A terrible crime occurs in Elect H. Mouse State Judge.
Two young girl are abducted and held hostage by a band of religious fanatics. The girls' anxious father, a politician on the eve of an important election, has reasons of his own not to go to the police, so he hires a pair of shady private eyes to investigate. All the elements of a classic noirexcept that the kidnapped girls are mice, the abductors are Sunshine Family dolls, and the detectives are Barbie and Ken.
Part 1970s childhood dreamscape, part Raymond Chandler, this is a world both familiar and transformed. Sex shops, illicit affairs, spies, political hypocrisy, and dangerous zealots may coexist with Barbie and Ken's acrobatic poolside sex, but the crises of faith that Nelly Reifler's characters face are as real as our own. Elect H. Mouse State Judge is an unusualand masterfulblend of irony and tenderness, and a moving portrayal of a father trying and failing to do the right thing.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Nelly Reifler is the author of See Through, a collection of short stories. Her stories have appeared in publications such as McSweeney's, BOMB, Nerve, jubilat, and The Milan Review, and have been anthologized in books including Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and FOUND magazine's Requiem for a Paper Bag. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the Pratt Institute, and she is an editor at Post Road. She lives in Saugerties, New York.
Read an Excerpt
Elect H. Mouse State Judge
By Nelly Reifler
Faber and Faber, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Nelly Reifler
All rights reserved.
H. Mouse was running for State Judge. He had diligently worked his way up the ranks from apprentice to secretary to uniformed guard to courtroom stenographer to lawyer to attorney to village councillor. And now the day had come for him to place the ballot box out on his porch and invite the citizens to vote for him. He'd taken a red box, emptied of its succulent raisins, and covered it in white paper. He'd cut a slot in the top, wide enough to easily slip in a folded ballot, but not so wide that ballots could be as easily slipped out. He'd weighted it down with gravel from his circular driveway so that the brisk autumn breeze would not pick it up and blow it away. And on the front he wrote in large print letters, ELECT H. MOUSE STATE JUDGE.
He hefted it off the mudroom floor and balanced it on his plump belly. Then he waddled outside to his porch. It certainly was a fine day, thought H. Mouse. Up and down his street sat handsome, symmetrical houses, all with upstairs and downstairs, with shutters and porches. All had real outlets with real electricity into which you could plug real lamps that really lit up. Each had a chiffonier that opened and closed, containing wineglasses, plates, and a roast turkey or a shiny ham decorated with brown crisscrosses. The houses had rugs and beds. Some had a coat rack, an umbrella, a framed Impressionist print; others a refrigerator, towels, a cradle. H. Mouse felt enriched thinking of the things in his neighbors' houses and his own. Times were good, he thought, neighbors were happy and prosperous and everybody was organized and clean and lived with the satisfaction of knowing true order. It would be a perfect moment for him to ascend to his newest role in his career as a public servant. It was the right time for his message.
He pulled up one of his real wood rocking chairs and awaited the voters' visits.
The Sunshine Family huddled in their green plastic van. They had round eyes, smooth chests, and short legs.
Mother Sunshine said, "It is time."
Father Sunshine said, "Now is the moment as has been ordained by destiny."
Mother Sunshine handed Father Sunshine the long-distance binoculars. Girl Sunshine and Boy Sunshine hopped up and down. The hinges of their knees and ankles squeaked. In unison they chanted, "Enlarge the family, enlarge the race. Widen the circle, tighten the brace."
"Hush, children. Father is plotting our next move." Mother Sunshine smoothed her calico apron down with her curved fingers. The children dropped to the floor, sounding twin thuds with their hard behinds.
It had been a long encampment here in the forest on the edge of town. When you are on a mission for something greater than yourself, you are willing to wait for the opportunity to take action. The van was parked in a circle of trees a quarter mile off the old dirt fire trail. For many moons Mother Sunshine had been cooking the family's meals of rice gruel and poached varmints over an open fire. The children had been memorizing the words of the Book of Doctrines, and repeating its hieratic ordinations to each other. And Father Sunshine had been calculating, communicating in the Old Language, through whispers, with the Power, waiting for a sign.
"He has moved to the porch," said Father Sunshine, adjusting the focus on the binoculars. "He has carried the ballot box out there with him. I see he has pulled up a real wood rocking chair. Now he is sitting down."
"And the others?" asked Mother Sunshine.
"Readying themselves for their new life, although they are not yet conscious of this truth."
Susie Mouse handed Margo Mouse a rag doll. "Pretend you're the teacher now," said Susie. "I'll be the bad student who gets punished, and this is the principal. Send me to the principal's office."
Margo said nothing.
Margo turned her head slowly. "What?"
"Stop staring out the window. Be the teacher."
Margo's white eyelet dress was wrinkled and her barrette was dangling off her ear. She turned her head back toward the window.
"You're hopeless," said Susie. "You're a loser."
"There's something out there," said Margo.
"There is not. I've told you already. It's the same stupid elm and the same dumb old swing set, and the shed and the fence. That's what's out there."
"Something's watching." Margo pointed. Susie followed with her eyes and squinted. The attic playroom had a view of the village, with its shops and roundabout and benches. Beyond that, the sisters could see the sparse edge of town, where the few houses were surrounded by acres of fields, and where the service road was dotted with the occasional gas station, strip mall, or diner. The dark, wild forest rose up in the distance. The trees formed a mass that looked solid, impenetrable. It was hard to believe that there was earth under those trees, that there were living creatures in the fortress of those hills.
"How could anything be watching from that far away?" said Susie. "You're just all stressed out because it's Election Day. You worry about Dad too much."
"I don't know." Margo shook her head. "It's not about the election. I'm afraid."
"Don't be ridiculous."
But Margo noticed that Susie's voice sounded a little less shrill, and that the words came out a little more slowly.
"Forget it," said Margo. "What were we playing?"
"Wait here," said Father Sunshine, making the sign of the Dodecahedron over each of his children's heads. Girl Sunshine and Boy Sunshine sat on their piece of foam rubber in the corner. Their legs jutted out in front of them. They stared straight ahead.
"It is windy today," said Mother Sunshine. The tin cans dangling from a clothesline, set up to repel bears, clanked against each other tunelessly.
"If the Power fells me with an enloosened branch, so it is to be," said Father Sunshine. "Do not mourn for me; I will have joined the Twelve Hundred Celestial Angel-demons. If the Power fells me, you must carry on the Project."
"I shall," said Mother Sunshine.
Father Sunshine bent his hip hinges, pulled on some pants, slung his backpack over his shoulders, and strapped his pistol into his belt.
H. Mouse thought about the things he would do as State Judge. He would decide who gets what. And whether this one or that one goes to jail or goes free. He'd talk to the citizens about fines and rewards. He'd pick juries and teach them all about the law. He couldn't remember a time in his life when doing good and furthering the cause of fairness were not the twin beating hearts of his being. Rocking on his porch, he thought of the word parity, and about how he believed that each of us is basically good, equally so—no matter how some may stray because of their stressful circumstances. If everybody could be given the proper tools for moral strength and ethical decision-making, theft would end. And abuse. And dishonesty.
After all, he told himself, when pushed into a corner or backed to the edge of a precipice, the best of us might find ourselves doing things of which we never imagined we were capable.
A picture flickered through his mind like a bat, but he shooed it away. His stomach squeezed and he suddenly tasted acid in his mouth. Was he hungry? He patted his belly and looked at the sky. It was close to noon, and he was indeed feeling rather munchy. He could picture the tray of muffins baked by his daughter Margo that morning, sitting out on the counter, where she had set them to cool.
But what was this coming down the street? Why, it was Fernanda Gekko, with a folded piece of paper. She seemed to be, as usual, dressed to the nines, with a flowing skirt, long gloves, satin bonnet, and alligator purse. H. Mouse pushed himself up from the real wood rocking chair and brushed his vest in case of stray dandruff. He buttoned the vest button that always popped open when he sat. He waved at Fernanda as she approached his porch.
"Ms. Gekko, how delightful to see you."
"H.," she said, daintily gathering the cloth of her skirt to ascend the porch steps. Lace-up boots of aubergine leather peeked from her petticoat. "It's my pleasure to cast a ballot in your ballot box today."
"I cannot thank you enough for your support." He gave a slight bow.
"You're the candidate for me." Her eyes seemed to grow a little wetter as she added, "You're one of the few good ones out there, H."
He smiled at her. He didn't know what had happened in her past, but he wanted to reassure her. "Ms. Gekko, we are all good, each and every one of us. Some are just weak, but none are hopeless."
"That's an extremely charitable point of view," she said. "Another reason I'm doing this." And with that, she dropped the folded paper through the slot of H. Mouse's box.
"Well, thank you again. Thanks for coming by."
Fernanda Gekko patted his sleeve and sighed as she turned and descended the steps. He watched her walk away, down the street toward the center of the village. There was nothing wrong with looking.
As their father chatted on the porch, Susie and Margo were being dragged away from their home in a sack. Father Sunshine had been conversing with the Power for many rotations of the earth, offering his loyalty. In exchange, the Power had bestowed upon Father Sunshine the lessons needed to focus his pyramidal tract, the section of the brain that was implanted by the Ancients in order to channel their energy from generation to generation. This energy endowed Father Sunshine with the Strength of the Dozen. Even though his captives wriggled a little in the bag, they were silent (he had gagged them with wadded cloth and tape) and relatively still (he had trussed them with Manila rope).
Without the sisters' knowledge, the Power had guided them out of their high playroom and into the kitchen, where they had been standing when Father Sunshine reached the house. He had peeked through the window: they were leaning against the counter, eating some kind of baked good and laughing. He forgave them for taking pleasure in the corporeal decadence of sugar and leavening. They did not know yet, that was all. He would have to grab them both at once.
He had opened the screen door, pistol in his hand.
The littler one had seen him first. She'd opened her mouth, gasping, showing him its white, wet contents.
He whispered to them, "Do not make a sound, or the Power will shoot this gun and kill your bodies. You are lucky. You are part of the Universal Plan. You have been picked for the Ascendant Widening of the Circle." He jabbed the gun in the air, pointing it alternately at the stomach of one and then the other. "The Power will not harm your bodies if you stand still now." They had stood still. That was when he had pulled the tape, cloth, and rope from his belt.
Did he question the Power for even a second? Did he ask why the Power had sent him these two, with their beady black eyes and plump little vessel bodies that only reached as high as his hip hinges? Of course he did not.
Now he reached the fence at the rear of the adjacent property. He had clipped it a month ago, and the loosened portion toppled easily. Turning left from there it was a straight shot through one more yard, then up an alley behind the water-treatment station to the mouth of the winding forest road. He knew he would have to carry them, not just tow them, once he hit pavement. At the base of the forest road he would pick up the old all-terrain vehicle he had hidden behind a shed, stuff the sisters in the sidecar, and ride to the fire trail. There was a second unused shed there, where he could once again stow the vehicle. Mother, Boy, and Girl Sunshine would be waiting at the fire trail. He figured that at that point, they wouldn't need the sack anymore. Everyone could walk back to the van together.
Susie and Margo both went utterly limp inside the sack. It was dark, and the uneven ground moving under their bodies bumped and bruised them. Susie concentrated on breathing; she felt as if she might forget to breathe and then die. Margo was shocked by how real it all felt, how it was happening now, at this very moment—but on the other hand, she wasn't surprised at all. She had known something was coming. She had known it was going to get them.
Each sister kept her body close to the other, to the extent that it was possible.
Where were they?
H. Mouse stumbled on a rag doll that lay, arms and legs splayed haphazardly, directly on the threshold between the kitchen and the mudroom.
He called their names.
Nothing. This wasn't like his daughters. Gripping the banister, he waddled up the stairs to their bedroom. Neatly made twin captain's beds, more dolls, the grasshopper in its cage, running round and round on its grasshopper wheel. At the base of the attic steps he called again: "Susie! Margo!"
Maybe they were playing a game, he thought. They were good and sweet. They weren't prone to practical jokes. But it was true that Susie was reaching the age where she'd begun to form an identity outside the family unit; could she have roped Margo into some harebrained scheme to worry H. sick? He pulled himself up the attic steps. He imagined his daughters hiding in a corner under the eaves, whispering to each other in that secret language of theirs—Obby, they called it. He imagined them covering their mouths and trying to stay quiet as they heard him approaching. He imagined them jumping out and shouting "Boo!" at him and then collapsing in giggles. But the attic was dim and empty. He stepped over another doll that was sitting at a shoe-box desk. There was a low shelf holding picture books pressed under the slanted ceiling, and behind it a triangular cavity. He grunted a little as he heaved the shelf out from its spot. Nothing back there but shadows.
His heart pounded. Maybe they'd gone over to visit one of the neighbors. But as he had the thought, he understood that he'd only had it because it's one of the things you're supposed to think when your children suddenly go missing. Even so, he made his way back down to the kitchen, where he picked up the receiver of the wall phone.
"Give me ELdridge 3-7717," said H. Mouse.
After a couple of rings Sally Gerbil picked up. "Hello?" came her creaky voice.
"Sally, it's H."
"Oh, yes, H. Thank you for the call. I nearly forgot it was Election Day. I'll toddle over to cast my ballot after tea and crumpets."
Election Day! H. stretched the phone cord as far as it would go and peered out the dining-room windows at the porch. The ballot box was still there.
"Sally, you haven't seen Margo and Susie today, have you?"
"The little ones? Nope. Haven't seen 'em."
Next he called Binne Volesdöttir, on the other side, who said in her thick accent that she hadn't seen them either. Nor had Pinkney Plastic-Hat across the street.
He found himself slouched on the kitchen floor, head hanging, legs bunched up against his chest. From this vantage point, the crumbs and dried, moldy vegetable scraps around the edge of the linoleum looked like miniature, multicolor snowdrifts. An ant climbed one of the drifts and selected a morsel, wiggling its antennae. H. had always thought he had a clean kitchen; he hadn't realized it housed a tiny world of dirt and decay. When he raised his eyes a little bit, though, he noticed that some of the crumbs were in the middle of the floor, and they seemed to have fallen in a line—all the way to the back door off the mudroom. He crawled over to one cluster of crumbs, picked some, and sniffed them. They were soft and fresh: bits of Margo's blueberry muffins—the mostly full tray of which still sat on the counter.
He took a deep breath. It was sinking in. He had no idea where his daughters were. He reached for the edge of the counter and pulled himself back up to standing. He grew dizzy for a moment while the blood rushed out of his head. He took a couple of deep breaths, then returned to the phone to ring the direct number for Bub Flytrap, the police commissioner. H. had known Bub ever since they'd been apprentices together, double-dating and playing pickup mumblety-peg in the park. Oh, those were the days!
"Give me—" H. started. Then he stopped, his voice catching in his throat. "Never mind."
H. hung up the phone and sank back down to the kitchen floor.
Margo and Susie found themselves standing in a scrubby clearing in the woods. They were sore all over. They'd been piled, still inside the sack, on some vibrating machine, noisy and smelly.
Now they were unbound. Their limbs were weak from the trauma, and the ropes had cut off their circulation, leaving their extremities numb. Margo looked down at one of her legs and saw that it was badly scraped and bleeding. She tried to bend down to brush the dirt out of her wound, but she was too unsteady on her feet and fell over. Their captor took a few stiff steps toward her and offered his hard, shiny hand to help her up.
Excerpted from Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nelly Reifler. Copyright © 2013 Nelly Reifler. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
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