Illustrations by Jessica Abel
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT. Ordinarily, a Weekly Literary Supplement means book reviews and essays. Last year, we devoted one WLS to short fiction. This summer, we asked a number of local fiction writers to write a chain story. Each writer saw all of the preceding chapters (without the authors' identities), allowing him or her to build organically on the story in progress -- or, in some cases, to simply jump cut and run in a new direction. (Ignoring the previous writers' directives proved somewhat popular.) It's a sort of literary "telephone" game. And in that spirit, we've listed the authors' names alphabetically: Maybe you'll recognize the writer by his or her words. Find out who wrote what in the key that follows the story.
What Nancy decided was head toward Nebraska from her home state of Nevada but only by towns that began with N. Her mother had always said she was going nowhere but now that her mother was silent and dead, Nancy decided to see if that was true after all. She packed her car with chips and water and tapes, but no maps. The plan was no plan; she would simply follow the N signs, and see where she ended up.
That first night she drove east through Nevada, and many hours later, hungry and tired, in southern Utah, came upon the first N town, which was called, quite unfortunately, Nada. Nancy, who knew a bit of Spanish, wept into her steering wheel, hearing her mother's raspy voice yelling Nowhere! Nothing! Never! but Nancy still obeyed her own rules, pulled to the side of the road and camped in Nada, which had population 600 and a diner that served rhubarb pie. The dirt was whitish and the sky like old jeans. She sniffled into her sleeping bag and slept to the sounds of no cars whizzing on the highway. She did not see a single person except the man at the diner who sold her the slice of rhubarb pie and seemed to resent her exact change.
At sunrise, sloggy with morning, she climbed back into her car.
Heading northeast, she crossed into Colorado, and the mountains rose green and pink before her. The radio talk-show host was explaining how to clean your stove with a lemon wedge. On the next station was a song about losing your love in Kentucky. Static. Next: The weather will be partly cloudy. After 10 hours, she had not seen a single N sign on the freeway and began to wonder what to do if nothing showed up. Rules were rules. She wasn't allowed to stop. But just as she was passing through Boulder, just as her eyes were fading on the road, which was starting to look an awful lot like the dark gray inside of her mother's yelling mouth, Nancy saw a small sign. It said Next Exit: Niwot.
The road into Niwot was banked on either side by mountains that reminded her of sleeping cats or maybe bears, some sort of big beast, all haunch. She held her breath so as not to wake them. Another sign: You are entering Left Hand Valley. She thought, This was somewhere. She started to pass subdivisions of ample homes, although as yet few trees, just the occasional grouping of teenage aspen. This was a place where you could see straight through the front yards to the back, and in the back there were swimming pools covered with bright tarps. She drove past a bronze statue, Chief Niwot in full regalia. Hey, Nancy said. Her mood improved. Hey, she waved at a woman walking twin terriers. Hey, to a mailwoman. Hey, she waved at a lanky boy who looked to be about 13 or 14. He was standing on the opposite side of the street, hitching the other way, she realized. He was wearing all black, black boots, a long black coat -- no, a cape of some sort -- and his close-cropped hair, neon, fuchsia, reminded her of the lint she removed from her dryer whenever she cleaned her favorite blanket. This boy, however, did not wave back; in fact, he scowled, and Nancy thought, Whatever.
A low spread of ruddy brick, a library, the firehouse, and parking galore. There were quite a few nice crafts shops. Things made of wood. Boxes, cradles. Things made of metal -- all manner of wind chimes. In fact, an abundance of wind chimes, and Nancy hated wind chimes. But it was quite possible that she had become a little too settled in her ways. Too fixed in her likes and dislikes. So she sprung for one.
She regretted her purchase almost immediately. The chimes rattled around in her shopping bag. She was making a lot of noise. When she took a counter seat in the diner and set down her bag, everyone stared. On the menu was rhubarb pie -- her favorite -- but dedicated now to new things, she asked for the cherry. It was too sweet, all syrup, low on actual fruit. She added a hamburger to her order and requested it rare, but it was served well-done. Since she was moving through courses backward, she ordered a bowl of onion soup, which was, predictably, all salt. She paid her tab in dimes, which irked the man at the cash register, and so she was thinking Niwot was not a place she could stay long. On her way out of town, she passed the boy with the bright hair again, still in the same spot. He held out his thumb. Nancy pulled over and reached across the front seat to roll down the window.