NEA Literature Fellowships

Adam Levin

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from The Instructions

The air in Main Hall was blinky that morning. Dust touched light and the particles twitched. Desormie, ahead of me, hummed out a melody with lipfart percussion and aggressively dance-walked and thought it was strutting. I was thinking how dust was mostly made of people, and that a pile of dust from a one-man home should be as easy to mojo as fingernail clippings, which was probably why Hoodoos were vigilant sweepers (self-protection), when a swollen-lipped Ashley, trailed by Bam Slokum, came out of the lunchroom, and Desormie stopped humming. 

“Bammo!” he said.

I pulled on my hoodstrings.

 “Hey Coach D,” Bam Slokum said. Superhero-shaped and over six feet tall, Bam was Aptakisic Indians Basketball’s goldenboy. I’d never even exchanged as much as a nod with him. He and Benji Nakamook were longtime arch enemies.

Desormie said, “You got a hall-pass there, Bammenstein?”

Bam made the noise “Tch” = “I know you don’t care if I’ve got a hall-pass,” and laced his fingers in front of his chest, then pushed out his hands to pop all his knuckles. A thousand dark veins and knotty tendons raised the taut skin on his forearms. 

“How about you, young lady? Got a pass?”

“Ashley’s all distraught,” Slokum said to Desormie. “I was helping her out. Process of helping her, we misplaced her pass.”

“Oh,” Desormie said. “Distraught?”

“I’m feeling much better now,” the Ashley told him.

Slokum chinned the air in the direction of A-Hall. The Ashley squeezed his biceps and strode off toward A-Hall.

 “Well alright,” said Desormie. “Alright then,” he said. “We gearing up for a righteous premiere?”

The opening game of the basketball season was scheduled for 5 PM on Friday.  

“Sure, Coach D,” Bam Slokum said. 

“Main Hall Shovers get their new scarves today, boy. Just had Blake Acer in Gym—kid’s amped. Comes up to me, tells me, ‘Listen, Mr. D, our new scarves are gonna be so darn flossy, I’m scared once I see ’em, I’ll just go blind.’ Says, ‘Bam’s gonna crush and the Shovers’ll be there. Watch it Twin Groves.  Just watch out!’” 

“Yeah,” said Bam. “The air’s crackling with pep.”

“Crackling with pep!” Desormie said. “But like what the heck’s flossy though? The heck does that mean, right? Heck did it come from? What happened to killer? Heck, what happened to awesome? When did the Main Hall Shovers turn to funnytalk? Maybe it’s just Acer. Presidents talk weird. Good kid, though, that Acer. Don’t get me wrong. Good kids the lot of them. A tribute to all of us. A boon for the team. All those Shovers. Other teams get pepsquads—pepsquads! What?  Wussy little pepsquads waving little flags, fancy-dancing on their twinkle-toes, and, I don’t know, lisping. That, Sir Bam, is what other teams get. The Indians, though? We got Shovers. We got us Shovers, and they don’t wave flags. We got us Shovers and our Shovers wear scarves. Our Shovers wear scarves and they trounce any pepsquad. Right? Am I right? They trounce on the twinkletoed all the dang livelong. So what if their hand-eye’s crappier than ours? So what if sometimes you want to give ’em a wedgie til the tears and the boogers go pouring down their chins? They’re carrying your books. They’re filling the bleachers. They’re loving the Indians. Good kids all of them. A tribute and a boon. It’s how you play the game. All good kids. When they almost fell apart, they could’ve fell apart, except they didn’t fall apart because instead they came together. Overcame differences. All the stronger for it. Intestinal fortitude. Trial by fire. Awesome scarves. No limp flags. Trouncing the lispers. Pep that crackles. How you play the game. Just why the funnytalk from Acer’s what I’m saying.”

(Excerpt from THE INSTRUCTIONS. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2010)

Adam Levin is the author of the novel The Instructions (2010) and the short story collection Hot Pink (2012), both published by McSweeney’s. He was the winner of the 2011 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and the Indie Booksellers Choice Award, as well as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. The Instructions has been published in French (Inculte) and Dutch (Lebowski), and is forthcoming in German from Kein and Aber, as is Hot Pink. Levin has written essays for Playboy Magazine and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. His short fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Tin House, and New England Review. He lives in Chicago, where he teaches creative writing at the School of the Art Institute.

Photo by Camille Bordas

Author's Statement

Near the end of 2012, my wife, Camille, gave me an Opinel #7 folding knife, the first gift she’d ever given me, and I carried it around for almost a year. One evening at O’Hare, in March or April, I checked my suitcase without having remembered to pack the knife, and it wasn’t until I was at the front of the security line that I realized I still had it in my pocket. So I sent it through the scanner with my wallet and shoes and hoped for the best. Which worked out fine. As well it should have. Opinel makes a pretty knife, its design is elegant, even honored in museums, but it’s not a very threatening knife—it reads “tool” a lot more readily than “weapon”—and when TSA didn’t confiscate mine, I guess I came to assume they understood all of that, and over the next eight or nine months, I sent it through any number of scanners at any number of airports unmolested until an afternoon in the middle of November when, on my way home from a reading in Jersey, and running late, I started getting sick at JFK (I was overwarm, dizzy, and maybe my throat hurt), and here was this rubber-gloved TSA worker standing by the tables on the checkpoint’s secure side, holding my knife in his palm and squinting.

I pled with him: it was a gift from my wife, the first she’d ever given me, bigly sentimental, I carried it everywhere, we’d been through so many checkpoints together. He said something about a three-finger test, or a four-finger test, then performed the test with either three or four fingers. If I were willing to leave the secure zone, he said, miss my plane, and buy another ticket, I could find the post office, mail the knife home.

So he kept the knife. Or TSA kept it. I hope it was him. He seemed to admire it. I texted Camille: “Opinel gone. TSA. All my fault. I have a fever and hate myself.”

“NO,” she texted.

“Two hours on a plane seems worse than,” I’d typed, when her next text came:

“Enough already. I won’t be at the airport to pick you up. I’m staying with Chad, now. I want a separation.”

No, not really. But that would be some story! My wife leaving me for Chad? She’s never even met him. Neither have I. What did happen, though, was that, right in the middle of trying to come up with something semi-funny to claim two hours on a plane seemed worse than, I received a phone call from the NEA that told me I’d been granted 25K, which would afford me some sorely needed time to write, plus a trip to France, and I felt a lot better. Sometimes I still do. It’s been seven months, so that’s no small thing. I’ll always be grateful. Thank you, NEA.