Estep follows her first novel, "Diary of An Emotional Idiot, " with a set of linked stories that glimpses two women through the eyes of the men in their lives.
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Maggie Estep's first novel, Diary of an Emotional Idiot, was published in 1997. She reads and lectures throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe and has made two spoken word CDs. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Spin, Harper's Bazaar, and The Village Voice. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: Horses
When my wife dumped me, I quit my job at the box factory, left Cleveland, and wandered for a few months. I didn't like my wife that much anyway. And I hated Cleveland.
At one point I was traveling with this guy Disco Donny. He had metal plates in his head. I'd met him at a flophouse I stayed in one night. We started hitchhiking together. He was pushing fifty. I don't know why he called himself Disco Donny.
Donny and I would find a day's work here and there, and at the end of the day I'd get drunk. Donny said he couldn't drink, though. It reacted badly with the plates in his head.
One day we were in this little town in Kentucky. We stopped in at a soup kitchen. A small, toothless guy eating next to us said we could get work hotwalking racehorses at a nearby farm. I'd had a thing for horses since I was a kid, so right away I was interested. Donny frowned, though. He stared at the toothless guy like this was some sort of trap.
"What's it to you?" Donny asked the little guy. "You get a cut or somethin'?"
The toothless guy stopped gumming his food for a moment and said "Huh?" like he had no idea what Disco Donny was talking about. And I'm sure he didn't.
When Donny and I left the soup kitchen, I told him I really wanted to go work with the horses. Donny frowned. He had unnaturally bright blue eyes that got black when he tried to think too hard.
"Yeah, okay, Leon," he said after a while. "If you want to." For some reason, Donny always called me Leon even though I kept telling him it was Leo, no n.
We walked to the farm the toothless guy had told us about. When we got there, Donny said I ought to hang back and he'd go find whoever was in charge. I guess I was pretty scraggly looking, and Disco Donny had this image of himself as really presentable even though he was anything but.
While Donny went to try and get us jobs, I stood there looking into the field where dozens of thoroughbreds were grazing, their coats shining like new dimes. One of them, a chestnut colt with white stockings, looked over at me. I made a soft noise in my throat. The colt pinned his ears forward but didn't come any closer. Just looking at him was soothing, though. I grew up in the sticks of Ohio, and whenever things got weird I'd go down the road to McCarthy's farm and ride their draft horses. Now, just the smell of horses can calm me down if I'm feeling strange.
After a few minutes, Donny came back shaking his head. "Nah, kid, we're too late. We gotta show up at four a.m. The guy said try back tomorrow."
I guess I looked as dejected as I felt because Donny socked me playfully on the shoulder and told me to cheer the fuck up, we'd come back the next day. Even when he meant to go easy, Donny could really throw a punch, and so now my shoulder hurt on top of my other complaints, which, after four months' sleeping on benches, army cots, and boxes, were many. I looked over at the chestnut colt once more and then shrugged. I had a feeling we wouldn't make it back there the next day.
Donny and I walked out to the main road, heading back for town. I was dragging my feet and pretty soon Donny decided we ought to hitch a ride. We stopped walking and stuck our thumbs out.
A girl in a Buick convertible pulled over and right away I was suspicious. I'd never known a woman alone to pick up two scraggly males. But Donny just hopped right in. So I did too.
"Where you guys headed?" the girl asked us, and Donny told her we just wanted to go back to town.
This seemed to disappoint her, and at this point I noticed something was wrong with her face, like it didn't sit right on her bones. But she was wearing a short skirt and her legs were long and creamy so I stopped looking at her face and thought of how nice it would be if she suddenly veered off onto some dirt road and ordered me to go down on her. Donny could just sit there staring into space. He wouldn't mind.
Just as I thought this, Donny suddenly spoke up. "Look, a circus," he said loudly, pointing out a circus set up there by the side of the road. I looked over and sure enough, there were a bunch of striped tents, yellow and white but the yellow all faded. I could see a train of elephants marching along, making little clouds of dust rise up.
"Stop the car," Donny told the girl. She didn't seem to hear him, though. She just kept driving.
"Pull over NOW," Disco Donny shouted. The girl slammed on the brakes and her face started twitching as Disco Donny got out.
"Leon, come, we're going to the circus," he said to me. The girl's twitching face was making me more nervous than Donny was, so I got out and followed him.
It was midmorning now and the circus people seemed to be just waking up. A fat lady emerged from a trailer. She was so huge that the trailer creaked with relief when she stepped out. She stood there for a second, looking around, then started jogging in place, her flesh slapping itself in protest. Nearby, some inbred-looking redneck guys were setting up a table of food as a burly man led an elephant by.
"I love the circus," Donny said. I shrugged. I wasn't that big on the circus. But it was nice to see Donny enthused like this.
We wandered around for about twenty minutes until a guy in a cowboy hat asked if he could help us with something.
"We're looking for work," Donny told the guy.
"That so?" the guy said, looking me and Donny up and down.
As it happened, the circus had a high turnover and the guy in the cowboy hat was hard-up for help. He hired us as ticket takers for the day, installing us on two stools by the main entrance and telling us we'd better not do anything stupid. When the guy had left, Donny started waxing rhapsodic about the circus. How it was all that was left that reminded him of the good ol' days. I wasn't sure what good ol' days, since from what I'd heard of Donny's past, there were only brief moments of good between long streaks of rotten luck. But Donny was happy. "This is great," he kept saying, rocking back and forth on his stool as people started coming in and handing us their tickets.
At one point Donny got beer from somewhere. I made a comment since he'd told me he couldn't drink -- and I could have used a beer myself.
"Shut up, Leon," he said. So I did.
I don't know if it was the metal plates in his head or what, but a couple of beers did a number on Donny. He started rocking back and forth with increasing velocity, laughing this crazy, out-of-control laugh, showing teeth -- and he didn't have good teeth. People were repelled over handing their tickets to us and eventually the guy who'd hired us came and fired Donny.
Donny got so angry he started throwing things. Change out of his pockets. Empty popcorn containers from the ground. The stools we'd been sitting on. There was an off-duty cop nearby and he got involved, whipping out handcuffs and telling Donny he'd better calm down. When Donny failed to settle, a few circus guys and the cop got behind him and snapped the handcuffs on. I tried to tell the cop Donny was a nice guy, he just had metal plates in his head. The cop just sneered at me, though, so I walked away. I figured Disco Donny probably wouldn't even notice I wasn't around anymore.
When they'd hauled Donny off, the guy who'd hired us came up to me. He was a pear-shaped guy with gaps between his teeth and a nose like a potato.
"What you doin' hangin' out with that character, son?" he asked me. I shrugged. He seemed to think I was a kid, even though I'd just turned twenty-five. Before I'd married Mickie and we'd moved to Cleveland, I'd lived in the sticks all my life, and I guess it made me look young.
The guy, whose name was Petey, brought me into the trailer he lived in with Gus, the elephant trainer. Gus was a lanky redheaded guy who looked dumber than a stamp until you saw his eyes. Then you noticed there was s
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