Excerpt of The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead
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Aunt Adelita had unruly black hair she wore tied off in
a ponytail. She cooked pot roast and mashed potatoes with
string bean salad and bowls of chopped-up
lettuce, and for
dessert there'd be strawberry rhubarb pies or pineapple pies
with blue cheese. It was as if she could not cook enough food
to satisfy herself.
There were so many women, aunts and great-aunts,
who'd buried husbands, dead from the wars, dead from the trauma
of accidents - the celerity of white pine turned and twisted,
split and shattered and descending from the sky, or under
the earth where the kettlebottoms, petrified tree stumps,
dropped from the roofs of mines to break a shoulder or stave
in a skull. The women watched their children be hobbled by rickets, go deaf from untreated ear infections. They knew
what it was to live on corn bread, molasses, and scrap and see
their children eating dirt for the mineral it contained, and
after a time they turned a bend in life and their teeth went
bad, their lovely strong backs and shoulders grew humped
and stooped, their knuckles thickened from chores and cold,
and their cheeks and necks grew hollow.
The men in Henry's family, they were big, sprawling,
raw boned. They were angular, muscular, warlike and discontented.
They farmed and mined and logged and framed
out houses and worked the shipyards, and they quarreled
beyond reconciliation and then it would be forgotten. From
them Henry learned the stories of his grandfather and his
old uncles. He learned that if any one of them was threatened
they would descend with all stealth and fury, with gun or
knife or torch or dynamite. They were a family relentless in
It was in one of those newspapers where they read that
Uncle Golden died by his own hand after an eight-hour
standoff along the highway. There'd been a high-speed
reaching ninety miles an hour, until finally he lost control
and went off the road. He lay in the wreck the whole time
threatening to shoot anyone who came near and finally put
the gun to his own head. In the newspaper, it never said why.
But for the most, they were homesick castaway men who
worked in the shipyards in Norfolk, men who built the
Golden Gate Bridge, Boulder Dam, the Holland Tunnel. They
smoked Lucky Strike and Camel cigarettes and carried them
rolled in the sleeves of their T-shirts.
They drove old Pontiacs that chugged exhaust fumes and they moved as tender and wary animals. They were polite and solicitous of Clemmie. They'd ask her of the Captain as if they were supplicants and she the last of the blessed, and as the years passed and as
Henry grew older, one by one, they disappeared.
From The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead. © 2012 by Robert Olmstead. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.