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issue 29: March - April 2002 

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Dexy's Midnight etcPixie Dust
1968

Jean Harfenist


Lying in bed, face to the wall, I already know everything worth knowing. Nothing more I want to do, no one I want to meet. The only trip I want to take is from my right side to my left, and Mom’s coming down the hall singing, "I love YOUUU, a bushel and a PECK, a bushel and a PECK, and a DAH-dah dah-dah NECK…" She’s in here. "…and a BARREL and a heap…" She sits on my bed. I roll toward her, snarling. She's got a glass of V-8 in one hand and a bullet-sized black capsule in the other. "Come on, Lily Nilly. Take this and I promise your mother will be gone with the wind."
     "Go away." I flop an arm over my face. I’ve always been a napper, but since my boyfriend, Stash, moved to Owatonna, I’ve become the Queen of Sleep. Eighty-seven days and not a phone call. Sitting at lunch, in class, or in the library reading a book, my eyes slam shut, my head falls forward like a granite ball, and I sleep until someone makes me move. I gave up going to school on Fridays weeks ago. Didn’t go at all last week.
      "I love YOUUUUU, a bushel and a PECK…"
      I moisten the capsule on my tongue, swallow hard and turn my blanketed back to her.
      "Dah-dah-DEEEEEE…"
      Fifteen minutes later I pop up like toast, peel my nightgown over my head, fold it into a five-inch square, and am about to put it away when I notice my underwear drawer is a jungle, so I fold everything in all six drawers with stunning precision, then sort the mountain of clothes from my closet floor into three piles: washing, ironing, and good-enough-to-wear-once-more. Suddenly I understand logic, I understand order. Suddenly my closet matters.
      Two hours later, chain-smoking, still buck naked, I strip the bed and turn the mattress over, top to bottom, then end to end, extending its life until I can see myself sleeping on it with gray hair. Progress is everything. I dress from the dirty pile so I’m not losing ground. What a girl I am.
      Finally.
      By four-forty Saturday afternoon, I've been doing projects in my room for thirty-three hours and forty minutes. Better yet, I haven't eaten a crumb and I can feel my ribs appearing like the sled after the first false melt in March. I’m at my desk, having finished five chapters in Gregg Shorthand Made Easy, enormously pleased by the graceful shapes flowing off the end of my Bic fine-point, red ink on pale green paper, riding the dark blue lines, no margins, nothing wasted, lighting one cigarette off the other to save matches, when my brain stalls out. I drop the pen, stagger through the washing and ironing piles, and flop down on my bare but recently turned mattress.

* * *

There’s a nail in my right nipple. But I’d remember a nail going in. Wouldn’t I? I think through it and figure out I’m asleep facedown on a bare bed. I wedge my hand in there and find the loose mattress button that's carving a hole in me. I open my eyes, roll onto my back, arms and legs heavy as fire hoses. My chest aches from chain-smoking Kools. I’m hungry. I drag myself downstairs.
      It’s Sunday, not yet four a.m., and the living room is lit bright enough to land a plane. We’ve already had our first hard frost, but every window is open and the temperature can't be over fifty. Davey is sitting on the davenport, zipped to his armpits in Dad's new down-filled mummy bag, his Pop-Tart resting on the floor. He salutes me with a Pepsi bottle, and goes back to twirling the knobs of Mitzy’s old Etch-A-Sketch.
      Last year Mitzy drove directly from her high school graduation ceremony to Hollywood, California, and Randy relocated from a tent near Da Nang to a rented farmhouse in Minnewashka that’s stuffed with stoned vets.
      Now Mom is standing where the kitchen opens onto the living room, barefoot and tiny in red shorts and a tank-top, cigarette clenched between her lips so she can use both hands to smooth the wrinkles out of a wide piece of walnut-colored wood-grained Con-Tact paper she’s applying to the rusty refrigerator door.
      "Move." I tug the door open.
      "Good morning!" A sweat bead rolls off the end of her nose. She's been dripping for months, probably thinking about Biff. Her affair was dead for a while, but it’s alive again. I just know it. She pulls a strand of hair out of the corner of my mouth, barely missing my eye with the tip of her cigarette.
      I push her arm away.
      "Isn't it a beautiful day?" she says.
      It’s still dark out.
      I step around her to gather up a bowl, a spoon, the Frosted Flakes and the sugar, intent on eating in bed so I'll already be there when I fall asleep. "Where's Dad?"
      "Sleeping."
      When he passes out, she gets up and starts her day, catching Davey in the wake of her whacked-out schedule. He misses more school than I do.
      She swaps the carton of regular milk in my arms with a half-gallon of skim. "You've got such a good start on a diet." She bows low, one arm across her waist, the other behind her back.
      "What the hell was in that pill?"
      "Lillian!"
      "What did you give me?"
      "Dexedrine."
      A new word: Dexedrine. Black capsules filled with pixie dust. Dexedrine.
      "They're for my low blood," she says. "When I discovered Dr. Hapley? My hemoglobin was six. Six! Tired as a whipped puppy. And now?" She strikes a new pose, one fist curled in front of her forehead, the other on the back of her skinny hip as if she’s a bodybuilder. Her head flips up. "Holy moley, Rocky. Your mother can do anything!"
      She embarrasses me even if no one’s watching, then says it’s just my age.
      "You've got my low blood," she says. "Dr. Hapley says tired genes run in families. My mother must have had it. Mama was always tired."
      I grab a sweet-roll from an open package on the dish-strewn counter and head back through the living room, threading my way around her half-done projects. She’s braiding a room-sized Early American oval rug out of used pantyhose. She’s painting the brick fireplace navel orange. The clothes dryer's guts are spread out on newspapers. Stuff is everywhere: hunting boots, snow boots, hip boots, waders, and a gunnysack of goose decoys – the latest lightweight Styrofoam kind - all lying around because she's hammering together a boot box out of wood she found by the side of the road.
      "Give up!" I shout. "Just give up!" I inch past piles of clothes on the stairs.
      "Never go up empty-handed," she calls to my back.

* * *

Early Monday morning Mom drops Dexedrine into my hand like dimes into a candy machine. "Just until you feel good again, honey."
      Three hours later I tiptoe into German class, late because I had to shampoo my hair twice, cover each strand with a slippery green dab of Dippity-Do, set it on orange juice cans, and wear the dryer cap while I Windexed every tile on the bathroom wall and scraped the rust from the faucet using the tip of the metal nail-file.
      "Guten Morgen, Fraulein Anderson," Frau Fischer says. For an old woman, she’s alert.
      I slide into my desk near the back corner of the room.
      "Ach du lieber, heil Hitler, and what the fuck happened to you?" Irene sits right behind me. "Good hair," she adds. She pulls a curl out straight and lets it go like a spring. I lean back. When I was little, I’d sit on the floor between Mom's outstretched legs every night while she wound my hair into pin curls and crossed each one with two bobby pins. I miss having my hair touched.
      I write EAT THIS NOW on a scrap of paper and fold it around a Dexedrine capsule while Frau Fischer stands with one hand inside her navy blue dotted-Swiss dress, absently tugging on her bra strap, lifting one heavy-looking breast, letting it fall, lifting it again. Hypnotizing kids. "Durch, fur, gegen, ohne, um, und wieder take the accusative." She turns to write on the blackboard. The fat on her back jiggles with each chalk stroke. Dexedrine could change her life. She’d still be old, but she'd be thin.
      I toss the tiny package over my shoulder. One of the Manson boys sleeping next to us snorts, his face nested deep in his elbows as if he’s trying to show off his dirty neck. The twins, Tina and Sherry Terry, have swiveled sideways to stare at my hair. In the front of the room, the good kids sit together, writing down everything the Frau says - as if it matters.
      Twenty minutes later I’m taking notes for the first time in years when Irene growls: "Get your motor running." She kicks the seat beneath me like a drum. "Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah. Head out on the HIGHWAY."
      "Fraulein!" says Frau Fischer. "Bitte! Bitte! Bitte!" But the bell rings and flips the kids right out of their seats.

* * *

I buzz through school, turning in overdue work, writing extra credit papers. Straight "A" Student. Learning Machine. Someone Who Cares. One day, sitting in study hall, trying to peel the damned wood-grained Con-Tact paper off my history book, tapping my feet, dying for a smoke, I realize my shoes are loose. I lift a knee and shake my leg around, marveling that even my feet had been fat. Who would have thought of that? Our bathroom scale is broken, but I've been weighing myself anyway, marking my progress on a chart. I've gone from sixty-eight whatevers down to fifty-seven.
      I press my thighs against the wooden seat and measure them between my thumb and index finger. Not yet thin enough. With my arms out straight, I’m moving my fingers like a pianist just to see bones slip around under skin, when I sense someone watching me. Across the aisle, up one seat, New Kid is looking back, head tilted, dark eyes glittering behind the gold-tinted lenses of his glasses.
      He showed up two years ago, the first new student since third grade, prompting Rat-Face Hanson to shout, "new kid," like a scientific sighting. Even the teachers call him New Kid.
      He stares at me, wavy black hair looking mysterious in a cornfield of blondes. There are eighteen boys in my grade and all but Moe and Joey Manson were claimed before we left elementary. Around here, you don't break up with a boy, you lose your turn - and I have no interest in a used boy. But I failed to consider New Kid. He keeps himself separate. Like me. Now he nods. Barely. High school boys don't nod like that. Feels like he ran his thumbnail down my spine.
      He eases around to face the front of the room, slides down in his desk until his legs are out straight in his khaki pants. He crosses his ankles, and I spend the next twenty-seven minutes studying him, delighted with the way his earlobe angles directly down to meet his jaw rather than jogging up a little first like everyone else's. I want to touch that spot.
      The bell rings and he’s walking next to me, our arms hinged from shoulder to elbow. We’re the same height, so when he turns to face me, our lips are level, his breath is warm on the tip of my nose, and I’m looking through his glasses into magnified eyes. I've never felt this close to anyone. Stash was so tall my face was always buried in the front of his shirt, making it lonely. But I can still feel a cool flat button against my cheekbone, I can smell the Christmas tree air-freshener hanging in his mother's station wagon, and sometimes I get a whiff of Jade East in the oddest places, but it disappears because I inhale too fast. I thought I loved Stash, even though most of the time I didn't even like him. I just didn't want him to leave.
      New Kid is standing so close that I back into the metal lockers with a loud vah-woom. He smiles with just one side of his mouth and walks away leaving me breathless.

* * *

 That afternoon I’m lying on the wall-to-wall beds in the farmhouse attic where seven of the eleven Patschky girls sleep. Irene and I cut class so she can try out homecoming hairstyles. "New Kid," I say, and stand up to set the needle back to the start of "Hey Jude."
      "He’s different." She’s up for queen. She was princess last year, but she’s losing popularity from cigarettes, sex, and a skinny Sioux Indian named Benny Stillwater, losing it to a damned cheerleader. I don’t understand all that jumping around. You can’t eat it, drive it or bank it. What a waste.
      Irene coils twelve inches of peroxided hair around her fist, lifts it above her head and anchors it with a pair of yellow pencils. The cheerleader is beige and squatty; Irene’s the pick of the Patschky litter: Greta, Hedy, Bette, Claudette, Myrna Mae, Ingred, Ava, Lana, Irene, Jayne and Tallulah – every one of them taller than tall, just like their mother, Gula.
      "New Kid's different," Irene says.
      "Moe and Joey Manson are different." I lie back down. I need a nap.
      "Anything can be a barrette." She winds a nylon stocking around a tornado of hair and tosses the pencils away like a magic trick.
      "Henry Hoffman is different," I say.
      "Try anything."
      I pull a Tampax from a box on the floor and toss it at her. "Least New Kid's fussy. Have you ever seen him look at another girl?"
      She rips off the wrapper, pulls the cardboard tubes apart, strings them over wild shafts of hair, and flashes me a smile. "Why the hell not?"

* * *

 I’m in my old Chevy, on my way to school, stopped for a train. The caboose rumbles by and I’m looking at the Acorn Lake water tower, where giant, Day-Glo orange letters say: LILLIAN IS FINE '69. He even took time to underline my name. Twice. With a swirl at the end.
      At noon he still hasn't come to school. Homecoming has every kid coiled tight as a Slinky. They’re twittering, trying to guess who wrote it. I am the only Lillian. By twelve-fifteen, bored with looking mysterious, I cut out.
      I drive the dirt roads along the winding shore of Acorn Lake, smoking, singing along with the radio. Smoke floats out my nose and mouth.
      Maybe New Kid changed his mind. Maybe he fell off the water tower. Maybe he’s dead. I hope he's just letting it simmer. On Dexedrine I can type a letter, bob my head, tap my feet, sing "Light My Fire," ride a bicycle and still be thinking about sex. WDGY keeps playing "This Guy’s in Love with You." Herb Alpert shouldn’t be allowed to sing.
      When I get back to town, people are walking to their cars after the homecoming parade, kicking strips of toilet paper from the floats. I pull into the convent parking lot where the parade ends just in time to see Queen Irene disappear down Main Street on the back of Benny’s chopper, her long hair like white streamers. I'm still smiling when New Kid slides into my passenger seat, dressed in black, quiet as a cat.
      That night we do it in the long dry grass under the football field bleachers, just New Kid and me, again and again, wordlessly, our bodies striped by moonlight coming through the planks above, and hand-shaped yellow oak leaves crackling in my hair.
      Later, lying in the dark, naked under our coats, we share a cigarette, and snicker at the chattering kids walking home from the dance. The Homecoming Decorating Committee wasted two weeks and forty rolls of crepe paper turning the gym into Paris. I just don’t get it.
      At two a.m. New Kid drops me off in our driveway, his wet black hair slicked back from his high forehead as if he just showered. Holding my little finger, he says without moving his lips, "Tomorrow." It's the only word he's said. He’s sophisticated. I don’t want to know his name.
      I go in the side door, bra in my purse, panties on backwards, shoes in my hand, nose tucked into my collar because his warm dark smell rises from my blouse with every step.
      In the living room Mom’s sitting at the treadle sewing machine her mother passed down. She reaches forward to cut the thread, raising a line of cleavage above her low-necked sweater, and suddenly I’m deeply sorry Grandma didn’t also pass along her baggy dresses, her orthopedic shoes and the nylons she darned with black thread. I button the top of my blouse and vow that I will always dress with taste.
      Mom looks me over, smiles and lifts her eyebrows with that aren't-we-birds-of-a-feather look, leaving me more naked than I was under the bleachers. I make some rules: I will only have sex once a week, I will never do it again with anyone except New Kid, and I will never tell a soul. I drop my shoes and glare at her until her mood changes.
      "Your mother has a terrific idea," she says finally, talking about herself as if she’s not here. "If you iron your father's shirts, I'll start taking in your clothes." Every day at the last minute, she irons the wrong shirt for Dad. She'll press a short-sleeved shirt when it’s twenty below outside or a blue shirt just before he wakes up in the mood for a tan one. And if he has a shirt with ink stains on it, she'll iron that one first and never notice. He'll wave the well-pressed wrong shirt in her face and shout until she weeps, but she still swears that when they were newlyweds she spent every Tuesday pressing his shirts, crying because her heart was bursting with love for him. It always makes my lips curl.
      As I fill the steam iron with water, I add ironing to the list of things I will never do for a guy. I've already sworn that I will never cook a meal or sew for a man, never be shouted at in public, never beg for grocery money, and never ever take a two-week summer vacation in a camper driven by a drunk. I will flat-out refuse to shovel the driveway or the roof, and I will never hand a new roll of toilet paper through the bathroom door. Men have got to learn to plan. Even New Kid. Especially New Kid. So maybe I don’t love him either.
      Mom gives me a Dex from the sewing machine drawer and fifteen minutes later I’m yakking about how nice she is to share everything she has with me.
      "You know you're always welcome to anything that's mine," she says. And it’s true. She'd give you the blouse off her back and all her money before you thought to ask.
      By three a.m. we've removed every lampshade. It’s bright enough for surgery, except where layered clouds of cigarette smoke rise and fall when I reach to hang another shirt on the curtain rod. It’s like a laundromat in our own Space Odyssey. Grandma's sewing machine whirrs as Mom pumps the treadle. I answer with a hiss of spray starch. We talk to each other for hours like jackhammers breaking up cement, every syllable progress of a sort. I make the shirts smooth. She makes the seams straight and tightens the buttons while I spray-starch the collars.
      We talk about clothes and can't agree on what makes a girl look good, so I raise my hands and say "Fine," relaxing into it like the day I learned to slow down and merge behind another car instead of flooring it and praying while my lane disappeared.
      She tells me about the Fifties when doctors handed out uppers to every woman who had a child, saying, Honey, you girls are all tired. "Low blood," Mom explains. "You get it from having kids." She says they had nursing circles where all her girlfriends sat around smoking Marlboros, drinking coffee and sharing Dexedrine while they nursed their babies. They laughed a lot and always helped each other out because they loved one another.
      Mom and I go back and forth over Dad's drinking as if talking about it long enough will sober him up. She discusses him as if he’s a lifetime project she has to finish before she dies. We take another Dexedrine. Then she says that my name on the water tower was a declaration of true love.
      "Are you in love with him?" She’s hoping.
      "Nope." I slam the hot iron down on the inside of Dad's collar. I’m sure as hell in something, but I don’t want to call it love.
      "Love is the most important thing in the world."
      "Oh, give me a break. I don’t even know his real name."
      "Honey, I'll never know what I did to make you so sour but some day you'll learn that your mother was right. I've lived a lot longer than you have."
      "If you could live it all over again but change one thing, what would it be?"
      "Big breasts." She flips down the sewing machine foot to anchor the seam of my green skirt, pulls her shoulders back and cups her hands in front of her as if she’s holding muskmelons. "I'd have great big breasts."
      "Why?" I dream of being chestless, hipless. Twiggy-like.
      "Men love big breasts."
      "I'd ask for a million dollars."
      She laughs. "Girls with big breasts end up getting everything they want."
      "I'd rather go straight for the money."
      "No. Pick thin, pick thin." She’s bouncing in her chair.
      "I'm almost thin now."
      "No matter what I eat? Can’t seem to gain a pound. Just lucky, I guess."
      "You're perfect, Mom."
      "No, just naturally thin."
      "If you had a million dollars you wouldn't have to be thin unless you wanted to be. You could eat what you wanted, sleep when you're tired. You could buy a brand new dryer…" I nod toward the greasy parts lying on the newspapers.
      "Big breasts."
      "Wait," I say. "Wait. How about a lifetime supply of Dexedrine?"
      She shakes her head.
      "Don't you want to feel good all the time?"
      "Being in love should do that."
      "You feel good all the time because you're in love?"
      She looks up. Her mouth opens. She blinks.
      I push on. "Are you in love?" I haven't said a word since Irene and I caught her here in the middle of the afternoon with Biff. I've been kind enough not to bring it up, but suddenly I want to squeeze it out of her like toothpaste, and I want it to hurt so much she stops acting like a juvenile delinquent. "Hmmmm?"
      She cocks her head. "Well, in fact… " The sewing machine goes ticka-ticka and slows to a stop. Half a breath into the silence I realize she’s dying to tell me every damned detail about her Biff.
      "No!" I hold the iron out straight with both hands. "Stop."
      "Certain lovers were meant to be together."
      "No way."
      "We can't control who we love."
      "You sure as hell could try."
      "Then why'd they write all those songs?" She sings, "Love and marriage…" then seems to think better of it. Even if she's singing alone, she sings the alto part, expecting us to hear the entire choir that’s in her mind. With a finger in the air she starts over. "Falling in love again." She gets that dreamy look. I hate her dreamy look. "When I fall in love… Love makes the worrrllld go round… No, wait! This! Come on bay-bee, light my fire…"
      "Mom. Don't…"
      She's playing an air guitar. "In the sunshine of your looooove…" Her knees are bending, her hips are thrusting forward.
      "Don't. Please. Mother!"
      "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…" She’s snapping her fingers, thrilled because after years of trying, she thinks she’s found the way to explain it to me.
      "Give it up, will you?"
      "No. Love is the most important thing in the world." She stands. Her good scissors clink to the floor. "If you only learn one thing from me before I die, I want you to learn that." She steps around the sewing machine and comes toward me like a barefoot pixie through a forest clearing, past laundry baskets, paint cans, the pantyhose rug, two-by-fours, hammers, putty sticks and spools of thread, rags soaking in turpentine - all her projects, her goddamned projects. And I have a revelation so powerful that we might as well be living together inside the Bible: My mother doesn't know how to give up. That's what’s wrong with her. She’s great at starting but she can't get to the finish line. It’s so simple.
      And I know how to fix her.
      She stands there smiling across the ironing board at me, her hands on her narrow hips, little chin up high, and says, "What about all those love songs?" She thinks she’s going to teach me about love and we'll all live together inside a song, drinking music, eating treble clefs, driving half-notes, dressed in scales.
      I set the iron on its heel and walk around the ironing board toward her like Toto about to pull the curtain away from the Wizard. She'll hurt for awhile but she'll be better off understanding the real world. "Mom." I say it kindly in my softest voice. "Mom, those are just songs."
      She’s bouncing on the balls of her feet, rising up again and again, humming something sugary.
      "Mom, they only write those songs to cheer people up. You feel good while you're listening, then bam! It's over! The song stays in the radio; you go back to your real life." She stops bouncing. "Look," I say, grateful that Dexedrine makes my mind so sharp that I can see everything in its true and logical order. "They're not cake recipes. They're love songs." She looks confused. "Okay, okay. Take, for example… well, take loving Dad all these years. Where’d it get you?" I wave a hand around the room. When I look back, she’s staring at me. I push forward, brisk and icy clear. Important things need saying. "And your boyfriend?" My mind is a machine, totaling up her mistakes. Why did I wait so long? "Your boyfriend? Probably just using you. Give him up. Finish it!" She's getting weepy, so I wrap an arm around her shoulders. I’m on a roll. I’m fixing things. "Like having kids. You spent twenty years raising Randy and Mitzy and they moved away and you get what…? Five phone minutes a week? Collect calls? Hah! I'm never having kids." I pound myself on the chest. "Never. No kids. No husband. No fucking way. Not for this girl."
      Mom pivots toward me. Shaking her head no, she pushes her face so close to mine it’s as if she’s trying to see inside my eyes. Tears are running down her cheeks.
      I might have gone too far. I wrap my arms around her and pull her close. I'll have to hold her together until she gets through this. I rest my chin on top of her head. Her curly hair tickles my nose, smelling like Ivory Soap and cigarettes. Her narrow shoulders are trembling. She tightens her arms around my waist until I can feel her breasts nested underneath mine, her small hands pressed hard against my lower back. My name comes from her throat like a tortured sound -- and I feel such a surprising tug in my own throat. I didn't expect it to hit her this hard. I hold her tighter.
      She's warm as a cat against me. She’s crying. "Shhhh, Mom. You'll be okay." I press my lips to the part in her hair. She’s nowhere near through it yet. I rock her side to side, so warm in my arms. I slide my hand up to cup the back of her head. When I tuck her face in against the base of my neck, a flooding starts in my chest - a murky, burning flood that fills my lungs and expands my ribcage. It flows through my back, spreads up my neck, floods down my arms until all I know is that I'll hold her like this forever if that's what she needs. I rock her. "Dahhhh-dahh-dee…"
       

Jean Harfenist 2002

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author bio

Jean HarfenistJean Harfenist is the author of A Brief History of the Flood (Knopf, June 2002). Stories from this collection have won the Prism International 2001 Fiction Contest; received special mention in The Pushcart Prize; been finalists for the Nimrod/Hartman Award, the Kirkwood Literary Prize, The Missouri Review 2000 and 2001 Editor's Prize, and the Indiana Review 2001 Fiction Prize; also receiving honorable mention in the Zoetrope All-Fiction Contest. Her stories have appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Quarterly West, Crazyhorse, Sonora Review and Wisconsin Review. Jean grew up in Minnesota, is a graduate of New York University's Stern School of Business, and now lives in Santa Barbara with her husband. Contact:harf@west.net

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Michel Faber: Some Rain Must Fall
Jackie Kay: Physics and Chemistry
Mark Winegardner: Halftime
Jean Harfenist: Pixie Dust
            
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