In an interview with Furious Fiction, writer Jennine Capó Crucet spoke briefly about the role sketch comedy played early in her career. I imagine Crucet improvising each scene—testing the authenticity and likelihood of every event—before writing a single word, and each word written reaping the benefits of such dramatization. It’s perhaps not unsurprising, then, that her novel, Magic City Relic, of which the following is an excerpt, contains characters and scenes that ring true.
Though I doubt she wants readers to double over with laughter, Crucet does seek to capture the everyday foolishness and hilarity indicative of a life lived—true to both the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Using her native Miami as the stage upon which Magic City Relic is set, she explores the immigrant experience in terms of expectation, home in terms of history, and love in terms of longevity. Crucet employs humor to disarm readers before pulling the theoretical rug.
Crucet’s debut collection of short stories, How to Leave Hialeah, was awarded the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and named a Best Book of the Year by the Miami Herald.
Before I really registered the turns I’d taken away from the restaurant, I knew I was headed to our old house. It still felt automatic, driving to that address, even though it’d been months since I’d even seen it. The money my dad gave me was in my back pocket, the bills still in each of their three distinct envelopes. In the restaurant’s parking lot, where we’d said a rushed goodbye that felt more like a see-you-later, my dad warned me against putting the envelopes in so unsafe a place.
—The minute you sit somewhere you gonna lose ’em, he said.
I wasn’t worried about losing the money between that parking lot and my mom’s apartment building: I was worried about how I would explain the money at all, when I was supposedly walking hand-in-hand along the beach with my boyfriend Omar. My dad’s belated Christmas gifts to us meant that I had to think of some story, or admit that it wasn’t Omar I got up early to see, but my dad. And there was no way breakfast with Papi would’ve gotten the same kind of love from my sister and my mom: they might’ve forbidden me from going, or worse, insisted they come along.
As I sped out of that parking lot and refused to watch my dad in the rearview mirror as he climbed into his work van, I decided that seeing my old house would somehow give me an answer—that the right way to give my sister and her son my dad’s lazy cash would magically reveal itself to me. I’d learned about magical realism in my freshman writing seminar: the TA had made weirdly consistent eye contact with me during the two class meetings where we discussed it, as if expecting me to somehow know what she was talking about solely because pronouncing my last name required the rolling of an R. She held her palm out to me at the end of every point she made and kept saying, Right? When I went to her office hours for help understanding the paper topics, she kept referring to magical realism as my literary tradition, holding both her hands out to me, like I was supposed to drop my genetically allotted portion of magical realism into them for her, pass it between us like an imaginary ball while we danced at a rave.
I tried my best. I said to the carpet in her office, I don’t think we have any traditions like that, Miss. My parents don’t like . . . really read.
She cocked her head and, after blinking hard, grinned through closed lips. And I knew from that tightrope smile and from the slow way she talked me through the paper topics, saying again and again that my problems would be better helped by a visit to the campus writing center, that she thought I was an idiot.
And so now, as I navigated the city’s asphalt grid toward my old house, I fantasized that it would happen: that a parrot or an iguana would drop out of a tree and trudge over to me, talk to me in Spanish about my problems and tell me what to do in the form of haiku. Or maybe some palm fronds from the trees lining our old street would reach down and swoop me up and ferry me to an old spirit woman who would give me some ancient name and call me mi’ja and tell me how to cure my mom’s obsession with Elian Gonzalez. Better yet, maybe the spirit woman would become my new mom, now that Elian had stolen mine. I had high hopes for my old house as metaphor, my old house as fantastical plot element to be taken literally, my old house as lens via which I could examine the narrative of our familial strife. I was ready for what I’d been taught about myself, about what it meant to be like me, to kick in.
But when I got there, the trees had been cut down, the grass paved over. There wasn’t a parrot or a fucking iguana for miles. The squat palm trees that had lived in a clump in our yard for as long as I could remember were not there to wave any answers at me. I looked down the avenue, thinking I must be at the wrong place, but of course I wasn’t. The fence around the house: that was gone, replaced by a stronger-looking low wall that seemed less a gate and more a bunch of cinderblocks stacked in a row in behind the sidewalk. There wasn’t a carport anymore either, and the mango tree that had always dropped its fruit on top of that carport, pelting the aluminum roof every February, had been ripped out, a concrete slab covering the patch of grass where it once grew. The roof was now tiled in those clay orange curls you saw everywhere then, and the bars on the windows and door weren’t white anymore, but had been painted black, which somehow, and contrary to any guess I would’ve taken, made them less noticeable. There wasn’t a saint in the yard anymore; there wasn’t really even a yard, as all of it, paved like that, was now driveway eligible. There wasn’t a car parked in all that driveway.
The sun bounced off these new cement surfaces, making the house itself look like it was burning. The stucco exterior was still painted bright green, but with the sun pounding off of it like that, it seemed more like the irritating yellow of a glow stick swirling in a club’s darkness. I pulled off the street, the nose of my car inching past that gate.
It looked wrong, is the only way I can think to say it now. Like it was the echo of my house, or like a voice that I knew but couldn’t place. I was of course alone in the car, but I said, Oh my god, look what they did! What should we do! to the empty passenger seat. I didn’t turn my face to that seat—I let myself pretend my dad sat there, or maybe my mom or my sister; I don’t know if I really cared who, just as long as I could pretend that I wasn’t really alone. My hands trembled on the steering wheel; out of nowhere I felt like I had to pee. Why are you so nervous, I said.
If I indulged this sorry excuse for self-conjured magic, if I left myself talk to imaginary versions of people about imaginary choices I no longer had, I worried I’d never go back to my mom’s apartment, or to the freezing dorm room a thousand miles away, or to anywhere I didn’t want to be. I couldn’t let my imagination give me options; it was too painful to admit they weren’t real. I pulled my car into that new super-driveway, the house’s original green color dimming back into view the closer the car got. The yard stood solid and still. No part of that concrete was going to talk to me. I shifted my eyes to the dashboard, refusing to look into the house’s windows or at the front door, and watched my hand as it forced the car into reverse. I pulled out of that driveway faster than I’d rolled in, back into the street, and pointed the car more or less in the direction of Little Havana.
Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of How to Leave Hialeah, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, the John Gardner Book Award, and was named a Best Book of the Year by the Miami Herald and the Miami New Times. Her work has appeared in such publications as Ploughshares, Epoch, the Southern Review, Crazyhorse, and Gulf Coast. Originally from Miami, she is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Florida State University. She has completed a novel, Magic City Relic, of which this is an excerpt.
Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Central Florida, Nicole Sealey is a Cave Canem graduate fellow whose work was selected for inclusion in Best New Poets 2011. Winner of the 2012 Poetry International Prize and finalist for the 2011 Third Coast Poetry Prize, her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming to Callaloo, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, Poetry International, and Third Coast, among other literary online and print journals.