In this week’s edition of Feature Friday, we are very pleased to bring you an excerpt from D. Nandi Odhiambo’s upcoming book, Smells Like Stars. Journalist Kerstin Ostheim and freelance photographer P.J. Banner have been together six months after meeting on a dating website. As their wedding fast approaches, they question their compatibility while investigating mysterious horse killings taking place in Ogweyo’s Cove, the Pacific tourist haven where they live.
In the meantime, Schuld Ostheim, Kerstin’s transgender daughter from her first marriage, is preparing for an art exhibit after being hospitalized for a physical assault while her boyfriend, Woloff, an Olympic medalist in the 1500m, comes to terms with a career-ending knee injury. As Kerstin and P.J. get closer to the truth about the dead horses, they also begin to more clearly see each other. Simultaneously, Schuld’s and Woloff’s pasts come back to haunt them, jeopardizing their sense of a possible future.
Of Smells Like Stars, Elise Levine says, “In D. Nandi Odhiambo’s absorbing and beautiful novel Smells Like Stars resides a sharply humane wisdom, smart and timely, that is couched in a lyricism both edgy and elegant.” Giller Prize longlisted author Billie Livingston adds, “An unforgettable portrait of what we lose through our craving to win, Smells like Stars is filled with heart and passion.”
We hope you enjoy this excerpt from Smells Like Stars. Happy reading!
From Smells Like Stars:
11 Days to Wedding
12:02 p.m. Long after Mutti has gone to work, Schuld takes the yellow meds to make the voice work that tells her to be like boys and girls who fuck each other. Then she joins P.J. in the backyard where he has a barbecue going. Her shoulder smarts and her body is sore, but she’s delighted by the progress she has made on the exhibit. The bathtub is done, and she’s got plans to find a discarded TV monitor to gut for parts.
On the patio, her dad-to-be bends over smoke that rises in a rotating circle from slabs of cow thighs that roast on an iron grate. He has a poker in his hand, and behind him water sprinklers blather into grass.
“Hey, buddy,” P.J. says. “How’s your wrist? I see you aren’t wearing a bandage.”
“It’ll probably heal faster if I keep it mobile,” she replies.
“Or make it worse.”
Schuld flexes her injured wrist. “Sorry to hear about your dad.”
“Thanks,” he says. “He gets discharged from the hospital tomorrow. He’ll be fine…if he slows down.”
“What are the chances of that?” she asks.
P.J. blows onto charcoal embers. “Are you going to be home for the comet tonight? Woloff’s welcome to join.”
“Nah,” she replies. “We’re gonna watch the whole thing with real astronomers’ telescopes from a rooftop. Woloff knows an astrophysicist who’s hooked up.”
“That’s too damn lucky.” P.J. jabs at the sizzling sirloins before he turns them over. “I hear you used to play soccer in high school.”
“Not so much,” Schuld replies, absentmindedly untangling curls in her hair.
“I played centre midfield in college.” He wipes his hands on an apron with Mum written on it. “We won the NCAA when I was a sophomore.”
“You were a goalkeeper, weren’t you?” P.J. asks.
“Yup,” Schuld replies.
“Good God, a goalie,” he says. “Our best one graduated after we were national champs, and the whole team went pear-shaped after that. For the rest of my career, we had to make do with a guy who was a freakin’ sieve.”
P.J. brushes barbecue sauce onto meat and talks about two more related items. The right back in college had “two left feet,” and the coach was “a Type-A personality, an anal-retentive control freak.” Starting in her body, and stuck in her head, Schuld nods like she’s supposed to until P.J. finally uses his smart phone to send pics of cooked cow parts to his Facebook friends.
“I’m gonna go skateboarding for a bit,” Schuld says.
“Of course,” P.J. replies. “It’s your day off. Don’t let me keep you.”
“Bis später,” Schuld says.
She walks to the shed at the back of the backyard, closes the door behind her, and digs out the paint thinner from behind a pile of grease-stained rags. After she listens to make sure P.J. is still on the patio, Schuld unscrews the cap and presses her nostrils to the lid. She inhales deeply, and it feels yummy from her nose to the back of her skull, where the tension lives. Then her thinking voice gets back to work in ways that make it unclear if eating cow parts is different than eating human ones.
Strapped to an iPod, Schuld hops onto her skateboard and wheels down the sidewalk into future transactions. As she rides the crest of the hot afternoon, muggy air tastes of salt. She rolls left, her headphones chirruping house beats that go bump-deep in her bone marrow. She knows Mutti is trying to make a family with P.J. based on a foundation of telling the truth, but it’s an impossible situation. It seems… unrealistic. Utopian. Take the semi-automatic handgun she got on the darknet—would she ever tell Mutti about it? No way. Forget it. In principle, Schuld ought to be open with her mother about the things she needs to know, but if she mentions the weapon, Mutti will flip. Dipping right, she skates over rutted, rattled cement. Her auburn mane jostles. Sadness lifts a little, and then retreats into a rift where goats used to live behind a fence that runs long with glinting iron. She waits for a convoy of Humvees to pass on their way to Huntington Barracks; soldiers smudged with camouflage paint sweat in desert gear behind mounted machine guns. Then she hops a curb, crosses onto a bicycle path, and coasts along beside lots filled with men in construction boots who wander through skeletons of unfinished buildings.
It feels fabulous to not be harassed for a moment about the correct way to have thoughts. So she stops at the bridge to watch white egrets sit in trees lining a stream. Carefully folding and putting away tension, she chews on cotton balls soaked in crushed Ramazipan. Soon she’s off-key, deliciously unable to keep level. She thinks of the stories she tells Mutti about herself and of how the telling always changes. Why? Because if she wants her mother to understand whatever it is she wants her to understand, Schuld needs to focus more on certain parts of what she tells than others. There’s no way she’s saying anything to Mutti about the gun. No flipping way. She fucking well doesn’t want or need to be told what to do.
Schuld screeches, and a congregation of egrets flutters from tree branches. Then she moves again, skating toward Kutama Point, a neighbourhood with rows of cement houses bunched together beside the Alto Pyramid, where the majority of its residents work.
Schuld glides beside a field overgrown with weeds and turns when she reaches a side street weighed down by electric wires that sag from poles. After a quick right at a pile of black garbage bags ripped open by dogs, she picks up her board and walks beside election signs mixed in among clotheslines hung with bright-red-and-orange prints. Little boys and girls romp behind chain-link fences among tires scattered in wild tufts of grass, or climb into the back of pickup trucks parked in yards next to orange pylons lifted from construction sites. Nearby, adults huddle together in shade on front steps, or tinker around in driveways under the hoods of cars near piles of crumbling bricks.
Once Schuld reaches the middle of the street, she turns where a shopping cart rusts upside down on a patch of dirt and knocks on the door of a pea-green house, anxiety tagging her while tension mixes with a buildup of wax on follicles in her ears. Woloff opens up. His gangly frame hangs on to bones that jut beneath his T-shirt at shoulders and his shorts at hips.
“Want some company at your doctor’s appointment?”
“Sure,” he says. “Come in a sec while I get my gear.”
Schuld steps over a gaggle of running shoes in the entrance and follows him into a living room that reeks of pot. His roommate, Bill Tilson, a shot putter on the OCU track team, lies on a couch with a gas-mask bong on his face watching local celebrity Rita Oozol in an infomercial to promote a new line of her handcrafted fork rings. Schuld goes with Woloff to his bedroom, and she waits while he clears a weighing scale and zip-lock bags from his mattress. Then he dumps them on the bottom shelf of a closet full of mason jars, bags with buds of weed, and several motorbike helmets. Woloff closes the door behind him before he padlocks it shut.
“Here.” He throws Schuld a couple of dime bags. “I just re-upped on sativa, so if you need more, just ask.”
“Cool,” Schuld replies, stuffing them into a pocket in her shorts.
Woloff dips a ball of cotton in face powder, looks in the closet mirror, and makes a mustard circle around his right eye. Then he slips bronze bangles onto his arms. “Ready,” he says.
In the living room, Bill pulls off his bong mask and sits up.
“You taking off?”
“Yup,” Woloff replies. “I’m going to see the doctor about my knee.”
“Can you pick up some chips and a bottle of orange soda on your way home?” Bill asks.
“Done,” Woloff replies.
Bill refocuses on lighting up.
As they leave, Schuld notices a picture of Woloff’s dad in combat gear on the wall. He stands with a rifle looped over his shoulder and his pants tucked into his boots.
“Your dad looks young in that picture,” she says.
“He was twenty-five,” he replies. “It’s the last one of him alive.”
“You look a lot like him.”
“That’s what Uncle Phineas says.”
Out on the street, the neighbours’ pit bull barks at them from the end of a chain attached to a pole. Woloff limps as they walk past Governor Gary Ostheim’s territory, his blueand-white posters driven with stakes into the ground.
“Your grandfather is popular,” Woloff says.
“Can I meet him?” Woloff asks.
“A transgender granddaughter and her boyfriend isn’t a good look for the campaign,” she replies. “He’s hasn’t adapted well to my changes, so we don’t talk anymore.”
“Jesus!” Woloff says.
They walk past plastic swimming pools and turn at the end of the block onto a dirt path that cuts through a field overgrown with weeds. Overhead, a helicopter equipped with a camera crew carries VIPs, strapped in at window seats, to take pics of the famous tail of water that plummets a full kilometre at M’Toma Falls.
“I’m not a fan of our governor.” Schuld flexes her injured wrist. “He’s a pragmatist who’s into banks and privatizing prisons. He’s the opposite of everything I believe in.”
“What’s with your hand?” Woloff asks.
Schuld tells him about the transphobes who attacked her, and about her injuries. She’s rattled, but fine, mostly. “I’m okay,” she says. “I’m just having a hard time adjusting to being outside at night again.”
“Motherfuckers,” Woloff replies, wondering why she didn’t tell him earlier.
“I’m not going to the cops,” Schuld says. “That’s what Mutti would suggest if I told her about it, but making out a report while I get gawked at like some sort of freak isn’t helpful.”
He’s afraid for her. “I’m picking you up from the studio tonight,” he says.
“Much appreciated.” Tears prick in her eyes. “I feel sick thinking about it.”
“This has to stop.”
“I don’t know how to make that happen.”
Flummoxed, they push back weeds that bend across the path, round a corner, and enter a field of desiccated macadamia nut shrubs. Silently, they walk through row after row of shrivelled bushes, a red light on a small drone darting around in the sky above them.
Pre-order your copy of Smells Like Stars here.
D. Nandi Odhiambo is the author of three novels: diss/ed banded nations (1998), Kipligat’s Chance (2003) and The Reverend’s Apprentice (2008). Originally from Nairobi Kenya, Nandi moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 1970s. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a PhD in English from the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. Currently Nandi lives in O’ahu, Hawai’i, with his wife Carmen and two dogs, where he works as an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu.