NEA Literature Fellowships

Jim Tomlinson

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(2008 - Prose)

From the short story "First Husband, First Wife"

While Cheryl's trial got delayed and delayed, Jerry got convicted and served eight months at Blackburn Correctional Facility. It felt like eight years. The day he was to get out was also his thirtieth birthday, which he took to be some kind of sign. When he woke up that last prison morning, his mind was filled with thoughts of change, of setting off in new directions. He thought maybe he'd start an herb farm on five acres his cousin Shuey owned. Or he'd fence those acres and raise emus, raise them for meat, sell it to restaurants. Or maybe he'd get into ginseng, what Shuey called 'sang.' The stuff grew wild in Daniel Boone National Forest, old stuff, premium stuff. Foreigners paid small fortunes for a wild-grown root shaped like an animal, a duck, a horse, or maybe a hog. Sang just grew out there, grew in plain dirt, knuckles of the stuff like shallow nuggets of gold, a waiting fortune for someone with ambition to find it. As he lay on his bunk, Jerry could almost feel it in his fingers, smell the soft, musty earth as it crumbled away to reveal the root's shape. His wasted months at Blackburn were ending today. His life was starting again. This time he'd get it right.

Cheryl had rented a motel room not two miles from Blackburn's main gate. She'd decorated it with yellow balloons and rainbow streamers. She bought the fancy Kroger cheese and cold cut platter and laid it out on one bed, a washtub of ice and beer stationed at the foot. She even baked his favorite strawberry jam cake. Two blocky number candles were stuck in the coconut frosting, a three and a zero. As soon as they got to the room, Cheryl lit the candles, shut the drapes, and switched off the lights. She started singing a birthday song, the one the Beatles sing, while performing a cheerleader-style dance in the flickery light. As she did, Jerry inched over to the beer tub. Kneeling there, he uncapped his first bottle since forever, brought its cold lips to his, and pointed the bottom to the swirly motel ceiling. His mind started thinking about riverboats on the Ohio. Did they run in winter when weather got too cold to dig sang? He wondered about their casinos, what they looked for in card dealers, if a felony conviction would hurt someone's chances.

Where are you? Cheryl asked, her face near his, the smell of her bubblegum everywhere. She was still breathing hard from the dancing, but the song was over. Who? Jerry asked. Where? He looked behind him, lifted a bedspread corner, stood and looked all around as though someone else might be there. He lurched toward Cheryl and poked a hand at her ribs. She dodged, squealing, her elbows tucked for protection. He said, That really was great, babe, just great, the song. He grabbed an armload of her then and wrestled her onto the bed. He pinned her there, blowing mouth-farts across her soft, surging belly. A taste like herbs was slick on his lips and tongue. Changing his life, he decided, could wait one more day.

The candles melted down. Their flames grew wide and flickered and blistered the frosting. A sugar char smell filled the room, sweet like campfire marshmallows. Jerry rolled off the bed and blew out the blaze. As he lay back down, he said, Marry me. I did, she said. Haven't we had this talk, Jerry, maybe eighty-nine times? Monkey-like, he scrambled across her. Then marry me again. He said it as if it were something totally new. Never, she said. His lip pouted out, and he made a whimpering sound. She combed his hair with her fingers and kissed his neck. You'll always be my first husband, she said.

"First Husband, First Wife" appears in Tomlinson's collection Things Kept, Things Left Behind, published by the University of Iowa Press.

Jim Tomlinson's first book of short fiction, Things Kept, Things Left Behind won the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have appeared in Five Points, Bellevue Literary Review, Potomac Review, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. Tomlinson's second book of short fiction is due out in 2009. His awards include fellowships from Wesleyan Writers Conference, Sewanee Writers Conference and the Kentucky Arts Council. A graduate of the University of Illinois and native of that state, Tomlinson and his wife, fiber artist Gin Petty, live now in rural Kentucky. He can be contacted on the web at

Photo by Gin Petty

Author's Statement

I was flabbergasted when Chloey Accardi phoned with news of the NEA Literature Fellowship. Yes, I'd sent an application. I'd sent it in a moment of utter hubris. There had been no expectations, though. So my shock was absolute. I am humbled and most grateful to the grants panelists and to members of the NEA staff. May the work that flows from this award be worthy of the honor.

With the help of fellowship funds, I plan to work on my novel-in-progress Heaven and Here. It is a novel of the American Civil War. Time-consuming period and location research are possible now, thanks to the grant. Beyond that, there will be weeks of uninterrupted time for the work. For a writer, can there be a greater gift?