“Joe, I gotta tell you something.”


“It’s about something I just saw. Are you awake?”

“No, Nancy,” Joe says. 

Joe doesn’t move and neither does Nancy. With his eyes closed, he can more easily focus on her voice, not the ridiculous words she is saying. They have been married for over a decade, but it is still a voice that thrills and repels and amuses and touches him. So harsh, so braying, even other Portsmouthers take notice when Nancy gets going, when she really warms up. “Your wife, she’s got a real New England accent, huh?” they say, and Joe nods, wincingly proud. His own voice is deep and measured and colorless. He ’d pressed any Jersey out of it decades before by talking back to the newsmen on the radio. No such reinvention for Nancy. It would never occur to her to change her voice, and if anyone suggested it, she would probably laugh and call them a dummy.

She ’d slipped out of bed about an hour before. He ’d only been briefly aware of it in sleep. Her return is more evident—he feels the sudden stab of cold as she throws back their quilt, crawls underneath the thinning, decade-old sheet that covers him, kicks the last heavy weight of the comforter to the floor. There’s a moment of quiet. Joe keeps his eyes closed and his muscles tense, fighting off the urge to shiver. He knows she is waiting for him to shiver. The shiver will call his bluff. 

“Are you listening?” she says. Nancy’s breath is hot and acrid from her morning coffee. It tickles his ear. Joe tries to focus on the tickling part, not the urgency in her voice, not the sour. 

“I’m listening,” he says.

Then he sits up like a shot, eyes open and wide. Nancy stays curled down on the bed. She looks up at him over her shoulder. She’s in her blue wool nightgown, the one with the little rosettes on the front. Her hair is a glorious muddle, great wiry whisks that stand up and around her full, red, wind-chapped face. When they first married, Nancy’s hair was a deep, glossy blond, almost brown, like a very finely waxed piece of furniture. Now it is wan and thinner and wiry, given to rising up in shocks. This was one of the good surprises of being with Nancy. Before her, Joe had never seen a white woman’s hair up close. It was a surprise the first time he touched it. He ’d imagined it would be as weak as corn silk, as shivering and elusive as the strands that made up his own mother’s wigs. But Nancy’s hair is thick and coarse, like a well-bred dog’s. The matter-of-factness of its texture had charmed him even more because it was so in keeping with his Nancy’s character. Or rather, her old character, what he thought she was when they first married.

“This morning, I saw a raven with one white feather in its tail.”


“So?” she finally sits up. “So? So, it’s a good omen, Joe—”

“Ah, for Christ’s sake, Nance.”

“A good omen,” the vinegar of her breath dances toward him. “I’m telling you. Today should be the day. We should go today. It’s a sign.”

He groans.

“A sign, Joe, and you know it. So today’s the day. We’re going.”

“If you want to do it today, we’ll do it today.”

“I don’t want to.” He should’ve known Nancy wouldn’t let that one slide. “It has nothing to do with what I want. It’s what the universe wants. It’s a good omen, Joe. It means we’re in the clear. It can’t hurt us now. Nana Maeve can’t do shit to us now. So we can go today.”

Nana Maeve was Nancy’s grandmother. She had lived an hour north of Portsmouth, in Potterstown. But she had died two weeks before, after years of not speaking to Nancy. She disowned Nancy when Nancy married Joseph. Nancy is New Hampshire Irish and Joe is a Negro. They married in New Hampshire in 1949, in front of a deacon at Portsmouth’s AME Church, the pews full on Joe’s side and empty except for a weeping sister on Nancy’s. No one in that church except for Joe and Nancy had thought they would make it—even Nancy and Joe knew that. But here they were still married some twelve years later come this November, 1961. All despite the silent disgust of the likes of Nana Maeve.

Back in ’49, though, when Nancy sent Nana Maeve an invitation to their wedding, the card came back next day’s post with Nancy’s name colored out. A large black box drawn around it, carefully filled in with black ink from a marker running dry. When Nancy, weeping, showed the marked-up card to Joe, he could still see her name, proud and unobscured under the blurring, leached-out runs of black. On the invitation, Nana Maeve hadn’t even bothered with Joe’s name—she left that script alone. 

At the time, Joe tried to spin this as a sign of the equivocal mindset of the old lady—she could have gotten a fresh marker and done the job proper, if she really meant it, couldn’t she? Joe had said this in comfort. The heavy, witless scent of permanent marker rose from the cream-colored lace of the invitation and Nancy spat at him, through tears, “That’s a crock of shit, Joe. Don’t dupe me.” 

And Joe, relieved, loved her even more for tearing through the ruse, for preferring the truth that they both knew: the rebuke was real and final. She was willing to call things by their true name, which was a necessary skill if you were a white girl marrying a Negro. Or, he ’d thought she ’d had that skill. 

Joe finally brings himself to get out of bed, makes his way to the bathroom. Nancy doesn’t bother to follow. 

“Who says a white feather on a blackbird’s a good omen?” he calls.

He leaves the bathroom door open. He turns on the water, splashes his face, shakes the wet off his hands. As soon as he turns off the tap, Nancy shouts, “The Cherokee, that’s who says. It’s a well-known, ancient Cherokee omen.”

“We live in New Hampshire, Nance.”

She shouts again, “Ravens are up here just the same as they’re in Cherokee country. It doesn’t change what the omen is.”

“Ain’t no Cherokee here now and there never was.”

“I’m not having this conversation while you’re using the toilet,” she announces, and Joe shuts the bathroom door. 

He stays at the sink. The small window by the shower is dark. It is only five am—Nancy must have felt the urge strong this morning. She must have really been in the mood to prophesize. He sits his elbows on his knees, sinks his head in his hands. Through his fingers, to the left, he can see the books stacked on the wicker table beside the toilet. A Dictionary of Signs and Symbols, Romanian Folklore, The Stories and Sayings of the Appalachian People, Japanese Folktales, and a stack of tattered Readers’ Digests. The one on top’s the most recent—stamped September 10, 1961. Brand-new, but Joe knows even that one isn’t safe. The only Readers’ Digests Nancy bothers to save are the ones that carry news of superstition. She dog-ears the relevant pages and then spends hours marking the articles with a complicated system of asterisks, arrows, circles, and dots that only she can decipher. Angel sightings, the incantations of Romanian Gypsies, the utterances of Haitian zombie masters, the curses of Creole bagmen are all duly cataloged with Nancy’s ballpoint pen, the cap of which she gnaws into a tangled claw, the ink watered down and made thin with her own saliva. 

He had thought, still thinks, still believes, that their marriage, their everyday life together, is taking them out of history. And here she is, now, every day, forcing them back down into it. Back down into signs and symbols and signifiers and reading skin. 

Maybe it would have been bearable if the superstitions followed an actual logic of space or time. There are a couple of Negro kids in town—Verna Pourhouse and Skip Moorehead. The two of them like jazz and dark glasses. Joe is president of the local NAACP and Nancy is the secretary, and those two kids like to come to meetings every now and then, to mutter “white devil” at Nancy and talk about loas and the Yoruba spirit and the Great Earth Mother. Those kids are punks, but at least their ramblings have a certain geographical logic—underneath all the nonsense, a keening for some kind of home. But not Nancy. She picks and chooses any which way, any tradition, it does not matter. Joe reasons that if they are going to be hemmed by history, it may as well be a known history, not this collection of droppings of half the primitives of the known world. 

These superstitions are the central argument of their marriage.

Nancy has never lived farther than three miles from where she was born, and loudly states her desire to never stray further. But for Joe, she ’d come over to the Negro side of town, settled into their neighborhood in Strawberry Banke with very little angst on her part. Nancy bakes pies and cakes for the Odd Fellows, and every January 1st she celebrates Emancipation Day with the same dutiful fervor as the other Negro wives. She draws the line at religion. She stays Catholic and Joe stays AME and that is the end of that. But in every other way she has taken to Negro life while still, miraculously, remaining purely Nancy. At the start of their marriage, he was in awe of it; he could not understand it, but he was grateful for this adaption.

She’s rolled toward him on every other account. But she won’t give up the mumbo jumbo and he cannot understand why.

This love of the supernatural had revealed itself shortly after they were married, but only little by little. There were the lucky pennies kept in the bottoms of her pockets that she worried with her thumb until they shined. There was the cock of the head, the lift of her voice, when someone told some stupid story about a desolate barn outside of town or a cold spot in a basement bar. “Oh, really?” Nance would say. “Oh, really?”

“No, not really,” was what he always said back. “The opposite of really.” 

This is what he loves about her and this is what he cannot stand. She is a woman ruled by signs and symbols. She is always hunting for coming misfortune with more and more anxiety. Her anxiety about luck manifests itself as sharply as her anger, is simply a different part of rage. She will snap and tug and lament, taunting the world to prove her right, just fuck up, I don’t care, until finally something does go wrong and she welcomes the misfortune with a sigh, peaceful and happy for the bad news, welcoming good fortune to prove her wrong.

It’s gotten worse as the years go on. Now, every decision, big or small, is delayed while Nancy consults the spit and dregs at the bottoms of her mugs, the clouds above, the swirl of water down the drain, the nap of hair caught up in the bristles of her own brush, and a hundred other natural phenomena that Joe cannot not keep track of.

Joe picks up one of the books, holds it in his hand, runs his fingers over the raised pentagon on the cover in disgust. The pages smell like mildewed paper and Nancy’s rosewater perfume. He breathes in the scent. Then he sets the book back on the pile, back with its useless, dead brothers. He reaches behind him and flushes. 

When he comes out, Nancy is still sitting up in bed, her hair still a swirl around her.

“A feather, huh?” he says.

She presses her lips together until they are a small, sad line. “Joe, you know this is me. I cut coupons every Sunday. How is this any different? I don’t put on rosy glasses for anybody and that’s what this is all about.” 

He does not say anything and here comes the flash of rage—she heaves the covers off herself and suddenly wrenches her nightgown over her head, her breasts puckered down on her belly, her underwear pulled close to her navel. He thinks, briefly, that her soft body is adorable and he even smiles, but Nancy doesn’t see it. She strides past him and begins to pull a dress off a hanger.

“We need all the help we can get,” she says. “That old woman’s ghost will be there, cursing us, you know. The NAACP only gets us so far—”

“You think the NAACP is the same as a bunch of hoodoo shit?”

She holds a dress to her middle and glares at him. “Don’t you know there are forces in the world that are darker than politics, than, than, public policy?” She spits. “Don’t you know there are forces in the world that operate outside of that, that can’t be mainfestoed or bylawed or, or, or, boycotted away? The NAACP will help with the laws of man, sure, but there’s more we need protection against. We need protection against evil, the evil that would keep us apart. We need protection against the degradation of the spirit.”

He hates when she veers to the Catholic, when she brings up things like the spirit, and she knows it. She must’ve seen his eyes go dead, so she switches tracks and says, “Think of it this way: it’s an investment, Joe. Why wouldn’t you want all the protection we can get? You should be happy, you should be grateful that I’m working so hard, that I’m actually studying it up in books to protect the home we built together. It’s a slap in the face, when you sneer like that. It’s arrogance is what it is, just like every other man. Taking your wife for granted, like every other man on earth, like every other man since the dawn of time, you are.”

She strides into the bathroom and turns on the faucet. Over the rush of water, Nancy cries, “You hear me, Joe? Today’s the day.”

They take the Buick. 

The road to Nana Maeve’s house runs past the salt hills. It is still night outside when they get in the car, but as they drive the light around them whitens. They aren’t out of darkness yet, they still need the headlights, but Joe can feel the dawn coming. 

It always amazes him, this difference between New Hampshire and Atlantic City, where he ’d grown up. Down there, the dawn came on in a great rosy push, warm and welcoming over the water, sometimes a dingy, glowing red, sometimes magnificently blush, but always friendly. Up here in New Hampshire, dawn is threatening. The sky, the very air, lightens almost imperceptibly, building and building, making a thrum in his chest he never knows is there until it suddenly whitens and becomes light all around. Dawn doesn’t burst like anywhere else, anywhere healthy on earth. It seeps and settles in and then it is there. Another day. 

The grainy, spilling mounds of the salt hills roll up beside their car windows. Nancy kisses her fingertips and presses them three times to the roof of the car. “Our luck,” she says, and when he glances over at her, she cuts her eyes slyly at him, daring him to nag. 

This was the first superstition Nancy revealed to him and so he has a special softness for it. She’s been doing it since they were sweethearts. She doesn’t touch her hand to the roof every time they pass the salt hills—they must have passed them a thousand times in their life together, in their drive through town. She doesn’t do it every time. She does it just often enough for it to still move him. And she knows this, so when she does it now, he winces at the calculation. His shifty, shady Nancy.

He reaches out to give her chubby knee a good-natured pinch, to let her know he knows she knows what she’s doing. When her flesh is in his hand, when he’s got her fat between his thumb and forefinger, that’s when it begins. A flash of light fills the car and Joe jerks his head and sees up ahead, in front of them, only a large shimmering field of white. Around the car stays dark and placid, he can see that from the corner of his eye, but up ahead is only white, as if a giant porch door has swung open out onto a summer day. 

Joe’s first instinct should be to step on the brakes, to stop. But he doesn’t. Later, he will never be able to explain why he doesn’t. Instead, he pushes his foot harder on the gas and speeds the car, himself, and Nancy, speeds them all straight toward the great burst of light that seems to have lit up all of Rockingham County and turned pitch dark into the brightest day. 

As the car ramps up speed, Joe panics. His one hand still grips the steering wheel and with the other he lets go of Nancy and then clumsily reaches for her again, only managing to get a hold of the puff of her winter coat’s hem. All he can hear is a low, sighing moan, like the salt of the earth itself is shifting. Then everything hums white, and that is the last thing either one of them can remember for a long time.


Nancy calls the salt hills their luck because they are what lured Joseph to New Hampshire in the first place. In ’49, he ’d just gotten out of the Navy—eight years and a quarter the only black crewmember in an iron submarine thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean. His cousin Randolph was the one who told him about Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the salt hills there, and Joe didn’t need much convincing. Anything seemed possible, anywhere seemed possible, after the serene anxiety of being the only Negro for three thousand miles in every dimension, wrapped up in iron and rivets. Besides, it was better than sticking around Atlantic City and watching his mother’s house and all the little houses of her friends and family crumble a little bit more each year into the sea. 

Randolph claimed that there was money in the salt hills. Before Joe saw them, he imagined they would be tall and looming and glittering, white teeth bursting from the gums of the earth, ready to spittle and gnaw the dry and frigid New England air into damp and brackish prosperity. The hills would be like diamonds, like wealth. 

His first big disappointment in New Hampshire was discovering the hills were not white at all, but a dusty, dun brown. The air around the hills didn’t shiver with all that free-floating sodium. It chocked you with grains. It stung your eyes. When he got the job he ’d been promised, Joe discovered he had to wear thick, yellow goggles every day. He hated the goggles, especially in winter, hated the sore grooves they wore in his chapped leather face, but the poor girls who worked in the mill’s office had it worse. They were deemed unworthy of even that gear. All of them wore silk scarves over their hair, and when they had to cross the salt yard to deliver some message, they first untied their scarves and ran them under the flowing tap of the office’s glass water tank, or as the girls called it, in their grating New England accents, “tha bub-lah.” When the scarves were good and damp, but not dripping, they wrapped them over their faces, covering their eyes.

The first time Joe ever saw Nancy, twelve years ago, that’s what she had across her face—a damp veil of white silk gauze, printed with cherry blossoms. When the fabric was dry, the blossoms were pink, but the water she ’d soaked the silk in turned the blossoms a deep, dead red. It was disturbing to him, this almost-woman’s face with a cloth of red splotches where her eyes should be, standing before him and explaining in that harsh New England accent that he had a message in the office. She ’d taken the courtesy to call him Mister, he ’d noticed that, but it had been pronounced “Mistah,” any sense of deference lost with the r. 

His cousin Randolph told him it was different in New Hampshire. In Atlantic City you could only go with white girls after midnight. In New Hampshire, it wasn’t that they were laxer. Just that it had never occurred to them that it was possible. They were shocked into allowing it. You could take a girl, just you, no numbers for protection, just you and her, you could take a girl out to dinner at a regular diner, and they ’d serve you. They wouldn’t be polite about it, they wouldn’t be friendly, but they would do it four times out of ten.

Despite the accent, despite the blind cloth where her eyes should be, he asked Nancy out. They went out three times. The first two times they met in secret, down near the pilings at the end of town. He walked from one direction, she tripped along from the other, and they sat on one of the ancient, seaweed-hairy stones that lined the waterfront, and she looked at him skeptically while he told her nonsense stories about Atlantic City. He only got her to laugh once. 

He finally asked her to the movies. She hesitated for a moment. So he told her she could buy a ticket on her own and he would buy one on his own and they would sit apart until it was dark and then they could sit together. He said they could even go to a show at two in the afternoon on a Tuesday. Nancy rolled her eyes. “We don’t have to do all that,” she ’d said. He thought she was bluffing and he didn’t want to call her on it, so he got them tickets for Tuesday anyway.

During the color cartoon, when he was certain they were the only ones in the theater, he got up from his seat and sat down in the empty one next to hers. When the feature came on, she put her arm on his armrest, right close to his. They were both in short sleeves and so their skin touched for the first time. He smiled, and he turned to look at her. When he did, he saw that Nancy was looking at their arms, side by side, in the light from the screen. The look on her face was a queer one: she looked fascinated, but disbelieving too. And this excited him. He leaned over in the seat and kissed her cheek and he felt it warm beneath his lips. And then he looked down at their arms as well—his own warm and velvet in the dark, Nancy’s a bright white in the glare off the big screen. 

That’s all he sees, now, as he comes to. A white girl’s arm against red velvet and a damp silk scarf printed with bleeding cherries and the dirty brown of salt teeth hills. And then all at once he’s aware of the sound of his own car horn—his forehead is pressed against it. He lifts his head slowly, so slowly, his head feels so heavy, and beside him he hears Nancy’s voice whispering, “Joe, Joe, Joe,” and as he opens his eyes he sees the long day all around him, it must be three or four in the afternoon, and the car is on a wooded road, the salt hills are nowhere around him, and Nancy is saying, “Joe, Joe, Joe,” and he wants only to sleep, slip back into that movie theater of his memory, but he knows she ’d kill him if he did. So he opens his eyes.


“You mean to say it was little green men?”

Joe can’t meet anyone’s eye. He does not want to dignify that with a response, but while he is trying to decide how to answer, Nancy shifts, the folding chair stenciled with AME CHURCH OF PORTSMOUTH squealing beneath her, and she says, “Well, yes, but there’s no need to be rude.”

It has been a month since whatever happened to them happened. They had managed to steer the car back home, and Nancy, uncharacteristically hushed, had called her sister and said she wouldn’t be doing anything for Nana Maeve; Sissy would need to figure out how to clean out her house on her own. 

They ’d spent the night lying side by side in their bed, not speaking, not able to sleep, only breathing together. Joe did not know what to think. They were too young for stroke; they had not been drunk; he wished he could call Doc Hanson and ask about this, but it was too late at night by the time he thought to do it. Instead, he listened to Nancy breathe in and out, grateful for the noise.

It shouldn’t have been a shock when she turned to him the next morning, eyes gleaming, and said, “I’ve got it.”

She ’d woken up before him—he must have fallen asleep at some point. Here she was, three Reader’s Digests clutched to her chest, one of them with a page turned back to a grainy picture of a black circle in a gray sky—“Visitors from the Stars.”

She said they had to tell. “What if they do this to other people? Imagine if they do this to someone who doesn’t know what happened.”

“What happened?”

She tapped the page against her chest. “Visitors. From. The. STARS.”

They wrote a letter to the Herald. Nancy dictated while Joe typed. Even as he heard her voice, he knew it was fruitless. “We have experienced an event that exists outside nature.”

They waited three Tuesdays, but the editorial page never printed their letter. On the fourth week, Nancy said, “We’ll start with our members,” and Joe realized, with a sinking heart, that she meant to bring it to the NAACP meeting.

So here they are, in the AME Church’s basement, Joe at his usual place behind the lectern, an impotent gavel in his hand, and Nancy in the creaky old folding chair, leaning forward in breathless excitement.

Before them were the other board members—Civie Draper, who’s been in Portsmouth longer than Joe; Harold Carter, an old Portsmouth head, born and raised; and Calvin Gordy and his wife, Lila. Thank god this isn’t a budget meeting—then the crowd would be larger. As is, it is just these members, and Joe thought, at first, that maybe this is grace, that maybe they would hear Nancy out and take pity on him, and, out of respect for Joe, that the story would stay here, in the basement, absorbed into the stucco walls.

But right before Nancy took the floor—she ’d had the decency to wait until the end of the meeting, bringing it up under the board item “incidentals”—the basement door had swung open, and in slouched those two punks, Verna and Skip, and Joe felt his heart sink down to his liver.

Verna is wearing some sort of crocheted smock—it drapes down to her knees and underneath she has on a short, brown corduroy shift. The girl has the audacity to keep her legs bare, and Joe tried not to stare at them as she took a free seat and crossed her ankles. The boy wears dungarees cut close to his pudgy frame and a black turtleneck. Both of them removed their sunglasses, at least, but only after Civie Draper glared at them.

“A bright light,” was how Nancy began her story, and Joe could not listen, could only watch the punks, as Verna sat up straighter, her eyes wide, then looked over at Skip, trying hard not to giggle. Joe glanced back at his wife and saw what he thought they saw—a middle-aged white woman, preposterous down here, ranting about visiting Mars.

When Nancy finished, Joe winced, bracing himself for the punks’ ridicule. But it’s Civie who says it, leaning forward, her lips pursed, “You mean to say it was little green men?”

Civie was the one who rented him a room when he first came to Portsmouth. Miracle of miracles, she was a friend of a friend of his mother’s, part of the network of Bajan women up and down the East Coast—his mother had sent him to her room when he ’d told her he was leaving. Civie was the first person to know of him and Nancy, and Joe remembers now how she stood in front of him in her parlor. Civie was so short that Joe stared at the top of her impossibly false bouffant wig. After so many years of wearing the wig, Civie’s neck was bent and she had to raise her eyes up to see anything but the ground. It gave her the look of a saint ascending to heaven. The top of the wig was frosted a blinding white, and the lower half was a glossy pitch black, as dark as the center of the universe. When Joe made his announcement, Civie raised her head slowly, carefully, so as not to offset the wig, and held her head straight so she could look him square in the eye. Not a saint in heaven, but a woman here on earth. She ’d looked him in the eye and carefully pronounced, in her thick Bajan accent, “Marrying that girl won’t make any difference.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joe asked.

“It won’t change nothing. You could marry a hundred white girls, and they could love you with a hundred white hearts, but it won’t change the color of your black behind.”

“Of course it won’t change,” Joe had yelled. “Of course I’ll always be a Negro.” Civie flinched at that word. Only Americans could be vulgar Negroes. Bajans were Colored or, when they did something supremely foolish like try to marry a little white girl, they were Black. 

“Whoever said I wouldn’t be?”

Civie came to the wedding and ate their cake and even held his mother’s hand while she wept about the union. Because of that, they had an uneasy truce up until now. But all that was broken with that dry pronouncement of little green men, and then Nancy’s sputtering.

Civie turns to look at him now, her eyes swiveled up again, as if to say, “This is the woman for whom you did what?” And Joe can’t meet her eye. He hates himself, a little, for it.

He hears a snort, and he sees Skip covering his mouth, then leaning forward in his chair.

“Miss Nancy,” Skip says sweetly, and Nancy narrows her eyes; she’s not fooled.

“You have a question?”

“I do,” Skip says. “How is this related at all to Negros’ business?”

Nancy does something Joe has not seen her do in years. She blushes. She looks down at her hands. “I thought,” she says, “we could work to get the word out. If they ’d do it to us, they may do it to one of you. And this is bigger than Negro business. This is human business,” she says. 

And Joe sucks at his teeth and feels the stab in his heart as his friends, his comrades—the ones he sees every Fifth of July to wipe the graffiti off the Negro graves in the cemetery, the ones who he works with to buy ice cream for the kids every August, these good and kind brothers and sisters who do him the favor of never talking trash about his white wife to his face—he sees them all recoil at that equivalence, Negro and Human, and Joe wishes to weep.

You think you know a woman. You think you goddamn know a woman. You may have traveled through space and time beside her, you may have walked outside of history to marry her, and yet, you do not know her. Not well enough to expect this.

Nancy is still talking, about stardust and human potential and superior beings, and Joe can see the punks smiling wider, getting ready to pounce. He should stop her. He should bang the gavel in his hand. He should shake them both out of time. But he can’t. He cannot escape. Instead he looks across the room, to the grandfather clock against the wall, and sees his own middle-aged self staring back. 

He rubs at his cheek, at a patch of ashy, graying skin. Over a dozen winters he’s lived in New Hampshire, and this always happens in the middle of them. One day, he looks in the mirror and gets a shock at how dull his skin has become. No matter how much lotion or oil he rubs into it, it slackens, takes on a faded black, looks like the poorly-cared-for cracked leather jacket of a teenaged delinquent.

He looks into the yellows of his own eyes. Every day, they get a little tanner, a little more bloodshot. It was the same way with his father’s eyes and his father’s father’s eyes. When Joe was a young man, he ’d sneered at the discoloring, convinced it was a sign of weakness, a moral failing, a fatal lack of will. No matter that his father sneered back, no matter that his cousin Randolph laughed and said it happened to all West Indian men. “We are just that way,” Randolph said. Now Joe sees that he was right. It is not a failing of will. It’s a question of destiny. 

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin Books), one of the New York Times Critics’ Top 10 Books of 2016. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, Glamour, the Wall Street Journal, Elle.com, Buzzfeed, Transition Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, among other places. She was a contributing editor for LENNY Letter and is currently a contributing writer for the New York Times. Her next novel, Libertie, will be published by Algonquin in 2021.