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2014 Hal Prize Fiction Winners

First Place

Catfish Days
by Morgan Peters

The stragglers from the morning crowd sat contentedly in their booths, leaning across the aisles to speak to one another, waffles and omelets testing the last loop on their belts. The group of four old women seated in the corner booth were in the midst of an intent discussion about their missing fifth, whose new shade of rogue was either a sign of an affair or onset Alzheimer’s. A few blue-collar workers sat slumped over the counter, nursing mugs of black coffee with solemn resignation, sharing yawns instead of small talk. The hostess, a wide-hipped woman named Margaret, flitted between tables with menus and free therapy, depending on the early afternoon state of the customer. A father and son were passing the local paper back and forth, filling out the crossword puzzle, the little boy buying a vowel each time he faltered on one of the longer words.

“Four down is Waxahatchee,” the passing waitress whispered to the boy, tapping the paper as she passed to clear the syrup stained plates. The kid grinned, swiping the pen from his father’s hand and writing the name of the creek in shaky letters.

She refilled the mugs of the men at the counter, offering them smiles that they could tuck into the pockets of their overalls. Mary had worked at the diner for nearly five years; she knew everyone, all of the worn down, rounded out country folk whose chief joy in life was pancake Sundays. Once the diner had given out a special deal on milkshakes, and someone passing through would have thought it was the Fourth of July. The mayor ate breakfast with his wife and three daughters most mornings, before hustling to the office with the air of importance reserved especially for big men in very small towns.

Nothing important had happened in Shelby for three years, and before that, not since the Civil War. It was highly unlikely that anything important would ever happen again.

The patron who occupied the booth nearest the door was a stooped, slack-jawed man with grisly stubble speckling his cheek. She brought him his coffee with a warmed stack of toast and marmalade. He was one of only two men she had ever met who liked marmalade on rye.

“Morning, Turner,” she beamed at him, setting the plate down and squeezing his shoulder, “How’re ya feeling?”

The man raised his eyes to her, expression sullen as he always wore it. His mood had never varied, not in the past few years, though there was no one around those parts that would question it. Least of all Mary.

“Doin’ fine,” he muttered as he always did, his voice a rasp, charred with age and bourbon, “You? You look well.”

Turner’s manners were never better than when he came to visit Mary. That was what everyone in town always said to her.

“You make that man’s life brighter, honey,” Margaret had once told her amidst a mountain of unwashed dishes. Mary had never been able to tell if it was with concern or pity that people talked about the old man. It usually seemed like a mixture of both, like most folks had not made up their mind on the matter, and they were happy to remain ambivalent.

“I’m doing alright,” Mary shrugged, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, “Plenty of work to be gettin’ on with. Willie’s talkin’ about gettin’ a new generator. Ma wants to talk him out of it, but once an idea gets in his head, well, there ain’t no gettin’ it out.”

She had seen Turner last week. Since then, nothing had happened. The new generator was a recycled conversation, Willie had been talking about getting the damn thing for months. Turner either never noticed or didn’t mind. Maybe he knew that things just didn’t happen in that town anymore.

The old man nodded slowly, “Your ma has a good head.”

A long pause. Forks clattered against plates, the pleasant din of conversation and cutlery partitioning them from the rest of the diner.

“You got time to sit?”

He always asked the question, even though her answer had never changed.

“Sure, I got time,” she shrugged, sliding into the booth, across from him, “You been taking care of yourself?”

She knew he had, because she asked the neighbors to check in on him.

Turner made a noncommittal sound, picking up the knife and smearing marmalade over the toast. Mary watched as it melted over the crusts, bits of orange dripping from the knife onto the blue patterned plate.

“You’re gettin’ skinny again,” Mary pointed out, leaning her chin on her hands, “Are you eatin’ enough? You really oughta come over for dinner, ma’s always sayin’ you should.”

Her mother had been saying as much for the past three years, but it had changed nothing in Turner. Nothing anyone said had much of an effect on him, only some words made him flinch.

Mary sighed, sliding her hand across the table and laying it over his. Her brown sugar and honey skin against his leathery palm, with veins like lines on a map. She could almost see where the Waxahatchee climbed up from his wrist towards his knuckles, the creek webbing at his palm, a stream riveting along the side of his index finger.

“Turner, you have to take care of yourself,” she chided him gently, watching as his thick brows drew together, “I can’t have you wasting away on me.”

She paused to take a steadying breath, glancing at the jar of marmalade to find the words.

“John wouldn’t want that.”

Turner flinched at the name, but did not draw his hand away from hers.

Even after three years, Turner couldn’t stand to talk about him.

Mary had shared her part in grief. It had torn her apart, but she had stitched herself back together. She had not let herself fall to pieces, not when she still had love to give. Not when she could make customers laugh so hard that they inhaled half their milkshake. Or when she could sit with one of the kids at the table and draw with crayons on napkins.

It was only Turner that she worried about now.

“I’m gettin’ on fine,” he said in a low voice, turning back to her. His gaze dropped to the hollow of her throat, where she wore the familiar silver band as a necklace. Instinctively, she reached for it, twisting the delicate chain in her fingers, dropping her gaze for a moment.

“You know, we’re in this together,” she reminded him quietly, “And yeah, some days I just want to sort of crumble too, but I can’t. Because it would piss him off, and I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to live the rest of my days afraid of death, because then I’d miss all the goodness in life. And there’s a lot of it, Turner.”

He took a sip of his coffee, gone lukewarm with conversation. When he set the mug down, he offered her a weary smile. It didn’t meet his eyes, not exactly, but there was a fondness there. A threadbare kindness that had been worn away by the past three years, when he had very little to be kind about.

“I brought you something,” Turner said eventually, as he always did. It was his polite excuse, the sign that the conversation was over and if he could have his bill, please.

Mary was always careful not to press him. She might have, before. Before everything happened she had been so rash, teeming with energy and life. Her laugh used to put thunder to shame and she used to be funny, God, she used to be so funny. She couldn’t count the number of times she had made John choke from laughing. He had once tried to enforce a “no talking during dinner policy” and had snorted milk from his nose when she started making faces.

They had been good, and she had been brilliant. Now he was gone and she was okay.

Mary grinned at the old man who had almost been her father-in-law.

“Catfish day,” she beamed, taking his half-filled mug and leaving it on the tray of dirty dishes, “Good thing, too. I was starting to miss them.”

She had only just finished the one from last week, but she always acted thrilled on Turner’s behalf, because it was all he had to give.

The catfish had always been difficult to take. They reeked of memories, of muggy August afternoons, ankle deep in the creek, pants rolled up past skinned knees. Her and John, passing stolen whiskey between licorice-stained fingertips, a war of stolen kisses and bugs caught in jars playing across the long summer months.

Now every Thursday, Turner would show up at the diner with just a few bills for a cup of coffee, and he would have another catfish rolled up in newspaper sitting in the cab of his truck. She brought home the fish every week, tucking the package into her family’s small fridge and spending hours digging through recipe books for one that would make a catfish taste like anything other than catfish.

When Turner handed her the wrapped fish, she held it like something precious.

“I ain’t seen you at church,” he mentioned, resting his bad knee against the truck bed. He wasn’t moving as well as he used to.

Mary frowned, scratching at a patch of rust on the side of the door, “I don’t go anymore.”

The old man furrowed his brow, “No?”

Turner had never been particularly religious before. He had been the sort to kill a six-pack out on his back porch before two in the afternoon. He had sobered up just soon enough to see his son killed. He hadn’t gone back to the bottle, but he had not been able to do much of anything else, either. Just go to mass every Sunday and down to the lake a few times a week to catch himself some fish, and bring one to the girl who had almost been his daughter.

She shook her head, “I don’t believe anymore. It’s hard to, when you realize no matter how much you pray, things just happen.”

A heavy silence stretched between them, before Mary glanced up, squinting against the sun, the corners of her mouth twisting into a careful smile.

“But who knows?” she shrugged, “If God’s got a plan, he wouldn’t go and tell me about it anyways.”

Turner nodded slowly, rubbing his hand along his lopsided jaw and staring at the ground.

“‘Spose you’re right. He’s got His ways, we got ours,” he said gruffly, looking back up at Mary, “I’ll see you next week.”

“I’ll see you around, Turner,” she said warmly, squeezing his arm before stepping back, “You take care of yourself. You really ought to come to dinner.”

He tipped his head towards her, before opening the driver’s door and hoisting himself into the seat. He leaned out the window, leaning on his wrinkled elbow to speak to her.

“Don’t know ‘bout them catfish. Not so many ‘a them this late. Season’s running out.”

She waved as the truck pulled out of the parking lot and kicked up dust along the road back to the lake.

Half a mile to the lake, a third of a mile to the post office, three miles to the movie theater. Nothing too far that couldn’t be walked to. Just one bend in the road for twenty miles, and John had missed it.

Mary sighed, tucking her hands in the pockets of her apron and turning back to the diner. She would still be there next Thursday, when Turner came for coffee. And there would still be a fish wrapped in newspaper on the front seat of the truck. It didn’t matter what the season was like, this year, or three years, or seven years ago.

There were always gonna be catfish.

Judge’s comments: A layered character study of two people dealing with grief in different ways. The bustling diner setting was perfect to portray the woman’s attempts to step back into life after the death of her fiancée, while her almost father-in-law retreated to the solitude of the lake to cope after the loss of his son. The catfish – his weekly offering to the woman who shares his loss – a poignant coming together. – Lesley Kagen


Second Place

Blue Ridge
by Hannah Vanderpool

It was 85 degrees in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which was good for business. Nathan Garretty was content with the way things were going at the shop these days and this made him feel younger than his 67 years. He used to be happy, or some version of it. Since his son had stopped speaking to him, it had taken more and more to get him up in the morning.

The bell on top of the front door jangled. A man and his two sons entered the Blue Ridge knife shop and looked around. Nathan sized them up in a single glance. This was a talent of his and he prided himself on it. The man was perhaps 35, slim, with the suggestion of a belly. The older boy had to be 12, Nathan guessed. He walked next to his father, chest puffed, aware of himself. The younger boy broke from the group to look at the cases of knives Nathan had arranged with care. He was blond with blue eyes. He reminded Nathan of Jesse.

“What can I do for y’all today?” he asked them, arms across the counter.

“We’re just looking,” the father answered. He draped an arm around the older boy. “This is a nice place you’ve got here.”

“Thanks. You feel free to look around. Let me know if you need any help.”

This was something he always said. Only he never needed anyone to tell him that they needed his assistance. He always knew. His wife had said that it was what made her marry him. She called him the Golden Retriever. He wished it had made her stay.

It wasn’t good timing but Nathan was struck by a need to visit the restroom in the back corner of the store. He nodded at his customers as he slipped from behind the counter. The bathroom was nothing to be proud of and he didn’t invite patrons to use it. If they asked him, he’d sometimes oblige, if they wore a certain expression. Mostly, though, he sent them to the public restrooms down the street.

He switched on the light. An exposed light bulb hung from the ceiling and provided enough light for him to make out the toilet. It sat next to a stainless steel mini-fridge, on top of which was a microwave. He rubbed his face, his eyes resting on a jar of almost finished peanut butter.

This would have been a thing for his wife. Had she stayed Molly’d have dressed him up one side and down another for having a refrigerator in the bathroom. She’d have said something about filth and he would have listened for a few seconds, feeling his way around the insults, before tuning her out. She’d keep going, pretending she didn’t know that he’d left town in his mind because by that time she’d be too angry to stop.

He looked at his reflection in the mirror. The face that stared back at him was a version of his own, but several things weren’t right. The lines around his eyes and mouth belonged to someone else and there was more gray in his hair than before. He sighed and looked down at the sink that needed Molly. He didn’t know why he had that damn Sesame Street hand soap, probably got it on sale at the Food Lion. He didn’t have any grandkids that he knew of. That kind of soap would have been for them. 

He heard the doorbell sound again. His time was up. He squared his shoulders and walked out of the bathroom, a man returning to battle. He rounded the corner and stood behind the counter again, surveying the room. More customers had filed in the store. He searched the room for the man and his two sons. He had to see the younger boy again. This knowledge welled up in him and took his breath for a moment. The boy stood near the door with a hand in his back pocket.

Nathan stepped from behind the counter for the second time in ten minutes and approached the boy. The boy’s father turned and watched him. Nathan didn’t know what to say. He plunged ahead anyway.

“I’ve been wishing I could say I’m sorry to a boy who looked very much like you, but too much time has passed. He won’t talk to me, now,” he began, a feeble fire in his belly. “I want to say it to you, if you don’t mind, and pretend it’s him.”

The blond boy stared at Nathan and then his father. The older man wouldn’t blame the three of them for leaving at once but they didn’t. The boy’s father hesitated, then nudged his younger son. The boy nodded, wide-eyed.

“If I could go back in time and do things differently, I would, Jesse. But we can never go back. I’m dying now, and this makes it that much sadder for me.”

A group of customers had gathered at the counter, forming a queue. Nathan turned his back on them. He pressed forward.

“I wanted to do things right but I didn’t. The time is gone now and I’m sorry. That’s all.”

The younger boy waited a moment longer. He felt for his father’s hand and the three turned to leave. Nathan watched as they exited the front door. The younger boy turned and looked at him. Nathan noticed the custom, multi-function knife in his back pocket. It was a Blue Ridge special. He looked at the boy, who returned his gaze. Then he turned to his customers and smiled.

Judge’s comments: Excellent, authentic dialogue works to bring the reader into the story. How the protagonist deals with his ‘unfinished’ business moved me. His need to confess his regrets, and how he ultimately makes amends was touching. The story left me wanting to learn more about the main character, and his relationship with his wife and son. – Lesley Kagen


Third Place

Shampoo
by Neill Kleven

He looked forward to the first sip of coffee, the sip that always warmed his stomach and assured him that he was going to have a good day. Today was actually going to be a great day. Because it was his two-year anniversary as a Customer Service Representative (CSR) at US Cellular; and, as long as he showed up on time today, he would be the only employee to have sustained a perfect attendance record for two straight years.

Yes, it was going to be a great day.

As he moved in the shower to rinse under his arms, his shoulder blade grazed one of the shampoo bottles on the ledge. And, in the slippery shower, this was enough to knock the bottle over. Because he’d barely touched it, he didn’t know the heavy bottle was in motion until it made a loud “thud” on the plastic floor. This sudden noise both startled and irritated him, the way a stereo does when you turn it on without realizing the volume is cranked.

“I swear,” Dan said. “Every day.”

Then he heard a voice on the other side of the shower curtain. “At least you don’t need coffee now.” It was Karen, his girlfriend.

“Very funny.” He bent over, picked up the bottle of Pantene Pro-Vitamins, and replaced it in the row among the other 12 brands. But, tense, he did so carelessly. The bottle hydroplaned off the ledge. Dan was quick with the hand-to-eye coordination –probably too much Sony PlayStation – so he was able to get his palm under it; but as soon as he closed his hand, the bottle slipped by his fingers, landing again with another loud “thud.”

In a moment of sheer frustration, he brought a foot back and then thrust it forward, connecting the bottle vertically with the knuckles of his bare toes. The bottle went up the slope of the bathtub, skimming the wall as it peaked in the air and then fell back into the tub.

While kicking the bottle, Dan had shifted entirely too much weight to his left leg – the non-kicking leg – and was now falling in this direction. His reflexes sent each arm out – a split-second Jesus Christ pose – to grab a hold of something, anything to hold himself up or at least break his fall. His right arm got nothing; his left arm managed a handful of shower curtain and brought it down with him, including the rod.

“My God honey, are you all right?” Instantly, Karen crouched down at his side, toothbrush sticking out of her mouth. “You got to be careful.”

“I’m fine,” he said without moving. The curtain and rod had broken his fall.

Karen took a deep breath. “I’m so glad you’re not hurt.” She stepped over him to turn off the water.

The way the bottles were arranged in several rows around the perimeter of the bathroom floor, they resembled big fat candles. And Dan, lying in the middle of the “candles,” felt like the subject of a séance – naked and helpless. While he stared at the ceiling, shampoo took up most of his peripheral vision. Some were unopened, still paired together in their “Buy One, Get One Free” shrink wrap, and because they were heavy and standing up against the wall, Dan often stubbed a toe on them. Others were almost empty and easy to knock over. Full or empty, they would get in the way of Dan’s feet. And, as if this wasn’t enough, when he opened the medicine cabinet to get his razor, glossy sample packets would slide out. Dan sat up and looked at his girlfriend. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Yeah, anythi—“

“Don’t you think you have too much shampoo?”

“What do you mean?” She looked away.

“Just answer the question.”

“I don’t know,” she said, pausing for a moment to think. “They all have different scents, different personalities.”

“Okay,” he said, looking around. He chose a bottle – a clear one with an orange top – and held it up. “Johnson & Johnson? No more tears?”

“Yeah. It’s got a distinct scent. Like a baby. It makes me think of my nieces.”

“Karen, I can’t get through the bathroom without tripping.” 

She said something but it was incoherent.

“I can’t understand you.”

 She pulled the toothbrush out of her mouth. “Maybe we should get a bigger apartment – you know, with a bigger bathroom.”

This comment made him want to stand up, take her by the shoulders, and give her a good shaking. But of course, he didn’t. “Maybe you should get your own bathroom.”

“Why do you have to be so cold?” 

“I don’t know why I’m arguing with you. You simply can’t see how obsessive this is.”

“You’re calling me obsessive? What about your timed showers and how you set aside time during your timed coffee break to scrutinize the precipitation on the roads so you can determine exactly how much time you should allow yourself to get to work?”

“No, that’s different. What I have are quirks. What you have, however, is an obsession.”

Dan stood up and brought the volume of his voice down a notch. “Remember the Team Leader position that everybody wants – the promotion? I’m going to get it. And you know why? Because of my perfect attendance record. Which I got because of my little quirks. So we can have more money.” He waved a hand at the bottles. “More money for your…neurosis.”

Her face was stone now. He wrapped a towel around his waist and turned around.

She was going to say something. Or maybe not. If she was, he didn’t want to hear it. Besides, he was already out of the bathroom and on his way to the bedroom.

Dan quickly stepped into a pair of pants and pulled a shirt over his torso. On the way to the front door, through the beaded doorway that connected the dining room (which had its own wall of shampoo) to the kitchen, he heard his name but ignored her. He didn’t want to hear an apology.

***

In his car, as soon as he put the key into the ignition, he realized he’d forgotten something: the lunch he’d packed for himself. It was sitting there in the fridge. Because he had skipped his coffee break, he could easily go inside and get it without falling behind schedule. But he didn’t want to go back in the apartment.

His alternative:  He could eat at Chili’s on 52nd and Hopkins, the closest restaurant to work. But if there was lunch-hour traffic (and there usually was on Friday), there was a chance he would not return to work on time.

Strict on attendance, US Cellular penalized employees with what were called “occurrences” for calling in sick; half occurrences for showing up late; and quarter occurrences for punching in late after lunch breaks. Receiving a quarter occurrence of course wouldn’t be terrible, but it would definitely ding his record.

No. He couldn’t take a chance. He needed perfect attendance as a selling point for the Team Leader position. Too, it was his own little accomplishment, a sign that he was growing as a person at the age of thirty.

Before getting out of his VW, he noticed his reflection in the rearview mirror. “I’m not a jerk,” he told the mirror. “She said she doesn’t want anybody treating her any differently.”

Karen had T-cell lymphoma in her intestines, an aggressive cancer that had spread to other organs. On two separate occasions Karen had told Dan that she didn’t want to be treated differently. “If you or anybody else pampers me in any way,” she’d said, “my intuition will pick up on it immediately. It’ll make me feel like I’m already dead.”

So he was doing the right thing. She had irritated him. And this is the way he would normally react. He just wanted her to know that she was being inconsiderate.

He turned off the car. She wasn’t going to hear him come in. He ran up the back stairwell, which led to the kitchen. He could grab his lunch while she was showering.

Inside the apartment, under a Grateful Dead tapestry, a few feet into the dining room was the futon that he and Karen had spent an afternoon picking out for the apartment, their first home together. Dan loved the futon and the memory of that afternoon at Brady Street Futons and all the laughter and teasing that went with it. A simple task that had turned romantic.

It was the only piece of furniture they’d ever bought together. And now Karen was on it, curled up in the fetal position, her face buried in her hands.

Immediately, he disarmed.

He walked through the beads and sat next to her on the couch, slowly pulling her hands from her face. Her face was puffy, eyes domed with tears.

She sat up straight and spoke firmly. “I’m sorry that my bottles of shampoo get in your way. But to be honest with you I don’t think it’s that big of a deal and I think you were overreacting.” Dan could tell that it had taken her a lot of courage to stand up to him. Her eyes were locked on him, preparing for whatever he had to say.

But he didn’t really have anything. He rubbed her cheek gently with his thumb. “Maybe just get rid of a few. They are quite annoying.”

“Okay. H’bout two?”

“Two? I don’t think that’ll make much of a difference – actually, know what? I don’t really care. In fact, I have to get a birthday present for my brother. Let’s go to Gurnee Mills today after I get home from work.”

She pulled away to look at him. “Really?”

“Sure. You never know, there might be a few brands out there you don’t have.”

Karen’s puffy eyes widened. “Yeah. Category growth. The boomer consumers and age resistance. The boomers want to look younger so they need styling and coloring products that are gentle with extended shade palettes and–”

“Okay, okay. Get in the shower.”

She got up and walked to the bathroom.

That he remembered to pack his lunch; that he forgot to take it with him when leaving for work; that he decided to go back for it; that he was able to stop Karen from having a bad day, a day that he’d pretty much started – this is why he felt relieved.

Before leaving again, he stuck his head in the bathroom, quietly, so she wouldn’t hear him. He watched her as she showered, filling his lungs with bathroom steam and the perfumey scent of Herbal Essences.

Karen had a ridiculously thick layer of shampoo lather on her bald scalp, making her head look twice as big as it actually was. Dan chuckled. She looked like an alien. An alien in their bathroom taking a shower.

Eyes closed, smiling enthusiastically, she massaged imaginary hair, long honey-brown locks, the beautiful hair that chemotherapy had taken from her three months ago.

Then, glancing at the digital clock on the stove, he realized he was going to be at least a half hour late if he didn’t leave this moment. There was no way they were going to let a half occurrence slide because of his immaculate record. It simply didn’t work that way.

No, he decided, he wasn’t going to rush. Better yet – he got excited – he was going to call in sick and spend the day with Karen at Gurnee Mills.

For this he would receive a full occurrence. Not a half. Not a quarter. A big fat solid occurrence.

On his two-year anniversary as a CSR at US Cellular.

And the occurrence – the hard copy version – was going to look great tacked to the wall of his cubicle.

Judge’s comments: It begins as the type of relationship story that deftly fires a reader up (especially if that reader happens to be a woman), and expertly turns into a completely different tale about the scrambling we do inside our heads and hearts when we find ourselves in a situation that challenges us to redefine our commitment. How we discover after the layers are peeled away, that what once was important is no longer, and the ways in which we show our love must change. – Lesley Kagen


About the judge:

Lesley Kagen

Judging this year’s fiction contest is New York Times bestselling author Lesley Kagen, a Milwaukee native whose novels include Whistling in the Dark (which appeared on the American Booksellers list, Midwest Booksellers list, and won the Midwest Booksellers Book of the Year), Land of a Hundred Wonders, Tomorrow River, Good Graces, and Mare’s Nest.