An entrancing debut about two sisters exiled by their parents when the eldest becomes pregnant
Set in Arco, Idaho, in 1970, Val Brelinski’s powerfully affecting first novel tells the story of three sisters: young Frances, gregarious and strong-willed Jory, and moral-minded Grace. Their father, Oren, is a respected member of the community and science professor at the local college. Yet their mother’s depression and Grace’s religious fervor threaten the seemingly perfect family, whose world is upended when Grace returns from a missionary trip to Mexico and discovers she’s pregnant withshe believesthe child of God.
Distraught, Oren sends Jory and Grace to an isolated home at the edge of the town. There, they prepare for the much-awaited arrival of the baby while building a makeshift family that includes an elderly eccentric neighbor and a tattooed social outcast who drives an ice cream truck.
The Girl Who Slept with God is a literary achievement about a family’s desperate need for truth, love, purity, and redemption.
About the Author
Val Brelinski was born and raised in Nampa, Idaho, the daughter of devout evangelical Christians. She was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, where she was also a Jones Lecturer in fiction writing. She received an MFA from the University of Virginia, and her writing has been published in VQR and The Rumpus. She lives in Woodland, California.
Read an Excerpt
On the last day of August in 1970, and a month shy of her fourteenth birthday, Jory’s father drove his two daughters out to an abandoned house and left them there.
The trip had not taken long. Her father piloted the car with resolute determination toward the very edge of town. He drove past the railroad tracks and the fish hatchery and the rodeo grounds, past the sugar beet factory and the slaughterhouse and the meatpacking plant; all the while Jory stared out the window in a silent fury. Next to her in the Buick’s backseat, Grace was practically unconscious. She lay slumped over with her head resting accidentally on Jory’s shoulder, her drool dampening the upper portion of Jory’s T-shirt. Jory gave her sister a shove and then turned toward the window. Black Cat Lane and Chicken Dinner Road and Floating Feather rolled past—long, twisty lanes sided with fields of sugar beets and alfalfa and corn. Jory watched a lone mallard drop and skid like a bomber onto an irrigation ditch while three goats perched king of the hill–style on a salvaged roof a farmer had put out for them. Her father continued on past several vast silagey-smelling feedlots, and then the fields grew even larger and the scenery more sparse and the houses less frequent, and finally he turned down a narrow unpaved lane that Jory had never seen before. Then he stopped the car and opened the door. Jory refused to look up at the strange house where she and her sister were now to live. She sat in the backseat with her hands between her knees until her father pulled her forcibly out of the car and set her on her feet in the dirt.
The house of their exile was ancient and dilapidated, its white siding weather warped, its roof’s shingles curling and covered with moss. And below the sharp peak of the house’s second story, an enormous diamond-shaped window stared out from its gable like the jack of diamond’s lonely eye. But it wasn’t the condition of the house that mattered, Jory knew, as much as its location. The house was safely hidden away on a back acre of Idaho farmland, far from any schools or churches or stores or neighborhoods. And it was this isolation for which Jory’s father had paid. Privacy was of the utmost importance now, he had said. Or perhaps more correctly, the word he was looking for was secrecy.
Her father unwedged the few taped-together boxes from the Buick’s trunk. One at a time, he carried them up the house’s peeling green steps and deposited them onto the living room floor. Jory stood holding the screen door open and taking occasional, unwilling peeks at the dim interior of the house. A brown couch sagged dead-cat-like against one wall. The portion of the floor she could see from the doorway was made of sloping hardwood, and was partly covered by a gray flowered rug that must have been bride-beautiful at some point a very long time ago. Jory heard the car door slam. After a second, her sister came wandering up the porch steps. Grace leaned against the door frame for a moment and then wobbled toward the couch, where she proceeded to lie down on her side, her face buried against one of the sofa’s armrests.
“I think that about does it.” Her father wiped his hands down the front of his khaki pants. “Yup,” he said, gazing about the room. “There you are.”
Jory gave him a hard, bright look. “Here we are.”
He searched for something in his pockets. He whistled “Red River Valley” and patted down his shirtfront, and then his pants pockets. “Ah!” He held up a small silver key. “You’ll be needing this.” He smiled and handed it to her.
Without looking at the key, Jory tossed it onto the top of one of the unopened boxes.
“Hey, now,” her father said in his calmest voice. “You don’t want to lose that.” After walking over to the cardboard box and retrieving the key, he handed it to her once more, this time pressing it into her palm and closing her fingers firmly around it.
“Don’t you have another one?” She inspected his face.
“Well, Mom and I will keep an extra, of course.” He shrugged. “Just in case.”
“Just in case?”
“Yes, and don’t forget, there’s milk and things that need to go in the fridge. Also, the front door may stick a little when you first try to open it, so you’ll have to shove hard and jiggle the handle up and down.” He demonstrated and then paused, waiting for a look of recognition that Jory refused to give. “Okay, well, I’ll be back to check on you in a day or two. I think Grace’s correspondence course books should be here by then, so I’ll bring them along.” He studied the ceiling the way he always did when he needed hope or inspiration. “You might want to get Grace into bed. The doctor gave her a little something to calm her down. A shot or a pill or something.”
“You know,” he said, ignoring her tone and marching on, “you’ve got just about everything here.” He cast a proprietary glance around the room. “I think you girls are all set. Really. I think that about does it.”
She stood and stared at him. His smile seemed sewn in place.
He stepped toward her and then pulled her head tight against his chest. For a moment she listened to his huge heart’s muffled thumping. Then she could feel him sigh. He stepped back and put his hands on either side of her face. Bending down, he pressed his lips against a spot in the middle of her forehead. “JoryAnne,” he whispered, and then touched the spot firmly with the tip of his finger, as if sealing the kiss into place.
She had a sudden impulse to slap him.
Jory sat on one of the boxes with her back to the door, and as her father pulled the Buick out onto the roadway she could smell the dust that drifted up in the wake of his leaving. For a moment she remained like this, and then with a start she jumped up and scrambled toward the house’s stairway, leaping up the steps to the second-floor landing and its diamond-shaped window. Breathless, she hung on to the window’s angled frame and peered out. The glass was slightly wavy and thick, but she could see everything below: the sway of a giant willow, the branches of a plum tree set to shaking by old men crows already drunk on its rotting fruit, the steady trajectory of her father’s green Buick disappearing down the graveled country road. She watched, unmoving, until the last of the car’s comet tail of dust evaporated into the late afternoon air. Then she sank down onto her knees on the hardwood floor. This high perch made her feel removed and above, as far away as banished maidens locked in smoothed-stone towers. Forever gazing down, they waited for nothing, for knights who were already dead and wouldn’t be coming.
That first night she refused to sleep in either of the two iron-framed beds. She didn’t unpack any of the boxes either. As it grew dark, she covered Grace with a red plaid blanket and then moved out onto the back porch and sat on its wooden floor with a wedding quilt she’d found on one of the beds wrapped around her. I John 4:7—Beloved, let us love one another, the quilt admonished in embroidered script, courtesy of Laveeta Lamar Hicks. John 15:13—Greater love hath no man, proclaimed Eleanor Genevieve Doerksen. Let love be your greatest aim . . . For God so loved the world . . . Love never fails.
“Fuck you. And you. And you.” Jory twisted the quilt around to its other side. Here there were no Bible sayings, only endless twining circles—wedding rings stitched carefully in pink and gold thread. She ran her hand over the puckered material. How many days and nights did it take to sew something like this? And did each woman do her own portion separately, or did they gather over a long sewing table in someone’s living room and talk as they worked? And why did they do it anyway? Look where it had ended up. They were all dead, the quiltmakers and the bride, and their painstakingly stitched words meant nothing . . . nothing.
She pulled the quilt tighter around her shoulders. Something about the way she was sitting, hunched and small, reminded her of how once when she was little, to spite her mother, she had hidden beneath a table in the back corner of the public library. She had watched from behind the table’s great carved wooden leg as her mother stood in line, checked out her books, and then calmly set off for the drugstore with Jory’s two sisters in tow. Jory had come out from her hiding place then, smacking her head hard on the table edge in her hurry, just in time to see the three of them walking past the glass doors of the library and on down the sidewalk, her little sister occasionally stooping to scratch at something on her knee.
Jory was quite sure that she had forgotten that incident completely. She glared up at the sky and the points of the stars blurred together. She cried then, a few big, splintered sobs, and pounded at the porch’s floorboards with her bare heels over and over until finally, wondrously, it hurt enough to stop. She rocked back and forth hugging her knees, holding her bruised feet carefully off the floor while her chest seized, her lungs catching at frayed threads of air. She wiped her nose on a corner of the quilt, and then held still listening. The night air hummed with the same happy insects. A farm or two away a dog barked, and then barked again. She was still here. Nothing had changed. What had she expected? She tipped slowly over onto her side, clutching the quilt, and let her face slide against the cool of the painted wood porch. God is love, she thought. For God so loved the world.
The sunlight slanted through the screen of the porch, warming her face and bringing the gradual knowledge that she was somewhere strange and that her neck was now very sore. She sat up slowly. Several parts of her body ached from a night on the wood floor. Her feet in particular, and the backs of her heels. She stepped over the heap of quilt and marched into the house, letting the screen door whap shut behind her. Inside the doorway, though, she stopped and stood.
In the morning light, the kitchen looked as if someone had cut its angles out with left-handed scissors, and it smelled like cat food and old bleach, or damp, many-eyed potatoes. Jory walked slowly from the wide double sink to the prehistoric gas stove, and then to the linoleum-topped kitchen table. She was supposed to live here in this place, in this peculiar old house that smelled like someone else’s cast-off life. She could feel herself breathing in an irregular way, as if she had to concentrate in order to make her lungs expand and relax.
She walked into the living room. Grace was lying on the dead cat couch still wearing her tennis shoes and snoring softly beneath the plaid blanket. The unopened boxes squatted in a circle around them. One of the boxes had a large paper sack on top that was leaking something pink and white. A large blossom-colored pool had formed around the bag and was now dripping down the side of the box. Cherry vanilla. He’d always bought it for her when she was sick or sad. Once, when Jory had to have stitches, he brought the whole carton into her bedroom wrapped in a dishtowel and fed her one spoonful after another while he explained how scar tissue formed. How even the stars healed themselves. He had been wearing a tie with small green ducks on it.
Jory found one of her tennis shoes under the couch and the other near the front door. She crammed them onto her feet without untying the laces. After one glance back at her sister, she fled out the door and down the painted steps, the backs of her bruised heels burning like fire.
The road that led away from the house was lined with cottonwood trees, and little bits of the fluff blew all around her and clung to her hair as she strode fast and faster past weedy patches and fields of corn and late summer wheat. She passed a barn that had faded to an unidentifiable color. A large spotted dog lay panting in a strip of shade beneath the barn’s overhang. The dog inspected her; it raised its wedge-shaped head and blinked slowly, but did not get up. Jory kept walking. Once, she turned around to look behind her, and still, even at this distance, she could see the house’s diamond-shaped window winking at her in the late morning sun.
She hadn’t noticed the heat. The blood now hummed in her head as she marched along, kicking up spits of loose gravel. The flat string of road ran on ahead for as far as she could see, shimmering and wavering a little at its farthest point. Jory made a half-strangled noise deep in her throat and sat down hard next to the edge of the road. A drain ditch bristling with cattails rushed foamily past her feet.
The wind began to blow in short, dry little gusts that she could feel in the sweaty sections of her hair. A large crow sailed past and then landed clumsily on the thick stalk of a cattail. The bird maneuvered briefly, attempting to vary its grip in hopes of a stronger foothold, but quickly gave up and flapped on. Jory stood and peered toward the road. A rounded truck the color of curdled milk was coming toward her. She stared as it passed her, and then suddenly with a bump and a sigh it pulled off onto the road’s steep shoulder and came to a stop. She could hear a crow squawking insistently somewhere overhead. The truck reversed gears and backed up slowly to the spot where she was standing. AL’S FROZEN ICE CREAM TREATS, the truck’s passenger side read. TASTY AND DELICIOUS! The man inside was already leaning across the seat to open the door. “Miss your bus?” he said, smiling. The truck’s front seat was high above her and she had to grab at the crease-hardened hand he offered down. With a powerful pull he hoisted her firmly up onto the cab’s slick vinyl seat.
“Well, hello there,” he said. He raked his blue-tattooed fingers through his ponytailed hair and made no move toward going anywhere.
Jory stared out through the windshield at the road she had just come down, and then behind her at the tiny diamond-windowed house nearly hidden in the trees. She could feel the back of her throat suddenly swelling hot and tight with tears. “Where have you been?” she whispered. “Where were you?”
“Well,” he said, “in between selling delicious ice cream treats, I’ve been busy scouring the landscape for you.” He rested his elbow on the seatback and with one finger pushed a stray strand of her hair behind her ear. For a second, neither of them moved. Then he reached out and pulled all of her past the gearshift and onto his lap. She sat sideways across his hard legs and leaned her head against his shirt, breathing in his smell. It was the same as always—engine grease and cigarette smoke and something unidentifiable that she always thought of as burned sugar. She closed her eyes. Through his chest she could hear him humming a song she didn’t know. He held her carefully with one arm and she could feel his muscles tense as he put the truck into gear and then steered them back out onto the road. He flicked the switch on the loudspeaker and as the truck jounced along music played above her like a carnival tune from a faraway fair, a tinkling gypsy music as strange as a blue tattoo. It followed them like a long holiday all the way down the road to wherever it was they were going.
The House on Ninth Avenue
It was like this.
There was to be no mixed bathing, no circuses or bowling alleys or pool halls, no card playing (except Uno), no dancing or movie watching, no makeup or pierced ears or flashy jewelry or immodest dress of any kind. Men were to have short hair and women long and Joy was spelled Jesus and Others and then You. Some things were so taboo that no mention was even necessary: alcohol, premarital relations, and swearing. Gosh and gee and Jiminy Christmas were out, as were fart and butt. Sundays were for Sunday School and Junior Church and Bible Quizzing, not for working or going to the grocery store. It all sounded funny when she said it out loud, but really it wasn’t.
Jory had tried explaining this to several incredulous listeners when they were all in sixth grade at Eisenhower Elementary, and now she was glad to be going to Arco Christian Academy, where everyone already knew and understood and there was no need to discuss any of it over sloppy joes and fruit betty surprise. It had made her feel tired and squinty eyed to have to repeat why her mother wore her father’s Phi Beta Kappa key on a chain around her neck instead of wearing a diamond wedding ring, and why they had a bomb shelter in their garage instead of a car, and a ham radio antenna where the TV antenna should be, why they ate lentil loaf nearly every night and kept a refrigerator in the backyard full of nothing but apples, and why she and her sisters had all skipped first grade. There were way too many things to explain and no words for half of it. And for quite a while, when she was younger, she hadn’t known she would have to.
Her father was just her father, people had always called him Doctor, he had always gone to Harvard and discovered new moons and ridden his old black bike to teach each day and run around their backyard twenty times each night still wearing his work shoes. And her mother was just her mother who didn’t work and didn’t drive and didn’t go anywhere or talk to anyone except at church and at the library, where she went twice a week to check out as many books as they would allow her and to place orders for new ones they hadn’t had the foresight to order themselves. This was just the way it was, the way they were and had been and would be forever. Like Polaris, the polestar that always pointed north, so were the five of them together: her father and mother and Grace and then Jory and Frances. The Quanbecks. No matter where Jory went or how she turned or where she was standing in the world, there they still were, unmoving, as the rest of the stars and planets whizzed past under the watchful gaze of God’s bright eye.
“I see you Jory!” Frances’s face was smashed against the back screen door. She licked the metal screen and then made a face. “Yick. It tastes like burned pennies. Come in and do Spanish with us.”
Jory held very still and said nothing.
“Come on. Grace made Spanish milk and Spanish oatmeal and Spanish bread and we have Spanish money to buy them with.” Frances disappeared for a moment, and reappeared holding up a colored bill that she flattened against the screen. “See?”
“Go on, Jory. You can help your sister for once.” Esther Quanbeck rinsed her daughters’ white Keds off with the irrigation hose, squirting each one clean with a blast of water that made the shoes jump and flip across the yard. “Jory,” she said, a little louder this time, “for the love of Pete, go on.”
“I’m tired of being the Mexican heathen woman. I already got baptized and bought groceries. Twice.”
Her mother straightened up. “Jory,” she said, “if you felt seriously about something, Grace would indulge you. Besides, you’re not doing anything important anyway.” Her mother turned and went back to the shoes, pinning them down with her bare long-nailed toe as she sprayed.
Jory let the back door slam shut behind her. Inside the garage—what used to be the garage—was the raised platform of the bomb shelter’s ton-heavy door, an upright piano painted white that her mother had won at a church raffle for checking out the most missionary books, a large chalkboard, and several old-style wooden school desks, their metal legs all welded together in a row. Resting against the wall and strewn across the cement floor were Grace’s ten-speed bike, a pogo stick, three Hula-Hoops, a box of dress-up clothes, an old baby stroller, a hamster cage with Jory’s pet rat Ratfink inside, and several messy stacks of Sky and Planet, Christianity Today, and Der Spiegel. Frances was already seated in one of the school desks. “Sit by me,” Frances whispered, as if they really were in school, patting the wooden lid of the desk behind her. Jory slid into the desk and glared toward the front wall, where Grace was writing “el pan” in her careful up-and-down printing on the blackboard. With her back to them, Grace seemed like a tall dark-haired stranger—someone both regal and authoritative—not like anyone related to Jory at all.
Unlike Grace’s coffee-colored crop of hair, Jory’s was a golden blond, lighter on top and darker underneath. “Like winter wheat waving,” her mother had once said. Jory cherished this phrase since it was one of the few favorable things her mother had ever said about Jory’s appearance. Her eyes were not a deep brown like her mother’s. Frances had inherited those. Jory’s were the same mild sea blue as her father’s, while seventeen-year-old Grace seemed to have received an eye color from some far-distant relative—an uncle or cousin with eyes the color of steely gray marbles that seemed capable of sending out X-rays or purest radiation.
Grace turned and beamed at both of them. “Buen día y recepción a la sala de clase española,” she said. “Now, who can tell me what this is?” Grace held up the empty milk carton their mother had rinsed out and saved from the garbage for this very purpose. “¿Cuál es éste?”
Frances waved her hand wildly. “Two percent!” she shrieked.
Grace’s smile wavered only slightly. “Jory, how about you? ¿Qué es?”
“La leche,” Jory muttered, slumping low in her seat.
“Excellente.” Grace placed the cardboard carton onto Jory’s desk. It wobbled emptily for a second and then tipped over. Before she could right it, a thin trickle of whitish liquid ran across Jory’s desk and onto the floor. “Oh, shoot,” said Grace.
“No problemo,” said Jory, scrubbing at the wetness with her bare foot.
“Hey, that was Spanish,” said Frances, turning around to view the drippage.
Grace smiled. “Pretty close, Frances. And because you knew that, you get to go and get the paper towels.”
“Good grief—I’m not a complete moron, you know.” Frances stood up and marched inside.
Grace began to line up the other cans and cartons and boxes of foodstuffs on their card table. The week before, Grace had borrowed their father’s label maker and had carefully printed out a Spanish label for every box of spaghetti and powdered milk and can of chili and Campbell’s soup and Chicken of the Sea tuna. Even the pieces of fruit their mother had let Grace “borrow” were labeled with their new Spanish names. Each manzanita and limón had a sticky red label carefully applied to its skin. Jory picked up the can of Del Monte fruit cocktail. “What’s the word for marshmallow?”
Grace glanced up from her organizing. A tiny knot formed between her dark eyebrows. “How strange,” she said. “I’m not sure.” She stood still, thinking. “Maybe it’s la mechoca. Oh,” she said, after a second, “I don’t know it.”
Frances slammed the door between the laundry room and the garage. “Here,” she said, thrusting the roll of paper towels at Jory.
“You probably won’t need to know it anyway.” Jory wiped at the sticky spot on her desk. “It’s probably el marsh-a-mellow or something.”
“No. I’m sure there’s a word for it. There’s a word for everything.” Grace stood perfectly still, her hand resting on a can of stewed tomatoes. “I have to go look it up.” She turned and opened the kitchen door, letting it fall shut behind her.
“Where’d she go?” Frances plunked down onto the piano stool and began twirling herself around.
Jory said nothing. She gazed down at the can of fruit cocktail she had in her hand and then felt underneath the edge of its label with her fingernail. She peeled back the corner of the label. With one quick flick the can became nameless. Or nameless in Spanish anyway. Jory picked up another can.
“Grace is going to kill you,” said Frances, who had stopped her twirling to watch.
“Me vale mierda.” Jory pulled off the can’s label and tossed it onto the garage floor.
“I know what that means,” said Frances.
“Good for you, idiota,” said Jory. She wondered how long it would take Grace to notice that her hard work was being undermined—that her freakish obsession with becoming the world’s youngest evangelist was being sabotaged by a member of her own supposedly loyal camp.
Tonight the sky was covered by clouds, a long gray bank of them that spread thick and low against the Owyhees and seemed to weigh the air down so that when Jory breathed her head felt heavy as if she were balancing books on it, which of course she wasn’t. A Girl of the Limberlost was lying open on her lap to page forty-two, and she was sitting in her lawn chair in the front yard just like everyone else: her mother and father and Grace and Frances—they each had a lawn chair and a book. This is what all five of them did every night after dinner, except when it rained—then they sat indoors.
“Oh, my, will you look at that—just like ducks in a row—little to big.” Mrs. Reisenstein stood just outside their curb with Mr. Reisenstein, who was holding their ancient cocker spaniel, Penny, by a leash. They were both smiling.
Mr. Reisenstein shaded his eyes with one hand. “You Quanbecks sure are a reading bunch, aren’t you?” His grin widened expansively. “Must be something mighty interesting in all those books to keep you at it night after night.”
Jory didn’t need to look up to see her mother’s fierce, tight-lipped smile.
“Actually, Len and Patsy”—Grace pulled her sandaled feet out from under her and advanced with an enthusiastic spring toward their neighbors—“I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Your God Is Too Small, by J. B. Phillips. Maybe you’ve heard of it.”
Grace called them Len and Patsy! Jory could not look up, she could not. She held her breath and stared unblinking at the toes of her tennis shoes.
“It attempts to answer some of the fundamental questions that people have raised over the centuries about Christ and our relationship to Him. Something I’m sure you, like I, have thought long and hard about.”
Jory dared to peek at Grace out of the corner of her eye. Grace’s head was tilted slightly to one side, and she smiled as she waited. The Reisensteins were still standing at the curb, although Mrs. Reisenstein now had her hand tightly around her husband’s upper arm.
“Well, we were just heading to Albertsons for some ice cream, actually.” Mr. Reisenstein cleared his throat. He gave Penny’s leash a hopeful jingle.
Jory’s father stood up and moved over next to Grace. “We’re glad you stopped by,” he said. He smiled his slow smile and then held his hand up in a wave as the Reisensteins walked quickly away, dragging their dog behind them.
“Really, Grace.” Their mother shook her head, and no one said anything for a minute or two.
Grace sat back down in her chair and pulled the hems of her pedal pushers carefully over her knees. “I felt compelled to witness.”
“That’s perfectly fine.” Their father moved his chair closer to Grace’s and sat down in it with a sigh. “That’s a wonderful impulse.”
“They’re Jewish, Oren.” Their mother closed her eyes and leaned back in her lawn chair.
“They’re German,” said their father. “Reisensteins . . . Rolling Stones.”
“Rolling Stones?” said Jory.
“They’re German-Jewish,” said their mother.
“What’s Jewish?” Frances glanced from one parent to the other. “What is it? You mean like Jesus-Jewish?”
“Sort of,” their mother said.
“Not just sort of,” said Grace, sitting up. “They’re Jewish exactly like Jesus. The Jews were God’s chosen people, Franny, and even though Jesus was one of them, the Jews chose not to accept his messiahship. They think that Jesus was an impostor.”
“You mean the Reisensteins are going to hell?” Frances’s eyes grew wide.
“Yes,” said Grace. “I’m afraid they are.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” said their mother.
“Well,” said their father, “I don’t know about you girls, but all that talk about ice cream has made me hungry.” He tried smiling.
No one smiled back.
“Is an impostor like a magician?”
Jory could hear the Tribletts’ Pekingese from down the block beginning to bark at something. It barked over and over on a one-note scale at perfectly timed intervals until suddenly a door slammed and someone yelled, “Shut up, goddammit!” and then everything was quiet again. The Quanbecks all gazed down at their books.
Jory continued to sit very still, silently turning pages without looking at them until her mother asked if someone would please turn the porch light on before they all went completely blind.
That night, as Jory lay in bed waiting to fall asleep, she listened to the sound of her father pounding around the oval-shaped track he was slowly wearing into their backyard. Pound . . . pound . . . POUND. She could hear him coming closer, running toward her window, and then suddenly past, as he curved by the plum tree and around the irrigation ditch and on toward the swing set. Their backyard was a quarter of an acre wide, and her father ran twenty times around the whole thing each night after he got home from his teaching job at Northwestern Bible College.
Jory flopped over on her mattress trying to find a softer, more comfortable spot. For someone who viewed the body merely as a temporary shelter for the soul, her father seemed to care a great deal about keeping his in good shape, whereas her mother cared not one iota. While her father did his twenty laps around the backyard, her mother lay on the couch reading historical biographies of Queen Victoria and Eleanor Roosevelt and filching Hershey’s Kisses out from between the couch cushions (which is where she kept them to “soften”). Jory was only vaguely embarrassed by her father’s running—although she was grateful he waited until dark to engage in this activity—but lately nearly everything about her mother’s body filled Jory with a certain alarm. It was so frighteningly female, with its overabundant breasts and hips, and its thighs and calves and upper arms seemingly made of floppy doll rubber. And when her mother wore culottes or skorts, which she frequently did in the summer, Jory couldn’t help thinking that her mother’s knees and thighs resembled two Beluga whales threaded with undersea veins running tight and blue beneath their milky fat.
Jory was aware that it was only her own response that had shifted. Nothing about her mother was any different than it had ever been: her heart-shaped face with its dramatic widow’s peak and slightly pinched features that seemed to expect, if not invite, disappointment, her permanently chapped lips that lent her mouth a pinkish rosy tint and made her appear to be wearing lipstick even though she hardly ever was. The few times Jory had seen old photographs of her mother she had been shocked to discover a lithe and coquettish girl seated provocatively on the car hood of a ’49 Packard, her hair a mass of golden brown curls and her tightish pants rolled up above her knees. In another photo, this same slim girl was laughing as she stood on tiptoe in a boat being rowed by a grinning young man in a navy uniform. In these pictures, her mother appeared far more confident and charming than Jory currently was, or ever might be.
“That was before I met your father,” her mother had said, sighing and sliding the black-and-white photographs back into the album. “And before I joined the church.” Jory had also seen her parents’ wedding photos, though, and she knew that her mother still looked young and almost beautiful even then. It made Jory both angry and dismayed to think that her and her sisters’ introduction into the world had effected this transformation in their mother. But she knew it was so.
Her father was rounding the patio now, she could tell, running past the irrigation siphon and the clothesline, where their Keds still hung, strung up by their knotted laces. The sad, disheartening thing that seemed to have damaged or broken her mother appeared not to have touched her father at all. Jory supposed it was one of those mysterious, usually unspoken things that came with being a capital-W woman. The obliquely shaming filmstrips from sixth grade. The machines in public restrooms that dispensed tubelike objects for a quarter. The hot water bottles that hung like red rubber nooses from the showerhead. The blood and the pads and the tubes and the fetuses and uteruses and the embryos, all fat and sloppy and squishy and liquidy. All of it inside and unknown and fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. Her father and all other men remained blithely outside of these objects and events and acted as if this were by choice: laughing and joking and shooting guns and shoving each other around. Women’s stuff! Ha ha ha!
And yet, and yet, she also longed to be as beautiful and lovely as the teeny-footed geisha on her grandmother’s paper fan, or the coconut-shell-wearing girl on the Tahitian vanilla bottle. She wanted to have people (men and boys, in particular) be awestruck and speechless at the sight of her feminine beauty. She wanted to be powerful, but with a power she could control. She didn’t even know what that meant.
Her father was still running his circuit around the yard, his endless striding growing ever closer and then slowly away. She wondered, not for the first time, what she would do without the sound of his rhythmic footfalls to drag her eyelids down, how she would ever be able to fall asleep without the accompaniment of his running to carry her safely there.
This morning, Jory had seen her sister’s breast. It was quite pointed and completely purposeful looking—as if something inside of it were working very hard to get out. Plus, there were the bumps—larger than gooseflesh and kind of blistery looking all the way around her sister’s red-pink nipple. Jory stood next to Grace’s bed and said the word again in her head. Nipple. Nipple. Nipple. It made her feel nauseated and thrilled at the same time.
“Mom said to bring you these,” Jory said, laying a pile of folded T-shirts on Grace’s bedspread and keeping her eyes down so that Grace wouldn’t think she’d been peeping at her. “Sorry I didn’t knock.”
“That’s all right.” Grace didn’t seem that embarrassed. She pulled her thick swimsuit straps up over each shoulder and smoothed down the slightly drooping pleated skirt that she had sewn onto the bottom of it. She did a half turn in front of Jory. “Does this look all right—I mean, does it look modest enough?” She peered dubiously down at her bottom half.
Jory thought the bathing suit looked like something a spinster aunt from the 1920s would wear. Or maybe a grandmother during the Great Depression, if she suddenly had a yen to go swimming. Jory wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that suit. “It looks fine,” she said.
Grace pushed her hair behind her ears and then bent and snapped open the locks on her suitcase. Grace wore her hair in a totally unstylish boy cut: a dark close-cropped cap of side-parted hair with longish bangs meant to partially obscure the large rose-colored birthmark on her forehead. The doctors had tried to remove the mark when Grace was three, but it hadn’t worked and their father had been worried about the level of radiation anyway. Grace was awkwardly shy about the mark and often dipped her head down when she was talking to people, although if anyone directly mentioned the birthmark, she blinked and acted as if she had no idea what they were talking about. It was confusing and somewhat contradictory, as was nearly everything connected with Grace.
Jory sat down on the bed next to the open blue suitcase. “How do you know how much stuff to take?”
“They give you a list.” Grace was pulling things out of her dresser drawers and carrying them over to the suitcase: a white leather Bible, a can of Aqua Net hair spray, pairs and pairs of day-of-the-week panties, six knee-length dresses, a Spanish dictionary, rubber thongs, some mosquito repellent, a bottle of Wind Song perfume, a Tips for Teens in Troubled Times daily devotional reader, three unopened packages of run-proof nylons, and a garter belt. Grace was going to Mexico on a mission. Even though she was only seventeen, their church had picked her because of her extraordinary fervor and because she wanted to go. Jory’s mother had initially had a fit—a silent fit that involved her lying in the bedroom with the door shut for two days—but she had relented in the end because their father thought it would be a wonderful learning experience for Grace and because, he said, you should never, ever stand in God’s way.
Jory thought it also had something to do with the fact that her parents were scared to death of Grace. Especially lately. Lately, for some unknown reason, Grace had become an even more exaggerated version of her already odd and intense and intractable self. Grace had always been tall and straight with very serious gray eyes and black winglike eyebrows and had played the piano in front of the whole church with no sheet music and no mistakes, but suddenly last spring she had stood up during the middle of Sunday evening service and testified that she was now sanctified and had rededicated her life to Christ and to His Kingdom, and then she had worked all summer long as a youth minister and turned around and put the paycheck Pastor Ron gave her directly into the offering plate when it was passed to her during early service. Jory still remembered the look on her mother’s face when she saw Grace’s three-hundred-dollar check lying in the collection plate. Come Ye Apart, it said on the purple-and-gold satin banner that hung above the choir loft at the front of the church. Even so, Jory knew her parents were worried that Grace had come a little too far apart. But how could they complain? What would they say? That their oldest daughter was just too selfless and holy and Christlike? Sometimes Jory wanted to ask Grace things. To look into her cool, pond-bottom gray eyes and ask her if she, Jory, had imagined that moment in church, that tiny second when Jory could swear she had seen Grace smile just as the collection plate reached their mother’s outstretched hand.
“Aren’t you scared?” Jory asked as Grace folded a lilac-sprigged nightgown on top of everything, tucking its lacy bottom edge into a corner of the suitcase.
“Of what?” Grace closed the lid on the suitcase and fastened the latch with two quick clicks.
“I don’t know . . . being gone, I guess.” Jory drew her knees up and tucked her chin between them. “Being that far away.”
Grace gazed at her and smiled. It was the same brilliant smile she gave to all the visitors in church as she handed them each a Welcome Friends sticker, and to Ruby and Pearl, the retarded twins in Vacation Bible School, and to Richard Richardson, the hugely fat-bottomed choir director each time she told him, no, she was very flattered and honored, but no, she wasn’t allowed to date until she was eighteen. “You don’t think that God was scared when He came down to earth as a man, do you?” Grace asked.
Jory stared at her sister’s fathomless gray eyes. No, she thought. I bet he was petrified.
Tonight was Grace’s good-bye dinner. In the kitchen, there was a large chocolate cake with pink frosting that read We Love You, Grace in smeary letters. Jory had spent most of the afternoon making the cake while her mother was in the bedroom crying. At one point during the afternoon, her mother had come out and blown her nose and then picked up the frosting tube and written Don’t Go, Grace in large, shaky white letters. Right before dinner Jory had blended the letters back into the frosting and started again.
Now the five of them sat in their usual places around the maplewood table. Her father was squashing his lentil loaf into a paste and forking it into his mouth in the happy fashion he did every night. He glanced up at Jory and smiled. Jory looked back down at her plate and began cutting her loaf into smaller and smaller pieces. She moved these pieces around to brand-new locations on her plate. Once, in fifth grade, her Sunday School teacher had invited all the girls in her class to spend the night. After they had gotten done splashing around in Mrs. Jewel’s freezing blue swimming pool, Mrs. Jewel had made them dinner: spicy cooked hamburger and cheese with shredded lettuce and tomato chunks in some kind of hard envelope-like shells. “What are these?” Jory had asked Mrs. Jewel, still shivering slightly under her beach towel. “They’re wonderful.” “You mean the tacos?” Mrs. Jewel had said, opening her eyes wide and laughing. Jory had laughed quickly too, and said no, no, she was just joking—she loved tacos, they were her favorite. Now she stirred her canned peas with her fork. She knew that her family and their habits were beyond strange. Even in fifth grade it had been apparent that her parents were of a different breed than the rest of the citizens of Arco. The Quanbecks didn’t even pass unnoticed in their own evangelical church, which was full to the brim with odd conservative folks of every stripe and shade. Jory hadn’t realized the full extent of their strangeness when she was younger, but with each passing year the exotic nature of her family was becoming more noticeable. And more horrifying. And it wasn’t just the food that they ate or didn’t eat, or the old battered car that they drove (which had been given to her father from the college in lieu of a paycheck), or the endless book reading, or even the plain and modest hand-me-down clothes that each of the Quanbeck daughters wore in turn. It was the fact that her parents acted as if this were the better, more superior way. As if it were not only vital, but practically holy to never watch TV or buy anything new or show any interest in what was modern or current or popular or fun. And it was being these very things—modern and current and popular and fun—that Jory most wished for and aspired to in life. And this was a problem.
“I’m going to take baton twirling with Deedee Newman,” Frances announced suddenly.
“So,” said Jory.
“It costs fifteen dollars and it’s at the high school gym.” Frances stared unblinkingly at Jory. “It’s all summer.” Now Frances turned toward their mother. “Dad said I could.”
Jory’s mother seemed to be saying something with her napkin. She creased and recreased one edge of it. “Baton twirling, Oren?” she said in a strange voice. “Isn’t that the type of thing cheerleaders and Miss America contestants do?”
Jory’s father stopped chewing. He picked up his glass of milk and then seemed to think better of it. He cleared his throat. “Well, it seems to me that they’re just little girls, Esther. Does it really matter if a few little girls march around in a gym pretending to twirl batons? I don’t think baton twirling is technically a form of dancing.”
Her mother wadded up the creased napkin and threw it at Jory’s father. It hit him softly in the tie and then fell onto his plate. He sat perfectly still, looking at their mother in disbelief.
Grace held her fork and knife suspended above her plate. “Would it be possible to borrow your Spanish Bible commentary, Dad? Pastor Ron says that yours is probably quite a bit more comprehensive than mine.”
Jory’s father turned his head toward Grace and opened his mouth slightly just as their mother stood up and grabbed Jory’s plate. “Jory, if you’re not going to eat that, why don’t you give it to Frances? I can’t stand it when you leave perfectly good food just lying there.” With two quick swipes, she scraped its contents noisily onto Frances’s clean plate.
Frances surveyed her newly filled plate and took several deep breaths. “I do too get to take baton,” she wailed. “I already picked one out and it has silver and gold streamers and I have four dollars of allowance left.” She gulped frantically.
“Frances.” Grace leaned forward. “Pastor Ron says that at least half of the children in Guanajuato are severely malnourished. Think how lucky you are. Those children have probably never even seen lentil loaf.”
Jory’s mother knit her dark eyebrows together. “Was that some kind of a joke?”
“We have cake!” Jory jumped up and glanced from person to person. “We have cake,” she said again, a little more softly.
“I like cake,” her father said.
“Oh, by all means,” her mother said, rubbing at her temples with both hands. “Bring on the cake.”
Now there were only four lawn chairs and four books and once a week an airmail letter covered with stamps of bright birds with yellow-and-green tails. The letters weighed nothing when Jory held them in her hand. Inside the paper was crinkle thin and lavender colored and covered with Grace’s firm, straight up-and-down printing. The church in Guanajuato was going up on schedule. Grace was learning to make bricks. The villagers were very grateful for the box of clothes and old Reader’s Digests and the powdered milk. On a bus ride to Lake Chapala, Grace had seen an old woman carrying a chicken in her purse and once the chicken got out and another old woman grabbed the chicken and put it in her purse and then there was a fight—a big fight.
“Oh,” Jory’s mother said, her lips crumpling at the corners. She brought the letter closer to her face and squinted a little as if she might have read it wrong.
“A chicken!” Frances screeched. “How did she fit a chicken in her purse?”
“Shh, Frances. Their purses are probably different than ours—more like big mesh bags or something.” Her mother waved her hand as if waving away all purses everywhere. “Anyway,” their mother said, lifting the letter up again. “She says the church group visited a coffee plantation, and then they went to the mercado, where everyone bought bananas and mangoes, which were delicious, and really nothing at all like American fruit. Oh!” she said, dropping the letter back into her lap. “Don’t they need to wash the fruit? Oren! Don’t they?”
Their father put down his magazine. “I’m sure they did, Esther. Grace is a very smart girl.” He smiled and tried to pat their mother’s hand, but she was peering at the letter again, and he patted the metal armrest of her lawn chair instead.
Their mother sighed and shook out the lavender paper and continued reading: “‘There are men everywhere here. They line the streets and alleys. None of them seem to have jobs. They stare at me and make comments and hissing noises through their teeth. Pastor Ron says it is probably because I’m so tall. That they’ve probably just never seen a girl as tall as me before.’” Their mother’s voice died suddenly away and she jerkily refolded the lavender sheets and stuffed them back into the envelope, but she hadn’t done a very good folding job and now the letter didn’t seem to fit anymore.
Frances squinted at her mother. “Shouldn’t she have said ‘I’?”
“Shut up, Frances.” Jory stood up out of her lawn chair and grabbed her little sister’s hand. “C’mon, I think I hear the ice cream man.”
“Ow! You’re hurting my arm.” Frances glared reproachfully at Jory. “I don’t hear anything.”
Jory said nothing but held tight to Frances’s strong little hand and pulled her down the sidewalk. She stopped after about a block and a half. “Listen,” she said.
“Oh.” Frances’s face softened. “How did you hear him?”
“I don’t know.” Jory shrugged. “I just always do.”
The truck’s tinkly carnival music reminded Jory of things just barely hidden, like Easter eggs and sparklers the second before they catch and light. The two of them stood together watching the small white truck approaching in tiny increments, its tinny music growing ever louder. Finally it swerved over to the curb and stopped next to them. The man inside stared down at them expectantly as the music ground to a halt. “That’s not Al,” said Frances loudly.
“It’s okay.” Jory walked staunchly toward the open door of the truck. “She’ll have the Chocolate Swirl and I’ll take a cherry Push Up.” Jory blinked a couple of times in quick succession and then took the smallest of steps backward.
“Hm-mm,” said the man sitting in the driver’s seat. He leaned his elbow on the steering wheel and rested his chin in his hand. His long red hair was tied back with an old black shoestring. “They’re made with whipped lard, you know.”
“What?” Jory practically whispered. Was he talking to her?
“Whipped lard. Not even real lard, actually.” He grinned, revealing a silver tooth somewhere in the back of his mouth. “Fake lard. Now that’s worth thirty-five cents of babysitting money.”
“I don’t babysit.” Jory could feel a rush of blood flooding her neck and face.
“I—I’m not very maternal.”
“Me either.” The ice cream man frowned at her. “Who’s this, then?”
“My little sister.” Jory tried to bring Frances around in front of her, but Frances was having none of it.
“Well, Sister Sue,” the ice cream man said, opening the lid on his silver freezer and pulling out a chocolate-covered ice cream bar, “here’s your bit of sheer deliciousness, or as delicious as you can get using ice milk.” He stepped down one of the truck’s steps and held the paper-covered treat out to Frances. Frances was clutching the back of Jory’s shorts and would not let go, so Jory took the ice cream for her. “And,” he said, reaching back into the freezer again, “one cherry Push Up for the lady with daisies in her eyes.” He held the ice cream bar in front of his chest. Jory noted the hand holding the ice cream. There were tiny red hairs on each of his knuckles and some kind of blue tattoos between two of his fingers. She reached into her pocket again and pulled out the quarters. “Nah,” he said and gave his head a shake. “These are definitely on the house.” Jory had to take the ice cream. She reached for it and felt his fingers, rough and warm, still holding the wooden stick. “Well,” the ice cream man said, and moved up into the driver’s seat, “back to work.” He nodded at Jory. “Look out. Those melt quick.”
Jory watched as the truck lurched away from the curb and then tootled on down the street.
“Who was that?” Frances asked, her ice cream sloping toward the sidewalk. “Do you know him, Jory?”
“I’m not sure,” she said slowly, not sure which question she was answering.
Early the next morning, even before it got hot, the lady from the tall stucco house on the corner came to ask if Grace could babysit, and of course Grace was in Mexico and had been for a month, so now, amazingly enough, Jory had a job. A real job that paid a dollar twenty-five an hour, even though Jory wasn’t very maternal.
Mrs. Hewett was beautiful like Linda Evans on The Big Valley, but with higher heels and still higher hair. Her husband was a private detective. Jory’s mother always said she couldn’t imagine what on earth there was to detect in Arco, Idaho.
Now, at the suggestion of Jory’s new job, her mother was shaking her head. “She smokes,” she said. “And that skirt!” She made the strange clucking noise in the back of her throat that stood for all manner of verbal disapproval. “I don’t think so.”
“I’ll be good. I’ll do a good job. I can witness.” This last was a final effort on Jory’s part. A trump card that should be pulled out only in emergency situations.
Her mother lifted one eyebrow. “That would be the day,” she said. “At the very least, though, I expect you to be a good example over there. A good Christian example, Jory.”
Monday afternoon found Jory at the Hewetts’, dutifully poking Barbie and Ken into their coral-colored Corvette and arguing with Dinah, Mrs. Hewett’s three-year-old daughter, about which doll would drive.
“Barbie doesn’t drive,” Dinah was insisting. “And Skipper’s the baby.”
“Skipper is nobody’s baby. She’s like some cousin or orphan or something. I mean, look at her hat.”
“I don’t like you.” Dinah chugged over and climbed up into a high-backed chair at the far end of the living room.
“What a coincidence.” Jory rewound her ponytail and then pulled a piece of gum out of her shorts pocket. She began to unwrap it and then stopped. She held the piece of gum out. “Want some?”
Dinah climbed warily down from the chair. She hummed a little as she dragged Skipper’s dog along on its side by its little leash, then sat down on the floor to unwrap the gum. “Skipper can too go.”
“Only if she’s in the trunk.” Jory rolled the Corvette along the sculptured carpet. “They’re probably gonna make out. You know, kiss and stuff. Strictly grown-up beeswax.”
Jory stopped the car and folded her legs under, Indian-style. “You do know how to kiss, don’t you?” She rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “Look, I’ll show you. Come over here.”
Still clutching the plastic dalmatian, Dinah inched closer to Jory.
“Stick out your lips a little. Like this. And close your eyes.” Jory leaned forward and touched Dinah’s lips with her own. They were smoother and different than she’d imagined. It was like kissing a fat flower come to life. Jory sat back. “Now this time you kiss me.”
Dinah rested one small hand on Jory’s shoulder and pressed her face up next to Jory’s. She smelled like baby shampoo and graham crackers. Jory felt a small worm twist sweetly somewhere in her stomach. Dinah carefully put her mouth on Jory’s and Jory pressed down a little, turning her head slowly from side to side.
“See, that’s how they do it on TV.” Jory smiled and pushed her bangs back. “Doesn’t your mom ever kiss you like that?”
“No. Jory, I want some Quik.”
“Doesn’t she kiss your dad like that? I bet they do when you’re asleep.”
“Why can’t Pinky come in?”
“Because he pees all over everything, that’s why. C’mon, after your Quik you’re supposed to take a nap.”
Jory opened the door a little and peeked in to see if Dinah was really asleep or only pretending. She could hear the clock’s soft tick and Dinah sighing a tiny bit every once in a while. She took off her Keds and padded quietly over the thick carpet.
In the Hewetts’ bedroom the shades were down; only amber-colored light filtered through and lay in slanted bands across the floor. The bed was huge and covered by a shiny deep purple bedspread. Jory sat down on the edge of it and felt the smoothness under her bare legs. She ran her hand along the satiny bedspread and then over the knobs of the dresser beside it. In the top drawer were panties and bras and complicated-looking garter belts. Jory pinched the rubber stocking nibs in and out of their metal clips. Mrs. H had day-of-the-week panties exactly like hers! Saturday stitched in red on black nylon—obviously the most sinful day. Her Monday and Tuesday panties had faint stains in the crotch, though. Not blood, which Jory knew about in theory, but something else. She glanced back at the bedroom door and then quickly pulled her tank top off over her head. She tried on each bra in turn. The black lace one that had no straps at all but still stayed up, and the shiny red bra that had rubbery push-up pads that snapped in and out. She examined herself in the round vanity mirror. Her new nipples seemed very small and pale peeking out of the dark blue lace. She turned to the side to see. The mirror was low and she couldn’t see her head at all, only the bra and the bare skin below. She touched one of her nipples for a second and watched it pinch together at the tip. An internal string of some sort tugged tight between her nipple and her navel and Jory quickly unhooked the bra and crammed her tank top back on. She folded the bras back into the drawer, skipping entirely over the slips and nylons, with only a quick glance at the Summer’s Eve boxes and can of Gentle Spring Hygiene Spray.
The bottom two drawers evidently belonged to the detective. Boring black and brown socks in neat rolls, white jockey shorts (gross and huge!), and tons of pitted-out undershirts. And under the undershirts were magazines. Jory sat down on the floor and held one in her lap. She turned each page, a weight settling inside her that was heavy and fluttery at the same time. Miss February cupped her own impossible breasts as if testing them for ripeness. Some of the women did this to their bottoms or the inside of their thighs as well. Miss August appeared to be in pain or possibly praying. A tiny cartoon woman wearing only gloves winked as she rode a rocketlike lipstick toward a long-tongued moon.
After closely inspecting all of them, Jory felt like the time she’d gone swimming in her cousins’ pool with an ear infection. Her head and chest were tight and buzzing and she had a strong desire to run her fingertips over and into the pictures—the women were so smooth and swollen, and oddly more real than anything she had ever seen. Women like this actually lived somewhere and knew that men were turning the pages slowly and then faster to look and look and look at them. They wanted men to be looking at them. Didn’t they? Jory stood up and began shakily stuffing the magazines back into the drawer. She couldn’t remember what order they had been in, which month had been on top. It probably didn’t matter. Within seconds, she had refolded the undershirts and tried to smooth away any footprints she might have left in the carpet, then closed the bedroom door with a soft click.
Virgil Vail stood on the platform playing “Fill My Cup, Lord” on his trumpet while the elders passed the collection plates from row to row. Rhonda Russell snickered and nudged Jory, showing how she was missing two front teeth on top, even though she was nearly fourteen. The dentist said it was just too bad and a fluke, but Jory thought that, even without her front teeth, her best friend possessed the allure of a gypsy. She had slanted cat eyes and black bangs that hung down to her eyelashes and knew all the lyrics to “Cherry Hill Park” and everything else that was necessary to know. Everything that Jory had no thought of knowing. Rhonda had even gotten Andre, of Andre’s Hair Salon, to pierce her ears. Jory was filled with unbelievable envy. Jory’s family was so strange, and Rhonda’s whole life was so cool. Even Rhonda’s parents were cool. Even though her father was a Christian music minister, he let Rhonda and her sisters watch TV and drink Coke and straighten their hair. A few times Rhonda’s mom had even driven Rhonda and Jory to Super Thrift, where they had spent the better part of several afternoons deeply ensconced behind the makeup counter, carefully testing all the lipsticks for just the proper shade of frostiness. Jory had swiveled the beautiful pinky-white crayons up and down, inhaling their diaper rash ointment smell and picturing a tube’s gold chunkiness sliding oh so neatly into her imaginary fringed leather purse.
As Virgil Vail and his trumpet stepped down from the platform, Brother Elmore stood up from his chair and moved briskly toward the pulpit. “Tonight we have a special treat,” he said, rubbing his hands and grinning broadly at the Wednesday night crowd. “Our church’s very own science scholar, Dr. Oren Quanbeck, is going to speak to us. You all know who he is, so I don’t even have to offer up his ten-page résumé.” Brother Elmore grinned again.
Rhonda turned to Jory and widened her cat eyes. “It’s your dad,” she whispered.
“I know,” said Jory. She squinched her toes together inside her shoes.
“His distinguished record speaks for itself,” Brother Elmore continued. “And even if we don’t all understand everything he says”—Brother Elmore paused to let a murmur of laughter run through the congregation—“we know we will be the better for hearing it. So, as it says in Matthew 11:15, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Brother Elmore smiled once more and stepped away from the pulpit.
Jory stared fixedly at the wooden floor beneath the pew. She refused to lift her eyes toward the front of the church, where her father, in his good brown sports jacket and striped tie, was shuffling some three-by-five-inch note cards against the wooden top of the pulpit. She had heard him practicing this speech down in the bomb shelter earlier that afternoon and she knew exactly how it went. Even so, it gave her a strange feeling in her stomach to listen to that voice and those words coming out of the pulpit microphone. It seemed as if he were speaking into her ear alone, but through an enormous tunnel of some kind that filled all the available space in the church with his particular and achingly familiar voice. She peeped out from under her lids at the people sitting in the pews close by. They were all staring straight ahead, intent—listening to her father. Jory felt naked. And nervous. And fearfully, fearfully proud. The three things her father always made her feel.
Her father set his note cards down and paused for a moment. “There wasn’t a lot of excitement on my father’s farm in Kansas,” he said, “just mainly work, but I found that in the summer evenings I could go into my mother’s vegetable garden and lie down and look up at the stars, and it was a wonderland. It was also, I guess,” her father continued, “a form of escapism. I was captivated by the notions of infinite space, of how the planets moved and what the stars were made of. From the age of six or seven I can remember wondering about these things.” Jory knew the part that was coming next; she could feel herself anticipating the words as if she had made them up herself. How by the age of twelve her father had made a radio out of chicken wire and an old vacuum tube, and at fourteen he had built his own telescope. It was then, he said, that he’d had his first glimpse of the real magnitude and mystery of the heavens and man’s tiny, ridiculous place in it.
It was that same year that his mother became ill, very ill. The doctors in town said tuberculosis, then rheumatic fever. His mother grew so thin he could see her ribs beneath her dress. She lay in bed, her breath only the smallest movement of the bedcovers. He did his chores and then tried to learn how to cook so his father would have something to eat when he came in from the cornfields. On Palm Sunday, his mother asked his father to bring the elders to their house after church. He could still remember the sight of the eight men in black suits and dusty farmers’ hats walking single file up their dirt driveway. He peeked in from the doorway as the men took their places around his mother’s bedside and prayed, the mingled rise and fall of their voices sounding like the hum of his father’s bee boxes in springtime. As they prayed, one of the men brought a small brown bottle of oil out of his pocket and placed several drops of it on his mother’s forehead, rubbing it in with his callused thumb. They moved closer to his mother then, leaning across the bed to each place their two hands on some part of her body. As he watched, he felt a sudden, hot jolt run through his throat and down his legs—he could remember the feeling still—as if he’d been plugged into a socket, as if it were his body they were touching instead of hers. Later that day, his mother sent him out to the barn to find his father, who had been pretending to trim some of the horses’ hooves while the elders were there. When they came inside, she was sitting up in bed, her hair combed and braided, and she told his father that she wanted some peach cobbler. Made with the sweet white Elbertas from the back end of the orchard. She smiled. He and his father spent the rest of the evening picking peaches in the dark.
“I knew that my mother had been healed, and that it was a miracle,” he was saying now over the congregation. He cleared his throat and readjusted his reading glasses, pushing them farther up onto the bridge of his nose.
“I am a scientist now myself,” he said, “and perhaps ironically, one of the very things that continues to convince me of the existence of God is the so-called ‘inexplicable.’ Consider the essential mystery of the birth of the cosmos. The recipe that was required for its creation is mind-boggling in both its complexity and precision.” Jory’s father spread out his hands as if to indicate the immense difficulty of the explanation he was about to give. “For example, the strength of the attractive nuclear forces in our universe is so peculiarly precise that, were it even slightly different, hydrogen would be a rare element, stars like the sun could not exist, and the emergence of life would have been impossible. Had the nuclear forces been weaker, on the other hand, hydrogen would not burn and there would be no heavy elements, and again, we would not have a universe hospitable to creatures like us. The universe, moreover, is constructed on such a scale that stars in a typical galaxy are twenty million million miles apart; were the distances between stars just two million million miles, life could not have survived on our planet.”
Jory cringed slightly at the mention of all these million-millions. It reminded her of math class and she was worried that other people were being reminded too. Sermons should have only very simple equations with small numbers in them. People couldn’t remember the huge sums. Grace had told her this.
“Consider too the careful positioning of our very own earth,” her father was saying, oblivious to Jory’s or anyone else’s mathematical dismay. “In order for any planet to produce life—complex life, such as ours did—it has to lie within what we astronomers euphemistically call the ‘Goldilocks Zone’: a distance from its star that is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. It is only in this zone that a planet would be close enough to the star to have liquid water, yet not so close that its oceans would boil away, and not so far that its oceans would freeze.
“But how exactly did all this careful exactness and minute precision come about? you may ask. How did this perfect recipe for creation occur? Was the universe with its life-giving laws and perfectly spaced galaxies a marvelous fluke, a random accident, a precipitous bit of happenstance?” Jory’s father leaned forward. “I am convinced that the enormous complexity of the cosmos together with the marvelous harmony of reality bear witness to the plausibility of a creator. Can I prove this theory? No. Can I prove the opposite? No. Nor can any other scientist. For all of science’s brave claims to the contrary, the birth of the universe still remains a mystery—an unexplainable miracle. Much like the healing of a physical body. Or the splendor of the night sky above a Kansas farm. Or an old man and a young boy picking peaches in the dark.”
Jory’s father stood holding the wooden sides of the lectern. “Many Christians seem to fear that the end result of scientific inquiry is an inevitable loss of faith. I find this notion somewhat confusing since my lifelong study has only reaffirmed my belief that a mighty hand is at work in the wonders of the world. We must remember”—Jory’s father’s voice seemed to be shaking its finger slightly—“the ability to question and search for answers is a God-given one. We were made by Him to think and to wonder and, yes, sometimes even to doubt. But the natural world is always there as a reminder of the glory and majesty and the mystery of its Maker. Even Job on his ash heap gazed around him and wondered where the light came from and how the hail was formed. We should do no less. May God bless you,” her father said. “And keep you.” He turned from the pulpit and walked back to the empty chair behind him.
“Your dad’s so smart,” said Rhonda. She twirled a lank piece of black hair between her fingers. “Does he like peaches or what?”
Brother Elmore stood at the podium, smiling. “Thank you so much, Brother Quanbeck, for those truly inspiring words of wisdom.” He held up the night’s bulletin. “Now don’t forget,” he said. “After the service there will be a potluck in Franklin Hall to celebrate the Jewels’ return from Papua, New Guinea. They are only here on a short sabbatical, so I know you’ll all want to come and greet them—if not with a holy kiss, then at least a friendly handshake.”
Jory and Rhonda were waiting for Brent Sandoval to request “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” for Rhonda. They listened to Rhonda’s transistor radio clear till ten o’clock, but they couldn’t really tell because there were lots of L.’s, and even two L.R.’s, but none of them were from B.S. “I don’t like him anyway.” Rhonda was bent over in her nightgown, polishing her toenails. “He’s like half Indian or something.”
“Why doesn’t he go with Stormy Aguilar, then?”
“Maybe they’re from warring tribes or something.” Rhonda ran her tongue over her toothless spot and they screamed with laughter and ran out into the living room even though they had their shortie pajamas on.
“Girls. Really.” Rhonda’s mother glanced up mildly from the white nurse’s uniform she was hemming. “How’s your sister doing, Jory? Isn’t she in Puerto Rico now?”
“She’s in Mexico.” Jory sat down breathlessly in one of the Russells’ orange plastic chairs. “She’ll be back in a few weeks.”
“That’s right. Well, I hope she isn’t drinking the water.” Mrs. Russell tossed the white dress onto the seat of a rocking chair. “Oh, my,” she said, stretching her freckled arms above her head and bending from side to side until her back made a sudden popping sound. “You know, you wouldn’t catch any of my four heading off on a mission. Not unless it was to Bermuda and there were nothing but good-looking boys there.”
“Oh, Ma.” Rhonda gave her mother a look of disgust and then fell backward onto the couch.
Jory gazed around her. This was where she wanted to live. If only the Russells would agree, she could call her parents and tell them that this was where she would be staying from now on. She could sleep on their ratty orange couch and eat their tater tots and wear all of Rhonda’s clothes. The air here was filled with some kind of greasy warmness—like fried hamburger left overnight in a pan. The whole house was messy and sloppy and unfolded. You could eat cereal out of the box. There was cereal! And no one seemed to care one whit about particle physics or whether sanctification was a secondary act of grace or if lentils were the best-known source of protein and vitamin B.
Sometime later that night, Jory tried to tell Rhonda about the detective’s magazines, about how the naked women had practically emerged and sprung forth from the pictures, but Rhonda just peered at her sideways and said, “You are seriously a homo,” and went back to playing the bottom hand of “Heart and Soul” on their rickety old piano.
Jory bumped Grace’s ten-speed up into a slot in the bike rack in front of Super Thrift. She unhooked her beaded change purse from around the handlebars and counted the folded bills that were packed tightly inside. She zipped it up again and slipped the coin purse into the back pocket of her cutoffs. The automatic door whooshed open and she walked into the Listerine coolness of the store, heading straight for aisle C. She stopped in front of the display case. It was still there. The Budding Beauty by Maidenform in a 30AA. Lightly padded for extra shaping with crisscross straps for gentle support and elastic stretch cups to allow for change in the still-growing teen. The girl on the front of the box smiled tanly in her half slip and bra.
Jory held the box next to her stomach and floated toward the makeup and jewelry section. If the lipstick was still $3.99, she would definitely have enough left over for a bottle of Love’s Fresh Lemon Cologne. Anyway, Rhonda Russell wore Love’s Baby Soft Cologne, so it wouldn’t be like copying. What if she got some of that Sun In stuff you sprayed on your hair to make it blonder? Her mother would kill her—she said bleached hair was cheap with a capital C, for tramps with a capital T.
Jory picked up a pair of silver hoop earrings with tiny stars suspended from the center. She held them next to one ear and then the other, moving the display mirror so she could see. Her mother had said no pierced ears ever—it was in the church manual. Jory sighed and put the earrings back on the display counter and then turned and headed for the lipstick case. She would have to decide between Icicle Frost and Petal Pale. What a choice. She pulled one tube out of the display case and then the other. The goldy caps slid off with the most satisfying little suctioned pops. Twisting the waxy sticks up, she rubbed a tiny bit of each of the pointed tips onto her wrist. They both appeared sufficiently silvery—maybe Icicle Frost was a little bit more glossy, though. She felt a thrill run through her. At home she would put on her bra and a little bit of the lipstick and her white T-shirt with the lace inset and before her mother could say anything she would ride Grace’s bike over to Kurtz Park to see if Rhonda was there. Her head seemed to open like a window, and she walked as fast as she could toward the front of the store. A very small man with a blue short-sleeved shirt and large armpit stains suddenly stood in front of her. He took a step closer and squeezed her elbow. Hard.
“Come on,” he said. Jory could think of nothing except the smell of Sen-Sen on his breath. The little man walked her and her bra box quickly down the garden supply aisle and toward the back of the store. Jory could feel a kind of fistlike burning in her chest. “What’s wrong? I don’t understand what’s going on,” she said. He walked her through a set of swinging doors and then suddenly they were inside a little room marked EMPLOYEES ONLY.
What People are Saying About This
“The Girl Who Slept with God is a deeply moving and beautiful novel that challenges our notions about faith, family and community. Val Brelinski is a gorgeous writer – compassionate and spare, generous and insightful – and this novel will stay with me for a long time. I loved it.”
—Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans
“What is it about the stark snows and broiling summers of Idaho that make an evangelical life seem both so compelling and so alien? Brelinski’s gorgeously textured debut novel reveals the love and the pain of growing up in a community at war with the worldly, and thus the world. Inventive and dynamic, The Girl Who Slept With God put me constantly in mind of Housekeeping, but rubbed roughly against life as we live it, with drugs and high school and “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The questions in these pages are, above all, moral ones: what can we do when our duty toward our God-fearing family contradicts our duty toward God? And what if both those duties contradict our duty toward ourselves? Twinning grace and humor with startling psychological depth, Brelinski’s debut novel is bold, sometimes unnerving, and chock full of the moments, insights, and beauty we read for.”
—Scott Hutchins, author of A Working Theory of Love
Reading Group Guide
Jory Quanbeck used to know her place in the world. The daughter of evangelical Christians, Jory knew she would never be as devout as her older sister, Grace. Like Grace, Jory dutifully abides by Esther and Oren Quanbeck’s stringent rules, but the thirteen-year-old is curious about her changing body and the worldly temptations beyond her reach. Then Grace unexpectedly disgraces the family, setting both sisters adrift and blurring their once black-and-white moral landscape.
When Grace was seven years old, two missionaries—recently returned from Swaziland—spoke at the Quanbeck’s church. Grace “knew right then that I was being called by God to be a foreign missionary” (p. 55). Ten years later, Grace fulfills her dream, spending a summer in rural Mexico spreading God’s word. No one imagined that Grace would return to Idaho pregnant, claiming to have been chosen by God to bear His child.
While Grace is away, Jory discovers new worlds at home. The Hewitts, a neighboring family, hire her to babysit their daughter. It’s the first money Jory can call her own, and exploring Mrs. Hewitt’s lingerie drawer and Mr. Hewitt’s girly magazines awakens a host of exciting—and unsettling—new feelings.
Then Jory meets Grip, the town’s new ice cream truck man. Scruffy, tattooed, and mysteriously alluring, Grip isn’t like anyone she’s met at church or at Arco Christian Academy. Despite being an adult, he gives Jory his undivided attention and seems to understand her in a way that her parents never have.
Educated at Harvard, Oren Quanbeck teaches astronomy at the local Bible college. For him, science and religion are not at odds. He deeply believes that “the enormous complexity of the cosmos together with the marvelous harmony of reality bear witness to the plausibility of a creator” (p. 34). His beliefs about God, bland wholesome foods, and modesty in all things form the bedrock of their family life.
Esther Quanbeck joined the church when she married Oren, but she is no longer the slim, happy young woman Jory sees in old photographs. “It made Jory both angry and dismayed to think that her and her sisters’ introduction into the world had effected this transformation” (p. 18). Grace’s pregnancy pushes Esther to the brink, and she soothes herself with an endless stream of “headache pills” (p. 62).
Hoping to restore peace, Oren moves Grace and Jory out of the family home to live alone on the other side of town. Jory transfers to the nearby secular high school, where the girls are allowed to wear pants and getting drunk is part of growing up. What Oren doesn’t foresee is that his two daughters—along with Grip and their elderly neighbor Mrs. Kleinfelter—will forge a makeshift family of their own.
Set in 1970 and illuminating the social upheaval of the era, The Girl Who Slept with God offers both a profound exploration of faith and family, as well as a heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale. Val Brelinski’s stunning debut novel will resonate with readers long after the final page.
1. What does Grace’s interaction with the Reisensteins—the Quanbecks’ Jewish neighbors—tell you about her?
2. Would you say that the Quanbecks had a happy family life before the summer of 1970?
3. If Grace hadn’t become pregnant, how do you imagine Esther and Oren would have handled Jory’s budding sexuality?
4. Do you think that Esther and Oren ever considered the possibility that Grace was telling the truth about her pregnancy? Would you?
5. Midway through the novel, Jory lies about starting her first menstrual cycle. Later, it actually does begin. What is the significance of these two incidents?
6. Jory comes to rely upon Mrs. Kleinfelter, who helps the two sisters and becomes like a grandmother to them. Does Mrs. Kleinfelter also benefit from helping Jory and Grace?
7. How did your opinion of Grip change over the course of the novel? Is he a predator?
8. At the beginning of The Girl Who Slept with God, Jory often feels overshadowed by her older sister’s inflexible and unwavering piety. Grace, in turn, seems almost to ignore Jory. How does the relationship between the two sisters evolve over the course of the novel? Is their dynamic largely a result of birth order or of Jory’s and Grace’s respective religious beliefs?
Spoiler Warning: Don’t Read Further if You Don’t Want to Know What Happens
9. If Jory had met Laird before Grip, might some of the novel’s later tragedies been averted? Or would Grip have displaced the teenager in Jory’s romantic imagination?
10. Would Grip have initiated a sexual relationship with Jory if Grace hadn’t entered the picture? At seventeen, was Grace old enough to become involved with Grip?
11. Does knowing that she’d been raped cause Grace to lose her faith in God? Or did the knowledge simply force her to accept the possibility that her beliefs weren’t, after all, absolute?
12. Might Grace have been happy with Grip if they had succeeded in escaping together? What are the similarities and differences between Grace and Anneliese, the pregnant hippie at Hope House?
13. Was Esther’s breakdown and separation from Oren inevitable? Will her decision to move to Los Angeles ultimately shield Frances from the worst of the fallout?
14. What would happen to Oren if Jory chose to live with Mrs. Kleinfelter? If you were Jory, could you forgive Oren for the decisions he made?
15. At the end of the novel, Grip blames Oren for what happened to Grace, whereas Jory blames herself for betraying them to her father, and Oren believes it was Grace’s own inflexibility that led her to kill herself. Was any one person culpable for what happened?
16. Are some wounds too deep to heal? What do you think will happen to Jory and Oren?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
[ I received this book free from the publisher through GoodReads/First Reads. I thank them for their generousity. In exchange, I was simply asked to write an honest review, and post it. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising] "Acting upon elements and being acted upon. I'd call that living, wouldn't you?" JoryAnne, Grace and Frances are the three Quanbeck sisters, living with their parents: their depressed mother and their father, a professor at the local Christian College. The oldest, Grace, comes home from a Mission trip pregnant, telling everyone that it was God who gave her the baby. The situation divides the already shaky family as Oren send Grace to a house way outside of town, and imposes the self- same exile on Jory as she's supposed to care for her sister until the "situation" resolves itself. Seen primarily through the eyes of Jory as she tries to do everything for everyone, this book is the story of a shaky tween coming to maturity in a fundamentalist community in Idaho in the 1970s, and how the "real world" crashes in. This is, without a doubt, the most passive-agressive story I have read in many years. I want to slap almost everyone silly. These characters put the -fun- in dysfunctional. All that being said however, Brelinski's writing style, especially her descriptions, is luminous. .
What a stunning debut novel Val Brelinski has written in The Girl Who Slept With God! If you, too, were a teen in the early 1970's, you will be totally captivated by the small details of the times she describes. I felt like I was right there with her delightful and well developed characters. Her characterizations are so well drawn that even the minor characters are very real-to-life. This story is about a seemingly wonderful family coming undone by circumstances. I became deeply attached to the three daughters. The youngest, Frances, who feels left out of all that is happening to her older sisters. I fell in love with Jory the middle sister caught up in a maelstrom of emotions due to happenings beyond her years. A young man of dubious circumstances, who drives the old ice cream truck, becomes her friend and emotional stability. The oldest, Grace, has an evangelical ferocity that begets the catalyst that changes everything. This novel makes apparent that even a devout family with evident faith in God, doesn't keep them from the troubles and suffering endemic to this world. I really appreciated the reality of family dynamics exposed in this book. It would make for a great book club read. I can't wait to see what the extremely talented Brelinski will write next!