Read the first chapters of the novel....
- 1 -
WHEN GEORGIA GOT HOME from the factory, Albert was lying on the kitchen floor. He didn’t move when she called his name, or
stir at the tap of her footsteps as she crossed the linoleum and stood beside his still, limp form. He was clearly beyond hearing, so
she gave him a poke with her toe.
“Albert,” she said. “Wake up, you old booger. I’m home.”
The basset hound twitched a nostril. His eyes traveled up her leg and passed over the nonessentials balanced in her arms,
settling with contentment on the plastic sack dangling from one hand.
“He lives,” Georgia pronounced, plunking the sack of chicken scraps onto the counter. With the back of her small, cold-reddened
hand, she brushed away a renegade strand of hair that had escaped her braid. Then she sighed and shook her head. “Big lug.
All you can do is lie there? You can’t even say hello?”
Albert moved his tail a quarter of an inch but showed no inclination to actually rise.
Shoving papers and coffee cups to the side of the kitchen table, Georgia set down the box she’d picked up from the post office,
along with a stack of ancient cassettes she’d finally brought in from the car. An old Moody Blues slid from the pile and fell, clipping
Albert on the snout before skittering under the refrigerator. With the dignity of beleaguered royalty, the basset rolled onto his
belly, sneezed twice, and heaved himself onto his stubby legs. “Sorry, old boy,” Georgia said, reaching down to stroke his nose.
“Didn’t mean to clonk you.” She scratched his head, garnering a pleased shiver of skin as she ran her short fingernails down his
After shedding her coat and scarf, letting Albert out into the backyard to pad through the snow and take care of the necessities,
and finally serving him up a nice bowl of chicken scraps and kibble, Georgia stood leaning against the kitchen counter. The days,
at long last, had begun to lengthen. The ungodly hour she had to start work in the mornings was finally paying off in the brief
glimpse of daylight she got at the end. A last shaft of sunlight threaded between the small houses of her Minneapolis
neighborhood and through her kitchen window, striking sparks from her brown hair, but she was unconscious of any hint of
beauty, any last remnant of vitality. She was aware only of the weight of the braid down her back and of the sun’s much-needed
warmth after the chill of the factory. Hunger finally prodded her out of her stupor, but ten hours of stuffing internal organs up cold
chicken butts had sucked the last particles of energy out of her. She couldn’t face making dinner.
Her eyes drifted to the box she’d picked up from the post office, lying upside down on the table. Cookies from Mom, she guessed,
and for once didn’t mind how pathetic it was for a grown woman to be getting care packages from her mother. She didn’t even
care what shape the contents were in―the last batch had arrived so battered there were crumbs on the outside of the box―but
hey, dinner was dinner. And afterwards all she wanted was a shower and bed. She pulled a steak knife from a drawer to slit the
The phone interrupted her. Hesitating, her mouth already watering, she sighed as the second ring began, and laid down the knife.
“Don’t put on your jammies,” ordered her friend Corrine. “I’m coming by to pick you up.”
“I don’t think so, Cor,” Georgia said.
“You haven’t been out in ages, girl.”
“So, tonight’s as good a time as any. Besides, this is my last chance to have a fling before Mama moves in,” Corrine said. “My
brothers are driving her up from Texas as we speak, with her grandmother’s chifforobe tied to the top of the car and probably
enough pots and pans to fill my entire house. So tonight you and me are goin’ out. We’ll pick up men and have wild sex in the
balcony of the Bijou.”
“Oh, sure. And then we can go over and pick up our prizes for best hallucinations of the month.”
“You just get ready. Ten minutes,” Corrine said, and hung up.
They ended up walking down to Manny's Pub, a few blocks away, taking Albert along. The owner knew Albert well from the basset’
s early solo forays (it had taken Georgia a while to find the hole in the backyard fence when they’d first moved in) and looked the
other way. If the health department happened by, well, he guessed the mutt must have just snuck in, and of course it would never
happen again. Albert sat happily under the table accepting his due of pets and adoring scratches behind the ear from the other
customers, along with the occasional pretzel. For Georgia, a beer and a bar sandwich went a ways toward restoring her eroded
spirits, but even more so the friendly banter and the warmth of the place.
Walking home, Georgia gave Corrine a hug around the shoulders. “You’re a good friend, Cor. Thanks.”
“Well, it was fun. And you deserve some fun. Ever since that sorry excuse of a―”
Georgia put up a hand. “Don’t even mention Jimmy. If I can’t even hang onto a jerk like him …”
“What I was going to say,” Corrine continued with manifest patience, “was that since ol’ Jimbo came into your life, you haven’t had
a fair shake when it comes to good times. You never would see that you deserved better than him from the start. And maybe that’
s your problem―you can’t see it….” She glanced over at Georgia’s shadowed face. “Oh, hell, honey. I'm sorry. I didn’t mean to
give you shit. I know what kind of a year you’ve been having, and then that sorry-ass, no good thing walking out on you just when
he could’ve been some use. You need more nights out. Now, if only pretty Davy in there with the shoulders wasn’t ten years too
young for us…. Mmm, mmm.”
Georgia smiled. “Yeah, he was sweet. But surely he’s only five years too young for us.” She paused as Albert pulled toward the
edge of the sidewalk. “Oh, Albert. Couldn’t you at least wait till we got to a side street?” She rolled her eyes as he squatted under
a streetlight. Corrine laughed.
Georgia dutifully pooper-scooped into a little gift bag she’d grabbed from her pantry as they were leaving the house. She dangled
the bag a little ways out from her side as they walked on, keeping an eye out for a dumpster in the shadows of the alleys they
In the next block of closed-up shops, Georgia glanced in at the window display at Minnesota Phats, a used CD and vinyl record
shop. An album cover showed a woman in a swirling, gaudy-colored skirt. “Dance Samba!” the title commanded.
“Hey, look,” Georgia said. “I should come back and get that for your mother. When’s she getting in?”
“They said Saturday, but knowing Mama she’ll want to drive straight through. Why don’t you come for dinner Sunday. She’ll want
to see you. She says you’ve been neglecting her.”
“I sent her a birthday card last month,” Georgia objected.
“Don’t tell me. Come over on Sunday and you can duke it out with Mama.”
“Okay. What should I―”
Georgia felt something slam into her side. She staggered against Corrine, struggling to keep her balance. Her feet tangled in
Albert’s leash and she fell to one knee. “What―?”
“Jesus!” cried Corrine, grabbing for Georgia as she fell. “Are you all right? What does that fucker think he’s doing!” She knelt
down with her friend on the sidewalk and looked over her shoulder at the hooded figure of a man running off down the street.
Then, to Georgia’s astonishment, Corrine barked out a laugh.
“What?” Georgia followed her gaze. “Oh my God,” she said. “He got Albert’s shit.” The mugger was turning into an alley on the far
side of the street, the little gift bag clutched in his hand.
“Look at him go. Ha!” Corrine looked around. “Wait…. Where’s your purse? Did he get―?”
“Didn’t bring it. Just my wallet.” Georgia patted her pocket.
Albert came over and licked her elbow. Georgia rocked back, sat down on the sidewalk with a small thump, and giggled. Then she
began to laugh harder. “He got shit,” she managed, and dropped her head to her hands. Then somehow she wasn’t laughing
anymore, but leaking tears like an old rain gutter.
“Are you all right, hon? Did he hurt you?” asked Corrine.
“No…. No, I’m okay.” Georgia shook her head and wiped an arm across her cheeks. “I’m fine.” She pushed herself up. “Let’s just
Corrine helped Georgia up and untangled Albert’s leash. Georgia unsnapped it from his collar as they turned down a side street
toward her house.
“I just wish I could see that guy’s face when he gets a good look at his loot,” Corrine said.
“I hope he doesn’t look. Maybe he’ll just reach in.” Georgia smiled a little.
“I hope all his buddies are watching,” said Corrine. “And a girlfriend or two.”
“Reap what you sow.”
They laughed, but the warmth and light of the corner bar were far behind them.
Georgia stood in the shower. Her knee stung but there wasn’t much she could do about that. Her hands, still aching from work―
always aching from work―hung at her sides as the hot water flowed over her. At long last she began to relax. She breathed in the
moist air and sighed it out. Loosening her braid, she reached for the shampoo.
There was a plastic rustling behind her. The blue shower curtain shifted, a gap appeared between the curtain and the wall, and
the slightest of breezes touched her legs. Albert waddled into the stall and stood under the warm spray at her feet.
Two hours later Georgia woke up tangled in sheets. She was plagued by the thought of how powerless she’d been out there―
blindsided and totally vulnerable. The guy had shoved her, that was all, but it could have been much worse and she wouldn’t have
been able to do a thing about it. She hated feeling this way. Hated the fear and hated the anger. And she needed to sleep if she
was going to get through her overtime shift tomorrow, though at least she didn’t have to be in until eight, thank God. Still, she didn’
t have time to be upset. It didn’t do any good and besides, hadn’t the shithead gotten what he deserved? Ha, ha.
No, she thought. He deserved more. He deserved … Her imagination sputtered and failed. She turned over, kicked the sheets,
and fretted. Her knee hurt. And she couldn’t sleep. And tomorrow was going to be miserable if she didn’t get some rest. She rolled
on her back and listened to her stomach growl. She was still hungry, maybe that was her problem. And then she remembered―
Mom’s cookies. The thought released her from her ineffectual struggle with the sheets. She shoved the bedding aside and
headed for the kitchen.
The package and the knife were where she’d left them on the table. She sat down, turned the box over, and pulled it toward her.
Then she stopped and looked again. The box was not from her mother. Georgia’s address was not scrawled in her mother’s loopy
script, but printed in a neat, firm hand. There was no flowery return address sticker from Wisconsin. There was no return address
at all. Georgia couldn’t think who would be sending her anything.
If she’d been an airline executive or a politician, and not just a tired chicken factory worker distracted by her ridiculous mugging,
she might have paused. She might have appreciated how one small box could change the course of a life, and hesitated. But as
apprehensive as she was of the world outside, the idea of hazard within her own walls didn’t occur to her. She just gave a short
grunt of disappointment as the idea of chocolate chip cookies slipped away. Then she opened the box.
In a padding of Styrofoam peanuts lay four objects wrapped with clean buff newsprint and clear tape. One was marked with a
large dot. Georgia lifted it out and unwrapped it. It was a light, smooth metal cylinder, hollowed out from an irregular bottom,
circled with grooved rings around the top. Small holes were bored through the sides. It gleamed with the barest sheen of oil.
There were two tags attached. The smaller one said, “Piston-1A.” The other was a card, tied on with gold string like at
Christmastime. “Dear Georgia,” it read. “Please hold on to this. Regards.”
- 2 -
"REGARDS”? Who on earth is sending me “regards”? Questions began combusting in Georgia’s brain. Who has my address?
Why would anyone send me pistons, of all things? Is someone trying to tell me my car’s falling apart, like I don’t already know? Is
this some kind of mistaken identity? Why me?
The metal was cool and hard. It weighed in her hand with an unfamiliar solidity, a feeling of precision and the potential for …
what? Several things moved within Georgia at once. Bewilderment, suspicion, and something so rusty with disuse it almost didn’t
get started at all―interest.
She gave her head a small, convulsive shake. She didn’t want any of those things. She hadn’t asked for this and damned if she
was going to let some anonymous prank get her rattled. Screw it, she thought. Screw him, and screw every bastard who thought
he could mess with her life. She stared at the piston, and only then did her sense of physical vulnerability begin to catch up with
her. A fear completely out of proportion to the object in her hand seized her, as if she’d bent to pick up a river stone and found
herself holding a stick of dynamite. She sat paralyzed for a moment. Then she stood up, scraping her chair back. She spun to the
trash can and flung the thing in. It didn’t explode and shatter her life. It didn’t blow a hole in her wall and leave her free and
unsheltered. Alone, disconnected from its other parts, it landed with a dead thud.
Georgia dumped the box and the rest of its contents in after it, and washed her hands. Then, turning her back on all of it, she
headed down the hall and climbed into bed. There she tried to lie quietly and get her breathing to organize itself. She finally gave
it up as hopeless and twisted onto her side, giving the pillow an occasional punch or kicking the covers around.
An hour later, she was still inexorably awake. Finally she sat up, fumbled for the remote and switched on the TV. But in spite of
infomercials and Chuck Norris reruns, her mind wouldn’t switch itself off the way it was supposed to. Instead she found herself
pondering those stupid, misguided questions that were such a waste of time, like why wasn’t she happy, and why did she expect
happiness in the first place. She had a job, a house with the payments almost caught up, good old Albert. She had her best friend
Corrine living ten blocks away. She had loving if clueless parents in the next state. She was finally used to Jimmy being gone―not
so big a loss when you came right down to it. After all, now she didn’t have to make dinner every night, she could play whatever
CDs she wanted, and she didn’t have to listen to anyone whine about not having clean underwear while his idea of helping with
the housework consisted of Windexing the TV screen. So what was her problem? Why was she lying here with a week’s worth of
empty pop cans piled on her nightstand and the remote tethered to her headboard with half a roll of dental floss so she wouldn’t
have to hunt for it if it slid to the floor during the night?
She threw off the covers. Shit. And now she didn’t even have the consolation of Mom’s cookies. She stalked into the kitchen, and
opening the refrigerator, was faced with the meager remnants of her last trip to the grocery store, whenever that had been. She
shut the door and stood there at a loss. Then she went to the trash can and gave it a small kick of frustration. She kicked it again,
harder, and the piston―the unwanted, unasked-for piston―knocked against the side. She wrestled the trash bag out, unbolted
the back door, and ran it out to the can waiting for pick-up by the alley. Back inside, she relocked door and scrubbed her hands
She went back to the refrigerator, and after a moment began tossing out the few remaining vestiges of food―a black, limp
banana, some probably-lettuce, a glass jar of orange juice whose lid strained under the pressure of fermenting sugars. Then she
thought she might as well wash out the fridge as long as it was empty. Finally, spent at last, she staggered back to bed.
In what was left of the night, Georgia dreamed of spilled juices rising from a linoleum floor like Aladdin’s genie, casting rings into
the air, silver rings that landed in the weeds and couldn’t be found. She stirred restlessly, feeling incomplete even in her dreams,
and aware of being profoundly and determinedly asleep―unwilling to wake up for silver rings or dead chickens or anything at all.
In the morning she woke to her alarm, depleted but calm. There was a suspicious damp indentation next to her where Albert had
snuck onto the bed once she’d finally fallen asleep, via the clothes bench at the foot of the bed that Georgia never seemed to get
around to moving. A lapping noise emanated from the bathroom. “Ugh,” Georgia groaned. “Albert.”
Shuffling to the kitchen, she was momentarily startled, upon opening the refrigerator, to be faced with sparkling cleanliness. It was
like a gift. She stood for a moment basking in its glow before resigning herself to the fact that there was still nothing there to eat.
She turned to the counter for the last of the bread and plugged in the toaster.
As much as she tried holding on to the tranquility of a clean fridge, though, she couldn’t help noticing a faint unpleasant odor
hovering around the kitchen. She tried to shrug it off. It was like a wilted gardenia, or maybe―please God no―a hint of dead
mouse. She changed her mind about breakfast. She put Albert out in the backyard and shuffled through her mail. There was
another post office slip. She peered at it and scowled. There was nothing in the “sender” box, not even a zip code. Who the hell is
sending me auto parts? she thought. Her alarm clock, forgotten on snooze, clamored from the bedroom. Albert simultaneously
scratched at the back door to come in.
Fifteen minutes later Georgia sat out front in her Chevy Citation, listening to its tortured attempts to turn over. She pumped the
gas a couple of times, automatically and unconsciously weighing the outside temperature in relation to how long the car had been
sitting to figure how many times she could safely pump it without flooding the engine.
A rasping laugh made her look around, but she couldn’t see anyone nearby. Odd. She let go of the key and listened. No, not
laughing. A metallic “haw, haw, haw.” And then a clank. The garbage truck, she realized, in the alley behind her house. There
must be something wrong with it to make that noise. “Haw, haw, haw.” Well, the joke’s on me, Georgia thought. Somebody sends
me few hunks of metal and I start hearing trucks laugh. Well, good riddance to anonymous pistons. She heard the truck move
along the row of houses and stop behind the house next to hers. Only one more to go. Good.
The piston sat in Georgia’s mind as clearly as it had weighed in her hand. It was an interesting thing in itself, no doubt about that.
It seemed so perfect in its way, and surprisingly complicated. What were those odd holes and cutaways? She’d never actually
seen a piston before. If she’d thought about it, she’d have assumed it would be a solid hunk of metal, but it wasn’t. Like a heart,
she thought. Like a chicken heart, just a little blob in your hand, but so complicated inside―this chamber and that chamber, and
hooked up to all sorts of things. As long as the chicken was alive…. Disconnected, of course, it was dead.
Georgia wasn’t conscious of opening the car door. She found herself moving toward the side of the house, the fingers of one
hand touching lightly against the center of her chest. She walked between the houses. The garbage truck was stopped at her
This is crazy. I can’t be doing this, she thought, and broke into a run. “Wait! Hold on!”
But the man was tipping her can and didn’t pause. Upended into the back of the truck, white plastic trash bags tumbled out.
Georgia stopped, dropping her arms to her sides. Well, that’s it, she thought. Too late.
But for the second time in not enough hours, Georgia was swept by emotion. The fear and anger she’d felt last night turned itself
inside out and was remade into a bewildering need, and alongside it, a sense of looming, irrevocable loss.
The crushing door began its descent.
“No, wait!” she croaked, and launched herself forward again. Rushing to the truck, she bashed her fist against the side. The man
looked over at her in surprise and let go of the lever. The machinery stopped.
“There’s something I need … that I need to get,” she stammered. “Please.”
The bag wasn’t far down in the hopper. She reached in, careless of getting dirty against the back rail. She grabbed a bottom
corner of the sack, but in her haste the night before she’d neglected to tie the top. The trash went spilling out. “No,” she cried,
and her feet came off the ground as she lunged for the piston tumbling away from her. Her hand curled around it.
“It’s okay,” she called. “I got it.” She held up the piston and waggled it back and forth. And again, faintly, “I got it.” A puzzled look
flitted across her face, and with a quick shake of her head she reached in to recover the box with the three unopened parts inside.
The garbage man just shook his head. He pulled the lever again as soon as she was clear, and the heavy door continued on its
path, crushing the trash, pushing it into the belly of the truck. Georgia could hear its rasping guffaw behind her as she walked
back toward her car. She wanted to laugh too, at herself, or at the oddness of the morning, but she couldn’t quite manage it.
She looked down at the perfect metal thing in her hand and wondered if overtime shifts and sleep deprivation had finally sent her
over the edge, or if she held in her palm some crazy kind of redemption, something that would hold an answer to her own
By the time Georgia dragged herself home after work that evening, she was too tired to feel any emotion at all. The factory was
good for that, she’d discovered long ago, for numbing the spirit along with the mind. She carried a new package from the post
office. Only a box, after all, and whatever was in it would have to wait until she’d had a good night’s sleep. She set it on the table
beside the pistons, and nudged an inert Albert with her toe. “Wake up, old fart,” she said.” I’m home.”
Then she looked around the disordered kitchen, and sniffed, and groaned. How could she have let things get so out of hand?
What kind of a person was she? She put an arm, aching from cold chickens, over her face. She just couldn’t cope with it with now.
After Albert had gone out for his pee, Georgia showered and slunk miserably into bed with a jar of peanut butter, a box of Ritz,
and a magazine. The TV droned.
Albert on his rug gave a deep sigh. He lay with a towel draped over him and gazed longingly at the bed. He’d been exiled to the
floor ever since he’d acquired the habit of showering in the evenings.
Georgia’s dreams were full of stinking things. A dead skunk, which was really a mouse, had come through a tunnel and was
burrowing upward under her house. She awoke to damp dog. Albert had for once misjudged her sleep cycle. “Caught ya,
booger,” Georgia told him. “Down.”
With a grunt, Albert resumed his place on the rug. But now, to her dismay, Georgia was wide awake again. Hunger and self-
loathing wrestled with her aversion to decomposing rodents. The clock crawled toward midnight. Moonlight and shadow stirred
faintly on the wall. Balanced on a fulcrum of inertia, her mind swung this way and that, looking for a reason to either get up or
resign itself to a night of lying half awake. It finally latched onto the package in the kitchen, and with something like relief, Georgia
sat up and switched on the lamp.
The box this time was oblong. It held a shank of metal. “Crankshaft connecting rod” was typed neatly on the tag, along with the
number, “4B.” There was no note.
Again a creaky response began to turn over within Georgia. Not suspicion and fear now, although those things still hovered at the
back of her mind, but a growing curiosity. And more―a sense of possibilities beyond the tedium of work and home. A stirring of
restlessness. Disgust at the dead-end she’d allowed her life to become.
Well, she was awake, and it wasn’t going to do any good to go back to bed as long as her brain refused to punch out. She might
as well deal with the kitchen. Short of vacating the little house entirely, she’d have to contend with it some time or other, and it
wasn’t going to get any better.
She began with the lower cupboards, filling the trash can with long-forgotten kitchen debris―newspaper once used as liners, old
Brillo pads, congealed dish soap, but no mouse. She scrubbed the cupboards clean, then started on the drawers. By two in the
morning she’d worked her way up to the sink. With a shudder of revulsion she plunged in and began stacking the chaos of dirty
dishes onto the counter.
There was no mouse. There was only the humiliating realization of how low she’d sunk. What kind of a pitiful excuse for a human
being would let her sink putrefy to evacuation proportions before she got around to washing the dishes?
The parts arrived in an ever-increasing stream, a new package every day or so, then one or two a day. Before long it was a
flood―metal and rubber, pins and rings, sprockets and bearings, hoses and wires. At the end of the second week, when the
exhaust pipes and two gleaming mufflers arrived, it dawned on Georgia that her mysterious packages contained not car but
motorcycle parts. Her mind reeled. And eventually, with a wary but growing sense of excitement, it also occurred to her that it
might actually be possible for somebody to put the parts together.
By the time spring, in its customary fits and starts, had made its way north, she’d settled into a ritual. Each time she brought
another package home from the post office, she’d set it on the kitchen table until after her shower. Then she’d approach it like a
new lover, with guarded hope and a sizzle in her stomach.
excerpt from Assembling Georgia by Beth Carpel copyright 2009 - Beth Carpel
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