by Sheila O’Connor
Maternal grandmother imagined and unknown
A 1930’s file unsealed by the court
Fiction based on fact and fragment
Mother of my mother
A story no one told me
And so I tell myself
It will always be in pieces. That curve of winter white along her breast. Her dress, a cloud slipped from the frame. That cushion near the window where she watched. The man a bear, or she believed a bear. The winter long, her young heart red and raw. The soldier’s flag pin she hid beneath her mattress. A quarter for a kiss when she was ten. How she learned that new equation. How that true math brought her here.
Here? Somewhere in this city: Minneapolis.
Fifth and Hennepin, 1934
V floats like a feather far from school. Late November, loose. A pain in her back tooth that can’t be fixed. Hunger acid in her belly. Her best friend S beside her, a tether to this world.
Always V and S end up downtown, V performing on the streets, singing for the men who still have money for young girls. A dime a dance, S calls. A nickel for a song. S, the stubborn banker, holds the sailor cap for coins. Money they will save for a picture show and popcorn, or a quick stop at the Candy Corn on Sixth.
V can-cans and she shimmies, sings you’re the melody from a symphony, pirouettes, then lands hard for laugh. A week into fifteen, she’s a Ruby Keeler beauty, a Ziegfeld Follies hopeful sure to be discovered. V has what it takes to be a star.
You’ve got talent, one man says, his face as clean as a fresh page, his hands as smooth as snow, his thumb under her chin like a good father. (V’s father has been dead for five hard years.) You shouldn’t waste it on the street. I could put you on the stage.
You could? V says, her heart falling to his hands.
How much? S asks. S is the accountant; S always knows exactly what V’s worth.
More than this, he says, pulling a quarter from his pocket, and slipping it into V’s. More than you earn now.
Everyone that knows the truth is dead.
One fact found in the file.
none of the above?
Debut Persian Palms
She enters the tunnel a little fox. Little Fox is what he calls her, and she wears that clever nickname like a mask. Little Fox led to the light. Little Fox half-glued together with rouge, and paint, and powder. Red lips pressed to paper like a kiss.
Little Fox, he whispers, soon you’ll be my star.
In the next room, men stripe along the bar, crowd the steamy darkness, wait for the girl to walk the rouge rug to the stage, the girl to offer them a song. Her skin.
You’ll still have your fur, he says, draping the fox stole on her shoulder, brushing his hand between her legs. Just dance, he says, a dance is all they want.
The Men of Minneapolis
Teamsters, doctors, gangsters, Nash salesmen from Harmon, reporters from the Star, the brakeman and the banker, the florist, the court house guard, the judge, the Catholics and the Jews, stern Norwegian Lutherans, sullen silent Swedes, college boys with cash, Sears clerks, the candy man from Sixth, the tailor from Young Quinlan, the doorman from the Nicollet Hotel, men who still tend horses, men who beg, men who pass a bottle at the park, the hoboes and the lawyers, the Germans and the Finns, all of them pay the price to watch V sing, pay to watch her wave the sheer chiffon, flash her sequined breasts, lift her bare young leg, pay to see the glittered young girl dance. The men of Minneapolis, all hungry as young hawks.
Admit there is nothing of this man you’ll ever know.
V? You were fifteen once. A girl.
But him? How far he is from your own mistaken Irish-Catholic story. A German Jew? A Russian or a Pole? Northside Jew or Southside? A man twenty years V’s senior she names as Special Friend. A nightclub manager. A gangster. A man of minor honor.
You invent the minor honor.
You invent it all.
Sheila O’Connor is the author of four novels: Where No Gods Came, Tokens of Grace, Keeping Safe the Stars, and Sparrow Road. Her poetry and fiction have been recognized with fellowships from the Bush Foundation, Loft-McKnight, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is a professor in the MFA program at Hamline University where she also serves as fiction editor for Water~Stone Review. Sheila’s books have been honored with the Michigan Prize for Literary Fiction, Minnesota Book Award, International Reading Award, Midwest Booksellers Award, Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, and Best Books of 2012 from VOYA, Booklist, Chicago Public Libraries, and others.