Tiny Light's Annual Essay Contest

Contest Results from 2002

Awarded Winners

First Prize of $250

The Lightning In My Eyes by Jean Hanson

My new husband and I are driving through South Dakota. It's been hot, an uncomfortable day for a long car ride, and the landscape is monotonous. But suddenly I see the tall grass on the side of the road turn liquid. Then the plains come alive: they breathe and relax, breathe and relax. We are going, Chris and I, to visit my grandparents in the tiny town of Wilmot. I know this, of course, and yet at moments I feel I've left this reality behind and I'm observing myself, Jean, as if she is some curious artifact. I close my eyes. When I open them, flashes of lightning bolt across the sunny road. Chris doesn't slow the car. The lightning is in my eyes, not in the atmosphere.

My grandma, a woman with a face wrinkled like a spoiled peach, walks down the painted cement steps to greet us, and steers us to the kitchen for conversation. When I talk, my voice comes from the other side of the room, as if I am a ventriloquist. I am of the world, but I'm not. I press my index finger to my thumb, but my digits move through each other like gelatin, tingling.

My grandfather is thrilled with Chris, whom he keeps calling Pete. He displays the wooden coat hangers he carves, the best hangers in the world; he shows off his immaculate Buick, the best car in the world; he serves us Reunite, the best red wine-no, in honor of Pete, my husband of Sicilian heritage-the best Italian red wine in the world. I hear this as pleasing but insignificant background static. I'm not exactly here, though Jean is.

Dinner is circular. Serving dishes pass around and around the table. Forks move in slow rotations around our plates. There are voices: first Jean's, then Chris's, Grandma's, Grandpa's, Jean, Chris... These spherical rituals are an orchestral accompaniment, my consciousness the melodic line moving above it. I am disengaged and hovering, monitoring Jean and the others. Chris puts his hand on my arm, as if to ground my flight, but I resist: I'm rising. My head is helium. I'm taking everything in, seeing patterns and meaning. I'm on the verge of understanding the whole, crazy, profound lot of it.

Later there is nausea. In the guestroom, I crawl into the bed my father was born in. He has died two months before. His high school graduation picture is on the bureau, and he watches as I leave his realm and move into pain as pure as frozen winter, an icicle poked in my forehead.

If I ask you to define "migraine," you will call it an excruciating headache. Well, yes. And no. For those like me-among the distinct minority who suffer "classic" (with aura) rather than "common" migraine-the journey is more circuitous.

On days when you're singing through the mundane details of life, admiring the warmest chambers of your husband's heart and feeling lucky, you may be on the verge of a migraine. The migraine prodrome is often a nearly euphoric sense of well-being-George Eliot described it as feeling "dangerously well." It can also manifest as apprehension, a texture of strangeness. You can't shake the notion that the world is being dismantled, its edges unraveling.

Sometimes your husband knows before you do. He's noted a certain posture in your sleep and a slowness in your reasoning. Your sister hears it in your legato voice: there's no melody, she says; you've gone flat. Then a glass slides from your hand. You mail your wallet.

Warning. If you're in the supermarket, abandon the shopping cart. Drive directly home. Narrate out loud: Green means go. Red means stop.

Your body is a miser now, retaining fluids, keeping all to itself. Your face turns pale as milk and half-moon circles, blue like bruises, appear under your eyes.

Next, you experience "aura," a complex neurologic mischief. The brain has a fine time of it-entertaining you or terrifying you, depending on your disposition. With the right attitude, you can traipse along, admiring the chicanery of your cortex. Consider Alice Through the Looking Glass, for instance, a fantasy based on Lewis Carroll's migrainous visual disturbances. Carroll perceived distortions of size: diminution, enlargement, and zoom vision.

Did the religious visionary, Hildegarde, really see "The Fall of the Angels," "The Living Light," or "The Aedification of the City of God?" Perhaps. But these visions may have simply been the cinema of headache, like the lightning in my eyes. The scotoma of migraine is measurable, as swarms of phosphenes cross the cortical field.

During aura, you might, as I once did, get lost in a building where you've worked for a year. You wander the halls. Just where is that office of yours? It takes an hour to find. Then you close and lock the door, turn off the lights, and ring your husband, relieved to have mastered the trigonometry of dialing a phone. The husband who answers is yours, though you can't quite place his first name.

You request the television be turned off with the words, "Petal shower ringing."

Your vision narrows, as though you are viewing things through the wrong end of binoculars.

You look in the mirror and are shocked: your eye has moved. On closer inspection, your whole face has been segmented and rearranged. You're a living portrait conceived by a cubist painter.

Only after your brain shows off, establishing who is in charge, do you move to the next stage, with its nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light, sound, and smell, and the legendary headache.

To imagine the severity of the pain, consider, historically, the extent to which you'd go for a cure: allowing physicians to purge you, bleed you, lobotomize you, chop a chunk from an artery, drill a hole in your scalp. Other age-old remedies include looping a hangman's noose around your skull, anointing you with moss from a statue's head, binding to your brow a clay crocodile stuffed with magic herbs.

And none of it helped.

Migraine resolves when your body becomes generous once more. You urinate copiously, then receive a gift of sleep. Some migraineurs are exhausted after an attack. Many, like me (and Freud, who credited his good health to "the regulatory effects of a slight migraine on Sundays"), are renewed. We appreciate. We see clearly. We get a lot done.

My husband and I are supposed to make a weekend foray, but I am downed, so we defer to my defective neurons instead.

I am not only sick, I am guilty. This is my fault, I know. Haven't the pundits-from Pliny the Elder to Aretaeus the Cappadocian-told me it is? This "mygrame and other euyll passyons of the head" is due to my bilious humours, my hereditary taint, a hysteria of my uterus. My nervestorm is caused by masturbation, violent passions, and errors of diet. Experts of the 1930s note my retarded emotional makeup: I am perfectionistic, inflexible, and obsessive. By the late 50s, though my sins of ambition and rigidity are set in stone, I'm no longer bereft of charm. The oft-quoted Alvarez describes the small trim body, firm breasts, stylish dress, quick movements, luxuriant hair, and eager mind of the female migraineur. "These women age well," he insists.

If only it were possible to cure my disease by refashioning my personality, I'd become more easy-going. I'd relax more. I'd worry less. But today's research dashes these hopes.

Migraine strikes the indolent as often as the driven, the sloppy along with the neat, the profligate with the parsimonious. It's an organic dysfunction, and like all biochemical disorders, it's poorly understood. Essentially, migraineurs don't have effective brain filters. Our volume is turned up and we let in static. Circuits break, sparks fly, and neurotransmitters run amok. The poets of medicine call it the "chain reaction," the "cascade," the "avalanche" activated when we encounter any number of everyday "triggers."

Say, for instance, that you're driving at night in a snowstorm. Your headlights illuminate swirling flakes, which seem to give birth to a million fireflies. This is a visual trigger that can bring on a migraine.

Or you're caught in the California Santa Anas. You face the Argentine zonkas or the Swiss foehns. These dangerous hot winds are migraine triggers all. (Go to France or Canada, instead. The cool mistrals and chinooks have no effect.)

Say you forget to eat. Or you drink red wine.

And remember to avoid the three C's: cheese, chocolate, and citrus. Of course, spurn the vile potato and the wicked garbanzo bean. Consume no bits of bacon, bites of hot dog, or slices of pumpkin pie. And be wary of: too much sleep, too little sleep, lights, glare, altitude, stress, sex, garlic, smells, noises, humidity, travel...

You may agree to give up Chianti and sauerkraut, but not vermicelli alla puttanesca. Not Argentina. Not sex. The world causes migraines and who wants to avoid the world?

So you strike back. The pharmaceuticals you use are beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, antiserotonins, antihistimines, anticonvulsants, antidepressants. The self-help books are entitled Overcoming... Fighting... Beating... Victory Over Migraine-as though, in order to live, you must do battle with your own brain.

But still the hot neural storm disrupts your life, like a twister uprooting a tree-maybe not four times a week, but twice a month. In moderation, you can accept the brain's imperialism. You can stand back and watch your mind build its cathedrals.

It's summer in North Carolina. Chris, Rich, and I are driving in the mountains. At a stop light in a small town, I look at a billboard. Something is awry, undone. I can't read. I try to sound out words, concentrating like a first grader for whom each letter is a new challenge. But if I look at one part of a word, another disappears. Soon, I see the problem: there's a hole in the world and whatever I observe falls into it. My very gaze is fatal.

I touch my cheek and lips, rub my fingers together, and brush my hand down my arm. A cold front spreads through my body, numbing one side of it.

We pull off the road. Rich and Chris disappear with fly-fishing gear, and I follow the sound of water. The vegetation is lush, and though there's nowhere to sit on the bank, I see a huge boulder in the stream. I long for this rock and wade out unsteadily, conscious of a dizzying sweep of water.

I climb onto granite: solid, steady, old as the continent. It's been a long week. Chris and I have been sharing a beach house with our long-time friends, Rich and Carol, who are smoking again. Their placid babies have grown into restless toddlers. The eldest slams her sister's hand in a door; the youngest grabs shrimp off our dinner plates. It's been hot, and I haven't slept well.

But here, the air is cool, and this moment a ballet-me pirouetting on a rock, the water twirling, and upstream, Richard and Chris casting, happy to be together. Suddenly it's quite clear: I know this dance. Perhaps I've even rehearsed it. All our steps have been precisely and lovingly choreographed. Today is a work of art, orderly and resolute, and this is its performance.

Now I stretch across the stone and feel its warmth on my cheek. Soon, the pain will come, with its paralyzing but cleansing purity, and then sleep. When I awake, the sun will be in a different place in the sky. I'll be grateful for good friends and their children. My eyesight will be renewed, the edges of my life newly distinct. And though the potent elixir of knowing more than I am meant to will have dissipated, the memory of it will linger.magical, mysterious, mine.

Second Prize of $150

The Dairy Queen by Ken Rodgers

Me and Pretty Boy and Augie Doggie were parked in front of the Dairy Queen. Pretty Boy turned to Augie Doggie and asked, "The same thing?"

"What's it to you?"

Pretty Boy glanced over at me and shook his head. I looked through the spokes of the steering wheel and noticed a lot of dust on the chrome ledge below the speedometer. I stepped on the accelerator hard, even though the engine of my Dodge Dart was shut off. I fantasized about running over Augie Doggie, leaving him pancaked on the pavement. I shot Pretty Boy a half-smile. He turned his head and stared across the street at the fire department. I resumed gazing at the ledge.

"Banana split for Augie Doggie. And a Coke for you, Boomer?" I started to dig money out of my right front pocket. "I'll fly," Pretty Boy said and climbed out. The door croaked as if it were pinned against the body.

Augie Doggie rolled down his window and hissed at Pretty Boy, "Asshole."

I looked in my rear view mirror and positioned Augie Doggie in the center, like I was lining him up in the sights of an M-16. The piping on top of the backseat upholstery was split. I noticed little strands of stuffing wiggling in the breeze coming through the open window. It seemed I could tally the blackheads on Augie's face, then doubted my ability to see that well. Must be the dope, I thought. "Panama Red," Augie Doggie had called it. "What's that mean?" I asked.

"Means kickass shit," Pretty Boy said.

We had driven in the desert for eternity, got lost in some bottom land near the arena where the Chicanos race horses. We'd gotten confused out there on the low sandy roads meandering between the arena and the mountains where the reservation line runs. After we left town, Augie Doggie rolled a fat joint. He was showing off, rolling it with one hand. He was always practicing that skill. When we finished smoking, the rocks and sand seemed disconnected from the dying lupine and tired Saguaro cactus. My mouth was dry. The car made sounds that seemed to come from some other place, sneaking sounds. Sounds that made me wonder if the Dodge was going to break down. We weren't that lost, just winding around on the sandy tracks, not really giving a shit, listening to Dirty Mick singing "Gimmee Shelter" on the underground station out of Phoenix. Every little bump summoned visions and memories, the music like a wind tunnel roaring over our sensibilities, swooping our minds around the creosote bushes that dotted the landscape. We knew we were about seven miles northwest of town, but we just didn't care. We were pouting. We'd lost something and couldn't find it.

We started to come down. "Let's roll another one," Pretty Boy said.

"Fuck this light-weight shit," Augie Doggie said. "Take me back."

"I'm thirsty," I said. A big cold Coke got in my head, sweat beads slipping off like drops of blood before coagulation.

"Hurry the fuck up, asshole," Augie Doggie said to no one in particular. He sounded unhappy. Augie Doggie was always unhappy. Couldn't get it back. As if any of us could. As if any of us could choose his own time to lose it.

Sitting in the car, I looked at him again in the rear view mirror, seeing a target waiting to be popped. He was wearing a T-shirt without sleeves, the ribbed kind, white, like my old man wore under his uniform when he went to work. The tops of Augie Doggie's shoulders stood out and were muscled, his dark hair was clipped short. He was clean shaven, just like Pretty Boy. Not like the rest of us, trying to grow mutton chops and beards and mustaches.

In fact, Augie Doggie and Pretty Boy looked like straights, or narcs who hid among the freaks, turning stoners in for money, or the chance to be accepted, or to be kids again, carefree, stealing cigars from the grocery store. Fucking narcs, fingering people, getting them busted. Could be, I thought. Both had been in jail, and not just for possession, but possession with intent to sell. Big time, pen time shit. Both had gotten off on technicalities. I was faintly nervous. Maybe the technicalities were based on future information to be delivered.

I looked closer at Augie Doggie in the mirror. His brown eyes darted around, as if he was trying to take in all directions at once. Disgust with the world was etched on his downturned mouth, his high cheek bones, his long nose, his cleft chin. He slapped the back of the seat in front of him and screamed, "Fucking shit."

I asked, "What's the matter with you, asshole?"

"What the hell's taking him so long?"

"He just went in." I knew what was wrong with Augie Doggie.

"Fuck you, too, punk."

That made me chuckle. I said, "You'll never go back to women." Women liked Augie Doggie a lot. They liked Pretty Boy more. Something about the essence of danger. Ever since I had gotten back from Nam, I'd missed the hair raising that combat delivered. I craved the thump of the heart, the rush of being on the edge--death on one side, escape on the other. Augie Doggie and Pretty Boy were always courting trouble. Then too, maybe hanging around these two would make the women spend some energy on me. Women didn't pay much attention to me, which bothered me a lot, but I tried hard not to let anybody know.

"Need a fix?" I smirked.

Augie Doggie glared at me.

I continued, "Well? What the fuck, over?"

"I ought to whip your ass," Augie said. His face was getting red. I could see it in the mirror. I thought of crosshairs on his forehead.

I watched him closely, not wanting to get jumped when I wasn't looking. You could never tell about Augie Doggie. He loved to talk shit and jive ass around, but I never knew when he might try to pound my ass, just because. People do stuff like that when they're angry about losing something they think they never should have lost.

Augie Doggie's face was tightened up like a piece of leather drying in the sun, his lips straight and slightly open, allowing me to see just a slit of his teeth. His eyes looked hard and glassy. They always did when he was loaded. They reminded me of the glass hypodermics I saw him and Pretty Boy using to shoot up their heroin and cocaine, and sometimes a combination of the two. They called that, "Hitting up speed balls." Seemed to me that when they got shit-faced on that crap, it was like they just got stupid. Watching them, I decided I didn't need any more stupid than I already owned. Besides, I'd always been afraid of needles.

Pretty Boy had the heroin habit when I got back from Nam and when Augie Doggie got back a few months after me, he had the habit, too. Started out on morphine he stole from the battalion dispensary. Now both had the craving for anything that could get them into some space where they had no memories of that thing they lost.

I didn't know this then, but I got it figured now, it doesn't matter what you do, there's no forgetting something like the Nam. You can do all kinds of groovy shit and get high, but that won't change anything. You can't get back to the way it was. You can dress like you're twenty years younger, get your face stretched, your tummy slimmed. That's all fluff. Time doesn't go in reverse. Back then I was hoping it did. I felt like somebody needing to be ten years old in a twenty-three-year-old body. I just wanted things to get simple again even as an ancient voice in the back of my brain bitched at me to grow up.

Yeah, and right there in the back seat of my car was reality; Augie Doggie being a shitty-ass because he was out of heroin and didn't have prospects for getting any in the next fifteen minutes. I thought about climbing back there and slapping the shit out of him, just to give him something to really bitch about, but that's all I ever did in those days. Just thought about it.

Pretty Boy came out of the Dairy Queen carrying a tray with our junk. He had Augie Doggie's split and my Coke and something for himself, too. He was smiling wide and acting happy, though to listen how he always went on, there should be no reason for it. I could see the girls inside the Dairy Queen looking at Pretty Boy. I figured he was going to get laid. I looked at Pretty Boy's face. It was cut like some fine glass my mother had sitting on a shelf over the TV. He reminded me of a woman-his nose and cheekbones, his baby blue eyes. And his tall thin body, his delicate feet. But that was all deceptive. He was like a cat, Pretty Boy was, and sometimes mean like a Doberman. Quick and mean, and he could hit like a guided missile. He broke my old man's windshield when he got mad at some chick for not giving him any, just shattered it with a hard right hand. We were drunk. Good thing that chick wasn't around then. He might have busted her ass instead. Christ, my wrist hurt for weeks just from watching him make little spider web cracks across that damned glass.

Augie Doggie got out of the car and reached to get his banana split. Pretty Boy said, "Slow down, I'll give it to you."

Augie Doggie said, "I want it now."

Pretty Boy laughed and said, "Cool it, asshole."

Augie Doggie's face got red as the fire truck across the street. He yanked the tray away from Pretty Boy. The banana split splatted on the pavement. Ice cream sat there like a mountain of snow. Pretty Boy said, "Shit, Augie Doggie."

Augie Doggie threw the rest of the junk on the ground and said, "Fucking shit. Nothing ever works out right." He turned and kicked the fender of my car. The clunk of shoe on metal suggested the sound mortars make when they leave the tube. Augie Doggie yelped and hopped around on one foot. I saw my Coke run into the gutter alongside the street. Some napkins were caught up in the flow. My tongue was dry.

Pretty Boy watched Augie Doggie dance. "You fucking clumsy maggot," Augie Doggie screamed. Pretty Boy shrugged his shoulders in a strangely pious manner. He was accustomed to playing the martyr, something he'd learned while protesting the loss of his right to always be naive. But when Augie Doggie snarled and grabbed his shoulder, Pretty Boy wasn't martyred long. He reared back and threw a right. I saw it in slow motion, the fist moving like a bullet, knuckles tight, scars on the fingers, bicep flexed, veins standing out. I imagined needle tracks in the tissue. The fist smacked Augie Doggie's chin and he crumpled to the pavement, his face slapping the black of it, his eyelids flitting wildly. Some pigeons flew over our heads. The flap of their wings hinted of helicopters. I looked at the pigeons, then at Augie Doggie. He reminded me of a condom once fat with heroin, now flicked aside, spent.

Pretty Boy walked around and opened the passenger door. It croaked with the sound of metal caught on metal. He smiled at me as he got in. I smiled back and started the car. Augie Doggie was ancient history.

As I drove away, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw Augie Doggie on the ground and the plastic tray, too. Some ice cream was still there, along with the banana. Two large cups lay on their sides, empty. And man, it was long gone.

Third Prize of $125

Beer, Butt-pinching, and Bavarois: by Melinda Misuraca

It's gotten so that the thought of a cold beer is the only thing that gets me through the last few hours of my shift. It hovers in my psychic periphery as I boil sugar syrup and whip egg whites for an Italian meringue, peel tuile cookies from a baking sheet and roll them into cigarettes, and give the manager a tongue-lashing whenever he even looks as though he is about to grab my butt. He talks dirty to me as I slap yeasted dough to see if it has assumed the texture of a young woman's ass (I still remember my own ass, way back when, that fragile moment in ephemera when flesh and dough are at their most sweet and buttery).

I've downed more beers during my career as a pastry chef than in any other period of my life, but unlike many of my comrades in the kitchen, I never drink on the job. The chemistry of pastry is too delicate, too easily upset into a domino effect of fuck-ups. The work of a pastry chef requires the manifold arms of a Hindu deity, with each hand gripping a different utensil, and a revolving head that spins continuously, monitoring the various concoctions of sugar, flour and butter in their myriad stages of becoming.

I first popped the pastry cherry while I was a sauté pan-slinging line cook in a manic Italian kitchen. A French bistro around the corner needed a pastry chef and I went over there, all cocky in my chef's jacket with knot buttons and swinging my slick knives, figuring I could wing it. At the end of my first and last day there, after I had suffered over a tart with a crust as indestructible as Zwieback and a custard filling with an eerie resemblance to cellulite, the chef didn't even bother to look at me as he told me he'd be in touch.

On that ego-pulverizing day, I learned that you don't wing pastry. I spent a humbling year under the tutelage of a pastry chef named Gilles, who patiently endured my countless batches of curdled crème anglaise, and bumbled through several more years of oh shit! moments before I reached that coagulation point where I could simultaneously pat my head, rub my tummy, and bang out a perfect crème brulee.

Despite the fastidious (okay, anal) requirements of dessert making, I am intrigued by its more sensual, suggestive aspects. If I were to choose a character from Shakespeare to be a pastry chef, I'd pick Oberon, the Fairy King of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a dark sort of alchemist whose motivations are lust and the satisfaction of manipulating mortals by using various forms of trickery.

It is lust and trickery that elevate a dessert to the realm of mythology. A mere mortal takes a powdered grain that predates civilization, and with skill, luck and the benevolence of the gods, combines it with the most decadent of edible substances. It was, after all, a ripe, juicy apple (in a woman's hand, of course) that led Adam to his undoing, or, in the eyes of some, to the pleasures of the senses. Milk, cream and butter have feminine references to abundant breasts and rich body fluids, while chocolate has been renowned for centuries for its aphrodisiac properties. Throughout history, pastries have been made to resemble the nipples of Venus or substantial cream-filled phalluses. Like love, desserts may be light and ethereal or densely evil in texture, slathered in cream, soaked in exotic liqueurs and covered with an endless summer of fruits and fragrant candied flowers.

Since it is the task of a pastry chef to create not just a dessert, but a mind-blowing bad-is-good love festival of the tongue, you can imagine the pressure we are under, and perhaps understand why some of us hallucinate cold beers during those last stress-laden hours.

During the summer, the temperature in the kitchen can reach a point where the brain sizzles in its own juices, its cerebral functions regressing to a Cro Magnon-like state. The kitchen crew stumbles around slack-jawed and grunting in monosyllables, their cooking techniques reduced to a dangerous display of gross motor movements. Reaction times plummet, resulting in a lot of nearly inedible product. One of the fast-cheap-and-easy ways we camouflage a culinary mistake is to attach the qualifier rustica to the name of the dish. Torta Rustica or Sopa Rustica denotes a badly burnt tart or scorched soup, presented as rustic peasant fare, and perceived as quaint by the populace. I can truthfully state that few items of such nature come from my territory of the kitchen during those heat waves, being that if I make any noises about using the oven, the cooks hurl expletives and culinary verbiage such as flay or quarter, to describe the butchering techniques they will employ upon my anatomy should I do such a thing, and inspiring me to do sorbets, semi-freddo and fresh fruit bavarois.

After working all day in the heat, just thinking about that after-shift beer sends a feeling of relief coursing through my body. I imagine throwing my head back, like some wholesome weekend partier in a beer commercial, the cold, bitter brew tickling my throat, the fuck-ups of the day falling away. I picture myself peeling the label off the bottle while waxing philosophical, or talking the usual trash to my fellow ingrates about the manager, how he pinched my ass again and almost made me drop the charlotte aux framboises. After my shift, if I am in a particularly pissy mood, I'll sneak a cold bottle of beer out into my car. As I am about to drive away, the manager's face will inevitably appear at my car window, leering at the bottle stabilized between my legs. All afternoon, in a kitchen averaging 110 degrees, I've been imagining the sensation of that cold glass on my inner thighs, so I'll tell him to fuck off as I peel out of the parking lot.

The arrogance of the pastry chef is an integral part of the complex web of checks and balances that keeps a restaurant kitchen running smoothly. The trading of transgressions--a stolen beer, a pinch on the ass--have a way of coming out even by the day's end, and if they don't, there are ways to make sure and get the cold beer one is owed.

Awhile back, I was suffering through a particularly noxious pastry gig in a San Francisco restaurant where the kitchen staff would fantasize about using the meat grinder to make Manager-Burgers. One fateful day, said manager reached MAC status (Maximum Asshole Capacity). When he pushed his clueless waitress/girlfriend down the stairs and broke one of her front teeth, I decided that the time had come to collect that proverbial last cold beer. We had a five-course catering for the Joffery Ballet scheduled the next night, and I was to construct the makings of a humongous three-tiered croquembouche, to be assembled at the site. One of the line cooks, Oscar, decided to bail with me. He was going into the army anyway. Oscar was a six-foot-four hulk from Guanajuato who, on good days, would dance behind the line, doing a scary sort of mambo we called the Tantric Lizard.

A couple of chefs from the pretentious bistro down the street agreed to join us for the early morning festivities. I unlocked the door at 5 a.m. and went behind the bar, setting up a beer tasting of the finest pilsners, ales and stouts during the hour when I ought to have been shooting up millions of choux with cognac-flavored pastry cream and clothing them in spun sugar. Oscar used the beer as a tequila chaser, the bistro boys sampled fine wines, and Shane McGowan howled on the stereo. We argued whether or not to exact our vengeance by popping naked out of a cake (too risky, we decided) as we tossed our empty bottles into the insulated crates that ought to have held the desserts for the ballet dinner. Along with the bottles, we threw in a dozen or so potatoes and onions, like something a naughty child might get in his Christmas stocking, and an evil-looking sign written in ketchup that read MANGIA BENE IN HELL. Then we loaded the whole mess into the walk-in.

We figured the manager would swing by in his van sometime in the late morning, find our nasty little surprise and have to hustle up a chef-at-large to whip up a zabaglione or something. We heard from a friend that he was too busy organizing last-minute details, and didn't get over to the walk-in until the dinner was well under way. He didn't even bother to peek inside the crates to see if all was well before speeding them across town to the event.

According to our sources, the prep drones in their spotless whites (still under the foolish illusion of future grandeur as chefs), were already setting up the plates and readying a rolling damask-covered table for the dessert masterpiece when the manager rushed in with the crates. Upon opening them, he emitted an inhuman scream that silenced the entire room of Joffery prima donnas and their consorts. We were told that it sounded like a poor slaughterhouse creature who knows the moment of reckoning has arrived. Oscar and I did an ecstatic Mexican hat dance as our friend described how the manager ended up serving some freezer-burnt vanilla ice cream and anemic strawberries that he had sent one of his frightened waiters to the store for after he found his voice.

I must confess that no conscience sat on my shoulder and wagged its finger that night. I knew those ballerinas were all on diets anyway, but for several months after our prank, I would hear unsettling rumors that a North Beach Mafia boss was looking for me, and all those odd early-morning meetings the manager had held in the walk-in with men in heavy coats and foreign accents would suddenly make terrible sense.

After drinking all morning on the day I burnt my culinary reputation to a crisp, the boys from the bistro had to get to work and Oscar and I, newly exiled black-listed bridge-burners of the culinary world, took a last stolen six-pack up to Coit Tower. We were pretty lit up and couldn't stop talking about our past exploits in the kitchen--the stress and the heat, the assholes we had tolerated, the culinary feats we had achieved. We liked being cooks, really, we did, now that we were on sabbatical from the kitchen. We'd been happy slinging sauté pans and cursing sugary concoctions gone awry. We were already missing the point and counterpoint of the swelter of the kitchen and a smoke in the cool parking lot, of wearing industrial-strength support hose under our chef's pants all day and nothing at all during a midnight swim in the river, of butt-pinching managers and a cold beer between one's thighs while driving away.

Honorable Mentions

In alphabetical order

Contestants received $50

Broken Mare by Linda Hershman, Snapping Turtles by Carol J. Howard

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