from the novel Mountain Road, Late at Night, from Picador 9/1/20
Nathaniel observed – alternating between varying degrees of clarity and confusion, doubt that resolved into certainty, which in turn morphed into questioning – his central role in the numerous discussions among the family members about where the boy should live, who would best serve as replacement parents, who had the necessary parental acumen, who had the finances, who would be dedicated, whose lifestyle the boy would most easily fit into, who was young, who was old, who had been parents, who hadn’t, who was willing to do it again, who wasn’t, who knew the wishes of the boy’s parents and who only thought they knew, who was closest to the now-gone family itself – the parents both dead in a car accident – and finally, who would make the boy immediately feel safe. None of these discussions yielded clear answers for Nathaniel, the dead man’s brother or anyone else. All the accumulated arguments were like an uncertain sea of information, Nathaniel thought, one point swelling into a wave of what felt like fact only to have another point wash out that wave with its own relevance and truth. In this way, rather than revealing who could best help the boy, the debate among the family members in the first days after the accident left the continual, implied, unasked, but deeply felt question: what did the boy want and need? The answer was both too simple and too impossible to approach: Jack wanted his parents. Nathaniel felt that all that these conversations were doing, and what they would continue to do, was serve as a way for the family to act out their scripted roles without any of them seeing what was right in front of them.
Nathaniel received a phone call from his dead brother’s mother-in-law the day before. She called to tell him that she had started driving Monday night and would continue for the next four days, since it was over a thirty-hour drive from Boise, and that she would arrive on Friday. She was sorry she couldn’t be there sooner, but see no one thought to tell her, you know, the mother, that her daughter had been in this accident, and plane tickets were way too expensive at this point, to which Nathaniel wanted to explain that there’d been a mistake, that he believed she’d been notified by the police, but before he could say anything this Tammy woman had said, It is what it is and it doesn’t matter now. She said she was on her way and would pick up the kid on Friday afternoon in order to drive him back home, asking Nathaniel to please have a suitcase packed with a week’s worth of clothes, whatever toys Nathaniel felt the boy needed or would want. He could ship the rest to her later and then she ended the phone call by saying that she was appreciative of Nathaniel taking the time out of his schedule to look after the boy, appreciative of Stefanie as well, please tell her that, she knew that children weren’t in their plans so it was really great that for the past week they’d moved in and stayed with the boy in the house he knew, but not to worry, she’d be there soon and they could go back to their apartment and their lives. Nathaniel had then explained to Stefanie, his wife, that Tammy – a woman he had met only once and with whom he had never had a real conversation before – this woman didn’t even say hello, she just began talking, telling him that she was coming to pick up the kid with barely any acknowledgment that Nathaniel was even on the line, and then she gave him instructions for packing. Nathaniel told Stefanie that the mother-in-law basically patronized both of them by implying that these few days with Jack had been a burden for them. He told Stefanie that his brother’s mother-in-law conveyed this information to him with such flippant urgency, almost an annoyance at having to convey it to him, so that he’d felt reproached and stupid, like he should’ve somehow known this information, and he hadn’t known how to react and therefore hadn’t reacted, except to say, Okay, that all sounds great. Thanks, Tammy.
Now, a day after that call, thinking about when to call this Tammy woman back and what he would say to her, Nathaniel watched Stefanie looking through the cabinets for what she said was ‘a strainer.’ They were in the kitchen of Nathaniel’s brother’s cabin-like home. They had driven nearly three hours from Charlotte where they lived and worked, driven into the mountains, to be there with Jack in the home that Nicholas had built. Besides the appliances, the kitchen itself – the wood floors, the wood cupboards and drawers, the counters of poured concrete – had been constructed, like the rest of the house, by Nicholas. Every place Nathaniel looked, every space he occupied in the house, he felt his brother. He didn’t know how many times he’d cried. He remembered being in the bathroom a few days ago, and how he dropped his toothbrush and was reminded that he’d helped Nicholas lay the tile and how Nicholas had eventually kicked him out of the bathroom because it was too small for both of them to be working in, and when Nathaniel had stood up in an annoyed hurry, he’d smacked his head against his brother’s chin as he was standing, hit his brother’s chin so hard with the top of his head that he could hear the clack of Nicholas’s teeth and when Nicholas uncovered his mouth and spit into his hand, Nathaniel had seen both blood and maybe a quarter of Nicholas’s tongue. They’d to go to the ER, where a doctor sewed the tongue back on. When he had dropped his toothbrush all this moved through his mind, making him see something other than what he was seeing, which was also what he was doing now standing in the kitchen with Stefanie – seeing something other than what was right in front of him, being somewhere else. In order to correct this, instead of thinking about dropping the toothbrush and remembering how that caused him to remember Nicholas’s tongue, now, in the kitchen with Stefanie, he tried to look at everything without letting it remind him of anything, to just see what he was seeing.
Out the windows above the kitchen sink, a constant rain fell, a sound that was at once one sound and many: a padding sound on the grass, a tinny sound on the roof, a thudding sound on the wood of the porch. Stefanie had failed in finding the strainer and was now cleaning potatoes at the sink, potatoes she had picked from the garden, scrubbing them with a little wire brush which caused mud to streak through the running water in the porcelain sink. For the first couple of days, they’d gotten by on sandwiches, but now she wanted to cook. She told Nathaniel, while she scrubbed the potatoes, that he had to call this Tammy woman back. He said he couldn’t call her back, what was he going to say? I can’t remember a single time I’ve ever addressed the woman by name, he said. I’ve only met her once at Nicholas’s wedding, where she told me that her daughter had almost married a guy who lived in California. Some guy named Desmond, who was now in the Secret Service. She told me she had no idea why April had chosen to be with my brother, but she had, so she was going to support her daughter, though, Come on, she’d said: Secret Service or anthropologist? Stefanie shook her head, her dark hair, which was in a ponytail, swinging.
Jack, Nathaniel’s four-year-old nephew, was napping in his bedroom. Nathaniel walked down the hall and looked into the boy’s room. Jack was still sleeping, his breath deep and steady, his body turned away, covered, his black hair messed from sleep. Out the window, a stream flowed beside the cabin. The steady rain that fell from the slate grey sky muffled the sound of the stream, so that Jack, if he woke, wouldn’t even notice the sound of the running water, Nathaniel thought. Nathaniel felt the privacy of the rain, like a blanket enclosing the cabin. A half mile away, there was a barn where his dead brother did his carpentry, had once done, Nathaniel thought, and further along the property, a greenhouse and larger outdoor garden, all of which Nathaniel, standing at Jack’s bedroom door, had forgotten about to some degree until arriving – it felt nearly impossible, how exactly Nicholas and April and Jack lived – but more than anything, Nathaniel had forgotten how quiet his brother’s place could be, how quiet the nearby town was. Even the rain, the reverberating thunder, felt as though it emphasized the quiet of the mountain rather than negating it.
He went back down the hall to the kitchen and stood at the kitchen island, leaning against it, watching Stefanie cleaning potatoes. He could hear, just under the rain, the stream that passed by the brother’s cabin, and as the rain lessened, the two different sounds of water created one sound, both seemingly issuing from the underlying silence, and Nathaniel felt he was on the verge of sensing something significant: how that one watery sound – the combination of the rain and the stream – meant something else entirely. The stream trickled and gurgled over rocks, over logs, through grasses, numerous sounds creating the sound of the stream, and the rain that fell into the stream also contributed to that watery sound he was hearing, almost a humming sound, and the many things the stream once was went down the mountain as one thing, where it became a larger river, and merged with another river that ran through the town, which then came out of the mountains, and moved toward the coast, where it became the Atlantic. Many things changing into one thing. One thing changing into another. Or was it simply that the river was already the ocean? Nathaniel’s mind tried to grab onto something – he didn’t know what – as he stared out the window. He’d been doing this, he’d noticed: his brother was dead, he had to take care of Jack, but he kept thinking of other things. Now it was this: what was he feeling about this mountain rain? Was he feeling the force of coming from the city to the countryside? He knew the natural world was there, but he’d forgotten it, somehow. Mountains and fields and rural life, clouds moving in the still cold spring wind, and trees, just budding, obscured in fog each morning, and rain falling or simply materializing as mist in the air, and the air itself cold and crisp in the morning, slowly warming during the day, still damp, and then temperatures dropping again at night, everything wet, muddy, just becoming green again, everything in balance with itself, a peacefulness that was undercut by something quietly haunting and dreamlike, all of which Nathaniel felt at the fringes of his perception, like he was just a child, learning how the world worked again.
Stefanie finished cleaning the potatoes and said, Okay, back to the original mission, and after opening a few cupboards and moving pots and bowls around this time, she found the strainer. A colander, she now said, it’s called a colander. She went back to the sink, grabbed a dirt-caked potato from the counter, washed it and then peeled the skin into the colander. Nathaniel stopped looking out the window, turning off the natural world like turning off a switch, and watched Stefanie, the potato skins making a quiet slapping sound as they occasionally missed the colander and hit the sink. Stefanie reiterated that Nathaniel needed to call this Tammy woman back and explain to her that this wasn’t how things were going to go. I don’t like that solution to this particular problem, Nathaniel said. Because it involves me confronting a person and you know I hate doing that. Nathaniel asked if maybe he should get a second opinion, and Stefanie rolled her eyes and said, Go ahead, call your parents. That’s not fair, Nathaniel said. No, that’s completely fair, Stefanie said. You and your family have to have little conferences before anything gets decided. Your parents call you with detailed travel plans before they visit us. They outline down to the hour how long they’ll stay. You call them with questions about your work, your financial situation, and now you’re going to call them about this woman. It’s not a judgment, but my family isn’t the same. That’s what you learn coming from divorced parents. You’re on your own. You guys are a little committee. Except Nicholas. The one that broke away. That’s so hyperbolic I can’t tell if it’s mean or not, Nathaniel said. You know you’re going to call them, she said. He looked at her and said, yeah, he was.
He picked up the phone and thought for a moment of this Tammy woman driving from – where was it again, Omaha or something, somewhere in Idaho, was Omaha in Idaho? – and how she was so sure she was going to be picking up Jack in just a few days. What was he going to say to her? Then he realized that maybe his father would know how to approach the situation, like he knew how to approach so many. When his father answered, Nathaniel said that he wanted to talk to him and to Mom, forgetting, of course, that his mother had decided to take a vow of silence earlier in the week. Before he could say anything, his father was explaining, once again, solemnly, that it’d just have to be him because his mother was still deep in her grief about her son’s death – his father actually used the phrase ‘her son’s death,’ which was the kind of overt formal use of language that his father often employed in moments of seriousness, but which also, especially in this moment, came across as insensitive, as though Nathaniel didn’t know that his mother’s other son was dead – and she was currently going through a period of total silence, no talking at all, which she’d conveyed on a notepad a few days ago, writing out that she wouldn’t be talking for some time in order to fully experience her son’s leaving this world. Nathaniel said that his father could stop, thanks, he’d just forgotten, and he remembered now, mom wasn’t talking. He thought of how his mother had essentially remained in the hotel in town, not visiting the cabin, and that alone felt distancing, and along with the complete silence, she felt even more cut off from him and the rest of the family. At the same time, it all also felt like a kind of performance, the exact sort of thing his mother would do. The performance of being alone with her sadness: not only was she not leaving her hotel room, she was also now not speaking, and how profound, Nathaniel thought, immediately disliking that he’d thought such a thing. She’s still writing little notes and communicating though, his father said. So I guess she might text you. But she won’t speak. Right, I know that, though I don’t understand the difference, Nathaniel said. His father immediately replied that neither did he but it wasn’t for either of them to understand, this was how she was grieving her son’s death. Nathaniel knew that what this actually meant was that his mother was grieving her favorite son’s death and wanted to fully experience her favorite son’s leaving this world. Then, again, Nathaniel felt mean for having such a thought, even though it wasn’t particularly untrue. Nicholas was the son who had left home, who had made his life entirely different from the life of his parents’ and from Nathaniel’s, and who was not only a craftsman, but also an intellectual – teaching botany and anthropology courses at a liberal arts university about thirty miles from his cabin – while Nathaniel was just a chef, didn’t have beautiful and ardent thoughts about life, and had once been, for a period of time that was now over, a burden to his parents, who had to bail him out of jail twice for admittedly minor indiscretions, but still, and had to help him finish his high school degree, and then had to support him after college when he decided to forgo grad school and go to culinary school, which had nothing to do with his communications major, and which he knew they had doubted he could really be successful at, but he’d done it. He was not his brother, but he was doing okay: he was married, was an up-and-coming chef, according to a local magazine, and owned a condo with Stefanie. On the phone, after his father was finished talking, Nathaniel explained what had happened with Tammy and what Stefanie thought he should do. He asked if his father thought that was a good idea or not, if he should call Tammy back. Stefanie stopped peeling potatoes and was looking over her shoulder at Nathaniel. His father said, Stefanie’s right, you need to call the woman back immediately, to which Stefanie, who apparently could hear his father, mouthed to Nathaniel, Told you, then went back to the potatoes. His father began to say something about how he wanted to talk to Nathaniel about another issue, though, if he had a minute, and Nathaniel replied by saying, Dad, no, I don’t have a minute. I have to call this crazy person back.
Alan Rossi’s stories have appeared in Granta, New England Review, The Missouri Review, Conjunctions, Fiction, The Florida Review, Ninth Letter, and many other journals. His fiction has received a Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry Prize. This selection is the opening of his novel Mountain Road, Late at Night which has been published in the UK and will be released by Picador in the United States on September 1st, 2020.