NEA Literature Fellowships

Sara Houghteling

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from Music for the Left Hand Alone

Our first teacher, our “civilizing influence,” as Dad called it, was frail, birdlike Miss Bethune, New Orleans-born, who lived downstairs from our apartment and owned the building and needed help with her grocery shopping, the trash and snow, and the occasional light bulb. She wore a gingery wig styled in a Marcel wave, and arches of blue powder on her eyelids that gave her a perpetually surprised expression. She was of an unknowable very old age—during our lessons, I marveled at how her skin had wrinkles within wrinkles, like ripples in water. She once told us that the woman who cared for her as a child had been born a slave. She required that we bow to her at the beginnings and ends of our lessons and she half-curtsied in response from beneath her afghan on her chair. Henry's playing often lulled Miss Bethune to sleep, but as a rule she awoke when I took the piano bench. With each wrong note, she poked me in the back with her cane.

For two years, beginning at age five, we played from a thick, cloth-bound yellow book of 365 Patriotic songs and other ditties of Americana. We advanced through the book with forced slowness, one song per week, with no other logic to our progression other than that America the Beautiful came before Camp Town Races. Miss Bethune taught us to read music, which was a great boon to Henry, although by this age (seven, at the time of which I'm about to speak) he had long been able to replicate by ear any tune he heard. A month or two after we learned to read music, Henry, who had been improvising wild variations on Oh What a Beautiful Morning at home, asked to see the other scores that sheafed Miss Bethune's music stand. Miss Bethune said no, Henry was too young and musn't ruin his technique by rushing into grownup music. “You wouldn't want to play baseball,” she said, “running in your father's shoes.” So when she wasn't looking, after the lesson was done, I lifted a stack of her music, sliding the scores into the little bag we carried with us. Back upstairs, Henry sat down at our piano, delighted by my theft. He played all afternoon until Father came home early from work with his belt already off, ready to give us a hiding. Miss Bethune must have rung him at the store. We hadn't noticed that taped to the last page of each score was an envelope thick with ration coupons and war bonds. Father said we were lucky the old woman didn't evict us altogether.

Sara Houghteling’s debut novel, Pictures at an Exhibition (Knopf), was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a San Francisco Chronicle Best of 2009 Book, and winner of the Ribalow Prize and the Wallant Award. She has received fellowships from the Fulbright and Camargo Foundations, and is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Michigan’s MFA Program. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently a lecturer in the Continuing Studies program at Stanford University, and is at work on a novel set in Boston and Paris in the '50s.

Photo by David Mason

Author's Statement

I write very slowly. Like many others, I throw away most of what I write. My second novel, this work-in-progress that I began in 2009 and submitted to the NEA in 2014, is about 70,000 words right now. As of today, that clocks me in at around 47.9452055 words per day. Slow progress. Years go by without anyone reading it (except my 94-year-old grandmother in Boston, who is both a gimlet-eyed and voracious reader). When I answered that phone call from the 202 area code, my hands shook. I couldn't believe it. I still can't quite. I am humbled and tremendously grateful to receive for the NEA—grateful for its generosity and the protected time it provides, and its marvelous encouragement to keep going.