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Original Essays | August 18, 2014

Ian Leslie: IMG Empathic Curiosity



Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
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Big Machine

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Dont look for dignity in public bathrooms. The most youll find is privacy and sticky floors. But when my boss gave me the glossy envelope, the bathroom was the first place I ran. What can I say? Lurking in toilets was my job.

I was a janitor at Union Station in Utica, New York. Specifically contracted through Trailways to keep their little ticket booth and nearby bathroom clean. Id done the same job in other upstate towns, places so small their whole bus stations couldve fit inside Union Stations marbled hall. A year in Kingston, six months in Elmira. Then Troy. Quit one and find the next. Sometimes I told them I was leaving, other times I just disappeared.

When I got the envelope, I went to the bathroom and shut the door. I couldnt lock it from the inside so I did the next best thing and pulled my cleaning cart in front of the door to block the way. My boss was a woman, but if the floors in front of the Trailways booth werent shining shed launch into the mens room with a fury. She had hopes for a promotion.

But even with the cart in the way I felt exposed. I went into the third stall, the last stall, so I could have my peace. Soon as I opened the door, though, I shut it again. Good God. Me and my eyes agreed that the second stall would be better. I dont know what to say about the hygiene of the male species. I can understand how a person misses the hole when hes standing, but how does he miss the hole while sitting down? My goodness, my goodness. So, it was decided, I entered stall number two.

The front of the envelope had my name, written by hand, and nothing else. No return address in the corner or on the back, and no mailing address. My boss just said the creamy yellow envelope had been sitting on her desk when she came in that morning. Propped against the green clay pen holder her son made in art class.

I held the envelope up to the fluorescent ceiling lights and saw two different papers inside. One a long rectangle and the other a small square. I tapped the envelope against my palm, then tore the top half slowly. I blew into the open envelope, turned it upside down, and dropped both pieces of paper into my hand.

“Ricky Rice!”

I heard my name and a slap against the bathroom door. Hit hard enough that the push broom fell right off my cleaning cart and clacked against the tile floor. You wouldve thought a grenade had gone off from the way I jumped. The little sheets of paper slipped from my palm and floated to that sticky toilet floor.

“Aw, Cheryl!” I shouted.

“Dont give me that,” she yelled back.

I walked out the stall to my cleaning cart. Lifted the broom and pulled the cart aside. Didnt even have time to open the door for Cheryl, she just pushed at it any damn way. I flicked the ceiling lights off, like a kid who thinks the darkness will hide him.

Im going to tell you something nice about my boss, Cheryl McGee. She could be sweet as babys feet as long as she didnt think you were taking advantage. When I first moved to Utica, she and her son even took me out for Chicken Riggies. It was a date, but I pretended I didnt know. The stink of failure had followed my relationships for years, and I preferred keeping this job to trying for love again.

Now she stood at the bathroom door, trying to peek around me. A slim little redhead whod grown her hair down to her waist and wore open-toed sandals in all but the worst of winter.

“Someones in there?” she asked, looked up at the darkened lights.

“Me,” I said.

She pointed her chin down, but her eyes up at me. She thought she looked like a mastermind, dominating with her glare, but Id been shot at before. Once, I was thrown down a flight of stairs.

“I mean, is there anyone in there that I cant fire?”

Oop. I lifted the broom and shook it.

“I was just sweeping,” I said.

Cheryl nodded and stepped back two paces.

“I dont mind breaks, Ricky, you know that.” She took out her cell phone and flipped it open, looked at the face. “But I need this station looking crisp first thing in the morning.”

“Ill be done in a minute,” I said.

Cheryl nodded, reached back, and swept her hand through her waist-length hair. The gesture didnt look like flirtation, just hard work.

“Hey! What did that letter say?”

I looked back into the bathroom. “Dont know yet.”

She nodded and squeezed her lips together. “Well, Id love to know,” she said, and smiled weakly.

“Me too,” I told her, not unkindly.

Then, of all things, she gave me a limp salute with her right hand. After that she turned in her puffy gray boots and walked toward the ticket booth.

The bathrooms windows were a row of small frosted glass rectangles right near the ceiling. They let in light, but turned it green and murky. Now, as I crept back to the second toilet stall, I imagined I was walking underwater, and felt queasy. I opened the door to find the first piece of paper right where Id dropped it. And I recognized it immediately.

A bus ticket.

I bent at the knees and braced one hand against the stall wall for balance. My right leg ached something awful. I even let out an old mans groan as I crouched, but that kind of ache was nothing new. Id felt forty ever since I was fifteen.

I held the ticket at an angle so I could read it in the hazy light.

One way, from Union Station to Burlington, Vermont.

An eleven- or twelve-hour trip if you figured all the station stops between here and there. The date on the ticket read Thursday, the twenty-first of January, just three days off. The name of the company on the top was Greyhound. I worked for Trailways. It sounds silly, but the logo made the ticket feel like contraband. I leaned back, out of the stall, and peeked at the bathroom door to make sure I was still alone.

I checked the back of the ticket for something, a note, an explanation. Nothing. Then I remembered that Id seen two silhouettes through the envelope.

I ducked my head to the left, looking to the floor of the sanitary first stall, but it hadnt landed there. Then I looked to my right and saw that little cream-colored sheet, not much bigger than a Post-it, flat on the floor of filthy old stall number three.

Let me be more precise.

Flat on the floor, in a gray puddle, in filthy old stall number three.

Forget it.

Better to leave it behind than dip fingers in the muck on that floor. Even wearing gloves didnt seem like enough protection. Maybe a hazmat suit.

Leave it there. Make peace with a little mystery.

I stood and rubbed my bad knee, even turned to leave, but you know that old saying about curiosity: curiosity is a bastard.

I opened the door of stall number three and tried not to look at the bowl itself, or at all that had smeared and splashed along the seat and the back wall. I opened my mouth to breathe, but the faint whiff of filth, like a corrupted soul, haunted me. It made my eyes tear up. Even my ears seemed to ring. I bet I looked like a nerve gas victim.

So I used the toe of my boot to tug the sheet of paper toward me, but it wouldnt move. I had to use my hand.

I lurched my middle finger forward, even as I pulled my head back, and touched the corner of the soaked little sheet. I flicked at it and flicked at it, but the damned thing barely shifted. I had no choice.

I picked the paper up, right out of the muck. The gray liquid didnt even run down my fingers, it just clung, like jelly, to the tips. It was cold and lumpy. My skin went numb. The wet paper lay flat in my palm; I peeled it off with my left hand, then held it to the greenish light of the windows.

“Ricky Rice!”

“Aw, Cheryl!” I shouted.

“Enough of that! You get out here!”

I would, but not yet. I stepped out of the stall and rose onto my toes, getting the soaked sheet as close to the windows as possible. I could see black ink on the paper. Make out the same handwriting that had scribbled my name on the outside of that envelope.

“I mean it, Ricky.”

Cheryl pushed and strained at the door, and the wheels of my cleaning cart squeaked as they rolled. I blew on the paper to dry it. The cursive was small, but neat, legible.

The wooden door swung open. I heard its steel handle clang against the stone wall.

I paid no more attention to Cheryl because now I could read the two lines of the note:

You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002.

Time to honor it.

Without thinking, purely automatic, I walked back into that filthy toilet stall and flushed the note away.

But not the ticket.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780385527996
Author:
LaValle, Victor
Publisher:
Spiegel & Grau
Author:
Lavalle, Victor
Author:
Rock, Peter
Subject:
General
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20100331
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
1 piece of line art
Pages:
224
Dimensions:
8 x 5.31 in 0.38 lb

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » Morning News Tournament » Tournament of Books 2010
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

Big Machine Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$9.50 In Stock
Product details 224 pages Spiegel & Grau - English 9780385527996 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "LaValle has garnered critical acclaim for his previous works (a collection, Slapboxing with Jesus, and novel, The Ecstatic), and his second novel is sure to up his critical standing while furthering comparisons to Haruki Murakami, John Kennedy Toole and Edgar Allan Poe. Gritty, mostly honest-hearted ex-heroin addict protagonist Ricky Rice takes a chance on an anonymous note delivered to him at the cruddy upstate New York bus depot where he works as a porter. Quickly, Ricky finds himself among the 'Unlikely Scholars,' a secret society of ex-addicts and petty criminals, all black like him, living in remote Vermont and sifting through stacks of articles in a library devoted to investigating the supernatural; the existence of a god; and the legacy of Judah Washburn, an escaped slave who claimed to have had contact with a higher being that the Unlikely Scholars now call 'the Voice.' Ricky's intoxicating voice — robust, organic, wily — is perfect for narrating LaValle's high-stakes mashup of thrilling paranormal and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, as the fateful porter — something of a modern Odysseus rallied by a team of 'spiritual X-men' — wanders through America's 'messianic hoo-hah.'" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "LaValle is as much wry fabulist as he is dogged allegorist, and his flights of grim fancy are tethered by acute observations. He can be awfully funny, too. [His]devilish fable renders the visible world — of science, social hierarchies, and New York Times headlines — a load of cultish hooey."
"Review" by , "Beautiful."
"Review" by , “Fractures all of our notions of how well-made fiction ought to behave...idea-hungry and haywire, too alive and abrasive to be missed. The multicultural novel has come of age smashingly.” (starred)
"Review" by , Big Machine is like nothing Ive ever read, incredibly human and alien at the same time. LaValle writes like Gabriel Garcia Marquez mixed with Edgar Allen Poe, but this is even more than that. Hes written the first great book of the next America.”
"Review" by , “If the literary Gods mixed together Haruki Murakami and Ralph Ellison, and threw in several fistfuls of 21st century attitude, the result would be Victor LaValle. Big Machine is a wonderful, original, and crazy novel.”
"Synopsis" by , A fiendishly imaginative comic novel, Big Machine is a mind-rattling literary adventure about sex, race, and the eternal struggle between faith and doubt.
"Synopsis" by ,
An American original, Peter Rock brings our strangest beliefs to vivid and sympathetic life in this haunting novel inspired by true events.
"Synopsis" by ,
Francine and Colville were childhood friends raised in the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religion that predicted the world could end in the late 1980s. While their parents built underground shelters to withstand the impending Soviet missile strike, Francine and Colville played in the Montana wilderness, where invisible spirits watched over them. When the prophesied apocalypse did not occur, the sectand#8217;s members resurfaced and the children were forced to grow up in a world they believed might no longer exist.

Twenty years later, Francine and Colville are reunited while searching for an abducted girl. Haunted by memories and inculcated beliefs, they must confront the Churchand#8217;s teachings. If all the things they were raised to believe were misguided, why then do they suddenly feel so true?

"Synopsis" by , Ricky Rice is a middling hustler with a lingering junk habit, a bum knee, and a haunted mind. A survivor of a suicide cult, he scrapes by as a porter at a bus depot in Utica, New York, until one day a mysterious letter arrives, summoning him to enlist in a band of paranormal investigators comprised of former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard what may have been the voice of God.

Infused with the wonder of a disquieting dream and laced with Victor LaValle’s fiendish comic sensibility, Big Machine is a mind-rattling mystery about doubt, faith, and the monsters we carry within us.

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