Jan/Feb 2018 Salon

Fiery Angels and Hungry Ghosts

by Stanley Jenkins

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

The women's menstrual cycles fell into sync. The pomegranates fell heavy and ripe, spilling seeds in the red dust. In the cool stream, large beasts turned over and sighed...

On Ahrens Street in Lombard, Illinois, there were two abandoned houses on our block. One was older and made of brick and sat across the street. I could see it from my second-story bedroom window in our split-level ranch. I couldn't have been more than seven. The other was a few houses down, on the same side of the street, a subdivision house almost exactly like our own.

One night the house on the same side of the street caught fire. I awoke to the sound of sirens and lights. I knew the brick house I could see through my window was not on fire, and I knew the house just like our own, down the street, was, but the flare from down the street seemed to be reflected on the brick house in such a way that the house, itself, burned brighter than any real house could. And in the empty attic window of the brick house—a house which had stood alone for so long, only to be swallowed by a cheap development—and with the empty attic window of the brick house now illuminated by reflected flames, I saw the woman who keens.

I had never even imagined such pain or loss. Her hair was wild in the wind from the flames, and her chipped nails slashed at her face like the wings of panicked doves. Her howl pierced the ear. She raised her eyes and looked at me from across the street and caught my eye—and it did something to me.


There was a small town somewhere in the south where traveling evangelists and medicine show professors would winter, waiting for the tent season to come round again. After the death of the carnivals and traveling circuses, over time, the whole small town became an unofficial retirement community for all the old carnies and show people—everybody else just moved out. An old folks home for all the old clairvoyants; for all the old sideshow freaks who were not welcome in their own sideshow freak communities for reasons just better left alone; for all the old revivalists; for all the old faith healers, spiritualist mediums, purveyors of smut, and whatnot.

The last resident had passed away three years ago at the age of 101, but the town still continued as if nothing had changed. Lights burned all night in empty houses. Laughter and music could be heard like a great smacking of lips. Spilled whiskey, the smell of blood, and God. Pleasure ran deep until dawn.

Each morning as the sun rose, unblinking cats would appear in the windows of the empty houses and bungalows and stare outward.

At night, when the lights came on in the empty houses and bungalows, the cats would disappear.


When I was in third grade, my mother told me about her sister, Clara, who had died shortly after birth. Her own mother, our Big Mama, told her once and never talked about Clara again, although there was a picture secured to a shelf in the trailer.

One day my mother was taking a nap, and I could see the air around her nose was disturbed, like the air above black tar roads on a hot day. Soon afterwards, something started to grow in my dreams. Over time, it took the shape of a baby.

And after awhile, in my waking hours, I realized it was Clara, and that the disturbed air I had seen around my mother's nose was Clara either giving my mother breath or stealing it—like a cat. Of course, it's impossible to know if my seeing the disturbed air was for my own benefit or my mother's. Either way, I've never said anything to her about it.

Still, sometimes, even now as an adult, I imagine my mother waking up with a start and seeing, in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep, those baby eyes staring at her, and being unable to scream. Unable to breath. Not knowing if she is receiving a gift or being violated. My mother has always said she never should have had children.


Sometimes, when I was younger, angels who had been set on fire waited for me on the outskirts, along the tree lines of pumpkin patches, shifting track signals and changing train schedules, just so I would see them, and in seeing them, have my destiny changed.

In my youth, I took the angels for granted and let them burn. When their lights extinguished one after the other with a "pop," I did not mourn or understand the gravity of the situation.

I am older now, and I mourn the angels. I see them against their mad Ray Conniff sky. I repent of my self-absorption and willful blindness.


I was 16 when I met the woman with windows for eyes. She did not teach me to look far, but she was an occasion to do so. She was nearly twice my age, in a position of responsibility, and never should have been doing what she was doing with me. It was only later that I realized the windows of her eyes were two-way mirrors. Sometimes, in the Spring, birds would see the reflection of trees in the windows in the front part of our house and break their necks trying to get to them. I have no idea what she saw in reflection when she looked at me. When I looked at her, I saw far. Through the windows of her eyes. It wasn't until later, when I was a little bit older, that I could see my own reflection. And all the bird carcasses piling up beneath the fractured windows of our eyes.


The air smelling of creosote. I would walk the ties until I came to the place where you could find the boxcars, open and idle. I would play there for hours. I would climb in and yell from the open door.

One time, unaware the boxcar was attached to anything, I heard a screech and felt the boxcar lurch. I was paralyzed. I could not jump. I felt the train pulling out. And me going with it to some other life. And I knew the other life would be cold. I knew the other life would be dark. I must have jumped, because I still have this life.

Still, I am afraid part of me never did jump, and that the train did pull out and take me away, and that a part of me really did ride the rails—cold and hungry, just like a ghost—and that part is going to return someday, very angry, and demand to share the fruits of my life now. Seems like something in me always wants back in.


There was a small town, and used to be it was a pretty fine place to live. But that was a long time ago. Other small towns were close enough to big cities that they just got absorbed into suburbs and sprawl. This small town was far enough out that it just got forgotten.

The first thing that happened after this town got forgotten was a storm. In the midst of this storm, all the roads in town got picked up and dropped in new places, so that nothing led to where it used to. Nobody could find their relatives. And that made no sense. And so, the people of this town got lonely.

The second thing that happened after the town got forgotten was that the loneliness turned poisonous. This happens from time to time. The longing turns inward and, finding no suitable object, turns bitter and sour. What was once gentle, now becomes violent. What was once a jest, now becomes a judgment.

Which leads to the third thing that happened after the town got forgotten. The citizens lost all sense of proportion, unable to distinguish between a mere slight and a provocation that needed response. They mounted campaigns against their neighbors and found meaning in the authenticity, the purity, of their hatred.

There is a hole in the center of America, and a great sucking that emanates from that hole. We are always in danger of being sucked up into that hole. And emerging on the other side.


There was a tree I knew in Illinois. It had been struck by a tornado and half of its roots, ripped from the earth, were laid bare, while some of its branches were driven into the earth like stakes. What was usually hidden was exposed and what was usually seen was hidden.

I saw the tree once in New Jersey. I mean, I didn't make a big deal about it. But I saw it.

Lately, it's been coming round here in Michigan. It's beautiful. It has really grown into itself.

And yet it is not of this world. Its very presence burns.

This tree is holy.


...with these very hands, I have myself, planted trees. And I have walked with the ladies of the garden. Back and forth, back and forth, along the wall, all night long. Waiting.


Previous Piece Next Piece