Old Newgate Road

Keith Scribner

January 7, 2019 
The following is from Keith Scribner's novel, Old Newgate Road, which follows a man's return to his childhood home in the tobacco fields in Connecticut, where his family grapples with their trauma and responsibility to one another. Scribner's previous novels include The Oregon Experiment, Miracle Girl, and The GoodLife, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He lives in Corvallis and teaches at Oregon State University.

They arrive in Tilly’s Cadillac, Uncle Andrew behind the wheel. He gets out, tall and lanky, and stretches his back before swinging the door shut. He’s a runner, a high-school math teacher and track coach on his second marriage. He has traveled the country running marathons, and in Boston and New York he places high in his age group; in smaller marathons he sometimes wins; he founded the Bloomfield Runners Club and for years has trained his students on weekends and summer break; he is a disappointment to his mother. Between her third and fourth Scotch, Tilly will ring the ice in her glass like a service bell, at which Uncle Andrew fetches the bottle, and she’ll mutter “No ambition” as he pours. Somehow he’s immune. In fact he dotes on her—cleaning her gutters, washing windows, chauffeuring, refilling her drink so attentively he sometimes has to carry her to the car.

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Around the long hood of the Coupe de Ville, Andrew opens Tilly’s door. “Happy day!” he calls across the yard to Cole and his mother, who are spreading a tablecloth over the picnic table. His mother has moved the party outside where they won’t have to eat in the midst of dust and drop cloths and debris, but the main reason is so she can hide her face with the big round sunglasses she’s wearing.

Cole’s sister Kelly comes out from the kitchen, veers around the pile of lath and plaster for the dump, and on the table in the shade of the pear tree, sets down a tray with the ice bucket, three short glasses, a bowl of potato chips, and a bottle of Cutty Sark.

Tilly has made no move from the car, though Sandy has emerged from the backseat and is stepping carefully across the grass in platform sandals—four or five inches of cork sole strapped to her feet. She’s tiny, no taller than a middle schooler, and she wears them to shrink the gap between her and Andrew. To meet her in running shoes—she, too, is a fiery distance runner, one of Andrew’s former students—is to encounter a person so significantly shorter that Cole has to remind himself this isn’t Sandy’s little sister. She’s twenty-seven. Her college graduation coincided with Uncle Andrew’s divorce, and only later will Cole learn how her high-school graduation and the team’s trip to the New York City Marathon coincided with rancorous flash points in Andrew’s first marriage.

The car horn blows, and through the windshield Cole sees Tilly reaching across the wide front seat to the wheel. “Go,” his mother says.

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He makes a beeline for the car before she blows the horn again—it’s exactly what gets under his father’s skin. “Howdy, Cole,” Sandy says as they pass each other by the currant bushes. In a few months she’ll start trying to mother him, but for now she’s his young new aunt in heavy turquoise-and-silver jewelry and a thick brown ponytail that hangs to her waist.

Uncle Andrew steps aside, a grandiose footman, and Cole bends down to kiss his grandmother on the cheek. “Happy birthday, Tilly. You look lovely.” Beneath the brim of her sun hat, he can see she’s had her hair done, as she does every week, in the style of Pat Nixon, the same watery-lemonade color. She’s wearing pearls and a very smart pink and black dress that must have come back with her from London. “All set to party?” Cole says.

She checks her lipstick in the visor mirror. “Where is everyone?”

“Getting ready.” Not precisely true. He looks out into the yard and sees that his mother’s no longer there. She’s gone inside to round up the rest of the family. His sister comes back out first and bends down into the car. “Happy birthday, Tilly,” she says, kissing her cheek. “That’s a lovely hat.”

“Thank you, dear. What’s that you’re wearing?”

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“They’re shorts.”

I’ll say.” She squeezes Kelly’s knee. “You’re a leggy thing, aren’t you?”

Kelly steps back, relieved to see their little brother Ian at her shoulder.

“Happy birthday, Tilly,” he says. “You look lovely.”

She pinches his cheek. “What grade are you in now?”

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“Going on sixth.”

“And still the baby fat.”

At the picnic table, Sandy’s pouring a drink.

“And where’s the master of the house?” Tilly asks.

“Shaving,” Ian says.

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“At this hour?”

Ian stammers, fearing he’s said the something wrong.

“Grandpapa always shaved and put on a clean white shirt before he even took his morning tea.”

“My dad drinks coffee,” Ian says.

Even as Cole thinks it he knows it’s a strange thought, but not too long ago he assumed that all men eventually beat their wives. He’d also believed that the first beating he remembered was the first ever.

“Give Tilly your arm.” She grabs hold of him and steps from the car, adjusting her white straw hat with its clump of cloth flowers on the wide brim. In a motley procession, Tilly and Ian out front, Cole and Kelly trailing off to the sides, Uncle Andrew bringing up the rear as he stretches his shoulders and wrists, they’re all looking off at different angles and don’t even seem to be moving in the same direction.

Sandy sits in the grass under the pear tree, stirring Scotch and ice cubes in a glass with her finger. Uncle Andrew pours a stiff one for Tilly. And with her first sip, her eyes brighten. She pats her purse, but her son jumps in and withdraws a slim cigarette from an enamel case and holds a flame before her. She takes two quick drags and a gulp of Scotch, then says, “There’s a story about Grandpapa and the neighbors’ lavender house.” Cole, Kelly, and Ian all exchange glances, holding back smirks. “This is in Windsor Locks, mind you, the house directly across the street. The Flanagans. Mr. Flanagan was some sort of . . . oh, I don’t know, a warehouse foreman or a trucking dispatcher. Heavy black shoes and white socks and lunch pail, though he did wear a collar. Well. Grandpapa comes home from the bank and sees Mr. Flanagan painting his house, which is all well and good, but the new color is lavender. Good Lord, he couldn’t even eat his dinner. He closed all the curtains but still couldn’t read the evening paper. He didn’t sleep a wink. He’d roll over in his grave if he knew I was even revealing to his scions that we ever lived across the street from a house painted lavender.”

“What did he do?” Andrew asks, although he could tell this story himself; they all could.

Tilly releases smoke from deep in her lungs. “We moved. What else could we do?” She waits for their reactions. “Grandpapa was a learned man. Such a shame you children didn’t have more time under his tutelage. He lived in his mind. Literature, mathematics, accounts. He simply lacked the constitution to confront a burly laborer about delicate matters of class. A truly refined man.”

Cole’s mother comes around the dump pile, carrying a tray. His sister jumps up as if to lend a hand, when surely she plans to escape into the house. But his mother intercepts her and passes her the tray, so she returns to the picnic table with deviled eggs, a brick of Cracker Barrel cheese, a bowl of melba toast. “Grandpapa of course never had a radio in his car. Couldn’t bear the racket. He appreciated what peacefulness can bring to the mind.”

Cole’s watching Sandy, sitting cross-legged with a magazine open on the grass in front of her, flipping pages. She makes no effort to conceal that she’s not listening. She smiles over something she’s just read and then snaps the page over, her necklace and bracelets clacking. Andrew doesn’t beat her. Even as Cole thinks it he knows it’s a strange thought, but not too long ago he assumed that all men eventually beat their wives. He’d also believed that the first beating he remembered was the first ever. There was that morning on the school bus when Vanessa Jones looked frightened and exhausted, and he did some nonsense math to figure out that given her age and her siblings and how long her parents had probably been married, yes, last night was the first time it happened in her house. Back then, horrified by what he would inevitably become, Cole had decided to never get married.

“He could not fathom sports,” Tilly says. “Couldn’t even begin to understand the basic rules. I knew more about baseball than he.”

Sandy is too at ease to be a beaten woman.

Kelly successfully escapes on her next try, and Uncle Andrew and Cole’s mother have wandered across the yard, where he’s inspecting the young ears on their cornstalks while they talk. Even from this distance Cole can see Andrew’s face is grave; like peeking around a curtain, he looks for the bruise she’s hiding behind her sunglasses. She’s telling him it’s happened again, Cole supposes. She’s telling him that her husband won’t talk with her, just flies off the handle, too stressed out, all of them, restoring this damn house, everything, it’s too much. Cole can see Andrew’s body slump helplessly. Does she say “hit me,” “beat me,” “knocked me around,” “got a little rough”? After one beating she told Cole, “It happens in the best of marriages. Grandpapa could be a pill.” And it was a few years before he realized she meant that Grandpapa beat Tilly. A pill.

She blows her nose, reaches under her glasses with a tissue to wipe her eyes, which Tilly notices and then figures out what’s going on, but she doesn’t miss a beat, still telling the story to Ian, Sandy, and Cole. “Simsbury was more suitable, truly. When the realtor told us that a neighborhood ordinance prohibited hanging laundry on a clothesline, Grandpapa signed the documents in an instant.”

Andrew pulls his ankle up to his butt to stretch his quad, holding on to an old clothesline post that just yesterday Cole nailed a square of plywood to, mounted with a sharp stainless-steel hook. The first litter of rabbits, from the female who arrived pregnant, will be big enough to slaughter by the end of the summer. A week ago, Cole’s father took him and Ian to the breeder’s so they could all learn how to do it. They watched him demonstrate, quick and effortless; then they bungled through a few attempts themselves. You club the rabbits at the back of the neck, then impale a rear leg on the hook between the two bones just above the ankle, tug down on their ears, and slit their throats. If you do it well, the fur doesn’t get bloody, and with a few slices around the feet and rump you can peel the coat off like a tight shirt. The breeder sold them a knife, a hook, and the rabbits they’d slaughtered, and Ian cried all the way home. Now Andrew leans into the pole to stretch his calves, the square of plywood still unbloodied, like gallows built from fresh lumber in Westerns, then he hangs his arm over his sister’s shoulder and walks her toward them.

“Happy birthday,” Cole’s mother says.

Tilly feigns surprise. “Oh, there you are.” She presents her cheek to be kissed.

“Ian, dear,” their mother says, “get Tilly a lawn chair. Sitting on a wooden bench”—she shakes her head—“on your birthday.”

Cole slides in behind the commotion to refill Tilly’s glass—“A gentleman,” she intones without turning to see him, then cocks her head at Andrew, who fusses over her with more ice. One cube? two? “No!” she snaps, slapping his hand—so nobody sees Cole pour a tall plastic cup half-full of Scotch before topping it off with lemonade. Ian drags up a chair. Cole tips a splash from the bottle into Sandy’s glass; she stirs and sucks her finger. He sits near her in the grass and sips his own drink, the taste of Lemon Pledge and cleaning for company: behind schedule, no hot water, burned meat, yells crescendoing, a backhand, a trickle of blood, then putting on a good face for the guests. He puts the cup to his lips and swallows it all down, and then he goes up to his room, takes a couple bong hits, and comes back outside to the picnic table wearing sunglasses himself. His mother and Andrew are laughing at Tilly’s story about Atlantic City, and by the butchering post his father’s pouring briquettes into the barbecue. On the breeze Cole smells charcoal dust and old meat and grease. He smells the henhouse, the ammonia sting of rabbit piss, his father’s scalp. And his father is streaming more and more lighter fluid on the volcano of briquettes, squirting practically the whole can, so once he strikes the match the charcoal, the grill, and even the cook himself will vaporize. Poof! Greasy black smoke slithers skyward in twitchy flames.

As the sun drops lower, it feels hotter and they heft the picnic table to follow the shade, closer now to the chicken house, so once they’re eating the rice, salad, grilled chicken, and rabbit the smell of the coop and hutch are strong, and in fact the rabbit meat does taste like a hutch, like the smell of their fur and fear. He washes the food down with another Pledge cocktail, aware that he’s shitfaced, but with sunglasses hiding his eyes, it’s easy to act normal. He doesn’t speak. He just goes through the motions. He and his mother both—behind their sunglasses—acting natural. Stiff upper lip.

Two months from now Uncle Andrew will move to a bigger house and make a good home for all of them. He’ll sell his Corolla with the dented hood and the “Get High: Go Running” bumper sticker to buy a used Chevy Nova that fits five. Sandy will make family dinners and go to parent-teacher conferences. Everyone at their new school in Bloomfield will know that the math teacher’s their uncle. They’ll know about “the tragedy.” Cole will blush with shame whenever anyone whispers anything in his presence.

Uncle Andrew will turn forty-five that fall, entering a new age bracket, and he’ll train more rigorously to rank even higher now that he’s younger than his competition. He’ll be happy to include anyone who wants to hop on a bike and join him on his long runs in the evening or to races around New England on weekends; if not, he goes it alone. Cole eavesdrops on tense discussions between him and Sandy, hears her call him selfish. “But I could potentially win my bracket in Philadelphia” is, to Andrew, irrefutable and unarguable.

Consequently, Sandy will handle most of the parenting, or in the case of Kelly more like big-sistering. She takes her to a Rickie Lee Jones concert, which is so far off the mark that the next day Kelly calls military academies around the country to request applications. And by January she’s enrolled in the North Carolina Air and Sea Institute, a boarding school that Tilly pays for. She’ll also pay college tuition for all three of them. The night before they pack Kelly off, Sandy bakes a cake. She’s sitting cross-legged in the middle of their kitchen floor stirring batter in the big pottery bowl, keeping the bowl to one side of her lap because Ian’s lying on the floor with his head propped up on her hip. She dips her fingertip into the batter and gives him a taste.

Uncle Andrew is out on his last long run before next week’s marathon. Cole graphs parabolas on x- and y-axes at the kitchen table. And Kelly is doing pushups, clapping her hands midair and then catching herself before she hits the floor. She’ll act grateful for the sendoff meal, although she’ll refuse her slice of cake. It’s the first time Cole hears the term “body mass index.

He and Ian feel the hole left by her absence, and feel themselves falling into it. They’re simply more alone with Kelly gone—from five to three to two. Cole writes her letters, and makes sure all three of them talk on the phone every few weeks, but he still comes to resent her for abandoning them. Ian’s reaction is difficult to pin down: over the next year he trades off between sullenness, anger, and withdrawal.

“Do you think you could get Ian running?” Cole urges his uncle. “In a few years,” Andrew says, and instead takes the boys to watch track meets and hockey games, and one night to see Kenny Loggins at the Hartford Civic Center. Andrew talks through much of the concert, bragging that there are no obstructed views in the arena because the roof doesn’t require any posts to support it, as if he’d designed it himself. All the way home their car slips and slides in a blizzard, and a few hours after the concert, in the middle of the night when no one is present to witness it, the Civic Center roof collapses under the weight of snow.


Excerpted from Old Newgate Road. Copyright © 2019 by Keith Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.

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