NEA Literature Fellowships

Dawn Turner Trice

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(2006 - Prose)

From the novel Otis and Danny

"Something ain't right," the first man said, shaking his head. "You sure we followed them directions to the letter?" Pausing to sip faucet coffee, the man looked around the room. Paper, plastic, Styrofoam packaging lay scattered about the floor and the bed.  "Something seems off-balanced, off-kilter or off-something." 

"Well, she always has been a little off-putting about the face," the second old man commented, his tongue tripping over the "Ps." He had tried to speak under his breath to be discrete but poor hearing carried his words. "I think she looks damn good, if you ask me." Much louder, he said: "In fact, gentlemen, I do believe we've performed one of them miracles, considering what we had to work with." 

"Maybe if we stood her up straighter," the first man said. "She looks a little swaybacked. I don't think she's supposed to be looking swaybacked."

The three old men continued to stand there, staring in that same lost and indecisive way they had stared at the wall of cosmetics at the nearby Rite-Aid Drug store. It wasn't just the wall that had stumped them, but the aisle with the pantyhose, the one with the glamour magazines, the fingernail polish, and that perfume counter, whose offerings, reformulated in their noses, weren't sweet smelling at all, but held the odor of something that had long turned. 

Now, their reflection shone in the mirror across the room. Three posteriors--of denim held up by suspenders; of polyester fighting a shine around the ass area; of pressed seersucker suit, all hems fraying--crowded the frame. But in the wee corner of the glass, a youngish-looking woman peeked around the men struggling as she always had for space and to tease out her own likeness. She was standing on a chair, and yet she resembled a child, short and thin. She was standing as straight as she could, still she indeed was as swaybacked as any beast of burden.  She wore a pastel gossamer-like dress that hung slightly askew on her shoulders. You had the sense that a small breeze might blow the dress away. The woman, who was actually nearing forty years old, could see herself in the mirror. From a distance, at least she enjoyed what she saw, which was why she smiled, revealing a side of her---her optimistic side--- that she rarely displayed in the presence of men. These men in particular.  

"It ain't so bad," she said in a tiny voice, swaying slightly from side to side. "I think I look kind of pretty."
If the men hadn't always been so one-dimensional in their thinking when it came to her; hadn't always been so willing, as she often said under her breath, to throw stones in her soup, the word pretty would have sent pangs through their round guts. They would have realized that she really did look pretty in an abstract oil painting sort of way. The truth was---in recent years living in the Go-Tell Motel---they hadn't experienced pretty in such a long time that the word fell mute on them.  Pretty hadn't moistened their lips nor flowered in their imaginations.  At one time, each had been married to fairly ordinary looking women who compensated by planting pretty things about their lives, especially on their plates. And, well, not every day, but most days, or most parts of days, the men could build on their memory of pretty. Even though neither was the type whose profession or temperament would allow him to focus on such a sissy word, each used to feel it. Each used to know it unmistakably. But now with their wives in various states of lucidity and leaving, pretty had withered and was going away with them.

Dawn Turner Trice has written two novels, Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven (Crown, Random House) and An Eighth of August (Crown, Random House). A Chicago newspaper journalist, she also has written commentaries for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition Show.”

Photo by Janet Sheard

Author's Statement

Throughout my childhood, my extended family had many get-togethers. After the meal, the women always would remain seated at the dining room table while the men took refuge in another spot in the apartment. The two factions would gossip, telling very different versions of the same tales. Often, my little sister and I would hide under the dining room table so that we could listen to the women. We'd be perfectly still and quiet as we waited for Auntie So-in-So to divulge why Uncle So-in-So was a no-good-you-know-what--this week. After a while, we'd learn who would host the rent party for the latest neighbor lady down on her luck; and who had landed the big factory job, meaning she could tell the folk down at the aid office to go to hell-which was the women's favorite destination spot for people who'd wronged them. My sister and I sat crouched under that table, dissecting and digesting until someone (often our mother) realized our presence. She'd stop in mid-sentence and tap the hard wood: "You two are the nosiest children God ever gave breath to," she'd say, peering underneath. "You'd be smart to stay in a child's place." Of course, we'd be forced to leave, but not before I had a new batch of stories to squirrel away. At the time, I just wanted to learn how to see the world in the same way the women saw it so that one day I might sit beside them. Now, many of those women, including my younger sister, have passed on. Although I will never be able to tell stories with the expertise they possessed, earning an NEA fellowship suggests I'm getting closer to earning a seat at the table.