Antonya Nelson Living to Tell: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780743200608

Living to Tell: A Novel

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9780743200608: Living to Tell: A Novel

After spending five years in prison for killing his beloved grandmother in a drunk driving accident, thirty-three-year-old Winston Mabie is returning to his Wichita, Kansas, childhood home and the sisters and parents he left behind. Though the surroundings are familiar, Winston's return suddenly forces the five Mabies to reexamine one another. Will they learn to talk of clean slates and new beginnings?As the Mabies wrestle with pregnancy, broken hearts, obsession, redemption, mortality, and forgiveness, Antonya Nelson weaves a rich and true tapestry of family.

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About the Author:

Antonya Nelson teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, and is the award-winning author of three novels and four short story collections. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Best American Short Stories. She divides her time among Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

On the runway, passenger Winston Mabie began to narrate his flight home in the manner of his own obituary.

Or, since he would note the milestones of survival, maybe it would be more proper to call what he was constructing an antiobituary. "Winston Mabie did not perish on takeoff, nor shortly after," he observed to himself once airborne, the plane struggling under him like a goose, urging itself upward, on a wing and a prayer. "Winston Mabie has survived the first minute of his trip." A former girlfriend once told him that most airplane accidents occurred in the initial forty-five seconds after the wheels left the ground; her habit had been to count slowly to forty-five and then relax, reassured by statistics. Winston gave himself a full three hundred measure, good and easy -- "two hundred fourteen, two hundred fifteen" -- before even pretending to slacken. He tallied as he breathed, glancing over his seatmate out the window where the gray riveted wing protruded like a ledge. He hated that wing, because now he was going to watch it from here to Wichita, waiting for it to fall off, to wobble and creak, to leak greasy fuel or burst into flame. And didn't those rivets need paint?

"Remember that Twilight Zone gremlin?" he said, sort of to himself, right after whispering "three hundred."

"Beg pardon?"

"I hate to fly," he murmured. His companion nodded distractedly. She'd already unpacked a load of work, her hands flashing over a computer keyboard, their ten gleaming fingernails the color of freshly minted pennies, thumb firm on the space bar. Copper, the nail polish would be named. Her toenails, he thought, would match.

The plane climbed and banked, shimmering as if relieved if not amazed at its own ability to lunge, once again, into the wild blue yonder. I thought I could, I thought I could, it seemed to be saying. Apparently it wasn't going to be caught unawares by a wind shear over the greater Kansas City metro area.

He would have preferred being driven to his parents' house, and ideally by his little sister Mona, but the ticket had arrived from his mother, her last missive addressed to him at Larned, and, since he was the son of depression era Democrats, both of them frugal and practical, he knew it had cost her more than its dollar price, and accepted his boarding pass without protest. Accepted it, and then handed it over as if in exchange for his life. Flying he hated; yet what awaited him, at the other end, he would no doubt also hate.

Winston surveyed, as best he could, the aerial view of his homeland. How would it be to die today, above the wheat fields and the grain elevators? From overhead, the elevators didn't resemble toilet paper rolls, as you might expect, but simple gray disks in the otherwise green landscape. It was awfully green, as rain had been falling ceaselessly in the Midwest this week, flooding and letting spin with the tornadoes, typical spring behavior. The Missouri River was swollen, as was the Kaw, the various declines around the countryside filled with water, reflecting the hazy sun back at the sky. The plane's shadow passed over the land like a premonition. Green and gray, puddles, patches, a great black looming storm approaching from the west, which was the direction Winston was aimed. It irked him that he might endure all the trauma at this end of the flight only to perish at that end. If it had to happen, he wished it would be now, save him the trouble of agonizing and brooding for the next hour....

Wouldn't it be queer, down there, to find the body parts of an airline accident? Scattered digits like buckshot, pieces pelting the tin farmhouse roofs and QuikTrips and the heads of farmers, the parking lots and their cars, the vast empty stretches of the north or south forty? But maybe the Midwestern farmer was prepared for the impact of parts, having been through cyclone season, all the wind-tossed objects driven by supernatural force into their phone poles and front doors.

"Winston Mabie did not succumb to turbulence over Olathe." Below him, just north, sat his alma mater, the University of Kansas, his former dorm rooms and housemates -- he latched on to one in order to claim his attention, direct his anxiety to the category of memory, what was she called, that strange roommate, Jennifer, who'd changed her name to Cassandra, who thought she was a witch, who couldn't drive her car so instead painted it with psychedelic house paint, crosses and bats and other funky discordant iconography....

He hadn't flown in more than five years, but it was all coming back to him, surging over him with familiar fears and hopes. Your comrades, sitting in alarming proximity, might be sensitive to your fear, or nursing their own, or they might be bemused, ignoring your presence despite your knee knocking against theirs, your cough in their ear, their collar and dander in your face, elbows sparring on the armrest, parry, thrust, retreat. Other passengers seemed to think of flight as either an opportunity to reflect with closed eyes, or to read a book, or to open a computer screen or magazine or catalog or safety guide from the elasticized pouch before them. They might casually consider the 747 diagram provided them and learn osmotically how to exit in case of emergency. The calmness of most passengers only served to exaggerate his fright; someone had to keep the thing aloft, praying and parlaying and striking unkeepable bargains.

"I hate to fly," he might comment moodily to his neighbor, as he had to this one, who on other flights might have agreed, she or he did, too, or who might smile indulgently, noncommittally, and return to an open, popular, poorly written novel. This person might strike up a conversation, might indulge some horror story of flight, might ask what he did for a living. How Winston relished the anonymity of this forced intimacy -- there beside him sat someone who could believe nearly anything he had the balls to create. He could be anyone: author, playboy, student, surgeon. Loyal son, zealous uncle, caring brother. Into most of this invention entered an aspect of truth, or at least of desired truth. In the abstract, climbing to 30,000 feet, Winston certainly wished he were honest and wise and humble and kind, modest and temperate and pious and sweet. His seatmate surely wanted it. Perhaps all the passengers of Flight 500 felt the same, hopeful for his success. Or utterly indifferent, either response one he could embrace. It was the response waiting for him on the ground that troubled him.

Down there there would be guardedness and suspicion and pity and solicitous kindness.

He imposed an exercise in distraction. First, didn't he want a cigarette? Wasn't he a pack-and-a-half-a-day man? Oughtn't that to be absorbing him at present? Wasn't his system hungry for his friend nicotine? And what about those flight attendants, two hefty middle-aged women, twin grinning Vikings, red-faced, ample-bodied frumps, zealously detached during the safety procedures, their cavalier treatment of the oxygen mask and the seat-belt buckle enough to make anyone see how perfectly safe he was in their hands, how needlessly worried...

Still, even though the flight wasn't full, Winston took a moment to stew about the stewardesses' heft. What if the plane were too heavy to hurl itself smoothly from here to there? What had happened to the regulations that had kept previous stewardesses trim and shapely, role models of anorexic teenage girls, subject matter of male pornographic fantasy? How the hell had these Wide Loads squeaked through flight attendant training....

It stunned him how quickly his thinking had shifted from its recent course to its older habit, how swiftly he'd moved out of prison. Never would he have guessed that flying would still frighten him. He'd thought he'd found subsuming fears to occupy him. But with each subtle bump, every minor instance of turbulence, his heart pattered.

He touched the smiling scar at the base of his skull, the little zipper of wrinkled flesh two inches long. To touch it brought a sweet nausea, a wave of willed discomfort, punching the built-in punish button. This was his pain, his and no one else's. It was a queasy combination, guilt and horror and simple sadness -- to touch it brought back a particular flashing moment, the interior of the car just after impact. And inasmuch as it tormented him, it also reminded him of who he was. This was his scar, his memory, pitiless and private, possession and stigma.

He used to be a driver, behind the wheel, in charge of his craft and master of his fortune. Of course, he had not driven a vehicle since the accident that had landed him in prison. This was a change he would have to accept in his character. He had now no desire to drive. In prison he had worked hard to adopt a philosophy that would permit him not to need a car. Something along the lines of a reach never exceeding its grasp, a destination never being other than one within walking distance.

Or on a bus line, he supposed now, observing the sheer space of his home state. Perhaps in a large city one could live without a car, but in the rural Midwest? In the boxy horizontal scatter of strip malls and suburbs and the long empty stretches between? Where property was habitually described in terms of acres and counties? He should have taken the bus home from Kansas City.

"Keep your nose clean," advised Sonny Noisome, Winston's favorite of the guards. Sonny had only one eye. Winston had come to trust the advice of the injured, the damaged, those who had lived to tell.

Over the PA system rustled the voice of the captain. His name was James Taylor. Winston sort of liked James Taylor the singer, even though he whined. In music, Winston's taste tended toward the sentimental, the ballad, the whiners. His little sister Mona liked to listen to people who were in some deeply developed stage of outrage or irony, nihilism ad nauseam. He loathed her music.

But James Taylor the pilot sounded more like John Wayne the cowpoke. He said he was taking the plane "upstairs" -- and on the way they might experience what he called "chop." Winston marveled. See how the world went on inventing new ways to say the same things? Even in his absence, this had happened: planes went upstairs, under the threat of chop -- and people like James Taylor were doing their best to "keep it smooth."

Down below, Winston believed he could pick out Emporia, which reminded him of the six years he'd spent making pit stops there, en route home from Lawrence, cotton-mouthed, red-eyed, aimed toward the weekend of doing laundry, eating his mother's cooking, sleeping in his giant bed, cranking up to return to school. College had suited him, better than anything else. Education, before college, had been to a large degree about avoiding conflict -- the conflict of the playground, of boys, of team sports. Winston hated competition. But once he'd hit the university, his difficulties passed. His natural inclinations -- sympathetic teachers had always labeled him "sensitive" -- had worked in his favor. He grew out his hair and started wearing sandals. The loveliest girls wanted to sleep with him. In a class on feminist literature, he had actually been mistaken for a girl; the professor opened her anthology, scanned the length of the long seminar table, and declared how glad she was to see a roomful of women. And this hadn't appalled Winston, not in the least. At East High he would have balked, he would have never lived it down, but at the University of Kansas he felt thrilled, included, camouflaged to advantage. He'd slept with four of those women over the course of the semester, including Dr. Ringley.

He would never experience that same ease in the world again. He felt suddenly sorry for himself, a wave of despair upon him. He had looked toward release from prison, had marked that time as his goal, his one concrete objective, a focal point in an otherwise monotonous landscape. You could be free, he thought, flying mysteriously through the air, and still trapped. Trapped by former happiness, by a knowledge of diminishing returns, by a cowardly nature. He ran his finger over his scar again, just to locate himself, just to feel his unique queasy pain.

The service cart was coming down the aisle, the seat-belt lights had gone off, the nose of the plane seemed satisfied with its altitude and allowed the tail to catch up, make itself level. Cruising altitude, his captain claimed cockily. Statistically, this was the part of the flight least likely to kill a person, but Winston could not reconcile the reasonability of statistics with the irrational and ludicrous fact that he was 33,000 feet above land. What sort of fool put himself in a vessel such as this, an aged flying bus whose interior shimmied as if to shed its exoskeleton, and allowed himself to be catapulted into the atmosphere? Preposterous. Of course millions of similar fools endured air travel every day. Of course it was more likely he'd smash off the interstate driving to the airport than explode in his plane -- the same ex-girlfriend of the forty-five seconds had also told him it was more likely he'd be hit by a meteorite than die in an airplane. Surely his odds of getting knifed in the exercise yard over five years' time were better. Yes, plenty of people survived many years of air service, there was probably an entire squadron of retired stewardesses, they probably had reunions, maybe they chartered a goddamned airplane for their reunions, what about old Chuck Yeager and Charles Lindbergh and all those military personnel, prevailing despite bombs and bad weather and tricky sworn enemies whose whole raison d'être was to blast them from the skies, all sorts of ill-fated adventures during all sorts of wars. Think of his own father, veteran of World War II, lying in the bomb bay of a tiny little plane, coming home over the Atlantic...

The 747 lurched suddenly, seeming to fall in the way of the roller coaster, a plunge that registered first in the groin, then throat, then head. No matter your thinking -- the body would always betray: Winston was still terrified of flying. The drink cart clanked. Instantly the seat-belt light dinged on. James Taylor-John Wayne came over the public address system, all mellow cowhand reassurance: "Well folks, we're experiencing some unexpected turbulence, just a little bumpy air, so I'm gonna -- " He cut off abruptly. What was he gonna? Winston clutched his seat arms, touching the pale cream sleeve of his seatmate with his elbow. She removed her arm without missing a beat in her typing. Unflappable, Winston thought. "Winston Mabie and his unflappable neighbor made it through a bit of bumpy upstairs air."

"I hate to fly," he repeated aloud, sincere and contrite. The plane shuddered once more. "Winston Mabie made it through the bumpy air?" he narrated weakly, a kind of plea. It surprised him to find that he did not want to die; he'd thought he did, a time or two lately.

Meanwhile, the service cart proceeded toward him. He tried to take solace in the serene expression on the stewardess's face. Surely she was destined to reach retirement from American Airlines, see her fiftieth or sixtieth birthday, fly in much worse cir...

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