Miranda Weber is a hot mess. In Paula Whyman’s debut collection of stories, we find her hoarding duct tape to ward off terrorists, stumbling into a drug run with a crackhead, and—frequently—enduring the bad behavior of men. A drivers’ education class pulsing with racial tension is the unexpected context of her sexual awakening. As she comes of age, and in the three decades that follow, the potential for violence always hovers nearby. She’s haunted by the fate of her disabled sister and—thanks to the crack cocaine epidemic of the ’80s, the wars in the Middle East, and sniper attacks—the threat of crime and terror in her hometown of Washington, D.C. Miranda can be lascivious, sardonic, and maddeningly self-destructive, but, no matter what befalls her, she never loses her sharp wit or powers of observation, which illuminate both her own life and her strange, unsettling times.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
PAULA WHYMAN has published stories in Ploughshares, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other literary journals. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A native of Washington, D.C., she now lives in Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
You May See a Stranger
By Paula Whyman
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2016 Paula Whyman
All rights reserved.
According to their ads, the Simple Safe Solution Driving School offered classes "at numerous satellite locations in order to serve a larger geographic area." Our classroom was at the end of a deserted corridor in the basement of the Mackleby-Warner department store. At first I thought the basement looked like the set of a slasher movie: the gray tub filled with naked mannequins and spare body parts was the place where the killer hid his victims. Empty plastic hangers stacked to the ceiling on tall, metal poles, and straight pins covering the floor were instruments of torture. If you stepped on the pins just right, they could go through the sole of your shoe. The main level of the store was like the part of the house visitors were allowed to see, everything clean and perfect, with no indication of what might be amiss (ominous music swelling in the background) One. Floor. Below.
On the first night of class, I sat next to Kevin Thorpe by accident, and after that I always sat next to Kevin Thorpe because sitting anywhere else would seem like a slight. And whenever I arrived in class first, he sat down next to me, which made me perspire in the armpits. He was my ideal: blond curly hair, blue eyes, golden tan — California surfer-boy, far from home — and a pimply nose just to make him seem real.
There were other girls in the class. I don't remember them, except that one or two were pretty. There were other boys, too, like the boys who sat in the back of the class, slumped in their seats, laughing at secret jokes, coughing out cuss words when the teacher turned his back. I tried not to look at them when I thought they might see. One of them — I think his name was Todd — was tall and broad, bigger than all the other boys, so he filled the doorway when he walked in. He wore a flannel shirt unbuttoned over a tight, white T-shirt, and he carried a pack of Marlboro Reds in his front pocket. He made Kevin, who had a solid swimmer's build, look like a scarecrow. I wondered if Todd was eighteen or nineteen and hadn't passed the driving test yet. Maybe he went on to take it two or three times, or maybe he never passed. Maybe he's in jail now or on a work-release program; maybe he's straightened himself out, and he'll be at my house next week to patch drywall.
Most of the students were fifteen or sixteen, with learner's permits. I was one of the youngest. We were there because the free driver's ed program available in high school wouldn't fit into our class schedules, which were full of college-prep courses or, I suspect in the case of Todd and a few others, because the high school program had proved insufficient preparation for the test. This class consisted of six weeks of lectures, two nights a week. After you passed a written test, you could move on to the good part — eight on-the-road lessons in a car with dual controls.
The classroom instructor was Mr. White. He was a lean black man, fortyish, who walked with a limp. One leg wouldn't bend all the way at the knee, so when he paced back and forth in front of the class, the strain of lifting the bad leg from the floor and launching it to the next position was visible in the tendons that stood out on his neck. It was September, and the room was hot. A fan oscillated in the corner, but didn't cool anything beyond the chalkboard where Mr. White scribbled complex X-O diagrams, as if a football coach were trying to illustrate the correct way of backing out of a driveway into traffic. Every fifteen seconds or so, the fan would send a small puff of dust from the chalk tray into the air like a smoke signal. It got so I'd wait for it, watch the particles float up then rain down in slow motion, like ash on Pompeii. Each time Mr. White's bad leg came up, we could see where the toe of his boot had dragged through the chalk dust that had been blown to the floor. Finally, he wised up and shifted the position of the chalkboard so the fan couldn't blow on it. Kevin and I snickered behind our hands. This was a bonding moment.
In spite of the heat in the room, Mr. White wore a pinstripe shirt, the sleeves rolled up to mid-forearm, and brown Sansabelt pants. His forehead popped with little beads of sweat, which made him seem intense, although his most frequent facial expression was one of strained tolerance.
Halfway through the second class, he said, "Let's get this outta the way now, so you don't sit there wondering about it instead of absorbing every word I say, 'cause when you're driving, you better hear my voice in your head until your voice has enough experience" — he enunciated each syllable of the word "experience" — "to take over." I can hear his voice in my head right now, but he's not talking about three-point turns.
He sat down on a tall metal stool and, with a grunt, thrust his bad leg out toward us. Then he tapped on his thigh, just above the knee, with a closed fist. It made a sound like hard plastic.
"I got clipped by sniper fire in the village of Quo Luk, Vietnam," he said. "If you think you need to know more than that, ask now. Next topic, lane changes."
There was a hush in the classroom. Someone's stomach growled. What did I know about the Vietnam War? My history class was still talking about the cotton gin. What did I know about getting shot and hobbling around on a plastic leg? I'm still trying to figure it out, my vision admittedly skewed, a cliché fed by years of war movies: Mr. White walks alone on a dusty road, enters a thatched hut village. He sits down on a fallen tree trunk, fumbles for his rations or for a cigarette. His shoes are covered with muck from marching through the jungle. The place is deserted, eerily quiet. The village seems abandoned. Where's the rest of his platoon? He lights his cigarette and notices a shoe in the dirt behind one of the huts, a shoe just like his, but empty, laces cut, in the stained dirt, dirt stained the color of — and right when he realizes he's the only one left, right when he reaches for his gun, a shot comes from nowhere, then another, tearing open his knee. He drops to the ground and hides behind the tree. His mouth twists in angry agony. The blood flows out from between his fingers as he presses his hands to the wound.
My imagination always gets it wrong. He would not have been alone, walking into a village. If he had been alone, he would not have survived.
Week two was eventful. During the break, Kevin asked me out. The class was two hours long, and the break always came halfway through, for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes was a long time. We went upstairs to the shopping level. Kevin bought me green Jelly Bellies, and we played volleyball with a balled up handout about parallel parking at a net that was set up in sporting goods. He told me his parents were divorced, and his mom still lived in California. He wouldn't see her until Thanksgiving. I thought about how all the cool kids I knew — the ones who were allowed to stay out till midnight, who wore designer blue jeans and had brand new Betamaxes — had divorced parents. But it wasn't their stuff I admired; there was something romantic about their tragic circumstance, the burden borne in solitude, their stoic worldliness. Not that I wanted my parents to divorce, but I tried to picture them living apart, me and my sister going to stay with my dad on weekends. But if one of our parents were always absent, I'd be forced to spend more time alone with my sister, tolerating her moods. And the centrifugal pull of her needs would be doubled, expanding across two households. There was nothing romantic, I realized, about that; I'd only feel more alone. It seemed more appealing to imagine myself as Jane Eyre, with no family at all.
The store closed at 9:00 P.M., but our class wasn't over until 9:30, so each night we exited through the darkened hosiery department, past rows of mannequin legs that had been severed at the knee and sheathed in various opaque shades of pantyhose. In the dark, they stood above the shopping floor like rent-a-cops, oblivious to the low-lifes slipping by in the shadows. I imagined Mr. White's plastic leg standing tall alongside the others, wearing a sheer sandal-toed variety in nude. Gentlemen prefer Hanes.
The first night of week three, the class ran a few minutes late, because Mr. White was going on about the importance of keeping the right amount of empty space in front of you on the highway, one car length for every ten miles of speed. Now, I understand that this will never work, because if you ever have six car lengths ahead of you on I-95, four cars will cut in front of you to fill up the space. But while Mr. White was diagramming car lengths for us, there was a smell of sulfur, and then smoke drifted up from somewhere behind me. I turned around, and it was Todd, sucking on a Marlboro. He narrowed his eyes at me, and I almost looked away. Then, he formed an "O" with his mouth and blew a perfect smoke ring in my direction. Mr. White's voice boomed from the front of the room, and I whipped my head around.
"No smoking during class," he said. This was before the invention of indoor air quality.
"Class is over," said Todd.
"I guess you didn't understand me," said Mr. White. "Put it out, boy."
Everyone watched Todd stand up and shove away an empty desk that blocked the aisle in front of him. The metal feet of the chair screeched against the linoleum at a particularly excruciating pitch. He strutted out the door into the dark corridor. I saw the circle of red on the end of his cigarette recede. When I turned back, Kevin was staring at me. I smiled, but he looked away. A moment later, one of Todd's friends let out a belly laugh. We looked behind us, and in the doorway was a naked mannequin. Todd was hiding in the darkness and with one hand held the mannequin up by its ample and nippleless breast. There was some half-suppressed chuckling and snorting.
"Oh, baby," the mannequin moaned. "You can have the right of way with me." A little puff of cigarette smoke wafted into the room from behind the mannequin's head. There was something else: she was missing a leg.
Mr. White's desk creaked. Like in a tennis match, we all turned to the front to see what he'd do. He swung his leg down from the desk, where he'd been half-sitting. Sweat was popping on his forehead like dew, but being the adult, he exercised self-control.
"Class dismissed," he said quietly, though not the acquiescent or soothing kind of quiet, but rather the kind of quiet that carries a foretaste of menace.
Todd was gone before we reached the hallway. The smell of his smoke still hung in the air.
Kevin and his dad picked me up in a white '79 Caprice. Kevin sat in front, so I had the whole expanse of back seat to myself. The leather squeaked every time we stopped at a light, and Kevin would turn around and look at me, but we barely talked until we were alone. Ever try to figure out what you talked about on a date when you were fifteen? Rocket science and Great Books, right? While we ate pizza, I asked him about California. He told me about surfing in Malibu and Santa Monica, about the tiny scar on his chin from a bad wipeout, about seeing Victoria Principal walk down the street.
"Is she pretty in person?" I asked.
"Sure," said Kevin. "But I guess she looks better on TV."
Everything does. I always wanted to go to California because I was sure I'd be instantly transformed into a beautiful, golden creature.
We saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. I didn't tell Kevin I'd already seen it, but I suspected he had, too. In between the good scenes, he kissed me, perfectly competent, respectful first-date kissing. I thought about Mr. White and his leg. There was no blood in this movie. Did his leg actually get blown off, or was it amputated? Either way, I guessed there would be a lot of blood.
At the end of week three, Mr. White showed us slides of drunk driving accidents and talked about the importance of staying sober on the road.
"Drunk driving is no joke," he said. "You drive drunk, best you can do is lose your license. Worst you can do is kill someone, kill yourself."
Todd and his friends coughed behind me: "Bud. J. D. Drink Bud. J. D."
I wondered how Mr. White ended up teaching our class. If he had a teaching certificate, he could have been a "real" teacher; I knew that much back then. Now, I realize he probably was a teacher, moonlighting for the extra cash. Maybe he went to college on the GI Bill when he got home with his medal and his honorable discharge.
Back then, when I imagined what he did in the daytime, I didn't picture him going to work. I figured he slept late, ate corn flakes in his jammies and drew up new diagrams for our class on paper napkins. Or he hung around his apartment in a sleeveless undershirt and boxer shorts, not hiding the plastic leg because there was no one there to see, anyway. Maybe he didn't even put the leg on when he was at home. Maybe he hobbled around on a crutch and sat on the couch watching Hollywood Squares, cursing. Why did Paul Lynde always get the center square? Why not Rosey Grier or Nipsey Russell? Why'd they always try to keep the black man down? Or maybe there was somebody there. He didn't wear a ring, but I think he had a lady friend who made him dinner sometimes, and then he didn't take his pants off except in the dark because he hated for her to see the stump. Maybe she waited for him in the dark in a red satin nightie, but after that third week he came home and said, "Not tonight, baby," because he couldn't get Todd's mocking face out of his head. Maybe he got mad and had to go out for a walk so he wouldn't slap her when she went all sympathetic on him. "Tell me about it, honey," she'd say, her eyes puppying up. He hated it when she felt sorry for him because of the leg. And she'd pretend she didn't, insist she didn't, but she really did, really. And she hated when he didn't take it off before they made love, because he was in a hurry or he wanted it for traction. She hated the way the plastic felt rubbing against her thigh, all cold, when the other side was warm, warm, warm.
Week four, during a break, Kevin kissed me inside the tent camper that was on display in sporting goods. When we came out, he had his arm around me, and Todd was there, lying on a weight bench and pumping iron, clenching an unlit cigarette between his teeth. A vein bulged in the middle of his forehead, and his face was red with exertion. He'd stripped off the flannel shirt and hung it over the weight stand. I could see the outline of his pectoral muscles and his nipples under the T-shirt. I began to sweat in important places. I wondered if this was how animals felt. I swallowed. Todd's biceps overwhelmed the sleeves of his T-shirt, pushing them back so that when he lifted the weights above his head, I could see the black hair in his armpits. I realized I was an animal. When Todd saw me and Kevin, he curled his lip and snorted. I stood there anyway, staring like an idiot, until Kevin put his hand on my waist and steered me back to the elevator.
"Grit," Kevin muttered. "Grit" was another word for redneck. I wondered if it referred to the breakfast cereal or to the axle grease under their fingernails.
"Do they have grits in California?" I asked.
"No. Just freaks. Potheads. Rednecks only live in the South, not the West."
"This isn't the South," I said. "This is a Mid-Atlantic state."
"Tell the grits that," said Kevin. We were standing near the hanger smokestack. Kevin started to spin the hangers on their pole. "Why do you think Todd hates Mr. White so much?" he said, as if he knew the answer. He had a whole stack spinning at once. It made a loud clatter.
"'Cause White won't let him smoke in the classroom," I said.
"Come on, Miranda," Kevin leaned into me. "It's 'cause he's black."
"No way. He's just bored with the class. It's a boring class."
"You think it's boring?" Kevin looked annoyed.
"The breaks aren't boring," I said.
"I guess not." And he kissed me again. Come on, baby, surf with me.
Right turn on red. Did I know about that before? I never paid attention when I went places in the car until that class. The meaning of a red light was always unambiguous: you stop. End of story. Now, it seemed, it was okay to go on red, as long as you took some reasonable precautions. Mr. White used the word "judgment."
"You must have good judgment," he said. "Someone could be turning left from across the intersection." He scribbled a diagram on the board. "Or someone could be coming straight across from the left. And who has the right-of-way in that situation? Mr. Thorpe?"
Excerpted from You May See a Stranger by Paula Whyman. Copyright © 2016 Paula Whyman. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University 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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Table of Contents
You May See a Stranger
Bad Side In