Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Goodnight, Nobody

by Michael Knight

“Arresting. Stylistically, Knight slaloms through old-fashioned noir and snarky postmodernism, and from Barthelmean set pieces to a riff on Stonewall Jackson that evokes on of Barry Hannah’s Civil War fever dreams. . . . Knight has the rare power to make a setting breathe, to invest it with a vitality that seems as authentic and intense as the pulsebeats of his characters.” –Jonathan Miles, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 176
  • Publication Date January 20, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4055-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $12.00

About The Book

Michael Knight received a special PEN/Hemingway citation for his startling, finely crafted first collection, Dogfight and Other Stories, and The Wall Street Journal called Divining Rod “a potent novel from a talented new author.” Goodnight, Nobody, a brilliant collection of stories of rediscovered love, reconciliation, and peace amid the trials of everyday life, proves once again that he is “a genius of the ordinary” (Frederick Barthelme).

In each story, characters are surprised by their mettle even as they recognize their fallibility; they are convinced of the power of love, family, and trust even as they experience the danger of obsession, anger, and simple accident. In the subtle romance “Birdland,” a beautiful ornithologist from up north does her best to deny the lure of a parrot-populated Alabama village and its resident driftwood carver. In the stylistically daring masterpiece “Killing Stonewall Jackson,” a rough band of Confederate soldiers contemplate the distant, fabled Stonewall Jackson, the man who has sent them to a hellish battlefield. From a stay-at-home father–immobilized by a bad back–waiting helplessly for his sullen step-daughter to assist him, to a suburban husband stalking his wife’s lover with a pair of night-vision goggles, Knight’s stories are bound by an unfailing compassion for the self-destructed. Stirring tenderness in equal parts with violence, Goodnight, Nobody will amaze with its graceful sense of humor and empathy for the human spirit.

Praise

“Arresting. Stylistically, Knight slaloms through old-fashioned noir and snarky postmodernism, and from Barthelmean set pieces to a riff on Stonewall Jackson that evokes on of Barry Hannah’s Civil War fever dreams. . . . Knight has the rare power to make a setting breathe, to invest it with a vitality that seems as authentic and intense as the pulsebeats of his characters.” –Jonathan Miles, The New York Times Book Review

“”Birdland” is in itself worth the price of the book. . . . This exquisite piece of writing could be used as an example of the nuanced lyricism, compression and emotional richness that make short stories, when they work, so very satisfying to read.” –Barbara Quick, The San Francisco Chronicle

“If good writing is like a good suit–durable, seamless and decidedly non-flashy–then Michael Knight [is a] master tailor. . . . When Knight’s imagination works, it works marvelously.” –Kevin Allman, The Washington Post Book World

“Knight’s characters remain touchingly human, thanks to his subtle, if sardonic, sense of humor and his essential authorial decency.” –Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe

“As each tale unfolds we meet people who are exceptional because they are willing to take chances: on love, for family, for a better life. . . .Knight makes the most of characters with little or nothing going for them. His characters discover their mettle in everyday struggles.” –Ginny Merdes, The Seattle Times

“Skillful. . . . The first thing one notices is the intelligence and beauty of Knight’s sentences. . . . One also notices how textured Knight’s writing is. . . . Knight’s tonal range is impressive: There is a gentle humorous love story; a stark account of a divorced father kidnapping his 4-year-old daughter; an eerie and violent Civil War story; a harsh story about a dental hygienist gassing her ex-husband to death. . . . The verdict: There is much to admire here.” –Tommy Hays, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A great collection–Knight is a savvy writer who is serious even as he entertains. . . . The humor that winds its way through this collection is droll, understated and enticing, a welcome mat for people who usually prefer novels to stories.” –The Arizona Republic

“Knight proves in Goodnight, Nobody that he is, as Frederick Barthelme once called him, “a genius of the ordinary.”” –Donna Rifkind, The Baltimore Sun

“Knight’s talent is in the details, all the wonderful little moments he hands us along the way.” –Anne Stephenson, USA Today

“Michael Knight took the title for his collection of stories from a small perfect book that no parent ever tires of reading aloud–because the prose is seductive and because the atmosphere feels true and secret, like something you hear whispered from a friend that might unsettle you except that you have your friend to share it with you. That’s the exact sensation that these very fine stories evoke in the reader: they are memorable and intimate glimpses into relationships that feel both dangerously dark and strangely uplifting.” –Antonya Nelson, The Atlantic Monthly

Goodnight, Nobody is sure to captivate all who like well-written fiction. . . . Knight’s clever writing manages to incorporate several themes into very few pages, yet the reader feels very satisfied upon conclusion of the story. . . . Each and every story in this collection is well worth the read.” –Gilbert M. Singer, The Tampa Tribune

“Invariably clever and often brilliant. . . .Both entertaining and poignant. . . .Knight is one of Alabama’s best kept secrets, at home in his strong regional voice, yet versatile enough to let it be heard, as subtly as a bass player in a bluegrass band, across a wide range of style tone and viewpoint. Goodnight Nobody is short-story telling at its most basic, filled with surprises yet wholly familiar.” –Bruce A. Lowery, The Anniston Star

“The stories in Goodnight, Nobody will leave readers marveling at their succinct beauty and the worlds of possibility they open up.” –Thomas Bligh, The Ft. Lauderadale Sun-Sentinel

“A must read. . . . The stories of Goodnight, Nobody move with such fluidity, such effortless pace, that this brilliant new collection should be read tweice: once for the sheer pleasure of it, and once more to soak up the careful artistry of Michael Knight’s prose.” –The Virginia Quarterly Review

“Knight’s range is breathtaking, his glimpses into lives are revealing, and his characters are freshly drawn. . . .Knight’s forte is the quiet, intimate moment and surprising, imaginative turns of fate. . . .There’s diversity and style here, reminding us that Knight is among the best of a new generation of Southern writers.” –Charles Sermon, The Columbia State

“These stories . . . have a richness permeating through them that makes the entire book somewhat powerful. . . . [Knight] spins stories out of such scenes and characters like Bruce Little, run-of-the-mill people who lead run-of-the-mill lives, yet, nonetheless, have a story to tell. . . . Knight’s stories are night by the hearth with a blanket thrown over and scratchy jazz records playing on the turntable nearby.” –Jonathan Shipley, Bookreporter.com

“Knights imagination . . . is on full display in the stories here. . . . Much of the pleasure of reading this collection is watching Knight’s skillful versatility in pulling such stories off. It’s a versatility all too rare among today’s writers.” –Keith Chrostowski, Kansas City Star

“Knight charts his own course, crafting supple, contemporary tales in mostly bland suburban settings. . . . Foremost among Knight’s strengths is a confidence in his own style and voice. . . . His pieces evoke a range of emotions in just a few pages. Readers of this collection will be pleased and left hungry for more.” –John Sledge, The Moblie Register

“[Knight’s] stories strike a rich balance between anxiety and humor, often obscuring an impending crisis behind its outlandish peculiarities. . . . The plainspoken precision of Knight’s best writing suits the colloquial mannerisms of his characters. . . . Knight [has a] talent for shining a sympathetic light on the compromises and failures of the people who inhabit his stories.” –Mark Sorkin, Rain Taxi

“A luminous and surprising first collection. . . . [Knight] is a fresh and distinctive Southern voice.” –Albemarle

“From the first pages of this second collection (after Dogfight, 1998), it’s clear that Michael Knight is simply a great writer who doesn’t have anything to prove. Knight spins magic out of nothing much. Tremendous.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Impressive. . . . Populated by hard-luck guys trying to stay afloat in an unkind but often very funny world. . . . Knight demonstrates a distinct talent for creating literary mountains from life’s molehills.” –Publishers Weekly

“The stories are concise, poignant, and sometimes ironic.” –Josh Cohen, Library Journal

“Every story in Goodnight, Nobody is perfect. Michael Knight is a talented enough writer to tell any kind of tale he wants, but he’s at his best when he’s exploring this question: What happens to good men when they have lost just enough of their dignity, love and hope to take some wild gamble to retrieve all three at once? Every story Knight tells is another rich variation on that theme and it gets so heartbreaking sometimes that it’s easy to forget you are in the hands of a polished professional writer as you find yourself sliding right down into the lives of these brave and desperate characters.” –Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Stern Men

“Michael Knight is more than a master of the short story. He knows the true pace of life and does not cheat it, all the while offering whopping entertainment.” –Barry Hannah

Praise for Divining Rod:

“In the lineage of writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty . . . Michael Knight is without a doubt a new writer of considerable talent and promise.” –San Francisco Chronicle

Praise for Dogfight and Other Stories:

“Stories cut like gems from American family life.” –Los Angeles Times

Excerpt

Birdland

Between the months of April and September, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is inhabited by several generations of African parrots. A millionaire and philanthropist named Archibald brought a dozen or so over from Kenya around the turn of the century and kept them in an aviary built against the side of his house. A few days before his death, in a moment more notable for generosity than good sense, he swung open the cage and released the birds into a wide summer sky. According to eyewitness reports, the parrots made a dazed circle beneath the clouds, surprised by their sudden freedom, and, not immediately seeing anything more to their liking, lighted amid the branches of an apple orchard on the back acreage of Archibald’s property. There, as is the habit of nature, they flourished and have continued to thrive for more than ninety years.

But in September, when winter creeps in from the ocean and cold air kindles hazy instincts, the parrots flee south for warmer climes and settle here, in Elbow, Alabama, along a slow bend in the Black Warrior River, where perhaps they are reminded of waters, slower still, in an almost forgotten continent across the sea.

I know all this because The Blond told me it was true. The Blond has platinum hair and round hips and a pair of ornithology degrees from a university up in New Hampshire. She has a given name as well–Ludmilla Haggarsdottir–but no one in town is comfortable with its proper pronunciation. The Blond came to Elbow a year past, researching a book about Archibald’s parrots, and was knocked senseless by the late August heat. Even after the weight had gone out of summer and the parrots had arrived and football was upon us, she staggered around in a safari hat and sunglasses, drunk with the fading season, scribbling notes on the progress of the birds. She took pictures and sat sweating in the live-oak shade. They don’t have this sort of heat in New Hampshire–bone-warming, inertial heat, humidity thick enough to slow your blood. She rented a room in my house, the only room for rent in town. At night, we would sit on the back porch, fireflies blundering against the screen, and make love on my grandmother’s old daybed. “Tell me a story, Raymond,” The Blond would say. “Tell me something I’ve never heard before.” The Blond is not the only one with a college education. “This,” I said, throwing her leg over my shoulder, “is how Hector showed his love to Andromache the night before Achilles killed him dead.”

The only TV for thirty miles sits on the counter at Dillard’s Country Store. Dillard has a gas pump out front and all the essentials inside, white bread and yellow mustard and cold beer. Dillard himself brews hard cider and doubles as mayor of Elbow. He is eighty-one years old and has been unanimously elected to eleven consecutive terms. On fall Saturdays, all of Elbow gathers in his store to watch the Alabama team take the field, me and The Blond and the mayor and Mae and Wilson Camp, who have a soybean farm north of town. Lookout Mountain Coley is the nearest thing we have to a local celebrity. These days, he stocks shelves in the grocery and mans the counter when the mayor is in the head, but thirty-five years ago, he was only the second black man to play football for the great Bear Bryant and once returned a punt ninety-nine yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. The Crimson Tide is not what it used to be, however, and we all curse God for commandeering our better days. Leonard and Chevy Foote, identical twins, have the foulest mouths in Elbow, their dialogue on game day nothing more than a long string of invective against blind referees and unfair recruiting practices and dumbass coaches who aren’t fit to wipe Bear Bryant’s behind. The parrots perch in ­pecan trees beyond the open windows and listen to us rant. At night, with the river curving slow and silent, they mimic us in the dark. “Catch the ball,” they caw in Mayor Dillard’s desperate falsetto, “Catch the ball, you stupid nigger.” Mayor Dillard is an unrepentant racist and I often wonder what the citizens of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, must think when the birds leave us in the spring.

The Blond is still working on her book. She follows the birds from tree to tree, keeping an eye on reproductive habits and the condition of winter plumage. Parrot, she tells me, is really just a catchall name for several types of birds, such as the macaw, the cockatoo, the lory, and the budgerigar. Common to all genera, including our African grays, are a hooked bill, a prehensile tongue, and yoke-toed claws. The African parrot can live up to eighty years, she says, and often mates for life, though our local birds have apparently adopted a more swinging sexual culture due to an instinctive understanding of the rigors of perpetuation in a nonindigenous environment. Her book will be about the insistence of nature. It will be about surviving against the odds. One day, says The Blond, she will return to Pawtucket, as she had originally planned, and resume her studies there. She mentions this when she is angry with me for one reason or another and leads me to her room, where her suitcase still sits packed atop my grandmother’s antique bureau. And the thought of her leaving does frighten me to good behavior. I can hardly remember what my life was like without her here, though I managed fine a long time before she arrived. Seven months ago, when March finally brought her to her senses and the birds began to filter north, The Blond and I were already too tangled up for her to leave.

My grandmother left me this house upon her death. It isn’t a big house, just a one-story frame number with a sleeping porch and a converted attic, which is I where I make my bed, but it sits high on red clay bluffs and when November rain has stripped leaves from the trees, you can see all the way to the Black Warrior. Here, the river bends like a folded arm, which is how our town came to have its name. In the fall, while we sit mesmerized and enraged by the failings of our team, the dark water litters Dillard Point with driftwood and detritus, baby carriages and coat hangers, kites, and high-heeled shoes. When the game has ended and I need an hour to collect myself, I wander Mayor Dillard’s land, collecting branches that I carve into parrot figurines and sell from a shelf in the window of his store. We have bird-watchers by the busload in season and, outside of the twenty dollars a month I charge The Blond for room and board, these whittlings account for my income. But I don’t need much in the way of money anymore. Years ago, my family owned a lumber mill and a loading dock by the river so the company could ship wood to Mobile. My great-grandfather torched the mill in 1939 for insurance and gradually, a few at a time, people drifted downstream for work until there was almost no one left. The Blond wonders why we still bother with elections since there are fewer than a dozen voters and Dillard always wins. I tell her we believe in democracy in Alabama. I tell her we have faith in the American way.

Neither does The Blond understand our commitment to college football. Ever the scientist, she has theorized that a winning team gives us a reason to take pride in being from Alabama and with our long history of bigotry and oppression and our more recent dismal record in public education and environmental conservation, such reasons, according to The Blond, are few and far between. I don’t know whether or not she is correct, but I suspect that she is beginning to recognize the appeal of the Crimson Tide. Just last week, as we watched Alabama in a death struggle with the Florida Gators, our halfback fumbled and she jerked out of her chair, her fists closed tight, her breasts bouncing excitedly. She had to clench her jaw to keep from calling out. Her face was glazed with sweat, the fine hairs on her upper lip visible in the dusty light. The sight of her like that, all balled-up enthusiasm, her shirt knotted beneath her ribs, sweat pooling in the folds of her belly, moved me to dizziness. I held her hand and led her out onto the porch. Dillard’s store is situated at a junction of rural highways and we watched a tour bus rumble past, eager old women hanging from the windows with binoculars at their eyes. The pecan trees were dotted with parrots, blurs of brighter red and smears of gray in among the leaves. “Catch the ball,” one called out and another answered, ‘stick him like a man, you fat country bastard.” She sat on the plank steps and I knelt at her bare feet. “Will you marry me?” I said. “You are a prize greater than Helen of Troy.” She looked at me sadly for a minute, her hand going clammy in mine. The game was back on inside, an announcer’s voice floating through the open door. After a while she said, “I can’t live here the rest of my life.” She stood and went back inside to watch the rest of the game, which we lost on a last-second Hail Mary pass that broke all our hearts at once.

The Blond won’t sleep a whole night with me. She slips up the drop ladder to my attic and we wind together in the dark, her body pale above me, moonlight catching in her movie star hair. When she is finished, she smokes cigarettes at the gable window and I tell her stories about the Trojan War. I explain how the Greeks almost lost everything when Achilles and Agamemnon argued over a woman. I tell her that male pride is a volatile energy, some feathers better left unruffled, but she only likes the stories for background noise. She is more interested in the parrots, a few of whom have taken up roost in an oak tree beside my house. If there is a full moon, the birds are awake for hours, calling, “Who are you?” back and forth in the luminous night; “Why are you in my house?” According to The Blond, old Archibald was deep in Alzheimer’s by the time of his death and was unable even to recognize his own children when they visited. She goes dreamy-eyed imagining the parrots passing these words from generation to generation. Before she returns to her bed, she wonders aloud why it is that the birds learned such existential phrases in Rhode Island and such ugly, bitter words down here.

Sometimes, Lookout Mountain Coley gets fed up with Mayor Dillard shouting “nigger” at the TV screen. Having played for Alabama in the halcyon sixties, Lookout knows what football means to people around here and he restrains himself admirably. But when they were younger men and Mayor Dillard crossed whatever invisible boundary exists between them, Lookout would circle his fists in the old style and challenge him to a fight. They’d roll around in the dirt parking lot a while, sweat running muddy on their skin. Nowadays, he presses his lips together and his face goes blank and hard like he is turning himself to stone. He walks outside without a word, watches the birds across the highway. He wolf-whistles, the way the parrots are supposed to, and speaks to them in ordinary phrases. “Pretty bird, pretty bird. How about a little song?” After a few minutes, Mayor Dillard shakes his head and joins Lookout beside the road, 142 years of life between them. We focus our attention on the game so they can have some time alone to sort things out. No one knows for sure what goes on between them out there, but they return patting each other on the back, making promises that neither of them will keep. Mayor Dillard offers a public apology each time, says he hopes the people of Elbow won’t hold this incident against him come election. He buys a round of bottled beers and Lookout accepts the apology with grace, waving his beer at the TV so we’ll quit looking at him and keep our minds on simpler things.

Her first season in town, The Blond was appalled by these displays. She is descended from liberal-minded Icelandic stock, and she couldn’t understand why Lookout or any of us would allow Mayor Dillard to go on the way he does. She sprang to her feet and clicked off the television and delivered an angry lecture welcoming us to the “twentieth-fucking-century.” Her fury was gorgeous, her face red, her thighs quivering righteously beneath her hiking shorts. She tried to convince Lookout to report Mayor Dillard to the NAACP and, short of that, to run for mayor himself, arguing that because he was a minor sports celebrity he might have the clout to unseat an incumbent. But Lookout told her he wasn’t interested. He shook his head gravely and said, “Uneasy is the head that wears the ground, miss.” Though I know she would be loath to admit it, the words don’t offend her so much anymore. You can get used to anything, given time. Some nights, however, when she is moving violently over me, she grits her teeth and says, “Who’s the nigger, Raymond? Who’s the nigger now?” I understand that her indignation is not aimed directly at me, but that doesn’t make those nights any easier. I twist myself sleeplessly in the sheets when she is gone.

Raymond was my father’s name. I am the only child of a land surveyor. My mother died giving birth and my dad wandered farther and farther afield looking for work until, finally, he never returned. I was thirteen when he disappeared, left here with my grandmother and the house. She paid for my education with nickels and dimes, millions of them, hidden in Mason jars beneath her bed because hers were old notions and she trusted neither banks nor the long-term value of paper money. “That’s ancient history,” she said, when I told her what I was studying. “You ought to be thinking about the future.” She loved this town and hoped that I would bring my learning home and give something back. She made me promise before she died. But all I have given unto Elbow is driftwood parrots and The Blond. Everyone knows she lingers here because of me and no one is quite sure how they feel about that.

A few days ago, she found a parrot nest in Wilson Camp’s defunct grain silo and spent a whole day sitting against the wall, watching the mother feed her babies regurgitated pecans. I panicked when I returned from wandering Dillard Point and found an empty house, waited on the porch and watched the road for cars but she never showed. I don’t have a phone so I drove from house to house, stopped by to see Lookout, swung past the Footes’ mobile home, whipped the town into a posse. I prowled country lanes until I saw her Jeep parked beside the Camps’ most distant field. When I didn’t spot her right away, I suspected the worst. This deserted road and vacant field are like horror movie sets, the silo rising from the ground like a wizard’s tower. I called her name but only the parrots answered back. “Who are you?” Their voices were flat and distant. “Catch the ball.” Then, faintly, I heard her voice, a stage whisper coming from the silo and when I crawled in beside her, she shined a flashlight on the nest and I could see the baby birds, their feathers still slick and insufficient, heads wobbly on their necks. The Blond threw her arms around me and wept and pressed her lips against my collarbone.

Mayor Dillard has a deal with his counterpart in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. On one Saturday in the fall and one in spring the towns combine in celebrating Parrot Days. In October, the mayor of Pawtucket flies south on his constituents’ tab. He stands outside the store where Lookout has rigged a hand-painted banner, delivers a short speech, and has his picture snapped for the record, his limousine idling beside the grandstand. Then he continues on to New Orleans, where he spends a few days whoring and playing at being a bigwig. Dillard takes a similar trip in May, which we do not begrudge him, and winds up in Atlantic City; once, Lookout had to drive up there to bail him out of jail. Our octogenarian mayor, it seems, was chasing showgirls down a hotel hallway wearing only an Indian headdress and screeching “Polly want a cracker” at the top of his lungs. Such, I suppose, are the prerogatives of power.

Mayor Dillard always arranges it so that Parrot Days fall during an off week for the Crimson Tide. This year, we gather in the parking lot and offer gifts to the Pawtucket delegation, my figurines and jugs of hard cider and a red plastic hat shaped like an elephant head, and listen to the visiting mayor give his speech. The parrots jeer him from the trees. “Run, darkie, run,” they call and he pretends not to notice. The Blond is disappointed with the day. She wanted more from these proceedings, wanted something meaningful and real, but most of us are grateful for a break from football this year. Six games into the season and already we’ve lost four. Another stinker and Bama is out of contention for a bowl. We’d settle for anything at this point: Taco Bell Aloha, Sun America Copper, even the Poulan Weed Eater over in Louisiana.

Elbow, Alabama, is easy enough to find. Take Highway 14 north from Sherwood until you come to Easy Money Road. Bear east and keep driving until you’re sure you’ve gone too far. Past a red barn with the words “His desire shall be satisfied upon the hills of Gilead” painted on the planks in gold letters, past a field where no crops will grow, past a cypress split by lightning and full of vivid, loquacious birds. This is modest country and nature has had her steady way for years. My house is just a little farther, over a hill, left on the gravel drive. Someone filched the mailbox years ago, but the post is still standing, headless and crooked. All our mail is addressed to Dillard’s Country Store. In the evenings, when the sun dangles like molten glass over the river, we ride into town and Mayor Dillard presents us with news from the world. Once a month, the Footes hang their heads and grit their teeth, a stew of shame and desire running in their veins because their subscription to Titty has arrived. The Camps get postcards now and then from Wilson’s brother, Max, and his other brother, Andre, whose marriage broke up years ago. Lookout gets religious pamphlets and sports recruiting news, but letters never come for me. I no longer have connections beyond the boundaries of our town. The Blond dawdles nearby when Mayor Dillard passes out the mail, her hair sweat-damp against her neck. She cracks her knuckles and goes for nonchalance. She has, it seems, applied for a government grant. She wrote the proposal without telling me and will head north in spring if her funding comes through on time. We are sitting at a picnic table behind my house eating PB&J when she announces her intentions. I force down a mouthful, ask her to marry me a second time but her answer is the same. She covers my hand with hers, looks an apology across the table. The Blond holds all of history against me. When it is clear that I have nothing else to say, she stands and walks around the front of the house. I find her staring up into the trees at a pair of fornicating parrots. ‘don’t mistake this for love,” she tells the birds. ‘don’t be talked into something you’ll regret.” She watches unblinking, her arms crossed at her chest, her vigorous legs shoulder-width apart. I ask her why she stayed last spring, why she didn’t follow the parrots when they left Elbow for the season. She tells me she was broke, that’s all. She would have vanished if she’d had the cash. I remind her that she paid her rent, that she was never short of cigarettes and oils for her hair. ‘shut up,” says The Blond. “I know what you want to hear.”

When I was fourteen, Hurricane Frederick whipped in from the Gulf of Mexico, spinning tornadoes upriver as far as Elbow. Dillard’s store was pancaked and a sixty-foot pine fell across the roof of my grandmother’s house. My father had been gone almost a year and we huddled in the pantry, the old woman and I, and listened to the wind moving room to room like a search party. The next day, she sent me to town on foot to borrow supplies and see if everyone was all right. Telephone poles were stacked along the road like pickup sticks. But the most terrifying thing of all was the quiet. The parrots were gone, the trees without pigment and voice. We thought they had all been killed and, to this day, no one is certain where they spent the winter, though The Blond has unearthed testimony for her book regarding strange birds sighted in the panhandle of Florida during the last months of 1979. We rebuilt the grocery and my grandmother turned her roof repairs into a party, serving up cheese and crackers and a few bottles of champagne she’d saved from her wedding. Despite our efforts at good cheer and exempting New Year’s Day when Bear Bryant licked Joe Paterno in the Sugar Bowl, a pall hung over town until Lookout spotted the birds coming back, dozens of them coloring the sky like a ticker tape parade.

Our river is named for the Indian chief Tuscaloosa, which means Black Warrior in Choctaw, and when I was a boy you could find arrowheads and chips of pottery buried in the banks. Now, as I make my way along the shore, the river offers up Goodyear radials and headless Barbie dolls. Parrots dance from branch to branch above me. I remember Calypso casting a spell to keep Odysseus on her island and I want to teach the birds a phrase so full of magic The Blond will never leave. At night, she types her notes and files them away on the chance the government will respond to her request. It’s warm enough still, even in October, that we leave the windows open, air grazing her skin and carrying her scent to my chair in the next room. I whittle and listen to sports radio and wish I had a phone so I could call all the broadcasters in New Jersey who have forgotten how great we used to be, how we won a dozen National Championships, how Alabama lost only six games in the first ten years of my life. To listen to them talk, you’d think they never heard Bear Bryant was on a stamp. I pace the floor when I get agitated and shuffle wood shavings with my feet. I talk back to my grandmother’s Motorola portable. When I make the fierce turn toward my chair, I see The Blond standing in the doorway, her hands on the frame above her. She smiles and shakes her head. “You people,” she says. “When are you gonna put all that Bear Bryant stuff behind you? That’s all dead and gone.” I cross myself Catholic-style and look at her a long moment, my heart tiny in my chest. She is wearing a man’s sleeveless undershirt and boxer shorts, her hair pinned behind her head with a pencil. I would forgive her almost any sacrilege for the length of her neck or the way she rests one foot on top of the other and curls her painted toes. “I thought you liked football,” I say. She crosses the room and puts her hands on my cheeks, kisses the spot between my eyebrows.

I want to tell her that the past is not only for forgetting. There are some things, good and bad, that you shouldn’t leave behind. According to the record books, Bear Bryant didn’t sign a black player until 1970 because the state of Alabama was not ready for gridiron integration. A decade earlier, however, he recruited a group of Negro running backs who were light-skinned enough to pass for white. They hid their Afros beneath helmets and bunked in a special dorm miles away from campus. They were listed in the program under names Bear himself selected. Lookout Coley’s playing name was Patrick O’reilly.

Every now and then, Mayor Dillard will set his ancient reel-to-reel on a card table and show black-and-white movies of Lookout’s punt return against the rear wall of his store. He ordered the game from a sports memorabilia company and we sit in the grass after dark, watch the image break around chips in the paint, press beer bottles against our necks to ward away the heat. There is Lookout, sleek and muscled and young, ball dropping into his arms, shifting his hips side to side, giving a Tennessee defender a stiff-arm to take your breath away. The image flickers as he shakes and shimmies toward the sideline, then he breaks upfield, his back arched with speed, the rest of the world falling away behind him. The movie is without sound and Mayor Dillard rewinds the touchdown over and over, Lookout, streaking backward in front of the Alabama bench past his exultant teammates and granite-faced Bear Bryant, then forward again toward the endzone, all swift and silent grace. None of us has ever done anything so wonderful in all our lives. Chevy Foote whispers like he has witnessed a cosmic event. “Old number 41, man, you sure could fly.” Crickets murmur in the underbrush. Lookout weeps quietly and Mayor Dillard throws an arm over his shoulder while the film clicks softly and plays itself out against the backdrop night.

I ask The Blond why the parrots keep returning to Elbow and she says it’s instinct, plain and simple. We are sitting on the riverbank with our feet in the water. The Blond slips into her academic’s voice as she tells me that because the birds are native to equatorial Africa, because their food supply of seeds, nuts, and fruit dries up in the Rhode Island cold, they are obliged to embark on a southerly migration in order to survive. “It’s a miracle Psittacus eritacus endures in this country at all,” she says and lies back on the ground, crossing her hands behind her neck. There is a parrot perched on a cypress branch across the river watching us with the side of his head. I find a stone on the bank and skip it across the water in his direction and he screeches and flutters his wings at me. “Run, darkie, run,” it says. “Why are you in my house?” The Blond squenches her lips disapprovingly and closes her eyes and I run a fingertip along her hairline until the furrows in her brow go smooth. “But why here?” I say. “They could live anywhere in the world.” The Blond lifts herself up on her forearm, her hair falling over her eyes, and opens her mouth to speak before she realizes that, for once, she doesn’t have an answer to my question.

In the second quarter of the Ole Miss game, a freshman quarterback named Algernon Marquez comes off the bench for Alabama and throws a pair of touchdowns before the half. For nine minutes, as our team works to tie the score, we are beside ourselves, leaping about Dillard’s Country Store, pitching our bodies into each other’s arms, but at the break, we fall silent, fearing a jinx, and cross our fingers and apologize to God for all the nasty things we have said about him in the recent past. Even The Blond wants to bear the suspense in quiet. She carries her cigarettes outside and sits smoking in her Jeep. I stand behind my parrot sculptures, watch her through the window, as she eyes real birds across the road and pretends she is above all this. But I know otherwise. The Black Warrior winds forty miles down from Tuscaloosa and The Blond is hearing faint cheers on the watery wind. The second half, God bless, belongs to Alabama. Our defense is inspired, our offense fleet and strong. Algernon Marquez isn’t Joe Namath, but he is more a dream than we could have hoped, “a no-name wonder from Letohatchee,” says the announcer, “whose only goal in life was to play for the Crimson Tide.” I wonder how it would feel to have achieved all your aspirations by your eighteenth year. A bus full of Delaware parrot lovers rolls up while the score is 35–17 and Mayor Dillard gives them whatever they want for free.

That night, I tell The Blond Andromache’s story–how, after Hector’s death, she was made a slave to Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, but grew to love him a little over time. ‘she was happy in his house even though she never guessed it could be true,” I say, sitting on the bed with my back propped up. The Blond is naked, still flushed from our coupling. “I’m pregnant,” she says. “I can feel it in my bones.” She traces concentric circles on her stomach with a finger, the parrots frantic beyond the windows. The Blond bolts upright and looks at me, like she wants to see something behind my eyes. I’m just about to haul her into my arms and waltz her joyously around the room, when she slaps my face, leaving an echo in my head. I watch, too stunned to stop her, while she jumps up and down on the wood floor, landing hard and flat-footed each time, shaking window panes, sending ripples along the backs of her legs. She is crying and pounding her knees, and I wrap my arms around her and pin her down. “This is not my baby,” she says. “This is not my life,” and she keeps shouting until her voice is gone and she has cried herself to sleep beneath me.

There are ghosts in Elbow. Little Hound, one of Chief Tuscaloosa’s lieutenants, was betrayed on the banks of our river by Hernando de Soto and his men, shot in the belly, according to legend, then flayed while he was still alive as an example to the Choctaw people. On cold nights, when football season has come and gone, you can hear him chanting a curse against white men in the dark. That old broken-down house on Route 16, the one with the stove-in porch and kudzu creeping up the walls, Gantry Pound murdered his wife and three daughters there because he believed that women were vile creatures and he couldn’t bear the smell of their menstruation. According to Wilson and Mae Camp, who live in the next house down the road, an ebullient sorority of phantoms roams the halls at midnight, glad to have the place finally to themselves. Even my house has a ghost. My grandmother swore that she would never leave and sometimes, when I am hovering on the brink of sleep, I see her watching over me, calling me by my father’s name, though I am never sure if I am dreaming.

The day after The Blond declared herself with child, just before I open my eyes, I hear a voice, faint as electricity, but the room is empty. Morning finds me alone, still sleeping on the floor. I check the house to be sure, but The Blond is nowhere to be found. Her suitcase is gone from the bureau, her hair care products vanished from the shelf beside the bathroom sink. I sit drinking coffee on the sleeping porch while the parrots call around me. “Who are you? Why are you in my house?” It is not quite new day yet and I watch the world come to life, winter buds opening in the light, the river far below hauling water toward the sea. I tell myself that I will give up hope at lunch. And, though I hold off eating until two o’clock, I keep my promise and carry a melancholy peanut butter sandwich out into the yard. The grass is cool on the bottoms of my feet. I wonder about The Blond, see her streaming down the highway in her Jeep, sunglasses on her head to keep the hair out of her eyes, wonder if she will put an end to our baby in a sterile clinic or if she only wants to get some distance between history and the child. I want to tell her that even bland Ohio is haunted by its crimes. I want to tell her, while the air is full of birds and the shadow of my house still lingers on the yard, that she is exactly what I need. Behind me, as if on cue, The Blond says, “I drove all night, but I didn’t know where else to go.” I turn to face her, blood jumping in my veins. There are tired blue crescents under her eyes and her hair is knotted from the wind. She smiles and smooths the front of her shorts. I am so grateful I do not have the strength to speak. “I took a pee test in Gadsden,” she says. “It’s official.” The Blond walks over, grabs my wrist, and guides my sandwich to her lips.

Election day is nearing again, November 17. Though he will, as usual, run unopposed, Mayor Dillard is superstitious about complacency. He pays Lookout overtime to haul campaign buttons out of the storage shed behind his store and stake Dillard Does It Better signs along the road. He visits each of his constituents in person, bribes us with hard cider and the promise of a brighter future here in Elbow. Bird-watching is up, crime down, he tells us at his fried chicken fund-raiser, and each will continue in the appropriate direction if he is reelected. Things are looking brighter for the Alabama team as well. We’ve won two games in a row and all the Yankee radio personalities are beginning to see the light. They say our team has an outside shot at the Peach Bowl over in Georgia, where we will likely face Virginia’s Cavaliers. But we do not speak a word of this in town. We hold our breath and say our prayers because hated Auburn is still looming in the distance and one false step could bring all this new hope down around us like a house of cards. At night, The Blond and I drink nonalcoholic beverages beneath the Milky Way. We have reached an acceptable compromise: spring in Rhode Island, fall back here, until she is finished with her study, but she will give birth in Alabama. Elbow will have a new voter in eighteen years and The Blond has convinced Lookout to contend for mayor himself one day. He will not run against his friend, he says. Too much has passed between them. But it won’t be long before Mayor Dillard gives in to time, and Lookout Mountain Coley can sweep injustice from our town like an Old West sheriff. My life purls drowsily out behind me like water. Parrots preen invisibly in the dark. I shuttle inside for more ice and listen to The Blond spin stories about our unborn child. Her daughter, she says, will discover a lost tribe of parrots in the wilds of Borneo and invent a vaccine for broken hearts. She will write a novel so fine no other books need writing anymore, and she will marry, if she chooses, an imperfect man and make him good inside. And maybe, if the stars are all in line, our daughter will grow up to be the hardest-hitting free safety who ever lived.

Excerpted from Goodnight, Nobody

©2003 by Michael Knight. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.