We are in an uncomfortably small conference room. It is a cool June day, and though I am sitting stock-still on a corporate chair in heavy air-conditioning, I am sweating heavily through my dress. This is what I do in job interviews.
A month earlier, I had applied for a position at Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary company. The posting was for an editorial assistant, a bottom-of-the-barrel position, but I lit up like a penny arcade when I saw that the primary duty would be to write and edit English dictionaries. I cobbled together a résumé; I was invited to interview. I found the best interview outfit I could and applied extra antiperspirant (to no avail).
Steve Perrault, the man who sat opposite me, was (and still is) the director of defining at Merriam-Webster and the person I hoped would be my boss. He was very tall and very quiet, a sloucher like me, and seemed almost as shyly awkward as I was, even while he gave me a tour of the modest, nearly silent editorial floor. Apparently, neither of us enjoyed job interviews. I, however, was the only one perspiring lavishly.
“So tell me,” he ventured, “why you are interested in lexicography.”
I took a deep breath and clamped my jaw shut so I did not start blabbing. This was a complicated answer. Read more…
Below is the first chapter from The Veins of the Ocean, the new novel by author Patricia Engel. Thanks to Engel and Grove Press for sharing it with the Longreads community.
* * *
When he found out his wife was unfaithful, Hector Castillo told his son to get in the car because they were going fishing. It was after midnight but this was nothing unusual. The Rickenbacker Bridge suspended across Biscayne Bay was full of night fishermen leaning on the railings, catching up on gossip over beer and fishing lines, avoiding going home to their wives. Except Hector didn’t bring any fishing gear with him. He led his son, Carlito, who’d just turned three, by the hand to the concrete wall, picked him up by his waist, and held him so that the boy grinned and stretched his arms out like a bird, telling his papi he was flying, flying, and Hector said, “Sí, Carlito, tienes alas, you have wings.”
Then Hector pushed little Carlito up into the air, spun him around, and the boy giggled, kicking his legs up and about, telling his father, “Higher, Papi! Higher!” before Hector took a step back and with all his might hoisted the boy as high in the sky as he’d go, told him he loved him, and threw his son over the railing into the sea.
Nobody could believe it. The night fishermen thought they were hallucinating but one, a sixty-year-old Marielito, didn’t hesitate and went in after Carlito, jumping feet first into the dark bay water while the other fishermen tackled Hector so that he couldn’t run away. The police came, and when all was said and done, little Carlito only had a broken collarbone, and Cielos Soto, the fisherman who saved Carlito, developed a permanent crook in his back that made him look like a big fishing hook when he walked until his death ten years later.
Hector Castillo was supposed to spend the rest of his life in prison—you know the way these things go—but he killed himself right after the sentencing. Not by hanging himself from the cypress tree in the front yard like he’d always threatened since that’s the way his own father had chosen to depart this life. No. Hector used a razor purchased off some other lifer in a neighboring unit and when they found him, the floor of his cell was already covered in blood. But Carlito and I didn’t hear about all that till much later.
Since Carlito had no memory of the whole disaster, Mami fed us a story that our father died in Vietnam, which made no sense at all because both Carlito and I were born years after Vietnam, back in Colombia. But that was before we learned math and history, so it’s no wonder she thought her story would stick. And forget about the fact that Hector was born cojo, with a dragging leg, and never would have been let into any army.
In fact, the only clue we had about any of this mess was that Carlito grew up so scared of water that Mami could only get him in the bathtub once a week, if she was lucky, which is why Carlito had a rep for being the smelliest kid on the block and some people say that’s why he grew up to be such a bully.
But then, when he was fourteen and our Tío Jaime decided it was time for Carlito to get drunk for the first time, only Jaime got drunk and he turned to Carlito over the folding card table on our back patio and said, “Mi’jo, it’s time you know the truth. Your father threw you off a bridge when you were three.”
Patricia Engel. Photo by Marion Ettlinger.
He went on to say that Hector wouldn’t have lost it if Mami hadn’t been such a puta, and next thing you know, Carlito had our uncle pinned to the ground and smashed the beer bottle across his forehead.
He was asking for it, I guess.
Mami had no choice but to tell Carlito and me the real story that same night.
In a way, I always knew something like that had happened. It was the only way to explain why my older brother got such special treatment his whole life—everyone scared to demand that he go to school, that he study, that he have better manners, that he stop pushing me around.
El Pobrecito is what everyone called him, and I always wondered why.
I was two years younger and nobody, and I mean nadie, paid me any mind, which is why, when our mother told the story of our father trying to kill his son like we were people out of the Bible, part of me wished our papi had thrown me off that bridge instead.
* * *
All of this is to tell you how we became a prison family.
It’s funny how these things go. After Carlito went to jail, people started saying it was his inheritance—que lo llevaba en la sangre. And Dr. Joe, this prison shrink I know who specializes in murderers, told me that very often people seek to reenact the same crime that was inflicted upon them. I said that sounded a lot like fate, which I am strictly opposed to, ever since this bruja on Calle Ocho, a blue-haired Celia Cruz knockoff with a trail of customers waiting outside her shop door, told me no man was ever going to fall in love with me on account of all the curses that have been placed on my slutty mother.
What happened is that Carlito, when he was twenty-two, heard that his Costa Rican girlfriend, Isabela, was sleeping with this insurance guy from Kendall. And that’s it; instead of just dumping her like a normal person would, he drove over to her house, kissed her sweet on the lips, told her he was taking her daughter by her high school boyfriend out to buy a new doll at the toy store, but instead, Carlito drove over to the Rickenbacker Bridge and, without a second’s hesitation, he flung baby Shayna off into the water like she was yesterday’s trash going into the landfill.
But the sea wasn’t flat and still like the day Carlito had gone in. Today it was all whitecapped waves from a tropical storm moving over Cuba. There were no fishermen on account of the choppy waters, just a couple of joggers making their way over the slope of the bridge. After Shayna went in, Carlito either repented or thought better of his scheme and jumped in after the little girl, but the currents were strong and Shayna was pulled under. Her tiny body is still somewhere down there, though somebody once told me that this water is actually full of sharks, so let’s be realistic here.
When the cops showed up and dragged my brother out of the water, Carlito tried to play the whole thing off like it was one big, terrible accident. But there were witnesses in sports bras who lined up to testify that Carlito had tossed the child like a football into the angry Atlantic.
If you ask him now, he’ll still say he didn’t mean to do it; he was just showing the baby the water and she slipped out of his arms—“You know how wiggly little kids are, Reina. Tú sabes.”
I’m the only one who listens because, since they arrested him, Carlito’s been in solitary confinement for his own protection.
If there’s one thing other inmates don’t tolerate, it’s a baby killer.
* * *
This is Florida, where they’re cool about putting people to death. After the Supreme Court banned capital punishment in the seventies, this state was the first to jump back into the execution business. I used to be one of those people saying “an eye for an eye,” even when it came down to my own father, who was already dead, God save his soul. But now that my brother is on death row, it’s another story. Mami doesn’t go with me to see Carlito. She’s over it. Not one of those mothers who will stand by her son till his dying day and profess his innocence. She says she did her best to make sure he grew up to be a decent man and the day he snapped, it was clear the devil had taken over.
“Out of my hands,” she says, smacking her palms together like there’s dust on them.
The last time the three of us were together was the day of the sentencing. I begged the judge for leniency, said my brother was young and could still be of use to society, even if he got life and was stuck banging out license plates for the rest of his days. But it wasn’t enough.
After she blew Carlito her last kiss good-bye, Mami began to cry, and her tears continued all night as she knelt before the altar in her bedroom, candles lit among roses and coins offered to the saints in hopes of a softer sentence. I heard her cry all night, but when I tried to comfort her, Mami brushed me off as if I were the enemy and told me to leave her alone.
The next morning she announced her tears had run out and Carlito was no longer her son.
Mami’s got a dentist boyfriend in Orlando who she spends most of her time with, leaving me in the Miami house alone, which wouldn’t be so bad if I had any kind of life to fill this place. But I use up all my free time driving down US 1 to the South Glades Penitentiary. We’re lucky Carlito got placed in a prison just a few hours’ drive south and not in center of the state or up in the panhandle, and that he gets weekly visitation rights, not monthly like most death row killers.
I want to say you’d be surprised by the kind of people who go visit their relatives and lovers in jail, but really you wouldn’t be surprised at all. It’s just like you see on TV—desperate, broken-toothed women in ugly clothes, or other ladies who dress up like streetwalkers to feel sexy among the inmates and who are waiting for marriage proposals from their men in cuffs, even if they’re in maximum security and the court has already marked them for life or death sentences. There are women who come with gangs of kids who crawl all over their daddies, and there are the teenagers and grown-up kids who come and sit across the picnic tables bitter-lipped while their fathers try to apologize for being there.
Then there are the sisters, like me, who show up because nobody else will. Our whole family, the same people who treated my brother like he was baby Moses, all turned their backs on Carlito when he went to the slammer. Not one soul has visited him besides me. Not an uncle, a tía, a primo, a friend, anybody. This is why I take visiting him so seriously and have spent just about every weekend down there for the past two years, sleeping at the South Glades Seaside Motel, which is really a trailer park full of people like me who became transients just to be close to their locked-up sweethearts.
I’m not allowed to bring Carlito snacks or gifts since he got moved to the maximum-security prison. If I could, I would bring him candy bars because, back when he was a free man, Carlito spent a big cut of his paycheck from his job at the bank on chocolate. I mean, the boy was an addict, but you could never tell because Carlito was thin like a palm tree and had the smoothest complexion you’ve ever seen. Carlito got it together late in high school, and even made it into college and graduated with honors. I’m telling you, even Mami said it was a milagro. He got into a training program at a bank and was working as a teller, but they said after a few years he’d be a private banker, moving big money, and his dream was to work at one of the Brickell banks that hold the cash of all our Latin nations.
Carlito would move our family up—make enough so that our mother wouldn’t have to paint nails anymore. That was the plan.
Carlito, now, is fat like you’d never have predicted. He says it’s a prison conspiracy given all the mashed potatoes they feed the inmates, and he thinks everything is laced with hormones meant for cows. He has to eat his meals alone in his cell and not in the chow hall like the regular lifers. He doesn’t get to work out in the yard with the other prisoners, he just gets an hour a day to walk laps around a small fenced-in concrete cage with a chicken-wire roof they call “the kennel.”
Sometimes he gets his rec time deducted because a guard decides to write him up for some made-up offense. So he mostly does his routines in his little cell—push-ups, sit-ups, and squats—but he still looks like a two-hundred-fifty-pound troll because Carlito’s hair started to fall out the day of his sentencing. That luscious, shiny Indian hair went straight into the communal shower drain and now my brother, barely twenty-five, looks like he’s somebody’s grandfather, with anxious creases burrowed into his forehead and a nose that turned downward into a beak the day he lost his freedom.
He’s not your typical inmate; he doesn’t try to act remorseful or even say he’s innocent anymore because really, after the first appeal to overturn his conviction was denied, we sort of lost hope. He did the whole thing of writing letters to Isabela before the trial, apologizing even though he says it wasn’t his fault, but even then you could tell Carlito’s heart wasn’t in it.
He blames Papi for all this, and then Mami. Says maybe Tío Jaime was right, if Mami hadn’t been such a puta all those years ago, none of this would have happened.
I don’t tell my brother that Dr. Joe, who works in Carlito’s prison and sometimes meets me for drinks in the lounge of the South Glades Seaside Motel, told me it probably all comes down to brain chemistry and Carlito may have just been a ticking bomb, and that homicidal tendencies sometimes run in families. I pretended not to be worried by this, acted nonchalant, and even went so far as to lie to Dr. Joe and say, “I guess I lucked out because Carlito and I have different fathers.” I believed this for a while, but Mami said, “Lo siento, mi corazón. Hector was your papi too.”
Dr. Joe is familiar with Carlito’s case. Not just from the newspapers but because he reviewed his files when assigned to the Glades prison, hoping Carlito was in need of some kind of counseling. He says he’s doing research on the ways solitary confinement can change a person’s mind over time. He got permission to scan lifers’ brains to compare the ones who are segregated from the main prison population and those who are not. I asked him if it’s right to run them through tests like they’re animals, but Dr. Joe said, “It’s for science, Reina,” and he can already prove being in isolation makes inmates nearsighted and hypersensitive to sound and light. Solitary can also make a person psychotic, paranoid, and develop hallucinations, he says, but it’s hard to tell who is being honest about their nervous breakdowns because, even if lots of inmates check into prison as mentally ill, some just want to be labeled crazy to take or trade the free pills.
Carlito wants nothing to do with Dr. Joe or the other prison shrinks and refuses to talk to any of them. Dr. Joe tried playing the insider, standing outside Carlito’s cell door, peering through the small reinforced glass windowpane, saying he knew Carlito was innocent, and he was on his side. If only Carlito was willing to talk, maybe he could help him with his next appeal. Carlito didn’t bite.
Sometimes I suspect Dr. Joe only acts interested in me so that I’ll soften Carlito, convince him to hand himself over for Dr. Joe’s research, persuade him the way Dr. Joe tries to persuade me that since they won’t let Carlito take classes or socialize like other inmates, submitting to his study is a small way to feel useful, give something of himself, and it’s also a way to have interpersonal contact those weeks when he doesn’t exchange words with a single human besides the prison guards, and me.
“All of this has to be so hard on you, Reina,” Dr. Joe said to me the first time we met at the motel bar. “You must be overwhelmed with so many feelings.”
Dr. Joe thinks I have anger toward my brother because when I was nine he locked me in my bedroom closet for hours, told my mother I’d gone to the neighbor’s to play, and I had no choice but to pee in a shoebox. Also, because when our mother was at work, he would make me take off my clothes and sit around watching TV naked, or sometimes he’d make me get up and dance, and when I refused, he’d pull out a knife from a kitchen drawer and hold it to my neck.
But I tell Dr. Joe my brother was mostly a good brother because he never did dirty things to me like the brothers of some of my friends. And when a girl from school started bullying me in the eighth grade, saying I was an ugly junior puta, Carlito went over to her house one night with a wrestling mask on his face, crept into her room, and beat her out of her sleep.
Nobody ever found out it was him.
He did that for me.
Joe—he told me to stop calling him doctor but I keep forgetting—thinks I’m confused. He buys me beers and told me he’s thirty-two, which is really not much older than my age, twenty-three. He’s from Boston, which he says is nothing like South Florida. He might even be cute if he got a normal haircut, not his side-parted dusty brown shag, and lost those round glasses that look like they belong in 1985. He has a condo in Key Largo and sometimes invites me there. Just yesterday he said I could sleep there if I wanted, so I don’t have to spend all my money at the prison motel. I said thanks, but no thanks. I make good enough money to pay for this piece of paradise.
“You’re real pretty,” he said last night when I walked him to his car on the gravel driveway outside the lobby. “You got a boyfriend up there in Miami?”
“No, I come with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean.”
I was thinking specifically about the last guy, Lorenzo, a plastic surgeon who picked me up at Pollo Tropical. We went for dinner a few times and when we finally fucked at a hotel, he told me he’d do my tetas free if I promised to tell everyone they were his work. Then he wanted to take me to Sanibel for a few days, but I said my weekends were reserved for Carlito.
I still remember his eyes when I explained.
“You’re Carlos Castillo’s sister?”
That was the end of that.
Joe laughed as if I’d meant the baggage thing as a joke, and then swallowed his smile when he realized I hadn’t.
“You’re a great girl. Any man would be lucky to be with you.”
I smiled at Joe, even though I feel like people only say shit like that when they know you’re already a lost cause.
Motivated by a potent mix of seller’s regret and old-dude nostalgia, a journalist sets off in search of the vinyl of his youth. And not just copies of albums he loved—Eric Spitznagel wants the exact records he owned and sold. It’s a premise that musician Jeff Tweedy describes as “not… entirely insane” in his preface to the book. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of Old Records Never Die. You decide. Read more…
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is the first chapter from The Queen of the Night,the second novel by award-winning writer Alexander Chee, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers:
“In the opening pages of The Queen of the Night, we are transported to a celebratory night at The Luxembourg Palace in Paris, 1882, where a legendary opera singer, Lilliet Berne, is trying to avoid attention (self-conscious of a poorly-designed dress she must wear), only to step accidentally into an intimate conversation with a writer who wants to put her at the center of a new opera. The one trophy missing on her crowded shelf is an original role in a new work, and she throws caution away as the stranger flatters her with the offer. As the soprano with the delicate voice tempts fate, we learn of her long-kept secrets, deep ambition, quick wit, and keen powers of observation. In Berne, Alexander Chee has created a fully-formed diva from a glamorous age that has long since passed, yet her role as her own mythology builder is as contemporary as ever, as seen daily in tabloids and online, as actors, athletes, fashionistas, Kardashians, politicians, Real Housewives, and yoginis shape their stories for column inches and Instagram followers—some, like Berne, have true talent. Chee’s Queen of the Night is a spectacular and balletic historical novel, its intricacies offer insights not only about fame, but also about the Second Empire in France and its rich musical and literary history.”
WHEN IT BEGAN, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.
The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball, the Sénat Bal, held at the beginning of autumn. It was still warm, and so the garden was used as well. I was the soprano.
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is the second chapter from the novel Alena by Rachel Pastan, as chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes:
“Sometimes a book that is wonderful and well-told and riveting is overlooked. I believe this is the case with Rachel Pastan’s Alena. This novel, about the art world and its ghosts, came out quietly to great reviews last year, was called “a brilliant takedown of the self-serious art world” by Alex Kuczynski in the Times Book Review, and was published in paperback earlier this year. Inspired by the ghost-filled mega-bestseller of its day, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Pastan’s ode tells the story of a young art curator who takes a position at a small Cape Cod art museum that is left mysteriously vacant by her predecessor, a woman named Alena who has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Pastan trades the aristocracy of manor house for the aristocracy of the art world, but keeps all the hauntednesss one expects to find oozing from a haunted house’s drafts and flues. In this chapter, we meet our narrator, as she works to make art her life, and we see a glimpse of the fraught future she has in store.”
A misfit in Spooner, Wisconsin, with its farms, bars, and strip joints, Debra Monroe left to earn a degree, then another, and another, vaulting into academia but never completely leaving her past behind. Her memoir My Unsentimental Education was published today, and our thanks to the University of Georgia Press for allowing us to reprint the chapter below. Two previous excerpts from the book have been long-listed for The Best American Essays (2011 and 2015), and an early excerpt also appeared on Longreads in 2013.
Lisa Belkin | Show Me a Hero, Little, Brown and Company | 1999 | 25 minutes (6,235 words)
Below is the first chapter of Lisa Belkin’s 1999 nonfiction bookShow Me a Hero, which was recently adapted by David Simon into a six-part HBO miniseries of the same title. Belkin’s book (and the miniseries) depict the fight to desegregate housing in Yonkers, New York during the late 1980s and early ’90s, and the story of a young politician named Nick Wasicsko. Read more…
—I did it. You’re really here. An astronaut. Jesus.
—You probably have a headache. From the chloroform.
—What? Where am I? Where is this place? Who the fuck are you?
—You don’t recognize me?
—What? No. What is this? Read more…
Below is the first chapter from The Magical Stranger, Stephen Rodrick’s memoir about his father, squadron commander and Navy pilot Peter Rodrick. Our thanks to Rodrick for sharing it with the Longreads community.Read more…