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The night before I checked myself into the hospital, I told my brother that I only had two episodes of the third season of House left to watch, and that once they were over, I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. He can’t be blamed for thinking I was exaggerating.

 

Mike Doughty is the mastermind behind the 90s “slacker-jazz” cult band Soul Coughing, former poetry classmate of Ani Defranco, pseudonymous gossip columnist for the New York Press, surrogate Suicide Girl photographer and a successful solo artist out now with both a new album The Question Jar Show and his first memoir, The Book of Drugs.

Three schoolboys sit around a table. David, the friend to my left, has been genetically mutated by a radiation leak. He now has the ability to shoot beams of energy from his eyes, and teleport short distances via wormholes into alternate dimensions. Greg was stung by an irradiated wasp, his body morphing into something only nominally human. He can fly, spit venom, and hear conversations at distances up to a mile. He has also developed an uncontrollable craving for soda. And jam.

The central characters in Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls go through their lives, like most of us, accompanied by an inner narrator.  The inner narrator for Schappell’s characters is more antagonist than friend: it’s the voice of fairy tales, of high school hallway gossip, of what their mother told them was permissible for girls (“Men and horses sweat, ladies perspire”). These women and girls know the roles available to them. They know the postures to adopt, the lines to speak; they know what’s expected of a Southern debutante, or a girl with a bad reputation, or a woman who’s just had a miscarriage.

Phil is sitting in his office staring at his computer when his cellphone rings. It is his wife, Helen. He picks it up, punches a button. The call goes straight to voicemail.

“Tell it to your mother,” says Phil.

Then it’s the phone on his desk, melodic and eager. Phil watches the blue digits scroll across the caller ID display. It’s Helen. Phil turns back to work on his spreadsheet. He knows an email will appear on his screen within minutes, an apology from Helen. Her contrition will be touching, the way a green fly is touching.

Before Phil married Helen, his older brother pulled him aside at a family cookout and said, “Marriage is really hard. You have to work at it. It’s a lot of work.”

That weekend, on Fourth Street
Where the No. One meets the Nine,
It was only I
Who brought the two lines together.

The line going downtown
Carried sleepy immigrant men to work.
The other line turned round
Taking maids to wealthy homes,
And it dropped me off at a foothill.

In the canyon, I constantly asked myself:
When will these  working families
Sit on the same line?

My father and I spend the two months following my mother’s death sitting around in the living room, until one day he decides that I should to go to Europe to meet my best friend Liz.

We can’t just sit around here smoking and looking at each other, he says.

I know he’s right, but I’m afraid to him leave alone.

Don’t worry about me, he says as if reading my mind.

The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and waited until the boy was alone. He approached him, telling him that he’d found a dead dog decomposing in a far corner of the school’s courtyard. The boy, who was new at the school and whose name Marty could not remember, stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, nearly to the elbows, and said, “So?” He was looking at a dandelion near his sneaker’s toe.