NEA Literature Fellowships

Dwight Yates

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(2008 - Prose)

From the short story "Birds of Passage"

Next stop the polar bears, but only one big fellow with green algae under his chin active that morning, sloshing into his pool, executing a roll and a half, hauling himself out, then repeating the routine without variation. "Ain't that the life?" said Pops. "Your own pool, get fed real regular, and all you do is show up, smile at the public or, hell, better yet, snarl at them. That's what they want, and where else can you get away with that?" He looked at me, I shrugged. "Tell me about it, Bucko. You lie down for a nap, they bring in some good looking lady bear, encourage you to be a family man, can't be that bad now can it? And all you're missing out on is the competition." He paused, and when I looked up, he seemed to be gazing past the bear rather than at it, lulled, I figured, by the repetitious routine, but soon enough he came back in focus, put his hand on my shoulder. "They can try to make this as much like home as possible for these critters. Bamboo for the pandas, I mean if this zoo actually had pandas. Waterfalls, some blocks of ice for the penguins, but the big thing they don't supply is the day-to-day struggle to put meat on the table. And who would miss it? I swear, Bucko, they could put me in the zoo and I'd be better off."

Pops liked the tapir and the anteater even more. "Just keep your nose to the ground, big guy," he advised. "Hey buddy, if you're looking for your Aunt, I think she went down that hole." I thought he was brilliant, even if I missed some of his jokes. As we finished up with monkeys ("Look at that gang over there.  Behaving like a bunch of baboons"), we turned and caught sight of the oncoming crowd.  I saw them first and then saw his reaction to them. All morning I had been learning to see by watching him watch, and now his eyes narrowed, as if settling on the Sheriff of Nottingham and his posse closing in. "Here come the sheep," Pops said, keeping up his zoomorphic characterizations. 

Up to that point it had seemed our private zoo, so right away I picked up his resentment for sharing it. Pops had a way of making you feel like a traveler among tourists, like the intended audience for anything, everyone else gate crashers - a take on the general public coming, most likely, from all those years in sales; it sure wasn't an attitude that would propel you into that line of work. So it struck me as fitting that we, the principal players, had the crowd's attention, but suddenly, all their attention, some lady pointing our way, then a kid on his father's shoulders also pointing, saying, "It's following them." I turned to see.  Maybe two yards back and keeping pace with us, a peacock. It must have come out of the shrubbery or dropped from one of the low trees. Pops didn't hesitate, didn't miss a beat, but began to imitate the bird's slow, high-stepping strut, and when he winked at me, I copied his step. This crowd, how they loved it, shouting approval and applauding as we passed, the bird hanging in there, a regular trouper. It was too good to give up. We did strut all the way to the revolving spindle of the exit gate, circuited twice and spun out, leaving the peacock stranded by the concessions.

"Goddamn bird, anyway," Pops said and slapped my shoulder, his laugh big before going lungy into a smoker's cough. "Weren't we a parade, Bucko?  Best show those rubes ever had." He coughed again and suggested we get some chow. I probably said "forthwith" as he tossed his car keys high and caught them with a cupped backhand like a baton twirler, this one of his moves when he was feeling especially good. But as we turned toward the formation of parked cars, a sudden wafting shadow and wing beat were hard above us - the peacock, effortlessly clearing the fence, then extending his primaries in graceful descent. Touching down, he taxied right over to Pops, planted his feet, and fanned into full display. Pops was immobilized, he was speechless. Or maybe all he said was "sonofabitch." This bird had a mission - selecting Pops, electing him, or, given my Robin Hood read on relationships, making Pops a vassal. Between the species, it was a moment. Pops looked at me, but how could my face help him weigh the power of omen against his conviction to stay disentangled?  He did hesitate, but he did decide. "Goddam bird, anyway," he said, yet he had his sailor look on, and then he was offering this peacock a ride in the back of our Hudson Hornet. 

Dwight Yates' stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. His first collection, Haywire Hearts and Slide Trombones, received the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award from Snake Nation Press and his second, Bring Everybody, was the inaugural winner of the Juniper Prize for fiction. He teaches in the writing program at the University of California, Riverside.

Photo by Nancy Carrick

Author's Statement

The wolf is at the writer's door to steal time, gobble it up, and time is what you have that you least want to part with.  I'd say the wolf is welcome to pretty much everything else. And for many of us-certainly for me - it's an open office door and a pack of students in wolves' clothing that are hungry for my time - as well they should be, because they are welcome, these talented and deserving wolves. In my fable, then, the NEA is the woodsman who does no harm to critters, but simply shows up this one fine day, pays off the right people and directs the wolf pack to other doors for a while, leaving me with precious time in my grateful hands: hours, days and months I had best use wisely and greedily, sentence chasing sentence through the forest of narrative.  Good woodsman, I am indebted. 

When the call from Washington D.C. came, my wife answered, and maybe it wasn't the best connection, she thinking a telemarketer was after me to donate to some sort of arts deal, so she tried to stall the caller, protecting me from yet another wolf. I am so very happy we got all that straightened out.

With the Endowment's handsome support, I plan to stay away from the office for many months, trying to find a home for a just-finished novella and getting cracking on a long deferred novel that, in the first draft, will probably suffer from an ebullient tone of giddy good fortune and sassy validation; that may need to be restrained later on, but for now, that's my mood and I'm wallowing in it.