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Jess Row reads an excerpt from his novel, Your Face in Mine, published in August by Riverhead Books.
Your Face in Mine
It doesn’t seem possible, even now, that it could begin the way it begins, in the blank light of a Sunday afternoon in February, crossing the parking lot at the Mondawmin Mall on the way to Lee’s Asian Grocery, my jacket in my hand, because it’s warm, the sudden, bleary, half- withheld breath of spring one gets in late winter in Baltimore, and a black man comes from the opposite direction, alone, my age or younger, still bundled in a black lambswool coat with the hood up, and as he draws nearer I feel an unmistakable shock of recognition. Even with the hood, that elected shade, that halo of shadow. I don’t know whether to call it a certain place above the bridge of the nose and between the eyes, or perhaps something about the shape of the nose itself, or the way he carries it. Or the exact way his lips meet. Or the mild inquisitive look in his eyes that changes as I come closer to something unreadable, something close to surprise. I am looking into the face of a black man, and I’ll be utterly honest, unsurprisingly honest: I don’t know so many black men well enough that I would feel such a strong pull, such a decisive certainty. I know this guy, I’m thinking, yet I’m sure I’ve never seen this face before. Who goes around looking for ghost eyes, for pleading looks of remembrance, in the faces of strangers? Not me. He’s coming closer, and I’m running through all my past at a furious clip, riffling frantically the index cards of my memory for a forgotten slight, a stray remark, a door slammed in a black man’s face, a braying car horn behind me on 83 South. He has his eyes trained on me with a faint smile, a smile that dips at the left corner, and says,
Kelly. I’ll bet you’re wondering why I know your name.
I’m sorry, I say. Do I know you?
Kelly, he says, pursing his lips, it’s Martin.
We’re alone, in a field of cracked asphalt, dotted here and there with sprays of tenacious weeds, a mostly abandoned shopping plaza missing
its anchor tenant. I would never have come here but for Lee’s being the closest Chinese grocery to my apartment, an emergency stop for days when I unexpectedly run out of tree-ear fungus or Shaoxing wine or shallots or tapioca starch. Yes, we’re in Baltimore; yes, I once lived here, grew up here; but because Baltimore is not just one feeble city but many, and Mondawmin is, to be as honest as I have to be, on the black side of town, in the course of my predictable life, I might as well be on the surface of the moon. As a child I imagined there were hidden places—the tangle of bushes dividing the north and south lanes of the freeway, the fenced‑in, overgrown side yard on the far side of our elderly neighbor’s house—that held gaps, portholes, in the fabric of the world, and if I crawled into one of them I would become one of the disappeared children whose faces appeared on circulars and milk cartons and Girl Scout cookie boxes, whose cold bodies were orbiting earth as we spoke, and every so often bumped into the Space Shuttle and slid off, unbeknownst to the astronauts inside. How was I supposed to know that I would only have to cross town to find my own gap, my own way into the beyond?
I cross my arms protectively in front of my chest, and say,
I know you are.
Martin, I say, I need an explanation.
Reprinted from Your Face in Mine by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Jess Row.