NEA Literature Fellowships

Paul Reyes

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(2010 - Prose)

From the memoir Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession

After a couple of weeks and no response from the owner on Hillsborough Lane, Mena's cash-for-keys offer there was off the table. The time had come for eviction. Arrangements were made, the sheriff posted a note, and a couple of days later we arrived to follow through.

Eviction is a worst-case scenario for good reason. The sheriff is steeled and armed for this kind of thing. We are not, nor are we eager to act as muscle for Citibank or Ocwen or Countrywide. And yet, by default, that is exactly what we do when we arrive with the sheriff on eviction day, waiting for an owner to be escorted off his property so he can watch us set his belongings on the curb.

I had worked only one eviction prior to this, during my first stint, in '98. I was changing the front door lock when the owner snuck up behind me, after I thought he had left, shuffling along the concrete walk and with his hand outstretched. I wasn't sure exactly what was in it, and maybe he saw I was startled, because he paused, and shook a set of keys, and apologized about surprising me like that--but would I be interested in buying his car, a rusted-out Oldsmobile on blocks in the driveway? Six hundred? I said thank you, thank you, but no, I didn't really need it, and the disappointment merely flitted across his face before he turned and walked off, not upset or saddened but thinking, it seemed, about his next move, and ever so humble, a humility that infuriated me for holding the lock that shut him out of his own house, a job I finished in a nervous sweat.

My father, on the other hand, has witnessed much worse. Mena, heeding a strange premonition, had come along with the crew one eviction day, which she'd never done before, and as they approached the house, they weighed giving the owner more time. But the sheriff insisted, and knocked. A middle-aged man answered and seemed unsurprised at the news; he asked for just a moment to retrieve a few things. He ducked back inside and to the bedroom, where he sat on the edge of the bed, put a pistol in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

This time, it was a cold-snap morning. Hector was home with a bad toe, and the job was left to the three of us--Ismael, my father, and me. With Ismael at five feet and ninety pounds, and my father's vertebrae just waiting to disable him, that meant I was the muscle if anything should go down. So the odds were against us. We arrived early and parked up the street. A jackhammer rattled a few blocks away; the interstate sighed. We walked through the gate and across the yard, over the chain that snaked and hooked to the buried dumbbell, past the empty plywood doghouse, and up to the door.

My father whispered, "What do you think?"

Ismael, somewhat oblivious, opened the screen door as if to get started.

"No, no, no, no," my father said. Ismael read a sign on the door: "Be-ware of de doch." "Esperemos por el sheriff," my father told him, and we moved away from the door.

"Why don't we just knock?" I said, irritated by both the weather and the suspense. "Because he will," my father said of the sheriff. "We don't want to get shot. He has a gun. We don't."

"Mi madre, qué frío!" Ismael said.

I felt a pinch on my ankle and slapped at it, and saw Ismael slapping at his own leg, and noticed my father, too, reaching for his shin, and all of a sudden we realized that fleas, starving, were beginning to feast on us. Within seconds, it felt like we were walking through a skillet of popping grease.

The sheriff arrived to find us all with our pants rolled up, bending groggily up and down in a sort of scratching calisthenics. He laughed. "I walked in there to stick the notice up the other day and they just crawled all over me," he said, passing by us into the yard. He was tall and pale and didn't look especially athletic or even all that tough. He was rather pear-shaped, really, but he was cold-tempered, and didn't seem like the kind of fellow who repeated himself too often.

His knock was loud and simple, with a short salutation: "Sheriff 's office. Eviction." We waited ten seconds. "All right," he said, "go do your thing."

My father kneeled at the door and shoved the flathead on the shaft, slipped the scraper in, pried, and it was that easy, door open.

"Very good," the sheriff said, slightly impressed, and he slipped into a darkness backlit by a kitchen window, veiled in gossamer, and splotched with shadows as the sun crawled through branches, then through the curtains, to just barely touch the dull linoleum. A dank warm funk wafted out as he moved around inside. He took less than a minute.

We followed him inside, adjusting to the lack of light, creeping past an enormous television that blocked the front window. All we could make out at first were shadowy mounds and piles, and then I could see the short distance to the kitchen and noticed white plastic jumbo cups scattered across the counter, dishes piled up, cabinets flung open, and suddenly saw why, despite the open front door, the light failed in here: the walls, once white, were leopard-spotted in black and green. My father passed me with his camera and began clicking, and the brief pulse of the flash snapped the rooms into view. The deeper we waded toward the back, the more rancid the air became. There were boxes half packed in the bedrooms, amid standing fans and clothes and papers on the floor, amid unshaded lamps, giant stuffed tigers, framed photos of babies and other loved ones, lightbulbs, stuffed sheep, Bibles, boxes of mothballs and red high heels, portraits of panthers, a typewriter stuffed with neckties. It was as if in the preparation for escape, the thoughts had piled up and suffocated the mind.

The fleas were incredible. We were being devoured by them. We didn't know it then, but it would take four attacks with several gallons of poison to destroy them, an exhausting discovery each time we returned ready to work, and each time realizing, not ten steps onto the property, that another wave of bloodsuckers had hatched. For now, we were simply relieved to have avoided a confrontation.

Paul Reyes is the former editor-at-large of The Oxford American magazine and currently a contributing editor with Virginia Quarterly Review. In addition to those publications, his writing has appeared in Harper's, Slate, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Times, the Saint Anne's Review, and the Mississippi Review. In addition, his work has been anthologized in the Best American Magazine Writing series. His first book, Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida’s Great Recession, will be published in 2010 by Henry Holt & Co.

Photo by Ellen Brownlee

Author's Statement

A writer tackling a first book doesn't have a clue what will be required of him to actually get it done, no matter what he tells an agent or an editor, his loved ones or even himself. And his discovery of what it takes isn't necessarily a happy one, either. Rather, the first book becomes a monastic lesson in commitment, to be repeated if he's lucky.

Worse, the commitment is saddled with worry. In my case, because my book involves a good amount of research and extensive travel--into Florida, throughout Florida, through archives and into the swamp, expenses beyond the hours needed to write and revise--my deepest worry has been whether I'd be able to do the book at all. (Even "worry" sounds too mild; "panic" might be more appropriate.) Certainly, grants and fellowships won't remove all the worries that come with writing a first book. But this fellowship, as generous as it is, slays the biggest worry among them: it allows me the opportunity to aggressively chase my story down. It's nothing short of a federal blessing.

I use the word "federal" with great affection here (and this from a skeptic). For while it may be obvious why the fellowship means so much on a practical level, the fellowship is also a profound gesture of faith. That a federal institution recognizes the importance of a writer's development, regardless of what he might contribute to the marketplace (saying, in essence, don't worry about the marketplace, just do the work), and, what's more, gives generously to that cause...this fact, for me, has provided a surprise emotion in addition to the peace of mind that comes with money, and the confidence that comes with national recognition. To my surprise, the fellowship has triggered an uninhibited sense of patriotism. And how often do skeptics, myself among them, get to enjoy such an unrestrained feeling? In government institutions, no less?

So while this book gets done, and as others follow if I'm lucky, I will always be profoundly grateful to the NEA for its support--and mindful, too, that, regardless of the political climate, our government and other government institutions go to great lengths--through lean times, especially--to support something as noble as the writer's ambition.