THE WORLD ACCORDING TO NOAH YORK:
“Anybody who tells you he doesn’t have mixed feelings about his mother is either stupid or a liar.”
“Real life seldom makes me cry. The only thing that gets to me is the occasional Kodak commercial.”
“Sometimes I feel like Michelangelo, chiseling away at all the crap until nothing is left but the exquisite thing in the middle that no one else sees until it’s uncovered for them.”
Meet seventeen-year-old Noah York, the hilariously profane, searingly honest, completely engaging narrator of Bart Yates’s astonishing debut novel. With a mouth like a truck driver and eyes that see through the lies of the world, Noah is heading into a life that’s only getting more complicated by the day.
His dead father is fading into a snapshot memory. His mother, the famous psycho-poet, has relocated them from Chicago to a rural New England town that looks like an advertisement for small-town America—a bad advertisement. He can’t seem to start a sentence without using the “f” word. And now, the very house he lives in is coming apart at the seams—literally—torn down bit by bit as he and his mother renovate the old Victorian. But deep within the walls lie secrets from a previous life—mason jars stuffed with bits of clothing, scraps of writing, old photographs—disturbing clues to the mysterious existence of a woman who disappeared decades before. While his mother grows more obsessed and unsettled by the discovery of these homemade reliquaries, Noah fights his own troubling obsession with the boy next door, the enigmatic J.D. It is J.D. who begins to quietly anchor Noah to his new life. J.D., who is hiding terrible, haunting pain behind an easy smile and a carefree attitude.
Part Portnoy, part Holden Caulfield, never less than truthful, and always fully human, Noah York is a touching and unforgettable character. His story is one of hope and heartbreak, love and redemption, of holding on to old wounds when new skin is what’s needed, and of the power of growing up whole once every secret has been set free.
“Noah’s blunt, funny and dead-on narrative will lend this memorable tale of
young-but-cynical love a fresh resonance with readers of all ages, gay or straight, male or female.” Brian Malloy, author of The Year of Ice
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About the Author
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Leave Myself Behind
By Bart Yates
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2003 Bart Yates
All rights reserved.
I've never wanted a different mother. I just want my mother to be different.
Get in line, right?
Anybody who tells you he doesn't have mixed feelings about his mother is either stupid or a liar. Granted, Virginia York is a special case. Living with Virginia is like living with a myth. She's only half-human; the rest is equal parts wolverine, hyena, goddess and rutting goat.
In other words, she's a poet.
But she smells great.
Know the way someone smells when they've been outside on a chilly fall day? That's how Mom smells all the time. Like rain, and wind, and leaf mold, and a faint hint of wood smoke. Hardly the way a woman is supposed to smell, but trust me: if the Glade Air Fresheners people could bottle her scent, you'd have her hanging in your car and your bathroom and your kitchen.
Sorry. I didn't mean to get all Oedipal on you.
Mom and I just moved into this old Victorian house in Oakland, New Hampshire. I grew up in Chicago, but Mom was offered a job at Cassidy College and we decided to get the hell out of Dodge. My dad Frank died last year. The coroner said it was a heart attack but what really happened is a poem got caught in his throat like a chicken bone and he choked to death.
I'm not making this shit up.
He was in his library, listening to Chopin's Nocturnes on the stereo and reading poetry for one of his classes. When Mom found him in his armchair there was a book splayed open upside down on his lap; he'd been reading Herman Melville by W.H. Auden. Dad hated Auden. He called him "an overrated, pretentious queer with a penchant for sentimental excess."
Mom loves Auden. So do I.
The night Dad died I was in my room, painting. Mom was in her study writing. I thought I heard some odd noises coming from the library but I didn't think much about it. Dad seemed himself at dinner. A little tired, maybe, but cheerful and relaxed. He gently teased Mom for picking the olives from her pizza; he laughed at me for wolfing three slices in the time it took him to eat one. When Mom went to tell him she was going to bed, his body was already growing cold. She came to get me. The two of us stood on opposite sides of his chair waiting for the paramedics. I think I was trembling, but neither of us cried. Real life seldom makes us cry. The only thing that gets to Mom and me is the occasional Kodak commercial.
I'm seventeen. My name is Noah. (Don't blame me; Dad had a thing for biblical names. It could have been worse, I suppose — Enoch, or Amalek, for instance.) I'm going to be a senior this September. That's still a month away. I want to get a job, but Mom won't let me until she and I get the house remodeled. She's probably right. The place is a mess. Plaster dust, nails, boards, spackle, paint cans, caulking guns, and a shitload of boxes. We'll be lucky to have it finished by the time school starts. I keep telling her she should hire somebody to do the harder stuff, but she gets pissed and tells me she's "not going to hire some goddamn carpenter and pay him my firstborn son (and that means you, mister, by the way) to do what any idiot with a hammer and the brains of a squirrel can do, so just suck it up and get back to work."
Like I said, Mom has some issues.
I don't really mind working on the house. It's dirty, sweaty work but fun in a sick puritanical kind of way. By the end of each day I'm filthy — my hair is clotted with dust, my clothes stick to me and when I clean my ears the Q-tip comes out black with crud. But I like doing something where you can see your progress. We've finished a lot of the downstairs and it's nearly livable. The hardest part is stripping the woodwork. Some moron painted over every square inch of wood in the house (except for the mahogany banisters), and most of it is oak and maple. Sometimes I feel like Michelangelo, chiseling away at all the crap until nothing is left but the exquisite thing in the middle that no one else sees until it's uncovered for them. Or was it da Vinci who said that was the way he worked? Whatever.
The house is great. When you walk in the front door it's like stepping into another century. There's an ancient chandelier hanging overhead as soon as you're inside, and even though it looks like it's been dipped in dirt it's still something to see, with hundreds of pieces of glass shaped like diamonds and rectangles. There's an old steam radiator next to the door that Moses himself probably installed, and over that is a window facing west, made with some of that thick, leaded glass that has little waves in it. To the left of the entryway is the living room (with a fireplace big enough to roast a goat), to the right is the staircase leading upstairs, and straight ahead and down a short hall is a massive kitchen with a giant ceiling fan. There's a dining room on the other side of the kitchen, with windows facing east and south, and if Mom owned enough china to host a dinner party for twenty people she'd still have no problem storing all the dishes in the colossal wall cabinet in there. Upstairs are four bedrooms and a bathroom, and as if that isn't enough house for the two of us, we've also got a basement and a full-sized attic.
The best part of the house, though, is the wraparound porch. I love sitting out there at night in front of the house, watching the cars go by. (We live right on Main Street, but Main Street in Oakland is just a two-lane brick road.) There's a porch swing, but I prefer sitting on the steps. I like the solid feel of concrete under my ass.
You can separate people into types by what part of a house they like the most. Mom is a kitchen person. Kitchen people like late nights and early mornings, and they spend a lot of time at the sink, staring out the window at nothing while they wash the dishes. They like cooking for people and don't mind a friendly conversation about the weather, but if you ask them a serious question they hop up to take care of the boiling water on the stove or to get a loaf of bread out of the oven, and by the time they sit back down they've forgotten what you asked them. It's like they're always waiting for someone to come home, so they can't pay much attention to anybody already in the house with them because they're too busy listening for footsteps on the front walk.
I'm a porch person. Porch people also love late nights and early mornings, but we're more likely to answer your questions than a kitchen person is, and we don't mind if someone wants to sit on the steps with us as long as he never mentions the weather. We sit with our chins in our hands and our elbows on our knees until we get uncomfortable, then we lay back and put our fingers behind our heads and let the breeze blow over us, tickling the hairs on our legs. I suppose we're also waiting for someone to show up, but we want to know who it is before he gets as far as the door.
I'm not sure what kind of person Dad was. Maybe a study person. Study people are off in their own world even more than kitchen people and seem to be genuinely shocked when they look up and see another human being in the room with them. Not displeased, really. Just shocked. Like they've read about other people but never expected to actually see a live specimen.
Jesus. I am so full of shit. Where was I?
We got the house dirt cheap. A place like this would have cost three or four times as much in Chicago, but Oakland only has two thousand people in it, and thirteen hundred of those are college students. Mom was worried about moving here right before my senior year, but I like it. I hated Chicago. Chicago is dirty and loud, and full of people with really shitty taste in music. Mom thinks I'm a snob, but Mom has a tin ear for everything except language — she even likes rap. I don't mind the lyrics so much (how can you dislike something where every other word is "fuck"?) but the music is mind-numbingly repetitive — it's like a little kid pulling on your sleeve, screaming "notice me, notice me, notice me." It drives me apeshit.
Anyway, Oakland is quieter, and cleaner, and you can walk anywhere you want without worrying about getting beaten up or shot. When Mom is writing I like to go out late at night and walk around town. She never would have let me do that in Chicago even though we lived in a nice neighborhood. Here she doesn't even ask me where I'm going or when I'll get back. Since we moved here a week ago she's been writing every night — she shuts herself in her room (the only room in the house that we haven't torn apart) and scribbles away until two or three in the morning. She's always up before me, too. I think sleep is against her religion, or something.
My current project is my bedroom. It's going to be great when I get it finished. It's the first room on the left at the top of the stairs and it has the most character of any of the bedrooms, with a recessed window seat and a view of the entire backyard. There's a walk-in closet that's almost half the size of the room, and I'm thinking I may eventually put my bed in there so I'll have the bedroom itself to use as a painting studio. Until I get it done, though, I have to sleep downstairs on the couch in the living room. I figure another day or two and I can move upstairs and have a door to shut again. I could have started sleeping up here last week but the wallpaper would have given me nightmares — bulbous purple flowers on a pink background. Godawful. It was so old, the paper had been sucked into the wall. When I tried to get it off, big chunks of plaster came with it, so we decided to tear the walls down and start over.
"Don't be so dainty."
I turn around and Mom is standing in the doorway watching me work. I'm tearing down plasterboard with a hammer. She walks over and takes the hammer.
"Hit it like this." She smacks the wall and uses the claw to rip out big chunks around the hole she made. She spent a couple of summers when she was in college working for some carpenter guy and now she thinks she's Mrs. Fix-it. Granted, she's pretty good at this kind of stuff, but I grew up helping her with various projects and I'm not bad with a hammer myself.
"Go away, Mom. This is my job, remember?" I try to take the hammer back and she swings again; plaster explodes from the wall and peppers us both with white dust. A big clump gets caught in her black hair and she yanks it out and grimaces when it snags. She swings again.
Christ. "Don't you have some other wall you can beat up on?"
She pauses. "Just don't be so delicate." She hands the hammer back and walks out of the room.
Mom almost always wears jeans. If she's not barefoot she wears sneakers. She likes tank-tops and flannel shirts, and almost everything she wears is either blue or white, except for when she's feeling daring and puts on something bright red. She's about five-foot-four, thin and tough and restless. Dad was a lot taller than either Mom or me. He was six-three, and I'm only five-seven. He had big shoulders and meaty hands, but I take after Mom. I'm thin and small, like her. But I act a lot more like Dad than like my mom. He was quiet, mostly, and even-tempered. Mom is kind of high strung — funny and wild, but easy to upset. When she got a bad review for her last poetry collection she called the reviewer and told him she didn't know that buttholes could read poetry, let alone critique it. Dad tried to get the phone away from her. He should have known better. After she finished with the newspaper guy she went after Dad and screamed something about whose side was he on anyway and he could just go to hell if he didn't like her attitude. As usual Dad didn't say anything, which just made her madder.
She's gotten worse since Dad died. She's always been unreasonable when somebody hasn't liked her work, but lately she even gets insulted when her name is misspelled on junk mail. She got a letter from some credit card company last week addressed to 'Virginger Yirk' and instead of laughing it off she went ballistic. She ripped the letter into shreds and threw the pieces all over the kitchen. I told her she was acting like a spoiled brat and she yelled "Shut up and clean up this goddamn mess," then stomped out of the room like an autistic five-year-old.
Sometimes I set her off without meaning to — like when I interrupt her when she's working or when I forget to wash the dishes when it's my turn. But sometimes I do it on purpose, just for fun. I mean, come on, what are my options? When she takes herself so seriously, what can I do but fuck with her? Some salesguy came to the door the other day peddling cleaning products and I introduced Mom to him as 'Mrs. Vagina Pork.' The poor bastard took one look at Mom's face and scurried away like a rat with diarrhea. I thought she was going to kill me. She stood with her hands balled into fists at her sides and glared at me until I mumbled an apology, then she finally tore out onto the porch and slammed the door behind her hard enough to make the whole house shake.
If Dad were alive, she still would have been pissed. But she eventually would have laughed, too.
* * *
"Hey. Take a look at this." I'm holding an old mason jar, crusted with dirt and dust and cobwebs. It's rusted shut and it feels empty, but when I shake it I can hear something inside, clanging lightly against the metal lid.
She takes it from me. "Where'd you find it?"
"It was sitting on a little shelf behind the wall I just tore down in my room. I can't get it open."
Finding it was the weirdest thing. I ripped out a chunk of wall and once the dust settled there was this jar sitting all by itself, framed perfectly between two wooden spars, like somebody anal had gone to the trouble of making sure it was smack in the middle. I tried to get it open but my hands were too slippery.
She fights with it for a minute, then whacks the lid a couple times on the door frame and tries again. It opens with a pop. I reach for it to see what's inside, but she holds it away from me.
"Come on, Mom. I found it."
"Big deal. I bought the house." She pulls out a piece of paper, neatly folded. She unfolds it and I can see typewritten words on it. How cool is that?
"What is it?"
She laughs. "A poem! Of all the houses we could have bought, we find one with a poem in the walls."
Sunset was an orange ball
rolling down the sky
it struck the trees without a sound
and tumbled off the earth to die.
I watched it go and felt undone —
as if I'd lost a friend.
I wish I'd held it in my arms
and burning, rose again.
Mom snorts. "An Emily Dickinson wannabe." She folds the paper, puts it in the jar and hands it back to me. "Next time find something more interesting. Like a lost Blake poem."
"What's wrong with it?"
"The grammar, for one thing. It should be 'risen,' not 'rose.'" "Whatever happened to artistic license? I like it."
She raises her eyebrows but doesn't say anything. I hate that.
We're in the room she's working on, the one that's going to be her study. One wall is a floor-to-ceiling bookcase painted a hideous shade of yellow; Mom's been stripping the paint off to get at the dark wood underneath. "Do you think any more poems are lying around?"
She stares at the walls for a minute, then shrugs like she doesn't care. But I know better. One of my mom's guilty pleasures is mystery novels. She reads one or two of them a week and then has the balls to make fun of me for reading science fiction and fantasy.
"Who do you think wrote it? The old fart?"
"Mr. Carlisle? I doubt it."
Stephen Carlisle was the former owner. We never met him, but the realtor told us horror stories about him. Apparently he used to throw rocks at the street lights because they kept him awake at night, and he was known to chase dogs off his lawn with a BB gun, running after them for blocks, swearing his head off. He lived in this house for at least fifty years, but he had no family to leave it to, so after he died last January the city got it and put it up for sale.
He'd been dead for a week when they found him in the bathroom. The neighbors complained about a cat yowling in the house all night long and the police came to investigate. Carlisle's pants were around his ankles and he was sprawled out beside the toilet. His cat, Hoover, an ugly old orange tom with an unbelievably foul disposition, had been lunching on his eyes and nose. Hoover was taken to the pound and snatched up by an old woman who lived on the other side of town, but he found his way back here every time she let him out of her house. Eventually she gave up trying to keep him, and he became the neighborhood stray, fed by everyone but sleeping every night under our porch until we bought the place and moved in. Mom hates cats, but she got tired of him sneaking into the house every time we left the door open, so she finally let me keep him. He sleeps with me most nights, but when he sniffs at my eyes I send him flying.
Excerpted from Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates. Copyright © 2003 Bart Yates. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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