Two of Her

Fiction by Rilla Askew
pure Graces with arms like roses, by Ceylon Baginski. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist.


There had always been two of her, inner and outer, dream self and face self. Her dream self was her real self; the other was the one she turned to the world, moldable into whatever she needed it to be. Her dream self was who she was—who she would be, that is, if she ever made it out of this miserable hick hayseed worthless church-saturated town. The fact is, she was nineteen years old and had never been anywhere. She didn’t have a car or money for a bus ticket or a plane ticket, and she was too scared to hitchhike, which nobody hardly did anymore anyway because girl hitchhikers kept getting strangled and cut up, and she never could seem to meet somebody who was going somewhere important so she could cadge a ride. She would’ve taken a ride to anywhere that wasn’t here, but where she really wanted to go was California. She’d been California dreaming since she first heard that song when she was ten. Back then, everybody went to California. Now, nobody did. Or nobody from her town anyway.

Sometimes she’d meet guys in bars, hoping one of them was on his way someplace good so she could go with him. So far, no luck. The town had a church on practically every corner but only a few beer bars, plus the country-and-western nightclub inside the Cinderella Motel on the bypass. After a few drinks, her face self would morph into her dream self, and she could make whoever she was talking to believe what she believed: that she was somebody—a mysterious, important person just passing through town. In the morning, her face self would rematerialize, and she’d get up, scrub it clean, and go to work.

Her main job was carhopping at A&W; her carhop self was cute and perky (C&P she called it—she’d read that in a movie magazine), flirty when it needed to be, and sometimes she’d be plunging out dimes and quarters from the metal change holder clipped to her belt and a workman in a pickup would say keep the change, sugar, or a church lady might say that’s all right, dear. But it was never enough.

She also worked Wednesday afternoons at her mom’s church because her mom’s rheumatoid arthritis was so bad now she couldn’t type up the Sunday bulletins anymore. Her mom had been the church secretary since forever and she still did the books because that wasn’t as hard on her joints as typing, and the church paid her mom, and her mom paid her. She’d peck out the sermon titles and hymn numbers and prayer lists onto the stencil, run them off on the mimeograph machine in the office, and carry the stack of slick, anticeptic-smelling bulletins to the sanctuary to be handed out next Sunday. Then she’d go gliding between the pews straightening the hymnals and Holy Bibles and Visitor cards in the seatbacks and picking up the used Kleenexes left behind by the old ladies and the scribbled-on bulletins left behind by the little kids. Boring work, and completely nonlucrative, but it was for her mom, so she did it. Then she and her mom would sit through Wednesday night prayer meeting—the absolutely most boring of the three boring church services she went to with her mom every week—and afterwards they’d go home and watch Little House on the Prairie with their Swanson TV dinners on folding tables in the den.

Her third job was that she babysat. Always for the same couple, always on Friday nights. Six bucks a pop, which was supposed to work out to two dollars an hour but almost never did, because they almost never came home that early. They lived across town and went to her mom’s church, but the man kept paperbacks in his nightstand that the preacher would have had a holy conniption cow if he ever saw. But she liked them, the books, or anyhow she read them, a little sick to her stomach sometimes, and excited, and scared. She’d put the two bratty kids to bed and then go to the couple’s bedroom and dig out whatever paperback was in the nightstand’s bottom drawer. 

She didn’t know where he got them, not the town library, for sure, though they always seemed a little thumbed-through and used-looking, with half-naked, red-lipsticked women on the covers, different hair colors but the same pouty lips and scared eyes, and sometimes a shadowy man standing over or behind them. In the beginning she’d started reading at page one, until she realized she was never going to finish any of the stories because he changed the books so often, so she started skimming, looking for the good parts, one hand pressed to her panties, one ear cocked toward the driveway to hear when the couple came home.

But one night she missed.

The first Friday night in November. 1975. Cold and cloudy. Later, she’d try to trace back why it happened that night, but it didn’t seem like there was any reason; she just didn’t hear the station wagon pull up. The first thing she heard was the wife’s voice in the living room, calling her name. Then the man’s hard heels clicking along the hall. She slammed the book into the drawer, kicked the drawer shut, but he was already in the doorway, his eyes behind his glasses steady on her, his balding head backlit. He called over his shoulder, “She’s back here checking on the kids, hon!”

She had on her Responsible Babysitter face now, very grownup and efficient. She’d heard a noise, she said, and was making sure the windows were locked. Then the wife was behind him in the lighted hall, her ratted bouffant stiff as a rain bonnet, her eyes blurred with drink. The girl smiled her C&P smile, walked straight toward them, and they parted, let her through, followed her to the front room, the wife digging in her purse for the six dollars.

Outside, she got in the front seat for the man to run her home, like always, and, like always, she put on Committed Church Girl for the awkward ten-minute drive across town. She talked about her plans to be a missionary after she’d saved enough money to go to the local church-affiliated college. “Is that right,” the man said. He was driving slower than usual, the rank tang of liquor wafting from him, very faint. 

“‘Go ye therefore,’” she said, her voice high and breathy, “‘and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’ Of course, women can’t baptize, but we can teach Bible lessons to the little children in Africa. We can win souls to Christ.”

He turned left at the college, drove past the oval in front of the main buildings, on toward the scattered dark buildings at the edge of campus, then on beyond that.

“Where are we going?” she said lightly. Not where are you going? Not where are you taking me? She’d given him we already. She’d already acquiesced. He turned onto an industrial side road, drove a short distance, and parked beside a giant mound of gravel in an otherwise empty lot.

“Aren’t we a little Nosey Parker,” the man said, and switched off the engine.

“Beg pardon?” 

“I didn’t take you for a sneak.” His voice was greasy, insinuating. “Maybe a lot of things I didn’t take you for.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She put her hand on the door handle, peering past the gravel pile. She could see the neon slipper at the Cinderella Motel blinking—not the slipper itself, that garish pink outline, just the color flashing against the night clouds: pink, then gray again, then pink. “My mom’s going to be worried,” she said. “She might call your house.” 

“I don’t think so.” 

“I think she might.” But her voice sounded weak. Her mom was in bed hard asleep, she knew that. Pain meds and water glass on the nightstand. The Tonight Show chuckling on the portable TV. She whispered, “I’m not going to tell anyone.”

“Tell them what?”

“Nothing.” Maybe he didn’t see her doing what she thought he saw? The security light, buzzing on its tall pole, lit the car’s interior in a faint lavender glow. “Anyhow,” she chirped, her C&P voice, “I bet your wife will be worried if you don’t get home soon.”

“My wife’s passed out on the couch.”

“How do you know that?”

His eyes were unreadable behind his glasses. His left hand was on the steering wheel, his right hand buried in the shadow of his lap. She heard him unzip his trousers.

“Tell me,” he said.


“You know what.” His hand was moving in his lap. “What you read.”

“I wasn’t reading, I was…looking for a Bible. You know, like how the Gideons put them in hotels? I just thought…” She gripped the door handle so tight her fingers cramped. If he reached for her, she’d jump out. But he didn’t reach for her. Only himself. “Tell me,” he said again. His voice was guttural, not threatening, but it wasn’t a request. 

She stared hard across the field. Pink. Gray. Pink. Gray. A mile away at least. No road from here to there, just black bunchgrass and clumps of sumac. She turned to look behind. The lights of the college twinkled small and white and inviting. That way was closer. But it also had roads. Which he could drive if he wanted to come after her.

“Describe it,” the man whispered. “Tell me how it made you feel.”

A cold hard fury swept through her, bursting upward from her gut, pouring out through her face, the top of her head. “God you’re a creep,” she said. Her voice was flat, emotionless. She jerked the door handle and got out. Reaching back into the floorboard for her purse, she said, “Preacher’s going to be real interested in what you keep in your nightstand. So’s your wife. So’s my mom.” The man’s face was furious beneath the dome light. She could make out his eyes now, popping with rage. Also fear. “Your wee-wee’s shriveling.” She pointed. Then she slammed the door and started across the dark field. 

She heard the car start. She kept going, stumbling over clumps of knotted grass, bumping into low shrubs, and, goddamn, it was cold. The car’s engine growled behind her, but he didn’t turn on the headlights, and he didn’t drive away, so she kept walking. The night clouds were so low they reflected light from the town overhead, an eerie amber glow. Just enough to see by

Inside the nightclub, liquor bottles were lined up in rows against the mirror behind the bar. She sat at the far end, away from the door, ordered a rum and Coke. All the money she had was what the wife gave her, six wrinkled bills crammed in her jeans pocket. The bartender barely glanced at her fake ID. “That’ll be two dollars,” he said. She gave him two. She was shivering. She glanced around. Friday night, after eleven, the place was crowded with older couples laughing and smoking cigarettes at the tiny tables, two-stepping around the tiny dance floor. She downed the rum and Coke, motioned for another, her Bored Sophisticate face. Four bucks down now.

In the mirror she checked out the single guys at the other end of the bar—two in cowboy hats, three in ballcaps—trying to gauge which was most likely to buy her drinks and not expect her to fuck him. One of the cowboys met her gaze, a slight nod. She pulled up her Bedazzled Innocence face. But then a heavyset girl pushed in between them, took the empty stool next to her, cutting off her view. “I know you,” the girl said, laughing, 

“Really?” She eyed the girl. Long brown hair parted in the middle, round face, no makeup, no eyebrows, faint acne scars. “I don’t think so.”

The girl laughed again, mouth open, shoulders shaking, but the laugh was silent, or inaudible anyway beneath the whine of Freddy Fender on the jukebox. She looked a bit like those old photos of Janis Joplin; otherwise, there was nothing familiar about her.

“What’s your name?”

“You knew me as Sheila. I go by Snow now.”

She’d never known anyone named Sheila. She didn’t think. “Nice to meet you, Snow.” 

“Nice to see you again, Elaine.”

Her throat jumped. “I think you’ve got me confused with somebody else.” 

“Your name’s Elaine, isn’t it?”

Elaine turned to face the crowded room. “Not really,” she said.

“Not really?” 

“Nobody calls me that anymore.” She caught the steady hot-pink glow of the giant neon slipper on the wall beside the Coors waterfall. “I go by Ella now.” 

Snow laughed again. This time it was audible, a yipped bark. “Ella,” she said. “As in Cinder Ella. How original.” 

Elaine stood up to move to the other end of the bar.

“No. Stay.” Snow touched her hand. “I’ll quit teasing. Come on. Here, I’ll buy you another rum and Coke.” She had on Levi’s, a man’s work shirt, no jacket, no purse—and how did she even know what Elaine was drinking? But she pulled a twenty out of her shirt pocket and laid it on the bar. That was persuasive. Elaine sat. “Where do you know me from then?” she said.


“High school?”

“Saint Ig’s.”

“Saint Ig’s?” This would be Saint Ignatius Catholic Girls School, which Elaine had been inside of exactly twice and surely did not ever attend. “You’re crazy. We’re Baptists.”

Snow shrugged, swiped the bills left from the twenty off the bar and tucked them in her shirt. Elaine lifted the rum and Coke. “Thanks.” She finished almost half. “Aren’t you having one?”

“I don’t drink,” Snow said.

“What are you doing here then?”

“Looking for you.”

“That,” Elaine said, “is just weird.”

Snow laughed her silent Buddha laugh. She waved the bartender over again, asked for a glass of water. Frowning, he blasted a stream from his mixer gun into a highball glass, plunked it ungraciously on the bar, lumbered back to the far end to pull draws for the cowboys. The music was suddenly very loud. Mickey Gilley wailing out “City Lights.” 

“A,” Elaine called out over the music, “I don’t know you, so how could you be looking for me? B, I didn’t know myself I’d be here till half an hour ago so how could you be looking for me here? And C…oh, forget it.”

“When we were little,” Snow yelled in her ear, “we used to play together in the school yard.”

Elaine yelled in Snow’s ear. “What school yard?”

“Saint Ig’s!”

“Not possible!” 

“There’s lots that’s not possible that happens anyway! Right?”

But Elaine’s third drink was finished, and her mind was on the bartender and how soon he’d make his way back to this end and how much she had left of her babysitting money. Enough for one more drink—not nearly enough. She fluffed up her hair with both hands, Brunette Dolly Parton smiling at the cowboys. 

“Like for instance!” Snow yelled in her ear, “I know about that creep in the station wagon!”

The music stopped just as Elaine’s heart stopped. She stared at the weird girl beside her. “How?” she whispered. In the silence, Snow offered not her voiceless laugh but a slow Cheshire Cat smile. The opening licks of “Rhinestone Cowboy” swelled into the room, the world moved again, but Elaine didn’t. She couldn’t. She didn’t have a face for this. She didn’t have a voice. 

“You don’t need to worry about him,” Snow said. “He’s finished.” The jukebox volume was lower now. “So, anyway, that’s one job kaput. Right?”

Elaine didn’t answer, but she knew, yes, it was. She couldn’t bear to ever look at that creep’s face again, imagine him fondling himself thinking of her reading his creepy porn, which also meant no more Sunday morning church, where he always sat on the fifth pew with his hellion kids and zombie wife rowed up beside him, which meant—

“You don’t have to worry about that either,” Snow said. 


“Your mom expecting you to go to church.” 

“Where are you coming up with this shit?”

“I’m telling you I know you.”

“Well, I don’t know you.” Elaine tossed back the dregs of her drink, ice cubes clicking against her teeth; she motioned the bartender this way. He glanced up, nodded, turned away to pull another draw. She looked to the mirror, her frizzy dark halo peeking over the bottles. Jose Cuervo. Wild Turkey. Jack Daniel. Bacardi, her favorite. But she only drank well drinks—unless somebody else was buying. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

“What do you want more than anything in the world?”

To get the shit out of Shiloh, her mind whispered.

“You want to leave this town.”

Elaine’s heart was pumping hard now. “You’re creeping me out.” She reached to the floor for her purse.

“So, what’s stopping you,” Snow said. Not a question. She held up three fingers, the last three, middle finger to pinkie, palm inward. “One, three jobs you hate, right?” She folded her pinkie into her palm. “Two, your mom.” Ring finger, down. “Three, the fact you’re actually a chicken shit.” Middle finger still standing like a big fuck you.

“What’ll it be?” The bartender had finally made it to this end.

“Rum and Coke.” Elaine smiled, let her purse slide back to the floor. He was old, paunchy, grumpy. But he held the key.

“Make it Bacardi.” Snow pulled a ten out of her shirt pocket.

The bartender used the jigger this time, measured carefully, erring on the stingy side. Snow slid a single back toward him when he brought the change. Good, Elaine thought. Maybe he’ll be less nasty now. She picked up her drink. 

“So, you only get three,” Snow said. “But you got to say them out loud.”

“Three what?” Elaine said. “Drinks?” But suddenly she knew. “Like, wishes?”

“You could call them that. Or dreams.”


“Tell me what you want. Say it out loud.”

“I want to get the hell out of this town.”

Snow nodded, smiling encouragement. 

“I want to be somebody.”

Snow nodded again. Waited. It took a long time for Elaine to say the third. It was almost a whisper: 

“I want my mom to be okay.”

Snow smiled. “Done.” 

A cold strand of barbed wire tightened across Elaine’s chest.

“No,” Snow said, “nothing like that. I mean okay okay. Look,” she nodded over her shoulder toward the male drinkers down the bar, “they’re not who you want to be dealing with tonight. Am I right?”

She was right. But Elaine was in no mood to say so. 

“So let’s get out of here,” Snow said. “We’ll go take a look at your mom, you can see for yourself, then we’ll head out to the highway.” 

“You are fucking crazy.” 

“Not crazy at all.” The silent open-mouthed laugh, the crinkled blue eyes. Snow swung herself off the barstool, picked up Elaine’s purse, and started toward the door. A bearlike side-to-side shuffle. She was built square, like a man. Elaine had a few seconds to decide. Scream out over the jukebox Stop her, that bitch stole my purse! and deal with the cowboys’ attention, the middle-aged couples turning to stare, the stingy bartender maybe calling the cops—or follow her. Elaine finished her Bacardi and Coke, slid off the stool, and followed.

In the parking lot, Snow sat behind the wheel of a tan, beat-up Volkswagen Beetle. “Give us a push,” she said through the open door. 

“Seriously?” Elaine said. 

“Seriously. Starter’s out. Look, we’re on an incline.” And indeed they were. Elaine went behind the car and pushed, grunting, until the car started to roll down the slope; when it got up to speed, she heard Snow pop the clutch, and the engine rattled to life, a thousand pebbles in a giant tin can. For a split second, Elaine could have kicked herself, figuring that’s the last she’d see of her purse, which contained no money but did hold her favorite hairbrush, her strawberry lip gloss, an unopened pack of condoms, and her very valuable fake ID. But the VW slowed, and Snow reached over to push open the passenger door. Elaine trotted to catch up. The engine sounded louder inside than out. Snow tossed her purse into her lap, and Elaine wrapped her arms around it like a pet. Everything was so weird now, she wasn’t surprised when Snow turned at all the right streets, drove directly to Elaine’s mother’s house. The Beetle rolled to a stop out front. Snow didn’t downshift or push in the clutch, so the engine died. Elaine could see a light on in the kitchen—the stove light, the way her mom always left it—but otherwise the front of the house was dark. She dug out her house key. “Thanks for the ride,” she said. But Snow was already outside the car.

In the lightless living room, she heard laughter burbling from the television in her mother’s bedroom. Snow stood close beside her. She was shorter than Elaine. She smelled like patchouli. She walked like a burr stuck to Elaine’s side along the dark hall. The bedside light was on in her mom’s room, the frilly blue shade giving a soft wash to the stale air. Ed McMahon was chuckling on the TV. The audience tittered. Her mother was asleep on her side, legs pulled up, hands folded beneath her cheek like a prayer. Elaine could see her shoulders rising and falling in slow, even breaths. She looked beautiful. Peaceful. Calm. Gentle.

“See?” Snow whispered.

“I wish she could be like this all the time,” Elaine murmured.

“She can,” Snow said. “She is.”

The TV switched to a commercial. Snow tugged Elaine’s sleeve. “We’d better go.’

“What? I’m home. You go.”

“It’s almost midnight.”


Snow tipped back her head to gaze at her. No silent laugh. No smile. Her face was quietly serious. “If you don’t go now, Ellie,” she said, “you’re never going.”

“Bullshit,” Elaine said, her voice low. She didn’t want to wake her mom. “And what’s with ‘Ellie’? Don’t call me that.” 

“Who are you then?”

Who was she? C&P. Church Girl. Responsible Babysitter. Bored Sophisticate. Nosey Parker. Somebody. “I don’t know,” she said. She remembered now. She thought she remembered. An unfamiliar school yard, a tetherball pole, the trampled dirt circle. Leaning back against the hard metal pole, her knees dirty, her mom would be so mad. Behind her, on the other side of the pole, a girl who was almost her friend. Telling secrets.

“You good with Elaine, then?’

Elaine shook her head. Then nodded. The rum was wearing off. Her mouth was dry. She had a bad headache. The Tonight Show music came on.

“Where do you want to go?” Snow said.


“It’s a big state.”

“I know. L.A. maybe.”

“L.A.’s good.”

“Are you going?”

“Of course.”

“I can’t leave my mom.”

“Okay.” Snow shrugged, walked out of the room. Why didn’t she just let her go? Later, she would ask herself this too, and find no more sensible reason for it than for why she hadn’t heard the creep’s station wagon pull into their carport. The clock in the front hall began chiming the hour. She moved quietly to the bed, kissed two fingers, placed them gently on her mother’s warm cheek. “Bye, Mama,” she whispered. 

Outside, Snow stood in the empty street where the Beetle had been. She had on a denim jacket now, a red scarf tied around her forehead in a headband, an army duffle bag on the cement at her feet. She handed Elaine her purse. “I told you it was getting late. We’ll have to walk it from here.” She bent down, picked up a buzzing June bug stranded on its back beneath the streetlight, set it upright on the curb. “Come,” she said, and began walking back along the street toward the highway. 

Rilla Askew

Rilla Askew received a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her first novel, The Mercy Seat, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, a Boston Globe Notable Book, and received the Oklahoma Book Award and the Western Heritage Award in 1998. Her seminal novel about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Fire in Beulah, received the American Book Award and the Myers Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in 2002.

A 2004 fellow at Civiella Ranieri in Umbertide, Italy, Askew received the 2011 Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in a variety of journals, and her story "The Killing Blanket" was selected for Prize Stories 1993: The O. Henry Awards. Askew's third novel, Harpsong, about dispossessed wayfarers during the Great Depression, received the Oklahoma Book Award, the Western Heritage Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, and the Violet Crown Award from the Writers League of Texas. Her novel Kind of Kin, a story about the complicated bonds of family, faith, and state immigration laws, was a finalist for the Western Spur Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, and was long-listed for the Dublin IMPAC Prize.

Askew's collection of creative nonfiction, Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place, spotlights the complex history of her home state: from the Trail of Tears to the Tulsa Race Massacre to the Murrah Federal Building bombing, Oklahoma appears as a microcosm of our national saga. Most American was longlisted for PEN America's award for the art of the essay. Askew's most recent novel, Prize for the Fire, moves back in time and across the pond to Tudor England for an historical biographical novel about the Early Modern writer and martyr Anne Askew. A new collection of short fiction, The Hungry and the Haunted, is forthcoming from Belle Point Press in 2024.

Ceylon Baginski

Ceylon Baginski is a multidisciplinary artist based in Northern California. It is in the poetry of this world that she seeks to find the threads hidden in plain sight, casting the faint silver that shivers when we dream.