Writers' Corner

Barry Gifford

2010 Prose

Author's Statement

It is always gratifying to have the value of one's work recognized, no matter at what stage of one's life. Nobody tells the writer to write and any encouragement means everything. To say that I am grateful for the NEA award would be an understatement.

From the novel-in-progress, The Man Who Swallowed the World

Sid Roman, Roy's mother's first cousin, was a kind, handsome, intelligent man who dropped his marbles at the age of forty-six. Cousin Sid, as Roy and his mother and her brother, Buck, always referred to him, worked for many years as a clothing salesman, specializing in men's suits, at one of Chicago's most exclusive and expensive haberdasheries. This mode of employment lasted, as Roy's mother phrased it, "until Cousin Sid lost his looks."

Actually, Cousin Sid's loss of his looks coincided with the loss of his mind. One day Sid could not find the silver cigarette lighter with his initials inscribed on it, a gift from his wife, Norma, for his fortieth birthday, and he decided that he had swallowed it. Cousin Norma was an equally kind, intelligent woman, who was "high strung" (again, Roy's mother's words), with a history of nervous breakdowns. Cousin Norma, an unhealthily thin woman with stringy red hair, who chainsmoked unfiltered Chesterfields, told her husband that he must simply have misplaced the lighter.

"Look in the pockets of your charcoal suit jacket," she told Sid. "It's in the pile to go to the dry cleaners."

"I already did," he answered, and pointed to his neck. "Look at my throat. There's where my lighter is, I can feel it."

"That's your Adam's apple," said his wife.

"I'm going to the emergency room," said Cousin Sid, "to have it removed."

He walked out of the house and did not return until six months later, when he was released from the psychiatric ward at Pafko Hospital.

After this, Cousin Sid behaved normally for a while; although, as Roy's mother observed, his looks were gone. Before his breakdown, he had resembled the actor William Powell, except for his hair, which Sid wore slicked back in the style of the day, and was silver and thicker than Powell's. During his residence at Pafko Hospital, however, Cousin Sid's teeth went bad, resulting in his having quite a large number of them removed. This gave him the appearance of his cheeks having caved in. Also, his color had changed: no longer glowing and golden, his face was now bloodlessly pale, bordering on unearthly. His mustache was gone, too, exposing a wrinkled and shrunken or shriveled upper lip that no longer covered completely his front teeth, of which one was missing. For some reason, he could not grow his mustache back, freezing his mouth in an expression somewhere between a sneer and a contemptuous grin.

Cousin Sid lost his job at the clothing store. Norma supported them and their fifteen-year-old son, Larry, who was disabled by polio and confined to a wheelchair, by working as a secretary for a law firm. It was months before Sid found work at a discount shoe store on the south side of the city. The job required that he travel almost two hours on the elevated and two buses each way.

Four weeks after her husband began selling shoes, Norma received a call at the law office from the police informing her that Sid was in their custody at the Cottage Grove precinct. Sid had told a bus driver that he'd swallowed his transfer. When the driver ordered Sid to pay an additional fare, Sid refused, insisting that he was in possession of the transfer, it was in his stomach, and that he had also swallowed all of the money he'd had in his pockets so that it could not be stolen. The driver told him to get off the bus but Sid took a seat and would not get up. The driver then radioed for the police, who came and removed him forcefully. Following this incident, Cousin Sid became convinced that he had swallowed everything from kitchen utensils to clocks, and Norma had him committed to an asylum in Indiana run by a non-denominational organization called Angels of Victims of Unfathomable Behavior.