The Animators

A Novel

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“A wildly original novel that pulses with heart and truth . . . That this powerful exploration of friendship, desire, ambition, and secrets manages to be ebullient, gripping, heartbreaking, and deeply deeply funny is a testament to Kayla Rae Whitaker’s formidable gifts. I was so sorry to reach the final page. Sharon and Mel will stay with me for a very long time.”—Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest

She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

A funny, heartbreaking novel of friendship, art, and trauma, The Animators is about the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.

Praise for The Animators

“Unusual and appealing . . . The Animators covers familiar debut-novel territory: the search for identity, the desire for success, the bewildering experiences of small-town misfits leaving home for the bright lights of New York City. But Whitaker turns these motifs on their heads simply by changing the direction of the road and populating it with women.”The New York Times Book Review

“A mix of BeachesGirls, and Thelma & Louise . . . a ‘complicated,’ ‘sensual, sexy,’ raw nerve of a ‘roller coaster’ through a ‘tumultuous’ friendship . . . If you let this story happen to you, you’re gonna love it.”Glamour

The Animators is inspiring in its freshness and its authenticity, one of the most original and raw books I’ve read in a long time. I look forward to more Whitaker novels to add to my library.”The Dallas Morning News

“Suffused with humor, tragedy and deep insights about art and friendship.”People

“[A] stunning debut.”Variety

“A compulsively readable portrait of women as incandescent artists and intimate collaborators.”Elle

“An engrossing, exuberant ride through all the territories of love—familial, romantic, sexual, love of friends, and, perhaps above all, white-hot passion for the art you were born to make.”—Emma Donoghue, author of Room and The Wonder

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Animators

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 Kayla Rae Whitaker

PROLOGUE:

INTRODUCTION TO SKETCH

IntroductIon to Sketch was held In Prebble hall, a building Professor McIntosh called “Ballister’s dirtiest secret” during our first class. Prebble was an ancient, pipe-clanking fortress on the edge of campus with heating problems, leaky ceilings, and those 1930s wall radiators we used to melt crayons on in grade school. “You pay fifty thousand dollars a year to attend this institution,” he said, “and they stick you in a hovel for four years. It’s because they hate art.”

The tuition comment didn’t hold much weight for me. I was on scholarship. My peers talked about skiing in Aspen and summers in the Hamptons. Ballister was their safety school when Stanford and Duke eluded them. They spoke with the opaque, offhand world knowledge of the privileged. My first weekend there, I watched a girl at a party barf into a five-hundred-dollar Coach purse. Terrified of the cafeteria’s clamor, I had taken to eating three meals of ramen noodles a day in my dorm room.

I went to Ballister because of the visual arts program, because they’d given me their Poor Appalachian Kid scholarship, and because it was as far away from home as I could manage. I had chosen art because I needed something to make use of the bright lights that had existed in my head for as long as I could remember, my fervent, neon wish to be someone else. In high school, I sampled my way up and down the artistic spectrum methodically, like the good student I was, hoping I’d land on something that sparked me: I sketched, I constructed shadowboxes, I threw some rudimentary pots, trying a little of everything, committing seriously to nothing. Too scared, at that point, to put myself at stake for fear of failure. The revelation, maybe, that I had nothing to give. I had yet to encounter anything that made the risk seem worthwhile. I came to Ballister hoping that being there would put an end to my floundering. That I would finally buckle down and find what I was supposed to make, and that it would mean something.

I had taken the Amtrak train twenty-two hours out of Maysville, Kentucky, to the tiny upstate New York town in which Ballister was located. Ballister was, I was surprised to learn, not too terribly removed from Canada. My parents’ geographic sense of the north wasn’t much better than mine. They didn’t believe me at first, when I told them I was five hours from New York City and hence out of harm’s reach. Before I left, my father cleared his throat and thumped me on the back like I was another man. My mother gave me a fierce hug, something with a degree of pain to it, and said with her chin hooked over my shoulder, “Don’t you come back pregnant.”

My parents met working in a factory that made lawnmower parts. The brand’s claim to fame: George Jones had once drunkenly straddled its luxury model while pursued by the Texas State Police. They were resigned to their jobs, to each other, and to us, their children, who had all the fish sticks and Nintendo we needed. They watched Wheel of Fortune with three feet of space between them on the couch. They fought often, and loudly. Neither had gone to college; they hoped I would become something useful, like a CPA.

The closest I had come to finding something that lit me up was in a summer gifted-and-talented program, just before my senior year. In an art course there, I made a graphic novella of the night my mom threw an ottoman at my dad, laboring over how the glass patio door shattered, shards tumbling in an arc of beauty into the green holler bottom below. I painted a textured oil backdrop to simulate the night air wadding itself into a tornado: the Horror of ’89, which touched down that very night in regions of East Kentucky, West Virginia, and the golden triangle of Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol, Tennessee. The instructor, upon seeing it, complimented me but grimaced. Said, “I like the little cartoons, but how about we fit your skills into a more serious framework?” And pushed a pamphlet for architecture school at me.

McIntosh scared me as much as the rest of Ballister did. He was a serious artist, or had been at one point—a sort of eighties gallery darling whose decline had acted as a chute into teaching, a profession for which he had no real passion. “Oh yah, McIntosh is intense,” said the senior VA major who’d given me a tour at orientation. But McIntosh was more than just intense. He was a carnivore who loved to eviscerate freshmen, a real crinkle of joy seaming his mouth as he did. We were instructed to bring a sketch to the first class for discussion, and McIntosh made a blonde with perfect posture, daughter of a D.C. diplomat, tear up when he put her sketch of a woman striding down a crosswalk on the projector. “I want you to pay attention here,” he told us. “This is a case in point as to the importance of exactness in your line work, and the price paid when you become sloppy.” He took his laser pointer, made circles around the figure’s smudged face. “What a deeply confusing expression. This woman looks constipated. Was that your intention, Margaret?” He put his laser pointer down as she began to sniffle. “Well, don’t feel discouraged. This is Ballister. There’s always room for one more prelaw student.” I felt lucky when he glanced at my sketch—an old lady who’d ridden the train with me until Charlottesville, Virginia, asleep with an opened bag of Planters in her hand—wrinkled his nose, and said only, “In bad need of discipline.”

During the third class, McIntosh put another one of my assignments up on the projector. It was a sketch I’d done of a dog chained to a stake in a yard. I didn’t realize it until it was on the wall, but the yard appeared to be on the side of a mountain. It took me the distance from my chair to the screen to realize it: I had drawn Kentucky. I looked at what I’d done, glowing large in front of the class, and felt homesickness wrapping itself around my throat, my eyes growing hot until McIntosh said, “Good. Some rather inspired pencil work here, and here.”

It would be the only nice thing he would say about me all semester. I was shocked out of crying. Everyone turned, subtly, to look.

The only person I’d spoken to on campus for more than fifteen minutes was a boy from Kansas named Zack. Zack was also a VA major and was obsessed with M. C. Escher. Accordingly, I was in love with him. I incorporated his form into the bright lights of what I supposed my future would be, staking all my hopes on him. My drug of choice at eighteen: the quiet devouring of boys in my head. In the secret back pages of my sketchbook, I had even drawn him.

Zack was also in McIntosh’s class. My eyes automatically drifted to the left, where he sat at a neighboring table. If I hadn’t looked in that direction, I might not have seen Mel.

She was perched at a high table with her upper body craned over the desk, wiry arms and legs folded like a praying mantis, looking at me through frayed blond bangs. One dirty Chuck Taylor pressed the floor, bouncing nervously. She looked sleep-deprived—rumpled clothes, an evident ink stain on the knee of her jeans, little lines around her eyes the rest of us didn’t have yet. This was the girl over whom McIntosh went into raptures the first couple of classes—she was, apparently, his sole exception to inhaling freshmen. Session one, she brought in a sketch of a man on a front porch, raising what looked like a mug in the shape of a cowboy boot to his lips, and there was this look the man was giving, so salty you could almost eat it. Funny and sly and even, in the cocked eyebrow, a little angry that someone thought they could spy on him like that. “Expression,” McIntosh trilled, rocking on his heels. And we could see it, too, even if we didn’t know how to say it—it was excellent. Steady, confident lines, delicate shading. It was work that had a good enough idea of itself to be playful.

Her second sketch was a color-smeared cluster of kids in torn T-shirts, safety pins, snarls, all collectively clobbering the hell out of each other. Punks, genuine enough to make me lean away in awe. The look was harsh yet soft, dreamy and glazed, curves creamy. The group fought as a cloud of dust, the result of their scuffling, rose above their shoes. “A little overboard with the blending,” McIntosh said, “but the look of it is really something. And there’s a degree of fun here, too, yes? Some daring? Who were these people, Ms. Vaught?”

“Just some kids I hung around with this summer.” She had a funny voice, deep with the puncture of broken glass. It made me look up for a second before I went back to my sketchbook.

In my first weeks at Ballister, I kept my ambition secret. I wanted so badly to be more than what I felt. I wanted to be good. I wanted to be great, even. But I was cowed by the knowledge that everyone else here did, too—people who’d come from bigger places and better schools than I had, people who’d traveled and had training and experiences and seemed, in a strange way, more like people out in the world than I’d ever been or, I feared, ever would be. Seeing their work—good, bad, comparable to mine—only ever made me think of what could do, if I could do it better, and not with a sense of confidence or competitiveness, but fear.

When I looked at Mel’s stuff, I felt something different. I didn’t know how to quantify what I was seeing in words, but I could feel it. She was naturally, easily good, and when I saw things she had done, I felt a curiously pleasurable pressure at my middle. It was an expansive, generous feeling. Before I saw her, even, I saw what she did.

Class ended. I watched Zack pick up his backpack and head out the door in the direction of the dorms, and saw one of the girls in class who did work I called, in my head, Hallmark crap—beatific faces, brave seascapes—catch up to him, blond hair bouncing against her coat.

Then I heard that broken-glass voice next to me. “Nice work up there today.”

 

I turned. Mel was pulling a denim jacket over her skinny shoulders. She smiled, ticked her head back in recognition.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I like seeing McIntosh clam up,” she said. “Like, when some- thing floors him and he doesn’t have any Sorbonne stories in response and he’s forced to just shut the fuck up. Doesn’t that give you joy?”

“I do like it better when he’s not talking.”

There was a cluster growing behind us—Margaret, the diplo- mat’s daughter, a boy named Edward whose mother was some sort of photography bigwig at Vogue, and a girl from Mexico named Reva whose family was rumored to run a drug cartel and who was wearing a bracelet studded with what I assumed were real diamonds. Just a few in the parade of intimidation that was Ballister. They’d all been pulled in by Mel; were surreptitiously following her, in fact.

“We’re gonna try this bar downtown,” Mel said. “Wanna come?” My sister had given me a gift before I left Kentucky. She’d never had much use for me—for most of our lives, the fact that we were related was her chief shame—but when I accepted the scholarship and we both knew I would soon leave for a place she’d never been, she began to look at me with new, slightly awed regard. The night before my train was scheduled to leave, she tossed me a little square wrapped in paper and said, “Here’s your going-away present.”

It was a fake ID, a very poor one, but in the days before holograms and magnetic strips, it was laminated and had the Kentucky Commonwealth logo on it, so it would do fine. The brunette in the picture looked nothing like me and was named Nicole Cockrell.

“Let’s see your fakie,” Mel said on the way to the bar. She leaned over, pushing her horn-rims to the top of her head. I was struck by the way she smelled—like men’s deodorant, low-grade and spicy. She pulled her fake out, we compared—she was Jocelyn Stone—and she went, “Heh heh.”

It was mostly me Mel talked to that night. The rest of the art kids eventually left, but we stayed, huddled at the bar with Miller High Lifes. “They can’t hold their liquor yet,” Mel said, wagging her hand at the door. “Kiddies.” I didn’t tell her that I could count on one hand the number of times I’d gotten drunk.

I saw the corner of a brightly colored book sticking from her bag. Deadbone Erotica. On the cover, wonky neon lizards cavorted with large-breasted Amazonian women.

I plucked it out, looked it over. “What’s this?”

Mel raked her hand through her pageboy. It was the longest I would ever see her hair. Two weeks later, she would hit it with cerulean Manic Panic and walk around Smurf-headed until Christmas. Then she shaved it all off and bitched about the northern winter teabagging her scalp.

“That’s fuckin rad is what that is.” She leaned over and tapped the Deadbone cover. “You like comics.” It wasn’t a question.

I flipped through. It was drawn in a bubble style: weird, druggy shapes. I had just started paying attention to method, color, how things were rendered, the technical shit they wake you up to in school that you can’t help but see everywhere after. The comic was alive, bright and blasted. But there was something else drawing me in—the yellowed paper, the deep, musty smell. It was like cutting down a tree and counting the rings within. A creepy awareness of the years passing.

“I bet you’re more of a Warner Brothers fan, though.” Mel tilted her beer at me. “I can tell. From your stuff. You do that thing, too, where there’s this, like, acknowledgment that crazy exists. Like it’s out there and pretty close by, actually, but you don’t have to draw it for us. We get the hint.”

“I used to watch some Looney Tunes,” I said slowly, trying to gauge whether I was about to say something of friendship-disqualifying weirdness.

“Right on.”

What I didn’t tell her: I actually spent every Saturday morning watching Looney Tunes, then the uncensored, wartime Merrie Melodies marathons that aired on weekend afternoon cable. Nazi smashers, vintage high-speed chases through Technicolor deserts. I could still remember how offended, how personally smote, I was when Nickelodeon first censored those cartoons: blurring or blocking the oversized pistols, the entire screen fuzzing at the shot that made Daffy Duck’s feathers fly. I was already a purist. A devotee, of some sort.

The dust clouds in Mel’s picture. Those were WB takeoff clouds, to be sure. Funny and a little bit eerie at the same time. I knew I’d seen them somewhere before.

But saying this would have felt like speaking volumes. It was more effort than I could expend, for how afraid I was of chasing Mel off. So all I said was “Yeah, they were awesome.”

“So do you draw comics?”

“I used to. And then I went to this summer arts program. And the prof there told me to study architecture.”

I said this with difficulty. Mel was hellfire and balls all over, I could already tell. She’d never let anyone talk her out of anything. I felt my face burn.

But she just said, “That sounds character-building,” and then mimed ramming a straw through her eye.

Then, “Is your name really Sharon Kisses?”

“It is until I have the money to get it changed.” “Dude, no. Your name is mind-blowing.”

“My name is a confirmation that my parents hate me.” I burped. “It’s Scottish. And it’s terrible.”

She gave me a long look while managing to swig her beer. “How’d you end up here?”

“You mean at Ballister?” “Yeah.”

I shrugged, embarrassed. I told the truth when asked where I was from, but I always considered lying first.

“You’re Southern,” Mel said. “Obviously.” I pressed my hand to my mouth.

She laughed. “Try to hide, but you can’t. Whereabouts?” “East Kentucky. About a half an hour from West Virginia.”

She whistled through her teeth. “Wow. I knew there was evidence of white trashiness in you, but Jesus H.” She lifted an eyebrow. “Might your couch have been covered in plastic wrap?”

 

I put my hands on my face in mock surprise. “However did you know?”

She smacked her palm on the bar and cawed. “I knew you were good people. That’s what I like to hear, man.” In her other hand, she dangled her bottle with two fingers, like she was used to holding a beer. “Fluted notes of white trashiness. Nuances of crackery, hillbilly goodness.”

“Hey now.” I shook my fist at her.

She clapped me on the back. “You’re good people,” she repeated.

I fumbled for something to say. I already had the sense that Mel’s brain ran faster than mine. “Thanks.”

“Note I said nuance.” Mel held a finger up. The bartender took it as a motion for another round. Mel shrugged, accepted. “You’re lucky, dude. We were full-on trash. No nuance. Just the thing itself, staring you down.”

I was going to ask what she meant, but she said, “You ever seen

Heavy Metal? That futuristic cartoon from the eighties?” “No.”

“Your stuff in class kind of reminded me of it. Want to go watch it?”

She wanted to hang out. The first time I would actually hang out with someone in college. My stomach blossomed. “Okay.” “Cool. I’m in Hagen. We can walk over.”

We chugged our beers. She motioned to the bartender and pulled a wallet from her back pocket—the first woman I’d ever seen who carried her wallet in the rear. We paid and hoisted our backpacks onto our shoulders, then she said, “Hold up.” Rummaged through her bag, came up empty-handed. For the first time that evening, she looked anxious. “I can’t find my sketchbook.”

“I’ll bet it’s back at Prebble. Let’s go check.”

The doors to Prebble were wide open, the janitors buffing the linoleum. We walked past them, unseen, and up to the art studios on the third floor. Mel’s sketchbook was lying on the podium. She grabbed it with an audible sigh of relief. “Goddamn, I thought I lost you,” she said, and flew through. She stopped, mouth screwed to one side.

“What.”

“That son of a bitch. He went through it.” She peered closer. “He graded it. McIntosh fucking graded my private sketchbook. Look.” She pointed. “Correction lines. Check marks. In ink. See?”

She opened to a sketch of the interior of a 7-Eleven, rows of stiff, shining potato chip bags on a wire rack. In the corner off to the side, a baby screeching with crazed eyes, faint yet present—not the picture’s point, but a facet of its landscape. Lovely, McIntosh had scrawled.

She turned the page. Instead of a sketch, she’d fashioned a make-shift storyboard. A Shakes the Clown type doing coke lines off what appeared to be a Country Living cookbook proffered by a tired-looking call girl. Square two: Shakes straightens, one finger slyly held to nostril. Square three: gazes to the audience, eyes wide. Square four: a cacophony of light and noise, Shakes gigging his feet out, screaming, “SQUEEEEEE!” A pig’s head floats in the corner, winking, the cheerful harbinger of doom. The tagline below: This Is Between Me and the Voices in My Head.

I liked it even better than the stuff she brought to class—it was looser, less restrained, the style sharp yet just loopy enough. But underneath, McIntosh wrote, Why are you wasting your time with this? Mel stuffed the book into her bag, took a look around, and nodded at the locked room tucked into the classroom’s rear. McIntosh’s office.

“Got a bobby pin?” she asked me.

I picked through my bag, handed one to her. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s see what he’s hiding in there.”

She knelt down, snapped the bobby pin in half, then bent it and stuck it into the lock, tilting her head to listen as she jimmied.

I looked over my shoulder. “Maybe we should come back later?” “It’s the ten-to-six. Those guys aren’t the least bit interested in what we’re doing.”

The lock gave with a weak click. Mel held the pin up, triumphant. This was, I was quickly learning, my balancing point with Mel—her ideas gave me a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I went along with them anyway.

McIntosh’s office was dingy even in the dark, with only a small window facing the woods to the college’s south. There was a crack in the wall coming from the spot where he’d nailed his Princeton diploma; from somewhere, we could hear a steady drip.

Mel yanked open the desk and began sifting through. “Okay. Cough drops. Tea bags. Pepper packets. Metamucil. Oil pencils. Shit. Okay.” She opened another drawer. Pulled out a canister of Maxwell House. “Oh ho. Hold the phone.” Wiggled her eyebrows. Lifted out a baggie.

“What is it?”

“It appears,” she said, “to be the dankness.” She brought the bag to her nose, inhaled. “Yes. That is middle-aged, professional-grade weed.” She unzipped her backpack and dropped it in. “You get high?”

I scratched my nose. There was a beat before I admitted, “Haven’t tried.”

Mel let her hands fall to her sides. “Aw, Sharon. You’re gonna love this. You’re gonna let the world happen to you, and you’re gonna love it.”

It was balmy outside, one of the last few seventy-degree halcyon days in September. We camped out behind Prebble with a bottle of Woodford Reserve we’d also found in McIntosh’s desk. I watched, fascinated, as Mel parsed seed from stem on the back of her sketchbook.

There was no way McIntosh could report the theft, which, we agreed, gave our steal the flavor of deceit. Not that it would have made much difference. McIntosh would be fired a few years after we graduated. I would encounter him not long after at an opening at PS1, saying, “Hey, Professor McIntosh, how are you?” And he would gaze at me, drinker’s rosacea creeping into his cheeks, and he would hiss, “You. Are a living example. That the world. Is unfair.

Never again have I been as pleasantly stoned as I was that night behind Prebble with Mel, so high without shame or baggage. After a brief bout of paranoia, the night took on a crisp, golden quality. I felt

 

the top of my skin lift off. The weight that had been sitting on top of my throat since I had arrived began to release. Time stretched, grew thin and gauzy, all fuzzy endings and beginnings. I can’t tell you how long we played roly-poly down the hillside, kicking off to land in a heap at the hill’s foot. Or how we made our way to Super America to stare at the Hostess cakes until the cashier said, “Girls, either buy something or get out,” and I gingerly picked up a pack of Ho Hos as if it were a living thing. Or how long Mel laughed when I tried to light the wrong end of a cigarette. And I cannot recall how we made our way back to my dorm room to find my roommate, a girl from Binghamton even more homesick than I was, mercifully spending a long weekend back home.

We were half-finished with the whiskey and had almost smoked through Mel’s cigarettes. “This is cool,” I said, tapping the cover of Deadbone, which I’d dug out of her backpack again—we were al- ready pawing through each other’s things. “Where’d you get it?”

“Comic book shop.” She took it, paged through. “I rode Grey- hound up here and this book got me in trouble. Guy across from me saw me reading something with boobs on the cover and took it as an invitation to bone. Had to fend off advances from Atlanta to Cincinnati. It’s like, hey sports fan, do you not know a dyke when you see one?”

I tried to look nonchalant. I’d heard one of my more redneck uncles use that word in tones of absolute poison to describe his ex- wife. After my missing aunt Marilyn, Mel Vaught was the second lesbian I’d ever met.

“I took Amtrak,” I said, recovering.

She picked up a Ho Ho. Inspected it but did not eat. “Yeah. I thought about Amtrak, too. But the bus was easier. Mom’s out of the picture, and I lived with my aunt, who’s great, but getting up there, you know? Couldn’t really do the trip. I told her I’d be okay on the bus. Which I was, mostly. With the exception of Stiffie McGoo.”

“My parents couldn’t get off work,” I said. “I read a lot.” Guh. Lame, I thought. But Mel just nodded. Took down the Ho Ho in two bites.

“So where’s your mom?” I asked her. “Jail.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. She’s in there good, too. She had a parole hearing last summer and she thought it would be a good idea to send the judge a great big bouquet of fuck-yous right before. I think she called him a ‘punk-ass bitch,’ if memory serves? Charm for miles, lemme tell you.”

Mel said this with a weird, offhand cheer. I still wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t joking. But I looked at her through the smoke and I saw something in her eyes, something strapped and grim I only saw in kids back home, the really poor ones. Holler kids who wore flannel shirts from the Family Resource Center, ones from families with too many kids to feed or parents who were crankheads, at their best when they were absent. The hard times kids.

I realized, with a start, that Mel was one of them. I wasn’t, not really. But she was, nevertheless, the closest thing to myself that I’d found at Ballister.

She must be drunk if she willingly told me that, I thought. Letting her guard slip. And this, I already knew about Ballister—the place was all about putting your guard way, way up.

She must have sensed what I was thinking, because she flopped over the side of the bed, upside down, and laced her hands over her belly. “Ballister’s weird. But it’s like my sketchbook, man. I have to draw what I have to draw, and if it’s where I’m from, so be it. And I have zero fucks to give about what McIntosh or anyone else has to say about it. I’m not interested in spending the rest of my four years trying to defend how I got here. I’m working.

She burped, closed-mouthed. Pointed at me. “So it’s okay to say where you’re from, Kisses. All right?”

I’d been caught. I nodded.

“So what are you planning on doing with your stuff?” she asked me. “What’s next.”

“My stuff?” “Your work.”

I rubbed the back of my neck. “Well,” I said, “I don’t really know yet. I was kind of hoping I’d figure it out here.”

She nodded. Waiting for more.

“Like, I know there are things I want to make,” I continued. “But I don’t know how they’re going to get made yet. You know? Like. I don’t know.” I scratched my head. Shrugged.

“It’s okay,” she said suddenly, splaying her hands out in a surrender gesture. “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot, man. It’s not a big deal. I’m just nosy as fuck.”

“That’s cool,” I told her.

“I’m gonna be an animator,” she said. “I thought that might be your thing, too, judging by your stuff. You’d be really good.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, man. Animate. What else is there?”

I felt lucky that Mel was talking to me in the first place, had chosen to talk to me. If she believed in something, it had to have credibility. I shook my head anyway. “But you’re so talented,” I told her.

She laughed. Pawed, still upside down, at a pack of Zebra Cakes. “I don’t think they let you do it if you suck. Here. Lemme see that sketch from class today.”

She rose, made a grabby hand at my backpack. I pushed it to her and she rummaged through. Fished out the sketch and held it up, studying it, chewing thoughtfully for a moment. She tilted the sketch toward me. “Imagine your dog,” she said. “Right here. See, you’ve already got the beginnings. The sort of hazy quality here, right around his feet. The paws are where they are now, but you’ve made this, like, tension. There’s this potential to move. You were thinking about his next step, even when you were drawing him like he is. Weren’t you?”

She gestured to the paws, the wavery sense of them I spent hours getting just right. It was true. It was what I thought about whenever I sat down to draw something. The story. Where has this been? Where is it going next? I’d never said it aloud, but somehow Mel had known. “It’s the greatest thing you can do for something,” she said. “Giving it movement. Possibility.”

She handed the sketch back. Looked at me very seriously for a moment, considering me. She said it again. “You’d be really good.”

I held her gaze, unsure of where to take all this. Finally I lurched over her, snatched the Zebra Cakes, and crammed one in my mouth. I stared at her. “I fotched me your Ding Dong,” I told her.

She giggled. “Fotch. Holy hell, what’d you do, roll around in a big pile of Hee Haw before you came to college?”

Mel twisted over me and reached for her backpack. Pulled out a handful of VHS tapes. Handed one to me. “Put it in.”

I slid it into my roommate’s VCR. Mel closed her eyes, smiled at the heavy, comforting click of it snapping into the gears. “That’s the best sound in the world,” she said.

The screen blinked dirty gray. A sinister, heavy-eyed duck, a methy Daffy, wears a trench coat in an alley. A lady rounds a corner, he flashes her. She screams. He turns slowly to the viewer, something in his movement a little jerky, a little slow, and grins. You can al- most see the frames flicking to make the shift. “What is this?” I asked Mel.

“Dirty Duck. 1974. Offshoot of that whole Fritz the Cat San Francisco alt-comic thing. R. Crumb and all that.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. But I nodded anyway. “I’ve always kind of liked how it looks. It’s gritty. I like how you can see someone, somewhere, actually drawing this. You know?” I nodded again.

“Have you ever seen The Maxx?” Mel said.

I started, nearly knocking over the can we’d been using as an ashtray. “You’ve seen The Maxx?”

Mel grinned at me. “Of course,” she said. “That show was, like, a milestone, if you had cable and were a weird kid. Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” I leaned over, wiping up ashes with tissues.

The Maxx was my favorite show, that summer I was ten, in the days of our house’s fuzzy, unreliable cable. Not something my parents would have let me watch, had they been paying attention. The story of a superhero living in two separate but real dimensions: a grimy, dangerous metropolis in which he is homeless, and a wild jungle landscape in which he battles dark forces to protect his jungle queen, who in the city is his traumatized social worker.

It aired late-night when kids my age were supposed to be in bed. Alone in the living room while everyone else slept, I consoled myself in the light of the TV.

“Well, shit. I knew you had good taste,” Mel said. “I got it. Let’s break it out, man.”

She found the tape, slipped it in.

The screen lit with the eerie off-black of prelude. The hairs on my arms stood up. It was like being in the room with a ghost. The screen crackled, two or three lightning bolts cutting through the high fuzz of the analog. Mel had taped it from her TV.

I was suddenly back in my parents’ house, alone in front of the Magnavox, back when television had an end: the time of night at which it, and by extension we, went off the radar. The CBS affiliate played the national anthem, the flag rippling in the sky over idyllic shots of farmland and mountains. And then, the screen cuts to the green, creeping Doppler radar, the dread at the dead, single-note tone of sign-off.

It was while watching the show that the idea of being any kind of artist first occurred to me. Being wrapped in that story was the furthest I had ever been away from myself. That something could lift me out of my skin like that was a revelation. When I watched, I was able to discorporate—a word I would learn, and love, later on. I wanted that portal for myself, strange and private and good.

I felt tears come to my eyes. I turned away slightly, rubbed. Mum- bled something about contact lenses.

Mel nodded. Kindly looked away. “Finding stuff by accident,” she said. “That’s how most people get started, I think. I stole Dirty Duck from one of my mom’s boyfriends, back in the day. Someone gave it to him as a joke, because it had cartoon fucking in it. But I loved it as soon as I saw it. Started drawing right then.”

She removed the last two cigarettes from the pack. Lit them both.

Handed me one. “Instant love,” she said. “That’s how it works.” We sank into a cozy little vacuum, Mel and I, watching. I don’t know if it was the cartoons themselves, or watching them with Mel, but that night was the closest I had felt to knowing what I wanted from my life. She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

I stIrred on my dorm room bed with my first legitimate hangover, feeling like I was going to throw up on the floor. I saw the fuzzy outline of Mel sitting in front of the television, clicking through channels. I reached for my glasses.

She turned, hair matted. “Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey,” she said.

“Did you even sleep last night?” “I don’t sleep. Not really.”

We rose and walked slowly to the Student Center. Campus was silent. Through the glass panels of the center, we could see under- grads in ones and twos, eating cereal around the canteen.

Mel cleared her throat. “Listen. So, uh, let me know if you ever want to work on something. You know? Like partner up? Do some cartoons?”

It was a strange, shy moment. We didn’t look at each other—she stared at the ground, sort of shuffling her sneakers. I glanced over my shoulder at the center. It was quiet until I said, “Yeah. Okay. Why not?”

Mel grinned, bobbed her head. “Awesome. Yeah, you have a good head for this stuff, I think. Okay. We can get together and, you know, brainstorm. Like maybe this weekend?”

“Sure.” I nodded toward the center. “I better go throw down some weak coffee and a Hot Pocket before I croak.”

“Right on,” she said. “See you.” And she flapped back toward Hagen, platinum hair dodging and weaving. I watched her walk away for a minute before turning and going inside.

- About the author -

Kayla Rae Whitaker was born and raised in Kentucky. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and of New York University’s MFA program, which she attended as a Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Scholar. She lives in Louisville. This is her first novel.


From the Hardcover edition.

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