A middle-aged housewife whose rebellious inner child runs away with her talent transforms herself into a fearless young gay man in this winner of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award
Larque Harootunian is having a midlife crisis like no other—but then again, there is much about the frumpy, middle-aged housewife and mother that could never be considered ordinary. Larque’s lifelong ability to generate “dopplegangers,” for example—physical manifestations of her thoughts and emotions—has been a constant source of stress. And now she is being tormented by Skylark, a re-creation of her younger self, an angry inner child who is tormenting Larque about abandoning her youthful ambitions while running away with her artistic abilities, thereby depriving the older Larque of a livelihood as a painter of kitsch.
But perhaps this is Larque’s opportunity to explore her options. Acquiescing to Sky’s demands that she change herself, Larque tries on a series of different personas—to the consternation of her mother, husband, and teenage sons—and finds her way to Popular Street. There, among the devil-may-care misfits, Larque can be Lark, a handsome young gay man, and quite possibly discover what her life is really about.
In her critically acclaimed contemporary fantasy, multiple award–winning author Nancy Springer breaks through boundaries while provocatively comingling the real and the surreal. Larque on the Wing is a marvel—a moving, funny, surprising, and transcendent tale of one woman’s strange quest to come to terms with who she truly is.
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About the Author
Nancy Springer is the award-winning author of more than fifty books, including the Enola Holmes and Rowan Hood series and a plethora of novels for all ages, spanning fantasy, mystery, magic realism, and more. She received the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for Larque on the Wing and the Edgar Award for her juvenile mysteries Toughing It and Looking for Jamie Bridger, and she has been nominated for numerous other honors. Springer currently lives in the Florida Panhandle, where she rescues feral cats and enjoys the vibrant wildlife of the wetlands.
Read an Excerpt
Larque on the Wing
By Nancy Springer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Nancy Springer
All rights reserved.
Mother used to call it change of life, but Larque never expected to change quite so much. Gender, for God's sake, which is really basic, the first thing anybody notices about a person. Then, becoming not only male but gay—what a way to do the big Four-Oh, when all along she had thought she was quite happy.
"I'm quite happy, really," she was saying to the cow, those very words, the day it started. "Mid-life isn't so bad. It's the first life crisis I've been relaxed enough to have any fun with. Why fuss? It's too late to change anything." Sitting on her tall stool at her tilted-up art table, she rinsed her brush, placed a dab of white gouache on her palette, added alizarin crimson, mixed a pearly pink, then outlined a pendulous udder with tits like weenies between the back legs of—not a cow, really, but a representation of a cow. She was talking to a watercolor holstein. A soul sister, in a way.
Once you've painted enough udders, you hardly have to think about what you're doing at all. "Mid-life is great," she told the cow seriously as she filled in its rosy teats. "Safe. Finally, I get to frankly lust for nubile young male butt." Ah, yes, the no-shirt teenage boys with their wonderful bare shoulders and their sweet swaggering bluejeaned tushies. It was okay now to eyeball them up to an extent—she had learned her limits. No big deal any longer to think back on what might have been, tushwise or otherwise, with different givens. Even contemplating the life changes that had come before was only modestly painful. "Childhood was a bitch," she admitted to the holstein, feeling a familiar pressure in her heart as she said it. A pang perhaps a bit more urgent than usual, but she ignored it and nattered on. "Adolescence was hell. Marriage, deadly serious for the first ten years. Children, ditto. But this time I'm finally mature enough to enjoy my—"
"Boogers," said a severe young voice.
Startled, Larque looked back at the cow, which did not change expression. The voice had not come from it. She looked up from her work to find herself confronted by glaring eyes in a thin, somehow strangely familiar face. There stood a scrawny youngster, a girl maybe ten years old, scowling at her. Larque noticed chapped lips, grimy neck, ugly white blouse and cotton skirt straight out of the fifties, bare bony knees—all translucent. Oh. Okay, it was just one of her damn doppelgangers—but where had it come from? There was no one home but her.
"Puppycrap," the apparition told her fiercely.
This was almost as startling as if the paint-on-paper cow had talked back. Doppelgangers were supposed to be voiceless, as far as Larque knew. She stammered, "Wha—where did you come from?"
The doppelganger folded to her studio floor and huddled there in an ungraceful, immodest position, knees cocked, skirt up, scratching at the bare, dry, incorporeal skin of one scabby knee with ragged, gray-tipped fingernails.
Where did any of them come from? It was a dumb question. With the pink paint drying on her brush, Larque tried again. "Um, hello. We haven't been introduced."
The girl gave her a dirty look.
Larque tried the direct approach. "Who are you?"
"Traitor," the kid shot back, "you should know. I'm you."
"Skylark?" Larque whispered, ignoring the insulting epithet in her shock. Yes, the presence of the skinny kid in her studio made sense to her now. Obviously she had somehow gone and emanated a doppelganger of herself thirty years gone by—but what a—God, it was obvious she had not been giving her childhood enough thought. Since adolescence she had cherished an image of herself as a poor-thing sort of kid, martyred and misunderstood, but now it was all too plain to see what she had indeed been: a twitchy, ripe-smelling reluctant bather, a sad, secretive loner and probably a snitch. A scummy-toothed monkey face. An ear-wax-picker, a crotch-snatcher—there, the child was rubbing at her cheap pre-Spandex cotton panties right now. In summation, the kind only a mother could love. Mom was the one who had called her by an aspiring name, Sky. Other kids mostly had called her Crossbones O'Connell.
Larque blinked at her doppelganger self, looked away to meet the serious gaze of her cow, found that its udder had ceased to make sense to her, and concluded that she would not be painting anymore today. She rinsed her brush and put it away. "Well," she remarked when she had her voice back, not quite addressing her doppelganger, "I guess that's what I get for talking to myself."
"Happy to see you, too," Sky said sourly.
"Who's this?" Larque's husband asked, understandably enough, when he came home for supper and found the spirit of his wife's ten-year-old self sitting at the kitchen table and reproaching her. Larque, height five feet five inches, weight one-forty need-to-lose-twenty pounds, was browning frozen hamburger at the stove. Skylark, height four feet ten, weight zero (in appearance, weight sixty-four) had worked her twiggy thumb well up inside her small nose, picking it.
"Me," Larque explained, "thirty years ago."
Her husband scanned this scrawny manifestation of his wife's childhood with blunt Pennsylvania Dutch distaste. "Glad I didn't know you then," he remarked.
"So am I."
Sky dislodged her thumb from her nose and stared sullenly up at Larque's husband. "What is this?" she whined at Larque.
"She talks?" the man in question complained, startled. "Why does this one talk?"
"He talks?" Sky mimicked.
Larque ignored the kid's mouthiness. "His name is Hoot," she told her doppelganger, trying to civilize things with an introduction. "Geoffrey Harootunian, Hoot for short."
"Har-oo-tun -i-an?" There was a freight train load of scorn and disappointment in Sky's enunciation. Hearing it, Hoot began to look defensively mulish and blank.
"Don't mind her," Larque told him, giving up on civility and turning her attention back to the hamburger. "She's a twerp." Hacking the meat to bits with a metal spoon felt good. "She wouldn't like any real person I could marry."
"Who did she want you to marry? Troy Donahue?"
Spoon poised, Larque stared at him, blinking, because she couldn't remember, though she was almost certain it would not have been anyone shaped quite so much like an acoustic guitar. Of course she was shaped the same way now, too. People get like the people they live with. Except she didn't have the long neck.
"Little Joe." Larque finally remembered. "From 'Bonanza.' Michael Landon."
"Oh. Well, good thing you didn't. He's dead now."
"Sugar poisoning. He went and turned into a big thick sticky lollipop."
Sky snorted like a pony and got up from the table. "Look what you turned into," she muttered.
"Look what I was to start with," Larque shot back.
"You like this place you're living in? Looks like a dump to me."
Larque felt all the attractiveness of child abuse as a life option. Yet, the obnoxious kid spoke truth. The place was in fact a dump. Dog hair rolled everywhere, balls of it crossing her kitchen floor like tumbleweeds on a no-wax prairie. Water stains clouded the ceiling where the kids had flooded the john. There was a pioneer minimalist look to some of the walls where two years ago Hoot had opened them up to do things to the wiring. Hoot was the kind who got distracted from whatever he started, with the apparent exception of marriage. He had stuck with the marriage admirably. And the house wasn't all his fault. A person would think a crafter of home-decoration products (Larque's description of herself on her IRS 1040 Schedule C) would have some interest in making the place look nice, but it did not seem to work that way. Larque painted cold press, not woodwork. None of her art was on her own walls, just Escher posters of black lizards metamorphosing into white something else.
Then again, she had always liked Escher.
"It's my dump," she told Sky. "You just keep your mouth shut if you want to be fed."
Sky mumbled something that sounded like it might quite possibly have been "Suck a hatchet."
"Where did she come from?" Hoot asked Larque, shocked.
"Menopause." Busy at the stove, Larque did not feel like elaborating.
"You got a hot flash, and out she popped?"
"Something like that, yeah."
She added boxed Suzie Wan Teriyaki Mix to the hamburger and put the food on the table. Hoot sat and began to shovel down at once. The boys were all elsewhere, which was probably just as well, under the peculiar circumstances. Occupying the kids' side of the table by herself, Sky curled her thin lip and said, "Ew!"
"Try it with some honey on it," Larque said, realizing at once that she was turning into her own mother. Honey, for God's sake. She lowered her voice an octave. "Eat it," she growled.
"I don't have to!" The skinny kid winced back as if somebody might hit her, yet all the triumph of defiance showed in her thin translucent face. "I don't have to grow big and strong."
Since Sky was not alive in any organic sense, would not grow, would not change, this was undeniably true. The kid did not have to eat. Larque stifled her anger at the kid's snottiness, and shrugged. "More for me," she said, digging into her meal.
Chinese food was sort of like sex; even when it was bad it was pretty good. Larque enjoyed the first three bites. Then Sky piped, "What is that stuff? It looks like pig slop."
Mouth full, Larque tried to silence her with a look. Sky met the scowl with flinching bravado.
"Not really pig slop," the child expanded. "More like monkey guts."
Hoot appealed to his wife, "How long do we have to put up with this?"
"How should I know?"
"Till I'm done having a crisis."
Hoot belched, farted, and without further comment on the food, got up. "I'm going to the bathroom," he grumbled. "Call me when it's over."
It was not over by bedtime. "Can she get in here with us?" Hoot asked suspiciously after the lights were out.
What did he expect her to do? Protect him? A lot of the time having Hoot around felt like having a fourth kid, though from what she had heard it was not just Hoot; this was true of men in general. They wanted mommies.
"I don't think so," Larque soothed. "I think she's spending the night in the studio."
"If she comes into this bedroom, it's all over. Does she walk through doors?"
"I don't think so."
"Are you sure?"
"Reasonably sure." Actually, I don't really know, and I don't really care. Give me a break. Maybe it had something to do with Sky's advent, and maybe not, but suddenly she felt desperately tired of mothering people. She was even tired of mothering the mindless dog mouth- breathing on the sofa. Who was ever going to mother her? "Go to sleep."
Sexual intimacies seemed out of the question. Love-making was getting harder and harder to come by anyway, because the boys stayed up later all the time. Larque could hear them still stirring right now. Maybe uneasiness about Sky was keeping them awake. No, probably not. Coming home one by one, they had encountered the girl but reacted to her with indifference: just another of their mom's doppelgangers. Recently Larque had been haunted by another shadow, her mother's. On her fortieth birthday, she had looked in the mirror and her mother's face had looked back, a new and shocking experience after which that fey woman had appeared in airy effigy just above and behind her and stayed there for three weeks, mercifully voiceless but always there, floating a few inches above the floor. There had been more: whenever class reunion time came around, Larque went about her business accompanied by the silent but expressive ghosts of former classmates. And once, when she was very angry at Hoot, she had unintentionally and briefly doppelgangered him into an honest-to-God dickhead.
Tonight, as usual, she and Hoot stacked their guitar-shaped anatomies together, sleeping like nested spoons. Larque lay awake a while, her cheek resting against the back of Hoot's long neck. It bothered her a little that Hoot did not love Sky. Yet—who ever said she had to be rational?—she herself wished nothing so much as that the repulsive kid would just go away. Disappear. Make like a tree and leave.
On toward morning, lightly sleeping, Larque heard or dreamed noises that might have been pieces dropping off the old house faster than any normal person could fix them, or one of the boys clattering the filthy water glass in the bathroom, or a guinea pig rattling its way out of its wire-topped cage, or Sky making a mess in the studio, or a psychopathic intruder coming in through the kitchen window. Of course, that was what it had to be: a homicidal maniac with a ten-inch knife. So what else was new? Life was fraught with danger. Soon Hoot would quit his job again, bored the minute he learned what he was supposed to do. Bored by home repairs, too. Soon the bulge in the house wall would worsen until the bricks parted like a grin and the roof fell in. Sighing, Larque shut her eyes harder against the noises and continued to sleep.
It was Sky making a mess in the studio.
Hoping the doppelganger had gone away, not wanting to know where she was, Larque didn't see her until after everyone was out of the house in the morning, until she went upstairs to the small spare room with a good north light, her place of self-employment. Her college degree had been in library science, so of course she had spent her life doing something utterly unrelated: she painted for the gift-shop-and-craft-fair market. Southeastern Pennsylvania, the area where she lived, was blessed with many such shops and fairs, attractions to which New Yorkers with no proper sense of the value of money came by the busload. Larque was blessed with a debased, uncultivated taste in art which enabled her to make a steady income from signed limited editions of her work, often more than Hoot made from whatever he was doing at the time. There were two simple secrets to her success: bland subject matter and decorator colors. Whenever she felt an urge to produce something creative, she lay down until the spasm passed. Brain farts did not sell. Real people did not want originality; they just wanted something that matched the living room drapes.
The fashion colors for interiors this year were the "southwest shades": "pueblo," "hot sand," "desert rose." The subject matter, paradoxically, remained as Eastern and rural as ever: old barns, covered bridges, contented cows along lazy creeks. Larque had gotten so she could paint the things in her sleep. Only the palette changed from year to year. This year's holsteins were spotted "sunset purple" instead of black, "yucca" instead of white.
Walking into her studio for another day of turning out a dependable, money-making product, Larque felt bored but secure, as if in an armchair in front of a well-worn TV show. She had always liked the feeling of knowing what was going to happen next.
Or had she?
There was Sky, at an easel, standing in front of a big canvas Larque had been saving—she had intended someday to paint something important on it, something major, a statement. What, she had no idea, but something, once she knew what she wanted to say. But Sky had gotten to it ahead of her, and was making a mess of it. Having a paint tantrum. Splattering barbaric-colored oils on her blouse, her skirt, her skinny body, the easel legs, the floor, via the canvas. Her masterpiece was crude, which perhaps accounted for her fury; it is rough to be trying for a visual manifesto and come up with something more like an ambitious attempt at cake icing. The canvas was divided more or less diagonally between yellow ochre and Mars violet, a composition which Larque translated as storm and sunshine. Very dramatic, she had to admit. The kid had a good sense of graphic design. There were some muddled bread-loaf shapes in the background; cumulus clouds? Mountains? The middle of the canvas was taken up by two blobs Larque could not at first interpret, a black one, mostly in the sunlight, and a white one, mostly in the cloud shadow.
To hell with interpretation. To hell with good graphic design. The room smelled of turpentine, the palette was a catastrophe of paint, five times as much as was needed, the worktable was a ruin of squashed and split and curled tubes.
Excerpted from Larque on the Wing by Nancy Springer. Copyright © 1994 Nancy Springer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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