As an illustration of what I was up against at Napa State Hospital, what they used to call an asylum for the criminally insane, my fellow inmate Arn Boothby, an angry three-hundred-pound paranoid schizophrenic who regularly “cheeked” his meds, tried to kill another inmate one day in the client convenience store by grabbing his throat and throwing him through a glass display case. I was standing in line to buy a pack of breath mints at the time and can attest to him saying, “P. S. I Love You,” as the blood spread across the tiles. Boothby was tackled by two psych techs; a staff nurse and hospital police converged within minutes to beat in Boothby’s brains behind closed doors. Boothby told me later they would’ve killed him had not Dr. Fasstink inadvertently intervened. Boothby went to jail, vacation time for most of us at NSH, and I didn’t see him at the card game for a few months. When you’re surrounded by murderers, bank robbers, arsonists, and child molesters you’ll play cards with just about anyone.

Your book is dedicated To Ceci. Who’s that?

She’s my mom.

 

So why not say, To Mom?

My sister and I have always called my parents by their first names. It’s always been the most natural thing for us—I think I tried calling them Mom and Dad once, and it felt weird and impersonal. When I was nine, one of my teachers asked my mom if “Ceci” meant “Mom” in Spanish, because she kept hearing us call her that. I thought, it is our word for Mom.

2.

Michael and Scottie stood out from the moment they strolled down the gangplank of the sleek ocean liner that carried them and their possessions to Italy. They seemed to have stepped right out of an advertisement for Betty Crocker, Wonder Bread or capitalism itself. He was twenty-four, handsome, always in a nicely cut suit, camera around his neck. She, barely twenty, was a knockout. Blond, pretty, quick to laugh, always in an elegant hat and pearl choker. She had what the Italians call raffinatezza, a word that covers everything that is the opposite of vulgar—a quality Italians deeply aspired to, while at the same time remaining powerless to resist anything gilded, mirrored, shiny or bejeweled. This spring the papers were full of the marriage of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, and it was as if Siena’s own version of the royal couple had arrived. Even though there were other Americans coming and going in Siena, those two would become the Americans. Gli americani. Both of them so young, healthy, wealthy and in love. They seemed so free. That was how they seemed.

Adelaide Randolph does not meet me at the airport. Instead, she sends the intern, Owen, to fetch me. A scrappy little man-boy who looks as if his mother has just finished scrubbing him up for church waits outside the curb at baggage claim, holding up a sign that reads “Mueller: Belle Rive Plantation.”

He offers his hand and I pretend not to see it. Handshakes are the Devil’s germ-delivery system.

“Hey, I’m Owen. Flight okay?”

I nod as he grabs the handle of my wheelie bag and steers us out to the parking lot, his mouth going the whole time.

“Blue the Dog, stay.”

The girl was trying to vomit again, retching, and Blue the Dog was worried, whining with that little huffing noise, his nostrils flaring, his big tail smacking against the leg of the table. The girl had been puking on and off for about an hour, and now, worse, she lay suffering on my porch sofa. I held a cup of spring water to her lips so she could sip, but she wasn’t keeping down even a dribble—her body was being hateful, and making not to stop. She couldn’t calm her singleness: the toxins must be deep in her cells.

Fairy tales terrified me when I believed in things. On my fifth birthday, one of Mama’s lady friends, Miss Janice, came over for dinner. We weren’t having a party or anything that year, just a quiet meal at the kitchen table with huck-a-bucks for dessert. Miss Janice taught at a university. I remember her as the kind of lady Mama liked: smart, well educated, not the type to wear makeup. She was the first black woman I’d ever seen with short hair. Over dinner, Miss Janice told us about her travels up and down back roads, through abandoned farms, into the backwoods and hollers of the South. She’d been looking for old people to tell her stories, but not just anyone or any story. Her stories had to be particular.

“All your stories come from one town?” Mama asked.

“That’s the thing baby,” Miss Janice said, “There’s more than one Okahika.”

Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever.

I had an aunt who was such a person. She went to Istanbul when she was in her twenties. She met a good-looking carpet seller from Cappadocia. She’d been a classics major in college and had many questions to ask him, many observations to offer. He was a gentle and intelligent man who spent his days talking to travelers. He’d come to think he no longer knew what to say to Turkish girls, and he loved my aunt’s airy conversation. When her girlfriends went back to Greece, she stayed behind and moved in with him.   This was in 1970.

Prologue: Make Straight the Paths

 Ciara Neal, bleary eyed at the bar, was vaguely aware that her friends had left. In fact, all the customers were gone except her, and still Fran didn’t call closing time. She hovered nearby, clearing off glasses and muttering. Something about a priest. Then a word that managed to penetrate Ciara’s brain fog.

“Did you say ‘vigilantes’?”

“Drink this.”

Fran slammed down a coffee mug in front of her. It didn’t smell like coffee. Didn’t taste like any tea Ciara knew of. Presumably it was the same stuff that Fran swilled down every night. If she had to guess, she’d have said it was brewed from tobacco leaves.

“I’ve been listening to you mouth off all night,” Fran said, “louder and louder with each beer you put away. And here’s what I have to say to you: quit your whining. How many people even have the chance to go to college?”

PROLOGUE

Lilacs were blooming in Cracauerplatz. The Visitor felt disoriented and alone, an outsider, lost without a map. Her atrophied German stuck in her throat. Thirty-one years had elapsed between her last stay in Germany (for an ill-fated job in Frankfurt) and her return to Berlin in late middle age. The city struck her as post-apocalyptic—flat and featureless except for its rivers, its lakes, its legions of bicyclists. She found herself nameless: nameless in crowds, nameless alone. Another disappearance in a city with a long history of disappearance acts.

“I’m wracking brain, Izaac. Who is Stanley Brozek? This name is ringing a bell, but I cannot place it.”

Izaac tapped the paper lightly against his thigh. “I don’t know. Come.”

He tossed the newspaper on top of her galoshes to offer Ludka his arthritic hands, which were still good enough for leverage.

“Take a breath, kochanie, and come with me into the kitchen. I’m going to have a little drink and I suggest you do, too. One drink won’t shatter our wits. Come now.”

Paris, January 1940

By the time Lena reached the British embassy, her feet ached, the sky was dark and overcast, and a cold wind whipped her face. She climbed the familiar stone steps and pushed through the heavy door. At least she would find a few hours of shelter inside.

PROLOGUE

NOVEMBER 2000

Peaches Pocotillo never got to kill anyone anymore. All those years he’d spent perfecting his craft had led to bigger and better things, which in this case meant a mid-level leadership position in the Native Mob, overseeing tribal gang consolidation and farming operations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, even into Nebraska. He had Native Gangster Disciples reporting to him, Native Vice Lords, Native Crips, Native Bloods, Peaches the one guy everyone listened to, the one guy who could get everyone to the table, the one guy who you didn’t want to cross, because, man, he used to kill people for nothing, son.

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.