So, yes, I’ve been quite remiss in posting to my blog of late, so I am going to do something now that will make you forget all about my remissiveness and maybe even forget that I just said remissiveness. I am going to introduce a writer friend and share an excerpt from her work. You will like this. And not just because she is much prettier than I am. You will like it because you will be left awed and speechless by her literary prowess and masterful use of the……….. Too thick? Okay, look, it’s good stuff, and as soon as you read it, you will see why.
Her name is Karen Palmer. (Karen, this is Everyone…Everyone, this is Karen.)
The first thing of Karen’s I ever read was her novel All Saints and I was surprised I had never heard of it. I think what I said in the Goodreads site about it was that it is perhaps the most underrated book ever. It is a powerful story with rich characters and seemed to me while I was reading it to be just the kind of thing that would be perfect for the big screen, although I figure that its rather complex non-linear structure would be a filmmaker’s nightmare. In book form, however, I highly recommend it. I have put a link to where you can find it below, along with a link for her other novel, Border Dogs, which, sadly, I have not yet had the pleasure to read (I heard from another friend, though, that it is even better than All Saints).
The feast for today is an excerpt from Karen’s short story Virtuoso Mio. I had this short in my Kindle for the longest time and the other day found the perfect opportunity to sit down to read it. My first reaction was to be pissed at myself for not taking the time to read it sooner. It is excellent. It is also—you writers will appreciate this—a study in the art of creating tension. What stands out is that Karen doesn’t have to do anything because it is the reader’s innate maternal/paternal instinct that creates the tension…all Karen does is let these feelings, feelings that we all share as humans, do their work. Of course, this is normal and nothing new because it is really how all tension is created—or should be created—in fiction. You must share something with the characters in order to feel tense about their situation, right? So it is really an illustration of the old rule of writing to “show, don’t tell.” All you have to do is show and our common understanding of the human experience does all the work.
Okay, enough of me babbling, to our main feature…Cell phones off, please. (Virtuoso Mio was published in The Kenyon Review, received a Pushcart Prize, and is anthologized in The Bedford/St. Martin’s Guide to Literature.)
Perla Ramirez is cat-faced and sullen, foul-mouthed and resentful, and at twelve she is already a vandal, a pickpocket, a sneak, and a snitch. The entire neighborhood hates her. Does she care? It seems she does not. “Ay, Perla!” rings at her back wherever she goes, but she returns every curse with a violent “Fuck!” of her own, continuing unstopped on her furious way, spilling trash cans, breaking windows, spying on lovers, stuffing her pockets with candy bars, lipsticks, and CDs for the Walkman she pinched off a drunk.
Perla lives with her mother, Sonni, and baby sister, Lani, in three rooms on the sixth floor of a walkup on 137th Street in New York. The skinny railroad-style flat is piled high with junk: stacks of old newspapers, tattered furniture, dead appliances. In the kitchen a closet behind the breakfast table houses the john. A pea-green bathtub stretches along one entire wall, clear to the window ledge; filled, the tub looks like a lake. Hinged to its back edge, a heavy sheet of unpainted plywood serves as a makeshift countertop. Here Perla’s mother stores their dishes, their bowls and glasses and plates. Because it is such a chore to clear everything off, the three Ramirez women bathe together just once each week, every Saturday morning at six. And since today happens to be Saturday, Perla, still half-asleep, sits huddled in tepid water, scowling at the weak winter sunlight that forces its way through the window’s coating of soot. Sonni laughs, and Perla shifts her aggravated attention to the other end of the tub, where her mother lolls with baby Lani laid out in her lap. Famously beautiful all over their neighborhood, Sonni at twenty-nine looks barely nineteen. Her skin is unblemished, smooth as syrup; her arms are round, hairless, and soft. Her eyes are the color of wet maple leaves. She has dimples and curls, red lips, and even white teeth. At the Cafe Reál, where she works as a waitress with three of her girlfriends, Sonni is considered the sexy one, her looks a calling, almost, and she smiles all the time, as if waiting for someone to take her picture.
Perla, on the other hand, never smiles. She has her reasons, among them the fact that last year Maxie Otero threw a beer bottle at her and knocked out two teeth, his explanation being that Perla looked weird. Now she looks weirder still. And although Sonni keeps making promises that she’ll take her daughter to the dentist to see about the hole in her mouth, she never does. They never have any money; but in Perla’s opinion, that’s no excuse.
The chestnut tips of Sonni’s breasts poke through the bubbles. Perla hisses. She crosses her arms over her own scrawny chest. Humming, Sonni soaps Lani’s hair with a slivered white bar and Perla slips down till she is submerged to the eyeballs. She opens her mouth and lets it fill with water, then rears up and spits across the lake. The stream hits her mother right in the face.
”Ay, Perla!” Sonni squints one-eyed. “What’s the matter with you?”
There is no good answer to that question.
Baby Lani looks as if she might cry.
“Maybe,” Sonni says, “you should go hear music at Carnegie Hall.” She’s talking about the concert this afternoon. Mrs. Davis, the director of the Youth Center, is taking a bunch of kids downtown to a piano recital. It’s a gift from the City, an afternoon of culture for the underprivileged. Classical music. Fuck that, Perla thinks. She likes hip-hop, Aceyalone and Wu-Tang Clan and Krayzie Bone. She likes the way the angry voices vibrate inside her skull, and in her chest, too, a feeling that pushes against her skin from the inside. Sonni says, “It’s that Italian kid, eh, Perla? What’s his name? Luigi something something something.”
Perla is too smart for that. The flyer is right there on the kitchen table and if Sonni really wants to know, all she has to do is look.
“I can still get Rita to watch the baby,” Sonni says.
Perla hunches forward. The idea of ditching Lani is very tempting. She wouldn’t even have to make the concert, she could go wherever, do whatever. But there is a hopeful eagerness in her mother’s face she feels she must squash.
“I hate that Davis bitch,” Perla says, though really, Mrs. Davis is mostly OK, with her kinky gray hair and a gap-toothed smile Perla can identify with. Mrs. Davis lets Perla drink black coffee on cold days, and once gave her a pair of Nike’s with lights in the heels that a grandson had outgrown.
Sonni cups a palm over Lani’s eyes. She reaches over the side of the tub, fingers grazing the linoleum to retrieve a plastic cup. Carefully, she rinses the baby’s hair. Lani, squealing, hits the water with the flat of her palm. Waves splash to Perla’s end of the tub. The baby looks sly, as if seeking applause. Lani is fifteen months old and has a different father than Perla, a white guy that passed on his papery skin and light hair. Perla hates it that the baby is so fucking sweet, that kisses fall on Lani like soft summer rain. Each night, the girls camp out in the living room—Sonni claiming the only bed in the apartment’s only bedroom—toe-to-toe on the orange Abortion Couch, so-called because wicked steel coils stab up through the weave; and sometimes, very late, when Perla can’t sleep for wanting something, she doesn’t even know what, she throws off the covers and flips around and crawls to her sister’s side. She fits the earphones from the Walkman over Lani’s little pink ears. She puts her cheek against Lani’s hot little temple. Then she twists the volume, the tinny threads raveling from the radio’s heart, the sound growing louder and louder—she can’t help herself, she has to do it—until the baby wakes with a scream.