Touch and Go

Touch and Go

by Thad Nodine


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Touch and Go by Thad Nodine

To escape an addiction, a young blind man in California steps into a station wagon with his friends and their foster kids to deliver a handmade casket to a dying grandfather in Florida. As they battle their way across the southern half of the nation, this rag-tag American family falls prey to love and lies, greed and violence, crime and Katrina.

With a voice reminiscent of John Irving, Nodine produces a classic “road-picture” novel that is part Travels with Charley, part As I Lay Dying, and part On The Road.

Touch and Go is a rich and rangy story about the careful and careless ways we treat each other—and ourselves—in a fast-paced, changing world. Kevin, the novel’s blind narrator, is one of the most perceptive figures in recent fiction. And his desire to do no harm is contagious. Through Kevin’s rich senses and boundless compassion, Nodine gives us a multicultural portrait of a true America. And he does so with deep affection for everyone along the way.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609530617
Publisher: Unbridled Books
Publication date: 09/27/2011
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

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Copyright © 2011 Thad Nodine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60953-061-7

Chapter One

Before we left California, we lived in a hodgepodge of a house where you couldn't get anywhere without walking around something else. Isa and Patrick slept in a rear room you had to walk outside to enter. Their two foster kids had small rooms along the hallway, but you had to walk through Ray's tidy nook to get to Devon's burrow, with its piles of denim, t-shirts, and rumpled magazines. I lived in a tiny room off the kitchen.

Summer's liberties had helped the kids loosen up with us, the way a common change of routines draws people closer, but by August the heat of Burbank didn't feel much like freedom. In a couple of weeks, Isa, Patrick, and the boys were driving cross-country on a family vacation of sorts, to visit Isa's dying father in Florida. I wasn't planning to join them. At the time, I didn't think of us as family so much as people who needed each other. I can admit this now: I was still in love with Isa.

Most people walk on autopilot. For me, steps understand; I navigate based on the supervision of surfaces. From the bus stop, our driveway was five paces past an odd slant in the sidewalk, which had been lifted by a tree that no longer existed. We didn't have a front path leading from the street, just a wide expanse of concrete where the trucker who'd lived there before us used to nose right up to the house. With all that driveway, the hardest thing for me to find was our front door in the stucco wall. There was no stoop, just a threshold.

On a sweltering day in the second week of August 2005, Ray guided me up the driveway, my hand gripping his thin shoulder, both of us hopping. Sweating. Laughing. Catching our breaths. As he reached for the doorknob, I stiffened at the sound of Isa's voice inside. "Isa" is pronounced with a long i like "Isaac," even though it's short for Isabelle. I'd always liked the way her voice warbled when she was upset, but that day, I bristled. I'd just lost the only real job I'd ever had, a part-time gig at the community paper, and I didn't want to face anyone—least of all Isa, who could always see through me.

The editor who had laid me off had been at the newspaper one week. When I'd walked into his office, his keyboard clattered in spurts by the far wall, so I knew he was facing away from me, typing at his computer desk. I cleared my throat; his keys stopped. The rollers of his chair whisked a moment and halted as he came to his desk, which lay between us. Two hard wooden chairs faced the desk and had their backs to me—assuming he hadn't rearranged the office. It was our first one-on-one.

He offered a half statement, half question, as if he weren't sure how to handle me: "There's two chairs in front of you?"

I should have set him at ease, saying something light and funny about sight, but I was self-conscious myself.

Mostly I'd been assigned profiles of local personalities that I wrote based on phone interviews. For people who were quirky or had an eccentric setup, I'd hire a cab to visit them, bringing along my digital recorder and laptop. I'd ask about their place, pictures on the wall, anything unusual, so I could fake a visual setting. The previous editor had insisted on that: readers need visuals.

But the people I interviewed were interested in nonvisuals. "You can't see at all?" they'd say. "But you get around so well." They liked listening to my screen reader on my laptop, the electronic voice that droned out my typed sentences at various speeds. And they asked how I knew where my cursor was on the screen. I tried showing them by having them close their eyes and listen to the computer read through options on a website as I dragged my finger across the touchpad. But it took too long to explain, so I learned to deflect the first rounds of questions. "Space is an abstraction," I told them, "based on the relationship between local objects." I got that from Einstein. I can't pretend to understand the science, but I like the idea of the space between us being illusory. I don't know how any of us find our place in this world except in relation to others.

After finding the two wooden chairs facing the desk, I folded Charlie—my cane—and laid him in my lap. He collapses like a tent pole, with an elastic cord inside, and opens solid, yet flexible. I faced to the right, trying to hide the scar that scampers from my forehead, behind my dark glasses, and onto my cheek. How many times had Dad told me: "Look at a man square. People get jittery when your head drifts." I took off my Western hat—a Bandit whose stiff Cattleman crown protected my head from branches and overhangs—and laid it on top of Charlie. Running my fingers through my hair, I braced myself and faced the editor full-on.

He wanted to know how I got from interview notes to finished copy, so I started telling him about getting quotes on my recorder and taking notes on my laptop, which I would listen to with my screen reader.

"What a memory!" he interrupted, followed by a long pause. "To listen to your notes and then type the article from scratch."

The truth is I listen to my notes more than once—particularly quotes. But I didn't want to dampen his praise.

"What about the visual details you put in? You know, what the guy looks like. The books on the shelf." He ran his words together and stopped—the same way he'd typed, I realized. "How do you come up with those?" he blurted.

I didn't want to blame his predecessor; wouldn't that seem a copout? I shrugged and said calmly, "I ask questions. People tell me things. I report them."

"How do you know they're telling the truth?"

"Same as anyone," I suggested. "I cross-check facts. And I touch things to verify."

"The view out a window?"

"These are profiles," I said. "Not attack pieces." My voice sounded sluggish, so I sped up, trying to match his confidence. "Why would people lie about things like that? I cross-check when there's a reason to."

Behind me in the newsroom, keyboards blazed. The full-time reporters. Hard news. What a poser I was.

"You're young," he exclaimed. "You're a good writer. I can use someone like you."

As if I didn't have a job already.

He described the benefits of freelance. The promise of doing a variety of assignments. The ability to pitch stories to multiple editors. "I like your early articles, those profiles of bums and addicts. That prostitute." He paused. "The later ones have been soft. Don't you think?"

My head drifted as I thought about that; those stories did have an edge. I'd written them after graduating from Channel House, a recovery home. I'd hung out in Hollywood, interviewing any drifter or street performer who'd talk to me. "I used a tape recorder," I offered. "That's how I did those stories." I realized I was gripping the armrests. I faced the editor and tried to relax.

"There you go," he said. Papers shuffled on his desk. "I want to see stories like that. You'll get an extra week's pay. After that week, give me a call and we'll talk about articles."

"You don't want anything next week?"

"Consider it severance pay. The least we can do."

I knew I should press him: Why not two weeks' pay? Why was I being laid off if he liked my writing? But I didn't want to jeopardize the relationship. I let my face drift. "Freelance again," I said.

"Welcome aboard." His chair rolled back, and his hands thumped the desk; he was making sure I heard. When I stood and extended my arm, he grabbed my hand and shook it.

I stepped out of his office feeling stung and numb, swinging Charlie back and forth along the short aisle between desks, stepping briskly, wanting to disappear. Since I'd never been given a desk or computer, I'd always felt like an interloper anyway. I knew most of the reporters, but it wasn't as if we confided. Even as I scuttled toward the stairs, I wanted Helen in sports or Cameron at the city desk to call out. Helen's keyboard clacked. Cameron bantered on the phone. I hurried on. Ex-addicts excel at that, rushing into the pain we long to escape.

My pal Charlie led me downstairs and out the office door, into the bedlam of pedestrians bent for home. Footsteps spat across concrete at odd angles. A stroller nearly clipped me. August is usually a slow month on Glendale sidewalks even in late afternoon, but I was jostled along and held up short. I scurried too quickly, mishandling Charlie and striking his tip along the edge of storefronts on my right. He didn't complain. I blustered across alcoves as the heels of my Western boots echoed the recesses. I found myself clenching my jaw. Before I came to the street corner, I had to huddle in a doorway. How many counselors had told me to stop and breathe—breathe, for God's sake—when I got like this? Holding Charlie against my chest vertically, his tip resting on the concrete and his rubber grip pointing up, I lifted my hat to rake my fingers through my hair. I took off my dark glasses to wipe my face with my forearm.

It was a part-time job anyway, I told myself. Eight hours a week. Hardly paid anything. Hack writing in a dying industry. But it was the best job I'd ever had. In San Francisco I'd been stuck in data processing, taking orders over the phone back when those jobs existed on this side of the Pacific. Writing for the community paper was the only gig where I hadn't felt hemmed in by blindness. The fact that it was part-time and low pay—that this was all I could get—what was the point of remaining sober? I'd struggled to stay clean for twenty-seven days shy of two years. Even on the best days, I found myself longing for a whiff of crack—just a small rock to take me away. Today I needed to get home before I did something rash.

I reached Charlie forward and set off for the street corner. When his tip caught on my left, my opposite hip glanced against something: a parked bicycle? It didn't fall. I knew I should slow down, but I charged on, driven by the risk of dawdling, as if ! could hear my personal triggers—click, click, click—snap toward relapse.

Cross-traffic signaled the end of the block. I made my way left and should have waited for the light's cycle as footsteps ran past me across the intersection. Instead I hustled from concrete onto the gentle slope of road pavement, swinging Charlie back and forth. A horn blared on my right. A man yawped, incoherent. Charlie found the opposite curb, and as I stepped onto concrete, a car whizzed behind me. I turned north and caught an MTA bus toward home in Burbank.

When I got off downtown and the bus pulled away, the sidewalk felt forlorn after the bustle of Glendale. A woman's heels disappeared around a corner. A man's shoes scraped away and then back, pacing. Diesel hung in the air. The longer I waited for the Empire line, the more the shame began to gnaw at my stomach. There'd been rumors for months that the paper would be downsizing, and the new man had started with me. I could get that. But he'd done it by questioning my accuracy. He'd laid me off by saying, "Welcome aboard." And I'd folded like a wet leaf.

I turned away from the sun, away from the noises of the street, my crown sweating inside my hat. I had about an hour until the N.A. meeting at Victory Church, but I was two blocks from the tinkling of highballs on a bar. I thought about calling my sponsor, but my neck tensed into knots. I pressed my thumb into Charlie's rubber grip past the point where my knuckles hurt. My left foot tapped the ground as I stood still as a bum. I dreaded seeing anyone and was afraid of being alone.

A bus hissed, releasing a whoosh of air. Doors clattered open. My face was wet with sweat. I turned and stepped forward. "Empire?" I called.

"Kevin!" Dotty barked from the driver's seat, which groaned as she shifted her weight.

Charlie's tip glanced against the side of the bus, then found the doorway. I stepped in, relieved and panicked to be heading home.

"Why the face?" Dotty said. "What happened?"

I forced a smile. "Just got a freelance gig," I said, my voice high-pitched and cheery.

"That's what I'm talking about!" she said, her voice gruff. "Good for you!"

I sat against a window and laid my hat on my lap. I'd been fired before. Laid off. Let go. Of course I could adapt. I was only twenty-seven, for God's sake. I'd used crack for less than two years; I was not one of those rigid ex-addicts.

When I got off the bus at Lincoln Street, I set out along the sidewalk in an obstinate rush, tilting forward, a right angle to Charlie's line swinging back and forth down to the concrete. To my left, from the open door, voices buzzed from inside the local bar.

"Hey, partner!" a man stammered from somewhere near the doorway, his tone open, friendly.

I frowned. From the hot sidewalk, I smelled bratwurst and old urine. My head throbbed. I kept charging. Halfway down the block, I struck the outside of my right ankle midstride against something hard as hell—a shopping cart, which clanked as it pitched over the curb into the street. Stupid-ass cowboy boots, I thought, grabbing my foot, wincing, hopping in circles on my other foot. Charlie clattered to the concrete, no help at all.

"Kevin!" Ray called from across the street—or in the street. "You okay?" His voice was unmistakable—high-pitched and concerned. He was twelve years old and had just begun to open up after ten months with us.

It happens to me a lot: private moments turn public all of a sudden. "Watch out for cars!" I called back, still stooped, balancing on one foot, holding my ankle.

Ray was already pattering next to me, forever running and fidgeting, ten steps ahead of my thoughts. "You look funny!" he said, giggling. He didn't care that I was blind. He wasn't ashamed of my scar. He didn't know I was a failure. In that instant, I saw myself from a kid's perspective: hopping. I dropped my foot and tugged him against me, my arm around his slim torso. He wanted none of that; he pulled away quickly. In the house, away from people, he loved to be coddled, but not out on the street, where someone might see him. He was small, but he was going into seventh grade after all.

I heard him folding Charlie. Then he brought my palm to his near shoulder and set off guiding me home. I squeezed gently, enjoying the familiar curve of his thin collarbone. That's one way I know people, by the rhythm of their shoulder or elbow as they settle into a gait. I tried to match his short, quick steps. Ray doesn't like to lead so much as he likes the attention of being followed. After a few strides, he started hopping on one foot, laughing, and I started hopping as well. Before I could help it, I was laughing too.

Chapter Two

As Ray and I hopped up our driveway, panting, the strike of his shoes and my boots echoed from the stucco siding. I heard the lilt of Isa's voice inside, which made me plant both feet on the ground. With Ray tugging my arm, however, I didn't have long to linger. If I didn't tell anyone, I reasoned, how could Isa know I'd been let go? Ray pushed open the door.

"I don't want to travel with that thing," Isa sang out, her voice restless and uneasy. "It's morbid. It gets in my head."

As I stepped onto the threshold behind Ray, nudging him into our stale air conditioning, he resisted. I wanted the escape of my room, but now Ray wouldn't budge. Our front door opened to a seam between kitchen linoleum to the right and family-room carpet to the left, as if the doorway had been built before the rooms were laid out. To the right of the entry, a spot where the linoleum buckled meant two steps to the kitchen table, plus three more to my room, depending on the odd chair in the way.

Before us on the linoleum lay a startling sight, I know now. But at the time, I assumed it was Isa's tone that made Ray hold back; he hated confrontation. His mother had died almost a year ago, and his dad was in Soledad, a maximum-security prison—that was how he'd come to us.

"It's a business investment," Patrick said irritably. "Every time I have a breakthrough, every time I show initiative, every time I come up with an original idea to put food on this table, you have to bring me down. Have a little faith, for God's sake."

Patrick was thirty-eight and was always trying pyramid schemes and so-called business investments to get rich quick. For the past six months, most of 2005, he'd been trying to sell prefabricated homes, but they hadn't taken off as quickly as he'd expected. Before the modular units, it had been Japanese kitchen knives, which he'd bought below wholesale, from an importer facing bankruptcy, and tried to sell to housewives. He still had sixty in slim wooden boxes in the hallway. Before cutlery, it had been obscure bones, most of which he'd bought in Mexico and smuggled across the border for resale as juju, or fetishes, to fortune-tellers and kooks, as far as I could tell. He'd participated in an archaeological dig in Mexico years ago and claimed to have smuggled Aztec jawbones into California for a professor. He said he carried stingray barbs, python vertebrae, and coon bones, but I never trusted what was in the cardboard boxes stacked in the corner of his room. Once, when he was away, I opened a box, expecting to find human-like tibias or femurs, but the bones I felt were thin and brittle, gritty, like whittled chunks of chalk.


Excerpted from TOUCH AND GO by THAD NODINE Copyright © 2011 by Thad Nodine. Excerpted by permission of UNBRIDLED BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Touch and Go 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
SteelMonkey More than 1 year ago
This is a great novel....soomething like what Dave Eggers would write if his coffee was watered down a notch or An Eggers book, soon after you start, you look at it wistfully and already wish it were longer. This is a first buying this book not only gains you a good is an investment in hopes Thad Nodine continues to write books this good!