The truth is this: I don't know if I'll be able to publish the books that I've written or those that I've yet to write. But there are other truths. I've spent much of the last years writing at the small oak desk that my grandfather gave my father, and that my father gave to me. I sat at this desk doing high school English assignments; and, in college, taking notes in Anna Karenina's margins; and making poor attempts to write a first novel; and in the between times; and again a few years later, when my mother- forty-nine years old - had a series of strokes, fell into a coma for fifty-four days, and then died; and I sat and wrote stories about ghosts, and summer camps, and people dying while time passed away around me; and then I wrote letters to the woman whom I would marry and have a child with; and I wrote stories about cowboys, and palimpsests, and comas, and people dying; and maybe it won't be surprising to you when I say that I was at this desk, too, when Chloey Accardi called with the news about the NEA fellowship, and I wrote giddy but nearly illegible expletives on Peter Rabbit post-its; and yesterday I sat at this desk to write down how my twenty-two month old son, Emerson, had just said, "My Daddy is a doctor. My daddy is a mall. My Daddy is a big seahorse," and, sitting at my desk right now, I think that maybe for him I can be all of these things, and how I'd been there in the moments when he learned each of those words-doctor, mall, seahorse, daddy-and I suppress the urge to cry. At this desk, I've grown as sentimental as all of our fathers. And as grateful, too.
From the short story "Camp of Low Angels"
We agree that the nightly dance around the bonfire has taken on a grisly spirit. It gives us goose bumps. Eddie Mundoon tells how, kittycorner from his house, two children live in the root cellar. They go naked and sometimes roll in their barren lawn for fun. Their parents are hollow-eyed, pale as winter, and allow the children inside their home only when relatives arrive. Eddie would watch them being shoved into dresses and slacks like marionettes, hair cut and combed, settled into kitchen chairs, and screamed at to clean their plates of peas during supper. Rich Kent says his sister decided she liked to kiss girls, not boys, and his parents told her to live on the street. The street wasn't much good to her, Rich Kent says, she'd been so upset she'd stopped eating altogether and started injecting poisonous liquids straight into her veins.
Good lord! we say.
Donnie Farkle says his neighbors howl at night. Like whupped dogs. Which sometimes makes him wet the bed. Buzz DeLint relates how his parents purchased an olive-skinned foreigner to take care of the housework and make her sleep in the shed.
Oh, we say, how ghastly! We suggest a sing-a-long. Maybe Johnny Appleseed?
We counselors, we confer and decide there isn't crap to be done about it. That's what we decide. Simply can't be helped. We put all our eggs in one basket and the bottom gave out. Right? we say, right? Every last one of them, we say to ourselves, needs a hiding. We debate who has the sturdiest leather belt for strapping. We decide any resort to the physical would be just plain wrong. The set-an-example cliche gets bandied about like a frisbee. We discuss tying a number of children to their beds. We remind ourselves how we know knots.
The stories cannot be stopped from coming. We set a seven o'clock curfew. We patrol. We start rumors of a dungeon. We put the chief mischief-makers in one lodge and watch the doors. Chocolates are offered as incentives for those who don't throw rocks. Johnny Millwood begins a mud war. We practice scowls before the latrine mirror. We call a camp meeting in the Mess Hall to lecture on the nature of authority, the futility of resistance, the inevitability of surrender. Theodore Muntz pounds on the table and begins a chant of Screw you! Someone throws a soup spoon. The key lime pie scheduled for dessert is not served. Off to bed, we say, guardians will most certainly be informed. Fear delayed reprisals, we say. The children bundle off to bed, many of them howling. Animals, we whisper among ourselves, beasts and mental cripples. Symptoms indicate a deficiency in parenting we announce. Yes, yes, we clap one another on the back. Buck up, we say.