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Pittsburgh City Paper 2003

Short Story Contest

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This year, we didn't make you take the bridge.
Last year's inaugural CP short-fiction contest required writers to incorporate the so-called Hot Metal Bridge into their submissions of 1,000 words or less. Some writers built whole stories around the South Side span, while others merely had characters drive across it.

It was an interesting experiment, but this year we opened things up in terms of both setting and length, upping the limit to 2,500 words. We received several dozen submissions, pared them down to a final 11, then turned things over to our three-judge panel of local authors.

It's the end of summer; maybe you can't afford a vacation, your box fan's broken and your sunglasses are missing. But you can still set up in the shade with these three previously unpublished stories by local writers, get something cold to drink, and visit somewhere you haven't been. And you needn't even cross any bridges to get there.

J U D G E S
Judge Jen
Jennifer Bannan's collection of short stories, Inventing Victor, is being released this fall by the Carnegie Mellon University Press Short Fiction Series. Kirkus Reviews says about the book, "Newcomer Bannan consistently displays a rare literary fearlessness in the subject matter she tackles, stepping far outside the boundaries of personal experience and refusing to be pigeonholed in either content or style." Bannan is working on a novel. She lives in Friendship with her husband, Richard Engel, and daughter, Tova Rae.

Judge Hayes
Terrance Hayes is the author of the award-winning poetry collection Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002) and Muscular Music (Tia Chucha Press, 1999). He is an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Judge Geeta
Geeta Kothari's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various journals and anthologies, most recently Best American Essays and Screaming Monkeys (Coffee House Press). Her story "I Brake for Moose," will appear in the Massachusetts Review next year. She is the recipient of a fellowship in literature from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (2003) and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.


F i r s t p l a c e
Caught


Scott Smith
By Scott Bradley Smith

Dad was trapping again. We had moved into a cramped new development, and in the middle was a little grove of trees and scrub, lots of briars and grapevine, a trickle of a brook. Dad would set his rusty traps there. He aimed for coon or fox, for muskrat or even mink. In the year-and-a-half we'd lived there, he hadn't caught a thing. At least nothing he'd admit to. But every morning before breakfast he'd lace up his cracked leather shoes, pinch Mom on the ass and go and check the trapline just the same.

This was after I was grown and working at the electronics plant, paying rent to my parents, hanging on at a house that was no longer my childhood home. This was before I knew my parents as flesh and blood people. Before I realized they had unfulfilled dreams, rich fantasies, deep regrets, mortal fears, ecstasies ill-remembered and half-forgotten.

We had moved from the country to the development, into a cookie-cutter split level, with pale yellow siding and black faux shutters. The stamp of a yard was plush with grass and treeless. Dad had the house built for Mom, who always wanted something new and clean right from the start. Not something she always felt she was catching up with. There was a local ordinance against hanging laundry in your backyard. For the first time in her life, Mom had a dryer.

Dad was in his 50s, but looked sixty-five. His hair had receded to two puffy clouds over his ears. He had cumulus hair. His eyes were myopic. His joints cracked like kindling. The molar bridge in his mouth clacked when he ate.

He was retired from the railroad, living off a good pension, doing nothing for the first time in his life. The little finger of his right hand had been severed in a boxcar accident many years before. It had earned him the office job he despised, though it paid better and allowed him the early exit he now relished. I once heard him tell a stranger at the mall that he'd lost his finger to a weasel. It had still been alive in the trap when he came upon it. The stranger had stared at the place the finger had been and said, "Must've been one pissed-off weasel!"

"Just going on instinct," Dad said. "I hope to god I'm like that when I'm in the final throes."

******

Near the end of our first year in the new house, Mom got pregnant. She was 44 and hadn't had a child since I was born 23 years before. As delicately as I knew how, I suggested an abortion. She'd have none of it. New house, new child. It came with the territory.

"Besides, Jimmy," she said. "This is your brother."

"What if it's a girl?"

"It's not a girl," she said, dismayed. "Don't you think I know the difference?"

When Dad returned from running his traps, his hands typically smelled of fox urine or whatever bait he was using. Mom always yelled at him. "Wash your hands, wash your hands!" she'd say, just as he was palming a pear out of the fridge to snack on or grabbing a fistful of cereal from the box. But when she got pregnant, Mom claimed to like the gamy smell wafting off Dad. "It reminds me of afterbirth," she'd say, snapping her drum of a belly. I didn't want to know any more.

It was about then that my girlfriend Joanne moved in with us too. I worked in the machine shop at the plant and met Joanne when I went to have a hernia checked out. Joanne wanted us to get a place together. While she was waiting for me to make up my mind, Mom and Dad invited her to live at the new house. She was a nurse. That might come in handy. Plus they liked her better than anyone I'd ever gone out with. It surprised me they would be so gracious, but I figured what the hell. We could save some money for later and, besides, it would put off the commitment I hoped to avoid as long as possible.

So we stored Joanne's belongings in my room and shacked up in the spare room with the creaky double bed my parents had slept in together, right up until they'd gotten the new Posturepedic that must have rekindled their sex life, at least for one sleepless night.

Joanne and Mom tolerated each other famously. Joanne and Dad got along like old service buddies. They joked with each other about local politicians and nearby churches, arguing about which one was most crooked. Dad had never been one much for football, but he and Joanne would watch college games on Saturday afternoons and root for teams from schools with mascots like wolverines and badgers and mountain lions.

Another thing Dad seemed to know something about, of all things, was the stock market. He had little money to invest, but that didn't seem to matter. He would pore over columns of numbers in the papers and discuss certain companies with Joanne. Dad would get so excited talking that a little whistle would suck out from between his teeth. Joanne always listened closely, as though she actually cared whether Borax was getting into the scented air-freshener business or whether Bethlehem Steel was now making underwires for fashion bras.

It was all something I didn't have a head for, and I ignored it while I fixed a
Salad Shooter Mom never used or untangled line from Dad's ancient fly reel, so it could sit in the basement untouched for another 20 years. Mom, meanwhile, creweled a plaque for the baby's room. Her hair was suddenly straight, long, unwashed, stringy. If she wasn't my mom, she would've looked like trailer trash.

Then, one morning, Joanne stepped into a pair of brand new rubber boots with canvas uppers and went out with Dad on his trap run. When she came back, she beamed with fresh energy. "You should have seen your dad out there," she said, pulling each boot off with a thwock. "He knows more about the digestive systems of animals than some people know about their own bodies. Lots of other stuff too." She fluttered the front of her sweater, cooling herself off. Her cheeks were ruddy from the walk. "Did you know that some mother muskrats actually castrate their young? They do it to prevent overpopulation. Think about that!"

"No thanks," I said, packing myself a sandwich for work.

"You know there's beavers that weigh more than a hundred pounds?" Her eyes were big and knowing.

I smeared mayo on a slice of rye. "Uh-huh."

"That's bigger than most Labs!" She stopped my hand. "Your dad's a pretty cool guy, you know. Maybe you ought to take a little more interest."

I poised the butter knife in the air between us. "I take an interest."

"I don't mean telling him he'd better get the oil changed in the truck."

"I've known him a little longer than you have."


She laced her arms, tossed back her head. "I see guys coming into E.R. who'll never be conscious again. Young guys too. It's a short life, James William," she said. "And you're just crossing all your wires."

From then on, Joanne continued to go with Dad on trap runs. She worked swing shifts and didn't always get the chance. But whenever she could, she did. She helped Mom with the house chores too, made her take it easy, convinced her to get amniocentesis to make sure the baby wasn't Downs.

Meanwhile, I found refuge at work. Walking the plant floor, I had an uncanny knack for hearing when a machine wasn't running right. It might be the subtlest of sounds, a click when you expected a clack. But whenever I heard something like that and got a quality-assurance inspector to take a look, he inevitably found the machine was spewing out parts with a shiv in a corner or prongs bent just a hair out of compliance. Over the past four years, I had probably saved the plant hundreds of thousands in scrapped or returned product. The Employee of the Year plaque hanging in my locker testified to it. Yet, for all that, I still felt unfulfilled, as though I'd built a bonfire that nevertheless failed to warm me.

One night, Joanne and I made love on the bed Mom and Dad had slept in so long. The springs ee-oughed in a way that sounded vaguely familiar to me. I hoped my parents didn't hear. When we were done, I had a feeling that what had just happened had been the culmination of something momentous, that from here on I would see Joanne in a different light. There was no escaping it, whether I wanted to or not.

******

There are times in your life when you make a choice about what you want to be. I don't mean whether you should be a firefighter or an astronomer or a runway model. I mean the kind of person you want to be, what you can live with inside yourself. As a boy, barely 10, I remember my father taking me with him on my first trap run. It was to be a rite of passage, as though he were buying me my first baseball mitt or handing me the keys to the car, letting me drive him somewhere.

The morning was foggy, like walking through cotton balls. We crossed a field of corn stubble, fought a path through a bramble thicket. The stream plinked over mossy rocks, whorled into deep pools. We trudged upstream. Dad straddled fallen logs I had to clamber across, rolling over on my belly. The first trap was sprung, the bait gone, no game in sight. "Coon," Dad said, pointing out the tracks. "Smart S.O.B." Dad showed me how to reset the trap. He pulled a bottle of muskrat urine from his pocket and sprinkled it around like it was a religious act, one all his own.

The second trap lay untouched amid a tangle of flood wrack. Dad steered us wide to avoid leaving our scent. As we approached the third trap, I heard what sounded for all the world like a wailing baby.

Dad pulled aside some ferns. There in the trap was a cat, an orange-and-white tabby. It might have been someone's pet, or maybe just a farm stray. The jaws of the trap had gone shut on the cat's middle, slicing into the soft belly skin.

Dad picked up a meaty stick, broke it in two, handed me a half. "Go ahead," Dad said, pointing with the other half.

I stood there in mute horror, watching the dying cat spit and hiss.

"C'mon now," Dad said. "Don't let it suffer."

Finally, he grabbed the stick away from me, cracked the cat in the skull. It stopped mewling. I turned and ran. I ran through the stream, soaking my clothes. I ran through briars that left long scratches on my arms and cheeks. I lost a boot in the field, hobbled home in one muddy sock. I raced to the bathroom and sat on the toilet for half an hour as my bowels emptied out of me. After that, I never went out on a trap run again. Mom said it was up to me, it was my choice. I chose not to. I wouldn't trap, ever again.

*******

Dad was running the trap line when Mom went into labor. I paced the hallway like a caged animal. "We can't wait for him to futz around out there."

Joanne tucked her nurse's blouse into her skirt. "I'll take her," she said. "I'm on my way in anyway."

I pushed them out the door. "We'll be right behind you."

Fighting the chill, I waited out back until I saw Dad trudging up the yard, a set of traps slung over his shoulder. "Mom's in labor. Hurry up!" I called to him.

I drove recklessly, until Dad's teeth started whistling, and then I slowed down some. The last thing I needed was him having a heart attack. I pictured him sharing a hospital room with Mom, their beds pushed together, while they passed each other bowls of green Jell-O cubes, drank straight from the little plastic water pitcher with two straws.

"Saw lynx split yesterday," he said, staring at a distant tree line, corn stubble in a field.

"What are you talking about, Dad?" I thought maybe he was beginning to imagine wild animals on his trap line. Next, he'd be talking about mastodons and saber-toothed tigers.

"My Lynx System stock. It split three-for-one." He chuckled to himself. "I guess baby needs a new pair of boots."

We got to the hospital and found the labor ward. Joanne had gone off to punch in. A nurse asked Dad if he wanted to be in the room when Mom delivered. He looked unsure. "Of course he does," I cut in. "Don't you, Dad." He nodded, teeth whistling.

The nurse guided us down a long hall and through some doors, then into a room full of beds. Before we even got in, I heard the screams that seemed to come from depths I had not imagined, but which I would never now forget.

We stood there staring at Mom, her knees thrust up in the air, attended by a lady doctor, a male nurse. Mom screamed. Dad went to her, brushed the hair from her eyes. The stump of his finger grazed her eyebrows. He took a sponge from the nurse and dabbed her forehead. Mom screamed again, and suddenly between her legs appeared the top of a head, slick with mucous, streaked with black hair. I couldn't look at it, I couldn't look away. I felt my head go light.

Then Joanne was at my side. She touched my back. It was cold, wet. I shivered, turned to her. She smiled sweetly. I clamped her hand in both of mine, squeezed as hard as I dared. I felt the warmth of her skin, the bones rolling against each other. I held on for dear life.

Scott Bradley Smith's plays Beulah (1997), Gravity's Revenge (1998) and Big Fat Julia Roberts (2002) have been produced in the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. His play The Loyal McKee Brothers was commissioned by the Sto-Rox Children's Summer Theatre Program (1998). Scott's story "A Red Arrow Pointing Down" won an honorable mention in the Tucson Weekly Fiction Contest (1988). His poetry has appeared in Kalliope (Penn State University) and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Scott holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Arizona in Tucson. He lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife, the writer Anita Kulina.

Judge's comments
What I liked best about Caught was the way the title worked throughout the story. The narrator is caught between childhood and adulthood; he lives with his parents and a girlfriend who seems more at ease with them than he is. She shares his father's interest in trapping wild animals, something the narrator gave up when he was young. This lack of a shared interest with his father seems to haunt the narrator, even though he is an adult now. Each scene works to develop the idea of being caught -- between stages in life, between people, by circumstances beyond the narrator's control. I liked the way the title linked the scenes -- metaphorically and literally -- forcing the reader to rely on it rather than plot.
-- Geeta Kothari






2 n d p l a c e
Welcome to TV Land


Doug Raynor
By
Douglas Raynor

I have decided, after only brief hesitation, that I will go visit my father. He has invited me to dinner at his house and it is there that I will meet his new girlfriend, Joanne. I debated with myself momentarily, remembering the last time I had visited. It was then that I met Tammy. She was a ticket-taker at the Palace Movie Theater and she wore a maroon sport coat to the house. She had deep-set eyes with puffy, gray bags underneath and she talked with a lisp and she asked me four times, I believe it was, if I had seen Scent of a Woman. "Sthent of a Woman" is how she said it. She said Al Pacino was hot, even as a blind guy. Tammy smoked Pall Mall brand cigarettes and mixed Canadian Club with Sprite right in the can. We all ate hoagies from the corner pizza shop and I wrote my father a check for three hundred dollars.

But Tammy was gone now. My father said she went to West Virginia with Tommy Villani, the father of her new child. Tommy was the intern at the local District Justice office. He stamped the notary seal on customers' important documents and served coffee and éclairs to the higher-ups who came in suits.

My father told me on the phone that this Joanne girl was quite the catch. He said she works in a doctor's office and is thinking about going to school and they're even considering buying a new house together, although marriage is out of the question as far as he's concerned. He doesn't need the money, he told me up front. He's a commercial carpet-installer now and that's going well. But he could use some advice on "this house-buying stuff." He's been renting and it's been years since he's gone through all the red tape of a home purchase. The night I'd visit would also be two days before my birthday and he said we'd celebrate that as well. I was satisfied with this, also remembering the last time I had visited by invitation was to later discover I was there to help my father cut down a tree in the front yard that Tammy had hit with her '73 Impala the night of her friend Gloria's bachelorette party.

It has been almost a year since I've seen him and it's been 12 years since his divorce from my mother. It's about an hour-and-a-half drive, and as I travel the main highway, with the window down, an almost-cool early summer wind blows in, adding a pleasant, liberating feel to the sounds of Springsteen on the CD player. Yet, I have a nervous feeling in my stomach -- one that matches those I get right before I have to give a speech at work, or when the nurse calls my name to let me know the doctor will see me next. This birthday will not end as miserably as my seventh, I tell myself. That was the one when my father drank too much and dressed as Bozo The Clown and lost his red nose in the toilet. My presents from him that year were many, wrapped in a brown grocery bag, the top sealed with duct tape.

I remember pulling the first book out of the bag. It was a thick, glossy paperback and on it were pictures of stars and swirling masses of colored gas. I looked at the front and back covers, then at the inside. There were diagrams and the writing was small. But the letters on the cover were real big. I sounded out the title. "A-s-t-r-o-n-o-m-y."

"About stars and stuff," I said. I held the book up and slowly moved it in front of the faces of my friends who sat around me in a circle. Another book had a picture of three Asian individuals -- a man and a woman, the woman holding a little baby. They stood in front of a straw hut and above the photo was the title Cultural Anthropology in China. There were others as well. One said "Chemistry" and had lines connecting to big circles that I couldn't make sense of. Another was called Contemporary Social Statistics, which had little lines and graphs and blue dots on the cover. I remember my father saying I'd be the smartest kid in the second grade and that he was in his twenties before he had learned all that stuff.

It seems longer than a year since I've been down this road. It's a city neighborhood with mostly small, two-story homes sitting close together. The yards are small and square in shape, but most are well kept. And now, in the early summer, many of the short sidewalks leading to the doors of the houses are lined with flowers and small shrubs and there's a scent of freshly turned soil and grass that's just been cut.

My father's house has a screened-in sun porch in the front. He's sitting there with a man I've never seen before. I walk in with a smile and a hello. The porch is humid and my hands sweat as I shake his hand. They remain sitting together on a vinyl-covered outdoor sofa patterned with ugly, faded blue flowers. A 13-inch-or-so color TV sits against the wall closest to the yard, propped up on a stained wooden work bench, the cable wire stretching from the back of the set and then across the artificial-grass-covered porch floor, under the screen door and into the family room of the house.

"This is Marty," my father says. "Lives next door." I shake Marty's hand. Marty wears a black muscle T-shirt and tight blue jeans. He has lots of curly black hair on his arms and he's drinking a Bud pounder.

"Don't look like your old man," Marty says. "Thank God for that, I say." I catch a twinge of a Southern accent.

"Guess I lucked out," I say laughing. My father looks OK, though, neat. He wears a button-down short-sleeve shirt tucked into a pair of khaki shorts. His hair is still thick, but his eyes look heavy and swollen.

"Sit," my father says. "Take a load off. Welcome to TV Land." I sit in a wooden rocker covered with another flower-patterned cushion that's tied to the back. They're watching an episode of Andy Griffith. Gomer is running and yelling, "Citizen's arrest, citizen's arrest," as Barney makes a U-turn on the main street in Mayberry.

My father tosses me a beer from a red-and-white mini-cooler that sits next to him. He takes one for himself as well. One sip somehow relaxes me. It's icy cold.

"Damn Gomer," Marty says. "Just listen to him." He tries to yell "citizen's arrest" but his imitation is interrupted by the suds spewing out of his mouth and onto his jeans. With the back of his hand he wipes the drink onto the floor and then wipes his hand on his jeans. I hear the rustling of newspapers and then a deep, phlegm-filled cough from inside the house.

"Hey, Joanne," my father yells. "Come on out."

"What's next?" Marty asks.

"Beaver," my father says.

"No, no, no," the voice from inside the house says. "Six-thirty is Dick Van Dyke then Leave It to Beaver at 7." Joanne is standing at the door now and cracks it open and kicks the cable wire from under her bare foot. I smile and stand up.

"This is Joanne," my father says. She comes out onto the porch and shakes my hand.

"Hello, darling," she says. She's a very tall girl. She has reddish, long straight hair and is wearing a pair of cut-off jeans shorts and an oversized pullover baseball shirt, which very well may be my father's. She has a fake tan and I think she's much younger than my father.

"Hi," I say. "Nice to meet you."

She's still standing by the door and puts her hands on her hips and looks at Marty. "You gonna eat here?" she asks him.

"I dunno," he says, still watching the TV. "I ain't all that hungry."

"Well if you are, go light the grill. I can't get it lit."

"You want a dog, or a burger or something?" my father asks me. "I'll get the bitch fired up."

"I'm okay right now, thanks."

"We got Velveeta too," Joanne says. She walks in front of Marty on the couch and bends down to the cooler next to my father. Marty slaps her on the bare leg and tells her to move. She straightens up quickly and looks back to me. "We got some cupcakes in there too. In the fridge, so the icing don't run. It's kinda hot in the house. For your birthday, ya know. Cupcakes. There's two with yellow batter and chocolate icing for you. That's what your dad says you like."

"Thank you," I say. "A little later, I'm sure."

Joanne nudges herself between Marty and my father and sits down. She takes a sip of beer and wipes her mouth.

"Do you like TV Land?" she asks me.


"Don't watch it much," I say. "I'm more of a sports guy myself. News shows. I like the History Channel. Discovery."

"Yuk," she says. My father pats her on the arm and smiles as if to tell her it's OK, that she shouldn't be scared of me. "This one's the same one that was on last night at 10. I hate when they do that. They keep repeating them."

"They're all repeats anyway," Marty says. "None of them are new. You think Andy Griffith still looks like that? And Opie. He went to Milwaukee and became Richie Cunningham, and now he makes his own movies. He's damn near an old man himself now. He's bald for Christ's sake." He pauses. "The one about the firemen. Backfire? Draft Back or somethin'. Did you see that?"

"Barney went to Three's Company and became the landlord," my father says.

"That's on Nickelodeon," Joanne says.

"That's the one with Dick Van Patten," Marty says. "And all them kids who do the pyramid on the front lawn?"

"No," I interrupt. "I think that's Eight is Enough."

"Eight ... three," Marty mumbles. "Oh, yeah." He takes a swig of beer.

"That show is out there. Can someone tell me why Dick Van Patten was sleepin' with the oldest daughter? What was that about?"

"What?" Joanne asks. "He didn't sleep with his daughter."

"He sure as hell did," Marty says. "You remember that, Bull?" He slaps my father on the leg with the back of his hand. I'm unaware of where my father got this new nickname.

"I don't know," my father says. "I never watched that one."

"You're talking about Abby," Joanne says laughing. "You idiot. Abby was his wife, the kid's step-mother. The first wife died, then he remarried Abby. It wasn't his daughter."

"Oh yeah," Marty says. "Who's the idiot? Those younger girls were little hotties. They could have made that show really something." Marty bites his lower lip, pumps his tightened fist slowly by his side and then begins to bob his head slowly like a wild turkey. With this, he tries to imitate the sounds of some hideous porn-music accompaniment. "Bowbumbumbum. Bowbumbumbum. Booowwhhh."

My father laughs and looks to me to see where I sit with this. I am smiling but I feel a bit flushed in the face and I stand up and walk toward the TV. I rub the porch screen with my middle knuckle and look down. Just outside, virtually buried by the shrubs and caked with mud, is Nick. Nick is the plastic ornamental Santa Claus that lights up when plugged in. For many holiday seasons, he stood on the front porch of the house in which I grew up, a big jolly smile on his face, holding a sack of pretend plastic gifts. If you'd touch the palm of his empty hand he'd let out a big "Ho, Ho, Ho." Now, the back of his plastic hat, which has faded to pink, and even to white in spots, is cracked and smashed into the weather-stained bricks of the house.

I hear the voices behind me, talking of more shows and their times. The next four hours are covered. I hear my father tell Joanne that she should do her Lucy imitation for me -- the one with the chocolates on the conveyor belt, but she'd have to cut up the salami log and use that because there aren't any chocolates in the house. She couldn't do that, she says. Too much salami would make her barf. And as I look down at Nick, and at the dirt, I remember the dried puke around the inside rim of the toilet seat at home. When I got up for school in the mornings, I'd play a little game by peeing on it to try and wash it away. But I knew if I didn't get it all, it would all be gone when I got home. Sparkling.

I take a sip of beer. My father asks me again if I'm hungry. He'll order us something. The grill is probably a lost cause, he says. I look to him and he has slouched some on the sofa and I think back to the way my mother used to react to this exact posture. Exhausted, as if there just wouldn't be enough hours in the day to make things good on her own.

Joanne mentions that there are only a couple beers left in the cooler but there are more in the refrigerator, but to be careful not to smash my cupcakes while rummaging around in there. She smiles at me and slouches down herself, her long hair falling behind the back of the ugly couch as the back of her head settles into the middle of the cushion. She rubs my father's stomach in small circles, and then allows her fingers to crawl up to his chest. But Marty will have to go to the refrigerator, for I have lost the will to even walk inside. I will just take a seat on this rocker and wait for when I think the time is right.

Douglas Raynor was majoring in business at the University of Pittsburgh when he discovered he preferred writing. He graduated with a degree in non-fiction writing, and later earned his MFA, with a concentration in creative fiction. At Pitt he counted among his instructors and influences the writer Lewis Nordan. Raynor has had short stories published in the journals Oasis and Burnt Aluminum. Raynor, 36, works for Technosystems Service Corporation and is a lifelong resident of Morningside.

Judge comments
Excellent characterization, especially of the minor characters, makes "Welcome to TV Land" a fun read. Those of us who pretend not to have taken part (readily, eagerly) in discussions about sitcom characters' lives are just kidding ourselves. This story resonates with the loser in all of us -- you find yourself treating the TV references as a pop quiz, and knowing too many of the answers. And each time we worry that this writer will fall upon tired clichés (drunken fathers and Velveeta), a particularly fresh detail provides balance (the faded-to-white Santa hat of an unseasonal lawn ornament). Joanne is his foil: the main character's generation, but already snared by the lures of the loser lifestyle these older folks embrace. In a longer version, this main character would likely force himself free of his father's destiny: It may tempt, but he's just too smart to be permanently swayed.
-- Jennifer Bannan




3 r d p l a c e
The Keys to My Writer's Block

John Barry
By John Barry


I sit in my car and make a mental note to add to my list of "Darn Good Reasons Why I Broke Up With Anne." Yes, there's an actual list, made in Excel with a ranking of "Importance" to go along with each item. General social and economic class snobbery earned her a "2." Her indefensible cinematic tastes, best exemplified by her dislike of What About Bob?, resulted in a damaging "10." (You know what kind of people don't like What About Bob? -- crazy people, that's who.) I was under the impression that the list was long enough and didn't need any additions to ensure me that I had made the right decision in putting our relationship out of its misery, but apparently she's found a way to give me one more reason to be glad that it's over. She has given me a most irritating case of writer's block.

Almost a full hockey season ago our relationship started its smooth descent toward a natural end. Sure, there was turbulence. That's to be expected. And although I had a clear view out the window and saw that our relationship was nearing its landing, and that soon we would go grab our baggage and move on with our lives, she apparently didn't see it so clearly. The landing was a bit rough. We met the runway with a thud that was followed by a haunting pause before the fuselage exploded and left both of us scattered over this poorly constructed metaphor. Experts are still combing over the wreckage looking for evidence of just what exactly went wrong. "See, she pushed for commitment too hard here, and kept bringing it up over and over again, and the fatigue strain on the relationship just ripped it wide open." "No, no, no! The primary failure occurred because his love of low-class things like nachos and heckling clashed with her more sophisticated taste for plantains and puns." "Oh God, she liked puns? They were doomed!"

As demonstrated by the above awkward metaphor, my ex-girlfriend has now acted as my anti-muse, destroying my ability to write. I need to be able to write. It's how I make a living. It's not a good living, mind you -- I mostly eat Easy Mac or cereal for dinner -- but it's still a living. Yesterday I received my first piece of post-breakup communication from her in the mail, and I have to respond to it. That sounds easy enough. I'll just express a very miniscule amount of gratitude; I'll write a casual expression of interest in hoping that she's doing OK, and then maybe some witty closing line that isn't too witty. That's all I have to do. And maybe sitting in my car outside her apartment for another half hour will do the trick.

Why can't I do this? Words have always been my strength (unlike, for example, the shuttle run). I wrote my high school valedictorian speech in about three hours and completely without the use of creativity-enhancing narcotics. My audience loved that speech. There was significant laughter from both the students and their families. It was also touching in a legitimate sort of way, and many people almost cried. Perhaps a few of the more hormonally unbalanced students with an unhealthy attachment to high school actually did cry. Years later, random students or mothers or teachers quote my speech back to me while we wait in line at PNC Bank. I act embarrassed that they remember it so well. But I'm not embarrassed. I'm thrilled. It makes me feel better about being so bad at the shuttle run.

In college I wrote brilliant research papers on John Donne poems that I barely understood. My key was "Knowing my audience." In other words, I manipulated my homophobic professor by suggesting that Donne's poetry is all a phallic celebration. He seemed ready to throw off his denial and sprint out of his closet to give me a hug, the kind of uncomfortable hug that would last just a few awkward seconds too long.

Now, as part of the cubicle cellblock at a local paper, I earn an OK living as a writer with a position that's a solid two notches above Summer Intern. Perhaps more importantly, I also easily apply these skills by writing convoluted, intricate Performance Feedback forms to my boss that persuade him to give me raises that are better deserved by someone, or anyone, else.

And yet, in spite of these writing skills, both taught and innate, I sit here in my car at a complete loss for words. Yesterday was no different. I found myself spending my evening typing, deleting, typing, saving, deleting, typing typing typing, deleting deleting and, yes, deleting, a mere rough draft of a letter that only needs to say one simple thing: Here are your keys.

My spare keys arrived two months, two weeks and three days after our breakup. I blame the three-days part on the post office, although maybe she didn't intend to send them back to me on 2-2-2. Two twenty-two, or February 22nd, was our first date and our first awkward kiss together. If our relationship was going to work, at least one of us needed to get laser eye surgery, because the sound of glasses smacking off each other doesn't really help the mood. Nor does "don't touch those," but that's a separate issue.

Regardless, I was always the numbers person, remembering various anniversaries and things like hotel-room numbers from vacations, figuring out how much to tip (which was usually $3 more than she would leave), and the rest of the directions for how to get home.

I assumed that after our breakup, I would only hear about Anne through a friend of a friend of a mutual friend. I also assumed that one day, maybe three years from now -- when I'm in great physical shape from the workout program I started this Lent -- I'd run into Anne and her slovenly new boyfriend at a movie, and we'd exchange chitchat, and Anne's eyes would burn with envy into my locally famous girlfriend (for singer-songwriting and/or modeling), and we would all go about our mutually exclusive lives. I knew that Anne still had my keys, but I was under the hope that she had thrown them away and wouldn't just show up at my apartment wielding a knife or rope or candlestick (I never really believed that Colonel Mustard or Madame Peacock was capable of killing someone with a candlestick). Last week during a rare cleaning frenzy, I almost sent her key to wherever our garbage pickup ultimately goes. Jersey, I believe it is. I'm glad I didn't do that. I'd hate to drive to Jersey this weekend to search for an ex-girlfriend's key.

Seeing a small package in my mailbox with her return address was far more surprising, more disturbing, than I thought imaginable. I took the package up to my apartment and opened it as every muscle in my body tensed, prepared for the worst.

It was the shocking simplicity of the package that threw me off. I suppose I was sickly hoping for something more dramatic. The messy insulation of the envelope fluttered up as I cut it open and I thought, "Aha! Anthrax!" No, no, it's just normal packaging insulation. Then I was expecting a note that simply said, in all capital letters, something that rhymes with Yuck Foo. (That's subtle, I know. Take a moment to let it sink in.) Or perhaps she was going to include a photograph of herself entwined in the sweating body of a man with more defined triceps than mine. That would be wonderful! Sure, at first it would sting and leave psychological scars, but then I could make copies and pass it around to my friends at bars, and maybe even post it on the Web somewhere. I wonder if anyone else has thought of putting pictures of naked people on the Internet? I'd hate to start such a trend.

Well, I wanted something, some sort of story or event. Bring on the scathing letter and lists of "Reasons Why You Will Burn In Hell!" Send me some hyperbolic tale of how wonderful your life is without me! All I got was "JB, here are your keys, thought you might want them. Please return my spare keys. Anne."

I suspect that she was going to write, "Thought you might want these," but winced at the rhyme of "these" with "keys." "Thought you might want these, here are your keys, send me mine if you please, you're like a bad stinky French cheese, I hope your dog gets fleas." And see how she used my initials instead of my name? Brrrr, feel that chill! She probably worked on that for a while. I suppose her first draft said "Oh Dearly Beloved Whom I Miss Terribly, Oh Why Hast Thou Breaketh My Heart?" It probably took three or four drafts to go from "Oh Beloved" down to the level of just initials.

After brooding in the disappointing lack of drama, I sat staring at the computer screen, at the envelope (addressed and stamped), and at the keys. The computer screen was 800 x 600 painfully bored pixels wasting their time, illuminating white light, just waiting for a keystroke to let them do something else.

Anne's spare apartment keys were unused. She gave her apartment keys to me because I gave my apartment keys to her. It was like we were just exchanging symbols to be used later in the messy little story of our relationship. "Here, take these," she was saying with the exchange of toothed metal, "and then when you break my heart, we can exchange them. This way the misery of our breakup will be echoed at a date months later and we can experience the pain one more time."


Sometime around draft seven of my response, well past my usual bedtime, the envelope was addressed, twice. The first time was too neat and I didn't want to make it seem like I put so much time or thought into this, so I rewrote it, making sure it looked hasty. But not so hasty that it appeared that I was uncontrollably upset from the thought of returning her keys.

Besides the obvious "Here are your keys," I wanted to say something else. I needed to say something else. Almost half of our relationship was spent long-distance. And I don't mean just like Michigan-to-Wisconsin long distance. No, we didn't write across some puny Great Lake. We wrote across the Pacific Freaking Ocean.

When maintaining a cross-hemispherical relationship, you get accustomed to saying unnatural volumes of words in ink, in e-mail and in care packages. You share every inane observation or event from the day, unfolding a passing comment from a coworker or a song on the radio into a creative essay, an exposé with which to entertain your loved one, thousands of miles away. Each letter contains encouragement to sustain her during the time apart. You give her praise. You express your love more frequently than you would if you could just share a fun date, a bottle of wine or just some handholding during a Very Special Episode of The West Wing. You work hard on those care packages, even though her return mail is an order of magnitude weaker. Soon, she is firmly situated on that pedestal, and she learns to enjoy the view. You send her a Monet, original, autographed on the back, and she sends you a paint-by-numbers, half finished, with no respect for the lines.

After all of those long months, forming an intimate relationship with Anne, not to mention the men and women of the post office, writing a one-sentence letter, "Here are your keys," is a physical impossibility.

I want to say, "I hope you are doing well," because I do hope that she is well. Not totally completely awesome, preparing to accept a Pulitzer Prize, but in a more general sense of "wellness." But if I wished her well, she would only think, and fairly so, "[Expletive] you, that's how I'm doing! You break my heart and hope that I am well?"

I want to say, "I think about you." But that's misleading. I think about her and then quickly push thoughts of her out of my mind. In the third grade when a friend would try to tell you the ending to Back to the Future when you haven't seen it yet, you might hold your hands over your ears and scream out a chorus of "O Canada!" to block out the unwanted noise. The brilliant psychological technique that I have developed in order to avoid becoming a depressed pool of regret is a direct kin to using "O Canada!" And, I think of her less and less. When I do think of her, it's followed either by this clever "O Canada!" aversion technique, or by "I still need to throw away those letters and photos," which is a thought that increasingly lacks emotion and has become matter-of-fact. Those things need to be thrown out. And, soon, I will do that.

And so I sit in my car. I open my glove compartment and take out a notepad and pen. I surrender to writing anything more than she was able to write. "Anne, your keys. Thank you. JB."

I'll drop the keys and manifesto off in her mailbox just as soon as this song finishes. She loves this song. It's a terrible song. It's exactly the motivation, the soundtrack, I need to walk up her stairs and leave her these two little symbols to say "The End."

I'm totally fine with this. The keys were never used to share our homes; they're just a technicality. They're just nouns. The past three months of being alone were far superior to the final three months of our relationship. I pick up my cell phone. The voice on the other end thinks my song request is odd, probably since a Boy Band hasn't covered it. But "O Canada!" is exactly what I need to hear. I love that song.

John Barry, 25, is an engineer who lives in Monroeville, and is originally from the South Hills. Though he wrote a humor column and movie reviews for his college newspaper, this is the first short story he's ever written. He performs stand-up comedy and likes to surf the Internet and e-mail his friends.

Judge's comments:
The charm and quirkiness of the first-person speaker made a long-lasting impression on me. This is essentially an old-fashioned love story that uses inventive strategies of meta-fiction as the protagonist turns frequently to wink or sigh at the reader. This writer gives stylistic nods to the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Jack Kerouac. The engaging and witty voice here reflects this writer's burgeoning gift for character and tone.
-- Terrance Hayes

Short-Story Addendum
Our panel of judges also awarded two honorable mentions. They are:

"The Last Narrative of Edgar A. Poe," by Jeff Protzman
"Burning," by Christopher London

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