Living Dead Girlby Tod Goldberg
Paul Luden has been haunted by a memory he can't recall. Whatever happened to his marriage, to his two-year-old daughter, is too traumatic to remember, so his unconscious has chosen to block out/b>
After his estranged wife disappears, a husband returns to the remote lake house where their young daughter died, and he soon loses his grip on reality.
Paul Luden has been haunted by a memory he can't recall. Whatever happened to his marriage, to his two-year-old daughter, is too traumatic to remember, so his unconscious has chosen to block out key details. But when he receives a phone call from the small lake town where they'd lived, telling him that no one had seen or heard from his wife in ten days, he knows what he has to do.
He and his nineteen-year-old girlfriend drive from L.A. to Washington State where he's forced to confront his past. And as he pieces together his buried memories, Paul unravels mentally, falls into self-destructive trances and ultimately discovers the truth about his wife.
Finalist for the 2003 Los Angeles Times Book Award
"(It's as) if Sylvia Plath had written a murder mystery. A truly remarkable work."
—Barbara Seranella, No Man Standing
"Goldberg sends his most damaged antihero on an elevator ride into thenethermost regions of hell and then cuts the cables."
—Scott Phillips, The Ice Harvest and The Walkaway
"Compulsively readable. Full of satisfying twists ... an unforgettable journey into the primeval forest of the human heart."
—Rachel Resnick, Love Junkie: A Memoir and Go West Young F*cked-Up Chick
"Goldberg's story of obsessive love gets under your skin and stays there, possessing you, forcing you to keep turning pages even when you're not sure you want to see what's on the other side."
—David Benioff, The 25th Hour
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Read an Excerpt
I AM HAUNTED by a memory I can’t recall. How long has it been since the last time I was home? Five years? A week? How many days have I spent thinking about my children, thinking about time and consequence, when I should have been concentrating on today, tomorrow, on trying to become happy?
It is fall and the air is sharp. Ginny keeps telling me to slow down so that she can really “see” her surroundings. She wants to absorb this environment, smell the flowers and the weeds and the dead things on the side of the road. She wants to be able to recreate these things exactly.
Ginny wants to make films. She says she can see a screenplay unfolding every mile we drive.
She wants to be my wife. She wants to make me understand that there is artistry in my science.
Ginny is nineteen.
“Can we stop at the Krispy Kreme?” Ginny asks.
“I’ve always heard wonderful things about their doughnuts.”
I’ve already had a wife, a life: another existence separate from whatever Ginny is experiencing. She is beautiful, though. Her hair is long and blond, her stomach flat and tan. A ring dangles from her belly button and when we have sex she tells me to touch it. She tells me that the belly button is the beginning of life. I know that she is wrong. She tells me that she wants to have my baby, my babies, whatever.
I don’t tell her what I want.
Leaves have already begun to litter the streets in gold and red, and when the wind picks up they dangle in the air and I think about how much that used to mean to me: The beginning and end of life. The change of seasons.
“You know they bake them fresh,” Ginny says. We’ve pulled into the parking lot of Krispy Kreme. “Should we get a dozen?”
“No,” I say. “You don’t want to get sick on the lake.”
Ginny leans over and squeezes my cheeks. She has an extra finger on her left hand. It’s just a nub, really, beside her pinky. I noticed this the first day of class. She was sitting in the front row, drumming her fingers on the desk, and whenever I looked up from my lectern she was beaming at me with her twisted genetic code.
“I have sea legs,” she says. “What about you, Doctor?”
I am not a doctor.
“Get half a dozen if they’re hot,” I say. “Otherwise we’ll gorge ourselves.”
While Ginny goes inside to order, I sit in the car. Granite City, Washington was a logging town when we bought our house near here. Instead of the Krispy Kreme donuts, Blockbuster Videos, and Del Tacos that litter the streets now, there were bars and gun shops and two small grocery stores. We’d fallen in love with the slowness of it. We were going to raise our children at home, teach them from books that we thought meant something. No silly “Dick and Jane” books. We were going to teach them to read from Chaucer.
It was silly. It is silly.
We were going to bring them up as people. Teach them as we, humans, had been taught. No state-authorized curriculum.
If they were born with vestigial tails, they would keep them.
They would never be freaks because they would know that freaks are simply the misunderstood. They would understand everything.
Ginny and I have been driving for two days. We left Los Angeles on Thursday, wound through the Bay Area, spent an angry night screwing in Klamath Falls, and then climbed through Medford, Portland, and finally into Washington.
There used to be a small pond filled with goldfish where the Krispy Kreme is now. It wasn’t the original pond, though. It was made of concrete and had a filtration system that preserved the ecosystem. It had been built on the soil of an actual “living” pond after Mt. St. Helens erupted and the ash had killed all of the fish and bugs that called the water home. There’s a plaque now that tells the history of this parcel of land. Ginny pops out of the doughnut shop, a glazed doughnut stuffed into her mouth already.
“These are so good,” Ginny says after she sits back down. “They just came out of the fryer. You’ve gotta have one.”
“I know this is tough for you right now,” she says, “but preservation is important. You need to eat.”
I take a doughnut.
“I have to figure out how to capture this taste on film,” Ginny says. “Like in Willy Wonka you could just taste everything, couldn’t you?”
WE CURVE THROUGH a narrow mountain pass toward the lake my wife and I bought our house on. Evergreen trees stand tall along the road, and Ginny has her window
down to smell them. It has rained here recently, so the air is full of familiar aromas: moss, the smoky taste of damp wood.
“It’s so green here,” Ginny says. “Why isn’t it like this in LA?”
“It doesn’t rain as much.”
“I know that,” Ginny says. “But look at all this space. I mean, why can’t we just bulldoze some houses in the Valley and get some space back. Plant trees and flowers. Import some interesting African crickets or some lions and tigers. Get a little nature going.”
“The San Fernando Valley is a desert,” I say. “All the water in it comes from the Colorado River and the Owens Valley. The only things that could live there are snakes and turkey vultures.”
“Always the teacher,” Ginny says.
I admire her innocence. I do. She doesn’t understand what it takes to make life work. She hasn’t been taught that animal survival is a miracle. She’ll learn.
We’re passing familiar landmarks but Ginny doesn’t know that, either. It’s not her life.
The Branding Iron Cafe, where my wife and I made love in the men’s room. Kenny Rogers was on the jukebox singing about the coward of the county. She’d looked me in the eye and said, “I can feel an egg dropping.”
Chance. Natural Selection. Perfecting unknown variables. Drawing Punnet Squares. It came to this.
On the sink, my arm bracing the door so no one could come in, she told me that it would be a girl. “We are discovering new places,” she said. In my mind I was Louis Leakey. We were restarting history.
“You could talk to me, you know,” Ginny says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I know I’m probably being distant.”
“Tell me something, Paul,” Ginny says. “Why did you want me to come with you?”
This is what we fought about in Klamath Falls, though it was done with different words. This time, I don’t think it will end in sex.
“I want you to be a part of this,” I say. “To understand what I’m going through, you have to see firsthand.”
“Where do you think she is?”
She is my wife. My ex-wife. The mother of my children.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Last night you said you loved me,” Ginny says. “Is that true, Paul? I mean, is it really true or is it just one of those things people say when they want to end a conversation?”
“We didn’t stop talking,” I say.
Eleven fingers. It’s rare. My research tells me that it occurs in only .2% of all live births. The human hand is a precise instrument. Ginny is a mathematical improbability. Inside her, somewhere, is a strain of corrupted DNA.
“You never stop talking,” Ginny says in a coarse voice, but then leans over and kisses my neck. “Pull over. I want you in the woods.”
HERE’S THE TRUTH. I don’t love Ginny. Her voice sounds too thick to me, like she isn’t completely a woman. When she sleeps, I often turn her over and count the vertebrae in her back. I run my finger along her rib cage, feeling the soft grooves that separate her. Her skin gets hot and throbs. I take her pulse and think that she is moving too fast, that her blood must be running backward.
I think I know where she fits in the scale of things.
She is musty with sweat now. Her flesh smells like an animal pelt. It is the dirt in her hair. The wet grass stuck to her cheek.
Ginny sits next to me but I can sense movement inside of her. She is ticking.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I thought I knew where we turned off.”
“Don’t worry,” Ginny says. “Just stop drinking from tin cans. I don’t want you completely senile before we’re even married.”
Our rented Chevy Lumina is parked on the side of the road—a few feet from where Ginny and I had sex.
She doesn’t call it sex. She calls it “banging.” It’s a generational thing, she says. I am twelve years older than Ginny. I am old enough to be her brother.
“Let me just get my bearing with this map,” Ginny says, “and I’ll direct us back out of here.”
I know where we are. We are near the place where my wife and I lived, had children, taught school. It’s the place it has always been, but the landscape has changed. This isn’t unusual.
At Piton Lake in Australia, archeologists unearthed four bodies that were twenty-five thousand years old. People had been walking on top of them for years. Picnics had taken place. There were plans to build condos. All the while these people sat underneath the ground, their history being trampled by men in floral-print shirts and women in bikinis.
One day, maybe they will carbon date the condom I threw into the bushes. Maybe they will find traces of children I never had. They will speculate about who I was and how I lived and why I had come to this place, on this date, to have sex with someone I didn’t love.
“Okay,” Ginny says. “I know where we are.”
I TAKE THE Granite Lake exit off the two-lane highway and immediately see the signs for Granite Point Park. When we moved here, Granite Point Park was just two cabins and five or six double wide trailers. Clyde and Phyllis Duper and their young son Bruce ran it back then as a fishing stop.
Bruce isn’t really young. Wasn’t really young. He was about our age then.
The signs now proclaim that Granite Point Park is an ideal place for a wedding or reunion. Granite Point Park is where the water meets the sky!
“You lived here?” Ginny asks.
Bruce’s parents, Clyde and Phyllis, must be dead. They were quiet people.
“This is surreal,” Ginny says. “I thought places like this only existed in David Lynch movies.”
Every thirty yards or so is another sign.
Biggest brown trout in the state!
If you lived here, you’d be home buy now!
Fully stocked with live bait bitin’ mackinaw!
“These signs are new,” I say.
“They’re great advertising flare,” Ginny says, her voice dreamy. “Like old matchbooks. Really wonderful as far as art is concerned, don’t you think?”
“I can’t really remember what it looked like before,” I say: before Bruce Duper called me on Wednesday to say that he was worried about my wife, that he hadn’t seen her in several days and that the house was locked up. Before I drove twelve hundred miles with a nineteen-year-old pierced goddess. Before the roads were paved and the bones were found and the carbon was dated.
She used to say, “You can’t race an avalanche.”
“Still,” Ginny says. “I wonder if your friend Bruce has ever considered renting out space for filming.”
How long has it been since I was here last? Three years? A day? Have I ever left?
In 1960, with the advent of potassium-argon dating, anthropologists discovered that the age of the Zinjanthropus site at Olduvai Gorge was more than 1.75 million years older than they thought. It threw off the entire history of the Pleistocene age. Time had to be recreated. Books had to be changed. History had to be adjusted.
It’s true. It can happen at any time.
Bruce Duper stands waving on the front steps of what was formerly a small two-bedroom house. It is now a Swiss style chalet. Bruce is tall and husky with a trimmed beard. My wife once said he was a “real man.” She once said that he was probably no smarter than the fish he caught, but that he was also the gentlest person she’d ever met. He looks like an animal to me now, all fur and teeth, and he’s waving his big paw in the air.
I wave back, thinking, Everything here is wrong. I should have never brought Ginny with me. She doesn’t fit the scenery. Her body is too lean, her hair too blond. She has eleven fingers and thinks we’re in love.
GINNY WALKS DOWN to the marina so that I can talk to Bruce alone.
“Thing of it is,” Bruce says in between sips of coffee, “she’s always been so regular. She’d come across just about every day to get her mail and such. Pick up some bread and eggs; use the phone if she had to, you know. I got worried when she didn’t show for a couple days. Thought she might be sick or something, so I went across with some food and her mail, but she wasn’t there. Front door was locked and the boat was
We’re sitting inside Bruce’s new house in highbacked leather chairs. He has a view of the lake from every conceivable angle.
“I appreciate you calling me first,” I say.
Bruce shakes his head like he’s trying to knock out a foul smell. “Paul, we’re old friends, right?”
“We’ve known each other a long time,” I say.
“I thought about calling the sheriff straight away,” he says, “but I wanted to give you a chance to get up here first. In case, you know, there was something bad out here. I don’t think it would be right for you to find out secondhand.”
“Bruce,” I start to say, but he cuts me off with a wave of his hand.
“I may not be a college teacher in California like yourself,” he says, “but I know that family is important. You know what can happen out here, Paul. Things can go fishy for folks when they spend a lot of time out on the water. My mom and dad could tell you stories that would make your skin run. Anyway, you’re here now. We should probably get the sheriff down.”
“Let me look around the house before we go calling anyone,” I say. “I mean, she could be in Bosnia doing humanitarian relief.”
“It’s been some days,” Bruce says. “You sure you wanna wait any longer?”
“Bruce,” I say, “I know my wife.”
A phone rings somewhere upstairs, so Bruce excuses himself for a moment.
She’s not in Bosnia.
People used to make her claustrophobic. She said she could feel them “living” and it made her nervous. We’d be in a restaurant and she’d start counting all of the people.
“There are forty people in here. Forty-two if you count us,” she said once. We were eating dinner at a Black Angus in Spokane. “Four of us have been molested or beaten by our parents. Isn’t that bizarre?”
She had perfect teeth. Her father was a dentist. Her mother was his hygienist.
“And maybe three or four of us like our sex partners to pee on us,” she said.
Her father was short and pudgy. Her mother was short and skinny. She is five nine and weighs 125 pounds.
“One of us has a venereal disease right now,” she said.
She’s one big living, breathing, recessive trait.
“Sorry,” Bruce says, sitting back down. “That was my dad.”
So they’re not dead.
“How is Clyde?”
“He and mom live in Boca Raton,” Bruce says. “He’s stopped drinking, which makes everyone a lot happier.”
“That’s good for them,” I say.
“He mostly misses his old boat. Talks about that Fischer like it were a yacht. I keep it clean just in case they pop back in unannounced.”
“Have they seen your renovations?”
ruce laughs and scratches at something on his throat. “No,” he says. “I’m trying to make this place over, you know, bring it up to the twenty-first century. Attract a younger crowd. Did you see the signs I put up?”
“I thought it might make this place seem more exciting. What do I know?” We’re both laughing now, and I’m thinking that Bruce’s parents never spent a single day not loving their son. “Listen,” Bruce says, serious again. “It’s none of my business what you do in your private life, so don’t take this the wrong way. But you know how people on the lake are about sex and stuff, so folks are gonna ask me about your friend.”
“I don’t know anyone here anymore,” I say. “Tell them whatever you want.”
“How about I say she’s your sister?”
There is no one on the lake that could possibly care about me. “That’s fine, Bruce.”
We stare at each other for a moment in silence. There are two people in this room. If we were the last two humans alive on the planet, what are the odds that one of us would kill the other?
Which one of us has the strongest animal instinct?
Is it the hairy beast with the soft mane of brown facial hair or the anthropologist who can break down each step of the human parade?
“We’ll need to rent a boat,” I say.
“I already reserved you one down at the marina. No charge on it, Paul,” Bruce says. “Mom and Dad consider you guys just about family and would be sick to hear your wife was missing.”
“I’m sure she’ll turn up,” I say. “Probably just a touch of miscommunication on all of our parts.”
We both stand up, and when I reach out to shake Bruce’s hand, he pulls me into his body and hugs me roughly, slapping my back hard.
He smells like orange peels.
“Hell,” he says in a tiny whisper beside my ear.
“It’s going to be all right,” I say because I’ve never been so close to Bruce in my life. I guess I do consider him an old friend, though his parents once told me I was going to rot in hell for trying to debunk the Bible.
“Everything is going to be fine,” I say, but Bruce is crying and then I’m crying and I can’t figure out how long I’ve been away.
Meet the Author
Tod Goldberg is the author of the popular Burn Notice books, based on the TV series on the USA network. Living Dead Girl was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College and lives in La Quinta, CA, where he directs the Low Residency MFA program in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California.
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I picked this up at the LA Times Festival of Books where it was nominated for the book prize against Scott Turow, George Pelecanos and Stephen L. Carter mainly because he was the only guy I hadn't heard of. I read this book in one night, went to the guys panel the next morning and determined that he was by far the real deal. This is such a moving and eloquent book and he is such a funny and outgoing guy, it seems hard to match the two. I guess we all have dark places. Living Dead Girl is a fascinating mystery and a more literary read than many would think. Can't wait for whatever is next.
Whatever Tod Goldberg ate between his first novel and this, his second, should be required for everyone trying to upstage their debuts. This is dark and poetic and says something about the human condition. A bravura performance.
What if we're trying to do the right thing, but we know we're a little askew and suspect we may be capable of evil? Such is the protagonist's dilemma. The author credits others for changing his novel. It seems to have worked.