When Maryrose Flannigan called from the NEA, I dropped all the papers I was holding and sat down. I may have cried, too, which is probably a good indication of how I feel about receiving this grant. I was and still am humbled, shocked, honored, and immensely grateful. "This changes everything," I told my husband after thanking Maryrose for the tenth time. "Maybe," he said. "But you're the same writer you were fifteen minutes ago." He was right, sort of. But still, there's nothing like that kind of good news.
My project proposal was to finish a collection of short stories about the aftermath of Katrina, the hurricane that took away my parents' home and wiped out the town of Pass Christian, Mississippi. This NEA grant will fund time for me to finish the collection. Then I will begin research, travel, and work on a new novel.
Thank you NEA and distinguished judges for honoring my work with this award. I am so very grateful for receiving this Fellowship.
From the short story "The Aftermath Lounge"
As he approached the Zimmers' house, Catch saw the girl in the bikini coming up the beach with a plastic bag full of clothes in one hand, and a dog, a black Rotweiller, following menacingly at her ankles. She looked like a zombie out of some old horror movie, walking slow and steady with her arms out in front of her. She should have kept on that way, but she panicked and ran, and then the dog leaped, and she was down, the dog straddling her chest, going for her face and neck.
Catch stopped his truck in the middle of the highway, got out, and ran to the girl. He kicked the sweet Jesus out of that dog. He kicked it hard in the ribs with the toe of his boot, and it let out a yelp and backed up but didn't go away. When Catch bent to help the girl up, the dog came charging.
Catch could see only its teeth and eyes and broad chest and black cinderblock head. There was a powerful smell of dog crap, piss, and dead animal. Catch kicked the dog again, harder this time, aiming for the chest, and with a whimper the dog fell back.
"Can you stand up?" Catch said to the girl, his eyes still on the dog. He heard her moan, and from the corner of his eye he saw her rise, then fall back down. Clutching the plastic bag to her chest, she whispered, "Help me," as if she didn't want the dog to hear.
He backed over to her and picked her up in his arms. The dog growled and bared its teeth as Catch walked away with the girl.
"Yeah, that's right," he said to the dog. "I'm leaving with supper."
A high moan emerged from the bloody, sand-covered girl in his arms.
When Catch got to his truck, he put her in and shut the door. The dog followed close, sniffing the ground where Catch had walked, licking the blood that had dripped from the girl.
Catch turned his key in the ignition, and the dog trotted to the highway, lifted its hind leg, and pissed on the asphalt, as if to say, This is my highway, my beach. Any other time, Catch would have laughed, but now he wished he had a gun.
The girl's ankles were bleeding, and the dog had bit her forehead. She shook and cried and whispered over and over, "Thank you. Thank you."
"I'm taking you to a FEMA tent in town," he said. "You're going to be OK."
Catch felt as though his bones were being ground to bits each time he drove by the rows of army tents on Second Street. The sight put him in what he called his "Vietnam mode." He pulled up next to a tent with a red cross on it and helped the girl inside. Right away a fat, pale medic came to them, snapped on his gloves, and started cleaning the girl up, dabbing at her wounds with antiseptic. None were so deep that she'd need stitches. She'd had a recent tetanus shot, she said, right after the storm, when they were giving them out for free. She said that the dog hadn't looked rabid, but who knew? They gave her the first shot anyway.
She was small-boned and thin, but not frail, maybe in her thirties, with big eyes and freckles across her nose. Her lips were badly chapped. There was a tattoo of the sun on her right forearm, and her eyebrow was pierced.
"It's good y'all's trees are coming back," she said to the medic.
All around them the army green canvas walls flapped in the breeze. Catch eyed the needles and syringes and the bottles of pills in the medic's box.
Martin Ladnier, a policeman Catch knew came to ask the girl questions. She whispered her name: Mary Cunningham. When he asked her address, she said, "My house is gone. I live in my car."
The medic wrapped her ankles while Martin talked into the walkie-talkie strapped to his shoulder. He and Catch knew each other from back when Catch had been married to Norma and she'd gotten into trouble with drugs and run off with her dealer. Catch asked Martin what the hell they planned to do about that dog, and Martin said animal-rights volunteers were quarantining stray dogs.
"That dog bit her ankles to get her down," Catch said. "Then he went at her head. That was an attack." The wind was picking up, making the tents flap louder. "That dog's hungry and mean, and it's gonna kill someone."
"Come on now, Catch," Martin said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "All this mess would drive any animal to madness -- or maybe to bite at a pretty girls' legs." He winked.
Catch mumbled, "The hell."
The girl named Mary Cunningham stood carefully, then sure and straight. The medic gave her a handful of "samples" -- pills packed in neat rows of plastic and foil -- and told her to take one whenever she felt any pain. As he said this, he looked at Catch. The medic reminded her the pills were for medical use only.
Margaret McMullan is the author of six novels including Cashay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), When I Crossed No-Bob (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), How I Found the Strong (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), In My Mother's House (Picador, 2004), and Sources of Light (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). Her work has appeared in Glamour, the Chicago Tribune, National Geographic for Kids, Southern Accents, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, The Southern California Anthology, Mississippi Magazine, Other Voices, Boulevard, the Pinch, Lost Magazine, Our Stories, and The Sun among several other journals and anthologies such as Christmas Stories from the South's Best Writers. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Evansville, in Evansville, Indiana, where she's working on a collection of stories and a new novel. Visit her website: www.margaretmcmullan.com.
Photo by Pat O'Connor