WINNER OF THE 2015 WHITING AWARD FOR FICTION
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Benjamin arrives with his parents for a tour of Roaring Orchards, a therapeutic boarding school tucked away in upstate New York. Suddenly, his parents are gone and Benjamin learns that he is there to stay. Sixteen years old, a two-time failed suicide, Benjamin must navigate his way through a new world of morning meds, popped privileges, candor meetings and cartoon brunches—all run by adults who themselves have yet to really come of age.
The only person who comprehends the school's many rules and rituals is Aubrey, the founder and headmaster. Fragile, brilliant, and prone to rage, he is as likely to use his authority to reward students as to punish them. But when Aubrey falls ill, life at the school begins to unravel. Benjamin has no one to rely on but the other students, especially Tidbit, an intriguing but untrustworthy girl with a "self-afflicting personality." More and more, Benjamin thinks about running away from Roaring Orchards—but he feels an equal need to know just what it is he would be leaving behind.
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That's Not a Feeling
By DAN JOSEFSON
Soho PressCopyright © 2012 DAN JOSEFSON
All right reserved.
Upsate New York, late August
No one noticed the evening’s approach until the long shadows cast by the mountains began to merge in the grass. Alternative Boys stood on the Dirt Pile, digging away at it with their shovels and tossing the dirt toward the adjacent woods. Only when Roger woke to the growing darkness did he order the boys down and tell them to hurry back to the Mansion for supper. I’m losing it, he thought, and rubbed his face with his hands. He followed as the boys crossed Route 294 in a clump and then stretched out into a loose line to pass through the school’s iron gate. The gate hung between two stone pillars; on the right pillar a sign read, THE ROARING ORCHARDS SCHOOL FOR TROUBLED TEENS, WEBITUCK, NY. The Mansion they headed toward was built on a slight eminence, and sat in an angle of light. Most of the boys rested the shovels on their shoulders or dragged them rasping along the gravel driveway. William Kay and Andrew Pudding soon fell behind; they were swinging their shovels at each other like swords.
They walked face to face, Pudding shuffling backwards up the drive, William laughing wildly as the heavy wooden handles met overhead with dull clacks. Roger was glad the two of them rarely had energy for anything other than this sort of idiocy. Pudding was short and solidly built, with a round, babyish head. William was skinny and mean. If they set their minds to it, they could do plenty of damage.
It was the time of evening when everything recedes into its outline, when it feels as though there’s more than enough time and space for every conceivable thing to happen. Roger called for William and Pudding to quit playing and hurry up. He told the boys in front to wait for their dormmates. But his voice died on the air and no one was listening.
Alternative Boys rounded the curve beneath the weeping beeches at the top of the drive. In front of them stood the Mansion, an enormous white farmhouse augmented by a jumble of disconsonant additions. Before the boys could reassemble to climb the steps together, Roger called out, “Freeze.” They stopped where they were. “Hands out, gentlemen.” Alternative boys dropped their shovels and held their arms out straight, each trying to reach the boy closest to him without moving his feet. They wiggled their fingers and stretched. The boys in front were close enough to form a jagged line that connected them all. William and Pudding could reach each other but were separated from the rest of the dorm.
“You’ve drifted,” Roger said. “Hold hands.”
Leaving their shovels where they lay, Alternative Boys formed a circle and all held hands. The sun had tipped further back behind the hills and an orange band of sunset light, followed by shadow, slid up the trunks and lower branches of the trees until only the highest leaves held light any longer. “Now,” Roger said, “what’s going on with you guys that you can’t stay grouped?”
The boys rolled bits of gravel under the soles of their sneakers or stared over the heads of the boys on the opposite side of the circle. Eric Gold was visibly upset. He had thick eyebrows and a wide, flat nose, and in the week and a half he’d been at the school, hadn’t made any friends. “This is bullshit,” he shouted. “You can’t hand-hold me. You don’t even know me.” The other boys found this very funny, but those on either side of Eric tightened their grips to keep him from doing anything that would get them into more trouble.
Roger cleared his throat. “I know that if you’re letting your dormmates fall behind, you’re either not paying attention to them or you’re not willing to confront them. That’s all I need to know.” Roger adjusted his hat, a green felt cowboy hat, and scratched at his beard. “Has anyone explained the idea behind grouping to you? William, could you tell Eric what group stands for?”
“Goats remember only…” William began.
Roger sighed. “Pudding? Want to help your friend?”
Pudding looked at William and back at Roger. “Gee, I recently… ordered…”
“Pudding,” Roger said.
The other boys reacted with embarrassed silence. “I’m not hearing anything,” Roger said, “to convince me that if I were to un-hand-hold the dorm right now I wouldn’t get taken advantage of again.” The pink, gilded clouds of the reflected sunset faded in the picture windows of the Mansion. Shadows had risen from the valley floor to where the boys stood; the sparse woods darkened.
“Han,” Roger asked, “could you please help us out?”
Han Quek hesitated, unsure of which would be worse: spending more time holding hands in a circle or playing along with Roger. He decided quickly. “Genuine relationships occur in uncomfortable proximity.”
“Thank you. You see, Eric? This isn’t about punishing anyone. It’s about bringing the group closer together. And when you’re out of arms’ distance, when you drift, you’re denying real intimacy by fleeing togetherness. So Pudding, why were you having such a tough time being close to the people in the dorm today? Why are you and William isolating?”
“I wasn’t isolating,” William said. “I was genuinely trying to hit him with my shovel. Genuinely.” William’s pale skin and blond hair looked even lighter in the darkness.
Pudding laughed and tried to kick William, but they were holding hands and Pudding couldn’t turn to kick him properly.
“No, really,” William said. “Is there anyone here who doesn’t think Pudding ought to get hit with a shovel? Raise your hand.” Holding hands, no one could. “See? Pudding’s the only one who doesn’t think he should get hit. He’s the one isolating. You should ask him why he’s isolating.”
“I did,” Roger said. The clouds were melting away into the dark, but Roger was willing to wait. He believed in following the school’s process, which could take time. He was calm, and prepared to be completely rational, and if necessary, thoroughly unreasonable.
Pudding said that he hadn’t seen the other boys getting ahead of him because he was walking backwards, and as Roger began describing the difference between an explanation and an excuse, someone flipped a light switch inside the Mansion. The picture window in front of Alternative Boys ceased reflecting the shreds of sunset and opened now onto the Meditation Room. It hovered above the boys like a lit stage. Frances, one of the school’s therapists, had entered the room with Nancy Ormsbee, a student in New Girls. The boys watched Nancy and Frances sit down in the oversized wicker armchairs beside the glass-topped table.
All of a sudden it felt late. The day was lost and the boys sensed there was no time left for anything. They would hurry to change for a late dinner of cold cuts and corn chips and caffeine-free store-brand soda, and go to bed.
It was one of the last days of Summer Session and every dorm was on retreat. Roger didn’t like that Alternative Boys could see Nancy at therapy. She had only been enrolled three days ago and had already run away once; the police brought her back. Roger allowed the dorm to be un-hand-held. They returned their shovels to the Mansion basement, then went upstairs where they changed from work clothes to school dress and waited their turn for dinner. Bit by bit, darkness seeped into the corners of the valley. The birds that had spent the evening flitting from branch to branch flew deeper into the woods to sleep.
One at a time the dorms walked to the back of the Cafetorium to pick up dinner trays, then brought these back to their quarters in the Mansion. Regular Kids, Alternative Girls, Alternative Boys, New Girls. When they were all back inside, New Boys exited the Cottage where they lived, got their food, and returned.
Later, lights around campus were turned off one by one until only the windows in the upper floors of the Mansion were lighted. Then these too went out, one after another down the hallways as dorm parents entered each room to administer nighttime meds and say good night. Finally the floodlights illuminating the front of the Mansion were the only lights left on.
The valley was quiet. Deer stalked windfall apples in the orchard on the east side of the Mansion. Their heavy lips slid over the apples and they broke the cool skins with their teeth. These were crab apples, small and sour, but there were too many deer in the valley, even in late summer when their numbers had been thinned by trucks hurtling down the Interstate; they ate what they could. The deer stopped and looked nervously over their shoulders. They froze not at any sound but at an intensification of the silence that pealed like a bell.
On less quiet nights, the wind racing down the hills would rattle the Mansion’s dusty window screens and whistle in the branches of the trees. But tonight the sky weighed down directly on the valley and on the school in its center. The students were left awake, their visions curling in on themselves like fiddleheads. Voicelessly they went through the same exhausted speeches that they recited on other sleepless nights: the monologues to their parents about all the reasons it had been a mistake to send them to the school; the rants they would let loose on Aubrey if they could get away with it; or just the stories they would tell with studied indifference, collapsing onto an old couch in a friend’s basement, about what a fucked-up place it was they had just escaped. We moved our lips through these febrile daydreams and could not sleep.
We were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, although there was a tired joke at the school that Aubrey would accept a six-year-old as long as someone paid his tuition. Maybe I shouldn’t say “we” quite yet—the day I’m describing is the day before I arrived at Roaring Orchards. My story here and in what follows is based on what I saw and what I was told, by students and occasionally by members of the faculty. Students and faculty had very different experiences of the school, but we had one thing in common: we would all rather have been somewhere else. But we stayed, or many of us did, most of the time. We all stay except for those who don’t, as Aubrey sometimes said. Nancy Ormsbee was one of those who didn’t stay.
In her top bunk in her room in New Girls, she inched toward the edge of her mattress, freezing at each squeak of the metal springs. She climbed over the footboard, lowered herself off the bed. Nancy crawled across the carpet and braced herself against the wall beside the door. Then, as she had done earlier that week, she gently slid the plastic mattress, on which her roommate Laurel slept, away from the door inch by inch, taking time between each little push to let Laurel readjust in her sleep. When there was just enough room, Nancy turned the doorknob until she felt the spindle pull the latch from the post. She opened the door and squeezed out, keeping the knob turned and only letting it spring back when she had carefully pulled the door shut on the girls asleep in their room. She stole a pair of sneakers from Alternate Girls and slipped out of the Mansion into the dark.
Nancy took a deep breath and sprinted across the lawn to where the school vans were parked beside the gym. She opened the back doors of the newest looking one and felt around in the dark for the jack. With it she returned, her hands shaking with adrenaline, to the Mansion.
New Girls’ med closet was a room off their lounge. Nancy set the jack beneath the doorknob and worked the lever. She winced at the sound of wood cracking and held still. She didn’t seem to have woken anyone. She pumped the jack again and the knob bent, the metal growing paler while the old wooden door gave way. When the bolt cracked loose, Nancy entered and quickly went through the girls’ allowance envelopes, taking the money saved in each. She was about to leave when she turned back and grabbed the packet with the next morning’s meds. She ran back downstairs and outside.
Before she disappeared from Roaring Orchards, Nancy took one last look back at the Mansion. The floodlights in the flowerbeds lit the building but distorted it as well. The eaves and the gingerbreading above the entrance cast magnified shadows over the white façade. It reminded her of a person holding a flashlight under his chin in the dark. And then she left the school forever.
The Mansion sat in the center of the valley, surrounded by trees unstirred by any wind. The moon had risen, alone in the dark sky but for the haze around it. They were a pair, the moon alone in the sky, the Mansion alone in the valley, each snug in its socket like an eye and a tooth.
Excerpted from That's Not a Feeling by DAN JOSEFSON Copyright © 2012 by DAN JOSEFSON. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
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A Conversation with Dan Josefson, Author of That's Not a Feeling I was wondering if you could say a little about the name of the book. Where does the title come from?
"That's not a feeling" is something the faculty members occasionally say to the students,as a way of trying to get them to be more direct about their emotions. So, for example, a kid's saying, "I feel like killing someone," might elicit that response. Like lots of the rules and ideas at the school, it makes some sense in an abstract way, but in practice it's insulting and a bit ridiculous. At one point, there's a poster on a wall listing the seven accepted feelings, which is supposed to be helpful. I guess it's kind of a strange title, but it's kind of a strange book too, or at least I hope it is.
What made you want to write about a place like Roaring Orchards, a boarding school for troubled kids?
It's tough to say. I like novels with settings that are discrete and that have a particular feel, so a novel set on the campus of an odd school like this one appealed to me. When my editor had the idea of including a map in the beginning of the book I was thrilled, because the limits and the look of the grounds were so central to me. Settings like that can lend a story tension, I thinkthere's a sense that the characters can move through the space in any number of ways, but slowly the available options get used up, and something else has to happen. I think an institution like this school also encourages a kind of intensity in the characters, or various kinds of intensities, and I wanted to see if I could capture that.
Why do you think that is? Where does that intensity come from?
Maybe from the impression that there's a limited amount of care and attention to go around. So everyone's fighting to get their shareeither physically fighting or using the resources of their personalities. I once worked at a school that had similarities to Roaring Orchards and that was something I noticed. Even the students who had a tendency to withdraw, withdrew intensely.
What you're saying makes me think of Aubrey, the headmaster of Roaring Orchards. He has a great deal of power over the other characters.
I really resisted writing his parts, his dialogue especially. I'm still not entirely sure why. Part of it was that for the book to make sense, he had to be pretty intelligent, at least enough to argue circles around the other characters. And even with all the time in the world, I wasn't confident I could do that plausibly. Also, the whole school, and therefore the book, is to some degree a reflection of him; he created it and runs it and so on. I worried that if I got him wrong, it would undermine the structure of the thing. But ultimately I realized I should risk it, that I needed to at least try to depict the spider at the center of the web.
Who have you discovered lately?
I loved Barley Patch, by Gerald Murnane. I hadn't read anything he'd written before, but since finding that novel I've been hunting down everything of his I can get my hands on. Malina, by Ingeborg Bachmann, is another amazing novel I just read for the first time. And this might be cheating, since it's more of a rediscovery, but I recently reread Lydia Davis's The End of the Story, and was floored by it again.