Photography First Place:
Photography by Sadie Weber
Judge’s comments: What I liked about this image is exactly what I look for when photographing: an interesting subject, strong composition and great light. This image has all three. The water line leads you into the photo and with the mountain range in the background produces a three-dimensional look to a two-dimensional image. The boat adds a little interest and the human element. And the light is perfect. – Len Villano
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
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
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?”
“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 fiction judge:
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.
Photography Second Place:
“Rolled Out” by Steven Stanger
Judge’s comments: This image is a great example of how as long as you have great light you can still have a great image. Being an abstract we’re not quite sure what the subject is. Composition is good but it’s the light (and shadow) that really makes the image. Intriguing because it’s not how we would normally see our surroundings, but by isolating the details in a relatively small section creates an interesting and striking image. – Len Villano
by Mark R. Hunt
The year was 1958. I was an eight-year-old kid sporting a pretty tight crew cut. My dad did the cutting in the basement laundry room. I can feel his strong hand on my shoulder as I held the wrapped towel tight around my neck. “Don’t move” was the order he kept giving as he’d maneuver me on the stool. My mother, on some of these occasions, might be sneaking in to get a closer look at the job. I was wearing mostly blue jeans with the four-inch cuffs, horizontally striped tee shirts, red, or white Chuck Conner tennis shoes, and my favorite thin beaded Indian belt.
My older sister Polly was eleven. She was still bigger than I was, but I was gaining on her. She was becoming interested in boys, so our days of getting along while sharing the back seat on long rides was coming to an end. We enjoyed each other’s company a few years back, when playing baseball, drawing horses, or just rough housing around had been enough. Truth be told, she was a pretty good tomboy back in those good old days. Her interest in the boys was well deserved, as they really had an interest in her. She had been blessed with big-eyed cuteness and some early developments that did not go unnoticed by the boys. Plus, she was bit of a smart aleck to boot. It was her way or the highway, once she crossed that line in her mind that made it so. She would even go up against Dad on some things that would make your jaw drop. Things that from my seat seemed really pretty stupid. Our father was a formidable force to be reckoned with.
So, on this particular family vacation out west, she had built a little fortress fence around herself in the backseat of the white Ford station wagon. Her books and magazines all piled up between us, she sat behind Dad, and I sat behind Mom. We were heading out on the big journey, into the Badlands up in the Dakotas and beyond. We’d been to the Corn Palace. I had scored with a sweet rubber knife that I strapped onto my Indian belt, and we were all getting along pretty good. They were a little disappointed with the Petrified Forest exhibition. I think we had to pay something to get behind the roughly fenced in portion of the exhibit that lay just beyond a rather meager gravel parking lot. Then, when we were let in, after paying, it was only a couple of very old logs laying in what otherwise looked like the rest of the vast prairie that surrounded the place. They were old trees that looked pretty much like they’d turned into rocks alright. They had little fences built around them with signs that warned you not to touch. But, it wasn’t really the Petrified Forest that the big sign had advertised a mile back on the road. Mom was optimistic about it. There would be plenty more to see on this trip. We shouldn’t be so disappointed. While Dad, on the other hand, was not impressed. You could see around the fence to our car. He said we should have just peeked around the corner. That would have been enough for this. We called him “The Brick.” He was like an immovable object.
If we weren’t eating at a roadside picnic table, or off the tailgate of the wagon, we were stopping at a roadside café. We were camping most nights, but we’d also spend the night at a motel with a pool on occasion. Dad had found this pretty cool camper tent wrap around enclosure that he fit over the back of the station wagon. He’d drop the tailgate and raise the hinged window, then tie with cords the tent capper around them to close things off. With the tailgate dropped, there was just enough room for them to sleep in the way back, and then Polly took the back seat, and got the front seat to sleep on. It all worked pretty well, though it was tight quarters really, for everyone. I remember playing board games and learning how to play gin rummy in the back of that car. They’d drop the back seat down and spread a big blanket out. We’d all sit cross-legged and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, and drink Hire’s root beer. It was great fun.
On nights when we’d get to stay at a roadside motel, Polly and I would wind up in a small swimming pool. I’d be diving in and holding my breath underwater, and terrorizing her however I could. She’d be wearing a flowered rubber swim cap that I could easily pull off. Getting her hair wet was like the worst thing that could happen to her. It was tight quarters in those little motel rooms. But, they had TVs and electricity, showers and sinks – conveniences, with mostly western themes – maybe a cactus styled table lamp between the beds.
Other than the Badlands and an occasional butte, the Dakotas were pretty desolate. Polly wouldn’t even look up from her magazines unless one of us gasped at something we were looking at. I got her to look up once with a really good, “Oh My God” heart-felt false gasp. But that was it. It would have to be Mom, or Dad gasping after that.
On day three, we’d been driving all morning and mother had announced it was going to be a roadside café day. So, we were on the look-out for just the right one. And, as the fates would have it, sure enough, not ten minutes after her announcement, the perfect one came up on the left side of the road. We were heading west, so for driving convenience sake, Dad was looking for one on the right, or north side of the road. Mom made him turn around and go back to this one because I’d seen a buffalo in a cage next to it, and she’d seen that it looked clean and neat, and had lacey white curtains hanging in the windows. Getting Dad to turn around wasn’t easy, but he showed his generous vacation spirit and did it. We were all very pleased with this. Getting him to be more like Mom was our hopeless dream.
We pulled into the gravel parking lot along with a few other traveler cars. They had to pull me from Thunder Bill’s buffalo cage to come in to eat. The café was clean and neat. This was the first and biggest deal they had with all things highway. Gas stations, bathrooms, motels, and café’s had to be clean, or they were marching us right back out of there, and hoping that the next one would be somehow better – and how could people live like that? Our mom had like a built-in radar system for picking only the neatest and cleanest of our accommodations.
I really don’t remember much else about the place, other than the fact that I was done eating well ahead of them, and asking permission to go back outside to see the buffalo. Wiping my face clean with a wet napkin that she’d either spit on, or dipped into a water glass, she’d get the nod from Dad, and I was freed.
When I got to the chain-linked cage, Thunder Bill had his back to me on the other side of it. It looked like he was staring out at all the cars going by on the road. I could see now that he was pretty old and mangy. The cage was stinky and his water bowl was full of crap and his food bowl was flipped upside down. I wrapped my fingers though the holes in the fence and crawled up as close as I could get to see him better. “Hi Thunder Bill,” I said. There was nobody else around. With that, Thunder Bill slowly turned to show me his ginormous head and big black eyes. Flies were buzzing around him in there. He turned completely around and sized me up. Then, he slowly walked across the cage, right for me. If it hadn’t been for the cage, I’d have been scared witless. Slowly, he came right up to my side of the cage and just stood there in front me for a moment, giving me a terrific look at him. He was a magnificent old beast. I was blown away by the size of his head. My heart was pounding out of my chest and I was talking to him nice when, he tilted his head a little to the left, and then stuck one of his sharp horns through one of the holes in the fence and gored me in the belly just above my Indian belt. I screamed bloody murder and hit the dirt writhing in pain. I rolled over and pulled up my shirt to see a small growing bruise right where he’d gored me. I wasn’t very good about pain and bodily injuries back in those days, so I kept screaming and was pretty traumatized by the whole situation. But, apparently, my Mom and Dad had not been watching, because nobody came out to help me.
I laid there in the dirt, next to the cage, for what felt like an eternity. I cursed out Thunder Bill for laying me low, and watched him as he retreated back to the other side of the cage. I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself that ol’ Thunder Bill probably knew just what he was doing, and how his old horn would fit just so between the chain link fence holes. And that he’d probably done it to plenty of unsuspecting boys just like me. Then, from my vantage point on the ground I looked up at the sign clearly printed on the cage – DON’T GET TOO CLOSE TO THE CAGE. And in smaller print it read, MANAGEMENT NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR INJURIES CAUSED BY THUNDER BILL.
Eventually, I picked myself up and went back into the café. My Mom and Dad were pretty upset when they saw what had happened. And yes, there was a good bruise, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought to begin with. It was more the shock of the thing that had stung me to my core. She dipped the same napkin she’d wiped the ketchup off my mouth with before I’d headed out to see Thunder Bill, into the same glass of water to clean up the spot where the buffalo had stung me. Then, she used the back half of it again in the water glass to wipe the dried tears from my cheeks. Dad dusted off my blue jeans and we were back out on the road, Polly with her head in a magazine, and the car rolling west out across the vast prairie. I stared out the window at the wide open Dakota landscapes and pondered my fate. I can still feel that particular spot on my right-side, just above my belt, if I close my eyes and see Thunder Bill coming my way. Cosmic paybacks from Tatanka for what we did to them maybe. Who knows? Anyways, be careful out there with how close you get to things. Particularly, to airy cages with old buffalos named Thunder Bill in them. Dad says what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Within an hour I had broken the tip off the rubber blade of my new knife, stabbing it into the seats and Polly’s magazines.
Judge’s comments: The thing that appealed to me about this piece was the self-propelled kinetic nature of the prose, combined with the assured voice of the narrator: sardonic but not cynical, wry but not flip, and every small observation adding necessary atomic weight to the story. The piece itself conveys the family road trip described in that you can’t help but feel claustrophobic in the back seat, disappointed in the petrified forest, and ultimately – when the payoff comes – as if the critical narrative incident is now part of your legendary family history, to be told and retold for family reunions immemorial. And finally, I found the concluding line to be about perfect. – Michael Perry
Learning to Read in Minnesota, 1947
by Richard Western
Growing up, the stories I knew best were those we told within the family. Many had to do with our trips to Sturgeon Lake. In July and sometimes in August my family would drive to Sturgeon, as we always said, 100 miles north of St. Paul, just off Highway 61. Along the way my father would tell my sisters and me that if we kept still we might see a moose or a wolf by the side of the road, and we half believed him. He did not keep still, nor did he really want stillness from us. He recalled other trips, anticipated good weather, remarked on the intrusive presence of motorists from Iowa who hauled large wobbly trailers on our crowded highways, assured my mother he was holding the speedometer needle right at 55, and performed lively readings of jingles from Burma Shave signs planted here and there along the road:
Within this vale~ Burma Shave
Of toil and sin
Your head grows bald
But not your chin.
Besides the jingles we saw, he knew others from other Burma Shave signs around the state, and as he recited them my sisters and I would join in. Sometimes we could get the last line right by thinking how to complete the rhyme.
Just past Willow River we’d head east into the little town of Sturgeon Lake and stop to buy gas and milk and eggs. Then it was four miles over a flint-hard dirt road to the lake and Wold’s Resort. When we reached the dirt road I knew what I’d soon hear. “Now we’re so close I could spit there from here,” my father would say. “At least he said ‘spit,’ this time,” my mother would add.
Halfway around the south shore of the lake we’d turn in at a sign that said “Wolds” and park in the shade on pine duff lining the driveway. Usually we’d find the Wolds, Mort and Eng, in their kitchen or garden. In the exchange of greetings that followed, they would abide my father’s handshaking and respond politely to my mother’s remarks about the grounds – Yes, the roses by the tool shed look good this year, so far – until Mort supposed that, well, we’d probably like to get settled after our long drive, and he should show us around to our place. Mort was more outgoing than Eng. “It’s a new pump there,” he might mention as we walked past the pump house on our way to the cabin. Or, stepping inside, “New oilcloth for the kitchen table.” Looking into a dish cabinet, then thinking twice, my mother would say that the shelves wouldn’t need much cleaning.
But before we cleaned anything or unpacked the car, we would head back outside and down to the lake to look at the beach and the dock and the boats. My sisters would kick off their sandals and wade into the water, splashing at dragonflies and each other. Looking to the northeast, reckoning from a fallen-down barn and a white boathouse on opposite shores, my father would locate the weed bed where the big crappies lived. “Tomorrow morning,” he would say, grinning, “they’ll jump right into the boat. We’ll have to fight them off.”
In the week that followed – two weeks, during the bad polio summers – all of us would fish, my sisters and I would swim, my mother would sunbathe in her underwear, and I would poke around in clearings and outbuildings left over from the time when the resort had been a farm. I knew where there was a pedal-driven grindstone with a metal seat recycled from an old hay rake, and I sat in it and ground away at the blade of my pocket knife until my father said I’d turned it into a shiv, whatever that was. I knew where there was a gray half-timber icehouse, still in use, and on hot afternoons I would climb into it and sit in its loading port – a good spot to suck chunks of ice and practice spitting bits of sawdust into the scrubby field below, alive with horseflies and grasshoppers. “What did Mort and Eng grow in this field,” I once asked my father, “back when they were farmers?” “Rocks,” he said. Sometimes I fished from Mort’s dock, stretched out on my belly, dangling a line over the side. Looking straight down, I could watch bluegills smaller than my hand swim from beneath the dock to inspect the bit of angleworm I’d stuck on a hook and lowered for their consideration. They would come forward slowly and circle the worm, feinting, until one of them – A bluegill brave! A Kiowa bluegill, counting coup! – nudged it with his nose and darted back. The others would follow in a flash, their shadows streaking across ripply washboard patterns in the bright sand bottom of the lake.
When berries were in season we went after them. The best ones, it was understood, were never near at hand. Finding them meant driving deep into the woods on a logging road, then hiking in deeper still when the road petered out. On one of these expeditions we nearly lost Anna Hanson, an old family friend and our surprise guest at Wold’s. Absorbed in following a trail of blueberries, and eating a few for each one she dropped into the Crisco pail she carried, Mrs. Hanson drifted away from the group and disappeared. We found her hours later, just before dark, sitting on a stump in a black-spruce bog. My father called to her as we approached so that we wouldn’t startle her. Even so, she didn’t move until we came very near. When she did turn to face us – dark eyes unblinking, deep creases running down from the corners of her mouth – I could see that mosquitoes had chewed her neck and arms. “I might have died here, Lawrence,” she said at last, emphasizing a note of gravity in her delivery. My father grinned and picked up her Crisco pail, now empty, and helped her to her feet. “But not from starvation, Anna,” he replied.
It had not been a postcard sentiment about the north woods that prompted Mrs. Hanson to join us at Sturgeon in the first place, and the berry-picking misadventure fell in line with her experience of other rusticities – a midnight encounter with skunks in an outhouse would soon follow – that did nothing to make her feel reverent in the presence of nature. She would remark, after having perturbed the skunks, that some people in this country maybe had gone fånig, spending good money to sleep in places as cramped and primitive as the ones their own parents had worked all their lives to put behind them.
“Why did she come up here, then?” I asked my mother that night.
The trip had cost Mrs. Hanson some effort, I knew. Earlier she had said to my mother, “Maybe one day I’ll visit you up there, Malva. You and those Norwegians – what do you call them? One of them plays the guitar, I think you said.”
“They are Mort and Eng,” my mother said. “Mort and Eng Wold. Eng is the older brother. And yes, he has sometimes played his guitar for the children. You would be welcome to visit us, of course.”
On that basis – she knew no small talk – Mrs. Hanson headed north not long after we did, riding a Greyhound Bus to the Sturgeon Lake Post Office and setting off from there on foot, unannounced, to find us. We came upon her only by chance, having set off ourselves on a grocery run to town. As we drove west she appeared at a rise in the road about two miles from the lake – a dark bulky figure gripping a valise in each hand, moving slowly toward us in the still heat of late summer.
“That’s Anna,” my mother said, well before observation could have clinched the point. “Goddamn,” my father said, slowing down. “You look tired, Lawrence,” Mrs. Hanson said when he pulled up alongside her.
“Mrs. Hanson is here,” my mother explained, “because she has finally got Peter out of her house and she is interested now in Mort and Eng. Mort especially, I think. Eng really is getting on in years.”
Mrs. Hanson had referred to her husband always as “that no-good Peter” or “that no-good drunken painter.” She had telephoned my mother not long before the Sturgeon visit to say that Peter was killing her and Lawrence should come do something about it, so I was not surprised to hear that she and Peter had parted ways. But an interest in Mort? What could this mean? On Sundays, after church, Mrs. Hanson liked to ride around the East Side of St. Paul by streetcar, dropping in on friends to talk, maybe to stay for dinner, if that would be no trouble. Mort attended no church, he sought out no occasions to talk, he never had seen a streetcar in his life, and his domestic practices were irregular. Once I watched from behind a fence while he stepped from his kitchen into his chicken yard and killed a hen with one shot from his lever-action Winchester. He watched for a moment, frowning, while the headless bird lurched in the dirt, then came around the fence and joined me. “I don’t like wringing their necks,” he said, answering a question I hadn’t quite asked. “She’ll settle down straightaway now.”
“Why is Mrs. Hanson interested in Mort?” I asked.
“Oh,” my mother said, and moved to raise the window by my bed. Moths clung to the rusty screen outside. An outboard motor hummed across the lake.
“Why is she, Mom?”
“Well,” she said, and turned to the bedside table and dimmed the lamp. I could still see moths on the screen, but only when a wing moved in the night air. Then my mother moved to the foot of my bed, reached to smooth a blanket, and looked back toward the lamp. I did not think I had asked a hard question.
“This place, Lawrence,” she began, and right away I recognized the vowels and intonation of my mother’s Anna Hanson voice. It meant that the reply would be a story, recounting, as my mother’s stories sometimes did, a monologue that enabled her to explain something while distancing herself a bit from the explanation.
“This place, Lawrence – these little stugas and that big house of theirs, here on a nice lake – it must be worth…What do you think, Lawrence? No, don’t be funny now. You know these things. Forty thousand? Maybe more. Maybe fifty thousand. I want to know, Lawrence. I’m asking you. How much?”
Only in a story, I thought, would my father’s voice go unheard.
My mother continued: “They don’t have no women, do they Lawrence? Nobody to cook, clean this place up a little? Two rich old men like that – they’d want a woman here for them, wouldn’t they, Lawrence?”
Two rich old men? A woman needed, and perhaps one available? I had never thought of Mort and Eng or Anna Hanson in anything like these terms. One of my uncles was rich, but he wore three-piece suits. I couldn’t imagine him even shopping for his dinner, never mind gunning it down in a chicken yard. And at home I had heard Mrs. Hanson speak disparagingly of him in gossip with my mother, much in the way she spoke of no-good drunken Peter. So why…?
My eyes felt tired. I could make out one moth stuck to the screen. He was wearing a three-piece suit and humming something in a low monotone. Or had old Eng appeared at the window with his guitar, singing the ballad of Per Spelmann? My mother had more to tell, but I fell asleep.
Judge’s comments: A standard retelling of vintage vacation memories might be pleasant enough (who doesn’t like a good Burma Shave jingle, or a spit joke, or a look back at how things were before we were all hammering back and forth on the four-lane) but ultimately what drew me into this piece were those elements that strayed from the standard into the surreal (a bachelor-hunting woman walking a dusty road with two valises; bluegills floating magically over sand; a man killing chickens with a Winchester) while still remaining tethered (however tenuously) to reality, even as reality dissolves into a dream. – Michael Perry
A Garden Variety Existential Crisis
by Richard Tobin
“It was a glitch in the Match.com algorithm.”
That’s what I told my old college buddies when they asked how an accountant like me managed to marry a professor of philosophy. From their perspective, we may seem like a classic case of opposites attracting, but I tried to explain that accountants and philosophers actually make a natural pairing. Philosophers are never short of intensely deep conversation topics. They also tend to be underemployed and underpaid in their profession, so they’re generally cheap dates. In our case, a cup of coffee would fuel conversation for hours. That’s a great value proposition from an accountant’s perspective.
Our relationship was not all sunshine, roses, and enlightenment, however. As I paid our bills each month, I occasionally struggled to understand why she went to school for a decade only to earn such modest paychecks. On the other hand, she struggled to understand how it was possible for me to dedicate so much time and effort to a profession that I had absolutely no passion for. As my accounting career began to grind and stall midway through its second decade, I became increasingly preoccupied by the troubling incisiveness of her point of view.
During one of our informal “state of our union addresses,” we revisited a familiar theme – how we might maximize my happiness as opposed to my income. We were halfway through a pint of black cherry frozen custard, and I was too demoralized to put my funk into words. “Tell me where you’re at,” she said, “and I’ll meet you there.”
I couldn’t tell her where I was at. It would sound like a pathetic Dilbert cartoon or a re-run of The Office. Instead I showed her using the rusty remnants of my artistic talents.
I drew a large circle representing the business world – a conservation of conservatism.
I drew another circle within the first. Inside the vast world of business, I worked in the financial services industry – a convention of conventional thought.
Within the stodgy financial services industry I work in banking. Not banking as in Wall Street banking. That would be glamorous and lucrative. I draw a third circle inside the other two.
I’m in the community bank market, a stodgy subcomponent of a stodgy industry segment where starched shirts are the way, casual dress arouses suspicion, facial hair indicates you’re hiding something, and tattoos are carefully concealed by monogrammed shirt sleeves to guard against the damning impression of impulsiveness, individuality, or youthful indiscretion.
I shouldn’t judge community banks, because I didn’t actually work for a community bank. I worked for the community bank’s back-office services provider. When a stodgy bank finds a business process too boring and stodgy for even their own stodgy selves, it outsourced the process to us. We’re the creatures who run the computers in icy server rooms and crank out bank statements from windowless print shops. It’s the height of depression. I drew yet another circle, tight and small. It doesn’t get much stodgier than this.
But it does.
I work in the accounting department of this back-office firm. Within the world of business, accounting is widely acknowledged for being practically unacknowledgable. I embed another circle, this one about the size of a capital letter “O.” Can it possibly get stodgier?
I work smack in the middle of middle management.
I place a small round dot square in the middle of my concentric circles.
“You want to know where I am at?” I asked. “I reside at the epicenter of stodginess.”
“Depressing, isn’t it?”
“You’re not depressed,” she replied. Then she diagnosed me as only a doctor of philosophy could. “You’re just having an existential crisis.”
As far as existential crises go, mine was very much of the garden variety. I was unhappy in my work and distressed that my epitaph might only read something along the lines of “Husband, CPA, and relatively fun guy to travel with on business.” Woe is me. I wouldn’t even allow myself to call it an existential crisis, not with all the real crises going on in the world. I called it a funk and went back to work.
On one particularly dreary workday, a dark cloud seemed to have descended onto my workspace making it impossible to concentrate. I contemplated how my forefathers were hunters and gatherers, and how I presently found myself hunting and pecking at a keyboard that seemed to be mocking me. The “num lock” key made me numb. The “home” key made me homesick. The “shift” key prompted fantasies of career change. The escape key? I tried it. It’s a liar.
Then I received an email from my wife that put a CTRL+ALT+DEL on my zombie state. She registered me for art class up in Door County, and she couldn’t wait until I got home to share the news. It wasn’t just any class. It was a class with my favorite local artist, whose paintings distilled such intense emotions that a simple stroll through her gallery could induce massive mood swings. I went immediately to my boss’s office to arrange for time off.
My boss was a classic accountant with a quantitative mindset so strong he could fully absorb a book full of numerical minutia in a minute’s time. He sat behind his desk calmly paging through neat stacks of financial reports when I popped in. The walls to his office were pale and decor was minimal. The rectangular space had the visual appeal of a racquetball court.
“I need a few days off to attend painting classes in Door County,” I said.
“Door County?” he asked. “You know, they have free painting lessons over at the Home Depot in Wauwatosa.”
It had been ten years since I swiped my initials on the corner of a completed painting. If I recall correctly, my last effort was a dodgy impressionist portrait that decorated the utility closet of my old apartment. I’m not a significantly talented painter to begin with, and whatever artistic talent I may have had deteriorated after years of neglect and lack of development. As we made our way north through Door County, my wife reminded me that the ideal outcome of the class was not a showpiece for our living room. Rather, it was to see the world anew. I was reminded of this as we wound our way through the country roads to the art school’s campus. The mere prospect of painting had already renewed my appreciation for morning light. The clouds in the sky were no longer white. They were titanium white, and their billowy face had a soft, buttery yellow undertone. Their nooks and crevices were distinguished by soft arcs of tasman blue placed there by some divine stroke of a filbert brush. We were not merely commuting through Door County en route to Fish Creek. We were voyaging through a constantly shifting work of art.
The painting class began with introductions. One classmate explained that she wouldn’t consider herself a professional artist since she “barely covers the costs of her studio.” It was clear that I was way out of my league, yet I proudly announced that I was simply an accountant seeking to rediscover his creative side. This revelation prompted my classmates to rehash the standard battery of creative accountant jokes. “I had an uncle who was a creative accountant. He’s serving 10 years for tax evasion! Waka, Waka, Waka!”
After three full days of painting instruction, I produced a couple of landscapes notable only for their extensive variations of brown – the only color in the spectrum that people seem to feel sorry for. I also tried a few pre-dawn street scenes, but those experiments in light should never see the light of day. Despite these apparent failures, the class was an unequivocal success. I saw potential paintings everywhere I went. I found myself staring at a farmer’s red barn as it was set against green fields and blue skies.
“I wanna paint that,” I said.
“It’ll take some primer and two coats,” he replied. “Have at it.”
The class also had another unexpected but welcome outcome. I began to see my job in a new light. When I found myself obsessing about numerical details and providing financial reports at increasingly microscopic levels of granularity, I was reminded of my art instructor’s challenge to abandon my photo-realist mindset and to think like an impressionist. “If you think every brush stroke is as precious as the next, nothing is precious. Don’t paint every leaf on the tree. Paint in blocks of color. Whether you’re a photo-realist or an impressionist, a tree is a tree when you step back from it.” With that encouragement in mind, I elevated the level at which I provided financial information and asked the stakeholders to step back from the detail to interpret the big picture. That might have been the first time a financial statement was evaluated like a work of art, but it worked. I began to see my creativity as a virtue that gave me the ability to see beyond the obvious, to frame up problems like a composition, and approach these problems from alternative perspectives.
When I look back on that period of my life now, I realize that my situation was not an existential crisis, medical crisis, midlife crisis, or funk. It was just life. It was life unfolding in real time while I maintained just enough awareness to notice it. Unfortunately people with the most acute awareness tend to suffer the most in those notoriously sterile corporate environments. This became increasingly true for me at the epicenter of stodginess. Although my experience at the art class provided helped in the short term, my newfound enlightenment seemed to contrast starkly compared to the dim circumstances of my work life. As I learned in art class, the point of sharpest contrast in a painting often becomes the focal point by default. After years of going cross-eyed trying to focus on the present responsibilities of my job while maintaining an eye for a better future, I decided to make my miscast career the focal point of discernment in an effort to change it.
Several months later I found myself in a job interview with a small all women’s college. They needed an accounting instructor. The college had an innovative curriculum that required the mastery of abilities such as analysis, communication, problem solving, and so on. The most unique of these abilities was “aesthetic engagement,” in which students must demonstrate the ability to engage with the arts and draw meaning and value from artistic expression. As I neared the end of the interview, they threw the curveball question certain to make the typical bean-counter candidate squirm. “How would you, as an Accounting Professor, integrate aesthetic engagement in your classwork?”
I explained how businesses often saw themselves as mere patrons of the arts, and they failed to see how the arts could inform their operations. I used examples of how painting influenced my own work as an accounting manager, and I shared how it might impact students of accounting as well. They bought it!
I’m now entering my second year as an Assistant Professor of Accounting, a position that requires more creativity than I ever would have imagined. My old college buddies don’t ask me how I managed to woo a philosopher anymore. They don’t bother to ask how two professors managed to hook up either. Instead they ask how a student like me (of modest ability and motivation at best) managed to become a tweed-clad professor in the first place. I answer them in the most philosophical and existentially correct way I can. “Everything evens out in the universe. The Yin and Yang. Debits and Credits. Not much higher education got into me, so I got into higher education.”
Judge’s comments: As one who believes in the power of art to enhance life and civility at all levels and in all corners, I often fail miserably in making my case. Perhaps that is because I tend to overload the cannon. The self-deprecating humor in this piece earns the reader’s attention and holds it throughout, but it is the low-key, quietly tenacious way the narrator works the knot of the problem that ultimately enables the piece to address much loftier ideals without losing us in the clouds. – Michael Perry
About the nonfiction judge:
Michael Perry, a New York Times bestselling author, humorist and radio show host from New Auburn, Wis., judged this year’s nonfiction contest. Perry’s bestselling memoirs include Population 485, Truck: A Love Story, Coop and Visiting Tom. Raised on a small Midwestern dairy farm, Perry put himself through nursing school while working on a ranch in Wyoming, then wound up writing by happy accident. He lives with his wife and two daughters in rural Wisconsin, where he serves on the local volunteer fire and rescue service and is an amateur pig farmer. He hosts the nationally-syndicated “Tent Show Radio,” performs widely as a humorist, and tours with his band the Long Beds (currently recording their third album for Amble Down Records). He has recorded three live humor albums and is currently finishing his first young adult novel.
Photography Third Place:
“China Girl” by Sarah Ann Winn
Judge’s comments: Nice light, appropriate composition and an interesting subject. Showing just enough information in the silhouette of the little girl we can see that she is using her phone/camera. Is she inspired by the display to take a photo of her own or is she indifferent to her surroundings and finds more interest in her phone. I would guess she is overwhelmed by her surroundings. I like the reflections in the mirror that add depth and a peek into what the rest of the space looks like. Also the reflections in the floor and her being caught mid-stride, which adds some movement to an otherwise static image. – Len Villano
by Robert Nordstrom
Two lovers lie in bed, air thin
between them, ceiling a black cloud
absorbing their dreams.
Their hands touch,
and in silence they begin
their climb to gain a view,
see where they have been
where they might yet go.
Over there, one says, no,
over there, the other responds,
but neither sees what the other sees.
The cynic says, see, there is no there
there, only breath at whose peaks and valleys
we die and are resurrected again.
Ah, but these old lovers know better,
eyes closed now to open the view, calling
without you I never would have gone there.
Judge’s comments: The simplicity of this poem brings us to the exact place we need to be to appreciate love in the long haul. Love transports us, this intimate poem says, and in so doing shifts and shapes who we are and what we see. We climb along with the old lovers to new perspectives. This is a poem of the human condition, the old love, the old sentiment, expertly made new. – Heid E. Erdrich
by Brandon Lewis
She is not burning, breaking
the little puffy cloud machine
over the water. She is not pouring out
to the priest, the rabbi, the wiccan
who are the real strangers to the story.
As we arrive barefoot
the fatherless girl we do not meet
emblazoned a heart of seashells round our initials
There’s something I want to ask. She walks
away from us now, away from the event
across the field of stones.
Judge’s comments: The elegance and intensity of this brief poem allows the reader to simultaneously engage the notions of sorrow and celebration. An image, perhaps, of cremation – the smoke and the scattering of ashes – compared to a wedding gown and veil gives the reader a moment in which the beloved’s death transcends loss to become union. Graceful, deft, accomplished—a poem of release. – Heid E. Erdrich
“My Father in Black and White”
by Kathleen Hayes Phillips
I see my father at 19, a young man
I never knew, yet there he is
with my brother’s nose
and a granddaughter’s strong eye brows,
the Brownie Box capturing
the mystery of heritage
He stands in front of a worker’s cabin,
his shadow stretching out behind him,
across the planked wood floor
up the slats
to a small window
that overlooks the orchard I know is there
The lens shows only tree tops but
I remember his stories of long days
on shaky ladders leaning into trees
laden with ripe cherries, arms stretching long
to fill metal pails, hands and mouths
sticky with the sweetness of stolen treasure
He told stories of the rowdy fun of young
workers, city boys ready for adventure,
of sunburned backs and cooling plunges
into the bay, cherry pies for dinner,
strange floating lights bright in the northern sky,
and everywhere, the smell of cedar
Judge’s comments: I enjoyed the surprise of this poem’s ending, the rise to the sensual after a long listing of historical details and memory. An intelligent and interesting poem – Heid E. Erdrich
About the poetry judge:
Judging this year’s poetry contest is Heid E. Erdrich, author of four poetry collections, most recently Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems. Her collection National Monuments received the 2009 Minnesota Book Award for Poetry. She is the author of Original Local: Indigenous Food Stories and Recipes from the Upper Midwest and teaches in the MFA creative writing program at Augsburg College.
Photography Honorable Mentions
About the photography judges:
Photography Director for the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Living Len Villano is also an artist, musician, recording engineer and producer, who left a promising career in architecture years ago to devote his life to capturing the beauty of nature on film.
Kelly Avenson, owner and photographer at Avenson Photography (located on Third Avenue in downtown Sturgeon Bay), specializes in real life and portraiture photography. Her work can be found in the pages of the Door County Advocate, the walls of Greco Gallery “an artistic boutique,” and many homes throughout the county, state and country. She was honored to be chosen for the Art of Photography Show in San Diego in 2010 along with being published in Budget Travel Magazine, National Geographic Kids and other publications throughout the country.