Black Lawrence Press
June 23, 2017

Welcome, Ben Nickol!

During the month of June, we are celebrating the authors that came to us during our last open reading period. Today we bring you Ben Nickol, author of the short story collection Sun River, which is due out in May of 2019.

Where the Wind PhotoThe Author

Ben’s earlier books are Adherence (2016) and Where the Wind Can Find It (2015).  His stories and essays have appeared widely, in journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Redivider, Tin House Online, Fugue and CutBank, and have been honored by the Arkansas Arts Council and Best American Sports Writing, among other organizations.  He lives in Montana.

 

 

 

On Writing Sun River

For me, a story springs into being as soon as a character’s internal needs find external expression–particularly if that expression is human, which is to say that it arises from needs but doesn’t adequately address them.  The result (I hope) is a soul, or cast of souls, operating strangely, as their actions are always errant to their purposes, and yet operating meaningfully, too, as their wish, always, is to put things right.

In Sun River, the characters share some core needs.  They want their families to survive.  They want to escape the gravitational fields of addiction, infidelity and violence.  But most of that was in place before the stories were written.  The process of writing–and the wonder of it–was building those needs into my gut, and then watching my characters march off in bizarre, heartbreaking directions.  “What,” I often asked them, “are you doing?”  In one story, a divorced mother hoping to reclaim her romantic identity submits to the carelessness of a womanizer.  In another, a boy wishing to honor his family rejects his education.  A lovesick husband abandons his wife, the brother of a deceased addict bails a separate addict–a dangerous stranger–out of jail.

“What are you people doing?” I wanted to know.

But in the wrongness of their actions lay their rightness as characters, as creatures.  In response to my question, they essentially said: “We’re trying.”  And that shut me right up.

 

Excerpt from “Common Tongue”

Underclassmen weren’t permitted to leave campus, but every day after fourth period Barry Laird left anyhow and walked the six blocks to Castle Rock Apartments, where he ate lunch and prayed with his mother and brother Rhett.  This was in Billings, where Deborah Laird had moved with her two boys after Martin, the boys’ father, was killed in a highway accident.  He’d been a steadfast provider, Martin had, and had purchased the family a home on twenty acres in Bridger, Montana, where they’d raised small livestock and crops and most importantly had educated their boys not at a public school, but on the screened-in porch adjoining their kitchen, with Deborah instructing.  That’d been the preferable way for Rhett and Barry to learn, because at home they could pray during lessons (which Rimrock High School, in Billings, didn’t value), and because Deborah knew her sons intimately and could instruct them according to their anointed natures, without fashioning them into secularists.  But Martin had believed, as his wife and sons also believed, that the profit a man wrought from the earth—or, as the case may be, from his asphalt business up the highway, in Laurel—was entirely his to dispose of, and no one else’s.  In a word, Martin Laird had not paid taxes.  Nor had he placed any credence in life insurance policies, and so when he died, and Laird & Sons Paving and Sealcoating was liquidated against his debts, the family was left penniless.  Agents of the state had taken possession of the Bridger home.  Deborah and the boys had moved into Billings, where Deborah took employment at a call center and the boys enrolled at Rimrock.

The sky was endless and stitched with clouds.  Barry walked along with his hands in his jacket pockets, his breath smoking.  Upon reaching Castle Rock Apartments, he cut through the fourplexes and horseshoe pits to Building 6, and climbed the stairs to 6D.  Rhett was there already, seated at the table in his sweatshirt and reflective vest, his sleeves pushed back from his grimy hands.  Rhett hadn’t forgotten to wash his hands; they just were grimy no matter how diligently he washed them.  Their mother’s torso was visible between the cabinets and countertop, her hands busy at the stove.  She wore a sweater with a nametag reading Deborah, Satisfaction Associate.  Her face appeared under the cabinets.  “There’s my angel!” she called to Barry.
Barry removed his jacket and sat with his brother.  Their mother, after a time, came around the cabinets with toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup in coffee mugs, which she placed before her sons.  Before touching one crumb of the meal, the three of them climbed onto the floor and knelt with their heads bowed over their chairs.  Rhett and Barry had crew cuts, and the kind of heavily lidded eyes that looked about the same open as they looked closed.  But they were closed now.  Their mother had sharp features and a pageboy haircut that fell forward as she prayed.

Now the patriarch, it was Rhett who intoned: “Oh merciful Lord, bless the sustenance you’ve provided and bless the soul of our departed father, Martin.  May You smile on our endeavors in this life and forgive the wicked who besiege us.”
“Amen,” Deborah and Barry said, and the family climbed onto their chairs and began eating.
The Lairds, when they gathered for a meal, believed in inquiring about each other’s lives.  Spooning some soup to her lips, and blowing on it, Deborah said to Rhett, “They’ve got you down at the Estates this week?  The Creek Water?”

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Rhett relinquished his spoon and dragged a napkin over his lips, nodding.  That was correct, he told his mother.  He was at the Creek Water Estates at least until Thursday.  Though the job, he explained, would’ve been completed last week if anyone at the company he worked for understood anything about construction.  Again and again, they were having to re-grade the same driveways.  The supervisor on the project just couldn’t figure out the drainage problem, even though drainage, as everyone knew, was the simplest concept in Creation to master.  As with all matters construction, Martin Laird had really had the final word when it came to drainage.  Taking a bite of his sandwich, Rhett reminded his mom and brother of that particular example of Martin Laird’s wisdom.  “It’s like dad always said,” Rhett said.  “Water don’t think about nothing at all except going downhill.”

But the company Rhett worked for wasn’t Laird & Sons.  It was an outfit out of Helena that’d hired Rhett out of something like charity, after his father was killed.

“Did you educate this man?” Rhett’s mother asked him..

“What?” Rhett said.

“Did you teach him?”

Rhett shook his head.  “I don’t know what I’d tell a fool like that.  He doesn’t care where the water goes.  We re-grade driveways, he gets to re-bill clients.”
Deborah nodded.  “He’s a featherbedder, then.”
Rhett didn’t know what that was.  His mother swallowed a bite of her sandwich.  “Featherbedding,” she said, “is a problem as old as Scripture.  The wicked believe the world belongs to them, every penny of it.  Their language is greed.  They don’t understand workmanship.”
Rhett was nodding.  “That’s this guy for sure,” he said.
“When your father passed, that business with the house.  With the company.  That’s not featherbedding literally but it’s the same Godlessness.  What belongs to other people ought rightly belong to them.  That’s what these people believe.”  Deborah stirred her soup.
Rhett sat forward.  “That’s why I’m thinking just two months, ma.  Maybe five jobs.”  He reached out his finger and tapped the table.  “That’s experience customers understand.  Christian customers.  And banks understand customers.  They’ll get behind it.”

Deborah nodded.  “That’s what would be right,” she said.

Barry knew what came next, and now it did come.  Rhett moved his hand onto his brother’s hand, and patted it.  “Laird Brothers,” he said solemnly.  “And not a person on this earth could take it from us.”
Deborah touched Barry’s other hand, and briefly it was as if the three Lairds were manacled together, each to each.

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