Sweet Baby James

By

The following excerpt, from the opening pages of Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small, is annotated by the author and by book critic S. Kirk Walsh using Genius. Click on the highlighted text to read their thoughts and insights.

***

We have always lived here, though we pretend we’ve just arrived. That’s the trick, to make forgetful shapes with your mouth so everything feels new and unremembered. But after a while we slip up. A careless word, an uninvited smell, a tip of the tongue taste of something sweet, makes the room suddenly familiar—and we have to begin again. Like startled infants, we look to your face to tell us what comes next. You came into the fire.

Take off your clothes, the men with guns said.

Please, we said.

Now, they said.

Please let us go, we said. We won’t tell anyone.

Not anyone? They smiled with their guns.

Not anyone, we said. Please.

Our jeans and boots and jackets and shirts were piled high in the middle of the floor, like a breaking wave.

The tile was cold under our feet.

Across the room, the stainless steel ice cream case gleamed. On the floor beside it, the cash register drawer sprawled on its side.

What a shame, our mothers said from somewhere, no time to tidy up.

Before the men with guns bound and gagged us with our own bras and panties right after closing time, a few things happened: one of us hid inside her mouth the opal class ring her boyfriend had given her and remembered her mother singing “Sweet Baby James” and stroking her forehead when she had her migraines. The youngest of us, who always threw up before gym class because she was afraid of being naked, realized that this time she wouldn’t. Another remembered the pride she’d felt the day before, riding a horse no one in her family could ride, a horse that had thrown her older sister. He knows your true heart, her father had said. The horse’s shoulders were lathered with sweat. He had a salty, earthy smell she’d thought of as love.

The men with guns did things to us.

Afterward, our cheeks against the tile, we could smell something in the air like our own blood. Then lighter fluid. Burning plastic. Flames climbed the walls, flashed over the ceiling. Eventually the pipes above us burst.

Our mothers wore disappointed faces.

We waited for a voice.

We waited for a light.

Near the dumped-over register drawer, a bed-wetting nine-year-old boy we’d all babysat one time or another appeared. Nicholas. He smelled like sandalwood soap and pee. He would lie to us about brushing his teeth. He would walk in on us in the bathroom where there wasn’t a lock. What are you doing here? we demanded. His stealthy blue eyes gazed back. You must be cold, he said to us on the floor. Where are your clothes? He pretended not to know they were burning. Nicholas. Some things never change.

It grew hot, dark, and wet like first things.

But then you came into the fire. Found us. In all that dark and smoke and water: a bright, bare foot. The hopeful turn of an ankle. You clothed us in light. Washed our hair.

Instead of nothing, we have you.

***

Excerpted from the book SEE HOW SMALL by Scott Blackwood. Copyright © 2015 by Scott Blackwood. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.


Scott Blackwood is the author of two previous books of fiction, In the Shadow of Our House and We Agreed to Meet Just Here, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. He's also the author of The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, a book of narrative nonfiction. A long-time resident of Austin, Texas, Blackwood now lives in Chicago and teaches fiction writing in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. More from this author →