Ashley Warlick Seek the Living: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780618711987

Seek the Living: A Novel

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9780618711987: Seek the Living: A Novel
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Since her mother’s death, Joan Patee has kept the peace between her wayward brother, Denny, and her strong-willed father. Now confronted with her own troubles—a marriage strained by distance and the desire to have a child—Joan discovers that Denny is far worse off than she imagined. He's hatched a moneymaking scheme involving artifacts found in unmarked graves that may date to the Civil War. Pulled between the family she has and the one she would like to begin, Joan is drawn into a spiral of shady dealings and peculiar town secrets, some dangerously close to her heart.

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About the Author:

Ashley Warlick is the author of The Summer After June and The Distance from the Heart of Things, for which she became the youngest ever recipient of the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship. She graduated from Dickinson College in 1994 and now lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with her family.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

When the sun goes down, my brother and Hedy sit on the front porch and look out over the gravestones, through the bony November trees and beyond the road. The air is not warm with late fall, and they clutch sweaters around their shoulders, wear blue jeans and work boots, and from where they sit, throughout the cemetery, there are piles of leaves.

They have worked all day and now they rest, a fire barrel blazing full, cold bottles of beer in their hands. When I drive up the lane, I see Hedy has just lit a smoke. The flare of her lighter comes up out of the rising night, and she hands the cigarette to Den.

He?¦s seen me coming too.

He lopes off the porch, a horse in man?¦s clothing, all rolling, handsome motion. He rests his elbows on the open window of my car and hands me Hedy?¦s cigarette, which I rub in the pinch of my fingers.

?§Boo,?¨ he says.

?§Oh. You got me.?¨

?§Yeah. Later, we ?¦ll tell stories, and I?¦ll hold a flashlight to my chin. You?¦ll likely wet your pants.?¨

Even in this lazy light, his chin looks as if he took a file to it.
There?¦s a bruise on his cheek, a stitched place above his eye, welted and red. He grins at me, but then his gaze slips past my face and through the churchyard to the highway, as if he expects someone is to follow.

?§Where ?¦s Marshall??¨ he says.

I flip my palm over and leave it open. This is to mean Missouri or New York or Apalachicola--who knows. Marshall tracks disasters for a big insurance company; he goes wherever something horrible has happened and measures the loss. The insurance company trained him out of college, when he might have been a doctor or an architect, and his understanding of buildings and what brings them down is still tied to the lines of a blueprint. He says you can tell as much about a structure from its pieces as you can from its whole. When he compliments a woman, it?¦s on her carriage, or her bones.

He is never home, but I knew this when I married him and loved him so much I thought I wouldn?¦t mind. It has not proved to be the truth, but I hold myself responsible. There was a time when I thought whatever I could get would be enough.
What I?¦ve got right now is Denny. A week ago, he got pulled through the window of his car by a bunch of guys he did not know. Hedy was driving, it was night, they?¦d had a few beers and were stopped at the light in town. A man stuck his face in the window and asked Den if he had a problem. Den and Hedy just laughed, and then there were six more guys holding him down and Den was looking at Hedy, then the pavement, and then the inside of a concussion. He yelled at Hedy to drive off, but she was busy rolling up her window on some man?¦s arm come in to get her, and did not have the chance.

They went to the hospital and got stitches in Den?¦s eye, some questions from the cops, but there ?¦s not much to be done. Denny says he never got a good look at the guys, and he acts as if he doesn?¦t care.

?§Does it hurt??¨ I say.

He shrugs, toes his boot at the door of my car. ?§Is that what brought you down here??¨

?§It?¦s not so far to come.?¨

?§So I shouldn?¦t get a big head about it.?¨

?§Oh, no. Don?¦t do that.?¨

His face is close, and I reach out to brush my free hand across his stitches. He doesn?¦t flinch, but that?¦s never been a measure of things with Denny.

I ask him again if it hurts, this time softly, to have an answer.
The smoke from the cigarette laces the air between us.

?§It?¦s a small town,?¨ he says. ?§Half of it is husbands.?¨

This is the most I know about the cause of such a thing, because Den is quiet and keeps his own counsel, most of it with women he should know better first. Hedy is the latest, and she lives here with him, probably has for some time. She hangs back on the porch, standing, brushing the seat of her jeans, a long whisk of blond braid at her back. Den tells me she ?¦s in the habit of erasing other women?¦s messages she gets off the machine, so he was not expecting me today.

?§I?¦m sorry,?¨ I say.

He shrugs it off: not my fault, not my problem.

?§When I call, I should first say I?¦m your sister??¨

?§Oh.?¨ He looks back to the porch, to Hedy?¦s arms crossed over her chest. ?§I imagine that?¦s been done before.?¨

?§Right. So what, then??¨

?§So stay.?¨ He grins. ?§My sheets are clean.?¨

This is a kind of joke, because before he got beat up, he had a job at the laundry for the university and his days were all clean sheets. It had been a decent job, a matter of flat iron and delivery truck, the heavy, even pressure of heat. He worked beside old ladies and black men and students in hock, and I think he liked being one of them, his time laid out in plain terms: what was dirty to be cleaned, what was wrinkled to be pressed, what was not his to be delivered to whomever it belonged. There was an exchange student from India who once told Den he shouuld ccccome back to Delhi and open a laundry there because, cleanliness being next to godliness, he said Den would be a king.

?§All that gone by, Denny. Think of what you?¦re giving up.?¨

He takes the cigarette back, as I?¦m just wasting it.

?§What?¦s a boy to do,?¨ he says.

He unfolds himself from the door of the car and pops the latch for me to get out. I would have stayed anyway, even without his offer, because I?¦ve made the hour?¦s drive down here to talk to him and we are not the sort of family that requires invitations. Too, I know how men are about the giving and receiving of pain, which is to say generous, and women seem to be their favorite solace.
For men like Den, sisters are the safer place to look for such.
I have always felt this way about my brother, like I am the last, best place he comes, and so, sometimes, I come to him. So now, he reaches out and takes me in his arms for a long hug, rubs my back with it, and I feel special to him, as though he wants me here and has missed me, and I know that?¦s all part of his trouble with women, the trouble he ?¦s in right now, that he can make that feeling even for his sister. I whisper into his shoulder that I am glad he?¦s okay. He says, Me too, and it?¦s like he means it, all of it, and now we can go back to the task at hand.

It?¦s things like this, moments between us that make small sense in small ways, that make me think Den will be himself again for me.

When our father called about Den getting beat up, he ?¦d decided it was a good lesson for a son to learn.

?§In the paper, just last week,?¨ he said, ?§some family drives down the wrong street and the daughter gets shotCÎblam. Right out of the back seat. I?¦m telling you, Joanie, a man?¦s got to have thick skin--?¨

?§Yeah, but Daddy, all that family did was drive their car. Den was driving his car.?¨

?§That?¦s not true. Some girl was driving his car.?¨

?§So what are you saying, drive your own car??¨

He sighed. ?§No, kitten. I?¦m saying when I grew up, I could walk into a crowd of twelve drunk niggers and call them niggers and be fine, but nowadays, such will get your face beat.?¨

?§As well it should.?¨

?§Yes,?¨ he said. ?§I am too old for drunks anymore.?¨

Our father, in his college office. He calls a spade a spade, or whatever else suits his purpose at the time, all stories being flexible, biblical in relation to the truth. He says Den is digging a hole for himself and not coming out, that he wants to make whatever he might need to live on through the mail. He says Den hasn?¦t licked a stamp in thirty years, that he might not even know how to use a mailbox, let alone get money from one, and what?¦s the boy think, money comes in envelopes? He told me to get over here and straighten Denny out, as if it were something I could do with five minutes and a pair of pliers. And that?¦s the thing about our father: he hasn?¦t fixed anything that required more care than pliers in quite a while.

?§Den?¦s gone sour,?¨ Daddy said. ?§And that little lady he ?¦s shacked up with is jailbait city.?¨

This is the first I?¦ve met Hedy. She is soft-looking, a sigh of a girl. She asks me how my trip was, shakes my hand and kisses my cheek at the same time. She does seem younger than I expected, but of the same sort Denny is always fond of, as though he ?¦s always had the same girlfriend, only under different light, at different times in her life.

She holds my hand as if we are still meeting, her palm hard in the spots that hold things, and already I?¦m trying to guess what work she might do to so mistreat her skin. It?¦s a bad habit, and later I?¦ll have trouble reconciling what is really her and what I have made up. I pull away, brush my hair from my face and keep it behind my ear with my fingers, as if the time I have for handholding is over.

?§So,?¨ I say. ?§You?¦re at the university??¨

Yes. She?¦s been in and out, most recently in mortuary studies, but that was not for her. I think of the damp, greenish basement rooms in Long Hall, the cadavers stored in tanks, like underwatered fish. Something must cross my face, because she tells me, really, she ?¦s a very happy person.

?§I often feel like blue sky over the ocean,?¨ she says, and she smiles so I am given to believe her.

She pulls out the neck of her T-shirt and shows me the bruise on her shoulder from when they got jumped, and it?¦s still blue and green and shaped like fingertips. I tell her that must have hurt and she says she ?¦s just worried for Den. This is sweet, and I want to say something in kind. Instead, I tell her what our father said about lesson-learning.

?§And just think,?¨ she says. ?§That man?¦s blood is in your body.?¨

She looks squarely at me when she says this and there comes a pause in our hospitalities, the way we have been extending ourselves, one to the other. Something about her gaze, so fair and steady, I have to wonder what else Den?¦s been telling her about our family.

The house squats on a rise above the cemetery, and it?¦s Denny?¦s free of charge if he keeps the grounds, opens the Old Stone Church for holidays. In the kitchen, the stove needs rewiring and Den has its innards spread over the floor such that we have to pick our way through to the bourbon, then back to the porch where there ?¦s more room and a view. We sit in rocking chairs, drink from jelly jars, watch the sun finish its set. We listen to Al Green, before he was Reverend Al, get next to us from the old Philco radio at Denny?¦s feet. There is the sense the night could pass just this peacefully.

Den touches at his face from time to time, and I can see where his skin stretches tight across his brow bones. He has the look of a proto-man, fresh from the ice or the lava rock or the peat bog.
When the phone rings inside the house, he and Hedy both just let it go.

?§So, what?¦d the doctor say??¨ I ask him.

?§He said it could have been worse. He said, ?ASon, a man who is not with a woman is a dead man.?¦?¨

?§In this situation, perhaps.?¨

?§I got the idea he was speaking generally.?¨

?§I?¦ve seen Grand Hotel too, Denny. You can find a doctor who?¦ll say anything.?¨

He shrugs. ?§So what??¨

?§Den?¦s just upset because he has enemies,?¨ I say.

He says, ?§If I got upset over something like this,?¨ but then he trails off, and I wonder what he thinks upset looks like, if this is not it.

We stare out into the churchyard and cemetery, the white stones caught in the slow light. We try to pretend we are alone, each with another but not all three of us together, and this takes concentration. We can hear the cars passing on the highway, the call of dogs from another yard. When something moves, we all turn to it at once: Den?¦s black cat, snaking her way out of a crack in the floor of the porch, a trapdoor leading to the hard pack root cellar below.

?§What in God?¦s name do you keep down there??¨ I say.

?§Nothing.?¨

?§It?¦s creepy, an open hole like that.?¨

?§It came with the house.?¨

?§An open hole in a graveyard.?¨

He blocks his words carefully. ?§It came with the house.?¨

?§In the paper, just last week,?¨ I say, ?§there was an article about this guy whose hot tub came with his house. He started a kind of neighborhood spa, just for something to do with it. He called it a spa, at least. He ?¦s being arraigned on pandering charges. I don?¦t think you?¦re using your space here as profitably as you might be, Denny.?¨

?§Oh, you?¦re smart.?¨

?§And you?¦re sulking, for chrissakes.?¨

He gets up to start a new fire in the barrel.

?§Denny.?¨

But the screen door slams behind him, and I can see the fat strokes of heat on his wrists and forearms, the yellow of his bruised face gone masklike in the firelight. The fire does not need him, but he keeps at it anyway, to keep away from me, and I feel this small, self-inflicted ache open in my chest. Sometimes I just want to be next to him, want it way down inside me like I would live with him if I could, be his sister for always and always in his home, his good graces, his closest confidence.

Hedy stares out after Denny into the night. She watches him like a cat watching a pond. I wonder if he knows this, or if I will have to bring it up too.

?§Be careful, Denny,?¨ she says, ?§with the fire.?¨

He doesn?¦t answer her either.

She turns to look at me, and I make that small open gesture with my hand, a kind of shrug, a kind of there-you-have-it. She just keeps looking at me, level and water blue, until I feel completely adrift.

I say, ?§I get nervous around fires,?¨ although this is not particularly the case.

She tells me a story about a woman who died up in Seneca because of a broken air conditioner in the middle of July. It was between a hundred and twenty and a hundred and thirty degrees in her house. Plastic melted in her kitchen. Hedy handled the body in mortuary school, and it?¦s the reason she quit.

?§I?¦d fucking sue,?¨ Den says, folding himself back into his chair, but Hedy just smiles, and it?¦s as if he never left.

?§I rebuilt her face to look like Loretta Lynn,?¨ she tells me. ?§It was an exercise from a photograph, and, I swear, I nailed it. But if you use the embalming fluid in black people that you?¦ve made up for white people, it turns black people green.?¨

?§How green??¨ I say.

?§Greener than green. And there ?¦s nothing you can do to turn them black again.?¨

?§So what do you do then??¨

?§Drop out of mortuary school.?¨

Currently, she keeps a chicken coop on the edge of the property, cochins and leghorns and some kind of fancy chickens with blue feathers in their crests whose name she can?¦t recall. She ?¦s taking husbandry classes at the university and she ?¦s come across our father there, says he ?¦s a hardass with no appreciation for sustainable management, which is something we already knew.
But that brings up the subject of our father.

?§I?¦m supposed to tell you you?¦ve got to do something, Denny.
Get off your duff.?¨

?§And go where??¨

?§I was told to remind you of your age, your education foundering away in your head, your slim chances ofCÎI believe it was finding a corner in this town you haven?¦t already pissed in.
There?¦s quite a bit to say on the subject of geography, and horses, and--?¨

?§Gift horses or dead horses??¨

?§He?¦s worried, Denny, he really is,?¨ I say.

?§Worried??¨

?§Yes.?¨ And then, ?§In his way.?¨

Denny takes a sip from his glass, studies the laces on his boots.
His face becomes as plain as a clock?¦s.

?§Right,?¨ he says. ?§All kinds of horses.?¨
<...

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Book Description Mariner Books, United States, 2006. Paperback. Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****. Since her motherís death, Joan Patee has kept the peace between her wayward brother, Denny, and her strong-willed father. Now confronted with her own troubles?a marriage strained by distance and the desire to have a child?Joan discovers that Denny is far worse off than she imagined. He s hatched a moneymaking scheme involving artifacts found in unmarked graves that may date to the Civil War. Pulled between the family she has and the one she would like to begin, Joan is drawn into a spiral of shady dealings and peculiar town secrets, some dangerously close to her heart. Seller Inventory # APC9780618711987

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Book Description Mariner Books, United States, 2006. Paperback. Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****.Since her motherís death, Joan Patee has kept the peace between her wayward brother, Denny, and her strong-willed father. Now confronted with her own troubles?a marriage strained by distance and the desire to have a child?Joan discovers that Denny is far worse off than she imagined. He s hatched a moneymaking scheme involving artifacts found in unmarked graves that may date to the Civil War. Pulled between the family she has and the one she would like to begin, Joan is drawn into a spiral of shady dealings and peculiar town secrets, some dangerously close to her heart. Seller Inventory # APC9780618711987

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