NOMINATED FOR THE DYLAN THOMAS PRIZE
Fleeing a past they can no longer remember, Pew wakes on a church bench, surrounded by curious strangers. Pew doesn't have a name, they've forgotten it. Pew doesn't know if they're a girl or a boy, a child or an almost-adult. Is Pew an orphan, or something worse? And what terrible trouble are they running from? Pew won't speak, but the men and women of this small, god-fearing town are full of questions. As the days pass, their insistent clamour will build from a murmur to a roar, as both the innocent and the guilty come undone in the face of Pew's silence.
“I consumed it. It is the electric charge we need” DAISY JOHNSON
Release date: July 21, 2020
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Print pages: 224
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IF YOU EVER NEED TO—and I hope you never need to, but a person cannot be sure—if you ever need to sleep, if you are ever so tired that you feel nothing but the animal weight of your bones, and you’re walking along a dark road with no one, and you’re not sure how long you’ve been walking, and you keep looking down at your hands and not recognizing them, and you keep catching a reflection in darkened windows and not recognizing that reflection, and all you know is the desire to sleep, and all you have is no place to sleep, one thing you can do is look for a church.
What I know about churches is that they usually have many doors and often at least one of those doors, late at night, has been left unlocked. The reason churches have so many doors is that people tend to enter and leave churches in groups, in a hurry. It seems people have a lot of reasons for entering a church and perhaps even more reasons for leaving one, but the only reason I’ve gone to a church was to sleep. The reasons I’ve left a church were to avoid being caught sleeping or because I’d already been caught sleeping and was being asked to leave. Those are the only reasons I can remember, though I’m having trouble lately with remembering. I left some place, began walking, slept in all those churches, then everything else happened—that’s all I know.
I don’t think they’re so great—churches. I don’t think they’re so great at all. That’s not what I mean when I say you can go to one when you’re tired. I’m not talking about grace or deliverance—a person cannot really speak of such things. What I mean is a church is a structure with walls and a roof and pretty windows that make it so you can’t see outside. They’re like casinos in that way, or shopping malls or those big drugstores with all the aisles, music piped in from somewhere, the endless search for that final thing.
But a church is also a building, often a sturdy building, and it can keep the outside far from you and when the outside is far enough from you, that is when a person can sleep. One thing it seems that every body needs is to sleep, and one thing people might not always have when they need it is a place to sleep or enough time to travel to a place where they can sleep, and so—a church. Maybe a church will fix this problem for you someday or maybe it already has.
For some time, I only slept in churches. A few nights I tried to sleep in some woods or a bathroom stall or behind a gas station, and I took a few good naps in a cemetery, but the only place I could ever sleep for any real time back then was a church. Since then I am not sure I’ve completely fallen asleep or woken up. Days and nights unspool together. Sometimes I think I might be writing a letter to sleep, that I might be asking him if he remembers me, if he ever plans on coming back. I’ve received no word from death’s brother. I have not entered a church in some time.
The large churches, that’s the sort of church you’ll want to look for if you need to sleep. The large churches have more doors that might be unlocked and more unlit spaces between all the buildings and rooms and hallways and playgrounds and gymnasiums and a kitchen or two and sometimes they even have a smaller chapel next to the larger one and the smaller chapel is almost always left unlocked. Also, the people that go to a large church are often too various to agree about anything in particular, so if you are caught sleeping there, the person catching you will likely not have a clear idea about how to proceed with getting rid of you (whether to call the police or the pastor, whether to give you something or take something from you) and people who are unsure of how to proceed are easy to escape. I have done this again and again. It seems that people who belong to a large church might want that church—so vast, so many rooms—to do the believing for them, but the church is just a building. The church has no thoughts. The church is brick and glass. If they ever slept there, they would see that.
I don’t know how it all came to this.
It seems that time is somewhere else and what I can see here is not the present, but is, instead, the future, an eventual future, and somehow the present moment is back there somewhere I cannot reach and I’m stuck living here, in some future time. This body hangs beneath me, carries me around, but it does not seem to belong to me, and even if I could see them, I would not recognize my own eyes.
Now, never sleeping, I think often of the way life blinks at you when waking. I miss that kind of beginning, being given another day, taking another day, something that’s yours, only yours, only yours and everyone else’s.
If you do manage to have a night’s sleep in a church, you’ll notice how nice it is to wake up there. It will almost make you want to believe in God if you don’t believe in God, and if you do believe in God, it will be a nice pat on the back for you. It must be so nice to be patted on the back in this way, to walk always followed by this constant, gentle pat.
IN A GAS STATION BATHROOM—piss on the floor, tampon machine, urinal, an open stall—I locked the door and stripped bare to throw water on my skin.
In a cracked mirror I saw these legs, saw these arms. I shut my eyes and tried to remember that body, but under shut lids the mind saw nothing, could not remember in what it was living. Again, I opened my eyes—saw this body. Maybe wider in some places, narrower in others, and some parts were soft, and some were firm, and where my legs met, there was something I knew to protect, though I could not say why.
When I put clothes on again, all memory of what this body was or is vanished beneath the cloth. It must be that I—whatever I am—am lying on the floor of a canoe, lying there, looking up at the sky. I am unable to sit up or move. I cannot remember getting into the canoe. Sometimes I hear people speaking to the canoe as if they are not aware that I am in here. Yes, that’s what it feels like, what living feels like. Why is it so difficult to say as much? It never seems I can describe it clearly enough.
Once someone said I had a slender neck, a woman’s neck, they said, a woman’s neck growing from the thick shoulders of a man, but maybe it was the other way around—slender shoulders and a thick neck. Anything I remember being told about my body contradicts something else I’ve been told. I look at my skin and I cannot say what shade it is. I look into a mirror and see nothing in particular. It seems I am sitting somewhere within all this skin and muscle and bone and fat and hair. Can only other people tell you what your body is, or is there a way that you can know something truer about it from the inside, something that cannot be seen or explained? Over time, I know, bodies change—they expand and contract, skin turns papery or thick, new bodies grow within other bodies, limbs grow musky and must be cleaned, organs smuggle tumors through the dark—but isn’t there something else? Something unseen. Why can’t we ever speak to it?
In a gas station late at night the cashier gave me a biscuit and a wet hot dog. She showed me black-and-white photographs of herself from long ago—a young woman in high white boots, short hair round and firm and pure black. There in the gas station her hair had gone loose and gray. She did not ask me my name. She called me baby, called me sugar, gave me a sip of whiskey from her flask and let me sleep behind the counter. We were some distance from anything else, flat nothing around us, an unearthly glow rising from a town on the horizon. I slept on the floor while she sat up on a stool holding a newspaper in her lap, the other hand resting near a rifle. She was one of the few I’ve known who somehow knew to peer over the edge of this canoe and see me lying here—hello.
What are you? I was sometimes asked and I know it’s rude to answer a question with a question but I have sometimes allowed myself to be rude in this way. I used to ask those askers, What are you? And what a horrible question to say or hear. I regret ever asking it. Sometimes they answered me: I’m a Christian, an American, I’m black, white, not from here, I’m hungry, I’m tired, angry, a woman, a man, a gay man, a pastor, Republican, mother, son, I’m forty-three years old, I’m homeless, or sometimes they answered me with a laugh that rose and fell in their chests before it wandered away, leaving nothing behind.
When dawn came that morning in the gas station, the cashier gave me a carton of milk, said to come back if I ever needed. She never asked me what I was.
In the dark of the night with no one else around, she spoke to me—
I’m the only one who will work on Sunday. They all want to buy gas on Sunday, sure, but don’t ask them to sell it. Strange thing is, people not working on Sunday is all that makes this place any good but it’s also everything that’s wrong with it.
She was quiet a long time, shaking her head, riffling through the newspaper.
Anyway the only good preacher I know isn’t sitting up in any church just to get looked at. She’s just the one that keeps the children all day, and sits in the hospice at night. She don’t say nothing about God, the Bible. Don’t have to. You see the way those children look at her—ask them what they know about. They know plenty.
I WOKE UP ON A PEW, sleeping on my side, knees bent. I did not move. I felt the warmth of another body near my head. I looked toward the floor, saw navy blue pant legs and two pale brown shoes. Above: the underside of a stubbly jaw. A large voice in the room like faraway thunder. My joints ached. I felt I’d been sleeping for weeks, heavy, immovable, mind empty, this body stiff against thin cushions.
Nearby was another person, in a blue dress that hung loose and long. Pale brown hair pulled into a knot at the neck. On the other side of this person were three children, boys, in little suits like the person sitting beside my head. The smallest was asleep. The largest was alert, staring forward, thick navy book in his hands. The middle-size boy was staring at me, and when our eyes met, he tugged on the dress. The person in the dress reached down and held that tiny hand still a moment, squeezed hard. The child grimaced. Hand released hand. A thought slowly came to me that this is the sort of person called a mother. A mother wears dresses, holds hands. Sometimes a word like this would appear, spoken by some silent voice.
Copyright © 2020 by Catherine Lacey
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