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from the novella “Ridge Weather”
in THE NEW VALLEY
As Osby rounded the bend, his headlights sucked the Old House’s mailbox out of the night. It had collapsed against the giant chestnut stump and the letters his grandmother had carefully painted were half gone; they read he Ca ills, now. He braked, his ribs suddenly feeling too small for all the stuff that had to fit in his chest. Slowly, he turned onto the dirt. A few feet up, he stopped. The truck idled under him. Grass and weeds had grown between the tire tracks and last spring’s rains had gouged the driveway. Up the hill, beyond the reach of the headlights, the Old House stood blackly against the stars, a hole in the sky. His home, the newer house he and his dad had lived in, was built nearly a century ago, but the original family place, the Old House, was twice that age, the walls in its living room still made of logs from the homesteaders’ one room cabin. After his grandmother died, his father used the house for storage: bags of fertilizer, car batteries, cattle medicines.
He flicked on his brights. The windows that still had glass flared. He hadn’t been in there since the day he found his father. He could make out the glinting shape of Cortland’s pickup, parked at the top of the driveway. The front door to the house was still open. He’d forgotten to shut it. Or the ambulance guys had. Or the cops. They had come, looked things over. There wasn’t much guessing to do. Osby asked them not to clean it up, said he wanted to do it himself. It would help him seal the thing shut, he said, put a cap on it. When the neighbors offered to take care of things, he told them he’d already scrubbed and swept and burned what had to be burned. Truth was, he hadn’t touched a thing in there. The idea of going back in made his bowels go watery.
The truck sputtered, and he gave it a little gas, shook a cigarette out of a pack of Winstons, and sat, smoking. He knew he ought to go up there and close that door.
When Osby’s mother died, his father hadn’t let anyone help them take the body to the funeral home. They had wrapped her in the sheets and carried her down stairs, his father holding her under her arms, Osby clutching her cold ankles. She had smelled like old cabbage. Her body sagged, heavy as wet sand. His twelve year old, thin forearms strained and he struggled to keep his fingers locked around her legs. Halfway down the stairs, he dropped her. Her heels thwacked the hard, wood step, and he had thought how much that would hurt if she was alive. Outside, they hoisted her into the pickup and drove into town. His father hadn’t even let people gather in the house after the funeral. He had refused the casseroles and cakes they brought.
The next Saturday, Osby had helped him with an excavating job and they had sat in the bulldozer’s shovel, out of the cold wind, passing a thermos of steaming coffee between each other. “Ain’t going to have ‘em walking all over our place,” Osby’s father had said. “Big show.” And a week later, in the kitchen, digging shotgun pellets out of a rabbit with the tip of a knife: “When I go, I don’t want no noise about it. Don’t want the whole of ‘em traipsing around, tearing up the driveway, snooping around the Old House. Just dig a hole and dump me in.”
When he’d finished the cigarette, Osby rolled down his window, tossed out the butt, shoved down on the clutch, and put the truck in first. Behind the Old House, Bowmans Ridge, solid and black, smothered the bottom edge of the sky. After a while, his left calf muscle started to shake. He shifted into reverse, backed up onto the road, and drove home.
Quiet smothered the bang of the truck door almost as soon as he shut it behind him. He could hear the night animals moving around, small birds, opossum, squirrels, making crackling noises too big for them in the dry leaves. They went silent as his feet made their noise from the truck to the porch.
Inside, the house had gone cold. Osby clomped into the kitchen, opened the flue on the wood stove and stirred up the remaining coals, watching them feed on the draft. When they were glowing, he shoved a couple overnight logs on top, waited for them to catch, and then shut the stove up and let it go to work. He scanned the twenty-odd cans lined up on the kitchen counter. He and his father never bothered putting the soup in the pantry. That was for the things they bought on a whim and never ended up looking at again, things like cake mixes or cloves of garlic, things that needed what Osby and his father called “major preparation”. Cans of soup, cans of beans, cans of cranberry sauce, jars of pickles; those things were useful; they stayed on the counter where they could be got at.
Osby chose a can of Chicken and Dumplings, shaking his head a little at all the Clam Chowders. His father had loved the stuff. Osby couldn’t stomach it. Now he was stuck with a dozen cans. He rinsed a saucepan under the faucet, using his thumb to rub away most of the crust left from last night’s soup, dumped in tonight’s Chicken and Dumpling, lit the stove burner with a match, and got out the bowls and spoons.
The kitchen opened up right onto the living room, and Osby went in there, turned on the tv, and watched the weather report while he unbuttoned his shirt and tugged it off his arms. Not wanting to put his good shirt on the floor with the rest of his clothes, he held it in one hand while he took off his shoes and pants, and then held those bunched in the other arm, while he listened to the forecast for the next day. There was a slight chance of snow.
“Hope not ‘till afternoon,” Osby said aloud to the empty house, feeling foolish immediately afterwards. When he heard the pot spitting soup, he hurried into the kitchen, dumped his clothes on the counter, and emptied the Chicken and Dumplings into a bowl. For a second, he stood, perplexed, staring at the second bowl. He didn’t remember taking out two. He put the extra bowl and spoon away and took his soup into the living room to finish watching the local news. It was still cold in the house - the heat from the wood stove never really reached all the way into the living room – and he turned on the electric space heater, pulled it close to the couch, sat in his underwear and t-shirt and the brown socks that looked strange to him on his feet, slurping the soup while the space heater’s warmth started to tingle on his skin.
An hour or so later, during the ads between two sitcoms, he glanced to his side to see if his father had fallen asleep yet. The other end of the ratty, brownish-orange couch was, of course, empty. Seeing it, he tried to feel whether he missed the old man. He couldn’t tell. He lay down, stretching his legs out all the way along the couch. True, it felt odd to do that. He tried to picture his Dad sitting there where his feet were now. It should have been easy; after all Cortland had sat there nodding off practically every evening since Osby was a kid. But he couldn’t picture him. When he looked back at the TV, he though he saw his father’s face looking in at him through the window, not as he looked in life, but as Osby had found him three days ago in the Old House: his lower jaw and half of his right cheek blown off, one eye exploded in its socket.
Osby made himself stay still and stare at the window, where there was nothing but his own reflection, until his heart had gone back to thumping like normal. Then he scraped up the last of the soup, sighed, and carried the bowl to the sink. As he clinked it against the other dishes, he had a sudden urge to wash them all, to wipe down the counters, get the place clean. He filled the sink, watching the steam billow up through the soap bubbles.
Through the window, he could see the occasional pair of headlights drift along Route 33, a couple miles off down the valley. After they were out of sight, he could still follow their progress for a while, watching for the patches of hillsides swept briefly by the faint yellow glow. He wondered if he was going to be lonely now. He didn’t see why he should be; his father had never been much for company. He didn’t think he was lonely.
He scrubbed at a bowl - he hadn’t gotten even one dish washed yet - and spent the next couple minutes picking at dried pieces of partially-burnt rice welded to a pot. When he was done, he decided that he probably was just lonely. Maybe he even missed his Dad. That would be normal. But he didn’t feel like calling anybody, or driving the half hour into Pembroke to go get a drink and play some pool at Ten Points. He didn’t feel like visiting Carl. Even the TV, he realized, was bugging him. He went into the living room and turned it off, leaving soap suds on the knob. When he came back to the sink, he put his hands in the water. It wasn’t warm any more. He ran some more hot water through the tap, and, listening to it thunder in the sink, watched another pair of headlights wander through the distance. He wondered who it was out there, if he knew them or not.
It didn’t really matter.
He stared at the almost clean pot in his hands. The rice he’d scrubbed off...his father had made that rice; his father had eaten half of it.
He wondered how long it would take for him to quit thinking about his father. In some ways, he felt like he had already begun. He wondered how long people would remember him, if he were to go out to the Old House tonight and blow his head off. Not long, he thought.
“Yeah,” he said out loud. “I guess I’m just lonely.”
* This excerpt is taken from the uncorrected proof and may differ from the book.
“In Josh Weil’s soulful debut fiction hard, wintery men bring the near-dead back to life. A steer, a tractor, a woman bolt upright, clearly heart-charged by the obsessive attentions of these cut-off men. The prose unfailingly befits the action and is percussively wrought and rich or else plain and grave but always deeply moving.”
– Christine Schutt, author of All Souls, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize