NEA Literature Fellowships

William Henry Lewis

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(2008 - Prose)

From the short story "I Got Somebody in Staunton"

When I met her two hours ago in Fredericksburg she was eased across two barstools. I wasn't at the bar five minutes before she started smiling at me. She kept brushing her elbow next to mine, staring at how, for all of the sun-tanning she must have done, my arm was a deeper brown than hers. She looked around at the other men in the bar, dark on the arms from day labor, but still paler than me. You've never been in this bar, either, that's what she said first. This had her laughing: me, bumping through the door in the early afternoon, eyes red from too much heat and no water, and not clear-headed enough to notice that it wasn't a bar where brothers hung out. But once I was ten feet into the place, I figured I had a right to have one beer wherever I wanted. I had sat down at the empty end of the bar, waited a while to get served. I got my beer and stared at the reworking of Mt. Rushmore painted on the brick wall: Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson.  I didn't have two pulls off the bottle before this girl was edging her elbow next to mine. She wouldn't stop smiling: what you doing in here? I couldn't say much to that.     

I don't know what got me into the Lafayette Bar that afternoon. I was headed to Staunton again, to visit Uncle Ize, who was dying. Sometimes I'd have a few drinks in some bar in Fredericksburg - always a different bar, I don't know why - get a little buzz on to speed up that same trip I'd been taking for three months now. Once a week along the byways: from Fredericksburg, through Gordonsville and Orange, past Cismont and Charlottesville, over Afton Mountain and just south of Staunton, to a small driveway running switchbacks up a hill where Uncle Izelle lay in the house he built thirty years back.    

Except for his bedroom, the rooms of Izelle's house were empty, stale with thirty years of Pall Mall smoke and Ize's tar-lung hack. Most of the furniture was gone. He couldn't make his way into the other rooms, and because he couldn't see to dying as quickly as the family expected, the relatives had started clearing the house to pay the bills. The living room suite to buy a hospital bed; Auntie Dora's china sold for his intubator, couch and dining room table for Meals-on-Wheels. His room was now his home: newspapers pushed to the corners; pictures of cars and trucks he had owned. Yellowed clippings of Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron, Oscar Robertson.  Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing records. Four-post bed with quilts Auntie Dora had made. Five-gallon water dispenser, side table for pills and muscle rub.  Laundry rack: one towel, two washcloths, hankerchief, boxers, socks, pajamas. Trousers, shirts, ties, and suits were in a box, bound for the clothing drive the Shrine put on every winter. After a while the house looked less like a home, so folks stopped treating it like one. When my cousin Pearline called to say that they forgot him to soil his own bed, I started making my drive to Staunton.   

Once a week I would leave after teaching Friday's last class and make the two hour drive to sit with Uncle Izelle. After a few visits, he started to fuss about me taking too long to get there, even though we had never set a time for me to arrive; he grew used to seeing me, so already had in his mind when he wanted me there. My truck didn't move fast enough for him.  One day I walked into his room and he lay there with his fist balled on his chest. He said, get here sooner, and he opened his fingers to give me the keys for his car.

I wore a groove into the wicker of his bedside rocker that summer. I would bring the Post, old copies of Ringside and Jet magazines from the barber shop in Fredericksburg. In the late light of the day, when the shade was on the bedroom side of the house, I'd open the window and turn off the air conditioner, let the smell of hay and black locust drift into the room as Ize dozed off. I would read for an hour. I don't know if I was reading for him or me. All I know is that sometimes, when I stopped mid-sentence to watch his face ease into sleep, I would relax, too. I'd forget about bills and committee meetings, stacks of papers waiting for me to grade. I would look out the window, across the heat working witchwater over the fields, out to the Blue Ridge and think, it don't make no damn difference what day it is, how hot it is or isn't, how fast or slow I get here, or how many times I'll be back, all that matters is that I'm here.

from I Got Somebody in Staunton: Stories by William Henry Lewis © 2005 HarperCollins Publishers

William Henry Lewis is the author of two collections of stories,
In the Arms of Our Elders (Carolina Wren Press), and
I Got Somebody in Staunton (Amistad/HarperCollins), which was recognized as a Fiction Honor Book by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, listed among Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2005, and was a finalist for the PEN Faulkner Prize for Fiction.  It was also selected as the city of Richmond's Go Read book for 2006.  Lewis's work has received prizes from the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation and the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and has appeared in many journals, including Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Callaloo, and Blackbird, and reprinted in several anthologies, including Best American Short Stories (1996).  Lewis currently teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland.  In addition to his work as an educator, he has worked as a laborer, journeyman, dishwasher, museum security guard, delivery truck driver, record store clerk, jazz disc jockey and a coach for the Bahamas National Soccer Teams.

Photo by Bernard Grant

Author's Statement

This fellowship comes at a time when I am just beginning to unearth the raw material for a suite of books I've wanted to write for some time. The fellowship will provide me smoother access to research opportunities and resources in a way that was not possible before. More to the point, in all of my years of preparing to write this sequence of books, it has only been very recently that I realized a foundation and craft approach that was suitable for this work. I am most grateful that the NEA fellowship serves not only as a confirmation that my work is starting from the right place, but also as encouragement to push that work to a destination I have been imagining for many years. Many, many thanks for an honor that humbles me and challenges me to create more than I could on my own.