This week’s book of the week is Nightcrawling by 19-year-old Leila Mottley, the debut writer from California causing a literary sensation the world over. In this extract, the novel’s young protagonist, Kiara, has a disturbing encounter with a policeman.
Strut, fly, gallop. There are so many ways to walk a street, but none of them will make you bulletproof. I got back from Mama’s and found myself stuck between street and gutter, Trevor knocking on the door early Sunday morning saying Vern been by again telling them they out if they don’t pay in three days. I know my knock isn’t far off. I gave Vernon every dime I got after Davon and the others, but it’s not nearly enough to make up for Dee’s rent debt or mine, and it doesn’t come close to the way they’re raising it after the sale. It was Trevor’s face staring up at me this morning that did it. Pulled me right out of the pit Mama made of me.
I have a body and a family that needs me, so I resigned to what I have to do to keep us whole, back on this blue street. I’m tilted, half walking, half stumbling. All up and down International: no music, no Tony, just me and a stomach full of tequila.
I’m shuffling and skipping and trying to warm hands in a sky that only breeds cold and real quick my heel snaps off the sole of shoes I stole from the Salvation Army and sidewalk meets cheek. Stings. Glass inside the cut. Blood spill. Blood clot. Voice.
“Lemme help you, mama.” He reaches down, pulling me up.
His eyes are rimmed in gray like he is aging only in the iris and his hand, too smooth, picks glass out of my cheek and throws it away. He doesn’t ask me shit about whether or not I’m okay, but I don’t expect him to. I don’t expect much of anything. He asks me to hand him the intact shoe and I do, watching him break the heel off and throw it. It tumbles into the street right as a car speeds through, crushing it into pieces of persona. I am four inches less of a woman. He is so tall.
The man gives me back my other shoe and I slip it on. He’s tower- ing over me, his mouth showing a grill that is some kind of trophy color, but it isn’t gold.
“Thanks,” I tell him, the cut in my cheek beginning to itch the way cuts do when they are trying to remember how to heal.
He nods. “Now that I helped you out, can I have some of your time?” He asks this like it is a question, like he isn’t still holding on to one of my hands. I look down and see traces of my blood on his finger.
“Yeah.” This is what my lips say. This is what my breath says.
He doesn’t tell me his name and, for some reason, I don’t think to ask. I just follow him, let him lead me like a child in a foreign place. He waits until we are on Thirty-Fourth, closer to Foothill Boulevard than International, and then leans me against a building. It’s cold out and I thought he was leading me to a car, but sometimes the body has no shelter for its animal and here we are, here he is, outside. He pushes me against the brick. He doesn’t kiss me and part of me is relieved to not taste whatever metal makes up his mouth, but part of me wants a reason to believe this stranger might care about my scabbing.
I try to get out from under him, telling him I don’t do it like this, that I need money up front, that I need a house or a car. He pushes me back, continues, unbuckles his belt, running his hands under my skirt, pressing into me. He pins my arms to the side and with a shove, the back of my skull digs into a protruding brick. I can feel every crack in the brick as easily as I can feel every crack in my skull. I squirm, mumbling that my head hurts. He continues to push. He continues to grunt. My body says what my breath does not. He is so tall. The soles of my feet are blistering. My cheek stings, skull sharp pain. He pushes. He pushes. He is all metal.
It isn’t that the car startles me, but it is loud. That echo-in-an-empty- room loud and if you could call a street empty, this would be it. St. Catherine’s Church stands to my left: the statue of her standing wit- ness to the car, to the man, to the metal.
The passenger-side door of the cop car swings open, and a man steps out belt first. If this ain’t every horror movie come to life. Us, street, too many fractures to be afraid and still my breath is a shallow squeal. If this ain’t my daddy’s worst nightmare.
“Stand back.” Cop puts hand to gun and I’m lucky the metal man believes in a trigger because he steps back, lets me remove my skull from the brick’s dagger. Everything is still spinning.
Cop approaches metal man like he himself is weapon and, in one swift movement, metal man has his hands clasped behind his back by Cop’s fist and Cop’s mouth spits right into metal man’s ear.
“I don’t wanna see you around here again, you hear?”
Cop’s hair is thick and dark. He is nothing unusual, just a uniform and a mannequin.
Metal man spits right out his grill, nods once. Cop pushes him, makes him stumble into a run back to where the light is. I watch him, think about how he fixed my shoe, think about how small I am.
It is me and Cop and car now. Ain’t it funny to be so scared of being saved? Cop approaches me, still has his hand on the gun.
“What are you doing out here? You know it’s late.”
I think about responding but I can feel a pool of blood in the back of my head and my hair will probably be crusted red tomorrow and there is no answer to something that is not a question.
“You know prostitution is a misdemeanor.” He smirks, licks his lips. “We’re gonna have to take you in, for your own good.”
The mannequin is saying things and Saint Catherine must be responding because I am not, I am silent, I am two funeral days past forgetting.
Cop comes up and grabs my arm, fits his fingers into the bruises metal man’s imprints made on my body. Catherine’s statue waves to me with a missing nail as Cop drags me into the backseat and climbs in after. Another officer sits in the front seat and Cop says something to him about keeping the streets safe before laughing, and the driving man is tapping his fingers on something I can’t see and singing country music real soft to himself and Cop is on me, Cop is digging at my flesh and ain’t this everything they said it would be and ain’t I so sad to be familiar. Ain’t this just another night.
So many ways to walk a street and I am still just girl with skin.
Images: publisher and Magdalena Frigo