You think you’re special and you are, to a degree. You go to Harvard. A grad student if I had to guess. You wear a vintage T-shirt that probably belonged to your father, who no doubt went here as well, carried you on his shoulders at his reunions when you were too young to wonder if you were good enough to get here. There was no need to worry. You were always going to wind up perched on the steps of the Barker Center in your flowery midi skirt. Little Miss Muffet with your Faulkner in your hands, open and your phone facedown, as if to prove that you prefer novels over nuisance. The world is your tuffet, the steps too, and you arch your back and aah. You’re not really lost in that book. You’re a little outside of yourself, yearning for someone new in September. I’m on the move. You tap your toes and lift your eyes—blue and horny—and you go there.
I know it hurts. You took a leap of faith, and I said thanks, but no thanks with a hey and walked into the Barker Center. I had to leave you. You women disappoint or disappear—or sometimes both—and none of you can bear to look at me once I know who you really are. You run, you try so hard to kill your feelings for me that you wind up dead in real life, dead inside. I’m not built like you. I never get over you, any of you. Something had to change, so I put all my feelings about my tragic, no-good love stories into a blender and wrote a novel. That’s the reason I’m here. Not you. Me. I walk up to Barker 222 ready to join the ranks of the good and the terrible—Harvard monsters are a special breed—but a piece of paper is taped to the door: Too nice to be inside. See you fellows on the south side of the lawn! Yours, G.S.
I don’t want to go outside and sit in a room that isn’t a room—I want the Algonquin f***ing round table—and I expect better from Glenn “G.S.” Shoddy. He’s running this fiction writing fellowship because he’s the author of Scabies for Breakfast. He knows what makes people tick—Scabies earned him a Pulitzer—and he’s the anti-Franzen—over two million copies sold, almost no one ticked off about his success. He’s my teacher, my mentor, the kind of guy who assured me that he too comes from a “humble” background . . . as in he grew up in the Mid-f***ing-west with married teacher parents who raised him to be a writer. I liked him for trying, and I (mostly) meant what I said when I sent him twenty pages of my soul.
Whether or not you offer me a spot, I want to thank you, Mr. Shoddy. I wouldn’t have started writing if I had never read your book. You’re exceptionally gifted, Glenn. Yours, Joe
Glenn did the right thing. He offered me a spot in the fellowship via a warm, chummy email, and Harvard is paying me to be here, so I follow the orders and hustle back outside like I’m late for a job interview—No, Joe, you got the job—I didn’t leave Florida to prowl around in the sun like a dirty old man playing Duck, Duck, F***ing Goose, but off I go.
I can do this. All I f***ing do is survive. I made it through the first few decades of my life and back in Orlando, when the world shut down, the first real snow days of my life, I took the break as a gift from my beloved, my would-have-been wife, Mary Kay DiMarco. She was gone, dead, and I had been wasting my time, slinging drinks and sulking, hooking up with girls who came into the bar, licked their lips, asked me about the last great book I read.
Predators, all of them, and that’s what I look like now, like I’m on the hunt for girls and no. No! “Sorry,” I say to a group of f***ing teenagers. “I’m just trying to find my people.”
They look right through me—the truth is always a bad share—and I need to Taylor Swift it, I need to calm down. I will find my fellows. I made RIP Mary Kay’s dream come true—I opened the Empathy Bordello Bar & Books—and I killed myself writing my book, finding a reader since it’s not really a book unless someone else consumes it. I killed myself again kissing up to the gatekeeper—You’re exceptionally gifted, Glenn—and when I sold the bar and hightailed it up I-95 with the jukebox of RIP Mary Kay’s dreams in the back of a U-Haul, well, that’s when multiple incompetent motorists almost killed me. No one knows how to drive anymore, or how to run a f***ing fellowship, but I made it. The skeletons in my closet aren’t so menacing anymore—the best writers all take risks—and I live here now, in a one-bedroom two-bath right by campus and I “go” here, but where the f***ing f*** are my fellows?
A guy in an MIT T-shirt shouts, “Hey! Are you looking for the Shoddies?”
So that’s what we’re calling ourselves. Shoddies. Glenn’s not here yet and the guy tells me to pop a squat and jumps right back into conversation with a woman who doesn’t bother to turn around and check me out—weird—and the other three Shoddies are buried in a huddle and oh. I see. There was a plan to meet up before class and not one of my “fellows” gave me a heads-up, and the ice is broken, the ice in their drinks is melted. It’s not like I expected to fall in love, but the possibility would be nice—I am human, I am single—and all three of my female fellows are Little Mrs. Tuffets. Visibly married. That’s a Duck, Duck, Never-a-ducking-gain for this guy—and wait. That woman talking to the MIT guy. Is that? No. Yes. That’s Sarah Elizabeth Swallows. I know her, but I don’t. She’s a thriller queen—How to Kill Your Husband by The Wife—and I saw her face every day in the Bordello, beaming on the backs of her books and now here she is in real life, eating Wheat Thins out of a little plastic bag. Just . . . no.
But the other clique isn’t any better. The girl doing all the talking has a whiny Connecticunt kind of voice and she’s in a one-up war with some douchebag in a Pringles T-shirt. She met her hubby at Dartmouth and Pringles turned Dartmouth down to go to Tulane.
“My lady is magic,” he says. “Last night, she rescued a sparrow.”
The Dartmouth girl claps back. “Aw, Lou. My guy and I saved this parrot last year . . .”
Of course his name is Lou and the older woman, the one who they’re performing for, she says her daughter is a freshman here and then she takes off her sunglasses and wait . . . Is that? No. I will not play another round of I Know Her, But I Don’t in my f***ing head. I got a fellowship, same as them, and I drop my messenger bag on the grass.
“Sorry,” I say. “Are you Ani Platt?”
The one-uppers eyeball me, and I was right. It is Ani Platt. “Oh no,” she says. “You must have seen that puff piece in the Globe . . .”
“Well, yeah,” I say. “But also . . . congrats on the Obie.”
The Dartmouth girl giggles. “Ani, I bet you didn’t expect to be signing autographs . . .”
I did not ask for an autograph and the Dartmouth girl ignores me, resumes telling the “story” of her honeymoon, so low-key, just a few days at my dad’s place in Chilmark. I pop a squat in the dead zone. I got in, but I didn’t, and I knock over my own bag—f*** you, bag, f*** you, foot—and it takes a half-empty cup of coffee-water down with it. Great.
I grab the cup—servants gonna servant—and the Dartmouth girl makes obligatory eye contact with my forehead. “It’s okay,” she says. “I am, too.” I don’t know what’s so funny—the Shoddies are all chuckling—and she looks at me like I’m ringing up her groceries, like she has diamonds on the soles of her clogs. “Literally,” she says. “That’s my name. I’m O.K.”
A normal person would ask about me now, but she’d rather listen to Lou wax on about his honeymoon. They went off the grid—how original!—and Ani Platt eats people like this up in her plays, and maybe that’s why she’s encouraging them? For material? I could pry my way into the conversation—I killed a girl from Nantucket!—but there’s no f***ing point. You can make one person love you, but you can’t make a group of people like you, not when they already have each other, when they are a “them” in a way that makes you a “you.” I take my phone out of my bag and I go to the fellowship website and there it is, The Big Lie:
I want to discover undiscovered writers. I don’t care where or if you went to college. I don’t care if you have an MFA. I don’t care about your publications. Just send me your guts.Yours,
Copyright © 2023 by Caroline Kepnes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.