NEA Literature Fellowships

Edward Delaney

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(2008 - Prose)

From a novel-in-progress

They had been driving around for hours, five boys in a 1952 Nash with no license plates. The car was weaving badly but there were no other cars all the way to either horizon. The edge of the road was bermed and at times those edges bumpered the swerving car back toward center. The driver was drunk as they were all drunk, and the car, three years old and beaten all to hell, was not his, in the strictest interpretation of ownership.

They stopped at a squat bridge over a dried-out thread of river on the eastern edge of the reservation, as if to go to a place where water had once been made sense. It was now close to midnight, although no one had an instrument with which to tell the time and nobody cared and nobody asked. The hours were lost to them: They had been drinking since mid-afternoon, first at the open powwow grounds where the reservation ended and the county resumed, and then on a rocky butte overlooking the curving rush of the Wind River Basin. When the sun dropped and it got colder, they drove around, if only to shut out the wind and run the heater. The car had a radio but it was broken. Nobody felt like saying anything. One boy's head dropped slack, and then he pulled up and looked around. They had been drinking blackberry brandy and then Old Crow and then tequila. The tequila had come in bottles with no labels and only lines of hardened glue, corked and wrapped up the necks in electrical tape. The booze was bought out of the back of the pickup truck of a man who made runs from the nearest town, Suncreek, which lay some miles to the east of the reservation.

Two of the boys were sixteen, two were fifteen and one was seventeen. The car had been bought with the proceeds of oil and gas leases, of which each adult member of the tribe received an equal share. The car was unregistered and it had changed hands enough that the matter of any clear owner was long moot.

At the bridge near the seven-mile pole, the boys walked around behind the car and stood at the low log guardrail and urinated into the sand below. The rivulet, which ran like a string in the long plain between the Wind and Sweetwater Rivers, went dry miles before this, petering out when it got past the big ranches north of Suncreek: After people took their irrigation and drinking water upriver, what was left for the reservation was only the vaguest suggestion of waterway. Farther up, on the other side, there were miles of buffalo grass and stout cottonwoods gripping the banks, but then came a point where the offshoot of the river was slaked down to nothing and curled arid into a small and incongruous hook of desert.

The boys' own water, falling, made a substantive splattering on the hardened alluvial mounds, the buildup from some long-past, long-ceased flow. The wind had gotten up harder. Stars pulsed in a brittle sky. The boys cupped their hands against their ears, shielding themselves from the bite of the gusts. It was a night with only a last sliver of moon, and dark. They stumbled drunk against the car getting back in, numbed from the cold. One boy sank to one knee and then managed to bring himself back up enough to slide into the back seat of the car.

When the car started up, four of them were back inside it. Miles along the rutted dirt road the driver, drunk to the point of simply letting his hands take the wheel where it led them, had the rising and uneasy sense of something amiss; one by one, wordlessly, they shrugged each other and at some point of drunken recognition the car slowed and halted.

They stopped and got out, trying to remember who the people were that they'd started with.  The first four who had been in the car earlier in the afternoon had evolved into three others, then four others, a constantly reshuffled deck. Still no one spoke. It was something more like a collective thought, an exchange of glances shrouded in dark but nonetheless felt, of movement cueing other movement.

In the faint red throw of the Nash's tail lights, they saw the fifth boy, the oldest, lying in the road behind the car. He was already dead. The tattered cuff of his overalls' leg was skewered onto the sharp tine of a bumper. His leg had caught like that, and he been dragged for three miles. They stood looking at him for some time, but they didn't look at each other. Then one of them, the driver, reached over and undid the pant cuff. The leg dropped to the dirt. The dead boy was face-down, his arms stretched out over his head. The middle fingers of each hand were nearly touching.

The other boys didn't feel drunk anymore.

Edward J Delaney is a fiction writer, journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the author of The Drowning and Other Stories and the novel Warp & Weft, which received the 2005 PEN/Winship Award. His stories have appeared regularly in The Atlantic Monthly and have been anthologized in the O.Henry and Best American Short Stories collections. His documentary film about the short story writer Andre Dubus, The Times Were Never So Bad, premiered in 2006. Delaney teaches journalism and creative writing at Roger Williams University.

Photo by Jennifer Paloulian

Author's Statement

I am extremely grateful to have received this support from the National Endowment of the Arts, as it is not only material support but that which is more important, the sense that one's work is valued and meaningful on some level. I've been working on a cycle of stories for some time now that the fellowship will allow me the time and concentration to finish. My stories are set in the American West, where I lived two decades ago, and the stories live in a landscape from which I'm now far removed. I hope to return there to reconnect with the places in which these stories are set.