The Ninth Wife
By Amy Stolls
Copyright © 2011 Amy Stolls
All right reserved.
Pick a partner," says Bess's karate teacher, "and get a tombstone."
As Bess learned nine months ago when she began
her schooling in Tae Kwon Do, a tombstone is a black rectangular
punching bag that you hold against your torso as a target
for someone to kick you repeatedly in the stomach. Or, ideally,
your solar plexus, your myung chi, the soft spot at the top of the
rib cage that if kicked directly with a powerful eap chagi, say, by
a one-hundred-ninety-pound software engineer from Bethesda,
can knock the breath out of you and send you flying across the
room into a pile of smelly sparring gear. Tombstones, Bess has
come to realize, are a good thing. Tombstones can save lives.
The dojo where they practice karate and self-defense twice
a week is an old elementary school gymnasium in the heart of
a Latino community. It smells of sweat and mildew. The white
ceiling, veined with cracks and water stains, sheds paint chips
onto the buckled wooden floor where the occasional cockroach
scurries from the dark corners behind the mats. Only two of the
tall windows open, but to lift the industrial-strength glass is to
risk dropping it and smashing a finger. Bess looks around at the
other students in their white gis cinched with belts in white, yellow,
green, and blue. She sees pairs make eye contact, bow to
each other, get ready for the next drill, and she realizes she is the
only one left holding up her hand, signaling her availability.
"Watch this time," says her sensei. He is a sexy second
degree black belt with the body of a gladiator, a man who knows
how to swing his nun chucks. He points her off to the side. "Come
in next round."
In elementary school Bess was an A-for-effort player, not the
last teammate to be picked but never the first. What she lacked in
grace and coordination she made up for with good sportsmanship
happy to be one of the ducks who clapped for the goose. It's
possible her tendency to flinch at anything thrown at her could
be traced to a year of red rubber balls flung meanly (though,
in retrospect, perhaps flirtatiously) at her nose by one greasy
haired, hygiene-challenged Douglas Lillicrop in the third grade.
Regardless, she didn't see herself scoring points or winning races
or really venturing beyond the fitness trends of the decades
aerobics, Jazzercise, Pilates, yogauntil she saw an ad for the
D.C. Karate Association.
The first time she wore her gi she also mistakenly wore her
lucky Valentine's Day panties that showed through where she
sweated like a boiled lobster in gauze. And last week in the turtle
tot class where she loves to volunteer she bopped one of the cutest
tots on the noggin with a foam noodle to get his guards up and
he responded by throwing up on her feet. So there were setbacks.
Still, working out at the dojo usually makes her feel upbeat and
alive, and a force to be reckoned with. In the girls' bathroom one
time, an eight-year-old in the ninja class caught her confronting
her own reflection in the mirror above the thigh-high sink, saying,
You talking to me? You talking to ME? The little girl wanted
to know why she was saying that. Bess laughed and said she was
just practicing looking tough. Well then sorry, but it's not working,
the girl told her. I see you around. You're too nice. She suggested
Bess get a gold front tooth, tattoo her knuckles, and stop smiling
so much. Then you be badass, she said. Bess thanked her for the
So Bess might not appear badass but she feels that way sometimes
and loves it. She loves the power in thinking of herself in
simple warfare terms: you kick, punch, strike; you block,
protect, defend. An ebb and flow of pure primal instincts, the body
an arsenal of weaponsforehead, back of the head, knees,
elbows, feet, fists in various formations, fingers for grabbing and
jabbing. For the first time in a long time, she's in good shape and
feels confident in her physical self.
Her emotional self, on the other hand, is another story.
"Switch," says her sensei, and Bess bows to a thick, squat
man with a hairline that begins on the top of his head. He begins
kicking. Bess tightens her stomach behind the tombstone to
absorb the blows, keenly aware that today is her thirty-fifth birthday
and here she is getting kicked in the gut. Which, in a sense,
is a manifestation of how her birthday began this morning when
she saw Sonny.
She was getting into the car of her close friend, Cricketa
sixty-six-year-old retired mortgage broker who lives on the first
floor of her building. Cricket cooks her casseroles, pulls dead
leaves off her plants, and brags about his Shar-Pei, Stella, named
after his favorite character in A Streetcar Named Desire. He is
celibate and gay, and gossip is to him as gasoline is to his black Buick
LeSabre. He began visiting Bess often and unannounced two
years ago after she organized a community support effort on his
behalf. Before that she had only exchanged cordial hellos in the
corridor with him and his flamboyant partner and, if there was
time, commented on the weather and scratched his pooch's ears.
But the news of his partner's death from a sudden staph infection
hit her hard for reasons she couldn't explain. She'd see Cricket
sitting at his window, alone, lonely, sad, and distant. One morning
she posted notices on her neighbors' doors and coordinated
a schedule of dinners, errands, and, if he desired, company to
help him cope. To everyone else he posted a notice in the lobby
of sincere gratitude. To Bess he bowed, introduced himself anew
with his hand over his heart, and said he would be forever grateful
for such kindness. Bess has thrived on his friendship ever
"Hey, Bess," she heard from across the street. She had just
opened the car door. "Bess, its Sonny."
"Oh my God, this is going to be good," murmured Cricket
from the driver's seat, peeking over his sunglasses. They
watched Sonny tug a pregnant woman toward them like a suit-
case on wheels.
Bess had no time to block and defend. "Sonny," she said,
more as an identifier than a greeting. Sonny was a beautiful
thirty-year-old Asian-American Southerner, and that mix alone
had been enough to get her attention three years ago when he
pulled his supermarket cart up behind hers and said she had
nahce-lookin' onyens. He was a graphic designer who worked at
home and had time to woo her. Over the six months they dated
he was full of surprises, and she loved that. He played the
harmonica, quoted Chomsky, and meditated each morning to try to
cure his sciatica. He was strange, but she was strangely drawn
to him, and when he ended it, it was not because she wasn't
strange enough for him (as she suspected) but becauseand he
was brutally frank about thisher age scared him. He didn't
want to think at all about marriage and especially not about
"You look good, Bess," he said. "You change your hair?"
"My hair? Probably not." Rebuking every suggestion any
hairdresser had ever given her to branch out, Bess's straight,
thick, dark brown hair has always stopped above, at, or just
below her shoulders, depending on her mood and the season. Often
she defaults to putting it up loosely in a clip, always making sure
she has a lock of it handy to fidget with the way she used to do in
adolescence twirling it around her finger and clamping it
between her lips.
Sonny looked the same: goatee, black hair hanging in his eyes,
runner's physique, flip-flops, hemp necklace, thick knuckles.
"What have you been up to, Sonny?" said Bess, looking
down at the pregnant girl's protrusion.
The girl looked at Sonny, then smiled at Bess. "Sonnyboy's
always up to something," she said, patting the large bulge under
her peasant shirt. She had long soft red hair and a scattering of
freckles on her cheeks. "I'm Gaia," she said, pronouncing it Gay-a.
Bess nodded hello.
"So where you headed?" asked Sonny.
"No kidding." Sonny made a few karate chops as seen on TV.
"I bet you can beat me up now." He leaned into Gaia. "Baby, she
can kick mah ay-ass."
Cricket, observing all this from inside the car, choked down
"What's that?" asked Gaia, pointing to the seat.
"My old belt."
"How come it's not black?" said Sonny, tossing a few fake
punches to her shoulder.
"It's a pearl belt. From when I first started. I'm a white belt
"Pearl? For real? What's next, lavender?"
Bess contemplated a demonstration: a palm thrust to the
nose, a kick to the groin. "Pearl," said Gaia, like an interruption,
something she pulled from the air.
"Pearl," she repeated, dreamily. "That's it, Sonny. That's the
name for our baby."
"Pearl," he said. "Yeah, yeah. It's al-raht." They rocked their
"Well, if you'll excuse me," said Bess, getting into the car, "I
have to go."
"Yes," said Cricket, "we do have to go. It's Bess's birthday
today, after all."
Bess shot him a look.
"No way. Happy birthday," said Sonny. "You celebrating this
Cricket started to say, "She's having a huge blowout par"
but Bess interrupted. "I'm not a big birthday person. I like staying
Gaia looked like she accumulated the world's grief. "That's
so sad," she said.
Bess glared at her through a long silence until Cricket finally
ended the encounter. "Okay then. Off we go. Enjoy your day,
you two." Bess waved good-bye and got into the car.
"He's having a baby," she said after two stop signs.
"Technically," said Cricket, "she's having the baby and he
was probably as yillied as you when he first heard the news."
"What is yillied? That's not a word."
"Darling, who knows the Queen's English better, you or
me?" He pointed a manicured finger at her, then picked a
crumb off his V-necked shirt, which hung loosely over his large
"Good point. He doesn't look yillied now, though. He looks
"For how long? You know as well as I do reality's a mean ol'
nasty pit bull gonna bite him right in that cute little ass of his, bite
him hard, bite a big chunk offa that"
"I got it, thank you."
Cricket stopped abruptly at a yellow light and Bess's head
lurched forward, then hit the neck rest behind her. "All I'm saying
is," he went on, "he wasn't for you."
"You always say that."
They drove past an outdoor flea market, a police station, an
apartment building under renovation. Pedestrians weaved in
and out of the slow-moving traffic. For much of her adult life,
Bess has carried on through ups and downs with an even-keeled
contentment and indulgence in daily comforts: NPR Morning
Edition, her travel mug of Good Earth tea, her half-mile walk
to work, mid-afternoon squares of dark chocolate, an evening
shower, Jon Stewart, her crossword puzzle, and her down
comforter. She's never been one for drama or complaints, knowing
very well how lucky she is to have an income, relative safety, and
more freedoms than most. But she also happens to be a thirty-
something living in a city, with an ache for companionship and
kids, and bad luck in the dating realm. Even though she pays
little attention to fashion trends, prefers film fests to cocktail
parties, and has only one or two close girlfriends, she knows she fits
the stereotype. Case in point: Blissful Ex-Boyfriend has glowing
New Pregnant Girlfriend while Still-Single Ex-Girlfriend, who
discovers said Ex-Boyfriend with Pregnant Girlfriend, spirals
downward into a Super Crabby Mood.
"All of this," said Cricket, looking at her. "It's about tonight,
"All of what?"
"All of this," he repeated, gesturing as if wiping his palm on
the invisible shell of her negativity.
Bess looked away. "No, it's fine."
"That's very convincing. Honey, you're going to meet the
man of your steamy dreams tonight, I'm telling you. What about
that fiddle player Gabrielle met at a bar last week? You told me
she invited him. What was his name, Patrick Sean Finnegan
O'Shaughnessy . . ."
"His name's Rory."
"So there you go." Cricket pulled up in front of the school.
"Listen. Sweetheart. Try to put the happy in happy birthday
today, okay? And don't talk to me about being too old. I have
hemorrhoids on my hemorrhoids. But you . . . you look ten years
younger than you are, you sexy little Tinker Bell . . . no wrinkles,
perky breasts, girlish figure . . ."
"Hairy arms, hook nose, fat ass."
"Your ass is not fat. It's . . . grabbable."
"Great." Actually, she had managed to stave off the saddle-
bags she often acquires during winter thanks to karate and a
near-religious adherence to a daily workout DVD she got at a
yard sale, with a woman on the cover so buff she looked bionic.
"Say good-bye to your jiggly thighs and watch your rear disappear!"
it said on the cover. Well all right, she had said.
"Bess, seriously," said Cricket, gently. "Today let your
friends do nice things for you. You deserve to be happy today of
Excerpted from The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls Copyright © 2011 by Amy Stolls. Excerpted by permission of Harper Paperbacks. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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