Why They Run the Way They Do: Stories

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9781476761442: Why They Run the Way They Do: Stories

From the celebrated author of Who I Was Supposed to Be, Susan Perabo’s collection of twelve “ingenious and lovable stories [that] crack open the world” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and illuminate the everyday truths of people facing challenging situations...often of their own making.

In Why They Run the Way They Do, critically acclaimed author Susan Perabo illustrates the triumphs and tragedies of daily life. Perfectly distilled into moments of sharp humor and poignancy, this collection features ordinary people in sometimes extraordinary circumstances. Two young students try their hand at blackmail upon learning an illicit secret; a woman grapples with feelings of betrayal after discovering her spinster sister’s pregnancy test; the ghost of a couple’s past comes back to haunt them in the form of their toddler’s stuffed toy.

Weaving the banal and bizarre together, “Perabo’s clear, wry sentences meld a prose style that’s reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s with a sensibility that’s informed by People” (The New York Times). Here, this “literary talent” (The Boston Globe) captures the human condition through struggles that are quiet and grand; dark and provocative. Brilliantly crafted, Why They Run the Way They Do is ultimately an homage to the philosophy that life without humor is no life at all.

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About the Author:

Susan Perabo is the author of the collections of short stories, Who I Was Supposed to Be and Why They Run the Way They Do, and the novels The Broken Places and The Fall of Lisa Bellow. Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South, and has appeared in numerous magazines, including One Story, Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and The Sun. She is Writer in Residence and professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Queens University. She holds an MFA from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Why They Run the Way They Do THE PAYOFF


When they gave us lumps of clay in art class, I made a pencil holder in the shape of a giraffe, and Louise made an ashtray. She molded and baked it, lopsided and heavy as a brick, as a birthday present for her mom, who smoked Kents vigorously and ground them flat with a callused thumb. So Louise had made this poop-brown ashtray, but she’d left it in the art room cooling outside the kiln and didn’t remember it until after school, halfway through softball. When practice ended I yelled to my mom to wait on us and we ran back into the building—the side door was always open until five, so kids with softball and soccer could pee—and thundered down the stairs to the basement where the art room was. We didn’t know if it would be unlocked or not, but we thought we’d give it a shot.

Louise reached the door first—it was one of those doors with nine little windows, to give kids nine separate chances at breaking something. No sooner had she put her hand on the knob and her face to the middle pane when she reeled back from the door like someone had grabbed a fistful of her long red hair and yanked her back.

“Bullshit,” she said, for this was our favorite swear word, and we used it indiscriminately.

“What?” I, too, stepped to the window and was repelled back a step by what I saw inside: our principal, Dr. Dunn, was standing in the archway of the supply closet with his pants crumpled at his ankles and his hands clawing through the short black hair of Ms. McDaniel, our art teacher, who knelt in front of him with her mouth—well, I’d seen enough. I turned to Louise and we both stared at each other in horror and mute shock for what must have been ten full seconds. Then, at once, we both exploded into riotous laughter and burst into motion away from the scene of the crime, ran full blast down the hall and up the stairs, laughing and gasping for air. By the time we slid into the backseat of my mother’s paneled station wagon we had our poker faces set, but the image of what we’d witnessed was so vivid in my mind I couldn’t believe my mother couldn’t see it herself, reflected with perfect detail in the pools of my eyes.



I had two little brothers, Nick and Sam. Their lives revolved around farting, Indian burns, and the timeworn torture of repeating everything you said, repeating everything you said. Someday I would enjoy the company of them both, my mother assured me, but until then I would need to exercise tolerance.

“Time for Grade Your Day,” my father said from behind the curtain of steam that rose from his baked potato. “Anne?”

Though research had not yet proven it, my parents were certain that a well-balanced dinner together and a thorough discussion of the day’s events would make us confident and bright children. They didn’t know it would actually raise our SAT scores, but they were on the right track.

“B,” I said, forking a stalk of asparagus.

“D-minus-plus-minus-and-a-half,” said Sam. He was six.

“A-triple plus!” exclaimed Nick.

My father raised his eyebrows. “Win the lottery?”

“Nuh-uh.” Nick grinned. “Two fifth graders got in a fight. They were both named Ben, and one of ’ems tooth got knocked out and flew about fifty feet down the hall.”

“How awful,” my mother said.

“Did Ben start it?” my father asked, winking at me. Though I was only three years older than Nick, I got to be in on all my father’s jokes. “How ’bout you, kiddo?” he asked me. “News of the day?”

“Mrs. Payne subbed in math.”

“Oh no,” my mother said. “I thought they’d finally gotten rid of her.”

I shrugged. “She was there.”

“Mrs. Payne is a pain in the butt,” Nick said, and Sam snorted.

“That’s original,” I said. “Only every single person ever to go to our school for the last hundred years has said that.”

“Learn anything?” my father asked, undeterred.

I had learned what a blowjob (or BJ, as Louise told me on the phone before dinner) looked like. I had learned that men didn’t actually need to remove their underpants to have sex.

“I learned how to bunt,” I said. “At practice.”

“Just hold the bat out there,” my father said, pretending his steak knife was a Louisville Slugger and wiggling it over his slab of meat. “Just let the ball hit the bat, right?”

“And keep your fingers out of the way,” I added.

“That’s the most important part,” my mother agreed, for my mother was a dodger from way back. In supermarket aisles, she was always the one scooting her cart around to make room for everybody else.



I was regarded with bemused suspicion in the Hanley home, because when Louise and I were in first grade my parents had voted for Richard Nixon. They’d staked a big red sign in our front yard—

4

MORE

YEARS!

—which is how the Hanleys even knew about it in the first place. Now, even with a Democrat in the White House (a peanut farmer, my father was forever pointing out, with a brother on Hee Haw) Mrs. Hanley still couldn’t let it drop.

“There she is again,” she would say wryly, smoke puffing from her nostrils. “President of the Young Republicans.”

“Mom . . .” Louise would sigh. “Anne is not—”

“—anything,” I would finish. “I’m not anything. I swear.”

On the mantel, in the place where most people had photos of grinning offspring, Mr. and Mrs. Hanley had framed pictures of John and Bobby Kennedy, looking contemplative and doomed. There was a Spiro Agnew Velcro dartboard on the refrigerator and a faded bumper sticker slapped crookedly across the oven window that said “50 Americans Died Today In Vietnam.” The Hanleys got at least four different newspapers and apparently felt the need to keep them handy for quick reference; there were waist-high stacks of them in every room of the house except for Louise’s bedroom. Mrs. Hanley always sat at the dining room table scouring the articles and smoking her Kents, and when Mr. Hanley came home from work he sat on a tattered lawn chair in the middle of the backyard with his feet soaking in a little yellow tub and read until dark.

My mother called them eccentric; she didn’t like all the time I spent there, and she often pumped me to find out if Mrs. Hanley had said anything unusual or confusing, anything that had left me feeling uneasy. I never gave a thing away; I’d learned earlier than most that the less your parents knew about the concrete details of your day, the better off you were. My father thought the Hanleys were lunatics, but unlike my mother, he believed it was important for me to be exposed to lunatics—provided they were harmless—in order to be a well-rounded adult.

The day after we saw what we saw in the art room, Louise and I holed up after school in the Hanleys’ basement. Ever since Louise’s sister had left for college, we had the basement to ourselves: the paneled walls, the matted shag carpet, the stale air of twenty-thousand cigarettes smoked by unhappy members of the generation that directly preceded ours.

“Ms. McDaniel should watch out,” Louise said. She was sucking on a Charms Blow Pop, twirling it back and forth over her tongue. “She could get a disease doing that.”

Louise knew things. Her sister, Donna, was seven years older, a freshman in college, and willing to talk. Plus, the Hanleys let Louise see R-rated movies and read whatever books she wanted. I’d looked at Playboy at her house one time, right at the dining room table. My mother wouldn’t even let me read Seventeen in checkout lines.

“What kind of disease?” I asked.

“You don’t even want to know,” Louise said, which was her answer when she herself didn’t know. “I wonder if they do that every day.”

“I bet they do other things, too,” I said, and with no warning whatsoever a vivid picture flashed into my mind of Ms. McDaniel carefully painting Dr. Dunn’s penis with the very same blue watercolors we’d used last week on our skyscapes. I blushed at my own fantasy: I hadn’t even known I had the capacity to create such an image.

“Dr. Dunn,” Louise said thoughtfully, tapping her Blow Pop on her top teeth. “Dr. Dickdunn. Dr. Dunn Dick Dunderhead.”

“Remember last year,” I said, “when he yelled at Melanie Moon when she dropped her Rube Goldberg project in the hallway and spilled all that corn oil?”

She scoffed. “He’s such an asshole. We could get him in big trouble, you know. We could turn him in to the school board.”

“Would he get fired?”

“Sure he would. Plus his wife would divorce him and his kids would hate him and he’d lose all his friends. And everywhere he went people would make sucking sounds.”

She slurped obscenely on her Blow Pop and I laughed. On the wall behind her was a torn poster that said “What if they had a war and nobody came?” which I had never understood because if “they” had a war then at the very least “they” would be there, so it wasn’t really accurate to say that nobody came.

“Hey,” Louise said. “What about blackmail?”

I frowned. “What about it?”

“We could do blackmail on him. Say we’ll turn him in unless he pays up.”

“Pays money?”

“No, Anne—gum. Of course money. Jeez.” She tossed her Blow Pop stick in a nearby ashtray.

“How much you think we could ask for?” I said.

“We should start small,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “That’s how you do it. You get ’em on the hook. You make ’em think it’s just one time. Then you start to squeeze a little more, and a little more, and—”

I shook my head. “You’re making this up. You don’t know bullshit.”

“What’s to know?” she asked. “It’s easy money.”



It was hard to look at Ms. McDaniel on Monday. Sitting at our art table—once a victim of the school cafeteria, now dying a slow death of scissor scars and clotted paste—Louise and I smirked at each other and in the general direction of the supply closet, but neither of us managed to look up to the front of the room for several minutes. We entirely missed the instructions for the day’s project, so when everyone started climbing out of the table and filing out the door, we had no idea why and had to ask around. Turned out we were supposed to go outside and search for nature; this week’s project was a spring collage.

Ms. McDaniel oversaw our progress from the front steps of the school, and I found my eyes passing over her again and again. I wondered exactly what it was that Dr. Dunn saw in her that led him down the sinful path to the art room. She was new this year and it showed; she always seemed apprehensive when she talked to us as a group, as if at any moment we might all stand up and start squirting glue at her. She loosened up once we started working, when she could meander around the room murmuring words of encouragement and gentle direction. She wore short skirts and had bobbed hair just under her ears, like she was a tomboy before she became a teacher. She didn’t have much in the way of boobs, hardly more than Louise and me, and we weren’t even wearing bras yet.

Louise nudged me. “Check that out,” she said. I followed her gaze to the window of the principal’s office, which faced the front lawn. Dr. Dunn was standing at the window with his arms crossed over his chest, looking out at us. We could only see him from the waist up, and for a moment I imagined he didn’t have any pants on, that his penis was dangling just out of view. I shook the thought from my head.

“He’s gross,” Louise said. “He’s practically licking his lips.”

“Why do you think he likes her?”

“They always like young ones,” Louise said. “Donna said she could pick any man out of a crowd and he’d have sex with her, whether he was married or a hundred years old.”

“Not any man,” I said, thinking of my father standing among the men in Donna’s crowd, my father with his shaggy hair and laugh lines around his mouth. Then I imagined my brothers grown up, tall and bearded but making armpit farts in a frantic attempt to draw Donna’s attention.

Louise shrugged. “Check this out,” she said, handing me a piece of notebook paper. In wavy, capital letters was written:

Dear Dr. Dunn,

It has come to our attention that you are having sexual relations with the art teacher Laurie McDaniel. Do not ask how we have the information, we just do. Unless you want everyone to find out your secret, put twenty dollars in an envelope and leave it behind the toilet in the middle stall in the second floor girls bathroom. Do this tomorrow (Tuesday) or face the consequences.

—x and y

“Am I X or Y?” I asked, handing the letter back.

“You’re Y,” Louise said.

“How come?”

“Because I’m X.”

“Y is stupid,” I said. “Nobody ever heard of Y. How come we can’t both be X?”

“Two X’s,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Uh-huh. That would look really cool, Anne, really professional.”

“No, just one X,” I said. “For both of us. Just because we’re two people we don’t have to be two letters.”

“Girls!” Ms. McDaniel shouted. She was standing at the front door waving us in. Her hair was fluttering in the breeze and I recalled how it had moved in waves under Dr. Dunn’s thick fingers.



On our way to math after lunch, two more floppy salmon swept along in the river of students, I shrewdly allowed Louise’s letter to fall from my fingers and onto the floor outside the main office. The letter was folded and taped closed and said “DR DUNN” in big block letters we tore from the library copy of Ranger Rick, so we assumed the secretary would discover it and simply pass it along to him. I sat in math class imagining him at his giant desk, unfolding the letter, staring at it for a moment, then slowly folding it again. Perhaps after school he’d go down to the art room, wave it in Ms. McDaniel’s face.

“They’ve got us right where they want us,”

he’d say, or:

“The jig’s up.”

Maybe she would kiss him, poke her tongue between his lips.

“Darling,” she would whisper against his teeth. “What will we do?”

“We’ll think of something . . .”

He’d fit his hands over her small breasts, rub them with his thumbs.

“Anne?”

I looked up at Mrs. Payne. She was standing at the blackboard in her hideous orange and white flowered dress, her stomach and breasts an indistinguishable flowery lump. Her grotesque bottom lip trembled slightly, and her words came layered in saliva: “Problem four?”

I didn’t know anything about problem four. That was problem one. Problem two was that thinking about Dr. Dunn and Ms. McDaniel together had made me feel like I had a bubble expanding in my stomach, emptying me of everything but its own strained vulnerability, filling me up with the most palpable absence I’d ever known. My face was numb below my cheekbones and I felt sad and happy at the same time.

“Problem four,” Mrs. Payne croaked.

A word about Mrs. Payne. My mother (and countless others) had complained to Dr. Dunn about her on several occasions, for Mrs. Payne was prone to catastrophic mood swings of blinding speed. One minute she’d be the sweetest old lady you’d ever known, a cuddle and a peppermint at the ready, and the next she’d turn on you like a viper, call you lazy, stupid, hopeless, slobber insults on you until you cried or (in the now famous case of Chris Brewster) wet your pants. Other times she’d seem positively adrift; at least once in a day she began a sentence wit...

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