The NEA's generous financial-cum-motivational stimulus package came at a time when my reserves of both were rapidly dwindling. It smacks of elitism when writers tick off, boastingly, the flunky jobs they've held down to burnish their starving artist bona fides. So, while I was far from starving, suffice it to say that when I received the call before lunchtime informing me of the award, I was on my second day of a temp job I'd walked four miles to that morning, in part for the exercise, in part to save bus fare. I'm profoundly grateful, feel largely undeserving, and will work with renewed effort to justify the NEA's faith.
I stayed at the temp job until five p.m., respectfully resigned, and walked the four miles home. The next day, I put in some work on a second novel.
From the novel Kapitoil
On Saturday morning I have my first opportunity to call Zahira when I am not too taxed and she is still awake.
"Karim!" she says. "I was wondering when you would call."
She is probably in our living room, next to the window that overviews our courtyard and the other apartments, and sitting on the brown cotton couch which we have had since I was a child and whose material needs to be repaired.
"I have been very busy. And I have emailed you," I say.
"Yes, but that is not the same. It is nice to hear your voice."
It is nice to hear hers as well. She does not remember it, but her voice sounds like our mother's: clear but soft and loud simultaneously, like warm water poured over your head. I ask her how she is performing in school, and she tells me about her biology class. It pleases me that she is engaged although I do not understand most of the jargon terms and ideas and cannot respond, except when she discusses viruses, as I mostly self-taught computers by studying viruses at night for a year when I was 18, and I was always the employee at the Doha branch who healed viruses. Biological viruses are of course not perfectly equivalent to computer viruses, but they share some theoretical similarities, and I find it intriguing that they are all self-replicating, as if they have their own brains, and it is dependent on my brain to contain and destroy them.
"Certify that after you finish your introductory quantitative analysis course you first take microeconomics, as it is important to understand individual motivation, and then macroeconomics for the big-picture view," I say.
"I know," Zahira says. "You have told me a million times."
"And if you enhance your English, we can converse in it more frequently."
In English, she says, "You tell me one million times."
"You have told me a million times," I say. "But I can tell you are studying idioms. If you read and practice as much as I do, your skills will broaden."
I talk about the airplane and the ways midtown reminds me of Al Dafna and the West Bay, and how rapidly people walk when transferring subways, especially the professional females, and that everyone's aggregated earphones in the subway sound like machines striking metal. I inventory my apartment: a high-end television and stereo; a quality couch of black leather; a bed that could contain three of my bodies; a silver refrigerator of spacious storage capacity; a white carpet that feels like a horse's hair; a square black table with four chairs; and an invisible glass coffee table that is elegant although when I arrived I did not observe it and crashed my knee on it.
She makes jokes that amuse only us, e.g., when I tell her how efficient the subways are and she says, "I would like to see Aunt Maysaa on the subway. She would complain even if it transported her from one station to another instantly."
I say, "And if it paid her money as well."
She adds, "And if the conductor told her she was the most important passenger."
We find similar concepts humorous, although she produces jokes at a greater and more successful rate. Business manuals explain how valuable it is to have a sense of humor, so I am studying how others produce jokes, such as making a statement that is clearly the reverse of what you truly mean and using a tone of voice that indicates the reversal. But it is not a natural response for me, minus sometimes with Zahira, and I am unskilled at intentionally adjusting my voice.
"I am working on a prototype of a program for the stock market that I will soon present to a superior at Schrub," I say.
I explain the concept, and how it employs complex algorithms, which are parallel to instructions or a recipe. Although she does not have my math or finance skills, she is intelligent enough to decipher the main idea.
"I am certain it will be successful," she says.
"Why?" I ask. "I have not completed the program yet."
Then she says what I always said to her when she was in school and was having difficulty with an assignment: "Because you are very smart and you labor very hard, and if it is possible to achieve, then you are the person to achieve it."
"Where did you learn that idea?" I ask.
"From a stupid person I know."
It is the class of joke she produces rapidly which takes me longer to think of, if I even do think of it.
Teddy Wayne's debut novel, Kapitoil (Harper Perennial), was published in April 2010. A graduate of Harvard and the Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also taught fiction and creative nonfiction writing, his fiction, satire, and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, Esquire, McSweeney's, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He lives in New York.
Photo by Rory Gunderson