Excerpt from Mice 1961
Very early morning in Miami is swamp-still. A silent pink hesitation that predates the world. Jody stood before the mirror, getting dressed for her typist’s shift downtown. The lake bottom’s stillness in her worried face.
Mice came to her from the living room. The wrinkled nightgown’s sleeves floated with patterns of lost flowers, a white ribbon wound into the hem, the bottom edge as serrated as a dime’s.
“Yesterday I lost something Jody.”
Jody, dully, into the mirror: “Lost something?”
“I dropped it in the bookmobile or somewhere. Jody I need it. It’s a knob. Get it for me?”
She was never patient, Jody Marrow.
“I said it’s a radio knob.” Mice blew out a protracted breath between her teeth. One of the habits that the neighbors knew well.
Jody now adjusting her hair-band, her skirt, while Mice crept closer. “Jody. The knob.Where is it?”
It was always something that Mice couldn’t or wouldn’t let go. She was born that way, neighbors said. The high-strung temper, the mind agitatedly fixing on the infinitesimal or rogue detail. It was somehow part of her overall condition, everyone assumed.
Her boyish hobby, radio building, occupied the time while Jody was away at work—people knew this, too.
Jody pulled the curlers from her hair, one after the next, small bulbs in her hands which she dropped in the sink. “Simply put, I’m not going back to the bookmobile for a piece of plastic.”
“It wasn’t a piece of plastic Jody. It was a knob,” said Mice.
“Clearly it was a knob.”
“Yes it was. A bandwidth knob. Like a dial. I lost it.” The girl’s voice was annoying. “Okay yes it was plastic Jody. But acetal plastic!”
Jody’s tamped-down voice: “God you’re a pill.”
Perhaps Jody Marrow derived comfort from resisting her sister, from arguing. Complaining, too, can be a luxe activity. In the blank apartment Jody hated, perhaps the arguments made the days softer, more routine.
Mice’s voice was high, flutish, full of speed: “You’ve never been anything but a bully!” Now she ran to the watermelon-colored hassock with its folded blanket—her nest beside the telephone table in the hall. “Jody. The knob!”
“No more about the knob.”
“It might’ve dropped from my skirt pocket. I need it Jody for my new set,” Mice clamored. “Go to the bookmobile after work! At least call.” She picked up the telephone receiver and held it out to her sister. A dark, blocky instrument for pleading. The milky-weak arms half-raised, the cannular vein in her neck a mere cord, purple-blue.
“Oh really,” Jody said; sliding on her flats, she flicked a finger at the younger sister; she knew how to infuriate the girl more than anyone, of course.
Face it, if Mice manipulated Jody, Jody manipulated Mice.
Now the older sister’s stare: straight, prohibiting, and cross. Her whisper: “You are twenty years old. Keep track of your own messes. You call the bookmobile. You talk to Florence.”
Florence Stroke had been the neighborhood bookmobile librarian for many years.
Mice: overheated. “Jody what if life was flexible? What if we didn’t have to do something a certain way?”
“And while you’re at it ask Florence about a job. You need to ask. You know you can always be honest with a librarian don’t you?”
Jody’s tone was often so dry that it was difficult (neighbors said) to know if she was or wasn’t mocking.
“I mean we need you to work Mice! You have caused economic damage around here.”
“No I haven’t! Jody she won’t hire me. Besides I can’t go there and work every day! You know they’ll laugh!”
“Librarians do not laugh.”
“Yes they do!” Mice picked up the hairbrush, squishing its bristles with her palm. “Florence will have found the knob—we were just there yesterday. She’ll have stored it. Call her!”
“You can’t call a bookmobile!” Jody exploded from the hallway.
“Yes you can!”
With angry movements, Jody finished dressing. Swiped up the coral lipstick too. Walking to the living room. Sun speared through the front window into the front room’s mirror, watering Jody’s eyes as she opened the door to Miami’s stunning sun.
Mice ran from the hassock and she skittered into the front room. “Jody!” Pulled the curtain shut with her tiny forearm, small face even smaller in a band of shadow and the minatory sun doused her feet. No one in the neighborhood was more all-nerves than she.
Jody Marrow must have longed to go to her job each day; she needed it.
After the peal of the egg timer, Mice began again, begging her god, her voice thick and full of heart. “What about—oh everything? I mean there’s no problem. Florence uses the bookmobile phone all the time. She used it to call a nurse after Fred Warb threw up on the fiction shelf in February! Call her Jody! Or call Richard’s!”
Richard’s was the department store in front of which the bookmobile parked every month.
“Hm,” Jody clipped, leaving.
“Why don’t you just die–” little Mice’s arms in the air, palms jutting in little angles of despair.
Mice Huberman’s right and left hands: maybe reminiscent of frail birds’ feet in Jody’s mind’s eye.
Mice’s mouth: a soft, shaky line. “Jody you know very well you make the calls.”
Sometimes—everyone had seen it—Jody half smiled, superior and unkindly.
And Mice: Sometimes a short, sharp phrase, difficult to hear.
“What did you say?” Jody demanded.
Mice in white slippers flitting down the apartment’s dim back hall.
Stacey Levine is the author of four books of fiction. Her story collection The Girl with Brown Fur (Starcherone, 2011), was longlisted for The Story Prize and shortlisted for the Washington State Book Award. Her novel Frances Johnson was published in 2005.