NEA Literature Fellowships

Douglas Bauer

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(2010 - Prose)

From the creative non-fiction piece "A Month Of Ordinary Miracles"

My grandfather Evans began working as a coal miner in the final years of the nineteenth century. A nomad of the intimate landscape, he traced the Midwest's bituminous seams, living in various company towns and eventually settling in the village of Colfax, Iowa, which was named improbably for Schuyler Colfax, a man denied a second term as Ulysses S. Grant's vice president because he'd spent the first one being blatantly corrupt.

By the time John Evans reached Colfax, he had met and married the former Mary Jane Mabie. Over the next two decades they conceived ten children, six boys and four girls. My mother, born in 1921, was the third youngest. One of her sisters died in childbirth; another from cancer in her early thirties. And all this gravely swarming life took place in a tiny two-story house that looked too tall for its foundation, like an eccentrically built tower in a children's fable. In my memory, the house leaned and sagged in important places -- the porch roof, the cellar door -- and was here and there leprous with peeling paint. Photos of my mother at various ages, posing outside with one or some of her siblings, show the slumping little house in the background, forever in a state of disrepair.

My grandfather, then, presided over a family life of crowded, raucous, impoverished domesticity, a life that he did nothing to calm or financially ease. He came home from the mines each night, the coal-grime on his hands and face like a minstrel's make-up, the day's work a black pollen on his clothes. Standing naked outdoors whatever the weather, in the privacy of twilight in a galvanized tub of water reaching almost to his knees, his clothes lying on the ground like filthy pelts, he hurriedly scrubbed his body clean, except for the cracks and crevices in his hands and fingers, permanent coal-black lines as fine as filament. After which he changed into a laundered shirt and overalls and, with supper finished, remained at the oil cloth-covered kitchen table and drank himself into a dark and quarrelsome humor, a brooding, often nasty figure his children learned early it was wise to leave alone.

He died when I was twelve and during the time I knew my grandfather he bore no resemblance to the coal miner gone sullen inside his nightly booze. He was instead a mostly silent invalid who sat all day in his shabby maroon-colored arm chair, smelling of pipe tobacco and a kind of lingering fungal rankness, listening religiously on the radio in the summer to his beloved Chicago Cubs lose, letting loose a startling falsetto "Whoeee!" when the great Ernie Banks hit a home run. But mostly, as I said, sitting eerily quiet in his overalls and slippers in the corner of his cramped living room next to the big coal stove, a huge water stain in the shape of South America on the wallpaper behind him, pressing strands of Prince Henry into the bowl of his pipe, the loose tobacco that didn't make it to the bowl sprinkling the bib of his denim overalls, his hands become infant-soft, their cracks and fissures not permanent after all, his fingers ochre-stained from nicotine, his long, neglected nails as creepy as claws. Sitting there, smoking, listening to the ball game, and staring out from beneath the bill of his accidentally dapper gray tweed driving cap through eyes that were dramatically whitened by cataracts.

I've wondered whether his having spent so many hours for so many years in the unrelieved night of a mine shaft made his blindness seem perversely a kind of darkness he was used to, and maybe, then, the slightest bit easier to accept. But thinking further, this possibility seems a narrative conceit, a novelist's cheap idea of poignant irony. Far more likely, far more human, losing the brief bit of light he got from life above the ground must have made his blindness as it grew all the more devastating.

In my early boyhood, his whitened eyeballs mesmerized and spooked me, the impression they made changing with the mood of my imagination. Sometimes I thought of them as if covered over with miniature clouds; other times his cataracts looked hard as shells of porcelain. As ungenerous human beings, we are disgusted and frightened by deformity. But when we are children we're better than that. There's infatuation in our fear and our disgust is something sensual. As children, we want goblins and witches in our worlds; they take our days and our dreams to a place beyond the ordinary, where days and dreams belong, and no witch, no goblin worth his salt, is not deformed or frightening. So if I didn't have a grandson's easy love for my grandfather, there was something far more compelling in my feelings for him: I was magnetically frightened of him; he deliciously repulsed me.

Douglas Bauer was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and raised in rural Iowa. His books include The Very Air (Henry Holt, 1997), The Book of Famous Iowans (Henry Holt, 1998), The Stuff of Fiction (University of Michigan Press, 2007), and Prairie City, Iowa (University of Iowa Press, 2008). He has edited two anthologies, Prime Times: Writers on Their Favorite Television Shows and Death by Pad Thai and Other Unforgettable Meals. His work has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper's, Sports Illustrated, Tin House, Agni, and many other magazines. Previously awarded a grant in fiction from the NEA and one in non-fiction from the Massachusetts Arts Council, he has worked as a magazine editor, freelance writer, and has taught at Harvard University, the Ohio State University, Rice University, Smith College, and is currently a professor of English at Bennington College and a member of the core faculty at the Bennington Writing Seminars. He lives in Boston with his wife and their three dogs.

Photo by Sue Miller

Author's Statement

I was sitting at my desk, preparing for my morning class, a discussion with eighteen undergraduates on the brilliant short fiction of Katherine Anne Porter, when the phone rang and I learned I'd won an NEA grant. Such grand words, so graciously conveyed! I sat there, listening and smiling and nodding my agreement to the terms of the grant, and stumbling to offer my thanks in words every bit as genuine as they were doubtless inarticulate.

One of things I agreed to was to keep the news mostly to myself for a while. I was told that a press release was coming. In the meantime, I should tell only family and closest friends. Okay, said I, and so I moved through the day, teaching my class, and through the following days, among colleagues and friends, splendidly powered by my mostly secret. For there's something deeply pleasurable about keeping private a piece of information that holds such marvelous personal meaning; it creates a kind of interior enrichment, a delicious slyness that you enjoy almost as much for the exclusive knowledge of it as for the nature of the information itself.

Or so I felt, and thought, and it occurred to me as well that it is, in some sense, simply what writers do: we move about among an unsuspecting populous, holding onto our secrets until we get a sign -- from ourselves; from somewhere, somehow, in the world -- that permits us to dispense them. It's called narrative, and it goes some way toward explaining why the writing life, in its best moments, is a rewarding one to live. To say, I have a secret, and when it's ready I'll tell it.

The work of mine that the NEA has chosen to support was entirely my secret up till now. As a book that's very much in progress, it had been shown to no one – not to family or closest friends -- before I sent it off as my submission. So it is easy to imagine, I'm sure, just how much the Endowment's gesture of affirmation means to me; as if to say, of what I'm writing, You can tell people now.