She blows a tiny bubble in her sleep, so babyish an action that my heart flows over with love and for an instant I am re-joined to my true self, not watching from outside, like an anthropologist, or a fugitive, which is another thing I am, and after that instant the fear flows back again like batter in a bowl from which a finger has been withdrawn. Affection, attachment, weakness, destruction, not allowed, not for me. Or remorse. I killed a human being. Did I mean to? Hard to say, it went down so quickly. Hold a knife to my throat and I'd tell the truth: the child was doomed with her, she's better off with me, I'm glad the woman's dead, God rest her soul, and I'll answer for it in heaven along with all the other stuff. Worse stuff.
Naturally, the little girl doesn't resemble me in the least, which is a problem, for people watch us and wonder who did she fuck to get that one? No, actually, that's unfair: most people don't see us at all, both of us are good at fading into the foliage, going gray in the shadows. We go out in the dusk, before the quick fall of the tropical night, or, as on the weekend just passing, very early. Tomorrow I will have to find a place to put her while I work. I have only a little sick time left and I need the money. She has been with me ten days. Her name is Luz.
I took her to the beach yesterday, to Matheson Hammock, very early in the day, and we paddled in the blood-warm shallows of Biscayne Bay, she holding my hand, stepping cautiously. We found a yogurt container and she filled it with various beach wrack-a cocolobo seed, a fiddler's claw, a tiny horseshoe crab-while I scanned the perimeter like a marine on point. As we waded, a car came up and rolled down the drive behind the beach. It's secluded there under the mangroves and is a favorite place for smooching and for dealing drugs. When we heard the car door open, she ran to me. Unlike me, she's afraid of strangers. I'm only afraid of people I know.
After the beach we went to the Kmart in South Miami. I bought her a pail and shovel, some cheap shorts and T-shirts, underwear and sneakers and socks. I let her choose a lunch box and some books. She chose a Bert and Ernie lunch box and a Bert and Ernie book and a Golden Book about birds. She's had some exposure to TV, clearly, although I do not own one and she seems content with that. For myself I bought a pair of polyester slacks the color of rust or of some diseased internal organ, and a sleeveless red top printed to look like patchwork and decorated with small cute animals on alternate patches. Although not quite the ugliest outfit in the store, it was at least a contender. Also, it was a size too large, and it was on sale.
The checkout lady smiled at Luz, who hid her face against my thigh.
"She's shy," said the checkout lady.
"Yes," I said, and reminded myself not to come through the line again when this person is on duty. Reject connection is my rule, although I now see that this will no longer be quite as feasible as it once was, when I was alone. Luz is attractive, and people will notice her and strike up conversations, and it's more memorable to coldly reject than to smear bland conversational margarine about. "Yes, you're shy, aren't you?" I say with a coo to the girl, and to the woman, as I pay (cash, naturally), "She's always been shy. I hope she'll grow out of it."
"Oh, they usually do, especially a pretty little thing like that."
Already she has forgotten us, her eyes moving automatically to the next customer.
We walked out of the frosty emporium to the sun-sizzled parking lot and into my car, a Buick Regal, in blue, from 1978. Its body is pretty well rusted out, the rocker panels having achieved the texture of autumn leaves. Both passenger windows are cracked, and the trunk doesn't lock. A yellow chenille bedspread serves as the front seat cover. On the other hand, it has the V-8 in there and the engine, the drive train, and all the running gear are as tuned and as slick-running as it is possible for a twenty-year-old machine to be. It is the kind of car you want for pulling bank jobs and getting away: fast, reliable, anonymous. I did all the car work myself. My dad taught me. He collected and restored cars. Still does, I suppose, although I haven't been in contact with home of late. I tell myself it's for their protection.
The foregoing is excerpted from Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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