The lighter clicked out and she lit up a cigarette from a pack of generic smokes.
"So you live out there by yourself?"
"Yeah," said Stacey. "Since our boyfriends went to jail."
I looked at Ashley in the rear-view mirror. She smiled for a moment, as if at some happy memory. The smile accentuated her apple cheeks, her bright, shining eyes.
"Who owns the pit bull?" I asked.
"We don't know, some guy who calls himself Speed Racer. He's got a brown trailer. We saw the dog advertised in Uncle Henry's. We been thinking about getting a pit bull for a long time."
The smile faded off of Ashley's face.
One day Ashley La Pierre had come into the office I shared with Russo to talk about a paper she was trying to write on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." She was wearing gigantic black boots with clunky heels. Ashley's eyes fell upon a poster of the Marx Brothers on the wall above the file cabinet. "Who are those guys?" she asked.
"The Marx Brothers," I said. "Groucho, Chico, Harpo. You've never heard of them?"
She shrugged. "Nah. Anyway. This poem? Prufrock's Love Song?" She spoke with that feminine-inflected voice that makes every statement sound like a question. Occasionally I brought the symbolism of this inflection to my students' attention, especially when I asked for their names and they answered me as if they weren't sure what they were. Megan? Heather? Ashley? "Say your names as if you are proud of them," I'd urge my students. "Your identity is not a question."
Now that I was female, that same inflection often snuck into my own voice, a fact which both amazed and infuriated me. Hello? I'm Jenny Boylan?
"Yes," I'd said to Ashley. "We talked about it in class." I'd been sitting at my desk chair, next to my computer. I'd been wearing Dockers and a tweed jacket, a blue Oxford shirt and a brown tie. It seemed like a long time ago. I had a mop of brownish-blonde hair and small round wire-rim glasses, a fountain pen, stubble.
"See, that's the thing," Ashley said. "The way that opens, let's get out of here, the both of us, while--whatever--"
"Let us go then, you and I! While the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a--"
"Yeah, yeah," Ashley said. "See, in class we were talking about how like, that's him talking to this girl, right? Only I don't see it that way at all."
"No?" I said. "Well how do you read it?"
"I think he's standing in front of a mirror," she said. "And it's like he's this person cut in half, you know, it's like he's got this half of him that everybody thinks is cool, like he's Mister Fun Hog, but in fact he's totally scared of everything. It's like he's got this person he's invented and then there's this other person who's really him and he's trying to talk to this other person, trying to like, convince him to get the hell out of there."
I nodded. "So you feel that J. Alfred Prufrock is torn in half?"
She looked at me as if I hadn't read the poem. "The fuck yes," she said. "Don't you?"
I nodded again. "I do." I was having a hard time concentrating. "So is he crazy?"
"Crazy?" Ashley said. "Hell no. Everybody feels like that. Don't they?"
We drove toward Augusta in silence. Every now and then I'd ask a question, or make some clever observation, but mostly I just let things stay quiet. Back when I was a boy, I'd hitchhiked lots of times, and there was nothing worse, sometimes, than a driver who was determined to make you talk.
We got to Middle Road in Augusta, and I drove down the street first one way, then another--but there was no brown trailer. "Are you sure it was Middle Road?"
"Middle Street," said Ashley.
Excerpted from She's Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan Copyright© 2003 by Jennifer Finney Boylan . Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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