Judy Doenges: “Melinda”

08/11/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The Kenyon Review, Volume XXXI, Number 4, 2009. Part of the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, 2011.

Breaking Bad‘s a terrific show, but because it’s about a high-school chemist who, out of cancer-caused desperation, turns to the manufacture of crystal methamphetamine, it hasn’t always painted an accurate picture of the less professional side of, say, a looser, more dangerous cooking operation. Drug dealers, too, tend to be professionals: just look at The Wire or the villains from the last season of Justified (who, admittedly, were mainly dealing marijuana). The point is, Doenges story is an addict’s first-person description of her involvement on a “meth farm,” on which her boss/CEO/God, James, uses the various women at will — while juggling a still-attractive 35-year-old wife and his young son — in order to keep them pliant, and as suppliers of the vital cold-medicine ingredient he needs to keep his small-time, high-school-football-team-dealing operation going. (One guy actually tries to pay with a check, that’s how little-league this is — and yet, it’s still Melinda’s entire world.)

The story has two powerful effects going for it: first, the personal nature of this story, in which our narrator, Fritzie (formerly the well-off Melinda Renee von Muehldorfer), returns to her neighborhood in order to scam a family’s credit card information away from them. She seems sober at first, especially in comparison to her junkie colleagues, RJ and Little Fry:

I’m sweeping in front of his mop: double-team double-clean, RJ calls it. He’d lick the floor if he could. Little Fry continues her Good Work at the table, selfless and tireless, like a nun. James sometimes calls her Holy One, she does her one thing so pure.

But over the course of her interactions with people outside her small little farm environment, we’ll see just how much she’s rambling and deteriorating: little more than a selfish girl who is “good at asking for things.” That’s the humbling arc from this semi-oblivious narrator, and it’s a nice match for the identity-theft-related plot. From her perspective, life’s going swimmingly, but she’s got enough light left in her eyes to see how she’s reflected through others — like the clerk at the grocery store who notes the “new kind of acne” and “the shaking [credit] card,” or the former classmates of hers who take in her muddled hair (“like little blonde eruptions all over my head”). Every moment that passes, she’s losing a little bit more of her former self, and James — by no means a cruel boss — encourages her to “keep as much in your head as you can,” lest she disappear into her work like RJ and Little Fry. (Lest you think James is altruistic, he’s just trying for worker retention; a drugged-out employee stops being productive after a point.)

The other asset to this story, scrounged up from her interviews with recovering addicts and the like, are the personal details of the business, of what it must be like to be a young runaway, relying on hitchhiking and what little sweetness remains of your old life in order to grab what you can, while you can. The way Fritzie checks cars “to make sure [they have] door handles that work from the inside,” the practiced and casual way she steals rare coins from a house (“I take three steps to my left, lift the frame off the shelf, and slide it down inside my jacket”), or this:

When you don’t sleep, like Little Fry, RJ, and I don’t, you live in one long hour and that hour takes place during that last minute you’re in a class, when you’re waiting for the big IBM clock on the wall to make its final click. So why not run on like RJ does? Why not cut and paste like Little Fry?

Even the description of her “tools” is telling: “pens, tape, change of address cards, Mountain Dew, cell phones, shards, and pipe.” Look at the order of that list, from regular arts-and-crafts material to tweaker “food” like Mountain Dew to suspicious things like cell phones and shards and finally to the ubiquitous pipe itself: drugs, always drugs, have to stay fueled. Doenges’s story succeeds because Fritzie’s world feels hopelessly lived in, and while we outsiders may see how dangerous RJ’s bruising adventures on a frozen-over pond may be and how dim Little Fry’s light is burning, to her, this is all a form of camaraderie, these are her friends and sad little family now. In the climax of the piece, as she spins bigger and bigger lies to the family she’s scamming, we realize, with a heartbreaking twinge, that not everything she says is a lie: perhaps she did once have a horse like Black Beauty. But now? Melinda is gone, and she’s never coming back.


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