by Ben Miller
Bridget Lombardo became locally famous at age eight, winning a talent contest by tap dancing and twirling two batons while singing a ballad re: a southern belle forever searching the back streets of Brownsville for the cad who’d left her standing at the altar. Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on / Could it be a faded rose from days gone by / And did I hear you say / He was a meetin’ you here today / To take you to his mansion in the sky? Mrs. Lombardo—a woman not so patient, with the metabolism of a katydid—had chosen the morbid tune for Bridget after brief Billboard analysis (Tanya Tucker’s version #1 on the country chart!) and with equal decisiveness attacked the drab but discombobulating inventory at Ute’s Uniform Store, dashing past racks of pleated nurse skirts and green mechanic shirts to reach a corkboard wall appended with perfect snazzy outfits, first seen first snatched: blue sequined halter, sultry red tutu, zircon tiara, “Bill me please . . . ” During an early morning post-triumph TV interview conducted by “Cap’n Ernie” between Popeye cartoons, the tiny performer took great care to give credit where credit was due: Mom was “Super-duper! . . . THE GREATEST! . . . a total lifesaver,” who’d endured much engine trouble on the way to the gymnasium stage in Champagne, Illinois, and bravely applied Bridget’s purple eye-liner, ruby lipstick, and rouge at an interstate rest stop named after Carl Sandburg, plain-spoken poet of the prairie and of those hoary industrial cities (Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee) into which waves of grain were still draining, amber oceans disappearing daily into vats involved in the production of fanciful cereals like Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs and malevolent malt liquors like Colt 45. “Without Mom I’d be NOWHERE!” squealed the baton twirler. Dad was not thanked because Dad was long gone. During a short commercial break (Circa 12! Children’s Dinner Theater! Fiddler on the Roof now thru . . .) the host in blazer and yachting cap glared at Bridget in a different way from the studio lights. She felt the extra heat on her powdered cheeks, knew he wanted more than he was getting—a delectable off-the-record detail to take home, sleep with—and only a blinking ON AIR sign kept her from confiding that each time she swiveled to wink at the sleepy judges near the free-throw line, those rumpled brown suits became in her mind a commission of show business scientists cradling clipboards, deciding whether to label a sparkling performer specimen with a respectable nine or dissecting two. (And dissect was the word: low scores filled her mouth with a formaldehyde taste unswishawayable even with twelve spicy ounces of Mr. Pibb, current cola of choice.) Himself again, Cap’n Ernie grinned the goofy grin so beloved by generations of Davenport, Iowa, children, blow-dried hair poofing out from under his plastic cap brim. “How does it feel to be on top?” he asked. “FANTASTIC!” “Mind singing a few bars?” “SURE!” Wiggle, deep breath, warble: She’s forty-one and her daddy still calls her “baby” / All the folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy / ’Cause she walks downtown with a suitcase in her hand / Lookin’ for a mysterious dark-haired man. / Delta Dawn, what’s that flower . . . “Wonderful! How long do you practice each day?” “Five hours sometimes six or seven!” “Does this interfere with homework?” Silence indicating unfamiliarity with the concept of school. Moving on, did she like her chances of defeating 205 other regional winners in Reno and winning a $1,000 savings bond plus a guest spot on Merv Griffin’s show? “OF COURSE!” then she recalled Mom’s lecture on modesty, adding: “NOT!” and “WE’LL SEE!” The Nevada show biz scientists wore pastel cardigans, not old suits, and beheld so many equally talented performer specimens in the tutu blur of eight hours that choosing a champion became a matter of a backstage coin toss. “Amphetamines!” is how Mrs. Lombardo explained the triumph of the little bitch from Columbus, while dabbing Bridget’s neon Mary K. tears and vowing to “even the playing field,” without exactly saying how.
The Lombardos lived in a small brick house on a busy stretch of Middle Road near McKinley Elementary, the school Bridget’s talent excused her from regularly attending. Learning to read and write might not be vital to a baton-twirling career but every self-respecting main attraction required an entourage and Bridget collected admirers like a wily dogcatcher, bursting from behind a hedge to capture students meandering homeward after the final buzzer. Of particular interest were girls exhibiting symptoms of vulnerability—head itchers, nose pickers, muttering Suzies, or those staring at the sidewalk like my sister Marianna, who despite being clad in tomboy overalls, was already beginning to draw honks from teenagers and married men with a thing for blondes. “Wanna be my friend?” cried Bridget astride the pavement—white leotards worn web-thin in the crotch, glitzy tanktop smeared with BBQ chip dust, Kewpie doll curls, scuffed pink sandals. Marianna smelled cigarettes and sensed a supplier. “Do you? Do you want to be MY friend?” Marianna nodded and got the hook: Bridget’s sharp arm tugging her across brown grass toward the doorway of the bungalow, which hunkered on its lot like a tacky pizza oven—thin decorative masonry hodge-podged in dizzying patterns from roof to foundation. There was, in fact, a pizza box in the unkempt hedge. “What’s your name again?” Bridget asked, shoving her free hand into the lidless mailbox to check for incoming Hollywood contracts. Finding none, she made a Red Skelton sad sad clown face. Marianna repeated her name syllable by syllable. “That’s too long! I’m calling you Marie—shhhhhh,” Bridget whispered, reaching for the doorknob. “Mom’s HOT. I cracked her Brenda Lee record.” In the duo went, tiptoeing through the war zone, restraining their giggles, until they got upstairs and fell all to pieces, laughing and smoking until four Kool cigarettes were history. Filled with mentholated smoke, Bridget’s bedroom resembled a smoldering candy store: licorice-red sheets, polka-dot pillows, Raggedy Ann wallpaper, heaps of batons pinwheels pompoms, styrofoam hats with star-spangled paper bands, plastic top hats, black lace garters, stringy training bras, inside-out period costumes, woolly leggings spilling from drawers like pink cuds of insulation, and a single dusty blown-glass rose in a slender vase. The only clear space was an area in front of the bed that she called her STAGE. “Want me to show my stuff ?” Bridget asked and waited not for an answer. (Key when the entourage was scanty, never more than one girl because keeping one happy required all available tobacco.) With astonishing speed clothes flew off, then on—dark yellow leotard and bright yellow sequined vest, a Ute’s outfit chosen to accompany the irresistible ragtime theme song from a hit movie called The Sting, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The routine had come to Mom in a dream. 1928 Bridget spinning a baton that, like a sophisticated transmitter, exuded wavelengths that tickled the brain of a producer on a Bel-Air pool deck until he couldn’t stand it any longer and rushed to the airport, bearing a contract with a dotted line where Bridget’s name, and no other in Iowa, belonged. (Aside to cynics: It happened to Jean Seberg of Marshalltown, did it not? Petite seventeen-year-old Jean plucked off Main Street by Otto Preminger to star in Saint Joan!) The boom-box tape had been played to the point of decay: Scott Joplin’s composition commingling with what sounded like the roar of an Ozark Airlines DC-9 taking off from Moline Airport. While Bridget gyrated, Marianna continued to ruminate on the stark sight of the nude body dyed darkly in places by costume run-off, either that or bruised by the violent effort required to make it BIG. Would she crack like rotten plywood while doing the splits? Bridget slipped and fell to her knees—a clever mistake on purpose to steal grannies’ breaths—then bounced up, a chorus line of one, ankles flicking above curls. She mouthed words to a song that had no words. She snatched a top hat, strutting like mannish Liza Minelli in Cabaret, the R-rated movie Mom insisted she see sixteen times. The hat was tossed, and a bar stool grabbed. (OH NO! thought Marianna. There’s MORE !) Tap shoe on stool rung, elbow across knee, Bridget imitated a weary saloon prostitute gazing wistfully at the low ceiling over all her memories. Backflip, cartwheel, and—TA DA!—splits that did not split her, as the ragtime thunder faded and Mom could be heard downstairs on the phone, screeching: “‘Don’t got the alimony’ don’t cut it, Buster!”
Mrs. Lombardo’s mood lightened a bit after she slammed down the receiver, and took a dramatic upward swing when a handsome neighbor was spied taking out garbage. Inspired, she quickly respiked her dirty blond hair with styling gel from a jar on the kitchen counter, then grabbed the Buddha-girth Hefty bag that had been squatting on the kitchen floor all week. “Nice day, eh?” called the man. “April in Davenport!” replied the lithe lady bounding down the driveway as best she could while dragging petrified pounds of take-out food. Handsome froze. He did not know the song she was rather obscurely referring to. All he knew was that it was October and chilly and not the weather to go barefoot, wearing nothing but blue jeans and a thin T-shirt bearing a photo of Bridget that Bridget had paid to have transferred at the Mississippi Valley Fair. “Isn’t it lovely!” Mrs. Lombardo added, dropping the trash and slide-stepping in front of the stench to keep it from defiling the pure presence of this male who had yet to do her wrong. He nodded, smiled, turned, and frowned, shouting over his shoulder: “Good night!” No invitation to drinks but pronounced with an umph! that backed her up against the damp bag. She felt licked in the worst and best senses of the word: totally finished, hardly begun. “Girls! Let’s order pizza from Happy Joe’s!” They were all for that, not having eaten all day. Bridget wanted pepperoni, Marianna sausage, and Mrs. Lombardo garlic, so the cook was instructed to make a pie with three personalities: a “Sybil special!” The solemn retiree taking pizza orders in order to supplement a meager social security check warned that it would take longer than usual, and it did: an hour longer. Mrs. Lombardo productively spent the time repairing an orange tutu Bridget had slept in. While stitching and patching, she imagined the labor connecting her to relatives in the Old Country, fishermen’s wives astride pier barrels, mending nets torn by thrashing fish. The girls retreated upstairs to smoke, talk, shoot garters across the bedroom like rubber bands. Marianna described how her Daddy cooked hot dogs prehistoric style, on a fork over a blue burner flame, while the starlet thought: Soon as I can I’m ditching her. Then Bridget described how fine it felt to be “frenched” by a sixteen-year-old unicyclist while Marianna thought: I’m bad. Me and Howie. We’re baddies. Babies Nathan and Nan angels forever more. Oldest Benji and Betsy in charge responsible. The family too big for Mom to handle so she broke it in three over her knee. I’m a baddie. Me and . . . “Pizza’s here!” shouted Mrs. Lombardo, box open on the card table and steam rising off whorls of cheese. They pulled the pie apart and ate too quickly, burning their tongues. Nearby stood an heirloom oak cabinet yet to house a single dish—in previous decades enclosing only the dark concept that far too much had been paid for it at Montgomery Ward; these days full of Bridget’s swan-necked trophies and forked ribbons culminating in big pink or blue buttons impacted with folds, silky hyper-labias. “Where’d you win that?” asked Marianna. “Springfield,” said Bridget, cleaning her teeth with a plastic fork. “And that one?” “Oak Park, I think.” “Tell the WHOLE story!” implored Mom. And the whole story followed: something about a Sally and tissue where tissue should not be, a Trini and batons stolen during an electrical outage, flooded Motel 6’s and judges “on the take,” an epic rife with fancy details yet somehow possessing the evocative vagueness of a Sherwood Anderson story, leaving the listener with many awful questions that were themselves answers, in that they shadowed consciousness like storm clouds, outlining inexpressible truths. Marianna found the atmosphere so fascinating she often stayed with Bridget for days, conveniently forgetting that she had another home, or to be more accurate, correctly comprehending (as I had, too) that survival depended on the cultivation of strangers and neighbors who could be relied on to provide warm food, dry shelter, and attention that—however rote or trivial—was more useful than the abstract form of love available at 15 Crestwood Terrace. “Where’s Mitzi?” never asked by older sister Elizabeth or younger sister Nanette, because the tiny room the girls shared was nearly livable when sleeping only two. “Where’s Mitzi?” never asked by father because, though he missed the blue-eyed daughter with early hips (Marianna Rose: his goozie-wumple to pet and poke!), the best solution to any problem was to wait for the problem to solve itself. “Where’s Mitzi?” never asked by mother because she was gone—either visiting Mr. Hickey next door or her ailing mother in Rock Island or sitting on the lopsided couch, voyaging through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations in search of a particular sage phrase that she could remember neither the sayer nor the gist of—only the time and place where encountered. Late at night in a college library. Over twenty years ago. A book of some kind—Fiction or nonfiction? What did it matter? Each form a forgery of the other!—pages crumbed by a stale peanut butter sandwich that she’d scavenged from an adjoining carrel. Then, from out of nowhere, advice so wise that living a happy life was simply a matter of absorbing those nine or ten or twenty words, which she had not. Thumb, thumb, thumb. Something to the effect that . . . each woman her own ancestor, a blood echo of past actions? She who does not believe in destruction can never be destroyed? There is no beauty comparable to the luster of carrot? Ogden Nash? Tennessee Williams? Edna St. Vincent Millay? Katherine Anne Porter! Fingers clawed pages until Porter entries were read and dismantled in the literary chop shop of her mind. Edith Woolf then? Virginia Sitwell? John Greenleaf Whitman? Front porch chimes tinkled in the soft evening breeze. Always chimes on the porch—cheap musical bones purchased at Kmart and installed by she who found in those hollow notes the same solace that some take in the gloomy drone of bagpipes or I as an adult discovered in the eerie echo of jazz vibraphone—notes unaffixing from the scale, wafting toward a blank stanza in the heart, though never quite arriving to lend the gloss of melody to the atonal echoes of an ancient loss. It’s midnight. Do you know where your children are? And children, where on earth are your parents?
Once, on my own, I went to extricate Marianna from her little haven on Middle Road. Before a second knock Mrs. Lombardo threw open the door and her katydid arms. “Look who we have here!” she effused, giving my mismatched rummage-sale attire the same curious up and down I was giving her ash-flecked Mickey Mouse tank top and jeans as invasive as a pelvic exam. “Come in, Ben! The girls are upstairs!” I stated a strong preference to remain outside. “Nonsense! Follow me! How OLD are you now?” I was—fourteen. “In Nevada they call that the age of consent!” “Really?” I asked with awe. “Darn tootin’ it is!” What she referred to as her “tush” pitched like a denim pendulum while motoring through nearly empty rooms that felt as disordered as those in our cluttered house. One detail set the tone: cigarettes floating on warm cola in a McDonald’s cup atop a foam-rubber exercise mat. Two butts that told the tale of a mother and daughter who had only each other and so, by a cruel quirk of familial algebra, had less than nothing at all. Lifting my eyes, I spotted a fresh brown splotch of taco sauce on a chandelier candle shade. On another shade an old crimson catsup stain and, under that, a black soy-sauce blotch. Then I saw stains on all of the little shades—another family’s: disgusting in a way your own stains never are. As I turned, the cabinet came into focus, beveled glass streaked with fingerprints, forensic evidence of many instances of Bridget’s eagerness to thrust a trophy into the face of an ambivalent groupie. “Sit down! Make yourself at home!” insisted Mrs. Lombardo, auburn eyebrows squirming like leeches. I did not sit, though. I would not and could not sit under that electric napkin. “Leftovers in the kitchen—tacos, enchiladas! I’ll run up and let Mitzi know you’re here!” It was then my sister’s difficult task to convince Bridget that she would be gone just long enough to steal Elizabeth’s clean socks and underwear. Feat accomplished, the girls descended, Bridget with the usual high-knee pizzazz, Marianna casting evil looks in my direction, as if to say: Why drag me back to that pit? Think you’re my father? I didn’t think it, I knew it. That’s how things had fallen out after the real thing began interring himself on the upholstered bier of the Sears recliner each evening, dead to the world of the family. Oh yes, I knew my role! As immune to doubt in the Lombardo dining room as I would later be plagued by regrets at having so often been chief representative of a household that I could see was infernal (and sought daily to escape myself!) but dreamed was salvageable—our wrecked family as re-inventable as Chicago after The Great Fire, if only we’d apply the mortar of imagination to the scattered ashes. The tension in the Lombardos’ dining room caused Bridget to giggle. That was her training, her skill. So well Mrs. Lombardo had taught her! Listen, Kiddo, and listen good: each sad moan or sigh MUST BE FOLLOWED by a gleeful yelp, whoop, or boop-boop-a-doop, because American audiences are packed with suckers seeking inspiration and desolation in equal measure, gallons of alligator tears and twirling, three-pound lollipops. Emotion simplified: Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat’s entertainment!
After Bridget’s “Entertainer” routine flopped in Council Bluffs, Mason City, and Dundee too, she resumed performing “Delta Dawn,” adding sparklers and a cardboard “mansion in the sky” to convince the show biz scientists that she was a species of performer worth preserving, unlike the dinner-plate spinner and Mr. Spoons, maker of music from silverware. They did not buy it. Neither did Mrs. Lombardo, who exited stage left, turning all her attention to a man whose wife had died of breast cancer. Mr. Schneider lived on Hillcrest Street in a large house whose pillars supported nothing but the iffy idea that the domicile of a CPA should resemble the temple of a Greek god. Bringing a grieving husband hot food wasn’t strange. Many thoughtful neighbors had done that. The oddity was that Mrs. Lombardo’s food arrived more than a year after the wake. One pale pimply chicken—the most undone bird on the rotisserie at National grocery store, betraying no carnal intention. And? Her initial choice for a side dish was a brick of macaroni and cheese from the hot food bar, but the carbohydrates spread in such a crude fashion across the bottom of the styrofoam container that she dumped the primordial ooze and went instead with a solid upstanding serving of mashed potatoes. “Paul, my thoughts are with you,” whispered the woman in the low-cut dress, while handing over the hot foil bag. Mr. Schneider pushed his bifocals higher on his face and still saw what he was seeing: sparkling eyeshadow, pink lipstick, breasts that might as well have been bare. “I, well, thanks very much. Would you . . . like a cup of coffee?” Soon she was cupping the widower every weekend, Bridget forced to attend auditions and contests alone, hopping a Greyhound bus or hitching a ride with a competitor who showed little mercy behind tinted van windows, slipping a pint of schnapps from a duffle. “Mama don’t care. Helps my voice. Might yours too.” Head full of cotton and head full of stone, she belted out “Delta Dawn” amid a shower of sparks, while the scientists yawned and dwelled on how the free glazed donuts were going down down down like anchors with the potential to permanently moor them in the gym, seated statues to be dribbled around by basketball players and dusted by custodians. Nor did the hardships of PMS keep Bridget from answering any call from Carlton, the director of the WOC noon newscast, whose job it was to spice up dreary economic data with live performances. “The barbershop quartet canceled! Can you . . .” She always could. Who knew? Coppola, Cimino, or Preminger on the way to a shoot in Alaska might have put up for the night at the Sheraton on River Drive and just happen to watch Channel 6 while slugging Cold Duck and slurping carp caviar in the king-sized bed. Never worked out that way. But each noontime gig brought her face to face with old friend Cap’n Ernie, sans yachting attire. They primly shook hands off camera. He doesn’t want more, Bridget thought, HE DOESN’T WANT ANYTHING FROM ME. Cap’n, looking up at the acoustic tiles, said automatically: “The sky’s the limit for you, huh?” On camera he wore an orange jacket and did not grin—face serious and chest puffed to assure the audience that a spectacular event, a mall ribbon-cutting or fatal head-on collision, would surely occur by the end of the day, just hang in and welcome your old favorite and mine, Bridget Lombardo! In her younger days they called her Delta Dawn / Prettiest woman you ever laid eyes on / Then a man of low degree stood by her side / And promised her he’d take her for his bride. . . .
I last saw Bridget in Moline, Illinois, at a Chevrolet dealership, the circular showroom of which had been co-opted for use as a call center by local organizers of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Home from college, I had borrowed the nearly new Monte Carlo that my mother had inherited from her father, who purchased the vehicle from a hospital bed, believing it might cure him of emphysema. He died three months later. A grave blow to the profits of R. J. R. and great boon to a family that had never before owned an automobile made in the decade we were living in. The fresh smell of dashboard plastic was still deliciously upon me as I walked past rows of unsold compacts and pick-up trucks, toward the throng gathered around what looked like an incandescent glass mushroom. The red Chevy logo revolved on its ten-story pole. Teenagers in letter jackets swarmed under the camera that swiveled on the roof of the Channel 8 news van. They jumped and waved. HERE! SEE ME? HERE! HERE! SEE ME? Adults hung back, less innocent. The blandness of their powder-blue windbreakers could not disguise their unsavory ambition to brush up against a local celebrity, no matter what form he or she might take: mayor, disc jockey, weatherman. They rose up on their toes whenever a figure entered or exited the mushroom. Nope, there was nothing like this annual Samaritan bacchanal dedicated to Jerry’s Kids, stricken with Muscular Dystrophy and sure to die if a cure was not found. Twenty-four-hour charity softball games. Door-to-door coffee can collections. Walk, run, swim for a cure. Bowling for dollars. Parking-lot dunk tanks. Slotted coinboards next to restaurant cash registers, and dollar-stuffed goldfish bowls at mini-marts. Few area residents happened to have this disease, but that didn’t matter. Most everyone had witnessed or experienced something that made it terrifyingly easy to relate to the terminally ill twelve-year-olds paraded across the Las Vegas stage by pleading, prancing Jerry Lewis. Oh yes, any fool could see American kids were in trouble! If the affliction wasn’t M.D. then it was Marlboros or Doobies or Mad Dog 20/20 or Many Ds on the report card or a Mom and Dad who existed for the sole purpose of vanishing when the going got tough. In far-off weeds, cicadas wailed an abrasive hymn that ground at the edges of every other sound: idling car engines, stereo system thump, spunky laughter. The song that diseased joints might sing if miked. Colorful streamers were strung inside the mushroom, and also a leviathan-length M.D.A. banner. Volunteers sat at cloth-girdled tables waiting for the phone to ring, and WQAD news anchor Jim King stood on a blue-carpeted plateau. Tie loosened. Shirt sleeves rolled. Sweaty owl face hoo-hoo-hooing: Every little bit helps. A dollar, a dime. Drum roll, please. Money-board numbers whirred. The new total is $10,586! Volunteer applause, repetition of the phone number, then back to Caesar’s Palace and the tuxedo-clad host that East Coast critics annually crucified for exploiting the sick. Soon Jerry would scold every naysayer—flail an arm to silence the house band, bring the lights down, and stand frowning in the spotlit chasm. The actor who had made a fortune mimicking the spastic movements of the disabled now still as a black marble obelisk, high holy collar framed by an unraveled bow tie. “Some doubt my motives. To them I say . . .” In no way was the performance convincing. On the other hand, it didn’t have to be, for viewers were either for the man or against him, believed in Redemption of the Damned or considered this clown to be America’s Fraud Nonpareil—weeping on cue and faking delight when Dean Martin, his embarrassing former pal and comedy partner, stumbled on stage and slobbered a few choruses of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” An array of local entertainers had volunteered to boost the spirits of phone-bank volunteers, including Bridget, who was weaving toward the mushroom when she bumped into me and cried: “Hey! I know you, don’t I?” She had on a candy-striped miniskirt and green sequined halter—a trout flash in the night. At seventeen no taller than at thirteen and her face bloated from a major painkiller. She was going to sue the drunk driver, her ex-boyfriend! The paramedics too! Somehow the next squealed sentence contained the word “galore,” followed by “super-duper.” Flat, out-of-date language that, like her body, had not evolved, as if the halter sequins contained an age-retardant chemical. She offered me a cigarette and lit one of her own, asking about Marianna—who she had not seen “for ages,” by Marianna’s design. I could have said that sister of mine had pulled a Mrs. Lombardo—ditching Bridget for girls of true wealth—then dropped out of high school and done things that caused Elizabeth and Nanette to consider her a hopeless slut. All true but not close to The Truth, so I shrugged and said “Marianna was . . . ,” letting the hopeful racket of arriving dollar-bowl bearers finish the sentence. Bridget nodded, coughed. I wondered if she would have the thrill of living long enough to become a sixty-year-old Baby Jane, terrifying postmen and pharmacists. Jean Seberg missed out on that career stage, taking an overdose of barbiturates and dying at age forty in the back of a car parked on a Paris side street. But this little star wasn’t giving up. Not yet! Out she came with a list of upcoming gigs: Bethel Home, Lend-A-Hand Club, Vandeveer Park pavilion . . . For a few bucks or no bucks at all, she sang “Delta Dawn,” executing kicks that wouldhave smashed footlights to smithereens, had any been nearby.
Ben Miller lives and works in New York City. His prose can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of Notre Dame Review, Raritan, The Common Review, Quick Fiction, The Yale Review, and Prairie Schooner. His essay “Bix and Flannery” appeared in Best American Essays 2004, and other honors include a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. “A Study in Sequins” is part of a longer work that also includes an essay that premiered in AGNI 61, “Romancing the Dankerts.” (10/2005).