Sarah Bruni The Night Gwen Stacy Died

ISBN 13: 9780547898162

The Night Gwen Stacy Died

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9780547898162: The Night Gwen Stacy Died

An offbeat love story about the adventures and mutual rescue of a young woman out of place in her hometown and a mysterious stranger who calls himself Peter Parker (and begins to cast her in the role of Spider-Man’s first sweetheart), The Night Gwen Stacy Died is about first loss, first love, and finding our real identities.

"A dreamy world where comic book characters and psychic visions are as real as teenage boredom and young love, Bruni's debut is a magical story, a white-knuckle thrill ride." —Diana Spechler, author of Who by Fire

"The perspective shifts, slippery identities, and lurking weirdness in this book recall the peak moments of Kurosawa, Hitchcock, and Lynch. But to describe it in cinematic terms would risk slighting that bighearted, sneakily exhilarating voice that can finally be only the work of a masterful writer." —Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

"Bruni’s fiercely smart and delectably unpredictable first novel delivers again and again that most sought-after shiver up the spine, the chill that comes when you realize the world you thought you knew and understood is newer and stranger than you ever dared imagine. A genuine page-turner." —Kathryn Davis, author of The Thin Place

"Mixed into this novel’s blustery atmosphere are gusts of contemporary masters, like Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, Kelly Link, and Michael Chabon. This gave me the sort of reading experience I always hope for but almost never find: a world that somehow both resembles the one in which I live and is also unlike any other I've ever seen or read." —Stefan Merrill Block, author of The Story of Forgetting

"A brave and bold new voice, Bruni takes us on an unexpected adventure of love and loss, of beginnings and ends, all the while showing us what it really means to be a hero." —Alison Espach, author of The Adults

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About the Author:

Sarah Bruni is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Washington University in St. Louis and holds a degree in English Literature from the Univeristity of Iowa. Since growing up in and around Chicago, she has taught creative writing in St. Louis and volunteered as a writing and English tutor with youth in San Francisco and Montevideo, Uruguay. The Night Gwen Stacy Died is her first novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Seasonal change was descending in its temperamental, plague-like way in fits and spurts on the middle of the country. There was a false sense to the air, all the wrong smells. That spring, Sheila bought herself a single-speed bicycle from the outdoor auction along Interstate 80. She rode it down the Coralville strip to work. She pedaled fast, as if to keep up with traffic — an exercise in futility — and swallowed the air in gulps. When she reached the Sinclair station, Sheila felt faintly dazed, like someone about to pass out. Sometimes she saw black spots where the white line of road was supposed to be. “You all right? Miss?” Motorists would lean their heads out windows when Sheila stopped on the shoulder of the highway to catch her breath. Or sometimes: “Lady, get out of the road!” This was Iowa; no one rode bikes along the highway. Bicycling was a nice hobby for children but not a reliable mode of transportation. For Sheila, this was the most exhilarating part of the day. This was the only exhilarating part of the day.
   It was the spring of the year that coyote sightings started garnering national attention. The headlines sounded like a string of bad jokes: coyote walks into a bar. coyote caught sleeping in mattress shop. pack of coyotes causes delays at o’hare. The scientific community insisted there was nothing to worry about, that the species was extremely adaptable, that they mostly traveled at night, that they rarely ate domestic pets without provocation. Yet, people couldn’t help but notice how stealthily the coyotes seemed to be infiltrating the small towns and cities. Morning joggers complained of coyotes crouched behind trees along public parks. The presence of the animals often wasn’t witnessed firsthand by more than a few early risers. But hearing of such sightings was enough — also knowing they were out there at night, outsmarting the rats, sleeping in the alleys.
   It felt as if entire ecosystems had become confused. That fall, two whales had dragged their giant bellies onto dry land. The whales seemed determined to beach themselves despite rescuers’ efforts to return them to the water. Strange symbiotic relationships were popping up everywhere, often involving the abandoned offspring of one species adopting an unlikely surrogate parent. A lion cub might choose a lizard as its mother and receive a five-minute slot on the evening news, curbing coverage of the latest political corruption scandal or plane crash.
   There were other things too. Even in the Midwest, anyone could tell that the whole planet was out of whack. It had been too warm for snow until well after New Year’s. The salt truck drivers were mad as hell. Shovel sales were way down. It was months later that all that hovering precipitation finally found its way to street level. March came in like a lion, went out like a lamb being devoured by a coyote. Which is to say that it warmed up, but in a sneaky, violent way that made everyone slow to pull out their lighter clothes, so as not to look gullible at a time when everything felt like a fluke.
   You could feel all this in the air, riding to work each day. Sheila was a gas station attendant right now, and she was a model employee. Four days a week she biked along the strip, straight from school to the station. She never missed a shift. She never called in sick. She was saving up. She had a year’s worth of deposits in the bank — all from working at the Sinclair station — and when that growing fund hit a certain number, she was leaving the country for an undetermined length of time. She was buying a plane ticket to Paris, and anyone who had a problem with that could shove it. “France?” her father said when Sheila told him her destination. When he said it, the whole country sounded like an adolescent stunt, a dog in a plaid coat and socks. “Remind me again what’s wrong with your own country? Are you hearing this?” he’d ask Sheila’s mother, who would shake her head or shrug. Her sister, Andrea, and her sister’s fiancé, Donny, thought it was a frivolous way to spend money. They were saving to open a restaurant. Andrea was watching prices for lots on the west side of town. There was a business plan. It was going to be called Donny’s Grill. The two of them were a little too entrepreneurial for Sheila’s taste.
   “But you do all the cooking,” Sheila had protested.
   “Yeah, well, it’s a team thing. We’re a team, okay? Teamwork? Does that mean anything to you?” asked Andrea. “Think about it. Would you eat at a place called Donny and Andrea’s Grill?”
   “No,” said Sheila.
   “No, you wouldn’t. And you know why? ’Cause it’s too friggin’ long. Besides,” she said, “we’re going to try doing all the cooking together.”
   Andrea had moved out of the house two years ago, which was about how long she had been engaged. She started wearing acrylic fingernails so that the hand with her ring didn’t look so otherwise lonely and unadorned. She favored shades of salmon. As a girl Andrea had been overweight and eager to fall in love. Sheila wanted, of course, to fall in love, but not with someone like Donny. Not with someone from Iowa.
   Sleeping in her parents’ house, Sheila would sometimes wake to the wheels of jeeps screeching around the corner. As they turned near the street, several boys would shout, “Iowa Hawkeye football!” Then they would make animal noises. The real animals that lived nearby were quiet, frantic things that made no sounds. Squirrels that scattered and little sparrows that hopped between the cracks in the sidewalk, scouting out crumbs with an awkward deference. Most of the animals that had been indigenous to the land before the college moved in had been preserved in the Iowa Museum of Natural History on the third floor of Macbride Hall. There, they were stuffed and arranged before paintings of their natural habitats, interacting with predators, feeding their young. Several prairie dog pups curled up close beside their sleeping mother; rabbits and ground birds were positioned as if scurrying at the feet of an elk. A single coyote in a large case did nothing but stare straight ahead, sitting off to the side of the other animals, as if it were too proud to act alive. The plaque outside its case said, “Mountain coyote. Genus and species: Canis latrans lestes. Indigenous to Nevada and California, the species can be found from the Rocky Mountains westward, as far north as British Columbia and as far south as Arizona and New Mexico.”
   The coyote, the sign explained, takes its name from the Spanish word coyote — coyote from coyote! This redundancy struck Sheila as hilarious — but the scientific name was derived from the Latin: barking dog. Coyotes were wilder, noisier cousins of dogs: kept later hours, spanned greater territories. Their hunting was marked by extraordinarily relentless patience. Coyotes were stubborn, though also oddly adaptable. Their communication, described as howls and yips, was most often heard in the spring, but also in the fall, the time of year when young pups leave their families to establish new territories. “You idiot, you could have gone anywhere,” she wanted to say to the coyote in the case, “and you came to Iowa?” But the coyote still seemed young; clearly, it either was the progeny of transients, or it migrated straight to Iowa only to be promptly shot and stuffed.
   The coyote that Sheila visited always regarded her with a look that seemed to say, Well, it’s just you and me here, isn’t it? We might as well say everything. Sheila liked how isolated the coyote seemed to be in the middle of its glass case, staring straight forward as if about to address her, mixed-up in a survival narrative that had nothing to do with other coyotes, a transplant from some other territory. At least once a week Sheila rode her bike to Macbride Hall, pressed her nose to the smooth glass of the display case, and spilled her heart out.
   Sometimes she would ask the coyote questions that she never had the guts to ask anyone alive. The coyote regarded Sheila stiff lipped from inside its case. The last time she had visited, Sheila had pushed her forehead flat against the glass and asked, “How am I ever going to get out of here?”
   The coyote knew things. You could just tell. Sheila wasn’t stupid enough to expect a straight answer to a question posed like this, but she knew how to interpret signs. This was how things were here. People believed in waiting for signs. People believed that things happened for a reason, and Sheila was not above this logic. She fixed her eyes on the still glass eyes of the coyote. The coyote was past the point of escape, but in its eyes was something fleeting that belied a former familiarity with the concept. When you work in a gas station, people love to assume there’s something wrong with you. That you’re not driven, or you’re lazy, or you didn’t have the grades in high school, or you’re not all there. It makes them feel better about their own lives. This was just a theory that Sheila was harboring. But it was a theory based on research and observation. Behind the counter, she performed sociological experiments. Sometimes, still red faced from her ride in, she’d sit behind the counter, out of breath, and stare into space, sneak an occasional cigarette, or put quarters into the M&M’s dispenser and listen to the stale candy turning around in her mouth like gravel under a wheel. When customers would enter the station and find her gnawing on hard candy by the handful, Sheila would receive cold, disapproving looks, especially from women, many of whom were not that much older than Sheila. “Really?” their looks said, “Isn’t there something sort of pathetic about this?”
   Other times, Sheila would place her French vocabulary workbook on the counter. She wouldn’t even open it, just let it sit there between herself and whomever she was helping. The effect was remarkable. “What a great job for a student!” the same women would shout. “You must get all your homework done here.” As she counted their change, Sheila would smile in a demure, hard-working way and let them go ahead and think whatever they liked. She was a student; she was a gas station attendant. Student. Gas station attendant. A young woman with promise. A burnout at seventeen. She had observed women around here long enough to see the way they sized one another up like that, always a series of calculations to determine who would amount to something, who would amount to nothing. So she liked to move the French book around and screw up their calculations. Sheila thought the whole town could go to hell.
   Sheila was a decent student, actually. Not great — probably good enough to get herself in to some college, but not enough to get scholarship money. Her father had told her that he could help her out a little, but if she wanted to do college, she was going to need to take out loans. The thing was, Sheila felt like she had a pretty good idea of what college entailed; she had grown up in a town that bordered one of the more modestly sized Big Ten universities in the Midwest. The boys wore white hats, backward, and called each other fag as a term of endearment. The girls carried handbags to class in lieu of backpacks and did not own winter coats. On weekends during snowy weather, girls could be seen in tight black pants and multicolored leotard tops, floundering between bars in hordes to keep warm while buying gyros, safety in numbers against frostbite. By the time she was about eleven, Sheila felt she had already been to college, and she really hadn’t thought much of the experience. Instead, she was saving all her money, and she was going to go somewhere she hadn’t already lived her entire life.
   Most of the teachers in her high school — themselves the products of a liberal arts education — endlessly praised the benefits of applying to college straightaway, but her French teacher was the exception to this rule. “Yes, let’s all rush off to school and waste thousands of dollars before we even know what we care to study or do with our lives!” Ms. Lawrence mocked the conventional wisdom that the guidance counselors were doling out. When speaking in English, Ms. Lawrence had a habit of using the first person plural like this and engaging in arguments with herself. She wore complicated patterned scarves in her hair and had immaculate posture. She had been sighted kissing a man — through the window of a car in the school parking lot — who looked about ten years her junior and whom she referred to as her “boyfriend.” She would come to class on Mondays and say things like, “Did anyone make it to the opening of Mother Courage this weekend at Hancher? My boyfriend and I went on Friday, and it was really exceptional — well, if you’re in the mood for Brecht.” Ms. Lawrence had come to Iowa from Delaware, a place far away enough that it might as well have been France. A humble state, modest in size, that Sheila imagined to be full of lanky women with hairstyles and handwriting as deliberate and meaningful as Ms. Lawrence’s.
   Très bien! Ms. Lawrence would write in the margins of Sheila’s homework. Fantastique. And staring into the neat, narrow letters that Ms. Lawrence’s pen had produced, Sheila felt a temporary relief pass over her like finally here was someone with whom she could actually communicate.
   At the station, Sheila had a few consistent patrons. Ned, a Vietnam vet, came in daily to purchase a pack of Pall Malls with change that he accumulated from bottle returns. Five cents for empties in Iowa. He’d stuff his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans and pull out fistfuls of change — he started with the pennies and stacked them up in tidy piles of ten on the counter. Sometimes Sheila would tire of counting and say, “Ned, they’re on the house today,” but Ned didn’t want her charity.
   There was a guy who bought gas sometimes, or sometimes a pack of Camel straights. The first time Sheila checked his ID — state law for anyone who appeared under twenty-seven, although he hardly did — she barely registered that his name was Peter Parker, but she wondered about it later. Peter Parker didn’t talk much. The first couple of times she offered him the wrong pack of cigarettes he looked away and said, “Straights, no filter.” So she thought he was a bit stuck-up. Once she started getting it right she’d have the pack waiting on the counter for him before he asked for it; sometimes she’d give him the cigarettes for free. She could tell Peter appreciated her generosity, but he never let on. He wouldn’t even say thank you, just sort of tip his head.
   The gas station was on the same highway as the exit for one of the biggest malls in Iowa. Cars would pull off Interstate 80, cars from all over the state. There were vans and minivans and pickup trucks. They were filled with people, kids with faces pressed against the windows in the back seats. The men all came into the station and bought a pack of gum or a soda and asked her how much farther to the mall, just straight ahead, was it? Was it true that the mall had a carousel inside? A movie theater? An ice-ska...

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