The Startler

Nathan Curtis Roberts

Nathan Curtis Roberts

The Startler was accepted as part of the MSU Library Short Edition call for work on the theme of “recovery,” in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum's exhibit of Beverly Fishman's art, also called Recovery. Nathan Curtis Roberts was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. His stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Alaska Quarterly Review, River Teeth, The Threepenny Review, and several others. He currently lives in Utah.

My hands still tremor. I am chopping vegetables for dinner, and I struggle to keep the knife steady. I am deaf in one ear—and the other ear is on its way—so I am easily stalked, exposed prey. My mother is a barefooted assassin, slinking behind me to jab a finger in my ribs. She makes a shout like a child's imitation of a movie martial artist. "Haiyah!" she says, laughing to see me jump.

"One of these days, I'm going to turn around with a knife in my hand and accidentally stab you," I say.

Old age has cooked her brain down to its essence. She had a human personality, a whole complicated stew of it, once, a long time ago. But it boiled away. All that's left of her is this empty intrigue of small ambushes. Her body still clings to her, desiccated and shrinking. She jabs my ribs again, frowning when I make no reaction.

I am irritable. Not in general—irritability is not what will be left of me when my mind has boiled away—but at the moment I am agitated and sweaty, because I have not had a drink in three days. A week ago, all the blood in my veins, which was thinned with vodka, suddenly transmogrified into foamy yellow bile. This is what happens when you drink too much for too long, blood becomes bile, ask anyone, try it yourself. I am no longer a being with a beating heart at its core; now my flesh centers on a gooey liver that struggles onward. When I love, it does not bloom from my bosom, it teeters instead from that other organ, down and off to the side. I was living somewhere else. Not living so much as sleeping. Then I woke up to find myself so filled with foamy yellow bile that it burbled from my mouth and anus. I have come to Utah to dry out, because—because why not, it's a privilege. Every drunk should come to Utah to get sober, stay with my Mormon mother, have the toxins startled out of them. Do it if you get the chance.

The mountains here do not look real. They are real, I know they are, I've seen many of them up close. Great big slabs of rock, rising toward God. But from a distance they look like a lie, a rumor, a bit of gossip whispered to the land by one of the angels. And the land rises up to listen more closely.

When she tells me church gossip about people I will not meet, she speaks loudly and with precision. When she talks about estate planning or dying relatives her voice is mumbled and soft. I lean in close to hear her, and I get another jab to the ribs.

I am the victim of a bully who can barely stand upright in the wind. "What?" I say. "What?" "I can't year you, what?"

"Stop being dramatic," she replies.

Dramatic is what she says when she knows she won't be allowed to say faggot. Stop being dramatic: I've been hearing it since puberty. Stop being a faggot: it's beyond my control. My hands still tremor. Just a little. "When you fall in the shower," I say, "and you're screaming for help, then you'll understand that I'm going deaf."

"Stop being dramatic."

She doesn't fall in the shower, she falls in the kitchen. A geriatric tumble that paints her leg with a port-wine bruise, ankle to hip. In Utah, the doctor's offices are filled with pairs like us: middle-aged child, elderly parent. All the parents have been reduced to their essence. One, in his dotage, turns out to be kindly, a blessing to his people. Another is nothing but nastiness, which is expected, who can blame her. A third is funny—he can't tell a joke, can't get through it, can't remember how it goes, but everything is hilarious to him anyway. He has sores on his face, and he laughs and laughs. My mother sits in her chair in the waiting room with her arms folded. She is unable to sneak up on anyone. The fluorescent lights are glaring and the nurses are keeping an eye out.

Most nights I cook dinner. I prepare the foods she used to make. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes, chicken and rice. She stalks me like a barefooted assassin, and sticks a finger in my ribs. "Haiya!"

"One of these days, I'm going to turn around with a knife in my hand and accidentally stab you," I say.

"Stop being dramatic."

I will stab her. You'll see that I will. It will not be an accident. I will push the kitchen knife into her gut and release the hot steam from inside it. Then I will release the bile from inside mine. Her steam will rise as my bilious foam dribbles to the floor.

"Haiyah," she says.

"One of these days," I reply.

I will not stab her. I will only fantasize doing it. Eventually the tremors in my hands will cease. And I will be sober. And no one will notice, because everyone I know here is a Mormon and does not drink.

And I will look out the window, past the garden, past the birds beating wings against thin air. Toward the mountains, which are real but look like whispers.

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