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Good Bones and Simple Murders


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By the way, darling, I wish you wouldn't call your stepdad the bloat king. He does have a slight weight problem, and it hurts his feelings.

The rank sweat of a what? My bed is certainly not enseamed, whatever that might be! A nasty sty, indeed! Not that it's any of your business, but I change those sheets twice a week, which is more than you do, judging from that student slum pigpen in Wittenberg. I'll certainly never visit you there again without prior warning! I see that laundry of yours when you bring it home, and not often enough either, by a long shot! Only when you run out of black socks.

And let me tell you, everyone sweats at a time like that, as you'd find out very soon if you ever gave it a try. A real girlfriend would do you a heap of good. Not like that pasty-faced what's-her-name, all trussed up like a prize turkey in those touch-me-not corsets of hers. If you ask me, there's something off about that girl. Borderline. Any little shock could push her right over the edge.

Go get yourself someone more down-to-earth. Have a nice roll in the hay. Then you can talk to me about nasty sties.

No, darling, I am not mad at you. But I must say you're an awful prig sometimes. Just like your Dad. The Flesh, he'd say. You'd think it was dog dirt. You can excuse that in a young person, they are always so intolerant, but in someone his age it was getting, well, very hard to live with, and that's the understatement of the year.

Some days I think it would have been better for both of us if you hadn't been an only child. But you realize who you have to thank for that. You have no idea what I used to put up with. And every time I felt like a little, you know, just to warm up my aging bones, it was like I'd suggested murder.

Oh! You think what? You think Claudius murdered your Dad? Well, no wonder you've been so rude to him at the dinner table!

If I'd known that, I could have put you straight in no time flat.

It wasn't Claudius, darling.

It was me.

THERE

WAS

ONCE

--There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.

--Forest? Forest is passe, I mean, I've had it with all this wilderness stuff. It's not a right image of our society, today. Let's have some urban for a change.

--There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the suburbs.

--That's better. But I have to seriously query this word poor.

--But she was poor!

--Poor is relative. She lived in a house, didn't she?

--Yes.

--Then socioeconomically speaking, she was not poor.

--But none of the money was hers! The whole point of the story is that the wicked stepmother makes her wear old clothes and sleep in the fireplace--

--Aha! They had a fireplace! With poor, let me tell you, there's no fireplace. Come down to the park, come to the subway stations after dark, come down to where they sleep in cardboard boxes, and I'll show you poor!

--There was once a middle-class girl, as beautiful as she was good--

--Stop right there. I think we can cut the beautiful, don't you? Women these days have to deal with too many intimidating physical role models as it is, what with those bimbos in the ads. Can't you make her, well, more average?

--There was once a girl who was a little overweight and whose front teeth stuck out, who--

--I don't think it's nice to make fun of people's appearances. Plus, you're encouraging anorexia.

--I wasn't making fun! I was just describing--

--Skip the description. Description oppresses. But you can say what color she was.

--What color?

--You know. Black, white, red, brown, yellow. Those are the choices. And I'm telling you right now, I've had enough of white. Dominant culture this, dominant culture that--

--I don't know what color.

--Well, it would probably be your color, wouldn't it?

--But this isn't about me! It's about this girl--

--Everything is about you.

--Sounds to me like you don't want to hear this story at all.

--Oh well, go on. You could make her ethnic. That might help.

--There was once a girl of indeterminate descent, as average-looking as she was good, who lived with her wicked--

--Another thing. Good and wicked. Don't you think you should transcend those puritanical judgmental moralistic epithets? I mean, so much of that is conditioning, isn't it?

--There was once a girl, as average-looking as she was well-adjusted, who lived with her stepmother, who was not a very open and loving person because she herself had been abused in childhood.

--Better. But I am so tired of negative female images! And stepmothers--they always get it in the neck! Change it to stepfather, why don't you? That would make more sense anyway, considering the bad behavior you're about to describe. And throw in some whips and chains. We all know what those twisted, repressed, middle-aged men are like--

--Hey, just a minute! I'm a middle-aged--

--Stuff it, Mister Nosy Parker. Nobody asked you to stick in your oar, or whatever you want to call that thing. This is between the two of us. Go on.

--There was once a girl--

--How old was she?

--I don't know. She was young.

--This ends with a marriage, right?

--Well, not to blow the plot, but--yes.

--Then you can scratch the condescending paternalistic terminology. It's woman, pal. Woman.

--There was once--

--What's this was, once? Enough of the dead past. Tell me about now.

--There--

--So?

--So, what?

--So, why not here?

WOMEN'S

NOVELS

For Lenore

1. Men's novels are about men. Women's novels are about men too but from a different point of view. You can have a men's novel with no women in it except possibly the landlady or the horse, but you can't have a women's novel with no men in it. Sometimes men put women in men's novels but they leave out some of the parts: the heads, for instance, or the hands. Women's novels leave out parts of the men as well. Sometimes it's the stretch between the belly button and the knees, sometimes it's the sense of humor. It's hard to have a sense of humor in a cloak, in a high wind, on a moor.

Women do not usually write novels of the type favored by men but men are known to write novels of the type favored by women. Some people find this odd.

2. I like to read novels in which the heroine has a costume rustling discreetly over her breasts, or discreet breasts rustling under her costume; in any case there must be a costume, some breasts, some rustling, and, over all, discretion. Discretion over all, like a fog, a miasma through which the outlines of things appear only vaguely. A glimpse of pink through the gloom, the sound of breathing, satin slithering to the floor, revealing what? Never mind, I say. Never never mind.

3. Men favor heroes who are tough and hard: tough with men, hard with women. Sometimes the hero goes soft on a woman but this is always a mistake. Women do not favor heroines who are tough and hard. Instead they have to be tough and soft. This leads to linguistic difficulties. Last time we looked, monosyllables were male, still dominant but sinking fast, wrapped in the octopoid arms of labial polysyllables, whispering to them with arachnoid grace: darling, darling.

4. Men's novels are about how to get power. Killing and so on, or winning and so on. So are women's novels, though the method is different. In men's novels, getting the woman or women goes along with getting the power. It's a perk, not a means. In women's novels you get the power by getting the man. The man is the power. But sex won't do, he has to love you. What do you think all that kneeling's about, down among the crinolines, on the Persian carpet? Or at least say it. When all else is lacking, verbalization can be enough. Love. There, you can stand up now, it didn't kill you. Did it?

5. I no longer want to read about

anything sad. Anything violent, anything disturbing, anything like that. No funerals at the end, though there can be some in the middle. If there must be deaths, let there be resurrections, or at least a Heaven so we know where we are. Depression and squalor are for those under twenty-five, they can take it, they even like it, they still have enough time left. But real life is bad for you, hold it in your hand long enough and you'll get pimples and become feebleminded. You'll go blind.

I want happiness, guaranteed, joy all round, covers with nurses on them or brides, intelligent girls but not too intelligent, with regular teeth and pluck and both breasts the same size and no excess facial hair, someone you can depend on to know where the bandages are and to turn the hero, that potential rake and killer, into a well-groomed country gentleman with clean fingernails and the right vocabulary. Always, he has to say, Forever. I no longer want to read books that don't end with the word forever. I want to be stroked between the eyes, one way only.

6. Some people think a woman's novel is anything without politics in it. Some think it's anything about relationships. Some think it's anything with a lot of operations in it, medical ones I mean. Some think it's anything that doesn't give you a broad panoramic view of our exciting times. Me, well, I just want something you can leave on the coffee table and not be too worried if the kids get into it. You think that's not a real consideration? You're wrong.

7. She had the startled eyes of a wild bird. This is the kind of sentence I go mad for. I would like to be able to write such sentences, without embarrassment. I would like to be able to read them without embarrassment. If I could only do these two simple things, I feel, I would be able to pass my allotted time on this earth like a pearl wrapped in velvet.

She had the startled eyes of a wild bird. Ah, but which one? A screech owl, perhaps, or a cuckoo? It does make a difference. We do not need more literalists of the imagination. They cannot read a body like a gazelle's without thinking of intestinal parasites, zoos, and smells.

She had a feral gaze like that of an untamed animal, I read. Reluctantly I put down the book, thumb still inserted at the exciting moment. He's about to crush her in his arms, pressing his hot, devouring, hard, demanding mouth to hers as her breasts squish out the top of her dress, but I can't concentrate. Metaphor leads me by the nose, into the maze, and suddenly all Eden lies before me. Porcupines, weasels, warthogs, and skunks, their feral gazes malicious or bland or stolid or piggy and sly. Agony, to see the romantic frisson quivering just out of reach, a dark-winged butterfly stuck to an overripe peach, and not to be able to swallow, or wallow. Which one? I murmur to the unresponding air. Which one?

THE

BOYS'

OWN

ANNUAL,

1911

was in my grandfather's attic, along with a pump organ that contained bats, rafter-high piles of Western paperbacks, and a dress form, my grandmother's body frozen in wire when it still had a waist. The attic smelled of dry rot and smoked eels but it had a window, where the sunlight was yellower than anywhere else, because of the dust maybe. This buttery sunlight framed the echoing African caves where the underground streams ran, lightless, haunted by crocodiles, white and eyeless, guarding the entrance to the tunnel carved with Egyptian hieroglyphs and armed with deadly snakes and spiky ambushes planted two thousand years ago to protect the chamber of the sacred pearl, which for some reason, in stories like this, was always black. And when the hero snatched it out of the stone forehead looming bulbous and idolatrous there in the darkness, filthy was a word they liked, for other religions, the goddess was mad as blazes. Sinister priests with scimitars abounded, they could sniff you out like bloodhounds, their bare feet making no sound, until suddenly there was a set piece and down the hill went everyone, bounding along, loving it, yelling like crazy, bullets thudding into bodies into the scrub, into the surf, onto the waiting ship where Britain stood firm for plunder.

The issue with the last installment had never come; it wasn't in the attic. So there I was, suspended in mid-story, in 1951, and there I remain, sometime, waiting for the end, or finishing it off myself, in a book-lined London study over a stiff brandy, a yarn spun to a few choice gentlemen under the stuffed water buffalo head, a cheerful fire in the grate, or somewhere on the veldt, a bullet in the heart; who can tell where such greedy impulses will lead? Such lust for blind white crocodiles. In those times there were still chiefs in ostrich feathers and enemies worth killing, and loyalty, or so the story said. Through the attic window and its golden dust and flyhusks I could see the barn, unpainted, hay coming out like stuffing from the loft doorway, and around the corner of it my grandmother's cow. She'd hook you if she could, if you didn't have a pitchfork. She was sneaking up on someone invisible; possibly my half-uncle, gassed in the first war and never right since. The books had been his once.

STUMP

HUNTING

1.

Dead stumps are the favorite disguises of wild animals. How often have you been roaring past in your motorboat or paddling in your canoe when you've seen a dead stump sticking out of the water and said to yourself, That looks like an animal?

Just the head of course. Swimming.

And then when you came up to it, it was only a dead stump.

Don't be deceived! Usually these objects really are animals.

Here's what you do.

Shoot the animal, more or less between the eyes, or where you guess the eyes must be. This will kill the animal but will not cause it to shed its disguise.

The next task is getting the animal out of the water. This can be difficult, as the animal will still be holding on tenaciously with the parts of itself that look like roots. You may need a chainsaw, a lot of rope, and a powerful motor on your boat. When you have at last managed to chop and pry the animal loose, tow it to shore, where you will have parked your car.

No blood will be visible.

Let the animal dry out a little. It will be doing a good imitation of being waterlogged and very heavy. Heave it onto the hood of your car or the roof of your van and rope it down securely. Drive it into the city. Other hunters, with moose or bears or deer or even porcupines strapped to their own cars, will shake their heads and laugh at you, but remember: the last laugh will be yours.

When you get the animal home, butcher it in the back yard. Use the chainsaw again, and a diagram of a cow. The animal will still look like wood. But don't be fooled.

Wrap the steaks, ribs, and chops in freezer paper and put them in the freezer. If your wife questions what you are doing or makes disparaging remarks about your sanity, tell her to mind her own business. Conversely, quote from the Bible: All flesh is grass.

When you feel ready for a big meal of animal meat, take a steak from the freezer and heat up your charcoal or gas hibachi or your frying pan or grill. This is the moment at which the animal will be forced to reveal its true nature! Season the steak--we like a little barbecue sauce--and toss it onto the heat.

If it remains wood, you've made a mistake. Bad luck! You've picked the one dead stump out of a thousand that is not really an animal.

Try again later.

2.

The favorite disguise of fish is oval stones lying at the bottoms of streams.

MAKING

A MAN

This month we'll take a break from crocheted string bikinis and Leftovers Rechaufees to give our readers some tips on how to create, in their very own kitchens and rumpus rooms, an item that is both practical and decorative. It's nice to have one of these around the house, either out on the lawn looking busy, or propped in a chair, prone or erect. Choose the coverings to match the drapes!

When worn out, they can be re-covered and used as doorstops.

1. TRADITIONAL METHOD

Take some dust of the ground. Form. Breathe into the nostrils the breath of life. Simple, but effective!

(Please note that although men are made of dust, women are made of ribs. Remember that at your next Texas-style barbecue!)

Shou

ld you give your man a belly button, or not? Authorities on the traditional method disagree. We ourselves like to include one, as we think it adds a finishing touch. Use your thumb.

2. GINGERBREAD METHOD

Any good rolled-cookie recipe will do, but add extra ginger if you want lively results--and our readers who choose this method usually do! Raisins make good eyes and buttons, but you can use those little silver balls as long as you take care not to break your teeth on them.

Once your man has come out of your oven, you may have trouble hanging on to him. Men made this way are apt to take off down the road, on motorcycles or off them, robbing convenience stores, getting themselves tattooed, and hopping up and down and singing, "Run, run, as fast as you can, you can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man!" Attaching a string to his leg before the oven procedure may help, but--alas--in our experience, not for long.

There's one good thing to be said for this method, though: these guys are scrumptious! Good enough to eat!

3. CLOTHES METHOD

Clothes make the man! How often have you heard it said?

Well, we couldn't agree more! However, clothes may make the man, but women--by and large--make the clothes, so it follows that the responsibility for the finished model lies with the home seamstress.




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