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Robert

In some cultures, alluding to the dead is considered taboo. Even remembering them is forbidden. Above all, one must never utter the deceased individual’s name.

 Now that I think of it, I have known a couple more people who’ve died. First there was Robert. It’s not like I knew him well or anything, but I did know him.

Winter 1944

Later, Evelyn would look back and remember that she wasn’t the one who noticed Renard first. No, it was her sister, Ruby, who caught the too-short right hem of his suit pants in her side view. Ruby was thicker than Evelyn, not fat by a long shot, but thick in a way that prevented her from ever feeling comfortable eating. Her favorite food was red beans and rice, and Monday was hard on her. Their mother would boil a big pot and feel relieved, two pounds plenty to feed the family for at least three days, but Ruby felt taunted by the surplus. She’d cut in and out of the kitchen the beginning of the week, sneaking deep bowls of rice and applying as little gravy as she could to maintain the flavor but not alert her family to her excess. Then on Thursday, she’d examine the consequences. It would start in the morning on the way in to school. Ruby attended vocational school and Evelyn attended Dillard University, but their campuses were only a few blocks apart, and they walked the majority of the way together.

Mom comes to pick me up at the airport. She pulls up to the curb in a beat-up Camry, my old car when I was in high school. There’s a fresh dent on the front bumper and a long, black scratch on the passenger-seat door. She’s wearing her flannel work clothes, her unwashed hair flecked with white paint. She smells of plaster and sweat and that oily, non-ventilated odor of cheap Chinese restaurants. I give her a hug, but she stiffens, unused to Western expressions of affection. When she smiles, I see her left front tooth has turned brown. Everything is a stab in the heart.

Translator’s Note

You never enter Beijing the same way twice. For centuries this was a hidden, forbidden empire: nine gates through which to pass, each with a melliferous name (Gate of Peace, Gate of Security, Gate Facing the Sun), each moat, wall, guard tower knocked down then rebuilt. First the Mongols, the Manchus, then the Boxers and Brits. So many defenses needed to protect the Peaceful Capital that eventually it was renamed Northern Capital—Beijing—for fear of instilling a false sense of quiet.

In the twenty years I’ve lived here, I witnessed hutong alleyways paved over by four-lane highways, a landscape of construction cranes pocking the horizon with hungry, steel arms; my old neighborhood with its elderly inhabitants, once accustomed to shared squat toilets and courtyard kitchen fires, shipped to the suburbs to make way for a Holiday Inn and an office tower with iridescent windows reflecting an endlessly gray, heavy sky.

October 1576

“No! I won’t go!” Emilia shouted, kicking at the rushes on the floor.

“Stop that and come here, Emilia!” Her mother held out her arms.

Emilia stomped around the room, shouting, “No, no!” Stompstomp. “No, no, no, no, NO!”

“Stop!” implored her mother.

The little girl stood teetering as her mother began to cough. She stood on one foot, then slowly lowered the other to the floor. “Stop coughing, Mama!”

Her mother pressed her handkerchief to her mouth, swallow- ing hard, then sprang up and grabbed her daughter by the shoulders. “You are going to the Countess of Kent, and that’s all there is to it!” Emilia went limp and began to wail as her mother held her tight.

Signorina.

Signora Rosa. Such a delicate name. She must be someone’s grandmother, stout and soft with a halo of white hair; this had tricked me into thinking that she would be soft with me. But she is all hard edges. No sooner have I closed the door than she is there on the stairs with that same side-eyed look. Why? It is almost September. Almost a new month. Only cash, she’d said when she agreed to rent me this bright apartment, even though it was caro, caro, caro. Only cash. Up front.

He jogged through the woods, Champ lunging ahead and leaping on and off the trail leading to the Castle.

“Quiet, dummy. You’ll give us away.”

He hadn’t wanted to bring the shepherd, but he’d been halfway through the woods when he’d heard Champ’s collar jingling and the dog had bounded out from the trees. There wasn’t time to turn back. He had to warn the island.

There’d also been no time to change, and he was wearing his Hawaiian robe over his pajamas, clutching the opening at his crotch closed with one hand.

His slippers came off a few times. Sticks and sharp pebbles sliced at the soft meat of his soles. He had to stop where the trail climbed a steep hill, and when he bent over to catch his breath, his stomach convulsed and the ice-cream cake he’d had after dinner splattered on the leaf-covered ground. Champ hopped over and licked at the mess.

Commercial Wisdom

 

Ravelton Parlay was a wealthy man and a rational, even calculating one. But that didn’t mean he was beyond belief either in theory or in practice. The guy had faith in spades. Not to mention diamonds, clubs, and hearts. The truth was Parlay had an entire deck of faith—not just in God, but in himself, Capitalism, and America—the sort of clean, clear, core belief structure that had propelled him to greatness and promised to keep him going, to keep him growing ever greater, into eternity and beyond. Of course, Parlay prayed. As a creature of belief—not to mention habit—he prayed morning and night, noon and midday. Parlay prayed working in his office and napping in his dayroom, sitting down to meals and standing up to scream. He prayed in the back seats of limos and the staterooms of yachts, as he strolled the grounds of Bayousalem or hustled through a Righteous Burger photo op. Parlay prayed for his employees, his servants, and even his fourth wife, the beautiful, sexually elusive Kelly Anne. He prayed for the smiley little black kids in Africa, the wizened Asian herdsmen in the Himalayas, and the endangered species —including the ones that weren’t even furry or cute. Heck, Parlay even prayed for the entire world once in a while. Most often, though, Parlay prayed for his beloved country. He prayed for America.

*Official May selection of the TNB Book Club.

 

NEW YEAR’S EVE

iurA young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. He’s been drinking the old year down to the dregs, until his eyes grew sore and his stomach turned, and he was tired of the bright lights and bustle. “I’ll just go down to the water,” he said, and kissed the nearest cheek: “I’ll be back before the chimes.” Now he looks east to the turning tide, out to the estuary slow and dark, and the white gulls gleaming on the waves.

It’s cold, and he ought to feel it, but he’s full of beer and he’s got on his good thick coat. The collar rasps at the nape of his neck: he feels fuddled and constricted and his tongue is dry. I’ll go for a dip, he thinks, that’ll shake me loose; and coming down from the path stands alone on the shore, where deep in the dark mud all the creeks wait for the tide.

to the stars through difficultiesTORNADO DEMOLISHES KANSAS TOWN

NEW HOPE, Ks. (AP)—The entire community of Prairie Hill, Kansas (population 2754) was demolished Saturday evening by a tornado the National Weather Bureau rated EF-5, the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The twister was 1.7 miles wide, on the ground non-stop for 24 miles and 29 minutes, with a wind velocity of 200 mph.

Over 100 injuries have been treated at the nearby makeshift clinic in New Hope. The town was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins.

“Exactly one wall is standing,” said Mayor Wade Brown. “The front, just the façade, of the old Carnegie library is the only vertical object in the entire town. Otherwise, everywhere I look, there’s nothing but sky. Flattened debris and sky. We’re lucky; we had a 20-minute warning which saved hundreds of lives, but otherwise, we have nothing.”

Show Her a Flower, A Bird A ShadowPetal, Feather, Particle

Show her a flower, a bird, a shadow, and she will show you what is simultaneously forming and falling apart. What is both witness and sign along the way on this rough earth, a shell already cracked. She’d thought she could raise a child with only minimal intercession but now, as she was being driven to the hotel, found herself looking up at the ceiling of the car, mumbling a quiet prayer. Her daughter was like her: too quick to do everything.

The girl’s father had been someone she once knew, or thought she had, a man who laid her in repose on the bed and gave her waist a tender squeeze before arranging her hands on top her, placing the right over the left, palm over knuckles. He studied her in that corpse-like pose, letting his glass with the float of lime warm in his hand, before his mouth captured hers.

TLDC cover imageThe lost daughter collective gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city. The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone. Along with the roomful of fathers, there is weak tea and a healthy supply of biscuits neither sweet nor tart. A rich store of tissues is hidden in nooks throughout the large, single-room loft that composes the thirty-third floor, out of sight so as not to invite tears. Despite this, crying often ensues, though most of the men use their sleeves.

The fathers categorize their lost daughters in two ways: dead or missing. A dead daughter is deemed a Dorothy, a missing one an Alice. Qualifying their lost girls in this way is a silently endorsed coping mechanism. When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life. The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait. Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.

BIGCITY-COVER-frontCharlie Debunk drops two lead balls, plunk-plunk, into the flared mouth of his flintlock Blunderbuss. The balls tumble down the rusty barrel like fishline sinkers. He sets the antique weapon across his legs and picks up a red clay jug of cornjuice. He takes long happy drinks that scorch his gullet and muddle his head.

Charlie Debunk has been loading his Blunderbuss for a week and has yet to pull the trigger. He is waiting for something special to shoot. Five days and a hundred miles ago he and his two partners made a trade with a big lunking Polack who calls himself Big Polack. Big Polack gave Charlie the gun, along with a pouch of lead balls, a pouch of powder, a pouch of flints, a twenty-inch ramrod, and a pouch of gold nuggets easily worth five hundred dollars. Charlie and his partners, Eddie Plague and Skunk Brewster, in turn, gave Big Polack a ten-year-old aborigine girl they had liberated from a starving tribe of Chickasaws. Charlie figures they got the better end of the deal. The girl had not even been old enough to noodle and had whooped like a warrior when Charlie noodled her anyway.

Sanderia Fayes MOURNERS BENCH CoverIndoor plumbing was the last significant change in Maeby, Arkansas, before my mama left town. For as long as I could remember, my family and other colored folks kept our pigs, chickens, cows and all other animals in our backyards, and a little further back, always from the gardens, sat the outhouses. The all-white city council threatened to take the animals away from us if we didn’t clean up our yards and do something about that horrific smell. We didn’t pay them no mind, talked about it after they drove off in their city cars. Reverend Jefferson may have brought it up in one of his sermons, but generally, we went on back to minding our business and so did they until the next time they felt up to performing their civic duties. Then one day the city council members decided to make good on their promises. They bucked up and passed an ordinance that required us to remove all the farm animals outside of the city limits, and to get it done in no time flat. Just for the sake of it, they told us that we must tear the toilets out of the outhouses and replace them with flushable ones. All the grown folks were in a huff about it, especially over the toilets, but since I’d never seen or heard of one, I reserved my passion for when I would know what I was getting upset about.

The Good at Heart coverOne

The day the German army opened fire on its own citizens in Blumental was the day of Pimpanella’s miracle. It was a cool summer morning, with the first promise of sun after four drizzly, cold days. Rosie woke early, hopped out of bed, and ran downstairs. Ever since she turned five, she had been allowed to check for eggs in the henhouse. She loved crawling into the small plywood hutch that housed the four chickens, reaching into each nest, and gently wiggling her fingers between the straw and the burlap, feeling around for that small, smooth oval, still warm from being under the hen’s puffed chest, the shell slightly soft.

Rosie also loved the hens, Pimpanella especially. Spindly little Pimpanella was the closest thing Rosie had to a pet; she was the only chicken who did not peck at Rosie’s feet in the outhouse. And Rosie protected Pimpanella against her grandfather. The last time Opa was home from Berlin, he declared Pimpanella useless because she had never been able to produce an egg. “A poor excuse for a fowl,” he called her. He chased Pimpanella around the yard with a stewpot lid, yelling at her to pull herself together and do her part for the war effort.