The news that I'd won an NEA Fellowship came on a particularly mild, unblemished blue-sky morning here in the high desert of Bisbee, Arizona. The night before, after my novel Special Mercy, had been rejected, again, I'd lain in bed disheartened, though I was no stranger to rejections, and I was making good progress on a new book. The editor who'd rejected my book went on to say, "It would be an honor to have Freund's lyrical gifts here..." but added that she would have to pass. I'd submitted a chapter from this same book in the application packet to the NEA, and I was certain, on this my third attempt over the course of six years, that I didn't stand a chance for an award. I was demoralized. My partner, Pat, urged me to take a break for a few weeks, until the semester was over, and I had time to revise my book and restore my confidence. I agreed. Yet the following morning, I was back at my desk and had just written a good line and was reading it to Pat when the phone rang with the amazing news of my award. The assessment of my work by writers whose work I revere was a gift beyond measure.
Earlier in the week, standing in front of my creative writing class, I'd paraphrased a line by the poet, W.S. Merwin, from his poem "Berryman." Merwin asks Berryman how does a poet know his work is any good, how can he be sure, and Berryman replies that you can never know, that you die without knowing. The poem ends with the words: If you have to be sure, don't write. Yet, for me, even as I spoke these lines, I knew that writers do need to have their work validated, that it is vital to our growth and our confidence. I thank the judges who selected me and the NEA for its continued support of the arts. The value of the award will continue to reverberate in my life, and I will hoard it against the lean times and the lonely nights that are sure to come.
From the novel-in-progress Special Mercy
Jeannette was my latest instant mother. I found her in the kitchen one morning, just like I found all the others. She was wandering around in my father's pajama top, smelling like the whiskey she was searching for in all the glasses on the counter and shaking ashtrays looking for a butt, the bottoms of her feet as grubby as the ashtrays she searched through. I didn't need to say anything. I knew the script by heart: Can you run out to the car, Sweetie Pie, and see if I left my purse in your daddy's car? Honey, could you fetch me a clean towel? Could you find me some aspirin? Could you keep the damn blinds closed? Sorry, Sweetie. The darn blinds closed. Most of the time I ignored them, even if they asked if I wanted a glass of juice or a piece of toast. I knew I wouldn't see them again. But that wasn't the case with Jeannette. There was something about the way she handled herself that said she was staying. Which is why I was leaving.
I planned on taking the Valiant, a car that we used as a yard car whenever customers came looking for parts. I'd been driving it around my father's salvage yard since I was nine and my legs were finally long enough to reach the clutch and brake. I was long on legs and short on patience, my father liked to tell his customers, so they best be careful when they were out there, wandering through the yard, poking through his inventory. He lived in mortal fear that someone would steal something from him. He knew all about thieves. He bought the salvage yard from the sale of the inventory he'd stolen from the family owned hardware store he'd worked in for eleven years. Discontinued stock, he'd say, unloading his truck, but what he really meant was discounted, the old five-finger discount. The hardware store was now out of business. But not my father. He still had boxes of discontinued Saws-alls, Black and Decker drills, Makita table saws, belt sanders, finishing sanders, routers, radical saws, coffee makers, portable vacuum cleaners, and nails and screws by the ton. Enough to finance my college education. But college was out of the picture now.
What was in the picture was the salvage yard. I sat staring out through the cracked windshield of the Impala, the car I called my Think Tank. I'd been coming out here for years, sitting in wrecks with no engines, no hoods, no doors or fenders, and sometimes no seats, trying to figure out how to get away from my father and start searching for my mother.
I used to investigate wrecks that had been towed in, but it was hard to tell dried blood from rust, so I avoided cars that had either, and also cars that people had died in. Some of those people had been pulled from those very cars by my father during his years on the Rescue Squad. But he'd finally had enough of the carnage after a carload of boys, five of them, had hit a tree. Dead. Drunk. All of them. My father had better never see me put my lips to a bottle of beer.
A few of the cars had baby shoes tied to the rearview mirror. Chalky white, the laces bleached by the sun. When the wind took them, they toddled from left to right, right to left. Once I'd found a tiny pair of pink leather ones. Those I kept. I waited to see if a mother or father would come back to retrieve them. It was a sort of test I devised. If the parents came back, then my own mother might come back someday.