Oct. 18, 2003

The Ugly Stepsister

by Denise Duhamel

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "The Ugly Stepsister," by Denise Duhamel.

The Ugly Stepsister

You don't know what it was like.
My mother marries this bum who takes off on us,
after only a few months, leaving his little Cinderella
behind. Oh yes, Cindy will try to tell you
that her father died. She's like that, she's a martyr.
But between you and me, he took up
with a dame close to Cindy's age.
My mother never got a cent out of him
for child support. So that explains
why sometimes the old lady was gruff.
My sisters and I didn't mind Cindy at first,
but her relentless cheeriness soon took its toll.
She dragged the dirty clothes to one of Chelsea's
many laundromats. She was fond of talking
to mice and rats on the way. She loved doing dishes
and scrubbing walls, taking phone messages,
and cleaning toilet bowls. You know,
the kind of woman that makes the rest
of us look bad. My sisters and I
weren't paranoid, but we couldn't help
but see this manic love for housework
as part of Cindy's sinister plan. Our dates
would come to pick us up and Cindy'd pop out
of the kitchen offering warm chocolate chip cookies.
Critics often point to the fact that my sisters and I
were dark and she was blonde, implying
jealousy on our part. But let me
set the record straight. We have the empty bottles
of Clairol's Nice 'n Easy to prove
Cindy was a fake. She was what her shrink called
a master manipulator. She loved people
to feel bad for her—her favorite phrase was a faint,
"I don't mind. That's OK." We should have known
she'd marry Jeff Charming, the guy from our high school
who went on to trade bonds. Cindy finagled her way
into a private Christmas party on Wall Street,
charging a little black dress at Barney's,
which she would have returned the next day
if Jeff hadn't fallen head over heels.
She claimed he took her on a horse-and-buggy ride
through Central Park, that it was the most romantic
evening of her life, even though she was home
before midnight—a bit early, if you ask me, for Manhattan.
It turned out that Jeff was seeing someone else
and had to cover his tracks. But Cindy didn't
let little things like another woman's happiness
get in her way. She filled her glass slipper
with champagne she had lifted
from the Wall Street extravaganza. She toasted
to Mr. Charming's coming around, which he did
soon enough. At the wedding, some of Cindy's friends
looked at my sisters and me with pity. The bride insisted
that our bridesmaids' dresses should be pumpkin,
which is a hard enough color for anyone to carry off.
But let me assure you, we're all very happy
now that Cindy's moved uptown. We've
started a mail order business—cosmetics
and perfumes. Just between you and me,
there's quite a few bucks to be made
on women's self-doubts. And though
we don't like to gloat, we hear Cindy Charming
isn't doing her aerobics anymore. It's rumored
that she yells at the maid, then locks herself in her room,
pressing hot match tips into her palm.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of cowboy and writer H. L. Davis, born in Roseburg, Oregon (1894), in the foothills of the Cascade mountains. His father was an itinerant teacher, and the family moved to The Dalles, a town on the Columbia River. Davis got a job as a cowboy and a surveyor. He worked for a while, saved up 1500 dollars, quit his job, and left for Stanford University. When he got there, he found that his savings wouldn't even pay for one term, and he went back home. Davis wrote a collection of eleven poems called Primapara (1919) and sent them to Poetry magazine. The poems were extremely popular and were praised by Carl Sandburg and Robert Penn Warren. He was called the "bard of the Oregon Landscape," and his poems were unsentimental and wry. Davis said, "Stories have actually neither beginning or end. Every story is like a river: it began flowing with the beginning of the world, and will not cease 'til the world comes to an end."

On this day in 1896, Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull premiered in St. Petersburg. The production was under-rehearsed. It was supposed to be a benefit for a well known comic actress, but there was no part for her to play, and the fans who had come to see her rioted. The performance was an utter failure, and Chekhov declared he would never write another play. But before the end of the year, he had begun work on Uncle Vanya (1897).

It's the birthday of Ntozake Shange, born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey (1948), author of the play For colored girls who considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1975). She took the name Ntozake Shange in college. It consists of two Zulu names which mean "she who comes with her own things" and "who walks like a lion." Her parents were middle-class supporters of the arts, and Shange enjoyed an artistically rich childhood. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois were all regular guests at her family's house. Shange attended Barnard College in New York. She got married, then divorced, and attempted suicide several times. In 1975, her most famous work, For colored girls . . ., was first performed. She called it a "choreopoem," and it was written for a cast of seven colorfully dressed female actors. The piece blends poetry, acting, and dance to explore the ordeals of black women in the mid 1970s. It was very well received, and it was moved to Broadway before being taken on a national tour.

Shange said she never had any books by African-American women to read as a child. She recently said, "I write for young girls of color, for girls who don't even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. . . . I want to say, 'Here, look where you can live, look what you can think.'"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show