Strip: A Novel  

Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 1994



Analyzing the 4 elements of a story (via highlighting) to see how much of each approach you are using; usually Lee uses a lot of dialogue/dramatized scenes and description with little expository moments, and short bursts of narration.

Red = Description (sensory details, imagery)

Lavander = Narration (plot, action, back story, though some think back story is exposition)

Orange = Dialogue/Dramatized Scenes (characters likely talking to each other; often the part that slows the pacing down the most)

Green = Exposition (Lee likes to think of this as philosophizing, theme building, argument, explanation; usually more abstract)


an exerpt from "Not Quite Peru"

Phoenix is called the Valley of the Sun, and it produces the kind of heat that can make a person see things. I am a woman who lives for this fever, for the feeling that I am something other than mere. When nothing in my dry suburb is moving, I have dreams. I dream of being pricked by hot, succulent cacti, and that this makes me smile. I dream of my muscles becoming huge, unreal and feared by men. I dream of women’s soft skin and that they don’t look surprised as I touch it. I dream of wading through humid plants in the Andes, and of my parents who talk to me through moldy Peruvian phone lines from Lima. Peru is a place where they try to convince Aymaras that conversion is necessary, that Mormonism is the only way. In Arizona, I dream of my parents dunking souls for God as I watch from tropical bushes. When it's close to morning and our desert is already getting hot, I dream of Peruvian boot prints, my boot prints, in short grass. I dream of wet apples covered in chocolate that reflect Aymara faces and the Aymara bodies standing in weeds before the picking season begins. My mother has described it all to me in detail. Their dark faces. Their picking hands. Their white teeth. I can't help but dream of such things.

If I've run too far the day before, trying to further lean out my muscles for the next body building competition, I sometimes dream of women's bodies that don't look like bodies, that are steely like organic machines. My mother, with her white skin and white clothes, will occasionally call from a Peruvian village she is trying to convert to tell me none of these things are in the South America she knows.

"It’s always humid here. And there’s no cactus or chocolate, not the good kind. It's just so windy," she says. "I think it makes people shoot guns."

"People shoot guns everywhere," I tell her.

"We have body guards. People would kill us if they could. They just don't understand, but I know God has His ways."

I imagine her body guards as tall, white men, wearing thin suits and religiously white ties.

"I keep dreaming of chocolate covered apples," I say. "I dream of machines, and lot’s of hands. Hands everywhere."

“That must mean something,” she says. “Your father’s better at dreams than I am.”

When we don’t talk, she sends me letters typed on onion skin paper, but I only skim a paragraph, or file them unopened because I no longer want to hear how He can save me from my impulses.

My mother calls me Terry and so do all her white relatives, but I’ve started telling them it's Teresa now.

"I'm taking Spanish classes," I tell my parents, long distance to Peru. "Hola," I say for 30 dollars. I imagine my mother, dressed in white, sits on velvet chairs when we talk, that her voice echoes over polished marble floors scraped clean by maids each week.

"You're always our Terry, no matter what," my mother says.

My father's first name is like mine, culturally interchangeable. If he goes by Jamie or James, he's white, a gringo. If he goes by Jaime, he's with relatives and speaking in latinate tongues I sometimes barely understand.

Because of my classes, I try to speak to my gringa mother in Spanish, joke with her that I want to live in downtown Phoenix and buy tortillas cheap and hot from the tortilleria. I tell her I want to sell things on street corners I can make myself, with my fingers, with these callused hands I use to lift weights and turn myself into something not quite human. I would sell gorditas or limones, yell out their foreign sounds in my always American accent. My mother does not know this comes from the need to feel indescribable.

When I talk to her long distance, I try not to tell her about my body, and how she would not recognize me. I try not to tell her that every day I lift so many barbells, do so many squats my clothes fit tighter and men stare until I make kissing lips at them. I don’t tell her I like to shock these men with my deceptive mouth.

There are other things I have not told her. There is Linda.

And there are other changes. I am so different from the child who left them, the child they left here, that now I can stand in front of clapping audiences in a bikini as if I had no weakness. I don't tell my mother much about this. I don’t tell her I sit in Spanish classes trying to become foreign, trying to gain the kind of accent a girl named Teresa would have.

I am so changed there are times when I want to pack a gun in a leather shoulder holster and walk stiffly past the barrio boys who take the same language classes to laugh at the stilted, text-book Spanish. I want to walk past these same boys on their streets, sneering and flexing myself at them until they faint. I don't say anything to my mother about my new needs, and though she is good at probing, I have managed to avoid telling her about the scar I now have on my stomach from a short knife fight in a fake cantina.

There are times when I almost let my temper become visible. Every day when I go to work or run through the desert, I look for the barrio boy who made me feel fear again. He who was so thin, held his gun so close to my face when I was alone lifting heavy bars in an old weight room downtown close to my office. I haven’t told my parents about this.

I also haven’t told them that in spite of their own Godly actions, the old religion feels like a heavy, drowning dust storm.

On a less kindly day, they might tell me this is what happens to women with muscles and fever dreams and lust, but I would rather not hear such things. So when my parents call, there is not much we can talk about.

"My biceps are bigger," I tell them, touching the scar on my stomach. Muscles seem to be the safest topic of conversation. "I win things by flexing in public. I'll send you a picture."

"I hope you still have all that beautiful hair of yours," my mother says. "Working out is one thing, but what's the point if it changes your natural beauty?"

“I think she has the free agency to do what she wants,” my father says from another line. He hasn't spoken English with an accent since he was 7 years old and living in the 40’s. Money and religion have turned him white, like me.

"Free agency doesn’t keep me from worrying. At least I hope you keep your banking job,” my mother says. Her Mormon ancestors taught her the basics of wise financial planning. "Just remember, honey, you’ll never have to sell tortillas or anything else on the streets. Why else have we worked for all these years?"

They have never wanted to see their little girl change, but each day I do change. I lay outside in the sun and inside on tanning beds until my white skin doesn't look white. I eat tortillas before and after my heavier workouts, sitting in the sauna with a rag full of corn ones, chewing their dry, yellow textures. I say tough words in Spanish like pendejo and cabron, hoping for a transformation, hoping I can change from a white, middle-class, frightened nothing into something tan and impregnable, something I have never been.

"If you eat too many tortillas you'll soon be speaking nothing but Spanish," my mother says laughing during another long-distance conversation. Bad connections often require us to repeat much of what we say.

"Spanish is good," my father says. "It’s good. I speak it. I eat tortillas and so does your mother. I was born in Juarez you know." Almost every time I call, my father tells the story of his father's goats being buried by sand in the Sonoran desert, and I always laugh, long distance.

"Oh, James, goats move too much to be buried. The stories you make up," my mother says. "Anyway, if your daughter came down here, I bet she'd be shooting guns with the rest of them, she’s becoming such a radical. I bet she'd be one of those communists.”

"They're Maoists, not communists," I say. I try to think of the word for bourgeois in Spanish, but nothing comes. My Spanish book doesn't list it, and only has words like "dog," "rain," "apartment," "rent." Because I don't think the Maoists would care much for my textbook Spanish, and because the church does not appeal, I tell my mother I could never visit them there in that place where people shoot and touch you too much, where people get too close to you with guns.

"People are the same everywhere," my mother says. My father hums a little on the other line, reading probably. He is a self-educated man. Every so often when there is phone silence he says "Yes," and "Oh."

I, too, am a self-made woman, or so I like to think. Each day I squeeze my fist, watching the power of my veins. But as I begin to sweat in saunas and think I feel pure, I remember yellow, the color of the sun, the color of the barrio boy's shirt. I remember how the yellow reflected off his gun, and the way his teeth reflected everything. Every time I feel some strength, I also remember my inability to move.

And so, I have made my body magnificent.