Rumpus Exclusive: An Excerpt from Joe Meno’s Marvel and a Wonder

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Marvel and a Wonder is a darkly mesmerizing epic and literary page-turner set at the end of the twentieth century. In summer 1995, Jim Falls, a Korean War vet, struggles to raise his sixteen-year old grandson, Quentin, on a farm in southern Indiana. In July, they receive a mysterious gift—a beautiful quarter horse—which upends the balance of their difficult lives. The horse’s appearance catches the attention of a pair of troubled, meth-dealing brothers and, after a violent altercation, the horse is stolen and sold. Grandfather and grandson must travel the landscape of the bleak heartland to reclaim the animal and to confront the ruthless party that has taken possession of it. Along the way, both will be forced to face the misperceptions and tragedies of their pasts. Below is an exclusive excerpt from Marvel and a Wonder, out September 1st from Akashic Books.

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Over the low-lying fields, over the wide meadows, the sun—rampant, galloping westward—beating back the night. On and on across the white hills, the dun-colored hills, the hills ripening with green, rays of light striking the sun-bleached henhouse, marking faint flecks of painted wood gone a vulgar gray; the land itself shadow-quiet, blue, blurred by fog. On and on, toward its apotheosis, the sun rising higher in the sky, interrupting a faint-hued dark.

 

On that Sunday in July 1995, the grandfather woke early, thinking of the boy. He placed his two feet on the bare floor and stood, his limbs giving some dispute, before dressing in the near-darkness. He made his ablutions in the bathroom and then bared his teeth in the mirror. Lean-faced, tall, thinning white hair. Jim Falls, aged seventy-one.

He walked down the short hallway to find the boy was, once again, not in bed. He took in the odd odor of the boy’s quarters—dirty gym socks, exotic pets, and rubber cement—but could not make out the smell of sleep. He glanced around the room in silent despair and then closed the door behind him.

He went downstairs and put on his white cattleman hat and boots, then walked outside, half a dozen paces to the henhouse, where he found the boy, Quentin, asleep beside a pile of comic books.

The boy’s Walkman was still playing, his eyeglasses folded near his face. At the boy’s feet was a backpack, crammed with clothes and junk food, a map, and other odds and ends. Jim leaned over and switched the tape player off, then nudged his grandson awake with the toe of his boot. It was five thirty. The sun had been up for twelve minutes already but none of the birds had made a sound.

The boy startled, wiped a silver streak of drool from his chin, then put on the glasses. Though he was almost sixteen, he was only a fraction of that in sensibility, closer to a child in both manner and maturity. He was also a halfie, or a mulatto, or what the grandfather had sometimes been known to call a mix-breed, though that wasn’t the right word either. The boy’s face—rounded, olive-complected—appeared even darker in the shadows of the henhouse. Lying there, he looked like a bairn, like some strange nursling.

They found the boy’s mother, Deirdre—Jim’s daughter and only offspring—asleep at the wheel of her rusty foreign-model hatchback. She was passed out, with an empty vial of someone else’s painkiller medication spilling out of her purse. Inside, the windshield was covered with a brilliant dew. When the grandfather shook her awake, she looked up and smiled like a child, though she was thirty-seven, her eyes opaque and unnaturally lovely, these the symptoms of her ongoing dependence on pain pills and methamphetamines.

Before he could get her into the house, she vomited on their clothes. Jim nodded at his grandson for help. They carried her up the back porch, through the kitchen, and then upstairs to the bathroom, where they got her out of her soiled things. Her jeans were covered with beige-gray puke; the grandfather grabbed herMarvelandaWonder under her arms while the boy pulled off her pants, her thighs as soft-looking and fleshy as they had been when she was a baby. She was not wearing underwear. Her pubis had been shaved. And above that blank space was a mottled tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil, the one from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, operating an old-fashioned push lawnmower. The sight of such a thing made Jim’s privates wither. Also his daughter’s flesh seemed to be covered in an extravagant amount of glitter. Why, Jim did not know. The boy tried to look away. They did not say a word to each other nor exchange a single glance, Jim and the boy, sick with compassion for a thing they could not fix nor understand. Quickly, he put a bath towel over her nakedness and together he and the boy dragged her into her bedroom. They looked down at Deirdre’s doughy face and saw an unexplainable purple mark in the shape of someone’s thumb forming over one of her eyelids, her face the face of absolute, unthinking selfishness and the source of both of their frustrations.

“Get yourself cleaned up and come down to breakfast,” the grandfather said to her before quickly making his way from the room, the boy following at his heels.

 

At breakfast, the grandfather glanced from his daughter to his grandson at the kitchen table. Deirdre held her head up with one hand, poking at a plate of runny eggs. The boy ate greedily, his headphones blaring. Somewhere, once again, the grandfather felt a familiar ache. Looking from one to the other, both his daughter and grandson seemed predestined for failure. Already he had a presentiment—an unconscious belief—that the country, the world, was coming to an end. Everything in the fields outside their window seemed to be tilting, wilted over, blossoms already blown. He glanced from the window back to the table and saw Deirdre slumping over her plate.

“If you’re sick, get yourself to bed,” he grumbled, and then, nodding at the boy, “Let’s go.”

 

That morning the grandfather and grandson started their work by candling the chicken eggs, one by one, holding each above the milky floodlight. At the beginning of the chore there was no conversation, both of them coming awake in their still-asleep bodies, and then, tossing a yolker into the tin bucket at his feet, the grandfather said: “Go on and tell me, what kind of girls do you like?”

The question seemed to unfairly puzzle the boy. Quentin shrugged, looked away, and then sniffed his brown fingernails. He was in the middle of reenacting a moment from a video game, torturing a hen with the handle of a rake.

“I dunno,” the boy said. “Any kind, I guess.”

“Skinny girls?”

“No.”

“Fat girls?”

“No way.”

“Redheads?”

“No.”

“Brunettes?”

“No sir.”

“Blond girls?”

“No.”

“Black girls?”

“No.”

“White girls?”

“I guess.”

“You like white girls?”

“I dunno. I guess so.”

“Well, I’d think you’d have better luck with black girls,” the grandfather said, tossing another yolker into the tin bucket.

The boy seriously considered his grandfather’s words for a long time in silence, feeling that he had somehow been insulted but not knowing the exact reason why.

 

After an hour, the grandfather and grandson had finished candling the eggs and began counting peeps, carrying the newly hatched chicks over to the brooder, a circular pen made of corrugated cardboard, with three heat lamps hanging directly above it. The boy handed a peep to his grandfather, who studied it for a moment, and then carefully set the animal inside the pen, dipping its beak into a pan of water—getting it acquainted with the trough—and then let it run free. Already there were a few chicks piled up on top of each other in the middle of the brooder, frightened, their eyes blinking widely. With his large hand, Jim spread some of the wood shavings around, checking to be sure their food was not wet or moldy. The boy—overweight, with his soft, smooth cheeks, cheeks that had yet to know the sting of a razor, and his glasses, the round frames of which made the chubbiness of the boy’s head even more exaggerated—searched out the frailest-looking peep among them and found one with an inflamed, distended stomach. He knelt down beside the unlucky creature and closely inspected it, its shape reflected in his oversize glasses.

“Sir?”

“Hmm.” The grandfather turned.

“This one looks like it’s got mushy chick.”

Jim leaned down, poking the animal with his forefinger, and nodded. “You’re right. Go on and put him in the other brooder. We don’t need them other ones to get it too.”

The boy nodded and carried the animal over to the small brooder, filling its trough pan with a flash of cold water. The grandfather watched the boy out of the corner of his eye, seeing his grandson making small kissy-faces at the sickly animal.

The boy was wearing a T-shirt with some black man’s face emblazoned on the front. Ice Cube, it read beneath the man’s portrait. On the back of this T-shirt, it read, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, or something equally stupid. The shirt was something the boy had picked up at the beginning of summer when he and his mother had spent a week with her new boyfriend up in Detroit. Whenever the boy happened to wear the shirt, Jim believed it made him look like a turd, an actual walking, human turd. Upon first seeing it, he decided he would pay the T-shirt no mind, as even considering the implications of such foolishness—or the cost of manufacturing an article of clothing such as that—would cause the left side of Jim’s face to freeze and go dead.

The boy was now talking to the sick peep, nuzzling it against his chin.

“All right, go on and leave that one alone. We got other chores to get to yet. You can come back and visit with him when we’re all done.”

“If he dies, I’m never going to church again.”

“What?” the grandfather asked.

“If he dies, then that’s it for me and Jesus.”

“Well, I guess you can worry about that later.”

The boy nodded and went back to counting the other peeps. He placed his headphones back over his ears and soon the rapid thump of an angry voice howling over some sort of Africanized drum rattled from his vicinity. Kneeling there in the sawdusted coop, Jim took a hard look at the boy’s face, searching for some resemblance to himself, something in the character of the boy’s nose, ears, or lips—an activity that always left him with an unquestionable feeling of aggravation.

There was nothing in the boy that looked like him.

The color of his grandson’s face was ashy, almost gray—as the boy was not white nor black nor whatever else anybody knew to guess. The truth of the matter was Deirdre—a sometime telemarketer and habitual liar—was not in possession of the true identity of the boy’s father, though she had successfully narrowed it down to two men, or so she claimed: A black who lived in the city of Gary named Cousins, a man who was rude on the phone whenever Jim happened to answer. Or else it was a Puerto Rican whom Deirdre did not particularly like, whom she admitted to having slept with a number of times in exchange for “favors.” What kind of favors? Jim had not allowed himself to ask.

The boy turned to ask his grandfather a question then, pushing his headphones off, his small eyebrows looking concerned, dividing his wide, round face. “Sir?”

“Hmm.”

“Do you believe it’s possible for a human being to talk to an animal?”

Jim smiled curtly. “We talk to the chickens all day.”

“No. Not tame ones. Wild ones. Like in the movies. Like in cartoons. So they can understand you.”

“I don’t know if I can say I ever thought about it.”

The boy nodded and then looked away. “I can do it.”

“You can?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can. I can talk to animals and some trees. It’s because I have developed a new way of using my ears. I can hear things most other mortals cannot.”

The grandfather frowned and in that moment felt neither disappointment nor pity, only a slight grief.

“Quentin?”

“Sir?”

“Do you ever have a thought you keep to yourself?”

Quentin shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. Why?”

“You might want to think about trying that sometime. Keeping those sorts of things to yourself.”

The boy nodded and went silent. Another few seconds passed and then the blare of the boy’s headphones once again began to desecrate the air.

 

By evening, their chores had been done and their dinner eaten. In the dark, the boy wandered around outside, searching for insects to feed his reptiles. He found a pill bug and dropped it into a glass jar. He looked up and heard the sound of a cricket, then followed it into the henhouse. There, inside the brooder, the boy discovered the peep with mushy chick had died. It lay on its side in a pile of sawdust, its tiny abdomen crusted open and red. The boy called out for his grandfather, who came out, looking worried.

“What is it?” he asked, and the boy only pointed. The grandfather frowned and then cradled the creature in his palm, and after a moment made to toss it in the trash. But the boy insisted they bury it. The grandfather looked down at the animal, shook his head, and said no. The boy pleaded with his eyes until, finally, the grandfather went against his better judgment and said, “Get a shovel.”

In the dark, they held an informal service, burying the animal near the roots of a birch tree the boy seemed to favor. The boy said a prayer and then covered the animal with two shovelfuls of dirt. It was despicable, Jim thought, looking away from the face of his grandson. It occurred to him that this, this was what was wrong with the country, the world today: it was what happened when you stopped seeing things get born, and live, and then die. It was what happened when a person, when a town, when a whole country didn’t have a rudimentary understanding of how things ought to be.

After the peep’s funeral, they went back into the house and sat quietly in the living room. The grandfather did not watch television. Their entertainment was the mayflies that soon appeared on the windows, crowding out the dusk. After a few minutes of that, the boy drifted upstairs to his bedroom. In a moment, Jim could hear the sound of video games, of music.

Jim frowned and then sat down at the kitchen table, put on his cheaters, and went through the bills once again. Tally after tally, sheet after sheet, they all said the same thing: they owed more than they were taking in. The factory-farm boys had muscled him out and the land was all they had left. But the utilities, the upkeep on the place, was burying them. Another year, two at the most, and they’d have to sell. And then what? Jim squinted down at the bills, trying not to imagine the future.

 

At nine p.m., the grandfather got undressed and went to bed. Remembering it was Sunday, he made a halfhearted attempt to flip through his wife’s Bible but gave up after a single page. Then he laid back in the flat, wide dark and stared up at the cracks in the ceiling, imagining the shape of his wife somewhere above.

 

Two hours later, he awoke with a terrible urge to urinate. He did his business, patiently making water, and then passed the boy’s room on the way back down the hall. The boy was once again not in his bed. The grandfather sighed, tromped down the carpeted stairs, and pulled on his muck-covered boots.

Quentin was in the chicken coop again, asleep on a plank of hay, headphones blaring, glasses folded up, open rucksack near his feet. Once more, he had only made it this far. Jim nudged the boy awake, taking a seat beside him.

“You running away?”

The boy nodded.

“Well, how come you don’t get any farther?”

The boy shrugged.

“What are you running away from?”

The boy sniffed.

“Is it me?”

The boy shook his head.

“Is it your mother?”

The boy hesitated, then slowly shook his head.

“Is it the peep? The one that died?”

The boy shook his head again.

“Well then, what is it?”

After a long pause, the boy finally muttered, “Everything.”

Jim let out a disgruntled snort and forced himself to clear his throat. He looked around the coop for some witness, for someone, anyone to see the boy’s cupidity, his off-putting weirdness, but found there were only the chickens asleep in their roosts. He felt for the boy a familiar sadness then but did not know what to say or do.

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Excerpt from Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno, © Joe Meno, reprinted by permission of Akashic Books.


Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. A winner of the Nelson Algren Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a finalist for the Story Prize, he is the author of six novels and two short story collections including Office Girl, The Great Perhaps, The Boy Detective Fails, and Hairstyles of the Damned. He is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. His latest novel, Marvel and a Wonder, is forthcoming in September 2015 from Akashic Books. More from this author →