Louise Erdrich: “The Sentence”

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Louise Erdrich. Photo credit: Jenn Ackerman

Louise Erdrich says hauntings come naturally to bookstores, because in them we’re surrounded by living and dead consciousnesses. Every bookstore is haunted, and Erdrich’s new book, “The Sentence,” is about one. On All Souls’ Day, when there is a thin veil between the living and the dead, the ghost of the most annoying recently deceased customer arrives. The protagonist is an indigene, a criminal, and a bookseller. Louise Erdrich has previously won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Excerpt from The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.

Earth to Earth

While in prison, I received a dictionary. It was sent to me with a note. This is the book I would take to a deserted island. Other books were to arrive from my teacher. But as she had known, this one proved of endless use. The first word I looked up was the word ‘sentence.’ I had received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an after- life. So the word with its yawning c, belligerent little e’s, with its hissing sibilants and double n’s, this repetitive bummer of a word made of slyly stabbing letters that surrounded an isolate human t, this word was in my thoughts every moment of every day. Without a doubt, had the dictionary not arrived, this light word that lay so heavily upon me would have crushed me, or what was left of me after the strangeness of what I’d done.

I was at a perilous age when I committed my crime. Although in my thirties, I still clung to a teenager’s physical pursuits and mental habits. It was 2005, but 1999 was how I partied, drinking and drugging like I was seventeen, although my liver kept trying to tell me it was over an outraged decade older. For many reasons, I didn’t know who I was yet. Now that I have a better idea, I will tell you this: I am an ugly woman. Not the kind of ugly that guys write or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of blinding instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments. Nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and am good at selling people useless things for prices they can’t afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words. Collections of words between cardboard covers. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.

The day I committed my crime, I was sprawled at the skinny white feet of my crush Danae, trying to deal with an interior swarm of ants. The phone rang and Danae fumbled the receiver to her ear. She listened, jumped up, shrieked. Clasped the phone with both hands and screwed her face shut. Then her eyes water- bugged open. He died in Mara’s arms. God, oh god. She doesn’t know what to do with his body! Danae flung the phone away and vaulted back onto the couch, howling and thrashing her spidery arms and legs. I crawled under the coffee table. ‘Tookie! Tookie! Where are you?’ I dragged myself up onto her cabiny moose pillows and tried to soothe my deranged dear, rocking her, clutching her frowsy yellow head against my shoulder. Though she was older than me, Danae was spindly as a downy pre-woman. When she curled against me, I felt my heart surge and I became her shield against the world. Or maybe bulwark gives a more accurate pic- ture. ‘It’s all right, you are safe,’ I said in my huskiest voice. The harder she wept the happier I felt.

‘And don’t forget,’ I said, pleased by her needy snuffling, ‘you’re a big winner!’ Two days before, Danae had scored a once-in-a-lifetime ca- sino win. But it was too soon to talk about the beautiful future. Danae was clutching her throat, trying to tear out her windpipe, banging her head on the coffee table. Filled with an uncanny strength, she smashed a lamp and tried to gouge herself with a shard of plastic. Even though she had everything to live for. ‘Fuck the win. I want him! Budgie! Oh Budgie, my soul!’ She rammed me off the couch. ‘He should be with me, not her. Me not her.’ I had heard this rave for the past month. Danae and Budgie had planned to run off together. A complete overthrow of real- ity. Both had claimed they’d stumbled into an alternate dimen- sion of desire. But then the old world clobbered them. One day Budgie sobered up and went back to Mara, who was not such a bad person. For instance, she’d got clean and stayed clean. Or so I thought. For now it was possible that Budgie’s effort at getting normal again had failed. Though it is normal to die. Danae was howling. ‘Doesn’t know what to do with his body! What, what, what is that about?’ ‘You are amok with grief,’ I said. I gave her a dish towel for the crying. It was the same dish towel I’d tried to kill the ants with even though I knew I was hallucinating. She put the cloth to her face, rocked back and forth. I tried not to look at the crushed ants trickling between her hands. They were still twitching their tiny legs and wav- ing their fragile antenna stalks. Some idea stabbed at Danae. She shuddered, froze. Then she twisted her neck, blared her big pink eyes at me, and said these chilling words.

‘Budgie and me are one. One body. I should have his body, Tookie. I want Budgie, my soul!’ I slid away to the fridge and found a beer. I brought her the beer. She knocked my arm away. ‘This is a time to keep our heads crystal clear!’ I chugged the beer and said it was the time to get wrecked. ‘We are wrecked! What’s crazy is that she, who wouldn’t give him sex for a year, has his god-given body.’ ‘He had an ordinary body, Danae. He wasn’t a god.’ She was beyond my message and the ants were fire ants; I was scratching my arms raw. ‘We’re going in there,’ Danae said. Her eyes were now flam- ing red. ‘We’re going in like the goddamn Marines. We’re gonna bring Budgie home.’ ‘He’s home.’ She pounded her breast. ‘I, I, I, am home.’ ‘I’ll be leaving now.’ I crept toward the broken door. Then came the kicker. ‘Wait. Tookie. If you help me get Budgie? Bring him here? You can have my win. That’s a year’s salary, like, for a teacher, honey. Maybe a principal? That’s 26K.’ I froze on the sticky entry mat, thinking on all fours. Danae felt my awe. I reversed progress, rolled over, and gazed up at her cotton-candy upside-down features. ‘I give it to you freely. Just help me, Tookie.’ I had seen so much in her face. Seen the sparkle glow, the tinfoil Ferris wheels, and more. I had seen the four winds travel the green wide-woven world. Seen the leaves press up into a false fabric, closing out my vision. I had never seen Danae offer me money. Any amount of money. And this amount could set me up. It was disturbing, touching, and the most consequential thing that ever happened between us. ‘Oh, babe.’ I put my arms around her and she panted like a soft puppy. Opened her pouty wet mouth. ‘You’re my best friend. You can do this for me. You can get Budgie. She doesn’t know you. Mara’s never seen you. Besides, you have the cold truck.’ ‘Not anymore. I was fired from North Shore Foods,’ I said. ‘No,’ she cried. ‘How come?’ ‘Sometimes I wore the fruit.’

I’d put melons in my bra and that sort of thing when I de- livered groceries. Cukes in the trou. Well, was that so terrible? My thoughts spun out. As always when I held down a job, I had copied the keys. When inevitably fired, I gave the old keys back. I kept my key copies in a cigar box, clearly labeled with their use. Souvenirs of my employment. It was just a habit. No thought of mischief. ‘Look, Danae, I think you’re supposed to have an ambulance or hearse or something.’ She stroked my arm, up and down in a pleading rhythm. ‘But Tookie! Listen. Clearly. Listen! Clearly!’ I focused elsewhere. The stroking was so nice. Finally she coaxed my gaze to her and spoke as though I was the unreasonable child. ‘So, Tookie honey? Mara and Budgie relapsed together and he died. If you wear a nice dress? She’ll let you put him in the back of the truck.’ ‘Danae, the trucks are painted with plums and bacon, or steak and lettuce.’ ‘Don’t let her see the truck! You’ll hoist him up and load him in. He’ll be . . .’

Danae could not go on for a moment. She gagged like a toddler. ‘. . . safe in a refrigerated condition. And then the money . . .’ ‘Yes.’ My brain revved up with money-sign adrenaline and my thoughts came on furiously. I could feel the neurons sparking. Danae’s voice went sweet and wheedly. ‘You’re big. You can heft him. Budgie’s on the slight side.’ Budgie was measly as a rat, I said, but she didn’t care what I said. She was beaming through her tears, because she could tell I was ready to do her bidding. At that point, the job I currently held took over. Reader of contracts. That’s what I was at the time. A part-time paralegal who read over contracts and defined the terms. I told Danae that I wanted the deal in writing. We’d both sign it. She went straight to the table, wrote something up. Then she did a better thing. Wrote the check out with zero after zero and waved it in my face. ‘Put your dress on. Fix up. Go get Budgie and the check is yours.’ She drove me to North Shore. I walked up to the ware- house. Fifteen minutes later, I was pulling out in a delivery truck. I was wearing heels, a painfully tight black cocktail dress, a green jacket. My hair was combed back and sprayed. Danae had swiftly applied my makeup. Best I’d looked in years. I carried a notebook, a file from Danae’s daughter’s stack of schoolwork. There was a pen in my purse. What was Danae going to do with Budgie when she got him? I asked myself this question as I swiftly rolled along. What on earth is she going to do? Answer there was none. The ants came up under my skin.

From the book: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.
Copyright © 2021 by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers