Authors: Bonnie Nadzam
• • •
“Nadzam has a crisp, fluid writing style, and her dialogue is reminiscent of Sam Shepard’s … [This is] storytelling as accomplished as it is unsettling.”
is a wonder of a novel. Bonnie Nadzam has offered an exploration of interpersonal and sexual manipulation and power that left me reeling. This is a novel about responsibility, complicity, blame, neglect, and finally love.”
, author of
I Am Not Sidney Poitier
“Every sentence in Bonnie Nadzam’s
teaches us about love, necessity, and the mysteries of the heart. I am haunted by her two protagonists, and by the journey they take together. This utterly compelling novel has launched a major new voice in American fiction.”
, author of
“Bonnie Nadzam’s debut is gripping, gorgeous, and utterly original. The disturbing story resists easy categorization, challenging what we think we know about childhood, adulthood, pain, beauty, and love. This book will jolt you awake.”
, author of
Copyright © 2011 Bonnie Nadzam
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition
Lamb : a novel / Bonnie Nadzam.
1. Middle-aged men—Fiction. 2. Divorced
men—Fiction. 3. Teenage girls—Fiction. 4. Teenagers and
adults—Fiction. 5. Self-actualization (Psychology)—Fiction.
6. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents
either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead,
events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Carrie, Chrissie, Mom, and Dad
Darkness is light; do not see it as light
We’ll say this all began just outside of Chicago, in late summer on a residential street dead-ending in a wall. It was the kind of wall meant to hide freeways from view, and for miles in each direction parallel streets ended at the same concrete meridian. No trees on the lawn, no birds on wires. Northern shrikes gone, little gray-bellied wrens gone. Evening grosbeaks and elm trees and most of the oaks and all the silver brooms of tall grass and bunch flowers and sweetfern and phlox gone. Heartsease gone. About the tops of upturned trash bins, black flies scripted the air.
Imagine the corner house made of white brick and aluminum siding the color of yellow mud. Inside
an old man sat in a dim-lit television room, tipped back in his La-Z-Boy, a box of microwaved chicken balanced on his sunken chest. He had shuffled into the yellow kitchen and taken a vacuum-packed meal from the freezer out of habit, microwaved and carried it with a sour dishrag into the TV room out of habit. It wasn’t until he sat down and smelled it that he remembered he’d intended not to eat. He let it cool and he picked at it with his fingers. Tried not to breathe. Again and again he held his breath until some will that was not his own reclaimed it.
The front door opened and the old man started. A thin spot of saliva glistened at the corner of his mouth.
“Dad.” The door shut and David Lamb walked into the kitchen and set his keys on the table. “Christ, Dad. It stinks in here.” He paused for a moment in the kitchen doorway. A trail of ants ran beneath his shoe like a liquid crack in the filthy linoleum.
The old man looked down at his cold, rubbery lunch in its cardboard dish. David Lamb opened the collar of his fine baby blue shirt and stepped into the TV room. He picked up the box off the old man’s chest and set it down on the table. “Didn’t I call to have someone clean this place up last week? Didn’t she come?”
The old man reached for the remote and squinted across the room at the television screen.
“You sleeping down here, Dad?”
“Stairs are giving me a pain in the ass.”
“You should have called me. We could move a bed downstairs.”
“I don’t want any goddamned bed in here.”
“What about that twin bed?”
The old man straightened and raised his voice, ropy with mucus. “Where’s Cathy? She gone? Did you get fired?”
“No, I didn’t get fired.”
“No, Cathy isn’t dead.”
The old man held himself erect, then sank back in his chair and waved a ragged hand in Lamb’s direction. “I’m going to die watching TV.”
“Let’s go see a movie. Or get some burgers at Cy’s. You want to?”
“Leave me alone. You don’t want to take me out. I can tell.”
“Don’t you want something decent to eat, Dad? You have something in the freezer?”
“What are you doing here? You get fired?”
“Your wife die too? What was she, drunk driving?”
“Cathy is fine. Let’s eat something.”
“You never wanted to make me dinner. I could tell.”
“Always made you dinner, Dad.”
“Thirty-five years ago last week she died. You didn’t even notice the day.”
“Sure I did.”
“I know it, Dad.”
“Like hell you do.”
David turned away. Out the window the last of the grimy daylight glanced off passing cars in the street. “Back of her white blouse as she steps down the front stairs and out to her car. One little suitcase in her hand.”
“Ana didn’t bring any goddamned suitcase with her. What. Like she knew what was going to happen? Her grocery bag. Maybe she had her grocery bag but she sure as hell didn’t have any suitcase.”
“In her blue jeans. Black hair shining down her back. Drives off in the car I bought her. Leaves the bracelet I bought her in London.”
“London? London? Let me tell you about getting old. I’ll tell you about getting old.”
“There she goes, chin up. Off to find some other, decent man.”
“She was an angel, David. She was an angel.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, would you leave me alone.”
“I need to ask you something.”
“Bullshit you do.”
“Father to son.”
“Leave me alone. I got no answers.”
“Okay. Okay.” Lamb stood. “Let me make you some dinner. You have anything decent around here?” He went back to the kitchen, opened the freezer.
“I don’t want anything decent. If I wanted anything decent I’d want meat loaf. And I don’t have any ground meat in there.”
“Sure you do, Dad.”
“All I want is a little meat loaf. And a little gin. Is that too much to ask? For a miserable man who’s dying all alone?”
“Have anything green? Green peas? How’s that?”
“Leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m dying?”
“Peas it is.”
“Get the hell out of my house.”
David Lamb shut the freezer, picked up a gold can of beer from a half-empty box on the counter, and sat at the kitchen table.
“Peas,” his father said. “Who eats peas.”
“I guess we never did.” He opened the beer.
“Nobody to buy us fucking peas.”
David stared out the dirty glass window. “No,” he said, “there sure wasn’t.”
And we’ll say it was that same early evening and fifteen miles away in one dingy bedroom of a concrete apartment building by the freeway where the girl cut the neck, shoulders, and sleeves off a ratty purple shirt, held it up to her chest to assess herself in the mirror leaning against the wall, and cut five inches from the bottom. She was turning side to side in faded floral underwear and the wrecked T-shirt when the door opened. She snatched at her jeans on the floor and held them up to cover herself. The man stood in the entryway and looked at her and snorted. “What’s that supposed to be?”
The girl was silent.
“When I was a kid, an adult asked me a question, I answered.”
“A shirt.” Her voice was grainy and low.
“A shirt.” The man nodded. “It doesn’t look like much of a shirt.”
“I’m getting dressed.”
He stepped back into the hall and pulled the door with him. “That’s not going to stay up on you.” He talked through the flimsy wooden divide.
“I know that.” She held her pants over her underwear and bare legs and the remnant of purple shirt slipped down her narrow freckled body. Her limbs were pale and wiry, and she had a little belly on her,
and no waist, cage of her ribs jammed close to her hips. Pointy elbows, pointy knees. “Where’s my mom?”
“What’s for dinner?”
“I don’t want cereal for dinner.”
“Yeah, well, neither do I.”
The girl looked at her desk, her orange backpack.
“I have homework.”
“Bullshit you’re doing homework. Put on a real shirt and come out here.”
“When is she coming home?”
“Come on. You gotta eat.” She could hear his heavy footfalls on the mashed, gravy-colored carpet as he went back toward the kitchen. Her back to the door, she stepped out of the shirt, retrieved a pink stapler from her desk drawer, and stapled the inside seams and uneven hems.
At the funeral, Lamb watched alone as they lowered a sealed casket into a deep, empty rectangle framed by artificial turf. It seemed to him there was neither
father nor burial involved. Afterward he parked his truck in the lot between a liquor barn and a dollar store and stood by the bus-stop bench in his black suit and dead father’s Cubs hat, an unlit cigarette between his lips. He scanned the horizon and the ground for something green, for a place where he could press his cheek against warm grass or dirt, for anything like a loophole, a chink, a way out. Nothing before him but the filthy street and bright signs announcing the limits of his world: Transmission Masters and Drive Time Financing and Drive-Thru Liquors and Courtesy Loans and Office Depot and a Freeway Inn and a Luxury Inn and a Holiday Inn. If there was something beneath, something behind, it was hidden from him. Even his father had been hemmed in, jarred off, sewn up. They’d sewn his lips together.
In the story that was his life even just a summer ago—God—a thing can get only so big before it dismantles itself, as if in accord with some inarticulable law of the universe everyone knows but unwittingly forgets. Even in places as small and clean as a newly remodeled kitchen in eggshell white and stainless steel, it was true. Granite counter-tops, beveled glass gilded from the outside by light at the end of day; two fingers of gin in a tumbler; newspapers and mail piling up on the island in the kitchen; Cathy in gold eyeglasses trimming
the tapered ends of French green beans; Elizabeth Draper’s blue necklace of tiny glass beads in his silk-lined pants pocket; Linnie ringing his cell phone; his cuff links flashing every time he lifts his glass; a fax coming in from Wilson; nightly news from the flat-screen in the sunken living room; John Draper grinning sheepishly at the door wanting him out on the driveway or in the garage for a beer; Cathy’s sister bleary-eyed and wrinkled pulling up in her Volvo: hi, David. All of that, and what was there now to hold him up?