In this dazzling premier collection, Leni Zumas shines a bright light into the far corners of a dark, dreamlike America populated by a cast of characters on the brink of survival. With the Gothic style of Flannery O’Connor, the urgent lyricism of Jayne Anne Phillips, and the quirky humor of Sam Lipsyte and George Saunders, Zumas blends a lyrical, poetic voice with remarkably original storytelling. A teenage boy finds his blind mother making a pass at his new best friend; a lonely woman works in a pillow factory by day and at night tends to a menagerie of sick animals; an aspiring witch is disillusioned by her spiritual shortcomings; a girl from a town so small it doesn’t exist on any map runs away with a rock band. The odds stacked against them, these lovingly rendered outsiders find redemption in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Zumas so skillfully intertwines the utterly fantastic with the absolutely believable that the reader has no choice but to follow in fascination and wonder. Even the most surreal moments take on a surprising familiarity, and the bleakest moments are imbued with unexpected hope. To become engrossed in Zumas’s world is a strange and beautiful delight.
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Read an Excerpt
We live with the lights off in a rot-walled house. In our yard the dogs wait and a tree drops plums. I stand with a basket. Enough catch and Black will make plum salad, plum pie. All summer we chew sugar till our teeth sting. In the winter we eat from jars, cold runny fruit, and the radio plays in the dark.
Too pretty for the looking, says Black about Blue.
Too fat for the fucking, says Blue about Black.
I watch Black peel fruit so fast the colors smear. Purple skin, yellow meat, silver knife: his fingers know where to go. He's gotten fat, our Black — thighs shuddering, belly enormous. Blue calls him Pudding and whispers to me: I'd love to fuck a man who doesn't wobble. She can't see me blush or the tears that end in my mouth.
Too smart for the schooling, says Blue about me. She says I don't need much more.
Black says he can tell Blue's a stunner by the space between her eyes — three thumbs apart. He can tell it too from how her lips feel swollen to his finger but have never swelled in their sweet sucking lives. You're so pretty I don't even need to look!
Am I, son? she asks, frowning. Am I pretty?
I shake my head and say, Yeah.
I have meetings with the counselor, who urges travel. His hands are stacked with bright brochures. He says no nearby colleges are good enough. He speaks of my gifts like boxes waiting to be unwrapped and would like to know what my parents have to say on the subject. After our meetings, I sit under a table in the library and eat the long skin spooling from a gash on my knee.
When I was first learning to talk they said, Son, what do you see? and held their eyelids open wide. I said, Blue. What do you see? And I said, Black.
My father's eyes are actually brown but I didn't have that word yet. He has never seen his eyes. My mother could look at hers till the age of eight. By accident she stabbed her face with a No. 2 pencil, tearing a hole for infection to find.
The dogs are Swim and Swam. They came to us fresh from seeing-eye school. They are brothers and gentle as nurses. They spend most of their lives lying on beanbags or dirt since my parents don't leave the house much anymore. I am the leaver, the taker, the bringer.
I know a kid whose mother and father came to America too late to learn English, and the kid is always translating. Their language is one almost nobody speaks. Every trip to the doctor, he is needed; every major purchase, he goes along. A while ago his older brother got lupus and the kid, eight years old, had to do all the talking at the funeral parlor — tell the undertaker which coffin they wanted, explain to his parents why it cost so much. He goes home straight from school, same as I do, except on the days when we don't. We tell them detention and our parents believe us, but we are sliding beers under our jackets at the gas station and racing bikes to the cliff.
A bowl of peeled plum skins, the radio loud, fungus blooming in cracks down the walls: this is us without lights. When Black makes supper, he needs nothing but fingers and tongue. He hurts himself, sure — blood in ribbons on the cutting board, ropy splashes on the ramekins — but not as often as you might think. He is the carefullest of our family, happy to know in advance where the blade will sink.
Last week at the supermarket I bought a baby cow stomach. Black boiled it to make a juice that curdles milk into cheese. There are a million things I wish they could get on their own, but at the top of the list are cow stomachs and prescription vaginal creams.
The kid is coming for supper. I warn him that our house is damp as an old ship's hold and there is nothing on the walls.
Not even clocks or your dumb drawings from first grade?
I shake my head.
The kid smiles. So you could hang up that poster of Amber Cherry with her pussa shaved and they wouldn't give a fuck?
No fucks are given at our house about shaved Ambers, or stuck-out tongues, or me coming to breakfast with PENIS written in lipstick across my bare chest.
Soon as he gets here, the kid starts to sneeze. He waves his arms, waters his eyes, makes a sound between hiccup and squeal. Mold! he shrieks. We go back outside and he takes a little bottle from his backpack. We wait on the dirt for the medicine to work.
When my parents hang their hands out, the kid is quick to grab them. What a treat, burbles Blue, to have a guest for once in a lifetime! Guests are not plenteous at our house, but she didn't need to let the kid know. Quite a firm grip you've got, she tells him. I notice she takes her time letting go.
The table is set, as usual, with fork knife spoon clustered left of each plate. It looks like children did it. The walls are blank. There are no candles. Blue says to the kid: Let me feel your face. The kid bends to her, obliging. She strokes the soft hairs near his mouth. My husband's got skin like bacon, she says.
The kid looks at me, then at Black, then away. I give Blue the finger but this fails to amuse my friend. He is pushing cubes of stomach-juice cheese across his plate.
Once the kid's gone home, I droop with the dogs on their beanbags. From the living room trinkles Blue's radio; from the kitchen, Black's dishes. I have a bad feeling I don't know the name for. I coax up the rubbery scab on my knee and pull till a piece comes free big enough to chew.
Before sleep I do a few pages from the only book I've ever read twice, the tale of a ship that gets doomed when its navigator falls overboard. Nobody else in the crew can tell what the stars mean. They veer off course, drift north and north and north into a field of ice. Before they know it, the ship is surrounded.
That kid, your friend, is he handsome?
I don't know.
Of course you do, says Blue.
Well, he's not ugly, I say.
I never noticed.
Then notice next time, she says.
The word I learned today is grubble, which means feel in the dark. It came in a poem. Thou hast a colour; / now let me rowl and grubble thee: / blind men say white feels smooth, and black feels rough: / Thou hast a rugged skin: I do not like thee.
My teacher stopped reading and nervously coughed. That's enough of that, he said, and I hated the fact that every last person in the room was picturing my parents grubbling their fall-down way around our fall-down house.
I report to Blue: Green.
The kid's eyes, I explain.
Good to know, she says.
Green is the name of the hair on the ground, says Black, stirring salt into hot plum broth.
Why don't you have him over again? says Blue. It's nice for you to have friends.
I can be friends with him at school, I say.
It's also nice for me and Pudding to enjoy your friends, she says. Did you ever think about that?
I tell the counselor I will enroll at the CC in town and next year transfer to a better school.
Lots of people tell me that, he says, then next year never comes.
His office is crowded with tentacled plants. They live in the window like pet monsters. I reach to rub one of the little waxy leaves.
Let me draw you a picture, says the counselor. You are standing behind the counter of the video store where you work thirty hours a week. You are magnificently bored. You have an associate's degree from the community college, where you were magnificently bored for two years straight. You still live at home —
Where they kind of need me, I point out. They're fucking disabled in case you forgot.
He looks at his hands for quite a while. I look at them too: chapped, veiny. Then he says, Groceries can be delivered. That includes dog food.
But what about in a blizzard?
They could stock up beforehand, he says.
The amount of help you could give anyone during a tidal wave is, frankly, negligible.
But what if Swim and Swam get attacked by a copperhead and my parents have to carry them on foot to town and it takes so long they die on the way?
When I was a baby, we strolled as a family up the main street. A man on the sidewalk patted my father's arm. You're the bravest people I will see today, he said. Or tomorrow, for that matter. All fucking year.
Thank you, I guess, said Black.
The man said, Can I drive you someplace?
No thank you, said Blue, our feet are fine. And she reached to pinch mine, dangling at her ribs in little socks. I don't remember this, of course, but I hear the story often enough. They tell themselves like a picture: young man clutching lead of guide dog, young woman clutching young man's sleeve, infant strapped to her back. That dog was named Lucy, after the patron saint of eye troubles, and died of a snakebite when I was four.
People only call you brave, says Blue, when they're glad they don't have your life.
The green-eyed kid accepts my invitation to spend the night. He swallows his allergy medicine in advance. We stock up on gas-station beers and drink them in my room. I apologize for no TV. We lie dizzy on our backs, watching the dark. The kid tells me he applied early to a college one thousand miles from here and last week, he says, an acceptance letter came.
Aren't you worried about going? I ask. I mean, with your parents having no English?
He says, Not that worried.
A bat screeches near the window. I sit up. The kid is gone, a stripe of moon across the sheet where his body was. Hello? I call into the night. The walls are wet on my palm. He isn't in the bathroom, or the closet. Downstairs, a strand of noise from the kitchen — Blue's voice. Please, she is saying. Oh please. Give me your hand.
Plum chutney comes up my throat. I swallow it down.
I don't think so, says the kid's voice.
Please touch me. Please, here —
I run in and hit the light. Yellow pours onto Blue, who is naked except for underpants. Her breasts look like puddles of dough. The kid is backed up against the stove, hands over his face, sweatpants — thank god — on.
What the fuck, I shout.
Shit, says Blue. She stoops to feel for her nightgown. She's feeling in the wrong direction, so I pick it up myself and throw it at her.
Far[??]u i u í rassgat! shrieks the kid. Then he says, I'm gonna go.
He runs out the kitchen door, barefoot. Gravel sprays up hard from the wheels of his bike.
* * *
I skip school for three days. I ride out to the cliff, lie on the dirt, and read about the doomed ship. My favorite part of the book is when the sailors line up on deck at midnight, pointing pistols at their own hearts. They've already shot the sled dogs for meat. They've already broken their eyes on the dazzling ice looking for birds and seals that weren't there.
On the third morning, I head downtown to sit on the bench in front of the post office. A column of little blind kids is snaking up the main street. They must be on a smell-the-countryside field trip from their special institution. A few of them wear sunglasses fastened with cord. A few have tiny white canes. Some are just plain and kid-looking, except for the fluttering eyelids. They skip and twist and wriggle, anchored fast to the hands of teachers. Despite their cuteness, I don't smile. How the hell can I be jealous? It's sick to be — but I kind of somehow am. They have the teachers' hands to pull them. Nobody expects them to know where to go.
The kid is at his locker, getting the book for math. I have his sneakers in a grocery bag. Here, I whisper.
He looks in the bag and nods. My feet practically froze off riding home.
It's not your fault, he says.
The college applications make a pile on my desk beneath the poster of Amber Cherry's bald pussa. Outside, the jars of plum jelly make a lonesome sound when they explode on the sidewalk. I pick them from the basket, one at a time, and hurl.
The screen door slams and Black comes charging across the yard, though it's not as much a charge as a cane-assisted waddle.Son? Son? He smells me, hears me. Like a giant bat, he homes in. What are you breaking? He trips on a root and the dogs get to their feet, but he steadies himself.
Nothing you can't make more of, I yell.
The sidewalk is like a ship's deck after a battle at sea.
Please stop doing that, he says.
He cannot catch me. If he were to swing, I'd duck. If he were to lunge, I would dance away. But I don't move when he stretches his arms out, pulls my face to his neck. I am swooped into warm fat. Like a house of human pudding, he quivers around me.
Is there a mess? he whispers.
Pretty big, I say.
Then you'll get the broom, but first — how come? His hands on my shoulder blades feel big and good, a sweet pressure at the back of my lungs.
I don't know, I say.
Let me draw you a picture: me climbing the corrugated stairs of a north-bound Greyhound while my parents, bravely smiling, flanked by Swam and Swim, wave in the approximate direction of the bus.
You don't know, says Black, or you don't want to tell?
He puts fingers to my cheeks, grubbling for tears. His eyes are closed but I see on the red-streaked lids, as if they were maps, how much he doesn't care if my bloody snot glops down his shirt. I see how he will hold my shoulders hard and fast for as long as it takes me to stop crying and how I can, if I want, stay bandaged in the soft heat of him for hours, leaking brine, tethered by giant arms to the beat under his ribs till night comes and we're afloat on dark water, shivering together, hearing the cold get brighter and the waves slower, so slow they turn from liquid to ice — hushed meadows of frozen lather — and we are surrounded.CHAPTER 2
DRAGONS MAY BE THE WAY FORWARD
The year James Agee died, my mother was finishing high school. She could have read his obituary in the paper but she was probably dropping the needle onto a record instead. All those sock hops — a relentless schedule — meant a girl had to practice. Her legs are so swollen now they couldn't dance if you paid them. While watching her rocket program, she props the knurly white logs on a milk crate. Look, she yells, he's hanging in the blackness from just that tiny cord and what if it snaps?
I say from the next room: It's made of steel. It won't.
James Agee had a drinking problem. He slept around on all three of his wives. He was a socialist obsessed with Jesus. He criticized the government and other writers and his own failed self. By the time he died — of a stopped heart in a taxi, age forty-five — he was in every sense a stray.
And so smart you could hear his brain tick ten blocks away.
And so louche you could lick him off the bottom of your shoe.
It would be better if I didn't think about him. But I do.
My mother is blattering about grace and bravery. They have launched a new rocket and its astronauts are so graceful and brave. Her favorite channel shows their faces, miles above Earth in airless air. That one's a schoolteacher, she says. Far left — see? She's got guts, that teacher. Maybe she'll write a book about her adventures.
I was stretched on a towel in the backyard, fourteen and no friends, when I first read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. When the page said, "And spiders spread ghosts of suns between branches," a nerve I'd never felt before throbbed between my legs.
She shoves her hairdo into my room: Shall I open a can?
It is not soup we are talking about. It is not beer or tuna. Tapioca is the canned good of choice in this house. You wouldn't think it was a great idea to pack pudding in tin, but they do, and my mother eats a few cans a night under the pretense that I am sharing them with her. Two bowls, two spoons, one mouth.
Some speck on the wafer of her brain tells her that this rocket is traveling now. It is not, says her brain, a space mission that took place in the early eighties, but in fact an event of today. As we learn about the astronauts, observe their watery movements in the capsule, my mother refers to their moods and personalities in the present tense. When she gets up — slowly, slowly — to make another cup of hot water, I see worms dance on the purpling backs of her knees.
A question from Famous Men is burnt onto the skin behind my forehead: "How was it we were caught?" I know a little about caught. I know enough. There is this house. There is my mother. There is until she is dead.
She loves to plump the pillows on her Ku Klux furniture. Each pringly tassel must fall just so. She doesn't sit on the sofa anymore; she will cause too big of a dent. She uses a folding metal chair. I go on the striped wingback, rest the dictionary on my thighs, and read aloud. Her ghouly eyes listen. Sometimes her mouth, on its way to the pudding spoon, says: Read that part again.
The word is moxa, I say, and here are your choices: a medieval fortified keep; a small instrument used to brush hair off the South American goose; a preternaturally skilled hoagie maker; or a flammable material obtained from the leaves of Japanese wormwood.
Hoagie is a disturbing word, my mother says.
You have ten seconds.
Well, she says, I don't know what hoagie means so how can I choose?
It means submarine sandwich. In other parts of the land.
Then there's that goose —
Five seconds, I say.
I'll go with flammable material.
Are you sure?
Ha! she says happily, knowing she's right, since on wrong guesses I never ask.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Farewell Navigator"
Copyright © 2008 Leni Zumas.
Excerpted by permission of Open City Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Dragons May Be the Way Forward,
The Everything Hater,
How He Was a Wicked Son,
Thieves and Mapmakers,
Waste No Time If This Method Fails,
Blotilla Takes the Cake,