The Understory

The Understory

by Elizabeth Leiknes


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610880497
Publisher: Bancroft Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Pages: 254
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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A Novel
By Elizabeth Leiknes

Bancroft Press

Copyright © 2012 The Bancroft Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61088-049-7

Chapter One

There once was a woman named Story Easton who couldn't decide if she should kill herself or eat a double cheeseburger. As Story stared at her refrigerator, she decided it all depended on the cheese. Mozzarella—that would be fine. Cheddar—even better. But Swiss—if that was all she had, things were going to get dicey. Luckily, she found one last slice of pepper-jack, and thus decided to continue her unremarkable life.

Deep down, Story Easton knew what would happen if she attempted to off herself—she would fail. It was a matter of probability. This was not a new thing—failure. She was, and had always been, a failure of fairy-tale proportions. Quitting wasn't Story's problem. She had tried, really tried, lots of things during different stages of her life—Girl Scouts, the viola, gardening, Tommy Andrews from senior year American Lit—but zero cookie sales, four broken strings, two withered azalea bushes, and one uniquely humiliating breakup later, Story still had not tasted success, and with a shriveled-up writing career as her latest disappointment, she realized no magic slippers or fairy dust was going to rescue her from her Anti-Midas Touch. No Happily Ever After was coming.

So she had learned to find a certain comfort in failure. In addition to her own screw-ups, others' mistakes became cozy blankets to cuddle, and she snuggled up to famous failures like most people embrace triumph.

The Battle of Little Bighorn—a thing of beauty.

The Bay of Pigs—delicious debacle.

The Y2K Bug—gorgeously disappointing fuck-up.

Geraldo's anti-climactic Al Capone exhumation—oops!

Jaws III—heaven on film.

Tattooed eyeliner—eyelids everywhere, revolting. Really revolting.

Fat-free potato chips—good Lord, makes anyone feel successful.

Being a member of the Failure Club felt good. Mostly. At least she could close her eyes and pretend it did. So Story Easton lived in a not-so-far-away land, living a not-so triumphant life of failure without tears.

And one Sunday evening in October, the woman who came into this world too stubborn, too proud to cry, was fake-crying again.

She'd done it before. Once, when she was stopped for speeding, she'd broken into a whimpering sob just to see how it felt, for just a moment, to be someone who cried. At first the vulnerability was uncomfortable and foreign, but as she wallowed in it for a few seconds, pretending the weight of the world and the weight of the day had caught up with her, she pulled off an authentic performance.

But there were no tears. There were never any tears. Some things can't be faked.

So in the humble kitchen of her rented house she stood—a bona fide realist who hadn't truly cried since her father died when she was five, and even that she did in a closet where nobody could see. Something about lonely, quiet Sunday evenings always made her hungry, so she fried up a homemade cheeseburger, complete with extra onions—after all, who would she need to keep her breath fresh for? With paring knife in hand, she pierced the onion's outer skin, cutting it into two perfect halves. The aroma began to burn her eyes, and when they welled up, she pretended, for a split second, to weep.

But a slight laugh replaced her pseudo-snivel when she saw how the onions had strangely assembled on the cutting board—five rings had formed a sloppy, but recognizable, Olympics logo. Story marveled at the sight of them. They weren't interlocking—the rings themselves were intact—but still they gave the illusion of unity, which made Story feel even more alone.

A long time ago, back when she still believed in magic and saw tiny, shimmering mysteries in the flickering stars of the Phoenix skyline, even way back then, Story Easton wanted to be someone else. For as far back as her mind could remember, she imagined what it would be like to walk in other people's shoes—and not in a figurative way, either. She wanted, literally, to pull on boots, slip into heels, lace up sneakers, whatever it took to get a glimpse of how it felt to have purpose.

Instead, she drifted through life with the constitution of a wispy, misguided breeze. Her subconscious desire to explore other people's skins manifested in her clothing choices, and each day she wore different vintage thrift-store ensembles, hand-me-downs made from the fabrics of other people's lives, other people's stories woven into each second-hand thread. She hid behind these garments, disguising her real exterior, which was attractive, although she never bothered looking in the mirror. In general, her beauty was contradictory—her rich, auburn hair shined more than her attitude, and her soft, full lips, beautiful by any artist's standard, spewed out hard, caustic words. Like many things in nature, Story was simultaneously beautiful and dangerous.

So Story Easton pushed up the flouncy sleeves on her recycled peasant shirt embroidered with tiny flowers, and ate her cheeseburger. She then finished a game of solitaire. With her emerald-green eyes, she glanced at the confident Queen of Hearts that lay in front of her. Ah, it must be good to be queen, she thought. With a fabulously sexy and witty king to sit by, throne-side, while servants danced about, delivering the day's exciting agenda with trays heaping with mini-cheeseburgers.

But there was no king. And no exciting agenda, either. Earlier in the day, when Story had gone to the local grocery store to buy a bigger wine glass (that way she could tell herself she only drank two glasses on rough evenings, even though it was a whole bottle), the clerk made the mistake of getting personal.

"Just one?" the perky clerk had asked while scanning the bar code stuck to the bottom of the wine glass stem.

Story nodded, trying to avoid eye contact.

And then the clerk asked another question, unaware how Story Easton hated inquiries. "Doin' anything fun today?" she said, an annoying smile engulfing her face.

Hmmm, which should I do first today? Story had thought. Romantic picnic or finish the novel my high-profile literary agent is dying to read? Story decided to reply with something that would shut Chatty Cathy up, so she stared straight into the clerk's bright eyes. "I'm going to do something inappropriate with my cat."

But the clerk just giggled and wrapped the glass in brown packing paper. "Something inappropriate to your poor sweet cat? Why?"

Story rolled her eyes. "Not to my cat, with my cat. Isn't that wicked sick?"

"You're funny!" the clerk said with a wink.

Story slumped out of the store, realizing she failed even at humiliating herself. She wasn't, of course, going to do inappropriate things with her cat. She didn't have a cat. Pets were another of her failures.

But that had been her morning; she was hoping her evening would be better. With her belly full, and her games of solitaire complete, she picked up a small, worn slip of paper she'd found in a fortune cookie eleven months ago, a piece of paper that she'd saved and had been using as a bookmark in her copy of Kafka's The Metamorphosis. As with all of her books, she could recite from memory this story's first line—As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect—but she could not recite its last.

Story had always thought that reading a great first line was a lot like falling in love—surprising, but at the same time, comfortable. And she preferred beginnings to endings, probably because she harbored a subconscious aversion to accomplishment, but as of late, she'd become so disgusted with her own lack of ambition that she'd given up on expectations. In fact, she was so bored with herself that she'd resorted to reciting her favorite novels' first lines to replace her own worn-out words and ideas.

Thinking of it as a beginning she hadn't yet attempted, she opened up the small, folded-up fortune and read the familiar words—Everyone gets one chance to do something great. Yours is coming soon—but when the bitterness of the word "soon" settled in with an unpalatable aftertaste, she tucked it back into the book and, once again, reminded herself that things boasting of magic were usually caked in horse crap. And once again, she managed to find the shit-brown, shadowy side of things. From kindergarten through high school, Story's failings hadn't disappointed her. Sometimes she missed her apathy like she missed things in her less complicated past: Madonna with twenty extra pounds, Fantasy Island reruns, cherry Pop-Tarts with sprinkles.

One month ago, to recapture the feeling of being alive, of feeling alive, Story painted every room in her house a different shade of green, the color of life. The kitchen: pea pod green. The bedroom: hunter green. The bathroom: sage green. The living room: grassy green. But it hadn't helped her feel any more alive, or any more at home, so now, today, after she put her book away, she left her own disappointing house in search of another.

It was clearly nighttime—the time when Story Easton quenched her parched spirit by breaking the law—and so it was on that Sunday night that Story invited herself into a stranger's house for the fourth time that week. Technically, she wasn't on the guest list.

Technically, she was a criminal.

If she'd given her nighttime actions much thought, she'd have pointed out that what she did hurt no one, but she didn't think about it—she felt it. It was a compulsion. One she'd had for three months now.

It had all started on a sultry evening back in July when the motionless Phoenix air too closely resembled her sad and stagnant life, and she'd started seeing the words restless, irritable, and discontent everywhere she looked. They swirled in her triple-shot latte, they sat perched on perky tree branches, and worst of all, they engaged in combat with more palatable adjectives as they passed by on the street with their very satisfied, blissful, and whole owners.

So there she was, three months later, starting the Sunday evening festivities without fanfare, going through rote motions with the fervor of someone about to brush her teeth. She drove around in her hand-me-down Volvo, keeping in mind practical things like parking, lighting, and the fact that she'd never visited this street before. And as she passed house after house, she tried not to let one of Zora Neale Hurston's first lines ruin her fun. Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board.

And then, like the unexpected beauty of a shooting star, she saw a house that intrigued her, a life that intrigued her. Boredom and discontent were replaced by exhilaration and possibility.

"Hmmm," she said to herself as she drove by the split-level she wanted to know more about. On the front stoop, a porch light revealed what the distracted homeowner must have forgotten and left behind in a rush—a brown paper bag full of groceries, with a bunch of bananas sticking out the top. Several other lights were on—twice as many as the other houses—exposing the goings-on inside, and Story was once again amazed at how much you can see into someone's life when it's illuminated. When she slowed the car, she saw a man sitting alone on his couch, pouring from what looked like a whiskey bottle. He displayed a Me-Against-the-World gaze as he stared out his front picture window at nothing at all. Or perhaps he was staring at everything—the overwhelming, all-encompassing everything of things he didn't have but wanted. Story could relate. And as selfish as it was, the idea of surrounding herself with people more screwed-up than her always made her feel better, or at least less screwed-up.

She drove two blocks and parked—this was standard procedure because it cut down on suspicion—and then, for stealth, she put on her light jacket over her dark navy flannel pajamas. Back in July, when she first starting doing this, she'd worn her street clothes, and it made for quite an uncomfortable night. And then there were a few nights when she'd brought her pajamas with her in a small overnight bag, but she found that traveling light enhanced the experience. Besides, changing clothes can get noisy.

As she walked closer to her destination, she realized the house could be a stand-in for Carol and Mike Brady's, complete with '70s exterior flair and a slightly more sophisticated station wagon in the driveway. Story considered possible entry points and decided, as usual, the back entrance was best, but first she grabbed the forgotten groceries on the front porch.

"Shit," she mumbled when she rolled her ankle on a rock in the backyard and dropped the bananas. When the motion light sputtered, she hugged the house to stay in the shadows, and instead of feeling cold, it felt warm and welcoming. When blackness returned, she made her way to a small patio and quietly checked the sliding glass doors she knew would be open.

"God, I could be a serial killer," she whispered while she slowly opened the heavy door and wondered why people didn't lock their doors anymore. Of the scores of homes she'd visited, she'd only had to pry open three locked doors. She'd become quite handy with her makeshift tools—the Leatherman worked well, but the best was an old, metal fingernail file she'd retrofitted for breaking and entering. Way more fun than a manicure.

After taking her slippers off so as not to track in dirt, she put down the groceries and scouted out the lower level of the house. There was one bathroom, a small living space, a kitchenette and, bingo—when she walked to the other side of the stairway, she discovered a bedroom. Its inhabitant was not home, and had been gone awhile, as evident from the layer of dust and overall sense of emptiness.

As Story entered the vacant bedroom, a colorful room with bright pink sheets, a yellow and orange bedspread, and a floor-to-ceiling rainforest mural painted in whimsical, swirling colors, she heard the television upstairs come on for a minute, bellowing a preachy commercial in which an airy, godlike voice asked a series of questions over a soundtrack of inspirational music. "Do you feel lost? Is your life empty and meaningless? Do you ever wonder about those unexplainable coincidences in life? It is all connected. We are all connected." She heard the man from the couch mumble something and then let out an audible, angry sigh. The commercial ended with a sped-up, "Paid for by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." When the television went silent, Story heard the man pour another drink, and shortly after that, creaking bedsprings indicated he'd gone to bed.

Story examined her temporary bed. Above it hung a cartoon picture of a smiling sun—bright, golden, and peaceful. Propped up on two pillows was a pigtailed doll wearing khaki pants, a safari vest, and a little button that said, "Girl Explorers Rock!" And that rainforest mural had each of the forest's four layers labeled with black, hand-drawn words. The Forest Floor, it said at the bottom of the wall, near the carpet, amongst tree roots, leaves, and tiny saplings. The second layer, an area in the trees labeled The Understory, teemed with excitement, appearing as one interconnected world of action and secrets: brightly-colored birds flying about, tree kangaroos clinging incognito, howler monkeys leaping from branch to branch so fast there was an actual blurred brush stroke to illustrate it. The third layer, The Canopy, a roof of treetops, looked like a giant, carpet-like blanket draped over the whole forest. And the highest layer, The Emergent Layer, featured the few stray trees tall and hardy enough to break out of the canopy and stretch toward the sun.

And somewhere between the forest floor and the understory, a big white flower bud jutted out from a gray tree trunk. Having never seen a flower quite like it, Story walked closer. The vines held clusters of waxy, crimson leaves, and the flower itself was closed tightly, each petal hugging the next in layer after layer of silky white.

Story walked to the bedside table and saw a book, Once Upon A Moonflower, featuring a young blonde girl on the cover, alongside the same beautiful white flower from the wall. On the back cover was a picture of a man with salt-and-pepper hair—the same man she'd seen through the window—and underneath the picture was a short biography.


Excerpted from THE UNDERSTORY by Elizabeth Leiknes Copyright © 2012 by The Bancroft Press. Excerpted by permission of Bancroft Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Ben Rogers

Leiknes's love for the interconnectedness of human stories is contagious. Story Easton, the aptly named heroine of this cheeky and irreverent fairy tale, has a charming case of literary Tourette syndrome (among other enchanting quirks) and is a delight to tag along with on her weeklong attempt to make a success of herself. Layer by layer, laugh by laugh, The Understory shows Leiknes's talents in full bloom. (Ben Rogers, Author of acclaimed novel, The Flamer, and recipient of a Nevada Arts Council Fellowship and two Sierra Arts Foundation Literary Artist Endowment Grants)

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The Understory 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
shirfire More than 1 year ago
BOOK REVIEW: THE UNDERSTORY By Elizabeth Leiknes 254 pages; Bancroft Press, Published June 1, 2012 The Understory by Elizabeth Leiknes is an ultimately uplifting tale that shows the power of endurance of the human soul, even under the most tragic circumstances. The lives of Story Easton and a handful of other residents of Phoenix, Arizona unwind before our eyes; revealing intertwinings and connections of a complex nature between those we would otherwise consider strangers—much as the plants and animals of the rain forest are all interconnected to form a dense and complex, living, breathing ecosystem. The rain forest does, indeed, feature prominently in this story. Our heroine, Story Easton is a bit down and out and views herself as a failure at pretty much everything. A domineering mother has quashed any self confidence ever mustered up by Story. Through a series of seemingly unrelated circumstances, she meets some people who are about to change all that. These people, although never having met each other, are very much interconnected with each other; and now with Story is about to become a part of their lives, too. They include a little boy, who has been crushed by a devastating loss and only Story has the key to set his life back on track. It’s heartening to watch as Story realizes that for the first time, she just may succeed at something! Not only that—she MUST succeed. And in the process, she may just have found Mr. Right, as well. Her path to a better perception of herself and those around her, is a heartwarming one for us to follow. Story finds herself both a tool and a recipient of the power of healing. This novel was a very enjoyable read and I found myself getting hooked on the story early on. I heartily recommend The Understory to anyone looking for a good read and some motivation to carry forth! Note: I would like to thank both the publisher and Netgalley for providing a copy of The Understory to me for review purposes.