Excerpt from Snapshots by William Norris, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by William Norris

Snapshots by William Norris X
Snapshots by William Norris
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2001, 256 pages

    Aug 2002, 304 pages


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A British Air 747 soars over the North Atlantic bound for Newark International Airport, and Sean eases his seat-back from the upright position. The plane is packed with holiday travelers and he feels more claustrophobic than usual. Flying is unnatural, he thinks, and signals a passing attendant for a Bushmills on ice. He’s not looking forward to the meal. Too much time with only the best food necessitates the slight blurring of whisky to stimulate his appetite for airline food and coming home from this distance leaves him anxious. Although things never really change, he alone can see how things are subtly different. The way you can see a puppy growing if you visit only at intervals, he’s the only one aware of how old his parents are growing, of how much age works in six-month intervals. His mother abruptly gone totally gray, the sagging folds grown seemingly overnight on his father’s neck. And in his sisters too: the dark rings deepening and blending into Patty’s eyes, Kate looking more and more like the middle-aged schoolteacher she is, Nora’s sureness in her body, the ease with which she leans against Eve on the beachhouse porch swing. There is mourning as well, a sadness for the way time has passed and changed them. When he sees them, when they all gather together, he cannot help but be reminded of what and who he’s lost. As a small boy, Patty took him under her wing. Though he can’t remember it, their mother likes to talk of how Patty insisted on reading him his bedtime story when she could barely read herself. He does remember how she would play with him as they got older, how when he first got to high school, she showed him the ropes, how as a senior, she bestowed on him a bit of cool. But it was also during that shared year in high school that she pushed him away for good. When she first put up her walls, when she started to divide her life into compartments. When on the surface she was still straight-A Patty, the achiever, but underneath she was drinking and fucking herself to numbness. He tried to ask her, to talk, but she put him into the box called "family," and he was cut out from all she didn't want him to know. And of course, Kate. When he’d drifted from Patty, floundering, at fourteen, fifteen, they suddenly found themselves friends. Almost overnight, he went from being a pest to a confidant, someone who could sit with her for hours and talk about everything or about nothing. Kate took him seriously, and when she came in on a Friday or Saturday night, she’d shake him awake and they’d sneak back out, hop into her fishbowl-shaped Pacer and drive to the Broadway Diner. The air filled with smoke from their cigarettes, his Camel Lights, her Dunhills, Van Morrison and Sinatra from the personal jukebox tacked to the wall over their table, and the manic thrust of conversation. Now, of course, it’s different. And though he knows it’s for the best, knows the pills are necessary, he is still saddened by how something so small, just mixtures of powders, can change so much.

Kate believes she can feel the medication at work as she wraps the expensive presents she’ll cart down to the beach later. Fancies she can feel the world dulling just a bit from the excitement she felt waking from her wonderful dream, what was it again? She welcomes the dulling. It makes things easy. It makes this suburb easy, this big house easy, it makes Brian’s perfect, boring love easy. Then, briefly, she hates herself for accepting blandness. Coping is not living, she thinks. But she banishes that thought easily enough on the crest of her pills, and goes back to wrapping, humming "Silent Night" under her breath.

It is brisk but not frigid in New York and Patty elects to walk uptown, bundled in her long leather coat and cashmere scarf, to Penn Station and her train. Walking, she’ll have the time to gather her thoughts and ready herself for the face she must present to her family. Before locking her apartment and heading out, she calls her office, reassures herself that her calendar is cleared through the New Year, that her partners will cover should any of her little patients get the flu or an earache over the holidays, and tucks her sponsor’s phone number into her wallet. Walking up Broadway even under the burden of her luggage, her Channel 13 tote bag, and shopping bag full of wrapped gifts, she still finds New York thrilling. Thrilling still, after all these years. These years of Barnard and NYU medical school, her internship and residency at Mt. Sinai, the challenge of her practice. Her life has been this city, revolving around its choices and rhythms, and as she picks her way through the crowds of last-minute shoppers, she feels at home amongst the strangers. She pushes past the station and pauses in a sea of people to take in the decadence of the Macy’s Christmas windows. The flow of pedestrians swirls around her, taking about as much notice of her as a stream takes of the rocks that alter its course. No eyes flicker off her face with recognition, not one of these rushing people stops short to offer a surprised hello or Merry Christmas. She’s jostled by a man in an overcoat who clutches a trial bag like the one her father used to carry to work, and as he grunts something that might be "Excuse me," she suddenly realizes--I am alone. Realizes with harsh clarity that the years of gin, of dividing her life into facets, her surgical removal of lovers when they got too close, have left her totally, bitterly alone. All the times she dodged and deflected her brother or sisters when they caught some oblique angle of the truths of her life and came to her concerned and questioning have rendered her anonymous, another face in the millions of faces here.

Reprinted from Snapshots by William Norris permission of Riverhead. Copyright © 2001 by William Norris. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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