December 2005 was the tenth anniversary of my first NEA rejection, so you can only begin to imagine the joy and excitement I felt when I received the telephone call telling me that this time around my work had been honored with a Fellowship. For many reasons, this honor could not have come at a better moment in my life or in my career as a writer. It provides recognition that my writing is a part of the exciting literary conversation that's taking place in contemporary fiction, and by opening up time to write by providing the means to pay the bills, the Fellowship will allow me to finish My Bright Midnight, the novel from which my application manuscript was drawn, and to begin a new novel. It's worth ten years of filling out forms and licking stamps, let me tell you.
From the novel My Bright Midnight
We first met at the Katz's soda fountain on Canal Street. I'd seen them both before, at the Orpheum, the Mecca, the Garden, the little Laurel where you have to check the paper to be sure there's a movie and not a talent show or vaudeville. We three fatsoes hid in the dark watching newsreels and cartoons, musicals and love stories, Lauren Bacall and Tarzan and Abbott and Costello. I didn't know their names but over months, maybe years of Saturdays and Sundays I'd passed him coming and going from men's rooms, and I'd stood behind her in line to buy popcorn and candy. We always looked away, pretended we couldn't see each other even though we were too big for anyone to ignore. He climbed to the balcony, she hurried down to the front row, and I sat in the back with the snoring ushers. She hid her thick arms in a pink sweater, no matter the season, and he always wore the same wide tie, striped red and white like a piece of circus tent. He never wore a hat and his hair was thick and dark and always carefully combed. Once I accidentally looked into her face and was surprised by the feline yellow of her eyes.
That day in Katz's he and I sat at either ends of the counter, she in a booth, as far away from one another as we could, ashamed by the space we filled and the food we ordered. From the corner of my eye I watched him examine his reflection in the polished surface of a napkin dispenser, then stand and cross the room and ask if he could join her. She looked terrified, but nodded. I was amazed and jealous, as well as embarrassed for them--two fatties eating hot fudge sundaes, a joke for the gum-popping schoolgirls and the soda jerk to share--then surprised by the joy I felt when he turned and waved me over. I gathered my meal and struggled into the booth beside him.
"What's the good word, slim? This is Nadine," he said.
I took the cool hand she offered and gave her my name, she told me his, and suddenly we three were best friends. Sammy was animated, laughing, doing imitations from movies. The distance we'd kept for months disappeared. It felt as if instead of avoiding each other at the shows he mimicked, we had sat boy-girl-boy and passed the popcorn back and forth. Nadine smiled and giggled when Sammy did a pretty good Bugs Bunny, and I fell in love with them both.
Josh Russell is an Illinois native (born in Carbondale, raised in Normal), but for the majority of his thirty-seven years he's lived below the Mason-Dixon Line. He now makes his home in Newnan, Georgia. He's the author of the novel Yellow Jack (W.W. Norton) and stories and a novella that have appeared in Epoch, French Quarter Fiction, New Stories from the South, and elsewhere. Since 2004 he's been assistant professor of English and creative writing at Georgia State University.
Photo by Michael Haynes