The Constant Heart

The Constant Heart

by Craig Nova

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619021891
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 08/06/2013
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.36(w) x 7.76(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Craig Nova is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one autobiography. His writing has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and Men's Journal, among others. He has received an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2005 he was named Class of 1949 Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Read an Excerpt


IT'S ABOUT TIME someone talked about what it's like to be a man now, and how even the term "man" has become a dirty word. What you think or feel as a man when you are not a rapist, a thug, a wife beater, a cheater, arrogant, an elitist, someone not infantilized by video games, but as a man who wants to do the right thing, no matter what, and not to whine about those times, which everyone has, when things are tough. Many women will be surprised to hear that they have not escaped the human condition, and that women can lie, cheat, and kill, although often they seem to think they are a new species, a Vestal, who is above even the suspicion of such behavior.

My father was not a bigot and he taught me not to be one as well. I loved him for it, among other things. And in the background of this account I looked for that elusive moment when disaster sends its first calling card.

I now know when it all began and how.

The difficulty was that the beginning of all those things — the knife, the bottom of the well, the pursuit, the attempt to kill — wasn't so large, or so it seemed, not something that much out of the ordinary. It was just another evening in the slipstream of possibilities that, with a bewildering conglomeration, sweeps by us every hour. If this story had taken place in a different era, I would have prayed many times. And, for that matter, I did pray, although it's hard to say with what effect.

I prayed, I now know, to be free of vanity. Vanity is the enemy of grace, and grace was important in our family. My father wanted me to count my blessings and to know that other people often didn't have them. Grace, these days, is not one of those things that people think about where men are concerned.

It started when my mother came to that table, a sort of imitation antique, by the front door, and found the first package of literature she had sent away for. It was from a "self-realization center," an ashram in San Francisco, and it said that she would probably have more respect for my father if he made more money. The literature had a picture of a guy with a long beard and a loose robe, and he looked like he had been smoking dope. I always thought it was strange that a guru was so interested in money, but then I was only seventeen and at that age a lot of the world seems strange.

My mother was always talking about ashrams and Inner Energy That Was Waiting to Be Tapped. Sometimes, instead, she just dyed her hair.

So, that's part of the way it began.

The other part was my girlfriend, or sort-of girlfriend, or the girl I wanted to be my girlfriend. This was Sara McGill, who had red hair and freckles, but she dyed her hair black and used mascara that made her look like a woman in an Egyptian hieroglyphic. She was short, thin, and small-breasted, but when she wore her black blouse that revealed her nipples, when she left the top buttons undone so that her skin, as pale as baby powder, showed with its haunting color, and when she dressed in her tight black skirt, she was sultriness personified. She was also the smartest person I knew.

She was also someone you didn't want to cross. A lot of people wished they had never said a thing to her. For instance, when some guy once called her a slut, she hacked his email address and his account at a conspiracy website and sent, in his name, a threat to assassinate the president. The Secret Service was at this kid's door in about a half hour, and they took him and his computer in for some hard-hitting interrogation.

Sara's mother had killed Sara's father, and Sara lived in a state-sponsored halfway house. Of course, she had gotten into trouble (selling dope, stealing cosmetics, and cars, too, for that matter), but she seemed better now, or at least she seemed a little calmer when she was with me. Sara's mother killed Sara's father because her mother thought he was having an affair with his secretary, when, in fact, all he had done was help the secretary change a tire, bought her a meal one evening near the plumbing supply place where he worked, and lent her a thousand dollars when she needed to rent a new apartment.

Sara's mother had bought a gun at a pawnshop in Albany and a box of adult diapers so she wouldn't have to stop to use a bathroom on her way to a sales conference in New Jersey, where she shot her husband. The detectives found the box of diapers in the trunk of her car and asked her what they were for. Sara's mother was in a prison in upstate New York, about one hundred miles away from us, within visiting distance. Sara had written to her mother, but the mother didn't write back. "Too fucking ashamed" is how Sara put it. Then Sara shrugged in that sultry way, as though if she were just sexy enough, just desirable enough, no one would ever think of giving her any trouble.

Sara dropped by our house when she couldn't stand the "Gulag," as she called it, where she lived. She'd just show up and look in the window or knock on the door.

This, I have to say, was part of where it all started, too.

I want to be clear about something. My father never taught me things as though I were a Boy Scout trying for a merit badge, or that grace and decency could be summed up in easy sound bites. It wasn't like that at all, but the message still came across that at times you would feel as though things were horribly wrong, that you had been broken into little pieces, or that someone had managed to get a pit viper in your guts, and that you could feel every bite, but even so, even under circumstances like that, you had to be careful with people you cared about, or who needed you not to whine or carry on. He never used four-letter words. Well, only once that I know of.

Our house, which looked like it had been picked out of a catalogue of plans, sat at the side of a field that once held sheep. A hundred yards away, at the tree line beyond the backyard, were some high-tension lines, held up by towers that looked like enormous men made with an industrial-grade Erector Set. The wires gave off a sort of hum, a zzzzzzz that must be like the last thing a man in an electric chair hears. Five houses, the plans for which all had that catalogue look, sat in the field near the high-tension lines. These houses put your teeth on edge because they sat in the field for no practical reason, dumped there like Monopoly houses from a box so a contractor could make money. Now the field didn't have sheep in it anymore. Just those houses and that zzzzzzz.

Sara showed up one evening in her tight-fitting shirt and her black jeans and stood for a moment on the front porch. My mother looked through the literature from the ashram, and my father had some papers from his work as a wildlife biologist. I was going through some algebra homework. We got into the habit of her just showing up, and on this night, when my father glanced up from a paper on mortality rates for ruffed grouse, and Sara stood at the window, like the most beautiful face in a window in a Fifth Avenue department store, that is, if they used real women as models, he stood up, went to the door, opened it, and said, "Sara. You're just in time. You know what I am going to do tonight? I'm going to make a chocolate soufflé."

"No kidding?" said Sara.

"You want some?" he said.

"I never had one," she said.

"Well, you know what?" my father said. "It's about time."

He separated the eggs, melted the chocolate, beat it into the egg yolks, mixed it into the beaten egg whites, and put it in a dish that sat in the oven for thirty-five minutes. He beat some whipped cream, and then we all sat down, my mother with her ashram brochure, and had that soufflé. Sara closed her eyes and swayed back and forth at the first bite.

"That's the best fucking thing I ever tasted," she said.

"You better fucking believe it," said my father. He turned his green eyes on me.

"Fucking-A right," I said.

My mother was silent as she tasted the chocolate.

"What's new at the ashram?" said my father.

My mother shrugged. These things couldn't be talked about. Mantras, meditation, the preparation for death.

SO THAT WAS just one occasion that Sara dropped by, but the time that was the beginning, the moment, I now realize, when the machines of fate began to grind exceedingly slow but exceedingly fine, was another evening.

Sara moved with a delicacy of touch, as though the ground she walked over were made of thin glass, and often she appeared with a sort of magic, as though she had been cut in half and was now whole. So, on this evening, she arrived as before, not wearing that same tight blouse, but another one that was even tighter, that showed her beauty even more obviously.

Her face was at the window. I came into the living room, which was part of the open downstairs, next to the kitchen (all those plans from a catalogue seemed to be like this ... maybe because it was cheaper not to have a wall between the two rooms). Of course, I moved quietly, too, especially when that white face was at the window. Then Sara opened the door, with that same legerdemain, with that same lack of sound, and came in. She let the door just slip into its frame, a gentle embrace. In front of me, on the coffee table, was a picture of the Horsehead Nebula, so haunting even then, when I hadn't even heard of the Constant or known that it could explain how galaxies disappear. Sara brought her slight musk and her sent of baby powder and sat down next to me.

My mother and father were in the kitchen, my father trembling at the table, my mother by the kitchen sink. Of course, they were too concerned about other matters to notice Sara or me. My father was a tall man who bore a remarkable resemblance to Gary Cooper. Especially around the eyes when he was angry or hurt. My mother had blond hair and white skin and a kind of endless girlish quality that made her the envy of a lot of women who aged faster.

My mother looked out the window. A line of slender trees grew about a hundred yards away, poplars, I think, with trembling leaves. You could see them against the distant light of Albany, just black cutouts.

My mother kept her eyes on those Erector Set towers, which were just black figures, too, and that buzzing came into the kitchen. The wind was just right. She said, with her eyes on the field, "Well, let me tell you something. That's exactly what I did. Just like that. I don't know what got into me. The next thing I knew I was in the motel with him. So, what are you going to do about it?"

Sara put her hand on my leg, as though to say, "Don't move. If they see us, it will just make it worse. Maybe we'll get lucky."

And I pushed back, as though to say, "No one gets lucky. Not at times like this."

"I met him in a bowling alley," said my mother. "He bought me a Singapore Sling. You know, it's got layers of liqueurs and ..."

My father trembled. That buzzing came into the kitchen, and we knew that studies had shown increased rates of cancer near high-tension lines, but no one was worried about cancer just then. Sara began to stand, as though testing her ability to move without being heard. My mother ran water in the sink and splashed some on her face. We all sat in that buzzing, as though it were the way information was conveyed. Perhaps gravity exists between people, too, or their feelings, since my father began to turn his head, or it seemed to be pulled so that while he still trembled he faced the living room. The buzzing seemed louder. My mother turned off the water.

"Jake," he said. "Sara."

He trembled as though he were sitting on a vibrating bed. Maybe there had been one in the motel my mother had gone to with the man from the bowling alley after the Singapore Sling.

"Jesus," said my mother. "Oh, Jesus. What is that girl doing here? Can't we even have some privacy?"

"I'm just going," said Sara.

"No," said my father. "You know I'm always glad to see you."

"I better go," said Sara. She didn't move, though, and she seemed to be stuck, as she was sometimes when she spoke about her mother in that prison. Elmira? Was that where it was?

"Jesus," said my mother.

"Jake, Sara," said my father. "I think I'm going to go out for a little drive. But I'd like you to come with me."

"Where are we going to go?" I said.

"Don't be an idiot," said my mother.

"I think I'd like some ice cream," said my father. It was as though someone had told my mother that a polar bear had come into the kitchen.

"I think Jake would like some," said my father. "And maybe Sara would like something to eat. What did they feed you at the Gulag?"

"Well, it was sort of like Spam, I guess, with canned peas and instant mashed potatoes."

My father already had his jacket, which he had taken from its hook by the door.

"Come on," he said.

"What about me?" said my mother.

"You can come if you want," said my father.

"No," said Sara.

AT THE FRIENDLY'S we sat in a booth and held the menus that were in laminated plastic. The manager came out and stared at Sara, but it didn't look like she was going to run out on the check as she had before. My father asked for some chocolate ice cream. I did, too. Sara said she'd have the same.

"Maybe it will work against that Spam I had," she said.

The spoon trembled in my father's hand and made a tinkling sound against the glass. At least that buzzing wasn't here, but it seemed to linger in some way, a sort of noise version of pain. We sat there. Teenagers with spiked haircuts came in and ordered piles of french fries.

"You know," said my father. He put the spoon down and then both hands on the table. "I had a paper I brought home from work. It said the geographical range of ruffed grouse is the same as trembling aspen. You know why?"

"Why?" said Sara.

"Because in the winter the grouse can eat the buds or reach the buds when they are sitting in a tree without opening their wings. That's the difference. If they have to reach, they open their wings to eat, and when it is cold, they lose heat. Over time, they die."

Sara licked her spoon, her pink tongue touched with chocolate.

"This isn't as good as your soufflé," she said.

"That's nice of you to say," said my father.

"I better get back to the Gulag," said Sara. "But thanks."

In the car, Sara sat in the backseat. Outside, the dark fields went by and the stars showed a little through the reddish smoke from the city.

"So small things make a difference," she said. "Like those birds."

My father nodded.

"Yes," said my father. "Or sometimes small ones are bigger than you think. So thanks for coming out for an ice cream."

The Gulag was a converted warehouse, brick and frosted glass, with a flat roof and dark stains around the window, barbed wire along the roof.

"Any time," said Sara.

"Sure," said my father. "Good night."

"You know, my mother ...," she said.

"I know about your mother," my father said.

We sat in the car, in the shadow of the Gulag.

"It's a matter of telling the difference between a big thing and a small one. That's what I have to do," said my father. "Maybe it's not a big thing."

"My mother thought it was a big thing," said Sara.

The windows of the Gulag looked icy in the lights.

"Well, thanks for the ice cream," said Sara.

She went up the cement path of the Gulag, the darkness of her clothes simply vanishing into the shadows.

"Do you love her?" my father said.

The taste of chocolate ice cream lingered in my mouth.

"Well, Jake," he said. "It can get complicated." He took my hand.

"Still pals, huh?"

He wanted to make being hurt disappear, out of consideration for me. I loved him.

The essential pattern of life seemed different now, and the difference was big enough that it had changed me, too. Just like that. How had this thing jumped out of the shadows? I sat there like a stand-in for myself. But, of course, that was just the first part.

IN THOSE DAYS, I took the bus to the library, where I met Sara, and as I rode the engine strained as the bus went uphill, the entire thing shuddering with decreasing power as it gave off a stink of burning oil. The aluminum hatch over the engine banged like a tin flag in the wind. The driver had dropped a tube of Preparation H by the fare box, and he picked it up and stuck it in his pocket, like he was waiting for his break so he could slink off someplace to use it. I made a joke about this to my father, and he gave me a look. I wasn't being sympathetic, and so what if it was embarrassing? Maybe I should wait a few years and see how I felt, he said. My father didn't make me feel bad when he did this, just more alert.

I became an astronomer and my fascination with it started in the library with those pictures from the Hubble Telescope, the Horsehead Nebula, those glowing pink clouds of gas (pink, the same color as Sara's underwear).

One Saturday afternoon, when my parents were gone, Sara had taken me by the hand into my bedroom, pushed me so I sat on my bed, and when I reached for her hand, she pushed it away, but then began to take off her clothes, which she dropped on the floor. But when she got down to just her panties, she said, "This isn't a good idea."

"Why?" I said.


Excerpted from "The Constant Heart"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Craig Nova.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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.

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