Roderic Puchner (2006)
I'm thrilled and grateful to receive an NEA fellowship. The money will allow me to devote more time to my novel: since the birth of my eight-month old daughter, it's been difficult to find affordable childcare, so my wife and I have been taking up the slack. Now I'll have much more time to write. After my Stanford job ends (alas, only a fellowship), I plan to take a year off to work on the novel, which means I can put off the search for full-time employment until it's done. I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without an NEA fellowship. Truly, it's a godsend.
From the short story "Children of God"
To pass the day, I took Jason and Dominic on field trips. There was a special van in the garage, and I'd load Jason onto the lift and strap down his wheels so he wouldn't roll out the window. The van had been donated by a traveling magician and was painted purple. We'd drive to cafés, outdoor fairs, movie theaters. They liked easy-listening stations - "I Write the Songs," "Send in the Clowns" - and I'd crank the old A.M. stereo as loud as it would go. I'd roll down the windows and listen to Jason scream words at the top of his lungs, naming the passing creatures of the world like Adam on a roller coaster. "Dog!" he'd yell. "Girl! Pizza boy!" Dominic would stick his head out the window of the front seat, his hair exploding in the wind. Someone had taught him how to flip people off and he'd give pedestrians the finger as we passed. It was a good test of character, and I liked watching people question the simplicity of innocence.
Once, at a stoplight, a guy in a fraternity sweatshirt returned the gesture and then strode up to Dominic's side of the van, his girlfriend sloping behind him. The guy's arm was outstretched to better advertise his finger, which he was following like a carrot.
"What the fuck, man," the guy said to Dominic. "You looking for a new asshole?"
Dominic wagged his finger at the guy's face, enjoying himself immensely. "We're going to get some ice cream," I explained.
The guy took a closer look at Dominic and turned red. He dropped his hand and glanced at his girlfriend, who was regarding him with distaste.
"You should teach them some manners," he mumbled. "This isn't the goddamn circus."
At Baskin Robbins, we waited in line while the customers ahead of us sucked on little spoons. Dominic ogled the women. He was a pervert only because of his IQ; otherwise, he'd have been concealing his interest like the rest of us. It was more metaphysical than sexual. Sometimes I'd find him staring at a lingerie-clad model in a magazine, struck dumb with fervor, his lips moving silently as if in prayer.
While we waited, Jason slumped in his wheelchair and I wiped the drool from his chin. The woman in front of us kept glancing back at him. It was always the same expression, a coded kind of smile directed at me as well, like we shared some secret knowledge about the afterlife.
Finally, she couldn't resist any longer and squatted beside Jason. "What's your favorite flavor?" she brayed, as if she were speaking to a foreigner.
He seemed to study the case of ice cream. "Like trying to sell Jesus a jogging suit!"
"That's right, dear," the woman muttered, but didn't talk to him again.
When it was Dominic's turn to order, he staggered around the counter before I could stop him and stood by the cash register. The girl behind the counter laughed. He stared at her breasts without speaking. I might have done something to ward off disaster, but I wanted to see what would happen.
"Show me what you want," she said. It was the wrong thing to say. Dominic grabbed one of her breasts. "Hey," the girl said, laughing. She tried to pull away and he held on, clutching at her shirt. He wore an expression of deep, incredulous despair. "Hey!" the girl said. Finally, I ran around the counter and pulled Dominic off with two hands, leading him back to the customer side, where he seemed unembarrassed by his conduct.
It was always like that: the world scorned them, but they were freely and openly themselves. I admired them greatly.
From MUSIC THROUGH THE FLOOR by Eric Puchner. Copyright © 2005 by Eric Puchner. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.
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Roderic Puchner is the Marsh McCall Lecturer at Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. His short stories have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Zoetrope: All Story, The Missouri Review, and Glimmer Train, as well as the 2004 Pushcart Prize and 2005 Best New American Voices anthologies. His first collection of stories, Music Through the Floor, was published by Scribner in November 2005.
Photo courtesy of the author