Medium 9781574412406

Wonderful Girl

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This extraordinary first collection of short stories covers the landscape of dysfunctional childhood, urban angst, and human disconnection with a wit and insight that keep you riveted to the page. The characters here have rich and imaginative interior lives, but grave difficulty relating to the outside world. The beginning story, "Ducklings," introduces the over-weight and over-enthusiastic Marjorie, the last twelve-year-old you would want babysitting your toddler. In "Wanted" we meet Eleanor, a single girl living in Chicago who may or may not be dating a serial killer. "Another Cancer Story" is an unsentimental account of two sisters whose beloved mother just won't seem to die, and "The Last Dead Boyfriend" gives us a recovering addict who keeps encountering her recently deceased boyfriend, an unpleasant man she wished she'd broken up with before he died. Always funny, often dark, and wholly satisfying, these stories explore the longing for connection among characters who are frequently stricken with anxiety. Each story is rendered in a way that is surreal, vivid, and entirely convincing. "Wonderful Girl is a smart, funny collection, by turns poignant, mysterious, terrifying, sexy, often just plain nuts (in a good way!). The characters in these stories are deliciously confused but always in control, if not of their fates, at least of their pets and boyfriends. What strong voices these women have! Contemporary American life has never seemed so threatening and yet so warm, so full of possibility, yet so harrowing. Reading Wonderful Girl is like meeting a dozen new friends, people you instantly fret over, want to know better, want to call and give advice, bring home to meet your folks, people you ultimately love." --Bill Roorbach, judge and author of The Smallest Color, Big Bend, and Temple Stream

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16 Chapters

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1. Ducklings

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WONDERFUL GIRL

Crocker recipe books, home decorating manuals, and self-help paperbacks like If I’m so Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single? She slices her mother’s grapefruit for breakfast, suggests baths with

Epsom salt when Mom’s eyelids sag, and dyes Mom’s hair with

L’Oreal burnt auburn every three months, exclaiming, “You look almost as good as new!”

The posters work like a charm. Mrs. Langly from church calls to ask if Marjorie can baby-sit on Friday. Her two regular sitters have the stomach flu. “This Friday?” Marjorie taps a pencil against her forehead. “Hold just one second, please.” She pinches the roll of fat overlapping her skirt and mouths “Pig-face” at her wavy reflection in the toaster. She returns to the phone. “This

Friday sounds perfect.”

Mrs. Langly’s breath rushes out. “Is everything okay?” Marjorie asks with what she hopes sounds like concern. She doesn’t really want to know the answer, but these are the kinds of questions you are supposed to ask.

A lighter clicks. Is Mrs. Langly having a cigarette? Does she do that around the baby? Doesn’t she know how bad second-hand smoke is? “My husband—Bill—has to have emergency surgery.

 

2. Another Cancer Story

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Another Cancer Story

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Molly will be in the kitchen, hunched over with her ankles crossed under the table and speaking with her hand over the receiver like a Russian spy. Mom waits in the living room, where the hospital bed has landed like a giant spacecraft. The

TV will be tuned to Channel 52, the all-Spanish network which plays Spanish-speaking soap operas, weather reports, and game shows. When she still had a sense of humor, Mom explained her rationale for watching. “This is my last chance to learn another language.”

Molly calls me back to Earth. “Jack just left.” Jack is the

Hospice worker we love and who always brings us mint chocolate chip ice cream and Mom Dr. Pepper with a straw. He has been coming to Mom’s house for two years now. He will stand in the living room, shaking his big lovely head like he can’t take it anymore. Most people have Hospice care during the last two months of their expected life span. Mom has that record beat twelve times over. She remains a wonder of nature, like a two-headed calf or

 

3. What She Should Do

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Whoever has asked her the question follows up with: “I just know you’re going to find someone amazing one day. Someone who really loves and appreciates you for you!” (When you quit being so needy, desperate, so obviously alone, so willing to accept anything that comes your way. Men have a sixth sense about your lack of expectations, willingness to make coffee in the morning, to offer like a nurse to flush the used condom down the toilet, the way you begin to dress to fit his personality: turtlenecks for the stock market consultant, T-shirts with team logos for the sports fanatic, short plaid skirts held together by safety pins for the aspiring musician.)

Every issue of Cosmopolitan offers numerous ways for trapping and keeping a man:

Be yourself! Men like women who are able to see the humor in all situations and who don’t always agree with everything they say. Josh, age 22, explains, “I love it when a girl throws her head back and laughs out loud without caring who hears her. That is so sexy. The biggest turn-on, though, is a girl who knows what she wants and goes after it!”

 

4. Wanted

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Wa n t e d

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Eleanor who may have somehow gotten Ann’s genetic inability to meet someone nice who is not married, gay, or a psychotic freak.

Here’s who she has dated over the last two years since moving to Chicago to escape her too-clingy, too sweet, too married boyfriend in Florida: An Armenian dental student who said, “It’s not that I don’t want to be with anyone. It’s just that I don’t want to be with you.” The method actor who told her she resembled a young Elizabeth Taylor, adding that she probably needed to watch her weight as well. Two blind dates set up by friends, both named Todd and both flamingly gay. The punk rocker who slapped her ass while they were making out and gave her six raspberry-sized hickies on her collarbone like a necklace. The red-headed chubby guy who burst into tears over his ex-wife at a restaurant. (Did she go out with any of these men again? Yes, in fact, she did.)

Her friend Renee tells her she needs to be more discriminating. “It’s like you get the information early on that the guy is a freak, and then you continue to date him anyway.”

 

5. In Mem

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real-life survival tips: In the Wilderness, At Home, When You

Find a Lump.

Other tips: In a lightning storm, stay away from open fields and don’t carry an umbrella. If a tornado approaches, run to the nearest ditch and lie face down. The tornado may pass. You might hear a moment of pure silence in the eye of it. If a ball rolls out onto the street, look both ways and ask yourself, Is the ball more important than your own life? Don’t climb a ladder wearing socks. Don’t remove an arrow on your own. Find out your allergies as soon as possible. A simple bee sting could be the end of you. Don’t act scared about performing mouth-to-mouth on an ugly person. This is life and death we’re talking about here, not a beauty contest. By all means, don’t spread honey all over your body and lie down on a fire ant hill.

When Mrs. Pototnick first introduced Mem to the class, she said, “And this is Memory who will be staying at school for awhile until her mom gets better.” This sounded to Mem like at

 

6. Runaway

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threw up cotton candy after riding the Tilt-A-Whirl and Michael bought me another T-shirt to wear, one that read, “I’m with

Stupid” in neon orange letters. His report cards, junior high folders, his physics books, and his yellow pencil box. Two rolls of undeveloped film still in their black canisters and an old silver

Kodak camera with a broken flash, most of his clothes, his

Nebraska Cornhuskers football-shaped pillow. Every dog-eared paperback book he owned, including the one he stole from the library in Springfield, Illinois. A quartz rock collection my grandmother gave him that he always hated. His microscope, his magic kit, his train set, his baseball glove that he fake-signed with Reggie Jackson’s signature, a paint-by-numbers Clydesdale horse picture I made for him. A bottle of our dad’s Old Spice, his bicycle, the woolen striped Indian blanket that was folded on the end of his bed for as long as I can remember. His photo album— the square pictures from Grandma’s with the white frames around them, the ends curled up from age. An Easter picture of him holding me on the front steps, Michael smiling widely, my face scrunched in a toothless grin, our mother’s tall shadow across the bottom of the photo. A picture of our German Shepherd, Oscar, on his chain by the barn, tongue hanging out and ears back in anticipation of being petted. Our mother’s black-and-white high school photograph, a serious-looking picture of her with tight brown curls and just a touch of lipstick. All of his records including Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd, and Elvis Presley. His record player with the broken needle, his scratched up collapsible desk, Oscar’s red dog collar. Our grandma’s blue rosary and family Bible with our names written in her neat, cursive hand-writing, the pages thin and yellowing. A broken umbrella, his green plastic snow boots, his brown dress shoes, his leather belt, his Oakland A’s baseball hat with the rim bent by his hands.

 

7. Girls

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would feed them and name them and then I’d come home from school one day, and the animal would have disappeared into thin air. That was one thing. But a little girl was something else entirely.

That afternoon, my brother Michael was bouncing a tennis ball on the side of the building, thwack, thwack, and I was inside cutting out paper dolls from the newspaper. What you did was draw a figure with a colored pencil—a big circle for the head and a long body with two arms ending in Raggedy Ann hands and two legs with patent leather shoes, then you transferred the outline to a piece of typing paper, folded it in half and cut it out— that way, you got two girls for the price of one.

The little girl’s name was Crystal. My mother pulled her into the kitchen with a “Tada! We’re going to take Crystal to visit her

Dad in Illinois, won’t that be fun?” A crust of snot covered the girl’s upper lip, her hair was a clump of greasy dishwater-colored curls, and her breath piped through her nose. She had a wet cough that erupted from the deep well of her chest.

 

8. Snowball

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kept maps of the world and the night sky, folded in a beige

Army-Navy backpack with silver buckles. Sometimes, when we were driving from one place to another, he opened an atlas and pointed at random. “The Alps. Tigris-Euphrates. Cairo.” Or

“Andromeda. Sirius the Dog Star.”

To this, our mother would intone, “The A&P. Stuckeys.

Piggly Wiggly.” It seemed they were arguing about something ancient, though I could never figure out what.

That spring, Michael would leave in his 1986 white VW

Rabbit, with two hundred dollars Mom stashed between the pages of I’m Okay, You’re Okay, and a leather suitcase she swore belonged to our father. Instead of a note, he taped a to-do list to the refrigerator: pay electric bill, buy vacuum, bug traps, Jeannie to dentist sometime this year, garbage out on Thursdays.

I keep the list, torn from the pages of one of his spiral notebooks, and have unfolded it so often that the paper ripped at the creases.

Michael rummaged through the closet and brought out a flimsy piece of plywood, set it on the cleared card table, and attached parallel train tracks with tiny pointed nails. He unpacked two train cars, the tracks, and the generator from his cardboard box.

 

9. Our Last Supper

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Our Last Supper

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We’re supposed to go out for farewell drinks at the Gingerman Tavern but Anne has developed a stomach-ache, caused I’m sure by the fact that she’s afraid to be outside. She doesn’t like the leather-jacketed teenagers loitering on the street corners and yelling, Hey, where you going? Or the broken bottles, potato chip packets, and cigarette butts lining the curbs, or any of the chaos of the city where I live.

What I hate is how Anne walks down the street with her shoulders up around her ears and how she ducks like a puppy about to be beaten when anyone raises a voice or if it looks like someone’s going to get shot on TV or if an old man walks down the sidewalk with a limp. I am tired of how she has to do everything a certain way, like washing her hands with antibacterial soap or measuring out the pasta in a glass cup, holding it up to the ceiling to check the measurement before pouring it into boiling water.

And how slow she is. It takes her forty-five minutes to shower and, believe me, she is not using the scrubbie for what I do, not my sister, who calls sex “making love” and who once confessed to me she can have an orgasm by thinking about her boyfriend asking her to marry him.

 

10. Six Different Ways to Die in the Windy City!

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S i x D i f f e re n t Wa y s t o D i e i n t h e Wi n d y C i t y !

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The elevator is about the size of three upright coffins. When the mail guy leans over to hit his floor (the one right below

Betsy’s of course), he says, Excuse me, and Betsy presses her back against the wall. The closed elevator doors reflecting their figures make them look fuzzy and not all there.

This is the shape she remembers when he bursts through the glass doors of her office, holding a machine gun. He begins shooting. Rat-a-tat-tat. First, Maude the receptionist gets it in the back and slumps forward on the electric typewriter she uses when she’s typing up envelope addresses.

Betsy ducks behind her desk. He’s not looking for her. He might even let her live because of the intimate space they shared in the elevator.

His brown shoes move back and forth under the edge of her desk.

The gunfire is so fast that no one really has time to scream or scatter. His feet pivot. More rat-a-tat-tat. Someone says, Oh! The fire alarm goes off and the shrill sound almost covers the noise of the shooting. His feet vanish from view.

 

11. Tribute to an Optometrist

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Smoke winds toward the water spots on the ceiling. Thea grabs a box of Arm & Hammer and flails it in the general direction of the fire, heat singeing the underside of her arm. The flames wink out. She balances carefully on a three-legged chair and yanks the battery out of the detector. In the sudden quiet the sink drips and the refrigerator coughs off. From the wobbly chair, the cracks in the plaster walls look like they run all the way up to the ceiling and beyond, and the stove seems suddenly too small, the size of an E-Z Bake Oven. She climbs off the chair, ears still ringing from the alarm, feeling like a zombie.

Sometimes, if Thea presses her ear to the bedroom window, she can hear the woman next door on the phone with a person who isn’t a very good listener. “Not Tuesday, Wednesday. No, I said ‘Be specific,’ not ‘the Pacific.’” Last night, the neighbor spent several hours moving what sounded like a large bureau back and forth across the linoleum. Thea lies in bed, constructing possible topics of conversation between her and her neighbors. They could talk about how the dryers in the laundry room look like gargoyles, or who stole all the fire extinguishers and scrawled, “I’m going to burn this place down,” on the elevator wall, or any tips the woman can give her on how to make it in Chicago, because Thea’s been here two months and had not one single, interesting conversation beyond the landlord telling her not to walk too far north late at night.

 

12. Look at the Sky and Tell Me What You See

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L o o k a t t h e S ky a n d Te l l M e W h a t Yo u S e e

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It’s not often I can dress this way. The people at Mitch, Saunders, Mitch and Saunders are Republican lawyers whose idea of a fashion risk is a Wyle E. Coyote tie.

At the first bus stop, raincoat-wearing passengers line up at the door. I sit in the front row of seats thinking, don’t you dare sit next to me. No, not you either—when this guy steps on who looks just like the man in the Levi’s commercial. I beam thought rays at him. Fuck me. Fuck me now. The fat guy in front of him heaves into the seat next to mine. My man passes by, leaving a whiff of lemony cologne.

For the rest of the ride, I try out scenarios for how it could happen. The bus stalls, no—the bus driver has a diabetic fit and my Levi man takes control, yelling, I’ll drive! Everyone (except me) shrieks. His manly hands grip the steering wheel. I must finish this route! I run to the front of the bus, pushing people out of my way, Excuse me, excuse me, the skirt of my dress riding up my thighs. I must help him because he’s injured his left hand (it’s been sprained somehow by the fat guy), and I have to steer for him, and the only way to do that is to sit on his lap.

 

13. Words to Live By

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Wo rd s t o L i v e B y

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something so funny you almost peed your pants. Remember when you studied together at the Café Gourmet and you pretended to read The Color Purple and he was so beautiful, looking down at his book, his hand resting on his cheek, writing in the crooked left-handed way of his. He admired your Bettie

Page poster.

He says your name before he comes. He’s affectionate after.

You both love Woody Allen films, making fun of stupid movies, sushi, Indian food. You agree you’re not sure what happens when you die, but the two of you verge on hopeful atheism. He said you are the sexiest woman he’d ever met. He did the dishes without you asking. He’s not bad in bed. If only he would read something besides Nietzsche or Jack Kerouac.

He’s in medical, dental, law, graduate school, trying to finish his dissertation on Chaucer. He can’t leave Maggie, his golden retriever, overnight. He once had major surgery. He doesn’t realize he’s homosexual. They moved around a lot when he was a kid.

 

14. The Last Dead Boyfriend

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because I know he is not real, I know it, but here he is in the same white T-shirt and khaki pants he wore in life, though in death, they buried him in a shiny suit he would’ve hated because it was not made from one-hundred percent cotton.

There’s another complication—a four-month-old problem in my uterus, a DNA conglomeration of me and him, half AntiChrist (Nicholas), half idiot (me). I can’t decipher if Nicholas knows of it, or the appointment I have for what I consider the exorcism, like the fetus is a spirit that has taken up space in my body and must simply be asked to vacate the womb. A doctor on lower Wacker Avenue has agreed to suction it out. I plan on requesting a high dose of laughing gas. It hasn’t moved yet, so I prefer to think of it as something that will disappear in the night without leaving a forwarding address.

Nicholas wants me to go away with him. “What are you doing here with these sickos?” We watch two kids across the street blowing bubbles on their front lawn. The bubbles shimmer like small, translucent heads. They pop in mid-air, sending soapy kisses into the grass.

 

15. Wonderful Girl

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Her mother looks out the car window. “Well, I think a garden

. . .” her voice trails off, leaving a suspended silence that drives

Evie to bite off her fingernails one by one.

Finally, Evie explains she really has to get back to work.

Really. She has to leave. Soon. Now, if possible. She imagines dropping her mother off at the neighbor’s door with a note pinned to her blouse, “Please take care of me” and speeding off into the night, like someone released from a prison sentence.

Instead, she tells her mother that she has to be back in Chicago the very next morning. It’s imperative.

Her mother nods her head slowly, as if she is a hearing impaired person learning to read lips. “Oh, I understand. You have things . . .”

Before she leaves, she tells her mom to call her any time, as much as she wants, day or night. Giddy with the knowledge that she will soon be gone, she even goes so far as to suggest that her mother could move to Chicago for a while. As soon as the words leave her mouth, Evie freezes, suddenly picturing her mother sitting on the sofa all day while Evie works, her hands folded in her lap, waiting patiently for her daughter to return home.

 

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