Feel free to share your book extracts and reviews of the ones you've read here.
PrologueIn the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian depicted, drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out. It's called the Indian Head test pattern. If you left the TV on, you'd hear a tone at 440 hertz—the tone used to tune instruments—and you'd see that Indian, surrounded by circles that looked like sights through riflescopes. There was what looked like a bull's-eye in the middle of the screen, with numbers like coordinates.
The Indian's head was just above the bull's-eye, like all you'd need to do was nod up in agreement to set the sights on the target. This was just a test.
In 1621, colonists invited Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoags, to a feast after a recent land deal. Massasoit came with ninety of his men. That meal is why we still eat a meal together in November. Celebrate it as a nation. But that one wasn't a thanksgiving meal. It was a land-deal meal. Two years later there was another, similar meal meant to symbolize eternal friendship. Two hundred Indians dropped dead that night from an unknown poison.
By the time Massasoit's son Metacomet became chief, there were no Indian-Pilgrim meals being eaten together. Metacomet, also known as King Philip, was forced to sign a peace treaty to give up all Indian guns. Three of his men were hanged. His brother Wamsutta was, let's say, very likely poisoned after being summoned and seized by the Plymouth court. All of which lead to the first official Indian war. The first war with Indians. King Philip's War. Three years later the war was over and Metacomet was on the run. He was caught by Benjamin Church, the captain of the very first American Rangers, and an Indian by the name of John Alderman. Metacomet was beheaded and dismembered. Quartered. They tied his four body sections to nearby trees for the birds to pluck. Alderman was given Metacomet's hand, which he kept in a jar of rum and for years took around with him—charged people to see it. Metacomet's head was sold to Plymouth Colony for thirty shillings—the going rate for an Indian head at the time. The head was put on a spike, carried through the streets of Plymouth, then displayed at Plymouth Fort for the next twenty-five years.
In 1637, anywhere from four to seven hundred Pequot gathered for their annual Green Corn Dance. Colonists surrounded their village, set it on fire, and shot any Pequot who tried to escape. The next day the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a feast in celebration, and the governor declared it a day of thanksgiving. Thanksgivings like these happened everywhere, whenever there were what we have to call "successful massacres." At one such celebration in Manhattan, people were said to have celebrated by kicking the heads of Pequot people through the streets like soccer balls.
The first novel by a Native person, and the first novel written in California, was written in 1854, by a Cherokee guy named John Rollin Ridge. The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta was based on a supposed real-life Mexican bandit from California by the same name, who was killed by a group of Texas Rangers in 1853. To prove they'd killed Murieta and collect the $5,000 reward put on his head—they cut it off. Kept it in a jar of whiskey. They also took the hand of his fellow bandit ThreeFingered Jack. The rangers took Murieta's head and Jack's hand on a tour throughout California, charged a dollar for the show.
The Indian head in the jar, the Indian head on a spike were like flags flown, to be seen, cast broadly. Just like the Indian Head test pattern was broadcast to sleeping Americans as we set sail from our living rooms, over the ocean blue-green glowing airwaves, to the shores, the screens of the New World.
There's an old Cheyenne story about a rolling head. We heard it said there was a family who moved away from their camp, moved near a lake—husband, wife, daughter, son. In the morning when the husband finished dancing, he would brush his wife's hair and paint her face red, then go off to hunt. When he came back her face would be clean. After this happened a few times he decided to follow her and hide, see what she did while he was gone. He found her in the lake, with a water monster, some kind of snake thing, wrapped around her in an embrace. The man cut the monster up and killed his wife. He brought the meat home to his son and daughter. They noticed it tasted different. The son, who was still nursing, said, My mother tastes just like this. His older sister told him it's just deer meat. While they ate, a head rolled in. They ran and the head followed them. The sister remembered where they played, how thick the thorns were there, and she brought the thorns to life behind them with her words. But the head broke through, kept coming. Then she remembered where rocks used to be piled in a difficult way. The rocks appeared when she spoke of them but didn't stop the head, so she drew a hard line in the ground, which made a deep chasm the head couldn't cross. But after a long heavy rain, the chasm filled with water. The head crossed the water, and when it reached the other side, it turned around and drank all that water up. The rolling head became confused and drunk. It wanted more. More of anything. More of everything. And it just kept rolling.
One thing we should keep in mind, moving forward, is that no one ever rolled heads down temple stairs. Mel Gibson made that up. But we do have in our minds, those of us who saw the movie, the heads rolling down temple stairs in a world meant to resemble the real Indian world in the 1500s in Mexico. Mexicans before they were Mexicans. Before Spain came.
We've been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people. We have the sad, defeated Indian silhouette, and the heads rolling down temple stairs, we have it in our heads, Kevin Costner saving us, John Wayne's six-shooter slaying us, an Italian guy named Iron Eyes Cody playing our parts in movies. We have the littermourning, tear-ridden Indian in the commercial (also Iron Eyes Cody), and the sink-tossing, crazy Indian who was the narrator in the novel, the voice of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. We have all the logos and mascots. The copy of a copy of the image of an Indian in a textbook. All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image. Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.Massacre as Prologue
Some of us grew up with stories about massacres. Stories about what happened to our people not so long ago. How we came out of it. At Sand Creek, we heard it said that they mowed us down with their howitzers. Volunteer militia under Colonel John Chivington came to kill us—we were mostly women, children, and elders. The men were away to hunt. They'd told us to fly the American flag. We flew that and a white flag too. Surrender, the white flag waved. We stood under both flags as they came at us. They did more than kill us. They tore us up. Mutilated us. Broke our fingers to take our rings, cut off our ears to take our silver, scalped us for our hair. We hid in the hollows of tree trunks, buried ourselves in sand by the riverbank. That same sand ran red with blood. They tore unborn babies out of bellies, took what we intended to be, our children before they were children, babies before they were babies, they ripped them out of our bellies. They broke soft baby heads against trees. Then they took our body parts as trophies and displayed them on a stage in downtown Denver. Colonel Chivington danced with dismembered parts of us in his hands, with women's pubic hair, drunk, he danced, and the crowd gathered there before him was all the worse for cheering and laughing along with him. It was a celebration.
Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours. We didn't get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found one another, started up Indian Centers, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, our beadwork. We bought and rented homes, slept on the streets, under freeways; we went to school, joined the armed forces, populated Indian bars in the Fruitvale in Oakland and in the Mission in San Francisco. We lived in boxcar villages in Richmond. We made art and we made babies and we made way for our people to go back and forth between reservation and city. We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete, absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses—the city took us in. We were not Urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn't just like that. Plenty of us came by choice, to start over, to make money, or for a new experience. Some of us came to cities to escape the reservation. We stayed after fighting in the Second World War. After Vietnam too. We stayed because the city sounds like a war, and you can't leave a war once you've been, you can only keep it at bay—which is easier when you can see and hear it near you, that fast metal, that constant firing around you, cars up and down the streets and freeways like bullets. The quiet of the reservation, the side-of-the-highway towns, rural communities, that kind of silence just makes the sound of your brain on fire that much more pronounced.
Plenty of us are urban now. If not because we live in cities, then because we live on the internet. Inside the high-rise of multiple browser windows. They used to call us sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees, apples. An apple is red on the outside and white on the inside. But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don't remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.
When they first came for us with their bullets, we didn't stop moving even though the bullets moved twice as fast as the sound of our screams, and even when their heat and speed broke our skin, shattered our bones, skulls, pierced our hearts, we kept on, even when we saw the bullets send our bodies flailing through the air like flags, like the many flags and buildings that went up in place of everything we knew this land to be before. The bullets were premonitions, ghosts from dreams of a hard, fast future. The bullets moved on after moving through us, became the promise of what was to come, the speed and the killing, the hard, fast lines of borders and buildings. They took everything and ground it down to dust as fine as gunpowder, they fired their guns into the air in victory and the strays flew out into the nothingness of histories written wrong and meant to be forgotten. Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.
Urban Indians were the generation born in the city. We've been moving for a long time, but the land moves with you like memory. An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth. Everything here is formed in relation to every other living and nonliving thing from the earth. All our relations. The process that brings anything to its current form—chemical, synthetic, technological, or otherwise—doesn't make the product not a product of the living earth. Buildings, freeways, cars—are these not of the earth? Were they shipped in from Mars, the moon? Is it because they're processed, manufactured, or that we handle them? Are we so different? Were we at one time not something else entirely, Homo sapiens, single-celled organisms, space dust, unidentifiable pre-bang quantum theory? Cities form in the same way as galaxies. Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building.
We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest. We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread—which isn't traditional, like reservations aren't traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.PART I
How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?
The Drome first came to me in the mirror when I was six. Earlier that day my friend Mario, while hanging from the monkey bars in the sand park, said, "Why's your face look like that?"
I don't remember what I did. I still don't know. I remember smears of blood on the metal and the taste of metal in my mouth. I remember my grandma Maxine shaking my shoulders in the hall outside the principal's office, my eyes closed, her making this psshh sound she always makes when I try to explain myself and shouldn't. I remember her pulling my arm harder than she'd ever pulled it, then the quiet drive home.
Back home, in front of the TV, before I turned it on, I saw my face in the dark reflection there. It was the first time I saw it. My own face, the way everyone else saw it. When I asked Maxine, she told me my mom drank when I was in her, she told me real slow that I have fetal alcohol syndrome. All I heard her say was Drome, and then I was back in front of the turned-off TV, staring at it. My face stretched across the screen. The Drome. I tried but couldn't make the face that I found there my own again.
Most people don't have to think about what their faces mean the way I do. Your face in the mirror, reflected back at you, most people don't even know what it looks like anymore. That thing on the front of your head, you'll never see it, like you'll never see your own eyeball with your own eyeball, like you'll never smell what you smell like, but me, I know what my face looks like. I know what it means. My eyes droop like I'm fucked up, like I'm high, and my mouth hangs open all the time. There's too much space between each of the parts of my face—eyes, nose, mouth, spread out like a drunk slapped it on reaching for another drink. People look at me then look away when they see I see them see me. That's the Drome too. My power and curse. The Drome is my mom and why she drank, it's the way history lands on a face, and all the ways I made it so far despite how it has fucked with me since the day I found it there on the TV, staring back at me like a fucking villain.
I'm twenty-one now, which means I can drink if I want. I don't though. The way I see it, I got enough when I was a baby in my mom's stomach. Getting drunk in there, a drunk fucking baby, not even a baby, a little fucking tadpole thing, hooked up to a cord, floating in a stomach.
They told me I'm stupid. Not like that, they didn't say that, but I basically failed the intelligence test. The lowest percentile. That bottom rung. My friend Karen told me they got all kinds of intelligences. She's my counselor I still see once a week over at the Indian Center—I was at first mandated to go after the incident with Mario in kindergarten. Karen told me I don't have to worry about what they try to tell me about intelligence. She said people with FAS are on a spectrum, have a wide range of intelligences, that the intelligence test is biased, and that I got strong intuition and street smarts, that I'm smart where it counts, which I already knew, but when she told me it felt good, like I didn't really know it until she said it like that.
I'm smart, Like: I know what people have in mind. What they mean when they say they mean another thing. The Drome taught me to look past the first look people give you, find that other one, right behind it. All you gotta do is wait a second longer than you normally do and you can catch it, you can see what they got in mind back there. I know if someone's selling around me. I know Oakland. I know what it looks like when somebody's trying to come up on me, like when to cross the street, and when to look at the ground and keep walking. I know how to spot a scaredy-cat too. That one's easy. They wear that shit like there's a sign in their hands, the sign says: Come Get Me. They look at me like I already did some shit, so I might as well do the shit they're looking at me like that for.
Maxine told me I'm a medicine person. She said people like me are rare, and that when we come along, people better know we look different because we are different. To respect that. I never got no kind of respect from nobody, though, except Maxine. She tells me we're Cheyenne people. That Indians go way back with the land. That all this was once ours. All this. Shit. They must not've had street smarts back then. Let them white men come over here and take it from them like that. The sad part is, all those Indians probably knew but couldn't do anything about it. They didn't have guns. Plus the diseases. That's what Maxine said. Killed us with their white men's dirt and diseases, moved us off our land, moved us onto some shit land you can't grow fucking shit on. I would hate it if I got moved outta Oakland, because I know it so well, from West to East to Deep East and back, on bike or bus or BART. It's my only home. I wouldn't make it nowhere else.
Sometimes I ride my bike all over Oakland just to see it, the people, all its different hoods. With my headphones on, listening to MF Doom, I can ride all day. The MF stands for Metal Face. He's my favorite rapper. Doom wears a metal mask and calls himself a villain. Before Doom, I didn't know nothing but what came on the radio. Somebody left their iPod on the seat in front of me on the bus. Doom was the only music on there. I knew I liked him when I heard the line "Got more soul than a sock with a hole." What I liked is that I understood all the meanings to it right away, like instantly. It meant soul, like having a hole in a sock gives the sock character, means it's worn through, gives it a soul, and also like the bottom of your foot showing through, to the sole of your foot. It was a small thing, but it made me feel like I'm not stupid. Not slow. Not bottom rung. And it helped because the Drome's what gives me my soul, and the Drome is a face worn through.
* * *
My mom's in jail. We talk sometimes on the phone, but she's always saying some shit that makes me wish we didn't. She told me my dad's over in New Mexico. That he doesn't even know I exist.
"Then tell that motherfucker I exist," I said to her.
"Tony, it ain't simple like that," she said.
"Don't call me simple. Don't fucking call me simple. You fucking did this to me."Sometimes I get mad. That's what happens to my intelligence sometimes. No matter how many times Maxine moved me from schools I got suspended from for getting in fights, it's always the same. I get mad and then I don't know anything. My face heats up and hardens like it's made of metal, then I black out. I'm a big guy. And I'm strong. Too strong, Maxine tells me. The way I see it, I got this big body to help me since my face got it so bad. That's how looking like a monster works out for me. The Drome. And when I stand up, when I stand up real fucking tall like I can, nobody'll fuck with me. Everybody runs like they seen a ghost. Maybe I am a ghost. Maybe Maxine doesn't even know who I am. Maybe I'm the opposite of a medicine person. Maybe I'm'a do something one day, and everybody's gonna know about me. Maybe that's when I'll come to life. Maybe that's when they'll finally be able to look at me, because they'll have to.
Everyone's gonna think it's about the money. But who doesn't fucking want money? It's about why you want money, how you get it, then what you do with it that matters. Money didn't never do shit to no one. That's people. I been selling weed since I was thirteen. Met some homies on the block by just being outside all the time. They probably thought I was already selling the way I was always outside, on corners and shit. But then maybe not. If they thought I was selling, they probably woulda beat my ass. They probably felt sorry for me. Shitty clothes, shitty face. I give most of the money I get from selling to Maxine. I try to help her in whatever ways I can because she lets me live at her house, over in West Oakland, at the end of Fourteenth, which she bought a long time ago when she worked as a nurse in San Francisco. Now she needs a nurse, but she can't afford one even with the money she gets from Social Security. She needs me to do all kinds of shit for her. Go to the store. Ride the bus with her to get her meds. I walk with her down the stairs now too. I can't believe a bone can get so old it can shatter, break into tiny pieces in your body like glass. After she broke her hip, I started helping out more.
Maxine makes me read to her before she goes to sleep. I don't like it because I read slow. The letters move on me sometimes, like bugs. Just whenever they want, they switch places. But then sometimes the words don't move. When they stay still like that, I have to wait to be sure they're not gonna move, so it ends up taking longer for me to read them than the ones I can put back together after they scramble. Maxine makes me read her Indian stuff that I don't always get. I like it, though, because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn't feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it's not gonna hurt as much anymore. One time she used the word devastating after I finished reading a passage from her favorite author—Louise Erdrich. It was something about how life will break you. How that's the reason we're here, and to go sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples fall and pile around you, wasting all that sweetness. I didn't know what it meant then, and she saw that I didn't. She didn't explain it either. But we read the passage, that whole book, another time, and I got it.
Maxine's always known me and been able to read me like no one else can, better than myself even, like I don't even know all that I'm showing to the world, like I'm reading my own reality slow, because of the way things switch around on me, how people look at me and treat me, and how long it takes me to figure out if I have to put it all back together.
How all this came about, all the shit I got in, is because these white boys from up in the Oakland hills came up on me in a liquor-store parking lot in West Oakland, straight up like they weren't afraid of me. I could tell they were scared of being there, in that neighborhood, from the way they kept their heads on a swivel, but they weren't afraid of me. It was like they thought I wasn't gonna do some shit because of how I look. Like I'm too slow to do some shit.
"You got snow?" the one as tall as me in the Kangol hat asked. I wanted to laugh. It was so fucking white for him to use the word snow for coke. "I can get it," I said, even though I wasn't sure if I could. "Come back here in a week, same time." I would ask Carlos. Carlos is hella flaky. The night he was supposed to get it, he called me and told me he couldn't make it, and that I'd have to go to Octavio's to get it myself.
I rode my bike over from the Coliseum BART Station. Octavio's house was in Deep East Oakland, off Seventy-Third, across from where the Eastmont Mall used to be until things got so bad there they turned it into a police station.
When I got there, people were pouring out of the house into the street like there'd been a fight. I sat back on my bike from a block away for a while, watched the drunks move around under the glow of the streetlights, all stupid like moths drunk on light.
When I found Octavio, he was all kinds of fucked up. It always makes me think of my mom when I see people like that. I wondered what she was like drunk when I was in her. Did she like it? Did I?
Octavio was pretty clearheaded, though, even through the heavy slur. He put his arm around me and took me to his backyard, where he had a bench press set up under a tree. I watched him do sets with a bar without weights on it. It didn't seem like he realized there were no weights. I waited to see when he would ask the question about my face. But he didn't. I listened to him talk about his grandma, about how she saved his life after his family was gone. He said she'd lifted a curse from him with badger fur, and that she called anyone not Mexican or Indian gachupins, which is a disease the Spanish brought to the Natives when they came—she used to tell him that the Spanish were the disease that they brought. He told me he never meant to become what he'd become, and I wasn't sure what that was, a drunk, or a drug dealer, or both, or something else.
"I'd give away my own heart's blood for her," Octavio said. His own heart's blood. That's the way I felt about Maxine. He told me he didn't mean to sound all sensitive and shit, but that nobody else ever really listened to him. I knew it was because he was fucked up. And that he probably wouldn't remember shit. But after that I went straight to Octavio for everything.
It turned out those goofy white boys from the hills had friends. We made good money for a summer. Then one day when I was picking up, Octavio asked me in, told me to sit down.
"You're Native, right?" he said.
"Yeah," I said, and wondered how he knew. "Cheyenne."
"Tell me what a powwow is," he said.
"Just tell me."Maxine had been taking me to powwows all around the Bay since I was young. I don't anymore, but I used to dance.
"We dress up Indian, with feathers and beads and shit. We dance. Sing and beat this big drum, buy and sell Indian shit like jewelry and clothes and art," I said.
"Yeah, but what do you do it for?" Octavio said.
"Money," I said.
"No, but really why do they do it?"
"I don't know."
"Whatchyoumean you don't know?"
"To make money motherfucker," I said.
Octavio looked at me with his head sideways, like: Remember who you're talking to.
"That's why we're gonna be at that powwow too," Octavio said.
"The one they're having over at the coliseum?"
"To make money?"
Octavio nodded, then turned around and picked up what I couldn't tell at first was a gun. It was small and all white.
"What the fuck is that?" I said.
"Plastic," Octavio said.
"It's 3-D printed. You wanna see?" he said.
"See?" I said.
Out in the backyard, I aimed the gun at a can of Pepsi on a string, with two hands, my tongue out and one eye closed.
"You ever fired a gun before?" he said.
"No," I said.
"Shit'll make your ears ring."
"Can I?" I said, and before I got an answer I felt my finger squeeze and then the boom go through me. There was a moment when I didn't know what was happening. The squeeze brought the sound of the boom and my whole body became a boom and a drop. I ducked without meaning to. There was a ringing, inside and out, a single tone drifting far off, or deep inside. I looked up at Octavio and saw that he was saying something. I said What, but couldn't even hear myself say it.
"This is how we're gonna rob that powwow," I finally heard Octavio say.
I remembered there were metal detectors at the entrance to the coliseum. Maxine's walker, the one she used after she broke her hip, it set one of them off. Me and Maxine went on a Wednesday night—dollar night—to see the A's play the Texas Rangers, which was the team Maxine grew up rooting for in Oklahoma because Oklahoma didn't have a team.
On the way out, Octavio handed me a flyer for the powwow that listed the prize money in each dance category. Four for five thousand. Three for ten.
"That's good money," I said.
"I wouldn't be getting into some shit like this, but I owe somebody," Octavio said.
"Mind your business," Octavio said.
"We good?" I said.
"Go home," Octavio said.
The night before the powwow, Octavio called me and told me I was gonna have to be the one to hide the bullets.
"In the bushes, for real?" I said.
"I'm supposed to throw bullets into the bushes at the entrance?"
"Put 'em in a sock."
"Put bullets in a sock and throw them in the bushes?"
"What I say?"
"It just seems—"
"You got it?"
"Where do I get bullets, what kind?"
"Can't you just print them?"
"They can't do that yet."
"There's one more thing," Octavio said.
"You still got some Indian shit to put on?"
"Whatchyoumean Indian shit?"
"I don't know, what they put on, feathers and shit."
"I got it."
"You're gonna wear it."
"It won't even barely fit."
"But will it?"
"Wear it to the powwow."
Get A Copy from Here
Courtesy of First Look Book Club
I brung Pedro home for Thanksgiving break and tomorrow I have to bring him back to school. You're not supposed to say brung. You're supposed to say brought. But I like the way brung sounds, like you're cold and ringing a bell. Brrrrunggggg. Nobody can kick your ass for what you think in your mind, not even your mom. Mine is stirring spaghetti sauce on the stove and shaking her head at me.
"Get that rat outta my kitchen," she says.
"Pedro's not a rat," I say. "He's a hamster."
My mom doesn't budge. "Whatever he is, he's not staying in my kitchen. I'm not gonna keep repeating myself, Jon. Take that thing outside. Now."
She always calls it my kitchen, same way my dad calls the TV my TV and the puffy chair my chair. My only territory is my bedroom. I guess my shed too, but that's in the woods and technically it belongs to Mrs. Curry. Everything else, in the house, indoors, belongs to my parents.
I take Pedro outside to the swing set even though I'm too old for it. He shivers.
"Come on, little guy," I say. "You're from New Hampshire. You can handle it."
The truth is, I don't know if Pedro was born here. Maybe he was born in Bermuda and got shipped here. This is my home, where I started. I was born at Derry Hospital outside of Nashua. Three days before Carrig Birkus. Sometimes, when he's kicking my ass, I think about how we were in the hospital at the same time. I picture us as newborns in nearby cribs. I see our dads waving at us. We were equals in a way. Back then you probably couldn't tell us apart. But now we're opposite. Carrig is a jock. One of those guys with buddies. His life is keg parties and girls. He cracks a joke and everyone laughs, and he knows how to speak to people, how to get to them. Last month his picture was in the window at Rolling Jack's, the sports store in the mall. He was ATHLETE OF THE MONTH. I'm not anything of the month. Chloe laughed when I said that to her.
"That's a good thing," she said. "The worst thing you can do is peak in middle school."
She always says the right thing, the nice thing. I can picture her photo and her name up at another store, PERSON OF THE MONTH. I'd never say that though. I know that much.
Tomorrow we go back to school, which means seeing her again, Chloe Smells Like Cookies. That's what I call her in my head. Every time my mom makes cookies, no matter what they are, oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip or caramel, they smell like Chloe. Chloe Smells Like Cookies doesn't make fun of me. She sits with me at lunch even though the other girls laugh at her and the other guys tell her she is wasting her time on a faggot.
Chloe hates that word. She says after high school she's gonna live in New York City where nobody uses that word. She thinks the people in our school have small brains and small hearts. She says New York is like Sesame Street for grown-ups, everyone has big hearts and you can be anything you want to be. She was there for Thanksgiving this week. Her parents took her to see the parade. She saw all the floats when they were shriveled and flat on the ground.
We've been texting a lot all week. She says I'd love New York.
It's so much bigger than New Hampshire even though it's smaller, you know?
I get it, Chloe. I wish I was there.
Of course you do. You always get it!
My mom yells: "Dinner!"
I write back fast: See you tomorrow.
She sends me a smiley face. That's code for Me too, Jon.
The house smells like spaghetti and broccoli, and my mom asks if I left Pedro outside and I tell her I did even though he's in my pocket. My dad picks up the broccoli and puts it in the microwave.
"What are you doing?" my mom asks. "It's cooked just fine."
"I can't stand that smell," he says.
"It's good for you, that smell."
My dad grunts. He's a burly guy who does drywall and plays pool. A lot of the guys around here think he's weird because he has a Scottish accent.
I sneak bits of spaghetti into my pocket. I almost get away with it but Pedro nips at my finger and I yelp and my mom slams her fork down.
"These damn schools. What the hell is there to be learned from taking a rat home at your age? Aren't you a little old for this nonsense?"
"We're mentoring a class at the elementary school," I tell her. "None of the kids in third grade could take him so I volunteered."
My parents look sad, like all this time they thought Pedro was here because he had to be here, not because I wanted him.
"A lot of people have pets," I say. "Carrig Birkus has a dog."
I shouldn't have said his name. They know I'm not friends with Carrig Birkus anymore. The last time he invited me to a birthday party was in fourth grade, when people still had parties with invitations, when your mom made you invite every kid. It was a Batman invitation so I showed up in my Spider-Man outfit but everybody else was in normal clothes. Sometimes I feel bad for my parents, like they'd do better with one of the other babies from that day, the kind who plays sports and wears the right clothes to a stupid party.
I look at my mom, right at her, like you do when you want something. "He's a clean animal," I say. "I promise he will stay in my room."
My mom cuts her spaghetti. She doesn't roll it around her fork like people in New York do on TV. Her name is Penny and she's from New Hampshire, so she talks the way people here talk and she grew up on a farm where the animals stay outside.
"It's your room," she says. "You want to live in a disgusting pig sty and let animals poop about your things, that's your business. Just don't go coming to me to clean up."
On the way upstairs I sneak a box of Oreos out of the cupboard. My dad is talking to my mom about the Patriots and the Super Bowl and my mom is talking about Giselle and how beautiful she is. They speak the same language only different. What comes out of my mom's mouth never affects what comes out of my dad's mouth. I think Chloe and I are better at talking. What Chloe says always affects what I say.
Upstairs, I put Pedro on my bed and bring an Oreo up to my nose and inhale, but Chloe smells like homemade cookies. I take out today's Nashua Telegraph and reread Pedro the headlines from this morning. Today is Sunday, the biggest paper of the week. I can't read the whole thing to Pedro, but I do my best. We make it to Section C, Lifestyles, and I think he likes it.
I love news. It reminds you that there's a whole world out there, a world of people who've never even heard of Carrig Birkus. Every day is new, every paper, every story. In a book or a movie you only get one story. But in a newspaper, you get happy stories, sad stories, stories that you can't understand about mortgages, scary stories about robberies, meth heads, that kid who got kidnapped in Dover.
Last Christmas my parents got me a subscription to the Telegraph. It was all I wanted. I was nervous they weren't gonna get it for me and I opened my last present, a sweater box. I was bummed. But I tore away the tissue paper and found a receipt for a subscription. I cheered and my mother laughed. I love it when she laughs, and it doesn't happen a lot. She said she will never understand me.
"I hate newspapers," she said. "Who wants to know about all the terrible things people are doing?"
"I want to know about everything," I told her.
"But it has absolutely nothing to do with you whatsoever, Jon," she said, befuddled. "Nothing in there is your business at all."
My dad was tearing the tag off his Patriots jersey. "Well," I said, "those Patriots don't have anything to do with Dad."
I never heard my mom laugh so hard. She hit the couch, and my dad flew into a light rage, telling me it's not those Patriots. It's The Patriots. We had ham and cake and peppermint ice cream and the only thing wrong about that day was that there was no newspaper. They don't publish on Christmas. Then again, it only added to the joy of the next day, when I woke up early to get the paper out of the special box my dad had installed next to our mailbox. It was good to see that the world was back on again.
When it's time to go to bed, I make a special place for Pedro. I use advertising flyers to build him a cozy bed. My mom is crazy. There's nothing dirty about him. If and when he poops, it won't even get on my sheets. "Good night, Pedro," I say. I close my eyes and I like the sound of him breathing, like it's a hard thing to do.The next morning my mom hits my door once. "School!"
It's what she says every morning. Pedro pooped in his advertising bed and I crumple it up and bring it downstairs and throw it in the trash in the kitchen. My mom points at the trash with a spatula. "Is there poop in there?"
"Yes," I say.
"Then bring it outside."
"But it snowed."
"And since when are you allergic to snowflakes?"
I take Pedro and his bed outside and look at the trees at the edge of our yard. My mom and dad don't know that it takes double the time for me to get to school every day because I have to go the back way, through Mrs. Curry's yard, with the thorns that branch out, then alongside her fence and through the mud clearing near the Dumpsters and then back through the Shawnee family's yard, by their swing set, and then finally down their driveway and onto Carnaby Street where my school is. It would be so much faster to walk out the front door of our house and turn left and walk down Birch all the way to Carnaby. That's what everyone on my street does. But I can't. Carrig and Penguin and those other guys, they come after me if I go the short way, they pound on me. They take my newspaper and smack me with it or they throw snowballs at me, black and brown and icy, the kind that hurt. When it's hot out, they jump me or knock my bag onto the ground.
Chloe Smells Like Cookies takes the bus. She knows about my back way bramble route to avoid Carrig Birkus. She knows everything, more than my mom or my dad or the teachers. She's the only person who knows about my shed, our shed.
I go there every single day after school and I bring Fluffernutters. Some days I hear her coming and my heart beats fast and then she comes in, throws her backpack down and starts complaining. Other days she doesn't come and it starts to get dark and I go online and see that she's busy with her other friends. But those days she does come, when I hear her in the woods, charging toward me, those are the ones that count.
Chloe always says we get along because we're both only children. She hates that phrase. "It's bad any way you cut it," she said once. "It's either like, 'Oh you, what do you matter? You're only a kid.' Or it's like you're just not enough because there's only one of you." And then she licked her lips and looked away. "We're not only anything," she said. "We're great." See, I have that going for me, being an only child. Carrig Birkus, he has four brothers and a couple sisters. Imagine living with all those kids. I can't, not really. Me and Chloe, we have more in common.
My mom opens the slider. She yells, "Breakfast!"
Inside, she made burnt eggs and bacon and my dad is reading the paper. He gets to have it first and he gives it to me section by section. I put the pages back together so that it feels new, like nobody has looked through it. The good thing is that most days he only reads the sports section.
"So, at the end of the year somebody gets to keep Pedro," I say.
My mom looks at my dad and my dad puffs out his cheeks and my mom groans and my dad looks at me. "You keep him out of your mother's kitchen, yes?"
"Yes!" I say, and I can't wait to get to school and tell Mrs. McMurphy that I want to keep Pedro. I can't wait to tell Chloe Smells Like Cookies. I think you can invite a girl over without weirding her out if you have a pet. I think that's why Carrig Birkus has a dog.
I can't get to school fast enough. I tear through the brambles and I'm out of breath as if I'm running from bad guys. I run too fast and a thorn snags me. My cheek bleeds. I stop. I take off my glove and put my hand on my face. There is bright red blood. Pedro is in my pocket, shifting. I take him out and now there is blood on him. I apologize.
I hear something in the bushes though there is never anyone else here. I turn around and my whole life doesn't flash before my eyes, just the past few hours, the headline on the cover of today's paper—CYBER MONDAY: IS IT WORTH IT?—and the smell of last night's broccoli against the morning eggs, Pedro's heavy breathing, the snow, my blood on Pedro's Ovaltine-colored fur.
But it isn't one of the kids from school coming at me. It's a sub we had last year or the year before. Mr. Blair. Nobody liked him. He wore his phone on his belt and he was losing his hair on the top of his head and people laughed at him all the time. But I didn't. I didn't.
He's coming at me fast and it turns out I am not the kind of kid who springs into action when it's time to fight. I freeze. I choke. Same way I do on the baseball field at recess.
The blow comes from high above and something hits my head. Brrrrungggg. Pedro runs when I hit the ground. He can't send help. He's an animal, and like my mom says, he belongs out here. I don't.
They can't find Jon. When he wasn't here, they called his mom and she said he wasn't home sick. She came to school, his dad too, and the whole school started to buzz. In that sick way, like when Kitty Miller got leukemia. People get excited about horrible things happening when they're not happening to them. I'm no better, I remember staring at Kitty, wondering what it was like to be her, as if she was a painting and you were allowed to gawk at it.
Kitty was loved, people made cards for her. With this situation, people are acting like it's news, like it's exciting, that Jon kid might be missing. The day is halfway over and he's not at school. He's not at home. He's not at the movies and he's not at the mall, but did they look in all the right places? Most kids who run away would go to a packie and rip off beers, get messed up and then go to Rolling Jack's and try out new hockey sticks. But Jon would never do that.
I told them to start in the woods, I told them how he takes a weird way to school. I didn't mention why. It's a hard thing, wanting to find him but also not wanting to look at a cop and be like, Jon had to take the long way through the woods because he was getting picked on at the bus stop. I think the cops get it anyway though. They're searching, but they still haven't found him. I wish the school day would end because when it does I'm going to the shed. I don't like the way everyone assumes the news is gonna be bad, they act like he's already dead. Like if he's not at the movies and he's not at the mall and he's not in the woods, then where could he be? You can feel what it would be like if someone else disappeared. Someone like me or Carrig. Someone people love. Jon Bronson was not loved when he was here and so he's not loved when he is gone. It's nobody's fault. It just is.
At free period, Noelle and Marlene and I meet up at our round table in the library. It feels wrong, acting like Jon isn't missing. He says things to me, things that don't count when they come from your mom, your dad. He thinks I'm special. I sent him a filtered picture of the floats in New York last week and he was so impressed. I laughed it off. It's not me, it's the filter. He was so serious. No, it is you. You used the right filter, framed them just right. Jon is my champion. That person who sees more than what's there. I sent the same picture to Marlene and Noelle and they just sent back heart emojis. And you need that too, people who don't put you on a pedestal. Everything between Jon and me is a secret. He wouldn't leave without telling me.
When I say this, Marlene and Noelle look at their phones.
"He's fine," Noelle says. "You need to chill."
Marlene says it's weird he didn't text me. "Is he mad at you about that thing with the frog picture?"
Noelle snaps at her. "Leave it alone."
The frog picture. The thing I've tried so hard not to think about all day. A few days before the Thanksgiving break, Jon brought this old stuffed animal to the shed, this frog, this soft green thing he loved as a baby. There was something painfully vulnerable about the whole moment.
"There," he said. "Shed sweet shed."
The frog was up there like taxidermy, as if this was a home, Jon's way of pushing us together. My heart was pounding. He was reading this book about Marshmallow Fluff and talking about the history of fluff, the machines, the secrecy surrounding the recipe. I couldn't process his words. I couldn't take my eyes off that frog. Is this what I want? We've never hooked up. Not even a kiss. Jon was reading a passage from his fluff book out loud and I was taking pictures of that frog. I put one up online. I knew what I was doing. It was a dog whistle to Carrig.Within a few minutes Carrig was at the shed, pounding on the door. Chloe, lose that faggot and come hang with us.
Carrig was with Penguin, saying terrible things about Jon. And then Carrig's BB gun went off. A single pop. No one was hurt. Nothing was hit. It didn't matter though.
"You gotta go," Jon said. "Don't worry about me, they just want you."
Now he's missing and this is the world without him.
Noelle shakes her head. "And what were you supposed to do?" she says. "Sit there with him until Carrig tore the walls down? Chloe, that whole thing has nothing to do with this."
I nod. Noelle is naturally authoritative. She says things and you believe them even if you don't. "I know," I say. "I just hope Jon didn't run away."
Marlene shakes her head. "He didn't," she says. "I mean, that kid would never leave you, right?"
On we go, a dark version of a normal day. Noelle digs up terrible facts, the odds of Jon being dead. She chews on her Dartmouth pen. Everything, everyone, reminds me of Jon. I look at Noelle, I remember telling Jon she hates The Middle. He said a sense of humor is like a sense of smell. Some people don't have one. See, that's why I miss him, why he's the best. He's funny. He gets it. What other kid, what other boy, would like The Middle? He says it's great because all the Hecks are smart and stupid at the same time. He says most other shows make you be one or the other.
"Shit," Marlene says. Her laces are tangled. That's Marlene in a nutshell. She cares about what's happening in front of her face, the laces on her shoes, the tennis balls on the court. It would be insane of me to expect her to be the kind of friend who cries with you. And the same is true of Noelle, Noelle and her Dartmouth pen and her class rank. They're both very intense. Jon is more like me, his heart spreads out in the stupidest ways. He cares about things easily, things that don't matter to anyone else, the history of the Marshmallow Fluff in his sandwiches, the class hamster.
"Listen to what Penguin just put on Snapchat," Noelle says.
Ugh. Penguin. Again I'm thinking of that night, the green frog beating in my mind like a slimy heart, the white and black of Penguin's trademark Bruins jersey, Carrig's scent, gunpowder, sweat.
Noelle drones on and what if Jon is here, in the library, crouched in the stacks and listening? What if he can see this, us being normal? Talking about Penguin, who is just a loser, he'd never move to New York like Jon and I will. Jon.
I remember in fifth grade, I told him how Noelle said I was pretty but not slutty pretty and he said I'm pretty pretty. But then he never said it again. And that's when things felt settled or something, like we were just friends. And I was young, I was fine with it. Noelle and Marlene and I were all young for our age, hunched over our bagged lunches, no idea how to talk to boys, and here we are years later, still no idea, the way Noelle gushes about Penguin. I squeeze my milk carton. I miss Jon. And he is missing. Is this real? Noelle winks at me calm down and Marlene pushes my milk carton with her ruler. They're not bad people, they just don't get it.
"Sorry," I say, shaky. "I'm just in shock."
Noelle sighs. "You can't act like this is your thing, C. You guys are buddies but you scribble Chloe Birkus all over your diary and I know you hang with those guys at Forty Steps."
My cheeks turn red. It's true. I hate that it's true. I hate that she can be mean and cold and right all at once. "Anyway," I say. "What did Penguin say?"
"Well," she says, all gossipy. "Penguin's dad's a cop and he told Penguin's mom that Jon's parents told the cops that Jon was sleeping in bed with the hamster." Marlene shakes her head. "I'm gonna pee."
When she's gone, it's just me and Noelle, like it was when we were little, before Marlene moved here and made us into three best friends instead of two. Noelle clicks her pen. "Chloe," she says. "Does Jon really sleep with the hamster?"
It's not a fair question. Jon loves Pedro. Carrig's family has a golden retriever. Nobody makes fun of him. You can love a dog, you can't love a hamster. I shrug. "No idea," I say. "Why?"
All day I am more aware of how close Jon and I are. He has nobody but me. Nobody knows him like I do and there's this pressure building every hour that he doesn't show up. The bell rings. Noelle pops her pen. "Hey," she says. "You know I'm only giving you a hard time because I know everything is gonna be okay. For the most part, everything is always okay. Your little friend is probably at Tenley's having a frappe."
I think of the red and white stripes on the Tenley's straws, the awnings. Jon likes it there. A lot of kids think it's for babies and old ladies. Every time you go, you hear "You Got It All" by The Jets at least twice. My mom always looks around. Didn't they just play this? Jon loves that song, the video too, it's all frappes and puffy clouds, sweet things, Jon things. When Marlene comes rushing back to grab her books, late, same as always, when we're walking down the hall, talking about nothing, it feels like Noelle is right, like everything will be okay.
After school I take the bus and get off at the stop closest to Mrs. Curry's. I sneak through the woods and I run. I want him to be in the shed, he has to be in the shed.
I knock on the door. "Jon?"
He doesn't answer, but then he knows I never knock. I remember this morning, the policeman asking me who else he could talk to about Jon, other kids.
"No one," I said. "Just me."
I open the door, but Jon's not there.
For weeks I harassed my mother about these bright white boots I found online. Jon knew about them. I showed him a picture.
And what will happen after you get these magic boots?
I'll wear them and I'll be happy.
And then what?
We were on the floor of the shed. It was a few days before Thanksgiving break. We were watching The Middle and talking about nothing. The question haunted me. And then what? I didn't have an answer then. I don't have an answer now.
The day before he disappeared, he sent me an article from the Telegraph, a meteorologist predicting less snow this winter. Show your mom and she'll get you the boots, he said. My mom broke down last night when she overheard me crying. So now the boots have arrived.
"This is a mistake," she says. "These boots will help for a minute and then they will only hurt you. They'll only remind you of this mess."
"You think he's gone, don't you?"
She doesn't answer me. We're both picturing the same thing, Jon dead.
She breaks the silence. "You better hurry."
We're going on a search party. It's Day Five and Jon is out there, who knows where. I feel the reflexive spike of adrenaline as I tear into the brown box, the scent of new shoes, the pleasing pink tissue paper, the shiny sticker, how easily it gives. The boots are as pictured, impractical, but I wanted them, and when your best friend disappears, you get what you want in other ways, lesser ways.
We haven't even started walking yet and I'm pretty sure I have a blister. The police are here, some people from town I don't know, some kids. The Girl Scouts made little sustenance brown bags, cookies and nuts and bottles of water so small you can down them in one gulp. Rolling Jack's donated hand warmers. I heard a kid from my algebra class say he only came for the free stuff. But people often say things like that to deal with their own fear. At least, I hope that's true.
Noelle glares at the boots as soon as she sees me. "Jesus," she says. "Are those the ones you showed me online?"
I wish I hadn't shown them to her. I wish the cop who heard her say that knew that I showed them to her before Jon disappeared. "Yes," I say. "Is Marlene here yet?"
Noelle rubs her hands together. "No," she says. "But there's a van from Channel 5."
Courtesy of Online Book Club
MABLE STARTS her school mornings upside-down, and, no, she has never considered herself unusual. She likes the feeling of standing on her hands, legs straight up in the air or bent slightly at the knee, her pyjama shirt flopping down, blood flowing to her head.
This morning, there’s a wind rustling the leaves of the tree just outside her bedroom window. She closes her eyes and listens: it’s like a soft rain. Other sounds catch her attention: a neighbour’srooster crows, a truck roars and rumbles on one of the main roads nearby, an indistinct Zambian RnB beat thumps from a rushing car.
She opens her eyes, flips to plant her feet on the ground and stands up straight. She smiles to herself, enjoying the energy from having stretched. She feels light on her feet. She feels vitality in her body.
She steps to the closet, a shallow alcove in the wall, which has two holes on the doors where there should be a handle. She pulls out a hanger holding her uniform — light-brown shirt, blue plaid skirt — and lays it on the bed. Her bed is small, pushed against the corner where the wall with the window and the wall with the closet meet. Her room is quite small too, and she created space to do her headstands by stashing things she doesn’t immediately use under the bed.
She turns her attention to the table at the end of her bed, containing her neatly-arranged toiletries, a rectangular mirror and Mum’s photo. She picks up the photo. The ever-smiling woman looks like her, only older, with more hair and crow’s feet at the sides of her eyes. The picture is fading, like Mable’s concrete memories of her. Well, there’s a big photo album of her parents’ younger days, the wedding, her baby photos as well as those of her brother Philip, on a shelf in the sitting room, but Mable likes looking at this particular photo. She’s attached to it.
She returns it to its place, leaning against the body lotion she uses; she picks up her toothbrush and the little mirror and leaves the bedroom for the bathroom.
Philip, Mable’s older brother and guardian, takes to the TV in the morning. He thinks it is important to start your day knowing what’s happening in the world. Much of the morning news on ZNBC are repeats of last night’s news and are overshadowed by the cheesy commercials that pop up just when you think the newsreader will go into details. He usually switches to BBC or Al Jazeera at those moments.
Today, though, there a new piece about the police apprehending a criminal with connections to ‘the Detonator’, the most wanted man in the country. Because the public distrusts the police and the government, it is a brag point for the police. Even the Police Commissioner comes to the screen to confirm the incident, justifying that the police had stepped up their game and no crime would go unpunished. Philip sighs. They always say such things, don’t they? And since they have given no more details apart from the fact that they have caught a criminal, Philip even begins to doubt that.
A door behind him creaks open, and he doesn’t need to look up at the clock to know that it is exactly 7:05 Hours. Mable’s timing is impeccable, it always fascinates him. He looks over his shoulder and there she is, in her full uniform, laden with a grey backpack. Grade-eights nowadays look bigger than those of his generation, he reflects. Still, compared to her contemporaries, Mable is lean and of average height. She has short frizzy hair which frustrates her to comb so she often resorts to shaving it to be manageable. But she does look like Mum, dark and smooth, determined. Unlike Mum though, Mable hardly smiles and looks at you as if she can see the darkest secrets of your soul.
He searches his pockets when she is standing next to him, gives her three K10 notes. “This will take you up to Friday, right?”
She nods and puts the money in her breast pocket. Just as she is about to say, as usual, that she is off, his cell phone rings. He reaches over and picks it from the coffee table, and makes a sour face and angry sound when he sees it is ‘The Snake’ calling. He presses the red ‘Cancel’ on the screen, tosses the phone on the sofa next to him.
“It’s her again?” Mable asks.
“Ya. Now she’s bothering me in the morning as well. This woman will give me a heart attack pa last.”
Mable chuckles, a single chuckle, “All she wants is money from you since you got that promotion.”
“I know. Damn that woman. But she’ll never get near us again, I promise you that. I’m done with her.”
Mable goes to the kitchen while Philip’s mind is filled with unwelcome thoughts of the Snake. Irene is her name, his ex-wife. He has never been happier than the moment the local court nullified his marriage on account of her promiscuity. But the judge would never fully appreciate the trouble she caused him and Mable: calling him abusive names, giving him hell at work in the presence of co-workers, wiping out his bank accounts, and getting into fights with any lady he talked to. It had been a slow boil for him until he couldn’t take it when she threatened to go spend a few nights with a taxi-driver boyfriend just to get to him. He still chastises himself for having been too soft on her.
And why does he still have her number? Maybe it’s because he waits for a time he will have his revenge on her. His promotion to Chief Pharmacist was a great step in that direction, and there’s this sweet girl at work, Nambula, he thinks will agree to marry him. And besides, calling Irene “the Snake” amuses him somewhat.
* * * * *Mable packs her lunch box in her backpack, walks out into the sunshine and noise. Emmasdale Site and Service is an upper-class komboni: the houses are small and the yards have only enough space between the walls and houses for cats and mice to move around; most of the roads are gravel and narrow, and even attempts by local residents to mend them with stones only make them worse. Some houses are, however, comparably impressive, so you get a paradoxical neighbourhood.
Mable’s next-door neighbours on the kitchen side are a noisy family. Mable can hear the man and his wife arguing already, with intermittent choruses from some of their five children. Mable doesn’t talk much to them, even though there’s a girl a little older than her who greets her enthusiastically, speaking Nyanja with a foreign accent. Philip claims they originate from Ghana. Mable has wanted to become the girl’s friend but has struggled with what things to talk about. Making friends is difficult for Mable.
When she exits the gate, she finds one of the neighbour sons, whose name she always forgets, standing by his gate, probably waiting for his sisters. From his blue and grey uniform, Mable guesses he goes to Emmasdale Basic School but has never asked.
“Atshani Mable?” he says with an accent. He smirks.
She waves at him curtly and walks on, and he gives a triumphant chuckle as though he’s managed to tease her. “Me, I like you, Mable,” the boy says, laughing. “Don’t run away from me.”
Mable ignores him. She walks down the dusty road, standing to one side when a red car comes wobbling by. She turns left into another dusty road and finally onto a tarred road. She stops and takes out a cloth from her bag to wipe the dust from her shoes. She walks into the Vubu Road, where she waits for her school bus in front of a store.
The bus, a blue coach, pulls up a moment later. Her school logo and name are painted in white across the hull: Rhodespark School PTA. The bus is one of the things she likes about her school. When Philip couldn’t afford fees for a private school in the past, she took overloaded and rowdy minibuses that would sometimes digress from route to hunt for passengers. She would arrive late at the government school and often be punished by wrathful prefects, but again the school itself wouldn’t be any comfort from overcrowding and rowdiness.
Rhodespark is much better, with its relatively small class sizes, a quiet and clean environment with better teachers. And the bus ride to school and back is the pinnacle of comfort any grade eight would desire.
“Where’s that boy?” the bus driver says impatiently as Mable takes her favourite spot by the window in the second front row.
They wait and a few minutes later a boy climbs in, grinning impishly. “I always tell you to hurry,” the bus driver scolds. The boy says, “I’m here, naimwe,” and he takes the seat next to Mable as the bus begins to move. He always sits next to Mable, but doesn’t speak to her. He takes to his phone and plays a game on it. It’s fine with Mable. She has her own thoughts and her Mp3 player for music.
MABLE IS the last person to enter the classroom, Grade 8 Red in Mukwa block. She likes it that way, even though she arrives early at school. She takes her time, walking around the corridors starting near the reception, spending a moment looking through the windows of the library, going through the corridor of Mahogany Block, past the laboratories and finally to her block.
If there’s still time, she goes around again or goes behind her block through the roofed walkways. Being seated early somehow makes her start feeling jittery and under pressure to talk to classmates. It’s all in her head, she tells herself, but she also likes the strolling and observing others preparing for class: teachers rushing for a meeting or trying to control wayward pupils, the higher-grade pupils in their clusters, looking like gangs; and the younger ones dragging and hefting too-heavy school bags, morose about why they have to get an education instead of playing.
Mable’s desk is the second on the leftmost row, by the windows, overlooking the playground. When she takes her seat, she finds herself looking at Desiree Kaputa, who is on the first desk two rows to the right. There’s something about Desiree that attracts Mable. It’s not so much the lighter skin and the pretty face. Maybe it is the grace with which Desiree walks and talks, like a princess. Desiree is always confident and seems to be one of those people who know what they want in life.
Mable has noticed some girls in class talk jealously about Desiree behind her back, and some have tried to be her friends but Desiree keeps only one friend, Bupe. Today, as per her usual morning routine, Desiree is not paying attention to anything but her thick Oxford Dictionary, taking notes on a cute notepad.
Miss Chanda walks in from the teachers meeting, and the pupils begin to settle down. She is their class teacher as well as their Science teacher. She has a beautiful smile and to Mable, she’s the best teacher in the world. She is petite but motherly, and her warm smile makes up for her spot-riddled face. She is always dressed in a simple but fashionable style, never one for ostentation. “Good morning, Class,” she says. She claps her hands three times to draw the attention of a few who are still whispering. “I said, Good morning, Class.”
“Good morning, Miss Chanda,” they reply.
She scans them, hands on hips. “It looks like you are ready for another lesson, but first, I want to remind you about the inter-school sports tomorrow. Be early, come prepared. Tell your parents to pack you enough lunch, but if you prefer, the tuck shop people have agreed to prepare snacks and drinks for sale. And OYDC has their own shops, okay? Again, be here by seven thirty or the buses will leave you and we will not return for anyone. You are all to come, whether you are partaking in the sports or not and the school will consider it indiscipline if you fail to attend or abscond.”
She walks through the isles, giving them a smile or a pat on the shoulder or a straightening of a collar. “I am impressed by the talent in my class, and I am sure you will make me proud. Joseph…” — the boy straightens at the mention of his name. “Make us proud in chess.”
Joseph scratches his head as he nods, clearly relieved that he is not in any trouble.
“Simon. Win that high jump.”
“Yes, Madam,” the tall Simon responds.
“And of course the fastest girl in school, Mable Zombe.”
Miss Chanda is by her desk now and Mable flushes, feels the weight of eyes on her. She focuses on the teacher.
“You are ready, right?” Miss Chanda asks. Mable nods, and Miss Chanda pats her shoulder and walks to the front. “Alright. Who can remember where we ended last week?”
Automatically, Desiree’s arm shoots up first. When Miss Chanda points at her, she says, “The human heart.”
“Correct.” She turns to the board and makes a rough outline of a heart, divides it into four dissimilar parts. “Who remembers the names of the parts?”
Hands go up or stay down, and willing and unwilling pupils are pointed at to name the parts: right atrium, left atrium, right ventricle, left ventricle. Miss Chanda adds more features to the sketch and calls for labels: aorta, pulmonary vein, pulmonary artery, vena cava. Mable doesn’t feel comfortable answering questions but she has no option when Miss Chanda points to her: she mentions the valves.
“Good, Mable, good.”
* * * * *After lunch, Mable changes into her basketball attire and joins four of her teammates on the basketball court. She finds them having a confrontation with Brian from Grade 9 Red, a fat boy with the habit of bullying younger and smaller ones.
“Leave us alone, chi Brian,” the girl called Bridget says, as Mable enters the court gate. Brian is at one corner, pushing Bridget away from him, holding the ball from her reach in the other hand.
“Don’t call me chi Brian,” the boy says, prodding Bridget with a finger. “I am not your friend.”
Chilombo, the tallest girl on the team, reaches over and grabs the ball from him. He grabs her hand and threatens to twist it, demanding the ball. She gives it to him and he walks away with it. He pushes Mable from his path with his shoulder. Mable almost goes after him but stops herself.
“Why did he take the ball?” she asks, thinking that maybe it is his and the one they usually use is still in the storeroom.
“That guy is stupid,” says Carol, who is in Mable’s class and speaks with a tiny voice.
“That’s our ball?” Mable says.
Susan, 9 Red, small forward in the team, answers, “Yes, but what can we do? We’ll wait for the coach to come get it for us.”
Mabel sees Brian go to two boys standing under a tree at the tuck shop. They laugh and exchange the ball. Mable puts her bag among the others’ in one corner and rushes out of the court toward the boys.
“Mable!” Bridget, 9 Yellow, calls. She follows Mable. “Let’s wait for Coach.”
Mable doesn’t stop. She reaches the boys and they give her a surprised look. “What do you want, ka gelo?” one of them says, a tall and dark boy with a table cut.
Mable bounds and grabs the ball out of his hand. Brian reaches to catch her, but she ducks and spins away from him. “Eh! Iwe! Bring that ball,” he says.
“Give it back if you know what’s good for you,” the third one says, an equally big boy, wearing spectacles. The two look like they are in Grade Ten; Brian is known to hang out with pupils from higher grades.
They come after her and she dashes up the steps on the tuck shop building. Brian is close behind her and the other two come from the sides, planning to close her in.
She jumps over a rail onto the ground. “If I catch you, things won’t be nice,” the table-cut boy says.
“Tune her, she thinks we are jokers,” the bespectacled one says, jumping over the rail after her. She runs over the edge of the grass and stops just before the roofed walkway. She turns and waits, looking defiant, unmoveable. The bespectacled boy reaches her first, the others are close behind.
She sidles and leaps away from the boy’s grasp, bounds toward the other two. “Mable, give it here,” Bridget calls. She’s behind Brian. Mable tosses the ball, Brian tries to catch it but falls short of its trajectory. Brian goes after Bridget while the table-cut boy still comes after Mable, seething.
She escapes him easily, makes an arc toward Bridget. “Throw it back,” she says. When Bridget does, Mable makes for the court. She runs through the gate, tosses the ball to Chilombo and shuts the gate.
The bespectacled one is the first to get there. Mabel leans against the gate. He pushes it, and she turns around to keep it shut with all her might.
“Open this gate, you kama girl,” he demands, throwing himself against it. Table-cut is now there too, and the two make to ram into the gate. But Mable moves away, and the two boys fall in and toppling over each other.
The girls laugh. The boys stand and dust themselves. They don’t look amused as they rush toward Mable. She stands her ground, calculating how to escape them.
“Allo! What is this?” a man’s voice shouts. It’s coach Kumwenda. As he comes around the fence, the boys make off. Brian, who has been trying to catch Bridget, joins them in running away. “I will come and report to your class teachers!” Coach yells. He enters the court. “Were those boys harassing you?”
“Yes, Coach,” Chilombo says. “But Mable saved us.” She walks to Mable and gives her a high-five. “You’re now my favourite person.”
THE HOUSE is dull and lonely when she unlocks the door, the only sound there — after the squeak of the door — is the humming of the fridge. She turns on the lights and notices the note on the table, with some money on it: Will be home late, work issues. Buy yourself something, no need to cook.
It looks like Philip came home earlier and had to go back. She feels relieved she doesn’t have to cook as it is her turn tonight. She figures she can buy chapati and a soft drink; and make gravy with potatoes. There was still some beans left from last night. With that and TV, her evening would be made.
She throws her bag onto the bed when she reaches her room, and undresses out of her uniform, throws it in the closet. She doesn’t need to wash the school shirt today since tomorrow is sports day.
She picks out a purple top with a pattern of lightning bolts and a pair of blue jeans. When she is dressed, she reaches under the bed for her canvas shoes. One of the laces comes loose, but she decides she will tie it later as she leaves.
She gets her MP3 player from her bag and plugs in the earphones, selects one of her favourite songs by Katy Perry. It’s amazing how music recasts the present experience. It drains out the tiredness from her, seems to lift her spirit. The pop beat, the icy voice singing, the urgent stringed instruments — they shut out the world and there’s only Mable and music.
She pockets the money, locks the house and steps into the cool twilight. She walks to Vubu Road, using the same route she uses to the school bus, bobbing her head to the music. Vubu Road is quite busy this time of the day, but she feels she has all the time to let the vehicles pass before she crosses.
This is where things go crazy, and it takes time for her to understand what is happening. She hears someone scream, it’s loud enough over the music. To her right, people scamper in her direction. She doesn’t move though, and Katy Perry is singing in her ears.
Vehicles are flying by, and some swerve out of control to the sides. Brakes scream all along the road. Mable sees a woman hit by a blue Spacio, sprawling to a streetlight pole. More screams, and then to her left, three Police Land Cruisers come to a halt, blocking the road. About six heavily armed men in the back of each jump out.
Behind her, an Altezza suddenly starts reversing, the driver oblivious to her presence. She leaps across the road to avoid it, but halfway, she steps onto her loose shoelace. Why didn’t I tie it? shescreams in her mind when she falls. She hits her elbow onto the road and an electric sensation spasms through her left arm.
Blinding lights flood her vision from her right, and she shields her eyes as she hears the screeching of a car. When she opens her eyes, there is a black car — a BMW — that has stopped askew hardly a meter in front of her. The front passenger door opens, and man in a black leather jacket steps out, wielding a large gun. He points it over her, and the song playing in her ears, like an ominous cue, stops. The blasts from the machine gun are deafening and she thinks she’ll never hear again. The police on the opposite side retaliate with their fire, every gunshot trembling the ground.
Rolling herself, Mable sees three of the approaching police officer fall backwards. She huddles as if to shield herself from the bullets. As though coming from a distance, the music in her Mp3 player resumes; a soothing, churchy male voice sings, “Oh, oh oh oh it all comes down to love.” Mable begins to worm her way across.
A strong hand grabs her by the arm and she is jerked off the ground. She screams and flounders as her captor puts his arm around her waist and backs away. In the struggle, her MP3 device slips from her pocket and her earphones are plucked from her ears.
There’s a large boom at the police side. A dust cloud fogs the road, pieces of rubble rain down. One of the police Cruisers catches fire.
The firing stops. Eight police officers, one of them bleeding over one eye, are pointing their guns at her. At her captor really, but since she’s his shield, the first bullets would hit her. She’s afraid and confused that it feels like she’s the one in the spotlight. Like somehow this is all her fault.
The captor holds her in an iron grip by the waist. “Mufake pansi! Put her down!” one of the police officers shouts but her captor is backing away, his breath hot on her neck, a menacing gun pointed at the police from her right.
Her captor stumbles against something but he holds his balance. When he’s passed the obstacle, Mable sees it’s a man on the ground, blood spurting out of his thigh. He is puffing out breaths, crying out unintelligible sounds of pain. He looks up at her captor and begs, “Boss, bandasa, boss, please help me.”
Mable’s captor bends down, and Mable is lowered into a car. Her captor sets her on the passenger seat as he squeezes his way to the driver’s seat. He reaches out and closes the door on her side and — the car is still running — he yanks the gear into reverse and the car jerks backwards and swerves, throwing Mable against the window. There’s a staccato of gunfire and the back windscreen shatters.
The man in the leather jacket bends down and whips the car into drive, and drives away from the gunfire.
* * * * *Conrad Bafana is pissed. He has been in the Anti-Robbery Squad for many years now, and they have never been humiliated like this.
“This is bad,” his colleague John Miti says, as they look at the carnage. One of their vans is burning; three bodies lie on the road, one without a leg, blood and pieces of flesh strewn about. There is a large crater in the road where one of the suspects, the one Bafana himself shot in the leg, tossed a grenade. Miti saw it and yelled for everyone to move away. Three reacted too late.
Bafana shouts at the men: “Fast! Fast!” Civilians are starting to gather, and he wants to be out of here before the press comes. He is in no mood for cameras and microphones and irritating questions he is not supposed to answer.
“This is bad,” Miti says again. “Very bad.”
“You!” Bafana points at one police officer. “You guys can’t even shoot properly!”
“Mmmh, Bwana, hostage situation,” he replies, not denying anything.
The President would be on their necks if they killed the hostage. Anti-Robbery have been reputed to fire at anyone and before them as long as they take down their criminal target. Bafana knows that when it comes to armed and dangerous men, it’s better to shoot now and ask questions later. But a few months ago, the President’s own cousin was killed by one of the Anti-Robbery by mistake. The President ordered no more indiscriminate shooting until any hostage or innocent civilian was safely out of the way.
John Miti once commented that it would make them look soft and criminals would take advantage of that. Looking at this situation, Bafana thinks he had a point. But orders are orders, and they didn’t shoot when the Detonator took the girl as human shield.
It’s not that Bafana would want the girl to die, but they have just let the most dangerous criminal in the country escape. Three of their own lie dead and there’s a crater on the road because of a grenade. He doesn’t see how this will make the President be on their necks any less.
“Bwana, was that really the Detonator?” the one Bafana scolded asks.
Bafana sighs. “It’s possible. From the intel we got, it should be him.”
It’s funny how nobody has seen the Detonator, until today. If he’s the one, they have either just taken a step closer to apprehending him or let the only opportunity slip. It doesn’t feel like a triumph to Bafana. All they have done is uncover the fact that the Detonator is not a myth or a ghost, as he’s been known for years.
Two other police officers are arguing after placing the last body in the back of a Land Cruiser. “Why didn’t you shoot him, okay?” one says.
“I shot at him,” the other replies. “In fact, you were hiding behind me. You were afraid.”
“Hiding vichani? Haven’t you ever heard of strategy?”
The other laughs. “Strategy? I was looking at you…”
“Alo!” Bafana shouts at them. They are getting on his nerves. This is nothing to joke about. “Stop talking. Finish up here. And also put that criminal in the car and take him to the station.” He is pointing at the suspect lying down, wincing over his bleeding leg. “Miti, we must see…”
Miti is no longer by his side. He is a few steps away from him, to the right, stooping to pick up something. He comes back and hands it to Bafana.
“What is it?”
But Miti doesn’t need to answer, and doesn’t. It is an MP3 player, about five centimetres wide and seven long, a few millimetres thick. The screen, cracked and scratched, shows that there’s music still playing. The earphones dangling from the player are crunched beyond hope. He presses the pause button, turns it around, and sees that the back is etched clumsily with a name: MABLE.
“What should I do with this?” Bafana asks.
“It belongs to the girl, I think. It might be useless, though.” Miti shrugs. “We must go to the IG.”
“Exactly what I wanted to tell you. He’s not going to be happy.” Bafana promised they would deliver the Detonator, and the IG insisted on being part of the operation but had to stay back because of his position. Bafana saw that the IG didn’t like that, but it wouldn’t be prudent for the top person in the Service to be involved in such hunts. “Get him, Bafana,” the IG said, with the look a child gives to an uncle who promises sweets. “Please get him.”
Bafana puts the MP3 player into his pocket. He will need it in locating the kidnapped girl’s family, perhaps, but as for retrieving her… Well, she has been taken by the Detonator. She’s dead by now, no doubt, and they will probably never find her body.
MABLE THINKS her heart will finally give up. It has been thumping painfully for a long time now. And her head hurts from the bump on the window. The bad man driving the car hardly looks at her, as if he’s forgotten she’s there. He’s in deep thought, cursing out loud numerous times as he thumps the steering wheel with his fist.
He is a handsome man, well-trimmed hair and beard, he would be perfect in the role of a smooth player in an African-American drama. He must be obsessed with cleanliness. No one would tell he was recently involved in a gunfight. Probably in his early thirties, he possesses no potbelly or the torpidity that are ubiquitous on men around his age. He is well-built and energetic, and his eyes — when he gives her a glance and she doesn’t avert her gaze — reflect a deep self-absorption and arrogance.
She is going to die and here she is thinking about her killer’s looks. She tells herself she is studying him, finding vulnerable points. But with her head and heart pounding like that, she cannot think straight. She is very afraid, and if you ever asked Philip what was strange about Mable, he would say, “She never gets scared.” Well, not of dogs or walking alone at night or heights. But a man who has just killed three police officers and ditched his injured colleague — of that she is terrified.
Just like that, she was a normal girl going about a normal life, and now she will be a victim in a murder. They will read her in a small section in the newspapers, and everyone would soon forget, go back to their businesses. No more school with the nice bus ride and the wonderful teachers. No more basketball, and she will never win tomorrow’s race. No more chapati and gravy to make a nice evening meal. No more music.
Philip will be devastated for the rest of his life. First it was their parents, now it will be Mable. She remembers — and the dread of it returns — the night thieves came into their home: Mum’s piercing screams, the gunshots, and her young self in the shadows outside the kitchen window, in the cold, her vision blurred by the tears, afraid to cry out.
The BMW jerks over a pothole and she is lurched forward. She touches the dashboard with both hands to keep from being thrown forward. When she steadies herself, she pulls the seat belt and fastens it. The man looks at her, an amused smirk on his lips. He remembers he is driving and focuses back on the road.
For how long he’s been driving, Mable can’t tell, but she has her wits back enough to figure he is driving out of the city toward Chilanga. And the thought that passes through her mind is: they will never find my body.
The man gets something from an inner pocket in his leather jacket and plugs it into his ear. It is a Bluetooth earpiece, a cyan LED blinks intermittently when he presses on the screen of a phone which he takes out from another pocket.
“Steve…,” he says and listens to whoever is on the other side. “Muzo, where’s Steve?” His voice is deep and commanding. “Give him the earpiece. Aren’t these things waterproof?”
A moment passes, and he continues talking. “Steve, you’ll swim later. I had police trouble…” He listens. “Anti-Robbery yes, a lot of them… They came at the bank just as I was leaving. They cornered me in Emmasdale… How the hell did they know, Steve? That’s what I want to find out… What, the new guy? He was slow, he led us right to them. I don’t know why you insisted he was the right man for the job… no, Steve, don’t talk to me like that, it was at your approval… I don’t care, I left him. He was useful with the grenade, but no more…” He’s sounding increasingly angry. “No, they are not following. I found a way to escape.” Here he looks at Mable as he listens to Steve. “Yes, I still have the stash… Is he the snitch? … No, I guess he wouldn’t, but he was amateur and I have insisted you guys don’t need a fifth member… Kumar’s men then? … Right, they didn’t know about the plan… George?”
Apprehension grips his face, he almost loses control of the car, and the vehicle coming on the other lane gives a continuous loud hoot. “Surely not George,” he says. “You know I trust him more than I do Cosmas… I am just being honest, Steve. I want the head of whoever did this.” He sighs. “Yes, I will still meet with Kumar’s men and find out if they were involved… Yes, I will come home immediately. I know what I am doing.”
The light on the earpiece stops blinking, and a few minutes later, the man takes out a small black-covered notebook from the back pocket of his jeans. He alternates glances from the road to the notebook which he opens over the steering wheel, flipping pages. He doesn’t seem to find what he is looking for and slams at the steering wheel. He puts the notebook in his jacket pocket.
* * * * *The man known as Detonator slams his fist onto the steering wheel a number of times. Whoever betrayed him will pay with his life. The only way the police could have known of today’s plan was someone telling them about it. It’s the only logical explanation, the more he thinks about it. Only six people knew of the full plan. His four closest men: Steve, Musonda, Kelvin and Cosmas. The other two are George, his stooge in the Police, and the new guy he had to leave behind at the shootout.
Steve is suggesting that George is the snitch, but George has served him as long as the Faithful Four have. That’s more than a decade of trust you can’t throw away like that. He suspects the new guy, the now-obviously-dead guy, the guy who was named after an actor or something. Chiwetel. They all called him Chewe instead. And to think he almost brought Chewe to the mansion, even though Steve pronounced the guy worthy. Not even George got to know where the mansion is.
Chewe showed potential, that’s why Detonator took him for this mission. To watch him, to initiate him. Detonator was impressed when Chewe did everything according to plan, parking the car in a strategic position, taking down the guards with a single shot each, holding the door open and keeping the people behaved as Detonator filled the bag.
But when things went haywire and the blue Land Cruisers and armed men appeared in front of the bank, Chewe panicked, made a lot of mistakes. It was Detonator’s thinking that got them out through the back door and round, into the car. Chewe’s panicky driving attracted the police’s attention and he kept saying “I’m sorry boss, I’m sorry boss” as he tried to dodge the police.
Detonator thinks he should have done this alone, after all. He slams again onto the steering wheel. The captive girl shoots a fearful glance at him. He almost forgot about her. He will think of a way to get rid of her, later. And somehow, he feels grateful she isn’t screaming or pleading. And she even put on her seat belt. How weird is that?
He chuckles when a thought runs through his mind that she would make a better wingman than Chewe. The guy’s mistakes have cost Detonator his ghostly reputation. Now the police know his face.
It was a silly idea, yes, for Detonator to go out into the “field” just to prove he still has the raw criminal guts that elevated him to his kingpin status. The faithful Four tried to talk him out of it. He said he wanted to celebrate the anniversary of the first bank job that had set him on his journey fifteen years ago, by repeating the job at the same bank.
That’s what he told them, but deep down it’s because he is getting bored. He has everything he wants and he needn’t even get out of bed. There isn’t an illegal business in the country he isn’t boss over: drugs, smuggling, trafficking, fraud, gemstones, weapons, and even high-level pimping. But he is getting bored to death because all the work is done by others and he sits all day taking stock. The final straw hit him when he realised he was anxiously following a telenovella on Telemundo.
He just had to go out, and when this anniversary came up, he thought it a good opportunity. He wanted to go for it alone, but Steve convinced him to take Chewe.
But that must have been his mistake. He determines he will soon find out the truth about this betrayal. He slows and parks to the side of the road, and finds a pen in the glove compartment. In his notebook, he writes: Snitch — George? Chewe? Kumar? Rhoda? Then he studies the details of the men he is to meet, goes through the info a second time.
He puts the notebook in his jacket. Screw it, let them know my face, he thinks as he speeds again down the highway. What is the point of being the most dangerous person in the country and nobody knows what you look like? He had even read newspaper articles trying to prove that he didn’t exist. The country needs to know the face of the man they fear. They need a renewal of fearful respect for the Detonator, he who causes explosions everywhere he goes, literally and figuratively. They need to know he is real and untouchable.
Today the Anti-Robbery almost touched him, and someone will pay heavily for that. A lot of people will pay, he promises himself. That’s why he is driving to the rendezvous point. To see Kumar’s men as promised, but this time to establish whether Kumar is a backstabbing idiot.
* * * * *The white Toyota Camry is at the side of the highway, facing the city, at the exact agreed location near the Lilayi turn-off, its parking lights on as agreed. Detonator drives his BMW 318i off the road and faces the Camry. He switches off the headlights, leaving the parking lights on. He then flashes his headlights twice, and the Camry’s driver does the same.
Feeling rather warm, he takes off his leather jacket and places it on the dashboard. He taps the pistol on his right hip to assure himself it is there. Two men alight from the Camry. They are as Kumar described them. The big and nasty looking one is called Jobful Banda, decked out in a charcoal grey suit and black shirt. The other has a bread-shaped head, looks like an unstable character and is in a purple shirt tucked into black trousers, a striped tie loose on his neck. Detonator recalls his name as Shinn Kalopo.
“Gentlemen,” Detonator says when he alights from his car and meets with them. They bump fists.
“Are you whom we are expecting?” Shinn says. It’s the required first statement to the agreed passcode.
“The one and only,” Detonator replies. “What have you to say?”
“My Heart Beats for Lola. 0903”
The first is the title of a telenovella series. How quickly it jumped to his head when he was discussing the passcodes with Kumar was proof that he has been watching too much TV. The number 0903 was the day and month of today’s date.
“And you?” he says to Jobful.
“Raspberry Pi,” the big man replies. Steve came up with that part, some computer nerdy stuff he doesn’t care to know about.
“And I say videshi,” Detonator says, not knowing what it means. It was Kumar’s input. The final piece of the passcode. Everyone is whom they claim. “I was delayed. Had some police trouble.”
“No problem, Sir,” says Jobful. “I must say, Sir, it is great to meet you in person. No one can boast of meeting the actual Detonator himself. This is exciting.”
“A deep honour,” Shinn echoes. “Others only get to hear of you.”
Detonator gives a proud smile. “Well, consider yourselves lucky.” His initial plan was to put on a mask and do the exchange without a word. Just for the fun of it. But now that the plan was mangled, he might as well let these scumbags have a good look at his face.
Shinn nods toward his car. “Your daughter?”
Detonator looks back. It’s getting gloomy, so the captive girl is a darkish shape. Shinn must have seen her when he opened his door and the interior light came on. Detonator laughs. Imagine me being a father, he thinks.
He has loved only one woman, and maybe by now he would have married her and had kids, who knows. When Grace got tired of this life and left him, he didn’t get involved with anyone else.
“Forget the girl,” he says to the two men. “I will dispose of her later.” The shock on their faces is the effect he wants. They need to keep being in awe of him. “Onto business now, gentlemen.”
Jobful reaches into his jacket and produces a small leather pouch. He tosses it to Detonator, who weighs it in his palm and nods approvingly.
“You won’t check it?” Jobful asks.
“I trust you.” He’s looking into their eyes, reading their body language. He will open them up soon, if they are hiding something. “Besides, I have handled diamonds for years now and all I need is to feel the weight.” He walks to the BMW, opens the boot and picks out the bag containing the money, walks back to the men and throws it at their feet. “You won’t open it?”
Jobful grabs Shinn when he bends down to the bag. He says, his voice quivering, “No need. We trust you, Boss.” The Detonator can tell Jobful Banda suspects the Detonator is up to something.
“You know who I am, don’t you?”
“Yes, Sir. You are the Detonator.”
“You care about your family?”
“What? I mean yes, I do.”
“I have no family, you see,” Detonator says. “I wish I had a lovely wife like yours, a nurse at UTH. And your two beautiful girls at your home in Kanyama. And you, Shinn, your son, who looks like you.”
The two men stand stiffly, only looking at the Detonator.
“I’m supposed to know everything about the people I do business with, just to be sure, you know what I am saying?”
“You know what I am saying?” His voice is louder, angrier.
“Ye-yes, Sir,” Jobful says. He scratches at his thigh. Nervousness. Fear. Good.
Detonator looks straight at Shinn. “You can tell someone is lying by looking into their eyes.” Shinn looks down and Detonator smiles at that score. “Look at me, Shinn.” The man looks up. “I can tell you have a gun in your sock, alright? And I have mine, here. Before you can even move your hand to get it, I can put three bullets into your heart. So, will you tell me the truth, with your lips and with your eyes?”
“Look at me. Yes, relax. Now tell me, this money in the bag — where did I get it from?”
Shinn looks confused. “I don’t know Boss.”
Truth, Detonator sees. He turns to Jobful. “You know you are lucky, not even your boss has seen me before. What’s today’s date?”
“The ninth of March, Sir.”
Always start people on simple truths they can answer and move to the real questions to see how their expressions will differ. “Did Kumar snitch on me?”
“Yes or no?”
The Detonator is thinking, These guys seem to be truthful, when Shinn suddenly moves. “Boss!” He points behind him. Detonator turns to see his captive running from the car, leaving the passenger door open. Shinn takes out his pistol and aims. Detonator grabs his arm. “Leave her alone. She is no threat.”
“But she… I thought you wanted her… dead. I just wanted to make sure she doesn’t run away.”
“Let her go. She’s clever like that. Maybe she can live for now.”
“I can bring her back.”
“I am saying she’s no threat.” He longs to hit this guy on the head. It’s like nothing he’s saying is getting into his stupid skull. “You know what, just go. We are done here.”
“Tell Kumar I will call him. There’s more money in there than he asked for. You can keep it to yourselves.”
The two men look very pleased. “Thank you, Boss”, “Thank you, Sir.” They get into their car, and Detonator can hear them howling in delight like they have just won the jackpot. He gets into his own car and sees them counting the money. He reaches for his jacket on the dashboard and into the right-side pocket. It is empty.
He checks the other pockets. The phone, the earpiece, an old receipt are there. He inspects the dashboard, the glove compartment, the car floor, his jean pockets.
When the realisation hits him, he fists the dashboard. “Ah! Dammit! The girl!” He comes out of the car, bangs on the window of the other car. “Come with me. I must catch the girl.”
“The one who was in your car?” Shinn says.
“Yes, idiot, the one!” He bounds to his car. He screams angry sounds as he thrashes his car around and onto the road. He will kill her. What she has done is worse than what whoever betrayed him to the police did.
Courtesy of Medium
"Just look at that," Charlie Nolan said, his arm extended like that of a maître d' indicating a particularly good table.
"Oh, my God, stop," said Nora Nolan, looking through the narrow opening of the parking lot, at the end of which she could just glimpse the front bumper of their car.
"It's beautiful, Bun," Charlie said. "Come on, you have to admit, it's beautiful. Look. At. That." That's what Charlie did when he wanted to make sure you got his point, turned words into sentences, full stop.
Some. Sweet. Deal. Big. Brass. Balls.
The first night they'd met, almost twenty-five years ago, in that crowded bar in the Village that was a vegan restaurant now: You. Are. Great.
Really. Really. Great.
Nora could not recall exactly when she'd first begun to think, if not to say: Just. So. Annoying.
In the line of narrow townhouses that made up their side of the block, standing shoulder to shoulder like slender soldiers of flawless posture and unvarying appearance, there was one conspicuous break, a man down, a house-width opening to a stretch of macadam turned into an outdoor parking lot. It held only six cars, and since nearly everyone on the block wanted a space, it had become a hot commodity, a peculiar status symbol.
A book about the city's history, in the archives of a museum at which she had once interviewed for a job, had told Nora that a house in that space had been gutted in a fire, and the family that owned it had never bothered to rebuild. It had happened in the early 1930s, when the country, the city, and the west side of Manhattan had no money, which of course had happened again in the 1970s, and would doubtless happen again sometime in the future, because that was how the world worked.
At the moment, however, it seemed scarcely possible. A house on the next block had just sold for $10 million in a bidding war. The couple who sold it had bought it for $600,000 when their children were young. Nora knew this because she and her neighbors talked about real estate incessantly. Their children, their dogs, and housing prices: the holy trinity of conversation for New Yorkers of a certain sort. For the men, there were also golf courses and wine lists to be discussed; for the women, dermatologists. Remembering the playground conversations when her children were small, Nora realized that the name of the very best pediatrician had given way to the name of the very best plastic surgeon.
A single block in the middle of what seemed like the most populous island on earth—although it was not, a professor of geography had once told Nora; it was not even in the top ten—and it was like a small town. The people who owned houses on the block had watched one another's children grow up, seen one another's dogs go from puppy to infirmity to the crematorium at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. They knew who redecorated when, and who couldn't afford to. They all used the same handyman.
"You live on that dead-end block?" someone had asked Nora at an art opening several years before. "One of my friends rented a place there for a year. He said it was like a cult."
None of those who owned on the block cared about the renters. They came and they went, with their sofa beds and midcentury-modern knockoffs, their Ikea boxes at the curb. They were young, unmoored. They didn't hang Christmas wreaths or plant window boxes.
The owners all did, and they stuck.
From time to time a real estate agent would troll the block, pushing his card through mail slots and scribbling notes about that odd empty parcel on the north side, to see who owned it and whether a new townhouse could be built there. For now it was a narrow, ill-kept parking lot, oddly shaped, like one of those geometry problems designed to foil students on the SATs: determine the area of this rhomboid. In the worst of the parking spaces, the one wedged into a cut-in behind the back of the neighboring house, Charlie Nolan's Volvo wagon, in a color called Sherwood Green, now sat. It had been there only for five hours, by Nora's reckoning, and already the windshield was pocked with the chalky white confetti of pigeon droppings.
That morning, just after sunrise, Charlie had flipped on the overhead light in their bedroom, his face lit up the way it was when he was part of a big deal, had underestimated his bonus, or paid less for a bottle of wine than he decided it was worth.
"I got a space!" he crowed.
Nora heaved herself up onto her elbows. "Have you lost your mind?" she said.
"Sorry sorry sorry," Charlie said, turning the light off but not moving from the doorway. There was a marital rule of long standing: Nora was to be allowed to sleep as long as she liked on weekends unless there was an emergency. She thought of herself as a person who had few basic requirements, but sleep was one of them. The six months during which her children had wanted to be fed, or were at least awake, in the middle of the night were among the most difficult months of her life. If she had not given birth to twins she might have had only one child, the sleep deprivation was so terrible.
Charlie knew this. He got up and went to work earlier than Nora, and the top of his dresser, the bathroom, his closet were all equipped with small flashlights by which he would dress, and dress again after he had taken the dog to the dog run, come home, and showered. Usually by the time he was in a suit and tie and eating his All-Bran, Nora was at the kitchen table in her nightgown, although it was her preference that they talk as little as possible in the morning.
Yet here was her husband, waking her on a Saturday, with the light full in her eyes.
"I got a space," he said again, but less maniacally, as though he was setting his emotional temperature closer to hers.
And now she could see their car in the space, already moved from the enclosed garage two blocks away to the dogleg in the lot. Charlie was humming to himself. When they had first moved to the block, Charlie asked around among the other parkers to see if he could inherit the space vacated by the people they were buying the house from. It was communicated in no uncertain terms, and in that osmotic way in which things became known on the block, that a space in the lot was a privilege, not a right, and Charlie somewhat truculently signed up for the indoor garage nearby, privately adding the failure to his list of Things That Were Not Going the Way They Should for Charlie Nolan, a list that in the last year Nora suspected had become a book, perhaps even an encyclopedia.
While Charlie often complained to Nora that the fee for the enclosed garage was only slightly less than the rent on their first apartment, there had never even been a question of parking on the street. Paying for parking relieved one of those petty aggravations that was like dripping water on the stone of self, until one day you discovered it had left a hole the size of a fist in your head. Nora knew that for Charlie, living in the city meant more drips, with harder water. He reminded her of it often enough. New York was not Charlie's natural habitat.
Nora hoped that this morning's triumph, small but seemingly monumental to her husband, would make up for that in some fashion. It had rankled for years, when Charlie passed the opening to the lot, and now he had finally scored a space. On the dining room table lay the typed notice, slipped through their mail slot, informing Charlie that the spot formerly allotted to the Dicksons was his if he wanted it; in the spot now was their Volvo. It was a car like their life, prosperous, understated, orderly—no food wrappers, no baby seats, no coins or crumbs on the floor. When the lease on the car was up it would barely need to be detailed before they got another just like it. Charlie always wondered aloud about other manufacturers, models, colors. Nora didn't care. She was scarcely ever in the car.
A white plastic bag eddied around Nora's bare ankles for a moment in a breathless summer breeze, touching her, tickling her, circling her painted pink toes. She kicked it aside and it moved down the block, rising and falling like a tiny ghost, disappearing between two parked cars. The street smelled like dank river low tide, melting tar, and, as always in warm weather, the vinegar tang of garbage. Nora had had to yank their dog away from a cardboard container of moo shu something, pulled from a hole in a bag by some other dog and upended near the dead end.
It was crazy, but there was a small, secret part of Nora that was comfortable with trash on the street. It reminded her of her youth, when she'd first arrived in a nastier, scarier, dirtier New York City and moved into a shabby apartment with her best friend, Jenny. A better New York, she sometimes thought to herself now, but never, ever said, one of the many things none of them ever admitted to themselves, at least aloud: that it was better when it was worse.Homer teased the air at the entrance to the lot with his muzzle and then sat. Their dog knew their block, their house, even their car, and he tolerated riding in it, wedging himself into the foot well alongside Oliver's enormous sneakers. Rachel complained that Homer was not as affectionate with her as he was with her brother, which Nora thought was probably true. But ten minutes of Homer on Rachel's insteps and she would be whining that her feet had fallen asleep and there was no reason their dog couldn't ride in the way back like other dogs. Nora worried that her daughter had difficulty discerning the difference between what she really wanted and what other people made seem desirable. Now that Rachel was out of her teens and in college, Nora hoped she was outgrowing this, although in New York it made her merely typical.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Charlie had said when Nora mentioned it to him. Which had become a bit of a theme in their house on every subject.
"Listening to you people," said Jenny, the only one in their women's lunch group who had never been married, "marriage sounds sort of like the den. It's a good place to chill out, but it's not the most important room in the house. Which makes me wonder why you're all so anxious for me to have one."
"I think the den is the most important room in the house," Suzanne, who was a decorator, replied.
"The kitchen is the most important room in the house," Elena said.
"If you cook," Suzanne replied.
"Who still cooks?" said Jean-Ann.
Jenny turned to Nora. "Did everyone miss the entire point of what I said?" she asked.
"Absolutely," Nora said.
"Absolutely," Nora had said when Charlie asked if she wanted to walk down the block to the lot once he'd moved the car in, knowing that staying at the breakfast table to finish her bagel and read the newspapers was not conducive to a day of amity. But she balked at going any farther into the lot than that. "Come take a look," Charlie said now, as though the lot contained infinite vistas, gardens, and statuary instead of just three brick walls, several other cars, a center drain, and two of those squat, black plastic boxes that were everywhere in the parks and backyards of New York City, sheltering blocks of flavored rat poison from passing dogs.
"I'm not going back there," Nora said. "Charity says that's where all the rats live."
"So are the subway tracks, and you take the subway."
She didn't take it much. Nora liked to walk, and when she did take the train she made certain not to look down at the tracks. She'd tried to analyze the depth of her rat phobia, but she'd given it up as pointless. Why were squirrels fine, anodyne, and rats insupportable, provoking a chemical reaction so profound that her breathing didn't return to normal for minutes at a time? Everyone had something; when they were growing up her sister had wakened her at least a dozen times because there was a spider in her room. Charlie hated snakes.
"Everybody hates snakes," Rachel had said, dismissive even as a small child.
"I don't," Nora had replied.
And why had she chosen what seemed to be the rat capital of the world in which to make a life? She remembered her friend Becky from college, who was terrified of water—no need for deep analysis; her younger brother had nearly drowned on the Vineyard when they were children, pulled from the surf and given CPR by a lifeguard. Still, Becky had gotten a job managing a spa with an enormous saltwater pool. She'd insisted she didn't mind, but as soon as she could she'd moved on to a sprawling country inn. There was a river at the bottom of the hill on which the inn sat, but she was never required to go near it. Nora understood that, unlike Becky's phobia, most of these aversions were chemical and intuitive, the way some people immediately fell in love with New York, and other people said that they could never live there. ("I don't get it," Nora had said once to her sister, Christine, on the phone. "If I went to Greenwich and said, ‘I don't understand how anyone can stand to live here,' people would think I was rude.")
Charlie walked to the back of the parking lot and out again, as though he were surveying his property. It wasn't a long walk. "No rats," he said.
"Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they're not there," said Nora.
Halfway down the block one of the guys who worked for Ricky taking care of their houses was hosing down the sidewalk. Ricky's guys tended to be small, dark, and stocky, former residents of some Central American country who were willing to do almost any kind of work to earn money. This one had just washed out all their garbage cans, but the effort was fruitless. The greasy sheen on both the pavement and in the cans would reassert itself, summer's urban perspiration. It was one of the reasons people who could afford to do so fled New York, for Nantucket, the Hamptons, somewhere cleaner, greener. Somewhere more boring, Nora often thought to herself.
Two young people dressed for exercise approached them, both with that peeled-grape skin of youth that was hypnotic and hateful when its moment had passed you by. "The park's that way, right?" said he, pointing toward the end of the block. "That's a dead end," Charlie said. "This is a dead-end block.
There's a sign at the corner."
"A sign?" said she.
"It's a dead-end block," repeated Nora, for what felt like the thousandth time. They'd petitioned the city to put up two signs, one on each side of the street. dead end. It made no difference. "Go back, go left, go left again. You'll hit the park." This, too, was a sentence Nora had uttered many times.
"It's a dead end," said he to her. Nora stared at the girl's face. Her eyebrows were like sparrow feathers dividing her high, smooth brow in two. Nora sighed. She supposed she had looked like that once, and hadn't appreciated it a bit. When she looked in the mirror nowadays, which she mainly did to see if she had anything in her teeth, the clean edges of her jaw seemed to have blurred, the corners of her mouth sliding south.
The young woman put her hand out toward Homer. Sitting on his haunches, he leaned forward and smelled it, then looked her in the eye. Homer had very pale blue eyes, the color of eucalyptus mints, which made him look demonic, although as he had aged he had become a calm and businesslike dog, too intelligent to waste time on aggression. Sherry and Jack Fisk, who lived halfway up the block, said that when someone reached toward their dog they could feel a faint buzzing through the leash, an interior growl that meant they should hold tight and step back. But the Fisks' dog was an enormous Rottweiler who looked as though he should be patrolling the fence at a maximum-security prison. Brutus was, as Charlie once said, a lawsuit waiting to happen. Sherry Fisk complained that their house was far too big, but that there wasn't a co-op in Manhattan that would have accepted her and Jack as residents with Brutus in tow.
"The minute that dog dies, I downsize," she had said.
"We're not going anywhere," Jack said. "Maybe she's moving, but if she is, she's going alone."
"I might," Sherry said.
"Yeah, you do that," Jack had said. Nora hated bickering, but with Sherry and Jack she scarcely even noticed it anymore. As long as Jack was not actually shouting, things were tenable. Nora always had knots in her shoulders after talking to Jack Fisk. It was as though her body sent messages that her mind didn't recognize until afterward.
The basic layout of the Fisk house was almost exactly like the Nolans', which was almost exactly like the Lessmans' and the Fenstermachers' and the Rizzolis': a kitchen and dining room on the lower level, a double living room above, and two or three bedrooms on each of the floors above that, although some of the bedrooms had been turned into dens or offices. The Fisks had done a gut renovation, so their rooms were high and white and unornamented; the Nolans had some period detail, walls of oak wainscoting, ornamented mantelpieces.
"It is a big house for only two people," Nora had said to Sherry. "When the twins are away there could be somebody on the top floor and I wouldn't even know it."
"If I lived with her in a two-bedroom apartment, I might kill her," Jack Fisk said. Nora laughed nervously. Jack rarely laughed at all.
The Fisk house was bracketed by that of the Fenstermachers, who were perfect and hosted the holiday party every year, and a house that had been owned for ages by people who lived in London and rented it out. The renters never had enough stature on the block to gossip with their more durable neighbors, and Alma Fenstermacher never gossiped at all. But Nora suspected that while Charlie sometimes complained about TV noises rumbling through the common wall from the Rizzoli house next door, the occasional child screaming at a sibling or toy dog yipping at nothing, the Fisk neighbors heard more than that, and more often.
Nora looked at her husband. He was not even admiring the rear of the young woman as she turned and went back the way she had come, hand in hand with the young man. Charlie was too mesmerized by his good fortune, staring through the narrow opening at his car in its space, a faint smile on his face. With his thin, sandy hair, round blue eyes, and pink cheeks, he looked like a small boy. He was one of those people whose baby pictures looked more or less like his driver's license photo. He even looked boyish when he was unhappy, his full lower lip protruding a bit when he talked of someone at work who was being unfairly elevated, one of the guys he had come up with who had just gotten a big promotion.
"Congrats, party people," Nora heard from behind her, and she clenched her molars as she turned.
"Major league congrats," repeated George, the most irritating person on the block.
Another of Nora and Charlie's marital agreements was that social intercourse with George Smythe must be avoided at all cost, but this morning Charlie shook George's hand warmly, as though they were concluding a particularly lucrative business deal. Nora supposed they were, since George seemed in some peculiar and unstated way to be the keeper of the parking lot as well as the majordomo of the block, slipping printed notices through their mail slots about everything from street trees to trash disposal. George-o-Grams, Rachel called them when they appeared on the floor of their foyer. Nora thought that Charlie didn't mind George because he reminded him of the sort of guy who was the social chairman at a fraternity house. Nora couldn't bear George for precisely the same reason.
George sensed her dislike, and was galvanized by it. Soon after Charlie and Nora had moved to the block, when it became clear that she was unlikely to meet George's practiced (and often early-morning) bonhomie with more of the same, George had fastened on her as his project, the way men fasten on a woman who will not sleep with them, or a client who proves elusive, or a marathon, or Everest.
"Ms. Twinkletoes," he would say as she sped by on her run to the park on Saturday mornings. "Madame Miler." "The Harrier."
"Harrier," he had said to his son, Jonathan, one morning years before, the boy curved into a question mark beneath the burden of his backpack. "There's a word that might be on the SATs. You know what a harrier is, son?"
Nora had never once heard Jonathan respond. George's only child gave off an aura of unwashed T-shirt and contempt. His silence made no difference; George was the kind of man who could carry on both sides of a conversation. In fact he seemed to prefer it. Jonathan had left for college in Colorado three years ago and, as far as Nora knew, had never been seen on the block again.
"Living the dream," George said when someone asked him about Jonathan. "Mountain air, hiking. None of this Ivy League slog. He's living the dream."
"He got rejected at most of the places he applied," said Oliver.
"He works in a pot dispensary," Rachel said.
"Cool job," said Oliver.
"We're not sending you to MIT so you can wind up selling sinsemilla in Denver," Nora said.
"Okay, Mom, but how come you even know what sinsemilla is?"
Charlie waggled his eyebrows and grinned. "Don't encourage them," Nora said when the twins went upstairs.
"Relax, Bun," Charlie said. "You're always so uptight about stuff like that." They had quarreled about whether the twins should be given wine at dinner now that they were away at college and doubtless drinking, but not yet of drinking age. It was notable because they rarely quarreled anymore. Their marriage had become like the AA prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." Or at least to move into a zone in which I so don't care anymore and scarcely notice. Nora had thought this was their problem alone until she realized that it was what had happened to almost everyone she knew who was still married, even some of those who were on their second husbands. At her women's lunches they talked about the most intimate things, about errant chin hairs and persistent bladder infections and who had a short haircut because she just couldn't be bothered and who had a short haircut because she'd just finished chemo. But while they were willing to talk about marriage generally, they tended not to talk about their own husbands specifically. Marriage vows, Nora had long felt, constituted a loyalty oath.
"As long as he doesn't set anything on fire, I'm satisfied," Elena had said one day, and all the other women chuckled drily, since Elena's husband had in fact once set their screened porch in the country on fire when he brought the barbecue grill inside during a thunderstorm. There had been a prolonged fight with the insurance company, which didn't consider saving the spareribs enough of a reason to use hot charcoal in a confined space. The dispute was ongoing, Elena said, because Henry enjoyed telling people about it, mainly other guys who cheered him on.
"So, Miss Fleet Feet, how do you feel about the parking situation?" George said now, one hand on Charlie's shoulder. "Nothing says you've arrived on the block like a space in the lot." George had a space, the Fisks had a space, the Fentermachers had a space, the Lessmans had a space, and the Rizzolis had a space, although the Rizzolis' had been handed down to their elder son and his wife, who lived in their triplex and rented out the bottom floors. The senior Rizzolis now lived in their house in Naples. Florida, not Italy. "I'm too old for the city now, Nora," Mike Rizzoli said when he and his wife came by to visit. "It's a young person's game, all the nuttiness."
One of the men who lived in the SRO that backed onto the parking lot came down the street with a battered wheeled suitcase. "We're all dying we're all dying we're all dying inside," he said as he went past, smelling of old sweat and fried food. Homer woofed slightly, at the suitcase, not the man. Nora had never figured out exactly why Homer distrusted things with wheels. He reacted suspiciously to both strollers and bicycles.
"I hear they're going to convert the SRO to condos," George said as the man disappeared down the block.
Nora felt forced into the conversation despite her better judgment. That's how George got to her, by saying things she knew to be untrue: the mayor is not going to run for reelection, the Fenstermachers are selling their house, small dogs are more intelligent than large ones. "It's never going to happen," Nora said. "So many single-room-occupancy buildings were converted in the eighties and there were so few beds left for homeless men that the city put a moratorium on all conversions. All the SROs have to stay SROs." And Nora preferred the SRO residents to George anyway. Before they had made an offer for the house, she had visited the precinct, worried by the presence of a building full of ramshackle men. "That place?" the desk sergeant said. "They're basically down-on-their-luck guys working minimum wage and some old men on disability. There's a few schizos, but they're not dangerous. You know the type, the guys who talk to themselves about Jesus and the president and whatever. You'll be fine." Then he asked how much they were paying for the house. Even the police, who all lived on Long Island or in Orange County, were mesmerized by the absurdity of Manhattan real estate values.
George ignored her comment. "That'll make a huge difference, if they get those guys out," he said. "They really dirty up the lot." Nora knew this was not the case, but she wasn't going to engage with George again if she could help it. The men in the SRO did not so much throw trash into the lot as leave things on their windowsills that fell down into it. It was just like college, old-fashioned outdoor refrigeration. Nora herself had once had a string bag that she hung from a nail outside her dorm window, full of containers of yogurt and the odd banana. In winter the sills on the back side of the SRO, which looked down on the parked cars, were dotted with pints of milk, tubs of pudding, packages of hot dogs, just as her dorm sills had been. Sometimes a high wind ripped through all their yards and down to the river, and the food on the sills fell to the ground below. Nora had once seen an enormous rat run across the entrance to the lot with a plastic envelope of what appeared to be salami in its mouth. At least she thought the rat was enormous. They all seemed enormous to her, even when, after having been lured by the poison in the bait traps, they lay curled into stiff, furry commas on the sidewalk.
Nora looked down the street, which was no cleaner than the parking lot. The gutter was edged with leavings: the pointillistic wisps from a home paper shredder, the poop from someone who wouldn't pick up after his dog, a tangle of some unidentifiable vegetable matter, brown and sad as a corsage three days after the prom. It was much grubbier on the West Side than the East Side. It was why Charlie had wanted to move to the East Side before they moved into their house. Now they got a lot of mileage out of living on a dead-end block, which had mollified Charlie somewhat.
"Let's go to the park and get this dog some exercise," said Nora, who wanted to get away from George. Rachel had said once that George reminded her of the kid who glommed on to you at a new school until you started making real friends and found out why the kid had been available for glomming. Nora had been amazed at her daughter's powers of perception, although when she said that to Rachel, she replied dismissively, "Oh, duh, Mommy." George was exactly that kid, circling the cafeteria of life, looking for the yet-unmoored, blind to his own unpopularity.
"I don't know why you dislike him so much," Charlie said when they got far enough away.
"Because he's a self-important jerk," Nora said. "Homer! Drop it!" Homer dropped the twist of waxed paper with a pizza crust inside and sighed. It was his cross to bear, obedience, and a diet of kibble.
Behind them they heard shouting, and turned to look as George sprinted from his front stoop to the entrance to the parking lot, where a white panel van was backing in.
"Ricky! Amigo! What did I tell you the last time?" he yelled.
"Amigo? Really? Every time he tries to speak Spanish to Ricky, I can see by the look on Ricky's face that he can't understand a word George says. That's leaving aside the fact that Ricky's English is as good as his. Amigo? Oh, my God."
"Come on, smile, Bun," Charlie said, putting his arm around her shoulder. "We got a space! Wait till I tell the kids!"
Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES is Ricky permitted to park
his van in the lot. He has been REPEATEDLY told this.
Any suggestion that he has permission from Mr. Stoller
to do so is INCORRECT.
Inform me IMMEDIATELY if you see him parked there
or at the entrance to the lot.
During the week between the end of their summer internships and their return to college, Rachel and Oliver came home, to see their friends from high school and to spend money, she on clothing, he on computer gear. Nora was both delighted to have her children around and a little weary of being awakened in the middle of the night by footfalls on the stairs. She sometimes thought that if she had envisioned the twins as young adults she would have put the master bedroom on the top floor and Oliver and Rachel below rather than the other way around. But when she felt mildly disgruntled as someone stomped by her bedroom door at 3 a.m., she would consider the future, with Rachel living in her own place somewhere, with Oliver living in his own place somewhere else, with she and Charlie living in a quiet house, just the two of them. Some of their friends had started to complain about college graduates who circled around and, because of high rents and low-paying jobs, wound up back in their childhood bedrooms. Nora always thought she wouldn't mind that one bit.
When the twins came home the house was always full of people, although none of them stayed long, except for one or two of the girls, who would tumble into Rachel's bed at night and appear again in the late morning, tousled, in boxer shorts and T-shirts. The others just passed through: Hello, Nick; Hello, Bronson; Hello, Grace; Hello, Elise. Charlie's mantra was "What is her name again?" He was even flummoxed sometimes by Rachel's two oldest friends; their names were Bethany and Elizabeth, and Charlie still sometimes confused the two. Luckily the girls thought this was hilarious, except for Rachel when she was in a mood, when she would say what kind of father can't be bothered to figure out his daughter's best friends' names. Then she would flounce, although the more time she spent at college, the more she had traded flouncing for tromping.
Because no one used the doorbell anymore, preferring to text one another OMG I'm outside let me in instead, there was no telling who was down in the kitchen while Nora and Charlie were asleep two floors up and the faint smell of smoke, cigarette or pot, drifted up from the backyard to their bedroom window. When they awoke, the counter was usually littered with the remains of food eaten long after they had retired, and the garbage can was full of takeout containers.
"Who drinks beer with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?" Charlie muttered to himself.
Dad so weird park lot wtf, Rachel texted Nora in the middle of the night, when the twins and all their friends were wide awake. It was as though they lived in different time zones, as though the parents were in China to their children's America. Nora couldn't get used to the notion that when she was asleep, her children were awake, and vice versa. "Mom, please," Rachel had said. "Don't text me at eight in the morning. Just...no."
"You don't have to read it then."
"My phone is under my pillow. It wakes me up."
"I will never understand why you sleep with the phone under your pillow."
"Never mind. Just. Never mind. If I block you, you'll know why."
"I thought people only blocked stalkers."
"You are my stalker," Rachel said, going upstairs with her phone in hand.
"You walked right into that one, Bun," Charlie said.
"Can I text you at eight?" Nora asked Oliver.
"I guess?" he said.
Oliver's internship had been with the Massachusetts River Consortium. He was testing the Charles River for contaminants. Rachel had been on the Cape, working for The Nature Conservancy. Neither had ever shown much interest in wildlife before, except for the early years, when Rachel had begged for a puppy and Ollie had kept a tortoise under his bed who ate whatever lettuce in the fridge was too limp to serve and who was so sedentary that Nora would regularly check that he was still alive.
Go, dad! Oliver had texted when Charlie sent a photo of his car in the lot.
Car pic omg wtf ice, Rachel texted Nora.
"Ice?" Nora said to Oliver.
"I can't even," Oliver said. "Get with the program, lady."
Nora was not surprised that Charlie had texted the twins pictures of his car in its new space. Nothing had pleased him so much since Parents' Weekend at the twins' respective colleges, where he had participated in a rugby game with Rachel (Williams) and a sculling competition with Oliver (MIT). Nora knew only in the vaguest way that her husband had had a spate of recent disappointments at work: a former classmate who had promised to send something his way and hadn't, a headhunter who had come after him hard for a big job and then disappeared. "Nora," he called her on those nights, instead of "Bunny" or "Bun," the term of endearment he had come up with so many years ago and had become the substitute for her actual name. They were more commonplace now, those evenings when he arrived home with a face like a fist and went straight for the vodka.
"What's the matter?"
"How was your day?"
"Are you okay?"
"Why wouldn't I be okay?"
Rachel, too, was dolorous about the impending end of her college years. "So, so tired of being asked what comes next," she'd said between gritted teeth when she and her mother had run into Sherry Fisk on the block. There was so much Nora could have said, knowing that when Rachel graduated what came next would be so fluid and various: maybe this job, maybe that guy, maybe one city or another. Nora remembered drawing in the sand of her future with a stick. What she couldn't recall was when the sand had become cement, the who-I-want-to-be turned for once and for all into who-I-am. She remembered a lunch the year before, when Suzanne had seemed unusually glum. "I don't know—sometimes I feel as though I should reinvent myself," Suzanne said, poking at her asparagus. "I mean, how many sideboards can you have distressed, and then distressed again because the client didn't think they looked distressed enough?" She sighed and added, "Don't you ever wonder how we all wound up here?" And before Nora could say, Yes, I do, I think about it all the time, I'm so relieved I'm not the only one, Elena said drily, "What is this, existential Thursday?" Leaving the restaurant, Elena turned to Nora and Jenny and mouthed the word "Menopause," and Nora had almost hated her at that moment, even though she and Elena had known each other since a childbirth class more than twenty years before and had been having lunch together almost that long.
I've long considered the front of our bookstore a trap, one carefully set.
This is as it must be. Although we are in the wearyingly popular Marais district, we are in the lower Marais, closer to the Seine but farther from the falafel stands and crêperies, the pedestrian streets, and thus the crowds, and thus, customers. One side of our block is almost entirely taken up with the blank back wall of a monastery, which may or may not be occupied. Despite all the bells, I've never seen a monk on the sidewalk. Opposite the monastery, a succession of shops like ours, peering out from the ground floors of anonymous flat-front buildings in various shades of cream forever staining yellow. High above, zinc roofs slowly bruise black, windows shrug away shutters. Here and there appear flowers, or their remains. So, too, wrought iron railings, or their remains.
And our store, bright red, like an apple, a wound.
The store has always been red, but it was deeper, bluer, more toward the color of Cabernet when I first saw it. It was my choice to update it to cherry, almost fire truck, red. This caused a mild scandal even though I'd cleared it with our landlord, the store's original proprietor, Madame Brouillard; one painter quit on me before he got started and another quit after scraping and priming. Upon the recommendation of my UPS driver (and unofficial street concierge), Laurent, I finally hired a Polish man who spoke almost as little French as I did and thus didn't care what anyone thought. I asked Laurent what he thought when the job was done. Laurent looked up and down the street. The painter had not only gotten exactly right the clarion red I wanted, he'd layered what looked to be thirty-six coats of clear lacquer on top. The place shone as if it had been enameled in molten lollipop.
Laurent said I should sell them, lollipops.
I shook my head.
He shook his.
We sell books. Gold letters say this on the window. BOOKSHOP to one side, LIBRAIRIE ANGLOPHONE to the other. In the middle, our name, a debate. It had been named for the street, which is named for Saint Lucy. This confuses people; across town, there is another street named for her. More confusion: Lucy is the patron saint of writers, but Madame Brouillard said the name sometimes brought in religious shoppers, and most times, no one at all. Once upon a time, she insisted to me, the street had been crowded, not just with book buyers but booksellers. One by one, the stores departed, and many left their stock behind with Madame. The English-language volumes, not the French. The dross, not the treasures. And needless to say, the dead, not the living. She had hardly anything by living authors.
I suggested rechristening the store The Late Edition. Late as in we would henceforth specialize in authors who, unlike their books, were dead.
She didn't like it, but she let me proceed, as one of her keenest pleasures is bearing a grudge. I sometimes think it's why she let me, who knew little about bookstores (and even less about French), assume control of a bookshop she'd owned for decades. And it's likely why she watched with interest as the dead-authors angle turned out to be just the sort of Paris quirk travel writers craved (who are quick to note that I make living-authors exceptions for children's books and books of any sort by women).
Madame pays Laurent off the books to bring more stock from storage units outside Paris, where she's piled the leavings of her predecessors. Laurent says there aren't enough customers in the world for all the books waiting there.
And Madame had a very small share of the world's customers. When we took over the store, the running joke was that we were down to three. Two Americans and one New Zealander, who also formed the sum total of my friends in Paris: another joke. And whenever my daughters made it, I would smile to hide the hurt. Not only was it a stretch to call the three "customers," but even more so to call them friends. Still, I was grateful they occasionally bought books.
The truth is, in modern France as in modern elsewhere, Amazon sells books (and snow tires); bookstores sell coffee. Or, the profitable ones do. Those with bookstores that only sell books have a tougher time. It is slightly easier in France, although Amazon's smirk is almost as ubiquitous here as it likely still is in Milwaukee, where my girls and I lived until recently. (Unless two years is not recent? Some days it feels like twenty years. Other days, twenty minutes.) Enlightened France, however, regulates discounting books (or attempts to) and, even more cheering, occasionally provides independent bookstores financial support. Such aid favors the selling of new books, but Madame Brouillard had long ago figured out a way to benefit, by running a second, smaller bookstore that sold new titles in French. It just happened to coexist inside a bookstore that sold used books in English. The French store specialized in children's titles and was in the front half of what looks like the building's second floor but is actually a cramped mezzanine.
The back half of the mezzanine, flimsily walled off, became my daughters' bedroom, which, if they left the door open upon leaving, sometimes became an ersatz English-language children's bookstore: Daphne once complained someone was stealing her old Beverly Cleary books. I'd been selling them without asking buyers just where they'd picked them up.
The kitchen, living area, and my bedroom are on the floor above the girls. With higher ceilings and more elaborate architectural detail, this is the étage noble. But in our building, the resident noble, Madame Brouillard, commands the top two floors, which have much better light. She lives on one and her own private collection of books lives just above, or so she once told me. For the longest time, I'd never ventured farther into her apartment than the small sitting room just inside the door (which, like the building, like so much of Paris, looks just like authors and artists have long led you to think: late-sun yellow, delicate furniture, lace, an old crystal lamp atop a tiny table).
Paris, in other words, like Madame's promises to show me the top floor, is a challenge, an invitation, a city that doesn't distinguish between the two. It may be why my conversations with Madame often ended abruptly. Or it was because she knew, long before I did, that the trap I'd set was not for customers but for my vanished husband-and that it had ensnared me instead.
It is faintly ironic I find myself running a bookstore, because almost twenty years ago I was caught running from one, a stolen item in hand. And ironic that I've ever chased any man anywhere in Paris, because on that long-ago night, my husband was chasing me.
Please change the set. Unroll a new sidewalk, erect a different storefront, lower a fresh backdrop. Gone is the Eiffel Tower, and arriving in its place is—nothing, really. Blue skies, clouds if you like. A simple city skyline. Steeples here and there, some smokestacks, but otherwise, clip-art buildings. After all, we're no longer in Paris, but Milwaukee.
And there, on my left hand, no ring. We're not married yet, my husband and I. Two moon-pale Midwesterners, we don't even know each other, which makes it awkward that he's just accosted me on the street—a series of heys! dopplering ever closer until I had to turn-about something I have clutched in my right hand. A book. I'm not hiding it, mind you. (I'm not hiding it because I couldn't—it was about ten by twelve inches, a children's book, with a bright red balloon on the cover.)
"Hi," he said with half a smile. "I think you forgot to pay?" He now crinkled half his face to go with his half smile, which was good. It gave him some creases, which gave him some years. He was short, fair, slender but athletic. I'd taken him for seventeen. On his high school's cross-country team. Now I added four years. Later he would add four more: twenty-five. Incredible.
"Oh, I pay," I said. "I pay every day." I got ready to rant about men accosting me on the sidewalk, about men everywhere accosting women everywhere on all the sidewalks of the world—but it wasn't true, not for me, not there, not then.
What was true was that I was embarrassed. Embarrassed I'd stolen something—I'd never stolen anything before—and embarrassed that I'd stolen a children's book. And I was embarrassed I was so poor. I was almost twenty-four, and I had exactly that many dollars in my checking account. I would have more on Monday when I received my grad student stipend, but until then, I had twenty-four dollars, two suspended credit cards, and a surplus of anger. The university library had inexplicably closed early, and I'd decided that I needed the book version of Albert Lamorisse's 1956 movie, The Red Balloon, at that very moment to finish my master's thesis on the great (and quite curious) man. Never mind that I knew by heart every frame of this classic Paris film and every page of the companion book—indeed, its every cobblestone and cat (one living, black, another on a building's poster, white).
Many people my age briefly shared my obsession as kids, thanks to rainy-day recess copies of the film that saturated American elementary schools in the 1970s and '80s. I noticed that, as years passed, those children moved on. I knew I had not, and would not. That book was my first love. Like a crush, a companion, a boyfriend of the type I wouldn't really have, ever. That book, that film, understood me. Or so I felt. I knew that I understood it. And moreover, I understood its Paris. For other girls (and the odd boy), Paris meant flowers and romance and accordions wheezing. The Red Balloon has none of this. It's beautiful, but bracing. Some find it sweet, but I didn't like sweet things as a child and I don't much now. I'm surprised more people-like the staff of the Milwaukee bookstore I was stealing from—don't realize the obvious. Red is the color of warning.
Courtesy of the First Look Book Club