An extract from Herman Melville, Volume 1 by Victor Lodato
She’s carrying two skateboards, two backpacks, the banjo in its scratched-up case—a husk of molded leather that’s always looked to her like a giant key but now seems more like a coffin.
Maybe because she hasn’t played in weeks. This time of year, people don’t stop; the coins in their pockets stay there.
Are you too good for fifty cents? Evan had scolded her. If Evan had his way, she’d be playing every day. He doesn’t understand how much it takes to stand in front of strangers and summon up songs she learned as a child. Especially on dark afternoons, with the mist spitting in her face like some pissed-off ghost.
Anyway, she wants to protect the instrument—the pretty cherry wood, the feathery carving on the neck. It’s the only ﬁne thing she has; why ruin it? Her father had said never get it wet.
So she’d let it sleep for a bit. The case was comfy, lined with velvet.
Again, the coffin comes to mind. She grunts and shifts her load, trying not to fall.
Maybe Evan had wandered into town. Often he didn’t sleep well, and sometimes, when he got up, he needed to burn off some dream he’d had. Usually he was back within an hour. Today she’d waited almost until noon, when a woman who lived across the street from the empty lot came over to inform her that the land was private property. “Move along,” she’d said, snapping her fingers, as if at a dog.
Evan’s pack is way too heavy. What feels like bricks, she knows, are books. One of them, a hardcover, is biting into her shoulder.
There’s a diet book, a book about car repair, a biography of the guy who wrote “Moby-Dick.” The biography is nearly a thousand pages long, even though it’s only Volume I—just the ﬁrst thirty years of Melville’s life. She assumes it’s pre-“Moby-Dick,” because who writes something like “Moby-Dick” before they’re thirty. Evan was already twenty-three, and she’s used up only a few years less. It was unlikely that either of them would accomplish much, at this rate. She’s never even read “Moby-Dick,” though of course she knows it’s about a whale. Man against nature. She recalls the phrase from school.
When it comes to books, Evan takes whatever he can ﬁnd—freebies on the curb, or sour wrecks from garbage bins. It drives her crazy, the way he doesn’t discriminate. The diet book, for instance—that was just ridiculous. She and Evan were about as fat as Popsicle sticks. On cold nights, when they slept in the same bag, they ﬁt no problem, and when they jammed against each other for comfort their hips clacked like castanets.
On Main Street, men are blowing leaves; the air smells like diesel. She notices that they don’t turn off their blowers as she approaches, the way they do for most people. Maybe she has leaves in her hair—it was certainly possible.
She smiles at the men, showing her good teeth, which she hopes will distract them from the rest of her. The younger man smiles back and turns off his blower. The other one follows suit.
She scurries by, unaccosted.
Good teeth, she’s learned, are like a passport: they helped you cross borders. Evan has terrible teeth, insanely crooked. Every time he opens his mouth, you can see the unloved child he’d surely been.
She hurries on, hoping he isn’t in trouble.
It’s a pretty little town—she’ll give it that. They’d passed through here before, in the spring. But even now, cast into gloom, the place seems poised for a postcard. Fairy-tale pines and fearless deer. Fresh-painted porches, ﬂuttering prayer ﬂags. There are squirrels cheeky with nuts and autumn roses poking through fences. Some of the houses look like the witch’s cottage from “Hansel and Gretel,” with Victorian rooftops resembling fancy cookies.
Maybe Evan had got hungry. She heads toward the café they’ve been going to for the past few days. There’s a guy there who gives them free coffee, though he ﬁlls the paper cups only halfway.
Not that she was complaining. It was just funny how, even when people were being nice, they gave you only as much as they thought you deserved. When she played her banjo in the park, it irritated her if someone tossed down pennies.
She could see why Evan thought she was prideful—but that wasn’t the right word. Sure, she knew she was good, but she never considered the music hers. All the trancelike drones and the clever fretwork, she’d fashioned after her father. The way he could open a song, make it shimmer or bleed, depending on how he cut it. To recognize the same competence in herself wasn’t pride; it was simply gratitude, or respect.
It was sort of like putting ﬂowers on his grave.
Victor Lodato was born in New Jersey. He is the author of ‘Edgar and Lucy’ (Head of Zeus UK, St. Martin’s Press US) and ‘Mathilda Savitch’ (2009), which was hailed by The New York Times as ‘a Salingeresque wonder of a first novel’. The novel won the PEN USA Award for Fiction and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, and has been published in sixteen countries, including the UK (Fourth Estate). Victor is a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Camargo Foundation (France) and the Bogliasco Foundation (Italy). He was shortlisted for the 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His short fiction and essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Granta and Best American Short Stories. Lodato currently divides his time between Tucson, Arizona and Ashland, Oregon.