The picture on the television goes out before I even hear Obie's footsteps. One moment, I am watching animated hippopotamuses caper in toe-shoes, and the next, the screen is crackling with tiny dots. When I look around, my brother is a dark shape in my doorway.
He says, "Daphne, I'm leaving soon."
He draws back like I've startled him, but I'm not prophetic. Just accustomed to how he comes and goes, always on his way to somewhere else. He's already dressed for Earth, in denim pants and a striped pullover sweater with two different colors of gray. He is wearing black shoes. His face is indistinct, so I squint.
Down in the Pit, the furnace is off now, leaving the city dark. In the street, smoke is rising in columns from the vents, but my room is high up, so the air stays clear. The only light is flickering from the interrupted television, making everything waver. In the doorway,
Obie looks uncertain, but composed. His hands are in his pockets. I'm sitting on my sofa, wearing two kinds of lipstick and holding an Instamatic camera in my lap. The makeup feels greasy and I press my lips together.
"Here," I say, picking up the camera, waving Obie to the center of my vision. "Here, pose for me."
He shakes his head. "It hasn't got film in it."
"I know, but I want to take your picture anyway."
I raise the camera to my eye and Obie appears in the little window. He is only standing in the doorway, but suddenly, he looks very far away. I click the button, lower the camera, and he is back to normal.
When I wind the advance wheel with my thumb, the camera makes a harsh
grinding noise. "Why can't you stay?"
Against the dim backdrop of my room, with its chimes and its plastic trinkets and mechanical toys, he looks bleak, and then begins to pace. Every time he passes my television set, static flares and the light from the screen turns him blue.
Sometimes it makes him happy to see my toys spread out across the room, bright and plastic and prolific, but now, the shape of his mouth is all wrong. As he crosses the carpet, his shoes make no sound.
"Why can't you stay here?" I ask him, louder this time.
"Work to do—there's always work to do. And I'm getting tired lately."
"We don't get tired here."
"No," he says over his shoulder. "You don't."
And his face doesn't look tired exactly, but something does. Maybe it's in his mouth. Maybe I can see it there. After all, his father was an actual man, real flesh, real blood, with a soul and a heart. Virtuous. Mine used to be a star, but then he became the Devil. Our mother, Lilith, did not used to be anything. She has always just been herself, irrefutable. It barely matters that our fathers were different men. We both look like her.
"It's better when I'm on Earth," Obie says, still pacing. "People sleep and wake up again. Things make more sense there."
"And here? How is it here?"
He sits down abruptly, facing me on the hassock with his hands clasped between his knees. His mouth is so thin. The hassock is crouched on four metal feet, each one clutching a shiny metal ball, clutching so hard that I think the talons of each metal toe might snap. Sometimes,
Obie doesn't say anything and I still understand what he means.
I look at him through the camera, watching his face, his eyes. "If you hate it here so much, why do you keep coming back all the time?"
"Mom," he says quietly.
In my head, the word is like a red wound, a string pulling hard at something inside him.
He touches his mouth. "She thinks something bad will happen if I'm away."
"Bad things happen all the time."
"I meant, to you."
But he just shrugs, like the possibility is remote or unimportant.
"I don't want anything to happen to you."
We sit and look around the room, look everywhere except at each other.
This is all set up and exposition. I know I've gotten some flack for saying "set things on fire" early and some of you wonder how a 'quiet' novel can meet those flaming requirements.
You can start a quiet novel with energy and focus that sucks the reader in. Frederich Busch's great novel NORTH does it, as does Kent Haruf's PLAINSONG.
The trick is people aren't talking about other things. They are DOING things. Frederick Busch is shooting his dog (sorry KY, I know, bad bad man).
This was a GREAT hook, and maybe if there had been more than 750 words allowed it would catch and hold my interest but right now it doesn't.