Moving along the Maine Coast and beyond, the interconnected stories in Goodnight, Beautiful Women bring us into the sultry, mysterious inner lives of New England women and girls as they navigate the dangers and struggles of their outer worlds. With novelistic breadth and a quicksilver emotional intelligence, Noyes explores the ruptures and vicissitudes of growing up and growing old, and shines a light on our most uncomfortable impulses while masterfully charting the depths of our murky desires.
A woman watches her husband throw one by one their earthly possessions into the local quarry, before vanishing himself; two girls from very different social classes find themselves deep in the throes of a punishing affair; a motherless teenager is sexually awakened in the aftermath of a local trauma; and a woman’s guilt from a childhood lie about her intellectually disabled cousin reverberates into her married years.
Dark and brilliant, rhythmic and lucid, Goodnight, Beautiful Women marks the arrival of a fearless and unique new young voice in American fiction.
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
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Joni called the sheriff right after it happened. Her voice was clear and steady, and the line she gave was the right one. I believe my husband has drowned in the quarry by our house. She changed out of Jack's boxers into jeans and a gray button-up. It was difficult picking out appropriate clothing for a woman who'd just lost her husband. She combed her hair until it sparked with static. Joni, who once cried over a Folgers Coffee commercial, hadn't cried yet. This frustrated her, like a sneeze that wouldn't come. She tucked some tissues up her sleeve, just in case.
Joni told it to the sheriff like it was. "I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of my name from outside. Probably around one in the morning. I look out the window by the bed and Jack's wading into the quarry, holding a small hunk of granite. He was wearing a white T-shirt, so I could see him clearly, and I saw his head go under. By the time I got outside, he was gone."
The sheriff asked her questions, glancing up at the appropriate moments with a look of sympathy. "Did he give any indication he might do something like this?" he said.
"There were signs," said Joni.
He looked toward the window that faced the water. "Wish we could dredge it like a lake," he said. "Depending how far a person swam beyond the shallow ledge, and if he weighed himself down, a body could be trapped in a crevice. We'll get divers out tomorrow, if he doesn't show up. Quarry's can be tricky to search, though. Deep, murky, a lot of junk down there. We might have to drain it some. May I be frank?"
"Of course," she said.
"There'll be a thorough investigation. We'll run a missing persons report. Take every measure. But this sounds like a suicide." He paused for her reaction, scanning her face, which she let drop into her hands. He patted her shoulder twice.
"Excuse me," she said, looking at the floor between the spread of her fingers. She tried to think of heartbreaking things as she rooted for the tissue. It had traveled up her sleeve, now a lump by her elbow. That movie where hoodlums kick an old homeless man to death. Footage of cows lowing, wild eyed, on their way to slaughter.
After he left she stood at the window. When she realized who she was looking for she gave a little laugh. There was a smear on the glass where her nose had pressed.
Jack was in the quarry, and he had drowned. He was dead. The other possibilities made her hands start to shake. Jack let Joni watch him go into the quarry, and go under, but he swam to the other side and snuck through the woods. From there he found a new life with a different woman. Another scenario, the most paranoid but not out of the question, was that Jack walked into the water, climbed out on the other side, and was in the woods. He was watching Joni from outside, watching everything she did, because he was testing her. He was trying to see how she would behave when he was gone. If she would fail him.
Jack had been hell-bent for the quarry for a long time. That he was in there seemed to Joni like a brief stage in his life cycle, a necessary hibernation.
Joni knew she was OK, even if her thinking wasn't. She had clean hair. No salt spilled on her counter and there were no maggots in her trash cans. She had a fruit bowl filled with nectarines, and a row of books on the shelf arranged from large to small.
But she misspoke at the post office. She couldn't help it. She was talking to a woman who was in town for Labor Day weekend. The woman's French Bulldog was peeing on the wheelchair ramp. Jack had been gone for two weeks, his body never recovered. Other policemen came and went, asking her questions, looking at her sidelong. And then the suicide was official. And this woman gave Joni a look of pitying concern, and was hugging her, and Joni said thank you, but we can't be sure now. Nothing is definite. I'm trying not to give up hope that he'll come home soon. That he'll come home soon. That was it, she guessed; the tripwire that made gossip of her strange behavior blast through town.
The trouble with Jack began with little things. Joni put her hand on his neck during dinner and he pulled away. He told her that it was payback for the time she didn't look up when he touched his foot to hers under the table. And then he started counting on his fingers, biting his tongue as he struggled to recall infractions. He counted when she did something wrong, like not lifting the lid on the pot of whatever he was cooking to smell it and taste a bite, or turning away from him in bed to face the wall, even though that's the only way she could lie comfortably.
One afternoon he showed up during recess at the school where she taught. A crowd was gathered at the jungle gym dome, and there was Jack hanging upside down at the top. He yelled to her in a voice that carried across the playground, "I thought I'd come visit you. You never take off work to visit me. You never surprise me in the studio." The other teacher on duty blew the whistle, and Joni hiked her skirt and climbed over a rung to be in there with him. He stayed hanging upside down and said, "You have to kiss me now, Teach. Since I came out all this way."
The awful thing was how his face looked, with the blood rushing into his forehead. His blond hair was a wild beard. His eyes curved down at the corners. He was waiting for her to kiss him, but his mouth looked like a toothy frown. She didn't want to get near him. When he finally flipped back down he was counting. He gave her a long stare, then headed for his car.
"I'm coming with you," she yelled after him. When she asked the principal for the rest of the day off, he warned her that the next time her private life interfered with her work life she would be let go. By the time she got her things from the lounge, Jack was pulling out of the lot. Joni jogged after him. She could hear his muffler as he slowed through the curves away from her.
At bedtime she curls around the space that used to be Jack. She holds her hand above the shallow depression from his head, careful not to touch the pillowcase. As she changes into her pajamas she thinks of what someone spying through the window would see: the darkened gears of her spine, her long red hair down her back the way Jack liked it. Sleep is no good. She leaves bed to microwave milk with honey and cinnamon. On the way to the kitchen, she realizes she's running, and slows herself. Moths thrum against the screen as she closes the kitchen window.
Back under the covers she bites the edge of the mug to stop her teeth from chattering. The night hums with the sound of her pumping blood. When she turns on the fan, there is the promise of what she cannot hear. For example, Jack gasping for air as he breaks the surface of the water, or the wet flop of his steps across the porch as he comes back home.
"Honey Bunny," she prays, sitting up in bed. She prays to the hot milk sweetened with honey that her mother used to make her on nights she couldn't sleep. "Honey Bunny, Honey Bunny," says Joni, but then she has to laugh at herself. She has been praying like this for the past week.
"I think Jack's still alive," she'd told her sister, who had just gotten back to New Jersey from the funeral, over the phone.
"Oh?" said her sister. Joni could hear baby's laughter in the background. Her niece.
"Mop mop mop," said the baby.
"Oh?" her sister said again. There was a long pause, the clatter of plates. "Sweetie, you need to pray."
"Prayer won't bring him back home," said Joni.
"No, you need to pray for yourself."
"I wouldn't know who to pray to," Joni said. "I don't believe there's anyone to pray to. And I wouldn't know what to say."
"Call it whatever you want," said her sister. "Just give the thing a name." The sounds of a home rattled on in the background.
Joni has been cycling through names. The prayer won't come, but she can make a list of gods, saying them aloud like she's giving roll call. Honey Bunny, please. Please, Abraham Lincoln. Merlin. David Byrne. In the morning the sheets smell like soup from her sweat. Her mouth tastes like pennies.
Dawn. Joni's footsteps mark the wet grass as she walks to the quarry. She swallows the last of her morning tea, then throws the mug toward the dark slab of water and watches it disappear below the black surface. She lies down on her stomach and scoots closer to the edge, fear tangled in her throat like fishing line. Crazy, she thinks, how she's afraid he will pull her in.
Jack had started to throw things into the quarry. That was when she understood something was really wrong.
In the beginning, Joni only felt good around Jack. She sped home from school, her pulse beating between her thighs. His Toyota, the letters repainted to spell Coyote, was parked with its plow pressed to a melting snow bank. She stood outside and watched him through the garage window, the drill whining against his sculpture. How nice to watch Jack from a distance, listening to the wet landing of flakes on her raincoat's hood. When he came out to join her, she wiped the rock dust from his eyebrows. His body tasted like chalk, same as the smell that lingered on her hands after long lessons at the blackboard. The snow turned to rain, and the woods had a sweetfern smell that meant spring was coming. His mouth was warm, his cold hand pressing down her jeans. He pulled her into the bed of the truck, spread out his coat and Joni lay back and propped her leg against the cool of the wheel well. And finally, after the whole day of thinking on it, she guided him inside her. She felt like scattered iron filings, and Jack was the magnet that pulled them together.
A rusted Ford emerges from the woods and parks at a cliff across the quarry. It sputters black smoke out the back. Two men climb out. They push the truck straight into the water. She imagines the leaky plume of oils as the truck falls, the blink of headlights and the grinding halt of the motor. The water bubbles where the truck went under.
The men strip naked and jump into the quarry, hooting at the cold. She's heard stories that the quarry is used as a junkyard, and that dirty people wash there, but she hasn't seen it. It doesn't scare her to see it, really. Just old men soaping their beards in the green morning light.
Joni puts her cheek to the mottled granite. She feels almost comfortable with the men swimming in the distance. She hasn't been sleeping, and she curls up, her breath slow, her body heavy, and then she's sinking down into the quarry. The water is green and backlit. When she touches ground, two plumes of silt rise like ink around her. She stands inside a circle of cars, their wheel wells silky with green moss. She steps around the beer cans that are wedged into the mud. The abandoned backhoes are tall as trees. The cars' hoods are caved, their windows webbed with cracks. The bodies waver by in Joni's periphery. She can just sense the glow of their skin, paled from living so many miles out of the sun. Better lie down, she thinks, keep low to the ground. The quarry mud gives beneath her weight. The map of algae trawls for her sleeping body. It finds and covers her over. How silent the dream is, what a nice place to get some sleep.
In the beginning the sweet taste inside Jack's mouth was the most surprising. She recognized him as something she'd always known but just realized, like cleaning out her mother's dresser after her funeral and finding the pine pillow she used to scent her clothes. Joni had never placed her mother's smell as pine. It was so fiercely known to her, and forgotten. She'd dug her nails into the pillow and sobbed.
It took years for Jack to learn her inventory: the freckle on the middle knuckle of her left hand, the one on the ridge of her right ear, the white scar on her eyelid that she got from playing capture the flag in the woods when she was twelve, the three stretch marks across each hip, the scar inside her belly button where they'd inserted the camera to look for an ovarian tumor, the two chalk scars under her pubic hair from the surgery that removed a benign cyst. He'd put his tongue in her belly button, years healed, very gently, and how good it felt. Only he would know about that place.
When she goes inside at nightfall, the path lights are off even though she left them on. Moonlight. The quarry is moving into the air around her, the woods are humming with frogs and night noise. She opens the back door. Of course, of course, the kitchen floor is wet, the bathroom floor is wet, there are watermarks along the shelves where she keeps Jack's favorite granola and his nighttime tea, there are two damp fingerprints on the paper towel roll, and a trail leading back out onto the porch where she won't look. She flips on every switch in the house, lighting the living room, the front hallway, illuminating the bare bulbs in the bathroom and the kitchen. The whole moonlit scene outside disappears and in the bedroom, where there are eight windows side-by-side looking out at the quarry, all she can see is her reflection, eight times over. The mouth hangs open. The eyes appraise her.
Before he left Jack brought home sage, bound with yellow string. He said he needed to smudge the house. He said it was cleansing, a Native American ritual that drove away bad energy and bad spirits. He went to each corner of their cabin and let the smoke wash over the surfaces to clear away all of their impurities. He smudged her makeup case and the plunger that was pushed behind the toilet tank, stood on a stool to get at the rafters, and crawled on his hands and knees to cleanse under the bed. Then he drew the smoke in an oval around her body until her eyes were stinging. When she thought he was done, he moved up to her face, and started making the shape of a figure eight. She laughed.
He went into the bathroom, where he put out the ember in the glass Joni used to rinse her mouth of toothpaste. "Sixteen," he said solemnly, ticking his fingers against the air. "Sixteen times and it's only Wednesday."
Joni gets in the shower and prays. One stream of water is stronger than the others and she aligns it with her backbone, bending so the stream shoots hard against each knob. These days naked she feels all head, where the thoughts are whirring. It is a burden to soap and carry this creature body, all of its many parts. Coccyx, tailbone, scapula.
The next morning there are ants. When she wakes up there is one on her cheek, one floating in a teacup on the bedside table, and then there are more crawling out of the walls every minute longer that Joni looks, tooling along with their feelers twitching up and down.
In town they tell her that ants like to nest in homes where the wood is rotting. They sell her something to kill them, and when she asks how it works they describe ants' love for sugar. The poison tastes like sugar to them, and it smells like sugar, when they pass their feelers over it. They will carry it, the poison twice their size, back to their nest and give it to their babies, as a nice thing to eat. That is how it kills them all. She buys ten traps and puts them in all the rooms.
When Joni swings her feet out of bed there are piles of crisp ant bodies on the floor. There are small graveyards in the corner of every room. There is a horror show of ants drowning in the toilet. For a moment she thinks, Oh no, they got into the rice somehow, they've carried it all over the house, but then she realizes it's the babies, wrapped in thin white eggs the size of rice, with a surface that folds when she presses it with the sole of her slipper. The ants were rushing to carry the eggs from the nest, emergency evacuation, before the poison slowed them.
Jack had come running in one afternoon while she was shelling peas at the kitchen table and said, "I got rid of the silverware last night. I dumped it in the quarry. It's giving us something. It has a bad energy." She kept on shelling peas until a few rolled off the table. That night when she went to make lamb for dinner all the knives were gone. The tool for basting and the grate to let the juices drip down from the meat, gone. Jack was in the shower. As he toweled off she hugged him from behind, pressed her chest against his back for warmth.
"I don't know what's happening to me," he said, and she kissed his ear.
"That's OK. I know you," Joni said. "I have always known you, I will always know you."
"But something's gotten into me. Something in this house has turned. It's toxic. I don't know why I feel this way."
Joni put her hand to his chest, over his port-wine stain, a pink flush that had been there since birth. She thought about the white star inside her belly button, plus all the stories she had told him, vignettes to equal her life, to take him back to the very beginning. How the caul stayed intact during her mother's labor, and she was born inside the watery sack. Joni had told him all her stories worth telling. She had been known.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Goodnight, Beautiful Women"
Copyright © 2016 Anna Noyes.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Safe as Houses,
Goodnight, Beautiful Women,
This Is Who She Was,