NEA Literature Fellowships

Cornelia Read

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(2008 - Prose)

From the novel The Crazy School

Locals called this Wiffle-Head Mountain. A single peak tucked into the lush hills and canyons just west of Stockbridge, a baby Matterhorn that had drawn to itself all manner of seekers and lost boys, wild girls and pagan sprites - a century-long parade of Adult Children with enough cash to kick and wail against the trammels of age and responsibility, mortality and the scientific method.

Santangelo’s “therapeutic boarding school” was just one facet of the primary native industry.

There was the yoga center where you could pay a thousand dollars a week to subsist on watery juice and sleep on a mat no thicker than a dishtowel.

There were grand Georgian sanitariums that had dried out the country’s more artistic drunks and junkies, enough of whom stayed on to give the Berkshires a permanent bohemian foundation.

There was the detritus of untold communes and utopias - from the celibate Shakers, who’d died out through lack of breeding, to the wholly licentious latter-day acidheads who’d left behind nothing but their fleas and half-finished macramé plant-hangers and lawnsful of broken major appliances.

Then there was this place, its stone gates surmounted by an ineptly welded arc of steel butterflies, mascots fluttering along the school motto: “Free to Be.”

I pushed my un-tasted salad away and reached for the jug of fake coffee, suddenly exhausted.

Mindy put her arm around my shoulders.

“Are you going to talk to Sookie about your issues around food?” she whispered, sweetly.

“Are you going to talk to her about yours?” I whispered back, even more sweetly. “There’s probably some ice cream left.”

Even Mindy didn’t deserve that.

She jerked away, leaving fluffy pink angora lint all over my not-fluffy-at-all black sweater sleeve.

“Mindy,” I said. “I’m sorry. That was an asshole thing to say. I slept about three hours last night, and my stomach is just a goddamn nightmare. That’s no excuse, but I hope you can accept my apology.”

“I’ll accept your turn-in,” she said, “at tonight’s faculty meeting. Unless you think it would be more appropriate to fire yourself.”

“She can’t fire herself.”

Mindy looked across the table at Lulu. Lulu taught Spanish, a language she’d picked up during a Peace Corps stint down in Peru. She’d come home to the family farm in Pennsylvania after that, landing here after the only work she could find there was checking in guests at the local Econo-Lodge.

She was the saving grace of the entire Santangelo experience, in my opinion. Despite her fondness for show tunes.

“And why can’t Madeline fire herself?” asked Mindy. Her jaw clicked with a sharp snap, like a pinball popping up to hit the glass.

“Because she fired herself yesterday,” said Lulu. “You can’t fire yourself if you’ve already fired yourself. It cancels out.”

“Like Double Secret Probation,” said Tim.

Lulu closed her eyes, exhaled through her nose, and rubbed her fists back and forth across her spiky dark hair. Not without gusto.

I knew what she was thinking… she was thinking No, Tim, that is NOT AT ALL like Double Secret Probation, as you would know if you understood ANYTHING, which you DO NOT, despite the fact that you have watched Animal House 37 times, as you told us all in the faculty group therapy session at which Madeline fired herself last night.

She opened her eyes and grinned at me.

And then we were saved by Dr. Ed’s arrival with the stack of Med Plates.

Cornelia Read's first novel, A Field of Darkness, was nominated for seven crime fiction awards, including the Edgar Award. Kirkus has called the sequel, The Crazy School, "Caustic, gripping and distinctive-intelligent entertainment." Read studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College as an undergraduate, and now lives in Berkeley with her husband and twin daughters.

Photo by Robert M. Greber


Author's Statement

I am tremendously grateful to the NEA for this creative writing fellowship, especially at this stage in my career. My younger daughter has severe autism, which is a near-constant challenge. She's a wonderful kid (our nickname for her is "the Dalai Lila") but childcare for her is tremendously costly, which has made it difficult for me to travel in order to do research or attend distant writing-related events. With this money, I'll be able to afford safe respite care for her, which is a godsend.