Dreadful Skin

Page 1

I.

I will tell you how it happened.

It unfolded.

My name was Christopher Cooper, and I gambled for my money like a good little sinner. The big-stakes games in Texas, and out in California—they kept me very well fed, and dressed in all the imported clothes I could stand.

I was a big man—once a hard-working man with lots of muscles, but I admit in time that it all ran to fat. It took a lot of cash to clothe me.

I liked big jackets with deep pockets, and I liked boots with quiet heels. No sense in announcing yourself everywhere, I always said. Sometimes I wore bolo ties, but I never resorted to cowboy hats like some of the fellows out west. I always preferred to think of myself as a northeastern lad. The bolo was merely a concession to fashion and a conversation piece.

Women seemed to like it. They'd touch it with their pretty-smelling fingers and twist it around their nails, asking me where I got it from. Once upon a time there was a turquoise slide on it—a fine polished stone set in silver. It matched a pocket watch I carried, and I liked to have them together.

The watch was a gift from a married woman who wouldn't let me keep her. She had it engraved, so I'd always remember why I loved her, and that she'd sent me on my way. She was a cruel little beast. I worshipped the ground she walked on.

Think of me every moment.

If I was very lucky, she might have thought about me once in a blue moon. I didn't need a reminder, but the watch was too beautiful to discard in some sentimental gesture. It was worth a small fortune. She'd commissioned it from a jewelry maker in San Francisco. He was an Austrian, she said.

In time, the nuisance longing I felt for her faded to a dull pang noticed only on occasion. But I always did love that watch, shining merrily on its matching silver chain. And every time I considered the time, until the day I died, I thought of her.

* * *

Those first, lazy nights onboard that damn boat, we came and went from our rooms to the main decks—back and forth from the galley to the prow, starboard to port or however they put it when you're talking about a water vessel. We wandered around, is what I mean to say. There wasn't much else to do except stare at the water and play cards downstairs on the first level.

So that's where I spent most of my time, when I could find someone to play with me. After a while, the pickings got slim. I'm awfully good, and most of my traveling companions weren't willing to bet in earnest, so there wasn't much to win. Even so, by a few days into my journey I was willing to bet in buttons or clamshells. Anything to eat up the time.

No wonder the captain drank so much.

Boat was one hell of a dull way to travel. I shuddered to think of my grandparents, who crossed an ocean in a bigger boat than this one. The Atlantic? I would have killed myself from the sheer dullness of it all.

But I must confess, the boat was a pretty thing—and I can appreciate a pretty boat or a pretty woman as well as the next man. The Mary Byrd they called her. I want to say it was named for the captain's wife, but I don't think that's the case. I think he bought it from another man and the name came with it.

Some other man's wife, more likely—or a daughter. Or a mistress.

I hope she was named for someone beautiful.

On the outside she was painted white, or a bright ivory—and her name was splashed on the side in bloody yellow-orange letters with curlicues. She had a paddlewheel on her stern too, and it matched the lettering. The rails on the deck were lined with that curious latticework you see on houses sometimes; it cast shadows in the afternoons, like eyelets in the fabric of a lady's nightgown.

On the inside, she was dressed in red and orange that looked like nothing so much as a high-class whorehouse. If I'd said as much out loud, people would wish to know how I was qualified to make such a comparison.

I was qualified. But I kept it to myself.

Where the floors were scuffed and shined wood, they were run with low rugs; and the lamps were all set with glass, brass, and crystal dangles that looked like earrings.

* * *

The other passengers gathered that I had money, and most of them probably knew (or could guess) how I'd gotten it. I thought maybe the nun would look down her nose about it, gambling not being sanctioned by the Lord, and all; but if she cared or noticed, she didn't say anything. She was a papist, after all—and open to her own set of criticisms from the other passengers.

To think of it that way—and I guess I should—we all had something like that about us. Perhaps it was just coincidence, or merely the time of year; but the Mary Byrd was a ship of misfits, in a most uninteresting way.

That last trip from Knoxville to Chattanooga was more empty than full; and those of us who were left were those without more proper, permanent places to be. As far as I could ascertain, we were all passing from one thing to another, as is ordinary enough when it comes to traveling companions.

But none of us were coming from home—or going there. So I don't suppose it's strange that when we were lost, we were forgotten.

There were signs that should've told us to expect trouble from the very start—or from our last stop, at Lenoir City. Whatever went wrong, we picked it up there; and I can only think of one person for sure who boarded then.

I shouldn't be so veiled about it. After all, by the end, we all knew. And it doesn't much matter to us now. I'd like to think he's been waiting all this time, though I can't imagine why he would. Maybe he lost something when the boat went down. Maybe he left something behind, and he can't rest until he gets it back.

I doubt it, though. If he watches at all, he watches because he's afraid. He's afraid, and he wants to make sure that it stays buried, and burned up there in the water where he left it.

He wants to make sure that she stays buried, and he's afraid she hasn't.

II.

I will tell you how it happened.

It broke.

I didn't have much of value, but I was rich. My mother was a slave, and I was born one too—but she stayed, and I went north after the war. I did all right for myself. I worked hard, but I got paid and I paid my own way from it. My name was Laura Brown, and I was nobody's slave.

When I got up north, first of all I started work in a factory where we plucked poultry—but it was dark there and so close, and it always smelled like the shit of dead chickens, and the fuzz from the feathers made my nose itch all day. It made my eyes water, even on days when the wind blowed through the open windows and the stink wasn't so bad.

Before long, I left the factory and went to work in a kitchen.

I washed dishes, spent every day up to my elbows in greasy water with cheap soap bubbles. The restaurant was big and it served a lot of folks every day. I stayed twelve hours if they wanted. My home wasn't worth running home to.

I shared a place high in the city with eight other girls and the brother of one of them.

All of us working together made enough to eat and sleep there, but not by much. But none of us were house niggers, and none of us were field niggers. We earned our own and we paid our way, though living was crowded and dark.

We were sick all the time, one or another of us. One would catch a bug, and the rest of us would pass it around—so it was easier to stay in the kitchen, in the dish room with the pots and pans. It was easier to be clean there, in the middle of the kitchen. It was easier to breathe.

But I missed the sun.

I missed being able to breathe and not smell piss and tomatoes, wine and onions and meat that's thinking about going bad. I didn't like the cold, either. I could always handle it hot. Hot meant nothing to me. I was a girl in Missis-sippi, down by the ocean near where the loud water birds scream and steal your food if you don't hang onto it.

That's part of why they liked me in the kitchen. The hot water and the hot stoves were easy work for me, and I could work them all day.

But come winter, every year I thought I'd die rather than stay another season. I'd watch the snow pile high up out the window, and the first time I saw it, it was all I could do not to start crying. I near lost my religion every time the wind blew up and the ice made the street stones hard to cross. I saved my work money when I could, and I bought heavier skirts, heavier coats. But it was never enough. There weren't boots thick enough to save my feet when the snow went melting through. There weren't wool socks made heavy enough to keep my toes from turning colors and losing feeling.

And Lord, I was far from home.

I thought, like the rest of us did, that the farther north I'd go, the easier it would be. The less trouble I'd have. The more money I'd make. Nobody told me about the cold, though. Nobody told me about how everything I owned would stink of coal and wood smoke, and how our lungs would turn themselves black. They didn't tell us how just breathing would make us wish we couldn't.

I asked around. I thought since it'd been a few years since the war and we were freed all over—I thought maybe it'd be okay to come home.

I heard it wasn't. I heard times was tough there for everybody, even the white people too. But that didn't mean much. I saw poor white people in the north cities too; I saw signs that broke them down by what country they came from, and offered them less money for doing the same jobs. I thought it was crazy, how white people thought there was some difference between them, and not just between us and them.

The older I got, the less sense they made to me.

But back down in Dixie I heard tale of sharecropping and bad laws. Nobody getting no work, and nobody having enough to eat. And down there now, where everyone was poor just about, it was like in the cities—and all the folks got to fight amongst themselves for what's there.

I heard it was worse than before, some ways.

But then I'd sit in our little room, huddled up around the stove with the rest of the girls, and I'd wish I could feel my feet again, and I'd hate it how I could see my breath every morning when I woke up, and I thought maybe it couldn't be worse than this.

Maybe I could go back down and get some learning. Maybe I'd like to teach a school, and teach little ones to read.

I knew my letters and numbers a little, but not good enough that it helped me. I wanted to learn them better. And then, if I knew them better, I could share it with the rest of them. I figured there were lots of folks who wanted to read. I thought there must be schools coming up fast.

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