Rilla Askew is the author of four novels and a book of stories. She’s a PEN/Faulkner finalist, recipient of the Western Heritage Award, Oklahoma Book Award, and a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her novel about the Tulsa Race Riot, Fire in Beulah, received the American Book Award in 2002, and was selected for Oklahoma’s One Book One State reading program. Askew’s essays and short fiction have appeared in Tin House, World Literature Today, Nimrod, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and elsewhere. Her most recent novel, Kind of Kin, is published by Ecco Press. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.
That’s me and him standing at the side of the road outside Joplin, Missouri. To look at it you wouldn’t know where it was, would you? Dirt road, bare trees, it could be anywhere, Arkansas or Mississippi, these Oklahoma hills even, where we came from. You wouldn’t know what year either, but I can tell you. 1935. I believe it was March maybe. The trees were just fixing to bud. The lady that took it posed us to look like that, like we were hitchhiking, which we weren’t, though we did do a lot of hitching. We rode the rails too, especially at first. That valise in the dirt wasn’t ours. Me and Harlan used a rucksack. The lady drove us in her car to that spot and got that valise out of her turtlehull and set it on the ground between us before she took the picture. It’s the only picture ever taken of me and Harlan, so far as I know.
I didn’t know about that one, or I didn’t know it was a public picture, till I ran across it in a postcard rack in Tahlequah way up after the end of the war. I about fainted. I felt like I was watching an old dream come alive in front of my face. I bought it so quick, like somebody might snatch it, but for the life of me I couldn’t recollect when it was taken. My hat there’s what caused me to finally remember. I’d found that cloth hat in a bar ditch near Joplin and lost it to the wind outside McAlester, so I knew right when the picture had to have been taken, and then I remembered the lady.
She came and picked us out of all the other folks camped under that railroad overpass, she walked right past women and their little kids and men with sores on their feet, which, if she meant to be taking pictures of poor people, like she said, you’d think she might have picked one of them. We were sitting in the shade underneath a girder, Harlan wasn’t playing his harp or anything, but that lady made a bee-line right for us, and really, I don’t know why, unless it was just because my husband was so pretty. He didn’t like anybody to say it, of course, he acted like that was such an embarrassment, but you’d seldom catch him smiling with his mouth open to show where his tooth was broke. See it there? She caught him with his lips open. You can’t tell if he’s grinning or squinting, but Harlan kept his lips shut tight over that chipped tooth most the time, except when he was singing or talking.
I cherish this picture anyway, even if it does feel like the lady stole it. She didn’t really, I guess. She told us what she was doing, and we stood right there, still as still, while she took our picture with a big black box camera. It wasn’t like she snuck around. She drove us back to the camp after and dropped us off, we never saw or heard from her again. Come to find out, she put that picture in a book along with a bunch of others. I didn’t know you could do that, take somebody’s picture and put it in a book or on a postcard and never ask them. But she paid us two dollars and a half, or she didn’t call it pay, she just gave it to us, said, “Here, get y’all something to eat.” We left for Oklahoma the next morning.
From Fire in Beulah
A high, hot wind had been blowing from the south for seven days. It blew morning and evening and did not lay at night as it should but cried and fingered at the windows till the sun rose, and then it went on blowing. A constant wind, an unremitting wind, it did not gust or fall but blew one monotonous gritty speed. Water could not be kept in the troughs for the animals but evaporated almost as quickly as it was pumped and had to be pumped aew each time the cattle started bawling. Washing on the line did not flap and dance but held a steady northward angle and dried bone-dry in less than twenty minutes. The older Whiteside girls complained their lips and cheeks were cracking. Their mother stayed indoors, though it was more miserably hot inside than out, because she feared the wind would suck the life from her unborn child.
Long after I left Tahlequah I dreamed of the place. Not just the town but the earth and waters that surround it. The Tahlequah of my dreams looks nothing like the real landscape. In my dreams the images are primitive, iconic: a dark symbol land. Still, I always know where I am. Usually it’s the small cabin above the Illinois River where I once lived. Sometimes it’s the steep, stone-filled path leading down to the cabin. Except, in reality, there was no such trail. That treacherous footpath above the Illinois belongs to Goats Bluff, miles upriver from where the cabin stood. But the mind will blend. The mind grabs hold of symbols. It tells you what matters. What you long for. What you fear.
There’s the Tahlequah of my memory, a place crystallized in the seventh decade of the last century when I lived there with hippies and rock musicians and Indians and actors and the first gay community I ever knew anything about. I went to school at Northeastern, studied special ed and theater, danced at the Trail of Tears Outdoor Drama south of town. I picked up trash in the little park below Seminary Hall where Town Branch trickles lively over bright green watercress in springtime, creeps slow and debris-cluttered over quarried stones in high summer. I didn’t pick up litter because of any acute environmental consciousness—it was just my work-study job, strolling around campus with a shoulder satchel and a long stick barbed with a nail on the end, stabbing up gum wrappers, red paper Coca-Cola cups, and pale golden Coors cans.
There is also the Tahlequah of now, of course, with its bypass roads and corporate fast-food corridor, its tourists and traffic and burgeoning Cherokee tribal complex: a vital place, growing, active—very much changed from the sleepy town I remember. I go there sometimes, to see friends. To search for something. But the Tahlequah of now isn’t the place I long for.