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Excerpt from The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Unsettled

A Novel

by Ayana Mathis

The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis X
The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis
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  • Published:
    Sep 2023, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

1985

Philadelphia

Cherry Street

It tinseled down on Ava Carson clutching her two suitcases in front of the Cherry Street Intake Center for the Homeless. Ava cried out and dropped her bags. The latches unlatched when they hit the pavement and the suitcases popped their guts like a melon thrown from a great height. Visions are not real, or they aren't real yet, but they do terrify.

"Toussaint!" Ava called out.

He was standing right behind her, just as he had been before the vision struck: a little boy of ten, small for his age, with both hands around the handle of his own suitcase. There they were, on a late August morning: mother and son, with three cases between them and a black trash bag bulging with their belongings.

"What were you doing on that street? Why did you . . . ?" Ava paused. She was shrieking, she realized. "No," she said. "Nothing."

She had never heard of Ephraim Avenue. Hallucinations. This is the sort of thing that happens when you haven't slept for days and you're so exhausted that your vision goes black at the sides where the peripheral ought to be.

Ava got to to her knees and scrabbled at the things on the ground: pajamas and her silk top with a tie at the collar, and a couple of nice skirts she had managed to pack, Toussaint's good Buster Brown school shoes and his sequined Michael Jackson glove, a few Avengers comic books. She stuffed them back into the suitcase fast as she could, only they wouldn't fit like they had before.

"Ma! You have to fold them. Ma, they're just falling out again."

Brisk feet stepped around them. A pair of scuffed black lace-­up shoes stopped next to one of the suitcases. A woman's head lowered into view.

"You need some help, miss?" she said.

Ava shook her head.

"Let me help you." Her hands swung down and hovered over Ava's things, cracked palms, ashy knuckles, dirt under the nails.

"No!" Ava said. "I mean, that's all right."

"Mmph," the woman said. Her heel went down on a pair of slacks as she walked away.

Inside, Cherry Street smelled of sweat and stale junk food and hair.

The waiting room was big like the DMV, with rows of plastic chairs bolted to the floor. The man at intake kept calling Ava and Toussaint up to the window to ask a single question: Names? All right, sit down. ID? Okay. Take a seat. It was grim, but it was busy. The people working there had an urgency about them, like they were fixing things, phones pressed to their ears and their desks piled with folders. In the corner of the waiting room a skinny lady rubbed Vaseline on her kid's elbows like her life depended on it. That was a comforting sight. One monkey don't stop no show, like the saying goes. She squeezed Toussaint's hand. "Maybe we won't have to wait too long," she said.

But they did wait. An hour passed, then two. Afternoon came, or Ava guessed it was afternoon because the sun turned white and the room was broiling. The intake man called them up again to give Ava a stack of forms attached to a clipboard. When they turned back to their seats, a go-­head-­say-­something kind of woman was sitting there next to a kid with his arm deep in a bag of Doritos. Not a free chair left in the place. There wasn't anywhere to be but leaned up against the wall with their bags at their feet. The thick air pressed on Ava's chest and stomach till she heaved a gob of sick into a used wad of tissues she picked up from the floor. A woman sitting at the end of a nearby row frowned and looked away. Who is going to help, Ava thought, if there's nobody here but these women and their kids, all of them poor as cracks in the floor? People who ain't got nothing can't do nothing, like her mother used to say.

Excerpted from The Unsettled by Ayana Mathis. Copyright © 2023 by Ayana Mathis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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