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“I glanced out the window as my train pulled into the station and saw the girl who killed my son.” So begins Josh Rolnick’s powerful debut collection of eight stories, which utilizes a richly focused narrative style accenting the unavoidable tragedies of life while revealing the grace and dignity with which people learn to deal with them. The stories—four set in New Jersey and four in New York—span the wide geographic tapestry of the area and demonstrate the interconnectedness of both the neighboring states and the residents who inhabit
“I glanced out the window as my train pulled into the station and saw the girl who killed my son.” So begins Josh Rolnick’s powerful debut collection of eight stories, which utilizes a richly focused narrative style accenting the unavoidable tragedies of life while revealing the grace and dignity with which people learn to deal with them. The stories—four set in New Jersey and four in New York—span the wide geographic tapestry of the area and demonstrate the interconnectedness of both the neighboring states and the residents who inhabit them. In “Funnyboy,” a grief-stricken Levi Stern struggles to come to terms with the banality of his son’s accidental death at the hands of Missy Jones, high school cheerleader. In “Pulp and Paper,” two neighbors, Gail Denny and Avery Mayberry, attempt to escape a toxic spill resulting from a train derailment when a moment of compassion alters both their futures forever. “Innkeeping” features a teenager’s simmering resentment toward the burgeoning relationship between his widowed mother and a long-term hotel guest. “The Herald” introduces us to Dale, a devoted reporter on a small-town newspaper, desperately striving to break a big-time story to salvage his career and his ego. A teenager deals with the inconceivable results of his innocent act before an ice hockey game in “Big Lake.” And in “The Carousel,” a Coney Island carousel operator confronts the fading memories of a world that once overflowed with grandeur and promise. Throughout, Rolnick’s characters search for a firm footing while wrestling with life’s hardships, finding hope and redemption in the simple yet uncommon willingness to act. Pulp and Paper captures lightning in a bottle, excavating the smallest steps people take to move beyond grief, heartbreak, and failure—conjuring the subtle, fragile moments when people are not yet whole, but no longer quite as broken.
I glanced out the window as my train pulled into the station and saw the girl who killed my son. I recognized her ponytail—the way it shot up and bent over on itself—from the newspapers. She stood on the New York–bound platform in a hive of girls, several of whom wore West Village varsity football jackets. Missy Jones wore a pink ski vest over a white turtleneck; her blue jeans tucked neatly into white moon boots ringed with fur. She smoked melodramatically, tilting her chin up and blowing her plume at a mock Victorian lamplight. As my train came to a halt, Missy tossed her head back and laughed, flashing her teeth in the mustard light.
I turned from the window, buttoned my coat, lifted my briefcase. She doesn't seem very contrite, I thought, stepping off the train and starting down the platform. She seems to be coping rather nicely, in fact.
The train pulled out, and I queued behind people funneling into the station. When the last car cleared, a rhythmic clapping rose from across the tracks. I turned and saw the girls standing in a circle, clapping with their hands straight up, as if in prayer. A moment later they began a cheer, their voices echoing off the brick-faced station house:
We ain't bad
and we ain't cocky
gonna ride on you like a Kawasaki
vroom vroom, two, three, four
I stepped out of line. The girls started again, louder. They swiveled their hips and clapped to every other syllable, then gripped the handlebars of imaginary motorcycles, twisting up the speed with each vroom. They stepped to the four-count—forward, left together, right together, back. When they were finished, bless their cotton-candy hearts, they whooped and hollered, their war cries reverberating under the awning, and Missy said, "Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh uh huh uh huh!"
I walked to the yellow danger line and bellowed across the tracks: "Missy Jones."
The ruckus ceased. Missy stepped out of the huddle and peered across the tracks. It took her a second, then her smile vanished. "Mr. Stern?"
"Yes, it's me," I said. "Richie's dad."
The girls shrunk together behind her, a wild herd sensing threat. "Oh, hi, Mr. Stern."
"Where are you girls off to, this fine night?"
"We're going to see Phantom."
"Phantom! Gee, that sounds like fun."
She hesitated, then nodded. "Yeah. I've seen it before. It's one of my favorites."
"Well, see it again for the first time, Missy. Vroom vroom!" I raised a fist in the air, offering a triple shake of an imaginary pompom, then whirled and headed for the station, a zesty bounce to my step. And why the hell not!
Hadn't I just single-handedly ruined Missy Jones's night?
* * *
By now I hear you saying, Spill it already. What's this all about?
So here it is. On an unseasonably warm February day ten months before I spied Missy Jones en route to Broadway, my twelve-year-old son Richie retrieved his Huffy from the garage and pedaled out into the sun-dappled streets of West Village, New Jersey. He most likely went down to the high school and cut through the parking lot, then barreled past the Quonset hut and hit the Indian trail with a full head of steam, dodging trees in the settling twilight. He shot out onto Hill. The only problem: Mrs. Edelson had died. On that unseasonably warm afternoon, her children were moving her belongings out of her home, and someone had parked a moving truck along the curb. Perhaps Richie noticed the treasure chest logo on the truck before blasting into the street between truck cab and garbage dumpster.
Missy Jones, daughter of a village alderman, was on the other side of that truck, driving in her parents' shiny Acura Integra, Candy Apple Red. She slammed on the brakes—left twenty-one feet of tire tread seared into the asphalt—and, still, she struck Richie broadside. My son flew through the air, over a plaid sofa, and hit his head against the pavement of Mrs. Edelson's driveway. Her forty-two-year-old son, I am told, heard the sound of Richie's head hitting the concrete and vomited into the azaleas.
Missy Jones was seventeen, a West Village High School junior. The entire episode was extremely unsettling to her. She was so distraught, in fact, that she quit the cheerleading squad. She had lost her mirth, you see; she couldn't locate that special place deep inside where spirit lives and breathes. She told us this. She sent Anne and me a letter two months after the accident. It was actually less a letter than a heavily perfumed run-on sentence with postage. Missy told us how sorry she was and she wasn't speeding and she never saw him coming on the other side of that moving van and our son is a beautiful boy and she has nightmares now in which she takes a rest under a tree in an open field and she looks up and there are dead children hanging from the branches. I'm not trying to be a one-man soap opera when I tell you the letter was streaked with tears.
Four months later, another letter arrived. Missy wanted to meet with us, to apologize in person, or, as she put it, "broken heart to broken hearts." Anne's instinct was to forgive, as it always is. She told me about the ancient Samoan ritual of ifoga. In that culture, it seems, when one person seriously wronged another, the wrongdoer, along with his or her family, would go directly to the home of the aggrieved. They would bring oven stones, wrap fine mats over their heads, and kneel, as a group, at the doorstep, prostrate for hours or even days in the hot Pacific sun, while the injured family deliberated over whether to accept the apology. Eventually, the family's Talking Chief would come out, accept the mats and stones, and invite the other family inside. It was a risk, though. In some cases, the Chief would emerge only to lop off the penitent's head with a battle-axe.
"That's what she's doing, Levi," Anne had said. "Offering herself up."
Anne wrote Missy a note back, inviting her and her parents over for tea. But I wanted no part of it. I spent the appointed afternoon at the bar of the Swing Back Lounge.
And now, I would like to tell you what happens when your son gets hit by a car while riding his bike and then dies. For a while, there is genuine sympathy. People you don't know come to your house with tuna noodle casserole. The phone rings so often you have to shut it off before you go to bed. You get crayon drawings from school children. One little Picasso sent us a picture of a stick bicycle, broken in two, with tears streaming from the handlebars. But then things change. The cops let it be known that after a complete investigation, the accident is your son's fault. Read: his parents' fault. Your son becomes the poster child for reckless biking. The police chief and mayor join forces in announcing a new bike safety program. Thereafter, whenever you run into your neighbors, they blame you for the whole goddamned thing. They don't say it to your face, of course. They whisper it to each other, standing in front of mist-shrouded iceberg lettuce at the ShopRite. He's the one whose kid was riding without a helmet!
You'll be glad to know this story has a happy ending. Fairy tales do come true! In her senior year, confronted by the insistent pleas of her classmates, an emotionally bruised Missy Jones agreed to come back to the cheerleading squad—as the cocaptain, no less!—in time for the season opener against Ridge. Perhaps you saw her picture in the paper? The one with the sassy ponytail, come-hither eyes, and lynx-like smile?
Missy phoned several times asking to speak with me. But I refused to take her calls. Once, I drove home after work only to find Missy's cheery beery bim bom Acura parked outside. That car in front of our house! I didn't stop. As I rolled by, I saw Anne through the bay window, holding her shirt at the neck. Later, she told me Missy had stopped by unannounced. I told Anne if I ever came home and found Missy sitting in my living room, I could not be held accountable for what I might do.
"What should I tell her, Levi?"
"Tell her the truth. I'm not going to see her, and that's that."
"She's just a kid, Levi. She's suffering."
"Jesus, Anne," I said. "I'm suffering too."
Do you know that I no longer enjoy doing the things that we used to do together, Richie and I? Like fishing. I no longer enjoy hooking a worm through the meatiest part, so that the barb punctures the skin on the other side, and then rearing the line back, releasing the bailer, waiting for the rod to shimmy. Believe me, I've tried. The smell of earth and rich roots gets up my nose and makes me sick.
Quick quiz: What is the name of the light stripe that separates an earthworm's head from its tail? Time's up. It's called the clitellum. Do you know how I know that? Of course you don't. My son taught me that. He also taught me that, when nightcrawlers are cut in half, they don't die. They regenerate.
Imagine that. Losing half of yourself and becoming whole again.
There is a thing that crawls in the dirt and eats shit that can do that.
* * *
I was preoccupied as my train pulled into the station. It was Friday night, one week after my little over-the-tracks repartee with Missy Jones. On Fridays, I picked Anne up across town at the anthropology building, and, on our way home, we stopped off for Chinese and a Blockbuster DVD. I shuffled down the platform, into the station, onto the escalator, thinking about how in days of yore, subgum wonton and a new release had been a preamble to lovemaking. That's when I saw them, visible just beneath the ceiling at the bottom of the escalator: white moon boots ringed with fur.
That couldn't be Missy Jones, I thought. The escalator dropped down, revealing the Wearer of the Boots from the bottom up: tucked-in jeans, long legs, piglet-pink parka. What are the chances of running into her twice in one week?
Not until I saw the tippy-top of her ponytail; not until she scrunched up her shoulders, smiled, and waved, a fluttery little Beauty Queen wave; not until she said, "Mr. Stern! Hi ya!" did it occur to me: Chance had nothing to do with it.
You might say that what I did next was instinctual. Lions and tigers and bears type shit. I turned and bolted up the down escalator, pushing my way through a phalanx of commuters. From the top, I saw Missy running—quite speedily, to be frank—up the up escalator. She held some sort of case at her side. "Mr. Stern! I just want to talk."
That's when—how did Richie used to put it? Ah yes. I ran like diarrhea. Down the platform, down a staircase to street level; under a train bridge and across the road.
Just before ducking into the parking deck, I chanced a glimpse back over my shoulder. Missy Jones blasted out from under the bridge, spotted me, hurtled forward. I ran into the parking deck vestibule and hit the stairwell, taking two steps at a clip. At Level 4 I threw open the door and made a beeline for my car.
I suppose you think me cruel for avoiding Missy Jones. The poor dear, you say! She just wanted closure! All I have to say to you is, sometimes a thing that looks heartless from one angle makes a lot of sense when viewed another way.
* * *
Richie was our only child. Maybe you knew him? He had curly brown hair that his mother hated to cut. Maybe you saw him down at the pond hunting toads with his butterfly net? Or throwing jet black crickets into spider webs? He was the one crouching in the reeds flicking the hair out of his eyes. If you knew him, let me tell you something: You didn't know him.
When Richie was nine, Anne and I took him to Yankee Winter Weekend at Old Sturbridge Village. On our first night, he asked to go to a magic show. The Great Something-dini was performing in Puritan Hall. We got there early and sat in the front row, and as we waited, the house filled to overflowing. When the Great Something-dini glided down to the stage on a floating unicycle, Richie was transfixed. You must understand I am not exaggerating. My child did not blink.
Toward the end of the show, Something-dini took off his black top hat and stared out into the audience.
"Now," he said, flipping the hat over three times, "I need an assistant!"
Richie took a quick breath, astonished. Was it possible!
The magician peered into the bright lights as a titter ran through the audience. But it was a foregone conclusion. He had picked Richie out the minute he floated on stage. A curly-headed, slack-jawed, big-eyed boy in the front row? There was never any question.
"Young man," he said, "will you please step onto the stage?"
Richie dashed to the magician's side.
"What is your name?"
"Richie!" He bowed with an exaggerated flourish. "May I implore you, Richie, to help me perform a staggering feat of magic?"
Richie nodded, mouth open. At this point I should mention that a slight wave of nervous laughter rippled across the rows. Perhaps the audience felt for Richie, the unwitting foil. For all we knew, he was about to be sliced in half. A full hour after his bedtime!
"Will you do exactly as I say?" The magician bent down, glaring with jade eyes. His thin, white-powdered face stopped just a few inches from our son's.
"Richie, I want you to look into this hat." He brandished it under Richie's nose.
Our son peered into the ethereal black depths.
"Are you looking?" he bellowed.
Richie pulled his nose back and nodded, shifting on his feet.
"Now!" the Great Something-dini said. "I want you to tell everyone, what ... is ... in ... this ... hat!"
Richie squinted. He stood on his toes and craned his neck way out over the hat. Then he turned, looked out at the audience, and said: "What ... is ... in ... this ... hat."
For a moment: silence. The audience was not sure whether the line was a misstep or a joke. But then Richie smiled. And the audience erupted! Laughter ripped across the hall like a Skittles top, applause reverberating off massive wooden ceiling beams. The magician certifiably blushed. The trick was on him! And then he smiled, grudgingly—but, if you ask me, in true admiration. He stepped aside and motioned to Richie with an open palm, acknowledging him as one would a trusted sidekick. "Ladies and gentleman," he said, "give it up for Funnyboy!"
And Richie? He looked out at an audience whose collective heart he had won, doffed an imaginary cap, and bowed.
Was I surprised? Yes, but also no. When Richie was four, Anne asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Without hesitation he replied: "A joker."
Excerpted from Pulp and Paper by Josh Rolnick Copyright © 2011 by Josh Rolnick. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 19, 2011
Posted December 10, 2013
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