Excerpt: Islanders by Ammiel Alcalay

from The Road

He rocked back and forth gently in the seat, bundled up in a coat not thick enough, the collar not high enough to shield his neck from the draft that whistled through the wind lacing, chipped and cracked in places from dry rot. The roads curved dark and came to one-lane covered bridges, perfect S and U turns. He followed smaller rivers until they ended then found the source of them and remained in pursuit, crossing and re-crossing at bridges that looked the longest. The radio crackled then got clear again as he veered in and out of towns whose houses clung to the sides of the mountains, like the road, a ribbon that had been snipped out of the deep-rooted rock and growth. Around a curve he came close to hitting two horses pulling a wagon filled with people. The tires gripped and skidded but he got by them and saw their black figures in the rearview mirror, their arms as they pulled at the reins and the heads of the startled horses whose frothing white teeth gripped their bits and swung a white arc in the black sky as their masters faded back into the black earth. He drove higher and higher, slowing almost to a crawl to peer through the thick banks of fog that had settled over the road. He thought of finding her, if only as away of explaining that look in her eyes the last time he saw her, when she stepped off the bus and walked across the lot, her legs unsure of her body’s weight. He stayed out of the sun watching her until she got in the shadow of a dolly filled with luggage in front of a wall of coin lockers. His eyes must have been wilder, under the moon in the mist, when he had called after her, begging.

The first few months after he met her they had walked through different streets, seeing people she knew or he knew, listening to music or eating or going to the movies. On the 4th of July, they took a train to see her old friends, in a place she had gone to in the summer when her parents were still together. Going back the next day she told him about her first boy, under the house, in the sand. That night, after dinner, they went to her room and she wept into his stomach and fell asleep with her forehead nestled against his ribs. The rest of the summer he and Abe worked on his father’s buildings. They painted, plastered, fixed pipes, testified, got judgments, and changed locks. Some of the tenants came back and broke into their old apartments and wrote their names across the walls in spray paint or took hammers and broke up the toilets. They went to the Municipal Building, the hall of records, the housing authority, the welfare bureau, and shuffled through endless files looking for the names on the bells of the buildings and if they had aliases or other addresses and jobs, children, alimony, credit ratings. She danced in the morning and worked in the afternoon. At night he told her who they’d thrown out, who they hadn’t, who was coming to repossess the machines in the Laundromat, whose pipes leaked, whose hot water worked, whose cold water got cut off, whose files they saw, whose number they got. She visited her father and she visited his. . . .

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This month on the blog, in addition to our regular excerpts from recently released City Lights titles, we’re featuring excerpts from our backlist that orbit (near or far) around this theme of “journey,” observations from/about whatever worlds our authors have visited.

Enigmatic and multi-layered, Islanders is about finding one’s own hard-won truth. A young man’s indelible memories of the struggle to find intimacy—formative experiences like the ebb and flow of friendships, love, and ordinary workaday life—are viewed through a lens of nostalgic longing and hard-eyed realism as he attempts to come to terms with the past. Set during the cataclysm of the last years of the war in Vietnam, in a landscape that shifts between the bleak fishing towns of the Atlantic coast to the ruined cities of the Northeast, Islanders explores the classic theme of identity’s intricate relationship to place.

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