Considering how often books hurt our feelings (you know who you are, authors), it’s hard to imagine a book about not being able to feel at all.
But that’s just what The Waning Age is, and we are super duper excited to show you the first excerpt of it!
The Landmark Hotel on Third Street off Market has four glass doors speckled with mercury and the portico is high-relief painted gold. The entrance gives the impression of a gilt mirror rescued from a duchess’s castle. Inside, the walls are white marble, the lobby chairs are rose damask, and the carpet looks like the polar bear population of the Arctic, scythed and steamrolled. In the atrium the marble spills from walls to floor, making a cold white bowl beneath the crystal lid of the ceiling. Hotel guests and tony San Franciscans come to the atrium for lunch or tea, to hear the lone cellist who sits beside the potted palms on most afternoons to play Beethoven or, if the weather’s foul, Schubert.
I almost never go to the atrium, because I clean rooms on floors seven to ten. Even if I could afford the macarons, the spiced chocolate, the flowered tea, and the sugared almonds, I wouldn’t eat there. I don’t like the company.
Case in point, the epic meltdown I’d been called down for. He was huddled on the floor of the men’s room off the atrium: tanned, broad-shouldered, and only a few years older than me by the look of him. He wore a navy linen jacket and cream-colored pants in summer wool. The shoes, ocher suede, had a quatrefoil on the leather sole. I recognized the brand. One shoe would have cost me two months’ wages. His knuckles were bleeding from where he’d pounded ineffectually at the marble. He was turned toward the wall, but I had caught a glimpse of his face when he flung it over his shoulder to shriek at us. Even brows, dark brown like the wavy hair; shadow on the jaw and dimpled chin; red, red eyes, wild as a hunted animal’s, bulging and stricken. Taken all together, he was an allegory of vanity on a precipice. Then again, terror distorts faces. There was no telling what he might have looked like had he been calm and quiet.
I took a step forward to see if I could find out.
“Are you sure, Nat?” Olsen asked me. “I could just call the police.” Olsen is one of the security guards. He’s solid but he’s new. He hasn’t had to deal with too many of these yet.
“Nat can handle it,” Marta said confidently, shooing him away with wide hands. She has too much faith in me, but it’s true that I have practice.
“I’ll give it a shot.” I raised my eyebrows at Marta. “Better if we can spare him the trip to San Quentin.”
At this the kid turned around and screamed, “Put me in San Quentin! Put me in San Quentin if it will keep them away from me!”
“Hey,” I said, taking another step forward. I knelt down on the cold floor a yard from his feet.
“Stay away from me!” he screamed, throwing a terrified glance over his shoulder. He was trembling, his bones rattling against the marble.
“My name is Nat,” I continued. “You don’t know me. You’ve never met me before. What’s your name?”
He stared at me, eyes wide. He didn’t say anything.
“See? I’m asking your name because we’ve never met. If you knew me, you would know my name, and I would know yours, right? What is it?”
“Troy,” he said, turning away, his voice abruptly two octaves lower. It had a grated sound from all the screaming.
“Ah, Troy,” I said. “Like the city, right? Hector and Achilles. Horses. Long speeches.” He didn’t budge. “You’re right,” I decided, changing tack. “Way too literary for the moment. Troy, let’s talk about what’s in this room.” I looked around like I was taking inventory of a freight car. “There’s two bathroom stalls, two urinals, two sinks, two mirrors. Two people on the floor—you and me. Two people standing—Marta and Olsen. Hm. Lots of twos.” He followed my commentary, his eyes darting warily around the room. “Very hard floors, which you know already, and rather dim lights. We used to have brighter lights but the men complained about what it did to their complexions.” I opened my eyes wide as if asking a three-year-old a question. “Do you know where we are?”
Troy blinked his red eyes. He looked at me suspiciously. “A hotel?”
“Yup.” I nodded. “We’re in the men’s room on the ground floor of the Landmark. The atrium is right past that door. Were you having lunch there?”
“Ye-es?” The first part was a statement, and the second was a question.
“Were you by yourself or were you with someone?”
Troy crumpled. It always happens at some point, when the fear begins to ebb. His shaking grew more violent, but his eyes were soft. He wrapped his arms around himself. “My mom,” he whispered.
“What’s her name?”
“Frances Peters,” he said.
I had to lean forward to hear it. “Great. Frances. And what is she wearing, do you remember, so we can find her more easily? We don’t have a loudspeaker in the atrium, worse luck.”
“She has brown hair,” he said helpfully.
“Okay, Troy.” I nodded to Olsen, who gave me a pair of raised eyebrows before heading out the door. “Can I put this on your shoulders?” I showed him the hotel blanket I was holding. He nodded. “Olsen is going to get her,” I said, to keep talking as I hung the blanket over him. “She’s the only other person who’s coming through that door. No one else. Just you and me, Marta and Olsen, and your mom.”
He nodded dumbly. His teeth were chattering, so I put my arm around him and tried to rub some warmth into his shoulders. He leaned against me. His cologne had citrus and cedar in it, and his hair was damp from the sweat. He felt as fragile as a bird.
“One time a couple months ago,” I went on conversationally, “someone dropped a cuff link in the left-hand sink. Remember, Marta?”
Marta rolled her eyes. “Do I ever.”
“They took the entire sink apart. Faucet, bowl, pipes. This place was a mess. You should have seen the contents of the pipes. Jewelry. Buttons. Money.”
“Two bullets,” Marta added.
“Yup. Even bullets. People do some strange things at the bathroom sink.”
He shifted slightly so he could look at me sideways. His lower lip was trembling with cold. “Why are you being nice to me?” He forced the words out in a whisper.
It was a good question. The easy answer—because I work here and I clean up messes—was only partly true. And wouldn’t help to distract him. “I have a kid brother,” I said, “and he makes me practice being nice, like exercise for ogres. Ten-year-olds can be very demanding.”
The door had opened when I started speaking, admitting Mrs. Frances Peters. She wore a raw silk suit and tasseled loafers. All the surgery made her face look slightly misassembled, like an experiment with spare parts. Ultra white. But she had the same dark eyebrows as her son and the same long jaw. She studied her trembling son impassively. She looked as maternal as a rusty table saw.
“I know all about demanding ten-year-olds.” Her voice was cold metal. “Get up,” she said to Troy.
I stood and helped Troy to his feet. “He’s going to need an arm on the way out,” I said to Spare-Parts.
“He can have your arm,” she replied. “Troy earned this.” She frowned, and her dark eyebrows strained together like leeches caught in concrete.
I looked at her. Troy beside me didn’t even flinch. He was used to this. I debated for a moment and then wrapped my arm around Troy’s waist. “Let’s go,” I said. “Put your arm around my shoulder.”
He draped his arm shakily over me; then, as we started moving, he clung to me like a lifeboat. We followed the imperious backside of Mrs. Frances Peters out into the atrium and into the shiny lobby and through the glass doors to the curb, where Olsen had a cab waiting. I folded Troy into the backseat.
“Hey, dulce,” I said to him quietly, leaning down into the cab. “I’m going to need the blanket back.” He was staring straight ahead, still shivering like a man caught in a blizzard. “Troy,” I said.
He looked up at me. “What?” he whispered. His pupils were still dilated with fear, but the light in them had changed. Through the flurry of the blizzard I could see a flicker of warmth.
“Aw, shucks,” I said. “Just keep it.” I stepped back and Olsen closed the door.
“Hey,” I said to Spare-Parts. She stopped near the trunk of the car. I stepped closer so that I wouldn’t have to shout over the traffic. “If he’s too much trouble, you could always sell him. I hear the prisons pay top dollar for boys under twenty.”
She stared at me, the contempt gathering in the lines of her face. “You insolent tart.”
I stepped closer. I felt Olsen’s hand on my arm and I shook it off. “Tell me more. I still got lots to learn about insolence.”
Olsen took my arm again and tugged. “Skip it this time,” he said quickly.
“What is your name?” Troy’s mother asked coldly.
“Natalia Peña. What are you going to do, Mrs. Frances Peters? Report to my boss that I peeled your son off the bathroom floor after his spectacular and completely avoidable crash? I’m sure she’ll be horrified. Just maybe not at me.”
She looked hard at me for another moment, and then her eyes filled with lazy amusement. She chuckled. She rounded the car and got in, and the cab took off.