Cover image for The fires
The fires
Steinke, Rene.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Morrow, [1999]

Physical Description:
243 pages ; 22 cm
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Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Smoke has as many different scents as skin. Part of the pleasure is not knowing what it will be -- sulfurous or closer to incense or airier and sweeter as I imagine the smell of clouds.

Ella is a connoisseur of fire, a woman enthralled by it as other women are by love. She savors the seductive promise of a spark, the caress of a curling wisp of smoke, the all-consuming hunger of a spreading blaze. Ella's heart seethes with a rage that can be spoken only with tongues of flame.

In her remarkable first novel, Rene Steinke has created a narrator so lyrical and lucid in her madness as to raise the book to the level of romance. Trapped in a sleepy Indiana town, torn by inner demons that drive her to pyromania and promiscuity, Ella is at once entirely original and unforgettably real.

As she struggles to come to terms with her family's tormented past and her own uncertain future, she draws the mesmerized reader ever deeper into her scorched soul, revealing a sensuality that will spiral into final, fiery destruction -- unless it can be quenched by love.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Ella is an intelligent but restless young woman who works as a night clerk in an old hotel in Porter, Indiana, during the early '60s. When she was a young child, an accidental fall into a pile of burning leaves left unsightly and embarrassing scars on her torso, arms, and thighs. Worse, though, are the internal scars resulting from the enormous tension she experiences as a consequence of deeply buried family secrets. Neither alcohol nor promiscuous sex with strangers brings desperately sought release. Only through the compulsive act of starting fires and allowing herself to be visually absorbed by them is she able to find temporary relief. Ella's search for her favorite and long-missing aunt, her mother's mysterious and independent sister, parallels her search for truth in the family's history. Increasingly driven, she makes repeated escalating attempts to burn through the layers of cover-up, half-truths and outright lies that prevent her from finding the love needed for healing. Hope is fragile in this darkly compelling and beautifully written story, Steinke's debut novel. --Grace Fill

Publisher's Weekly Review

"It is less dangerous to burn things than to save them," says 22-year-old Ella, the protagonist of Steinke's sensitive, eerie first novel. Ella works at the Linden Hotel in a stifling small town in Indiana. She likes to set fires and watch them burn. She also has scars on her torso and legs from a childhood accident that has never been entirely explained to her. But then, much remains unspoken in her family‘her grandfather's suicide, old photos of the neighborhood women (including her grandmother) dressed in Klan garments, and the defection from the family of Ella's favorite aunt, Hanna. After her grandfather's funeral, Ella takes a room in the Linden Hotel and tries to locate Hanna, hoping that if her aunt explains her mysterious past, Ella will be able to understand the questions that haunt her own sense of identity. Meanwhile, she checks in on her possessive mother, who has been severely depressed since her husband died when Ella was 15; now, after her father's suicide, she has stopped eating and is wasting away. Ella begins an affair with a co-worker at the hotel, but she continues setting fires as a form of expression‘she burns a dress, a book, the garage of a bigoted family. Her need for burning escalates, and she knows it's only a matter of time until fate compels her to set the biggest fire yet. Steinke's rich, sensuous prose is studded with arresting imagery; long, italicized descriptions of fire, flame, and smoke are poetic and mysterious e arly in the novel, but somewhat tedious later when they get in the way of the story. She succeeds in establishing a cool, calm voice for her tormented arsonist, but the hypnotic language keeps Ella at arm's length, and her free-floating anxiety eventually becomes enervating to the reader. Still, there's no denying that Steinke is a writer with potential to burn. Agent, Simon Green. (Mar.) FYI: Steinke is a cousin of Darcy Steinke, author of Jesus Saves. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

As a child, Ella fell into a pile of burning leaves, sparking a fascination with fire that causes her to crave a single flame or a conflagration, depending on her depth of need. Her pyromania crests as she tries to deal with her family's difficult past and becomes obsessed with her long-lost aunt, Hanna. She interviews everyone she can find, hoping to discover why Hanna fled her hometown in Indiana; along the way she turns up even more upsetting information about her family, including her grandmother's affiliation with the Klan. As the past becomes clearer, Ella combines her fire-setting fetish with promiscuity and alcoholism, tormenting herself and the people close to her. First novelist Steinke's terse prose is interspersed with haunting passages describing Ella's love affair with fire. An interesting examination of the psyche of a pyromaniac‘not for everyone, but recommended where cutting-edge fiction is popular. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/98.]‘Beth Gibbs, Charlotte & Mecklenburg Cty. P.L., NC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Smoke has as many different scents as skin. Part of the pleasure is not knowing what it will be--sulfurous or closer to incense or airier and sweet as I imagine the smell of clouds. Nothing relieves me so much as burning something old, watching it flicker and disappear into air. Dresses dance as they go, lifted as if by some music. A photograph flaps like a wing or a hand waving. Perfumes hiss, then shatter, papers curl, plaster jewels curdle. Once I tried to burn an old toy--a mechanical duck. When I'd found it at the bottom of a drawer, it reminded me of the groggy sunrise Easter service and the hunt for eggs in the graveyard. After I set the match to its tail, it started walking pitifully on its metal legs, and it knocked around the room singeing the walls and linoleum until it burned down to its metal frame and folded with a crackle and small battery explosion. It is less dangerous to burn things than to save them. * * * I'd poured myself six thimble shots of bourbon and walked the edges of the bedroom touching the walls and windowsills, hoping to work the starry twitches from my legs so they'd lie still. If I let go, I'd fall off the night that was galloping fast. Every time I got into bed, I heard an intruder finagling the catch on the window or slowly climbing the basement stairs. My heart raced. My eyelids fluttered. I jolted up, walked to the kitchen, ears stinging at the silence, and poured another shot.     The train had gone by three times, rattling into the air. Porter was the kind of Indiana town where the whistle sounded cheerful, not plaintive, but then the wheels chewed ravenously on the tracks.     I listened for the man until he turned phantom again--the trees, the wind. Ridiculous to be twenty-two, a year past adulthood, and still afraid of stray noises. I went into the kitchen and sat down at the table, turned on the clock radio, and fiddled with the ridged knob until I heard the song about lightning and the crashing sea of love, just at the point when the guitar strummed in waves. My bare feet pressed on the cool, grainy floor; my nightgown bunched up around my knees.     I traced a panicky finger over the constellation of glitter in the Formica--two nights of not sleeping, with nothing to do for long, bare hours except worry over the crucial thing it seemed I needed to remember and couldn't: that blankness revolved in my head like a siren.     Twirling the salt shaker in my fingertips, I groggily felt that if I acted asleep, sleep might come. Sprinkling a little salt in my palm, I dabbed a few grains into the corners of my eyes before I closed them and put my head down on the table. But when I tried to breathe slowly and think of nothing, I began to crave potato pancakes and apples.     Over the stove hung the cast-iron skillet my father had used to make them, crisp and salty in a way my mother and I had never mastered. After he died, the drinking started--secretly at first, from sticky bottles next to the flour in the pantry cabinet, and for the same reason I often couldn't sleep now: an old sensation that I was falling, or about to fall, from some roof or ledge or stairs. Bourbon gave me the courage to loosen my grip. It wasn't that I wouldn't fall anymore, but the fall would be pleasant, and it wouldn't matter so much when I did.     I was about to drift off when I heard a scratch, a mouse or something, in the pantry. I got up to open the door and turn on the light. The colored boxes and gleaming cans glared back at me. I knew I was hanging on too tightly, but this time couldn't make myself let go.     The landlord had asked me to leave my apartment on Birch Street, and I was staying at my mother's until I could move into one of the rooms at the Linden Hotel, where I worked. There the insomniacs made anxious trips to the ice machine after midnight, and by morning they were already showered and dressed as if there were some purpose to their being awake so early. When they came down to the lobby to check out, their faces swollen and pale, a lostness about them, I'd keep my voice quiet and slow as I gave them directions or simply thanked them and said good-bye. I knew they'd sleepwalk through the day, just as I often did, wincing at light and hoping not to stumble, all along hearing that murmur: If you couldn't sleep last night, you might not get to sleep later, or ever.     I went back to the metal chair and sat staring out the window at the grass, my stomach hollow from all the bourbon. I got up and opened the refrigerator, peered into the cold light. In the lingering smell of leftover cherry pie lay a quart of milk, a hunk of molded bread, a dozen eggs. I grabbed the egg carton and shut the door.     I was going to scramble them, but immediately lost my appetite and just lay them on the table in front of me. I thought of all the people I knew sleeping then, their heads nestled in dreams like those eggs in their cups. I visited each bed, examined the sleeping face, the mouth pressed closed or slightly open, the deep slow breaths or snores, the sprawl or curl of limbs. I wanted to know how they let go so easily, how they managed to spiral so bravely into sleep, unafraid of all they had forgotten.     The dark sky was bluing. Taking the first egg from its bed, I palmed it in my hand, shook it just slightly, and felt the weight of the yolk wiggling in its sack. In the gentle press of my fingers, the shell felt brittle and fragile. I tossed it at the window, and it smacked against the blue-black surface, a toy sun. I threw another one at the glass. It cracked and splashed yellow, then dripped sleepily. * * * It happened later that same August. I was cold at the funeral, and I kept touching the book of matches in my skirt pocket, the plain black cover and the twenty red heads, lined up and full-cheeked like a choir. Flicking my thumbnail at the thin cardboard, I looked up over the casket at the empty cross of pale wood.     When my grandmother had called that Monday night, sobbing so I barely understood her murmur over the phone that my grandfather had died in his sleep, I pretended she was telling the truth. But when my mother and I got there, what really happened was clear from the empty glass vial, the tipped-over china cup on the nightstand, the pinch of white powder blurring the delicate flowers on the saucer's rim. His small head was turned to the black window, his mouth blue and slack, his eyes serene but plastic, the folds in his cheeks frowning. He had been formal and guarded in a way that made him inscrutable, but now his face lacked wariness, his eyes and mouth vulnerable in a way I hadn't seen before.     His left arm was flung across the pillow, a scrap of envelope crumpled in his fist. I was afraid to touch his skin, but coaxed the paper out from the tension in his fingers and saw that he'd scrawled a few lines in pencil, then tried to erase them. Kneeling down to hold the paper in the lamplight, I stared through that fog of smudged marks, but could only make out three words where the pencil had indented the paper: "NOT YOUR" and near the ripped corner, "LOVE."     I looked up on the nightstand and watched the round clock's hands tick past frilled numbers. I counted. Behind me, I heard something small fall on the bureau and my mother softly weeping. I wanted to console her, to weep myself, but instead counted the seconds, my heart that clock, impatient and achingly brass. When I turned around to my mother and grandmother, I felt the ticking dryness in my eyes, a metallic bitterness in my throat.     I quickly turned back to him. Even not blinking from my stare, the tears wouldn't come. I was a clock trapped behind a flat, oval face, ticking and ticking--what was wrong with me?     My mother, my grandmother Marietta, and I rode in the hearse at the front of the procession, a dozen cars with twittering yellow flags that said FUNERAL. My limbs were shaky, as if my leg might kick the seat, my arm fling out at the driver's head, but I held still, afraid of what might happen if I moved. "It was a good service, wasn't it?" my mother said, her voice phlegmy. I'd learned to read her by the angle of her face, her gestures, and the changing shape of her eyes, rather than by what she said. When I watched her this way, she held me at a distance, but she still held me.     She kept smoothing the dress in her lap as if this motion soothed her, her thin mouth strained into a smile. She was worried I might see how much his death terrified her.     My grandmother's shoulders curled in around her body. As usual, she looked more vivid than my mother, wearing her best dress, nude stockings, and precise red lips so that no one could say she'd let herself go--but there was something mournful in the way she'd made herself up so brightly.     We passed the old community theater, an elaborate, stone building with a lion at the greened copper crest near the roof, which, as a girl, I'd used to ask questions: How many puppies will the neighbor's dog have? When will my mother be happy? What did you see on the street last night? "Are you okay, Ella?" Marietta asked me. A handkerchief edged with embroidered roses was gathered in the manicured, freckled hand she placed on my knee.     "Sure," I said, rubbing my eyes, knowing how afraid she and my mother were that I'd start to cry. My forced-back tears made a sparkly, prismed shield.     My mother's hands were clenched. The fingernails bitten down to the quick and the torn red cuticles resembled my grandfather's hands, which were huge, out of proportion, even, to his six-foot frame. But my mother's hands were small--rough white knuckles and fragile fingers with swollen joints--the hands of a woman who worried too much. I knew she just wanted to get this over with, to go back to our routines. That was how she managed, structuring each day like a house she couldn't leave.     "It's warm in here," I said, folding my palms together in my lap. There was a marbled amulet of skin around my left wrist, and though I'd grown used to hiding it, I didn't now. Its ugliness even pleased me. I stared at the rivulets of pink and white, the strange curvy lunge the scar took toward my thumb.     The driver stopped short at a red light, and the coffin rattled in its straps. It was easier to fathom his death now that they'd closed the coffin and put away the portrait of him in middle age that had been propped on the lid. It had been the undertaker's idea to do that, "an old Midwestern tradition," he'd said, but it hadn't been comforting to see his young face battle with the dead one. I'd noticed my mother looked only at the coffin, but had kept her eyes on the collar of his shirt, the pointed tips and the knot of the tie.     We drove past the Paradise Lounge, its neon palm tree sign flashing pink and green. It was a place where I could dodge my reflection in the bottles against the bar's mirror, or disappear in the shadowy tables pushed up against the wall, but people who knew me wouldn't have believed I ever went there.     "I didn't see Mrs. Schone, did you?" My mother didn't really care whether or not this friend of my grandmother's had come--she was only afraid of what else one of us might say.     "In the back," I said.     She nodded, her face gray as cement. I wanted to take her hand, but she'd clenched them tightly in her lap on the opposite side and leaned away from me, against the door.     We drove through the graveyard entrance past a white set of praying hands, taller than a man. I thought about pulling the flask of schnapps from my pocket and drinking from it--a small motion, really, just the lift of the fingers, a firm twist--but even a motion this small seemed impossible.     We wound along the narrow gravel road, past stone angels and small, bent trees, and a little farther on we stopped in front of the fenced family plot. We got out of the hearse, and slowly walked to the grave site.     Car doors slammed. A man said, "You never know, do you? In his sleep? Was it a stroke?"     "Something like that."     My blouse pinched under the arms, and from the strain of holding tears back, my nose was running. There was a rustle of dress clothes behind me as people whispered about how kind my grandfather had been, how he'd lived a full life, how much he'd loved his roses, how they'd seen him, healthy, only the day before he died. I knew then that his death didn't belong to him, that our lie had covered his final escape. We didn't even discuss it, we'd learned so well to keep the surface of life unwrinkled and clean, like a well-made bed.     "Dear friends, we are gathered here to remember a man who fought the good fight." Pastor Beck was standing in front of us, next to the perfect rectangular grave, his white robe blowing dramatically in the breeze. I stood behind Marietta and my mother and looked down at their narrow ankles, their heels sunk into the soil. Pastor Beck bent to gather some dirt, and when he stood up again, dropped it from his fingers over the grave. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust." They'd told themselves he hadn't meant to vanish, but someday we would have to admit he meant to leave us. My mother's shoulders began to shake, her fingers grasping at air.     I couldn't listen to most of the homily, but stood separate from it all, as if I were looking on through a screen door--just a thin wire mesh, but I didn't have anything sharp enough to break through it.     Marietta leaned forward, her eyes watery. My mother glowered at one of the poles holding up the tarp above us, as Pastor Beck went on, "For all of us, but especially for Marietta, for Catherine, Hanna, Ella." Cars shushed from the highway. No one had seen Hanna, my mother's older sister, for several years, and her name had been set apart from all the others for so long it had a holy sound that hurt my chest.     As the men lowered the coffin on ropes into the ground and one by one we tossed carnations into the grave, I thought, She doesn't even know this is happening. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and stared at a tin vase of silk flowers that had tipped over in the grass.     Afterward we went to the graveyard pavilion for coffee and a potluck supper. The smell of tomato sauce and cream of mushroom soup was so thick in the air, something swiveled in my stomach. My best friend Jo was in the corner talking to her fiancé, but no matter how much I wanted to go over to her and say Thank God you're here. I can't stand it. Let's go, the space between us seemed too loud and crowded to cross. I leaned toward my mother, whispered in her ear that I didn't feel well, and took a step back. She turned to me, stumbling over her shoe. I knew how badly she wanted to keep her composure for these people, but her grief made her clumsy.     Marietta was distracted, accepting compliments from a group of elderly women on her new black dress. "I didn't have one," she said in a high, prim voice. "I like colors." She doesn't want anyone to blame her, I thought.     I slipped out the screen door, hoping not to see anyone. It was dusk by then, and the graveyard looked magnetic and still as I wandered the spindled paths, fingering the torn envelope in my pocket, not exactly telling myself where I was going, but I knew. My mother would worry when she noticed I'd left the pavilion, and though it pained me to think of her searching the room, asking people if they'd seen me, I was used to her worry, and there usually wasn't any way to avoid it.     I turned onto the highway and walked on the gravel shoulder. Seven years before, at my father's funeral, I'd also watched myself walk among people and my mouth form words, all the while floating above like a torn-up cloud. They hadn't been able to find an organist to replace him, and the service had been silent. So many tepid voices and gingerly handshakes--as if death made people move in slow motion, disturbingly out of tempo in a way that would have annoyed him.     I walked past the popcorn warehouse and a field of munching cows. By this time the sun had blurred behind the trees, and my head was spinning. I'd gone as far as the paint-tester site and in my pocket felt the flask, the envelope, and the fold of the matchbook.     It was a field of shingles, propped up on legs, as if paint samples grew and could be harvested. The company must have figured if a housepaint lasted two winters in Indiana, then it would be durable enough to last two years anywhere in the country. In the dusk, the gray and green boards looked muted, the whites and yellows more intense.     Drinking from the flask, I walked down a row of white shingles, each a slight variation with a different name: Granite, Shell, Bone. I stopped in front of one near the end. Where the paint had worn away, the plank showed strands of dull gray wood. Not durable enough. I stood there and looked out at the dozens of shingles on wooden legs like chairbacks in an empty theater, whites, yellows, greens, browns. I straightened up, took a deep breath, and in a steady, clear voice, said, "He poisoned himself."     Pulling the flask from my pocket, I unscrewed the cap and took a mouthful of schnapps. A sharp sensation cut along my teeth. I didn't particularly like it, but that was part of its appeal, along with the numbness I first felt along the bridge of my nose.     I was getting pleasantly drunk and didn't look at my hand pull the matchbook from my pocket, feel along the cover to pluck one out, hold the two sides together as I pulled the head against the sandpaper strip until it snapped and flared. At the funeral I'd felt all those eyes expecting me to come apart, the truth about what happened pulled from my skin like straw out of a stuffed animal. But I'd kept our secret crinkled next to the flask in my skirt pocket.     With the heat pulsing in my fingertips, I carefully set the match on the flat rotten edge of the gray-white shingle and stood close enough to protect the little paw burning at my waist. It was thin at first. I was afraid it would go out. I cupped my hands around it, and my palms lit up, pale and wrinkled, as the flame swelled toward them. When I pulled away, it leaped along the top of the board.     The yellow flames muscled and flinched. The wood blackened. I wished I could have asked him what it felt like to drink arsenic, if it was tasteless or somehow sweet, if it numbed you slowly like alcohol, finger by finger, or if it suddenly stopped your heart like a bullet. I felt a press behind my eyes then, not because I couldn't ask but because--despite the habitual affection between us--if he'd lived, I wouldn't have had the courage. I could count on one hand the things he and I could talk about.     When the first Buddhist set himself on fire in Cambodia, my grandfather, rustling his newspaper, had said, "It's a sad thing, isn't it, how they believe burning themselves alive is a good religion." I tossed the envelope with his scrawled marks into the flame, watched it crumple and wither in the blue center. I didn't think we'd ever know what he'd meant to write, and the thought of how much we'd misunderstood him, how little he'd let us see, put a soreness in my throat I couldn't swallow.     The fire hurried higher in the air. He'd usually kept his hands fisted, whether leaning back in a chair or walking into the next room, and he'd often stood at the kitchen sink, ferociously scrubbing them ten or twenty times a day, sometimes until they bled. One hand viciously grabbed the other, slid away, and the other, released, did the same, the water coming out so hard from the faucet that it splattered up in the sink and we all had to raise our voices to cover up the clamor.     The yellow light circled around me in the gathering darkness. The flames jabbed at the air and chewed through the board, fell off the legs and rolled in the dirt. I stepped back, crossed my arms on my chest, and rubbed the lumps of my shoulder bones, my face prickling in the heat.     It was usually the only relief, this hot, upside-down waterfall and its salty light. It ebbed first beneath my eyelids and then under my tongue, soaked through my muscles and veins and gently wore at them until I lost strength in my legs and could barely stand.     Under my blouse, I touched the silky part of my stomach, then moved my hand under my damp breast to the braided scar, a core of old pain to hang on to. The wind quickened and shrieked. The fire bent over and flicked sparks into the dry weeds. * * * When I walked back to town, I went to Jo's apartment, thinking I would tell her, but when I got there, and we were sitting among her girlhood pink-and-gold bedroom set, the canopy bed shifting above us, I couldn't. She had been exercising, and a calm, pious female voice on the tape recorder kept giving instructions and counting. Jo tried to comfort me, but I couldn't hear her. It kept pricking at my skull: He killed himself. He killed himself.     I left Jo's and went back to the hotel and changed. The dress was red and fit so tightly you could see the tilt of my hipbones in the sheen of the silk. Glass beads cuffed the sleeves and ringed the hem in black circles, and a rhinestone hung on the catch to the zipper in back. I'd found it that summer at a yard sale, crumpled under a set of chipped dishes.     At eleven that night I went to the Paradise Lounge to get drunk so that maybe I could sleep. It was so late I hadn't planned on meeting anyone, but this Billy sat down on the stool next to me. He was from Appleton, Wisconsin, and said he worked for an insurance company, though with his wide purple mouth and honey-colored skin, he looked awkward and too young in a suit. When he ordered his drink, he turned to me and asked if I knew any good places to eat. He stared at my breasts and then at my eyes. He took out a little notebook and wrote down what I said, pushing out his puffy bottom lip and squinting at his pen. Somehow, the diner on Willow Street led to our talking about basketball. He told me about his high-school team and then about his sister, who was fat and a good card player--but pensively, as if he were eighty years old and these things were already lost to him. In his hunched shoulders, I recognized a choked sadness that reminded me of my grandfather.     To change the subject I said I wanted to go to Paris and asked if he knew any French. "La Porte--that's a French name, isn't it?" He pushed his glass to the edge of the bar. Even as it shunned strangers, Indiana hoarded exotic names--La Porte, Valparaiso, Vincennes--as if it could contain all the world and obliterate the need to travel.     "Doorway to the Midwest," said the bartender, pouring.     "No. You? Polly whatever?" He turned back with a new drink and a little bounce. His lips were shiny with booze, and I could tell he was nervous. It made it easier.     "A little," I said, laughing. I glanced down at his fingers wrapped around the glass and saw his thumb cock back.     "Say something." Gulping his drink, he leaned toward me. He had nice hazel eyes.     "Est-ce que la douche est chaude?" I said.     He stirred the ice in his glass with his finger. "Say something else."     "I could say anything, and you wouldn't know the difference."     "I know." He nodded. "Say anything. It sounds nice."     "Voulez-vous aller à la plage?" I said. "Comment allez-vous?" I could only remember the questions from the phrase book. Tearing his napkin contemplatively into little squares, he said, with the false sincerity of a drunk, "I have a feeling you'll go there sometime." He leaned in close to me and spoke softly, "A pretty girl like you probably has a boyfriend, right?" Sometimes I thought it was funny how little they knew about what they thought they saw. They noticed long brown hair and a heart-shaped face, or wide-set eyes and breasts and hips. Even as they were appraising me, they couldn't see the horsehead scar or the one like a prickly boat, or the red cup with teeth hidden inside that dress.     "Not at the moment," I said, smiling. I had only these ones I met at the Paradise, but my mother never asked about boyfriends, partly, I thought, because she considered dating frivolous, and partly because she didn't want me to get my hopes up for nothing.     A few stools down, a lit match hung in the dimness between some man's fingertips--this radiant, trembling tear. The fragment of what I suddenly wanted: to walk over and take it from him, set it to the bar's old wood, and watch it go.     Billy glanced over his shoulder. "What's wrong?"     Cupping his hand, the man lowered the tip of his cigarette, sucked, and then, as if it were filthy, swabbed the match at the air. "Nothing."     I rubbed the taut seam at my hip. I had a system. When I'd counted seven bourbons he'd drunk and heard him slur the word happier , and when, after an effort to touch my arm he stumbled from the barstool, I asked him if he wanted to go somewhere.     We went to his room in the Dunes Hills motel off the highway, and he rushed in before me as if there was something he didn't want me to see. The air didn't smell anonymous as it did at the Linden Hotel, but particular, like someone's old hat. There was a television with tin foil wadded around the ends of the antenna, a thick beige curtain for a bathroom door.     After I heard him flush, I sat on the lumpy bed, watching the light spill out of the lamp. I felt all over its grimy base, but couldn't find the switch, my hand stiffened from nervousness.     He slid back the curtain and stood smiling lopsidedly. He'd unknotted his tie and unbuttoned the top of his shirt so you could see the T-shirt beneath it. "I like that dress," he said, and I felt my breath catch.     It was the dream of the dresses that lured them. I'd strip in the dark and wait to see if they'd notice the scars--the marbled ruddy skin next to my navel or the pink chains swirled over my shoulders--if they'd pull back, murmuring penitently about a girlfriend or a wife, or if they'd draw in closer, curious.     He sat down next to me, rubbed his finger over a gather of fabric at my elbow. He circled my wrist with his fingers. "You're so small. How old are you?"     "Twenty-two." I shrugged, wondering if he'd seen them. "Not corn-fed. Were you?"     "Me? I hate corn." He put his hand on my shoulder and eased me back, the mattress yielding like warm mud. Stretching out his body next to me, he leaned up on his elbow, pulling one eye aslant. He was tall, his shoulders wide.     He put his hands on my face, murmured "All right," and kissed me. My mouth and eyes were hot. "I don't usually do this," he said, pulling back. "But you're so sweet." He ran his hand over the curve of my waist, the sink of my belly. One stocking slipped low on my thigh.     I glanced at the shoehorn scooping up air on the nightstand, the black toiletries bag half unzipped, a lonely black comb in the opening. His hand wriggled under my bra strap to my breast, and I felt his breath, noxious with bourbon, on my cheek. His other hand pushed at the stocking at the top of my leg, and our teeth clacked together as he groped at the nape of my neck, grabbed the rhinestone, and slowly dragged down the zipper. In my knees and fingertips a current sputtered, almost an itch. He couldn't have known how I was turning to porcelain, perfect and hard, just as his finger poked roughly inside of me.     When I opened my eyes and pulled away, black stubble crept across his upper lip. His eyes were closed, his mouth slightly open. "What's wrong?"     I reached back for my zipper. "Nothing." Staring into the paneling on the wall, I guiltily tried to decide how I'd come to this spot again on the very night of my grandfather's funeral, and the film of dust I saw made me ashamed. "Stupid," I murmured. When Billy sat up straight and moved closer, his elbow bumped the lampshade, and the light spit over us. He ran his finger up and down my spine.     I stood up, pulled my dress down from where it had gathered high on my thighs. Walking backward slowly, I said, "I've got to go." I unlatched the screen door, leaned my shoulder into it. When it screeched shut and I looked back, he was standing behind it, a grimy shadow. Already I'd forgotten his face. "You don't really want to leave," he pleaded.     I walked onto the shoulder of the highway, the dark sky jeering down. I'd fooled him but hadn't been able to fool myself--sometimes I could slip out of my body as if it had never belonged to me in the first place and fly through the top of my head, lose the scars to air.     As soon as I got inside my room at the Linden, I took off the dress and, in my stockings and bra, lit up the hot plate, the electric burner singing. The orange heat spiraled around and fitfully pulsed. I held up the shoulders of the dress so it mimicked the shape of a woman, let the hem dangle above the coiled light. Copyright (c) 1999 René Steinke. All rights reserved.