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9781501106781Chapter 1

The First Letter

 

Every night I wake from dreaming. Memory squeezing the trigger of my heart and blood surging through my veins.

The dreams go into a journal. Cold sweat on my skin, adrenaline in my blood, I illuminate my cement room with the 40-watt bulb hanging overhead and, huddled under blankets, flip open my notebook and spill ink across the feint-ruled page. Capturing the ephemera of dreams, before they fade from memory.

I dream of teenage girls, parading the Ox Demons and Snake Ghosts around the running tracks behind our school. I dream of the tall dunce hats on our former teachers’ ink-smeared heads, the placards around their necks. Down with Headteacher Yang! Down with Black Gangster Zhao! I dream of Teacher Wu obeying our orders to slap Headteacher Yang, to the riotous cheers of the mob.

51T6EkMTIlL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them. In the late afternoon, before scarlet ibis bloodied the sunset, light flooded the stained glass windows of Bird Hill Church of God in Christ, illuminating the renderings of black saints from Jesus to Absalom Jones. When there wasn’t prayer meeting, choir rehearsal, Bible study, or Girl Guides, the church was empty except for its caretaker, Mr. Jeremiah. It was his job to chase the children away from the cemetery that sloped down behind the church, his responsibility to shoo them from their perches on graves that dotted the backside of the hill the area was named for. Despite his best intentions, Mr. Jeremiah’s noontime and midnight devotionals at the rum shop brought on long slumbers when children found freedom to do as they liked among the dead.

9780525427421On the last day of August in 1970, and a month shy of her fourteenth birthday, Jory’s father drove his two daughters out to an abandoned house and left them there.

The trip had not taken long. Her father piloted the car with resolute determination toward the very edge of town. He drove past the railroad tracks and the fish hatchery and the rodeo grounds, past the sugar beet factory and the slaughterhouse and the meatpacking plant; all the while Jory stared out the window in a silent fury. Next to her in the Buick’s backseat, Grace was practically unconscious. She lay slumped over with her head resting accidentally on Jory’s shoulder, her drool dampening the upper portion of Jory’s T-shirt. Jory gave her sister a shove and then turned toward the window. Black Cat Lane and Chicken Dinner Road and Floating Feather rolled past—long, twisty lanes sided with fields of sugar beets and alfalfa and corn. Jory watched a lone mallard drop and skid like a bomber onto an irrigation ditch while three goats perched king of the hill–style on a salvaged roof a farmer had put out for them. Her father continued on past several vast silagey-smelling feedlots, and then the fields grew even larger and the scenery more sparse and the houses less frequent, and finally he turned down a narrow unpaved lane that Jory had never seen before. Then he stopped the car and opened the door. Jory refused to look up at the strange house where she and her sister were now to live. She sat in the backseat with her hands between her knees until her father pulled her forcibly out of the car and set her on her feet in the dirt.

Paris He Said_coverAs Jayne made final preparations to leave New York for Paris during the first few days of June, a heat wave turned the sky ashen with trapped pollution and unshed rain. The people she passed on the street seemed more short-tempered than usual, and no one met her gaze other than schoolchildren who glanced up at her with innocent apathy. For a long time she had assumed that poverty or loneliness, or both, would force her to flee the city, but instead she had met an older man who invited her to trade Manhattan for his home in Paris. She said yes with little hesitation.

LB_lThe parts truck rattles and buzzes around us, screaming from years of abuse it has taken from drivers like Spanky. My father would shit himself if he really knew what kind of idiots worked in his parts department. We’re barreling down 219 with a stack of bed liners in back bouncing frantically under strained bungee cords. Spanky fiddles with the radio until he settles on a station, and the clatter of a loosened door panel is replaced by the shrill voice of a hip-hop deejay. After a moment, he has the wheel with his knee so he can work a glass bowl and lighter with his hands. My foot gravitates to an imaginary brake pedal the more we gain on the car in front of us.

“Shit’s fucked up, dude, you know?” This is less like a question when it seeps with a plume of smoke from Spanky’s chapped lips. I don’t respond because that’s what he says, no matter the context. He could be standing at the scene of a horrific accident, blood-drenched bodies and twisted metal, or he could just be walking out of church after a long, soul-quenching service, and in either case, he would probably give that look and say the same thing—Shit’s fucked up, dude, you know? Now he’s telling me another story about a young Canadian girl and what I’ve been missing all my life. I’m trying not to listen, actually, as he competes with the thumping and barking of the radio.

All This Life_FINALSara’s adding more hot water to her bath. She does this with her big toe, moving the dial so the scalding reinforcements pour into the tub. First, her lower legs feel the temperature crank and the sensation slowly moves up her small body, the water working toward her head.

Confession of the Lioness book coverThe night before, the order had been issued in our house: The women would remain shut away, far from those who would be arriving. Once again, we were excluded, kept apart, extinguished.

The following morning, I got down to the household chores. I wanted to give my mother a rest, for she had been lying, ever since the early morning, at the entrance to the yard. At one point I lay down next to her, determined to share with her some of the burden of one who feels the weight of her soul. She took no notice of me at first. Then she mumbled between gritted teeth:

This village killed your sister. It killed me. Now it’s never going to kill anyone again.

Paper Man cover finalThe other pedestrians had been prepared. They popped open their parasols, which had been conveniently stowed inside their bags, strapped to their belt buckles, or in their hands. Strangely, everyone had the same style: a short, wooden handle with black fabric for the canopy. A few men loosely tented newspapers over their heads and dashed for cover. A stocky woman lowered the hood of her stroller and tightened the blankets around a baby. The only parts of the baby that could be seen were its hands, in motion like little pincers. Small nomadic groups of hooded people were headed in all directions—he had no sense which way led to the best place for shelter. Some hid indoors; some huddled beside a bus stop with a small overhang only large enough to cover a bench that could seat three. He stepped into the crosswalk and tried to duck under other people’s umbrellas. Underneath them, the stiff faces of the owners glared at him, recoiled, and hurried on.

9780399173394_large_The_Life_and_Death_of_Sophie_StarkThis excerpt comes a few pages into the second chapter — Sophie Stark is making a film based on an exaggerated story her new girlfriend Allison told about her life, starring Allison herself. Bean and Stacey are characters in the story. Allison narrates this section.

I was still working at the bar then, and Sophie did all the casting without me. So I didn’t meet the guy she picked for Bean until our first day of shooting. He hadn’t come to the read-through—Sophie’s assistant director, a stuck-up girl named Susan who I already didn’t like, read his part in a schoolteachery voice. But there he was the first day, at the community center that was supposed to be my high school, wearing a white T-shirt that looked like it had been dipped in pee.

The Children's Crusade by Ann PackerAll afternoon the children avoided their mother: moving from room to room, or from indoors to outdoors, a step or two ahead of her. They joined together occasionally, all except Robert, but they didn’t gather again until their father returned. By then it was late afternoon; when they stood on the driveway, their shadows stretched from their feet nearly to the house. Robert’s stomach hurt most when he stood up straight, so he walked bent over at the waist, hobbling like an old man. Their father had eight bags of ice, and they each took one from the trunk of his car and carried it to the deep freeze in the garage—each except James, who ran from one sibling to another, touching the bags of ice and yipping with something that wasn’t quite shock and wasn’t quite laughter.

The Chapel_FINALBlue.

Had Mitchell, my dead husband, been standing beside me, where he belonged, he would have whispered, First impression?

My first and enduring impression of the chapel was blue.

The ceiling was a deep azure evening sky flecked with golden stars. The residents of the heavens were provided with golden portholes on either end, and from the smaller of these windows on the world bearded saints and patriarchs looked down approvingly. The bigger, central lookout above the altar end was occupied by Jesus in his middle age, and near the original entrance, above the Last Judgment, the Virgin Mary held her infant son for all to see.

LoveMapsThe funeral parlor is indeed in a strip mall. A single-story stucco with a shoe store attached to one side and an office-supply place on the other. Sarah parks the car and sits behind the wheel, staring at the double doors of the funeral parlor, not wanting to go in. Twenty percent to Tori. Twenty percent to this Philip Clark. Sixty percent to Conningsby’s biological family. What does any of that mean? As if you can prove your claim by the mass of ash you carry around. She imagines the funeral director standing by a table, and on the table is a scale—an old-fashioned, double-plated one, like the scales of justice. He’s wearing a butcher’s apron over his undertaker’s black, and he’s scooping Conningsby’s ashes onto the plate, his glasses halfway down his nose, frowning, shaking his head in holy disgust.

1426784423085Day 9

 

Russell drove us up 65th to Phinney Ridge, his white stomach stuffed behind the wheel of the quick blue convertible Porsche. He accelerated over the cross streets, and Alice, who’d flagged us down outside her parents’ house, made girlish sounds as she floated, momentarily, above the tiny back seat while Russell leered at her in the rearview mirror. He’d shown up unannounced that morning, had simply pulled up and honked out front until I came to the door. Two minutes later I’d been convinced to “see something.” We crested Phinney, dodged left, and leapt into the air on our way down the other side.

“Are we in a hurry?” I asked.

“Try to be alive,” he shouted over the buzz of the car’s high revving engine. “You will be dead soon enough!”

This sounded familiar. I tried to remember who’d said it, and watched Green Lake disappear behind the trees as we fell back to its level.

“I’m fine here,” said Alice, and the car stopped more quickly than I would have thought possible.

ThievesCoverIn 1953, when he was 28 years old and already an established author, Gore Vidal wrote a pulp crime novel — Thieves Fall Out — under the name “Cameron Kay”. The novel was lost, never reprinted, and Vidal went on to become one of America’s greatest and most controversial authors, winning a National Book Award in 1993. Now, more than 60 years later, the book has been published under the author’s real name for the first time by Hard Case Crime.

Thieves Fall Out follows Pete Wells, a down-on-his-luck American, in a Cairo that is on the cusp of revolution. Wells is hired to smuggle an ancient relic out of the city, where he soon finds himself the target of killers and femme fatales. The following excerpt is from the opening of the novel, where the reader meets Mr. Wells for the first time.

Thirlwell, Adam (c) Peter Marlow (for L&C)So what you’re saying is: it’s never you?

Exactly.

 

As soon as you say I in a novel, it’s always someone else?

What I mean is: perhaps to the outside world this might seem strange, where I am interviewed by my double –

 

Well exactly –

But what I want to say is: how different is this to what happens every day when someone writes a novel? Or even: when someone reads a novel? Always you have this blurring of identities. Or not so much blurring as separation.