Set against the turbulent backdrop of the 1960s, Noah Bly's evocative debut explores prejudice, loss, and redeeming courage through the prism of an unlikely friendship. When fifty-four-year-old Julianna Dapper slips out of a mental hospital in Bangor, Maine, on a June day in 1962, it's with one purpose in mind. Julianna knows she must go back to the tiny farming community in northern Missouri where she was born and raised. It's the place where she and her best friend, Ben Taylor, roamed as children, and where her life's course shifted irrevocably one night long ago. Embarking on her journey, Julianna meets Elijah Hunter, a shy teenaged African-American boy, and Jon Tate, a young hitchhiker on the run from the law. The three become traveling companions, bound together by quirks of happenstance. And even as the emerging truth about Julianna's past steers them inexorably toward tragedy, their surprising bond may be the means to transform fear and heartache into the strength that finally guides Julianna home. The Third Hill North of Town is a haunting, imaginative story of human connection and coincidence--a poignant and powerful novel that ripples with wit and heart. Advance Praise For The Third Hill North Of Town"A brilliant combination of chaos and coincidence. With fresh language and uniquely imperfect characters, Noah Bly weaves a story of a cross-country trek that is both improbable and believable. This fresh, engrossing novel left me convinced of the power of memory, even as it arises from a disturbed mind, and taught me--as Bly promises--the wisdom of faith in the ridiculous." --Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August
|5.65(w) x 8.22(h) x 1.07(d)
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As far as Julianna was concerned, the boy she kidnapped on the street that morning in Prescott, Maine, was Ben Taylor, her closest friend in the world, and the two of them were teenagers from the same town, both lost and far from home. That she was actually fifty-four years old and he was fifteen never occurred to her, nor did it trouble her much when the boy insisted they were strangers. After all, Julianna was nobody's fool. Ben had always been a clown, and she knew better than to listen when he said ridiculous things.
A lot of things seemed ridiculous lately to Julianna Dapper. Topping her list on this particular morning, however, was the date of the newspaper beside her on the seat of the car. The paper stated it was Saturday, June 23, 1962, but she knew for a fact the real date was Saturday, June 23, 1923. Somebody at the newspaper office had obviously made a ridiculous typographical error, and she shook her head and laughed every time she glanced down at the paper. It was hard to understand how such a thing could happen, but the world was a funny place.
The car she was driving was a cream and brown Edsel Ranger, with four doors, a tan Naugahyde interior, and child-safety locks on the rear doors. It belonged to a psychiatrist named Edgar Reilly, who'd accidentally left his keys in the ignition earlier that day at the state mental hospital in Bangor, Maine. When Julianna slipped out of the dementia wing of the hospital, shortly after breakfast, the car was sitting in the sunlit parking lot, a few steps away from the fire door. She remembered parking it there — though she had done no such thing — and she scolded herself for being so scatterbrained as to leave the keys in it.
"For heaven's sake," she muttered as she opened the door and got in. She tossed the sweater she was carrying onto the backseat and removed her headscarf, too. "I might as well have posted a sign saying please steal my car."
Cities, as she knew all too well, were full of thieves, and she was thrilled to be going home, where she never had to worry about such things. She started the engine and drove off, still puzzled as to how she could have done something so careless. She shook her head in dismay, thinking how furious her father would be if he knew how irresponsible she'd been.
Julianna was a tall, slender woman with a long nose, short brown hair, and high, sharp cheekbones. She wasn't pretty, necessarily, but she was graceful and strong, with an appealing, crooked smile, a no-nonsense handshake, and enormous green eyes that studied, with intense curiosity, everyone she passed on the street.
It was these eyes of hers, more than anything, that allowed her to abduct Elijah Hunter two hours later in the sleepy town of Prescott, Maine. When she pulled up to the curb where Elijah was standing and leaned across the seat to talk to him through the open passenger window, he gazed into those inquisitive, intelligent eyes and saw nothing to fear.
Prescott was an isolated little community surrounded by woods and fields, about ninety miles west of Bangor. Elijah's parents were Samuel and Mary Hunter, and the Hunter family was one of only a handful of black families living in that part of Maine. Because of this, Elijah was used to people gawking at him, and he was also used to cars slowing down as they passed him on the road. It wasn't the first time somebody had pulled up to the curb to address him, either, though this was less common. Most people who had something to say to him from a car window chose to do so while speeding past, and seemed to be more interested in shouting obscenities than in talking.
Elijah's eyes — soulful and brown — were almost as large as Julianna's. He had a lean, finely boned face and a small, pert nose, and though most people he knew considered him handsome, they also believed his good looks were marred slightly by a chronic look of anxiety that wrinkled his forehead and drew the corners of his mouth into a more or less permanent frown. What was causing his anxiety on this particular day was an article he'd just read in Life magazine, in which he'd learned that forty-nine million people in the world died each year. Not content with the level of horror this aroused in him, he had taken the statistical nightmare a step further, and had calculated humanity's daily death toll at roughly 138,000. This had nearly paralyzed him with despair, yet as he emerged from the drugstore that morning (where he'd picked up the magazine), he was hard at work estimating the hourly death rate, as well, even though he knew that doing so would likely ruin his whole day.
Such was the way Elijah's mind worked, and the reason his parents had forbidden him to read magazines and newspapers. He ignored this prohibition all the time, though, because he couldn't help himself.
He had been engrossed the day before with a Reader's Digest article about overpopulation, and the day before that he had gagged and nearly vomited in front of the town librarian soon after scanning a Newsweek story about the likelihood of a coming global famine. In fact, his preoccupation with dire news tidbits had gotten so bad recently that his mother, in a fit of concerned temper — after she found a dog-eared copy of U.S. News and World Report squirreled away under his mattress — had compared Elijah to "a thick-headed, morbid little moth, in search of the biggest, baddest flame it can find."
Elijah had small ears, and big hands and feet, and long legs. He was slender and almost six feet tall, but he wasn't used to being this height. (Nor was his mother, who kept referring to him as "little.") He'd grown five inches in the last eight months, and he was prone to knocking over glasses and bottles on dinner tables, and tripping over things on the sidewalk. His limbs seemed to get longer every day, and refused to do what he asked of them.
He'd walked into town that day to mail a letter to his grandfather — and to spend a few stomach-churning minutes thumbing through magazines in the rack by the drugstore window — and had exited the drugstore only moments before Julianna pulled up to the intersection in front of him.
"Hello, dear!" she called from the car. "Would you like a ride? It's an awfully long walk to your house."
Elijah was dressed in a white button-down shirt, new blue jeans, and clean white sneakers. His shirt was flawlessly pressed, as were his jeans; Mary Hunter never let her son leave the house looking less than respectable. It was a point of pride to her that Elijah should always appear as well cared for as any of the white boys in town. She believed, with some justification, that people would judge him more harshly than they would other children, and she wasn't about to let anybody think Mary Hunter's son wasn't up to snuff.
But Julianna Dapper was oblivious to Mary's efforts on Elijah's behalf. She didn't see the attractive, presentable boy he actually was; what she saw instead was a thin and rather ragged young man, with no shirt or shoes. In fact, he looked as if he needed a bath rather badly, and it broke her heart, as always, to see him running around in nothing but a pair of worn overalls. She knew, of course, that nobody from their little corner of the world had much money, but Ben Taylor's family was dirt poor, and everybody knew it and poked fun at them. She looked at his filthy bare feet and tried not to show the pity she was feeling.
Elijah had never seen Julianna before, but he felt no surprise that she seemed to know who he was and where he lived. There were only twelve hundred people in Prescott, and every single white person in town would know he was Samuel and Mary Hunter's son just by looking at him, and would also know their farm was on Temple Road, two miles north of the old meatpacking plant. Nor was it particularly strange that he didn't recognize her. He may have been born and raised in Prescott, but he paid no heed to the older people in town and knew very few of them by sight. He kept to himself most of the time; the bulk of his days were spent on the farm with his parents, or in school, or in a quiet corner of the library.
He leaned over to get a better look at her. He noticed her startling green eyes immediately, and also her pretty green dress, but he became self-conscious under her scrutiny and transferred his attention to the carpeted floor in front of the passenger seat. It was full of groceries. He saw bags of potato chips and bottles of Pepsi sticking out of brown paper sacks, and there was also a generous supply of Chips Ahoy! cookies and a dozen or so Butterfinger candy bars. On closer study, there looked to be nothing nutritious in the bags at all; the only thing he saw besides the junk food was a carton of Marlboro cigarettes. Elijah wondered how the woman remained so thin if this was the kind of stuff she ate all the time.
"Hi," he said. His voice was polite, but wary. "You know my mom?"
Elijah had already concluded that Julianna was probably one of the twenty or so middle-aged ladies from the Methodist church up the road who congregated every Saturday morning to play bingo. He'd heard about several of these "bingo ladies" from his mother — who cleaned house for many of the white families in town — but he had met none of them.
Julianna looked taken aback at first, but then she laughed. "Very funny, silly. Everybody knows Mary," she said. "Stop being ridiculous and hop in."
It was an unfortunate coincidence that Julianna's old friend Ben from Missouri had a mother named Mary, as did Elijah.
Elijah wouldn't normally have gotten in the car with a stranger, but the woman seemed harmless, and since she knew his mom he decided accepting a ride from her would be fine. He might have been more cautious if he'd noticed the plastic hospital wristband Julianna was wearing on her left arm, but he was still extrapolating the hourly death toll of the human race, and so was distracted. He also wasn't looking forward to the long walk back to the farm. He'd tripped on the gravel road on the way into town and torn a small hole in the knee of his blue jeans, and the likelihood of tripping again on the way home was worrying him, too.
"Okay," he agreed. "Thanks, that would be nice."
"You'll have to sit in back." Julianna gestured at the bags on the floor of the front seat. "I hope you don't mind."
"That's fine." Elijah took hold of the rear door and found it locked. She reached over the seat to unlock it and became flustered when the knob wouldn't budge, no matter how she pulled on it.
"I don't know what the trouble is," she huffed. "The silly old thing is stuck."
Elijah hid a smile. He could almost hear his mother muttering something caustic in his head. Mary Hunter had zero patience in general, but became especially irritable with people who were flummoxed by simple mechanical things, as this woman seemed to be.
"It's probably just a safety lock," he said quietly. He poked his head into the car to get a better look at her control panel and she sat up to give him room. He pointed at her door. "Yep. Just push that little button above your armrest."
"Oh!" Julianna exclaimed. "Daddy didn't tell me about that." She punched the button and the locks on the rear doors sprang up with a pop. "As you know, I'm far more comfortable on a horse."
Elijah thought this an odd comment from a stranger, but he wasn't really paying attention. Now that Julianna was sitting upright again he could see the newspaper on the seat beside her, and he was trying to conceal his agitation. The headline announced: PLANE CRASH IN WEST INDIES KILLS 113, and the lurid picture beneath it showed the smoldering wreck of an Air France airplane. His stomach lurched and his throat went dry, and he got into the backseat as quickly as he could and closed the door behind him. He was wondering if she had already read the paper and what the chances were that she might let him have it when she dropped him off at his house.
Julianna hit the button on her armrest again, locking him in.
"Better hold on tight, Ben," she said over her shoulder, putting the car in gear. "The road may be a little bumpy."
Back at the state mental hospital in Bangor, the deputy who came to question Edgar Reilly about Julianna's escape was a young man named Vernon Oakley, who (in Edgar's professional opinion) was suffering from a blatant father complex. He seemed all too eager to pin the blame on Edgar for everything, no matter what, simply because Edgar was an older male, and an authority figure.
"Let me get this straight, Dr. Reilly." Deputy Oakley didn't even bother to conceal the disdain on his mustached, bulldog face. "Not only did your staff somehow neglect to watch the fire door after letting the painters in this morning, but then you also left your keys in your car in the parking lot, so this Julianna Tapper — "
"Dapper," Edgar corrected, fidgeting. He had just celebrated his sixty-first birthday a month ago, and he was is in no mood to be chastised by someone half his age. He gave the deputy a sour smile. "With a D, as in 'Dementia.'"
They were sitting in Edgar's office, facing each other across his desk. On the wall behind Edgar were several framed diplomas (one from Princeton and two from Duke) and a photograph of a younger, less chunky Edgar, dressed in fishing gear and holding up a large carp.
Deputy Oakley wasn't placated by Edgar's attempt at humor. "So this Julianna Dapper was able to just waltz out of here, free as a bird?"
Edgar hated people who insisted on speaking in clichés. A lack of imagination in speech patterns was a clear sign of low intelligence. Edgar reminded himself that few people were blessed with an IQ as high as his own, but the rude young man before him was making it difficult to keep this forgiving thought in mind.
"As I told you, it's not that simple," he grated. "In spite of her condition, Julianna is an extremely bright woman, who took advantage of unusual circumstances. No one could have foreseen her escape."
He said this with as much certainty as he could muster, but in truth he was furious with his staff, and himself, for allowing something like this to happen.
What a brainless fiasco, he was thinking. What a stupid, careless, miserable fuckup!
The Bangor State Hospital had recently hired a local remodeling company to spruce up the smudged white walls of the dementia ward. Painters had arrived mid-morning and requested permission to wedge open the fire door for a brief time, to allow them access to their truck and their materials. Two hospital orderlies had been posted — one at the entrance to the corridor that led to the fire door, the other next to the open door itself — to ensure that none of the patients would be able to slip out as the painters unloaded their supplies. The door was open for barely five minutes, and was guarded, and nothing untoward should have happened.
But it had.
Deputy Oakley flipped a page in his pocket notebook and scribbled something in it. "So what exactly is this condition of hers?"
Edgar sighed. "She's suffering from a severe schizophrenic disorder of some kind, but I fear we haven't progressed much beyond that in our diagnosis. She's only been with us for less than a month."
Oakley's pen hovered over the page. "She's been here for a month and you still don't know what's wrong with her?"
Edgar bridled. "The human psyche isn't a car engine, Deputy," he said curtly. "We can't just pop the hood and poke around with a screwdriver to figure out why things aren't working." He settled back in his chair and moderated his tone. "Suffice it to say, though, this is quite serious, and she shouldn't be out among the general population."
He rummaged through his desk drawer for a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Oakley before helping himself. He was running low on cigarettes; the full carton he'd just purchased that morning was now in Julianna's possession, along with Edgar's Edsel and several full bags of junk food — the loss of which, incidentally, upset him almost as much as the theft of his car.
Edgar was a bald, portly man with heavy jowls and a big, bristling mustache; his brown eyes were watery and he had a large mole on his left cheek that looked like a teardrop. His hands were short-fingered and pudgy, but his fingernails were impeccably manicured and the silver cufflinks on his shirtsleeves were polished and elegant.
Oakley shook his head, declining the offer of a cigarette. "Is she dangerous? What did she do to get put in here?"
Edgar lit his cigarette before answering. "A few weeks ago she set fire to her neighbor's garage."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Third Hill North of Town"
Copyright © 2014 Noah Bly.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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