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PROLOGUE TWO                   POP!_Cover

PORCELAIN GOD

The dudes who remodeled my mom’s master bathroom forgot to take away the old pink toilet. So there it stood, in the middle of our front yard—a constant amidst the turning, falling leaves of autumn.

We figured they’d be back for it, the toilet. After a week or so of rousing suspicion among the other residents of Green Street, the unspoken realization hit us: that pink throne was our problem now.

One crisp November afternoon, my mom and brother and I all found ourselves standing around the thing with steaming cups of coffee in our hands. My mug had a chip and read: “Nobody’s Perfect.”

“How heavy is it?” My brother tried his best to surmise the toilet’s heft with his mind then tilted it with his free hand.

599105446454460d9c53a7721746d9af_xe8j5tIt was a typical, two-story frame house, the kind of colonial one saw all across the Corn Hill section of Utica, a small white house with a green roof, green shutters, a green door, a wide front porch with a swing and a couple of white rocking chairs and a view onto the street, the goings-on of the neighborhood. When Max imagined, as he occasionally did, what it might be like to have a family of his own, he saw them in such a house, on such a porch, in such a swing. Leading up to it was a walkway of gray paved stones lined by hedges. The hedges were expertly trimmed, never overgrown, curving gently into the front yard in which Irene and Abe had long-ago planted a peach tree that now towered almost to the second story windows and dropped its soft fruit onto the porch every July. The fruit never rotted there or went to waste. Irene swept it up into her apron, ushered it into her kitchen with its white counter tops scoured daily, covered in matching canister sets, its drawers full of egg whiskers and potatoes mashers, a cozy breakfast nook in the corner and coffee percolating besides the stove. It was a house with everything a man could want or ask for, a house with not just the basics a person needed to survive —heat, plumbing, a roof to block out the elements— but all the small comforts that made it a place that drew a person in, invited him back. Max looked up at the Auer home, at the sun hammering at the windows, the peach tree swaying lightly in the breeze, the white nubs of a dogwood overhanging the porch like little bells. And on the porch, the person who brought it all into being, a beautiful brunette planting flowers in a window box. Abe Auer had come to this country with nothing; now he had all this. Yet still he worried. Max stood a moment, dizzy in the drinkable summer air, trying to make the disjointed ends meet, and then he remembered why he’d come, that it wasn’t his job to solve all the human mysteries of the world. He stepped forward, waved hello to Irene Auer.

ContraryMotioncover9780812998283Late Saturday morning—a warm day with an armada of big white clouds overhead—Audrey and I head up to a wedding I’m playing in Glenview. I can’t afford to turn down a gig and I can’t afford to give up one of my days with her, so I sometimes impress her into service as my roadie. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to mind, maybe because she gets to wear her frilly white dress with the green sash and her shiny Mary Janes, or maybe because she gets a roadie’s prestige without having to perform any of a roadie’s tasks.

Today, for example, she’s only carrying her stuffed unicorn that had its electronic guts removed one grim day, just before I was asked to leave the Rogers Park apartment, when Milena apparently heard the unicorn’s song one time too many. Now, rolling my 85P harp up a broad concrete walkway to the church entrance, with Audrey and her mute unicorn in tow, I can’t help but feel we’re a pair of refugees from the land of nuclear families, making a bid for repatriation.

True Stories at the Smoky View coverVrai wished she had the nerve to leave Skip’s ashes and the box of things from his apartment on his mother’s doorstep. Why not loop Cassi’s leash around the dogwood, ring the doorbell, and run? She didn’t regret the phone call to his mother to offer condolences. Skip would surely have done the same for her. But this visit would be downright awkward.

She and Skip had both grown up here in Knoxville. Decades later they’d become close friends while working in the same library in Baltimore. Just up the street from that library, four days ago, Skip had been hit by a car. According to the article in the Baltimore Sun, the driver, an optician, claimed Skip had stepped off the curb with his hands over his eyes. The article had his name right, Jasper Pascal Howard, Jr., but said he was fifty years old. Skip was only forty-nine, two years older than Vrai.

Bittersweet Way, Skip had ruefully called this quiet, tree-lined street where his mother still lived, and for Vrai, too, his old neighborhood was steeped in sadness. Her best friend, Laramie, had lived next door to Skip.

51kgifio8wL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Nobody walks in L.A. This is a well-known fact. Everything spread too distantly, too arrogantly—the city, the county, the Southland, however you want to categorize it all. The only connection the great roaring freeways, like clogged ancient rivers, carrying commerce and travelers, people making their way in the world, industrious and air-conditioned and unaware, but not walking, no, never.

Nonetheless, Father Jim Hinshaw isn’t going to let the limitations of his adopted hometown—three years and running, still genuinely flummoxed to be among what he used to think of as the chosen of Southern California—ruin his lifelong love of a good, brisk walk.

Waste CoverPawned

Jamie Garrison knew he’d made a mistake when Connor Condon began to thrash around inside the plastic Kmart bag. The kid looked like a fish, his big mouth puffing out and pulling in the plastic, his lips fat and purple. Jamie saw Connor’s eyes staring back at him in the window. He could see the boy’s skin slowly changing color, the muscles in his neck straining to yank the plastic off his face.

Jamie didn’t stop though. He just ground his teeth together and pulled tighter while the ninth-graders near the front took up a chant of condom, condom, condom, condom…their voices bounced between the syllables. The bus driver wasn’t even looking, her eyes burning into the back of a stalled driver’s head, her horn blaring at the green Chevy that refused to move from the turning lane. Brock was in the seat beside Jamie and leading the chant with his hands in the air, his mouth dangling open as it always did, his leather jacket reeking of cat piss. Brock flicked his wrists like a maestro and the chant rose.

Dancing in the Baron's Shadow CoverHe adjusted his visor and gazed at the photo tucked into the flap: a small boy with a melon-shaped head Raymond lovingly stroked and a little girl with red ribbons in every tiny braid. Both were flashing giant smiles. Enos was the spitting image of his father, his skin always glistening in the blaze of summer. Adeline favored her mother, with brown, bony cheekbones and a spear for a tongue. Raymond smiled. Just this morning, as he dropped them at school, she’d tried again to convince him he didn’t need to take the time off work to pick them up. “We can walk home,” she assured him, squeezing her little brother’s hand.

They could. He knew that. But he wanted to give this to his children: the gift of transportation, something he’d never had himself. Raymond had walked several miles to school in bad shoes, on harsh country roads of gravel and stone. Whenever he reminisced about his country days, his wife Yvonne would smile at the children. “See how much your father does for you?” But it was true. Now that he had a life and a family in the city, he wanted to afford his offspring the luxury of a car. Even if “luxury” was this old beat-up Datsun taxi, a red ribbon tied to the rearview mirror to signal that he was still on duty.

i hate the internet covertrigger warning:

Capitalism, the awful stench of men, historical anachronisms, death threats, violence, human bondage, faddish popular culture, despair, unrestrained mockery of the rich, threats of sexual violation, weak iterations of Epicurean thought, the comic book industry, the death of intellectualism, being a woman in a society that hates women, populism, an appalling double entendre, the sex life of Thomas Jefferson, genocide, celebrity, the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, discussions of race, Science Fiction, anarchism with a weakness for democracy, the people who go to California to die, millennial posturing, 276 pages of mansplaining, Neo-Hellenic Paganism, interracial marriage, elaborately named hippies practicing animal cruelty on goats, unjust wars in the Middle East, 9/11, seeing the Facebook profile of someone you knew when you were young and believed that everyone would lead rewarding lives.

  

Cover_Why We Came to the CityWilliam Cho never ceased to be amazed. Here he was in the penthouse of one of the most luxurious hotels in Manhattan, in the midst of a great spiral of artists and patrons. Strange accents buzzed past his ears. A Persian woman passed by with owl feathers braided into her hair. There was snow blowing around out on the balcony, and beyond it more snow was falling a hundred stories to the streets. A Somali man by the window gestured wildly, his platinum watchband glinting in a spotlight. Diamonds ringed the neck of a white girl on the bathroom line, who couldn’t be older than twenty. She and a Brazilian boy of about the same age studied a twisting glass sculpture that reminded William of a tidal wave, frozen solid. And here he was among them, feeling strangely rich by association, not least because he was standing there talking to—being talked to, really—by Sara Sherman, of all people.

A Free, Unsullied Land CoverSweaty in the hot summer of ’27. An execution is imminent, and the family has been dreading it for years. Henriette wakes to the sound of feet hurrying along the hall outside her second-floor bedroom, then down the stairs and back up again. A thin, keening sound. Coughs and sobs. It’s her older brother Carl, plagued by a nightmare.

Henriette was eight in 1920 when Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fishmonger, were convicted of robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, and she’s grown up with this wound to her sense of hope and possibility. Wisps of adult conversation drifting above her head taught her the story. Now she lies rigid in her bed, as though her stillness could stop time, standing by while others face what may already have become disaster.

Good on Paper 300dpiPronto! Pronto! Hello!

A man with a Hollywood pizza-guy accent introduced himself.

It was Romei, or so he said in a passable imitation of Romei’s voice, known to me and everyone in America from his cameo on Seinfeld, where he played a poet who may or may not have stolen Jerry’s cigar (allowing Romei to say,Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar).

Do you know what time it is? I asked blearily, though in fact it was only seven.

You are Shira Greene, yes? The translator? This is Romei!

I swear he said it with a flourish.

Your joke isn’t funny, whoever you are. Go away, I said, and hung up the phone.

He called again.

Amado OrigOf all people, Mercy Amado (nació Fuerte) should know that happiness is a decision. You simply cast aside that which you are tired of looking at, weary of battling, unable to accept, and focus on that which remains. She had to have learned something during the span of her lifetime, with its marital therapy, grief counseling, past life-regression, born-again Christianity, flirtation with Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism and atheism. Sixty years. When did you figure it all out? When did you understand the world? When did God take you by the hand and explain it all to you, elaborating that you were indeed His child—special, gifted, divine—and apologize for the mess along the way?

9781501116100Hannah

It is certainly strange, to live the first few weeks in my new body. Perhaps the strangest part is how inconsequential the change feels sometimes. Not dying, no longer being in pain, these differences are so startling and so complete that it’s easy to forget that I was ever sick to begin with. There is no scarring, no residual damage, no daily reminder of the months I spent being mutilated by tubes and wires and needles. I have a full, thick head of hair. And I’m no longer as frail as I was in the beginning; slender stretches of muscle begin to form under the skin of my arms and legs. I look like I’m closer to running a marathon than dying of anything.

There are other things, too. Little things. My hearing is pin sharp, instead of muted by my years of rock concerts and riding on Jake Mariano’s motorcycle as a teenager and the clattering din of taking the Red Line. The little aches and pains I used to carry with me—waking up with a stiff neck, cracking the ankle I sprained playing soccer as a kid, the enduring tightness in my hips and the backs of my thighs from painting for hours on end—are gone. They are removed so thoroughly that I can’t remember exactly what they felt like. Any and all excess fat has been spirited from under my skin, leaving a thin, supple sort of body it its wake. The dimpling in my thighs and the small crevices of stretch marks in my sides, the handful of scars I’d amassed in my twenty-seven years, all have been replaced by tight, flat skin. It’s a body so perfect it is difficult to inhabit sometimes, because it’s difficult to imagine it’s really mine.

the children's home3.inddThe children began to arrive soon after Engel came to the house. It was Engel who found the first one, an infant girl, in a basket, with a bundle of neatly folded, freshly washed clothes. The basket had been left on the steps leading up from the kitchen into the garden. Whoever had put it there must have known the way the house worked, because days might have passed before any of the other doors were opened; left anywhere else, the child would probably have died. As it was, no more than an hour or two had gone by but already the creature was blue with cold. Engel picked her up and held her, the small soft body pressed to her bosom, the small wrinkled face in the warm crook of her neck, for she didn’t know how long; a living daylight was how she described it to Morgan when she brought the baby up to him in his study. Looking across from his reading with amusement, Morgan explained that the living daylights were always plural and that they were supposed to be the part of the human soul most susceptible to fear. She nodded, fervently, that’s exactly right, it just goes on and on. That’s exactly how it was, she said, with the child’s small heart barely beating and the breath like a short hot knife blade on the skin of Engel’s neck. Engel lifted the baby away from her body and held her out to Morgan, who shook his head. She said they should tell someone perhaps, someone would know what to do with her, but Morgan disagreed. Left to himself he might have been tempted, what use did he have for a child, after all? But he could hear that Engel’s heart wasn’t in it. Just look at you both, he said. What could be better than this? Don’t you know how to deal with her as well as anyone? Let her stay here with us, where she will be clothed and fed, and kept out of this wicked weather. At least for a while. Perhaps, he thought, the child’s presence would encourage Engel not to go.

51FkAVmIKtL._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_And I’m telling you, she was about to slip. She was gonna blurt everything, I could feel it. I was sitting just like I am now. You know, legs crossed at the ankle, not too much, medium smirk. I was drinking coffee, just watching her. I was holding back, that’s what I’m saying. And that’s the part that kills me. I know that bitch! She’s dying to tell me! She just can’t bring herself to spit it out! Actually that’s the part that excites me. I can admit it. Like everywhere else, the women here are inveterate liars. But here it’s like they won’t let up! No matter what, the charade must go on!