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ABR spring reading series begins with author Jayne Anne Phillips

By APRILL BRANDON
Jan. 24, 2011 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 23, 2011 at 7:24 p.m.

Jayne Ann Phillips with the covers of five of her books.

Excerpt from "Lark And Termite" by Jayne Anne Phillips

July 16, 1959

Winfield, West Virginia

LARK

I move his chair into the yard under the tree and then Nonie carries him out. The tree is getting all full of seeds and the pods hang down.

Soon enough the seeds will fly through the air and Nonie will have hay fever and want all the windows shut to keep the white puffs out.

Termite will want to be outside in the chair all the time then and he'll go on and on at me if I try to keep him indoors so I can do the ironing or clean up the dishes. Sun or rain, he wants to be out, early mornings especially.

"OK, you're out," Nonie will say, and he starts his sounds, out out, quiet and satisfied, before she even puts him down. She has on her white uniform to go to work at Charlie's and she holds Termite out from her a ways, not to get her stockings run with his long toenails or her skirt stained with his fingers because he always has jam on them after breakfast.

"There's Termite." Nonie puts him in the chair with his legs under him like he always sits. Anybody else's legs would go to sleep, all day like that. "You keep an eye on him, Lark," Nonie tells me, "and give him some lemonade when it gets warmer. You can put the radio in the kitchen window. That way he can hear it from out here too."

Nonie straightens Termite.

"Get him one of those cleaner bag ribbons from inside. I got to go, Charlie will have my ass."

A car horn blares in the alley.

Termite blares too then, trying to sound like the horn. "Elise is here," Nonie says. "Don't forget to wash the dishes, and wipe off his hands."

She's already walking off across the grass, but Termite is outside so he doesn't mind her going. Elise waves at me from inside her Ford. She's a little shape in the shine of glare on the window, then the gravel crunches and they're moving off fast, like they're going somewhere important.

"Termite," I say to him, and he says it back to me. He always gets the notes right, without saying the words. His sounds are like a one-toned song, and the day is still and flat. It's seven in the morning and here and there a little bit of air moves, in pieces, like a tease, like things are getting full so slow no one notices.

On the kitchen wall we have one of those glass vials with blue water in it, and the water rises if it's going to storm.

The water is all the way to the top and it's like a test now to wait and see if the water works, or if the thing is so cheap it's already broken.

"Termite," I tell him, "I'll fix the radio. Don't worry."

He's got to have something to listen to.

He moves his fingers the way he does, with his hands up and all his fingers pointing, then curving, each in a separate motion, fast or careful.

He never looks at his fingers but I always think he hears or knows something through them, like he does it for some reason. Charlie says he's just spastic, that's a spastic motion; Nonie says he's fidgety, with whatever he has that he can't put to anything.

His fingers never stop moving unless we give him something to hold, then he holds on so tight we have to pry whatever it is away from him. Nonie says that's just cussedness. I think when he holds something his fingers rest. He doesn't always want to keep hearing things.

I tell Termite, "It's not going to rain yet. There's not going to be stars though, it's going to be hot and white, and the white sky will go gray. Then really late we might have that big storm they talk about."

Big storm they talk about, Termite says back to me, in sounds like my words.

"That's right," I tell him. "But you'll have to watch from the window. Don't think you're going to sit out here in the rain with lightning flashing all around you."

He doesn't say anything to that. He might be thinking how great it would be, wind and rain, real hard rain, not like the summer rain we let him sit out in sometimes.

He likes motion, he likes things on his skin. He's alive all over that way. Nonie says I put thoughts in his head, he might not be thinking anything.

Maybe he doesn't have to think, I tell her. Just don't you be thinking a lot of things about him that aren't true, she'll say.

But no one can tell what's true about him.

If You GoWHAT: American Book Review spring reading series

WHO: Author Jayne Anne Phillips

WHEN: Noon Thursday

WHERE: Alcorn Auditorium, UHV campus, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

COST: Free and open to the public

Other writers for Spring Reading Series:Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Feb. 9 - A poet, writer, photographer and painter, and recipient of several fellowships, Griffiths' literary and visual work has been widely published in journals, magazines, anthologies and periodicals.

Kate Bernheimer, Feb. 17 - Bernheimer has published novels, stories, children's books, creative nonfiction and essays on fairy tales and has edited three fairy-tale anthologies. The founder of "Fair Tale Review," she is a writer in residence at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

Beverly Lowry, March 10 - Lowry is a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts award winner and has served as president of the Texas Institute of Letters. The author of seven novels and two nonfiction works, Lowry is a former instructor at George Mason University, and she now lives in Austin.

Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, April 21 - Hinojosa-Smith specializes in life and literature of the Southwest and was the first Chicano author to receive the prestigious Premio Casa de las Americas award. He has devoted most of his career as a writer to his 15-volume "Klail City Death Trip" series.

The American Book Review spring reading series kicks off Thursday and starting out of the gate with the first reading is author Jayne Anne Phillips.

Phillips was born and raised in West Virginia and received a bachelor's in English from West Virginia University before moving on to get her master's from the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. She was only 26 when her first book of stories, "Black Tickets," was published in 1979. The book went on to win the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, according to her bio.

Among her other works is another story collection, "Fast Lanes," and four novels, "Machine Dreams," "Shelter," "Motherkind" and "Lark and Termite," according to a news release from the American Book Review. Her works have been published in 12 languages, according to her bio.

Among her numerous awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Bunting Fellowship, a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination and a 2004 Howard Foundation Fellowship, according to the news release.

She has taught at Boston University, Harvard, New York University and Brandeis University. Phillips is currently professor of English and director of the MFA Program at Rutgers Newark, the state university of New Jersey.

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