Deep in the mountains of Pennsylvania, a sixty-six year old woman named Jean welds scrap metal into massive sculptures. These works, which she dubs her “Manglements,” assert themselves into the foreground of the story with the same haunting force of Louise Bourgeois’s works—which makes sense given that Bourgeois is Jean’s greatest influence and the central source of reflection on the artistic impulse in Idra Novey’s superb new novel, Take What You Need. Amid the sawdust and machine oil, there’s a whiff of distrust. The novel deeply examines the intersection of art and trust, which is a central, if quiet, conversation often overlooked in the sensationalist depictions of art monsters in contemporary fiction. Novey relates an outsider artist’s life, and her step-daughter’s reckoning with that life, with resonance and connection to the broader world beyond the workshop.
When I heard the front steps creak, I assumed the mailman had arrived early. Instead, I found the woman who’d moved in next door with two grown kids. Her arrival on my porch was the first time I’d seen her up close, her dim blue eyes and limp blondish hair. She had a bunch of pink dogs leaping across her t-shirt.
She tapped just once on the wooden door frame and then waited, peering in at me through screen, clutching the plastic handles of two empty iced tea jugs in each of her hands.
Um good morning…excuse me, she called in. I was wondering—
Hold on a second, I told her, I’ll be right there.
I didn’t like the intent way she was looking at the welding machinery in my living room. I couldn’t keep the front door shut once I got going, not with the argon gas from my welder doing its inert magic to the air.
I could sense the woman’s unease growing as she took in my Manglements, what I’d come to call the box shapes I’d been making since I got laid off. I’d yet to weld anything that wasn’t flat and six-sided. It was plenty for now, just trying to grasp the nature of a box.
Something you need? I called to my neighbor. To reach the door, I had to step over the scraps of cowhide I used to cover the floorboards and avoid any more errant sparks from my welder starting a fire. Last winter, sparks burned a hole clear through the boards to the basement, igniting the cushion of an old chair.
On the other side of the screen door, clutching her empty tea jugs, the woman kept gaping at what I’d done with my living room, nodding like she’d forgotten what she’d come up the steps to ask me.
Yes, she said, yes, I was ah…wondering if we could use your spigot. The city shut off our water.
Those bastards, I said, I’m sorry.
I placed my hand on the knob, waiting for her to back up so I could push open the door and speak to her without the grimy screen between us. She didn’t step back, though, which was fine with me. I left the screen door closed—why her water bill had gone unpaid wasn’t any of my business, same as my life wasn’t any business of hers.
You’re more than welcome to use the spigot anytime, I told her from my side of the door.
It would just be these four gallons, she said from her side, raising both hands, causing her empty plastic iced tea jugs to smack against each other.
Take whatever you need, I told her, and you don’t have to come and ask. Just go ahead and fill’em. It’s fine.
The woman nodded at this, already beginning her careful retreat toward the porch steps. She didn’t offer her name and I didn’t ask for it—or offer her my name either. It seemed best to just let the conversation end there. I didn’t want her to think she had to give me a taste of her problems in order to use my water.
Of course, I was being cautious for my own sake, too. Among the handful of us owners still left on Paton Street, I considered myself among the least paranoid, but I wasn’t naïve either. She had a daughter who seemed all right, leaving on time each morning for school in her purple high tops. The other grown child, though, was a young man who sat outside for hours, ticking away on the front steps. We had too many young men ticking like that all over town, more than at any point in my life—their stillness felt almost cult-like, all of them hunched over, praying to nothing, and the rest of us driving by, eyeing them with sadness, and dread.
With just about everyone now in the East End, it had become a nonstop eyeing and spying situation. No matter how often a gun went off, I couldn’t get used to it. The few other owners hanging onto their homes didn’t want to talk any more than I did about why we were the ones who hadn’t traded up and cleared out when it was still possible, before our houses became worthless, before every old Bethlehem Steel town for a hundred miles around became worthless.
The Section 8 families and renters coming in now were wary of us, too, not knowing which of us owners might be bitter and cause them problems. They spied on each other just as much, arriving with their worn-out mattresses and their belongings in garbage bags. Hardly any of them lasted a year.
After this woman came asking to use the spigot, I got agitated, sorry for her and her family, but leery, too, of what she might come over and ask for next.
To recover, I had to spritz my face at the kitchen sink. Through the open window behind the faucets, I heard the glug and spurt of the spigot starting up outside. I assumed it was the mother crouching on the other side of the wall. The branches of my hydrangeas had grown out of control and I hoped they weren’t poking that poor mother in the ass.
Fuckin’ bushes, I heard a man swear, his voice so close through the open window it startled me.
When the grown son erupted again, complaining about the spray from the spigot, I clinked two glasses in the sink. To make certain he got the message that he couldn’t erupt like that every time he crouched under my window, I clanged a knife against one of the glasses.
The grumbling on the other side of the window stopped immediately. Only one of us had water, and it was me.
Every day after, it was the son who came to fill the jugs. Around ten in the morning, I’d hear him filling the four plastic iced tea containers and never a jug more, unless maybe he was drawing extra water at night when I was asleep upstairs. I listened for the son to show a little nerve in the morning and fill a fifth jug. I certainly would have, why not? I’d told his mother they could take what they need.
Maybe she urged her son not to push things. Her alarm about my Manglements had been plain on her face, peering in at me behind the workbench, wondering why I wasn’t out crouching in a flowerbed, where women my age were supposed to work out their fading beauty.
I waited every day for the sound of the water drumming into a fifth jug. Yet after the fourth one, each morning, I’d hear the snap of the hydrangea branches as the son backed away.
How three people got by on so little water I couldn’t guess. I assumed they had to drink and cook with it, probably flush with it, too. From seeing the notices on other houses, I knew it wouldn’t be long before someone from the city started posting hygiene risk warnings on their front door, the eviction orders coming soon after that.
I gave the idle son a nod if he was out on the steps when I pulled in the driveway. Otherwise, I kept my distance until early June, when I was arriving from my cousin Marty’s scrapyard over in Deerfield. Marty ran things from Baltimore now. He’d renamed the business Levy Recycling, though it was pretty much the same junk heap it had been when I was a child and it was called Levy Metal Co. Marty’s dad ran it then and gave my father daywork until he mouthed off and picked too many fights. He was convinced my mother’s family looked down on him, which they surely did.
My mother was never in the running to inherit her family’s scrap business. The yard passed from son to son for a century, and now for the day-to-day operations, nobody from my mother’s family got involved. Marty had found a tall, quiet man from Belarus to run things. Sergei never asked what I did with the sheet metal he loaded onto my truck. We kept our talk to size and thickness, and Sergei made sure the sheets of scrap metal he saved for me weren’t heavier than what I could unload on my own. This time, Sergei gave me some better sheet metal than usual. He’d put aside three pieces with almost no major dents and only a few patches of rust. Two of them were heavier, almost a quarter inch thick, and I was dreading the battle it would take to haul them into the house.
On the drive back from Deerfield, I tried to mentally prepare for the struggle up the front steps, to think of it as what the great Louise called the necessary battle with one’s material. No real art, Louise Bourgeois said, was possible without a fight with one’s material. And wouldn’t she know, having conquered just about everything? Steel. Marble. Pantyhose. Nightmares. Surely, I could conquer a few pieces of sheet metal without tearing my shoulder from its socket.
You have to become more than yourself is what Louise declared when she passed sixty-five, the very station on the life train where I was now, the age when Louise started sculpting those tremendous cocks of hers, big as boxing bags, suspending them at whatever height she wanted. I sipped a few lines from her Writings every night in bed. I had no nerve in the morning if I skipped my nightly Louise. I’d come down the stairs and somehow piss the hours away, sanding lids and sweeping the floor like my own maid.
When I pulled into the driveway with my new scrap load, I saw the idle son next door was slumped on the front steps again in his unlaced construction boots, his buzzed head hanging over his spread knees. I gave him a nod as I’d been doing since he’d started drawing his family’s water from my spigot. He returned the nod and lowered his head to his phone. Once I unlatched the bed of the pickup, I felt the radius of his gaze on me again while I strained to lift the top piece of sheet metal.
I assumed he was home alone. His younger sister wouldn’t have returned from school yet and it seemed their mother had agreed to some kind of work at Porter’s Deli up the street. In the late afternoon, I’d see her shuffling up their driveway with day-old hoagies wrapped in the wax paper the Porters had been using for their sandwiches since I was kid and Betsy Porter would bike past muttering something hateful at my friend Alvina and her brothers, the only Black kids on the street. Whenever Betsy felt like it, she’d yell over for me, the lone Jewish kid around, to show her my horns.
Betsy ran the deli now, and I still would rather pour WD40 in my coffee than walk in there for a carton of milk. I’d seen other women like this mother next door, who arrived with no car or job and agreed to whatever terms Betsy offered them. None of them lasted more than a month or two. I’d see them all emerge around the same time in the afternoon holding rolls of toilet paper or crushed bags of Wonder Bread. I had a hunch Betsy paid them with a degrading mix of cash and unsaleable goods.
I’d rarely seen the son leave the porch. He just sat like a goose on the front steps, pecking at a bag of chips as he was now, watching me throw my back out. He just kept on watching, offering none of that brute strength that comes unbidden to young men.
Do you think maybe you could get up, I said, and give me a hand?
He rose immediately and shuffled over the uneven grass between our homes. He had the curved posture of someone accustomed to bracing for humiliation and I realized it was entirely possible he hadn’t offered to help because he didn’t think his offer would be welcome.
It’s just three pieces of sheet metal, I told him, but be careful, they’re heavier than they look, I warned as he reached the driveway. There was nothing particularly striking about him. He was scrawny with a pale, square face and a thin scar that ran from the right edge of his chin clear up through his lower lip. His large brown eyes sat a little too close to his nose.
I expected him to deal with the sheet metal in a reluctant, inefficient sort of way. But he heaved all three pieces with a swiftness that surprised me. I also got a whiff of his B.O. and hoped my reaction wasn’t evident on my face.
You want’em by the door? he asked.
Or just inside it, I said, if you don’t mind.
And how could he mind?
I doubt I would have been so brazen if I hadn’t been watching him for months, how often he sat outside quietly talking with his little sister. I had yet to see him sip a beer or smoke a joint on the porch. He had yet to join the agitated crowd that gathered outside the tobacco shop down on Henley, or the dull-eyed group that loitered outside the Greyhound station, their eyes glassy from fentanyl, or junk heroin, whatever was going cheapest now.
He didn’t say anything at first, as he stepped into my house. He set down the sheet metal just inside the door, leaning the pieces against the wall. I watched him silently take in all my Manglements on the shelves, and the ones too big for the shelves I’d left sitting on the floor.
What is all this? he asked, pointing with his chin toward my Manglements on the shelves and then the workbench.
What do you mean? I said. Doesn’t your family weld in the living room?
He pressed his lips together just slightly, not a smile but not a grimace either.
What’s your name? I asked.
Elliott, he said.
Well, I appreciate the help, Elliott, thank you, I said, hoping he would get the hint and leave. He didn’t seem in the same hurry to retreat as his mother had, though. He had another energy to him, an openness in his gaze I hadn’t expected. Watching him take in my cockeyed box lids caused a fizz in my mind.
I waited for him to ask something more. He rocked back on his boots, considering my tools hanging on the wall and it occurred to me how easily he could break in here, rob all this precious machinery I’d driven hours in every direction to acquire, waking at four am to be among the first to arrive at the better flea markets outside Pittsburgh before the good tools got picked over.
That welder looks good, I told him, but it isn’t worth shit. I bought it used from the widow of a guy over in Ligonier. And I got that Grizzly bandsaw for dirt cheap from her, too. It’s ten years old but it works just fine for my purposes.
But what are they, Elliott asked softly, all them boxes?
It’s just what I do, I told him instead of admitting anything I would’ve liked to say aloud about art requiring a degree of bullheadedness—about Agnes saying a real artist has to be able to fail and fail and still go on.
I got laid off, is what I told Elliott, explaining that I’d gotten chucked along with everyone else at the county hospital when it closed.
Shit, Elliott said, running a hand over the bristle of dark hair on his buzzed head. He didn’t turn toward the door then to leave either.
This is all I got, I told him, not meaning for it to come out as a plea, but he was looking so keenly at my tools. His body odor was even more potent indoors, pungent enough to smell from the other side of the workbench. I couldn’t stop eyeing the unused muscles in his shoulders. His face gave away nothing, his expression about as revealing as a closed garage door.
I was the only one among the remaining owners who hadn’t put in a security system. I couldn’t stand to live in a forcefield of paranoia, surrounded by cameras.
Can you cut them metal sheets with this? he asked, pointing at the sanding disc on the floor that I’d bought for the grinder. He looked up for my answer and his straight-on gaze unnerved me. I hadn’t been in this house with any man but my father in such an awfully long time. My skin felt different, prickly.
That’s more for buffing, I explained. But see that disc there on the grinder? That one can cut a corner off easy enough.
And cut pretty quick, I’d guess, he said in that same unexpectedly soft voice, like he was unsure how to admit it any plainer, his curiosity, and I felt for him, one of those moments when the heart refuses to close.
Oh, you bet it cuts real quick, I told him, and it’s fun as hell. Here, I’ll show you.
He drew closer to the opposite side of the workbench, making it harder to ignore the pungent closeness of his body. My fingers got stiff and clumsy, clamping the small rectangle of sheet metal to the workbench. Tightening the clamp took more time than usual—I was so used to working alone.
Before clicking on the grinder, I looked up to see if I could detect any scorn on Elliott’s face as he watched me. I gave a tug on the grinder cord, though it didn’t have much give, tangled as it was, taut enough for the cord to float a few inches off the ground between the workbench and the socket.
The new grinders have a safety switch that shuts it off the second you let your finger go, but I preferred this older solid grinder, without any of the cheap plastic parts of the new ones. In two strokes, I rounded the corner of that little rectangle down to a smooth, masterful curve.
When I looked up, Elliott had drawn in his square jaw with what looked like genuine surprise.
Where’d you learn to do that? he asked.
You serious? he asked, looking back at me more openly now.
Oh, you can learn anything if you look up weldporn on YouTube, I told him. How to tack weld, how to wipe your ass. Whatever you type in, there’s some eager beaver out there with a step-by-step on how to get it done. I learned as a kid, too, from my dad. He didn’t mean to teach me. He only let me near his workbench if he really needed an extra pair of hands. You ever operate a grinder?
Elliott shook his head with a wistful half-smile and I told him I’d give him a turn if he wanted, once he saw how I rounded the second edge. Everything about his posture and attire aligned with the sort of young man who would scorn a woman my age operating a grinder and in her living room. And yet there was no meanness in his gaze, not the ruthless kind I’d learned to brace for my whole life.
To grind the third corner, I had to pull the cord a little tighter. In its jumbled state, the cord was now taut as a tightrope, but I still smoothed the corner in three quick strokes.
How’s that for a YouTube graduate? I yelled over the grinder’s roar.
Elliott laughed as he took a step forward and it happened so fast—the grinder jerking out of my grip. I didn’t think about Elliott stepping forward, bumping into the taut cord suspended half a foot off the ground.
At the blast of pain in my thigh, I clung to the edge of the workbench, blood spilling quick as paint across my pant leg. And there was the grinder blade still on and spinning across the floor like a sentient thing, its sharp whirring disc moving toward my boot.
Elliott bent to grab it and I had to shout at him he was going to lose his fingers, that he had to run and unplug it from the wall instead.
The silence after he yanked out the cord came total as an explosion. In the scream of the grinder, I hadn’t been able to hear how loud the pain had become. In my head, a feeling like all the circuits shutting down.
Excerpted with permission from Take What You Need, by Idra Novey. Available from Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright Idra Novey © 2023.