Ruth Nichols

Ruth Nichols, a frequent reader at Cheap At Any Price, is married to the recently domesticated Jim Nichols. They live in a little square house with children Alex and Mia, Hobbes the cat, Guy the quail, and other denizens further down the evolutionary tree. She is also involved with local science-fiction conventions, even though she is not conventional. She has published a chapbook, Waking to Gravity; order it from her at

cakes and virtue


(Written in 1996, the year that Money magazine named Madison
the best place to live in America.)

The sky is full of cranes.
They try to raise the city.
Their ropes and pulleys suggest the creaking Gods
of Sophocles
or angels smoothly swooping
singing glory-be.
What happens when you’re dead.

I’m in disguise behind this window
in a place where people who can
trade bits of their lives for words.
In this bookstore café
coffee steams and hand-painted plates
frame crusty rolls soft with butter.
I steal my identity from a nearby college girl
who’s armored in angora and pearls.
I hold my pen just so
pretend my watch is really gold.
The waiter falls for it,
brings me a smile and my check.
I am a woman who has dug to the bottom of her purse.
I am searching for something I haven’t spent.

A barefoot woman bikes past my view
everything she owns tied behind the seat;
lawyers’ assistants in uncomfortable pumps
limp back from lunch;
skinny teenage girls mirror themselves on windows;
an old woman chain-smokes, shuffles.

I sit here.
I look real.
I wear lipstick,

Going out, words pave my path:
a fury of words chalked on sidewalks.
They lead me to the corner of University and Lake
where the soft shoe jive of booted soles
have left them smeared,
barely distinguishable from
gum-spots, bird droppings.
It seems appropriate to walk on words;
a way the world ends—
language crushed and bleeding out its meanings.

Perhaps I did this—
late at night
crawling in my shadow
breaking my chalk against this fever of words.
Awake now, dreamless, I remember nothing.

For I am breaking and am no longer real.
I walk this path of trampled words
beneath a crane-filled sky
because it’s the one that remains.
And although I look up
and although I see no other choice,
I’m not ready to join those angels
swaying and creaking above,
vacant eyes gleaming,
empty hands beseeching,
from the wheels and the ropes
that try to raise
            (that can’t lift even one of us)
that try to raise
this city.