Recently I met one of my writing heroes, Pico Iyer. He had just finished speaking about his recent book, and he was seated at a table, chatting easily as one by one, people opened books for him to sign. I was at the end of a very long line, so long that a couple of interns appeared to take down the banner before I reached the table.
Mr. Iyer knew my sister and half-recognized me. We spoke briefly and he wondered, as he signed my book, if I write full-time. For a moment I did not know how to answer; my head was full of the dozens of things I do in a day that aren't writing. I did not even say the obvious thing, which is that I teach. Instead I remembered an essay he wrote, The Joy of Quiet, in which he considers "the urgency of slowing down to find the time and space to think." I thought of how unquiet my life could be, which perhaps led me to mention my small daughters. He smiled kindly. Clearly not writing full-time, then.
The real answer is that for the first time, with the support of this grant, I can begin to shape a life with writing at its center, not pushed to the margins of other jobs and obligations. I am deeply grateful that it has come just at the time when my own work seems to be clamoring for more time and space. And deeply encouraged to find myself in the company of such extraordinary writers. This is an honor that will last far beyond the years of the grant itself, and I'm thankful to the NEA, the staff of the literature division, and everyone who fights to protect funding for the arts.
Excerpt from The Luminous Mysteries
Believe what you will, Easter Almeida never intended this: startled wide-awake in the glare of mid-morning with the Virgin Mary beside her in bed. Before she had blinked away the first shock of light, before she had reached for her spectacles or turned to face her bedfellow, she heard a mild cough and looked up to see her husband Frank in the doorway. He cleared his throat again, his version of a greeting. Then he folded his arms and waited, as though after fifty-eight years of marriage he'd taken a sudden interest in what she had to say.
"Drink some water, for heaven's sake." Essie put a hand to her own dry throat and looked to her bedside table. In her exertions the night before, she had forgotten a glass for herself but she was not yet ready to move. Dust tumbled slowly in the channels of light from the window, drifting toward the Virgin. She lay in perfect repose, her chalk-rose cheeks cool and shadowed, her raised hands dipping into a shaft of light as though into water. Essie tried to think only of the glowing presence in bed beside her, but some mystical possibility had vanished, some communion she and Mary might have shared. Frank had blundered into a significant moment and rendered it ridiculous with his yellowed undershirt and mindless cough. His hair drifted up like the whites of eggs put to boil and his feet were bare, but he had pulled on his slacks and was patting the pockets, one after the other, a stupid fumbling. She knew what was coming.
"I can't seem to find -- " he looked up. "Have you been going through my trousers?"
"And what would I find in your trousers?" She did not worry about Frank's response to her sharpness, but she did glance at the statue. Essie was an educated woman, a teacher whose former students still sent admiring cards at Christmas, a devout Catholic. She did not worship icons or idols; she understood full well that the statue was only a statue. But see there, she might have said to a real companion -- a friend, or her daughter Marian, if Marian had not abandoned Essie years ago to marry an American -- just see Mary's face! A person of sympathy would have discerned exactly what Essie saw: the gentle reproach in the set of the statue's eyes and mouth.
Frank, of course, saw nothing. He was bent down, peering beneath the bed as though money had rained down from the mattress. Essie felt the helplessness of her position, driven to sharpness and anger against her will. What, what, what? she fretted, not quite to the statue but to Mary herself, always close at hand. What to do with such a man? She willed Mary to see the scarred wooden tables at the gymkhana where men gathered to play cards, the piles and piles of bills her husband had lost there over the years. She imagined them stacked into towers and trembling beneath the soft-moving fans of the portico. And now Frank wandered about the house, soft in the head and still playing the injured party. Surely Mary realized.
"How am I to know where you've put your money, Frank?"
He did not respond properly, only patted his pocket again with a worried glance toward the bathroom. "You think it's fallen somewhere?"
"Is that all you have to say?" Essie pulled herself up against a pillow. Encounters with her husband seldom failed to disappoint, but after all their years together, a new day could still bring fresh aggravation. His mind was fogged -- very well, what to do? -- but just see him there, frowning in the doorway and nattering on about his ten thousand without a glance at Mary. A moment ago, Essie had regretted his sudden appearance -- she'd had no warning, no chance to cover the statue with a blanket, no private moment to take stock of what she had done. The statue, she'd thought, would be laid bare to her husband's hopelessly secular curiosity. Mary would not need to be reminded how often he used to doze in the family pew.
But Essie had not considered that anyone, even Frank, could be capable of overlooking the statue. This inattention rankled, a slight she felt on Mary's behalf as well her own, and proof of just those qualities in her husband's character that upset her most. How blind he could be! How neglectful, how bound up in his own concerns, how spiritually bereft! She did not know if she could explain why she had brought Mary to her bed -- an impulse so difficult to describe that the story of all her days might not suffice. Yet it was intolerable not to be asked.
"Go back to bed, Frank. Go dream of your money."
Usually, he'd have lashed back. But he only looked up, a mild, milky glance as at last his eyes came to rest on Mary. She lay in what had once been his place, before he moved to his own narrow bed in the room his grown sons left empty. His eyes narrowed; she could not read his frown. Essie felt an unexpected current of anticipation; it had been decades since she'd wondered what her husband might say next.
"Something's there," he said in the same way he might point out a smudge on Essie's cheek, a seed in her teeth -- as though the mother of God in bed beside her had escaped her notice. Before she could object, he turned and shambled away.
Nalini Jones is the author of the story collection, What You Call Winter (Knopf, 2007). Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, Elle India, Ontario Review, and Esquire (The Napkin Project), among other publications, and she has contributed essays to Freud's Blind Spot, an anthology about siblings (2010), and AIDS Sutra, an anthology about the HIV crisis in India (2008). She was a Stanford Calderwood Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, and taught creative writing at the 92nd Street Y and Columbia University. She has also worked for several years in music production, most notably for festivals and concert series in New York, Newport, and New Orleans. Currently, Jones teaches in the graduate writing program at Fairfield University and is at work on a novel set in India.
Photo by Douglas Mason