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Excerpt from the book: “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride


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James McBride, author of the memoir “The Color of Water,” the National Book Award-winning “The Good Lord Bird” and bestsellers such as “Deacon King Kong,” returns with “The Sky & Earth grocery store” (Riverside), a novel about a community of Jewish and African-American immigrants who become the center of a murder mystery.

Read an excerpt below.

“Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride

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The hurricane

There was an old Jew who lived on the site of the old synagogue on Chicken Hill in the town of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and when Pennsylvania State Troopers found the skeleton at the bottom of an old well near of Hayes Street, the old Jew’s house was the first place they went. It was June 1972, the day after a developer demolished the Hayes Street lot to make way for a new townhouse complex.

We found a belt buckle and a pendant in the well, cops said, along with some old wires — from a suit or red jacket, that’s what the lab shows.

They took out a piece of jewelry, handed it to him and asked him what it was.

A mezuzah, said the old man.

It matches the one on the door, the cops said. Don’t these things belong on doors?

The old man shrugged his shoulders. Jewish life is portable, he said.

The inscription on the back says “Home of the World’s Greatest Dancer”. It’s in Hebrew. Do you speak Hebrew?

Do I look like I speak Swahili?

Respond to the question. Do you speak Hebrew or not?

Sometimes I hit my head against it.

And you’re Malachi the dancer, aren’t you? That’s what they say here. They say you are a great dancer.

This was the case. I gave it up forty years ago.

And the mezuzah? This corresponds to this one. Wasn’t that the Jewish temple?

It was.

Who owns it now?

Who owns everything here? said the old man. He nodded toward the huge, gleaming private school visible through the dark window. The Tucker School. It stood proudly atop the hill behind wrought iron gates, with smooth lawns, tennis courts and gleaming classrooms, a monstrous bastion of arrogant elegance, shining like a phoenix above the neighborhood Rundown Chicken Hill.

They’ve been trying to buy me back for thirty years, said the old man.

He smiled at the cops, but he was practically toothless except for a single yellow tooth that hung like a stick of butter from his upper gum, making him look like an aardvark.

You are a suspect, they said.

The suspicious suspect, he said with a shrug. He was well over eighty years old, wearing an old gray vest, a wrinkled white shirt holding several old pens in his vest pocket, a crumpled tallit around his shoulders, and equally wrinkled old pants, but when he rummaged in his pants pocket his gnarled face appeared. their hands moved with such skill and speed as state troopers, who spent most of their days stopping tractor-trailers on nearby Interstate 76 and impressing pretty housewives at traffic stops truckers with their bubble gum lights and stern lectures on public safety, panicked and backed away, their hands on their guns. But the old man only took out a few pens. He offered one to the cops.

No thanks, they said.

They stayed for a while longer and eventually left, promising to return after removing the skeleton from the well and investigating the potential murder scene further. But they never did, because the next day God wrapped his hands around Chicken Hill and snatched his last shred of justice from that miserable place. Hurricane Agnes arrived and knocked out power to four counties. The nearby Schuylkill River rose to a height of seven feet. According to the old black women of Chicken Hill, white people jumped off their roofs in Pottstown as if they were on the roof. Titanic. All those luxurious houses there were swept away like dust. This storm killed everything it touched. I drowned all the men, women and children who came near it; destroyed bridges, demolished factories, demolished farms; this thing has caused millions of damages – millions and millions – that’s white people’s language, millions and millions. Well, for us colored people on the Hill, it was just another day of dodging the evil of the white man. As for the old Jew and his ilk who were on that hill, they got all their time back from those who stole everything from them. And the Jewish lady they wronged, Miss Chona, also got justice, for the King of Kings made amends to her for all the good things she did, raised her, and fulfilled her dreams in for a moment in the only way He can. . That evil fool who called himself Son of Man, he left this country a long time ago. And this boy Dodo, the deaf one, is still alive. They set up that whole camp up there in Montgomery County, because of him, the Jews did it. They were theater owners, God bless them. And those cops and those big assholes that were running after them, the Jews, for the body that they found in that old well, they can’t find a case against them now, because God took the whole thing – the well of water, the tank. , the dairy, the skeleton and anything else they might have used against the Jews – and carried it away into Manatawny Creek. And from there, every bit of this nonsense about who shot John was thrown into the Schuylkill, and from there it flowed into the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, and from there into the ‘Atlantic. And it is there that still float today the bones of this rotten scoundrel whose name is not worthy to be pronounced by my lips. At the bottom of the ocean, with the fish picking its bones and the devil keeping score.

As for old Malachi, the cops never found him. They come back for him after the hurricanes end, but he was long gone. I left a sunflower or two in the yard and that’s it. Old Mr. Malachi got off scot-free. It was the last of them. The last of the Jews around here. This guy was a wizard. He was something. He knew how to dance too… God… This man was magical…

Mazel tov, darling.

From “Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride. Copyright © 2023 by James McBride. Excerpted with permission from Riverhead, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this extract may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission of the publisher.

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