The Potential Hazards of Hester Day: A Novel

The Potential Hazards of Hester Day: A Novel

by Mercedes Helnwein

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Hester Louise Day: high school graduate, almost-wife, would-be mother, soon to be wanted for kidnapping a ten-year-old with a comb-over. Apprehensive about spending the rest of her existence in a void of nothingness in Nowheresville, Florida, where she currently lives with her painfully intrusive family, she decides to tip her life over into any kind of surrealism she can lay her hands on.

Shortly after graduation and a heated fight with her mother featuring an airborne toaster, Hester's life takes a turn for the better when she notices a billboard with two wide-eyed children and the catchy phrase "All they want for Christmas is a family." What better way to drive a chainsaw through her placid existence? But when the adoption agency rejects her application to adopt a child, she realizes she must do something more drastic to derail the mediocre life threatening to spread out before her.

Having found herself stuck in a camper named Arlene with Fenton Flaherty, her nemesis from the library (who, through a series of interesting events is now also Hester's husband), Jethro, Hester's ten-year-old cousin, and Duncan Clyde, a.k.a. "Jesus Freak," who is traveling along the side of the road asking passersby to sign his life-sized cross, Hester is quickly freed from anything even remotely mediocre (or normal, for that matter) about her life.

Debut talent Mercedes Helnwein has crafted a sophisticated, savvy story that explores the un-likely friendship between two adolescent outcasts and a ten-year-old aspiring space-cowboy -- and what happens when you throw them in a camper without a compass. Preposterously dysfunctional, side-splittingly funny, and surprisingly touching, The Potential Hazards of Hester Day is an adventure that you'll want to experience again and again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416564324
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 02/19/2008
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 489 KB

Read an Excerpt

When I was seventeen I drove a combustion harvester through my life. Well, to be honest, I'm not sure if there is such a thing as a combustion harvester, but if there is, that's definitely the sort of machinery I drove through my life.
It was at the end of June. The sky was overcast, winds were coming from the east, a little too strong to qualify as typical for that time of the year. There was a podium set up on the football field. In front of it sat countless acne-ridden, wide-eyed teenagers -- oversexed, undereducated -- as ignorant as the day they were born, but with less curiosity and more confidence in their sharpened intellect than ever. Some kind of music was playing through the speakers -- sentimentally engaging, patriotic music that is meant to bring tears of resolution to one's eyes.
Somewhere along the line it was my turn. I stood on the podium and reached out my hand for my high school diploma. My name floated through the air over the sea of parents spread out before me. The principal shook my hand, and I realized that he smiled as though with the help of some medical device pulling at the corners of his lips. His forehead was glazed in perspiration. An unfortunate string of hair had loosened itself from its position and now stuck awkwardly over an eyebrow. I was about to say something to him -- maybe some tactless joke to sum up our acquaintance -- but his eyes had already moved on, his hand was already reaching for the next graduate, and I drifted automatically across the stage as practiced earlier that day.
The diploma was rolled up and tied with a blue ribbon. While walking back to my seat, I glanced over to where myfamily sat, waiting for the ordeal to be over. My mother, father, older sister, and some aunt of mine I'd only met twice before all watched me as though I were a car accident by the side of a road. My mother gave a short sigh and then looked respectfully back at the podium -- bored out of her wits.
My family was a strange institution. Very often they seemed like some kind of a monstrous machine to me, cogwheels turning, levers moving up and down, steam being pressed from its sides. They seemed like a machine that mass-produced something very pointless -- like those huge Styrofoam hands that people in the audience of a football match are always waving around.
"Why didn't you smile?" my aunt asked, annoyed, as I walked up to them after the ceremony.
"Why should I have smiled?"
She drew back in disgust. "For crying out loud!"
My mom hugged me, congratulated me, photographed me, and then said, "Honey, I really wish you would have brushed your hair this morning, though. Or at least put on a bit of makeup. You look like you're ten years old. Oh, I have to say hello to Mr. Keiller!"
With that, she turned and jogged over to where the principal stood talking animatedly to a small audience of parents. They hugged and then she joined in the animated talk. The rest of us stood there for a few seconds, vehemently wishing we were not standing there.
"Good job, honey," my dad said after a while.
I said, "Thanks."
"We really didn't know sometimes if you'd ever get here," he added, looking at his watch. "I just want you to know how proud we are."
I said, "Cool."
We lapsed back into silence, and since there was nothing better to do, I slid off the ribbon from my diploma and rolled it open. It proved to be a marble-patterned paper, thick, covered in various signatures and writings -- and imprinted into its strong eggshell color, I found the name "Ronald Peterson" spelled out neatly in cheap calligraphy. With a lopsided smile, I let it roll back together again.
I was glad they gave me the wrong diploma. It sort of made up for the fact that this graduation ranked second to a pornography awards ceremony. Everything about it was so sadly hollow. Everyone who walked over that stage brought along their own little custom-made tragedy. Their shiny robes tugging in the wind, dwarfing them; their silly hats bearing all that significance, turning their proud smiles into sad deformities. It made me feel sick with a sense of sympathy. Not the typical Salvation Army type of sympathy that makes you feel all warm and special, but the kind that sits heavy and dark in your stomach. The one that gives you a feeling like you're drowning in blackstrap molasses.
Maybe all my feelings were entirely unfounded and the fact that my stomach was crawling up my throat only had to do with my own shortcomings. Maybe I had strange phobias. Maybe I had a vitamin deficiency. Or maybe I was just born under the wrong star. Who knows? And who cares? It didn't change the fact that every time I looked around myself, I cringed. It didn't help the fact that they all looked like pale, undercooked sausages, without a hint of a shadow of a clue in the world. They would be deep-fried without ever knowing it. The unfortunate ones would lead painful lives, dejected or jealous, watching their dreams being lived by others. The lucky ones would live their dreams.
Maybe the worst of it all is that after eighteen years on this earth, their dreams amounted to shit. Everyone wanted to personify the life of a TV sitcom, to be as desirable as the people whose intense grins represent the many magazines that lie next to toilets, on coffee tables, and in the waiting rooms of dentist offices.
Life would pass them all by. Every one of them.
"See, now there's a nice smile," my aunt whispered, nodding at a graduate who happily posed for a picture, holding his diploma high in the air like some kind of tae kwon do trophy.
"Everyone knows that young man is going places. They can hang that picture up on the wall and be proud, because he looks happy -- he doesn't look like a train just drove over his right foot."
She gave me a meaningful, dark look.
"Can't argue with you there, Aunt Emma."
Aunt Emma hated it when someone didn't want to argue with her.
We stood around a little longer, looking like a herd of uninspired cows, until eventually my mom returned and we all followed her to the car.
"Honestly, you could all learn how to mingle a little," she said, like it was starting to be a drag the way she had to be the backbone to this family of retards.
The prom hadn't been much better, by the way, except that I accidentally set off the fire alarm by smoking right underneath it. I hadn't intended to cause havoc -- I hadn't even intended to be there at all, actually, but my mother insisted I go. For her, it was the most unthinkable thing in the universe that a girl would decline to put on a dress and watch all the undercooked sau-sages moving around the dance floor with mock sentimentality. I wasn't about to put myself through all that, and I did try to get out of it, but I really didn't stand a chance.
"Mom, I really don't want to go," I had told her as we drove home from the dry cleaner.
She looked at me with a dead-serious twitch of her lip. After a black silence she said, "Did nobody ask you to the prom?"
"It's not that," I said, locking my eyeballs firmly on the glove compartment to keep them from rolling. "I'd just rather not go."
"Don't worry. We'll get Larry from next door to go with you. You can't let on that anything is the matter when you get there. Prom is the first and probably the most crucial point in one's life. Larry is in college, so you'll probably even be one up against the others."
Oh Lord.
"Trust me when I say that success in life is based on your prom in more ways than you think," she added after a thoughtful pause.
"Maybe for some careers it would matter," I said, doubting what I had just said in a serious way, "but I don't think it would make a difference for me."
"It matters. It always matters."
"What if someone wanted to be a professional surfer?"
She looked at me sternly. "That's not funny."
"Okay, I'll go," I simply said. "But why do I have to go with Larry?"
"Because, if you show up at a prom alone, you are done for right there and then. You're better off just dying in a car wreck on the way there."
"Well, I'll just call George, if you don't mind," I said, a little bewildered. "He asked me to go with him a while back."
She looked over. Her eyes were large and bright and looked like they were illuminated from the inside. She couldn't have looked more ecstatic if she'd had a religious revelation.
"So you were asked!"
"Well, yeah, but I told them all I wasn't going."
"'Them all'? Plural? Oh, that's wonderful. You have no idea how wonderful that is!"
And that is how it came that I sat in George's car in a purple prom dress that evening. He was nervous, and I felt sorry for him. He tried to have a conversation and I fucked it up in various ways. I thought I was just breaking the ice, but I guess you've got to be careful where you lodge that ax.
"So what made you change your mind?" he asked as we pulled out of the driveway. "I thought you said you weren't interested in going to the prom."
"Well, it wasn't so much that I changed my mind on my own account. You see, my mom is apparently part of a strange cult that worships the 'wholesome American way,' and if I would have refused to go to the prom, they'd have excommunicated her."
He tried to laugh and said, "Yeah, I know what you mean." And I was considerably surprised that he knew what I meant.
We drove down a block in silence before he apologized for not having commented on my dress.
"I wouldn't have commented on my dress either if I were you," I said.
"No, but I should have said something."
"You just look really beautiful, and I should have said that earlier," he said very earnestly. "I want you to know that that was the first thing I noticed, but I forgot to mention it because your mom was saying all those things, and I was listening to her, and then I thought for a second that I locked my keys in the car, so I was just distracted. But anyway, I really meant to tell you as soon as you opened the door that you look -- stunning. Just so you know."
I raised my eyebrows, feeling a little uneasy at the fact that he had said "stunning." It reminded me somehow of a little kid handling power tools.
"Well, thanks," I said.
"Thank you for changing your mind."
"Gee, you're flattering me into a bloody pulp here. I told you it has nothing to do with me. You should be thanking my mom for being a nut."
Short silence.
"Hester, I mean it." His voice came loaded with childish emotions.
"You mean what?"
"All this that I'm saying. I don't want you to get the wrong impression. I know it was rude not to mention your dress, and I'm not like that usually."
I played with the window button, letting the window slide up and down.
"You couldn't do anything wrong if the U.S. government paid you for it, George, so relax."
"I'm totally relaxed. I just want you to know that I'm not taking this lightly."
"I wish you would."
"Why?" he asked, diverting his eyes from the road to rest them on me.
"Well, because it's not like we're going to end up losing our virginity tonight under the starry sky, out on the football field."
"Of course not." His eyes went quickly back to the road.
I realized then that I had just driven a sledgehammer through everything that prom stood for. All that wonderful hope crushed -- extinguished mercilessly before the auditorium halls had even been reached. I felt terrible.
The auditorium was decorated with terrible taste and sad attempts at creating a special significance for this night. The band was quite possibly worse than the decorations. A few of the girls bombarded me with vigorous hugs and high-pitched screams, which caught me off guard, because I didn't really know any of them that well. I mean, I knew some of their heads from the back, and some of them from the lunch line or as characters from bizarre rumors -- but I didn't know them. We never actually found it necessary to acknowledge one another's presence in the classrooms. Now I was lying in their perfumed arms, and their elaborate hairdos were bouncing around my neck. It was all kind of like we were at a mountaineers reunion and I just ran into the members of my first expedition up Mount Everest.
They said things like: "I love your dress!"
And I said: "Oh -- thanks. Thanks."
My mother had bought my dress -- it was bright purple, shiny, and long with a stream of some kind of see-through blue material hanging down one side. I had no particular sentiments about it one way or another. My shoes looked like they were borrowed from the set of a World War II barn dance scene. They were the only pair of shoes that I had with heels. I looked ridiculous, and I was well aware of it in a detached sort of way.
The events of the night went by slowly. Some girl called Kelly was crowned prom queen. Some guy reached for a cup on the table so that his wrist could brush against my ass while I stood beside him. Someone with a lime-colored tuxedo burped the American anthem. Someone else began to cry and exclaim that he loved us all. A guy sitting opposite us at the table was continually trying to get his date to remember "that one scene in that one movie," and the girl was trying to make him notice her bra, which she had carefully pulled forth slightly from underneath her dress.
George talked to me about studying economics and his views on how the stock market would do in the upcoming year. I nodded and suppressed yawns and said things like, "Yep." And "Hell, yeah."
Eventually the conversation turned to how annoying paper cups are because if you use them too much they break through at the bottom. It was the first conversation that evening I kind of got into, and just when I thought I could breathe easily, George abruptly landed an uncomfortable kiss on my mouth.
I tried to smile at him when he drew back but my lips were immovable.
"Let's dance," he said.
The last thing I wanted to do was shake a goddamn leg.
"George, I'd rather just sit here and talk more about paper cups."
"Come on!"
He was one of those annoying people who grab your hand when you don't wanna dance and use their whole weight to tear you off the chair. I never understood why these people exist. Seems like they make it their life's mission to find reluctant dancers and wrestle them onto dance floors. I wonder sometimes if they're a religious community.
I sighed, and before there was much to be done about it, we were moving back and forth as blandly as possible. The music was calm and someone sang about true love in a way that made it obvious he was getting paid minimum wage for it. I felt life closing in on me: here I was slow-dancing with a future economic analyst -- next thing, I'd probably be getting him a beer out of the fridge after a long day of work at the office. Wasn't that how it went?
I broke off and stepped back.
"George, would you mind if I'm brutally honest with you right now?"
He looked scared. "No, go ahead."
"Well, how can I put this? I guess I'm just feeling a little -- a little like my insides are being pulled out of me while I'm looking on and seeing every detail of it. Mind if we stop dancing?"
"Uh, no..."
"Sorry," I said as we stood awkwardly against the wall again with our magenta-colored drinks. "I wasn't trying to freak you out."
"That's okay," he said, but of course he had no idea what he'd just labeled as okay. George would never have a clue. He was sweet and sincere and good -- and he'd be one of those men barbecuing on Sundays with a checkered apron, oblivious to wars and famine and government conspiracies. Quite possibly, he'd lead the happiest life of the whole goddamn graduating class. I wasn't about to get in his way.
"George," I began freshly, "will you please stop thinking all these sentimental things about me? I'm not that kind of girl. I don't want someone to flatter me on my dress -- especially not when it looks like shit. What I think is 'okay' is so far removed from what you consider 'okay.' There are whole worlds between us."
George still didn't understand. His eyes blinked excessively and nervously. He took a sip from his drink and looked over, trying to decide on what to say. I sighed. I was running out of ideas for making sense to him.
"Look, there are not only worlds between you and me -- there are worlds between me and everything else too. Maybe not just worlds -- maybe whole universes. I don't think I'm naturally supposed to be here -- I think something must have gone wrong. I think my parents conceived me by total accident."
"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself," he said.
"What are you talking about? I'm never hard on myself."
I could see I was intimidating George, so I put my hand on his shoulder and said, "You see that girl over there?"
I pointed to a girl sitting alone in a chair, kind of pretty except that her legs were skinny in the wrong places. Her brand-new shoes matched her sequined dress. There was glitter on her cheeks that you could see from a mile away, and her pink lipstick was perfectly applied onto unhappy lips that knew they were all made up for probably no reason.
"Yeah," said George.
"Well, you should go over there and ask her to dance."
He looked at me, a little distraught.
"Hester, I can't just -- just stop feeling things for one person and start feeling things for someone else just like that."
"How do you know? Try it," I said.
"Look, Hester -- "
"I'm not making small talk here -- I'm dead serious. Will you please just trust me on this one?"
I watched him walk uneasily toward her, and probably the only reason he went over there at all was because he was scared to death of what I might do otherwise. She looked up at him, they exchanged a few words, and after looking around, a little surprised, the girl stood up and they walked off. I watched them move around the dance floor. I could see George exchanging his routine dialogue with her and I could see the girl giggling and reacting to it as though they had practiced it all earlier. There was so much relief reflected on him after what I had just put him through that his confidence soared up high -- evolution seemed to speed up miraculously and from an amoeba grew a man.
I crawled into a dark corner, where I lit a cigarette and put it into my mouth. I coughed and stared lifelessly out at the auditorium -- blaring with music, obscured by dark figures and balloons.
Somewhere after my sixth cigarette the fire alarm went off.

Copyright © 2008 by Mercedes Helnwein

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