After publishing my novel, The Wishing Box, and giving birth to my son, I had the insane and impractical idea of writing a series of short stories about the relationship between caregivers and their charges, particularly parents and children. Insane, because I have always been a long-form writer, and writing short stories required me to convert from a marathoner into a sprinter. Impractical, because everyone knows that you're supposed to follow a short story collection with a novel, not the other way around. But writing is supposed to be about taking risks, and I am immensely grateful to the NEA for supporting me in my foolishness. As a novelist, I've had much to learn about craft of short-story writing, and the Creative Writing Fellowship has allowed me to immerse myself in the genre, endlessly distilling until I had achieved the sharp focus these small narratives demand. Over the past year, I have often thought how lucky I was to have had time not only to write but also to make mistakes – to discover I was writing the wrong story, the wrong way, hit the delete key, and start again. The story collection, A Detour on the Way to the World, is now nearly complete. I can say unequivocally that it could not have been written without the Endowment's support. To have had, for the first time in my life, an entire year to work on fiction has been an incomparable gift. The financial support is miraculous, but the vote of confidence is even more profound. It is that vote of confidence which will sustain me long after the money runs out.
From the short story "Down With Her Hands"
Dante shrugged at her talking sometimes, rolled his eyes, asking, "Don't you ever quit?" But he never left the room the way Tyla and Tobias did when she got to talking. Afternoons after school he'd seek her out, sit in a chair next to her as she worked in the garden or the kitchen, and listen to her stories about taking the train to California in 1943, eight months pregnant with Celeste and Henry Jr. barely old enough to stand. Henry Sr. had gone ahead three months before to see if it really was the way people said it would be: lemons and oranges hanging from the trees and good-paying jobs for anybody that wanted them. By the time she got on the train to join him it seemed like half of Arkansas had come too, colored and white packed in together, the train was so crowded there was nowhere to sit down for the three days it took to get to Richmond. She made Dante laugh telling him how she fell asleep on her feet and would have fallen over if it wasn't for the man next to her who held her up with one hand and then the other, until both of his hands got pins and needles and he had to wake her up.
That was his boy self, the soft-eyed charmer he was born to be, bursting out from under the gangster pose like an unfolded umbrella. No one could say no to that smile, Ettie thought, no one with a heart, but she knew that someone must have or he wouldn't have learned to keep it hidden.
Her children complained now that she favored Dante over their children and grandchildren; Henry Jr. especially. "Why you always hovering around that boy like he the little lord Jesus?" he griped as she dropped two ears of corn on Dante's plate one Sunday dinner. "Boy too good to serve his own food?"
Afterwards, when Henry Jr. and his brood had gone home, Ettie told Dante not to mind his uncle. "Henry Jr.'s made a good life for himself, and I'm proud of him," she said. "But he lost the joy he had when he was a boy. Don't do you no good to have a fancy automobile and Nintendo and all that when you can't enjoy a homecooked meal with your family."
That was Henry Jr.'s way though, all fire and no sense. He'd driven down to Houston looking for Tyla after she left, never mind that none of them knew where she was living. He drove all night to get there, then drove around the city all day looking for her before driving home again. Then he was twice as angry as before he left, as if Tyla had been hiding from him on purpose. But Tyla had never had that kind of forethought. She was Ettie's late-in-life baby, born when Henry Jr. was almost graduated from high school. She'd been a dreamy, fat-cheeked child, so much younger than the others that they'd spoiled her stupid, carrying her around with them on their skinny hips as they roamed the neighborhood, filling her mouth with sweets. No wonder she'd grown up unsteady.
One afternoon Ettie found Dante on the phone and by the way his body curved around the receiver she knew who was on the other end. Tyla must have sobered up enough to feel sorry for leaving him behind, or maybe she was drunk enough to want to hear his voice. Ettie didn't ask and Dante didn't offer. From then on Tyla called every few weeks, usually collect. Ettie didn't like the mood it put Dante in to talk to her, but she minded her own business. Tyla was his mama, not her. She was just filling in.
Once Ettie dreamed that she was back in the shipyard, climbing up the ladder at the start of her shift, the welding lines slung over her shoulder. When she got on the deck, there was Tyla hard at work, sparks circling her like fireflies. "I'm glad to see you working," Ettie told her. "If you stay steady, you could put money away to buy yourself a nice place to live." But Tyla wouldn't talk to her, just lowered herself into the hold of the ship and put her torch to the seams. "Careful honey," Ettie called down. "Don't work too fast, it don't make sense." But by then Tyla had already fallen, bursting through the ship's steel skin and sinking to the bottom of the sea.
Dashka Slater is the author of a novel, The Wishing Box (Chronicle), which was named one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times. Her first two children's books, Baby Shoes (Bloomsbury Books) and Firefighters in the Dark (Houghton Mifflin), will be published in 2006. Slater is also an award-winning journalist whose book about Hollywood's portrayal of Alcatraz Island, Lights, Camera, Alcatraz!, was released in October 2005. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and son. Learn more about Dashka at www.dashkaslater.com
Photo by Nu Ho