PEN/O.Henry 2011: Judy Doenges, “Melinda” from Kenyon Review, Fall 2009

Wisconsin Historical Society, Harry E. Dankoler collection

Wisconsin Historical Society, Harry E. Dankoler collection

When I first met James, I was Melinda Renee von Muehldorfer and I lived at 145 South Poplar. My grandma told me once that von mean my ancestors were German royalty. James says, You’re out of your castle now, babe. After I graduated, ruined my parents’ credit rating, sold everything I had except my ice skates, and moved in with James at the farm, I was Fritzie, no last name, just a girl good at asking for things.

Hello, I am Zin! I have read many stories about people in lives I do not understand, children living in drainage pipes, astronaut adventurers in faraway galaxies, people from the distant past, people who live lives of incredible wealth and luxury. And just as perplexing are the people in the meth house I read about in this story.

Our narrator is Fritzie, fallen angel from the middle class. James is the boss and kingpin, married with a wife who shows up now and then with his child; he no longer does meth, because he sees what it does to people and he is the CEO now: “You can’t run a business and do its work at the same time.” It is interesting there is an attempt to make it sound like a business. They each have jobs. Fritzie gets promoted to a supervisory position over the other two who work there. That would be RJ who is the chief floor sweeper, and that is about all he can do. He drives very slowly, and talks nonsense most of the time, “like a CD you can’t turn off.” And there is Little Fry, who spends all day piecing together scraps of paper from dumpsters to come up with credit card receipts, bank statements, and in this case, an overdue book notice from the library, anything with a name and address or if possible more information. But we will see the library notice is enough. If nothing else this story will scare me into being more careful with my trash. Because while their main business is meth, they have a nice sideline of identity theft.

Little Fry tapes together a name and address from the library notice: Richard von Behren, a few blocks away from where Fritzie used to live. Little Fry points out the name is similar to the name Fritzie used to have. We go with Fritzie on some other business, a trip to the store in town for provisions for instance, and we see her sexual relationship with James is not unpleasant. But the main event is her visit to Richard von Behren. She hitchhikes, then knocks on his door and says she is lost and her car broke down a few blocks away. Like a fool he lets her in. Do these people not know better? What is wrong with them? You are not supposed to ever let someone in no matter how pathetic and safe they look! But he does, and she meets his dog and his wife and while he is getting a telephone and a map she swipes a coin collection and as she leaves she takes the mail in his mailbox, which just happens to be a bank statement. That is a little too coincidental, I think. But there is something else (I will not tell you so you can experience it yourself) that is slipped in so quietly I did not notice until it became important at the end, and I was impressed by that!

While she is doing this, she tells them lies about herself: she played glockenspiel in the school band, she has a horse, she played soccer. She is making it up as she goes along. She makes a few mistakes, like she knows their last name, but before they can get suspicious she goes on, lying with ease. “Whose life am I telling? This one belongs to another kid – the kind of kid I never talked to.” There is nothing in the scene, no word or sentence at all, to show she feels regret that this is not her life, that she wishes she still lived in this neighborhood and played Eliza Doolittle and had teachers encouraging her, but I felt that very strongly, which I think is the strength of the piece. Maybe it is just me, because she does not seem like a bad person but one who has fallen off a cliff and I want her to long for her old life back.

So she goes back to the meth house and puts on her skates and skates around the pond while the others slide and fall because they can not skate. She took lessons for years so she does “an arabesque and a single axel.” I think this is a little cheesy, but it does strengthen the feeling that she regrets the direction her life has taken even if she feels powerless to change it now.

I enjoyed this story, as much as you can enjoy watching a human train wreck. The author wrote it after learning some details about the meth industry in Colorado.

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