NEA Literature Fellowships

Sheila Mulligan

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(2002 - Prose)

from Dressing Estelle

No one would want a photograph of this man unless they loved him. His teeth are perfect as a deprived child's and I decided he was raised on tap water from a plastic cup. I bet his father purchased soda from convenience stores for the free tumbler. That way his family could have something to drink from besides their hands.

This man's wife supported them and raised their children while he wrote his first book. She took her babies into the office. That went on four years.

His face was puffier than before his success. A few years ago, while he was still writing the book, we met during his office hours at a university in the Midwest, after my therapy appointments. He befriended me, not the other way around. He and his wife had moved to New Mexico for his sabbatical. We had five children between us.

I'm twenty-seven and have never given birth. I weigh as much as I did ten years ago, when I graduated from high school. I am extremely tall and thin, so much so that when I was thirteen girls threw rocks at me. Boys were more forgiving. By the time I was fifteen, I was a cover girl, even though I was still ugly enough to inspire violence. The older I got the less my looks mattered. I had not always had several lovers who didn't find out about each other until I got bored. Before I was sixteen not one boy ever even tried to kiss me. Then all at once no one cared how ugly I was. They wanted to talk to me and sit near me and they even wanted to touch me. I can never have a female friend. At least with men you always suspect what it is they really want. With women, though, who can ever see that sort of thing coming? I think I remain confused about relationships and physical pleasure yet I know there is more meaning without that connection.

I think my curse is that life was more erotic before men and women stopped caring about me being so ugly. Back then before I was fifteen, some boy I knew kindly told me the truth, then later that night we rode our bikes behind the grocery store, near the fence by the dirt hills, and he blocked me with his body and his bike against the wall. He did, because he had already told me about his lack of desire and knew I wouldn't expect anything later, no silence, nothing. That night I felt mercy because he made me feel beautiful. And you cannot be made to feel beautiful unless you aren't, and it feels so much better than the beauty does.

I'm not a real mother.

The air conditioner in the hotel room rolled breath over her tongue as if it were candy. My mouth tasted like spearmint and the air I breathed was flavored with marrow and tears.

Sugar after mint is really an ugly taste. How very ugly to have your face change on you, especially if you become beautiful.

Boxing gloves? Well you will give him credit for his imagination. My former psychoanalyst, Laurence, he thinks I am his closest friend. He will pretend to laugh when I tell him about me and Max and what we have done in this hotel room. He will tell me to tell him it was only a dream.

Max took off my shoe and rubbed my bare ankle. The hunger numbed emotion. I felt no betrayal or pain. I was tired, too tired to think, only perception took me by the throat and held me to the chair. I felt a searing pain on my shoulder as if it had been burned with hot teeth. He bit me. If he were the two-year-old I could send him to the time out corner. I looked plastic as a toy. The raging hunger was distracted by pain and I found myself stepping back inside of me to a deeper place where hunger was something I could feel without hurting. Sleep, I wanted to sleep. I could not make that hurt leave. His teeth were so close to the bone in my shoulder that the electric pain remained even when he was back admiring himself in front of the mirror that was on the wall across from the bed. I thought about my mother.

Sheila Mulligan has published fiction in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Shenandoah and other literary magazines. She received a grant-in-aid from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation in 2000, an artist grant from the Utah Arts Council in 1998 and a prize in the 40th Annual Utah Original Writing Competition in the Novel in 1998. She lives with Peter Stitt and her three young daughters in Gettysburg and may be reached at

Author's Statement

If I have been successful then Dressing Estelle is Sunday-night-movie-of-the-week as masterpiece. Of course this book is neither a movie of the week nor is it even a published novel. I need to state that it was a tremendous honor to win this award with Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) and Steve Sherrill (a poet whose work I am familiar with from when he was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop). I intend to make myself familiar with all of the other fellowship recipients' work mainly because I need something decent to read. All I can say is this: other judges would have probably picked other writers, but Franzen and Sherrill, well, to have been selected with them is unreal honor. And "unreal honor" sort of looks like the word "horror" if you read it very fast, which is also what I feel, because this fellowship has a power to it that almost screams: you are now cursed. Needing time to write might be such a lie if a person was going to do it anyway. But being with my kids instead of writing or doing freelance copyediting or the housework or sleeping, being able to sit at the kitchen table and do nothing but stare at the lipstick imprint melting on my coffee mug, that's life from the other side. And I have just been informed by someone who would know that this statement is 1. goofy and 2. completely sucking up to Franzen and Sherrill and that 3. I really have been doing more than watching my lipstick. The last thing I would like to state is that my reaction to winning this fellowship was to wear an Insane Clown Posse sweatshirt while smoking cigarette after cigarette in the parking lot at the bank.