The fol­low­ing is from Joshua Max Feld­man’s nov­el Start With­out Me. The author of the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed The Book of Jon­ah explores ques­tions of love and choice, dis­ap­point­ment and hope in the lives of two strangers who meet by chance in this mes­mer­iz­ing tale that unfolds over one Thanks­giv­ing Day.

Adam looked up at the base­ment ceil­ing, not sure how long he’d been awake. There was no clock in the base­ment — nev­er had been, for as long as he could remem­ber. He pushed him­self up on his elbows. Weak grey light filled the line of slen­der win­dows at the top of the wall. He’d been dream­ing; some­thing had wok­en him up. Then he heard the gur­gle of a toi­let flush­ing. A child appeared in the door­way in a cor­ner across from the couch: a boy, five or six, in blue under­pants and a Spi­der-Man T‑shirt, dark hair mat­ted on one side, a sour, sus­pi­cious look on his face. Who are you?” the boy demanded.

I’m Adam,” Adam said. Uncle Adam,” he clarified.

The boy shook his head solemn­ly. My uncle’s Travis. He lives in Texas.”

I’m your oth­er uncle. Your dad’s brother.”

Why are you on the couch?”

Kristen’s — your cousins are sleep­ing in my room. My old room. What used to be my room.” The boy scowled, as though none of this added up, and Adam had to admit it didn’t sound very convincing.

Uncle Adam,” he repeat­ed. You don’t remem­ber me?”

The boy’s eyes nar­rowed. Are you the uncle who smashed the piñata?”

Jesus, that’s what you remem­ber?” Did he actu­al­ly owe apolo­gies to the kids, too?

The can­dy went all in the — ”

It was a piña­ta, it was meant to get smashed. And if they didn’t want me to smash it, they shouldn’t have giv­en me a turn.”

The boy made a slow move­ment of his thumb beneath his chin, which, in the men­tal squint of just wak­ing, looked to Adam down­right men­ac­ing, like a mafioso’s throat-slit­ting ges­ture. Nobody’s allowed to down­load mods on my dad’s com­put­er,” the boy intoned.

This non­sense alert­ed Adam to the absur­di­ty of the con­ver­sa­tion: The kid didn’t even know he was awake. It’s okay, man, go back to sleep,” he said — would have pre­ferred to use some­thing more per­son­al than man,” but he wasn’t entire­ly, entire­ly sure whether this was Toby or Sam. Still, the child word­less­ly oblig­ed. He leaned his shoul­der against the wall, padded back into the bed­room, leav­ing the door open — a ges­ture Adam found unrea­son­ably touch­ing, as though it were proof the boy didn’t hate him, didn’t fear him, after all.

He lay back down and stared up at the pocked tiles above him. The base­ment had a lurk­ing, famil­iar odor: plas­ter and laven­der air fresh­en­er locked in com­bat with some­thing vague­ly musty. He remem­bered what he’d been dream­ing of: Music. Play­ing. Some sense of the sound still filled the cor­ners of his mem­o­ry: taut, sharp notes, like from a harp­si­chord, trip­ping down a thrum­ming base­line: a half song, half-remembered.

Once upon a time, he’d have made the effort to recall it, tried to reach into the cracks between sleep and wak­ing to pull the chimeri­cal sound out — sing it into a voice­mail, the way you fixed a but­ter­fly to a board with a pin. Occa­sion­al­ly, what he’d lis­ten to an hour or so lat­er wasn’t even half-bad. More often, though, what he heard was non­sense, and even before he stopped play­ing he’d con­clud­ed that it was a waste of time. He wasn’t actu­al­ly dream­ing of music — he was only dream­ing of play­ing it: the tex­ture and resis­tance of the keys under his fin­ger­tips, the beer residue in the met­al mesh of the mic on his lips, the bass rum­ble from the stage through his tor­so, and more and more late­ly that rarest feel­ing, of get­ting picked up and car­ried by the music itself: no more dis­tinc­tion between him and the key­board, between him and those he played with, between crowd and band, all of them rac­ing along with the same roar — the com­mu­nion of that, the freedom.

The pais­ley sheet his moth­er had made up the couch with had got­ten tan­gled around his thighs in the night. He yanked it up toward his chin, but with­out much hope of get­ting back to sleep. The still­ness of the house was deaf­en­ing some­how — like all the sleep­ing peo­ple were vibrat­ing at a fre­quen­cy only he could hear: his fam­i­ly, ring­ing in his ears.

He kicked off the sheet and sat up, grabbed his jeans, crum­pled on top of his duf­fel bag, and took out a sweat­shirt. He climbed the car­pet­ed stairs as he pushed his arms through the sleeves. Above the rail to his right were taped a dozen or more cray­on draw­ings on white paper: hous­es and suns, oceans and tri­an­gle-sailed boats, vio­lent inchoate swirls that resem­bled things he’d seen when he dropped acid in the Mall of Amer­i­ca before a show in St. Paul. The fridge just isn’t big enough when we all get togeth­er!” his moth­er had exclaimed as she’d led him down the night before — as though he were some kind of stranger, as though she were a tour guide, explain­ing to a for­eign­er what it was like when they” were togeth­er. But he remind­ed him­self: If he’d been absent for so long, he had only him­self to blame. Fixed on the door at the top of the stairs was more kid art: brown, hand-shaped cutouts of dif­fer­ent sizes, with glued-on elab­o­ra­tions (yel­low feet, red-orange wad­dles, plas­tic goo­gly eyes) to estab­lish that these were turkeys. Hap­py Thanks­giv­ing!” one of his nieces or nephews had writ­ten in care­ful ele­men­tary school cur­sive on a piece of con­struc­tion paper, mask­ing taped above the door­knob. For some rea­son, it struck him like an ultimatum.

He opened the door a crack, lis­tened: more tin­ni­tus qui­et, no one else was up. He moved as soft­ly as he could down the cor­ri­dor toward the front hall. When he was a teenag­er he’d snuck out so often, and appar­ent­ly so need­ful­ly, he’d been able to make this trip with­out turn­ing on a sin­gle light: the twelve stairs up from the base­ment, left and down this hall to the front door, his hand reach­ing the knob in the dark by pure mus­cle mem­o­ry. Then he’d get into his father’s car, put it in neu­tral, and roll down to the end of the dri­ve­way, only then turn­ing on the engine. And from there it was off to some friend’s or to some agreed-upon clear­ing in the woods, bot­tle caps and butts lit­ter­ing the ground like pine nee­dles, or if there was noth­ing going on he and his friends would dri­ve around the cam­pus of the local state col­lege, hop­ing to stum­ble on a par­ty, smok­ing weed and lis­ten­ing to cas­settes of Mud­honey, Guster, Pearl Jam, NWA. He knew he shouldn’t look back on those nights quite so fond­ly. But he couldn’t help it. Yes, it was drugs-and-alco­hol- laden fun — but it was still fun.

He care­ful­ly opened the coat clos­et; the old ski jack­et that his moth­er had pulled from some­where was hang­ing next to the blue pea­coat he’d worn from San Fran­cis­co. With­in six­ty sec­onds of his walk­ing in, his moth­er had declared the pea­coat too nice” for the game of touch foot­ball planned for the fol­low­ing after­noon, and bus­tled around upstairs until she pro­duced the ancient jack­et. He’d tried to tell her he’d bought the pea­coat for forty bucks at a thrift store almost a decade ago, and any­way, there was no rea­son to find an alter­na­tive at eleven o’clock at night. But she ignored him, and when she held out the ski jack­et, of course he took it, of course he tried it on, and though the syn­thet­ic fab­ric was so stiff with age it was almost sharp, he declared that it was per­fect, and thanked her, and thanked her some more. Why? Because he want­ed to be agree­able — amenable, he thought as he took his cig­a­rettes from the pock­et of the pea­coat, zipped up the ski jack­et to his throat.

His pair of rat­ty Con­verse was on the drip tray amid a dou­ble line of neat­ly ordered Vel­cros and snow boots. He tied his laces and pulled open the door. And the instant the door part­ed from the jamb, the cat appeared out of nowhere and slid out­side. Fuck!” Adam said, mak­ing a flail­ing attempt to grab the ani­mal by its tail as it dart­ed out. He lost his bal­ance and fell on his hip, knock­ing over the drip tray, one arm stuck outside.

He sat there for a moment, wait­ing for the whole house to wake up: doors fly­ing open, shouts of alarm. As the qui­et con­tin­ued, he tried to assess what key of cri­sis, major or minor, this cat sit­u­a­tion rep­re­sent­ed. Was it an out­door cat or an indoor cat? Had it ever been to the house before? If so, was it allowed to roam the yard? It was Kristen’s family’s cat. Adam could imag­ine her twin daugh­ters wail­ing when they heard; he imag­ined spend­ing the whole day search­ing the neigh­bor­hood for the ani­mal, only to dis­cov­er its bloody corpse fresh from the maw of some dis­placed moun­tain lion or overzeal­ous rot­tweil­er or what­ev­er. In short, the day ruined, and all his fault.

The open door was let­ting the cold air in; that had to be against the rules. He pulled him­self up, went out­side and shut the door behind him. With what the cig­a­rette had cost him, he fig­ured he might as well smoke it. And as he lit it and sat down on the top step, there was the cat — perched erect and expec­tant at his feet, swish­ing its tail, regard­ing him as though it were on to him, too: He didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know how to be an uncle or a son or a broth­er — not here, not any­more. Not with­out a drink. The cat saun­tered up the steps; Adam opened the door and it van­ished inside. Ass­hole,” Adam mut­tered after it.

And then he smiled, because it was fun­ny he’d called the cat an ass­hole. The whole thing was kind of fun­ny, if you looked at it the right way: Uncle Adam, freak­ing out about the cat get­ting out, but the cat spent lots of time out­side! It knew when to go out and come back in. Maybe prov­ing he belonged wasn’t so much a mat­ter of mas­ter­ing every last rule for who slept where, when the cat was allowed to go out, what to do with the sur­plus cray­on draw­ings, but rather know­ing what it was okay to laugh about. You’ll nev­er believe what hap­pened with me and that fuck­ing cat!” he could tell them over break­fast. He took anoth­er pull on the cig­a­rette, blew the smoke upward to try to warm the tip of his nose. The spruce trees at the end of the yard, plant­ed by his par­ents when he was a kid to block the sight of Parr Street and the McReedys’ garage, were so still in the cold they appeared frozen sol­id. A bright lay­er of frost had set­tled over the grass of the lawn and over the slope of black­top where the cars were parked:

Kris­ten and her hus­band Dan’s mini­van; Jack and his wife Lizzy’s Tahoe; and last in line the cobalt blue Chevy Adam had rent­ed in Hart­ford, because he hadn’t want­ed any­body to have to come and get him from the air­port. They’d offered, everybody’d offered; but again, he’d been try­ing to be amenable — so amenable they’d hard­ly notice he was there.

He smacked his fin­gers against his palms, final­ly fixed the cig­a­rette at the cor­ner of his mouth and stuck his hands under his armpits. Smok­ing with­out your hands was one of the eas­i­er things you could learn to do at a piano. He should’ve found a pair of gloves in the clos­et, though. Even when they weren’t squeezed in his armpits on a freez­ing New Eng­land Novem­ber morn­ing, the joints of his fin­gers ached when he first woke up. He’d met an old­er jazz guy in Mia­mi who’d had to stop play­ing alto­geth­er because of the arthri­tis. All things con­sid­ered, though, you had to have a pret­ty lucky career for arthri­tis to force you out, and not the mile-below-the-pover­ty-line mon­ey, or the burnout from the road, or the booze and the bars, not to men­tion all the hard­er stuff you could get with as lit­tle as a mut­ter to the right pro­mot­er, hang­er-on, somebody-on-the-bill’s girl­friend. He remem­bered at a par­ty after a Kiss and Kill show in New Orleans, in some swel­ter­ing shot­gun crash-house, he’d wan­dered into a back room and stum­bled on a shirt­less, com­i­cal­ly mul­let­ed guy pok­ing at the thighs of a glassy-eyed red­head, her jeans around her ankles. It took Adam a moment to reg­is­ter the syringe clasped between the dude’s teeth. He looked up at Adam and grinned around the syringe like the fuck­ing Cheshire cat.

What about you, ami­go?” he asked, tak­ing the syringe from his mouth. You’re in the band, you want one on the house?”

Ear­li­er in the night, he’d intro­duced him­self as a friend of Johanna’s. And maybe he was. You could nev­er guess who her friends would be — where they came from, what they want­ed. Adam couldn’t say whether he’d been too smart, or too scared, or sim­ply plain lucky to have refused that offer — that and the thou­sand oth­ers like it, escaped all those choic­es even worse than the ones he’d made to make it back here: the steps of his par­ents’ house, on Thanks­giv­ing morn­ing. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of the two moments — hero­in in the back room, the sleepy home on Thanks­giv­ing day — some­how made both of them seem ridicu­lous, maybe made him seem ridicu­lous, too, with the clum­si­ly stitched-togeth­er per­sona he’d car­ried on with for so many years: the rock key­boardist, the nice sub­ur­ban kid from west­ern Massachusetts.

But what did he care if he’d turned out to be ridicu­lous? He ought to be thrilled to be noth­ing worse than ridicu­lous! And he wished he could explain some­thing like that to Jack, or to his dad, or to any of them — that he was grate­ful, grate­ful almost to tears, to be here: sober for nine months and four days (as of this morn­ing), invit­ed back for a fam­i­ly hol­i­day. From the moment they closed the door behind him, though, it’d been awk­ward. His moth­er gig­gled painful­ly after she asked him if he want­ed any­thing to drink. His father kept announc­ing how glad he was to see Adam while clasp­ing his hands togeth­er and shak­ing them in front of his chest, like a politi­cian plead­ing for racial har­mo­ny. The only oth­er per­son who’d wait­ed up was Jack, and Adam couldn’t help won­der­ing whether his old­er broth­er had stayed up on the chance Adam would show up blot­to, and they’d need to throw him out. When Adam said after five min­utes he was exhaust­ed and just want­ed to get some sleep, he could tell they were all relieved.

He put the cig­a­rette out on the bot­tom of his shoe, slid the butt into the pock­et of his jeans. As he opened the door, he saw above it was ham­mered a strip of sand­ed wood with the words The War­shaws” paint­ed in blocky pur­ple let­ters. The lone­li­ness he felt look­ing at that sign was at once so pre­dictable and so unac­count­able all he could do was stand there. Then he went back inside.

He took off his sneak­ers, right­ed the drip tray and the scat­tered shoes, hung up the ski jack­et, and went into the kitchen. The table was already set up as the children’s table: orange paper table­cloth, paper plates with car­toon Pil­grims, the cen­ter­piece a fan-tailed, leer­ing paper turkey. He sur­veyed the fam­i­ly pho­tos on the shelves above the sink, images span­ning from his and his sib­lings’ child­hoods to the birth of Kristen’s twins. There were a few pho­tos of him play­ing: a recital when he was six, look­ing freak­ish­ly tiny at the keys of a six-foot grand; the time Kiss and Kill played Late Night in the Conan era. (His moth­er must have cut the pho­to to leave Johan­na out; pret­ty tact­ful, he had to admit.) The most recent pho­to of him was maybe five years old, some solo show he’d done: his back bent, his face down near the keys, eyes shut, lips curled in con­cen­tra­tion — the Artist at Work, or try­ing to look that way. He’d lost weight since then — his face at thir­ty-five nar­row­er, the angles of chin and cheek sharp­er. He had an impulse to hide his pic­tures behind the oth­ers, but his moth­er being his moth­er would notice, and he’d have to explain what he’d done. Why should he feel humil­i­at­ed? she’d want to know. She had the pic­tures out because they were proud of him (which, of course, was the most humil­i­at­ing part of all).

He dropped the cig­a­rette butt into the trash can under the sink, and shook the can so the butt jig­gled under a banana peel. He pulled opened the refrig­er­a­tor, look­ing for he wasn’t sure what. The shelves were stacked with casseroles and tin-foil-cov­ered pots, ready to be reheat­ed. A cou­ple green glass bot­tles sat wedged in the door: sparkling cider, he saw from the labels. He had a hunch they’d even got­ten rid of the cough syrup.

He imag­ined mak­ing him­self use­ful — tidy­ing up, putting away. But every­thing was spot­less: the coun­ter­tops wiped down, the cere­al box­es on top of the fridge lined in descend­ing order. A piece of yel­low legal paper was taped to the han­dle of the dish­wash­er, on which one of the kids had writ­ten Clean!” Adam lift­ed the paper. On the back was Dirty!” with some com­i­cal­ly grub­by plates and glass­es, flies buzzing around them in the air. He smiled again. He loved these kids.

He didn’t know which one had made the sign, so he felt his love for all of them col­lec­tive­ly — felt it as a form of relief. He switched the sign over to Dirty!” and opened the dish­wash­er. But as he took out the first pair of clean plates, he real­ized he didn’t know where any­thing went. There was a cof­fee pot in the top rack; the cof­fee mak­er was plugged in on the counter. Okay, this he could do. He could make them cof­fee. He could fill the house with the smell of fresh­ly brewed cof­fee in the morn­ing. Who could object to that?

He took the glass cof­fee pot from the dish­wash­er and set it on the counter by the cof­fee mak­er, took out the plas­tic lid and the fil­ter bas­ket. He opened some cup­boards, got lucky and found the fil­ters. The cof­fee was right there in the freez­er, like he’d guessed. So far, so good. He slid the fil­ter in the bas­ket, spooned in the cof­fee grounds, snapped the bas­ket into the cof­fee mak­er, and poured in the water. He even imag­ined him­self doing it all with a cer­tain finesse — the prac­ticed grace of his hands. And maybe this idea made him care­less, or maybe it was some­thing else, but as he tried to snap the pegs of the lid into the holes of the pot, the pot slipped from his hands. It made a bal­let­ic turn on the counter and spun off the edge.

He didn’t even both­er to watch whether it broke, only lis­tened, with hope that bor­dered on prayer. Silence fol­lowed the shat­ter­ing sound. Then he heard from some­where in the house, Dad!” And then the same voice, more des­per­ate­ly, Moooom!” And he heard doors open­ing. He knew he ought to pick up the larg­er pieces of glass, find a broom and a dust pan, be there to warn any­one who appeared about the shards and apol­o­gize for depriv­ing them all of cof­fee on a hol­i­day morn­ing. He ought to do a thou­sand things that real mem­bers of a fam­i­ly would do with­out think­ing. But he found he lacked the will to do any of them. He went back to the clos­et, put on his pea­coat, and went out­side. Sun­light was slant­i­ng through the nee­dles of the spruce trees. Maybe he should go out and get cof­fee — that would make up for all of it. Don’t wor­ry, Uncle Adam got cof­fee from town!” Some­one would clean up the glass; sure­ly, no bare­foot­ed child would step on the pile of glass, need stitch­es — shit, for all he knew, lose the foot.

This was called cat­a­stroph­ic think­ing, he’d been taught at Stone Manor, the Maine rehab he’d been through at the begin­ning of the year: His mind had a com­pul­sion to seek out the worst pos­si­ble out­comes. Why did it do that? Hard­er to say. But the point was, he shouldn’t trust his fear that break­ing the cof­fee pot would lead to one his nephews los­ing a foot. He could have anoth­er cig­a­rette, and in a minute he’d go back inside and clean up the glass — and explain.

But that was the part he couldn’t sum­mon the ener­gy for: the expla­na­tions. Hav­ing to say, over and over and over — to Jack and his moth­er and father and Kris­ten and Dan and Lizzy and Emma and Car­rie and Toby and Sam and the baby whose name he for­got, and hell, to the cat while he was at it — tell them all about his mea­ger hopes of mak­ing them cof­fee, and how with his grace­ful hands, he’d fucked it up.

No, he couldn’t do it. Not after one cig­a­rette, not after a hun­dred. Not sober. He dug in the pock­ets of his pea­coat and found the keys to his rental car. He walked across the lawn and got in, put the car in neu­tral, rolled down the dri­ve, stopped at the bot­tom of the hill, and start­ed the engine.

From Start With­out Me. Used with per­mis­sion of Harper­Collins Pub­lish­ers. Copy­right © 2017 by Joshua Max Feld­man.

Joshua Max Feld­man is a writer of fic­tion and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, he grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and has lived in Eng­land, Switzer­land, and New York City. This is his first novel.