I signed my first book contract when I was twenty-six. It was February, I remember, and I was sweaty all day from the very act of writing my name in crooked cursive. That same sky-high hope, that skippy-hearted delight, returned to me last week when I got a phone call from the NEA.
I had thought long ago that once I got published, I would never again question why I spent so much time by myself dreaming up places and characters and conversations. I must have been suffering from a failure of imagination, or maybe an overuse of it. I had not forecasted the years in between books in which you try and don't succeed and feel as though anything you ever wrote in the past was done by some stranger. I didn't entirely consider how difficult it would still be to make a living or how much I'd have to juggle my time or how often I'd need to remind myself to value the freedom to write over the necessity of money.
I also didn't realize how much further validation I'd secretly crave. I had seemingly forgotten that without a good dose of confidence, I am an avid swimmer in the swamps of diddling and doubt. It was actually while procrastinating that I discovered the impetus for the story I submitted to the NEA. In that familiar sludgy state, I sat in front of my computer, avoiding a half-finished story, and read an article about children whose parents had died on 9/11. After scanning a brief paragraph that mentioned that some teenagers lied about their parent's deaths, a series of images and scenes came to me. But I pushed the storyline away for weeks. I worried that it was too complicated a topic, too foreign, too overwhelming. Was I even capable?
This fellowship has not only answered that question; it has granted me the freedom, and fire, to prove it. I thank the NEA and its panel of authors for presenting me with such a wonderful gift.
From the short story "Ground One"
Fifteen-year-old Joseph Santiago is silent, almost dazed, in the hallow beginning of his morning. At 7:55, he exits the Fulton subway station in a bomber jacket with his hood pulled over his head and zipped tightly. Beneath his hood's fake furry trim, he is a set of eyelashes, a wide freckled nose, and pink lips, cracked from his bedroom radiator. On Fulton Street, multicolored store banners, bloated with wind, loom alongside a number of paper American flags that are taped to office windows like children's drawings. As Joseph walks east, he concentrates on the Strand Bookstore banner, a red and white candy-cane sign that has four sickle-shaped holes in its fabric. The holes are large enough to let the breeze sail through, but from a distance they look as though they were fashioned with bullets. Once past the Strand, he finally stops and waits to cross; at no point while he waits, does he glance to the left toward the vast emptiness known as Ground Zero.
Instead, he waits for the crosswalk sign to turn from the red hand on fire to the white ghost person and moves across the street looking down at his sneakers which have slightly brown water marks from walking through too much melted snow. It is March, a month in New York in which the winter seems never ending and the spring a fruitless hope. Above him the sky is a grayish white; if it were a face it would be frowning and sullen.
Joseph could still be asleep. His mother often sleeps until noon. If he wanted, she'd let him do the same. In fact if he wanted to quit school, she'd let him. If he wanted to steal cars or parts of cars, she'd let him. If he wanted to store hubcaps and tires and oily transmissions right there on their living room rug, she'd nod, say, "Hey, Joe."
If he wanted to kidnap other people's pets or refrigerate live cats or smash glass with his fist or break elderly women's fingers, all of that would be okay too.
The only thing she asks in return is that he come home today and every day.
Joseph hates the walk to school. It requires that he walk beneath a ramp that leads to the Brooklyn Bridge, a ramp in which he can hear the tires whooshing by overhead; then there is the police headquarters where snipers stand on the roof, their heads and rifles small in the distance, like plastic action figures. Lastly there is his school itself, Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers. From the outside, it is brown and plain, as inviting as a mound of dirt.
The hardest part of his walk, however, is rising from the dark, almost sooty interior of the subway station. The snipers, the damp rustiness of the bridge, a rustiness he can almost taste in his mouth, both are nothing compared to the corner of Nassau and Fulton. Standing there with his protective hood intact, there is a cool wind that insists on blowing down on him. The wind has a power like stardust being sprinkled on his face, and it ignites a sensation, not exactly an image, that is related to the last time he saw his father in the kitchen holding his house keys. His father wore a grey suit, a blue tie with cascading diamond shapes all over it, a camel coat that didn't match the suit, and a black leather bag slung over his shoulder that had a notebook in one pocket. The notebook, a legal pad, was on the table the night before and had a yellow Post-it attached that said in hurried cursive, "Call as soon as you know!"
His father worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. He was on the 103rd floor. He did not call.