Sneak Preview: The Church on Misfit Row

These days I’m hard at work on The Church on Misfit Row, a novel set in Las Vegas in 1955. It was a city ruled by the mob, where tourists sipped “Atomic Cocktails” while gazing at mushroom clouds from the nuclear bomb tests being conducted nearby, and in more than a few pulpits, the “Prosperity Gospel” was all the rage. Here are the opening few pages—I’d love to hear what you think! Feel free to comment below or email me at jess@jesslederman.com.

Chapter One
Dreams of Morning, Dreams of Fire

July 4th, 1955. Maria Galvez woke with a start in the predawn darkness and reached for her husband, only to find herself alone. Fear filled the hollows of her heart; had Gabriel spent another night away from home? She tried to clear the fog of sleep from her mind. No, after the children had gone to bed, they’d shared a bottle of wine and fallen asleep in each other’s arms. She got up, donned a thin robe, and stepped outside. A few hundred yards away, the last cars of a freight train rumbled by.

From her doorstep, Maria looked out on a moonlit vista of small shops and ramshackle homes built of wood scraps, tar paper, and tin. She lived less than two miles from the lights of Las Vegas, on the periphery of a ghetto known as the Westside, home to the black men and women who worked as porters and maids on The Strip and Glitter Gulch. Her street, however, a dirt road that turned into mud during the sudden squalls of summer, was a world unto itself, a mélange of the misbegotten which some city planner had, with either manic optimism or dark humor, named Empyrean Way. It was a last refuge for those of every race, and it had become known as Misfit Row.

Suddenly aware of the sizzle and smell of bacon fat frying in an iron skillet, Maria walked next door to the small restaurant that she and Gabriel ran, the Café Esperanza. He was alone in the kitchen, spooning a paste of cornmeal and hot milk into the drippings, and she came up behind him and ran her hand lightly down his back.

Mi querido,” she said. “For a moment I was afraid you’d gone away.” She was thirty, small and lovely, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who’d crossed over in the days before visas were required and had managed to evade the mass deportations of the Great Depression.

“Me, I’m right here, yeah,” he said, turning and kissing her softly. “I was gonna make coush-coush for your birthday, but then, you know, we quarreled, so here it is. I figured we’d eat and watch the sun come up and for the kids I’d make pain perdu.”

He was a chocolate-skinned Creole, slender and tall, with a pencil mustache and a dimpled smile that still made Maria’s knees weak after ten years together. Gabriel had left Louisiana when he was fourteen with nothing but a fiddle and the clothes on his back and recipes he’d memorized watching his grandmother cook. “I won’t take orders from fools simply because their skin is white,” he had told Maria when he quit his job in the kitchen of the Flamingo Hotel, and they’d eked out a living from the café ever since.

“What brought this on?” she asked, eager for happiness but fearful it might be a mirage.

“Hmm?” He cocked an eyebrow at her and grinned. “Okay, well, here’s how it is. I want us to try again.”

“No.” She stepped back, her heart sinking to the floor.

“We can do anything together,” he said. “Don’t give up on us.”

“On us, never! But I can’t bear to become pregnant again, I just can’t.”

Maria had miscarried four times during their marriage, and then, cruelest blow of all, given birth the previous year to a stillborn child, Francisca, now buried nearby in a grave marked by a black basalt cross.
          
“We have three children under our roof,” she continued, and drew closer to Gabriel, putting her hands on his shoulders. “You could live a hundred years and never have the time to give them the love they deserve.”

“They’re not our kids,” said Gabriel. “Not even legally.”

“They are ours in the eyes of God.”

Over the years, she had taken in three abandoned children. The first was Hector, a lame, olive-skinned youth of thirteen. Next came Rose, an eight-year-old Asian girl who regarded the world in silence through sad, solemn eyes. Then there was the littlest one, José, still in diapers. Brown skin, blond hair, and emerald eyes; whatever recipe had produced him, she was deeply grateful that he had graced her life.

 “Oh, you see through His eyes? Well, in this world it’s the eyes of the law that matters. They could be taken away any time.”

Maria flinched as though her he’d struck her.

“If you love me,” she said, her voice breaking, “you’d never let that happen.”

“I will always defend you—if I can.” Gabriel untied his apron and threw it on the floor in disgust. “The coush’ll be ready in five minutes, you can eat it yourself. Me, I need a long walk, yeah.”

“Please don’t go,” said Maria. “You’re supposed to be my angel, please, stay by my side.” But it was to no avail, for her husband only shook his head and walked away.

***

Around the same time as Gabriel was leaving the Café Esperanza, something exceedingly strange was happening to old blind Bart, who made his home in the alleyway behind the Oasis Saloon, at the far end of Misfit Row.

For as long as anyone could remember, he’d begged for money outside the downtown casinos, sitting on a stool and holding out a paper cup, his beard scraggly, his face sandblasted by the desert wind. Toward evening he’d head for home, listen to make sure it was safe to cross the tracks, and plant his stool under the bar at the Oasis, where Fats would pour him as many shots of Red Top Rye as Bart's cup warranted. And maybe a few more.

But on that Independence Day morning, everything changed. Not long after the early crowd had downed their first drinks, Bart burst in, his voice hoarse from hollering, his eyes filled  with light.

“I KIN SEE!”

An uproar ensued.

“How the hell this happen?” asked a regular who had fallen off his barstool in amazement, and the hubbub gradually subsided as Bart began to speak.

“I’d just woke,” he said, breathless, “when outta nowhere I feel a man’s hand on me an’ hear him callin’ my name, tellin’ me not to be afeared. ‘What ya want?’ I ask him, and he says that’s his question for me. Now, most days, I’d tell some bozo like that to piss off. But everyone’s been talkin’ ’bout the fireworks tonight, how they’re gonna be like nothin’ else, an’ I thought, man oh man wouldn’t it be grand to take that in. So I says, ‘What d’ya think I want, pal? I want to see!’ Next thing I know, I feel his fingers on my eyelids—ain’t no one touched me like that since my momma, an’ that was sixty years ago if it was a day. Then I opened my eyes an’ saw.”

“Saw what?” asked Fats. “Saw who?”

“Dunno,” said Bart, “but I figger, must’a been the atomic man everyone’s talkin’ ’bout, the one got loose from the Test Site up Nye County way. Came down to Vegas and healed me with rady-ation right outta his fingertips.”

 Everyone agreed it was the damnedest thing they’d ever heard.

“So what’d he look like?” someone called out.  “Green and ten feet tall?”

“Can’t say,” said Bart. “At first, all I could make out was darkness an’ light—I could tell the difference ’tween the two, but that’s all. Atomic man didn’t hang around, guess he had things to do. But I’ll tell ya what I saw not long after: the sunrise, that’s what.”

“How’d you even know what you was lookin’ at?” asked Fats, who remembered that Bart had said he’d been blind from birth.

“’cause I could feel the sun on my face,” Bart replied. “An’ it looked just like it felt, like a—like a dream ’a mornin’. A dream ’a fire.”

 “Well this is cause for cel’bration if ever there was one,” said Fats, reaching for the Red Top Rye. “Next round’s on the house, boys, and Bart, you can drink your fill.”

“Nah, that’s okay, I ain’t thirsty,” the once sightless man replied. “Think I’ll just go on an’ have a look-see at this great big ‘ol world. Like to find that atomic man and shake his hand proper-like, seein’ as I was too excited to even say thank you.”

And with that he left the comfortable darkness of the Oasis and stepped out into the light of day.