My call from the NEA came while I was at a reading with my high school students; I'd kidnapped them for the day (with permission) to hear Daniel Wallace read from a work in progress at UNC-Chapel Hill. Before the reading started, while my students peeked at college students and the other writers I'd pointed out to them, I was thinking about the struggle I always have with my own works in progress: making time, as a public school teacher, to write in a sustained and sustainable way. But then the reading began, and I was transported, with the rest of them, into the world of fiction and the pleasure of hearing someone read aloud. Daniel's story was about a character who has received an award while strangely, nothing in his life changes.
My phone was silenced when the call came through; I didn't even look at it until after school, when it was too late to get someone on the phone easily. I can tell you that I called and called. I can also say with confidence -- and gratitude! -- that my life changed a great deal from the moment I was able to confirm -- still disbelievingly! -- that the NEA was offering me this award. It changed not only because I have been able to carve out precious time for writing, but also because of the sense of affirmation and responsibility it's given me.
Since finding out about the award, I've played a kind of game on the NEA website. I'll think of a writer I admire, and I'll do a search of his or her name in the list of past fellows. Edward P. Jones? Yes. Kay Ryan? Yes. Joy Williams, Lydia Davis, Jayne Anne Phillips? Yes, yes, and yes. I'm awed to see my name near the names of these writers, and I'm grateful, as a reader, that the support has been there to nurture books that have influenced, sustained, and transported me.
From "Imperial Chrysanthemum"
Mrs. Cutie Young lives in two rooms and drives a 1982 Ford Country Squire with the wood stickers peeling off, but her silverware collection used to be worth thirty thousand dollars. I say used to because three weeks ago it was stolen right off the mahogany breakfront while she was out. I also should qualify that her house has plenty of rooms she isn't using, and it is not Cutie Young who drives the Ford but me, her nurse. I do not know why Cutie has a nurse, or why, for that matter, people call her Cutie. She's mean and stubborn and takes a long time in the toilet but other than that there's nothing much wrong with her.
I drive her to the Food Lion, to Aylett to go to the doctor, and lately to antique stores and pawn shops to look at silver asparagus servers and ice tongs and oyster forks and what all, glinting pieces of metal as lacy and useless as doilies. The State Farm man offered her the thirty thousand, or to replace what she had with new pieces, but the new pieces don't approach in quality -- it's all hollowware now -- and besides, her pieces were not monogrammed but had her married name, Young, written out whole in scripty letters. They came down four generations of Youngs. The pattern is called Imperial Chrysanthemum.
It has a bumpy, spiny surface that hurts your hand to hold and is a royal pain in the ass to polish. They don't make it anymore, though they make plenty just as tacky.
Maybe simplify, I told Cutie, picking up a simple Revere pattern with plenty of room for her name -- first and last. The insurance man had brought a whole suitcase of patterns from Richmond to show her. I wanted to open up the dining room for his visit, so he'd have a place to lay them out, but she said the sun porch was good enough for an insurance man. I don't know a soul who has been good enough for that dining room, or either of the living rooms, since I have worked here. That includes grandchildren, her son, his wife, and the minister. She won't let him in at all.
She shook her head. Ridiculous, she said, like I was suggesting she eat with plastic forks and knives, or with her toes. You criticizing my taste? No ma'am, I said, thinking, I'm criticizing your husband's great-greatsomebody's taste.
The Imperial Chrysanthemum was a beautiful pattern, said Mr. State Farm.
He had on a suit. It was so hot on the sun porch that I think he had armpit stains through the wool. One-of-a-kind, he said.
I had to admit it was true.
So we have been all over: to Tappahannock, to Deltaville and Urbanna and Richmond and Gloucester. Her idea is that she will find the set piece by piece at the shops. I say good luck.
Have I said that I have a good idea what happened to it? About a month ago my grandniece's husband and some others came and painted the sheds and outbuildings for Cutie. I let them in to use the bathroom -- just once, while Cutie was napping, but it was enough for them to get a look around. They took their time, I remember. The husband runs with a no-good crowd; I told Tamara as much myself and wasn't even the one to recommend them for the job. It was Horace, Cutie's son, that paid them to come over. I just looked out the window one morning, stirring coffee, and there they were. When the sheriff 's deputy came to ask questions, I didn't tell about letting them into the house. There has been a wave of juvenile-delinquent crime in the King William subdivisions -- white kids stealing from neighbors, joyriding cars. Rumors of drugs. I guess I was thinking: Go with that.
I'm old -- not as old as Cutie, but too old to get into this mess. I've been here eight months; I wear my own clothes to work, and I am here six days a week. My nursing degree came from the Medical College of Virginia. When I was younger I worked in the NICU at the hospital in Tappahannock. Holding all those babies, small and sweet as anything, made that my favorite time of life. Also my husband was alive then, and all my sisters. Now I work for Cutie to pay on my boat. It has a name -- Mattaponi Queen -- and a sleeping bunk and a ladder to a high perch where you can stand, and it needs a lot of work. It's a riverboat. I remember boats like that from when I was a little girl growing up nearby. They would go up and down the river like a floating wedding cake, always a party of white people drinking and waving their fans in the summertime.
Cutie's two rooms are the kitchen and the sunroom, where she has her daybed and her desk and two sitting chairs. There's a ceiling fan and a little table where I serve her a cold lunch, Monday through Friday, and an early hot supper. Saturday her daughter-in-law brings a lunch, or has her over to her house. On those days I drive her the half mile, listen to her complain the whole way, go back to my house for a while, then pick her back up. It's criminal the way her family won't drive her anywhere, though I can understand their reluctance. Sundays she fends for herself.
The rest of the house is quiet, the drapes drawn, some of the better furniture covered in bedsheets. I don't spend time in there for any reason, not to dust or sweep up the mouse droppings or wash the pollen-yellow windows. I am not a maid.
This morning, after I check her blood pressure, Cutie says, "We're going to Petersburg to look at some silver." "Petersburg," I say. "Hmmmf." "What hmmmf ?"
"I don't think the Squire will get us there," I say. "And I don't think we're gonna find your silver in Petersburg." "I have a feeling," she sniffs. I know what you are thinking: why doesn't that fool pick up the telephone? Her name is written on the silver. Well, the answer is that her name isn't on some of the serving pieces; the pattern's too crowded. Also, Cutie doesn't trust anyone. "I have a strong feeling we will find something."
In another six months I will have enough for the boat and its repairs, and I will quit. When I get that boat working it will not be for any parties. It will be just for me.
("Imperial Chrysanthemum" from Mattaponi Queen. Copyright © 2010 by Belle Boggs. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, MN. www.graywolfpress.org)