The events of Heartless Cruelty took place in 1983-84; Laid So Low happens in 1979. We meet a younger, less experienced Mr. Bachman, as well as a few other characters we've read about already in the first book, and lots of new ones.
This brief excerpt takes place in the mind of a little girl named Iliana. She was kidnapped and smuggled from El Salvador to New Jersey along with her mother, who is forced to work as a prostitute.
Iliana had three friends, two visible, one invisible. Chimpi was a stuffed monkey Mamí had given her before they’d left home. When she had gotten him he was almost as big as she was, but now she was several inches taller than him, a fact which Chimpi refused to acknowledge. Chimpi had long arms that Iliana could bend in such a way that he could hug her when she was sad, and so that he could hold on to her when she gave him piggyback rides.
Her second visible friend she only played with when no grown up people were around. She called him “G.” Mamí and everyone else called him Jesus, because G was really a nine-inch tall plastic crucifix someone had given Mamí when they had gotten to America. But G was Iliana’s favorite letter in Inglés, plus she knew that in Inglés they said Jesus as if His first name was G and His last name was Zuss, so, when she played with Him she called Him G. Later on she learned that G was the initial of the American God, so it made sense to call His Son that.
Stanley was her invisible friend. He was a ten-year-old boy with a red shirt and red hair that stuck straight up. Stanley could talk Spanish as well as she could, and Inglés as well as the Americans could, better than Salchichón. But he wasn’t American and he wasn’t Salvadoran, like Iliana and Mamí. Stanley insisted that he was from Antarctica, which was the country at the bottom of the world, and that he could travel anywhere in the world from Antarctica, to any country, any time he wanted, which was why he had made it a point to know many languages.
Sometimes Iliana liked to play just with Chimpi, because he was the most fun. Often she would play with Chimpi and G together, because it was hard, sometimes, to tell a story with just her and Chimpi to act out the parts. And sometimes, especially if she was feeling lonely, like when Mamí was away working, Iliana would call all three friends together. When she did this, she referred to them as “the boys.” Usually Stanley, who could be very bossy because he was so smart, would take over everything. Fortunately Stanley knew lots of stories that Iliana didn’t know. Whenever Stanley told a story, he made Iliana have an important part, like a mother or a princess. One time he made her the Queen of Antarctica.
Iliana was learning to speak Inglés faster than Mamí, which Mamí thought was surprising and which Iliana thought was funny. She didn’t just learn Inglés from Stanley, who would sometimes sit Chimpi and G and her down in a row and teach them new words, making them repeat over and over, “Una manzana es ‘an apple.’ ‘Un barco es a boat.’ Un chocolate es ‘a chocolate.’ Un pato es ‘a duck.’ Un elefante es ‘an elephant.’” She also learned it from American TV. She didn’t always get to see TV, mostly only when Mamí was away working. Usually she only worked at night, when Iliana was asleep, and she would slip into bed before the sun came up, hug her and fall asleep beside her. But when she was away during the day, Salchichón would push the TV into the room on a little cart and plug it in. He would move the wires and the tinfoil that were on top until they could see something, usually cartoons but not always, and sometimes he would watch with her for a while.
Sometimes Mamí’s job made her have to work at night and still not come back until late the next day. Now, this time, Mamí must have a very big job, because she still was away after two nights and two days. Maybe when she came back this time she would have enough money so they could live in a house with real windows, and have their own TV, and a refrigerator, and their own bathroom, and Iliana could play outside and go to an American school.
Usually Salchichón would only leave the TV in the room for a little while. This time, though, when Mamí didn’t come back the second night and the second morning, he pushed it in and left it there, and he gave her an extra Ring Ding for breakfast. That’s how Iliana knew Mamí was making lots of money this time.
She watched Sesame Street. Iliana was beside herself with joy because the man said, “Today, Sesame Street is brought to you by the number 9 and the letter G!” Chimpi watched over Iliana’s shoulder, but she held G in front of her, so he could get the best view, since this was his special day, his special show. She held G tight and gave him a little kiss.
Would you like to read an excerpt from Heartless Cruelty?
This is from the last two sections of Chapter One.
When all the laughter had died down and the room had cleared out, William Bachman gathered his things to go, a task made infinitely easier because Debra Seleski had put each period’s tests in separate folders, labeled them, and put them in Bachman’s briefcase, an organizational feat that often eluded the teacher. He closed the briefcase, locked his desk and stood to leave, when he realized he was not alone.
It was that quiet kid who always dressed in black, still sitting, almost invisible, in the back of the room, his hair obscuring his face. Bachman surreptitiously glanced at his seating chart for Period 3, which Debra had taped to his desktop. (She was amazing.) Jason, that was his name. Jason Fender. Every year Bachman met the challenge of committing to memory by the end of September the names of his hundred twenty-five or so new students. But there was always one kid, sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, whose name refused to stick in his head for weeks and weeks into the fall. He was never quite sure why, or what these students had in common.
“Mr. Fender,” he said. “Did you need to talk about something?”
The boy lifted his head, revealing a little more, but still not much, of his face.
“To tell you the truth,” the boy said softly, “Mr. Bachman, I don’t get this Ethan Frome guy. I don’t get him, and I don’t get his wife.”
Bachman’s attention was now fully engaged. They had essentially left the book behind today, with the final essay test. He would begin the next unit, on Greek mythology, tomorrow. He would refer back to Ethan Frome off and on throughout the year, but most kids had begun the process of forgetting whatever they might have learned about the Edith Wharton novel. Now Jason, who never volunteered in class and had to be called on to get him to participate, was still wrestling with the raw human issues the book evoked. And now Jason had spoken the longest string of words Bachman had yet to hear from him.
“When you say you ‘don’t get’ them, what do you mean?” Bachman said.
Jason visibly concentrated, struggling to get his thoughts into a coherent form for his English teacher. “Those two basically hate each other. I mean, they sure don’t love each other. So why don’t they just get divorced?”
“Well, that’s a very good question Jason. It would seem like the logical way to go to us, but that’s only because we’re looking at it from our point of view, today, here. In 1983 divorce is common, and people have lots of options. In 1983, when a man and woman get divorced, the woman doesn’t starve to death. At least we would hope not. But Ethan and Zeena lived in a very different time, in a very different place, and under very different circumstances than us.”
Jason had a faraway, dissatisfied look while his teacher was talking, and his response, which almost sounded as if he had ignored Bachman’s statement, caught Bachman by surprise. “I mean it’s not like they even had any kids. Some people, they want to get divorced, but they don’t want to fuck up—oh, I’m sorry Mr. Bachman.”
“I think it’s ok, Jason. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around who will be too damaged by the word ‘fuck.’ Go on.”
“Sometimes people stay married, don’t get divorced, because they don’t want to mess up their kids? Right? And then, like, sometimes they stay together and it works out ok, the things that made them want to get divorced don’t seem, like, so important anymore. And then other times, stayin together messes the kids up even worse, because of all the fightin and cussin and stuff.”
Bachman was looking closely at Jason as he spoke. The boy was dressed all in black, and not fashionably. Black t-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, sort of late Judas Priest. He didn’t look at Bachman as he spoke. His words came out in a jerky torrent, and his awkward adolescent frame moved in fidgety, illogical ways. He was a skinny kid, and his clothes didn’t exactly fit.
Then Bachman noticed something else, something he hadn’t seen earlier. When his long, dirty black hair twitched away from his beautiful, immature, broken angel face, there were dark circles around the eyes. And weirdly, there was sort of a shadow of a circle around Jason’s neck, too.
It wasn’t stray wisps of whiskers, the teacher realized. Dirt? Bruises, maybe. Caused by what? How could he know? He couldn’t even be sure they were bruises, or that they had been intentionally inflicted. Bachman looked elsewhere, but the picture was still in his head. If they were bruises, how did they get there? Rope? Two encircling hands, maybe. Whose?
“How are you getting home Jason?”
“Where do you live?”
“That’s the way I’ve got to go,” the teacher lied. “Can I give you a lift home?”
“No. No, thanks.”
“Really, it’s no trouble, let me take you. You can—You can help carry some stuff to my car. You’d be doing me a favor actually.” He didn’t want to push it too hard, but he really wanted to see where Jason lived.
* * *
The real estate values of the residential streets in this part of Atlantis declined in presidential order. Washington Street was a main thoroughfare, three or four blocks from the beach; Adams and Jefferson Streets had some beautiful, old, three-story homes with wide, wraparound porches and leafy yards displaying the best of autumn’s paintbrush. It was locally accepted that you wouldn’t want to live on any street later than Jackson, and many people wouldn’t even drive down Van Buren or anything west of there. Bachman lived nowhere near this section, and didn’t have such a firm grip on the order of the early presidents. He never could remember the difference between John Tyler and Zachary Taylor, but he knew that both were long after Andrew Jackson.
From the moment he sat in the VW’s passenger seat, whether or not Jason Fender realized that Mr. Bachman was heading in the opposite direction from his home, he returned to the taciturnity which he normally displayed in school. Bachman pulled into the Dippity Donuts at the corner of Monmouth and Polk.
“I’m getting coffee,” said the teacher as he opened his door and stepped out. “Can I get you something?”
But Jason Fender was already getting out his side of the car, lighting a cigarette clumsily as he did so. Through an exhalation of smoke he said, “No. No thanks. I gotta go. Thanks for the ride.” He looked down as he said this, then turned on his heel and headed down Polk like he had a very important meeting.
After the comparative torrent of conversation they’d had in the classroom, Jason had said nothing more than monosyllables. In fact, he hadn’t made eye contact with his teacher since then – maybe, come to think of it, not even then. Jason had taken off so quickly he’d neglected to shut the passenger side door, and it remained open, like an unanswered question. Bachman could only watch the dark figure grow smaller in the growing gloom, raincoat flapping like the wings of a bat.