NEA Literature Fellowships

Judy Doenges

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(2002 - Prose)

from "What She Left Me"

A BOX OF ASSORTED SWIMWEAR. Including: five bikinis with matching cover-ups, four tank suits, three newer swimsuits with attached skirts and built-in prostheses, three terry cloth robes embroidered with the crests of various hotels, one pair of men's swimming trunks, and seven rubber bathing caps, one ringed with curls of real hair.

She wore the bikinis and cover-ups throughout my childhood when she was tiny, slim, even muscular from her long walks and the exercises she did along with the TV every morning. The swimming trunks were my father's: navy blue, the words "Chicago Athletic Club" across one leg; he never swam in our pool. The modest tank suits were mine.

The skirted swimsuits, all three, and the curl-fringed bathing cap came from a store in Palm Beach near where my mother took me on a vacation about a year before she died. I was twenty- five, ready to be trained as my mother's caretaker. I spent the first day in Florida holding her elbow, guiding her out of the plane, into cabs and stores and lobbies, finally steering her into our hushed hotel room, the fan ticking overhead.

My mother dressed for the beach the next day as if for battle, slowly, with heavy sighs, her hands shaking. The suit went up over her skinny, brown legs. over her one breast; she positioned the prosthesis over her scar; then I helped her work the tight cap over what little hair she had left. Together, we lined up her pill bottles on the dresser. 1 whispered dosages as she took each medication from her bag. Then my mother applied her moisturizers and make-up and her sun cream and we were ready to descend to the beach.

We lay, slick and browning, near our rented cabana. Mother was wearing her new yellow one-piece suit with the attached pleated skirt and her new cap with the curls that looked like eyelashes all around her face. She placed a seashell over each eye.

"You can smell the salt. Mama," I said, opening our tiny cooler to take out the martini thermos and a beer.

Blindly, she lifted her head just a little to sip her drink. Her face was drawn and tense under her makeup, her mouth set in an irritated line. Glancing at her out of the comer of my eye was like watching a movie running on in front of me, a set of small scenes designed to make me remember her. Memories were like this: slips, faults, small gestures loaded with meaning. That was all I wanted - just the opportunity tom guess in private about the meaning of my life with my mother. I already knew that as I got older, these poses, these memories, would become pieces of what I thought I'd known all along.

Coming to the bottom of her thermos, my mother began to cry. "Oh, damn," she said, tears squeezing out from the sides of the seashells. "Oh, shoot, now."

"Mother, what is it? Do you feel sick?"

She put both hands on the place where her breast had been and pressed down hard. The rings were loose on her wrinkled lingers, but her nails were still perfect, rounded, frosted pink. "It's coming, Sandra," she said, "I can feel it. Right where it left off, too. You know, where it is, you'd think it was a heart, giving out blood, but it's just there to take me. It'll take me, honey! Oh!" And she pressed down harder, sobbing.

"Mom, jeez." I tucked a terry cloth robe around her legs as if that would help. She was like liquid running out of the shape that usually held her.

"Feel it, Sandra. Sweetie, put your hands here!" And she lifted her own hands off her chest and reached blindly for mine.

"Now, Mama," I said. "I ... don'tÄ"

She grabbed my hands and flattened them on top of her yellow swimsuit. The prosthesis collapsed under my palms, and I closed my eyes in embarrassment. Under my eyelids I saw our dream of a hotel room - plush, scented, quiet, and dark against the sun's glare. Here, I had to watch her cry. It was as if the bareness of the sand, our lack of cover, had brought it out. I was paralyzed by my lack of any appropriate feeling.

"Can you feel the cancer coming out?" my mother asked. "Tell me you can. I'm not that strong. I can't fight this again, you know."

"Mother, shut up," I said, lifting off my hands, but she pulled them back again. "Shouldn't drink in this heat," I added quietly, more to myself.

"I know someone else has to be able to feel this sickness coming," my mother whispered, holding my hands down. "It's got to be you."

I tried but I couldn't feel anything, no death waiting, not the rumble of tumors forming, no blood spurting; not even her heartbeat. There in the coming shadow of the shiny buildings behind us, all I felt was the sun my mother had brought me to see.

Judy Doenges's short fiction collection. What She Left Me (University Press of New England/1999), was a New York Times Notable Book, won the Bakeless Fiction Prize, the Ferro-Grumley Award in Lesbian Fiction, and a Washington State Governor's Writers Award; the paperback of the collection will appear in 2003 from Plume. Her novel The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, is due out from Viking in 2003. She has received grants and fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, Artist Trust, the Barbara Doming/Fund for Women, the Tacoma Arts Commission, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her stories and reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, The Georgia Review, Nimrod, The Chattahoochee Review, and Evergreen Chronicles, among other publications. She is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at Colorado State University.

Author's Statement

This NEA fellowship has already given me more confidence and pride in my writing; the money is great, but the award also provides great support for a writer's ego. I'll use the fellowship to finish my novel, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, and to start research on my next project, a set of linked stories about a Chicago-area bail bond officer, another book in which I continue to explore the lives of working-class people. In the course of my research, I plan to travel to Illinois to do interviews and to take a bail recovery agent course. Clearly, the NEA fellowship will take this writer into new territory, and for that I'm very grateful.