NEA Literature Fellowships

Andrew Brininstool

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from At Home with the Brković's

After the divorce was finalized and my wife Lorraine lit out for Santa Fe in the company of a man much older than she, a man who very closely resembled a stick bug masquerading as C. Everett Koop, I found myself alone in our old house craving noise, sound, the more discordant the better. Lorraine and I had always complained that the house we’d purchased was too big. Now with her gone I felt as though I occupied a yawning chasm better suited for wildmen or freaky pale invertebrates comfortable in subterranean isolation. I tried to quell the need for noise by playing Charles Mingus records at high volume and getting schnockered on mint juleps. Nothing helped.

Now it is summer, and much has changed.

For the past six weeks the image greeting my waking mind is that of a Serbian in my backyard, a .45 automatic tucked into the lip of his Speedo. This is no half-dream, no fugue vision. It is as tangible as your big toe.

It is 8:15 in the morning, and The Queen Is Dead blares from a janky boom box sitting on an Adirondack chair near my swimming pool. The Serb, whose name is Pavle Brković, is not alone. Along with Pavle are his wife Svetlana and their six children—all boys. Brković also has with him his brother in-law, whose name I cannot pronounce; Somebody Who Is Possibly a Cousin; a woman so elderly her face has taken on the topography of a deflated basketball. Since late April, the Brković clan has developed a routine: they arrive punctually each morning and slather themselves in Banana Boat. The stereo begins. The brother in-law avails himself the use of my outdoor grilling station and lays flanks of goat meat across the fire. Pavle’s six hellions chase each other around the edge of the pool; they dive in, splash, shout, spit, punch, tug, cry, piss. The old woman sits nearly motionless in swaddling linens and religious headgear, a toothless grin on her face. Somebody Who Is Possibly a Cousin is constantly shouting into a Razr cell-phone; something about this man screams Arms Dealer. Svetlana stretches her long body out on a lounger, her dark legs brutally attractive save for killer bunions on each of the knuckles of her toes. And there is Pavle in all of this, all six feet two inches of him cut from stone, the look of a conqueror in his eyes.

This man hates my guts.

 

Andrew Brininstool’s first short story collection, Crude Sketches Done in Quick Succession, is forthcoming from Queen’s Ferry Press. A graduate from the MFA Program at the University of Houston, his work has appeared in Barrelhouse, Hobart, Third Coast, the Tin House blog, and Best New American Voices 2010. He has received both the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award from Mid-American Review and the Editors’ Prize from /nor. He teaches in the BFA program at Stephen F. Austin State University and is seeking representation for his first novel.

Photo by Chelsea Crafton

Author's Statement

In my experience, receiving a call from the 202 area code augurs only two possible outcomes: you’re about to receive a bit of good news, or you’re about to owe some scary people money. I was overjoyed to hear the voice of Amy Stolls on the end of the line, informing me that I’d received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Amy asked if I’d been called by a local or state senator—if I’d been congratulated by a representative. I told her I lived in Texas. So, no.

I was glad it was Amy, somebody who cares deeply for writing. She knew—and knows—what this grant means to those on the receiving end.

What it means is this:

I’d sent in a proposal for my next project, a nonfiction novel about the 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, the most violent uprising in American history (although a lot of people have never heard of it), and yet the work I’d sent to the NEA as a sample, a bit from a current project, has a lot of humor in it. Amy wondered how I could enmesh the two. “That’s the tricky thing,” I told her.

Artists need to go after the tricky thing. They need to make themselves uncomfortable. It’s not enough to be a relief pitcher, walking out to the mound with your trademark fastball. It’s important to test yourself, especially at the points where you are most weak. Gosh. Now I sound like a baseball coach.

Aside from allowing me time to research the riot and to travel, what the grant does is free/force myself toward strengthening my weaknesses. I could not be more grateful for such an opportunity.