Set in a failing small town in central Ohio, this excerpt from Christian Kiefer’s new novel from Melville House The Heart of It All asks how one manages, in an America of increasing division, to find a sense of family and community. Available September 12, 2023. 

By Christian Kiefer 

A text soon after he had emerged from the shower and had pulled on his jeans, his phone dinging and his reaction surprising even to himself, wondering immediately if it might be Jane again. There had been that first encounter at the coffeeshop and then, a few days later, a second, when they had talked for nearly two hours and had exchanged numbers although even in that moment he wondered if he should be giving his phone number to a young white girl, seventeen. Surely to do so was a mistake. And yet he had and now felt a twinge of excitement upon seeing her name on the phone’s lit screen.

u up?

He sent her an emoji: thumbs-up.

me too. A frowny face. too early.

very. need coffee.

cu at the perk maybe?

He paused a moment before answering, wondering what he should write, what was possible to write and what was permissible and finally sent a thumbs-up. He had not intended to stop at the coffeeshop that morning, or any morning, and yet now he knew he would and would probably sit there acting like he was reading his paperback to appear casual, as if he might have been there regardless of her text. And there he would remain for as long as he could and still make it to work on time. That was what he would do.

He could hear his Aunt Paula in the kitchen, the clank of pots and pans. Most often Anthony ate cold cereal and drank a quick cup of coffee before walking the half mile to the factory, his aunt occasionally driving him if she felt adequately presentable. Occasionally, if she had the day off and did not plan on using her car, he would drive himself. Sometimes she would be awake even before he was and there might be promise of a real breakfast then, eggs and bacon and toast if he was lucky, and it appeared, from the smell of it, that on this morning he was indeed.

“Morning, Auntie,” he said, stepping into the kitchen.

“Morning.” She stood before a sizzling pan in her bathrobe and slip- pers, spatula in one hand.

“You want me to put some toast in?”

She grunted an assent. “Who’s texting you this early?” she said.

“A friend,” he said. He pulled the loaf down off the top of the refrigerator and set to opening the bag and removing two pieces. “A friend?”

“Yeah someone I met at the coffeeshop. You know.”

“Male or female?”


She turned to look at him, briefly, and then plated the food. When she spoke again it was to ask him not about Jane but about work, a subject upon which he had nothing much to report—he did his job and spoke to no one, and that was all—but his aunt was not satisfied with his dismissal of the subject and poked and prodded him until he gave her some idea of the place and the people.

“You’ll need to make do,” she told him. “What do you mean?”


“This is where you live now. People should know you. They should see you enough that they don’t see you. And I don’t mean wandering around in the dark by the river.”

He shook his head, still embarrassed, perpetually so, by his brief encounter with the local police, embarrassed and frustrated and angry. “I don’t do that anymore,” he said. “That’s why I go to the Perk.”

“That’s good. What do you do there?”

“Just sit and read and play on my phone. You know.”

“What are you reading?”

He set the yellowing paperback on the table.

“Ooh thick one. What’s it about?”

“A desert planet,” he said. “There are these giant sand worms that live underground. Like so big that they’d, like, eat this whole town in one bite.”

“Sounds pretty out there to me.”

“It is, I guess.”

“You’re enjoying it, though?”

“I don’t even know,” he said honestly. She raised her eyebrows and he

smiled in return. “I gotta get to work,” he said.

“I don’t need the car today. Keys are on the hook there.”

“I appreciate it,” he said.

“I know you do.”

He stood from the table, took his plate to the sink, and then stepped into the entryway.

His aunt called to him as he slid into his coat and pulled his sock hat down over his hair. “Hey Anthony,” she said.

The hall was dark but beyond it his aunt stood in a pool of warm kitchen light, coffee mug in one hand, robe cinched tight around her waist.

“You’re doing a good job,” she said.

He smiled again. “I’m trying,” he said.

“Be careful out there.”

“Always am.”

The phone into his pocket against the worn paperback, then the key to the front door, and finally the car keys on their hook.

At the Perk he sat at the table he favored and set the book on its surface next to his mocha and clamped his headphones over his ears and then removed them so that they lay around his neck. He had never visited the coffeeshop in the morning, only after work, but it was, of course, the same: a small room, walls lined with nostalgic tin signs advertising agricultural implements long since made obsolete. During his first visits, he had felt as if he were being watched and perhaps that was true: the milling figures of working men and women and high school students, all of them white, wondering briefly at the Black man at the table in the corner; he never caught them in the act of watching but he knew they were, not with malice or even ill will but only with a variety of guarded curiosity, wondering—and of this he had no doubt—who he was and from where he had come, that surreptitious communal gaze seeming, over time, to fade some, his presence there, quietly reading or just as quietly thumbing his phone’s tiny screen, becoming, in less time than he might have guessed, merely part of the topography of that place.

The book was, he supposed, part of that topography as well, for his feeling of being conspicuous was not only because of his skin but because he had come to understand that people at the Perk did not simply sit and do nothing: they worked on their laptops or read books or did their homework. He had never been much of a reader, but he had come upon a dingy secondhand bookstore on one of his solitary walks and had bought a few paperbacks, choosing them based on their cover art and thinking, as he did so, of Rudy, who would have chosen the same.

The first time he brought a book with him to the coffeeshop was the evening that Jane appeared at his table, stammering and confused, and it was not until after she left that he began to read, at first not understanding anything of the story, the names awash in his mind: House This and House That and words that were, he thought, completely manufactured, and discussions of something called spice, which at least he understood to mean drugs of some kind, that fact beginning to bring the rest of it into focus: that this was a trap house the size of a planet, and these men and women were essentially drug lords. Or so he thought. He did not know if any of it interested him at all, but what was he to do but keep reading. At least it was different from where he was, from who he was. At some point, days later, he lifted his head from the book and realized that a full hour had passed and in that hour he not been in that small Ohio town at all but had stood in the desert and had felt the dust and sand and sun of an alien world, a familiar otherness that he recognized not from reading but from listening to music, to Deafheaven and King Woman and Converge and a hundred other bands that both brought him to himself and pushed him into some black emptiness that felt like home. He wished he could tell his friend about what he was reading, about the planet Arrakis, about the enormous sand worms that tunneled underground, about Paul Atreides and his loneliness. But there was no Rudy. Not anymore. And so there was no one to talk to at all.

Until Jane.

And, as if the thought had manifested the person, there she was. “Hey,” she said.

She looked windblown, hair tangled in the wool of her scarf, her

gloves. Her cheeks flushed with cold.

“Hey yourself,” he said. “Off to school?”

“Yeah, got a quiz today. You?”

“Someone’s gotta be making money,” he said.

She dumped her bag in the chair across from him and then moved to

the counter. He was surprised and unsurprised by her sense of propriety, her understanding, after only meeting him twice, that the chair across from him was hers. But maybe she felt that way about the whole of the room, the whole of the town, for surely there had never been a moment in her life when she might have been made to feel otherwise. He watched her as she ordered, could not stop watching her. Even in the coat and hat and scarf she was a thin slip of a girl.

A moment later she had removed her bag and slid into the chair. “What’s your order?” he asked.

“Oh I got a mocha.”

“Same as me,” he said.

She smiled. “I kinda thought you’d get a black coffee or something.” And then, “Oh jeez that probably sounded pretty dumb.”

“No, it’s cool. All Black people drink black coffee.”

“Wait, really?”

“Got you,” he said. And then he smiled. And she smiled.

“How’s the book?”

“I have no idea,” he said. “Sometimes I really like it and sometimes it’s pretty boring. A lot of politics, only it’s all, you know, fake politics. I mean made up or whatever. So sometimes I’m like, who cares?”

“Yeah I haven’t read too much science fiction stuff.” “What do you read?”

“I don’t know. I’m not much of a reader.”

“Yeah neither am I.”

She looked down at the book.

“Well, look, boredom will make a guy do some pretty strange things,” he said.

“Even reading about space worms?”

“Exactly. What’s this test or whatever you’ve got today?”

A voice from behind called her name, called Janey, and she said,

“Hang on,” and went to the counter. Anthony watched her there. A trio of tall, pale boys stood at the counter, each wearing a white button-up shirts and green-and-gold neckties, waiting for whatever beverages they had ordered. One of them glanced briefly to where Anthony sat, his eyes making contact, flitting away, returning, flitting away once more.

“Basketball again?” Anthony said when she had returned. “Yeah. Playoff tonight.”

“You going?”

“To the game? I don’t know. I kind of stay home lately.” “Why’s that?”

“My mom kinda needs me around.”

“Yeah,” he said. He thought of asking her more about the subject but then understood that she would have said more if she had wanted to. “So what’s this quiz about?” he said instead.

“Econ,” she said.

“Econ,” he repeated. “How to buy and sell things.”

“Pretty much,” she said. “We’ve been talking about statistics and pre-

diction models. Stuff like that.”

“Hold on now,” he said. “This conversation got deep fast.” She smiled. “Did you take econ?”

“I’m not even sure we had econ at Shaw.”

“That’s where you went to high school?”

He nodded.

“How was it?”

“It was East Cleveland.”

“I’ve never been there.”

“You wouldn’t like it.”

“Is that why you left?”

“Pretty much,” he said. “There was some other stuff. Just got, you know, kind of intense.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “That sounds hard.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a lot more mellow around here. I’m still trying to figure this place out, you know?”

“There’s not much to figure out,” she said. “What you see is what ou get.”

“I’m not so sure you’re right about that.”

She paused and then said, “Yeah, OK, I get it. I know what you mean.” “Aw shoot,” he said now. “I didn’t mean to drop the heavy.”

“Yeah it’s all right,” she said. Her voice was a bit breathless, as if somewhere, inside her own body, she had run to this table, this moment. “All right now. Enough about all that. Tell me about econ and the whoop-de-doos and whatever you said before.”

She laughed.

“I’m serious. I’ve got about . . .” He looked at his phone. “Five minutes before I gotta split to work. Full econ knowledge drop. Wait, wait.” He raised his hands to his temples, closed his eyes as if settling into some meditative state, and then said, “All right. Give it me.”

“Oh jeez,” she said. “I suddenly realized I’m gonna fail this test.”

“Oh no you’re not,” he said. “You’re gonna do fine. Come on now. I’m waiting for the deep econ knowledge. Let’s go.”

He found himself smiling again, grinning, and for the first time in so long he could not recall, he realized that what he felt was some variety of happiness and then, coming right on the heels of that experience, a second thought, that he wished he could call Rudy and tell him about this strange, thin girl he had met in this strange, small town, strange not because she was odd or different but because he was. How different his life had become in just a few scant months. He wondered if he had changed, if Rudy would even recognize him now. But Jane had begun speaking and he pulled himself to concentration again. Whoop-de-doos. Great heavings of wealth and disparity rolling across oceans of digital cable. And in three minutes he would stand and say goodbye and head to the car and drive to the factory, where he would earn $8.30 an hour to assemble metal objects he would never understand. By his way of thinking, this was the only economics that mattered at all.

Christian Kiefer has a PhD in American literature from the University of California–Davis and directs the low-residency MFA at Ashland University. He is the author of three novels: The Infinite Tides, The Animals, and most recently Phantoms which was one of Kirkus Reviews and BBC’s Best Books of 2019. He lives with his family in Placer County, California.