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2013 Writers’ Competition Nonfiction Winners
Congratulations to our 1st, 2nd and 3rd place Nonfiction winners in the 2013 Alcoa Writers’ Competition, and a big thank to all who threw their hats in the ring!
Rebecca, by Tiffany Pitts, Shoreline
My aunt Becky doesn’t care about her clothes. Usually, she looks like an unmade bed. That is not surprising. The last person to look at her with any esteem was her father and he’s been dead for over thirty years.
She wears the same green cat sweatshirt and grey waffle weave pants every day. Or almost every day. My grandmother yells at her to change into something else but Becky never does. She doesn’t have anything to change into.
My mom tries to help. She buys her sweatshirts and sweat pants and pajama sets but she never buys the right size. Last April, she bought Becky five nice cotton t-shirts for her birthday. When she dropped them off, Becky was asleep in her trailer. She left them with my grandmother. Later that week my grandmother called to thank my mom for the t-shirts and tell her how comfortable they were.
Becky probably wouldn’t have worn them anyway. They were too small. Becky likes baggy clothes.
That’s why it took me two visits to figure it out. To be honest, I thought it was a dryer sheet, stuck between the two shirts she wore. But when she walked in from getting the mail that day, I looked closely at her shoulder and I knew I wasn’t imagining it.
“Becky, what is that lump under your arm?”
Becky is a conservative conversationalist. Most of the time, my questions are met with a far-away look and silence. But when I asked, she mumbled a quick apology and immediately pulled up her shirt.
“I was going to say something but Mom was having health problems.”
I remembered then, the arguments that my grandmother had with me about Becky. About how lazy she’d become. How she wouldn’t cook anymore. How she had to yell and yell and still Becky wouldn’t do the laundry. How she was letting the cat starve because she wasn’t feeding it.
I had dismissed these things because my grandmother complains about everything from fresh basil to the way I drive over speed bumps in the grocery store parking lot. I had dismissed these things because Becky takes care of herself. She always has. I had dismissed these things because I have other commitments and if I held out long enough, maybe the right person would step in.
I could not dismiss this; this lump on her breast that wasn’t even a lump. It was an orange. It was a grapefruit. It was a fucking purple cantaloupe. She could hardly move her arm.
Becky doesn’t have much. She has a trailer full of rats and a lazy cat that’s meaner than Satan. She has a subscription to Betty & Veronica and an aging mother who doesn’t trust her enough to take liquid Tylenol.
I have two small children and a puppy who thinks he can levitate. We have a home (albeit a loud one) with an extra bedroom. I have a husband who understands there is no other choice we can make.
I am very scared.
I don’t know the ending to this. I have no idea how where we’ll be when we get there. I certainly don’t know how we’ll do it because I’ve never done this before.
But Becky’s never done this before either. And she doesn’t really care where we’re headed – as long as it’s forward.
She never wants to go back.
Eternal Heart, by Mary Anne Ruddis, Spokane
Lying alone in my king sized bed, I rolled over to reach up and pull back the edge of the curtain. I wanted to know what the outside day looked like. The sky was the color of unpolished pewter and it matched my mood. I wanted nothing more than to roll back over and sink deep into the soft sheets, pull the covers over my head, and drift to a place where I could pretend that life made sense.
It was my tenth Mother’s Day. The day of my daughter’s birth played in my mind like a surreal movie scene. I closed my eyes and I felt her tiny fingers curl around my pinky and my heart expanded. With that tiny squeeze my heart poured out of my chest, down my arm, through my fingers and straight into this tiny being. My little girl arrived in the world forever tethering me with something that had no beginning or end. In that moment of connection, memories of my own life flashed through my mind as I imagined what was to come: her first step, first word, first day at school, first kiss, first love, first heartbreak, her own first child.
I imagined what a great mom I was going to be. I would take care of her, treasure, protect, love, and teach her. We named her Nikki. My husband and I glanced at each other, our eyes meeting briefly on their way to Nikki’s beautiful face full of love, promise, and wonder. If we looked at each other too long, we would have to acknowledge the fear, feelings of inadequacy, thoughts that we might fail, the truth that we were now vulnerable in a way that didn’t exist before. My daughter’s birth wasn’t easy. When the doctor said C-section, I felt like I had already failed. The perfect birth I imagined gave way to the reality that much of life is beyond our control.
Before memories completely swallowed me, my boys, ages seven and five, came bursting into my room bringing breakfast in bed. Burnt toast and coffee momentarily took away the pain from the jagged pieces of my broken heart. Nikki died the year before after struggling with cancer for most of her nine years. “Happy Mother’s Day” they shouted through mile-wide grins. The phone rang and in that brief moment of courage looking at my smiling boys, I accepted a dinner invitation to my brother and sister-in-law’s house. It was time to get moving.
Driving down Trent Ave, with the sun shining and fresh air gushing through the open windows, all tears were swept away. Suddenly, Michael, my oldest son screamed “Oh no! Nikki’s red heart flew out the window!” “Why did you have it with you?” I snapped, not able to hide my irritation that he could have lost something that belonged to Nikki even though I had no idea what heart he was talking about.
“I don’t know,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. I pulled the car over to the side of the highway.
“Let’s go back and look for it,” I said much more gently. “It’s probably smashed by now,” my eternal pessimist said. I smiled as I made a u-turn and headed back up the highway. “Don’t give up before we even start looking,” I said.
Luckily, I had been driving in the curb lane. Traffic was light and I was able to drive slowly. “I’ll help to look too,” Matt, my young optimist said from the backseat. We searched the ground for any hint of red. Nothing. Seeing the disappointment in Michael’s eyes, I flipped another U-turn and retraced the road again. Still nothing.
“See, it’s gone,” Michael’s face was so sad. I knew he missed Nikki as much as I did. They had been very close in spite of all the time she spent in the hospital isolated from her brothers.
“Maybe,” I said, “it isn’t gone. Maybe it’s hidden somewhere along the side of the road and some little boy will come along and find it. Maybe he didn’t have a Mother’s Day gift for his mom and when he finds it, he’ll take it home and give it to her. Maybe Nikki’s heart will make this day special for a special mother.”
He gave me his familiar “oh mom” look that he saved for the all too often times when I tried to stretch something bad into something good. But the corner of his mouth lifted slightly and he eased back into his seat. From the back seat, Matt said, “yeah, maybe it could happen.”
We continued on to my brother’s house. Dinner was slow and the afternoon dragged. But as I watched the boys play with their cousins, the heart long forgotten, I was glad I had come. Finally, as the sun was setting, it was time to go home.
The boys collected their things and we loaded back into the truck. Michael claimed the front seat once again and Matt climbed into the back, tripping as he stumbled over something on the floor. As I was backing out of the driveway, he shouted, “It’s not lost! It isn’t lost! Nikki’s heart. Here it is! It didn’t fly out of the window – it flew in the back seat!” He was so excited. Michael and I exchanged looks as Matt handed the heart to me and said – “Happy Mother’s Day mommy.”
I looked at the red wooden heart. I remembered the day she painted it. I thought I had put it away with all of the other treasures she created during countless hospital stays. My words came back to me, “Maybe Nikki’s heart will make this day special for a special mother.” At that moment, I once again felt her tiny finger wrap around my pinky. This painted wooden heart profoundly reminded me that death had not ended our connection. We were tethered for eternity.
Influenza, by Carolyn Johnson, Cashmere
When the clock radio clicked on, she could hear a reporter from NPR interviewing an ER doctor. He was saying that you know it’s the flu when your hair hurts. For two days, her hair had been hurting. Before that, she had spent the previous week burning with fever or shaking with chills, feeling the ache of every cell in her body from head to toe, coughing and congested. Her mind, at times, had descended into a state of semi-delirium. When lucid, she felt that it was strange to have hair that hurt.
As the radio droned on, she wondered, could it be just the flu? But, she got the flu shot. It couldn’t be the flu. The doctor then went on to say that the vaccine is only 60% effective in preventing the flu. So, maybe, she was just in that other 40%.
Now that previous worries of having a brain tumor, cancer or Alzheimer’s were allayed, her thoughts turned to influenza. What a beautiful word for an illness of truly horrible proportions. As she floated in and out of consciousness, the word influenza kept tumbling around in her head – twisting and turning and occasionally bumping into the word credenza. Now why was that? Credenza? Why would those two words have found each other? Influenza-credenza. What a wonderful rhyme, maybe the only rhyme. Credenza, an old fashioned word that brought up images of chests of dark wood with hidden drawers and secret cupboards. The visuals were striking. Influenza sequestered in the credenza.
The illness ran its course as predicted by the ER doctor and became a distant memory. But those two words, influenza and credenza, kept bumping into each other in her head. She couldn’t get them to go away or to quiet themselves.
And so, she turned to the dictionary. She read that influenza had started with the word influence in mid-18th century Italian and then morphed into the word for the outbreak of an epidemic in 1743. Credenza had started in Medieval Latin with the word credence and evolved, a century later, into an item called the credence table – a little niche for holding the elements of the Eucharist before they were consecrated. And then, at some point, it grew into the credenza, a cupboard or sideboard that holds all that is necessary to set the table for a meal.
She went on to read that credence was the belief in, or acceptance of, something as true. Influenza, she thought, causes you to think that you will surely die. And when you don’t die, your thoughts turn to giving thanks that you survived.
And so it was that she opened the credenza and set the table for the first meal after having survived the battle that had raged inside her – moving, as predicted, from influence to credence to a beautifully set table, and she gave thanks.