NEA Literature Fellowships

Aaron Thier

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(2016 - Prose)

from Mr. Eternity

For breakfast the ancient mariner fried sweet plantains in the kitchen shed at the back of the yard. There was no coffee, but he offered us a thick milky liquid called po, which he said was much stronger. Azar drank some out of a little tin cup and professed himself a changed man. I had a little sip, just a sip, and I felt like an angel had sneezed in my face. We were at a loss.

“Well,” said Azar. “Do you remember the invention of chewing gum?”

“First only clove-flavored gum,” said the ancient mariner, “and then cinnamon. Spices! But you have to understand what they meant to us. We sailed around the world, half of us were murdered by Turks, and all for these spices. Today no one remembers and gum comes in a bright envelope that you close with a little flap. You buy it for a nickel or I don’t know, fifty dollars, and you chew it and you stroll around and you feel like the Soldan of Aden.”

“The Soldan of Aden,” I repeated.

“And pepper is so cheap that they give it away in paper packets!”

He gestured forcefully as he spoke. He jerked his head around and bounced on his heels. He had enormous hands, teeth like old ivory, a smile that creased up his face like a baseball mitt. From certain angles he was still a handsome man.

“If you could take one item back with you to the sixteenth century,” Azar said, setting the camera on the table in front of him, “what would it be? Would you take malaria medication?”

“I had malaria for a hundred years,” said the ancient mariner, “all through the seventeenth century.

Aaron Thier was born in Baltimore and raised in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He is the author of two novels: The Ghost Apple, a semifinalist for the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor, and Mr. Eternity, which will be published in August 2016. He writes a column for Lucky Peach and he is a regular contributor to The Nation.

Photo by Sarah Trudgeon

Author's Statement

My fiscal plan for the spring consisted of hoping that a shoebox of cash would arrive in the mail, but I never did think that the shoebox was real and that news of its arrival would come by telephone, and when I started getting calls from a D.C. number, I assumed that it was the Health Insurance Marketplace. Grateful though I am to the Health Insurance Marketplace, I ignored them. The only reason I picked up the phone a week later was that I suddenly began to fear that our 2016 health coverage was not squared away after all. But it wasn’t the Health Insurance Marketplace. Instead it was the NEA notifying me that a shoebox of cash would be arriving in the mail.

This gift, which feels unprovoked and wildly generous, fills me with joy and hope and love, and I am deeply grateful for it, and for the vote of confidence. The money arrives just ahead of a baby and it means that my wife and I can buy the things we need and I can work on my new novel, which is about a young couple who can’t afford to buy the things they need, aren’t sure if their health coverage is squared away, decide to have a baby anyway, and are chased across America by the Old Testament god.