NEA Literature Fellowships

Melissa Yancy

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(2016 - Prose)

from Dog Years

It is Zach’s birthday. He is turning nine. This year, he has not requested a trip to Magic Mountain or the Safari Park, but a backyard party with friends. They have set up a volleyball court and bought every kind of foam ball and stick game ever manufactured. Jeanette has hidden the family’s hoarding from sight, and bought marinated pollo asado from a Mexican grocery down the hill. Ellen’s job has been to select the cake: it is the Space Shuttle Endeavor, in patriotic hues, the last year Zach may like something like this. As a joke, Tyler has bought the fat numbered candles for 36, since Zach argues that because of his short life, his age should be treated like dog years. He gives himself four years for every one and shouts out dog years! when they tell him he isn’t old enough to do something.

Zach’s two closest friends from school arrive first so they avoid the awkward school dance feeling that can descend on a child’s birthday party. Within seconds they are outside, fencing with foam batons. Zach is unsteady in the fencer’s pose, easily knocked off balance by the strikes. She sees him wobble and look for a flatter space on the grass.

Zach has always had plenty of friends from school, but now that she and Gordy run the Center, a few families with boys with muscular dystrophy have entered the fold at Gordy’s suggestion. It is supposed to be good for Zach, or for them, and although it has made him less alone, it has introduced him to his future, a perverse variation on the way older children so often introduce younger kids to things they aren’t yet ready for.

Ellen opens a Sauvignon Blanc and the women congregate in the kitchen, drinking, while they watch the men outside on the grill. The women like to mourn at birthday parties, and the men just want to relax. She remembers when Tyler was growing up, how they would sit around and groan that their boys weren’t little boys anymore. It was bittersweet, a feeling that had felt complex then. But now that she has added another dimension, a child whose health degenerates each year, the old feeling is so flat, so easy. 

Melissa Yancy is the winner of the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press for her story collection Dog Years, which will be published in the fall of 2016. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, Glimmer Train, Zyzzyva, Prairie Schooner, and many other publications. Stories featured in the collection Dog Years have won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, The Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize, and received special mention in the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Los Angeles where she works as a fundraiser for healthcare causes.

Photo by Melissa Yancy

Author's Statement

Just hours after I received the good news, I developed a paranoid scenario that the call had been a scam operation to make me reveal my social security number. Never mind this would be the worst-conceived scam (where did they find this directory of hopeless writers to phone?) and that it would have taken an exceptionally erudite fraudster to pass for the NEA staffer who shared enthusiastic details about that year’s selection panel and process. I mean, maybe this scammer did his research. Such was my degree of denial. I was afraid to tell anyone lest I suffer the later humiliation of admitting I’d been the victim of fraud. So in terms of validation, the NEA Fellowship was a big deal. When the list eventually came out and I saw myself alongside so many writers I admire, it struck me even more.

It didn’t hurt that I was six months pregnant with my first child. At first the timing confounded me, until I realized it was perfect: when had my writing ever been more vulnerable, with the threat of being consumed by waves of full-time work and infant care? It was the ideal time to use this official acknowledgment to grant permission to myself: I will take time off, I will use extra childcare, I will treat my writing as official business, because the U.S. government says so.