Lou wakes up in an alley in 1930s Los Angeles with no memory of how she got there or where she’s from…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Perishing by Natashia Deón—available November 9th from Counterpoint Press.
Lou, a young Black woman, wakes up in an alley in 1930s Los Angeles with no memory of how she got there or where she’s from. Taken in by a caring foster family, Lou dedicates herself to her education while trying to put her mysterious origins behind her. She’ll go on to become the first Black female journalist at the Los Angeles Times, but Lou’s extraordinary life is about to take an even more remarkable turn. When she befriends a firefighter at a downtown boxing gym, Lou is shocked to realize that though she has no memory of meeting him, she’s been drawing his face for years.
Increasingly certain that their paths previously crossed—and beset by unexplainable flashes from different eras haunting her dreams—Lou begins to believe she may be an immortal sent here for a very important reason, one that only others like her can explain. Setting out to investigate the mystery of her existence, Lou must make sense of the jumble of lifetimes calling to her, just as new forces threaten the existence of those around her.
Immersed in the rich historical tapestry of Los Angeles—Prohibition, the creation of Route 66, and the collapse of the St. Francis Dam—The Perishing is a stunning examination of love and justice through the eyes of one miraculous woman whose fate seems linked to the city she comes to call home.
Los Angeles has always been brown.
And unlike all the other great American cities—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston—there is no sensible reason for Los Angeles to exist. Los Angeles was born with no natural port, no good river connections, no suitable harbor sites, and no critical location advantage. And precisely for these reasons—because being born with very little and having no safe place are the fuels for the greatest imaginations—Los Angeles would rise. Imagination and enthusiasm are the currency of world builders.
I was a teenager and had imagination when I arrived in Los Angeles that December night. 1930. It was what Mrs. Prince said. That I was a dealer in fictions. A liar for telling her “I don’t know how old I am.” I was so confused as I sat in her office that she could’ve asked me if I was a talking tuba and I’d have had to look at myself, at the curves of my own body, the harmony of my own voice, and then tell her the truth: “I’m not sure.”
That night in her office, Mrs. Prince stood across from me for thirty minutes, her manila folder opened in her hand like a prayer book, her pen hovering over the blank pages inside. I was scared to look at her.
I sat with my head bowed, ankles crossed, fingers intertwined—tighter when she moved. Ceiling lights buzzed above our silence like a fly caught in the bathroom.
And when Mrs. Prince turned the corner at the edge of her desk to finally sit down, I looked up instinctively and waited for her to start her questions again. She gave it a couple of minutes, closed her file, opened and closed a drawer, replaced her pen with a pencil, then a pen again, pretended for a moment that I wasn’t there, then continued.
It didn’t matter.
I still didn’t know my name.
Soon, someone would name my teenage self Lou.
“Are you a liar?” Mrs. Prince says, tapping the tip of her pen on her notepad, its thuds hollow.
“No, ma’am,” I say.
“How about ‘Yes, ma’am.’ That’s the right answer.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
Mrs. Prince is a social worker. It’s her job, she said, to check on my well-being and that’s why she’s asking me questions. “So how is it that you just appeared in an alley with no name?”
“I don’t know, ma’am.”
“D’you hit your head?”
I touch my head.
She rolls her eyes.
I told her three times already that I don’t remember a home before the accident or before I stole clothes from the woman who pulled a toy gun on me, and I don’t remember my name.
“Nothing at all before the accident,” I say.
“Tell me about the accident?” she says.
“I don’t remember any accident.”
“But you just said ‘before the accident.’” She throws her file across her desk. “What do you know?”
I pull my knees into my seat and hide my face on my lap, and her soft orange skirt fans past me on her way to the door. It smells good. She must’ve been dressed for some other occasion tonight, somewhere that called for red lipstick and hairpins to keep her dark hair off her neck.
Her perfume is stronger than my own stench. She smells of dandelions. Of wet soil and weak pollen, a bright flower growing here in low light, a long tube of a room, white and thin.
She stands at the open door now, lingering. I can feel her looking at me.
I flinch when the door recloses and she’s still here, sucked back in like liquid medicine at the tip of a dropper, the rubber bulb released prematurely. “You know what polio is?” she says in the nicest tone. It calls me to look at her. “It’s a horrible disease. One you could’ve caught out there on the street.” My eyes widen. “Could’ve spread. You even care about my health? The others here?”
“You know what polio does? It first heats the body. And while you’re still piping hot with fever, it’ll eat your calf muscles and back shanks.”
I grab my back.
“What’s left are withered legs and spines. A disease like a medieval tor- ture device. Screws people to wheelchairs. Pins ’em to walkers. That’s what happened to Roosevelt.”
I rub my legs.
“You don’t look well,” she says.
“Franklin Roosevelt delivered his speech on two crutches at the presidential convention, d’you see that? Got a standing ovation and he wasn’t even a candidate. Most people wouldn’t have known him if they didn’t pity the man for being a cripple.”
“You think I got it? Is that why I can’t remember?”
She only looks at me.
“People’s pity will only get you so far. You’ve got two choices. You can help me find your family or you can help me find you a new place by letting me know I’m not bringing a plague into someone’s God-fearing home.”
I bury my face in my lap and she comes back in the room. I feel her skirt brush by me again. She bends into her seat and scribbles in her file folder. I listen to the sound of her pen strokes. She’s spelling out words in English. This is English. We’re speaking English, I remind myself.
“Let’s start again,” she says. “You found yourself in an alley?”
“And before then, where were you from?”
“New Mexico,” I say, and she writes my answer.
I lift my shoulders. I don’t know.
I point to the book on her shelf that reads New Mexico. Feels Like Home. Azure skies and balmy breezes.
“You a smart aleck?”
That doesn’t feel like my name.
Fumes seem to rise from the top of her head like the stench of my skin through this prison jumper after my whole body was naked-washed at intake with bleach. A soap bar was tied to the end of a stick and dipped in a pail of water. Everything is still unrinsed. My pits itch.
She leans forward and, as if in the slowest movement of time, she repeats her same questions from before, her voice deeper and slower. Then another question comes out without her waiting for my last answer, her words straining themselves out from behind her teeth then given an extra push by her tongue. I choose not to hear her anymore.
Before she first came in, I was lying on this cot and could see the heads of chess pieces poking up from the game board next to her desk, paused and waiting for somebody’s next move. It occurred to me that I remembered the game. How did I know this game? It’s like a well-executed revolution.
Mrs. Prince is quiet now and writing something else in her notebook about me again. I close my eyes and listen to the hollow sounds of her hand- writing and see if I can trace her in my mind like a memory. If I can trace her, I might remember other things the polio stole from before the accident.
Her desk was made by inmate 2312. Could have been a man, woman, or child here because this place houses police headquarters and separate departments for male, female, and juvenile inmates—the place that washed me naked—but I imagine 2312 was a woman. Her metal ID tag is still on its leg along with the words LAPD Central Number One.
The door next to me snaps open, unlatched by the pressure built up inside here. Police officers are walking past her door, barely ajar, and headed many ways through the station. A brown man in cuffs is being pushed up the hall. I stare up and down the hallway and then at Mrs. Prince. That’s when I realize it. There are no brown people here except the inmates, the workers, and me. I wonder if Mrs. Prince notices.
Chattering down the halls blends together a symphony of men’s tones; one has a lisp so his voice is like whispers. Fat fingers are hammering out reports on typewriters, slipping off the cliffs between keys. Hard-sole shoes click along the floor in rapid succession, a metronome keeping time for the orchestra of noise.
“Take your hands off of your face,” she says. “Put your feet down.”
She finishes with a scribble, then punches her pen on the paper as if to dot an i too hard. She takes a breath. “We’ve got three places that might take you in . . .”
Her door opens completely. A square-headed man wearing a brown suit and bowtie fills the space. “Hey, dollface,” he says, leaning into her office, his shoulder pinned at the doorframe. His tweed cap is in his hand, his hair disheveled from having worn the hat past supper then finger combing it straight. It’s thinning at the front; his hair is peach fuzz above his temples, like cowlicks of empty space. She smiles for the first time I’ve seen. “Merry Christmas,” he says, bringing forward a small gift box from behind his back.
“Well,” she says, a relief and a welcome. “Where have you been?”
An unassembled newspaper is under his arm, a half-completed cross- word puzzle asking for guesses. He steps into her office but stops when he sees me. He backs up directly. “She got the crippler?” he says.
I don’t know if he’s talking to her or to me.
“Polio would do her a favor,” she says. “She’s not sick. Hit her head, maybe. Can’t remember who she is, where she’s from. But I’d guess a field. A wheat with no training.”
He hands me a wrapped sweet from his pocket. “You should have her outside if she’s sick. Sunshine’s cheaper than disinfectant. Air’s cheaper than medicine.”
“Feet down,” she tells me.
He pulls the corner chair over to where the chessboard is and sets down his hat, puzzle, newspaper. She says, “You don’t always have to be Santa Claus to everybody. It’s your move.”
She walks back to her desk and starts flipping through her notebook, searching for something. She says, “I don’t know if I have a Black family available, so it’ll be a long night.”
“Why Black?” I say.
She treats my question like I did hers and ignores it completely. “Check,” he says.
She comes back to the board and nods over the game like giving it a blessing.
A woman screams from the hallway. “That’s her!” I turn round into the pointed finger of the woman from the alley. “That’s my thief from the alley!” She wrestles with the officers holding her and they drag her along, still screaming. I melt back behind the doorway.
They’re staring at me. Without words, Mrs. Prince and the officer seem to be asking me the same question.
I shake my head. I don’t know her.
Excerpted from THE PERISHING by Natashia Deón. Published with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2021 by Natashia Deón