For two weeks after I received a call that I had received an NEA fellowship, I was sure that I had been the victim of a hoax. Although I couldn't imagine who would have played such an elaborate joke on me, I was absolutely certain that eventually all would be revealed, and I was determined to be unsurprised when the rug was pulled out and the true, deserving winners came forward – perhaps on a new version of reality television. When it finally came home to me that my work had really been selected, I spent at least a day staring at my bedroom ceiling in absolute shock. Working on my novel often felt like I had tumbled to the bottom of a dark well. Receiving an NEA grant is nothing less than a rope thrown down into the vast darkness, and I will always be immensely grateful for the confidence the NEA has shown in me. This gift makes it possible for me to attend a residency at Jentel Arts in Wyoming for a blissful month of writing. I'm also hopeful I'll complete a new draft of my book before the end of the year. I would be remiss if I did not add that the very best part of this experience has been sharing it with my good friend Dan Orozco – one of the finest and most deserving writers I know.
From the novel The Real Life Test
They drive over a long bridge to get to Irene's, ten miles across the river. The house blooms from the narrow road like a fairy tale, a cabin built on stilts. Irene is waiting on the rickety wooden stairs wearing a bright red scarf and pink tennis shoes without laces. At first John is disappointed, she could be any woman standing there, not quite young, but not old either. She is taller than Louise, and the straight strands of her hair are many colors, the sort of hair that reflects in the sun. But the sun that day is too strong to see clearly. Irene stands in this sun without even a hat. Below the house there is a scant yard, but no grass. The grass would wilt with heat, withering into sand. The sand looks white-hot.
Ernie pulls up next to the pick up truck and turns off the engine and sits, hitting his hand against the wheel. He and Louise do not look at each other. At moments like these, John is struck by how very handsome Ernie is in contrast to everyone else around him. He seems out of context with his crisp features and thick, wild hair, like a film star trapped in the plot of a movie about poor plain people. He acts this way too sometimes, as if all this was not his life but someone else's life he has been forced to play forever. Even his devotion to Louise is odd, as if she has been cast as his wife without his knowledge and now he has to accept her as such.
"Doesn't cool off," Ernie says as he finally opens the Rambler door. "that's what I remember."
Ernie, also like an actor, is a chameleon, and quick as a rainstorm, his deep voice takes on the slowness of the South and shakes away the rushed excitement of the East.
"Come on up," Irene says. John sees her more clearly now. She is graceful the way tall women sometimes are. She stands very straight, and her small breasts bounce beneath a thin shirt. She climbs down two steps and climbs back again like a dance. She shakes the hair from her face and John gets a glimpse of high cheekbones and tanned skin with early, tiny crinkles around the eyes. Indian blood. Her lips are full and red without lipstick. She has the kind of face you want to add up in your mind. He wants to cup her ankles with his hands. He wants to bite her skin hard, like the Perry girl in Oklahoma. He wants to make her cry.
"It's just the beginning of the heat too. But come on up and simmer. I got all the fans goin'."
Inside the walls are wood-brown and cool. John moves through the house. A tiny bedroom with pale green sheets lying in limp piles snaked across the bed. A wide living room with built in bookshelves with no books, shells and tiny pebbles arranged. There are boxes and boxes of books underneath, spilling out of cardboard and flipping open.
John wanders through the small kitchen, the screened front porch, and the open back porch overlooking the dirty river. The dock looks unstable, as though a foot could easily slide through. Fishing rods next to the screens are rusty and unstringed. Everywhere the furniture is worn and piece-meal, the chairs burnt orange, the couch Kelly green and the back porch is empty except for a broken white deck chair and a speckled guinea pig in an enormous glass tank. There are books here too, so many stacks they look like furniture themselves, the hard-bound dusty kind. The guinea pig snuffles John's fingers and turns away.
"That's Piggy," Irene says from behind him. "She's good company and doesn't need walks." Her breath is curiously sweet, as if she has recently eaten something sugary. He feels it on his neck for a long time after she moves away.
An uncle built this camp many years ago, Louise tells him when he returns, it was a fishing camp for the family summers. It really wasn't fit for year round, Louise adds, but somehow Irene lived here anyway. She'd worked at making it fit. The summers have left their trace and the house is filled with old, unusable items: Jars of ancient tooth powder, ugly plastic tumblers, bottles of vinegar wine with forgotten labels like Dare's Virginia Red, strange yellow lamps with intricate, twisted bulbs. Irene seems oblivious of the din of so many disparate things.
"Not much hot water but plenty of everything no one needs," she says sweeping a hand around. Her voice is melodic. She bends down a little and turns John's hands over in hers. It's as if she has felt the urge to touch him the way he has willed her to. He shivers as she traces the lines with her thumb. "We'll toughen these up. See this here? It's your lifeline."
"Is it long?" He looks up into her eyes and looks away immediately at their bright warmth. Her lashes are lush without any of Louise's mascara.
"Short but feels long," She folds back his palm and smiles. "Which is the same thing. Joke. You got good hands. They need to be stronger, that's all."
"Irene, that's why Ernie is here. The boy isn't going to go digging for you."
"Well. We'll see if Ernie has changed any."
John looks up, but they are smiling at each other. The same teeth, small and crooked at the corners. It may be a sign they are related as Louise claims, but not proof.
"You'll have to sleep on the front porch, if that's alright," Irene says to him. "Even if it isn't. I put curtains, but maybe you're up with the light?"
He gets up when Louise and Ernie tell him to move on. He has almost never had his own space, living room couches, mostly, lumpy and soft. Here there is a brand new cot with a plaid bedspread that smells of cleaning fluid. There is an old coke machine and a desk made of dark mismatched wood and a pulled apart washing machine, the insides scattered across the corner. He monkeys with the coke machine, tries to open the stuck door.
"No coke there, hasn't worked in years. I'll get you one from the ice box."
When Irene goes out, Louise takes off her hat and sighs. She sticks the hatpin in the center and wipes off a chair with her glove before she sits down. She is the only woman in the country who still wears hats and gloves. Ernie splays his fingers and picks up a washing machine part. The part is very dusty. "Next job is getting this sumbitch working for you. How bout that, Loosie? Jonnie boy?"
"How could this happen?" Louise shakes her head as if she hasn't heard him. "It's like something grabbed my ankles and pulled me down."
"Look." Ernie rocks back and forth on his heels. He is perspiring but in a handsome way, his skin has a slight extra glow and his eyes sparkle. "Now we talked this through. Loosie."
"There's nowhere left. There's no one left."
When Irene comes back, Louise smiles brightly into her compact. "Any news on the man front, honey?"
Irene winces a little. "You always make it sound like they're hiding in the bushes! Here I come boys: Iddy, Iddy, one two three."
She opens her long corded arms and arches her back and laughs and John laughs, too. Louise pulls him to her until he stops laughing.
"Why," she whispers into his ear. "Why can't I ever get far enough away?"
John pulls his head from her and puts the hand Irene has touched to his face.