What’s amusing about the entire process is the fact that I was absolutely no one special when I was a child. I was a nobody, born to a white trash family in Constantinople, North Carolina, hours and worlds away from a town over 10,000. Where I came from, you were called cityfolk if you came from someplace with a Wal-Mart. Where I came from, only one person had gone to college, Jessica Lynn Reese, and she had lasted three semesters.
And I was born of the dirt and fashioned out of tobacco and kudzu like the rest of them. But somehow, while they all stood still, I hit the ground running and took myself right out of there. My mother still sends me letters — well, e-mails now, with all of the sentences run together and more ellipses than a dying man’s dialog — telling me of the legends told about me, William Earl Griffin, and my departure. How I was born walking and talking and hitched a ride out on a Budweiser truck when I was two days old. How I dressed like a woman to show crazy Mrs. Thigpen how to start wearing her dresses the right way and coax her to brush her hair in the morning and shop for herself at the market using the proper bills. And how in return she gave me her life savings from under her mattress and I used it to escape from Constantinople on a Budweiser truck. How I took the whorish daughters of Ronald Buckner and pulled their skirts out of their yoohoos and past their knees and how I lured them back to high school by hiding moonshine in their desks. How grateful Ron Buckner gave me his two finest sows who I sold for their bacon which I traded for a ride on a Budweiser truck.
It was a UPS truck, actually. The Budweiser truck only came once every two weeks, but the UPS truck was there at least twice a week.
I didn’t settle down right away. I tried Greensboro, and then Richmond, and then Baltimore. I worked my way up — Philadelphia, Boston, New York. I learned a lot about me and more about others. Girlfriends. I had a way with them. I had a knack for picking them broken. Pretty, broken girls just loved me like buzzards love highways.
Watch that simile, now. Notice what I didn’t say. That’s what I love about similes. They can be terribly revealing.
Christa in Greensboro had no self-esteem, and she also didn’t know how to use a salad fork. By the time she broke up with me, she had been shagging the mayor’s son for six months and by six months after, she was famous for her society parties.
You’re welcome, Christa.
Richmond Colleen was an anorexic. She never thought she was more beautiful than when she was weighing her food and then weighing her crap. We lasted a long time, her and me, until one day I offered her my burger at Bill’s BBQ and she took it and finished my fries too. She dumped me a week later. Last I heard, she was food editor at Richmond Times. Good for her.
The others, the same: uncouth Marta in Baltimore learned to frame her words the way I did and dumped me in the month after landing a job as a public school teacher. Philadelphia Rosa suffered from pimples and baggy clothing. I offered her lemon juice and Macy’s and we were through. Boston and New York served up similar stories, and by the time I started to work my way back South, I gave up on girlfriends and gave in to my talent.
Griffin’s is technically a finishing school, but practically, it’s a place that parents send girls that can’t stay in school, can’t stay sober, can’t find a date, or can’t be bothered to measure the right amount of detergent into the washing machine. I don’t accept them any younger than 16 because, frankly, if they are going to be hot messes all over town while my back is turned, it skirts all kinds of paperwork if they’re above the age of consent.
And then I get to work. I guess I’m a bit like that guy — Higgins. From My Fair Lady. And I have a school full of Eliza Dolittles, only many of my Elizas are fouler than you can imagine. Some of them are just lazy. And some of them are just misdirected. But some of them you sleep with one eye open. But, like Eliza, they all learn to do the walk and the talk. But unlike Eliza, they don’t stay with me. As soon as they are polished, they slip from my hands and out into the world, just like all the girls before. They don’t ever send thank you notes, though their parents do.
A major newspaper (all right, I will confess, it was the NYT) sent a reporter down to do a story on Griffin’s because of my stunning results. The reporter — this neurotic creature with an addiction to breathmints and lifelong insomnia — followed me around for a week before giving up, because she could not see what I was really doing to improve the girls, other than taking breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them, and reading books to them while watching the evening television programs turned down low and just generally listening to them. Basically everything I’d ever done with my girlfriends, short of the girlfriend bits, except in triplicate several times over.
The reporter did return to New York very well-rested, however, and she forgot her mints in the main hall.
I faced up to it a long time ago. I know the effect I have on women.
The problem is Ida Thornton. She has just arrived. I can see from her file that she’s dropped out of three colleges and was sent here by her desperate parents. They say she’s anarchic and difficult. They say she has a short attention span and picks fights. They say she swears like a sailor. A lot of parents say these things about the girls that walk in here, and a lot of parents are wrong. They really make the problems bigger than they are.
But Ida’s parents were right. You could tell the moment she walked into Griffin’s. You see her, there? She stands like she’s trouble, and though her jagged haircut is trying too hard to tell me that she doesn’t care what I think, the pugnacious set of her mouth tells me everything I need to know about why she got dropped out of all those schools. The hair is what tells me she needs help, all right, but her mouth tells me she doesn’t need that much and she probably just needs time to work it out for herself. And I want, want, want to tell her not to sign the paperwork and to instead go out with me and live happily ever after in a tiny apartment in Baltimore because I always liked Baltimore and we could have two poodles, both shaved strangely to attract attention because I can see that’s a big part of her, and pretty much eat take out spring rolls every night, because that’s a big part of me.
Ida walks up to me and says, “So, you’re going to fix me, huh?”
I want to say “no, I like you the way you are.”
But I know it won’t matter either way.
Author’s Note: I will try (wo)manfully to pretend that I would not strangle someone for a spring roll right now.
image courtesy: heikof