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Leslie Marshall's first novel is a startling, fresh, totally captivating new voice. With Elray Mayhew, she has created perhaps one of literature's more unforgettable young heroines. Elray Mayhew loses her parents on her sixth birthday at an amusement park going through the Tunnel of Love. The boat the three of them are in is leaking and ...
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Leslie Marshall's first novel is a startling, fresh, totally captivating new voice. With Elray Mayhew, she has created perhaps one of literature's more unforgettable young heroines. Elray Mayhew loses her parents on her sixth birthday at an amusement park going through the Tunnel of Love. The boat the three of them are in is leaking and Barkely and Jack's feet are on the wet floor so that when the electrical moon falls from the ceiling and into their laps, they are electrocuted. Elray survives intact except for a crescent shaped scar on her right underarm. In following years she can touch the scar and communicate with them, receiving instructions, or offbeat and amusing comments, in their distinctive voices.
Elray, orphaned, is now in the custody of two uncles, brothers each of Barkley and Jack. Harwood is a macho, heavily-drinking photographer who travels about the world on assignments. Aunt Ajax, as he prefers to be called, is a cross-dressing gay man who gives up his fringe existence in New York to come to Washington, move into Barkley and Jack's old house in the Cleveland Park, and throw himself full throttle into motherhood, albeit, at times, a misguided version of it.
Elray doesn't speak for days and spends most of her time hiding in a crawlspace under the house. During a gathering after her parent's funeral she's there, listening to everyone shuffle above her and hearing them call her name, when she lets out her second massive scream. It's her voice returning, her Aunt Ajax, one of her new official guardians, runs to check on her. Following her is her Uncle Harwood, official guardian #2. The three of them, camped out under the house, decide to mark the day as Crawlspace Day. Crawlspace Day will be celebrated annually to mark the day that their lives became entwined, and she'll receive, belatedly, her cake and her gifts, all under the house.
By the time she's twelve, Elray is spending all her time creating adventures and going on solo explorations. One day, creeping through the crypts of the Washington Cathedral that is near Half-Moon Street, she comes eye to eye with Raoul Person, a boy just her age as awkward, precocious, and alone as she is. Their story is the beating heart of this novel. They connect immediately, and together they form a partnership to practice "the art of invincibility"-something they'd both been trying to conquer-and christen themselves The Invincible Heels. He's her fellow knight and from crafting amateur black and white movies, to imitating their actual deaths in makeshift coffins, to a harrowing midnight swim across the Potomac when Elray just escapes drowning, they challenge each other to confront their fears.
Although they remain close, as they move into the period termed "The Vertical Bog"-Elray's wry code for puberty-they drift apart. Her interest in filmmaking deepens, and Raoul begins running after the girly-girls. Elray withdraws, mourns Raoul, and hears less and less from her parents when she touches her scar-she's growing up. She still feels like a failure after their harrowing crossing of the Potomac, combined with typical low self-esteem of her age group, she decides to master her largest fear-going back to Glen Echo and riding again through the Tunnel of Love. Harwood accompanies her, and afterwards, she finally feels like a young adult.
And happening all at the same time, Elray's paternal grandmother-long thought dead-resurfaces and sues for custody of her granddaughter (she claims to have faked her death in a fire at Blackie's House of Beef to free her family from her destructive drinking and gambling ways). Elray, at this fragile stage in her life, delights in the weirdness of the situation and welcomes the elegant, grand, smoking and dancing old woman, while unwittingly betraying her family by disclosing all their secrets to her. These family skeletons are then hurtfully exposed at the custody trial-along with Elray and Raoul's films that showcase their countless unsupervised hours. As her peculiar adolescent life flashes before her, Elray embraces the situation and invites not only her grandmother, but the pregnant Rena (who, after having a secret affair with Harwood, falls in love with Ajax) to live with them. As the new-fangled family gets adjusted to their new circumstance, Rena and Ajax announce that they are in love and proceed to get married.
In the meantime, her films having made a splash at the trial, Elray embarks on a film career with the new camera she receives on her sixteenth birthday. After a brief infatuation with a pretentious film professor, Elray winds her way back to Raoul. Just as she finds bliss and comfort in his arms and decides to finally unveil the very real Raoul to her family, she is confronted with a very dramatic scene of Rena in labor and Granny having a heart attacccccck simultaneously. In a wild ambulance ride, Granny finally passes on and Rena gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl, who seem to embody the spirits of Elray's mom and dad.
We end with Elray writing a letter to her niece and nephew as Raoul, now her husband, and Harwood, are off in China on an archeological dig. Rosie and Valentine are turning 18, and in her letter she explains that her gift to them is their family's story-this novel.
A Girl Could Stand Up is exquisitely tender and moving. It is an inspiring reinvention of the very notion of family-think of the Sopranos or the Osbournes-but is loving and exhilarating, as well. It is a celebration of people who don't follow the rules, don't adhere to the status quo, and are all the more compelling for it. You'll cheer them on, want to pull them right out of the book, and invite them over for dinner.
Elray was under the house, the part of it that had no basement, lying on her belly in the cramped and musty crawlspace with her face pressed against the dirt. It had been three days since her as yet uncelebrated sixth birthday. Three days since the accident. Two hours since the still, almost airless moment when her parents, Barkley and Jack, had disappeared forever into the quiet and unremarkable ground of Washington's Montrose Cemetery.
Overhead people were moving, clacking their shoes across the floors in dotted lines like the paths that chart explorers' routes on maps. Elray took a deep breath of the stale crawlspace air. It was good air, old air. The same air that had been there when Elray and Barkley and Jack had looped their own footsteps through the open spaces of the house, garlanding the rooms with the private patterns of their family dance. The same hard earth had been there too. Elray shifted her weight and opened her mouth slightly so that the bitterness of that earth could creep at the edges of her taste. Then she tried to whisper to them: "Mama, Daddy. Barkley, Jack." No sound came, of course. She had forgotten-she kept forgetting-about her dead voice. Elray slid her tongue forward for a quick rude scoop of dirt and mimed the names one last time as the bitterness blossomed. "Barkley. Jack."
Soon someone would miss her, and come looking. Elray knew that. But she would hear them calling first, and she would have time to scuttle out of the crawlspace back into the sunlight, and act like she had just stepped outside to throw a peach pit into the hedge where it belonged. These people upstairs were pretty slow. They didn't notice much, didn't remember much. Not one of them had remembered her sixth birthday party, or noticed the bright ziggurat of presents stashed in the hall closet. Elray had discovered the presents, of course, and she'd seen the colorful paper plates with matching cups and napkins that were still sitting in the pantry in their plastic wrapping. She had been painfully aware of the big chocolate cake on top of the refrigerator, getting stale in its white box. Last night when no one was near she had even climbed up on the counter to peer in at the cake. She had admired the little miniature merry-go-round and tiny Ferris wheel and toy clowns pressed into its chocolate top, and the way her own name, ELRAY, had been scripted in big letters that erupted into clusters of pink roses with the beginning E and the ending Y.
Barkley and Jack had had everything ready. They had remembered her birthday. But now they were gone and only all the other people, the ones who didn't remember or notice, were upstairs. It was not a handsome crowd. Grown people turned into monsters when they cried; their faces went rubbery, and their eyes bulged as if they were eggs about to hatch more little sad rubbery monsters. Nearly everyone had been a cry-monster at some point today. Even Elray's Auntie Ajax, usually so full of energy and jokes, had looked at her from across the room with shimmery eyes, and then had let loose a long sad hiccup.
Elray wiped her tongue on her sleeve. The dirt had lost its good bitter flavor and was just bad grit in her mouth. Some ginger ale might be nice. Perhaps she should go upstairs and get a little drink in one of those pretty party cups, and walk around and try to make one of the dumb grown people take the hint. She could hold the cup up and wave it, as if to say: "Do I have to save all of these cups for my BIRTHDAY PARTY, or can I have some ginger ale in one now?" She would find her Uncle Harwood. She hadn't seen him crying. He wasn't his normal silly self, he hadn't walked on his hands and said the alphabet backward for her yet. But at least he wasn't weepy. He was wearing the camera, taking pictures, the way he always did. If Barkley had been there, Elray knew what she would have done. She would have laughed at Harwood and said, "Oh cut it out, you old shutterbug."
This vision, the picture of Barkley and the sound of her voice scolding Harwood, came to Elray so clearly she decided to rewind it and run it again. It was nice to have Barkley around, even in a mind movie. "Oh cut it out Harwood, you old shutterbug," Barkley said, and then she tilted her head back and gave her brookwater laugh. Uncle Harwood's camera flashed right back at her and then, for just a second, there were magic blue pinwheels of light twirling on Barkley's teeth and in her eyes.
Elray had been going full tilt on the mind movies lately. All sorts of things had been coming and going on screen, but the story that kept coming back and starting itself over and over was the story of Thursday morning, her birthday morning, just three days ago. It was a good movie. It always began the same way, inside her head, with the sunlight melting on her face and making patterns like tree branches on the insides of her eyelids. Then the lids lifted, slid upward the way shades on airplane windows do, and the day with all its special birthday potential came slowly, deliciously into focus. The October air was apple-clean, and carried the promise of breakfast bacon. The sunlight was brassy and loud, and danced around Elray's bedroom as if impatient for her to rise.
In the movie Elray thawed from sleep into consciousness of all this and hit the ground running, her bare feet slapping across the cold wood floors with loud thwacks, her child's voice rising from a tickle in her chest and sailing forth with the hearty acquisitive flush of one who is ready to receive.
"Mama! Daddy!" She called for them. It was her birthday. She had called her parents and there they both were, in the kitchen and hard at work. Barkley was pouring hot water over the coffee grounds, moving carefully around the edges of the inverted pyramid, washing the coffee down the slopes. Jack was turning the bacon, intently. They both looked up and grinned.
"It's a Birthday Thing!" said Barkley.
"It's a Birthday Thing with no slippers!" said Jack.
"Happy birthday, Birthday Thing!" They said it together, and then they swooped down in a whirl of arms and faces and squeals that left Elray breathless, seated at the breakfast table before a large pink package with a gray ribbon. Elray stared at the package, and the package, it seemed, began to grow. The longer she stared, the larger the package grew and the pinker it turned, until it was shaking and rattling before her, straining at its restrictive gray ribbon with the groaning song of a big boat under sail. Then BOOM-the package exploded in a cloud of pink dust. When the storm of cardboard and paper settled, there sat a pair of black high-top sneakers. Brand new, in Elray's size.
The sneakers were a perfect fit and made an auspicious birthday beginning. Elray had wanted them badly and now, as she lay stretched across the backseat of the car, riding to her surprise birthday outing with Barkley and Jack, she propped her feet on the window ledge so that she could admire the way the shoes punctuated the ends of her legs. The little white crescent moons across their toes made the sneakers look happy to be there too.
In the front seat, Barkley and Jack were dropping hints, trying to make Elray guess where they might be headed.
"Is it the beer factory again?" Elray asked, remembering her birthday outing the year before. The three of them had walked in the cool shadow of big vats that stood on top of tall pipes like metal trees, surrounded by a pungent thick smell that made Elray want to grab the air and squeeze it into shapes. Her favorite part had been when the bottles filed past like soldiers to get their cap hats.
Barkley looked across at Jack with narrow eyes. "No," she said. "Last year was your daddy's pick. This year is my turn. Keep guessing, Kumquat. This is something really exciting." Barkley slid Jack another slit-eyed look. "Something really exciting for CHILDREN."
"The zoo?" Elray tried to hide the sadness that lives in that word, but it came out pretty flat anyway. So she tried it again. "The zoooooo?" This time it came out like a crazy train whistle. Still not a happy sound, but luckily Barkley was already shaking her head and wrinkling her nose and saying, "No, no, no. Keep guessing."
Not the beer factory, not the zoo. Oh God. "The Bay Bridge?" Elray's father had a theory about one of the exact-change booths on the big Bay Bridge that led across the Chesapeake toward the beaches. The spirit of his dead mother, Elray's Granny Mayhew, sometimes inhabited a certain booth there, he said, and on a good day you could get a hot tip on which horse to play at the Laurel Racetrack if you counted the seconds between when you dropped the money in the basket and when the automated gateway lifted to let you through. Once Elray and Barkley had suffered through seven and a half round trips over the bridge in the course of an hour and a half because Jack claimed to be piecing together information on the whereabouts of some family silver that had mysteriously disappeared about the time of Granny Mayhew's death.
"Is it the Bay Bridge?" In the mind movie, Elray usually repeated her question in a tiny pushed-away voice. Partly because the car was already slowing and turning, lurching downward and to the left, kicking up a drumroll of gravel that seemed to signify arrival somewhere-somewhere that was much too soon to be the Bay Bridge. But her voice was also pushed away because it was right about here that this particular mind movie, in the three days it had been running, always started to unravel on Elray. The picture began to stutter and flicker and finally faded away altogether.
But not on that long-ago now famous afternoon, it didn't. Not as Elray lay in the crawlspace. This time the reel kept rolling. The colors brightened, if anything, and the focus grew sharper as the car turned down a driveway toward what appeared to be a cluster of castles. Flags were flying from turrets and towers in every direction. To the left was a wild, looping railroad built high on stilts. The air was full of tinny music and sugary smells and disembodied screams.
"It's called Glen Echo," said Barkley. "It's an amusement park. Happy birthday."
First they all sat in a giant teacup, like three giant sugar cubes, as it whirled around and around. "Hold on, Crumpet," said Jack.
"You," Elray said back at him. Then she stretched out a foot and poked at his knees with a new high-top to check if his sugar-cube legs were starting to dissolve yet.
"Goodness," said Barkley, clutching at a purple scarf that the wind was trying to steal. "Pretty wild teacup, this one."
Next they visited a booth where they were outfitted with little fishing rods. When they cast the rods over the counter, the woman in charge bent over and left her bottom in the air for a long time. Finally, just as there was a mighty tug on Elray's line, the woman reappeared, red-faced and yelling, "Hey! Youse got something!" Sure enough, when Elray worked her reel to take in the slack a little plastic monkey came dangling into view.
They rode the merry-go-round, with its bobbing bored beasts, and they went fishing again, this time by aiming Ping-Pong balls at the narrow necks of little glass globes that held real live goldfish. They had to lean way over the barrier fence to aim, and even so the Ping-Pong balls kept bouncing maddeningly to the ground. But finally Jack got it right, and a ball bobbed on the surface above a startled fish.
"What will you name him?" Jack asked as he handed the little glass globe to Elray.
"What day is it?" Elray squinted through the glass at her prize. "And how do you know it's a him?"
"It's Thursday, and I don't."
"Then I'll call him Friday," Elray said. "Lily says Friday is fish day."
"What's next?" asked Barkley. She had just bought a beehive of blue cotton candy, and Jack and Elray paused to watch her eat it and to consider her question.
"Hey, little family." A tall elderly woman in a long gray flannel coat took advantage of their momentary indecision to approach them with a Polaroid camera. "Can I snap a quick picture? You look so happy today. Quel beau poisson!" the woman said, admiring Friday. "May I?" she asked, holding up her camera. "I'll take two-one for me and one for you?"
They huddled together, Elray holding Friday up in front and Barkley holding her cotton candy behind her back, while the woman took two Polaroids. A moment later Elray watched as the image of her family, newly expanded by the addition of Friday, came into bloom against an empty white background. She stared at the photograph the woman offered her and then stuffed it into her coat pocket.
"What's next, Elray?" Barkley asked again as she returned to her cotton candy.
"This one," Elray announced as she grabbed Barkley and Jack by their knees and pulled them toward a dark stone cottage set into the hill. A pretty blue light, like angels' hair, shone from the door of the cottage.
"That's a grown-up one. Tunnel of Love," said Jack. "You won't like it."
"This one," Elray insisted. It was her birthday, her day to call the shots.
Inside the cottage a line of wooden boats bobbed in a narrow canal. The boats were twirled at the ends like elves' shoes, and bumped against each other gently, like livestock.
"Hi-ho! A gondola for the lovely trio of lovebirds," cried a small man who looked like a big version of Elray's plastic monkey. He jumped down from a seat high along one wall and gave a little bow as they entered. "Here we go. The finest in my fleet." He helped Barkley and Elray and Jack into the front seat of the boat, and then carefully settled Friday in his glass globe on the back seat. "Bon voyage," he called as he climbed back to his high seat and waved a grimy monkey hand. The gondola lurched forward with a grinding, creaking groan and splashed down a ramp and into the canal. "Hey, you devils," the voice of the little monkey man echoed after them as the boat slipped away from the harbor of light inside the cottage and into the dark underworld of the Tunnel of Love. "Now don't you do anything I wouldn't do."
At first the only sound around them was the silken swoosh of water parting, the only sight in the darkness the almost indistinguishable darker mass of the curled bow some six feet ahead. But then the boat tilted sharply to the right, and a bright light flashed on a big black and white cow as it rolled down a grass mound toward the boat. Loud cackling and a frenzied "Moooooo! Mooooo!" exploded the silence. Moments later, as suddenly as it had appeared, the cow was gone. They were back in the dark with only quiet water sounds.
"Tunnel of Love?" Barkley hissed.
Elray felt Jack's shoulders shrugging a response on her right. "Tunnel of Weird. Whatever," he whispered. "The black and white cows are called Holsteins, Elray. They're very gentle, usually dairy cows-that is, they give us milk."
"I know," Elray said as she let the darkness and water noises wash over her. "I bet this is what it feels like to be an eel."
Excerpted from A Girl Could Stand Up by Leslie Marshall Copyright © 2003 by Leslie Marshall. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 1, 2009
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