I was sitting in a coffee shop in Wimberley, Texas, reading the help wanted section of The Austin American Statesman when my cell phone rang. The 202 area code made me rule out a call from the president. The word "Congratulations!" was all it took. This is my second NEA; my first was eighteen years ago. Since then, I've been living the life of a performing artist, reciting my work to music. I gave up a tenure track job to do this and the grant from NEA this year is nothing short of a miracle, not only in terms of a financial miracle in a depressed economy, but as an affirmation from my peers. I'm ready to come in from the cold.
From the novel Riders on the Orphan Train
"Dear Father," he wrote. "We have been in Texas for days." He held the pencil tightly, point pressed to the page, but nothing else would come. Distinguishing features had deserted the land--the prairie had rolled down to nothing now and what grass there was had been bitten down to dirt by cows. He felt cheated that he hadn't seen any buffalo. The only Indians he'd seen had been hunkered down in the stations in Oklahoma--big, spreading women selling baskets and earthen pots. Some with nothing to sell just waited, watched the children get off, get back on again, herded by a tall, skinny woman in a wilted hat and a short minister who looked too tired to talk to God. Ezra watched the Indians stare at the trains and thought they were waiting in the stations like people still trying to understand the true nature of the enemy who had come to conquer them. Orphans on trains--it probably didn't make any sense to them. Could the families be so weak they could not take them in? The train pulled out and they bent to their baskets once more. Ezra had heard about the Trail of Tears--he'd expected a kind of river, evidence of weeping that the ground would not allow to soak in. He didn't see anything like that, but he felt something like defeat emanating from the ground, rising up and shimmering fitfully like heat lightning, collecting into clouds that would not rain.
The train was nearly empty now. Reverend Horton had gotten off in Oklahoma City due to a cable he'd received calling him back to New York and Mrs. Worthington was left in charge of two Italian brothers with a limited vocabulary (the older seemed to be in charge of verbs) and Lars, the Norwegian bully. Technically, she was in charge of Ezra too, but she seemed to have given up on him. She didn't speak to him unless she had to but occasionally she still felt compelled to say, usually after a stop where once again he was not chosen, "You could make more of an effort on your own behalf--no one else can." But he wanted to get all the way out west as long as he was going, not stuck along the way in the middle of nowhere where he'd never be found. He'd developed strategies for getting passed over in these small rural towns. In one, he'd perfected a nervous tic, in another, a fit of coughing. He hadn't had to bite anybody again, but he was prepared to if necessary.
Since he couldn't think of anything to describe in words he thought he'd at least try to draw a landscape. But this part of Texas wasn't giving him much to go on--all he came up with was a single flat horizon line embellished by a solitary cloud.
"What's in your book there?" Lars, the bully sprawled his Nordic lank over the seat in front of him. There weren't enough boys left to bother, and evidently the Italian brothers weren't worth his time, or maybe between them they'd come up with a convincing comeback. So he'd finally ventured back to Ezra's domain. Ezra sat there as Lars towered over him, acutely aware of the fact that his feet didn't quite reach the floor.
"It's a story," Ezra answered after a long moment of trying to ignore him, a moment in which Lars only leaned closer to peer at the book.
"What kind of story?"
"For my father." He felt a strange thrill at saying those words. "For my father," he said again.
"Your father is alive?" Lars asked. "Then why are you on this train--did he send you away?"
"He is working to get enough money. Then he will come."
Lars raised his pale eyebrows. His eyes were small and hard and not a very nice blue. No wonder he doesn't get picked, Ezra thought.
"That sounds like a story you made up," Lars said.
"It is not. It's the truth."
"What are you, five years old?"
"I'm eleven, nearly twelve."
"Eleven. You're not old enough to know the truth. You only believe what people tell you. I'm sixteen and I know the truth--I was a mistake. I was a mistake but I was not to blame. But you, you are living in a fiction."
"I have proof," Ezra said heatedly, not exactly sure what a fiction was but almost certain he didn't want to live in one. "I have the address where he is." He practically tore his way through the pages to get to the slip of yellow paper. It was not where he had put it. He searched frantically, a page at a time. He upended the book and shook it, he got down on his knees and searched the floor under the seat, around, in front of it--nothing.
Lars got down on the floor to look but didn't put much effort into it. "What did it say?" he asked. "I'll bet you have it memorized--you don't need the piece of paper."
Ezra sat back on his heels. His hands were gray with soot from the floor. "It said Gerald Duvall, see-slash-oh..."
Ezra wrote it with his finger in the soot on the floor. c/o. "The Pennsylvania Railroad," he said after he'd drawn the symbol.
"Don't you know anything? 'In care of' is not an address. It's not a place."
"He works there--they know who works for them."
"You really believe this?" Lars asked this question almost gently--the meanness gone out of his face and his eyes for a moment were on the blue side of gray. "He's probably in the war by now anyway, not in Pennsylvania. Everyone is going. I will, soon."
Ezra pulled himself back up onto the seat. Of all the thoughts he'd had lately, this was one that hadn't occurred to him. The idea of the war and his father in it and all that could happen or not happen because of it was too big--counting stars was easier. He pulled his knees up so his feet wouldn't dangle. He reached his arms around his knees, one hand holding the other. "I'm not an orphan," he said quietly, more to himself than to Lars.