Alan Rossi ~ Nathaniel

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.