The Million Dollar Girl
A Novel

Robert Harris
Version Date: October 11, 2008

Chapter 3 On the Monday beginning the second week of classes, the bees and grasshoppers really hit the windshield.

Class enrollments begin to stabilize as the course shoppers have made their choices and dropped the courses they deemed too hard or too boring. Most students have bought their textbooks by this time, and, if the professor’s first meetings of the class have gone well, most of the students have made some commitment to the class. Even those professors who were too lazy to have a syllabus on opening day usually have one ready for this second week, laying out the reading for the term. Thus, those members of the professoriate who had held back during the first week now know that this second week is an opportune time to begin requiring actual work from students, whether in the form of reading or writing or some other mental effort.

Amy slogged back to her room after her third class on that Monday, feeling as if she had just driven through a locust plague. The windshield was totally gross. She thought how the semester was beginning and how a new journey was underway. The entire term lay before her. Even with her Saturday effort, she now felt substantially behind. Nearly every chapter was still to be read, every page to be written, every test to be taken. Probably a lot of sleep to be lost. She took a deep breath and let it out with a quiet sigh. She remembered the saying she had read on a card in a gift shop several years ago. “The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” It seemed impossible, or rather, insane.

But she knew from the experience of last year that once things really got underway, the boat would just bob along and, with an enormous rowing effort, eventually find landfall at the end of the term. Or, to change metaphors, the train ride would be wild, fast, and sometimes rough, but the cars would eventually pull into the station—if she could keep the steam up.

Now she remembered that the saying on the card had actually been a prayer, something like, “Lord, go with me, because the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” She nodded in agreement and said the prayer over again, just as she reached her door and unlocked it.

As she swung her laden backpack around from behind her, carefully arced so that it would land squarely in the middle of her bed, she noticed something on her pillow. It was a little clear bag of potpourri. As she picked it up, the cellophane made a happy crinkly sound and the faintest of sweet aromas greeted her nose. A small card was attached.

“Thank you,” was all it said. And then the signature, “Tina.” Amy felt a wave of emotion, though she was not quite sure why. Scarcely a hundred words had passed between them in the last few days. Tina might be a little odd, but she seemed like a nice enough person. Amy struggled to make her feelings mean something rational. “Why am I feeling this way?” she asked herself. “There must be a reason.”

Her father, after many years of being a police detective, had told her that sometimes our feelings run in advance of our thinking. That’s what women call intuition and men (not wanting to admit having intuition, too) call a hunch.

No clarification coming to hand, Amy dropped the thought. She put the potpourri on the table next to her bed and opened her book bag. She carried the books over to her desk, pushed her notebook computer aside (which she noted had been turned around backwards), and put them along the back of the desk.

The textbooks were joyfully welcomed back to their new home by the other books that had lived on her desk all the way through the last year and which had now settled in comfortably for another stay. The dictionary was a bit too wordy (or should I say oververbalized?), and the thesaurus repeated itself in so many words, but the Bible was circumspect and said that prodigals were always welcome to return. The new spiral notebooks, filled mostly with blank paper, now each had several pages of lecture notes in them, and they strutted with their newfound knowledge. They stood upright, taller than most of the books, as if lording it over everyone else. Little did they realize the threat posed them by the notebook computer sitting nearby, for Amy had often thought of taking it to class for note taking and abandoning the spiral notebooks. Only the concern about the weight of her backpack kept the spiral notebooks safe from the wolf of shiftless unemployment, victims of the technology freight train. It was a tenuous arrogance, but they lived it without fear. As the saying is, they were content to whistle in the dark, until someone pushed the on switch.

People faced with an enormous workload respond differently. Some sit as if stupefied, not doing anything, not knowing where to start or not able to muster the energy to begin. Others try to multitask and do everything at once. Amy was an organizer and a bit of a plodder. Her friend Matt, who had been raised on a family-run farm of a few hundred acres, had a saying that she liked. “You don’t clear a field by lifting all the stones at once with your mind. You clear it by lifting one stone at a time with your hands.” Then he added, “And if you’re really clever, you use the stones to build a wall around your field.” His homely wisdom had helped gain Amy’s interest in him. He was not pretentious, but there was something thoughtful about him that she admired.

Matt’s announcement that large tasks are accomplished in increments did not stun the world. The idea is not unique or amazingly new. It is the lesson of Aesop with the tortoise and the hare (“The race is won by the steady”). All of us know, once you remind us, that persistence built the pyramids and etched the great canyons. Amy did not need to be reminded because her father had first taught her, with his version: “No case was ever solved by giving up on it.” Markayla had reinforced the same idea with her version: “Haba na haba hujaza kibaba,” a Swahili proverb meaning literally, “Little and little fills the cup.” Markayla quoted it often at the university, as she, too, faced quite a workload in her major. But there is value in redundancy, especially when the redundancy is that of encouragement. To be reminded that the difficult is nevertheless possible seems always to be a source of renewed strength.

This is a creaking way of getting Amy to open a book, but you now know her attitude as she did so, preparing to read a chapter to start digging on the mountain.

Just as she pulled the cap off her highlighter, there was a rapid knock on the door. Amy tossed the highlighter into the handy valley of the book and got up to open the door.

Standing there in neat, corduroy overalls was a red-headed girl about Amy’s height. She was holding a notepad and pen, as if preparing to make notes. There was an expectant look on her face, similar to what might be expected from a reporter. “Excuse me,” she said brightly, “but can you spell the sound of a toilet flushing?”

The suddenness and oddity of the question made Amy’s brain stall momentarily. She nearly uttered a “Huh?” but she caught herself and said, with the politeness one uses for questions from strangers, “Uh, I don’t think so.” She wanted to ask what this was all about, but before she could speak again, the girl continued.

“I can’t either,” the girl said, now wrinkling her brow a bit and looking both thoughtful and dissatisfied. “But there must be a word for it. Otherwise, how can we be blamed for writing poorly when our language is that deficient?” Then, putting the pen and pad in her pocket and holding up her hands to suggest a picture frame around her face, she smiled and said, “Hello. I’m Shelley.”

“Hi, I’m Amy. I’m—.”

“Amy! Oh, good. Normally, I wouldn’t just introduce myself to a stranger, being rather shy and all, but they say crazy people live here and since we’re practically sisters, I thought I’d better find out what’s going on.”

Amy just stood there, mouth partly open, one hand still on the door. The combination of the little drama, the comment that crazy people live here, and the words we’re practically sisters left her mind fumbling for an entry point into the conversation. She was too surprised to think about Professor Miller’s comments on cognitive stabilization. His lecture was not at all useful here.

Noticing Amy’s confusion, the girl introduced herself again. “Hi,” she said, extending her hand. “My name’s Shelley. Mind if I come in?” She was already looking past Amy and around the room.

“Uh, no. Come in. My roommates aren’t here right now.”

Shelley was looking across the room. On the wall over Amy’s bed was a large poster, about two by three feet, showing the tread designs of two dozen or so athletic shoes. There was a large variety of patterns, with many shapes of bumps and grooves, molded in various colors: black, blue, red, pink, white, brown, gray. At the bottom of the poster was the caption, “What will a man give in exchange for his sole?” Shelley turned her head sideways for a moment, contemplating the poster, but said nothing. Then she turned back to Amy, who had retreated to her desk, but turned the chair around to face Shelley.

“I’m a theater major,” said Shelley. “What’s yours?” As she spoke, she glanced over Amy’s desk. “Oh, a ballerina.” Shelley had noticed the tall figurine on Amy’s desk. “Are you a dance major?”

“I’m still undeclared,” said Amy, almost apologetically. She felt guilty that at the beginning of her sophomore year she had still not chosen a major. “I was thinking about English,” she said, to show that she had at least given the subject some consideration.

“I used to be an English major,” Shelley said. “But it was too weird.”


“Yeah. I like Dickens and Shakespeare and Ibsen and Jane Austen—”

“I love Jane Austen,” Amy injected.

“—But the stuff we read for class was all bizarre stuff, weird, crazy stuff about people eating each other, and really boring book-length monologues, and characters complaining about how evil men are. I like men. What about you?” Amy was not sure what the question meant or what an appropriate answer was, since she had just met her questioner minutes earlier.

“Guys are okay, I guess,” she said. “I—.” The pause had been too long.

“Anyway,” Shelley went on, speaking rapidly, “we had all these books that were sort of like political statements instead of novels or stories, and get this, even the books I liked got interpreted to mean that everybody was oppressing everybody else. I mean, no matter what we read, all the books meant the same thing: men are oppressing women and the evil capitalists are oppressing the workers. Everyone in the world is a victim of white males, many of whom have been dead for a long time. You know that fountain outside of Kemble Hall?”

“The round one in the courtyard? With the bench-like thing around it?”

“Yeah. Professor Linkrodt says it’s a rape symbol. She calls it ‘a tool of oppressive patriarchal hegemony,’ and says we are all being raped by it when we walk by. That’s what I mean by weird. And I’ve always thought of myself as an ordinary, conservative girl. So I changed to theater.”

“Is the ballerina why you said we are practically sisters?” Amy asked, not wanting to touch the claim about crazy people living in her room.

“Oh, no. It’s because my boyfriend Ron and your boyfriend Matt are buds.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Amy said. “He’s just a friend.”

“Whatever,” Shelley said, as if she thought Amy was splitting hairs. “Anyway, isn’t that cool? I’m just over in Hurlock. We’re neighbors. Ooh, your roommate looks interesting.” Shelley was looking over at Markayla’s desk. Amy’s desk was, to be blunt, somewhat pedestrian compared to Markayla’s. Amy had books, her notebook computer, her ballerina, and a few ordinary items like tissues and pens.

Markayla’s desk was a work of art. On one end was a bowl of fresh fruit. Not the kind that lasts forever because it is made of plastic, but the kind you can pick up and sink your teeth into, while the juicy ripeness caresses your taste buds and drips down your chin. Apples (two different kinds), oranges, bananas, and sometimes pears and often grapes, sat tantalizingly in a brass bowl. The bowl had a raised base, giving the impression that the fruit was being lifted up toward the observer. Markayla kept the inventory carefully and fully stocked. In the few days since Tina had moved in, there was evidence that the bowl would have no trouble featuring the freshest of fruits because the supply runs would now have to be more frequent.

At the opposite end of the desk stood a heavy lead crystal vase, occupied as often as financial reality would permit with fresh flowers. Give Amy an unexpected ten dollars and she would likely buy a mystery novel or some nail polishes. Give Markayla an unexpected ten dollars and she would buy some fresh flowers or coffee beans. Shelley was fortunate on this Monday because the vase had been supplied only the previous Saturday, and the bright yellow, red, pink, blue, and purple flowers still looked perfect.

Covering Markayla’s desk was a woven cloth with tassels on each end. On the cloth was a design done in a primitive-art style.

“Does she ever study at this desk?” asked Shelley doubtfully.

“Oh, yes. She studies more that I do, and you can see by my pale skin that I hardly ever see daylight.”

“Uh huh.”

On the continuum from very insecure to very self confident, Amy’s self image was just a little toward the insecure side. Shelley’s agreement with the pale-skin comment thus caused a little twinge of dissatisfaction. A comment such as, “Oh, your skin looks fine,” would have been more welcome. And it had not gone unnoticed that Shelley had quickly abandoned an examination of Amy’s desk for a much longer look at Markayla’s. People inadvertently had a way of not noticing Amy. She sometimes felt like a pedestrian by the side of the road as an eighteen-wheel truck blasts by at seventy-five miles an hour. The accompanying wind leaves the pedestrian sprayed with dust and sand, disheveled and windblown, and feeling used and abandoned. Amy’s long but so far unfulfilled dream was to be fussed over.

Behind Markayla’s desk sat a coffee grinder, a coffee pot, several jars of coffee beans, and a gallon jug of spring water, about half full. The beans and the flowers and the fruit joined to play an aromatic symphony in the surrounding area.

“Your roommate seems really interesting,” Shelley said. “Is this one the, um, new girl that just joined you?”

“No, this is my high school friend. The new girl, Tina, sleeps over there. And that’s her desk.”

Shelley looked over to Tina’s bed and desk. A radio, a CD player, a few books, a silver box, a couple of jar candles, some other clutter, nothing as interesting as Markayla’s. It could wait.

So tell me about this roommate. What’s her name?”


“What’s she like?”

“Well, she’s smart, serious, a business major, wants to be an attorney—.” Shelley had begun to make a face, which showed that she was not impressed.

“No, really,” Amy continued. “She’s a great person. She can be funny. She’s understanding. Even though she thinks she has to put up with a lot from Americans.”

“She’s not an American?”

“Not yet. She’s from Kenya. Her family moved here when her father had to come over because of his job. He works for an oil company. They asked him to stay, so now Markayla is planning to become a citizen and get a law degree.”

“Do we really need any more lawyers?”

“She already talks like a judge.”

“What about your other roommate?” Shelley asked, suddenly turning toward Tina’s area of the room.

“Tina just moved in Friday night or actually early Saturday morning. She’s pretty quiet.”

“Oh, really?” Shelley’s tone teetered along the edge of a wall between belief and skepticism.

Amy remembered herself in junior high school as a quiet, awkward, loner, not unlike Tina now, so she wanted all the more to avoid criticizing the girl. She remembered the gift of potpourri sitting on her bedside table and felt that any negative comments about Tina would be a violation of gratitude. And besides, so far Tina had been fine.

“She’s undeclared, like me,” Amy said at last.

In Shelley’s continued scan of the room, she had now returned to Amy’s desk, where she once again noticed the ballerina. The figurine stood a little over a foot high and was made of imitation bronze. The ballerina’s costume had been painted to imitate the green oxidation often seen on copper rooftops. The girl stood on one leg while the other swept out with the toe pointing at the floor. Her arms were crossed in front of her away from her chest, fingers straight.

“What a cute ballerina,” Shelley said, walking over to it.

“Her name’s Tina the Ballerina,” Amy said.

“Tina the Ballerina? That’s cute. Not just Tina.”

“Um hm. She used to be just Tina until last week when Tina Davidson became my other roommate. So we have to distinguish. We call the new Tina ‘Tina Nicole.’”

“Where’d you get her? The ballerina, I mean.”

“My father gave her to me when I was in junior high.”

“Birthday present?”

“No, he just brought her home one day. He said, ‘Amy, I saw this and thought of you.’”

“Oh, how sweet,” Shelley said, in that precious tone of voice that some people use to talk to their pets. Seeing Amy’s face, she added, more seriously—as seriously as Shelley could get when in a playful mood—“No, really. I think that’s neat. Were you taking ballet at the time?”

“Yeah, but that’s not why he gave it to me.”


“He said it was a symbol to remind me how to live.”

Shelley looked from Amy to the ballerina and back and forth and back a few times, eyebrows knitted in a concentrated, doubtful look. Then she suddenly brightened. “Oh, I get it,” she said, striking a pose, holding one arm across her chest and the other with the back of her hand against her forehead. “No, no, I couldn’t possibly do what you’re asking,” she said in a high-pitched, melodramatic voice. “Father warned me about boys like you.”

“No,” said Amy.

“Are you sure?” asked Shelly. “Those crossed arms are pretty hostile. It’s like, ‘Keep away from me, you bucket of sludge.’”

“No, that’s a ballet pose. It’s beautiful.”

“So, did your father say just how Tina the Ballerina is supposed to remind you to be good?”

“It’s not a reminder to be good.”

“I am so relieved,” Shelley said with dramatic emphasis. “Now we can go to that wild party after all.”

“Shelley, what will you do if you ever get into a serious conversation?”

“You mean like, ‘Darling, come away with me to my mansion in the south of France and be my princess’?”

“Never mind.”

“But you have to tell me,” Shelley pleaded. “Your clever scheme has drawn me in. ‘I cannot choose but hear.’ That’s from Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Didn’t know I was cultured, did you?” Shelley fell silent and smiled brightly with expectation. After a few moments of silence, she said, “Well?”

“When he gave her to me, he said, ‘Amy, I’m giving you this ballerina to remind you of something I hope you will always remember.’”

“Which was?”

“He said, ‘The ballerina lives not for herself but for her dance.’”

Shelley thought for a minute, a somewhat doubtful expression on her face. She was turning over this saying in her mind, attempting to translate it into a more literal expression. In a moment she said, “Okay. That’s very interesting. Did he explain what that means?”

“No. He said I should think about it.”

Shelley already thought the saying was open to more than one interpretation, and had an idea in mind. But when she was an English major, her professors had strongly insisted that all interpretations are personal, so she decided to withhold her own comments and see what Amy had concluded. “And did you?”

“Yes. In fact, I still think about it.”

“So what does it mean?”

“Well, at first I took it literally, and thought he meant that I should work harder at my ballet lessons. I was never the graceful nymph I thought he wanted me to be.” Shelley nodded as if she agreed that Amy was not very graceful. Amy frowned slightly as she seemed to understand what Shelley was thinking. “But ballet didn’t exactly thrill me, either. So I told him, ‘Daddy, I’m not going to be a professional ballerina. There are other things in life besides ballet.’ And then I growled a growl as only teeny boppers can growl, right through my arrogant little braces.”

“You wore braces? How long?”

“Just got them off two years ago. I was so glad to have my senior picture taken without them.”

“But growling arrogantly at your father? Oh, Amy, that is so shocking.”

“I was in the middle of my junior high rebellion. I thought my father was a clueless drone.”

“So what do you think the saying means now?”

“Well, I keep finding different meanings. Right now I think it means that I should try to live the best life I can, to make my ‘dance’ so to speak, the best it can be.” Amy had always wanted to be admired for something, to be really good, or even outstanding. She had not yet chosen a major or career to excel at, so right now she wanted her whole life to be as good as she could make it.

“I like that.” Shelley’s expression indicated that she was about to ask another question when her cell phone rang. She glanced at the display on the phone, then answered. “Rent a Date. Shelley speaking. How may I help you?” Amy glanced over at the clock and noticed that it was time for her to get ready to go to work. The Math Department was at some distance from the dorm, so she had a few minutes’ walk ahead of her. While Shelley was occupied with the phone call, Amy stood up and walked to the mirror to check her hair.

“Ron? Ron who? Oh, yes, sir. We can arrange that. You want a red head? Those are extra,” Shelley continued. “How much? How much have you got? Okay, then. No, I’m not there. I’ll meet you in front of Pelletier. ‘Kay. Bye.” Shelley closed the phone and put it into her pocket. “Well, my guy wants to take me for a ride, so I’ve gotta go. The way he rides, he’ll be here pretty fast.”

“And I’ve got to get to work. It was great meeting you, though.”

“Oh, I know. No, really, I like you, too. I’ll be back.”


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com