Short Fiction — First Place
La Belle époque or A Week Without You
BY JESSICA ELLIOTT
The old man who lives upstairs goes wandering down the street every Saturday at noon. He finds me crouched between bushes, smoking a cigarette. He’s surprised to find me there. I tell him that I’m hiding, and he thinks it’s a joke.
When I was signing my lease, my landlord told me that he’s lived here for seventeen years — that was over a year ago. I’ve been here for a year and a half, and I’ve never known him to have a visitor, never seen anyone knocking at his door. But he’s content with his lonely life, and I can’t help but to envy him.
I, too, am a wanderer. I often feel the urge to continue driving past my destination, to drive until I’ve forgotten how to get back home.
Lately, I’ve been drawing rainbows on the porch with sidewalk chalk. I used to only draw flowers. Do you remember that huge rainbow that ran along the river? It was the biggest rainbow I’d ever seen, too big to catch with a camera lens. We talked about leprechauns, about pots of gold that, as kids, we’d searched for.
Last night, there was lightning in the absence of rain. I remembered that rainbow, remembered thinking that it meant something. But Shawn had seen it too; he commented on it when he got home from work. And, in a way, I was disappointed. I’d wanted that rainbow to be ours.
The man on the corner said that it was his 50th birthday, and he just wanted to be able to buy a drink. He had something for us, he said — a poem. I wondered later if he’d heard us talking about writing or if he’d just guessed from your shirt that you’d like freestyle. Either way, he made eighteen dollars off of his poem, which is more than I’ve ever earned from a piece of writing.
Later, you also had a poem for me. I rested my head against the seat, and you looked into my eyes at the end of every line. I felt as though we were in a theater under the spotlight, and, though we were surrounded by others, the scenery had darkened, making it appear that we were the only two people in the room. You’d given me a CD, you said, earlier that year that had the poem on it. You had hoped I’d listen to it after you left and realize the connection. I’d stuck it with the other CDs I never bother listening to and forgot it was there.
In that moment, less than 24 hours ago, we were merely inches apart. But tonight, I am alone when I respond; I am inching away from you, 300, 400, 500 miles. When I get home, I’ll listen to that CD. I’ll put it on repeat even though I’m still not sure that it was truly meant for me. But it won’t be the same. On the CD, your voice is hollow — it’s merely an echo of the previous night. I’ll sit at my computer listening to that echo like it’s the movie version of a Broadway play.
The lake is closed this year for construction. In a way, I’m glad that a fence borders its edges; I’m glad it blocks the view of the place where we used to sit and talk for hours at a time. I want to tattoo the construction trucks, to pay an art student to paint the words “Things Are Changing” down the side of the bulldozer’s shovel. When the fence is removed, I’ll be gone, and the lake will no longer be ours.
My Spanish profesora wants to see some of my writing. I bring her some of the things that make me seem semi-normal. Still, later, she asks how much of what I’ve written is autobiographical. I tell her it’s all based on the truth, but that it’s all very exaggerated. I tell her that I’m not as crazy as my stories make me seem. It was a lie. I don’t write fiction, which is somewhat surprising given my tendency to make up stories.
“Have you ever told me the truth about your age?” you ask. I’m sure I have at some point. I like to lie about my age, mostly because I’m too young for anyone to expect it. On my last birthday, I convinced everyone who ordered a drink from me at the bar that night that I was nineteen.
“I didn’t think you could get a job as a bartender if you weren’t 21,” they’d say.
“I used a fake ID to get the job. Don’t tell anyone, okay?” They’d come back to the bar later and wink as though we were sharing some sacred secret.
I’m always afraid to let other people read the things I’ve written, mostly because I’m never as honest in person as I am in my writing. But with you, I never had to worry. I remember when we first became friends we told each other that we would exchange stories that made us seem like terrible people. I made you promise to send me your story before you read mine, threatened you with chain-letters.
You said you didn’t think my story was terrible at all, and I said the same about yours. Yours was so not-terrible, in fact, that I found myself wishing that someone would write stories like that for me.
There’s a turtle that lives in the water drainage ditch outside of my apartment. I showed him to you once, but I think he swam away before you saw him. Turtles can swim pretty fast, surprisingly. They can also duck into their shells at lightning speed when they’re on the road and they see a car coming.
Lately, that turtle reminds me of you — your story about the teacher who would move them off the road and into the grass. “I think I heard once that they just go right back to where you moved them from. Is that true?” I asked. We decided we didn’t know.
When I go out to smoke, I wait for that turtle to pop its head out, much in the way that I wait for you to call or write. Occasionally, he’ll stretch his head out and watch me, and it makes me momentarily happy, though I can’t quite explain why.
I went to five different schools between first and eighth grades. As soon as I would get comfortable with new friends and new school policies, we’d move, and I’d have to start all over again. When you’re a child, you can’t keep up with old friends after you’ve moved. To a child, a thirty-minute drive is no different than a day-long plane ride to the other side of the world.
Eventually, I became used to saying goodbye to people. In fact, I even started looking forward to making new friends and leaving the old ones. After middle school, I wanted to go to the high school that my friends from grade school were least likely to attend. I wanted to get away from them all. I was ready to start over again.
When I was seventeen, I moved to Nashville. I hadn’t necessarily planned on moving — I was simply headed down there for a weekend to visit my boyfriend. My car broke down on the way, and I couldn’t afford to get it fixed to go home. Or, at least, that was the excuse I gave myself. So, I stayed. I left behind all of my friends and family and made a new life in another state. I avoided phone calls; people wondered if I was still alive.
Eventually, my boyfriend and I moved back to Louisville. But because I’d disappeared a year prior, I no longer had any friends in the area. Even though I’d returned home, it was just as though I’d moved somewhere completely foreign.
There were jobs, too, that I’d simply stop showing up for. I’d work at a place for years, and then, one day, I’d quit. I’d stop answering the phone, and, again, people would wonder what happened to me. I’ve done this more times than I can remember.
I grew up without the need to value attachments. I learned that friendships are easily replaceable and home is simply where you sleep. Perhaps it was this that led to my nomadic tendencies. But then I met you, and my view of friendships completely changed. Suddenly, I was the one hoping that things wouldn’t have to come to an end. Suddenly, I felt unusually content with being completely stationary.
Today I wondered if maybe my affection for you is like spring with its news-worthy thunderstorms and torrents of rain that turn ponds into lakes, creeks into rivers, and rivers into oceans. Everything is new, different, excited. I wondered if this too will crest; if it will be remembered fondly during the droughts of summer when all of the water drains back into the oceans, becomes vast, mundane, and nothing out of the ordinary again.
It’s been raining here, raining like it’s spring instead of fall. However, there’s a chill in the wind that reminds me that it’s September. The trees are covered with dying leaves, and I noticed that many have already wilted without ever changing color. I feel a certain remorse for their sudden absence, the obvious reminder that spring has passed. I’ve been sitting outside smoking and writing in the morning before classes. I watch the leaves part from the trees. I feel the wind linger lightly on my neck, bringing goose bumps like breathy goodbyes.
It was raining when we said goodbye. Actually, we said goodbye again later that night, but, in hindsight, I like to remember that first goodbye as the one that counted. In a way, that rainy, awkward goodbye was perfect for us — it showed that, even after spending all of that time together, things were no different than they were when our friendship began. It’s comforting to know that we still aren’t completely comfortable with each other. It proves that our friendship is not yet ordinary.
In Spanish class, we have homework every night. Tonight, we were supposed to write complete sentences from writing prompts. There was one that said “Como en el parque …” I completed it with “con mi amigo.” In Spanish, I do not yet know past tense.
In a week, we’ll eat lunch again at our place, the place we haven’t been to together since we said goodbye. I call it our place loosely because lately there are many places that I feel are ours: Cherokee Park, Penn Station, Half-Price Books, the IUS lake. It seems there are reminders of you wherever I wander.
The week before you left, I kept finding abandoned bicycles around my neighborhood. I took pictures of them — one in the creek, one in the middle of the street. It was as though something urgent interrupted the plans of the people who had been riding these bikes. And, though their bike might have been precious to them, they were forced to leave it behind.
You didn’t cross my mind today. It’s odd; normally I can’t escape you. Today my mind was filled with literature — the future of books, my own future. It’s in this way that we forget — we immerse ourselves in distractions. Soon your presence will be exhausted. The phone will stop ringing, and you’ll be replaced with another activity I’ve become passionate about. You’ll become another unfinished story. Perhaps I’ll find you again one day in a poem or photograph, and I’ll wonder what other memories I’ve replaced. I’ll wonder what true beauty I’ve forgotten.
“The years straddling the turn of the twentieth century in France are often termed La Belle époque, ‘the beautiful era.’ The term points to a reigning mood that was at once carefree, high-spirited, and optimistic, all the outcome of a relatively good economy, peace, and satisfaction with a progressive government that had been installed in the 1870s, following France’s humiliating defeat by the armies of Prussia. The spirit of the period demanded entertainment and diversion, which were sure to stimulate the arts. Popular culture — cabaret, circus, café-concert, and early cinema — was especially in vogue, and the high arts of literature, painting, and music advanced and prospered.*”
This is nothing. It has no underlying meaning, no inspirational message, no ironic observation, no storyline. It is merely an uncomfortable silence, a blank stare, a loss for words, a writer’s block. It says nothing. It does nothing. It is nothing. There are only words to fill this empty space.
The old man isn’t surprised to see me today. It’s become our tradition now, meeting each other in this fashion. Today, he looks in the water drainage ditch, looks, for a moment, slightly disappointed. “There used to be a turtle in there,” he says, “but I haven’t seen it lately.”
“I see it occasionally, but I think it’s moved on.” It’s disappointing that I no longer can look forward to seeing his tiny face peering up at me from his hiding spot. But I hope that, wherever he is, he’s happy. I hope he’s finding more food to eat; I hope there are less people to scare him into hiding.
I, too, will leave this place. But for now, I’m settled; I’m finally finishing something. The old man shrugs off the turtle’s departure, wanders down the street. However, unlike the turtle, unlike you, he’ll return home. He’ll continue returning home until one day, he won’t emerge from his door at noon on Saturday. Weeks later, I’ll see an ambulance carrying his corpse away, having rotted for weeks before anyone noticed.
While I still envy his freedom, I no longer envy his solitude. It’s nice to have people you don’t want to escape from. It’s nice to know that, even after a week without you, I still miss you as much as I did in the minutes after we said goodbye.
Short Fiction — Second Place
BY WILLIE DAVIS
I tried showing my pecker to Myra Jenkins at the end of sixth period right before the bell rung. My brother said all you got to do is wave it in front of Myra, and she’ll do everything but paint your house. That sounded like pretty much what I needed. I never shown my pecker to anyone except my mom and the doctor who took me from her, so I wanted a girl who’d lay me down and show me what’s what. We’re in Home-Ec together and both sit in the back. I figure it’s the best chance I’m going to get. It’s not like I see her every day at the movies and can just sit next to her with a tub of popcorn. So I wait until Old Mrs. Watt’s drawing on the blackboard, think about boobs until I get at half-mast, and say, Hey sugar, get a load of this.
Except as soon as I say it, she looks the other way, and Luke Cornett sees instead. His mouth drops open, and all I can think to do is give a little wave, which is meant to say, I’m sorry, buddy, you got the wrong idea, but probably says to him, I’m an even bigger queer than you thought.
Right then the bell rings, and I stuff it back in my jeans. People are leaving, and I’m trying to leave too except I don’t want to see Luke Cornett, and he don’t want to see me. When I get outside and can think again, I realize how lucky I am it’s Luke Cornett who sees me, and not some football player or Juvie boy. One of those guys and I’m swallowing my teeth right before Myra and everybody, but Luke wouldn’t hit me. He couldn’t and wouldn’t. He’s a skinny kid who never says nothing in class, and eats lunch with the same three guys he’s been eating with since fifth grade. He even plays in the school band, which nobody does if they ever want to beat someone up. Anyway, he looked scared to death at seeing my dick, although I don’t know exactly how he’s supposed to look.
I bum a cigarette from Kyle Lofton, who’s my friend, and we stand around the parking lot like always, talking about who we want to fuck, until fat-assed Joe Penny comes up, and says, You show Luke Cornett your dick?
Kyle starts laughing, and I laugh too.
Luke says you showed him your dick, Joe Penny says. He’s telling everyone.
Yeah right, I said. He wishes he saw my dick.
No sooner do I say it, I see Luke Cornett marching up to me. I know full well that a sissy punch can do as much damage as a hard swing, but seeing him lugging his clarinet case at his side, it’s hard for me to take him seriously. What’s the big idea? he says. What’re you showing me your wiener for?
That gets me laughing even though I didn’t want to. I’m sorry, I say. Did you really just say wiener?
He shoves me. I step back, but I can tell that’s pretty much him using all his strength.
Kyle and Joe Penny expect me to smack the piss out of him, but I feel bad. After all, I did show him my pecker, and I’d be acting a lot worse if someone did that to me. I give him a quick push on the forehead, and turn to walk off, but then he swings his clarinet case and pops me square in the side of the head. That knocks me flat, but as soon as I look up, I see Kyle’s on top of him. I jump on the both of them and start pounding Luke. I didn’t feel bad for him anymore. He got one good crack at my nose when I shoved his head in the dirt. I wound up to haymaker him, but stopped. The whole school parking lot was looking at us. We let each other go, and get up. Luke’s muddy, bleeding out his nose, and his shirt’s torn. I feel all right about that except then I realize I probably looked just like him.
Come on, Kyle says. Let’s go. We walked out of the parking lot and back home.
That was a Friday, and before the sun went down, the whole school knew. Everybody was saying, Did you see them boys fight? I sure did. What was they fighting over? That little one said the other one showed him his dick. Is that true? If not, then what’d he fight him for?
Well, what could I do? I can’t tell anyone the truth because that just makes me look dumber. For a day or so, I figure I’m just going to be known as The Boy Who One Time Took Out His Dick And Shown It To Another Boy. But then on Sunday, I’m walking in the fields by my house, and I see Luke Cornett.
Hey, I said. What’re you telling lies on me for?
Right away, I see the extra time had taken some of his nerve. Just after it’d happened he was mad, but now he didn’t want to fight. He put his hands up, but he backed away, yelling, I saw what you did. You know it, too.
I did not, I said. Then I grabbed a stone at my feet and sidearmed it at him. It sailed over his head. You stop lying about me, I say.
From out of nowhere, he lets out this Indian yell and comes charging at me with one hand raised above his head. I never seen anything like it before, not even on TV. Tell you the truth, I didn’t know what to do, so I just kind of stood there gapemouthed and waited for him to barrel into me. He knocks me over, but he knocks his self over too, and then we lay on the ground and grapple.
It’s not like the last fight at all. Neither of us threw one good punch. Mostly, we just hit each other’s hands and grabbed each other a bunch. Soon, I wanted to give up. No one was watching, and I didn’t want to rip another shirt. But we kept rolling around, and then I accidentally rolled the back of Luke’s head on a rock.
Jesus, he yelled out. He let go of me and grabbed the back of his head. That really fucking hurt, he said. It was the first time I heard him cuss. When he looked at his hands again, he saw they had blood on them.
Oh shit, I said. Are you all right?
He kept his hands on the back of his head and curled up like a baby.
You stay there, I said. Then I ran back to our house as fast as I could. It hurt to run too hard, but I kept pushing until I got back home. I went up to our bathroom to get some band-aids, and then I went to our second refrigerator in the basement, swiped a six-pack of tall boys, and ran back to the fields. I hoped to God he was still there. If he told on me for making him bleed, then Dad would kill me. Plus, he’d then find out about me showing Luke my pecker, and he’d have to kill me again.
When I got there, Luke was still laying on the grass, holding his head. I didn’t know if he was playing possum, so I stayed a few feet away. Are you still bleeding? I asked him.
It hurts, he said. Oh man, it hurts. It sounded like he was holding back from crying.
I sat down behind him on the bloody rock, and helped him sit up straight. It’s not so bad, I said. That was more or less true. There was a lot of blood, but the cut didn’t look bigger than my thumb. I ripped open a band-aid and spread his hair over where he was bleeding, so I could stick it right on his scalp. It didn’t work right. The band-aid mostly just stuck to the back of his hair, but I figured if I acted like it was perfect, he’d calm down, and give it a chance to heal itself. Does that feel better? I asked.
He didn’t look at me, just plucked up a handful of grass and threw it away.
It was an accident, I said.
He nodded his head, still looking out at the trees. I know, he said. If we rolled a little different, it’d have been you hitting your head.
No, I said. I meant showing you my pecker was an accident. I was trying to show it to Myra Jenkins.
Myra? He looked at me all google-eyed like he was about to smile for the first time all weekend. That’s all this was?
You want a beer? I ran to where I’d dropped the beer and took two tall boys out of their plastic ring. I took these from my dad.
Myra lives down the street from me, he said when I sat back down again. If you’d just told me, then we wouldn’t have had to do all this. I know her some.
I popped open my beer and drank it quick before the foam ran down the sides. I wasn’t used to drinking too much, and I don’t suspect he drank at all, but we sat there for quite a spell, drinking with each other. We didn’t talk much, but neither of us got up to move either. Once we finished the first beer, I asked if he wanted another.
Bring them, he said. I have something to show you.
We walked for a ways through town and then took a back route up to the top of Hyde Mountain. A house was on fire somewhere down below, and we could smell it pretty good as high as we were. Look there, Luke says to me, and he’s pointing down at I don’t know what. You see that?
To me it just looks like he’s pointing to the back of a shotgun house about fifteen feet below us, but I don’t want to seem stupid, so I make myself sound all amazed and say, Yeah, can you believe it?
He leaned forward and put his hand on his forehead to block out the sun. What do you suppose she’s doing?
I look at him and then back at where he’s looking, and I see what he’s seeing. Myra. She’s walking back and forth in front of her window with just her bra on. It didn’t look like she was dancing, but from the way she bobbed her head, I figured some sort of music was playing. I opened another beer and gave it to Luke.
We stayed up there for quite a while, but we barely spoke. I didn’t know if Luke was having fun, and sometimes I didn’t know if I was having fun, but I kept looking. From where we were, you couldn’t see too much, but we knew it was Myra, with the bumpy face and the body of the girl on the mud flaps. Part of me wanted to jump headfirst through her window and take one more try at showing her my pecker, but mostly I was happy to stay and watch with Luke, at least until the beer was gone. Even when I felt it was wrong, or I remembered the cut on the back of Luke’s head, or thought about school on Monday, I felt if God his self came down, shook his fist at me, and told me to leave the mountaintop, I’d have said, Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please as many times as it took for him to change his mind and give me one more second of seeing Myra from above.
Short Fiction — Third Place
One Small Thing
BY MARK FASANO
The road home from her parents’ place was covered by dense, unremitting fog. Their car radio had been stolen from the funeral home parking lot. After a while the mind will reel itself inward. He recalled the image of her parents’ home: a stilted, tin-roofed beach house on the Gulf, situated on an inlet extending from a small sandy slice of beach.
What’s that smell, she asked.
I don’t smell anything, he said.
It smells like some chemical is coming from the air vents.
I don’t smell anything.
Your nose must be broken. I’m turning the heat on.
Leave it alone. It’s stuffy in here.
I just want to see if the smell goes away.
Why would there be a different smell coming from the vents if it’s hot or cold? It’s coming from the same source.
I just want to check.
I’m driving. I don’t want the heat turned on.
I’m worried about Jerome, she said.
Parrots are very sensitive to smells. Foreign substances can kill them.
That’s ridiculous, he said.
It is not. That’s how Hermes died.
You don’t know how Hermes died.
His toxicology report said so.
That report said his lungs failed. It didn’t say what caused it. He could have died of anything.
He didn’t die of anything. I killed him.
If I had been more vigilant he would still be alive.
I’m sorry, woobie, he said, but that’s ridiculous.
No, it’s not, she replied. Parrots are vulnerable. I should have checked my apartment for air fresheners. I should have made sure his cage didn’t have any rust. He’s dead because I wasn’t vigilant and I just don’t want anything like that to happen to Jerome.
You’re cradling him so close to your neck you might suffocate him.
Have you ever killed something you loved?
Have you ever killed something you loved? she asked.
‘Each man kills the thing he loves…’ he replied.
Oh shut up.
… ‘by each let this be heard.’
‘Some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word.’ I know you’re serious. I just want to take a small precaution that might make us a little uncomfortable now but which could save Jerome’s life.
It would make me uncomfortable, not you. You enjoy being stifled.
I do not.
Yeah you do. I wouldn’t be surprised if you conjured this olfactory hallucination just to have an excuse to jack up the heat.
I smell something, she said. Why can’t you humor me?
Her parents had been watching Jeopardy! on television when her father became aware of a ferocious, subsuming thirst. He stood up to fetch a black cherry soda from the refrigerator. When he asked his wife if she would like anything his thirst became the thirst of the ages and in the last moment before the infinite throb arched upward from his neck like a starburst and blew apart in his brain he envisioned himself being propelled deep underwater in a clear, cold river. His mouth was unhinged and the water rushed into him and through him, inundating every cell of his body with a gorgeous slaking refreshment. And then everything became nothing all over again.
Look, she said, I’m just asking you to turn the heat on in case there’s some deadly poison emitting from the vents. Why can’t you just do this one small thing?
Because we can’t allow this thing to gain a foothold, he said.
What thing? she asked.
And why will turning the heat on change the lethal composition of whatever poison you’ve imagined to be seeping into the car anyway? he asked.
Forget it, she said.
Just forget it.
Why? When you won’t humor me.
All right, she said. It would be bearable if I would have known then what I know now, about how parrots are sensitive to certain things. But I didn’t and so now I go through every day wondering if there’s something else I ought to know now but don’t.
I’m sorry your bird died, he said. But why is it about you?
Because I’m the one who bears the brunt when things fall to pieces, she replied.
Things fall to pieces for everyone. Why do you bear the brunt?
Because I feel more.
You don’t seriously believe that.
Because I feel that I feel more.
All right, he said. Suppose your feelings are all you have and all you can make sense of. But why are you this fulcrum between life and death? Why is it that your father wouldn’t have died if you had made him take medication and your bird wouldn’t have died had you know about some arcane sensitivity to rust? I hate to break it to you, but life and death happens with or without you and me both.
They had arrived at her parents’ house near sundown. Three identical V-tailed kites flapped and twirled above and above and below the pink-patterned horizon. Against the metal roof the falling sun reflected a hue just akin to the golden color of the house itself. One of her uncles came out of the house to greet them. After exchanging condolences, they walked around to the back of the house to where her young cousins were playing. The children were running up and down the beach, kicking up sand and laughing. Above all of it was limitless and white.
She recalled her father bending down for the first time as she waddled across the expanse of front yard from the open palms of his hands, absorbing the scent of soil upon the first bloom of tulips. One evening when she was home from school she stood in the front yard and looked up at the moon and remembered wondering what it was before she knew. She remembered the flamingo hours when fireflies suddenly appeared as the heat of the day tapered almost imperceptibly and nightfall crept and crept and was done.
I miss him, she said.
I’m sorry, he said. I know you do.
You’re lucky, you still have your parents.
Ha. At times a mixed blessing.
You know what I mean.
Well, it’s not like I get a free pass. Presumably we labor under the same terms.
You know, I miss him most when I forget that he’s not there anymore. I’m caught up in a joke or a story and without thinking I turn to him because I know his reaction and then I remember.
You remember what?
That there’s nothing.
Well, who knows. Maybe there isn’t nothing.
Oh really. I didn’t realize you believed in an afterlife.
I believe we don’t know jack shit about much, he said. We don’t know what’s on the other side of where the Universe ends, so until someone prints the answer to that one on the front page I’ll withhold my accolades regarding the full scope of human knowledge.
The way I feel isn’t a category of knowledge, she said.
What is it then? he asked.
I don’t know, she said. It is what it is. It’s an emotion. The awareness of a presence or a void.
Would you rather not have known him? he asked.
Right. Would you trade the sorrow you feel for never having known your father for even one moment?
Is that the trade-off?
It would seem that way.
Can we just try the heat for a second?
Tell you what — we’ll put it in the middle.
How’s that? he asked.
It still smells funny, she said.