Normal People

Neal Lulofs

Frankie Schneider’s mother had him tied up in their backyard, a rope bound tightly around his ankle, the other end looped around the base of an oak tree, urine-stained sheets flapping on the clothesline.

“Mom, we have to do something,” Marcia called out from the bathroom when she saw the boy next door, only five years old, tied up again that summer. “Someone needs to talk to that crazy woman.”

The Schneiders had rented the house in Normal, Illinois, late that spring of 1965. There was a girl who was Marcia’s age, 14, and another boy a couple of years older. Frankie’s siblings and some neighborhood kids were playing baseball in the empty field behind their yard, which contained a disparate assortment of junk: a stack of cinder blocks, four tires with varying amounts of remaining tread, a rusted, formerly yellow Tonka truck, a snow shovel leaning against the chipped siding. Occasionally, Frankie would toss back a stray ball that found its way to him. If he dared to sit or even stand still, his mother would yell out through the kitchen window, “No rest for the wicked” or, more directly, “Move your ass, Frankie.”

“I don’t know,” Corrie said, tiptoeing behind her daughter to get a better view of the neighbor’s yard. “It’s not really our business.”

“How would you like to be tied up outside all day like some dog?”

Corrie grew frustrated, mostly because she knew her daughter was right and that she’d have to speak with the mother, despite how much she hated confrontation. “Very well,” she said, checking herself in the bathroom mirror, “but you’re coming with me.”

Twice Corrie’s size, a face dotted in perspiration, silver-black hair pulled into a ponytail, Francine Schneider opened her door halfway and looked at her neighbor, lifting her head in a half nod that Corrie interpreted as let’s see what the immigrant has to say before I kick her backwards off my porch.

“Hello, Francine,” Corrie said, reaching out to hold Marcia’s hand, which she swiftly jerked away. Corrie had surmised that having Marcia with her would offer some kind of protection, expecting that the woman who thought it was fine to shackle her young son to a tree in the summer heat would somehow have the moral compass to refrain from harming Corrie in front of her daughter. “I wonder if you could untie Frankie so he and my boy, Michael, can play. It’s quite warm today and they’re welcome to come inside.” Then adding, “I made some lemonade.” She had not.

Even here at this moment, Marcia found herself embarrassed by her mother’s Dutch accent—her own accent long ago fully Midwestern American. She had stopped inviting school friends to her house, making excuses like, My little brother has the shits and the house stinks like a sewer, or My mother may be dying—maybe not—but either way you can’t come over and also don’t call the house later, or My father will be home. Her friends felt the opposite. They told her they liked it when her mother answered the phone and would call out: “Marcia, de telefoon is voor jou,” a phrase they would repeat to her when she got on the phone. To Marcia it was cringeworthy, a constant reminder that they were different, not from this place, strange. Marcia wanted to blend in, to look and sound like a normal American, and that wasn’t going to happen if anyone heard her parents utter a single syllable.

She examined the interior behind Mrs. Schneider. There was a brown couch in the living room with a large rip in one of the upright cushions, an empty plate and glass on a tv tray table, a handful of popcorn kernels scattered on the vinyl hallway flooring. A radio was playing in the kitchen, a man’s voice above a muted commercial jingle for a local grocer telling ladies to stock up on Swanson frozen dinners. The girl, Donna, stepped into partial view, her bare arms crossed, leaning against the opening to the kitchen. She was pretty, which had surprised Marcia the first time she saw her outside briefly a couple of months earlier. She had long, brown hair nearly down to her waist, a face dotted with freckles. She went to the Catholic grade school but would be starting high school with Marcia in a month, according to her mother. If she didn’t wind up in prison or the circus first, Marcia thought.

“Sorry, he pissed his bed again,” Francine said to Corrie. “We don’t reward that with lemonade. That’s not how it’s done here. Nice to see you again.” The door began to close before the sentence was finished, Donna tilting her head to exchange a look with Marcia.

“That woman is a Nazi in a dress,” Corrie whispered to her daughter as they crossed into their yard, coming from a woman who had endured occupation by actual Nazis.

“Hitler without the mustache,” Marcia added, turning to make the Nazi salute in the direction of the Schneider’s house.

“Stop, not funny.”

That evening, her husband paid a visit to Mr. Schneider, a school janitor at Epiphany Catholic School who was working on his truck in their driveway, returning with a look of accomplishment. “That should take care of it,” Jan told Corrie.

“What on earth did you say?”

“Simple: I told him they can’t tie up their kid in the yard for everyone to see.” He shook his head. “Not fit to be parents, those people.”


Marcia almost collided with the girl. She was at her locker the first week of high school pulling out a thick book for her next class, a text simply titled Biology, which apparently took four people to write. When she turned, she stepped into the path of a speed-walking Donna Schneider, who stopped abruptly, a bright-orange school folder under her arm. She had on a plain sleeveless cotton dress with a skinny vinyl belt tied around the waist in a droopy bow. “Hey, neighbor,” she said, recognizing Marcia.

There was something about Donna that Marcia connected with—the defiant look behind her puffy eyes, being part of a peculiar family. They were going to be friends, she concluded. “Did you borrow that rope from your mother?” she asked, motioning to her belt.

At first Donna wasn’t sure how to take the comment. She decided it was funny. “Right out of the fucking gate with that? Okay then.” She lifted one of the belt’s ends that hung in front. “This is from her indoor rope collection. Soon to be a Normal fashion trend.”


The bell began to ring. “Shitballs, do you know where you’re going?”

“Biology.” Marcia pointed to her book cover. “The study of living organisms.”

“That excludes half the people here.” Donna turned and disappeared into a sea of bodies crisscrossing the hall.


Lunch tray in hand, Marcia scanned the cafeteria for a place to sit, finding a spot on the end of a table where Donna was sitting with a group of freshmen girls who were gathered together for protection like a herd of exposed deer in a barren Illinois corn field.

“What’s with the boys and all the long hair?” one asked.

“Yum. Fine with me,” said another.

“Not the football jocks,” Donna said. “Did you notice? Look at them.” She nodded her head to the side in the direction of a table filled with players. “Hair shorter than a priest’s favorite altar boy.”

“I can’t believe we’re not allowed to wear pants,” another said. “We’re not at Epiphany anymore. What bullshit.”

“My epiphany is I won’t ever use algebra in real life,” said another.

“They make them have short hair above the ears. And wear ties to games or something.”

“It’s so the old male teachers can stare at our legs. Pervs.”

Could these girls be the same age as Marcia? Some, with their braces showing, rail-thin arms, and underdeveloped breasts, looked like children. She felt older than all of them. She had for a long time, really. It’s not that she didn’t like to talk about boys or music or hair or clothes. She just felt different from most girls, like she was in between two things—one in the past, the other yet to happen. Maybe it was simply because she wasn’t from this place. Maybe she’d be a different person if she still lived in the Netherlands, living a different life, moving toward a different future, as if there could be two versions of Marcia, the same person but not the same life.

She looked at her plate: fish fingers, baked beans, instant potatoes, a roll, a patty of butter covered by a tiny square of waxed paper.

“Fresh caught from the Illinois River,” Donna said to her.

“It’s like they’re all trying to look like The Beach Boys or something. Not the football team, the normal boys.”

“Is that the one with Herman Hermits? Yum.”

“That’s a band—the wrong band—not a person. And please stop saying yum.”

“It’s actually not bad,” Marcia said. “The fish, I mean.”

“Oh, you thought that was fish?” Donna said. “Where are you from again?”

A short-haired football player suddenly stopped in front of them carrying his lunch tray, the team at the table beside him watching and snickering. “Would any of you attractive freshmen ladies care for a finger?” He waited a beat, then angled his plate to reveal a lone remaining stick of breaded fish, remnants of baked beans and instant potatoes anchoring it in place.

“No,” Donna said, “but you can have my finger.” She raised her forearm, elbow on the table, and flipped him off.

“Touche,” the boy said, half-smiling at her. He tilted his plate perpendicular. The fish finger slid down in slow motion, landing with a splat on the table between Marcia and Donna.

“Oh, my god,” Marcia said after he left.

“That’s Brian Aronson,” Donna told her. “Junior. My brother is on the team. His dad’s the coach. You just met the douchebag quarterback.”


Michael and Frankie were underneath the kitchen table, which served as their spaceship. Attacked by aliens, shooting lasers from their fingers, they ran into the living room where Jan was taking a post-work nap on the sofa. Corrie tried to stop them, but too late.

“God bless it,” Jan said. He sat up and rubbed his eyes with the palm of one hand. “Frankie, I liked it better when you were tied up in your yard.”

The boy stopped in his tracks and stared blankly ahead.

“Jan.” Corrie gathered the boys by their shoulders and began to usher them back into the kitchen.

“Michael,” Jan said, “what the hell happened to your pants?”

For his first day of kindergarten, Corrie had dressed Michael in new clothes—a light yellow button-down short-sleeve shirt and plain-front green- and brown-checked pants, the latter of which had two half-dollar-size holes in the knees.

“See,” Michael explained, “on the merry-go-round the kids pushed fast, they were pushing and it was faster and I couldn’t hold on and I slid. It really, really hurt. It did, Dad.”

“Well, you’re okay now,” Jan said. “What did that cost us?”

“It’s fine,” Corrie said. “I will sew some patches. Good as new. Dinner will be ready soon.”

Marcia appeared from the hallway. “I hope it’s not fish.”

“There she is,” Jan said. “How was high school?”

“Big,” she said. “Still navigating.” In this version of her life, the American version, she recognized that she was the first in her family to attend school past the age of 14. In post-war Netherlands, her mother and father simply didn’t have that option. Boys from poor families went to work—her father a housepainter like his father—and the girls helped with chores and errands or cared for younger siblings.

“You’ll find your way in no time,” Jan said. “Just stay away from the boys.”

Corrie bent over so she was eye level with Frankie. “Would you like to stay for dinner?” He shrugged while Jan gave her a look. She stood up. “Who knows what the boy eats at his house.”

Marcia perked up. “Can I ask Donna if she wants to eat with us, too?”

A short while later, there were six people squeezed around their small kitchen table.

“Pancakes for dinner?” Donna said. “Far out.”

“We say pannenkoeken,” Jan said. “In the Netherlands we make them with things like cheese and spinach and bacon. You try.” The thin pancake was almost as wide as the plate, its edges curled up by design, a mound of steaming ingredients in the center. “The next one you’ll have chocolate syrup, berries, powdered sugar. Lekker. That means delicious.”

Marcia rolled her eyes. “Don’t eat it if it’s weird.”

“Better than your fish fingers,” she said. “Kind of wish I had the munchies right about now.” She looked at Marcia to see if she caught the reference.

“I don’t want it,” Michael said.

“What, honey?” Corrie asked.

He pointed to his plate. “Spinach.”

“Popeye eats spinach. Look, Frankie likes his.” The boy stabbed and tore at the food with his fork, the tips of his nails black with trapped dirt, using his fingers to balance the pancake concoction on its way to his mouth. “How about one with chocolate instead, Michael?”

“Just eat it,” Marcia said. “I swear he gets anything he wants.”

“You eat it,” he said. “You’re stupid.”

Jan reached across the table and smacked his fork tines on the back of Michael’s hand, a piece of chopped spinach sticking to his skin. “Enough. We don’t talk like that.”

While Michael whimpered and Marcia and Donna fought back giggles, Corrie served glasses of milk.

“Not too much, Frankie,” his sister said. “My mom doesn’t let him drink anything this late.”

Jan nodded. “Don’t want to see you tied up with the dogs again, son.”


That night Jan lay in bed smoking a final cigarette of the day.

Corrie sat on the foot of the bed in a short nightgown, rubbing cream into her legs, feet, arms, hands, her back to him. “I can’t believe our little Marcia is in high school already.” She had given birth to her daughter at her in-law’s home in The Hague. She was visiting during the day, baking bread and preparing a large pot of vegetable soup for a family dinner, when Corrie bent over in pain, grasping her stomach, her water breaking down her legs. It was no given then that premature babies would survive. A midwife delivered Marcia, but the baby had to be admitted that day to a small maternity hospital, where she spent her first days on the planet in a crude room for premature babies, lying in a cot that could be tipped in front or back to raise or lower the head and feet, its canvas lining containing pockets for hot water bottles to keep the baby warm, the room’s radiator turned up high, humidity provided by a large iron pot of low-boiling water on a gas stove.

Jan put out his cigarette. It was a warm September night. The windows were open, but the air was humid and stagnant.

Corrie eased into bed, her skin tacky from the cream and humidity, a top sheet clinging to her. “She has her period already, you know.”

He rolled onto his side and turned off the lamp on his nightstand, unseen smoke hovering above them.


The following month Donna talked Marcia into attending a Friday night football game in Peoria. The school would be bussing students to the game, which seemed the more alluring part of the offer to Marcia.

“We can watch my brother sit on the bench,” Donna told her.

“Sounds riveting.” Marcia had never attended an American football game and found it odd that a sport not played with feet would appropriate the name of a game played all over the world where feet were actually fundamental.

To pass time before the busses left, they walked into town, cutting across the Illinois State University campus, which had dropped “Normal” from its name the previous year—no longer normal the joke went. Music blared from a dorm room window, the girls singing along, We’ve got to get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do. They pretended to blend in with the college students, cutting back and forth across the quad as if late for class, its trees ablaze with yellow and orange leaves of fall, Donna ogling a group of boys—men?—flinging a frisbee around, Marcia imagining she was on her way to attend a lecture on something like abnormal psychology or ancient history. She wanted to be the first in her family to attend college, but she doubted her father would see any point to it. Though she only lived a few miles from campus, it felt as far away as the moon—something she could see every day but couldn’t possibly reach.

Downtown, they approached the local Walgreen drugstore, the city’s self-aware motto painted on the building’s exterior brick wall: Normal, Illinois, Where Everything is Just as It Seems. Inside, the store had an airless smell, with narrow, packed aisles, and a flickering fluorescent ceiling light above the checkout. There was a small section in back where a lone male pharmacist worked. Dressed in a dark tie and white coat, he glanced at Marcia and Donna without expression. The other side of the store featured a large counter area with wall-mounted mirrors spanning its length, backless swivel stools bolted to the floor, frayed strips of duct tape splayed across cracked vinyl seat covers, a still-in-use soda fountain front and center. The girls sat down and ordered cherry colas from a gray-haired woman who wore glasses attached to a chain around her neck. They watched her pump syrup into two Coca-Cola-branded glasses, add carbonated water from the fountain, scoops of chipped ice, straws.

“Have you ever tasted anything better?” Donna said.

Next, they browsed magazines. Mick Jagger was on the cover of Tiger Beat, which exclaimed “OH BABY!” and “SO GROOVY!” on either side of his boyish face, the lower corner declaring that The Byrds were America’s answer to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Hollies and The Kinks and The Animals.

“I’ll take The Beatles over everyone,” Marcia said. “Paul is so cute.”

Donna looked at the page Marcia held up. “George has a crooked smile.”

“Don’t laugh. My dad doesn’t want me listening to their music. Or any rock and roll, for that matter. Says it’s all screaming. “When you have your own car, then you can choose the radio station,” she said, exaggerating her father’s deep voice and accent. “Makes for some boring car rides.”

“Your dad’s a little weird,” Donna said.

“Your mom’s not exactly June Cleaver.”

“No,” Donna agreed. “We’re more like The fucking Addams Family.” She found a magazine with a male bodybuilder flexing on the cover, muscles oiled to a shine, his tiny, dark bikini trunks bulging. She pointed to his groin, touching it with her finger. “Have you ever seen one?”

Marcia’s face went red.

“I’ve seen pictures,” Donna said. “This one time I answered the phone in my parent’s bedroom and had to take a message, so I opened the nightstand drawer and there was this magazine with a naked couple on it and the guy had this huge, you know, and the woman had her hand around it and the guy was like oh yeah. It was hilarious.”

Marcia took a breath. “Okay, promise you won’t tell anyone? This is so creepy. A couple of months ago I was walking out of the bathroom and my dad was just standing in his bedroom with his pants open, like he was waiting for me to walk by or something. He said now that I was starting high school, he wanted me to see one so I’d know what to expect.”

“Jesus Christ,” Donna said. “Jesus fucking Christ. That’s the grossest thing I’ve ever heard. I thought my family was nuts.”

There was more she could have said, dim memories from her childhood in the Netherlands. She looked at the floor. “Yeah,” she said.

“Let’s get out of here before I puke.” They put the magazines back and began walking toward the door. Donna stopped suddenly and snatched two pieces of Bazooka bubble gum from a shelf loaded with assorted candy, gum, and chocolates, wrapping her fist around the plunder. “Take some,” she whispered.

Marcia’s eyes widened. “I thought thou shalt not steal.”

Donna shrugged. “I’m not in Catholic school anymore.”

Marcia snatched a single piece and quickly followed her to the door.

“We’re all going to hell,” Donna yelled loudly, the bell above the door announcing their escape.


The game turned out to be more entertaining than Marcia had anticipated, for reasons only remotely related to football. As the Normal students departed the busses and walked en masse to the stadium, Donna pulled on Marcia’s coat sleeve and asked her to come with her to the bathroom. She led her behind the concession stand and toward a remote, dark area of the Peoria campus where there was a clump of tall trees. Beyond that was a chain link fence and a single-story industrial building—a factory of some kind—its parking lot empty.

“Are we peeing in the woods or something?” Marcia said.

“Better.” Ducking behind a tree, Donna pulled out a crudely rolled joint, curved slightly from being in her coat pocket all day. “Have you ever tried it?” she asked, holding it inches from Marcia’s face, slowly waving it back and forth.

“Is that pot? Jesus. Where did you get it?” She looked toward the football stands. “What if someone catches us?”

“Stole this from my brother’s stash.”

“Football players don’t smoke dope.”

Donna shrugged. “I guess they do if they don’t start. Or maybe they don’t start because they do. Either way, are you up for it?”

“What will happen to me?”

“Your boobs will double in size and your poop will smell like flowers. What do you mean? You’ll get high, laugh, want to eat an entire pizza.” Donna lit the joint, inhaled, then held it out for Marcia. “Just inhale a little and hold it in. You might not even feel anything after smoking your first time.”

“First petty larceny. Now illegal drug use. I’m beginning to think you’re a bad influence.” Marcia inhaled and immediately spun around, her lungs erupting, smoke stinging her eyes. After finding her breath, she said, “God, that’s awful.” She dabbed at her watery eyes with her coat sleeve, then took another hit, a seed popping with a crack as she handed it back to Donna.

“Didn’t your parents teach you about reefer madness? Too late now. We’ll be zombies before the night is over.”

They made their way to the stands. Marcia couldn’t really tell if she felt different, but she did feel buoyant sitting amidst a crowd of her classmates who were yelling and cheering, lights illuminating the stands and field, the edges of her ears growing cold in the fall air. Thanks to a second-half injury and contrary to what Donna had predicted, her brother not only played but intercepted a pass and was involved in several tackles, each time after which she would stand and scream her brother’s name loudly—too loudly, considering Normal was on its way to a 21-point loss—swollen eyes, stoner grin. Marcia let herself enjoy the experience, clapping and repeating cheers—2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate? Normal, Normal, NORMAL!—eating a hot dog and Cracker Jack, drinking watery hot chocolate. She was glad that she and Donna were becoming friends—stuffing notes into each other’s lockers, gossiping about peers and teachers, arguing about who had worse parents.

After the game, they stopped at the bathroom inside the school, a group of boys pushing one of their friends into the girls’ bathroom, apparently hoping to see . . . nudity? Girls making out? What he got was Marcia washing her hands, Donna telling him to fuck off. They made their way to the parking lot where four busses with Normal Community High School in black lettering were waiting side by side, three for the students who had made the trip and one to transport the football team, coaches, and cheerleaders, all with lights on, engines running. Donna and Marcia took a seat halfway back on their assigned bus, their chaperone, math teacher Mr. Alm, counting the passengers twice, then announcing to the driver “All present and accounted for,” the convoy beginning the near-hour return ride to Normal a few minutes later.

Less than halfway home, the busses pulled to side of the road. Marcia saw Mr. Alm confer with the driver and step outside, making his way to the front bus carrying the team, returning several minutes later. “Listen up,” he announced. “The team bus has broken down—

“Just like the game!” a boy in the back yelled.

“—so each bus will have some new company. Make room, people.”

Marcia watched as a few coaches, including the head coach, some cheerleaders in short skirts and bulky jackets, and a couple dozen players lugging equipment bags piled onto their dark bus, headlights from the bus behind them casting a spotlight on each new passenger, the jokey boy in the back introducing each like a stadium announcer.

“Well, if it isn’t the pretty freshman girls I shared my lunch with. Slide over, will you?” said Brian Aronson, aka douchebag quarterback, to Marcia, who was seated near the aisle.

She hesitated, then nudged Donna to move closer to the window.

“How’s that finger doing?” he said, looking past Marcia.

“Fine. See?” Donna flipped him off—again.

“You’re a spunky one, aren’t you? We’ll see what we can do about that.” Coat in his hands, he slid his bag under the seat in front, which required Marcia to move her feet out of the way. “Aren’t you Schneider’s little sister? He actually played tonight.”

“I was there,” Donna said. The bus heaved forward as the convoy got underway again.

He sat back. “Played better than me tonight,” he admitted.

Marcia felt his body against hers, their thighs, arms, shoulders synchronized with the movements of the bus. She could have slid closer to Donna, who was soon asleep, crashing from her high, head leaning against the window, but decided not to. She watched the bus driver wrestle with the oversize wheel, shift gears with a lurch and grind, the head coach and Mr. Alm chatting in the seat behind him, red taillights of traffic dispersed on the highway in front of them. The bus yawed back-and-forth, its seats rattling and squeaking above the engine’s drone and occupant’s muffled conversations. Occasional bumps in the road would lift everyone in unison, dangling them an inch or two above their padded seats, briefly suspended in time, before the laws of gravity and motion took hold and returned the universe to its previous order.

Brian pulled his coat over his lap and arms like a blanket, closing his eyes as if intending to sleep. But Marcia felt his hand drop to his side and rest against her thigh. Then his fingers found her hand, placing it on top of hers. Her heart quickened. He curled his fingers over the backs of hers and gradually moved their joined hands to the top of his thigh, his other hand now also clasping hers. Then, shifting in his seat, he pulled her hand toward him and placed it on his groin. It surprised her, but it also seemed familiar. She knew what to do, what was expected of girls like her, as if she had been in this moment before. It didn’t take long.

She moved closer to Donna, hooking her arm inside of her friend’s.

“Are we home?”

“Not yet,” Marcia said. “Go back to sleep.”

Despite the dark sky, she began to recognize some landmarks that signaled they were approaching Normal—the farm with its silo painted to look like an ear of corn, the under-construction interstate highway that would connect the city to Champaign, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and a world beyond, the cluster of ISU dorms on the edge of campus, her world coming into focus. It was the first time she had the sense that she would leave one day.

The caravan carved its way through town on its way to the high school, passing the city’s motto painted on the side of a brick building proclaiming that everything was just as it seemed.

# # #