Fiction: Joie to the World

Lilith Annual Fiction Contest Second Prize

I know no one wants to hear about another person’s dreams (and often not even their hopes), so let me tell you a story instead, and since the line between fiction and nonfiction have blurred so much (and basically who even cares anymore unless there is some kind of life-changing pandemic coming or a missile aimed at your head), let’s just go with this is what happened. Let’s go with that it happened to me.

Ashley at work said that her friend Joey (it’s really spelled Joie but even Joie refers to herself as Joey, like the dumb guy on Friends, so I don’t know what to think about her, not that we’ve met)—so this friend Joey has had really bad shingles. I think that may be the only kind of shingles there is, but I don’t know much about them. We’re all in our early thirties at work and don’t have much experience with shingles but recognize that apparently, it/they hurt really badly. So this Joey has shingles and has been working from home a lot, and Ashley wants to send her some Girl Scout cookies Ashley’s daughter is selling. Ashley says I live really close to Joey and could I possibly drop them at her house?

Well, last year wasn’t my greatest year and my mom left me out of her will, which has a lot more to do with my mom than it does me (all my friends agree so there’s that), but I really, really, have been thrown by this whole thing. Part of my reaction, then, is to try to be a far better person than my mother (be the kind of person who would never leave a daughter out of a will no matter what she’s done/said/rebelled against whathaveyou—I mean it’s not like I ever ended up in jail and have only been drunk that one time when I was 22 at the party all my friends were at and still remember. But it was one time, and I’m convinced our twenties really don’t count. Or shouldn’t)

Also the whole thing feels not Jewish at all to me, not right, and each and every family member is/was/has always been Jewish. LA Jews, my ophthalmologist calls it. Something about nearsightedness. And my mom was the most nearsighted, after all.

What all this means is that I’m trying to do more acts of kindness, as they’re called in the bestsellers (which clearly Mom never read but enough about her). I’m trying to be nicer. I’m trying to be the one who offers to run errands, go to the post office, carry whatever’s heaviest, carefully pick up the creepy
bug/spider/crawly thing and escort it from the room so it’s alive to crawl another day.

This is the me I want to be and I do not like spiders, but I can change. I can, and I have, and as my therapist says, that’s big.

So I’d love to take the cookies to this Joey and I mean it. It’s something little I can do to kind of build my portfolio of positive goodness that I can use to bolster myself for the harder times. I do good things. I can be a good person. A mitzvah, as ophthalmologist Bob would say. I do not want to be the one everyone hates even after she’s dead. No siree.

“Oh, you’ll love Joey,” Ashley says. Ashley is a really reliable graphic designer with an excellent eye for proofreading. I feel like we’ve become great pals in just four or maybe six months. It’s one of those “Any friend of Ashley’s might just as well be a friend of mine’s,” or whatever the exact saying is. We didn’t grow
up with a lot of sayings in our house. Not nice ones, anyway.

There’s no one but Phoebe waiting for me at home, and she knows how to rip open the kitty kibble bag with her front paws and teeth, so it’s never really a hurry to get home. I mean she likes petting, but only up to a point, and then there’s biting and hissing, a little from each of us. She’s basically nicer asleep.

Ashley says Joey lives like three blocks away along the route to my house, which is really an apartment on Alfred Street where I’ve been living for more than ten years because, even in the best editorial job I can find (I work for a think tank and you don’t need to know what that means), a house is still a dream. A dream house.

I carry two boxes of Thin Mints, a Savannah’s, and a glutenfree lemon cookie called a Lemon Drop, though this is more the name for candy I think. I’m not sure why one box is gluten-free and the others aren’t, whether this will be a problem for Joey, but I’m just the delivery girl at this point and Ashley thinks these will really help. I can’t imagine having sharp pains attack your body, though I suspect nothing gluten-free can help much.

Joey’s place is a separate unit, slightly higher in the hills. It is not, actually, on my way home at all, but this makes me feel better about the errand. I can earn more karma points. Which I’m going to need because someday I might turn into a hated horrible old woman who leaves a nasty will. But today I’m nice.

The boxes of cookies emit no smell whatsoever. The registration is off where it’s supposed to say Thin Mints across the top of two boxes, but I guess it’s one of those don’t judge a cookie by its cover kind of things. I remember Thin Mints. If you dunk them in chamomile tea for just two quick breaths’ time, they turn into a warm, comfort-filled mush blast from the past. In a really good way.

Joey’s little, cozy, almost hobbit-like cottage is lit with twinkly lights outside, and if you look behind you (carefully because the walkway is kind of narrow), you get a view of the city mostly unblocked by the horrors that line Sunset Boulevard and otherwise spoil a classic if not still breathtaking view. It must be so much nicer living up here than on Alfred Street; I don’t care how many restaurants I can walk to. I could live 40 miles from the nearest restaurant, and wouldn’t care. People ask me if I’m even from Los Angeles.)

Ashley’s friend Joey opens the door and I’m suddenly relieved that she doesn’t have a giant rash across her face or anything, not that I know which part of her body the shingles have attacked. I didn’t realize I was afraid of what I might see. She whisks me into the room that is so nice, just, so warm, so twinkly with more of those lights inside. They’re probably the LED environmentally correct kind—I feel sure.

“You’ve saved me,” she says. Joey has one of those haircuts that’s just below the jawline so it swings when she speaks, light brown hair. My hair will never swing.

“You must want a cup of tea!” she says, and, I do! I do want tea!

“That’s very nice,” I say. “You don’t have to.”

“Please,” she says lightly. She is not too loud, not too soft. There is a potted plant that’s kind of fuzzy that I touch, even though it’s possible that touching a plant’s fronds are bad for it, but Joey doesn’t say anything and even comes over to give it a rub herself, after she’s put the cookies down.

“That’s fuzzy,” she says. I nod. “No, it’s his name, Fuzzy. Him or her, I don’t want to be judgmental of the plant family,” she adds. Wow, another person who names plants—and she admits it. I have a plant I call Ferrari, but it’s not like I’ve mentioned it to anyone.

She begins pouring hot water into a teapot she’s adding two chamomile teabags to. That’s right, not two cups with those naked looking teabags in them. A full pot. I feel important. I smile. Someone’s making me a pot of tea. I have got to stop using individual teabags in tea-stained mugs. It is doing nothing for my self-esteem.

But then I see something. Just poking out from under one of those wooden coffee tables that looks like it’s been handed down and dragged from place to place by a family or two. There’s something brown.

I bring my hand to my mouth and inhale. No sound comes out.

“Zena!” Joey shrieks with an enormous amount of Christmas morning-like joy. Zena is a kitten, brown tabby, as anyone who knows me could have guessed when I mentioned I had to cover my mouth with my hand. Kittens make me shriek like I’ve just won the grand prize on a game show, like I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I know I said my Phoebe wasn’t the friendliest cat in town but don’t kid yourself. I’m nutty for cats.

“You have a kitten!” I shriek like an idiot. I’m on the floor immediately and Zena the kitty and I are all a tangle. Plus I can see that Joey’s adding soy milk to my cup of tea and some sort of organic sugar and then—I swear, it gets even better.

“Just wait!” Joey with the perfect hair says, down on the floor instantly as the tea makings appear on the table and my cup is sugared and steaming, but not in a way that would mean it’s going to burn your mouth or anything.

Joey rubs her fingers together—which makes a kind of swish-swish noise, and out comes another cat.. This cat has white hair with a triangular black patch on its forehead like some kind of mystical tarot symbol, but it is also possibly the cutest thing ever. This cat could be a meme, easy.

“This is Snuggles,” Molly says.

“Of course it is!” I say. Snuggles runs over and, well, snuggles. Joey rips open the first box of Thin Mints and what can I say, I settle in.

“So you work at that place with Ashley,” Joey says to me, after dunking her Thin Mint in chamomile tea. I tear myself away from Snuggles, or should I say she wraps herself entirely around my leg and comes with me, so no actual separation is required. I need a Thin Mint dipped in chamomile. I know who I am.

“A lot of people refer to it just as That Place,” I tell her, and she nods. She’s clearly from L.A., too. For a long time it was just called That Place because there were a lot of government secrets hidden (and leaked, or maybe you don’t remember those stories).

“Yeah, I’ve been there for ten years-ish,” I say. “I’m an editor.” I try not to give it a lot of expression. Editing isn’t a really good or bad thing. Somebody has to do it, and I get benefits and a good salary and vacation days plus about three staff barbecues a year and a gym bag, and it could be so much worse.

“Wordsmith,” she suggests.

“Um, editsmith,” I say. Writer always seemed like a higher calling. Or a goal I may have once had. “You?” I ask her, shorthand, but we all know what I mean.

“I am officially a third-grade teacher with a pack o’ students and a pack o’ gold stars,” Joey says in a way that’s beginning to seem particularly Joey-like, not that I’ve been here all that long. I notice I’m sort of smiling stupidly, but I don’t care.

“Oh my god!” I say, I think not for the first time.

A third cat, very short-hair, black, almost square in body shape, and a look on his or her face that says, Yeah, I know. I’m so cool. Don’t fuck with me.

“Max,” says Joey. Max literally shrugs. Can cats roll their eyes? Because I think he may have. He walks over to her and swipes a cookie off the table. She grabs it right back.

“You know chocolate is bad for cats,” Joey says, and I swear Max practically says pppfffttt, like please, that old line again, and I think, This is a thing with them. Zena climbs my back as I melt another cookie in my cup and giggle like a toddler. Yes, I’m giggling and silly and have become my inner child in a matter of
moments. It’s the twinkle lights, right?

“I should tell you,” Joey says, rolling me another cookie across the table, “there’s one more.” I think for a minute she means another cookie (there’s hardly any cookies in a pack of Girl Scout cookies, and this could very easily be the last one, even though I don’t think I’ve had more than three, and on top of it, they’re thin).

But no, it’s a fourth cat. An orange guy. So mellow he’s not sure it’s worth walking over to the table. If cats could talk humanspeak, he’d tilt his head slightly and without much care say, Oh, hey. Or maybe, Get lost. He has no interest in rolling cookies or begging for soy milk or leaving tracks of baby cat toenail claw marks up my back.

I give him a solid look. “Hey,” I say to him. I speak cat.

“That’s Hamlet,” Joey says. “I went through a Shakespeare phase,” she says with a shrug.

“Didn’t we all,” I say. “I wanted to name my first cat Juliet but my mom said she wouldn’t be able to remember it when she wanted to yell at the cat to get off the furniture, so we called her Kitty.” I begin to whisper, “In private, I called her Jewels. She had sparkly green eyes,” I said.

OK I am not really beginning to cry. But then I’ll tell you, chocolate affects me in super weird ways. Little Jewels. She belonged to me. We were like this.

Then Joey shudders for a minute and makes a sound like yeeeeaaah, that kind of stops time. Even Hamlet turns his head. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not good.

“Are you okay?” I say.

“It gets your nerves,” she says. “Shingles. But I’m not contagious anymore. I’m just weird and make unexpected ‘Yeeeaah, I’m in bad pain’ noises with frightening facial expressions.”

“There’s a guy in the mailroom that does that a lot,” I say. “It’s not a disease, but we still don’t mention it, to be polite.”

“I go back to work soon. I’ll have to tone it down among the third-graders, though really, you should hear some of the elaborate weird sounds that come out of their mouths.” She rubs her arm, but otherwise she seems to have come back to normal.

Joey and I talk, and her hair swings mesmerizingly, and then we throw together some dinner because we are heavily cookied at this point. Soup and cornbread.

“This cornbread is from a mix,” Joey says, “so no worrying that I’m one of those extraordinary people who, you know, bakes or something.”

I am wowed. I always forget to buy even a box of mix. I have nothing to serve strangers that enter my home in need of sweets, tea, twinkling lights, the slightly acupuncture-like needling of a young cat’s touch. Phoebe doesn’t even like anyone but me, if you can call what we have like.

We eat five bean soup and cornbread. And chamomile tea. And we watch a couple of age-old episodes of t on the babyboomer channel because those women could rock a shoulder pad or two. It gets late. We sip more tea. We break open the lemon drop cookies just to see and both end up spitting them out. Turns out that on top of the bad photo and lack of gluten, they’re also sugar-free and have reason to exist at all.

“Ashley meant it as a nice gesture, sending these, I’m sure,” Joey says as we both practically gargle with tea to get the taste out of our mouths, and the cat with the triangle flicks the lemon cookie away like it’s an eight ball.

“To be found someday under the chair,” Joey says. Don’t I know it.

I haven’t been drinking alcohol. Or any of the other things thirtysomethings do on a weeknight to pass the time till ’80s shows end and you have to go back to work. So there’s no way to explain this. I don’t think it’s even a sugar high, or the kind of utter peacefulness you get from spending an evening playing
with small animals who then curl up in your lap as you watch women on TV with real and pretend Southern accents walk in a way you will never master.

I say goodnight to Joey and her crew. Joey jokingly offers me the lemon cookies and we both laugh till we cough. I linger putting down the kitten.

It is weird and I am happy and sad and crushed and excited. I head home toward Phoebe, whom I will be extra tender with tonight. I’ll let her sleep on my favorite pajamas and I’ll wear the sweats with the holes in the butt. That’s how special occasion I feel. I don’t feel like me at all.

And I know it, although I can’t really put it into words. But let me try: I’ve just fallen in love with a person, place, and thing (that cornbread, I mean it), and with four more cats. I sit in my car for a few minutes and look around, wondering if anyone else is seeing this, can even believe this, wondering whether this could ever be true, whether this could be happening to me, but knowing full well that my life really has changed, that something I did worked better than I’d ever imagined.

Linda Lenhoff’s latest novel, Your Actual Life May Vary, will be published by the Santa Fe Writers Project in 2025; her earlier novels are Life a la Mode, Latte Lessons, and The Girl in the ’67 Beetle.