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An Excerpt from ‘Nazareth, North Dakota’

Editor’s Note: To celebrate the official April 15th release date of Tommy Zurhellen’s debut novel, Nazareth, North Dakota, we’re sharing an excerpt from the first chapter, “Song of Mary.” Get ready to whet your literary whistle.

I sit with Sam in my lap and read the Gideon to him out loud. It’s the only book we got in the room, but Sam seems to like it. Even without the Placed by the Gideons stamp inside the front cover, you can pick out one of their books a mile away: on the first few pages, before you get to any of that God made heaven and earth business, they’ve got this long list of problems, just about any predicament you can find yourself in, from “Feeling depressed” all the way to “Fighting the urge to kill.” And next to each problem they put the Bible passages you can look up tohelp you with your problem. I look for “Being stranded with desperate men,” but they don’t have it. The closest entry I can find is “Feeling hopeless.” It says to read Jonah 2:11 and someday when I get that far in this book I’ll see what they’re talking about.

There’s a knock at the door. When someone knocks on your door at a motel it’s never good news. A classy hotel, sure, it can be the guy with a bottle of champagne or the maid to do a quick turn-down. But motels are for the folks who want to disappear.

I put Sam in his chair on the table and open the door, only a crack. It’s Mae’s gorilla. Sam has been loud, and I figure the walls were thin.

“You seen my wife?” he says through the crack in the door.

“Nope. Maybe she went out for cigarettes.”

“You got my kid in there, don’t you? You didn’t have a kid when you got here, that’s for damn sure.” He presses his shoulder on the door, but I hold my ground. “Are you crazy, lady? That’s my boy.”

He’s stronger than me, and he pushes his way into the room. Sam starts crying again, even louder now.

Suddenly, Dill appears behind me, the bandages off now, his eyes a hideous collage of red and black and yellow at the same time, which gives his blind stare the look of the devil. The gorilla and I both freeze.

In Dill’s hand we get a glimpse of the largest handgun I have ever seen.

Dill feels for my shoulder and points the gun past it. “Listen, drummer boy, if you don’t get the fuck out of here, I’m going to
shove this piece up your ass and pull the trigger.” I don’t know who Dill scares more, me or the gorilla. We both look at Dill, his arm out straight and his hand wrapped around this gun, dull and black and humongous, pointing more or less in drummer boy’s direction.

“You’re crazy,” drummer boy says, his hands up.

“Get the fuck out, now,” Dill says, his hand starting to shake.

The drummer boy backs up and edges out the door. “I’ll be back.”

I shut it in his face and lock it, pull the chain, then turn back to Dill. “Where did you get that gun? Dill?”

Dill tosses the gun back down on the bed. “Don’t worry about that now. Listen, Rox, I have to tell you something.”

I read somewhere, maybe it was the Forum, they’re trying to change the state name from North Dakota to just Dakota—for tourism, so people wouldn’t think of it as a place frozen solid five months of the year. Well, they’ll have to do more than that to save a place that voted hoedown as the state dance. It’s just a dumb idea. It’s like putting a sign on the toilet that says “lavatory” or “rest room”: no one cares what you call it, they’re still going in there to do the same thing. It’s like when parents spell out words in front of their kids, as if a six-year-old would never be able to figure out “Let’s put the P-O-R-N-O under the S-I-N-K.” It’s like calling a drunk a dipsomaniac. If you’re a drunk, you say “drunk.” If you’re not a drunk, you end up coming up with words like “alcohol abuser” or “souse,” as if to be nice.

People have a problem telling it like it is. I know I do. When Eggs got sent up to James River for waving a gun around in
the SuperValu, we should’ve just sat down with Annie and told it to her face: “Mama, Eggs is in jail. He’ll be out in two to four.” But Louise and I hedged around for days until finally she got the news from someone she bumped into at the post office.

In my family, it seems early on everybody had to choose which side of the law they’re on: my sister, Louise, has spent most of her adult life trying to be a good cop, and Eggs has spent most of his trying to run away from them. As for me, I guess I’m a fence-sitter: I think there should be laws, sure, I just think people make up way too many of them. There’s governments, religions, families, husbands, all trying to make up some rule for you to follow. I’ve never seen myself as someone who could make up the rules; that is, until the weekend at the Motel de Love.

Tommy Zurhellen grew up in New York City. His fiction has appeared widely in Carolina Quarterly, Quarterly West, Passages North, Appalachee Review, and elsewhere. Currently he teaches writing in upstate New York. This is his first novel. His website can tell you more.

Motel Photo Source: The Road Wanderer