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Letters About Literature National Winners 2006

National Winner, Level 3: Martha Park

To J. D. Salinger,

This city needs a soft place to fall as much as I need a soft place to lay my head. These wide streets glitter sadly, beer bottles casting out lonesome rays under the soft glow of streetlights. Down the road a man stumbles out of a bar, howling with laughter as lonely and meaningless as these streets.

I think of you as I walk, cold and clutching a sketchbook and a marker. I think of Holden Caulfield, too, as the lost innocence of this city that bears down on me and that he would understand. Holden to me is a sort of unlikely saint. He is a saint of roller-skate skinny little girls and ducks in winter and corny piano players.

I know he would be sad, too, if he could turn the corner with me and if he could feel this long, cold street shudder as an eight-year-old street kid flips himself around and around, slow motion, his hands and feet meeting the cobblestone ground with a dull thud on each round. His older brother passes a yellow plastic bucket through the crowd of shivering onlookers.

The small boy twists and turns through the air, his eyes shut tight. As he passes by me, I think I can almost hear him singing, "If a body catch a body coming through the rye."

When the bucket gets around to me, I stuff a few meaningless bills in among the others. They're all I have to show for my stumbling empathy and I turn my back and continue walking, the concrete pounding with my head as behind me the boy continues to fly through the air. A child who here can never stay a child skips ahead of me down the curb past the dirty graffiti covered walls that are his hateful education.

This city is dead weight waiting for a transformation. It is heavy, like Allie's left-handed baseball glove covered in poems, and Sunny's green dress in the closet. This city is a sad collection of lights and empty laughter in opaque glass bottles on the side of the road. This city is running fast towards the edge of a cliff. This is a city in need of a Holden Caulfield.

If there's one thing I've learned from your words through Holden it's to be true to whom I am. I don't want to be counted in Holden's long list of 'phonies,' of Ossenburger's and Sally Haye's and Robert Ackley's. Holden awakened me in me a sense of responsibility for these awkwardly crumbling souls and streetlights and sidewalks.

Tonight, turning to look at the walls covered in scrawled angry messages to those retaining a bit of hope, I think of you and your Holden. Uncapping my marker, I look carefully for a space on the wall, and when I find it, I leave my own message: Holden Caulfield was here. And he is. He's in me and he's in this city and he's in the healing that must take place here. Thank you for him.

Martha Park
Memphis, Tennessee