We went everywhere barefoot then, crossing the James to get to Southside from campus, hitching west to the mountains for fiddlers conventions, or north to New York, and that summer, the summer Billy Trent was executed, I used my sister to become an artist.
The night Billy died in the electric chair, my sculpture professor and I had been dancing barefoot at midnight in my apartment with some hippies we’d picked up at Billy’s rally. “What’s Going On” spilled from the record player while we drank tequila for the worm and tossed talcum powder at each other. Pot smoke and powder created an ashy abyss, and when the lights in my living room began to flicker and dim, we knew all the pleas for stays had failed, and that the boy just across the river—which I glimpsed from my window as a distant, taut line—was dead. Lips pressed tight, my professor started to weep, and I thought the emotion was for Billy.
Earlier that night, we’d gone with my sister to the penitentiary to picket the slaying of this seventeen-year-old who was none too smart (the newspapers said he could barely recite his last name at the trial) and who had murdered his young brother. Shocking, yes. Still, he was only a boy and not a very well equipped one.
But Phil, my professor, was breaking down because he thought he was going to be fired. Shoulders heaving, he managed to choke out that there had been complaints of unfair grades (when he bothered to give grades), absenteeism, and hitting on female students. When the dean called him into her office in the late afternoon, he’d thought it was to schedule his tenure committee meetings.
Taking off his glasses, Phil sank to his knees, face hidden in his hands. The hippies, oblivious, danced on, flinging more powder to shimmer and hover. I squatted and gripped Phil’s spongy curls. Dread, sharpened by guilt, threatened to pierce my drunken veil. I was his girl du jour, and I was the one who’d done most of the complaining. I didn’t want him fired—I was pretty sure I might be in love with him—I just wanted him to take back the F he’d given me. The only grade he’d dispensed that semester. I wanted to be a sculptor, an artist. I was twenty-one, ambitious, and wanted to go to graduate school, but since being flunked, I was lost, adrift in the alleyways I used to scour for scrapped treasure to inspire my constructions. My eye had grown dull, soupy, my fingers clumsy, and my ability to make things had fallen out of me wholesale.
Phil looked up, powder skimmed across his handsome, dimpled chin, and said, “We’ve got to go back, it’s not right.” I was just drunk enough to think he meant the dean’s office. She’d promised me anonymity, so I couldn’t imagine how she’d take me showing up to challenge his treatment. I started to protest, not once questioning what she might be doing in her office after midnight in the middle of summer, when Phil said, “We should’ve tried harder. Maybe we could’ve saved him.” Admiration surged through me. Despite his own troubles, his concern, after all, was for the boy. We flew towards the door, leaving the hippies to their talcum-dusted joints.
The air, weighted with the stench from the Philip Morris factory, was a smother of damp washcloth as we hit the street. I could scarcely breathe. He pulled me towards the river, our bare feet slap-slapping the cement. Above, the sky was scumbled gray by the factory’s output. It made me wish I were a painter.
“Who would do this to me, Liv?” he cried. Beneath the hazy streetlights, his eyes magnified by thick, round glasses, I could see tears. As if musing the unimaginable, I composed a thoughtful, frowning face, and thought about the other girls in class I’d encouraged to complain.
“Let’s get a drink,” I said, although the bars had closed. “No one will still be at the jail. Besides, it’s done with. What can we do now?”
He shook his head, and his dark curls flew, the threadbare, wool cape he wore winter and summer rose in a theatric flap. He gripped my hand tighter, pulling me along with greater urgency, and I considered that he felt linked to the boy, as if Phil, too, had been struck by a monstrous injustice, and some of my admiration slipped.
We started across the bridge, the James River deep below. The sidewalk turned to metal grating and pressed into my bare soles, but our feet had long toughened to the consistency of shoe leather. Through the crisscrossed metal, the water twinkled, and downriver, near the rocky shallows, we could make out the pulse of cigarette coals. I wondered if these were some of the picketers, still mourning their defeat, or the vengeful, now partying on the rocks in triumph.
Phil’s ring clanged rhythmically against the railing. The ring was something he’d fashioned in graduate school, four years earlier, from melted and puddled nickel—the last actual object he’d made. A conceptual artist, he was the sculpture department’s rising star, written up regularly in all the important art magazines. Nodding his head in time to the winking embers, he clanged his ring louder, and I knew he thought he was making sculpture. To him, sculpture was “the dynamic pierce of silence.” That this was actually music, or maybe just noise, didn’t convince him. Sculpture was also ”space punctured by movement,” which he called the Theatre of Sculpture. This made more sense, although I couldn’t see how that was different from dance. His Advanced Sculpture class never met in the studio—we met in bars, or down by the river, and in cobblestone alleys, which gave me a chance to scavenge for objects to transform. Often we met in the theatre department, where sculpture, we learned, could be a gesture, a thought, or simply a recognition. Sometimes we were to hold class ourselves while he hung at the Village Bar. Why do you need me? he asked. Or grades? He gave everyone but me an Incomplete to rub in the eye of the administration. His greatest work of sculpture at the moment, he informed us, was our class. Alluring, disturbing notions which confounded me. Sculpture, I believed then, was something you could hold onto, mute and steadfast, its power coming from movement within stillness, meaning emanating from conflicting opposites, yearning and desire contained, held back. Hence my grade. “To motivate you to think deeper and truer,” he’d said, when explaining my F, “like an artist.” His hand had been on my breast, his office door ajar, and on his desk, the last piece I’d made for class, a glum concoction of tattered aluminum hearts imprisoned in a cage of long, rusty nails. At the time, I’d thought it quite affecting. “This,” he said, as he kicked the door open further and trailed a finger down my sternum to my belly button and below, “is what sculpture feels like—pleasure and fear equals potency. You can do better than that sentimental crap you make.”
On the surface, I agreed with him—how could I not? He’d found me flawed, my work trite, but now there was hope. With his finger deep inside me, I came that day in his office with my bad grade and the door practically wide open, the evidence of pleasure and fear in my buckling knees, my beliefs about sculpture beginning to crumble.
Start over, he’d told me. I’ll show you how.
I was still waiting.
We made it to the other side of the bridge, and down the block, we could see a large group gathered in front of the penitentiary. Buzzing kliegs from television crews still cut the dark, swarms of June bugs and big-bodied moths colliding. He gripped my hand once again, and on we walked. Hippies held signs protesting the death penalty--Two Deaths don’t make a Life—and crewcut-buzzed NRA fanatics with their demon-eyed wives stood their ground, although they were fewer in number—after all, they had won, and I figured those glowing cigarettes downriver belonged to the victors. In between the two sparring groups, a tableau with Billy’s mother at the center. Television crews lit her dark face bright, and her eyes, large, lidless circles, gave her a stunned, reptilian look. Arms stretched wide, she draped like a blanket over a group of supporters. There seemed to be nothing inside her skin to hold her up, as if she’d been pierced and hollowed by the murder of one son and the execution of the other. Supporters, holding vigil candles, circled them. Phil’s breath quickened, his posture tightening as he focused on Billy’s mother and gathered energy to do the next thing.
“I’ve got to talk to her,” he said, and started forward. I reached to pull him back.
“She doesn’t want to talk to strangers.”
“I’m no stranger.”
I knew he didn’t know her, but he’d worked tirelessly for the “Free Billy” movement and maybe thought he had a right to her, that he was the only one who could ease her pain. His sense of himself was astounding; it made me burn with envy. And then I saw someone familiar coming from behind Billy’s mother, rising in ghostly fashion: my sister, Hedy. A wreath of daisies circled her pale forehead, orange nasturtiums twined through the frizzy mat of hair our father threatened to take pruning shears to. Under the kliegs, the bright nasturtiums pulsed. Hedy moved out of the light and came towards us, crying and holding out her vigil candle, its little flicker washing her face so that she appeared faint, drained, not like the lippy, headstrong girl I knew her to be.
Her appearance distracted Phil from Billy’s mother, and he eyed Hedy as if casting her in a future sculpture drama. Her face was blotchy and slightly swollen, a sprinkle of pimples across one cheek. She looked tragically young, and then, as even now, a mix of concern and resentment filled me. I had been taking care of her since our mother died, years earlier. Phil examined her as if he’d never seen a crying girl before and fingered the daisies on her forehead. That summer, she’d renamed herself “Sky,” had taken to hitching barefoot through the city, and would soon go off to college out of state on a chemistry scholarship. Signs of independence I was all too ready to see—although I couldn’t bring myself to call her Sky—but she’d only just graduated from high school, and Phil was now touching her face as if trying to reach the emotion. I turned her away from him and felt the sharp nubbins of her shoulder bones.
“I thought you left when we did,” I said. “Are you okay? Where does Dad think you are?”
“I snuck back out.” Sudden anger fired her blunt, tomboyish features, making her look more like herself. Billy was Hedy’s age. They went to the same school. He was—had been—in the special ed. classes, where she was tutoring some of the kids, including Billy, in math. One day, Billy’s mother phoned to say she’d be a little late getting home from work. Although it was still daylight, for some reason Billy thought his mother wanted him to put his brother to bed. The little boy, only eight, didn’t want to go. Billy made sure he went to bed forever. Did he know what he was doing? Was there malice? He’d used a pillow to smother him, just to stop his crying, Billy had said at the trial, and I couldn’t imagine what that could be like—to look into the eyes of your brother as you brought down a pillow on his face.
Someone in the crowd shouted, “Murderer!” Which side had said this wasn’t clear, but after the long, edgy vigil, more names were called, and agitation swept through the crowd. Phil suddenly hugged Hedy and muffled a sob into her shoulder. She held his face between her hands, and together they cried for Billy.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said finally. Hedy turned away, eyes closed, her arms crossed tight, swaying out of reach. Phil put a hand on her shoulder as if to tether her. As the cops began to walk through the masses with billy clubs, he said, “We’ve got to get this out of our system.” He cast an arm wide, our attention held by what was going on around us: the cops making their rounds, talking to everyone, thumping their sticks against their palms. And just like that, the energy deflated. People began to drop their signs and drift off, and I wondered if the stony stillness of Billy’s mother had scattered calm into the crowd. Phil seemed disappointed, turning back to us with a sigh.
Still swaying, Hedy said, “I need to go dancing.” Her face had a compressed, fierce look.
“You need to go home,” I said. I wanted Phil back in my apartment, hopefully now free of hippies, and in my bed.
“I’m going dancing,” she said.
Phil gave her a spirited look. “I know some after-hours clubs.”
“But I have to work tomorrow,” I said. I had a plum summer job, cataloging slides for the head of the sculpture department and was hoping to find a way to let him know about the injustice of my grade or, at the very least, to ask him to write me a recommendation. Sophomore year, I’d gotten an A in his class. He was compulsive about deadlines and class attendance, his own artwork was pristine and orderly, but he was also loyal to Phil. “Let’s go to my place,” I said to Phil. Naked in my bed, released from his glasses and cape, his pronouncements and advanced hipness, he was more manageable. The light from my scarf-draped lamps would settle in a haze along his limbs and long torso, diminishing him just enough to make me believe I could possess him.
“We’ll get you home, Hedy,” I said, “or give you money for a cab.”
“Get off my case, Livvie.” She looked at me with contempt as if I were too dense to understand the importance of what had happened that night.
“If you’re too tired,” Phil said to me, “we can go.” He and Hedy looked at each other like one was the match and the other, dry kindling.
“Hedy,” I said, “go home.”
She stood wide, hands on hips, a childish pose, reminding me of when she was little and refused to take her bath. But unlike then, I now couldn’t control her. Still, I wanted to peel that Make me look off her face.
“I should call Dad to come get you. I thought more of you, but turns out you’re the same little brat.”
Her arms loosened and dropped. Phil frowned, and Hedy’s lips bunched tight. “Bitch,” she said. She flung herself around, nasturtiums flying, and launched into the night as if she believed nothing bad could ever happen to her. Phil started after her.
I caught up to him and punched his shoulder. “She should go home,” I said. “She’s just a kid.” This was true, but I didn’t want it to be. She had grown up this summer, had changed, and I wanted to believe that whatever trouble she would run into from now on, she’d deserve and would have to deal with herself. But I couldn’t quite get behind this. There was something too careless about her, and so I couldn’t keep from trying. “Hedy,” I called, and then, “Sky—you can stay at my place tonight,” as if this were a big, grown-up treat. But she was far down the sidewalk.
Phil told me he’d take care of Hedy and then meet me later, and as he hurried after her, I was left with Billy’s dazed, grieving mother standing motionless across the lawn, at the foot of the penitentiary steps, apparently unable to go into the building to gather her son’s body for burial. My own mother, ten years earlier, had been dazed, grieving, and terminally ill. She grieved especially for me because she knew much of Hedy’s care would fall to me unless Dad remarried. He didn’t, and as she predicted, I got stuck with Hedy. My mother died in the night, and we gathered her body, Dad and me, on that morning when I was eleven. But my mother had left us, not been left, and as I looked at Billy’s mother, I knew there was a difference.
Waiting for Phil that night, I fell asleep and dreamt of emergencies. I woke wondering where he was, anxious he might have figured out I’d betrayed him. Hungover, without the drama of Billy and his mother, I was swamped by the thought that I could be responsible for ruining Phil’s career, possibly his life. Maybe I could reason with the dean, take some of it back. But what about those other girls I’d convinced to complain? The phone rang, and I was afraid to answer it, sure it would be Phil. When the ringing didn’t stop, I picked it up and heard Hedy’s voice. She was crying.
“I’m in trouble,” she whispered, “and Dad’s furious. Can you come?”
READ THE REST OF THIS STORY IN VOL 49.4
LINDA WOOLFORD’s fiction is published in or forthcoming from The Carolina Quarterly Online, The Kenyon Review, Puerto del Sol, West Branch, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Massachussetts.