A novel told in short stories, The Affliction is an astounding fiction debut by an award-winning poet full of memorable characters across America and the Caribbean. Young beautifully weaves together the elaborate stories of many while holding together a clear focus: people are not always as they seem.
|Publisher:||Four Way Books|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
C. DALE YOUNG practices medicine and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. The author of four poetry collections, most recently The Halo (Four Way Books 2016), this is his first novel. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He lives in San Francisco.
Read an Excerpt
No one would have believed Ricardo Blanco if he had tried to explain that Javier Castillo could disappear. What was the point in trying to explain it to someone, explain how he had seen it himself, how he had watched as Javier Castillo stared deeply as if he were concentrating and then, slowly, disappeared? Ricardo always began the explanation in the same way, by stating that it wasn't a sudden thing, that no, no, it was a gradual thing that took sometimes as long as three minutes.
Ricardo was an odd man, to say the least. He wanted to believe Javier Castillo was a god of some kind. But Ricardo did not believe in gods. He did not even believe in Christmas, angels, or miracles. He barely believed in magic. Ricardo was a man who even found it difficult to believe in kindness. What I can tell you is that Ricardo left his wife and family to follow this man, this Javier Castillo, a man about whom he knew very little at the time. What he learned about Javier Castillo was that he possessed an affliction. This is the very word Javier Castillo apparently used to describe his ability to disappear: "affliction." Ricardo wanted to believe in that, but what he felt was something more like envy. And maybe somewhere within his messed-up head Ricardo believed that the longer he was around Javier Castillo the more likely he, too, would gain this unbelievable ability to disappear.
But Javier Castillo ... Yes, the really surprising thing about Javier Castillo was not the disappearing act. Anyone can disappear. Even you can disappear. What was remarkable about his ability to disappear was the fact that Javier Castillo had control over where he then reappeared. Imagine that. I cannot be certain when he first demonstrated to Ricardo his "affliction," but I can piece together that it must have been early, sometime within a few days of their first meeting. Did he willingly demonstrate it? Or did Ricardo simply catch him in the act? I'll never really know. What I do know is that Javier Castillo had explained to Ricardo that as a boy he moved from a very small island in the Caribbean to Los Angeles to live with his aunt for a while, from one decaying former realm of Spain to another. He explained how one night, as he lay in bed, he wanted to be back on the island so badly he closed his eyes and tried to imagine being there. He thought, for a moment, that he could actually see the Old Square. And when he opened his eyes, he was lying on a ledge. He was lying on the lip of the Spanish fountain in the center of the Old Square, the fountain cascading over the flowering tree of sculpted concrete down into the shallow pool next to him. He thought the warm and humid night was a dream. He thought he was having a spectacular dream. But he was not dreaming.
Had he been dreaming, the shallow pool would be speckled with the reflections of gold coins dotting the royal blue tile beneath the fountain, and the tiles would be without the cracks and missing pieces that had been a feature of that fountain for so many years. But there were definitely no gold doubloons with the easy-to-recognize cross in their centers, each arm of the cross equal. In a different kind of dream, there would be coins tossed into the fountain with wishes in mind. But there were definitely no coins there. It was no dream. And no one on that island would have thrown money away, even for a wish.
Javier Castillo was there in the Old Square, the old men strolling around smoking and talking slowly, others leaning against walls beside doorframes like awkward flamingos, one leg firmly planted on the ground, the other leg bent at the knee so that the bottom of the shoe was affixed to the wall behind them. In the distance, Javier Castillo could hear the ever-present sound of the waves arriving at the shore, the large harbor unseen but just beyond the stalls of the flea market. He could hear Spanish and English and even the awkward Creole being spoken around him that assured him he was indeed on the island, that he was nowhere else on this earth. And when he sat up, when Javier Castillo sat up, nothing changed. It was not a dream. It was anything but a dream. Javier Castillo sat up, swung his legs down from the lip of the fountain, took a deep breath and stood up. Nothing changed. Nothing so much as shimmered or wavered the way things do in dreams.
Ricardo recounted to me how when he first heard this story he had closed his own eyes trying to imagine another town. But all Ricardo saw when he closed his eyes was the bluish white glow of the light bulb he had been staring at before he closed his eyes. There was the ring or impression of the bulb on the inside of his eyelids, but nothing more. He could see no other place. The round bluish-white mark on the inside of his eyelids was not even perfectly round. It was hazy and indistinct. It seemed to be disappearing. The light bulb was disappearing, but nothing else was.
Ricardo had, at that time, never been outside of the Los Angeles area. He had never gone anywhere except to work at the body shop and to work at LAX and, eventually, to the town in the Valley where Javier Castillo had been living. He could not, try as he might, picture any other place at all.
He closed his eyes again and tried then to picture the curb at Departures at LAX. He concentrated but found even the image of a place he had seen evening after evening for years difficult to hold still. Like the light bulb, it was hazy and indistinct.
The recollection of the first time Javier Castillo disappeared stayed with Ricardo, haunted him, lingered in his mind the way the wish for gold coins did for the Conquistadores. How could it not? He returned to that story over and over. He couldn't help it. He would tell it to me time and time again as if he were an old man who needed to remember, who needed to tell the story to remind himself of his own past. He would tell it as if he were charged with telling it, recounting it, as if his life somehow depended on it. He did so with what could only be called, for lack of better words, a quiet urgency. Ricardo could hear Javier Castillo's voice in his head describing what had happened to him. He replayed the situation over and over of opening one's eyes and seeing not one's bedroom but a town square on an island thousands of miles away. But what struck Ricardo, what intrigued him, the slim needle of the story that pricked him along his arms and chest repeatedly, was not the oddity of what had happened — the disappearance, the reappearance — but the fact Javier Castillo had not been afraid. Ricardo knew that had such a thing happened to him as a young boy, he would have been terrified. Honestly, I would have been terrified as well. Wouldn't you be? I find it hard to imagine someone who would not have been afraid.
Ricardo Blanco did not know many things, but he knew that had this happened to him he would have sat in the Old Square worrying and wondering how he would ever find his way back to his family in Los Angeles. He knew he was not the kind of man that Javier Castillo was, that he was afraid of being alone. And being in another city surrounded by people you didn't know was essentially being alone. Ricardo needed people, and he needed to know things. And, apparently, this was not something Javier Castillo cared about, not even remotely. Even then, thirty plus years after his first disappearance, Javier Castillo had no understanding of his affliction. He could not explain to Ricardo how it happened. He simply knew he could do it. And this knowledge was enough for him. It was, after all, his affliction, and he knew he had no other choice than to live with it.
As a young man, Ricardo married the girl next door, or so he liked to tell people. His parents had him marry, made him marry, the daughter of their best friends. She was beautiful. Rosa was beautiful, but she was not gorgeous. There was no better way of describing her. To describe her inky black hair or the creamy color of her skin would have been pointless. To describe the softness of her voice, its occasional stutters and the speed that anxieties added to it, and compare it to running water was pointless. What was important was that she was a beautiful woman, and he had walked out on her. And it wasn't just Ricardo who thought she was beautiful. I have heard that exact word used by a number of people over the years to describe Rosa Blanco. What I can say is that on some days Ricardo wondered where she was and what she was doing, but he knew exactly what she was doing. She was worrying about him, their sons, worrying about every aspect of her future.
Ricardo was a worrier, too. But he was very different from his wife in that the worry never grew large, remained small enough for him to hide it away, bury it in his gut. At times, he wondered if his sons Pedro and Carlitos were being good for their mother. But he felt certain they were not being good. They were boys after all, and he knew boys at their age were trouble or about to be trouble. They couldn't help it. It was not as if they chose to cause trouble; they just did. And his wife? She wanted those boys to be good, which in her eyes meant good in school, good at sports, good at something. But they would never be good in school. They would never understand why school was important. They would never be good at most things. They wanted to be old enough to drive a truck, to be able to drive to the edge of town and get high. Ricardo understood this. He had been a boy just like them. He knew what it was like to get stoned and curse the sky because it was getting dark too quickly. He knew what it was like to smoke until the dryness in the desert became the dryness in your throat. He was no Javier Castillo, and neither were his sons. And frankly, neither was I.
Ricardo explained how he had watched Javier Castillo disappear many times. In many ways, he had studied this affliction, timed it. He visited the library once to look through books on physics. He was sure there would be some explanation within one of those books he believed explained everything about the workings of the natural world. As a child, when he had questions, he could always find the answers in books at the library. Sitting in the stacks on the recently installed new carpets, the fumes from them like a tranquilizing gas, the stacks themselves like corrugated walls, he had tried to read those books the way he had done as a child. None of them had any information on this means of travel he had witnessed, or none that he could make out from the photos and diagrams. There were many images of lines and rays and light bending, but nothing that seemed to explain how one disappeared and, minutes later, appeared somewhere else, how one made such a thing happen.
That Javier Castillo could fade away and then find himself in a new place, Ricardo was fairly certain. Javier Castillo had recounted to him how during his late teens he had gone to Singapore, French Polynesia, and even Egypt. He would find pictures of places in books, concentrate on them, concentrate on the major and unchangeable things in the photos, and then "move himself" to one of these very spots. It was then Ricardo really discovered the extent of Javier Castillo's affliction. He could go to other places for a few hours or a few days. He had spent an entire week in Toronto wandering through Chinatown. Ricardo knew this but could not believe it. He wondered if Javier Castillo ever made mistakes, if he ever materialized inside, say, a wall. He wondered about the "navigation system" of it all. What if he made a mistake while traveling in this way? How did he control all of this? The questions inside Ricardo's head were endless but understandable. You know what happened next; know it as surely as anything. The day came when Ricardo felt the overwhelming need to test Javier Castillo. He needed something more than observation of the disappearing act and the stories then recounted to him later. He wanted proof. He needed proof.
And so, one afternoon, an afternoon not unlike many others, Ricardo wrote four numbers on a scrap of paper and left it on the chest of drawers in the bedroom he shared with Javier Castillo. Ricardo was planning ahead. He was convinced the numbers, which he had seen in a dream, were clues to picking the right horse: 3, 7, 19 and 33. And so, he hatched a plan, thought it through with multiple permutations. This was to be a foolproof test of the man named Javier Castillo, a test to prove once and for all how the "affliction" worked. He wrote down the four numbers and then went into the living room to find Javier Castillo. He persuaded him they needed to go to the horse races that afternoon. It was something to do, something to pass the time, something to ease the boredom. Shortly after arriving at the track, after picking up betting sheets and studying odds, after finding their seats, Ricardo told Javier Castillo about the numbers, told him how he had seen them in a dream and had written them down but had forgotten to bring the paper with him, that he needed them and couldn't remember them. He went on and on about the numbers and how he felt certain, quite certain, that they were very important numbers. He played Javier Castillo well. In this, Ricardo, whether he knew it or not then, was an expert.
Javier Castillo sighed and then excused himself. He climbed the steps from the seats in the stands to the main concourse that was bustling with men of all ages, men darting around filled with the excitement of wagers. He went into the men's room, entered a stall, locked the gray metal swinging door covered with crass graffiti scraped into the paint, and disappeared. When he reappeared in the stall a few minutes later, he went back to Ricardo and sat next to him, without even the slightest flourish. While at the house, Javier Castillo had written the numbers down on the back of his hand with the black sharpie marker left next to the scrap of paper Ricardo had "forgotten," the marker left there intentionally by Ricardo as part of his test. And when Javier Castillo showed Ricardo all four numbers written down on the back of his hand, Ricardo said nothing. Ricardo didn't even say thank you. Ricardo wondered, instead, why Javier Castillo had written the numbers on the back of his hand instead of simply bringing the piece of paper back with him. Surely this meant something about the affliction. Surely a clue was to be found in this action, the paper still on the chest of drawers but the numbers retrieved and inscribed upon the back of Javier Castillo's hand.
Ricardo never knew what to say to Javier Castillo. Can you blame him? I wouldn't have known back then what to say to a man who could disappear, could travel around the world like air itself. But in Ricardo's case, it wasn't that he couldn't find the words. It was just that Ricardo never felt the words would be taken seriously. Why ask a question? Why try to discuss things? Javier Castillo always seemed to know the answers, to have the answers. I would have had many questions for Mr. Castillo. At least I like to think that I would have had many questions. In reality, I would have spent, like Ricardo, far too much time wondering about how it all worked, the mechanics of it. But Ricardo? Ricardo went one step further in his thinking. Ricardo wondered if the affliction gave Javier Castillo special knowledge beyond that of travel, if somehow when in that space between disappearing and appearing there were answers. But this thought was too complicated for Ricardo to express. Despite trying to formulate the right questions to ask Javier Castillo, he simply remained silent. What he said to Javier Castillo, instead, was something about dinner, about being incredibly hungry.
They left the track as the sun was setting, as the shadow time came into its own, people arriving at the track for the evening races still to come. As they walked through the parking lot, Ricardo felt the confusion in his chest flowering, growing larger and larger. Who was this man that held such sway over him? What was he? Were there others in the world capable of such things, others who were afflicted in this way? The questions came in rapid-fire succession, so much so Ricardo felt as if he simply appeared in the passenger seat of the car having little appreciation for having walked there from the stadium.
Ricardo and Javier Castillo went to the dingy Italian restaurant they frequented almost weekly. In the dimly lit restaurant with Frank Sinatra crooning softly through the hidden speakers, the backs of his arms sticking to the fake leather booth, Ricardo stared at Javier Castillo, smiled, but said nothing. Ricardo thought about ordering pasta, the kind that looked like little ears, but he couldn't for the life of him remember what they were called. Javier Castillo ordered that pasta for Ricardo without a single word passing between them. Yes, somewhere in that space between disappearing and appearing, there must have been answers, but Ricardo had no idea how one reached such a place without the affliction. The way Ricardo told it, it was then — the day he tested Javier Castillo — he began to worry, really worry. He worried one day in the not-too-distant future that Javier Castillo would go in search of answers and never return.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Affliction"
Copyright © 2018 C. Dale Young.
Excerpted by permission of Four Way 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
I. The Affliction, 3,
II. Inside the Great House, 17,
III. The Experiment, 31,
IV. The Fortunate, 43,
V. Desaparecido, 57,
VI. Between Men, 71,
VII. Jewels, 91,
VIII. The News, 105,
IX. The Order of Things, 119,
X. Practice, 135,
What People are Saying About This
“...These tales …like the stories of Julio Cortázar…remind us of how varied and unpredictable short stories, like the world itself, can be.”