This new collection from Michael KnightPEN/Hemingway citation recipient and B&N Discover Award finalist whom Esquire praises as “a writer of the first rank”thrills and pierces with stories of men and women of breathtaking conviction, pathos, and humor.
The stories in Goodnight, Nobody demonstrate Michael Knights’ exquisite and “rare power to make a setting breathe, to invest it with a vitality that seems as authentic and intense as the pulsebeats of his characters.” (The New York Times Book Review) This luminous collection astutely explores rediscovered love, reconciliation, and peace amid the trials of everyday life.
The denizens of Goodnight, Nobody are, like so many of us, bewildered by the circumstances in which they find themselves. The unexpected twists of their livesrendered with expert humor and pathos in Knight’s dark-light styletest the limits of the personalities they have known as their own.
In “Birdland,” published in The New Yorker, a beautiful Northerner visits a small Alabama town to research the bizarre migration habits of a flock of African parrots from Rhode Island. “Feeling Lucky” finds a desperate man kidnapping his own daughter. In the most daring and haunting of these stories, “Killing Stonewall Jackson,” which was published in Story, a hardened band of Confederate soldiers resorts to surprising measures to survive on the battlefield. “The End of Everything,” published in GQ, weaves together a tender love story and an edge-of-your-seat urban legend, while “The Mesmerist,” published in Esquire, is an eerie fairy tale about a man who hypnotizes a stranger and makes her his wife. In “Keeper of Secrets, Teller of Lies,” published in Virginia Quarterly Review, a man causes more havoc the harder he tries to help a young mother and her son. In “Mitchell’s Girls,” a stay-at-home dad battles the disrespect of youth and a paralyzing bad back. “Ellen’s Book” hilariously describes the yearning a man feels for his estranged wife. In “Blackout,” a suburban neighborhood’s pent-up jealousies and fears explode under the cover of darkness.
Knight’s sensibility is potent and unique, stirring tenderness in equal parts with violence. While the settings, chronologies, and characters vary widely throughout the collection, they remain bound by Knight’s simple, elegant prose, his graceful sense of humor, and an unfailing empathy with the self-destructed.
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About the Author
Michael Knight, Senior Curator of Chinese Art and Deputy Director for Strategic Programs and Partnerships at the Asian Art Museum, is author or co-author of many books, including Power and Glory: Court Arts of China's Ming Dynasty, Later Chinese Jades: Ming DynastyûEarly Twentieth Century, and The Monumental Landscapes of Li Huayi.
Read an Excerpt
By Michael Knight
Atlantic Monthly PressCopyright © 2003 Michael Knight
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBetween the months of April and September, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is inhabited by several generations of African parrots. A millionaire and philanthropist named Archibald brought a dozen or so over from Kenya around the turn of the century and kept them in an aviary built against the side of his house. A few days before his death, in a moment more notable for generosity than good sense, he swung open the cage and released the birds into a wide summer sky. According to eyewitness reports, the parrots made a dazed circle beneath the clouds, surprised by their sudden freedom, and, not immediately seeing anything more to their liking, lighted amid the branches of an apple orchard on the back acreage of Archibald's property. There, as is the habit of nature, they flourished and have continued to thrive for more than ninety years. But in September, when winter creeps in from the ocean and cold air kindles hazy instincts, the parrots flee south for warmer climes and settle here, in Elbow, Alabama, along a slow bend in the Black Warrior River, where perhaps they are reminded of waters, slower still, in an almost forgotten continent across the sea.
I know all this because The Blond told me it was true. The Blond has platinum hair and round hips and a pair of ornithology degrees from auniversity up in New Hampshire. She has a given name as well-Ludmilla Haggarsdottir-but no one in town is comfortable with its proper pronunciation. The Blond came to Elbow a year past, researching a book about Archibald's parrots, and was knocked senseless by the late August heat. Even after the weight had gone out of summer and the parrots had arrived and football was upon us, she staggered around in a safari hat and sunglasses, drunk with the fading season, scribbling notes on the progress of the birds. She took pictures and sat sweating in the live-oak shade. They don't have this sort of heat in New Hampshire-bone-warming, inertial heat, humidity thick enough to slow your blood. She rented a room in my house, the only room for rent in town. At night, we would sit on the back porch, fireflies blundering against the screen, and make love on my grandmother's old daybed. "Tell me a story, Raymond," The Blond would say. "Tell me something I've never heard before." The Blond is not the only one with a college education. "This," I said, throwing her leg over my shoulder, "is how Hector showed his love to Andromache the night before Achilles killed him dead."
The only TV for thirty miles sits on the counter at Dillard's Country Store. Dillard has a gas pump out front and all the essentials inside, white bread and yellow mustard and cold beer. Dillard himself brews hard cider and doubles as mayor of Elbow. He is eighty-one years old and has been unanimously elected to eleven consecutive terms. On fall Saturdays, all of Elbow gathers in his store to watch the Alabama team take the field, me and The Blond and the mayor and Mac and Wilson Camp, who have a soybean farm north of town. Lookout Mountain Coley is the nearest thing we have to a local celebrity. These days, he stocks shelves in the grocery and mans the counter when the mayor is in the head, but thirty-five years ago, he was only the second black man to play football for the great Bear Bryant and once returned a punt ninety-nine yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. The Crimson Tide is not what it used to be, however, and we all curse God for commandeering our better days. Leonard and Chevy Foote, identical twins, have the foulest mouths in Elbow, their dialogue on game day nothing more than a long string of invective against blind referees and unfair recruiting practices and dumbass coaches who aren't fit to wipe Bear Bryant's behind. The parrots perch in pecan trees beyond the open windows and listen to us rant. At night, with the river curving slow and silent, they mimic us in the dark. "Catch the ball," they caw in Mayor Dillard's desperate falsetto, "Catch the ball, you stupid nigger." Mayor Dillard is an unrepentant racist and I often wonder what the citizens of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, must think when the birds leave us in the spring.
The Blond is still working on her book. She follows the birds from tree to tree, keeping an eye on reproductive habits and the condition of winter plumage. Parrot, she tells me, is really just a catch-all name for several types of birds, such as the macaw, the cockatoo, the lory, and the budgerigar. Common to all genera, including our African grays, are a hooked bill, a prehensile tongue, and yoke-toed claws. The African parrot can live up to eighty years, she says, and often mates for life, though our local birds have apparently adopted a more swinging sexual culture due to an instinctive understanding of the rigors of perpetuation in a nonindigenous environment. Her book will be about the insistence of nature. It will be about surviving against the odds. One day, says The Blond, she will return to Pawtucket, as she had originally planned, and resume her studies there. She mentions this when she is angry with me for one reason or another and leads me to her room, where her suitcase still sits packed atop my grandmother's antique bureau. And the thought of her leaving does frighten me to good behavior. I can hardly remember what my life was like without her here, though I managed fine a long time before she arrived. Seven months ago, when March finally brought her to her senses and the birds began to filter north, The Blond and I were already too tangled up for her to leave.
My grandmother left me this house upon her death. It isn't a big house, just a one-story frame number with a sleeping porch and a converted attic, which is I where I make my bed, but it sits high on red clay bluffs and when November rain has stripped leaves from the trees, you can see all the way to the Black Warrior. Here, the river bends like a folded arm, which is how our town came to have its name. In the fall, while we sit mesmerized and enraged by the failings of our team, the dark water litters Dillard Point with driftwood and detritus, baby carriages and coat hangers, kites, and high-heeled shoes. When the game has ended and I need an hour to collect myself, I wander Mayor Dillard's land, collecting branches that I carve into parrot figurines and sell from a shelf in the window of his store. We have bird-watchers by the busload in season and, outside of the twenty dollars a month I charge The Blond for room and board, these whittlings account for my income. But I don't need much in the way of money anymore. Years ago, my family owned a lumber mill and a loading dock by the river so the company could ship wood to Mobile. My great-grandfather torched the mill in 1939 for insurance and gradually, a few at a time, people drifted downstream for work until there was almost no one left. The Blond wonders why we still bother with elections since there are fewer than a dozen voters and Dillard always wins. I tell her we believe in democracy in Alabama. I tell her we have faith in the American way.
Neither does The Blond understand our commitment to college football. Ever the scientist, she has theorized that a winning team gives us a reason to take pride in being from Alabama and with our long history of bigotry and oppression and our more recent dismal record in public education and environmental conservation, such reasons, according to The Blond, are few and far between. I don't know whether or not she is correct, but I suspect that she is beginning to recognize the appeal of the Crimson Tide. Just last week, as we watched Alabama in a death struggle with the Florida Gators, our halfback fumbled and she jerked out of her chair, her fists closed tight, her breasts bouncing excitedly. She had to clench her jaw to keep from calling out. Her face was glazed with sweat, the fine hairs on her upper lip visible in the dusty light. The sight of her like that, all balled-up enthusiasm, her shirt knotted beneath her ribs, sweat pooling in the folds of her belly, moved me to dizziness. I held her hand and led her out onto the porch. Dillard's store is situated at a junction of rural highways and we watched a tour bus rumble past, eager old women hanging from the windows with binoculars at their eyes. The pecan trees were dotted with parrots, blurs of brighter red and smears of gray in among the leaves. "Catch the ball," one called out and another answered, "Stick him like a man, you fat country bastard." She sat on the plank steps and I knelt at her bare feet. "Will you marry me?" I said. "You are a prize greater than Helen of Troy." She looked at me sadly for a minute, her hand going clammy in mine. The game was back on inside, an announcer's voice floating through the open door. After a while she said, "I can't live here the rest of my life." She stood and went back inside to watch the rest of the game, which we lost on a last-second Hail Mary pass that broke all our hearts at once.
The Blond won't sleep a whole night with me. She slips up the drop ladder to my attic and we wind together in the dark, her body pale above me, moonlight catching in her movie star hair. When she is finished, she smokes cigarettes at the gable window and I tell her stories about the Trojan War. I explain how the Greeks almost lost everything when Achilles and Agamemnon argued over a woman. I tell her that male pride is a volatile energy, some feathers better left unruffled, but she only likes the stories for background noise. She is more interested in the parrots, a few of whom have taken up roost in an oak tree beside my house. If there is a full moon, the birds are awake for hours, calling, "Who are you?" back and forth in the luminous night; "Why are you in my house?" According to The Blond, old Archibald was deep in Alzheimer's by the time of his death and was unable even to recognize his own children when they visited. She goes dreamy-eyed imagining the parrots passing these words from generation to generation. Before she returns to her bed, she wonders aloud why it is that the birds learned such existential phrases in Rhode Island and such ugly, bitter words down here.
Sometimes, Lookout Mountain Coley gets fed up with Mayor Dillard shouting "nigger" at the TV screen. Having played for Alabama in the halcyon sixties, Lookout knows what football means to people around here and he restrains himself admirably. But when they were younger men and Mayor Dillard crossed whatever invisible boundary exists between them, Lookout would circle his fists in the old style and challenge him to a fight. They'd roll around in the dirt parking lot a while, sweat running muddy on their skin. Nowadays, he presses his lips together and his face goes blank and hard like he is turning himself to stone. He walks outside without a word, watches the birds across the highway. He wolf-whistles, the way the parrots are supposed to, and speaks to them in ordinary phrases. "Pretty bird, pretty bird. How about a little song?" After a few minutes, Mayor Dillard shakes his head and joins Lookout beside the road, 142 years of life between them. We focus our attention on the game so they can have some time alone to sort things out. No one knows for sure what goes on between them out there, but they return patting each other on the back, making promises that neither of them will keep. Mayor Dillard offers a public apology each time, says he hopes the people of Elbow won't hold this incident against him come election. He buys a round of bottled beers and Lookout accepts the apology with grace, waving his beer at the TV so we'll quit looking at him and keep our minds on simpler things.
Her first season in town, The Blond was appalled by these displays. She is descended from liberal-minded Icelandic stock, and she couldn't understand why Lookout or any of us would allow Mayor Dillard to go on the way he does. She sprang to her feet and clicked off the television and delivered an angry lecture welcoming us to the "twentieth-fucking-century." Her fury was gorgeous, her face red, her thighs quivering righteously beneath her hiking shorts. She tried to convince Lookout to report Mayor Dillard to the NAACP and, short of that, to run for mayor himself, arguing that because he was a minor sports celebrity he might have the clout to unseat an incumbent. But Lookout told her he wasn't interested. He shook his head gravely and said, "Uneasy is the head that wears the ground, miss." Though I know she would be loath to admit it, the words don't offend her so much anymore. You can get used to anything, given time. Some nights, however, when she is moving violently over me, she grits her teeth and says, "Who's the nigger, Raymond? Who's the nigger now?" I understand that her indignation is not aimed directly at me, but that doesn't make those nights any easier. I twist myself sleeplessly in the sheets when she is gone.
Raymond was my father's name. I am the only child of a land surveyor. My mother died giving birth and my dad wandered farther and farther afield looking for work until, finally, he never returned. I was thirteen when he disappeared, left here with my grandmother and the house. She paid for my education with nickels and dimes, millions of them, hidden in Mason jars beneath her bed because hers were old notions and she trusted neither banks nor the long-term value of paper money. "That's ancient history," she said, when I told her what I was studying. "You ought to be thinking about the future." She loved this town and hoped that I would bring my learning home and give something back. She made me promise before she died. But all I have given unto Elbow is driftwood parrots and The Blond. Everyone knows she lingers here because of me and no one is quite sure how they feel about that.
A few days ago, she found a parrot nest in Wilson Camp's defunct grain silo and spent a whole day sitting against the wall, watching the mother feed her babies regurgitated pecans. I panicked when I returned from wandering Dillard Point and found an empty house, waited on the porch and watched the road for cars but she never showed. I don't have a phone so I drove from house to house, stopped by to see Lookout, swung past the Footes' mobile home, whipped the town into a posse. I prowled country lanes until I saw her Jeep parked beside the Camps' most distant field. When I didn't spot her right away, I suspected the worst. This deserted road and vacant field are like horror movie sets, the silo rising from the ground like a wizard's tower. I called her name but only the parrots answered back. "Who are you?" Their voices were flat and distant. "Catch the ball." Then, faintly, I heard her voice, a stage whisper coming from the silo and when I crawled in beside her, she shined a flashlight on the nest and I could see the baby birds, their feathers still slick and insufficient, heads wobbly on their necks. The Blond threw her arms around me and wept and pressed her lips against my collarbone.
Excerpted from Goodnight, Nobody by Michael Knight Copyright © 2003 by Michael Knight
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.