"This Book Will Save Your Life"

In an excerpt from A.M. Homes' new novel, Richard Novak realizes he is painfully, terrifyingly alone


A.M. Homes
April 24, 2006 12:55PM (UTC)

He stands at the glass looking out. The city spreads below him, blanketed in foggy slumber. Low pressure. Clouds roll over the hills, seeping out of crevices as if the geography is sending smoke signals.

Below him, far down the hill, a woman swims, her long brown hair floating through the water. Her suit is beautiful bright-red dot, a rare tropical bird in a pool of unnatural blue. Every morning she swims--crawls like an Olympian. He takes comfort in her swimming, in her rhythm, routine, in that fact that she is awake when he is awake. She is his confidante, his muse, his mermaid.

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He stands at the point of the house, where two thick panes of glass met, a sharp corner jutting out over the hill like the prow of a ship. He stands--captain, lord, master, prisoner of his own making.

Ahead, in the distance, there is something orange and smoky; it takes him a moment to decide--brush fire or simply dawn in Los Angeles?

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Yesterday seems realer than real, a dream, an accident, like some sort of seizure or suspension. Did something happen?

There is a depression in the earth, a large circular indentation that he doesnt remember from the day before. He looks at it, mentally measuring -- approximately eight feet in diameter -- it is like the mark made by the back of an enormous ladle pressed into the earth.

He is thinking about the pain. It started as a knotty cramp in his back, a strange tightening from his gut up into his chest. He waited. He took an antacid. It got worse, spreading, searing knifelike down the leg, pressing up into his jaw, a long sharp knitting needle poking into his arm, pain trickling into his fingers -- were they numb? His whole body splitting like an ax cutting through fresh wood, a spasm pulling his shoulder blades back like a bow arching.

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He was overcome by pain, every blood vessel, every nerve, every fiber folding in on itself, as though starved, parched. He was in unbearable pain and the strangest thing was he didnt know where it hurt, he couldnt feel anything.

He began to cry. He cried without making a sound, and when he realized he was crying, he cried even harder.

Was this "It"? Was there something before this, something he should have noticed, a warning? Either this was the warning or this was IT--.

He dialed 911.

"Police, fire, ambulance."

"Doctor," he said.

"Police, fire, ambulance."

"Rescue," he said.

"Police, fire, ambulance."

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"Ambulance," he said

"What is the emergency?"

"Im in pain," he said. "Incredible pain."

"Have you sustained an injurya gunshot wound, fall, snake bite, bow and arrow?"

"No," he said. "I'm home, I've been home all day."

"On a scale of one to ten how much pain are you in?"

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"Ten"

"Do you have a history of heart attack, stroke, or seizure?"

"No."

"How old are you?"

"Fifty-five."

"Are you home alone?"

Inexplicably, this question terrified him. "Im divorced."

"Thank you, Richard Novak," the operator says.

"How do you know who I am?"

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"Our system is enhanced. As part of a pilot program which helps train crisis counselors, I can transfer you to a counselor who will remain on the line with you until help arrives."

"Are you trying to sell me something?"

"There is no additional charge-- you qualify because you fit the profile."

"Profile?"

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"You're in the right zip code with a potentially life-threatening crisis. I'll transfer you to a counselor; her name is Patty."

"Is she real or automatic?"

"Shes right here."

"Hi, Richard, my name is Patty."

"Hi, Patty," he says -- it is like a chat line.

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"What are you doing, Richard?" He doesn't know how to answer that -- she makes it sound like he's faking, "Richard."

"Im dying."

There are men who keel over at lunch, who are having lunch at the most wonderful, delicious, most expensive restaurant in town and -- boom -- they just fall over and die. Kaboom. He could be one of those. He could go just like that -- out like a light, his aunt used to say.

"Richard, what was the last movie you saw?" It is one of those, only in L.A. questions -- even as you die people are talking to you about the movies.

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"I have no idea," he struggled to think back. He remembered seeing "Bonnie and Clyde" at the Wellfleet, Massachusetts drive-in a million years ago.

"Do you have any hobbies? Do you play golf?"

"I like to swim," he said, surprising himself.

"Where do you swim -- do you have a swimming pool?"

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"No."

"When did you last go swimming?"

"About five years ago. At a hotel in Miami; I took a woman there for a long weekend. It ended badly." He paused. "I think Id rather not talk right now. Its very distracting."

"Theyll be there soon," she said

He wondered if he had enough money to pay them and then he wondered where that thought came from. When he was married and living in New York, he and his wife always kept cash in the apartment to pay them--they were always paying someone, deliverymen, doormen, handymen.

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Richard heard sirens, the rumble of engines, trucks climbing the hill. He could see the reflection of the red flashing lights in the glass.

"Richard," Patty said, "the firemen are at the door; can you let them in?

"I don't know," he said, scared, like all of this was a bad idea, like he never should have called.

He watched. He saw them walking around the side of the house, coming down the hill, their flashlights bouncing, their heavy coats, like branded elephant skins, with iridescent numbers glowing. They announced his name over a megaphone in a way that compelled him to surrender.

"Good luck, Richard," Patty said, hanging up.

They came in carrying bags, their coats smelling like fire.

"Im on the sofa," he said. "Im crying."

There was no fire.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

In the emergency room, a very young doctor pulled the curtains and sat on a small chair close to his bed. For the first time in his life, Richard didnt even feel middle-aged -- he felt OLD.

"Personally, I dont think you had a heart attack -- your EKG was fine, your enzymes look good. How do you feel now? Are you still in pain?

"I dont know."

"Thats rather unusual, the not knowing. That was your presenting complaint -- pain?"

"Unbelievable pain."

The young doctor looked down at the chart. "As I said, your CAT scan was fine. EKG looks good -- there was no fall, no blow to the head?"

"Nothing," Richard said. "There was nothing."

"Any travel to unusual places."

"I never go anywhere."

"Are you drinking enough water? Dehydration is a common...."

"I drink water."

"My personal opinion is that it was just one of those things. Things happen that we can't document -- it may have been an isolated incident, something that passed. Dont over think it -- accept it. Something happened, we just don't know what."

"Is this the nice way of saying I'm crazy?"

"You're not dying so that's good. None of us know when they're going to blow the whistle. Until then, consider everything useful information."

"So -- I should be glad I'm alive."

"We all should."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Released into the custody of the Beverly Hills Cab Company, Richard stepped into the Los Angeles night -- there was an evanescent glow to the sky. The driver babbled like a bad bartender, talking about everything and nothing. Richard sat in the back, windows down, his head into the breeze like a dog, holding himself against the blue vinyl seats like it was some sort of amusement park ride.

"So -- what was it, too much to drink, hit by a car, kidney stone, pistol-whipped?

He didn't answer.

"Fine, keep it a secret, see if I care."

They passed a store with an orange neon sign -- "Donuts." A buttery warm glow emanated from the window. They passed the store and once it was gone, Richard wished they'd stopped. He couldn't go home, not yet, not so fast. He needed a minute to clear his mind, to put the events in order.

"I want to go back."

"To the hospital?"

"The donut shop."

The man continued to drive. "You want me to turn around?"

"Yes," he said.

"So you dont want me to go up Sunset?"

"No, I want to go back to that donut shop."

"Are you just running in, or am I dropping you there?"

"I don't know, why?"

"I'm supposed to take you home -- that's why they call us, to take people home." The driver made the U-turn. "Youre not a suicidal diabetic are you?"

"Do you want something? If I run in is there something that you want?"

"Well, maybe a cup of coffee and a couple of plain donuts, thats all. Or if they have the glazed ones with chocolate on top -- two of those."

The donut shop was empty. The man behind the counter smiled.

"I need something for the driver out there -- a coffee and two glazed chocolate donuts."

"Ahnil," the man said, extending his hand.

"Richard," he said, shaking the man's hand.

Anhil put the donuts in a bag and Richard brought the donuts to the driver. The meter was still running.

"How much do I owe you?"

The man sipped the coffee; the meter ran higher--nine dollars and twenty cents. "Let's call it ten," the driver said.

"Should I deduct the cost of the donut and coffee?" Richard asked.

"Figure its part of the tip."

Richard went back into the shop sat on a stool. "Coffee," he said.

Donut? Anhil asked.

Ok, donut.

Anhil poured the coffee and placed a donut in front of Richard with the simplest of ceremony. "Its warm, Anhil said, proudly. Just made."

Something about Anhil prompted Richard to surrender his annoyance at the driver. There was a purity to the donut shop; the wood-paneled interior was old, the display cases were heavy glass--all of it from the 1940's. Anhils coffee was hot, dark, full-flavored, perfect chasing the equally well turned donut: golden brown, dense without being leaden, not too sweet.

Richard closed his eyes and took a breath.

"What do you think?"

"Heaven," he said, opening his eyes. "I didn't have dinner last night."

And without intending to, he spilled the story of last night: "I was in incredible pain, I went to the hospital...." He spoke too loudly, the way you do when talking to someone whose first language is not English. He tapped his chest as if Anhil might not know where the heart was. I thought I was going to die. Until he said it out loud he hadnt realized exactly how terrified hed been. "I called my ex-wife."

Anhil laughed.

"Whats funny?"

"Everything. You lived, and now you're eating a donut. That's not Mr. Healthy."

"I never eat donutsthats why I wanted one. I am Mr. Healthy. I eat cereal that tastes like wood chips. I drink Lactaid milk. I never break the rules."

"Let me make you breakfast," Anhil said, going into the kitchen. "When I first got here, I worked in a garage, fixing cars. In my country I was a car salesman. What do you drive?"

"I have a Mercedes, but I don't drive a lot.

"Of course you drive a lot, you live in Los Angeles. Just to go to work in the morning you drive a lot."

Richard smelled eggs cooking. He couldn't bring himself to tell Anhil that he didnt go to work, that he hadnt gone to work in years, that except for playing a numbers game while walking on the treadmill, he had no idea of what work was anymore"

"What kind of cars did you sell?"

Anhil delivered a perfect plate of eggs. "Other people's cars. All kinds, Ford, Chevrolet, strong cars from the 1970s. I like making donuts better. Here my wife can work for me, my brother can work. So what did they say, what is wrong with your heart?"

"They don't know."

"For smart people, Americans are very stupid."

Richard nodded.

"It is a strange country, the people here are not very comfortable."

"What do you mean?"

"In America everybody is somebody. They have so much and they all want more. In my country we are all nobodies; its easier. Here they go to the doctor and get a new nose, they get bigger chests -- why arent they happy to have a nose that works and weather that is always good?" He spoke as though all of this were so obvious, so funny.

"Its always about the weather, isn't it?" Richard said, making small talk.

Anhil leaned forward. "Explain something to me, why does everyone in America pretend to be blind? They get up in the morning, go out of their houses, they dont say hello to the neighbors. They practice not seeing. They get into the car and they call someone on the cell phone. They are afraid to be alone but they don't see the people around them."

Anhil put a coconut-topped chocolate donut on a small plate in front of Richard. Try this. He looked at Richard and the donut with great intensity, as if a donut could have curative powers. Its my invention.

Richard bit into the donut, sweet rich cream squirted out the side, he licked his fingers. "Delicious. What is it?"

"Almond-flavored creme on the inside, chocolate icing and coconut on the outside. I call it a Cream-Filled Mons -- from the candy bars Almond Joy and Mounds."

"Mons. You might have to change that."

Anhil looked confused.

Richard pointed to his crotch -- on a woman, this is a mons.

"And the coconut gets stuck in your teeth like private hair," Anhil said, laughing.

"Theyre very popular, especially with the policemen," Anhil laughed even harder. "Thats my audience -- police, landscaper, taxi. I came to California to make somebody. The first week after I opened the shop, I got robbed by someone from television. I looked at him -- I said, I know you; youre from T.V. Go away, come back again another day -- buy donuts."

"Did he leave?"

"He hit me with his gun and took the dollar bill off my wall."

"Thats bad." Richard finished the breakfast. "You're a good cook -- you should have a restaurant, not just a donut shop."

"I am a good donut-maker," Anhil said. "Mr. Dunkin' doesn't even think of me, but mine is the real donut, the human donut. I am not going to get rich making donuts -- donuts are not box office, but every morning I make a donut and I am happy. I count my donuts. I feel very lucky."

Outside the sky was getting lighter; traffic was picking up. Someone came in and got a cup of coffee and some donuts to go.

"I should call a taxi," Richard said.

"No need to call, they'll come when the shift changes, they meet in the parking lot."

Before Richard left, Anhil filled a big box with donuts. Richard pulled out his wallet, but Anhil wouldn't take any money.

"Youre a lousy businessman if you don't let me pay you."

"It's not about money."

"I know that now; now please take some. I can't go home unless you take my money; that's the rule in America, you must take my money."

"You are hurting my feelings," Anhil said. "I thought we were friends."

"Yours is the human donut," Richard said, putting money on the counter.

"You may think you're rich because you have a lot of money, but there's always someone with more. I'm rich because I have my heart in the donut shop." Anhil pushes the money away.

Richard took the money back. Fine, then, let me do something for you.

"I will drive your car," Anhil said. "I have never driven a Mercedes."

Richard nodded. "See you, tomorrow," he said, leaving the donut shop filled with possibility, with breakfast, with his spare collection of donuts in a box on the seat next to him. He felt good, buoyant. He was thinking of all the things he was going to do today -- call Ben, his parents, and his brother. He would be in touch, he would say good morning and how are you? He wouldn't mention the night before. He didn't want them to think he was calling because he could have died.

Did he get lucky? Did he survive something? He had the sense of having traveled a great distance, of time having been suspended. Maybe this was IT, this was luck, it was all supposed to happen this way. Maybe thats what he was supposed to think -- how lucky he was -- he had a nose that worked, the weather was good.

He belched -- the full flavors of coffee, eggs, donuts, repeated, and he once again was thrown back to Anhil. He smiled.

"Nice morning," the driver said, catching his smile in the rearview mirror.

The taxi climbed up the hill. As they got closer to Richards house the donut-and- coffee combo was turning into a bad mix, the acid, the sugar, the high becoming sugar confusion, a cold hard crash. He didn't want to go home -- he couldn't go back. Filled with dread, he was tempted to tell the driver to keep going, he'd made a mistake.

The taxi stopped in front of the house. And he was out, standing at the curb with the box of donuts in hand.

He could stand outside, pretending he didn't have his key, that he was locked out waiting until Cecelia, the housekeeper arrived. He could sit on the front step and admit he was afraid to be home.

"Im afraid," he would call out to the paperboy tossing the morning news out the back window of a station wagon while his father coasted downhill in neutral. "Im afraid."

Richard forced himself to walk to the front door. The grass was damp, tickling his ankles. "Morning," he called, opening the door. "Morning."

The brushed stainless-steel kitchen gave off a modern, reflectionless, dull shine. Everything was in order, perfectly placed, perfectly clean.

The house was pulled tight as though holding its breath. The comfort of the familiar had become weirdly uncomfortable, scary; it was too comfortable and not comfortable at all.

In the living room there were scraps, scattered debris of the incident, plastic and paper remnants, spare parts from the IV kit, the semicircular peel-off backing from the electrodes they put on his chest, a cotton ball with a large red bloody dot on it.

What happened?

He took off his shirt and touched his chest; there was goo in the hair.

It was as though the whole thing was a weird dream, a hallucination -- except that he had proof, the debris, the sticky stuff. Like an alien abduction, he'd been taken, probed, and returned, and was wondering what the hell happened? Would he ever feel like himself again? And what did he feel like in the first place? He had no memory.

"Something happened, the doctor had said, "Dont ignore it."

He was standing at the point of the house, where two thick panes of glass meet, a sharp corner that juts out over the hill like the prow of a ship. Below him to the left was the dent, the depression. He almost thought it was growing as he watched it -- wider, deeper.

Ahead are rooftops, Spanish tile roofs, flat modern roofs, peaked slate roofs. Between the houses is lush, vibrant greenery, purple and yellow flowers, roses, orange trees, dashes of color like specks of hot pepper, something is always blooming.

And she is there, down below, in her hummingbird-red suit, crawling through the blue water, with strength and purpose. She gets to the wall, flips, stroke, stroke, her head turns up for air.

She stops swimming, stands, pulls off the goggles, and looks up.

To the woman down below, swimming, he is simply the man up above, staring.

Accidentally he touches the glass. It is cool. He presses his cheek, his nose, his mouth to the glass. He takes a deep breath and exhales long and slow, fogging the glass, and for a moment everything, even the swimmer, is gone.

He is standing at the glass waiting for his life to begin.


A.M. Homes

A.M. Homes' most recent novel is "Music for Torching."

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