The N

A Story

by Ron Carlson

The head nurse blocked my way and asked what exactly didn’t I understand about the word no, and I told her: the N. It is exactly what I do not understand about what she said. I’ve never understood it very well, and now it has tried to kill us, and I know that I will never ever understand that. It stands there at the beginning of a word, like what?—some guard or a wall. I mean, I think about it now, the N, the shape: up, down, up. Who can get over it? Listen: I never will. I have seen it up close, and I do not understand.

I grew up in the town of Nooper, Nevada—have you heard of Nooper? It is a desolate place among the Knuckle Mountains, and when I was eleven my father struck it rich. He had the lease on a nickel mine that kicked in, and rather than leave Nooper, which my mother ached for, he built a big house on the hill. I mean, we had the first pool in Nooper. This was a house with five bedrooms for the three of us, a nine-foot cable dish, and a central vacuuming system, the first vacuum deal like that in Ninsel County, any county north of I-80 really, in all of Nevada, and it is an upgrade any miner’s wife appreciates. But my mother pined every day she was in Nevada; nothing could appease her longing to return home to Oklahoma, a place she described to me every day as a garden where her childhood had been blessed with a winding river and cottonwood trees, something the windy sage hills of dusty Nooper did not resemble. Nooper wasn’t really anything beside the nickel mine; there wasn’t even a proper grocery. We had to drive nineteen miles to Pear to shop. There was nothing in Nooper except the four-way stop, ten wooden buildings—three of them bars—and the Nellpan Nickel Mine, which my father, Ned Nellpan, owned.

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