500 Days: Prelude

by Iris Jamahl Dunkle


When you walk the streets of Pithole
dust and mud will cover you.
It will pour into every part of you until
you no longer recognize whom you have become.
At first, we were a town of settlers. Small,
army-issued tents freckling a green field
near the derrick on Thomas Holden’s farm.
Those were the days when Mrs. Holden still cooked
three meals a day for the workers
and served them in her sunlit kitchen.
We’d sit, a dozen, then two or three, at tables,
or on the wide front porch. Our meals pitched on
our laps. She always made something warm.
She only asked for a dollar a meal.
We were grateful. We, who had begun to live the derrick life.
The up at dawn to the rhythm of oil’s passage.
The field was wide and all around it the trees crowded.
These were the early days, when we believed
everything was temporary. When we believed
we would leave with our pockets stuffed
with fortunes. Mrs. Holden’s dinner bell
would ring and mark the passage of time.
At seven a.m., at noon, then again at six p.m.
We carried out our tasks while still thinking of the homes we’d left behind.
Still haunted by the battlefields many of us had just left.
But the oil was relentless—poured and poured out of the well.
And the more that it poured, the more the Oil Company executives
smiled and visited. Soon, the blueprints for the next well
were made and circulated. With the expansion,
more manpower was needed. So, the Oil Companies put ads
in all the major city papers, luring young Civil War vets,
with promises of OIL! RICHES!
Within two weeks of the second well, the place was overrun
with the new prospectors. There were tents everywhere.
And those who didn’t have tents, used blankets, or broken barrels;
whatever they could find to craft a structure they could sleep under.
Poor Mrs. Holden couldn’t keep up with the demand for food in her small kitchen
(even after hiring a few young girls to help her cook, serve).
So, a wagon started serving beans and stew twice a day.
Soon, there were men everywhere. The lush trees
began to be chopped down and split into lumber while they were still green.
When Prather came to town he hired a few men to rope off lots
across the bare muddy field just over the ridge from the Holden farm.
Then, he sold off leases to the lots.
Buildings rose in what felt like hours.
Still green, dripping sap.
They quickly became what we needed:
hotels, general stores, bars. We didn’t care.
We were grateful to have shelter. Straws beds
were rented out. A restaurant went in. Trees
receded farther and farther back. Streets
were thick with oil and mud. There was never
enough water. Every well we sunk filled
with oil. We were so thirsty. We were
so lonely. More streets were carved out. More wells
were dug. More men came to town. The teamsters
took over the oil shipments making us
pay outrageous amounts for hauling oil
out of town and down to the river
where the barrels could be floated down to Pittsburgh
and sold on the open market.
No one had ever seen this much oil come so fast.
No one believed it would ever stop.
Not the oil executives. More and more would visit each week.
They stuck out like sore thumbs—
dressed to the nines in white, crisped pressed shirts.
When the girls started arriving in town
we were so grateful. It had been so long
since we’d seen anything except dirty young men,
desperate to make it rich, that we lined up to visit them,
that we’d pay any price. But just as there wasn’t enough food,
or water, there weren’t enough girls to go around.
The only thing Pithole seemed to have enough of was oil and mud.
It stuck to everything. Even after plank sidewalks were thrown down
to make walking easier, the mud would seep through.
So, when the girls began to become younger and younger, we didn’t care.
We kept fucking them when it was our turn.
We wrote letters ferociously. Dear—All is well here in Pithole.
I’ve been working hard to earn enough money so that we can buy our own farm when we get married.

We lived in-between our lives. We drank insatiably.
The bars were always full, day and night. Young men sat
on wooden stools, some slumped in corners unable to stand up.
Almost every night there would be fights in the streets.
One man stole a whore, or a beer, or a bed from another.
The world was ten by ten blocks long.
Oxen and horses pulled sleds laden
with barrels of oil that were being
brought to the Teamsters’ wagons, then carried
down the hill for sale. Those animals were
by now hairless from being overworked
and constantly coated in oil and mud.
They walked and shied down the streets like animals
being driven to hell. Each week, the stage coaches
and the open wagons would pour
into town filled with more and more men
and more and more niceties they’d begun to desire.
The hotels were built and lined with carpets,
their windows filled with velvet red curtains.
Those who struck it rich, or those who were rich
and were just visiting their investments in Pithole
filled the lavish hotels. Ate lobster or roasted duck and drank champagne.
Inside the hotels they’d dress in starched cleaned clothes,
and sit at white table clothed tables. They’d hold grand balls
and dance with women (not our whores, but other women
they’d brought in from neighboring cities and towns)
dressed in floor-length gowns. We could see them
through the cracks. As we sat across the street
in the muddy-floored bar, or as we lay down
next door with a child whore on a straw-stuffed bed.
We’d write false letters home about the comfort, about counting days
until we’d see our girlfriend, or our wife,
or our children who by now must look so different.
And the days would pile on our chest thick as stones.
Until we hardly knew ourselves.
And winter burned off into summer.
Summer swelled into the fall. Then,
snow started to fall again on lean-tos and derricks.
Snow that would fall through the cracks
of the buildings built of green wood.
Soon, we’d been lost in Pithole for over a year.
When we looked in the mirror hung behind
French Kate’s salon we saw men who were no longer ourselves.
We saw men who no longer came from small towns in New York State
or down the river in Beaver. We saw what could be carved out and drained out
just like the land we sat on. We saw the eyes of those hairless horses
as they trudged down the muddy streets carrying too many barrels of oil.
We saw the distant faces of the girls we fucked.
We saw no way to get back home.


Iris Jamahl Dunkle is Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, California. Her latest book is There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air (2015). Her debut collection, Gold Passage, won the 2012 Trio Award. In 2017 Trio House Press will publish her third collection Interrupted Geographies. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College.

Back to Vol. II: “Surface”