For some years now, I've lived my life with a cast of characters in my head, the members of a down-on-its-luck medicine show traveling through southern Pennsylvania in the summer following the end of World War I. Some of their stories came to me in the brief snatches of time I could take away from teaching, but most were born in the time and space afforded me by generous grants from my county and state arts councils. This National Endowment for the Arts fellowship will give me the freedom to finally finish my novel-in-stories and, perhaps, begin another project, and I am deeply grateful for the support.
From the short story "Sympathy"
When Ephraim awakens, it is to yelling. Shouting so loud it shakes his bones, and the rumble of truck engines all around, including the truck whose bed he has slept in.
But why is the engine running? His truck is one that remains parked on the showgrounds night and day. He looks out to see the old roustabout beckoning to him, the same one who kept the others at bay when they discovered him that first day. The man is waving a slack arm at him.
He crawls out and stands in the daylight. What he sees makes his head swim. The field is empty, no sign of the stage and tents. There is only trampled grass, a few muddy spots. Ephraim whips his head around. The motor bus is just pulling into the road, and behind it cars and trucks are stirring to follow.
"Mr. Conger says you're to stay put," the roughneck, a thin man with a scrim of red hair, says, and swings himself up into the truck.
"Stay til when?" Ephraim asks.
The man disappears into the canopied bed without answering, and Ephraim finally understands. He's being left behind. They're not taking him along.
The wind goes out of him, as if he is dropping off a mountain. It's too soon, too soon for them to leave - but nobody ever told him the day, ever said exactly when Doc Bell's Miracles and Mirth show would once again take to the road.
He whirls around, looking for the car he knows better than any other. It is near the front of the caravan, and even running full out, Ephraim cannot reach it until it is on the dirt road already. He runs along beside it, yelling to Miss Antoinette, whom he can see through the side window in her big, black hat. She will want him to come. He knows it.
She stares ahead.
"Miss Antoinette!" he yells. "Wait for me! Let me in!"
She looks at him. Then she turns her eyes away from him, back to the road. She doesn't lean forward to tell the driver to stop, doesn't open the door so he might jump in. The car begins to pull away from him, and all he can see is the dark cloud of her hat through the back window of the motor car.
He falls in the dirt, scrambles up, and chases the car again, yelling and screaming in a way that tears at his throat. He falls back from her car and white and Negro faces alike watch him from the windows of other vehicles, grinning and laughing at him. He stumbles and falls again, but this time Ephraim doesn't get up as the caravan rumbles past him, one by one, until there is nothing but a quiet Pennsylvania day around him, only billows of road dust and his pounding heart to remind him there was ever anything else at all.
"Sympathy" first appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Volume 11, Number 2, Summer/Fall 2006.