Excerpt from Empire of Light by David Czuchlewski, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Empire of Light

By David Czuchlewski

Empire of Light
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2003,
    236 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2005,
    240 pages.

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"I'm going into the other room to do some work," I said, standing and gathering my papers. "I leave at seven tomorrow morning. You can let yourself out whenever you get around to it."

She nodded and looked down. "I understand. You don't even want to talk to me."

"I'm not falling for this shit. I said you could stay, but that's it. I don't want to have a big heart-to-heart with you. It's not healthy. We shouldn't have anything to do with each other."

"Don't you know why I'm here?"

"You had some sort of psychotic episode as your plane was landing."

"I'm here because I realized I made a mistake."

She folded her legs underneath her body and flopped sideways on the mattress, supporting her head with her arm. She was quiet, smoking silently. Just as I was about to give up and go grade my papers, she spoke in a low, halting monotone.

"I've lost track of something, and the last time I was on track was when we were together. On the plane I was thinking about what had gone wrong, where I had made the first step in the wrong direction. It all began when you and I broke up. When we were together was the last time everything was okay. And I just really wanted to see you again."

"And what did you think was going to happen? That we would get back together?"

"No, of course not...I don't know." She sighed. "I don't know what I want."

She rolled on the bed to reach the makeshift ashtray, stretching her arm to its full extension and revealing, underneath the baggy T-shirt, the feline curve of her shoulder blade. I wondered whether she knew the effect that her movements were having on me. I nearly decided that it would be worth the complications that would arise if only I could be with her again, even just for that one night. But then she took another slug of the sake and I remembered the sound of her vomiting in the men's-room toilet down the hallway from my dorm room, filling the bathroom stall with the sweet smell of barely digested tequila. I remembered having to soak masses of paper towels to clean her pink-flecked face and the sodden hair that had fallen in the way. I remembered her moaning, her face against the piss-stained tile floor, saying, incorrectly as it always turned out, "I'm okay. This won't happen again." She had made me miserable, and I wasn't going to fall for this new variation of her contrition.

"Enjoying the sake?" I said.

She nodded.

"Nothing's changed," I said.

She closed her eyes and turned away. I gathered my papers and my gradebook. She stubbed out the remainder of her cigarette in the bottom of the mug and threw herself backward into the pillow, arms crossed above her head.

"You're a sweetheart for letting me stay. I'll keep out of your way now."

I SLEPT ON the living-room couch, which in its advanced age had lost the ability to sufficiently cushion its crosswise metal beams. I woke like an old man, hand on the coccyx, wincing. Some impulse moved me to check on Anna before I left. The room retained the stale remainder of the previous evening's smoke. Anna was buried in the covers, sleeping on her side, her right arm thrown above her head as in a dance move. Her lips were parted, and each breath stirred a stray strand of hair that had fallen across her face. She looked young and untroubled. As I watched, the tickling of the hair on her face registered in her neglectful mind, and she ascended toward consciousness far enough to brush away the offending hair and murmur dreamily.

I taught poorly that day. I didn't have the papers graded, as I had promised. I was tired and my back remained sore for most of the morning. The kids had only two weeks of school left before summer vacation, and they were therefore even more difficult to control than usual. I was in no mood to walk around the room to keep them from talking to one another. I stared at my lesson plan on the voyages of the explorers. I looked up at the kids, with their glum and hostile expressions, and felt totally unequal to the task of making the peregrinations of Cortés relevant to them. It was not a banner day for Teach for Humanity.

From Empire of Light by David Czuchlewski. Copyright 2003 by Davind Czuchlewski. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Putnam books.

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