Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

Their lives at stake and all Ava wants to do is suck face. Doesn’t she know there’s a time and place for everything? The goddamn car jerking all over the ice, six inches from death, cops looking for them, money running out, and she wants what? to make out? wants to talk about love and babies and shit?

—Tom and Ava, in Too Cool

Excerpts: Too Cool

Plus, About the Excerpt:
“From Car Thief to Author: A Journey”

Too Cool: Chapter One

Triple E is broke. He cruises the streets of Gunnison searching for someone to roll. Jeanne has a buck and some change. Ava has two dollars. Tom has three. The car is almost out of gas. It has been a jittery day moving through the mountains, the tires skidding on patches of ice, slipping toward guardrails, jagged canyons. The radio has warned of another storm coming. They need to get gassed up and out of the Rockies, get to the plains of Utah before the storm hits.

“What should we do?” says Jeanne, trusting Triple E to have an answer. “Should we just get as much gas as we can and keep movin? Maybe we can find someone to roll in Utah. There are rich Mormons in Salt Lake, Triple E.” She shivers and looks away from him. “God, it’s cold. I can feel the cold pressin on the glass.” She touches the window. Leaves the imprint of her fingers on the moist glass. “I should’ve stopped and got me some pants,” she says. “This skirt is dumb.” She tugs at the hem. Her kneecaps poke out smooth and brown. She is wearing a fur jacket. She has on ankle-top boots made of white suede. Her gaze wanders to Triple E, her eyes seeking assurance. He turns the heater up and she turns back to the window. “So cold,” she says. “We gotta get outta here.” She is not in her element. She is playing at being bad, doing her best to measure up to him, her love, her Triple E.

From the back comes Ava’s tiny voice. “This isn’t workin,” she says. She and Tom have been arguing and now they are both slumped at opposite corners of the seat, glaring out the windows at the ghastly snow. Tom says she is smothering him, why can’t she lay off? Their lives at stake and all Ava wants to do is suck-face. Doesn’t she know there’s a time and place for everything? The goddamn car jerking all over the ice, six inches from death, cops looking for them, money running out, and she wants what? to make out? wants to talk about love and babies and shit?

“What the fuck wrong with you, girl?”

Ava has taken the hint. She has squashed herself up, her arms crossed, her face turned away, and she says it again, “This isn’t workin.”

“What isn’t workin?” says Triple E.

“Me and Tom nor nothin,” she says. “I don’t know why I come. We don’t know where we’re goin, we don’t know what we’re doin, cept running round creation with you, Triple E. You’re the one fought the law, you’re who they want, not me, not us guys.”

He can’t argue with her. He nods, his eyes on her in the mirror — petite bit of a thing, fragile as a sparrow. She is fourteen years old and his cousin and he should be looking out better for her; but there is this thing she has about Tom Patch. And when he jumped in the car at school and said he was going with Triple E and Jeanne, Ava hopped in with him, eyes bright, ready for adventure. Triple E knows he should have made her get out of the car right then. But he didn’t.

“Nobody’s makin you stay,” he tells her. “I’ll let you out anytime you say, Ava. You can go on home.”

“Like how?”

“Like, just call your mom. She’ll come get you.”

Ava is quiet a second or two, then she tells him to forget it, she is staying.

Parking next to a grocery store, Triple E watches as customers come out and get into their cars and drive away. A woman, hunched in a heavy coat and carrying a grocery bag in her arms, comes out of the store. Her purse dangles at her elbow. She walks past the parking lot and keeps going up the street.

“There,” says Triple E. “You guys wait here.”

He gets out of the car and walks behind her. The street is packed with houses on both sides, but just a few blocks away is white prairie wilderness. The sun is setting. Distant mountains huddle shoulder to shoulder like conspirators, their peaks lost in ashen clouds. Bitterbrush and trees and sage meander over the slopes fanning out beyond the town. Trees are scattered over yards and terraces. The sidewalks are gray, icy. Snow hardens along the curbs and against the wheels of parked cars. Icicles hang from the edges of peaked roofs. Lights in windows glow in a yellow haze of frost.

Past a streetlight on the corner there are shadows beneath the black trees. When she enters the shadows, Triple E will go for her purse. He watches her carefully as she crosses the street, then moves into the gloom. He can see she is being careful, trying not to slip on the ice. He, too, is unsteady. Salt grips the soles of his shoes, but he feels like he might bust his ass any second. Hurrying close behind the old woman, he is about to snatch the purse from her arm, when she turns around. Looks at him.

“My-my,” she says, her voice raspy, “isn’t it just freezing to death out here? Where’s your hat, honey? You should have a hat on.”

“Uhnnh,” he mutters.

“You’ll get frostbit ears.”

“Ummm,” he says.

They walk together across the street. He sees a wrinkled patch of face bunched inside a knit cap and a scarf tied beneath her chin. He takes her arm and helps her up the curb. She is shaky and leans on him trustfully. His fingers are inches away from her purse.

“Thank you,” she says. And then she says, “You’re Masterson’s boy, aren’t you? I thought I knew you. You’re Billy Masterson.”

“Uhhh,” he says.

“It’s me, Ida.”

“Oh, uhhh.”

“How’s your dad, Billy?”


She looks him up and down. “You been to military school or something?” she says. She has a crooked lip. It lifts at one corner and slopes downward at the other. Lots of vertical lines encircle her mouth. Her breath steams. His too.

“Uh-huh, military school,” he says, running his hand over his buzzed hair.

“Those are parade shoes you’re wearing, aren’t they.” She points at his shoes. The shoes are buffed a very shiny black, the edges are laced with snow.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I know parade shoes when I see them. Wilfred was thirty years in the army.”

Ida talks fast, like she is afraid he’ll go away if she doesn’t keep talking. She says she knows military school is hard on boys, but it’s good for them in the long run, builds character, gives a boy proper American values and self-discipline. If she had her way all boys would go to military school soon as they turned twelve. “Too many boys running on the streets where they’re nothing but trouble. Denver especially,” she says. “I’m glad I don’t live there no more. What those people do to one another, it’s criminal. Give me the country, give me the mountains. How old are you now, Billy?”


“Ah-yes,” she says. She settles her gaze on him. “It’s what I like about Gunnison. Nice kids like you. Been taught the values.” She pauses a moment to clear her throat. She keeps squeezing Triple E’s arm, yanking lightly on the sleeve of his jacket as they walk along. “The worse thing Nixon ever did, you know, was take away the draft. Young men and all their excess energy, they need a place to burn it off. Draft them in the army. Give them pride in themselves and pride of country, that’s what Wilfred always said.”

“I guess,” says Triple E.

“I miss my Wilfred,” says Ida, her voice small. She turns at the walkway in front of her house. The house is pillowed in snow. It looks rumpled, homey, like something from a fairy tale. The porch light is on. Smoke rises from the chimney. “Nice seeing you again, Billy,” she says. “Tell your dad hi from Ida.”

“Sure will, Ida,” says Triple E. He watches her mount the porch, her gloved hand carefully gripping the rail. After she goes inside, he stands in front, stamping his feet, trying to decide what to do. The kitchen light comes on, and he can see her moving around, putting groceries away. The sky lowers around him, and he finds himself wishing he could go inside Ida’s house, not to rob her, but to sit with her beside the fire, warming his feet, watching TV, safe from winter and everything.

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From Car Thief to Author: A Journey

The first chapter of Too Cool is a fictionalized version of the time three friends and I went west in a stolen car. I was fifteen when the events in the novel took place. We were on our way to California, land of warm beaches and sunshine. It was a crazy, spur-of-the-moment decision. I had decided not to go to school that day, and I was lounging in bed, when my girl and my best friend and his girl came bouncing into my bedroom and told me we were all going to run away from home. I can’t remember what their reasons were, but reasons didn’t much matter to me in those days. For several years (since I was 12) I had been getting into a lot of trouble and was on probation for car theft, but the other three did not have criminal records. They were “good kids,” and so when the four of us took off together, those in the know (parents, authorities) blamed me; but for once I was not the instigator, though as soon as they told me what the plan was, I promptly went along with it. I knew it would be the end of me if I did what they wanted, but I did it anyway. I was a bit insane and certainly self-destructive. It’s a long story. The details are in Too Cool.

So anyway, the other boy and I went downtown and found ourselves an Oldsmobile. It was parked in front of a dry-cleaners. I had noticed that its owner always left the keys in the ignition, and I had been keeping the car in reserve, so to speak. We drove back to my house, picked up the girls and took off. We went south, then west into the Rocky Mountains. That evening we arrived penniless in Gunnison, Colorado. We were almost out of gas. We decided we would have to mug somebody. I saw a woman come out of a store, and I followed her. When I got close, she looked at me and she said, “Hi, Billy!” She asked me how I was and how my parents were. I got a bit flustered. She was chatting away about the weather and all kinds of things, and I was walking beside her listening and nodding and looking at her purse. I walked her to her door and said goodbye. It is hard to rob someone when they look at you and talk to you as if you are an old friend.

I went back to the car and drove to a gas station. An attendant came out (they had attendants in those days, the early sixties) and I told him to fill the tank. When he was done and had turned to hang up the hose, I drove away. He stood there gawking, like he couldn’t believe what was happening. My friends and I got all the way to Nevada by stealing gas and food. We were on the east side of White Horse Pass in Nevada when things started going wrong. I pulled into a gas station and had the attendant fill the tank, and then as usual I drove away. But this particular attendant turned out to be a moonlighting policeman. He chased us in his souped-up Ford. The weather was awful, the highway slippery, more snow was falling, deep canyons loomed at the edge of every curve. Several times we were at the brink of going over. Finally, the policeman backed off and we thought we had gotten away, but he radioed ahead and there was a roadblock waiting for us on the other side at the bottom of the pass.

But that’s not the end of the story. We could see the roadblock from far away, so we turned north onto a road leading away from the highway and into the hills. The snow got deeper and deeper and the car finally got stuck. My friends and I worked to get the car out, but it was hopeless, snow over the rocker panels, and a deep arroyo right next to us, into which we could plunge if we buckled the car around too much. So we sat inside, playing the radio and running the heater and trying not to think about what a mess things were. The next day the car ran out of gas. We stayed there another day and night and nearly froze to death. We ate snow. We were weak, dizzy, sometimes incoherent. We had to do something or we would all die.

I was in better shape than the others, so I got out of the car and went down the road to see what I could find. Two or three hours later I stumbled upon a tiny community out in the middle of nowhere, the people living in crackerbox houses, rectangles of wood and white paint surrounded by junk cars and sagebrush. The railroad tracks ran nearby, and the men were laborers who went out everyday to keep their section of the rail-line in good repair. As I approached the area, dogs came running at me like they were going to tear me apart. I reasoned with them, told them they were good dogs and I was proud of them and glad to see them. They barked and sniffed and settled down and let me pet them, then they fell into step behind me. One rebel mongrel stayed back and barked his fool head off, warning the others not to trust me. When I knocked on the door of one of the houses, a woman answered and she wasn’t friendly. “What do you want here?” she said.

By then my feet were frozen and I was exhausted and very near to fainting. I grabbed the handrail on her porch and more or less gasped my story to her: “Car stuck. Three days. No food. Freezing.” “Well, Jesus, honey, come in, come in!” she said. I was so grateful for her kind words I burst into tears. She led me to her kitchen and fried me up a half-dozen eggs in yellow butter and she made toast and coffee. They were the best eggs I’ve ever eaten, the best toast, the best coffee.

When the men got home, they took off in their four-wheelers to rescue my friends. An hour or so later, I watched a line of vehicles snaking its way down from the hills. Everybody was safe. After my girl had eaten something and warmed up, she was doing all right, but she was tired. I sat next to her, holding her hand as she stretched out on a bed. I started telling her that maybe we could all stay with the railroad workers and maybe they would give us jobs, and —

None of that happened. The next thing I knew, the police were there. They took us to Elko and then we were transferred to Reno, and the other boy and I spent a month locked up with an Indian kid who had knifed somebody in a fight. He told us about a mountain nearby and a cave filled with gold. We planned a break-out and how we would live like kings once we got the gold and got away. One day the Indian was taken out of the cell, and we never saw him again. Finally, we were sent back to Colorado in chains, the girls in one car, the boys in another. When we got to Brighton (the county seat at the time), I was locked away in a cell by myself. My friends were released to their parents. The authorities said I was incorrigible and mentally ill. Everybody believed this to be true. Even I believed it, but I refused to talk to anybody, therapists and “experts” be damned. So they said, “Okay, after some time in solitary, you’ll be glad to talk to anybody.” They were wrong. After two months locked alone in a cell, I was sent to relatives in Minnesota and put to work on a dairy farm, which was the best thing that could have happened to me. I had a good judge who worked it all out for me. His name was Jean Jacabucci, God rest his kind-hearted soul.

In Too Cool I get my characters trapped in Colorado, rather than Nevada, and I leave out the rail workers. I pare the main characters down to Triple E and his girlfriend Jeanne, the two of them trying to stay alive. It’s a sort of Darwinian tale: Indifferent nature, survival of the fittest. In the course of his journey through the wilderness, battling frostbite, exhaustion, and the increasing specter of death, crazy Triple E is stripped of all presence and he becomes very, very sane at last. We find out who he really is at the core, where the truth resides and where it comes out under severe pressure.

Aesthetically, you might say Too Cool is an experiment in sustainable narrative drive, adapting itself to the pace of a sixteen-year-old hyperactive juvenile delinquent. I tried to reflect in the style itself the pace of his mind, his pulse, his unconquered heart, and the way he lives his life overall. For literary sources Too Cool is most indebted to Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. I pondered the meaning of the cross-country, climactic foot race in that book and modified it to fit my own needs, converting the race itself into a championship boxing match and altering Sillitoe’s outcome just a bit.

[Published previously in Author Notebook,
Random House BoldType, 1998]

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