NEA Literature Fellowships

Ellen Cooney

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2008 - Prose)

From the novel Lambrusco

On the train the whole world was the train.

No noise from the corridor. The other passengers had settled in. The door of my compartment was closed. The conductor had already been through. I was only traveling locally, going home, but nothing was normal; every journey was complicated.      

No police, no soldiers. It was almost easy to forget that if it weren't for soldiers and police, the trains would not be running.

My papers were in order. Lucia Fantini of Mengo. Age fifty-five. Born a Sicilian. The lady with the voice at Aldo's.  Widow of Aldo, mother of Beppi. 

No problems: just a couple of brief confrontations. The usual. I knew how to raise my guard graciously, so the barriers didn't show. To make it seem I'd said yes, when saying no.

"Excuse me, Signora Fantini, it's a great piece of luck we've run into you. As hurried as you are, could you pause two minutes to sing something complimentary? Tomorrow's our wedding anniversary, ten years. My husband was with the Army in Africa. He doesn't like to talk about it, in fact he doesn't talk at all. It's the same as if they cut out his tongue. But look, his ears are wide open. Just one short song, something lively?"        

"Signora, pardon me, one night I  heard you sing at your husband's place which became your son's,  I'm sorry the Fascists took it, the bastards. In the company of my in-laws who were paying, as I'd never afford it myself, I thought only of an expensive dinner. No one warned me that Aldo's had singing from the operas of our country. Sitting there unaware,  I was destroyed for any voice except your own, and don't bother thanking me for a compliment.  It's a fact. May the soul of your husband rest in peace, although truthfully, one doubts that it can, if he knows what's going on. But I trust that one day soon, your splendid restaurant will come back to your family."

The anxiety of departure was over. No mechanical trouble, no schedule changes, no last minute boardings, no unexplained delay.            

My two shopping bags were from a fashionable dress shop in Bologna, but they were heavy; they contained two sacks of flour. There was still black market flour to be bought.  Buried inside, one to each sack, were German guns - Lugers, which my son called "useful, no-fuss bang-bangs, courtesy of our invaders."           

I minded the strain of making it seem that all I carried were tissue-wrapped dresses. In my purse were sturdy little cardboard boxes from a well-known confectioner's, as if I planned to stuff myself with candy. The boxes were packed with ammunition. 

I was too hot in my good wool coat. I should have worn something lighter, but the wool had the biggest pockets, for a pair of Berettas, as simple and small as two toys. One was wrapped in my blue and orange silk scarf, an end of which streamed from the pocket elegantly, like a fashion statement.  The other was covered by a pair of gloves and some balled-up handkerchiefs.    

Our bank accounts were frozen. I had paid the gun-and-flour merchant with a pair of Aldo's gold cuff links. We were running out of jewelry. I no longer wore my wedding ring, but refused to give it up.

I wore no makeup. Sweat, and the possibility of tears, would have ruined it. I hated going out of the house like this, in this particular nakedness, and I was careful to avoid all mirrors. My throat was dry, and so were my lips and mouth, but not because I was thirsty.  It was stage fright - the same old symptoms. Sometimes in the spotlight at Aldo's, I'd feel I had swallowed a handful of sand.

But here I was, doing this again, pulling it off again: a lady out shopping, oh, there's nowhere to go to dress up for, and I shouldn't be spending what little money I have, but it came to me this morning that I should spit in the eyes of the war and buy myself something nice, and anyway, I was fed up with how the only other women going into good shops are women of nazifascisti.

The curtain on the compartment window, tattered and grimy, had been lifted, tucked back by some other passenger. I left it that way.  

The train progressed slowly past narrow country roads, wide fields, closed-up houses, trees, Nazi trucks, Nazi tanks, Nazi soldiers in casual groups, smoking cigarettes, their helmets tipped back as if they were working on suntans. 

It had rained heavily the day before, but now it was dry and shiny and clear. A perfect November morning, 1943. Every few miles, a small, fluffy pillow of a cloud came into view, framed by the window like a painting.

I  thought only of home.

Excerpted from Lambrusco by Ellen Cooney, Copyright 2008.  Reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House.  All rights reserved.

Ellen Cooney was born in 1952 in Clinton, Massachusetts. Her seventh novel, Lambrusco, will be published in April 2008 by Pantheon Books. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, The Literary Review, Fiction, The New England Quarterly, The Ontario Review, and many other journals. She is a former writer in residence at MIT, and also taught at Harvard in the Extension and Summer School, Boston College, Northeastern University, and the University of Maine.   

Photo by J.D. Sloan

Author's Statement

I am delighted to be a 2008 Fellow. This is the first time in 25 years I'm not teaching creative writing classes. I live in midcoast Maine, writing full-time; the fellowship will help support the writing of a new novel. My last several books take place in the past-Boston at the turn of the twentieth century; Maine in 1774; Italy in 1943. Right now I'm doing research on New England in the early nineteen-thirties, during the Depression. The whole thing is like time travel. I've already got the machine. The NEA will make sure I don't run out of fuel.

And I want to say, to anyone reading this who applied for a fellowship and didn't get one, this was my sixth time trying.