2007 Short Fiction and Poetry Contest
Intro by Jon Anne Willow
It’s possible that only a writer can understand the difficulty of being one. It is not a skill or avocation, but the most primal of callings, an obsession at least as deep-rooted as any felt for love or high ambition. Writing is a cruel muse, leaving you when you need her most, clawing at your back when your thoughts should be turned to other things. Follow her and you may, through a tortuous process, eventually taste the manna of creating something that isn’t truly awful; turn your back and you will surely be left in peace to wade eternally in the tide pool of regret that you did not listen when you had the chance.
Just the act of writing consistently takes courage; to actually put your words out there for others, even more: any “writer” who does not know this is either a rank amateur or an imposter. With this belief, VITAL would like to extend our gratitude to everyone who submitted their work to our first Short Fiction and Poetry Contest. Their work was judged blind by talented working professionals who all used the same criteria to score each piece up to 100 total points in different categories. Both first and second place winners in each category are printed here; first place winners will also receive a $50 gift card to Barnes and Noble, whose Mayfair store helped to sponsor this competition. Enjoy. —Jon Anne Willow
By Anne M. Rice
Like savoring a last cigarette before the executioner’s blindfold, I hold the gold cufflink between my fingers, tracing the engraved initials repeatedly with my thumb. The arc of my fingernail revisits the path of the engraver’s pen in lines and curves. Whether I do this to scratch the initials out of existence or because I feel them branding my being, I do not know. I stand motionless – except for this tiny, recurring gesture – in the middle of the bedroom, staring out the leaded glass windows, for what might be hours. Again, I do not know. Time seems almost intractable. Below, the light is reflected on the wet pavement where milky shafts glare up at me.
He was in a desperate hurry to leave this evening, choosing to wear the lapis pair – barely securing his French cuffs, grabbing his suit jacket, knocking this offending monogrammed piece onto the Oriental rug near my toe as he flew past, the scent of Kiel’s almond lotion lingering behind him. “Don’t wait up,” he offered, not unkindly, but unnecessarily. I know better than to do that. These evenings have become a part of our routine, even if they are a charade. And I am very clear about how to carry out my role.
I place the errant cufflink – now warm from my handling – neatly back on the dresser, next to its waiting mate. They are whole, completed. A matched set. A line from an eighties musical repeats itself in my head – something about men in cufflinks and forgetting my name. They have distracted me beyond reason, those little gold disks with the strange initials – some other man’s initials. I shut off the bedroom light and wander into the study.
If this were film noir, I think, I’d be some lonely B-movie drunk trying to stay sober, alone and tempted by all the liquor that sits before me on the butler’s tray table. The music would swell as I reach for a bottle, any bottle…but this is real life and I simply pour two fingers of Kentucky Gentleman, drop in a few ice cubes, pop in the Madame Butterfly C.D. and open today’s Times Picayune. Cio Cio San is perseverating: something about falling cherry blossoms, I presume. I turn my attention to what were the hottest headlines this past morning…once again, you can find me catching up on what is old news to everyone else.
An act or two later, I am awakened by the sound of his keys rattling in the door, the finial of his tan, red and black plaid umbrella scraping across the slate foyer. Pinkerton is making an entrance in full voice; his American wife and all that her presence entails has been realized by poor Butterfly, and the music does not bode well for the girl. The newspaper has fallen from my lap, the bourbon rests untouched on the claw-footed table next to me, adulterated by the melted ice. “You’re home early,” I say. It is not an indictment. It’s just put out there.
He nods, touching my shoulder as he moves past. I see that his signet ring rolls loosely on his finger, and I wonder, have I not noticed him losing that much weight, or are his hands really that cold? It is a night not fit for man nor beast in the Quarter.
“A mix up in schedules,” he offers as he walks into the bedroom. I hear him drop the lapis cufflinks next to the gold ones with the offending initials. For a moment there is a pause and I envision him checking his watch at the bar of the Pump Room, caressing his cell phone, waiting.
He comes back to stand in the doorway, his pink foulard Windsor knot undone, his French cuffs folded up on the starch line. “A little Puccini tonight?” he asks, running the hand with the gold band through his hair.
“I must have slept through most of it.” I want to sound casual, want him to hear that my rest was unfettered by his attempted indiscretions. I retrieve the paper and reach for my glass.
“Better here than if we had paid to see it,” he muses.
The reference to we – as a couple, as a pair, as holders of a joint bank account, as owners of a season’s worth of box seats for the opera, as sharers of the bed that looms behind him – startles me. Was it said for my benefit, or to remind himself, or simply stated as a fact, because after all, we do share a bank account, we do pay for those tickets, we do sleep in that bed.
“Tosca would have kept me awake,” I suggest. “All that brass and the wailing and the splashing into the Tiber.”
“And definitely less humming,” he adds and punches the power off with his elbow as he pours himself a drink. The room falls silent; outside the Vieux Carre is quiet, too, and maybe the rain has stopped. Butterfly’s demise has come earlier than her own hand had planned. For now, she has been spared the sword.
Anne M. Rice is a teacher, poet, speaker and doctoral student in the Milwaukee area.
“A Girl To Make You Forget the American Dream”
By Craig Reinbold
The sound of a phone ringing doesn’t care one way or the other—this I know. It’s a tone, a resonance, a conspirator in the unnatural cacophony of our small, contained world. It is fluidity. It is indifferent. It is nothing—nothing but the sum of all these metaphors that I’m going to throw at it.
The particular sound of this particular phone ringing is—as it seeps through the filter that is my inner ear—without a doubt, nervous. It’s the moment of awkward words, the moment of fingertips on skin and a flinch, a shirk, and I ask her to marry me. It’s the moment of last kisses that you didn’t know would be the last, and the moment later when the girl says no.
I can feel each fiber of the phone line, turned together, cased in plastic, wound tight, struggling for space, emitting shudders—RING—invisible shudders. Like nerves packed in synthetic tissue, each steely ring winds us tighter, tighter, until finally the tension breaks us. We snap. Because we have to.
The sound of this particular phone ringing is the anything but indifferent gasp of the world resting on a single pair of freckled and smooth, winter white shoulders. It’s a tone, and it’s for me or against me. I breathe.
Another ring. Then the machine answers.
“This is Eva…”
I blank for a second. White noise end to end. The line BEEPS.
I hear the emptiness adding up on the machine. And then it comes out.
“Eva, Eva, I want you to marry me.” My voice is strong, even, because I am decided, sure in the conclusion I’ve come to after the last twenty-four hours of thinking—in the twenty-four hours since she said she wouldn’t.
The truth is I think she just didn’t understand.
I must have blanked out again because the machine cuts off leaving me with a dial tone. Like the ring, I know it means nothing, but the word feeble comes to mind and I quickly hang up and hit redial. Again, the machine BEEPS.
I cough, and start to explain myself.
“Eva,” I say, “you’re my girl. You’re the girl to make me forget the American Dream.”
What does that mean exactly? I’m getting there, but it’s difficult. It’s not an exact thing. I’m sitting in my kitchen, my back against a wall, a leg propped up on the table, a hand pressing the receiver to my mouth. Before me is a sheet of paper scratched up with blue ink—notes for what I’m about to say.
“So Jack Kerouac wrote, in that book, On the Road, that he fell in love with a Mexican girl that he met on a bus.” I look up from my notes. “Maybe you haven’t read it, I don’t know. Seems like everyone’s read it. Anyway, he falls in love with this girl and goes to live with her in a shack or a tent or something. And he talks about how great life was there, picking cotton, doing real, physical work, always outside, always in the sun. At night he would ride on an old bike to get groceries with the money he’d made that day. And the next day he’d do it all again. And he wrote about it, about how great it was.” I pause to catch my breath.
“He wrote about how great it was because he loved this girl and because life was simple, and good.” Back to my notes for that last bit. “It’s a beautiful part of the book, maybe the best part, or one of the best, I don’t know.” Now I’m looking at the ceiling. “I didn’t even like the book that much. At least, I don’t think it’s as good as it’s supposed to be.” Pause. “But that one part, where he talks about life with that girl, it’s beautiful. He’s in love, and they don’t have much, but they get by, and…”
The machine cuts off. I redial, try to organize my thoughts. I’m not sure this is making sense. I need her to understand.
“This is Eva…” BEEP.
“Eva, the point is I never even liked Kerouac. Something always bothered me about him, the way people want to be him, you know, live like him.” I pick up speed here. “That’s what I don’t understand. He spent his life basically alone, looking for something he never finds, and he died a fat, unhappy drunk. I don’t want to make his mistakes, Eva. That’s not the person I want to be.
“But in that one part of the book I liked him. Him and that girl. But here’s the thing—he left her. He left because he had to. I mean, he said he had to, but really he left because he still wanted that thing, that thing he never finds, that thing that for people like him promises to be out there, but really might just be a word. He loved her but he left. Why? Because he couldn’t give it up. He couldn’t give up on the dream. He loved her, but he left to keep looking, and here’s the thing…”
The machine, it cuts off again. I sit for a second, the phone pressed against my mouth. The dial tone is loud, oppressive, but I hesitate before hanging up. I could just redial, but instead I punch out her number, one numeral a time. It feels more definitive this way.
“This is Eva…”
It doesn’t occur to me to question what I’m doing, but I can feel myself losing the momentum that got me here, sliding backwards—towards something, away from something. I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell. This is all very confusing.
I do not question what I’m saying.
“Bored and scared, but who does he think he is to romanticize it all like that? He never loved her. He was infatuated. With something exotic. You think she liked that life? You think she ever left? For him it was a vacation, an experience. For her it was life and he passed himself off as being in love. He left but she couldn’t. She couldn’t leave and he knew it and he could so he did.
“When you’re in love, you stay, Eva. That’s the thing. And he didn’t. He said he couldn’t. But he could have. He said he loved her. I say he just loved the dream, that dream of finding…”
Fuck. The machine cuts off again.
“I’m not going to make his mistake, Eva. I love you too much to give you up. Do you see it? The way love makes you forget all those other things? You made me forget, Eva, because that’s what real love does—it makes you forget. And I don’t want the dream, Eva. I want you.”
I say it again because it feels good.
“I want you.” There it is. “And that’s why I…”
“Hello?” Eva’s voice.
My feet hit the floor. “Eva?”
“Yeah, sorry. I just got in. What…?”
“What?” she says.
“I love you.” Out with a burst of breath.
There’s silence, then she says, “Ok.”
“Check your messages,” I say.
“Because I’d like you to?” It came out like a question.
Thinking fills the space for a second and then, “Ok.” There’s a click, and another beep. The line goes dead, then fills again with the orchestrated buzz of the dial tone. The tone while I wait. The tone while she checks her messages. A hum with the steadiness of the world resting on a single pair of shoulders. The most hopeful sound I have ever heard.
Kerouac and that girl. Cotton fields, and then he leaves her. Leaves her behind, leaves her for that dream. I won’t. Eva, I won’t.
I love this girl, and my heart is true. I’m no Kerouac. My love is real. My heart is true and I’m no Kerouac, Eva. I’m no Kerouac.
And then it hits me. What if she’s Kerouac, and I’m the Mexican girl?
Craig Reinbold has published book reviews, interviews and editorials on topics including life as an American in Japan, a contemporary visit to Dachau and a travelogue of time spent in South America. He is a member of Grupo Maculelê Capoeira in Milwaukee and a former resident of Casa Maria, Milwaukee’s Catholic Worker House of Hospitality. He will attend the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi this fall.
By Laurel Bastian
Cotton. The South’s spun gold shreds hands.
Mouths full of dust, bodies driven with boiled rice.
Picking. Back bent like a spoon.
Whips. The back puckers and scars
into a snaked tributary. Picking. Whips.
Daughters chewed and spat like new wheat.
On the block, the gums of men exposed
so the crowd can see the healthy white
teeth of the sinew trade. The men
fled to the bogs. Some took their wives.
The women went north. Some took their children.
Some were caught by the throat and eaten.
We whose ancestors’ hearts haven’t been pressed
through the gins that replaced them
weigh injustice from a distance of years
which is different than walking 800 miles
with your baby to the Ohio River, past armed
patrols and bloodhounds on the bank, the water
one miles across to the free side, lamps
of abolitionists set at the windows and not being able
to swim. Henry Brown
sealed himself in a three by two foot box
which friends mailed to Philly as
human cargo, the crate bigger
than the slots in the ship that carried
his grandparents, stacked and wasting,
to hell’s mouth, Jamestown.
Freedom, the one nonnegotiable song,
rings from the gut, pushes the feet,
terrible cogs of the night
open. I learned gospels from my father
who used to play swing low, sweet chariot
coming for to carry me home,
and learned holocaust from a friend’s photo:
hundreds of men in clean straw hats
and collared shirts filling the frame
like a church picnic,
a stripped figure deep in the center
of the crowd, strung from the tree.
My family were Northern people.
Massachusetts. Landed 1678.
Knew the importance of trade.
Many of them were fat with suppers.
Many of them made love under the wall-turned
Jesus with steady, uncalloused hands,
Like my great-great Grandfather
Blood, whose even script
On the bill of sale reads
Mulatto servant, Dinah, 10 years old
to cousin Hannah Blood,
for the sum of forty pounds.
Laurel Bastian has or will have work in Margie, The Cream City Review, The Mid-America Review and others. She’s currently short-listed for this year’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, is the recipient of a Taos Resident Writer’s Award and just recently moved back to this fine green state.
By Jessica Eskelsen
I’m sorry to break this to you,
but I’ve been gone for years.
I’m skilled at going through
the motions, you see,
planted here and rooted, like baptism,
not by choice, but by what someone else thought best.
Currently, there are things that concern me.
the acetone smells coming from the
brick four-family with froggy lawn décor
and American flags painted on wooden welcome signs,
the tickling hairs that fall down my shirt, sending me
the cleanliness of the stocker’s hands in produce,
strangers who stare at the deep pitted scars in my chin,
and that little girl in the orange shirt who screams,
“but I don’t have any money!” and her brother smacks her
plump cheek, and of course,
the green clouds just aren’t right.
Some things I enjoy with certainty.
the cottonwood snow that
confuses the unsuspecting passersby and
makes neighbors grumble about how a nice
oak or maple would have sufficed,
a grandmother in a pale cardigan grasping a toddler
by his overall straps, stumbling over
rubber bumpered steps, safe, airborne,
Rumage and Garag Sales every weekend,
spelling bees once a lifetime,
Virgin Marys in their bathtub grottos, and
frost-bitten brown magnolia blossoms –
Mostly, I look forward to the things I will leave behind.
Thin tin dogs on tricycles
(on more than one absurd occasion),
Cyndi Lauper through the screen door
at 6 o’ clock,
the fattest House Sparrows,
Tuesday vodka and cigars and Texas Hold ‘em,
tampon wrappers and full boxes of cream of wheat
on my side of the fence,
tiny socks, toothbrushes, and matchbox
cars without wheels,
yards, or maybe laundry hampers,
I cannot tell.
The snarling chow strung to the concrete
lion, the street where every house
has a wheelchair lift,
kiddie pools of Pabst and Jolly Good.
All this, entrusted to the next.
There’s a message waiting: Doctor at 8:15.
Mom says to stay out of the parking structure and any place south
of the river. Remember that lilac bushes still smell like lilacs,
even when there are no flowers;
they’re too desperate.
And forget-me-nots aren’t always blue,
no matter what they say.
Jessica Eskelsen lives in Milwaukee with her husband David and her wonder-mutt, Gia. She has been known to daydream, wander and stumble into stationary objects and thorny places unfit for humans. Jessica is a 2005 graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, where she majored in photography and minored in writing. Her poetry was recently published in the Summer 2007 issue of Wisconsin People & Ideas.
VITAL would like to thank the judges of our first Short Fiction and Poetry Contest.
Tea Benduhn, Editor; published novelist
Scott Cornwell, English Teacher, Universtiy School of Milwaukee/Director of College Admissions
Daniel Inouye, English teacher, Pius X High School; co-founder, Milwaukee Spotlight Film Festival
Jenny Benjamin-Smith, Literature and writing teacher, published poet
Paula Jones, writing teacher/coach; Community Relations Manager, Barnes and Noble Mayfair
Angela Sorby, Associate Professor of English, Marquette University