Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award: Bruce Spang for Hot
Fiction Honorable Mention: Burke O. Long for House Matters
Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award: Linda Aldrich for Moving Forward
Poetry Honorable Mention Regina Schaare for Amber Light
Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award: Larissa Vigue Picard for The Last Place
Nonfiction Honorable Mention: Anne Wescott Dodd for Giving Up My Catholic Religion
Verdi L. Tripp Fiction Award
Hot by Bruce Spang
See Adult Services Librarian, Emma Gibbon, read an extract of this story here.
When I was twelve, I swore I’d never grow my hair long. I’d keep my crew cut forever. I said that because the police arrested several eighth grade boys hiding in the coat room and marched them to a squad car. They were a few years older than me and I thought they were scary. They combed their long hair back and greased it down. When they were arrested, I thought their long hair, which had once been as short as mine, must have caused their problems with the law.
I changed my mind the following year. Not only did I grow my hair longer but my voice deepened. The tallest in my class, I had become what several of my friends called “good looking.” So I mustered the courage to ask out Nancy Short who called me frequently on the phone and had once asked me to come over to her house when her parents were gone. She lived five miles away. I did a quick calculation and decided ten miles was too much to sacrifice for lust and declined. But a few weeks later, I walked into the gym, festooned with red hearts, arm in arm with Nancy Short at my eighth-grade Heart Hop, my first big dance. I was one of the candidates for King of the Heart Hop and I knew the other guys would be impressed.
After depositing our girls on one side of the gym, the guys gathered by the punch bowl, talking about the Chicago Bears and its pro bowl plays– Dick Butkus, the domineering linebacker who could crush any runner, and Gayle Sayers, the fleet running back who sprinted in and out of opposing linebackers’ arms. We looked across the gym at our dates, who were talking about Elvis Presley and his hips. Occasionally a chaperone coaxed us to dance. We nodded. “Later,” we said, hoping the next glacial age would come and go before we had to do it. At least that is what we said to each other. Secretly I had practiced doing one dance, the twist, for weeks. By studying my arms and legs in the mirror in the bathroom, I had learned to swivel my hips and go down and up. My older brother showed me how to do it.
I waited for the right moment because Nancy was a mean dancer. She went to the Bobby Rivers Dance Studio where we learned to the fox trot and she was a star. She was one of those girls who sat in a chair and did not keep her knees demurely together. She did not care. She had a reputation for being “fast,” which meant she knew about “doing it”—a term we used to cover any form of contact between a boy and a girl. If she knew anything, she knew more than I did. I was known as “slow.” I was probably a speed below slow, if there was such a thing—more like stopped.
I had learned to cover up my lack of experience. I watched techniques used by guys who were “fast.” They had a way of talking about their dates. Whenever they talked about a date, other guys asked them, “Well did you do it?” They paused, looked smug, as if they just had inherited most of Montana. The others riveted on them, waiting to hear if they had “done it.” But they acted cool, nodded their head, looked the other guys in the eye, deepened their voice slightly like John Wayne, the gunslinger in movies, and said laconically, “Yep.” That was all other guys wanted to know. “Yep” was enough.
Such a terse response went unquestioned, especially if it was given emphatically, even though you most likely had a miserable experience, as I did on my first date. My dad drove me to pick up a girl to go to the Glen Theater, and afterward, he left us off at her house. She hopped out of the car and said, “Well, goodbye.”
My dad promptly said, “Escort her to the door, idiot.”
I skirted out of the car, jogged after her, and walked her to the front door. I shook her hand and said, “Good-bye.” Back in the car, my dad asked, “Son, why did you not kiss her?” as if I’d ever kiss a girl with the headlights on in front of my dad–but that is another story.
Right now I was waiting for a chance to dance with Nancy, and prove myself to the guys. I heard the first refrain, “Let’s twist again like we did last summer,” bid my friend Dave good-bye and crossed what seemed like the Mohave desert with the disco lights swirling around in every direction and aimed my legs at the girl in a dress like a carnation, Nancy, my date.
With the twist, sung by Chubby Checker, blaring on the 45 record player, I asked her to dance. She smiled, checked it out with her girl friends as if they were dating consultants, and consented, “Yes.”
I grabbed her hand before she changed her mind. We went to the empty dance floor where I swung my hips back and forth and up and down like a corkscrew, imitating, as best I could, what I vaguely recollected in the mirror. She winced and smiled and swiveled her hips like she could uncork any bottle. I felt like a seasick midshipman on his first voyage maintaining his balance on a vaulting ship. Nancy knew what she was doing in her skin-tight white chiffon dress, her knees together swiveling down and up screwing and unscrewing the cork. I was amazed. “You’re good,” I cried out. Like a goddess, she smiled and brushed a wisp of her red hair back on her head. The flicking light from the spinning globe licked across her face. Heaven was just a few steps away.
After the twist ended, we looked at one another like Martians on a planet where neither of us belonged. Then, wafting over the room came the music of “Theme from a Summer Place,” a song by Percy Faith, a name I liked. “Percy Faith” sounded like someone hopeful, someone who knew the yearning I had to make contact with another body, with Nancy, and had written this slow song for a slow guy, for me and her. So I extended my hand to her as leading men do in films; she took it and slid her arm around my waist. I was in love. Or if not love, I was cool which was even better than being in love. I was dancing “close”—another big term for guys. “Did you dance close?” they would ask and you would say, deepening your voice, “Yes, very close.” They would look at you as if you had discovered a new continent.
She nestled her chin into my chest; I reclined my head into her hair. Rapture raced through my veins. I thought this looked hot, her body close to mine, her head on my chest, my head in her hair. The guys would be impressed. But I failed to anticipate her bee-hive hairdo that was eight inches tall as thick as a real bee hive, and sprayed with something hard. So instead of soft hair, I encountered strands of what felt like razor sharp cooper wire. I could feel it chafe on my cheek and discretely pulled my hand up to touch my cheek. Blood.
“Man oh man,” I thought. “This is awful. I am ruined.” As the violins rose in the music, I felt they were playing for me, for this moment, for my reputation as a guy. I took a deep breath and resolved, “I can’t pull back; she is nestling even closer, her legs pressed to mine. She is ‘doing it’ and I cannot retreat. No way. What would the guys say?” I kept pressed to her hive, the pain searing my face as I tried to imagine myself as Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind dancing with Scarlet, body to body, music sweeping us off into a magic land, somewhere in the lower slopes of the great mountain peak we all aspired to—“Mount Doing It.” When the record ended, nearly dissolved in sweat and wondering how many lacerations were mapped across my cheek, I thanked her and walked her to the other girls who grabbed her and swung her into a semi-circle, giggling and asking her questions. Seeing I was of no use, I bid a retreat across the battlefield to the guys.
“How was it?” the guys asked.
I wanted to be cool. I had studied for this as long as I had for the test on the Constitution.
“Hot,” I said.
“Yea,” they said admiringly. “We saw.”
Then David, my best friend, observed, “You’re bleeding.”
I felt as one who’d been to the front and came back wounded, a hero, someone to be admired, having sacrificed my cheek for the larger good of the group. “Yea,” I said in my best tough cowboy voice.
“She made you bleed,” Dave said. “Amazing!”
“Yea,” I said. I have never known how useful one word could be—“Yea” was an all- purpose word, the “guy” word. I must have said “yea” twenty times. If they had asked, will you marry her, it certainly would have been, “Yea.” My life was complete. They played the twist three more times and I danced it all three times. They played “Theme from a Summer Place” twice more and I managed to lacerate both cheeks for the greater cause. There was no end to the sacrifices I would make on the altar of manhood.
Later that night, amid drum rolls, my name was called. “What is this?” I thought. I walked to the front, stepped on stage and was told by a lady in a bright red dress that I was elected.
“Elected?” I wasn’t sure what she meant.
With both my cheeks burning, she intoned into a microphone, “Yes, Bruce you are King of the Heart Hop.” She placed a silver crown on my head. I stood with Linda Gregory, a brunette, whom I had kissed once when the lights were turned off at a party. I was really slow back then, not at all like I was now. After that kiss, for over a month, I thought I should ask her to marry me, as if the kiss had carried some big obligation. Fortunately, basketball season started and I never followed up on it.
She smiled at me and said, “You look nice.” I told her she did, too.
As we stood on stage, hand in hand, the Polaroids flashed and we smiled. I looked at Nancy there on the floor and the guys. For that moment, I was King. I wanted to make a speech about the cost of war, the sacrifice one makes, and the painful scars of victory, but as I looked up I saw my mom.
She pushed her way through the crowd and came forward to greet me, kissed me on the cheek and noticed the bleeding. “Why, honey you are bleeding,” she said, taking a Kleenex out of her purse and dabbing it on my cheeks. I felt my body shrink to the size of a toad. I whispered, “Mom, cut it out. I am fine.”
She backed up and said, huffily, “I just came here to pick you up.”
It was the bewitching hour. Some friends came up to congratulate me. Several girls said I looked handsome and smiled at me in ways that made me think they had the wrong guy. I took Nancy by the arm and escorted her to the back seat of our Ford station wagon.
After driving Nancy to her duplex, Mom let us out in the frail moonlight and kept the headlights on high beams. I suppose she wanted to make sure Nancy didn’t trip in her pretty white dress, but it felt as if we were back on stage.
We looked at each other for a minute under the porch light. I shook her hand. Nancy smiled, “I had a great time,” she said breathily, her hand clasping mine, not letting go, her finger tracing some indecipherable code on my palm. I leaned forward, close enough for her to touch her lips to my cheek, hoping she too had seen the wages of war. She turned to open the screen door, waving to my mom who waved back, and vanished inside while I walked back to the car, trying to figure out what she traced on the palm—letters, I thought, like ones parents doodle on their infants’ bellies in tubs, simple letters—letters whose shape consumed me, drew all my attention until, deep into the night, as the moon traced a circle on the far wall, the exact shape of the letters came to me: yes, a word I knew and wanted to know better– “H” “O” “T,”—“hot,” a word I would use again when asked by the guys, “How was the dance?”
“Real hot?” they would inquire.
They would want to know more. “How was your date?”
“Did you do it. . . was she hot?”
They might even ask questions I had never been asked, like “How is life?”
I didn’t care, not as the moon trailed along the horizon on the road back home, not even as it followed me in the front door and sleeked up the banister with my hand over it. They could ask anything they wanted because I knew exactly what to say.
I would nod and say, “Hot.” And mean it. And in my own way, know it.
Bruce Spang taught American Literature, Speech and Creative Writing at Scarborough High School. Having written a libretto, Charlie!, about a 24 year gay man who was murdered by 3 teens in Bangor, he is waiting to see who will produce it. He is author of To the Promised Land Grocery (Moon Pie Press, 2008), I Have Walked though Many Lives: Young Voices—Scarborough (Moon Pie, Press 2009), The Knot, (Snow Drift Press, 2005), and Tip End of Time (Snow Drift Press, 2004). He has published four books on drug and alcohol education in the schools along with several articles in major magazines. He has taught creative writing for seven years. Prior to that, for 10 years, as an administrator, he worked with Baron Wormser in teaching his staff to teach poetry in the classroom. Each year, his students in his classes, have won major prizes in local and state contests.
Fiction Honorable Mention
House Matters by Burke O. Long
Shelby peered across the sun-blistered yard, watching two boys playing stickball. He scowled, thrashing air with his sweet gum cane.
“Git on outa here!” he yelled.
The boys looked up, shrugged, and shuffled away in dusty puffs toward the end of Chalmer Street.
“I ain’t myself this mornin,” he called after them weakly.
The truth was, he felt raw. Picked to the bone. His wife, Willa, had been more in the dumps than ever since Jimmy Rowe came by three weeks ago, determined to stir up more trouble than he knew between a man and his wife. Shelby looked for him this morning, expecting him to light up one of his two-dollar cigarettes, and snap-talk his way to what he was after.
“Well, damn-to-hell,” he said, sharply rapping the porch floor. “He ain’t gonna git it.”
The front yard was a patchwork of hard clay and clumps of dusty crab grass that rolled out to the plank fence that Shelby’s father had taught him to whitewash with a wallpaper brush. He showed him how to put a brace behind the cross rail before nailing in a new plank and how to square up the gate after the cyclone came through. Where had it all gone to, Shelby wondered. The fence was a row of dreary teeth these days, some firm, some pushed askew, several fallen away. Beyond, a little row of dust-covered shrubs looked as forlorn as his house, the last in a row of white-owned properties. Here, the fire hydrants and water line ended and the tarred surface crumbled into dust. A line of cabins led Shelby’s eye to Chalmer’s Oak, a survivor of spring floods, lightning strikes and, back in the days of its youth, marauding blue coats.
Before his fingers began to stiffen and his knees twisted inward, Shelby used to walk with his father as far as that great tree. He’d wave goodbye and watch the gently stooped man, who had seemed such a giant up close, gradually shrink to little boy size as he trudged uphill, fading into a stream of workers headed for the Piedmont Copper Concession. His father was one of the firemen who set dynamite charges in the holes. One winter morning, as Shelby’s mother told it, he and other miners were turned away by guards who looked as snarly as the German Shepherds they barely held in check. His father ate lunch at home that day, chewing his sweet potato and bologna sandwich in silence, staring at the nubs of two fingers he’d lost to dynamite years before.
The mine closed in 1913 when he was eight years old, but Shelby thought of it often because his mother clung to the tale, repeating it as if she wanted Shelby to feel the same kind of sad pleasure she felt. He could still hear her voice, weak and raspy from lung congestion—a mighty heavy woebegone it was, Shelby, when the copper give out and we come to be poor as crickets. If it wuhden’t for this house bein your granddaddy’s to begin with, they woulda tore it down along with all the rest, and we’d be nothin.
Shelby eased himself into a porch chair, craning his neck toward uptown, expecting to see Jimmy Rowe’s black Pontiac any minute. Grandaddy’s house was Willa’s, too, he thought. After a fashion. But she didn’t hear mama’s voice in her head. And who nailed back shutters and tarpaper that the winds from Copper Mountain kept ripping off until all of it made the twist in his legs worse and put a crook in his spine?
“Shelby?” Willa had said last Thursday, holding a cup of Nescafé and looking blankly past his shoulder. “I gotta git loose from here.”
Shelby pushed on his cane and stood up. He sidled over to the wall near the stovepipe, reached in a small hole among the bricks, and pulled out the will his father had scribbled on the backside of a water company bill just before he died.
“Look ahere, Willa, I want you to hear it again.”
“I heard it enough,” she snapped, banging the table with her fist and walking to the kitchen window.
Pushing aside the droopy violets she’d named Henrietta and Hattie and Helen, she began to scrub the rutted windowsill, pressing a dish rag into open grooves and knot holes, furiously rubbing at paint chips that had long since been scraped away. During fifteen years of marriage, Shelby had never been able to see the dirt she was after, or for that matter, what was in the toilet she attacked like she was after vermin.
Shelby unfolded the paper. He needed to read the words aloud again. Partly to keep Willa out of this Jimmy Rowe business, and partly to keep hold of his father, to see him lying against the daybed pillow, pushing a pencil into heavy underlining, backward leaning p’s, and capital t’s.
“April 10, 1949,” Shelby said. “Your mama’s passed. When I go, this house belongs to you Shelby Boyd Franklin…”
Willa turned from the windowsill. “I know it ain’t mine to sell, but…”
“It’s all I got left, it is…”
“…But Jimmy Rowe’s givin us a chance. A place where ain’t nothin gonna pull me back…”
“I still see Mama…” Shelby looked at the floor near the wood stove, studying the cutout in the linoleum, the rough planks of a trapdoor, its handle made of sisal rope. “She’s coming up from the root cellar yonder with a bunch of sweet potatoes…”
“That door’s been scratching at me, like somebody trying to git loose!”
“I can hear Papa….Shelby did right good t’day, Rita-Mae, maybe your prayin’s helpin…”
“I had a piece of rope tied onto me!” Willa cried, twisting and rubbing her fingers. “I was pushing at the door, scratching, scratching, my fingers all bloody…”
She grabbed a piece of sisal that hung near the root cellar, waving it wildly. “A scrap like this, ‘round my wrists.”
Shelby stared at his wife.
“Willa, they’s both right here, Mama and Papa. I ain’t giving this house up to Jimmy Rowe or nobody else.”
“You ain’t listening!” she shouted. “This here place, your place, is got a rope ‘round my neck.”
She had pawed at her dress pockets and sucked in air, Shelby remembered, like she couldn’t breathe. Or like she was swallowing what she’d just said. But how could anybody take back words that hurt?
Shelby shook one arm to ease the pain in his hand. He hobbled to the end of the porch. Willa had been right about one thing: he hadn’t been listening to her, at least not until she waved that piece of rope in his face. But he had to be hard as Piedmont clay, not let her and Jimmy Rowe rip him out of the ground like a bunch of wiregrass.
Shelby was beginning to feel hungry for lunch when the black ’55 Pontiac finally roared down Chalmer Street, u-turned in a cloud of dust, and bucked to a stop beside the fire hydrant. Jimmy Rowe stepped out, waving to Shelby. He crossed in front of the hood and patted the airplane ornament. Shelby wished he could throw down his cane and take care of the flash-tongued snake that was coming his way.
“Morning, Shelby,” Jimmy Rowe called out, passing through the gap in the fence where a gate used to hang. He sprang onto the porch and walked briskly toward Shelby. Fluffing a handkerchief, he wiped the seat of the rocking chair that Shelby’s father had made of saplings, flipped the tail of his jacket, and sat down.
“Morning,” Shelby said, easing past Jimmy Rowe and settling onto a stool near the front door. He’d be as polite as he had to be with rich folk, but no more.
Shelby and Jimmy Rowe had gone to school together, but they’d never been friends. Boys from Pin Oak didn’t run around with anybody from the Chalmer Street side of town. After Shelby quit tenth grade because he couldn’t keep up with hand writing, he hardly saw Jimmy Rowe until, years later, he showed up with an office on Center Street and a Pontiac with ‘James Dobbs Developer’ painted on the door. People liked to say that little Jimmy left town in little britches and came home wearing hundred dollar suits and a two-bit smirk.
Jimmy Rowe pulled out a silver case and took a cigarette. Tapping it lightly, he put it between his lips and raised a sizzling match. The sharp smell bit into Shelby’s nose.
“Moroccan,” he said. “Do you know, I have to drive all the way up to Richmond to get them.” Rocking gently, legs spread widely, he sent bluish fog over the front yard. He was a small man with rounded shoulders and thinning brown hair that made him look older than he was. He has the turned up nose of his mother, Shelby thought. He must’ve got his snap-talking from his daddy.
A dog suddenly rushed out of a dust flurry, bounded onto the porch, and aimed its nose at Jimmy Rowe’s crotch. “Come ‘ere, Bone Boy,” Shelby called as Jimmy Rowe snapped his knees shut. The dog skittered away and collapsed at Shelby’s feet in a mound of boney angles. From inside the house, Willa peered through the sagging door screen. The shade of the porch roof dulled her round face and eyes to rusty green.
Jimmy Rowe threw his cigarette beyond the porch rail. He settled flesh-colored glasses on his nose and placed a black case across his lap, releasing the latch noisily.
“Well, now, Shelby. And Willa. Op-por-tun-i-ty. I hope y’all have been
considering it. Carefully.” He picked a bit of tobacco from his mouth and flicked it over the porch rail. “Yes sir, mighty carefully.”
Shelby thrust his stubbly chin sideways and started to speak.
“Offer’s still five thousand.”
Jimmy Rowe waved his hand toward frayed tarpaper and a broken windowpane. “You’d have enough for a new place out towards Shiloh.”
“I been thinkin,” said Willa, “a new house would be awful nice.”
“We ain’t decided that,” Shelby said sharply, swinging around to face her.
“Be a clean start, it would.”
“We ain’t through with it.”
Willa drew back a little from the screen and rubbed both of her forearms as if they were covered with fire ants.
“We ain’t decided,” Shelby repeated to Jimmy Rowe. “Seems like Papa’s still puttering in the front yard.”
“I remember you and him coming up to Pin Oak Terrace,” said Jimmy Rowe, ignoring Willa. “Fine man, he was. Kept the grass trim. And shrubs. Like Daddy Big Jim wanted.”
“I need something for my hands,” Shelby said, recalling that Big Jim Dobbs took off a dollar or two for every job because Shelby’s twisted legs made him a little slower behind the push mower.
Willa came outside and rubbed Ben Gay on Shelby’s hands and knuckles.
“I ‘spect you want some for your knees, too,” she said, sounding just impatient enough to make Shelby think he’d been too sharp with her a minute ago.
Willa massaged his kneecap. “I reckon that’s enough for now,” she
She withdrew and sat on the porch steps. Bone Boy scrambled to her side, nudging his snout under her arm.
Jimmy Rowe poked inside his brief case, pulled out a piece of paper, and
waved it in the air. “Condemnation order. The town’s about ready to send Buell Hocking out.” He pointed to the front door. “Tack it up yonder, I reckon.”
“You ain’t mentioned that the last time you was here!” said Willa.
“Yes. Well, no, Willa. I didn’t think it’d be necessary. But the house is clearly unsafe. Has to be torn down. Unless…”
He placed the paper back inside his brief case.
“Have you got money to fix it up?”
Shelby tried to speak, but Willa pressed on. “You mean we got to leave no matter what.”
“We ain’t going to!” blurted Shelby, uncontrollably rubbing his knuckles
against his thigh. “It’s us, all of it! Papa’s tools out back, Mama’s chair you’re sitting in, me, all I got is right here.”
“All I got is bad recollecting,” Willa muttered.
Shelby eyed her. Maybe he hadn’t been sharp tongued enough. “Reverend Tucker said we was man and wife,” he shouted. “He told us don’t let anybody ever tear us apart. Ain’t that something good to recollect?”
“That ain’t stronger than the Devil.”
“Willa, you just keep quiet for a minute. Me and Jimmy Rowe got to
Willa pouted. “I got my own notion about this business.”
Shelby swung around and faced the yard, fuming. He was embarrassed and angry that Willa had provoked him, and that he’d shouted, and let Jimmy Rowe see them squabbling like this.
“Willa’s correct,” Jimmy Rowe said calmly, moving across the porch toward Shelby, wiping sweat from his brow. He leaned in closer. A curvy ‘D’ had been sewn on one corner of his handkerchief.
“One way or another, you have to move out. You can take your memories with you.”
Jimmy Rowe punched his palm with an index finger, sucking at his tongue. “Dzik. Now, sign over the house. Buell won’t have to come out here Dzik. You and Willa…” Jimmy Rowe glanced at Willa. “Y’all can have a clean start. Dzik.” He leaned back.
Look like he’s mighty satisfied with himself, Shelby thought. But he ain’t nothing but a poker player trying to bluff his way to the pot.
Leaning against the railing, Jimmy Rowe struck a match to another cigarette and blew little circles of smoke into the air. The noonday firehouse siren wound up, a low-pitched groan becoming a shrill howl, and then slid back into silence. Bone Boy shook his head and drifted back to sleep.
“All right, then, Shelby,” he said, looking at his pocket watch. “That’s all for today. You and Willa. You don’t have much more time to decide how you want this business to turn out.”
He picked up his briefcase, snapped it shut and walked toward the steps, poking the air. “Five thousand. Place about to be condemned. A new house. For
Willa moved her knees aside to make room for Jimmy Rowe to scoot past. He held his pants cuffs back from Bone Boy. Springing down the steps he called back, “Ya’ll let me know, right quick now.”
At the street, Jimmy Rowe bent down and yanked a handful of wiregrass from the soil near the fire hydrant. He cleaned his hands with his handkerchief and slipped behind the steering wheel. The car roared away. A cloud of orange-red dust settled on the little row of shrubs.
Shelby lay quietly in bed, his eyes closed, as Willa slipped into her housecoat and crept barefoot past his bed. He had been awake for some time. Willa had been restless in the night, punching at her pillows. He was used to that, but not to the dream that chased him like a hound on a raccoon scent. Even now, fully awake, he kept replaying Jimmy Rowe hurtling a bulldozer into little cabins, each one like his Papa’s. The piles of splintered lumber and chimney bricks wailed like an orphan calf. Well, that snap-talker wasn’t gonna make him no orphan child.
Listening to Willa clink about the kitchen now, Shelby decided to be more sympathetic today. All these years, he’d learned to live with her swings from playful tenderness, not caring much about house cleaning, to furious attacks at dirt he couldn’t see. She sometimes shrieked and flung herself out of bed. He’d find her at the kitchen table, holding her ears as though trying to keep out some loud noise.
He put up with it because she sang Eddie Arnold songs, with her hands waving, If I had a nickel…I’d spend it all on candy and give it all to you, that’s how much I love you. And because she lined up wild violets in little jars and fussed over them like they were the babies she’d never have. And because she’d chosen him fifteen years ago, him, a twisted up half-cripple who’d ridden his three wheel bike out to the Shiloh Holy Ghost Church just for the fried chicken.
She appeared out of a grove of poplar trees, stood next to him and looked him over, peering at the tow cart stuffed with bottles and shoes and an old electric fan he’d collected that morning.
“My name’s Willa.”
“I got one good ear.”
“My knees and hands ain’t so good either.”
“Well, now, Shelby, are you just going to lean on that cane all day?”
“No ma’am. I was just savoring for a minute. I come out here for the fried chicken and okra. It’s free.
Willa took hold of his arm. “Come on then. I like picnics. Indeed I do.”
All of it is still a blush of wonder, Shelby thought as he listened to bursts of static and voices on the RCA. He pictured Willa in the living room spinning the tuner dial, wearing the bright rose blossom housecoat he’d found for her on one of his bicycle runs. Maybe she’s looking at the photo next to the radio—Mama with her hands pressed down on Papa’s shoulders, looking into his eyes, Papa smiling, the brim of his hat tipped to one side over his brow like he was saying we gonna have us a time, we are.
Shelby pulled on loose fitting pants and a clean undershirt, V-necked, to show his chest hair. Taking hold of his brace, he made his way to the kitchen. His wife had already set out a box of Kellogg’s. He folded himself into a chair and waited, listening to the radio announcer run through the morning’s hog prices.
Willa sipped her Nescafé. She pretended not to notice when her husband made his way to the kitchen. She felt herself floating on the announcer’s singsong voice, seeing herself at the pig sty she could hardly remember, but tried anyway because when she got the peaceful part of Papa-Pop’s place clear in her mind, that was strong enough to keep the rest away. The smell of alfalfa hay, the barn, its white clapboards a rainy-day gray, the walking plow leaning against a pile of scrap timbers. Pigs gruffle-snort, rooting around their muddy pen. An old sow tickles Willa’s shins. She tosses a bucket of kitchen garbage to Delilah, then to Samson, and Beulah, and Baby Sue her favorite. All her children squeal and nose push for the slop. Let it all just wiggle right down my spine, oh, happy, happy, she thought. Push the shit away. If Shelby could get us a new place, with room for a pig or two, if she could raise’em and love’em, and then raise some more, maybe Poppa-Pop and hell-hole Dixmont wouldn’t be trying to grab her all the time.
Willa switched off the radio and strode into the kitchen.
“Morning, Shelby,” she said. “I wanna get me a pig to raise.”
Her husband said nothing. After all his tossing and turning last night, she thought, it’s no wonder he sat there like a hickey on a frog. But she had her troubles, too. They was close by, scuffing and scratching in the corners, watching her from cracks in the wall, pushing up and out from wherever they’s hiding.
Willa ran fresh water into a saucepan. “Nescafé’s coming,” she said brightly.
Turning toward the stove, Willa lost her grip and the pan crashed to the floor. She watched water gather into a dark shape and creep across the linoleum floor, dragging her eyes toward the root cellar, that place, she thought, it’s coming at me again. Willa sucked in air, picked up the saucepan, refilled it, walked to the stove and struck a match. The tip broke. She struck another and bluish flame whooshed. As a sudden inward spin took hold, she closed her eyes, thinking it’s coming at me, sucking at my feet like quicksand.
“Willa,” she heard a distant voice say.
Willa grabbed the edge of a cabinet and fought. Gotta go back, lean on the fence, that always-there fence. Have to see the bucket of turnip peelings and watermelon rinds at my feet. Here they come now, I hear ‘em, muddy, snorting, happy, my beautiful Beulah and Baby Sue, wanting for nothing ‘cept food.
“Willa, Willa,” the voice said, louder now.
She opened her eyes and was startled to see Shelby wobbling up from his chair, swaying on his cane.
“It’s settlin,” Willa said quietly.
She reached uncertainly for a loaf of Wonder Bread. Shelby had shut her up right sharp yesterday, but that didn’t mean she’d give up the idea that come to her. Jimmy Rowe spit-clicked op-por-tun-i-ty through his teeth, and she’d thought of ab-ra-ca-da-bra, poof ! Maybe if she could say it this morning so that Shelby heard things right, the pigs, the new house, she’d get rid of it all, the quicksand feeling, the filth that oozed out of pipes and holes in the floor, everything that was dragging her back to Dixmont.
“I’ll get your coffee presently, soon’s the water boils,” Willa said, sliding
bread and a jar of damson preserves across the table.Willa sat down opposite her husband. She twisted her hands together and, exhaling slowly, spread them out on the table, palms down. “Things has been bothering me, Shelby. And they wouldn’t if I was in a spanking new house.”
“I know you think that Willa. And you’ve always been jumpy, and Jimmy Rowe’s made it worse, I can see that…”
She rubbed her forearm. “Jumpy! It’s itching like fire ants.”
“And I ain’t happy with the troubles that seem to follow you round…”
“They’s bitin at me…”
“But I ain’t gonna give Jimmy Rowe what he’s after.”
Her husband’s stubbly chin was firmly set, his eyes unwavering, a flinty gray. She jumped up, pushed aside the curtain that hung from the sink, grabbed a long handled brush and a can of Comet.
“Willa!” Shelby called, as she rushed through the doorway, knowing that he was working his body up to a holler.
She stomped back into the kitchen, kicking Bone Boy aside.
“I got to keep it out of this shit-hole shack before it sucks me back!”
She pounded the Comet can onto the table. White powder flew upward and settled in a flurry of white. Her housecoat flew open. Covering herself, she crossed her arms and squinted.
“Papa’s house ain’t a shit hole.”
Willa pressed her fingers into her arms, flexing the sleeves of the housecoat as though kneading bread dough. This god damned house had been in every fight she’d ever had with Shelby, and now it pressed on her like a five hundred pound sow. She remembered her father—Poppa Pop—his huge bulk and face thundercloud dark except for his eyes. They burned like wind-fired lumps of coal as he tore round the farmhouse, swinging the free end of a coil of rope.
“Willa! Goddamn it, you slow bitch, you can’t git away!”
He kicked at a pile of trash on the back porch, and Willa dashed away, through the barn, out the wagon door to the pigpen. She shriveled into a lump behind the feeding trough.
He came after her over the fence, kicking over buckets and growling her name. Pigs scrambled and squealed. His form rose up tall and mean. Huge, angry hands grabbed her and pulled her up like a wiggling rabbit. They tied her wrists together and hauled her away. From the wagon, Willa saw her mother for the last time. She stood in the upstairs window, crying it looked like, because she never had the strength of a kitten.
“I mean, this here house’s got a rope on me,” Willa said to Shelby. She had approached her husband and wiped the Comet powder from the table with the
sleeve of her housecoat. “Like Poppa-Pop did.” Willa rooted around in one of her pockets, found a cigarette butt, and struck a match to it.
“Willa, I don’t need to hear all this… I mean the business I got with Jimmy Rowe ain’t about your daddy.”
“Stuff rushes up inside me all the time, black and slimy, and pulls at me. It’s everywhere I look.” She dropped the cigarette. She didn’t care one bit if it burned the linoleum, burn the whole shit house shack down would be just fine with her.
“Willa, the cigarette!” Shelby yelled.
“I gotta git a new place, Shelby Franklin!”
She began to pace the kitchen, eyes closed, arms flailing. Bone Boy circled her and barked. “Poppa Pop said over and over again, you be lazy, you be slow.”
She ran from the sink to the stove, turned, then dashed back across the room past the root cellar and whirled about, hands pressed to the doorjamb.
“I tell you what’s slow, Pappy,” she said, looking straight through Shelby. “That sagging-lips hag, shit-dried-on-her-legs, out there where you dragged me. She drools and pulls at her tit and talks to the air. That be slow.” Willa grabbed her head and began rocking from side to side. “Green shirt’s coming at me, he gonna strap my arms in tight,” she wailed. “His thing’s up stiff as a corn cob!”
She fell back against the door jamb.
“Stay dead! Let me loose! All it, stay dead!”
Willa felt her chest heaving. Her eyes blinked open. The heaves slowed, she felt as limp as a balloon losing air. Pressing palms toward the floor, she repeated, “Stay dead, I tell you. All it.”
Willa drew her housecoat together, using a sleeve to wipe sweat from her face. The gritty taste of Comet powder lay on her lips. Walking to the sink, she let her body drain into a sigh. “Stay dead,” she half whispered and turned, aware now that her husband was staring at her, hands balanced on his cane, his mouth open. Bone Boy licked at her toes, whimpering.
“Ol’ Bone Boy, what chu doin,” Willa said. “You just seen a ghost or somethin?”
Shelby watched his wife walk unsteadily from the kitchen to the living room and collapse onto the sofa. She spun the radio dial and held it at Eddy Arnold crooning, Just call me lonesome…. She lit another cigarette butt. We said forever we’d be together…The nubbin glowed hot. He came between us, and now forever lies in pieces….
Shelby glanced at the cigarette that Willa had dropped onto the kitchen
floor. It had burned itself out harmlessly. He shifted his eyes back to his wife, who was now moving her hands like windshield wipers, keeping time with the music.
Angling his cane toward the floor, Shelby pushed himself up and made his way from the kitchen to the living room. He watched Willa for a moment, then, using his cane and a practiced swivel-thrust of the hips, he sidewindered toward the sofa. He stood in front of his wife and swayed with the music, shifting weight from his twisted legs to the cane and back again. Willa stood up. Shelby rested the cane against the wall, put a hand on each of her shoulders. Gently placing her bare feet, one at a time, on his, Willa took hold of his waist and stared into his chest.
“Shelby Franklin, you got right nice curls of gray poking out from your shirt.”
They rocked silently. He came between us, and now forever lies in pieces…
It had been enough, Shelby thought, to know the Willa who came out of the poplar grove and chosen him even with his twisted legs and bad hands. She sometimes acted peculiar, trying to scrub away every speck of dirt, and now, went back violently in her mind to some terrible place. Jimmy Rowe had made her spill all that poison over everything, him, Papa’s house, enough to run out into the yard and tool shed. She’d let woebegones rush out like his mother had done. Except Willa took no sad pleasure in it.
Shelby’s eyes rested on the photograph of his mother and father. Standing in front of that very same picture, he remembered, Reverend Tucker had said that he and Willa were man and wife. The preacher smiled, showing his stained teeth. He pulled at a shirt collar that was too tight around his neck and closed the Bible. His face turned grim. ‘Now, don’t never, ever let nobody, not even the Devil hisself, tear ya’ll apart’.
Eddie Arnold’s singing faded into a final strum across the guitar strings.
“All right then,” Shelby whispered into his wife’s good ear while tipping an imaginary hat toward his father and mother in the photograph. “I think I’d best go head and let Jimmy Rowe have what he come for.”
Burke Long is the Kenan Professor of Religion and the Humanities Emeritus at Bowdoin College. He has studied poetry with Elizabeth Potter and short fiction in the Stonecoast Institute, the University of New England, and in workshops sponsored by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. Recent publications include “Day of the Lord” (Words and Images, 2009) and “Flesh of my Flesh” (A Critical Engagement [eds. David J.A. Clines and Ellen van Wold] 2011).
Margaret F. Tripp Poetry Award
Moving Forward by Linda Aldrich
Boulders in the sun sleep like pachyderms.
Gravity-makers, they churn quiet to permanence,
turning toward us so slowly, we are gone by then.
The old woman who owned the house before us
fell on the ice, died half-in, half-out the back door.
The boulders were not alarmed. News won’t reach
them for another 50,000 years. Like inter-galactic
light, they are always out of date, and dying, too,
is over before they know it. The woman was not
loved by her children. The mailman found her
in the morning. Now he lingers by our mailbox.
Perhaps he misses the holy cards she gave him,
perhaps he wishes he could say one more thing.
The boulders relax more densely into place.
A day like any other, they don’t hold their breath.
Linda Aldrich was born and grew up in New Hampshire. She has lived in France, San Francisco, Colorado, and Vermont – places she still misses. She currently lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband, David Miller, and their exceptional dog, Simba. She has published two collections of poetry, Foothold (2008, Finishing Line Press) and March and Mad Women, (2012, Cherry Grove Collections). Linda received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College. Her poems have appeared in Crazy Woman Creek, Indiana Review, Cimarron Review, Elixir, The Denver Quarterly, Ellipsis, The Florida Review, The Ilanot Review, Poet Lore, Third Coast, Puerto del Sol, Snake Nation Review, The Best of Write Action, and Words and Images. Her poem “Woman-without-Arms” won the Emily Dickinson Award 2000 from Universities West Press.
Poetry Honorable Mention
Amber Light by Regina Schaare
The most hated month.
Earth, stripped of her
Garments, like Inaan
Of her adornments
On her descent to death.
Only the oak gathers
Its leaf-tattered robe
Tighter, in snatching arms.
But this is numinous time.
Between leaves and snowfall, earth’s
Skeleton is unburied;
A liminal tracery of branches
Against heavy sky, or hills
Graphed in eerie outline
On November landscape.
And then, a skewered moment
When amber light floods a field,
Piercing dun-colored stubble
And cornstalks crisp as old parchment,
Clothing earth with honeyed cloak
And golden scarves of glimmer.
Crows scatter to bony branches—
Crones warming wings in autumn’s fading grasp.
Regina Schaare, M.A., is co-author with the late Jill Fairchild of two non-fiction works, The Goddess Workbook and the Goddess Wisdom Cards (with illustrations by Sandra Stanton). She has been writing poetry since childhood. Her writing is influenced by mythology, women’s spirituality (both ancient and contemporary), and the feminine aspect of deity. Regina has traveled to many ancient spiritual sites around the world and loves finding Goddess shrines and stone circles in remote locations. She believes that every woman has a sacred story to share with others. Regina lives in Harpswell, Maine, with her husband and two cats.
Richard F. Snow Nonfiction Award
The Last Place by Larissa Vigue Picard
Six months after my grandfather died in a Florida hospital bed, I stand by my mother as she climbs onto his favorite rocking chair in the living room of our family’s summer cottage in Maine. She is after a set of four identical pots lining a small shelf tucked high up behind the fireplace mantle. The chair buckles as my mother stretches to reach the shelf. Her concentration doesn’t waver.
“Perfect,” she says, handing the fist-sized pots down to her sister, my aunt, who is standing next to me.
The pots are fat and stubby and three-legged. They have zig-zag designs in faded blue around their middles and a collar of deep red. Otherwise, their bodies are naked clay, an unfinished, dull gray. Clearly the “artist” wasn’t much concerned with craft. My aunt takes the pots one by one and places them in a tight row on the mantle. She smiles as she brushes cobwebs from their lidless tops. My mother nods slightly, though she doesn’t smile, as she steps down from the chair and drags it back into its regular spot near the porch door.
I haven’t ever paid much attention to the pots before. Who knows how long they’ve been up there, half hidden by the clutter of my grandfather’s cottage shrine. Snowshoes, fuzzy deer antlers, a beaver whittled block of maple, child-sized canoe paddles with the names of my younger cousin, Heidi, and me painted along the handles—all these items, untouched for years, compete for space on the broad oak mantle. A coffee can of matches, half-full, sits waiting for the next fire to be lit. The empty leather sheath of a hunting knife lies on yellowed newspaper from the 1970s. Even the fishing cap with dangling silver lures rests precariously on the mantle’s edge, as if a lake trout might materialize out of the fireplace smoke and jump up to bite.
“Well, these pots fit right in.”
I say it to get a reaction but none comes. My aunt blows dust out of the inside of one of the pots. My mother stares at the now empty shelf where the pots were.
They can pat themselves on the back, but I know these pots are no treasure. My grandfather picked them up, I am sure, at a flea market, a favorite pastime of his. We went to one together once, when I visited him in Florida over college break. In his later years, he had turned to bargain hunting as a career. One man’s trash, I murmur to myself.
The pots are so poorly made that each sports a bum leg. Depending on how my aunt has set them on the mantle, they list to the right or left—like this old man I once saw whose left leg was about three inches shorter than his right. He leaned like a tree growing toward the sun and bobbed when he walked.
I pick up the third pot. It’s surprisingly light; it weighs less than an apple. I turn it over. The underside bears a stamp: “MEXICO.” But two-thirds of the “M” is missing so it really reads “EXICO” preceded by a cryptic looking hooked line. Below that, the number “35” scratched in pencil. That clinches it. Some huge manufacturer pumped these out on an assembly line. I just hope my grandfather wasn’t fooled into accepting their authenticity.
“So, what are we doing with these, exactly?” I ask, setting the pot back in line beside its mates.
My mother, who doles out information when she is good and ready, doesn’t look like she’s interested in filling me in anytime soon. She sits in the rocking chair, not rocking, just looking idly ahead.
“The ashes, honey.” This answer comes from my aunt, delivered in that chirpy voice of hers. “We’re dividing the rest of Grandpa’s ashes this weekend. Four pots four ways: Heidi, you, your Mom, and me. When your Mom remembered these little buggers”—here she picks up one of the pots and holds it to her cheek as you would something soft, like a bunny—“I said, ‘Oh good idea! Dad would approve.’” She actually pats the pot.
I look to my mother for confirmation.
“Yup,” she says, looking bored. “That’s what we’re doing as soon as Kandy stops fussing with them.” This draws an eye roll from my aunt.
I cross my arms. “You’re not serious.”
They nod in unison. I grimace at both of them. Then I turn back to the mantle and grimace at the pots. They are so small, so homely. Badly molded lumps of clay with a couple of stripes of paint thrown on for color. Could you possibly be any more inappropriate for this task? I silently ask the pots. The pots just sit there, tipping their chubby bodies back at me.
What my aunt said: Dad would approve. People seem to go around making pronouncements like that after someone dies. To me, it’s impossible to second-guess what my grandfather would approve of just now. For example, he didn’t approve of continuing to take his heart medication when the doctor told him that the pulmonary fibrosis, which had, for the fifth time, sent him to the hospital for pneumonia, had finally been trumped by lung cancer. If I ever get cancer, he’d said to me more than once, you go get my shotgun. I’ll be damned if I’m going to suffer like your grandmother. Or end up in some goddamn nursing home. So he started spitting out his pills the very next day. It took three days for his heart to stop. That very minute I was standing, bored stiff, in a long, cordoned-off line at the airport behind two twenty-something males whose vocabulary consisted of a handful of one-syllable words. I was headed to Florida, to my grandfather’s bedside. Had I known then I would never again hear his voice, I would have tapped the students on the shoulder and said, Please shut the fuck up. I wonder if my grandfather would have approved of that.
My aunt sets the pot back on the mantle. She announces she’ll go get Gramp, as if he is just off in the kitchen kneading biscuit dough.
“Can’t we find something else?” I ask my mother. She stares at the spot where the pots had been.
“Something more appropriate? Something less meager?” I gesture to the pots for emphasis.
She sighs and refocuses her eyes on me. She tells me that the pots are plenty big, that we only need a small amount each, that the rest is staying in the wooden box to bury next to my grandmother. What do I think we need? A gallon jug?
“But they’re unstable!”
I go to the mantle to make my point. I pick up the smallest pot, which happens to be the one with the half-missing “M.” Then I set it down. I forcefully rock it from one foot to the two others in turn. It nods its headless body toward me, then away, then toward me again. I look at her, raise my eyebrows.
My mother grasps the arms of the rocker and lifts herself out. She walks past me, into the kitchen.
“And they’ve got no lids!” I yell after her, throwing up my hands. “How can we keep ashes in a pot with no cover?”
As soon as I say it I see the scene play out: There I am, in my apartment, standing next to the bookcase on which I’ve placed the pot. In the midst of dusting, I too quickly sweep the rag across the surface of the shelf. It’s not just the pot sitting there, but tiny silver picture frames, dried flowers in a slim vase, a teacup decorated with violets—and when my hand hits the first item, it skids into the next and so on, and they all sail straight over the side of the shelf, the pot following the frames and the vase and the teacups like a headless lemming. Bits and pieces of my grandfather fly from the neck of the pot, cascading through the air and plinking down onto the carpet. Sand raining onto the lake.
I am frozen. I stare at the display fanned out at my feet. What am I supposed to do? I can’t just suck it up with the vacuum like spilled sugar. No, says a voice, but you can’t leave it like this either. So I start scooping and sweeping, try to return what looks like pulverized concrete to a sad little clay pot with no lid. It’s like trying to clear dirt from a dirt road. No matter how much you brush off, a layer remains. What’s the use? Unavoidably, some dusty motes of my grandfather’s body will be left for the next renter. But which motes? The tips of his fingers? That bump on the bridge of his nose? Bits of the backbone he broke at age eighteen?
“Here it is!” chirps my aunt. She reenters the living room with the wooden box.
I rub the back of my neck; my head aches. I pick up a pot, thrust it neck-out toward her. “No lids,” I say, raising my eyebrows for emphasis.
“Already thought of that, honey. Baggies.”
My aunt hands me the box. “We’ll line the pots with sandwich baggies and scoop just enough ash—about half a cup?—to fill the base. And then seal them with twist-ties.”
I almost drop the box.
On cue, my mother returns from the kitchen. She carries plastic bags in one hand, a soup spoon in the other. She opens the hand with the bags to show me. Four white plastic-covered wire ties lay on her palm. I stare at them. When she’s satisfied I’ve comprehended the situation, she closes her fist again. She and my aunt walk out to the porch.
“Bring the box,” she calls over her shoulder.
Seal my grandfather in a plastic bag? With a twist-tie? Like leftovers from last night’s dinner? I hold the box in front of me to examine it. The wood is smooth, evenly stained a rich golden brown. Fine workmanship shows in edges that join together at perfect right angles. The
base looks like a statue’s pedestal. Carved into the face of the box is a lighthouse on a rocky coastline.
“Wait!” I say, delivering the box to the porch, onto the red picnic table where they have spread their tools. “Let’s just keep all the ashes in here! We’ll take turns! Pass him around!”
Neither of them answer. My mother sits with the pots, and begins to line them with the bags. My aunt slides the wooden box close to her. She begins to pry off the lid. My mother throws her a sideways glance. She looks impatient.
“You know what?” I am raising my voice now. “This isn’t fair! I’d like to know why I wasn’t in on this decision.”
There’s a pause, during which I can hear a loon screech up the lake. My mother stops what she’s doing and turns to me. Her voice is a tired sigh, but her eyes, blue-gray like the paint on the pots, are hard.
“Because,” she says, “it wasn’t your decision to make.”
As a child, I escaped to the water. I do this again now. I turn from my mother and my aunt, from the wooden box and the pots and the bags and the soupspoon, and wander back through the living room, into the kitchen, and outside, letting the screen door slam behind me. A chipmunk sits, alert, on the big rock in the flower garden. I miss watching my grandfather tuck peanuts in his shirt pocket and sweet-talk the chipmunks into hunting for the buried treasure. They must wonder where he’s gone.
The sun melts into the green hills far up the lake, dissolving the light of the sky with it, as I slowly make my way down the hill toward the shore. I stop to consider the hammock, hanging rider-less between two birches, but think better of it. Too close to the porch. Maybe a canoe ride instead. The aluminum hulk lies face down on the rocky beach. I last sat in it at the memorial service. Painted with swirls of camouflage green and brown, the canoe has been around far longer than I have. Longer, even, than my mother and aunt. I bend down and flip it. It see-saws against the rocks for a few moments before coming to a rest. A giant Daddy Long Legs skitters along the seat in the stern. Dead, dry weeds cling to the bow. Suddenly, the idea of pushing the boat into the water and paddling off up the lake exhausts me.
Leaving the canoe, I wander over to the L-shaped stretch of boulders skirting the beachfront. Don’t run on the goddamn rocks! I hear my grandfather say as if he is standing just behind me. Despite the urge to do tear across them with abandon, I slip off my sandals and tiptoe along them instead, lighting like a ballerina on one, then the next, and the next. At least I reach the final rock, a wide, sloping outcrop that juts out of the water about three feet from shore. I sit with my knees tucked under my chin, the cool water lapping at my toes. Except for a light breeze, everything on this early August evening is still, silent.
After a minute, my hearing adjusts and filmy voices drift down from above. Their exact words remain indecipherable, but their hum sounds industrious. I picture the sisters hovered over the picnic table, chattering into the tight circle of their workspace as they gingerly scoop the wooden box’s gravelly contents into the lined pots and tie them tight. The two of them, alone with the remains of their remaining parent, a couple of assembly line workers new at their jobs. They are orphans now. The word sounds funny in mind, as if it only can apply to small, waiflike children. It is a lonely and heavy word, a word that makes them responsible for so much more than they were just six months ago. Like the camp roof, which needs shingling. And the taxes that go up every year.
There’s a pause in the operation; they must be done. One voice suddenly rises up, separates from the other, and becomes distinct, as if being washed clear by the lake water. It is the older, more outspoken of the two.
“Wherever you are, Dad,” says my mother, resonant enough, it seems, to be heard a mile up the lake, “you must be getting a real kick out of this.”
A few days later the pot with the missing “M” sits in the passenger seat of my Honda Civic for the five-hour drive back to Vermont. It looks small and uncomfortable resting off-kilter in one corner. When the car was brand new, four years earlier, I took my grandfather for a ride. He grimaced folding his eighty-year-old frame into this same compartment.
“Damn Japanese cars, he said. For Christ’s sake, we won the war, didn’t we?”
He managed to strap himself in and soon got lost in the sound of his own voice. “Hey, did I ever tell you about the time that me, Harry Day, and Phil Huff drove all night to catch the Glenn Miller Orchestra?”
“Yes, Grandpa,” I said, but he had already started jitterbugging in his seat.
When I get to my apartment, the first thing I do is set the pot on the nightstand by my bed. I turn it so the shortest leg will be closest to my head, so the pot will tip toward me while I sleep. I hesitate a moment wondering if the pot should be in such close proximity to me. What if I flail my arm some night and the pot goes sailing?
“If I send you careening through across the bedroom, Gramp,” I say to the pot, “perhaps you’ll just think you’re back in the belly of a B-17.”
That night, when I turn out the light after crawling into bed, a little moonlight floats into the room and laps at the edges of the nightstand. I sink my head into the pillow and stare at the pot. I see through to its inside, contemplate the white-gray ash and fragments of bone wrapped tightly in their plastic bag, watch the bag slowly unfurl and open enough for a hand to slip down inside, feel those elemental pieces sift through my fingers like sand and pebbles.
We had done that, my cousin, Heidi, and I, sitting in the canoe. We let some of him go through our fingers and into the lake. We watched in a kind of glazed-over awe as the bits streamed down through the sun-streaked water. And then they were gone, out of our sight as if we had never seen them, never rubbed them backward and forward in our palms.
“Grandpa!” I had cried out in a fit of tears, sure that I had let him go too soon. For one moment, I thought I might dive straight down to the bottom and try scooping him back up.
Heidi’s steady voice stopped me. “Hey, you know what Gramp would say?”
I shook my head, unable to speak.
“Damn fish have finally caught me now.”
When I looked up at her, she was grinning. Her tear-stained cheeks shone in the sun. When we had pulled the canoe onto shore, my mother and aunt were there to help us climb out. Heidi walked away with her head on her mother’s shoulder. My mother hugged me tight, and stood back to look me over.
“When was the last time you ate?”
When I shrugged, she handed me the peach off the plate she was carrying. It was fat and tender and fragrant. Water rushed to my mouth as I bit down; juice rolled down my chin. I ate it hungrily, licking my fingers, then tossed the pit into the lake. And then suddenly I gasped, withdrew my fingers from my mouth, and stared down at them.
“What?” asked my mother, alarmed.
My eyes burned and filled again. All I could do was stand there and shake my head, grinning stupidly as the tears chased each other down my face.
Of course: I hadn’t washed my hands.
When I finally do go to sleep that first night back with the pot I dream of the lake as it might have been thousands of years ago. Back when the arrowheads that my grandfather unearthed over the years were first chiseled, first used. No camp, and in its place endless stands of birches. I am part of a large family—far larger than four—that sleeps with little standing between us and the stars.
In my dream, the sun has just risen. I am young enough to think this day will last forever. I rise and run, down the shoreline and across the big rocks, which seem to have been planted there for me.
“Here!” calls an old woman, and I turn. She is old enough to be a great-grandmother.
Then I realize: she is my great-grandmother. Her hair is thick and white and twisted like rope down her back.
I run to her and throw my arms around her waist. She squeezes me and pats my back, then breaks the embrace. She gestures to a bank of rocks where we prepare food. A pot sits there, off-kilter. I see it is my grandfather’s clay pot, much larger now, and filled with water.
“That’s yours,” she says. “Take it.”
I stare up at her. “Mine?”
“Yes. Aren’t you thirsty?”
“Well, then, drink.”
I step toward the pot and curl my arms tight around its robust belly. It takes all my strength to lift it. I turn to my great-grandmother. “But it’s so heavy.”
“Not so heavy,” she says, walking away. “And less so with every drop you drink.”
Larissa Vigue Picard oversees public programs and community outreach for Maine Historical Society in Portland. She is a native Mainer who returned to the state in 2007 after 15 years in Vermont. While in Vermont, she spent seven years as Director of Community Programs for Vermont Humanities Council. Larissa holds a B.A. in English Literature from Bates College, and an M.A. in English Literature from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. She has been a freelance writer, the coordinator of a writing program for high school students, and a community college instructor. She loves the written word, and hopes to one day publish a book-length work; her writing focuses largely on family and place. Larissa lives in Topsham with her husband and nine-year-old son.
Nonfiction Honorable Mention
“I’m Giving Up My Catholic Religion!” by Anne Wescott Dodd
The machine in the corner of the dining room hums incessantly except every so often I hear a click, hesitating slightly as if to catch its breath. The sound reminds me to watch out for the clear tubing that stretches across the carpet. I follow it into the bedroom.
Mom’s unmade bed is empty, but she hears me come in. The tubing leads into the bathroom. “Can you get me a clean nightgown from my bureau? Second drawer from the top. I want to wash and I forgot to bring one in with me.”
“Sure, Mom.” I open the drawer and take out the silky light blue gown on the top, one I gave to her years ago for Mother’s Day or her birthday. It looks so new I realize she has probably been saving it for best. Maybe when her bridge club visits so I put it back and take a well-worn cotton gown instead.
Washing up takes her a long time these days. She has to expend so much energy to breathe that little is left for anything else. After I brush the crumbs and bits of yarn off the bed, I smooth the sheets, fluff the pillows, and sit down in the chair to wait. Her world has shrunk to one small bedroom, which seems even smaller now that it also functions as dining room and craft room. She can’t open the drapes that cover the big sliding door to the patio, and Dad never opens them. The room is dim except for a streak of morning sun that sneaks in through the high window on the other wall. It strikes the glass bluebird and red cardinal perched on the sill and lights up the statue of the Virgin Mary beside them.
Mom has always been in a hurry to wash the dishes, knit a sweater, or get to a club meeting or bridge game. She squeezed into one day what other people would do in two. So suddenly everything changed. Instead of dressing up for dinner and dancing at the club, she now puts on an old robe, and, with Dad’s help, goes into the family room in the evening where she can watch the color TV.
Though she gave up knitting, I can see that she is still doing crafts. On a TV table beside the bed she has two little baskets filled with yarn, crochet hooks, Styrofoam balls, scissors, and glue. On the bureau I see that she has already finished dozens of crocheted Christmas ornaments for the church bazaar. A half-finished snowman head sits on top of a neat pile of magazines on a second TV tray.
I call over the sound of running water, “Can I help you, Mom?”
“No. I am coming right out.” The water stops. She shuffles into the bedroom, using one hand on the door frame and dresser for support and the other to carry the plastic tube. When I start to get up to help her, she waves me away. Once she maneuvers herself back into bed, she collapses against the pillows, her breathing reduced to even shorter, quicker pants than usual. My cat was breathing like that when I took her to the vet two months ago. He could not save her. First, Salty, the most special cat I ever knew, and now my mother. I bite my lip to hold back the tears.
“What can I do for you today?” I ask brightly.
Mom opens her eyes. “Nothing. There’s nothing,” she says. Slight pause, then. “I’m giving up my Catholic religion!”
I’m not sure I heard her correctly. She has been a Catholic all her life—67 years since she was baptized! I haven’t been to church for years, but she went to Mass every week, and she’s done all kinds of volunteer work for the church. Until a year ago she was head usher, giving the job up only when she had a problem with her knee that made walking difficult and required surgery.
I learned long ago that my mother is a very private person. She couldn’t understand why my husband and I went to a therapist in order to improve our relationship. “How can you tell a perfect stranger anything so personal?” I know what little she shared of her inner feelings had to come from her so I said nothing. Neither did she. I realize she had dozed off.
I get my cigarette case from the guest room and go out to sit on the screened patio. Since my mother was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, Dad makes sure there is no smoking in the house. I am sure he wishes I would quit, but he never says so. He doesn’t have to. Whenever I go to the garage or patio to smoke, I feel like a guilty child and wish I could quit. My previous attempts failed, but I have some unchewed nicotine gum in my closet back home for the next try.
The cigarette I light as I sit in the rattan chair leafing through a copy of Forbes doesn’t taste as good as I thought it would. The Florida air here is heavy, hot—a contrast to the air conditioning inside. I stare at the bedroom door across the patio. Through the closed drapes of the bedroom I watch my father’s shadow as he goes to check on Mom. The night I got here, she said, “I don’t want to live anymore. What good is living when I can’t go anywhere or do anything?” I replied, “I love you,” and held her in my arms and let her cry. I hope now she can escape in sleep for a while.
I light a second cigarette from the end of the first one. I don’t usually chain smoke, but nothing here is usual. I hear the sliding door from the family room open behind me. Dad pulls up another rattan chair and sits. He has his lecture look, the one he always adopts when he is about to explain how and why my behavior is not going to be tolerated. But when he speaks, his voice doesn’t match his look.
“There’s something I need to tell you about your mother. She wouldn’t let me tell anyone because she is ashamed.” Dad’s voice is unusually soft. “Since we moved to Florida 15 years ago, she has been going to St. Charles Church every week. She’s been active in the Council of Catholic Women and was an usher all those years. The last few years she was head usher for the 5 PM Mass, which meant she had to make sure there were enough ushers every week. She was also responsible for all the money that was collected. You know, your mother doesn’t do anything in a careless way, and, when someone’s else’s money is involved, she’s even more careful.”
I shift around in my chair. My father never gets to the point soon enough. I get frustrated, but I don’t interrupt. Dad continues, “Since a year ago she’s refused to go to St. Charles at all. She’s gone to Mass at the hospital chapel when she could or watched the Mass on TV. She used to say the prayers aloud along with the TV, but not now. I’m worried because she needs her religion now more than she did before. I don’t know what to do about it.”
“But why did she stop going to St. Charles?” I ask.
“You have to know a little about that church to understand. This area’s grown so fast, the church has more than doubled in size. There is a big campaign going to raise several million dollars to build a new church and a school. The old priest, Father Mulkern, is so involved in fund-raising and administrative tasks that he is not really in touch with the people or the day-to-day activities of the parish anymore. That is understandable. Father Joe, a young priest, a very nice man was in charge of the ushers. He did a good job. Your mother liked him. Well, a year ago after Good Friday Mass, your mother took the money from the collection and went to put it in the cabinet in the anteroom as usual. For some reason those wafers that had been blessed—the Host, I guess you call it—had been put in that cabinet although they had never been there before. She saw the Host but wanted to make sure the money was secure. She couldn’t figure out what else to do with it except to put it where she always did.”
Dad pauses for a moment and rubs his eyes. “Just then the old guy, Father Mulkern, came in and saw that the money was in the same cabinet as the Host. He yelled at your mother, grabbed the money bags, and threw them across the room! And, as he did, he threw your mother out of the church. Father Joe came in about that time and told your mother it wasn’t her fault. ‘You did what you were supposed to do. Don’t worry about Father Mulkern,’ he told her. ‘He often loses his temper.’ But your mother came home and announced, ‘I am never going back!’ She wrote a letter resigning as head usher, saying it was for personal reasons.”
“I remember when she gave up ushering. She said it was because of her knee.”
“That is what she wanted people to think. She didn’t want anyone to know what happened. She felt so ashamed. I told her to write to the bishop, but she wouldn’t do that. And now she is so sick. No one’s come by or even called.” Dad’s voice gets husky. I can tell he is having trouble holding back tears.
I don’t even try. All those years of loyalty, all those years of service she’d given to the church, never asking anything in return. The little glass bluebird on her windowsill was one she bought for herself after giving God-knows-how-many just like it to her ushers when they were ill. I am angry.
I ask, “You mean this happened a year ago and you’ve done nothing?”
“What could I do? I’m not even Catholic,” my dad says. “And your mother is stubborn—she didn’t want me to do anything. I can have the hospital chaplain give her last rites when the time comes and have a memorial service in the Presbyterian Church. Several of our friends are Presbyterian, and I know the minister.”
It isn’t like my father not to do anything. He usually does too much even when the problem is something others should handle on their own. I am angry with him. He should have encouraged her to confront the old priest right then. But I am also angry with the church. Didn’t anyone question why someone who had been so involved suddenly disappeared from parish life? Why didn’t Father Joe even call after the incident to make sure she was okay? The situation is sick. And very sad. I resolve to do something, though I don’t know what. All I say is, “Someone should have done something.”
“Someone is doing something now,” Dad says. “Our friends Lucia and Mark go to that church. Your mother finally told Lucia she didn’t understand why no one from the church had called all this time she’s been sick. Lucia perked right up on that. I am sure she will go to Father Mulkern, but she doesn’t know about Good Friday. Your mother doesn’t want anyone to know about that.”
After Dad leaves, I stay on the patio. I need time to think—and definitely for at least one more cigarette.
Later, when I go in to keep Mom company, she is busy crocheting the snowman’s head. “How could you keep all that pain inside all this time?” I think but do not ask. It is as if she can read my mind because she began telling me what happened on that Good Friday a year ago. I listen, not letting on that I already know about it. She tells me the same story Dad did, recounting all the facts, omitting all the feelings.
“I wanted to write to the bishop,” she says, “but your father said to leave it alone. It wouldn’t do any good.”
“Why didn’t you tell Father Mulkern in your letter the real reason you were resigning? Why didn’t you tell me and Margaret what happened instead of letting us think it was your knee?”
“I didn’t want anyone to know. And don’t you tell anyone now!”
“I won’t say anything, but I think you should. Maybe the old priest didn’t even realize how much he hurt you. He probably loses his temper all the time. You should talk to him.”
“No,” she replied. “I don’t care. I am giving up my Catholic religion. No one’s been to see me since I’ve been sick. No one’s even called. I just watch the Mass on TV from my bed.”
As Dad said, she was stubborn—always had been. I wanted to break the impasse, but I couldn’t figure out how. I’d given her my word not to say anything, but I knew I wouldn’t return to Maine next week until the situation was resolved. Her pain must be so great, but at the moment her stubbornness is even greater!
Later Mom stretches the finished snowman’s head over a Styrofoam ball, glues on two eyes and a nose. Putting it aside, she begins crocheting a black hat for him. I continue knitting a sweater I am not sure I’ll ever finish, but it gives me something to do while I sit with her. At the same time I ponder strategies for getting her to change her mind about talking to the priest.
As I watch her there in bed in the faded blue gown, crocheting, panting for every breath, I feel the tears filling the space behind my eyes and try to hold them back. The disease has stolen 75% of her lung capacity, but what good is that plastic tubing under her nose, hooked around the back of her head, dropping to the floor, and stretching all the way to the oxygen machine humming in the dining room? It can do nothing to give her back what the old priest has stolen.
Evening comes. After dinner Dad figures out a new way for Mom to get to the family room to watch her favorite show, “Wheel of Fortune.” Using one of the dining room chairs, which has casters, for a wheelchair, he opens the sliding doors on both ends of the patio and wheels Mom across the cement floor from the bedroom to the family room. Great idea. She doesn’t have to waste what little energy she has to walk there.
After “Jeopardy” I put on a video I rented—a carefully chosen light comedy rather than the more serious films we might have preferred a few months earlier. Mom crochets, chuckling now and then, dozing off once in a while. No one talks. Nothing is said about the church or the priest. The movie ends. Dad wheels Mom back to her bedroom. “Night, Mom. I love you!” I head to the guest room.
I am very, very tired, but, like every other night since I have been here, sleep is elusive. Now that the house is silent, the incessant hum of the oxygen machine is too loud, irritating me like a buzzing mosquito, always there but impossible to swat.
The next morning even the bright sun streaming through the east window can’t burn away the gloom that hovers like an invisible fog. I sit beside the bed knitting as Mom, who is sitting up, slowly, mechanically, chews on a piece of toast. The phone rings. Dad picks it up in the kitchen so I can hear his voice but not his words. He hangs up and comes into the bedroom.
“It happened! What we hoped for has happened!” he says, his voice breaking. “Father Joe is coming to see you today.” Dad seems relieved, and almost happy.
“No! I don’t want him in this house! I don’t want to have anything to do with the church anymore. I told you that!” Mom struggles to breathe, every word a challenge to utter. “They haven’t done anything all this time I’ve been sick. They didn’t care!” Panting, out of breath, she falls back on her pillow.
This outburst is the first spark I have seen of the old Mom—determined, feisty—since I’ve been here. Dad looks defeated, weary, but I feel encouraged. Since they married nearly 50 years ago, their relationship has been characterized by constant verbal sparring and arguments. Their habitual harsh words usually trigger pain in me deep inside, but not today. I can see that Mom has not given up. This time her fighting spirit might do some good.
A few days later Father Joe comes to the house. Mom can’t refuse to see him. After all, she is trapped in her bed. Father Joe says, “Hello, Felicia. How are you?” She doesn’t look up as he continues, “I am so sorry….” Dad and I leave them alone.
Sitting in the living room, we can hear the soft murmur of conversation from behind the closed door. Minutes pass. We wait. Then Father Joe opens the door. “Come on in. Felicia would like to receive communion.”
We stand beside the bed, watching, as Father Joe places the Host on Mom’s tongue, “The body of Christ.” She replies, “Amen.”
Then Father Joe turns to Dad and me. “You both should receive the Host as well.” I am shocked. Dad is not even a Catholic, and I always assumed I was excommunicated years ago when I married a divorced man in the Methodist Church. Apparently these factors are not a problem for Father Joe. One after the other, he places the Hosts on our tongues. “Body of Christ.” “Body of Christ.”
After Father Joe leaves, we both sit with my mother. She looks so peaceful. Even her breathing seems easier. “I am glad Father Joe came to see me,” she says. There is no more talk about her giving up her Catholic religion.
Anne Wescott Dodd has had a variety of positions in education over the years—junior high teacher in Pasadena, California; high school teacher in several Maine towns; high school assistant principal; middle school principal; and college teacher of teacher education and writing courses. She retired in 2009 after 25 years at Bates College and now teaches online in a global teacher education program for The College of New Jersey, but taught one course onsite last February in Cairo, Egypt. She has published articles, personal essays, and reviews in a variety of education journals, general interest publications and several books, including The Story of the Sea Glass, a children’s book, and two books with Jean Konzal, Making Our High Schools Better and How Communities Build Stronger Schools. Jean convinced her to enroll in a memoir writing class so perhaps something worthwhile will come from these efforts.