Excerpt: ‘The Barbarian Nurseries’

Read the opening of Héctor Tobar’s novel, our December California Book Club selection, in which we meet two of the novel’s major characters.

barbarian nurseries, héctor tobar
Dustin Snipes

Scott Torres was upset because the lawn mower wouldn’t start, because no matter how hard he pulled at the cord, it didn’t begin to roar. His exertions produced only a brief flutter of the engine, like the cough of a sick child, and then an extended silence filled by the buzzing of two dragonflies doing figure eights over the uncut St. Augustine grass. The lawn was precocious, ambitious, eight inches tall, and for the moment it could entertain jungle dreams of one day shading the house from the sun. The blades would rise as long as he pulled at the cord and the lawn mower coughed. He gripped the cord’s plastic handle, paused and leaned forward to gather breath and momentum, and tried again. The lawn mower roared for an instant, spit a clump of grass from its jutting black mouth, and stopped. Scott stepped back from the machine and gave it the angry everyman stare of fatherliness frustrated, of a handyman being unhandy.

Araceli, his Mexican maid, watched him from the kitchen window, her hands covered with a white bubble-skin of dishwater. She wondered if she should tell el señor Scott the secret that made the lawn mower roar. When you turned a knob on the side of the engine, it made starting the machine as easy as pulling a loose thread from a sweater. She had seen Pepe play with this knob several times. But no, she decided to let el señor Scott figure it out himself. Scott Torres had let Pepe and his chunky gardener’s muscles go: she would allow this struggle with the machine to be her boss’s punishment.

El señor Scott opened the little cap on the mower where the gas goes in, just to check. Yes, it has gas. Araceli had seen Pepe fill it up that last time he was here, on that Thursday two weeks ago when she almost wanted to cry because she knew she would never see him again.

Pepe never had any problems getting the lawn mower started. When he reached down to pull the cord it caused his bicep to escape his sleeve, revealing a mass of taut copper skin that hinted at other patches of skin and muscle beneath the old cotton shirts he wore. Araceli thought there was art in the stains on Pepe’s shirts; they were an abstract expressionist whirlwind of greens, clayish ocher, and blacks made by grass, soil, and sweat. A handful of times she had rather boldly brought her lonely fingertips to these canvases. When Pepe arrived on Thursdays, Araceli would open the curtains in the living room and spray and wipe the squeaky clean windows just so she could watch him sweat over the lawn and imagine herself nestled in the protective cinnamon cradle of his skin: and then she would laugh at herself for doing so. I am still a girl with silly daydreams. Pepe’s disorderly masculinity broke the spell of working and living in the house and when she saw him in the frame of the kitchen window she could imagine living in the world outside, in a home with dishes of her own to wash, a desk of her own to polish and fret over, in a room that wasn’t borrowed from someone else.

Araceli enjoyed her solitude, her apartness from the world, and she liked to think of working for the Torres-Thompson family as a kind of self-imposed exile from her previous, directionless life in Mexico City. But every now and then she wanted to share the pleasures of this solitude with someone and step outside her silent California existence, into one of her alternate daydream lives: she might be a midlevel Mexican government functionary, one of those tough, big women with a mean sense of humor and a leonine, rust-tinted coiffure, ruling a little fiefdom in a Mexico City neighborhood; or she might be a successful artist—or maybe an art critic.•

Excerpt from The Barbarian Nurseries, by Héctor Tobar. Published by Picador. Copyright © 2021 by Héctor Tobar. All rights reserved.

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Héctor Tobar is the author of five books: The Last Great Road Bum; Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free; The Barbarian Nurseries; Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States; and The Tattooed Soldier.
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