The award-winning writer, Ron Tanner, has a new graphic novel out called KISS ME, STRANGER.  If my life were one long vacation and I didn’t have anything else to do, I would have read this book twice in a row.  It’s that great.

Your new graphic novel, KISS ME, STRANGER, is so wonderful, strange and original, that more than any other book it reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.  Did you intend to write something so magical, in a sense?

I greatly appreciate that you see my book that way. Yes, I wanted to create something otherworldly – mostly because that’s how children see the world. I guess you could call this is a children’s book for adults.

Meg Pokrass is a fiction writer (her story collection DAMN SURE RIGHT from Press 53 comes out in Feb.’11), and is an editor at BLIP (formerly The Mississippi Review), but I first noticed her through her animation that was showing up on TNB and elsewhere. She has a point-of-view that is hilarious, unique, and odd in the best way. Meg Pokrass’ fiction reveals her more intense side. Her stories can’t help but move you—they are often sad, always touching, usually funny, and somehow huge in how much of a world she evokes in two or three pages. Of course I was also drawn to Meg’s writing because much of her work is set in California. It turns out we’re from the same small Southern California town. Not only that, but our mothers are from the same small Pennsylvania town. We’ve never met in person but clearly we have much to talk about.

Recently Jessica Anya Blau, longtime TNB contributor and author of two daring novels, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and Drinking Closer to Home, piloted (I believe rather unintentionally) the concept of the Six Question Sex Interview series.  Her sex interview with author James Magruder was so stimulating (er, inspirational) to her fellow TNBers, that it seemed only fair that Jessica herself should be the next subject of this new series.  Always happy to engage in intellectual conversation with a talented writer (er, dish about sex with someone who writes about it as much as I do), I volunteered to do Jessica’s honors.  What follows is our exchange about her provocative writing, the Big Questions of age and beauty, what the next generation really thinks about its parents’ sexuality, and a few technique tips along the way.

I met James (Jim) Magruder in a café in my neighborhood where I write. His book SUGARLESS was days away from coming out. He was so charming in person that I bought his book immediately and devoured it in hours. It is hilarious, touching, elegantly written, and wonderfully shameless. Not surprisingly, SUGARLESS was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award, the VCU Cabell First Novelists Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Jim wrote the book for the Broadway musical Triumph of Love, has been a resident at MacDowell, a fellow at Sewanee and has had numerous short stories published as well as anthologized. Currently he is teaching at Swarthmore College and the Yale School of Drama. But we’re not going to talk about any of that here because this is The James Magruder Sex Interview.

This past week, I got a Kindle. I have not been so changed by a reading experience since Stephen King’s Needful Things, which was the book that made me realize I wanted to tell stories. It’s the sort of genius-level device that demonstrates the fact that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly wonderful.

Larry Doyle is the author of the best-selling book, I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER. He also produced and wrote The Simpsons for several years, wrote Beavis and Butthead, was the entertainment editor at New York Magazine and wrote a bunch of Hollywood movies. Oh, and he regularly writes very funny pieces for the Shouts & Murmurs section of The New Yorker.

I caught up with Larry at Evergreen Café in Baltimore where we often sit together and work. Larry was working on the webpage for his amazing and hilarious new novel GO, MUTANTS! (HarperCollins, June 22th). I was working on this interview.

It starts with a birth and finishes with a death. That’s the usual way, the only way, really. And for my mother, Bonnie Gandstetter, it was almost a short story—a life six-weeks long, coming to a near-end in a snow shower outside a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania.

My grandmother, Billie, was twenty when Bonnie was born. Bonnie was a fine baby: round head, wide green eyes, an inscrutable gaze. She was content to loll on the braided rug with the dogs, two liver-colored pointers who would lick the dried formula off her face. Sometimes she’d give a whistling holler and whir her arms and legs like rotors. The dogs watched her tiny limbs as if they were humming birds, and often Billie wondered how many minutes she’d have to leave the room before a dog snatched one of those humming birds in his mouth.

The rule in the house was that you don’t pick up a kid and cuddle it. If it cries, you let it cry. You feed it one bottle every four hours for six weeks, at which point you drop the night feedings. Never kiss the child and never talk to it in anything other than a voice as flat and firm as a sheet of aluminum. The last thing Billie had wanted was a spoiled child. And the last thing my grandfather, Otto, had wanted was a child who was not a boy.

Otto had little use for girls and women, although he had always been fond of Billie who was female but not frilly in any way. Billie wore slacks at a time most women were in dresses. She had a delicate, simple face, but her backbone was as rigid as her temperament. My grandfather liked to say that Billie was as unbreakable as an iron rod.

A month and a half after my mother was born, while Billie was still recovering from the delivery, Otto decided that he and Billie needed to go out for a drink. Instead of taking the truck, Otto took the convertible Buick Century with the top folded down like a giant accordion into the nook behind the opera seat. It was cold out, about forty degrees, with a sky as clear as glass. Otto had read the almanac that morning—it was sitting next to the toilet where Billie had left it for him—and it said there’d be no more snow in Pennsylvania until next December. Otto, like most people, considered the almanac a solid prophecy of the weather, certainly more reliable than the old Pennsylvania Dutch women who thought they could tell you anything by simply scraping their claws along the bark of an elm.

Otto placed baby Bonnie, nestled in her white wicker basinet, on the opera seat of the Buick. Billie told me that she remembers looking down at Bonnie for a second, noting with distaste the way she pursed her lips as if she’d just bitten into a lemon. Then she sat in the front seat without glancing back again.

Otto stood outside the car, his head tilted as he looked at the baby.

“I’ll tell ya Billie,” Otto said, and he laughed at what he was about to say. “If I hadn’t seen you change a diaper, I’d swear this was a boy, ‘cause this is one goddamn ugly little thing!” He tugged down the pink patchwork quilt that covered his daughter and examined her. Bonnie was bound so tightly in her receiving blanket that she resembled a cocoon with a face. Otto pulled the quilt back over Bonnie, up to her chin, then patted the blue crochet cap on her head that Billie had made when she was pregnant.

“Well let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she needs to get married,” Billie said.

“Let’s hope she’s not that ugly by the time she starts talking to me!” Otto swung open the giant, wide door and got into the car. He listened to the thrum of the engine for a moment before he shifted into first gear and, releasing the clutch smartly, pulled away from the curb.

As they cruised down the nearly empty road, Billie looked out at the bare trees, the dirt-brown grass in the fields between houses, the bald smudge of sun lowering on the horizon. I imagine she pulled her silk scarf tight around her neck then tucked the tail into the front of her blue wool coat. The wind had a bite in it sharp as a thistle, but Billie knew better than to ask that Otto put the top up on the car. Otto always said, if he had wanted to ride around with a roof over his head he wouldn’t have bought the damn thing.

About twenty minutes later Otto pulled into the parking lot of Buck’s Inn. He and Billie hadn’t been there since Bonnie was born as Billie hadn’t been up to going out and Otto, when he left the house without Billie, always met up with his five brothers who liked to drink at the local Redding bar. As usual, Otto parked the car away from the other vehicles whose owners might ding the sides of the burgundy Buick while drunkenly opening their doors. When he got out of the car, he stretched and surveyed his surroundings as if it were all his. And in a way it was all his. Otto owned a beer distributing business, shipping beer from Maine to the Mississippi river (with a stop at Buck’s Inn along the way). He was one of the richest men in town, a fact he never had to prove, as Reading, back in 1939 was a relatively small town.

Billie got out of the Buick without waiting for her husband to open the door for her; she walked across the dirt and gravel parking lot toward the inn. Otto paused, glanced at the baby in her basinet then looked up at the sky that had turned the color of a fresh bruise. He decided that Bonnie would be fine, wound in her blanket like a spool of thread, under the patchwork quilt and the scrappy red maple that bowed toward the car. Billie was waiting for him at the open door of Buck’s Inn—he jogged to catch up to her.

“You had that baby now, didn’t ya?” Roy asked, when Billie and Otto walked in. He was the bartender, a big man with a nose as red and round as a cherry tomato.

“Yup,” Billie said, settling onto a wooden stool. “A girl.”

“What’d’ya name her?”

“Bonnie,” Billie said, peering behind Roy to see what kinds of liquor he had lined up back there.

“She’s an ugly thing!” Otto shouted, as he sat beside his wife. Roy and the few other men hunched on their barstools let out bold, honking laughs.

“Well here’s to your ugly little girl!” Tom Kunkle said, lifting his mug. He was at the end of the bar, but everyone was talking loudly enough for the whole, small, murky room to hear.

It was dinnertime but neither Billie nor Otto was hungry. They were drinking scotch and when that got too heavy for Billie she changed over to scotch with a bit of milk in it. Roy put out a jar of six pickled eggs. They ate them all without thinking, tasting, or even taking note that they were actually eating. When Roy didn’t refill the jar, neither Billie nor Otto asked for more.

At ten p.m., a few more people stumbled into the bar, men who had been drinking at Earl’s down the street. Earl closed his doors early, his wife liked him in bed with her, he told his customers, and this fact made her seem sexy to everyone in town. Billie looked at Otto, her head wobbling the way Bonnie’s did when Billie picked her up.

“I think six weeks without a drink has made me a little intolerant,” Billie said.

“You suddenly getting light-weight on me?” Otto said. He rarely asked a question with the intention of getting an answer.

“Maybe we should take a room and let me sleep this off,” Billie said, and she wobbled off her stool and staggered toward the stairs leading up to the hotel guest quarters.

“Roy!” Otto shouted. “Do you have a spare room?”

Roy was wiping clean the glasses that were stacked beside the sink. He reached for a key hanging on a board of hooks above the cash register.

“Number seven,” Roy said, tossing the key over the bar to Otto. “If Mary wakes you up in the morning, just tell her Roy said you can sleep in as long as you’d like.”

“Put the room on my tab,” Otto said, and he staggered up the stairs behind his wife.

My grandmother told me that the next morning when she woke up, she sat up straight and looked toward the window that was like a sheet of glaring white light. She gasped as if she’d just received a blow to the stomach, then choked for a second. It felt like something might actually come up.

“Otto.” She would have yelled but there wasn’t breath enough in her to do so. Billie pushed my grandfather on the chest, then staggered out of bed. She hopped on one leg as she tried to pull up her slacks with quaking arms.

My grandfather woke up. Looked at my grandmother. Her eyes were wild, her movements exaggeratedly spastic.

“JESUS CHRIST!” he said, and he flung the covers back, got out of bed and had his khakis on before Billie had finished shoving her bra and underpants into her black clasped handbag. They stumbled down the stairs together, Otto buttoning his flannel shirt, Billie struggling into her blue wool coat. The bar was empty, and the unlocked front door easily pushed open as they ran out.

The sun was so bright it was like a spotlight on their faces. And yet, it was snowing. A faint, powder-dry mist seemed to fall in slow motion, as my grandparents raced across the snowy gravel.

“Godammit!” Otto said, when he approached the car. He looked back and forth between the baby, whose face looked like a frosted glass plum, and the creamy leather seats now sparkling with white dust.

Billie made a sound like a rabbit’s guttural squeal as she pulled Bonnie from the basinet and tried to warm her against her chest under her wool coat. It was an impulse propelled by instinct, Billie told me, she couldn’t have reacted differently.

“Hurry up now,” she said, to Otto, as he took a few seconds to wipe the snow off the seats before starting the car. Billie could feel Bonnie’s lungs beating open and shut like flapping wings. The child was as silent as the sky.

They drove straight to Reading General Hospital, the wind and snow biting Billie’s face as she hunched over the baby against her breast. Again, Otto parked the car a good distance from any neighboring vehicles.

“Stay here, clean the seats and put the roof up,” Otto said. He took the baby from Billie’s arms, tossing away the snow-dappled quilt, then trotted into the hospital and up to the third floor where Bonnie had been born.

“My wife went to check on the baby,” Otto said, as he handed off Bonnie to a plump, red-cheeked nurse, “and found her like this.” Otto swore to me that he remembers every detail of these moments, even that the nurse wore clip-on gold earring that seemed much too fancy for a hospital.

The nurse put the back of her fleshy hand against Bonnie’s cold, purple cheek, gasped and rushed the baby away.

A few minutes later Dr. Whiteford came out to waiting room to talk to Otto. He was a few years older than Otto, but deferred to him out of the simple fact that his father, brother and aunt all worked for Gandstetter Beer Distributing. Otto and the doctor sat side by side on thick, wide wooden chairs.

“Were the windows open in the room?” the doctor asked, and he looked down at Otto’s knees.

“Probably,” Otto said. “Fresh air is good for them.”

“Crib right next to the window?”

“I don’t know,” Otto said, impatiently. And he tried to picture where her crib was in the room, as if the story were true.

“She must have kicked her blankets off,” the doctor said. “It was just like she was sleeping outdoors.”

“Is she dead?” Otto asked, and there was a thump in his belly as if someone had a hammer in there. He had never thought much about Bonnie and wasn’t surprised that he’d slept through the night without remembering that she was in the car. And Billie, well, give the woman a few drinks and she’d forget her own name. But whatever he felt about the child, he surely didn’t want her to die–not like this, at least; not because they’d had more than triple their share at Buck’s.

“She’s not deceased yet,” the doctor said, and he dropped his head as if he were repenting.

“Thing was as blue as a punched eye,” Otto said. “Never seen anything like that.” The hammer in his gut thumped two more times. If he had been alone he would have hunched over with the spasms.

“No, it’s not something you see very often.” Dr. Whiteford glanced at Otto.

“So how are you going to fix her?” Otto’s eyes were like darts.

“Well, she’s breathing, and her heart is beating, but her lungs are filled with fluid—the cold air, and she’s got a fever that would have killed a grown man already.”

“How could she be freezing and have a fever at the same time?” Otto scratched the back of his neck, squinting at the doctor.

“Her temperature was too low when you brought her in, but as she warmed up, her fever spiked—trying to kill the infection in her lungs.”

“Jesus Christ,” Otto moaned, “first she’s too cold, now she’s too hot. What am I going to tell her mother?”

“I’ve got a friend in Philadelphia and he’s sending over some penicillin.”

“Penicillin,” Otto repeated. He had never heard of it. Few people had heard of it. The drug had only
recently been developed and what little there was, was being stockpiled by the government in case the U.S. was to become part of the war overseas. Dr. Whiteford didn’t know if this new drug could be used on an infant or not—he wasn’t even sure if it could be used on an adult without killing him. But since the baby seemed as close to soulless as you can be while still breathing, there was little to lose.

“I’ve never given it to anyone before,” Dr. Whiteford said. “We might as well try.” The doctor stood and stuck out his hand for Otto to shake. My grandfather looked down at the hand and wished there were a scotch in there for him.

A friend from Tennessee told me I should interview Audrey Braun. I had never heard of her though her name sounded vaguely familiar. A week later her book, A SMALL FORTUNE, and a stack of European tabloids (L’Espresso, Bild, Paris Match, and the Daily Mirror) showed up in a box at my door. I perused the magazines and in issue after issue, some of them dating back to 1983, were snapshots and fleeting mentions of Audrey Braun. There was Audrey Braun at a disco with Princess Stephanie of Monaco, Audrey Braun on the arm of weathered French rocker Johnny Hallyday, and then another photo later of Audrey Braun canoodling with Johnny Hallyday’s son, David. There were shots of her topless on a yacht floating in the Mediterranean with Keith Richards, Patti Hansen, and what looks to be Albert II of Monaco turning his back to the camera (the article was about Richards, the photo only named him and Hansen). There was even an article that linked Audrey Braun to Milan Kundera around the time The Unbearable Lightness of Being was being made into a movie. Our mutual friend says she was up for a part in the film but Kundera, who allegedly had “business” dealings with her father, thought she was “too young, too blond, and far too temperamental.” Additionally, our mutual friend claims that Daniel Day-Lewis (who starred in the movie) was overheard saying he wouldn’t work with Braun because her feet were grotesquely small.

After reading the tabloids, I opened the book. And indeed, this woman who doesn’t appear to have ever had a career (other than being the charming daughter of wealthy and very secretive Americans) is quite a talented writer. A SMALL FORTUNE is a sexy, mysterious romp with literary overtones. Erica Jong meets Harlan Coben on a sticky summer night.

I immediately sent Audrey Braun an email requesting that we do an interview over the phone. She sent me her number, but it turns out she rarely answers her phone. When I finally did get through to her (her almost-babyish voice reminds me of Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks), she said, “Can’t talk now, I’m in Target buying No. 7 Breast Cream.” And then she hung up. Seriously. The last person who hung up on me was Rita Gore in ninth grade who believed a false rumor that I had made out with her boyfriend, Denny Garcia, behind the dunes at Devereaux beach. I sent Audrey Braun an email with a single word: Target? She wrote back, “It’s the only place that carries No. 7. Breast cream. Buy some. Every woman should use it.” After dozens more attempts to get Audrey Braun on the phone, I gave up and sent her an email with 19 questions about her book, her life, her slightly famous parents, and her romances. Most of the questions came back blank, with no response (she refused to discuss any of the celebrities noted above). Next to the question of how old she was, Audrey Braun wrote, “N.A.” Not applicable?

I feel I should disclose that after my one sentence conversation with Audrey Braun I went to Target and bought some No. 7 Breast Cream. I’m now walking around with silky, creamy Audrey Braun breasts. Unfortunately, I still can’t figure out how to live the Audrey Braun life.

SIX (out of 19) QUESTIONS FOR AUDREY BRAUN

Q. Your first novel, A SMALL FORTUNE, is scintillating, thrilling, and full of intrigue. Oh, it’s sexy, too! Everything I’ve read about your life is equally thrilling. Is it true that your next book will be a memoir?

A. Have you read David Shield’s new book Reality Hunger? Don’t ask me to explain it. When I try I go mute. My head fills with rusty cogs when it comes to understanding the bigger question of “what is the REAL truth” and “how accurate is memory REALLY?” Then there’s emotional truth, which is just a smart lie that gets to the bigger truth inside ourselves. Right? I think that’s right. But to answer your question, some people think THIS book is a memoir. Ever since I read Reality Hunger I’m no longer comfortable questioning someone else’s reality. Does that answer your question?

Q. Someone I know who was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference with you told me that for years you were the mistress of a married European royal. I tried to check this out with someone else who knows you and he claimed you were a mistress to a royal but not a European royal. Can you clarify this? Are you still involved with him?

A. Wait. Still involved with whom? The ‘someone else’ who claims to know me? Ha! Not after this I won’t be. You know, Jessica, it’s hard to talk about the Royal Days. I don’t blame you for asking. I just can’t go there without the powers that be going off like a Russian firing squad. However, I will say this: Borders move. One day you’re part of Europe sipping an espresso in the sun, the next day you’re living in the Eastern bloc, drinking water from a rubber hose.

Q. An article in the Daily Mirror claims you didn’t find out that your father was in the CIA until after his death. How did this affect the way you viewed your childhood, the years in European boarding schools, etc.?

A. All men are enigmas. The minute you think you’ve got one figured out is right about the time you need to turn around and open up your math book and start studying the facts (a little something I picked up during my Lichtenstein school days). That about sums it up. Pardon the pun. Sorry. I can’t really discuss my father. Talk about a Russian firing squad! No. I’m kidding. Don’t print that. You’re deleting this, right?

Q. Okay, more rumors (there are so many of them!): Is it true that your grandmother was a Ziegfeld girl and your mother was a Rockette?

A. Wow. You’ve really done your homework. Let’s dance. David Bowie wrote that. Put on your red shoes and dance with me. Who do you think he was talking about? Mmm hmn. Yes.

Q. Let’s not ignore your fabulous book! Where did you find these characters? Is Celia based on someone you know?

A. Funny how things come full circle. She knows who she is and if at any time she wants to come forward and talk about her story, not to mention “Benicio’s”story it’s fine with me. I wish her well, I really do, and I don’t say this out of any kind of jealousy or grudge or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I just wish she’d stop forwarding all those youtube videos. How many times does someone need to see a cat flush a toilet? I don’t care if it’s a Persian one either.

Q. Anything you want to clear up about your international reputation—are you as uninhibited (I read about the naked fountain swimming in Cannes) as people say?

A. Two things: I have beautiful breasts.

I was a bit lost after college and had no idea what I wanted to do other than hang out with my boyfriend, drink mochas while reading the thick Sunday San Francisco Chronicle, and travel around Europe sitting in bustling cafés where I could look at people. This isn’t to say I wasn’t a hard worker, I’ve always worked hard, it’s in my bloodline. I just didn’t have an interest in anything that might be called a career. And then I thought of the airlines: fly free to anywhere in the world, meet interesting people, layovers in Paris and Rome, or Oklahoma even!

I sent the two largest American carriers my resume and was granted interviews—in Atlanta and Dallas—right away.

On the flight from San Francisco to Atlanta, I was seated next to a girl who was also interviewing. She had short blond hair and was cute in the universally accepted meaning of the word.

“I’ve only eaten five-hundred calories a day for the past two weeks!” she said.

“Why?” I was astounded. My sister had had anorexia as a teen and it was so gruesome to witness that I’d never taken much to starvation.

“To fit into the height/weight chart!”

The airlines had sent a packet of information that included a height weight chart. I am five feet two inches tall. For my height I wasn’t allowed to weigh more than 112 pounds. I didn’t own a scale so I bought one, and sure enough, there I stood at 112 pounds. One pound more and I’d be too fat for the airlines.

“And I’ve been doing an hour of aerobics every day!” the girl said.

The only exercise I’d been getting was using a left-hander golf club to hit a single ball in my apartment courtyard, or, when we were feeling ambitious, my boyfriend and I would take turns hitting the ball in the park down the street. We had inherited the club after rummaging through the empty apartment of the recently deceased ninety-year old woman who had lived across the hall from us. Her middle-aged children came and cleaned out her belongings leaving only two things behind: a battery-operated “personal massager” and a left-handed golf club. We took the club and left the massager for the cleaning crew.

All the interviewees were staying at the same airport Marriott in Atlanta. The interview wasn’t until the next morning so there was an entire evening open where I planned to lie on the hotel bed and read while watching TV (if TVs boring, you eventually forget it’s on, if it’s riveting, you read during the commercials). I didn’t have a TV at the time, so a bed with a remote control was a true luxury. Before I could settle in, there was a knock on my door. It was 500 Calories, my aisle-mate from the flight. She had a guy and a girl with her, both Southerners with huge white smiles and shiny hair. The guy looked like a shorter, stockier Ken doll. He could have won Miss Congeniality at any beauty pageant. He stepped into my room, stuck his palm out and pumped my hand.

“I’m Barry! Y’all wanna come out to dinner with us!”

I stared at the gleaming faces. I wasn’t used to such intense sunshine and cheer. The girl standing beside Barry looked like young Brooke Shields on ecstasy. I had been living in Northern California for a few years already and had grown used to ashy eyes, brooding men, dank hair. But, truthfully, I was sick of the mopers, the over-thinkers, the kvetchers. I was ready for cheerful!

“Come on!” 500 Calories said. “You’re not going to sit here alone!”

“Y’all gotta come with us!” Brooke Shields said. Her hair was so perfectly thick that it rested over her shoulder and down to her chest in a giant letter J.

“I’m comin’!” I said.

We piled into a cab together, all four in the back seat. I was wedged between Barry and Brooke. Together they smelled like the perfume counter at Macy’s. Barry announced we were going to T.G.I.Fridays, a place I had never been.

At the restaurant we were given a horseshoe shaped booth. I was the only one who glanced at the menu, everyone else seemed to know what they wanted, and what they wanted was a salad with dressing on the side. I ordered the potato skins with cheddar cheese, sour cream and bacon. Barry looked at me and said, “Are y’all sure you wanna eat that before the weigh in?”

“What’s the weigh in?” I asked.

Brooke, Barry and 500 Calories had all read the same book on how to get a job with the airlines. The book explained that each applicant was weighed before the interview and if you were overweight, well, that was the end the line.

“Y’all brought a suit the color of their uniform didn’t you?” Brooke asked.

“Uh,” I said. “I’m wearing a white skirt and a white cotton jacket with a brown silk blouse.”

They looked at me with sad, wet eyes.

“It’ll be okay!” 500 Calories said, “I’m sure you’ll make up for it with your winning personality!”

When the potato skins came everyone watched me eat while they aimlessly forked at their salads. And although I offered a skin to each of them, no one dared take me up on the offer.

Barry said, “I can’t believe y’all are brave enough to eat that. I’d gain, like, fifteen pounds tonight if I ate that.”

“Can I just have, like, a tiny bit of bacon?” Brooke asked. I took a spoon and scooped off a cheesy-bacony dollop. With her long pink nail she plucked a booger-sized crumb from the spoon and stuck it in her mouth.

“Yummy,” she said, then she smiled and it was like a Polaroid flash bulb had gone off.

Later that night, when I was in bed, blissful with a TV blaring in front of me, there was a frantic rapping at my door. It was Brooke.

“OH MY GOD,” she was panting. “Do y’all have an iron?! I know I packed mine but I can’t find it anywhere!”

I didn’t even have an iron at home. My preferred method for straightening clothes was to hang them on the curtain rod while I showered.

“Isn’t there one in the room?” I asked, and I went to the closet and looked around. There wasn’t one. Brooke rushed away and knocked on the door next to mine. I could hear them talking out in the hallway. Yes she had an iron. Who would come to an interview for the airlines without an iron?

“That girl in the room next to y’all,” Brooke said, “she didn’t bring an iron and she isn’t even wearing the right colors!”

She was right, there was no arguing with the facts. And when Brooke hugged me the next morning and blessed me before I got in line for the weigh-in, I swear I felt like something golden and shiny in her had rubbed off on me.

Everyone took off their shoes and lined up to step on the scale. I came in at 112 again, although I have to admit I was a little worried after seeing the horror on their faces at TGI Fridays when I devoured those skins. There were a few people who walked away from the scale teary-eyed.

The interview was done in groups of twenty, none of my dinner mates were in my group. My interviewer was a nice looking man the way politicians are nice looking: neatly dressed, perfectly square front teeth. We sat in a circle of desks and were given a five-page questionnaire. When my pen didn’t flow well, I asked the leader for a new pen. He responded as if I’d demanded a pint of blood, but finally gave one up. When I retold this part of the interview to my father he said, “Jessie, there are some men who when you walk into a room, their balls shrink up into their stomachs. He was one of those men.” I was twenty-two years old and didn’t feel comfortable discussing ball positioning with my father, so said nothing. But I wondered, who were these men whose balls shrunk up? And, what made me a ball shrinker?

The questionnaire wasn’t surprising (How much weight have you gained and/or lost in the last ten years? What is the most you’ve ever weighed in the last ten years?) until I got to the page where I was asked about the quality and duration of my periods, if I had ever been pregnant and if I had vaginal discharge. There was even a question inquiring about the color of my discharge. Crossed out with a ballpoint pen, but entirely legible, was, “Have you ever had sexual relations with someone of the same sex?” I had visions of spiriting away the questionnaire under my skirt, sending it off to Gloria Steinem or the San Francisco Chronicle. But Shrunken-Balls had his eyes on me, as if he knew what I was thinking.

After the interview people congregated in the lobby to exchange stories. There was a tingling energy in the air—the relief of being done, the excitement of what might be next. Brooke asked me how it went and I told her about Shrunken Balls clear dislike for me.

“If y’all get called back,” she said, “pull your hair back like this.” She took the front strands and pulled them back so my hair was off my face but still long in the back. “It will make you look better groomed.”

Just then, I wished I were Brooke: someone who travels with an iron, knows to wear the airline uniform color, and has ideas about grooming. I vowed that if were called in for a second interview I would do it all right, I would order salad with dressing on the side, I’d try not to be one of those women who makes a guys balls shrink up, and damn if I wouldn’t smile a whole lot more.

Surprisingly, I was called back for a second interview. Even more surprising was that I had lost interest in the airline by the time I’d landed back in San Francisco. As much as I thought it would be fun to be perky and well-groomed, I just couldn’t fathom working for a company who seemed to be sniffing in my underpants.

 

Steve Yarbrough’s newest novel, SAFE FROM THE NEIGHBORS, has one murder, more than one affair, and white people taking up arms to prevent African-American James Meredith from enrolling at Ole Miss. Richard Russo says the book will, “take your breath away.” Ron Rash calls it “a magnificent achievement.” Tom Perotta says that Yarbrough is, “a formidably talented novelist,” and John Grisham claims he “possesses a gift that cannot be taught.”

Sometime in the 1970s before my father became a voluntary mute, before my mother started going to the nude beach and growing marijuana, before my sister, Becca, was anorexic and before my brother, Josh, created a second home for himself on a platform three-stories high up a eucalyptus tree, we were a contained, orderly little family. I was six, quiet, and afraid of chaos and loud noises when Becca became friends with Alice Richter who lived in what was then the wildest house in the neighborhood.

Alice Richter, one of five kids, was Becca’s age, nine, but about a foot taller with white hair, eyebrows and lashes. She had hipbones that jutted out like boomerangs from below her flat belly. Her mother reminded me of Lucille Ball with her curly “done” hair and a voice that sounded like it had been born off the tip of a cigarette, which it had in fact. However, unlike my mother who suckled her cigarettes with a cup of coffee, Mrs. Richter puffed her two packs while sipping from a plaid, wool-lined canteen that hung on a shoulder strap, and which she carried with her continuously. Like the other women in the neighborhood, Mrs. Richter stayed home, cleaned her house and did laundry. So the “mess” in the Richter house was psychological—like a perfectly polished labyrinth set up for an anxious mouse.

When it was time for my sister to come home for dinner, it was up to me to summon her. The Richter phone was always busy when I called. I would hang up the yellow wall receiver, pick it up once more and redial over and over again while sitting on a stool at the counter in the family room looking into the kitchen at my mother cooking dinner. Eventually my mother would tire of my efforts and insist that I run down to their house, saying something like, “For crissakes! They’re not going to kill you! You’ll survive, go get her!”

I’d hop off the stool and often pick up Josh, if he was playing nearby on the family room floor. He liked to grasp onto me face-forward as I carried him toward the front door with all intentions of bringing him with me—a turtle shell against my vulnerable belly. But more often than not, Josh squirmed out of my arms and ran off before I could get him outside.

There were Five Stages of Terror at the Richter house. Stage One was the garage where the oldest son, Roger, hung out with his friends. Roger worked at an auto body shop painting mod designs on hot rod cars: sunsets, unicorns, blond ladies in red bathing suits. The garage door was always open, a car or two parked inside. Roger and his friends, who were the height of my father, or larger, huddled near the coffin-sized freezer in the back of the garage, drinking beer and smoking what I, at six-years old, could identify as marijuana (my mother’s pot habit, which at the time was only occasional, had been clearly explained to me so I that I would know to keep it a secret).

“Who you looking for little girl?” someone would invariably shout, and whatever I answered (“my sister” or “Becca”) they pretended not to hear for someone would walk out of the garage to interrogate me, asking questions like, “You looking for beer? You want a smoke?”

Once I’d made it past the garage, I’d knock on the front door that no one opened. (Honestly, there never was a day when I knocked and the door was opened.) I could hear top-forty radio playing inside, I could hear Mrs. Richter whistling so perfectly and purely that she could have done the opening tune for The Andy Griffith Show. I could hear the fluffy, dust ball-looking dog, Frank, yipping. And there, on the porch, I was faced with the Second Stage of Terror: the decision of how to proceed. Should I just open the door and go in, or go back to the garage and ask Roger if I could go in through the garage door? On the odd occasion that the front door was locked, I had to face the boys in the garage again. But usually the front door was unlocked, so I would eventually open it, stick my head in, and then step inside.

The yapping dog’s noise would build to a frantic crescendo. I was not afraid of dogs, but this one made enough racket that I didn’t bend down to pet it or do anything else that might calm his hysteria. I just waited for someone to come see what all the ruckus was about and find me.

If it was the youngest of the three brothers, Thad, who found me, he would look at me, say nothing, then walk away. If it was the middle of the three brothers, Marcus, or if it was Marcus and Thad together, the Third Stage of Terror, The Taunt, would begin.

The Taunt was something I had never encountered before and it was something that was, during my childhood in California, unique to the Richter household. Marcus Richter was, I believe, the composer of the taunt and the one who seemed to take the most joy in doing it. With a clear, high-pitched voice, a blond shaved head that looked like velvet, and sharp blue eyes, Marcus would lean in toward me, his shoulders weaving like a boxer’s, as he screeched, “Hee hee Jessica. Heeeee Heeee Jessica. Heeeeeee Heeeee. . . .” The Hee part of the taunt would grow louder and more maniacal the longer Marcus went on. He’d circle me, his lean, snaky body bending and twisting as he chanted, “Heeeeeee heeee Jessica . . . .” Eventually the taunt would grow to a rhythmical “Hee hee, ho ho, hi hi, hee hee, ho ho hi hi . . . .” And if that went on long enough it merged into a song that was shouted in my face and went like this, “Viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO, viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO . . . .” The coda was the most musical part of The Taunt. Marcus often got down on his knees and looked up at me as if he were pleading while he sang, “Cry for you, I’m going to cry cry cry for you, I’m going to cry for you . . . . ” When Thad joined in he was just another voice, as he never became fully immersed in the choreography the way Marcus did. According to Becca, this chanting taunt went on all day long, indiscriminately, to anyone who entered the house and it didn’t bother her in the least. (I must point out here that Marcus Richter grew up to be a Hari Krishna. Yes, a chanting Hari Krishna.)

If Marcus or Thad were not the ones to find me on the entrance hall landing, then it was usually Mrs. Richter. She spoke so rapidly, I never quite understood what she said and was always unsure if she was even speaking to me. She’d touch my elbow at some point and direct me to sit on the blue wing chair besides Mr. Richter in his blue wing chair while someone fetched Becca. Mr. Richter read the newspaper without speaking or looking at me, thus creating Terror Number Four as I uncomfortably tried to figure out where to look, or how to sit, while I waited for my sister to appear. And since Mrs. Richter usually sent Marcus or Thad Richter upstairs to get Becca and they never seemed to follow her orders, if often seemed as if I had to endure the Fourth Stage of Terror for as long as twenty minutes until Mrs. Richter entered the room again to refill Mr. Richter’s glass and was reminded that I was there waiting. Of course it always occurred to me during this waiting period that terrors two through four could be avoided if Mr. Richter, whose chair faced the front door, simply got up, opened the door when I knocked, then walked upstairs and retrieved my sister, or bellowed from the bottom of the stairs (the way my own father would) for her to come down immediately.

The Fifth Stage of Terror occurred when I had had enough of either waiting in the blue wing chair, or when I had gathered up the courage to walk away from Marcus in the middle of The Taunt (in which case the Fifth Stage of Terror would be the Fourth as we’d skip the other Fourth Stage of Terror: sitting in the living room with Mr. Richter) and took the unnerving walk upstairs to find Becca on my own.

Alice Richter’s bedroom was the last room down a long a hallway of Richter children bedrooms. Just before her room was her sister Mary Jane’s room. Mary Jane was a year younger than I and had the energy and spastic movements of the Richter boys. She was as skinny as a rope, as blond as the sun, with big gaping teeth that were too big for her face. If she spotted me, she would run and leap on top of me like a crazed tree frog, her stringy arms and legs all over my body. Once, she even bit me on the shoulder to try and convince me to stay and play with her. She was feral in a way that Josh wasn’t as there didn’t seem to be even a glint of prudence behind her wild blue eyes. (By the time we were teenagers Mary Jane was freakishly beautiful with her sun-browned skin and silky white hair. But people found her disturbing as she seemed to have an old person’s aphasia and could never find the words for what she wanted to say, often grunting and using hand signals for a simple sentence like, “I burned my arm on the iron.” By this time I had a great affection for her and would often speak for her at parties and dances at school.)

Once I had fended Mary Jane off my back I would run to Alice Richter’s room where the suspender-wearing James Taylor poster covered the door. I’d knock and then open the door it if it wasn’t opened for me within seconds.

“Becca,” I’d say, my voice in line with my pumping heart, “Mom said you have to come home for dinner NOW.” I’d turn and rush down the hall, past Mary Jane leapfrogging off the end of her bed, down the stairs, past Mr. Richter in his chair, past the sounds of Mrs. Richter in the kitchen and the rumbling sounds of Thad and Marcus riding a bare mattress down the rumpus room steps, out the door, and past the men-sized boys drinking beer and smoking pot in the garage and up the street to our cul de sac where everything seemed peaceful, calm, orderly.

When I entered our house with my mother quietly cooking dinner, a camel cigarette bobbing around her mouth, the sunlight streaming in and highlighting the mown-grass pattern in the green shag family room carpet, the sliding glass door looking out to the perfectly patterned, precisely geometric lemon orchard, I felt so happy that this was my family, this was my life. I was not a Richter child.

Of course I had no idea how quickly things would soon change in my own house.

The summer I was twelve, our neighbors, the Lunds, went on a cruise for two weeks while their college-aged son, Toby, stayed in their house. The Lunds were as friendly with us as anyone else on our hilltop cul de sac, waving at my parents when they pulled up in the driveway, chatting with my brother and sister and I when we trick-or-treated at their house. The most neighborly thing my parents did was to pass on the surplus of fruit that grew from the trees in our backyard. My father would throw some lemons in a brown lunch bag, hand it to me or my sister, Becca, or my brother, Josh, and say, take this to the Birch house, or the Lund’s house, or the Krone’s. And we would.

With his parents gone, Toby had a party that lasted a couple days with overnight guests and one giant, ox-like black lab who made giant dog turds on our lawn.

My father was a tolerant man. He tolerated basketball in the house, unbathed kids, moths laying eggs in the kitchen pantry. But he could not tolerate dog shit on the lawn that he alone weeded. A lawn that, without the use of pesticides or herbicides, had the soft, velvety texture of a plush carpet.

Dad scooped up the dog droppings with a trowel, put them in a brown paper lunch bag, handed it to my sister and told her to deliver it to the Lund boy.

I went with her. Toby opened the door. He seemed so large that it was hard to imagine him as someone’s boy.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” Becca and I both said.

“You’re Becca and . . . Becca’s sister right?” Toby grinned wide and slow.

“Yeah,” Becca said. Of course she wasn’t going to tell him my name. My sister was fifteen and lately had been categorizing guys into two groups: succulent or gross. Toby was definitely succulent, and surely my sister could think of no reason for him to know my name.

“This is from my dad,” Becca said, and she smiled coyly.

My lips shook and made a pittering sound as I held in my laughter. I wanted Toby to open the bag right then so we could see his face. I wanted him to say something snarky and fantastic that we could deliver back to Dad—something that would keep the entertainment going. At the time, I could think of few things less funny than dog doo in a brown paper lunch bag.

“Okay. Thanks Becca and . . . whatever!” Toby laughed and shut the door.

It took us a while to realize that the Lunds, and all the other families on Azalea Way had stopped talking to everyone in our family. And so my father stopped passing on the lemons. I assumed they shunned us because Josh often left his Big Wheel in the street, or because my mother twice backed out of the driveway in high speed and ran over the Lund’s mailbox, or because someone had climbed the towering eucalyptus trees that bordered our yards, peeked down onto our redwood deck and witnessed my parents’ parties where marijuana was smoked in tight little cigarettes that were butted out in abalone shell ashtrays. Or maybe they were mad because we were the only people on Azalea Way who didn’t put up Christmas lights. Viewed from the bottom of the hill, our cul de sac could almost look like a Christmas tree in December, a tree without a glittery star on top where our dark, unlit house sat like a poor sport.

All of my friends’ mothers hung out together. They played tennis at the club down the street, alternated houses for coffee and showed up at school together doing whatever it is parents did at schools back then. My friend Corinne’s mother had a sharp tongue and probing eyes. One day, Corinne’s mom looked me up and down, glared at the rolled bottoms of my jeans and said, “Doesn’t your mother hem your pants?”

“No,” I said. A couple years earlier my mother had declared that she “quit” being a housewife and we three kids were to tend to the house and fend for ourselves. I never did figure out how to use the Singer sewing machine and Becca, who could whip together a sock puppet or Barbie clothes on the machine in a matter of minutes, was unwilling to hem my clothes for me. I was short, so all my pants were either rolled or jaggedly cut with a pair of scissors.

That same day, Corinne reported to me what her mother had recently heard at the neighborhood coffee.

“Do you know why everyone in the neighborhood hates your family?” Corinne asked. We were in her perfectly matching green and pink room. She had a bed skirt and a canopy, both of which seemed “fancy” to me.

“’Cause Josh leaves his toys outside?”

“No,” Corinne said. “Because last summer you and your sister delivered a bag of your poop to the Lunds and told them it was lemons.”

“No we didn’t!” I had forgotten about the party, the dog shit collected from my father’s then-perfect lawn (he later abandoned lawn care and our plush, green carpet turned into a thigh-high field of straw).

“Yes you did! Their son was there and he left a note on the counter that said, ‘The Blaus sent these lemons over for you.’ and when they came home from their trip they opened the bag and it was full of poop. My mother would never make up something so disgusting.”

“I gotta go home for dinner,” I said. Sometimes it seemed that in showing me everything in her life—the two Christmas trees with miniature villages tucked below each (one in the family room, one in the living room), the two whopping pink Easter baskets she got each spring because her mother couldn’t fit all the candy into one, the new school wardrobe that was so inexhaustible she didn’t have to wear a repeat until sometime in late November—Corrine was pointing out deficiencies in my house, my parents, my life. And just then, when Corrine made it clear that there were two kinds of people in this world, those who give their neighbors bags of poop and those who don’t, I couldn’t stand to be near her.

I ran out of Corinne’s house, past the house where the neighborhood perv hosed his bushes in his bathrobe, the flaps always flying open to reveal what my sister and I called his turkey gobbler; past the Richter house where Mr. Richter was surely sitting in his blue wing chair in the living room staring out at nothing; past the house where neighborhood children were only allowed into the rumpus room or the garage, as if we were stray dogs with fleas and weeping, over-licked sores; up the center of Azalea Way and past all the homes where no one would even look in my direction.

I wanted to cry, but there wasn’t time for that. Becca had just made tacos and she needed me to set the table, open a bottle of red wine for my parents, and fetch my brother who was perched on the platform that was fifteen-feet up one of the eucalyptus trees in the backyard.

By the time we all sat down to eat, a cry was still hovering somewhere on the edge of my throat.

“Remember last year when we delivered the dog poop to the Lunds,” I said, staring down at my taco.

“Can you believe a kid would let a dog that big just shit wherever it wanted?!” My father was still outraged by the crime.

“Well,” I said, “their son put the bag of poop on the counter and left a note for his parents that they were lemons from us. Corinne’s mom told Corinne and she told me. That’s why no one will talk to us.”

There was a moment of silence, and then we looked at one another and each of us, including Josh, who never even knew about the poop-in-the-bag-incident, started laughing. And laughing. And laughing.

My parents never apologized to the Lunds. They never said a word. My mother hated that neighborhood and was happy she didn’t have to do small talk and chit chat each time she walked to her car. And my father was so caught up in his head, often talking aloud to himself about whatever he was working on, that he probably just forgot we were being shunned. I am certain that none of the neighbors missed us when we moved.

Rikky was skinny. The way Michael Jackson was skinny. All rubbery, loose, yet with enough gristle and sinew to look like a man. And he danced like Michael Jackson, too. On the marble steps of our apartment building in Oakland, California, he’d spin, make a little “ch ch” sound and flip his hand and hip out, posing on the last beat.

My boyfriend, Scott, and I managed the apartment. It was the late nineteen-eighties, we were finishing college, working and saving all our money to buy a house. In return for a free apartment, we rented out the vacant apartments, collected the checks each month, and called the maintenance man, a coarse, cauliflower-skinned old man, who would never use Scott’s name, only referring to him as “college boy.” We mostly rented to people we wanted to be friends with: Keesha and Darril, a couple from Atlanta, she was into fashion design, he was into computers. Courtney and Danny, graduate students at Berkeley. Pierre and Suzanne; she was teaching, he was in law school. And then there was Rikky.

The building was newly renovated, Art Deco, the wood floors refinished, everything freshly painted. But it wasn’t a particularly nice neighborhood. The high-rise next door rented by the week. A baby was dropped down the stairwell there, killed on impact. One night, Scott and I watched a man beat a woman in the parking lot between our building and the neighboring building. When Scott lowered his voice and yelled out the window, “Leave her alone, I’m calling the police!” the woman who was being beaten looked up toward our apartment and yelled, “Mind your own fucking business!” We quickly shut the blinds and hid out in the bedroom, afraid of a rock or bullet that might come flying through the window. The man in the little market on the ground floor of the neighboring building was shot to death one night. He was a nice man, who said, “Thank you very muuuch,” after each purchase, with an accent like Bela Lugosi. There was what we called a “Drug in the Box” across the street. People walked down the street, stuck their hand in a ground floor window and then walked away, quickly. Young boys hung out on the corners whistling and cooing and making all sorts of noises that signaled where the police or any other threat was at any particular moment.  And a pit bull was shot in the head on the sidewalk in front of our apartment one day. The dog was attacking the maintenance man who held it back with a push broom. The police pulled over, got out of their car.  One cop drew his gun, shot the pit bull, put his gun back and returned to the car. They drove away. No report, no words. Just a dead pit bull under my bedroom window.

The day after Rikky signed the lease, an Emporium Capwell truck pulled up in front of the building and began unloading furniture into his studio apartment. Rikky bought the room on display in the department store, including the knick-knacks. He invited Scott and me to come over and see, once the rooms had been set up. Everything was black, white and grey; feathery, dappled, shiny. There was even a silver framed painting on the wall: an abstract of splattered black paint. A price tag hung off each piece of furniture; white sticker tags glared from the corners of each object. In the obsidian ashtray, a wide sticker sat where a stubbed cigarette should have been: $16.99.

“I just went into that store,” Rikky explained, “and stood in the middle of the showroom pointing. I want this, this, this, and this.” Rikky pivoted on one leg, nodding his lanky, limp index finger.

A couple people suggested Rikky might be a male prostitute—for men. He claimed he wasn’t gay but, again like Michael Jackson, his sexuality was ambiguous, his appeal androgynous. Most people thought he was a drug dealer, in spite of his fragile looks and feathery wardrobe. If he was prostituting or dealing drugs, he wasn’t doing it out of the apartment, so in fact, he turned out to be a pretty good tenant. He always paid his rent on the first of the month, always in cash. And then we began to worry about having cash in the apartment—who knew what Rikky’s friends might do for a few hundred dollars? We told Rikky he had to pay the rent by check, like everyone else in the building. The next month’s rent came on a check, but it didn’t have Rikky’s name anywhere on it. The name was similar to Rikky’s, same number of syllables, same metric rhythm. And the address was correct, down to the apartment number.

“Who’s this?” I asked Rikky.

“That’s my brother,” he said, and he did a little Michael Jackson dance in my entrance hall. “Man, we were at a club last night,” Rikky said, “and you should have seen me, you should have seen me dancing, girl, everyone was all over me; boys, girls, they all wanted me when they saw me dance.”

“You told me you don’t have any brothers,” I said.

“The check’s good, don’t worry about! And Huey Newton was there,” Rikky said, spinning around twice and turning his head like a ballerina so he wouldn’t get dizzy.  “He likes hookers. There must have been ten hookers at our table. Oh, and the mayor was there, too.”

“You were partying with the mayor?” I asked.

“Hell yes,” Rikky said. “I only hang out with the finest people.”

The check was good and all the checks that followed were also good.

Sometime in the beginning of the summer, right after Scott and I graduated from school, Rikky bought a brand-new, white Saab. It had every upgrade possible: a black bra across the front, a built-in cell phone at a time when no one we knew had a cell phone, leather seats, sun roof, everything electric.  Rikky stood on the stoop twirling the keys around his finger as he told a few of us the story.

“I walked into that dealership and said, ‘How much.’ Then this white guy there, big belly, puffy face, he gives me a look like, ‘Ain’t no colored boy from Lafayette, Louisiana, gonna be buying a vehicle like this.’”

“How’d he know you were from Louisiana?” my friend, Keesha, asked.

“Girl, he didn’t know nothin’! That’s what I’m saying, he was just givin’ me the look and I was reading his mind!”

“How fast does that thing go?” Scott asked. He’d been admiring the car all day. We didn’t have a car, we took the bus, or the BART train, or we walked.

“Fast, girlfriend, it goes fast! So, this white guy is looking at me and he gives me a price and I say, ‘Fine, I’ll take it.’”

“Did you test drive it?” Scott wanted to know.

“Fuck, no! The only way to let them know you ain’t no dumb punk is when you don’t even test drive the motherfucker you’re gonna buy!”

“So you didn’t drive it till you took it off the lot?” Scott was incredulous.

“No, girlfriend, I told you, no! I just whipped out my little Fendi bag, see?” Rikky flipped his purse-like sack from his back to his side to show us.  “And I pulled out cash, motherfuckers, cold, hard, cash and paid for the thing right then and there.”

“How much was it?” Scott asked.

The car cost more than what we were trying to save for a down payment on a house. Scott wanted the car.  I wanted the cash Rikky spent buying it—I wanted a house.

Scott and I worked hard that summer. I was taking the BART to I.Magnin, an upscale department store in San Francisco where I sold Ladies’ Dresses. He was taking the bus to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, working as a janitor, making far more money than I. We both were working on our resumes, looking for real jobs now that we’d finished school.

One day near the end of the summer, Rikky came knocking on my door.

“Girl,” he said, “I’m in a little bit of trouble and I need some cash fast.”

“I don’t have any money,” I said.

Rikky was sweating, fidgeting instead of dancing. We were in the hall outside my apartment; he kept looking down to the glass front door of the building as if he were waiting for someone.

“Can I have something to drink?” he asked.

We went into the apartment and he whistled out a long breath, like he’d just finished a difficult chore—changing a tire or fixing a toaster.

“So what’s up?” I opened the fridge and pulled out the orange juice.   “Juice?”

“No, I don’t want anything.” Rikky sat at my kitchen table.

“I thought you wanted something to drink.”

“No, I’m not thirsty.”

“You okay?”

“Girl,” he said, “I need to get some money, fast. I was thinking I’d sell you and Scott the Saab. At a discount, of course.”

“We don’t have any money.” I was grateful Scott wasn’t home. He would have gouged out our house-savings to buy it at a bargain price. He would have reiterated his you-gotta-spend-money-to-make-money theory. A car, according to Scott, would give us broader job opportunities, which would in turn bring in more money, which would lead to a better house than what we were currently scrimping for. In short, Scott had no willpower or self-control when it came to money. (Before we managed the building, he once took the rent money to the racetrack with the plan of doubling it before paying the rent. A poor plan, indeed. He even lost the bus fare he had set aside to get home and ended up hitching a ride with a stumpy middle-aged man who tried to slip his right thumb up Scott’s shorts while maintaining steering wheel control with his left palm).

“Ten thousand dollars,” Rikky said. “You can have the whole mother-fucking thing for ten thousand. That’s a bargain, girlfriend. That’s ghetto dollars.”

I thought about how happy Scott would be with that car. He was from Boston, kind of preppy-looking; he liked the props that matched the look.

“I’ll give you five-hundred dollars.” It was all I could bear to part with.

“Girlfriend!” Rikky stood, snorting and half-laughing. “There have got to be a hundred motherfuckers on this block who would give me ten thousand dollars today for that car!”

“So go find them,” I said.

Rikky didn’t hang around. He dashed out of my apartment, no stories, no dances. It was as if the dial that generated his energy had been turned to a different mode: panic.

In order to safeguard our savings, I didn’t tell Scott about the car offer. But a couple days later, I was sitting in the kitchen reading the paper, when Scott called me to the living room window. A white truck with no company name or logo was backed in front of the building. Four pro-wrestler-sized men walked in and out of the building carrying the contents of Rikky’s apartment. Rikky was nowhere in sight. It was the second week of the month, and for the first time since he had moved in, Rikky was late with the rent.

The next day, Friday, Rikky was knocking at my door again.

“Girl, I need money right now. How about five thousand for the Saab?”

“I only have five hundred dollars,” I said.

“Do you have a credit card?”

“Yeah.”

“How ‘bout this. You give me the five hundred dollars, and charge on your credit card a one-way ticket to Lafayette, Louisiana, and I’ll give you the car.”

“You’ll sell me the Saab for five hundred dollars?”

“Five hundred and a one-way ticket to Louisiana.”

“One-way?  You leaving?”

“Forever, girlfriend.”

“You haven’t paid your rent,” I said.

“Paid my rent? Rent is the last thing I’m thinking about right now! I will worry about my manicure before I worry about my rent!” Rikky flapped his hands in front of me as if he were chasing away birds.

“I’ll take it out of your deposit,” I said, and Rikky rolled his eyes and clucked his tongue as if I were some kind of traitor.


Scott was thrilled, stunned, really, but cautious. Although he was twice the size of Rikky, he didn’t trust that he wouldn’t carry a gun, or at least, have friends with guns. The following day Rikky came to our apartment with two alligator carpetbags and a leather duffel bag.

He didn’t have the pink slip for the car.

“It’s at my house in Louisiana,” Rikky said, “I swear on my mother’s life.”

“Why would it be there?” Scott asked. “You bought the car here.”

“I ship all my important papers to my mother to keep. I swear to god, I wouldn’t lie to you two.”

“I’ll write out a contract,” I said, and I took a piece of yellow, lined paper and wrote, “I, Rikky Carnegie, agree to sell my Saab 900S, license plate number 1K5 J36 to Jessica Blau for five-hundred dollars. I do not have the pink slip but I will mail it when I find it. This agreement is legal and binding. Signed, Rikky Carnegie.”

Rikky signed the paper, then pushed the two carpetbags aside and said, “Look, I’ll even leave all this stuff here as collateral.”

“Jessica drives,” Scott said, as we walked to the parking lot, “and I’ll sit in back.”

I’m not sure if Rikky saw Scott pick up the piece of old pipe that was lying on the ground in the parking lot. In the rearview mirror I could see that Scott was cocked like a gun, ready to bash Rikky with the pipe if anything should happen.

I drove to San Francisco International and waited in the car while Scott went in to charge Rikky’s one-way ticket. Scott wanted to drive the car home, of course.

Here’s the missing piece of the story that Rikky never anticipated. Tucked behind our building, at the far end of the parking lot, was a vacant warehouse. The warehouse had no windows and a rollaway steel door. It was a former Brink’s truck warehouse—an impenetrable fortress through which millions of dollars once regularly passed. The owner of our building owned this warehouse. When we were given the keys to the building, we were also given the keys to the warehouse. “Just in case,” the owner had said. In case of what, I wasn’t sure, but driving Rikky’s former white Saab with black-tinted windows, a black bra, and a thick black antennae on the trunk through Oakland didn’t feel safe to either Scott or me. If the police wanted him and pulled the car over, we had no pink slip to prove the car was ours now. And why did he suddenly have to flee town? Surely someone wanted to kill him—killing seemed a part of his world; he had told us about a friend who was killed one night, shot on the steps of a nightclub while Rikky, unknowing, was mirthfully dancing inside. And whoever wanted to kill him wouldn’t be able to see that it wasn’t Rikky behind the black windows until he came close enough to the car to inspect the body. Additionally, he only gave us one key. Who had the other key? And did that person also have the pink slip? Did he sell the car to two people at once: Us, the faux-yuppie couple who were earnestly saving for a house, and . . . someone who would have no problem picking up their new vehicle in the parking lot of our building around, say, four a.m.?

When we came home from the airport, Scott pulled the car into the warehouse and immediately closed the steel door behind him. He drove circles in forward, then reverse, around the warehouse, while I sat in the passenger seat and watched him smile.

The next day, we went to Rikky’s apartment to see what condition it had been left in. It wasn’t particularly destroyed; didn’t need to be repainted as had other recently vacated apartments. The rooms were shadowy empty boxes, save the mattress in the center of the living room. Cockroaches scattered under the refrigerator and stove when we walked in the kitchen. In the bathroom a cockroach sat in the tub, seeming to watch me as I opened the medicine cabinet. A single tube of red lipstick sat there.  The lid off, the pointy, cracked tip rolled up. Somehow it seemed as ominous, or sinister, as a bullet.

Scott and I went into the warehouse as least once a day to drive the Saab in circles. We’d take our friends in there, people who lived in the building, people who had known Rikky. We’d hang out for hours, drinking beer, laughing, while we took turns careening around the warehouse. I always gave up my turn and sat in the passenger seat instead while Scott did a few more laps. Scott would drop his mouth open in an expression of crazy glee, then holler as he spun into the turns while I hung onto the safety strap as if I were standing on a runaway subway car.

Every day I checked the mail for an envelope from Lafayette, Louisiana. Every day I wasn’t surprised, but a bit hurt, that the pink slip wasn’t there. And then the phone calls started coming. Always a woman, same dull voice, but different identity each time she called.

The first time, she asked for Rikky.

“Hey, is Rikky there?”

“Rikky Carnegie?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“No, this isn’t his apartment and he doesn’t live in town anymore.”

“Oh, really?! He gave me this number once and said I could find him there.”

“Sorry.”

“He was so cute.”

“Yeah.”

“Drove that cute white Saab.”

“Yup.”

“Didn’t he sell it to you?”

“Oh, he told you that?”

“Yeah, I think he said he sold you that car.”

“Well, how do you know who I am?”

“Aren’t you the sup?”

“We manage the building,” I said.

“So he sold his car to you, then.”

“Yeah, he did.”

“Where do you park it? I drive by your building all the time and I never see that car around.”

I was tempted to ask if the plan was to steal the car and return it to Rikky, who perhaps had found his way back from Louisiana? Or if the person calling was going to steal the car for herself? But a question like that would reveal too much, take too much away from us, diminish the fervor Scott and I were putting into our role as a hopeful, young couple.

“I park it in the parking lot by the building,” I said.

“Really? I never see it. Do you drive it to work? You work at I.Magnin, right?”

“No, I take the BART. We leave it in the parking lot all day.”

A woman claiming to be his sister called a couple of days later. She wanted to know if we’d heard from Rikky. And then she wanted to confirm that we were the people who bought his car, and were we keeping it in good condition, parking it in a garage somewhere?

And another friend of Rikky called. She thought she saw us driving the car on the Bay Bridge, and was that us, and where we going with the car and where did we keep the car anyway?

A couple weeks later I called the California DMV.

“I bought a car,” I said, “and we wrote out a signed contract, but the owner lost the pink slip. What can I do?”

The woman told me that eight weeks from the date of the signed contract, if I still didn’t have a pink slip, I could register the car in my name and they would issue me a pink slip, which would, in effect, void the old pink slip.  We had four weeks to wait.

The day before the four weeks was up, Rikky called.

“Girlfriend, how are you?!” He was back to his high spirits.

“Good,” I told him. “How come you never sent me the pink slip?”

“Girl, I couldn’t find it. But now I got it and I’m sending it to you. So can you send me my bags?”

Rikky’s snakeskin carpetbags had been sitting like two monuments to Rikky in our entrance hall since the day he left. Scott and I had started to look through them one night, but each item we pulled out was sadder, more forlorn than the last—a soiled lavender, suede boot; lace-up leather pants missing the lace; a yellowed, formerly white, ruffled blouse, like what Prince wore on the cover of the Purple Rain album. Scott finally lifted his hands as if to block the sight of blood, and said, “Just pack it all away, I can’t look anymore!” I never opened the bags again.

“Give me your address,” I said. “I’ll send them to you.”

“Girl where you keepin’ that car? My friends drive by the building and they say they’ve never seen that car no how!”

“It’s in the parking lot,” I said. “Just below the living room window where Scott can see it.”

“Truly?”

“Truly.”

“Okay, well, the pink slip is coming, so you are the true owner now—feel free to drive that car around town, girl. There ain’t no point in owning it if you aint gonna show it off!”

“We’re driving it,” I said.  “We drive it all over the place.”

“Truly?”

“Yup.”

“Girl, my friends say that car has flat-out disappeared!”

“I gotta go Rikky,” I said. “Give me your address and I’ll send you your stuff.”


The pink slip never came, but the DMV issued me a new one in my name. That day, Scott and I drove to the Saab dealership in Oakland and traded the car in for some cash (to please me) and a used Saab (to please him). It was brown, nothing fancy, nothing electric, but Scott still thought it was cool; much sexier than the 51 bus.

And the following month, using the money we’d saved and the money we got for the Saab, we bought our first house. It was in Oakland, on a hill with smaller, more broken down houses below it and larger, nicer houses above it. From the front of the house there was a view of the Oakland Coliseum down the hill, and what was then called Candlestick Park farther out in the distance.

We didn’t own a TV, and with the expenses of a house, we rarely had extra money to go to a baseball game. So when the A’s or the Giants were playing, Scott and I would sit in the Saab parked in the driveway facing the stadiums, one or the other of them lit like a birthday cake in the landscape, and listen to the ballgame on the radio. Sometimes we’d drink a beer out there and the car would have that glorious smell of being raced in a secret hidden warehouse.



When I was growing up in California, my parents had a fairly loose policy of not driving me, my sister, or my brother around town. We biked to the dentist and doctor. To go anywhere else—school, the beach, the movies—we walked, rode the bus, roller skated, and hitch-hiked (the method of choice in high school).

The no driving policy was cemented sometime before my sister, Becca, went away to college, when we were both in high school together.

On that particular day, the rain was coming down like an unbroken wall of water. Becca had whined and complained, cajoling our dad to drive us to school so we wouldn’t have to walk through the rain to the bus stop (where we’d stick out our thumbs to hitch-hike). My father relented, grumbling and moaning as he picked up his car keys from the kitchen counter and walked out to the garage. He was barefoot in his threadbare blue bathrobe that reminded me of an overused, shredded tissue.

 

 

Becca pushed the garage door open from the inside, then quickly got into the front seat of the old station wagon. I sat in the back. My sister was relentlessly bossy when it came to priority seating in the car. I always thought she acted as if the family owed her for her having to put up with bird shit (from my brother’s un-caged bird who lived in our family room), clutter (covering every flat surface in the house), overflowing ashtrays (cigarettes and pot), nudity (my parents didn’t own bathing suits and always swam naked), moldy food in the refrigerator (cheeses that smelled like butt-holes) and moths flying out of the cereal boxes in the cupboard (which resulted in the aromatic branches from bay trees in the cupboards as a form of organic insecticide). What I didn’t understand in this equation was why Josh and I were owed nothing for putting up with it all.

Dad drove us all the way into school—the rain was so thick, I didn’t worry about anyone peering into the window of the station wagon and seeing that he was in his ratty bathrobe.

 

 

That afternoon when Becca and I got home from school, Dad came bounding down the stairs still in his bathrobe, hollering, “I WILL NEVER DRIVE YOU GIRLS ANYWHERE AGAIN, YOU HEAR?!” Oddly, my father often seemed inured to the little things that drove most people mad (traffic lights, rude sales clerks, finding a parking spot) but could be outraged at the things that most people didn’t think about (an orange that wasn’t perfectly ripe, the movie Fiddler on the Roof, a dog shit on the lawn). So it didn’t seem surprising that he would be ranting about having driven us to school.

“Do you know that I ran out of gas!” He bellowed.

“Where?” Becca snarled. Of course she was wondering exactly what I was wondering, and that was if our father had run out of gas near the school and if he got out of the car in the raggedy bathrobe under which he was completely naked.

“On Cathedral Oaks Road, just after I dropped you off!”

“Dad! Come on!” Becca said. I imagined my friends driving to school and passing my father loping down the road, his penis probably flopping out into the rain through the sheer flaps of his robe.

“Do you know how far I had to walk for gas!?”

The only thing between the house and the high school was acres and acres of lemon, orange, and avocado orchards. He would have had to walk toward the school, then past it, to get to a gas station.

“About a mile?” I guessed.

“Dad!” Becca said. “Did you see any of my friends? Did anyone see you walking to the gas station?” Her face was a dark stain of worry.

“How the hell do I know! It was fucking raining out! I was fucking naked under my robe!”

“We know,” I said, quietly. I was worried about my latest crush having seen my father. We had gone on only one date and I was hoping for a second.

“Dad!” My sister’s body was clenched as if she were trying to contract her entire being into one tiny, dark lump. “Why don’t you get dressed before you leave the house!? Most people do this—they put on clothes before they walk out the door.”

“I didn’t even go to work today, I was so outraged!” My father was pacing the entrance hall.

“Why didn’t you take off the wet robe?” I asked.

“I took it off and put it in the dryer, but then I was so fucking pissed off, that I just put it back on when it was dry.”

“You were too mad to get dressed?” I imagined my father working naked while he waited for the robe to dry. Would he have answered the door naked? Who knows.

“What is wrong with you!” Becca pushed past Dad and walked down the hall toward the kitchen, her giant backpack sitting on her like someone riding piggyback. I followed.

“Never again!” Dad shouted down the hall at us. “Find your own rides from now on!” I could hear his footsteps thumping up the stairs.

“It’s not like you’ve ever driven us anywhere before!” Becca shouted to the ceiling. Dad must have heard her, but he said nothing and simply slammed shut the bedroom door.

My father stuck to his promise and didn’t drive us anywhere again. It wasn’t a huge inconvenience—I only thought of it when I rode in the backseat of someone else’s parents’ car, the mothers who would pick us up from the movies at night, the dads who would drive us to the County Bowl for concerts. In fact, when I rank the oddities of my childhood this one comes out normal compared the period when my father was a voluntary mute and only communicated with us by scrawling notes on a yellow legal pad that he always carried in one hand.

 

 

My mother gave my father a Diane Arbus photo book for his birthday the year I was ten and he was thirty-four. The entire family (Mom, Dad, my older sister, Becca, and my younger brother, Josh) gathered around and slowly waded through it, picture by picture. The pages were thick and glossy and smelled remotely of plastic. Almost all the photos were portraits—people whose entire lives seemed exposed through the simplest physical details. There was the terrorizing image of the boy holding a toy hand grenade, the stoop of the Jewish giant who stood beside his small rodent-like parents, the overly-shadowed nasal-labial folds on the middle-aged woman cradling a baby monkey whose face is identical to hers.

And then there was the Topless Dancer.

She sits in a chair in her dressing room in San Francisco, wearing a long sequined, chest-cut-out gown, which I have always imagined to be red (the photo is in black and white). There is a slit up the front of the gown, revealing her crossed legs, shimmery in stockings—closed-toed pumps on her feet. Her sleeves are long and flared with boa-like feathers at the cuff. Other than her face and hands, her breasts are the only bare flesh she exposes: giant breasts, buoyant-looking, inflated to the point of bursting. One finger is pushing into a breast so you can see that there is little give—like a waterbed upon which your body won’t make a dent. Her nipples are glowing, bright eyes beckoning, yet blind to the viewer.

At the time, they were the strangest, yet somehow most fascinating breasts I had ever seen. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen a lot breasts—we lived in Southern California, it was the seventies; my parents and their friends had frequent pool parties where all the adults were naked as the children cowered at the water’s edge in their chaste orlon swimsuits. What made the topless dancer’s breasts special was the fact that the purpose of their exposure was simply so that they’d be appreciated. They were breasts for the sake of breasts—breasts beyond normal human breasts—breasts as a prurient object of desire that had nothing to do with the person who wore them.

The following year, in Fifth grade, my own breasts began to develop. I discovered it while sitting on the edge of my bed in my underwear. There was a pain, or throb in my breasts, something that called me to them. With a fat dirty-nailed finger I rubbed and prodded until I found a large sore nut underneath the thin skin of each nipple. I called my sister in, she was fourteen, a flat-chested gymnast, on the precipice of anorexia.

“What’s this?” I asked, and I pushed her finger onto one nob.

“You’re developing,” she said. Then she looked away, furious, almost-panicked and called for our mother. “MOOOOM!”

My mother came in the room—she wasn’t a doting or involved mother, but she did have an interest in my brother, sister and me; she liked to observe and note us in the same way that she noted the details of the faces in the Diane Arbus photos.

“Jessie’s developing,” my sister said.

My mother placed a finger on my nipple and rubbed.

“Yup,” she said, “you’re developing.”

That was the beginning of a three-year rift between my sister and me. It was when I started to receive, without ever asking, the things she wanted most.

Sometime in the middle of the school year, the swollen garbanzo beans beneath my skin pushed out so that through a thin tee-shirt or blouse, one could see my puffy nipples. The Mediterranean climate of our town—our location on the jagged California coast—demanded no hats or mittens or woolen vests like I’d seen on television or in magazines, so it never occurred to me to hide or cover up my new developments. And then came the day that Kevin H., who was often teased because his father was a gay activist, pointed at me as I walked down the open air hallway, and shouted, “Jessica’s sprouting!”

It was a refrain no one could resist repeating. And how could I have blamed them, as even to me, the words Jessica’s sprouting sounded freakishly interesting. I was sprouting—growing things with seeds I had never planted, tending to a tiny crop that already was of great interest to my peers. People love breasts, and I was starting to get them. My thrill of them, however, seemed like a secret I wasn’t ready to share. I asked my mother for a bra.

All underwear for my sister and me was purchased at J.C.Penny. The dressing rooms were in the Lower Level, a dingy place with carpet that looked like it belonged in a basement or a carport. Back then, girls’ bras came only in white or beige (think of teeth: bleached or tobacco-stained). And one fabric: polyester. Mom hustled me out of the dressing room as soon as we found two that fit, handed me the credit card and let me pay for them myself (a deeply embarrassing transaction) while she rushed outside for a cigarette.

The bras provided a good barrier—they hid and cradled my breasts until the time I entered high school where I eventually discovered the power of breasts; the power of the Diane Arbus Topless Dancer.

“Jessica,” wrote one boy in my ninth-grade yearbook, “I’m glad you sit near me in math. I like the clothes you wear. Love, John.” Other than his signature, there was nothing in that inscription imitative of the usual yearbook platitudes. I was stuck on the clothing line. My uniform throughout high school consisted of shorts, flip-flops and Hang-Ten tanks, tees or halter tops. There were hundreds of girls, mostly blonder, taller, tanner and prettier than I, who dominated the fashion scene at our school.

At a beach party to celebrate the end of the school year, I approached the John who liked my clothes.

“What do you mean you like my clothes?” I asked. He was holding a Lowenbrau, squinting into the sun.

“I like your clothes?” He took a step closer, I could smell the tangy beer on his breath.

“You wrote that in my yearbook,” I explained.

“Your body,” he grinned, “everyone can see the shape of your boobs and your butt in your clothes.”

“Everyone?”

“Everyone who looks,” he said, “and I always look.” John laughed quickly with a machine gun hahahaha, as if to cover up or blow away his words.

I was startled, but also fascinated by what he had just revealed. It gave me a thrilling awareness that I was unable shed: there were people who were actually looking at me.

That summer my family took a trip back east to see our relatives. I was fourteen, about to be fifteen—fully grown into the same size and shape I am today. My sister was seventeen. She had had her bout with anorexia and was one year into recovery. Within a matter of months she had gone from size 0 to size 6; from flat-chested to a C cup; and from amenorrheal to menstrual. Our builds were opposite: where I was broad-hipped, she was slim; where I was small-waisted, she was not; my legs were soft and doughy, hers were sinewy and narrow. But we both had large breasts.

A farewell party for my family at my uncle’s house in Vermont produced the following scene:

My grandfather is at the bar (this branch of the family consists of people who have actual working bars in their houses: beer on tap, neon Coors signs, St. Pauli Girl mirrors, the whole shebang). He is holding a glass half-filled with chunky ice cubes, amber scotch covering the ice with just a couple glassy peaks sticking out. My uncle is on the other side of the bar, pouring drinks, watching people, listening.

My sister, Becca, and I are standing together, near our grandfather, but not so close as to have a conversation with him. We are talking to each other, discussing our cousin Donny who has grown handsome, man-sized, since we last saw him, and who has invited us for a ride in his truck in order to smoke a joint.

My grandfather lifts his glass towards us and speaks loudly in the way of people who command rooms, the way of people who are used to being listened to by everyone around them. “Would you look at the tits on these girls?!”

My sister and I aren’t sure who he’s talking about at first. We both look at my grandfather, cautiously. We are, it seems, the only girls in the room.

“Rodney!” my grandfather says, and he turns to my uncle behind the bar, “Can you believe the tits on these girls?!”

And now we know that indeed our tits are the subject of this public conversation. Instinctively, we huddle closer together. I can feel my sister breathing; I can sense the tension coming off her skin.

Rodney smiles, nods his head, raises a glass as if to toast our breasts.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, “You’ve got mighty pretty granddaughters with mighty big tits.”

Finally, our grandfather addresses us directly. “Do all the girls in California have tits like that?”

In our confusion, we nervously giggle. This is an encounter for which we are not at all prepared. I feel like I am panting, yet somehow not breathing.

“Well?” he asks, laughing.

Becca grabs my hand and pulls me out of the room, still giggling. She says nothing to me about what just happened and so I say nothing, too. We avoid our grandfather for the rest of the party, although I am always aware of where he is. It is clear that neither of us wants to be seen by him in the same way that yearbook-writing John had seen me. I learn then that the thrill of being looked at depends entirely on who is looking at you.

I never saw my grandfather again. We left the next morning and, as usual, he
avoided the goodbye scene. The next year, as my grandfather was dying of cancer, my mother flew to his deathbed. When she came home from the funeral, my mother reported that his dying words were, “I never should have had children.”

“Well,” I said to her, “at least he didn’t mention your tits.”