"Dear Shirley" by Laura Miller

“Dear Shirley” by Laura Miller

Dear Ideal Shirley (U.S.A. 1973),

What I want to do here is describe the scenery. The problem is—how? Maybe I’ll say that the sky belched shapeless white smears. Or that the sweetgum tree oozed and spat monkey ball fruits, unleashing a cloud of mustard pollen onto the driveway that smelled like pig shit and turpentine. But that wouldn’t necessarily be true. It feels true, though. That day of the garage sale it felt like we were all just pieces of candy corn in a giant nature turd. It was definitely hot.

Maybe I’ll try a simile: The people descended like a swarm of goddamn June bugs, wings clattering and bodies knocking into cardboard boxes and nightstands—setting everything awobble—their morning breath a ghastly fog. That might make it sound more like a hell than a garage sale. But there was that man with the purple shirt and pit stains. And the woman with the exposed midriff. Worst of all, the leathery guy with white cowboy boots mashing out a cigarette butt on the lawn. All this before I’d had a drop of coffee.

What I’m trying to do here is set the tone, you know? Cobble together a quality? What I’m trying to say is that certain events leading up to now have caused me to breech a threshold. I walked into the river, Shirley, and it was cold and my knees raked across the rocks. The world is a heavy, bloated thing with sharp teeth and tentacles, to use a metaphor. And I guess what I mean to say is that some things just don’t seem to matter all that much anymore.

Now it’s your turn. Instead of writing about your butterscotch ringlets or red-velvet polka dots, I think I’ll just ask some questions. How long did you nest in the top drawer of my dresser? Did you feel neglected? Did you harbor an unshakable thirst for transaction? Did my memories make permanent etches in your rubbery skin? Did you think they were yours to keep? What is a doll—Shirley—but a hollow imitation of another hollow thing?

Probably you’re thinking: the old it’s-not-you-it’s-me routine and wondering how it changes the fact that the man with the purple shirt and pit stains gave me five dollars and tucked you under his arm and carried you away. It doesn’t change that. But what I want to say is it’s not just me that’s unstable; it’s the whole damn universe. It’s tornadoes and tapeworms and small thefts and all of us pretending we have a modicum of control…

I guess what I mean to say is maybe you’ll find someone who feels rooted. I guess what I mean to say is so long.

Your friend,


Laura Miller has an MFA from the University of Arizona, is managing editor of Fairy Tale Review, and is co-editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. Miller’s fiction has previously appeared in Necessary Fiction and Spork Press.