NEA Literature Fellowships

Victoria Lancelotta

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(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from "So Happy"

Isabel tells the story, breathless, to anyone who will listen -- to Marie at the bakery and Betty at the hairdresser's on a Wednesday morning, to the girl from St. Casimir's whose name she does not know, who does the priests' laundry in scalding water, eyes averted, hands cracked and weeping.

The day he came home? -- you couldn't peel me away from that window -- I was so excited to have him back, I had that bus schedule memorized.

The girl's hands are raw meat but Isabel takes them in her own and squeezes, there on the sidewalk outside of St. Casimir's under a crackling fine fall sky: I didn't know what happiness was until I saw him walking up those stairs.

She tells the story and it begins to be true and she finds she cannot stop: she spins the day like cotton candy on a paper cone, as insubstantial as that and just as irresistible. There are versions, variations; embellished and enhanced, tricked and shined to suit, to order. Sometimes he comes with flowers, sometimes with a bandaged cheek. Sometimes she falls to her knees, or weeps, or throws herself into his arms and he catches her, kisses her, harbors her.

She is not confused and she is not dishonest and if she does not know exactly how to love him she knows, indubitably, how to love the day she is building from long summer shadow, from hot brick and humid dusk and Saturday matinees.

He is Gene Kelly and Robert Walker and Spencer Tracy and he appears on the walk in late August light, soft as honey and warmer. His eyes are clear and his hands are soft and where he's been is a dream and if not a dream then forgotten and if not forgotten then not real.

And his hands are so soft she can't feel them.

Her lips are sugar-pink and her eyes are blazing and on Sunday mornings she kneels at Mass between her sisters while he sleeps, strung across the bed she's left; he dreams of burning fields and burning flesh and the women who scrabbled at his feet. He dreams of singed hair and gaping mouths, powdery gray skin and satin ashy bones.

Isabel  genuflects and outside the church she tugs her gloves off and leans in with her sisters, three on a match. To Lina, to Anna: When I saw him I thought my heart would explode.

The more she says the more she believes, and the day plays itself into what it was supposed to be all along, and she lets it, and it does.

At night after dinner she brews coffee and he sloshes whiskey into the cups, holds the kitchen door open for her. They climb the stairs into the dusk. Their cigarettes wink and flicker and when the wind comes up she shivers.

In the winter Frank puts the storm windows up and Isabel takes the comforters down from the high closet shelves, shakes them out and hangs them to air on the clothesline in the thin December sun. In the spring he plants rose bushes in the scratch of soil outside the kitchen steps, their branches dry and gnarled. The blooms sigh open and the petals fall; even the thorns are dull. In the summer she draws a cool bath and sinks into it, holds a beer bottle to her forehead.

And each night he comes on his knees to her, naked and wet as a bird, pink eyelids and ruffled hair and scraped knuckles, an abyss behind his eyes. He crawls to her through broken glass and rusty wire that disappear behind him. He lays his head on her lap and breathes her powdered silence and his fingertips on her arms are like feathers; he has bitten the nails away.

He sucks at the glass necks of bottles, an orphan, a beggar; he scrubs himself raw in the shower, and still he cannot stop remembering. She washes his clothes and combs his hair and is shocked, shamed, at how easy it is to love him like this, stripped and licked by flame, broken and ragged and hers.

Victoria Lancelotta is the author of Here in the World: 13 Stories (Counterpoint, 2003) and the novels Far (Counterpoint, 2003) and Coeurs Blesses (Editions Phebus, 2009). She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Djerassi Foundation, and was the 2009 recipient of the Tennessee Arts Commission individual artist fellowship in fiction. Her work has appeared in the Mississippi Review,, the Missouri Review, McSweeneys, Antioch, and other magazines, both print and electronic, and been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and Blue Cathedral: Short Fiction for the New Millenium. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, Steven Conti.

Photo by Steven Conti

Author's Statement

I forgot how to write. I didn't think such a thing were possible, but then neither did I think it possible to wake up one morning and not recognize my own life. But that happened too, recently. I don't know which disappeared first -- the life I'd known for more than ten years, or the will to sit down at my desk; the ability to string words together into something close to sense. Honestly, I don't know if it matters, or if you can even really separate out the living part and the making sense of it part. What I do know is that I've been doing a whole lot of not-writing over the past eighteen months, and what I need now is essentially rehab; a self-imposed remedial course in putting one word after another. This grant is that.