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It hadn’t been my idea to go to the farm bar last week. It was Deb’s. She said we deserved it. It was one thirty in the morning and we’d been studying all night. I just didn’t feel like going, but how would it look if Bender said no? No, it’s a school night and my stomach hurts; no, I have a paper due on famous poisoners throughout history; and you know what, no, I don’t feel like it because I keep thinking about what happened to Charlotte last week at that beach party.

Even if I’d said no, no one would have believed I was serious.

I didn’t used to feel this way, but unless you’re blotto, the best part of going to the farm is being able to say, I went to the farm bar last night. People look at you differently. It’s sure not the sort of place you go on a date. It doesn’t open until 3:00, and depending on how wasted you are it takes an hour or more to get there. There’s no jukebox, no music at all, just a black-and-white TV behind the bar, and a radio set on the Weather Channel or the station that plays Bible sermons. No reason to go there except that it’s the only place open at four in the morning that serves booze. No Johnnie Walker Black or Famous Grouse, just their poor relations Jack Daniel’s and Rebel Yell.

The only bad thing was the floor. It had a rotten, sweet-sour smell like they’d never wiped up anything that spilled, just let it sink into the wood. The floor felt weirdly spongy when you walked on it. Otherwise, it was a perfect bar.

It was the middle of the goddamn night, so of course we were in our pajamas—but Deb called, nobody changes, not that anybody wanted to anyway. On the weekends we always go out in our nightgowns, into town for brunch, shopping. Our nightgowns, with the lace and the neck and wrists, were nicer than the dresses half the women in the state wore, and with pearls, we looked ready for church. My pearls were passed down from my grandmother to my mother to me. I was only supposed to wear them on special occasions, but because none of the girls at my school ever took theirs off, I didn’t either.

Even though Charlotte wasn’t feeling so social, it would have been weird for us not to invite her. We couldn’t not ask her; if she found out it would hurt her feelings. And she wouldn’t have to drive either like she usually did. Deb was going to drive. For once, Charlotte could get as hammered as she wanted—if she wanted. She could sit in the back with Butter and me. The thing is we all assumed someone else had called her. Nobody said a word when we drove past her house. It wasn’t until we were literally there that we figured it out.

Deb said it was my job to call Charlotte. One simple job, she said. Butter didn’t call because she said Charlotte had no business going out to bars. Teddy didn’t bother because even if Charlotte were awake, she wouldn’t answer the phone. Not only that a late-night phone call could set off a panic attack. Deb was driving. That left just me. They could pretend to be mad at me, but none of us wanted her to come.

 

A piece of string walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The bartender says, “Sorry, we don’t serve string.” So the string leaves, then comes back and again asks for a beer. The bartender says, “I told you we don’t serve string.” So the string leaves. Out in the alley the string rubs its body against the brick wall, then walks back into the bar and asks for a beer. And the bartender says, “Hey, weren’t you the string that was just in here trying to order a beer?” And the string says, “No. I’m a frayed knot.”

 

I couldn’t even see the farm bar until we were almost on top of it because the black cinder blocks blend into the dark and there are no windows. It’s like if you didn’t know the bar was there, you’d never see it. But if you needed it, you’d spot it low down, sort of hunkering in the weeds.

The sky was that weird grayish color that tricks you into thinking dawn is right around the corner, but it’s not. It’s the time when all the animals that hunt at night, like owls and foxes, start crawling, or flying, or whatever—creeping back to their holes. You know, Last call for field mice! You don’t have to go home, but you can’t eat ’em here!

It wasn’t a time you’d think of people being awake, and drinking, but the parking lot was jammed with rusty cars and hay wagons and tractors, pickup trucks with gun racks. I always wonder when a guy tells me I have a nice rack if that’s like a gun rack, like deadly—or a rack of antlers, like a trophy you’d hang on the wall over your fireplace. Either way it’s a compliment.

“You know this county has the highest incest rate in the entire country?” Deb said.

“Ah.” Teddy sighed, making a frame with her fingers as she squinted at the bar. “I do adore early American bomb shelter architecture, don’t you? When the big blast comes, the only survivors will be drunken farmhands and cockroaches.”

The echo of our laughter bouncing back at us, across the fields, was a little creepy, like there was another set of us out there in the dark and we were throwing our laughter back and forth. Playing catch. Which made us laugh harder, and longer.

“You go first, Bender,” Deb said, stopping right in front of the door to the bar. She rubbed my shoulders. She was practically daring me, so of course I opened it. It was heavier than you’d think. Like a test. If you can’t open the door with one hand, you aren’t man enough to get in. I’m stronger than I look.

When we walked into that bar in our gowns and matching pearls, the way those farmers turned and looked at us, we must have seemed like something out of a movie. A fantasy.

Men sat lumped shoulder to shoulder at the bar, or crowded around the tables. In their blue jeans and overalls, plaid work shirts and baseball caps, you could hardly tell the farmers apart, their faces as blank as cattle. Staring down into their beers, like the meaning of life was at the bottom. Even the ones in the safety orange caps and hunting vests only stood out because of the color.

As usual, I got elected to get the drinks. I didn’t mind. I was the best one to go anyway. I mean, Butter looked like a toy in her sailor suit jammies and Deb was a chicken, and Teddy smoked blue cigarettes, for god’s sake. Like my coach said, Bender’s not afraid to throw the trick. It was a little weird to be there and not be wasted. Up at the bar there was a bowl of hard-boiled eggs. I wondered what my grandfather and dad would say if they saw me now, out here rubbing shoulders with the common man. There were probably some dairy farmers here.

I’d practically thrown my shoulder out trying to wave down the damn bartender when this guy in a red shirt and mustache sat down next to me with a cup of coffee.

“Well, hey there,” he said, pushing his John Deere cap back. Maybe this was some form of tipping your hat. Maybe he’d take pity on me and wave down the bartender. “What’s your name?” he said in that voice grown-ups use on children who insist on formally introducing them to their stuffed animals.

“Belinda,” I said, without thinking. I never tell anybody I meet in a bar my real name, or give him my real number. A girl needs to protect herself.

Maybe I forgot because he was a grown-up and I was raised to be polite to grown-ups and have good manners. Maybe I forgot because I’d never seen a man with brown hair but a red mustache, or a person who could smile with just his mouth and not his eyes.

He asked me, “Where you from, Belinda? Not around here.”

“You’re spot-on. I’m from England,” I said in a British accent so thick you could roll me up in it like a rug. “London, actually.” I could talk to anybody with this accent.

“London, huh. Never been,” he said, picking up a hardboiled egg and rolling it between his hands. “Been to Asia, though—you ever been to Asia, Belinda?”

He tapped the egg against his teeth until it cracked, then started peeling it and dropping the bits on the floor. Without its shell the egg looked wet and shiny in his hand. I swear it was the whitest thing I’ve ever seen.

“You’re pretty far from home, aren’t you?”

“Quite right. I’m at university in Wallingford.”

He slipped the egg into his mouth whole. You could hear little bits of the shell crunching between his teeth.

Just kill me now, I thought.

“Yeah, I thought maybe. What’re you doing here?” Then he said, “You sleepwalking?” Shaking me by the shoulder like he was trying to wake me up, and I realized, Oh my god. I’m not wearing a bra. I should’ve worn a bra. What was I thinking? I didn’t think. I never think.

“Hey there, jumpy, jumpy,” he said, massaging my shoulder. “Little jumpy.” I tried to move away, but he had a hold on me. Calm down, I told myself. At least you have underwear on, right? Could he tell I didn’t have a bra on? Sure he could. That’s why he picked me.

Then he said, “That’s a nice necklace you’ve got on there, Belinda,” hooking his pinkie under my pearls. I told myself, Be a good sport, Belinda. Then he gave it a tug, pulling me closer. Tug. Worse things happen at sea. Tug.

I told him to be careful.

“Be careful,” he said, tugging on my pearls. Then he said, “I know why you’re here.” I realized he was looking at the hickey under my chin. He let go. I can do anything for ten minutes.

Then he said, “I know your type. You like it a little rough, Belinda, huh? Or,” he said, a grin cracking across his face, “did you try to get smart with somebody, bad girl?”

He put his arm around me, his hand moving slow as a spider over my shoulder, down my collarbone, hanging there over my tits, then like by accident he touched my nipple, then again not by accident at all.

The sound came out by accident. It wasn’t that loud either, but Deb and Butter must’ve heard because they froze like rabbits. The bartender heard it too, and came walking over to us. He’d make the asshole apologize to me. Give us drinks on the house. And that’s when I’d kiss him. At the very least I’d kiss him.

The bartender stopped in front of us. He folded up his rag and put it down on the counter. Now, I thought. Now you’re going to get what you deserve, motherfucker, I thought, in front of all these people.

“Thank you,” I said to the bartender in my regular voice. I wanted him to know I was like him.

“Look at you,” the bartender said, disgusted. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. What are you thinking coming in here like this?” It wasn’t until he said, “It’s indecent,” that I knew he was talking to me.

“We just wanted a cocktail,” I said, wanting to explain. “A nightcap.” A pair of white-haired old men playing checkers, shots of whiskey set beside their cups of coffee, stared at me.

“I think it’s time you and your girlfriends left. Now.”

All those men in their baseball caps and overalls, their old Carhartt jackets and windbreakers with ford or chevy on the pocket—all of them, brothers, fathers, grandfathers—they were looking at me with nothing but contempt. I thought, Couldn’t I be one of your daughters?

Deb and Butter were waiting for me at the door. As we were leaving Deb pulled open the door, turned to face the room, and said loudly, “Fucking hicks.”

And then we ran for it. I was halfway across the parking lot before I felt the first pearls spill down inside my nightgown, across my stomach, and out under the hem. I tried to grab the broken string but couldn’t; the pearls were shooting through my fingers, bouncing and rolling across the parking lot, under cars and trucks, leaving a trail.

Ahead of me Butter and Deb, holding hands, bolted toward the car. “Bender, come on!” Deb screamed. Butter saw what happened and dared to slow down. “Your pearls, your pearls,” she yelled, reaching down and grabbing at the gravel.

“Just go,” I yelled, “it doesn’t matter.”

I wanted to stop. I wanted to stop. I wanted to stop and get down on my knees and rescue as many of my pearls as possible, but I couldn’t. Why did I even have them on? They were the best things I had.

We jumped in the car. Deb gunned the engine, and we took off like a rocket, gravel shooting out from under our tires. Deb cranked up the radio—and music came blaring out of the speakers. “Woo-hoo!” she screamed, pumping her fist.

Butter, who’d jumped in the front, reached back between the seats and said, “Hold out your hand.” And then she handed me a pearl. “I’m sorry it’s only one, ducks,” she said, like it was breaking her heart.

In the rearview mirror you could see the cloud of dust we’d raised still hanging there. I should have been happy, right? But I didn’t even want the pearl. It would just remind me that I’d lost the rest.

“Thanks,” I said, wondering if I should maybe just drop it out the car window. Maybe some farm kid walking down the street would find it and think, Wow, look at this. And then they’d think that maybe the world wasn’t as ugly as they thought it was. Maybe there was magic in it, after all.

Elissa Schappell ELISSA SCHAPPELL is the author of two books of fiction, most recently Blueprints for Building Better Girls, and Use Me, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award, a New York Times Notable book, and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. She is also co-editor with Jenny Offill of two anthologies, The Friend Who Got Away and Money Changes Everything. Currently, she is a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair, where she writes the “Hot Type” book column, and a Founding-editor, now Editor-at-Large of Tin House magazine. Her non-fiction has appeared in such places as SPIN, Vogue, Real Simple, GQ, The Paris Review, Book Forum and The New York Times Book Review. Her fiction and essays have appeared in journals such as One Story, Nerve, BOMB, and The Literarian, and anthologies including, The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, The Bitch in the House, The KGB Bar Reader, Cooking and Stealing and Lit Riffs. She teaches creative writing at NYU, and in the low-residency MFA program at Queens, in Charlotte NC. She lives in Brooklyn.

People when they meet her sometimes say, “I thought you’d be taller.” She never knows how to respond to this statement, although she often thinks, “I assumed you’d have better manners.”

3 Responses to “Excerpt from Blueprints for Building Better Girls

  1. Elissa, I absolutely love this excerpt–it’s exactly what I’d have picked from the book (although there are so many good ones)…I just think it captures the heart of the collection so well. I still vividly remember that entire story–I loved Bender, and I thought the way Charlotte sort of haunted several stories in the book was so brilliantly executed. Thanks for being part of TNB!

    People think I’ll be taller, too, by the way. They always tell me I “seem” taller than I am. I haven’t figured out yet why this is supposed to be a compliment . . .

  2. Jessica Blau says:

    Wow. Great! I look forward to reading the entire book (and I will read it as soon as the semester is over!).

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