Because the mysterious caller used my full name to ask for me, I answered in the gruff tone I often employ to dissuade pesky sales folk. It took me a minute to understand it was the NEA on the line. More than a month has passed and the news still hasn't fully sunk in.
I'm currently working on a novel set in contemporary Japan. The grant money will allow me to visit Tokyo in 2012 and finish my research. Beyond the generous and much appreciated financial support, however, the NEA fellowship has given my novel-in-progress the affirmation it sorely needed. It means the world to have such a distinguished panel of judges select an excerpt from my new manuscript. That kind of recognition is invaluable. I'm thrilled and honored to join the list of past recipients of a prestigious fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Thanks to everyone involved in supporting the literary arts in our country. You have my deepest gratitude.
And from this point on, I'm answering the phone in my friendliest voice.
Excerpt from Enka Men
Russell bought a Coke from the vending machines. Another train clanked into the station behind them, new arrivals scattering from the exits, heading toward their waiting homes, or lured in the direction of the beckoning signs. Russell returned to his place on the curb. Bean bumped can to plastic soda bottle in a toast.
"When I was about your age, Russ, my parents decided to enact their own bad marriage. It was typical stuff from my dad: shouting and broken furniture, fists through the drywall, driving off with the tires spinning. I was the sole audience to this sort of theater, night after night, for probably five years. It was a painful decline in the love department, that's for sure.
"Anyway, one night my mother had had enough, and she followed dear Pappy to a bar in the local bowling alley, where she promptly met a nice fellow named Dan and fell in love. Now there's some major irony: Wife in town to drag husband home, but meeting his opposite instead, someone who listened to what she had to say and took her on picnics to the lake, the whole nine yards. A real gentleman, this guy was. He even took me fishing in the summer, something your grandfather had never once done. That, buddy boy, was rather strange."
Bean took another sip, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his coat. Words ran scarce inside his head. In the end, after sufficient craziness had burned through his parents like a fever, they simply returned to the preferred stability of their marriage. Bean had no clear idea why he'd thought to tell Russell that story, except to prove he'd also endured parental turmoil. They were brothers in arms, the two of them, decades removed.
"I used to believe you'd be raised differently, Russ. That you'd have only the best of everything, like those cartoons where butterflies flutter and bluebirds sing and everyone strolls in the golden sun. I didn't think you'd get treated to the stupid drama after all, the same damn song and dance."
"It's not your fault," Russell said.
"Well, now there's the rub. I think the idea is that if you keep your wife satisfied and happy, then she doesn't look elsewhere. Or something along those lines. I'm not the most dazzling guy in the parade these days."
His throat tightened. Bean realized he was crying so hard he couldn't breathe. Tears scalded his eyes, as if boiled up from an underground source. The fact of his crying made him feel all the more stricken. He pressed both fists into his temples as hard as he could, preferring physical hurt over this other ache that rushed from everywhere and nowhere. It looked like the old Bean luck had returned after all. It looked like his rise from the ashes had been premature indeed.
"It'll be okay," Russell said, putting an arm around him.
It was so like the boy to offer solace in this hour of need. His poor hapless father, dealt the final blow. Leroy's decade-long rebellion, Kari's terminal unhappiness, financial breakdown, job loss -- and now the biggest of them all: marital infidelity. It was enough to make Job count his blessings. Bean felt his son grow tense beside him. Russell sat up straighter on the curb, suddenly alert. Through the distortion of Bean's tears, a wavering black boot emerged on the street before them, attached to a navy blue trouser leg. Spoked wheels glinted next to the boot.
Bean looked up to find the big policeman straddled atop his bicycle. "Daijobu desu ka?" the man said, eyes flickering between Bean and his son.
"Hai, daijobu desu," Russell said.
The policeman stared at Bean with an expression halfway between suspicion and outright concern.
"Nani o shimasu ka?"
"I'm crying," Bean said.
"Kega ga aru?"
"What's kega?" Bean asked his son.
"Wound, I think. Injury."
Bean shook his head. He wasn't hurt in any way the man would care to know about.
"Doshite no?" the policeman said.
Bean wanted to explain the reason for his crying to this uniformed protector of the peace, but he couldn't in his own language, let alone some other.
"Kanashii desu ka?" the man asked.
Russell turned to his father. "I believe he's asking if you are sad."
"Hai," Bean said. "Totemo kanashii. Honto ni kanashii."
The policeman studied Bean with an intensity that worried him. As far as he knew, it wasn't illegal to weep in public, though anything was possible in his new homeland. Without another word, the man swung a leg over his bike. He set the kickstand and knelt at Bean's side. "Anato no uchi ni chikaku?"
Bean and Russell looked at each other. "You got me," Russell said. "I have no idea."
"Is your home in the nearby vicinity?" the man said, his English heavily accented.
"We live near Inokashira Park," Russell said. "On Nishi-Yamasaki-dori."
The policeman put his hands under Bean's arms. "Hai, doozo," he said, applying gentle upward pressure. Bean got both feet under him, but the man maintained a secure hold, as if fearing his charge might fall. Bean looked from the police officer to Russell, who shrugged at this odd turn of events.
"My guess is he wants to take us home," Russell said.
"Yes, I will escort." The policeman pointed at his bicycle and then to Russell. "Jitensha, kudasai."
Russell raised the kickstand and held the bike upright by the handlebars. He stood at the ready.
"Ikimasho?" the man said.
Bean hesitated -- the beer was still in hand. He waggled the Budweiser and made his questioning face.
"Kanpei," the cop said, gesturing for him to drain the can.
Bean did as he was told. The policeman stored the empty can in a basket on the handlebars. All the bike needed, Bean decided, were colorful streamers and a chrome bell. The trio started down the street in a solemn procession. Russell pushed the bicycle in the lead, Bean and his escort following. The policeman kept his hand near Bean's elbow in case he might stumble, intent on preventing this unusual American from hurting himself. Bean felt reassured to be led home in such a way. He wasn't sure if the officer simply wanted a tearful gaijin off the composed streets of Kichijoji -- a public spectacle, disturbing the harmony of his beat -- or if he saw a fellow man down on his luck, someone who could use a helping hand at the end of a very bad day. The three of them walked without the need for speech, their footfalls echoing on the concrete, the rear wheel of the bicycle squeaking on each revolution.
Mitch Wieland is the author of two critically acclaimed books published by Southern Methodist University Press: Willy Slater's Lane (1996), which has been optioned for a film; and God's Dogs (2009), which was named Idaho Book of the Year, a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award, and was featured in Best of the West. His stories have appeared in the Southern Review, Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Shenandoah, Sewanee Review, Yale Review, Prairie Schooner, and other publications. Wieland is the recipient of a grant from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, and two fellowships from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. He directs the MFA program at Boise State University, and serves as editor of the Idaho Review. As a 2011-2012 Boise State arts and humanities fellow, he is currently working on a novel set in Tokyo, Japan. Visit his website at mitchwieland.com.
Photo by Cynthia Wieland