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Essayist and non-fiction author Steve Almond turns to fiction in 'All the Secrets of the World'

The cover of "All the Secrets of the World." (Courtesy)
The cover of "All the Secrets of the World." (Courtesy)

Host Robin Young speaks with author and essayist Steve Almond about his novel “All the Secrets of the World.”

Set during the Reagan era, the book tells the story of how the pairing of two girls for a class project leads to a disappearance and an accusation of murder.

Find out more about Almond’s virtual event Thursday night.

Book excerpt: ‘All the Secrets of the World’

By Steve Almond 

In the parking lot of the trailhead, Glen and Mr. Stallworth heaved equipment from the back of the Jeep. Lorena stared past the tiny kiosk with its faded map, into a pale expanse rippling with heat; her gaze fixed on the distant spot where the sky met the white of the trail, the vanishing point. Mrs. Stallworth, Rosemary, hugged Jenny, then got back in her car.

“Isn’t your mom coming?” Lo whispered.

Jenny laughed. “Hey, Mom! Lo wants to know whether you’re coming with us.”

Rosemary smoothed her face into a smile. “I’m afraid the out-of-doors isn’t my milieu, dear.”

“Her milieu is, like, the nearest Hilton,” Glen muttered.

They walked for a long time through desert the color of bone. Everything—the plants and rocks, even the sand—had been bleached by the sun. Glen stripped off his shirt and tied it around his head. He wanted the world to see his muscles glisten. He was that sort of animal.

Mr. Stallworth trudged beneath a massive pack. His thick, hairy legs pumped away. The girls staggered behind. Lo expected Jenny to complain. But a different set of rules obtained with her father. Suffering was the price of his company. Late in the afternoon, they turned off the main trail. She could feel the earth’s heat through the rubber soles of her tennis shoes.

At dusk, they struck camp and made freeze-dried stew and rice, which they consumed with a keen hunger, along with the corn dumplings. After dinner, the girls crawled into their tent to put on sweaters.

The darkness brought a bite to the air. Mr. Stallworth stood by the fire. “Come on over here, you two.” He reached into his giant pack and drew out what appeared to be long plastic shin guards. Then he bent down and began strapping them onto his daughter’s legs, like armor.

“What are these things?”

“Snake chaps!” Glen hooted. “Rattlers hunt at night.” Jenny turned to her father.

“It’s a precaution,” Mr. Stallworth said calmly. “You’re perfectly safe.” He turned to Glen. “Don’t test me, young man. I’m not your mother.”

Jenny tore off the snake chaps. “No way no way no way.” She retreated into the tent and Mr. Stallworth followed. They could hear him speaking to her in soft exasperation.

“What about you? You afraid of snakes, Lo?” Glen flicked his tongue.

She let her eyes linger on his face. He was like her own brother in some ways, engorged with an arrogance that was central to whatever secret he was keeping from the world.

Mr. Stallworth emerged from the tent.

“I should stay with her,” Lo said.

“Nonsense.” Mr. Stallworth dropped to his knees before her and suddenly his hands were on her calves. He yanked at the straps. She felt roughly handled in a way she knew she shouldn’t like.

“Just go,” Jenny moaned through the flap. “Leave me the hell alone.”

*

Mr. Stallworth led them into the darkness. He lugged an oversized lantern, which he set down on a small rise. “Close your eyes and keep them shut until I say.”

“Do it,” Glen murmured. “Okay. Open.”

An iridescent purple light gleamed out in all directions. Lo’s eyes scrolled an ocean of sand, upon which now lay scattered scores of tiny glow-in-the-dark toys, the sort kids on TV pulled from cereal boxes. Then the toys began to move and Lo gasped. These were living creatures, many-legged and scrabbling, like tiny lobsters.

“Welcome to Scorpionville,” Glen said.

Lo glanced at the sand around her feet. A scorpion the length of a hairpin labored under the weight of its stinger, which hung like a fanged jewel over the armored segments of its body.

“Don’t be frightened.” Mr. Stallworth said. He was suddenly right beside her. “I’m not,” Lo replied.

“What do you think?”

“They’re—” She cast about for the right word, stunned to find the truth in such a simple one: “Beautiful.”

She could feel Mr. Stallworth inspecting her face, trying to figure out if she really meant it. He took off his glasses and began furiously polishing the lenses with the hem of his shirt. For a queer moment, Lo imagined grabbing his glasses and tossing them away.

“We gonna take any home?” Glen asked.

Mr. Stallworth pulled a small flashlight from his pocket and swept the purple beam across the sand. “We might as well see who’s hunting tonight.” To Lo’s astonishment, he knelt down and guided a scorpion onto his palm. The animal was the size of a matchbox. Its pincers pawed the air.

“Shouldn’t you have gloves?” Lo said.

“You just come at them from behind,” Glen said. “They can’t sting backwards.”

“They’re not aggressive animals,” Mr. Stallworth explained. “They just want to be left alone.”

“Tell her about the dance,” Glen said.

Mr. Stallworth let the scorpion scuttle from one hand to the next. “Yes. You might like this. During courtship, the scorpions grasp each other’s pedipalps—their pincers. They perform a kind of dance. It’s called the promenade à deux. It looks like they’re fighting. But it’s just the opposite. It’s how they select a mate.”

“Fuck or fight,” Glen whispered in Lo’s direction.

His father glared at him. “What did you just say?”

“Nothing,” Glen said.

Mr. Stallworth aimed the purple light into his son’s eyes. “There’s a young woman here, Glen. This isn’t some locker room.”

“It was a joke—”

“It was demeaning. Apologize to Lorena. Now.”

Glen blinked like a scolded dog. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

Mr. Stallworth returned his focus to the animal. “You see these little hairs along their legs?” he said. “This is how they hunt. By touch. By vibration. They can register the movement of a single grain of sand from ten yards away.”

“Why do they shine?” Lo said.

“Nobody knows. Fluorescence must convey some kind of evolutionary advantage, but it’s still their little secret.”

Glen asked his father to find a scorpion he could pick up. Mr. Stallworth scanned the ground with his magic light. “These are your best bet,” he said. “Paruroctonus utahensis. Sand scorpions.”

“Aren’t they poisonous?” Lo said.

“This species isn’t too bad. Unless you’re an insect.”

She watched Mr. Stallworth gently prod the scorpion onto Glen’s hand. The creature scampered along his knuckles. It looked glum, menacing, painfully shy.

“Are you gonna pick one up?” Glen asked Lo. “How about that little guy?” He pointed to a scorpion barely larger than a beetle.

Mr. Stallworth crouched for a closer look. His arm shot out and swept Glen backwards.

“What the hell?”

Mr. Stallworth drew a pair of long tweezers out of his fanny pack and plucked up the animal, which twisted fiercely. “Hadrurus hirsutus. The desert hairy scorpion. Highly toxic.” Mr. Stallworth dropped the specimen inside a clear plastic film canister, then strode to the giant lantern and shut it off. The sand went dark around them and in this darkness Lorena heard the crisp thrashing of Hadrurus hirsutus.

“What about Lo?” Glen said.

“I’m sure she’s had enough excitement for one night.”

“I’m not scared,” Lo said. The words came out louder than she intended. More softly, she added, “I’d like to hold one.”

Mr. Stallworth switched on the lantern. He stared at her face again, half in wonder, and picked up another one, bluish under the light, a gentle species, he said, its sting no worse than a wasp. She reached out and Mr. Stallworth uncurled her fingers. The earth was trembling beneath her. Then she realized that it was her, and not the earth.

“You don’t have to do this,” Mr. Stallworth said.

“I know.”

“Do you trust me?”

She met his gaze and nodded and Mr. Stallworth lowered the animal onto her. “No way,” Glen said.

The creature clung to the knob of her wrist, like a charm. Slowly, tentatively, it began to move toward her hand, the legs rising and falling like tiny jointed oars. Lorena’s pulse lurched. She closed her eyes to keep from flinching. Tiny feet tickled her palm. She felt a dampness beneath her clothes, the dizziness of what was going to happen next. When she could stand it no longer she opened her eyes. The scorpion was perched on her thumb, perfectly still, its stinger hoisted like a tiny scythe.

“He appears to like you,” Mr. Stallworth said.

Excerpted from All the Secrets of the World by Steve Almond. Published with permission of Zando. Copyright © 2022. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.