The Final Six-Pack
Nominations for the Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma Book for 2007

Read an excerpt from

Fire in Beulah
Courtesy of Penguin Books

October 30, 1920

The orchestra began to play at seven-thirty; long before the invitational hour etched in gold baroque letters on silver paper and sent a month earlier by Nona Murphy to all the best homes in Tulsa. It was L.O. himself, rushing through the ballroom in white tie and tails as he attended to several last-minute calamities, who motioned the maestro to the edge of the stage, shouting, “Good Lord, man, I didn’t bring y’all down from Kansas City to sit around and drink coffee! Play something, for chrissake!” before he hurried off to his quarters to don a magnificent floorlength Sioux headdress for the party; The seventy-five borrowed Negro servants finished their preparations to the sounds of “Hungarian Fantasie” and “I’ll Build a World in the Heart of a Rose.” Relieved of the gentleman’s bullying direction, many of them allowed themselves to nod and move in time to the orchestra’s rhythms, although the nine regular mansion employees didn’t so much as pause to tap a foot as they rushed about trying to get everything done.

When L.O. came back downstairs at half past eight, the first thing he did was to fling open the solarium doors and dash through the salon into the great chandeliered ballroom, tux tails and eagle feathers flying, shouting, “Crank it up, boys, I want ‘em to hear you clean up to Skiatook!” Again and again he exhorted the bandleader to crank it up, so that by the time the earliest guests began to arrive the piercing tones of clarinet and trumpet could be heard a mile away above the continuous rumble of automobile engines. Each time the twin carved oak doors with their twin brass lion’s-head knockers opened to receive a new party of masqueraders, the sweetish strains of harp and violin, undergirded by tympani, swelled out of the Murphy mansion and drifted along the five-acre lawn of imported Kentucky bluegrass sod, to float west into the darkness over the Arkansas River.

It had been the talk of the town for a month, this upcoming masquerade ball at the Murphy mansion, and it wasn’t only Tulsa oil society that had made moves to wrangle an invitation: the famous baron of Ponca City, E.W. Marland, had made certain he was on the list, as had the relatively unsociable Mr. and Mrs. Frank Phillips from the little city of Bartlesville, fifty miles north. But of the several city-states oil had spawned in eastern Oklahoma, none was more self-created, self-defined, self-obsessed than Tulsa—the Magic City, it called itself—and the Murphy masquerade was the premier event of the Tulsa season. Everyone who was anyone, and many nobodies, had donned elegant costumes and headed out in their Pierce-Arrows and Rolls-Royces to make an appearance at the newest and grandest (if perhaps not the most tasteful) mansion on Black Gold Row.

For a state as young as this one—hardly thirteen years old in 1920— Oklahoma had an extraordinarily mythic sense of its own character, and its many exotic selves could be recognized each time the livened doormen swung wide the oaken doors. In pairs and little clutches, and sometimes singly, the mix of aviators and ballerinas, rodeo stars and bandit queens, pioneers, divas, dance-hall girls, baseball players, an inordinate number of outlaws, and too many cowboys and Indians to count entered bowing and gasping, laughing, depositing their mink wraps and silk capes in the arms of the several Negro servants who stood at attention in the front hail.

By ten o’clock the ballroom was aswirl with caped men and masked women, and the crowd was forced to spill from the terrazzo dance floor onto the open terrace at the rear of the ballroom, into the salon to the north, the formal dining room to the south, the large entry hall facing west. It would have taken a discerning eye to pick out from the crowd the lone Southern belle in the pink ballgown standing in the salon archway, gazing intently from behind her silver mask at the front doors. She stood as close to the marble wall as the wire hoops beneath her skirt would allow, an open fan before her lips, her beautifully coifed head slightly bowed. Each time the doors opened, her face would lift and she’d watch L.O. dash forward to kiss a can-can girl or slap a lawman on the back, his bulky head dwarfed by the huge war bonnet of black-tipped white eagle feathers that swept from his brow all the way to the tiled floor. When at last she’d discovered the identities of the newly arriving masqueraders—or at least determined to her satisfaction who they were not—her head would again bow, up would come the silk fan, and the belle would retreat from the swirling crowd once more. It’s likely that none but her closest intimates would have recognized her, for Althea Dedmeyer was very changed. She stood motionless in the archway, and from a distance it appeared to be diffidence that bowed the dark head, modesty that lifted the silk fan. If one were to draw nearer, though, look closely, pierce the shadows behind the silver mask, one would discover a glazed stare not so much of fear but of a woman who, beyond all reasonableness and expectation, found herself trapped.

Shrinking from the press of revelers, Althea turned her caged stare to the many Negro servants passing busily through the ballroom, or allowed it to wander past the sea of masked faces on the dance floor, through the open French doors, to the terrace, where her husband stood outside smoking with several other men in the torchlight. She could just see the puffy silk edge of his white sleeve. But, no, it was not Franklin she hunted. Her gaze wandered toward the front hail just as Josh Cosden entered with his new wife. Cosden was the man who’d clinched Tulsa’s place as oil capital when he’d moved his refineries down from Bigheart, but this wasn’t the only reason Tulsa called him the Prince of Petroleum: he was an extraordinarily fetching man, blond, debonair, movie-star handsome. Tonight he was costumed as a flamenco dancer. Althea watched him sweep into the ballroom with his hand on the bare arm of his new wife. The wife, too, was dressed as a Spanish dancer, a black lace mantilla crowning her head, a red rose in one hand, and in the other a small jeweled mask on a stick, which now and again she held up to her face. Althea stepped back to the wall as they passed. The hooped skirt belled out in front of her in a ridiculous manner, and she had to step away again. She opened her painted silk fan in front of her lips, forced her gaze past the Cosdens to the foyer, where the wildcatter Tom Slick suddenly rushed in looking as tousled as a roustabout in the field; he hadn’t a sign of a costume about him. Behind Slick sauntered a thickset pair in matching Harlequin outfits, and then another couple, their heads poised beneath tremendously large white powdered wigs, their faces hidden behind gold trimmed masks, he in a tailed waistcoat, she in a wide, magnificently hooped skirt. Althea turned away. Near the dining-room doorway a man in blackface suddenly dropped to one knee, strummed his banjo, and burst into song, and the little party in front of him laughed and applauded.

“You’ll never guess who that is.” Althea, startled, turned to find Nona Murphy in a fringed white buckskin dress and feathered headdress smiling up at her. Nona was barefoot—a shocking, bold stroke—and thus half a head shorter than Althea. She wore no mask. Her ordinarily pale skin was stained a deep copper color; her green eyes were lined in kohl. Two perfectly drawn brows arched teasingly beneath the intricately beaded headband. “So? Who do you guess?”

Althea glanced across the floor at the plinking minstrel, but Nona laughed, “No, silly!” She flitted her smile over the crowded ballroom, allowed it to settle on the couple laboring toward the dance floor beneath the huge powdered wigs. “That’s none other than E. W. Marland and his adopted daughter, who is also, by the way, his wife’s niece, but his constant companion. The girl never leaves his side, but the wife, eh? Where is she?” The sly face tilted up at Althea.

"I wouldn’t know,” Althea murmured, though she was hardly aware of what she was saying; she passed her eyes over the crowd in search of a different face: the brown, closed mask that revealed nothing.

“I declare.” Nona clicked her tongue. “Tom and Belle Gilcrease look like they’re having a nasty fight. Is she supposed to be Carrie Nation, you reckon? Oh. No. Silly me. She’s trying to be a suffragette. In honor of the vote Tuesday. That’ll be something, won’t it? Voting for a president? Of course, L.O. said he’d spank me if I tried to register, but”—her voice dropped to a whisper—”what L.O. don’t know could fill a liberry Oh, but, now, who’s that bank robber coming in?”

Althea blinked, tried to concentrate. She couldn’t see who Nona was talking about, only the polyglot mix of disguises, some masked, some not, several who could hardly be considered to be in costume at all. It occurred to her that Nona had intentionally led some to dress one way, some another, for the perverse satisfactions of her own twisted mind.

“Oh, look.” Nona grasped Althea’s arm. “Yonder’s Chief Bacon Rind.” The Indian man entering did not pause beside the liveried servants in the foyer but passed immediately through the arch into the ballroom: erect, heavyset, dignified to the point of austerity he wore a suitcoat and a beaded amulet, gold looped earrings, a headdress not of feathers but of some kind of sleek fur shaped like a brimless top-hat perched on the crown of his head; he was followed by a short, roundfaced woman in a blanket. “That Indian’s rich as Croesus,” Nona whispered. “He’s got a Pierce-Arrow for every day of the week and two for Sunday. L.O. had to invite him. Oh, watch this, watch this!” And she pulled Althea’s arm in excitement as L.O. strode toward the Osage man with both hands outstretched, the feathered war bonnet sweeping behind him like duckwings, and his big voice booming, “There you are, Chief! Welcome. Welcome!”

The image of the white man masquerading as Indian rushing up to the Indian dressed as Indian—who wasn’t in costume but, like the wildcatter Tom Slick, simply dressed as himself—was so odd that Althea opened her mouth to say something. But Nona was already gliding away from her, tripping delicately on her bare feet across the room to join her husband. The fringed skirt hardly covered her calves, and her legs, too, had been stained chestnut. She was not wearing stockings. Althea watched them, the whitebuckskinned white hosts chatting with the two Osages, who even still did not seem very Indian to Althea, because to her Indian meant poor, meant dirty, meant two blackhaired blackeyed children holding out crusted hands at the back door, chanting, “Meat. Bread. Meat. Bread.” The recollection made her dizzy, made her afraid she might swoon. She stepped out into the center of the ballroom, rushed toward the terrace, the hoopskirt belling and swaying awkwardly, her callused feet spooned into tiny lace-up shoes.

She stopped just inside the French doors, put a hand down to still the bobbing skirt, held herself near the wall as she tried to catch her husband’s eye. Franklin stood in the center of a dozen or so men, all of them hatless and coatess in the crisp air, their fingers clutching fat cigars, their shotglasses in the torchlight glowing with bootleg bourbon. Franklin was holding forth loudly, good-naturedly, and the others were listening. His silk shirt was open at the throat, a black one-eyed mask pushed up and riding his forehead. Franklin said something, and the others laughed, and Franklin laughed loudest of all. Althea longed to step out into that cold torchlit darkness, but the terrace was a gentlemen’s domain, a woman could not simply walk out there. She turned toward the ballroom as if that had been her intention all along—to view the masquerade from this vantage point—and it was then, finally, that she saw Graceful, in a black maid’s uniform and white apron, carrying a tray of hors d’oeuvres across the room. The sight of Graceful’s face instantly calmed her. She had an impulse to move toward her, though she didn’t give in to it but merely folded her fan and slipped it into a secret pocket of her dress. Graceful had been here since yesterday, as had the majority of the best servants from the best homes in Tulsa, installed at Nona’s clever behest inside the immense buffbrick mansion to prepare for the Murphys’ party. Althea watched the solid black-and-white form moving through the costumed dancers: the brown face backtilted, more perfectly concealing than any of the gilded masks on the white people in the room. The girl’s visage was hard, and yet Althea thought her features seemed somehow softened. How was it possible that Graceful’s face was at once softer and harder? Had it been like that when she came back from Bigheart? Althea couldn’t remember. An image began to push in on her—the girl standing on the porch in a cotton shift, turning the crank of the Eden washing machine—and then another picture, not of Graceful but of herself—sitting up in the bed in the gray light of early morning, the sheet pulled over her knees as she stared with swollen eyes at her own image in the mahogany mirror. The long-submerged source trembled close to the surface. She turned blindly and started toward the hallway that led to the powder room.

“Ah, here you are, my darling!” Franklin’s big paw came around her waist and stopped her; she could feel his warmth through the boned corset. He bent to deposit a kiss on her forehead. “You look so beautiful,” he nearly shouted, though his words were barely distinguishable above the orchestra. For an instant she leaned against him.

“Dance with me,” she said. Her voice was flat, loud. Her voice had nothing to do with the pleading inside her: the words sounded like a command.

But Franklin was flushed with bourbon and the heady rush of his own happy secrets. He grinned down at his wife, his forehead tilted. “And why wouldn’t I want to dance with the most beautiful woman in the room?” he shouted. “Madame?” He bowed at the waist, took his wife’s hand, and escorted her to the dance floor.
Althea allowed her arms, ribcage, cinched waist to go limp as he led her in a waltz; she followed her husband’s feet as if bound to them, glad for the music and the motion as Franklin whirled her around the floor. For a time her thoughts were hushed; her mind filled only with the music’s three-four rhythm, the swirling crescendo of harp and violin, the sweeping movements of her own body. But then the orchestra swung into a foxtrot, the clarinets chortling, the snare drum rattling a complicated tempo, and Althea tried to perform the alternating gaits in her tiny lace-up shoes, but her mind was distracted, she couldn’t rely on her body’s memory. and she suddenly dropped her hand from her husband’s shoulder, turned and walked off the floor.

“Thea! What’s the matter? Darling—” Franklin trailed after her, but Althea hurried across the ballroom, weaving through the crush of quick-stepping guests; she made her way swiftly into the formal dining room, which served now as libation room for the boldly flowing illegal liquor, where dozens of men stood about talking business in deep-pitched, urgent clutches of threes and fours as they sipped champagne punch from crystal goblets. At one end of the room an elderly Negro stood at attention behind the long table, where a gold-rimmed crystal punchbowl sat squarely on a French-lace tablecloth.

The room shut silent the instant she entered. Althea ignored the men who glanced up as she passed, and the men in turn, seeing the husband rushing along behind the woman, quickly looked away. The room began to thicken again with the low rumbling of male voices. Althea made her way to the table, the great bell of her skirt bumping against masculine knees; she barked at the servant, “Two, please.” No tremor of expression flickered over the dark face. The old man ladled champagne punch into two gold-rimmed goblets, handed them to her as if it were the most common thing in the world for a lady to demand liquor. Althea turned to Franklin rushing up behind her, stared at him as she held out one of the goblets, put her lips to the rim of the other, and drank. “We’re celebrating, aren’t we?” she said quickly, as Franklin started to speak. “One ought to have champagne to celebrate, I thought. Don’t you think?”

“Are you all right?” He tilted his head toward her, frowning, and she suppressed the impulse to click her tongue, turn away. Her face felt brittle, but she smiled at him.

“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be fine? It’s a party, after all. Besides, this masquerade is nothing.” She swept her hand airily over the crowded room, and in the same glance and gesture indicated the glittering ballroom beyond the arch. “Nothing! It’s a little pale tea party compared to the ball we’re going to give when the Tiger well comes in!” She took another sip from the goblet. “Nothing!” she said again. Her voice was faint, a bare whisper, but she smiled ravishingly at her husband. As she turned to have the glass refilled she caught sight of her own image in the mirror above the mantel: it was not the horror from her upstairs bedroom that gazed back at her, but an exquisite silver-masked creature in a diaphanous pink ballgown, surrounded by sleek anonymous masculine faces.

Whether it was the effect of that image or only the rapid soothing of the champagne, Althea felt herself suffused with warmth, her limbs relaxing with a slow, delicious ease, her thoughts focused and calm. She returned her smile to her husband, but Franklin had already turned his attention to the many magnates in the room. She watched him sip his drink as he eyed the other oilmen. He’d lost weight in the past month camped out on the Deep Fork; he was less fleshy than he’d been in years, less soft-looking, and for an instant she admired the rakish tilt of his head, the newly revealed line in the thrust of his jaw. Franklin’s lean face, his tanned skin, the unruly golden hair springing out around the black line of the silk eyepatch riding his forehead all made it seem that this was not the man she’d lived with for nearly sixteen years, but a new man, mysterious, hard-edged, perhaps even a little dangerous.

“I’m damned,” he said.


“That’s Harry Sinclair right there, talking to Bill Skelly. That’s him. Damn.”

She followed his gaze to the two tuxedoed men standing near the mantel, and it took her an instant to realize that the two stood out precisely because they were not in costume. Casting about the room, she saw that several of the men were in black tie and tails.

“You believe it? Here comes J. Paul.” Franklin nodded at a hawk-nosed man coming through the door in a white silk tuxedo. “Son of a gun lives in London, don’t tell me he’s come back to Tulsa for L.O.’s stinking party. I don’t think so. Something’s up.” He pulled the one-eyed mask off, tucked it in his waist sash. He drank deeply of the champagne punch and murmured something else, but Althea, sipping her own drink, did not listen. Her inner eye turned to imagining the party they’d give a year from now, the mansion she’d have Franklin build. She tipped her head, gazed up at the vaulted, frescoed ceiling, inlaid with platinum and gold, the magnificent Waterford chandelier pendulous in the center. She skimmed her eyes over the displays of Italian art on the walls—beatific blond angels; pale, big-bosomed women lying prone in filmy gowns within fantastically ornate frames—trying to imagine for herself and her future mansion a new style, a singular identity when the Tiger well should come in. But Althea had passed a threshold. She couldn’t call up an imagined future, couldn’t see anything with her mind’s eye; she saw only the very real crush of masqueraders around her, the Sheffield silver-plated sconces on the oak-paneled walls, the gilt mirrors, the dozens of fainting half-clad women reclining in rococo frames. Her dreams failed. Perspiration slicked the buckram on the mask against her face. She felt closed in, claustrophobic. Abruptly she turned to have her goblet refilled just as Graceful came through the service doorway.

The girl’s shoulders were slightly bowed under the weight of the tremendous silver tray she carried, filled with dozens of the heavy crystal goblets. Althea, standing by the table with the empty chalice held out in midair, felt her hand lift slightly when the old Negro took the goblet away. She stared at Graceful from behind her mask, a secret, attentive, trapped stare, while the girl thunked the goblets one at a time onto the table, slowly, methodically, as if it were the most significant task in the world and she had the rest of her life in which to do it.

An image came to Althea suddenly, not in mirrored reflection or daydream but in clear recollection: a vision of herself sobbing, shrieking, prostrate across the desk in the newspaper office in Greenwood. Other images followed unbidden, inescapable, one tumbling upon another: the big pressman, buttoned tightly into a too-small chauffeur’s uniform, steering the Maxwell through downtown Tulsa in silence in the late afternoon, his thick profile sullen, furious, and she’d known he was furious, could feel it like spitting rain from her position in the back seat, and he would not help her into the house but sat in the car staring straight ahead like a man who did not understand English when she’d begged him, begged him, to carry her up onto the porch; he wouldn’t answer, would not speak, but stared at the windscreen, mute and angry, as the two light-skinned Negroes had been angry when she’d demanded they take her home, and how dared they? How dared they be angry? In her mind’s eye she saw the two men on the street in front of the yellow shotgun house, in front of Graceful’s house, their faces like the faces of gentlemen, their expressions hateful and closed.

“Another!” she barked at the champagne server. Shame flared into anger, for there was no other escape, and she shook her outstretched hand impatiently, frowned at the old man. Graceful stood four feet away, working steadily as if she did not recognize her mistress. The thick curve of the girl’s mouth pressed tightly over her teeth as she picked up the used goblets, stacked them on the tray. Althea was struck once again by the impression that Graceful’s face was suffused with tenderness, a kind of softness, beneath the hard, sculpted lines. “I’ll have to come back for them others,” the girl said. ‘Want me to bring anything else up from downstairs?” A secret communication seemed to pass between them, some unspoken knowledge that Althea would never be privy to, and her fury rose higher, and she longed to say something, to give an order, but she couldn’t speak. Graceful turned in her slow, placid manner and left the room, thickset, solid, her breasts swelling against the white starched cotton apron, her face still as stone.

“Getty’s here after something,” Franklin whispered against Althea’s ear. “Bound to be. There’s a new field opening—a mighty big one’s my guess.”

Althea caught sight of Nona Murphy slipping across the room toward them. At once her fury whipped away from Graceful, snapped onto the gliding Nona; she suddenly understood how it was that Nona seemed to materialize at her elbow when Althea least anticipated her: she was intentionally trying to sneak up on her. But then Nona paused beside a group of men, lifted her banded head as she said something to make them all chuckle, her figure slender, delicate, vaguely brazen in the soft buckskin. She never glanced in Althea’s direction, and yet Althea felt her attention. An impulse slid over her to hide herself behind a statue, behind one of the giant fronds, or out on the terrace in the dark. She watched Nona tip her face at each of the gentlemen, trill her laugh. “Y’all are so bad!” Nona wagged a finger side to side, and the men laughed, and Nona laughed again as she sauntered away from them, aiming directly for Althea and Franklin near the punch table. Althea gripped the crystal stem of the goblet, pulled a brittle smile to her lips.

“Althea Dedmeyer, aren’t you a caution? Go and dress up like the ladiest lady, come in heah and drink this naughty champagne! I declare!” Nona leaned toward Franklin, the honey in her drawl thick as mead. “Your wife is so bad!”

“Looks like we’re all bad!” Franklin said. “If the law gets a good whiff of this party we might all be spending the night in jail.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that, sir. Sheriff’s right out yonder on the terrace, imbibing some good bonded bourbon right alongside L.O. and a bunch of others, including none other than Josh Cosden himself! They’re all waiting on you to come back. I heard L.O. say those very words: 'Where’s Franklin Dedmeyer, where’s our new Baron of Deep Fork!'” She blinked her kohl-rimmed eyes and dimpled a sweet smile up at him. Franklin tipped his head toward her.

“The dull conversation of those oilmen, Miss Murphy, tempts me from present company about as much as an invitation to dine on a mess of swamp rabbit could tempt me away from a feast of pheasant under glass.”

“Don’t be an ass,” Althea muttered. She retrieved her silk fan from her pocket, whipped it furiously in front of her face. What does she want? She waited for Nona’s little asides and glances, the insinuating smiles and drawled-out inanities to declare her purpose. But Nona went on simpering at Franklin, flattering him even as she mentioned the name of every tycoon at the party. Not that Althea had ever understood what Nona wanted: even after she’d figured out the surface motive, what it was Nona was most immediately after, she still never quite felt that she knew the reason behind it, what Nona wanted. It was as if Nona’s mind, her hungers, were hidden behind a sealed wall, beyond Althea’s powers to comprehend.

Nona suddenly purred up at Franklin, “Guess who just came through the front door!” She swept her wide green gaze to include Althea. “None other than that handsome partner of yours!”

Althea stepped toward the ballroom, but instantly stopped herself. Nona’s eyes were riveted on her.

“I know I’m not a bit mistaken, because that scamp don’t have a sign of a costume on!” She shook her feathered headdress, pouted up at Franklin. “Some folks, I don’t care what you say to ‘em, they’re gonna dress just any old how. You’d about like to not even invite ‘em, except. . . .“ Her face was still tipped toward Franklin, but now her gaze was on the tuxedoed oilmen, Skelly, Getty, Sinclair, gathered in an elegant black-and-white triad near the mantel; she went on in a seductive whisper: “Some of the biggest fish got the toughest mouths.” She cut her eyes at Althea. “Isn’t that right, Thea?”

Althea saw instantly that her notion had been right: Nona had tricked the partygoers so that the wealthiest, the absolute oil elite, for the most part, were not in costume—and yet the pattern was unclear. Wasn’t Josh Cosden in costume? And Waite Phillips and Tom Gilcrease, and the famous Marland, who’d just opened the Burbank field? No oil gambler was more successful than these. Nona’s reasoning was indecipherable, just as it had been that afternoon in the rose garden when she’d come to borrow Graceful. Althea had only finally understood what she’d wanted some three weeks later, when Nona again came sauntering up the walk in a sequined silk afternoon dress to beguile that commitment from her, as she’d gone around “borrowing” all the decent houseservants from all the best families in Tulsa—and why? There was unfathomable purpose working in that feral mind of hers, Althea sensed it, just as in the rose garden she’d known by how her eyes darted everywhere that there was one other thing Nona wanted.

“I’ll tell you what, though.” Nona straightened, toyed with a bit of fringed buckskin dangling from her sleeve. “Your Mr. Logan’s got some-body with him dressed up to beat anything I ever saw. You ought to see people turn and stare.”

Althea glanced through the doorway. She couldn’t see Jim Dee anywhere.

“I guess whoever it is might just walk away with that little prize L.O.’s gonna give out at midnight. That’s what I think. If somebody don’t have a fit and faint. That whole ballroom went dead quiet the minute they walked in. I mean, they shut that room like a door! Only I guess y’all couldn’t tell it”—she smiled sweetly at Althea—”on account of all the noisy men in here!” She trilled her little laugh. Franklin was already halfway across the floor, making his way toward the ballroom.

“Franklin!” Althea called out to him. He stopped instantly, turned, and hurried back with his elbow extended. He dipped his head in a little cursory bow. “Ladies?” he said, and held his other arm to Nona. “Shall we?” Althea took her husband’s arm in a kind of stupor, a muted dream, and she walked with him, Franklin’s big thighs bumping her hoopskirt, making it sway and bounce, while Nona squeezed up close against his other side.

“Franklin Dedmeyer, you are the long-leggedest thing!” Nona laughed. “I’m gonna have to stand on my tiptoes and run to keep up with you!” Franklin slowed his rush, gathered a new and avuncular dignity as they passed into the ballroom.

The orchestra continued to play and a few people were dancing, but the center of the great hall was empty, the masqueraders pressed back near the walls, as a low, excited buzz hummed just at the level of hearing. Althea tried to understand the sound’s meaning, but it was as unintelligible to her ears as the rhythmic whine of cicadas in summer, a lyric, undulating whyyyyyyy. She saw Jim Dee standing just inside the entrance talking with L.O. Murphy. He was wearing work khakis and a knotted red kerchief, his tawny head bare; he looked as rough and unkempt as Tom Slick, and Althea’s heartbeat quickened at sight of him, but she had only an instant to notice him, because the creature beside him, the cause for all the stir and buzz in the ballroom, drew her eyes immediately, as it drew to itself all attention in the room. Looselimbed, scarecrowish, it slouched near the wall as if it did not intend to insert itself too deeply into the gathering, or as if it could not stand on its own. Its head was cocked sideways, hands tied behind its back, a thick flaxen rope around its neck. But what made the thing so hideous was not the sheer vulgarity of portraying a lynched man, or the purple tongue swelling from the thick lips, but the fact that the creature had painted its face, had drawn a line down the center from scalp to throat and smeared one half white as alabaster, the other half black as soot.

The buzzing sound in the room rose louder, and at once hushed again, like wind dying, as Chief Bacon Rind appeared from somewhere, walked past the bizarre tableau without looking, without speaking to L.O., and continued on to the entrance hall with the short woman in the blanket behind him. They had no wraps to retrieve and so walked straight through the carved doors left standing open and out into the cool October night. But then, as other guests—a few couples, a foursome—began to edge forward with downcast eyes to make their awkward excuses, their too-early farewells to their host, the situation gradually came clear: the servants had all disappeared. There was no one to retrieve the guests’ wraps from the cloakroom. No one to serve up more illicit champagne or bootleg whiskey to distract the guests from the room’s sudden chill. No Negroes passed through the ballroom balancing canapé-laden trays; no colored servants stood behind the linen-covered tables, no brown hands carved thick slabs from the haunches of barbecued buffalo and beef.

The realization seemed to pass in a wave from the front hall, through the ballroom, all the way to the dance floor near the terrace at the back. There was confusion, indignation, a few titters of scandalized amusement. The orchestra ceased to play. Althea had the sense that the room’s legs had been knocked from underneath it, and it had gone down—whump—on its back, the wind knocked out of its chest. She glanced over at Nona, who stood on the other side of Franklin with her wide eyes flicking this way and that, as if she’d never seen such an appalling turn of events. Althea might not know the secrets that drove Nona Murphy, but she recognized the lie in the bronzed face: Nona wasn’t appalled. She was not even surprised. She was, more than anything, tickled at the shock to Tulsa society. Nona suddenly detached herself from Franklin’s side and started across the room, the down of the white feathers in her headdress waving airily, fanning the currents like cottonwood silk, as she glided over the empty floor in her supple buckskin, her feet buttersoft, silent on the marble in the near-silent hall. Her laugh trilled, echoed toward the vaulted ceiling, as she took the apparition by the bound arm, said in her drawl, “Law, child, you liked to scared all the niggers to death, comin in here lookin like that. They’re gonna think we’re gettin ready for another little Tulsa necktie party you scamp!” The lynched man didn’t lift his head from his shoulder, didn’t blink or flinch, or seem even to breathe.

Now Franklin stepped away from Althea and strode across the room as the murmurs began to rise again, the low whispers and grumbles, for this was a subject unfit for the season’s premier bal masqué. This was appalling, unheard of, intolerable, it could not be borne. Nobody looked at the lynched man. One could have almost thought the thing was invisible, an apparition that only one’s own eyes could see—except for the fact that the room’s gaze was trained very studiously away from the halfwhite/halfblack corpse. Althea watched her husband join his partner, the two of them dipping their fair heads toward each other in a kind of swanlike gesture as they met. Instantly she swept her gaze to the ballroom, searching for the brown face that had become somehow the only sight that could ground her. But there were only two dark visages in the room: the costumed minstrel, whoever he was—a white man in blackface standing in front of a huge sepia-toned tapestry of a foxhunt—and the half of the lynched man’s face that was folded down toward its shoulder. As she watched, the monstrosity raised its head, stared directly at her. The creature’s eyes were open, unblinking, locked on hers across the vast swirling distance; both halves of the split complexion were squared in alignment, and Althea at last recognized her brother. The abyss opened in front of her.

She closed her eyes, willed everything away. Everything. This moment, that miscreated freak across the room. Jim Dee. Franklin. The loathsome Nona. Tulsa. The past. All. All. But when she opened her eyes, Franklin was listening as Jim Dee talked in hushed urgency. L.O. Murphy stood off to the side, an unlit cigar in his mouth, the war bonnet cocked at an absurd angle, a baffled, angry expression on his face. Nona’s little hand was wrapped around the sleeve of the lynched man, while she simpered up at him. The world was here, in all its grotesquerie, without escape—though Althea longed for it, yes, not merely to run away, but to disappear. Vanish. I want to die, she thought calmly. And then, No! No. She did not want to die. She wanted… something. She gazed across the room, slowly lifted a hand to her forehead, touched a stiff curl, dropped the hand to her side again.

Nona stood very close to Japheth, as if they were the warmest intimates, but how was that possible? Where could they have met? Glancing up with the sly, secret smile on her lips, she motioned Althea to come over. All at once Althea knew what else Nona had wanted that day in the rose garden, or, rather, who: she’d been looking for Japheth. The knowledge seeped in as a kind of surprised aftertaste, as when one learns the name of a certain spice in a recipe and the mind says, Yes, I should have recognized that, but the tongue has known from the first savor. Her brother’s eyes held on her, clear and shining, obsidian even across that great distance. She started toward him. She was aware with some part of herself that her husband and Jim Logan were arguing furiously in hushed voices off to the side near the doorway. She sensed L.O. talking behind his hand to a cowboy in a big hat and leather chaps, sensed the cowboy hurrying off in the direction of the terrace, even as she felt the several gentlemen behind her watching from the arch of the libation room: every eye in the chandeliered hall followed her as she walked across the floor. If she’d had capacity for irony or humor or self-reflection she might have almost laughed, for her fondest vision of herself had always been that of a beautiful girl in an exquisite gown entering a softly lit ballroom with all eyes upon her. But the submerged source was fully present; it left no room for anything but itself. Her revulsion was powerful, the compulsion stronger. From the corner of her eye she saw her husband and Jim Dee break from the doorway, but she didn’t pause; she glided serenely over the floor, the bell of her skirt swaying, her feet burning inside the antique shoes.

“Holy Christ, man!” Franklin said, as the three reached Japheth simultaneously. “What the devil’s the matter with you? Good God, Thea!”

Althea paid him no attention. Her brother seemed to be grinning, seemed to be whispering, though she couldn’t hear him; she could not quite see his lips move. Her blood coursed furiously. Her ribs could nearly burst with loathing. She longed to do something, do something, she could take both her hands and… Memory swelled, images swept over her. A sound started within her, a low tremulous vibration. She pushed it down, clamped the unvoiced scream tightly behind her jaw, held it within the boned cage of her breast.

“Hello, Sister.” The lynched man’s lips still did not seem to move, or perhaps it was only the illusion of light and shadow on the painted face. Abruptly he flopped his head to his shoulder again, shut his eyes, pushed the purple-stained tongue out from his lips. Nona whispered, “Oh, watch this, watch this!” She called across the ballroom, “Evening, Sheriff!”

The sheriff, wearing his khaki uniform, strode nonchalantly toward them. The cowboy in chaps and a big blond man dressed as Teddy Roosevelt trailed after him. At the back of the hall, several men emerged from the terrace darkness, shotglasses and lit cigars in hand, to see what all the quiet was about. Japheth held his same neck-snapped slouch, but a little quiver passed over the painted face. The purple tongue disappeared inside the thick lips. Nona didn’t let go her grasp on him, even when the sheriff and L.O. moved in close.

“Oh, come on, now,” Nona drawled, “where’s y’all’s sense of humor? What a bunch of old party poopers. L.O.?”

“Excuse me, Sheriff.” Franklin stepped forward as if to take the lawman to the side and talk privately, his earnestly tilted forehead saying surely they could settle this uncomfortable little breach of manners in a discreet fashion.

But Japheth suddenly lifted his face, grinned broadly. “Why, hello, Sheriff Woolley. How nice to see you again.” He slipped away from Nona’s grip, slouched back against the wall, hands behind him, his demeanor more nonchalant than the sheriff’s own. “Hadn’t seen you in a month of Sundays, or a month anyhow. Hadn’t it been about that? Or no, no, it was still summer, I guess. With all that rain that night a man couldn’t much tell.”

The sheriff’s expression was chary a little bewildered, but he rocked back on his heels, thumbs hooked in his gunbelt, waiting.

Japheth chuckled softly, rolled his neck around as if he had a crick in it, said, “Oh, I guess you don’t remember me, sir. I can understand that. There was such a crowd. Such a crowd.” Nona laughed. Japheth turned his painted eyes to her. “Mrs. Murphy, you’ve been so kind, such a fabulous hostess, I wonder if you couldn’t untie me here.” Their shared glee was obvious; no one could mistake it, or their collusion. Casually, Japheth turned his back toward her, and Nona fumbled with the rope at his wrists while he talked on, addressing first L.O., then the others. “I know y’all wanted us to stay in costume till midnight, but you can’t imagine how crippled a man feels with his hands tied. It was some trick, tying them. You might not credit it, Sheriff, but that’s a feat I pulled by myself. I asked Mr. Logan to give a hand. But I’m afraid he’s on the taciturn side, just wouldn’t help out a bit. He’s a fine driller—the best in the business, they say—but I don’t know, sometimes he does get his tail over a crack.”

There was a beat of murderous silence as Japheth stared at Jim Dee while he rubbed his freed wrists; his hands had been painted, too—one black, the other white—along with wrist and forearm. He grinned at the semicircle of men’s faces. “Of course, I didn’t have any trouble with this.” And he tapped the hangman’s noose about his neck. It was strange how clean and new it looked, pure flaxen-yellow, the dangling end cut neatly across. “We got practice with these type of knots, right, Mr. Murphy? Right, Cletus?” And he looked intently at the one dressed as Teddy Roosevelt, who in turn dropped his pince-nez, stepped back. “This criminal element don’t watch out, we’re going to get plenty more practice, isn’t that right? You know, Sheriff, that very evening out on the Red Fork road, I said to myself, See here, Tulsa’s going to show them. The criminal element better keep its head down in this town.” No one present, not even Nona, could have understood the sweet pleasure within Japheth, to face down the sheriff who’d hunted him, to say baldly: I was there, sir. Right in front of your noses. You’ve been looking for me all over the country. I was there. I am here.

“Not to mention the niggers,” Japheth said. “Niggers got to quit showing out, don’t they? I been hearing good things about this new Klan, any of y’all been hearing about it?” He perused the nearby faces, the distant crowd of masqueraders who were by now creeping forward, straining to hear what was being said. “They tell me folks are joining to the tune of a thousand a week down in Texas. Of course, it’s not the highest element in society, not like present company, but I’ll make a prediction right now, I’ll predict that before two years are out we’ll have a Klan member right in the governor’s office, right here in Oklahoma. I’d bet on it. Would anybody care to bet?”

Silence came from the nearby circle; the revealed faces were frowning, including the sheriff’s, but there was fascination as well, a kind of wondrous anticipation to find out what would come next. Nona’s face was rapt, her green eyes glittering, wide and innocent. Only Althea seemed not to be listening. She stared out from her silver mask, not at the lynched man but at a blank space on the wall to the side of his head. On the fringes of the ballroom the murmuring had renewed, the hanged man’s words whispered in undulating waves back to the terrace. Slowly the gathering moved toward him, seemingly outside its own will.

It was curiosity that kept them from dispatching the one who’d slipped into hold up a mirror, make them recall what their minds had comfortably shut away. No one talked about the Belton lynching anymore. The papers still mentioned the grand-jury investigation from time to time, but since no one expected, or certainly wanted, anything to come of it, the probe was not a topic for town talk. Lynching had, by joint silent agreement, become a taboo subject for social discourse, but here was this creature among them, declaring it for some unfathomable reason, and the masqueraders waited to find out what it meant. All looked for signs. They gazed round the room, eyed one another, glanced in the direction of the lynched man, trying to discover the secret symbols—for there were always signs, weren’t there? If the face had been all black, the message would have been clear—as the message had been clear in a recent ad placed by a local store in the Tulsa World, neatly bordered and highlighted: K’K’K!, the ad said, Just say “KKK” to the grocer. Kellogg’s roasted KORNKRISP. You and your children deserve KKK. If the face had been all white, it would have clearly been a direct reference to Roy Belton, and they’d have grasped the warning to all such hijacking hooligans, as well as the naughty slap that the spectacle was to Tulsa’s sense of decorum. But it was the half-colored, half-white face that confused the gathering, made the meaning less discernible, more mysterious.

“Of course,” Japheth said, smiling, “that new Invisible Empire’s got nothing to do with present company. Far as I hear, it’s all just a bunch of small-town do-gooders. So far." His eyes lifted to take in the garish grandeur of the mansion. “Mrs. Murphy.” He nodded very formally, bowed to Nona, turned to L.O., and did the same. “Mr. Murphy. Allow me to compliment you on the taste and elegance of your lovely home.” The weirdly divided face was made stranger by Japheth’s sudden clean diction and formality of manner: one of his favorite chameleon tricks was to be crude as a hayrick one moment, suave and polished as a debonaire the next. “I was saying to Mr. Logan as we were motoring up from Bristow—”

“See here! Who are you?” L.O.’s eagle feathers were trembling. “Who let this fellow in?” He wheeled around to vent his rage on the Negro doormen, but, seeing no dark face anywhere, he turned in fury on the two partners. “Logan, did you bring this abomination? Dedmeyer, what are you trying to pull? I’ll have the lot of you tossed out. Sheriff?” But L.O. couldn’t wait for the laconic sheriff to make a move; he whipped his war-bonneted head at Franklin again. “You’re up to something, you son of a bitch, I know that. I been knowing it. Laying out for weeks, and when you do come in, you strut around the lobbies tight as a tick, or else I hear you telling crap to any fool you can get to listen, spreading that conniving pile of lies and mystification.”

“I think you’d better calm down, L.O.” Franklin’s voice was tolerant, a little patronizing: it was the voice he’d evolved years ago to try and quiet Althea’s rages.

L.O. turned to the audience. “One minute he’s acting like he’s got the biggest strike since Spindiletop, next he’s crying poor, crying duster, crying broke like a lying son of a bitch.”

“Listen here, friend,” Franklin’s soothing voice began, “let’s take a deep breath…”

“Listen here, fella,” Japheth said in unctuous, pitch-perfect imitation, “let’s not say anything that’ll make us sorry.”

L.O. whipped on Japheth now, both fists raised like a boxer, like the feisty street-fighter he’d one time been. A crone’s shriek rose into the great goldenlit space, and the room was stunned once more into silence. None could tell the scream’s source, but as it echoed, Althea suddenly leapt at her brother with her hands clawed, reaching for his face. Franklin stepped in front of her, gripped her hands, as Nona gasped and rushed forward, and L.O. shouted to the sheriff, who quickly moved in, as did the cowboy and Jim Dee and several others. The men grabbed hold of Japheth’s arms, detached Nona’s hand from his sleeve. There followed an almost balletic, inverted danse macabre, as the handful of men mimed the movements of a lynch mob; they surrounded the noosed man in silent slow motion, hoisted him, struggling, cursing horribly, spitting from his purple-stained mouth, his black and white hands twisted behind his back and held tight. The only voiced sound in the room was Japheth’s cascade of curses as the men half dragged, half carried him out of the hall. The room’s gaze passed over them, though without pause, pretending not to register what it was seeing.

The silence extended itself a beat longer. The masqueraders’ eyes returned to the empty wall, where the phantasm had appeared. There stood now only the two women, the belle and the buckskinned hostess, both staring out the open doors, and the silkshirted pirate with his arm around his wife. A clarinet tootled a few aborted notes, the piano joined it, and then the orchestra swung into a tinkling ragtime, as the masqueraders turned back to themselves. Gradually, in the tiniest increments, they began to move, to breathe, to pretend that all was natural, all was normal. Men turned to one another and spoke business or politics. Ladies excused themselves to the powder room, disappeared in rustling taffeta and satin whispers

In the same manner that the city’s mind had sealed over the swinging, stripped, beaten body of Roy Belton on the Red Fork road two months before—had opened, received the horror, knit itself quickly, like a scab— just so, the gathering in the Murphys’ ballroom now sealed its mind over the vulgar invasion that had pierced the room. The floor filled again with masqueraders, moiled with sound and color, the loud and rowdy laughter of the inebriated guests underlaced with a kind of glittery hysteria, a scandalized excitement, now that the horror had been removed from their sight. No one noticed when the belle in the pink ballgown pulled away
from her husband and hurried across the room, disappeared down an empty hail. A mulatto man with a penciled mustache and shining, straight black hair stepped to the front of the bandstand and began to sing into the microphone, his voice at once tinny and smooth, nasal as the muted moan of a trumpet. One by one the Negroes began to reappear.

Return to Fire in Beulah links

Meet the Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma Sponsors

Contact the Webmanager
© Oklahoma Department of Libraries 2003-2005