Girls: A Novel

Girls: A Novel

by Frederick Busch


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A New York Times Notable Book

In the unrelenting cold and bitter winter of upstate New York, Jack and his wife, Fanny, are trying to cope with the desperate sorrow they feel over the death of their young daughter. The loss forms a chasm in their relationship as Jack, a sardonic Vietnam vet, looks for a way to heal them both.

Then, in a nearby town, a fourteen-year-old girl disappears somewhere between her home and church. Though she is just one of the hundreds of children who vanish every year in America, Jack turns all his attention to this little girl. For finding what has become of this child could be Jack's salvation--if he can just get to her in time. . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780449912638
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/28/1998
Series: Ballantine Reader's Circle Series
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.66(d)

About the Author

Frederick Busch is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and a fiction award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His last book, The Children in the Woods, was a finalist for the 1995 Pen/Faulkner Award. He has been acting director of the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa and is currently the Edgar Fairchild Professor of Literature at Colgate University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

We started clearing the field with shovels and buckets and of course our cupped, gloved hands. The idea was to not break any frozen parts of her away. Then, when we had a broad hole in the top of the snow that covered the field and we were a foot or two of snow above where she might have been set down to wait for spring, we started using poles. Some of us used rake handles and the long hafts of shovels. One used a five-foot iron pry bar. He was a big man, and the bar weighed twenty-five pounds, anyway, but he used it gently, I remember, like a doctor with his hands in someone's wound. We came together to try to find her and we did what we needed to, and then we seemed to separate as quickly as we could.

At Mrs. Tanner's funeral, they sang "Shall We Gather at the River," and I sang, too. It was like that in the field. Everyone gathered, and it was something to see. Then we all came apart. Fanny went where she needed to, and Rosalie Piri did, and Archie Halpern. I did, too. Most of them, I think, remained within a few miles of the field.

The dog and I live where it doesn't snow. I can't look at snow and stay calm. Sometimes it gets so warm. I wear navy blue uniform shorts with a reinforced long pocket down the left hip for the radio. I patrol on foot and sometimes on a white motor scooter, and it's hard for me to believe, a cop on a scooter in shorts. But someone who enforces the law, laws, somebody's laws, falls down like that. Whether it's because he drinks or takes money or swallows amphetamines or has to be powerful, or he's one of those people who is always scared, or because he's me, that's how he goes--state or federal agency or a big-city police force, down to working large towns or the dead little cities underneath the Great Lakes, say, then down to smaller towns, then maybe a campus, maybe a mall, or a hotel that used to be fine.

I've moved a few times, changing my job but trying to stay on a kind of level vocationally. I would like not to sink very much more. And she traces me, and she calls. The first time, I was surprised. I was south and west, looking at a map while lying on a bed in the Arroyo Motel, where they gave good residential rates and didn't care what species your roommate was. The dog was in the bathroom, lying against the coolness of the tub and panting, and I was reading the map of New York State. At one time, I marked the areas with a felt-tip pen where girls had disappeared. Most of them were under the snow and ice up there, I figured, and I didn't know why I had to look at months-old guesses about burial sites. I distrusted this kind of recreation.

It was my third week on the new job, and I continued not to know where to go or what to do for what might be thought of as pleasure. I was supposed to have fun or relax, the duty sergeant made clear, because I had been reported for menacing a citizen and obviously I needed some time to get right.

"Gritting your teeth isn't menacing," I told him.

"In your face," he said, "it is." Then he told me, "Jack, go and get unfucked."

So I was off duty and getting unfucked with a daydream I often had about her. Facedown on my chest was a map marked with places where someone took people's daughters and killed them.

I am talking here about being lost or found. You can be a small child and get lost, and maybe I will find you. God knows, I'll try. Or you can be a large and ordinary man and get lost in everything usual about your life. Maybe you will try to find yourself, and so might someone else. It ends up being about the ordinary days you are hidden inside of, whether or not you want to hide.

I didn't flinch when the phone rang, and I didn't run to pick it up. On the fifth ring, I said, "All right." On the seventh or eighth, I answered it. The dog, I noticed, had moved from between the toilet and the tub to lie with his nose at the threshold of the bathroom door.

She said, "I knew I'd get you. There you are."

All I could think to say was, "Aren't you something."

"Given my family connection to the finding-people profession, no. I wouldn't expect any less of me. Neither should you."

"No. I think I won't."

She said, "I prepared a list of remarks to fall back on in case I couldn't think of anything to say that would keep you on the line."

I could hear the hum and hiss of the open connection, but I couldn't hear anything of her. Then she came back and I felt her on the line. A piece of paper rattled, and then she recited, the way you do when you read something out loud, "Are you eating well? Are you sleeping well? Are you, in general, looking after yourself?"

I said, "Are you all right?"

"No. Are you?"



"No. I guess, really, no."

"Good," she said. "In a way. You come back here, Jack. Will you come back?" She gave me a little time to answer, and then she said, "Never mind. You wouldn't. Maybe I can get there. Wherever in the world it really is. Jack, it's so far away."

"I believe that's why I came here."

"Yes. Except you had to leave me behind when you did that."

"You couldn't have come with me. The dog could barely stand it. I could barely stand it. I haven't been really friendly, these days."

"But you're some kind of a fugitive, Jack. From me. Consider that. You and your dog, in the middle of the night, you drive away in the world's oldest station wagon to--"

"Daylight. I left in daylight. But I know what you mean. And the Torino did finally die. Get this: outside of Buffalo, New York. I never even got it out of the state."

"I can't imagine you driving anything else," she said.

"I drive a Subaru DL, 1980. I had to pay extra for a rearview mirror you can tilt against the headlights behind you. You have to replace the struts every few miles, but the engine's good and the body only shifts on the frame when you turn a corner or pull out to pass."

She said, with a kind of a wobble, "Is there room for the dog?"

"He gets the backseat."

"You and him."

"Me and him," I said. By then, I think, I was messed up, too, and my voice must have showed it, because the dog banged his tail on the floor. It was a trick he used to do with my wife. Now he was promiscuous, and he would slam his tail against the floor if anyone gave the slightest signal of distress. Apparently, I was signaling, and he was signaling back.

Thinking about the way we came apart, all of us, Fanny and Rosalie and Archie and me and the Tanners and their daughter and every man and woman who worked in the field between the houses and the river, was like watching something explode, but slowed down.

I saw it on the job, early in my rotation, when my work consisted of rousting disorderly American teenaged boys in uniform in Phu Lam when they overacted their role as savior. I was giving directions to a somewhat shit-faced marine just back from Operation Utah in I Corps. He was so chiseled down and locked tight, I would not have challenged him to a bet on a ball game. I was pointing, I remember, when a car bomb took down a hotel across the street. I kept seeing it afterward. Traumatic flashback, a doctor taught me to call it.

But that day, directly after the explosion, I didn't know its name, and I sat on the curb and I kept watching the hotel go out and up. The marine, who got very sober very fast, squatted behind me where I sat. I was wondering out loud for him whether what we might be thinking of as oil or gasoline that pooled beneath my legs in the street could actually be the blood of whores and janitors and cleaning ladies. He patted my shoulder over and over, and he kept saying. "Uh-huh," and "That's right," and "You got it." After a while, I didn't see blood, but I did keep seeing the slow coming apart of the back end of the little gray Fiat, and then the stick-by-stick dismantling of the two-story hotel, slat by gallery banister, window mullion by floorboard, everything coming toward us from the inside out.

"Uh-huh," the marine said, patting me, "you saying hello to Flash."

She said, "Jack."

"The chances weren't terrific, you know," I told her.

"For what?"

"Well, what you're calling about."

"You and me. That's what I'm calling about."

The dog was pounding away with his tail. He sounded like the drummer on an antique recording of a slow, surrendering song.

"But you were hoping they'd get better," she said. "Weren't you?"

I said, "Not at first."


You can't say once upon a time to tell the story of how we got to where we are. You have to say winter. Once, in winter, you say, because winter was our only season, and it felt like we would live in winter all our lives.

I was awake in the darkness and the sound of wind against the house when the dog began to retch at 5:25. I hustled ninety pounds of heaving chocolate Lab to the door and rolled him onto the snow that looked silver in the fading moonlight.

"Good boy," I said, because he'd done his only trick.

Outside he vomited, and I went back up, passing the sofa Fanny lay on. I tiptoed with enough weight on my toes to let her know how considerate I was. She blinked her eyes. I know I heard her blink her eyes. Whenever I told her I could hear her blink her eyes, she said I was lying. But I could hear the damp slap of lash after I made her cry.

I got into bed to get warm again. I saw the red digital numbers, 5:29, and I knew I wouldn't fall asleep. I didn't. I read a book about men who kill one another for pay or for their honor. I forget which, and so did they. It was 5:45, the alarm would buzz at 6:00, and I would make a pot of coffee and start the woodstove. I would call Fanny and pour her coffee into her mug. I would apologize because I always did. Then she would forgive me. We would stagger through the day, exhausted but pretty sure we were more or less all right. We would probably sleep that night. We would probably wake in the same bed to the alarm at 6:00, or to the dog, if he'd returned to the frozen deer carcass he'd been eating in the forest on our land. He loved what made him sick. The alarm went off, I got into jeans and woolen socks and a sweatshirt, and I went downstairs to let the dog in. He'd be hungry, of course.

I was the oldest college student in America. I sometimes said. But of course I wasn't. There were always ancient women with parchment skin who graduated at seventy-nine from places like Barnard and the University of Alabama. I was only forty-four, and I hardly qualified as a student. I patrolled the college at night in a Jeep with a leaky exhaust system, and I went from room to room in the classroom buildings, kicking out students who were studying or humping in chairs--they do it anywhere--and answering emergency calls, with my little blue light winking on top of the roof. I didn't carry a gun or a billy, but I had a heavy black flashlight that took three batteries, and I'd used it twice on some of my overprivileged northeastern-playboy part-time classmates. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would waken at 6:00 with my wife, and I'd do my homework, and then patrol at school and go to class at 11:30, to sit there for an hour and a half while thirty-five stomachs growled and this guy gave instruction about books. Because I was on the staff, the college let me take a course for nothing every term. I was getting educated, in a kind of slow-motion way. It was going to take me something like fifteen or sixteen years to graduate. I predicted to Fanny I would no doubt get an F in gym in my last semester and have to repeat. There were times when I respected myself for going to school. Fanny often did, and that had served as fair incentive.

I am not unintelligent. "You are not an unintelligent writer," my professor wrote on my paper about Nathaniel Hawthorne. We had to read short stories, I and the other students, and then we had to write little essays about them. I told how I saw Kafka and Hawthorne in a similar light, and I was not unintelligent, he said. He ran into me at dusk one time, when I answered a call about a dead battery and found out it was him. I jumped his Buick from the Jeep's battery, and he was looking me over, I could tell, while I clamped onto the terminals and cranked it up. He was tall and handsome, like someone in a clothing catalog. He never wore a suit. He wore khakis and sweaters, loafers or sneakers, and he was always talking to the female students with the brightest hair and best builds. But he couldn't get a Buick going on an ice-cold night, and he didn't know enough to look for cells going bad. I told him he was going to need a new battery, and he looked me over the way men sometimes do with other men who fix their cars for them.


I said, "No way."

"You have that look sometimes. Were you one of the Phoenix Project fellas?"

I was wearing a watch cap made of navy wool and an old fatigue jacket. Slick characters like my professor enjoy it if you're a killer or at least a onetime middleweight fighter. I smiled as if I knew something. "Take it easy," I said, and I went back to the Jeep to swing around the cemetery at the top of the campus. They'd been known to screw in down-filled sleeping bags on horizontal stones up there, and the dean of students didn't want anybody dying of frostbite while joined at the hip to a matriculating fellow resident of our northeastern camp for the overindulged.

He blinked his high beams at me as I went. "You are not an unintelligent driver," I said.

Fanny had left me a bowl of something made with sausages and sauerkraut and potatoes, and the dog hadn't eaten too much more than his fair share. He watched me eat his leftovers and then make myself a king size drink composed of sour mash and ice. In our back room, which is on the northern end of the house, and cold for sitting in that close to dawn, I sat and I watched the texture of the sky change. It was going to snow, and I wanted to see the storm come up the valley. I woke up that way, sitting in the rocker with its loose right arm, holding a watery drink, and thinking right away of the girl I'd convinced to go back inside. She'd been standing outside her dormitory, looking up at a window that was dark in the midst of all those lighted panes. They never turned a light off; they would let the faucets run half the night. She was crying onto her bathrobe. She was sockless in rubber-bottomed boots, the brown ones so many of them wore unlaced, and for all I know, she might have been naked under the robe. She was beautiful, I thought, and she was somebody's redheaded daughter, standing in a quadrangle how many miles from home and weeping.

"He doesn't love anyone," the kid told me. "He doesn't love his wife--I mean, his ex-wife. And he doesn't love the ex-wife before that, or the one before that. And you know what? He doesn't love me. I don't know anyone who does!"

"It isn't your fault if he isn't smart enough to love you," I said, steering her toward the Jeep.

She stopped. She turned. "You know him?"

I couldn't help it. I hugged her hard, and she let me, and then she stepped back, and of course I let her go. "Don't you touch me! Is this sexual harassment? Do you know the rules? Isn't this sexual harassment?"

"I'm sorry," I said at the door to the truck. "But I think I have to be able to give you a grade before it counts as harassment."

She got in. I told her we were driving to the dean of students' house. She smelled like marijuana and something very sweet, maybe one of those coffee-with-cream liqueurs you don't buy unless you hate to drink.

As the heat of the truck struck her, she started going kind of clay gray-green, and I reached across her to open the window.

"You touched my breast!" she said.

I said, "Does it count if it wasn't on purpose?"

She leaned out the window and gave her rendition of my dog.

But in my rocker, waking up at whatever time in the morning in my silent house, I thought of her as someone's child. Which made me think of ours, of course. I went for more ice, and I started on a wet breakfast. At the door of the dean of students' house, she'd turned her chalky face to me and asked, "What grade would you give me, then?"

It was a week like this: two teachers locked out of their offices late at night, a Toyota with a flat and no spare, an attempted rape on a senior girl walking home from the library, a major fight outside a town bar (broken wrist, probable concussion), and variations on breaking and entering. I was scolded by my vice president of nonacademic services for thumping softly on a student who got drunk and disorderly and tried to take me down. I told him to keep his job, but he called me back because I was right to swat the kid a little, he said, but also wrong, but what the hell, and he'd promised to admonish me, and now he had, and would I please stay on. I thought of the fringe benefits--graduation in only sixteen years--so I went back to work.

My professor assigned a story called "A Rose for Emily," and I wrote him a paper about the mechanics of corpse fucking, and how, since Emily clearly couldn't screw her dead boyfriend, she was keeping his rotten body in bed because she truly loved him. I called the paper "True Love." He gave me a B and wrote, "See me, pls." In his office after class, his feet up on his desk, he trimmed a cigar with a giant folding knife he kept in his drawer.

"You got to clean the hole out," he said, "or they don't draw."

"I don't smoke," I said.

"Bad habit. Real habit, though. I started smoking 'em in Germany, in the service. My CO smoked 'em. We collaborated on a brothel inspection one time, and we ended up smoking these with a couple of women." He waggled his eyebrows at me, now that his manhood was established.

"Were the women smoking them, too?"

He snorted laughter through his nose while the greasy smoke came curling off his thin, dry lips. "They were pretty smoky, I'll tell ya!" He was wearing cowboy boots that day, and he propped them on his desk and sat forward. "It's a little hard to explain. But--hell. You just don't say fuck when you write an essay for a college prof. Okay?" He sounded like a scoutmaster with a kid he'd caught jerking off in the outhouse. "All right? You don't wanna do that."

"Did it shock you?"

"Fuck no, it didn't shock me. I just told you. It violates certain proprieties."

"But if I'm writing it to you, like a letter--"

"You're writing it for posterity. For some mythical reader someplace, not just me. You're making a statement."

"Right. My statement said how hard it must be for a woman to fuck with a corpse."

"And a point worth making. I said so. Here."

"But you said I shouldn't say it."

"No. Listen. Just because you're talking about fucking, you don't have to say fuck. Does that make it any clearer?"


"I wish you'd lied to me just now," he said.

I nodded. I did, too.

"Where'd you do your service?" he asked.

"Baltimore. Baltimore, Maryland."

"What's in Baltimore?"

"Railroads. I liaised on freight runs of army materiel. I killed a couple of bums on the rod with my bare hands, though."

He snorted again, but I could see how disappointed he was. He'd been banking on my having been a murderer. Interesting guy in one of my classes, he must have told some terrific woman at an overpriced meal: I just know the guy was a rubout specialist in the Nam. I figured I should come to work wearing my fatigue jacket and a red bandanna tied around my head. Say "man" to him a couple of times, hang a fist in the air for grief and solidarity, and look worn out, exhausted from experiences he was fairly certain he envied my having. His dungarees were ironed, I noticed.

On Saturday, we went back to the campus because Fanny wanted to see a movie called Seven Samurai. I fell asleep, and I'm afraid I snored. She let me sleep until the auditorium was almost empty. I asked her, "Who was screaming in my dream?"

"Kurosawa," she said.


"Ask your professor friend."

I looked around, but he wasn't there. "Not an unweird man," I said.

We went home and cleaned up after the dog and put him out. I drank a little sour mash and we went upstairs and didn't make love. It got to be Sunday morning, maybe four or five, and the dog was howling at another dog someplace, or at the moon, or maybe just his shadow thrown by the moon onto snow. I did not strangle him when I opened the back door, and he limped happily past me and stumbled up the stairs. I followed him into our bedroom and I made myself not groan a happy groan for being satisfied Fanny hadn't shifted out of it yet.

He stopped me in the hall after class on a Thursday and asked me, "How's it goin'?"--just one of the kickers drinking sour beer and eating pickled eggs and watching the tube in a country bar. How's it goin'? I nodded. I wanted a grade from the man, and I did want to learn about expressing myself. I nodded and made what I thought was a smile. He'd let his mustache grow out and his hair was longer. He was starting to wear dark shirts with lighter ties. I thought he looked like someone in The Godfather. He was wearing his high-heeled cowboy boots. His corduroy pants looked baggy. I guess he wanted them to look that way. He motioned me to the wall of the hallway, and he looked confidential and said, "How about the Baltimore stuff?"

I said, "Yeah?"

"Was that really true?" He was almost blinking, he wanted so much for me to be a damaged Vietnam vet just looking for a bell tower to climb into and start firing from. The college didn't have a bell tower, though I'd once spent an ugly hour chasing a drunken ATO down from the roof of the observatory. "You were just clocking through boxcars in Baltimore?"

I said, "Nah."

"I thought so!" He gave a kind of sigh.

"I killed people," I said.

"You know, I could have sworn you did," he said.

I nodded, and he nodded back. I'd made him so happy.

The assignment was to write something to influence somebody. He called it "Rhetoric and Persuasion." We read an essay by George Orwell and A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift. I liked the Orwell better, but I wasn't comfortable with it. He talked about natives and I felt him saying it two ways.

I wrote "Ralph the Duck."

Once upon a time, there was a duck named Ralph who didn't have any feathers on his wings. So when the cold wind blew, Ralph said, Brr, and he shivered and shook.

What's the matter? Ralph's mommy asked.

I'm cold, Ralph said.

Oh, the mommy said. Here. I'll keep you warm.

So she spread her big, feathery wings, and hugged Ralph tight, and when the cold wind blew, Ralph was warm and snuggly, and he fell fast asleep.

The next Thursday, he was wearing canvas pants and hiking boots. He mentioned kind of casually to some of the girls in the class how whenever there was a storm, he wore his Lake District walking outfit. He had a big hairy sweater on. I kept waiting for him to make a noise like a mountain goat. But the girls seemed to like it. His boots made a creaky squeak on the linoleum of the hall when he caught up with me after class.

"As I told you," he said, "it isn't unappealing. It's just--not a college theme."

"Right," I said. "Okay. You want me to do it over?"

"No," he said. "Not at all. The D will remain your grade. But I'll read something else if you want to write it."

"This'll be fine," I said.

"Did you understand the assignment?"

"Write something to influence someone--'Rhetoric and Persuasion.'"

We were at his office door and the redheaded kid who got sick in my truck was waiting for him. She looked at me as if one of us was in the wrong place, which struck me as accurate enough. He was interested in getting into his office with the redhead, but he remembered to turn around and flash me a grin he seemed to think he was known for.

Instead of going on shift a few hours after class, the way I'm supposed to, I told the dispatcher I was sick, and I went home. Fanny was frightened when I came in, because I don't get sick and I don't miss work. She looked at my face and got sad. I went upstairs to change. When I was a kid, I always changed my clothes as soon as I came home from school. I put on jeans and a flannel shirt and thick wool socks, and I made myself a dark drink of sour mash. Fanny poured herself some wine and came into the cold northern room a few minutes later. I was sitting in the rocker, looking over the valley. The wind was lining up a lot of rows of cloud, so the sky looked like a baked trout when you lift the skin off. "It'll snow," I said to her.

She sat on the old sofa and waited. After a while, she said, "I wonder why they always call it a mackerel sky?"

"Good eating, mackerel," I said.

Fanny said, "Shit! You're never that laconic unless you feel crazy. What's wrong? Who'd you punch out at the playground?"

"We had to write a composition," I said.

"Did he like it?"

"He gave me a D."

"Well, you're familiar enough with D's. I never saw you get low about a grade."

"I wrote about Ralph the Duck."

She said, "You did?" She said, "Honey." She came over and stood beside the rocker and leaned into me and hugged my head and neck. "Honey," she said. "Honey."

It was a terrible storm, the worst of the long, terrible winter so far. That afternoon, they closed the college, which they almost never do. But the roads were jammed with snow over ice, and now it was freezing rain on top of that, and the only people working at the school that night were the dispatcher and Anthony Berberich in the other truck and me. Everyone else had gone home except the students, and most of them were inside. The ones who weren't were drunk, and I kept on sending them in and telling them to act like grown-ups. A number of them said they were, and I really couldn't argue. I had the bright beams on, the defroster set high, the little blue light winking, and a thermos of sour mash and hot coffee that I sipped from every time I had to get out of the truck or every time I realized how cold all that wetness was.

About eight o'clock, when the rain was turning back to snow and the cold was worse and the road was impossible, just when I was done helping a county sander on the edge of the campus pull a panel truck out of a snowbank, I got the emergency call from the dispatcher. We had a student missing. The roommates thought the girl was headed for the quarry. This meant I had to get the Jeep up on a narrow road above the campus, above the old cemetery, into all kinds of woods and rough track that I figured would be choked with ice and snow. Any kid up there would really have to want to be there, and I couldn't go in on foot, because you'd only want to be there on account of drugs, booze, or craziness, and either way I'd be needing blankets and heat, and then a fast ride down to the hospital. So I dropped into four-wheel drive to get me up the hill above the campus, bucking snow and sliding on ice, putting all the heater's warmth up on the windshield because I couldn't see much more than swarming snow. My feet were still cold from the tow job, and it didn't seem to matter that I had on heavy socks and insulated boots I'd coated with waterproofing. I shivered, and I thought of Ralph the Duck.

I had to grind the rest of the way, from the cemetery, in four-wheel low, and in spite of the cold, I was smoking my gearbox by the time I was close enough to the quarry to see I'd have to make my way on foot to where she was. It was a kind of hollowed-out shape, maybe four or five stories high, where she stood, wobbling. She was as chalky as she'd been the last time, and her red hair didn't catch the light anymore. It just lay on her like something that had died on top of her head. She was in a white nightgown that looked like her sloughing skin. She had her arms crossed like she wanted to be warm. She swayed, kind of, in front of the big, dark, scooped-out rock face, where the trees and brush had been cleared for trucks and earthmovers. She looked tiny against all the darkness. From where I stood, I could see the snow driving down in front of the lights I'd left on, but I couldn't see it near her. All it looked like around her was dark. She was shaking with the cold, and she was crying.

I had a blanket with me, and I shoved it down the front of my coat to keep it dry for her, and because I was so cold. I waved. I stood in the lights and waved. I don't know what she saw--a big shadow, maybe. I surely didn't reassure her, because when she saw me, she backed up, until she was near the face of the quarry. She couldn't go any farther.

I called, "Hello! I brought a blanket. Are you cold? I thought you might want a blanket."

Her roommates had told the dispatcher about pills, so I didn't bring her the coffee laced with mash. I figured I didn't have all that much time, anyway, to get her down and pumped out. The booze with whatever pills she'd taken would make her die that much faster.

I hated that word. Die. It made me furious with her. I heard myself seething when I breathed. I pulled my scarf and collar up above my mouth. I didn't want her to see how angry I was because she wanted to die.

I called, "Remember me?"

I was closer now. I could see the purple mottling of her skin. I didn't know if it was cold or dying. It probably didn't matter much to distinguish between them right now, I thought. That made me smile. I felt the smile, and I pulled the scarf down so she could look at it. She didn't seem awfully reassured.

"You're the sexual harassment guy," she said. She said it very slowly. Her lips were clumsy. It was like looking at a ventriloquist's dummy.

"I gave you an A," I said.


"It's a joke," I said. "You don't want me making jokes. You want me to give you a nice warm blanket, though. And then you want me to take you home."

She leaned against the rock face when I approached. I pulled the blanket out, then zipped my jacket back up. The snow was stopping, I realized, and that wasn't really a very good sign. An arctic cold was descending in its place. I held the blanket out to her, but she only looked at it.

"You'll just have to turn me in," I said. "I'm gonna hug you again."

She screamed, "No more! I don't want any more hugs!"

But she kept her arms on her chest, and I wrapped the blanket around her and stuffed a piece into each of her tight, small fists. I didn't know what to do for her feet. Finally, I got down on my haunches in front of her. She crouched down, too, protecting herself.

"No," I said. "No. You're fine."

I took off the woolen mittens I'd been wearing. Mittens keep you warmer than gloves because they trap your hand's heat around the fingers and palm at once. Fanny knitted them for me. I put a mitten as far onto each of her feet as I could. She let me. She was going to collapse, I thought.

"Now, let's go home," I said. "Let's get you better."

With her funny, stiff lips, she said, "I've been very self-indulgent and weird and I'm sorry. But I'd really like to die." She sounded so reasonable, I found myself nodding agreement.

But I said, "You can't just die."

"Aren't I dying already? I took all of them, and then"--she giggled like a child, which of course is what she was--"I borrowed different ones from other people's rooms. See, this isn't some like teenage cry for help. Understand? I'm seriously interested in death and I have to stay out here a little longer and fall asleep. All right?"

"You can't do that," I said. "You ever hear of Vietnam?"

"I saw the movie," she said. "With the opera in it? Apocalypse? Whatever."

"I was there!" I said. "I killed people! I helped to kill them! And when they die, you see their bones later on. You dream about their bones in splinters and with blood on the ends, and this kind of mucous stuff coming out of their eyes. You probably heard of guys having dreams like that, didn't you? Whacked-out Vietnam vets? That's me, see? So I'm telling you, I know about dead people and their stomachs falling out. And people keep dreaming about the dead people that they knew, see? You can't make people dream about you like that! It isn't fair!"

"You dream about me?" She was ready to go. She was ready to fall down, and I was going to lift her up and get her to the truck.

"I will," I said, "if you die."

"I want you to," she said. Her lips were hardly moving now. Her eyes were closed. "I want you all to."

I dropped my shoulder and put it into her waist and picked her up and carried her down to the Jeep. She was talking, but not a lot, and her voice leaked down my back. I jammed her into the truck and wrapped the blanket around her better and then put another one down around her feet. I strapped her in with the seat belt. She was shaking; her eyes were closed and her mouth was open. She was breathing. I checked that twice, once when I strapped her in, and then again when I strapped myself in and backed up hard into a sapling and took it down. I got us into first gear, held the clutch in, leaned over to listen for breathing, heard it--shallow panting, like a kid asleep on your lap for a nap--and then I put the gear in and howled down the hillside on what I thought might be the road.

We passed the cemetery. I told her that was a good sign. She didn't respond. I found myself panting, too. It was like we were breathing for each other. It made me dizzy, but I couldn't stop. We passed the highest dorm, and I got back up into four-wheel high. The cab smelled like burnt oil and hot metal. We were past the chapel now, and the observatory, the president's house, then the bookstore. I had the blue light winking, the V-6 was roaring, and I drove on the edge of out of control, sensing the skids just before I slid into them, then getting back out of them the way I needed to. I took a little fender off once, and a bit of the corner of a classroom building, but I worked us back on course, and all I needed to do now was negotiate the sharp left turn around the administration building, past the library, then floor it for the straight run to the town's main street and then the hospital.

I was panting into the mike, and the dispatcher kept saying, "Say again?"

I made myself slow my talking. I said we'd need a stomach pump, and to get the names of the pills from her friends in the dorm, and I'd be there in less than five minutes.

"Roger," the dispatcher said. "Roger all that. Over." My throat tightened and tears came into my eyes. I felt a kind of stupid gratitude.

I said to the girl, whose head was slumped and whose face looked too blue all through its whiteness, "You know, I had a baby once. My wife, Fanny. She and I had a little girl one time."

I reached over and touched her cheek. It was cold. The truck swerved, and I got my hands on the wheel. I'd made the turn past the ad building using just my left. "I can do it in the dark," I sang to no tune I'd ever heard. "I can do it with one hand." I said to her, "We had a girl child, very small. I used to tell her stories she didn't understand. She liked them anyway. Now, I do not want you dying."

I came to the campus gates going fifty on the ice and snow, smoking the engine, grinding the clutch, and I bounced off a wrought-iron fence to give me the curve going left that I needed. On a pool table, it would have been a bank shot worth applause. The town cop picked me up and got out ahead of me. He used his growler, then his siren, and I leaned on the horn. We banged up to the emergency room entrance and I was out and at the other door before the cop on duty, Elmo St. John, could loosen his seat belt. I loosened hers, and I carried her into the lobby of the ER. They had a gurney, and doctors, and they took her away from me. I tried to talk to them, but they made me sit down and do my shaking on a dirty sofa decorated with drawings of little spinning wheels. Somebody brought me hot coffee--I think it was Elmo--but I couldn't hold it.

"They won't," he kept saying to me. "They won't."


"You just been sitting there for a minute and a half, shaking, telling me, 'Don't let her die. Don't let her die.'"


"You all right?"

"How about the kid?"

"They'll tell us soon."

"She better be all right."

"That's right."

"She--somebody's really gonna have to explain it to me if she isn't."

"That's right."

"She better not die this time," I said.

Fanny came downstairs to look for me. I was at the northern windows, looking past the mullions, down the valley to the faint red line along the mounds and little peaks of the ridge beyond the valley. The sun was going to come up, and I was looking for it.

Fanny stood behind me. I could hear her. I could smell her hair and the sleep on her. The crimson line widened, and I squinted at it. I heard the dog come in behind her, catching up. He panted and I knew why his painting sounded familiar. She put her hands on my shoulders and arms. I made muscles to impress her with, and then I let them go, and let my head drop down until my chin was on my chest.

"I didn't think you'd be able to sleep after that," Fanny said.

"I brought enough adrenaline home to run a football team."

"But you can't be a hero, huh? You can't be discovered. You're hiding in here because somebody's going to call, or come over, and want to talk to you--her parents for shooting sure, sooner or later. Or is that supposed to be part of the service at the playground? Saving their suicidal daughters. Freeze to death finding them in the woods and driving too fast for any weather, much less what we had last night. Getting their babies home. The bastards." She was crying. I could hear the soft sound of her lashes. She sniffed and I could feel her arm move as she pawed for the tissues on the coffee table.

"I have them over here," I said. "On the windowsill."

"Yes." She blew her nose, and the dog thumped his tail. He seemed to think it one of Fanny's finer tricks, and he had wagged for her for years whenever she'd wept or sniffed or blown her nose. "Well, you're going to have to talk to them."

"I will," I said. "I will." The sun was in our sky now, climbing. "I think that guy with the smile, my prof? She showed up a lot at his office the last few weeks. He called her 'my advisee,' you know? The way those guys sound about what they're getting done by being just a little bit better than mortals? Well, she was his advisee, I bet. He was shoving home the old advice."

"She'll be okay," Fanny said. "Her parents will take her home and love her up and get her some help." She began to cry again. Then she stopped. She blew her nose, and the dog's tail thumped. She said, "So tell me what you'll tell a waiting world. How'd you talk her out?"

"Well, I didn't, really. I got up close and picked her up and carried her."

"You didn't say anything?"

"Sure I did. Kid's standing in the snow outside of a lot of pills, you're gonna say something."

"So what'd you say?"

"I told her some lies about the war. I ogred and howled. I don't know, Fanny. I told her stories," I said. "I did 'Rhetoric and Persuasion.'"

A couple of weeks later, Fanny volunteered for the 11:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M. shift. We saw each other when she was coming home and I was heading out. I timed my leaving for work so we'd say hello. "Good morning," we'd say. We'd sing it, to prove we weren't angry or embarrassed or scared. The dog got a little confused about who was supposed to feed him his breakfast. We'd talk about that in the blue-cold mornings at the cars outside the house, and then I'd drive to work and she'd go in. Of course, we'd be home together in the house at night, but she'd be trying to sleep when I came in or I'd be sleeping when she was getting ready to leave. You can make a routine out of it, and that's what we did.

Here's what I thought. I thought, Once upon a time.

And I was not a dishonorable student, I guess. At the end of the term, he gave me a C+ for the course.

Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide

Reader's Guide copyright © 1998 by The Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

1.         The weather in Girls is severe and relentless. What role does this weather play in the novel, and why? What other books have you studied in which the weather was such a large part of the story? How do climate and landscape tend to affect the lives of individuals as well as larger societies?

2.         Jack is a Vietnam veteran, a self-educated, blue-collar kind of guy. His wife, Fanny, is an emergency room nurse, a job requiring considerable education and training. In what ways do you think their differing backgrounds affect their relationship? Are these effects beneficial or damaging? What commonalities can you find in their backgrounds and/or jobs? Do you think these are sufficient to keep them together?

3.         Did you want Jack and Fanny to get back together? Why or why not, and why do you think Busch arrived at the ending?

4.         Do you think this book fits into the typical detective-novel genre? Why or why not? Why do you think readers like to categorize types of novels? Do you think Girls belongs to any distinct category or genre?

5.         The first chapter directly follows the final chapter in chronology. Why do you think the author placed it at the beginning of the book? Did you go back and re-read the first chapter after completing the novel? Did doing so alter your perception of the book? If so, how?

6.         Why do you think Jack and Fanny couldn't discuss the death of their baby after so much time? Has there ever been something you or someone you know couldn't or wouldn't discuss? Why do you think people close themselves away like that? How might people avoid doing so, or help each other overcome it?

7.         In recent years there unfortunately have been many highly publicized cases of missing girls like Janice Tanner. Do you think these cases have always occurred and that are just being played up by the media today? Or do you think something has shifted in our society that is causing an increase in such tragedies? Do you discuss these disappearances with your friends or your families? If so, how do you respond? Do you feel safe in modern society?

8.         Jack lives in a world of extreme coldness, bleakness, and silence. It seems that the only lightness in his world is his nameless dog. Why do you think this is so? What function does the dog serve in the novel as a whole? In Jack's life? What do you think the author had in mind when he chose to include the dog in this story?

9.         When did you as a reader think you knew who was responsible for Janice Tanner's disappearance? Who did you think did it, and why? Were you right?

10.         What role does Professor Piri play in this drama?

11.         Fanny is repeatedly described as capable and competent, and of course, her job is one of helping to save lives. Juxtapose this with the circumstances and aftermath of their daughter's death, and discuss what effect this combination has had on Fanny.

12.         As this is a work of fiction, the writer could do with his characters whatever he wished. Why do you think the author let Jack get beat up so badly?

13.         Jack and Fanny's marriage is a paradox: two people who love and are bound to each other, and yet cannot seem to live together. Discuss this paradox and why it exists. Do you know anyone with such a paradox in their lives? What is it like, and how do they resolve or live with it?

14.         Why do you think Jack found Rosalie Piri so irresistible? He obviously loved Fanny and really wanted to make it work with her; yet he barely hesitated before he got involved with Rosalie. What do you think motivated him, or prevented him from resisting the affair with her?

15.         Why didn't Jack drag Fanny in to talk to Archie? Why didn't Archie push for them to get counseling together? Many people in our society often resist counseling when they most need it. Why do you think this is so?

16.         Jack goes into the Tanners' church, and still finds himself unable to pray. Yet he really wants to. Why can't Jack pray?

17.         Identify all the different girls in the book who could contribute to the book's title. What do they all have in common? How do they differ? Do you think Girls was a good choice of title? If not, what might you have named the book?

18.         Why does Jack harass William, the drug dealer from Staten Island? Jack knows he's not really guilty, at least not of being involved in the Janice Tanner case. Yet he knowingly beats him, and quite brutally at that. Why would Jack, who is basically a good man, do such a thing?

19.         What do you think was the author's purpose in including the subplot about the vice president's impending visit?


Before the live chat, Frederick Busch agreed to answer some of our questions.

Q:  Do you have a favorite fairy tale? If so, which one?

A:  "Hansel and Gretel." (See my story, "Bread," at the beginning of my New & Selected Stories: The Children in the Woods.

Q:  Have you given a book as a gift lately? Which one?

A:  I have given a lot of books as gifts lately, and they've all been copies of my new novel, Girls. I also gave a dear friend a copy The Encyclopedia of New York City, which is a wonderful resource for research and a lot of fun to dip into.

Q:  What is your favorite place in the world of fiction? Of reality?

A:  My favorite place in the world of fiction: Thameside in Charles Dickens's London. In the world of reality: our kitchen in Sherburne.

Q:  What is your favorite part of teaching?

A:  I love two aspects of it: (1) When I can rhapsodize about the language of great writers and see my students are not falling asleep and, in fact, actually care about that language; (2) When one of my students -- in the most recent case, Ms. Elise Vogel -- writes a long story, in her senior year, that is as good as anything I've read, by anyone, in the past year, and it not only shows her superb talent, it demonstrates how hard she's worked to improve during the last four years.

Q:  Which authors or books have been especially influential in your life?

A:  Hemingway's stories and The Sun Also Rises, Faulkner, Dickens, Melville, Reynolds Price's A Long and Happy Life and A Generous Man, Second Skin by John Hawkes, all of the poetry of Philip Levine, James Wright's book of poems, Shall We Gather at the River, the work of Paula Fox, I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson, the novels and poems of Thomas Hardy, Goodnight, Moon.

Q:  What is your favorite day of the year?

A:  October 2nd.

Q:  Will you describe your favorite pair of shoes?

A:  The bone-colored high-heeled women's shoes left in my 12 Charles Street apartment by the former Judy Ann Burroughs in the late summer and early fall of 1963.

Customer Reviews

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Girls 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
delphica on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
(#27 in the 2003 Book Challenge)It's a suspense story, but the writing style is really very unusual. One of the things I liked about it is that the reader is never exactly sure how she feels about the various characters, they all seem to have good and bad sides. Our narrator is a security guard at an upstate New York college, and has recently lost a daughter -- the title refers to the various young girls that intersect his life, and his drive to protect these girls from harm. I got into an interesting conversation with a bartender while I was reading this book, about the fact that the title "Girls" seems like it should be salacious. I think the author plays with this idea, too.Grade: B+/A-Recommended: to people who like suspense, but are also interested in the psychology of the various characters in the story. This is almost more like an atmosphere piece than an actual mystery.
carmarie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was hard to follow for me. Because of the writing style, I found myself re-reading sentences and paragraphs just to get the tone right and really understand what he was talking about. I think the main character was supposed to be sarcastically witty, but it didn't get pulled off...and the wife, although going through a tragic pain..annoyed me.
bastet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Girls are missing from this college town and a lowly maintenance worker is brought into the fray. Brilliant writing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago