Many creative endeavors begin with bravery and hope. The Hal Prize is no different. For me, the contest always starts with the bravery and hope of submitters. It takes bravery for writers and photographers – both experienced and amateur – to offer up their work for critique and judgment. When you create something, you show a piece of yourself to everyone; that takes bravery. Hope is essential because you write in hopes that your work will resonate in some way to viewers/readers and judges. The Hal Prize relies on many people to come to fruition but it wouldn’t be as successful without people who are willing to be brave, put themselves out there and hope their work will be recognized.
The publication of the issue you see before you is the product of a year’s worth of effort from the organizers here at the Pulse, our collaborator Jerod Santek, executive director of Write On, Door County, submitters, pre-screeners who read through and look at every submission (this year, 429 in total), generous donors who allow us to continue and grow the contest, and, of course, the judges.
And with the publication of the 2018 Hal Prize, the planning for 2019 begins. Dates and deadlines will be set. Potential judges will be discussed, selected and interviewed. Pre-screeners have a month to whittle down the selections to send to the judges and the judges have two weeks to make their final selections and write thoughtful commentary about the work. After the final selections are made and compiled, our Creative Director Ryan Miller has two weeks to lay out the special issue, always with his thoughtfulness and attention to detail.
I’ve helped put the Hal Prize issue together for the past seven years and with each issue there are more and more submissions to read and photographs to view. I see this as a hopeful and encouraging sign for the growth of the Hal Prize for years to come. In this issue in particular it’s encouraging to see young people recognized; look for the poem “Color Blind” by Kala Lones and the photograph “Pink and Blue” by Lucas Smith, both in this first section. That’s my joy in the contest, being surprised at the range and sources of creativity that are recognized by our esteemed judges.
And with these words and the publication of the 21st Hal Prize, I encourage everyone to be brave and hopeful, and enter the 2019 Hal Prize. Submissions will be accepted starting now at TheHalPrize.com.
— Alissa Ehmke
Photography First Place:
“Kelly and Victoria III” by Pam Ferderbar
Judge’s Comments: Selected because it is a portrait of strength and integrity. The young girl’s obvious command of the powerful dog conveys her inner strength as she and the dog gaze outward in anticipation. They are ready for what lies ahead and the image serves as a strong metaphor. – Carl Corey
by Carol Dunbar
His granddaughter Ruth Ann wasn’t the cutest or the brightest or the fastest, but hers was the only head he saw standing there below. She curled her toes over the pool’s edge and pressed the flats of her palms together just like he’d taught her, to poke up the devil. She tucked her chin and bounced her knees, the tops of her thighs speckled with welts that shone like confetti, welts that came from hitting the pink hula-hoop.
“You can do this.” Her instructor in a racerback maillot stood in the pool holding out the hoop. “Come on, Ruth Ann. Let’s see you dive. On my mark.” Her mouth on the whistle, and Sully could taste that whistle, the tang of its sweet metal end and the floating cork that vibrated his lips. Sully straightened his ball cap and whispered under his breath, “Come on, Ruth Ann. Just this one time, do it.”
She was about to do it when a blonde in a ruffled suit shouted, “She can’t do it. She doesn’t know how.”
Ruth Ann screamed and thrust off with her feet, “Yes I can too!” Her body spasmed in midair—her head went up and her hands went down—and this time it was her mouth that smacked the hoop. It flipped over her head as her body hit the water like a cupped hand. She flailed and coughed and spit out blood.
“Let’s see it,” he said to her later, standing outside the locker rooms with her mother.
Ruth Ann lifted her chin. Her bottom lip swollen and cut, the chip in her front tooth the size of a peanut’s heart.
“Aw, that’s nothing,” he said. “That’s itty bitty. Won’t hurt you none. Now go on, hit the showers.”
For 35 years Sully Stobs had served as the physical fitness officer, training the young cadets who came through Fort McCoy. He taught discipline and strategy and believed anyone could change anything if they really wanted to. On his walls hung the posters of silhouetted athletes in victorious mountaintop poses; his screensaver flashed a show of motivational quotes. “What’s wrong with her?” he said to his daughter when Ruth Ann left.
“You saw. She can’t keep her head down. Every time she tries to dive, she belly flops. I think she’s afraid of water.”
“No, that’s not what I saw.” He shook his head, “Our Ruth? She’s a scrapper, that one. She’s a fighter.”
“Well, they won’t let her pass onto the next level and I can’t keep paying for lessons. I’ve got two more to put through.”
Sully told her he would take care of it because he was retired now, what else did he have to do? Every morning he rose at first light, laced up his sneakers, and walked down to the fitness center where he didn’t have to show his military ID, but he did anyway, regulations. He ran his five miles and bench pressed two-twelve. Not bad for seventy-three.
Ruth Ann turned ten, and Sully looked up the YMCA skills requirements for the next level’s swim test.
“Are you afraid of the water?” he asked her one day after picking her up from school. “It’s okay if you are. You can tell me.”
“I’m not afraid,” she said. And he believed her.
“What do you say you and me work this out? I’ve always wanted to do a triathlon. We can train together.”
Ruth Ann thought that would be okay. He picked her up three afternoons a week and took her down to the fitness center as his guest. That summer the two of them did laps in the pool where he coached her through the front crawl and the back crawl and the breaststroke for 50 meters. In the fall Sully drove his granddaughter back to the YMCA and approached the swim instructor.
“Look here,” he said. “My granddaughter has been working hard all summer. She can do every single stroke that she needs to pass this class, and she’s taken Minnow three times. So she can’t dive through a hoop,” he shrugged, his shoulders fit under the tight weave of his shirt. “Big deal. It’s not like she’s going to drown.”
Ruth Ann Stobs was admitted to Big Fish.
During the second week of class, Sully from up in the grandstands watched as she tugged down her swimsuit and stepped up the grit pads of the ladder. The diving board rose twenty feet into the air. He sprang from his seat to let her know that he was there, but he moved too fast and something in his left knee popped. He clutched his kneecap like a football and watched from a bent position as Ruth Ann walked out to the tip. Through sun rays that lit on the water in lambent flares, the voices of her swim instructor and peers floated up to her from where they shouted below.
“Keep your head down!”
“Tuck in your chin!”
“Look at your toes!”
She swung her arms, pointed her hands, and sprang from the board. Her body curved and her head went down, and then—that something inside of her uncoiled. It happened against her will, he saw, the way it straightened her body and snapped her head up. She smacked the water flat, like a steak in a hot iron pan.
Sully Stobs rose from his seat as his granddaughter like a lead ball sank. She didn’t come back up. The lifeguard on duty dove into the deep end and towed her to the water’s edge. Ruth Ann’s skin aflame bright catsup red as all around the swimmers who were her classmates gathered and stood agog.
“You’ve done it now,” his wife Jean said at dinner. “You shouldn’t have interfered. That poor girl. She’ll never go in the water again.”
Sully couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned and his left knee throbbed. He put his mind over his body like he’d done his entire life, until one morning something in his knee blew out and against his will Sully Stobs went down. Way to go, he thought. His surgery was scheduled for a Wednesday that fall.
Ruth Ann turned 11 and did not pass her Big Fish swim test. Sully when he heard flipped over the dining room chair. Already a second surgery for his other knee had been scheduled for May.
At his physical therapy sessions they gave him a cane. He took it to poke the feet of little Stob children who talked back to their mothers. At the annual Stobs picnic at the lake that summer he sat with a blanket useless over his lap while the littlest Stobs ran around in the green grass and the older ones swam out to the large platform slides. His granddaughter eyed the water suspiciously, stayed on the beach, toed the sand.
He still got up at 5 am, hobbled over to the fitness center and read the notices hung on the walls. He went to get out of Jean’s hair and because he needed somewhere to go. He went and the clouds scudded above and the jet contrails wrote out giant Ys in the sky blue above.
That summer Ruth Ann was 12 and one year into Middle School. She still hadn’t passed Big Fish. It was a Monday night and Sully Stobs laced up his running shoes.
“Now what are you doing,” Jean wanted to know. “Why do you have that whistle around your neck?”
“I’m taking Ruth Ann to the pool.”
“Why waste your time? She’s not a swimmer. Let her be.”
“I’m not wasting my time. She can be anything that she wants to be.”
He showed up at Ruth Ann’s house and handed her the flyer. After she looked it over, he told her, “I’ll take you if you want to go, but it’s completely up to you. I won’t think less of you either way.”
The class was at the outdoor pool on the other side of the base, taught by a Marine who ran a lifeguarding skills course. A lot of youngsters showed up, all of them taller than Ruth, most of them boys. Sully waited in the car with the windows rolled down while his granddaughter stood in line outside the pool gate. The coach had a crew-cut and wore a white shirt and a whistle just like Sully had in his prime. He looked down at her military I.D.
“How old are you?”
“Sorry, kid.” He shrugged, “I can’t let you lifeguard until you’re 15. Come back in three summers.”
“No thank you.” Ruth Ann stuck out her chin. “I don’t want to be a lifeguard; I want to be a strong swimmer. Please, can you let me go through the training?”
Sully from his place in the car mouthed the words.
“Tell you what,” the coach said. “I’ll let you stay for as long as you keep up. But I can’t give you any breaks, kid.”
Almost half the swimmers dropped out after that first night. Coach made them swim a mile the short way across the pool, and each time they got to the end, they had to get out of the water. Ruth hoisted her wet body up over the ledge of that pool, stood up, and jumped back in. She was the youngest and the slowest and the last to finish her mile every night, but Ruth Ann Stobs did not quit.
The second week coach had them line up around the pool. In the clear, still twilight he bellowed the words, “Tonight, we’re going to learn The Saver’s Dive.”
From where he sat in the car, Sully’s ears pricked up and he got out to watch.
Ruth’s hands tightened into fists by her dripping sides. Coach held up his arms, made a wide sweeping motion with his hands, and showed them how to brake in the water. Then he shouted the words his granddaughter never expected to hear.
“Keep your head up! You can’t save a drowning victim unless you keep an eye on where they are.”
Ruth Ann from across the way turned and found her grandpa standing there by the gate. He nodded and touched the brim of his hat.
“I’m a genius,” he told his wife, getting in bed. That night, he made love to Jean good and proper for the first time since his surgeries.
Ruth Ann’s final test came at the end of August on a warm purple night, and Sully Stobs was in attendance. He sat with his cane in one of the lounge chairs poolside in the shadows. The candidates lined up in their Speedos. One person played victim, the other lifeguard. One by one they jumped into the pool, pretended to drown, and saved each other. Coach signed their certificates and off they went to the showers. Everybody passed. Only Ruth Ann Stobs was left.
“Looks like you’ll have to save me,” Sully threw down his cane and fell into the water. He went into the deep end, shirt, shoes, and all. Bugs bobbed through the glow of the pool lights as he hollered in a mock falsetto voice, “Help me, please, help me!” Then he realized, he couldn’t kick his legs. The new knees, they didn’t quite work like the old ones did. His muscles spasmed, he swallowed water, gurgled, sank.
Ruth Ann kept her head up and entered the pool. She saw where her grandpa went down and made her way over to his pink churning mass. He swatted her with his forearms and dunked her under just like coach said a drowning person would. Ruth Ann took the blows and went down. She curved around his whaling torso and slipped an arm across the bulkhead of his chest. Their heads popped up through the water’s surface together.
“It’s okay, Grandpa. I got you now,” she side-stroked and sputtered. “It’s going to be all right now.”
Judge’s comments: Fierce and determined girls are not, as the media might have us believe, a recent development. I’ve known them all my life. In this original and wonderfully developed story, a sweet grandpa pushes his young granddaughter to persist in the face of difficulty. Given the chance she needs, Ruth Ann shows that all his hope for her has found a worthy recipient, and the result is a character you root for from page one, and feel vindicated for your hope in the end. I loved this story from first word to last. — Peter Geye
by Elise Gregory
On a Saturday morning the boy Salman stirred. He turned, eyed his brother beside him and kicked.
“Hey Anders! You sleepin’?”
The smaller boy, no more than six, burrowed deeper, only a tuft could be seen above the quilt. He moaned.
“Hey, let’s go on a ride,” the older boy said and kicked again before he slid from bed.
Salman’s dark hair stood on end like he’d been in a battle. His pajamas were some kind of faded superhero he dreamed of becoming. He was tall for his age and because of it was asked more than an eight-year-old should be asked.
Anders was still fighting to sleep, but the urge to shadow his brother surpassed his urge to sleep. He tumbled out.
“Mom’s proly still sleepin’,” whispered the older boy.
The two snuck downstairs for breakfast. The box of cereal only held enough to dust the bottom of each bowl, but Salman divided it equally with the dab of milk and a handful of raisins.
“We can pick up more on our way back home. Dad left us some money,” Salman said when Anders made a face at his.
They rinsed their bowls and set them in the full dishwasher. Salman opened the sugar bowl and dug out a 10 wrapped in a baggie. It was a secret stash between the boys and their dad.
Their dad was already on the road fighting traffic eastward. He’d be gone until early next morning when he’d sleep ‘til noon before making them brunch. ‘Til then they had the freedom to roam anywhere.
They jumped on their bikes each with a backpack. They’d found an intact, empty paper wasp nest last weekend, which was one of their better treasures. They’d added it to their stash of twisted, ruined metal pieces, nests with colored yarn and hair, and beer caps which they kept in old Aunt Kikkan’s yard. Even though she wasn’t their aunt anymore, or related, or even that old. They kept their store with her because they knew their father might call it trash and throw it all away.
They pedaled fast down South Maple to Sorenson Street and pushed hard up to the middle school to see if the dome surrounding the pool was down. Lifeguard chairs, empty skeletons against the blue sky. The water removed from them by chain link.
They balanced with hands on the fence, bikes between their thighs—summer in their heads. Salman picked up a handful of rocks. Anders copied. None made their mark, landing just outside the blue ring on the surrounding concrete. The metal links, limiting.
Then they pedaled like hell to Kikkan’s house. She came to the door after a couple knocks, her face creased from the pillow.
“Kind of early today,” she said, but opened the door to them.
Her house had an ornate entryway that made the boys feel like they were entering a castle instead of a double-wide. They lined up their shoes and followed her into the kitchen hung with signs that said things like “Friends Welcome” and “The Best Day is Today” as though Kikkan’s hope was tacked up for her to remember. They loved her kitchen, where she baked sweet raisin rye. Farm fields a step from her back door.
“The boyfriend’s still snoozin,’ so we’ll have to keep quiet,” she said, mixing two tall glasses of chocolate milk.
The new boyfriend was one they hadn’t met. They liked the old boyfriend, Grant, who worked on cars and had gray knuckles. Grease housed in all his hand wrinkles. He’d helped Salman and Anders saw, nail, and paint wood race cars. Salman and Anders couldn’t understand why another man had taken Grant’s place.
Kikkan sat the glasses in front of the two boys.
“How’s your daddy doing?”
“Good, good,” Salman said as he gulped at the cold milk.
“He’s gonna teach us how to whistle with our fingers,” said Anders, his upper lip a chocolate stash. “Then we’re gonna join the wrestling team and be state wrestling champs just like Daddy and Uncle Mike.”
Salman kicked him so he’d shut face about Uncle Mike—a person who couldn’t be mentioned without making everyone sad. The little boy’s eyes filled but he drank more milk.
“That’s nice,” Kikkan said, but her voice didn’t sound like she meant it.
Uncle Mike was the reason Kikkan was Aunt Kikkan and then not Aunt Kikkan. She poured herself a cup of coffee as the boys silently watched her across the counter.
“And how’s your momma?”
“Fine,” said Salman pushing his fingertip through the wet ring on the counter.
“Momma sleeps a lot,” said Anders and got himself another kick. He sucked in his lips.
She watched them, forcing both boys to look away. But she didn’t say anything more about their momma.
“You gonna walk Lucy today so I can give you some allowance? You can come to church with me tomorrow and I’ll make it five.”
Salman and Anders didn’t like the hard pews or the long sermons but they did like Kikkan, so they nodded yes.
The boys loved racing Lucy. Salman got to hold her leash first and decide their route since he was oldest.
The boys and dog raced toward the elementary playground, which had recently been fenced for the construction of the new, composite elementary. Groundbreaking pictures from last week were in the weekly paper. Editorials were featured too since it’d been a contentious referendum involving bussing changes and shuttered country schools. All this talk was unknown to the boys. What they knew was a hole was in their former kickball field and that hole would someday be their school.
Salman slapped the stop sign first and turned to holler at his little brother. It was a good morning to be out. The remnants of a hard winter nearly gone: snow-covered dog crap and dead or lost objects found.
There was an old story their dad told them about his no good friend who never cleaned his yard. The story was supposed to shock them into cleaning up after themselves. They’d never forget the scare of the first big melt, which could unearth dark forgotten things. Their dad laughed as he told them the story: he’d said, “Jim ya need to start picking up your yard,” when shoes were first discovered and then laughed more when Jim left the shoes ‘til first spring when they found the shoes were attached to a body. It left an impression on the boys but not that of cleaning. And they always kept their eyes open to the possibility of things under the snow or dirt.
Now it was spring. People could come outdoors without a barrier against the wind. Tulip heads pointed upward like missiles ready to explode. Salman let go of Lucy’s leash and she tore off toward the fence around the hole.
More like a trench Salman said to Anders, who agreed. An excavator had been parked inside the fence ready for digging. It looked like a dinosaur neck and toothy head. They clung to the fence and admired the big bolts, caterpillar treads, boom.
“Wonder if it will move,” pondered the little boy.
“Nah, needs a driver,” said his brother and picked up a stone, aiming.
Both were finding stones along the fence line. They threw rocks through the openings. Many spun off and hit the dirt beside them. Lucy whined and paced, confused by the boys throwing objects to a place she couldn’t get to. She wanted to be at the center of the boys’ world. Finally she found an area in the fence with a little give. She scratched and dug the earth while the boys argued over whose stone got closer. When her hole was deep enough, she wriggled beneath and in front of the trench looking for what it was the boys were throwing. She leapt and yipped for them to throw more.
The boys stopped and stared at Lucy. Here a tall fence with signs. There an unknown trench. There an ugly machine.
“Lucy! Come!” shouted Salman.
They tried to whistle but she would not come. She jumped in and out of the trench as the boys became more and more desperate. Then she jumped inside the trench and disappeared.
“You wait here,” Salman said to Anders.
He took off his backpack and set it beside the fence before he began his struggle underneath it. Anders watched and put on his older brother’s pack. The broad street behind was empty. Behind the street, the cemetery. Those town sleepers frightened the little boy. In front of him, the large-toothed machine.
Anders watched as his brother climbed inside the trench and disappeared.
“Salman,” he cried.
Salman’s head popped up, “She’s found something. Something good.”
Anders wiped his eyes and nose with his sleeve, but his fingers clenched the chain links. Salman and Lucy couldn’t be seen for several minutes. His heart beat faster. Finally Salman’s head rose again.
The boy and dog were dirt-covered. An odd stick hung from either side of Lucy’s maw. Using his body, Salman tugged the dog back to the fence. A concave slab in one hand, face grimy and grinning.
Once Salman came close enough, he whispered, “I think it’s a dinosaur bone.”
Anders’ eyes widened.
“And I found something too,” Salman flashed the smooth object in his hand.
Neither was sure how to get the dog back under the fence with the long bone in her mouth.
“I have a peanut butter sandwich in my pack,” Anders said.
“Give it here then.”
The little boy dug out a baggie. Lucy dropped the bone and snapped up the sandwich. Salman pushed the bone beneath the fence.
“Grab it,” Salman said.
Slick with saliva, the bone was difficult to shove inside his backpack, but Anders fumbled and zipped it shut. Lucy crawled under. Salman followed more slowly, the large piece in front of him. Salman lifted the pack off his brother, shoving the piece inside the front pocket where its smooth head stuck out. He slid the lopsided pack on front.
Anders grabbed Lucy’s leash. She’d given up looking for her bone. His face was red-splotched, but he was happy to have his brother back even with the strange finds.
“What you think that is?” he asked Salman pointing at the strange plate.
“Maybe armor,” said Salman walking toward the cemetery instead of back to Kikkan’s.
“Maybe a helmet,” Anders said excitedly, following Salman. “Where we goin’?”
“Think we should hide ‘em.”
“What about at Kikkan’s?”
Salman kept walking. Lucy followed, pulling Anders forward.
“This stuff is better. We need to do experiments on it in private.”
Anders couldn’t stand by the fence alone with the trench and the big machine, but he didn’t like the cemetery either. Uncle Mike was the only one he knew in the ground over there, and Uncle Mike underground was a lot different than Uncle Mike above ground.
They crossed the street and walked through the gates. The paths were shadowed by cedars. At the farthest end of loop where the old gravestones had been heaved up by frost, Salman said “here” and pointed up to an enormous cedar. The old tree had low-slung limbs, making it an easy climb. Anders watched as Salman and the backpack moved up and imagined all the spider webs and insects. He shivered. He wondered if the tree were as old as their dad.
Salman hung the backpack round a branch. He picked his way back down.
“You left your backpack up there,” Anders said.
“Fine. I’ll find another bag and we’ll switch them later today.”
Anders didn’t want to come back to the cemetery later today. He wanted to play at Kikkan’s and buy cereal for supper tonight. First Salman had ruined his clothes and found weird things. Now his brother’s school bag dangled from a cemetery-tree. But Salman knew he’d found prized objects adults could want, and he’d never really found anything so special before.
Judge’s comments: I love stories that capture the innocence of childhood, and this tale of two down-on-their-luck boys and the grown-ups who love and support them is a perfect example of why I do. This story is sentimental but honest. It captures a kind of camaraderie that only brothers and best friends could ever know. And it doesn’t spare the hardscrabble realities of their lives. A real winner. — Peter Geye
by Roger Barr
I didn’t recognize the number on caller ID. The name was blocked so I let the call roll into voicemail. It was evening before I listened to the message.
I recognized her voice instantly. Besides my mother and the nurse at the health clinic, she was the only person who always called me by my full name.
“It’s Mary,” she said needlessly. “I need to talk to you. Please call me.” A silence. “Please?”
I debated overnight whether to return her call. Before I made my decision, the phone rang again the next morning. This time along with the number, the name Chester Williams appeared on the phone’s screen.
I answered anyway, knowing it would be her.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” I asked after we’d exchanged pleasantries, adding to myself, “as if I didn’t know.”
“He wants to see you.”
“Then why didn’t he call?”
She hesitated. We both knew the reason why.
“He doesn’t know you’re calling me, does he?” I said.
Another hesitation. “No.”
“Haven’t you learned anything over the years?” I asked.
“Apparently not,” she admitted. “Have you?”
“Well, they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” There was another silence. I heard her take a deep breath.
“Norman, you once told me it took a lot to get on your bad side, but when someone finally did, they may as well order a cemetery plot.” Her tone was equal parts of irritation and pain. “Well you got your wish. They found prostate cancer. It’s terminal.”
I’d heard the rumors. Ashland, Wisconsin, is a big enough town that Chet and I could generally stay out of each other’s way but small enough for us to hear about each other’s business, whether we wanted to or not. Still, hearing Mary deliver the grim news made me hesitate before old resentments overruled my sense of decency.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not sure it changes anything.”
“Don’t you think 20 years is long enough to carry a grudge?”
It was my turn to be silent. “Call me heartless,” I said finally, “but I think shooting a gun at me qualifies for permanent residence on my bad side.”
“That was then,” she said. “He’s changed.”
We’d been through all this before, back when the incident itself occurred and again years later when he made his attempts to apologize and I’d refused to listen. Some sins are unforgivable.
“He’s a different person now,” Mary insisted. “We’ve had good years since he went through treatment. When was the last time you actually talked to him? You don’t know how he is.”
“I know how he was,” I said.
“Look,” she said, “he just wants to apologize. To make amends. Step nine in his 12-step program. You’re the last person he hasn’t made amends to. He doesn’t talk about it anymore, but I know it bothers him. He feels bad about it.”
“He tried before, you know.”
Mary knew she wasn’t getting anywhere. “Well, I’ve said my piece. I hope you’ll see him—while you still can. At least think about it. I’m hanging up now, before I start to cry.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said to be polite.
“Well, that sounded like an interesting conversation,” Jean said after I hung up. My wife has a gift for understatement. She knew the whole sad story, but it had never gotten in the way during our marriage. I filled her in on Mary’s side of the conversation.
“So are you going to go see him?” Jean asked when I finished.
“I don’t know.”
“What would it hurt?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sure you do,” she said and left it at that.
Jean knew me well. I did know. I confess to a fondness for streaks—the number of wins the Packers have in a row, the consecutive games in which a batter gets a hit. My stubborn streak was no exception.
Jean’s silence on the issue carried with it the price tag of me having no one to talk to about it. When I need to figure something out, by instinct I’m drawn to the lake. In Ashland our little part of Lake Superior is called Chequamegon Bay. I drove to Maslowski Beach just off Highway 2, where I like to walk in the sand. Here, under the infinite blue sky where the bountiful land and the brooding expanse of water meet, all human problems are dwarfed. I think of how the sand beneath my feet was once rocks, broken down by the endless motion of the waves across eons of time.
Chet’s illness came as no real surprise. After all, we were all playing in the fourth quarter, cashing our monthly Social Security checks. Instead of going to the doctor for cures, we were learning how to manage age-related maladies, any one of which could suddenly flare up and call us home.
I spent an hour watching the lake, thinking through the past four decades, revisiting territory I’d worn a path through over the years. Back in the day, Mary, Chet, and I had been a triangle. The two of us had met Mary on the same night. We were in our mid-twenties then, more brash than polished. Right out of the gate, I’d convinced myself I was the right angle of that triangle, but eventually Mary picked my best friend over me. He’d rewarded her love and devotion by cheating on her several times during their first 20 years of marriage. Quietly, I carried a torch for Mary for years, never marrying because I figured the two of them would never last. It mystified me that he could treat a woman as fine as Mary so badly. It further mystified me why she always forgave him, accepting his apologies and promises to reform. Chet and I exchanged words over his treatment of her more than once, nearly exchanging fists a couple of times. Somehow we’d remained friends.
Some men are unable or unwilling to curb their appetites. Chet was one of them. By our middle forties, he was a successful building contractor who had also developed a reputation around town as a heavy drinker and womanizer. I’m a licensed electrician. I’d stopped bidding on his projects, telling myself it was best to keep my personal and professional lives separate. But it was more than that.
“Why do you stay with him?” I asked Mary after hearing a story around town that Chet was sporting one of the coeds who attended Northland College.
“Two reasons,” she said. “One’s a boy, the other’s a girl.” But I knew it was more than that.
Chet must have thought Mary would never leave him, but she did that time. Temporarily. Claiming she was going to visit her sister in Wausau, she left the kids with him so they could stay in school. That same week, I saw Chet and his coed having a late dinner at the Hotel Chequamegon. I asked him how his wife was these days and the coed fled. He was furious with me.
The next day, I drove out to their house on the edge of town, determined to talk—or beat—some sense into him. I pulled into their gravel driveway and stopped. Before I even shut my pickup’s door, Chet came out onto the porch holding a deer rifle and ordered me off the property. When I didn’t leave immediately, he raised the gun to his shoulder. The bullet hit the trunk of the evergreen behind me, and I saw a chunk of bark fly. I climbed into my pickup and drove off.
As they say, alcohol was involved. Chet was a good enough shot that if he really wanted to hurt me, he wouldn’t have missed. Still, I was enraged by his behavior. The recklessness of it, the obscenity. We’d been friends for 20 years. Drunk or sober, there were certain things you just didn’t do.
The incident generated plenty of juicy gossip around Ashland for a while. When she returned home, Mary called me to apologize but I was in no mood for her excuses. I told her I was through with him. With both of them. For her sake, I’d declined to press charges but I’d told the sheriff to tell Chet that if he ever came near me I’d file a complaint and have him arrested.
In cutting Chet loose, I also finally let go of Mary, which opened new doors for me. Behind one of those doors was Jean, a divorcee from Bayfield I met through a dating service. On our first date I told her the whole story, knowing sooner or later she’d hear some version of it on the street. We married six months later.
But the sound of that gunshot never really left my ears, echoing through the next 20 years like summer thunder rolling across the landscape. Years later, after he took the cure at some treatment center in Minnesota, Chet called me himself, but all I could hear was the crack of that rifle and the plunk when the bullet hit the tree trunk.
Chet and I lived parallel lives. Around town, people made allowances, putting us on different planning committees for our annual Bay Days celebration. The Williamses and the Schusters were seldom invited to the same party. Whenever Chet and I met on the street or ended up in the same room, we ignored each other.
These days, I seldom thought of him, of them. Jean and I were happy together. The good portion of my life had grown around that night, encasing it like a knot in wood.
I kicked at the sand with my toe. It was more than stubbornness, more than maintaining my streak. Chet always did whatever he wanted at the expense of everyone else and got by with it. Mary had stuck with him all those years, for better or for worse, apparently still seeing within him whatever had made her choose him in the first place.
Yet, for all his appetites, Chet now had regrets, unfinished business. And here was Mary asking me to be the receiver of a Hail Mary pass thrown on his behalf. I climbed back into the pickup wondering if I had unfinished business of my own to address before the Grim Reaper dropped his business card on my desk.
At the Country Kitchen, one of the morning coffee crew noted that Chet had turned his contractor business over to his son and was staying at home. “He looks like death warmed over,” he finished. He noticed me and changed the subject.
“Well,” Jean asked when I returned home. “You get things figured out?”
“Nope. Still figuring.”
What makes you change your mind? Not logic, certainly. You mull over something for weeks, years even, one rock grinding against another. Eventually everything gets ground into sand. You go to bed at night feeling one way and get up the next morning feeling another. I couldn’t explain why, but one morning I got up knowing it was time to end my streak—before I lost the chance. After all, some sins are unforgivable. Was I surrendering for Chet or for me? Did it really matter?
“I think I’ll go see Chet today,” I told Jean over breakfast. Her expression registered neither approval nor disapproval.
“Take one of those pies I baked yesterday with you,” she suggested. “The cherry with the throw-away pie tin.”
I drove out to the Williams house. The gravel driveway had been blacktopped, a sign of Chet’s prosperity through the years. Behind me, the evergreen had grown, but I could still see a blemish on the trunk where the bullet had blown away the bark. Before I even opened the pickup’s door, I heard the front door of the house slam. At the house, Chet, a pale ghost of himself, was standing on the porch, his hands in his pockets. Smiling.
Judge’s comments: This sharply written story about a decades-old feud between lifelong friends and a last chance at reconciliation rings incredibly true. It’s sweet and sure and it pulls at all the right strings. I’d have stayed with this writer for hundreds of pages. — Peter Geye
About the fiction judge:
Peter Geye was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minn., where he continues to live. He received his BA from the University of Minnesota, his MFA from the University of New Orleans and his PhD from Western Michigan University, where he taught creative writing and was editor of Third Coast. He has also been a bartender, bookseller, banker, copyeditor and cook. Geye is the author of the novels Safe from the Sea, The Lighthouse Road and Wintering, all set in the northern Minnesota wilderness.
Photography Second Place:
“Still Life” by Tom Mulinix
Judge’s Comments: This is an interesting picture as it presents a dichotomy in a stunning visual way. Even the title is a dichotomy: Still Life. The light appears unnatural yet the scene seems so real. The color pallete is cold and the scale is visually playful. I am unsure if this is a interpretive diorama or a wildlife photograph. I enjoy the dichotomy and really don’t need to know. This picture questions our relationship to nature and invokes thought in a visually interesting way. Not an easy task. — Carl Corey
The Empress of Ice Cream
by Briana Loveall
My daughter’s relationship with my husband started slowly, like the cautious unfolding of the tulip in early spring. They regarded each other carefully. How much authority did she have over him? How much love did he have for her? I watched them separate their feelings, analyze the other’s behavior, react and then pause to see what might happen; I watched my husband become a father.
I can’t remember when it happened. She climbed into his lap instead of mine. I pretended not to notice when she brought him a book and demanded he read it to her. He used voices for the characters as he read. I never used voices. I fell into his rhythmic tones, laughed when my daughter squealed as he spoke for a character, his voice shrill and accented. She nestled closer into the side of his body when he finished the chapter, begged him to read another, and because it was probably the first time she asked, he kissed her on the head and said yes.
Later, after clothes were changed, teeth brushed, prayers said, I tucked my daughter into her bed and left the room. Up until this point my husband was never asked for any sort of ritual comfort. That night though, she held out her arms and asked, “Hug?” I watched from the doorway as he embraced her, the dam that kept his enthusiasm contained for the last several months while they navigated their new relationship, broken, his love for her poured out into the first true embrace.
He stayed to talk with her and I walked to the kitchen to get ice cream. While I scooped thick vanilla cream, sliced banana, poured mixed nuts, and drizzled chocolate into a bowl, my daughter told my husband stories. He didn’t shut her down the way I might, didn’t insist she go to sleep so that for the first time all day he could sit in silence. He questioned her and begged to hear about her day, listened intently while she strung stories into a woven narrative.
When he was done he joined me on the couch. We took turns slurping the chunky concoction off the same spoon. He praised my masterful ice cream creation, the combination of sweet, salty, crunchy, and smooth, was a delight to his taste buds. I let him dig into the bowl with a zealousness. While my husband has loved ice cream from the probable first time his mother placed a fingertip dipped in the cool sweet cream into his toothless mouth, I have always regarded it with apprehension and unease. But while I watched him devour the churned frozen treat, I relished in his joy at such a simple food. I stared at him and wondered when my daughter was going to realize how much he loved her.
Juan Rulfo wrote that nothing lasted forever, that, “there is no memory, no matter how intense, that does not fade.” But this memory stays with me, like the grime that accumulates on hands sticky with sugar.
I am seven and waiting for my father. My mother taps her foot, catches herself, stops. Stares at her watch, sighs, stares at me, my small body pressed close to the window where I wait for his dirty Camaro to come into view. We don’t own a clock, but I can hear the rhythmic ticking of time moving too slow, like it does in school, minutes before the bell rings for lunch.
It’s my father’s turn to get me, which means that he is late, and my mother is angry. I can feel it radiating on my back, passing through me and out to the curb where my father will pull in any second, I do not care because tonight is my night with my father.
He pulls in, probably unaware of the looks my mother is sending at him through the window. I hug my mother and race out the door into his waiting arms, the unmistakable smells of Kiwi shoe shine and starch cling to his jeans and shirt. When I am buckled in he tells me where we are going for dinner and I let him believe my excitement is from his restaurant choice and not the prospect of spending the next two hours with him.
When we reach the Denny’s he always takes me to, I order the Jr. Grand Slam and use the tired, grubby crayons to play tic tac toe and hangman. When our food arrives, my father’s is gone in minutes. While I happily hack away at soggy pancakes and sausage he tells me stories of learning how to eat in under three minutes during boot camp, how it’s a habit he hasn’t broken himself of yet. Perhaps I will eat like him someday, I say, because it seems that’s what I’m supposed to say, things that reinforce to my father that I want to be like him.
Before I am finished he orders us ice cream even though I hadn’t asked for any. I feign excitement again, but I can already feel the stomach ache that comes when melted ice cream meets the syrup drenched pancakes sitting low in my belly. Perhaps, because he thinks I will like it, he orders me the biggest serving of ice cream that Denny’s has, three massive scoops that sit atop a cone too large for my hands.
Later I will learn that my father’s father, because of his inability to cook for himself after divorcing his wife, fed his sons Spam for almost every meal. And maybe this is why my own father felt that feeding me at Denny’s, where I was guaranteed to get whatever I wanted, made him different from his own father. The ice cream at the end of the meal was a symbol that my father was doing better than his own. Had my father asked me however, I might have said no to the end of meal treat, his attempt to be what he thought a good father was. Instead I might have insisted that we go to his house and read books or play a game, that he teach me something new, or tell me a string of silly stories. Instead, I would always feel obligated to settle for the ice cream.
But at the time of this particular incident I knew none of these things, I’d only met my Spam-serving grandfather on a few occasions, knew his name was Dave and, like Spam, he’d never been well received. I only knew that in a few hours I would be curled up in bed clutching my stomach from the onslaught of sticky sugars and sausage colliding. So, when the ice cream arrived I thanked my father and began the arduous task of dismantling the mound in front of me. At some point, several bites in, I begged my father for help. Ice cream was beginning to run down the cone and onto my fingers, tracing the thin lines of my veins on my slender arms. With a deftness I imagine now only comes from practice, my father, in two bites, consumed the top most part of my ice cream into a manageable treat, the melting sugared cream lapping gently at the cusp of the cone. Even with his assistance it would still take me considerable time to work my way through the rest of the ice cream towards the finish line of the paper wrapping. And by the end, I would be filled not with victory, but a heavy sense of cold, dumb guilt because I could see through my father’s attempts to be something that he wasn’t.
On multiple occasions throughout my separation from my ex, the father of my daughter, I’ve attempted to engage him in meaningful and thoughtful discussions about his “enoughness.” But what I actually do is sit on the phone, because I can never do this to his face, and beg him to be more than enough for our daughter. For several months our contact with each other is limited to the hellos and goodbyes as he drops her off after a brief weekend or evening visit. But then, after phone calls where I listen to my daughter plead with her father for more time, more nights together, more days at the park, more stories to read, more hugs to hold, more games to play, and he responds with a sweet voice that they just saw each other four days ago and she’ll see him next week, I lose whatever cool reserve I had. These phone calls usually happen while driving, and while my hands grip the steering wheel of my car, I’m sure anyone driving by me on the freeway thinks I look outrageously constipated and bitter.
Sometimes, after their phone call is over and I’ve pushed my anger deep, deep down into my stomach, I’ll talk with my daughter about their conversation. She’ll tell me she’s sad but that she still loves her daddy and that next time she sees him she’s sure he’ll buy her a special treat. I want to possess this quickness to forgive someone who isn’t enough. But I am a product of my own relationship with a father who covered his inability to be enough, with the sweet and sticky treats that symbolize a happy childhood.
Once, when it was her father’s turn to have our daughter, I learned that she was driving out of town with her grandmother to attend a baby shower. When I asked if he was going with her, his mother and he spoke in unison: “Maybe,” and “No.”
“Why aren’t you coming daddy?” our daughter asked him later over the phone.
“Baby showers are for girls, and you’ll see me on Sunday when you get back.”
She questioned him again; why wouldn’t he come? “You’ll understand when you’re older,” and he laughed like she should understand the joke. There were many things she would understand soon, the least of these being the fleetingness of a love that is founded on superficial feelings that disappear under the heat of scrutiny.
“But I go back to mommy’s house on Sunday.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll still see each other.” He used the sweet voice again and didn’t have to watch the way her chin trembled, how her eyes stared out the car window with a gaze full of longing.
My stomach turned with a heaviness that left a bitter taste in my mouth, like soured milk that has accidentally been ingested. When my daughter finally hung up the phone I tried to talk to her about alternatives. She could stay home and not go to the baby shower; she could spend time with her daddy. She repeated many of her father’s excuses. She wanted to go. She’d see him later when she got home.
“Plus, my grandma always buys me ice cream on the way home.” She added, like this was the final fact that swayed her to leave her father behind. I knew the ice cream place she was talking about. It’s located right off a busy highway, inside a large warehouse full of things like homemade chips, salsas, locally brewed beers and fermented wines. Their ice cream is thick and hearty, it doesn’t melt within minutes of leaving the cooling unit, doesn’t leave streams of sticky milk that threaten to overtake the cone or bowl.
I asked her if ice cream was worth more than her father. She stared out the window, silent. Perhaps, her love of ice cream is like my husbands, able to quickly replace any of the bad tastes of the day with its cool, creamy coating. Maybe her memories aren’t laced with the bitter after-taste of guilt and stomach aches, and she doesn’t eat ice cream out of a belief that this image of a child with an ice cream cone represents not the fleetingness of a father’s love, but a happy, brilliant childhood.
Judge’s comments: The Empress of Ice Cream’ is a complex exploration of parenthood after divorce. It elegantly weaves personal and generational memory to reveal the legacy of inadequacy in parenting. — José Rodríguez
by Harvey Silverman
I thought that it was the Lake I wanted to see, to be there one last time after an absence of more than half a century. My brother’s plan, now imminent, to move to another state meant that for the first time in a hundred years there would be no member of our family living in the central Massachusetts city in which I had been born and grown up and therefore no reason for me to visit the area again.
My dad is gone now but the memory of fishing with him, a sweet remembrance of the childhood of the 1950s, stays with me, becoming sweeter still as time softens the edges and wistful thoughts soothe a sense of loss. As I coast through my 70th year the memory is more a feeling than a clear picture or recollection of events. The sweetness itself is a simple product of our time together, just he and I as the bond that went beyond requited love emerged.
Lake Singletary, somewhere outside of Worcester, is where we most often fished. Such happy times, perhaps more treasured both then and now since he had little free time back then, his work to support his family requiring 12-hour days, six days a week, and so the more special to have his attention.
Images flash incomplete in my memory. My dad with his fishing license pinned to the front of his cap, the back of his head as he bends forward to untangle again my fishing line, his long cast to the deeper water where he hoped to catch a larger fish.
He first took me fishing when I was four or five years old, patiently teaching me how to bait my hook or cast my line. With a worm as my bait I fished close to the shore for panfish which we called kivvers while my dad cast further out hoping to land a bass or pickerel using a shiner for bait. At the end of the morning we brought home the largest of the kivvers and cleaned and scaled and then fried them. Sometimes my grandmother who lived with us would instead use them in a fish chowder, a thin milky dish with potatoes and a bit of onion.
Those summer Sunday mornings when we were to fish could hardly arrive fast enough, a stop at the local bait shop and then on to the quiet country roads, the trip to the Lake seemingly a long ride to a distant destination. Somewhere along the way we passed a small pond on the right, just before the road forked. In the space at the base of the “v” formed by the forking roads there stood a small wooden building, a sort of general store one might find in such a rural setting.
A few times, rather than continuing on to Lake Singletary, we stopped and fished at this nameless pond, simply parking along the side of the road. There were one or two rowboats for rent that lay on the shore and we would go into the small store to pay the rental fee and get the oars which were kept inside. There was a rickety screen door that closed with a slam by means of a coiled spring and right next to the door was a small display that sold snacks. I usually could persuade my dad to buy a bag of Cheez Doodles and we would load fishing gear, bait, and Doodles into our craft and set out.
My dad would row until we were midway between shore and a small wooded island which stood in the middle of the pond and then he would drop anchor – a bucket filled with hardened cement with a rope tied round the bucket’s handle.
I thought this all a great adventure, a voyage aboard a vessel, fishing further away from shore than the child I was could hope to cast, and sharing Cheez Doodles with my dad, the pond’s water barely rinsing our hands of the combination of worm castings and fluids and of the slippery smell of fish, the orange dusty cheese flavoring coloring our fingers.
The pond had kivvers but primarily there were yellow perch, a more desirable fish to catch and bring home, more easily cleaned, fewer bones and better taste. Once, I stood up in the boat and urinated over the side, a bold and what at the time seemed a dangerous maneuver. And I was alone with my dad, in the boat, nowhere for either of us to go. All of this made our times at the small pond special to me then and in my memory.
A few weeks before my brother’s move we chose a day for me to come to his house so as to help out where I could and to take back a few things that were our folks’. This was likely the last time I might be able to conveniently go to Lake Singletary so I left home a couple of hours early and set off first for that final rendezvous with the Lake and the memories of my childhood self and of that young man who was my dad.
I recalled our fishing spot as a spit of land directly off the rural road, water on both sides of that small peninsula, more on the left, and a large expanse of water out beyond the land’s edge with a house or two on the distant shore. Our old car was parked on the dirt and fishing gear unloaded.
My drive from Worcester took far less time than expected, in part because of the newer roads that now exist but primarily, I am certain, due to the difference between childhood impatience and adult reality. The final leg of the journey, though, still meandered along a simple country lane. I looked about as I drove it, seeking anything that might present as familiar, anything that would provoke childhood memory but none appeared.
I rounded a gentle curve in the road and there just ahead the road forked, a small building stood in the fork and along the road’s right was the small pond. Immediately, spontaneously, I said aloud, almost as a gasp, “Oh! There it is.”
There was now a small gravel parking area next to the pond, large enough for just a car or two. I pulled in, sat still for a moment, and got out. I stood quietly, looking at the pond, memory images flashing rapidly and without order. I then walked slowly about, taking in the entire scene, surprised by how small the pond was and how close to shore the island lay. There were no rowboats at the pond’s edge, there was now a metal guardrail where the road curved, the store was of brick construction and appeared to sell used items but the pond and the island were unchanged.
Again involuntarily I spoke, aloud but softly so, to nobody but myself, “Well, I declare. Well, I declare.”
I had never said that ever before but I knew just from where it came; a favorite John Wayne western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In the movie the character played by Jimmy Stewart is an elderly U. S. Senator who has traveled from Washington to attend the funeral of a local who is to be buried in a pauper’s grave. The editor of the town’s newspaper demands to know the reason for such a prominent man to travel so far. Stewart finally agrees to tell the story which begins decades earlier when as a young man, well before the railroad had come to town, he arrived by stage.
The simple pine coffin of his friend lay in the rear of a livery where there was also a dust covered stagecoach. As Stewart begins his story he realizes the old stagecoach is the very one that had carried him there and for a moment he is brought back in his mind to a younger self when life was a journey with limitless possibilities and whose end was beyond imaging and says, “Well, I declare. Well, I declare.” How curious that some odd circuit in my brain had summoned those words.
In the gravel lot where I had parked there stood a small and attractive wooden sign which identified the body of water as Brierly Pond. Beneath the sign were planted some well tended flowers. I walked to the water’s edge and squatting down dipped my hand in the pond’s water and slowly swirled it about, thinking this was the same water in which my dad and I had rinsed our hands. After a bit I stood up, nodded to who or what I do not know, and slowly returned to my car.
I drove on to Lake Singletary which was surprisingly nearby. The jutting bit of land was there on the left as I had recalled, now with the added amenity of a blacktopped parking area for six or eight cars. A boat launch had likewise been constructed. A middle aged man sat in a lawn chair near the shore at about the spot where I most often had fished. There was a pole with its line in the water next to him but he appeared to be happy simply enjoying the day and less interested in whether or not the fish were biting.
I walked about, seeking memories. The water was invitingly clear and I placed a hand in it for a moment’s connection to the past. I returned to my car and drove off, having concluded my visit to the Lake and knowing I was unlikely ever to return.
Driving past Brierly Pond, now on my left as I headed to my brother’s home, I slowed down, looked at it once more, but did not stop.
Judge’s comments: ‘Brierly’ is a strong examination of the relationship between childhood and place. Though it’s simpler in its structure, the imagery is strong and the ending is beautiful. — José Rodríguez
The (Almost) Last Solo Trip
by Rudy Senarighi
I didn’t remember the trail down to the river being quite that steep. The old path I always used was littered with leaves from last fall, but that didn’t appear to be a problem. I thought I could traverse the distance downhill if I took my time and side-stepped. All I would need to do is firmly dig the sides of my wading boots into the semi-dry dirt of the incline as I inched my way down. That seemed like a reasonable solution to this issue and thus, I went ahead.
However, the felt soles on my waders, which provided great purchase when wading the free stone streams, did not have the same traction on the cover of dry leaves. In fact, it was like trying to walk down a child’s slip ‘n slide wearing smooth soled shoes. I was only two steps into my descent when both of my feet lost grip and shot out from under me.
Everything that happened next took place in a millisecond, but time slowed down for me. I watched my feet shoot out horizontally to the ground. Instinctively I jettisoned my fishing pole from my right hand. I’m sure this was a survival type move that would, a.) allow me to have both hands to cushion my contact with mother earth and b.) would help ensure that I did not break or land on my fishing pole.
I felt like I was floating, parallel to the earth for a long time and then, not gently, was deposited on the ground. Landing on my back, the full weight of my body crashed into the hillside. I was fortunate in that I landed full flat, all at once. The impact was distributed evenly along my body. The downside to this type of landing is that on impact I lost the majority of air and oxygen from my body. “Having the wind knocked out of you” is the loose medical term.
Except for the sound of moving water, everything was still as I lay there letting my systems come back to a functional level. However, trying to gain focus as the world, colors and sounds spun around me while also attempting to suck some air back into my lungs seemed to take forever. Lying there, I slowly began to review how prophetic my wife had been.
This remote section of the Pike River was a favorite of mine to fish. I had no companions who appreciated the type of fishing I enjoyed, and thus I made most of my excursions independently. My wife had indicated that going on these solo excursions was not really a prudent thing to do, at least in her mind. She would point out such things as age and distance whenever we discussed my plans.
“For God’s sake, you’re 71. You’ve had one heart attack. Even when you tell me where you are going I have no idea; take someone with you!”
“You don’t have to go that far away you know. There are streams closer to home.”
“Call me when you get on the river and call me when you leave.”
OR the more succinct question,
“Are you nuts?” (Which is really more of a rhetorical question anyway.)
But, those words always fell on deaf ears. The real trout, the solitude, the wilderness experience wasn’t close to home. I had fished this way for years. But had the years gone by faster than I realized? That question began to eat at my thinking.
Lying there on my back, as I stared up through the trees, I began to realize that I wasn’t the 40- or 50-year-old that used to ply these streams. “When did I become an old man?” I thought. Maybe I no longer was dependent on only myself; I might need someone else along just for safety sake. But I loved these solo trips, they were so invigorating. They offered a chance to see the land, feel the breeze on my face and listen to nature talk to just me.
I rolled to my right side and slowly sat up. All my joints seemed to be working well, even though my frame was hurting from the impact of the fall. A quick body check confirmed I was not bleeding in any place and that was good. My waders were not torn or punctured and there, by my side, lay my fishing rod all in one piece. Aside from some aches and pains from my connection with the ground, I seemed to be okay.
I took a deep breath, or perhaps it was a sigh, and collected myself and my gear. Slowly I plodded to the edge of the river. This was a place I was familiar with, a place where I had spent time before. Here was an easy access into the stream that I had used on numerous other visits to the Pike. Slowly wading into the river, I picked my way to a place where the water was knee deep. I reveled at the cool sensation and feeling of the river flowing around my legs. How many times had I felt that before? Was this to be the last time for me? That question filled me with apprehension and felt like a brick had been lodged in my chest.
As I opened my tackle box the tumble I took negotiating the incline to the river was still in my mind. Rummaging through the selection of spinners and flies in my tack, the “what ifs” of my mishap clouded my mind. I tried to shake off those thoughts and half-heartedly chose a spinner I thought would be something the local fish might attack.
I tied the lure onto my line, but continued to think about the misfortune I had experienced. It was difficult to focus on fishing, my mind raced with thoughts.
“This could be the herald of my last solo trip. This could be the incident that tells me I can’t come here alone anymore. Maybe I am too old to be here alone. Is this the reality that I’ve feared, that I finally have to face it? ”
I tried to shake those morbid thoughts from my mind. I had come here today to enjoy some time on my beloved river. While those were all things I needed to face, today was about fishing and enjoying the immersion in nature. I was here to savor each moment.
Thoughts of age and personal limitations began to fade from my mind. A pair of whitethroats began to serenade me from the opposite side of the river. Picking a place along the feed line of the pool, I cast my line out into the coffee colored water and slowly began to retrieve the spinner. The familiar slow rhythm of my hand on the reel was relaxing, and a nice, fat Brown Trout smacked the lure. After a short battle I brought the fish to creel. This was a part of what it was all about; the fish, the stream and the moment in time that will not be repeated, but never forgotten. And you know what, those aches and pains I felt from my fall didn’t seem so bad now. Nor did the finite thoughts about my ability or mortality.
Maybe I have a few more solo trips in me.
Judge’s comments: ‘My (Almost) Last Solo Trip’ is a quirky investigation of the loss of independence in old age, though in the end the narrator resists his own doubts about his age and safety by claiming a few more moments of independence. — José Rodríguez
About the nonfiction judge:
Poet, memoirist and translator, José Antonio Rodríguez was born in Mexico and raised in South Texas. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, McSweeney’s, Paterson Literary Review, James Dickey Review and elsewhere.
His books include the memoir House Built on Ashes, finalist for an International Latino Book Award, a Lambda Literary Award and a Foreword INDIES award; and the poetry collections The Shallow End of Sleep, winner of the Bob Bush Memorial Award from the Texas Institute of Letters; and Backlit Hour, finalist for the 2014 Paterson Poetry Prize.He is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, Macondo Writers’ Workshop, and CantoMundo. Other honors include multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize, the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award from Paterson Literary Review, the Founders’ Prize from RHINO, and the Clifford D. Clark Doctoral Fellowship from Binghamton University, where he received a PhD in English and Creative Writing. He also holds degrees in biology and theatre arts and is assistant professor in the MFA program at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
Photography Third Place:
“Glacier Up Close” by Laura Joeckel
Judge’s comments: Conflict, protagonist and antagonist, but who is which? An environmental statement for sure. The helpless humans observing the unrelenting force of the glacier is humorous yet foreboding. How long will we have glaciers like this to observe? Are humans causing the destruction of this mighty force as seen in the flotsam in the foreground? How ironic we destroy that which we admire.” – Carl Corey
by Steve Tomasko
“We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and … ascribe malice or good will to everything, that hurts or pleases us.” ‒ David Hume
When I was young and awake in the night
sometimes I’d see in the corner of my room
a man-like form, an apprehension of rumpled clothes
and chair palely lit by star or moonshine, a menace
implied, a shadowy notion of the animate.
I’d hold my breath, freeze, so as not to betray
myself. I was old enough to feel betrayed
by my emotions, not believing in night-
monsters, but young enough that the animate
and imaginary might blur in the fantasy room
of my mind, freeze me like a rabbit under the menace
of an owl’s stare. It’s not cloth
shadows that make me shiver these days, but people clothed
in hatred, who can’t help betraying
their own fear of change and see menace
in anyone different—face, color or faith. But at night,
I take stock of my own tenets, try to make room
for my own stains and blemishes. I might animatedly
declare myself better than they; my revulsion not for animate
beings, but their small-minded thoughts, all while wrapped in the cloth
of righteous indignation. Is there room,
I wonder, for my contradictions to meet, to not betray
me as just one more person who believes they are the knight
in tarnished armor who can fight the world’s menaces?
I’ve been ill lately. One thing or another. The menaces
I battle are my own mid-life fears of mortality, animate
as any dragon; my middle-of-the-night
anxieties. My wife, if awake in the night, thinks about what clothes
she’ll wear the next day. I lie still, eyes closed to not betray
my wakefulness. Colors swirl on my closed lids, in a room
with no monsters sitting in chairs. I breathe slowly, make room
for a vision of our favorite lake. We’re in a gently rocking canoe, no menacing
wind. One of us will point to the deer on the other side of the lake, which betrays
itself, on closer inspection, to be a small stump shaped like a deer animatedly
drinking at water’s edge: an illusion of stick and water, but clothed
in imagination it becomes what we want. That night
in the tent, no menace but the food-rustling chipmunk outside our nylon room.
Loons animate the air with their yodels. We are clothed in each other’s warmth.
Nothing is betrayed by the soft thrush of sound running through the night.
Judge’s comments: This lovely sestina inhabits the form with an unusual naturalness for such a demanding form. A quiet meditation on the nature of fear, ‘Pareidolia’ considers the role of the imagination in both feeding and calming human fear, in a skillful and compelling voice. — Leslie Miller
by Kathryn Gahl
Let it not be a death, but completeness.”– Tagore
Usually, it’s Tuesday when Helen comes for this peace
in my beauty chair, girl-talk, tales of her life and my
marriage, our kids, and what can rip a heart
and sometimes, she reads my face when I let
her for she’s everywoman, the bake sale lady, the
talker with an ear, a fixed gaze when time
stands still as when a stabbing cramp comes for
me just as she arrives with pale blue curls for the
set and style slot, except I’m in the bathroom, a bloody parting
inside me will not stop, will be
witnessed by Helen, who says I will drive you, come my sweet
and off we go to the hospital, a memory I let
lance me when her daughter calls, this time it
will be me both talking and listening, it will not
be Helen, flat out, lips sealed, eyes no longer to be
set on me in the mirror as I take my comb and fix a
strand, wrestle a cowlick, chat about cruises, recipes, death
how fast that cancer grew and grabbed at her but
at me too, alone as I spray her do into resolute completeness.
Judge’s comments: This small poem manages with great grace and subtlety to weave two moving stories into a single strand, the chronicle of a friendship between two very different women and the care they afford each other in life and in death. — Leslie Miller
Reading Zane Grey
by Kathleen Serley
The morning my mother discovered me reading
Zane Grey, I learned her secret.
A horse ranch, she said, I always wanted
to work on a horse ranch.
She didn’t say own.
My mother sold her horse for college.
She didn’t aspire to ownership,
just one sure-footed climb up a rocky cliff.
We lived on a city lot, a dozen steps
in full stride to the edge of the drive
but my mother was always pushing
our boundaries. She worked,
for one thing, at a career that had cost
a horse, at a time when most women paced
their city lots. That’s what I liked about reading
Zane Grey. The women. How they end up
on a sagebrush flat but managed
to find their way. My mother
was like that even without her horse.
Judge’s comments: This homage to a mother’s independence in spite of her sacrifice is admirably deft, concise and full of artful surprise. — Leslie Miller
About the poetry judge:
Leslie Adrienne Miller is author of six collections of poetry including Y, The Resurrection Trade and Eat Quite Everything You See from Graywolf Press, and Yesterday Had a Man in It, Ungodliness, and Staying Up For Love from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Professor of English at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minn., she holds a PhD from the University of Houston, an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an MA from the University of Missouri, and a BA from Stephens College.
Photography Honorable Mentions
About the photography judge:
Carl Corey is an award-winning professional photographer who travels the country “documenting the American cultural landscape.” His work has earned ink in some of photography’s best-known periodicals and been given new life in book form, in such publications as Tavern League: Portraits of Wisconsin Bars, Rancher and For Love and Money: Portraits of Wisconsin Family Businesses.His current project is The Strand, a collection of photographs documenting the culture, environmental and economic realities of American communities along the Great Lakes.