The Unprofessionals: A Novelby Julie Hecht
There is no American writer alive who is funnier, more inquisitive, or more surprising than Julie Hecht. The Unprofessionals, her first novel, whose narrator also told the stories in the author's bestselling collection Do the Windows Open?, is a triumph of tragicomedy. The book follows the odd friendship between the narrator -- a photographer in her late forties -- and a precocious raconteur, identified only as The Boy, whom she has known since his childhood. As the narrator and the young man regale each other with tales of the way Americans live now, she is also telling the story of his path to heroin addiction and his many attempts to recover.
The Unprofessionals is a masterpiece of comic despair, illuminating our bewildering century, and a hilarious and sad story of two outsiders who see the world with painful clarity -- and as a whole, a novel of unexampled originality.
- Simon & Schuster
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It was the second month of living without a soul and I was getting used to the feeling. The obliteration of the self had begun two years before -- probably it had begun many years before -- but now I was at the brink of being seriously over forty-nine and it was coming to fruition.
I saw every mistake I'd made, also the flaws in my character as well as my bone structure, and the combination of the two was deadly, forcing me to drag around the empty shell of a human form like the lost shadows of Peter Pan and Wendy, or Casper the ghost. I dragged this around with my new lack of self and missing soul each day.
Unlike a number of movie stars, I lacked the will to add false cheekbones. There is one early stage of the face falling in that gives the face owner the appearance of having bone structure, but I had acknowledged a while before this newest episode of emptiness and nothingness that the stage of slight structure had already passed, leaving the decline to a face that looked like a soft, still-unformed pancake, nothing more.
Sometimes, passing in front of a mirror, before I'd learned to avoid the dastardly objects, I'd seen the beginning of the pancake effect, and a few times this made me laugh out loud. Not the mad laugh of a woman in an asylum, as in the movie Spellbound, but a laugh of disbelief, of incredulousness that this could be happening to me. What had I done to deserve it?
I'd never smoked or drunk alcoholic beverages. I'd taken no drugs. I'd avoided the sun after I found out about it at age thirty -- too late. I tried to practice yoga and walked many miles every day. I'd been a vegetarian since birth, and then a vegan as soon as possible after that.
It had to have been the bad thoughts. It must have been my low opinion of my mother's middle-aged face, my not having had the smallest inkling that this same facial decline might lie in store for me -- it must have been that for which I was being punished. Also the damage done by the years of forced milk drinking during childhood. This was only the outside -- I'd read that damage to the innards begins after infancy. I pictured plaque deposits starting in first grade, when my mother was among those who paid milk money to the teacher so the little cartons of the thick liquid would be delivered to the classroom, where the unsuspecting children would have to drink it.
For weeks, or years, I'd wished that I had someone to talk to. My closest friend, a twenty-one-year-old boy, was away in rehab for heroin addiction.
My other friends were a group of narcissists or anxiety-depressives. Not that they were in any kind of organized group of people who knew who the others were. The narcissists were too narcissistic to care about anyone else and the anxious ones were too anxious to think about anyone but themselves. I was married to a man who liked to say, "You knew when you married me that I didn't talk."
I'd had one good day -- or was it just a good few minutes -- plus a grand finale that followed: the drive home from the discount drugstore with a bag of Xanax, a bag of chocolate, and, on the brighter side, a bag of Dr. Scholl's gel-and-foam innersoles. At the time I still had the high hopes of walking farther and farther each day.
It was exactly the right time of night to be at the discount drugstore -- eight-thirty -- too late for children to be running around crying or demanding, in Spanish, candy and plastic toylike objects, but not close enough to the nine p.m. closing for me to be thrown out before I could gather up all the medium-green Reach toothbrushes with firm bristles.
I had developed one bond with Patrick Buchanan, a man whose every sentence used to infuriate me: I wanted to hear English spoken by cashiers and customers. At least I wanted the cashiers to stop speaking Spanish to each other and help the customers at the counter.
"Good evening, may I help you?" I never heard that. I had heard David Letterman say that when he was a grocery-bagger youth at a supermarket, he used to say "Hello" and "Thank you." He complained during his shows that the clerks and baggers no longer spoke to or even made eye contact with customers. He didn't mention the Spanish. The more Spanish I heard, the more enraged I became. I knew this was another new, bad thing about myself.
I had all the time I needed to look through the Dr. Scholl's innersoles and as I was studying a new light-pink rubbery kind with a miniature waffle pattern I heard a woman's voice say, "Don't get those. They're terrible."
Since I had lived without a mother's advice for many years, I was startled to hear anyone say anything like this to me. I couldn't remember the last thing my mother had told me to get or not get.
"Get Electrasol," she had told me about a dish-washing powder after I was married. "It's far superior," she added with a conviction that was a waste of her intelligence. I'd taken the advice and had bought Electrasol ever after, except for an experiment in switching to Ecover, the ecologically preferred brand. When Ecover didn't remove tea stains from cups, I had to go back to the chlorinated Electrasol. I felt bad every time I reached for the box.
Some weeks earlier, I'd been dismayed to find that the Electrasol corporation had fiddled with the original formula and created a blue "Dual Action" product to replace the single-action white powder. The odor of the blue powder almost knocked me out when I opened the little metal spout on the box. I remember gasping for breath as I staggered out of the cleanser aisle.
When I looked up at the woman who was giving me the innersole advice at the drugstore, I was alarmed. I had seen her on other nights in the half hour before closing time at this drugstore, as well as at the supermarket late at night. Often she and I were the only two customers in either store.
She was around fifty, or even older. She had long black hair, too long for her age, too long even for age forty, long black hair halfway down her back, or maybe hanging a few inches lower than the shoulders of her black leather jacket. Yes, black. Black, the darkest and deadliest of the colors. She was dressed head to toe in this color, yet she thought she should speak to me.
She wore a black T-shirt underneath the black jacket and tight black pants, too tight for her ten pounds of overweight, and to top all this off she wore black shoes -- high-heeled shoes -- black pumps, they may still be called. I had no way of knowing, since I was no longer reading fashion magazines, even in doctors' waiting rooms. Walking and climbing magazines were my choices.
On her face she wore a load of makeup -- black eye makeup for eyebrows and eyeliner, tan powder with liquid face makeup underneath, and then -- a final brutal shock to my delicate system -- she was wearing bright red lipstick.
I was still weak from the night before, when I'd almost passed out in the cleanser section at the supermarket after stepping into the aisle without even opening the spout on a box of dish-washing powder. The collected chemical fumes from all the detergent boxes were somehow seeping out into the air and I had to flee without even trying to hold my breath long enough to dash up the aisle to get some sponges.
I looked up at the face, the whole personage of the woman customer who had taken it upon herself to advise me about the innersoles, and this is what she said: "You can feel the little square sections on the soles of your feet."
"Oh," I said. "Thanks for telling me."
"Get these," she said, pointing to the plain white foam style.
"They wear out too fast," I said, beginning to feel the shock of being in a conversation with her.
"But they're better," she said. "Get more and replace them."
Apparently she hadn't seen the environmental segment of the program, Pinnacle, I had just watched on TV -- it was about getting less. A carpet-company executive had become environmentally responsible after reading a book on the subject -- it was "a knife in his heart," or some such dramatic phrase. "I was guilty," he said.
Then he figured out a way to make his carpets last ten years, and during the ten years his company would service and repair the carpets, and when they were beyond repair he'd take them away and recycle them. A gigantic machine was shown grinding up old carpets and spewing out bits of gray and black rubbery stuff into another machine or bin to make more carpets.
The case of Dr. Scholl's in regard to the topic of recycling was as yet unknown to CNN's Pinnacle viewers. I pictured the mounds of worn-out and discarded foam shoe pads in a landfill in New Jersey filled with all kinds of garbage, or at the town dump in Nantucket, where a special dome had to be built to keep the ever-expanding waste and accompanying fumes away from the homes of the many new million- and billionaires and their moors-encroaching real estate development. Since almost all of Nantucket was for sale, the land near the dump had some of the best views of the once-beautiful island.
"Oh, okay," I said to the woman in all black. "That's a good idea."
Why hadn't I thought of it myself? I was trying to be ecologically correct. As she finally left -- reluctantly, and with a steady and beady-eyed glance at my hand to make sure I wasn't keeping the pink soles -- I began to wonder what it was about my appearance that made such a person think she might speak to me and give advice.
I was wearing a big old khaki cotton jacket with a blue-and-green-plaid lining and an older green corduroy skirt with dark green cotton leggings and two-tone green New Balance hiking sneakers. Underneath the coat I had on a worn-out white cotton shirt and an unraveling beige cashmere V-neck cardigan I'd gotten from Scotland before all the good plain things disappeared from stores.
My husband had stopped criticizing or even mentioning that I wore this skirt, shirt, and sweater, or others just like these, every day. I lived in fear that he might mention the subject, but I guessed he'd given up on that after he'd realized that my mental condition couldn't take the burden of any clothes buying.
My hair, I was horrified to notice as I passed the sunglasses-display drugstore mirror, was almost platinum blond, with pieces sticking out from having more and more highlights added in an attempt to lighten and cheer up the area around the pancake face. My skin was pale and white, and the tiny bit of makeup I had on it served only to even out the whiteness instead of enlivening it. The cheek-color makeup had faded away and the no-flake mascara had flaked off during a long hike to the ocean from the snow-covered conservation land, which was rated one of the five most beautiful conservation areas in America.
The summer look was worse, I remembered, when I recalled the initial horror with which I'd viewed my image in a mirror near the product section of a haircutting parlor in Nantucket the summer before. At first I didn't realize the person was myself, or my former self, or the physical form in which the former self had once resided. My beige linen skirt was wrinkled and worn thin from Clorox-washing, my white linen shirt ill-fitting and smashed, and my hair already too light, strawlike, and unkempt. When I saw this image, I left the parlor immediately.
The owner had looked at my hair the week before and said as a reprimand, "Condition is part of color." I reminded him that his partner had done the color.
"But Jim did the highlights," I said. "Tell him."
He looked at me over the top of his yellow-framed reading glasses. No apology was made. That's the world now, or a micro-cosm of it. One person ruins your hair, the partner publicly criticizes it and has no embarrassment upon hearing the truth. "Jim's the culprit," I wanted to add, but feared the matter would get out of hand.
When I first went to Nantucket, in the 1960s, there were no haircutting parlors of this kind -- no waxing, massaging, or seaweed facials. The seaweed was in the sea. At the grocery store there wasn't even any Grey Poupon Dijon mustard, now outdone by hundreds of other mustards. People had to bring their own De Cecco pasta -- that, too, now passé. Back then, Ronzoni and Buitoni were the only brands in the two food stores.
At that time everyone else had wrecked hair and rumpled clothing. In the present era I thought I must have been an eyesore amidst the crowds whose place of spiritual origin was W magazine. During this time I wandered without a soul, not knowing or understanding what I had lost.
The feeble attempt at organizing the shell of the self showed in the mirror that day -- I could see that even in the geographical place where I'd once fit into the landscape, my inner self was gone, and this fragment floated in nothingness.
Didn't I have anything better to do than ask the price of a Muguet des Bois aromatherapy candle every week to make sure that sixty dollars was what I'd heard? Because my senses were acute, as my friend the recovering heroin addict had pointed out when he said, "You have to develop a protective barrier," and I knew the aroma of the lily of the valley would help me more than a drug. There had to be a way to get some of that fragrance. The dusting powder was what I really wanted and had been searching for since age fifteen, when an inferior, cheap American brand was all that I could find.
Even though Dr. Andrew Weil had warned against the breathing of talc, all brands of dusting powder that I saw, including those from Paris and London, contained that toxic ingredient. Sixty dollars, I'd say to myself, or even out loud, sixty dollars for a candle. I'd say it once a week whenever I passed the store. Maybe I would turn into one of those people who wandered outside stores and said prices into the air.
In the discount drugstore, the woman in black must have seen my loss of the form of a standard human being, and that gave her permission to speak to me. Because before getting into the Dr. Scholl's aisle I'd visited the stationery and school-supply aisle, where I'd picked up a glitter-covered pencil. At first I thought it was pink glitter, but upon closer examination I saw it was a mixture of pink, blue, and white, giving it a lavender cast. The color wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for the white feather topping the pencil where the eraser should have been. This startled and sickened me at the same time -- this feather or feathers, synthetic ostrich feather plumes were what they appeared to be -- yet I picked up the glitter-covered feather-topped pencil and studied it for a minute before deciding it wasn't pink enough to bother removing the feather and adding an eraser.
When I paid for the Xanax, the innersoles, and the chocolate, I noticed that the glitter had stuck to my finger and had become embedded in a paper cut I'd glued together with Krazy Glue after hearing Dr. Weil suggest the treatment for cracked heels and fingertips. This was a final blow to the last tiny fragment of self I had dragged to the store that night. The cut, the glue, and the glitter -- plus a disappointing conversation with the stock man about the possibilities of other colors of the pencil. This friendly stock man was the only person who'd said a kind word to me that day. The word was "Hello."
I had learned not to ask questions of salesclerks when I was in the store of the nearby clothing purveyor I patronized in hopes of finding one white linen shirt among hundreds of unrealistic-looking garments. I had asked for help finding a size. "This is T.J. Maxx -- we don't give you no help, you gots to find things yourself," the salesperson said. She said it with indignation, too.
Then the salesperson, a round, dark-haired woman of about forty years and an unknown nationality -- this person recognized me from her days as cashier at the discount drugstore. "How've you been?" she asked, or asked in some dialect, like "How you been?" I said fine and inquired as to how she been, and how she had come to be working here instead of there. Perhaps I was more polite and simply stated, "I didn't know you were working here." How could I know? It was the second time I had forced myself to enter the dreaded emporium. I was down to my last two shirts and one had fallen apart as I tried to button it the day before. My finger went through the buttonhole and into the worn-out fabric.
Whenever I'd asked anyone where they'd gotten anything -- a plain linen shirt -- the answer was always...T.J. Maxx. How could there be only that one store serving all the women I asked about their shirts?
They didn't describe how deeply dismal an experience it was to go into the store. On my first visit I touched fabric that didn't feel like cloth of any kind. I actually touched that, I thought as I looked back at the thing to try to understand what the fabric content might be. It had a slippery feeling, though it wasn't oilcloth from the 1950s, and no oil had been spilled on it. It must have been woven out of some kind of oil thread.
Then the former drugstore cashier addressed her fellow employee -- her colleague who had been chatting with her about a personal matter. She looked at both of us, and I realized with dread that I was about to be discussed by these two, drawn into their circle the way I'd seen a TV show hostess in a middle-of-the-night rerun draw the whole audience into the problem of one crying audience member, or draw the crying audience member into the audience's communal mind: "She fears aging," the hostess had said about the woman.
"She used always to come to the store," the saleswoman said about me. "She's one of the worst chocoholics in town. How come you stopped comin' all of a sudden?"
"I used to bake chocolate cakes for my father," I said. Then I waited a moment while trying to decide whether to add the reason. An obsessive-compulsion made me say it. "He isn't alive anymore," I had to say.
"Oh I'm so sorry," the salesperson said. "Well, may he rest in peace."
But I knew my father couldn't be resting in peace. He'd fallen into the hands of the medical system and had been tortured to death by doctors in hospitals. My unwitting complicity in this, along with that of my siblings, had left me wandering between discount drugstores and all-night supermarkets for the rest of my life so far.
"God bless his soul," the other one said from her place amidst hundreds of shiny synthetic-fabric bras hanging on plastic hangers.
"I used to say, 'How come you're always buying the chocolate and you're still thin?'" the black-haired, large one said. "Now I remember."
I had driven away from the drugstore with the rich booty of drugs and soles in a plastic shopping bag -- no choice of paper or plastic was offered there -- and I knew that the conversation with the woman in black was the highlight of the evening. It was winter and the many hours of coldness and darkness kept down the number of human beings and their huge vehicles. The wide, tree-filled lanes and open fields under the half-moon light were all mine in which to contemplate the emptiness of everything.
The Xanax -- I saw how nice and full the bottle was -- I'd gone from thirty tablets at a clip to sixty, to ninety, and was now hitting the jackpot with one hundred and twenty. But no congratulatory sticker was handed out or pasted to the bottle the way a sticker was affixed to the windshield of our Volvo when we reached one hundred thousand miles, though I thought I saw that the pharmacist was impressed when he handed me the bag of pills.
Just the sound of the many peach-colored beauties tumbling about and clicking into one another in the newly orange-colored bottle, this made me calm -- I didn't have to take a pill or even half of one. The same with the chocolate. I had no plan to ingest any, but just the thought of the big sack full of extra-small-size Hershey bars on sale after Halloween, the vision of the special chocolate-colored, foil-wrapped little bars, prevented withdrawal from the drug I'd read was in the mixture -- theobromine. If only that were available by itself.
I'd read in Dr. Andrew Weil's newsletter that those who needed the drug should seek out a good brand of Belgian dark chocolate, or Valrhona, but in a patriotic gesture I never gave up the American brand. Chocolate, a sedative and antidepressant at the same time -- except when you think of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, which might have caused radioactive contamination at the nearby chocolate factory.
I was planning to spend the rest of the night looking through photographs and slides for my next book, Look at the Moon. I was happy to have a night without having to prepare dinner for anyone -- washing lettuce, chopping vegetables, the things Michio Kushi writes are good for the soul. But I was tired of the washing and chopping, maybe because I wasn't slicing at the proper angle according to the illustrations in the Kushi Institute's macrobiotic cookbook. And the many bottles of vitamins and supplements on the one chopping table complicated the task.
Lucky for me, my husband stayed in the city all week in order to be near his architectural firm. He, too, was tired of chopping, and liked to order out from a variety of unhygienic food establishments. My last book of photographs included one of him titled "The Man Who Wouldn't Recycle." Another photograph of him was titled "The Stranger." The idea came to me when I told my husband I felt separate from everyone and everything in the world. Without looking up from his crossword puzzle, he'd said, "That's man's fate."
Copyright © 2008 by Julie Hecht
Meet the Author
Julie Hecht is the author of Do the Windows Open?, Was This Man a Genius?: Talks with Andy Kaufman, and The Unprofessionals. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker and Harper's. She has won an O. Henry Prize and received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives on the east end of Long Island in winter and in Massachusetts in summer and fall. She has been writing stories since she was eight years old.
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