Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, this collection of tales returns readers to the American Northwest so deftly observed and powerfully evoked in John Keeble’s previous works. Nocturnal America occupies a terrain at once familiar and strange, where homecoming and dislocation can coincide, and families can break apart or hone themselves on the hard edges of daily life. In these stories, Keeble populates what journalist Joel Garreau once called the “Empty Quarter” of North America with complex humanity. Life ranges vibrantly through these airy spaces, at times finding itself thrown up against the shifty terrors of political and cultural change.
Keeble’s stories hinge on love—its difficulty, its loss and pangs, but also its discovery of good fortune. As his characters come and go, unexpectedly converging, vanishing, or reappearing, their stories reach beyond the ordinariness of life.
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By John Keeble
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2006 University of Nebraska Press
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Chapter OneThe Chasm
IN WINTER the glazed bunchgrass and wild oats tuft the roadsides and edges of fields. In spring the exhausted grass will still be there, a blond whiskering to the green. Through summer the dry stalks of last year's grass memorialize winter, the pale of the dead fringing the alive in this place that has become Jim Blood's country. In the heat of the summer, it takes a powerful leap of the imagination to remember the snow that covered the fields. So it is. Usually, the winters in eastern Washington are kind enough, but not too many years ago the cold came early. A northerly from the Gulf of Alaska found a trough between the mountain ranges to howl down. For a solid month, record low temperatures were broken daily. Before it was done, Jim found cause for the first time in years to reflect upon the small Saskatchewan town he'd come from.
That was a hard place. He remembered it as crystalline and white. He remembered voices ringing in the cold like metal. His infant sister had died there. He remembered the bright sound the tiny coffin made when it struck the ice at the bottom of the grave. He remembered his parents in the graveyard and how his father, the only minister for miles around, had conducted the service himself. He remembered how his father seemed to stand straight against this trouble, while his mother had bent under it. That was then. He'd been aboy to whom the many common and uncommon things in life were equal in their power to astonish him.
* * *
Now, he lived here with his wife, Diane, and their three sons. They were trying to start up a ranch. They'd moved out to the place late last spring to finish building a house. They had few neighbors. By their driveway, the distance from the house to the county road was nearly a mile, and when they drove out they emerged from the woods onto a rise from which they could look northward across the fields to the Lanattos' place, and then westerly and further north to the Holisters' where there were two houses and the network of outbuildings that went with a dairy. To the south was the canyon. That was all. Phil Lanatto was a dentist, but he and his wife worked an alfalfa crop, too. Bob Holister was a farm cooperative executive. He and his wife lived in a house near the road. Their son and daughter-in-law, Lem and Judy, lived in the back house.
It was the younger Holisters' dairy operation. Lem and Judy worked as X-ray technicians in a hospital in the city. Judy worked swing, Lem graveyard, and by day they ran the dairy, which they were establishing with the greatest care. Like Phil Lanatto, Lem was a veteran. Gradually, Jim had come to know how long the other two had been in Vietnam, whereabouts, and in what capacity they served: Lem had been a helicopter gunner and Phil a surgical dentist. When Phil and Lem talked about Vietnam, about the jungle, Jim felt uneasy, and yet he felt drawn to the scorching he could almost smell on them like burnt hair.
Jim met Lem early in the summer when he dropped by the Holisters' place to introduce himself. He found Lem loading calves. A trim man with black hair and sharp eyes, Lem drove the calves into a pen and then coaxed them up the chute and into a closed, two-ton truck by clucking softly and flicking them with a switch. These were excess calves headed for a feedlot. It was June. The flies had just hatched and the air was thick with them. The calves did not balk at the loading but crowded anxiously into the head of the box, their glossy eyes and white and black coats flashing in the dark. Jim and Lem leaned against the chute, and occasionally Lem reached over with the switch to make a calf move. The two men continually brushed flies away from their faces. They spoke little. Lem grinned and said, "It's hard to talk when you have to keep your teeth shut."
Jim saw Lem again in July. Jim was doing roadwork with his old crawler tractor. The tractor had a boom on it and a blade for dozing. His road had a low spot near the front gate, a sink that became a pond in the spring and would make a hard place to plow the snow in winter. He pushed rocks into the hole, then scraped dirt off the rise to cover the rock. The blade snagged on an outcropping near the bottom and the tracks on the left side spun. He lifted the blade and tried to back the tractor off. The tracks didn't grab. He looked down and saw that he was in mud, that it wasn't just a hole or a runoff pond he was filling but an underground spring, and that he'd chewed off the crust with the tracks. He tried to move the tractor forward and backward. He tried to turn it to drive it out. The left side only dug itself in. He got out to look and instantly sank knee-deep in the mire. He scrambled onto the outcropping and looked.
The side of the tractor was sinking, slowly but visibly sinking. It was not a small tractor. An antiquated behemoth, a D-14, it weighed five tons, and it was tipping. Something had to be done right away. Diane and the telephone were too far away, and the Lanattos' house was a half-mile across the field. The Holisters' place was farther yet. If Jim tried to move the tractor and failed, digging it in deeper, the situation would quickly change from grave to desperate. He pictured the tractor listing until it dropped to its side. He told himself to calm down.
The tractor had two winches, one to operate a boom and the other to run a set of long tongs. One cable might be disconnected and used to winch the tractor out if he could find something to tie it to. He looked for a tree in front or in back of the tractor. They were all too small. They would snap under the weight. There was a tree to the right, a big one. He stared at it. There was no way to pull the tractor out sideways. He walked around and studied the tractor. He could see the mud inching up the tracks on the left side. He looked at the tree again, then at the boom, which could be swiveled. As he considered this, the shiny nose of Lem's black pickup appeared.
Lem came over. "Saw you from the road," he said, and then he squinted at Jim. "It's that bad?"
"It's not good."
"It won't move?"
Lem squatted and scrutinized the buried track, then stood and looked the tractor over. He looked at the boom, then at the tree Jim had been considering.
"You were thinking about the tree."
Jim nodded. "The boom."
"I'd try it."
"I don't know if the boom can lift up half of that tractor. I don't know, maybe the right side will just sink."
"The cable'll go first. Do you know anybody with a bigger cat than this one?"
Jim looked down at his boots, covered with mud.
"If you have to hire somebody's cat, it'll cost you a small fortune."
"You drive," Lem said.
Jim didn't like it. He didn't like the thought of the cable snapping, but he got in and swiveled the boom around to the right until it was perpendicular to the tractor body and let down the tongs. Lem grabbed them, wrapped the cable twice around the tree, and secured it by closing the tongs onto the trunk. Jim winched in the cable, then paused. He'd seen the tongs go rigid. He didn't like the thought of anything breaking - boom, tongs, or cable - with him sitting there in the open cab. Lem grinned and gestured with his thumbs up. Jim didn't like the fear he felt, either. He wound the winch in a little more. He watched the cable cut into the bark of the tree and felt the left side of the tractor rise. He glanced down at the right side. The track hadn't sunk. He winched in more. If the cable snapped, he would be in the line of fire, and a whipping cable could slice him in half. He took a deep breath and winched in the cable until the left track cleared the ground. The cable held.
Lem motioned to back the tractor up. Jim got about a foot before the left track touched again because of the incline. Lem motioned to winch in more. Jim did so. They used the same method again and again, five times lifting the left track and backing up on the right until the tractor was clear. Jim let the cable out and Lem unhooked it from the tree. Jim wound it back, moved the tractor up the hill, stopped, and turned it off. The silence boomed in his ears. He sat still, balanced with his hands on his knees.
Lem grinned. "You had it from the start."
"I had the idea. That's all." He thought - the idea, I had the idea, but the execution of it scared me.
"Hell," Lem said, "that machine could pull itself up a tree if you found one big enough. You could hook it up to its own engine, and it'd pull out its guts."
* * *
Lem and Judy had no children but planned to adopt a baby. It had taken them three years of waiting. The baby was to come home with them the Friday before Christmas. Over roughly the same period, Jim and Diane had felled trees, trimmed, hauled, peeled, milled, set, and notched them to make the walls of their house. They were building with logs. When the two couples talked, they were struck by the mirror in their lives. One couple had children, which the second couple desired. The second couple had their farming enterprise well under way, which the first couple had just begun. Though they did not spend that much time together, they had spoken of this - the waiting they shared, the expectation, the work - and a sense of luminousness that cast away their differences fell upon them.
For the first two and a half years, Jim and Diane had used the nearby city of Spokane as a home base and traveled to the ranch to work. They used chain saws to cut and trim the logs, and the tractor's boom to lift them; but otherwise, it was an extended exercise in hand labor - socket slick, chisels, sledge, augers, froe. This was an economy, but the use of primitive methods also came from Jim's desire for the cleansing touch of simple tools and natural materials.
Diane didn't believe in such things as fervently as he did. She wished to live in this place in approximately this fashion, but she wondered why he had to do everything the hard way. She'd said that maybe what he really wanted was to vanish into the woods of North Idaho like some of the others had, to become a neo-mountain man. Or to go to Alaska, maybe. "What are you trying to overcome?" she asked him one day. They were working their way through the last group of logs on the ground, peeling them with bark spuds.
Jim couldn't answer. He thought that Diane knew about the touch of the hand to things - nail, spike, bar, and wedge, the yellow pine - and about the spirits that had their roots in the material world. She was a musician, a cellist. She understood that the bow drawn across the strings activated the atoms in the air. But in another way he realized that Diane's question went deeper, that the images of impeccability he pursued were striking a crazy, precarious balance with a chaotic thing he couldn't name. He stuck the blade of his bark spud into a log and looked at Diane. She was staring deeply into him with her bright green eyes. The true answer to her question seemed just out of his reach. The answer was like a word remembered for its feel on the tongue, but which he couldn't raise to his mind.
During the second year of work, Jim's parents moved out from the Midwest. Everyone lived in Jim and Diane's rented house in the city and planned to move together to the ranch when the new house was ready. This became the plan, a closing of ranks following Jim's father's retirement. Funds were pooled. The new house expanded and then took shape, but at the same time, the couples were learning that they could not live together. Relations grew strained, then fragile. The more fragile relations became, the more far-fetched were the dreams. Life together was like a web, intricately woven, but cut loose from its moorings and floating away crazily on the wind.
There was a scene. Jim's father corrected his middle grandson, a five-year-old, at the dinner table. In itself it was nothing, but Jim told his father to let the boy be. His father, one who by profession had given comfort to others, called the child despicable. Hot words were exchanged. Several months' worth of resentment suddenly broke the surface: when to make noise and when not, in what order to use the bathroom, how clean to keep the kitchen, who should wash dishes.... Jim's mother slammed a glass on the table, shattered it, cut her hand, rose, and vented a flood of accusations. Who did Jim and Diane think they were to bring them to this? There were too many children here, too many people, too much junk. Her face was white, and her eyes blazed in the way Jim hadn't seen since he was a boy - blue, young-looking, glinting like knives in the old face. Heedless of her bleeding hand, she cursed her son, this house, and the one under construction. Why weren't they left where they had been to die? Or sent away to a retirement home in California? She cursed herself, her husband, and her long life of disappointment.
The oldest boy, a nine-year-old, watched his grandmother in amazement as the room rang with her voice. The baby was silent. The five-year-old - who believed, his parents would learn, that he had caused his grandmother to cut her hand - began to cry frantically. Jim felt drawn into the center of a dynamo of his own making, and yet he was also on the edge of it, watching as it spun and broke apart. He couldn't swallow the chunk of bread in his mouth. His mother's blood dotted the white tablecloth like wine. Diane, whose face showed her burden winding tight on its spool, picked up the five-year-old and carried him away. His cries receded and then grew louder again from behind a closed door. They sounded piteous and made Jim's body wrench. His father had his hands folded on the table, and he stared at them with an expression of great solemnity.
* * *
In June of the third year, Jim, Diane, and the boys moved into tents at the ranch. Jim's parents bought their own house in Spokane. Jim kept on building. The two older boys helped as they could. Diane managed the household, which consisted of two tents pitched under trees, and a table, a rickety shelf, and an old wood-burning cookstove set up on the porch of the small tool shed. She helped with the building, but because she was a musician, there were certain things she shouldn't do. She needed time to practice, too, and to go to rehearsals and concerts with the symphony in the city. For his part, Jim had taken time off from his job to build. Sometimes Diane practiced outside as he worked. The notes were whipped around by the breeze. They seemed to shatter into pieces and to fly at him like a flock of birds bursting out of a tree.
When the work was heavy, friends might come out. By September the log raising was completed, by October the floors were finished, and by November half the roof was up. It snowed. The family spent a great deal of time huddled around the cookstove. The two older boys were happy to go to school where it was warm. By Thanksgiving they had electricity in the house, a door, temporary windows, a temporary wall erected between the half of the house they would live in and the half that would remain uninhabitable through the winter, and two temporary chimneys, one for a potbelly stove in the bedroom and one for the cookstove in the kitchen. They moved in. They shared the bedroom, all five of them. Diane found a corner for practicing. As he worked, Jim liked to feel bass notes throbbing in the wood.
By December they had plumbing: the copper pipe run under the house, up into the water heater and down again, then up into the bathroom. One night early in December, everybody took a bath, each of the boys separately, then all three together. Their laughter rang in the house. For six months they'd bathed in the spring just down the hill. For three months the water heater had stood waiting in its crate, an article of faith. Diane took a bath and emerged with her flushed legs shining behind the slit in her bathrobe. Jim took a bath and lay in it, astounded, then came out looking for Diane. They put the boys to bed, waited for them to go to sleep, and threw a blanket down on the subfloor in the kitchen and made love. Afterward, Diane sat up and leaned toward Jim, grasping his leg. Her hair was disheveled. Her eyes gleamed. She said, "It's okay for you to be a mountain man, so long as you come out of your cave once in a while."
Excerpted from Nocturnal America by John Keeble Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
I Could Love You (If I Wanted)
Freeing the Apes