Like flotsam jostled together, we had been drifting into our futures since morning in a Chevrolet Bel-Air, turquoise with vestigial tail fins. Judy's mother had loaned us the Bel-Air; Beverly was beautiful; and the fourth girl -- we called ourselves girls -- was already homesick. What was her name? Her drawing style was a pen-and-ink pointillism, thousands of dots with which she coaxed the illusion of realism from an atomized abstraction. It was nearly midnight when we entered the ambit of America's city on a hill. The first door we opened, on the outskirts of Boston, was the door to the Glo-Min Motor Inn, whose name took the gloaming, the old time of waxing shade, through the turnstile of American pop. In our room and presumably in all the rooms at the inn, the lamps, chairs, and television set were tethered to the floor by thick black chains, a look that might in later years be passed off as punk chic. Down the street a few blocks from the well-secured motel there was a late-night diner. We parked the Chevy outside, sat at the counter in a row, and ordered a dish called clam rolls.
It was the year that, longing for the Moon, four astronauts settled for getting back to Earth alive, the year that Cambodia was invaded, the year of Kent State. Our final senior project had been to protest, again, the war -- draping the fagade of our art school in sheets of black plastic which had billowed from the Doric columns like dark sails. In the diner now there was a local group, girls about our age whose territory was three booths along the windows -- an expanse of plate glass alive with greenish fluorescence, with glints of chrome and reflected licks of fire from the grill. The girls eyed us for a while, then sent over a welcoming party, whose greeting, summarized, was what the hell were we were doing in their diner, and were we some "rich chicks cruising"?
The counter waitress told the girls to knock it off, and they did, but when we left the diner they followed, moving down the sidewalk after us, walking then running, a blade flashing just as we got the windows rolled up and the car doors locked.
That night of our arrival, by chance in one of the city's most insular, and soon to be embattled neighborhoods, New England was impression only: Squanto and Thanksgiving, Puritans in somber jerkins, some tea floating in the harbor. We had read The Scarlet Letter in high school, and once my Girl Scout troop had been taken by Greyhound bus as far north as New York City, where we saw Camelot and a delicatessen, events of equal splendor -- the glistening white-gold stage and the glistening pickles and sodas of fabulous sorts (cream soda!), and metal trays hefting unknown salads, some of fishes and moist tentacles. From a harbor ferry, we saw the brawny goddess of Liberty wound in scarves of mist; we saw two tug boats bump into each other, heard the crews curse across the decks, and then the scout bus returned us to the east Tennessee hills.
Home was then Oak Ridge, and in that anomalous South of uranium and isotopes, with physicists and Danish Modern tapering about its living rooms, I felt none of the diffuse, bruised misgiving about the North that one could find, a century after Sherman, among many more Southern southerners. After high school I did not hesitate to migrate northward to a college of art in Philadelphia, the old city of the Atlantic Plain.
How lightly to me regional borders then signified: another new world could be chosen at a graduation party, with an offhand "Sure." Mark the logic that led four young artists to Boston: it was not New York, which Judy declared "too big," and it was not where any of us had come from. Ours was a tiny aperture of deliberation, and yet for me to aim at Boston was to travel farther north for a permanent dwelling than anyone in my family ever had -- save for my great-grandfather's brother, Sam Callahan, who had adventured from Alabama to Alaska and frozen to death one winter on the Lonesome River, a fact pointed out to me by my Aunt Marguerite. Some members of our family had removed themselves from the Deep South and survived -- some to Charleston, my parents as far north as Maryland -- but none to Massachusetts, core of the Yankee mind. My maternal grandmother, Frances Webb Callahan Watkins, took the news as though I were bound on the first Arctic expedition.
The Glo-Min Motel was home for a week as the four of us hunted for a cheap apartment, by which we meant something so rock-bottom cheap that one aging real estate agent guffawed when he heard what we planned to spend.
"You girls could not be looking in a worse place," he then said cheerfully. "This is Newton. This is the completely wrong town for you." He unfolded a map and used a magic marker to cross off Newton and all the other professionally dappled neighborhoods, and also the ones he deemed too raw, which left only a few scattered patches. The one he said we must try was a community northeast of Boston, on the bay. "Winthrop" it said on the map alongside his large finger.
Fast strong currents swirl around the peninsula of Winthrop, and colonial oarsmen named the area Pullen Poynt. The peninsula was also secluded, and for a century, until the railroad came, it was a retreat with summer hotels and sailboats, white dresses and parasols. Winthrop's social climate had changed by the time we drove the Bel-Air into town, but the sea air was still refreshing, ten degrees cooler than Boston proper. The roses of Winthrop relish the town's salt atmosphere, climb its walls blousily, lay themselves down on the town's fences in blankets as thick as those garlanding the Derby winner. From the steep glacial hill in the center of town, the prospect sweeps down to mouse-gray sand and cord-grass marsh. Beneath its soft apron of mud, the marsh holds hen and wedge clams, with their china-white, spoon-shaped cavities, and quahogs whose shells once made the good purple wampum. Immediately back of the shorefront drive, along streets named Mermaid and Neptune, are rows of tidy summer cottages. But Shore Drive itself was then the tatty, transient part of town, a strip of former hotels turned into rooming houses and apartments with aluminum siding, or fake rock siding, the kind that resembles giant mixed nuts inexplicably plastered onto a wall. The air smelled of mollusk, salt, and rotting wrack. In some synaesthesia of the shore, coolness too was in the smell, and if the day was gray the place could feel like wet laundry.
My first home in New England was the second floor of a house on this strip, separated from the Atlantic by a seawall and a beach of coarse sand. The house was as little like a house by the sea as a house by the sea can be: it was dim and sour, with fuel-oil fumes crawling up the stairwell from the basement, with sheets of buckling woodgrain paneling, an omnivorous shag carpet, and over wrought iron and orange glass lighting fixtures -- a knock-off travesty of Moorish lanterns -- looping down from the ceilings. Impressively cheap, this house was also close by a station of the subway that could shoot us into the city, where we imagined that we would find jobs -- jobs that for the moment were as invisible as the clams breathing under the glossy mudflats.
During that first year, when I was learning the cadences of New England and of adult work, my first true neighbor was the woman who lived on the first floor of the house on Shore Drive. Her name was Angela -- Angela the Upside-Down Girl -- and she was a famous stripper in a nightclub in the Combat Zone, a part of the city that has since been urban-planned away. Angela's stage name derived from her specialty, which was to completely strip while in a headstand. Offstage and right side up, Angela was a single mother with two children, a boy of about eleven and a girl of eight.
Many afternoons Angela's boy and I walked along the beach in front of the house on Shore Drive. He had very smooth skin and the plump oval shape of a seal, and he often wore a sweater without a shirt underneath -- which made you think about the itchy fibers against his soft, mammalian skin. He spoke to me in a way no one his age has, before or since, as if I sorely needed instruction and he had that information. All forceful personalities could claim influence on my life at that time and I had never met such an assured boy, who seemed not quite a boy. The main thing that Angela's son wanted to impress upon me was the supreme importance of being, not earnest, but limber. "Limber" was the word he used, which he had learned from his mother. He had learned everything, he said, from his mother. Gymnastics were very important, he told me. He was studying gymnastics so he would be limber and flexible like his mother. Was I studying gymnastics? Had I when I was little? It was best to learn while still a child, but he thought it might not be too late.
The first time that I visited Angela's apartment was by chance; we needed to borrow a cup of something. "Sure, hon, come in." But before getting the flour or the sugar, Angela ushered me directly into her living room and gestured for me to sit on a furry white couch in front of the dominant feature of the room, which was an immense painting over the mantelpiece. The painting was done on a field of black velvet and portrayed Angela as reclining odalisque, naked save for a pair of red high heels and a diaphanous bit of veil over her arms. The painting had been a surprise, a gift from a group of admirers who had apparently modeled the pose after Ingres's languid, long-backed harem slave of 1894, the original of which hangs in the Louvre. I knew that painting, if only as a slide projected in the lecture hall. Whatever the painting on velvet lacked of Ingres's neoclassical technique -- and in truth, that might be all -- it made up for in palpable presence. It was a good likeness and there was no doubt that it was Angela, perhaps an Angela of ten years earlier. Other than the black background and red shoes, the colors were pinks and white-pinks, less pearly than those of Ingres, and instead of his blue satin drapery and peacock feather fan,
a bamboo leaf motif played over two sides like a vignetting fringe. Around the painting was a frame of black enameled wood, and around the frame was a string of miniature colored Christmas tree lights.
Angela told me that she did not turn on the Christmas tree lights except on special occasions, one of which was now. She waited until her guest was seated in the living room in front of the painting and then snapped on the lights so one could appreciate the change in the overall effect. It was a good overall effect before the lights were switched on, and with them -- "Boy, oh boy" and "Holy cow" are things people might have said, if they could think of anything to say at all.
Angela loved the painting, and though one can imagine a child psychologist's unsmiling caveats, I think her kids did too. What was it but the image of the body that kept their lives together, that made their home, that generated food and clothes and heat, that made their universe spin? The emblem ornamented by lights over the hearth was, like its patrician cousins, plainly a shrine to the lady of the house, here Aphrodite as working woman. As with all shrines, there was an inevitable distance between the image and the belief it embodied. None of us is identical with our bodies, and Angela was not one with the body in the painting, and so she was free to look on it as she did -- with pride and detachment, as when a magnate gazes at a picture of his fortunate manufactory, or a captain on a rendering of a favorite sloop.
Never once did Angela refer to herself as a stripper, but always as a gymnast or gymnastic dancer. The club, she explained, was the best place for a gymnastic dancer to earn steady money, which steady money affirmed the central mythos of her household: that to be limber and gymnastic is a powerful tool, a ticket in this world, like math or grammar. "Have you had any gymnastic training?" she asked me the first time we had coffee. Like her son, Angela looked sad when I said that I had not. Being tear-gassed in protest marches, lied to by Presidents, and seeing a city burn for a prophet's death had been one kind of education, but none of that was yet knowledge of what could make Angela say, "It's a good job, hon. I'm the headliner."
One day Angela issued me an invitation, the first formal social invitation I would receive in New England. My roommates and I and our dates were to be her guests at the club where she was the star performer. She would like us to come Saturday night for the main show at ten o'clock. We arrived at the club a little early, as Angela had asked us to, and she came out from her dressing room and introduced us to the club manager, who was gruff in a not avuncular but just plain gruff way. Angela also introduced us to the bartender, to one of the other performers, and later, during her act, pointed us out to the other customers as "my neighbors, who are just out of school." I saw that we were a novelty mix of mascot and country mice, that we were bits of paint on Angela's palette that night, adding to her star, and I felt confused and glad. She was, I believe, on the verge of asking us to stand up and say where we came from, like visitors to a new church.
For her act, Angela wore a lime-green and black costume, net stockings, and elbow-length lime-green evening gloves -- apparel of a splendor greatly beyond (as was one Hester Prynne's) and yet of considerably less coverage than that approved by what Hawthorne called the "sumptuary regulations of the colony." There was a jazz drummer who played while Angela performed, and some music on a record player. The runway was set behind the bar and elevated, so that the audience looked up slightly to Angela's body.
Outside the club it was August; when we had arrived the heat of the day was just giving way as a tangy fog drifted in from the sea and settled into the canyon close of the city's sheer, high walls. Inside, the club was air-conditioned, smoky, chromed and mirrored, and jammed with middle-aged men in sports shirts. Angela was completely at home upside down, rock-steady during the whole act: rising swiftly into a headstand, bumping to the drum, slowly pulling off her stockings one by one, then unzipping her costume and somehow removing it too. There were spangled pasties on her breasts, with long beads that hung down toward her face. I remember thinking, as everyone must have, a good deal about how she was accomplishing the whole thing. It seemed a foregone conclusion that she would be both upside down and naked at some point, but how this would actually occur was a source less of erotic tease than of sheer logistical drama and suspense.
Even though she was a pro, one worried for Angela the whole time, the way one does for a tightrope walker at the circus: Would she lose her balance? Would she manage zipper and garter snaps? For this line of work, Angela was no longer young; she was already half the soft, lined roui, and to engage in a nightly drama to defeat gravity was not merely a career-extending technique but a production that touched and tickled her audiences. At some moment in her act one could feel the tenor of the room shifting, the audience aware of another pitch. I won't insist that it was art with a capital A, but it was something rather like it. She was not so much a transcendentalist pointing to an ideal beyond the world of experience, as she was an inversionist, transforming by reversals within the all too real. Do I navigate the fine line about this life? It was hard, and redolent of limitation, but of little she made much. The applause started even before she had finished her routine, and when she threw out the final bit of apparel -- two thin boas that had been coiled around her arms -- that was the finale, and the middle-aged men in sports shirts stood up and cheered.
After her act, Angela had drinks sent to us on the house, whatever we wanted. The star came by our table and flirted with our boyfriends. She stayed in character all the while she was at the club; she was none of the other Angelas I had seen -- in her kitchen boiling spaghetti, on the seawall smoking, at the door bundling her daughter for school. She was only the exotic gymnast of the Kit Kat Club whose name appeared on a sign in the window -- not only the A, but all of the letters of her name scarlet letters, with flourishes of gold sparkles for shadows. The headliner may have seemed to some a woman whose career was a deviant offense to the moral order. But the ground of the city on the hill had thawed some since Hawthorne worried about idealism calcified, about the dark side of a high moral vision. It had room for Angela, although it did ask her, like the refractory beauty of old, to dwell apart, and by the sea on a margin of town.
As our boyfriends flirted back with Angela, they wavered between gallantry and sophomoric humor, an awkward blend that they could not quite master. Angela was unfazed; she addressed the boyfriends like downy teenagers, then shared a laugh with them like flaneurs and compatriots of the demi-monde, then commanded the hushed attention due a grande dame. We were guests in her salon, and when we left in the early morning she saw us to the door, beyond which stood a bouncer in an electric-blue suit, and she blew us kisses. The light over the door of the club was yellow, and the neon of the blinking club sign was purple, and these two complementary colors pulsed alternately over our faces while we stood in the entrance saying good-night. Then we walked out
into a thin fog that diffused the lights of the clubs and caused their hot pinks, blues, and yellows to seep into the moist gray air as water colors seep into prepared paper.
A few weeks later, someone in our house awoke in the middle of the night, startled by sound. Rising from her bed, she walked down the hall to a row of windows, outside of which there lay a rustling black sea and a party of carousing teenagers, boys and girls dancing on the wide seawall. A radio was playing -- it sounded like a song about saying good-bye to rubies and days. The tide was coming in, beginning to break over a clump of boulders, and there was a fetid salt smell from the beds of knotted wrack that blanketed the beach, each tangle fixed to its rock by a simple holdfast. A finger nail clipping of moon floated just inches above the waterline, a snip about to slide away. Threading the hallway to the window, the person had guessed -- and now as she looked out on the night she was really sure -- that she had no idea what place this might be. Her body, too, was unfamiliar, not unappealing, only unknown: a form into which she had recently arrived, from where she could not say. There was no name to call herself. The clock hands said the hour, but not a year. The suspended woman stood long at the window, unafraid but feeling entirely stripped, outside time and space. Was the sea the same sea? How had she arrived here, to see a night brawling by a body of water? What rooms had led to this window? And why such a monstrous lamp on the ceiling?
Reprinted from "Angela the Upside-Down Girl" by Emily Hiestand.
Copyright © 1998 by Emily Hiestand.
By permission of Beacon Press, Boston.