to one again. I worried. What if the orgy sucked balls?
That night, I could tell he was embarrassed for bringing me. Look, he said, we need a lot of bodies in this place. We’re desperate.
When the dark held us, I felt as if we should fall into the river. What would you do? he said. What would you do if we ended up in deep water? It was a deep-water orgy for people who worked in slaughterhouse human resources, where he was the director. On the houseboat, people were dancing, and I looked down to see the reflection of white houses on the dark water.
It was the lagoon where they had dumped the blood before the city shut them down.
There was still so much blood where I jumped, it turned my red dress the color of rust.
The Long Run
They had been debutantes long before I was born. Though the days of balls were long gone, I’d never been debutante material. I was pretty, not beautiful. Practical, not stylish. Awkward, never sexy. My family was too poor to afford fancy clothes. Even if I had been among them in their prime, I never would have been a debutante. In Houston, fifty or sixty years ago, it meant something—to be a debutante. That’s what my mother and grandmother told me in hushed tones. Clipping their photographs in society pages, they’d worshiped debutantes from afar.
That world wasn’t just built on oil money. It was oil money dancing. Oil money gowns. Oil money men. Oil money liquor. Oil money yacht clubs of oil money fairytales leading to oil money sports cars on oil money long drives to oil money mansions. Sometimes, the old oil money debutantes in the nursing home would invite me into their private rooms and show me bloated lacey albums with their plastic sheets. Turning pages, their fragile bony hands trembled, blue violent veins like rivers rising through thinning skin so delicate it hurt me to stare, though I couldn’t turn away. Under clear yellowed plastic crackling, discolored photographs captured luminous slender young women with pale skin aglow in long dewy pastel gowns, like iris petals in spring. Women with eyes lit like candles laughed, dancing, ascending and descending curved staircases, escorted by gentlemen. In ballrooms, they waltzed near glittering tiers of champagne flutes overflowing in crystal pyramids. The photographs were fading like memories.
The shadow of debutantes still falls over Houston a hazy ghost of lost allure.
What did it matter to have drunk the champagne? Where had debutantes gone? How does a girl become a woman? Who decides when she emerges, coming out to society like an iris blooming, showy for all to see, but only perfect for a day? How does a young woman become an old woman? Where does the girl go? Does she disappear into the woman as the woman emerges from her? How does a young woman disappear into an old woman? Does she ever reappear, or does the girl?
After studying the albums for clues, I walked the nursing home peopled by missing persons, its freshly mopped floors smelling of disinfectant. I saw them gazing out picture windows facing cars passing on the distant highway. I saw young girls’ faces surfacing in the faces of old women. What was it like to have a ball, to come out to society a living sensation but only for a day? I wanted to ask them, but I was afraid for reasons I didn’t quite understand. Would we have been friends if I had been young when they were young, would I have had the courage to walk among them? Probably not. I wanted answers though the answer was right before my eyes.
“What was it like to be a debutante and to dance at a ball?” I finally asked one of them. “Do you think I could I have been one of them?”
Smirking, shaking her head, she gazed out the window, and whispered, “They couldn’t hold a candle to you.”
Fear of Crossroads
No one in town knew his name but they feared him because he froze to death on the tracks after they watched him wander the night alone, watched him sleep without blankets in the cold. Staring from the windows of warm restaurants, they knew he loved me.
Melissa, they said, you’re his home. He’ll always came back to you, though he has no place to stay. He was always on the road. That’s true. And he did always boomerang back to me. But I never thought of him as mine because he wouldn’t ever stay with me for long.
Now that he has died alone in some graffitied freight train car, I’m the one who has to help those who saw him shivering, who feel haunted by the memory.
Sometimes I don’t want to help them. They deserve to be afraid because they have nothing to fear and he had everything to fear and that’s why they fear him even now.
What’s so scary about a dead man with no name? What’s so scary about a man with no family, no home?
They try not to hear his cries or to see if he’s hungry or lonely. He lies down without blankets, alone, though there are so many others like him people try not to see because they fear them so.
People with more than enough food and blankets and beds in their houses fear people who are cold and scared and starving. This is why there are no homes for the homeless.
Forgotten people are buried at crossroads because no one knows which way they should go since people don’t want them to stay in any town.