The baby, understanding perhaps that it was purely rhetorical, made no attempt to answer this question.
Nat Jaffe showed up for work under a cloud, like he did maybe five times out of eleven or, be generous, call it four out of every nine. His bad mood a space helmet lowered over his head, poor Nat trapped inside with no way to know whether the atmosphere was breathable, no gauge to tell him when his air supply would run out. He rolled back the deadbolt, keys banging against door, working one-handed himself, because of a crate of records he had crooked up under his left arm. Nat bulled in with his head down, humming low to himself; humming the interesting chord changes to an otherwise lame-ass contemporary pop song; humming an angry letter to the slovenly landlord of the nail salon two blocks up, or to the editor of the Oakland Tribune whose letters page his anger often adorned; humming the first fragments of a new theory of the interrelationship between the bossa nova and the nouvelle vague; humming even when he wasnt making a sound, even when he was asleep, some wire deep in the bones of Nathaniel Jaffe always resounding.
He closed the door, locked it from the inside, set the crate on the counter, and hung his gray-on-charcoal pin-striped fedora from one of nine double-branched steel hooks that also dated from the days of Spencers Barbershop. He ran a finger through his dark hair, kinked tighter than Archys, thinning at the hairline. He turned, straightening his necktiehepcat-wide, black with silver fleckstaking note of the state of box 8. Working his head around on the neck joints a few times as if in that creak of bones and tension lay hope of release from whatever was causing him to hum.
He walked to the back of the store and disappeared through the beaded curtain, laboriously painted by Nats son, Julie, with the image of Miles Davis done up as a Mexican saint, St. Miless suffering heart exposed, tangled with a razor wire of thorns. Not a perfect likeness, to be sure, looking to Archy more like Mookie Wilson, but it could not be easy to paint a portrait of somebody across a thousand half-inch beads, and few besides Julius Jaffe would ever contemplate doing it, let alone give it a try. A minute later Archy heard the toilet flush, followed by a spasm of angry coughing, and then Julies father came back out to the front of the store, ready to burn another day.
Whose baby is that? he said.
What baby? said Archy.
Nat unbolted the front door and spun the sign to inform the world that Brokeland was open for business. He gave his skull another tour of the top of his spinal column, hummed some more, coughed again. Turned to his partner, looking almost radiant with malice. Were totally fucked, he said.
Statistically, thats indeed likely, Archy said. In this case, how so?
I just came from Singletary.
Their landlord, Mr. Garnet Singletary, the King of Bling, sold grilles and gold finger rings, rope by the yard, three doors up from Brokeland. He owned the whole block, plus a dozen or more other properties spread across West Oakland. Retail, commercial. Singletary was an information whale, plying his migratory route through the neighborhood, taking in all the gossip, straining it for nutrients through his tireless baleen. He had never once turned loose a dollar to frolic among the record bins at Brokeland, but he was a regular customer nonetheless, stopping by every couple of days just to audit. To monitor the balance of truth and bullshit in the local flow. Yeah? Archy said. Whatd Singletary have to say?
He said were fucked. Seriously, why are you holding a baby?
Excerpted from Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Chabon. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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