Excerpt from Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain by Lucia Perillo, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain

Stories

By Lucia Perillo

Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain
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  • Hardcover: May 2012,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: May 2013,
    224 pages.

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BAD BOY NUMBER SEVENTEEN

Don’t tell me about bad boys. I’ve seen my black clouds come and go. Coming they walk with their shoulders back like they’ve got a raw egg tucked inside each armpit, and they let their legs lead them. Going, you can count on the fact that their butts will cast no shadow on those lean long legs. You can’t compete in the arena of squalid romance if you’re one of those guys shaped in the rear like a leather mail sack: you’re automatically disqualified. That’s just the way it is. I didn’t make the rules.

My prodigals make up for slender means by wearing their jeans tight enough so that their billfolds have a hard time sliding in. And they make up for the fact they’re usually kind of stupid by not saying much. This is important. This is the litmus test. The last thing you want is a desperado with a big mouth; you might as well invite a wild elephant home for dinner.

See, for years I have done some serious observation, up close and from a distance. I’ve seen them hawk and spit before the drive-up window, I’ve watched them jimmy the pinball machine at King Arthur’s Reef. Yeah, yeah: I know King Arthur had a table, he didn’t have a reef, but ours is a coastal town and the natives feel claustrophobic inside any bar that doesn’t have a nautical theme. Why it matters I don’t know, because inside is always dim—so you can’t see that the only decorating theme is duct tape, which holds the stuffed fish to the walls and crisscrosses the red vinyl in the booths, and even bandages some of the more expensive bottles of liquor that no one has the heart to throw away because of something as picayunish as a little broken glass.

But out of all the dives in town, the Reef is probably the best laboratory for studying the players, the wannabes with their ball caps and Aerosmith T-shirts, and the shy bloodhounds who rest their elbows on the bar and silently massage their dewlaps. Inside every dissolute romantic there’s a brooding Schopenhauer, with a chronic melancholy that he nurses like a sourball in his cheek. He can see the whole arc of his life—from the uphill curve that is his present freedom to the downhill slope that’ll lead him to some evangelical storefront church where he’ll suddenly find himself swaying with his hands raised in the air. And the ones who come without this flaring sense of precognition are just losers, plain and simple.

Like one night in the Reef there’s this guy sitting on a barstool, checking me out over his shoulder from time to time? The fact that he’s missing part of one finger shrouds him with the kind of mystery that ought to make him a contender, were this aura not counteracted by his jeans riding so low they expose a length of his crack that’s about equal to what’s missing from his hand. Which knocks him out of the running, especially when a few boilermakers later he erupts in my direction with something about letting him know whenever I’m ready to have him take me outside to his car, where he’s going to—his phrasing—eat me out.

I’m sitting in a booth with my sister Louisa, who giggles. “Don’t giggle,” I tell her. “What that guy said to us wasn’t funny.” Even though she’s my older sister, since she has Down syndrome I have to explain everything.

“I think he’s funny,” she says in that woofy voice of hers. “I think he’s cute. I think that boy wants to be my boyfriend.”

This is the kind of thing Louisa’ll say that drives a stake into our mother’s heart. Lately Mum’s been talking about getting Louisa’s tubes tied, a plan I could condone on pragmatic grounds but against which I’ve nonetheless felt compelled to launch a squeak or two of protest. Louisa’s been living with Mum ever since she got kicked out of the group home for repeated makeup theft, and even though Louisa’s relatively self-sufficient—she can ride the bus, she has a job assembling calendars and pens—my mother won’t rest easy until Louisa’s fate is sewn up. I mean, Louisa needs a baby about as badly as she needs a scholarship to MIT, but then part of me says: What right do we have to go monkeying around with Louisa’s body? Since when did we set up camp between her legs? I even feel squeamish bringing Louisa into the bar, like someone’s going to call Child Protective Services on me, though Louisa’s well past thirty. When the bartender checks our IDs she lingers for a long time with Louisa’s, her eyes ping-ponging between the mug shot and Louisa’s face.

Reprinted from Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain: Stories. Copyright © 2012 by Lucia Perillo. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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