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2012 Writer’s Competition Fiction Winners

Write On The River is pleased to recognize the following winners of our 2012 Writer’s Competition, Fiction Division.  Click Here to learn more about our contest.  Click Here to see our Nonfiction winners.

1st Place Barb Miller, Wenatchee  Bite of Life

Barb Miller, Wenatchee, recently retired from teaching and works as an educational trainer for Canfield & Associates. As a mother of five, her writing passion includes both adult and children’s fiction. She was the third place fiction winner last year for Black Water, and enjoys “community theater, creating family memories and soaking up the great outdoors.”

A Bite of Life

Robert shuffled across the gravel drive as if lost in a tunnel.   “You’re not cuttin’ me or my dog,” he told his doctor, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.   A sweat-stained Stetson, blue jeans, red suspenders, and a frayed blue t-shirt, were the man’s skin, necessary armor against the elements and those damned politicians.  He shed them weekly, and bathed, for which his wife was grateful.

He cradled a small black dog under one arm, against his gold, silk vest, pulled tight by a rubber band looped on one, broken button.  He wore it every spring, when he aspired to new projects in the shed.

 “Don’t let the bastards get you down, Gus,” he told the dog, who was licking berry scratches on the man’s brown, garlic-scented skin.  Robert clicked his tongue against the palate of his top denture, releasing it to slide freely in his mouth.  Did it matter now that his upper teeth showed up better, his personal request voiced to the dentist?  At least he’d die with good teeth, even though the damned things still didn’t fit right; might as well flush three thousand bucks down the toilet!

With a jerk of a leather strap, the heavy metal door retracted into the roof of the shed.  Pungent, braided ropes of garlic hung from the crossbeams, like beads in a brothel doorway.  He thought the garlic would kill the cancer; he ate it raw, pickled, and in hot milk.  It didn’t.  Those piss-ant bugs kept knawing away at his waterworks!

The odor of fermenting fruit permeated the room.  Gallon jugs, filled with muddy wine, lined the cool cement wall, like prize-winning roses.   “You work your ass off,” he told the dog, setting him on his rug on the worktable, “so you don’t owe anybody.   Then your teeth fall out.  You get new teeth, just in time to croak.  It’s the shits, ain’t it?”  The dog

barked.  Robert lifted a cloth that covered a crock of wine mash.  He slipped a thin plastic hose into the crock.  Siphoned juice trickled out into his waiting shot glass.  He sipped.  “Couple more weeks, Gus, and we’ll have some very fine rhubarb wine.”  He scooped more sugar into the crock, stirred, and tasted in approval.

Frances brushed a hair from her shoulder and peered out through the lace curtain at the window.  The shed door was up; there he was, into that damnable wine again.  She slipped a floral apron over her head, then cracked two eggs into a bowl and whipped vigorously.  She tossed the eggshells into the blue granite coffee pot to clear the sediment.   Moving to the front door, she opened it halfway, and called, “Hoppy?”  No response.  She retrieved one link sausage from the fridge, placed it in a covered skillet and headed back to the door.

“Yoo-hoo!  Bob!” she called.

The old man appeared from his cave and acknowledged her with a downward wave, signaling his irritation.  He was never in a hurry for breakfast.  He re-entered the shed.  Ancient tools hung above on the wall; every blade was filed to a gleaming finish.  Bolted to one edge of the worktable, the jaws of a large vice-grip held Robert’s coffee-stained dentures firmly in place.

Frances poured the eggs into a heated iron skillet, stirred, and then turned off the stove.  There would be no burned eggs on her watch; he could eat them raw or cold.  By the time he doctored them up with pickled garlic and hot sauce, they ceased to be eggs anyway.

Robert filed the back molars first.  He wiped the scrapings with his handkerchief, and fit them into his gums.  The dog scrutinized.  Still not right!  Robert placed the dentures back into the vice.

“You see these?” he told the dog.  “Highway robbery, plain and simple!”  The dog yawned.

Frances lifted the lid on the sausage.  “Burnt offering,” she muttered.

The screen groaned; Robert opened the door, allowing the dog to enter first.  Gus headed straight to his food dish; he knew the routine.  Robert hung his Stetson on the coat hook.  He pulled the teeth from his pocket and tossed them onto the table.  “Complete waste of money!” he muttered, following the dog.

“They certainly are now!” said Frances turning them in her hand in disgust. “They’re ruined, just like everything else!” She dumped the eggs and shriveled sausage onto his plate.

“What did you say?” he replied cautiously, as he cut a dog treat into mouse-sized slices with his pocketknife.

“Your teeth.  They’re no good to you now!”  she stated loudly.

“Cheap! Made in China, like everything else!  Trash ‘em!” he retorted, seating himself.

“You want them in the trash, Bob?” she asked, cocking her eyebrow.

“Hell, yes!” he bellowed.

Frances grabbed the teeth and pitched them into the trashcan. The clink signaled Gus into attack mode, pawing and barking at the can.

“Go lay down, you silly dog,” said Frances as she left the room.

As bedtime approached, the old man had second thoughts.  When Frances entered the bathroom, Robert hurried to the trash.  The teeth were gone.  “Oh you’re a sly one,” he jeered.  The toilet flushed.  Robert moved down the hall; they passed each other in stoic silence, a familiar game.  Frances waited until she heard the faucet squeal, then moved quickly to the trash and reached inside. Nothing.

“You never quit, do you?” she sneered.

The conspiracy played out to the end; Robert was buried that fall, toothless.  Frances believed he requested a closed casket out of spite.  The dog died three months later, entombed in a garlic row. The house sold to a young couple; its contents were liquidated, except for Robert’s gun cabinet, for which Frances had no use.

Their toddler discovered a treasure between the wall and the cabinet and played dinosaur attack most of the morning.  When the boy’s mother realized his find, in one shrieking swipe, she ran from the house and heaved Robert’s teeth into the garden area.  They came to rest in a garlic row, reunited with the thief.

2nd Place Thomas Davies, Leavenworth  Martin’s Wings

Thomas lives mostly here but summers on a remote island in the Georgian Bay, Canada.
He has worked as a naturalist, computer designer, ski patroller, race car driver, and
musician. “I know a couple of excellent writers and am married to the talented poet
Cynthia Neely. I hope these influences will show up in my work soon.” His Bus to
McMurry won honorable mention in WOTR’s 2010 competition.

Martin’s Wings

Old Mrs. Richey radiated a mixture of vulnerability and stoicism that made it easy to be cruel to her.  To the neighborhood kids she was “Witchy-Richey”. While her history might have been known to some of the oldest denizens, most of the neighborhood was too young to care. She was just a batty old widow.  No one dared ring her doorbell on Halloween.

I was not a member of any of the mobs that ran loose in the neighborhood.  I was not especially shunned or ostracized, but we were new and my mother was unmarried and worked as a waitress at the “Log Cabin” tavern. In 1965 we were not your normal, run-of-the-mill family, even in this working class neighborhood.  It was probably because of my newcomer’s ignorance that I didn’t run away the first time I encountered Mrs. Richey.

I was fueling our lawn mower when Mrs. Richey walked up and asked if she could speak to me.  Mrs. Richey had a habit of staring too directly, her head tilted slightly to one side.  Her smoky breath seemed to come only with effort and her mouth seemed in a kind of rictus so that she looked as if she was about to cry out.  But she was here only to ask if I might agree to work for her, an odd job now and then.  Occasionally she needed help around her house, nothing too difficult.  Of course, she assured me, she would pay.  I told Mrs. Richey that I would ask my mother.  I thought about the Stingray bicycle at Western Auto.

“You’re tall,” she called back to me as she made her way down the sidewalk, “like my Martin.”

What I remember best was her kitchen.  The smell was a thick, complex aroma of dirty ashtrays, mildew and day old dishes mixed with the sharp catch of a cat-box in another room.  Newspapers and magazines were piled in corners and on the kitchen table. On shelves above the sink, dust concealed labels on canning jars the old woman had once carefully hand-lettered and put up.  I never ate much of what Mrs. Richey offered.

I worked for Mrs. Richey on and off for eighteen months.  It was a convenient arrangement; I needed money and there was much to be done. She would stop by our house as new work was required. She was generous, given her circumstance, and when I completed a difficult job she would invite me inside.  She would make a show of tidying her kitchen.  This was usually just clearing some of the newspapers from the table where we would “talk”.

These talks were not conversation in the normal sense. Mrs. Richey inhabited a lonely universe of her memories.  Many days she would sit by the streaked window looking out on her abandoned garden.  With her tabby on her lap, she smoked Lucky Strikes and read Life or Redbook, or simply stared out the window.  When her thoughts overwhelmed her, she decided she needed someone to talk to.  As unlikely as it was, she decided that I was to be that someone.  I reminded her of her tall son.

Martin was killed on August 1, 1943, shot down in the first of Colonel Smart’s raids on the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania. Mrs. Richey showed me a well-worn photograph of Martin kneeling with his crew in front of their B-24, “Wild Rose” painted across the nose visible behind the boys.  In the photograph Martin is wearing a khaki shirt with rolled sleeves and a ball cap pulled back away from his thin, serious face.

Mrs. Richey showed me Martin’s obituary from the Gazette and a letter she received from Martin, his last from North Africa before he flew into Romania and oblivion.  He was homesick but liked the weather on the Libyan coast.

During our last “talk” I confessed that my mother had met a man and it seemed that they would likely marry.  Mom’s new beau was a son of a lumber mill owner in Carson Washington, and he wanted us to return home with him to his family’s business.

Mrs. Richey was quiet after I told her my news.  She stood and left the room.  I could hear her labored climb and then descent of the rear staircase.  When she returned she opened her trembling hand and held out a small object.  It was a pair of shiny gold wings with a silver propeller at the center.  Mrs. Richey explained that these were Martin’s Cadet Wings.  Martin sent them home when he left the States for England in 1942.   He wrote that they were his lucky wings and that he would be home soon to claim them.

I was astonished that she offered me something that must be so dear to her. But she insisted, and I was young and didn’t have the wisdom either to appreciate or to refuse her gift. Mrs. Richey seemed almost desperate to give me Martin’s wings. As I left that afternoon she reached for my hand and held it tightly in her papery grasp confiding her deepest regret — that Martin had trusted her with his luck.  “He should never have sent his lucky wings to us,” she whispered, “he should have held tightly to his luck.”   When I returned home I hid the wings from my mother.

Three weeks later we moved to Carson and I never saw Mrs. Richey again.  Martin Richey’s cadet’s wings were packed with other treasures any fourteen year old boy hoards, and eventually found their way into a forgotten box in our attic in Carson.

I live with my family in that house now.  I had not thought of Martin Richey’s wings until last year when my oldest son and I uncovered them in a dusty cigar box in a corner of our attic where they nested all these forty years.  He has Martin’s wings now, somewhere in Kandahar Province.  I pray he holds them tight.

3rd Place  Tempa Lautze, Wenatchee  The Ulysses Contract

Tempa has written primarily for dog publications for 15 years, where commendations
include three top fiction awards from the AKC Gazette and two Maxwell Medals from
the Dog Writer’s Association of America. She was a finalist in short story competitions of
the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and her first novel is currently being critiqued
by The Wenatchee Valley Writers Group.

The Ulysses Contract

Assistant Professor Ames scrutinized the faces of his bewildered students.  One by one, they looked away, until a courageous young man, holding a sheaf of papers, stood up.

“With all due respect, sir, you can’t tell me anybody in their right mind would sign one of these Ulysses deals.”

“I’m afraid you’re wrong there, my friend.  People sign them every day.”

“But…”

The bell rang.

“We’ll revisit this on Monday. Meanwhile, you might like to rent The Godfather.”

Prescott Ames backed his sedan out of the driveway a little before nine the next morning.  He’d lain awake past midnight, unable to stop thinking of the genius of Ulysses.  By the time he reached Green Acres, two hours from home, he knew exactly how to present his plan.

A male attendant helped Mavis Ames into the front seat of her son’s car.  Prescott secured her suitcase in the trunk, expressed his gratitude and headed out the way he had come.

“You look well, Mother.  How do you feel?”

“I’m fine.  You won’t believe it, but really I am.  I keep telling myself it will work this time.  How long was I there?  Nearly two months, I think.”

“Exactly two months.  You’d think anything could be cured in that much time.”

“Not cured, dear.  Never cured.  Day at a time, remember?  My commitment is strong, though.”

“How about lunch in Harrisburg?”

“That would be lovely.”

Prescott waited until the dishes were cleared before speaking his mind.

“Mother, since you are serious about staying sober, I have a proposal that just might strengthen your resolve.”

“A proposal?”  Her eyes narrowed.  “This ought to be good.”

Prescott ignored her sarcasm.  “I was teaching my Contracts class yesterday, and I used Homer’s story about Ulysses and the Sirens as an example.  Do you remember the pact Ulysses made with his sailors to keep the ship from crashing into the island where the sisters sang?”

She shrugged.

“Allow me to refresh your memory.  In order to preserve them all, Ulysses instructed his men to lash him to the mast so tightly, he couldn’t possibly break loose.  He next ordered them to pour warm beeswax in their own ears, so they could hear nothing.  As the women filled the air with their hypnotic song, Ulysses pleaded with his crew to steer toward the music, but since the men could not hear him, they continued to row straight ahead until the danger was passed.  We now call that arrangement a Ulysses contract—an unbreakable deal between one’s future self and a trusted party.”

“Why didn’t he just pour wax in his own ears?” Mavis asked, fingering the wine menu.

“As I recall, Homer neglected to cover the alternative.  Anyway, that’s not my point.”

“And just what, pray tell, is your point?”

“What if you entered into a Ulysses contract with me?”

She laughed.  “Shall I lash you to the mast?”

“You’re missing the point again.”

“As usual.”  She sighed.  “Go on then.”

“You would be the Ulysses in this case, and, remember, the outcome of breaking the pact has to be something unthinkable—like crashing on the rocks.  I’ve been mulling over the possibilities.   What agreement, I asked myself, would be so horrendous to you that, dreading the consequences, you’d think twice before reaching for the gin?”

His mother laughed.  “Darling, you sound absolutely diabolical.”

“Here’s the deal, Mother.  You guarantee your new and solemn commitment to sobriety by signing your house over to me.  If you then slide into the old pattern, I shall feel obliged to sign it over to Dad.”

Mavis eyed her only son with horror.  “That would be a steep price indeed. What’s behind this, Prescott?  Have you been talking with that despicable man?”

“No.  I’ll be frank, Mother.  You have a paltry income, and your sojourns at Green Acres come at a very high price.  Keep in mind that, as a 37-year-old teacher at a junior college, I am hardly a man of means.  So, for me to have any chance at a happy life, you need to stay sober.  Actually, I’ve met someone, but I can hardly enter into a relationship if your hospitalizations continue.”

“Well, that is frank.”  Mavis paused, twisting the stem of her water glass between shaking fingers.  “Okay.  Say I go along with this and later have a tiny slip, you would feel morally

bound by me to give my house to your father, is that it?”  An obvious shiver ran down her spine. “How then would you live?  Have you thought about that?”

“I would manage.  The real question is, how would you live?”

“Allow me a week to consider.”

“No.”

That evening, Mavis retired early.  Because she still felt weak from her lengthy rehabilitation, Prescott helped her up the stairs to her bedroom.  Before leaving her on her own, he unpacked her bag and hung up her clothes.

“You should know, Mother, that I have located and disposed of your secret stash of booze, so don’t bother looking under your dresser.  Besides, you must be in your right mind on Monday afternoon, when we have the transfer of the house notarized.”

Mavis nodded and looked away.

“And while you contemplate your options, remember this.  All you have to do to guarantee a secure future is to stay sober.  It’s entirely your decision.”

He left her then and went downstairs to his den, where he kept a bottle of brandy locked away for his personal pleasure.  A few hours later, he again climbed the stairs and quietly opened the door of his mother’s room.  The light from the hallway illuminated her nightstand.  The bottle of sleeping pills he had left by the bed lay on its side, empty.

How sad, he thought, to be so predictable.

Prescott closed the door and padded down the hall to his own room, where he undressed, murmured a prayer of thanksgiving and climbed into bed.