Best of the Net 2007  

The N

The head nurse blocked my way and asked what exactly didn’t I understand about the word no, and I told her: the N. It is exactly what I do not understand about what she said. I’ve never understood it very well, and now it has tried to kill us, and I know that I will never ever understand that. It stands there at the beginning of a word, like what?—some guard or a wall. I mean, I think about it now, the N, the shape: up, down, up. Who can get over it? Listen: I never will. I have seen it up close, and I do not understand.

I grew up in the town of Nooper, Nevada—have you heard of Nooper? It is a desolate place among the Knuckle Mountains, and when I was eleven my father struck it rich. He had the lease on a nickel mine that kicked in, and rather than leave Nooper, which my mother ached for, he built a big house on the hill. I mean, we had the first pool in Nooper. This was a house with five bedrooms for the three of us, a nine-foot cable dish, and a central vacuuming system, the first vacuum deal like that in Ninsel County, any county north of I-80 really, in all of Nevada, and it is an upgrade any miner’s wife appreciates. But my mother pined every day she was in Nevada; nothing could appease her longing to return home to Oklahoma, a place she described to me every day as a garden where her childhood had been blessed with a winding river and cottonwood trees, something the windy sage hills of dusty Nooper did not resemble. Nooper wasn’t really anything beside the nickel mine; there wasn’t even a proper grocery. We had to drive nineteen miles to Pear to shop. There was nothing in Nooper except the four-way stop, ten wooden buildings—three of them bars—and the Nellpan Nickel Mine, which my father, Ned Nellpan, owned.

We had, of course, a giant N on the hill above the town. For years it had been a ragged furrow on the hillside that would be poured with white lime every spring, so small planes could see it and wonder what the hell little town was down there, Nora? Nucla? What? All the towns in Nevada have letters on the hill. There’s a big stone P above Pear, the C bladed into the hill over Caruso, and the A painted on the rock bluff on top of Ardell.

And we were Nooper, and when my father’s mine came in, his first real success after a good run at various enterprises, he got the notion of putting us on the map too, and that spring when the work crew went up, they carted ninety bags of Neatmix and some crude two-by-eight forms, and they poured a fifty-foot N of which our little town could be proud.

It took them through the weekend, and because of their hurry and because they worked several hours in the dark, our big letter came out crooked, that is, the knee joint was a little low, but it looked fine anyway: N.

It did cause a strange thing to happen to all the little planes headed southeast, because when they looked down at that heading, it did look like a Z, and it scared some pilots because they thought they were over Zaradola, which is the last outpost at the edge of the nuclear test site north of Vegas. This was a legitimate confusion because Zaradola has that burn dump where they incinerate all the old military fuel, and most days the smoke here in Nooper from the nickel smelter is the same neon orange. Anyway, for the six years our N was up there above our new house, there’d be three or four planes a week that would suddenly rip a U-turn and head north long enough to get out their charts.

If that were it, some small aircraft confusion and an ugly little town around a mine, I wouldn’t feel the way I do, but the nurse had asked me a question, and I had to tell her the whole story. I needed something; I needed her to understand this.

The price of nickel went up. It doubled. It doubled again. And it’s an expensive metal to begin with. The manufacturers of handguns needed prime nickel alloy to plate their top-of-the-line. You need nickel for any stainless steel. My father had trouble getting men, getting anybody, to come to Nooper. It was a long way from any place you can think of. We were already rich, I think, and then we were double that. My father was always gone. He ran the mine; he ran the smelter. He did double shifts for years. I think his plan was to do everything double for a good stretch and then—big house or no—make my mother happy by scooping us all up and heading back to Oklahoma. I know he wanted to make my mother happy, but the mine was a bona fide phenomenon. I remember those days as my mother in her room, my father gone, but from time to time I’d wake in the middle of the night and tiptoe out to see him standing in the front hall vacuuming under the dimmed chandelier.

I had started in at Ninsel Regional High the year my mother left. It was sad for me and upsetting, but I knew she had to go. Her departure sent my father into a redoubled fury of activity: the mine, the smelter, the shipping house. He announced three shifts, round the clock. The mine hummed night and day, and the tracks to the smelter were a constant flow of ore cars back and forth, and the nickel dust, an eternal mist over Nooper, doubled.

I respected my mother’s decision, but in it somehow I knew I had failed. I wasn’t interesting enough to stay for. And in that failure, I became a quiet boy. At the Ninsel Regional High School, I had no friends. I mean zero. There were dozens of days my first year there when my only word was yes when Mrs. Littlefield in the cafeteria would ask if I wanted fries on the burger plate. I knew her name because of her black name tag, not unlike those the nurses had, and I thought of her as my mother. There were days when all I said was one yes. It is a word I understand.

My father bunked at the mine, and I woke in the dark, plodded down to the bus, went to school, and sat straight in my classes, the boy from Nooper, said yes to Mrs. Littlefield, and later rode the bus home and walked up the hill toward our house and that N. How can I say it: I was just there. I didn’t really have any hopes. I did my homework and listened to Radio Free Winnemucca when it came in, all the old rock and roll, and I slept at night listening to the moaning of Nooper as the nickel trickled deep in those old hills.

That’s who I was. That’s who I was when I met Nanette, or rather when she spoke to me outside social studies, asking me if I thought it was really all that necessary for us to study the rainfall in Portugal since this wasn’t climate school, this was social studies, and I said something, words came out of my mouth, certainly a surprise to me. I said, we should be studying socials, I guess, such as the junior and senior prom and maybe the Christmas Dance, and as I completed these words it was as if I could see them before me as things and they were strange and wonderful, and I didn’t know if I should be afraid or happy. We stood there in the old waxed hallway of the Regional High School stunned. I could see it on her face; I had spoken. It was like the cork was out of the bottle and we didn’t know what to do now, so I just kept going, and the next thing I said was something like, I’d like to do some social studies and get inside that junior prom and see exactly what the rainfall is. And when I finished that sentence I decorated it with a smile and I rolled right through with: And what about you and me going together, something social to study, me and you? It’s sometime this fall.

Well, what would you do if a statue started talking? If you were walking by some bronze bird in a garden and it cried out or said Good day, my man. The only noise I’d ever made in school was to laugh (along with everyone else) when Mrs. Dennison, our English teacher, said that at the end of A Tale of Two Cities Sidney Carton was being hauled off to be decaffeinated. And I liked Ms. Christenson.

I give Nanette a lot of credit. I started talking! Some of our classmates after hearing such an unmistakable dam unmistakably burst would have run for high ground, but she stood there and climbed up into her own smile and said, now this sounds like a plan, Portugal or not.

And that was that. I was started. Nanette and I began our social studies, standing in the gymnasium for “Nickels and Diamonds!” which was the name and theme of the junior prom. I was in simple amazement most of the time. Amazed that I could talk, that I had ideas, amazed perhaps mostly by the notion that after a long, idle, lonely time I could see that I might have some kinship with other people. Our classmates, all shined and wearing pressed clothes, swirled under the rotating reflections of the mirrored prom dome, and I could see couples sitting on the old wooden bleachers by the punch table and the little “Nickels and Diamonds” theme platforms they’d set in each corner of the room (piles of big papier-mâché coins that I think were supposed to be nickels and mixed with giant diamonds made out of tinfoil) and I could smell the old gym itself, a pleasant smell, really, of the thousand games and dances and community potlucks it had hosted since being built in 1896, the building rife with anxiety and relief, and I could feel Nanette’s arm on my arm as we walked the perimeter, moving loosely against the rhythms of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree,” being hammered out by the Norman Noll Combo.

Not knowing how to behave, we’d decided to stroll and stop on each painted corner of the basketball court and then each say three sentences. It was the way we began to do things, with rigid plans, and frankly, it was a relief. Because by the time we’d passed the punch bowl and sauntered through what felt to me like a thick web of our classmates’ stares and were standing on the corner of the floor nearest the band, I no longer felt like a fool. This was not a small thing. My trousers were a touch too short, and my father’s brown tweed coat was a shoulder too wide, but when we pulled up at corner number two, I doused my hands in my trouser pockets, dropped a shoulder as a person who is not a fool should, and I said, “Here we are at corner number two, Nanette, and how do you like the view from here?”

“It’s different,” she said, and then she whispered, “but somehow the same.”

I nodded at her sagely and said, “I’m not going to evaluate the perspective until we have touched every corner.”

“Norman Noll and his combo do appear somewhat older than they did from the far corner,” she said. She was standing again with both of her arms around one of mine and we were whispering loudly through Mr. Noll’s version of “Moon River.” Behind us, two dozen couples shuffled slowly in the spotted twilight.

“Norman Noll was a miner until music captured his heart,” I said.

“And now he goes from town to town with his combo, helping people like us,” she squeezed my arm, “to walk around gymnasiums.” She pulled me forward, and we began again a journey across the room.

What might be hard to understand about such an exchange is that for us, this was magnificent stuff, brilliant and glimmering, and just three sentences! I felt as if we were lifted and floating, flying over the whole prom, rotating like that mirrored ball sending light everywhere. Of course, what it was, what powered me through “Nickels and Diamonds!” and made my heart gigantic, grand is a better word, was that I was in love. I was in love, and I didn’t know it; I thought that something vast and tragic had happened to me the way it might happen to a character in a four-pound book; I could see humanity from my new height. I was large and doomed. We drifted in that gymnasium until midnight, saying sentences to each other, and there were tears from time to time, which I didn’t understand, in my eyes.

It was simply magical, and it was magical simply because I didn’t have the words for any of it. I could do my three sentences, each one astonishing me, and I could hear Nanette speaking, her every word like a diamond, a dewdrop, some strange nectar from a secret place, but I didn’t have any words for love and so I couldn’t see what was giving me flight. We didn’t kiss. We walked out to the parking lot and said goodnight as if the word itself were a gold clasp on a silver night, and nothing was ever the same again in my life, not the bus, nor the bus ride, nor the night above the stark and murderous ravines of the Knuckle Mountains we traveled through on the thirty minutes back to Nooper, nor the starlight on the barren sage hills, nor the raw town of Nooper itself, nor my intoxicated walk (I drifted, really) up the stark incline toward my changed house under an N, which for a moment only gathered every light in the world and shone, simply shone for me as if some phosphorescent consonant at the bottom of the oldest ocean. Nothing was the same, not my bed, nor my thoughts, nor the distant ticking of the nickel mine. Nothing would ever be the same for me. I see it now. For that night I was like a boy dropped from space on his new world, that is, I didn’t sleep and I shouldn’t have because I was awake, awake, awake.

Nanette and I continued our social studies that fall and through the harshest winter on record. It was as if the bald, round hills of Ninsel County, Nevada, were the very face of the earth as it fronted the dark frigid void. I said that to Nanette, and she said to me: it is as if the cold is asking us to breathe less, to stand still and wait for something beautiful to happen, something small, one beautiful thing. Well, winter, a killer freeze that settles on the land like an iron cloak is one thing, and the exchange of sentences by two fifteen-year-olds for the few minutes each day they met by the radiators in the main hall is another. That is to say, winter moved in with all its powers and privileges, but I was in love (though I did not know it even then), and therefore I was landlord and it did what I said.

This was a period when the ruined Nooper Valley, barren and blasted and ripped by a thousand gapping mine excavations, each appearing like some raw gash in an already wounded landscape, became an enchanted place. Each small crude tailings pile bleeding into the noxious yellow Nopdish River, every tragic cottonwood along the river bottom, long dead and looming like a ghoul, all the dwarfed jackrabbits limping among the stunted sage, all these seemed the very magical furniture of the Garden of Eden. And when spring came that year, though there was no outward sign of life, no birdsong, bud, or flower, just a drier version of the insistent nickel dust pulsing from our huge mine, it still seemed to me (and always will) the most inspiring time of my life. The dust, for the first time, smelled sweet.

This love, this life, was conducted in a charmed place, Ninsel Regional High. I rode the crumbling yellow bus to school like a young man on a golden steed, and I strode up the crumbling steps as a prince approaches the tower in a story, and these were storied days. Nanette and I talked and talked. We walked the hallways before first bell, the campus during lunch, and we whispered in the library for twenty minutes after school before my bus departed. I’m going slow here with my story because it all changed in a day, the day she went home with me.

By May, however, nothing had changed. The world was still lit for us, and there was so much more to speak of; we hadn’t even started! We hadn’t kissed because we didn’t need to. We looked into each other’s eyes, and what we saw there was something beyond discussion. We were children, I suppose, but those deep glances were like fusion, and they welded us tighter than any embrace.

It’s not exactly true that the world hadn’t changed. It was warmer, the blond afternoons hot now and the big windows of Ninsel Regional High open to catch part of the dusty breeze. And one day as Nanette and I drifted along the path between the football field and the gymnasium, I asked her if she’d like to come up to Nooper to my house some day after school and swim. She said this is water into which we would get? I said yes. She said it’s one of my favorite elements. I said there’s air too and earth, of course. Of course, she said. All these elements. But no fire, right? Right, I said. No fire. We wouldn’t have to jump into fire? she asked. No, just the water. She put her hand on my shoulder, which had become her custom in our dialogues, and said, what an utterly scrupulous decision. Count me in. I’ll bring my bathing costume tomorrow.

That was the way we talked. But this time words became deeds, and the next day after school, Nanette boarded the Nooper bus with me and we rode north through the wrinkled Knuckles, every gulch awash with the same residue, viscous and ocher, that rinsed from those hills every spring, but this time things were clearly different. There was someone at my side.

The moment we disembarked at the four-way in Nooper, Nanette looked up the hill and saw it and said: “N.”

“That’s our N,” I said.

“And it should be,” she said. “I love it right now. It gives me feelings.” She smiled at me. “Where is this swimming pool?”

We walked up the switchback path together, and the walk filled me with feelings too. I hadn’t thought about it, really, the two of us alone like this. We were used to being at school. I understood that place. This was odd, exposed, dangerous. Some line had been crossed. The tattered rooftops of Nooper fell below, and we walked hand in hand to my father’s house.

He wasn’t home, of course. He was never home now, managing the mine around the clock. When Nanette saw the pool, she beamed at me, raised once onto her toes, and went into the bathroom to change. I was having a little trouble with the way the village, the hill, and now my house had changed into new things because I was with Nanette. The strangeness was on everything. As I put on my swimsuit and went outside to meet her—knowing she’d undressed in this house and now and it would never be the same. I felt the rush of vertigo; things were tipped, and I was off balance.

Then she came out in a bright red one-piece suit that clamped itself onto the walls of my heart and made it impossible for me to breathe, to speak, to move, a red that told me for the first time that love has a body too. A quick light flash of water burned across my eyes. Nanette did not stop, but stepped to the lip of our pool, the only pool in Nooper, Nevada, and slipped into the water like a whisper. I followed.

What we did for an hour there, I can only vaguely recall, because freed from the world and floating, we were young animals. At school we’d been minds, and now we were not. Nanette loved to swim and rose grinning from every surface dive, her teeth white, her eyes glistening. We bumped one another in play. She tugged at me and jostled and climbed on my back. For an hour we swam and wrestled, ending up shoulder to shoulder against the wall of the deep end, resting, and this happened. We looked at each other. That sentence must suffice, but it doesn’t approach the truth. I learned that day that some looks are tangible, sometimes when you turn and see the person who is the one person whom you want to see, the look pulls into your heart like a train into a station bringing every new thing to your old town. The look held and our breathing subsided, and I saw her grin vanish as our eyes fixed and there was nothing to do but kiss, and we did kiss. Side by side like that we both leaned in and closed our eyes and I felt her mouth, the mouth that had helped me learn to speak, fall against my own.

Who can describe such a thing? The world I glimpsed in that kiss as it opened? I felt everything in me change. We turned tighter and locked and rode that urgent spin. A while later, still twisted in the water, our legs intertwined, we looked again at each other. Now this is tough, because as that kiss fused and I felt my heart fist, everything blew. At first I thought Nanette had struck me with her elbow but then we felt the water seize and the pool rock as a single wave that broke. Nanette grabbed me, her arms around my neck suddenly tight, as we were thrown into the pool wall and I heard it—a noise in the ground, the catastrophe that would be the end of Nooper, its thriving mine, its twenty crude buildings; and the explosion came to us as a seismic groan as the earth took itself back with a shrug that would injure seventeen miners, killing among them the owner of the mine, my father.

The concussion from the sudden collapse of the mine ran outward underground for twenty miles, cracking every doorsill, separating steps from foundations, curbs from gutters all the way to the Ninsel Regional High School, where the old steel flagpole shuddered and paused and then dropped gracefully and without making a sound deep onto the roof of the Oldsmobile belonging to the principal. The disaster registered a 2.0 on the Richter scale at the University of Nevada at Reno.

In the only swimming pool in Nooper, Nanette held me, her face planted in my shoulder as we rose and fell in the agitated water. Our bodies were as close as they could be, and I wish I could remember it all and have it again, her skin, her swimming suit, her face in my bare shoulder. As it happened I wasn’t thinking of those things, just listening to the earth as it took its measure and now readjusted.

But in that pool, that sound was snapped off by a yelp and a grinding, so near that I pushed Nanette away so I could see. And what I saw was also death. Above us on the hill, the Nooper N had busted loose and was sliding like a bulldozer toward us. Brush and rocks were snapped and thrown and swallowed under the blade of the monstrous concrete letter, and we could hear only its roar and feel the elemental grinding, and we were caught now in the sure path, unable to move and luckily so in the ten long seconds it took that N to slip into a savage gallop and rise suddenly at our wrought-iron back fence, which blew away in a fan of sticks. We didn’t scream because I think neither of us understood what we were seeing, but then the pool furniture and the shrubbery shot away, and the sheer noise crushed us. Nanette pulled me down into the churning blue water and while we were under, the water went black. Our arms were still tangled. After the darkness there was one more shock of pressure, which we found out later was the foot of that concrete capital N kicking half my father’s house into the spring wind. But it was the house that stopped the N, and it came to rest, the crossbar over the pool like a lid.

We surfaced. I could smell dirt and hear in the new roaring silence clods of it dropping into the pool in the half dark. There was enough room to breathe, and through that strange day there came to be more room as the water found the fissures in the damaged pool wall. Nanette was weeping and I was weeping. I didn’t know if she was hurt or not. It grew cold and we held each other, shivering as the muddy water receded and the hours passed. They didn’t find us until late the second day, knee-deep in that ruined enclosure, trapped by that N. Throughout the Knuckle Mountains there had been other bad business that kept the EMT crews busy until one truck finally came up our cracked road and poked around. It was Terry Nash, a fireman. He rummaged around and called out. And eventually they put Nanette in the helicopter and brought her to the hospital. They put me in a van and drove the other way to Reno. That was a week ago today.

So there it is. The answer is N. It is exactly what I don’t understand about the word no. I understand the O. Though it has no beginning and no end, it has never tried to kill me. And I understand that visiting hours are over, and I understand that it was the head nurse’s mission to clear the floor of friends and family. I’ve been in hospitals before. But I hoped she wouldn’t say that word again. I’d driven all night and all day, and I needed to see Nanette. If she was sleeping I would sit and not make a sound, not a whisper. Do you see? What I needed the nurse to say to gather my full understanding is simply the word yes.

-Ron Carlson (Narrative Magazine)