About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I think "Jenny" must have had a second job holding up convenience stores. Take it from me, you do not earn enough money teaching piano to buy a Prius.
It's true that I taught piano, but my real car, the Jenmobile, was an old powder-blue thing that looked like it couldn't decide whether it was a sedan or a station wagon. I bought it at an auction for two hundred fifty dollars, and I probably overpaid. There were over three hundred thousand miles on the odometer, it had a weird smell that I could never get rid of, and it stalled more than a six-year-old at bedtime.
When it stalled on the way to school that fateful November morning, I patted the dashboard and said, "Come on, baby. It's just a few more blocks."
Sometimes that got it to start back up right away. This time it didn't.
It almost always started back up if I just gave it five or ten minutes, but the heater wouldn't come on when the car was stalled, and there was freezing rain coming down that morning. I wasn't about to sit there in the cold, so I put on the flashers, braved the sleet, and ran down Cedar Avenue to McDonald's for a cup of coffee.
That was where the story began.
When I stepped inside, a gruff voice called out, "Hoo hoo!" and I turned to see a scruffy guy sitting at a table wearing a tattered overcoat and a bent fedora.
"Excuse me?" I asked.
"Anyone ever tell you you look like Grimace, kiddo?" he asked.
He flashed me a goblin grin and stood up. When he did, I saw that he was hunchbacked, and couldn't have been more than four and a half feet tall. His curly brown hair--what I could see of it under his hat--must have been at least 50 percent grease.
The little weirdo hobbled up to a sign on the wall with all the characters from the McDonald's commercials and pointed at Grimace: the big, fat purple guy who looked like a talking eggplant or something.
"All that purple you got on, kiddo," he said, in a growly voice that made it sound like he was gargling whiskey. "You're the spitting image!"
For a second I was too dumbstruck to say anything.
He was the one who looked like something made by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. And he was calling me a big, fat eggplant man.
"Dick," I said.
He kept grinning at me as I slunk away from him and walked up to the counter.
My purple coat made me look fat. That was all. It was a big coat. I knew I wasn't the skinniest person in town or anything, but I was not shaped like an eggplant.
"Don't mind him," the woman at the register whispered. "He's been here every day lately. And when we close, we see him sitting in the parking lot across the street, smoking cigars."
"What a freak," I said.
"And when he gets a burger, he eats the whole thing. Like, the wrapper and everything."
I looked back over at the guy. He was back to sitting at his table, pouring some red liquid from a bottle in a brown bag into a teaspoon and slurping it up. I assumed it was not grape juice.
He was not the kind of guy you expect to see in Iowa. Not in suburban Des Moines, anyway. Maybe out in the smaller towns. There are plenty of weirdos out there. I ought to know--my town used to be a small town before it got absorbed into suburbia, and it was a regular freak show.
"Maybe you should call the cops," I said. "Are you sure he didn't, like, escape from an asylum or something?"
"No!" the weirdo shouted from his table. "I didn't."
I blushed and probably shivered a bit. I hadn't thought he could possibly hear us.
He put the bottle away, looked out the window at the strip malls and sleet, and started singing a song that went "Bang, bang, Lulu, bang away strong . . ."
"Well," I whispered, "you could at least get him on public drunkenness."
"Believe me, we've tried." The woman sighed. "But he passes the test every time."
When I left, I gave the guy my dirtiest look for his Grimace remark, but he didn't acknowledge me. He just kept singing to the window.
As I walked back to my car, I imagined three creative ways to murder him for calling me fat: dropping heavy rocks on his head; carving him into a funny shape with a chain saw; and tying a rope around his feet, swinging him around above my head, and throwing him clear to Omaha.
Then I poured my coffee into the gutter, put the empty cup on the ground, and stomped on it.
I liked to break things in those days.
Now, don't get me wrong--I wasn't some violent maniac or anything. All things considered, I was fairly well adjusted. I didn't even kill bugs if I could help it.
But up through the end of my junior year, my workload was about eighty hours per week, between school and various extracurriculars my parents made me do to pad my college applications. The only way I stayed sane was by reading a whole lot of Shakespeare (which I swear makes you breathe better) and squeezing in an hour or two a week to hang out with Jason and Amber, my best friends.
Still friends and Shakespeare couldn't keep me from getting stressed out now and then, and nothing relieved stress like breaking stuff.
Little porcelain angels from the dollar store were the best. Man, do those things shatter.
But at the end of junior year, I got early acceptance through a special program at Drake, which is sort of the Harvard of Des Moines. The extracurriculars and volunteer work and advanced classes were no longer necessary, so I gave myself a much lighter schedule for my senior year. Breaking stuff was hardly a part of my life anymore.
I was expecting this to be a really good day. My math class would be stuff I'd learned years ago. I could snooze through English while people read out loud from The Canterbury Tales at a rate of three words per minute. Debate would just be listening to the underclassmen argue about whether the new T-shirts should say "We Kick Rebuttal" or "We're Master Debaters."
And in drama, I'd just be relaxing while the cast rehearsed The Music Man. I was working props, a job that so far required me to do nothing more than sit on my butt and watch the rehearsals.
But the day started to fall apart the minute the Jenmobile stalled, and it only got worse from there.
In addition to being told that I look like a giant eggplant by a pint-sized, burger-wrapper-eating freak, I realized later that morning that I'd left my lunch sitting on the kitchen table.
Then I slammed my fingers in my locker.
From the Hardcover edition.