I met ZZ Packer last night before her reading at the “5 Under 35” National Book Foundation event. She radiated warmth and good humor, so I decided to push my luck.
“Is it stressful to talk about how your novel‘s going?” I asked her.
She smiled. “Oh, it’s stressful,” she told me. But when I tried to retract the question, she said that the book is very long, but coming along, and that she hopes to be done soon.
Her reading was a brief selection from “Brownies,” the first story in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. For those who aren’t familiar with her collection, here’s part of what she read (and sang! I wish I could’ve recorded “The Doughnut Song”).
When Octavia’s mother wasn’t giving bored, parochial orders, she sniffled continually, mourning an imminent divorce from her husband. She might begin a sentence, “I don’t know what Robert will do when Octavia and I are gone. Who’ll buy him cigarettes?” and Octavia would hotly whisper, “Mama,” in a way that meant, Please don’t talk about our problems in fornt of everyone. Please shut up.
But when Mrs. Hedy began talking about her husband, thinking about her husband, seeing clouds shaped the like the head of her husband, she couldn’t be quiet, and no one could dislodge her from the comfort of her own woe. Only one thing could perk her up — Brownie songs. If the girls were quiet, and Mrs. Hedy was in her dopey, sorrowful mood, she sould say, “Y’all know I like thos songs, girls. Why don’t you sing one?” Everyone would groan, except me and Daphne. I, for one, liked some of the songs.
“C’mon, everybody,” Octavia said drearily. “She likes the Brownie song best.
We sang, loud enough to reach Mrs. Hedy:
“I’ve got something in my pocket;
It belongs across my face.
And I keep it very close at hand
in a most convenient place.
I’m sure you couldn’t guess it
If you guessed a long, long while.
So I’ll take it out and put it on —
It’s a great bit Brownie smile!”
The Brownie song was supposed to be sung cheerfully, as though we were elves in a workshop, singing as we merrily cobbled shoes, but everyone except me hated the song so much that they sang it like a maudlin record, played on the most sluggish of rpms.
“That was good,” Mrs. Hedy said, closing the cabin door behind her. “Wasn’t that nice, Linda?”
“Praise God,” Mrs. Margolin answered without raising her head from the chore of counting out Popsicle sticks for the next day’s craft session.
“Sing another one,” Mrs. Hedy said. She said it with a sort of joyful aggression, like a drunk I’d once seen who’d refused to leave a Korean grocery.
“God, Mama, get over it,” Octavia whispered in a voice meant only for Arnetta, but Mrs. Hedy heard it and started to leave the cabin.
“Don’t go,” Arnetta said. She ran after Mrs. Hedy and held her by the arm. “We haven’t finished singing.” She nudged us with a single look. “Let’s sing the ‘Friends Song.’ For Mrs. Hedy.”
Although I liked some of the songs, I hated the one:
“Make new friends
But keep the o-old
One is silver
And the other gold.”
If most of the girls in the troop could be any type of metal, they’d be bunched-up wads of tinfoil, maybe, or rusty iron nails you had to get tetanus shots for.
“No, no, no,” Mrs. Margoliln said before anyone could start in on the “Friends Song.” “An uplifting song. Something to lift her up and take her mind off all these earthly burdens.”
Arnetta and Octavia rolled their eyes. Everyone knew what song Mrs. Margolin was talking about it, and no one, no one, wanted to sing it.
“Please no,” a voice called out.” “Not ‘The Doughnut Song.'”
“Please not ‘The Doughnut Song,'” Octavia pleaded.
“I’ll brush my teeth two times if I don’t have to sing ‘The Doughnut –”
“Sing!” Mrs. Margolin demanded.
“Life without Jesus is like a do-ough-nut!
Like a do-oough-nut!
Like a do-oough-nut!
Life without Jesus is like a do-ough-nut!
There’s a hole in the middle of my soul!”
There were other verses, involving other pastries, but we stopped after the first one and cast glances toward Mrs. Margolin to see if we could gain a reprieve. Mrs. Margolin’s eyes fluttered blissfully. She was half asleep.
“Awww,” Mrs. Hedy said, as though giant Mrs. Margolin were a cute baby, “Mrs. Margolin’s had a long day.”
“Yes, indeed,” Mrs. Margolin answered. “If you don’t mind, I might just go to the lodge where the beds are. I haven’t been the same since the operation.”
I had not heard of this operation, or when it had occurred, since Mrs. Margolin had never missed the once-a-week Brownie meetings, but I could see from Daphne’s face that she was concerned, and I could see that the other girls had decided that Mrs. Margolin’s operation must have happened long ago in some remote time unconnected to our own. Nevertheless, they put on sad faces. We had all been taught that adulthood was full of sorrow and pain, taxes and bills, dreaded work and dealings with white people, sickness and death. I tried to do what the others did. I tried to look silent.
Edward P. Jones selected Packer for the distinction. The other authors — some of whose readings I had to miss — are Amity Gaige (selected by Christopher Sorrentino), Samantha Hunt (selected by René Steinke), Bret Anthony Johnston (selected by Adam Haslett), and Rattawut Lapcharoensap (selected by Joan Silber). Lovely Amanda Stern, writer and proprietor of the Happy Ending Reading Series, hosted the evening.