A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE
In this inventive collection of stories, Chris Adrian treads the terrain of human sufferingillness, regret, mourning, sympathyin the most unusual ways. A bereaved twin starts a friendship with a homicidal fifth grader in the hope that she can somehow lead him back to his dead brother. A boy tries to contact the spirit of his dead father and finds himself talking to the Devil instead. A ne'er-do-well pediatrician returns home to take care of his dying father, all the while under the scrutiny of an easily-disappointed heavenly agent. With A Better Angel's cast of living and dead characters, at once otherworldly and painfully human, Adrian has created a haunting work of spectral beauty and wit.
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That November I’m nine and stealing: candy from the supermarket; toys from the dime store; books from the bookstore. And not Curious George and the Bad Touch or Tales of a Fourth Grade Fuck-Up, though I am in fourth grade, and fucked-up. I’m too smart for those books, too smart for the fourth grade, but Mama won’t let them skip me. I’m too smart for Miami Springs, and too smart for my own good.
In November of 1979 I’m four feet ten inches tall, and Papa has been dead for nine months. My little brother is crazy, and I want sometimes to take over the world. I am nine but not nine. I am ancient in blood and heart and bones. Sometimes I feel as wise as a pharaoh. I am in class, listening to Miss Ouida Montoya read to us.
Wild Nights!—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
She goes on, .nishing as passionately as she began. She’s panting when she stops. “Can anyone tell me who wrote that one?” she asks into the silence. She’s not our real teacher, just a substitute who came to us after Ms. Orton’s incident with the bus.
“No one?” This is the .rst time she’s done the poetry thing. Yesterday we mostly made paper-plate turkeys and paper-cup Pilgrims for the upcoming Thanksgiving feast, held annually in the cafeteria, at which we will sing Thanksgiving hymns in between courses of turkeyburger, canned corn, and pumpkin pudding. The day before, she extended our Spanish lesson, reading to us all day from a Spanish translation of The Mouse and the Motorcycle. “Well?” she asks.
“Ask Con,” says Maria Josiah, a girl from Hialeah with an ax-shaped head.
There are snickers all around the room. Buddy Washington, behind me, kicks my chair. “Freaky boy,” he whispers.
“Well, Con?” says Ouida Montoya.
“Well what?” I ask, in a sharp, little-bastardly voice.
“Can you tell me who wrote this poem?”
“Isn’t this a little advanced for us?”
She looks at me, then takes off her glasses. “You know, Con, I got up this morning in a very good mood. I was thinking, I’m going to make a difference today. I’m going to go into class and I am going to make a difference there. I’m going to use this little spell of substitute time to make some small change in your lives. Some small change, a tiny little change.” She snaps her .ngers very softly, so I can barely hear it. “And what better way to make a little change than with a little poetry?” She smiles at me, a sweet, honest smile, aiming her teeth right at me.
“But poetry makes nothing happen,” I say. She puts her glasses back on and lifts her head up, like she just smelled something interesting or nice.
“Who wrote our poem?” Our poem, I think, but I know right off she doesn’t mean it that way.
“My life closed twice,” I say, “before its close. It yet remains to see.”
She smiles wider—impossibly wide, so I think her top lip is going to .ip over her nose, and she uncrosses her legs, then crosses them again. In the quiet I can hear the sound of nylon scraping against nylon.
“If immortality unveil,” she says.
“A third event to me,” I reply.
“So hopeless to conceive.”
“As these that twice befell. Parting is all we know of Heaven.”
“And all we need,” I say, “of Hell.”
Maria Josiah bursts into laughter. “Con said the H word!” She covers her own mouth, as if she was the one that said Hell. The rest of the class just looks at me like, “Weirdo!” and looks at Ouida Montoya like they’re afraid of what she might do next.
“Miss Emily Dickinson,” she says. “That’s who wrote these poems. Everyone please repeat after me. Emily Dickinson!”
“Emily Dickinson!” they say, sounding a little fearful.
“Very good,” she says. “Shall we hear another?” She waits until someone raises a hand. “Yes, Maria?”
“Can’t we just .nish our turkeys?”
“Possibly. Let’s take a vote.”
Turkeys win twenty-four to zero, with me abstaining. So we get out the turkey halves we had previously cut from paper plates and spend the rest of the period stapling them together and coloring them. They are supposed to serve as place markers at the feast, but I write on mine, Happy Birthday, you sorry ass little fucker.
What’s in a birthday? Get over it, asshole. Your bellyaching is grating on my anus.Birthdays make nothing happen.They survive in the valley of their own making.
I am very intent on this, making every letter in a different color and all that shit, so when Ouida Montoya comes over I don’t even notice she’s there until it occurs to me that the .ea-spray smell in my head is her perfume. I put my hand over the turkey but she moves it away so she can read the last lines.
“Everything is so hard,” she says, leaning down to put the hyphen in sorry-ass with her red substitute teacher’s pen.
At recess I’m on top of a jungle gym that everyone avoids when I’m on it. I’m looking out at all the children playing, and I’m thinking, You! Maria Josiah! Death to you! A razor across your eye, Maria!
Buddy Washington, a shovel hard on your head, so hard that raspberry jelly .ies out of your nose!
And Molly LaRouche, your head in a vise!
Sammy Fie, coat you in honey and feed you to the bees!
Rosetta Pablo, feed you to a dog with dull teeth!
I run all down the class list.This is how I pass my recess.When they’re about all dead I hang upside down and close my eyes until I hear somebody come up next to me. It’s Yatha McIlvoy, who happens to be the only person I habitually spare.
“Happy birthday,” she says. “I made you something.” She hands me a Pilgrim. Birthday Pilgrim for Con, it says.
“How’d you know it was my birthday?”
“Ms. Orton said. Last week. Remember?” Ouida Montoya is coming over. She’s in the sun. From where I’m hanging it looks like she’s coming in like an enemy plane. She puts her hand on
“Could I talk to Con a moment, Yatha?”
“Sure,” she says and walks off backwards. After a few feet she waves at me, turns, and runs away.
“May I join you?”
“No,” I say and pull myself up. I’m sitting on top again when she gets there.
“You aren’t happy,” she says.
“I’m sorry I forgot your birthday yesterday,” she says.
“I don’t care.”
“This says different.” It’s the turkey card, which I’d torn into eight pieces and thrown away. She’s taped it back together.
“Not to you,” I say. “I don’t care about you, lady. My mama forgot.”
“Ah,” she says. “Poor Con.”
“Hey,” I say. “Fuck you.” I wait for her to go away, or drag me to see the principal, Sister Gertrude, like Ms. Orton always does. But she just sits there, her long silk skirt hanging down between the bars.
“I said fuck you,” I say. “Nobody asked you to play Good Samaritan to the lonesome birthday boy.”
She leans back, putting her arms behind her, and puts her head back as far as she can get it and still be looking at me. “You’re an angry little fucker, aren’t you?” I just look back. I do not love her then, but when she talks to me like I’m real, when she’s the .rst person in this bore-me-to-death place to talk to me like I’m real, then something happens, and I feel it. A little lurch, like something has just moved inside me. She says, “I meant it earlier.
This morning was halcyon. I looked at the sunlight on my wood .oor, and I said out loud, ‘Ouida Montoya, today you will help somebody.’ And I never talk out loud when nobody else is there. Never. So let me help.” She reaches out and touches my shoulder. “Won’t you tell me what’s the matter with you?”
“My mama forgot my birthday,” I say. “It’s no big deal.”
“It’s more than that,” she says. “I read your .le in the of.ce.” She brings her face close to mine, close enough for a kiss. Wild Nights, I’m thinking suddenly, and I get a little dizzy. Christ, lady, I think. It’s life, is all it is. I fall back away from her, and swing down backwards through the bars to drop to the ground.
“See you in class,” I say, walking away and not looking up.
“Let’s go for a ride, later!” she calls after me.
“Whatever,” I mutter. I want to mangle something, so I crush Yatha’s pilgrim, and then I feel bad and smooth him out, but he still looks pretty fucked-up.
At home yesterday there was the note on the television:
Con and Caleb
Gone shopping for guitar picks etc. with Milo. Back early
evening about. Five dollars in the secret place for dinner.
Excerpted from A Better Angel by Chris Adrian.
Copyright © 2008 by Chris Adrian.
Published in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction
is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or
medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Table of Contents
The Sum of Our Parts,
The Vision of Peter Damien,
A Better Angel,
A Hero of Chickamauga,
A Child's Book of Sickness and Death,