Writers Take Revenge...For 3 Minutes At Least
PHOTOS BY VIVIAN RONAY
Fifteen celebrated authors, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elizabeth Kostova, Alice McDermott, Roger Rosenblatt, Deborah Tannen and Jim Lehrer presented original pieces on the theme of “Revenge” at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation’s annual gala fundraiser. The writers, who were provided this year’s theme in advance, composed narratives which would take three minutes or less to read onstage.
Interpretations of ‘revenge’ included childhood memories, writers’ revenge on editors, and even revenge within the ballet corps. Proceeds from the event helped support the endowment for the Awards for Fiction, which are presented at a special ceremony in May.
Author of Prep and The Man of My Dreams
When I was in first grade, a girl named Heather Duncan used to torment me on the school bus.
Heather was heavyset and a few years older, and she lived at the top of my street, which meant her access to me was easy and frequent. I once remember her pressing my head against the school bus window, but most of her bullying was verbal. She’d ask aggressively and insistently about the source of my various articles of clothing.“Where did you get your shirt? Where did you get your shoes? Where did you get your mittens?” I’d try to answer accurately but succinctly. “This shirt was my sister’s. The shoes are from Pogues. My grandmother gave me these mittens.”
I suppose my answers were boring to Heather because one day she turned her attention elsewhere, toward a girl named Kelly Cook.
“Where did you get your pants?” she asked Kelly. “Where did you get your sweater? Where did you get your necklace?”
Now, you might think I’d be concerned on Kelly’s behalf and feel a sympathetic alliance with her. You’d be wrong. I saw Heather’s shift in attention as a marvelous development, and I celebrated by joining the interrogation. “Kelly, where did you get your coat? Where did you get your headband? Where did you get your socks, your skirt, your turtleneck, your backpack?”
Clearly, our questions made Kelly distraught. I didn’t mind.
And then one day Kelly gave us an answer that astonished and thrilled me. She said, “My clothes are made by fairies who live in my closet.”
“And if you quit teasing me and act nice, I’ll give you a fairy to keep.”
For the next several days I could think of little else. I was a child who already suspected that the world was full of secret enchantment and now here was proof. In the evenings I’d look wonderingly in my parents’ closet, curious as to whether they, too, had fairies.
I also pondered fairy protocol. Would I need to name mine or would she come with a name?
Did she know my sizes or would measurements
Over the next week I bothered Kelly
incessantly about when she’d give me my fairy,
and finally she confessed that it wasn’t true. It was
just something her parents had told her to say so
we’d leave her alone.
I was crushed. In fact, I was so disappointed
that I clung to the belief she hadn’t been lying
before, but was lying now.
There were fairies and she just didn’t want to
I explained the situation to my father,
strategically leaving out the self-incriminating
parts. My father confirmed Kelly’s claim. The
fairies didn’t exist. But how could he be sure?
He didn’t even know the Cook family, and he
had never been to their house.
In retrospect, I can’t blame Kelly for her lie
because Heather Duncan and I provoked it.
But still, in extravagantly building up and then
dashing my hopes Kelly exacted a perfect revenge.
Needless to say, I am still awaiting the delivery of
Author of Sam the Cat and Other Stories
In a musty Army-Navy store I found a book called The Revenge Encyclopedia that lists hundreds of ways to hurt your victim: call your ex-girlfriend’s parents, tell them she’s pregnant again and is begging you for money for another abortion. Make dental appointments for your victim at every dentist in the city; cancel the caterer for his wedding; sprinkle raw shrimp around the perimeter of his yard; list her in the Yellow Pages under “escort services.”
Revenge is a fun thing to think about. You believe you can do something about the times that life is unfair. When I think of revenge, I don’t think about what I would do to someone else. I think instead about what happened to me and how that’s just the way it happened, and how revenge would not have mattered.
I think of Mr. Bradshaw. My mom had just dropped me off at the junior high for a dance. It was Saturday night, and I’m sure my stomach had been churning for hours. I had assembled the clothes I wore, probably a white turtle neck under a blue button-down, as carefully as I’d assembled my personality so that I could stroll coolly among my friends, dance if I had to, drink contraband blackberry brandy, be confident.
The Revenge Encyclopedia lists hundreds of ways to hurt your victim: call your ex-girlfriend’s parents, tell them she’s pregnant again and is begging you for money for another abortion. Make dental appointments for your victim at every dentist in the city; cancel the caterer for his wedding; sprinkle raw shrimp around the perimeter of his yard; list her in the Yellow Pages under “escort services.”
A moment or two after I got out of the car, Mr. Bradshaw pulled up, dropped his daughter off, and drove away. Maybe he was on the way home to watch The Love Boat. Maybe he had to go back to the gas station where he worked on Route 35 to fix somebody’s car or had an American Legion meeting. Maybe he had a pristine garage at home with a stock car that he was anxious to work on. Maybe he went home to wait for his daughter to return so that he could do something vicious and thoughtless, or maybe he missed her already because she wasn’t his little girl anymore.
I never thought about him before except for this. I got out of the car. The plaza was full of kids waiting to go into the dance, hundreds, when suddenly I noticed my entire inner circle of friends was missing and somebody directed me to the wooded hill above the drop-off circle, and I ran up there and found Ronnie L., Danny P., Chris M. They had a dozen eggs and they were laughing. LAUGHING! They had been there for a while, and down below us as Mr. Bradshaw drove by, Danny cocked his arm and threw an egg. It was almost Halloween, after all, and a hail of eggs followed.
Through the trees we heard them, splat, splat, splat. That was very funny, a great idea someone had thought up. And then about ten seconds after I had arrived on that little hill, headlights, but from where? A car came bearing down on us as if it had been driven out of a hole in the ground.
It now occurs to me that we were standing on some access path to the grounds crew and that Mr. Bradshaw probably knew his way around the school grounds because they lived nearby, and he might have worked on the tractors and knew exactly where an eighth grader would have had to stand to drop eggs on cars leaving the turning circle, and as his car got pelted, he peeled off the pavement in our direction.
engine roaring across the grass. When the headlights appeared, reflexes took over. Everyone ran away down the hill deeper into the woods, except for me. I ran through the trees back to the plaza, but this time I returned with a car roaring behind me as I flew with a lunging animal desperation. He drove as close as he could without touching me, and in that darkness I didn’t stumble. What a tragedy; what a lot of explaining he would have had to do; what an awkward funeral that would have been.
crowd, scattering kids beneath the bright fluorescent lights. He got out. He stood in the glare, and I noted that it was a VW beetle, orange with no shine left on the paint. He was a small man. He wore a flannel shirt. I didn’t run into the crowd because I hadn’t done anything wrong. There was nothing meek or interesting about him. He had narrow eyes. He didn’t look like the anti-Christ, but like someone who was in a corner.
“Clean it up.”
Getting stoned? Hanging around the punch bowl? If they’d care to look out the window, they’d see a guy who had just tried to run over a fourteen-yearold boy who was now cleaning his car. I used my hands and shook them out on the pavement and then wiped some more off the windshield, the hood, the roof.
The students on the plaza looked on, and the guys in the woods watched. I was boiling with shame. The eggs weren’t coming off. There was nothing else I could do.
He made his little speech then, that I was pathetic and that he would come after me some day was the essence of it. “Remember my face,” he said, and he got in his car and drove away.
I had been frozen but then I became unfrozen, when a girl named Janet asked what happened, and then I tried not to think about it again.
Three years later I was a foot taller. In the summer after 11th grade, I delivered auto parts to that gas station, and there he was, and I think we were friendly. I had lots of customers that summer. I didn’t say, “I remember you.” I didn’t do anything. He or one of the other mechanics would sign the receipt and I’d thank him.
A few months later I was sitting in the cafeteria with Ronnie L. telling him the story of that night, which he didn’t remember, and mentioned that I had seen Mr. Bradshaw at the gas station, and that the guy came up to about here on me.
Ronnie said, “Yeah? And Mr. Bradshaw can still kick your ass.”
Anywho. Last week I told my brother this story. We were at my kitchen table eating sandwiches, and I asked him if he remembered that night, and he said no, and I said, “Clean it up, and remember my face.”
“I never heard it,” he said. It turned out I didn’t tell anyone.
Well, at least it’s not 1978 anymore. I’m older now and have spent a lot of time thinking about what happened, and I can safely say that if the situation had been reversed, I would not have pulled off the road to drive at a 112 pound boy with my car. But I was the boy and not the other way around. I remembered him as he requested, and there must be some kind of benefit in that.
Books inside the Beltway
Three books that will have Washingtonians talking this fall
On Her Trail, By John Dickerson
Before Barbara Walters, Nancy Dickerson was the first name in women’s journalism. When JFK’s casket returned to Washington from Dallas, she was the only woman standing in the press corps. In On Her Trail, Dickerson’s son, John, discusses his mother’s rise to success and the price that she paid for it at home. He candidly discusses their difficult relationship and resentment of her career. It’s an endearing lesson for any career mother who grapples with finding a balance between family and work.
The Secret Story of the World’s Most Intriguing Royal, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, by William Simpson
Simpson’s new biography details the life of one of D.C.’s most talked about diplomats, former Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. In this revealing biography, Simpson reveals the intriguing and fascinating life of a man of contradictions. Already hailed by The New York Times and other reviewers as an important biographical work, Simpson’s study should be read by anyone interested in state affairs.
D.C. Confidential, by Sir Christopher Meyer
Former British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer’s controversial memoir is an insider’s look into the ways of Washington during his years as ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003. Intimate portraits of the Clintons, Margaret Thatcher, President Bush, Tony Blair and even Steven Spielberg make this a must read for any Washington insider.