Excerpt from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Battleborn

Stories

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Battleborn
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2012,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2013,
    304 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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. . .

Ten years ago, Lake Street—the last surviving vanity landmark of poor Myron Lake, site of Reno’s original iconic arch (you know it, Biggest Little City in the World)—was lined with slums: dumpy neglected mansions with fire escapes grafted to their sides, bedsheets covering the windows, most of them halfway houses. But soon people were calling Lake Street and the surrounding neighborhood Newlands Heights. Op-ed columns parleyed on the topic of redevelopment. Three Fifteen Lake was converted from the single-family mansion envisioned by Himmel Green to six one-and two-bedroom apartments in 2001, one of the last to go. By then, Newlands Heights (named, of course, for Francis G. Newlands, Nevada senator, prudent annexer of Hawaii, irrigator of the American West, and great civilizer of savages) was lined with post– Comstock Lode Colonials and Victorians, their lavish parlors and sunrooms partitioned into open studio apartments and condos with hardwood floors. They’ve even torn down the original arch—it attracted vagrants and teenagers, they said. I was assured, back when things like this meant anything to me, that the city was erecting a replica, in neon, across Virginia Street, closer to the big casinos.

These days, they say Newlands Heights is worth quite a bit, and for all my bitching about gentrification, I don’t mind this. A person feels just as guilty living among the poor as she does living among the rich, but at least you can be angry at the rich. I can afford to live at 315 Lake only because the landlords, Ben and Gloria (nice people, Burners turned bourgeois, role models to us all) hired my boyfriend—ex-boyfriend—J to do the cabinetwork on the building. J ended up, as he does with so many of his business associates, smoking a bunch of pot with Ben. J considers marijuana the universal ambassador of goodwill, and himself its humble steward. Gloria was pregnant and Ben was desperate, pouring money into a building with no tenants. One afternoon, J and Ben sat on a pallet of bathroom tiles passing a joint between them, and J persuaded Ben to give me a deal on the only unit they’d finished, a studio on the first fioor, number two. It was probably the last nice thing I let him do before he left.

I lived through nine months of construction noise and paint smells, the rest of the building a hollow skeleton. Once, I heard someone working in the unit right above me and went up there to see who it was. I was thinking if it was Ben I’d give him my rent check, see if he had any weed I could buy off him, or that he’d just give me. But it was Gloria, standing in a room painted a crisp robin’s-egg blue, splotches of the paint on her hands and overalls, speckles in her blond hair. Clear plastic drop cloths billowed in the breeze from the open windows. She rested her hands on her globe of a belly and turned to me. I saw then that the room wasn’t entirely painted. In front of her was a patch of wall the size of a playing card, dingy beige.

“I found it when we scraped the wallpaper,” she said, her eyes teared up with sadness or paint fumes or both. She had a paintbrush in her right hand. “I’ve been avoiding this spot for a week.” I bent to examine the patch of bare wall and saw there, scrawled in charcoal or heavy carpenter’s pencil,

H. loves Leo, 1909.

“How can I do this?” said Gloria. And she said it again as she slopped a stripe of blue over the writing.

This was just before my mom died. Before Razor Blade Baby moved in. I didn’t know what to say. Now I know better. I see Gloria in the yard, and I’d like to give her an answer. She’s had her baby and puts a playpen under the willow tree and sings over to the girl while she gardens. She named her Marigold. I’d like to say: You do it because you have to. We all do.

And here we are.

Excerpted from Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. Copyright © 2012 by Claire Vaye Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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