I was a teenaged white girl living north of you. You were Oz, T-Town, that Magic City rising up out of the prairie as we drove south toward you on Highway 75. You were sophistication, the gateway, the future. I was all hunger and romance, riding that blue-black ribbon toward your music, your shopping, your Christmas parades.
I believed everything you told me about yourself.
You were urbane big-city glitter to my Okie small-town ignorance, California dreaming to my midwestern ennui. You were America to my whole-damn-rest-of-the-world. I resented you, longed for you, wanted to be you. Be a part of you, anyway. And then, for a time, I was. And then I wasn't anymore. But you're still part of me. You're like that ex-lover I never could quit.
People who know me now don't know about us, our relationship, all those years. Only Ruth knows. My sister. Because she was there at the beginning.
She was with you before I was, in fact. She moved right to the heart of you, downtown, before it was cool to do that, and quick as I could get there, I followed. It was the early 1970s, those late-hippie, pre-energy-crisis, we-still-thought-we-were-innocent years. We shared a tiny efficiency apartment, fifteen-by-twenty maybe, a snub of a kitchen in the corner, the couch made out into a bed. In the daytime we'd hack open heads of lettuce and wipe blood and steak sauce off the counters at Sirloin Stockade. At night, we cadged rides to your nightclubs, listened to your music till last call; then we'd bring the party back to our place and smoke and drink and play Led Zeppelin all night—till the guy upstairs threatened to blast his shotgun through our ceiling to make us quiet down. So we moved.
To a rambling ranch-style on Riverside Drive with a bunch of longhair friends, a sour beige carpet, no furniture. We lived on foot-long chili-cheese Coneys from Sonic, no wieners, because we thought we were vegetarians. We got jobs at Rebel Jeans and signed credit slips for new outfits twice a week because we had no time and no money to go to the laundromat, and every night we ran to meet you at the clubs, where your music was rhythmic and rocking, laid-back and homegrown. Where a superstar might walk in after midnight smelling of sweet magnolia and cocaine. Leon Russell might be here! we whispered. That top-hatted, mad-dog troubadour carrying your sound to the world. The Tulsa Sound. We knew where it began. We were there at the creation. We were hungry and young and invisible, and we knew you were something more than the rest of the world thought you were.
Then one chilly night in November, I climbed into a rattletrap pickup on the Skelly Bypass, and everything changed. I think about that sometimes. If that night hadn't happened, would I still be with you, Tulsa? Would you still own a piece of me the way you do? I was nothing to you then, a penniless hippie girl, no career, no profile or reputation, no car to get around in.
That's why Vickie and I were hitchhiking that night. Not Ruth, not my sister, best friend, roomie, unindicted co-conspirator—she was already in Shawnee. She'd gone on ahead to the big Thanksgiving weekend party in that college town two hours away where we'd both done time at the Baptist university and still had townie friends, and that's where Vickie and I were headed. Vickie was a girl we worked with at Rebel Jeans, tall and lanky, funny and high-strung, with a drawly Pine Bluff accent that told you straight off where she was from. She'd never hitchhiked before. She was skittish as a cat before we even walked out of the house and darted across four lanes of traffic swooping down Riverside; it was maybe 5:30 on a Friday evening, the day after Thanksgiving, white headlights rushing toward us from downtown, a stream of red heading south.
Our first ride let us out near the Skelly Bypass, where I-44 slices slantwise across your middle like a bandoleer's belt. We scrambled up the incline, stuck out our thumbs. Or I did. Vickie was not participating. She wanted to turn back, forget the whole thing. I was working hard to persuade her because I didn't want to miss the big holiday weekend party, and my sister was waiting for me, and I didn't want to hitchhike to Shawnee, Oklahoma, at night by myself.
I see us there on the side of the road, that narrow strip of bypass before the bridge crosses the river. Vickie is twenty-two, I'm a year younger, both of us with long, straight, dark hair parted in the middle, both in bell-bottom blue jeans. It's cold out, and I'm wearing a white fake-rabbit-fur jacket, she's in a Navy peacoat, or maybe a corduroy car coat. We're arguing. "It's cool, it's cool," I'm saying. "Nothing's going to happen. Trust me. I've done this a thousand times." A gross exaggeration. Take away nine-hundred and ninety-three, you'd get it about right. I still have my thumb out, very casual and low at my waist. Cool. Nonchalant. Experienced.
A truck stopped a little ways past us, like they do, and as we hurried toward it, a funky-looking, decades-old, faded blue pickup, Vickie grabbed my arm and said, "I'm sitting on the outside."
"Fine," I said. "No problem."
The driver was maybe early thirties, sandy-headed, short hair. Well, that wasn't the best sign. You were always hoping it would be the longhair type that picked you up, you thought you could trust them better, you had something in common. This guy looked like a laborer, an oilfield roustabout maybe, and in fact the truck cab smelled of oil rags, old metal, cigarettes: a work truck. He reminded me, actually, of some of my mama's kin: rural working-class white folks with sun-squinted eyes. He could have been one of my cousins.
"Where y'all girls headed?" he said.
We told him Shawnee. We told him our boyfriends were waiting for us, they'd be worried because we'd got a late start. Like the notion we had boyfriends waiting for us was going to deter him if he had any creepy ideas. Or I'm the one who told him that—I don't think Vickie said a thing. He continued west across the river, took the looping exit onto Highway 75 south—but why is it that I remember him pulling the gun before we took the exit? That doesn't make sense to me now. I saw it from the tail of my eye, the gun's silhouette. He brought it up in his left hand, outlined in the dark cab against the driver's side window, a flat, semiautomatic pistol, his other hand still holding the steering wheel. My blood dropped. My head buzzed. My whole body sang with terror. I tried to pretend that the gun was not what my entire being told me it was.
It seems now, in my memory, that he drove across the bridge with the gun raised, but I don't see how he could have steered that old truck around the long curving half-circle exit with one hand. Memory plays tricks. Under the rush of adrenaline and terror, it will deceive and mislead. But it also sears things, burns in details so vividly you can never forget. I remember the rising black swell in my chest as he slowed toward the 71st Street exit. There was nothing out there then, Tulsa. You were barren out there in those days, no mushroom-cap housing additions, no big-box-store shopping enclaves, no lights of lone ranch houses, nothing. He rolled to a rattling stop.
"Only one of you's getting out," he said. Vickie was the one sitting on the outside, and she's the one who got out.
"Vickie!" I said. "Don't leave me!"
She stood on the ground with the truck door open, holding onto the handle, looking up at me. Her face was so helpless. Her face said What can I do? The man pointed the gun. "I said get out."
Vickie stepped back. He cut the headlights as he pulled away, the passenger door still gaping open; he drove a little ways like that, then leaned across me to pull the door closed, and the gun fired. That sound was so loud in the truck cab. The scent of gun powder rose up, smoky, clean-smelling. I thought he'd shot me. My body was numb, my ears roaring, and yet I couldn't feel anything. I couldn't feel my body. This is what fear does. I waited for the warmth of blood to start oozing somewhere, I thought that might tell me if it was a belly wound, a mortal wound, if I was going to die.
If I was going to die.
But no blood came, no pain. I wasn't wounded. He drove on, south and a little west, away from your lights, Tulsa, on a two-lane blacktop that turned to gravel and then dirt. He knew your back roads. He knew right where he was going. We bumped across a cattle guard, onto a well site, where a pumpjack rocked slowly in the darkness, up and down, up and down.
"What do you want?" I said.
"You know what I want."
"All right," I said. "Okay. No problem. Just please. Don't hurt me."
He didn't say he wouldn't hurt me. He didn't say anything at all, actually, he just switched off the motor. And then he did, you know. Take what he wanted. My body was numb, but my mind was racing. The gun. The gun. Where is the gun? Afterwards he got out, went to the back of the truck, and stayed there a long time, or what seemed to me like a long time.
I would have run, I would—but there was nothing but dark countryside in every direction. I would have scrabbled around the truck looking for the gun, under the seat, on the floorboard, because maybe, pray God, it was not in his pocket but in the truck somewhere. But I was afraid he would see me, and I didn't know what he might do. So I straightened my clothes and sat very still, listening. Not far away, the relentless sound of the pumpjack: mechanical, pneumatic, a slow, rhythmic pounding. After a while he came back, leaned in the driver's side door. "You drink whiskey?"
"Sure," I said. "Yeah."
"There's a bottle under the seat." He turned and moved to the rear of the truck again. I didn't know what he was doing back there. I might have thought he was digging out tools, looking for an ax or a shovel to get rid of my body, except there was no scrape or clang, no movement at all that I could hear, no insect sounds because it was November, just the relentless creak, grind, thump of the pumpjack. But he'd given me permission, he'd told me to look, and I looked, scrambling around on the floorboard, seeking in the dark with my hands, feeling under the seat for the gun. My fingers traced the iron shapes of tire tools, crackling cellophane wrappers, oil rags, but no smooth flat glass shape of a whiskey bottle, no smooth flat steel grip of a gun.
When he came back, I told him I couldn't find the bottle. I made my voice sound apologetic, as if the failure were mine. Because I had learned that, you know. How to not cause a man to doubt himself, how to seem to say, It's my fault.
"I must've drank it all," he said. He started the truck, headed back to town. Oh, I was never so glad to see your lights, Tulsa, that glow on the night horizon, your buildings rising up on the prairie. He stopped at a Git'N Go on the outskirts and went in to buy a six-pack. I thought about running then, I did, but . . . the gun. If it wasn't on the floorboard, it must be on his person. If I jumped out of the truck and ran, he would see me and rush from the store and shoot me in the back, my white coat a blazing target in the dark. He'd parked well away from the store window. I thought then it was because he didn't want the clerk to see me, but that makes no sense, because how would the clerk know I'd been kidnapped? I think now he expected me to run. Maybe he wanted me to, but I was still sitting meekly in the truck in my fake-rabbit-fur jacket when he came back. He popped a beer and handed me one, said we oughta go get us a drink somewhere.
"Sure," I said. "Sounds good."
He drove back to the Skelly Bypass, and we sliced right through you, Tulsa, southwest to northeast, the way I-44 does, and then we were driving on your far dark north side, outside the city limits, entirely opposite of where we'd been. He took me to a country-and-western nightclub, one of those big concrete windowless boxes, dirt parking lot lined with pickups, his rattletrap fit right in, and inside it was all neon and sawdust and spilled beer, a tiny dance floor, a loud country-and-western cover band. He introduced me to the bartender. I'd told him my name when he asked me. Not my birth name, but my nickname, the one all my hippie friends called me—Rik. I never asked him for his. I didn't want to know. I thought that was part of my protection. I let him order me a Jack Daniels and soda and I drank it right down, my eyes scanning the walls for a payphone. I excused myself and went to the ladies' room, and there, in the hall, like a beacon: a payphone! I had no dimes, no money at all. I don't even remember having a purse with me. But I knew I could panhandle a dime off someone, I could ask for help. But . . .
In his pocket, somewhere about his person, he still had the gun. He might see me trying to call and come grab me, wrestle me outside, the gun jabbing me in the back through his denim jacket, and when he got me outside, into the parking lot, into his truck, he would shoot me.
And so I did what my instincts said. I came back and climbed up on the bar stool beside him. I smiled. I was nice. Flattering, even. I'd long ago stopped talking about my phantom boyfriend. Because what I could tell was, he was proud to be with me. I had long legs, long hair, an air of coolness about me, and a short, cute, white fake-rabbit-fur coat. He'd never gone in that country-and-western bar, where he'd obviously been plenty, with a girl who looked like me. My safest bet, I believed, was to make him glad to be with me. And from how he showed me off to the bartender, how he preened as he ordered drinks, leaned over me, touched my shoulder, I knew that he was. We learn that real young too, you know. How to not fight back or threaten. How to not hurt a man's ego, even if he's a homely, nondescript, blade-thin, pale-skinned, oilfield-smelling rapist. Maybe especially if he is that.
So we had a few drinks, and he chatted with the bartender, and I smiled. And then he took me back out to his truck. And when we got in and he started driving the country roads on the northside, your lights skimming the horizon, Tulsa, that Magic City I used always to yearn for, I thought, Shit. I thought, Rik, you are so stupid. Why didn't you run? When you were in that crowded Friday night bar, all those people, why didn't you tell the bartender, go up to someone, anyone, and ask for help?
I still can't answer that question.
Maybe I'd gotten too confident that he was not going to hurt me. And he didn't hurt me. Not physically. I'll say this now, Tulsa, because I'm finally telling this thing, and it's something I couldn't say for a long time: in some unfathomable way, I felt sorry for him. I felt . . . I don't like to say this. Grateful. That he wasn't a brutalizer. A strangler. A dismemberer or torturer. That he didn't hurt me. At least not that way.
I think he must have been one of your native sons. He knew you so well. He knew the north of you as well as he knew the southwest, and eventually he turned back to your shabby warehouse signs and crappy streets. He asked if I was hungry and I said yes, and he drove me to a diner on 11th Street, told me to go in and order what I wanted, said he was heading home to take a shower, said he'd be back to pay for it. And he let me out. I didn't run. I didn't escape. He let me go.
There are a few things I know now. What a person will do with a gun to her head—or in a pocket somewhere, tucked in a waistband, who knows? I don't know what he did with it. I never saw it again after it went off in the truck. But I know it was real, because, dark as it was in that pickup, and numb as I was, my whole body singing with terror, what I saw was a flat, Dick Tracy gun—that's how I described it to the female detective they sent to investigate my kidnapping. "Are you sure he had a gun?" she kept saying. I supposed then they meant to investigate more seriously if he had a gun.
"I'm sure," I said.
If I were going to make up a handgun, it would have been a six-shooter, a cowboy gun, like one of our dad's pistols, not a flat, urban, semiautomatic weapon. Plus, the smell. I'd smelled gunpowder before, sure, setting off firecrackers as a kid, and our dad was a hunter, but if I were to imagine a gun going off, I wouldn't have thought to make up that smell. And there it was, in the dark, tool-cluttered cab, and here it is now, if I think about it, right here in my memory.
I know, too, how well I know you, Tulsa—not just downtown and Riverside and Peoria and the places we lived then, but your outskirts, your dark places, your suburban streets lined now with Targets and PetSmarts and fast-food drive-ins that were nothing but unlit, unpaved roads back then. Because when the detective drove me around in her car a week later to retrace all the places the man took me, the country-and-western bar, the Git'N Go on the edge of town, the pumpjack on the prairie off the 71st Street exit, I could show her everything. Turn left here, I said. Turn right. Down this road a ways. There. Right there is where it happened. I didn't miss a lick.
And I know that night ended something. Just as the violence at Altamont ended the peace-and-love daydream of Woodstock, that night ended what we'd thought was our innocence, my sister's and mine. When Vickie heard the gunshot on the dark off-ramp, she started to run, back to your lights, Tulsa, your supposed safety, and an off-duty cop driving home saw her and stopped to help. So the police had already been called by the time the man let me out at the diner; they'd been to our hippie house on Riverside, interviewed Vickie, interviewed everybody, and our friends, not knowing what to do, called Ruth in Shawnee: "Rik's been kidnapped at gunpoint," they said. "Right here in Tulsa. She's been gone for hours, we don't know anything, we don't know where he took her."
And my sister, tripping on acid there at the wild Thanksgiving weekend party, didn't know what to do either.
"Should we call your parents?" our friends asked.
"Yes," Ruth said. "No! I don't know. Yeah. I guess."
And so they did, and within days our parents came to Tulsa and moved us out of that house on Riverside, and within four months Ruth was married to a guy who worked for a living, a guy she thought was safe and sane, a guy she thought would save her, and he moved her to California, and I went crazy for a while. Not metaphorically crazy, really crazy. Drowning in darkness and alcohol and fear. And I left you, Tulsa, and I came back, and left again, came back, a boomerang, a crazed homing pigeon, till I finally broke free and moved to New York City. But I wasn't free, not really. And I won't ever be.
We seemed to awaken to it slowly, here in the heart of the country: how radically our world has changed. When I was a girl, crisis events came to us quickly enough on the six o'clock news, but fashion and fads eased their way gradually, a languid creep, like spilled paint, crawling from the coasts toward us here in Oklahoma. We were always months behind California and New York.
The pandemic has felt a bit like that. First there were distant murmurs from China and Italy. Then the West Coast: Seattle, L.A. Then, in a red tide of sirens and chaos, the news from New York. Then the empty streets, the silence. Then Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans. We knew it was making its way toward us, but it did not seem to have anything important to do with us yet.
And then it did. A colleague at the university. A friend of a friend. Too many elders testing positive at a nearby nursing home. Here in Oklahoma, it has seemed less a creeping tide and more like a flower blooming, opening outward from our major cities toward the smaller towns. A gradual unfolding. Disaster in slow motion. Until it becomes fast.
But it's not so terrible here, we tell ourselves. Our deaths are in the hundreds, not thousands. Already we're clamoring to come out of our houses, go back to work, get our nails done. A slow cataclysm is a bit like the tale of the frog in the pot of water on the stove—by the time he realizes the water is boiling, he is too cooked to hop out.
I've written of cataclysm in my novels, slow ones and fast ones: the gradual erosion of dignity and hope among the homeless and dispossessed during the Great Depression (Harpsong); the sudden eruption of racial violence and terror during the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (Fire in Beulah). I've been tracing the religious tumult and brutal executions of the English Reformation for a novel I'm working on now. Always there's the need to trace the small accumulations, the daily minutia that lead to the climactic turn.
The advantage of historical fiction is that we have the perspective of time and distance. We know, looking back, the myriad ways one thing led to the next, and the next: the incremental troubles, sins, choices, perturbations, as John Barth calls them, that limn the arc of human history. We know that collectively, if not individually, we survived. That the thing we want to tell ourselves in the midst of calamity is true: in the long run, everything will be okay. Changed, and not changed. Different, but still the same.
When I was a girl growing up, the pastor of our church believed that the Rapture would arrive at any moment: the end-of-days transformation when Jesus Christ will come again and all born-again Christians will be caught up to meet Him in the air. Every Sunday night Brother Luke preached from Revelation, a King James Bible open in one hand, a daily newspaper in the other, showing us all how the Seals were being broken. The Rapture is upon us, he said. Any day now. No man knoweth the hour. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken and the other left.
I believed him. At school we practiced scrambling under our desks for protection in case of nuclear attack much as children today practice active shooter drills. We lived in the shadow of the global war our fathers had fought, and we expected holocaust at any moment, devastation, the end of the world. It had come for the Jews in Europe, hadn't it? It had come for the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I heard a story back then, at school or at church, I can't remember which: the most beautiful actress in Japan had been made sick with radiation poisoning after the atomic bombs America dropped on her country. She was so beautiful, and so sick from radiation that all of her hair fell out, except for two lone strands on her head. When they moved her body after her death, those two hairs were left behind on the pillow.
Well, two things from that apocryphal story. One is the power of detail. Those two hairs on the pillow are seared in my mind to this day: they made the horror so starkly real. The other is the collective guilt my country shares for dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations. We say we have no guilt. We say it had to be done, there was no other way to end the war. But the fact that this story raced through churches and schools here in the middle of the country decades after the war ended tells me different. We know our sin, even if we will not admit it.
One night I got up from my bed—I must have been eight or nine years old—so haunted by the story of the Japanese actress I couldn't sleep. I went to my parents watching the ten o'clock news in the living room. I told them the story, and how afraid I was that we were all going to die in a nuclear war. I told them I thought the end of the world was coming.
I remember my dad's great gentleness, his good sense, how with such calmness and practicality he tried to soothe me. He said we're all more afraid of the whole world dying than we are of our own death. He said he didn't know why that is, but it just seems more frightening, harder to fathom. He said not to worry. The end of the world is not yet.
And indeed, it wasn't. The 1960s came to an end, and there'd been no nuclear war. Also no Rapture. Then the 1970s, the 80s, the 90s, the turn of the century, the new millennium, and still the world did not end. For some time now I've been looking backward, at predictions of the end of the world, all the way back to John the Revelator on the Isle of Patmos, and before that even, back through the Old Testament, to Daniel, Ezekiel, the ancient Assyrians. I've come to see what my dad was saying that night: that we have always been looking for the end of the world, because we can see our own end.
In the 1930's, drought and reckless farming practices created one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation's history. In the heartland, including the panhandle of Oklahoma, vast black blizzards boiled up on the horizon, the sky turned black, roiling clouds of dust raced across the plains: a mile-high wall of dirt like an earthen tidal wave sweeping over everything in its path, killing livestock, destroying crops, choking babies, stripping off topsoil. Every dust storm was an immediate and terrifying cataclysm. People thought it was the end of the world.
But in writing a novel about that era and its people, I came to understand that it was gradual cataclysm that led to the sudden ones: decades of land speculation, unchecked greed, unregulated banking practices—all these led to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, which led to the largest migration of white Americans in a short period of time in the nation's history as hundreds of thousands of Okies made their way west to California, which led to John Steinbeck's iconic novel Grapes of Wrath.
Which led, seven decades later, to me writing a novel, not in response to the great dust storms, but to Steinbeck's book, which I believed held some errors about Oklahomans. Which led to the need to research the incremental details before and during the great cataclysm: bank failures and foreclosures, cow killings, plagues of jackrabbits sweeping over the land destroying every sprig that emerged from the parched earth, and the massive rabbit drives when the people gathered on Sundays to drive thousands of jackrabbits into corrals on the prairie, club them to death, burn them. The sound of rabbits screaming. The stench of scorching meat. The specific sensory detail that tells the story.
Just so, in writing about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, I needed to research the details of that great paroxysm of hatred and violence that swept Tulsa's black district on the night of May 31 and the day of June 1, 1921. I also had to research the slow devastations that preceded it, the thousand million cuts, depredations, murders that are the story of this country's treatment of people of African descent. I needed to study the aftermath of the American Civil War, segregation, racial terrorism, disenfranchisement, lynchings, and I had to learn these details of our history not in some generalized place, but how they took place here, specifically, in my home state of Oklahoma.
Always, always, it is the slow cataclysm that precedes the fast. I need to know that in order to write the story, just as I need to know it to understand the present moment we're in, and what is to come. I think about the symbolism of the Book of Revelation. The title comes from the first word of the book, in Greek, apokalypsis, which means "unveiling" or "revelation." This apocalypse I've been waiting for all my life simply means the revealing of divine mysteries.
The era of my most recent novel—the 1540s in England—was rife with rumors and sermons and beliefs about the Apocalypse. Evangelicals then, as now, believed they were living in the End Times, and many went willingly to their fiery deaths because of that belief. And something surely did end with the Protestant Reformation, and something new emerged from the ashes, the proverbial phoenix. Changed and not changed. Different and still the same.
Because, in fact, people have kept right on killing people in the name of faith—and not just religious faith but political faith, economic faith, ethnic faith, belief in our own manifest destiny. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…
It's comforting to think of the writers who'll tell the stories of this pandemic. So far it's been mostly the poets bearing witness, and journalists, of course, and nonfiction writers. It will take a long while, I think, for novelists to begin to tackle this slow calamity, this lugubrious apocalypse, this gradual unveiling of divine mysteries. Perhaps it will take so long that the books will be works of historical fiction.
We'll read those novels: we'll want to know what happened, and why—not just the factual whys, otherwise we'd be satisfied with nonfiction histories, but the why of the human psyche. We'll want to know and understand and live the motivations and hungers and fears inside the characters: what happened in those dark days inside the human hearts of the ones who lived it. That will be the unveiling. That, to me, is always the divine mystery.
Gray Days Are the Hardest: a pandemic diary
Gray days are the hardest.
On days when the sun shines, we are out walking, dogs on leashes, mothers and dads pushing strollers, helmeted kids racing ahead on kick scooters or wobbling behind on their small white and pink bikes. On days when the sun shines you could believe that right now is the most benevolent time. We're so full of kindness. We've abandoned our videogames and TVs, our soccer practice and hectic schedules, we've come outside for light and air. We smile.
Graciously, and without comment, we cross to the other side of the road when we see someone coming toward us. It's a nice neighborhood. Kids play on tree swings in their front yards. Teens walk with their parents and don't scowl or look at their phones. We've stepped back in time, or leapt forward. We have a sense that we belong to something, this neighborhood, our community; we feel that somehow, in the midst of so much darkness, there is light. We know we are the fortunate ones.
On gray days, though, it feels like this will go on forever. The past blends with the endless now, with an uncertain future we can neither dream nor believe. On gray days we spend too much time on Facebook and Twitter, we rage at the machine, at politics, at the dolts we knew in high school who keep posting right-wing conspiracy anti-science shit. We fly into a fury at nothing. Reach out to friends we've not heard from nor thought of for years. Crawl into a shell of seclusion. Scrub the baseboards, mop the floors with vinegar till the whole house smells like Easter eggs.
On gray days we grieve our lost dead. The past filters through, unbidden. You remember a sweating iced tea glass on your grandmother's kitchen table, the slant of light on the Illinois River, your mother holding up to the air and fanning her freshly polished nails. You remember the girl in third grade you made cry in class, the trip to California, your father's laugh. Your first love, first cigarette, first kiss. The last time you hugged someone who did not live in your own house.
You look at images of the empty streets in Rome and Paris, the silence of New York City, where you once lived. Scroll through pages and pages of obituaries, read other families' stories, people you don't know and will never know but you know you belong to that community too. You call your sisters. You think how very cruel it is that this time when we need each other most is the very time we cannot be together. On gray days you sit on the couch with your morning coffee and weep.
On gray days you text your beloved ones in Brooklyn: how is mama in the hospital in Queens? Not good. Not good. You mourn your actor friend who died, celebrate your friends who survived. You read how the virus is raging through Indian Country, your chest clenches, your heart aches. You thank the woman at the checkout counter at Homeland, tell her how grateful you are. We're grateful for your service. What people say to servicemen in uniform at airports. But the airports are nearly deserted, waiting areas and walkways hollowed out, echoey. Ghost planes fly empty. In the grocery store parking lot you peel off and throw away your disposable gloves.
Your friend in prison is on lockdown, restricted to her bunk twenty-three hours a day. She's worried, she says, when she finally reaches you. They all are. If the virus comes in, it will sweep through like wildfire. Like it is sweeping through black and brown communities in cities all over. Like it will sweep through the small white town in rural Oklahoma where your family lives, as soon as it gets the chance, and no hospital for miles, no health care, just the Dollar store to pick up Tylenol. On gray days you're afraid for people you love.
But tomorrow, or the next day, the sun will shine again. You'll emerge from seclusion, step outside for a walk. Smile at the neighbors and wave. We've lived through so much already, crippling ice storms, prolonged power outages, blizzards, the shock and sudden silence after 9/11, the eerie quiet in the streets of Oklahoma City after the bombing. We've seen the devastated aftermath of tornados. The killing force of fire and drought and wind.
What is strange now is how normal the world is.
Nothing is normal. In the distance the bells in the university tower peal out the state's theme song. We know we belong to the land. And the land we belong to is grand. A block over there's the rippling waterfall sound of children's laughter. A dog barks. Irises bloom. The sun shines.
Imagine: on writing historical fiction
I came to writing historical fiction not because I was so taken with history but because I wanted to understand the contemporary world I lived in. That world—Brooklyn, 1989, a world of landline phones and dot matrix printers and Betamax VCRs—is history now. But the human grief and joy and brutality that lived there then lives in us now, and always. 1989 was the year of the Central Park Five and the killing of Yusef Hawkins, a black youth surrounded by a gang of white boys in Bensonhurst; it was the year Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing debuted. It was also the year I learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I wanted to write about that.
But the massacre didn't explode from nothing; it came of what went before, and before, and before. To understand 1921, I had to go back before 1921. As my favorite historical novelist Hilary Mantel says: "Beneath every history, another history."
To write about early twentieth century Oklahoma, I had to go back to Indian Territory in the late nineteenth. I had to learn the story of how my people migrated to the Territory—and what they brought with them. I asked questions of living elders, read histories, traced elliptically through hearsay and conversation and handed-down narratives the outlines of how my family came by covered wagon into I.T. from Kentucky in 1887. That imagining became my first novel, THE MERCY SEAT. Studying my way into the earliest days of Oklahoma's story, trying to know what happened, and why, and above all how, I learned what has been for me the hardest lesson: that you can never know all you want to know. All you yearn to know.
In that book, a young girl finds a tin box holding her dead mother's belongings; she tries to decipher her mother's life through reading the items: a lock of hair, a cheap snuffbox, a charred torn-out page of Scripture, a child's pair of eyeglasses. But she comes to see that "…she could not know her mother's life, not lived nor told nor unfolding in the strength of imagination nor in dream or vision. Her mother's life was locked away from her, eternal, as she was locked away from all others, as we each are locked away from one another in the pores of finite mind and skin…"
This is the metaphor, for me, for writing historical fiction. We'll never know the truths of their lives, those precious or mediocre or loathsome ones who came before us; they're locked away from us as the dead are locked away from the living, but we keep poring through the tin box anyway, reading artifacts, piecing mismatched parts together, creating the narrative from imperfect words. When we begin, we learn everything we can learn, and then we learn, by writing, how much more we need to know. Then comes another hard lesson: we have to leave out so many of these fascinating facts we've learned, because they impede the narrative or make the story read like hey-look-at-all-my-fabulous-research.
So, we become meticulous, devoted, openminded, openhearted, humble enough to hide our hand, we hope. Still we see we'll never know all we need to know.
But if we love this work, this reading and writing of historical fiction (and I don't call my work historical fiction anyway, I call it "literary fiction set in the historical past," which is a phrase that's never going to fly with any publishing publicity person, ever), then we're willing to work and work and work, even knowing we'll have to submerge a good portion of what we learn, even knowing that, no matter how hard we try, we'll still get things wrong.
In her wonderful essay "Why I Became a Historical Novelist," Hilary Mantel says that she'll make up a man's inner torments but not, for instance, the color of his drawing room wallpaper. "…someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and color," she says, "and if I kept on pursuing it, I might find out."
I share Mantel's essay with students in my historical fiction writing class. I tell them: we're writing to the one who knows the wallpaper.
Or anyway, I am.
It takes courage in all cases to be a writer, and a particular kind of courage to write outside one's own lived experience, to try to create for readers the lived experiences of others in an era in which we have never lived, in a place where we've never lived—because, even if we have lived in our story's location, inside our own period's overlay, even if we travel (as we must do) to our story's landscapes and cities, or study with intricate attention the paintings and photographs of the age, we can never experience the precise quality of light on the southern plains in 1837, or the ambient sounds on a Kansas City street in 1902, or the stench of burning flesh in 1546 in London, or on the streets of Tulsa in 1921.
For that, we must imagine.
So then we're doing what all novelists of all genres and in all ages do: imagining our way into the lives of others, burrowing into their psyches, walking in their skins, finding our way, through imagery and language and sensory detail, into their world, and inviting readers inside with us. That's the art of it, this great imagining, this welding of histories and artifacts and qualities of light to the human heart in all its joy and grief and suffering. Historical novelists aren't writing to the past but to our own time. Each age has its obsessions, surely, but the fundamentals of the human story don't change. We're looking to create who we are now by imagining who we were before—who, indeed, we always have been.