NEA Literature Fellowships

Monica McFawn

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(2016 - Prose)

from "Out of the Mouths of Babes"

He was nine years old. He had eczema. He scored very high on all tests that measured verbal ability. Some teachers mistook his brilliance for a smart mouth. Flossing was a point of contention, sometimes. He had a special diet—be sure to follow the special diet. He was different. A different child.

Grace had learned all this about the boy, Andy, in the first few moments of setting foot inside the Henderson household. Much could be made of the order in which the mother listed the boy’s traits. He was a young rash, an articulate and bratty rash, a high-maintenance and oh-so-special rash. Grace nodded as if everything the mother was saying was perfectly logical and expected. The boy sat across from her, playing a handheld video game and sucking from a silver juice bladder. He pulled the straw from the juice and used it to scratch his head, then put it back.

“What was that again?”

“I said, keep him off the phone. He doesn’t need to be on the phone today.”

The mother gathered up her bags, turned to her son, and smiled. Grace would see a usual range of looks from parents during this moment: the clingy ones would blink all misty-eyed; the ragged ones would flash a guilty smile, ashamed at their own relief; the boastful parents would give a kind of wink, imagining all the ways the nanny would soon be dazzled. But when this mother met her boy’s eyes, she visibly shrank in her suit as if caught in a compromising moment. The boy looked up from his game and gave his mother a tight smile—the thin courtesy a person gives a beggar who is thanking him too profusely.

The silver car backed out of the driveway, the late afternoon light flashing off its hood. The boy shielded the game screen with his hand and kept on playing. Grace watched him for a moment. He was sandy-haired, with a high rosiness on his cheeks that looked like misapplied blush. His irises, under a frill of tufted lashes, were dappled gray-green like Spanish moss shot through with sun. She considered greeting him, or hunkering down next to him and asking about his game, but thought better of it. She hated the awkward joviality that always marked the first one-on-one discussion with a child, so lately she had skipped it altogether. She had all evening with the boy—the mother would be out late on a catering job—so there was no need to hurry things along.

Monica McFawn’s story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won a Flannery O’Connor Award and was named a Michigan Notable Book, a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award, and an NPR “Great Read.” Her stories have appeared in journals such as Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review, and others, and her screenplays and plays have had readings in New York and Chicago. She is also author of A Catalogue of Rare Movements, a poetry/art chapbook, and host of the Nathaniel Hawthorne-themed comedy podcast, The Hawthorne Effect. A recipient of a Walter E. Dakin fellowship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, McFawn is an assistant professor of English at Northern Michigan University, where she teaches fiction and scriptwriting.

Photo by D.H. Nicholson

Author's Statement

I had never been a superstitious person, someone who believed in stars that align, lucky numbers, kismet, and serendipity. Nothing, in my view, was meant to be nor happened for a reason. To believe that coincidence was anything more than a statistical curiosity was a sign of mush-brained romanticism. The best way to make sense of the randomness was through art, with all its ambiguity and nuance. Art was the antidote to magical thinking, or so I thought.

About a year ago, I had an idea for a novel about cruising sailors, a group of people known for both their romanticism (the escapism of fleeing conventional life) and superstition. I found myself drawn to the strangeness of a life at sea, a life far different from my own Midwestern rootedness. On a whim, I included my sailing novel idea in my NEA application, figuring both the novel and the grant were equally outside of the range of possibility. Soon after, daunted by the research burden, I dropped the project.

Months later, I met a sailor/writer at a conference who had cruised aboard an old wooden sailboat for ten years. Befriending him reignited my interest in the sailing novel—it seemed like excellent luck. A few months after that, I got the call from the NEA. Now I was beginning to understand the allure of seeing things as signs, and letting myself be pushed by forces beyond my ken. I understood, in a way, what it means to be a sailor—both at the mercy of the weather and sustained by an ability to see design in happenstance. I’m immeasurably grateful to the NEA for coming into my life. It has offered me one more sign that I’m on the right course and has given me the means to keep going.