1997 Short Story Contest Winners
July 21, 1997: I hit the glass doors of Circus Pizza pretty hard. They swung back and smashed against their frame, and for a second I thought I had shattered the panes. No one noticed except two kids sinking quarters into a Skill Crane. They looked at me for only a second before turning their attention back to plucking morsels out of the stew of stuffed animals and plastic wristwatches. I looked for Jav.
He was in the arcade, huddled in the cockpit of Afterburner. His black Chicago Bulls jacket was turned inside-out with the red lining facing outward. I thumped the cockpit with my fist. He pretended not to notice, so I kicked it, this time hard, so hard I chipped the plywood gameshell, and crawled into the seat of the Star Wars game beside him. Over the screams of electronic jets being disintegrated by sidewinder missiles and birthday-party guests snapping whips of Skee-Ball tickets, I could hear sirens.
"On the count of three," he said, "get up and go into the bathroom, take off your jacket. Leave through the back entrance. I'll meet you in the spillway in a few." I stuck my head out and scanned the dining room. A family was singing Las Mañanitas to their five-year-old kid, and the Skill Crane kids had given up and were now bopping plastic alligators with foam mallets.
"Did anyone follow you?" he asked.
"I didn't look."
We walked down the spillway while he munched on a slice of pepperoni swiped off the birthday table. "What I like to do," he said, "is to take a can of motor oil, pop it open and toss it into a swimming pool. As the can's sinking, the oil oozes out and makes this big slick. Gets into the filtration, fucks everything up. Careful dude, dead dog." I looked down at my left Chuck Taylor about to go into a dog that must've been there a month. Its skin was already well mummified onto the bones. It was almost summer and there'd be no rain for two months. The dog wouldn't have the dignity of decomposing; he'd just stay there under the sun and continue leatherizing until a guy like Jav came along and kicked his head off, which he did. The head snapped off sharply and rolled down the channel.
"If they have a garden hose out front, stick one end into an open window. Then let `er rip. Lime's good for burning designs into lawns. You can use salt, but that takes too long. Lime's fucking instantaneous. Remember when I drew "FAG" with lime on Bobby Marquez's lawn?"
"I wasn't there."
"Well, you should've seen it."
"Where'd you get sodium from?" In the darkness, I couldn't tell if he smiled numbly or scratched his shaved head, the way he always did whenever I asked him a real question. Probably both.
"I was pulling detention with Diaz a couple weeks ago. Fucking retard left the room for a Coke, and while he was out, I opened the chemical closet, grabbed the jar, and walked out at five-thirty. Wavy fucking gravy, man." Jav ditched class the day Diaz took a sodium sliver the size of a chewed-off thumbnail and dropped it into a beaker of water. I was in class that day, and told him all about what happened, about the purple cloud that reared up like a potted cobra and the water that instantly boiled over the beaker's lip. He wouldn't stop asking me the specifics for a week -- how much water Diaz used, the size of the experimental slice, the location of its mother, slumbering in a jar under a blanket of mineral oil somewhere in the chemical closet. Sometimes I should just shut up in front of Jav.
The moon hung high over the desert, making things brighter the further we got from the houses. We'd been walking for a half-hour, and even though I've walked this channel many times before, it felt like Jav was leading me to another world, his Planet Hideout. The moonlight transformed everything into a weird, alien negative. Blue and red plastic balls washed downstream from the play cage at the Circus now came in only two colors, grey and greyer, and a dirty pink doll's head shone like fine porcelain until Jav stepped on it and caved it in.
"Question," he said. "Why the fuck can't I beat the Gate Boss on DoomStar's third level? I tried shooting off the arms and waiting for him to blink, but the fucker never blinks. By the time he does, I'm out of missiles --"
"Didn't you find the warp tunnel to get around him?"
"Whose house was that?"
I didn't want to do anything that night. After we came back from Luby's, I was looking forward to beating level four on DoomStar, a feat that, if successful, would take all night, before going to bed. I didn't expect Jav to knock on my window, telling me to meet him outside wearing something dark. He stopped walking and turned his back to me, his head smooth and grey like the plastic balls at our feet.
"No one?" I asked. "No one who has a swimming pool and a satellite dish?"
"What do you care, man? We've done this before -- what's so different about tonight?"
"I almost got hit by a truck running across Colleary to catch up with your ass. I think I'm entitled to know who we just did."
Jav picked up a Coors bottle lying on the ground and threw it hard against one of the spillway walls. It exploded all over the red eight-foot high calligraphic letters "VWC": Varrio West Colleary. Funny thing is, the varrio east of Colleary Avenue wasn't much of a barrio, unless you consider perfect lawns, blue Ford Tauruses and two-story brick homes typical of inner-city Hispanic neighborhoods. But I still wouldn't fuck with them. Next to the letters was a huge painting of the business end of a hand giving the finger. On the other wall was the mark of their main rival, VGL -- Varrio Gateway Lopez.
I remember both for December 21st last year. That day, the last school day before Christmas, rumors of a big fight got passed around like so many origami-folded love letters. Supposedly, a VGL banger keyed "VGL" into the car door of a VWC member. Skirmishes broke out that day, but were mere tremors before the Big One. Everyone, including the school security guard, assumed the student parking lot was ground zero, but the action happened in the teacher parking lot. Me and Jav saw the whole thing. A member of VGL ran by us from behind the library. It was Manny Alsup; we were in Cub Scouts together. Fourteen or so guys in red -- VWC -- ran after him. As soon as they swept by, another swarm, this time of VGLs, ran by, and both sides poured into the teacher parking lot. By the time the police showed up, Manny was on the ground with a crowbar dent on the bridge of his nose. Jav threw a brick through a library window in the confusion.
"Teresa Medlar," he said. "That's whose house that was."
Teresa Medlar? She was two years older than us and on my wall by sheer accident. A Polaroid snapshot of me and Jav taken our freshman year during a winter band competition is tacked up on my wall. Neither of us is smiling. I have my cape wrapped around me, and Jav has hair, thick wooly curls, and is cradling his gleaming trumpet like a machine gun. Teresa's head, all brown curls and honey skin, is floating over my shoulder; she may not have known her picture was being taken, but her eyes did, and they're pouring themselves right into the lens. We didn't place that year, and me and Jav quit that spring.
"Teresa Medlar?" I said, "What the hell did she ever do to you?"
"It's not about me, man," he said. "You know who Tina Ramos is?"
"She's Terror's girlfriend." The name's Terrace Winfield to his guidance counselor, psychiatrist and parole officer, but Terror to the rest of us. Colleary High was his tank, and he was the lone shark; guys like me and Jav were just mackerel trying to stay out of his way. Terror's arm was the one who buried the crowbar down into Manny's face. He spent that Christmas in the county juvenile home. I wanted to scream at Jav, ask him what the fuck he had gotten himself sucked in to, but he wouldn't stop talking long enough. "This Teresa bitch's been talking shit about how she and Terror are fucking on the side. So Tina finds me and tells me she wants Teresa to pay. Tina's also planning to beat the shit out of her real soon. This is just the fucking appetizer." I suddenly felt nauseous and fell to my feet, throwing up what little remained undigested. "Know the best part of all this? Tina asked me to do this. How about that? I'm a sophomore and I'm already a name. Dee-fucking-facto. I just think I spent my last Friday night playing Nintendo with your sorry ass." I threw up again. Jav laughed some more. "Dude, what's up with you tonight?"
"How'd you find out where Teresa lives? She's not in the phone book or the student directory."
"I asked Bobby Marquez. He told me Teresa lived on his street and pointed out the house."
"You trusted Bobby Marquez with something like that?"
"Bobby's a good guy, even if he's a fag."
"Jav, you got the wrong house."
"Don't bullshit me bitch," he laughed.
"Jav, I've been to Teresa Medlar's house. I had to go to her house every Wednesday during the summer for section practice. I'm telling you that's not her fucking house." He stopped laughing. I guess it was unfortunate for him that I was the only person he took seriously. "She doesn't live anywhere near where we were."
I followed Jav to the stop of the spillway. He faced the city and stared into its light, orange from all the sodium vapor lamps. His lower jaw trembled a bit, like tremors before the Big One.
"So if that's not Teresa's house...." He said no more and kept on staring. His mind was processing the same facts and rumors that mine was, weaving from them a tapestry of horrifying possibilities. The house was west of Colleary. Stories circulated in the halls on Mondays after the weekends about Terror's wild pool parties. Bobby Marquez knew it was Jav who drew FAG on his lawn -- I told him. And he must've noticed the red Chicago Bulls jacket, exactly like Jav's but in reverse, with a black lining, hanging on a chair by the pool Jav hurled half a pound of sodium into. That could've been it. And it could've been the home of a very unlucky elderly couple.
We crossed Colleary around 1:00am. We didn't speak, even when we crossed the thick stream of purplish-black liquid flowing downhill into the gutter. When we got to my house, Jav finally spoke and said he'd be by tomorrow to watch me beat the fourth level of DoomStar, then walked on home. The three of clubs card wedged between the bedroom door and frame was still there. I turned the Nintendo on and started to work on the fourth level. The trick is to get at least 100 missiles and blow up the left turret that fires exploding scattershot fireballs first. You'll need at least a hundred missiles; consistency is everything.
Short Story Contest: Second Place
Queen of Queensby Jane Thurmond
When I approached the panel of judges, they shifted in their seats. A single bulb lit the domes of their Sunday hats and the knuckles of their white gloved hands. But I was not bothered by their stern faces, etched with doubt. Scriptures whooshed through me and out my mouth and I felt clean inside, lightheaded. Each verse they challenged me to recite drifted through the cracks in the clapboard church, drawing my fellow contestants to the windows to ogle. Hours later, after my final flawless recitation, the humbled judges stretched forward to caress my clasped hands and I bloomed to welcome my rewards. A flurry of possibilities peppered my future. First, a formal dress, matching pumps, perfume, nylons, escort and crown bearer -- all choices to consider before my grand coronation as Queen Judy Ann of the House of Wiggins of the Royal Family of Breeze Baptist Church.
Newspapers in five states picked up my story. "Ambitious Student Memorizes Large Chunk of Bible." "Elephant Memory!" "Motherless Teen Repairs Family Name." In my favorite spread the arched doors of the sanctuary curled around my shoulders, and the blurb below the photo read, "In this age of hippies and free love, take note of Judy Ann Wiggins. Able to spout scriptures on command, she memorized more Bible verses than all her classmates combined and is known across Texas as the Queen of Queens."
And now I've become a different sort of spectacle. Today, for instance, I was standing in the garden near the front gate when a family in a station wagon coasted slowly down the road. Two girls peered at my belly from the back seat. Through their car window I saw their mother's pursed lips using me as an example.
I turned my back just as our housemother Mrs. Rayburn stepped off the porch. "Judy Ann, look how you've made these blossoms thicken. You're the first to take such an interest in the yard."
"It's that sign," I said, waving my hedge clippers. "No one wants to be seen out here with it."
Behind Mrs. Rayburn, land rose and fell in lifelike mounds -- thigh, torso, a hint of breasts on young flat-chested girls. Looking down on us from where it straddled an earthen hip, "Trinity Bay Home for Unwed Mothers" was etched on an enormous marble marker.
"A boulder that size is impossible to budge," Mrs. Rayburn said, helping me gather my tools.
Still, my trip out to the garden was worth exposure -- for the roses. I cut a dozen buds, one from each bush. Now everyone's room is cheered by a green coke bottle that bears a silky flower.
The father of my baby is not in question. I've never even kissed another boy. I could have fainted when Charlie Pruitt passed his first note through the tenor section and up to me in alto. His Beatle bangs fell wildly across his forehead so I could barely see his eyes. The V of his church choir robe cradled his dimpled chin. I fixed my gaze on the organ, where Mrs. Finch's hands rested on those snowy keys.
Before Mrs. Finch my mother played that organ transforming clarinets into harps and cellos into bassoons. Her feet moved like she was splashing the surface of a lake. Sometimes I'd sit with her on the walnut bench, dangling my feet and watching her long fingers, like birds opening and closing their wings across the keyboards. On the Sunday that she and the choir director ran off together, she wore her most dramatic dress -- white with black blotches splayed across it, as if the organ's keyboards had exploded across her lap.
From that day, the congregation treated me differently. "That's Sharon Wiggins' daughter," they'd tisk-tisk with disapproval, as if I were a remnant of my mother's unfaithfulness. And so, I forced myself to rise above them, realizing I could use my memory to prove myself to everyone.
Last summer after Charlie bought his Impala, we'd drive way out into the Thicket, out to our secret spot along a bayou. Among the sounds of scurrying animals and flapping, squawking birds, he'd challenge me to recite from my endless list of scriptures and I'd do it, fueled by the wet-wood smell, the clack of cane, and alligators skimming the far bank. After mastering all the scriptures it took other girls years to learn, I had a greedy appetite to make my challengers gape and my doubting judges swoon, and so I memorized more.
The night of the Coronation, Daddy stood at my bedroom door, drooping eyes shifting back and forth between me, dressed in my mother's wedding dress, and an old wedding photo of Mother with cake on her face. "You look like her," he said, sadly, with his fists on his hips. Charlie, dressed in a stiff ribbed shirt and royal blue tuxedo, met me at the church with salmon bog orchids he had woven into a corsage. "Dressed like the day you'll become Mrs. Pruitt." His face looked pink from light shining off the neon cross, and when he took my hand and kissed it, I curtsied back. Dolly, his kindergartner cousin I had chosen for my crown bearer, picked at the satin stripe that ran down the side of his pants. He stooped and positioned the satin pillow on her outstretched arms and balanced my crown on top. "Judy Ann started out as a crown-bearer just like you," he said, fiddling with her curls.
Reverend Tilly's wife hurriedly draped all the queens in wide white ribbons, beauty pageant style. As she pinned the ends together at my hip, organ music boomed, announcing the start of the Grand Promenade. Ladies-in-waiting left the foyer, two by two, then princesses marched down the aisle. We queens were giddy, waiting in line for our turn, each of us with an escort on our arm and a squirming crown-bearer to watch after. Through the porthole window in the sanctuary door, I could see that my fans filled the pews to overflowing. The only queen with a scepter, I hovered above the other girls as we waited. Charlie's English Leather enveloped me in a fragrant sweet veil.
The other queens dwindled down the aisle until Charlie, Dolly and I were left alone in the foyer. In the distance, flanking Reverend Tilly, the slouching guards straightened when his booming voice announced, "Judy Ann of the House of Wiggins." Charlie gave Dolly a nudge as Haydn rose into the rafters. And as if this were our wedding, we marched towards Reverend Tilly. The congregation stood and faced us as we passed, guards raised their painted wooden swords above their shields in salute. Such a long walk down the wide red carpet. Everything seemed to sway until Dolly halted before Reverend Tilly who plucked the crown from her pillow and cradled it in his palms. After placing the pillow at the edge of my dress she skipped to the cluster of other crown-bearers. As I aimed my knees, Charlie steadied me, until I kneeled on the pillow with my head bowed. "I crown you Queen of Queens, Queen Judy Ann of the House of Wiggins of the Royal Family of Breeze Baptist Church," the reverend recited. He mashed the crown down around my hairdo, which had been, until that moment, a perfect French roll, then awarded me the most exquisite Bible -- white with gold lettering across the front. My scepter glittered as Reverend Tilly finished up, "... be proud and thankful for this servant who is spilling over with the word of God. Watch wherefore she travels, observe her good deeds. Praise God for our Queen of Queens, who has put our church on the map." I swung my scepter in an arc over my head and for the first time ever, they say, in a Coronation at Breeze Baptist Church, the congregation cheered.
A reception followed in Fellowship Hall. Tables groaned under the weight of shimmering green jello, bright fresh fruit cocktails, celery sticks heaped with pimento cheese, saltines, chocolate sheet cakes, and crimson tropical punch. I stood in the receiving line where some younger girls even asked for my autograph. As the last of my well-wishers drifted to the onion dip, Daddy, still wearing his wrinkled work suit, hugged me good-bye and headed for home. As he disappeared out the door I ached for my mother, noticing how the other mothers doted on their daughters by straightening their straps and baby-sitting their bouquets.
Charlie and I wandered around the back lot behind the Sunday school classrooms where he had parked his Impala. Nestled in the back seat I pressed my cheek against his chest and we started kissing like we sometimes did. His arms felt solid around me and the difference was this time, I didn't stop him. Soon he had his jacket off and his zipper down. I recited Song of Solomon to myself to get through. We made this baby without unhooking the eyelets of my dress. I bunched the skirt up around my head so I couldn't see and closed my eyes so tightly I couldn't feel. After he was quiet I couldn't speak. So this is why Mother left, I thought, trying to imagine her enjoying it.
After Charlie saw me to the door, I stepped out of Mother's wedding dress and folded it into my empty dresser drawer. It ballooned up as if it still held my chest, and I waited and watched as it sadly deflated.
At Trinity Bay Home for Unwed Mothers, I chose my room because of "Lady Banks" rose, the only rose bush in the yard that's a climber. She creeps up with tendrils that reach for me, and we spend our days together, me on my side of the screen, her on hers. I keep the window raised and the whole room smells like roses. Not like peppery-smelling florist roses Daddy wired me, accompanied by a card, on my birthday, but more like the roses from Charlie's and my secret spot. Daddy's card is the only message I've received since I arrived.
My queen's scepter sits on the windowsill and I see now what it's really made of -- a Styrofoam ball shoved on the end of a brass curtain rod spraypainted gold with rickrack pinned on. A sash of satin ribbon sewed with rows of sequins wraps around the stem. The memory of my Coronation rests in its Styrofoam pores. My crown is a cardboard ring cut in a zigzag around the top, painted white with gold braid glued on, glommed with glitter, especially at the points. You have to smell my Bible to convince yourself the leather is imitation, its cover engraved in gold: Her Majesty, Queen Judy Ann of the House of Wiggins, Queen of Queens of the Royal Family of Breeze Baptist Church.
I close my eyes and feel again like a genuine queen. I place my mother there at the front of the sanctuary near the line of guards who raise their swords in salute, the fiery candles, riotous bouquets, and me, floating there in her dress, wearing my crown, waving this scepter above the heads of everyone.
Short Story Contest: Third Place
Three Times Deadby Cecilia Cortez
"Look," I said as we climbed down the ladder, "I don't care what you think, but I took a good look at grandfather last night and the pneumonia is the least of our problems. He's starving to death and if all of you would just stop and really look at him or talk to him instead of whispering, you'd see that."
Aunt Elise gasped and then held out her hands, "Here, give me those things. I'll do the cooking."
I handed her the pigeons and headed for grandfather's room where my Aunt Alba was keeping vigil. Seated at the foot of the bed, she was twirling a rosary in her hand.
Grandfather Panfilo was so intent on dying, he insisted on living in the last original room left in the family home. In that room, surrounded by chipped adobe bricks full of spider webs, a cold cement floor and the smell of damp untreated leather, Panfilo dreamt of death. Only a thin ray of light managed to come in through a small crevice in one of the walls. The room was known for having a draft all year long, but Panfilo refused to move on to another part of the house. When the family explained that the room was falling in all around him, Panfilo only laughed and answered, "I know." He liked to add that it was great practice, any day now he would be sleeping peacefully under the earth, his hands crossed over his chest holding a daisy. There would be no surprises the day we lay him to rest.
At five every morning, my Aunt Elodia made her way across the dark courtyard and into grandfather's room. Before entering, Elodia called out, "Panfilo, Panfilo." She stopped calling him father a long time ago. Elodia didn't remember when or why that was, it just was. Hearing no answer, she stepped into the room. She brushed off the centipedes that had landed on Panfilo's bed overnight. Elodia's morning routine had changed abruptly on the very same day Panfilo declared he was dying. That was seventeen years ago, she thought. Seventeen years of mornings that I come in here before I've even wiped the lagañas from my eyes.
Elodia learned to determine the fate of each centipede that fell from the rotting vigas overhead. The ones which landed on Panfilo's bed with their little feet extended and their eyes wide open died of fright during the fall. Their bodies were always very stiff. Others endured their last hours in anguish at the mercy of Panfilo's sharp bones, or as Elodia liked to call it, "the crushing." Finally, there were the survivors, which Elodia referred to as the "lucky ones." These she collected in a glass jar and depending on the coloring, a few were considered lunch for her canaries.
After cleaning up the centipede carcasses, Elodia put her hand under Panfilo's nose and waited for the soft wind of his breath to rustle over her palm. Yes, she confirmed, he's still in this world. Next, she dusted his eyelids, nostrils and bed sheets. When she was done, she gave him a full look, focusing for a second on Panfilo's left fist. She was never able to pry it open and free the bits of earth he clung to.
"What do you mean he's dying? What's wrong with him?" Dolores asked her Aunt Elodia over the phone.
"What do you mean, what's wrong with him! He's old, that's what! He's dying. It's really true this time, Dolores. You better come quick! He's asking about your mother."
"What did the doctor say? Last time I saw grandfather, he was fine."
"I know what I'm telling you. Last night I woke from a terrible dream. In the dream, I lived in a small adobe house. It was a nice little place, with lots of flowers and bright light. I was making tortillas over the wood stove. I lived there with two younger sisters and a father whose name was called three times dead," Elodia shivered.
"What does that mean, a father whose name had been called three times dead?"
"Ay, Dolores, I couldn't sleep after I heard that. I went to check on him. He was lying there, no dirt on the sheets, no centipedes and the room was warm. His breath was barely coming out."
"Get the doctor and call me back!"
Elodia hung up and sighed. Her niece Dolores, the family skeptic, wouldn't make the trip back home until she heard a medical diagnosis, but the town's one doctor was off picnicking and wouldn't return soon.
When I arrived, my three aunts, all dressed in black, were praying at the foot of my grandfather's bed. Three weeks ago my Aunt Elodia called to tell me Panfilo was dying and then she called again and said to forget it, it was just a little gas. Yesterday, she called and all she said was, "Pneumonia."
My grandfather had been dying since February 12, 1980. That's the day my grandmother Chepa died. The only conversation we were able to have with Panfilo after that dealt with his impending death, though the town doctor had declared him the healthiest viejito around town year after year. A few months ago, when I visited him, we had our usual conversation.
"Grandfather, it's me Dolores, how are you?"
"Who? Oh, Dolores? Where's your mother?"
"My mom's still sick, but she'll come for a visit soon, okay? Now tell me what hurts you."
"Everything. If your mama doesn't come soon, I'll be gone. You know Chepa's waiting for me, don't you? Come closer so I can give you my blessing. Next time you come, I won't be here."
In the candlelight, I had to look hard to make his shape out on the bed. His skin hung loosely over his bones. I leaned over to kiss him and inhaled the familiar smell of dust that permeated his skin.
"Hey, abuelo, it's me."
"Shush, don't breathe on him. He's delicate," my aunts hissed, looking up from their rosaries.
"Where's the doctor?"
Panfilo's last surviving daughters, my aunts Elodia, Alba and Elise glared back, not happy to have their wake interrupted.
"The doctor is gone for the night. There's not much we can do, Dolores. Come pray with us," said Aunt Alba.
"Now that you're here you can at least help clear his throat. He's got a lot of phlegm. He's been awake, insisting on giving his last blessings. He's asking for your mother," sniffled Aunt Elise.
"Well, maybe it's time we tell him the truth."
"Are you crazy? Do you want to kill him?" responded Aunt Elodia.
When my mother, Librada, died of cancer two years ago, it was Aunt Elodia who decided that we not tell my grandfather. She argued that telling him the news might just kill him, not of sadness, though he loved Librada, but of the sheer disappointment that it had not been him. We all knew his death wish was that fierce and really believed those news would cause him too much suffering.
"I know, but I've never seen him like this. For all we know he's just hanging on to see my mom so he can go peacefully. It's just not right. If we don't tell him and he dies, how do you think he'll feel when he runs into her up there?"
I kneeled next to his bed and took his long hands in mine. I tried a telepathic message. Abuelo, I've come to take care of you and tell you my mother's dead. Please don't leave without first giving baby pigeon soup a chance. I concentrated on the message while my aunts resumed their chants and prayers. In the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of my grandfather's gray suit hanging outside his dresser.
"Thank the Virgencita, you've returned. He's asking for you, "Aunt Alba said crossing herself, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I'll be in the kitchen if something comes up."
Grandfather's eyes were wide open. I kneeled and told him I was there.
"Umm... She's de...." I looked around nervously. "Grandpa, she's gone. Do you know what I mean?"
He didn't reply, but I knew he understood.
"They don't come close, but Elise, Alba and Elodia are here. They're in the kitchen making you pigeon soup right now."
"Soup? Ay no...no more, Dolores, I just want to close my eyes. Let me sleep," his voice slipped into the hollow cavity of his body.
I opened the door to let in air and light, while I convinced him to sit up in bed. I arranged his pillows and set about taking his temperature and clearing his throat. With a washcloth, I freshened him up. He thanked me for going to so much trouble primping and making him comfortable. It was a while before Aunt Elodia arrived with the soup. At first, grandfather refused to eat.
"Just a sip or two, you'll sleep better with something in your stomach," I said passing the bowl under his nose, "It's good, smell."
He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. A few seconds went by and then he opened his mouth. I gave him a spoonful and watched as he swallowed carefully. My Aunt Elodia ran out of the room and returned with her sisters close behind. They watched in awe as Panfilo took spoonful after spoonful of the soup. He seemed to come alive with each swallow, his eyes shone and his cheeks became a rosy brown.
"He hasn't eaten like that in years."
"Mom did always say that there was nothing like pigeon soup to wake up the dead."
"Maybe he shouldn't have too much. He hasn't really eaten and it's already five in the afternoon."
"You're going to be fine, right, Abuelo?" I asked him.
He swallowed the last spoonful and gave us a wide smile.
"All of you come closer," he smacked his lips together, "May God bless you and your families. Chepa would not be pleased to hear me say this, but that's the best soup I've ever had."
We smiled back at him as bits of adobe came undone from the ceiling and rained down on us.
That evening my grandfather passed away while we sat in the kitchen sipping coffee. I listened as my aunts reminisced about the delicious pigeon soup my Grandmother Chepa cooked every time Panfilo traveled north to work in the fields. Panfilo would walk into the kitchen holding a tiny bundle wrapped with rope and a bus ticket in his shirt pocket. He ate his bowl of soup in silence as Chepa looked on from her place near the wood stove. The journey north was long and required not only strength, but a stomach at peace, Chepa told her girls, as they watched their father climb the bus at the town square. Never embark on trips, long or short, on an empty stomach, she added, as they waved, their father gone in a flurry of dust.
Short Story Contest: Fourth Place
The Church of Fat Luckyby Marlys West
Sully says he wants to eat by the run-off gully. He's tired of cement, we all are. He's not even ten yet, small for his age and fair-skinned like me, but we aren't blood-related. Our church meets in my mother's cement-floored basement. It's cold there, even with blankets, even with a space heater in front of Lucky who doesn't get cold.
Sully kicks the table. Don't do that, says my mother, stabbing the air around him with her finger. Sully kicks the table harder. We'll have to go. Lucky says give in to him, he's next in line at church. Lucky says let him have his fun while he still can.
Sully's full name is Sullert Vier Patterson. His mother was a girl I barely knew, who grew up, married Bertram, then got sick and died when Sully was still in diapers. My husband and I don't have any children, last year we found out why. Sully kicks the table so hard he hurts his foot.
Curl my hair for the gully picnic, says my mother and reaches with her free hand down to Sully. He stays under the table. My mother won't go anywhere without her hair curled. In her bathroom I take twenty curlers out of the drawer and pull the hair off them. Get the setting lotion, my mother calls.
I hear her tell Sully she'll get arthritis from a picnic, doesn't he care about that? I know she's got her hand upended like a claw in his face. Sully's kicking the table. My mother's ashtray is probably right now stuttering to the side of the table. Sully's got his eye on it, wondering how far he can go.
Sully and his father live with my mother. My husband and I live on the other side of town. Lucky lives with all of us. I don't mind that Lucky's back with my mother. Lucky eats a lot more than you'd think or hope. We aren't a Christ Church but we believe the less fortunate are to be shared with. Lucky's an unfortunate, she'll let you know. She got the calling when she was jailed for prostitution. My husband would love to know what exactly she did and how much she made doing it.
I hear the ashtray fall and Sully runs to the front door. My mother's grumbling but not cursing. She knows how much we need Sully, but he's been awful lately. Ma, I'll get that, I say, dumping the pins and curlers on the table in front of her. You forgot the lotion, she mutters.
Sully creaks the door back and forth on its hinges. My mother thinks it's Bertram, Sully's father, home from work. When Bertram's home my mother crosses her legs and swings the top leg back and forth, her slipper jammed on her thin blue foot. I ask Sully to run and get the lotion for me. He stands at the closed door and shakes his head. I tug my mother's hair and she folds her arms angrily across her chest. Please will you get the lotion? I ask him.
I saw three turtles the other day, he tells us. I continue to brush out my mother's hair. I'm doing Ma's hair so she can come with us, I tell him. Sully nods and brings me the lotion. My husband says he hasn't a clue what's in the kid's head. You were a boy once, I tell him, you should remember something. He doesn't.
I'm almost finished rolling my mother's hair when I hear Bertram outside, talking to Sully. He comes inside. The skin under his eyes is dark. He says hello but won't look at us. My mother sits up a little straighter and crosses her legs.
Bertram's shorter than I am and still looks like a widower. He drops a carton of cigarettes on the table in front of my mother. Here's to your health, he says and opens the ice box. There's no beer because Lucky's a recovered alcoholic, but we've got plenty of soda. Bertram opens a cola and sits down. He looks at my mother. You look good Rose, he says and laughs. I unroll the first roller and ask Bertram about his day.
Sully comes inside to get a soda and sits down. I wonder if it isn't a let-down to be the chosen one. It's a great honor and all of that, but you realize nothing changes; your father's still bitter, your mother's gone. Being chosen isn't the same thing as leading a trouble-free life.
Even if my husband didn't have sluggish sperm, we'd still have problems. The doctor said by the time sperm get to the egg, she's sick of the whole thing. It's interesting when they explain everything to you. It isn't interesting for my husband. It's hard for him not to take it personally. For a while he thrashed around more in bed, but then it was our turn to host Lucky and we didn't want to make so much noise.
I unroll the last curler from my mother's head. She and Bertram are arguing about something. Sully finishes his soda and sits quietly. I know he wants us to tell Bertram about dinner by the run-off gully. We're going on a picnic, I say. Bertram rolls his eyes and asks if this is one of Sully's ideas. Sully nods his head and kicks the table leg. Bertram puts his hand on Sully's leg to stop him and asks what time we're leaving. In an hour, I tell him. When my husband gets off work he'll go by and get Lucky from the counseling center.
If it weren't for us, Lucky would not be doing so well. She might have a relapse, start her old habits again, maybe even turn tricks to get liquor. I used to think that was wicked or shameful, now I think it's very sad. Lucky said no one talks about how dirty you get, just grubby, having sex with all those people. Lucky thanks us every Sunday for opening our hearts up to her.
I saw some turtles, Sully tells Bertram who wants to know what kind. I finish my mother's hair. She puts her hand behind her head and asks Bertram what he thinks now. Sully leaves the kitchen, following me to the bathroom. He opens the drawer for the curlers. She's not my mother, he says, and I nod because sometimes she's not mine either. Sully and I sit on the front step outside to wait. We wait almost two hours.
My husband pulls up with Lucky. She's so short I can see most of the top of her head in the car. When they see us sitting on the stoop they wave. I wave back. Sully runs down the stairs to the car to tell Lucky about the picnic.
I kiss my husband hello. His name's Truman and he's in a good mood. I can tell because he hugs me so that our hips meet. Lucky is watching us.
Sully runs up the stairs, Lucky behind him, wheezing lightly. Her legs are stout and swollen at the ankle. Lucky can't have children because of scar tissue. She wants us to have a baby, not just for me, but for the congregation. So far the congregation has five members: me, my husband, Bertram, my mother, Sully and Lucky. Lucky's looking for more people, but it's hard asking people to come sit in a basement and talk about beauty in the world.
Sully's our next leader because Lucky had a dream about him years ago, before she knew us. In her dream Sully was a grown man with a large family and many followers. Lucky said that Sully and the ones after him would be the ones to make amends in this world. She says we'll be the church of the negotiators. Lucky says that in order to understand people, you have to love them as if they were your own arm or leg or heart or lung. It's hard to love so much, but we try.
My mother's almost finished packing dinner. Lucky's in her room changing clothes. She wears a lot of shapeless dresses. Sully's drinking another soda. I worry that his teeth will fall out. I can't tell if Sully's our new leader or not, but he's going to need his teeth for a few more years in any case. We get blankets and plastic bags to sit on.
My husband drives us to the run-off gully. It's wet outside and the gully smells like mildew. The cars and trucks overhead are deafening. We have to yell at each other to be heard. Sully runs to the edge of the gully and looks for turtles. Lucky's eating and telling Bertram to think about another wife. She only says this when Sully's not nearby. My mother keeps interrupting Lucky, yelling, who'd marry him? We don't have room in our house for another woman. My mother's an infidel at times.
We eat egg salad and pickles. My mother keeps patting her hair, trying to tell if Lucky's still talking to Bertram about getting married. I tell Sully to stand back from the edge of the water. He ignores me. My husband eats three sandwiches then looks at the last on Sully's plate. Bertram tells Sully to come back and eat his dinner. Sully pretends he can't hear and runs up and down the gully's edge looking for turtles, frogs, anything living. He finds two tree snails. Lucky says he's a true naturalist. Sully drops both snails in the water when she's not looking. Truman eats half of Sully's sandwich and drinks more soda. I worry we'll all lose our teeth by the end of the year.
On the ride back to my mother's house, Sully falls asleep on me. He's not normally affectionate. When I put my arm around him he sits up and rubs his eyes. I pat my lap but he leans away from me and falls asleep on my mother. Bertram is squeezed between my mother and the door. He leans over and ruffles Sully's hair.
When Truman and I get back to our own house, he pulls a bag out from under his seat and carries it inside. He puts the keys on the shelf by the door and turns to me. I got you some things, he says, talking fast. This is for you. He puts his hands in his pockets and walks down the hall to our bedroom. I open the bag when I hear the door shut.
There's a bra and underwear and some stockings in the bag, all red and filmy. I wonder did it come out of the congregation money. We put a little bit in every week, even Sully does. I pull the stockings out of the bag. They have lace and elastic on the top, I guess so they don't fall down when you're walking around. My stomach is a pancake flipping over and over.
I peel my clothes off in the foyer and put the red things on. Everything fits, but I don't want to walk down the hall without shoes. What if I run the stockings? They look expensive. I put my sneakers back on and walk down the hall.
When I open the door to our bedroom, I fold my arms across my chest. Truman pulls the covers back and I sit on the bed next to him. I want to remind Truman that what we're doing isn't so new, but I don't. Truman pulls my feet up on the bed and takes the sneakers off, dropping them off his side. I don't know who to pray for, so I say a little blessing over my husbands' bent head. He's holding my feet like they're two good plates and he knows fine china.
Short Story Contest: Fifth Place
A Remembrance of Things Past, Alreadyby Daniel Zabcik
Several negatives may be used in one sentence..." Harkins, Modern Czech Grammar, p. 83
Pomaly, jen pomaly. Man, I tell you, it's tough getting old. Sure, it hurts some. Your body never forgets when you hurt it, and when you get up in the morning it runs through all your past injuries for you, so there's no surprise there, you just got to constantly adjust. But then one day you can't remember what part you came into town for, or whether it's for the truck or the tractor already, and at the same time you take something that happened maybe thirty-five, forty years ago, and you remember it like yesterday. You can't even tell a decent story anymore without turning off every which way like a local bus.
Now, you take the time the brakes failed. I distinctly remember telling that one once to a Mikeska, not one of the barbeque Mikeskas, but the man who ran the Terminal Railroad in Texas City before the explosion, and I couldn't even remember which car the brakes failed on, much less why Daddy was in such a big hurry to get back to the farm again, or even what time of year it was. Only the important stuff.
But nowadays I remember it was around the end of spring. Since the first part of April it had been so wet we couldn't take the tractors into the field. The corn was almost three feet tall already, and the weeds and johnson grass coming up between the stalks I tell you those weeds didn't any more know about cultivators than maybe some poor bastard down there in the south pacific does about the mining company that's taken satellites and found gold on his land.
Well, at last it dried out enough to run the cultivators through. Your daddy and I knew that the next few days we'd be walking along behind the Farmall or the little Popping Johnny, picking out the weeds and grass the cultivators missed. Then we heard from somewhere that Melvin Harker had found a buyer for that old dump of his mother's.
And your great-uncle Bill told your grandpa just what a lien was, and how it was the way you got your money from someone like Harker. Didn't none of us know exactly how to go about filing a lien, but Uncle Bill knew this Judge named Weston already. Uncle Bill always has somebody who owes him a favor. Daddy, he was a little worried about not going through the usual channels. But Uncle Bill says, Don't worry about it, it's the natural course of the law. I'm just going to speed it up a little.
Now usually we'd let a trip to the next county to settle a seventy-five dollar debt wait if the weather was right for working in the fields. But Daddy had fixed Harker's bulldozer eighteen months before and had waited patiently for his money ever since. The house itself made the timing important, too, because if he found someone stupid or nearsighted enough to buy a fifty year old wood frame house that sagged in the middle like an iced up power line, Harker wasn't just going to try, he was going to make damn sure to close that deal before anybody got first thoughts, let alone second ones.
Uncle Bill, he had to go: Judge Weston was his buddy, but also, if Uncle Bill went, your grandfather wouldn't have to speak English in front of town folks. He could read and write three languages, and spoke a little Spanish too, already. But you know he never learned to speak English too good, like me and Uncle Bill had. Man, I tell you, I had to go, too. It was a chance to maybe see some town girls. And for once I wanted to have that same day's newspaper, instead of one two or three days old, even though in those days you'd almost rather pick up a snake than pick up that paper -- it'd say something like NAZIS SMASH FRENCH LINE ON FIFTY MILE FRONT or TOMMYS CLING DESPARATELY TO BEACHES. See, since that peace conference they had in Munich we were all like a cottontail in headlights. We wanted to look away long enough to scramble into a ditch, but we couldn't do it. Before long, we got hit, ale dob[[caron]]re.
But I didn't reckon with your grandma. The weeds were also taking over her tomatoes, which she had growing out behind the garage. When she married Daddy she had moved all of a mile, maybe mile and a half, from her father's place out near Meeks to your great-grandpa's. Same rainfall, same blackland clay, but she always said she couldn't grow decent tomatoes there, like we were at the far end of the Gobi Desert, already. That year she finally had her tomatoes coming along pretty good. They liked all that rain, see. She wanted I should stay there on the farm, and help her weed those tomatoes. She was also worried because Daddy was going to be off with the Chevrolet, and she couldn't turn over that old Ford truck we had, so she'd be stuck out there. She didn't care for that too much.
Well, at first Daddy thought it might be a good idea for me to stay home. But the more he thought about it, the more he decided I ought to go meet this Judge Weston. Somebody important like a judge, he could do you an awful lot of good if he liked you. We had a hard time making those kind of contacts back then. So your daddy got to stay home and weed instead. He wasn't but twelve years old then, weighed maybe ninety-five pounds, but he could crank that old Ford, already.
We promised we'd call mother and check on her, and she turned the worrying down to a sort of mumbling misgiving. You remember how she was. Then the next day we fed and watered and we ate, and we got into the Chevrolet and took off.
We got south of Granger, headed toward the river, and Father slows down. And I ask him, Tatinek, co je to? He says, man, this brake pedal's done gone almost to the floor, already.
So he pulls over and opens the hood and sure enough, brake fluid's dribbled all down the firewall. He gets a screwdriver so he won't get his hands dirty and pries the spring clip off the cap of the master cylinder. Then he takes the cap off with his handkerchief. There ain't hardly no brake fluid left. There we are, we all got our good clothes on to see the Judge already and we don't want to change out no master cylinder. We can't do it. There was a Sladecek had a garage in Granger, the natural thing to do would be turn around and go back there. We'd go in, ask him Jak se ma[[caron]]s?, drink some of his coffee and maybe eat any kola[[caron]]cy he had left from breakfast and he'd fix the car.
But Daddy, he pushed his hat back on his head and looked up at the sky. It was kind of a high summer sky, with maybe a few cirrus clouds. After weeks and weeks of seeing that low stratus cloud deck in the morning turn into thunderheads by sunset it was too much for him. He says, we'll go on into town, and get somebody to fix it there. It'll cost more, but they can work on it while we're talking with the Judge, and we don't lose no time, ne?
So Daddy takes off, going maybe twenty-five miles an hour, and he don't take his eyes off the road for nothing, already. The parking brake was mechanical, not hydraulic, so he could slow down with that. Just not too good.
Now, we got to find a mechanic before we get to the square, where they had traffic, although you wouldn't call it traffic now. We also want to be close enough to the Courthouse that we can walk. So as soon as we get to Georgetown, we start looking. We drove around a little, and then found this place, down there near campus. It was this big building looked like it had been a livery stable thirty years ago and maybe painted twice since then. There were these hand made signs that looked like an eight year old made them, said things like Flats Fixed and Valve Jobs. The only one looked like it was painted by someone who knew a brush from their behind said Saxon's Garage. Now, how long it'd been since they cleaned that front window I couldn't tell you, but they still had a blue eagle up there only about half scraped off. There was this big old chain-drive GMC truck with one of those hoods shaped like an upside-down wheelbarrow standing there. We looked around, and we didn't see nobody but this one man poking at the engine of that old truck. Tall man with red hair. He saw us and he smiled. He asked nice as anything what he could do for us. Daddy asked him if he thought he could get around to putting a new master cylinder in our Chevrolet that morning.
When the man heard Daddy speak, he didn't smile no more. He said, Sure, Mr. Bohunk. I reckon y'all must be in a sweat to get back to the farm before noon. I'll bet you'd have to drop all of four bits to feed this crew. But likely you thought of that already and brought lunch.
No, Daddy says, we never brought no lunch, serious like, and that Saxon, he starts into laughing. Daddy started to say he wished he thought of that, but I cut him off. I said Daddy, that's not important right now. Then he understood, too. Black, see, he thought this was real funny because town people thought we were all cheap. They used to say if a Bohunk brought money to town it was because he forgot to turn his pockets inside out before he left. We just didn't have a whole lot of money to spend. But they always thought it was funny to kid us. Saxon says, Sure, he'd have the car done by noon, just pick it up before twelve-thirty, he had someplace to be. He was still laughing.
So it was eleven already when we reached the courthouse. We walked up the stairs to Judge Weston's chambers. The judge's clerk, he was a wise guy. He just said, Bill Va[[caron]]sek to see you, Judge. Never even looked up.
Judge Weston came out and shook hands with Uncle Bill. Uncle Bill introduced us and we shot the bull around about crops and weather and whatnot. After awhile, Uncle Bill told him why we were there.
Judge Weston looked at that invoice and he says, Huh, eighteen months. And he asked us if we knew that Harker had just that week sold his Model A and bought a nice used Auburn. He tells his clerk, Dave, run downstairs and put a lien on Mrs. Adelaide Harker's place, will you? Don't file it, just have the clerk enter it and bring it back up here. Then we went into his office to call mother. You better believe Daddy never said one word to her about those brakes. After about thirty minutes the Judge's clerk hollers, Melvin Harker to see you, Judge. Out we went.
Harker was standing there like he was waiting his turn at the Chicken Ranch, his hands in his pockets. He was whistling. When he saw Daddy he grinned. Well, he says, you finally made it into town. And he pulled out his wallet and shelled out a fifty, two tens, and a five. Dad kept that fifty for months. But look, said Harker, I don't see how I can continue to do business with you if you won't let a man run a tab.
Daddy grinned, big, and handed the lien over to Harker. Learn to rebuild an injection pump, he said, and you won't have to. It was the happiest I'd seen him in days.
The Judge drove us over to the garage in his Packard and dropped us off. Well well, says Saxon, It's them Granger Irish. I saw you with the Judge and I thought maybe you was white folks.
No, not us, said Uncle Bill. What else could he say? He asks him, Our car ready yet?
Saxon says, sure, take it and go. You're making me late for my meeting.
Daddy, he heard the whole thing, he lifted the hood of the Chevy and looked. Then he paid the man with the two tens and walked off.
We got out of there pretty quick. I tried to stare straight ahead, but I just had to look back before we went around the corner. Saxon was inside already, and pulled down the shade in the big window with the blue eagle, but he left the door open just enough for me to see him pull something out of the closet. I'll be darned if it wasn't a robe made from a white bedsheet, with a hood hanging off the back. Well, I thought, that explains everything.
We almost made it home. We were going down fifty-three right there by the Ocker Church when somebody's hog ran out on to the road. Dad stomped on the brakes and nothing happened. Nic. He swerved the car into the ditch yelling, Duchy Boh! There was a culvert in the ditch maybe forty feet up, and although the bumper was turning a furrow neat as a sulky plow we wouldn't have stopped in time if Uncle Bill hadn't yanked the emergency brake, which he could reach as well as Daddy because on those old cars it was a handle coming up from the middle of the floorboard.
After about five minutes Daddy pried his fingers loose from the steering wheel, got out, slipped, sat down hard on the running board, got up again, kind of wobbled over to the hood, popped it open and had a better look. Sure enough, he saw a place where he had nicked the brass with the screwdriver getting that spring clip off. It was the same master cylinder we left the house with that morning. Saxon had just polished it up enough to fool us. He had charged us fifteen dollars for the part, plus his labor, and there was three of us, so we got a pretty good idea how much a human life was worth to his kind: about five bucks, already.
Well, we were there about ten more minutes. Finally Uncle Bill said, real quiet like, Marie's going to be worried. Daddy looked up like he could never have thought of that himself and said, Ano, je Pravda. Uncle Bill and I figured we'd have to get out and push, already, but Daddy got us back on the highway somehow. None of us ever even got dirty. No dent in the car, neither, because it was still soft in that ditch. That got daddy thinking. He didn't dare take his eyes off the road while he told us. He said, You both know what Marie would say about all this. When we get home I'll put the car straight into the garage and clean the mud off the bumper. I'll fix the brakes myself soon as I get the parts sent out from Temple and she'll never know no different. Uncle Bill and I knew a good plan when we heard one.
We made it home okay. Daddy told us, Remember, jako hrob! Uncle Bill and I got out and went to go change into our field clothes, while Daddy drove the car into the garage, through the wall, into the garden and stopped right in the middle of the tomato patch, maybe two feet from where your father was standing with his mouth hanging open, still clutching a fist full of johnson grass roots.
But you ain't said six words yet. How's your mother, already?
Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
© 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Austin Chronicle . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch