Tiny Light's Annual Essay Contest

Contest Results from 1999

Awarded Winners

First Prize of $200

Softball by Susan Hagen

The braces on my teeth were the reason my parents said no to girls' summer softball. Never mind that there wasn't much else to do in our rural valley town while the sun was busy killing off all the grass. Never mind that summer was softball, or how badly I needed to belong. "That's my fur coat you're wearing on your teeth," my mother said. "That's my trip to Hawaii for the next ten years. I won't have it be all for naught."

So I didn't beg to play, and I didn't ask again. Instead, I became a lone figure circling the playing fields on my cousin's outgrown bike, the silver in my mouth weighing me down like a debt I'd never be able to repay.

Late afternoons I rolled my bike down the driveway and began my rounds behind the backstops of forbidden softball worlds, steering a crooked path over chalky beds of broken eucalyptus and bricks of hardened earth. Past the pop-up fouls and sprained fingers of the fifth and sixth graders. Beyond the line drives and sifting grit of junior high girls sliding into the bags. Around the wide perimeters of the high school, where older girls stretched silk-screened shirts across stiff new bras and wore cut-offs trimmed to the water line.

Everywhere I rode were the sounds of me being left out. Even from the silent covered walkways of the primary school I could hear the children I'd known since kindergarten growing up without me. I skimmed past the windowed doors of my first and second grade classrooms, looped around the monkey bars, crisscrossed the buckled asphalt playground where I'd learned to play jacks and shoot marbles with these same girls. I practiced the slalom around naked stands of tether ball poles, traced the foul lines for dodge ball and foursquare with my wide balloon tires. Time had moved me beyond these innocent games of the past, and I was exiled from all relevant contests of the present. Because I couldn't lay claim to softball, I held no hope for a future inside those tight little knots of comrades whose lives intersected on the dying lawns of summer. I didn't belong to them. I didn't belong to anyone or anything but a self-sacrificing mother and a mouthful of costly orthodontia. I rode until the games were finished, the diamonds settled in dust. I rode my tires bald.

The summer I turned fifteen, the bands came off my teeth and I was fitted with a plastic retainer that clung to the roof of my mouth like hot grilled cheese. While the other girls were signing up for softball and oiling down their mitts, I applied for a job at the hamburger stand at the four-way stop in town. I had a work permit and a good reference from my school counselor, but what appealed to Floyd most about hiring me was that he wouldn't have to make my schedule around softball.

As the days fell away and evenings turned to dusk, I watched whole neighborhoods of kids spill out of station wagons and pick-up trucks to form ragged lines at my takeout window. They pushed and pulled at each other, picked at scabs on their elbows, and whether or not they'd won that night, threw their caps to the sky in a fountain of team color. Their energy broke through the portals of the Frostie like anxious bees breaching the screen to orbit the root beer taps. For that one hectic hour, I too, tasted the sweetness of softball, fielding orders for hot dogs and firing off chocolate-dipped cones as if I were pitching for the major leagues.

But then the rush was over, and I was left alone with a tired old man to flush out the ice cream machine and pick up the trash and chase sugar-sick insects with a dirty plastic flyswatter.

I was thirty-two years old before I played on a softball team, a women's league in San Francisco that promised "noncompetitive fun for inexperienced players." I borrowed a friend's mitt and bought a pair of canvas shoes with rubber cleats, took a bus to practice and worried about getting hit in the mouth.

The women on my team spit and swore, smoked cigarettes, iced down swollen knees with cold cans of Bud. They didn't care that I swung at the ball with my eyes closed, that I was afraid to get under a fly. Never mind that I stood in right field and wept like there was no bottom to my well of sorrow and joy. "A team is a team," they said. "We're glad you're here."

As we crowded into the coach's Toyota after our first big game, I burrowed into the warm tangle of arms and legs like a contented pup. A steamy mix of wet grass and women's sweat rose inside the car, brewing in the afterglow of softball. Someone popped the last Bud and as it passed from hand to hand, I inhaled the tangy, fermented scent of a team that finally belonged to me. I ran my tongue along the edges of my mother's fur coat and tasted the beer on her tickets to Hawaii.

Second Prize of $150

Crazy by Jane Love

If you walk with me through my comfortable California neighborhood of 1950's Eichler homes, you will see many yards which are neat to a fault, many entirely landscaped with little zones of different colored landscaping rock. You might even encounter, as I once did, someone in protective clothing, holding a small tank of pesticide and leaning over to spray a solitary rose bush growing amid a sea of landscape stone. But you will still see wild acreage, too--a large modern cemetery and a smaller pioneer cemetery where the town's founding fathers and mothers lie. Forty acres of flood-control buffer, dotted with California live oaks, lie right next to my home. These are plots of land which will never be developed.

Deer roam here. So do raccoons, skunks, and possum. At dusk a pair of foxes streaks through my yard, headed for the field. Hawks wait high in the wild oaks, scanning for prey in the grasses below. I love the incongruity of it. I love standing at my sink to wash dishes when something unusual in scale passes by-too large for a dog, no, it's a doe and two yearlings gliding soundlessly past my window, noses pointing toward the field, unhurried. I rest better at night knowing these deer are sleeping up by my kids' old playhouse, exhaling softly in their grassy nests on the hill. I never tire of this gift and the small stab of pleasure it gives.

My grandmother had a favorite saying: "The eye wants something, too." She said this when she met a person whose homeliness was just too much to overcome, when she craved something aesthetically pleasing, with symmetry. I have adapted her proverb to my own use. What my eye wants in my town life is that flash of wildness or animal beauty. I need it for my survival, like water. When I drive home after dark, I take care to cruise slowly up my street, my eyes watchful, because I know I'll get a payoff, maybe a buck standing in my front yard with a mouthful of hydrangea. I ease into my driveway so I don't turn any of these nocturnal prowlers into roadkill.

For several years now I've enjoyed seeing this flash of wildness near the Mom and Pop market in a small cluster of shops near my home. TC (for Town and Country) is a cat who was likely born feral in the pioneer cemetery before she came to lurk behind the market to glean scraps in the dumpster. Eventually, the merchants and the waiters from the Italian restaurant grew fond of her. Forgotten Felines heard about her and provided food and water dishes under the newspaper stand in a quiet corner.

"TC is smarter than most people I know," said the pimply clerk in the market when I inquired about her. We realized she'd never become domesticated enough to become an actual store cat, perched on the counter, schmoozing with customers.

I won TC over slowly, stopping by with paper cups of kibble and a kind word whenever I needed one green pepper from the market, or a jar of capers. She'd sniff my tires and sit under my car, realizing I was a cat-friendly person. I valued the TC sightings, and if I saw her stretched out, sunning herself on the warm pavement, I'd pull over and whisper, "I'm glad we're neighbors."

If my daughter was along, she'd say, "You're crazy," with that mix of alarm, embarrassment and love that daughters reserve for their mothers. Eventually, TC let me pet her, but she always cringed when I reached for her. She was that wary.

I understand wary. It suits my temperament. I have five misfit cats whose nasty habits would gladden the heart of Mick Jagger. They race through the house hissing and sniffing each other's bottoms. They're either feral or were dropped off in the field, and have good reason to distrust humans. One of them spent the entire holiday season sitting with his back to us on the felt Christmas tree skirt, staring at the wall. He's the same one who occasionally sprays the wall phone. Burl, an old tom with ears serrated from too much fighting, is the friendliest. He watches me dance with something akin to devotion in his eyes. Then he slinks outside to stalk, pounce, and kill. A gray female, edgier than an addict, lets me scratch her flat little cobra head but grabs my wrist in her sharp teeth if I go on too long. I find it endearing that my pets strenuously avoid eye contact and struggle when I pick them up. It's as if they are saying, "Too much love. I can't take any more than that." The metaphor is not lost on me. I'm honored I can touch them. I'm a bit edgy about love myself.

Last spring everything changed at the neighborhood market. A local grocer bought it, gutted it, and started rebuilding it with fixtures that were Wonderful and Upscale. It was clear the market was moving beyond Sedate, beyond Swanson's frozen turkey pies, beyond customers who strolled over from nearby homes, leaning on their canes. I resented this change and worried about the impact on TC. With roofing contractors working all night, cement mixers whirring, and backhoes careening around like bumper cars, how would she fare? I never saw her when I drove by, although her dishes were still there. I consoled myself by thinking about how smart the clerk said she was, smarter than most people he knew.

The market reopened in the fall. I went to check it out, along with a whole new energetic demographic. Gone were the dowagers still emitting a faint beep of 1940's glamour who had accounts there. Gone was the pimply clerk, replaced by some pretty, preppy ones. I suspect I was less pleased with the remodel than some of the curious new customers, who were wearing Very Good Shoes and ecstatic expressions. The deli cases were filled with polenta and lasagna and crab cakes and pasta salad and even tuna wiggle, comfort foods I would never buy because I find joy in making them myself. A woman customer was buying a roasted range chicken for herself, and a second roasted non-range chicken for her dog. I felt I had touched down in the Land of the Spoiled.

TC sightings remained rare. Late-model cars, minivans, and sport vehicles with huge tires whipped in and out of the parking spaces at all hours of the day and night. When I visited the market right after Christmas, I saw men wearing new shirts their wives and girlfriends probably ordered from one of the better catalogs. Shirts of good flannel, many with a moose motif. I felt the familiar derision I reserve for things too cute. I know these men as the movers and shakers of my town, but I had to warn them inwardly not to move it or shake it in my direction, because I'd begun to feel hostile and offended by their jocularity.

Outside, TC's newspaper stand and dishes had been moved to a more heavily trafficked location on the other side of the market. When I called her, she approached me with her plaintive meow. She cringed, but let me scratch her. I noticed her winter coat had grown in thickly to protect her from the winter chill.

But the next time I drove by, I saw little jars of flowers and folded tributes where TC's feeding dishes had once been. This is how I learned that she'd been squashed by one of those late evening shoppers, perhaps picking up some sushi or ready-to-eat baby back ribs. I went right home and broke down. I cried a lot over the next day or two, and I suspect the grief goes deeper than TC, but she's a good place to start

"TC was the only good thing about that market," I said to my daughter.

"You're crazy," she said softly.

Third Prize of $125

It's Best to Leave it Alone by Marsha Weese

Sometimes I think I want a chance to do it all over again. To go back thirty years and start anew with those four boys who grew up with me as their mother, to see if I can get it right this time. This time, I want to sit on my front porch while they run through the sprinkler, their sopping hair plastered flat against their skulls, water dripping off their faces as they shout at me to watch them. I want to wrap a shivering boy in a big dry towel, rub it quickly across his skinny arms and over his wet head before he squirms away back to the sprinkler, his nose running and his lips turning blue despite the August sun. I want to feel the cold dampness on my T-shirt where he has just been leaning, and I want to never turn off the sprinkler until they are all through playing in it.

I know there aren't any second chances, and most of the time I don't really want one. Most of the time I'm ecstatic that it's over and done with, that we all came out of it alive. But I wonder why the regret still rattles around inside me after all these years, refusing to go away. I wonder just what it is I can do about any of it now. I wonder if that isn't the worst of it: knowing there's nothing I can do about it now.

You will ask, and I will tell you, "Yes, I did raise four boys by myself." Then with a little chuckle I will say something rueful like, "Kids! God, I wasn't sure I was going to live through it." You will nod your head, smile, and make your own chuckling sound. It's about then that I will want to lean in a bit closer to you, put my hand on your arm, and say this: "No, listen. I really mean it. I wasn't sure I was going to live through it." Of course, I do not do that. It would be so impolite to tell you about the fear that sat on my chest suffocating me for twenty years--the fear that was so like grief it woke me in the middle of the night and held me gasping for air until morning.

You do not, I am sure, want to hear anything about that fear, or the world it lives in. The world with the hidden chasms and the sharp precipices where sheer perseverance is the only thing keeping you from skidding right into the danger and over the edge. Where, for just the briefest of moments, you think it might be just fine to careen over the edge and float gently free, but then you imagine your children hurtling past you, arms flailing, and you remember that it is you who must keep them from spinning out of control like that, keep them from disappearing. So, at the very last minute, you fling out your hands and hang on.

But what is it you hang onto when everything is crumbling and disintegrating and falling away from you, no matter what you do? What do you grab then? What do you clutch for when you run into the house with the screaming two-year-old who has stepped barefoot onto a chunk of broken glass, while his twin, left unattended, wanders into the garage, picks up the plastic cup of kerosene and drinks it, and the other children see him turn red and sit down crazily on the paint brushes, his mouth open, but no sound coming from it? How do you hang onto the boy with the bleeding foot while you scoop up the one who has stopped breathing? What do you cling to except this child's limp body as you scream your address into the telephone, and they ask you for the nearest intersection, but that word means nothing to you; your mind will not settle on it, and you know that means this boy will die while you try to figure out "intersection," and it will be all your fault. It will be all your fault that you're twenty-four years old and have these children to take care of, and it's your fault that you don't know how. It will be your fault that you will have to spend the rest of your life saying, "I had twins, but one of them died." What are you going to hang onto after the paramedic grabs your son and drives away with him, sirens wailing and lights flashing?

In this world, the problem isn't simply what you're going to hang onto, but how to keep everyone else from hanging onto you. Like the twin with the cut foot who wants to hang onto you all day long, wants to be carried everywhere, whose whimpering causes little cords of anger to tighten in your neck. Or the other twin, who did not die, who did not even have his stomach pumped, but who did develop chemical pneumonia forty-eight hours later, just as the doctor said he might: "Watch for lethargy, a fever, excessive tiredness." The child who, right on schedule, has a fever and falls asleep eating his lunch, a piece of peanut butter sandwich still in his mouth. This boy who also wants to hang onto you, wants only you to comfort him, reaches his hands out for you to pick him up, and you feel the hot, dry skin of his face and hear the breath rattling in his chest.

The uninjured other boys, wild-eyed with jealousy and fear that you have forgotten them, clutch at you, and you think you feel small bits of yourself scattering around the room. You wonder if it's possible to literally fall apart, but you understand there is no time to do that, and you know that no one would ever find all the pieces if you did.

That world. That's the one you don't want to hear about. Because eventually it doesn't matter whether there's time enough or not: you grow weary and do, in fact, scatter all over the place. The first time it happens, you search frantically for the pieces, certain that you must scoop them all up and put them back into just the right places. But, soon you forget what it is you are searching for; you fumble, astonished at how easy it is to let go and feel the bits drifting away from you.

It is not as easy for the children. They have a harder time believing they have a mother they cannot hang onto, one who sifts right through their fingers when they reach for her; they are not willing to quit clutching at the empty space where she is supposed to be. The din of their protest is deafening, the clamor of outrage is everywhere, and it crashes into you endlessly.

You do not know how to find any peace, any quiet in this life, or any way to stop struggling endlessly with one child or another. You do not know what they want, and even if you did, you do not know how to give it to them. You do not know how to keep the world from teetering like this, and you do not know anything any longer about joy.

Until the day you suddenly do know. The day they are fighting and screaming and hitting and pushing and punching and yelling, and they will not stop. The day you slap whoever is close enough to slap, and they throw things and smash things, and the older ones hurt the younger ones and smile when they do it. You order the oldest to his room, pushing him, batting the back of his head as he twists away from you and stands defiantly in the hall, refusing to go. You grab that boy, wanting to hurt him, to make him do what you say, to stop resisting, to go into that room before you beat him until he cannot twist away from you, cannot defy you any longer. He is eight years old, and you see the hatred in his face. You feel it in your own.

You are absolutely certain you cannot keep that despair, that anger, that sorrow in your belly any longer. You understand, suddenly, with a clarity so intense that it is the only thought worth thinking--the only thing that makes any sense at all--that you can stop doing this: you can stop raising these children. The sharp jolt of happiness makes the fear leak out until you are light and airy, until you are completely empty and can see clearly how easy it is to fix everything. You turn to the boys and say, "I'm not going to be your mother anymore."

If you had not stopped to wonder who would cook the hamburger thawing on the counter, or who would take the laundry from the dryer, if you had simply picked up the car keys and walked out the front door right then, you would have made it. You could have been hundreds of miles down the freeway before you thought about the looks on their faces or registered the alarm in their voices. If you had been brave enough and quick enough, you would never have seen the confusion in the eyes of the four-year-old, would not have noticed that he was sucking his thumb and looking at you with such longing that you recognized the pain of his loss and knew it was worse than your despair.

But that was all years ago. Maybe you're remembering it wrong, maybe these young men with children of their own, homes in the suburbs, degrees from graduate schools--maybe it was all just fine for them. It would be good to know that it was fine for someone, that one or two, or perhaps all four of them are perfectly content with their childhoods. Maybe they never worried for a moment that you would vanish completely, maybe they believed you would always be able to fling out your hands and hang on. Maybe they thought you could do that forever, thought that you were supposed to do that.

You will not ask them what they thought. You will not talk to them about those years. It is, you know, best to leave it alone. You will continue to invite them to Thanksgiving dinner, and to bring the walnut brownies to the barbecues. You will give them their baby shoes from the box in the basement when their first sons are born, and you will hold those babies and remark how much like their fathers they look. You will watch them playing with their children-see that they have time to love their children-and you will think about those little bits of you that got lost back there somewhere. You will think again about how foolish you were not to have hung on tighter or longer or with more determination, what a mistake you made not to keep looking until you found all the scattered pieces. You will feel the regret rattling around inside you, and you will realize you still do not know what to do about it.

Honorable Mentions

In alphabetical order

Contestants received $

The House and the Land by Pat Rea, Bright Sky, Dark Water by Kevin Holdsworth

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