Louise Bourgeois, Detail of Spider. Photograph by Arte Fora do Museu / Flickr

If my name were Tomassina Tomaselli, that would be different. The famiglia would have a place for me, with yummies and a plan of action. Beautiful young girl, then get as fat as I can, bitching and moaning with the signore who meet at the corner café. Sit around, spin my wheels. Turn in three babies, or more, if no boy.

You say that I am not that ugly mess inflicted on the world? Two eyes, two ears, a few flaps and strings. Buttons. But what’s your word against mine? I defend my stand, and always stand down at the nearness of another heart and lungs. What made people so important to my clockworks? They seem real. They scream and smoke, range about on their own pins, and somehow they always find me, with my open eyes and dull-witted smile.

The problem started with not being a you. And only filling half the sleeve of an I. Even as a they, my entity melts, squirms, foams, dehydrates, gets sucked under the fridge with the dust and unmentionables seen but a few times in a century. You are a you. You are an I, and you are a we. For a they, need a third. 

Roll out the narrative now. Roll it out. The world is too interesting to me, and there’s too much in it. Each thing takes time, time for the eyes to rest on it, to turn on its axis. A thing is masterful: person, place, and time. Finger it, or taste. Have I ever been in a field of vision? No, but also yes. I have a name. I come when called, although shocked each time I hear it. Is this my coordinates, my ring tone, or a curse? See how fast it devolves? Don’t try to stop me. Sometimes I ask myself, can I take another breath of sister air? Yes you may, and no you may not.

When I was born in summer’s heat, I looked like a monk or cocoon: eyes shut, fists clutched to my elemental tube, a look of pure agony on the front of my skull. And an encapsulating skin so menaced, so not up to the task of covering, that it corroded in a month’s time, and I was snatched away to a beach cottage where the salt air cooled and enameled, burned and crusted. It was step one for the princess and the pea. Laugh, if you will, all you boys in bubbles.

The covering I got was a cop-out: too tight, too dry, too thin, too itchy; too cheap, too tender, too soft, too brittle; too permeable, too sallow, too skimpy.

I wore it.

There was something about its poor quality that drew on the maestros. For what reason? Because it was more like the innards than a Christmas package or porcupine pelt. Not slime exactly, but gel—something with a brain and will, a reactivity. It was the first to know when a predator or parasite was nigh. But it sent no messages to the operator, sitting like a stooge in the headpiece, laughably in the clouds.

But this is no story, no story. No, ma’am. When I met the party of the last part, and he called himself a man, at first I wanted to laugh. How could he be so sure? This party of the last part was the killer dose. Pick on someone your own size, I didn’t say, and whoever would, who likes a test, who eggs it on?

And how, you ask, do I have the strength to report? Only a fool, phony, or beggar would insist on the last word. But I get it, push it out, wait for an answer. I’m waiting.

I always wanted your attention for this last spill. Abide with me, wait with me this hour. Everything about life attracted me—the inside, the outside, the mineral sea, glass windows, a clean towel, the back of a head. But, turn that head, and the battery of message upon message, the devilment of how a face can talk…or is it the seepage of hormone? Overload my circuits! The nuns used to stop the class to point me out with a finger: what is wrong? What do you have to say? Giving me the clue that my own fat and torpid mug was delivering, speeding up and slowing down, signal upon signal, bunched together and spaced out. What’s wrong? But I had no judgment to make—my lid was open and gulping down word upon word, filling in what they left out, spinning, in short, my own wheels. What’s wrong? I didn’t know, because the machine was too active and hadn’t yet spat out its product. So, I asked them, How is it that all religions think themselves the one true, and so do we? How good can that be, how reliable a claim?

 My own mother put it to me: Do you think you’re smarter than God? How could I, when I couldn’t even find my way back to the pew, after receiving the host without my glasses on. If I’d only known to keep walking, walk straight out into the dreary day. I was not hating God, or his clients. I was “using” my head, as instructed.

Here I am at graduation, lifting a leg under the white gown of purity, to show off a new pump. All eyes on the steps, alert, but I mug for the camera. How long will it take to pop that grin? Presented with a missal, a statue, and a coconut—you can see where this will lead.

College burned the fat off my bones, and the thin hominid emerged, the egg filling and filling with the creamy gunk of books. I was an egg and a skin of cheesecloth, and never ate a proper meal again, after too many hash and eggs, eggs and Franco-, boiled dinner, and fish swimming in tomato pap. For a while, baby food, those little jars of maroon, tan, khaki, blue-marine. Puddles of cottage cheese, or custards in their plastic. Starved, but sated, I unleashed my fizz on the world, vanity of vanities. Blind-man’s bluff. My reason? I had more than what it takes. I never looked ahead, behind, or below.



Fifty plans, fifty careers, fifty majors, fifty partners, and now? The skin coat rubbed so raw that it bruises and peels, if you look at it sideways. I wasn’t meant for this life. Many are called, but few are chosen—I’d heard that one, but all of you were calling, whispering pines and fire drill. Inherit the whirlwind. I was not born or raised to choose. I waited my turn, eyes closed, spinning like a top. Not a raffle wheel, but a study in randomness. You first. No, you! Awaiting the judgement. Taking my chance.

Cut to the chase. Aladdin, Dr. Strangelove, Dumbo, the wizard, fatty, the iceberg, party of the last part. Pick a winner. Step right up.

Think of it as a string of dwellings, and ain’t that a nice way of putting it. Each with his shell or caravan. Aladdin, with his fuel source of dollars, sat cross-legged on his carpet, conducting an air orchestra with his finger. King of all he surveyed, and a history of companions of genius: a kite tail floating across the sky. He wrapped me so tight in his talk that I still have insignia on my back, a map I couldn’t see. Go west. He waited for my talents to gush forward and waited. Then, in the last seat of the last row, I tinkled my triangle. Over the decades, one by one, the air orchestra receded into the beyond, the rug rolled itself up, Aladdin dancing in the limelight of unquenchable dreams. A god? Or cheap fireworks? Do the math. I did it, and it reminded me of a question I put to the nuns. If you have something—a number, any number—and divide it by zero, how can you get zero as an answer, when…?

Some details, please, a history? Only of the million hours it took to damp down the heat from an underground fire. 

Once again, multiply, if you will, anything by zero and you get nothing. I could never again be scraped so clean. But always the skin grows back for skilled and unskilled ablation.

Like Satan, Aladdin took me one night to the roof of a high rise, and we climbed a ladder to the topmost raft. For hours, sang to me the story of a death in the family, step by step, inch by inch. It was our first conversation, and, by morning, when my eyes opened on the 15-story drop, I knew I’d live the rest of my worthless days on that raft, because nothing could move me from my settle. He scared me in other ways, pinning cartoon billets-doux on the campus, tracking me from class to class. Appearing in the middle of the night and bulling his way into an all-girls sleep house. Putting me, in short, through my paces. My life, my schooling, my past and present, my sleep and food, my sensorium at his command. And then, lying and cheating, selling me to doctors, leaving me to rot, so I built myself my first space station—mattress on the floor, so I couldn’t fall far. You had to scrape me out, but I was found again, thanks be to God, and shocked back to life.

Dr. Strangelove was there to catch me and let me drop. Ten years older, a bachelor and ladies man, he pared down his animal needs to a den of vacancy and cheapness, planted in a slum. How could I resist? Sheets covered the windows, one chair in the “living” room, with its towering bulk of audio tools, such a terrible love of music he had: thick and dense symphonies like hurricane winds churning the sea, uprooting trees, smashing piers, screaming, hurling, punching out the sky to pour its black and yellow bile. And he took pictures of everything. He made my student life look like the stupid and aimless yoke it was. I was prepared for Dumbo—always, I say, prepare for the next, for fear the ordeals might run out, and the daily return.

Dumbo was a born flagellant; he liked to build up and tear down. His creed was make something out of nothing, and wait a bit before lighting the fuse; watch it burn, and leap in. Powerfully built, he had a lot to lose, but rose up again from the ashes. Our first dwelling was a room painted black, overlooking a back alley, repository of drunks and rats. It took him five years to make himself a doctor of books, but not quite 30 days and 30 nights to disembowel. Make, break, and remove. Yet he carried me on a litter with my pets and crafts, resettling me in a cozy corner of the war zone, hand-making my pallets and chaises, tables and desks, from his search parties on trash day. He nailed and sawed and carved and painted with the elemental tools of a Neanderthal, and bus trips to the dump. He toiled in a factory, bussed tables, wrote jingles—job corps, marine corps, corps of engineers. Where is he now, flying with his floppy ears, homo terminus, self-devouring dynamo, soul-loathing Simon of the desert?

Mr. Wizard watched me from his squalid office, as he scanned his orb for meat too supine, too stupid to catch him in the act or know its name. With a Cheshire grin, and a coat of solid irony, he bladed his way into long, lazy festivals of talk, lacing me with jokes and flattery so subtle, and I lapped it up like a starveling. He picked his game, ever canny, knowing the food he liked, and waiting for it to fall into his mouth. So hungry a man, that he ate his food and mine. Meeting me at my door to back me into position. For Mister, life was an Automat, and his pockets filled with coin. An Aladdin manqué, he couldn’t dream up the glory that was his, but sought it on the earth’s grudging surface, but also on the yielding flesh of an army of dizzy dames, myself dizzy to the point of rapture, ever-eager to spin a dream coat for the emperor. To cage me, this dreamer, Mister uprooted his resident wife, who refused to go, and sat on his head, a nightmare, a fury, the end-product (not a zero) of the end game. Exeunt and quit my sight, but quit she wouldn’t, so the three of us cocooned, and he deemed her the maggot, but we were all three maggots. The joy of his life was spinning a tale about the last one, and thrilling himself with killing touches, shared with his mother, Mrs. Wizard. I can see them cackling to this day. Line up, you maggots! There’s a picture of my maggoty self, lying on his lap, so limp I’m almost fluid. And in my one good dress, a pink shroud of silken softness. Was I really myself evolved enough to love? Open question: divide by zero.

He abandoned my ghost ship twice, gave me a preview of how it was done, rehearsing himself for the part he loved to play—a hobby become a career.

Fatty was there with the goods, 20 years older, offering the gingerbread house to the ejecta. Mannerly, and a stumblebum, worldly and fatuous, crowned with a powderpuff of hair, and the softest, whitest, hairless flesh, his was the embrace of a featherbed, and soon you forgot to breathe, or gave it up, as the air was squeezed out.

Fatty was the apex of know-it-all. There was no facet of life, no hidey-hole, no plant, animal, or craft of which he wasn’t an expert. All was formulated, fixed, appraised, preserved, stamped, branded, cancelled. I entered phase one of mutism. There was no crack to fill with a word or thought. Fatty was soft, but his habitat and climate were adamant. At first, I rolled freely, or skated backward, pushed along the grooves, but why were the lights going out, and the familiar world losing its shape, colors, and sounds? I was being prepared—dried out and varnished—for my idolization.

I crept away in the night and hid in my hole—I had a hole! I had saved my hole, reserved it, and locked the door behind me. It was the maggot hole. Safe. Hunkered.

But the imp in me, the daredevil who can’t resist a challenge, came out fast, and often enough to see Fatty’s silver car parked in a place I couldn’t miss.

One day, outside my door, I found a manuscript in blue paper covers. It was dedicated to me and about me, a journal of my days in Fatty’s house and in his life. It was a fairy tale about a wicked sorceress, a Siren, Medusa, Helen, Arachne, Valkyrie, Hydra, Gorgon, Harpy. I didn’t know enough to laugh.

Instead, I went back, so he could write volume 2. But, lashing his maggot even tighter to the deck, my Ahab was not going to lose it again. When I slithered away, hauling my clothes on my back, I found a note tucked into my articles—a curse, judgment, condemnation. Luckily, his orb extended only to the sidewalk, bushes, and trees in front of his house. Beyond that, it was—or could be—a free country, but once again, sliding out of my hole, I saw the silver car; and then, one day, the few household goods and gods I’d abandoned, stacked in the street in front of my door. To shame me, to bring me to petrifaction. If I could have left this world by rocket, I’d be up there now, circulating in the free zone.

Not a month went by before I was under arrest, frozen by the iceberg’s glittery eye. There was still life in me, a few drops of the elixir, or the deli counter, there for the taking. Close up shop, fool, but never did I learn that trick, or not until–

The iceberg peered at me through dark glasses, pelting me with his questions. Who am I? Who gave me the right? What was I doing? Where did I come from and where was I going? Was I a lover or a hater? Did I have a middle name? Who owned me? Where did I pay the rent, and with what? What was I doing next?

He walked me into my favorite neighborhood, bumping me, and doing it again. When I asked, he said, What? What are you talking about? This! I said, as I stumbled toward the curb, and he yanked me back. Do you mean this? he said, and this time, I was in the street. It took me forever to figure out this was his way of talking—to bump. I got it, but not right away. Don’t do it, I said, when I got it. What? What am I doing?

I was an instrument made to be played, but how? How do you play someone whose keys and strings and knobs and pipes and bells and tubes and valves and skins are all on the inside? You can almost see them, but can’t touch. That was his problem because, by then, I’d sucked everything in, safe and sound.

The iceberg returned the day after, pounding on my door. Next thing I knew, I was spirited away to a rustic compound, and lived in the peacefulness of two mutes. The iceberg had finished his life, had done all that needed doing—a chain of effortless careers, lazily touching this base, and then that. Time had arrived to sit back and take stock, put the works and pomps into cigar boxes, but leave them open for savoring. He had a studio for this work, solo dance of the self.

The relics, remnants, photos, buttons, souvenirs, ID cards, clippings, and certificates. I knew not to barge in and surprise him at his work. How did I know? There were grievances, bitter and indelible, snaking around him like exhaust fumes. Wrongs had piled up, and each was played out for my ears. Life and a legion of foes had arrested him in time. There was nothing for the iceberg but dark and fretful rumination—a kind of worship, not unlike what his mother practiced in her own house, a tableau of the iceberg’s babyhood and youth: pennants, rackets, bats, hats, party favors, shoes and clothes undisturbed forever, exposed or in their wooden lockers. Nothing was lost between the holdings of the two sanctuaries.

The iceberg lived in his curdled dream house, while I, his distaff, waited, curious, alert, wondering what my job was, what I could fix. Let X stand for the unknown, for this was an algebraic world, the zero that cancels out all value, inactive. I fixed this and I fixed that—no good!—and watched as the iceberg floated away on his lonely trip to the moon. My job had been to illuminate, electrify, magnify, sanctify, but I’d failed in a new way. He needed fuel, and fuel can be found. When he found it, he pointed his finger at me, and then at the door. Time for you to go. Out, damn spot. What?

But it was the party of the last part that exceeded all precursors. This was the owner-operator with answers to all questions, a projectionist of miraculous power, who saw in me the seat of evil, the origin and eternal spring of devilment. I was the garbage can and the garbage, the poison pill, plague, turncoat, weasel, assassin. With these endowments, I was the destroyer of peace, fellowship, honor, civilization. 

Did it start that way, or did I grow into my job? When I first entered the party’s house, I saw a box (no entry, no hallway, no meniscus) of indescribable chaos—chairs, couches, desk, bed, tables, clocks, and five fans (all blowing) clumped together like buzzing bumper cars. A narrow alley had been carved for the three panting dogs.

What happened? I said.

It’s like this, he said.

But no story, however rich in detail and accident, could really cover—let alone explain—how the party had made this mess.

If our mating were a game board, this would be the start, before the roll of the dice. The ludic curve of fate had brought me here to marvel. And marvel I did. It was just my kind of funhouse.

Have a seat, he said, but how could I get there without hurtling over the backs and arms and piles and cases. The only route was over the dogs, and when each rose to query, I put my feet with their feet, holding onto their fur for balance, until they bowled their way up and toward me, and over I went, surfing the furniture until plucked out, and dusted off, licked, pawed, sniffed, and nipped, a rare sighting in the pound.

I could not, and cannot, find in me the power of no. My back never turns on swarming life. It takes time to assess, to grasp, and by then, the swarm has opened, and in I go, alive alive-o. 

The party wanted to start his own religion with one god and one sinner, and much was asked of me, or you could say: everything. I was a walking, talking doll, the fourth dog, the answer to all questions, the reason things went wrong, the protoplasm and wet clay, the alphabet and black box. I as the center of the unbroken circle, the last straw, dummy and doormat, the less than zero and the infinite. And for me, the party was the end of the road, that’s all folks.

I did five years’ time, and one day, the rusty gate screeched open just a crack, and out I slithered. But there was another gate, bolted shut. It is in the desert or no-man’s-land that I reside, a hunger artist, if you will. Step right up. I curled into a ball, and my mother was there to take me back in, which is what happens at the end, and what you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.

Jean McGarry

Jean McGarry is the author of nine books of fiction, story collections, and novels. Among these are the novels Gallagher's Travels and The Courage of Girls, and the short story collection Dream Date. Her 2006 novel, A Bad and Stupid Girl, received the University of Michigan Fiction Prize. The most recent of her books is No Harm Done, published by Dalkey Archive. She is a professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Yale Review, Boulevard, The Southwest Review, and others. She is a graduate of the Baltimore-Washington Psychoanalytic Institute.