Like Normal People

Like Normal People

by Karen E. Bender
Like Normal People

Like Normal People

by Karen E. Bender


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A Los Angeles Times bestseller and one of the Washington Post's best books of the year, LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE charts the lives of "three richly textured characters whose irreducible idiosyncrasies, griefs, longings, and loves will surely expand our sense of what it means to be like normal people" (Chicago Tribune). The story of this family revolves around an off-kilter center: Lena, who is forty-eight years old but mentally locked in childhood. Following Lena's escape from her residential home with her troubled twelve-year-old niece and her widowed mother's search for them, Karen Bender moves deftly between past and present, through three entire lifetimes in a single day, as each character searches for love and acceptance in a world where normalcy is elusive. "Poignantly and brilliantly portrayed" (TimeOut New York), LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE is a hilarious, heartbreaking, unforgettable family drama that resonates long after the last page is turned.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618126927
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/15/2001
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Karen E. Bender's novel excerpts have been published in THE NEW YORKER, GRANTA, and STORY magazines. The chapter "Eternal Love" was chosen by Annie Proulx to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 1997, and was read by Joanne Woodward to a sold-out crowd at Symphony Space in New York; the recording of that reading aired on NPR's SELECTED SHORTSS. Bender also received a prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award based on a draft of this novel. Bender's fiction has appeared in the IOWA REVIEW and the KENYON REVIEW and has been reprinted in PUSHCART PRIZE XVIII and other anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she lives in New York with her husband, the writer Robert Anthony Siegel, and their son.

Read an Excerpt

One It was seven-thirty in the morning when Ella Rose, clad in her pink satin bathrobe, walked across her Culver City apartment, turned on the pert voices of KNX Newsradio, and sat down at her kitchen table, ready to write her morning list.
Ella's wooden table was dwarfed by her bulky kitchen appliances. Her table was now always set, elegantly, for one: a single lace napkin, a straw placemat, her favorite crystal glass. Ella put her pad and pencil on the placemat; she began her list with the date.
On her refrigerator, her daily calendar was turned to the page: September 23, 1978. lena anniversary was written very neatly in red ink.
Ella did not remember when she'd last changed the day on her calendar; she wasn't sure that today was, in fact, September 23. She reached over to her black phone on the kitchen counter. Picking up the receiver, she looked into it and then hung up. She lifted her thick Los Angeles Yellow Pages beside the phone; the book fell open as though exhausted. Placing her finger on an ad, Ella took a deep breath and carefully dialed the number. "Santa Glen Hardware," a girlish voice said, and yawned.
Ella sat very still. In a quiet, polite voice, she asked, "What day is it?" Silence. "Santa Glen Hardware," the girl announced, a bit more forcefully.
"September twenty-third?" asked Ella, her voice sharpening. "Miss? Is it September twenty-third?" "Who - Brett, what day is it!" the girl yelled. "Some - what! Twenty-what? Okay. Twenty-third. Hello? It's the twenty-third. Can I help -" "Thank you," Ella said, and hung up.
Ella wrote september 23, 1978 across the top of the page. She could hear the sounds of morning lifting off Pico Boulevard: produce trucks roaring like huge bison and birds cawing, sad, repetitive, from the trees.
On the pad, Ella wrote: 1. wish lena happy anniversary. Or perhaps, since Lena's husband was dead, this was not a good idea; she erased it and started again. 1. see if lena remembers anniversary.
2. tell mrs. lowenstein - What. Mrs. Lowenstein, the director of Panorama Village for the past two years, had called several times this week, each time describing Lena's latest misdemeanors with perhaps unnecessary detail. For twelve years, Lena and Bob had occupied Room 129. Ella had moved them into the residence when Lena was thirty-six and Bob forty-four. She had watched the two of them wander in, the babies of the place, her daughter's red hair shining like a poppy among the silver hairdos. Lena and Bob had always been on good behavior; Ella believed they had many friends.
Ella remembered why Lena was supposed to stop smoking and wrote this down: smoking is now limited to certain rooms at panorama village.
Why did they have to limit it, anyway? What small joys did Lena have?
3. buy lena gum.
No - her teeth were almost gone. 3. buy lena hard candy.
4. buy l new slippers. size small.
5. buy l chap stick.
6. check l toenails. cut.
7. check bathmat in lena's tub.
8. check for glass in rug.
9. check for food spilled in room.
10. check lena has soap. dove.
11. check for ants.
12. check for rug stains. cover them.
13. check lock on door.
14. check that windows close and open.
15. check for She tried to think of other points of danger in her daughter's room. With no further ideas, Ella amended number 15 to 15. check room.
16. von's.
Number 16 was a reminder for herself. Her hand was trembling slightly, and she put her pencil down.
She stood up, opened the refrigerator, and peered inside. Ella had lived alone here for three years, since Lou's death, and she was still not accustomed to a refrigerator that held only items that she liked to eat. At the moment, her refrigerator held two cans of V- 8, half a roast chicken, a carton of Mocha Mix, a pint of low-fat cottage cheese, most of a box of See's candy - some of the pieces with one bite taken out of them - an ancient container of Parkay, a large bag of Oreos, and a plastic container of matzo ball soup. She kept a package of beef jerky, one of Lou's favorite foods, in the butter compartment. It comforted her to leave the jerky there, and she harbored a secret hope that she might open the compartment to find that the package had disappeared. She had vowed not to eat it herself, but last night she had missed Lou terribly and had tried a few of the dry, salty strips while she watched television. When she went to bed, her mouth tasted like his.
Ella picked up her pad and wrote on a second page: 17. jerky.
18. bananas.
19. baloney.
20. bread.
What should number 21 be on her list? She closed her eyes, trying to remember, but her mind was dark. The content of number 211 was just another bit of information she had lost. And two weeks ago she had found in her closet a scallop-sleeved, eggplant-purple polyester dress that she was certain she had neverrrrr seen before. The dress hung, limp and arrogant; it seemed to have blown in, of its own volition, to join her other dresses in the middle of the night. Ella tried very hard to remember when she had purchased it. She took the dress from the closet and placed it on her bed, wondering where it had come from and wishing it would go away.
22. talk to vivien about lena.
Her younger daughter's name had floated on and off Ella's lists for the last year or so. She often wrote it with the best of intentions but then crossed it out.
This was what Mrs. Lowenstein had told her in their conversations over the last six months: Lena had left her room at midnight and tried to get on an RTD bus. Lena had been caught in the 7-Eleven down the street, her pockets heavy with stolen cigarettes. Lena had demanded to use the office phone and had dialed a strange number; she had ended up calling Singapore.
The phone rang. Ella set down her pencil and picked up the phone on the fourth ring. "Hello?" she asked. She was very still. "Yes, this is Lena's mother."

Ella's brown Buick floated in front of Vivien's house. The broad ranch-style homes were similar, built on a tract; her daughter's lawn was the only one aglow with red roses, and to Ella it looked as though the flowers were being readied for some exciting event. She didn't know exactly why she had come to Vivien's first, except that she needed company; Mrs. Lowenstein claimed that Lena had set fire to her room at Panorama Village, and Ella did not know how to handle this.
Her granddaughter Shelley was on the front lawn. Shelley was twelve years old and was sitting so quietly that Ella almost missed her; Shelley was staring at the empty street with a fierce expression.
Ella parked the car and got out. Shelley stood up and rushed to her eagerly, as though she were running downhill.
"Honey, where's your mother?" "Out." "Your father?" "Out." "You're all alone?" This must have been the wrong question. The girl looked lost on the patch of lawn, as if she'd just dropped there from the sky. She shrugged violently and nodded. Then she examined Ella. "Why are you all dressed up?" Ella had spent a half-hour selecting the right dress for her conference with Mrs. Lowenstein. After much deliberation, she had settled on a deep green silk dress with shoulder pads, her most recent acquisition from Bullock's. She had paired this with faux diamond earrings, which matched a star-shaped brooch. On her feet were her bone pumps in Italian leather. Lou had developed a theory that important people wore light-colored shoes, because this showed that they did not care if their shoes attracted dirt. "You buy shoes that show stains," he told Ella, his eyes large and philosophical. "You can afford to get them cleaned." "There was a fire at Panorama Village," Ella said. She tried to say this in a calm voice. "The director said Lena set it." Shelley's face woke up. "A real fire?" she asked. "How big?" "It was in her room." Ella tried to remember what else Mrs. Lowenstein had said. "Lena's fine." Mrs. Lowenstein had sounded saddened by that fact. "They only needed two fire extinguishers, and the fire affected only one corner of her room. The wall. Maybe the rug. There was some water damage to the floor." Her voice surged on, trembling; perhaps it would be better to stop. "Now. I just wanted to see if Vivien would like to come -" "I will." "You'll what?" "I'll come!" Shelley ran toward the Buick, pulled open the door, and slipped into the front seat.
Ella remembered that there was a rule about Shelley's going to Panorama Village, but she couldn't remember what it was. Her granddaughter had visited Lena and Bob every Saturday for the past year or so. During her nightly calls, Lena had told Ella mysterious facts about these visits. "Shelley thought it would be fun to swim in a pool filled with lemonade," Lena reported happily. Or, "She came at twelve-thirty and left at four-eighteen. She wore a blue leather cap." Lena's voice was breathless when she described the visits, and had a boastful edge.
Ella did not know what to make of her twelve-year-old granddaughter's choosing to spend so much time with her retarded aunt and uncle. Neither did Vivien. "You should see what she wears to visit them," Vivien had told her in a wondering voice. Shelley never told anyone what she, Lena, and Bob did together. A puzzled aide, who had helpfully spied on them for Ella, told her that the three of them wandered around the same two blocks; occasionally they visited Sav- on. Lena, Bob, and Shelley looked forward to the visits. "Have a nice time, Lena," Ella would say. "Make sure you take good care of her." Shelley had stopped visiting Lena after the accident several months ago.
Ella walked over to the car; Shelley was already belted in. "She's waiting for us," she said. "Let's go." Ella did not want to drive down to Panorama Village by herself. She got in and they rode through the hills, furred and golden with chaparral, to the San Fernando Valley. It was the beginning of the day. The light seemed brighter, older, as they passed into the valley; the gauzy gray mist separated to reveal the sky burning hard and white overhead.
When they arrived, Ella and Shelley sat on orange plastic seats in the lobby, their faces set in similar, alert expressions, as if they were entertaining versions of the same thought. The sun fell in pale, dusty strips on the gritty linoleum. They waited for Mrs. Lowenstein to bring Lena to them.
Usually at nine on Saturday, there were few human sounds in the lobby; most of the residents were still sealed in their dreams. But this morning they had been awakened, and most of them clustered, buzzing, in the hall.
Ella observed the residents wandering through the lobby. One woman turned to her with a weird, frothy smile; Ella realized she had toothpaste in her mouth that she'd forgotten to spit out. One lady was sitting with her legs apart, in a nightshirt; her hairless vagina resembled a large pecan. There was also a dapper-looking gentleman who sometimes emitted a deep bark.
Ella was glad to have her granddaughter sitting beside her, but she deeply wished Lou were here. Not that he had come with her often when he was alive - Lou had mastered the art of leaving Lena's problems to her. But now, in her mind, he became extraordinarily helpful. She closed her eyes and imagined him sitting beside her in his navy linen suit, his aftershave smelling sweet and aquatic. He would be brimming with schemes to bribe Mrs. Lowenstein. "Let's give her a lifetime store discount," he'd murmur. "Any shoes she desires, fifty percent off. Or just cash. Three hundred, plus damages, no questions." He would be so enamored of his plans, the fire would seem a bad joke, another crooked dream.
Ella had also considered ways to prevent Mrs. Lowenstein from realizing that her daughter might be a budding arsonist. Right now, Ella had a strategic box of See's candy on her lap. She kept a few boxes in her apartment for such emergencies. She looked at the box with longing, wondering whether she could steal a candy without Mrs. Lowenstein's missing it.
Shelley was tapping her hand against the chair, as though she were secretly playing music to accompany the residents' slow movements. When she noticed her grandmother looking at her, she immediately stopped tapping and folded her hands firmly in her lap. "Let me ask you," Ella whispered. "How do we know any of them didn't do it?" She scrutinized the crowd aimlessly milling around. "That man. With shaky hands. Now wouldn't he drop a match, more than Lena would?" Shelley looked at the man. "It could be him," she offered. "They could be framing her." "Lena's too nice a person," said Ella. "They know they can get away with it." The two of them observed the residents, most of whom looked too worn out to plot a conspiracy.
"They can't kick her out," Ella said. "She needs her routine. She likes the red Jell-O." She sat up straighter. "They've all done bad things. It doesn't matter if they're a hundred. Some of them get away with it." She gripped the box of candy. "Do you think she'll like nougat?" "Who?" "Mrs. Lowenstein. She likes candy." Ella noticed Shelley's puzzled expression and quickly covered the candy box with her purse. "People like to be appreciated," she said. "They regard you in a more respectful way." She adjusted her shoulder pads, hoping she looked a little like a general. She wished she had asked Shelley to change her outfit before coming here. The girl's arms were skinny as a child's in her tank top, and her denim shorts were frayed. But she did not seem concerned about her appearance. She gripped the bottom of her chair as though trying to keep herself from shooting through this place; Shelley also seemed grimly attached to the chair, as though afraid of what, let loose, she might find.
"You know," said Ella, "appearance is the first thing people see about you. Then they get to know the real you." "I look fine," said Shelley, brushing some lint off her tank top.
Ella removed a small brush from her purse. "Fine for sitting on the lawn," she said, "but not for a fire." Gently, Ella began to brush Shelley's hair. The girl arched up, like a cat, into the brush strokes. The aides, glistening in their white nylon uniforms, were clearing the residents. They did this tenderly, like angels separating clouds. Shelley and Ella sat and waited for someone to claim them.

Mrs. Lowenstein was coming toward them with Lena. They were walking arm in arm, like a celebrity with her escort, down the fuzzy, fluorescent hall.
Shelley jumped up. Ella had hoped that Shelley would walk beside her, in a dignified fashion, but the girl shot ahead. Ella fumbled with her dress and then rose and followed Shelley, her heels clicking on the linoleum.
And here was her daughter, coming toward her with such breathless force that she broke free of Mrs. Lowenstein; it was Lena all alone, hurrying toward Shelley. She was wearing a new peach- colored cotton housecoat, covered with daisies, that came from Lane Bryant. Ella could see the price tag poking out of a sleeve. Her cherry-red sneakers didn't quite match the housecoat. Her fine short hair, glinting with rusty gold, looked pretty in the light. She was running her fingers down her hair, a gesture Ella recognized as an attempt to brush it.
Mrs. Lowenstein stepped into a doorway and began talking in Spanish to an aide. When Ella reached Shelley and Lena, she saw how happy they looked; they were touching fingertips and talking excitedly.
"I made a fire!" Lena exclaimed. "It smelled bad." Her arms were powdery with ash.
"Shhh!" said Ella, glancing at Mrs. Lowenstein. "Don't say that." Lena's palms were grimy, and she was making a mess out of Shelley, too. Ella dug a Kleenex out of her purse and began to wipe Lena's palms; getting her cleaned up was the first order of business. Lena reeked of fire and Thrifty's Intimate perfume.
"It was an accident," whispered Ella, hoping. "It was an accident, and thank God you're all right." She carefully wiped her daughter's fingers. They did not appear to grow old with the rest of her; they were chubby and pink and seemed to promise a great future. "Now, what happened? Tell me -" With her free hand, Lena brought one of Shelley's palms to her face and kissed it noisily. "You don't come to see me anymore." "I wanted to," Shelley began. "But they -" "You're here," Lena said. She patted Shelley's hair as though it were a towel she was using to dry wet hands. "Today is a special day." "Fine," said Ella. "Now what -" "You can't say it's not!" Lena shrieked.
"All right!" said Ella. She tucked the dirty tissue into her purse. "Honey, you can't go around saying you set a fire. It's not going to make you lots of friends -" Shelley stepped up to her grandmother with the demeanor of an irate lawyer. "I would like to take my aunt out for coffee," she announced.
"Coffee?" asked Ella. "Twelve-year-olds don't drink coffee." Shelley tried to stand taller, as though that would help. "Doughnuts," she amended. "Just down the block." It was a ridiculous request, but Lena and Shelley were urgent in their desire to be taken seriously. Ella noticed Mrs. Lowenstein turn toward her. "All right," she said quickly, "Go. Whatever. But come right back." They ran down the hallway, urgent as two salesmen on an important mission. They went around a corner and were gone.

Mrs. Lowenstein, a heavy woman in her forties, seemed to have been born in a boxy navy suit; Ella thought her appearance too official for her role in Panorama Village. Every time Ella saw Mrs. Lowenstein, she wondered whether the woman had some secret job - perhaps selling insurance. This thought helped Ella maintain a healthy skepticism toward anything the director said about Lena, especially anything she didn't want to hear.
"Mrs. Lowenstein," said Ella, standing up and holding out the candy box, "I've brought you a present. I was surprised to hear what you said this morning and -" "Ella, you didn't need to do that," Mrs. Lowenstein said, somewhat sharply.
Ella continued to offer the box. "I know you like nougat. I asked them to put extra in." "Okay, okay," said Mrs. Lowenstein. "Thank you." She took the box and led Ella into a small room, where she seated herself on a couch and indicated that Ella do the same.
"Now," said Mrs. Lowenstein, "we need to talk." "Yes," said Ella. "Certainly." "I just called Vivien. Let's wait to discuss everything when she arrives." Ella was startled. "Vivien? I'm sure she has plenty of other things to do." She tried to laugh. "I would be happy to talk about it now." Ella knew exactly how to fix Lena's life; it was what she had done for forty-eight years. Vivien was busy with her husband, her children, her work. She would be included in the discussion about Lena when Ella found it necessary. Mrs. Lowenstein, apparently, had broken that unspoken rule.
Mrs. Lowenstein glanced at her fingernails, which were polished a clear flesh color. It seemed to Ella that if Mrs. Lowenstein wanted to polish her fingernails that plain color, she should not polish them at all.
"Why don't we wait?" said Mrs. Lowenstein. "Why don't you take a look at Lena's room?" She got up and walked quickly into the lobby. Ella remained on the couch. What had she done wrong? Why didn't Mrs. Lowenstein want to speak to her alone? Ella wanted to make clear that Vivien was to be called only at her request. The sun flushed fiery against the windows. Outside, in the garden, the pink gardenias and birds of paradise looked brutally healthy, reaching up into the morning light.

Ella watched as the director placed her hand on a resident's shoulder. It was a gesture of sickening delicacy. Clearly, Mrs. Lowenstein had a grudge against Lena or against the retarded; perhaps she had had bad experiences with fire. Ella wanted to rush up and accuse her of prejudice. Instead, she headed down the long hall to Lena's room.
The hallway was so familiar to her she felt as though she were not walking down it of her own accord but was being carried down its length. The doors on either side were marked with large gold numbers. Some of the doors were ajar, and Ella saw rooms filled with shadows. Each one had a TV turned up high, with a game show host shouting into the room. Ella caught glimpses of faded flower arrangements, stuffed animals with wide grins, a bouquet of metallic red balloons lilting in the air conditioner's low whir. The rooms were festive in a shabby, hopeful way.
Ella paused before Room 129, where Lena and Bob had lived. She had been here hundreds of times over the past twelve years, bringing Kleenex, Q-tips, Chap Sticks, Hershey bars, new bedspreads, posters, plastic bowls, aftershave, toilet paper, various brands of shampoo. She'd brought combs, plastic sunglasses, toothpaste, toothbrushes, Nivea, Tic Tacs, Sucrets, Band-Aids, suntan lotion, and sunburn cream. For twelve years, Ella had walked down the hallway carrying her white plastic bags from Thrifty's and Sav-on. Each time she approached this door, she could feel herself become a useful person. Each time, she could feel them waiting for her.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Karen E. Bender. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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