Authors: Sara Levine
214 West 19th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10011
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright Â© 2010 by Sara Levine
First publication 2011 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
for Stephen, Lillian and Marty
With your faults, don't hurry.
Don't correct them thoughtlessly.
What would you put in their place?
n the aftermath of my adventure, I decided to write down the whole thing, starting with my discovery of
and keeping nothing back, not even the names of the friends and family members whose problems plagued me; and so even though I'd
to go into the other room and stab someone with a kitchen knife, I take up my penâa nifty micro-ball which had been incorrectly capped and would have dried out had I not, at the crucial moment, found it and restored its seal.
I Put My Hand To It
a Good Shake, A Lick of the Nib, and Recapping
Though even with pencil, I could tell this story pretty well.
My sister said it was an adventure book and that the trouble with adventure books was “all action and no feeling.” She said that the book had the moral complexity of a baseball game and that her hand would force no nine-year-old girl to read it. She said a few more self-righteous, priggish things and then off she went, leaving
on my futon, along with
Ride on the Unicorn's Back
though what was wrong with those booksâI mean, according to herâI don't know. For a third-grade teacher my sister is pretty careless. Later she called and said, “Would you return the books I left at your place to the library?”
“Why didn't you like this one called
?” I said.
“Don't tell me you're reading it,” Adrianna said. “I
a book with no girls in it.”
Does such a knee-jerk sensibility deserve to be recorded? But I am writing in a very nice unlined Muji notebook and I can always go back and cross out her insufferable parts later.
“Don't tell me you're reading it,” she said, as if I were doing something to the book, whereas in fact the book was doing something to me. I'm twenty-five years old and this happened on a Monday when I didn't have to work at The Pet Library and had no plans except to sleep and maybe wash my bras in the sink, and that was a big maybe. Birds chirped, shadows fell on the linoleum, in the distance a weed trimmer whined. When I got to the part where Long John Silver's gang captures Jim Hawkins in the deserted stockade, Lars, my boyfriend, left a message on my voicemail, saying did I want to go out for a burrito.
Here is my life, I thought.
is the adventurous life kicking out the covers of Stevenson's novel.
When had I ever dreamed a scheme? When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act? When had I ever, like Jim Hawkins, broke from my friends, raced for the beach, stolen a boat, killed a man, or eliminated an obstacle that stood in the way of my getting a hunk of gold? I, a person unable to decide what to do with my broken mini-blinds, let alone with the rest of my life, lay on my bed, while in the book's open air, people chased assholes out of pubs and trampled blind beggars with their horses. You needn't have a violent nature to be impressed with animal energy. If life were a sea adventure, I knew: I wouldn't be sailor, pirate, or cabin boy but more likely a barnacle clinging to the side of the boat. Why not rise, I thought. Why not spring up that very moment, in the spirit of Jim, and create my own adventure?
“That's how I felt when I saw
He's Just Not That Into You
on Oprah,” Rena said. “That book explained everything, everything, about me and Dougie Thomas.”
Personally, I think the fact that he called himself âDougie' explained everything about Rena and Dougie Thomas. That and the fact that they'd met at a Christmas caroling party he single-handedly organized; but I never tell friends their boyfriends are probably gay, so I let the matter drop. Rena is a close friend; she knows firsthand my history of low-paying jobs and hapless boyfriends. This was the following day, when she and I were sitting in our favorite coffee shop eating GratuÂitous Pancakes, her name for the meal taken when she has recently eaten lunch and I have recently woken up. That day, I'd slept late only because I'd been up all night finishing
and I was thrilled to tell Rena my discovery. But as we talked, I felt I was leading a clumsy tourist through the jungle of my thoughts.
Rena lagged, slapped at mosquitoes, tripped on roots, missed the waterfall. A painful truth I'd learn later: you may be ready to grow, but you can't fertilize friends and grow them with you. I must have been the tiniest of boats rocking on the sea of Robert Louis Stevenson's consciousness, I told Rena; I must have been a sea-bird streaking through the azure sky of his daydream; in just the same way spirits are said to commune across cultures, time, and continents, Robert Louis Stevenson's book
“Isn't it a kids' book?” Rena said.
“That doesn't matter. It's sophisticated. It has multiple levels. A lot of the vocabulary I had to look up.”
“And isn't it a boys' book?” Rena said.
Okay maybe, but so what? When I was in fourth grade I kept a large, profusely illustrated chart to show all the books I read, and I remember now that the books were pretty girly. I did piles of Judy Blume, beams of Beverly Cleary. When the librarian pushed, I did
Anne of Green Gables
. Then I discovered jump rope and drifted toward the playground faction with the best rhymes. “All in together, girls. How do you like the weather, girls?” Then came sticker collecting. Then friendship pins. I believe I lost a whole year of school to their assembly. When we were supposed to be following the presidential election on TV, I was studying Jenny Galassi's sneakers and trying to figure out how she had gotten more friendship pins than me. In fifth grade, the year we did the continents, my mother confronted me with my warped cardboard reading chart. “Is this important?” she said. “I found it behind the radiator.” Maybe a boys' book was exactly what I needed. And it was a classic; gold letters said so right on the cover.
“This book is going to change my life.”
But it's useless to explain the prospect of personal change. Thousands of dollars in student loans to major in philosophy, and now she unlocked apartments every day in order to meet the superficial needs of half-crazed animals. Rena Deutsch, Freelance Pet Sitter. She wasn't stupid, but there she was, covered in cat hair. Compared to her, I was highly evolved.
“Rena, I'm so serious about this, it hurts. What has the hero of
got that I haven't got? How can I become a hero of my own life?”
“You're tired of your job at the Library. Maybe you should go back to school. Get a master's degree in something. You were always good at writing papers.”
I felt a tiny jolt of pleasure. But I knew it wasn't true. Rena and I had gone to a state university, where many of the courses culminated in a machine-read Scantron test, the kind of test that measures knowledge with no compassion for error. The iron quality of the directions alone had filled me with dread: “Do not make any stray marks on the answer sheet,” “Fill in each circle completely,” “To change your answer completely erase the mark.” After racking up a row of D's and F's my freshman year, I avoided any class that required a Scantron and somehow wound up as an English major. Thus Rena remembered me writing lots of little pastorals, in which a simple-minded thesis shepherded its wooly flock of evidence over hills and dales and
English majors never failed; at worst, their opinions simply differed from their teachers', and everyone agreed that this difference could be adequately expressed with a C and a down-tilting minus. But I ask you reader, where had all that paper writing got me?
Fill in the circle completely:
So I shrugged off Rena's compliment and delved into my backpack for the golden compass I had made for my new life. This was not a long, gangly composition; I had merelyâmerely!âwritten down boy hero Jim Hawkins' best qualities, which formed, I realized every moment with increasing warmth, the Core Values of Robert Louis Stevenson's
I am copying it out hurriedly here; of course, the original was carefully hand-lettered in a serifed style on a creamy seventy-pound piece of paper with a lovely deckled edge.
Rena put her hand on my arm gently, as if expecting to get burned. “Are you taking your Zoloft?” she said.
âas you have ample reason to know, having read it yourself or heard about it or seen the movie or maybe eaten in the restaurant Long John Silver'sâis a classic of boys' adventure fiction, and almost immediately was recognized as a masterpiece when it was published in 1883. The funny thing isâand it took me ages to even remember thisâI first read the book, or a portion of it, when it was over a hundred years old and I was nine. Mrs. Buskirk had assigned the first few chapters to our fifth grade Reading Lab. Dimly I recall the sensation of sitting at a kidney-shaped table and reading a paragraph out loud; in fact, it was the part where Billy Bones shows up at the inn where Jim is living a quiet life with his parents:
“This is a handy cove and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop . . . Here you, matey, bring up alongside and help up my chest . . . What you mought call me? You mought call me captain.”
Obviously I bumped my shins against a few phrases like these and decided the book was too alien to interest. I don't blame me. Book aside, by the end of that Reading Lab, I do remember being keyed up and excited. Not because of Jim Hawkins, but because we girls sat with our hands below desk level, passing around Patty Pacholewski's bracelets and rings. She had
At age twenty-five, you can't read a rip-roaring book like
and not feel adventure tug on your hand, even if your hand is firmly planted in your pocket, fingering a pigment-dense tube of lip gloss. You waken to the possibilities of bravery and you chafe a good deal at that thing other people call security. (My mother happened to call it health insurance, a 401(k), and opportunity for advancement. My stay-at-home mom!) But Rena was right; for a long time I'd been dissatisfied with my job, even though The Pet Library was a better gig than the things I'd done before: part-time office assistant at an insurance company; full time scooper at Pignut Ice Cream . . . I could but won't go on.
The Pet Library job had fallen into my lapâsix months before this story properly beginsâwhen a friend of a friend of my mother's, having heard I was looking for meaningful work, sent along the phone number of a “lady seeking an assistant.” I was to meet Ms. Wang at The Donut Hole and, after scanning the tables for the Chinese-American equivalent of my matronly mother, I discovered an angular woman in her forties, wearing a sweater dress with a shawl collar and (I need make no secret of it now) gladiator-style wedge boots that would have looked just as right on me. She quickly dismissed my work experience and asked me soul-searching questions along the lines of “what is your principles? What is your values in life?” The more indistinct my answers were, the more she liked them, and after two apple fritters and a large quantity of coffee, her manner gave every indication that the meeting had been a success. “You come to Pet Library?” she said, and I answered, “Sure.”
A week later, on an unseasonably cold day, I pushed open the glass door to a smell so high that, had I come by car, I would have turned back immediately; but knowing the next bus wouldn't come for an hour, I felt bound to carry through. I remember thinking, I hope Ms. Wang won't mind that I'm dressed casuallyâand then, having heard the door chime, a figure flung itself out of the back room, enveloped in a hideous, ankle-length smock of waxed cotton. She took my hands; the intimacy was mildly thrilling. Soon I was trailing her around, asking breathless questions about the collection's history. She seemed grateful for my questions; the acquisition of a tree squirrel swelled, plot-wise, into a triple-decker Victorian sensation novel: “Wow,” I kept saying. “You're kidding! No! And then what?” I can't account for it, but before the hour was over, I'd signed on to do four shifts a week.
She didn't ask me to wear a waxed smock and I had limited contact with humans: I soon learned that pretty much covered the perks. Nancy Wang had created The Pet Library in a strip mall out of her own scrappy savings and seemed to think that she had paid her dues by whatever she had suffered in China. The level of passion she expected from me about menial duties I doubt I could have mustered even if I'd been raised by a low-born family in Beijing. One day, just after dipping into Chapter XXII: How My Sea Adventure Began, I was trimming the rabbits' nails and thinking how if Jim Hawkins got himself into a stupid job, he would find a way to wriggle out of it. Jim was always dashing away, sheering off, giving someone the slip. A model of boyish energy! Meanwhile here I was, cravenly struggling with grunting mammals. One particularly solid rabbit, a Flemish Giant named Bobby, kept squirming out of the towel and scratching my forearms. Finally, rather than continue the task, I took him up by the ears and pitched him back into the cage, three paws untrimmed. A little later Nancy, who had been massaging Willie the poodle's lower gum line, looked into the hutch and remarked, “Bobby needs his nails finished,” to which I replied, “Bobby needs a lot of things that he won't be getting as well.” There followed a battle of looks that ended, I am happy to say, with Nancy taking up Bobby herself for trimming. I stood resolute and refused to hold even his legs.
, I muttered as I walked away.
It was intoxicating to realize I could say no to her. A few days later when she asked, “Did you clean litter boxes?” I said, “By god I did not clean the litter boxes.” The truth is I
cleaned them but I was still getting the hang of the “no” business and liked the way the word felt in my mouth. Eventually I got better at asserting myself and she began to chide me regularly. “You read book,” she would say. “Time to feed hamsters. Later you read book!” One afternoon I was sitting at the deskâwith Jim Hawkins just about to tear open Billy Bones' shirtâwhen Nancy playfully tipped the book shut.
“What are you doing?” I said coldly.
I forget now exactly what she wanted, but she repeated the demands without pausing for breath and claimed that whenever she turned around, I wasn't working: “Floor dirty, you read book! Animal hungry, you read book!” Yes, I said, “I read book.”
I'd drop my book for an emergency, but to remedy the slowly accreting smell of urine in a room dedicated to the accrual of urine, I didn't know. Maybe she didn't know the word “accretion,” but she definitely took my tone.
I was pretty pleased with how that encounter ended, but when I told Lars, he expressed alarm. Lars was a mild-mannered guy and worried a good deal about offending people. His own boss happened to be a boisterous, supportive teddy bear of a guy, which inclined Lars to see employers as somewhat sympathetic and endearingâand this no matter how often I told him about Nancy's flaws. I think he was too invested in my image as a nice girl (docile, accommodating) to appreciate the emotional territory I was exploring. Was I a bit acerbic at times? Yes, I wasânot just with Nancy, but with him. I heard Lars out, of course, but in the end I dismissed his worries. It's what Dr. Livesey would have done.
As I grew more confident about what
meant, I began to see that the real problem was I had been letting Nancy define my job for me. She was my boss, of course, but from the moment I had been hired, my dutiesâwhich as far as I was concerned were somewhat flexibleâhad devolved to drudgery of the most degrading sort. When I think about all the different things I might have done for The Pet Libraryâwell, it almost seems a joke! I could have been entrusted with budget, or community outreach, or acquisitionsânot that I was terribly interested in any of these thingsâbut instead Nancy had me scraping out litter boxes. I never said this out loud, but also I objected to the fact that she made no effort to build a more varied collection of animals. Before my time, she'd set up a super-size drop-off kennel in the parking lot for discards and, if anything, the Library had become the town's dumping ground for unwanted cats and dogs. Two weeks after Easter, you should have seen the rabbit landslide. Certainly I'm no economist, but even I could tell that the llamas, who stayed in a three-sided shelter out back, wouldn't qualify as a cost-effective acquisition. The enormous amount of care they requiredâwhich Nancy claimed stemmed from their emotional problems (they'd been abandoned by their previous owners after a bitter divorce)âhardly balanced out the minor delight they afforded patrons. No one had the
to check them out, although people at the Shop ân' Go sometimes stared at the llamas' scabs as they loaded their groceries. Why didn't she put
, a college graduate, in charge of acquisitions?
It's dumbfounding, but even after I'd read
a few times, I clung to my bitterness and didn't do all that much to change my situation. For a while my attitude was: “I don't mind sitting up here at the counter, reading my book, and charging out a cat or two, but I am
going to fall all over myself checking the hermit crabs' bedding for fungus gnats.” I told myself I was a circulation librarian, not a cleaning service, and I consoled myself with small libertiesâbeing slow to feed the fish, for example (
can't complain), or dipping into Nancy's Post-its supply and taking notes on Chapter XXV: I Strike the Jolly Roger.
“But you have to be careful,” Lars said when we talked about it over burritos. “If you lost your job, what would you do? Unless you want to borrow money again from your parents.”
I didn't want to get into a money discussion with Lars. I was pretty sure he had more of it, though it had taken me a while to catch on since he works a low-paying job at a computer help desk and spends next to
on his clothes. “How'd you get
?” I'd said the first night I stumbled drunkenly into his condo. Turns out that behind even a slightly bedraggled guy there can lurk a Bang & Olufsen sound system. “What kind of music do you like?” he answered and further discussion got muffled in the make-out moves. Since then we had managed to dance around the big ugly sinkhole subject of money. I knew that two years ago he'd backpacked in Guatemala and had immediately paid off his debts for the trip by cleaning a foundry. I suspected he had a work ethic I wasn't interested in exploring.
,” Lars mused. “Ever worry that if you only read one book, you'll get scurvy of the brain?”
“You can learn a lot by reading deeply into one book. In fact, in Japan, that's how literature is studied. People read one book all year. It's only the stupid Americans who skitter around.”
reads one book a year?”
“Japanese literature majors.”
He looked skeptical. “I'll ask my friend Yusuke.”
“No, don't. We're off the point. Weren't we talking about my lousy job?”
Lars paused to ingest some refried beans. “I'm reading this book about the Beslan school siege. In Russia, remember? When Shamil Basayev sent those jihadists to slaughter school children in North Ossetia?”
“Excuse me?” I muttered. “I'm eating.”
“Okay, maybe you wouldn't like it. The situation is
fucked up. The violence aloneâ”
“I don't know what you think
is, Lars, but people do kick it. Heads roll.”
Lars smiled. “
The Federalist Papers
he went on. “That was the last thing I read. No, noâit's good, but I think you might find it a little dry. You prefer fiction, right? I know: the new Nora Roberts! You ever read Nora Roberts?”
I sighed. “I'm not
for a book, Lars.”
“Did you ever think about joining a book club, though? My office mate, Chelsea, does a reading group, and she might have room for another person. They meet at The Flying Saucer. I've seen the books on her deskâhistory, linguistics, science stuffâit's pretty broad. Chelsea says they read
“Great books? Great books? Lars, would you know a great book if it hit you in the ass with its registration papers?
is a great book!”
I dropped my burrito into its soggy bed of shredded lettuce. Was Lars capable of recognizing
? The lanky brown hair, the smudge on his glasses, the inability to intuit I was too sophisticated for some geeky co-worker's book group. A stray thought wandered into my mind and swished its mangy tail: should I dump him?
“Have you even
it yet, Lars?”
“I'm going to.”
“Yeah, that's what Rena said, too. But now she's all caught up in some dutiful tome on global warming.”
out of my backpack and nudged his plate aside, so that the volume lay before him on the Formica table. Something about the tableau reminded me of the time Aunt Boothie parked me in front of her photo album so I could get the blow-by-blow on the Senior Singles MisÂsisÂsippi Riverboat Tour.
“Okay,” I said, “of course, I'm not going to force this down your throat,” and refrained from pointing out the passages I deemed most important.
“Are you saying you want me to read it now?” Lars said.
“I'm tempted to read it
to you, but I don't want to be a control freak.”
“No, don't,” he said quickly, and we agreed he could wade into the book at his own pace. Which turned out to be deadly slow if not downright chicken-shit. It was a book; what was he afraid of? I ate a basket of chips while he lingered on the frontispiece: a dull brown map of the island, porcupined with lines illustrating I don't know what: longitudes, latitudes. Turn the page, I urged him silently. Turn the page, plunge in!
“I find maps interesting,” he said.
So violently did I expel my breath, I spat on the mapâone of those weird, nervous spits where you accidentally trigger a salivary gland and, as if your tongue had discovered your mouth's G-spot, the saliva erupts in a concentrated jet. Thinking I'd meant to do itâ“gleeking,” he called it; as if I'd ever “gleek” on my bible!âhe took the occasion of my nervous laughter to close the book. “Let's order two flans,” he said affably, and thus our discussion of the salty book was derailed by sugar.