First Fiction 2022

Various

For our twenty-second annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five writers to introduce this year’s group of debut authors, and in the process they uncovered provocative truths not only about these specific books and their talented authors, but also about the art of fiction and the ways in which writers engage the people, places, things, and ideas around them as they mix the unpredictable and extraordinary alchemy of world-building with truth-telling. 

Kiese Laymon talks with Leila Mottley about her novel, Nightcrawling. “I wanted to find a way to communicate the complexities of home and the dualities of loving something that is both a constant and a thing always changing,” says Mottley. Tsering Wangmo Dhompa interviews Tsering Yangzom Lama, author of the novel We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies: “With this novel I wanted to focus on the lives of ordinary Tibetans, far from the centers of power.” Jamel Brinkley talks with Arinze Ifeakandu about his story collection, God’s Children Are Little Broken Things: “The stories are tied together for me by the idea of home, as person, place, or thing, and by the fact that the characters are always looking, searching for, and often choosing home,” says Ifeakandu. YZ Chin and Paige Clark discuss Clark’s story collection, She Is Haunted: “Life and stories about life resist neat packaging; it is perhaps this push to resolve unresolvable feelings and situations that leads to characters acting out in unexpected ways.” And Brandon Hobson introduces Morgan Talty, author of the story collection Night of the Living Rez: “It means a great deal to me to be part of this new generation of Indigenous writers,” Talty says. “We’re all contributing work that I believe is really pushing against the archetypal images and hackneyed tropes out there about Native peoples, particularly in popular culture.”

Nightcrawling (Knopf, June) by Leila Mottley
We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies (Bloomsbury, May) by Tsering Yangzom Lama
Gods Children Are Little Broken Things (A Public Space Books, June) by Arinze Ifeakandu
She Is Haunted (Two Dollar Radio, May) by Paige Clark
Night of the Living Rez (Tin House, July) by Morgan Talty

 

Leila Mottley, whose debut novel, Nightcrawling, was published in June by Knopf, introduced by Kiese Laymon, author of three books, most recently Heavy: An American Memoir, published by Scribner in 2018. (Credit: Mottley: Magdalena Frigo)


I am leaving northern Mississippi, likely forever, the night I read Justice Alito’s draft opinion that would obliterate healthy reproductive choice for millions of specifically poor young Black women.

And I’m thinking about Leila Mottley’s Nightcrawling

There is a excellent argument to be made that Nightcrawling is the most compelling book written by an American teenager in my lifetime. Somehow, even that feels too brittle, too boring, for the way Leila Mottley, nineteen, pulls us through a body, a city, and a nation equally consumed with crawling toward liberation and jogging toward inequitable failure for our narrator, Kiara, or Kia. Nightcrawling is a scorching, layered, incredibly readable book that takes seriously the task of readerly provocation on every page. We needed it before the Alito leak, and honestly, we need it more—much, much more—after. Get ready. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter. Leila Mottley is here. And she is doing her part to reckon with what Treva Lindsey calls living through “unlivability.” This is our conversation.

Nightcrawling blew my mind and my heart. More than anything it made me want to write. How has the dream of writing an incredible book differed from the act of writing an incredible book?
I’ve always been a reader, and I read with an eye toward craft, and I think that has created really high expectations for what a book can be. So before I started writing Nightcrawling, I had an image in my head of the completed work and how it could be everything I’d want to see as a reader. I also had an image of what it would be like to write, which in my head was many wistful days at cafés and ease and endless excitement. I think fantasy is an integral part of the writing process, and without my overdeveloped imagination curating an image of writing and literature, I don’t think I’d have been able to make it through the tedious, messy, challenging parts of writing. The reality of the writing process requires a lot of dedication to the work even when it feels like it doesn’t match the vision. After I wrote the first draft of Nightcrawling, I read it back, and while there were parts that I loved, it didn’t live up to what it was in my head. I have since realized that it’s not supposed to, and as much as I love the drafting process, I feel a sense of relief knowing that no matter what my writing looks like after that first draft, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Are there specific readers you want to love Nightcrawling, and can you talk a bit about how the idea of home worked into the construction of the book? I was obsessed with the pacing of the book and wonder what imagined reader was pulling you through the crafting.
When I’m writing the first draft, I try to think of the reader as little as possible because even the idea of perception can interfere with getting the most honest story on the page, so in some ways I am writing only for myself. It’s sort of a cliché, but I wrote Nightcrawling because it was the book I needed to read when I was seventeen. In revision I start to think about the reader as whoever my narrator would be most likely to tell their story to. For Kiara I tried to center Black teenagers because I think she would want to be most understood by those she identifies with. Gender and its dynamics in Black spaces and among young people had a large influence on the book too. I wanted Nightcrawling to be a window into the mind and life of teenage Black girls, both so that we can feel more visible and integrated into mainstream narratives and so that others can begin to see us as vulnerable people. It was important to me to acknowledge Black teenage boys as potential readers too and hold compassion for the ways in which they are often given a very narrow definition of success that asks them to participate in the dismissal and demeaning of Black girls and women. 

As for home, I felt strongly I needed the book to be based in Oakland, since it’s where I was born and raised and it’s the focal point of my entire world. I wanted to give voice to my experiences in a city that is depicted as simultaneously dangerous and desirable, neither of which leaves much space for the love and unique belonging I feel in Oakland or how this city has harmed its own people. I wanted to find a way to communicate the complexity of home and the dualities of loving something that is both a constant and a thing always changing.

You talk about “gender and its dynamics in Black spaces and among young people.” When I read Nightcrawling, I did that dual thing we do as writer-readers where I was absolutely blown away but also worried that folks would fetishize your age.
Yes, people fetishizing my age was actually a major anxiety for me, and I’m still struggling with how to hold my discomfort with the attention I get for my age and my hope that, even if that’s what brings people to this book, they take something away from it that has nothing to do with me. I’m not the first or last Black kid to be praised as exceptional, and I always try to put it into the perspective that when people applaud me for doing something because I am young, they are also indirectly saying that they expect very little of young people and that the thing that makes me special is what I have done and not who I am. The pressure to overachieve for Black kids goes beyond what our parents or teachers want for us or even what we want for ourselves, as I think many of us feel like the only way we will be seen, respected, or loved is if we do something that no adult would expect out of us, expectations which can go from forming a coherent sentence to writing a book or signing a record deal or being drafted for a professional sports team. I’ve spent a lot of my life conforming to this pressure, and I’ve become accustomed to it, but it’s still uncomfortable and sometimes disparaging to have the first thing people tell me be that they cannot believe that I wrote this book at seventeen. I knew the moment I stepped into the world with this book that this was going to be a reality, and I truly hope that this book can have an impact on readers profound enough that my age becomes the least important thing about it.

What do you hope that young Black folks in Oakland do with the world you’ve created in Nightcrawling?
Novels about Black people in U.S. cities are often pegged as “urban fiction,” which is elitist code for “poor fiction,” which I guess is supposed to imply that this kind of art isn’t worthy of close reading or respect. I think the depiction of city novels centering Black characters and the genre redlining that goes with it ends up communicating to us that Black people in cities don’t matter or are simply there for speculation or entertainment to be classified away from “literature.” But there is more to every Black city and neighborhood than most of this country even bothers to consider, and the categories created by the publishing world fail to recognize that Black people like to read complex books and also want to see those complex books set in our worlds. Across the board we don’t have very many representations of Oakland in literature. We have There There by Tommy Orange, which I love, but he writes about a different Oakland than the one in Nightcrawling. Most other depictions of Oakland, particularly in the media, are either the gentrified white version of Oakland that the travel articles say is now worth considering for a visit, or the “bad” parts of Oakland they say you should never go to if you don’t want to get mugged. But if you grew up in East or West Oakland, you never even begin to think about yourself or your neighborhood or your city in this binary. Our worlds are rich and complex and full of so much more than might meet the eye of an outsider, but we see it all, and I intended this book to mirror that back. So I hope that young Black people in Oakland feel affirmed by Nightcrawling and are able to hold a spectrum of feelings about our world and, ultimately, remember that we deserve to have control over the narrative of our city.

Kia made me really reconsider the unspoken, insidious ways so many people who make up our systems and institutions crave the exploitation of Black girls. And Kia is so much more than her exploitation. Can you talk a bit about the importance of emotional flexibility and interiority in Kia’s character, particularly when she’s at her most vulnerable?
I think a lot of people assume that Black people and Black teenagers specifically don’t have vibrant and complicated interior lives, which is so far from true. Part of the reason I chose to write Nightcrawling through Kiara’s first-person point of view is because I wanted people to be able to see into Kia’s head, where she is trying to make sense of a world that abuses and denigrates her. Particularly in the moments when Kia is in a position where she knows she has no escape, I wanted to show how we find ways to survive these experiences and how that relies on an adaptability and oscillation between detachment and resistance. When a body is being rendered as an object to be used, we need to find a way to experience ourselves outside of that physical moment, so Kiara finds herself poeticizing or personifying her body as something separate from her. It was definitely a challenge for me to not find myself fully intertwined with Kiara because I was essentially living in her head while I wrote Nightcrawling, and while her head is an intricate and vivid place, it was also overwhelming at times to move between the many internal methods Kiara uses to survive.

And my next question is really about the paradox of the narrative of Nightcrawling and the physical book, Nightcrawling. I learned so much about critiquing our complicity in capitalism from activists and artists in Oakland, and your book is a staggering critique of gender, race, labor, and sanctioned exploitation. What do you make of the paradox of a story as brilliantly constructed and politically potent as yours being sold as a product? The first time I saw my book in Walmart, I smiled. Then I cried. What do we do with this paradox?
God, this is such a good question, and I also find myself struggling to contend with it. My systems of belief don’t always align with the constraints of the capitalist structures that force us to rely on them in order to survive. On one hand a book is a product of labor, and I believe that within the country we currently live in, compensation for labor is necessary. On the other hand Amazon and other large corporations account for such a huge percentage of book sales, which in turn contributes to the continuation of a system of exploitation. I’ve also learned most of what I know about the ways we navigate capitalism from the Oakland activist tradition. And one of the guiding principles that has stuck with me is rejecting the idea that, as Black people asserting our power, we must fight capitalism with Black capitalism. So it doesn’t make me feel better to have my book, one that critiques the self-seeking logic of capitalist pursuits, being sold in these corporate institutions. Because I know no matter what percentage of profit goes to those of us who played a part in making or selling this book, a huge fraction is going back into a system I claim to not support. I don’t know what we do with this paradox, but I know that the Black socialist leaders I have learned from stand by an understanding that you cannot rebel against a system without sacrificing something. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do when we are socialized in a culture that values individualism and the protection of oneself over all else, especially as an artist facing the pressure to find ways to survive in this economic system. So I believe that at some point we will need to decide that the principle of breaking free from capitalism and all that comes with it is more important than our individual gains.

I want this last answer to be the wallpaper of my office. What’s a perfect hour for you right now in your life, Leila?
My perfect hour right now is lying in the sun in the park with my notebook and my partner reading beside me. Surrounded by a kind of stillness that isn’t silent but just complete joyous peace, with all these kids running around playing basketball and eating grass and me just getting to witness it as I write whatever I want to write without any pressure or expectations.
 

 

An excerpt from Nightcrawling

The sound of splashing  wakes me up at noon. It’s foreign to me here, the water thrash noises both recognizable and out of place. Something’s always waking me up in the height of my happy, right when my dream begins to dance. During last night’s sleep, which really didn’t start till four a.m., I dreamed up this meadow with flowers that exist in colors I’ve never seen in person. I could hear this melodic soundtrack, this Van Morrison kind of blues, and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from until I lay down in the flowers and realized it was coming straight from the sky. And then I was laughing because the sky was singing to me. God walked out the clouds like music. I was naked. I am always naked. And then there was a splash, bright midday through the shades, this empty apartment. 

I stumble up from the mattress, swinging open the door and hanging my torso off the railing, so my body splits in two at the stomach: legs and breasts. Crust crumbles out my eyelids as I stare down into the pool, the scene materializing like a television turning from static to moving image. Trevor’s head bobs up and down, in and out of the water. He’s tall enough now to stand in the shallow end, but continues to dip his head under, moving it around; circles of boy turned fish.

“What you doing in there, boy? There’s shit in that water,” I call down to him. Though the brown of it has disappeared, probably through the filter, I swear I can still smell the feces lingering in the air. As far as I’m concerned, Dee’s man’s dog shit and the pool are interchangeable.

Trevor’s head comes up, bends back to look at me. He has a birth-mark on the top of his head, a dark spot in the shape of a spilling circle and I can see it as clearly now as I could the day he came out his mama. The whole apartment building went into labor with Dee when her moans found their way through the vents and out the windows. We all sweated with her, paced around and counted the minutes between each choke of her body. Mama was looking at the clock in our apartment, waiting for a couple hours until she turned to me and said, “It’s time. Come on, chile,” and just like that we were out the door and knocking on Dee’s apartment, in a flock of women all joining the stampede of this birth, my eight-year-old shoulders shaking. Every woman in the Regal- Hi crammed into Dee’s studio apartment, where she was splayed on the floor, gaping like the pocket of sky before the rain starts to pound, ready to bust open and release itself.

Dee kept saying, “Give it to me, please, just to get me through, Ronda.”

She repeated this like a mantra between contractions, referring to the rock and pipe on the kitchen counter, ready for her. She said she had quit her habit after she found out about the pregnancy, but by quit she meant she used only on occasion, only when the morning sickness or the back cramping got real bad. Ronda, her childhood friend, refused to give Dee the crack, and a group of women stood in a line between the counter and Dee’s body, guarding the child from its mother.

Mama pushed her way through the crowd, her arms long and spread out, me trailing behind her toward the center of the room, toward Dee’s pounding. 

“We got a little longer till he’s out, alright, baby? It’ll be over in about one hour. One more hour, one more hour.” Mama repeated this, dropping to the floor by Dee and humming until the whole room was one rumble of my mama’s lungs, intoxicating and heavenly, and I couldn’t help but want to climb back into her body, feel those vibrations like my own breath.

Dee wailed and squeezed and trembled until my mama’s hums drowned it all out and then the tribe of us saw the hair, saw the tiny round that crawled from her body, turning her inside out. The squeals began and the humming turned to chants and we all watched that child swim out his mama, head poking out more blood than hair, and my mama took him into her arms and laid him on Dee’s breast and this was the sweetest, most whole thing to ever take place in our building, and the rain poured and poured and poured until Dee began to beg again and her birthmarked baby squirmed and Ronda gave up, passed Dee the pipe, and she faded into sky like she didn’t hear her own baby crying. And Trevor cried and she smiled and we all hummed again.

Trevor splashes down below, looking up at me.

“Lost my ball,” he calls.

“What you talkin’ about? Why you not at school?”

“Mama not here and I woke up late and then I was gonna go but I dropped my keychain in the pool and if I don’t got it, then the boys don’t win the game and I lose my money.”

I ask him, “What money?” but he simply dips back down into the water until the only thing distinctly him is that circular mark on his head, roaming. His pile of clothes is now wet from the splashing and when he emerges, small metal basketball keychain in hand, his boxers are slipping off him. I see the outline of his ribs like they been carved out of him and the rest of my day fades like a dream. I walk toward the stairwell down to the pool and Trevor starts climbing up, pile of clothes a lump in his arms. We meet at the halfway point of the stairwell, Trevor a head shorter than me at age nine, with arms and legs that seem to stretch farther than he can control, but his face is still childlike.

“Go on and put some new clothes on,” I tell him, beginning to guide him up the stairs.

“We goin’ somewhere?” Trevor’s teeth flash, always eager for the escape.

I grab the keychain out of his hand and look at it, taking in the way it shines like somebody been scrubbing it clean and tucking it into bed every night. “You wanna play ball so bad, let’s go on and do it.”

At that, little boy limbs fly straight up the stairs and into the apartment, just like they always have. His legs are longer and he knows more about what kind of life he has than he did when he was three and racing around the building, knocking on everyone’s door, but he is still the same buoyant little man.

Dee tried to be his mother for the first few years of Trevor’s life, at least enough that she was home half the time and she bought formula and bothered to make sure somebody was watching him when she went off to go get high in some other apartment. She used to leave Trevor with one of the women, sometimes Mama, any of the aunties who inherited all the Regal-Hi’s children once theirs grew up. Then, between Daddy’s death and Mama’s arrest, all the aunties left. It was like something had come over the building and they all scattered, women disintegrating into nothing. Some chose to go and some got evicted, some passed away and some remarried, but all the women who had helped raise Marcus and me were gone by the time Trevor turned seven and then it was just us, motherless.

Trevor started to come around more often after that and then I was walking him to the bus, finding him some extra Doritos for after school. I was determined not to let nobody toss him away. So when the rent notice got posted, when Polka Dot came up to me and showed me what my body was worth, I thought maybe this was a ticket out for the both of us. Maybe this was how we got free.

I head back into my apartment and Marcus is awake, rubbing his eyes on the couch.

“Mornin’,” he says.

I sit down next to him, thinking about how it felt to be in the second man’s car last night, about Tony’s back as he walked away. It was different when I was alone, the fear escalating and the grit so profound that when I got home last night I showered longer than I ever have before, didn’t even worry about the water bill. I don’t know if I can do it again, but I also don’t know how to keep us alive if I don’t. “Marcus, I gotta ask you something.”

He looks at me, rests his cheek in his hand, waits.

“I know I said I’d give you a month to work on the album, but I need you to get a job.”

Marcus starts to nod slowly, looking at the carpet and then back up at me.

“Aight, Ki. I’ll start looking.”

I didn’t expect him to say yes, so when he does, it’s like there’s suddenly more air in the room, his nod a solace that might make up for everything.

“I actually got a lead for you. I ran into Lacy a few days ago. She works at a strip club downtown and I bet she’d help you get a job there if you asked.”

“You know Lacy and I ain’t tight like that no more.”

“You know you ain’t gonna be able to get no other job.” I pick at a scab forming on my knee. “Please.”

Marcus nods again and I lean forward, wrap my arms around him like I’ve been wanting to since Polka Dot. He kisses the top of my head, murmurs something about needing to piss, and I think for the first time in months, we might just be okay.

Marcus leaves to go piss at the liquor store and I pull on a jacket and head back to the patio strip where all the apartments connect in a circle around the shit pool. Trevor still hasn’t come out from his door and I decide to just head in anyways, opening the door to a scene of little boy blues, Trevor in his boxers dancing. Swing step, head bob.

The music floats out an old stereo on the floor mattress, half static and half disco song that I’m sure Trevor’s never heard before in his life. And, still, like my dream, he dances. I run into the room, right toward him, and tackle him into a hug that fills with shrieks echoing a sort of happy that is all child before he pushes me away.

“Put them clothes on so we can go.” I breathe heavy, my spine aligned with the stained rug that cushioned our fall. Trevor is blithe, speedy and awake, dressing in seconds. I stand and lead us out the door, into the daylight where it is just Trevor and me under the soft glare of sun. 

For early afternoon when all of us should really be sitting in some kind of classroom, the basketball court is alive with sweat and shuffles. Sneakers move quick enough that the asphalt seems to smoke and my eyes switch from flesh to flesh, everybody merging with sky. Trevor stands next to me with his basketball appearing oversized in front of his bony chest, just watching. Watching the way I watch Alé skateboard: so mesmerized I can’t even begin to move.

We’re standing on the edge of the court when a girl approaches us, basketball shorts clinging to her thighs with midday game sweat. She’s got braids down to her waist, swooped into a ponytail, and she drips with salt, smells like the bay, can’t be more than twelve but she is infinite.

“Never seen you two ’round here,” she spits.

“Must not’ve been looking.” I put my right hand on Trevor’s shoulder so I might be able to tether us together, create a safety net. 

Trevor steps forward. “Been betting for months on the morning game. Got a stack of money ’cause of you and your girls.”

I’ve never seen Trevor like this, with a blade for a throat.

She twirls the ball in her hand and Trevor mirrors her with his. The balls are the same size but beside his body, his is massive.

“You been betting on me?” she asks.

“Against you, actually. Don’t got money to waste on nobody who don’t got no game.”

The girl’s salt stench gets thicker in her heat. “You ain’t even know how to hold a ball so you best not go talking like that.”

We all know what a challenge sounds like. We all looking for a fight without fists. This survival. Bay girl seems to expand her body, legs spread, like taking up more of this air might bring her some kind of victory. Trevor tells her the rules of the game, as if he’s ever done more than watch it: two on two, eleven points wins, you foul and you out. Bay girl’s teammate appears by her side like she’s been listening in the whole time: she’s smaller in frame but her arms are thick, coming out from her body and jiggling. Her sweat smells sweet, like jasmine, which probably means she stole her mama’s perfume this morning.

“I ain’t got all day,” I tell them, holding out my hands for Trevor to pass me the ball. It spins right through the air and into my palms.

Jasmine girl tilts her heavy head, squints, and calls out to a boy across the court. The boy is older, maybe fourteen, and I think he might be too skinny for this sport. It’d be too easy to crack a bone, splinter each one of his ribs.

“Sean, come referee this shit.”

Skinny boy saunters over and I look into Trevor’s face, trying to catch a single glimpse of his terror. It’s not there. Instead, there is a determination so fierce it has cemented into a scowl. Sometimes being this young unleashes the fury. I lick my lips, taste my own salt, and I’m ready to swallow the bay, extremities and all.

We separate onto our respective sides of the court, side by side, with Sean in the center. I toss him the ball.

“Y’all better not do some fuck shit. It too early for no fight.” I expected his voice to be higher, but it is a deep pit in his throat, coming out mangled on his tongue.

“We ain’t gonna start nothing,” bay girl spits.

I mirror Trevor’s scowl, nod. “Nah, we playing fair.”

Trevor’s fingers twitch at his sides, legs spread, boy ready to catapult into the game. I don’t remember the last time I played ball, but if Trevor’s gotta win, then I know I best be Steph Curry fourth quarter. I best be everything he ever wanted.

Sean starts the game real quick, throws the ball toward bay girl and she catches it, dips right, then left, then spears her body forward, too fast for Trevor and me to think long enough to stop her. She shoots and the ball swooshes right into the hoop like that’s where it belongs. We stand, stunned, not ready for bay girl to have salt feet to match.

I step toward Trevor, lean into his ear. “It’s all about the way you move. Don’t think about it, just move.”

The next play and Trevor fumbles again, bay girl’s partner catching the ball and running with it. Trevor starts to shake his head and I almost think he’s about to start crying, but when he looks at me, his eyes are fierce.

The ball, back in our possession, is heavier now. I toss it to Trevor, who catches it, bouncing and whirling across the court. Bay girl catches up to him just as he releases the sphere from the three- point line, jumping so high it’s like he’s weightless, the ball springing over our heads before it swooshes straight into the basket.

He comes back down from his jump panting, runs over to me, and we’re both clapping hands and backs, trying to remain collected, but so elated we can barely handle it. Trevor bobs on the tips of his toes just like Alé used to when we were young and out here on this same court, bruising each other with elbows to the ribs and laughing about it later, when we started turning purple. We don’t play no more, but not because we outgrew it or nothing. It’s just that Alé couldn’t stand to look at my skin like that and know her bones caused it to color in a way skin’s not supposed to color. She used to touch the ones on my belly like you might touch a half-dead squirrel and even when I told her to stop that shit, she couldn’t help herself. Sometimes she still looks at me like that.

Back on the court again, watching Trevor bounce side to side, I know the boy is fevered and confident the way winning makes you confident, hands gripping that ball like a godsend. Bay girl learns she likes us even less than she thought and, like a whirl, the game has turned into a beatdown, Trevor and I taking turns dodging their shoves and shooting. The sound of the ball making contact with the hoop is like a deep breath and pretty soon our lungs are full. By the end of the game, we’re both slick with perspiration, hiding smiles as we nod to the girls, and walking off that court. I think Trevor is the most radiant boy I’ve ever laid eyes on: walking home with that ball slipped under his left arm.

It’s almost like I can see the joy droop off him as we approach the gate to the Regal-Hi. The curves in his face dissipate into an angular pout and the only sign that his body was leaping through the air less than ten minutes ago is the sweat still trickling down his cheeks. I squeeze his shoulder as I unlatch the gate and Trevor still doesn’t snap out of it, even when we’re standing by the shit pool and the rest of High Street only exists in sound. I lean down so I’m looking him straight in the eyes. He tilts his head away from my gaze, so I cup the back of his head, which somehow is even more drenched in sweat, and hold it so that he has no choice but to look at me.

“What’s wrong witchu?” I don’t mean for it to come out harsh, but his eyes tell me it did. “You okay? You hurt?”

“No, I ain’t hurt,” he whispers, his voice still squeaky.

“Then what’s up with you?”

I can see it happen. The ballooning inside him. I can see it pushing at all sides of his body, stretching him from the inside out like bubbles on the surface of Lake Merritt, sitting there, pushing against each other until one bursts, sprays, and returns the surface to the shiny it was before. Trevor is on his way to bursting, his skin betraying him, sending waves of that heavy kind of lonely through the air.

“I just don’t wanna leave.” And it’s like his own words rupture his seams, tears flooding into his sweat.

I take him into me, hold him to my chest. The basketball falls out of his hand and bounces across the pavement. “What you mean, boy?” I whisper into his ear.

His response is half sobs and half words. “Mama ain’t been home and Mr. Vern keeps knocking on our door saying we gotta pay or leave and I been hiding so he don’t see me.” Trevor says he’s been betting to make rent money, but he’s been spending it all on lunch at school, hiding half of his lunch to save for dinner. He trails into deep heaves, and I grip him tighter, so tight I wonder if he’s lost circulation when he stops shaking, his body heavy against mine. His face is sunk and he lets me lead him back up to his apartment, where I leave him on the mattress looking like he’s gonna either fall asleep or burst into tears again.

The flying moments solidify inside my rib cage like a photo album in the body. Trevor and I sweltering, jumping, always close to the sky. Alé and her weed, that smile quick, Sunday Shoes, funeral day. For these moments, I forget my body is a currency and none of the things I did last night make any sense at all. Trevor’s body, the way it fills up with air and releases, reminds me how sacred it is to be young. These moments when all I want is to have my mama hum me a lullaby I will only remember in dreamland.

From Nightcrawling. Copyright © 2022 by Leila Mottley. Published by arrangement with Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.  

Tsering Yangzom Lama, author of the novel We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies, published in May by Bloomsbury, introduced by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, author of four books, most recently Coming Home to Tibet: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Belonging, published by Shambhala Publications in 2016. (Credit: Lama: Paige Critcher; Dhompa: Ron Srinivasan)

Tsering Yangzom Lama’s debut novel, We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies, feels like a place I’ve lived all my life, or maybe it’s a place I’ve been waiting to live in. Lama’s novel is groundbreaking, and not just because the anglophone novel is a more recent feature of Tibetan literature. We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies begins in 1960 with the novel’s three main protagonists, Ama and her daughters, Lhamo and Tenkyi, being thrust into a life in exile in the wake of China’s invasion of Tibet. With heartbreaking clarity the novel explores the slow recovery of self, memory, and place.

Lama’s masterful control over a plot that covers more than fifty years exposes how displacement is never a singular event. She is precise in her writing about the tumult that encapsulates the life of her protagonists. “People find our culture beautiful,” but “not our suffering,” she writes in the voice of Dolma, Lhamo’s daughter, speaking to Samphel, a man whose life is entangled with that of the three women. In Lama’s saga of love and sacrifice, there is no romance to exile. We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies offers a way to believe that the land will persist and, with it, those who long to return to homelands stolen from them.

The title We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies lingers in me. Can you tell us a bit about how you came up with this title?  
It refers to the ancient practice of making a pilgrimage through full-body prostrations, which is still alive among Tibetans. As you know, this is a method of prayer in which the pilgrim advances slowly, lying on the ground and rising, each step the length of their outstretched body. I was struck by this ritual because it conveys so much about how Tibetans relate to the land—intimately and corporally, showing reverence and connection to the earth. Land is so much more than just soil between borders. For Tibetans our land is home to gods and spirits. When we are displaced, or restricted in movement as Tibetans are in Tibet, we experience many forms of violence, including one of spiritual dispossession. This is what I explore in my novel—these underrecognized effects of occupation and exile. 

My novel’s title also refers to the slow and difficult journeys that refugees make across the earth in search of safety and refuge. These are not theoretical or romantic journeys, but the embodied struggles of everyday statelessness and dispossession from one’s homeland. But even when the characters have been exiled from their homeland for decades, their bodies remain connected to that lost home. This is why the notion of home is painful but also why it’s impossible to abandon.  

Your mention of gods and spirits takes me to the novel’s opening, when we discover that Ama, one of the central characters, is an oracle. Narratives of men as oracles tend to dominate our stories. Was Ama always an oracle as you began to see her as a character?  
It’s true that the most famous oracles in Tibet are usually men who are institutionally associated with monasteries, even directly advising our leaders. But with this novel I wanted to focus on the lives of ordinary Tibetans, far from the centers of power. I first became interested in female oracles when I read the scholarly essay “Female Oracles in Modern Tibet” by Hildegard Diemberger. I learned that in remote places, female oracles could be among the only figures that a community could turn to in a crisis—not only to make premonitions, but for healing, counseling, even mediating issues. 

I was also interested in oracles because they’re figures of crisis; they are natural guides in moments of turmoil and uncertainty. As an individual, the would-be oracle also experiences personal crisis in their initiation. If they’re able to survive this personal crisis, they can go on to help their community through collective crises. This interplay between the personal and collective is a recurring theme in my novel. Finally, I was drawn to the idea of having a strong woman animate the story of the invasion of Tibet. There’s something powerful in reframing that historical moment with a woman at the center. 

There’s also the interplay between personal struggles and collective struggles: colonization, ecological collapse, dispossession. Did you have to do much research to write this novel? 
Writing this novel I became omni-curious in my study of our people and history. It was a slow reconnection with a country that colonization and exile have denied me. I like to think the research was a way for me to build a bridge back to the past, to my ancestral home.  

At the same time I had real structural limitations to contend with. I could not enter Tibet; my source materials were limited mainly to scholarly materials in research libraries, and even those I was frankly lucky to be able to access. All this is heightened by the fact that Tibet’s history is being erased or rewritten as part of China’s ongoing colonial project. So I had to get creative and work slowly, rewriting every time I learned something new. 

In terms of the specifics, I trekked to the border of Nepal and Tibet so I could experience the landscape and people there and envision the refugee’s journey. I interviewed scholars, traveled to Dharamsala, India, to learn about the early days of the Tibetan government in exile, and referenced the Tibet Oral History Project for first-person accounts from the generation that fled Tibet or fought in the resistance. I also spent about a year making regular trips to the stacks at Columbia University’s various libraries. But at a certain point I had to begin inventing because I was writing a work of fiction. 

As I was reading your novel, I was thinking of the more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine since the Russian invasion, and of the more than 70 million refugees and displaced people around the world. What were some of the questions or stories that were important to you or that were important to writing this novel? 
My grandparents were nomads from Ngari, in western Tibet. My parents were refugees who lost everything when they fled for Nepal. I have lived in Nepal, the United States, and Canada. All of this upheaval happened over just a few decades, and this is a typical story for so many Tibetans living in exile. Meanwhile Tibet remains under military occupation by one of the most powerful and brutal regimes on the earth.

And yet we have persisted. Our sense of identity and solidarity remains, even for young Tibetans who have never seen a free Tibet. I wanted to know how we survived this profound upheaval, how it has changed us.

You’ve worked as a writer in many different genres. What does the novel make possible that other forms might not? 
I wrote a short essay about my research trek to the border of Nepal and Tibet for the Kenyon Review, but this story has always been fictional and specifically a novel. A novel gives both the writer and the reader freedom to spread out and to dig deep at the same time. Fiction allows us the closest approximation of becoming someone else. We can see their memories, their dreams. We can experience their mind at work and feel what it’s like to live in another body. It’s an inherently empathic endeavor to read or write fiction. 
 

 

An excerpt from We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies

Border of Western Tibet and Nepal
Spring 1960

Ama was an oracle. The realization came to my mother late in life, when her monthly bleedings stopped and something else opened inside. Some in our village called it an affliction. They said there was a crack in her mind that left her open to spirits who would consume her. But Ama insisted it was a blessing to lend her body to the gods and allow them to speak through her. In time, everyone would listen, and the words of an otherwise ordinary woman would lead us through the coming troubles.

It wasn’t just my mother who had changed. Packs of wolves and rats swept through our valley. Next, there was an earthquake that tore a jagged line through our village monastery. Then, just as I was learning to speak, there came news that invaders had crossed our border, entering our land as two enormous snakes. In the distant town of Kardze, people watched them cross the river in long lines and burrow into the highlands. They wished to be called the People’s Liberation Army, but we knew them as the Gyami, a people from the lowlands to the east.

In the years that followed, rumors came like crows, even traveling as far west as our village. Although I was just a young girl, many of the rumors landed in my ears before anyone else in my family. My source was Lhaksam, my oldest friend. He worked as a servant to a traveling merchant who traded in gossip as much as iron pots and pans. In our free moments, Lhaksam and I wandered in the pastures with my little sister

Tenkyi hanging on my back or flopping around in the grass. In those hills, Lhaksam told me the most shocking stories. Gyami soldiers had seized farmland in the east, and many of our people were now starving. No grain, no salt, no meat or even butter. I walked around in a daze after hearing this, unable to imagine life without butter. Lhaksam said that although it was quiet in our region, a resistance raged in the east, in places where iron birds circled the skies and bullets big and small rained down on entire towns, smashing bodies as if they were nothing but effigies made of dough, where rooftops were torn apart and no one could tell whether they had found the remains of a loved one or that of a stranger. But I did not tell my family these things. I never repeated them to anyone.

Then, last spring, our village heard of a terrifying ruse: a plan to lead the Precious One into the dragon’s home. Hearing about this trap, thou- sands of our people in Lhasa gathered outside the summer palace, forming a protective circle with their bodies. Even as the soldiers neared and the scent of gunpowder swirled in the air, our people refused to leave. To prevent a massacre, the Precious One disguised himself as a commoner and fled south by night to another country. So did the great Nechung Oracle, who had divined their escape route through the mountains. When the foreign troops learned that our leader had slipped away, they pierced the crowd with bullets and lined the streets with corpses.

After the Precious One left, the sun was erased from our skies. Flowers refused to bloom, and our yaks made no milk. In that darkness, every family in our village wondered if it was time to leave, to follow our leader to the lowlands until the day when it would be safe to return. Others recited a bleak, ancient prophecy: When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the People of Snows will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth.

It was that day, nearly ten years after revealing that the gods had spoken to her, when Ama said to us, “Now is the time. I must give my body to the spirits.”

From We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies. Copyright © 2022 by Tsering Yangzom Lama. Excerpt by permission of Bloomsbury.  

Arinze Ifeakandu, whose debut story collection, God’s Childern Are Little Broken Things, was published in June by A Public Space Books, introduced by Jamel Brinkley, author of the story collection A Lucky Man, published by Graywolf Press in 2018. (Credit: Ifeakandu: Bec Stupak Diop; Brinkley: Arash Saedinia)

One of the stories in Arinze Ifeakandu’s debut, God’s Children Are Little Broken Things, describes a character who tells lies “to avoid being known.” It struck me that the knowability or unknowability of a person is among the threads that bind this new collection, which is a testament to the layered complexity of the book’s characters. These characters are navigating a world of uncertainty, one in which their power and safety often depend on an ability to disguise their queerness, a central aspect of who they are. I read the book with great admiration for every instance of particularized attention it gives to the aches and tensions that are inherent to the fact of being alive. These characters seek to protect themselves, but they also, just as urgently, act on their desires for the kinds of connections that allow love and happiness to flower.

The collection is remarkable for its truth-telling, which is delivered to readers as a rich but subtle singing on the page. Given the author’s own background and experience as a choir singer, perhaps this musical quality isn’t a surprise. It’s clear in any case that this book is the introduction to a voice of distinction and significance, one I hope to hear for a very long time.

Your stories do not shy away from depicting bodies, physical intimacy, and sex. Those depictions are, in my mind, one of the hallmarks of the collection. Can you talk about the thought process behind your approach to this subject matter in the stories?
Depicting sex, bodies, and physical intimacy was a part of the collection’s larger project of depicting life’s moments in fullness, the collection’s fidelity to a keen sort of realism. I wanted my characters to feel as real to readers as people familiar to them. When I read certain books I am stunned by this familiarity. This is a book about youth, among many other things, and sex is as present in my life, and in the lives of the young people I know, as work and family are: We consume sex, talk about it, have it, understand its seriousness as well as its frivolousness. As we walk through streets we encounter people first as bodies. We think, “He’s hot.” Or, “She’s so tall.” Or, “They smell like onions.” We react to the bodies of others, communicate, or show levels of intimacy by using our bodies in specific ways. A character’s presence is conveyed by stuff like backstory and forays into their psyche, but I think it is the body in action—physical attributes, yes, but more important how bodies react to, or interact with, one another—that conveys it most.

I was fascinated by the treatment of memory and time in your stories, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. 
Memory and time have a harmonious relationship, in that memory serves as the vehicle through which time travels. In writing about loss and home, meaning is at the center of things; in life we revisit memories that we have designated, consciously or unconsciously, as meaningful, whether for happy or tragic reasons. I am deeply nostalgic—less keenly now than years ago when I wrote these stories—and I wanted that feeling of nostalgia, which involves a certain melancholy, to permeate the atmosphere of each story. I knew that it was by remembering, and by giving textures to these remembrances, that this was possible.

Your prose is so lush and light. What’s your approach to the sentence and/or the paragraph? Are there any influences of note?
Beauty is at the center of my thinking about sentences. As I write I am propelled by rhythm and flow. One sentence leads to another as a way of getting somewhere: the next paragraph, page, or, most often, the truth of an idea or emotion. Language, taken seriously—and play is a part of this seriousness—gifts its wisdom to us, which is my understanding of what Garth Greenwell once said in a workshop. I want to be able to tease the reader toward a set of ideas, moods, or feelings. My experience in choir taught me intentionality in this regard, to treat punctuation marks like a composer’s directions saying tenderly or poco a poco. I think of paragraphs as units: of ideas, arguments, emotion, or action. A paragraph carries the biggest pause, the dramatic kind that says, without uttering it aloud, furthermore; nevertheless; however.

After reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a teenager, I knew I wanted to write beautifully—she was my first introduction to that undulating rhythm. Chinua Achebe and Buchi Emecheta before her were direct and quick and were more concerned with telling the story, a different kind of immersion. When I read Greenwell’s What Belongs to You a few years ago, I saw the strange, enticing use of commas and loved it.

You were one of A Public Spaces emerging writer fellows, and now your debut is being published by that magazine’s book imprint. What have been the highlights of the journey from fellow to debut author?
One highlight, I’d say, was meeting Salvatore Scibona, who was my mentor for the fellowship. When he came to read at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he reminded me that nobody—no matter how much respect I had for them—should have the power of dictating how I felt about my own story. Another highlight is being shortlisted for the Caine Prize, which led me to the Caine workshop in Rwanda the year after. Gisenyi continues to be a wonderful memory. Then I went to Iowa, and now this, my book in the world. The fellowship feels to me like the beginning of this present life.

Speaking of journeys, how would you describe the one this book takes readers on from beginning to end? How do you see the stories speaking to one another, and did any of this change at all as the book was being edited and prepared for publication?
While writing these stories I was anxious about repeating myself. I was thinking in terms of large, overarching themes such as love, loss, and country, and using what felt like the same material—men in love with others—and worried that this had created a problem in which every story was the same. I began to see that this was not the case, that my characters and their stories were varied as a result of their unique situations and biographies, but it was not clear to me yet just how varied, until editing began. The stories are tied together for me by the idea of home, as person, place, or thing, and by the fact that the characters are always looking, searching for, and often choosing home. I began by thinking I wanted to write a book of gay love—the travails, obstacles, joys, and sadness—and about the Nigerian condition, and in my mind the answer was tragic. But there was life and love in abundance, and therein lay the hope. Again, I knew this, but editing helped me believe it, and that impacted the way I approached the stories for finishing touches.
 

 

A excerpt from “What the Singers Say About Love” from 
God
s Childern Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu

I. 

I’d seen Kayode once before, in first year, having a bath downstairs, his wet body an assemblage of small perfect muscles, his ass firm and flawless, his dick, my God. I noticed him in the way that one notices something beautiful but unattainable and did not see him again until second year, when I went with my friend Ekene to a campus celebrities’ bash. He was going from group to group, talking, swaying to the music, and I only recognized him as someone I’d seen before but did not know, until I heard someone say his name. Ekene had talked about him a few times in the past, this handsome boy who made beautiful music. I sat in a corner of the room, watching people dancing, thinking how happy their lives were in that moment, how tomorrow this senseless joy would be absent. His eyes caught mine watching him. He looked puzzled, a look that, with most boys, usually turned into aggression. I glanced away. 

When I looked back up, he was staring at me. I smiled, unsure of how to read and return that brazen stare. He smiled back, whispered something to a girl who was deep in conversation with Ekene, and she nodded, a quick, distracted nod. He strode toward me, holding a can of Star, which he placed on the table as he sat opposite me. I noticed, for the first time, the tiny gleaming silver stud in his right ear. 

You seem to be having so much fun, he said, smiling. He had the whitest teeth. 

You’re teasing me, I said. 

Oh no, I’m not, he said, lifting his arms innocently, and for a moment I believed him, but then he smiled widely and asked, Why aren’t you dancing? 

I can’t dance, I said, shrugged. 

He arched his eyebrow. The song playing now was loud, was full of clanging metal, of booming drums, and the dancers had gone completely mad, jumping and shaking their heads like people about to burst into incantations. When he spoke, he had to shout: Everybody can dance. 

Not me, I said. I dance like a girl.

You what?

He leaned in and I leaned in, my lips to his ear. His hair had a distant scent, of something sweet and fruity. I imagined him in the bathroom, his head crowned in lather. Then I remembered his body, the muscles moving across his back and arms as he washed himself vigorously, and I felt a little guilty; it had been different seeing him down there among a dozen other boys having their baths outside as I brushed my teeth, each person a feature of morning, now it seemed like a small violation. 

I dance like a girl, I said into his ear. 

He looked at me weird. You dance like a girl, and so? he said, squeezed his face thoughtfully. Standing up, he held out his hand. What, I said, confused and a little excited, and he said, Trust me, smiling a playful-wicked smile. He led me to the middle of the room where he started swaying his shoulders. God, Kayode, I said, covering my face with my hands. Love me, love me, love me, the speakers boomed, and he sang along, holding out his hands toward me, so ma fi mi si le / Oh I like it here. 

A girl laughed, yelled, Dance! 

Dance, someone else responded, and soon it was a chant, Dance! Dance! Dance! 

You see? Kayode said, taking my hands and twirling me round. God, kill me now, I thought, and moved my hips. Yes, people cheered, and if not for these shouts of affirmation, I might have collapsed from the exposure. Closing my eyes, I let the music take hold of my body, waves of pleasure rippling through me. This was what people meant when they said dancing was fun, I thought, this absolute surrender. When the music stopped, I opened my eyes, and there was Kayode beaming, Ekene cheering, the dance floor drowned by laughter and applause. I shook Kayode’s hand and he pulled me into a manly hug, our shoulders clashing. 

I need some air, I said, as the next song began.

God, me too, he said.

He followed me to the balcony, where a few people had carved a space for themselves to smoke and talk. The street below was dark, electric poles watching over the closed shops, and there was some breeze, and the music blasting inside was muffled, Kayode having shut the door behind us. I took a dramatic breath, saying how good the air was on my face. I felt happy yet anxious and exposed, a confusing meld: I’d noticed a few guys leave when Kayode led me to the dance floor, now I was sure that they’d left in disgust and anger, those had to be the only reasons.

I have to go home, I said.

He looked puzzled, concerned. Are you okay?

Yes, I said. I’m just not a party person. I’m exhausted already, but I’m glad you made me dance.

From the opening of “What the Singers Say About Love” from God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu. Courtesy of A Public Space Books.  

Paige Clark, whose debut story collection, She Is Haunted, was published in May by Two Dollar Radio, introduced by YZ Chin, author of two books, most recently Edge Case, published by Ecco in 2021. (Credit: Clark: Marcelle B. Radbeer; Chin: Drew Stevens)

When I read Paige Clark’s She Is Haunted, I was by turns delighted and moved: delighted because Clark takes obvious care and joy in crafting her sentences, and moved because her stories approach life’s mysteries with such emotional honesty. Many different Elizabeths appear throughout the stories in the collection. In “Times I’ve Wanted to Be You,” a widow named Beth wears her husband’s clothes, wishing to turn into him. In the freewheeling sci-fi “Amygdala,” an Eliza has her left frontal cortex removed to better survive climate change. These Elizabeths confront various versions of intimacy and loss, each making a devastating discovery about “[t]he whole charade that a woman could ever belong to herself.” While the characters often surprise, they are never quirky for quirky’s sake. 

She Is Haunted was first published by Allen & Unwin, an independent press in Australia, where it was shortlisted for the 2021 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction and longlisted for the 2022 Stella Prize. Clark lives in Melbourne, where she is working toward her PhD, studying the relationship between race, craft, and the teaching of creative writing. While reading Clark’s stories, published in a U.S. edition by Two Dollar Radio in May, I had the impression of stepping out from behind a screen of trees and approaching a cliff from which, if I looked carefully, I could discern the outline of my own home. In other words, reading her suffused me with the wonder of approaching my life from an unexpected angle, leaving me awestruck but also disturbed. It is a perspective art uniquely provides. We all need it, from time to time.

In your collection there is constant play and experimentation at the sentence level, even when the subject matter might sometimes be described as “heavy.” Was the writing process more often led by the art of the sentences or by the progression of the plot? Were you surprised by your stories?
I find writing such a demanding process, especially starting to write, that I’m not choosy about how I find my way into a story. Sometimes I will begin with just a premise, or sometimes I will have the whole plot mapped out scene by scene before I start. Sometimes I start with the first sentence, sometimes the last. There are times I have no idea where I am going and other times when I know exactly where I need to get. If the writing is not sentence-led, then I make sure that I pay close attention to the sentence in the revision process. I find the quicker, more plot-driven stories to write are a real bear to edit for this exact reason: I have to go in and fine-tune the language afterward. Whereas when I really listen to what the story should sound like and plod along, one sentence to the next, the revisions are easy—or easier. I surprise myself by writing in the first place or being able to finish a story at all; it still brings me such joy every time I complete anything. When writing is at its least painful, I am amusing myself with wordplay, though the worst of it gets weeded out by my very discerning writing group, thankfully. 

It’s always wonderful to hear writers talk about joy in the writing process. How do you know when a story is done? Is joy the main sign, or does that come later?
Oh, joy! It does seem so elusive when you’re writing. I think for me elation is a sign that I am done with the writing process but not a sign that I am done. I usually buzz around the house and drive my partner and dog up the wall on the days I “finish” writing. I get my comeuppance when I sit back down at the desk for editing, though. All of the joy of the previous day drains out of me, and all I can see are the errors on the page. Editing is as much a part of my process as the writing itself. And perhaps because of this fixation with editing, I never see any of my work as complete. Whenever I return to a story—days later or months later—there’s always something I want to change. I can lose hours looking at something as simple as the versus a to introduce a noun. I can lose days reading and rereading the work aloud to myself, listening for what the story should be.

I find there’s an energetic restlessness in the collection, with its stories set in various cities and characters often acting in unexpected ways. What do you see as a thread running through the book?
I am a terribly impatient person, and I must have somehow transferred this energy into the work. I am always eager to resolve problems or figure out “why” something happened; I think this bleeds into each of my stories when I’m writing. I feel like I’m racing toward the finish line, toward the natural ending. I want that for my characters as much as I want that for myself. This resolution is often—usually—not the one the character had in mind. Life and stories about life resist neat packaging; it is perhaps this push to resolve unresolvable feelings and situations that leads to characters acting out in unexpected ways. As for setting, my stories follow me to whatever places I go to—even to the surreal, to the imaginary. If any restlessness unifies this collection, it’s my own.

What was it like to first publish the book in Australia, then a year later in America?
The book came out in Australia at the start of what would be months-long lockdowns for both Sydney and Melbourne in the second half of 2021. After a number of postponed book events and book launches, eventually everything either moved online or got canceled. These cancellations made it feel like the book never even came out. So having the book published in America was as exciting as if it were coming out for the first time. What I’ve learned about the publication process in both Australia and the United States is that everything that happens after the editorial process isn’t for you as the writer; it’s for the audience you might reach, for the readers. My job as a writer starts again when I sign off on the proofreading and the book goes to the printer. The publication of She Is Haunted is the terrifying beginning of whatever the next book may be.
 

Audio narrated by Kimie Tsukakoshi; the audio edition is published in North America by Blackstone Publishing.
 

An excerpt from the story “Private Eating” from She Is Hunted

Maybe if the man had not been an anesthesiologist, or if the bubbly wine at the restaurant had been opened the night before, or even if the man had showed up five minutes late, apologetic but breathless, careless in the way the woman hated the most, she wouldn’t have lied and said she was a vegetarian. 

But he showed up on time and said, “I’m a vegetarian, are you?” Though this was not the first thing out of his mouth; he played the role of the handsome doctor initially. 

“Yes,” she said. She thought of what she’d eaten that day, mostly vegetables and carbohydrates, and felt assured she wasn’t lying. 

“Oh, thank god,” he said. “You won’t believe what I’ve seen meat do to people’s bodies.” The man cut into a gigantic field mushroom. His table manners were impeccable, the woman observed, even if he did eat with his fork in his right hand. 

“I can imagine,” she said. And she could. She had spent hours thinking about the grotesque things that happened to other people’s bodies at the man’s place of work. 

The rest of the evening passed without further discussion of bodily diseases and for that the woman was quietly grateful. The man chatted about the environmental impact of meat and the woman mostly agreed with him. Factory farming was bad. Cows made a lot of methane. In fact, she’d been trying to reduce her own footprint. She paid extra to the power company to offset her carbon emissions. She bought all of her clothes second-hand and did not drive a car. And, unlike most of the people she knew, she’d only purchased a single piece of furniture that was mass-produced and Swedish-designed. 

Before they even ordered dessert—­ tiramispoons, individual portions of the Italian dessert served in a soup spoon—­ the woman was a convert. A vegetarian. Never mind her mother. Her darling po po. Never mind the whole of her extended carnivore family. 

Over the course of the evening, the man talked about enough of the right things to prove to the woman he was sane. And wasn’t that in itself a rare treat? They both had no taste for sport. They’d enjoyed a few of the same novels. One of the man’s pupils was slightly larger than the other, which made him appear constantly surprised. Had she mentioned that he was a doctor? 

By the time he paid the bill—­ he insisted—­ and said, “My last relationship ended when my girlfriend ate a steak in front of me,” the woman had consumed too many glasses of wine to want anything else than for him to take her home. 

Outside, it was raining lightly. Under the awning of the restaurant, they made a charade of ordering rides to go their separate ways. The woman pressed up against the man, knowing full well what would happen next, picturing his pointy tongue in her mouth. She thought of the whole parade of dishes she could prepare with baby carrots, legumes and soy products, foods she knew all vegetarians liked. 

But when the ride arrived, the man gave the woman a kiss on the lips and a squeeze, and put her in the car. 

He said, “I’m sorry. I like to go slow.” 

As her car sped off, she looked back at the man, who gave her a small wave before he was out of sight. Visions of miniature vegetables danced in the woman’s head. 

The woman got home to the apartment she once shared with a boyfriend, though he’d not lived there for a long time now. They didn’t break up because of a cut of beef, but because the boyfriend’s parents did not approve of the woman. In his defense, for many years he’d trusted his parents would come around. During the last fight they had, the boyfriend said he wanted to raise their future children as Christians. The woman was an atheist—­ an agnostic at best. She never said anything condescending about people who were believers. But she knew what her boyfriend meant. He would not marry a Chinese woman. His parents had won. The entire time they dated, the woman’s boyfriend had not been to church once. 

The woman sat down in front of the television with a bag of marshmallows. This was what her friend Cisco called “private eating.” She switched between the two food channels she watched exclusively. Tonight, on a farm-to-table program, a chef turned farmer slaughtered his pet goat to make dinner. He cried when the goat was shot in front of him at the humane abattoir, then turned the goat’s hide into a rug for his dog and the goat’s brains into a stew. The woman ate the entire bag of marshmallows before she realized her mistake. She’d forgotten her puffed treat was made from horses’ hooves. She would try again to be a vegetarian tomorrow. 

From She Is Haunted. Copyright © 2022 by Paige Clark. Excerpt by permission of  Two Dollar Radio.  

First Fiction 2021

by

Staff

6.16.21

For our twenty-first annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked six writers to introduce this year’s group of debut authors. Read the July/August 2021 issue of the magazine for interviews between Eric Nguyen and Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, Lee Lai and Jillian Tamaki, Zakiya Dalila Harris and Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Joss Lake and Jeanne Thornton, and Pik-Shuen Fung and Catherine Chung, as well as Alex Torres’s introduction to the late Anthony Veasna So. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut books.

Things We Lost to the Water (Knopf, May) by Eric Nguyen
Stone Fruit (Fantagraphics, May) by Lee Lai
The Other Black Girl (Atria Books, June) by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Future Feeling (Soft Skull Press, June) by Joss Lake
Ghost Forest (One World, July) by Pik-Shuen Fung
Afterparties (Ecco, August) by Anthony Veasna So

 

Things We Lost to the Water
Eric Nguyen

August 1979 

New Orleans is at war. The long howl in the sky; what else can it mean?
 
Hương drops the dishes into the sink and grabs the baby before he starts crying. She begins running toward the door—but then remembers: this time, another son. She forgets his name temporarily, the howl is so loud. What’s important is to find him.
 
Is he under the bed? No, he is not under the bed. Is he hiding in the closet? No, he is not in the closet. Is he in the bathroom, then, behind the plastic curtains, sitting scared in the tub? He is not in the bathroom, behind the plastic curtains, sitting scared in the tub. And as she turns around he’s at the door, holding on to the frame, his eyes watering, his cheeks red.
 
“Mẹ,” he cries. Mom. The word reminds Hương of everything she needs to know. In the next moment she grabs his hand and pulls him toward her chest.
 
With this precious cargo, these two sons, she darts across the apartment, an arrow flying away from its bow, a bullet away from its gun. She’s racing toward the door and leaping down the steps—but she can’t move fast enough. The air is like water, it’s like running through water. Through an ocean. She feels the wetness on her legs and the water rising. And the sky, the early evening sky, with its spotting of stars already, is streaked red and orange like a fire, like an explosion suspended midair in that moment before the crush, the shattering, the death she’s always imagined until someone yells Stop, someone tells her to Stop.
 
And just like that, the sirens hush and the silence is violent: it slices, it cuts.
 
“Hurricane alarm,” Bà Giang says. The old woman drops her cigarette. “Just a hurricane alarm. A test. Nothing to be afraid of.” She reaches over and cups Hương’s cheek.
 
“What do you mean?” Hương asks.
 
“A test. They’re doing a test. In case something happens,” Bà Giang says. “Go home now, cưng ơi. Go home. Get some rest. It’s getting late.”
 
Home.
 
Late.
 
Getting.
 
There.
 
“Late.” Hương understands, or maybe she does not. A thousand thoughts are still settling in her mind. Where were the sounds from before? Not the alarm, but the grating calls of the grackles in the trees, the whistling breeze, a car speeding past—where are they now?

She notices Tuấn at the gates. Her eyes light up.
 
“Tuấn ơi,” she calls.
 
Tuấn holds on to the bars of the gate and watches three boys riding past on bicycles. One stands on his pedals. Another rides without hands but only for a second before grabbing—in a panicked motion—the handlebars. A younger one tries to keep up on training wheels. Three boys. Three brothers.
 
“Tuấn ơi,” Hương calls again.
 
Tuấn waves as the boys ride leisurely past. When they’re gone, he returns, and Hương feels a mixture of pure happiness, comfort, and relief.
 
Up the dirt road. A mother and her sons. Hand in hand.

 

From Things We Lost to the Water. Copyright © 2021 by Eric Nguyen. Published by arrangement with Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. 

(Photo: Tim Coburn)
 

Stone Fruit
Lee Lai

Copyright © Lee Lai. Courtesy of Fantagraphics Books

 

The Other Black Girl
Zakiya Dalila Harris

July 23, 2018
Wagner Books
Midtown, Manhattan

The first sign was the smell of cocoa butter.

When it initially crept around the wall of her cubicle, Nella was too busy filing a stack of pages at her desk, aligning each and every one so that the manuscript was perfectly flush. She was so intent on completing this task—Vera Parini needed everything to be flush, always—that she had the nerve to ignore the smell. Only when it inched up her nostrils and latched onto a deep part of her brain did she stop what she was doing and lift her head with sudden interest.

It wasn’t the scent alone that gave her pause. Nella Rogers was used to all kinds of uninvited smells creeping into her cubicle—usually terrible ones. Since she was merely an editorial assistant at Wagner Books, she had no private office, and therefore no walls or windows. She and the other open-space assistants were at the mercy of a hard- boiled egg or the passing of gas; they were often left to suffer the consequences for what felt like an hour afterward.

Adjusting to such close proximity had been so difficult for Nella during her first few weeks at Wagner that she’d practiced breathing through her mouth even when it wasn’t called for, like when she was deciding between granolas at the grocery store, or when she was hav­ing sex with her boyfriend, Owen. After about three months of failed self-training, she had broken down and purchased a lavender reed diffuser that had the words JUST BREATHE scrawled across its front in gold cursive letters. Its home was the far corner of her desk, where it sat just beneath the first edition of Kindred that Owen had given her shortly after they started dating.

Nella eyed the gold foil letters and frowned. Could it have been the lavender diffuser she smelled? She inhaled again, craning her neck upward so that all she could see were the gray and white tiles that lined the ceiling. No. She’d been correct—that was cocoa butter, alright. And it wasn’t just any cocoa butter. It was Brown Buttah, her favorite brand of hair grease.

Nella looked around. Once she was sure the coast was clear, she stuck her hand into her thick black hair and pulled a piece of it as close to her nose as she could. She’d been proudly growing an afro over the last three years, but the strand still landed unsatisfyingly between her nose and her cheek. Nonetheless, it fell close enough to tell her that the Brown Buttah smell wasn’t coming from her own hair. What she was smelling was fresh, a coat applied within the last hour or so, she guessed.

This meant one of two things: One of her white colleagues had started using Brown Buttah. Or—more likely, since she was pretty sure none of them had accidentally stumbled into the natural hair care aisle—there was another Black girl on the thirteenth floor.

Neila’s heart fluttered as she felt something she supposed resem­bled a hot flash. Had it finally happened? Had all of her campaigning for more diversity at Wagner finally paid off?

Her thoughts were cut short by the loud, familiar cackle of Maisy Glendower, a squirrelly editor who appreciated modulation only when someone else was practicing it. Nella combed through the bray, lis­tening hard for the hushed voice that had made Maisy laugh. Did it belong to a person of a darker hue?

“Hay-girl-hay!”

Startled, Nella looked up from her desk. But it was just Sophie standing above her, arms wrapped snugly around the side of her cu­bicle wall, eyes as wide and green as cucumbers.

Nella groaned inwardly and clenched a fist beneath her desk. “So­phie,” she mumbled, “hi.”

“Haaaay! What’s up? How are you? How’s your Tuesday going?” 

“I’m fine,” Nella said, keeping her voice low in case any more au­dible clues floated her way. Sophie had tamed her eyes down a bit, thank goodness, but she was still staring at Nella as though there was something she wanted to say, but couldn’t.

This wasn’t unusual for a Cubicle Floater like Sophie. As Cubicle Floaters went, she wasn’t the worst. She didn’t play favorites, which meant that your chances of seeing her more than once a week were slim. She was usually too busy hovering beside the cubicle of another assistant, her lazy smile reminding you of how good you didn’t have it. By the luck of the draw, Sophie worked for Kimberly, an editor who’d been at Wagner Books for forty-one years. Kimberly had edited her first and last bestseller in 1986, but because this bestseller had not been just a bestseller—it had been adapted into a television show, a blockbuster film, a graphic novel, an adult film, a musical, a podcast, a miniseries, and another blockbuster film (in 4DX)—she was granted a pass on every non-bestseller that followed. Royalties were nothing to laugh at.

Now nearing the end of her long career, Kimberly spent most of her time out of the office, and Nella suspected Sophie spent most of her time waiting for Kimberly to kindly retire already so that she could take her place. In a year, maybe less, it would dawn on Sophie that her boss wasn’t going anywhere unless someone told her to, and no one ever would. But for now, Sophie hung on naively, just as every single one of her predecessors had.

“Kim’s still out,” Sophie explained, even though Nella hadn’t asked. “She sounded awful on the phone yesterday.”

“Which procedure is she getting done this time?”

Sophie grabbed the taut bit of flesh between her chin and her clav­icle and wiggled it around.

“Ah. The crucial one.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. “Yep. She probably dropped more on that than we make here in a month. By the way, did you see . . . ?” She cocked her head in the direction of Maisy’s voice.

“Did I see what?”

“I think Maisy’s got another potential candidate in.” Sophie tossed her head again, this time adding in a suggestive, wiggling eyebrow. “And I don’t know for certain, but she seems like she might be … you know.”

Nella tried to keep from grinning. “No, I don’t,” she said innocently. “Might be what?”

Sophie lowered her voice. “I think she’s . . . Black.”

“You don’t have to whisper the word ‘Black,’” Nella chided, even though she knew why Sophie did: Sounds, like smells, carried over cubicle walls. “Last time I checked, that was a socially acceptable word to use. I even use it sometimes.”

Sophie either ignored her joke or didn’t feel comfortable laughing at it. She leaned over and whispered, “This is so great for you, right? Another Black girl at Wagner? You must be so excited!”

Nella withheld eye contact, turned off by the girl’s intensity. Yes, it would be great to have another Black girl working at Wagner, but she was hesitant to do a celebratory Electric Slide sequence just yet. She’d only believe that the higher-ups at Wagner had finally consid­ered interviewing more diverse people when she saw it. Over the last two years, the only people who’d been interviewed or hired were Very Specific People who came from a Very Specific Box.

Nella looked up from her desktop at Sophie, who happened to be one of these Very Specific People, and who was still chattering on. Over the course of just a few minutes, Sophie’d managed to talk her­self onto a train of social awareness, and it was clear she had no inten­tion of getting off anytime soon. “It reminds me of that anonymous op-ed BookCenter article I sent you last week—the one I swore you had to have written, because it just sounded so you—about being Black in a white workplace. Remember that piece?”

“Yeah, I do . . . and for the tenth time, I definitely didn’t write that article,” Nella reminded her, “even though I can obviously relate to a lot of the stuff that was in it.”

“Maybe Richard saw it and decided to do something about the lack of diversity here? I mean, that would be something. Remember how hard it was just to get people talking about diversity in one place? Those meetings were painful.”

To call them meetings seemed gratuitous, but Nella wasn’t in the mood to go down that slippery slope. She had more important things to pursue. Like how to get rid of Sophie.

Nella reached for her phone, let out a small groan, and said, “Whoa! Is it already ten fifteen? I actually need to make a very important phone call.”

“Aw. Darn.” Sophie looked visibly disappointed. “Okay.” 

“Sorry. But I’ll report back!”

Nella would not report back, but she’d learned that punctuating too-long interactions with this promise made parting much easier.

Sophie smiled. “No prob. Later, girl!” she said, and off she went, as quickly as she’d come.

Nella sighed and looked around aimlessly, her eyes skipping over the stack of papers she still hadn’t delivered to her boss. In the grand scheme of things, the speed with which one could bring something from point A to point B should have zero effect upon whether that person deserved to be an assistant editor—especially since she’d worked for Vera, one of Wagner’s most exalted editors, for two years now. But things between them lately had been, for the lack of a better word, weird. Their anniversary check-in a few days earlier had ended on a less-than-savory note. When Nella had asked for a promotion, Vera had listed at least a dozen surprise grievances she’d had with Nella’s performance as her assistant, the last being the most unsettling of all: “I wish you’d put half the effort you put into those extracurricu­lar diversity meetings into working on the core requirements.”

The word “extracurricular” had hit Nella hard and fast in the eye, like a piece of shrapnel. The company basketball team, the paper-making club—those were extracurriculars. Her endeavors to develop a diversity committee were not. But she’d smiled and said thank you to her boss, who’d started working at Wagner years before Nella was even born, and tucked this piece of information into her back pocket for safekeeping. That was where she believed any dreams of letting her Black Girl Flag fly free would have to remain.

But now the smell of Brown Buttah was hitting her nose again, and this time, there were telltale sounds: First, Maisy’s practiced joke about Wagner’s zany floor plan (“It makes about as much sense as the science in Back to the Future”); then, a laugh—deep, a bit husky around the edges, but still cocoa butter smooth at its core. Genuine, Nella could tell, as brief as it was.

“. . . impossible. I swear, once you find where one person sits, you’ll never find them a second time!” Maisy cackled again, her voice growing louder as she led her companion closer to her office.

Realizing that they would have to walk by her own cube to get there, Nella looked up. Through the small crack in her partition, she spotted the swath of dark locs, the flash of a brown hand.

There was another Black person on her floor. And given Maisy’s spiel, this Black person was here for an interview.

Which meant in the next few weeks, a Black person could quite possibly be sitting in the cube directly across from Nella. Breathing the same air. Helping her fend off all the Sophies of the Wagner office. Nella wanted to put a victorious fist in the air, 1968 Olympics­–style. Instead, she made a mental note to text Malaika this latest Wag­ner update the earliest chance she got.

“I hope your trip wasn’t too long,” Maisy was saying. “You took the train from Harlem, right?”

“Actually, I’m living in Clinton Hill right now,” the Black girl re­sponded, “but I was born and raised on One Thirty-Fifth and ACP for a while.”

Nella sat up straighter. The girl’s words, which sounded warmer and huskier than the laugh that had fallen easily from her mouth, evoked a sense of Harlem cool that Nella had always wished she possessed. She also noted—with reverence and not a little bit of envy­—how confident the girl sounded, especially when Nella recalled her own anxiety-inducing interview with Vera.

The footsteps were only inches away now. Nella realized she’d be able to get a good glimpse at the newcomer if she slid over to the far right of her cube, so she did exactly that, pretending to leaf through the manuscript Vera was waiting on while keeping one eye trained on the strip of hallway that led to Maisy’s office. Almost instantly, Maisy and her prospective dreadlocked assistant made their way into her pe­riphery, and the full picture came into view.

The girl had a wide, symmetrical face, and two almond-colored eyes perfectly spaced between a Lena Horne nose and a generous forehead. Her skin was a shade or two darker than Nelia’s chestnut complexion, falling somewhere between hickory and umber. And her locs—every one as thick as a bubble-tea straw and longer than her arms—started out as a deep brown, then turned honey-blonde as they continued past her ears. She’d gathered a bunch and piled them on top of her head in a bun; the locs that hadn’t made it hung loosely around the nape of her neck.

And then there was the girl’s pantsuit: a smart-looking ensemble composed of a single-button marigold jacket and a matching pair of oversized slacks that hit a couple of inches above the ankle. Below that, a pair of red patent leather high-heeled ankle boots that Nella would have broken her neck just trying to get into.

It was all very Erykah-meets-Issa, another detail Nella was filing away for Malaika, when she heard Maisy ask the girl to explain what “ACP” meant. And it was a good thing she had, because Nella hadn’t known, either.

“Oh, sorry—that’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard,” the girl said, “but that’s kind of a mouthful.”

“Oh! Of course. A mouthful indeed. Harlem is such a great neigh­borhood. Its history is just so rich. Wagner held an event at the Schomburg earlier this year—February I think it was—for one of our authors. It was very well received.”

Nella fought back a snort. Maisy hadn’t attended this aforemen­tioned event; what’s more, Nella was willing to bet her middle name that the Museum of Natural History was as far north as Maisy had ever traveled in Manhattan. Maisy was a kind enough woman—she made bathroom small talk as well as the next senior-level employee­ but she was fairly limited in her sense of what “the city” entailed. Just the mention of Williamsburg, despite its Apple Store, Whole Foods, and devastating selection of designer boutiques, caused Maisy to re­coil as though someone had just asked to see the inside of her vagina. Surely this dreadlocked girl could sense that Maisy had no true sense of Harlem’s “culture.”

Nella wished she could see the look on the Black girl’s face, but they’d already started to enter Maisy’s office, so she had to settle for a chuckle in its place. It was subtle, but in the milliseconds that passed before Maisy shut her door, Nella was able to detect amusement at the end of that chuckle—an exasperated kind of amusement that asked, without asking, You don’t spend time with Black people often, do you?

Nella crossed her fingers. The girl probably didn’t need it, but she wished her luck, anyway.

 

From The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Copyright © 2021 by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Audio excerpt courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio, read by Aja Naomi King, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Heather Alicia Simms and Bahni Turpin. 

(Photo: Nicole Mondestin Photography)

Future Feeling
Joss Lake

I walked Oggie, Starburst, and Palm Tree together without incident. As Buford took a shit on someone’s lawn, a guy in a tank top came flying out the front door and screamed from the top of the stairs. I waved my poop bag at him like a flag, but he was still yelling in Polish, saying something along the lines of, “Make that dog shit in the street,” which was impossible.

I smiled and gave him a thumb’s up. 

My first summer dog-walking, as Lola the Havanese was kicking up dirt to bury the poop that I had already picked up, a small stone hit a dude’s Mercedes. He had been washing the other side, and poked his head up to give an unbelievable monologue about how he had worked his way up from nothing to buy this car, how it was his baby, having no other family or close relations, and how denting it was analogous to stoning an infant.

Lola’s parents ended up paying him $500 to stop harassing me, and I realized just how little I could control in the world. Assholes (human and canine) aside, walking dogs helped me to recreate the suburban village I had grown up in. During restless Midwestern summers, as my friend Jillian and I would walk past people on the street, or, later, drive past their homes or the site of their DUIs, we would create a little map of our town, the divorces and the family secrets and the infamous soup party that went awry, the density of our stories vacillating between gossip and tales of biblical proportions. We never tired of embellishing the story about the high school science teachers who slept together in the chemistry closet and both developed lung problems. When we were thirsty for the epic, we’d say, “Remember when Mr. Redderick and Mrs. had sex in the chemistry storage closet?”

“And Mrs. kid Talon walked in?”

“And then he went to rehab and her husband blamed her?”

“And then she was sent to a sanatorium because she developed lung problems?”

“And then she fell in love with the janitor, who made minced pies for all the patients?”

“And then Mr. Redderick moved away to Alaska to study salmon hatcheries, but not before carving her name into the big oak tree by the football field, as if they had role-reversed with their students?”

From walking my dogs, I could tell which humans were making more money, or had broken up, or had a detoxing relative on their couch, or had decided to move back from whence they came.

I took Buford home, envying the fact that he had no clue about the screamer’s insults and the general pettiness of human emotion. I walked Harris. Back at his apartment, an airy Bushwick loft with huge, vacuumed rugs covering the paint-splattered wood, I sprawled out on the ground and Harris laid down next to me. I checked my phone.

The S-H had come through! 

He’d sent me a link to a basic html page with photos of Aiden, some selfies and some taken by the plethora of cameras in every modern city, along with timestamps and map coordinates. The latest, from 6:02 p.m., was at 40°44’28.4”N 74°00’29.3”W, blurry Aiden in an elevator. I fumbled around trying to figure out how to read the coordinates and there it was, his hotel. 

Once I possessed the key, I had to go through the door.

I patted Harris goodbye and he looked up at me over his long Italian greyhound nose, bemused.

I was dressed in my dog-walking joggers and T-shirt, conveying casual elegance. Two lions guarded the front of the Juniper Ash Hotel. I rubbed their heads for luck and stamina.

The lobby was strange because I’d been living in city subsistence mode, without extravagance or leisure. I did have a trust fund from the hoarding of my grandparents, but I never liked to use it with my future prospects still unknown. They passed on money, and they also passed on a belief in scarcity. In the city of hideous wealth, I was not rich at all. I simply had a cushion against despair; I could afford to take sick days from dog-walking and pay Sophie, who did not accept insurance.

Art collector moms in athleisure, tech bros wearing silver visors to easily identify each other, women in their flowing prairie-goth gowns, a famous pianist with his fingertips encased in silver regenerating pods: they all moved across the room in varying states of disregard for my gaze.

I ordered sparkling water with shrub and sipped slowly.

After an hour of trying to classify all the types of people who had the time and money to be trailing through a hotel lobby at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday, I saw the body I knew so well coming out of the elevator.

My plan was to observe any flaws from a safe distance, but once I saw him, a trans-magnetic field pulled me closer. I went over.

I stepped in front of him before he could cross through the lobby.

“Hey, not to be stalkerish but can I talk to you?” 

There it was, the face I’d loved and hated from afar. His cheeks blushed in an Abercrombie-model kind of way. Wow, I was pretty into queer women, but I was crushing on him hard. Damn the fluidity of queer desire. 

“I—” his voice came out with a preadolescent crack—“don’t do interviews.”

Was that wariness on his face?

“Well, I’m not a journalist, I walk dogs. How about if we just talk trans to trans?”

“Aight,” he said, a little nervous, which made me grow enormous and potent.

“Great. I’m Penfield, but don’t infer from that that I’m a WASP. My parents were Jewish,” I said as I led him back to my seat.

Somehow I’d started asserting the upper hand. Damn, was I topping him in this convo? For once, it was my city.

“Aiden, obvs,” he said.

I was getting a bioaffective spike as we settled into the velvet lobby chairs; inside my giddiness, the lobby colors sharpened and bloomed.

“I’m going to be direct here, which is not my usual tactic. This will sound naive for someone such as myself, but you must know how we trans are often furiously spinning through various life stages at once, so pretend it’s coming from a fifteen-year-old trying to talk to a cool, older sixteen-year-old.”

“K.” 

“Are you really perfect?”

“Wha?” 

His blankness was a door slammed. 

“Never mind.” 

He looked down at his phone. 

I wanted to pour my shrub on him. And his gadget. 

What had I expected from this advertisement of a human? A dense encounter?

TBH, I wanted to absorb his otherworldly perfection, which was still intact across the low lobby table. And punch him.

For so many mornings, I had given his bod my rapt and self-disgusted attention, and now all he could return was generic, glazed-over, limp distraction that any cis adolescent teen could have offered.

“I must know what is up with your goose,” I said, my voice getting louder and higher. “You just leave her behind on the other coast?” My distrust of California was evident.

“Say again?” He was still looking down at his phone. 

“I . . . I asked you about your goose.”

 “That’s personal,” he said shortly. “I should be going.”

He stood up and I caught his scent. Laundry with April Fresh-scented dryer sheets, the heady b.o. of trans anxiety, and pine-based cologne.

“Cya,” I said, hoping to sound aloof. 

For a moment, I was a crushed child. Then the swell of rage returned, though arguably it had never receded.

I called an apartment meeting. This was highly unusual, and the roomies must have thought we were getting evicted.

We sat in our tiny living room, a few feet between the entrance to the Witch’s room, my room, and the start of the kitchen. S-H was cross-legged on the floor and the Witch and I sat too close together on two sectional pieces that had once belonged to a longer, nicer couch. 

“I need to curse someone, in both the old ways and the new.”

The Witch gave me the same look she’d given when I suggested a chore wheel. “This is not child’s play,” she said.

“Exactly. That’s why I need a professional Witch and a professional . . . hacker.”

“You remember what I told you about this man?” she asked.

“Yes, that our conflict is purely astrological. His Jupiter-blessed Leo sun conflicts with my strident, truth-seeking Sagittarius sun, vindictive Scorpio rising, and watery Pisces moon. But he has slighted me! He has lied. He has tried to attain perfection, and someone needs to punish him!”

She did not look convinced. I had to use her language.

“This person resides inside his devices, devices made from leeching the earth’s minerals. He watches neither sun nor moon nor Californian wildflower blooms. His message is facile, though his body is hard.”

The Witch hated technology that did not involve an intention, ancient rites, and smelly ingredients. 

“What sort of hex are you considering?”

“He needs to visit the Shadowlands.” 

“You do know that when one is sent to the Shadowlands, one is cellularly rearranged, beset by mind-spiders, and on occasion destroyed?”

“I know this quite well. Remember when I moved in and you said you smelled the ‘brine of the Shadowlands’ on me? I’m just now emerging from the darkness and this guy is frolicking in the sunlight, offering harmful advice to young people.” 

“You did not travel to the Shadowlands due to a hex. Your entry was natural, brought about by the state of your own evolution.”

Still, she tilted her head, which meant she was considering it.

“What do you want me to do? I already found him for you,” the S-H whined.

“I want you to hack into his Gram, where I shall place a photo of Alice that will at least temporarily disrupt his flow.”Sure, I thought about posting a photo of the inside of my butthole, with some caption about the abyss and the abject, but it was really Alice—that tender extension of my being—that could counter his bullshit.

“Hm, maybe I could use the aloe as well,” the Witch said. She refused to call her by her name.

To get him to help me, I had to promise the S-H that I would write his online dating profile (leaving out many key details), help him track his dread on a Crisis Chart to determine his baseline, and call the landlord about the leak in the bathroom. The Witch required that I bring her a demiard of fired comfrey oil.

I ordered pizza to celebrate our fragile teamwork and Aiden’s impending doom.

That night, in bed, wrapped in the smell of burnt yarrow bundles, I made my gratitude list: 

1.    For the Witch’s powers
2.    For S-H’s powers
3.    For my own trans powers
4.    For mushrooms on pizza
5.    For the insane hope that I can take back some of what I’d lost

Two days later, the Witch, the S-H, and I gathered on the back steps before the sun rose. The Witch had decreed that the first spring sunrise would be the most potent. The S-H was in his pajamas, ready for bed. I cradled Alice in my arms. I promised her that the sacrifice would be worth it.

The Witch lit two person-tall incense sticks stuck into the dirt. I inhaled, imagining us hooded, out on some heath, performing ancient and twisted rites. The Witch took Alice from me and placed her on a piece of velvet. She removed a blade from a leather holster—my paring knife that had gone missing months prior! I looked away as she sliced off one of Alice’s tendrils, then pressed down the arm in her mortar, forcing out the aloe. She sprinkled crushed insect shells on top of the gel and chanted under her breath. The S-H was more attentive than I’d ever seen him, perhaps because he thought we had entered a VR pagan biome and were about to fight off marauding bandits.

As the Witch chanted, the S-H hacked into Aiden’s Gram. This was less dramatic. I had given him the photo and the caption already and all he had to do was post it to @Aiden-ChasesTruth. We sealed the hex, in both new and old form, circling Alice thrice on the scraggly lawn.

The Hex: “Whosoever beholds the aloe will sink into the Shadowlands.” 

Each morning, I awoke, made coffee, took Alice outside for air, and watched Aiden prancing around the city. I was too scared to scroll back and see if Alice was still there, with the caption: I want to splay like her, throw my limbs, full of juice, over ceramic sides of pots, and persist no matter how dark, dry, hot, barren. She is a medicine. She knows that trans is more than suicide or iced coffee on someone’s Oakland patio with mid-century modern teak furniture and a story that goes, First I was a miserable girl, then I was a happy man. That’s a special kind of bullshit, with this aloe plant as my witness. Penfield here. At least until Aiden deletes this in about five seconds. @fieldsofpen.

No one could blame me for wanting to be internet-famous. The entire fractured country agreed on one premise: Only fame carried anything like substance across socioeconomic/racial/gendered boundaries.

I got a few new followers from my short-lived coup, walked dogs, tolerated the roomies, and wondered what exactly was missing in my life.

One afternoon, I walked Gwenivière, the obese bulldog. She moved slowly, shaking her little butt, smelling every clover. Instead of pulling her, I grazed on my phone. When my timer buzzed, I scooped her up in my arms and carried her back to the apartment. I’d have to report that she did not go #2, which often prompted dog parents to send humiliating follow-up texts, insinuating that I had not tried hard enough.

I set Gwen down and unlocked the apartment. She waddled in and threw herself onto the bright orange orthopedic dog bed. 

I tried to catalogue the smell of each habitat that I visited. This one had notes of vetiver, gentle cleaning products, and scented trash bags. I opened the fridge to pour a glass of well water that Gwen’s parents brought back from their upstate cabin. When I closed it, a throat cleared. I peered around the corner into the long living room.

Lounging on the slatted modernist bench was a tall being in a long, silk dressing gown. Short hair. White. Piercings. A hybrid ghost of Kathy Acker and a 1920’s “new” femme.

I hadn’t met all my clients in person, but I knew this was not one of them.

“Penfield R. Henderson?”

This person knew my corrected my name before I’d legally changed it.

“Yes.”

“I’m the Operatrix.”

“You’ve been summoned,” The Operatrix put down a mug on a stone coaster.

“Am I in trouble?” My voice cracked.

“We received a signal from a young trans man whose bio-affective levels rapidly deteriorated after he looked at a photo of your aloe plant. He was the first viewer.” 

“I—”

“Let me finish. Aside from noting that you have sent a vulnerable trans man into the Shadowlands, we have measured your bioaffective aggro levels toward Aiden Chase. We think that having you and Aiden help pull this person back toward his baseline would be a healing process for all involved.”

“Wait. The person in the Shadowlands isn’t Aiden?”

An almost imperceptible smile-line across the Operatrix’s face. “No.” 

Sparkling Sacks of Shungite! 

We’d fucked up.

“We need you and Aiden to fly to California and retrieve Blithe from Joshua Tree National Park, which is where he entered total darkness.”

“I didn’t have a whole extraction team when I was in the Shadowlands,” I pouted. 

“We sent you to Sophie, didn’t we?”

“True. So what happens after we pick Blithe up?”

“You’ll decide on a stable place to bring him back to health. You must ask the Witch how long her hex will last. And Pen?”

“Yes?”

“You must find something to do with all your rage.”

“What if Aiden doesn’t want to come with me?”

“He must.”

I stared as the Operatrix rose, trying to connect the person before me to my idea of a shape-shifting autonomous being who roved around the world connecting queer people through a subaltern, mycorrhizae-modeled network. In the recent past, the queer child of a billionaire had started funding the Rhiz and so the network could jet Operatrixes around and pay for surgeries and offer health insurance. My friend Minna’s sister was part of the Rhiz, and I was always pestering her for gossip, but it remained coiled in mystery. While I was in my Shadowlands, I tried to placate myself by imagining their in-fighting, toxicity, ill-advised hook-ups, and illicit use of data.

I could not imagine queerness leading ultimately to any-thing more than ruin.

The Operatrix moved toward the door, carrying a small pouch that glowed in ever-shifting colors. Damn, a Biometer. Gwen had no reaction to this stranger in her home. It was as if she didn’t even sense the Operatrix’s presence.

“I will have a portfolio of Blithe’s data sent over to prepare you. The Rhiz will also provide your airfare, accommodation, and transportation.”

I stopped myself from saying, I remember back in 20—when the Rhiz had full integrity and no money.

“Goodbye,” the Operatrix said, and extended a ringed hand.

“Bye,” I said, and took it.

I was tempted to run home and tell the Witch that she erred, but that would only inflame my aggro levels. What to do, what to do

I called Sid.

“Bra!”

“Hey, bra!” We forever pinged back and forth between mocking masculinity and dipping into it.

“You’re not going to believe this but the Operatrix came over.”

“Shit, dude, are you having another major crisis that you neglected to tell me about?”

“Not exactly. Are you still on your Gram cleanse?”

“Yep.”

I filled him in about Aiden in the city and the dual hexing.

“Gawd, Pen. What did the Operatrix want?” 

“Well, apparently, the person who first looked at my post of Alice got hexed, and now this other trans guy is totally in the Shadowlands in Joshua Tree. And Aiden and I have to go find him.”

“Whoa. What form did the Operatrix take? Because one of the people I’m dating met the Operatrix in the form of a self-described Afro-Caribbean trans goddess named Anubia. My pal Ochre talked to a computer engineer named Milton. And you had that other person back when you—”

I cut him off so I didn’t have to think about my early Shadowland days. “The Operatrix was in a flowy dressing gown and also reminded me of Kathy Acker. Hard to place.”

“Well, I’m starting to believe there is something like divine symmetry in the world if after all this time, the universe has finally forced you to deal with Aiden in a real way.”

“Thanks. I’m sure Sophie will agree with you.” 

My therapist had banned me from talking about Aiden because I turned into a totally devolved baby whenever I mentioned him.

I let Sid know that I’d meet up with him in LA if I wasn’t too busy wrangling Blithe, and then I headed out of Gwen’s apartment. My stomach lurched as I thought about what I’d done to Blithe.

By the time I got home, I was in a total spiral. Labeling it spiraling was not enough to stop the looping images of some young trans dude strangled by sadness and hatred of himself. I held down on the Rhiz-shaped icon on the back of my phone. 

The projector raised up. 

“Yes, Penfield,” the Operatrix said, now wearing corduroy overall-shorts. 

“Blithe is going to be okay, right?” I asked shakily.

“Now is not the time for remorse,” the Operatrix said. I sighed. 

“He would have gone to the Shadowlands either way. But you’ve accelerated the process and that harm is your responsibility.”

I was a child receiving absolution, giddy with the lightness that comes after rooting around in catastrophic thoughts. “I’ll help him.” 

The Operatrix nodded and faded out. 

 

Copyright © 2021 by Joss Lake, from Future Feeling. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press. 

(Photo: J. Aharonov)

Ghost Forest
Pik-Shuen Fung

Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain

After class, I walked to a teahouse by the West Lake. A layer of mist hovered above the water, and among the dangling weeping willows, peach blossoms began to bloom. I sat down by the window and ordered osmanthus tea, which I had never tried before. In the glass teapot, hundreds of tiny yellow flowers floated in hot water. I lifted the lid and the steam smelled of apricots and honey.

As I sipped the tea, I searched for Chinese women artists on my laptop, and began reading about the poet and painter Guan Daosheng. Born in 1262, she was considered to be the greatest female painter in Chinese history, known for her paintings of ink bamboo, which was an unusual genre for women artists at the time. Bamboo was thought to embody strong and gentlemanly qualities—the ability to stay green through the winter, and to bend without breaking. Guan’s bamboo paintings were widely praised. Critics said her confident and vigorous brushstrokes showed no signs that they came from a woman.

My research on Guan Daosheng led me to another artist, active around 925, known as Lady Li. In one account, Lady Li sat outside one evening and noticed the swaying shadows of bamboo under the moonlight. In a moment of inspiration, she picked up her brush, dipped it in ink, and traced the shadows on her paper window pane. From then on, more and more artists imitated Lady Li’s technique, and that was how the genre of ink bamboo was born.

Guan was married to the artist and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu. In her husband’s studio, nine years before her death, she wrote an inscription on one of her paintings:

To play with brush and ink is a masculine sort of thing to do, yet I made this painting. Wouldn’t someone say that I have transgressed? How despicable, how despicable.

This inscription survived, but the painting itself is now lost. Even though Guan Daosheng was seen as the greatest female painter in all of Chinese history, she has only one authenticated painting surviving today. Titled Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain, the beautiful paper scroll shows feathery groves of bamboo growing along the edge of a riverbank.

This artwork is an example of Guan’s lasting contribution to the genre: she took the technique of ink bamboo and integrated it into landscape painting.

Out of curiosity, I looked up how many of Zhao Mengfu’s paintings remain. It turns out there are countless. His works are collected around the world.

 

Ghost Forest

A month later, my dad came to Hangzhou. I suggested he visit during the hundredth anniversary of the China Academy of Art, since there would be celebrations. The night before he arrived, I couldn’t sleep. I realized he had never visited me anywhere before, and we hadn’t spent any time alone since I interned in Hong Kong two summers back. I read every tourist guide to Hangzhou, and made a spreadsheet of itineraries.

It was sunny the day my dad arrived. We watched the opening ceremony, which began with firecrackers and a lion dance. Several famous artists attended, and many of them signed the school guestbook with beautiful calligraphy. We stared as an old man with long gray hair and a long gray beard dressed in long gray clothes signed the guestbook. We listened to a woman play pipa in the lobby.

Then I gave my dad a tour of the school campus, and led him to the international student exhibition. For weeks, I crumpled painting after painting before submitting one to the jury. Unlike oil painting, ink painting was unforgiving, and I couldn’t cover up mistakes with more paint.

Whenever I hesitated, holding the brush still for a second too long, the ink flooded the delicate paper. I didn’t tell my dad that my painting had been accepted. I wanted it to be a surprise.

We walked up the pale wood stairs to the top floor. The room was bright, and on the white wall across from the stairs, my painting hung in a dark wood frame under a track of lights.

In the painting, I am riding a brown bird. We are soaring above tree after tree, and each one is white and translucent. I washed white watercolor on gray rice paper to create that effect.

I titled the painting Ghost Forest.

My dad stood in front of the painting for a long time, holding his hands behind his back.

Without looking at me he said, I think there is something wrong with you that you’re making art like this.

I stood there and watched as he walked away, still holding his hands behind his back. As he paced through the rest of the gallery, I stayed a few steps behind him.

Afterward, we went to Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist monastery. The word Lingyin translates to the place where one’s soul retreats. Founded in 326, it is one of the largest Buddhist temples in China, with numerous halls, statues, and grottoes within.

At the entrance, framed by deep green foliage, peaceful gray rock reliefs of Buddhas watched over the long line of people waiting to go inside. They say the temple is famous because people who pray there often see their wishes come true. We walked around in silence, entering the halls together, kneeling before different statues of Buddhas, putting our palms together to pray.

When we took a taxi back to the city center, I asked my dad what he wanted to do next.

Shouldn’t you be the one taking me around? he said.

We could go to the flower garden, I said.

Would that be your top recommendation?

I don’t know, I haven’t been there yet.

You’ve been in Hangzhou for over a month. You’re not very ambitious, are you?

I watched the West Lake pass by outside the taxi window. Mist began to collect on the glass, and soon, tadpoles of rain raced across the windows.

My ankle hurts, I said. I don’t feel like walking anymore.

I asked the taxi driver to drop me off at my dormitory instead. When we arrived, I got out of the car and went up the stairs without looking back. I walked down the dim hallway and knocked on my classmate’s door. She was cooking tomato soup on a hot plate in her bathroom.

I thought you were showing your dad around, she said.

Can I have some? I said, staring at the bubbles on the surface of the soup.

I sat down on her bed and ate two bowls. 

 

Excerpted from Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung, Copyright © 2021 by Pik-Shuen Fung. Excerpted by permission of One World, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

(Photo: Benjamin Taylor)
page_5: 

Afterparties
Anthony Veasna So

Dealing with customers, I usually called Dad the owner, or the main smog technician if we needed to sound legit, but as a kid, I had always considered him just another Cambodian mechanic—a stereotype, one who’d pinched enough pennies to open his own car repair shop. The summer after college, I felt like a real dumbass for having thought so little of Dad, but in my defense, that was what Cambo men did. They fixed cars, sold donuts or got on welfare.

At least according to Doctor Heng’s wife, who always, regardless of whether her car needed repairs or not, nosed her way into the waiting room of the Shop. Back in our refugee days, when Cambos had just come to California, only her husband had stayed in school long enough to do something legitimate with his life, like become a doctor. She spoke about her husband’s virtues a ton at the Shop, especially after I’d graduated, failed to get a job with my Symbolic Systems degree —a concentration meant for coders not smart enough for the actual hardcore stuff—and moved back home to California from the Midwest. Her hair done up into a misshapen lump, makeup a shade too light, Doctor Heng’s wife would materialize out of nowhere, swinging the sleeves of yet another floral silk blouse, then plop herself in front of the air conditioner and say things like, ‘My husband, Doctor Heng, he never looks up a thing when he diagnoses a patient. He is so much smarter than other men. He remembers everything.’

One day, when I’d just started working at the Shop again, Doctor Heng’s wife went on a tirade about how lazy guys were in my generation. ‘What is wrong with you boys!’ she was saying. ‘Not one Cambodian man since my husband, Doctor Heng, has become a doctor here in America, not even those born with citizenship! My generation came here with nothing. We escaped the communists. So what are boys like you doing?!’

I was busy handling a customer who was getting impatient about his car. ‘Let me consult the main smog technician,’ I said to him, trying my best to communicate through my expression that Doctor Heng’s wife was harmless, despite her tone, and despite her aggressive hair.

When the customer stepped outside to take a phone call, Doctor Heng’s wife approached the counter, then reached over and whacked me on the head with a rolled-up magazine. ‘Why did you not become a doctor?’

She tried whacking me again, but I stepped out of her reach. ‘Ming, please stop,’ I said. ‘Violence will not solve our problems, and neither will the model minority myth.’

‘Useless big words,’ she scoffed. ‘That is all you learned going to college.’ I laughed. It was hard to argue with her.

No one knew why Doctor Heng’s wife came around so much, not even Mom and her gossipy friends, but it had been happening ever since Dad first opened the Shop. It happened when I was eleven and Brian and I took turns depositing checks at the bank across the street, which dumbasses tried robbing so often it was later replaced by a Church’s Chicken. It happened when I was seventeen and studying for the SATs while customers muttered passive aggressive things to Dad for raising his prices. And it happened when I moved back home and started hanging around the Shop, not because Dad paid me—why would I get paid when Dad was already supporting me? —but simply because I had nothing better to do.

Brian thought that Doctor Heng’s wife must have fallen in love with Dad when she was younger, only to lose all hope when Dad married Mom in an instant. Following this logic, Doctor Heng’s wife visited the Shop every day in order to rub it in Dad’s face that her life had turned out better than anyone could have imagined—with her Lexus and her Omega watches and her Louis Vuitton bags smelling of fresh leather, all of them so giant I swore they’d gained consciousness and could swallow me whole, were I to transgress their master.

Who knows? Maybe Brian was right. Though Dad couldn’t have cared less. He barely acknowledged Doctor Heng’s wife half the time, nor anyone else who wasn’t a customer. Most of his day he spent fixing the mistakes his guys made—a transmission misdiagnosed, an alignment over-rotated, a customer’s car interior smudged with oil because one of the guys had forgotten to lay a clean protector sheet on the driver’s seat. Dad was a real softie for his fellow Cambo men. He had hired as many friends as he could, way more than the Shop could actually afford, and let them get away with anything. It was a beautiful enterprise, no matter how flawed, the way Dad sustained so many people, a whole ecosystem, both in terms of providing a service to the neighborhood and also providing twelve Cambo men with jobs. He even paid some of them under the table so they could qualify for welfare, but only the ones with kids. Dad’s epic tolerance for his guys was actually how we got in trouble in the first place. I mean, how we got in trouble when I worked at the Shop full-time, as an adult of sorts. By no means was this the first time the Shop had been in deep shit.

Anyway, towards the end of July, Ohm Young left the keys in the ignition of a customer’s car after test-driving it. Technically, he was the assistant manager but he didn’t do much assistant managing, and he’d parked the car in the lot next to the Shop, where we left the cars that were all done, right out in front of the tiny hair salon that also functioned as a massage parlor and full service mani-pedi spa, not to mention being the only decent place to buy coconut rice wrapped in banana leaves. The next morning the car was gone.

‘Ahhhh, sorry boss,’ Ohm Young said. ‘I do not know what happened.’ He shrugged, as Dad, shocked into a stupid awe, processed his assistant manager’s feat of nonchalance.

‘What do you mean you do not know what happened?’ cried Doctor Heng’s wife, who was of course there to witness this exchange. ‘You lost a car! Not a piece of car. An entire CAR!’

‘Alright, alright, it is okay.’ Dad said, reassuring everyone in the waiting room, except himself, because he looked as if he was about to throw up. ‘Toby,’ he said then, turning to me, ‘go look for the car. Please, oun, okay?—just do it.’

It was a near-impossible task, contingent on the idea, I imagined, that some drunken homeless man had stumbled into the car and taken it for a joy ride around the block, which, in fact, had happened once, years before. The homeless man was named Ace, and he returned the car himself, walking right up to the counter and handing Dad the keys like the Shop was a rental company. A younger version of myself would have resisted Dad’s request—how many good-natured Aces did he think existed in the world?—but I couldn’t hold it against him for wanting to try, for clinging onto a shred of hope that everything might be okay, that the worst parts of his life were over, so nothing happening now could be that bad. 

 

From Afterparties: Stories by Anthony Veasna So. Copyright 2021 Ravy So and Alexander Gilbert Torres. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. Audiobook narratored by Jason Sean. 

(Photo: Chris Sackes)

First Fiction 2020

by

Staff

6.10.20

For our twentieth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2020 issue of the magazine for interviews between Ashleigh Bryant Phillips and Lauren Groff, Jean Kyoung Frazier and Bryan Washington, Corinne Manning and Paul Lisicky, Megha Majumdar and Sue Monk Kidd, and John Fram and Sarah Gailey. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Sleepovers (Hub City Press, June) by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Pizza Girl (Doubleday, June) by Jean Kyoung Frazier
We Had No Rules (Arsenal Pulp Press, May) by Corinne Manning
A Burning (Knopf, June) by Megha Majumdar
The Bright Lands (Hanover Square Press, July) by John Fram

 

Sleepovers
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

The Truth About Miss Katie

I didn’t like it when I heard what Miss Katie said at her going away party. And I probably shouldn’t have been listening but I wanted to tell her goodbye. At the party she said, “Excuse me I have a phone call,” and then she didn’t come back in for a long time so I went out to the bleachers where she always talks on the phone because she says that’s where she has best reception and I wish I didn’t hear her. What she said. She didn’t know I was there. And that was rude I guess and not good manners but Miss Katie is my favorite person—or was—because she’s smart and pretty and always has her nails done nice and she told me that one time that my bush baby I did was looking so cute in the bush.

I had never done art before, I mean I’d seen it on TV like on Disney Channel and the Miley Cyrus show when she had to do a thing called a self-portrait. But that’s why I loved when Miss Katie came. I just wanted to try art. You hear about it in all the stories, people painting, looking at paintings. I know that paintings are in museums because the library book I checked out told me about it. I’ve never been to a museum before either.

I heard that in the 6th grade we can go see a museum on the big field trip that the 6th graders take. They take us up to UNC to see the basketball court where Michael Jordan played and then they take us to a museum. We got to raise money to get up there though because we have to get this real big bus to take us and you have to get there real early at six in the morning and you CAN NOT be late. Or you’ll be holding up your friends!

So I wanted to do this art. And I had never heard of a bush baby before either until Miss Katie came and read us that story about Africa and she showed us how to draw animals from Africa in white crayon on white paper. And I know that sounds crazy because how are you gonna see anything with white crayon on white paper? But when you put the watercolor on it, it shows up really good. Well like I said, Miss Katie said I did so good on my bush baby, “Pretty eyes,” she said. “Between you and me it’s the best one in the class.” And that made me feel good.

When I got my period I thought I was hurt and I didn’t know what was happening to me and I was crying in the bathroom stall at school and Miss Katie came in there and told me I was okay. She said I should be proud, that it meant I was becoming a young lady. She said she had one too. And she gave me a pad to put in my panties. And when Grandma picked me up from school that day Miss Katie walked out with me to Grandma’s car and held my hand and she said, “Your granddaughter got her period today at school and I hope I didn’t overstep my boundaries or anything but she didn’t know what was going on and she was scared…” And then Grandma interrupted her and said, “That girl needs to feel scared.” I could tell Miss Katie didn’t know what to say then.

My Grandma is the bossy type. More bossy than Miss Katie. She don’t let us keep the lights on at night because of the electric bill and so when the sun goes down me and brother and sister sit in our room in the dark just talking to each other and sometimes my baby sister is afraid and I hold her and scratch her back real light like you’re barely touching her to get her to go to sleep. You can’t do it too hard or it won’t work. And Grandma won’t send me to school but with one pad. She says they’re expensive. So I told Miss Katie and she brought some pads to school just for me. And now whenever I feel the blood coming out of me I can change pads as much as I want. I hate feeling like I’m sitting in my own blood.

But Miss Katie said that I was a smart girl, a curious person, and that meant I was exciting. Miss Katie says to be normal is one of the most boring things in life. She taught us paper ma-shay. She has a paper ma-shay of her boobs that she keeps in her desk, she showed it to me one time.

She said I was a real artist. She really liked everything I’d paint. “Good color choice,” that’s something she always said. She said that on my self-portrait. That’s also when she told me I was beautiful. “See,” and she pointed to my face and said, “This is just beautiful.”

Miss Katie made me want to be a teacher. She taught me so much. And I wanted to tell her goodbye. I wanted to tell her how nice I think she is and thank her for all she’s done and ask her if she thinks we’ll ever see each other again.

I wanted to give her a gift. I wanted to paint her a painting. A thing called a still life, of opening spring flowers, but she never even got around to staying around here long enough for me to see any spring flowers open. And I didn’t want to ask Grandma for a canvas. Grandma wouldn’t even let me explain what a canvas was. She said, “None of that mess.”

So I stole some paper from school and did a self-portrait at night in my room in the dark. I had to try it over and over again for a while like that until it came out good. Because I couldn’t really see what all I was doing, but I got the hang of it after a while. And that’s what I wanted to give her, the self-portrait I did, because it had gummy worms on it, floating around my head.

Miss Katie asked me what was my favorite restaurant and I said that even though I love McDonald’s, and McDonald’s has toys ‘cause my cousin Terri works there and she brings them to us from her work, I have never been to the Golden Corral. I’ve seen the commercials and I don’t even know where it is around here but the TV says that the Golden Corral is all you can eat—it’s buffet. Kayla says she’s been there and that buffet means the food never goes out. You can eat until you’re so full you’re about to pop. Kayla says if I ever go, to try the BBQ pizza. She says you wouldn’t think it, cause it sounds gross, but she says it’s so so good.

Miss Katie said she’d never gone to the Golden Corral, but she said that she’d take me someday. I told her I heard we can put candy on our ice cream there. “I’m sure,” she said. She said she’d put gummy worms on her ice cream. And I just wanted to know if she could tell me when I went out to the bleachers to find her and give her my self-portrait when we were going to go to the Golden Corral.

But when I got out there, I saw her on the phone and I didn’t want to interrupt. I listened behind the gym, heard her talking some real bad stuff. She was saying, “This place is a shit hole.” And, “I’m just so alone here.” And she told her friend that we’d made her a 7Up cake. Miss Katie was kinda laughing then. She said she spit the cake out in the bathroom. She said 7Up cake was some country shit.

I can’t believe she said that. I mean she told us that she loved the 7Up cake. And it really is so good. We never get it except only on special occasions when Sammy’s mama makes it. We all love it so much when she makes it. It’s my favorite cake.

Miss Katie said the swimming pool here doesn’t even have a diving board. I’d never thought about that before, but she said it so mean. And she said she was scared of getting robbed. She was shaking her head and getting frustrated. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said. “Helping. Yes. They needed me.” Yeah she did show us things, but I never knew that we needed any help.

Miss Katie started crying on the phone and I remembered my sister. She’d be crawling into the fridge at night when she was hungry, when she won’t supposed to be looking for something to eat. It hurt my feelings to hear Miss Katie talk like that. And I want to tell her that I don’t ever want her to come back here again because I hate her.

 

Excerpted from Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips. Published by Hub City Press. Copyright © 2020 by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips. 

(Photo: Missy Malouff)

Pizza Girl
Jean Kyoung Frazier

Her name was Jenny Hauser and every Wednesday I put pickles on her pizza.

The first time she called in it’d been mid-June, the summer of 2011. I’d been at Eddie’s a little over a month. My uniform polo was green and orange and scratchy at the pits, people would loudly thank me and then tip me a dollar, at the end of shifts my hair reeked of garlic. Every hour I thought about quitting, but I was eighteen, didn’t know how to do much of anything, eleven weeks pregnant.

At least it got me out of the house.

The morning she’d called, Mom hugged me four times, Billy five, all before I’d pulled on my socks and poured milk over my cereal. They hurled “I love yous” against my back as I fast-walked out the front door. Some days, I wanted to turn around and hug them back. On others, I wanted to punch them straight in the face, run away to Thailand, Hawaii, Myrtle Beach, somewhere with sun and ocean.

I thank god that Darryl’s boyfriend fucked a Walgreens checkout girl.

If Darryl’s boyfriend had been kind, loyal, kept his dick in his pants, I wouldn’t have answered the phone that day. Darryl could make small talk with a tree, had a laugh that made shoulders relax—he manned the counter and answered the phones, I just waited for addresses and drove the warm boxes to their homes.

But Darryl’s boyfriend was having a quarter-life crisis. Ketchup no longer tasted right, law school was starting to give him headaches, at night he lay awake next to the man he loved and counted sheep, 202, 203, 204, tried not to ask the question that had ruined his favorite condiment, spoiled his dreams, replaced sleep with sheep—is this it? One day, he walked into a Walgreens to buy a pack of gum and was greeted by a smile and a pair of D cups. The next day, Darryl spent most of his shift curbside, yelling into his phone. The front door was wide open, and I tried not to listen, but failed.

“On our first date you told me that even the word ‘pussy’ made you feel like you needed a shower.”

It was the slowest part of the day. A quarter past three. Too late for lunch, too early for dinner, pizza was heavy for a mid-afternoon snack. The place was empty except for me and the three cooks. They waved hello and goodbye and not much else. I couldn’t tell if they didn’t speak English or if they just didn’t want to speak to me.

“You know you’ve ruined Walgreens for me, right? I’m going to have to drive ten extra minutes now and go to the CVS to get my Twizzlers. God damn it, you know that I can’t get through a day without my fucking Twizzlers.”

I was sitting on an empty table, turning paper napkins into birds and stars and listening to my iPod at a volume that allowed me to think, but not too deeply. I couldn’t remember the name of the boy I used to share Cheetos with in first grade. I wondered if I had ever used every drop of a pen’s ink. All shades of blue made my chest warm. Our boss, Peter, napped around this time. Every day, at 3:00 p.m. without fail, he’d close his office door and ask us to please, please not fuck anything up. We never fucked anything up. We also didn’t get much done. I stared at a large puddle of orange soda on the floor and made a paper-napkin man to sit among the birds and the stars. “Oh God, tell me you wore a condom.”

The phone rang then. I was about to call for Darryl. He started shouting about abortion.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t look back on this moment and feel its weight. I could’ve just let it ring—no one would’ve known. I didn’t. I hopped off the table, walked to the counter, picked up the phone, and heard her voice for the first time.

“So—have you ever had the kind of week where every afternoon seems to last for hours?” Her voice was heavy, quivering, the sound of genuine desperation. Before I could reply, the woman kept talking. “Like, you’ll water your plants, fold your laundry, make your kid a snack, vacuum the rug, read a couple articles, watch some TV, call your mom, wash your face, maybe do some ab exercises to get the blood pumping, and then you’ll check the clock and thirteen minutes have passed. You know?”

I opened my mouth, but she kept on going.

“And it’s only Wednesday! I’m insane, I know. I’m insane.

But do you know what I mean?”

I waited a few beats to make sure she was done. Her breathing was loud and labored.

“Um, yeah,” I said. “I guess.”

“Yes! So—you’ll help me?”

I frowned, started ripping up an old receipt. “I think you may have the wrong number.”

“Is this Eddie’s?”

“Oh, yeah. It is.”

“Then this is exactly the right number. You’re the only person who can help me.”

I remember shivering, wanting to wrap this woman in a blanket and make her a hot chocolate, fuck up anyone that even looked at her funny. “Okay, what can I do?”

“I need a large pepperoni-and-pickles pizza or my son will not eat.”

“I can put in an order for a large pepperoni pizza. We don’t have pickles as a topping, though.”

“I know you don’t. Nowhere out here does,” she said. “You’re the sixth place I’ve called.”

“So what are you asking?” I rubbed my lower back. It had been aching inexplicably the past couple of weeks. I figured it was the baby’s fault.

“We just moved here a month ago from North Dakota. My husband got an amazing job offer and we love it here, all the palm trees, but our son, Adam, hates Los Angeles. He misses home, his friends, he doesn’t get along with his new baseball coach.” She sighed.

She continued: “He’s on a hunger strike. A couple days ago he came up to me and said, ‘Mommy, I’m not eating a damn thing until we go back to Bismarck.’ Can you believe that? Who has ever said that? Who likes Bismarck? And that potty mouth! Seven years old and already talking like a fucking sailor. How does that happen?”

I wasn’t even sure if she was talking to me anymore. I looked at the clock and saw that I’d been on the phone for over five minutes. It was the longest conversation I’d had with someone other than Mom or Billy in weeks. Darryl too, I guess, but that felt like it didn’t count.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I just still don’t understand how I can help with this.”

“There was this pizza place back home that used to make the best pepperoni-and-pickles pizza. I swear, I’ve tried doing it myself, just ordering a regular old pepperoni pizza and putting the pickles on after. He said it wasn’t right, and when I asked him what wasn’t right about it, he just kept saying, ‘It’s not right,’ over and over, louder and louder, and wouldn’t stop until I yelled over him, ‘Okay, you’re right! It’s not right!’ ” She paused. “I just thought maybe if I could get him that pizza, something that reminded him of home, this silly hunger strike could end and he could start to love Los Angeles.”

There was a long pause. I would’ve thought she’d hung up if not for that loud, labored breathing.

When she spoke again, her voice was softer. I thought of birds with broken wings, glass vases so beautiful and fragile I was afraid to look at them for too long. “It just feels like I’ve been failing a lot lately,” she said. “I can’t even get dinner right.”

I thought of a night two years ago. Dad was still alive and living with us. The Bears game had just started. He wasn’t drunk yet, but by halftime he’d have finished at least a six-pack. Some nights, I was the best thing that ever happened to him, his pride, his joy; he talked often of buying us plane tickets to New York City and taking me to the top of the Empire State Building. On other nights, I was a dumb bitch, a waste of space; sometimes he’d throw his empties at me. I didn’t want to find out what type of night it was. My window opened out onto the roof. I climbed out of it to sit and smoke, try to find stars in the sky. I was about to light up when I looked down and saw Mom’s car pull into the driveway.

I watched as she took the key from the ignition, killed the lights. I waited for her to come inside. She didn’t. She sat in the driver’s seat, just sat. Five minutes went by and she was still sitting, staring out the windshield. I wondered what she was staring at, if she actually was staring at anything, or if she was just thinking, or maybe trying not to think, just having a moment when nothing moved or mattered—I wished that she was at least listening to music. She sat and stared another ten minutes before going inside.

There was a supermarket not far from Eddie’s. Pickles were cheap. “What’s your address?” I asked.

The cooks eyed me funny when I came into the kitchen with a brown paper bag. They looked only slightly less nervous when I pulled a pickle jar out of it.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just helping this lady out.” They stared blankly at me.

“Her kid isn’t eating.” Silence.

“Can you guys get me a large pepperoni?”

They looked at each other, shrugged, and started pulling the dough. I chopped a couple pickles into uneven slices and wedged myself between the cooks, sprinkled the pickles over the sauce, cheese, and meat. I told myself that it only looked off because it was raw, but the cooks didn’t seem to know what to make of it either. One sniffed it, another laughed, the third just stared and scratched his head. They eventually shrugged again and put the pizza in the oven.

While I waited, I walked out of the kitchen and to the front of the shop. Darryl was off the phone and back inside, pouring rum into a soda cup. We stared at each other for a moment. His eyes were red and puffy; his face looked strange without a smile.

I coughed, just for something to do. “Any calls?”

“Just one,” he said. “Midway through, the guy decided he wanted Chinese and hung up.”

“Cool. I picked up one while you were—when you—” I coughed again. “Cool.”

I thought about asking him if he was okay, decided to mop the floor instead. Peter would be waking up soon and didn’t need much to start yelling at us. Darryl sipped his drink and wiped down the counter.

I mopped half the shop before my mind began to wander. There was a slip of paper in the back left pocket of my jeans with an address and the name Jenny Hauser scribbled above it.

“I’m Jenny, by the way. Jenny Hauser,” she’d said after she thanked me for the third time. “My grandma also had the same name. I don’t remember much about her except that she made real good rhubarb pie and hated black people.”

I’d thought she sounded too old to be a Jenny. She should be a Jen or a firm Jennifer—Jenny had a ponytail and scrapes on her knees, liked the crusts cut off of her PB and J’s, fought with her mom but always apologized, had never really been in love but had plenty of crushes on boys in her class, teachers who showed her kindness, Jenny believed in God and Kenny Chesney—I couldn’t stop imagining what she looked like.

“Yo,” Darryl hollered. “Order up.”

My dad didn’t have any money to leave us. He did have a ’99 Ford Festiva.

The paint job was faded, the driver’s door dented; there was a questionable yellow stain on the back seat; the A/C was broken, stuck on high, freezing air pumped through the car, even in the winter. Simply put, the car was a piece of shit.

I’d told Mom we should sell it for parts, take whatever we could get. She shook her head and said she couldn’t, she remembered him bringing it home for the first time. “He looked so handsome stepping out of it. He bought me flowers too,” she said. “Sunflowers.” I didn’t remember that. I did remember him teaching me to drive in it. He’d smoke and sip from his red thermos, flick ashes on me whenever I drove too slow or forgot to signal. Once, I sideswiped a car in a Popeyes parking lot and he made me iron his shirts and shine his shoes every Sunday night for a month.

When Mom got a new car last year—a used ’07 Toyota Camry that didn’t have dents or stains or broken radios, was a sleek shiny silver—she dropped the keys to the Festiva on my bedside table. I let the car sit in front of the house a week before I lost all willpower.

I spent that whole day driving, every song sounded good on full blast. It was a Los Angeles winter day, seventy and cloudless. Everything looked crisp and clean through the windshield. The full gas tank and the open road made my fingers and toes tingle. A man was selling oranges on the shoulder of a highway. I bought four bags and shouted along with a song that was about a girl and a goat and Missoula, Montana.

The radio was off when I was driving to Jenny’s house for the first time. My palms were sweaty against the steering wheel and I had that tight-chest feeling I sometimes got when I drank too much coffee. I hadn’t had any coffee for over a week. Billy said it was bad for the baby, he didn’t want to have a little girl or boy with twelve toes and poor reading skills.

The address took me to a nice part of town where all the homes were big and uniform with perfectly mowed front lawns. I saw three different golden retrievers being walked by three different women in tracksuits before I pulled up to her home. I was relieved to see that, though her home was big, it didn’t annoy me. It was one of the smaller ones on the block, and her lawn was slightly overgrown and yellowing in some places.

The coffee chest–feeling increased as I stepped out of my car and started walking to the front door. I appreciated then how good I felt on a daily basis, calm and centered, how little fazed me, my ability to walk tall and look straight ahead. Three weeks ago I peed on a stick, and when the little pink plus winked up at me, I walked downstairs, opened the freezer, and ate a Popsicle, thought about what I wanted to watch that night, a rom-com or an action movie—both would have broad-chested dudes, did I want to cry or see shit get blown up?

There was sweat in places I didn’t know I could sweat. I was confused why this instance of all instances was making me damp behind the knees, between my toes. As I knocked on Jenny’s door, three times hard, I reminded myself that she was just some lady with some kid. Then she opened the door and I wanted to take her hand and invite her to come with me whenever I ran away to Myrtle Beach.

From Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier. Copyright © 2020 by Jean Kyoung Frazier. All rights reserved. 

(Photo: Vamsi Chunduru)

We Had No Rules
Corinne Manning

My family had no rules. At least it felt that way for a time, because most of the rules were vague and unspoken: don’t lie, or steal, or hurt. If I was mean to my sister, or my sister to me, we would apologize. We did the dishes together every night. We shared toys. When she read to me, I would thank her, and if I wanted her to read to me, she would, unless she had too much homework. Our parents’ rules had to be enforced only after we broke them—after my sister broke them. By the time I was old enough to encounter the same dilemma, I already knew the edict, and through watching her, I knew what rules to follow. Which was why, at sixteen, I left home, just as my sister had, only I ran away because there was one rule I couldn’t keep from breaking. If I knew anything about my parents it was where they stood, so why expect different results?

I was lucky, because when it was my turn, Stacy was twenty-four, set up in a rent-controlled apartment in Chelsea with only two roommates. She worked as a paralegal and attended classes at Hunter most nights. It was 1992, and I had a place to go.

Stacy was mad at first. She held my hand as we walked from the subway to her apartment, and I felt so much better now that my hand had a place to be. My hands get icy when I’m nervous. When I was little, Stacy used to rub them until they were warm again, and I wondered if she remembered this. I felt small and untethered as we walked down those streets, because I smelled perfume and trash and urine, saw posters of men kissing and women kissing, and because over the din of cars and voices I heard the roaring immensity of what I’d done.

“You gave them what they wanted,” she said. She jerked my hand as we turned a corner.

I hadn’t seen Stacy since she left, and she’d gone through a complete transformation. She traded running shoes for leather boots that went up to just over her knees and had huge heels. She towered over me by almost a foot. The bangles on her wrists clanked together, and her hair—which was shaved when I last saw her, a rule broken—was a gorgeous orange mess.

She had a unique kind of insight into what I was going through. “You made it easy for them. They want you to feel so ashamed that you leave. There’s this way they pretend there’re no rules, and they subtly suffocate you. That’s what they did to me, only they posed it as a choice. If you wanted to do it differently, you would have given them the ultimatum, like: ‘Either you accept me and we talk about this, or I’m getting the fuck out of here.’”

I pulled my hand out of her grip to adjust my shoulder bag, but I regretted it because afterwards her hand wasn’t available anymore. She shoved it into the pocket of her neon-yellow hunting vest. I stayed close to her, taking as much comfort as I could from the rub of her arm against mine.

We paused at a traffic light and I could tell she wanted to bolt across, but she was trying to set a good example of how to cross the street. I leaned into her a little more.

“I’d rather be with you, though,” I said. “I wanted to be with you.”

It had been a long time since I’d seen her cry, and there was this way that tears just suddenly flooded around her lids—you wouldn’t have known she was upset until this happened—like a mysterious dam had been opened. She grabbed my hand and rubbed her thumb briskly over my skin, then we ran together across the street.

When I arrived at the apartment, there was a closet made up like a room for me and her things were in bins just outside it. I didn’t complain about having no window because she did some sweet things to the closet to make it feel like a room. She suspended a kind of mobile that her roommate Jill made out of spoon and fork handles. Her other roommate, who turned out to always be touring with some band, built a few shelves at the end of the closet so I could put my things up there. My main light was a paper lantern, and sometimes I felt like a caterpillar in a whimsical cocoon.

That first morning she took me to her favourite bakery and watched me eat two chocolate chip banana muffins, mine and hers.

“Look, I’m not going to totally police you, but you can’t just bring home any girl, because you have to remember that this is also home to all of us, and if you and some girl decide to fuck—”

“Stacy!” I looked around to see if anyone had heard, but no one seemed bothered.

“If you decide to fuck, you have to be respectful. No shouting. I don’t want to hear ’cause you’re my baby sister, and Jill’s room is right against that closet and you don’t want to do that to her either. I’ve already told Jill and Toby this, but I’m going to say it to you, too—don’t fuck my roommates. You can have sex with anyone as long as they aren’t living with us at the time. You need to realize this—”

She leaned forward real close and I stopped chewing.

“You and I are partners now, and I worked hard to get this clean, safe apartment with these not-so-clean, stable people, and if you fuck it up, we are both out, and I know you don’t know this yet, but sex is really fucking messy and what you get into will affect me too.”

“I know about sex,” I said.

Stacy smiled, then tried to hide it. “I’m pretty sure all you’ve done is hold hands under the covers at a sleepover and she let you kiss her neck while she pretended to be asleep.”

I looked down and picked up some crumbs from the wax paper with my pointer and put them in my mouth.

“She was definitely awake,” I said.

“I’m gonna take care of you,” she said. “We’re gonna figure out school, and I’ll help you find a job. You won’t go through what I went through. Okay?” She looked at me so seriously.

I nodded. I know that wasn’t enough of an acknowledgment, but the fact that I even nodded is commendable, I think, at sixteen.

I didn’t know, at this point, what she went through. I knew it was terrible, because early on she called my parents and left this message on the answering machine that made me tremble and cry because she was sobbing and saying she wanted to come home. She left a number for a pay phone, and when she answered, her voice sounded like mine, like a child’s, and I begged my mom to get on the phone and listen. And my mom just kept saying, Youmadeyourchoice, youmadeyourchoice, and I heard my sister on the other end screaming, Please, please, the word scraping away, digging for anything decent but striking rock after rock. I hid in the other room until, finally, one of them hung up.

After breakfast, I sat on the toilet lid and watched her get ready for work, just like I used to watch her get ready for school before she left home. She straightened her hair and brushed it out so that it lay smooth and thick around her shoulders. Her lipstick was modestly pink. I didn’t breathe while she applied liquid eyeliner, for fear I’d somehow make her smudge it.

“I’ll be home at two and I don’t have to be in class until seven, so we can do whatever in between.” She smiled at me in the mirror. I was wearing an outfit Mom had picked out for me—red cords and a pink turtleneck.

“Maybe we’ll dress you in some different clothes. I’ll call in some favours.” She closed her eyeliner and dropped it into her purse. She pressed her cheek against mine in lieu of a kiss.

I was entranced: here I was, smelling her makeup again. When she closed the door, I felt a lonely kind of despair.

 

Excerpted from We Had No Rules by Corinne Manning. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Copyright © 2020 by Corinne Manning. 

(Photo: Itzel Santiago)

A Burning
Megha Majumdar

JIVAN

“You smell like smoke,” my mother said to me.

So I rubbed an oval of soap in my hair and poured a whole bucket of water on myself before a neighbor complained that I was wasting the morning supply.

There was a curfew that day. On the main street, a police jeep would creep by every half hour. Daily-wage laborers, compelled to work, would come home with arms raised to show they had no weapons.

In bed, my wet hair spread on the pillow, I picked up my new phone—purchased with my own salary, screen guard still attached.

On Facebook, there was only one conversation.

These terrorists attacked the wrong neighborhood #KolabaganTrainAttack #Undefeated

Friends, if you have fifty rupees, skip your samosas today and donate to—

The more I scrolled, the more Facebook unrolled.

This news clip exclusively from 24 Hours shows how—

Candlelight vigil at—

The night before, I had been at the railway station, no more than a fifteen-minute walk from my house. I ought to have seen the men who stole up to the open windows and threw flaming torches into the halted train. But all I saw were carriages, burning, their doors locked from the outside and dangerously hot. The fire spread to huts bordering the station, smoke filling the chests of those who lived there. More than a hundred people died. The government promised compensation to the families of the dead—eighty thousand rupees!—which, well, the government promises many things.

In a video, to the dozen microphones thrust at his chin, the chief minister was saying, “Let the authorities investigate.” Somebody had spliced this comment with a video of policemen scratching their heads. It made me laugh.

I admired these strangers on Facebook who said anything they wanted to. They were not afraid of making jokes. Whether it was about the police or the ministers, they had their fun, and wasn’t that freedom? I hoped that after a few more salary slips, after I rose to be a senior sales clerk of Pantaloons, I would be free in that way too.

Then, in a video clip further down the page, a woman came forward, her hair flying, her nose running a wet trail down to her lips, her eyes red. She was standing on the sloping platform of our small railway station. Into the microphone she screamed: “There was a jeep full of policemen right there. Ask them why they stood around and watched while my husband burned. He tried to open the door and save my daughter. He tried and tried.”

I shared that video. I added a caption.

Policemen paid by the government watched and did nothing while this innocent woman lost everything, I wrote.

I laid the phone next to my head, and dozed. The heat brought sleep to my eyes. When I checked my phone next, there were only two likes. A half hour later, still two likes.

Then a woman, I don’t know who, commented on my post. How do you know this person is not faking it? Maybe she wants attention!

I sat up. Was I friends with this person? In her profile picture she was posing in a bathroom.

Did you even watch the video? I replied.

The words of the heartless woman drifted in my mind. I was irritated by her, but there was excitement too. This was not the frustration of no water in the municipal pump or power cut on the hottest night. Wasn’t this a kind of leisure dressed up as agitation?

For me, the day was a holiday, after all. My mother was cooking fish so small we would eat them bones and tail. My father was taking in the sun, his back pain eased.

Under my thumb, I watched post after post about the train attack earn fifty likes, a hundred likes, three hundred likes. Nobody liked my reply.

And then, in the small, glowing screen, I wrote a foolish thing. I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.

Forgive me, Ma.

If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean, I wrote on Facebook, that the government is also a terrorist?

Outside the door, a man slowly pedaled his rickshaw, the only passenger his child, the horn going paw paw for her glee.

 

Excerpted from A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Copyright © 2020 by Megha Majumdar. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

Audio excerpted courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio from A Burning by Megha Majumdar, narrated by Vikas Adam, Priya Ayyar, Deepti Gupta, Ulka Mohanty, Soneela Nankani, and Neil Shah.

(Photo: Elena Seibert)
page_5: 

The Bright Lands
John Fram

FRIDAY

HOPE AND HALOGEN

JOEL

Five days later his plane pierced the cloud bank and great squares of Texas prairie rose up to swallow him. Watching the flatland take shape out his window, he felt a familiar anxiety wind its fingers around his throat.

His brother was not the first troubled football player to confide in Joel. All week in Manhattan he had thought of nothing but a sticky summer afternoon a decade ago, of a truck cab spiked with the smell of spearmint, of a man with shocking green eyes and a bad neck shaking his head with effort and saying, “Don’t play that game if you can help it, Whitley.” Joel would cut off an arm to ensure Dylan never suffered the same fate as that ruined man.

If Joel could jab a finger in his blighted hometown’s eye, so much the better.

He chewed an Adderall and texted his brother.

An ugly thunderhead was rolling in from the Gulf. When the Enterprise attendant led Joel to the parking lot to collect his rental—a low-slung convertible with a gleaming black hood—the twilit air felt ready to burst. One sniff and Joel knew he was back. There was nothing quite like the smell of Texas in the hours before some fresh calamity.

The open convertible tore away from the encroaching storm with a moan. Joel passed through towns with names like Thrall and Spree and Thorndale and wove around trucks and horse trailers, their drivers and passengers all regarding him (and the pop music blaring from his speakers) with a courteous suspicion.

There were fewer cows than he remembered. Great miles of scrubby flatland unrolled to either side of the highway, punctuated only by a lonely water tower, a totemic bale of hay, a sunken barn with half the country visible through a hole in its side.

BENTLEY: 18 MILES. Joel didn’t smoke and yet he craved a cigarette. He caught a casual crackle of gunfire somewhere in the distance—there was a sound he’d forgotten—and slowed to allow a rusted Chevy to merge ahead of him. Something caught his eye in the truck’s bed. A hulking stuffed bison wobbled on stiff legs, a letterman jacket fastened around its furry shoulders, its black glass eyes catching the last of the sunlight through the grill of a green Bentley football helmet.

It was a challenge not to stare into those eyes. With a queasy flutter in his stomach, a creep of gooseflesh up his arms, Joel suddenly felt he’d seen those eyes before, though he was also certain he’d never seen this stuffed bison in his life. He had the strangest conviction—almost like déjà vu—that those black eyes had watched him on a very bad night a very long time ago. They had watched him then just like they were watching him now: with a hungry, inhuman intelligence, like a lizard waiting for a fly to buzz just a few inches closer.

Jesus, Joel thought. He wasn’t even home and already he was jumping at taxidermy.

Joel caught sight of the first sign of fresh paint since Austin. A billboard that read MY HERD MY GLORY appeared, listing the names and numbers of every player on the team. He strained to spot his brother, though he needn’t have bothered. Just past BENTLEY: 2 MILES his brother’s face rose up from the fields. DYLAN WHITLEY, SENIOR the sign read. “THE BOY WITH THE MILLION DOLLAR ARM.”

The convertible’s speakers sputtered, the music playing from Joel’s phone cut out. Bentley took shape on the flat horizon. As the truck ahead of him rumbled toward town, a dark light rose in the bison’s dead eyes. Joel jumped. He would have sworn he’d just seen the thing blink.

As if in reply, a cold voice seemed to whisper through the static of the convertible’s speakers:

imissedyou.

 

Excerpted from The Bright Lands by John Fram. Copyright © 2020 by John Fram. Published by Hanover Square Press. 

(Photo: Luke Fontana)

First Fiction 2019

by

Staff

6.12.19

For our nineteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2019 issue of the magazine for interviews between Ruchika Tomar and R.O. Kwon, Chia-Chia Lin and Yaa Gyasi, Miciah Bay Gault and Melissa Febos, De’Shawn Charles Winslow and Helen Phillips, and Regina Porter and Jamel Brinkley. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

A Prayer for Travelers (Riverhead, July) by Ruchika Tomar
The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May) by Chia-Chia Lin
Goodnight Stranger (Park Row Books, July) by Miciah Bay Gault
In West Mills (Bloomsbury, June) by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
The Travelers (Hogarth, June) by Regina Porter

A Prayer for Travelers
Ruchika Tomar

There were three names listed under Cruz in the phone book, but I didn’t bother trying any of them. Ask Flaca. If Lourdes had been hostile to my call, Flaca, I knew, would hang up the minute she heard my name. I had always considered Penny their favorite; she was always the most admired in school, the one other girls strove to emulate. But Flaca was their backbone, the mainstay, the friend who dispensed favors and counsel. I decided to look for her in the one place I knew she would eventually be forced to return.

It was already dark when I left the diner, but I could have found my way to the palo blindfolded, even with all light stripped away. The Cruzes’ panadería was a flamingo pink storefront at the southernmost corner of a petite arc of businesses that included, among other things, a smoke shop and a laundromat. I parked the truck and climbed out as the barber was closing up for the night, unplugging the red and blue helix in the window, locking the door, rolling a hatched metal gate over the glass. He locked it, rattling the grille to make sure it was secured. Only the bakery stayed open late enough for workers returning from Sparks and Tehacama to drop off their lunch pails and tool kits at home, hunt their children from varied backyards, and corral them to the bakery for tortas and Cokes. As I walked to the entrance, a large blue van pulled up to the curb, unloading a dozen women in identical pressed white uniforms. These women were Pomoc’s illusionists, soon to be ferried out to office buildings and casinos and hospitals in southern cities, armed only with plastic bottles and brooms to toil unseen, tasked with erasing our collective past. I followed them inside and lingered near the wall opposite a glass case full of pan dulces tucked into neat, full rows. The women placed orders for tacos de piña, puerquitos, and coffee strong enough to power them through the evening into the pardoning dawn. Behind a small screen that separated her from customers, Maria’s short, corpulent figure bent to the glass case, shaking out one paper bag after another.

When I was a child, Lamb had brought me here so often that Maria often emerged from behind her veil‑like screen. She clasped me against her supple bulk, flattening dexterous, flour‑dusted fingers across my eyebrows and down the dark tails of my schoolgirl plaits, humoring Lamb with his awkward gringo patois while checking for my growth spurt that never seemed to arrive. Even after all these years her face was still full, a few strands of silver in her high, tight bun catching in the light. When the last of the uniformed women left, I unlatched myself from the wall and stepped up to the counter, searching Maria’s expression for some sense of recognition, an acknowledgment of the pigtailed tomboy who loved her. She nodded at me through the screen. “¿Qué quieres?”

“Is Christina here?”

“No.” Her reply was sharp, as if this was a question she’d been asked too often. Flaca’s business was growing, and it wasn’t hard to guess how many others might have shown up in recent months, seeking a dispensary.

“I just want to talk to her.”

“¿Quieres comprar algo?”

“I used to come here.” I held out my hand flat at my chest, indicating a child’s height. “This tall, overalls. I came with my grandfather. We sat over there.” I pointed to the corner table, the hard plastic chairs. She shrugged.

“You don’t remember me?” My voice sounded more desperate than I intended. What if I split my hair in braids again, if Lamb were beside me, if I clung to his rough hand the way I had then? Instead I pointed to a row of pink conchas behind the glass, as if nostalgia might stir Lamb’s dwindling appetite. “Cuatro, por favor.”

She reached for a pastry box and laid the conchas down like sleeping children. I paid and on my way out, held the door for a father shepherding inside twin girls, the pair of them in light‑up princess sneakers and vague, kittenish smiles. Outside, I stopped at the truck and slid the pastry box on the hood to fish the keys out of my pocket when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a mouse dart out from underneath a nearby car, scurrying along the side of the building to the dumpsters crowding the small back alley. Lamb and I had wandered there more than once to discard our trash, and I knew at the end of the alley lay the bakery’s kitchen where, during any weekday lull, Maria could be found chatting with any number of family members who cycled through to mix dough and answer the phone, transcribing elaborate cake orders. I settled the pastry box in the passenger seat of the truck before shutting the door and picking my way into the dark passage, edging past the dumpsters. Halfway down I could make out a square of light on the brick wall opposite, the top half of the kitchen’s Dutch door pushed open, giving off a backdraft of heat. I peeked in past the tall, silver rolling racks of pastries pulled away from the wall, the working counters covered with bags of yeast, mixing bowls, rows of sweet breads cooling on wire racks. A fan in the corner of the room rattled as it worked, its face pushed up toward the ceiling to keep from blowing flour into powdered mist. A slim girl, her back turned to me, pulled open the top door of an oven, sliding a baking tray inside. She shut it and moved to lean over the fan, shaking out the bottom of the tank top that clung to her, a red bandanna tying back her hair.

“Flaca,” I called her name softly. She made no movement to signal she heard, but a moment later, a familiar pair of hard, dark eyes pinned mine. She crossed the room and reached for the Dutch door, her face already forming a scowl. I took a step back, one foot into the dirt. A voice called out something indecipherable from the other room.

“Nadie, Mama,” Flaca called back. She jutted her chin at me. “What do you want?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Me? About what?”

“What else? Penny.”

Flaca studied me with an expression I didn’t know how to read. She pushed the door open wider for me to catch, but once inside reached for me so quickly I didn’t have time to pull away. She caught my jaw in her firm grip, moving my face back and forth carefully in the light as if it were a ruby or disaster, something to be appraised. Her breath tickled my chin. This, the closest we had ever been to each other, even as girls.

“Penny didn’t do this,” she said flatly.

“God. Of course not.”

Flaca released me, moving away. It was twenty degrees hotter inside the kitchen, and the skin on my arms began to take on a thin sheen. The room smelled overwhelmingly sweet, the pastries baking in the double oven. I followed her back to the counter where she picked up a silver sifter, shaking powdered sugar over a rack of wedding cookies.

“Dime. You pissed someone off.” “That’s not what I came to talk about.”

“Oh? What does Cale want to talk about?” She set down the sifter and lifted the tray, sliding it onto one of the rolling racks.

“Penny never showed up to work last night,” I spoke to her back. “Maybe you’d know where she is.”

“I have no idea.”

“But you’re always together.”

“So are you,” she said, turning to shoot me a look. “Lately.” 

“Flaca, I went to her place. She didn’t answer. I used the spare. She wasn’t there but she left her cellphone behind. You don’t think that’s weird?”

“That Penny forgot her phone?”

“She didn’t forget it. And she hasn’t come back, not that I know of.”

“Where is it now?”

“What?”

“Her phone, Cale.”

I hesitated. All the drops Penny was making for her, the business Flaca would lose if Penny didn’t have it on her. There was no good way to deliver the news.

“I might have given it to the police.”

“What!”

“I’m sorry! That’s why I’m here.”

Flaca rubbed her face, smearing flour down her cheeks. The bandanna pulling back her hair brought her features into stark focus; the angle of her cheeks and chin, her nose a degree too sharp. I longed for Flaca’s mother to emerge from the front of the shop, to see mother and daughter standing side by side and compare their faces and hands, to ask how some things could be passed down so easily from one to another while other familial aspects were entirely betrayed.

“I didn’t know what else to do. Maybe it could help? I have a feeling—”

“A feeling!”

“Something could be wrong.”

“And what are the cops going to do?”

“Help find her?”

Flaca laughed. In all the time we had been in school together, I couldn’t recall the sound. I had never heard it, or I had heard it too often; it had dissolved into the childhood soundtrack of playground sounds along with the recess bell, the squeak of swing sets, the rhythmic whip of jump ropes slapping the blacktop. It cracked her face wide open, making her appear less birdlike, revealing a pliable warmth: a secret she had kept hidden inside herself all this time.

“You can’t help it, can you?”

“They’re probably going to call you,” I said.

“The cops aren’t going to do shit.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

I met her eyes. “If they don’t, who will?”

“Relax. Penny’s fine. If she went somewhere, she’s already back and pissed you went through her shit.”

“Where could she go? She doesn’t have a car.”

“She can get a ride.”

“You’re the one who gives her rides!”

“I’m not the only one.” She said it pointedly, something in it I was supposed to extract.

“Fine. Okay? Say she got a ride. Why hasn’t she come back yet?”

She looked heavenward, as if the answer was soon to arrive. “You don’t understand. She thinks she’s like you. But we’re not anything like you.”

“What’s so wrong with me, anyway?”

“For one thing, you’re dumb about things you never had to know about.”

I realized we were standing at a cross angle from one another, that I had one hand on my hip, that she had both on hers. I wanted to drop my hand, to tell her where I’d found Penny’s phone, and how, the rolls of cash in the freezer, what they might mean. If Penny was here, she would have trusted Flaca enough to tell her about the desert and the sand‑colored man, everything. If we were going to traffic in secrets, Flaca’s could rival us all. Flaca was surveying the pastries on the counters, a curious expression growing on her face, as if they were bizarre, diminutive creatures struggling toward life.

“What is it?”

“How long has it been?” Flaca asked.

“Since she’s been gone? I don’t know. She was supposed to be on shift the night before last. What time is it now?”

“Almost eight. So what is that? Two days? Three?”

I didn’t answer. She looked up, finally seeing me. The wheels in her mind, I could tell, were beginning to turn.

“You have an idea. Someplace she could be.”

“No,” she said. “But maybe I can find out.”

 

Excerpted from A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar. Published by Riverhead. Copyright © 2019 by Ruchika Tomar. Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar, narrated by Sophie Amoss.

 
(Photo: Dan Doperalski)
 
 

The Unpassing
Chia-Chia Lin

Pei-Pei was the only one home when I woke.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. It was a real question, without sarcasm.

The door was open, but no sounds drifted in from the other parts of the house. From my bed I could see Pei-Pei lying on her stomach, kicking her legs. My pillow obstructed part of my view. Her bare feet swung in and out of my sight.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“One or two.”

She was still in her sleeping clothes, a set of faded blue long johns with sleeves that were too short. The elastic at the wrists was loose. Her long black hair was tied back, and the shorter front pieces were matted to her temples. When I swung my legs out from the covers, I was wearing pants I had never seen before.

“It’s Tuesday,” she added. “You went to the hospital.”

“You’re not in school?”

She didn’t respond. Her legs pedaled the gummy air.

“We have to go,” I said. “They’re showing the launch. Did we miss it already?”

She nodded. “Yeah, it was last week.”

“Last week?”

“It exploded.”

“What?”

“Everyone died.” She sat up and stared at me, evaluating something in my face.

“What are you talking about?”

“There was a huge cloud of smoke, and then nothing came out of it—no shuttle.”

“What?” I looked around to see if someone, my father or Natty, was laughing at me from the closet. But the door was open, and there were no legs or feet beneath the hanging clothes.

“Believe me. I saw it happen.”

I shook my head, trying to find room for what she was saying.

“There’s something else,” she said. She pushed at a spot on the bridge of her nose. Her face was completely bare and her hair was clawed back. Behind her thick glasses her lashes were sparse, and her eyes were very small and black.

Suddenly I was afraid to look at her face. I tried to smooth the folds in the fitted sheet. It was not my usual one, and the fabric was all twisted and bunched. Later I would discover it was too big for my bed. When I helped my mother change it, we had to shove handfuls of it under the mattress, hiding its excess.

“Ruby’s dead.”

I laughed. I pressed on a wrinkle in the sheet with the heel of my palm, trying to spread it flat.

Pei-Pei took off her glasses and shook them as though they were filled with dust. “You heard me,” she said, “and I don’t want to say it again.”

“Stop joking,” I said.

“I’m not joking,” she said. “It happened two days ago.”

“How?” I asked. As I said it, I pressed a hand to my throat to stop a noise. There was an expanse between what I was saying and what I understood myself to be saying, and the giggle in my chest was trying to morph into something else.

“She got sick. There was an outbreak at school.”

“But she doesn’t even go to school yet.”

“No,” Pei-Pei said. “She doesn’t.”

We stared at each other. Without her glasses on, Pei-Pei’s eyes had expanded. They were not quite black, but the color of winter soil after the snow was scraped away.

Pei-Pei came to my bed. “It’s no one’s fault.”

“Get away,” I said.

She slipped her glasses back on and stood up. She walked to Ruby’s bed, leaned over it, and pulled the blinds up. Light washed over the room; the carpet turned from tan to blond, and the walls glowed. “We’re having a warm spell,” she said. The faded floral blooms on Ruby’s sheets were almost translucent as they bore the brunt of all that sun.

I gazed at Ruby’s bed. It was neat; she almost never slept in it. Her pillow was missing, though, and that one small absence made me uneasy.

After Pei-Pei left, I made my way to the window. I sat there trying to adjust my eyes to the light. Outside, at the end of our dirt driveway, were four trash bags, each opaque black and straining with contents I couldn’t fathom. The bags were knotted, dimpling on top, leaning on one another. One had fallen on its side. Soon I would find myself searching for things around the house: my backpack, my coat, my shoes. My mug, which I had chipped against Natty’s mug in a test to see whose was stronger. It began to seem that everything I had ever touched was missing. Or at least the things most familiar to me were gone.

 

Excerpted from The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux May 7th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Chia-Chia Lin. All rights reserved. 

(Photo: F. Yang)
 

Goodnight Stranger
Miciah Bay Gault

In the dimly lit kitchen—only a single bulb over the sink—I watched my brother’s eyes, huge, glassy. “It’s Baby B,” he said. 

The stranger held still as if afraid to break a spell. His eyes moved from me to Lucas. 

“Baby B is dead,” I said. 

“I’ve been dreaming about him every night,” Lucas said. “I could sense him getting closer, and I thought there was something I was supposed to do. But it wasn’t me after all. You were the one who had to bring him here.” 

“He’s a stranger, Lu. I met him tonight at the inn.”

“Then how do you explain this?” Lucas pointed at Cole’s ankle—at a small tattoo I hadn’t noticed. “Lady’s Slipper.”

We both looked at Cole. “I got that when I was twenty-one,” he said.

“Why that particular flower?” I asked.

“Why? Because it’s beautiful, and rare. And it was someone’s favorite flower—someone I loved—sorry, what is going on? Who’s Baby B?” A flush had risen from his neck to his cheeks. His eyes black, bright.

“He was our brother,” I said. “Sorry, maybe it’s time for you to go.”

“No,” Lucas said. “Don’t go! Here, sit down. I’ll get a beer for you, and we’ll tell you about Baby B. We’ll tell you the whole story.”

It was disorienting to see Lucas talking with a stranger, Lucas who sometimes couldn’t even say hi to Eddie, or the Grendles, or Jim Cardoza, people he’d known his whole life. I felt dizzy, as if the room were tilting around me. 

“I’m always up for a story,” Cole said, sitting at the table. Lucas popped the tab on a PBR, and set it in front of Cole. 

“I need to sit, too,” I said, and they pulled out a chair for me. 

We were up until dawn, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that Lucas talked most of that time. It was as if something had come uncorked, and stories were pouring out of him. 

“His name was Colin,” Lucas said. “I mean even your name is similar.”

“That’s just a coincidence,” I said.

“Did you feel anything?” Lucas asked me.  “When you first saw each other, I mean? Did you have any idea?”

“I did,” the stranger said. “I felt something right away.” 

“Of course I didn’t feel anything,” I said. “Because there’s nothing to feel.”

“Don’t worry,” Lucas said. “She’s always like this at first.”

“Like what?” I said. But I knew what he meant. Practical—trying to tether him to earth. He resented that. But look what happened when I slipped up, when I forgot myself for one night, tried to bring a stranger home, as if I were someone else, someone without responsibilities. Look how that worked out. I felt my heart beating, felt warmth crawling up the back of my neck, sweat prickling my scalp. 

Just before sunrise, Cole went away down the chilly beach promising to come back the next day. Lucas and I stood on the screened-in porch, watched him disappear down the shore. Just before the second jetty, he stopped and found a stone in the sand, skipped it even though it was too dark to see its skittering path through the water.

“Did you see that?” Lucas said. 

“It doesn’t mean anything. A lot of people skip stones.”

“In that exact place?”

As long as I could remember, Lucas had stopped at the second jetty to skip one stone. For good luck. For Baby B. I never knew why he did it. But in my memory I could see him at all these different ages, five years old, ten years old, eighteen, twenty-five. That same flick of the wrist. Stone after stone. 

Lucas tipped his head back and finished his beer. For some reason neither of us wanted to go to bed. We sat on the porch until the grainy light of dawn made visible the dock and the jetties and the boats in the bay. I looked at Lucas and felt a deep ache in my chest—love swelling to enormous proportions inside my ribs. I loved him so much. I wanted to give him everything he wanted. A brother returned from the dead. Our parents too. If I’d known how to do it, what to sacrifice, I would have without hesitation.

It was ironic that our parents had decided to have children so they wouldn’t be alone when they were old. It turned out they didn’t need to worry about growing old at all. Dad had a heart attack when we were in seventh grade. Mom died eight years later—breast cancer. Ever since: just Lucas and me. Alone on the island, alone in the big house they bought for us. 

Early light crept into the porch where we sat, lighting up the table and chairs, the wicker sofa, chenille blanket, potted plants. Everything was in place, but everything felt different. Bhone Bay was out there doing what it always did, tide creeping out, revealing damp raw sand, black sea weed. The red houseboat was anchored where it always was. The light was the same light. The sound of the bay was the same sound. 

But we felt different now, already revised in some indefinable way.  How amazing the change one day can bring, one chance meeting.  Or—maybe not so amazing after all. After all we’d spent a lifetime longing for something—or someone—we could never have. That longing had created a space in us, in our lives, and Cole, in ways I didn’t yet understand, seemed to fit into that space, fill it like a missing puzzle piece.

 

Excerpted from Goodnight Stranger by Miciah Bay Gault. Copyright © 2019 by Miciah Bay Gault. Use with permission from Park Row Books/HarperCollins. 

(Photo: Daryl Burtnett)
 

In West Mills
De’Shawn Charles Winslow

In October of ’41, Azalea Centre’s man told her that he was sick and tired of West Mills and of the love affair she was having with moonshine. Azalea—everyone called her Knot—reminded him that she was a grown woman.

“Stop tellin’ me how old you is,” Pratt said.

“Well, I thought maybe you forgot,” Knot retorted. She was sitting at her kitchen table, pulling bobby pins from her copper-red hair. She picked up her glass and finished what was left in it. She had barely set it back on the table when Pratt picked it up and threw it against the wall. He then packed all his clothes in the old suitcase he’d brought when he moved into her little house a few years back.

“I’m gettin’ outta here,” he affirmed.

“Need some help packin’?” Knot shot back, and she laughed. It wasn’t the first time Pratt had packed that ragged bag. He stared at her, frowning.

“Drink ya’self to death, if that’s what you want to do.”

“Go to hell, Pratt.”

“I’m leavin’ hell!” he yelled.

A few days later, Knot came home and found a folded note peeping out from under her door. First, she looked down at the signature. When she saw Pratt Shepherd at the bottom, she took a chilled glass from her icebox, poured a drink, and sat down to look over the message. She read most of it. It said that Pratt was at his sister’s house, just across the lane. Knot wasn’t surprised. Pratt’s sister and her two little girls were the only family he had in West Mills.

In the letter, Pratt reminded her that he still loved her, still wanted to marry her, and still wanted to start a family with her. He wrote that he would wait around for just one week. Then he was going back home to Tennessee. That’s where Knot stopped reading. She laughed out loud, tossed the paper onto the table, and set her glass down on it. Funny—it was usually the books she used to teach her pupils that got the wet glass.

Knot would be lying if she told anyone that Pratt wasn’t a good man. He didn’t mind hard work, he picked up after himself, he kept his body nice and clean, and he knew how to give her joy in bed. But the truth was Pratt wasn’t much fun to her otherwise. He didn’t have much to talk about. And he couldn’t hold his liquor to save his life. After two drinks Pratt was laid out, spilling over, or both. Knot liked men who could match her shot for shot, keep her mind busy when they weren’t drunk, and still do all the other things Pratt could do. Aside from all that, her father—she called him Pa—wouldn’t like Pratt. If she were ever going to be married, it would have to be a man her pa loved just as much as she did.

Pratt’s threat to leave West Mills could not have come with better timing, because Knot’s twenty-seventh birthday was a week around the corner. When the weekend came, she walked down the lane—two houses to the left of her house—to tell her good friend Otis Lee Loving all about her newfound freedom. And since Knot visited him most Saturday mornings, and knew he would be in the kitchen, she didn’t bother knocking.

“You need to go on over there and fix things up with Pratt,” Otis Lee said. “Otherwise, he gon’ be on the next thing headed west.” Otis Lee set a cup of black coffee on the table in front of Knot; his face was angry-looking and peach. He didn’t sit down. Just then, his wife, Pep, showed up at the table with a boiled egg and a biscuit, all inside the cracked, sand-colored bowl Knot wished they would throw away.

“Pratt can catch the next thing to hell,” Knot replied. 

Pep pushed the bowl in front of Knot, next to the coffee.

She didn’t sit down, either. Knot looked up at them and wondered what the day’s lecture would be about.

“Eat,” Pep commanded. Even at seven o’clock in the morning, her round face looked full and healthy, as though she had slept on a pillow made of air. Not the rough, feather-stuffed pillows Knot used.

“I thought I left my mama in Ahoskie,” Knot scoffed. “Y’all got anything I can pour in this coffee? Something ’sides milk, I mean.”

“Why you so set on bein’ lonely, Knot?” Otis Lee asked.

Pep looked down at Otis Lee as though he had gone off script. And he looked up at Pep as if to say, I couldn’t help myself. The way he and Pep stood there, side by side, made them look more like a boy and his mother than a husband and his wife. Why the two of them behaved so much like old people, Knot never understood. They were only five years older than she was. For Knot, it was Otis Lee’s being happily married, being too short, and old-man ways that ruined the handsomeness she’d seen on him when they’d first met. And that handsomeness, as striking as it was, had never caused the feeling Knot got deep in her stomach when she met a man she wanted to touch, or be touched by, in the dim light of her oil lamp.

“Y’all know he tried to beat me, don’t ya?”

Otis Lee and Pep both sighed, at the same time. Knot wondered if they had rehearsed it.

“You sit to my table and tell that tale?” Otis Lee reproached. Then he began with his You know good’n well this and You know good’n well that. At times like these Knot had to work hard to keep her cool. Because if she didn’t, she might tell Otis Lee that if he spent more time worrying about his own life, and his own family, he might know that the woman he knew as his mother, wasn’t; she was kin but not his mother. If his real mama is anything like mine, better for him if he don’t know. Ain’t none of my business anyhow.

“Tell me one thing,” Knot said. “Why y’all always take his side?”

“It ain’t just about Pratt’s side, Knot,” Otis Lee insisted. “You need to be nicer to everybody ’round here.” Knot heard bits and pieces of what Otis Lee recounted about how her drinking had gotten out of hand; how she seemed to want to be by herself more than anything nowadays—unless she was at Miss Goldie’s Place, of course. Knot started nibbling on the biscuit and then on the egg, trying not to hear all the things she already knew about herself.

Otis Lee turned to Pep and mused, “You remember when she used to go see the children and they mamas, Pep? Used to visit people just ’cause she had time. People used to talk so nice about that, Knot. Thought the world of it. Didn’t they, Pep?”

“Yes, they did,” Pep replied.

Knot dropped the egg back in the bowl and asked, “Ain’t I sittin’ here, visitin’ with ya’ll right now?” Knot was certain they’d both heard her question, although neither of them responded.

“Now folk say you show up to that schoolhouse smellin’ like you bathe in corn liquor,” Otis Lee went on. “That’s ’bout all they sayin’ ’bout you now.”

“What people you talkin’ ’bout, anyhow, Otis Lee?” Knot said. She took a sip of the coffee. It was weak.

“What you mean, ‘what people’?”

“Y’all ain’t got but three or four hundred folk ’round here,” Knot pointed out. “And most of ’em is white folk who don’t know me from a can of bacon grease.”

“Some days you talk like you don’t live right here in this town,” Pep remarked. Knot couldn’t think of anything to say back.

She knew that some if not all of what Otis Lee was saying was true—about people whispering. Many times Knot had noticed how some of the women stopped talking when she came near them at the general store. And at the schoolhouse, she’d been a bit hurt by how some of the people had seemed as if they didn’t want to be seen speaking with her too long when they came to pick up their children. They’d ask how their little ones were doing with their lessons and then hurry off as though Knot had a sickness they didn’t want to catch.

Knot did her job. As much as she hated it, she did it well. No one had complained about her teaching. They couldn’t. So many of the ma’s and pa’s had themselves thanked Knot for the little rhymes and games she’d taught their children to help them divide a number quickly—without using paper and pencil. Or the funny ways she’d taught them odd facts. She remembered asking one of the boys one day, “Sammy Spence, what’s the capital of Iowa?” And once he’d answered correctly, she’d asked, “How you remember to keep the s’s silent?” and Sammy had responded, “My name got s’s, and they both make the s sound. But not for Des Moines, Miss Centre!” And Knot had said, “So you were listening, weren’t you?” And she had rubbed his head. When Knot had first arrived in West Mills, there were some eight-year-olds who couldn’t write their names. Her pa would have been just beside himself about that if she ever told him.

Otis Lee was still lecturing.

“You ain’t gettin’ no younger,” he cautioned. “Pratt love you to death, gal.”

“He left,” Knot said. “I ain’t throw him out.”

“This time,” Pep remarked, and she walked to the basin. “You got somethin’ to say, Penelope?” Knot shot back before realizing that her question would only bring on the second part of the Loving lecture.

Just three months earlier, Pep reminded Knot, she had thrown Pratt out for trying to do something nice.

“All he wanted you to do was stay home from that ol’ juke joint for one Friday night,” Pep recalled.

“But I felt like going,” Knot grumbled.

“He cooked a chicken for ya, child,” Pep said. “This one”—she pointed at Otis Lee—“can’t even boil eggs.”

“I can too boil eggs, Pep,” Otis Lee said. “You know good’n well I—”

“If I come home to a cooked hen,” Pep continued, “I’m gon’ sit with my man and eat.”

“He ask her to read to him, too,” Otis Lee informed his wife. “She tell him, ‘No.’ ”

Pep looked at Knot with shame.

Knot couldn’t deny any of it. It had been his request that she stay home and read to him that irritated her most.

“I read to folks all goddamn week long,” Knot had said to Pratt. “You crazy if you think I’m stayin’ home to read to yo’ big ass.”

“Selfish and stubborn,” he’d called her, shaking his head. And Knot had said, “I’m twenty-six years old. I can be selfish if I feel like it.” And Pratt had said, “Naw, you can’t, neither.” And Knot had yelled back, “Well, get the hell on out my house! Right now! And don’t you come back to my door.” He was back at her door, in her house, and in her bed in less than a day.

Otis Lee’s four-year-old son, Breezy, came scooting down the stairs on his butt. His little face was mashed flat on one side and his hair was full of white lint. He looked as though he’d been working in the cotton fields Miss Noni had told Knot all about. Breezy went and stood between his parents. Pep rubbed his head and pulled him against her thigh.

“Say good morning to Miss Knot,” Otis Lee nudged. And the boy did. Knot was glad Breezy was there to draw some of the attention away from her. She was done picking at the egg and biscuit, and done being picked on.

“You hear anything we just say to you, Knot?” Otis Lee asked.

Knot wiped her hands on the damp rag that was on the table.

“I thank y’all kindly for the breakfast. I’ll be goin’ on home now.”

“Go on over there and make things right with Pratt,” Otis Lee demanded. “You hear me?” He was looking at her as though she were a daughter or a sister he couldn’t control. Knot looked at Pep, and Pep turned and went to the icebox.

“The hell I am,” Knot said.

“Ma!” Breezy exclaimed. “Knot say a cussword!”

“I’m Miss Knot, lil boy,” Knot corrected. She couldn’t resist giving the boy a quick tickle on the neck. And she realized that she might be missing her nephews back in Ahoskie. “If yo’ ma and pa don’t let up, I’m gon’ let you hear some more cusswords.”

On her way out, she heard Breezy say, “Pop, Miss Knot got our bowl!”

 

Knot finished eating the egg and biscuit when she got back to her house, while she read a chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop. It was her pa’s favorite book, by his favorite author. And because he had read those big books to her with such joy, Dickens had become her favorite, too. Her pa had read that book to her more than twenty times when she was a small child. He used to sit on the floor next to her bed two or three times a week and read. Sometimes Knot saw specks of his patients’ teeth and blood on his shirts. It would make her mother angry.

“I ain’t got time to worry ’bout keepin’ shirts pretty, Dinah,” her pa would say to her mother. “Them folk be in pain when they come to see me. Half the time, they already tried to snatch the teeth out theyself.”

Knot’s pa shared with her his love for reading, no matter how tired he was. And each time, Knot would hold on to his long, rough goatee so that she would know when he got up. As hard as she would fight sleep, it won the battle every time.

 

On the night of her birthday, Knot spent close to an hour looking at the only five dresses she had liked enough to bring with her from Ahoskie. She modeled each of them for the little mirror on the wall. She had to stand far away from it to see her whole body. And when she walked close to it, most of what she saw was her pa’s V-shaped jaw. He couldn’t deny being my pa even if he wanted to. How many people in Ahoskie got a jawbone like Dr. G. W. Centre?

Knot ruled out the black dress and the white one. The pink one with the white bow,  the green one with the blue trim,  or the plain yellow one had to be the winner. Finally she chose the yellow one. She liked the way it looked next to her skin. Pratt used to tell her it made him think of peanut butter and bananas—something he loved to have on Sunday mornings. The dress was over ten years old, but that worked in Knot’s favor. It showed whatever curves she had, which Pep claimed were starting to go missing.

When the sun went down, Knot dressed up and bundled up. She walked the short distance—less than a quarter mile—to the dead end of Antioch Lane, to Miss Goldie’s barn house juke joint, where Knot knew people would be throwing away the money they should have been saving to buy their Christmas hams if they didn’t have a hog of their own. But with the Depression just behind them, and war hovering, ain’t nothing wrong with folk havin’ a drink or two in the company of other folk who want to have one or two.

 

Going alone to Miss Goldie’s Place reminded Knot of her first few weeks in West Mills, and on Antioch Lane, back in ’36. How nice it was to not have a nagging man looking over her shoulder, counting her drinks, or running off the friendly men she had met since moving there to take the teaching job her pa had arranged for her.

When Knot pulled open the big heavy oak door and stepped inside, the first thing she looked for was Pratt sitting at the piano, playing his tunes. He was nowhere in sight. What am I lookin’ to see if he here for? It’s my birthday. She would have stayed either way.

It wasn’t long before the friendly men started asking Knot unfriendly questions: You done put Pratt down again, Knot? And: Knot, is it true you plum’ put a piece of glass to Pratt’s neck? To some of the questions, Knot declared, “That’s a damn lie!” To other questions she replied, “That ain’t none of yo’ goddamn business.”

Knot left their tables and found company with the few men who didn’t know her name yet. And there was one, a young one, standing at the end of the counter. He was tall, just the way Knot liked them. He just might be the tallest man I ever stood close to. Pratt had held the record for the tallest and the stockiest. But this fellow was tall and slim.

Valley, Knot’s buddy who poured drinks at Miss Goldie’s Place, told Knot he was too busy to help her court. If she wanted to know who the young fellow was, she had better go and ask him herself, Valley said.

“And if he don’t seem interested in you, s—”

“Send him over to you?” Knot finished, knowing Valley’s taste in men.

“Yes, ma’am,” he whispered, and smiled.

“You ain’t gon’ be satisfied ’til you put yo’ mark on every man west of the canal,” Knot said. She and Valley laughed. Then he reminded her, first, that he hadn’t had any luck thus far and, second, that she’d promised to make him one of her famous Antioch Lane bread puddings before he was to leave to go out of town again. “Don’t start in with me about that damn puddin’, Val. If I do make it, I want my dollar—just like everybody else gives me for it.”

“I always pay you,” Valley said. “I don’t know what ya talkin’ ’bout.”

“You want me to go home and get my ledger?” Knot countered. Valley smiled and rolled his eyes.

Miss Goldie was sitting about midway along the bar, wearing overalls and a man’s shirt. She was smoking a pipe. Unlike most pipes Knot had seen the people of West Mills puffing on, Miss Goldie’s didn’t look as though it had been carved out of wood by a five-year-old. It was a nice pipe. Probably ordered it from Europe or somewhere.

Next to Miss Goldie was Milton Guppy, sitting there glaring at Knot as he always did. Knot never understood how he had gotten such a strange last name. The glares, however, weren’t a mystery to her. The teaching job her pa had set up for her had belonged to a Mrs. Guppy. And when Mrs. Guppy had been dismissed, she also dismissed herself from her marriage, taking her and her husband’s four-year-old son with her. No one knew where the two of them had gone, since she was rumored to have had no family to speak of. The mean looks Mr. Guppy gave Knot whenever she saw him—sometimes Knot thought he was even growling—were enough to let her know he hadn’t gotten over it. She sympathized. But it wasn’t my fault! I ain’t make her run off.

After a few months of Guppy’s glares, Knot had walked up to him once, up-bridge at the general store, and said, “If you got somethin’ to say, go ’head and say it and get it over with. I probably done heard it from other folk, anyway.” And Guppy had said, “I don’t b’lee I will, Miss Centre. Don’t want to make ya late for yo’ teachin’. Wouldn’t dare keep the good teacher ’way from the good teachin’ job she come here and steal.” And Knot had said, “I’m gon’ tell you the same thing I tell everybody else who got a problem with me being up at that schoolhouse.” And after she did, she’d told him, “Now you can go to hell.” She had left the general store without the hard candy she had planned to buy for the children.

Tonight, at Miss Goldie’s Place, Knot gave Guppy a Don’t look at me stare. She could tell by the evil look on his face that he must have already lost his week’s pay at the dice table.

Miss Goldie looked irritable, studying Knot and Valley. Finally, she cleared her throat in a loud This is for y’all to hear way. Knot knew Miss Goldie was watching every move in the building, and she didn’t like it when her workers carried on long conversation when they should have been refilling jars and glasses and collecting nickels and dimes.

Knot finished her first drink—it was her third, if she counted the two she’d had at home—and she danced over to that young man at the end of the bar.

“Tell me one thing,” Knot said to him. He was standing there in a suit. Lord, the man wore the whole suit to the juke joint. Whether it was navy blue or black, Knot couldn’t be sure. “You think yo’ people know you snuck out they house yet?”

“Well, if I had snuck out,” he replied, standing straight and putting his hands in his pockets, “they wouldn’t be able to find me. I’m a long way from home.” He didn’t sound anything like she would expect from a man of his height. He sounded as if nature had gotten tired and quit working halfway through his change of voice when he was a growing boy.

“I figured that part out already,” Knot said. And it wasn’t just the sharp suit that had given it away. His haircut can’t be more’n a day old. And he got the nerve to have a part shaved there on the side. Menfolk in West Mills don’t wear parts in they heads. Knot said, “I hear the North on ya’ tongue. Where’s home?”

“Wilmington,” he answered. “Wilmington,  Delaware.

“I know where Wilmington is, thank you,” Knot retorted, and she wondered how she’d had all that schooling without learning there was more than one Wilmington—one other than in North Carolina.

She looked at him for as long as she could without feeling simpleminded. With teeth as straight and white as his, and with him not having a single razor bump on his chin, she was sure he wasn’t more than twenty years old.

“You can’t be more than nineteen, twenty,” Knot guessed aloud. He showed her a sly smile. I’ll be damned if he ain’t got dimples to go ’long with that grin. Shit, I don’t know if I ought to slap him or kiss him.

“People usually ask me what my name is by now,” he said.

Knot was about to tell him that she didn’t care what people usually wanted from him, but his eyebrows caught her attention. His eyebrows were so thick and neat against his smooth, black forehead, Knot wondered, If I stick the edge of a butter knife under the corner of one of ’em, would I be able to peel it off whole?

“Well, go ’head and tell me your name, then,” Knot said. He came closer to her, and she looked up at him.

“It’s William. And you guessed my age pretty close. I’m almost twen—”

“Buy me a drink, Delaware William. It’s my birthday.” Knot turned toward Valley and shouted, “Pour me what I like! This here fella’s gon’ give you the nickel.”

“William,” Delaware William corrected.

“Forgive me,” Knot said to him. And to Valley she said, “Delaware William’s gon’ give you the nickel.” When she looked back up at Delaware William, he was smiling again and shaking his head.

Valley came to the end of the bar where Knot was standing. With his finger, he signaled Knot to lean in. “Ain’t you got somewhere to be in the mornin’?”

“You ever hear tell of me not showing up?” Valley sucked his teeth. Knot said, “I didn’t think so. And I’ll thank you kindly to get me my drink. My damn birthday’ll be over, foolin’ with you.”

Valley fanned his bar rag at Knot. “You just as crazy as you can be, Knot Centre.”

“What was that he just called you?” Delaware William asked.

After Knot decided she wasn’t going answer him, she looked him up and down.

“My name’s Azalea.” And after he showed her a confused look, she said, “What’s ya business in West Mills, Delaware William?”

“I’m just William,” he said politely. “William Pe—” “What’s ya business here in West Mills, is what I asked,” Knot interrupted.

“We just stopped to rest. On our way back up from Georgia. Played some gigs down there for a few months.”

When she asked him to explain the we, he pointed to another young man who sat at a table with the pastor’s daughter. Knot was certain the girl had snuck out of the house. Without a doubt, it wouldn’t be long before the girl would give the young man what he wanted. Knot could tell by the way she was giggling. If the girl was anything like Knot was as a teenager, Knot knew how the night would end. And that young man would be leaving town soon after.

Knot, figuring she didn’t have more than a few hours with Delaware William, finished her drink in three swallows. Then she and Delaware William left, kissing and feeling on each other the whole walk back to her house. Between the heavy petting, she caught a few glimpses of the full moon. It was like an usher leading the way down an aisle.

“Looks like we’re in some damn slaves’ quarters or something,” Delaware William remarked. Knot couldn’t argue with him about that, even if she were sober. She had thought the same thing when she first moved to West Mills and rented the little house from a man named Pennington. According  to Otis Lee and Miss Noni, Riley Pennington—Otis Lee’s boss—was a descendant of the line of Penningtons who had once owned the whole town, which, in those days, had been called Pennington, North Carolina. It didn’t change names until a man from Maine named Leland Edgars Sr. and his two sons—Miss Noni said they were both tall and handsome with long, pitch-black ponytails—moved to town with a bunch of Northern money. They bought up a bunch of land with trees and opened a mill on the west side of the canal, causing people to refer to the whole town as West Mills. And now, aside from the one large farm, the Penningtons owned only an acre here and an acre there.

“Used to be,” Knot said, and that was all she felt like telling him. “Now that you got ya history lesson, shut up and kiss me some more.”

When they arrived in front of her house, that same moonlight that had led them there showed her that Pratt Shepherd was sitting on her porch. He sat there as though he had been one of the first Penningtons.

“Young fella,” Pratt called out, “best if you turn around. Head on back up the lane so I can talk to Knot.”

Delaware William had his arm around Knot’s shoulder, and she felt it slide away. Knot leaned into him—she might have fallen over otherwise.

“Well, sir,” Delaware William said, “I didn’t hear her say she wants to talk to—”

“I used to know a boy that look something like you,” Pratt cut in. He stood to his feet. “Got his face cut up for walkin’ another man’s wife home. They cut that fella’s face up real bad. Right here on this lane.”

Knot didn’t get a chance to tell Delaware William that Pratt was no one to be afraid of; he had turned around and hightailed it back down the lane toward Miss Goldie’s Place. When Knot turned back around to face Pratt, he was sitting again.

“I’m gon’ count to ten . . . or eleven,” she slurred, steadying herself in front of the porch and placing her hands on her hips. “When I get through countin’, you best be off my damn porch or I’m gon’ have to hurt ya.”

“What? You got a gun, or somethin’?” Pratt taunted.

“Did you hear me say I got a gun?” Knot shot back. “I might, though.”

“Sit down, Knot. Sit on down here ’fore you fall and crack that lil head of your’n?” He patted the porch two times.

Knot spit on the ground and said, “My new man’ll come back and crack yo’ head open to the white meat.”

“Who?” Pratt asked. “The one that just run off? He ain’t even stay long enough for me to tighten my fist.”

Knot turned and looked down the lane. Delaware William may as well have been a ghost. Pratt, she discovered when she turned to him once more, looked as though he would die if he held his laugh in any longer. And once he let the laugh go—he slapped his knees, too—Knot said, “Go to hell, Pratt.”

She sat on the porch next to him and their shoulders touched.

“Happy Birthday, darlin’.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She swatted him away, but she was so glad he was there; something was stirring around inside her and she was in the mood for a man’s company.

Pratt pulled her close to him. She liked the way her ear felt against his fleshy chest. A whiff of his clean breath relaxed her. Pratt’s breath smelled as though he had chewed on mint leaves all day instead of just after dinner, as he usually did. Knot figured she would let him kiss her, knowing he’d happily join her inside the house, where he would make her feel good under the quilt. Hell, it’s my birthday.

In the doorway, Pratt kissed her face and neck. And before she knew it, they were on the bed they had been sharing, off and on, for two years. She didn’t know what it was, but it seemed as though his touch was different, better than before. “Feel like you grew some more hands,” she whispered in his ear before softly biting his earlobe. Did he put butter on his lips? She had never known his lips to feel as soft as they felt tonight. She enjoyed their new softness even more when Pratt kissed the insides of her thighs and moved up to her shiver spot.

Pratt laid his large body on top of hers. She imagined a giant pillow. As big—with just the right amount of heavy—as he was, that night he was a nice cloud hovering over her, making love to her. Knot knew she would certainly be hoarse in the morning.

Lord, have mercy.

When they were done, Knot lay there wishing Pratt would fall asleep so she could have one more drink. That jar is whistlin’ for me. But after all Pratt had just done for her, she didn’t want to spoil it.

The Dickens book was on the floor next to her headboard, so she decided to read for as long as her eyes would allow. But it sure would be nice to have a cool glass with a splash in it while I read. Damn! Pratt was wide-awake on the other side of the bed, picking with his toenails.

The next morning when Knot woke up, she lay there thinking about how she hadn’t gotten to do what she had wanted—in my own house. She nudged Pratt until he was awake.

“What is it?” he mumbled. He had one eye open, one eye shut.

“Get up!” Knot exclaimed.

“What for?”

“Get up and get the hell on outta my house.” And after he was dressed and about to walk out, she said, “And don’t darken my doorway. Never no mo’.”

“Azalea!”

“Gone!” she yelled, before slamming the door and making the drink she had wanted the night before.

 

Excerpted from In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. Copyright © 2019 by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. 

(Photo: Julie R. Keresztes)
page_5: 

The Travelers
Regina Porter

Bessie Coleman was the first woman Eloise Delaney loved—before she knew love meant anything. There is a rectangular photograph cropped from the Buckner County Register, a local Negro paper, of Coleman standing atop the left tire of her Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. Her gloved right hand hugs the cockpit. She is decked out in tailored aviation gear and stares directly into the camera. The photograph is at least thirty years old and dates back to 1926, the year of the brown aviatrix’s untimely death, but for Eloise’s parents the crash might have happened yesterday. They were the town drunks and time played on them murky.

“Man wasn’t meant to have wings,” Herbert Delaney said.

“Wasn’t that a play or something?” Delores Delaney snapped her fingers. “All God’s Chillun Got Wings”?

Herbert shrugged. “She getting ahead of herself. Wanting to take flight.”

“What you saying, Herbert?” Delores Delaney kissed her husband’s long thin hands. “You saying God wanted her plane to crash? God wanted Bessie to die?”

“Well, He sure as hell didn’t want her to live. Otherwise, that damn plane wouldn’t have malfunctioned.”

 

Bessie Coleman’s plane had crashed during a barnstorming exhibition in Orlando, Florida. Delores Delaney liked to brag that she stood right smack-dab in the middle of the crowd the morning “Brave Bessie” was catapulted two thousand feet to the ground, but Eloise knew better than to place stock in anything a drunk said, especially when that drunk was her mother.

Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from her childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.

Eloise’s parents worked at the seafood-processing factory two miles out of town. They had grown up shucking oysters and picking crabs and gutting fish. Getting paid for doing something that was second nature to them was like being given money to go on vacation. They could pick crabs with their eyes shut and lose nothing in speed. Sometimes their anxious fingers moved in their sleep, discarding the dead man and the pregnant she-crab belly and flicking out the tender white meat. Every so often, the manager of the seafood factory was forced to make an example of Herbert and Delores for coming to work inebriated or late or not at all. He would let them sweat their imbibing out and Eloise would go hungry until they managed to sidle back through the factory door.

The seafood factory was situated in a warehouse overlooking a salt marsh. When the picking season was high, Herbert and Delores would take their daughter to work with them. She would peer out the tall windows at the herons and seagulls and pelicans and ospreys and charcoal-black cormorants scouring the marsh for feed.

 

Excerpted from The Travelers by Regina Porter. Copyright © 2019 by Regina Porter. Published by Hogarth Books.

(Photo: Liz Lazarus)

First Fiction 2018

by

Staff

6.13.18

For our eighteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2018 issue of the magazine for interviews between R. O. Kwon and Celeste Ng, Fatima Farheen Mirza and Garth Greenwell, Jamel Brinkley and Danielle Evans, Katharine Dion and Adam Haslett, and Tommy Orange and Claire Vaye Watkins. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

The Incendiaries (Riverhead, July) by R. O. Kwon
A Place for Us (SJP for Hogarth, June) by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, May) by Jamel Brinkley
The Dependents (Little, Brown, June) by Katharine Dion
There There (Knopf, June) by Tommy Orange

The Incendiaries
by R. O. Kwon 
 

It was past the time the march should have begun, and people were losing patience. I’ll give it five minutes, then I’m calling it quits, a man said. Placards leaned against a building wall. I saw John Leal talking to people I didn’t recognize. With a nod, he stepped on an upended crate. His mouth moved. In that hubbub, I couldn’t pick out his words. Phoebe apologized again, tearful. It’s all right, I said, but she had more she wanted to explain. It’s fine, I said. Hoping she’d calm down, I kissed Phoebe’s head. I was intent on listening to John Leal’s speech: I was curious what his effect would be with this large an audience, if they’d respond as we did. He lifted his head, pitching his voice.

. . . hands splashed with blood, he said. We’re all here this Saturday morning, and I know I don’t need to tell you the truth that an unborn child has a heartbeat before it’s a month old. I don’t have to tell you that, within the first three months of fetal life, a human infant’s strong enough to grip a hand. But I’m not sure if it’s done much good, all this truth. What point it’s had, if you and I aren’t saving lives.
 

Excepted from The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon.

(Photo: Smeeta Mahanti)

A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza 

Amar was the one they loved the most. He was the one whose picture Mumma kept in her wallet behind her license. Him smiling with a toothless grin. Mumma ran her fingers through his hair as if it nourished her. A painting he did of a boat on the ocean was tacked above Baba’s office desk when she visited him at work. Once Hadia spent an entire afternoon counting the faces in the framed pictures, and Amar had beaten them all by seven. Hadia and Huda were a two-for-one deal: if there was a framed picture of them, they were likely together. Mumma served food for Amar first, and then Baba, and she always asked Amar if he wanted seconds. She was not even aware of doing it. Hadia’s daily chore was washing the dishes and Huda’s was sweeping. If Amar was asked to help, the two of them would shout and cheer to mark the day. Sometimes this made Hadia so angry that if she was left in charge of the cleaning while Mumma and Baba were out, she would delegate everything to Amar. He was the only one Mumma had a nickname for. His favorite ice cream flavor was always stocked in the fridge; if Hadia helped unload the groceries and saw a pistachio and almond carton, she reminded Baba that Amar was the only one of them who ate that flavor.

“You don’t love it too?” Baba would ask her distractedly, every time.

“No,” she’d say quietly, thinking there was no point in correcting him at all.

Once, only once, had she confronted her mother about this, after her mother had taken his side during a fight that he was clearly to blame for.

“You love him more,” she had shouted. “You love him more than all of us.”

“Don’t be silly.” Her mother was calm, as if she was bored by Hadia’s tantrum. “You think about him more. What he needs and what he wants.” Hadia had turned to run back into her room. “We worry about him more,” her mother had called after her, so gently that Hadia had wanted to believe her. “We don’t have to worry about you.”

She had sniffled, and locked her bedroom door, embarrassed by her outburst. She plotted to do something that would make her parents worry about her, as if their worry would prove the depth of their love. But she was afraid. They had endless patience for Amar’s antics. She feared the only thing worse than wondering if they loved him more was testing their patience, proving it to be thin, and knowing for certain.

They loved Hadia because she did well. Her grades were good and her teachers said kind things about her. She was not sure if Baba would even notice her at all, if she did not work hard to distinguish herself academically. The only compliment Mumma ever gave her was that when Hadia cleaned the stove, it always sparkled.

“Even I can’t clean like that,” Mumma would say. And there would be actual awe in her voice, and Hadia would never know if she should feel glad for the compliment, or annoyed that it was the only thing that Mumma valued enough to note.

Amar was their son. Even the word son felt like something shiny and golden to her, like the actual sun that reigned over their days.

Baba would sometimes say to Hadia, “One day you’ll live with your husband. You’ll care for his parents. You’ll forget about us.”

It was meant as a joke, “you’ll forget about us,” or “we will no longer be responsible for you.” But it was never funny.

“Amar will take care of us, right, Ami?” Mumma would squeeze his cheeks. Amar would nod.

“Why can’t I?” she would say.

“Because the role of the daughter is to go off, to make her own home, to take her husband’s name—daughters are never really ours,” Baba would tell her.

But I want to be yours, she’d want to say. I want to be yours or just my own.

“I won’t take anyone’s name,” she’d vow aloud, but he would have stopped listening.

Everyone important was a boy. The Prophets and the Imams had been men. The moulana was always a man. Jonah got to be swallowed by the whale. Joseph was given the colorful coat and the powerful dreams. Noah knew the flood was coming. Whereas Noah’s wife was silly and drowned. Eve was the first to reach for the fruit. But Hadia liked to keep her examples close. It was Moses’s sister who had the clever idea to put him in the basket, and the Pharaoh’s wife who had the heart to pull him from the river. It was Bibi Mariam who was given the miracle of Jesus. Bibi Fatima was the only child the Prophet had and the Prophet never lamented the lack of a son. And she liked to think that there was a reason that one of the first things the Prophet ever did was forbid the people of Quraysh from burying their newborn daughters alive. But still, hundreds and hundreds of years had passed, and it was still the son they cherished, the son their pride depended on, the son who would carry their name into the next generation.

Excerpted from A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Copyright © 2018 by Fatima Farheen Mirza. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by SJP for Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

(Photo: Gregg Richards)

 

A Lucky Man
by Jamel Brinkley 

James kept busy at the security desk now, doing the work of both men while Lincoln sat there with his stomach on his lap. He felt a sort of bond with James now, a familiar gratitude. But one gets sick and tired of saying thank you. When he was engaged to Alexis, and during their first years of marriage, his friends would also tell him how lucky he was, but this was said as a joke. Lincoln would say thank you and agree, would tell them how grateful he was for her, but this wasn’t true. He deserved her—this was what he believed, and he knew this was what his friends believed in. A man of a kind should get what he deserves, and if a man like him couldn’t get a woman like her, then something was terribly wrong with the world.

James snipped withered leaves from the spider plants, a thing he’d never done before. Do her friends tell her she’s lucky? Lincoln wondered. Has Donna said that to her? Has her mother told her to give thanks for her man? She might be saying it now as they picked plums and nectarines at the fruit market, or sat out on the porch shelling peas. Surely this was foolish thinking, just as foolish as thinking Tameka would spend these years breaking the hearts of any eager Georgetown boy who wasn’t like her father. Lincoln came to understand that this had always been part of his vision for himself, to have children who adored him—a son who resembled and worshipped him, a daughter for whom no other man would ever measure up. This was part of what he couldn’t see before he married. But there was no son, and the years of Tameka’s life had marked his decline.

She had grown up watching it. His professional gambles with the boxing gyms, and the attempts at training and managing, had failed. His charm and stature no longer earned him opportunities, and in New York he had no reputation. He was lucky, he knew, to have his job at Tilden, steady and respectable work, but years ago he and his wife had deserved each other. Time had not treated them equally. Why did he expect otherwise though? With any two people one would get the brunt of it, and time had hit him worse than any beating he’d ever seen in the ring. He felt it had brutalized him. What did his wife think? Alexis had always been kind and supportive, but in her privacy she had to keep thoughts. A long marriage forced you to witness or suffer such brutality. Lincoln wondered, not for the first time, if this was exactly what marriage meant.

Across from the front desk, James pulled the director of security aside. Lincoln couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the discussion had the look of seriousness. He approached, but the director stopped him short with a flat stony hand, which he closed into a fist before lowering. Lincoln went back to his chair.

One day his wife’s looks would go. Creases would line her face, the skin there would loosen and thin, pouches would form under her eyes, maybe little dewlaps like his under the jaw. And her mind, it would start to slip and show weakness too. Everything cracks eventually. But when? How long would it be his good fortune to have her? How long until he could just plain have her again? Her smooth face. Even after all these years he longed for it, to rub his cheek against hers and breathe hot words into her hair—there’d been no diminishment of that feeling. He still had those appetites, and she did too. Yet he also felt the urge to press the sharps of his teeth against her face, to bite down and place the first deep crack in it. When pulled by contrary desires, you often don’t do anything at all. So on evenings and weekends he’d sit at home like a chastened boy, captive to her every small gesture. He didn’t want to lose her.

But Lincoln was a man with luck—yes, he still had it, James had said so and he was right. Good fortune can change in an instant, however, or it might never, but whatever it does has nothing to do with you. For years it had persisted in following him. It went home from work with him, lived with his family, claimed a space between him and his wife in their bed. She still had her light, but his was his luck. If it left him, she would too. No one would blame her. Neither Donna nor her other girlfriends, nor her mother, nor their daughter. Nor James. Maybe James had been wrong earlier. Maybe Lincoln’s luck had already abandoned him—his wife was gone for now, after all. Or maybe Lincoln was the one with wrong notions—maybe, slumped in his chair at the desk, unable to muster the little strength it took to hold in his belly, it was his luck that he was alone with.

Excerpted from A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. Copyright © 2018 by Jamel Brinkley. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

(Photo: Arash Saedinia)

The Dependents
by Katharine Dion

His early forays on the internet had been limited to responding to the emails his daughter sent him and occasionally reading the sensationalistic but nevertheless impossible-to-ignore news stories that appeared on his home page. (He wondered if this was something Dary could tell from the settings—that he clicked on articles such as “Nude Man Accidentally Tasers Self” or “Beano Bandit Apprehended.”) When Dary realized how little  he was using the computer she tried to help him, but the only thing that really stuck with him from her tutorials was this idea that you could ask the internet a question, any question, and it would give you not just one answer but dozens. He found this oddly reassuring because it suggested that somewhere on the other side of the internet connection, back in the human realm, somebody—and possibly a lot of somebodies—had the same semiprivate question that was more comfortable to send through a filtering layer of inhuman data.

Now he typed into the oracle field: “How to write a eulogy.” It was nice, or at least nonjudgmental, he supposed, that the internet assumed nothing about your existing abilities. Maybe you were a human willing to exert some effort, or maybe you were a half-automaton who needed to pass himself off as acceptably human. If he hadn’t wanted to write the eulogy there were plentiful options: premade templates, preselected themes, inspirational quotations, mournful yet triumphant poems. He was looking for something else, something that wouldn’t give him the shape of the thought, but that would tell him how to begin a process of thinking about the unthinkable.

He opened the top drawer of Maida’s dresser. She had never bothered to match up her socks, mixing them loose among her underwear and bras, and her pantyhose often ended up stretched beyond use or tangled in a knot. How many times had she and Gene been late for some event because on the way she had made him stop at the drugstore to buy a new pair? She would wriggle into it standing beside the car right there in the parking lot, while Gene would lower himself in the front seat, hoping nobody they knew saw them. When she was alive her tendency to make them late had never ceased to frustrate him, but now he looked upon her disorganization with peculiar fondness. Suddenly everything that was hers—the coins that had once been in her pocket, the hour and minute she had last set her alarm—was overburdened with significance. In some mad inversion of time, grieving his wife’s death resembled falling in love.

The most reasonable site he found had been created by an entity who called herself “the Lady in Black.” She said that writing a eulogy was “a personal journey of gathering memories.” She suggested collecting personal items that belonged to the deceased, and “spending time with them until they speak to you—not literally, of course!” Following the Lady in Black’s suggestion, he got up from the computer and went upstairs to the bedroom to find these items.

Excerpted from The Dependents by Katharine Dion. Copyright © 2018 by Katharine Dion. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Terri Loewenthal)
page_5: 

There There
by Tommy Orange

Blood is messy when it comes out. Inside it runs clean and looks blue in tubes that line our bodies, that split and branch like earth’s river systems. Blood is ninety percent water. And like water it must move. Blood must flow, never stray or split or clot or divide—lose any essential amount of itself while it distributes evenly through our bodies. But blood is messy when it comes out. It dries, divides, and cracks in the air.

Native blood quantum was introduced in 1705 at the Virginia Colony. If you were at least half Native, you didn’t have the same rights as white people. Blood quantum and tribal membership qualifications have since been turned over to individual tribes to decide.

In the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein commissioned a Quran to be written in his own blood. Now Muslim leaders aren’t sure what to do with it. To have written the Quran in blood was a sin, but to destroy it would also be a sin.

The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we’re broken. And don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?

When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like “sore losers” and “move on already,” “quit playing the blame game.” But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say “Get over it.” This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed over­board by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agita­tor gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

Excerpted from There There by Tommy Orange. Copyright © 2018 by Tommy Orange. Reprinted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

(Photo: Elena Seibert)

First Fiction 2017

by

Danzy Senna, Mira Jacob, Maggie Nelson, Emily Raboteau, Gary Shteyngart

6.14.17

For our seventeenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2017 issue of the magazine for interviews between Zinzi Clemmons and Danzy Senna, Hala Alyan and Mira Jacob, Jess Arndt and Maggie Nelson, Lisa Ko and Emily Raboteau, and Diksha Basu and Gary Shteyngart. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

What We Lose (Viking, July) by Zinzi Clemmons
Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May) by Hala Alyan
Large Animals (Catapult, May) by Jess Arndt
The Leavers (Algonquin Books, May) by Lisa Ko
The Windfall (Crown, June) by Diksha Basu
 

What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons

My parents’ bedroom is arranged exactly the same as it always was. The big mahogany dresser sits opposite the bed, the doily still in place on the vanity. My mother’s little ring holders and perfume bottles still stand there. On top of all these old feminine relics, my father has set up his home office. His old IBM laptop sits atop the doily, a tangle of cords choking my mother’s silver makeup tray. His books are scattered around the tables, his clothes draped carelessly over the antique wing chair that my mother found on a trip to Quebec.

In the kitchen, my father switches on a small flat-screen TV that he’s installed on the wall opposite the stove. My mother never allowed TV in the kitchen, to encourage bonding during family dinners and focus during homework time. As a matter of fact, we never had more than one television while I was growing up—an old wood-paneled set that lived in the cold basement, carefully hidden from me and visitors in the main living areas of the house.

We order Chinese from the place around the corner, the same order that we’ve made for years: sesame chicken, vegetable fried rice, shrimp lo mein. As soon as they hear my father’s voice on the line, they put in the order; he doesn’t even have to ask for it. When he picks the order up, they ask after me. When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.

My father tells me that he’s been organizing at work, now that he’s the only black faculty member in the upper ranks of the administration.

I notice that he has started cutting his hair differently. It is shorter on the sides and disappearing in patches around the crown of his skull. He pulls himself up in his chair with noticeable effort. He had barely aged in the past twenty years, and suddenly, in the past year, he has inched closer to looking like his father, a stooped, lean, yellow-skinned man I’ve only seen in pictures.

“How have you been, Dad?” I say as we sit at the table.

The thought of losing my father lurks constantly in my mind now, shadowy, inexpressible, but bursting to the surface when, like now, I perceive the limits of his body. Something catches in my throat and I clench my jaw.

My father says that he has been keeping busy. He has been volunteering every month at the community garden on Christian Street, turning compost and watering kale.

“And I’m starting a petition to hire another black professor,” he says, stabbing his glazed chicken with a fire I haven’t seen in him in years.

He asks about Peter.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone you like,” he says.

“Love, Dad,” I say. “We’re in love.”

He pauses, stirring his noodles quizzically with his fork. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asks.

I stare at the food in front of me. It’s the closest thing to comfort food since my mother has been gone. The unique flavor of her curries and stews buried, forever, with her. The sight of the food appeals to me, but the smell, suddenly, is noxious; the wisp of steam emanating from it, scorching.

“Are you all right?”

All of a sudden, I have the feeling that I am sinking. I feel the pressure of my skin holding in my organs and blood vessels and fluids; the tickle of every hair that covers it. The feeling is so disorienting and overwhelming that I can no longer hold my head up. I push my dinner away from me. I walk calmly but quickly to the powder room, lift the toilet seat, and throw up.

From What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, published in July by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Zinzi Clemmons.

(Photo: Nina Subin)

Salt Houses
by Hala Alyan

On the street, she fumbles for a cigarette from her purse and smokes as she walks into the evening. She feels a sudden urge, now that she is outside the apartment, to clear her head. This is her favor­ite thing about the city—the ability it gives you to walk, to literally put space between your body and distress. In Kuwait, nobody walks anywhere.

Mimi lives in a quiet part of the city, mostly residential, with small, pretty apartments, each window like a glistening eye. The streetlamps are made of wrought iron, designs flanking either side of the bulbs. There is a minimalist sense of wealth in the neighborhood, children dressed simply, the women always adjusting scarves around their necks, their hair cut into perfectly symmetrical lines. Souad walks by the manicured lawns of a grammar school, empty and discarded for the summer. Next to it a gray-steepled church. She tries to imagine that, elsewhere, there is smoke and destroyed palaces and men carry­ing guns. It seems impossible.

The night is cool, and Souad wraps her cardigan tightly around her, crosses her arms. A shiver runs through her. She is nervous to see him, a familiar thrill that he always elicits in her. Even before last night.

Le Chat Rouge is a fifteen-minute walk from Mimi’s apartment, but within several blocks the streets begin to change, brownstones and Gothic-style latticework replaced with grungier alleyways, young Algerian men with long hair sitting on steps and drinking beer from cans. One eyes her and calls out, caressingly, something in French. She can make out the words for sweet and return. Bars line the streets with their neon signs and she walks directly across the Quartier Latin courtyard, her shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

“My mother’s going to call tomorrow,” she told Elie yesterday. She wasn’t sure why she said it, but it felt necessary. “They’re taking me to Amman.” In the near dark, Elie’s face was peculiarly lit, the sign making his skin look alien.

“You could stay here,” Elie said. He smiled mockingly. “You could get married.”

Souad had blinked, her lips still wet from the kiss. “Married?” She wasn’t being coy—she truthfully had no idea what Elie meant. Mar­ried to whom? For a long, awful moment, she thought Elie was sug­gesting she marry one of the other Lebanese men, that he was fob­bing her off on a friend in pity.

“Yes.” Elie cocked his head, as though gauging the authenticity of her confusion. He smiled again, kinder this time. He closed his fingers around hers so that she was making a fist and he a larger one atop it. They both watched their hands silently for a few seconds, an awkward pose, more confrontational than romantic, as though he were preventing her from delivering a blow. It occurred to her that he was having a difficult time speaking. She felt her palm itch but didn’t move. Elie cleared his throat, and when he spoke, she had to lean in to hear him.

“You could marry me.”

Now, even in re-creating that moment, Souad feels the swoop in her stomach, her mouth drying. It is a thing she wants in the dark­est, most furtive way, not realizing how badly until it was said aloud. Eighteen years old, a voice within her spoke, eighteen. Too young, too young. And her parents, her waiting life.

But the greater, arrogant part of Souad’s self growled as if wo­ken. Her steps clacked with her want of it. The self swelled trium­phantly—Shame, shame, she admonishes herself, thinking of the war, the invasion, the troops and fire, but she is delighted nonetheless.

From Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2017 by Hala Alyan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Large Animals
by Jess Arndt

In my sleep I was plagued by large animals—teams of grizzlies, timber wolves, gorillas even came in and out of the mist. Once the now extinct northern white rhino also stopped by. But none of them came as often or with such a ferocious sexual charge as what I, mangling Latin and English as usual, called the Walri. Lying there, I faced them as you would the inevitable. They were massive, tube-shaped, sometimes the feeling was only flesh and I couldn’t see the top of the cylinder that masqueraded as a head or tusks or eyes. Nonetheless I knew I was in their presence intuitively. There was no mistaking their skin; their smell was unmistakable too, as was their awful weight.

During these nights (the days seemed to disappear before they even started) I was living two miles from a military testing site. In the early morning and throughout the day the soft, dense sound of bombs filled the valley. It was comforting somehow. Otherwise I was entirely alone.

This seemed a precondition for the Walri—that I should be theirs and theirs only. on the rare occasion that I had an overnight visitor to my desert bungalow the Walri were never around. Then the bears would return in force, maybe even a large local animal like a mountain lion or goat, but no form’s density came close to walrusness. So I became wary and stopped inviting anyone out to visit at all.

The days, unmemorable, had a kind of habitual slide. I would wake up with the sun and begin cleaning the house. No matter how tightly I’d kept the doors shut the day before, dust and sand and even large pieces of mineral rock seemed to shove  their way inside. I swept these into piles. Then the dishes that I barely remembered dirtying—some mornings it was as if the whole artillery of pots and pans had been used in the night by someone else—then the trash (again always full), then some coffee. Eight o’clock.

This work done, I sat in various chairs in the house following the bright but pale blades of light. I was drying out. oh, an LA friend said somewhat knowingly, from the booze? But I had alcohol with me, plenty of it. It wasn’t that. I moved as if preprogrammed. only later did I realize that my sleep was so soggy that it took strong desert sun to unshrivel me and since it was the middle of winter and the beams were perforce slanted, I’d take all of it I could find.

For lunch I got in my car and drove into town, to the empty parking lot of Las Palmas. There were many Mexican joints along the highway that also functioned as Main Street. I hadn’t bothered to try them out. Las Palmas, with its vacant booths, dusty cacti, and combination platter lunch special for $11.99 including $4 house margarita, was fine.

A waitress named Tamara worked there. She seemed like the only one. She wasn’t my type—so tall she bent over herself and a bona fide chain-smoker. Sometimes to order you’d have to exit your booth and find her puffing outside. A friend who had borrowed the bungalow before I did told me about Tamara and so if I had a crush at all it was an inherited one that even came with inherited guilt—from having taken her on once he could no longer visit her. Regardless, we barely spoke.

I had things I was supposed to be doing, more work than I could accomplish even if I
duct-taped my fists to my laptop, but none of it seemed relevant to my current state. In the afternoons I drove back home slowly, always stopping for six-packs of beer at the Circle K. I enjoyed the task. The beer evaporated once I stuck it in my fridge—it was there and then, it was gone.

My sleeping area was simple: a bed on a plywood platform. A wooden dresser. Built-in closets and a cement floor. At first  I would wake up in the night from the sheer flattening silence of the desert. It was impossible that the world still existed elsewhere. After that initial jolt, relief.

Don’t you miss it? my same friend said during our weekly telephone chats. But I couldn’t explain the euphoria of walking up and down the chilly aisles of Stater Bros. In week-old sweatpants if I wanted, uncounted by life. Would I buy refried or whole beans? This brand or that? It didn’t matter, no one cared.

It was in these conditions that the Walri arrived.

* * * 

I’d slept as usual for the first few hours, heavily, in a kind of coma state. Then had woken, I thought to pee. But lying there with the gritty sheets braided around me, the violet light that was created from the fly zapper, the desert cold that was entering through the gaps and cracks in the fire’s absence—I felt a new form of suffocation.

It wasn’t supernatural. I’d also had that. The sense of someone’s vast weight sitting on the bed with you or patting your body with ghostly hands. This breathless feeling was larger, as if I was uniformly surrounded by mammoth flesh.

Dream parts snagged at me. Slapping sounds and hose-like alien respiration. I felt I was wrestling within inches of what must be—since I couldn’t breathe—the end of my life. Now the lens of my dream panned backward and I saw my opponent in his entirety.

He lay (if that’s what you could call it) on my bed, thick and wrinkled, the creases in his hide so deep I could stick my arms between them. His teeth were yellow and as long as my legs.

“I’m sexually dormant,” I said aloud to him. “But I want to put my balls in someone’s face.”

Then somehow light was peeling everything back for dawn.

From Large Animals. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2017 by Jess Arndt.

(Photo: Johanna Breiding)

The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. “What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.”

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. “Did you get off work early?” It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn’t usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. “Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment.” Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn’t tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn’t call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and slow laughter warming the thin February air. “I don’t want you to be like that,” she said. “I don’t want you to be like me. I didn’t even finish eighth grade.”

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was. “I’ll come to your school tomorrow,” his mother said, “talk to your teacher about that assignment.” He kept his arm against his mother’s, loved the scratchy sound of their jackets rubbing together. She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street. Inside her gloves her hands were red and scraped, the skin angry and peeling, and every night before she went to sleep she rubbed a thick lotion onto her fingers and winced. Once he asked if it made them hurt less. She said only for a little while, and he wished there was a special lotion that could make new skin grow, a pair of superpower gloves.

Short and blocky, she wore loose jeans—never had he seen her in a dress—and her voice was so loud that when she called his name dogs would bark and other kids jerked around. When she saw his last report card he thought her shouting would set off the car alarms four stories below. But her laughter was as loud as her shouting, and there was no better, more gratifying sound than when she slapped her knees and cackled at something silly. She laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny, like TV dramas and the swollen orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them, or, better yet, at things Deming said, like when he nailed the way their neighbor Tommie always went, “Not bad-not bad-not bad” when they passed him in the stairwell, an automatic response to a “Hello-how-are-you” that hadn’t yet been issued. Or the time she’d asked, flipping through TV stations, “Dancing with the Stars isn’t on?” and he had excavated Michael’s old paper mobile of the solar system and waltzed with it through the living room as she clapped. It was almost as good as getting cheered on by his friends.

When he had lived in Minjiang with his grandfather, Deming’s mother had explored New York by herself. There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled. She jiggled her legs, bounced her knees, cracked her knuckles, twirled her thumbs. She hated being cooped up in the apartment on a sunny day, paced the rooms from wall to wall to wall, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “Who wants to go for a walk?” she would say. Her boyfriend Leon would tell her to relax, sit down. “Sit down? We’ve been sitting all day!” Deming would want to stay on the couch with Michael, but he couldn’t say no to her and they’d go out, no family but each other. He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside—a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. “To bagels?” she said. “What flavor bagel?” “Everything bagels,” he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.

A bus lumbered past, spraying slush. The walk sign flashed on. “You know what I did today?” his mother said. “One lady, she had a callus the size of your nose on her heel. I had to scrape all that dead skin off. It took forever. And her tip was shit. You’ll never do that, if you’re careful.”

He dreaded this familiar refrain. His mother could curse, but the one time he’d let motherfucker bounce out in front of her, loving the way the syllables got meatbally in his mouth, she had slapped his arm and said he was better than that. Now he silently said the word to himself as he walked, one syllable per footstep.

“Did you think that when I was growing up, a small girl your age, I thought: hey, one day, I’m going to come all the way to New York so I can pick gao gao out of a stranger’s toe? That was not my plan.”

Always be prepared, she liked to say. Never rely on anyone else to give you things you could get yourself. She despised laziness, softness, people who were weak. She had few friends, but was true to the ones she had. She could hold a fierce grudge, would walk an extra three blocks to another grocery store because, two years ago, a cashier at the one around the corner had smirked at her lousy English. It was lousy, Deming agreed.

From The Leavers. Printed by permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Ko.

(Photo: Bartosz Potocki)
page_5: 

The Windfall
by Diksha Basu

The following week, on an unusually overcast September day, Mr. Jha pulled into the quiet lane of his new Gurgaon home. He had never been here by himself, he realized. Mrs. Jha was usually with him, and this summer Rupak had come with them a few times, and there were all the contractors and painters and builders buzzing around, working. He had never really appreciated the silence and the greenery before. Gurgaon felt still while the rest of Delhi throbbed.

The air was heavy with heat and the promise of rain. On the radio, a Bon Jovi song played. “It’s been raining since you left me,” the lyrics said. How funny, Mr. Jha thought. An Indian song would have to say, “It hasn’t rained since you left me.” Unless, of course, you were happy that they left you.

An electronic shoe-polishing machine in a large box was on the passenger seat of his Mercedes. He had strapped it in with the seat belt. It was beautiful. And it was expensive. It was not a planned purchase. This morning he had a breakfast meeting with two young men who were launching a website that would help you find handymen around Delhi, and they asked him to join their team as a consultant. He declined. He did not have time to take on any new work until they were done moving homes. And then they had to visit Rupak, so he was not going to have any free time until November or December. And then it would be the holiday season, so really it was best if he took the rest of the year off work.

The meeting was over breakfast at the luxurious Teresa’s Hotel in Connaught Place in central Delhi, and after filling himself up with mini croissants, fruit tarts, sliced cheeses, salami, coffee, and orange juice, Mr. Jha went for a stroll through the lobby and the other restaurants in the hotel. All the five-star hotels in the center of town were little oases of calm and cool. Mr. Jha was walking by the large windows that overlooked the swimming pool that was for guests only when he thought he would book a two-night stay here. He knew his wife loved the indulgence of nice hotels and he had recently read about what youngsters were calling a staycation—a vacation where you don’t leave the city or the home you usually live in, but you give yourself a few days to take a holiday. Of course, since he didn’t work much anymore, most days, weeks, months were a staycation, but how wonderful it would be to check into a hotel and have a lazy few days. Having room service—or, like they were called at Teresa’s, butlers—was a different sort of pleasure than having servants bringing you food and cleaning your home. Butlers showed that you had made the progression from servants to expensive appliances to uniformed men who ran the expensive appliances.

From The Windfall, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in June. Copyright © 2017 by Diksha Basu.

(Photo: Mikey McCleary)

First Fiction 2016

by

Staff

6.14.16

For our sixteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine for interviews between Yaa Gyasi and Angela Flournoy, Masande Ntshanga and Naomi Jackson, Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub, Maryse Meijer and Lindsay Hunter, and Imbolo Mbue and Christina Baker Kline. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Homegoing (Knopf, June) by Yaa Gyasi
The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, June) by Masande Ntshanga
Rich and Pretty (Ecco, June) by Rumaan Alam
Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) by Maryse Meijer
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, August) by Imbolo Mbue

 

Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.

Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”

The villagers began to say that the baby was born of the fire, that this was the reason Baaba had no milk. Effia was nursed by Cobbe’s second wife, who had just given birth to a son three months before. Effia would not latch on, and when she did, her sharp gums would tear at the flesh around the woman’s nipples until she became afraid to feed the baby. Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small bird- like bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry crywhich could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.

“Love her,” Cobbe commanded, as though love were as simple an act as lifting food up from an iron plate and past one’s lips. At night, Baaba dreamed of leaving the baby in the dark forest so that the god Nyame could do with her as he pleased.

Effia grew older. The summer after her third birthday, Baaba had her first son. The boy’s name was Fiifi, and he was so fat that some- times, when Baaba wasn’t looking, Effia would roll him along the ground like a ball. The first day that Baaba let Effia hold him, she accidentally dropped him. The baby bounced on his buttocks, landed on his stomach, and looked up at everyone in the room, confused as to whether or not he should cry. He decided against it, but Baaba, who had been stirring banku, lifted her stirring stick and beat Effia across her bare back. Each time the stick lifted off the girl’s body, it would leave behind hot, sticky pieces of banku that burned into her flesh. By the time Baaba had finished, Effia was covered with sores, screaming and crying. From the floor, rolling this way and that on his belly, Fiifi looked at Effia with his saucer eyes but made no noise.

Cobbe came home to find his other wives attending to Effia’s wounds and understood immediately what had happened. He and Baaba fought well into the night. Effia could hear them through the thin walls of the hut where she lay on the floor, drifting in and out of a feverish sleep. In her dream, Cobbe was a lion and Baaba was a tree. The lion plucked the tree from the ground where it stood and slammed it back down. The tree stretched its branches in protest, and the lion ripped them off, one by one. The tree, horizontal, began to cry red ants that traveled down the thin cracks between its bark. The ants pooled on the soft earth around the top of the tree trunk.

And so the cycle began. Baaba beat Effia. Cobbe beat Baaba. By the time Effia had reached age ten, she could recite a history of the scars on her body. The summer of 1764, when Baaba broke yams across her back. The spring of 1767, when Baaba bashed her left foot with a rock, breaking her big toe so that it now always pointed away from the other toes. For each scar on Effia’s body, there was a companion scar on Baaba’ s, but that didn’t stop mother from beating daughter, father from beating mother.

Matters were only made worse by Effia’s blossoming beauty. When she was twelve, her breasts arrived, two lumps that sprung from her chest, as soft as mango flesh. The men of the village knew that first blood would soon follow, and they waited for the chance to ask Baaba and Cobbe for her hand. The gifts started. One man tapped palm wine better than anyone else in the village, but another’s fishing nets were never empty. Cobbe’s family feasted off Effia’s burgeoning woman- hood. Their bellies, their hands, were never empty.

Excerpted from HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi. Copyright © 2016 by Yaa Gyasi. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Reactive
By Masande Ntshanga

The way I got to know them, by the way, my two closest friends here, is that we met at one of the new HIV and drug-counseling sessions cropping up all over the city. We were in the basement parking lot of the free clinic in Wynberg. The seminar room upstairs had been locked up and taped shut, there’d been a mer­cury spill, and our group couldn’t meet in there on account of the vapors being toxic to human tissue. Instead, they arranged us in the basement parking lot, and in two weeks we got used to not being sent upstairs for meetings. I did, in any case, and that was enough for me in the beginning.

In those days, I attended the meetings alone. I’d catch a taxi from Obs over to Wynberg for an afternoon’s worth of coun­seling. By the end of my first month, when the seminar room had been swept once, and then twice, and then three times by a short man who wore a blue contamination meter over his chest, each time checking out clean, everyone decided they preferred it down below, and so that’s where we stayed.

Maybe we all want to be buried here, I said.

It had been the first time I’d spoken in group. Talking always took me a while, back then, but the remark succeeded in making a few of them laugh. It won me chuckles even from the old-timers, and later, I wrote down my first addiction story to share with the group. It was from a film I saw adapted from a book I wasn’t likely to read. Ruan and Cissie arrived on the following Wednesday.

I noticed them immediately. Something seemed to draw us in from our first meeting. In the parking lot, we eyeballed each other for a while before we spoke. During the coffee break, we stood by the serving table in front of a peeling Toyota bakkie, mumbling tentatively towards each other’s profiles. I learned that Cecelia was a teacher. She pulled week-long shifts at a day­care center just off Bridge Street in Mowbray, and she was there on account of the school’s accepting its first openly positive pupil. Ruan, who was leaning against the plastic table, gulping more than sipping at the coffee in his paper cup, said that he suffocated through his life by working on the top floor of his uncle’s computer firm. He was there to shop for a social issue they could use for their corporate responsibility strategy. He called it CRS, and Cissie and I had to ask him what he meant.

In the end, I guess I was impressed. I told them how I used to be a lab assistant at Peninsula Tech, and how in a way this was part of how I’d got to be sick with what I have.

When we sat back down again, we listened to the rest of the members assess each other’s nightmares. They passed them around with a familiar casualness. Mark knew about Ronelle’s school fees, for instance, and she knew about Linette’s hepatitis, and all of us knew that Linda had developed a spate of genital warts over September. She called them water warts, when she first told us, and, like most of her symptoms, she blamed them on the rain.

That day, when the discussion turned to drug abuse, as it always did during the last half-hour of our sessions, the three of us had nothing to add. I looked over at Ruan and caught him stashing a grin behind his fist, while on my other side, Cecelia blinked up at the ceiling. I didn’t need any more evidence for our kinship.

The meeting lasted the full two hours, and when it came to an end, I collected my proof of attendance and exchanged num­bers with Ruan and Cecelia. I suppose we said our goodbyes at the entrance of the parking lot that day, and later, within that same week I think, we were huffing paint thinner together in my flat in Obs.

Excerpted from The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. Copyright  ©  2016 by Masande Ntshanga. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 Rich and Pretty
By Rumaan Alam

Lauren’s office is freezing. You could keep butter on the desk. You could perform surgery. Every woman in the office—they’re all women—keeps a cashmere sweater on the back of her chair. They sit, hands outstretched over computer keyboards like a bum’s over a flaming garbage can. The usual office noises: typing, telephones, people using indoor voices, the double ding of an elevator going down. For some reason, the double ding of the elevator going down is louder than the single ding of the elevator going up. There’s a metaphor in there, waiting to be untangled. They make cookbooks, these women. There’s no food, just stacks of paper and editorial assistants in glasses. She’s worked here for four years. It’s fine.

Today is different because today there’s a guy, an actual dude, in the office with them, not a photographer or stylist popping by for a meeting, as does happen: He’s
a temp, because Kristen is having a baby and her doctor put her on bed rest. Lauren isn’t totally clear on what Kristen does, but now there’s a dude doing it. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, and loafers, not sneakers, which implies a certain maturity. Lauren’s been trying to get him to notice her all day. She’s the second-prettiest woman in the office, so it isn’t hard. Hannah, the prettiest, has a vacant quality about her. She’s not stupid, exactly—in fact, she’s very competent—but she doesn’t have spark. She’s not interesting, just thin and blond, with heavy eyeglasses and a photograph of her French bulldog on her computer screen.

Lauren has it all planned out. She’ll walk past his desk a couple of times, which isn’t suspicious because his desk isn’t far from the kitchen, and the kitchen is where the coffee is, and by the third time, he’ll follow her in there, and she’ll make a wisecrack about the coffee, and he’ll say it’s not so bad, and they’ll talk, and exchange phone numbers, e-mail addresses, whatever, and then later they’ll leave the office at the same time, ride down together in the elevator and not talk because they both understand that the social contract dictates that sane people do not talk in elevators, and then he’ll let her go through the revolving door first, even though she’s pretty sure that etiquette has it that men precede women through revolving doors, and then they’ll both be standing on Broadway, and there will be traffic and that vague smell of charred, ethnic meat from the guy with the lunch cart on the corner, and he’ll suggest they get a drink, and she’ll say sure, and they’ll go to the Irish pub on Fifty-Fifth Street, because there’s nowhere else to go, and after two drinks they’ll be starving, and he’ll suggest they get dinner, but there’s nowhere to eat in this part of town, so they’ll take the train to Union Square and realize there’s nowhere to eat there either, and they’ll walk down into the East Village and find something, maybe ramen, or that Moroccan-y place that she always forgets she likes, and they’ll eat, and they’ll start touching each other, casually but deliberately, carefully, and the check will come and she’ll say let’s split it, and he’ll say no let me, even though he’s a temp and can’t make that much money, right? Then they’ll be drunk, so taking a cab seems wise and they’ll make out in the backseat, but just a little bit, and kind of laugh about it, too: stop to check their phones, or admire the view, or so he can explain that he lives with a roommate or a dog, or so she can tell him some stupid story about work that won’t mean anything to him anyway because it’s only his first day and he doesn’t know anyone’s name, let alone their personality quirks and the complexities of the office’s political and social ecosystem.

Then he’ll pay the driver, because they’ll go to his place—she doesn’t want to bring the temp back to her place—and it’ll be nice, or fine, or ugly, and he’ll open beers because all he has are beers, and she’ll pretend to drink hers even though she’s had enough, and he’ll excuse himself for a minute to go to the bathroom, but really it’s to brush his teeth, piss, maybe rub some wet toilet paper around his ass and under his balls. This is something Gabe had told her, years ago, that men do this, or at least, that he did. Unerotic, but somehow touching. Then the temp will come sit next to her on the couch, please let it be a couch and not a futon, and he’ll play with her hair a little before he kisses her, his mouth minty, hers beery. He’ll be out of his shirt, then, and he’s hard and hairy, but also a little soft at the belly, which she likes. She once slept with this guy Sean, whose torso, hairless and lean, freaked her out. It was like having sex with a female mannequin. The temp will push or pull her into his bedroom, just the right balance of aggression and respect, and the room will be fine, or ugly, and the bedsheets will be navy, as men’s bedsheets always are, and there will be venetian blinds, and lots of books on the nightstand because he’s temping at a publishing company so he must love to read. She’ll tug her shirt over her head, and he’ll pull at her bra, and they’ll be naked, and he’ll fumble around for a condom, and his dick will be long but not, crucially, thick, and it will be good, and then it will be over. They’ll laugh about how this whole thing is against the company’s sexual harassment policy. She’ll try to cover herself with the sheet, and he’ll do the same, suddenly embarrassed by his smaller, slightly sticky dick. When he’s out of the room, to get a beer, to piss, whatever, she’ll get dressed. He’ll call her a car service, because there are no yellow cabs wherever he lives. They’ll both spend the part of the night right before they fall asleep trying to figure out how to act around each other in the office tomorrow.

Or maybe not that. Maybe she’ll find a way to go up to him and say, what, exactly, Hey, do you like parties? Do you want to go to a party . . . tonight? No, the jeans and tie are fine. It’s not fancy. A party. A good party. Good open bar, for sure. Probably canapés, what are canapés exactly, whatever they are, there will probably be some. Last party, there were these balls of cornbread and shrimp, like deep fried, holy shit they were great. That was last year, I think. Anyway, there might be celebrities there. There will definitely be celebrities there. I once saw Bill Clinton at one of these parties. He’s skinnier than you’d think. Anyway, think about it, it’ll be a time, and by the way, I’m Lauren, I’m an associate editor here and you are? She can picture his conversation, the words coming to her so easily, as they do in fantasy but never in reality. They call it meeting cute, in movies, but it only happens in movies.

From Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam. Copyright © 2016 by Rumaan Alam. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Heartbreaker
By Maryse Meijer

Daddy comes over on Thursdays. My husband and son are out watching movies where people blow each other up. They have burgers afterward and buf- falo wings and milkshakes and they talk about  TV shows and girls and the latest bloody video game. At least that’s what I imagine they do. No way do they imagine what I am doing, sitting here at the kitchen table doing my math homework as Daddy microwaves the mac and cheese he brought over. We have three hours together and in these three hours I am twelve years old and my daddy is the most wonderful man in the world.

On craigslist I post the photo from my work website, the one with my hair scraped back in a ponytail, expos- ing my shiny forehead, my thin lips, my arms bursting from the sleeves of my blue blouse. Daughter seeks Father is all I write as a caption. In response I receive an avalanche of cell-phone numbers, chat invitations, and penis pics lifted from porn sites.

I delete all the emails except for Richard’s: Sweetheart, please call home. I sit for a moment hunched in my cubicle, sweating, before lifting the receiver and dialing his number.

Daddy? I whisper, hand up to cover my mouth so no one walking by can see it moving.

He doesn’t skip a beat. Sweetheart! he says. Did you see the photo? I ask.

Of course, he says.

I’m not better in person, I warn. You’re perfect, he assures me.

I’m married, I tell him. I have a kid. No problem, he insists.

I chew the inside of my cheek. There’s not going to be any sex, I say.

Absolutely not! he agrees.

I wait for him to say something creepy or disgusting, but he doesn’t. We make arrangements to meet at McDonald’s for dinner on Thursday.

Don’t kill me, I say, and he laughs.

Oh sweetheart, he says. What on earth?

I’m  early. I don’t  know what Daddy looks like and every time the door swings open my head jerks like a ball on a string. I convince myself I’m going to be stood up and that it will be better anyway if I am. But at seven on the dot he enters and he looks straight at me and waves.

Our usual, sweetheart?  he says, loud enough for other people to hear, and I nod. He brings a tray of chicken nugget combos to my table. He kisses my cheek. The food steams in our hands as we look at each other; he seems about twenty, twenty-two, with chinos frayed at the bottoms and red hair and glasses and biceps as skinny as my wrist. Maybe someday he will be good- looking.

Extra barbecue sauce, just the way you like, he says, gesturing to my nuggets. I smile and take a bite. He asks me about school and I ask him about work and he is as interested in how I’m doing in gym class as I am in the stocks he’s trading at the office; we slip into our new roles as easily as knives into butter.

I almost forgot, he says. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a CD with a Christmas bow stuck on it. Just a little something, he adds, and hands it to me. I unstick the bow and turn the CD over in my hands: Britney Spears. I bounce, once, and my left butt cheek, which doesn’t quite fit on the plastic chair, bangs on the edge of the seat.

Oh Daddy, I say, touched because I k now he went into a store and asked what would be the right thing to get for his little girl, and he paid for it with his own money and put it in his pocket and found  the gaudy bow to go with it and then brought it all the way here, to me, because he k new he would like me and already wanted to give me something, and this makes me want to give everything I have to him in return.

Apart from  Thursday nights—and it’s  always Thurs- days, always nights—we don’t communicate, except by email. Sometimes he’ll send me a note just to say, Have a great day!! or he’ll tell me what plans he has for dinner: Working late need a treat pizza sound  good??? or he’ll hint at imagined happenings in my little-girl life: Don’t forget dentist today xoxoxoxo!! and Good luck on the history quiz I know you’ll do awesome!!!! I write back in equally breathless terms to report the results of the history quiz or the number of cavities rotting my teeth or to squeal over the impending pizza feast. These exchanges give me a high so intense my chest muscles spasm and when my boss calls and says to bring her such-and-such a document I hit print and out comes an email from Daddy, not the work document, and I giggle into my hand and hit print again.

He always arrives exactly fifteen minutes after my hus- band and son leave. I sit on the couch with the televi- sion on while he fumbles with the keys and the empty banged-up briefcase he always brings. Sweetheart! he says when he enters, and I yelp Daddy! and if I was maybe ten or twenty or, okay, thirty pounds lighter, I might run toward him, but as it is I wait on the couch for him to come over and k iss my hair. I’ll pour him a soda on the rocks and he’ll  pour  me some milk and we touch glasses and smile. If my husband calls I stand by the back door with my head down and say Uh-huh, yes, fine, all right, see you soon, no, nothing for me, thanks, I’m enjoying the leftovers, have fun, love you.

Excerpted from Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. Copyright ©  Maryse Meijer, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

page_5: 

Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue

He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn’t even owned a résumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.

He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about. Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

“Good morning, please,” he said to the security guard in the lobby when he arrived at Lehman Brothers. “My name is Jende Jonga. I am here for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Clark Edwards.”

The guard, goateed and freckled, asked for his ID, which he quickly pulled out of his brown bifold wallet. The man took it, examined it front and back, looked up at his face, looked down at his suit, smiled, and asked if he was trying to become a stockbroker or something.

Jende shook his head. “No,” he replied without smiling back. “A chauffeur.”

“Right on,” the guard said as he handed him a visitor pass. “Good luck with that.”

This time Jende smiled. “Thank you, my brother,” he said. “I really need all that good luck today.”

Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no visible remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips. When the doors opened he straightened his shoulders and introduced himself to the receptionist, who, after responding with a nod and a display of extraordinarily white teeth, made a phone call and asked him to follow her. They walked through an open space where young men in blue shirts sat in cubicles with multiple screens, down a corridor, past another open space of cluttered cubicles and into a sunny office with a four-paneled glass window running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the thousand autumn-drenched trees and proud towers of Manhattan standing outside. For a second his mouth fell open, at the view outside—the likes of which he’d never seen—and the exquisiteness inside. There was a lounging section (black leather sofa, two black leather chairs, glass coffee table) to his right, an executive desk (oval, cherry, black leather reclining chair for the executive, two green leather armchairs for visitors) in the center, and a wall unit (cherry, glass doors, white folders in neat rows) to his left, in front of which Clark Edwards, in a dark suit, was standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder.

“Please, sir, good morning,” Jende said, turning toward him and half-bowing.

“Have a seat,” Clark said without lifting his eyes from the shredder.

Jende hurried to the armchair on the left. He pulled a résumé from his folder and placed it in front of Clark’s seat, careful not to disturb the layers of white papers and Wall Street Journals strewn across the desk in a jumble. One of the Journal pages, peeking from beneath sheets of numbers and graphs, had the headline: Whites’ Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-blind America.” Jende leaned forward to read the story, fascinated as he was by the young ambitious senator, but immediately sat upright when he remembered where he was, why he was there, what was about to happen.

“Do you have any outstanding tickets you need to resolve?” Clark asked as he sat down.

“No, sir,” Jende replied.

“And you haven’t been in any serious accidents, right?”

“No, Mr. Edwards.”

Clark picked up the résumé from his desk, wrinkled and moist like the man whose history it held. His eyes remained on it for several seconds while Jende’s darted back and forth, from the Central Park treetops far beyond the window to the office walls lined with abstract paintings and portraits of white men wearing bow ties. He could feel beads of sweat rising out of his forehead.

“Well, Jende,” Clark said, putting the résumé down and leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about yourself.”

Excerpted from Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Copyright  ©  2016 by Imbolo Mbue. Reprinted with permission of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

First Fiction 2016: Nine More Notable Debuts

As part of our sixteenth annual First Fiction roundup, in which five debut authors—Yaa GyasiMasande Ntshanga, Rumaan Alam, Maryse Meijer, and Imbolo Mbue—discuss their first books, we picked nine more notable debuts that fans of fiction should consider reading this summer.

Remarkable (BOA Editions, May) by Dinah Cox
Set primarily in Oklahoma, the remarkable (that’s right, remarkable) stories in Cox’s award-winning collection spotlight characters whose wit, resilience, and pathos are as vast as the Great Plains landscape they inhabit.

Anatomy of a Soldier (Knopf, May) by Harry Parker
A former officer in the British Army who lost his legs in Afghanistan in 2009, Parker delivers a riveting, provocative novel that captures his wartime experience in an unconventional way. Forty-five inanimate objects—including a helmet, boots, and weapons—act as narrators, together offering the reader a powerful new perspective on war.

Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove, June) by Anna Noyes
With language both sensuous and precise, these interconnected stories immerse us in the lives of women and girls in coastal Maine as they navigate familial intimacy, sexual awakening, and love’s indiscretions.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (Graywolf, June) by Max Porter
In the wake of his wife’s sudden death, a man is visited by Crow, a “sentimental bird” that settles into the man’s life and the lives of his children in an attempt to heal the wounded family. A nuanced meditation that not only breaks open the boundaries of what constitutes a novel, but also demonstrates through its fragmentary form the unique challenge of writing about grief.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds (Viking, June) by Bob Proehl
Valerie and her son embark on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles to reunite the nine-year-old with his estranged father, attending comic-book conventions along the way. Proehl weaves the comic-con worlds of monsters and superheroes into a complex family saga, a tribute to a mother’s love and the way we tell stories that shape our lives.

Lily and the Octopus (Simon & Schuster, June) 
by Steven Rowley
Rowley’s novel centers on narrator Ted Flask and his aging companion—a dachshund named Lily—but readers who mistake this as a simple “boy and his dog” story are in for a profound and pleasant surprise. This powerful debut is a touching exploration of friendship and grief.

Pond (Riverhead Books, July) 
by Claire-Louise Bennett
In this compelling, innovative debut, the interior reality of an unnamed narrator—a solitary young woman living on the outskirts of a small coastal village—is revealed through the details of everyday life, some rendered in long stretches of narrative and others in poetic fragments. Bennett’s unique portrait of a persona emerges with an intensity and vision not often seen, or felt, in a debut. 

Champion of the World (Putnam, July) by Chad Dundas
Gangsters, bootlegging, and fixed competitions converge in the tumultuous world of 1920s American wrestling, which disgraced former lightweight champion Pepper Van Dean and his wife, Moira, must navigate in order to create the life they want. With crisp, muscular prose, this 470-page historical novel illuminates a time of rapid change in America.

Problems (Emily Books, July) by Jade Sharma
Raw, unrepentant, and biting with dark humor, Problems turns the addiction-redemption narrative inside out, as Sharma follows heroin hobbyist Maya through her increasingly chaotic life after the end of both her marriage and an affair. 

First Fiction 2016

by

Staff

6.14.16

For our sixteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine for interviews between Yaa Gyasi and Angela Flournoy, Masande Ntshanga and Naomi Jackson, Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub, Maryse Meijer and Lindsay Hunter, and Imbolo Mbue and Christina Baker Kline. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Homegoing (Knopf, June) by Yaa Gyasi
The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, June) by Masande Ntshanga
Rich and Pretty (Ecco, June) by Rumaan Alam
Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) by Maryse Meijer
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, August) by Imbolo Mbue

 

Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.

Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”

The villagers began to say that the baby was born of the fire, that this was the reason Baaba had no milk. Effia was nursed by Cobbe’s second wife, who had just given birth to a son three months before. Effia would not latch on, and when she did, her sharp gums would tear at the flesh around the woman’s nipples until she became afraid to feed the baby. Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small bird- like bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry crywhich could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.

“Love her,” Cobbe commanded, as though love were as simple an act as lifting food up from an iron plate and past one’s lips. At night, Baaba dreamed of leaving the baby in the dark forest so that the god Nyame could do with her as he pleased.

Effia grew older. The summer after her third birthday, Baaba had her first son. The boy’s name was Fiifi, and he was so fat that some- times, when Baaba wasn’t looking, Effia would roll him along the ground like a ball. The first day that Baaba let Effia hold him, she accidentally dropped him. The baby bounced on his buttocks, landed on his stomach, and looked up at everyone in the room, confused as to whether or not he should cry. He decided against it, but Baaba, who had been stirring banku, lifted her stirring stick and beat Effia across her bare back. Each time the stick lifted off the girl’s body, it would leave behind hot, sticky pieces of banku that burned into her flesh. By the time Baaba had finished, Effia was covered with sores, screaming and crying. From the floor, rolling this way and that on his belly, Fiifi looked at Effia with his saucer eyes but made no noise.

Cobbe came home to find his other wives attending to Effia’s wounds and understood immediately what had happened. He and Baaba fought well into the night. Effia could hear them through the thin walls of the hut where she lay on the floor, drifting in and out of a feverish sleep. In her dream, Cobbe was a lion and Baaba was a tree. The lion plucked the tree from the ground where it stood and slammed it back down. The tree stretched its branches in protest, and the lion ripped them off, one by one. The tree, horizontal, began to cry red ants that traveled down the thin cracks between its bark. The ants pooled on the soft earth around the top of the tree trunk.

And so the cycle began. Baaba beat Effia. Cobbe beat Baaba. By the time Effia had reached age ten, she could recite a history of the scars on her body. The summer of 1764, when Baaba broke yams across her back. The spring of 1767, when Baaba bashed her left foot with a rock, breaking her big toe so that it now always pointed away from the other toes. For each scar on Effia’s body, there was a companion scar on Baaba’ s, but that didn’t stop mother from beating daughter, father from beating mother.

Matters were only made worse by Effia’s blossoming beauty. When she was twelve, her breasts arrived, two lumps that sprung from her chest, as soft as mango flesh. The men of the village knew that first blood would soon follow, and they waited for the chance to ask Baaba and Cobbe for her hand. The gifts started. One man tapped palm wine better than anyone else in the village, but another’s fishing nets were never empty. Cobbe’s family feasted off Effia’s burgeoning woman- hood. Their bellies, their hands, were never empty.

Excerpted from HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi. Copyright © 2016 by Yaa Gyasi. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Reactive
By Masande Ntshanga

The way I got to know them, by the way, my two closest friends here, is that we met at one of the new HIV and drug-counseling sessions cropping up all over the city. We were in the basement parking lot of the free clinic in Wynberg. The seminar room upstairs had been locked up and taped shut, there’d been a mer­cury spill, and our group couldn’t meet in there on account of the vapors being toxic to human tissue. Instead, they arranged us in the basement parking lot, and in two weeks we got used to not being sent upstairs for meetings. I did, in any case, and that was enough for me in the beginning.

In those days, I attended the meetings alone. I’d catch a taxi from Obs over to Wynberg for an afternoon’s worth of coun­seling. By the end of my first month, when the seminar room had been swept once, and then twice, and then three times by a short man who wore a blue contamination meter over his chest, each time checking out clean, everyone decided they preferred it down below, and so that’s where we stayed.

Maybe we all want to be buried here, I said.

It had been the first time I’d spoken in group. Talking always took me a while, back then, but the remark succeeded in making a few of them laugh. It won me chuckles even from the old-timers, and later, I wrote down my first addiction story to share with the group. It was from a film I saw adapted from a book I wasn’t likely to read. Ruan and Cissie arrived on the following Wednesday.

I noticed them immediately. Something seemed to draw us in from our first meeting. In the parking lot, we eyeballed each other for a while before we spoke. During the coffee break, we stood by the serving table in front of a peeling Toyota bakkie, mumbling tentatively towards each other’s profiles. I learned that Cecelia was a teacher. She pulled week-long shifts at a day­care center just off Bridge Street in Mowbray, and she was there on account of the school’s accepting its first openly positive pupil. Ruan, who was leaning against the plastic table, gulping more than sipping at the coffee in his paper cup, said that he suffocated through his life by working on the top floor of his uncle’s computer firm. He was there to shop for a social issue they could use for their corporate responsibility strategy. He called it CRS, and Cissie and I had to ask him what he meant.

In the end, I guess I was impressed. I told them how I used to be a lab assistant at Peninsula Tech, and how in a way this was part of how I’d got to be sick with what I have.

When we sat back down again, we listened to the rest of the members assess each other’s nightmares. They passed them around with a familiar casualness. Mark knew about Ronelle’s school fees, for instance, and she knew about Linette’s hepatitis, and all of us knew that Linda had developed a spate of genital warts over September. She called them water warts, when she first told us, and, like most of her symptoms, she blamed them on the rain.

That day, when the discussion turned to drug abuse, as it always did during the last half-hour of our sessions, the three of us had nothing to add. I looked over at Ruan and caught him stashing a grin behind his fist, while on my other side, Cecelia blinked up at the ceiling. I didn’t need any more evidence for our kinship.

The meeting lasted the full two hours, and when it came to an end, I collected my proof of attendance and exchanged num­bers with Ruan and Cecelia. I suppose we said our goodbyes at the entrance of the parking lot that day, and later, within that same week I think, we were huffing paint thinner together in my flat in Obs.

Excerpted from The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. Copyright  ©  2016 by Masande Ntshanga. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 Rich and Pretty
By Rumaan Alam

Lauren’s office is freezing. You could keep butter on the desk. You could perform surgery. Every woman in the office—they’re all women—keeps a cashmere sweater on the back of her chair. They sit, hands outstretched over computer keyboards like a bum’s over a flaming garbage can. The usual office noises: typing, telephones, people using indoor voices, the double ding of an elevator going down. For some reason, the double ding of the elevator going down is louder than the single ding of the elevator going up. There’s a metaphor in there, waiting to be untangled. They make cookbooks, these women. There’s no food, just stacks of paper and editorial assistants in glasses. She’s worked here for four years. It’s fine.

Today is different because today there’s a guy, an actual dude, in the office with them, not a photographer or stylist popping by for a meeting, as does happen: He’s
a temp, because Kristen is having a baby and her doctor put her on bed rest. Lauren isn’t totally clear on what Kristen does, but now there’s a dude doing it. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, and loafers, not sneakers, which implies a certain maturity. Lauren’s been trying to get him to notice her all day. She’s the second-prettiest woman in the office, so it isn’t hard. Hannah, the prettiest, has a vacant quality about her. She’s not stupid, exactly—in fact, she’s very competent—but she doesn’t have spark. She’s not interesting, just thin and blond, with heavy eyeglasses and a photograph of her French bulldog on her computer screen.

Lauren has it all planned out. She’ll walk past his desk a couple of times, which isn’t suspicious because his desk isn’t far from the kitchen, and the kitchen is where the coffee is, and by the third time, he’ll follow her in there, and she’ll make a wisecrack about the coffee, and he’ll say it’s not so bad, and they’ll talk, and exchange phone numbers, e-mail addresses, whatever, and then later they’ll leave the office at the same time, ride down together in the elevator and not talk because they both understand that the social contract dictates that sane people do not talk in elevators, and then he’ll let her go through the revolving door first, even though she’s pretty sure that etiquette has it that men precede women through revolving doors, and then they’ll both be standing on Broadway, and there will be traffic and that vague smell of charred, ethnic meat from the guy with the lunch cart on the corner, and he’ll suggest they get a drink, and she’ll say sure, and they’ll go to the Irish pub on Fifty-Fifth Street, because there’s nowhere else to go, and after two drinks they’ll be starving, and he’ll suggest they get dinner, but there’s nowhere to eat in this part of town, so they’ll take the train to Union Square and realize there’s nowhere to eat there either, and they’ll walk down into the East Village and find something, maybe ramen, or that Moroccan-y place that she always forgets she likes, and they’ll eat, and they’ll start touching each other, casually but deliberately, carefully, and the check will come and she’ll say let’s split it, and he’ll say no let me, even though he’s a temp and can’t make that much money, right? Then they’ll be drunk, so taking a cab seems wise and they’ll make out in the backseat, but just a little bit, and kind of laugh about it, too: stop to check their phones, or admire the view, or so he can explain that he lives with a roommate or a dog, or so she can tell him some stupid story about work that won’t mean anything to him anyway because it’s only his first day and he doesn’t know anyone’s name, let alone their personality quirks and the complexities of the office’s political and social ecosystem.

Then he’ll pay the driver, because they’ll go to his place—she doesn’t want to bring the temp back to her place—and it’ll be nice, or fine, or ugly, and he’ll open beers because all he has are beers, and she’ll pretend to drink hers even though she’s had enough, and he’ll excuse himself for a minute to go to the bathroom, but really it’s to brush his teeth, piss, maybe rub some wet toilet paper around his ass and under his balls. This is something Gabe had told her, years ago, that men do this, or at least, that he did. Unerotic, but somehow touching. Then the temp will come sit next to her on the couch, please let it be a couch and not a futon, and he’ll play with her hair a little before he kisses her, his mouth minty, hers beery. He’ll be out of his shirt, then, and he’s hard and hairy, but also a little soft at the belly, which she likes. She once slept with this guy Sean, whose torso, hairless and lean, freaked her out. It was like having sex with a female mannequin. The temp will push or pull her into his bedroom, just the right balance of aggression and respect, and the room will be fine, or ugly, and the bedsheets will be navy, as men’s bedsheets always are, and there will be venetian blinds, and lots of books on the nightstand because he’s temping at a publishing company so he must love to read. She’ll tug her shirt over her head, and he’ll pull at her bra, and they’ll be naked, and he’ll fumble around for a condom, and his dick will be long but not, crucially, thick, and it will be good, and then it will be over. They’ll laugh about how this whole thing is against the company’s sexual harassment policy. She’ll try to cover herself with the sheet, and he’ll do the same, suddenly embarrassed by his smaller, slightly sticky dick. When he’s out of the room, to get a beer, to piss, whatever, she’ll get dressed. He’ll call her a car service, because there are no yellow cabs wherever he lives. They’ll both spend the part of the night right before they fall asleep trying to figure out how to act around each other in the office tomorrow.

Or maybe not that. Maybe she’ll find a way to go up to him and say, what, exactly, Hey, do you like parties? Do you want to go to a party . . . tonight? No, the jeans and tie are fine. It’s not fancy. A party. A good party. Good open bar, for sure. Probably canapés, what are canapés exactly, whatever they are, there will probably be some. Last party, there were these balls of cornbread and shrimp, like deep fried, holy shit they were great. That was last year, I think. Anyway, there might be celebrities there. There will definitely be celebrities there. I once saw Bill Clinton at one of these parties. He’s skinnier than you’d think. Anyway, think about it, it’ll be a time, and by the way, I’m Lauren, I’m an associate editor here and you are? She can picture his conversation, the words coming to her so easily, as they do in fantasy but never in reality. They call it meeting cute, in movies, but it only happens in movies.

From Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam. Copyright © 2016 by Rumaan Alam. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Heartbreaker
By Maryse Meijer

Daddy comes over on Thursdays. My husband and son are out watching movies where people blow each other up. They have burgers afterward and buf- falo wings and milkshakes and they talk about  TV shows and girls and the latest bloody video game. At least that’s what I imagine they do. No way do they imagine what I am doing, sitting here at the kitchen table doing my math homework as Daddy microwaves the mac and cheese he brought over. We have three hours together and in these three hours I am twelve years old and my daddy is the most wonderful man in the world.

On craigslist I post the photo from my work website, the one with my hair scraped back in a ponytail, expos- ing my shiny forehead, my thin lips, my arms bursting from the sleeves of my blue blouse. Daughter seeks Father is all I write as a caption. In response I receive an avalanche of cell-phone numbers, chat invitations, and penis pics lifted from porn sites.

I delete all the emails except for Richard’s: Sweetheart, please call home. I sit for a moment hunched in my cubicle, sweating, before lifting the receiver and dialing his number.

Daddy? I whisper, hand up to cover my mouth so no one walking by can see it moving.

He doesn’t skip a beat. Sweetheart! he says. Did you see the photo? I ask.

Of course, he says.

I’m not better in person, I warn. You’re perfect, he assures me.

I’m married, I tell him. I have a kid. No problem, he insists.

I chew the inside of my cheek. There’s not going to be any sex, I say.

Absolutely not! he agrees.

I wait for him to say something creepy or disgusting, but he doesn’t. We make arrangements to meet at McDonald’s for dinner on Thursday.

Don’t kill me, I say, and he laughs.

Oh sweetheart, he says. What on earth?

I’m  early. I don’t  know what Daddy looks like and every time the door swings open my head jerks like a ball on a string. I convince myself I’m going to be stood up and that it will be better anyway if I am. But at seven on the dot he enters and he looks straight at me and waves.

Our usual, sweetheart?  he says, loud enough for other people to hear, and I nod. He brings a tray of chicken nugget combos to my table. He kisses my cheek. The food steams in our hands as we look at each other; he seems about twenty, twenty-two, with chinos frayed at the bottoms and red hair and glasses and biceps as skinny as my wrist. Maybe someday he will be good- looking.

Extra barbecue sauce, just the way you like, he says, gesturing to my nuggets. I smile and take a bite. He asks me about school and I ask him about work and he is as interested in how I’m doing in gym class as I am in the stocks he’s trading at the office; we slip into our new roles as easily as knives into butter.

I almost forgot, he says. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a CD with a Christmas bow stuck on it. Just a little something, he adds, and hands it to me. I unstick the bow and turn the CD over in my hands: Britney Spears. I bounce, once, and my left butt cheek, which doesn’t quite fit on the plastic chair, bangs on the edge of the seat.

Oh Daddy, I say, touched because I k now he went into a store and asked what would be the right thing to get for his little girl, and he paid for it with his own money and put it in his pocket and found  the gaudy bow to go with it and then brought it all the way here, to me, because he k new he would like me and already wanted to give me something, and this makes me want to give everything I have to him in return.

Apart from  Thursday nights—and it’s  always Thurs- days, always nights—we don’t communicate, except by email. Sometimes he’ll send me a note just to say, Have a great day!! or he’ll tell me what plans he has for dinner: Working late need a treat pizza sound  good??? or he’ll hint at imagined happenings in my little-girl life: Don’t forget dentist today xoxoxoxo!! and Good luck on the history quiz I know you’ll do awesome!!!! I write back in equally breathless terms to report the results of the history quiz or the number of cavities rotting my teeth or to squeal over the impending pizza feast. These exchanges give me a high so intense my chest muscles spasm and when my boss calls and says to bring her such-and-such a document I hit print and out comes an email from Daddy, not the work document, and I giggle into my hand and hit print again.

He always arrives exactly fifteen minutes after my hus- band and son leave. I sit on the couch with the televi- sion on while he fumbles with the keys and the empty banged-up briefcase he always brings. Sweetheart! he says when he enters, and I yelp Daddy! and if I was maybe ten or twenty or, okay, thirty pounds lighter, I might run toward him, but as it is I wait on the couch for him to come over and k iss my hair. I’ll pour him a soda on the rocks and he’ll  pour  me some milk and we touch glasses and smile. If my husband calls I stand by the back door with my head down and say Uh-huh, yes, fine, all right, see you soon, no, nothing for me, thanks, I’m enjoying the leftovers, have fun, love you.

Excerpted from Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. Copyright ©  Maryse Meijer, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

page_5: 

Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue

He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn’t even owned a résumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.

He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about. Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

“Good morning, please,” he said to the security guard in the lobby when he arrived at Lehman Brothers. “My name is Jende Jonga. I am here for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Clark Edwards.”

The guard, goateed and freckled, asked for his ID, which he quickly pulled out of his brown bifold wallet. The man took it, examined it front and back, looked up at his face, looked down at his suit, smiled, and asked if he was trying to become a stockbroker or something.

Jende shook his head. “No,” he replied without smiling back. “A chauffeur.”

“Right on,” the guard said as he handed him a visitor pass. “Good luck with that.”

This time Jende smiled. “Thank you, my brother,” he said. “I really need all that good luck today.”

Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no visible remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips. When the doors opened he straightened his shoulders and introduced himself to the receptionist, who, after responding with a nod and a display of extraordinarily white teeth, made a phone call and asked him to follow her. They walked through an open space where young men in blue shirts sat in cubicles with multiple screens, down a corridor, past another open space of cluttered cubicles and into a sunny office with a four-paneled glass window running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the thousand autumn-drenched trees and proud towers of Manhattan standing outside. For a second his mouth fell open, at the view outside—the likes of which he’d never seen—and the exquisiteness inside. There was a lounging section (black leather sofa, two black leather chairs, glass coffee table) to his right, an executive desk (oval, cherry, black leather reclining chair for the executive, two green leather armchairs for visitors) in the center, and a wall unit (cherry, glass doors, white folders in neat rows) to his left, in front of which Clark Edwards, in a dark suit, was standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder.

“Please, sir, good morning,” Jende said, turning toward him and half-bowing.

“Have a seat,” Clark said without lifting his eyes from the shredder.

Jende hurried to the armchair on the left. He pulled a résumé from his folder and placed it in front of Clark’s seat, careful not to disturb the layers of white papers and Wall Street Journals strewn across the desk in a jumble. One of the Journal pages, peeking from beneath sheets of numbers and graphs, had the headline: Whites’ Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-blind America.” Jende leaned forward to read the story, fascinated as he was by the young ambitious senator, but immediately sat upright when he remembered where he was, why he was there, what was about to happen.

“Do you have any outstanding tickets you need to resolve?” Clark asked as he sat down.

“No, sir,” Jende replied.

“And you haven’t been in any serious accidents, right?”

“No, Mr. Edwards.”

Clark picked up the résumé from his desk, wrinkled and moist like the man whose history it held. His eyes remained on it for several seconds while Jende’s darted back and forth, from the Central Park treetops far beyond the window to the office walls lined with abstract paintings and portraits of white men wearing bow ties. He could feel beads of sweat rising out of his forehead.

“Well, Jende,” Clark said, putting the résumé down and leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about yourself.”

Excerpted from Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Copyright  ©  2016 by Imbolo Mbue. Reprinted with permission of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

First Fiction 2017

by

Danzy Senna, Mira Jacob, Maggie Nelson, Emily Raboteau, Gary Shteyngart

6.14.17

For our seventeenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2017 issue of the magazine for interviews between Zinzi Clemmons and Danzy Senna, Hala Alyan and Mira Jacob, Jess Arndt and Maggie Nelson, Lisa Ko and Emily Raboteau, and Diksha Basu and Gary Shteyngart. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

What We Lose (Viking, July) by Zinzi Clemmons
Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May) by Hala Alyan
Large Animals (Catapult, May) by Jess Arndt
The Leavers (Algonquin Books, May) by Lisa Ko
The Windfall (Crown, June) by Diksha Basu
 

What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons

My parents’ bedroom is arranged exactly the same as it always was. The big mahogany dresser sits opposite the bed, the doily still in place on the vanity. My mother’s little ring holders and perfume bottles still stand there. On top of all these old feminine relics, my father has set up his home office. His old IBM laptop sits atop the doily, a tangle of cords choking my mother’s silver makeup tray. His books are scattered around the tables, his clothes draped carelessly over the antique wing chair that my mother found on a trip to Quebec.

In the kitchen, my father switches on a small flat-screen TV that he’s installed on the wall opposite the stove. My mother never allowed TV in the kitchen, to encourage bonding during family dinners and focus during homework time. As a matter of fact, we never had more than one television while I was growing up—an old wood-paneled set that lived in the cold basement, carefully hidden from me and visitors in the main living areas of the house.

We order Chinese from the place around the corner, the same order that we’ve made for years: sesame chicken, vegetable fried rice, shrimp lo mein. As soon as they hear my father’s voice on the line, they put in the order; he doesn’t even have to ask for it. When he picks the order up, they ask after me. When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.

My father tells me that he’s been organizing at work, now that he’s the only black faculty member in the upper ranks of the administration.

I notice that he has started cutting his hair differently. It is shorter on the sides and disappearing in patches around the crown of his skull. He pulls himself up in his chair with noticeable effort. He had barely aged in the past twenty years, and suddenly, in the past year, he has inched closer to looking like his father, a stooped, lean, yellow-skinned man I’ve only seen in pictures.

“How have you been, Dad?” I say as we sit at the table.

The thought of losing my father lurks constantly in my mind now, shadowy, inexpressible, but bursting to the surface when, like now, I perceive the limits of his body. Something catches in my throat and I clench my jaw.

My father says that he has been keeping busy. He has been volunteering every month at the community garden on Christian Street, turning compost and watering kale.

“And I’m starting a petition to hire another black professor,” he says, stabbing his glazed chicken with a fire I haven’t seen in him in years.

He asks about Peter.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone you like,” he says.

“Love, Dad,” I say. “We’re in love.”

He pauses, stirring his noodles quizzically with his fork. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asks.

I stare at the food in front of me. It’s the closest thing to comfort food since my mother has been gone. The unique flavor of her curries and stews buried, forever, with her. The sight of the food appeals to me, but the smell, suddenly, is noxious; the wisp of steam emanating from it, scorching.

“Are you all right?”

All of a sudden, I have the feeling that I am sinking. I feel the pressure of my skin holding in my organs and blood vessels and fluids; the tickle of every hair that covers it. The feeling is so disorienting and overwhelming that I can no longer hold my head up. I push my dinner away from me. I walk calmly but quickly to the powder room, lift the toilet seat, and throw up.

From What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, published in July by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Zinzi Clemmons.

(Photo: Nina Subin)

Salt Houses
by Hala Alyan

On the street, she fumbles for a cigarette from her purse and smokes as she walks into the evening. She feels a sudden urge, now that she is outside the apartment, to clear her head. This is her favor­ite thing about the city—the ability it gives you to walk, to literally put space between your body and distress. In Kuwait, nobody walks anywhere.

Mimi lives in a quiet part of the city, mostly residential, with small, pretty apartments, each window like a glistening eye. The streetlamps are made of wrought iron, designs flanking either side of the bulbs. There is a minimalist sense of wealth in the neighborhood, children dressed simply, the women always adjusting scarves around their necks, their hair cut into perfectly symmetrical lines. Souad walks by the manicured lawns of a grammar school, empty and discarded for the summer. Next to it a gray-steepled church. She tries to imagine that, elsewhere, there is smoke and destroyed palaces and men carry­ing guns. It seems impossible.

The night is cool, and Souad wraps her cardigan tightly around her, crosses her arms. A shiver runs through her. She is nervous to see him, a familiar thrill that he always elicits in her. Even before last night.

Le Chat Rouge is a fifteen-minute walk from Mimi’s apartment, but within several blocks the streets begin to change, brownstones and Gothic-style latticework replaced with grungier alleyways, young Algerian men with long hair sitting on steps and drinking beer from cans. One eyes her and calls out, caressingly, something in French. She can make out the words for sweet and return. Bars line the streets with their neon signs and she walks directly across the Quartier Latin courtyard, her shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

“My mother’s going to call tomorrow,” she told Elie yesterday. She wasn’t sure why she said it, but it felt necessary. “They’re taking me to Amman.” In the near dark, Elie’s face was peculiarly lit, the sign making his skin look alien.

“You could stay here,” Elie said. He smiled mockingly. “You could get married.”

Souad had blinked, her lips still wet from the kiss. “Married?” She wasn’t being coy—she truthfully had no idea what Elie meant. Mar­ried to whom? For a long, awful moment, she thought Elie was sug­gesting she marry one of the other Lebanese men, that he was fob­bing her off on a friend in pity.

“Yes.” Elie cocked his head, as though gauging the authenticity of her confusion. He smiled again, kinder this time. He closed his fingers around hers so that she was making a fist and he a larger one atop it. They both watched their hands silently for a few seconds, an awkward pose, more confrontational than romantic, as though he were preventing her from delivering a blow. It occurred to her that he was having a difficult time speaking. She felt her palm itch but didn’t move. Elie cleared his throat, and when he spoke, she had to lean in to hear him.

“You could marry me.”

Now, even in re-creating that moment, Souad feels the swoop in her stomach, her mouth drying. It is a thing she wants in the dark­est, most furtive way, not realizing how badly until it was said aloud. Eighteen years old, a voice within her spoke, eighteen. Too young, too young. And her parents, her waiting life.

But the greater, arrogant part of Souad’s self growled as if wo­ken. Her steps clacked with her want of it. The self swelled trium­phantly—Shame, shame, she admonishes herself, thinking of the war, the invasion, the troops and fire, but she is delighted nonetheless.

From Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2017 by Hala Alyan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Large Animals
by Jess Arndt

In my sleep I was plagued by large animals—teams of grizzlies, timber wolves, gorillas even came in and out of the mist. Once the now extinct northern white rhino also stopped by. But none of them came as often or with such a ferocious sexual charge as what I, mangling Latin and English as usual, called the Walri. Lying there, I faced them as you would the inevitable. They were massive, tube-shaped, sometimes the feeling was only flesh and I couldn’t see the top of the cylinder that masqueraded as a head or tusks or eyes. Nonetheless I knew I was in their presence intuitively. There was no mistaking their skin; their smell was unmistakable too, as was their awful weight.

During these nights (the days seemed to disappear before they even started) I was living two miles from a military testing site. In the early morning and throughout the day the soft, dense sound of bombs filled the valley. It was comforting somehow. Otherwise I was entirely alone.

This seemed a precondition for the Walri—that I should be theirs and theirs only. on the rare occasion that I had an overnight visitor to my desert bungalow the Walri were never around. Then the bears would return in force, maybe even a large local animal like a mountain lion or goat, but no form’s density came close to walrusness. So I became wary and stopped inviting anyone out to visit at all.

The days, unmemorable, had a kind of habitual slide. I would wake up with the sun and begin cleaning the house. No matter how tightly I’d kept the doors shut the day before, dust and sand and even large pieces of mineral rock seemed to shove  their way inside. I swept these into piles. Then the dishes that I barely remembered dirtying—some mornings it was as if the whole artillery of pots and pans had been used in the night by someone else—then the trash (again always full), then some coffee. Eight o’clock.

This work done, I sat in various chairs in the house following the bright but pale blades of light. I was drying out. oh, an LA friend said somewhat knowingly, from the booze? But I had alcohol with me, plenty of it. It wasn’t that. I moved as if preprogrammed. only later did I realize that my sleep was so soggy that it took strong desert sun to unshrivel me and since it was the middle of winter and the beams were perforce slanted, I’d take all of it I could find.

For lunch I got in my car and drove into town, to the empty parking lot of Las Palmas. There were many Mexican joints along the highway that also functioned as Main Street. I hadn’t bothered to try them out. Las Palmas, with its vacant booths, dusty cacti, and combination platter lunch special for $11.99 including $4 house margarita, was fine.

A waitress named Tamara worked there. She seemed like the only one. She wasn’t my type—so tall she bent over herself and a bona fide chain-smoker. Sometimes to order you’d have to exit your booth and find her puffing outside. A friend who had borrowed the bungalow before I did told me about Tamara and so if I had a crush at all it was an inherited one that even came with inherited guilt—from having taken her on once he could no longer visit her. Regardless, we barely spoke.

I had things I was supposed to be doing, more work than I could accomplish even if I
duct-taped my fists to my laptop, but none of it seemed relevant to my current state. In the afternoons I drove back home slowly, always stopping for six-packs of beer at the Circle K. I enjoyed the task. The beer evaporated once I stuck it in my fridge—it was there and then, it was gone.

My sleeping area was simple: a bed on a plywood platform. A wooden dresser. Built-in closets and a cement floor. At first  I would wake up in the night from the sheer flattening silence of the desert. It was impossible that the world still existed elsewhere. After that initial jolt, relief.

Don’t you miss it? my same friend said during our weekly telephone chats. But I couldn’t explain the euphoria of walking up and down the chilly aisles of Stater Bros. In week-old sweatpants if I wanted, uncounted by life. Would I buy refried or whole beans? This brand or that? It didn’t matter, no one cared.

It was in these conditions that the Walri arrived.

* * * 

I’d slept as usual for the first few hours, heavily, in a kind of coma state. Then had woken, I thought to pee. But lying there with the gritty sheets braided around me, the violet light that was created from the fly zapper, the desert cold that was entering through the gaps and cracks in the fire’s absence—I felt a new form of suffocation.

It wasn’t supernatural. I’d also had that. The sense of someone’s vast weight sitting on the bed with you or patting your body with ghostly hands. This breathless feeling was larger, as if I was uniformly surrounded by mammoth flesh.

Dream parts snagged at me. Slapping sounds and hose-like alien respiration. I felt I was wrestling within inches of what must be—since I couldn’t breathe—the end of my life. Now the lens of my dream panned backward and I saw my opponent in his entirety.

He lay (if that’s what you could call it) on my bed, thick and wrinkled, the creases in his hide so deep I could stick my arms between them. His teeth were yellow and as long as my legs.

“I’m sexually dormant,” I said aloud to him. “But I want to put my balls in someone’s face.”

Then somehow light was peeling everything back for dawn.

From Large Animals. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2017 by Jess Arndt.

(Photo: Johanna Breiding)

The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. “What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.”

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. “Did you get off work early?” It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn’t usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. “Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment.” Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn’t tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn’t call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and slow laughter warming the thin February air. “I don’t want you to be like that,” she said. “I don’t want you to be like me. I didn’t even finish eighth grade.”

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was. “I’ll come to your school tomorrow,” his mother said, “talk to your teacher about that assignment.” He kept his arm against his mother’s, loved the scratchy sound of their jackets rubbing together. She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street. Inside her gloves her hands were red and scraped, the skin angry and peeling, and every night before she went to sleep she rubbed a thick lotion onto her fingers and winced. Once he asked if it made them hurt less. She said only for a little while, and he wished there was a special lotion that could make new skin grow, a pair of superpower gloves.

Short and blocky, she wore loose jeans—never had he seen her in a dress—and her voice was so loud that when she called his name dogs would bark and other kids jerked around. When she saw his last report card he thought her shouting would set off the car alarms four stories below. But her laughter was as loud as her shouting, and there was no better, more gratifying sound than when she slapped her knees and cackled at something silly. She laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny, like TV dramas and the swollen orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them, or, better yet, at things Deming said, like when he nailed the way their neighbor Tommie always went, “Not bad-not bad-not bad” when they passed him in the stairwell, an automatic response to a “Hello-how-are-you” that hadn’t yet been issued. Or the time she’d asked, flipping through TV stations, “Dancing with the Stars isn’t on?” and he had excavated Michael’s old paper mobile of the solar system and waltzed with it through the living room as she clapped. It was almost as good as getting cheered on by his friends.

When he had lived in Minjiang with his grandfather, Deming’s mother had explored New York by herself. There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled. She jiggled her legs, bounced her knees, cracked her knuckles, twirled her thumbs. She hated being cooped up in the apartment on a sunny day, paced the rooms from wall to wall to wall, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “Who wants to go for a walk?” she would say. Her boyfriend Leon would tell her to relax, sit down. “Sit down? We’ve been sitting all day!” Deming would want to stay on the couch with Michael, but he couldn’t say no to her and they’d go out, no family but each other. He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside—a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. “To bagels?” she said. “What flavor bagel?” “Everything bagels,” he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.

A bus lumbered past, spraying slush. The walk sign flashed on. “You know what I did today?” his mother said. “One lady, she had a callus the size of your nose on her heel. I had to scrape all that dead skin off. It took forever. And her tip was shit. You’ll never do that, if you’re careful.”

He dreaded this familiar refrain. His mother could curse, but the one time he’d let motherfucker bounce out in front of her, loving the way the syllables got meatbally in his mouth, she had slapped his arm and said he was better than that. Now he silently said the word to himself as he walked, one syllable per footstep.

“Did you think that when I was growing up, a small girl your age, I thought: hey, one day, I’m going to come all the way to New York so I can pick gao gao out of a stranger’s toe? That was not my plan.”

Always be prepared, she liked to say. Never rely on anyone else to give you things you could get yourself. She despised laziness, softness, people who were weak. She had few friends, but was true to the ones she had. She could hold a fierce grudge, would walk an extra three blocks to another grocery store because, two years ago, a cashier at the one around the corner had smirked at her lousy English. It was lousy, Deming agreed.

From The Leavers. Printed by permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Ko.

(Photo: Bartosz Potocki)
page_5: 

The Windfall
by Diksha Basu

The following week, on an unusually overcast September day, Mr. Jha pulled into the quiet lane of his new Gurgaon home. He had never been here by himself, he realized. Mrs. Jha was usually with him, and this summer Rupak had come with them a few times, and there were all the contractors and painters and builders buzzing around, working. He had never really appreciated the silence and the greenery before. Gurgaon felt still while the rest of Delhi throbbed.

The air was heavy with heat and the promise of rain. On the radio, a Bon Jovi song played. “It’s been raining since you left me,” the lyrics said. How funny, Mr. Jha thought. An Indian song would have to say, “It hasn’t rained since you left me.” Unless, of course, you were happy that they left you.

An electronic shoe-polishing machine in a large box was on the passenger seat of his Mercedes. He had strapped it in with the seat belt. It was beautiful. And it was expensive. It was not a planned purchase. This morning he had a breakfast meeting with two young men who were launching a website that would help you find handymen around Delhi, and they asked him to join their team as a consultant. He declined. He did not have time to take on any new work until they were done moving homes. And then they had to visit Rupak, so he was not going to have any free time until November or December. And then it would be the holiday season, so really it was best if he took the rest of the year off work.

The meeting was over breakfast at the luxurious Teresa’s Hotel in Connaught Place in central Delhi, and after filling himself up with mini croissants, fruit tarts, sliced cheeses, salami, coffee, and orange juice, Mr. Jha went for a stroll through the lobby and the other restaurants in the hotel. All the five-star hotels in the center of town were little oases of calm and cool. Mr. Jha was walking by the large windows that overlooked the swimming pool that was for guests only when he thought he would book a two-night stay here. He knew his wife loved the indulgence of nice hotels and he had recently read about what youngsters were calling a staycation—a vacation where you don’t leave the city or the home you usually live in, but you give yourself a few days to take a holiday. Of course, since he didn’t work much anymore, most days, weeks, months were a staycation, but how wonderful it would be to check into a hotel and have a lazy few days. Having room service—or, like they were called at Teresa’s, butlers—was a different sort of pleasure than having servants bringing you food and cleaning your home. Butlers showed that you had made the progression from servants to expensive appliances to uniformed men who ran the expensive appliances.

From The Windfall, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in June. Copyright © 2017 by Diksha Basu.

(Photo: Mikey McCleary)

First Fiction 2016

by

Staff

6.14.16

For our sixteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine for interviews between Yaa Gyasi and Angela Flournoy, Masande Ntshanga and Naomi Jackson, Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub, Maryse Meijer and Lindsay Hunter, and Imbolo Mbue and Christina Baker Kline. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Homegoing (Knopf, June) by Yaa Gyasi
The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, June) by Masande Ntshanga
Rich and Pretty (Ecco, June) by Rumaan Alam
Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) by Maryse Meijer
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, August) by Imbolo Mbue

 

Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.

Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”

The villagers began to say that the baby was born of the fire, that this was the reason Baaba had no milk. Effia was nursed by Cobbe’s second wife, who had just given birth to a son three months before. Effia would not latch on, and when she did, her sharp gums would tear at the flesh around the woman’s nipples until she became afraid to feed the baby. Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small bird- like bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry crywhich could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.

“Love her,” Cobbe commanded, as though love were as simple an act as lifting food up from an iron plate and past one’s lips. At night, Baaba dreamed of leaving the baby in the dark forest so that the god Nyame could do with her as he pleased.

Effia grew older. The summer after her third birthday, Baaba had her first son. The boy’s name was Fiifi, and he was so fat that some- times, when Baaba wasn’t looking, Effia would roll him along the ground like a ball. The first day that Baaba let Effia hold him, she accidentally dropped him. The baby bounced on his buttocks, landed on his stomach, and looked up at everyone in the room, confused as to whether or not he should cry. He decided against it, but Baaba, who had been stirring banku, lifted her stirring stick and beat Effia across her bare back. Each time the stick lifted off the girl’s body, it would leave behind hot, sticky pieces of banku that burned into her flesh. By the time Baaba had finished, Effia was covered with sores, screaming and crying. From the floor, rolling this way and that on his belly, Fiifi looked at Effia with his saucer eyes but made no noise.

Cobbe came home to find his other wives attending to Effia’s wounds and understood immediately what had happened. He and Baaba fought well into the night. Effia could hear them through the thin walls of the hut where she lay on the floor, drifting in and out of a feverish sleep. In her dream, Cobbe was a lion and Baaba was a tree. The lion plucked the tree from the ground where it stood and slammed it back down. The tree stretched its branches in protest, and the lion ripped them off, one by one. The tree, horizontal, began to cry red ants that traveled down the thin cracks between its bark. The ants pooled on the soft earth around the top of the tree trunk.

And so the cycle began. Baaba beat Effia. Cobbe beat Baaba. By the time Effia had reached age ten, she could recite a history of the scars on her body. The summer of 1764, when Baaba broke yams across her back. The spring of 1767, when Baaba bashed her left foot with a rock, breaking her big toe so that it now always pointed away from the other toes. For each scar on Effia’s body, there was a companion scar on Baaba’ s, but that didn’t stop mother from beating daughter, father from beating mother.

Matters were only made worse by Effia’s blossoming beauty. When she was twelve, her breasts arrived, two lumps that sprung from her chest, as soft as mango flesh. The men of the village knew that first blood would soon follow, and they waited for the chance to ask Baaba and Cobbe for her hand. The gifts started. One man tapped palm wine better than anyone else in the village, but another’s fishing nets were never empty. Cobbe’s family feasted off Effia’s burgeoning woman- hood. Their bellies, their hands, were never empty.

Excerpted from HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi. Copyright © 2016 by Yaa Gyasi. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Reactive
By Masande Ntshanga

The way I got to know them, by the way, my two closest friends here, is that we met at one of the new HIV and drug-counseling sessions cropping up all over the city. We were in the basement parking lot of the free clinic in Wynberg. The seminar room upstairs had been locked up and taped shut, there’d been a mer­cury spill, and our group couldn’t meet in there on account of the vapors being toxic to human tissue. Instead, they arranged us in the basement parking lot, and in two weeks we got used to not being sent upstairs for meetings. I did, in any case, and that was enough for me in the beginning.

In those days, I attended the meetings alone. I’d catch a taxi from Obs over to Wynberg for an afternoon’s worth of coun­seling. By the end of my first month, when the seminar room had been swept once, and then twice, and then three times by a short man who wore a blue contamination meter over his chest, each time checking out clean, everyone decided they preferred it down below, and so that’s where we stayed.

Maybe we all want to be buried here, I said.

It had been the first time I’d spoken in group. Talking always took me a while, back then, but the remark succeeded in making a few of them laugh. It won me chuckles even from the old-timers, and later, I wrote down my first addiction story to share with the group. It was from a film I saw adapted from a book I wasn’t likely to read. Ruan and Cissie arrived on the following Wednesday.

I noticed them immediately. Something seemed to draw us in from our first meeting. In the parking lot, we eyeballed each other for a while before we spoke. During the coffee break, we stood by the serving table in front of a peeling Toyota bakkie, mumbling tentatively towards each other’s profiles. I learned that Cecelia was a teacher. She pulled week-long shifts at a day­care center just off Bridge Street in Mowbray, and she was there on account of the school’s accepting its first openly positive pupil. Ruan, who was leaning against the plastic table, gulping more than sipping at the coffee in his paper cup, said that he suffocated through his life by working on the top floor of his uncle’s computer firm. He was there to shop for a social issue they could use for their corporate responsibility strategy. He called it CRS, and Cissie and I had to ask him what he meant.

In the end, I guess I was impressed. I told them how I used to be a lab assistant at Peninsula Tech, and how in a way this was part of how I’d got to be sick with what I have.

When we sat back down again, we listened to the rest of the members assess each other’s nightmares. They passed them around with a familiar casualness. Mark knew about Ronelle’s school fees, for instance, and she knew about Linette’s hepatitis, and all of us knew that Linda had developed a spate of genital warts over September. She called them water warts, when she first told us, and, like most of her symptoms, she blamed them on the rain.

That day, when the discussion turned to drug abuse, as it always did during the last half-hour of our sessions, the three of us had nothing to add. I looked over at Ruan and caught him stashing a grin behind his fist, while on my other side, Cecelia blinked up at the ceiling. I didn’t need any more evidence for our kinship.

The meeting lasted the full two hours, and when it came to an end, I collected my proof of attendance and exchanged num­bers with Ruan and Cecelia. I suppose we said our goodbyes at the entrance of the parking lot that day, and later, within that same week I think, we were huffing paint thinner together in my flat in Obs.

Excerpted from The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. Copyright  ©  2016 by Masande Ntshanga. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 Rich and Pretty
By Rumaan Alam

Lauren’s office is freezing. You could keep butter on the desk. You could perform surgery. Every woman in the office—they’re all women—keeps a cashmere sweater on the back of her chair. They sit, hands outstretched over computer keyboards like a bum’s over a flaming garbage can. The usual office noises: typing, telephones, people using indoor voices, the double ding of an elevator going down. For some reason, the double ding of the elevator going down is louder than the single ding of the elevator going up. There’s a metaphor in there, waiting to be untangled. They make cookbooks, these women. There’s no food, just stacks of paper and editorial assistants in glasses. She’s worked here for four years. It’s fine.

Today is different because today there’s a guy, an actual dude, in the office with them, not a photographer or stylist popping by for a meeting, as does happen: He’s
a temp, because Kristen is having a baby and her doctor put her on bed rest. Lauren isn’t totally clear on what Kristen does, but now there’s a dude doing it. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, and loafers, not sneakers, which implies a certain maturity. Lauren’s been trying to get him to notice her all day. She’s the second-prettiest woman in the office, so it isn’t hard. Hannah, the prettiest, has a vacant quality about her. She’s not stupid, exactly—in fact, she’s very competent—but she doesn’t have spark. She’s not interesting, just thin and blond, with heavy eyeglasses and a photograph of her French bulldog on her computer screen.

Lauren has it all planned out. She’ll walk past his desk a couple of times, which isn’t suspicious because his desk isn’t far from the kitchen, and the kitchen is where the coffee is, and by the third time, he’ll follow her in there, and she’ll make a wisecrack about the coffee, and he’ll say it’s not so bad, and they’ll talk, and exchange phone numbers, e-mail addresses, whatever, and then later they’ll leave the office at the same time, ride down together in the elevator and not talk because they both understand that the social contract dictates that sane people do not talk in elevators, and then he’ll let her go through the revolving door first, even though she’s pretty sure that etiquette has it that men precede women through revolving doors, and then they’ll both be standing on Broadway, and there will be traffic and that vague smell of charred, ethnic meat from the guy with the lunch cart on the corner, and he’ll suggest they get a drink, and she’ll say sure, and they’ll go to the Irish pub on Fifty-Fifth Street, because there’s nowhere else to go, and after two drinks they’ll be starving, and he’ll suggest they get dinner, but there’s nowhere to eat in this part of town, so they’ll take the train to Union Square and realize there’s nowhere to eat there either, and they’ll walk down into the East Village and find something, maybe ramen, or that Moroccan-y place that she always forgets she likes, and they’ll eat, and they’ll start touching each other, casually but deliberately, carefully, and the check will come and she’ll say let’s split it, and he’ll say no let me, even though he’s a temp and can’t make that much money, right? Then they’ll be drunk, so taking a cab seems wise and they’ll make out in the backseat, but just a little bit, and kind of laugh about it, too: stop to check their phones, or admire the view, or so he can explain that he lives with a roommate or a dog, or so she can tell him some stupid story about work that won’t mean anything to him anyway because it’s only his first day and he doesn’t know anyone’s name, let alone their personality quirks and the complexities of the office’s political and social ecosystem.

Then he’ll pay the driver, because they’ll go to his place—she doesn’t want to bring the temp back to her place—and it’ll be nice, or fine, or ugly, and he’ll open beers because all he has are beers, and she’ll pretend to drink hers even though she’s had enough, and he’ll excuse himself for a minute to go to the bathroom, but really it’s to brush his teeth, piss, maybe rub some wet toilet paper around his ass and under his balls. This is something Gabe had told her, years ago, that men do this, or at least, that he did. Unerotic, but somehow touching. Then the temp will come sit next to her on the couch, please let it be a couch and not a futon, and he’ll play with her hair a little before he kisses her, his mouth minty, hers beery. He’ll be out of his shirt, then, and he’s hard and hairy, but also a little soft at the belly, which she likes. She once slept with this guy Sean, whose torso, hairless and lean, freaked her out. It was like having sex with a female mannequin. The temp will push or pull her into his bedroom, just the right balance of aggression and respect, and the room will be fine, or ugly, and the bedsheets will be navy, as men’s bedsheets always are, and there will be venetian blinds, and lots of books on the nightstand because he’s temping at a publishing company so he must love to read. She’ll tug her shirt over her head, and he’ll pull at her bra, and they’ll be naked, and he’ll fumble around for a condom, and his dick will be long but not, crucially, thick, and it will be good, and then it will be over. They’ll laugh about how this whole thing is against the company’s sexual harassment policy. She’ll try to cover herself with the sheet, and he’ll do the same, suddenly embarrassed by his smaller, slightly sticky dick. When he’s out of the room, to get a beer, to piss, whatever, she’ll get dressed. He’ll call her a car service, because there are no yellow cabs wherever he lives. They’ll both spend the part of the night right before they fall asleep trying to figure out how to act around each other in the office tomorrow.

Or maybe not that. Maybe she’ll find a way to go up to him and say, what, exactly, Hey, do you like parties? Do you want to go to a party . . . tonight? No, the jeans and tie are fine. It’s not fancy. A party. A good party. Good open bar, for sure. Probably canapés, what are canapés exactly, whatever they are, there will probably be some. Last party, there were these balls of cornbread and shrimp, like deep fried, holy shit they were great. That was last year, I think. Anyway, there might be celebrities there. There will definitely be celebrities there. I once saw Bill Clinton at one of these parties. He’s skinnier than you’d think. Anyway, think about it, it’ll be a time, and by the way, I’m Lauren, I’m an associate editor here and you are? She can picture his conversation, the words coming to her so easily, as they do in fantasy but never in reality. They call it meeting cute, in movies, but it only happens in movies.

From Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam. Copyright © 2016 by Rumaan Alam. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Heartbreaker
By Maryse Meijer

Daddy comes over on Thursdays. My husband and son are out watching movies where people blow each other up. They have burgers afterward and buf- falo wings and milkshakes and they talk about  TV shows and girls and the latest bloody video game. At least that’s what I imagine they do. No way do they imagine what I am doing, sitting here at the kitchen table doing my math homework as Daddy microwaves the mac and cheese he brought over. We have three hours together and in these three hours I am twelve years old and my daddy is the most wonderful man in the world.

On craigslist I post the photo from my work website, the one with my hair scraped back in a ponytail, expos- ing my shiny forehead, my thin lips, my arms bursting from the sleeves of my blue blouse. Daughter seeks Father is all I write as a caption. In response I receive an avalanche of cell-phone numbers, chat invitations, and penis pics lifted from porn sites.

I delete all the emails except for Richard’s: Sweetheart, please call home. I sit for a moment hunched in my cubicle, sweating, before lifting the receiver and dialing his number.

Daddy? I whisper, hand up to cover my mouth so no one walking by can see it moving.

He doesn’t skip a beat. Sweetheart! he says. Did you see the photo? I ask.

Of course, he says.

I’m not better in person, I warn. You’re perfect, he assures me.

I’m married, I tell him. I have a kid. No problem, he insists.

I chew the inside of my cheek. There’s not going to be any sex, I say.

Absolutely not! he agrees.

I wait for him to say something creepy or disgusting, but he doesn’t. We make arrangements to meet at McDonald’s for dinner on Thursday.

Don’t kill me, I say, and he laughs.

Oh sweetheart, he says. What on earth?

I’m  early. I don’t  know what Daddy looks like and every time the door swings open my head jerks like a ball on a string. I convince myself I’m going to be stood up and that it will be better anyway if I am. But at seven on the dot he enters and he looks straight at me and waves.

Our usual, sweetheart?  he says, loud enough for other people to hear, and I nod. He brings a tray of chicken nugget combos to my table. He kisses my cheek. The food steams in our hands as we look at each other; he seems about twenty, twenty-two, with chinos frayed at the bottoms and red hair and glasses and biceps as skinny as my wrist. Maybe someday he will be good- looking.

Extra barbecue sauce, just the way you like, he says, gesturing to my nuggets. I smile and take a bite. He asks me about school and I ask him about work and he is as interested in how I’m doing in gym class as I am in the stocks he’s trading at the office; we slip into our new roles as easily as knives into butter.

I almost forgot, he says. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a CD with a Christmas bow stuck on it. Just a little something, he adds, and hands it to me. I unstick the bow and turn the CD over in my hands: Britney Spears. I bounce, once, and my left butt cheek, which doesn’t quite fit on the plastic chair, bangs on the edge of the seat.

Oh Daddy, I say, touched because I k now he went into a store and asked what would be the right thing to get for his little girl, and he paid for it with his own money and put it in his pocket and found  the gaudy bow to go with it and then brought it all the way here, to me, because he k new he would like me and already wanted to give me something, and this makes me want to give everything I have to him in return.

Apart from  Thursday nights—and it’s  always Thurs- days, always nights—we don’t communicate, except by email. Sometimes he’ll send me a note just to say, Have a great day!! or he’ll tell me what plans he has for dinner: Working late need a treat pizza sound  good??? or he’ll hint at imagined happenings in my little-girl life: Don’t forget dentist today xoxoxoxo!! and Good luck on the history quiz I know you’ll do awesome!!!! I write back in equally breathless terms to report the results of the history quiz or the number of cavities rotting my teeth or to squeal over the impending pizza feast. These exchanges give me a high so intense my chest muscles spasm and when my boss calls and says to bring her such-and-such a document I hit print and out comes an email from Daddy, not the work document, and I giggle into my hand and hit print again.

He always arrives exactly fifteen minutes after my hus- band and son leave. I sit on the couch with the televi- sion on while he fumbles with the keys and the empty banged-up briefcase he always brings. Sweetheart! he says when he enters, and I yelp Daddy! and if I was maybe ten or twenty or, okay, thirty pounds lighter, I might run toward him, but as it is I wait on the couch for him to come over and k iss my hair. I’ll pour him a soda on the rocks and he’ll  pour  me some milk and we touch glasses and smile. If my husband calls I stand by the back door with my head down and say Uh-huh, yes, fine, all right, see you soon, no, nothing for me, thanks, I’m enjoying the leftovers, have fun, love you.

Excerpted from Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. Copyright ©  Maryse Meijer, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

page_5: 

Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue

He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn’t even owned a résumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.

He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about. Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

“Good morning, please,” he said to the security guard in the lobby when he arrived at Lehman Brothers. “My name is Jende Jonga. I am here for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Clark Edwards.”

The guard, goateed and freckled, asked for his ID, which he quickly pulled out of his brown bifold wallet. The man took it, examined it front and back, looked up at his face, looked down at his suit, smiled, and asked if he was trying to become a stockbroker or something.

Jende shook his head. “No,” he replied without smiling back. “A chauffeur.”

“Right on,” the guard said as he handed him a visitor pass. “Good luck with that.”

This time Jende smiled. “Thank you, my brother,” he said. “I really need all that good luck today.”

Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no visible remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips. When the doors opened he straightened his shoulders and introduced himself to the receptionist, who, after responding with a nod and a display of extraordinarily white teeth, made a phone call and asked him to follow her. They walked through an open space where young men in blue shirts sat in cubicles with multiple screens, down a corridor, past another open space of cluttered cubicles and into a sunny office with a four-paneled glass window running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the thousand autumn-drenched trees and proud towers of Manhattan standing outside. For a second his mouth fell open, at the view outside—the likes of which he’d never seen—and the exquisiteness inside. There was a lounging section (black leather sofa, two black leather chairs, glass coffee table) to his right, an executive desk (oval, cherry, black leather reclining chair for the executive, two green leather armchairs for visitors) in the center, and a wall unit (cherry, glass doors, white folders in neat rows) to his left, in front of which Clark Edwards, in a dark suit, was standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder.

“Please, sir, good morning,” Jende said, turning toward him and half-bowing.

“Have a seat,” Clark said without lifting his eyes from the shredder.

Jende hurried to the armchair on the left. He pulled a résumé from his folder and placed it in front of Clark’s seat, careful not to disturb the layers of white papers and Wall Street Journals strewn across the desk in a jumble. One of the Journal pages, peeking from beneath sheets of numbers and graphs, had the headline: Whites’ Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-blind America.” Jende leaned forward to read the story, fascinated as he was by the young ambitious senator, but immediately sat upright when he remembered where he was, why he was there, what was about to happen.

“Do you have any outstanding tickets you need to resolve?” Clark asked as he sat down.

“No, sir,” Jende replied.

“And you haven’t been in any serious accidents, right?”

“No, Mr. Edwards.”

Clark picked up the résumé from his desk, wrinkled and moist like the man whose history it held. His eyes remained on it for several seconds while Jende’s darted back and forth, from the Central Park treetops far beyond the window to the office walls lined with abstract paintings and portraits of white men wearing bow ties. He could feel beads of sweat rising out of his forehead.

“Well, Jende,” Clark said, putting the résumé down and leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about yourself.”

Excerpted from Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Copyright  ©  2016 by Imbolo Mbue. Reprinted with permission of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

First Fiction 2018

by

Staff

6.13.18

For our eighteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2018 issue of the magazine for interviews between R. O. Kwon and Celeste Ng, Fatima Farheen Mirza and Garth Greenwell, Jamel Brinkley and Danielle Evans, Katharine Dion and Adam Haslett, and Tommy Orange and Claire Vaye Watkins. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

The Incendiaries (Riverhead, July) by R. O. Kwon
A Place for Us (SJP for Hogarth, June) by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, May) by Jamel Brinkley
The Dependents (Little, Brown, June) by Katharine Dion
There There (Knopf, June) by Tommy Orange

The Incendiaries
by R. O. Kwon 
 

It was past the time the march should have begun, and people were losing patience. I’ll give it five minutes, then I’m calling it quits, a man said. Placards leaned against a building wall. I saw John Leal talking to people I didn’t recognize. With a nod, he stepped on an upended crate. His mouth moved. In that hubbub, I couldn’t pick out his words. Phoebe apologized again, tearful. It’s all right, I said, but she had more she wanted to explain. It’s fine, I said. Hoping she’d calm down, I kissed Phoebe’s head. I was intent on listening to John Leal’s speech: I was curious what his effect would be with this large an audience, if they’d respond as we did. He lifted his head, pitching his voice.

. . . hands splashed with blood, he said. We’re all here this Saturday morning, and I know I don’t need to tell you the truth that an unborn child has a heartbeat before it’s a month old. I don’t have to tell you that, within the first three months of fetal life, a human infant’s strong enough to grip a hand. But I’m not sure if it’s done much good, all this truth. What point it’s had, if you and I aren’t saving lives.
 

Excepted from The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon.

(Photo: Smeeta Mahanti)

A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza 

Amar was the one they loved the most. He was the one whose picture Mumma kept in her wallet behind her license. Him smiling with a toothless grin. Mumma ran her fingers through his hair as if it nourished her. A painting he did of a boat on the ocean was tacked above Baba’s office desk when she visited him at work. Once Hadia spent an entire afternoon counting the faces in the framed pictures, and Amar had beaten them all by seven. Hadia and Huda were a two-for-one deal: if there was a framed picture of them, they were likely together. Mumma served food for Amar first, and then Baba, and she always asked Amar if he wanted seconds. She was not even aware of doing it. Hadia’s daily chore was washing the dishes and Huda’s was sweeping. If Amar was asked to help, the two of them would shout and cheer to mark the day. Sometimes this made Hadia so angry that if she was left in charge of the cleaning while Mumma and Baba were out, she would delegate everything to Amar. He was the only one Mumma had a nickname for. His favorite ice cream flavor was always stocked in the fridge; if Hadia helped unload the groceries and saw a pistachio and almond carton, she reminded Baba that Amar was the only one of them who ate that flavor.

“You don’t love it too?” Baba would ask her distractedly, every time.

“No,” she’d say quietly, thinking there was no point in correcting him at all.

Once, only once, had she confronted her mother about this, after her mother had taken his side during a fight that he was clearly to blame for.

“You love him more,” she had shouted. “You love him more than all of us.”

“Don’t be silly.” Her mother was calm, as if she was bored by Hadia’s tantrum. “You think about him more. What he needs and what he wants.” Hadia had turned to run back into her room. “We worry about him more,” her mother had called after her, so gently that Hadia had wanted to believe her. “We don’t have to worry about you.”

She had sniffled, and locked her bedroom door, embarrassed by her outburst. She plotted to do something that would make her parents worry about her, as if their worry would prove the depth of their love. But she was afraid. They had endless patience for Amar’s antics. She feared the only thing worse than wondering if they loved him more was testing their patience, proving it to be thin, and knowing for certain.

They loved Hadia because she did well. Her grades were good and her teachers said kind things about her. She was not sure if Baba would even notice her at all, if she did not work hard to distinguish herself academically. The only compliment Mumma ever gave her was that when Hadia cleaned the stove, it always sparkled.

“Even I can’t clean like that,” Mumma would say. And there would be actual awe in her voice, and Hadia would never know if she should feel glad for the compliment, or annoyed that it was the only thing that Mumma valued enough to note.

Amar was their son. Even the word son felt like something shiny and golden to her, like the actual sun that reigned over their days.

Baba would sometimes say to Hadia, “One day you’ll live with your husband. You’ll care for his parents. You’ll forget about us.”

It was meant as a joke, “you’ll forget about us,” or “we will no longer be responsible for you.” But it was never funny.

“Amar will take care of us, right, Ami?” Mumma would squeeze his cheeks. Amar would nod.

“Why can’t I?” she would say.

“Because the role of the daughter is to go off, to make her own home, to take her husband’s name—daughters are never really ours,” Baba would tell her.

But I want to be yours, she’d want to say. I want to be yours or just my own.

“I won’t take anyone’s name,” she’d vow aloud, but he would have stopped listening.

Everyone important was a boy. The Prophets and the Imams had been men. The moulana was always a man. Jonah got to be swallowed by the whale. Joseph was given the colorful coat and the powerful dreams. Noah knew the flood was coming. Whereas Noah’s wife was silly and drowned. Eve was the first to reach for the fruit. But Hadia liked to keep her examples close. It was Moses’s sister who had the clever idea to put him in the basket, and the Pharaoh’s wife who had the heart to pull him from the river. It was Bibi Mariam who was given the miracle of Jesus. Bibi Fatima was the only child the Prophet had and the Prophet never lamented the lack of a son. And she liked to think that there was a reason that one of the first things the Prophet ever did was forbid the people of Quraysh from burying their newborn daughters alive. But still, hundreds and hundreds of years had passed, and it was still the son they cherished, the son their pride depended on, the son who would carry their name into the next generation.

Excerpted from A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Copyright © 2018 by Fatima Farheen Mirza. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by SJP for Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

(Photo: Gregg Richards)

 

A Lucky Man
by Jamel Brinkley 

James kept busy at the security desk now, doing the work of both men while Lincoln sat there with his stomach on his lap. He felt a sort of bond with James now, a familiar gratitude. But one gets sick and tired of saying thank you. When he was engaged to Alexis, and during their first years of marriage, his friends would also tell him how lucky he was, but this was said as a joke. Lincoln would say thank you and agree, would tell them how grateful he was for her, but this wasn’t true. He deserved her—this was what he believed, and he knew this was what his friends believed in. A man of a kind should get what he deserves, and if a man like him couldn’t get a woman like her, then something was terribly wrong with the world.

James snipped withered leaves from the spider plants, a thing he’d never done before. Do her friends tell her she’s lucky? Lincoln wondered. Has Donna said that to her? Has her mother told her to give thanks for her man? She might be saying it now as they picked plums and nectarines at the fruit market, or sat out on the porch shelling peas. Surely this was foolish thinking, just as foolish as thinking Tameka would spend these years breaking the hearts of any eager Georgetown boy who wasn’t like her father. Lincoln came to understand that this had always been part of his vision for himself, to have children who adored him—a son who resembled and worshipped him, a daughter for whom no other man would ever measure up. This was part of what he couldn’t see before he married. But there was no son, and the years of Tameka’s life had marked his decline.

She had grown up watching it. His professional gambles with the boxing gyms, and the attempts at training and managing, had failed. His charm and stature no longer earned him opportunities, and in New York he had no reputation. He was lucky, he knew, to have his job at Tilden, steady and respectable work, but years ago he and his wife had deserved each other. Time had not treated them equally. Why did he expect otherwise though? With any two people one would get the brunt of it, and time had hit him worse than any beating he’d ever seen in the ring. He felt it had brutalized him. What did his wife think? Alexis had always been kind and supportive, but in her privacy she had to keep thoughts. A long marriage forced you to witness or suffer such brutality. Lincoln wondered, not for the first time, if this was exactly what marriage meant.

Across from the front desk, James pulled the director of security aside. Lincoln couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the discussion had the look of seriousness. He approached, but the director stopped him short with a flat stony hand, which he closed into a fist before lowering. Lincoln went back to his chair.

One day his wife’s looks would go. Creases would line her face, the skin there would loosen and thin, pouches would form under her eyes, maybe little dewlaps like his under the jaw. And her mind, it would start to slip and show weakness too. Everything cracks eventually. But when? How long would it be his good fortune to have her? How long until he could just plain have her again? Her smooth face. Even after all these years he longed for it, to rub his cheek against hers and breathe hot words into her hair—there’d been no diminishment of that feeling. He still had those appetites, and she did too. Yet he also felt the urge to press the sharps of his teeth against her face, to bite down and place the first deep crack in it. When pulled by contrary desires, you often don’t do anything at all. So on evenings and weekends he’d sit at home like a chastened boy, captive to her every small gesture. He didn’t want to lose her.

But Lincoln was a man with luck—yes, he still had it, James had said so and he was right. Good fortune can change in an instant, however, or it might never, but whatever it does has nothing to do with you. For years it had persisted in following him. It went home from work with him, lived with his family, claimed a space between him and his wife in their bed. She still had her light, but his was his luck. If it left him, she would too. No one would blame her. Neither Donna nor her other girlfriends, nor her mother, nor their daughter. Nor James. Maybe James had been wrong earlier. Maybe Lincoln’s luck had already abandoned him—his wife was gone for now, after all. Or maybe Lincoln was the one with wrong notions—maybe, slumped in his chair at the desk, unable to muster the little strength it took to hold in his belly, it was his luck that he was alone with.

Excerpted from A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. Copyright © 2018 by Jamel Brinkley. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

(Photo: Arash Saedinia)

The Dependents
by Katharine Dion

His early forays on the internet had been limited to responding to the emails his daughter sent him and occasionally reading the sensationalistic but nevertheless impossible-to-ignore news stories that appeared on his home page. (He wondered if this was something Dary could tell from the settings—that he clicked on articles such as “Nude Man Accidentally Tasers Self” or “Beano Bandit Apprehended.”) When Dary realized how little  he was using the computer she tried to help him, but the only thing that really stuck with him from her tutorials was this idea that you could ask the internet a question, any question, and it would give you not just one answer but dozens. He found this oddly reassuring because it suggested that somewhere on the other side of the internet connection, back in the human realm, somebody—and possibly a lot of somebodies—had the same semiprivate question that was more comfortable to send through a filtering layer of inhuman data.

Now he typed into the oracle field: “How to write a eulogy.” It was nice, or at least nonjudgmental, he supposed, that the internet assumed nothing about your existing abilities. Maybe you were a human willing to exert some effort, or maybe you were a half-automaton who needed to pass himself off as acceptably human. If he hadn’t wanted to write the eulogy there were plentiful options: premade templates, preselected themes, inspirational quotations, mournful yet triumphant poems. He was looking for something else, something that wouldn’t give him the shape of the thought, but that would tell him how to begin a process of thinking about the unthinkable.

He opened the top drawer of Maida’s dresser. She had never bothered to match up her socks, mixing them loose among her underwear and bras, and her pantyhose often ended up stretched beyond use or tangled in a knot. How many times had she and Gene been late for some event because on the way she had made him stop at the drugstore to buy a new pair? She would wriggle into it standing beside the car right there in the parking lot, while Gene would lower himself in the front seat, hoping nobody they knew saw them. When she was alive her tendency to make them late had never ceased to frustrate him, but now he looked upon her disorganization with peculiar fondness. Suddenly everything that was hers—the coins that had once been in her pocket, the hour and minute she had last set her alarm—was overburdened with significance. In some mad inversion of time, grieving his wife’s death resembled falling in love.

The most reasonable site he found had been created by an entity who called herself “the Lady in Black.” She said that writing a eulogy was “a personal journey of gathering memories.” She suggested collecting personal items that belonged to the deceased, and “spending time with them until they speak to you—not literally, of course!” Following the Lady in Black’s suggestion, he got up from the computer and went upstairs to the bedroom to find these items.

Excerpted from The Dependents by Katharine Dion. Copyright © 2018 by Katharine Dion. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Terri Loewenthal)
page_5: 

There There
by Tommy Orange

Blood is messy when it comes out. Inside it runs clean and looks blue in tubes that line our bodies, that split and branch like earth’s river systems. Blood is ninety percent water. And like water it must move. Blood must flow, never stray or split or clot or divide—lose any essential amount of itself while it distributes evenly through our bodies. But blood is messy when it comes out. It dries, divides, and cracks in the air.

Native blood quantum was introduced in 1705 at the Virginia Colony. If you were at least half Native, you didn’t have the same rights as white people. Blood quantum and tribal membership qualifications have since been turned over to individual tribes to decide.

In the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein commissioned a Quran to be written in his own blood. Now Muslim leaders aren’t sure what to do with it. To have written the Quran in blood was a sin, but to destroy it would also be a sin.

The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we’re broken. And don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?

When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like “sore losers” and “move on already,” “quit playing the blame game.” But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say “Get over it.” This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed over­board by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agita­tor gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

Excerpted from There There by Tommy Orange. Copyright © 2018 by Tommy Orange. Reprinted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

(Photo: Elena Seibert)

First Fiction 2017

by

Danzy Senna, Mira Jacob, Maggie Nelson, Emily Raboteau, Gary Shteyngart

6.14.17

For our seventeenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2017 issue of the magazine for interviews between Zinzi Clemmons and Danzy Senna, Hala Alyan and Mira Jacob, Jess Arndt and Maggie Nelson, Lisa Ko and Emily Raboteau, and Diksha Basu and Gary Shteyngart. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

What We Lose (Viking, July) by Zinzi Clemmons
Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May) by Hala Alyan
Large Animals (Catapult, May) by Jess Arndt
The Leavers (Algonquin Books, May) by Lisa Ko
The Windfall (Crown, June) by Diksha Basu
 

What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons

My parents’ bedroom is arranged exactly the same as it always was. The big mahogany dresser sits opposite the bed, the doily still in place on the vanity. My mother’s little ring holders and perfume bottles still stand there. On top of all these old feminine relics, my father has set up his home office. His old IBM laptop sits atop the doily, a tangle of cords choking my mother’s silver makeup tray. His books are scattered around the tables, his clothes draped carelessly over the antique wing chair that my mother found on a trip to Quebec.

In the kitchen, my father switches on a small flat-screen TV that he’s installed on the wall opposite the stove. My mother never allowed TV in the kitchen, to encourage bonding during family dinners and focus during homework time. As a matter of fact, we never had more than one television while I was growing up—an old wood-paneled set that lived in the cold basement, carefully hidden from me and visitors in the main living areas of the house.

We order Chinese from the place around the corner, the same order that we’ve made for years: sesame chicken, vegetable fried rice, shrimp lo mein. As soon as they hear my father’s voice on the line, they put in the order; he doesn’t even have to ask for it. When he picks the order up, they ask after me. When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.

My father tells me that he’s been organizing at work, now that he’s the only black faculty member in the upper ranks of the administration.

I notice that he has started cutting his hair differently. It is shorter on the sides and disappearing in patches around the crown of his skull. He pulls himself up in his chair with noticeable effort. He had barely aged in the past twenty years, and suddenly, in the past year, he has inched closer to looking like his father, a stooped, lean, yellow-skinned man I’ve only seen in pictures.

“How have you been, Dad?” I say as we sit at the table.

The thought of losing my father lurks constantly in my mind now, shadowy, inexpressible, but bursting to the surface when, like now, I perceive the limits of his body. Something catches in my throat and I clench my jaw.

My father says that he has been keeping busy. He has been volunteering every month at the community garden on Christian Street, turning compost and watering kale.

“And I’m starting a petition to hire another black professor,” he says, stabbing his glazed chicken with a fire I haven’t seen in him in years.

He asks about Peter.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone you like,” he says.

“Love, Dad,” I say. “We’re in love.”

He pauses, stirring his noodles quizzically with his fork. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asks.

I stare at the food in front of me. It’s the closest thing to comfort food since my mother has been gone. The unique flavor of her curries and stews buried, forever, with her. The sight of the food appeals to me, but the smell, suddenly, is noxious; the wisp of steam emanating from it, scorching.

“Are you all right?”

All of a sudden, I have the feeling that I am sinking. I feel the pressure of my skin holding in my organs and blood vessels and fluids; the tickle of every hair that covers it. The feeling is so disorienting and overwhelming that I can no longer hold my head up. I push my dinner away from me. I walk calmly but quickly to the powder room, lift the toilet seat, and throw up.

From What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, published in July by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Zinzi Clemmons.

(Photo: Nina Subin)

Salt Houses
by Hala Alyan

On the street, she fumbles for a cigarette from her purse and smokes as she walks into the evening. She feels a sudden urge, now that she is outside the apartment, to clear her head. This is her favor­ite thing about the city—the ability it gives you to walk, to literally put space between your body and distress. In Kuwait, nobody walks anywhere.

Mimi lives in a quiet part of the city, mostly residential, with small, pretty apartments, each window like a glistening eye. The streetlamps are made of wrought iron, designs flanking either side of the bulbs. There is a minimalist sense of wealth in the neighborhood, children dressed simply, the women always adjusting scarves around their necks, their hair cut into perfectly symmetrical lines. Souad walks by the manicured lawns of a grammar school, empty and discarded for the summer. Next to it a gray-steepled church. She tries to imagine that, elsewhere, there is smoke and destroyed palaces and men carry­ing guns. It seems impossible.

The night is cool, and Souad wraps her cardigan tightly around her, crosses her arms. A shiver runs through her. She is nervous to see him, a familiar thrill that he always elicits in her. Even before last night.

Le Chat Rouge is a fifteen-minute walk from Mimi’s apartment, but within several blocks the streets begin to change, brownstones and Gothic-style latticework replaced with grungier alleyways, young Algerian men with long hair sitting on steps and drinking beer from cans. One eyes her and calls out, caressingly, something in French. She can make out the words for sweet and return. Bars line the streets with their neon signs and she walks directly across the Quartier Latin courtyard, her shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

“My mother’s going to call tomorrow,” she told Elie yesterday. She wasn’t sure why she said it, but it felt necessary. “They’re taking me to Amman.” In the near dark, Elie’s face was peculiarly lit, the sign making his skin look alien.

“You could stay here,” Elie said. He smiled mockingly. “You could get married.”

Souad had blinked, her lips still wet from the kiss. “Married?” She wasn’t being coy—she truthfully had no idea what Elie meant. Mar­ried to whom? For a long, awful moment, she thought Elie was sug­gesting she marry one of the other Lebanese men, that he was fob­bing her off on a friend in pity.

“Yes.” Elie cocked his head, as though gauging the authenticity of her confusion. He smiled again, kinder this time. He closed his fingers around hers so that she was making a fist and he a larger one atop it. They both watched their hands silently for a few seconds, an awkward pose, more confrontational than romantic, as though he were preventing her from delivering a blow. It occurred to her that he was having a difficult time speaking. She felt her palm itch but didn’t move. Elie cleared his throat, and when he spoke, she had to lean in to hear him.

“You could marry me.”

Now, even in re-creating that moment, Souad feels the swoop in her stomach, her mouth drying. It is a thing she wants in the dark­est, most furtive way, not realizing how badly until it was said aloud. Eighteen years old, a voice within her spoke, eighteen. Too young, too young. And her parents, her waiting life.

But the greater, arrogant part of Souad’s self growled as if wo­ken. Her steps clacked with her want of it. The self swelled trium­phantly—Shame, shame, she admonishes herself, thinking of the war, the invasion, the troops and fire, but she is delighted nonetheless.

From Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2017 by Hala Alyan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Large Animals
by Jess Arndt

In my sleep I was plagued by large animals—teams of grizzlies, timber wolves, gorillas even came in and out of the mist. Once the now extinct northern white rhino also stopped by. But none of them came as often or with such a ferocious sexual charge as what I, mangling Latin and English as usual, called the Walri. Lying there, I faced them as you would the inevitable. They were massive, tube-shaped, sometimes the feeling was only flesh and I couldn’t see the top of the cylinder that masqueraded as a head or tusks or eyes. Nonetheless I knew I was in their presence intuitively. There was no mistaking their skin; their smell was unmistakable too, as was their awful weight.

During these nights (the days seemed to disappear before they even started) I was living two miles from a military testing site. In the early morning and throughout the day the soft, dense sound of bombs filled the valley. It was comforting somehow. Otherwise I was entirely alone.

This seemed a precondition for the Walri—that I should be theirs and theirs only. on the rare occasion that I had an overnight visitor to my desert bungalow the Walri were never around. Then the bears would return in force, maybe even a large local animal like a mountain lion or goat, but no form’s density came close to walrusness. So I became wary and stopped inviting anyone out to visit at all.

The days, unmemorable, had a kind of habitual slide. I would wake up with the sun and begin cleaning the house. No matter how tightly I’d kept the doors shut the day before, dust and sand and even large pieces of mineral rock seemed to shove  their way inside. I swept these into piles. Then the dishes that I barely remembered dirtying—some mornings it was as if the whole artillery of pots and pans had been used in the night by someone else—then the trash (again always full), then some coffee. Eight o’clock.

This work done, I sat in various chairs in the house following the bright but pale blades of light. I was drying out. oh, an LA friend said somewhat knowingly, from the booze? But I had alcohol with me, plenty of it. It wasn’t that. I moved as if preprogrammed. only later did I realize that my sleep was so soggy that it took strong desert sun to unshrivel me and since it was the middle of winter and the beams were perforce slanted, I’d take all of it I could find.

For lunch I got in my car and drove into town, to the empty parking lot of Las Palmas. There were many Mexican joints along the highway that also functioned as Main Street. I hadn’t bothered to try them out. Las Palmas, with its vacant booths, dusty cacti, and combination platter lunch special for $11.99 including $4 house margarita, was fine.

A waitress named Tamara worked there. She seemed like the only one. She wasn’t my type—so tall she bent over herself and a bona fide chain-smoker. Sometimes to order you’d have to exit your booth and find her puffing outside. A friend who had borrowed the bungalow before I did told me about Tamara and so if I had a crush at all it was an inherited one that even came with inherited guilt—from having taken her on once he could no longer visit her. Regardless, we barely spoke.

I had things I was supposed to be doing, more work than I could accomplish even if I
duct-taped my fists to my laptop, but none of it seemed relevant to my current state. In the afternoons I drove back home slowly, always stopping for six-packs of beer at the Circle K. I enjoyed the task. The beer evaporated once I stuck it in my fridge—it was there and then, it was gone.

My sleeping area was simple: a bed on a plywood platform. A wooden dresser. Built-in closets and a cement floor. At first  I would wake up in the night from the sheer flattening silence of the desert. It was impossible that the world still existed elsewhere. After that initial jolt, relief.

Don’t you miss it? my same friend said during our weekly telephone chats. But I couldn’t explain the euphoria of walking up and down the chilly aisles of Stater Bros. In week-old sweatpants if I wanted, uncounted by life. Would I buy refried or whole beans? This brand or that? It didn’t matter, no one cared.

It was in these conditions that the Walri arrived.

* * * 

I’d slept as usual for the first few hours, heavily, in a kind of coma state. Then had woken, I thought to pee. But lying there with the gritty sheets braided around me, the violet light that was created from the fly zapper, the desert cold that was entering through the gaps and cracks in the fire’s absence—I felt a new form of suffocation.

It wasn’t supernatural. I’d also had that. The sense of someone’s vast weight sitting on the bed with you or patting your body with ghostly hands. This breathless feeling was larger, as if I was uniformly surrounded by mammoth flesh.

Dream parts snagged at me. Slapping sounds and hose-like alien respiration. I felt I was wrestling within inches of what must be—since I couldn’t breathe—the end of my life. Now the lens of my dream panned backward and I saw my opponent in his entirety.

He lay (if that’s what you could call it) on my bed, thick and wrinkled, the creases in his hide so deep I could stick my arms between them. His teeth were yellow and as long as my legs.

“I’m sexually dormant,” I said aloud to him. “But I want to put my balls in someone’s face.”

Then somehow light was peeling everything back for dawn.

From Large Animals. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2017 by Jess Arndt.

(Photo: Johanna Breiding)

The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. “What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.”

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. “Did you get off work early?” It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn’t usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. “Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment.” Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn’t tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn’t call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and slow laughter warming the thin February air. “I don’t want you to be like that,” she said. “I don’t want you to be like me. I didn’t even finish eighth grade.”

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was. “I’ll come to your school tomorrow,” his mother said, “talk to your teacher about that assignment.” He kept his arm against his mother’s, loved the scratchy sound of their jackets rubbing together. She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street. Inside her gloves her hands were red and scraped, the skin angry and peeling, and every night before she went to sleep she rubbed a thick lotion onto her fingers and winced. Once he asked if it made them hurt less. She said only for a little while, and he wished there was a special lotion that could make new skin grow, a pair of superpower gloves.

Short and blocky, she wore loose jeans—never had he seen her in a dress—and her voice was so loud that when she called his name dogs would bark and other kids jerked around. When she saw his last report card he thought her shouting would set off the car alarms four stories below. But her laughter was as loud as her shouting, and there was no better, more gratifying sound than when she slapped her knees and cackled at something silly. She laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny, like TV dramas and the swollen orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them, or, better yet, at things Deming said, like when he nailed the way their neighbor Tommie always went, “Not bad-not bad-not bad” when they passed him in the stairwell, an automatic response to a “Hello-how-are-you” that hadn’t yet been issued. Or the time she’d asked, flipping through TV stations, “Dancing with the Stars isn’t on?” and he had excavated Michael’s old paper mobile of the solar system and waltzed with it through the living room as she clapped. It was almost as good as getting cheered on by his friends.

When he had lived in Minjiang with his grandfather, Deming’s mother had explored New York by herself. There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled. She jiggled her legs, bounced her knees, cracked her knuckles, twirled her thumbs. She hated being cooped up in the apartment on a sunny day, paced the rooms from wall to wall to wall, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “Who wants to go for a walk?” she would say. Her boyfriend Leon would tell her to relax, sit down. “Sit down? We’ve been sitting all day!” Deming would want to stay on the couch with Michael, but he couldn’t say no to her and they’d go out, no family but each other. He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside—a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. “To bagels?” she said. “What flavor bagel?” “Everything bagels,” he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.

A bus lumbered past, spraying slush. The walk sign flashed on. “You know what I did today?” his mother said. “One lady, she had a callus the size of your nose on her heel. I had to scrape all that dead skin off. It took forever. And her tip was shit. You’ll never do that, if you’re careful.”

He dreaded this familiar refrain. His mother could curse, but the one time he’d let motherfucker bounce out in front of her, loving the way the syllables got meatbally in his mouth, she had slapped his arm and said he was better than that. Now he silently said the word to himself as he walked, one syllable per footstep.

“Did you think that when I was growing up, a small girl your age, I thought: hey, one day, I’m going to come all the way to New York so I can pick gao gao out of a stranger’s toe? That was not my plan.”

Always be prepared, she liked to say. Never rely on anyone else to give you things you could get yourself. She despised laziness, softness, people who were weak. She had few friends, but was true to the ones she had. She could hold a fierce grudge, would walk an extra three blocks to another grocery store because, two years ago, a cashier at the one around the corner had smirked at her lousy English. It was lousy, Deming agreed.

From The Leavers. Printed by permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Ko.

(Photo: Bartosz Potocki)
page_5: 

The Windfall
by Diksha Basu

The following week, on an unusually overcast September day, Mr. Jha pulled into the quiet lane of his new Gurgaon home. He had never been here by himself, he realized. Mrs. Jha was usually with him, and this summer Rupak had come with them a few times, and there were all the contractors and painters and builders buzzing around, working. He had never really appreciated the silence and the greenery before. Gurgaon felt still while the rest of Delhi throbbed.

The air was heavy with heat and the promise of rain. On the radio, a Bon Jovi song played. “It’s been raining since you left me,” the lyrics said. How funny, Mr. Jha thought. An Indian song would have to say, “It hasn’t rained since you left me.” Unless, of course, you were happy that they left you.

An electronic shoe-polishing machine in a large box was on the passenger seat of his Mercedes. He had strapped it in with the seat belt. It was beautiful. And it was expensive. It was not a planned purchase. This morning he had a breakfast meeting with two young men who were launching a website that would help you find handymen around Delhi, and they asked him to join their team as a consultant. He declined. He did not have time to take on any new work until they were done moving homes. And then they had to visit Rupak, so he was not going to have any free time until November or December. And then it would be the holiday season, so really it was best if he took the rest of the year off work.

The meeting was over breakfast at the luxurious Teresa’s Hotel in Connaught Place in central Delhi, and after filling himself up with mini croissants, fruit tarts, sliced cheeses, salami, coffee, and orange juice, Mr. Jha went for a stroll through the lobby and the other restaurants in the hotel. All the five-star hotels in the center of town were little oases of calm and cool. Mr. Jha was walking by the large windows that overlooked the swimming pool that was for guests only when he thought he would book a two-night stay here. He knew his wife loved the indulgence of nice hotels and he had recently read about what youngsters were calling a staycation—a vacation where you don’t leave the city or the home you usually live in, but you give yourself a few days to take a holiday. Of course, since he didn’t work much anymore, most days, weeks, months were a staycation, but how wonderful it would be to check into a hotel and have a lazy few days. Having room service—or, like they were called at Teresa’s, butlers—was a different sort of pleasure than having servants bringing you food and cleaning your home. Butlers showed that you had made the progression from servants to expensive appliances to uniformed men who ran the expensive appliances.

From The Windfall, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in June. Copyright © 2017 by Diksha Basu.

(Photo: Mikey McCleary)

First Fiction 2019

by

Staff

6.12.19

For our nineteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2019 issue of the magazine for interviews between Ruchika Tomar and R.O. Kwon, Chia-Chia Lin and Yaa Gyasi, Miciah Bay Gault and Melissa Febos, De’Shawn Charles Winslow and Helen Phillips, and Regina Porter and Jamel Brinkley. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

A Prayer for Travelers (Riverhead, July) by Ruchika Tomar
The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May) by Chia-Chia Lin
Goodnight Stranger (Park Row Books, July) by Miciah Bay Gault
In West Mills (Bloomsbury, June) by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
The Travelers (Hogarth, June) by Regina Porter

A Prayer for Travelers
Ruchika Tomar

There were three names listed under Cruz in the phone book, but I didn’t bother trying any of them. Ask Flaca. If Lourdes had been hostile to my call, Flaca, I knew, would hang up the minute she heard my name. I had always considered Penny their favorite; she was always the most admired in school, the one other girls strove to emulate. But Flaca was their backbone, the mainstay, the friend who dispensed favors and counsel. I decided to look for her in the one place I knew she would eventually be forced to return.

It was already dark when I left the diner, but I could have found my way to the palo blindfolded, even with all light stripped away. The Cruzes’ panadería was a flamingo pink storefront at the southernmost corner of a petite arc of businesses that included, among other things, a smoke shop and a laundromat. I parked the truck and climbed out as the barber was closing up for the night, unplugging the red and blue helix in the window, locking the door, rolling a hatched metal gate over the glass. He locked it, rattling the grille to make sure it was secured. Only the bakery stayed open late enough for workers returning from Sparks and Tehacama to drop off their lunch pails and tool kits at home, hunt their children from varied backyards, and corral them to the bakery for tortas and Cokes. As I walked to the entrance, a large blue van pulled up to the curb, unloading a dozen women in identical pressed white uniforms. These women were Pomoc’s illusionists, soon to be ferried out to office buildings and casinos and hospitals in southern cities, armed only with plastic bottles and brooms to toil unseen, tasked with erasing our collective past. I followed them inside and lingered near the wall opposite a glass case full of pan dulces tucked into neat, full rows. The women placed orders for tacos de piña, puerquitos, and coffee strong enough to power them through the evening into the pardoning dawn. Behind a small screen that separated her from customers, Maria’s short, corpulent figure bent to the glass case, shaking out one paper bag after another.

When I was a child, Lamb had brought me here so often that Maria often emerged from behind her veil‑like screen. She clasped me against her supple bulk, flattening dexterous, flour‑dusted fingers across my eyebrows and down the dark tails of my schoolgirl plaits, humoring Lamb with his awkward gringo patois while checking for my growth spurt that never seemed to arrive. Even after all these years her face was still full, a few strands of silver in her high, tight bun catching in the light. When the last of the uniformed women left, I unlatched myself from the wall and stepped up to the counter, searching Maria’s expression for some sense of recognition, an acknowledgment of the pigtailed tomboy who loved her. She nodded at me through the screen. “¿Qué quieres?”

“Is Christina here?”

“No.” Her reply was sharp, as if this was a question she’d been asked too often. Flaca’s business was growing, and it wasn’t hard to guess how many others might have shown up in recent months, seeking a dispensary.

“I just want to talk to her.”

“¿Quieres comprar algo?”

“I used to come here.” I held out my hand flat at my chest, indicating a child’s height. “This tall, overalls. I came with my grandfather. We sat over there.” I pointed to the corner table, the hard plastic chairs. She shrugged.

“You don’t remember me?” My voice sounded more desperate than I intended. What if I split my hair in braids again, if Lamb were beside me, if I clung to his rough hand the way I had then? Instead I pointed to a row of pink conchas behind the glass, as if nostalgia might stir Lamb’s dwindling appetite. “Cuatro, por favor.”

She reached for a pastry box and laid the conchas down like sleeping children. I paid and on my way out, held the door for a father shepherding inside twin girls, the pair of them in light‑up princess sneakers and vague, kittenish smiles. Outside, I stopped at the truck and slid the pastry box on the hood to fish the keys out of my pocket when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a mouse dart out from underneath a nearby car, scurrying along the side of the building to the dumpsters crowding the small back alley. Lamb and I had wandered there more than once to discard our trash, and I knew at the end of the alley lay the bakery’s kitchen where, during any weekday lull, Maria could be found chatting with any number of family members who cycled through to mix dough and answer the phone, transcribing elaborate cake orders. I settled the pastry box in the passenger seat of the truck before shutting the door and picking my way into the dark passage, edging past the dumpsters. Halfway down I could make out a square of light on the brick wall opposite, the top half of the kitchen’s Dutch door pushed open, giving off a backdraft of heat. I peeked in past the tall, silver rolling racks of pastries pulled away from the wall, the working counters covered with bags of yeast, mixing bowls, rows of sweet breads cooling on wire racks. A fan in the corner of the room rattled as it worked, its face pushed up toward the ceiling to keep from blowing flour into powdered mist. A slim girl, her back turned to me, pulled open the top door of an oven, sliding a baking tray inside. She shut it and moved to lean over the fan, shaking out the bottom of the tank top that clung to her, a red bandanna tying back her hair.

“Flaca,” I called her name softly. She made no movement to signal she heard, but a moment later, a familiar pair of hard, dark eyes pinned mine. She crossed the room and reached for the Dutch door, her face already forming a scowl. I took a step back, one foot into the dirt. A voice called out something indecipherable from the other room.

“Nadie, Mama,” Flaca called back. She jutted her chin at me. “What do you want?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Me? About what?”

“What else? Penny.”

Flaca studied me with an expression I didn’t know how to read. She pushed the door open wider for me to catch, but once inside reached for me so quickly I didn’t have time to pull away. She caught my jaw in her firm grip, moving my face back and forth carefully in the light as if it were a ruby or disaster, something to be appraised. Her breath tickled my chin. This, the closest we had ever been to each other, even as girls.

“Penny didn’t do this,” she said flatly.

“God. Of course not.”

Flaca released me, moving away. It was twenty degrees hotter inside the kitchen, and the skin on my arms began to take on a thin sheen. The room smelled overwhelmingly sweet, the pastries baking in the double oven. I followed her back to the counter where she picked up a silver sifter, shaking powdered sugar over a rack of wedding cookies.

“Dime. You pissed someone off.” “That’s not what I came to talk about.”

“Oh? What does Cale want to talk about?” She set down the sifter and lifted the tray, sliding it onto one of the rolling racks.

“Penny never showed up to work last night,” I spoke to her back. “Maybe you’d know where she is.”

“I have no idea.”

“But you’re always together.”

“So are you,” she said, turning to shoot me a look. “Lately.” 

“Flaca, I went to her place. She didn’t answer. I used the spare. She wasn’t there but she left her cellphone behind. You don’t think that’s weird?”

“That Penny forgot her phone?”

“She didn’t forget it. And she hasn’t come back, not that I know of.”

“Where is it now?”

“What?”

“Her phone, Cale.”

I hesitated. All the drops Penny was making for her, the business Flaca would lose if Penny didn’t have it on her. There was no good way to deliver the news.

“I might have given it to the police.”

“What!”

“I’m sorry! That’s why I’m here.”

Flaca rubbed her face, smearing flour down her cheeks. The bandanna pulling back her hair brought her features into stark focus; the angle of her cheeks and chin, her nose a degree too sharp. I longed for Flaca’s mother to emerge from the front of the shop, to see mother and daughter standing side by side and compare their faces and hands, to ask how some things could be passed down so easily from one to another while other familial aspects were entirely betrayed.

“I didn’t know what else to do. Maybe it could help? I have a feeling—”

“A feeling!”

“Something could be wrong.”

“And what are the cops going to do?”

“Help find her?”

Flaca laughed. In all the time we had been in school together, I couldn’t recall the sound. I had never heard it, or I had heard it too often; it had dissolved into the childhood soundtrack of playground sounds along with the recess bell, the squeak of swing sets, the rhythmic whip of jump ropes slapping the blacktop. It cracked her face wide open, making her appear less birdlike, revealing a pliable warmth: a secret she had kept hidden inside herself all this time.

“You can’t help it, can you?”

“They’re probably going to call you,” I said.

“The cops aren’t going to do shit.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

I met her eyes. “If they don’t, who will?”

“Relax. Penny’s fine. If she went somewhere, she’s already back and pissed you went through her shit.”

“Where could she go? She doesn’t have a car.”

“She can get a ride.”

“You’re the one who gives her rides!”

“I’m not the only one.” She said it pointedly, something in it I was supposed to extract.

“Fine. Okay? Say she got a ride. Why hasn’t she come back yet?”

She looked heavenward, as if the answer was soon to arrive. “You don’t understand. She thinks she’s like you. But we’re not anything like you.”

“What’s so wrong with me, anyway?”

“For one thing, you’re dumb about things you never had to know about.”

I realized we were standing at a cross angle from one another, that I had one hand on my hip, that she had both on hers. I wanted to drop my hand, to tell her where I’d found Penny’s phone, and how, the rolls of cash in the freezer, what they might mean. If Penny was here, she would have trusted Flaca enough to tell her about the desert and the sand‑colored man, everything. If we were going to traffic in secrets, Flaca’s could rival us all. Flaca was surveying the pastries on the counters, a curious expression growing on her face, as if they were bizarre, diminutive creatures struggling toward life.

“What is it?”

“How long has it been?” Flaca asked.

“Since she’s been gone? I don’t know. She was supposed to be on shift the night before last. What time is it now?”

“Almost eight. So what is that? Two days? Three?”

I didn’t answer. She looked up, finally seeing me. The wheels in her mind, I could tell, were beginning to turn.

“You have an idea. Someplace she could be.”

“No,” she said. “But maybe I can find out.”

 

Excerpted from A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar. Published by Riverhead. Copyright © 2019 by Ruchika Tomar. Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar, narrated by Sophie Amoss.

 
(Photo: Dan Doperalski)
 
 

The Unpassing
Chia-Chia Lin

Pei-Pei was the only one home when I woke.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. It was a real question, without sarcasm.

The door was open, but no sounds drifted in from the other parts of the house. From my bed I could see Pei-Pei lying on her stomach, kicking her legs. My pillow obstructed part of my view. Her bare feet swung in and out of my sight.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“One or two.”

She was still in her sleeping clothes, a set of faded blue long johns with sleeves that were too short. The elastic at the wrists was loose. Her long black hair was tied back, and the shorter front pieces were matted to her temples. When I swung my legs out from the covers, I was wearing pants I had never seen before.

“It’s Tuesday,” she added. “You went to the hospital.”

“You’re not in school?”

She didn’t respond. Her legs pedaled the gummy air.

“We have to go,” I said. “They’re showing the launch. Did we miss it already?”

She nodded. “Yeah, it was last week.”

“Last week?”

“It exploded.”

“What?”

“Everyone died.” She sat up and stared at me, evaluating something in my face.

“What are you talking about?”

“There was a huge cloud of smoke, and then nothing came out of it—no shuttle.”

“What?” I looked around to see if someone, my father or Natty, was laughing at me from the closet. But the door was open, and there were no legs or feet beneath the hanging clothes.

“Believe me. I saw it happen.”

I shook my head, trying to find room for what she was saying.

“There’s something else,” she said. She pushed at a spot on the bridge of her nose. Her face was completely bare and her hair was clawed back. Behind her thick glasses her lashes were sparse, and her eyes were very small and black.

Suddenly I was afraid to look at her face. I tried to smooth the folds in the fitted sheet. It was not my usual one, and the fabric was all twisted and bunched. Later I would discover it was too big for my bed. When I helped my mother change it, we had to shove handfuls of it under the mattress, hiding its excess.

“Ruby’s dead.”

I laughed. I pressed on a wrinkle in the sheet with the heel of my palm, trying to spread it flat.

Pei-Pei took off her glasses and shook them as though they were filled with dust. “You heard me,” she said, “and I don’t want to say it again.”

“Stop joking,” I said.

“I’m not joking,” she said. “It happened two days ago.”

“How?” I asked. As I said it, I pressed a hand to my throat to stop a noise. There was an expanse between what I was saying and what I understood myself to be saying, and the giggle in my chest was trying to morph into something else.

“She got sick. There was an outbreak at school.”

“But she doesn’t even go to school yet.”

“No,” Pei-Pei said. “She doesn’t.”

We stared at each other. Without her glasses on, Pei-Pei’s eyes had expanded. They were not quite black, but the color of winter soil after the snow was scraped away.

Pei-Pei came to my bed. “It’s no one’s fault.”

“Get away,” I said.

She slipped her glasses back on and stood up. She walked to Ruby’s bed, leaned over it, and pulled the blinds up. Light washed over the room; the carpet turned from tan to blond, and the walls glowed. “We’re having a warm spell,” she said. The faded floral blooms on Ruby’s sheets were almost translucent as they bore the brunt of all that sun.

I gazed at Ruby’s bed. It was neat; she almost never slept in it. Her pillow was missing, though, and that one small absence made me uneasy.

After Pei-Pei left, I made my way to the window. I sat there trying to adjust my eyes to the light. Outside, at the end of our dirt driveway, were four trash bags, each opaque black and straining with contents I couldn’t fathom. The bags were knotted, dimpling on top, leaning on one another. One had fallen on its side. Soon I would find myself searching for things around the house: my backpack, my coat, my shoes. My mug, which I had chipped against Natty’s mug in a test to see whose was stronger. It began to seem that everything I had ever touched was missing. Or at least the things most familiar to me were gone.

 

Excerpted from The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux May 7th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Chia-Chia Lin. All rights reserved. 

(Photo: F. Yang)
 

Goodnight Stranger
Miciah Bay Gault

In the dimly lit kitchen—only a single bulb over the sink—I watched my brother’s eyes, huge, glassy. “It’s Baby B,” he said. 

The stranger held still as if afraid to break a spell. His eyes moved from me to Lucas. 

“Baby B is dead,” I said. 

“I’ve been dreaming about him every night,” Lucas said. “I could sense him getting closer, and I thought there was something I was supposed to do. But it wasn’t me after all. You were the one who had to bring him here.” 

“He’s a stranger, Lu. I met him tonight at the inn.”

“Then how do you explain this?” Lucas pointed at Cole’s ankle—at a small tattoo I hadn’t noticed. “Lady’s Slipper.”

We both looked at Cole. “I got that when I was twenty-one,” he said.

“Why that particular flower?” I asked.

“Why? Because it’s beautiful, and rare. And it was someone’s favorite flower—someone I loved—sorry, what is going on? Who’s Baby B?” A flush had risen from his neck to his cheeks. His eyes black, bright.

“He was our brother,” I said. “Sorry, maybe it’s time for you to go.”

“No,” Lucas said. “Don’t go! Here, sit down. I’ll get a beer for you, and we’ll tell you about Baby B. We’ll tell you the whole story.”

It was disorienting to see Lucas talking with a stranger, Lucas who sometimes couldn’t even say hi to Eddie, or the Grendles, or Jim Cardoza, people he’d known his whole life. I felt dizzy, as if the room were tilting around me. 

“I’m always up for a story,” Cole said, sitting at the table. Lucas popped the tab on a PBR, and set it in front of Cole. 

“I need to sit, too,” I said, and they pulled out a chair for me. 

We were up until dawn, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that Lucas talked most of that time. It was as if something had come uncorked, and stories were pouring out of him. 

“His name was Colin,” Lucas said. “I mean even your name is similar.”

“That’s just a coincidence,” I said.

“Did you feel anything?” Lucas asked me.  “When you first saw each other, I mean? Did you have any idea?”

“I did,” the stranger said. “I felt something right away.” 

“Of course I didn’t feel anything,” I said. “Because there’s nothing to feel.”

“Don’t worry,” Lucas said. “She’s always like this at first.”

“Like what?” I said. But I knew what he meant. Practical—trying to tether him to earth. He resented that. But look what happened when I slipped up, when I forgot myself for one night, tried to bring a stranger home, as if I were someone else, someone without responsibilities. Look how that worked out. I felt my heart beating, felt warmth crawling up the back of my neck, sweat prickling my scalp. 

Just before sunrise, Cole went away down the chilly beach promising to come back the next day. Lucas and I stood on the screened-in porch, watched him disappear down the shore. Just before the second jetty, he stopped and found a stone in the sand, skipped it even though it was too dark to see its skittering path through the water.

“Did you see that?” Lucas said. 

“It doesn’t mean anything. A lot of people skip stones.”

“In that exact place?”

As long as I could remember, Lucas had stopped at the second jetty to skip one stone. For good luck. For Baby B. I never knew why he did it. But in my memory I could see him at all these different ages, five years old, ten years old, eighteen, twenty-five. That same flick of the wrist. Stone after stone. 

Lucas tipped his head back and finished his beer. For some reason neither of us wanted to go to bed. We sat on the porch until the grainy light of dawn made visible the dock and the jetties and the boats in the bay. I looked at Lucas and felt a deep ache in my chest—love swelling to enormous proportions inside my ribs. I loved him so much. I wanted to give him everything he wanted. A brother returned from the dead. Our parents too. If I’d known how to do it, what to sacrifice, I would have without hesitation.

It was ironic that our parents had decided to have children so they wouldn’t be alone when they were old. It turned out they didn’t need to worry about growing old at all. Dad had a heart attack when we were in seventh grade. Mom died eight years later—breast cancer. Ever since: just Lucas and me. Alone on the island, alone in the big house they bought for us. 

Early light crept into the porch where we sat, lighting up the table and chairs, the wicker sofa, chenille blanket, potted plants. Everything was in place, but everything felt different. Bhone Bay was out there doing what it always did, tide creeping out, revealing damp raw sand, black sea weed. The red houseboat was anchored where it always was. The light was the same light. The sound of the bay was the same sound. 

But we felt different now, already revised in some indefinable way.  How amazing the change one day can bring, one chance meeting.  Or—maybe not so amazing after all. After all we’d spent a lifetime longing for something—or someone—we could never have. That longing had created a space in us, in our lives, and Cole, in ways I didn’t yet understand, seemed to fit into that space, fill it like a missing puzzle piece.

 

Excerpted from Goodnight Stranger by Miciah Bay Gault. Copyright © 2019 by Miciah Bay Gault. Use with permission from Park Row Books/HarperCollins. 

(Photo: Daryl Burtnett)
 

In West Mills
De’Shawn Charles Winslow

In October of ’41, Azalea Centre’s man told her that he was sick and tired of West Mills and of the love affair she was having with moonshine. Azalea—everyone called her Knot—reminded him that she was a grown woman.

“Stop tellin’ me how old you is,” Pratt said.

“Well, I thought maybe you forgot,” Knot retorted. She was sitting at her kitchen table, pulling bobby pins from her copper-red hair. She picked up her glass and finished what was left in it. She had barely set it back on the table when Pratt picked it up and threw it against the wall. He then packed all his clothes in the old suitcase he’d brought when he moved into her little house a few years back.

“I’m gettin’ outta here,” he affirmed.

“Need some help packin’?” Knot shot back, and she laughed. It wasn’t the first time Pratt had packed that ragged bag. He stared at her, frowning.

“Drink ya’self to death, if that’s what you want to do.”

“Go to hell, Pratt.”

“I’m leavin’ hell!” he yelled.

A few days later, Knot came home and found a folded note peeping out from under her door. First, she looked down at the signature. When she saw Pratt Shepherd at the bottom, she took a chilled glass from her icebox, poured a drink, and sat down to look over the message. She read most of it. It said that Pratt was at his sister’s house, just across the lane. Knot wasn’t surprised. Pratt’s sister and her two little girls were the only family he had in West Mills.

In the letter, Pratt reminded her that he still loved her, still wanted to marry her, and still wanted to start a family with her. He wrote that he would wait around for just one week. Then he was going back home to Tennessee. That’s where Knot stopped reading. She laughed out loud, tossed the paper onto the table, and set her glass down on it. Funny—it was usually the books she used to teach her pupils that got the wet glass.

Knot would be lying if she told anyone that Pratt wasn’t a good man. He didn’t mind hard work, he picked up after himself, he kept his body nice and clean, and he knew how to give her joy in bed. But the truth was Pratt wasn’t much fun to her otherwise. He didn’t have much to talk about. And he couldn’t hold his liquor to save his life. After two drinks Pratt was laid out, spilling over, or both. Knot liked men who could match her shot for shot, keep her mind busy when they weren’t drunk, and still do all the other things Pratt could do. Aside from all that, her father—she called him Pa—wouldn’t like Pratt. If she were ever going to be married, it would have to be a man her pa loved just as much as she did.

Pratt’s threat to leave West Mills could not have come with better timing, because Knot’s twenty-seventh birthday was a week around the corner. When the weekend came, she walked down the lane—two houses to the left of her house—to tell her good friend Otis Lee Loving all about her newfound freedom. And since Knot visited him most Saturday mornings, and knew he would be in the kitchen, she didn’t bother knocking.

“You need to go on over there and fix things up with Pratt,” Otis Lee said. “Otherwise, he gon’ be on the next thing headed west.” Otis Lee set a cup of black coffee on the table in front of Knot; his face was angry-looking and peach. He didn’t sit down. Just then, his wife, Pep, showed up at the table with a boiled egg and a biscuit, all inside the cracked, sand-colored bowl Knot wished they would throw away.

“Pratt can catch the next thing to hell,” Knot replied. 

Pep pushed the bowl in front of Knot, next to the coffee.

She didn’t sit down, either. Knot looked up at them and wondered what the day’s lecture would be about.

“Eat,” Pep commanded. Even at seven o’clock in the morning, her round face looked full and healthy, as though she had slept on a pillow made of air. Not the rough, feather-stuffed pillows Knot used.

“I thought I left my mama in Ahoskie,” Knot scoffed. “Y’all got anything I can pour in this coffee? Something ’sides milk, I mean.”

“Why you so set on bein’ lonely, Knot?” Otis Lee asked.

Pep looked down at Otis Lee as though he had gone off script. And he looked up at Pep as if to say, I couldn’t help myself. The way he and Pep stood there, side by side, made them look more like a boy and his mother than a husband and his wife. Why the two of them behaved so much like old people, Knot never understood. They were only five years older than she was. For Knot, it was Otis Lee’s being happily married, being too short, and old-man ways that ruined the handsomeness she’d seen on him when they’d first met. And that handsomeness, as striking as it was, had never caused the feeling Knot got deep in her stomach when she met a man she wanted to touch, or be touched by, in the dim light of her oil lamp.

“Y’all know he tried to beat me, don’t ya?”

Otis Lee and Pep both sighed, at the same time. Knot wondered if they had rehearsed it.

“You sit to my table and tell that tale?” Otis Lee reproached. Then he began with his You know good’n well this and You know good’n well that. At times like these Knot had to work hard to keep her cool. Because if she didn’t, she might tell Otis Lee that if he spent more time worrying about his own life, and his own family, he might know that the woman he knew as his mother, wasn’t; she was kin but not his mother. If his real mama is anything like mine, better for him if he don’t know. Ain’t none of my business anyhow.

“Tell me one thing,” Knot said. “Why y’all always take his side?”

“It ain’t just about Pratt’s side, Knot,” Otis Lee insisted. “You need to be nicer to everybody ’round here.” Knot heard bits and pieces of what Otis Lee recounted about how her drinking had gotten out of hand; how she seemed to want to be by herself more than anything nowadays—unless she was at Miss Goldie’s Place, of course. Knot started nibbling on the biscuit and then on the egg, trying not to hear all the things she already knew about herself.

Otis Lee turned to Pep and mused, “You remember when she used to go see the children and they mamas, Pep? Used to visit people just ’cause she had time. People used to talk so nice about that, Knot. Thought the world of it. Didn’t they, Pep?”

“Yes, they did,” Pep replied.

Knot dropped the egg back in the bowl and asked, “Ain’t I sittin’ here, visitin’ with ya’ll right now?” Knot was certain they’d both heard her question, although neither of them responded.

“Now folk say you show up to that schoolhouse smellin’ like you bathe in corn liquor,” Otis Lee went on. “That’s ’bout all they sayin’ ’bout you now.”

“What people you talkin’ ’bout, anyhow, Otis Lee?” Knot said. She took a sip of the coffee. It was weak.

“What you mean, ‘what people’?”

“Y’all ain’t got but three or four hundred folk ’round here,” Knot pointed out. “And most of ’em is white folk who don’t know me from a can of bacon grease.”

“Some days you talk like you don’t live right here in this town,” Pep remarked. Knot couldn’t think of anything to say back.

She knew that some if not all of what Otis Lee was saying was true—about people whispering. Many times Knot had noticed how some of the women stopped talking when she came near them at the general store. And at the schoolhouse, she’d been a bit hurt by how some of the people had seemed as if they didn’t want to be seen speaking with her too long when they came to pick up their children. They’d ask how their little ones were doing with their lessons and then hurry off as though Knot had a sickness they didn’t want to catch.

Knot did her job. As much as she hated it, she did it well. No one had complained about her teaching. They couldn’t. So many of the ma’s and pa’s had themselves thanked Knot for the little rhymes and games she’d taught their children to help them divide a number quickly—without using paper and pencil. Or the funny ways she’d taught them odd facts. She remembered asking one of the boys one day, “Sammy Spence, what’s the capital of Iowa?” And once he’d answered correctly, she’d asked, “How you remember to keep the s’s silent?” and Sammy had responded, “My name got s’s, and they both make the s sound. But not for Des Moines, Miss Centre!” And Knot had said, “So you were listening, weren’t you?” And she had rubbed his head. When Knot had first arrived in West Mills, there were some eight-year-olds who couldn’t write their names. Her pa would have been just beside himself about that if she ever told him.

Otis Lee was still lecturing.

“You ain’t gettin’ no younger,” he cautioned. “Pratt love you to death, gal.”

“He left,” Knot said. “I ain’t throw him out.”

“This time,” Pep remarked, and she walked to the basin. “You got somethin’ to say, Penelope?” Knot shot back before realizing that her question would only bring on the second part of the Loving lecture.

Just three months earlier, Pep reminded Knot, she had thrown Pratt out for trying to do something nice.

“All he wanted you to do was stay home from that ol’ juke joint for one Friday night,” Pep recalled.

“But I felt like going,” Knot grumbled.

“He cooked a chicken for ya, child,” Pep said. “This one”—she pointed at Otis Lee—“can’t even boil eggs.”

“I can too boil eggs, Pep,” Otis Lee said. “You know good’n well I—”

“If I come home to a cooked hen,” Pep continued, “I’m gon’ sit with my man and eat.”

“He ask her to read to him, too,” Otis Lee informed his wife. “She tell him, ‘No.’ ”

Pep looked at Knot with shame.

Knot couldn’t deny any of it. It had been his request that she stay home and read to him that irritated her most.

“I read to folks all goddamn week long,” Knot had said to Pratt. “You crazy if you think I’m stayin’ home to read to yo’ big ass.”

“Selfish and stubborn,” he’d called her, shaking his head. And Knot had said, “I’m twenty-six years old. I can be selfish if I feel like it.” And Pratt had said, “Naw, you can’t, neither.” And Knot had yelled back, “Well, get the hell on out my house! Right now! And don’t you come back to my door.” He was back at her door, in her house, and in her bed in less than a day.

Otis Lee’s four-year-old son, Breezy, came scooting down the stairs on his butt. His little face was mashed flat on one side and his hair was full of white lint. He looked as though he’d been working in the cotton fields Miss Noni had told Knot all about. Breezy went and stood between his parents. Pep rubbed his head and pulled him against her thigh.

“Say good morning to Miss Knot,” Otis Lee nudged. And the boy did. Knot was glad Breezy was there to draw some of the attention away from her. She was done picking at the egg and biscuit, and done being picked on.

“You hear anything we just say to you, Knot?” Otis Lee asked.

Knot wiped her hands on the damp rag that was on the table.

“I thank y’all kindly for the breakfast. I’ll be goin’ on home now.”

“Go on over there and make things right with Pratt,” Otis Lee demanded. “You hear me?” He was looking at her as though she were a daughter or a sister he couldn’t control. Knot looked at Pep, and Pep turned and went to the icebox.

“The hell I am,” Knot said.

“Ma!” Breezy exclaimed. “Knot say a cussword!”

“I’m Miss Knot, lil boy,” Knot corrected. She couldn’t resist giving the boy a quick tickle on the neck. And she realized that she might be missing her nephews back in Ahoskie. “If yo’ ma and pa don’t let up, I’m gon’ let you hear some more cusswords.”

On her way out, she heard Breezy say, “Pop, Miss Knot got our bowl!”

 

Knot finished eating the egg and biscuit when she got back to her house, while she read a chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop. It was her pa’s favorite book, by his favorite author. And because he had read those big books to her with such joy, Dickens had become her favorite, too. Her pa had read that book to her more than twenty times when she was a small child. He used to sit on the floor next to her bed two or three times a week and read. Sometimes Knot saw specks of his patients’ teeth and blood on his shirts. It would make her mother angry.

“I ain’t got time to worry ’bout keepin’ shirts pretty, Dinah,” her pa would say to her mother. “Them folk be in pain when they come to see me. Half the time, they already tried to snatch the teeth out theyself.”

Knot’s pa shared with her his love for reading, no matter how tired he was. And each time, Knot would hold on to his long, rough goatee so that she would know when he got up. As hard as she would fight sleep, it won the battle every time.

 

On the night of her birthday, Knot spent close to an hour looking at the only five dresses she had liked enough to bring with her from Ahoskie. She modeled each of them for the little mirror on the wall. She had to stand far away from it to see her whole body. And when she walked close to it, most of what she saw was her pa’s V-shaped jaw. He couldn’t deny being my pa even if he wanted to. How many people in Ahoskie got a jawbone like Dr. G. W. Centre?

Knot ruled out the black dress and the white one. The pink one with the white bow,  the green one with the blue trim,  or the plain yellow one had to be the winner. Finally she chose the yellow one. She liked the way it looked next to her skin. Pratt used to tell her it made him think of peanut butter and bananas—something he loved to have on Sunday mornings. The dress was over ten years old, but that worked in Knot’s favor. It showed whatever curves she had, which Pep claimed were starting to go missing.

When the sun went down, Knot dressed up and bundled up. She walked the short distance—less than a quarter mile—to the dead end of Antioch Lane, to Miss Goldie’s barn house juke joint, where Knot knew people would be throwing away the money they should have been saving to buy their Christmas hams if they didn’t have a hog of their own. But with the Depression just behind them, and war hovering, ain’t nothing wrong with folk havin’ a drink or two in the company of other folk who want to have one or two.

 

Going alone to Miss Goldie’s Place reminded Knot of her first few weeks in West Mills, and on Antioch Lane, back in ’36. How nice it was to not have a nagging man looking over her shoulder, counting her drinks, or running off the friendly men she had met since moving there to take the teaching job her pa had arranged for her.

When Knot pulled open the big heavy oak door and stepped inside, the first thing she looked for was Pratt sitting at the piano, playing his tunes. He was nowhere in sight. What am I lookin’ to see if he here for? It’s my birthday. She would have stayed either way.

It wasn’t long before the friendly men started asking Knot unfriendly questions: You done put Pratt down again, Knot? And: Knot, is it true you plum’ put a piece of glass to Pratt’s neck? To some of the questions, Knot declared, “That’s a damn lie!” To other questions she replied, “That ain’t none of yo’ goddamn business.”

Knot left their tables and found company with the few men who didn’t know her name yet. And there was one, a young one, standing at the end of the counter. He was tall, just the way Knot liked them. He just might be the tallest man I ever stood close to. Pratt had held the record for the tallest and the stockiest. But this fellow was tall and slim.

Valley, Knot’s buddy who poured drinks at Miss Goldie’s Place, told Knot he was too busy to help her court. If she wanted to know who the young fellow was, she had better go and ask him herself, Valley said.

“And if he don’t seem interested in you, s—”

“Send him over to you?” Knot finished, knowing Valley’s taste in men.

“Yes, ma’am,” he whispered, and smiled.

“You ain’t gon’ be satisfied ’til you put yo’ mark on every man west of the canal,” Knot said. She and Valley laughed. Then he reminded her, first, that he hadn’t had any luck thus far and, second, that she’d promised to make him one of her famous Antioch Lane bread puddings before he was to leave to go out of town again. “Don’t start in with me about that damn puddin’, Val. If I do make it, I want my dollar—just like everybody else gives me for it.”

“I always pay you,” Valley said. “I don’t know what ya talkin’ ’bout.”

“You want me to go home and get my ledger?” Knot countered. Valley smiled and rolled his eyes.

Miss Goldie was sitting about midway along the bar, wearing overalls and a man’s shirt. She was smoking a pipe. Unlike most pipes Knot had seen the people of West Mills puffing on, Miss Goldie’s didn’t look as though it had been carved out of wood by a five-year-old. It was a nice pipe. Probably ordered it from Europe or somewhere.

Next to Miss Goldie was Milton Guppy, sitting there glaring at Knot as he always did. Knot never understood how he had gotten such a strange last name. The glares, however, weren’t a mystery to her. The teaching job her pa had set up for her had belonged to a Mrs. Guppy. And when Mrs. Guppy had been dismissed, she also dismissed herself from her marriage, taking her and her husband’s four-year-old son with her. No one knew where the two of them had gone, since she was rumored to have had no family to speak of. The mean looks Mr. Guppy gave Knot whenever she saw him—sometimes Knot thought he was even growling—were enough to let her know he hadn’t gotten over it. She sympathized. But it wasn’t my fault! I ain’t make her run off.

After a few months of Guppy’s glares, Knot had walked up to him once, up-bridge at the general store, and said, “If you got somethin’ to say, go ’head and say it and get it over with. I probably done heard it from other folk, anyway.” And Guppy had said, “I don’t b’lee I will, Miss Centre. Don’t want to make ya late for yo’ teachin’. Wouldn’t dare keep the good teacher ’way from the good teachin’ job she come here and steal.” And Knot had said, “I’m gon’ tell you the same thing I tell everybody else who got a problem with me being up at that schoolhouse.” And after she did, she’d told him, “Now you can go to hell.” She had left the general store without the hard candy she had planned to buy for the children.

Tonight, at Miss Goldie’s Place, Knot gave Guppy a Don’t look at me stare. She could tell by the evil look on his face that he must have already lost his week’s pay at the dice table.

Miss Goldie looked irritable, studying Knot and Valley. Finally, she cleared her throat in a loud This is for y’all to hear way. Knot knew Miss Goldie was watching every move in the building, and she didn’t like it when her workers carried on long conversation when they should have been refilling jars and glasses and collecting nickels and dimes.

Knot finished her first drink—it was her third, if she counted the two she’d had at home—and she danced over to that young man at the end of the bar.

“Tell me one thing,” Knot said to him. He was standing there in a suit. Lord, the man wore the whole suit to the juke joint. Whether it was navy blue or black, Knot couldn’t be sure. “You think yo’ people know you snuck out they house yet?”

“Well, if I had snuck out,” he replied, standing straight and putting his hands in his pockets, “they wouldn’t be able to find me. I’m a long way from home.” He didn’t sound anything like she would expect from a man of his height. He sounded as if nature had gotten tired and quit working halfway through his change of voice when he was a growing boy.

“I figured that part out already,” Knot said. And it wasn’t just the sharp suit that had given it away. His haircut can’t be more’n a day old. And he got the nerve to have a part shaved there on the side. Menfolk in West Mills don’t wear parts in they heads. Knot said, “I hear the North on ya’ tongue. Where’s home?”

“Wilmington,” he answered. “Wilmington,  Delaware.

“I know where Wilmington is, thank you,” Knot retorted, and she wondered how she’d had all that schooling without learning there was more than one Wilmington—one other than in North Carolina.

She looked at him for as long as she could without feeling simpleminded. With teeth as straight and white as his, and with him not having a single razor bump on his chin, she was sure he wasn’t more than twenty years old.

“You can’t be more than nineteen, twenty,” Knot guessed aloud. He showed her a sly smile. I’ll be damned if he ain’t got dimples to go ’long with that grin. Shit, I don’t know if I ought to slap him or kiss him.

“People usually ask me what my name is by now,” he said.

Knot was about to tell him that she didn’t care what people usually wanted from him, but his eyebrows caught her attention. His eyebrows were so thick and neat against his smooth, black forehead, Knot wondered, If I stick the edge of a butter knife under the corner of one of ’em, would I be able to peel it off whole?

“Well, go ’head and tell me your name, then,” Knot said. He came closer to her, and she looked up at him.

“It’s William. And you guessed my age pretty close. I’m almost twen—”

“Buy me a drink, Delaware William. It’s my birthday.” Knot turned toward Valley and shouted, “Pour me what I like! This here fella’s gon’ give you the nickel.”

“William,” Delaware William corrected.

“Forgive me,” Knot said to him. And to Valley she said, “Delaware William’s gon’ give you the nickel.” When she looked back up at Delaware William, he was smiling again and shaking his head.

Valley came to the end of the bar where Knot was standing. With his finger, he signaled Knot to lean in. “Ain’t you got somewhere to be in the mornin’?”

“You ever hear tell of me not showing up?” Valley sucked his teeth. Knot said, “I didn’t think so. And I’ll thank you kindly to get me my drink. My damn birthday’ll be over, foolin’ with you.”

Valley fanned his bar rag at Knot. “You just as crazy as you can be, Knot Centre.”

“What was that he just called you?” Delaware William asked.

After Knot decided she wasn’t going answer him, she looked him up and down.

“My name’s Azalea.” And after he showed her a confused look, she said, “What’s ya business in West Mills, Delaware William?”

“I’m just William,” he said politely. “William Pe—” “What’s ya business here in West Mills, is what I asked,” Knot interrupted.

“We just stopped to rest. On our way back up from Georgia. Played some gigs down there for a few months.”

When she asked him to explain the we, he pointed to another young man who sat at a table with the pastor’s daughter. Knot was certain the girl had snuck out of the house. Without a doubt, it wouldn’t be long before the girl would give the young man what he wanted. Knot could tell by the way she was giggling. If the girl was anything like Knot was as a teenager, Knot knew how the night would end. And that young man would be leaving town soon after.

Knot, figuring she didn’t have more than a few hours with Delaware William, finished her drink in three swallows. Then she and Delaware William left, kissing and feeling on each other the whole walk back to her house. Between the heavy petting, she caught a few glimpses of the full moon. It was like an usher leading the way down an aisle.

“Looks like we’re in some damn slaves’ quarters or something,” Delaware William remarked. Knot couldn’t argue with him about that, even if she were sober. She had thought the same thing when she first moved to West Mills and rented the little house from a man named Pennington. According  to Otis Lee and Miss Noni, Riley Pennington—Otis Lee’s boss—was a descendant of the line of Penningtons who had once owned the whole town, which, in those days, had been called Pennington, North Carolina. It didn’t change names until a man from Maine named Leland Edgars Sr. and his two sons—Miss Noni said they were both tall and handsome with long, pitch-black ponytails—moved to town with a bunch of Northern money. They bought up a bunch of land with trees and opened a mill on the west side of the canal, causing people to refer to the whole town as West Mills. And now, aside from the one large farm, the Penningtons owned only an acre here and an acre there.

“Used to be,” Knot said, and that was all she felt like telling him. “Now that you got ya history lesson, shut up and kiss me some more.”

When they arrived in front of her house, that same moonlight that had led them there showed her that Pratt Shepherd was sitting on her porch. He sat there as though he had been one of the first Penningtons.

“Young fella,” Pratt called out, “best if you turn around. Head on back up the lane so I can talk to Knot.”

Delaware William had his arm around Knot’s shoulder, and she felt it slide away. Knot leaned into him—she might have fallen over otherwise.

“Well, sir,” Delaware William said, “I didn’t hear her say she wants to talk to—”

“I used to know a boy that look something like you,” Pratt cut in. He stood to his feet. “Got his face cut up for walkin’ another man’s wife home. They cut that fella’s face up real bad. Right here on this lane.”

Knot didn’t get a chance to tell Delaware William that Pratt was no one to be afraid of; he had turned around and hightailed it back down the lane toward Miss Goldie’s Place. When Knot turned back around to face Pratt, he was sitting again.

“I’m gon’ count to ten . . . or eleven,” she slurred, steadying herself in front of the porch and placing her hands on her hips. “When I get through countin’, you best be off my damn porch or I’m gon’ have to hurt ya.”

“What? You got a gun, or somethin’?” Pratt taunted.

“Did you hear me say I got a gun?” Knot shot back. “I might, though.”

“Sit down, Knot. Sit on down here ’fore you fall and crack that lil head of your’n?” He patted the porch two times.

Knot spit on the ground and said, “My new man’ll come back and crack yo’ head open to the white meat.”

“Who?” Pratt asked. “The one that just run off? He ain’t even stay long enough for me to tighten my fist.”

Knot turned and looked down the lane. Delaware William may as well have been a ghost. Pratt, she discovered when she turned to him once more, looked as though he would die if he held his laugh in any longer. And once he let the laugh go—he slapped his knees, too—Knot said, “Go to hell, Pratt.”

She sat on the porch next to him and their shoulders touched.

“Happy Birthday, darlin’.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She swatted him away, but she was so glad he was there; something was stirring around inside her and she was in the mood for a man’s company.

Pratt pulled her close to him. She liked the way her ear felt against his fleshy chest. A whiff of his clean breath relaxed her. Pratt’s breath smelled as though he had chewed on mint leaves all day instead of just after dinner, as he usually did. Knot figured she would let him kiss her, knowing he’d happily join her inside the house, where he would make her feel good under the quilt. Hell, it’s my birthday.

In the doorway, Pratt kissed her face and neck. And before she knew it, they were on the bed they had been sharing, off and on, for two years. She didn’t know what it was, but it seemed as though his touch was different, better than before. “Feel like you grew some more hands,” she whispered in his ear before softly biting his earlobe. Did he put butter on his lips? She had never known his lips to feel as soft as they felt tonight. She enjoyed their new softness even more when Pratt kissed the insides of her thighs and moved up to her shiver spot.

Pratt laid his large body on top of hers. She imagined a giant pillow. As big—with just the right amount of heavy—as he was, that night he was a nice cloud hovering over her, making love to her. Knot knew she would certainly be hoarse in the morning.

Lord, have mercy.

When they were done, Knot lay there wishing Pratt would fall asleep so she could have one more drink. That jar is whistlin’ for me. But after all Pratt had just done for her, she didn’t want to spoil it.

The Dickens book was on the floor next to her headboard, so she decided to read for as long as her eyes would allow. But it sure would be nice to have a cool glass with a splash in it while I read. Damn! Pratt was wide-awake on the other side of the bed, picking with his toenails.

The next morning when Knot woke up, she lay there thinking about how she hadn’t gotten to do what she had wanted—in my own house. She nudged Pratt until he was awake.

“What is it?” he mumbled. He had one eye open, one eye shut.

“Get up!” Knot exclaimed.

“What for?”

“Get up and get the hell on outta my house.” And after he was dressed and about to walk out, she said, “And don’t darken my doorway. Never no mo’.”

“Azalea!”

“Gone!” she yelled, before slamming the door and making the drink she had wanted the night before.

 

Excerpted from In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. Copyright © 2019 by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. 

(Photo: Julie R. Keresztes)
page_5: 

The Travelers
Regina Porter

Bessie Coleman was the first woman Eloise Delaney loved—before she knew love meant anything. There is a rectangular photograph cropped from the Buckner County Register, a local Negro paper, of Coleman standing atop the left tire of her Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. Her gloved right hand hugs the cockpit. She is decked out in tailored aviation gear and stares directly into the camera. The photograph is at least thirty years old and dates back to 1926, the year of the brown aviatrix’s untimely death, but for Eloise’s parents the crash might have happened yesterday. They were the town drunks and time played on them murky.

“Man wasn’t meant to have wings,” Herbert Delaney said.

“Wasn’t that a play or something?” Delores Delaney snapped her fingers. “All God’s Chillun Got Wings”?

Herbert shrugged. “She getting ahead of herself. Wanting to take flight.”

“What you saying, Herbert?” Delores Delaney kissed her husband’s long thin hands. “You saying God wanted her plane to crash? God wanted Bessie to die?”

“Well, He sure as hell didn’t want her to live. Otherwise, that damn plane wouldn’t have malfunctioned.”

 

Bessie Coleman’s plane had crashed during a barnstorming exhibition in Orlando, Florida. Delores Delaney liked to brag that she stood right smack-dab in the middle of the crowd the morning “Brave Bessie” was catapulted two thousand feet to the ground, but Eloise knew better than to place stock in anything a drunk said, especially when that drunk was her mother.

Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from her childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.

Eloise’s parents worked at the seafood-processing factory two miles out of town. They had grown up shucking oysters and picking crabs and gutting fish. Getting paid for doing something that was second nature to them was like being given money to go on vacation. They could pick crabs with their eyes shut and lose nothing in speed. Sometimes their anxious fingers moved in their sleep, discarding the dead man and the pregnant she-crab belly and flicking out the tender white meat. Every so often, the manager of the seafood factory was forced to make an example of Herbert and Delores for coming to work inebriated or late or not at all. He would let them sweat their imbibing out and Eloise would go hungry until they managed to sidle back through the factory door.

The seafood factory was situated in a warehouse overlooking a salt marsh. When the picking season was high, Herbert and Delores would take their daughter to work with them. She would peer out the tall windows at the herons and seagulls and pelicans and ospreys and charcoal-black cormorants scouring the marsh for feed.

 

Excerpted from The Travelers by Regina Porter. Copyright © 2019 by Regina Porter. Published by Hogarth Books.

(Photo: Liz Lazarus)

First Fiction 2018

by

Staff

6.13.18

For our eighteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2018 issue of the magazine for interviews between R. O. Kwon and Celeste Ng, Fatima Farheen Mirza and Garth Greenwell, Jamel Brinkley and Danielle Evans, Katharine Dion and Adam Haslett, and Tommy Orange and Claire Vaye Watkins. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

The Incendiaries (Riverhead, July) by R. O. Kwon
A Place for Us (SJP for Hogarth, June) by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, May) by Jamel Brinkley
The Dependents (Little, Brown, June) by Katharine Dion
There There (Knopf, June) by Tommy Orange

The Incendiaries
by R. O. Kwon 
 

It was past the time the march should have begun, and people were losing patience. I’ll give it five minutes, then I’m calling it quits, a man said. Placards leaned against a building wall. I saw John Leal talking to people I didn’t recognize. With a nod, he stepped on an upended crate. His mouth moved. In that hubbub, I couldn’t pick out his words. Phoebe apologized again, tearful. It’s all right, I said, but she had more she wanted to explain. It’s fine, I said. Hoping she’d calm down, I kissed Phoebe’s head. I was intent on listening to John Leal’s speech: I was curious what his effect would be with this large an audience, if they’d respond as we did. He lifted his head, pitching his voice.

. . . hands splashed with blood, he said. We’re all here this Saturday morning, and I know I don’t need to tell you the truth that an unborn child has a heartbeat before it’s a month old. I don’t have to tell you that, within the first three months of fetal life, a human infant’s strong enough to grip a hand. But I’m not sure if it’s done much good, all this truth. What point it’s had, if you and I aren’t saving lives.
 

Excepted from The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon.

(Photo: Smeeta Mahanti)

A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza 

Amar was the one they loved the most. He was the one whose picture Mumma kept in her wallet behind her license. Him smiling with a toothless grin. Mumma ran her fingers through his hair as if it nourished her. A painting he did of a boat on the ocean was tacked above Baba’s office desk when she visited him at work. Once Hadia spent an entire afternoon counting the faces in the framed pictures, and Amar had beaten them all by seven. Hadia and Huda were a two-for-one deal: if there was a framed picture of them, they were likely together. Mumma served food for Amar first, and then Baba, and she always asked Amar if he wanted seconds. She was not even aware of doing it. Hadia’s daily chore was washing the dishes and Huda’s was sweeping. If Amar was asked to help, the two of them would shout and cheer to mark the day. Sometimes this made Hadia so angry that if she was left in charge of the cleaning while Mumma and Baba were out, she would delegate everything to Amar. He was the only one Mumma had a nickname for. His favorite ice cream flavor was always stocked in the fridge; if Hadia helped unload the groceries and saw a pistachio and almond carton, she reminded Baba that Amar was the only one of them who ate that flavor.

“You don’t love it too?” Baba would ask her distractedly, every time.

“No,” she’d say quietly, thinking there was no point in correcting him at all.

Once, only once, had she confronted her mother about this, after her mother had taken his side during a fight that he was clearly to blame for.

“You love him more,” she had shouted. “You love him more than all of us.”

“Don’t be silly.” Her mother was calm, as if she was bored by Hadia’s tantrum. “You think about him more. What he needs and what he wants.” Hadia had turned to run back into her room. “We worry about him more,” her mother had called after her, so gently that Hadia had wanted to believe her. “We don’t have to worry about you.”

She had sniffled, and locked her bedroom door, embarrassed by her outburst. She plotted to do something that would make her parents worry about her, as if their worry would prove the depth of their love. But she was afraid. They had endless patience for Amar’s antics. She feared the only thing worse than wondering if they loved him more was testing their patience, proving it to be thin, and knowing for certain.

They loved Hadia because she did well. Her grades were good and her teachers said kind things about her. She was not sure if Baba would even notice her at all, if she did not work hard to distinguish herself academically. The only compliment Mumma ever gave her was that when Hadia cleaned the stove, it always sparkled.

“Even I can’t clean like that,” Mumma would say. And there would be actual awe in her voice, and Hadia would never know if she should feel glad for the compliment, or annoyed that it was the only thing that Mumma valued enough to note.

Amar was their son. Even the word son felt like something shiny and golden to her, like the actual sun that reigned over their days.

Baba would sometimes say to Hadia, “One day you’ll live with your husband. You’ll care for his parents. You’ll forget about us.”

It was meant as a joke, “you’ll forget about us,” or “we will no longer be responsible for you.” But it was never funny.

“Amar will take care of us, right, Ami?” Mumma would squeeze his cheeks. Amar would nod.

“Why can’t I?” she would say.

“Because the role of the daughter is to go off, to make her own home, to take her husband’s name—daughters are never really ours,” Baba would tell her.

But I want to be yours, she’d want to say. I want to be yours or just my own.

“I won’t take anyone’s name,” she’d vow aloud, but he would have stopped listening.

Everyone important was a boy. The Prophets and the Imams had been men. The moulana was always a man. Jonah got to be swallowed by the whale. Joseph was given the colorful coat and the powerful dreams. Noah knew the flood was coming. Whereas Noah’s wife was silly and drowned. Eve was the first to reach for the fruit. But Hadia liked to keep her examples close. It was Moses’s sister who had the clever idea to put him in the basket, and the Pharaoh’s wife who had the heart to pull him from the river. It was Bibi Mariam who was given the miracle of Jesus. Bibi Fatima was the only child the Prophet had and the Prophet never lamented the lack of a son. And she liked to think that there was a reason that one of the first things the Prophet ever did was forbid the people of Quraysh from burying their newborn daughters alive. But still, hundreds and hundreds of years had passed, and it was still the son they cherished, the son their pride depended on, the son who would carry their name into the next generation.

Excerpted from A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Copyright © 2018 by Fatima Farheen Mirza. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by SJP for Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

(Photo: Gregg Richards)

 

A Lucky Man
by Jamel Brinkley 

James kept busy at the security desk now, doing the work of both men while Lincoln sat there with his stomach on his lap. He felt a sort of bond with James now, a familiar gratitude. But one gets sick and tired of saying thank you. When he was engaged to Alexis, and during their first years of marriage, his friends would also tell him how lucky he was, but this was said as a joke. Lincoln would say thank you and agree, would tell them how grateful he was for her, but this wasn’t true. He deserved her—this was what he believed, and he knew this was what his friends believed in. A man of a kind should get what he deserves, and if a man like him couldn’t get a woman like her, then something was terribly wrong with the world.

James snipped withered leaves from the spider plants, a thing he’d never done before. Do her friends tell her she’s lucky? Lincoln wondered. Has Donna said that to her? Has her mother told her to give thanks for her man? She might be saying it now as they picked plums and nectarines at the fruit market, or sat out on the porch shelling peas. Surely this was foolish thinking, just as foolish as thinking Tameka would spend these years breaking the hearts of any eager Georgetown boy who wasn’t like her father. Lincoln came to understand that this had always been part of his vision for himself, to have children who adored him—a son who resembled and worshipped him, a daughter for whom no other man would ever measure up. This was part of what he couldn’t see before he married. But there was no son, and the years of Tameka’s life had marked his decline.

She had grown up watching it. His professional gambles with the boxing gyms, and the attempts at training and managing, had failed. His charm and stature no longer earned him opportunities, and in New York he had no reputation. He was lucky, he knew, to have his job at Tilden, steady and respectable work, but years ago he and his wife had deserved each other. Time had not treated them equally. Why did he expect otherwise though? With any two people one would get the brunt of it, and time had hit him worse than any beating he’d ever seen in the ring. He felt it had brutalized him. What did his wife think? Alexis had always been kind and supportive, but in her privacy she had to keep thoughts. A long marriage forced you to witness or suffer such brutality. Lincoln wondered, not for the first time, if this was exactly what marriage meant.

Across from the front desk, James pulled the director of security aside. Lincoln couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the discussion had the look of seriousness. He approached, but the director stopped him short with a flat stony hand, which he closed into a fist before lowering. Lincoln went back to his chair.

One day his wife’s looks would go. Creases would line her face, the skin there would loosen and thin, pouches would form under her eyes, maybe little dewlaps like his under the jaw. And her mind, it would start to slip and show weakness too. Everything cracks eventually. But when? How long would it be his good fortune to have her? How long until he could just plain have her again? Her smooth face. Even after all these years he longed for it, to rub his cheek against hers and breathe hot words into her hair—there’d been no diminishment of that feeling. He still had those appetites, and she did too. Yet he also felt the urge to press the sharps of his teeth against her face, to bite down and place the first deep crack in it. When pulled by contrary desires, you often don’t do anything at all. So on evenings and weekends he’d sit at home like a chastened boy, captive to her every small gesture. He didn’t want to lose her.

But Lincoln was a man with luck—yes, he still had it, James had said so and he was right. Good fortune can change in an instant, however, or it might never, but whatever it does has nothing to do with you. For years it had persisted in following him. It went home from work with him, lived with his family, claimed a space between him and his wife in their bed. She still had her light, but his was his luck. If it left him, she would too. No one would blame her. Neither Donna nor her other girlfriends, nor her mother, nor their daughter. Nor James. Maybe James had been wrong earlier. Maybe Lincoln’s luck had already abandoned him—his wife was gone for now, after all. Or maybe Lincoln was the one with wrong notions—maybe, slumped in his chair at the desk, unable to muster the little strength it took to hold in his belly, it was his luck that he was alone with.

Excerpted from A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. Copyright © 2018 by Jamel Brinkley. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

(Photo: Arash Saedinia)

The Dependents
by Katharine Dion

His early forays on the internet had been limited to responding to the emails his daughter sent him and occasionally reading the sensationalistic but nevertheless impossible-to-ignore news stories that appeared on his home page. (He wondered if this was something Dary could tell from the settings—that he clicked on articles such as “Nude Man Accidentally Tasers Self” or “Beano Bandit Apprehended.”) When Dary realized how little  he was using the computer she tried to help him, but the only thing that really stuck with him from her tutorials was this idea that you could ask the internet a question, any question, and it would give you not just one answer but dozens. He found this oddly reassuring because it suggested that somewhere on the other side of the internet connection, back in the human realm, somebody—and possibly a lot of somebodies—had the same semiprivate question that was more comfortable to send through a filtering layer of inhuman data.

Now he typed into the oracle field: “How to write a eulogy.” It was nice, or at least nonjudgmental, he supposed, that the internet assumed nothing about your existing abilities. Maybe you were a human willing to exert some effort, or maybe you were a half-automaton who needed to pass himself off as acceptably human. If he hadn’t wanted to write the eulogy there were plentiful options: premade templates, preselected themes, inspirational quotations, mournful yet triumphant poems. He was looking for something else, something that wouldn’t give him the shape of the thought, but that would tell him how to begin a process of thinking about the unthinkable.

He opened the top drawer of Maida’s dresser. She had never bothered to match up her socks, mixing them loose among her underwear and bras, and her pantyhose often ended up stretched beyond use or tangled in a knot. How many times had she and Gene been late for some event because on the way she had made him stop at the drugstore to buy a new pair? She would wriggle into it standing beside the car right there in the parking lot, while Gene would lower himself in the front seat, hoping nobody they knew saw them. When she was alive her tendency to make them late had never ceased to frustrate him, but now he looked upon her disorganization with peculiar fondness. Suddenly everything that was hers—the coins that had once been in her pocket, the hour and minute she had last set her alarm—was overburdened with significance. In some mad inversion of time, grieving his wife’s death resembled falling in love.

The most reasonable site he found had been created by an entity who called herself “the Lady in Black.” She said that writing a eulogy was “a personal journey of gathering memories.” She suggested collecting personal items that belonged to the deceased, and “spending time with them until they speak to you—not literally, of course!” Following the Lady in Black’s suggestion, he got up from the computer and went upstairs to the bedroom to find these items.

Excerpted from The Dependents by Katharine Dion. Copyright © 2018 by Katharine Dion. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Terri Loewenthal)
page_5: 

There There
by Tommy Orange

Blood is messy when it comes out. Inside it runs clean and looks blue in tubes that line our bodies, that split and branch like earth’s river systems. Blood is ninety percent water. And like water it must move. Blood must flow, never stray or split or clot or divide—lose any essential amount of itself while it distributes evenly through our bodies. But blood is messy when it comes out. It dries, divides, and cracks in the air.

Native blood quantum was introduced in 1705 at the Virginia Colony. If you were at least half Native, you didn’t have the same rights as white people. Blood quantum and tribal membership qualifications have since been turned over to individual tribes to decide.

In the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein commissioned a Quran to be written in his own blood. Now Muslim leaders aren’t sure what to do with it. To have written the Quran in blood was a sin, but to destroy it would also be a sin.

The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we’re broken. And don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?

When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like “sore losers” and “move on already,” “quit playing the blame game.” But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say “Get over it.” This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed over­board by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agita­tor gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

Excerpted from There There by Tommy Orange. Copyright © 2018 by Tommy Orange. Reprinted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

(Photo: Elena Seibert)

First Fiction 2017

by

Danzy Senna, Mira Jacob, Maggie Nelson, Emily Raboteau, Gary Shteyngart

6.14.17

For our seventeenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2017 issue of the magazine for interviews between Zinzi Clemmons and Danzy Senna, Hala Alyan and Mira Jacob, Jess Arndt and Maggie Nelson, Lisa Ko and Emily Raboteau, and Diksha Basu and Gary Shteyngart. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

What We Lose (Viking, July) by Zinzi Clemmons
Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May) by Hala Alyan
Large Animals (Catapult, May) by Jess Arndt
The Leavers (Algonquin Books, May) by Lisa Ko
The Windfall (Crown, June) by Diksha Basu
 

What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons

My parents’ bedroom is arranged exactly the same as it always was. The big mahogany dresser sits opposite the bed, the doily still in place on the vanity. My mother’s little ring holders and perfume bottles still stand there. On top of all these old feminine relics, my father has set up his home office. His old IBM laptop sits atop the doily, a tangle of cords choking my mother’s silver makeup tray. His books are scattered around the tables, his clothes draped carelessly over the antique wing chair that my mother found on a trip to Quebec.

In the kitchen, my father switches on a small flat-screen TV that he’s installed on the wall opposite the stove. My mother never allowed TV in the kitchen, to encourage bonding during family dinners and focus during homework time. As a matter of fact, we never had more than one television while I was growing up—an old wood-paneled set that lived in the cold basement, carefully hidden from me and visitors in the main living areas of the house.

We order Chinese from the place around the corner, the same order that we’ve made for years: sesame chicken, vegetable fried rice, shrimp lo mein. As soon as they hear my father’s voice on the line, they put in the order; he doesn’t even have to ask for it. When he picks the order up, they ask after me. When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.

My father tells me that he’s been organizing at work, now that he’s the only black faculty member in the upper ranks of the administration.

I notice that he has started cutting his hair differently. It is shorter on the sides and disappearing in patches around the crown of his skull. He pulls himself up in his chair with noticeable effort. He had barely aged in the past twenty years, and suddenly, in the past year, he has inched closer to looking like his father, a stooped, lean, yellow-skinned man I’ve only seen in pictures.

“How have you been, Dad?” I say as we sit at the table.

The thought of losing my father lurks constantly in my mind now, shadowy, inexpressible, but bursting to the surface when, like now, I perceive the limits of his body. Something catches in my throat and I clench my jaw.

My father says that he has been keeping busy. He has been volunteering every month at the community garden on Christian Street, turning compost and watering kale.

“And I’m starting a petition to hire another black professor,” he says, stabbing his glazed chicken with a fire I haven’t seen in him in years.

He asks about Peter.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone you like,” he says.

“Love, Dad,” I say. “We’re in love.”

He pauses, stirring his noodles quizzically with his fork. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asks.

I stare at the food in front of me. It’s the closest thing to comfort food since my mother has been gone. The unique flavor of her curries and stews buried, forever, with her. The sight of the food appeals to me, but the smell, suddenly, is noxious; the wisp of steam emanating from it, scorching.

“Are you all right?”

All of a sudden, I have the feeling that I am sinking. I feel the pressure of my skin holding in my organs and blood vessels and fluids; the tickle of every hair that covers it. The feeling is so disorienting and overwhelming that I can no longer hold my head up. I push my dinner away from me. I walk calmly but quickly to the powder room, lift the toilet seat, and throw up.

From What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, published in July by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Zinzi Clemmons.

(Photo: Nina Subin)

Salt Houses
by Hala Alyan

On the street, she fumbles for a cigarette from her purse and smokes as she walks into the evening. She feels a sudden urge, now that she is outside the apartment, to clear her head. This is her favor­ite thing about the city—the ability it gives you to walk, to literally put space between your body and distress. In Kuwait, nobody walks anywhere.

Mimi lives in a quiet part of the city, mostly residential, with small, pretty apartments, each window like a glistening eye. The streetlamps are made of wrought iron, designs flanking either side of the bulbs. There is a minimalist sense of wealth in the neighborhood, children dressed simply, the women always adjusting scarves around their necks, their hair cut into perfectly symmetrical lines. Souad walks by the manicured lawns of a grammar school, empty and discarded for the summer. Next to it a gray-steepled church. She tries to imagine that, elsewhere, there is smoke and destroyed palaces and men carry­ing guns. It seems impossible.

The night is cool, and Souad wraps her cardigan tightly around her, crosses her arms. A shiver runs through her. She is nervous to see him, a familiar thrill that he always elicits in her. Even before last night.

Le Chat Rouge is a fifteen-minute walk from Mimi’s apartment, but within several blocks the streets begin to change, brownstones and Gothic-style latticework replaced with grungier alleyways, young Algerian men with long hair sitting on steps and drinking beer from cans. One eyes her and calls out, caressingly, something in French. She can make out the words for sweet and return. Bars line the streets with their neon signs and she walks directly across the Quartier Latin courtyard, her shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

“My mother’s going to call tomorrow,” she told Elie yesterday. She wasn’t sure why she said it, but it felt necessary. “They’re taking me to Amman.” In the near dark, Elie’s face was peculiarly lit, the sign making his skin look alien.

“You could stay here,” Elie said. He smiled mockingly. “You could get married.”

Souad had blinked, her lips still wet from the kiss. “Married?” She wasn’t being coy—she truthfully had no idea what Elie meant. Mar­ried to whom? For a long, awful moment, she thought Elie was sug­gesting she marry one of the other Lebanese men, that he was fob­bing her off on a friend in pity.

“Yes.” Elie cocked his head, as though gauging the authenticity of her confusion. He smiled again, kinder this time. He closed his fingers around hers so that she was making a fist and he a larger one atop it. They both watched their hands silently for a few seconds, an awkward pose, more confrontational than romantic, as though he were preventing her from delivering a blow. It occurred to her that he was having a difficult time speaking. She felt her palm itch but didn’t move. Elie cleared his throat, and when he spoke, she had to lean in to hear him.

“You could marry me.”

Now, even in re-creating that moment, Souad feels the swoop in her stomach, her mouth drying. It is a thing she wants in the dark­est, most furtive way, not realizing how badly until it was said aloud. Eighteen years old, a voice within her spoke, eighteen. Too young, too young. And her parents, her waiting life.

But the greater, arrogant part of Souad’s self growled as if wo­ken. Her steps clacked with her want of it. The self swelled trium­phantly—Shame, shame, she admonishes herself, thinking of the war, the invasion, the troops and fire, but she is delighted nonetheless.

From Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2017 by Hala Alyan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Large Animals
by Jess Arndt

In my sleep I was plagued by large animals—teams of grizzlies, timber wolves, gorillas even came in and out of the mist. Once the now extinct northern white rhino also stopped by. But none of them came as often or with such a ferocious sexual charge as what I, mangling Latin and English as usual, called the Walri. Lying there, I faced them as you would the inevitable. They were massive, tube-shaped, sometimes the feeling was only flesh and I couldn’t see the top of the cylinder that masqueraded as a head or tusks or eyes. Nonetheless I knew I was in their presence intuitively. There was no mistaking their skin; their smell was unmistakable too, as was their awful weight.

During these nights (the days seemed to disappear before they even started) I was living two miles from a military testing site. In the early morning and throughout the day the soft, dense sound of bombs filled the valley. It was comforting somehow. Otherwise I was entirely alone.

This seemed a precondition for the Walri—that I should be theirs and theirs only. on the rare occasion that I had an overnight visitor to my desert bungalow the Walri were never around. Then the bears would return in force, maybe even a large local animal like a mountain lion or goat, but no form’s density came close to walrusness. So I became wary and stopped inviting anyone out to visit at all.

The days, unmemorable, had a kind of habitual slide. I would wake up with the sun and begin cleaning the house. No matter how tightly I’d kept the doors shut the day before, dust and sand and even large pieces of mineral rock seemed to shove  their way inside. I swept these into piles. Then the dishes that I barely remembered dirtying—some mornings it was as if the whole artillery of pots and pans had been used in the night by someone else—then the trash (again always full), then some coffee. Eight o’clock.

This work done, I sat in various chairs in the house following the bright but pale blades of light. I was drying out. oh, an LA friend said somewhat knowingly, from the booze? But I had alcohol with me, plenty of it. It wasn’t that. I moved as if preprogrammed. only later did I realize that my sleep was so soggy that it took strong desert sun to unshrivel me and since it was the middle of winter and the beams were perforce slanted, I’d take all of it I could find.

For lunch I got in my car and drove into town, to the empty parking lot of Las Palmas. There were many Mexican joints along the highway that also functioned as Main Street. I hadn’t bothered to try them out. Las Palmas, with its vacant booths, dusty cacti, and combination platter lunch special for $11.99 including $4 house margarita, was fine.

A waitress named Tamara worked there. She seemed like the only one. She wasn’t my type—so tall she bent over herself and a bona fide chain-smoker. Sometimes to order you’d have to exit your booth and find her puffing outside. A friend who had borrowed the bungalow before I did told me about Tamara and so if I had a crush at all it was an inherited one that even came with inherited guilt—from having taken her on once he could no longer visit her. Regardless, we barely spoke.

I had things I was supposed to be doing, more work than I could accomplish even if I
duct-taped my fists to my laptop, but none of it seemed relevant to my current state. In the afternoons I drove back home slowly, always stopping for six-packs of beer at the Circle K. I enjoyed the task. The beer evaporated once I stuck it in my fridge—it was there and then, it was gone.

My sleeping area was simple: a bed on a plywood platform. A wooden dresser. Built-in closets and a cement floor. At first  I would wake up in the night from the sheer flattening silence of the desert. It was impossible that the world still existed elsewhere. After that initial jolt, relief.

Don’t you miss it? my same friend said during our weekly telephone chats. But I couldn’t explain the euphoria of walking up and down the chilly aisles of Stater Bros. In week-old sweatpants if I wanted, uncounted by life. Would I buy refried or whole beans? This brand or that? It didn’t matter, no one cared.

It was in these conditions that the Walri arrived.

* * * 

I’d slept as usual for the first few hours, heavily, in a kind of coma state. Then had woken, I thought to pee. But lying there with the gritty sheets braided around me, the violet light that was created from the fly zapper, the desert cold that was entering through the gaps and cracks in the fire’s absence—I felt a new form of suffocation.

It wasn’t supernatural. I’d also had that. The sense of someone’s vast weight sitting on the bed with you or patting your body with ghostly hands. This breathless feeling was larger, as if I was uniformly surrounded by mammoth flesh.

Dream parts snagged at me. Slapping sounds and hose-like alien respiration. I felt I was wrestling within inches of what must be—since I couldn’t breathe—the end of my life. Now the lens of my dream panned backward and I saw my opponent in his entirety.

He lay (if that’s what you could call it) on my bed, thick and wrinkled, the creases in his hide so deep I could stick my arms between them. His teeth were yellow and as long as my legs.

“I’m sexually dormant,” I said aloud to him. “But I want to put my balls in someone’s face.”

Then somehow light was peeling everything back for dawn.

From Large Animals. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2017 by Jess Arndt.

(Photo: Johanna Breiding)

The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. “What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.”

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. “Did you get off work early?” It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn’t usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. “Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment.” Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn’t tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn’t call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and slow laughter warming the thin February air. “I don’t want you to be like that,” she said. “I don’t want you to be like me. I didn’t even finish eighth grade.”

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was. “I’ll come to your school tomorrow,” his mother said, “talk to your teacher about that assignment.” He kept his arm against his mother’s, loved the scratchy sound of their jackets rubbing together. She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street. Inside her gloves her hands were red and scraped, the skin angry and peeling, and every night before she went to sleep she rubbed a thick lotion onto her fingers and winced. Once he asked if it made them hurt less. She said only for a little while, and he wished there was a special lotion that could make new skin grow, a pair of superpower gloves.

Short and blocky, she wore loose jeans—never had he seen her in a dress—and her voice was so loud that when she called his name dogs would bark and other kids jerked around. When she saw his last report card he thought her shouting would set off the car alarms four stories below. But her laughter was as loud as her shouting, and there was no better, more gratifying sound than when she slapped her knees and cackled at something silly. She laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny, like TV dramas and the swollen orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them, or, better yet, at things Deming said, like when he nailed the way their neighbor Tommie always went, “Not bad-not bad-not bad” when they passed him in the stairwell, an automatic response to a “Hello-how-are-you” that hadn’t yet been issued. Or the time she’d asked, flipping through TV stations, “Dancing with the Stars isn’t on?” and he had excavated Michael’s old paper mobile of the solar system and waltzed with it through the living room as she clapped. It was almost as good as getting cheered on by his friends.

When he had lived in Minjiang with his grandfather, Deming’s mother had explored New York by herself. There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled. She jiggled her legs, bounced her knees, cracked her knuckles, twirled her thumbs. She hated being cooped up in the apartment on a sunny day, paced the rooms from wall to wall to wall, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “Who wants to go for a walk?” she would say. Her boyfriend Leon would tell her to relax, sit down. “Sit down? We’ve been sitting all day!” Deming would want to stay on the couch with Michael, but he couldn’t say no to her and they’d go out, no family but each other. He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside—a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. “To bagels?” she said. “What flavor bagel?” “Everything bagels,” he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.

A bus lumbered past, spraying slush. The walk sign flashed on. “You know what I did today?” his mother said. “One lady, she had a callus the size of your nose on her heel. I had to scrape all that dead skin off. It took forever. And her tip was shit. You’ll never do that, if you’re careful.”

He dreaded this familiar refrain. His mother could curse, but the one time he’d let motherfucker bounce out in front of her, loving the way the syllables got meatbally in his mouth, she had slapped his arm and said he was better than that. Now he silently said the word to himself as he walked, one syllable per footstep.

“Did you think that when I was growing up, a small girl your age, I thought: hey, one day, I’m going to come all the way to New York so I can pick gao gao out of a stranger’s toe? That was not my plan.”

Always be prepared, she liked to say. Never rely on anyone else to give you things you could get yourself. She despised laziness, softness, people who were weak. She had few friends, but was true to the ones she had. She could hold a fierce grudge, would walk an extra three blocks to another grocery store because, two years ago, a cashier at the one around the corner had smirked at her lousy English. It was lousy, Deming agreed.

From The Leavers. Printed by permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Ko.

(Photo: Bartosz Potocki)
page_5: 

The Windfall
by Diksha Basu

The following week, on an unusually overcast September day, Mr. Jha pulled into the quiet lane of his new Gurgaon home. He had never been here by himself, he realized. Mrs. Jha was usually with him, and this summer Rupak had come with them a few times, and there were all the contractors and painters and builders buzzing around, working. He had never really appreciated the silence and the greenery before. Gurgaon felt still while the rest of Delhi throbbed.

The air was heavy with heat and the promise of rain. On the radio, a Bon Jovi song played. “It’s been raining since you left me,” the lyrics said. How funny, Mr. Jha thought. An Indian song would have to say, “It hasn’t rained since you left me.” Unless, of course, you were happy that they left you.

An electronic shoe-polishing machine in a large box was on the passenger seat of his Mercedes. He had strapped it in with the seat belt. It was beautiful. And it was expensive. It was not a planned purchase. This morning he had a breakfast meeting with two young men who were launching a website that would help you find handymen around Delhi, and they asked him to join their team as a consultant. He declined. He did not have time to take on any new work until they were done moving homes. And then they had to visit Rupak, so he was not going to have any free time until November or December. And then it would be the holiday season, so really it was best if he took the rest of the year off work.

The meeting was over breakfast at the luxurious Teresa’s Hotel in Connaught Place in central Delhi, and after filling himself up with mini croissants, fruit tarts, sliced cheeses, salami, coffee, and orange juice, Mr. Jha went for a stroll through the lobby and the other restaurants in the hotel. All the five-star hotels in the center of town were little oases of calm and cool. Mr. Jha was walking by the large windows that overlooked the swimming pool that was for guests only when he thought he would book a two-night stay here. He knew his wife loved the indulgence of nice hotels and he had recently read about what youngsters were calling a staycation—a vacation where you don’t leave the city or the home you usually live in, but you give yourself a few days to take a holiday. Of course, since he didn’t work much anymore, most days, weeks, months were a staycation, but how wonderful it would be to check into a hotel and have a lazy few days. Having room service—or, like they were called at Teresa’s, butlers—was a different sort of pleasure than having servants bringing you food and cleaning your home. Butlers showed that you had made the progression from servants to expensive appliances to uniformed men who ran the expensive appliances.

From The Windfall, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in June. Copyright © 2017 by Diksha Basu.

(Photo: Mikey McCleary)

First Fiction 2016

by

Staff

6.14.16

For our sixteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2016 issue of the magazine for interviews between Yaa Gyasi and Angela Flournoy, Masande Ntshanga and Naomi Jackson, Rumaan Alam and Emma Straub, Maryse Meijer and Lindsay Hunter, and Imbolo Mbue and Christina Baker Kline. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Homegoing (Knopf, June) by Yaa Gyasi
The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, June) by Masande Ntshanga
Rich and Pretty (Ecco, June) by Rumaan Alam
Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July) by Maryse Meijer
Behold the Dreamers (Random House, August) by Imbolo Mbue

 

Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.

Effia’s father, Cobbe Otcher, left his first wife, Baaba, with the new baby so that he might survey the damage to his yams, that most precious crop known far and wide to sustain families. Cobbe had lost seven yams, and he felt each loss as a blow to his own family. He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued. When he came back into Baaba’s hut to find Effia, the child of the night’s fire, shrieking into the air, he looked at his wife and said, “We will never again speak of what happened today.”

The villagers began to say that the baby was born of the fire, that this was the reason Baaba had no milk. Effia was nursed by Cobbe’s second wife, who had just given birth to a son three months before. Effia would not latch on, and when she did, her sharp gums would tear at the flesh around the woman’s nipples until she became afraid to feed the baby. Because of this, Effia grew thinner, skin on small bird- like bones, with a large black hole of a mouth that expelled a hungry crywhich could be heard throughout the village, even on the days Baaba did her best to smother it, covering the baby’s lips with the rough palm of her left hand.

“Love her,” Cobbe commanded, as though love were as simple an act as lifting food up from an iron plate and past one’s lips. At night, Baaba dreamed of leaving the baby in the dark forest so that the god Nyame could do with her as he pleased.

Effia grew older. The summer after her third birthday, Baaba had her first son. The boy’s name was Fiifi, and he was so fat that some- times, when Baaba wasn’t looking, Effia would roll him along the ground like a ball. The first day that Baaba let Effia hold him, she accidentally dropped him. The baby bounced on his buttocks, landed on his stomach, and looked up at everyone in the room, confused as to whether or not he should cry. He decided against it, but Baaba, who had been stirring banku, lifted her stirring stick and beat Effia across her bare back. Each time the stick lifted off the girl’s body, it would leave behind hot, sticky pieces of banku that burned into her flesh. By the time Baaba had finished, Effia was covered with sores, screaming and crying. From the floor, rolling this way and that on his belly, Fiifi looked at Effia with his saucer eyes but made no noise.

Cobbe came home to find his other wives attending to Effia’s wounds and understood immediately what had happened. He and Baaba fought well into the night. Effia could hear them through the thin walls of the hut where she lay on the floor, drifting in and out of a feverish sleep. In her dream, Cobbe was a lion and Baaba was a tree. The lion plucked the tree from the ground where it stood and slammed it back down. The tree stretched its branches in protest, and the lion ripped them off, one by one. The tree, horizontal, began to cry red ants that traveled down the thin cracks between its bark. The ants pooled on the soft earth around the top of the tree trunk.

And so the cycle began. Baaba beat Effia. Cobbe beat Baaba. By the time Effia had reached age ten, she could recite a history of the scars on her body. The summer of 1764, when Baaba broke yams across her back. The spring of 1767, when Baaba bashed her left foot with a rock, breaking her big toe so that it now always pointed away from the other toes. For each scar on Effia’s body, there was a companion scar on Baaba’ s, but that didn’t stop mother from beating daughter, father from beating mother.

Matters were only made worse by Effia’s blossoming beauty. When she was twelve, her breasts arrived, two lumps that sprung from her chest, as soft as mango flesh. The men of the village knew that first blood would soon follow, and they waited for the chance to ask Baaba and Cobbe for her hand. The gifts started. One man tapped palm wine better than anyone else in the village, but another’s fishing nets were never empty. Cobbe’s family feasted off Effia’s burgeoning woman- hood. Their bellies, their hands, were never empty.

Excerpted from HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi. Copyright © 2016 by Yaa Gyasi. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Reactive
By Masande Ntshanga

The way I got to know them, by the way, my two closest friends here, is that we met at one of the new HIV and drug-counseling sessions cropping up all over the city. We were in the basement parking lot of the free clinic in Wynberg. The seminar room upstairs had been locked up and taped shut, there’d been a mer­cury spill, and our group couldn’t meet in there on account of the vapors being toxic to human tissue. Instead, they arranged us in the basement parking lot, and in two weeks we got used to not being sent upstairs for meetings. I did, in any case, and that was enough for me in the beginning.

In those days, I attended the meetings alone. I’d catch a taxi from Obs over to Wynberg for an afternoon’s worth of coun­seling. By the end of my first month, when the seminar room had been swept once, and then twice, and then three times by a short man who wore a blue contamination meter over his chest, each time checking out clean, everyone decided they preferred it down below, and so that’s where we stayed.

Maybe we all want to be buried here, I said.

It had been the first time I’d spoken in group. Talking always took me a while, back then, but the remark succeeded in making a few of them laugh. It won me chuckles even from the old-timers, and later, I wrote down my first addiction story to share with the group. It was from a film I saw adapted from a book I wasn’t likely to read. Ruan and Cissie arrived on the following Wednesday.

I noticed them immediately. Something seemed to draw us in from our first meeting. In the parking lot, we eyeballed each other for a while before we spoke. During the coffee break, we stood by the serving table in front of a peeling Toyota bakkie, mumbling tentatively towards each other’s profiles. I learned that Cecelia was a teacher. She pulled week-long shifts at a day­care center just off Bridge Street in Mowbray, and she was there on account of the school’s accepting its first openly positive pupil. Ruan, who was leaning against the plastic table, gulping more than sipping at the coffee in his paper cup, said that he suffocated through his life by working on the top floor of his uncle’s computer firm. He was there to shop for a social issue they could use for their corporate responsibility strategy. He called it CRS, and Cissie and I had to ask him what he meant.

In the end, I guess I was impressed. I told them how I used to be a lab assistant at Peninsula Tech, and how in a way this was part of how I’d got to be sick with what I have.

When we sat back down again, we listened to the rest of the members assess each other’s nightmares. They passed them around with a familiar casualness. Mark knew about Ronelle’s school fees, for instance, and she knew about Linette’s hepatitis, and all of us knew that Linda had developed a spate of genital warts over September. She called them water warts, when she first told us, and, like most of her symptoms, she blamed them on the rain.

That day, when the discussion turned to drug abuse, as it always did during the last half-hour of our sessions, the three of us had nothing to add. I looked over at Ruan and caught him stashing a grin behind his fist, while on my other side, Cecelia blinked up at the ceiling. I didn’t need any more evidence for our kinship.

The meeting lasted the full two hours, and when it came to an end, I collected my proof of attendance and exchanged num­bers with Ruan and Cecelia. I suppose we said our goodbyes at the entrance of the parking lot that day, and later, within that same week I think, we were huffing paint thinner together in my flat in Obs.

Excerpted from The Reactive by Masande Ntshanga. Copyright  ©  2016 by Masande Ntshanga. Excerpted by permission of Two Dollar Radio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 Rich and Pretty
By Rumaan Alam

Lauren’s office is freezing. You could keep butter on the desk. You could perform surgery. Every woman in the office—they’re all women—keeps a cashmere sweater on the back of her chair. They sit, hands outstretched over computer keyboards like a bum’s over a flaming garbage can. The usual office noises: typing, telephones, people using indoor voices, the double ding of an elevator going down. For some reason, the double ding of the elevator going down is louder than the single ding of the elevator going up. There’s a metaphor in there, waiting to be untangled. They make cookbooks, these women. There’s no food, just stacks of paper and editorial assistants in glasses. She’s worked here for four years. It’s fine.

Today is different because today there’s a guy, an actual dude, in the office with them, not a photographer or stylist popping by for a meeting, as does happen: He’s
a temp, because Kristen is having a baby and her doctor put her on bed rest. Lauren isn’t totally clear on what Kristen does, but now there’s a dude doing it. He’s wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, and loafers, not sneakers, which implies a certain maturity. Lauren’s been trying to get him to notice her all day. She’s the second-prettiest woman in the office, so it isn’t hard. Hannah, the prettiest, has a vacant quality about her. She’s not stupid, exactly—in fact, she’s very competent—but she doesn’t have spark. She’s not interesting, just thin and blond, with heavy eyeglasses and a photograph of her French bulldog on her computer screen.

Lauren has it all planned out. She’ll walk past his desk a couple of times, which isn’t suspicious because his desk isn’t far from the kitchen, and the kitchen is where the coffee is, and by the third time, he’ll follow her in there, and she’ll make a wisecrack about the coffee, and he’ll say it’s not so bad, and they’ll talk, and exchange phone numbers, e-mail addresses, whatever, and then later they’ll leave the office at the same time, ride down together in the elevator and not talk because they both understand that the social contract dictates that sane people do not talk in elevators, and then he’ll let her go through the revolving door first, even though she’s pretty sure that etiquette has it that men precede women through revolving doors, and then they’ll both be standing on Broadway, and there will be traffic and that vague smell of charred, ethnic meat from the guy with the lunch cart on the corner, and he’ll suggest they get a drink, and she’ll say sure, and they’ll go to the Irish pub on Fifty-Fifth Street, because there’s nowhere else to go, and after two drinks they’ll be starving, and he’ll suggest they get dinner, but there’s nowhere to eat in this part of town, so they’ll take the train to Union Square and realize there’s nowhere to eat there either, and they’ll walk down into the East Village and find something, maybe ramen, or that Moroccan-y place that she always forgets she likes, and they’ll eat, and they’ll start touching each other, casually but deliberately, carefully, and the check will come and she’ll say let’s split it, and he’ll say no let me, even though he’s a temp and can’t make that much money, right? Then they’ll be drunk, so taking a cab seems wise and they’ll make out in the backseat, but just a little bit, and kind of laugh about it, too: stop to check their phones, or admire the view, or so he can explain that he lives with a roommate or a dog, or so she can tell him some stupid story about work that won’t mean anything to him anyway because it’s only his first day and he doesn’t know anyone’s name, let alone their personality quirks and the complexities of the office’s political and social ecosystem.

Then he’ll pay the driver, because they’ll go to his place—she doesn’t want to bring the temp back to her place—and it’ll be nice, or fine, or ugly, and he’ll open beers because all he has are beers, and she’ll pretend to drink hers even though she’s had enough, and he’ll excuse himself for a minute to go to the bathroom, but really it’s to brush his teeth, piss, maybe rub some wet toilet paper around his ass and under his balls. This is something Gabe had told her, years ago, that men do this, or at least, that he did. Unerotic, but somehow touching. Then the temp will come sit next to her on the couch, please let it be a couch and not a futon, and he’ll play with her hair a little before he kisses her, his mouth minty, hers beery. He’ll be out of his shirt, then, and he’s hard and hairy, but also a little soft at the belly, which she likes. She once slept with this guy Sean, whose torso, hairless and lean, freaked her out. It was like having sex with a female mannequin. The temp will push or pull her into his bedroom, just the right balance of aggression and respect, and the room will be fine, or ugly, and the bedsheets will be navy, as men’s bedsheets always are, and there will be venetian blinds, and lots of books on the nightstand because he’s temping at a publishing company so he must love to read. She’ll tug her shirt over her head, and he’ll pull at her bra, and they’ll be naked, and he’ll fumble around for a condom, and his dick will be long but not, crucially, thick, and it will be good, and then it will be over. They’ll laugh about how this whole thing is against the company’s sexual harassment policy. She’ll try to cover herself with the sheet, and he’ll do the same, suddenly embarrassed by his smaller, slightly sticky dick. When he’s out of the room, to get a beer, to piss, whatever, she’ll get dressed. He’ll call her a car service, because there are no yellow cabs wherever he lives. They’ll both spend the part of the night right before they fall asleep trying to figure out how to act around each other in the office tomorrow.

Or maybe not that. Maybe she’ll find a way to go up to him and say, what, exactly, Hey, do you like parties? Do you want to go to a party . . . tonight? No, the jeans and tie are fine. It’s not fancy. A party. A good party. Good open bar, for sure. Probably canapés, what are canapés exactly, whatever they are, there will probably be some. Last party, there were these balls of cornbread and shrimp, like deep fried, holy shit they were great. That was last year, I think. Anyway, there might be celebrities there. There will definitely be celebrities there. I once saw Bill Clinton at one of these parties. He’s skinnier than you’d think. Anyway, think about it, it’ll be a time, and by the way, I’m Lauren, I’m an associate editor here and you are? She can picture his conversation, the words coming to her so easily, as they do in fantasy but never in reality. They call it meeting cute, in movies, but it only happens in movies.

From Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam. Copyright © 2016 by Rumaan Alam. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Heartbreaker
By Maryse Meijer

Daddy comes over on Thursdays. My husband and son are out watching movies where people blow each other up. They have burgers afterward and buf- falo wings and milkshakes and they talk about  TV shows and girls and the latest bloody video game. At least that’s what I imagine they do. No way do they imagine what I am doing, sitting here at the kitchen table doing my math homework as Daddy microwaves the mac and cheese he brought over. We have three hours together and in these three hours I am twelve years old and my daddy is the most wonderful man in the world.

On craigslist I post the photo from my work website, the one with my hair scraped back in a ponytail, expos- ing my shiny forehead, my thin lips, my arms bursting from the sleeves of my blue blouse. Daughter seeks Father is all I write as a caption. In response I receive an avalanche of cell-phone numbers, chat invitations, and penis pics lifted from porn sites.

I delete all the emails except for Richard’s: Sweetheart, please call home. I sit for a moment hunched in my cubicle, sweating, before lifting the receiver and dialing his number.

Daddy? I whisper, hand up to cover my mouth so no one walking by can see it moving.

He doesn’t skip a beat. Sweetheart! he says. Did you see the photo? I ask.

Of course, he says.

I’m not better in person, I warn. You’re perfect, he assures me.

I’m married, I tell him. I have a kid. No problem, he insists.

I chew the inside of my cheek. There’s not going to be any sex, I say.

Absolutely not! he agrees.

I wait for him to say something creepy or disgusting, but he doesn’t. We make arrangements to meet at McDonald’s for dinner on Thursday.

Don’t kill me, I say, and he laughs.

Oh sweetheart, he says. What on earth?

I’m  early. I don’t  know what Daddy looks like and every time the door swings open my head jerks like a ball on a string. I convince myself I’m going to be stood up and that it will be better anyway if I am. But at seven on the dot he enters and he looks straight at me and waves.

Our usual, sweetheart?  he says, loud enough for other people to hear, and I nod. He brings a tray of chicken nugget combos to my table. He kisses my cheek. The food steams in our hands as we look at each other; he seems about twenty, twenty-two, with chinos frayed at the bottoms and red hair and glasses and biceps as skinny as my wrist. Maybe someday he will be good- looking.

Extra barbecue sauce, just the way you like, he says, gesturing to my nuggets. I smile and take a bite. He asks me about school and I ask him about work and he is as interested in how I’m doing in gym class as I am in the stocks he’s trading at the office; we slip into our new roles as easily as knives into butter.

I almost forgot, he says. He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a CD with a Christmas bow stuck on it. Just a little something, he adds, and hands it to me. I unstick the bow and turn the CD over in my hands: Britney Spears. I bounce, once, and my left butt cheek, which doesn’t quite fit on the plastic chair, bangs on the edge of the seat.

Oh Daddy, I say, touched because I k now he went into a store and asked what would be the right thing to get for his little girl, and he paid for it with his own money and put it in his pocket and found  the gaudy bow to go with it and then brought it all the way here, to me, because he k new he would like me and already wanted to give me something, and this makes me want to give everything I have to him in return.

Apart from  Thursday nights—and it’s  always Thurs- days, always nights—we don’t communicate, except by email. Sometimes he’ll send me a note just to say, Have a great day!! or he’ll tell me what plans he has for dinner: Working late need a treat pizza sound  good??? or he’ll hint at imagined happenings in my little-girl life: Don’t forget dentist today xoxoxoxo!! and Good luck on the history quiz I know you’ll do awesome!!!! I write back in equally breathless terms to report the results of the history quiz or the number of cavities rotting my teeth or to squeal over the impending pizza feast. These exchanges give me a high so intense my chest muscles spasm and when my boss calls and says to bring her such-and-such a document I hit print and out comes an email from Daddy, not the work document, and I giggle into my hand and hit print again.

He always arrives exactly fifteen minutes after my hus- band and son leave. I sit on the couch with the televi- sion on while he fumbles with the keys and the empty banged-up briefcase he always brings. Sweetheart! he says when he enters, and I yelp Daddy! and if I was maybe ten or twenty or, okay, thirty pounds lighter, I might run toward him, but as it is I wait on the couch for him to come over and k iss my hair. I’ll pour him a soda on the rocks and he’ll  pour  me some milk and we touch glasses and smile. If my husband calls I stand by the back door with my head down and say Uh-huh, yes, fine, all right, see you soon, no, nothing for me, thanks, I’m enjoying the leftovers, have fun, love you.

Excerpted from Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. Copyright ©  Maryse Meijer, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

page_5: 

Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue

He’d never been asked to wear a suit to a job interview. Never been told to bring along a copy of his résumé. He hadn’t even owned a résumé until the previous week when he’d gone to the library on Thirty-fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.

He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about. Try as he might, he could do nothing but think about the questions he might be asked, the answers he would need to give, the way he would have to walk and talk and sit, the times he would need to speak or listen and nod, the things he would have to say or not say, the response he would need to give if asked about his legal status in the country. His throat went dry. His palms moistened. Unable to reach for his handkerchief in the packed downtown subway, he wiped both palms on his pants.

“Good morning, please,” he said to the security guard in the lobby when he arrived at Lehman Brothers. “My name is Jende Jonga. I am here for Mr. Edwards. Mr. Clark Edwards.”

The guard, goateed and freckled, asked for his ID, which he quickly pulled out of his brown bifold wallet. The man took it, examined it front and back, looked up at his face, looked down at his suit, smiled, and asked if he was trying to become a stockbroker or something.

Jende shook his head. “No,” he replied without smiling back. “A chauffeur.”

“Right on,” the guard said as he handed him a visitor pass. “Good luck with that.”

This time Jende smiled. “Thank you, my brother,” he said. “I really need all that good luck today.”

Alone in the elevator to the twenty-eighth floor, he inspected his fingernails (no dirt, thankfully). He adjusted his clip-on tie using the security mirror above his head; reexamined his teeth and found no visible remnants of the fried ripe plantains and beans he’d eaten for breakfast. He cleared his throat and wiped off whatever saliva had crusted on the sides of his lips. When the doors opened he straightened his shoulders and introduced himself to the receptionist, who, after responding with a nod and a display of extraordinarily white teeth, made a phone call and asked him to follow her. They walked through an open space where young men in blue shirts sat in cubicles with multiple screens, down a corridor, past another open space of cluttered cubicles and into a sunny office with a four-paneled glass window running from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the thousand autumn-drenched trees and proud towers of Manhattan standing outside. For a second his mouth fell open, at the view outside—the likes of which he’d never seen—and the exquisiteness inside. There was a lounging section (black leather sofa, two black leather chairs, glass coffee table) to his right, an executive desk (oval, cherry, black leather reclining chair for the executive, two green leather armchairs for visitors) in the center, and a wall unit (cherry, glass doors, white folders in neat rows) to his left, in front of which Clark Edwards, in a dark suit, was standing and feeding sheets of paper into a pullout shredder.

“Please, sir, good morning,” Jende said, turning toward him and half-bowing.

“Have a seat,” Clark said without lifting his eyes from the shredder.

Jende hurried to the armchair on the left. He pulled a résumé from his folder and placed it in front of Clark’s seat, careful not to disturb the layers of white papers and Wall Street Journals strewn across the desk in a jumble. One of the Journal pages, peeking from beneath sheets of numbers and graphs, had the headline: Whites’ Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-blind America.” Jende leaned forward to read the story, fascinated as he was by the young ambitious senator, but immediately sat upright when he remembered where he was, why he was there, what was about to happen.

“Do you have any outstanding tickets you need to resolve?” Clark asked as he sat down.

“No, sir,” Jende replied.

“And you haven’t been in any serious accidents, right?”

“No, Mr. Edwards.”

Clark picked up the résumé from his desk, wrinkled and moist like the man whose history it held. His eyes remained on it for several seconds while Jende’s darted back and forth, from the Central Park treetops far beyond the window to the office walls lined with abstract paintings and portraits of white men wearing bow ties. He could feel beads of sweat rising out of his forehead.

“Well, Jende,” Clark said, putting the résumé down and leaning back in his chair. “Tell me about yourself.”

Excerpted from Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Copyright  ©  2016 by Imbolo Mbue. Reprinted with permission of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

First Fiction 2020

by

Staff

6.10.20

For our twentieth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2020 issue of the magazine for interviews between Ashleigh Bryant Phillips and Lauren Groff, Jean Kyoung Frazier and Bryan Washington, Corinne Manning and Paul Lisicky, Megha Majumdar and Sue Monk Kidd, and John Fram and Sarah Gailey. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

Sleepovers (Hub City Press, June) by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Pizza Girl (Doubleday, June) by Jean Kyoung Frazier
We Had No Rules (Arsenal Pulp Press, May) by Corinne Manning
A Burning (Knopf, June) by Megha Majumdar
The Bright Lands (Hanover Square Press, July) by John Fram

 

Sleepovers
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

The Truth About Miss Katie

I didn’t like it when I heard what Miss Katie said at her going away party. And I probably shouldn’t have been listening but I wanted to tell her goodbye. At the party she said, “Excuse me I have a phone call,” and then she didn’t come back in for a long time so I went out to the bleachers where she always talks on the phone because she says that’s where she has best reception and I wish I didn’t hear her. What she said. She didn’t know I was there. And that was rude I guess and not good manners but Miss Katie is my favorite person—or was—because she’s smart and pretty and always has her nails done nice and she told me that one time that my bush baby I did was looking so cute in the bush.

I had never done art before, I mean I’d seen it on TV like on Disney Channel and the Miley Cyrus show when she had to do a thing called a self-portrait. But that’s why I loved when Miss Katie came. I just wanted to try art. You hear about it in all the stories, people painting, looking at paintings. I know that paintings are in museums because the library book I checked out told me about it. I’ve never been to a museum before either.

I heard that in the 6th grade we can go see a museum on the big field trip that the 6th graders take. They take us up to UNC to see the basketball court where Michael Jordan played and then they take us to a museum. We got to raise money to get up there though because we have to get this real big bus to take us and you have to get there real early at six in the morning and you CAN NOT be late. Or you’ll be holding up your friends!

So I wanted to do this art. And I had never heard of a bush baby before either until Miss Katie came and read us that story about Africa and she showed us how to draw animals from Africa in white crayon on white paper. And I know that sounds crazy because how are you gonna see anything with white crayon on white paper? But when you put the watercolor on it, it shows up really good. Well like I said, Miss Katie said I did so good on my bush baby, “Pretty eyes,” she said. “Between you and me it’s the best one in the class.” And that made me feel good.

When I got my period I thought I was hurt and I didn’t know what was happening to me and I was crying in the bathroom stall at school and Miss Katie came in there and told me I was okay. She said I should be proud, that it meant I was becoming a young lady. She said she had one too. And she gave me a pad to put in my panties. And when Grandma picked me up from school that day Miss Katie walked out with me to Grandma’s car and held my hand and she said, “Your granddaughter got her period today at school and I hope I didn’t overstep my boundaries or anything but she didn’t know what was going on and she was scared…” And then Grandma interrupted her and said, “That girl needs to feel scared.” I could tell Miss Katie didn’t know what to say then.

My Grandma is the bossy type. More bossy than Miss Katie. She don’t let us keep the lights on at night because of the electric bill and so when the sun goes down me and brother and sister sit in our room in the dark just talking to each other and sometimes my baby sister is afraid and I hold her and scratch her back real light like you’re barely touching her to get her to go to sleep. You can’t do it too hard or it won’t work. And Grandma won’t send me to school but with one pad. She says they’re expensive. So I told Miss Katie and she brought some pads to school just for me. And now whenever I feel the blood coming out of me I can change pads as much as I want. I hate feeling like I’m sitting in my own blood.

But Miss Katie said that I was a smart girl, a curious person, and that meant I was exciting. Miss Katie says to be normal is one of the most boring things in life. She taught us paper ma-shay. She has a paper ma-shay of her boobs that she keeps in her desk, she showed it to me one time.

She said I was a real artist. She really liked everything I’d paint. “Good color choice,” that’s something she always said. She said that on my self-portrait. That’s also when she told me I was beautiful. “See,” and she pointed to my face and said, “This is just beautiful.”

Miss Katie made me want to be a teacher. She taught me so much. And I wanted to tell her goodbye. I wanted to tell her how nice I think she is and thank her for all she’s done and ask her if she thinks we’ll ever see each other again.

I wanted to give her a gift. I wanted to paint her a painting. A thing called a still life, of opening spring flowers, but she never even got around to staying around here long enough for me to see any spring flowers open. And I didn’t want to ask Grandma for a canvas. Grandma wouldn’t even let me explain what a canvas was. She said, “None of that mess.”

So I stole some paper from school and did a self-portrait at night in my room in the dark. I had to try it over and over again for a while like that until it came out good. Because I couldn’t really see what all I was doing, but I got the hang of it after a while. And that’s what I wanted to give her, the self-portrait I did, because it had gummy worms on it, floating around my head.

Miss Katie asked me what was my favorite restaurant and I said that even though I love McDonald’s, and McDonald’s has toys ‘cause my cousin Terri works there and she brings them to us from her work, I have never been to the Golden Corral. I’ve seen the commercials and I don’t even know where it is around here but the TV says that the Golden Corral is all you can eat—it’s buffet. Kayla says she’s been there and that buffet means the food never goes out. You can eat until you’re so full you’re about to pop. Kayla says if I ever go, to try the BBQ pizza. She says you wouldn’t think it, cause it sounds gross, but she says it’s so so good.

Miss Katie said she’d never gone to the Golden Corral, but she said that she’d take me someday. I told her I heard we can put candy on our ice cream there. “I’m sure,” she said. She said she’d put gummy worms on her ice cream. And I just wanted to know if she could tell me when I went out to the bleachers to find her and give her my self-portrait when we were going to go to the Golden Corral.

But when I got out there, I saw her on the phone and I didn’t want to interrupt. I listened behind the gym, heard her talking some real bad stuff. She was saying, “This place is a shit hole.” And, “I’m just so alone here.” And she told her friend that we’d made her a 7Up cake. Miss Katie was kinda laughing then. She said she spit the cake out in the bathroom. She said 7Up cake was some country shit.

I can’t believe she said that. I mean she told us that she loved the 7Up cake. And it really is so good. We never get it except only on special occasions when Sammy’s mama makes it. We all love it so much when she makes it. It’s my favorite cake.

Miss Katie said the swimming pool here doesn’t even have a diving board. I’d never thought about that before, but she said it so mean. And she said she was scared of getting robbed. She was shaking her head and getting frustrated. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said. “Helping. Yes. They needed me.” Yeah she did show us things, but I never knew that we needed any help.

Miss Katie started crying on the phone and I remembered my sister. She’d be crawling into the fridge at night when she was hungry, when she won’t supposed to be looking for something to eat. It hurt my feelings to hear Miss Katie talk like that. And I want to tell her that I don’t ever want her to come back here again because I hate her.

 

Excerpted from Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips. Published by Hub City Press. Copyright © 2020 by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips. 

(Photo: Missy Malouff)

Pizza Girl
Jean Kyoung Frazier

Her name was Jenny Hauser and every Wednesday I put pickles on her pizza.

The first time she called in it’d been mid-June, the summer of 2011. I’d been at Eddie’s a little over a month. My uniform polo was green and orange and scratchy at the pits, people would loudly thank me and then tip me a dollar, at the end of shifts my hair reeked of garlic. Every hour I thought about quitting, but I was eighteen, didn’t know how to do much of anything, eleven weeks pregnant.

At least it got me out of the house.

The morning she’d called, Mom hugged me four times, Billy five, all before I’d pulled on my socks and poured milk over my cereal. They hurled “I love yous” against my back as I fast-walked out the front door. Some days, I wanted to turn around and hug them back. On others, I wanted to punch them straight in the face, run away to Thailand, Hawaii, Myrtle Beach, somewhere with sun and ocean.

I thank god that Darryl’s boyfriend fucked a Walgreens checkout girl.

If Darryl’s boyfriend had been kind, loyal, kept his dick in his pants, I wouldn’t have answered the phone that day. Darryl could make small talk with a tree, had a laugh that made shoulders relax—he manned the counter and answered the phones, I just waited for addresses and drove the warm boxes to their homes.

But Darryl’s boyfriend was having a quarter-life crisis. Ketchup no longer tasted right, law school was starting to give him headaches, at night he lay awake next to the man he loved and counted sheep, 202, 203, 204, tried not to ask the question that had ruined his favorite condiment, spoiled his dreams, replaced sleep with sheep—is this it? One day, he walked into a Walgreens to buy a pack of gum and was greeted by a smile and a pair of D cups. The next day, Darryl spent most of his shift curbside, yelling into his phone. The front door was wide open, and I tried not to listen, but failed.

“On our first date you told me that even the word ‘pussy’ made you feel like you needed a shower.”

It was the slowest part of the day. A quarter past three. Too late for lunch, too early for dinner, pizza was heavy for a mid-afternoon snack. The place was empty except for me and the three cooks. They waved hello and goodbye and not much else. I couldn’t tell if they didn’t speak English or if they just didn’t want to speak to me.

“You know you’ve ruined Walgreens for me, right? I’m going to have to drive ten extra minutes now and go to the CVS to get my Twizzlers. God damn it, you know that I can’t get through a day without my fucking Twizzlers.”

I was sitting on an empty table, turning paper napkins into birds and stars and listening to my iPod at a volume that allowed me to think, but not too deeply. I couldn’t remember the name of the boy I used to share Cheetos with in first grade. I wondered if I had ever used every drop of a pen’s ink. All shades of blue made my chest warm. Our boss, Peter, napped around this time. Every day, at 3:00 p.m. without fail, he’d close his office door and ask us to please, please not fuck anything up. We never fucked anything up. We also didn’t get much done. I stared at a large puddle of orange soda on the floor and made a paper-napkin man to sit among the birds and the stars. “Oh God, tell me you wore a condom.”

The phone rang then. I was about to call for Darryl. He started shouting about abortion.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t look back on this moment and feel its weight. I could’ve just let it ring—no one would’ve known. I didn’t. I hopped off the table, walked to the counter, picked up the phone, and heard her voice for the first time.

“So—have you ever had the kind of week where every afternoon seems to last for hours?” Her voice was heavy, quivering, the sound of genuine desperation. Before I could reply, the woman kept talking. “Like, you’ll water your plants, fold your laundry, make your kid a snack, vacuum the rug, read a couple articles, watch some TV, call your mom, wash your face, maybe do some ab exercises to get the blood pumping, and then you’ll check the clock and thirteen minutes have passed. You know?”

I opened my mouth, but she kept on going.

“And it’s only Wednesday! I’m insane, I know. I’m insane.

But do you know what I mean?”

I waited a few beats to make sure she was done. Her breathing was loud and labored.

“Um, yeah,” I said. “I guess.”

“Yes! So—you’ll help me?”

I frowned, started ripping up an old receipt. “I think you may have the wrong number.”

“Is this Eddie’s?”

“Oh, yeah. It is.”

“Then this is exactly the right number. You’re the only person who can help me.”

I remember shivering, wanting to wrap this woman in a blanket and make her a hot chocolate, fuck up anyone that even looked at her funny. “Okay, what can I do?”

“I need a large pepperoni-and-pickles pizza or my son will not eat.”

“I can put in an order for a large pepperoni pizza. We don’t have pickles as a topping, though.”

“I know you don’t. Nowhere out here does,” she said. “You’re the sixth place I’ve called.”

“So what are you asking?” I rubbed my lower back. It had been aching inexplicably the past couple of weeks. I figured it was the baby’s fault.

“We just moved here a month ago from North Dakota. My husband got an amazing job offer and we love it here, all the palm trees, but our son, Adam, hates Los Angeles. He misses home, his friends, he doesn’t get along with his new baseball coach.” She sighed.

She continued: “He’s on a hunger strike. A couple days ago he came up to me and said, ‘Mommy, I’m not eating a damn thing until we go back to Bismarck.’ Can you believe that? Who has ever said that? Who likes Bismarck? And that potty mouth! Seven years old and already talking like a fucking sailor. How does that happen?”

I wasn’t even sure if she was talking to me anymore. I looked at the clock and saw that I’d been on the phone for over five minutes. It was the longest conversation I’d had with someone other than Mom or Billy in weeks. Darryl too, I guess, but that felt like it didn’t count.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I just still don’t understand how I can help with this.”

“There was this pizza place back home that used to make the best pepperoni-and-pickles pizza. I swear, I’ve tried doing it myself, just ordering a regular old pepperoni pizza and putting the pickles on after. He said it wasn’t right, and when I asked him what wasn’t right about it, he just kept saying, ‘It’s not right,’ over and over, louder and louder, and wouldn’t stop until I yelled over him, ‘Okay, you’re right! It’s not right!’ ” She paused. “I just thought maybe if I could get him that pizza, something that reminded him of home, this silly hunger strike could end and he could start to love Los Angeles.”

There was a long pause. I would’ve thought she’d hung up if not for that loud, labored breathing.

When she spoke again, her voice was softer. I thought of birds with broken wings, glass vases so beautiful and fragile I was afraid to look at them for too long. “It just feels like I’ve been failing a lot lately,” she said. “I can’t even get dinner right.”

I thought of a night two years ago. Dad was still alive and living with us. The Bears game had just started. He wasn’t drunk yet, but by halftime he’d have finished at least a six-pack. Some nights, I was the best thing that ever happened to him, his pride, his joy; he talked often of buying us plane tickets to New York City and taking me to the top of the Empire State Building. On other nights, I was a dumb bitch, a waste of space; sometimes he’d throw his empties at me. I didn’t want to find out what type of night it was. My window opened out onto the roof. I climbed out of it to sit and smoke, try to find stars in the sky. I was about to light up when I looked down and saw Mom’s car pull into the driveway.

I watched as she took the key from the ignition, killed the lights. I waited for her to come inside. She didn’t. She sat in the driver’s seat, just sat. Five minutes went by and she was still sitting, staring out the windshield. I wondered what she was staring at, if she actually was staring at anything, or if she was just thinking, or maybe trying not to think, just having a moment when nothing moved or mattered—I wished that she was at least listening to music. She sat and stared another ten minutes before going inside.

There was a supermarket not far from Eddie’s. Pickles were cheap. “What’s your address?” I asked.

The cooks eyed me funny when I came into the kitchen with a brown paper bag. They looked only slightly less nervous when I pulled a pickle jar out of it.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just helping this lady out.” They stared blankly at me.

“Her kid isn’t eating.” Silence.

“Can you guys get me a large pepperoni?”

They looked at each other, shrugged, and started pulling the dough. I chopped a couple pickles into uneven slices and wedged myself between the cooks, sprinkled the pickles over the sauce, cheese, and meat. I told myself that it only looked off because it was raw, but the cooks didn’t seem to know what to make of it either. One sniffed it, another laughed, the third just stared and scratched his head. They eventually shrugged again and put the pizza in the oven.

While I waited, I walked out of the kitchen and to the front of the shop. Darryl was off the phone and back inside, pouring rum into a soda cup. We stared at each other for a moment. His eyes were red and puffy; his face looked strange without a smile.

I coughed, just for something to do. “Any calls?”

“Just one,” he said. “Midway through, the guy decided he wanted Chinese and hung up.”

“Cool. I picked up one while you were—when you—” I coughed again. “Cool.”

I thought about asking him if he was okay, decided to mop the floor instead. Peter would be waking up soon and didn’t need much to start yelling at us. Darryl sipped his drink and wiped down the counter.

I mopped half the shop before my mind began to wander. There was a slip of paper in the back left pocket of my jeans with an address and the name Jenny Hauser scribbled above it.

“I’m Jenny, by the way. Jenny Hauser,” she’d said after she thanked me for the third time. “My grandma also had the same name. I don’t remember much about her except that she made real good rhubarb pie and hated black people.”

I’d thought she sounded too old to be a Jenny. She should be a Jen or a firm Jennifer—Jenny had a ponytail and scrapes on her knees, liked the crusts cut off of her PB and J’s, fought with her mom but always apologized, had never really been in love but had plenty of crushes on boys in her class, teachers who showed her kindness, Jenny believed in God and Kenny Chesney—I couldn’t stop imagining what she looked like.

“Yo,” Darryl hollered. “Order up.”

My dad didn’t have any money to leave us. He did have a ’99 Ford Festiva.

The paint job was faded, the driver’s door dented; there was a questionable yellow stain on the back seat; the A/C was broken, stuck on high, freezing air pumped through the car, even in the winter. Simply put, the car was a piece of shit.

I’d told Mom we should sell it for parts, take whatever we could get. She shook her head and said she couldn’t, she remembered him bringing it home for the first time. “He looked so handsome stepping out of it. He bought me flowers too,” she said. “Sunflowers.” I didn’t remember that. I did remember him teaching me to drive in it. He’d smoke and sip from his red thermos, flick ashes on me whenever I drove too slow or forgot to signal. Once, I sideswiped a car in a Popeyes parking lot and he made me iron his shirts and shine his shoes every Sunday night for a month.

When Mom got a new car last year—a used ’07 Toyota Camry that didn’t have dents or stains or broken radios, was a sleek shiny silver—she dropped the keys to the Festiva on my bedside table. I let the car sit in front of the house a week before I lost all willpower.

I spent that whole day driving, every song sounded good on full blast. It was a Los Angeles winter day, seventy and cloudless. Everything looked crisp and clean through the windshield. The full gas tank and the open road made my fingers and toes tingle. A man was selling oranges on the shoulder of a highway. I bought four bags and shouted along with a song that was about a girl and a goat and Missoula, Montana.

The radio was off when I was driving to Jenny’s house for the first time. My palms were sweaty against the steering wheel and I had that tight-chest feeling I sometimes got when I drank too much coffee. I hadn’t had any coffee for over a week. Billy said it was bad for the baby, he didn’t want to have a little girl or boy with twelve toes and poor reading skills.

The address took me to a nice part of town where all the homes were big and uniform with perfectly mowed front lawns. I saw three different golden retrievers being walked by three different women in tracksuits before I pulled up to her home. I was relieved to see that, though her home was big, it didn’t annoy me. It was one of the smaller ones on the block, and her lawn was slightly overgrown and yellowing in some places.

The coffee chest–feeling increased as I stepped out of my car and started walking to the front door. I appreciated then how good I felt on a daily basis, calm and centered, how little fazed me, my ability to walk tall and look straight ahead. Three weeks ago I peed on a stick, and when the little pink plus winked up at me, I walked downstairs, opened the freezer, and ate a Popsicle, thought about what I wanted to watch that night, a rom-com or an action movie—both would have broad-chested dudes, did I want to cry or see shit get blown up?

There was sweat in places I didn’t know I could sweat. I was confused why this instance of all instances was making me damp behind the knees, between my toes. As I knocked on Jenny’s door, three times hard, I reminded myself that she was just some lady with some kid. Then she opened the door and I wanted to take her hand and invite her to come with me whenever I ran away to Myrtle Beach.

From Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier. Copyright © 2020 by Jean Kyoung Frazier. All rights reserved. 

(Photo: Vamsi Chunduru)

We Had No Rules
Corinne Manning

My family had no rules. At least it felt that way for a time, because most of the rules were vague and unspoken: don’t lie, or steal, or hurt. If I was mean to my sister, or my sister to me, we would apologize. We did the dishes together every night. We shared toys. When she read to me, I would thank her, and if I wanted her to read to me, she would, unless she had too much homework. Our parents’ rules had to be enforced only after we broke them—after my sister broke them. By the time I was old enough to encounter the same dilemma, I already knew the edict, and through watching her, I knew what rules to follow. Which was why, at sixteen, I left home, just as my sister had, only I ran away because there was one rule I couldn’t keep from breaking. If I knew anything about my parents it was where they stood, so why expect different results?

I was lucky, because when it was my turn, Stacy was twenty-four, set up in a rent-controlled apartment in Chelsea with only two roommates. She worked as a paralegal and attended classes at Hunter most nights. It was 1992, and I had a place to go.

Stacy was mad at first. She held my hand as we walked from the subway to her apartment, and I felt so much better now that my hand had a place to be. My hands get icy when I’m nervous. When I was little, Stacy used to rub them until they were warm again, and I wondered if she remembered this. I felt small and untethered as we walked down those streets, because I smelled perfume and trash and urine, saw posters of men kissing and women kissing, and because over the din of cars and voices I heard the roaring immensity of what I’d done.

“You gave them what they wanted,” she said. She jerked my hand as we turned a corner.

I hadn’t seen Stacy since she left, and she’d gone through a complete transformation. She traded running shoes for leather boots that went up to just over her knees and had huge heels. She towered over me by almost a foot. The bangles on her wrists clanked together, and her hair—which was shaved when I last saw her, a rule broken—was a gorgeous orange mess.

She had a unique kind of insight into what I was going through. “You made it easy for them. They want you to feel so ashamed that you leave. There’s this way they pretend there’re no rules, and they subtly suffocate you. That’s what they did to me, only they posed it as a choice. If you wanted to do it differently, you would have given them the ultimatum, like: ‘Either you accept me and we talk about this, or I’m getting the fuck out of here.’”

I pulled my hand out of her grip to adjust my shoulder bag, but I regretted it because afterwards her hand wasn’t available anymore. She shoved it into the pocket of her neon-yellow hunting vest. I stayed close to her, taking as much comfort as I could from the rub of her arm against mine.

We paused at a traffic light and I could tell she wanted to bolt across, but she was trying to set a good example of how to cross the street. I leaned into her a little more.

“I’d rather be with you, though,” I said. “I wanted to be with you.”

It had been a long time since I’d seen her cry, and there was this way that tears just suddenly flooded around her lids—you wouldn’t have known she was upset until this happened—like a mysterious dam had been opened. She grabbed my hand and rubbed her thumb briskly over my skin, then we ran together across the street.

When I arrived at the apartment, there was a closet made up like a room for me and her things were in bins just outside it. I didn’t complain about having no window because she did some sweet things to the closet to make it feel like a room. She suspended a kind of mobile that her roommate Jill made out of spoon and fork handles. Her other roommate, who turned out to always be touring with some band, built a few shelves at the end of the closet so I could put my things up there. My main light was a paper lantern, and sometimes I felt like a caterpillar in a whimsical cocoon.

That first morning she took me to her favourite bakery and watched me eat two chocolate chip banana muffins, mine and hers.

“Look, I’m not going to totally police you, but you can’t just bring home any girl, because you have to remember that this is also home to all of us, and if you and some girl decide to fuck—”

“Stacy!” I looked around to see if anyone had heard, but no one seemed bothered.

“If you decide to fuck, you have to be respectful. No shouting. I don’t want to hear ’cause you’re my baby sister, and Jill’s room is right against that closet and you don’t want to do that to her either. I’ve already told Jill and Toby this, but I’m going to say it to you, too—don’t fuck my roommates. You can have sex with anyone as long as they aren’t living with us at the time. You need to realize this—”

She leaned forward real close and I stopped chewing.

“You and I are partners now, and I worked hard to get this clean, safe apartment with these not-so-clean, stable people, and if you fuck it up, we are both out, and I know you don’t know this yet, but sex is really fucking messy and what you get into will affect me too.”

“I know about sex,” I said.

Stacy smiled, then tried to hide it. “I’m pretty sure all you’ve done is hold hands under the covers at a sleepover and she let you kiss her neck while she pretended to be asleep.”

I looked down and picked up some crumbs from the wax paper with my pointer and put them in my mouth.

“She was definitely awake,” I said.

“I’m gonna take care of you,” she said. “We’re gonna figure out school, and I’ll help you find a job. You won’t go through what I went through. Okay?” She looked at me so seriously.

I nodded. I know that wasn’t enough of an acknowledgment, but the fact that I even nodded is commendable, I think, at sixteen.

I didn’t know, at this point, what she went through. I knew it was terrible, because early on she called my parents and left this message on the answering machine that made me tremble and cry because she was sobbing and saying she wanted to come home. She left a number for a pay phone, and when she answered, her voice sounded like mine, like a child’s, and I begged my mom to get on the phone and listen. And my mom just kept saying, Youmadeyourchoice, youmadeyourchoice, and I heard my sister on the other end screaming, Please, please, the word scraping away, digging for anything decent but striking rock after rock. I hid in the other room until, finally, one of them hung up.

After breakfast, I sat on the toilet lid and watched her get ready for work, just like I used to watch her get ready for school before she left home. She straightened her hair and brushed it out so that it lay smooth and thick around her shoulders. Her lipstick was modestly pink. I didn’t breathe while she applied liquid eyeliner, for fear I’d somehow make her smudge it.

“I’ll be home at two and I don’t have to be in class until seven, so we can do whatever in between.” She smiled at me in the mirror. I was wearing an outfit Mom had picked out for me—red cords and a pink turtleneck.

“Maybe we’ll dress you in some different clothes. I’ll call in some favours.” She closed her eyeliner and dropped it into her purse. She pressed her cheek against mine in lieu of a kiss.

I was entranced: here I was, smelling her makeup again. When she closed the door, I felt a lonely kind of despair.

 

Excerpted from We Had No Rules by Corinne Manning. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Copyright © 2020 by Corinne Manning. 

(Photo: Itzel Santiago)

A Burning
Megha Majumdar

JIVAN

“You smell like smoke,” my mother said to me.

So I rubbed an oval of soap in my hair and poured a whole bucket of water on myself before a neighbor complained that I was wasting the morning supply.

There was a curfew that day. On the main street, a police jeep would creep by every half hour. Daily-wage laborers, compelled to work, would come home with arms raised to show they had no weapons.

In bed, my wet hair spread on the pillow, I picked up my new phone—purchased with my own salary, screen guard still attached.

On Facebook, there was only one conversation.

These terrorists attacked the wrong neighborhood #KolabaganTrainAttack #Undefeated

Friends, if you have fifty rupees, skip your samosas today and donate to—

The more I scrolled, the more Facebook unrolled.

This news clip exclusively from 24 Hours shows how—

Candlelight vigil at—

The night before, I had been at the railway station, no more than a fifteen-minute walk from my house. I ought to have seen the men who stole up to the open windows and threw flaming torches into the halted train. But all I saw were carriages, burning, their doors locked from the outside and dangerously hot. The fire spread to huts bordering the station, smoke filling the chests of those who lived there. More than a hundred people died. The government promised compensation to the families of the dead—eighty thousand rupees!—which, well, the government promises many things.

In a video, to the dozen microphones thrust at his chin, the chief minister was saying, “Let the authorities investigate.” Somebody had spliced this comment with a video of policemen scratching their heads. It made me laugh.

I admired these strangers on Facebook who said anything they wanted to. They were not afraid of making jokes. Whether it was about the police or the ministers, they had their fun, and wasn’t that freedom? I hoped that after a few more salary slips, after I rose to be a senior sales clerk of Pantaloons, I would be free in that way too.

Then, in a video clip further down the page, a woman came forward, her hair flying, her nose running a wet trail down to her lips, her eyes red. She was standing on the sloping platform of our small railway station. Into the microphone she screamed: “There was a jeep full of policemen right there. Ask them why they stood around and watched while my husband burned. He tried to open the door and save my daughter. He tried and tried.”

I shared that video. I added a caption.

Policemen paid by the government watched and did nothing while this innocent woman lost everything, I wrote.

I laid the phone next to my head, and dozed. The heat brought sleep to my eyes. When I checked my phone next, there were only two likes. A half hour later, still two likes.

Then a woman, I don’t know who, commented on my post. How do you know this person is not faking it? Maybe she wants attention!

I sat up. Was I friends with this person? In her profile picture she was posing in a bathroom.

Did you even watch the video? I replied.

The words of the heartless woman drifted in my mind. I was irritated by her, but there was excitement too. This was not the frustration of no water in the municipal pump or power cut on the hottest night. Wasn’t this a kind of leisure dressed up as agitation?

For me, the day was a holiday, after all. My mother was cooking fish so small we would eat them bones and tail. My father was taking in the sun, his back pain eased.

Under my thumb, I watched post after post about the train attack earn fifty likes, a hundred likes, three hundred likes. Nobody liked my reply.

And then, in the small, glowing screen, I wrote a foolish thing. I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.

Forgive me, Ma.

If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean, I wrote on Facebook, that the government is also a terrorist?

Outside the door, a man slowly pedaled his rickshaw, the only passenger his child, the horn going paw paw for her glee.

 

Excerpted from A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Copyright © 2020 by Megha Majumdar. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

Audio excerpted courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio from A Burning by Megha Majumdar, narrated by Vikas Adam, Priya Ayyar, Deepti Gupta, Ulka Mohanty, Soneela Nankani, and Neil Shah.

(Photo: Elena Seibert)
page_5: 

The Bright Lands
John Fram

FRIDAY

HOPE AND HALOGEN

JOEL

Five days later his plane pierced the cloud bank and great squares of Texas prairie rose up to swallow him. Watching the flatland take shape out his window, he felt a familiar anxiety wind its fingers around his throat.

His brother was not the first troubled football player to confide in Joel. All week in Manhattan he had thought of nothing but a sticky summer afternoon a decade ago, of a truck cab spiked with the smell of spearmint, of a man with shocking green eyes and a bad neck shaking his head with effort and saying, “Don’t play that game if you can help it, Whitley.” Joel would cut off an arm to ensure Dylan never suffered the same fate as that ruined man.

If Joel could jab a finger in his blighted hometown’s eye, so much the better.

He chewed an Adderall and texted his brother.

An ugly thunderhead was rolling in from the Gulf. When the Enterprise attendant led Joel to the parking lot to collect his rental—a low-slung convertible with a gleaming black hood—the twilit air felt ready to burst. One sniff and Joel knew he was back. There was nothing quite like the smell of Texas in the hours before some fresh calamity.

The open convertible tore away from the encroaching storm with a moan. Joel passed through towns with names like Thrall and Spree and Thorndale and wove around trucks and horse trailers, their drivers and passengers all regarding him (and the pop music blaring from his speakers) with a courteous suspicion.

There were fewer cows than he remembered. Great miles of scrubby flatland unrolled to either side of the highway, punctuated only by a lonely water tower, a totemic bale of hay, a sunken barn with half the country visible through a hole in its side.

BENTLEY: 18 MILES. Joel didn’t smoke and yet he craved a cigarette. He caught a casual crackle of gunfire somewhere in the distance—there was a sound he’d forgotten—and slowed to allow a rusted Chevy to merge ahead of him. Something caught his eye in the truck’s bed. A hulking stuffed bison wobbled on stiff legs, a letterman jacket fastened around its furry shoulders, its black glass eyes catching the last of the sunlight through the grill of a green Bentley football helmet.

It was a challenge not to stare into those eyes. With a queasy flutter in his stomach, a creep of gooseflesh up his arms, Joel suddenly felt he’d seen those eyes before, though he was also certain he’d never seen this stuffed bison in his life. He had the strangest conviction—almost like déjà vu—that those black eyes had watched him on a very bad night a very long time ago. They had watched him then just like they were watching him now: with a hungry, inhuman intelligence, like a lizard waiting for a fly to buzz just a few inches closer.

Jesus, Joel thought. He wasn’t even home and already he was jumping at taxidermy.

Joel caught sight of the first sign of fresh paint since Austin. A billboard that read MY HERD MY GLORY appeared, listing the names and numbers of every player on the team. He strained to spot his brother, though he needn’t have bothered. Just past BENTLEY: 2 MILES his brother’s face rose up from the fields. DYLAN WHITLEY, SENIOR the sign read. “THE BOY WITH THE MILLION DOLLAR ARM.”

The convertible’s speakers sputtered, the music playing from Joel’s phone cut out. Bentley took shape on the flat horizon. As the truck ahead of him rumbled toward town, a dark light rose in the bison’s dead eyes. Joel jumped. He would have sworn he’d just seen the thing blink.

As if in reply, a cold voice seemed to whisper through the static of the convertible’s speakers:

imissedyou.

 

Excerpted from The Bright Lands by John Fram. Copyright © 2020 by John Fram. Published by Hanover Square Press. 

(Photo: Luke Fontana)

First Fiction 2019

by

Staff

6.12.19

For our nineteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2019 issue of the magazine for interviews between Ruchika Tomar and R.O. Kwon, Chia-Chia Lin and Yaa Gyasi, Miciah Bay Gault and Melissa Febos, De’Shawn Charles Winslow and Helen Phillips, and Regina Porter and Jamel Brinkley. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

A Prayer for Travelers (Riverhead, July) by Ruchika Tomar
The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May) by Chia-Chia Lin
Goodnight Stranger (Park Row Books, July) by Miciah Bay Gault
In West Mills (Bloomsbury, June) by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
The Travelers (Hogarth, June) by Regina Porter

A Prayer for Travelers
Ruchika Tomar

There were three names listed under Cruz in the phone book, but I didn’t bother trying any of them. Ask Flaca. If Lourdes had been hostile to my call, Flaca, I knew, would hang up the minute she heard my name. I had always considered Penny their favorite; she was always the most admired in school, the one other girls strove to emulate. But Flaca was their backbone, the mainstay, the friend who dispensed favors and counsel. I decided to look for her in the one place I knew she would eventually be forced to return.

It was already dark when I left the diner, but I could have found my way to the palo blindfolded, even with all light stripped away. The Cruzes’ panadería was a flamingo pink storefront at the southernmost corner of a petite arc of businesses that included, among other things, a smoke shop and a laundromat. I parked the truck and climbed out as the barber was closing up for the night, unplugging the red and blue helix in the window, locking the door, rolling a hatched metal gate over the glass. He locked it, rattling the grille to make sure it was secured. Only the bakery stayed open late enough for workers returning from Sparks and Tehacama to drop off their lunch pails and tool kits at home, hunt their children from varied backyards, and corral them to the bakery for tortas and Cokes. As I walked to the entrance, a large blue van pulled up to the curb, unloading a dozen women in identical pressed white uniforms. These women were Pomoc’s illusionists, soon to be ferried out to office buildings and casinos and hospitals in southern cities, armed only with plastic bottles and brooms to toil unseen, tasked with erasing our collective past. I followed them inside and lingered near the wall opposite a glass case full of pan dulces tucked into neat, full rows. The women placed orders for tacos de piña, puerquitos, and coffee strong enough to power them through the evening into the pardoning dawn. Behind a small screen that separated her from customers, Maria’s short, corpulent figure bent to the glass case, shaking out one paper bag after another.

When I was a child, Lamb had brought me here so often that Maria often emerged from behind her veil‑like screen. She clasped me against her supple bulk, flattening dexterous, flour‑dusted fingers across my eyebrows and down the dark tails of my schoolgirl plaits, humoring Lamb with his awkward gringo patois while checking for my growth spurt that never seemed to arrive. Even after all these years her face was still full, a few strands of silver in her high, tight bun catching in the light. When the last of the uniformed women left, I unlatched myself from the wall and stepped up to the counter, searching Maria’s expression for some sense of recognition, an acknowledgment of the pigtailed tomboy who loved her. She nodded at me through the screen. “¿Qué quieres?”

“Is Christina here?”

“No.” Her reply was sharp, as if this was a question she’d been asked too often. Flaca’s business was growing, and it wasn’t hard to guess how many others might have shown up in recent months, seeking a dispensary.

“I just want to talk to her.”

“¿Quieres comprar algo?”

“I used to come here.” I held out my hand flat at my chest, indicating a child’s height. “This tall, overalls. I came with my grandfather. We sat over there.” I pointed to the corner table, the hard plastic chairs. She shrugged.

“You don’t remember me?” My voice sounded more desperate than I intended. What if I split my hair in braids again, if Lamb were beside me, if I clung to his rough hand the way I had then? Instead I pointed to a row of pink conchas behind the glass, as if nostalgia might stir Lamb’s dwindling appetite. “Cuatro, por favor.”

She reached for a pastry box and laid the conchas down like sleeping children. I paid and on my way out, held the door for a father shepherding inside twin girls, the pair of them in light‑up princess sneakers and vague, kittenish smiles. Outside, I stopped at the truck and slid the pastry box on the hood to fish the keys out of my pocket when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a mouse dart out from underneath a nearby car, scurrying along the side of the building to the dumpsters crowding the small back alley. Lamb and I had wandered there more than once to discard our trash, and I knew at the end of the alley lay the bakery’s kitchen where, during any weekday lull, Maria could be found chatting with any number of family members who cycled through to mix dough and answer the phone, transcribing elaborate cake orders. I settled the pastry box in the passenger seat of the truck before shutting the door and picking my way into the dark passage, edging past the dumpsters. Halfway down I could make out a square of light on the brick wall opposite, the top half of the kitchen’s Dutch door pushed open, giving off a backdraft of heat. I peeked in past the tall, silver rolling racks of pastries pulled away from the wall, the working counters covered with bags of yeast, mixing bowls, rows of sweet breads cooling on wire racks. A fan in the corner of the room rattled as it worked, its face pushed up toward the ceiling to keep from blowing flour into powdered mist. A slim girl, her back turned to me, pulled open the top door of an oven, sliding a baking tray inside. She shut it and moved to lean over the fan, shaking out the bottom of the tank top that clung to her, a red bandanna tying back her hair.

“Flaca,” I called her name softly. She made no movement to signal she heard, but a moment later, a familiar pair of hard, dark eyes pinned mine. She crossed the room and reached for the Dutch door, her face already forming a scowl. I took a step back, one foot into the dirt. A voice called out something indecipherable from the other room.

“Nadie, Mama,” Flaca called back. She jutted her chin at me. “What do you want?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Me? About what?”

“What else? Penny.”

Flaca studied me with an expression I didn’t know how to read. She pushed the door open wider for me to catch, but once inside reached for me so quickly I didn’t have time to pull away. She caught my jaw in her firm grip, moving my face back and forth carefully in the light as if it were a ruby or disaster, something to be appraised. Her breath tickled my chin. This, the closest we had ever been to each other, even as girls.

“Penny didn’t do this,” she said flatly.

“God. Of course not.”

Flaca released me, moving away. It was twenty degrees hotter inside the kitchen, and the skin on my arms began to take on a thin sheen. The room smelled overwhelmingly sweet, the pastries baking in the double oven. I followed her back to the counter where she picked up a silver sifter, shaking powdered sugar over a rack of wedding cookies.

“Dime. You pissed someone off.” “That’s not what I came to talk about.”

“Oh? What does Cale want to talk about?” She set down the sifter and lifted the tray, sliding it onto one of the rolling racks.

“Penny never showed up to work last night,” I spoke to her back. “Maybe you’d know where she is.”

“I have no idea.”

“But you’re always together.”

“So are you,” she said, turning to shoot me a look. “Lately.” 

“Flaca, I went to her place. She didn’t answer. I used the spare. She wasn’t there but she left her cellphone behind. You don’t think that’s weird?”

“That Penny forgot her phone?”

“She didn’t forget it. And she hasn’t come back, not that I know of.”

“Where is it now?”

“What?”

“Her phone, Cale.”

I hesitated. All the drops Penny was making for her, the business Flaca would lose if Penny didn’t have it on her. There was no good way to deliver the news.

“I might have given it to the police.”

“What!”

“I’m sorry! That’s why I’m here.”

Flaca rubbed her face, smearing flour down her cheeks. The bandanna pulling back her hair brought her features into stark focus; the angle of her cheeks and chin, her nose a degree too sharp. I longed for Flaca’s mother to emerge from the front of the shop, to see mother and daughter standing side by side and compare their faces and hands, to ask how some things could be passed down so easily from one to another while other familial aspects were entirely betrayed.

“I didn’t know what else to do. Maybe it could help? I have a feeling—”

“A feeling!”

“Something could be wrong.”

“And what are the cops going to do?”

“Help find her?”

Flaca laughed. In all the time we had been in school together, I couldn’t recall the sound. I had never heard it, or I had heard it too often; it had dissolved into the childhood soundtrack of playground sounds along with the recess bell, the squeak of swing sets, the rhythmic whip of jump ropes slapping the blacktop. It cracked her face wide open, making her appear less birdlike, revealing a pliable warmth: a secret she had kept hidden inside herself all this time.

“You can’t help it, can you?”

“They’re probably going to call you,” I said.

“The cops aren’t going to do shit.”

“How do you know?”

“I know.”

I met her eyes. “If they don’t, who will?”

“Relax. Penny’s fine. If she went somewhere, she’s already back and pissed you went through her shit.”

“Where could she go? She doesn’t have a car.”

“She can get a ride.”

“You’re the one who gives her rides!”

“I’m not the only one.” She said it pointedly, something in it I was supposed to extract.

“Fine. Okay? Say she got a ride. Why hasn’t she come back yet?”

She looked heavenward, as if the answer was soon to arrive. “You don’t understand. She thinks she’s like you. But we’re not anything like you.”

“What’s so wrong with me, anyway?”

“For one thing, you’re dumb about things you never had to know about.”

I realized we were standing at a cross angle from one another, that I had one hand on my hip, that she had both on hers. I wanted to drop my hand, to tell her where I’d found Penny’s phone, and how, the rolls of cash in the freezer, what they might mean. If Penny was here, she would have trusted Flaca enough to tell her about the desert and the sand‑colored man, everything. If we were going to traffic in secrets, Flaca’s could rival us all. Flaca was surveying the pastries on the counters, a curious expression growing on her face, as if they were bizarre, diminutive creatures struggling toward life.

“What is it?”

“How long has it been?” Flaca asked.

“Since she’s been gone? I don’t know. She was supposed to be on shift the night before last. What time is it now?”

“Almost eight. So what is that? Two days? Three?”

I didn’t answer. She looked up, finally seeing me. The wheels in her mind, I could tell, were beginning to turn.

“You have an idea. Someplace she could be.”

“No,” she said. “But maybe I can find out.”

 

Excerpted from A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar. Published by Riverhead. Copyright © 2019 by Ruchika Tomar. Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar, narrated by Sophie Amoss.

 
(Photo: Dan Doperalski)
 
 

The Unpassing
Chia-Chia Lin

Pei-Pei was the only one home when I woke.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. It was a real question, without sarcasm.

The door was open, but no sounds drifted in from the other parts of the house. From my bed I could see Pei-Pei lying on her stomach, kicking her legs. My pillow obstructed part of my view. Her bare feet swung in and out of my sight.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“One or two.”

She was still in her sleeping clothes, a set of faded blue long johns with sleeves that were too short. The elastic at the wrists was loose. Her long black hair was tied back, and the shorter front pieces were matted to her temples. When I swung my legs out from the covers, I was wearing pants I had never seen before.

“It’s Tuesday,” she added. “You went to the hospital.”

“You’re not in school?”

She didn’t respond. Her legs pedaled the gummy air.

“We have to go,” I said. “They’re showing the launch. Did we miss it already?”

She nodded. “Yeah, it was last week.”

“Last week?”

“It exploded.”

“What?”

“Everyone died.” She sat up and stared at me, evaluating something in my face.

“What are you talking about?”

“There was a huge cloud of smoke, and then nothing came out of it—no shuttle.”

“What?” I looked around to see if someone, my father or Natty, was laughing at me from the closet. But the door was open, and there were no legs or feet beneath the hanging clothes.

“Believe me. I saw it happen.”

I shook my head, trying to find room for what she was saying.

“There’s something else,” she said. She pushed at a spot on the bridge of her nose. Her face was completely bare and her hair was clawed back. Behind her thick glasses her lashes were sparse, and her eyes were very small and black.

Suddenly I was afraid to look at her face. I tried to smooth the folds in the fitted sheet. It was not my usual one, and the fabric was all twisted and bunched. Later I would discover it was too big for my bed. When I helped my mother change it, we had to shove handfuls of it under the mattress, hiding its excess.

“Ruby’s dead.”

I laughed. I pressed on a wrinkle in the sheet with the heel of my palm, trying to spread it flat.

Pei-Pei took off her glasses and shook them as though they were filled with dust. “You heard me,” she said, “and I don’t want to say it again.”

“Stop joking,” I said.

“I’m not joking,” she said. “It happened two days ago.”

“How?” I asked. As I said it, I pressed a hand to my throat to stop a noise. There was an expanse between what I was saying and what I understood myself to be saying, and the giggle in my chest was trying to morph into something else.

“She got sick. There was an outbreak at school.”

“But she doesn’t even go to school yet.”

“No,” Pei-Pei said. “She doesn’t.”

We stared at each other. Without her glasses on, Pei-Pei’s eyes had expanded. They were not quite black, but the color of winter soil after the snow was scraped away.

Pei-Pei came to my bed. “It’s no one’s fault.”

“Get away,” I said.

She slipped her glasses back on and stood up. She walked to Ruby’s bed, leaned over it, and pulled the blinds up. Light washed over the room; the carpet turned from tan to blond, and the walls glowed. “We’re having a warm spell,” she said. The faded floral blooms on Ruby’s sheets were almost translucent as they bore the brunt of all that sun.

I gazed at Ruby’s bed. It was neat; she almost never slept in it. Her pillow was missing, though, and that one small absence made me uneasy.

After Pei-Pei left, I made my way to the window. I sat there trying to adjust my eyes to the light. Outside, at the end of our dirt driveway, were four trash bags, each opaque black and straining with contents I couldn’t fathom. The bags were knotted, dimpling on top, leaning on one another. One had fallen on its side. Soon I would find myself searching for things around the house: my backpack, my coat, my shoes. My mug, which I had chipped against Natty’s mug in a test to see whose was stronger. It began to seem that everything I had ever touched was missing. Or at least the things most familiar to me were gone.

 

Excerpted from The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux May 7th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Chia-Chia Lin. All rights reserved. 

(Photo: F. Yang)
 

Goodnight Stranger
Miciah Bay Gault

In the dimly lit kitchen—only a single bulb over the sink—I watched my brother’s eyes, huge, glassy. “It’s Baby B,” he said. 

The stranger held still as if afraid to break a spell. His eyes moved from me to Lucas. 

“Baby B is dead,” I said. 

“I’ve been dreaming about him every night,” Lucas said. “I could sense him getting closer, and I thought there was something I was supposed to do. But it wasn’t me after all. You were the one who had to bring him here.” 

“He’s a stranger, Lu. I met him tonight at the inn.”

“Then how do you explain this?” Lucas pointed at Cole’s ankle—at a small tattoo I hadn’t noticed. “Lady’s Slipper.”

We both looked at Cole. “I got that when I was twenty-one,” he said.

“Why that particular flower?” I asked.

“Why? Because it’s beautiful, and rare. And it was someone’s favorite flower—someone I loved—sorry, what is going on? Who’s Baby B?” A flush had risen from his neck to his cheeks. His eyes black, bright.

“He was our brother,” I said. “Sorry, maybe it’s time for you to go.”

“No,” Lucas said. “Don’t go! Here, sit down. I’ll get a beer for you, and we’ll tell you about Baby B. We’ll tell you the whole story.”

It was disorienting to see Lucas talking with a stranger, Lucas who sometimes couldn’t even say hi to Eddie, or the Grendles, or Jim Cardoza, people he’d known his whole life. I felt dizzy, as if the room were tilting around me. 

“I’m always up for a story,” Cole said, sitting at the table. Lucas popped the tab on a PBR, and set it in front of Cole. 

“I need to sit, too,” I said, and they pulled out a chair for me. 

We were up until dawn, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that Lucas talked most of that time. It was as if something had come uncorked, and stories were pouring out of him. 

“His name was Colin,” Lucas said. “I mean even your name is similar.”

“That’s just a coincidence,” I said.

“Did you feel anything?” Lucas asked me.  “When you first saw each other, I mean? Did you have any idea?”

“I did,” the stranger said. “I felt something right away.” 

“Of course I didn’t feel anything,” I said. “Because there’s nothing to feel.”

“Don’t worry,” Lucas said. “She’s always like this at first.”

“Like what?” I said. But I knew what he meant. Practical—trying to tether him to earth. He resented that. But look what happened when I slipped up, when I forgot myself for one night, tried to bring a stranger home, as if I were someone else, someone without responsibilities. Look how that worked out. I felt my heart beating, felt warmth crawling up the back of my neck, sweat prickling my scalp. 

Just before sunrise, Cole went away down the chilly beach promising to come back the next day. Lucas and I stood on the screened-in porch, watched him disappear down the shore. Just before the second jetty, he stopped and found a stone in the sand, skipped it even though it was too dark to see its skittering path through the water.

“Did you see that?” Lucas said. 

“It doesn’t mean anything. A lot of people skip stones.”

“In that exact place?”

As long as I could remember, Lucas had stopped at the second jetty to skip one stone. For good luck. For Baby B. I never knew why he did it. But in my memory I could see him at all these different ages, five years old, ten years old, eighteen, twenty-five. That same flick of the wrist. Stone after stone. 

Lucas tipped his head back and finished his beer. For some reason neither of us wanted to go to bed. We sat on the porch until the grainy light of dawn made visible the dock and the jetties and the boats in the bay. I looked at Lucas and felt a deep ache in my chest—love swelling to enormous proportions inside my ribs. I loved him so much. I wanted to give him everything he wanted. A brother returned from the dead. Our parents too. If I’d known how to do it, what to sacrifice, I would have without hesitation.

It was ironic that our parents had decided to have children so they wouldn’t be alone when they were old. It turned out they didn’t need to worry about growing old at all. Dad had a heart attack when we were in seventh grade. Mom died eight years later—breast cancer. Ever since: just Lucas and me. Alone on the island, alone in the big house they bought for us. 

Early light crept into the porch where we sat, lighting up the table and chairs, the wicker sofa, chenille blanket, potted plants. Everything was in place, but everything felt different. Bhone Bay was out there doing what it always did, tide creeping out, revealing damp raw sand, black sea weed. The red houseboat was anchored where it always was. The light was the same light. The sound of the bay was the same sound. 

But we felt different now, already revised in some indefinable way.  How amazing the change one day can bring, one chance meeting.  Or—maybe not so amazing after all. After all we’d spent a lifetime longing for something—or someone—we could never have. That longing had created a space in us, in our lives, and Cole, in ways I didn’t yet understand, seemed to fit into that space, fill it like a missing puzzle piece.

 

Excerpted from Goodnight Stranger by Miciah Bay Gault. Copyright © 2019 by Miciah Bay Gault. Use with permission from Park Row Books/HarperCollins. 

(Photo: Daryl Burtnett)
 

In West Mills
De’Shawn Charles Winslow

In October of ’41, Azalea Centre’s man told her that he was sick and tired of West Mills and of the love affair she was having with moonshine. Azalea—everyone called her Knot—reminded him that she was a grown woman.

“Stop tellin’ me how old you is,” Pratt said.

“Well, I thought maybe you forgot,” Knot retorted. She was sitting at her kitchen table, pulling bobby pins from her copper-red hair. She picked up her glass and finished what was left in it. She had barely set it back on the table when Pratt picked it up and threw it against the wall. He then packed all his clothes in the old suitcase he’d brought when he moved into her little house a few years back.

“I’m gettin’ outta here,” he affirmed.

“Need some help packin’?” Knot shot back, and she laughed. It wasn’t the first time Pratt had packed that ragged bag. He stared at her, frowning.

“Drink ya’self to death, if that’s what you want to do.”

“Go to hell, Pratt.”

“I’m leavin’ hell!” he yelled.

A few days later, Knot came home and found a folded note peeping out from under her door. First, she looked down at the signature. When she saw Pratt Shepherd at the bottom, she took a chilled glass from her icebox, poured a drink, and sat down to look over the message. She read most of it. It said that Pratt was at his sister’s house, just across the lane. Knot wasn’t surprised. Pratt’s sister and her two little girls were the only family he had in West Mills.

In the letter, Pratt reminded her that he still loved her, still wanted to marry her, and still wanted to start a family with her. He wrote that he would wait around for just one week. Then he was going back home to Tennessee. That’s where Knot stopped reading. She laughed out loud, tossed the paper onto the table, and set her glass down on it. Funny—it was usually the books she used to teach her pupils that got the wet glass.

Knot would be lying if she told anyone that Pratt wasn’t a good man. He didn’t mind hard work, he picked up after himself, he kept his body nice and clean, and he knew how to give her joy in bed. But the truth was Pratt wasn’t much fun to her otherwise. He didn’t have much to talk about. And he couldn’t hold his liquor to save his life. After two drinks Pratt was laid out, spilling over, or both. Knot liked men who could match her shot for shot, keep her mind busy when they weren’t drunk, and still do all the other things Pratt could do. Aside from all that, her father—she called him Pa—wouldn’t like Pratt. If she were ever going to be married, it would have to be a man her pa loved just as much as she did.

Pratt’s threat to leave West Mills could not have come with better timing, because Knot’s twenty-seventh birthday was a week around the corner. When the weekend came, she walked down the lane—two houses to the left of her house—to tell her good friend Otis Lee Loving all about her newfound freedom. And since Knot visited him most Saturday mornings, and knew he would be in the kitchen, she didn’t bother knocking.

“You need to go on over there and fix things up with Pratt,” Otis Lee said. “Otherwise, he gon’ be on the next thing headed west.” Otis Lee set a cup of black coffee on the table in front of Knot; his face was angry-looking and peach. He didn’t sit down. Just then, his wife, Pep, showed up at the table with a boiled egg and a biscuit, all inside the cracked, sand-colored bowl Knot wished they would throw away.

“Pratt can catch the next thing to hell,” Knot replied. 

Pep pushed the bowl in front of Knot, next to the coffee.

She didn’t sit down, either. Knot looked up at them and wondered what the day’s lecture would be about.

“Eat,” Pep commanded. Even at seven o’clock in the morning, her round face looked full and healthy, as though she had slept on a pillow made of air. Not the rough, feather-stuffed pillows Knot used.

“I thought I left my mama in Ahoskie,” Knot scoffed. “Y’all got anything I can pour in this coffee? Something ’sides milk, I mean.”

“Why you so set on bein’ lonely, Knot?” Otis Lee asked.

Pep looked down at Otis Lee as though he had gone off script. And he looked up at Pep as if to say, I couldn’t help myself. The way he and Pep stood there, side by side, made them look more like a boy and his mother than a husband and his wife. Why the two of them behaved so much like old people, Knot never understood. They were only five years older than she was. For Knot, it was Otis Lee’s being happily married, being too short, and old-man ways that ruined the handsomeness she’d seen on him when they’d first met. And that handsomeness, as striking as it was, had never caused the feeling Knot got deep in her stomach when she met a man she wanted to touch, or be touched by, in the dim light of her oil lamp.

“Y’all know he tried to beat me, don’t ya?”

Otis Lee and Pep both sighed, at the same time. Knot wondered if they had rehearsed it.

“You sit to my table and tell that tale?” Otis Lee reproached. Then he began with his You know good’n well this and You know good’n well that. At times like these Knot had to work hard to keep her cool. Because if she didn’t, she might tell Otis Lee that if he spent more time worrying about his own life, and his own family, he might know that the woman he knew as his mother, wasn’t; she was kin but not his mother. If his real mama is anything like mine, better for him if he don’t know. Ain’t none of my business anyhow.

“Tell me one thing,” Knot said. “Why y’all always take his side?”

“It ain’t just about Pratt’s side, Knot,” Otis Lee insisted. “You need to be nicer to everybody ’round here.” Knot heard bits and pieces of what Otis Lee recounted about how her drinking had gotten out of hand; how she seemed to want to be by herself more than anything nowadays—unless she was at Miss Goldie’s Place, of course. Knot started nibbling on the biscuit and then on the egg, trying not to hear all the things she already knew about herself.

Otis Lee turned to Pep and mused, “You remember when she used to go see the children and they mamas, Pep? Used to visit people just ’cause she had time. People used to talk so nice about that, Knot. Thought the world of it. Didn’t they, Pep?”

“Yes, they did,” Pep replied.

Knot dropped the egg back in the bowl and asked, “Ain’t I sittin’ here, visitin’ with ya’ll right now?” Knot was certain they’d both heard her question, although neither of them responded.

“Now folk say you show up to that schoolhouse smellin’ like you bathe in corn liquor,” Otis Lee went on. “That’s ’bout all they sayin’ ’bout you now.”

“What people you talkin’ ’bout, anyhow, Otis Lee?” Knot said. She took a sip of the coffee. It was weak.

“What you mean, ‘what people’?”

“Y’all ain’t got but three or four hundred folk ’round here,” Knot pointed out. “And most of ’em is white folk who don’t know me from a can of bacon grease.”

“Some days you talk like you don’t live right here in this town,” Pep remarked. Knot couldn’t think of anything to say back.

She knew that some if not all of what Otis Lee was saying was true—about people whispering. Many times Knot had noticed how some of the women stopped talking when she came near them at the general store. And at the schoolhouse, she’d been a bit hurt by how some of the people had seemed as if they didn’t want to be seen speaking with her too long when they came to pick up their children. They’d ask how their little ones were doing with their lessons and then hurry off as though Knot had a sickness they didn’t want to catch.

Knot did her job. As much as she hated it, she did it well. No one had complained about her teaching. They couldn’t. So many of the ma’s and pa’s had themselves thanked Knot for the little rhymes and games she’d taught their children to help them divide a number quickly—without using paper and pencil. Or the funny ways she’d taught them odd facts. She remembered asking one of the boys one day, “Sammy Spence, what’s the capital of Iowa?” And once he’d answered correctly, she’d asked, “How you remember to keep the s’s silent?” and Sammy had responded, “My name got s’s, and they both make the s sound. But not for Des Moines, Miss Centre!” And Knot had said, “So you were listening, weren’t you?” And she had rubbed his head. When Knot had first arrived in West Mills, there were some eight-year-olds who couldn’t write their names. Her pa would have been just beside himself about that if she ever told him.

Otis Lee was still lecturing.

“You ain’t gettin’ no younger,” he cautioned. “Pratt love you to death, gal.”

“He left,” Knot said. “I ain’t throw him out.”

“This time,” Pep remarked, and she walked to the basin. “You got somethin’ to say, Penelope?” Knot shot back before realizing that her question would only bring on the second part of the Loving lecture.

Just three months earlier, Pep reminded Knot, she had thrown Pratt out for trying to do something nice.

“All he wanted you to do was stay home from that ol’ juke joint for one Friday night,” Pep recalled.

“But I felt like going,” Knot grumbled.

“He cooked a chicken for ya, child,” Pep said. “This one”—she pointed at Otis Lee—“can’t even boil eggs.”

“I can too boil eggs, Pep,” Otis Lee said. “You know good’n well I—”

“If I come home to a cooked hen,” Pep continued, “I’m gon’ sit with my man and eat.”

“He ask her to read to him, too,” Otis Lee informed his wife. “She tell him, ‘No.’ ”

Pep looked at Knot with shame.

Knot couldn’t deny any of it. It had been his request that she stay home and read to him that irritated her most.

“I read to folks all goddamn week long,” Knot had said to Pratt. “You crazy if you think I’m stayin’ home to read to yo’ big ass.”

“Selfish and stubborn,” he’d called her, shaking his head. And Knot had said, “I’m twenty-six years old. I can be selfish if I feel like it.” And Pratt had said, “Naw, you can’t, neither.” And Knot had yelled back, “Well, get the hell on out my house! Right now! And don’t you come back to my door.” He was back at her door, in her house, and in her bed in less than a day.

Otis Lee’s four-year-old son, Breezy, came scooting down the stairs on his butt. His little face was mashed flat on one side and his hair was full of white lint. He looked as though he’d been working in the cotton fields Miss Noni had told Knot all about. Breezy went and stood between his parents. Pep rubbed his head and pulled him against her thigh.

“Say good morning to Miss Knot,” Otis Lee nudged. And the boy did. Knot was glad Breezy was there to draw some of the attention away from her. She was done picking at the egg and biscuit, and done being picked on.

“You hear anything we just say to you, Knot?” Otis Lee asked.

Knot wiped her hands on the damp rag that was on the table.

“I thank y’all kindly for the breakfast. I’ll be goin’ on home now.”

“Go on over there and make things right with Pratt,” Otis Lee demanded. “You hear me?” He was looking at her as though she were a daughter or a sister he couldn’t control. Knot looked at Pep, and Pep turned and went to the icebox.

“The hell I am,” Knot said.

“Ma!” Breezy exclaimed. “Knot say a cussword!”

“I’m Miss Knot, lil boy,” Knot corrected. She couldn’t resist giving the boy a quick tickle on the neck. And she realized that she might be missing her nephews back in Ahoskie. “If yo’ ma and pa don’t let up, I’m gon’ let you hear some more cusswords.”

On her way out, she heard Breezy say, “Pop, Miss Knot got our bowl!”

 

Knot finished eating the egg and biscuit when she got back to her house, while she read a chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop. It was her pa’s favorite book, by his favorite author. And because he had read those big books to her with such joy, Dickens had become her favorite, too. Her pa had read that book to her more than twenty times when she was a small child. He used to sit on the floor next to her bed two or three times a week and read. Sometimes Knot saw specks of his patients’ teeth and blood on his shirts. It would make her mother angry.

“I ain’t got time to worry ’bout keepin’ shirts pretty, Dinah,” her pa would say to her mother. “Them folk be in pain when they come to see me. Half the time, they already tried to snatch the teeth out theyself.”

Knot’s pa shared with her his love for reading, no matter how tired he was. And each time, Knot would hold on to his long, rough goatee so that she would know when he got up. As hard as she would fight sleep, it won the battle every time.

 

On the night of her birthday, Knot spent close to an hour looking at the only five dresses she had liked enough to bring with her from Ahoskie. She modeled each of them for the little mirror on the wall. She had to stand far away from it to see her whole body. And when she walked close to it, most of what she saw was her pa’s V-shaped jaw. He couldn’t deny being my pa even if he wanted to. How many people in Ahoskie got a jawbone like Dr. G. W. Centre?

Knot ruled out the black dress and the white one. The pink one with the white bow,  the green one with the blue trim,  or the plain yellow one had to be the winner. Finally she chose the yellow one. She liked the way it looked next to her skin. Pratt used to tell her it made him think of peanut butter and bananas—something he loved to have on Sunday mornings. The dress was over ten years old, but that worked in Knot’s favor. It showed whatever curves she had, which Pep claimed were starting to go missing.

When the sun went down, Knot dressed up and bundled up. She walked the short distance—less than a quarter mile—to the dead end of Antioch Lane, to Miss Goldie’s barn house juke joint, where Knot knew people would be throwing away the money they should have been saving to buy their Christmas hams if they didn’t have a hog of their own. But with the Depression just behind them, and war hovering, ain’t nothing wrong with folk havin’ a drink or two in the company of other folk who want to have one or two.

 

Going alone to Miss Goldie’s Place reminded Knot of her first few weeks in West Mills, and on Antioch Lane, back in ’36. How nice it was to not have a nagging man looking over her shoulder, counting her drinks, or running off the friendly men she had met since moving there to take the teaching job her pa had arranged for her.

When Knot pulled open the big heavy oak door and stepped inside, the first thing she looked for was Pratt sitting at the piano, playing his tunes. He was nowhere in sight. What am I lookin’ to see if he here for? It’s my birthday. She would have stayed either way.

It wasn’t long before the friendly men started asking Knot unfriendly questions: You done put Pratt down again, Knot? And: Knot, is it true you plum’ put a piece of glass to Pratt’s neck? To some of the questions, Knot declared, “That’s a damn lie!” To other questions she replied, “That ain’t none of yo’ goddamn business.”

Knot left their tables and found company with the few men who didn’t know her name yet. And there was one, a young one, standing at the end of the counter. He was tall, just the way Knot liked them. He just might be the tallest man I ever stood close to. Pratt had held the record for the tallest and the stockiest. But this fellow was tall and slim.

Valley, Knot’s buddy who poured drinks at Miss Goldie’s Place, told Knot he was too busy to help her court. If she wanted to know who the young fellow was, she had better go and ask him herself, Valley said.

“And if he don’t seem interested in you, s—”

“Send him over to you?” Knot finished, knowing Valley’s taste in men.

“Yes, ma’am,” he whispered, and smiled.

“You ain’t gon’ be satisfied ’til you put yo’ mark on every man west of the canal,” Knot said. She and Valley laughed. Then he reminded her, first, that he hadn’t had any luck thus far and, second, that she’d promised to make him one of her famous Antioch Lane bread puddings before he was to leave to go out of town again. “Don’t start in with me about that damn puddin’, Val. If I do make it, I want my dollar—just like everybody else gives me for it.”

“I always pay you,” Valley said. “I don’t know what ya talkin’ ’bout.”

“You want me to go home and get my ledger?” Knot countered. Valley smiled and rolled his eyes.

Miss Goldie was sitting about midway along the bar, wearing overalls and a man’s shirt. She was smoking a pipe. Unlike most pipes Knot had seen the people of West Mills puffing on, Miss Goldie’s didn’t look as though it had been carved out of wood by a five-year-old. It was a nice pipe. Probably ordered it from Europe or somewhere.

Next to Miss Goldie was Milton Guppy, sitting there glaring at Knot as he always did. Knot never understood how he had gotten such a strange last name. The glares, however, weren’t a mystery to her. The teaching job her pa had set up for her had belonged to a Mrs. Guppy. And when Mrs. Guppy had been dismissed, she also dismissed herself from her marriage, taking her and her husband’s four-year-old son with her. No one knew where the two of them had gone, since she was rumored to have had no family to speak of. The mean looks Mr. Guppy gave Knot whenever she saw him—sometimes Knot thought he was even growling—were enough to let her know he hadn’t gotten over it. She sympathized. But it wasn’t my fault! I ain’t make her run off.

After a few months of Guppy’s glares, Knot had walked up to him once, up-bridge at the general store, and said, “If you got somethin’ to say, go ’head and say it and get it over with. I probably done heard it from other folk, anyway.” And Guppy had said, “I don’t b’lee I will, Miss Centre. Don’t want to make ya late for yo’ teachin’. Wouldn’t dare keep the good teacher ’way from the good teachin’ job she come here and steal.” And Knot had said, “I’m gon’ tell you the same thing I tell everybody else who got a problem with me being up at that schoolhouse.” And after she did, she’d told him, “Now you can go to hell.” She had left the general store without the hard candy she had planned to buy for the children.

Tonight, at Miss Goldie’s Place, Knot gave Guppy a Don’t look at me stare. She could tell by the evil look on his face that he must have already lost his week’s pay at the dice table.

Miss Goldie looked irritable, studying Knot and Valley. Finally, she cleared her throat in a loud This is for y’all to hear way. Knot knew Miss Goldie was watching every move in the building, and she didn’t like it when her workers carried on long conversation when they should have been refilling jars and glasses and collecting nickels and dimes.

Knot finished her first drink—it was her third, if she counted the two she’d had at home—and she danced over to that young man at the end of the bar.

“Tell me one thing,” Knot said to him. He was standing there in a suit. Lord, the man wore the whole suit to the juke joint. Whether it was navy blue or black, Knot couldn’t be sure. “You think yo’ people know you snuck out they house yet?”

“Well, if I had snuck out,” he replied, standing straight and putting his hands in his pockets, “they wouldn’t be able to find me. I’m a long way from home.” He didn’t sound anything like she would expect from a man of his height. He sounded as if nature had gotten tired and quit working halfway through his change of voice when he was a growing boy.

“I figured that part out already,” Knot said. And it wasn’t just the sharp suit that had given it away. His haircut can’t be more’n a day old. And he got the nerve to have a part shaved there on the side. Menfolk in West Mills don’t wear parts in they heads. Knot said, “I hear the North on ya’ tongue. Where’s home?”

“Wilmington,” he answered. “Wilmington,  Delaware.

“I know where Wilmington is, thank you,” Knot retorted, and she wondered how she’d had all that schooling without learning there was more than one Wilmington—one other than in North Carolina.

She looked at him for as long as she could without feeling simpleminded. With teeth as straight and white as his, and with him not having a single razor bump on his chin, she was sure he wasn’t more than twenty years old.

“You can’t be more than nineteen, twenty,” Knot guessed aloud. He showed her a sly smile. I’ll be damned if he ain’t got dimples to go ’long with that grin. Shit, I don’t know if I ought to slap him or kiss him.

“People usually ask me what my name is by now,” he said.

Knot was about to tell him that she didn’t care what people usually wanted from him, but his eyebrows caught her attention. His eyebrows were so thick and neat against his smooth, black forehead, Knot wondered, If I stick the edge of a butter knife under the corner of one of ’em, would I be able to peel it off whole?

“Well, go ’head and tell me your name, then,” Knot said. He came closer to her, and she looked up at him.

“It’s William. And you guessed my age pretty close. I’m almost twen—”

“Buy me a drink, Delaware William. It’s my birthday.” Knot turned toward Valley and shouted, “Pour me what I like! This here fella’s gon’ give you the nickel.”

“William,” Delaware William corrected.

“Forgive me,” Knot said to him. And to Valley she said, “Delaware William’s gon’ give you the nickel.” When she looked back up at Delaware William, he was smiling again and shaking his head.

Valley came to the end of the bar where Knot was standing. With his finger, he signaled Knot to lean in. “Ain’t you got somewhere to be in the mornin’?”

“You ever hear tell of me not showing up?” Valley sucked his teeth. Knot said, “I didn’t think so. And I’ll thank you kindly to get me my drink. My damn birthday’ll be over, foolin’ with you.”

Valley fanned his bar rag at Knot. “You just as crazy as you can be, Knot Centre.”

“What was that he just called you?” Delaware William asked.

After Knot decided she wasn’t going answer him, she looked him up and down.

“My name’s Azalea.” And after he showed her a confused look, she said, “What’s ya business in West Mills, Delaware William?”

“I’m just William,” he said politely. “William Pe—” “What’s ya business here in West Mills, is what I asked,” Knot interrupted.

“We just stopped to rest. On our way back up from Georgia. Played some gigs down there for a few months.”

When she asked him to explain the we, he pointed to another young man who sat at a table with the pastor’s daughter. Knot was certain the girl had snuck out of the house. Without a doubt, it wouldn’t be long before the girl would give the young man what he wanted. Knot could tell by the way she was giggling. If the girl was anything like Knot was as a teenager, Knot knew how the night would end. And that young man would be leaving town soon after.

Knot, figuring she didn’t have more than a few hours with Delaware William, finished her drink in three swallows. Then she and Delaware William left, kissing and feeling on each other the whole walk back to her house. Between the heavy petting, she caught a few glimpses of the full moon. It was like an usher leading the way down an aisle.

“Looks like we’re in some damn slaves’ quarters or something,” Delaware William remarked. Knot couldn’t argue with him about that, even if she were sober. She had thought the same thing when she first moved to West Mills and rented the little house from a man named Pennington. According  to Otis Lee and Miss Noni, Riley Pennington—Otis Lee’s boss—was a descendant of the line of Penningtons who had once owned the whole town, which, in those days, had been called Pennington, North Carolina. It didn’t change names until a man from Maine named Leland Edgars Sr. and his two sons—Miss Noni said they were both tall and handsome with long, pitch-black ponytails—moved to town with a bunch of Northern money. They bought up a bunch of land with trees and opened a mill on the west side of the canal, causing people to refer to the whole town as West Mills. And now, aside from the one large farm, the Penningtons owned only an acre here and an acre there.

“Used to be,” Knot said, and that was all she felt like telling him. “Now that you got ya history lesson, shut up and kiss me some more.”

When they arrived in front of her house, that same moonlight that had led them there showed her that Pratt Shepherd was sitting on her porch. He sat there as though he had been one of the first Penningtons.

“Young fella,” Pratt called out, “best if you turn around. Head on back up the lane so I can talk to Knot.”

Delaware William had his arm around Knot’s shoulder, and she felt it slide away. Knot leaned into him—she might have fallen over otherwise.

“Well, sir,” Delaware William said, “I didn’t hear her say she wants to talk to—”

“I used to know a boy that look something like you,” Pratt cut in. He stood to his feet. “Got his face cut up for walkin’ another man’s wife home. They cut that fella’s face up real bad. Right here on this lane.”

Knot didn’t get a chance to tell Delaware William that Pratt was no one to be afraid of; he had turned around and hightailed it back down the lane toward Miss Goldie’s Place. When Knot turned back around to face Pratt, he was sitting again.

“I’m gon’ count to ten . . . or eleven,” she slurred, steadying herself in front of the porch and placing her hands on her hips. “When I get through countin’, you best be off my damn porch or I’m gon’ have to hurt ya.”

“What? You got a gun, or somethin’?” Pratt taunted.

“Did you hear me say I got a gun?” Knot shot back. “I might, though.”

“Sit down, Knot. Sit on down here ’fore you fall and crack that lil head of your’n?” He patted the porch two times.

Knot spit on the ground and said, “My new man’ll come back and crack yo’ head open to the white meat.”

“Who?” Pratt asked. “The one that just run off? He ain’t even stay long enough for me to tighten my fist.”

Knot turned and looked down the lane. Delaware William may as well have been a ghost. Pratt, she discovered when she turned to him once more, looked as though he would die if he held his laugh in any longer. And once he let the laugh go—he slapped his knees, too—Knot said, “Go to hell, Pratt.”

She sat on the porch next to him and their shoulders touched.

“Happy Birthday, darlin’.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. She swatted him away, but she was so glad he was there; something was stirring around inside her and she was in the mood for a man’s company.

Pratt pulled her close to him. She liked the way her ear felt against his fleshy chest. A whiff of his clean breath relaxed her. Pratt’s breath smelled as though he had chewed on mint leaves all day instead of just after dinner, as he usually did. Knot figured she would let him kiss her, knowing he’d happily join her inside the house, where he would make her feel good under the quilt. Hell, it’s my birthday.

In the doorway, Pratt kissed her face and neck. And before she knew it, they were on the bed they had been sharing, off and on, for two years. She didn’t know what it was, but it seemed as though his touch was different, better than before. “Feel like you grew some more hands,” she whispered in his ear before softly biting his earlobe. Did he put butter on his lips? She had never known his lips to feel as soft as they felt tonight. She enjoyed their new softness even more when Pratt kissed the insides of her thighs and moved up to her shiver spot.

Pratt laid his large body on top of hers. She imagined a giant pillow. As big—with just the right amount of heavy—as he was, that night he was a nice cloud hovering over her, making love to her. Knot knew she would certainly be hoarse in the morning.

Lord, have mercy.

When they were done, Knot lay there wishing Pratt would fall asleep so she could have one more drink. That jar is whistlin’ for me. But after all Pratt had just done for her, she didn’t want to spoil it.

The Dickens book was on the floor next to her headboard, so she decided to read for as long as her eyes would allow. But it sure would be nice to have a cool glass with a splash in it while I read. Damn! Pratt was wide-awake on the other side of the bed, picking with his toenails.

The next morning when Knot woke up, she lay there thinking about how she hadn’t gotten to do what she had wanted—in my own house. She nudged Pratt until he was awake.

“What is it?” he mumbled. He had one eye open, one eye shut.

“Get up!” Knot exclaimed.

“What for?”

“Get up and get the hell on outta my house.” And after he was dressed and about to walk out, she said, “And don’t darken my doorway. Never no mo’.”

“Azalea!”

“Gone!” she yelled, before slamming the door and making the drink she had wanted the night before.

 

Excerpted from In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. Copyright © 2019 by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. 

(Photo: Julie R. Keresztes)
page_5: 

The Travelers
Regina Porter

Bessie Coleman was the first woman Eloise Delaney loved—before she knew love meant anything. There is a rectangular photograph cropped from the Buckner County Register, a local Negro paper, of Coleman standing atop the left tire of her Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. Her gloved right hand hugs the cockpit. She is decked out in tailored aviation gear and stares directly into the camera. The photograph is at least thirty years old and dates back to 1926, the year of the brown aviatrix’s untimely death, but for Eloise’s parents the crash might have happened yesterday. They were the town drunks and time played on them murky.

“Man wasn’t meant to have wings,” Herbert Delaney said.

“Wasn’t that a play or something?” Delores Delaney snapped her fingers. “All God’s Chillun Got Wings”?

Herbert shrugged. “She getting ahead of herself. Wanting to take flight.”

“What you saying, Herbert?” Delores Delaney kissed her husband’s long thin hands. “You saying God wanted her plane to crash? God wanted Bessie to die?”

“Well, He sure as hell didn’t want her to live. Otherwise, that damn plane wouldn’t have malfunctioned.”

 

Bessie Coleman’s plane had crashed during a barnstorming exhibition in Orlando, Florida. Delores Delaney liked to brag that she stood right smack-dab in the middle of the crowd the morning “Brave Bessie” was catapulted two thousand feet to the ground, but Eloise knew better than to place stock in anything a drunk said, especially when that drunk was her mother.

Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from her childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.

Eloise’s parents worked at the seafood-processing factory two miles out of town. They had grown up shucking oysters and picking crabs and gutting fish. Getting paid for doing something that was second nature to them was like being given money to go on vacation. They could pick crabs with their eyes shut and lose nothing in speed. Sometimes their anxious fingers moved in their sleep, discarding the dead man and the pregnant she-crab belly and flicking out the tender white meat. Every so often, the manager of the seafood factory was forced to make an example of Herbert and Delores for coming to work inebriated or late or not at all. He would let them sweat their imbibing out and Eloise would go hungry until they managed to sidle back through the factory door.

The seafood factory was situated in a warehouse overlooking a salt marsh. When the picking season was high, Herbert and Delores would take their daughter to work with them. She would peer out the tall windows at the herons and seagulls and pelicans and ospreys and charcoal-black cormorants scouring the marsh for feed.

 

Excerpted from The Travelers by Regina Porter. Copyright © 2019 by Regina Porter. Published by Hogarth Books.

(Photo: Liz Lazarus)

First Fiction 2018

by

Staff

6.13.18

For our eighteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2018 issue of the magazine for interviews between R. O. Kwon and Celeste Ng, Fatima Farheen Mirza and Garth Greenwell, Jamel Brinkley and Danielle Evans, Katharine Dion and Adam Haslett, and Tommy Orange and Claire Vaye Watkins. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

The Incendiaries (Riverhead, July) by R. O. Kwon
A Place for Us (SJP for Hogarth, June) by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, May) by Jamel Brinkley
The Dependents (Little, Brown, June) by Katharine Dion
There There (Knopf, June) by Tommy Orange

The Incendiaries
by R. O. Kwon 
 

It was past the time the march should have begun, and people were losing patience. I’ll give it five minutes, then I’m calling it quits, a man said. Placards leaned against a building wall. I saw John Leal talking to people I didn’t recognize. With a nod, he stepped on an upended crate. His mouth moved. In that hubbub, I couldn’t pick out his words. Phoebe apologized again, tearful. It’s all right, I said, but she had more she wanted to explain. It’s fine, I said. Hoping she’d calm down, I kissed Phoebe’s head. I was intent on listening to John Leal’s speech: I was curious what his effect would be with this large an audience, if they’d respond as we did. He lifted his head, pitching his voice.

. . . hands splashed with blood, he said. We’re all here this Saturday morning, and I know I don’t need to tell you the truth that an unborn child has a heartbeat before it’s a month old. I don’t have to tell you that, within the first three months of fetal life, a human infant’s strong enough to grip a hand. But I’m not sure if it’s done much good, all this truth. What point it’s had, if you and I aren’t saving lives.
 

Excepted from The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by R. O. Kwon.

(Photo: Smeeta Mahanti)

A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza 

Amar was the one they loved the most. He was the one whose picture Mumma kept in her wallet behind her license. Him smiling with a toothless grin. Mumma ran her fingers through his hair as if it nourished her. A painting he did of a boat on the ocean was tacked above Baba’s office desk when she visited him at work. Once Hadia spent an entire afternoon counting the faces in the framed pictures, and Amar had beaten them all by seven. Hadia and Huda were a two-for-one deal: if there was a framed picture of them, they were likely together. Mumma served food for Amar first, and then Baba, and she always asked Amar if he wanted seconds. She was not even aware of doing it. Hadia’s daily chore was washing the dishes and Huda’s was sweeping. If Amar was asked to help, the two of them would shout and cheer to mark the day. Sometimes this made Hadia so angry that if she was left in charge of the cleaning while Mumma and Baba were out, she would delegate everything to Amar. He was the only one Mumma had a nickname for. His favorite ice cream flavor was always stocked in the fridge; if Hadia helped unload the groceries and saw a pistachio and almond carton, she reminded Baba that Amar was the only one of them who ate that flavor.

“You don’t love it too?” Baba would ask her distractedly, every time.

“No,” she’d say quietly, thinking there was no point in correcting him at all.

Once, only once, had she confronted her mother about this, after her mother had taken his side during a fight that he was clearly to blame for.

“You love him more,” she had shouted. “You love him more than all of us.”

“Don’t be silly.” Her mother was calm, as if she was bored by Hadia’s tantrum. “You think about him more. What he needs and what he wants.” Hadia had turned to run back into her room. “We worry about him more,” her mother had called after her, so gently that Hadia had wanted to believe her. “We don’t have to worry about you.”

She had sniffled, and locked her bedroom door, embarrassed by her outburst. She plotted to do something that would make her parents worry about her, as if their worry would prove the depth of their love. But she was afraid. They had endless patience for Amar’s antics. She feared the only thing worse than wondering if they loved him more was testing their patience, proving it to be thin, and knowing for certain.

They loved Hadia because she did well. Her grades were good and her teachers said kind things about her. She was not sure if Baba would even notice her at all, if she did not work hard to distinguish herself academically. The only compliment Mumma ever gave her was that when Hadia cleaned the stove, it always sparkled.

“Even I can’t clean like that,” Mumma would say. And there would be actual awe in her voice, and Hadia would never know if she should feel glad for the compliment, or annoyed that it was the only thing that Mumma valued enough to note.

Amar was their son. Even the word son felt like something shiny and golden to her, like the actual sun that reigned over their days.

Baba would sometimes say to Hadia, “One day you’ll live with your husband. You’ll care for his parents. You’ll forget about us.”

It was meant as a joke, “you’ll forget about us,” or “we will no longer be responsible for you.” But it was never funny.

“Amar will take care of us, right, Ami?” Mumma would squeeze his cheeks. Amar would nod.

“Why can’t I?” she would say.

“Because the role of the daughter is to go off, to make her own home, to take her husband’s name—daughters are never really ours,” Baba would tell her.

But I want to be yours, she’d want to say. I want to be yours or just my own.

“I won’t take anyone’s name,” she’d vow aloud, but he would have stopped listening.

Everyone important was a boy. The Prophets and the Imams had been men. The moulana was always a man. Jonah got to be swallowed by the whale. Joseph was given the colorful coat and the powerful dreams. Noah knew the flood was coming. Whereas Noah’s wife was silly and drowned. Eve was the first to reach for the fruit. But Hadia liked to keep her examples close. It was Moses’s sister who had the clever idea to put him in the basket, and the Pharaoh’s wife who had the heart to pull him from the river. It was Bibi Mariam who was given the miracle of Jesus. Bibi Fatima was the only child the Prophet had and the Prophet never lamented the lack of a son. And she liked to think that there was a reason that one of the first things the Prophet ever did was forbid the people of Quraysh from burying their newborn daughters alive. But still, hundreds and hundreds of years had passed, and it was still the son they cherished, the son their pride depended on, the son who would carry their name into the next generation.

Excerpted from A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Copyright © 2018 by Fatima Farheen Mirza. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by SJP for Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

(Photo: Gregg Richards)

 

A Lucky Man
by Jamel Brinkley 

James kept busy at the security desk now, doing the work of both men while Lincoln sat there with his stomach on his lap. He felt a sort of bond with James now, a familiar gratitude. But one gets sick and tired of saying thank you. When he was engaged to Alexis, and during their first years of marriage, his friends would also tell him how lucky he was, but this was said as a joke. Lincoln would say thank you and agree, would tell them how grateful he was for her, but this wasn’t true. He deserved her—this was what he believed, and he knew this was what his friends believed in. A man of a kind should get what he deserves, and if a man like him couldn’t get a woman like her, then something was terribly wrong with the world.

James snipped withered leaves from the spider plants, a thing he’d never done before. Do her friends tell her she’s lucky? Lincoln wondered. Has Donna said that to her? Has her mother told her to give thanks for her man? She might be saying it now as they picked plums and nectarines at the fruit market, or sat out on the porch shelling peas. Surely this was foolish thinking, just as foolish as thinking Tameka would spend these years breaking the hearts of any eager Georgetown boy who wasn’t like her father. Lincoln came to understand that this had always been part of his vision for himself, to have children who adored him—a son who resembled and worshipped him, a daughter for whom no other man would ever measure up. This was part of what he couldn’t see before he married. But there was no son, and the years of Tameka’s life had marked his decline.

She had grown up watching it. His professional gambles with the boxing gyms, and the attempts at training and managing, had failed. His charm and stature no longer earned him opportunities, and in New York he had no reputation. He was lucky, he knew, to have his job at Tilden, steady and respectable work, but years ago he and his wife had deserved each other. Time had not treated them equally. Why did he expect otherwise though? With any two people one would get the brunt of it, and time had hit him worse than any beating he’d ever seen in the ring. He felt it had brutalized him. What did his wife think? Alexis had always been kind and supportive, but in her privacy she had to keep thoughts. A long marriage forced you to witness or suffer such brutality. Lincoln wondered, not for the first time, if this was exactly what marriage meant.

Across from the front desk, James pulled the director of security aside. Lincoln couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the discussion had the look of seriousness. He approached, but the director stopped him short with a flat stony hand, which he closed into a fist before lowering. Lincoln went back to his chair.

One day his wife’s looks would go. Creases would line her face, the skin there would loosen and thin, pouches would form under her eyes, maybe little dewlaps like his under the jaw. And her mind, it would start to slip and show weakness too. Everything cracks eventually. But when? How long would it be his good fortune to have her? How long until he could just plain have her again? Her smooth face. Even after all these years he longed for it, to rub his cheek against hers and breathe hot words into her hair—there’d been no diminishment of that feeling. He still had those appetites, and she did too. Yet he also felt the urge to press the sharps of his teeth against her face, to bite down and place the first deep crack in it. When pulled by contrary desires, you often don’t do anything at all. So on evenings and weekends he’d sit at home like a chastened boy, captive to her every small gesture. He didn’t want to lose her.

But Lincoln was a man with luck—yes, he still had it, James had said so and he was right. Good fortune can change in an instant, however, or it might never, but whatever it does has nothing to do with you. For years it had persisted in following him. It went home from work with him, lived with his family, claimed a space between him and his wife in their bed. She still had her light, but his was his luck. If it left him, she would too. No one would blame her. Neither Donna nor her other girlfriends, nor her mother, nor their daughter. Nor James. Maybe James had been wrong earlier. Maybe Lincoln’s luck had already abandoned him—his wife was gone for now, after all. Or maybe Lincoln was the one with wrong notions—maybe, slumped in his chair at the desk, unable to muster the little strength it took to hold in his belly, it was his luck that he was alone with.

Excerpted from A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. Copyright © 2018 by Jamel Brinkley. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

(Photo: Arash Saedinia)

The Dependents
by Katharine Dion

His early forays on the internet had been limited to responding to the emails his daughter sent him and occasionally reading the sensationalistic but nevertheless impossible-to-ignore news stories that appeared on his home page. (He wondered if this was something Dary could tell from the settings—that he clicked on articles such as “Nude Man Accidentally Tasers Self” or “Beano Bandit Apprehended.”) When Dary realized how little  he was using the computer she tried to help him, but the only thing that really stuck with him from her tutorials was this idea that you could ask the internet a question, any question, and it would give you not just one answer but dozens. He found this oddly reassuring because it suggested that somewhere on the other side of the internet connection, back in the human realm, somebody—and possibly a lot of somebodies—had the same semiprivate question that was more comfortable to send through a filtering layer of inhuman data.

Now he typed into the oracle field: “How to write a eulogy.” It was nice, or at least nonjudgmental, he supposed, that the internet assumed nothing about your existing abilities. Maybe you were a human willing to exert some effort, or maybe you were a half-automaton who needed to pass himself off as acceptably human. If he hadn’t wanted to write the eulogy there were plentiful options: premade templates, preselected themes, inspirational quotations, mournful yet triumphant poems. He was looking for something else, something that wouldn’t give him the shape of the thought, but that would tell him how to begin a process of thinking about the unthinkable.

He opened the top drawer of Maida’s dresser. She had never bothered to match up her socks, mixing them loose among her underwear and bras, and her pantyhose often ended up stretched beyond use or tangled in a knot. How many times had she and Gene been late for some event because on the way she had made him stop at the drugstore to buy a new pair? She would wriggle into it standing beside the car right there in the parking lot, while Gene would lower himself in the front seat, hoping nobody they knew saw them. When she was alive her tendency to make them late had never ceased to frustrate him, but now he looked upon her disorganization with peculiar fondness. Suddenly everything that was hers—the coins that had once been in her pocket, the hour and minute she had last set her alarm—was overburdened with significance. In some mad inversion of time, grieving his wife’s death resembled falling in love.

The most reasonable site he found had been created by an entity who called herself “the Lady in Black.” She said that writing a eulogy was “a personal journey of gathering memories.” She suggested collecting personal items that belonged to the deceased, and “spending time with them until they speak to you—not literally, of course!” Following the Lady in Black’s suggestion, he got up from the computer and went upstairs to the bedroom to find these items.

Excerpted from The Dependents by Katharine Dion. Copyright © 2018 by Katharine Dion. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Terri Loewenthal)
page_5: 

There There
by Tommy Orange

Blood is messy when it comes out. Inside it runs clean and looks blue in tubes that line our bodies, that split and branch like earth’s river systems. Blood is ninety percent water. And like water it must move. Blood must flow, never stray or split or clot or divide—lose any essential amount of itself while it distributes evenly through our bodies. But blood is messy when it comes out. It dries, divides, and cracks in the air.

Native blood quantum was introduced in 1705 at the Virginia Colony. If you were at least half Native, you didn’t have the same rights as white people. Blood quantum and tribal membership qualifications have since been turned over to individual tribes to decide.

In the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein commissioned a Quran to be written in his own blood. Now Muslim leaders aren’t sure what to do with it. To have written the Quran in blood was a sin, but to destroy it would also be a sin.

The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind history. All these stories that we haven’t been telling all this time, that we haven’t been listening to, are just part of what we need to heal. Not that we’re broken. And don’t make the mistake of calling us resilient. To not have been destroyed, to not have given up, to have survived, is no badge of honor. Would you call an attempted murder victim resilient?

When we go to tell our stories, people think we want it to have gone different. People want to say things like “sore losers” and “move on already,” “quit playing the blame game.” But is it a game? Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say “Get over it.” This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed over­board by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agita­tor gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

Excerpted from There There by Tommy Orange. Copyright © 2018 by Tommy Orange. Reprinted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

(Photo: Elena Seibert)

First Fiction 2017

by

Danzy Senna, Mira Jacob, Maggie Nelson, Emily Raboteau, Gary Shteyngart

6.14.17

For our seventeenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2017 issue of the magazine for interviews between Zinzi Clemmons and Danzy Senna, Hala Alyan and Mira Jacob, Jess Arndt and Maggie Nelson, Lisa Ko and Emily Raboteau, and Diksha Basu and Gary Shteyngart. But first, check out these exclusive readings and excerpts from their debut novels.

What We Lose (Viking, July) by Zinzi Clemmons
Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May) by Hala Alyan
Large Animals (Catapult, May) by Jess Arndt
The Leavers (Algonquin Books, May) by Lisa Ko
The Windfall (Crown, June) by Diksha Basu
 

What We Lose
by Zinzi Clemmons

My parents’ bedroom is arranged exactly the same as it always was. The big mahogany dresser sits opposite the bed, the doily still in place on the vanity. My mother’s little ring holders and perfume bottles still stand there. On top of all these old feminine relics, my father has set up his home office. His old IBM laptop sits atop the doily, a tangle of cords choking my mother’s silver makeup tray. His books are scattered around the tables, his clothes draped carelessly over the antique wing chair that my mother found on a trip to Quebec.

In the kitchen, my father switches on a small flat-screen TV that he’s installed on the wall opposite the stove. My mother never allowed TV in the kitchen, to encourage bonding during family dinners and focus during homework time. As a matter of fact, we never had more than one television while I was growing up—an old wood-paneled set that lived in the cold basement, carefully hidden from me and visitors in the main living areas of the house.

We order Chinese from the place around the corner, the same order that we’ve made for years: sesame chicken, vegetable fried rice, shrimp lo mein. As soon as they hear my father’s voice on the line, they put in the order; he doesn’t even have to ask for it. When he picks the order up, they ask after me. When my mother died, they started giving us extra sodas with our order, and he returns with two cans of pineapple soda, my favorite.

My father tells me that he’s been organizing at work, now that he’s the only black faculty member in the upper ranks of the administration.

I notice that he has started cutting his hair differently. It is shorter on the sides and disappearing in patches around the crown of his skull. He pulls himself up in his chair with noticeable effort. He had barely aged in the past twenty years, and suddenly, in the past year, he has inched closer to looking like his father, a stooped, lean, yellow-skinned man I’ve only seen in pictures.

“How have you been, Dad?” I say as we sit at the table.

The thought of losing my father lurks constantly in my mind now, shadowy, inexpressible, but bursting to the surface when, like now, I perceive the limits of his body. Something catches in my throat and I clench my jaw.

My father says that he has been keeping busy. He has been volunteering every month at the community garden on Christian Street, turning compost and watering kale.

“And I’m starting a petition to hire another black professor,” he says, stabbing his glazed chicken with a fire I haven’t seen in him in years.

He asks about Peter.

“I’m glad you’ve found someone you like,” he says.

“Love, Dad,” I say. “We’re in love.”

He pauses, stirring his noodles quizzically with his fork. “Why aren’t you eating?” he asks.

I stare at the food in front of me. It’s the closest thing to comfort food since my mother has been gone. The unique flavor of her curries and stews buried, forever, with her. The sight of the food appeals to me, but the smell, suddenly, is noxious; the wisp of steam emanating from it, scorching.

“Are you all right?”

All of a sudden, I have the feeling that I am sinking. I feel the pressure of my skin holding in my organs and blood vessels and fluids; the tickle of every hair that covers it. The feeling is so disorienting and overwhelming that I can no longer hold my head up. I push my dinner away from me. I walk calmly but quickly to the powder room, lift the toilet seat, and throw up.

From What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, published in July by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Zinzi Clemmons.

(Photo: Nina Subin)

Salt Houses
by Hala Alyan

On the street, she fumbles for a cigarette from her purse and smokes as she walks into the evening. She feels a sudden urge, now that she is outside the apartment, to clear her head. This is her favor­ite thing about the city—the ability it gives you to walk, to literally put space between your body and distress. In Kuwait, nobody walks anywhere.

Mimi lives in a quiet part of the city, mostly residential, with small, pretty apartments, each window like a glistening eye. The streetlamps are made of wrought iron, designs flanking either side of the bulbs. There is a minimalist sense of wealth in the neighborhood, children dressed simply, the women always adjusting scarves around their necks, their hair cut into perfectly symmetrical lines. Souad walks by the manicured lawns of a grammar school, empty and discarded for the summer. Next to it a gray-steepled church. She tries to imagine that, elsewhere, there is smoke and destroyed palaces and men carry­ing guns. It seems impossible.

The night is cool, and Souad wraps her cardigan tightly around her, crosses her arms. A shiver runs through her. She is nervous to see him, a familiar thrill that he always elicits in her. Even before last night.

Le Chat Rouge is a fifteen-minute walk from Mimi’s apartment, but within several blocks the streets begin to change, brownstones and Gothic-style latticework replaced with grungier alleyways, young Algerian men with long hair sitting on steps and drinking beer from cans. One eyes her and calls out, caressingly, something in French. She can make out the words for sweet and return. Bars line the streets with their neon signs and she walks directly across the Quartier Latin courtyard, her shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

“My mother’s going to call tomorrow,” she told Elie yesterday. She wasn’t sure why she said it, but it felt necessary. “They’re taking me to Amman.” In the near dark, Elie’s face was peculiarly lit, the sign making his skin look alien.

“You could stay here,” Elie said. He smiled mockingly. “You could get married.”

Souad had blinked, her lips still wet from the kiss. “Married?” She wasn’t being coy—she truthfully had no idea what Elie meant. Mar­ried to whom? For a long, awful moment, she thought Elie was sug­gesting she marry one of the other Lebanese men, that he was fob­bing her off on a friend in pity.

“Yes.” Elie cocked his head, as though gauging the authenticity of her confusion. He smiled again, kinder this time. He closed his fingers around hers so that she was making a fist and he a larger one atop it. They both watched their hands silently for a few seconds, an awkward pose, more confrontational than romantic, as though he were preventing her from delivering a blow. It occurred to her that he was having a difficult time speaking. She felt her palm itch but didn’t move. Elie cleared his throat, and when he spoke, she had to lean in to hear him.

“You could marry me.”

Now, even in re-creating that moment, Souad feels the swoop in her stomach, her mouth drying. It is a thing she wants in the dark­est, most furtive way, not realizing how badly until it was said aloud. Eighteen years old, a voice within her spoke, eighteen. Too young, too young. And her parents, her waiting life.

But the greater, arrogant part of Souad’s self growled as if wo­ken. Her steps clacked with her want of it. The self swelled trium­phantly—Shame, shame, she admonishes herself, thinking of the war, the invasion, the troops and fire, but she is delighted nonetheless.

From Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Copyright © 2017 by Hala Alyan. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

(Photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Large Animals
by Jess Arndt

In my sleep I was plagued by large animals—teams of grizzlies, timber wolves, gorillas even came in and out of the mist. Once the now extinct northern white rhino also stopped by. But none of them came as often or with such a ferocious sexual charge as what I, mangling Latin and English as usual, called the Walri. Lying there, I faced them as you would the inevitable. They were massive, tube-shaped, sometimes the feeling was only flesh and I couldn’t see the top of the cylinder that masqueraded as a head or tusks or eyes. Nonetheless I knew I was in their presence intuitively. There was no mistaking their skin; their smell was unmistakable too, as was their awful weight.

During these nights (the days seemed to disappear before they even started) I was living two miles from a military testing site. In the early morning and throughout the day the soft, dense sound of bombs filled the valley. It was comforting somehow. Otherwise I was entirely alone.

This seemed a precondition for the Walri—that I should be theirs and theirs only. on the rare occasion that I had an overnight visitor to my desert bungalow the Walri were never around. Then the bears would return in force, maybe even a large local animal like a mountain lion or goat, but no form’s density came close to walrusness. So I became wary and stopped inviting anyone out to visit at all.

The days, unmemorable, had a kind of habitual slide. I would wake up with the sun and begin cleaning the house. No matter how tightly I’d kept the doors shut the day before, dust and sand and even large pieces of mineral rock seemed to shove  their way inside. I swept these into piles. Then the dishes that I barely remembered dirtying—some mornings it was as if the whole artillery of pots and pans had been used in the night by someone else—then the trash (again always full), then some coffee. Eight o’clock.

This work done, I sat in various chairs in the house following the bright but pale blades of light. I was drying out. oh, an LA friend said somewhat knowingly, from the booze? But I had alcohol with me, plenty of it. It wasn’t that. I moved as if preprogrammed. only later did I realize that my sleep was so soggy that it took strong desert sun to unshrivel me and since it was the middle of winter and the beams were perforce slanted, I’d take all of it I could find.

For lunch I got in my car and drove into town, to the empty parking lot of Las Palmas. There were many Mexican joints along the highway that also functioned as Main Street. I hadn’t bothered to try them out. Las Palmas, with its vacant booths, dusty cacti, and combination platter lunch special for $11.99 including $4 house margarita, was fine.

A waitress named Tamara worked there. She seemed like the only one. She wasn’t my type—so tall she bent over herself and a bona fide chain-smoker. Sometimes to order you’d have to exit your booth and find her puffing outside. A friend who had borrowed the bungalow before I did told me about Tamara and so if I had a crush at all it was an inherited one that even came with inherited guilt—from having taken her on once he could no longer visit her. Regardless, we barely spoke.

I had things I was supposed to be doing, more work than I could accomplish even if I
duct-taped my fists to my laptop, but none of it seemed relevant to my current state. In the afternoons I drove back home slowly, always stopping for six-packs of beer at the Circle K. I enjoyed the task. The beer evaporated once I stuck it in my fridge—it was there and then, it was gone.

My sleeping area was simple: a bed on a plywood platform. A wooden dresser. Built-in closets and a cement floor. At first  I would wake up in the night from the sheer flattening silence of the desert. It was impossible that the world still existed elsewhere. After that initial jolt, relief.

Don’t you miss it? my same friend said during our weekly telephone chats. But I couldn’t explain the euphoria of walking up and down the chilly aisles of Stater Bros. In week-old sweatpants if I wanted, uncounted by life. Would I buy refried or whole beans? This brand or that? It didn’t matter, no one cared.

It was in these conditions that the Walri arrived.

* * * 

I’d slept as usual for the first few hours, heavily, in a kind of coma state. Then had woken, I thought to pee. But lying there with the gritty sheets braided around me, the violet light that was created from the fly zapper, the desert cold that was entering through the gaps and cracks in the fire’s absence—I felt a new form of suffocation.

It wasn’t supernatural. I’d also had that. The sense of someone’s vast weight sitting on the bed with you or patting your body with ghostly hands. This breathless feeling was larger, as if I was uniformly surrounded by mammoth flesh.

Dream parts snagged at me. Slapping sounds and hose-like alien respiration. I felt I was wrestling within inches of what must be—since I couldn’t breathe—the end of my life. Now the lens of my dream panned backward and I saw my opponent in his entirety.

He lay (if that’s what you could call it) on my bed, thick and wrinkled, the creases in his hide so deep I could stick my arms between them. His teeth were yellow and as long as my legs.

“I’m sexually dormant,” I said aloud to him. “But I want to put my balls in someone’s face.”

Then somehow light was peeling everything back for dawn.

From Large Animals. Used with permission of Catapult. Copyright 2017 by Jess Arndt.

(Photo: Johanna Breiding)

The Leavers
by Lisa Ko

The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school. A navy blue hat sat low on her forehead, scarf around her neck like a big brown snake. “What are you waiting for, Kid? It’s cold out.”

He stood in the doorway of P.S. 33 as she zipped his coat so hard the collar pinched. “Did you get off work early?” It was four thirty, already dark, but she didn’t usually leave the nail salon until six.

They spoke, as always, in Fuzhounese. “Short shift. Michael said you had to stay late to get help on an assignment.” Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses, and he couldn’t tell if she bought it or not. Teachers didn’t call your mom when you got detention, only gave a form you had to return with a signature, which he forged. Michael, who never got detention, had left after eighth period, and Deming wanted to get back home with him, in front of the television, where, in the safety of a laugh track, he didn’t have to worry about letting anyone down.

Snow fell like clots of wet laundry. Deming and his mother walked up Jerome Avenue. In the back of a concrete courtyard three older boys were passing a blunt, coats unzipped, wearing neither backpacks nor hats, sweet smoke and slow laughter warming the thin February air. “I don’t want you to be like that,” she said. “I don’t want you to be like me. I didn’t even finish eighth grade.”

What a sweet idea, not finishing eighth grade. He could barely finish fifth. His teachers said it was an issue of focus, of not applying himself. Yet when he tripped Travis Bhopa in math class Deming had been as shocked as Travis was. “I’ll come to your school tomorrow,” his mother said, “talk to your teacher about that assignment.” He kept his arm against his mother’s, loved the scratchy sound of their jackets rubbing together. She wasn’t one of those TV moms, always hugging their kids or watching them with bemused smiles, but insisted on holding his hand when they crossed a busy street. Inside her gloves her hands were red and scraped, the skin angry and peeling, and every night before she went to sleep she rubbed a thick lotion onto her fingers and winced. Once he asked if it made them hurt less. She said only for a little while, and he wished there was a special lotion that could make new skin grow, a pair of superpower gloves.

Short and blocky, she wore loose jeans—never had he seen her in a dress—and her voice was so loud that when she called his name dogs would bark and other kids jerked around. When she saw his last report card he thought her shouting would set off the car alarms four stories below. But her laughter was as loud as her shouting, and there was no better, more gratifying sound than when she slapped her knees and cackled at something silly. She laughed at things that weren’t meant to be funny, like TV dramas and the swollen orchestral soundtracks that accompanied them, or, better yet, at things Deming said, like when he nailed the way their neighbor Tommie always went, “Not bad-not bad-not bad” when they passed him in the stairwell, an automatic response to a “Hello-how-are-you” that hadn’t yet been issued. Or the time she’d asked, flipping through TV stations, “Dancing with the Stars isn’t on?” and he had excavated Michael’s old paper mobile of the solar system and waltzed with it through the living room as she clapped. It was almost as good as getting cheered on by his friends.

When he had lived in Minjiang with his grandfather, Deming’s mother had explored New York by herself. There was a restlessness to her, an inability to be still or settled. She jiggled her legs, bounced her knees, cracked her knuckles, twirled her thumbs. She hated being cooped up in the apartment on a sunny day, paced the rooms from wall to wall to wall, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “Who wants to go for a walk?” she would say. Her boyfriend Leon would tell her to relax, sit down. “Sit down? We’ve been sitting all day!” Deming would want to stay on the couch with Michael, but he couldn’t say no to her and they’d go out, no family but each other. He would have her to himself, an ambling walk in the park or along the river, making up stories about who lived in the apartments they saw from the outside—a family named Smith, five kids, father dead, mother addicted to bagels, he speculated the day they went to the Upper East Side. “To bagels?” she said. “What flavor bagel?” “Everything bagels,” he said, which made her giggle harder, until they were both bent over on Madison Avenue, laughing so hard no sounds were coming out, and his stomach hurt but he couldn’t stop laughing, old white people giving them stink eye for stopping in the middle of the sidewalk. Deming and his mother loved everything bagels, the sheer balls of it, the New York audacity that a bagel could proclaim to be everything, even if it was only topped with sesame seeds and poppy seeds and salt.

A bus lumbered past, spraying slush. The walk sign flashed on. “You know what I did today?” his mother said. “One lady, she had a callus the size of your nose on her heel. I had to scrape all that dead skin off. It took forever. And her tip was shit. You’ll never do that, if you’re careful.”

He dreaded this familiar refrain. His mother could curse, but the one time he’d let motherfucker bounce out in front of her, loving the way the syllables got meatbally in his mouth, she had slapped his arm and said he was better than that. Now he silently said the word to himself as he walked, one syllable per footstep.

“Did you think that when I was growing up, a small girl your age, I thought: hey, one day, I’m going to come all the way to New York so I can pick gao gao out of a stranger’s toe? That was not my plan.”

Always be prepared, she liked to say. Never rely on anyone else to give you things you could get yourself. She despised laziness, softness, people who were weak. She had few friends, but was true to the ones she had. She could hold a fierce grudge, would walk an extra three blocks to another grocery store because, two years ago, a cashier at the one around the corner had smirked at her lousy English. It was lousy, Deming agreed.

From The Leavers. Printed by permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Lisa Ko.

(Photo: Bartosz Potocki)
page_5: 

The Windfall
by Diksha Basu

The following week, on an unusually overcast September day, Mr. Jha pulled into the quiet lane of his new Gurgaon home. He had never been here by himself, he realized. Mrs. Jha was usually with him, and this summer Rupak had come with them a few times, and there were all the contractors and painters and builders buzzing around, working. He had never really appreciated the silence and the greenery before. Gurgaon felt still while the rest of Delhi throbbed.

The air was heavy with heat and the promise of rain. On the radio, a Bon Jovi song played. “It’s been raining since you left me,” the lyrics said. How funny, Mr. Jha thought. An Indian song would have to say, “It hasn’t rained since you left me.” Unless, of course, you were happy that they left you.

An electronic shoe-polishing machine in a large box was on the passenger seat of his Mercedes. He had strapped it in with the seat belt. It was beautiful. And it was expensive. It was not a planned purchase. This morning he had a breakfast meeting with two young men who were launching a website that would help you find handymen around Delhi, and they asked him to join their team as a consultant. He declined. He did not have time to take on any new work until they were done moving homes. And then they had to visit Rupak, so he was not going to have any free time until November or December. And then it would be the holiday season, so really it was best if he took the rest of the year off work.

The meeting was over breakfast at the luxurious Teresa’s Hotel in Connaught Place in central Delhi, and after filling himself up with mini croissants, fruit tarts, sliced cheeses, salami, coffee, and orange juice, Mr. Jha went for a stroll through the lobby and the other restaurants in the hotel. All the five-star hotels in the center of town were little oases of calm and cool. Mr. Jha was walking by the large windows that overlooked the swimming pool that was for guests only when he thought he would book a two-night stay here. He knew his wife loved the indulgence of nice hotels and he had recently read about what youngsters were calling a staycation—a vacation where you don’t leave the city or the home you usually live in, but you give yourself a few days to take a holiday. Of course, since he didn’t work much anymore, most days, weeks, months were a staycation, but how wonderful it would be to check into a hotel and have a lazy few days. Having room service—or, like they were called at Teresa’s, butlers—was a different sort of pleasure than having servants bringing you food and cleaning your home. Butlers showed that you had made the progression from servants to expensive appliances to uniformed men who ran the expensive appliances.

From The Windfall, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in June. Copyright © 2017 by Diksha Basu.

(Photo: Mikey McCleary)

page_5: 

 

Morgan Talty, whose debut story collection, Night of the Living Rez, will be published in July by Tin House, introduced by Brandon Hobson, author of four books, most recently the novel The Removed, published by Ecco in 2021. (Credit: Talty: Tin House)

Morgan Talty’s debut collection of short stories, Night of the Living Rez, is a biting exploration of life on the Penobscot reservation. My admiration for the book wholeheartedly subscribes to the spirit of visibility and uniqueness as we’re seeing more Indigenous writers and books enter the mainstream cultural consciousness.

The aesthetic significance of these stories—which is to say, Talty’s technique, spare style, and intermingling of themes and variations of the wounded and difficult lives of his Penobscot characters—serves as an important glimpse into the landscape of literary fiction involving a resilient Indigenous people. I found myself moved by their lives and how well Talty is able to capture a wide range of emotions. While the stories are tragic, sad, and at times even humorous, they are perhaps best described by the title of the final story, “The Name Means Thunder.” Their unpredictability, like a thunderstorm, is what makes them extraordinary.

One of the things I love about this collection is the way you balance humor with sadness, which is difficult to do well. Can you talk a little about the importance of sadness and humor in the book and how you approach the process of finding that balance?
I write a lot about difficult and painful issues—violence, addiction, poverty—and too much of something can be hard to handle. That’s where humor comes in. I’ve heard someone say before that if you can make someone laugh, they’ll follow you anywhere. In my work, humor is partly about easing the pain that readers may feel for these characters, but it’s also, I think, sort of in my DNA. There’s a lot in this book that is personal, and humor was a big part of my coping with the difficulties my family and I experienced. 

When it comes to finding that right balance between sadness and humor, I approach writing scenes and situations as I think any human being would. “If I were in this character’s shoes,” I’d ask, “would this moment be funny? When would I laugh about it?” That’s the best I can do when it comes to finding that balance—humor is so subjective, and it can be hard to anticipate what someone will find funny, whereas it’s a bit easier to anticipate what someone will find sad. At an event, I recently read “Burn,” which is the opener of my story collection, and at the end, members of the audience asked questions or shared thoughts. One person said, “Wow, I never realized how funny this was until I heard you read it.” And in my head, I’m like, “Who wouldn’t think some of this was funny!?” 

Can you talk about how important it is for you in your work to provide a Penobscot person’s experience to visibly enter the mainstream cultural consciousness, and how Native literature is evolving and expanding in general? 
Part of being Indigenous, I think, is this strange dichotomy of simultaneously being invisible and visible, which is a product of colonialism, the white man’s image of the “Indian,” and a deep Western desire to homogenize all Native folks, for who knows what reason. Simplicity? Assimilation? Mass genocide? Every Native person has a story about something dumb somebody said about them: “Oh, you’re Indian? You must be loaded from your casino!” That’s one thing someone said to me. The point here, though, is that this type of limited knowledge is so dangerous. Having a single story of someone—of a group—diminishes what is real about them. It dehumanizes them. It’s those multiple and many stories about various peoples—Indigenous tribes in this instance—that extend, and complicate, our understanding of what people think about Native Americans. To have Penobscot characters visibly enter into the mainstream cultural consciousness—written by one Penobscot person—is so, so important in making us visible on our terms. Native literature is evolving in this way: So many more Native writers are producing works from tribes that haven’t been represented in mainstream literature, and I really think non-Native readers want that. I also think that Native literature is also becoming just “literature”—that people are reading it for the story rather than a touch of the exotic, and this has a lot to do with Native writers avoiding that type of writing. We just have to keep pushing our stories as we see them. 

Yes, and we’re seeing a sort of renaissance of Native literature and younger Native writers. What does that mean to you and for the state of literature in general? Along those lines, who are some of the writers who have influenced you and informed your work and this book specifically?
It means a great deal to me to be part of this new generation of Indigenous writers. We’re all contributing work that I believe is really pushing back against the archetypal images and hackneyed tropes out there about Native peoples, particularly in popular culture. What’s more, there seems to be a surge in the plethora of tribes being represented in fiction. I feel like if you asked a non-Native person to name five tribes, they would give you the major ones that have been in popular culture forever and perhaps some local tribes from their area. And so with that, right now, it’s not just those familiar tribes that are being written about, but other tribes, like my own—the Penobscot—that are being seen, that readers are learning about not as a subject of study, but as a subject of shared humanity. 

So many writers have influenced me and informed my work. I already know I’m going to leave people out. Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Thomas King, Vine Deloria Jr., Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Paula Gunn Allen. More contemporary Native writers include Tommy Orange, Terese Marie Mailhot, Richard Van Camp, Eden Robinson, Dawn Dumont, Margaret Verble, Kelli Jo Ford, Toni Jensen, David Treuer, Stephen Graham Jones, and you! Other writers who aren’t Native who have really influenced my work include Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Anthony Doerr, Jennifer Egan, Alice Munro, Edwidge Danticat, Jamel Brinkley, Toni Morrison, and Isabel Allende. 
 

Copyright © 2022 by Morgan Talty. Audio excerpt courtesy of Recorded Books, Inc. Recorded by arrangement with Tin House Books. Read by Darrell Dennis.  
 

An excerpt from “Earth, Speak from Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty

“We have to do it tonight,” Fellis said.

“With no code?”

“And then we’re out of here.”

I counted my fingers. “We got no money, your truck’s a piece of shit, the next arts festival ain’t till October, and we haven’t weaned off our doses.”

“We got money.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “You bummed twenty yesterday from your mom.”

Fellis stood. “I’ve been bumming from my mom for thirty-one years.” He pulled the bed away from the wall. In the corner, he peeled back the carpet and picked up three envelopes from the cold wooden floor. He emptied all three on the shifted bed.

All these late boring nights we didn’t do anything because he was broke!

“Twenty-eight hundred bucks,” Fellis said.

I knelt in front of the bed and felt the money, some bills soft like velvet, others stiff and fresh.

“I got money,” he said.

“Your truck’s still a piece of shit.”

Fellis took the money from my hands. “You don’t want to do it, do you?”

I said nothing. The whole thing was my idea. We’d been watching Antiques Roadshow one long boring moon-night last week and some old dusty lady brought in an old root club that was worth five grand. Five grand! I said, “Fellis, the museum has tons of those!” and we looked at each other and got off the couch and walked fast to the head of the Island, right near the bridge. We went out back of the little museum whose only visitors were white people wanting pictures. Looking through the window, Fellis had seen the alarm box blinking green.

“Do you or don’t you?” Fellis said.

“What about our doses? I ain’t getting sick if we’re on the road.”

Fellis waved the envelopes at me. “You got Tabitha’s number?” 

“I’m not drinking puked-up methadone,” I said.

“She don’t puke it up,” Fellis said. “You’re retarded if you think that.”

“I’ve seen her do it,” I said, even though I hadn’t. 

“You’re full of shit,” Fellis said. “She gets full take-homes. You think that lockbox is her purse?”

“Even if she sells to us,” I said, “where are we going?”

“Down south to sell it all.”

“Why don’t we just learn how to make our own root clubs or baskets and sell them?”

Fellis stuffed the rest of the bills into the envelopes and put them back under the carpet. He straightened the bed.

“I ain’t got time for that,” Fellis said. “I’m doing it my way.” 

From Night of the Living Rez: Stories by Morgan Talty. Published with permission of Tin House. “Earth, Speak” first appeared in Shenandoah. Copyright © 2022 by Morgan Talty.   

 

Go to Source

Author: adavis@pw.org

  • If you’re an artist, up to a creative challenge, and love this story, enter your email here. Click here for more info.

Date:
Share: