While standing in a bookstore trying to sort through all the new fiction, I've always used the mention of an NEA grant in a book's acknowledgements as a kind of screening tool. That an NEA panel - known for the quality of its members and for the impartiality of its judging process - has scrutinized the writer's work and found it noteworthy doesn't guarantee I'll like the pages that follow, but I've noticed it increases the chances. And now, if I ever finish another book, I'll be pleased to express my own gratitude to the NEA (and in the process perhaps tip off some other reader that the book might merit a further look). The money that comes with the grant is nice, of course, but, for me anyhow, the greater gift is the implicit validation the award presents.
From the short story "Watermelon Days"
One day when Monty was off at the station and Edna Arlene's shrill cries were like a strafing, Doreen wanted more than anything to clamp her hand over the baby's mouth and face but instead laid her down screaming among pillows on the floor. She went out on the front porch and closed the door, but the cries pierced the walls. She began to walk. When she reached the corner of 5th and Mulberry, she stood for a full minute meaning to go back, but didn't. Instead she walked the five blocks more to Wilkemeyers Drugs and bought a package of Lucky Strikes. When she thought the girl at the register was staring at her, she said, "The neighbor's watching my baby." Doreen made a little laugh. "That baby's a handful. It's awful nice to be out for a minute or two." She hurried back to the house, uphill, breathless, and was at first terrified when she heard nothing at all from the room where she'd left the baby. But Edna Arlene was nestled among pillows sleeping so calmly she seemed hardly to breathe. Doreen lay down on the floor beside the girl and on an impulse leaned close to lightly kiss her smooth forehead, which snapped Edna Arlene awake and started a fresh course of screaming.
By the second year the crying had somewhat abated. Edna Arlene would play quietly as long as Doreen or Monty was within eyeshot. And though the girl made syllable-like sounds, they didn't evolve into intelligible words. If she were hungry or otherwise needed something, she made a series of urgent guttural squeals that Doreen couldn't help but think of as piggish. When Doreen raised the subject with Monty, he was unalarmed. He said that he himself hadn't spoken until his fourth year and that big tongues ran in his family. "Big tongues?" Doreen said. She'd never heard of tongues hereditarily big. She considered writing Aggie about it, but instead took the girl to Dr. Murphy, who peered into Edna's mouth and, pinching the tip of the suspect tongue, waggled it side to side. Then she released it and said, "Well, it's good-sized all right." She smiled at the girl and turned to Doreen. "Your daughter will talk when she's ready. She might lisp and she might not, but in any case it's nothing to worry about." In all other ways, Dr. Murphy said, Edna Arlene was perfectly normal.
When Edna Arlene began to talk shortly before her fourth birthday, she did in fact lisp, which her father found endearing. He began to use it on the radio. After reporting, for instance, that the WPA boys were in town cleaning Marne Creek and widening Main Street, he said, "Well, as my baby daughter likes to say, 'Thank goodneth for mitha Woothevelt.'" Listeners responded favorably, and the observations Monty Longbaugh passed as his lisping daughter's soon became the standard closing element in his news summaries.
Edna Arlene liked hearing her father's voice on the radio, and enjoyed it when he talked in the funny lisping voice. One morning, at the end of the 11:30 market, weather and news, Monty Longbaugh said, "Well as my baby girl said just the other night, 'God muth not've been payin attenthin when he made up gwathhoppeth." Doreen, sitting smoking a cigarette, didn't laugh, but Edna Arlene did. Then she asked her mother why papa didn't bring that baby girl home to visit.
Doreen asked what baby girl she was talking about and Edna Arlene said the one on the radio that talks like that.
Doreen stared for a moment at Edna Arlene, then began to laugh. It had become a husky, hollow laugh, rattly, as if there were in her throat tiny dry leaves she couldn't expel. Edna Arlene's first five years had corresponded with drought and other assorted maladies. Hopper swarms defoliated fields and formed horny encrustments on the walls and porches of lighted houses. Whole herds of anthrax-infected cattle were shot and bulldozed into mass graves. Civic-minded hunters brought to the Red Cross blood-stained flour sacks weighted with rabbits for the hungry. Barbers gave free haircuts to those who couldn't pay, and the town's two banks consolidated. At night, tramps congregated around cookfires along the riverbank south of Burleigh Street. It was a life as distant from Philadelphia as Doreen could imagine. She said, "Edna Arlene, the girl your papa's imitating on the radio is you." She wanted to stop, but couldn't. "It's you everybody's laughing at.
Tom McNeal's short stories have appeared in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, Redbook, Zoetrope: All Story, and have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories. His novel, Goodnight, Nebraska was published by Random House and won the California Book Award for fiction and the James H. Michener Award for fiction. With his wife, Laura, he has co-written three young adult novels published by Knopf: Crooked, an ALA Top Ten Book, Zipped, winner of the PEN USA award for children's fiction, and Crushed, published in 2006. A fourth teen book is to be published in 2007.
Photo by Laura Rhotan McNeal