Hardly Children

Hardly Children

by Laura Adamczyk


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Named a Fall Pick by Boston Globe, ELLE, Library Journal and MyDomain

An eerie debut collection featuring missing parents, unrequited love, and other uncomfortable moments

A man hangs from the ceiling of an art gallery. A woman spells out messages to her sister using her own hair. Children deemed “bad” are stolen from their homes. In Hardly Children, Laura Adamczyk’s rich and eccentric debut collection, familiar worlds—bars, hotel rooms, cities that could very well be our own—hum with uncanny dread.

The characters in Hardly Children are keyed up, on the verge, full of desire. They’re lost, they’re in love with someone they shouldn’t be, they’re denying uncomfortable truths using sex or humor. They are children waking up to the threats of adulthood, and adults living with childlike abandon.

With command, caution, and subtle terror, Adamczyk shapes a world where death and the possibility of loss always emerge. Yet the shape of this loss is never fully revealed. Instead, it looms in the periphery of these stories, like an uncomfortable scene viewed out of the corner of one’s eye.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374167899
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/20/2018
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Laura Adamczyk’s fiction has won awards from the Union League Civic & Arts Foundation of Chicago and has appeared in Hobart, Chicago Reader, PANK, Salt Hill, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Bellevue Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Her story “Girls,” published in Guernica, won the 2014 Dzanc Books / Disquiet International Literary Program Award. Hardly Children is her first book. She works at The A.V. Club in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt



IF ASKED, I WILL NOT say that I love children. Nor that I particularly do not love children. I'm not one of those who yells at parents to keep a better eye out when their kids run into the street or push into my pelvis at the coffee shop. I will instead say, if asked, that I notice them around — when I'm on my way to work or returning from the store — that I see their presence, I know undeniably that they exist, but that I have no real opinion on them one way or the other. People will assume that, like all women my age, I must have strong feelings in this regard. But, to me, they are only smaller, more naive adults — difficult to predict but easier to talk to.

This morning I saw the posters around the neighborhood. This is a medium-sized town. Not so small that I could tell you the names of my neighbors or they mine, which I never fully considered until now, but small enough that a parent could discover a problem with her son or daughter and then talk to a friend who knows a guy who is a retired sketch artist or who took an art class at the community college, and ask him to draw a picture and help staple copies of that picture to a few dozen telephone poles. This is how things can be handled here, though I've never taken advantage myself. I don't talk much. I work in the back, as they say. And it's true. This afternoon I'm making a mound of chopped onions; later I'm responsible for converting radishes into roses, the most creative thing I'll do all day. Though it's nothing compared to putting pen to paper. The artist of the poster captured a familiar unkempt androgyny in his creation's face. Eyes deep within sockets and high cheekbones, a sharp hollowness beneath. Have I seen this man? the poster asked. The skeletal face bones, the limp shoulder-length hair give it away. I've never looked like a woman, but most adults figure it out eventually. In the meantime, I'm keeping my distance. I'm avoiding mirrors.

The other day at the park I was in the swings that are set away from everything else — the jungle gym, the baseball field. As I pushed myself slowly with a foot on the ground, a boy approached and sat one over, pumping his legs lightly. It was a little boy who looked like a little girl. He wore white tennis shoes with pink swirls and a pair of teal gloves. He'd broken away from his friends who were running across the jungle gym bridge and squeaking up the metal slide, their screams ringing out wild and open like they were joyfully murdering each other. He asked me why I was swinging by myself and I asked him why he was swinging by himself. He dropped his legs, let his body go slack, then started pumping. I like to! he said. And then he went at it with vigor, as if to prove it to me. He had perfect form: knees together, toes pointed. Sometimes he threw his head back, letting his arms go straight. He was going at a nice pace when I said, Though sometimes it gets lonely, swinging by yourself. At first I didn't think he heard me, but then with jagged breath he said, You should just swing! And so I did, moving my legs, leaning my torso, back and forth, getting up to such a height that in each forward peak, before the slack chain went taut and gravity jerked back at me, I felt weightless, suspended. Then I mimicked his rhythm until we were synced up — legs mirroring legs; arms, arms. When he noticed, he cried out, We're married!, got in a few more good pumps, and jumped off the swing, landing cleanly in the spread of dirty pebbles below. I brought myself to a stop, then clapped.

Beautiful! I said. Ten points!

He smiled with the proud glee of a gymnast in her prime. He walked up to me, his mouth open in a breathless smile. I'm going to go over there now, he said.

What's your name? I asked.

Chad, he replied.

I put out my hand and he shook it once, twice, as though he went around shaking hands and introducing himself to folks all the time.

Nice to meet you, Chad, I said.

Nice to meet you, he said.

He was geared up, ready to run, so I asked as quickly but as delicately as I could: Chad, can I have a hug?

A hug?

We're married now.

You're weird! he cried out, laughing.

That's what everybody says. I turned my head down.

Oh, he said. His waning breath told me he was coming down from his excited peak. I kept my eyes on his shoes and let go a deep sigh. He must have come to some realization about adult loneliness and feeling, because those shoes stepped forward, and the boy in them opened his arms and then closed them on me like I were an old stuffed animal. I kept us there for as long as I could; he did not give any resistance. There's no way to know, I think now, what was happening inside my body. I kept my hands at his back, holding as still as possible. There was a sense of one belonging to the other, a good sense. When I felt his arms easing away, I let him.

Head down, voice quiet, he asked, Are you a teacher?

I work in a restaurant, I said, feeling sick. My life was far away just then, but not far enough. That's how I know that I'll have to answer some questions soon. About love. About how the opposite of desire is not hate, only the absence of desire. Before the boy walked away, I said, Keep doing what you're doing, Chad. It's not always good to become something else. He was only an arm's length away, but it was like he'd already turned his back to me.

Now I perform each action as though it might be interrupted. I stretch plastic over tubs of diced vegetables; I defrost shrimp in the refrigerator instead of the sink. I imagine them walking in quietly, only the squeak of leather, the tap of their polished shoes giving them away. If they cuff me, I won't resist. I'll shape my face into a mild, unreadable thing. But if they ask me to take a walk, to come with them and have a chat, I'll do what I have to do — stiffen my body, turn my fingers into fists, anything to make them put their hands all over me.



IT WAS THE SUMMER our parents got divorced. Mary was five, I was eight, and Ronnie was ten. Five, eight, and ten. Even before Mom told us, the house entered a fevered state — the hot air thrumming, the walls damp with fuzzy moisture. She had a way of trying to keep my sisters and me from unpleasantness, and in those long, hot weekends, she would send us from the house. Girls, go ride your bikes, she said. Go play with the neighbors. The rich neighbor kids with their freckled noses and heads of thick, preppy hair, cut short and boyish — they ignored us, did not once invite us over. We viewed them as one might celebrities, as people who you recognized but who did not, in turn, recognize you. Around their property ran a tall white fence, and from our backyard we could hear them across the street splashing in their pool; we could see their heads popping up above that fence as they leaped from the diving board into the water. For me, the scenes taking place inside that yard were central, real, and whatever was happening inside our home — Mom closing the front door despite the heat, Dad talking fast and sharp into her ear — was the thing keeping us on the other side of their fence.

Our dad was a drinker — a drinking man, I would overhear my mom say — and during his last weeks before leaving, he drank more. I remember but one night from this time. Mom was working late at a dentist's office an hour out of town, and Dad was in the living room recliner, tilting his head back to drink from a can of beer, then setting it down on the side table. His drinking seemed to coordinate with the setting of the sun: one gold can and then another disappearing, the light outside moving from blond dusk to dark. I felt uneasy, but couldn't say why. We were doing just what we always did — Ronnie and Mary and I sat drawing quietly at the dining room table, looking up from time to time to the TV in the other room — but our movements felt slow and intentional, as men floating weightlessly in space.

After the local news, Ronnie rose and turned on the tall lamp in the corner. It was like someone folding shut a large book, the pages closing heavy and certain — and upstairs a door creaked open — because with the lamp on I realized what was bothering me: all the shades were up. The night had fully darkened and the lights were burning in the house so that we could not see the world outside, but it could see us. Ronnie squinted at her reflection in the window. She was tall and slender, already moving past the white-blonde hair Mary and I still wore, the soft flesh of our adolescence. Because of Ronnie's height and graceful posture, people often thought her older than ten. She occupied that maturity most naturally in our mother's absence, giving Mary her baths and telling us — as with a guiding hand on the smalls of our backs — when to brush our teeth, when she thought we hadn't eaten enough. I often felt myself waiting for her to tell me what to do.

Putting a hand on her hip, she looked into the living room, where Dad's head had fallen back, his eyes closed and feet up. At the table Mary yawned and scratched the side of her neck.

Ronnie said, Come on, Mary. Let's go to bed. I'll read you your book.

The two of them trudged slowly upstairs, Ronnie's hand on her shoulder. I went into the living room, dark save for the light of the television. Dad's face was small, his cheeks and chin bony, scattered with blond, wiry hair. When I think of him now, I see him as I did that evening, his face still, yet seeming to move away from me, as though at the end of a long hallway.

I put my hands on his arm.

Dad. I pushed gently. Dad, wake up.

He sighed, opened his eyes to dull slits, and said my name: Frannie. Then he crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes. I climbed over the side and wedged myself between him and the recliner's arm.

Hey, there, he said, shifting, putting me in an awkward embrace, my arms pinned to my sides, my head hard against his bony shoulder. If he hugged me, it was like this — uncomfortable and stiff — like he didn't know quite how to do it, as though I were a pillow he held on to for some absentminded comfort. His breathing grew sleep-heavy, his arms loosening, and my body began to slide into a crease in the chair, its fake leather cool and slippery. I felt a sharp fear that I was falling into an irretrievable space, that I would fall and fall and forever be away from Mom and Dad and Ronnie and Mary. I imagined a blackness so complete that it erased even their memory of me. They would not notice my absence, I decided. They would not even look. Then Dad cleared his throat and said, Go to bed, Frannie. He turned away, curling deeper into sleep, and I unwedged myself from the chair and went up to my dark bedroom.

* * *

HE LEFT THE FOLLOWING WEEK with little fanfare. I don't remember boxes being filled or boxes carried from the house or the image of his car loaded with boxes. I remember only weeks later, my mother talking on the phone to some unknown listener, her whisper crisp with intent: He had his problems, she said. It was my choice, but truth be told, he couldn't wait to leave. He was just itching to get gone. A man unto himself, as they say. It sounded like she'd listened to the country station for too long and had internalized its string of sassy, heartbroken-woman clichés.

She started working Saturdays at the dentist's office in town. Buying school supplies and new clothes hadn't been easy before, but now, even with child support, I felt the weight of her steady denials at the grocery store, the pharmacy. No.No, she would say quietly and look away, pushing the cart out ahead of her. Saturday mornings she would drive us out to the edge of our small farming town where my great-grandmother lived in a white clapboard house at the intersection of two gravel roads. One road ran out into corn and dust and hot light, and the other snaked between a shadowy forest and muddy creak, the latter aptly named Widows Road. My great-grandfather died in that house before Ronnie was born, a heart attack felling him as he was returning from work. The steel-gray mailbox at the front of the property bore his name, BULLOCK, the block letters scrawled angry and childlike.

Through the house's front door were the living room, a dark hallway and pantry, kitchen, and then back door, which opened out onto a treeless swath of sun-bleached grass. We had been told that it was bad luck for the doors of a house to line up in this way, for someone to be able to stand in the threshold of one and see clear through to the other. Something about good spirits too easily entering and then exiting the house. But there was no changing it. Even after a man from down the road snuck in the back one afternoon and went through Grandma's fridge, she kept both doors open for the breeze.

In the afternoons when she watched her soaps in the living room — the volume turned to its highest setting — my sisters and I would creep up to the second floor, the steep wooden stairs hidden behind a crystal-knobbed door off the kitchen. A closed door at the top of the stairs, and on the other side, a series of rooms, a separate apartment that, by then, Grandma rarely entered. When I think of those rooms, I am alone in them. Just as in dreams, I am the sole protagonist. It is Me and the Rooms. Me and Them. I see the low ceiling and the living room's long mauve couch without anyone sitting there. But I know I am wrong. I was too scared of the space to have ever ventured up without Mary or Ronnie, the three of us on hands and knees, crawling, searching. Still, in my memory, when I see a dead cockroach behind the flower stand — crisp, flipped onto its back, legs curled — I am the only one who sees it, it is always my small fingers picking it up.

The whole place was furnished — the couch, a Formica table in the kitchen, a small black television on a short stand — but it was otherwise blank. Mom had told us that the space was once rented out to itinerants. Drifters, she said, men looking for work on the surrounding farms or passing from one side of the country to the other. But after my great-grandpa died, Great-Grandma decided she didn't want people coming and going, and she closed it up.

We would bring our books or poke around to see what we could find: a stack of yellowed Farmer's Almanacs and LOOK magazines next to the couch, empty mousetraps inside the kitchen cabinets. Other times we'd sit at the kitchen table and play house. Ronnie was the father and I was the mother and Mary was the child. Ronnie would boss me and Mary would pretend to cry or get worked up and cry for real and I would say, Shush shush shush, little child. And Ronnie would say things like, Baby, you'd better hush, or, Wife, it's time for you to make me supper. Because I'm the man of the house, that's why, despite never hearing anything like it from our parents' mouths. Ronnie would pretend to read the paper and I would pretend to wash the dishes and Mary would draw the three of us standing before a blank landscape, a single, uncurving line, and when we heard the theme music change on Grandma's TV, we would snake back downstairs with our tracing paper and crayons and books, and refill the spaces on the living room floor or couch where our bodies had once been, as though we'd never left.

* * *

IT WAS A HOT SATURDAY. Ronnie and me on the living room floor, pushing around a set of cars Great-Grandma had saved from old Cracker Jack boxes. Mary asleep on the couch with her head in Great-Grandma's lap. She was too old for regular naps, but Grandma still laid her down after lunch and stroked her hair until she fell asleep. Mary's thumb was in her mouth — a habit no one was trying very hard to break in her — and her white-blonde bangs had fallen over her eyes. I wanted to reach out and smooth the hair away from her face, but before I could, the roaring theme music of Days of Our Lives opened its mouth and swallowed the living room: Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives ... Mary woke, shifted, and whined. She may have gone back to sleep. She may have joined us on the floor, running parallel lines with our car wheels through the thick green carpeting. She may have followed us when Ronnie and I rolled down the hallway, opened the door to the stairs, and closed it behind us, ascending.

Just inside the entrance was the door to the bedroom. It was the door we would not open — by its position in the apartment, the room would be windowless, dark and airless — so when we saw upon entering that the door was cracked, Ronnie said, Oh. And I echoed her Oh. And Mary, who might have still been downstairs with Grandma's fingers in her hair, said nothing. I felt the same mix of fear and excitement as when we played hide-and-seek with our cousins and I would sit squatting in the back of a closet or behind a chair, crawling into some space not meant for human bodies. That tingling feeling of simultaneously wanting to giggle and needing to pee. Like before a thunderstorm when you say, It's going to rain, and two beats later it does, and you don't know whether it was your own premonition or just a couple of early drops falling on your arms, because we passed the open bedroom door — that tingling still alive up and down my back — and rolled into the living room, where we saw the man sitting on the couch.


Excerpted from "Hardly Children"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Laura Adamczyk.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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

Too Much a Child,
Gun Control,
Wine Is Mostly Water,
Danny Girl,
Here Comes Your Man,
Give and Go,
Needless to Say,
The Summer Father,
Black Box,

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