Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

( 6 )

Overview

Already an award-winning writer, ZZ Packer now shares with us her long-awaited debut, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Her impressive range and talent are abundantly evident: Packer dazzles with her command of language, surprising and delighting us with unexpected turns and indelible images, as she takes us into the lives of characters on the periphery, unsure of where they belong. We meet a Brownie troop of black girls who are confronted with a troop of white girls; a young man who goes with his father to the Million ...
See more details below
This is Not Available through BN.com
Sending request ...

Overview

Already an award-winning writer, ZZ Packer now shares with us her long-awaited debut, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Her impressive range and talent are abundantly evident: Packer dazzles with her command of language, surprising and delighting us with unexpected turns and indelible images, as she takes us into the lives of characters on the periphery, unsure of where they belong. We meet a Brownie troop of black girls who are confronted with a troop of white girls; a young man who goes with his father to the Million Man March and must decide where his allegiance lies; an international group of drifters in Japan, who are starving, unable to find work; a girl in a Baltimore ghetto who has dreams of the larger world she has seen only on the screens in the television store nearby, where the Lithuanian shopkeeper holds out hope for attaining his own American Dream. With penetrating insight that belies her youth -- she was only nineteen years old when Seventeen magazine printed her first published story -- ZZ Packer helps us see the world with a clearer vision. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is a striking performance -- fresh, versatile, and captivating. It introduces us to an arresting and unforgettable new voice.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Stephen Dixon
She's a heck of a fine writer of rich, full, psychologically complex stories...and a wry sense of humor...
Margot Livesey
What a wonderfully frank, fearless, funny writer ZZ Packer is and how splendidly Drinking Coffee Elsewhere displays those qualities.
Jean Thompson
Young writers, naturally enough, write about young characters. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is not really limited by this. Instead, there is a sense of a talented writer testing and pushing at those limits, ringing as many changes as possible within her fictional world. It is a world already populated by clamoring, sorrowing, eminently knowable people, and with the promise of more to come. — Jean Thompson
USA Today
Packer's stories, by turns astringent, brutally honest and sometimes funny, offer readers slices of life — from the emotional balance of power between girls in a Brownie troop in "Brownies" to Dina in "Geese." Living in Japan but unable to find work, she turns a trick to eat and pay the rent: "She left with a wad of yen. While riding the tokkyuu she watched life pass, alert employees returning to work, uniformed children on a field trip. It all passed by — buildings, signs, throngs of people everywhere." — Ayesha Court
The New York Times
Young writers, naturally enough, write about young characters. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is not really limited by this. Instead, there is a sense of a talented writer testing and pushing at those limits, ringing as many changes as possible within her fictional world. It is a world already populated by clamoring, sorrowing, eminently knowable people, and with the promise of more to come. — Jean Thompson
The Washington Post
Packer's handling of race is consistently impressive. While some writers choose to bang the concept on an anvil, and others avoid the subject altogether, this 30-year-old manages to work it into nearly every story without coming off like a public service announcement. But without question Packer's strength is her characters, and when she's at her best she writes like a boxer, capturing everything she needs in rapid-fire sentences. — Marc Nebitt
Publishers Weekly
The book form of this debut short story collection is getting the highest of accolades from the New York Times, Harper's, the New Yorker and most every other branch of the literary criticism tree. Likewise, the praise for the audio version of the book should be as lofty. Jordan, who, in addition to being a television and stage actor, works as an acting and dialogue coach, would be wise to use her superb performance here to advertise her business. Packer's stories deal with black men and women, mostly young and urban. Her carefully engineered narratives treat listeners to the richness of highly developed characters and lead them to some intriguing scenarios, like a troop of black Brownies spending their time at summer camp plotting against a troop of what they initially see as haughty white girls; and the deadbeat dad who talks his son into driving him across the country to the Million Man March, not to participate, but to sell parrots to African-Americans. As the reader, Jordan submerges herself completely into her characters, portraying Packer's superbly fleshed out cast with a dazzling versatility and an intuitive sense of delivery. Whether singing Brownie songs or making palpable a character's resounding disappointments, Jordan's delivery is as whip-smart as Packer's text is fiery and precise. Simultaneous release with the Riverhead hardcover (Forecasts, Dec. 16, 2002). (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This debut collection of eight short stories features mostly underprivileged African American teenage girls trying to make it in a white world. In one story, Brownies work up their courage to confront a white girl from another troop who has used the "n" word. In another, a studious black teenager coerced into attending the "Million Man March" with his alcoholic father tries to sell a collection of tropical birds stolen from the father's girlfriend. In "Speaking in Tongues," perhaps the most poignant tale, a 14-year-old girl from rural Georgia runs away from her overly strict and religious aunt to find her mother, who had left years before. Most of the pieces end unhappily but provide learning experiences for the characters as they move toward adulthood. Packer writes with energy and gritty realism but also with humor. Shirley Jordan's narration captures the young voices, full of irreverence and sass. The auditory quality is excellent. Recommended for older teens and audiences who enjoy compelling short stories. Suitable for all public libraries.-Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The characters in these stories are mainly African American, but that is where their similarity ends. From the young Brownie troop member in the opening tale to the teen in the pre-civil rights South closing story, each one has a unique voice. The strong role of the church is evident, but the characters range from the very religious to the very doubtful. Sexuality is problematic-from the older virgin who is more interested in preaching the gospel to the 14-year-old virgin runaway who has also been preaching the gospel but can't help continuing a dalliance with a man she suspects may be a pimp and a drug dealer. The settings are Baltimore, Washington during the Million Man March, and, in a particularly bleak story, Japan. Each selection is strong, but "Brownies" may be the strongest. It's full of dark humor and unseen plot twists, reminiscent in tone of a Flannery O' Connor tale. All of the selections appeared previously in various literary magazines. Older teens will find much to enjoy in this collection. For those studying the short story as a literary format, it would make an excellent companion to more classic tales.-Jamie Watson, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Race is less subject than context in these eight finely crafted tales, all consistently challenging readers’ basic assumptions. Like many of Packer’s characters, Dina, in the title story (previously published in the New Yorker’s Debut Fiction issue in summer 2000), is a studious loner whose disdain toward her fellow students, black and white, covers years of angry hurt. The Yale freshman begins a friendship with a white girl but can’t follow through. Dina appears again in "Geese," living in Japan with a multinational group of down-and-outers and discovering how far down she’ll go to survive. These are not cheerful tales. In the marvelous opener, "Brownies," a Brownie troop plots to beat up a white troop at their camp over a suspected racial offense; but the white girls turn out to be retarded innocents. Packer frequently uses the black church as background; in "Every Tongue Shall Confess," religious and romantic longings get tangled together for a lonely, devout nurse. Tia, in "Speaking in Tongues," runs away from her aunt’s devout but stable home to find her crack addict mother in Atlanta. In "Our Lady of Peace," an educated young woman leaves her mostly white hometown in Kentucky to become a high-school teacher in Baltimore, where she’s defeated by her unreachable students and her own naiveté. "The Ant of the Self" offers the collection’s only male protagonist, a studious high-school debater in Louisville who finds himself driving his dead-beat dad to the Million Man March, where his father, ignoring the spirit of the event, abandons him. The last story, set in 1961, deals directly with race as the subject. The eponymous heroine of "Doris Is Coming" tries to understand the Civil RightsMovement within the framework of her small but complex world. When she enacts a one-person sit-in at a local lunch counter, the waitress says she can’t officially serve her but offers Doris her own unfinished milk shake instead. Highly personal yet socio-politically acute: a debut collection that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting wallop. Book-of-the-Month Club/Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selection; author tour
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786545650
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 2/28/2004

Meet the Author

ZZ Packer

Hailing from Connecticut, by way of New York, SHIRLEY JORDAN has appeared in numerous stage, television productions, and commericals. Her TV credits include Ally McBeal, The West Wing, Friends, CSI, Angel, and Judging Amy.

Z.Z. Packer's first collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and a New York Times Notable Book, and was selected by John Updike for the Today Show Book Club. She has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, a Whiting Writers' Award, and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. Packer is on the faculty of California College of the Arts, and her stories have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and New Stories from the South.

Biography

Born in Chicago, ZZ Packer grew up in Atlanta and Louisville, Kentucky. She garnered national attention after one of her stories appeared in the 2000 New Yorker Debut Fiction issue. The story was later included in her debut collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003), a finalist for the 2004 PEN/Faulkner Award.

In addition to The New Yorker, Packer's stories have appeared in Harper's, Story, Ploughshares, Zoetrope and been selected for The Best American Short Stories series. In 2007, Granta named her one of the Best Young American Novelists and in 2010 she was included in The New Yorker's "20 under 40" selection of fiction writers who are, or will be, central to their generation.

Read More Show Less
    1. Also Known As:
      Zuwena Packer (birth name)
    2. Hometown:
      Pacifica, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 12, 1973
    2. Place of Birth:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1994; M.A., Johns Hopkins University, 1995; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1999
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Brownies

BY OUR SECOND DAY at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. Troop 909 was doomed from the first day of camp; they were white girls, their complexions a blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla. They turtled out from their bus in pairs, their rolled-up sleeping bags chromatized with Disney characters: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mickey Mouse; or the generic ones cheap parents bought: washed-out rainbows, unicorns, curly-eyelashed frogs. Some clutched Igloo coolers and still others held on to stuffed toys like pacifiers, looking all around them like tourists determined to be dazzled.

Our troop was wending its way past their bus, past the ranger station, past the colorful trail guide drawn like a treasure map, locked behind glass.

"Man, did you smell them?" Arnetta said, giving the girls a slow once-over, "They smell like Chihuahuas. Wet Chihuahuas." Their troop was still at the entrance, and though we had passed them by yards, Arnetta raised her nose in the air and grimaced.

Arnetta said this from the very rear of the line, far away from Mrs. Margolin, who always strung our troop behind her like a brood of obedient ducklings. Mrs. Margolin even looked like a mother duck-she had hair cropped close to a small ball of a head, almost no neck, and huge, miraculous breasts. She wore enormous belts that looked like the kind that weightlifters wear, except hers would be cheap metallic gold or rabbit fur or covered with gigantic fake sunflowers, and often these belts would become nature lessons in and of themselves. "See," Mrs. Margolin once said to us, pointing to her belt, "this one's made entirely from the feathers of baby pigeons."

The belt layered with feathers was uncanny enough, but I was more disturbed by the realization that I had never actually seen a baby pigeon. I searched weeks for one, in vain-scampering after pigeons whenever I was downtown with my father.

But nature lessons were not Mrs. Margolin's top priority. She saw the position of troop leader as an evangelical post. Back at the A.M.E. church where our Brownie meetings were held, Mrs. Margolin was especially fond of imparting religious aphorisms by means of acrostics-"Satan" was the "Serpent Always Tempting and Noisome"; she'd refer to the "Bible" as "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth." Whenever she quizzed us on these, expecting to hear the acrostics parroted back to her, only Arnetta's correct replies soared over our vague mumblings. "Jesus?" Mrs. Margolin might ask expectantly, and Arnetta alone would dutifully answer, "Jehovah's Example, Saving Us Sinners."

Arnetta always made a point of listening to Mrs. Margolin's religious talk and giving her what she wanted to hear. Because of this, Arnetta could have blared through a megaphone that the white girls of Troop 909 were "wet Chihuahuas" without so much as a blink from Mrs. Margolin. Once, Arnetta killed the troop goldfish by feeding it a french fry covered in ketchup, and when Mrs. Margolin demanded that she explain what had happened, claimed the goldfish had been eyeing her meal for hours, then the fish-giving in to temptation-had leapt up and snatched a whole golden fry from her fingertips.

"Serious Chihuahua," Octavia added, and though neither Arnetta nor Octavia could spell "Chihuahua," had ever seen a Chihuahua, trisyllabic words had gained a sort of exoticism within our fourth-grade set at Woodrow Wilson Elementary. Arnetta and Octavia would flip through the dictionary, determined to work the vulgar-sounding ones like "Djibouti" and "asinine" into conversation.

"Caucasian Chihuahuas," Arnetta said.

That did it. The girls in my troop turned elastic: Drema and Elise doubled up on one another like inextricably entwined kites; Octavia slapped her belly; Janice jumped straight up in the air, then did it again, as if to slam-dunk her own head. They could not stop laughing. No one had laughed so hard since a boy named Martez had stuck a pencil in the electric socket and spent the whole day with a strange grin on his face.

"Girls, girls," said our parent helper, Mrs. Hedy. Mrs. Hedy was Octavia's mother, and she wagged her index finger perfunctorily, like a windshield wiper. "Stop it, now. Be good." She said this loud enough to be heard, but lazily, bereft of any feeling or indication that she meant to be obeyed, as though she could say these words again at the exact same pitch if a button somewhere on her were pressed.

But the rest of the girls didn't stop; they only laughed louder. It was the word "Caucasian" that got them all going. One day at school, about a month before the Brownie camping trip, Arnetta turned to a boy wearing impossibly high-ankled floodwater jeans and said, "What are you? Caucasian?" The word took off from there, and soon everything was Caucasian. If you ate too fast you ate like a Caucasian, if you ate too slow you ate like a Caucasian. The biggest feat anyone at Woodrow Wilson could do was to jump off the swing in midair, at the highest point in its arc, and if you fell (as I had, more than once) instead of landing on your feet, knees bent Olympic gymnast-style, Arnetta and Octavia were prepared to comment. They'd look at each other with the silence of passengers who'd narrowly escaped an accident, then nod their heads, whispering with solemn horror, "Caucasian."

Even the only white kid in our school, Dennis, got in on the Caucasian act. That time when Martez stuck a pencil in the socket, Dennis had pointed and yelled, "That was so Caucasian!"

*

WHEN YOU lived in the south suburbs of Atlanta, it was easy to forget about whites. Whites were like those baby pigeons: real and existing, but rarely seen or thought about. Everyone had been to Rich's to go clothes shopping, everyone had seen white girls and their mothers coo-cooing over dresses; everyone had gone to the downtown library and seen white businessmen swish by importantly, wrists flexed in front of them to check the time as though they would change from Clark Kent into Superman at any second. But those images were as fleeting as cards shuffled in a deck, whereas the ten white girls behind us-invaders, Arnetta would later call them-were instantly real and memorable, with their long, shampoo-commercial hair, straight as spaghetti from the box. This alone was reason for envy and hatred. The only black girl most of us had ever seen with hair that long was Octavia, whose hair hung past her butt like a Hawaiian hula dancer's. The sight of Octavia's mane prompted other girls to listen to her reverentially, as though whatever she had to say would somehow activate their own follicles. For example, when, on the first day of camp, Octavia made as if to speak, and everyone fell silent. "Nobody," Octavia said, "calls us niggers."

At the end of that first day, when half of our troop made their way back to the cabin after tag-team restroom visits, Arnetta said she'd heard one of the Troop 909 girls call Daphne a nigger. The other half of the girls and I were helping Mrs. Margolin clean up the pots and pans from the campfire ravioli dinner. When we made our way to the restrooms to wash up and brush our teeth, we met up with Arnetta midway.

"Man, I completely heard the girl," Arnetta reported. "Right, Daphne?"

Daphne hardly ever spoke, but when she did, her voice was petite and tinkly, the voice one might expect from a shiny new earring. She'd written a poem once, for Langston Hughes Day, a poem brimming with all the teacher-winning ingredients-trees and oceans, sunsets and moons-but what cinched the poem for the grown-ups, snatching the win from Octavia's musical ode to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, were Daphne's last lines:

You are my father, the veteran
When you cry in the dark
It rains and rains and rains in my heart

She'd always worn clean, though faded, jumpers and dresses when Chic jeans were the fashion, but when she went up to the dais to receive her prize journal, pages trimmed in gold, she wore a new dress with a velveteen bodice and a taffeta skirt as wide as an umbrella. All the kids clapped, though none of them understood the poem. I'd read encyclopedias the way others read comics, and I didn't get it. But those last lines pricked me, they were so eerie, and as my father and I ate cereal, I'd whisper over my Froot Loops, like a mantra, "You are my father, the veteran. You are my father, the veteran, the veteran, the veteran," until my father, who acted in plays as Caliban and Othello and was not a veteran, marched me up to my teacher one morning and said, "Can you tell me what's wrong with this kid?"

I thought Daphne and I might become friends, but I think she grew spooked by me whispering those lines to her, begging her to tell me what they meant, and I soon understood that two quiet people like us were better off quiet alone.

"Daphne? Didn't you hear them call you a nigger?" Arnetta asked, giving Daphne a nudge.

The sun was setting behind the trees, and their leafy tops formed a canopy of black lace for the flame of the sun to pass through. Daphne shrugged her shoulders at first, then slowly nodded her head when Arnetta gave her a hard look.

Twenty minutes later, when my restroom group returned to the cabin, Arnetta was still talking about Troop 909. My restroom group had passed by some of the 909 girls. For the most part, they deferred to us, waving us into the restrooms, letting us go even though they'd gotten there first.

We'd seen them, but from afar, never within their orbit enough to see whether their faces were the way all white girls appeared on TV-ponytailed and full of energy, bubbling over with love and money. All I could see was that some of them rapidly fanned their faces with their hands, though the heat of the day had long passed. A few seemed to be lolling their heads in slow circles, half purposefully, as if exercising the muscles of their necks, half ecstactically, like Stevie Wonder.

"We can't let them get away with that," Arnetta said, dropping her voice to a laryngitic whisper. "We can't let them get away with calling us niggers. I say we teach them a lesson." She sat down crosslegged on a sleeping bag, an embittered Buddha, eyes glimmering acrylic-black. "We can't go telling Mrs. Margolin, either. Mrs. Margolin'll say something about doing unto others and the path of righteousness and all. Forget that shit." She let her eyes flutter irreverently till they half closed, as though ignoring an insult not worth returning. We could all hear Mrs. Margolin outside, gathering the last of the metal campware.

Nobody said anything for a while. Usually people were quiet after Arnetta spoke. Her tone had an upholstered confidence that was somehow both regal and vulgar at once. It demanded a few moments of silence in its wake, like the ringing of a church bell or the playing of taps. Sometimes Octavia would ditto or dissent to whatever Arnetta had said, and this was the signal that others could speak. But this time Octavia just swirled a long cord of hair into pretzel shapes. "Well?" Arnetta said. She looked as if she had discerned the hidden severity of the situation and was waiting for the rest of us to catch up. Everyone looked from Arnetta to Daphne. It was, after all, Daphne who had supposedly been called the name, but Daphne sat on the bare cabin floor, flipping through the pages of the Girl Scout handbook, eyebrows arched in mock wonder, as if the handbook were a catalogue full of bright and startling foreign costumes. Janice broke the silence. She clapped her hands to broach her idea of a plan.

"They gone be sleeping," she whispered conspiratorially, "then we gone sneak into they cabin, then we'll put daddy longlegs in they sleeping bags. Then they'll wake up. Then we gone beat 'em up till they're as flat as frying pans!" She jammed her fist into the palm of her hand, then made a sizzling sound.

Janice's country accent was laughable, her looks homely, her jumpy acrobatics embarrassing to behold. Arnetta and Octavia volleyed amused, arrogant smiles whenever Janice opened her mouth, but Janice never caught the hint, spoke whenever she wanted, fluttered around Arnetta and Octavia futilely offering her opinions to their departing backs. Whenever Arnetta and Octavia shooed her away, Janice loitered until the two would finally sigh and ask, "What is it, Miss Caucausoid? What do you want?"

"Shut up, Janice," Octavia said, letting a fingered loop of hair fall to her waist as though just the sound of Janice's voice had ruined the fun of her hair twisting.

Janice obeyed, her mouth hung open in a loose grin, unflappable, unhurt.

"All right," Arnetta said, standing up. "We're going to have a secret meeting and talk about what we're going to do."

Everyone gravely nodded her head. The word "secret" had a built-in importance, the modifier form of the word carried more clout than the noun. A secret meant nothing; it was like gossip: just a bit of unpleasant knowledge about someone who happened to be someone other than yourself. A secret meeting, or a secret club was entirely different.

That was when Arnetta turned to me as though she knew that doing so was both a compliment and a charity.

"Snot, you're not going to be a bitch and tell Mrs. Margolin, are you?"

I had been called "Snot" ever since first grade, when I'd sneezed in class and two long ropes of mucus had splattered a nearby girl.

"Hey," I said. "Maybe you didn't hear them right-I mean-"

"Are you gonna tell on us or not?" was all Arnetta wanted to know, and by the time the question was asked, the rest of our Brownie troop looked at me as though they'd already decided their course of action, me being the only impediment.

*

CAMP CRESCENDO used to double as a high-school-band and field hockey camp until an arcing field hockey ball landed on the clasp of a girl's metal barrette, knifing a skull nerve and paralyzing the right side of her body. The camp closed down for a few years and the girl's teammates built a memorial, filling the spot on which the girl fell with hockey balls, on which they had painted-all in nail polish-get-well tidings, flowers, and hearts. The balls were still stacked there, like a shrine of ostrich eggs embedded in the ground.

On the second day of camp, Troop 909 was dancing around the mound of hockey balls, their limbs jangling awkwardly, their cries like the constant summer squeal of an amusement park. There was a stream that bordered the field hockey lawn, and the girls from my troop settled next to it, scarfing down the last of lunch: sandwiches made from salami and slices of tomato that had gotten waterlogged from the melting ice in the cooler. From the stream bank, Arnetta eyed the Troop 909 girls, scrutinizing their movements to glean inspiration for battle.

"Man," Arnetta said, "we could bumrush them right now if that damn lady would leave."

The 909 troop leader was a white woman with the severe pageboy hairdo of an ancient Egyptian. She lay on a picnic blanket, sphinx-like, eating a banana, sometimes holding it out in front of her like a microphone. Beside her sat a girl slowly flapping one hand like a bird with a broken wing. Occasionally, the leader would call out the names of girls who'd attempted leapfrogs and flips, or of girls who yelled too loudly or strayed far from the circle.

"I'm just glad Big Fat Mama's not following us here," Octavia said. "At least we don't have to worry about her." Mrs. Margolin, Octavia assured us, was having her Afternoon Devotional, shrouded in mosquito netting, in a clearing she'd found. Mrs. Hedy was cleaning mud from her espadrilles in the cabin.

"I handled them." Arnetta sucked on her teeth and proudly grinned. "I told her we was going to gather leaves."

"Gather leaves," Octavia said, nodding respectfully. "That's a good one. Especially since they're so mad-crazy about this camping thing." She looked from ground to sky, sky to ground. Her hair hung down her back in two braids like a squaw's. "I mean, I really don't know why it's even called camping-all we ever do with Nature is find some twigs and say something like, 'Wow, this fell from a tree.'" She then studied her sandwich. With two disdainful fingers, she picked out a slice of dripping tomato, the sections congealed with red slime. She pitched it into the stream embrowned with dead leaves and the murky effigies of other dead things, but in the opaque water, a group of small silver-brown fish appeared. They surrounded the tomato and nibbled.

"Look!" Janice cried. "Fishes! Fishes!" As she scrambled to the edge of the stream to watch, a covey of insects threw up tantrums from the wheatgrass and nettle, a throng of tiny electric machines, all going at once. Octavia sneaked up behind Janice as if to push her in. Daphne and I exchanged terrified looks. It seemed as though only we knew that Octavia was close enough-and bold enough-to actually push Janice into the stream. Janice turned around quickly, but Octavia was already staring serenely into the still water as though she was gathering some sort of courage from it. "What's so funny?" Janice said, eyeing them all suspiciously.

Elise began humming the tune to "Karma Chameleon," all the girls joining in, their hums light and facile. Janice also began to hum, against everyone else, the high-octane opening chords of "Beat It."

"I love me some Michael Jackson," Janice said when she'd finished humming, smacking her lips as though Michael Jackson were a favorite meal. "I will marry Michael Jackson."

Before anyone had a chance to impress upon Janice the impossibility of this, Arnetta suddenly rose, made a sun visor of her hand, and watched Troop 909 leave the field hockey lawn.

"Dammit!" she said. "We've got to get them alone."

"They won't ever be alone," I said. All the rest of the girls looked at me, for I usually kept quiet. If I spoke even a word, I could count on someone calling me Snot. Everyone seemed to think that we could beat up these girls; no one entertained the thought that they might fight back. "The only time they'll be unsupervised is in the bathroom."

"Oh shut up, Snot," Octavia said.

But Arnetta slowly nodded her head. "The bathroom," she said. "The bathroom," she said, again and again. "The bathroom! The bathroom!"

*

ACCORDING TO Octavia's watch, it took us five minutes to hike to the restrooms, which were midway between our cabin and Troop 909's. Inside, the mirrors above the sinks returned only the vaguest of reflections, as though someone had taken a scouring pad to their surfaces to obscure the shine. Pine needles, leaves, and dirty, flattened wads of chewing gum covered the floor like a mosaic. Webs of hair matted the drain in the middle of the floor. Above the sinks and below the mirrors, stacks of folded white paper towels lay on a long metal counter. Shaggy white balls of paper towels sat on the sinktops in a line like corsages on display. A thread of floss snaked from a wad of tissues dotted with the faint red-pink of blood. One of those white girls, I thought, had just lost a tooth.

Though the restroom looked almost the same as it had the night before, it somehow seemed stranger now. We hadn't noticed the wooden rafters coming together in great V's. We were, it seemed, inside a whale, viewing the ribs of the roof of its mouth.

"Wow. It's a mess," Elise said.

"You can say that again."

Arnetta leaned against the doorjamb of a restroom stall. "This is where they'll be again," she said. Just seeing the place, just having a plan seemed to satisfy her. "We'll go in and talk to them. You know, 'How you doing? How long'll you be here?' That sort of thing. Then Octavia and I are gonna tell them what happens when they call any one of us a nigger."

"I'm going to say something, too," Janice said.

Arnetta considered this. "Sure," she said. "Of course. Whatever you want."

Janice pointed her finger like a gun at Octavia and rehearsed the line she'd thought up, "'We're gonna teach you a lesson!' That's what I'm going to say." She narrowed her eyes like a TV mobster. "'We're gonna teach you little girls a lesson!'"

With the back of her hand, Octavia brushed Janice's finger away. "You couldn't teach me to shit in a toilet."

"But," I said, "what if they say, 'We didn't say that? We didn't call anyone an N-I-G-G-E-R.'"

"Snot," Arnetta said, and then sighed. "Don't think. Just fight. If you even know how."

Everyone laughed except Daphne. Arnetta gently laid her hand on Daphne's shoulder. "Daphne. You don't have to fight. We're doing this for you."

Daphne walked to the counter, took a clean paper towel, and carefully unfolded it like a map. With it, she began to pick up the trash all around. Everyone watched.

"C'mon," Arnetta said to everyone. "Let's beat it." We all ambled toward the doorway, where the sunshine made one large white rectangle of light. We were immediately blinded, and we shielded our eyes with our hands and our forearms.

"Daphne?" Arnetta asked. "Are you coming?"

We all looked back at the bending girl, the thin of her back hunched like the back of a custodian sweeping a stage, caught in limelight. Stray strands of her hair were lit near-transparent, thin fiber-optic threads. She did not nod yes to the question, nor did she shake her head no. She abided, bent. Then she began again, picking up leaves, wads of paper, the cotton fluff innards from a torn stuffed toy. She did it so methodically, so exquisitely, so humbly, she must have been trained. I thought of those dresses she wore, faded and old, yet so pressed and clean. I then saw the poverty in them; I then could imagine her mother, cleaning the houses of others, returning home, weary.

"I guess she's not coming."

We left her and headed back to our cabin, over pine needles and leaves, taking the path full of shade.

"What about our secret meeting?" Elise asked.

Arnetta enunciated her words in a way that defied contradiction: "We just had it."

--from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z. Z. Packer, Copyright © 2003 by Z. Z. Packer, published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Brownies 1
Every Tongue Shall Confess 29
Our Lady of Peace 49
The Ant of the Self 73
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere 105
Speaking in Tongues 133
Geese 189
Doris Is Coming 211
Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Our Reading Group Recommendation
ZZ Packer's debut collection was eagerly anticipated. When some of the stories that comprise Drinking Coffee Elsewhere began appearing in The New Yorker and Harper's magazine, her laser-sharp characterizations and understated wit garnered immediate notice. The promise of those pieces is fulfilled in this triumphant volume, which showcases a dynamic new voice in fiction.

Reading groups will treasure the author's knack for sketching personalities who seem immediately familiar yet reveal hidden depths and personal mysteries. Their experiences are at once ordinary and strange, often painful, and frequently skirt the territory of the absurd. In particular, Packer focuses her attention on being young and African American in the 21st century, describing how race inflects the smallest interactions -- not merely between blacks and whites but between members of African-American families, churches, and communities.

The inventive subjects of the stories themselves are fodder enough for discussion: In one, a Brownie and her troop develop an intense hatred for a group of white girls after overhearing a racist remark, but their plans for revenge are undone in a surprising turn. "Every Tongue Shall Confess" introduces a devoutly religious nurse, her hypocritical pastor, and a musician who challenges her piety. The masterful "The Ant of the Self" follows an unwilling, sardonic teenage boy on a trip with his ne'er-do-well father to the Million Man March -- so that they can peddle tropical birds to the crowd. These outsider voices raise questions about what it means to go it alone, and about the price of identifying closely with any group.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure to be found in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is the way that Packer leaves some crucial details for us to interpret. In the title story, a young black woman attending a mostly white school expects to encounter racism but instead has to confront her own uncertain sexuality. The author cleverly highlights Dina's own reticence, which forces us to fill in the gaps in the laconic narrator's revelations. At one point, Dina describes the tension between herself and her almost-girlfriend as "A pleasant trap of silence." Packer's own silences are more like a fascinating puzzle, which readers will undoubtedly enjoy exploring, solving, and revisiting, both alone and together. (Bill Tipper)

An Introduction from the Publisher
A high school English teacher pushed to the breaking point in Baltimore's inner city, a girl who runs away from a stifling religious life into a world of sin, a Yale freshman who seals herself off from her classmates, a teenage boy tricked into helping his father sell exotic birds at the Million Man March -- these are just a few of the remarkable characters who inhabit ZZ Packer's brilliant debut collection of stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.

Such characters and the predicaments they face, their struggles to choose between what are often wretched alternatives, give these stories their dramatic force. But it is the writing itself -- vivid, poignant, richly textured, and filled with equally sharp social observation and emotional nuance -- that announces ZZ Packer as a major new voice in realist fiction. The result of her forays into the lives and experiences of African-Americans is as complex and aesthetically satisfying as any collection in recent memory. They tell of characters, mostly women whose lives are lived in the margin, characters not quite at home in their world, whether in school, the church, foreign country or a hometown. These stories show us characters who are mostly unseen or unheard by the society around them; and yet these characters can also reveal great honesty and courage.

With great verve and insight, ZZ Packer gives us stories that bristle with all the messiness -- all ambiguities, confusions, and open-endedness -- of life as people actually live it.

Discussion Questions
1. In what ways do the eight stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere complement each other? What situations, problems, and themes recur in the collection? What qualities make it such a cohesive collection?

2. At the end of "Brownies," the narrator recalls her father exploiting a group of Mennonites and suddenly knows there is "something mean in the world" she could not stop [p. 28]. What is that meanness? Why does she recall her father's experience at this point in the story? In what ways does her father's behavior illuminate the girls' experience at camp?

3. What ironies are suggested by Lynnea's struggle, in "Our Lady of Peace," to get her students to talk about Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, a classic African American novel, rather than "their neon fingernail polish or the Mos Def lyrics in front of them"[p. 54]?

4. What are some of your favorite images in the collection? Discuss how the metaphors contribute to the stories' themes.

5. Many of these stories are about sexually innocent characters who must confront their fears and desires for the first time. For example, in "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," Dina runs away, dropping her packages when a boy offers to walk her home, and she also appears to be afraid to explore her feelings toward Heidi. And in "Every Tongue Shall Confess," Sister Clareese's music feels dangerous, even as it moves Pastor Everett. How is the theme of sexual innocence linked to other themes in this collection? How is the loss of innocence characterized in these stories?

6. At the end of "The Ant of the Self," the narrator watches a small boy "jump up and down with delight" when he hears the "All aboard!" call at the train station. "He is the happiest I've seen anyone, ever. And though the urge to weep comes over me, I wait -- holding my head in my hands -- and it passes" [p. 103]. Why does this scene affect him so strongly? What might he be thinking here about his own father, his own experience as a boy?

7. In "Speaking in Tongues," Tia flees the oppressive world of Pentecostal fanaticism, where she is locked in a closet and forced to accept the Holy Spirit, to the mean streets of Atlanta, where she encounters a world of drugs and sexual exploitation. In what ways are these apparently dissimilar worlds alike? Why does Tia feel so out of place in both? Do other alternatives exist for her?

8. The stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere are set in a range of places -- from Japan to Yale University, from the Million Man March to girl scout camp. How do the settings, and the characters' relationships with their setting, inform the themes in various stories? Do these various settings relate to a larger them in the collection?

9. "Doris is Coming" ends with a striking image. As Doris walks home, after her spontaneous one-woman sit-in, she knows she should hurry, but "she had to stop and look. The sky had just turned her favorite shade of barely lit blue, the kind that came to windows when you couldn't get back to sleep but couldn't pry yourself awake" [p. 238]. Why is this an appropriate image with which to end the story and the collection? In what sense is Doris, or the other characters in the collection, in a state between sleeping and waking?

10. All these stories involve African-American characters in similar situations, and yet, their predicaments are universal, which can be seen in "Doris Is Coming," with the man from Lithuania. Does this collection perhaps, provide some insight into people who life their life straddling two worlds? Taken together, what do the stories of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere say about the relationship among education, religion, and the struggle for personal freedom?

About ZZ Packer
A New Yorker debut writer, ZZ Packer has had short stories published in the Best American Short Stories, 2000 (edited by E. L. Doctorow), the Best American Short Stories, 2002 (edited by Walter Mosley), Harper's, Story magazine, and in the anthology 25 and Under: Fiction, as well as a story read on NPR's "Selected Shorts." A graduate of Yale, the writing seminar at Johns Hopkins University, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she is the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. She has held Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote fellowships from Stanford University, where she is currently a Jones Lecturer.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(3)

4 Star

(2)

3 Star

(1)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)