NEA Literature Fellowships

Josie Sigler

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from "A Man is not a Star"

A man, after carousing, returns himself to a woman who stood by him while other families were broken by layoffs and shutdowns and fear. He forgets all of those things that could have sent a jagged crack into their union, wakes in the morning, drinks a hot cup of coffee. Maybe he buys some nightcrawlers and tries his luck in the lake. But after that, what does he do? What does he do if there is no place to make cars?

The first time he peered under the hood of an old Model-T, that tangle of rubber and metal was more familiar to him in a glance than his own innards and veins, more familiar than the women he loved in that car paid for with his own barnyard sweat every Sunday. And once he bought it, he was a man. A car was what made you a man. A man, everyone’s got to understand, cannot just sit around with his union suit hanging out of his jeans and watch The Geography Channel all damned day.

A man does not, as he hauls those stinking canisters into the garage, merely shrug when his woman appears at the door in her tattered grey robe to ask: It’s midwinter. It’s the middle of the night. What’s the need for gasoline, now?

She’s thinking it’s the house he’s going to do.

A man takes her in his arms, says, I would never risk that. We’re going to make it, a man says. He tells her they were out of kerosene. His feet were cold.

A man does not get nervous when she rests her hand on the small green aluminum boat as if she’s going to stay awhile. A man is never forced to sell his real boat, the one that carried him far enough out into the blue to feel he had escaped, to claim a dented patchling like this one. A man’s boat has his own wife’s name on the side and its tiny engine is not rigged to the gunnel with a coat hanger. His boat ranks up there with his truck, his tackle, his favorite wrench.

If a woman persists in her Why now? stance, a man tells her that it’s just an Irish errand, as his mother always said when she did something he could not understand.

A man kisses his worried wife’s forehead, and sends her back to bed.

He does not stare for long hours out the window from his seat in the garage. He’s made to last. He’s like a rock. A man makes a truck and drives the truck he’s made. He smells of the factory—oil, grease, sweat—where he has worked for thirty-one years. He believes the great American automobile will rise again.

He might tease his sweet and ruined daughter as she walks through the garage just after dawn, all gelled up and ready for school.

She might say, Anything wrong, Dad?

Not a thing, he says. He smiles and rubs his hand over her spiked hair, asks why, when God give her such nice hair, she’s done the shit she’s done to it.

Even though they both know why, a man and his daughter laugh.

A man simply does not do this thing in front of her, his bird who doubles back, worried.

He does not give his youngest this constellation as she cries and pounds on the glass of the garage door leading to the kitchen and screams: No.

Nor does he do this in front of his oldest—a man does not offer her this dream, unforgettable, burned onto her eyelids for the rest of her life so that she never sleeps again without seeing it: this flailing, spinning, screaming angel of fire whose wings rise suddenly into the rafters.

A man does not do this to a woman who loved him when he was down to nothing and fed him and his children and in all the years he’s known her has never once hurt him or them nor complained. A woman who smiled every time she felt him watching her in the dark.

A man does not do this—

But he’s not a man, anymore.

Freed from all the rules he’s ever known, he bolts his side of the garage door. He wails as he would have his entire life if a man were allowed to wail. He opens the cap on one of the canisters and holds it over his head. He pours and shakes his hair, the way his murderer son used to do with water between plays on the football field. He even opens his mouth, letting the gasoline coat his tongue, sting his nostrils. It soaks him, trickles down into his shoes. Because he wants to be sure of this thing, he empties the second canister. He makes sure the kerosene heater gets a good dose and stands before it. He takes up a match.

They are behind the glass of the door. Their eyes and mouths beg. His wife brings up her fist wrapped in the sleeve of her tattered terry-cloth robe to break the door’s glass, but not soon enough. He wants to stop, let her save him again. But they’ll be better off without him.

He strikes it.

A man would find another way. If he were a man, he’d be sorry. But if he had a whole town, he’d be the thick yellow moon in the sky. He’d never waver. If he painted himself, he’d be the bright star rising above the trees and he’d sail right over everything that’s left here.

Josie Sigler’s collection of stories, The Galaxie and Other Rides, was awarded the Ruby Pickens Tartt First Fiction Award and published by Livingston Press in 2012. Her book of poetry, living must bury, winner of the 2010 Motherwell Prize, was published by Fence Books. Sigler’s very short story, “The Compartment,” won the 2012 Barthelme Prize. Other work has appeared in journals such as Story Quarterly, Prism International, Fugue, Water-Stone, Hunger Mountain, and Redivider. Sigler was awarded a 2011 PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Residency, which afforded her the opportunity live on a remote homestead near the Rogue River in southern Oregon, as well as a Sitka Center for Art and Ecology Residency. She attended College of the Atlantic and University of Maine, and holds a dual PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California. She teaches creative writing at University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

Photo by Jennifer Sibara

Author's Statement

The NEA Literature Fellowship is an incredible gift to me as I begin my next project: a historical novel that takes place during World Wars I and II in Italy and Belgium. This project marks a significant new opening in my work in terms of setting. The desire to render through an imagined speaker a certain place and time has always driven the initial exploration in my writing projects. These protracted and passionate explorations of place usually led me rather magically to the events I ended up rendering; in fact, when I first began to write fiction, several of my earliest stories were published in Silk Road, a journal that focuses on place. Most of the stories I’ve written have been set in Michigan, where I grew up, or other places I’ve lived or traveled. While my stories aren’t necessarily based on real people I know, they have usually been based on people I could have known. In undertaking this historical project, I will move beyond the horizons of my former writerly terrain. The NEA’s support will allow me to travel extensively in the coming year in order to further research my setting and characters. It will also give me the opportunity to write a significant portion of the manuscript in the locations I’m trying to build in the text.