This week, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Ravi Mangla‘s novel Understudies. Told in a series of ultra-brief chapters, Mangla’s novel ponders fame, ambition, and regret. Laura van den Berg called it “a brilliant meditation on the private cost of celebrity, the longing to transcend the ordinary, and the seductive nature of performance.” Understudies is out this week from Outpost 19.
Missy rented a movie and we curled up on the couch to watch it, swaddled in a nest of blankets. I was right at home in the realm of romantic-comedy (an asset in past relationships), the sort of fare that renewed one’s faith in the tumults of love, but Missy preferred more gruesome works. Sheared limbs, blood splatter, decapitations. The grisly material often made me queasy, and I had become accustomed to focusing my eyes on some stationary set piece in the corner of the screen. With each severed bone, torn swatch of skin, I watched Missy’s eyes brighten with savage delight.
Missy’s mother entered her in child beauty pageants around the state and abroad, sometimes as many as four a month. They would curl her hair, bronze her skin, and wrap her in gowns that cost a small fortune. She never finished better than fifth place, but her mother emphasized that all she needed was one breakthrough, a single talent scout or manager to catch her in the right light. Missy hated pageants and she occasionally recounted the story of how she got out of them. Her parents were loading the car for a long trip the following morning. While they were occupied a nine-year old Missy crept into the bathroom, seized her father’s electric razor, and shaved off her right eyebrow. The pageant calendar was cleared for the remainder of the month, and when her mother deemed the hair sufficiency grown in, Missy shaved off the other eyebrow. No one entered her in another pageant again.
As a midweek treat I swung by the music retailer in the next town to tinker with the guitars. I played my own guitar only sparingly, and without the brutish accompaniment of an amplifier. If I ever came into a sudden influx of money (lottery, lawsuit, etc.), I would track down the axe I always wanted, a vintage Gretsch (hollow body, double cutaway, sunburst finish). After almost an hour of idle strumming, I bought a set of strings for my instrument, a token purchase. I recognized the kid at the register from my third period class. He went by the name of Linus.
“Didn’t know you played, sir,” he said. The words surfaced from beneath a mop of dreadlocks. “We should jam sometime,” he added.
“Totally. Right on.”
Never had I spoken those words in my life, but they seemed appropriate for the occasion. Halfway out the door I turned and flashed him a peace sign.
“Do you ever grind your teeth?” the dental hygienist asked. Her left breast was pressed against my forearm, a professional consequence I found endlessly erotic, even when I tried to ignore the friction by focusing on the scraping sounds of the tools.
“Not that I know of. If I’m doing it, it’s unconscious,” I said, and felt the ends of my teeth for notched stubs.
“There’s a name for the condition.”
“Oh. You know it already. Aren’t you a smart cookie!”
Somewhere between the tooth-shaped balloon and the temporary tattoo I decided I needed to seek out a new dentist.
More and more often I took lunch in my truck. Nothing sapped my appetite quite like the eating habits of others: the repulsive musk of words exchanged between bites of tuna fish, the wafting brine of pickled eggs. (As a society, we were quick to admonish children for their eating etiquette, but it was usually the bookish among us who were the true culprits, victims of poor habits established over decades of isolation.) Mobile dining had become such a staple I began packing condiments in the glove compartment.
I had finished my sandwich, rolled the cellophane into a tidy ball, when I noticed a scrum of students huddled by the loading docks, circulating a joint between them. We traded incriminating stares.
“Don’t mind us,” one of them called, presumably the leader, and they continued their hushed conversations.
“You were so sensitive as a boy,” my mother said. “I remember that the television would make you cry. Any car crash, fire, fist fight—you used to well up with tears. I would pick you up, sing to you, but you were inconsolable most of the time. Your father wanted to meet with a psychologist, but I knew it was just a passing phase.”
“I don’t remember any of that.”
“Why should you? You were four.”
Several months before he fell ill my father drove past a news camera while they were in the process of relaying a story on the growing number of potholes. That evening his car appeared in the report, the hint of his bouncing figure visible through the dimmed glass. He called the station and requested a copy of the tape, which they were happy to oblige for the price of the shipping. My father must have watched the video a thousand times, usually in the privacy of his den, where he could pause and rewind without interruption. He pored over the footage with the quiet intensity of a history scholar studying the Zapruder film. He seemed to be searching for some embedded clue, something crucial he had missed the first time.