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2012 Writer’s Competition Nonfiction Winners
Write On The River is pleased to recognize the following winners of our 2012 Writer’s Competition, Nonfiction Division. Click Here to learn more about our contest. Click Here to see our Fiction winners.
1st Place Maureen Armstrong, Wenatchee The Emotional Complexities of a Wooden Pipe
Maureen graduated from Wenatchee High School in 2009 and is currently a junior at
Western Washington University in Bellingham. She plans to graduate in 2013 with a
Bachelor of Arts in English literature. She hopes to one day live in “a tiny, roach-infested
apartment in New York where I can spend my days writing, and wearing black turtleneck
The Emotional Complexities of a Wooden Pipe
A small smoking table sits next to a brown leather chair in the house where I grew up. On this table sit approximately four or five wooden pipes, on any given day. Pipes filled with burned vanilla tobacco. Empty pipes. Ashy pipes. Pipes that belong to my father.
When I was young, my father’s smoking was a source of embarrassment. The D.A.R.E. program taught my friends to assume I would be an orphan within the next few years, a victim of tobacco’s ruthless tirade against happy families. These condescending little girls coughed dramatically and plugged their noses upon entering my house, trying desperately to expel the murderous second-hand smoke from their lungs. I, too, hated the stench of my father’s burning pipe tobacco. Its sharp pungency burned my throat and made my head ache with dizziness. My siblings and I always fought over who had to sit behind the driver’s seat on car trips. Regardless of who lost, we all spent a considerable amount of the ride with our noses tucked inside the collars of our shirts.
Despite my hatred of his habit, I have always admired the beauty of my father’s pipes. I’ve never much cared for the elaborately designed pieces—his white meerschaum pipe with the head of what I can only assume to be a Norse god as its bowl has always been particularly haunting. My favorite is one he’s had for as long as I can remember. Shorter and fatter than the others, its simple, reddish bowl is made of perfectly polished briar wood that connects to a faded mouthpiece.
When I was young, I would sneak into our living room, snatch this pipe from its perch, and run back to my bedroom. Sitting on the floor, puffing imaginary smoke and gesturing to invisible guests, I was no longer a seven-year-old girl. With this pipe in hand, my floral print dress turned into a slacks and a tweed jacket (with elbow patches, of course). My three-dollar sandals transformed into leather loafers. I became a professor of philosophy. I became a lawyer. I became Atticus Finch. I became my father.
Holding this small object in my hand seemed to endow me with all the traits of my father that I admired, but could never quite seem to possess. I was suddenly a spectacular orator; huge crowds had no effect on my nerves. For those few minutes, I was invigorated by the thousands of imaginary faces staring at me from just outside my bedroom window as I prepared to give my oral dissertation on the economic repercussions of the war in Iraq. I became a character of integrity and power with this wooden pipe in hand. In the comfort of my imagination, I was solely responsible for the financial wellbeing of a family of five. I built houses and changed tires. I pulled wads of hair out of bathtub drains without gagging. I told fantastical stories during dinner of slaying giant octopi and befriending polar bears. Becoming my father meant that, for a few fleeting moments, I was the most entertaining person in a room—no matter the company—which was good, because my booming voice commanded everyone’s undivided attention. Playing this role allowed me an escape from the extreme introversion and shyness that plagued me as a child.
It wasn’t until high school that I realized I carried the scent of my father’s addiction with me wherever I went. I had outgrown my penchant for domestic one-person theatre years before when my middle school peers taught me to be ashamed of my eccentricities and was left only with bitterness regarding his hedonistic habit—it was no longer a source of childish adoration. My clothes always smelled faintly like his vanilla pipe tobacco. My hair smelled like coconut shampoo and burning wood. The smoke was just one ingredient in the concoction that made up the smell of my home, but it was the only one that clung to my skin when I left, as if taunting me with its ability to overpower any other scent with which it came into contact.
I only became free of this lingering odor upon moving out of my parents’ house and into my college dorm room. I washed all my clothes and began to exude a different fragrance—a fresh fragrance, free of the woody musk that had plagued me for the last eighteen years. But I found myself missing home. I missed my parents and my dog, and I was convinced for the first few weeks of the quarter that I would be miserable for the rest of my pathetic life. As I walked across campus one day, my mind wandering through corridors of imminent reading responses and group projects, I was ripped back to reality by a strikingly familiar scent. Where is he?
It didn’t occur to me in the first few seconds after the smoke had reached my nose that any other person was capable of producing this smell. My eyes darted around frantically in search of my father, but landed instead on a small, charming man with grey hair and round glasses, smoking a long, black pipe. In that moment, I forgot the embarrassment, the annoyance, and the hatred of that awful singed odor. In that moment, I was the little thespian who performed one-woman dramatizations in the safety of her bedroom. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be smashed between my brother and sister in the backseat of my family’s Suburban, with my nose tucked inside the collar of my shirt.
2nd Place Dennis Willard, Everett Storm
Dennis, after a wildlife biology degree, worked in Oregon and Washington for the
U.S. Forest Service before starting an independent forestry business. He then moved
indoors with a degree in computer science and has written articles on outdoor and
aviation topics. He splits his time between a cabin at Lake Wenatchee and his family-
filled home in Everett.
The wind doesn’t blow so much as it breathes. Like some enormous beast just outside the house. Each breath so massive I can feel it. I can see the glass in the windows bow in and out with it. I wonder if it can endure the flex. Outside is flat black except when the lightning flashes. I see reflections of the room on the inside of the glass. The houselights are almost all on in the vain attempt to soften the fear. There is a distant rumble of thunder, then a brilliant flash and a second later a terrifying boom as the electrostatic differential between cloud and ground neutralizes, at least for a few moments. I can almost feel the electrons beginning to accumulate in anticipation of the next earth to sky connection. Knowing in advance that another blast is coming does nothing to ease the anxiety I feel.
Without warning, a ball of glowing light leaps out of the wall socket across the room from me. The size of a grapefruit, it bounces across the floor, rolling over wood and rugs and then disappears into the metal grate of the floor furnace. I can barely believe what I have just seen. There is a brief, almost immeasurable instant between the next crash and its precursor light. That one was on top of me. Another film of fear washes over me, like walking through a bead curtain. I can feel it on my body. The storm moves closer.
Why must it always happen in the dark? I know why – it’s because the heat of the day returning to the sky condenses into these ten-mile high monsters that mature as the sun sets, but I ask the question anyway. I do not fear the dark, but I do fear these storms. And when they come at night, as they almost always do, I can’t see them. I am afraid of that.
In the tropics – the Philippine Islands, in Vietnam, in Costa Rica – I’ve sat through long dark evenings and been enraptured by thunderstorms. I remember sitting on the veranda of an isolated jungle hotel, Pacific in sight, power out, thunder and lightning thrilling me. I recall the sweet and unmistakable smell of rain and ozone. But here, it’s as if the storm is out to get me. It is as if the weather is a thinking, analytical life; moving, shifting, examining, and deciding which place to strike and which place to destroy. Here, the weather is mean.
I’ve seen several of them, always some distance off. One time as a child, riding in the backseat of my dad’s car as we drove home from a nearby city, I remember seeing three at once. All light grey and slender, miles away to the north of us, moving east as we moved west, looking alive and like swaying snakes as they hung from the overcast above.
The television is on. I pace back and forth between it and the front door, alternately listening to the storm reports and looking out the door, sometimes stepping onto the porch and scanning the western sky. That’s where it will come from – the west; bearing down like a demon freight train. Out of the dark.
Another flash. Another crash. The timbers of the eighty-year old farmhouse vibrate with the concussion. I think of the dirt-floored cellar under the house. A place to store the jars of food sealed up from summer gardens. Cool in summer, not too cold in winter – a place to hide if it comes here. A place below the level of the earth where I can escape.
The television continually spouts warnings in the form of a small white square that blinks in the corner of the screen. A text message runs across the bottom, providing details of the warning area. At every commercial, sometimes more often than that, a weather broadcaster provides a live update with radar reports. The storm has hit a small town to the southwest of me. Power is out. Lines are down. Information is sketchy. It is not known how much damage or injury has occurred. The storm moves closer.
The impacted town is about ten miles from me. It will be only minutes before whatever passed through there arrives here. The television broadcaster says to take cover immediately. I go to the front door and step outside just as a flash of lightning illuminates the sky to the west. I see nothing. As the thunder envelops me, jostling my internal organs with the low frequency compression, I note that the rain has stopped. They always say that as long as it’s raining you’re all right. When it stops, watch out. I don’t know what is true, but when the rain stops my heart beats faster.
I hear something different now. It is the rising wind. It is coming. Another flash and another gut-throbbing explosion. In the illumination of lightning, I still see nothing. As the thunder rolls past, I hear it more clearly. A rumble, a roar. I go into the house again and look at the television. The broadcaster again warns me to take cover.
I take the flashlight from the kitchen pantry, go outside, leaving lights and television on, and walk to the south side of the house where I open the cellar door, enter and climb down several steps, pulling the door closed overhead as I go. I fix the bolt and climb the rest of the way down. A wooden bench runs along one dirt wall. I sit down, laying the flashlight beside me and breathe deeply. I am afraid. I wait to see what the night will bring me.
3rd Place Sarajoy Van Boven, Spokane Love Seat
Sarajoy once upon a time lived in Wenatchee where she found support with a capital
group of writers, which she met through WOTR. She and her family have since landed at
Lucky Farm where she “weeds, milks a cow, yes, and writes: novels, short stories, essays
and poetry. I am also a storyteller for audiences large and small. And, of course, I blog
about it all.”
Mine was a nondescript dollhouse, a donation to the pastor’s family. It was a 1970’s suburban split-level made of thin boards tacked together, if that’s not redundant. The furniture, however, thrilled my little heart. Those itsy-bitsy plastic Victorian pieces tickled my imagination. My favorite among them was a red couch, wavy backed and trimmed with ornate “wood”: classic.
I’ve seen these before, in real life, in real size. My husband holds my arm as I swoon at antique store windows, at a velvety month’s budget on four ornate legs.
I wasn’t really looking for a couch. On the list of large purchases (my grandmother’s Oldsmobile wasn’t going to last forever) a couch was way down there, even though everyone hated the futon. I, because it reminded me of our past year, unemployment, 300 job applications, moving, three schools for our daughter, selling half our belongings, and living in a garage with that futon: couch by day, bed by night. Everyone else hated the futon because it was hellishly uncomfortable. But we were just beginning in this new house, with his new job, there were other priorities. I shouldn’t have even peaked at couches.
I was actually perusing Craigslist for wicker, nice and cheap, to replenish what we’d lost, to fill all these empty rooms of our new old farm house (the perfect opposite of my dollhouse). All I did, honestly, was just to type in “antique couches,” just to see. Just to case the market. What the prices are, you know. Just to see.
And the very last entry was the couch from my dollhouse.
“Gasp!” my antique-educated mother-in-law said, “If that’s in any kind of shape, it’s worth at least twice the price!” But she warned it was likely uncomfortable and not suitable for a family. But I knew that.
I knew where all of this was going. I could see it a mile away. It was written like a simplistic romance novel. I was the lamb led to slaughter. I hung my head and shamefully trudged along towards this predestination. I was pained. I didn’t want to spend money on a couch. I don’t highly value couches in general. But I knew I had to see it. Just once.
I waited a few days. I called. A few days later, I visited.
Unfortunately, it was a perfect, healthy, comfortable piece of furniture in exactly the right color. And she came down in price by a third. I told her I’d sleep on it. But I didn’t. I tossed and turned on it. For two nights. I hemmed and hawed. The expense. The kids. The cat. A future puppy. The beauty. The materialistic love. Wrong? Right?
I tried to think it through like a normal person, someone un-fevered by lust. “Obviously, if I get this then I can’t get that or that. Logic,” I told myself, “Think logically.” And that’s when I saw it, the twists which made sense in other times, but couldn’t function in this new place. While my husband’s salary was that of a beginning engineer, it wasn’t like it used to be. Before, it was actually true: if I buy a swim suit, we’ll have to go without lunch for a week. But it was no longer true.
Where is the debriefing retreat from poverty? They should have an island you go to with a counselor who helps you understand: you are not on the verge of starvation any more, you can buy new underwear when you need to, you don’t have to search the seats for gas money, you won’t feel like you deserve any of this, and be prepared for old friends to be jealous. But you must, you must move on from this humiliating place of deprivation.
It seemed I was going to Just Say No to this couch, simply because I’d grown so used to “no” and so unaccustomed to wild materialistic fantasies materializing.
I turned St. Terese of Avila for advice and this is what she had to say about the material world in “I Loved What I Could Love”: “Vanities: they do not exist…All we can touch, swallow, or say aids in our crossing to God and helps unveil the soul…Our passions help to lift us.” Was she really saying that loving anything, anything at all, is still love and it brings us closer to the divine? Even a fancy velvet couch? What if buying this couch was a spiritual journey? What if this dark red couch was an act of divine love?
On the way to see it, a rainstorm hit, like I’ve never seen before. Rivers in the street. I could barely drive through them. But as we returned home from that first meeting with the couch, a double rainbow arched above us. I know that rainbow was not just for me. But I felt it: our lives are going to be okay now. If I spend a little money on such a life long fantasy, it will be fine. This couch would not cause us to starve, nor return us to living in a garage. Our lives are different now and this cannot derail us. We are home finally. It was time. It was time to graciously accept the good in life.
When I finished weeping, I called Mary. I told her I would buy her couch.
As we rounded in to our driveway, the couch bouncing in the trailer, another rainbow grew up around us, and looked, from a certain angle, to sprout straight from our doorstep. And I know it’s just an act of physics, but I couldn’t help but feel it was going to be okay.
Years later, this couch still feels like a velvet valentine from god. And every time I see it supporting friends and kids and cats and me too, I know something great in this universe loves me and I love it back.