right here, write now

2020 Writing Competition Winning Entries

 

Fiction

 

First Place, Micah Pridmore.  The Bellhop

Every day, in a busy city somewhere in the world, in a skyscraper that stretched way up to the moon, a bellhop went to work. Every day at 7:00 AM, a bell would ring over his head and he would wake up. Every day, he would eat a bowl of Cheerios, eat four apple slices, and drink one cup of coffee. And every day, he took a four-minute shower, then put on his bellhop uniform, red with gold trim. Every day, he left the house at 7:40 AM, walked one block down his street, past a line of trees, and waited. Every day, a rickety trolley arrived at 7:45 AM to pick him up at the stop. And every day, he sat in the back until he arrived at the skyscraper by 7:55 AM.

Some days, the trolley was late — a few minutes late. Those days were bad days. Most days, he arrived precisely at 8:00 AM. He entered the lobby, signed the time ledger, with his name, the date, and his clock-in time. Every day, he would go behind the front desk to a long hallway with brass hooks on either side. The bellhop would go to hook number four, remove the burgundy flat cap hanging there, and place it on his head. Every day, he went back to the lobby and entered the elevator.

The elevator, in the bellhop’s opinion, was the best part of the entire skyscraper. It matched his uniform, with pinstripes of intense burgundy and gold velvet on three of the sides. But the fourth side of the elevator was special. While the fourth also matched its counterparts, it had a golden cord on one side. When one pulled this cord, it pulled back the fourth wall and revealed a hidden glass side, and with it, the entire city below.

Not many knew about the fourth side. In fact, the bellhop worked tirelessly to keep it that way. Often, small children accompanied their parents to the skyscraper. On the elevator ride they would fidget absentmindedly, and some of them, the more rambunctious ones, would try and yank the cord. Usually by this time, the bellhop was already issuing a gentle request for the child to stop. Occasionally, he would be forced to grab the child’s wrist right before they were about to pull. It was the only part of the job he didn’t like. Every day, at least one child tried to pull the cord. Naturally, when the bellhop was forced to take action, parents often glared in return. Once, a mother and father eyed the bellhop’s name tag, scrawled it on a thin slip of paper, and gave it to his supervisor in the lobby. Your bellhop violated my daughter’s wrist and deserves to be fired it said. He was brought into the office that day — the big office, the one at the top of the skyscraper.

“Do you deserve to be fired?” his manager asked curtly.

“No sir, I merely was guarding the fourth wall, as you instructed sir.”

“I instructed you to guard the fourth wall, yes. But your duties encompass more than that. You are to carry our patron’s bags. You are to operate the elevator. You are to repair the elevator as needed. But most of all, you are to provide quality service to our patrons. Grabbing the wrist of their children is excessive force. Find a better way to guard the fourth wall or next time you will be fired.”

One day, the fourth day of the month, the bellhop was late. An early morning frost froze the tracks of the trolley. It was thirty minutes before the tracks were thawed by the trolley workers and another thirty by the time the bellhop arrived at the skyscraper.

“Where were you?!” said the clerk at the front desk when he arrived. “I’ve had to run back and forth from my station to cover you for the past hour.” The bellhop looked down ashamed. “I apologize sir; the trolley was late on account of the snow.”

“Well, well get in there now! A family has just arrived” the clerk said with an affronted tone.

Indeed, a family had arrived and to the dismay of the bellhop, it was the same family who reported his behavior about twisting their daughter’s wrist. While the family checked in with the clerk, the bellhop went into the elevator. It will be fine, he thought to himself. They won’t dare touch the cord. They will be rude to you and that’s it, just rude. A short elevator ride and then you will never see them again.

Ding! The door opened and the scowling father, the elegant mother, and the curious daughter entered. They each gave the bellhop a look, dropping their bags in front of him.

“Oh, you are still here are you?” said the father.

“Yes sir,” replied the bellhop. “Four days a week, which floor?”

“Fourth floor. Well, aren’t they lucky to have you.” said the mother. The daughter blinked up silently at the bellhop, her eyes like two sky-blue lollipops. She edged closer to her mother, but also closer to the golden cord. The bellhop avoided eye contact, pressed the button, and the elevator rose. Floor two, Floor three, and then . . . the daughter yanked the cord with one tiny-armed pull. The curtain parted, revealing the snowy grey city below. The elevator stopped. The father pinned the struggling bellhop against the burgundy wall, while the mother pulled out what appeared to be a sledgehammer from one of the bags. She swung, and a jagged crack darted across the face of the elevator. She swung again and the crack’s splinters branched off like rivers. She swung one last time, and the fourth wall was pulverized.

“STOP!” the bellhop begged, tears streaming down his face. “Please. Think about the readers for a moment! They deserve to know what is going on here.”

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Second Place, Denali White.  Devil in the Ring

It’s just the two of us in a pool of our own sweat, grappling for something greater than ourselves. Her fingers are locked tight around mine. Then she’s got my arm twisted back, bringing me down to my knees, and all I can think is that I need to make a big impression, or else I’ll be sleeping in my car again.

The other woman is bigger than me. Stronger, too, though she’s been playing dirty anyway. Why win the noble way if you can get it done fast and easy?

I manage to wiggle out of her grasp, and the crowd erupts into noise around us. They’re rooting for me.

I let the sound of the cheers rally me.

It’s a hot night, and the crowd’s already pretty exhausted, but I can’t afford to lose them now. As long as they like me, I still have a job.

My opponent slams me into the turnbuckle pad. Her hand darts against my chest, and the chop stings like a bitch. I bare my teeth at her. She spits at me. I flinch as her saliva hits my cheek.

Then she kicks my legs out from under me, and I go down hard.

Her hand curls around my wrist. She drags me to the center of the ring, then starts to hoist me up. She’s angling to finish me. I can’t let that happen.

My knee collides with her face, and she staggers back.

I go back to the turnbuckle, climbing to the very top.

I put my body on the line, week after week, never sure if I’ll be asked to come back. I don’t know if I can say that I love this thing that I do, wrestling. But, god, it keeps me alive.

I spring off of the top rope in a moonsault, watching the ceiling soar over me as my body twists in the air. My body impacts with hers beneath me. I press her shoulders down into the mat, but she throws me off before the referee counts to three.

We’ve been going for maybe fifteen minutes. This match isn’t supposed to last much longer. We’ve got to finish this while the crowd’s still hot so that they’ll be ready for the main event.

My opponent pulls a spare folding chair out from under the ring. She’s getting desperate.

I look for the referee, but she’s out cold in the corner.

The chair clatters onto the canvas as my opponent tosses it into the ring. She slides in after it, then wraps her hands around the metal, hoisting it up.

Still in a daze, I don’t quite get my hands up in time to protect myself, and the chair comes down on my head. Hard.

The whole world is spinning. I hope it isn’t another concussion. But whatever happens, I still need to finish this match.

My opponent starts to lift me into the air. I put up a valiant fight, using the last of my energy to struggle free. The crowd is roaring now, chanting my name.

The referee is coming to, which means that now is my chance. I’ve got my opponent in my arms, her body still and unresisting in my grasp. I lift her up, then bring her down hard onto the mat.

Her shoulders are flat against the canvas. The referee’s hand slams down beside us.

One, two, three.

Slowly, I get to my feet. My whole body aches, but I can’t feel it yet. That part always comes later, after the adrenaline fades. For now, I stand there as the victor, basking in my triumph as the referee holds up my hand and the crowd cheers.

Backstage, there’s a white man in a suit waiting for me.

I must’ve hit my head harder than I thought, because for a moment, it looks like he’s got little horns and a pointed tail, whip-thin, snaking up behind him. But when my eyes slide back into focus, he looks just like any other white man in a suit. All business.

He gestures for me to take a seat. There’s a paper waiting for me, a pen right next to it.

“We’d like to offer you a contract,” he says.

“What’s in it for me?” I say.

“All the fame and money you could ever ask for. You’ll become a legend. All for giving us just five years of your life.”

This is what I wanted, isn’t it? Why else would I be doing this work that I’m doing, if not for the promise of this?

Some people say that wrestling lets you live forever. Others say that it kills you faster.

It’s funny how things can be both a truth and a lie at the same time. Real and fake at the same time.

The white man in a suit is regarding me patiently, waiting for my response. I stare at him back. Then I reach over and pick up the contract.

I look over the entire thing. I read it a second time, just to be sure.

The more I look at it, the more I see only one choice laid out before me, glowing bright like a warning light. I’m not ready to give up on my dream just yet.

I pick up the pen, then scrawl my name on the line after one last moment of hesitation. The wet ink shimmers almost red in the low light.

The white man in a suit takes the signed contract from me and places it in a folder. He grins, his eyes flashing.

“Then it looks like we have a deal.”

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Third Place, John Gallanis.  Bleeding to Death

In medical school, the transition from classroom teaching to practical learning in the hospital can be a challenging experience. As a third-year medical student, my first night on call is one I will never forget.

Tonight, I’m a member of a team which consists of a resident physician, two interns, and two medical students. We gather at the nurses’ station and agree to go to the cafeteria to discuss the day’s events over a late snack.

As everybody heads to the elevator, the resident hands me a chart and says, “Doctor, go remove Leroy Johnson’s IV line. The nurse is in the medical ward getting him ready for discharge. It should only take a few minutes. Then meet up with us in the cafeteria.”

“Okay,” I say.

On the ward, I review Leroy’s chart. He’s thirty-six years old and in the hospital due to alcoholic hepatitis. His “treatment” has been a nutritious diet and the elimination of alcohol. His liver is on the mend.

When I see him, I’m surprised. Leroy looks much older than thirty-six. He is dressed in worn street clothes and sits on the edge of his hospital bed fidgeting. I suspect he can’t wait to go home—and get a drink.

The nurse explains, “Leroy, these are your discharge medications. Here’s the information for your follow-up appointment at the VA outpatient clinic. Do you have any questions?”

Something unexpected happens. Leroy’s expression changes from eager to panic. His face is bathed in sweat. He points to a small basin near the bed. The nurse hands it to him and quickly steps away from the bed. Her response confuses me—until I’m showered in blood erupting from Leroy’s mouth.

“Get the resident. Stat!” she orders.

I get him on the phone, and shout, “You’d better get back here right away. Something’s really wrong.”

Within minutes, the breathless resident, two interns, and the other medical student are racing down the hallway—like the cavalry responding to a military crisis.

The resident grabs the chart and quickly discerns the bleeding is from distended varicose veins in Leroy’s esophagus: a frequently fatal complication of cirrhosis.

I am in awe of the resident. He takes control of the scene and barks orders to the staff. He’s only four years further along in his medical training than me, but the difference is obvious. If he’s scared, he isn’t showing it.

“We’ve got to get him to the unit. Now!” commands the resident.

The team runs the bed down the hallway to the ICU.

Leroy is not going home tonight.

In the ICU things get worse.

Leroy continues to vomit blood at an alarming rate. The doctors attempt to replace the life-sustaining fluids. Both interns start intravenous lines in Leroy’s arms and hand the IV bags to the medical students to squeeze. Leroy watches bug-eyed as we work desperately to save him.

“Where’s the blood transfusions?” yells the resident.

“The lab is busy tonight. The blood isn’t ready yet,” an intern answers.

The resident has one last resort. In desperation, he inserts a Sengstaken-Blakemore tube into Leroy’s mouth and advances it past the esophagus into his stomach. The tube puts pressure on the varicose veins to slow the bleeding. Leroy now wears a football helmet, with the SB tube attached to the faceguard, to prevent the catheter from being expelled. The SB tube is intended to buy time until the patient can get to surgery—but it works only about half the time it’s used.

The scene in the ICU is gruesome. Leroy wears a football helmet and lies in a bed soaked in his blood, as he watches his life drain from his body. I will never forget the look in his eyes. It’s one of absolute terror.

Leroy knows he is dying.

The situation soon changes. He has a cardiac arrest and becomes unconscious.

“Start CPR,” snaps the resident. He’s looking at me. I jump into action.

Medical students learn CPR in the classroom. We practice on a manikin named Resusci Annie. But, I’ve never performed it on a person until now.

I get into position. Standing on a stepstool to reach over the patient’s chest, I interlace my fingers with palms down and elbows locked. I chant: “One, two, three, four, five,” at a rate of one-hundred beats per minute. The intern squeezes the bag to deliver oxygen to the lungs.

I worry. Are my hands positioned properly on the breastbone? Am I depressing it deep enough but not too much? Am I breaking ribs? What if my hands slip because of all the blood?

After half an hour of chest compressions, the team is discouraged. There are no signs of life when resuscitation is paused. The resident calls the code. CPR is stopped.

I feel more helpless than ever.

The resident physician notes the time and cause of death in the chart. I help prepare the body for the morgue. When the intravenous catheters are removed from the arms, the liquid leaking from the puncture sites appears slightly pink. Five quarts of blood has been replaced with IV fluids.

I look for a place of solitude—where I can cry.

* * *

Fortunately, time and research bring much needed changes. Today doctors use fiber-optic endoscopy to cauterize bleeding esophageal varicose veins. Several years later, in an ICU in a Seattle hospital, late one night I assist a gastroenterologist with this new procedure.

We save that woman’s life.

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Nonfiction

 

First Place, Cynthia Hoff.   The Girl in the Bleachers

Squinting against the bright midsummer sun, I tilted my head back and stuck out my tongue to catch the powdery sweet sprinkle of Pixie Stix dust, the perfect chaser to the red licorice still stuck in my molars.

I spent my Saturdays, like most kids in America, belly up to the concession stands at Little League parks — in it for the candy, not the game. Oh sure, I heard the crack of the bat (more like a “tink” back then) when my brother hit the ball. And maybe I turned my head to catch him hoofing it down the base path, upper body toppling toward first base, feet barely keeping up.

But the parents were far more entertaining. With each hit, they’d leap to their feet and erupt in exaggerated cheers that smacked of personal regret more than parental pride. Pounding each other on the back as if they had swung the bat themselves and found the sweet spot that sent the thread-bare ball skidding past the pitcher. But their elation struggled to find its stride, just like the ball that rolled sluggishly through the thick summer grass cuttings and stopped unceremoniously just past the infield lip. Grateful for the easy pickings, the second baseman grabbed the Easter egg and hurled it to his buddy on first. Out.

Excitement over, I scanned the adjacent fields for the real action — foul balls. Every kid knows that the only reason to attend T-ball games where boys with elastic waistbands, plastic cleats, and Big League dreams whiff more than they connect, is for the foul balls. You could be playing jacks under the stands or skipping two on the monkey bars, but as soon as you’d catch a glimpse of that little white ball arcing against the blue sky headed out of bounds, every kid scrambled and swarmed in a desperate race to come up with the treasure, even if it cost you a skinned knee. Your reward — the coveted free snow cone. The chewy ice stained with the jeweled red and blue tones of summer melted faster than you could eat it, and inevitably dripped through the soggy paper cone and down your arm, leaving a sticky reminder of your victory.

That’s how I met baseball — but we weren’t yet friends.

I absently picked at the splinter in my palm, courtesy of climbing the old wooden bleachers to the very top. From my perch, I was unaware that the infectious dreams on the field had crawled under the fence, followed me into the stands, and nestled into my soul. I didn’t know baseball had chosen me, the girl in the bleachers.

And there the dream slumbered until years later when I had some skin in the game — or some heart. Long after my brother abandoned baseball and my MLB fan-girl days had faded, I fell in love with a college shortstop with dreams of The Show.

I can still feel the hot metal bleachers searing the back of my thighs not quite covered by my cut-off shorts. But the heat from the seat and the sun couldn’t stop me from shivering. They were no match for the power of an over-the-shoulder wink from the batter’s box that chilled my skin and melted my heart.

That wink sealed my fate. I married my shortstop and deepened my relationship with baseball. Turns out “wife in the bleachers” isn’t much different than “little sister in the bleachers” — it’s still all about the concession stands, and I’ve sampled bleacher cuisine in 13 states and 3 countries for more than 50 years.

My lifetime of breaking bread with baseball earned me a rare seat at its table, so when it crooked it’s finger and invited me where no woman had gone before, I followed. I spent two seasons on broken-down minor league buses, breathing in a piquant blend of body odor, beer belches, and desperate hope. But these were my boys, so I nursed their wounds and their pride, dabbed their blood and sweat, and commiserated with them over the guys who got called up — and the guys who didn’t.

That’s baseball for you: unfair, unfeeling, and unaffected by your pain. That’s what makes the triumphs so sweet and keeps the dream alive. And that’s also what makes a girl in the bleachers scramble to the top of a chain-link fence she didn’t know she could climb (and didn’t realize she had), soaked from a summer storm, tears of joy (relief?) mingling with the raindrops just to see her shortstop round third after slugging a game-winning dinger.

This wasn’t fandom, I wasn’t a groupie, and this shared no likeness whatsoever with the obligatory Saturdays watching my brother. This was personal. My heart was on the field. And when my son strapped on his plastic cleats and stepped onto that red dirt for the first time to take up the family business with a dream of his own, I knew that’s where my heart would stay, right where it belonged.

So, I graduated to “mom in the bleachers” and watched the whole thing over again like some video loop of my life, living and dying with every pitch, every swing, every play. Because the homerun you hit yesterday means nothing today. Each game is a clean slate — that’s the cruelty and the beauty of baseball. And though you may come to appreciate its stats and strategies, only those who’ve looked into its eyes and seen its soul understand that baseball’s a who, not a what. And the dream can’t be fulfilled by playing it, only by living it.

I love baseball, but I don’t trust it. So I still hold my breath as the hurler winds up to throw at my kid. Then I glimpse my young daughter at the top of the splintery stands, flip flops dangling, chewing on red licorice. Realizing that playing baseball isn’t our only family legacy, I give my girl in the bleachers a Pixie Stix chaser. . . and a wink.

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Second Place, Gianna Starble.   On Being Young

It was summer in Chicago.

That night after work as we headed home together on the L, Andrew asked me, “Have you ever ridden in between the train cars?”

Moments later, he led me through the back door and instructed me to balance my feet on the metal that connected the two cars. Clinging tightly around his torso, him holding onto the small handles attached to the outside of the train‒we stood. We propelled into a wormhole‒a tunnel between space and time‒we went from the concrete, fluorescent underground of North Clyborn up to the whirring yellow lights and night sky that surrounded Fullerton. Air streamlined the entirety of my skin. I could feel my hair in motion, moving in all directions like strands of confetti from a popped balloon. “This is it”, I thought. Every cell in my body buzzed.

It was summer in Chicago.

In the apartment off Wrightwood and Hamlin, pretty much everything was falling apart. The refrigerator hardly kept things cool, the oven was broken, there was no AC, and the walls were in desperate need of a paint job. But to four scrappy girls living on their own for the first time, it was a palace. The “Cunt Castle” to be specific, was the name we donned it. What the apartment did have going for it was its makeshift deck. The awning that covered the stoop was right below our living room window. Probably a 6 by 6-foot square big enough and (we assumed) sturdy enough to hold a handful of guys and gals in cutoff shorts drinking Old Style. In the mornings, Nina and I would lounge on its hot asphalt shingle surface with beach towels and sunbathe. In the evenings, we’d make gin and tonics and sit in the growing dark of the day, listening to the neighborhood come alive along with the cicadas, wishful that a cool breeze would visit.

One evening, a group of us sat in the living room, melting away, complaining that it was even hotter outside. My roommate Alicia came up with an idea.

“We can’t just sit here,” she exclaimed.

Hopping on our bikes, we raced the 11 miles down Milwaukee Ave, pedaling faster than our legs could move. We arrived panting at the beach near Soldier Field. The moon was ripe, making the small urban shore feel like an island far away painted in a celestial glow. Our clothes lay on the sand as we dived into Lake Michigan. Howling, jumping up and down in the calm waters, we felt it.

We splashed in reverie just long enough before we spotted a security vehicle in the distance. We ran with our clothes and hid putting them on, laughing at ourselves for how foolish we looked‒sopping wet dogs‒trying to not get caught.

Shawna and Anna were the kinds of friends you wanted to have in a new town. They were always in the know about what was going on, especially in the way of shows. Chicago had this entire underground music scene at the time that could easily go unnoticed. But thanks to Shawna, with her pink hair, and Anna, with her purple hair, I always got the invite. They seemed to be royalty among these warehouse dwellers and vacant garage occupiers.

“What are you up to after work? There’s a show tonight…”

And there I’d go, dragged along like a kid sister on my bike trailing behind them. A favorite venue was Treasure Town at 21st and Kedzie, a giant warehouse that occupied almost an entire city block. Making our way through tiny halls covered in installation art, pressing up against other bodies covered in glitter and makeup, dressed in tutus and foxtails. We made it upstairs where the entire floor opened up to cardboard architecture, red walls, and ironic miscellanea placed intentionally in every nook and cranny. The music was never my taste‒mostly fuzz, drone-like, or involving lots of screaming‒but I loved the spectacle of it all, the energy. It was unlike anything I had felt before.

High on adrenaline, soaring on my bike with the waves of loud music still reverberating through me, there was just one more thing to do. On the patchy grass in Logan Square, in the dark of some unthinkable hour in the morning, there I sat. My chrome pink Raleigh road bike laid carelessly by my side, my helmet still on. Reaching into the brown paper sack for the aluminum covered hangover cure. Peeling back the tinfoil, I stuffed my mouth with a greasy bite of chorizo burrito. In the silence of the Square, with my late-night snack, I was utterly amused with myself. It was summer in Chicago. I was 19 years old.

* * *

Going back to school has surprised me. I actually care about learning and doing well, which, as it turns out, makes a huge difference. Being around my younger peers at Wenatchee Valley College is a total trip. Some of them still in high school, others fresh from. I love to hear them talk about their plans. Most are already on a straight path‒get my associates, transfer to Washington State University or some other state school, start medical school, etc. I hear them talk, and I admire them for their goals. But I also wonder…have they ever thought about anything else? Do they know they have time? I wonder if they know what it feels like, to just live. Not thinking about what major they need to choose to make the most money, or what would make their parents proud. I hope they get to catch a glimpse of it‒that precious pearl‒that feeling. To just revel in being young and alive. Like riding in between subway cars‒with the wind from the train and the lights blurring like a neon meteor shower. You scream and your voice just gets swallowed, joining the chorus of steel and electricity grinding. And that moment hangs suspended. And you know…this is what it feels like.  

♦ ♦ ♦

 

Third Place, Ann McCreary.   Richland Days

Through our back door screen I watched my mother, laying motionless on a chaise lounge, her skin glistening with Crisco in the hot Richland sun. Her face was hidden behind a Look Magazine held by hands tipped with Fire Engine Red fingernails.

“Mom?” I called. “Dad and I are going fishing.” Slowly, the magazine lowered until a pair of cat-eye sunglasses emerged above it. My mother’s eyes floated behind the green lenses, as if peering at me through water. Her head nodded, and then disappeared behind the magazine.

Behind me in the kitchen, my father was rummaging in the Frigidaire. He pulled out a Folger’s coffee can that held the secret to his fishing success – maggots. He used the maggots for bait, raising them on hunks of rotting meat in buckets behind our house. When they reached plump maturity, he picked them off and transferred them to a coffee can filled with sawdust. I heard my mother’s scream from my upstairs bedroom when she first discovered the maggots in the refrigerator. Somehow, my father cajoled her into allowing the maggots to continue residing alongside our food.

My father taught me to fish during outings on the Columbia River in our small motor boat. Waiting for a bite, I’d stare into the dark green water, imagining gigantic sturgeons that my father told me swam in the river’s depths. My father occupied himself by working through a half rack of Heidelberg beer.

The boat was one of the few luxuries he could afford as a self-described “bean counter” for the Atomic Energy Commission. Richland was a drab, dusty company town in the 1950s, home to thousands of workers busily producing nuclear weapons at the Hanford Site, living in government-built housing  and keeping our nation poised for war.

In the middle of an October night in 1957, Sputnik would fly over Richland, visible as it blinked its way across the sky. The first space voyager of its kind, the Soviet satellite was a reminder to Americans of our tenuous hold on survival in the atomic age. Sputnik’s launch created widespread fear among Americans, who saw it as evidence that our nation was losing the Cold War space race.

My father, however, maintained a consistent and groundless optimism throughout life, and did not join in the national angst over Sputnik.  Instead, he saw the impending arrival of the satellite in the skies over Richland as an excuse for a party.

He leafleted our neighborhood with a mimeographed announcement: “Spudnuts for Sputnik!” Courtesy of my father, Spudnuts donuts and hot chocolate would be provided to anyone willing to climb out of their warm bed to watch history – and perhaps the downfall of America – unfold.

As Sputnik made its stealthy approach after dark, my father erected a card table on our small front lawn and set out thermoses of hot chocolate and boxes of donuts, along with cheap whiskey for the adults. Neighbors slowly emerged from their barracks-like houses, despite chilly fall temperatures. Parents chatted as they drank spiked hot chocolate and smoked cigarettes, and children played kick-the-can in the shadows of porch lights, energized by sugary donuts.

As master of ceremonies, my father called for people to look skyward when the satellite was expected to appear. We scanned the skies, unsure what to look for. Then someone spotted it – a faint, blinking light moving across the dome of the sky between stars that twinkled, but did not pulse like this hostile new invader.

The sight prompted awe and apprehension among the adults, and vague interest among the children. When the blinking light disappeared from view, the parents slowly disbanded, suddenly tired and in some cases, a little tipsy. The children reluctantly followed, sorry to give up their nighttime freedom. Whatever the national morale, my father counted the evening a great success.

America was still here the next month for Thanksgiving, and my father had plans for this event as well.

My father struggled to make ends meet on his government accountant salary, and supplemented it with evening shifts at a fruit juice factory.  When a co-worker told him about a deal on a hindquarter of cut and wrapped meat from a local rancher, my father jumped on it. It would feed our little family for months.

My mother worked as a personal secretary to a colonel at Hanford, a job that seemingly absorbed all her attention.  She was an uninterested cook, but produced edible meals with the meat from our freezer, using beef recipes she found in Joy of Cooking.  We hosted her parents for Thanksgiving dinner, and the centerpiece was a large roast.

“Excellent dinner,” my grandfather said as we worked our way through the meal. “Turkey is traditional, but this beef roast is better.” My mother smiled. My father smiled too. He couldn’t resist sharing his secret. “I got quite a deal on this meat,” he said proudly. “Because, it’s actually horse, not beef.”

For a moment, we digested this information. Then, my grandmother vomited onto her plate. She and my grandfather left without a word. My mother glared at my father through narrowed eyes.  I regarded my plate with disappointment. It wasn’t really all that bad, and I was still hungry. But the meal was over.  And so, apparently, was my parents’ marriage.

My mother delivered her own surprise a few weeks later, when she announced she was divorcing my father and moving with the colonel to Maryland. A social worker came to our house, sat me down with my parents, and offered me a devil’s bargain. “Because you’re 12,” she said, “you can choose whether to stay with your mother or father.”

My mother’s eyes glistened with a hint of tears. My father looked at me with a slight grin that was more grimace, and lifted his shoulders in a helpless shrug. My mother left Richland soon after, and I was a young father myself, more than two decades later, before I saw her again.

♦ ♦ ♦