Two years ago, needing to find quiet space outside the house to revise my second book, I built a 9 by 9 shed in the back yard. Knowing little about construction, I was still able to put the whole thing together on the cheap, learning from friends how to pour a foundation, install insulation, wire it for electricity, and sheetrock the walls.
Being able to step out the back door and walk to an office--a place with books and a desk, nothing else--has been a tremendous boon. Because I also work as a teacher and a basketball coach and a dad, sometimes I'm only able to write in the shed for a small part of the morning. What the NEA Literature Fellowship offers me is the treasured opportunity to spend more time in the shed.
I am grateful to the jury of fellow writers who selected me, and to my government for allocating part of its budget for readers and writers.
From the short story "Puckheads"
It was a home game at the academy, against Biddeford, a weak team with a reputation for rough play. I borrowed my father's Eskimo jacket, which had a fur-lined hood and made me look especially sharp, and taller--it came down to my knees. While I waited in the parking lot for Christina, I felt like a veteran, having matured past my hockey phase, my days of towel-snapping in the locker room, and I realized that Christina was right: I was building a persona; I was an actor, the lead in a play. It was dark and cold--the snowiest winter in memory, we'd already gotten over five feet--and I stood in the light cast by one of the towering fluorescents near the entrance of the rink as the crowd filed in, the mothers with the milk jugs, younger brothers and sisters wearing knitted orange caps, fathers with their hands in the pockets of their varsity jackets. All around me, plows had pushed the snow into piles twice my size.
Christina showed up only a few minutes late wearing a sheepskin cap, which matched the lining of my father's jacket--a good sign--and her brown hair peeked out the sides of the hat, shiny and uneven, not tucked behind her ears. This seemed both conspicuous and accidental--either way, it struck me as the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I was nervous and felt inclined to talk about the cold weather, or the large number of people attending the game, but these were silly, obvious things to say, so I kept quiet. We got inside just before the puck dropped, squeezing our way into the bleachers behind the visitors' net, and I felt the eyes of the crowd. Is it presumptuous to say that people were watching me closely as I climbed the bleachers? Perhaps. But my attendance at that game was in some small way a statement to those who'd loved my fighting ways: I wasn't ashamed of what I'd done at St. Dominic's. And by escorting the lovely Christina, I was also rebutting all those in the crowd who saw me as a heartless, bloodthirsty goon: I was capable of love.
The games against Biddeford were packed because we always beat them, and there were always fights. Biddeford's coach was a legend, a guy named Harold Prud'homme--Hospital Harry--who'd made his name in the AHL by crosschecking opponents in the neck.
Christina kept her arms folded in front of her and she shifted her weight from foot to foot--but the rest of the crowd seemed restless, too: the game started slowly; the players were patiently passing the puck around--clack, clack, clack--and there was little contact, no penalties, and no goals scored. But everyone--except Christina--knew what was coming. I was watching Biddeford's star center, number 11, a fair-skinned kid with a wispy blond moustache. He, like most players in the league, was quick-reflexed, sinewy, and as ruthless and stubborn as a table saw. At every face-off, as he bent over waiting for the referee to drop the puck, he'd pretend to lose his balance. He'd heave his weight forward and bang his helmet against the guy across from him. Every time. The referee was choosing not to blow his whistle, for now.
"The ref beats his wife," someone yelled.
I knew the head-banging wouldn't be tolerated for long, so I leaned over to Christina and whispered, "Keep an eye on number eleven."
"What do you think I am?" she asked. "I've seen hockey before."
"Watch," I said. "This guy's old school. A real puckhead. He's like his coach." I wanted to show her something she wasn't expecting.
At the next face-off--he was in our zone, we had a perfect view of him--he did the helmet-banging trick, then collected himself and looked up. His mustache wiggled--a nervous habit I remembered fondly from my playing days.
"Watch," I said.
The referee held the puck over the two players' sticks. They glided away from each other slightly, and the ref hesitated.
The kid flared his nostrils and the mustache twitched again.
The players straightened their backs, dropped their sticks, and the crowd rose to its feet.
"Here it is," I whispered.
We heard the quiet, delicate sound of their gloves hitting the ice before the crowd took a big breath in. Then, of course, everyone was screaming. The benches emptied; the two players had removed their helmets, and before the ref could get between them, Mack Pellerin had number 11's jersey over his head and was flurrying punches at his ribs.
I folded my arms on my chest and cheered them on, and when their coach stepped onto the ice and shuffled in dress shoes toward the melee, I chanted with the rest of the crowd, "HOS-PIT-AL!" (clap), "HOS-PIT-AL!" (stomp), "HOS-PIT-AL!" (clap).
Christina was standing, too, but she was quiet, staring with her serious eyes at the fray.
"Oh," I said. "I'm sorry. You must not like this."
She said nothing.
"It's okay," I said. "They'll all be okay. You don't really get that hurt--it's mostly just teeth and noses."
She held the back of my coat, clenching the fabric in her fist. "Now, this guy--he used to be a player?" she asked.
"That's Hospital Harry. He used to play for Maine."
Harry was yelling at the ref, who stood in front of him with his hands on his hips until Harry touched him--a finger to the chest. Then the ref swatted Harry's arm away and Harry landed a swift roundhouse to the ref's jaw. Christina pulled at the back of my coat. "Nice hit," she said.