Thursday, December 20, 2007

writing prompt #4: bartal and the brain

Thanks to Sara for the following writing prompt: “A bitter physicist plots to take over the world.”

I.

He’d thought he was over it, until he saw the mouse. Bartal Varga had lived a quiet life for more than ten years, working at the educational supply store and living on the third floor of a an apartment building full of quiet, mostly single professionals who kept their homes very clean. This was key.

But of course just because a thing was not probable didn’t mean it wasn’t possible. And where a possibility exists, it will occur. Not often, but occasionally. Say, once every decade.

Now here it was: the small gray-brown nose of possibility. Joined by whiskers, black eyes and tiny clicking toenails that belied delicate hands capable of disarming a bomb. Or arming one.

It’s just a house mouse, Bartal told himself. It hasn’t lived in a lab and taken careful notes when unsuspecting scientists are conducting classified experiments.

But he was thinking all this on top of a chair, brandishing a shaking broom. All the evidence pointed towards him not being over it.

II.

They’d called the mouse The Brain as joke because of his big head. They’d thought he was hydrocephalic. He seemed slow and mopey compared to his normal, hyper brother, whom they’d called Pinky. They—the bio guys. The socially well-adjusted jokesters who looked at the physics guys with bemusement or pity, depending on the day.

The physics guys turned their white lab-coated backs and kept calculating. They cursed the cutbacks that had forced them to share space with the biologists, but at least they still had their equipment. Computers, chambers, lasers, reactors.

Bartal had to assume that, at some point, The Brain crossed paths with one particular piece of equipment or chemical or ray that shuffled his DNA, like a cartoon everyman turned superhero. There were some—bio guys, all of them—who thought The Brain was born that way, some kind of genetic jewel, but Bartal refused to believe that. Better to be an agent of his own demise than a victim of a naturally smart mouse.

There was no debate about the outcome, though: Bartal might have been close to producing cold fusion—the very sound of it glistened like an iceberg in silent black water—but it was The Brain who finally did it. And after it happened, in the flurry of magazine covers and talk shows and webcasts, Bartal might as well have been the guy insisting that he’d loosened the spaghetti sauce jar that a stronger person had opened with ease.

You would think that people would assume, if a mouse had accomplished a scientific feat that had until then seemed nearly mythical, that a human was behind it. But if cold fusion could come true (so they reasoned in their infuriatingly illogical brains), so could anything. Fairies! Unicorns! Genius mice! They were entering a time of magic, leaving behind war and poverty and gray-cubicle offices. In this shiny new future there would be no room for dweeby physicists with Hungarian accents and hair that tended towards greasiness no matter how frequently it was washed.

When Bartal tried to speak out, people glared like he’d just told them their birthday cake was laced with poison. When the university gave The Brain tenure and control of the lab budget, suddenly there was money for state of the art equipment and undergraduate female technicians, but none to keep Bartal on. Bartal threatened to sue. The university threatened to have him deported.

III.

And so this other life: Now he was the one living in walls and eating scraps and trying to stay out of sight. His arms went limp with the absurdity of it all and the broom clattered to the floor.

The noise frightened the mouse and he scampered between the refrigerator and the kitchen counter.

Feeling not so much brave as resigned, Bartal got down on his hands and knees on the linoleum and peered into the thin dark space, where he saw the wet-stone sparkle of eyes.

“You and me, we’re alike,” he said into the crevice. “Shy and scared.”

It was stupid, talking to a mouse. Even The Brain didn’t have much to say to Pinky or any of the other lab mice these days. He traveled with scientists and politicians and porn stars. But Bartal had learned a thing or two about what was possible from the ugly little creature. All you needed was determination, patience and a complete lack of ethics.

“Hey, mouse,” he said to the eyes, “I’m going to call you The Eyes. And you know what we’re going to do tonight? We’re going to take over the world.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

carlos and desiree

“Carlos and Desiree dropped off a bunch of cardboard boxes outside my door,” I told AK. “They are so nice!”

“They’re like your new best friends,” she observed. “You’ve mentioned them like 20 times.”

Who are Carlos and Desiree, you ask? They’re my new neighbors at my soon-to-be old apartment building. They’re a young couple with two cute little boys. We’ve talked twice now, and they’ve been friendly.

But to be perfectly honest, there’s nothing inherently that special about them.

As AK and Alberto prepare to vacate their current house, there’s been lots of wistful reminiscing about the good times they’ve had together. Alberto and his girlfriend Veronica nuzzle AK’s cat endlessly, and though Ferdinand is not a nuzzler by nature, even he seems emotional.

Meanwhile, after two years of happily living alone, I’m suddenly sad that I live alone. No one really cares if I get all nostalgic about the time I painted the walls bright blue.

I’ve never made an effort to get to know my neighbors, although I did promise the cosmetology student downstairs she could shampoo my hair, and I did tell my chronically unemployed neighbor I would not pay him $5 to wash my car. I felt like a bitch, but it seemed like a slippery power dynamic I wanted no part of.

Both of them are gone now, as are all but two of the neighbors who lived there when I first moved in. If the row of mailboxes downstairs is any indication, seven of the 12 units are empty, and two people (the ones greeted by metal plates over their mailbox keyholes) may have been evicted.

I don’t want to feel like one more person trudging out of a gloomy place, because my experience was mostly great. It was my first solo apartment. It was cozy and neat and covered in bright blue paint and Japanese postcards. When I parked overnight in the loading zone in front of Aceptamos Estampillas, the owner would tell parking enforcement that I was inside shopping.

I won’t miss the threatening graffiti or the tiny space or the maze of stairs and security doors or the fact that my hot and cold faucets are reversed. But still, it’s been a good building full of good, if sometimes underemployed, people.

So Carlos and Desiree have come to represent way more than two people just trying to get all their shit unpacked should have to represent. The future of Mid-City! A past I can mourn for! As I left for work this morning, I left them a thank-you note on top the row of mailboxes—just for the cardboard boxes. They might get scared if I tried to explain the rest.

Monday, December 17, 2007

on the move

Just stopping by to say I haven’t forgotten about my creative writing prompts. I got a great one from Meehan on Friday, based on my call for prompts (so meta! So Meehan!): “Because the webcam is strapped to my forehead, you can’t see what’s going on directly behind me.”

While that creates all sorts of possibilities for monstery-ness, this is Moving Week, and therefore, for the next seven days (and possibly longer depending how soon AT&T gets the internet hooked up at our new place), I will only be able to think about:

  • AT&T
  • cardboard boxes and people who might be able to hook me up with cardboard boxes
  • the patches that need to be touched up on our newly painted walls (which kick ass, if I do say so myself)
  • feline stepsibling introductions
  • U-Haul and how its website tries to sell you a bunch of crap that you don’t need, even more so than the average website
  • gifts I have not wrapped/purchased
  • the awesome coffee table AK and I found at the yard sale of this chick who practically had to clear a path among her bongs and incense sticks for us to get it out the door but promised it was good karma to buy her furniture

In other words, I’m not much use to y’all, unless you are really excited about my coffee table. I suggest you read this other post (scroll down to Dec. 16 since I don’t know how to find the permalinks on Tracy’s crazy site), which I guest-posted at Kaply, Inc. (especially all you MBI alumni—let me know just how much my memory has failed me).

Or log off and go see Juno, my favorite movie so far this year.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

friendliness

Tonight I was going to try to write flash fiction about a bitter physicist who tries to take over the world, but I’m tired and apparently my personal life is much more popular blog fodder and I sort of tuned out on the physics front when we started learning about levers in seventh grade.

So instead I will ponder this: Am I everyone’s dead end friend?

Recently, a college friend whom I got back in touch with after a long hiatus told me she was pregnant. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone until the second trimester, but I can tell you because you’re a dead end friend, meaning you don’t talk to anyone else I know.”

Another friend told me about a newly acquired STD (one of the mild, treatable ones, luckily). The news was top secret, and although he didn’t say so, I assumed I was hearing about it because I barely know his boyfriend or his boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m enough of an Us Weekly reader that I like to learn about the various consequences of my friends’ sex lives, and more than that, I like to think of myself as someone people are comfortable confiding in.

But maybe it’s more that I’m harmless and tangential—not a part of anyone’s real everyday life. I’m 100 percent consequence-free, like a priest or a therapist.

I’ve long lamented that most of my friends don’t know each other. Maybe they meet once a year at my birthday party, but mostly I hang out with them individually and we fill each other in on our lives. So by definition, we must not exactly be part of each other’s lives, right?

It’s not that I’m some hermit who lacks meaningful relationships. It’s just that most of my see-‘em-every-week meaningful relationships are with people who wear some other crucial hat besides that of Friend. They are Girlfriend or Sister or Coworker. So I’m not always sure what counts.

Then I’m like, Maybe this is how modern urban people are. Connections are spread out. Fuck, I wrote a whole book based on that premise, and I tried to make it sound like it wasn’t a bad thing. But AK has a neat little group of friends who all know each other and all live no further west than West Hollywood and no further east than El Sereno. In L.A. that’s practically like living in the same apartment building.

Every once in a while I’ll meet someone who describes him or herself as flitting from group to group in high school: “I was friends with everyone—the jocks, the stoners, the drama kids. I’d eat with a different group everyday.” Sometimes I think the flitters must have been really awesome, wise-beyond-their-years kids. Other times I think they were just weird.

I guess I’m trying to figure out which I am, wise or weird. Or maybe I’m just trying to get a group together to go to the movies sometime.

Monday, December 10, 2007

writing prompt #3: four second dates

Thanks to Nicole for the following writing prompt: "I’d like to see you write an extremely personal non-fiction story about something you experienced in your life."

1.

I like fiction because I can be ruthless—i.e. more honest—in that form, while nonfiction brings out the nice—i.e. more boring—side of me. But I do have this blog thing. And while everything you read here is the truth (with the exception of the occasional clearly demarcated evil pig or flower vendor), it is not the whole truth.

It couldn’t be, not unless I strapped a web cam to my forehead. And even then you wouldn’t know what was happening directly behind me. But before this turns into a post-structural dissertation on the slippery nature of truth, I will say that even by old-fashioned definitions, you’re still not getting the whole truth.

For example, I almost never write about:

  • work
  • fights with AK
  • dating (back when I was)
  • people I dislike but will have to face again

So, basically, things that would make my blog much more interesting and possibly get me a screenplay deal. I don’t write about stripping either.

But it wouldn’t kill me to let my tight-ass guard down for a second. So I’m going to write about dating.

2.

Once upon a time in January of 2006, I was newly single and bored. I didn’t have a TV and I did have DSL. It was almost inevitable that I landed on MySpace and Match.com.

But not totally inevitable—I had not been raised to believe that if you wanted a girlfriend or boyfriend you could just go out and find one. I come from a family of nerds. My parents both had master’s degrees, but not many friends. My dad had had, I think, one serious girlfriend and a handful of blind dates when he met my mom at age 29. My mom, who was 30, had had zero boyfriends. She read a lot, drew a lot, and babysat her niece and nephew.

They encouraged me to do my homework and get good grades. When I expressed interest in something (gymnastics, drama), they signed me up for classes through the parks and rec department. Careers, it was clear, were a matter of deciding what you liked to do, then working hard to get good at it.

But a social life? That was something that just sort of happened to you. I remember worrying, like an eight-year-old Jane Austen heroine, about my marriageability, and my mom saying, “Most people who want to get married do.” At another point, she said, “If you prepare yourself to live happily alone, you’ll never have to.”

Both of these things are true, but there’s an underlying passivity there. And in the same way that kids whose parents haven’t gone to college might need a little help with their applications—or even in seeing college as an option—I needed help becoming an active player in my own social life.

B was the first person who opened my eyes. She had several close friendships with people who had never lived in the same city she did. This amazed me—so friends weren’t just people you were thrust together with? They could be people you met, liked, thought would enrich your life in some way, then made a concerted effort to see and talk to?

B marveled at my passivity and sometimes implied that I must only be dating her because she’d crossed my path and asked me out. While you can’t attribute four and a half years to happenstance alone, it was true that she’d been the driver in the early stages of our relationship.

Ironically, it took our breakup (also initiated by her) for me to take her advice.

3.

The first girl I went out with post-B was Sofia*. She was an Ivy League-educated screenwriter, which meant she made lots of really intelligent jokes about Britney and K-Fed. I fell pathologically fast.

There were some good signs over the period spanning our first two “dates.” Sofia called and emailed and didn’t rush home. (And I should stop here to say that I never even so much as made out with any of these girls, which makes me so not a gay man and, again, not someone whose blog is going to land her an agent. But when you meet someone online and you’re of the same age and sexual orientation, it’s a date until someone declares it Not A Date.)

But despite the good signs, she didn’t make a move, not even when we shared an oversized chair as we heckled her favorite bad movie on DVD. Confused, I sent her a confessional “I guess what I’m trying to say is I really like you” email a couple of days later.

It was the first time I’d ever told someone (even electronically) that I liked her-liked her.

Sofia had the good East Coast breeding and genuinely kind heart to give me the bad news on the phone instead of by hitting “reply.”

“I think you’re awesome. It’s just that I’m getting more of a friend vibe from you,” she said. She did not have the good memory to recall that she’d told me a story about a friend of hers who’d also turned down a girl with the “friend vibe” line.

But maybe it wasn’t entirely a line, because she proceeded to aggressively pursue me as a friend, inviting me to hang out multiple nights per week with her and her crew of Ivy League film industry hipsters, who spent most of their time making fun of hipsters.

Suddenly I’d been invited to sit at the popular kids’ table. They would say things like, “Would you mind taking off your incredibly awesome shoes on the wood floor?” They had wood floors. They got their T-shirts tailored. If they seemed a little snobby and mean, well, it wasn’t in the natural order of things for me to dump them. They would have to dump me.

And eventually they did, of course. Maybe they all got staff writer positions and got busy. Maybe they decided my jeans were lame. I never got to know them well enough to guess or inquire about their motives.

4.

I got busy too. No, not like that. But I found myself with first and second dates with three other girls in a short enough period of time that it would be easy to edit them into a first-date movie montage.

Except in a movie montage, they would be hideous or rude and you would feel sorry for me. But in real life they were great and I was picky, and I come across as a much less sympathetic character than in the Sofia story, where I’m the victim.

Would you like me if I told you how much the smallness of Jenae’s teeth turned me off? To the point that I passive-aggressively showed up 40 minutes late for our second date? That Sam had great taste in music but radiated a subtle aura of desperation?

Esme was cute, straight forward, and yeah, she kept dropping out of college, but only because she kept having to pay for family members’ funerals. So she was loyal and a little tough too. I had every reason to want to date her, and I would have given it a go if I hadn’t been so distracted by this other girl at the time.

A girl I emailed out of the blue because she looked good in a hoodie and listed “the dirty parts of L.A.” as one of her interests. It took me a while to become one of her other interests. She was distracted by this other girl. It was like The L Word without sex in locker rooms.

But I’d finally learned what can only be learned through sheer desire. If you like someone, go after her and hang in there (until they tell you not to—after that it’s stalking). In a couple of weeks, AK and I will move to a dirty corner of L.A. together.

Sorry, was that too sappy? In that case, be glad that my blog will continue to be largely about writing and movies and my book club. You can take the girl out on the town, but you can’t take the nerd out of the girl.

*Names have been changed to protect the author’s spinelessness.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

writing prompt #2: follow me to the church of perfect light

Thanks to AK for the following writing prompt: “A woman selling a bucket of roses by the side of the freeway. A messy-haired 20-something drives up and taps his fingers and looks guilty. He rolls down the window, asks ‘How much for them all?,’ and pulls out a wad of cash and buys them.”

I.

Lena is picking small black bugs off the roses when the car pulls up. It’s a medium-sized black SUV, sandwiched loosely between a low-rider Chevy and a cloud-blue Honda. It’s Saturday afternoon and there is a USC game at the Coliseum—otherwise Lena wouldn’t be working.

The window glides down. The driver is a youngish white guy with wild sandy hair and sunglasses that match his car. He has stubble on his cheeks, but he’s wearing a suit. He drums his nail-bitten fingertips on the steering wheel and doesn’t stop drumming even as he leans out to talk to her.

“How much for all of them?”

All of them?”

“Yes. All. Of. Them.” His voice has a learn-English-damnit tone.

“I heard you,” Lena says coolly. She does some quick math in her head. What are the chances that she could sell all her flowers today? Not good. Despite the lava-thick traffic, football games are not bring-your-girl-flowers occasions. Graduation day is better.

So she would be smart to sell him her stock at a per-bouquet discount. People who buy roses at stoplights aren’t usually looking to bargain—but if the price is too high and the light changes, they’ll pull away without buying anything at all. There’s no time for the push-pull of pedestrian markets, so it’s Lena’s job to study their faces in a flash and name the perfect price.

“Two-hundred and fifty dollars.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he says, but he pulls out a tight cinnamon roll of bills.

Lena tries to count them as she slides them into her apron pocket, but the arrow turns green, and she still has to help him lift the flowers—all three buckets of them—into his car.

A horn honks and the man whips around to yell, “Calm down! The intersection is blocked anyway!” Water splashes and a thorn stabs Lena’s hand. You’d think she was Jesus, the way her palms look.

As the SUV inches away, she reads his license plate frame: Follow me to the Church of Perfect Light. Hypocritical dundo, she thinks. She wonders what he did to require three buckets worth of forgiveness.

II.

She wonders but she doesn’t dwell. Instead she counts the bills. They’re small, so it takes a while, but at least she doesn’t have to watch the line of cars for customers. She’s done for the day. She thinks about seeing a movie at the University Village 3. She thinks about bringing Gilberto a meal that won’t make him sigh. For a second, she feels the feeling she associates with roses: pure, intense, perfect.

But then she finishes counting. One hundred and thirty-five dollars. Her movie falls away. Her dinner falls away. The DWP bill falls away.

When the stomach-punch wears off, she looks up and sees the SUV glinting like a glass bead in the string of cars a block away. She thanks God for football idiots and climbs on her bike. Without the buckets she is light and fast. The cars are slow and angry. They want to be somewhere now too, but they are trapped in big metal bodies that can’t keep up with their desires.

I will follow you to the Church of Perfect Light, pendejo, she thinks.

Then she imagines her mother, who would prefer that Lena clean office buildings with her in the deathly dull night, saying, “He could be a drug dealer, with all that cash. He could have a gun and shoot you.”

But she catches up with him so quickly that it seems silly to turn around. Traffic moves so slowly down Figueroa that she has to stop and walk her bike. She wonders if he sees her in his rearview mirror. Probably not. And he’s probably forgotten her face already anyway.

III.

At 49th Street, the SUV turns right, then right again into the long driveway of a squat green building that says, in thin metal letters mounted to stucco, CHURCH OF PERFECT LIGHT. Actually, it says, “CHURC OF PERFECT LIGHT.” The missing letter has left a yellowish H-shaped ghost on the wall.

Lena parks her bike behind one of the rectangular hedges surrounding the church’s front yard. She takes her time, trying to think. If he’s not a gun-toting drug dealer, what’s he doing in this neighborhood? There’s a wedding taking place in the courtyard—she can see a black woman in white and a black man in black through a gap in the church’s stubby buildings. If he is a drug dealer, though, why that license plate frame?

She decides to wait and see. She creeps into a shady corner of the courtyard, where a handful of Latino men are pouring champagne into plastic flutes. Maybe she could pass as a wife or sister, along for the ride.

The minister has a booming voice, though the hot expanse of the outdoors absorbs it quickly. “Amanda, you were practically still a girl when you met Frank.”

Lena thinks of her own wedding. It was a day that felt like roses, even though her bouquets were made of stargazers and Gerber daisies. Even though Gilberto—if she’s perfectly objective about it—is a mediocre husband. But everyone she knew was there, their eyes fixed on her lacy dress and their hearts fixed on her future. An extended moment of pure purposefulness.

IV.

The minister continues. “I remember the first time you told me you were taking a liking to this young man who lived in your neighborhood. And Frank, I remember the first time she brought you to—”

“Stop!” yells a thin, ragged voice from the back of the crowd. All the heads in their Sunday hats turn to face the man with the roses. Lena had almost forgotten him. She was suspended, for a minute, in Amanda-and-Frank.

The man holds two immense armfuls of roses. They’ve soaked his pants, and his face shines with sweat. His hair has gone from messy-cool to just messy.

“Amanda, I know this sounds crazy, but I love you. I’m not going to say Frank’s not a good guy, because he is, but I’m crazy about you. Literally fucking crazy.”

There is a hush like rose petals. People look at the man and then at Amanda and then at the minister, as if he’s a judge in a courtroom.

The minister looks as stunned as the rest of them. Do people really stop weddings in real life? Then he looks indignant. His courtroom has been interrupted. Or maybe it’s more than that.

“Pastor Dylan,” the minister says sternly, “if you have feelings for a member of the congregation, now is hardly the time—”

An older woman takes the man—Pastor Dylan, apparently, who wants people to follow him to the church where he’s fallen in love—by the arm. She waves to the minister. “Don’t worry, Pastor Marc. Pastor Dylan’s just caught up in the emotion of things is all. I’ll take him aside and get him some lemonade.”

Pastor Dylan tears away so violently that the woman teeters on the heels of her sensible shoes.

“Amanda, can we just talk? Look, these are for you.” He thrusts the roses toward her, but she’s a hundred feet away. She would have to walk over to take them, which would be a statement that she doesn’t seem to want to make. So Pastor Dylan just stands there, arms out awkwardly.

Amanda,” he says again.

Something is ending right now, Lena thinks. She saw the beginning of that end back at the stoplight, and soon the end will end. Amanda will say something or someone stronger than the old woman will lead Pastor Dylan away, and he will have to decide what to do with the rest of his life.

But in this moment he is desperation personified, and there is a purity in that too. It’s a purity of poverty rather than richness. It is not the tight-budded luxury of a new red rose, but a pale gray rose in full bloom, the petals beginning to brown.

Later, when he’s hunched on the steps, head between his knees, red petals like a trail of breadcrumbs behind him, Lena will wait quietly, allowing him the feeling of roses for as long as possible. Then, because there is a time after weddings and flowers, she’ll demand her money.

Monday, December 03, 2007

writing prompt #1: don't call me charlotte, bitch

Thanks to Tracy for the following writing prompt: “EVIL PIGS!”

“Hey, piggy. Hey, Charlotte,” cooed London Sweet. She blinked shimmery blue eyelids at Bernadette as she sank slowly into the mud. She was sinking because the skinny heels of her leather boots could only walk on certain types of flooring: marble, honey-gold wood, Persian rug. They were no match for pig shit.

Bernadette blinked back with pink eyelids and hoped London would be swallowed up whole. The other pigs were very excited about the presence of the Trust Fund Babies: Ranch Round-Up cast and crew. Thin, noisy teenagers in sparkly clothing. Men in baseball caps behind cameras. They were nothing like the usual caretakers, quiet Latino men who always seemed tired, who seemed to consciously avoid befriending the pigs.

But Bernadette wasn’t an idiot. She was some terrific, radiant (if not humble) pig. She knew, for example, that Charlotte was the fucking spider, not the pig. Wilbur was the pig, and Wilbur was an idiot.

To Bernadette’s disappointment, London Sweet did not keep sinking. She stood there stupidly until a freckle-faced guy in overalls and a cowboy hat came over and gave her instructions on how to “slop a pig.”

What the hell? Bernadette had never seen this guy before. How could he possibly know anything? It wasn’t like she adored the regular workers, but they knew how to turn on the pump that filled the long troughs with a mealy mixture of soy and ground pig. And what was this? It was full of corn cobs and grass. When Bernadette was a piglet, she might have been into it, but she was an adult with discriminating tastes.

“Ew, it’s so nasty!” squealed London.

“That’s how you do it, that’s how you slop a pig. That’s just farm life,” said the man in the cowboy hat, a little awkwardly. He stopped and looked at the camera. “Like that? Should I say it again?”

One of the baseball-capped men said, “Sure. And if you could make it, like…more of a lesson, that would be good. Like, I like what you said about ‘Farm life is hard’ or whatever.”

The cowboy hat looked at London Sweet again and said, “Look, London, I don’t know how they do it in Beverly Hills, but here in Kansas we ain’t afraid to get a little dirty. Farm life is hard.”

“Beautiful!” shouted the man in the cap. “Now London, honey, get a little closer to the pig.”

Yes, Bernadette thought, Get a little closer.

“And let’s get Marina in the shot too. Where’s Marina?”

Soon a girl almost as skinny as the heels of London’s boots appeared. She was more willing to grab hold of the bucket than London had been but less capable with it. It appeared to weigh more than she did.

“Oh my god!” she giggled, almost falling over. Bernadette contemplated how Marina would look with a layer of mud covering her. Like a chocolate-covered pretzel stick.

“She’s sorta cute, don’t you think?” said London, looking at Bernadette. Bernadette hated the word “cute.” In the week they’d been shooting at the farm, she’d heard it a lot. At least the usual guys didn’t pretend. If they said anything at all, they said, “Ey, puerco.”

“No, London, I don’t think it’s cute. You are so gross. But you dated Dimitri Miller, so what should I expect? It kinda looks like him, actually.

“Take that back,” said London, sounding a little bored.

“Say, ‘Take that back, bitch,’” said the man in the baseball cap.

“Take that back, bitch,” said London, even more bored this time.

And soon the two girls were wrestling, smearing handfuls of shit in each other’s long blonde hair. Thick ropes of it fell out and made a halo on the ground around them. Bernadette saw that the hair was as fake as anything. The show, the man in the cowboy hat, the corn-and-grass stew.

London grabbed Marina’s shoulders and shoved her towards Bernadette’s pen. A normal sized person would have stood up and dusted herself off, but Marina’s spindly legs hit the top rung of the pen and she teetered dangerously.

Just long enough for Bernadette to indulge in a moment of nostalgia: her favorite movie moment, which did not involve singing farm animals or creative-writer spiders. It was from the first half of The Wizard of Oz, the Kansas part, the black-and-white part. The real part.

Dorothy falls in a pen and nearly gets trampled by big, evil pigs. The man who plays the scarecrow saves her.

No one here is nearly as kind or resourceful as the scarecrow.

So when Bernadette sees the hoof-sized jewel that dangles from Marina’s neck swinging her way, she grabs it with her teeth. She pulls. Marina screams.

London was wrong: Bernadette hasn’t been cute for a long time now. She weighs 250 pounds to Marina’s 83. She’s been fattened on meat, and she hasn’t gotten any today. She pins Marina with her hooves and hears things crack. The girl is barely a snack, but no matter. Bernadette snuffles her nose deep into Marina’s nest of extensions and takes a satisfying bite of her head.