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       First Light, p.1

           Charles Baxter
 
First Light


  Acclaim for Charles Baxter and

  First Light

  “First Light is a novel that moves backward in time, traveling from past to present as though through a tunnel of memory.… Like Chekhov, [Baxter] is both tough-minded and compassionate, and he never makes his characters more or less than what they are. They are human, and that in itself is a rare achievement for a writer, a thing to be celebrated above and beyond all other achievements in this splendid book.”

  —Paul Auster

  “Here is a voice worth listening to, a voice that has shown itself, in this wonderful, magical novel, to command the music of the spheres.”

  —San Jose Mercury News

  “Without question, Charles Baxter is among our best contemporary writers—always graceful, always dramatic. Superlatives are insufficient. Here is literature. Here is art.”

  —Tim O’Brien

  “Charles Baxter asks the most wonderful questions and addresses the most essential subjects—the things we have been thinking but haven’t … known how to begin to say.”

  —Francine Prose

  “It’s exceedingly rare to come across writing as seamless and engrossing as Charles Baxter’s.”

  —The Plain Dealer

  “Light and dark, the motifs of Baxter’s haunting and human fiction touch the reader in evocative ways.”

  —The Boston Globe

  “Baxter’s passionate writing raises the level of regard for life itself, let alone the art of writing.”

  —Howard Norman

  “Moves over everyday details with the inexorable, contrary tug of memory.”

  —Time

  “First Light illuminates the way out of the abyss and into the miracles and wonders that comprise life.”

  —Minneapolis Star Tribune

  “First Light is a daredevil technical feat, and very much more besides that. Charles Baxter’s long-term admirers will find that it satisfies their highest hopes.”

  —Madison Smartt Bell

  Charles Baxter

  First Light

  Charles Baxter is the author of the novels The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), The Soul Thief, Saul and Patsy, and Shadow Play, and the collections Gryphon, Believers, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net, and Harmony of the World. He lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

  www.charlesbaxter.com

  ALSO BY CHARLES BAXTER

  Fiction

  The Soul Thief

  Saul and Patsy

  The Feast of Love

  Believers

  Shadow Play

  A Relative Stranger

  Through the Safety Net

  Harmony of the World

  Gryphon

  Poetry

  Imaginary Paintings and Other Poems

  Prose

  The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

  Burning Down the House

  As Editor

  A William Maxwell Portrait

  (with Edward Hirsch and Michael Collier)

  The Business of Memory:

  The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting

  Bringing the Devil to His Knees:

  The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life (with Peter Turchi)

  FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, JANUARY 2012

  Copyright © 1987 by Charles Baxter

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Viking Books, a division of Penguin Books Ltd., New York, in 1987.

  Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Contemporaries and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following works:

  “All Alone,” by Irving Berlin. Copyright © 1924 Irving Berlin. © Copyright renewed 1951 by Irving Berlin. Reprinted by permission of Irving Berlin Music Corporation.

  “Crossing,” by J. Robert Oppenheimer. First published in Hound and Horn, September 1927. Reprinted by permission.

  The author gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Guggenheim Foundation and the Wayne State Fund.

  The Cataloging-in-Publication data is available on file at the Library of Congress

  eISBN: 978-0-307-94852-6

  www.vintagebooks.com

  v3.1

  For

  Mary Eaton

  and

  John Baxter

  Contents

  Cover

  About the Author

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Part I

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Part II

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Part III

  Chapter 9

  Part IV

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Life can only be understood backwards;

  but it must be lived forwards.

  —Kierkegaard

  I

  1

  On the Fourth of July, Hugh agrees to drive out to Mrs. LaMonte’s house to get “the explosives,” as he likes to call them. Halfway there, coming out of a long silence, his sister corrects him: they aren’t explosives, she says. They’re just fireworks. Toys. Hugh keeps both hands near the top of the steering wheel the way cautious men often do, and he does not turn to argue with her, not at first. He watches the panorama of drought colors go by for a full minute before he says, very quietly, “Yes. I know that.”

  “What? What do you know?” Dorsey sits slouched on the passenger side, her bare feet raised and crossed at the ankles on the leatherette dashboard, her arms wrapped around her knees, a compact circular mass.

  “I know they’re not explosives,” he says. “Although they do explode. I was being ironic.”

  “Oh,” she says. This time she is the one who lets the minute go by. Then she says, “That’s unusual,” and they both smile to themselves, gazing in different directions at the highway and the broad landscape of dried roadside grass and wilting crops.

  June, a hot and rainless month, had paled the natural greens in the fields outside Five Oaks to a faded pastel in which the yellow is now, at the beginning of July, beginning to be visible. The corn stalks are stunted, and each tree leaf has its own coating of dust. In the heat the sky is an ashy stagnant blue. Dorsey’s son, Noah, a deaf child, sits in the back and is sweating so much that his sportshirt is darkened with blotches. He is spinning a soccer ball on his index finger and rhythmically kicking the back of his mother’s bucket seat. Without turning around, Dorsey makes the sign for stop it in the air above her head: right hand c
hopping into the palm of the left. The second time she does it, her hand motions rise in volume to a pantomime shout.

  The car smells of hot leather and the lotion Hugh has spread that morning over his sunburned legs. A showroom salesman, he seldom encounters the sun directly, and when he does, especially on holidays and weekends, he sits in it as blank-faced as a lizard. Dorsey points down at her brother’s legs, taking her gaze off the fields. “Why don’t you ever remember about sunburn?” she asks.

  “Pain makes no impression on me.”

  “That’s a prideful lie,” Dorsey says. “And why haven’t you had the air conditioner in this car fixed? You sell these cars. You ought to be able to—”

  “—Yesterday,” he says. “The condenser went out yesterday. I haven’t had time. I’m all right. You don’t have to waste your time worrying about me or this car. We can take care of ourselves.”

  “I’m not worrying,” she says quietly, “and if I were, I wouldn’t be wasting my time.” Noah begins to kick the back of the seat again, and Dorsey turns around to glower for a moment at her son. She forms a quick sentence with her hands.

  “What’re you telling him?” Hugh asks.

  “To behave himself, or we won’t get any fireworks.”

  “Now that’s a prideful lie,” Hugh says. “We have to get them for my daughters, and your husband, and—”

  “Leave Simon out of this. Look out for that car,” Dorsey tells him, pointing at a red Dodge convertible snugly in its own lane, approaching them, passing by, disappearing. Hugh makes a disapproving, interiorized snickering sound. Dorsey shrugs. “You never know,” she says. She puts her head down on her knees, bunching herself again. Hugh remembers this posture from other trips she and he once took as children and adolescents—not only the posture, but also her habit of taking her shoes and socks off when she was in the car for any summer trip, no matter how short. In her rare, happy moods, she liked to put her feet up on the dashboard and leave toe prints on the window. She’s still beautiful, Hugh thinks: a beauty without innocence, though, because of her eyes. Insomniac attentiveness has darkened them. In her T-shirt and jeans, and her light hair cut short into a modified pageboy, she almost looks girlish. But with those eyes, grandmother eyes without the wrinkles, she shows a history, its inflictions.

  “You did call Mrs. LaMonte?” Dorsey asks.

  “I told you. I called. She says she still has ‘some inventory,’ as she calls it. She squealed when I told her you were coming along. ‘I can’t wait!’ she said. She asked me if you looked like a famous professor and astronomer.”

  “What’d you say?”

  “I said you still looked pretty much like yourself. Was that a lie? Should I have said something else?”

  “Yes.”

  The county road takes a sidearm turn to the left around a farm with a blue-and-white plaster Virgin Mary standing under a cedar shelter in the front yard. Behind the farm is a small hill, a sun-smelted pond at its bottom and a stony knob of basswoods at the top. “We’re almost there,” Hugh says. “I can always remember where Mrs. LaMonte’s place is by the sight of those creepy-looking basswoods.”

  He accelerates, passing a Jeep with a bumper sticker that says I ♥ MY PARACHUTE, and is pleased to see the dust flying up in a golden brown cloud behind his Buick.

  He turns into Mrs. LaMonte’s driveway and parks in the shade of a walnut tree. Mrs. LaMonte’s house is peach-colored—it has been this hue for as long as he has been coming out to buy fireworks—and Hugh wonders vaguely what company would be so immoral as to sell a house paint in that color. The house looks like something in a fairy tale, a huge piece of poisonous candy. Mrs. LaMonte, her gray hair spewing up from her head, drops her rake as soon as she sees the car, and comes running toward them, peering into the passenger-side window to get a look before Dorsey even has a chance to get out. With surprising strength, she pulls the door open, reaches in, and yanks Dorsey to her feet. As soon as Dorsey is standing, Mrs. LaMonte puts her huge old arms around her.

  She releases her and stares into Dorsey’s face. “You’re looking a wonder,” she says. “Beautiful and still smart, I can see that. Such eyes! We don’t have eyes like this very much around Five Oaks, do we, Hugh?”

  Hugh, on the other side of the car, shakes his head.

  “Your parents would have been so proud of you!” Mrs. LaMonte says. “I read about you in the paper. How long are you here in town?”

  “Only another day,” Dorsey says. “We’re on our way to Minneapolis.”

  “What’s in Minneapolis?” the old woman asks.

  “An acting job for Simon.” As soon as Dorsey has mentioned her husband’s name, Mrs. LaMonte turns her head and squints at her. “Simon … my husband,” Dorsey explains.

  “Oh, you don’t have to tell me,” Mrs. LaMonte says. “I keep up. You’re one of the best things that ever happened to this town, and it behooves an old woman to keep your name up there on the slate.” She taps her head. “But of course you haven’t introduced him to me,” Mrs. LaMonte says, carefully expressing just enough irritation to show that she means well. She gazes into Dorsey’s eyes and then readjusts her weight so that she is looking away. “Smell the skunk?”

  Dorsey, Hugh, and Mrs. LaMonte sniff the air in unison, and Hugh sees Dorsey smile with the lost pleasure of country odors. “They’ve been all over my farm,” she says. “Lucky thing they didn’t get into the shed.”

  “Is that where you keep the fireworks?” Hugh asks.

  “Your brother is all business,” Mrs. LaMonte says to Dorsey, holding on to the younger woman’s arm to steady herself. “Like your father. Hugh knows they’re in the shed because they always have been and he’s the one who comes out here year after year to buy them, so he ought to know. Now who’s this?” Noah has been examining something underneath the car and has just stood up.

  “Noah. My son. He’s deaf.” Dorsey makes a sign to Noah, and the boy steps forward to shake Mrs. LaMonte’s hand. The old woman holds on to the boy’s arm after he has finished pumping, and she then slowly places both of her palms on top of his shoulders, and while Noah fidgets, she sighs. “More family,” she says. “Thank goodness.” She looks at the three of them. “Well, come on back. Let’s get you some of this year’s illegals, and then we’ll have some lemonade.”

  “Hope you still have some good ones,” Dorsey says.

  “Business has been dribbly this year.” The old woman shakes her head. “People are getting too lawful and timid. It’s the priests and the government. Everybody’s enforcing everything. So we still have a good selection for sale. You’ll see.” She glances down at Dorsey’s feet. “You might want shoes.”

  The shed stands in the shadow of a broad, untrimmed apple tree, and Hugh can see some of last year’s leaves moidering in the gutters. Apples are dryrotting in the hot dust of the driveway. As she always does at this time of year, Mrs. LaMonte has removed the antiques she usually keeps on display and replaced them with the fireworks that her son Roy, a trucker, has smuggled in on Inter-Mountain Express. Her hurricane lamps, coach-and-four weathervanes, and blue glass cloisonné jars are crowded together in the two south corners. Inside the shed, Noah is breathing the gunpowdered air appreciatively. He holds up a Roman Candle and makes a sign to his mother.

  “Yes,” Mrs. LaMonte says, “that’s a good one, made in Hunan, China.” She nods quickly, standing in a wedge of sunlight, so that the sun reflects off her glasses onto the wall. “The Orientals like to name their fireworks with poetry names. That one’s called ‘Plum Blossoms Report Spring.’ Somewhere around here is one called ‘Purple Lilac Petals in Three Streams.’ ” She points at the far table. “I have chasers over there. These are Catharines. Standard rockets over there, near where your boy is standing. That group, on the low side of the table, those are Battles in the Clouds. I’ve got some Frightened Birds over here, and the usual Giant Howlers. The Battles in the Clouds are very good this year. Roy tried them out. They’re manufactured in
the world capital of fireworks—Macao, of all places. Don’t buy those.” Hugh has picked up an arrangement of six barrels on a platform. “They’re called Dynamites. They’re duds, most of them. Don’t know why.”

  Hugh has never seen so many fireworks at Mrs. LaMonte’s before, and now Noah is sweating with excitement. Dorsey’s sandals are leaving light prints in the reddish dust of the garage floor. “What about cherry bombs?” she asks.

  “They’re illegal,” Mrs. LaMonte says, straightening up.

  “So is everything else here.”

  “Not quite everything else.”

  “Most of it.”

  “All right. I won’t quarrel.” She sweeps her hand over the display. “With all this, why do you want cherry bombs? They aren’t beautiful. They have no poetry. They’re just loud.”

  “For Noah,” Dorsey says.

  Mrs. LaMonte stands perplexed. “But your boy is deaf,” she says.

  “Not to cherry bombs,” Dorsey says. “He can feel their shock waves with his skin. It’s as close as he ever gets to hearing.”

  “In that case,” Mrs. LaMonte says. She rushes over to a dark corner and picks up a white thin-mesh reticule. She reaches in and pulls out a half-dozen, which she holds up for display as she smiles benignly. “Royal bought these from a bald man with a tattoo and a string tie who works out of the back of a station wagon near Fargo. They wake up the skunks, these ones.” She drops them into Dorsey’s outstretched hands. “More bang for the buck,” she says.

  Hugh and Dorsey buy an assortment, which they load up in three grocery bags and put in the Buick’s trunk. Then they sit on the front porch while Mrs. LaMonte serves them all lemonade, and Noah practices his soccer kicks, aiming the ball at the trunk of a sugar maple in the front yard. Across the seared grass he runs back and forth, not even panting. Mrs. LaMonte settles herself down in a cane chair beside Hugh and Dorsey, and she watches Noah, making an old woman’s approving mutter. “Your father would’ve been proud of that boy,” she says. “Good-looking. Doesn’t mind the heat. I admired that man. He was always honest with me. Your mother, too.”

 
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