The excerpt that follows began as an exercise based on the work of Lorrie Moore. (It’s now on its way to becoming a short story.) Moore has had an enormous influence on my work. In her stories I discovered the technique that would allow me to actually enjoy writing: the ironic, distant narrator. In one of my favorite Moore stories, You’re Ugly, Too, the author employs a narrator whose insistently familiar, slightly neurotic tone of voice creates the illusion of great intimacy between the narrator and the even more neurotic character, whose name is Zoe. The reader could easily believe that she is receiving a direct transmission from inside Zoe’s head. But the two—narrator and character—are completely distinct: the narrator understands Zoe’s drama, her fear, her actions and reactions. Zoe is benumbed by her fear; she understands very little, and is quite disconnected from herself. This juxtaposition—the distance between narrator and character—creates the mood the reader is left with at the end of the story: fear, rage, impotence. Lorrie Moore manages to stir up all this feeling while charming and entertaining the reader with every word. To me, that’s the power of ironic distance, and once I got a whiff, I couldn’t stop playing around with it.
Sister Stone, by Amy Dana.
Lauren Stone is seeing nuns. Nuns in Times Square, nuns in the Battery, nuns in the kosher deli begging for mayo. The Fleet Week of nuns, she thinks, neatly categorized: Sisters of Charity, Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Sisters of the Ancient Observance, Sisters of the Most Blessed Sacrament, nursing sisters, teaching sisters, missionary sisters. Lauren bumps into them nibbling dim sum on Mott Street, craning up at the Twin Towers, tittering at winking street performers. She’d even witnessed a van full of them swallowed whole by the giant Raggedy Ann hair of the Kwik ‘n Kleen car wash. It was disconcerting.
Sitting behind her desk at Maxwell, Inc., Lauren collated graphs and pie charts for the annual report she was writing while the ring light on her telephone blinked mutely under a sticky note she had written. The note read: "Fix ringer." Lauren’s cubicle was papered with sticky notes reminding her to edit interviews, fact-check third quarter profit statements, write letters from the chairman, eat lunch. They had not gone unnoticed. Lauren was beginning to see references to them in her own declining employee evaluations. Ms. Stone has refused to communicate with anyone in accounting except through puzzling Post-it messages, one read. She appears to be losing focus. But sticky notes made Lauren feel purposeful. So much so that she had taken the practice home with her. In her kitchen there was a dirty pot with a sticky note on it that read "Clean This." On her pillow: "Make Bed." She had even put a "Feed This" sticky note on the cat once, but he had licked it off. Lauren peeled a pale-blue square off her rainbow-hued collection and wrote: "Nuns?"
Truth be told, Lauren, a lapsed Episcopalian, hadn’t given much thought to nuns since 1972, when the Detroit television station had broadcast a nun extravaganza every day from Lent to Easter on the Bill Kennedy Show. It was possible Bill Kennedy had always broadcast a nun extravaganza at this time, but in 1972, the year her mother, abandoned by Lauren’s father, had taken to bed and gotten out only to change the sheets, Lauren had been able to skip school undeterred to watch it. It had really been called The One O’clock Movie; Bill Kennedy was its host, hired, presumably, for Hollywood insider information acquired thirty years earlier during his failed attempt to break into film. Bill Kennedy—drunk, slurring, madras-jacket-wearing, chain smoking Bill Kennedy—broke Lauren’s nine-year-old heart. He was always interrupting his feature to show the clip of his two lines in the middle of Now, Voyager, his head circled in white grease pencil so no one would miss him.
During the nun extravaganza of 1972, Bill Kennedy screened everything from Bing Crosby and nuns to Elvis and nuns. But Lauren’s favorite was the one about the schizophrenic French girl. At least, Lauren knew, that’s what she’d be called today if, as in the movie, she had heard a voice, seen the Holy Mother, and, as commanded, eaten the grass off the town square with the efficiency of a John Deere. In fact the townspeople temporarily do think she’s nuts, maybe even demonic. There’s talk of the asylum. There’s talk of the stake. But up pops a spring where the infirm bathe or drink and are healed. The grass-eating girl is proclaimed a visionary and abandons her humble apprentice-to-a-cheese-maker fiancé to become a nun, scrubbing floors on her hands and knees although she has conversed with the mother of God! (Snubbed by the Holy Mother, the other nuns resent the grass-eating girl and give her the shittiest nun-chores in the convent. Only after she dies horribly but uncomplaining do they repent and live the rest of their days in torment.)
Lauren had loved that one. For weeks after seeing it, she had searched the smooth plain of her Cream of Wheat for sacred images, cupped her ear toward every passing cloud for outlandish orders to execute, parted each bush on her way to the bus stop to look for that shy Virgin. What she found instead was the hot-pink-covered hind end of Mrs. Davis weeding her flower beds, or Mr. Sailor, in his suit before work, tenderly replacing the fallen chain of his daughter’s purple banana-seat Schwinn, or Mrs. Miller, her toes polished bloody, directing the pool man toward a few missed flies with her first cigarette of the morning. Lauren had known these people in what seemed to her even then as another life, known them benignly singing around her parents’ piano as her father played, their collars askew, shoes scattered, voices too loud, each one of them having cupped her chin or pecked her cheek or patted her bottom as she trotted up to bed. But after the nun extravaganza of 1972, Lauren saw them only as the disbelieving and sinister townspeople and came to accept that no other reply was forthcoming.
But now, twenty-five years later, as she approached the middle of an undistinguished life, Lauren Stone sat at her desk on the fourteenth floor of the Maxwell Building and experienced a modest epiphany, a vision, finally, of her own. It was not of the Virgin Mary but of herself, draped in black serge, her own gray eyes hooded by a starched headdress, her own unremarkable chin cupped by a wimple, her own face, aglow. Nunhood, it occurred to her, was right up her alley! Lauren swept her graphs and pie charts aside and smoothed the creases out of her skirt. She wrote herself a sticky note to recheck the copy later when—if!—her current state of excitement subsided. For the idea of nunhood had taken her unawares, and she was giddy with it.
Lauren made her way out of the Maxwell Building on unsteady legs, oblivious to the nearly polite murmurings of her colleagues, which, truth to tell, were rendered only out of curiosity. Had Lauren’s eyes not had a Benzedrine-like glitter to them, had her regard been as glassy as usual, her co-workers would have refrained from addressing her and stuck to their usual chop-licking. Although not outright pretty, Lauren was possessed of a generous shimmy in the hindquarters and breasts that she herself referred to as a nice set. In fact, she often took a few minutes out of her otherwise tedious day to admire them in the reflection of her computer screen. But she wasn’t married to them. If nunhood ruled out a generous C cup, she was willing to make some changes.
Lauren believed this type of willing self-sacrifice set her in good stead for convent living. That night, in the quiet of her kitchen, nursing a neat scotch, she tossed this quality around in her mind and added it to the "pro" column she was making. Other entries included Enthusiastic, Cheerful, Celibate, Neat. Not even the last of these was quite true, and Lauren knew there were other obstacles to the veil. She was not Catholic. She was not church going. She was inadequately faithful. But all that, she decided, was red tape. What was really important, Lauren was certain, was the vocation. She’d always wanted one, a vocation, a calling, to be needed. Lauren Stone would be God’s own Girl Friday. Indispensable. It was her destiny, and she’d always wanted one of those, too.
Lauren drained her scotch and washed up for the night. Her boyfriend Danny was waiting for her in bed.
"Hey, Laur," he exclaimed, "listen to this." Danny had mastered the art of tapping rhythmically against his washboard abs using only his erect penis. The sound was less like a snare drum than like a tambourine without the cymbals, he’d once explained, but he could modulate speed, volume, depth. "A precision instrument," he liked to say, without irony, without double entendre. He could lie in bed endlessly, hands clasped behind his head, singing along. "It’s ‘Highway to Hell,’" he said, his head bobbing to the beat. "What do you think?"
Lauren and Danny had met at Maxwell. Danny worked in the Information Office there, fixing people’s crashed hard drives. Lauren had been trapped inside a spreadsheet document the first time she called for help. "Try the escape key," he’d said.
"If the escape key ever worked," Lauren replied, "I’d be wearing one on my belt." She could tell by the way he laughed—too loud and through the nose, snorting on the intake—that he was just the kind of guy who always went for her: odd but not endearing. "Listen," her mother liked to say, "they’re all disappointing in one way or another. Just choose one." But Lauren did not want to just choose one. Neither did she want to appear immediately rude or insensitive. So when Danny had shown up at her cubicle to ask her out, dressed in jeans and high-tops, the sleeves of his polo shirt snug around his biceps, Lauren shrugged and accepted. She had learned from experience that the quickest way to get rid of a man was to acquiesce to his every desire. So how long could it last? A week, she figured, maybe two? But eighteen months later Danny was still showing up at her alcove studio three or four nights a week, armed with take-out for one and a six-pack. Mystified by his persistence, Lauren had slapped a sticky note on his chest one night. "Get out!" it read. Danny interpreted this as an invitation to passion and made love to her all weekend.
"We need to talk, Danny." Lauren pulled back the covers and climbed into bed. "It’s serious."
Danny hauled himself up on his elbows. "What’s up?"
"I’m a virgin," Lauren said. "Starting tonight."
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