An excerpt from "Three-Fifths," John Vercher's "compelling and timely debut novel."

By John Vercher

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The following is an excerpt from John Vercher’s debut novel, Three-Fifths (Agora Books, 2019), a book about “a biracial black man, passing for white, who is forced to confront the lies of his past while facing the truth of his present.”

Robert awoke on his side of the bed. The expanse of the California king remained untouched, even after a year. They used to begin their evening in the middle, always with the best intentions of falling asleep, Robert the larger spoon. Amorous ideas sometimes kept them from falling asleep that way, often retreating to their cooler sides of the bed, connected at the hands. Other times, the futility of Robert finding comfortable “other arm” placement or Tamara’s impossible metabolism generating furnace-like heat kept them from remaining curled into each other. They laughed together at the hopelessness of it. But they never stopped trying.

After showering and dressing, he made his way downstairs. He padded barefoot, almost past the closed French doors to the dining room, then stopped. He pulled them shut as if to close in the divorce papers that sat on the table, like placing a lid on a jarred candle, depriving the flame of oxygen so it might flicker out of existence. Yet there they sat. Untouched and unmoved. Waiting.

He kept walking.

It was a slow shift in the ER. Mostly slip and falls, some of the city’s homeless seeking refuge from cold exposure. Nothing to necessitate the trauma team’s intervention. Robert had long ago abandoned the guilt of wishing for work, the gallows mentality that accompanied the enjoyment of his job. It was a necessity, a way to disconnect from the visceral nature of the task at hand. Still today, he wished for it for considerably more selfish reasons. Unoccupied, his mind continued to drift towards the paper on the table. How could she have already signed? Were they truly past all discussion? How had he earned such spite? Robert knew the answers to his questions and the need for distraction swelled.

Night came, and towards the end of his shift, Robert took the stairs to the ICU to look in on Marcus Anderson, the assault victim from the previous night. It had taken all the king’s horses and men to put him back together again. Titanium plates reinforced the shattered bone of his orbital, but he had lost the eye, the void covered by gauze and surgical tape. They pulled a number of splintered teeth and wired his jaw shut. The bleed in his brain caused increased pressure within his skull, so they removed a section of it. Robert pressed his lips together as his mind tried to fill in the negative space the craniotomy left in Marcus. God called him home in pieces.

It was unclear yet if he would survive. His EEG read dismally. If he did live, he would be in agony. He would eat his meals through straws for months. If he regained the ability to talk, his speech would never be the same. His driver’s license showed a handsome young brother with a winning smile. A plastic surgeon wouldn’t touch him without good insurance, of which his family had none. Lorraine had told Robert that when they visited. His mother’s hand had hovered over his face, not wanting to touch the bruising and swelling that would likely end as a ruin of scar tissue. Robert wondered if he and his team had saved the boy or damned him.

He thought of Tamara again. Thought about how they would have handled this as parents. Thought about the kind of mother she wanted to be, the kind she would have been. Maybe despite all the pain they felt now, they had, in some ways been spared.

Tamara didn’t want children. She’d said so on their second date over the best filet Robert had ever had. They’d eaten at Donovan’s in the Gas Lamp district. Her pharmaceutical company paid. She told him that children didn’t figure into her career plan so he should get that idea right out of his head. He spit his wine back into his glass. She smirked at him. “You didn’t know this was a date?” she’d asked.

“This isn’t the part where I tell you I’m not interested in your product and you give me free samples?”

“Well now that you have, I can officially call this a business dinner and charge it to the company,” she said. “But I would have gotten that out of the way on the first dinner with the rest of your practice.”

“I figured this was just your method of divide and conquer,” he said. “Picking us off one by one.”

“Who’s to say it isn’t?” She winked. “I’ll be getting your oldest partner in the sack tomorrow night. I love the smell of Bengay in the morning.” Robert faked a dry heave and she laughed. “Besides, if you thought this was just another pitch, would you really have had dinner with me?”

“You promised filet. I have school loans.”

“Fair enough.” She raised her glass. Robert clinked it with his. “No kids,” she said.

“You’re assuming I even like you.”

“You like me.”

John Vercher’s debut novel, Three-Fifths, launches September 10th from Agora Books, the new diversity-focused imprint of Polis Books. He is a graduate of The Mountainview MFA.