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Excerpt: 'The Caveman's Valentine'

"You figure now you got me in your clutches, you going to read me, like a book, right? — going to look right into my brain and you going to read it page by page, like I was some cheap-jack midnight entertainment to make you forget the mess you're in — right? Get you chuckling, get your greasy thumbprints all over my thoughts, get you through another miserable lonely night, right, Stuyvesant?"

"Who's Stuyvesant?"

"You're Stuyvesant."

"I'm not Stuyvesant."

"No, you're a zit on Stuyvesant's ass. But you're Stuyvesant just the same. You're all Stuyvesant."

"I just want to take you to the shelter, Mr. Ledbetter."

"But watch out when you're in my skull, because I got legions of angels in there, and they're going to beat the shit out of you with their little wings, and pick your limbs apart and spin you around and slide you on out of there. Oh, I'm going to crap you out and be free of you. You hear me? I'M GOING TO CRAP YOU OUT, STUYVESANT!"

"It's the coldest night of the year, Mr. Ledbetter."

"It is cold."

"If you stay in this cave, you'll freeze. You'll die out here."

"I might. The world turns, it takes some of us with it. But if I swallow your con, if I go to your damn smelter --"

"Shelter, Mr. Ledbetter."

"Then I would die for sure."

"Oh, the shelter's well, it's not a hundred percent safe, but at least it's warm."

"Damn right it's warm. You know why it's warm? Because you burn the bodies in the furnace! That's why it's warm. Our livers you serve for breakfast, and our hearts you sacrifice to Stuyvesant, and the rest you cook up in the furnace! To keep everybody toasty."

"Mr. Ledbetter, I'm freezing out here."

"Then go."

"Your daughter asked me to come looking for you."

Romulus Ledbetter glared at his visitor.

Then he sloughed off his blankets and came out of his cave and rose up to his full height. Rose up before the social worker the way in a nightmare a grizzly will rise on its hind legs and it's too late to run. His hat was a Teflon saucepan lined with the furs of squirrels killed on the Henry Hudson Parkway. His stink was enormous. For a scarf he wore the "Week in Review" section of the Sunday New York Times.

"My daughter."

There was a wheeze in his voice, and the big eyes in his black face looked off somewhere.

"She's worried about you. She says tomorrow's Valentine's Day. She says how's her old man going to be her valentine if he freezes to death?"

"Well, you tell her not to worry. You tell her for me, tell her maybe I'm low, maybe they knocked me low, but I'm still a free man."

He stood there and simply loomed. Until at last the social worker shrugged and went away.

Excerpt provided by Grand Central Publishing, which also publishes Green's new novel, Ravens.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

George Dawes Green