Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.
Alan Heathcock reads us his story “Streetlamps” from our Imaginary Oklahoma series and explains the family history behind the unusual coupling in his work.
Alan Heathcock’s fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review, VQR, Five Chapters,Storyville, and The Harvard Review. His stories have won the National Magazine Award in fiction, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. Heathcock is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. A native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.
Jeff Martin: Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.
Abby Wendle: Hello?
Alan Heathcock: Hello.
AW: Is this Alan?
AH: This is Alan.
AW: How you doing?
AH: I’m doing great here.
AW: Where is it that you live?
AH: I live in Boise, Idaho.
AW: Boise, Idaho. Have you ever been to Oklahoma?
AH: I have, yeah. I’ve been there a few times. I have family who are from there. My dad was born in Oklahoma and my great-grandfather was a circuit preacher and he lived in Oklahoma. In the piece I wrote I mentioned a woman Purified Fox and that’s my great-grandmother who was a full-blood Cherokee girl and he married her and of course back in that day that was very controversial.
AW: So does this story come from your grandfather or your great-grandfather’s experience?
AH: Yeah. I was trying to imagine him. What that meeting might have been. There’s no record of where or how they met really. Don’t have that story at my disposal. But I always wondered about it because it’s kind of such an unusual couple. A man traveling around, you know, meeting a full-blood Cherokee girl and how it might have gone. And so, I’m a romantic at heart I guess so I romanticized what that meeting might have been, try to see if I can extract something, something special out of it.
AW: Would you like to read it?
AH: I would love to read it.
AW: I would love for you to read it.
AH: Okay, here we go:
He used to be a preacher, but now worked hanging power lines across the vast and dusty flats. Oklahoma, far from home. Towns bloomed with electric light, and in one a barefoot girl played violin by a wide brown river.
Her song made him think of the Sabbath, of how he would hold children by the nose and the small of their back and lower them under the water. The girl turned to his touch, her skin the color of the water, her eyes deep. “Our world is energy unharnessed,” he said, before he could stop himself. “The river’s water electricity, its banks the conduit.”
This was how it happened, how he’d made everyone in his life leave him. He stared out over the roiling current, wanting to switch off that thing that would not leave him. But then she touched his wrist, and her eyes smiled up at him.
“Do you like my dress?” she asked. “I made it myself.”
The dress was of light tan fabric, the hem filthy with red dirt. He nodded, told her his own mother once had a dress like that. She told him her name was Purify Fox, then intently watched his face, like a challenge. He didn’t know what to say and said nothing though he thought the name was beautiful. She looked away. Violin across her lap, she held her face in her hands and began to cry. She broke away and hurried off through the reeds and up the bank. He followed her into the hills, keeping his distance though he saw her glancing back over her shoulder and knew she was leading him somewhere. Soon they entered a lightless mineshaft. They walked until there was no light, and she took him by the elbow and pulled him deeper still. The darkness seemed to open, a cool breeze trickling over him. Here her violin echoed, sounding like ten, sounding like the entire world had become music. Then, in the still quiet, they stood against each other, the backs of their hands touching.
“Songs fade, but remain in the air,” she whispered. “We breathe it in and it becomes a part of our skin and hair, our blood. We are a lifetime of songs. I have so many songs inside me.”
He kissed her, felt, finally, somebody understood him.
At dusk, they climbed a hill high above the river, the once dark town now bright in the distance, the new row of streetlamps switching on.
AW: Thank you.
AH: My pleasure.