Home > Essays > Dear Tulsa
Published: Tue Oct 15 2019
Salman Toor, Thanksgiving (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, N.Y. Photo: Farzad Owrang.
AGNI 90 Gender Violence Youth
Dear Tulsa

Dear Tulsa,

I was a teenaged white girl living north of you. You were Oz, T-Town, that Magic City rising up out of the prairie as we drove south toward you on Highway 75. You were sophistication, the gateway, the future. I was all hunger and romance, riding that blue-black ribbon toward your music, your shopping, your Christmas parades.

I believed everything you told me about yourself.

You were urbane big-city glitter to my Okie small-town ignorance, California dreaming to my midwestern ennui. You were America to my whole-damn-rest-of-the-world. I resented you, longed for you, wanted to be you. Be a part of you, anyway. And then, for a time, I was. And then I wasn’t anymore. But you’re still part of me. You’re like that ex-lover I never could quit.

People who know me now don’t know about us, our relationship, all those years. Only Ruth knows. My sister. Because she was there at the beginning.

She was with you before I was, in fact. She moved right to the heart of you, downtown, before it was cool to do that, and quick as I could get there, I followed. It was the early 1970s, those late-hippie, pre-energy-crisis, we-still-thought-we-were-innocent years. We shared a tiny efficiency apartment, fifteen-by-twenty maybe, a snub of a kitchen in the corner, the couch made out into a bed. In the daytime we’d hack open heads of lettuce and wipe blood and steak sauce off the counters at Sirloin Stockade. At night, we cadged rides to your nightclubs, listened to your music till last call; then we’d bring the party back to our place and smoke and drink and play Led Zeppelin all night—till the guy upstairs threatened to blast his shotgun through our ceiling to make us quiet down.

So we moved.

To a rambling ranch-style on Riverside Drive with a bunch of longhair friends, a sour beige carpet, no furniture. We lived on foot-long chili-cheese Coneys from Sonic—no wieners, because we thought we were vegetarians. We got jobs at Rebel Jeans and signed credit slips for new outfits twice a week because we had no time and no money to go to the laundromat, and every night we ran to meet you at the clubs, where your music was rhythmic and rocking, laid-back and homegrown. Where a superstar might walk in after midnight smelling of sweet magnolia and cocaine. Leon Russell might be here! we whispered. That top-hatted, mad-dog troubadour carrying your sound to the world. The Tulsa Sound. We knew where it began. We were there at the creation. We were hungry and young and invisible, and we knew you were something more than the rest of the world thought you were.

Then one chilly night in November, I climbed into a rattletrap pickup on the Skelly Bypass, and everything changed. I think about that sometimes. If that night hadn’t happened, would I still be with you, Tulsa? Would you still own a piece of me the way you do? I was nothing to you then, a penniless hippie girl, no career, no profile or reputation, no car to get around in.

That’s why Vickie and I were hitchhiking that night. Not Ruth, not my sister, best friend, roomie, unindicted co-conspirator—she was already in Shawnee. She’d gone on ahead to the big Thanksgiving weekend party in that college town two hours away where we’d both done time at the Baptist university and still had townie friends, and that’s where Vickie and I were headed. Vickie was a girl we worked with at Rebel Jeans, tall and lanky, funny and high-strung, with a drawly Pine Bluff accent that told you straight off where she was from. She’d never hitchhiked before. She was skittish as a cat before we even walked out of the house and darted across four lanes of traffic swooping down Riverside; it was maybe 5:30 on a Friday evening, the day after Thanksgiving, white headlights rushing toward us from downtown, a stream of red heading south.

Our first ride let us out near the Skelly Bypass, where I-44 slices slantwise across your middle like a bandoleer’s belt. We scrambled up the incline, stuck out our thumbs. Or I did. Vickie was not participating. She wanted to turn back, forget the whole thing. I was working hard to persuade her because I didn’t want to miss the big holiday weekend party, and my sister was waiting for me, and I didn’t want to hitchhike to Shawnee, Oklahoma, at night by myself.

I see us there on the side of the road, that narrow strip of bypass before the bridge crosses the river. Vickie is twenty-two, I’m a year younger, both of us with long, straight, dark hair parted in the middle, both in bell-bottom blue jeans. It’s cold out, and I’m wearing a white fake-rabbit-fur jacket, she’s in a Navy peacoat, or maybe a corduroy car coat. We’re arguing. “It’s cool, it’s cool,” I’m saying. “Nothing’s going to happen. Trust me. I’ve done this a thousand times.” A gross exaggeration. Take away nine-hundred and ninety-three, you’d get it about right. I still have my thumb out, very casual and low at my waist. Cool. Nonchalant. Experienced.

A truck stopped a little ways past us, like they do, and as we hurried toward it—a funky-looking, decades-old, faded blue pickup—Vickie grabbed my arm and said, “I’m sitting on the outside.”

“Fine,” I said. “No problem.”

The driver was maybe early thirties, sandy-headed, short hair. Well, that wasn’t the best sign. You were always hoping it would be the longhair type that picked you up, you thought you could trust them better, you had something in common. This guy looked like a laborer, an oil-field roustabout maybe, and in fact the truck cab smelled of oil rags, old metal, cigarettes: a work truck. He reminded me, actually, of some of my mama’s kin: rural working-class white folks with sun-squinted eyes. He could have been one of my cousins.

“Where y’all girls headed?” he said.

We told him Shawnee. We told him our boyfriends were waiting for us, they’d be worried because we’d got a late start. Like the notion we had boyfriends waiting for us was going to deter him if he had any creepy ideas. Or I’m the one who told him that—I don’t think Vickie said a thing. He continued west across the river, took the looping exit onto Highway 75 South—but why is it that I remember him pulling the gun before we took the exit? That doesn’t make sense to me now. I saw it from the tail of my eye, the gun’s silhouette. He brought it up in his left hand, outlined in the dark cab against the driver’s side window, a flat, semiautomatic pistol, his other hand still holding the steering wheel. My blood dropped. My head buzzed. My whole body sang with terror. I tried to pretend that the gun was not what my entire being told me it was. It seems now, in my memory, that he drove across the bridge with the gun raised, but I don’t see how he could have steered that old truck around the long curving half-circle of an exit with one hand. Memory plays tricks. Under the rush of adrenaline and terror, it will deceive and mislead. But it also sears things, burns in details so vividly you can never forget. I remember the rising black swell in my chest as he slowed toward the 71st Street exit. There was nothing out there then, Tulsa. You were barren out there in those days, no mushroom-cap housing additions, no big-box-store shopping enclaves, no lights of lone ranch houses, nothing. He rolled to a rattling stop.

“Only one of you’s getting out,” he said. Vickie was the one sitting on the outside, and she’s the one who got out.

“Vickie!” I said. “Don’t leave me!”

She stood on the ground with the truck door open, holding onto the handle, looking up at me. Her face was so helpless. Her face said What can I do? The man pointed the gun. “I said get out.”

Vickie stepped back. He cut the headlights as he pulled away, the passenger door still gaping open; he drove a little ways like that, then leaned across me to pull the door closed, and the gun fired. That sound was so loud in the truck cab. The scent of gun powder rose up, smoky, clean-smelling. I thought he’d shot me. My body was numb, my ears roaring, and yet I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t feel my body. This is what fear does. I waited for the warmth of blood to start oozing somewhere, I thought that might tell me if it was a belly wound, a mortal wound, if I was going to die.

If I was going to die.

But no blood came, no pain. I wasn’t wounded. He drove on, south and a little west, away from your lights, Tulsa, on a two-lane blacktop that turned to gravel and then dirt. He knew your back roads. He knew right where he was going. We bumped across a cattle guard, onto a well site, where a pumpjack rocked slowly in the darkness, up and down, up and down.

“What do you want?” I said.

“You know what I want.”

“All right,” I said. “Okay. No problem. Just please. Don’t hurt me.”

He didn’t say he wouldn’t hurt me. He didn’t say anything at all, actually, he just switched off the motor. And then he did, you know. Take what he wanted. My body was numb, but my mind was racing. The gun. The gun. Where is the gun? Afterward he got out, went to the back of the truck, and stayed there a long time, or what seemed to me like a long time.

I would have run, I would—but there was nothing but dark countryside in every direction. I would have scrabbled around the truck looking for the gun, under the seat, on the floorboard, because maybe, pray God, it was not in his pocket but in the truck somewhere. But I was afraid he would see me, and I didn’t know what he might do. So I straightened my clothes and sat very still, listening. Not far away, the relentless sound of the pumpjack: mechanical, pneumatic, a slow, rhythmic pounding. After a while he came back, leaned in the driver’s side door. “You drink whiskey?”

“Sure,” I said. “Yeah.”

“There’s a bottle under the seat.” He turned and moved to the rear of the truck again. I didn’t know what he was doing back there. I might have thought he was digging out tools, looking for an ax or a shovel to get rid of my body, except there was no scrape or clang, no movement at all that I could hear, no insect sounds because it was November, just the relentless creak, grind, thump of the pumpjack. But he’d given me permission, he’d told me to look, and I looked, scrambling around on the floorboard, seeking in the dark with my hands, feeling under the seat for the gun. My fingers traced the iron shapes of tire tools, crackling cellophane wrappers, oil rags, but no smooth flat glass shape of a whiskey bottle, no smooth flat steel grip of a gun.

When he came back, I told him I couldn’t find the bottle. I made my voice sound apologetic, as if the failure were mine. Because I had learned that, you know. How to not cause a man to doubt himself, how to seem to say, It’s my fault.

“I must’ve drank it all,” he said. He started the truck, headed back to town. Oh, I was never so glad to see your lights, Tulsa, that glow on the night horizon, your buildings rising up on the prairie. He stopped at a Git’N Go on the outskirts and went in to buy a six-pack. I thought about running then, I did, but…the gun. If it wasn’t on the floorboard, it must be on his person. If I jumped out of the truck and ran, he would see me and rush from the store and shoot me in the back, my white coat a blazing target in the dark. He’d parked well away from the store window. I thought then it was because he didn’t want the clerk to see me, but that makes no sense, because how would the clerk know I’d been kidnapped? I think now he expected me to run. Maybe he wanted me to, but I was still sitting meekly in the truck in my fake-rabbit-fur jacket when he came back. He popped a beer and handed me one, said we oughta go get us a drink somewhere.

“Sure,” I said. “Sounds good.”

He drove back to the Skelly Bypass, and we sliced right through you, Tulsa, southwest to northeast, the way I-44 does, and then we were driving on your far dark north side, outside the city limits, entirely opposite of where we’d been. He took me to a country-and-western nightclub, one of those big concrete windowless boxes, dirt parking lot lined with pickups, his rattletrap fit right in, and inside it was all neon and sawdust and spilled beer, a tiny dance floor, a loud country-and-western cover band. He introduced me to the bartender. I’d told him my name when he asked me. Not my birth name, but my nickname, the one all my hippie friends called me—Rik. I never asked him for his. I didn’t want to know. I thought that was part of my protection. I let him order me a Jack Daniels and soda and I drank it right down, my eyes scanning the walls for a pay phone. I excused myself and went to the ladies’ room, and there, in the hall, like a beacon: a pay phone! I had no dimes, no money at all. I don’t even remember having a purse with me. But I knew I could panhandle a dime off someone, I could ask for help. But . . .

The gun.

In his pocket, somewhere about his person, he still had the gun. He might see me trying to call and come grab me, wrestle me outside, the gun jabbing me in the back through his denim jacket, and when he got me outside, into the parking lot, into his truck, he would shoot me.

And so I did what my instincts said. I came back and climbed up on the bar stool beside him. I smiled. I was nice. Flattering, even. I’d long ago stopped talking about my phantom boyfriend. Because what I could tell was, he was proud to be with me. I had long legs, long hair, an air of coolness about me, and a short, cute, white fake rabbit-fur coat. He’d never gone in that country-and-western bar, where he’d obviously been plenty, with a girl who looked like me. My safest bet, I believed, was to make him glad to be with me. And from how he showed me off to the bartender, how he preened as he ordered drinks, leaned over me, touched my shoulder, I knew that he was. We learn that real young too, you know. How to not fight back or threaten. How to not hurt a man’s ego, even if he’s a homely, nondescript, blade-thin, pale-skinned, oil-field-smelling rapist. Maybe especially if he is that.

So we had a few drinks, and he chatted with the bartender, and I smiled. And then he took me back out to his truck. And when we got in and he started driving the country roads on the north side, your lights skimming the horizon, Tulsa, Magic City I used always to yearn for, I thought, Shit. I thought, Rik, you are so stupid. Why didn’t you run? When you were in that crowded Friday night bar, all those people, why didn’t you tell the bartender, go up to someone, anyone, and ask for help?

I still can’t answer that question.

Maybe I’d gotten too confident that he was not going to hurt me. And he didn’t hurt me. Not physically. I’ll say this now, Tulsa, because I’m finally telling this thing, and it’s something I couldn’t say for a long time: in some unfathomable way, I felt sorry for him. I felt…I don’t like to say this. Grateful. That he wasn’t a brutalizer. A strangler. A dismemberer or torturer. That he didn’t hurt me. At least not that way.

I think he must have been one of your native sons. He knew you so well. He knew the north of you as well as he knew the southwest, and eventually he turned back to your shabby warehouse signs and crappy north-side streets. He asked if I was hungry and I said yes, and he drove me to a diner on 11th Street, told me to go in and order what I wanted, said he was heading home to take a shower, said he’d be back to pay for it. And he let me out. I didn’t run. I didn’t escape. He let me go.

There are a few things I know now. What a person will do with a gun to her head—or in a pocket somewhere, tucked in a waistband, who knows? I don’t know what he did with it. I never saw it again after it went off in the truck. But I know it was real, because, dark as it was in that pickup, my whole body numb and singing with terror, what I saw was a flat, Dick Tracy gun—that’s how I described it to the female detective they sent to investigate my kidnapping. “Are you sure he had a gun?” she kept asking. I supposed then they meant to investigate more seriously if he had a gun.

“I’m sure,” I said.

If I were going to make up a handgun, it would have been a sixshooter, a cowboy gun, like one of our dad’s pistols, not a flat, urban, semiautomatic weapon. Plus, the smell. I’d smelled gunpowder before, sure, setting off firecrackers as a kid, and our dad was a hunter, but if I were to imagine a gun going off, I wouldn’t have thought to make up that smell. And there it was, in the dark, tool-cluttered cab, and here it is now, if I think about it, right here in my memory.

I know, too, how well I know you, Tulsa—not just downtown and Riverside and Peoria and the places we lived then, but your outskirts, your dark places, your suburban streets lined now with Targets and PetSmarts and fast-food drive-ins that were nothing but unlit, unpaved roads back then. Because when the detective drove me around in her car a week later to retrace all the places the man took me, the country-and-western bar, the Git’N Go on the edge of town, the pumpjack on the prairie off the 71st Street exit, I could show her everything. Turn left here, I said. Turn right. Down this road a ways. There. Right there is where it happened. I didn’t miss a lick.

And I know that night ended something. Just as the violence at Altamont ended the peace-and-love daydream of Woodstock, that night ended what we’d thought was our innocence, my sister’s and mine. When Vickie heard the gunshot on the dark off-ramp, she started to run, back to your lights, Tulsa, your supposed safety, and an off-duty cop driving home saw her and stopped to help. So the police had already been called by the time the man let me out at the diner; they’d been to our hippie house on Riverside, interviewed Vickie, interviewed everybody, and our friends, not knowing what to do, called Ruth in Shawnee: “Rik’s been kidnapped at gunpoint,” they said. “Right here in Tulsa. She’s been gone for hours, we don’t know anything, we don’t know where he took her.”

And my sister, tripping on acid there at the wild Thanksgiving weekend party, didn’t know what to do either.

“Should we call your parents?” our friends asked.

“Yes,” Ruth said. “No! I don’t know. Yeah. I guess.”

And so they did, and within days our parents came to Tulsa and moved us out of that house on Riverside, and within four months Ruth was married to a guy who worked for a living, a guy she thought was safe and sane, a guy she thought would save her, and he moved her to California, and I went crazy for a while. Not metaphorically crazy, really crazy. Drowning in darkness and alcohol and fear. And I left you, Tulsa, and I came back, and left again, came back, a boomerang, a crazed homing pigeon, till I finally broke free and moved to New York City. But I wasn’t free, not really. And I won’t ever be.



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Rilla Askew is the author of five novels, a book of stories, and a collection of creative nonfiction, Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017). Her novel about the Tulsa Race Massacre, Fire in Beulah (Viking, 2001), received the 2002 American Book Award. She received a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Tin House, AGNIWorld Literature Today, Nimrod, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Oklahoma. (updated 5/2022)

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