A New York Times Editors’ Choice
Winner of the Kate Chopin Writing Award
Winner of the Ken/NAMI Award
One day, Angie Voorster—diligent student, all-star swimmer, and ivy-league bound high school senior—dives to the bottom of a pool and stays there. In that moment, everything the Voorster family believes they know about each other changes.
Katharine Noel’s extraordinary debut illuminates the fault lines in one family’s relationships, as well as the complex emotional ties that bind them together.
With grace and precision rarely seen in a first novel, Noel guides her reader through a world where love is imperfect, and where longing for an imagined ideal can both destroy one family’s happiness and offer them redemption. Halfway House introduces a powerful, eloquent new literary voice.
“An eloquent literary performance . . . [A] memorable first novel with a uniquely powerful grace.” —The Boston Globe
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Another windstorm had knocked the farm's electricity out, so the dining hall was lit by candles. She'd been here three months now, and they'd lost electricity three times. Angie liked how the flickering light made the movements of both Staff and Residents oddly holy, seeming to invest the smallest gesture — emptying a cup, unbuttoning a coat — with grace and purpose. In the candlelight, the tremor in her hands was barely visible. One of the things she hated about lithium was the way she shook, like an old woman. This half-light meant she didn't have to pull her sleeves down over her hands or turn her body so it was between other people and whatever she held. Angie didn't know what she was going to do about the trembling this afternoon, when Jess visited. Keep her hands in her pockets, maybe.
"Eggs and bacon," said Hannah, folding back the foil from a pan. She lifted the serving tongs. "What can I get you, Doug?"
"Yeah, yeah." Doug was sitting on his hands; his long legs knocked against the underside of the table.
"You want both?"
"Yeah." As he reached for his plate, a coin of scalp shone at the back of his hair where he'd begun to bald.
Hannah was Staff, one of the college students taking a semester off to work at the farm. She'd told Angie that she would write a paper at the end and be given course credit by the psych department. Most of the college students looked like hippies, with their long hair and rough shirts, but Hannah had crew-cut hair and overalls. She wasn't pretty, but she was graceful, and she stood out in a way the prettier students didn't.
She finished serving and closed the tinfoil back over the pans. Doug had already wolfed down half his food, and he held out his plate anxiously. "Can I have seconds now?"
"What's the rule, Doug?"
"Not until six-forty-five."
"Yeah. I don't think everyone's up yet."
Doug put his hands under his thighs again. He rocked forward. "I used to have a car. A Honda Civic. It was green. They're good cars, aren't they? Aren't they?"
"Damn good cars," Hannah said. Angie liked the way Hannah talked to Residents about whatever they wanted to talk about. Most Staff would have insisted on reality-checking with Doug every two seconds, steering him again and again back to the here and now.
The milkers came in, stamping snow from their boots. Sam Manning poured himself sap tea from the samovar. He had gray hair, cracked hands, wrists so wide he could have balanced his teacup on one of them. Sam was the only Resident who milked — the other milkers were on Staff — and he'd been down to the barn already this morning. He sat down next to Angie. When he reached for the sugar bowl, she felt cold air on his sleeve. His boots gave off the sweet, murky smell of cow shit.
"The big day," he said.
Angie nodded and looked away. With Jess's visit only a few hours off, thinking about it made her feel as though she had something sharp caught in her throat. They hadn't seen each other in the time Angie had been at the farm. Sometimes Angie couldn't bring her memory of Jess's face into focus, which gave her the crazy fear they wouldn't recognize each other. At least the doctor had taken her off Klonopin completely now. She was fat and she trembled, but each word wasn't its own search-and-rescue mission.
"They're good, they're good, they're good cars. They're good cars. They're good cars. Mine was green. Not too slow and not too fast. Not too safe and not too unsafe. Not too safe. Can I have more bacon?"
"She said six-forty-five," a Resident said reprovingly.
"She said, she said, she said bedhead."
Hannah shrugged lightly. "About ten more minutes, Doug."
The door behind them opened, bringing the din of wind. Cold air rushed into the dining hall; the candle flames hunched low, wincing. The Residents who'd just come in had to struggle to close the door.
"Do you ever see any of your old friends?" Angie asked Sam. "From before you got sick?"
"Before I got sick was a long time ago."
"But do you?"
"I'm not like you." He turned his big hands over, looking neutrally at the dirty nails a moment before looking up at Angie again. "I've never been good with people. Really, my only friend is my sister."
Angie still hadn't gotten used to the way people here said agonizing things so matter-of-factly. He couldn't stay married to a mental patient. My mother says it would have been better if I wasn't born. Angie said, "You have lots of friends here. You have me."
"You were asking about outside, though. You're nervous about your friend coming."
"Not really," she lied. Jess had been her best friend since second grade. Up until the breakdown, they'd seen each other almost every day. Now when Jess called on the pay phone, Angie sometimes whispered, "Tell her I'm not here."
Hannah yawned, covering her mouth with the back of one hand, blinking as her eyes watered. The yawn went on so long she looked embarrassed by it. Gesturing toward the long table behind her, she said, "I've been up since four making bread. It's still hot, if anyone wants some."
"I fed on dead red bread, she said. She said, come to Club Meds in my head." Doug rocked forward, then back. "Is it lemon bread?"
"Just regular bread. Wheat bread."
Doug shook his head, making a face. He was too tall to sit at the table without hunching, and his knees hit against the underside, making the plates jump. "Sorry, sorry." He hunched even more. His scalp showed, waxy, through his hair.
Nurse Dave had the meds box. He poured three pills into Doug's cupped palm: Klonopin, a green pill Angie didn't recognize, and the same yellow and gray capsule of lithium she took three times a day. She looked away. Their movements were shadowed on the wall behind them, Nurse Dave straightening up, Doug remaining stooped as he reached for his water. The nurse watched Doug swallow his pills, then handed Angie her envelope, which she tucked beneath the edge of her plate. She'd only just gone from monitored to unmonitored meds, which meant no one watched her take them. She wanted to wait a few minutes, to make being unmonitored matter.
"An engine is a thing of beauty," Doug said.
A Resident muttered, "Here we go."
Hannah kept her voice casual. "What did you do last night, Doug? Did you watch the movie?"
"An engine is a thing of beauty, a thing, a thing, thing of beauty. Injector, intakemanifold valve spring timing belt camshaft inlet valve combustion chamber piston skirt alternator cooling fan crankshaft fan belt oil pan gasket oil drain plug oil pan air conditioner compressor —"
Hannah glanced at the clock. It was only six-forty, but she said, "Do you want some more bacon, Doug?"
"Flywheel engine block exhaust manifold exhaust valve spark plug rocker arm spark plug cable cylinder head cover vacuum diaphragm, distributor cap, injector,intake manifold valve spring, timing belt, camshaft, inlet valve, combustion chamber, piston skirt alternator cooling fan crankshaft." When someone rose, their shadow — huge and flickering — leapt up and slid across the east wall, stooped as they scraped their plate, straightened to set the plate in the sink. Doug rocked forward in his chair. "Fan belt oil pan gasket oil drain plug oil pan air compressor — conditioner — compressor flywheel engine block exhaust manifold. Inlet valve. Combustionchamber. Piston."
At seven, they went in to Morning Meeting. Everyone wore jeans and work boots at the farm — Residents' usually newer and nicer, Staff's more likely to be worn and mended. Angie and Sam found seats together. Across from them, a Resident in a denim hat licked his chapped- to-bleeding lips, over and over. Staff whispered something to him and he stopped for a moment. Aside from the attendance sheets balanced on the Resident advisers' knees, Morning Meeting reminded Angie of Unitarian Church services she'd gone to a few times with Jess: folding chairs, announcements, singing with guitars.
To the east, against the mountains, the sky was purple with dawn. Some Staff were knitting, needles clicking softly. It would be nice to have something to do with her hands. Sitting here left too much room to think, so that Morning Meeting often turned into a half-hour meditation on ways she'd fucked up. The last time she'd gone to Jess's church hadn't been long before she jumped into the pool, maybe a week. She'd gulped vodka in her room before church, trying to calm down — she'd been awake for days — and the combination of mania and alcohol meant she didn't remember much of the morning now. She did remember banners made of felt on felt, joy, peace, an abstract chalice. She remembered screaming with laughter at the stupid banners, she remembered during the service talking loudly to Jess, she remembered falling down after the service, suddenly surrounded by legs. The way the noise was sucked out of the room. By her face was Jess's mother's ankle, stubbled with hair. The silence after her fall had probably only lasted a couple of seconds, but it had seemed much longer. On Mrs. Salter's ankle, she saw each black hair sprouting sharp from its follicle, each follicle a pale lavender indent, and under the skin the hair continuing down, ghostly, toward its root. Above the ankle bone was a small scar, white as a chalk mark. Angie could see Mrs. Salter in the shower, rushing a pink razor up her calf; the sharp, coppery taste that came into your mouth even before you consciously knew you were cut; the way that for a minute the area around the cut would have flinched back, and then the cut would have flooded with blood, not red but pink because her skin was wet, washing in a pale, wide stream down her ankle bone and foot; the way she would have cursed and pressed the cut with her fingers. Angie reached out and touched the scar. In the moment before Mrs. Salter reacted, Angie could feel a tiny seam beneath the tip of her finger, as though someone had taken two neat stitches there with white thread. Inside the scar was Mrs. Salter's soul. The soul was just that small, tiny and white as a star. For one moment she understood the realness of Mrs. Salter to herself, how to Mrs. Salter the world radiated out from her own body. Angie could feel that for every person in the room at once; she felt the room's hundred centers.
Mrs. Salter jerked her leg away.
The noise of the room had flooded back in. One of the noises was someone laughing, yelping, wildly. Someone had said, "Is that girl okay?" Someone, Jess, had said, "Stop it, Angie, stop it, stop it."
Sam put his hand on her arm. "Angie? We're supposed to be going out to the truck."
Angie was bent over, arms around herself, face against her thighs. When they'd pulled her out of the pool, she'd been raving about the Olympics and breathing on the moon. Nothing, she was thinking — nothing, nothing — could make her fall apart in front of Jess again. She would be okay as long as she was careful, as long as she kept her hands out of sight, as long as she kept her thoughts on track. As long as she focused on the small details, as long as she made that be enough, as long as she made that be everything.
They rode the half mile to the barns in the back of a rattling Ford pickup. On sharp turns the key sometimes fell out of the ignition. The wind had died down to an occasional blast, sharp enough to pierce through Angie's coat. Though the sun was weak, the snow on the ground shone. They jolted slowly down the road, past the residences — Yellow House, White House, Ivy House — past the director's house, past the orchard, which in the summer held beehives. Sheep lifted masked, unsurprised faces to watch them. The llama had matted hair and a narrow, haughty expression. He detached from the flock and jogged mincingly toward the fence.
At the cowshed, the driver turned off the ignition; the truck continued to shake for a minute longer. Angie climbed up onto the rusty ledge of the truck bed, jumped heavily down. Pulling her scarf over her nose and mouth — as she breathed she tasted ice crystals and damp wool — she went around to the passenger-side door. Her hands were clumsy in her leather gloves, and it took three tries to unhook the baling wire that held the door closed. When the wire finally slipped free, she took a few awkward steps backward in the high snow, holding the door open. Sam Manning had been riding in the cab. He clambered down, and then together he and Angie wired the door shut again.
After the snow's glare, the inside of the barn seemed dim. Written above each stall were the names of the cow's sire, her dam, the bull she'd been mated with, and then the cow's own name: molly, maggie, jenny. Angie helped unclip the cows from their long chains and herd them out into the frozen side yard. Jenny went uncomplainingly, but when Angie went back for Maggie, she balked at the doorway. Angie hit her, then set her shoulder against the cow's heavy haunch and pushed. Maggie set her hooves, tensing back. Her huge eye rolled wildly. Beneath Angie's cheek, the cow's coarse hair smelled of rumen, straw, and manure, at once pleasing and abrasive. "Come on," Angie said, banging the cow with her shoulder. Maggie didn't budge, and then all at once she gave in and came unstuck. As though it were what she'd intended all along, she trotted out. In the yard, the cows crowded together, standing head to rump, their breath rising in dense white clouds. Angie unzipped her jacket and stood, hands on hips. Clouds of her breath — smaller than the cows' and more transparent — rose in the icy air.
Back inside, she pitchforked up yesterday's matted straw. Mixed in were crumpled paper towels, stained purple with teat disinfectant the milkers used. The barn was warm and close; Angie took off her jacket, hanging it on a nail. Another Resident, Betsy, turned on the radio, an ancient black Realistic balanced between two exposed wall studs, dialing until she found a faint heavy-metal song, fuzzed with static.
"No voices," said Sam Manning.
"No voices," the team leader agreed. Betsy rolled her eyes, tried to find another station. Finally she turned off the radio.
"They're all going to talk sometime," she said. "There's going to becommercials."
In silence, they used brooms to sweep the floor clear of the last chaff. Then Sam Manning hosed down the concrete. Sam was more than twice Angie's age, someone whom — outside the farm — she would never have even known. In this new life, though, he was her friend, her only real one, the only person who laughed when she made a joke instead of looking worried. They'd first found each other on Movie Night because they both voted for videos that lost. They wanted Chinatown instead of Crocodile Dundee, Witness instead of Top Gun, anything instead of Three Men and a Baby. Angie went to the Movie Nights anyway; she had nothing better to do. She and Sam sat in back and made fun of the dialogue.
When Sam was twenty, voices had told him to kill his twin sister, then himself. He'd come to her college dorm and stabbed her in the stomach. She screamed and rolled away and his second thrust went wild, tearing open her arm. He managed to stab her a third time, in the thigh, before the resident adviser's boyfriend ran in and wrenched the knife away. Sundays, Sam's sister came to the farm, and they sat together smoking. She was also burly, also iron-haired. Her limp was barely noticeable, but if she pushed up her sleeve, a knotty scar ran from her right elbow down her forearm, almost to the wrist. There had been such extensive nerve damage that she couldn't use her right hand. It stunned Angie what could be lived around in a family: Surely it shouldn't be possible, their sitting together on the stone wall by the sheep barn. She'd seen the sister reach for Sam's lighter, dipping her left hand into his shirt pocket as naturally as if it were her own.
At nine-thirty, they took a break. Hannah drove down from the kitchen, swinging herself out of the truck cab. Her jeans were made up more of patches than the original denim. She reached back into the truck for chocolate chip cookies and a thermos of cider.
The cookies were hot from the oven. The Residents and Staff stood in the lee of the barn, eating the cookies and smoking, ashing into a coffee can of sand. Angie, not a smoker, wandered over to the fence and watched the cows.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Halfway House"
Copyright © 2006 Katharine Noel.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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