“The Finding at the Temple” is excerpted from Zurhellen’s first novel, Nazareth, North Dakota, due out from Atticus Books April 15. Reserve your copy. Zurhellen, a native of New York City, today teaches writing upstate in New York. We’ll be running the full excerpt in installments — check back every few days for a new one.
Daylene had spent the first few weeks of school flipping through the big dictionary they keep on a swivel like a gun turret, searching for just the right word. Bitch? Too common. Nemesis? Too brainy. Whore? Old territory. Scumbag-sucking Jezebel? Too complicated, too religious. She had been here about a month, long enough to realize some words were never going to make it as far as Nazareth, North Dakota. Her brother had tried to teach her some phrase in French that sounded like woolee-boolee but none of this was any help at the moment because there she was, crossing the parking lot at the SuperValu with Kathy Jubilee and her little cronies from the Country Gals Homemaker Club dead ahead, their pastel print dresses blowing in the warm September breeze like flags at a theme park. Three of them behind a table selling baked goods, which Daylene suspected were a lot like the girls who made them: bland, with way too much icing.
Kathy Jubilee saw her coming and fired the first shot. “Well ladies, look at what the cathouse dragged in.” The other two, Olivia and Dagmar, covered their mouths as they laughed.
Daylene kept walking toward the automatic doors with a smile, even though inside her head there was a trainwreck of words piling up: wooleewhorescummingsuckbitchNemebel. She took a deep breath, stopping to look at the plates neatly arranged on the table. “Cupcakes. How nice,” she said finally. “You girls raising money for another bus trip? Just how far is it to the abortion clinic, anyway?”
Olivia and Dagmar gasped. Kathy Jubilee silently folded her arms.
Oh, it was on.
“She’s got the devil inside,” Olivia said. “Someone needs to cast that devil out.”
“Oh honey,” Daylene said, picking up a cupcake and then taking her sweet time to lick off the frosting. “I got about seven devils need casting.” Then she put the cupcake back.
“Hey,” Dagmar said. “You got to pay for that.”
Daylene flipped her the bird. “You take a company check?” She knew she’d hear about this later from Martha, when she got home. Someone’s mother was bound to call and complain about the new girl destroying family values. But for the moment it was worth it. She was 17; it was always going to be worth it.
“That’s OK, ladies,” Kathy Jubilee said. “You have to take pity on the destitute.”
Honestly, Daylene wasn’t a hundred percent sure what the word meant, but she knew it sounded an awful lot like prostitute, and that was enough. “Listen, blondie,” she said to Kathy, leaning over the table. “One more comment from you or the other Spice Girls and I’m gonna rearrange your face, you got it?” She reached out to grab Kathy’s arm but suddenly all three girls behind the table turned their heads slightly, looking right past her.
From behind, Daylene heard someone clear their throat. “Any of these sugar-free?”
She turned around to face a round-faced, pudgy man wearing a brown sheriff’s uniform that didn’t quite fit. Great, she thought. One cop in the whole county and he wants cupcakes.
“Why, yes sir,” Kathy said, smoothing her dress and smiling again. She lifted up a plate of cupcakes with glittery pink and blue frosting. “I baked these myself. How many would you like?”
“Better just make it two. I’ve got to watch my figure.” He took a couple bills out of his wallet and lay them on the table. He lowered his sunglasses to examine the short, curly haired girl standing next to him, who looked like she might spontaneously combust. “You new around here, miss?” No answer, just an icy stare into space. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Daylene Hooker,” Dagmar offered quickly, her hands clasped behind her back. “Hooker, as in, you know.”
“Yeah, she just moved here,” Kathy said, handing over the cupcakes in a little paper sack. “We’re kind of taking her under our wing, you know, helping her fit in around here.”
“Well, nice to have you here, Daylene.” He tipped his hat, then started back to his car.
Kathy Jubilee scooped up the bills and dropped them in a tin box. “Thanks for supporting the Country Gals, Mr. Rodriguez,” she called after him, adding a wave with her wrist like a beauty queen.
He slid into the open door of his sheriff’s cruiser and waved back. He was probably no older than 40, but he moved like a man a lot older, rust in his joints. He said, “You girls stay out of trouble now,” looking right at Daylene as he pulled out of the parking lot.
God, she missed California. The vast flatness of North Dakota gave her the feeling of being marooned on a tiny island. She had been in this town maybe a month and already she’d been told stay out of trouble a half-dozen times, from teachers, supermarket checkers, old men in dusty pickup trucks, and now the town sheriff. It wasn’t a salutation, it was a warning; at least that’s the way it seemed to Daylene. She wasn’t used to living in a place that had more tractors than people. Growing up outside Vandyland as an air force brat had its drawbacks but at least it had always been easy to become translucent to the rest of the world; unless she was bleeding or calling from county lockup, life in the Santa Barbara suburbs was pretty much a lesson in invisibility. Sure, Cabrillo High had its share of Kathy Jubilees, but at least you could avoid them. Here, she had 19 kids in her entire high school class, and at the moment three of them wanted to shove a cupcake in her face.
A couple more cars had pulled up and now there was a little line forming out into the parking lot behind Daylene, who hadn’t budged from in front of the table. She realized her hands were sore from her fingers being clenched into fists for so long.
“Sorry you can’t afford the cupcake you ate,” Kathy said after her with a pouty face. “Tell you what, it’s on the house. The Country Gals care about all God’s creatures great and small, don’t we ladies?”
“That’s right,” Olivia said. “Especially the small.”
Inside the A/C was cranked like a morgue. Daylene steamed up and down all six aisles like a locomotive. She stopped in front of the deli counter, trying to remember why the hell she went to the store in the first place. She was about to walk back out when a pimply boy in a paper hat leaned on his arms from behind the counter. “What can I get you?”
She turned and stared at him. “How about a stun gun.”
“Don’t have that,” he said. “But the ground beef is in the shape of the starship Enterprise, if that helps any.”
She felt like a cigarette. “Wait,” she said, turning to face him. “It’s shaped like what?”
“You know the Enterprise? Star Trek?” Sure enough, she peered down into the glass and there was a long aluminum tray covered with a weird topography of red meat. The boy shrugged. “I don’t eat meat myself, but it’s fun to play with. Gets boring back here, you know? You should have been here last week, I made the ham salad look like Captain Picard.”
“You are one weird kid.” She studied his face more closely now; he looked familiar.
“Mr. Deegan’s class,” he said. “We built a carbon dioxide molecule together.”
“Oh, right.” She found herself looking through her bag for a pack of smokes. “How did we do, by the way?”
“I think he gave us a C, because we made carbon monoxide. He said we poisoned the whole room. But at least we poisoned everyone without them knowing, on account it’s odorless.”
Her eyes were still on the door. “I could use some of that right now.”
A cart pushed in next to Daylene and parked in front of the scale. The woman behind it bent over on her forearms with a weary smile, her eyes half-open. “Hey, Jan,” she said in a tired voice. “How’s your mom?”
The boy’s face turned pink. His posture stiffened and he cleared his throat. “She’s doing well, thanks. What can I get you, Aunt Roxy?”
Roxy now noticed the pretty girl with the curly dark hair standing next to her, and suddenly she realized she had blundered into the middle of a high school crush. She ordered a pound of the fresh ground beef and smiled at Daylene, her eyes still soft and warm but becoming sharper. “I like your tattoo a lot,” she said, pointing at the cookie monster on Daylene’s wrist. “So, are you friends with my favorite nephew Jan here?”
Before she could get a word out, Jan piped up. “We made a molecule together.”
Roxy shot Daylene a look of mock scandal, slapping a hand to her forehead as if she were about to faint. “Now that sounds like fun. Did you offer her a cigarette after, at least?”
Daylene laughed out loud; this lady was all right. And for that moment, she found herself hoping North Dakota wasn’t going to be completely impossible after all. All the women she’d seen around this town were built like bars of soap; Roxy looked out of place in her cut-off jeans and ballcap, with her freckles and sun-streaked long hair and sense of humor. She seemed to be completely comfortable in her own skin.
Now if she could only remember what she needed from the store in the first place, her day might officially be on the way to recovery.
Oh, yeah. Laz and his fucking Fruit Loops.
But Daylene wasn’t about to let her guard down. After all, she still had to pass back through the gauntlet of Country Gals waiting outside.