The NEA Fellowship was a stroke of astonishing luck for me, and I'm grateful, grateful, grateful. The fellowship provided a boost of confidence and of bank balance, of course, but best of all, it allowed me to arrange a much-needed leave from my teaching duties at the University of Cincinnati . . . and so I was fortunate enough to get the stretch of unencumbered time I needed to get my new project off the ground. As a result I'm now close to finishing a draft of a new novel, Trophies. Thanks very much, NEA.
Excerpt from the novel Bibliophilia
That fall, while she was away at a librarians' conference, Milt repainted their bedroom ceiling as a replica of the night sky. A tenth-anniversary surprise, he said, a token of his love, and so he had included the five hundred brightest celestial objects that could be seen from their backyard on their wedding night. This had been a staggeringly and pointlessly complicated undertaking. They hadn't lived in the house back then, of course, so he couldn't use a photograph, and he hadn't free-handed it, either, like a sane person would. He could have introduced new constellations - Zither, Pineal Gland, Vas Deferens - and she would never have objected, or for that matter even noticed, but Milt was a man for whom there could be no surer expression of love than scrupulous photorealism.
Instead, as their neighbor, that Daughters of the Confederacy retard Sarah Sue Phemister, would put it, he went the whole nine hogs. He got hold of a new Caltech computer model, plugged in the date and their precise latitude and longitude - down to the second, the split-second - and winnowed the field of stars according to their luminosity. He then adapted for the dimensions of the bedroom and created a grid and, ultimately, a wax-paper template marked with grease pencil. He erected scaffolding and went to work, meticulously razoring out holes to accommodate the stars. He bought fluorescent paint and diluted it as necessary, using a calculator and beakers that allowed him to measure to the centiliter. It took him three sixteen-hour days.
Myrtle's friends and neighbors were abuzz, agog, atwitter, above all ameddlesome. (She hadn't told them, God knows. Over the weekend someone had spotted Michelangelgoof in the yard with phosphorescent paint all over him - he was trying to wash his hair in a bucket of turpentine, which misadventure killed her plumbago and, nearly, a thirsty schipperke from across the street - and had asked what he was up to. That was all it took. Suddenly Milt and Myrtle were, as Sarah Sue crowed, "the talk of the toast.") For weeks Myrtle had to endure the grilling, the gushing. It's like one of those romance books, they said, so precious and sweet, just like a novel: For Her He Hung the Stars. And this bodice-ripper's improbable hero, the man with a rose between his teeth and pecs with which he might flex out "Je t'adore" in Morse code, a lover whom the stars would never dare to cross, was . . . Milt? Milt Rusk? Were these people nuts?
Myrtle had been touched. She couldn't deny that. The project was insane, sure, like a meat sculpture of a peace lily or a portrait of Jesus made out of bottlecaps - but it was beautiful, too, in its way, and it had sparked several weeks of goodish lovemaking at first, there under the softly radiant stars, in a fog of passion and possibly paint fumes. It was nice to have a firmament all your own, and she appreciated the amount of work that had gone into it - she did.
But eventually the afterglow jokes got a bit tired, and the neighbors' oohs and ahhs began to rankle. "Oh," said stout Roberta Rhein, the mother of two grown children, a woman twenty-five years Myrtle's senior, a keg in muumuus who was heretofore known to the Rusks mostly for the richness of her red-velvet cake, "oh, to make love in a bed of stars. I suspect we'll know in about nine months what that slyboots was about. You're so lucky. My Walter doesn't have a passionate bone in his body - hardly has a bone in his body at all anymore, if you get my drift." Myrtle got used to getting drifts, drifts and drifts of drifts. She heard it all; being the object of such a gesture made her somehow public property, everybody's intimate. Could they not keep their cysts and veins and dysfunctions to themselves?
So when at last the newspaper came calling, wanting to install Milt in the paramours' hall of fame, alongside Casanova and Cary Grant and what's-his-name, the English prince who shucked his throne to marry that American divorcee with all the moles on her face, well, surely that would have been too much for anyone. Myrtle shooed the reporter and photographer by telling them that Milt's modesty absolutely forbade such publicity. The gesto appassionato was in its very nature private. To sound it about would ruin it, would be (she knew this would do the trick) a sin against romance. She was sorry they'd wasted their time, sorry too that she couldn't invite them in to see the fabled bedroom and have a cup of coffee. If they wanted coffee, maybe they should swing by Roberta Rhein's house; she always had a fresh pot brewing, and her red-velvet cake was to die for. Now that would make a nice article. So red, you know, that eating it made you feel like a vampire. It was of a moistness positively newsworthy. A scoop - better get on it. Bye now, and thanks for stopping by.
Certainly she couldn't voice her misgivings, her irritations - what kind of sourpuss, what harridan, what stone bitch would fail to appreciate such a paragon of husbandhood? But Milt grew no suaver, no less inept. His accent stayed prairie-flat and irksome, and he didn't learn even one word of Italian, unless "Boyardee" counted; he was the same sweet-tempered, distracted goober he'd always been. He never shaved under his nose properly, and his frequent sneezes were like howitzer blasts. This was a man who remained capable of leaving for work wearing two different shoes . . . you couldn't tell Myrtle that that happened to Valentino, or Porfirio Rubirosa.