A new novel from Anne Tyler is always a cause for celebration for her many fans, who've lapped up best sellers such as the Pulitzer Prize–winning Breathing Lessons (1989) and brilliant A Spool of Blue Thread (2015), her 20th novel, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
The author's latest, Redhead by the Side of the Road, takes place in Baltimore (of course, it's her favorite setting) and is focused on Micah Mortimer, a tech nerd who can't commit to his lovely girlfriend, or much of anything, until the son of an old flame shows up at his door. The visit begins a change in Micah, who starts to want more from his narrow life. It's a moving story, quieter than some of Tyler's novels that are about big-family relationshps, but written with just as much charm.
Read an excerpt from the second chapter, in which Micah meets the young man who starts to shake him from his complacency.
When Micah went on his runs he never wore his glasses. He hated to feel them bobbing up and down on his nose, was why. He hated how they grew steamy when he sweated. This was unfortunate, because in the past few years his distance vision had noticeably worsened. Not that he was going blind or anything; it was just that he was getting old, as his optometrist so tactlessly put it. At night the lane markings on the streets were all but invisible, and just last week he had whacked a black spider that turned out to be a tangle of sewing thread. On the homeward stretch this morning, he made his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged clay flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up. There was something about the rounded top of it, emerging bit by bit as he descended a slope toward an intersection. Why! he always thought to himself. What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road? Because even though he knew by now that it was only a hydrant, still, for one fleeting instant he had the same delusion all over again, every single morning.
After he had put the hydrant issue behind him he slowed to a walk, panting, and set his hands at his waist in order to get more air in his lungs. He passed the Mission of Kindness and the auto-parts store; he turned onto his own street and passed the lake-trout joint and then took a right up the cracked, stubbled sidewalk leading to his building. A young man in a tan corduroy blazer was sitting on the edge of the stoop — or a boy, really, perhaps not out of his teens. “Hey,” he said to Micah, getting to his feet.
"Hey,” Micah said. He veered slightly to the left of the boy as he climbed the steps.
"Um,” the boy said.
Micah turned to look back at him.
"Do you live here?” the boy asked.
This was a rich kid, Micah saw. Handsome, in that polished and privileged sort of way. Well-cut dark hair conforming to the shape of his skull, collar of his white shirt standing up in back, sleeves of his blazer pushed nearly to his elbows (a style Micah found affected). “Mr. Mortimer?” the boy said.
"Mr. Micah Mortimer?"
The boy raised his chin. He said, “I'm Brink Adams.”
Wouldn't you know he'd have a name like “Brink."
"Well, hi,” Micah said, on a tentative note.
"Brink Bartell Adams,” the boy said.
Was this supposed to mean something? The boy seemed to think so.
"How do you do,” Micah said.
"Lorna Bartell's son."
Micah dropped his hands from his waist. He said, “Whoa.” Brink nodded several times.
"Lorna Bartell!” Micah said. “You're kidding. How is Lorna, anyway?"
"Well, what do you know,” Micah said. “I haven't thought of Lorna in . . . gosh! What's she up to nowadays?"
"She's a lawyer,” Brink said.
Micah said, “Really. Didn't see that one coming."
"Why not?” Brink asked, cocking his head. “What did you imagine she'd be doing?"
Micah hadn't given it a thought, to tell the truth. “Oh, well,” he said, “the last time I saw her she was not but a, what, a college sophomore, maybe . . .”
"Senior,” Brink said.
Actually, no, but Micah didn't bother correcting him. “At any rate, I'm pretty sure she hadn't figured out what she was going to be yet,” he said.
Brink still seemed to be waiting for something, but Micah didn't know what. He said, “So! You live around here?”
"No, I'm just passing through,” Brink said. “I thought I'd look you up.”
"Well, isn't that —"
"You got time for a cup of coffee or something?”
“Uh, sure,” Micah said. “You want to come inside?”
On his own, Micah would have unlocked the front door and headed straight for the basement, but that meant leading Brink through the laundry room and the furnace room, which somehow felt wrong, although he couldn't say exactly why. He came back down the steps and took the side path around to the parking lot, with Brink following close behind. “Where's your mom living now?” Micah tossed back as they descended the outside stairwell. His voice gave off a faint echo.
"She's in D.C."
"Is that so."
He couldn't remember the name of the town Lorna came from, but it was some little place in western Maryland that she had always planned to go back to after college. She had said she needed mountains around her; she liked how they softened the meeting between the land and the sky. And now look! She was a D.C. lawyer. Had a son with pushed-up blazer sleeves.
Micah unlocked the back door and stood aside to let Brink enter first. “I'm out of cream, I just want to warn you,” he said as they walked into the kitchen.
Micah gestured toward one of the chairs at the Formica table, and Brink pulled it out and sat down. He was looking toward the living area beyond the kitchen. “Sorry about the mess,” Micah said. “I like to get my run out of the way first thing in the morning.”
And after that he liked to shower; already he had that itchy feeling down his back as the sweat dried. But he took the ground coffee from the cabinet and started measuring it out. His coffeemaker was an old-style electric percolator that he'd found here when he moved in. The glass knob on its top was wrapped in grayed adhesive tape that kept him from seeing inside, but it still made a good cup of coffee. He filled it with tap water and plugged it in. “You take sugar?” he asked.
Micah set the sugar bowl on the table, along with a spoon. He sat down across from Brink.
He saw now that Brink could very well be Lorna's son, in fact, although he wouldn't have guessed it if he hadn't been told. That dark hair (but hers had been long and streaming) and then those eyes, dark also and extra-pointy at the corners like a deer's eyes. His mouth was not Lorna's, though. It was curved at the top, dipping at the center, while hers had been straighter and firmer.
"So,” Micah said. “Your mom's a lawyer. What kind of lawyer?”
"She works with Legal Aid."
In other words, not the high-powered attorney he had been picturing. That made sense. Her family had belonged to some type of fundamentalist church and she had wanted to do good in the world. But it didn't explain the rich-boy son. “How about your dad?” he asked.
"He's a lawyer, too. Corporate."
Micah drummed his fingers absently on the table. The percolator chugged in the background.
"They're both, like, goal-oriented,” Brink said. “They're always asking what my plan is. But I don't have a clue what my plan is! I'm just a freshman at Montrose College! And even that is a comedown, as far as they're concerned. They were hoping I'd get into Georgetown, where my dad went. Him especially; seems nothing I do can ever satisfy my dad.”
"That's tough,” Micah said.
"Him and me are like oil and water,” Brink said. “I'm more your type of person.”
"Me?” Micah was puzzled. “What do you know about my type?”
"You're just an odd-jobs guy. You don't have a dedicated profession.”
Great: he had become a poster boy for layabouts. “How do you know that?” he asked Brink.
"My mom said.”
Lorna kept track of what he was doing nowadays? Micah blinked.
"I found your photo in a shoebox,” Brink said, “along with some others from her college days. Her and you were standing under a dogwood tree and you had your arm around her. So I took it to her and asked, ‘Who's this?’ and she said, ‘Oh! It's Micah. Micah Mortimer,’ she said, and then she said you were the love of her life.”
"She said that?” Micah asked.
"Well, or she'd thought so at the time, she said."
"I asked where you were now, and she said the last she'd heard, you were some sort of computer guru over in Baltimore. My aunt Marissa told her.”
"Aunt . . . oh,” Micah said. That would be Marissa Baird, he supposed — Lorna's college roommate.
"Mom said she gathered you'd had kind of a checkered career, though, so she didn't know if you were still doing that.”
The percolator started its final frenzy of gurgles that meant the coffee was almost ready. Micah stood up and went to take two mugs from the overhead cabinet. He waited until the gurgles had stopped and then filled the mugs and brought them back to the table.
"Aunt Marissa still goes to all their college reunions,” Brink said. “She knows where everyone is.”
"Figures,” Micah said.
He slid the sugar bowl toward Brink.
"You weren't very hard to track down,” Brink told him.
"No, I don't suppose I was,” Micah said.
” ‘Micah Mortimer, Prop.’ Like one of those general-store signs in a Wild West movie, right? Cool!"
"Thanks,” Micah said drily.
He took a swallow of coffee. He looked at the bar of sunshine on the floor. The little bit of light that made it through the window above the sink always arrived in the form of a horizontal stripe.
"Question is,” he said, “why you would want to track me down.”
Brink was stirring sugar into his coffee, but he stopped and raised his eyes to Micah. “Look,” he said. “You can see I don't belong in that family. I'm a, like, misfit. They're all so . . . I'm more like you.”
"But you don't even know me,” Micah said.
"Genes do count for something, though,” Brink said, gazing at him steadily.
Brink was silent.
"I don't understand,” Micah said finally.
"I think you would if you thought about it,” Brink said.
Brink released an exasperated puff of a breath. “Do I have to spell it out?” he asked Micah. “You and my mom . . . you two were this item . . . Mom gets pregnant —”
Brink continued gazing at him.
"Surely your mom isn't saying I had anything to do with that,” Micah said.
"Mom isn't saying anything. She never has. Any time I've asked who it was, she says it's immaterial."
"Immaterial,” Micah said.
He felt an impulse to laugh, but he didn't want to be unkind. “Okay, let's think about this for a sec,” he said. “How old are you, anyway?”
"Eighteen,” Brink said.
"Eighteen years old. And I left school over twenty years ago — more than twenty years ago. By that time your mom and I weren't even together anymore; hadn't seen each other in months. Besides which —”
Besides which, he and Lorna had never once had sex. Lorna wore a special gold ring from her church that meant she was “saving herself,” as she put it, and Micah hadn't tried to change her mind. He had sort of admired her absoluteness, you might say. Oh, a lot of Lorna's appeal had been her absoluteness! However, this was probably something he shouldn't get into with her son.
Who was staring at him blankly now. His face had a kind of frozen look. “Well, that's . . .” he said. “Wait; that's not possible.”
"Why not?” Micah asked.
"You can tell me the truth, you know,” Brink said. “It's not like I'm planning to sue you for child support or anything. I've already got a dad. Who legally adopted me, by the way, when him and Mom got married. I'm not expecting anything from you.”
"Maybe your dad is your father,” Micah said. “Your biological father, I mean.”
"No, Mom didn't even meet him until I was two."
Brink was looking angry now. It seemed he'd made a conscious decision to be angry; he suddenly pushed his mug away. A dollop of coffee splashed onto the table. “It was you,” he said. “Who else could it be?”
"That I couldn't say,” Micah told him.
"You were the only boyfriend-type guy in the shoebox.”
"Look,” Micah said. “I didn't even know she got pregnant. She's who you should be asking."
Brink was still glaring at Micah. “I've asked a million times,” he said. “She just says all that counts is Dad was the one who helped raise me.”
"She's got a point,” Micah said.
"But what about my genetic makeup? What if I need to know about some medical condition that runs in that side of the family?”
"Well, if it's any comfort, there are no medical conditions in my family that I know of,” Micah said.
He'd meant to lighten the atmosphere, but from the expression on Brink's face, he saw he'd made a mistake. “Only kidding,” he said. “Can I top off your coffee?”
Brink shook his head.
On the kitchen counter, Micah's cell phone rang. He stood up and went over to peer at the screen. It was an unfamiliar number. He unplugged the phone from its charger and answered it. “Tech Hermit,” he said.
"Is this Micah Mortimer?"
"Oh, thank God. You're a difficult man to track down. You probably don't remember me; my name's Keith Wayne, and you helped me out some years ago when you were with Computer-Master. Well, I've stopped using Computer-Master; they don't know beans, I've learned . . .”
He paused, perhaps to let Micah chime in and agree with him. Micah actually did not agree; Computer-Master was the first place he'd been hired, and he'd learned a lot there. But he'd left because the boss was a jerk — the type who began his sentences with “Listen here” and “Look, buddy” — so he stayed silent, and eventually Mr. Wayne picked up where he had trailed off. “And now I find myself in an emergency situation,” he said. “I've lost every single thing on my computer. Documents, tax files — everything.” “Was it backed up?"
"Well, see, I know I should have backed up . . ."
Micah sighed and reached for the notepad beside the toaster. “Okay,” he said, “where you located?"
The man lived in Rodgers Forge. Micah told him he'd be there by eleven. Secretly, he was glad to have an excuse to get moving. After he hung up he told Brink, “Looks like I'll need to see to this.”
Brink nodded and rose to his feet, not meeting Micah's eyes. He didn't seem angry anymore, just dejected. As he headed for the door he said, “Well, anyhow, thanks for the coffee.”
"Try asking your mom again, hear?” Micah called after him.
Brink just lifted one hand and let it flop as he walked out the door.
"And tell her I said hello!” Micah added, like an idiot. But the door was already closing again with a quiet, conclusive click.
Micah stood motionless for maybe a full minute before he gave his shoulders a shake and went off to take his shower.
Mr. Wayne's lost files were merely in hiding, it turned out. Micah located them in no time, and Mr. Wayne was abjectly grateful. “However . . .” Micah said sternly, and Mr. Wayne raised both palms and said, “I know! I know! I've learned my lesson: from now on I'm backing up.”
Micah should have asked him how he planned to do that. Chances were he had no notion how. Then Micah could have explained the options and maybe set something up for him, which would have added significantly to the minimum fee he'd just earned. But his heart wasn't in it, somehow. He seemed to be experiencing a nagging sense of something left undone, or done poorly, and so he just said, “Well, you've got my number if you need me,” and made his escape.
It was the boy, he thought as he drove down Charles Street. That boy Brink was still tugging at his mind. Clearly he'd been going through a crisis of some kind, and yet Micah had more or less thrown him out. In hindsight he felt guilty about that, partly for Brink's sake and partly for Lorna's, because even after all these years he still thought of Lorna fondly. Or once again thought of her fondly, was more like it. (Their breakup had been an angry one; he'd caught her kissing another guy.) But she was his first real love, after all. He had never had much experience with girls. He'd been considered sort of a loner.
When they met he was a junior and she was a brand-new freshman, eating on her own in the cafeteria while the other girls sat in squealing, giggling groups at nearby tables. Her veil of dark hair and her thin face, completely bare of makeup; her pale blouse and faded skirt with their over-laundered look — everything spoke of a certain set-apartness. Yet there was nothing shy or humble about her. She seemed eerily self-contained. He set his tray on her table and asked, “Okay if I sit here?” and she said, “It's fine,” without a trace of a smile. He'd liked how she hadn't amped herself up at the sight of him. No sudden flash of teeth or zippy tone of voice. She was who she was. A purist was how she had struck him. He was intrigued.
In view of her fundamentalist upbringing, it was no surprise now to hear she hadn't ended her pregnancy. The surprise was that she'd gotten pregnant in the first place. Lorna Bartell, so very, very sure of her principles! He never would have believed it.
The panel truck just ahead sped straight through an amber light, but Micah was prepared and came to a gradual, elegant stop. ("Did you see that?” Traffic God marveled. “Not even the tiniest jolt.")
The thing about old girlfriends, Micah reflected, is that each one subtracts something from you. You say goodbye to your first great romance and move on to the next, but you find you have less to give to the next. A little chip of you has gone missing; you're not quite so wholly there in the new relationship. And less there in the one after that, and even less in the one after that one. After Lorna, he'd dated Zara — exotic and dramatic, given to kente-cloth headdresses. And after Zara left him for a fellow dancer, he had taken up with Adele, who'd turned out to be consumed by a passion for animal conservation. One day she had announced that she was heading off to work with gray wolves in the wilds of Montana. Or maybe it was Wyoming. Oh, Micah had not had a very good history with women. It just seemed they kept losing interest in him; he couldn't say exactly why. Now there was Cass, of course, but things certainly weren't the way they had been in the old days with Lorna. With Cass things were more . . . muted. Lower-key. Calmer. And certainly there was no talk of marriage. If Micah had learned anything from all those previous girlfriends, it was that living with someone full-time was just too messy.
He cut over to York Road to pick up a wall switch at Ace Hardware. Also, while he was at it, a set of grab bars for the bathroom in 3B. Then he stopped by the Giant to get the ingredients for his chili.
Pushing his cart past the canned goods, he had a kind of flashback to this morning's dream. The baby had been smack in the middle of an aisle much like this one. It had held itself straight-backed and resolute, the way babies tend to do when they've just recently learned how to sit. Where the devil had that dream come from?
Some might call it prophetic, even if Brink was well past infancy.
Copyright: Excerpted from Redhead By the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. Copyright © 2020 by Anne Tyler. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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