I've always been happy to know that some of my taxes were earmarked for the support of organizations like the NEA. Filling out the paperwork to apply for a grant, I felt by turns hopeful, profoundly unworthy, and also fairly sure that I would mangle my application so that I would end up wasting everyone's time. To be recognized in such a way, to be given such a generous gift by the NEA -- I can't tell you how much it means to me. I will be teaching this spring at Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, North Carolina, and this fall I'll begin working on short stories again. This grant will let me set aside time for research, make travel arrangements, and find space for writing.
From the short story "The Hortlak"
The snow kept falling. Sometimes it stopped. Charley came by. Eric had bad dreams. Batu did not go to bed. When the zombies come in, he followed them around the store, taking notes. The zombies didn't care at all. They were done with all that.
Batu was wearing Eric's favorite pajamas. These were blue, and had towering Hokusai-style white-blue waves, and up on the waves, there were boats with owls looking owlish. If you looked closely, you could see that the owls were gripping newspapers in their wings, and if you looked even closer, you could read the date and the headline: "Tsunami Tsweeps Pussy Overboard, All is Lots."
Batu had spent a lot of time reorganizing the candy aisle according to chewiness and meltiness. The week before, he had arranged it so that if you took the first letter of every candy, reading across from left to right, and then down, it had spelled out the first sentence of To Kill A Mockingbird, and then also a line of Turkish poetry. Something about the moon.
The zombies came and went, and Batu put his notebook away. He said, "I'm going to go ahead and put jerky with Sugar Daddies. It's almost a candy. It's very chewy. About as chewy as you can get. Chewy meat gum."
"Frothy Meat Drink," Eric said automatically. They were always thinking of products that no one would ever want to buy, and that no one would ever try to sell.
"Squeezable Pork. It's on your mind, it's in your mouth, it's pork. Remember that ad campaign? She can come live with us," Batu said. It was the same old speech, only a little more urgent each time he gave it. "The All-Night needs women, especially women like Charley. She falls in love with you, I don't mind one bit."
"What about you?" Eric said.
"What about me?" Batu said. "Charley and I have the Turkish language. That's enough. Tell me something I need. I don't even need sleep!"
"What are you talking about?" Eric said. He hated when Batu talked about Charley, except that he loved hearing her name.
Batu said, "The All-Night is a great place to raise a family. Everything you need, right here. Diapers, Vienna Sausages, grape-scented Magic Markers, Moon Pies - kids like Moon Pies - and then one day, when they're tall enough, we teach them how to operate the register."
"There are laws against that," Eric said. "Mars needs women. Not the All-Night. And we're running out of Moon Pies." He turned his back on Batu.
Some of Batu's pajamas worry Eric. He won't wear these, although Batu has told him he may wear any pajamas he likes.
For example, ocean liners navigating icebergs on a pair of pajama bottoms. A man with an enormous pair of scissors, running after women whose long hair whips out behind them like red and yellow flags, and they are moving so fast. Spider webs with houses stuck to them.
A few nights ago, about two or three in the morning, a woman came into the store. Batu was over by the magazines, and the woman went and stood next to Batu.
Batu's eyes were closed, although that doesn't necessarily mean he was asleep. The woman stood and flicked through magazines, and then at some point realized that the man standing there with his eyes closed was wearing pajamas. She stopped reading through People magazine, and started reading Batu's pajamas instead. Then she gasped, and poked Batu with a skinny finger.
"Where did you get those?" she said. "How on earth did you get those?"
Batu opened his eyes. "Excuse me," he said. "May I help you find something?"
"You're wearing my diary," the woman said. Her voice went up and up in a wail. "That's my handwriting! That's the diary that I kept when I was fourteen! But it had a lock on it, and I hid it under my mattress, and I never let anyone read it. Nobody ever read it!"
Batu held out his arm. "That's not true," he said. "I've read it. You have very nice handwriting. Very distinctive. My favorite part is when --"
The woman screamed. She put her hands over her ears, and walked backwards, down the aisle, and still screaming, turned around and ran out of the store.