Bessie and the Chain Gang

By Stephanie Dickinson

Bessie smith postcard 1 cent

Downhearted blues

huntsville, tx

Bessie and  the Chain Gang


Something must have died in the hills. The bird gods circle, more turkey buzzards, as we travel south through mesas of clay. The distance pulls us into it. No trees, just arid plains, lonesome stretches, the sky the red of licked raw lips. I see my mother and brothers lying in the rimrock, the sun like a wound that keeps seeping, a cut in the hand that you shake to stop, the dirt road not coming to an end. Wind teases quaking aspen from the grey soil. Last night (our honeymoon night) we slept outside among phantom live oaks that contorted while an army of gnats drank our blood. The old crank-shaft Hudson has crapped out on a dirt road even the ditch weeds try to run from. Mr. Morgan, my brand new husband, lifts the hood and curses the fuel pump innards, tries the sparkplugs, goads the engine to kick in. Hackberry, black walnut, red oak, civet. Dry, hard country. We’re going again, set to meet up with the Rabbit Minstrels and sing in Huntsville at the penitentiary.


A Ball jar of pickles on the dash swims in the weeks’ old heat, it gives off the color of a dream—the sun too strong, the grass too green. Too much brightness in the mind.


We see the men shimmering in the distance, wearing white and plodding through the field, weeding the seven-foot stalks of broom corn. Men in overalls shuffling, shackled, and above them the white torch of the sky, burning away their brown faces. The road draws us closer to the Watchers riding their chocolate horses, their long swishing tails glinting pink in the sun. Heat makes the dust jitter in the windshield. Under his cowboy hat, the boss man’s face is far off as the buzzards. The horses act old and mean and their long yellow teeth bite at the convicts. My new man’s hands tighten on the wheel, stripped down to wrist bones and knuckles. His face—grey, smoldering ashes, he drives cold as a glass of well water past the chain gang. I should cut off my right arm and throw it at the boss man. It’s only a glare we’re vanishing into where sky meets more dusty sky.


Stephanie Photo - by Lawrence -2

Stephanie Dickinson, an Iowa native, lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her noir novel Love Highway. Her other books include Port Authority Orchids, and Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, and Flashlight Girls Run. Her work has been reprinted in Best American Nonrequired ReadingNew Stories from the South, and 2016 New Stories from the Midwest.  She is the editor of Rain Mountain Press.

Read more by Stephanie:

Bessie Shames the KKK
Bessie & Ma
Bessie Takes Aim at Billy Gee
Bessie’s Island Dancer Recalls the Fight for her Life