NEA Literature Fellowships

Benjamin Jahn

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(2010 - Prose)

From the novel City Water

A week later I'd rented a room above the Pair-A-Dice Wash-N-Fold for half of what I paid at the Y. I spent days driving canyon spurs and minor highways. I got lost on roads that turned from smooth pavement to broken asphalt to gravel on dirt to dirt into sand in the space of a few miles. More than once I found myself on the cusp of a dry wash some locals had used to dump busted appliances, and to drink beer--as if one of those activities somehow occasioned the other. Nights, I lay on the dirty floor and listened to the peal of washer belts and the tumbling rhythm of dryers, and wished, stupidly, that Sally was there.

One afternoon in August I stopped at Doyle's Roadhouse and found Lindsay Vance under a wooden sign that read FREE BEER TOMORROW. She said she didn't know a man by the name of Scuzzy or Sleazy or whatever, but had once dated a Skip Martin who wired houses among other things.

Lindsay introduced me to the regulars, a crowd of folks, like herself, with workaday jobs and no real ambitions. She had a job hauling margaritas at the Mexican place on Midway Road, and after living in eleven towns in five states in the last nine years, all she wanted was to save some money and settle down.

I told her I was currently parlaying a sense of purpose against the notion of my worth to the world, which she took to mean I was out of work and going nowhere.

"I once had a notion I was John F. Kennedy's bastard daughter," she said. "I even memorized the speech he gave up at the Whiskeytown dam. My mother was a maid at the Shasta Hotel, where he stayed. I used to say: September of '63 was nine months before I was born."

"That's a good story," I said. "It ought to be true."

"My mother was a looker," Lindsay said. "She did a Folgers Crystals spot some years ago. Picture a pretty, soft-jawed brunette with green eyes and slender hands. She was just the type you'd want to have instant coffee with."

"Like you," I said.

"Like me."

Lindsay lived alone in a rough-cut split-level north of town. The house edged a jack pine brake on the husk of a little airport, where the bench began to ratchet up and affiliate with the canyon buttes.

Standing in the sunken living room before the open patio doors, I had the sudden dizzy feeling that Skeevy had set all of this up and was hunkered out there in the dark watching me put the moves on Lindsay.

"For too long this water ran unused to the sea," Lindsay intoned. We'd smoked a joint while she regaled me with snippets of Boston brogue--JFK at his mid-term best, talking pep into those who'd asked not.

"Is that all you remember?"

"No. We can fulfill our responsibilities to ourselves, and to those who depend upon us."

"That's right," I said.

"Listen," Lindsay said. "I don't know if you plan on sticking around or what, but I could use a little intimacy right now."

"Not here," I said. "Somewhere else in the house."

I watched her turn a corner, trailing her fingers on the wall for balance, and I faced the patio doors and brought my hand up and raised the middle finger. Deep in the house a tap opened and shuddered the pipes--Lindsay getting ready for quote, intimacy.

Ben Jahn was born--the second of six--and raised in Humboldt County, California. He has worked as a house painter, teacher, backcountry guide, and pear shed foreman. He is the recipient of a Fred Chappell Fellowship from The University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and a Friends of English Grant and an Englund Fellowship from the University of California, Davis, where he earned his MA. His short fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, McSweeney's, The Greensboro Review, Torpedo, The Santa Monica Review, and Sierra Songs & Descants. He is nearly finished with a book of stories called North of What Matters. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his partner and her two children.

Photo by Chela Richheimer

Author's Statement

I am humbled. This is a profound honor and a great opportunity. I would like to express my appreciation to the panelists who ratified my work. When Chloey called, I was standing in a windswept junior college parking lot under humming solar arrays. Next time you see a man cover his cell phone mouthpiece, shout, and sit down shaking in the dirty median, think: it's the best possible news. Now I'll have the money, the time, to travel around in the mountain towns where I set my novella, to gauge the landscape and the light. I feel a year of hard work coming on. I'll see you all in 2011.