NEA Literature Fellowships

Frances Hwang

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2010 - Prose)

From The Old Gentleman

In February, her father called to tell her he wasn't sure whether or not his nose was broken. There had been a snowstorm two days before, whole cars sheathed in ice, the roads filled with irregular lumps, oddly smooth and plastic, where the snow had melted and then frozen again. In this weather, her father and Lily had gone out walking to buy groceries at Da Hua Market. Lily had walked ahead, and when she was almost half a block away, she turned around and asked Agnes's father to walk faster. He tried to keep up with her, but corns had formed along his toes and the soles of his feet. When he quickened his pace, he slipped on a deceptively bland patch of ice and hit his nose on the pavement.

When Agnes saw her father--a dark welt on the bridge of his nose, a purple stain beginning to form under his eyes--she couldn't help but feel a flood of anger and pity. You could have lived your last years in peace, she wanted to say to him. Instead she glanced at the closed bedroom door. "Is that where she's hiding?"

He looked at her morosely. "She left earlier because she knew you were coming."

In the hospital, Agnes noticed that her father walked gingerly down the hall, stepping on the balls of his feet without touching his toes or heels to the ground. An X-ray revealed that his nose was not broken after all. Agnes told the resident he was having problems walking.

"That's not an emergency," the resident replied. Nevertheless, she left the room to call in a podiatrist.

Her father grew excited when he saw the podiatrist. He began speaking to him in Chinese.

"I'm sorry," the podiatrist said, shaking his head. "I'm Korean. Let's take these off, shall we?" He lightly pulled off her father's socks. There were red cone-shaped bumps along his toes and hard yellow mounds on the soles and heels of his feet. But what shocked Agnes most was the big toe on his left foot. The nail of this one toe looked a thousand years old to her, thick, encrusted, and wavy, black in the center and as impenetrable as a carapace.

"Older people's toenails are often like this," the podiatrist said, seeing Agnes's surprise.

Her father seemed oblivious to their comments. He was squeezing his eyes shut as the podiatrist worked on his foot, slicing the calluses off bit by bit with a small blade. Her father winced and jerked his feet up occasionally. "Oh, it hurts," he exclaimed to Agnes. "It's unbearable!"

"I know this isn't pleasant," the podiatrist said, looking at her father. He took a pumice stone out of his pocket and rubbed it gently against her father's foot.

When the podiatrist had finished paring away at his corns, her father covered his feet back up, slowly pulling on his socks and tying the laces of his shoes. He smiled at the podiatrist, yet because of his bruised nose, his face seemed pathetic and slightly grotesque. "It's better beyond words," he said.

In the parking lot, her father showed off by walking at a sprightly pace in front of her. "It's so much better now!" he kept exclaiming.

The doctor had told Agnes that the corns would eventually come back, but she didn't tell her father. She was thinking how well he had hidden the signs of old age from her. That big toe underneath his sock. Since the time she was a child, she and her father had lived their lives independent of each other. She had never demanded anything of him, and he had been too busy with his work at school, so that by the time she was six she had been as free as an adult. They left each other alone mostly because of her mother, whose sickness filled up the entire house and whose moods were inextricably bound with their own.

In the car, Agnes told her father that she thought he should divorce Lily.

"It's not as bad as that, Shuling."

"I hate how she humiliates you," she said.

Her father was silent, gazing out the window. "Love is humiliating," he finally replied.

When she dropped him off in front of his building, he did not immediately go inside but stood on the frozen sidewalk, waving at her. She knew he would stay there until her car was no longer in sight. It was his way of seeing her off, and he would do this no matter what the weather.

Frances Hwang was born in Falls Church, Virginia. Her story collection, Transparency (Back Bay Books/Little, Brown & Company, 2007), received the American Academy of Arts and Letters' Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and a PEN/Beyond Margins Award. She is a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award and has held fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Colgate University. Her work has been read as part of the Selected Shorts series at Symphony Space and has appeared in Best New American Voices, Glimmer Train, Tin House, AGNI Online, and Subtropics. She teaches at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Photo by Alice Chen

Author's Statement

I am deeply grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts for this award, which will allow me to work on a second collection of stories, Children of Spleen. As a writer, I am more daydreamer than busy bee: I need silence and a vast stretch of time to reflect and imagine. To think and to dream so that I may write, to be able to lose myself in the imaginative space of my work, has become something of a luxury as for the past two years I have devoted more of my energies to my teaching than to my writing. This grant will help me to redress the balance, providing me with the invaluable gift of time and the opportunity to fully immerse myself in creating.

The question is often raised why we should support artists, and I think that Dostoevsky answers it best: "Art is as much a need for humanity as eating and drinking. The need for beauty and the creations that embody it is inseparable from humanity and without it man perhaps might not want to live on earth." Many thanks to the NEA for its pivotal role in supporting the cause of beauty in this country. Though some believe art to be a frivolous thing, without it life would be unbearable.