It's been nineteen months since thirty-year-old Birdy Stone came to Pinetop. Birdy spends her days trying to teach her students to appreciate the beauty of literature and her nights getting high with Jesus, her gay colleague and confidant.
Birdy regards Pinetop as merely an escapade. But the desultory quality of her life is interrupted when a middle-aged widow asks Birdy to edit her rambling memoir. Combining superb storytelling with good humor, Antonya Nelson follows Birdy as she helps Mrs. Anthony reconstruct the history surrounding the bizarre and mysterious deaths of Mrs. Anthony's husband and daughter years earlier. As Birdy is drawn deeper into her subject's story, she begins a love affair with Mrs. Anthony's surviving son a young man who just happens to be one of Birdy's students. With its sensuous and lovingly rendered Southwestern setting, Nobody's Girl is a startling novel that showcases the striking talents of an emminently gifted writer.
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About the Author
Antonya Nelson teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, and is the award-winning author of three novels and four short story collections. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Best American Short Stories. She divides her time among Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico.
Read an Excerpt
"Miz Stone," the pregnant girl said in the way Birdy hated: here at Pinetop High, teachers came in either Missus or Miss. "Miz Stone," the pregnant girl repeated, her hand swaying forlornly, every part of her weary. "Why are all these stories and poems so depressing?" As evidence, she now hefted the reader so that it fell splayed from her palm, a fat textbook covered with the bored graffiti of her predecessors, so heavy it appeared to be taxing her frail wrist just to hold it up. Outside, snow fell. Not the snow of November or December, which portended Christmas, nor the snow of January or February, which meant skiing, but the snow of March, that defeated, dreary, superfluous month no one could love.
Weather and room and subject matter were all gloomy. Birdy had smoked a joint over lunch break with her colleague Jesuús Morales, and that, combined with the pregnant girl's question, the snow, and the body odor of twenty-three teenagers, made her feel hopeless for humanity. She ached for the girl anyway, so unprepared for what awaited her. Around the teachers' lounge, her plight had become a watershed: those who sympathized and those who judged. As the youngest teachers, Jesús and Birdy were inclined to identify with the students.
Birdy drew a big breath as if to blow out candles; her tongue still tasted dryly of pot. She explained to her senior lit class that, in the first place, the stories and poems weren't all depressing, and, in the second place, didn't tragic feelings linger longer? Would there be anything much to say about a happy day? Her students studied her, thinking of a thousand things to say about a happy day. A few ofthe girls thought she had nice clothes; the boys appreciated her long legs and long hair and the way she took jokes well. But they couldn't quite muster the enthusiasm she seemed to expect. Accustomed to Spanish pronunciation, they called novels "nobbles," reducing them to rabbit food. They all hopped to action in other classes, inspired by threats, eager to keep athletic eligibility, avidly cheating if necessary. But Ms. Birdy Stone, lover of sad literature, held no particular power; her class was good for relaxing. This afternoon she felt her kinship with her students develop a wrinkle, a space between her and them, an annoyance that was new to her. I'm getting old, she thought dejectedly. They'll all stay seventeen, year in, year out, but soon I'll be old enough to be their mother.
Everyone sat waiting for the bell, which wasn't a bell at all but a buzz like an oven timer. Inside the school it was unnaturally hot; they were done. The buzzer buzzed and they went away.
All small towns are not alike. Having seen one, you had not seen them all. Everyone did not know everyone else's business, and the people were neither friendlier nor more genuine, the lifestyle not purer just duller. Birdy Stone had lived for nineteen months in Pinetop, New Mexico, and still the old adages were being debunked.
She'd come from a big city, Chicago, and thought a high percentage of its inhabitants would fit right into Pinetop, far, far better than she did. She still tended to think of herself as temporarily installed here, not like a tourist but like a reporter on a story, a missionary on a mission, never mind that she could not name her cause. It seemed she was looking for something. She did not worry about the renewal of her teaching contract because its being terminated would finally give her a reason to pack up and flee. She was twenty-nine years old and unwilling to consider this place the backdrop for the rest of her life.
As an excuse for being a community, Pinetop had used mining and then timber industries. But that was over. Now those attendant structures hulked emptily on the hillsides as eyesores. Some nights they seemed to sneak closer, big boxes full of the void, square black windows and doors like holes punched in for a peek. The town had burned down twice in its one-hundred-year history, so there remained no interesting architecture, no quaint clapboard buildings or stately brick ones, nothing but the mountain of toxic mine tailings and the ravaged hillside where once there'd been a forest. A few towns away, the Apaches ran a gambling casino, and there was a large horse-racing trade in the vicinity, but neither of those lucrative businesses did much for Pinetop, although every Pinetop merchant sold T-shirts and postcards advertising both. Many of the locals seemed to think their town was about to be discovered by that most profitable of enterprises, tourism; little specialty shops popped up like flowers every spring espresso bar, chocolate shoppe, Christmas ornament boutique opening cheerfully with banners and bargains only to slowly wither over the summer and fall, the merchandise grown dusty, the clerk gloomy, the owner cynical, the crepe paper shabby and saggy, until the store-front stood desolate once more. Failure seemed its own thriving industry, like death.
On the highways leading in and out the national franchises lined up, jockeying for attention, pushed together like snap beads, the same eye-catching toy colors, red, yellow, blue, green. People in Pinetop considered it a coup when a fast-food chain selected their town for an outlet; they loved their Wendy's and their Jack in the Box and their Kentucky Fried. For the convenience of a drive-through window, they'd forsaken the downtown cafe, Dora's, in favor of McDonald's. Quaintness did not interest them. Charm was a little nothing you wore jingling on your wrist.
Plus, the wind blew. The mountains sat in such a way that a nearly constant wind howled through; pointed pine trees, those left standing, listed north-eastward as if yearning to give up and sail off, arrows into space. The gritty tailings, heaped in a barren yellow dune at the western end of town, flew overhead on particularly bad days, snicking against the window glass, thickening the air like flung salt, settling over the streets and yards and roofs. In the winter, it was snow that blanketed the ground, drifted against the east and north sides of houses, banked icy buttresses before windows and doors.
From the Windy City herself, Birdy should have been accustomed to the relentlessness. She'd hated the wind since she was a child, its cunning chill factor in the winter, its taunting tornadoes in the summer. But in Chicago you could huddle in doorways, escape into basements, dash between the high-rises, duck into steamy delis or crowded appliance shops. You could take solace in the fact that the wind swept away the litter and smog. The city fathers acknowledged its eminent domain; they heated the El stops and burrowed out parking lots underground; they called themselves Hog Butcher to the World, and girded their loins.
Here, people pretended the wind was not incessant. They walked out of their houses with tentative grips on their possessions, their hats and umbrellas and trash sacks. Their skirts flew up and their television antennas snapped, laundry defied the line. Both this year and last, everyone assured Birdy it was highly unusual, all this wind. They went around being astonished by it, exclaiming. She was suspicious of their wonder. She lived in a trailer, which rocked in the breeze like a bread box. Her neighbors owned aerodynamic A-frames, or peeling log cabins with portable carports lashed to them, or trailers such as her own, sitting atop concrete blocks and pink fiberglass bales, roofs dotted with old tires like sliced olives on saltines. It was not uncommon in Pinetop for houses to come rolling in on the highways and, conversely, for automobiles to rest in fields among the flowers and cattle. Everywhere you looked there were signs reminding you not to dump: DO NOT DUMP, as if you might be tempted, otherwise, to unload all of your garbage, right here, right now. Birdy's street, she learned after the first winter, was situated where the prostitutes used to live in tiny shacks called cribs. The remaining cribs looked like fancy, albeit dilapidated, doghouses, a whole vacant row of them, six places, each no larger than a mattress. This was the side of town where people owned roosters and motorcycles; in the mornings, they crowed and roared. Property was marked by the use of cyclone fencing or scrawny chicken wire, or, most mysterious of all, plastic gallon milk jugs filled with colored water, set wobbling on the ground in rows like giant jelly beans, grotesque Easter eggs the same faded pastel shades, pink, aqua, lilac, daffodil. What trespass were they capable of discouraging? The backside of Main Street, Birdy's neighborhood was so close to where Mt. Ballard and Mt. Ajax met that it did not see sunshine for the months of December and January. Farther, a kind of stream ran through, making things chillier.
It probably had a name, this shivering water, but Birdy did not know it.
The other side of town was the sunny side, and that's where the reputable people had always lived on a gently sloping, brightly lit hillside. Their streets bisected the incline like bleachers, on each row rested the square facades of two-story bungalows, barrackslike, militantly overlooking the spectacle of Main Street, and, behind it, Birdy's squalid turf. Only the upstanding could keep their balance over there; the rest slid, as in a landfill, toward the bottom. Pinetop High was located in the bleachers, a 1950s yellow-brick building designed like a prison or mental institution: massive, functional, impenetrable as well as inescapable.
But Birdy had moved here in a fit of defiant self-pity, whimsical exile, so her grim living arrangement suited her. Of course her side of town was where the hookers and the poor foreign miners had lived. Of course her pipes would freeze and burst; of course her gas bill would skyrocket her tin home leaked its heat like an old-fashioned pie cabinet. And in the humid late summer, the mosquitoes would descend along the riverbank to suck blood from whatever lived there.
"This town," Birdy would say to her friend, "it depresses me."
"Sadness," Jesús would agree, mildly, without emotion, the way their students said bummer. The symbol for grief, the shorthand recognition of others' pain.
Jesús had grown up in Pinetop. For a few weeks Birdy had thought he was named Zeus. "Hey" was just a way of calling him. Affably, since he was homegrown. "Hey, Zeus." That's how naive she was concerning her new state and its culture. The Spanish language still scared her; she was convinced people were discussing her as they chattered with each other in it, going fast just to thwart her. At a critical juncture, Jesús had fled Pinetop for Albuquerque, which passed as the area's big city. There, he developed sophistication and a sense of humor, became gay without suffering trauma, then returned, having maintained good relations with his former teachers, his parents, his old friends. Birdy thought Jesús was nothing short of remarkable; she wished her family and hometown liked her as much as his liked him. The only snag in his life was his need to speed off to Albuquerque every few weeks to spend a weekend. There, he picked up men, visited clubs, wore women's clothes, ate pills like candy. Then he was back, in his saggy innocuous pants and big sweatshirt, perfectly jolly. He never quit smiling; was that his secret? It cheered you up just to see his shining, apple-cheeked face. In Pinetop, he joined the fan clubs advertised on cable television and waited for UPS to bring him esoteric old movies that the local video store did not stock. He smoked clove cigarettes and listened to Barbra Streisand on obsolete vinyl albums. Birdy relished his friendship; in a larger town, it wouldn't have been possible. In a larger town, he would be a member of a group that excluded her, a group two notches hipper than she, but here, in little Pinetop, they became pals.
"A mom called me," Birdy told Jesús one day when they were alone in the teachers' lounge.
"Not a mom!"
"Mark Anthony's mom."
"That Mark Anthony," Jesús said. "What a babe."
Besides his famous name, Birdy hadn't particularly noticed the boy, who sat dutifully in her Social Problems and American Values section, a required senior class. The faculty called it Sock Probs and Am Vals, as if it concerned car engines, a course rotated among them; nobody enjoyed teaching it, too much reading was involved, and all of it dry, dry, dry. Birdy had caused a stir by introducing fiction texts to the curriculum, Invisible Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, those glum nobbles.
"What could she want?" Birdy fretted.
"You use the Lord's name in vain lately?"
"I think I might have said 'suck,' as in 'Your research essays suck.'" She hated conflict; she was prepared to confess to anything.
"You have a habit of blaspheming the American government."
"You're in trouble, girl."
"A mom, a mom, a mom." Birdy laid her head on the lounge table.
"Don't you think Mark Anthony's a babe?" Jesús asked, laying his head down across from her so he could see her sideways. His eyebrows jumped, the way they did when Birdy seemed to be missing something obvious. He made a grin, which, up-ended, Birdy saw was a perfect rectangle, teeth like a package of peppermint Chiclets.
"I don't trust babes," Birdy told him.
"Interesting," he said.
Mrs. Pack, the school secretary, walked into the lounge then and regarded them suspiciously, as she always did, as if Jesús were still the student he'd once been impish jailbait and as if Birdy were the bad influence. They could not be up to anything good, with their faces on the tabletop. Other teachers called her by her first name, Edith, but Jesús and Birdy always said, "Good morning, Mrs. Pack" like brats.
This, Birdy decided, was the way she would stay young, by refusing to grow up.
Mrs. Pack told Birdy that her two o'clock appointment had just called to confirm.
"Isadora Anthony" she added.
"Is she a good witch," Jesús asked, "or a bad one?"
Mrs. Pack pointedly did not answer, as if ignoring him might cure his irritating conduct. "I believe she said she was meeting with you, but our connection was bad. Is there weather?" All three of them looked toward the high windows, which revealed nothing certain.
"It's her phone," Birdy said. Yesterday there had been hissing on the line cheap receiver, thick walls, or the simple interference of the infernal wind then the woman had said, "Missus Stone?" in a long southern interrogative.
"Miz Stone," Birdy had answered, emphasizing it the way she hated her students to do, as if she were already an old maid.
Mrs. Anthony said, "Oh." More hissing. "Miz Stone? I was wondering if we could have a meeting? It's not about your class. It's another thing." She said "another" as if it were a girl's name, Anna Other. Birdy had agreed out of alarm, out of curiosity; now she invented a scenario in which Jesús and Mrs. Anthony's son Mark had become illicit lovers. Her heart thumped with the thrill of such a transgression and someone else's transgression, not hers. Then she formulated her own sober response: despite the fact that Jesús was her friend and that Mark was a mature senior, Faculty Shalt Not Date Students. She suspected it would come between her and Jesús, when she had to draw the line, thereby ruining the only real fun she had in town. Wasn't that just like love? To throw a monkey wrench into a perfectly good friendship?
"It's been real," Jesús said as he left the lounge. "I'll never forget you, you loser, you."
"Scum," Birdy answered blandly, "freak," while Mrs. Pack recoiled.
Mark Anthony's mother had arranged to come to school during what was supposed to be Birdy's planning period, but which Birdy typically spent alone in the lounge, daydreaming over a bag of Fritos and a Fresca, feet on a stack of blue books. Mark must have been cloned from the father, she decided: his mother couldn't have looked any less like him, tiny where he was hulking, fair and henna-headed where he was swarthy. Her face was like a mouse's: tiny brown seed eyes, twitching little mouth, too-small teeth she seemed careful to keep hidden. It was as if someone had grabbed her features and made a fist, leaving them bunched together in the middle of her face. Her hair was thin and seemed spun, like sugar or glass, translucent. Her fingers clutched her green handbag like a squirreled nut against her chest. She looked at least as frightened as Birdy felt.
"Ms. Stone?" she said, peering into the empty room. "My Mark says you know about books?"
Birdy admitted she did. "I read a lot," she said cautiously. "All the time." As far as she could tell, she was the only Pinetop resident to take advantage of the bookmobile, which arrived in town every other Thursday and parked outside the Whitefront Bar, as if the drunks inside might be interested. Or maybe the driver drank. "You sure read a lot," he never failed to note from his springy driver's seat. "Yep," Birdy never failed to reply. Her last boyfriend, her former fiance, back in Chicago, had accused her of lassitude, of cowardice, of letting novel characters do all her living for her. And why not? Birdy had asked him. Why the hell not? Let them do all the dying and fucking up for her, too. Vicarious tragedy, she told him, virtual woe: an idea whose time has come.
"I, too, am an avid reader," Mrs. Anthony confessed. "Spiritual guides," she added meaningfully. Birdy now felt sure she was going to be handed a Bible and some tract on the evils of literature. Who would have guessed that old lug Mark Anthony was actually paying attention, reporting on his required reading?
They sat by themselves in the teachers' lounge, a place like an ER waiting room, someone's tacky rejected couch and chairs, sputtering bitter-smelling coffee machine, whirring little refrigerator in desperate need of defrosting, windows providing some oblique white light. Smiley faces on the teachers' mailboxes. A metal case of books, the maroon leather-bound spines of former yearbooks, dozens of them, the only reading matter in the place which apparent self-fascination seemed to Birdy incestuous, the narcissism of the pedestrian, as if those sitting in the lounge wanted only to look at photos of themselves, the building where they worked, the students they taught. Usually the lounge felt too cold to Birdy, although others did not seem bothered. She liked Mark's mother for looking cold, too; it gave them something in common. "Want some hot tea?" she asked her. "Shall I turn up the thermostat?"
But Mrs. Anthony had business on her mind, she wasn't concerned with her own discomfort. She said, "I'm writing a book, about my experience, and I thought you could help me."
Birdy's heart both rose no lecture on immorality! and fell; books were so big, and everybody thought they should be authoring one. Birdy's first college major had been creative writing, but even then she could tell she would have nothing fit to say; she'd been letting fictional characters provide her with drama for many years by that time. For the first semester she fruitlessly ransacked her past in search of something exciting to write about, marveling over the drivel her class-mates offered up, their step-parents and pets and paramours. It embarrassed her, their naked and feeble obsessions, their trite dilemmas, their whiny and thinly veiled personae, their idiotic shallow fantasies. She sympathized with her professor, a burly alcoholic type who prohibited his students from writing about guitars, recreational drugs, and from the point of view of inanimate objects. What made people so confident their lives were worthy of a reading public?
Later, she'd become that professor's lover. One of the things he liked best about her was the fact that she didn't want to be a writer, just a reader. His reader, Birdy supposed, his poems all set in foreign countries, featuring exotic women, idiomatic cuisine and custom, consonant-mangling pronunciation. Tongue-tied, Birdy'd always felt, before him and his work.
Mrs. Anthony now pried open her handbag a moss-colored leather contraption with a faux gold beetle as its catch and produced a newspaper article, yellowed, laminated, stiffened like a dead leaf. After handing it to Birdy, she waited, watching with her seedy eyes.
There was no telling which newspaper had run the story, or when, as it had been tightly clipped without including masthead or date. PINETOP GIRL FALLS TO DEATH, the headline said. Birdy read as Mrs. Anthony unblinkingly watched. Apparently Mark had had an older sister, Teresa, whose body had been found in a ravine just outside town, beneath a very modest Anasazi cliff-dwelling site. Birdy had visited the ancient dwelling when she'd first moved to town, when she still had an outsider's touring enthusiasm for Pinetop, when the ramshackle modern junkiness of the place still beguiled her. You drove a few miles down the highway, parked in a sandy lot, then followed a path along the rocky rim of a mountain till a wide, lengthy opening appeared, like the mouth of a Muppet. Along the path ran a looping cable, some sort of measure toward safekeeping, although it seemed more likely that you'd trip over it than be caught by it. Pinetop's teenagers for many years had used the site as a party pit, having discovered the same advantages the Anasazi had in perching high above the valley, where they could watch for enemies, protected by the warm bulk of the soft sandstone mountain behind. In the main dwelling, the ceiling was crusty with black soot, its walls covered with twentieth-century petroglyphs: DUANE LOVES TRINA, ROXY IS FOXY, PUMAS RULE. On the counters of several local businesses rested pickle jars with slots knifed into their lids, hand-lettered signs soliciting donations for the cleanup of the ruins. Hopeless.
"Young Teresa C.S. Anthony" had been "a tender sixteen years of age"; there'd been no sign of what this article called "foul play," her death attributed to internal bleeding caused by a fall of five hundred feet onto rock. The article tactfully failed to mention the word "suicide," making do with "unfortunate accident." Birdy read with a growing anxiety, positive she was going to have to tell Mrs. Anthony what no doubt countless others had already told her: the girl, sad and sixteen, had thrown herself over the cliff, plain and heartbreakingly uncomplicated. There was no conspiracy, she would have to say, no one to blame. A teenager is a dangerous vessel, running around with your love in her careless, self-indulgent hands.
Toward Mrs. Anthony she felt a prickly kinship. "I'm very sorry about your daughter," she finally said to the woman. "My mother died last year and " Mrs. Anthony reached into her handbag and plucked out another parchmentlike document without acknowledging Birdy's words; this meeting was not about Birdy.
The second article resembled the first plastic-coated, yellowed, pimpled with tiny air bubbles, no indication of date or source and was headed SECOND TRAGEDY IN LOCAL FAMILY. Birdy read with increasing dread, hoping suddenly that one of her colleagues ideally, Jesús, but even the principal Hal Halfon would have been okay, or the retarded custodian, Mr. John, or sour Edith Pack, somebody would come rescue her with inanities and chitchat. Her personality had a pushover aspect to it; the more she knew about the Anthonys, the more she was going to be involved. That was a reflex triggered by novel reading, she postulated, overidentifying with print characters, constructing wholecloth an accompanying landscape, gothic castle and English moor, beery barroom and cannery row all based on the flimsiest of detail.
She sighed, scanning reluctantly the next installment. This story concerned the husband, Teresa's father, who'd been killed in a single-car accident two days after his daughter's death. He'd rolled on the highway down the mountain, on the road that ran between Pinetop and Albuquerque, the same one Jesús sped gaily down for his weekend furloughs, only a few hundred yards from the site of Teresa's plunge. The article mentioned two survivors, Isadora Anthony and her young son Mark.
Birdy turned over the laminated article as if to read the next chapter; on the back was an ad for rifles. The clip art figure selling them looked a good thirty years out of date. Yet, this was Pinetop; perhaps the same ad still ran in the Pinetop Mountain Journal, which came out once a week and included an anonymous phone-in column called "Speak Up!" that, in a year and a half of trying, Birdy had never been able to penetrate. She'd phone in every few months just to contribute her two cents: "Don't speak up," she'd say to the answering machine: "shut up!"
The third item Mrs. Anthony handed Birdy, what Birdy's mother would have wryly called the "coop de grass," was the family's photograph, taken a few months before the accidents, Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister, little Mark Anthony, all of six or eight years old, with his mischievous eyes turned toward his sister, as if the siblings shared a secret they kept from their parents. He wore cowboy boots and hat, a little silver six-shooter strapped to his hip; the sister smiled beguilingly at the photographer, sexy beyond her years. This picture, the quintessential nuclear family, posed before the ethereal blue backdrop of professional photo studios, plus the other two articles, Mrs. Anthony insisted that Birdy keep.
"I want you to help me write my story," she said, sitting properly, her knees pressed together beneath her purse as if restraining the need to pee. Was it primness? Simple cold? "I know what I want to say, but I can't do it, I don't know what should go where. I've tried and I've tried, but I can't; I never went to college. I thought since you teach all these books about terrible things, you could help."
Why are all the stories so depressing? Birdy thought.
"I know there's a book in this," she added, when Birdy could think of no good enough excuse to say no. On a tangent, she was troubled that Mark had told his mother he only read books about terrible things. She hoped that wasn't what all the students thought, but knew they probably did. Ever since she'd moved to Pinetop, she'd been sending off her applications to other districts like bobbing forlorn messages in bottles: Help. Someday when the houses were on the move, she was just going to have to stand on the highway with her thumb in the air, hope to hitch a ride on one of those wide loads.
"Will you just say you'll think about it?" Mrs. Anthony pleaded. "Just take the stories and think about it?"
Copyright © 1998 by Antonya Nelson
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Birdy Stone is a 30-year-old Chicago transplant teaching English at Pinetop High School in Pinetop, New Mexico. Her best friend is Jesus, another teacher who is gay, and they do a lot of partying together. Birdy begins an affair with one of her students and then becomes more entangled with the family when his mother asks her to help edit a book she is writing about the family tragedy. Mark's sister Theresa committed suicide when she was 17 by jumping off a cliff, and his father died a few days later in a car accident. There are interesting parts to the book, including the mystery about the dual tragedies, but I really came to detest Birdy, who is a whiny, spoiled brat with no redeeming characteristics. The author tries to make her sympathetic in the end, but it is too little too late. Also, the reader never finds out the "answer" to the mystery, which is somewhat disappointing.