The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

Hardcover, 254 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $26.95 | purchase

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The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
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Kristopher Jansma

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Book Summary

This novel's unreliable narrator is an aspiring author haunted by the successes of a long-time rival and unable to let go of his love for a woman who got away. Names and identities shift in this elaborate tale, but the narrator's competition with his friend and love for the woman remain constant. Determined to discover and tell the truth about the trio's falling out, Jansma's narrator travels the world, writing and losing manuscripts as he struggles to untangle a complicated web of lies.

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NPR stories about The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

Critics' Lists: Summer 2013

Hidden Gems: 5 Summer Books That Deserve More Fanfare

There's an unwritten rule that writers should try to avoid writing fiction about writers. It's apparently less inside-baseball to make those writer characters into, say, painters or composers. But I've never understood this. I like to read about writers, for they come in an infinite variety. In The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma accurately nails the young male writer type, and he also includes scenes set in that breeding-ground of double-spaced manuscripts and

Meg Wolitzer

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

Author's Note

The truth is beautiful. Without doubt; and so are lies.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

I've lost every book I've ever written. I lost the first one here in Terminal B, where I became a writer, twenty-eight years ago, in the after-school hours and on vacations while I waited for my mother to return from doling out honey-roasted peanuts at eighteen thousand feet.

I used to sit very quietly, right here, at Phil's Coffee Hub, under the watchful eye of Ms. Barlow, or bellied-up to the Formica countertop of W. W. Gould's Good Eats with Mrs. De Santos, or on a small stool inside the cramped Jewels, Jewels, Jewels! kiosk with Mrs. Nederhoffer. Now these people are all gone and I'm as old as they were then.

It was a wonderful time in my life — before I became a writer. I had an endless supply of books from Mr. Humnor, the great-girthed man who ran Emerson Books, and I spent many happy hours spying on Mr. Bjorn, who ran Ten-Minute Timepiece Repair.

Mr. Bjorn was the only person in Terminal B who wore a full suit, every day, with a real bow tie. His ancient eyes permanently fixed in a squint — the result, I imagined, of studying the tiny gears of wristwatches all day. When he was not fixing watches, he stood upright to read the big New York City newspaper. I wanted to be just like him some day.

We first spoke on the day after my eighth birthday. So that I would always know when she would be arriving home again, my mother gave me a gold wristwatch that had been left behind on one of her flights. Its band was three times the diameter of my little wrist, so our first matter of business was to have some links removed by Mr. Bjorn.

When I handed the watch to him, he let loose a fluttery whistle and polished it respectfully to remove the little oily fingerprints I'd already gotten all over it.

"This is quite a watch for a boy your size," he told me. "What's your name, son?"

I did not even dare to speak. My mother smiled her wide smile at Mr. Bjorn and, checking her own watch to see how long she had until her next flight, said, "There are no clocks in this place. Have you ever noticed that?"

Mr. Bjorn's low voice rose sweetly as he spoke to my mother. She had a way of flushing men's cheeks and causing them to stare at the toes of their shoes.

"Yes, ma'am. They don't want passengers getting upset that their flights aren't on time. There is a row of ten clocks over in Terminal A. But not one of them is set to Eastern Standard Time."

I listened intently, for I had never set foot in Terminal A. My mother never flew internationally and did not know anyone willing to look after me over there. I had dreamed about Terminal A many times. I imagined it to be just the same as Terminal B, but in reverse — a looking-glass terminal, where everyone did everything backward. Or, if it was A, and we were B, perhaps it was the original and we were the copy. Perhaps I was only a reverse version of some other boy, whose life was the other way around.

My mother chided Mr. Bjorn for calling her "ma'am" as he slipped the newly shortened watchband around my wrist. Then he handed me the small bag of removed links in a little plastic bag. "You save these, son. Take care of a watch like this and it'll last longer than me or even you."

My reflection was small in its gleaming curves. "OK," I said.

After that, once every week or so, I would return to Mr. Bjorn's shop, and if he was not too busy, he would open the watch for me and inspect the tiny gears inside.

"This here is the tourbillion, and that's the hairspring back there. And this over here is called the escapement." He gestured to a little anchor-shaped arm that swung like a pendulum, clicking as a tiny-toothed wheel turned beneath it. "That's what makes that ticking sound you hear." The little gear struggled against the anchor. After a second it built up enough force to turn one click, swinging the pendulum, and then it stopped again. Struggled, turned, and stopped.

"Each time it goes around a little bit, a second goes away."

"Where?" I asked, as the pendulum swung again. And again.

He winked at me. "It escapes. That's why they call it that. Escapement."

I barely blinked as it swung and swung again. I think I believed that if I watched closely enough, I could figure out where they were headed.

Sometimes I just sat and listened to the watch ticking. Each tick was another second less before my mother returned. Each tick was another second older that I grew. Each tick was another word that I scribbled into the many notebooks that Mr. Humnor gave me.

I wasn't a writer — not yet, of course — but I wrote. From the days before my feet could touch the linoleum floor beneath my seat, I had been jotting little things down about the odd parade that flowed through Terminal B: passengers, pilots, and the people waiting to greet them. I began doing this so that I could tell my mother about all the things she'd missed while she'd been gone. Every day I saw so many new people, rushing through the terminal to one place or another while I remained still. For all my hours spent in Terminal B, I'd never flown on an airplane — not once. I wondered where all the people kept escaping to, like those little seconds inside my watch. But in between arrivals and departures, I got bored, and sometimes I made people up, to see if my mother could detect the false woman in a pink blazer, with the hamster in her carry-on luggage, among the actual transient citizens of Terminal B.

Not long after receiving the gold watch, I wrote my very first book, a mystery I called The Pink Packet Thieves, twenty-two pages in length, including illustrations. It concerned an unnamed boy detective who is summoned by the Chief of the Airport Police to discover who has been stealing all the pink packets of artificial sweetener from the various restaurants in the terminal. The boy detective cleverly conceals himself in a trash can and lies patiently in wait for the criminal mastermind to appear. All day long, the boy endures the garbage that the travelers are heaping unknowingly onto his head. He is resolute and, indeed, the long wait pays off. By the light of the full moon, the boy detective spots two suspicious figures sneaking around. The boy detective confronts the shadows and discovers they are Xavier and Yvette D'Argent, a wealthy brother and sister who are new in town and who confess that they have been stealing the artificial sweeteners to feed a horrible addiction that they developed during their idle youths in Paris. (I had learned a few things from eavesdropping on Mrs. De Santos, talking about her sons.) In the end, the boy detective is moved by their tale and agrees to keep their secret, in exchange for the return of the sweetener, a promise that the thievery will cease, and assurances that both siblings would consult their parents about treatment options. Just as the story appears to come to a wholesome conclusion, however, the boy detective recalls his earlier sufferings in the trash can. Then, on the next page, he is seen telling the Chief of the Airport Police that he has been unable to find the culprits, and he walks away with the stolen sweetener in a black suitcase. A brief epilogue reveals that the boy detective then sells the pink packets on the black market, retires for good, and that the newly cured Xavier and Yvette become his best friends, now that he is as wealthy as them.

The Pink Packet Thieves was universally adored by the women in the terminal, and for a few days I had my first taste of a writer's celebrity. But I was not really a writer — not yet. Not even then. Mr. Humnor said that if we made copies and put them up for sale in his shop we could split the profits. For a night or two I dreamed of the hundreds of dollars I would surely make — perhaps even enough so that my mother could retire and we could fly around the country together.

There was one person whom I had not yet shown the book to — and that was Mr. Bjorn. There was no one in the concourse whom I wanted to like the book as badly. For days I watched him, waiting for my moment, and finally I walked over, on a slow Tuesday afternoon that summer, to offer him my story. Up on his high chair, Mr. Bjorn seemed even more terrifying than ever.

"You get any bigger yet? You ready to put one of those links back in?"

"I wrote a book," I said meekly, as I held it out.

"So you have," he said, squinting down at it for a moment. His hands were shaking and he kept sort of clearing his throat.

"You could read it," I explained, as I pushed it toward him.

He lifted it up, made a little show of admiring the title and the cover art, and released a familiar fluttery whistle. "I'll take a look at it as soon as I'm done with my paper. One hour, son. All right?"

I agreed, happy to see him smiling. "A book," he laughed as he set it down. "Sounds like someone wants to live forever."

I didn't know what he meant by this but I didn't care. I rushed off again through the concourse, giddy with pleasure, and I did not stop running until I reached Emerson Books and snatched three candy bars while Mr. Humnor pretended not to look. I camped out there, beneath the rotating rack of romance novels, watching the little hands on my wristwatch twisting slowly around, the little ticking of the escapement seeming to grow louder and louder.

When an hour had finally passed, I rushed out of the store and followed a crowd of passengers to the other end of the concourse. When I got there I was surprised to see a crowd massed around Mr. Bjorn's kiosk. Ms. Barlow and Mrs. De Santos and Mrs. Nederhoffer were all there, but Mr. Bjorn was not. His high chair was on the ground, on its side. His newspaper lay in a heap beside it.

"Old guy's ticker just stopped," I heard a rough voice say. It was a policeman — a blue pudgy ball with a buzz cut — and he was holding my book in his hand. And he was laughing. Not like Mr. Humnor laughed. Laughing as though he thought something was awful. And all of my daytime minders were just standing there, letting him laugh.

"Was this the old guy's?" the officer asked, that horrible smile still on his face.

"No," said Mrs. Nederhoffer. "It's just this little boy's. His mother's one of the flight attendants, and she leaves him here all day like it's some sort of daycare center."

"We all sort of look after him," Mrs. De Santos chimed in. "Honestly, I live in fear every day that some nut will run off with him."

Ms. Barlow agreed, loudly, that if one ever did, it wouldn't be on her chest.

The officer laughed — a hacking, barking sort of laugh. "No father?"

This time the ladies laughed — their cackles were high and excited — as if there were nothing they liked to laugh about more. They all began talking at once, but I heard them say bad words before I could hold my watch up to my ears. Soon I couldn't hear anything but the ticking. I stood there in a dark forest of strangers' knees, listening to second after second, escaping. Then with one careless motion, the policeman chucked my book into the nearest trash can. None of the ladies even noticed.

I started running away, back down the concourse. At first I meant to hide back at Mr. Humnor's, but when I got there it still wasn't far enough. Leaping down the escalators, the concourse rose up around me, and below were the great snakelike conveyor belts that slowly ferried luggage to waiting crowds. I kept on running, out past the big orange car rental sign and through the revolving glass doors. I ran down the sidewalk past the taxicabs and the luggage collectors in their red caps. I didn't know where I was going or where I wanted to go. I wanted to go wherever my mother was, or wherever Mr. Bjorn had gone. I wanted to go where all the seconds went.

I stopped when I saw a sign pointing inside again. terminal a it said. Timidly, I went inside and up some more escalators to the concourse level. Finally, I would see it. Terminal A. And maybe I would find Mr. Bjorn, winding all the timepieces backward, with the same serious smile. The little round tables were the same. The linoleum floor was the same. The skylights high above me were the same. But there was no Emerson Books. There was no Phil's Coffee. There was no W. W. Gould's, and there was no Ten-Minute Timepiece Repair. There was no Mr. Bjorn.

Finally, I sat down on the ground under a long row of clocks. There were ten of them — each exactly the same except for a little sign that said the name of a place. Some of these places I'd read about, like Paris, where Xavier and Yvette had come from. And some I'd heard of, like Mexico City, where Mrs. De Santos was born. These were places that were very far away, I knew. And they all had different times than the time on my watch. In Mexico City, it was still an hour earlier. If I were there, I figured, and it was an hour earlier, then Mr. Bjorn would still be around.

I sat there listening to the clocks' little ticking noises. Inside each were little gears like the ones inside my watch, struggling and turning. I listened to the seconds escaping. And I knew then that each second was just escaping to a different clock, somewhere even farther away, and that they just went on and on escaping like that, forever.

So. That is the story of how I lost my very first book. I've lost three others since — a novel, a novella, and a biography. The first is disintegrating steadily at the bottom of a black lake. The second is in the hands of a woman whom I love and will never see again. The third is in a dusty African landfill, wrapped in the bloody tatters of my tweed coat, my gold watch still in the pocket.

Only fragments remain, which I've carried with me around the world and back again. Sitting here in Terminal B, setting them beside one another, I've been trying to get them to add up to something true. I'm staring at the margins between them — just an inch on each side — but the distance may as well be the Grand Canyon. Yet I feel certain that somewhere in this empty space, between my lies and fictions, is the truth.

It occurs to me now, as I finish writing this, that perhaps these surviving pieces aren't so different from those clocks in Terminal A. In each of them you can see what the time would be, but only somewhere else. Between them all, you can, if you wish, determine what time it is here.

These stories are all true, but only somewhere else.

From The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma. Copyright 2013 by Kristopher Jansma. Excerpted by permission of Viking Adult.

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