Meissen in Winter, by Ernst Ferdinand Oehme (Germany) 1854
Rumor has it she hung out on the street corner to attract attention. I heard she threw her head back and laughed when she heard that.
Someone saw her jaywalk across the street to the Oriental Theater for a Bogie and Bacall film festival over the weekend, and I believe it because she was the type who would drag her fingertips along the red velvet seats and whisper, You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.
At the Oriental Drugstore, she could get anything from bag balm to a hammer to clove cigarettes that she only smoked with friends because she didn’t care about looking beautiful but she sure as hell cared about being cool.
I heard she never swore a day in her life but cursed under her breath whenever it snowed.
When she ran out of clean clothes before laundry day, she bought wool socks and a sweatshirt there. On the same day, I saw her buy a hard pack of Marlboro for her mom and slap down a ten for a roll of quarters for laundry with no hassle from the cashier.
I heard she never cried in public.
Back then she preferred the company of old people. They ate eggs and toast generously buttered to the crust at the drugstore’s U-shaped Formica counter. A man with cataracts read the paper sideways with peripheral vision and made her giggle until her eyes watered.
She was known for her unique style.
The Tina Turner and James Dean pins on her blue jean jacket had been fished from the bottom of the 10¢ bin at the thrift store. Overheard speaking to them, she said they whispered back.
After listening to records at a friend’s house, she went to Ma Fisher’s. Ate french fries with malt vinegar, sipped hot coffee through a straw, and skedaddled, the late shift waitress confirmed. At that hour, when anything bad could happen, she must’ve eaten as if it were her last meal—coffee loaded with cream and sugar and a giant plate of eggs, bacon, hash browns, and cinnamon French toast before heading home to sleep, sleep right through the rumbling of cars passing on the street below her apartment window.
She lived a charmed life.
We all agree that back in the day, her older sister and her sister’s friends must’ve cast a spell like an impenetrable cloak to protect her from harm. On Saturday night, they shoved a drug dealer to the pavement for messing with her and got her into Century Hall without being carded, years before an arsonist torched the place. Koko Taylor sang, listen, listen, listen, listen to me, girls, and the girls did listen, carefully. Every verse was a caution or a scorch mark. They danced and smelled of cigarette smoke the next day but they didn’t care.
At Hooligans Bar, some saw her hanging on the arm of the curly-haired bassist for Marvin and the Dogs, though they could’ve been mistaken because she avoided the rough-and-tumble scene. She could sing along to their rendition of "Mustang Sally" like she meant it.
She talked to drunks.
I imagine she tried to read their watery minds and wonder how deep they went—an ocean of pressure and darkness where their loneliness could drown. It’s a fact that she carried a matchbook in her pocket in case Keith Richards happened to be in Milwaukee and needed a light. Her mom brought them home from bars around the city and kept a stash in a bowl by the back door of their apartment.
She eavesdropped. Not in an obvious way. She listened, really listened for what mattered.
My brother dated Andrea, the manager of the restaurant up the block, and Andrea told him and he told me she’d hired the girl when she was only 15 because she was pressured into it by someone, she wouldn’t say who, though we think she could’ve gotten the job on her own. She was young and strong and didn’t annoy people with humming or laughing while she worked.
While in high school, she worked one weekend day and one school night each week. All she ever talked about was making enough money to leave the Midwest without stopping to think she might never feel as hopeful as she did then. We didn’t call it flyover because it wouldn’t have made any sense, and we don’t call it flyover now because it’s a new word invented by people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
She would never be rich or famous or in the in-crowd. Neither would we.
Nights after mopping floors, she walked home while watching the shadows for eyes, sometimes walking backwards to watch for the bus. A romantic at heart, she was known for saying happiness was having fare in her pocket and seeing her bus-driver-in-shining-armor approaching through the dark.
I heard she was grateful for the hard, biting cold nights when it seemed no one would attack her because a girl with a fast stride would surely fight back. Every predator knew that. I heard she never panicked but walked with her keys lined between her gloved fingers like a claw. We all did. In high school, we were required to take self-defense in P.E., without the boys, of course. They played hoops in the gym, instead.
As it did me, the cold reminded her she was alive.
Walking home, she glanced into alleys, behind snow-draped hedges, and past vacant lots with dry weeds poking through the snow. A streetlight cast shadows into a home where someone had left a light on over the stove.It looked safe and respectable. I’m sure she imagined her mother half-asleep at their apartment, waiting for her to come home, or sleepless and leaning over a pot of bones simmering in the kitchen.
I know this and other things about her. I know her favorite colour was the creamy yellow of her brick building, the same clay that lives beneath the feet of Milwaukeeans today and made its home along a Great Lake, before she was born, even before Native people gave the place its name, before all human time when snow covered the land in pure, silent love.
The Ekphrastic Review on July 16, 2020.
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