An extract of F.A.Q.s by Allegra Goodman
Phoebe found the house almost unchanged. Same furniture, same couch cushions worn out in the same old places, practically the same stack of magazines. Phoebe’s parents, Melanie and Dan, looked just as she had left them, and so their new coffee maker startled her.
“Where did that come from?”
Your mother bought it.”
“The old one broke,” Melanie said, defending herself. Of course, Phoebe saw that the new machine stood right where the scrap bucket had been. All composting had ceased the minute she had gone to college. Sweetie, it smelled so bad, had been Melanie’s excuse.
And yet Phoebe’s parents had planted vegetables with her when she was little. They had hired a handyman to build a chicken coop in the backyard. The coop stood empty now, just a few downy feathers blowing in the wind. Freshman year a fox had killed the hen named Scout. Weeks after that, Scout’s sister, Carrie, had disappeared. During spring semester, the last chicken, Mrs. Dalloway, had passed. Sometimes Phoebe questioned the level of care Mrs. Dalloway had received from Melanie and Dan. They had reverted so quickly to supermarket eggs.
“I’ll carry those,” Dan said.
“No that’s okay.” Phoebe shouldered her backpack and dragged her giant duffle upstairs. Nervously, her parents followed, weighted down with unasked questions. Was the boyfriend really history? Was Phoebe done homesteading? Could she register for school again?
“Let me help you get that through the door.” Dan picked up the bottom of the duffle and squeezed the bag sausage-like through the door frame. Phoebe was already inside, gazing at another alien acquisition, an elliptical trainer in the middle of her room. “We can move it.” Dan had opposed the purchase, predicting correctly that it would gather dust. Dan had knee problems, so he never exercised.
“We’ll take it down to the basement.” Melanie said. She had only installed the trainer in Phoebe’s room because she felt closer to her there. Two birds. She’d missed her daughter, and she was trying to lose weight. Missing trumped motivation, however, and after several minutes of exercise, Melanie usually ended up lying on Phoebe’s bed.
When Phoebe turned on the machine, she heard a trilling sound like bells.
“WELCOME …………” she read on the small screen. “HOW OLD ARE YOU?”
Phoebe typed “100.”
Without blinking, the machine asked “HOW MUCH DO YOU WEIGH?”
Once again, Phoebe typed “100.”
“I got you rice milk,” Melanie said. “And oat cakes,” she added hopefully. Phoebe looked so thin. Her long blond hair had lost its spring and trailed down her back; she’d tied it with a repurposed rubber band.
Melanie opened the closet door, revealing bins of clothes and toys, boxed board games and puzzles, including The Great Barrier Reef and The Solar System. On the top shelf lay Grandma Jeanne’s violin in its brown-cloth-covered case, but no one mentioned it.
Dan said, “We can consolidate these boxes.”
Melanie said, “I’ll get more hangers.”
“Hey, it’s almost midnight. Don’t you have work tomorrow?” Phoebe ushered her parents out into the hall.
She was so tired she didn’t even brush her teeth. She undressed completely and slipped between clean sheets.
Allegra Goodman is an American writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Three of her novels have been published in the UK by Atlantic Books. They are ‘The Chalk Artist’, ‘The Cookbook Collector’ and ‘Intuition’ (shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize in 2009). Her other novels are ‘Paradise Park’ and ‘Kaaterskill Falls’ (a National Book Award finalist in 1996). Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Commentary and Ploughshares and has been anthologised in The O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She has also written two collections of short stories, ‘The Family Markowitz’ and ‘Total Immersion’, and a novel for younger readers, ‘The Other Side of the Island’. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, The Boston Globe and The American Scholar. She grew up in Honolulu, studied English and philosophy at Harvard, received a PhD in English literature from Stanford, and was a recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award (1991), the Salon Award for Fiction (1997) and a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (2006-2007). She lives with her husband and has four children.