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The Infinite excerpt
The river was there, broad and brown. Calm, it seemed. Clouds swept low, fled with the current. Luz sat with Jonah on the levee between river and sky, a nowhere place. He took her hand and the river did seem calm, but she heard the water at its turbulent depth, beating against a floor carved through millions of years.
“We used to come up here a lot,” Jonah said. “My family.”
“No more?” Luz asked. Over his shoulder, a gull shrieked and banked toward picnickers along the riverwalk.
“Nah,” he said. “My brother moved away.”
“My mom died when I was little,” Jonah said. “A car wreck.” Luz tried to apologize, but he interrupted to say, “It’s all right. It feels like a long time ago.”
A tug drove a column of barges in the middle of the river. A beat emerged from the wind—a
kid playing drums on overturned buckets for the dog walkers and the joggers and the tourists arm in arm. Upriver, a cruise ship squatted heavily in the water against the bridge, near the hotels and the casino.
“My mamá,” Luz said, “she passed away, too. Almost six years now. Sometimes, yes, it feels like a long time ago. But only sometimes.”
Jonah’s grip on her hand grew firmer.
“After that I came to the United States. To be with my papá.”
“Wow,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“She was sick,” Luz said, a small smile. “We didn’t know.”
The wake of the tugboat and the barges finally reached the bank, cresting against the rocks of the levee. It was spring, and the river was high.
Jonah wanted to know if he could ask something.
“Okay,” Luz said.
“Did people tell you to talk to your mom? Like, talk to her in your head because she’d hear you and all?”
And she was there, at home in Las Monarcas, in her grandmother’s apartment. The old woman held her hands and peered at her through her glasses. An uncle lingered in the doorway, waiting to ferry the little girl to El Norte and her father, and her grandmother said good-bye and told her to pray to her mother, always, for her mother would be watching and listening. “My abuela told me to pray.”
“I got that a lot, too. The priests at school. Everybody.” He was looking at their hands—hers
was small and bronze; his was large and fair, some freckles. “Does she ever answer you?”
Luz closed her eyes and reached for her mother. The clouds broke and the sun was on her face. “No,” she answered. “Not so that I can hear her.” The gull screeched. A jogger passed, brief and mild hip-hop pumping from his headphones. “I believe she hears me, though.”
He nodded, watched her. His eyes were green, almost gray, and steady like the river seemed to be. But Luz sensed the pull beneath Jonah’s eyes, and it made her ache.
Jonah and Luz grew closer as the summer passed and edged into fall. He had been living alone in the camelback shotgun house in Central City, New Orleans, where his family, the McBees, had lived for three generations. Flaking lavender paint, a sagging porch, a dirt backyard shadowed by an ancient live oak. Jonah’s older brother Dex owned the home, but he lived like a recluse down the bayou. On only a few occasions had he come back to the city—the last time being for their father’s funeral, after the old man’s heart attack. Dex had stayed until Jonah turned eighteen—that is, until Dex’s legal guardianship had ceased—and then returned to the swamp and the old family fishing camp, where he made his living as a hunter.
“Me and Dex, we hardly talk,” Jonah told Luz. “He sends some money every now and then to help with bills.”
Jonah’s brother was his last living relation. The absolute nature of Jonah’s loneliness had staggered Luz, but it was of course familiar, and part of what drew her to him was this residue of his experience. It suggested he might be able to understand her in a way that nobody else—not her track teammates, not her father—was able.
During afternoons when there was neither work nor track practice, they took to reclining on the couch in his living room and talking, learning each other’s histories. Jonah had pictures all over the walls of his home, photographs of his family. He had explained to Luz that while he was growing up his father never wanted to see the images, wanted to leave them buried. They reminded him of too much. “At the camp, here at the house, bare walls,” Jonah had said. But once Jonah was alone, he put them up. He was much younger than his brothers, nine years junior to Dex and ten to Bill. Jonah had been six when a drunk driver blew through a stop sign and broadsided his mother’s car less than a mile from their home. He needed the pictures, markers to trace out his own beginning.
Luz got up from the couch and circuited the living room, looking at the framed shots while Jonah commented on each.
There was a photograph of his father in which the old man stares through the grass of the duck blind, hair rumpled and face confused—as if wondering why this moment called for a permanent likeness at all—as droplets of mist freeze in the flash against the predawn dark.
There was a photograph of Jonah’s mother, a blond bob and green eyes, and she stands on the riverwalk, slightly turned from the camera, her hands resting atop her belly.
“Maybe she’s pregnant with me in that one,” Jonah said.
Luz watched the wide river roll behind his mother, the steeple of a church on the far bank. The view was not far from where Luz had first sat with Jonah on the levee.
“I remember small things,” Jonah told her. “Just flashes. Mom walking me to church while my brothers watched football with Pop. Tracing symbols on my back after she tucked me in.”
Luz smiled and returned to the photograph. Jonah’s eyes were like his mother’s. Luz imagined his father taking this picture, pride swelling. A wish rose for her own possible future with Jonah.
Luz prayed, quick: Please, señora McBee, help us.
Jonah did not pray to his relatives, so Luz had begun to speak to his mother. It was a small thing she could do for him. Luz imagined Jonah’s loss as an anchor obscured by dark water. Jonah neither saw it nor understood how it restricted the range of his drifting. If you would only reach for her, Luz had tried to tell him.
Luz paced the living room and stopped opposite the couch, where in the center of the wall there waited a photograph of Jonah’s eldest brother, Bill, with a crew cut and in dress blues. The American flag the government sent, cotton folded in a triangular frame, hung next to it. Jonah told her that a land mine had killed his brother. Something old, something the Soviets left in Afghanistan more than twenty years before Bill showed up. “How fucked up is that,” Jonah whispered.
Alongside the jamb of the kitchen doorway Jonah had hung the only photograph he had of him with both brothers. Little Jonah stands in front of them. Bill and Dex are in high school. Bill is eighteen, just before he graduated and enlisted. “He’s my age now in that picture,” Jonah said. Bill was sandy haired and green eyed like Jonah, but he was stocky where Jonah had become tall. In the photo Dex is darker, rangier, wearing a sour look. All three stand on the dock at the camp, the cypress and the early pale sky behind them.
“Think I’ll ever get to meet Dex?” Luz asked.
Jonah shrugged from the couch.
Luz again sensed the implacable sadness roiling within Jonah and tried to find something to say. She glanced over the photographs and told him that he looked like his mother. “You and Bill both,” she said.
Jonah grinned and picked at a thread in the couch cushion. “You must look like your mom, too, huh?” He had seen her father once or twice, though he’d not yet spoken with the man. Her father was lanky and his skin was cooked like a baseball glove and his eyes were blue, which had surprised Jonah.
“I do look like my mamá,” Luz told him. She explained how her mother used to tell her that they were descended from Guachichil warriors, who had lived five hundred years ago and fought the Spaniards. The Guachichiles were the fiercest of the Chichimec people. As Luz grew older, she began to understand that her mother couldn’t know for certain whether they had Guachichil ancestry as opposed to anything else—all that history was lost—but it didn’t matter. It was more, Luz recognized, a matter of what they wanted to believe and what that belief could do for them. Her father couldn’t care less, practical as he was. But her mother liked the stories, appreciated their power: This history makes
you strong, my Luz. And Luz saw it, watching herself age in mirrors. Sometimes, now, she looked at herself before track meets, narrowed her eyes like a hawk, and imagined herself to be a warrior.
“What do you mean, you don’t know for sure?” Jonah asked.
“I don’t know,” Luz said. “It doesn’t matter.”
But this troubled Jonah, how something could be unknown and known at the same time. Something so essential. He could know, for instance, that the McBees had lived in the Scottish Highlands a long time ago. Then they left those for New World highlands. Sometime later they showed up in New Orleans, and here he was. It made sense.
“Look,” he said, getting up and directing her attention to another frame on the wall. Within it a sheet of parchment depicted the McBee family crest—a disembodied hand running a sword through a green dragon. “I don’t care that much about it all,” he said, “but it’s something I can know, at least. Doesn’t it bother you at all, that you can’t know for sure?”
Luz, though, was thinking about all the countless things that had happened on different parts of the planet in different eras in order for her and Jonah to be together now in New Orleans. It was a strangely sobering thought. An image popped into her head: she saw them as an impossible couple, five centuries before. Jonah wore a plaid skirt and swung a sword, and straw-colored dreadlocks fell over his bare shoulders. She clutched a spear and wore the head of a wolf for a hat and painted her face red and munched peyote before battle. She began to laugh.
“What?” Jonah said, breaking up before he even knew the joke. “What’s funny?”
Luz shoved him so that he fell backward over the arm of the couch. She leaped after him and, in the breath before she kissed him, she said, “You are, Jonás. You.”
All the guilt that had been there after their first time and the times after—it eventually passed when the retribution Luz had been taught to expect never arrived. It amazed her, how quickly they learned each other. She figured him out without a word, and once the guilt ebbed, giving in felt good, and with it came a new and special understanding of the world. After a while she imagined that God might consider them a special case. And if not, she might convince Him otherwise. Maybe they had been given a unique opportunity.
And likewise, Jonah learned to treat the geography of her body with diligence, with the terrifying knowledge that the moment would end. She was small, she was strong. The first time she threw her leg over him, he was surprised by the hardness of her muscle, the solidity and weight of her leg, and he could summon that moment any time he wished and it would excite him. They discovered their own rhythm, created it between themselves, called on it together in his bedroom. Sometimes
Spanish words left her lips when she forgot herself, and this was a fact no other man but Jonah possessed. Sometimes she called him Jonás. It was a thing with which he came to define himself.
**The Infinite is written by Nicholas Mainieri and was published by Harper Perennial on November 15, 2016**
Nicholas Mainieri’s short fiction has appeared in the Southern Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Salamander, among other literary magazines. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and son. The Infinite is his first novel.
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