The women featured in these stories have one thing in common: They’re all having a terrible day. There’s the housewife so entranced by the pristine order of her neighbor’s belongings that she can’t stop herself from breaking into their home. There’s the mother easing her young son through the trauma of a murder, suddenly confronted with the reappearance of his father. There’s the middle-aged woman stuck in a coffee-chain job alongside snotty college kids, the talent manager supervising a corral of misguided young stars, and the spiky-haired artist who literally dumps her slacker fiance—from a moving car—before engaging in an ill-advised fling in Vegas.
Janice Shapiro has created a cast of utterly distinct outsiders, yet her earthy warmth and asymmetrical humor ring through them all. Her gift for pitch-perfect dialogue—along with her instinctual ease in writing about such fraught topics as commercial sex, death, and the everyday tragedies of growing older—makes her voice one to be relished: tough-minded, sardonic, intimate, and free.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)|
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MAN, I WAS HAVING a bad day. The year was 1978 and I was twenty-one years old, in Las Vegas for the first time because my boyfriend, Sean, had finally agreed to marry me, but only if we made it a kind of Fear and Loathing- themed event, which basically meant we had to drive a rented Cadillac Eldorado convertible across the desert with Sean in the backseat, staring up at the sky and taking like a ridiculous amount of drugs while I couldn't take any because of the baby. Or whatever you call that thing growing inside of you.
Well, as I'm sure you can guess, the wedding didn't exactly go off as planned. Meaning, there was no wedding. Meaning, high on mescaline and acid and speed and pot and who knows what, Sean claimed to have some kind of a vision of a burning teepee in the middle of the MGM Grand's swimming pool and declared it a sign of the dire things to come if we became man and wife. I wasn't buying, and it wasn't just because I believed getting married was the-right-thing-to-do-when-you're-pregnant. I wanted to marry Sean because I loved him. Isn't that dumb? Dumb, but true. But you know how there are people in this world who are incredibly good at getting what they want (my sister being one of them, big time)? Like they just have a talent or skill, or good fortune, or I don't know what, but whatever it is, I don't have any of it. I mean, I never get what I want and that day was no exception.
"Fine, you fuckhead," I screamed when we were stopped at a red light on that hideous street where there's like one huge hotel lined up after another but which still manages to feel completely empty and bare. "I wouldn't marry you if you were the last hard dick in the universe!"
Sean shrugged and opened his car door and that was when I kicked him, and Sean kind of fell out of the car. I immediately sped away and the last I saw of Sean was the top of his rainbow-colored Mohawk before it was obscured by a swarm of black fezzes as a large contingent of vacationing Shriners merrily crossed the street.
IN 1978 they didn't have such strict rules about what's good and not good for you when you're pregnant and so having like one margarita didn't seem like such a heinous crime. I mean, I wasn't even that far along. Maybe six weeks or something, but it being Las Vegas where in my mind everything was just plain crummy, it was a crummy margarita, tasting mainly like soap, and I was angrily not enjoying it at the bar adjacent to the Sands swimming pool when this guy, the kind you would just think would be in a place like Las Vegas, no stranger to either polyester or Old Spice, sat down right next to me and then proceeded to stare.
Now, I have to admit, I was used to being looked at, not just because I did happen to be kind of pretty at the time, but also I was what you might call an early adopter of the punk style. I mean, even in L.A. at that time there weren't that many people with lime green hair and safety pins through their lips. That is how Sean and I met — at a Screamers show at the Masque where I was immediately taken with his luminescent skin, thick Irish accent, and multi-multi-multi-pierced eyebrow. But at that moment, that day in Vegas, I was totally not in the mood to be the freak sideshow attraction, so I just glared back at the guy and said, "Would you mind?"
"Excuse me?" he said, his voice kind of awkward and strange with some sort of foreign accent.
"Could you please get your fucking face out of mine?"
The guy looked confused for a second before he smiled one of those smiles that no matter how much you weren't in the mood could almost win you over.
"Perfect," he laughed and that was when I heard the tang of Latin America in his r's. Now, I know there are people who welcome the opportunity to engage in conversations with foreigners, the chance to expand one's horizons, broaden your point of view, and all that shit, but the total fact is I am not one of those people — unless the foreign country in question happens to be, say, Ireland, which I could tell right away was not where this guy hailed from.
"Fuck you," I sneered, and grabbed my drink and carried it inside the hotel, which as soon as the glass door closed behind me I knew was not where I wanted to be. For one thing, the air was practically toxic from all the fucking cigarette smoke and the gallons of spilled drinks and the sickening stench of all that crummily prepared food festering just beneath the strange, claustrophobic, permanent-twilight lighting that tries to hold out the utterly false promise of an endless, perfect night. And then there was also the noise — the rhythmless clangings and repetitive jingles and occasional cries of greed and disappointment, and since I was someone who never had the chance to grow accustomed to the concept of winning, unlike my sister who always just assumed being a winner was her goddamned birthright, the gaming tables held no allure for me. But I was still holding that drink I'd paid way too much for and had nothing but a long, lonely drive back home across a remarkably unscenic desert ahead of me, so I took a seat in an abandoned lounge area, right in front of an empty stage that was set up for a most likely too-eager-to-please, top-notch combo that, if they had been playing, would've certainly made me puke.
How the fuck could Sean do this to me? I stared up at the empty stage and asked no one but myself and was just about to plunge headfirst into a long, purifying cry when a shiny penny suddenly landed on the small black cocktail table.
"A ... er ... penny for your thoughts."
There he was again — that guy, smiling down at me in all of his polyester and Old Spice glory. I decided he was probably in his midthirties and the type who would do the rhumba naked in front of the bathroom mirror each morning, and one of the reasons I didn't like to associate with nonnative-English speakers was there just seemed to be too much room for misunderstanding, plus a lot people from other countries have really odd senses of humor and it just makes me really nervous to be around people who laugh at things you just know are not funny.
"You're corny," I said, unpleasantly. "You are a fucking cornball."
The guy smiled as if I had complimented him on his hairstyle and then took the seat next to me.
"So ..." he said, but before he could say anything more, I held up my hand, stopping him.
"Look at me," I demanded, speaking slowly and deliberately. "I am the total opposite of corn. Get it? I probably hate everything you love ... like kitties and Christmas and Mom. I love everything you hate like blood and despair and dirty, used-up toothpicks. You and me? We have nothing in common ! Comprende? Nada! So will you please leave me the fuck alone?"
"Yes ... well ... I was wondering," the guy continued as if I had just made some kind of polite generic comment on the weather. "Could I please buy you something to eat?"
"I'm not hungry!" I screamed. "I hate food!"
His smile brightened and then he started to laugh as if I had just said the wittiest thing in the world.
"Perfect," he said, and then he did something I really wish he hadn't. He reached out and ran one of his hands slowly down my spine. That was it. A hand moving down my back. But if there's one thing I'm a sucker for, it's a certain kind of touch, you know, the kind that's done just the right way, so it renders you suddenly unable to move or speak, like a victim of a goddamned stun-gun blast — totally overwhelmed with a desire for more.
IT WAS very unlike me to sleep with a guy I just met. I mean, I knew Sean for a couple of weeks before I slept with him, and when I was in art school, I'd go celibate for months, not for want of opportunities, I just happen to be picky about that kind of thing, and I didn't know if I was doing what I was doing out of something like anger or hopelessness or just a desire to step firmly into that forever, big, bright future — but whatever the reason, there I was, up in this foreign guy's rather fabulous suite somewhere in the Sands Hotel, rolling around the king-size bed.
Man, he was good too. There was nothing corny or polyester about the stranger in bed. He just had that natural ability, that heightened sensitivity and excellent sense of timing that makes a person a great tennis partner or fuck. I mean, it really was one of those "thoroughly delightful experiences," as my sister would put it, that for the time it lasted took my mind off my problems and tentatively lifted me out of my funk, with one exception — my breasts, which were larger and more sensitive than usual since the pregnancy, slightly throbbed the whole time with a strange, dull pain.
"I just had a good ... how do you call it? Feeling about you," the guy said, running his fingers lazily through the spikes in my hair as we lay there, side by side, catching our breaths.
"Yeah? Why?" I asked, and he shrugged in a foreign, accented way.
"I don't know," he said. "You looked like a ... a ... a winner."
"Ha," I said. The way he had said winner, it sounded more like wiener, but I knew what he meant, and now that the sex part of the deal was over I just wanted to get out of there. "Mind if I use your shower?"
"Be my guest," he said, and leaned against the pillows to watch me get out of the bed, silently admiring my body which even I knew was extremely beautiful.
"By the way, man," I said, tenderly cupping my full and still slightly hurting breasts. "I'm pregnant."
"That's nice," he said, smiling in that same pleasant way, and at that moment he looked so much like one of those all-suave Latin-lover playboys in a corny '60s movie that I expected a jazzy Nelson Riddle instrumental to start to play while he coolly lit two cigarettes and held one out to me, but that didn't happen. He just reached over to the bedside table and picked up a Guide to Las Vegas and began to move his lips silently, his brow wrinkling in concentration before he started to laugh at something I would bet you anything was not funny.
IT WAS in the shower that I started to worry about the future again — something I had always been loath to do. See, the main reason I decided to study painting in the first place was because it allows a person to exist primarily in the moment, you know, experience each brush stroke as it comes, the end of a piece presenting itself when it chooses. But this being-fucking-pregnant business just changed everything, man. I mean, suddenly, I had to think about what was really going to happen to me and the baby. Like, what?
When I thought Sean might marry me, I could get into the idea of actually raising a kid, maybe even in Ireland where it would grow up speaking English but with that great accent, and in a culture that still had something to fuel the fire of deep-felt-to-die-for beliefs. But when I took Sean out of the picture and it was just me and the kid living together in my small apartment in the Miracle Mile, doing stuff like eating a lot of Kraft macaroni and cheese and reading and rereading my ancient collection of Tintins, surrounded by paintings that seemed to grow more trite with each passing day, being a mother just didn't seem all that appealing.
But what to do? What to do? The firm beat of the shower pounded pleasantly against my shoulders and I watched, mesmerized, the endless beads of water slowly inching their way over my now nicely rounded breasts, and I couldn't help but wonder where Sean was at that moment and if (considering the amount of drugs he had coursing through his veins) he was all right. But that was another thing about Las Vegas I was hating. It was like its own tacky galaxy and even if Sean was somewhere near, everything was so big and spread out in such a purposefully disorienting way, he might as well have been on an entirely different planet.
"Ay caramba," I sighed and wanted to cry but that was when I noticed the small white plastic bottle of medicated shampoo. I picked it up and squinted at the label. The medication had some long name I wasn't familiar with and couldn't even begin to pronounce and the patient it had been prescribed for was Jose Something-or-other. The last name was completely washed out. Curious, I unscrewed the cap and poured a small drop onto my hand and gasped because the pale blue gel burned like hell. Immediately I washed it off and then just stared suspiciously at the bottle, wondering what the fuck did this Jose guy have that needed to be treated with shit like that, and began to fervently hope it wasn't anything too contagious, and that's when I had that hideous feeling you get when you've just slept with someone you know absolutely nothing about, like every cell of your being is suddenly forced to band together around the one hope that luck won't betray you too badly this time, that the repercussions from this particularly foolish leap from a moderate sense of self-control into the erotic pool of who-knows-what won't prove to be too bad or wide sweeping.
I got out of the shower and wrapped myself in a large white towel and carried the bottle of medicated shampoo into the bedroom and was about to ask the guy what exactly was this shit used for, when I saw the bed was now empty. Looking around, I noticed my red vinyl mini bridal dress was still lying in a crumpled heap on the golden shag carpet, but the guy's 100 percent polyester ensemble was gone. A faint whiff of freshly applied Old Spice hung around the room and when I sat down on the bed to regroup my thoughts and figure out my next plan of action, I noticed the hastily written note lying on top of one of the pillows. It said:
"Adios mi querida. Muchas gracias para todo. Su amigo, Ramon."
"'Your friend, Ramon?'" I rolled my eyes and shook my head, writing off this delusional interpretation of our relationship as a clear example of the gap between our respective cultures. Then I looked at the name on the bottle of shampoo again. It was indeed Jose and I wondered if it might actually belong to someone else, not the guy I had just slept with, but even I wasn't buying it and that was when I decided the best course of action would be to take the bottle of shampoo with me, drive home as quickly as I could, and show it to my sister's husband, who just happened to be a big shot MD. Marcus, I reassured myself, would be able to tell me exactly what kind of disease this guy had and if exposure to it posed any kind of health threat to the born or unborn alike.
"HE'S A loser."
"So what? I'm a loser too."
"No you're not, Alison! Will you stop talking like that? You are not a loser. You are a very talented artist who hasn't had the right breaks yet, but you're still very young, and with perseverance and determination you will eventually succeed."
FYI, that was the conversation my sister Jules and I had after I brought Sean to her house for dinner. I don't even know why I did it. I think it must've been her idea. Ever since our mom died when I was ten and Jules twenty, she has felt this annoying sense of responsibility for me, so, of course, when she heard I had a new boyfriend, she had to check him out, right?
The dinner hadn't been a barrel of laughs. What with Sean having consumed beforehand like six pints at the pub in Laurel Canyon where he worked, and my brother-in-law Marcus being all preoccupied about some malpractice lawsuit, and my sister looking all tense, but still way too smiley, because even though she always got everything she wanted, the one thing she wanted more than anything else in the world (meaning a kid) was for some still-unknown physiological reason being denied her, and me just being my absolute worst, as I always was around my sister, basically the meal was just something to endure.
"So, how do you like living in our country?" Jules queried Sean, serving him an unasked-for second helping of salmon in what I took to be an aggressive manner.
"It's okay," Sean said, and raised his eyebrows so that all of the safety pins clanged together as he looked hopefully at his almost-empty wine glass.
I saw Jules's eyes briefly meet Marcus's before she asked, "Oh? And what's so okay about it?"
"Dunno," Sean said, and quickly finished the so-deeply-red-it's-almost-brown liquid left in his glass. "Maybe it's the sky, you know."
"The sky," Jules repeated, flatly, and if we weren't sitting in her house, eating her food and drinking her expensive wine, I would've jumped up and smacked her in the nose.
"It's different from what we have back home," Sean said in that earnest way he said things when he was drunk. "There's just like ... like ... more of it here, isn't there?"
I nodded my head eagerly. I knew this wasn't going over big, but I also didn't care.
"Yeah," I said. "Could someone pass the vino down?"
"Marcus," my sister turned to her husband, who wisely refused to relinquish the whole bottle over to me and Sean and so instead carefully refilled our glasses before returning the bottle to its place within his reach alone. "Is it really possible for there to be more sky in one part of the world than another?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bummer"
Copyright © 2010 Janice Shapiro.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
IN ITS PLACE,
DEATH AND DISASTER,
NIGHT AND DAY,
THE OLD BEAN,
What People are Saying About This
"The breath of life flows through every one of Janice Shapiro's wonderful stories, and you can feel the heart beating very close to the surface. Bummer is terrifically smart, with a kind of comic energy that can swerve at any moment into eloquent brokenheartedness. I loved this book." --(Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love)
"Darkly funny, sexy, and very smart." --(Tom Perrota)
"Janice Shapiro's Bummer is bold, brave, and bitingly clever. Defying stereotypes and easy characterizations, Shapiro's female characters are sharp, intelligent, rebellious, bighearted, stubborn, independent, and emotionally fraught all at once. Shapiro's keen ear for dialogue and her deep and appealing humor make this collection an undeniable pleasure to read." --(Victoria Patterson, author of Drift: Stories and This Vacant Paradise)
"This amazingly gutsy, fully voiced book bears comparison with the best work of Antonya Nelson, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, and Lorrie Moore."--(David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto)