NEA Literature Fellowships

Kelle Groom

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl

A shoe is mapped. The bottom has an inner sole, a filling like granulated cork. A welt’s narrow strip of leather sewn to the rib. A sandal has a runner. The sole (leather, pure rubber, resin rubber, or plastic) and heel (nailed or stuck, Cuban, Louis, or wedge), heel lifts, top piece (the walking surface of a heel), toe puff: a reproduction of the toe of the last. And stiffener, shank (metal or wood to reinforce the waist), sock (inserted into the completed shoe with the maker’s name), and eyelets. Hobnail shoes had a short nail hammered into the sole for durability. Sometimes, the nails were placed in a pattern, sometimes the nails spelled words to be left in the ground as a shoe print. A message you could leave behind.

I was seventeen when I went to Bridgewater State College, after spending almost my whole life on other coasts. But I’d lived the first year of my life in the town next door, Whitman. When I was born, I came home to the apartment, steep second story, gray. A salesman had come to the door and sold my mom a stroller that converted into a high chair, and a carriage, and a child’s Formica and chrome table. All in one. She said that when I rode in it, I was the Queen of the Neighborhood. There was a tiny bathroom with no bath. A galvanized tub in the bedroom. On a map, Bridgewater and Whitman are connected by seams with the city next door, Brockton. I was born in Brockton, and my son is buried there. Sewn together.

In 1900, there were ninety shoe factories in Brockton. The Charles A. Eaton Company was in operation then, a shoe factory on Centre Street. It’s just been converted into lofts. I want to get in. But there’s no parking, the building right on the street. I get a machine when I call the sales office. I’d stroll around it, but it’s not a strolling kind of place, few pedestrians. No stores. The Boston Phoenix called the city of my birth a violence-prone, run-down hole. There’s a plaza I drive through, lost, a white square. Plazas remind me of the women in Argentina who held placards with photos of their missing children, abducted, disappeared under the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Now in that Buenos Aires plaza, there is a white shawl painted on the ground.

Centre Street takes me to Cary, where I’m hoping to find Calvary, my son’s cemetery with its name spelled out in white stones on a hill. But I’ve turned too soon, into St. Patrick’s, where only two men walk, two children. One man says, “No one’s been buried here for fifty years.” I feel like I’ve woken in the future. Driving down Centre Street again, lost, I stop at a pink and brown Dunkin’ Donuts, but the cashier doesn’t know Cary Street, doesn’t live here. I’ve never been able to find my way. Drinking coffee in the parking lot, a circle of air around me, no other cars. It feels like an abandoned land. There’s a blue cross on a building to my right, a hospital, Brockton Hospital. Where I was born. When I first saw the world outside, I saw this: Centre Street.

There’s no parking visible to me at Brockton Hospital, nothing for visitors that I can see. I can go in if I have an Emergency. So I park on the side of the road out and turn my head to look at the blue cross. I wonder if the street was this bleak back then. I wonder what it was like being born. My nose flattened from the tight fit getting out. A bow taped to my head. My eyes are squinched as if I’m trying to see through fog or everything’s too bright. In the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, a man in his early twenties had smiled at me in a sparkling way and sort of skipped, but I felt unprotected on the tar, drinking from my cup, no commerce, no shoppers or walkers around. I was afraid he’d rob or murder me, afraid I’d die where I was born. So I didn’t smile.

Cars keep coming from behind me at the hospital, so I drive back to Centre, onto Cary, and then I’m really lost, unable to remember any landmarks except the blue cross, the donuts. The drivers around me move with certainty, speed. I park illegally at a fire station, ask the man behind bars for directions. He sends me back to Cary, over Centre. “It’s way down,” he says. This is the first time I’ve come to my son’s grave alone, found the cemetery alone. It’s a lot of stones, but I know his is near the back, then to the right. There’s a white tree that makes me think of a teenage tree, a young tree, near him. There’s the gray stone. When I’d driven in, I’d asked a woman by a grave, “Is there anywhere to buy flowers?” She tilted her head, as if I’d asked something hard. I liked her anyway, her visiting someone the same day as me. “Abington. There’s a Wal-Mart in Abington.” Another city somewhere unknown.

I went without flowers. But I know him. He wants me. I could be a flower. I remember the first time I realized that. It was just recently, but long after he’d died. I’d felt so incompetent, unskilled and poor and selfish. I hadn’t known then that no matter what, I was the one he wanted, the one he knew—his mother. I’d had no idea. I’d given him away, to relatives in Brockton. My child in my arms and then, my arms empty. I sit at his grave, his body under the grass in my hands. I talk to him like the day he was born. In the rocking chair, before the nurses knew he’d be adopted, after they’d made the beautiful mistake of giving him to me. I can still feel the weight of him. His calm in my arms.

When he died from leukemia, I would think about breast-feeding. That if I’d breast-fed him, he’d have had the natural protection it gives. That it would have given him protection against this city where he died. Ninety shoe factories. What did that do to the water quality in Brockton? A city of shoes for two hundred years.

(Used with permision from Simon & Schuster)

Kelle Groom's memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster), is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, a Library Journal Best Memoir, Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Month, Oprah O Magazine selection, and Oxford American Editor's Pick. Her poetry collections are Five Kingdoms (Anhinga), Luckily (Anhinga), and Underwater City (University Press of Florida). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, Ploughshares, and Best American Poetry 2010. She is the recipient of awards from Black Mountain Institute, UNLV, Library of Congress, Djerassi, Millay Colony, Atlantic Center for the Arts, VCCA, American Antiquarian Society, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Ucross Foundation, as well as two Florida Book Awards, and a State of Florida Cultural Affairs grant. She is on faculty of the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe.

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

Author's Statement

Why are you leaving if your story is here?

A playwright asked me this last November, just before the phone call came from the NEA. I was in my last few weeks in a borrowed loft in Provincetown’s West End, writing at the very end of the land. Natives of Massachusetts, my family moved from Cape Cod when I was young. But we always returned, and it is the place I consider home. I’d arrived this summer as I usually did, and continued the research begun last summer on my next book which takes place, in part, on the Cape. This fall, however, the family house was unexpectedly sold.

Out of the blue, friends had offered me their place in Provincetown for a couple of weeks. Once there, I found a copy of Henry Beston’s, The Outermost House, about his year on this beach. “The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.” My weeks had also miraculously extended into fall and early winter. In my final days of working there, when my focus had to shift from the research and writing of this book, to moving again, the NEA phone call came. It is such a stunning and generous affirmation, I fell briefly speechless. The fellowship allows me to return to the Cape. To find and write the stories that take place there, both my ancestors’ and my own. I am deeply grateful for the chance to do this work.