Prairie Markussen: “The Women of Scottsboro”: A Chapbook
The Women of Scottsboro, a chapbook
Between Stevenson and Paint Rock,
Victoria and Ruby laid themselves down
to 12 black men. Victoria had scars all over her body
from the gravel beneath her. She cried gang rape,
and Ruby followed suit.
As the train swept through Alabama,
with the wide open sky flashing like a bright Arian eye, Victoria
and Ruby bore it. The gondola beneath them swayed;
the March air bit down like a whip.
Ruby had never seen anything so beautiful
as friendship. The mills were hard. She was shy.
Broke her heart against any man who passed her.
Vic had been married three times. She could
spit as far as any man. Her tongue was a whip,
and it caressed Ruby right into Chattanooga. They
looked for work; any kind, regardless of state lines.
Ruby didn’t like the hobo jungles;
what she liked was sitting side by side with
Vic, most anyplace. Even if it meant
in the jungles; even if it meant taking up
with some fella or another so that she
and Vic could walk hand in hand, each
with their own man, down some street. Ruby
liked to pretend that hand was real and lasted
beyond the day. Once she and Vic had
made love, side by side, with their men; that had
been Vic’s idea. Thought it would be a laugh.
Ruby went along and watched
for Vic’s fluttering eyelids to pop
open, to see her.
“Promiscuity means little where economic oppression is great,”
wrote Miss Hollace, down from Louisville.
The rape was nothing; next to nothing. The mill
towns had seen this sort of thing before. It wasn’t
about the rape.
6 and 6 makes 12 or 9
She doesn’t think about rats or snakes. She doesn’t
think about guards that sodomize
just as easily as inmates. Doesn’t think about
death sounds, the sizzle of the chair, a whip
in a distant chamber. Doesn’t
think about it because what had she been through,
if not worse? Laying herself down again and again,
hoping for better than $1.20 a day. In better days,
12 to 14 sides at the mill, she said, pulled in good money.
Now, barely 8. Sometimes only 6 paid out.
So, it seemed appropriate:
Victoria would have her 6. And for Ruby,
I’m not given to reflection or regret,
but I suppose I’d say: for the action. Things
get drab in my neighborhood. Even Teller, who
seemed like a hoot at first, he got drab. Drunk
too many times in my lap. What can you do with a man
like that, except share the bottle? Ruby and I weren’t
doing nothing much. No work up in Chattanooga,
no work worth paying much.
I don’t mind the talk. Around these towns, it’s all
anybody’s got time for: talk and gossip. I’ve heard
‘em say I’ve laid down with black and white boys
alike. Smashed up a few marriages. Almost got
killed by some angry wife. I guess it’s true, but
mostly I’m alright. But all that—what else
is there to do ‘round here? For the action, I reckon.
If I had to say. If I was honest.
Yes, ma’am, they took us by force. All twelve
of them. I know they only found nine later,
but Victoria said twelve, and I said twelve,
so we must know. It’s a goddamn shame,
when you think about it. All me and Vic
was interested in was findin’ work. A gal’s
gotta travel these days for work, and that’s what
we was doin’. And these boys just crawled
right over to us—crawled over the chert, that is—
and beat us real good and showed us their
things and forced themselves on us. Made us
lay down with each of ‘em. Well, six for me,
and six for Vic. That’s what we said.
We fought it, sure did. Knew we weren’t
getting paid for it, not that we truck with that
sort of thing, but we knew we weren’t, so
we didn’t want any part of it. Didn’t matter
though. They slapped us up good and called
us tramps. Vic said her lip was bleeding,
and I’m sure mine was too.
When that train stopped and we saw
them white men waiting, we knew we
were saved. Told ‘em what happened
right quick, and that’s how come the boys
are in trouble. Cuz of what they done.
Raped us good. It doesn’t take a doctor
or twelve niggers to tell me otherwise.
Where is your daddy, Victoria? Where is yours,
Ruby? Gone the way of the mill men? Rode out
on the last train. Burrowed into the drink. Thought:
better to leave families behind: one less mouth. Still:
one less pair of hands to work for food on the table,
to keep the shack standing. One way to move
your daughters closer to the ground, your wives
to take in boarders. Nothing lasts or stays
put. All they have from you is a love of snuff
and a sharp aim downward; a far-spreading stain.
Tough as nails, sure. Tough enough to hobo
from state to state. Tough enough to take
what she wanted. But time, as they say,
eventually runs out. She clocked herself at 19,
but rumors round town was that she was nearer
27. How long could she lay herself down? How
long would they want her, or pay?
The sheriff had allowed her business
because she was one of the quiet ones. Still:
she didn’t want to be quiet. She wanted to
crack jokes, laugh as rowdy as she pleased,
scream her pleasure out into the night,
bend an ear or two to her stories. Mesmerize.
Tell tall tales and watch the photobulbs flash,
watch the boys barely able to get it all down
in their little black books, watch them stamp
her into history.
Katherine Queen Victory Street v. NBC, 1976
“. . . there has been over a thousand pages
and every one of my pages is alike
and if I had to do it all over . . .
it would be the same thing again.”