boldtype
excerpt    
 
Nine Below Zero (Kevin Canty)


book cover































first pullquote



















































second pullquote



















































third pullquote
  He bent to kiss her and found last night's bar in her hair, cigarette smoke, stale beer and pine disinfectant. Lie down with bartenders, he thought, wake up with angels. A sense of fairness. He summoned his courage to kiss her neck. She chased rabbits in her sleep, stirring and mumbling.

Marvin Deernose slipped out of the bedroom in stocking feet and laced up his boots in the kitchen. The philosophical Indian: he liked this hour before daylight, when he could stand outside himself, watching. An inheritance from his father, who never slept past six-thirty in his life. Marvin longed for coffee but Carla was a coffee artist, whole beans and the grinder and Herr Coffee, the German machine. No way to fire it up without waking her. He gave up, rested in her kitchen chair for a moment, enjoying the quiet, the heaviness of his body and the blue edge around every shape. The philosophical Indian finds something to admire even in the depths of a hangover. Nothing is lost on him. Empty beer cans stood along the counter like witnesses. Guilty, they declared, guilty, guilty, guilty.

Quarter to six, half an hour before daylight.

A memory: Marvin and his father sitting around the kitchen table while the rest of the house slept, his father listening to the radio, the cow and pig news out of Billings.

Cold wind pressed against the windows, a thousand miles of empty sky. It was only November but winter already, with months to come. Marvin hunched down into his good wool coat and stayed a minute

longer in the warmth of her house. A longing for marriage, normality.

He rubbed his face into his hands and felt the damage that had not been slept away. A moment's glimpse of the soul inside his chest, the pearly whiteness shining through the black of his sins. Like an egg. Curl up inside it. He thought of Carla sleeping, foul naked comfort between the sheets, cursing in her dreams. No, you fuck you, she told him, sound asleep. An empty pack of Marlboro lights lay crumpled on the table. Marvin saw it, felt his head spin slightly, one degree off, and then it was time to go. Temple of his body. The gates of sleep were closed against him. The day, begun, would not go backwards.

Outside was zero, plus or minus. The small hairs inside his nose stiffened and froze within ten feet of her door. Petrified dog turds lay in the snow, in little caves of their own making, the action of the sun being stronger upon the darkly colored turds than upon the lightly colored snow. So saith the scientific Indian. The time and place for science, and not for natural comfort or ease, living simply in the world. In the darkness and cold was the need for technology. When his pickup started on the first crank, Marvin reached his bare hand out and petted the cold steel of the dashboard, good dog Ford. The cold was like a gigantic weight, pressing the houses down against the earth. The human skin, like the skin of an orange.

The sun was just under the horizon, rising up out of the plains. The sky was hammered lead. Marvin could see fine but when he turned the headlights on, he was surprised at how bright they were.

King of the world: the only one awake. He drove the sleeping streets downtown, past the Sportsman's Lounge, scene of the crime. The one traffic light was blowing around on its cable, stop, go, I forget. Nine below zero by the Rosebud Farmers and Merchant clock, nowhere close. If the bankers wanted Marvin to trust them, why did they set their clock to lie? A kind of flattery. Colder in the winter, hotter in the summer, the pioneer spirit lives on in our hearts. Indian uprising: try extra value checking. The American suckers were asleep with their wives in their snug little houses, the chainlink yards holding in each private patch of blackening snow. Dogs barked at his pickup. Little box houses with too many things in the yard: boats, trucks, Corvettes, doghouses, decorative concrete, motorcycles, birdbaths, wishing wells, Studebakers, canoes, firewood, anonymous shapes under blue plastic tarps, a plaster Mexican, a painted-plywood rear view of a fat woman planting flowers, snowmobiles, Montegos, Satellite Sebrings, barbecue grills, deer-hides, smokers made from dead refrigerators, all covered with a rotting patchwork of snow, all but the satellite dish, swept clean to improve reception.

It felt like breaking free when he passed the last Circle K, the final mobile-home lot: trailers lined up along the highway like tin pigs and the

American flags and the enormous sign lit up against the morning sky: INSTANT QUALITY LIVING. Out onto the plains with the sun just balanced on the line of the horizon. A break in the clouds along the edge of the world. The first light shined up against the hills and valleys of the clouds, another country, upside-down, undiscovered. Lighting out for the cloud territories. Marvin laughed at his own joke, feeling a lightness anyway, the road curving around and then up into the sky in his Ford F-150.

The angel was separating out from the animal.

Marvin the body (the husk, he thinks, the shell, the left-behind) was starting to disintegrate. The morning sunlight was everything he was not: pure, clean, lovely. He remembered Carla pouring bar whiskey out of the gun. The memory made his teeth hurt in the morning light. He kept his mouth shut so the light wouldn't get to his teeth. The empty pack of cigarettes on the kitchen table was not the one he had started out with but a second pack he had bought in the bar. Carla smoked a couple of them but still: why? Death by cigarette, maybe, but that didn't feel like the point either. He held his hand in midair in front of his face, to see if it was trembling, and it was. Marvin was feeling sorry for himself, the expansive alcoholic self-pity, when he saw:

A white horse was bleeding to death in the snow, coming down the hill into the Silver Creek valley. Red snow and the front legs slashing and what? Something was wrong. He couldn't catch up.

Marvin hit the brakes and the Ford went sideways, black ice magic. First he did a straight spin, a 360, wound up somehow going forward again at about forty miles an hour with his brakes locked up tight. He tried to get his brain to let up on the pedal but the brain was paralyzed, too much confusion, too fast. In his eyes he saw the horse, a white horse, brilliant red bleeding, blood coming out of its nose and its asshole, eyes still open, looking at him, intelligent: why are you doing this to me? Marvin knew it was his fault.

A scorching sound when the tires bit dry pavement again and then the brain started to work a little and he was able to pump the brakes and slow things down.

Down at the bottom of the hill lay a black Cadillac upside down in the snow with its wheels still spinning. Twenty feet off the pavement? Marvin saw the wheel tracks veering off into the borrow pit and then the mess and mud where it flipped. A giddy little voice inside him was shouting accident! accident! which would not shut up when Marvin tried to make it. Accident! There might be blood, there might be gasoline. He couldn't stop the curiosity, the midget sick excitement welling up in his chest. Eyes of the horse still on him.

He flipped the CB onto channel 9: "There's a wreck out on 191," he

told the microphone. "Right by the Silver Creek grade. I don't know if anybody's hurt. There's a dead horse too."

A second of quiet so he wasn't sure anybody heard and Marvin felt like a fool. Then heard the dispatcher's voice: "A dead horse?"

"Well it's hurt, anyway,', Marvin said. "I'm going to take a look."

"There's people, too, right?"

This was Linda Fontanelle, the night dispatcher, a little dim but foxy.

Marvin hadn't seen anybody. He said, "I guess."

"I'll get some help out."

Linda sounded bored with the whole business. The white horse was bleeding to death so that Linda Fontanelle could live, so that Marvin could live. Streams of red blood, curious eyes. Something to think about sometime, not now. This was an emergency--but he couldn't get up for it somehow, couldn't make himself focus. People might be dying, he told himself. Bear down. The wheels of the Cadillac were still spinning. Good bearings, Marvin thought. My truck wouldn't do that.

The cold was waiting for him outside. Everything metal was lethal cold, skin-freezing-to-it cold. He had forgotten the cold while he was driving. The snow made squeaking sounds under his boots, especially where the roof of the Cadillac had packed it down, like the track of a giant sled. Fuck O dear, Marvin thought. He could see a body, at least one body, dangling upside-down by the seat belt. He looked in the back for a car seat but no babies, not that he could see. A set of golf clubs lay scattered around on the headliner. Nasty thing to have loose. He knelt in the loose snow next to the driver's side and steeled himself and looked inside.

An old man's face stared back at him, upside-down. A stream of blood ran downward from his chin and onto the dome of his bald and freckled head, where it dripped. The eyes were blank, mineral.

"You OK?"

Marvin shouted through the window-glass, just to see if he could get a rise. The old man didn't flinch, though he was staring straight at Marvin. Dead or deaf or just indifferent. Maybe something was happening with him. Maybe there were more important things than Marvin at that moment.

"I called for help," Marvin shouted. "I've got a CB."

Nothing.

Then, slow and jerky like a run-down carnival attraction, the old head swivelled on its neck to face forward again, and the lips muttered a word that Marvin couldn't catch.

"What?"

The old man said it again, and again Marvin couldn't catch it.

"Roll down the window," Marvin shouted, but the electricity that powered the old man's movement had spent itself, the lights had flickered off again. Puppet, Marvin thought, remembering funhouse Frankensteins, Lincoln at the World's Fair 1964, four score and something years ago . . . He could not get his brain to work right. Concentrate. He was starting to lock up in the cold. He couldn't think of what to do.

The door was locked or bent, shut solid. Or frozen, Marvin thought. Took his watch cap off and wrapped his hand in it and hit the window hard as he could, trying to break in. But the glass was harder than his hand, and he only hurt his wrist.

He stood, and when he looked around it was quiet morning everywhere, everywhere but the accident. The sky was a pale delicate gray and the hills were covered with snow, and lighter than the sky. The peace he sought was everywhere but inside him.

Marvin tried the other door and--surprise--it opened, and then he was kneeling on the roof-liner of the car.

"Are you OK?" he asked--and his voice was intimate, just the two of them in that little cold space.

Nothing. Then the old man started up again, the power coming intermittently from someplace way inside him, the head fuming toward Marvin, the lips fumbling around a familiar word so that Marvin couldn't understand the first time and asked the old man to say it again and again the old man said it: "Blind."

Blind.

Marvin didn't know what to say, where to put himself.

"You could see OK?" he asked.

Then called himself names: stupid, unfeeling. They'd give a blind man a license, sure they would. Idiot.

"Are you OK?" he asked.

And continued to feel like an idiot. Sure I'm OK, just a little blind is all.

"I'm cold," the old man said.

Marvin looked at him, strung from the ceiling by the seatbelt like a bird or bat, and wondered if he could move him without damage.

"Make a fist," he said.

The old man tried to do it, the one big liver-spotted hand grasping around an empty circle of air. He couldn't quite close it.

"I don't want to move you," Marvin said. "I could hurt you.

He didn't want to say the word paralysis but it hung between them.

"Upside-down," the old man said. "A blue . . .

"What?"

"Nothing."

"We'll get the ambulance here in a minute," Marvin said. "We'll get some help."

This seemed to satisfy the old man. The lights and motors shut themselves off again and it was quiet between them. Fuck O dear, Marvin thought: blind. The last thing in the world, except for paralyzed, and the old man might be both.

"What happened?" Marvin asked.

But it was just to make conversation, and the old man knew it. He didn't answer or respond or even move, and still there was something wrong. It took Marvin a minute to understand that the radio was still going, softly, the Beautiful Music station out of Havre. It was all wrong for this occasion but Marvin couldn't figure out how to shut it off.

"Blind," the old man said again--this time for himself, not for Marvin.

"You'll be OK," Marvin said, useless reassuring noise.

The old man's face was lined and weatherbeaten, left out in the rain. Marvin couldn't tell him he was fine. The old man knew things Marvin didn't.

Then the sirens started, off in the distance.

The old man cleared his throat but his voice wouldn't clear. He took a couple of false starts and then cleared his throat again and Marvin hoped he wasn't drowning in his own blood. He'd seen that in the Navy.

"I don't want to die like this," the old man said. "You understand?"

His voice sounded like somebody tearing a piece of cloth but Marvin could understand him. The old man took one hand off the steering wheel and reached it toward Marvin and Marvin understood that he was supposed to take it.

"I don't want to die like this," the old man said again. "I'll make you a deal."

Reluctant, Marvin took his glove off and held the old man's hand. The skin was cold and stiff as leather.

"What?"

"Anything."

"No, what do you want?"

The old man's face turned, upside down, in the direction of Marvin's voice. Marvin saw how big the head was, how powerful.

"You know what I mean," the old man said. "If it becomes necessary."

"You're going to be fine."

The old man blinked impatiently--blind--and Marvin was ashamed of himself. He knew what the old man meant, knew what he wanted. No good pretending he didn't.

"They'll be here in a second," Marvin said. "We'll get you out of here."

"What do you say?" the old man asked. Marvin felt the old eyes boring into him, sightless.

"We'll get you out of here," he said.

"I was almost gone," the old man said. "I wasn't even cold anymore, just sleepy. Then you came along."

Marvin felt the accusation, a little needle in his heart.

"I was just trying to . . ."

"No," the old man said, and for the first time there was a shadow of force in his words.

"I'm sorry," he said more softly. "I don't want you to feel bad."

"No."

"It doesn't seem like I can do much of anything for myself, that's all."

"You'll get better," Marvin said.

"Don't you lie to me."

The old man's head swivelled forward, toward the sound of the sirens, then back toward Marvin.

"A favor, if you want," he said. "I'll make a deal if that's what you want. But I don't want to be at anybody's mercy."

"No."

"I want to know if I can count on you."

Let me out, Marvin thought. He heard the sirens like they were rescuers. But he knew that this would be done and concluded before the sirens ever got there. It was done already, almost: a life for a life. He brought the old man back and now he owed him.

"You'll be all right," Marvin said.

The old man made a small clucking sound with his lips, impatient. "I want to know if I can count on you," he said.

"You're pushing me around."

"I need to know."

"You'll be all right," Marvin said again.

"It would be a kindness," said the old man. "You understand that, don't you? A kindness. You can't leave me here by the side of the road."

"You can get better."

"All right," the old man said. "I can get better. What if I don't?" Marvin didn't say anything.

"Can I count on you?"

The ambulance stopped by the roadside. The siren shut off all at once and a silence rushed in to fill the empty place where the sound had been.

"Look, I'll pay you," the old man said. "Whatever language you understand. But you won't do it--you're afraid to get your hands dirty right? I'm blind, now. I can't work my hands. Are you a Christian?

"I'll help you," Marvin said.

He said it without measuring, without meaning to.

"Thank you," the old man said.

"If you need it."

"I understand," the old man said. "I put my hand in front of my face, I can't tell if it's there or not."

"They're coming for you now. It'll just be a minute."

"My name is Henry Neihart," the old man said. "I want you to remember my name. I may not be able to come looking for you."

"I'll find you," Marvin said. "If you need me."

"Thank you," Henry Neihart said. "I can count on you."

He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. Marvin was still holding the old man's hand and it was still cold, cold as ever. It was like his own heart's blood was being drained out toward the cold endless winter, through the old man's body, which was already a part of it.

The old man said, "A kindness."

Then the ambulance crew was prying the door open. Then the seatbelt cutters did their work, and quickly--before Marvin could orient himself--Henry Neihart was out of the Cadillac and strapped to a backboard, a green gas mask over the bottom of his face, eyes open and unseeing. Commotion, cop cars, a wrecker. In the time it took Marvin to pull his glove on again, to take the hat and fold it over his numb ears and wipe the freezing snot from his nose, they got the old man in the ambulance and the doors closed and gone, down the road in silence. There was nobody to use the siren on. Marvin watched it all the way around the curve and gone.

Then a rifle shot. He heard it echo and then looked up and the horse--he'd forgotten about the horse--was dead. A black scarecrow stood next to the nest of blood, holding a rifle. The gunshot split the quiet and then it was gone, the quiet rushing in again.

"That's quite a deal," said Gil Sibbernsen, a county deputy.

Marvin looked at his watch: twenty after seven. He wondered what he had let himself in for.

"Your day to be the hero," Sibbernsen said. "He would have died if you hadn't come along."

"He's going to die anyway," Marvin said.

"So are you," Sibbernsen said. "So am I. What the fuck."

"Have a nice day," Marvin said, walking toward his truck. Walking toward the horse where it lay, dead by the road. The wind whistled in the dry roadside weeds.




 
author's page
Bold Type
     
   
Excerpted from Nine Below Zero by Kevin Canty. Copyright © 1998 by Kevin Canty. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.