There are many things about E.B. Johnson’s “Killer Heart” that I could talk about. This story, which won Glimmer Train’s recent short-story award for new writers and is published in the Summer 2008 issue, is dark and gripping and really great. I’m going to write about a very small piece of this story that I’m still wondering about a month after having read it:
Dooley and Tina met when his band was playing at Don Quixote’s, a college bar. Tina stood with the other college girls who pressed themselves against the stage; she did that shimmy thing that girls do, her arms going up slowly over her head, her hands crisscrossing, swimming like little bejeweled fishes in the spotlight that lit the crowd at the edge of the stage. Dooley watched as the hem of Tina’s blouse rose up, revealing a tan line just above her low-rise jeans, and a silver loop winked at him from her pierced navel. Tina looked Dooley right in the eye, nodded when she danced, like she knew exactly what she was doing. Tina was hot.
She was sure of herself. She knew what she had in her plus column, and she didn’t believe in hiding what was on the minus side, a fact that made Dooley fall in love with her right from the get go. “Listen,” she said on their second date, “I’m an only child, so I’ve got a lot of princess in me.” She pulled Dooley’s arm around her as they walked along the river, and then she leaned her head against his chest. “I’m not saying I plan to be that way till I die,” she went on, slipping her hand inside his shirt and cupping his ribs, then pulling him to her, “I’m just letting you know what you’re in for here.” Once he got to know Tina, the other girls Dooley had dated seemed just like that: girls. Tina was woman.
This description interests me because the moment of attraction between two people is always hard for me to describe. I want to express something beyond the physical, but it’s easy to turn a description of liking someone’s conversation into a terrible cliche. It’s risky for Johnson to say that Tina is woman and every other date is a girl. It could easily come off sounding trite. But I think it works here. The ideas that could be tired (Tina is confident, knows herself, is hot) become something more in combination. We see that she can make a confession of her shortcomings turn out sexy.
This moment is from the middle of the story, and a lot rides on it. At the start, we’re introduced to Tina and Dooley’s (very) troubled relationship. The primary impression at first is of Dooley’s acute pain over the trouble. When I got to this memory, I needed to get a good glimpse into what happened between the two of them when things were good. Though it included a lot of physical qualities, I learned things about the characters that I needed to know from how they interact with each other here.
As I said, this is far from the most stunning scene in the story. The solidity of this scene, however, enables many of the more heart-stopping scenes to be as gripping as they are. I highly recommend this story.