TWENTY GIRLS OF VARIOUS SHADES OF YELLOW DISCONTENT
She received a stool and a machine in a room where sat twenty girls of various shades of yellow discontent.
– Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl Of The Streets
No one’s real name is Amber. None of those girls you ever met, none of their mothers named them Amber. I remember my mother saying one time, “Amber is a sap that gets old and hard.” She only knew that from the movie, though, the one where they dig up the amber with the fossilized mosquito. But you can’t tell me that it ain’t beautiful, the way it shines in the light, like sun through honey, like a diamond turned to gold. But with a mosquito in it, yeah. Ain’t that the truth, too. I got that mosquito in me, sucking away at my blood, trying to bring me down, trying to bleed me out. We all do, you know. It’s just a matter of whether or not you activate him. Coke or heroin. Meth for some. Just booze for others. He ain’t subtle, the mosquito frozen in Amber. I didn’t hate my mother. Just the name she gave me. And the life she wanted for me. Not that this life is better. Just different, I think. I feel different about it on different days. Today it’s bad, but not so bad. The mosquito’s not so bad. The stroll, the El, the Ave, you could call it all scary, or maybe you could call it thrilling. Today I think I’ll say it’s just thrilling, and I’m just strolling, and I’m just alive.
She said you pay just to take the pictures. And I leave my clothes on. These aren’t sexy pictures, are they? Can I still look sexy, if I want? Can I use that shower before? Only after? You have an agenda, I think. Are you an artist? Did you never learn to paint? I like pictures where my hair is wet. Like down the shore. Beach hair. Sea hair. Always looks two shades darker, and untamed. Beach hair can make anyone look tribal, even the least tribal people, the most suburban people. The most bearded, spectacled, hipster people. Sand and salt water. I love that. The complete other side of all this grease and aerosol and worse. You can imagine. I think you’re imagining right now. Are these pictures in color? This is my hair, you know, undyed, untreated, natural highlights from the sun. Strawberry blonde. People have offered me money for it, and I’ve always said no. And I’m not someone who says no a lot. A woman stole some from me one time. Back here, it’s still uneven. Cut it from me when I wasn’t paying attention. Awful. I have to wrap it up sometimes. Keep folks ignorant and you keep them honest. Let me shower first. The water brings out more colors. You’ll see. I promise you’ll like it.
I got somebody, down here. A lot of girls can’t say that, they’re on their own, but I got somebody. I barely even have to do this, most of the time, because he takes care of me. He does what he has to do. I feel bad for these girls with nobody, because it’s dangerous down here, and lonely, and these people are not your friends, no matter how nice they seem. But I got somebody who takes care of me. Loves me. Buys me things. Buys me jewelry. Beautiful pieces, I got beautiful stones. Opals and cat’s eye and citrine. I can’t wear them down here, obviously, not around these people. They’d take them off me before they’d say “holla,” sell them for nickels. Savages, down here. These are just glass beads, what I’m wearing now. Glass beads on a brittle chain. Anything you wear around your neck, you want it brittle. You want it to break if it gets jerked. You don’t want to get strangled by your own necklace. But you still gotta look good. Where are we when we stop trying to look good? That’s when you know a girl is down, when she gives up on how she looks. Lower than low, barely hanging on. Got to look good. When I’m done with all this, gone from all this, me and him, we’re gonna look so damn good.
Four years. I was in Manhattan. Got on the bus, early in the morning, still very dark out. Slept immediately. Slept through New Jersey, slept almost the whole way. The sun came up at some point. I woke and Philadelphia looked like some city of tomorrow, all glass and light, rising from the plain by the river like the crystal pillars of a geode. The bus let out in Chinatown, and there was a wall of scents, fried poultry and pastries, and rich bright colors. Bolts of fabrics, windows of plastic toys and gadgetry, stalls, bins of spices, turmeric and saffron. All things I had seen before, but in the light of a new place, in the context of a new period of my life, I was open to their beauty as I had never been. Every smell and color, every texture and sound, they were small miracles to me. The small nothing miracles of new life, unimportant, unwanting, existing only to be smiled at, to be laughed at. I laughed there, on Arch Street in Chinatown. I laughed because I had escaped my life and was so happy. So happy. And to think of me, that woman, now, I cannot hate her for being naive. If naivete is a flaw, it is a beautiful flaw: a flaw of the world and not of the people thrust into it.
Okay, then, which is the bird that most means death? You guess right and I’ll show you. Think about vultures. Think about crows. Think about the raven, because of Poe. Think about swans, swan songs. Are there any others? Pigeons bloated with disease. Baby robins flattened on the ground. All the birds we eat: chickens, turkeys, ducks. That whole thing. Ostriches, maybe. Do people eat them? I eat a lot of chicken sandwiches. Canary is the answer, anyway. The canary, yes! I’ll still show you, even though you didn’t get it: here, on my arm, above the wrist, below the elbow. Know why? The canary tests the coal mine. The canary is the barometer for when things are about to go to shit. Is something gonna happen? Is something terribly wrong? Let’s put the canary out on the corner, out on the Ave. Let’s see what happens to the canary. Do you think the canary likes living out on the edge? Do you think that makes the canary’s blood flow with an adrenaline tinge? The canary is the death bird, definitely. It’s only a matter of time before someone or something hits the canary too hard, stops her heart. Canaries are so small and cheap and replaceable, it’s not even so great a loss, you know? Not from their perspective. Not to this great unstoppable coal mining company. And does the canary complain? Does the canary complain? She should, yes. She should complain. She should.
It is my real name. And my mother didn’t make it up to give it to me, which a lot of people think. It’s the name of a flower. A kind of daffodil. It looks like…you know what’s funny? I always thought a daffodil was a dandelion. I knew they were different words, I just thought it had two names. Or three, with jonquil. I never saw a daffodil til I was a teenager. Just dandelions. I always pictured dandelions. They grew everywhere around here. Anywhere people had a scrap of yard. And all near our church, and near the school. Not a lot of flowers in Kensington, but dandelions. You’d really have to lay down a lot of poison to keep them away. They’re technically weeds. But why? I think they’re pretty. Just little and yellow, like soft little suns. And the way they turn into those balls, the furry ones, and all the seeds float away like ghosts. And that’s the whole thing, isn’t it? Life and death and souls and everything, there in a dandelion. The first time I ever saw a daffodil was at her funeral, my mother. White daffodils in a vase. Elegant, I guess. But here’s the thing, here’s my point: a vase on its side, a daffodil in the street, that’s sad, right? But a weed-whacked dandelion, a cut-up dandelion lying on the pavement, that’s not sad. That’s how you’re used to seeing them. A cut-up dandelion on the street is just as bright as she ever was.
Well what you don’t know could cover every SEPTA bus in inkpen graffiti. It could fill every soggy phone book on every stoop from here to Morrell Park. It could crash the Philadelphia K-12 website and all the kids would have off from school tomorrow, and tomorrow they would still learn more than you ever knew, buddy, because you are a dumb motherfucker. We all have our expertises, and yours is maybe writing and maybe taking pictures, and mine—don’t laugh at me, you asshole—mine, whatever you saw me doing earlier, is pigments. Cause I went to school. You ever seen a buckthorn? You ever heard of stil de grain? They used to mash up ripe buckthorn berries into a pigment called stil de grain, and before they called it that they called in pinke. We’re talking the Jacobean period. They called it Dutch pink, brown pink, English pink. What’s that sound like, to you? All the color of a light mustard. Non-permanent, mostly decorative. Mostly for show. What’s that sound like? Sometimes they’d use it in fabric but it would fade quickly. Did you know that most all the yellows deteriorate over time? Naples yellow, jaune d’antimoine? All the old paintings, the Old Masters, all their yellows, fading away. Fickle, fleeting, fairweather. What’s that make you think of, then, picture-man? The first pinke wasn’t pink, it was yellow.
We got a room. Just a room. All we need is a room. Simple, simple. A mattress and a window. The room is high in the house, and the window just opens to the sky. We can pretend to be alone in world, in there. But we work a lot. We both work. We have to work. But days off? Stocked days. Flush days. Never leave the mattress. The mattress below the window, the squares of light through the glass, warm from the sun. Warm like butter on our skin. We work. We do what we have to do. Things we don’t want to do, just to get to those days. Alone on the earth, just me and him. The mattress and window. The sweet and the light. There’s work and Heaven. Always work, then Heaven. Always bitter then sweet. Him and me. And he’s so good to me. Good to me. Never hurt me, not him, not if he could help it. Never leave, not if he couldn’t come back. He’ll always come back. I haven’t seen him in a few days. It’s been a few days, a few days more. Two? Maybe back there in two. Two more days. He’ll be back. Off working. Always work. Have to work. I work, too. I’m working now. Work with my body, but my mind is back on that mattress, back in the window warmth. He’ll be back with me. There’s nowhere else.
I don’t know. It’s all understatement. I wake up some mornings, this place I been staying recently, and I don’t know what they’re doing in the basement but I wake up swearing I can smell my mother baking a lemon chiffon cake. Just for an instant, but it’s all there: the oven on preheat, the lemon peel, the icing waiting in the bowl. For an instant. Then I wonder what the fuck I’m doing in Kensington. It had to be Kensington, where I ended up. This place is a famous place. It breeds its own native Kenzo psychos, but it also somehow draws in new psychos from faraway places. Me? I don’t tend to think of myself as either. I’m no psycho. And I’m just from down Delaware County. So I knew about this place. I was warned, at a young age. Didn’t listen, of course. Could have had something. Still could have something. Baker? I’m no baker. Don’t even like lemon chiffon cake, that’s the thing. It’s just such a specific smell: the sugar and lemon and vanilla. Didn’t like lemon as a kid. That’s a nice thing about being a kid, to like things and dislike things. Now there are just things I hate and need, and things I hate and don’t need. And what the fuck are they doing in that basement? Maybe I am losing it. Maybe there ain’t no one down there at all.
I’ll get clean. Not today but tomorrow. Go off somewhere, change the scenery. Change the people. Get rid of some of this temptation, knowing where to go, knowing who to go to. Some place upstate. Roll into town, find a bed, a place with nice clean sheets, find a place to get two eggs, sunny side up, yolks so good and greasy I can see my new clean face in them. I haven’t had an egg in a while. I stopped buying them. Well, my fridge broke, but I stopped before that, even. They were causing me too much anxiety. It’s like you’re signing a contract when you buy a dozen eggs. You’re basically agreeing to get up every morning for a dozen days and open the fridge and cook and eat an egg. Every day, the same. And you have to do it. Cause how long do eggs last? You miss a day, and what do you have then? Bad eggs. Jesus, what a trip. And I had children for a while. But it’s your own past you need to get away from, when you go to get clean. I know that. You can’t have all these things staring you in the face every day, reminding you. All these people always staring into your eyes and talking about blame. But what the fuck is blame? There is no blame. There’s just God and chemicals. What are these pictures for, anyway?
Tawny is just a fuck name. Some names are fuck names. Bambi. Kandi. A lot of stone names: Sapphire, Jade. Amber, yeah. Amber is a fuck name. Strippers, porn stars, glamor models. It’s a whole persona thing. Makes it less likely that you have the same name as the guy’s sister. I have a normal name, too. A lovely name, actually. No, I won’t tell you. It’s a different thing, a separate part of me. You gotta keep some things to yourself, just for yourself. This life will take everything from you. If you hang around long enough. What’s your name? You probably got it on a card that you hand out, written real big at the top of a website somewhere. You must really believe in what you’re doing to tie it to yourself so tightly. That’s dumb. How do you know that’s who you want to be, forever? I could be gone tomorrow, and no one would know who I really was. Tawny is just a wig I can drop in a dumpster, catch a bus to somewhere else. I’ll do that one of these days. This will all just be a memory. One life. We can have many lives, you know. As many lives as cats and more. Are you only gonna live one? You can think that now, but you’ll see, one day you’re gonna wake up old and in crisis, and you’re gonna start asking people to call you Farrokh or Patroclus or Johnny Goodtimes.
You really don’t want anything? I can take it off. I’ve got some scars, if you like scars. Some men like scars. Some men like stories. It’s your loss. I just would have worn a different shirt if I knew I was going to get documented. Or, probably, I wouldn’t, actually. Fuck it, right? Do you mind if I smoke? I’d offer you one, but I’m not. You’d probably say no, anyway. You some kind of monk? This is quite the cell you’ve got here. But I guess you don’t really live here. You like rooms like this? You ever think of all the shit that happens in rooms like this? That wall, that paint, that’s called Navajo White. Or maybe Bone. They look kind of the same. But every motel room in this country is painted in one of them or the other. Never real white, because real white is too easy to mess. Always off-white. Always some kind of beige. You know why? It hides the stains of fingerprints, of cigarette smoke. Other shit, too. It hides the stains of people, is what it comes down to. We’re too messy for white. You ever think of how pink we all start out? Then it’s just stained from then on. Just like lungs. Just like walls. Let me take my clothes off, at least. Treat me like a human being.
Men vary. Like with anything. Some terrible. Some sweet in their way. Plenty of them broken. I have some problems, but I’m not broken like them. I have pity for some of them. Some of them are just empty people. Some of them are full of hate or anger or craziness. Some of them are crazy and you just have to approach them as such. I do what I have to do. There are dangers on any jobsite. But it’s not all serial killers like you think. If you think that. It’s just fucking. It’s about anxiety. Stress relief. You don’t want it to be about more than that. Attachment is much scarier than any kind of coldness. People are afraid of dead eyes. Not me. I’ll take dead eyes all day. Dead eyes pay and leave. I’m afraid of wet eyes. Wet eyes want to talk. Gifts. Pet names. Plans. Plans are the worst. The thing that makes this job tolerable, that makes any job tolerable, is that I can escape into my own head. Nothing can get me up here. But then I get these guys who want to climb up here with me. No. No. Some places we are all alone. There was one guy, like you. But old, but a poet or whatever, like you. Wrote me a poem. I have it, a piece of it. Here: ‘In your breath’s beat / I hear the fulvous whistling duck, / the wings of forest skimmers.’
But I grew up around horses, so I understand temperamental. I know how to soothe. When to try to reign them in, when to jump the fence. Horses. Blue jeans, grass stains, buff leather. Like a country song. Got bucked and fucked up my back, which led to the oxies, which led to everything, I guess. And its funny—well, it’s not funny, it’s deeply unfunny—but there was a guy at the barn where we rode who ended up molesting two girls there. Not me. I just fucked up my back. And I’m here. I don’t know where those girls are, but I haven’t seen them around the way. Not everything is causality. Some shit just happens, just comes out of the earth without announcement, without anybody asking for it. But horses know people. Horses know intent. Seems like every animal that’s spent more than half an hour around a person can read them like an LED billboard. So how is it that people can’t smell intent on each other, you know? You’d think there’d be an evolutionary advantage in that. And I could be sitting here talking to you, knowing nothing about what you’re thinking. No offense. But I know what horses think. I know ornery, generous, pain, heat, fatigue. People, though. It’s the reptile brain.
I’ve got grown kids. I’ve got grandkids. But I do fine. Better than fine. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done plenty in life for no money, and I’ve done similar things and been paid less. You ever work as a maid? You know what maids have to do, have to touch, for pennies? You know what nurses do? I’d rather be with a living body. Forget how we’re all dying for a little while. You got any water in here? Thank you, baby. You should drink a lot of water, even young like you. You know when you’re dehydrated and your piss gets real yellow? That’s urobilin, and you need to drink more water. Your body’s losing salts and minerals and things. Things you need. That’s your health that your pissing away. You don’t think about that, do you? You always think of life bleeding out. We all think that life is in our blood, and at some point we’ll all bleed out over the bathroom tiles. Or in a wreck somewhere, blood on the asphalt. Don’t you always picture your death dramatic like that? We make so much over blood, over passion, violence. But that’s not how it goes for most of us. Life doesn’t bleed out. Life pisses out of us, slowly. We piss it away.
That cartoon, the lonely princess in the high-walled garden: that’s not quite me. But have you heard about the Jasmine Revolutions? I’ve memorized them now: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Djibouti, China, Iran, Bahrain, Sudan, Syria. I heard one of those preachers shouting out on the street, he said “The earth emancipates herself in jasmine revolutions.” I didn’t know what he meant. Now I wonder if he’s right. Maybe a jasmine revolution will sweep the whole world, sweep west all the way to Philadelphia: Kensington, Harrowgate, Frankford, Juniata, Feltonville, Fairhill, Bridesburg, Port Richmond, Fishtown. Sweep away the poverty, the doping, strolling, raping, killing. No more fear. Just the delicate smell of flowers that only open on warm nights, when the days have been peaceful, and the skies have been thick and well-behaved, and the eyes are wide but it’s a happy wide, and the shops stay open, and the lanterns come on, and the food is spiced and steaming, and the tea is sweet and fragrant, and every face is smiling and looks vaguely orange in the street light. The flowers open for the people who are no longer addicts: who have no needs, only comforts, and are so pleased by all of this.
The first time, it was a man on foot. I had been paying all my attention to the cars passing through the intersection, so he sort of surprised me. But he was an old pro at it himself. He already had a place nearby. It was just a few blocks off the Avenue. C Street, I think. It wasn’t his house. He didn’t seem to live there. Just knew about it. Went there to get high, I guess. There were a few other people around, just really out of it, lying around on couches, staring up at nothing. We walked through, me in these ridiculous heels, feet crunching on bottles shattered on the floor. I was afraid, but pretending to myself like I wasn’t. I was pretending like it was a real date. Like I knew this man. Like I wanted this. We walked straight through to the back of the house. There was a little room, just a washroom, with a sliding curtain over the doorway. There was a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling like a safety rope. There was an ottoman at the center of the room that we used as the bed. It didn’t last long, just me bent over the ottoman for a minute. I remember he never turned the light on. I remember a stain on the wall. I remember thinking that, in the best of all scenarios, it was a mustard stain.
One time, one long time, I was clean for a while because I found out I was pregnant. They help you out with that. It’s a good reason to stop. The best reason. They had a special clinic for mothers. For pregnant women. I spent the whole pregnancy there. Real supportive, all the specialists and the women, the most positive experience I ever had with a program. It wasn’t all about me. Which should be enough, it’ll have to be enough, eventually, but feeling like you’re doing it for someone else, for a little baby, that helps. For a while. I had a kid, I have an older son. I haven’t seen him for a long time. You can always start over. You can always fix a thing, especially with your own kids. And even if you can’t fix it, at least you can know they’re doing okay, and at least you can make sure they know about you, how you are, how they should be a different way. And you can always start over with a new baby, do it right. Cause the past can end. It’s already over, isn’t it? You can stop and let every bad thing be a past thing. And make every present thing good. There’s always a day coming that hasn’t been spoiled. I had a daughter. I couldn’t keep her, though. I went back home and the whole place stunk. Just the months-old stink of dirty pans and burnt rapeseed oil.
Plumsteadville. Ever hear of it? You wouldn’t have. My parents owned a farm. Every September my father went out to the field and cut a corn maze. My mother drew up the plans for it—she had a talent for that, for mazes—and my father would go out and cut it with his tractor. I would watch from the house, from my bedroom window, try to figure out the pattern before I went in. They let me do the first walkthrough. I always wanted to master it quickly, to show them I couldn’t be outsmarted. I would go in alone, leaving my father standing at the entrance, my mother back at the house watching from the porch. Me always running in, not slowing down until the fourth or fifth turn at least, trusting myself to find the way, the right way, just by my own innate sense and the belief that I was good and deserving. Five turns in and I was lost to my parents. Five turns in and I was a million miles from the world I knew. I was never scared. I remember, many times, not knowing where I was. I remember taking too long, hearing my father calling my name as he tried to place me within the maze. I remember not calling back.
What’s all this for? Taking pictures. Recording interviews. Why do you do this? What are you painting me as? You’re talking to me like you want to know me. But I been around. I know you ain’t really interested in me. So what is this, then? How can I help you with this project of yours? No, I want to help you. You’re paying me to help you. What story would you like me to tell? I know men like stories. Or is it just my picture you want, my face in your series of faces? I could paint my face for you, paint it yellow as a school bus. Is that what you want me to do? You ain’t subtle. That’s your theme, right, is yellow? How yellow is the color of sickness? How sweat stains white to yellow, how bile is yellow, how vomit is often yellow? How bruises yellow at the edges, how piss is yellow, how your eyes get yellow with addiction? How jaundice is yellow, how colic is yellow? Don’t colic sound yellow, just the word? Don’t a wailing infant sound yellow somehow? Well I’m not fucking yellow, honey. Look at me. Look at me and know I’m as sick as anyone you’ll ever meet so long as you walk this earth, and there ain’t one yellow thing about me.
MICHAEL DEAGLER is a writer living in Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, and his criticism has appeared in Cooper Street and the Philadelphia Review of Books.