Ground Zero

Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press

In honor of the publication of Ground Zero, Colin Nolquist phoned his mother for the first time in eight months and had a conversation with her for all of six minutes.  The topic of his novel never came up.

In the book, Nolquist unravels a sprawling seventeen second moment experienced by roughly 3,000 people in one unbroken, ricocheting sentence across 382 pages, beginning with the word “Red” and ending, starkly, with, “breath.”  Hailed as one of the most ambitious, eye-opening works of the new century, Nolquist’s name rapidly joined those literary luminaries who are oft praised but rarely read.  All of this held a tinge of vindication.  Or at least it would have, if his novel had been any good.

At thirty-one, Nolquist drank less than he had in his twenties, ate less, slept less, fucked less.  He no longer smoked.  He entered his mature period with morbid rigor and the rewards of his healthier, saner lifestyle were a published novel, his name in a (frankly, middling) New Yorker review and less frequent panic attacks.  Also, his myopia had deepened.  The qualitative aspects of his life had improved.

And then there was Clarice.  Clarice Dunlop, of the rounded hips and dull red hair, was not a celebrity’s trophy girlfriend, but Nolquist, by no stretch of the imagination, could be called a celebrity.  And she was still prettier than Mali, his previous girlfriend.  Plus, she had sufficient intelligence to appreciate his talent, but not enough to see through his gimmicks.  Within the nebulous purgatory of professional respect that he had fought his way into, knowing that Clarice would never see through “the shroud of his illusion to the rather pedestrian series of ropes and pulleys drawing the flaccid narrative forward” (as one astute critic put it) was a comfort.

It had been Clarice’s idea to drive the ten hours from New York City to D.C. for the first stop of a perfunctory book signing tour in the eastern seaboard’s smallest bookstores.  On the way, they would detour through the heart of Maryland’s bland territory to spend an evening with Clarice’s parents.

“It’s perfect,” she had gushed.  “My parents always say they feel like they barely know you.  And daddy will love your book.”  With no good excuse affording itself, Nolquist implicitly agreed to the rendezvous.  Two hours by highway from the nation’s capital, Clarice guided her three year-old hybrid through the streets of Oceanside, a vainly affluent township with fifteen churches and vibrantly green lawns in front of every house.  It was mid-October and a smattering of houses had Halloween decorations on their doors.  Stultified pumpkins stared out at these visitors with sly grins and passive malice.

Nolquist felt contemptuous of Clarice’s fondness for this town.  The glazed pleasure on her face seemed portent of something sinister behind the neutral colors and welcoming picture windows.  He recognized the inherent cliché in his suburban bigotry, founded on nothing more concrete than his city upbringing.  An aimless story idea was forming, sprouting from every gaudy mailbox and brick walkway, but the plot growing out of the imagery had no climax other than the unformed protagonist’s inevitable surrender.  The fiction evaporated as they drove up onto the Dunlop driveway to find the homeowners waiting on the porch.

“So good to see you,” Mrs. Dunlop gushed with kisses placed affectionately on both Clarice and Nolquist’s cheeks.  “Too long,” she added, shaking her head somberly.  After pulling back from hugging his daughter, Mr. Dunlop draped his left arm firmly around his wife’s shoulders and extended his right to Nolquist, beaming a genuine smile, his handshake firm but receptive.

“Any bags?”

“Just a couple of small ones, daddy.”

“You and mom go inside, we’ll grab them.”  Clarice smiled broadly at Nolquist whose forced attempt to reciprocate left the skin at the edge of his eyes smooth as ironed cotton.  He watched the two women enter the house before following Mr. Dunlop to the trunk of the car.

“Packed light,” Mr. Dunlop noted approvingly while slinging Clarice’s lime duffel bag over his shoulder.

“Yeah, we try to keep as bare as possible when traveling.”  Nolquist lifted his own navy backpack out of the trunk before Mr. Dunlop slammed the lid closed.

“That’s good.  The missus can’t run to the store without a caravan.”  Mr. Dunlop laughed heartily, and Nolquist, sensing an attempt at a laugh would sound insincere and a nod would seem disinterested, split the difference with yet another milquetoast smile.  Mr. Dunlop patted him on the back and walked towards the house.  “Don’t tell her I said that,” he whispered conspiratorially over his shoulder as they entered the house.

“So, tell us about this novel.”  Mrs. Dunlop placed a deliberate emphasis on the word, as if it were a foreign language she was afraid to mispronounce.  They were sitting on plush, plum-colored couches in the living room, sipping sangria while waiting for the brisket to bake.

“Oh, well, you know,” Nolquist demurred.  “Just something I’ve had in the works for some time.”

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Clarice interjected, her hand squeezing Nolquist’s elbow.  “Daddy, you would absolutely love it.  Love it!”

“I’ve heard good things,” Mr. Dunlop addressed Nolquist intently, yet affably.  “Clarice sent me a copy and it’s on the top of my pile.  Next one up,” he added, a merry glint in his eye.

“I’ll certainly be interested in your thoughts, Mr. Dunlop.”  Nolquist nodded at his host, then met Clarice’s cheery gaze.

“Happy to provide them.”  Mr. Dunlop turned to his wife and stated matter-of-factly, “Smells done to me.”

“Oh, it does,” Mrs. Dunlop agreed, slapping her knees as she stood.

“Help your mother, dear,” Mr. Dunlop commanded with gentle authority.

“Yes, daddy.”  The two women exited, daughter behind mother.  Mr. Dunlop waited for the kitchen door to swing shut before speaking.

“It’s interesting, I’ll give you that.”

“It is?”  Nolquist asked, alcohol sloshing to the back of his throat.  “What is?”

“Your book.  You’ve got a fine conceit.”

“Oh, well, thank you.  I didn’t think… You read my-”

“Not sure there’s a point, though.”  Mr. Dunlop leaned forward and set his glass on the oak coffee table between himself and Nolquist.  “Seems pretty flimsy, once you get past that conceit.  A whole lot of style without a story.”

“That’s been… I mean, well, it actually is about a lot of things-”

“And misogynistic.  I found that especially distressing.  The misogyny.”

“Misogyny…?”  Nolquist fidgeted, crossing his legs, uncrossing them, then leaning forward.

“It means you denigrate your female characters.”

“No, I know what it means, but-”

“You don’t denigrate my daughter, do you?”

“Your daughter?  No.  No, I never-”

“The author of that book of yours, I don’t think I like him very much.  It seems to me that he wouldn’t be much of a boyfriend, certainly not a husband.”  Mr. Dunlop gazed past Nolquist’s shoulders, as if addressing a camera.  “No, I don’t think much of him at all.”

“I…”  As Nolquist fumbled for a response, Clarice appeared from the kitchen.

“All ready, men,” she blithely informed, giddy as a little girl.

“Fabulous, dear,” Mr. Dunlop enthused, rising up from the couch and smiling at Nolquist.  “You’ve got two hungry men right here.  Come eat, boy.”  Not waiting for Nolquist to stand, Mr. Dunlop picked up his sparkling red sangria and crossed the room, cradling Clarice’s shoulder.  Nolquist, ashen, followed.

Nolquist and Clarice shared the pink and orange ornamented queen-sized bed that had been hers for all of middle and high school.  Dinner had been a boisterous and talkative event, though Nolquist spoke little.  The brisket, Mrs. Dunlop’s one signature dish, was tender and succulent, if rather too salty for Nolquist’s tastes.  He had thirds.

To Nolquist’s considerable surprise, the Dunlops didn’t bat an eye at the prospect of him sharing a bed with their daughter under their roof.  Clarice, exultant at what she clearly considered a successful pairing of boyfriend and parents, slid under the sheets wearing a cotton, white-with-yellow-flowers nightgown that she rarely wore in New York.  She curled up into a fetal position, her arms squeezing the pillow beneath her head.

Nolquist stood at the side of the bed in tattered boxers and a stained SUNY t-shirt.  He studied Clarice, balled up and comfortable within this utterly unreal dream world, her childlike serenity equally as unnerving as Mr. Dunlop’s aside.  She opened her eyes, peering up at him.

“You coming to bed?”  She asked, her voice lilting and inviting.

“Yeah.”  He lifted up the comforter and lowered himself down next to her.  She let go of the pillow and pulled herself to his body, her breasts and meaty thighs pressed into his stiff form.

“I’m so glad we came here,” she whispered.

“Mhm.  Me, too.”  Nolquist felt her eyes on him, but he didn’t look at her.  He could sense her radiant grin boring into his warm cheek.  Staring up at the white, textured finish of the ceiling, he feigned a yawn and mused out loud, “I should call my mom tomorrow.”