The Bright Forever
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About the author
LEE MARTIN is the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Bright Forever; novels River of Heaven and Quakertown; a story collection, The Least You Need to Know; and two memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones. He has won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Lawrence Foundation Award, and the Glenna Luschei Award. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The Ohio State University.From the Hardcover edition.
Visit him at www.leemartinauthor.com.
On an evening like any other, nine-year-old Katie Mackey, daughter of the most affluent family in a small town on the plains of Indiana, sets out on her bicycle to return some library books.
This simple act is at the heart of The Bright Forever, a suspenseful, deeply affecting novel about the choices people make that change their lives forever. Keeping fact, speculation, and contradiction playing off one another as the details unfold, author Lee Martin creates a fast-paced story that is as gripping as it is richly human. His beautiful, clear-eyed prose builds to an extremely nuanced portrayal of the complicated give and take among people struggling to maintain their humanity in the shadow of a loss.
Reminiscent of books such as The Little Friend and The Lovely Bones, but most memorable for its own perceptions and power, The Bright Forever is a compelling and emotional tale about the human need to know even the hardest truth.
From the Hardcover edition.
; May 2005
ISBN 9780307238160Read online
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Title: The Bright Forever
Author: Lee Martin
On the night it happened—July 5—the sun didn't set until 8:33. I went back later and checked the weather cartoon on the Evening Register's front page: a smiling face on a fiercely bright sun. I checked because it was the heart of summer, and I couldn't stop thinking about that long light and all the people who were out in it; I'd seen them sitting on porches, drinking Pepsis and listening to WTHO's Top Fifty Countdown on transistor radios. I knew they were getting a laugh out of Peanuts or Hi and Lois in the newspaper, thrilling to the adventures of Steve Canyon. Cars were driving along High Street—Trans-Ams and GTOs, Mustangs and Road Runners, Chargers and Barracudas. Some of them were on their way to the drive-in theater east of town—a twin bill, Summer of '42 and Bless the Beasts and Children. Others went downtown. Teenage boys were ducking into the Rexall or the new Super Foodliner to pick up a pack of Marlboros or Kools. Couples were strolling around the courthouse square, lollygagging after supper at the Coach House or a steak and a cold beer at the Top Hat Inn. They were window-shopping, the ladies admiring the new knee-high boots at Bogan's Shoe Store, high school girls looking at the first wire-rim glasses at Blank's Optical, the flared-leg pantsuits at Helene's Dress Shop, the friendship bracelets and engagement sets at Lett's Jewelry.
Enough time and opportunity, and yet no one could stop what was going to happen.
We were just an itty-bitty town in Indiana, on the flat plain beyond the rolling hills of the Hoosier National Forest—a glassworks town near the White River, which twisted and turned to the southwest before emptying into the Wabash and running down to the Ohio. That day, a Wednesday, the temperature had gotten up to ninety-three and the humidity had settled in and left everyone limp with trying. The air held in the smell of heat from the furnaces at the glassworks, the dead fish stink from the river, the sounds of people's living: ice cubes clinking in glasses, car mufflers rattling, screen doors creaking, mothers calling children to come in.
In the evening, when the breeze picked up enough to stir the leaves on the courthouse lawn's giant oaks and dusk started to fall, the air cooled just enough to make us forget how hot and unforgiving the day had been. After the hours spent working at the glassworks or the stone quarry or the gravel pit, people were glad to be moving about at their own pace, taking their time, letting the coming dark and the rustle of air convince them that soon there might be rain and then the heat would break. I was content to sit at the kitchen table, noodling around with the story problems I planned to use the next day with my summer students, one of whom was Katie Mackey.
Later, there would be a few folks who would step up and say they had something maybe the police ought to know. Their names would be in the newspapers—papers as far away as St. Louis and Chicago—and on the Terre Haute and Indianapolis television stations, people who would be in the notebooks of all the magazine writers who'd come—slick-talking out-of-towners with questions. Newshounds from Inside Detective, Police Gazette. They'd want to know how to find so-and-so.
I've never been able to tell this story and my part in it until now, but listen, I'll say it true: a man can live with something like this only so long before he has to make it known. My name is Henry Dees, and I was a teacher then—a teacher of mathematics and a summer tutor for the children like Katie who needed such a thing. I'm an old man now, and even though more than thirty years have gone by, I still remember that summer and its secrets, and the way the heat was and how the light stretched on into evening like it would never leave. If you want to listen, you'll have to trust me. Or close the book; go back to your lives. I warn you: this is a story as hard to hear as it is for me to tell.
We were eating supper. That's what I remember, the four of us sitting at the table: Mom and Dad and me and Katie. It was just a night like that, a summer night, and pretty soon Katie would finish her lemon sherbet and ask to be excused and then run up the street to find her friend Renee Cherry. That's what would have happened. I've known it all these years. Renee and Katie would have made up, said they were sorry about the quarrel they'd had that morning, and played until dark, when Mom would have called my sister in.
But before any of that could happen, I said, "Katie didn't take back her library books."
I was still mad at her because sometime that afternoon she had gone into my room and listened to my Carole King album, Tapestry, and left a scratch on the "It's Too Late" track so it stuck on the chorus—"Too late, too late, too late"—`and I wanted to pay her back. I wanted to see her get in Dutch with Dad, who had warned her about keeping library books past the due date. "Good golly, Little Miss Katie," he'd told her at breakfast. "If you're not careful, you'll be living a life of crime." We knew we were a family that people noticed, envied even, for our wealth and my father's influence in our town. Our family had owned Mackey Glass for years, and my father always told us we had to be careful not to screw up, not to give anyone a reason to think less of us. "If the police come looking for you," he said to Katie, "I'll tell them we tried our best to bring you up right, but you wouldn't listen. Now, I mean it, Katie. Take those books back today."
But she didn't. She and Renee spent all morning on the front porch. They were there when I was getting ready for work. I was seventeen that summer, and I was a clerk and stock boy at the J. C. Penney store downtown. I was standing in front of my dresser mirror, knotting my necktie, and I could hear Katie and Renee in the porch swing. The chains creaked as the swing moved back and forth. Katie and Renee were playing their favorite game—It's Gotta Go—where they made choices between things that they dearly loved. Pepsi or Coke, spaghetti or macaroni, Little Dot or Little Lulu, puppies or kittens, Barbie or Skipper, "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" or "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," Christmas or your birthday. Making a choice was heartbreaking and took hours. Often they'd end up bawling. They'd hug each other and agree that it was necessary. If it wasn't hard, it wouldn't matter. It proved how much they really loved the things they said they'd let go.
Renee's mother, Margot, claimed to have ESP. The sixth sense, she called it. A sign in front of her house said, will tell you your entire life without asking a single question. I'd gone to her earlier that summer. Just for a kick. She held my hands, turned them over, and traced the lines in my palms. "You will be chosen," she told me. "Soon a light will find you. Don't look away."
On the porch, Katie and Renee were trying to decide between The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch: one of them had to go. Katie said that Keith Partridge was dreamier than Greg Brady, but she'd much rather be friends with Marcia than with Laurie Partridge. Marcia was just so cute, and her hair was perfect; Laurie was too skinny, and Katie was fairly certain that she didn't really know how to play that electric piano. Renee, who usually took her cues from Katie, said yes, that was true, but who wouldn't choose Peter Brady over Danny Partridge?
"Maybe I wouldn't," Katie said.
The swing's chains stopped creaking; someone, maybe Renee, dragged her feet over the porch floor. "You can't mean that," she said, and she sounded very serious, like a grown-up. "You've got to be kidding. Danny instead of Peter? No way. Danny isn't nice."
I finished knotting my tie and went over to look out the window. A robin was parading around the lawn. The grass, still wet from the sprinkler, sparkled in the sunlight. The petunias in my mother's flower bed smelled sweet; their pink and red and white petals ruffled in the breeze.
"I think he's funny," Katie said.
"He's not funny," said Renee. "He's retarded."
"What about me?" Katie was getting worked up, the way she did sometimes. She could be a drama queen, in love with the spotlight. The day before, she'd worn sunglasses and posed on the stone bench in our backyard so I could take her picture with my Polaroid camera. I knew her eyes were wide open now as she faced Renee, and her cheeks were filled with air. When she got like that, I told her she looked like Porky Pig. "I'm funny," she said to Renee. "I always make you laugh when I do my Donald Duck voice. Isn't that funny?"
"No, it's retarded."
"You're the retarded one," Katie said.
For a good while neither of them said anything. The only sound was the wind through the trees. Then Renee said, "Maybe I should just go home now."
Katie agreed. "Maybe you should."
"Do you want me to go?"
"If that's what you want."
"All right. I guess you want me to go."
So Renee left, and Katie ran into the house bawling, and she never got around to taking her books back to the library. She ruined my new record instead, and even though I wanted to feel sorry for her because she'd had that fight with Renee, I couldn't, and I said what I did, and Dad blew his top.
"Katie." He leaned across the table and shook a finger at her. "What did I tell you?"
She jumped up from her chair. "I'm going to take them back right now." She was wearing a pair of orange shorts and a black T-shirt. Her brown hair, lightened from the sun, was combed off her forehead and pinned with gold barrettes. "The library's open until seven o'clock. I've got plenty of time."
She never even stopped to put on sandals. They were right there at the back door, but she didn't put them on. I thought about stopping her. I thought about saying, "Katie, your sandals." But I didn't. She was barefoot, and she swung open the screen door. She threw her library books into her bicycle basket and I watched her stand up on the pedals until she reached the top of the hill. Then she sat down and bent over her handlebars, and her long hair flew out behind her, and I watched her until she was gone.
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
“With what consummate skill Lee Martin conjures up a small town in the grip of tragedy and how deftly he explores the way in which a casual remark, a brief kiss, a white lie can have the most terrible consequences. The Bright Forever is a remarkable and almost unbearably suspenseful novel.” —Margot Livesey, author of Banishing Verona and Eva Moves the Furniture
“Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever goes deep into the mystery of being alive on this earth. Written in the clearest prose, working back and forth over its complex story, and told in the dark, desperate, vivid voices of its various speakers, it holds you spellbound to the end, to its final, sad revelations.” —Kent Haruf, author of Eventide and Plainsong
“Like Winesburg, Ohio, The Bright Forever captures, in alternating voices, the individual acts of desperation that lead to a community’s sorrow. And, like Sherwood Anderson, Lee Martin is not happy to let guilt reside singularly or simply. This is a morally complex quilt, a page-turner that also insists on the reader’s participation in moral contemplation.” —Antonya Nelson, author of Female Trouble and Talking in Bed
“I read The Bright Forever in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. Part Mystic River, part Winesburg, Ohio, this harrowing and beautiful book is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read in years and heralds the breakout of a remarkable talent.” —Bret Lott, author of A Song I Knew by Heart and Jewel
“The Bright Forever will get under your skin with its exquisite psychology and fine-tuned suspense. Lee Martin has created a world of aching beauty and terrible loss.” —Jean Thompson, author of City Boy and Wide Blue Yonder
“The Bright Forever is ravishing. . . . Lee Martin’s characters, dear readers, are us—riven and bedeviled, our souls gone grainy and rank, our hearts busted and beating heavily for love. We have Martin to thank for having the moral courage—yes, an old-fashioned but rare virtue—to tell it to us plain.” —Lee K. Abbott, author of Living After Midnight
A Featured Alternate of the Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, and Book-of-the-Month Club
From the Hardcover edition.