Tell Me One Thing
forthcoming from Regal House Publishing, Spring 2023
Outside a rural Pennsylvania motel, nine-year-old Lulu Belnap smokes a cigarette while sitting on the lap of a trucker. Art school grad Quinn Bradford is passing through on a road trip and captures it. The photograph, later titled “Lulu & the Trucker,” becomes a seminal piece that launches Quinn’s career, escalating her from a starving artist to a renowned photographer. In a parallel life, Lulu struggles to survive a volatile home, growing up too quickly in an environment wrought with drug abuse and her mother’s prostitution. Decades later, when Quinn has a retrospective at the Whitney Museum and “Lulu & the Trucker” has sold at auction for a record-breaking amount, Lulu is surprised to find the troubling image of her young self in the newspaper. She attends an artist talk for the exhibition with one question in mind for Quinn: Why didn’t you help me all those years ago? Tell Me One Thing travels through the 1980s to the present day, weaving two very different stories of the protagonists, while linking their lives through commonalities. In the turmoil of our present day, the novel evokes relevant themes of privilege, power and sacrifice.
Lulu paces outside the motel, bored out of her mind. She watches a wasp flirt with the cone-shaped construction that hangs above room six. It circles and stalls, tucks the front bit of its glossy body inside then pulls back out, buzzes the nest like it’s confused, before flying straight into the small hole, perfectly centered, no wings snagging on the edges. She studies the nest, thinks it looks like the papier-mâché they made in school before summer break, hers an ashtray for Maureen that her ma flipped over in her hands before tossing in the garbage, telling her it would never work because she made the bottom round.
She drags her flip-flops across the cracked cement and shields her eyes from the hazy day with her hand. She’s tired of the hot weather, the wet air that makes it hard for her to breathe. And even though she hates school, she’s excited that it starts again soon because they get to take care of a class guinea pig, and if you’re real good, you get to bring it home on the weekend. She’s already made a space for the cage near the couch where she sleeps. She’s heard that each class gets to name it something new, and she thinks that’s dumb because it’ll never know its name if it keeps getting new ones. Still, she runs ideas through her mind, Princess, Tinkerbell, Penny. But then maybe it’s a boy, and she’s about to switch to boys’ names when her ma’s voice drifts through the motel room door, deeper than usual, a fake laugh that Lulu hates. She mocks it with her own, but quietly so Maureen can’t overhear and get pissed. And she wonders what’s so funny anyhow.
Lulu picks up a small rock, one of many spit up on the sidewalk by car tires and dragged by the truckers’ thick boots. She considers throwing it at the wasp nest but thinks better of that. Instead, she squints and shoots it across the parking lot where it skips off the fender of a beat-up Dodge. She glances around, but no one has noticed. She picks up another and does the same, though this time it bounces off a tire in a lame thud instead.
If she tries hard, she can make out Eli across the way, slumped behind the cash register at the gas station mart, flipping through a magazine, and she wonders if it’s one of those girlie ones that Hank’s always buying and hiding under the sofa. Joey crosses over the diner parking lot and she wants to shout out to him to come over, but Maureen has warned her not to fuck around. Instead, she watches him scratch the thick scruff of his messy hair as the diner door swings him away from her. She battles a tug in her belly, a yanking feeling like someone’s twisting up bits of her from the inside, and she tries not to think about the last time she ate. It’s too easy to fall into wishing she had a burger or a grilled cheese. She picks up another rock and throws it as hard as she can at the diner, but it falls short and disappears among the other gravely bits in the parking lot. The sun shifts her way, and Lulu steps back into a slice of shade under the motel awning. She watches for the wasp again, but the nest is quiet.