There's something you should know about our Fiction 101 judging sessions: They almost always involve alcohol (although our initial readings and first-round selections are sober), and they sometimes end badly. None of us is ever satisfied with the overall results. Each is appalled that this story or that one is being published. Each can't believe that the others didn't love a particular story as much as she or he did. And so it goes.
This year, as is often the case, the judges seemed to be drawn more toward silliness and absurdity than earnestness and realism. And, like in past years, we remain concerned about the pervasiveness of relationship angst out there and what we believe is an alarming preoccupation with killing and death. Although, this year, there was a significant decline in the number of entries about pee and poop. So, that's good, right?
With all that out of the way, congratulations to the winners. And to you readers: Enjoy the results of our sixth annual contest.
Larry Whitmore's bobblehead doll dedication ceremony was the first in bowling league history to be interrupted by an assassination attempt. Don Cardiff (lifetime average score 221), shot from behind the shoe rental counter, the same counter where Larry was photographed for an interview where he referred to Don as “7-10” Cardiff. Owing mostly to liquid courage Cardiff had consumed, the shot went wide, nicking the 4 pin in alley 12. The guy who sprays that stuff into the shoes subdued him, and the rest of the ceremony proceeded without incident. Everyone agreed that the bobblehead was a terrific likeness.
I stood up. “Hi, my name is Bob, and I'm a zombie.”
A chorus of compassionate and monotone voices replied, “Hi, Bob.”
Jerry spoke. “Tell us about why you're here, Bob.”
“Nobody understands me. I didn't choose to be this way. Also, I'm in love. What if we want to get married? Marriage isn't defined as a union between one zombie and one woman.”
Murmurs of agreement. Someone got distracted and started chanting for brains.
The door opened and a young man walked in. “Is this the AA meeting?”
He smelled deliciously alive.
Everyone got up and moved to greet him.
Death and Frosting
The worst part about my death wasn't the knife forcing its way into my chest; it's telling everyone I stabbed myself slicing my birthday cake. A balloon popped. I was startled, slipped on spilled punch, and was shipped to the ER to die, a mess of blood and butter cream. Telling war heroes is aggravating. Birthday accidents never compare with falling on a grenade. Apparently, you can't lie when you're dead, but you can still be an ass. They never invite me to the cool parties. I've resigned myself to an eternity of hanging out with kids who ran with scissors.
Honorable Mention-editors' pick
Go Beyond Temecula and Murietta, where Wildomar is a rear-view memory. Welcome to Barstow, where I-15 and I-40 cross each other with apprehension. Frosty Donuts does nothing to beat the heat, but Barstow is nothing if not ironic. A faded blue caddy from Nabor's Cadillac whimpers in the parking lot.
A local cop pops a jelly donut into his pie hole. His lips bitch slap the sweet thing. Sugar rushes memories of toy trains and breast milk. In ten minutes he'll blend into the billboards, on the prowl for Miss Right or Mister Left Turn Against the Light.
Pete (Wheatstraw) Hepburn
“Pass the salt, would you?”
“Get it yourself.”
“Every night? We have to do this every night?”
“Every? Every? Do I recall correctly about you and words like ‘every' and ‘never' and ‘always'? Do I remember lectures?”
“Fine. Get the salt yourself.”
“Why get the salt? How can I answer a question about your seasoning needs?”
“Why do this?”
“Why try to hurt me?”
“With flavor enhancers?”
“With your tongue. I've said I'm sorry so many times. What more do you want?”
“What do you mean?”
“Fine. Here's the salt.”
Too much goddamn water in my head. Leakin' out all over, smudgin' everything. Maybe send the G-Men in, get me right fixed up. Or not.
Folks shouldn't be crawlin' around up in there anyways. Too much fragile stuff. Nope—not unless they's trained in covert brain operations. I got top secret stuff up there, not tinker toys.
Workin' on a plan for when everyone else's plans fall through. And they will. I knows they will. Everyone's sayin' it'll happen soon.
One day I'ma have to stand up and do somethin', you can be sure.
But until then, I'll be gettin' prepared.
She dyes her hair purple and applies plastic French tip nails at home. She gets her weed from Juan, a neighborhood boy who she fantasizes about screwing in a public bathroom. She is afraid of getting a cat, because that means it's really over. She chain smokes, but when the sun goes down, she switches from Virginia Slims to Black N Milds. She eats alone at night and makes a production of it. Sets the table, cooks homemade raviolis, never uses a TV tray. Happy hour starts at 4, but if it's raining, 3. She only drinks white Russians now.
Mom pulls up to the manicured house. Her fingers are windshield wipers on my face. She tells me I have thirty minutes. My new dress swishes as I walk to the front door where my stepmom chokes me with a bony hug. She smells like a grapefruit. Behind her, he wears a nervous smile. We drink iced tea on leather couches that fart when I move. Mostly we talk about how hot it is. He asks if I brought my swimsuit—they have a pool. I think about mom who's surely chain-smoking. An ice cube stings my teeth. Fifteen minutes left.
Best of the Rest
“Hey baby, lighten up,” I said knowing full well that none of my tricks had worked. She wasn't biting and I took it too far again.
“You're just a wannabe Bukowski,” she spat, beautiful and righteous. She quickly finished her drink.
“… Hemingway,” I corrected her. “I can spit most of my shit word 101.”
“What does that even mean?” she glared, disgusted at me and the world. From the shadows of the bar I could see her disappear through the bright doorway and watched her fine ass sway away from me as it went to find a better liar.
My cousin Jessie is 34 and a mom, but it feels like she's younger because she's got tattoos and can hold her liquor.
We sit at the bar while her husband Anthony throws darts and we talk and drink.
“Dude, did you know Grandma got you baptized and never told your parents?” she asks boldly with a Guinness-laced grin.
“What?!” I'm shocked but too drunk to feel as overwhelmed as I should.
“Yep. Sooo… you're Catholic. Don't get pregnant or you'll have to get married.” She downs the last of her pint and ignores Anthony now hitting on the bartender.
Excitement gave way to monumental disappointment within a few days of the accident. The Proton Supercollider had malfunctioned and a subatomic chain reaction had ripped a hole in space-time, sending Andy, the lab technician, through a wormhole into an alternate reality. But this universe was in a dimension quite near our own, as Andy quickly noticed. In fact, it was hard to tell the difference, except for the little things. Americans were more into soccer, and Orangina was the most popular soft drink. Boy bands had never become popular, but bluegrass was pretty widely appreciated. Also, Pat Sajak was a werewolf.
Tootsie Pop Hope
Kozalski was a determined neurotic. He peeled grapes, organized his ties by meaningfulness, and coughed whenever he felt disheartened. An idealist, he yearned for world peace and knew one could achieve it by finding the elusive Tootsie Pop Indian, aiming at a star. One day Kozalski spotted the rare wrapper on the ground and gasped in horror upon closer inspection. The Indian was gone. It was an ethnically and gender ambiguous person aiming at the star. Tootsie had gone PC. Kozalski stopped peeling his grapes. His ties lay in a pile. He died a month later, of an unexplained coughing fit.
Last Day of Summer
We spent the last day of summer in team-building exercises. It used to be for professional development. We sat in a sweltering room listening to new teaching strategies. At the end of the day the superintendent showed up. “I'm depending on you,” she said. “All Fortune 500 companies do these exercises.” She had us get on our hands and knees beside each other and walked across the room on top of us with her arms out for balance. “Schools aren't businesses,” someone shouted. “Tell that to Sacramento,” she replied, digging in her heels.
It wasn't like they meant to misplace the baby, but on a big farm, children can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. In some ways Linda could be considered fortunate to have been raised by pigs, since the sow actually had a smaller litter than Mrs. Henderson and could deliver more personal care and affection to the child. For that reason, and also because she was a pig, the sow could be forgiven for overfeeding Linda to obesity. And because of Linda's naked, pink skin and round shape, the Hendersons could even be forgiven for slaughtering and eating her.
Ikea is killing me
Tired doesn't begin to describe it. I'm sittin' on a cheap-ass chair I had to put together myself with simple Swedish tools. I tell myself from this day forward I won't wear it unless I like it. Say it unless mean it. Do it unless I want to. And that, my friends, is the lie that makes us dull. The promise that can only be broken. The Hallmark card that no one is selling cause no one wants to buy it. Now I gotta put together the matching ottoman.
Charlie crashed the YWCA dance and told some dim-witted suitor he couldn't possibly dance with both girls at the table—Charlie would take the raven-haired one. He grabbed Helen's hand; they foxtrotted all night until the heel of her pump snapped off and he carried her home.
Helen stops by the bank on her weekly errands since Charlie no longer drives. During his nap, she slips cash in his wallet so he can dole it out to her later. We don't talk about it, she giggles. He knows the money isn't appearing, but he likes to take care of me.
Jules at Work
Jules returned to work from lunch early. He had a lot to do. A crowd stood in the parking lot staring speechless at the building. The roof was gone. Half the walls were missing, too. Inside, a manager held a shard of glass in his hands, like a sandwich. Another gnawed the corner of a filing cabinet. Jules's boss crawled around on all fours stuffing golden carpet threads into his pockets, while a vice-president wrapped herself in curtains, modeling for a friend. “Back to work!” the CEO yelled at Jules, moving quickly so that nobody could tell what he was doing.
A letter from the Office of Divorce Services arrived in the mail today, much to my surprise. Clearly, my parents told no one about their decision to divorce. It's also clear that my father died the week before their scheduled court date. His burial took place with the usual amount of grieving. Two weeks later my mother died of a heart attack. Her burial took place with slightly more than the usual amount of grieving. Everyone who knew my mother is certain she died of a broken heart, and I've decided to tell no one about the letter from the ODS.
He asked what the sound was.
Just city sounds, she said. Traffic.
Oh, he said. You know, I think traffic sounds different everywhere.
Yeah, she said. What does traffic up in Portland sound like?
It sounds wet and splashy, he said. What's the traffic in L.A. like?
It's hollow, she said finally. And far away. And constant.
Like the people, he said.
Yes, she said. Like the people.
They said I love you and goodnight and hung up the phone. Was that him? asked the guy next to her, half awake. Shhhh, she said as she reached for him.
A marketing man himself, Ted obligingly completed surveys. When YumBurger called and gave him a lifetime of meals for some survey he had filled out, Ted swooned with a revelation. He quit his job and headed for the beach with a tent and his dog to live out a minimal, serene existence on free YumBurgers and Coke. But as a thrice-daily customer, he came to know the food better than the workers—within weeks Ted was providing invaluable tips to the management. Years later, staring out his high-rise office as YumBurger CEO, Ted chewed his Triple Bacon Cheezenator and cried.
My brother won the Purple Heart. I design and sell ironic T-shirts for a living. My parents were fairly gracious with pretending they loved both of us the same, until I made a particularly ironic T-shirt that said, “Purple Heart awards are for homos” and had a soldier blowing Barney the Dinosaur. I guess “ironic” might not be the appropriate word to describe that particular shirt. This year I was forbidden from coming home for Thanksgiving. The design is currently in its third printing and I'm respected and admired by the Internet cognoscenti. Screw turkey and stuffing.
For the eighth time in five days, Jenkins was forcibly removed from a bar. Twice he had been shirtless when he hit the pavement, another three had involved vicious and/or poisonous animals released inside the bar, four times he had been mid-karaoke song as he was tossed, and during seven of the eight his genitals were at one time exposed. He sat curbside, leaning against a crate, which minutes earlier had contained a wolverine. Shrieks of panic still occasionally emanated from the bar. Jenkins wondered what, if any, effect the past week would have on his mayoral approval rating.
“Harry Reasoner is dead.”
“You're correct,” she says. “Harry Reasoner's dead.”
The apartment is warm.
“Here's a tough one,” she says. “Billy Carter… dead or alive?”
He doesn't like this game. One man dies. Another lives. Another embarrasses his famous brother.
The apartment is nice, but small.
The man thinks: Could this woman ever make me happy? Any woman?
“Earl… what about Billy Carter? Dead or alive? I need a ‘yes' or a ‘no.'”
The man ponders. “It's been a nice evening,” he says.
Here's the toughest part. From the couch to the door.
“Dianne,” he says, “it's been a long life.”
The woman stood at the apartment door with the burning cigarette held inches from her lips. The shirtless man shoved the last piece of furniture into the pick-up truck bed and then slammed its gate shut. He started toward the cab of the truck. She pulled the apartment door closed and then took a long, deep drag on the cigarette. She crossed to the passenger door of the truck and as she passed him, she took the cap off his head, turned it over and flicked the cigarette ash in it. They got in the truck and drove away.
Her palm was blistered but it was ended.
“Why keep that dinosaur?” Mark complained when they moved.
“One day you'll know,” and now you do, Debbie concluded. No more bloody lips, bruises or 3 a.m. knockdown drag outs, at least not with you, “asshole.” The men never lasted, one or two moves at best. The O'Keefe & Merritt had been her grandmother's, mother's and now was hers. She reminisced the baking sessions with her mother, learning to deal with the oven's inconsistencies and myriad of compartments. She opened a decoratively concealed door and replaced the pistol. The pie smelled delicious.
I have envisioned my own nervous breakdown like this: I'll go into a grocery store and start bagging produce. I'll start with the oranges and I'll fill up all the little plastic bags. Then I'll move onto the apples. The store manager will ask if I intend to purchase all this bagged fruit. I'll look at him wild-eyed and say, “No.” He'll then ask me why am I doing this and I'll say, “Because it needs to be done.” As the police gently lead me away, I'll burst into tears and sob, “There's so much to do, so much to do.”
I was in a particularly chipper mood; it was one of those great mornings when my iPod knew exactly what songs to play.
Ms. Alemany's holler brought me abruptly out of my reverie.
(My teacher told us that Ms. Alemany and Ms. Taylor were roommates because Ms. Taylor needs a helper since she's deaf and Ms. Alemany didn't have a family of her own, but I knew that they were “more than friends” because they've been my neighbors for fourteen years; I've see them through the window dancing together every afternoon at four.)
“Mind the dog poo, dear.”
They'd hired him to do a job and he would finish it, or it would finish him. He stepped from the shadowed alleyway, casually lighting the dynamite fuse with his cigar, and tossed it towards the nearest group of monks. The explosion killed three instantly, driving the rest into the eastern forest, where they quickly fell prey to Hugh's death traps.
They died painfully.
The oldest and wisest villager stepped forward, bowing. The tips of his Fu-Manchu touched the layer of cherry-blossom petals scattered across the road.
“You are right,” he croaked.
“Hugh, only Hugh, prevent florist friars.”