Tiny Light's Annual Essay Contest
Contest Results from 2008
First Prize of $400
The King and I by Alex Myers
There is some debate about how my habit of impersonating Elvis began. According to my mother, it started when I was in fifth grade and she took me to see a community theater production of Grease. Inspired by the hip-swinging, sideburn-wearing “teen angel” in the show, I began my own imitation of the King. But as I recall, I went to the roller rink for a friend’s tenth birthday party, where an oldies band was playing (those were the eighties in rural Maine), and I was smitten with their rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.” Whichever version you accept, by that spring I had entered my school’s talent show as an Elvis impersonator sporting painted-on sideburns and accompanied by my friend on keyboard.
All of this was more than a little odd, I suppose, given that I was a ten-year old girl. But by this point in my life, only my mother expected me to be normal. My classmates and teachers accepted that I was a rather introspective, bookish kid, inhabiting that wonderfully androgynous zone granted only to the young. When the weather was good, I spent most of my time in a tree house, and when the weather was lousy, I fought with our cats for a seat near the woodstove and read. Unlike the boys in my grade, I wasn’t interested in football or fishing, and unlike the girls, I wasn’t interested in boys or makeup. Never belonging to either camp, I had always felt different, a sort of difference that made me shy and reclusive, unsure of who I was or what I was meant to be.
But Elvis impersonation opened a new door for me. All of a sudden I wanted to be front and center. Much to my mother’s dismay, my hip-swinging ways were not a stage I went through. From the age of ten on, Elvis impersonation became my means of maintaining an alternate male self, a way for me to explore being masculine in a (mostly) acceptable manner. It was my first foray into dissident gender expression.
That my newfound talent was more than a stage and was, in fact, a piece of my destiny, became evident when I arrived at music camp that summer. While my peers were sent off to scouting camp, (or, if you were really unlucky, Bible camp) I had been attending a nearby music camp for a few years. My mother had settled on it after I resolutely refused to return to the all-girls’ camp that she had originally selected for me (where I was teased for being too much of a tomboy and they limited the number of books I could have by my bunk). Nestled in the piney woods of western Maine, this music camp had felt like a place of sanctuary from the first time I set foot there. The entrance road was dotted with practice cabins (I thought they were outhouses the first time I visited) named Beethoven, Mahler, and Stravinsky, and rather than be dominated by a sports-driven color war, daytimes were filled with orchestra, musical theater, chorus, and jazz ensemble. In short, the camp was full of all sorts of artsy, alternative types—just what was not present in my rural Maine public school, where teachers, students, and expectations of conformity felt hopelessly mired in the 1950s.
On the first day of camp that year, after unloading my trunk, bidding farewell to my mother, I went to audition for the musical. These shows were typically large cast productions that allowed the younger campers (of whom I was one) to fill in the chorus. The previous summer the play was Little Mary Sunshine. I had been cast as a schoolgirl, and had a brief solo during the number, “Playing Croquet.”
The senior campers always got all the leads, so I didn’t expect much, maybe a line or two, or maybe I would be cast as a tree, which would at least spare me the ignominy of trying to dance with a croquet mallet. But the summer’s play was going to be Bye, Bye Birdie, and, as John the music director explained the plot to the assembled mass of campers, my heart began to pound. The play, which tells of the last public performance of Conrad Birdie—a thinly veiled Elvis substitute—before he is inducted into the army, was perfect for me.
One by one, my peers shuffled up to the stage, sang a verse of “America the Beautiful,” already resigned to their peripheral roles. But as I reached the front, I felt a buzzing rise through my body. I like to think the ghost of Elvis was whispering to me. Abandoning my typical shyness, I curled my upper lip into a practiced sneer and belted out “All Shook Up,” complete with pelvic thrusts. There was total silence in the theater. I was an 11-year-old girl with closely cropped brown hair (my mother had cut it short because she was sick of fighting with me to brush it), wearing the ill-fitting navy shorts and white polo of the camp uniform. With scabby knees and mosquito bitten arms, I was as far from a teen heart-throb as you could imagine. But when John stood up, clapping, and declared: “We have our Birdie,” I just about died with happiness.
Each afternoon of that summer, after swimming lessons in the icy lake, I’d take to the stage. As Conrad Birdie, dozens of girls swooned and screamed when I entered. I got to wear a gold jumpsuit for my first number, strum an electric guitar, and be adored by the leading lady, Kim—a seventeen year old senior camper. I was completely smitten with her from the first rehearsal on. She was tall, (This presented a large problem; I had to wear risers in my shoes during the performances.) mature, and utterly gorgeous. There was, of course, a kissing scene, and although the play called for Kim to swoon upon being embraced by teen-idol Birdie, I was often the one upon the verge of collapse.
How the director got away with casting me as Conrad Birdie, I do not know. He was an older man, tall, funny, and amiable (at least when he wasn’t in hysterics over our inability to act or dance or sing). I now realize that John was rather flamingly gay. But at the time I thought of him as merely dramatic. While it seems improbable that he would cast an 11-year-old girl as the male romantic lead, this was music camp and I was butcher than many of the senior boys. Plus, as John kept saying, I did sound exactly like Elvis.
In fact, I can recall only one major issue arising from his bizarre casting choice. It was during the dress rehearsal; I had my hair done up in a massive pompadour—accomplished with copious quantities of Vaseline—and fake sideburns. I even had tufts of fake chest hair emerging from the top of the v-neck shirt of my costume. The cast had just worked its way through “Lot of Living to Do” and John was having a heated argument with Gayle, the music director.
“We need to stuff his crotch,” John insisted, waving his copy of the script at me.
“No, we don’t need to stuff her crotch,” Gayle replied testily.
“Just a little.”
“John, she’s an 11-year-old girl.”
“I know—that’s why we’ve got to put something down there.”
In the end, John won, and I graced the stage the next night in my hi-rise shoes, tight black pants, and a modest six inches of rubber tubing. The king might have felt slighted, but I was in heaven. As I sang, shimmied, and shook my way through the play it was as if I could feel the skin of my present self dissolving. Reality gave way to potential. As the girls of the cast swooned around me, and the boys shot me jealous looks; as Kim kissed me on the lips and pledged her undying love, I knew what I was meant to do in life.
I’d like to say that when the show closed I packed my bags and headed to Vegas, where I have been living as an Elvis impersonator ever since. But in fact I and my packed bags only made it back to Paris, Maine, to settle in for a few more years of trying to survive public school before I headed off to a prep school in New Hampshire. In the wake of my performance as Conrad Birdie, I once again retreated into my introverted, detached self. Future summer musicals saw me cast as a crow, a homeless person, and a cornstalk—roles that fittingly sublimated gender entirely. I faded into the background, took a part in the chorus, and generally tried to forget what it felt like to be Elvis. The walls of my room were still adorned with Elvis photographs, and I would sometimes, when my parents were not home, shut the door, turn on “Jailhouse Rock,” and wail away. Just letting my voice drop into the tone of Elvis made me feel alive, made me feel like myself.
When it was time to head off to prep school, my hair grown long at my mother’s insistence, Mom optimistically packed a few skirts for me and chatted amiably with my roommate’s parents about their daughter’s Laura Ashley comforter. My quilt had the Green Giant on it, which I had gotten by saving the labels from cans of peas and sending them in. I don’t know whether my mother or my roommate was more mortified. Before my parents drove away, leaving me at school, my father’s parting advice was: “You’re normal. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not.” No one did. I successfully submerged my strangeness under a veneer of normalcy. I had left my Elvis posters at home and though I had packed my cassettes, I listened to them through headphones and tried to keep my connection to the King to myself.
When did that veneer finally give way? Was it one afternoon in my dorm room, listening to Elvis croon “Your Teddy-Bear,” searching my face in the mirror, trying to see past the mass of curly hair to find the Conrad Birdie I knew lurked below the surface? Why was it that no one else could see who I really was?
Six years later, and I was still thinking of that summer on stage, the only time the world looked at me and saw me as I really was: a man. I was one year away from college, away from being an adult, and I wanted to be myself, not just playing a part in a musical. That summer, away from home on a service program, feeling deliciously alone in the big city, I cut my hair short. I looked in the mirror and for the first time since that summer musical, I liked what I saw. When I returned to school for my senior year, I followed boys’ dress code, wearing a coat and tie to class, and asked everyone to call me Alex instead of Alice.
I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it. I still lived in my girls’ dorm, but I wanted desperately to be treated as and recognized as a guy. I was asking the teachers and students to put aside who they had come to know as me for three years. In class, in the dining hall, they slipped up on pronouns constantly, took to calling me Al so they wouldn’t use the wrong ending. I felt more and more like an outcast, less and less certain I would ever be recognized as a man. But there came one Monday morning meeting—it was barely winter, the school year still felt new—when the whole school crowded into the assembly hall. One never knew what to expect from assembly. Sometimes it was the head of the school talking about comportment in the dining hall, sometimes a professor up from a college in Boston to talk about environmental policy.
This morning three poodle-skirt-wearing ladies took the stage. My worldly, sophisticated classmates snorted derisively as the group sang “It’s my Party.” I was carried back to the roller skating rink where it all began for me. At the end of "Leader of the Pack," the lead singer spoke into the microphone, “Now we need a volunteer who can sing like the King.” Before hands could be raised, before I even thought about how strange it would be to get on stage in front of my peers, I had jumped from my seat and leaped up the steps to join the band. With hardly a pause, I heard the opening chords of “Blue Suede Shoes” as one of the singers pressed a microphone into my hand, and, forgetting that I was wearing my school tie and navy-blue blazer, forgetting that I was a recently emerged transgendered person, forgetting that I spent the last three years at this school trying to blend into the background as a normal girl, I began to sing. My lip curled into a sneer, and I threw in a few pelvic thrusts for good measure. If I closed my eyes I could imagine that swarms of girls were swooning around me once again.
I can’t say whether I sounded good; it had been a while since I had practiced my Elvis impersonation. But I do know that when the song ended, the lead singer tried to hug me. I offered her my hand to shake instead (I was that kind of kid). And as I turned to leave the stage, she said into the microphone, broadcasting to all my peers and teachers, “Too bad he’s so shy. He’s awfully cute.” At the sound of those two small, masculine pronouns, I might as well have been told I was Elvis reincarnate.
Alex Myers lives and teaches in Rhode Island. In addition to writing, he enjoys playing the tuba and training for triathlons. He still dreams of going to Vegas to work as an Elvis impersonator.
Second Prize of $300
STO LAT by Agnieszka Stachura
After my grandmother's funeral, after we consign her ashes to a cement hole beside the evergreens, the eight of us walk slowly, in ragged clumps, to the cemetary parking lot. We have been invited to the home of one of the mourners for dinner. ''I wanted to go to restaurant,'' my mother frets, taking my arm; ''I was sure we would go to restaurant.'' Her whispered voice rises. ''I would pay. But she insisted, so what could I do?'' Our feet churn gravel. We mill around the cars until assignments are made, and we ride in a short convoy to Pani Halinka's apartment.
She has scarcely the room for this hospitality. It is a tiny apartment, Manhattan-sized, swaying in the sky on the tenth floor of a narrow Eastern Bloc budynek. From the front door I catch glimpses of a kitchen, a living room, a sliver of bed. White lace curtains hang in the windows, obscuring a view of grey sky, more cinderblock highrises, and an expanse of flat green lawn. Carved wooden furniture presses hard against the walls of the living room, like passengers holding their breath on a crowded elevator. The room is otherwise entirely filled by a long wooden table, itself covered with eight place settings, cutlery, and two low round vases of mums.
We take turns shuffling past each other and peeing in a bathroom the size of a confessional before crowding around the table, fitting ourselves like jigsaw pieces, breathing perfume and sweat and hot meat. Our hostess is a widow with four strapping sons whose own young progeny beam at us from a wall of photos beside the sideboard. Belying her coquettish name, Halinka is broad-shouldered and sturdy, a tall woman in constant, decisive motion. While she maneuvers herself into her pint-sized kitchen, the others tease about how sickly she was as a girl, how frail, a mere stick person with long thick braids. Halinka waves a dismissive paw and points to an ornate Swiss clock above the china cabinet. She repaired that, she boasts; she took it apart and rebuilt it, just for fun. She squats before a dorm-sized refrigerator stuffed full of homemade pierogy, five kinds, which she retrieves now from the diminuitive space, one long platter after another, like a circus trick.
The slight, henna-haired woman to my left offers me the first selection, smiling. ''I am Sonja,'' she says, chin tilted, proud. ''Of course you have heard all about me.''
I lie and say that I have. In reality, I know nothing about her, other than the fact that she colors her hair, that she limps from childhood polio, that she has come this long way, three hours by express train from Warsaw, for my mother, a friend she hasn't seen in a lifetime. I know nothing of any of these women, who I gather were all classmates long ago, freshly discharged from the train out of Lwów and thrown together, Christian and surviving Jew alike, in a Catholic elementary school in their newly renamed city of Wrocław, hundreds of miles from home.
From her seat at the head of the table, my mother makes the introductions. There is Pani Helena, Pani Iwanda, Pani Romana, Pani Halinka, Pani Halina, and Sonja, who scoffs at the honorific madame. Seven wrinkled faces smile back at me. Pani Helena urges jeszcze pierogi onto my loaded plate, but I am more hungry for stories than for food. My mother's past has always been a blank to me, her ready tears halting the occasional probe. I know it was a terrible time, of course. I know the outlines of horror. Yalta, Potsdam, the Partition of Poland—these are the spectres of my own childhood, words spit like curses at dinner parties and reunions. The families displaced, the relatives lost. But I've never filled in the specifics. I pick up my fork, eager to begin.
The women pass plates, and talk, and eat, their stories overlapping each other, filling my ears. Resourceful Sonja tells of a long lost uncle, whose grave she stumbled on in a cemetery in Paris. Noting the tidy condition of the plot, Sonja penciled her name and address into a plastic baggie she tucked in among the fresh flowers. Within a month, she had been joyfully reunited with her cousins.
Slurping her first helping of pierogy, Pani Halinka tells of the day when, new to this city and exploring the gutted streets, she spotted a treasure, a grand piano, miraculously intact, through the ruptured side wall of a living room in someone's abandoned home. She ran straight for her father, but by the time they returned together, the instrument was gone, chopped already into kindling. Nothing was left but a few ivory keys, scattered like small white bones.
Tiny Pani Romana—a horticulturist, Sonja whispers—tells of her beloved działka, one of the little garden plots that apartment dwellers tend, on large communal tracts. One summer, not long ago, she'd planted several rare varieties of vegetables: tomatoes, peppers and squash. She nurtured them daily, from seed, and by season's end, she had tyle jarzyń, such a harvest. But the morning she came with her basket to collect them, she found that someone, a neighbor most likely, had climbed the low fence and stolen them. ''Ani jednego,'' she sighs, shaking her head; not one was left. I look around the table, but no one else seems shocked.
Pani Iwanda, a serene beauty with luminous silver hair and a worn cashmere shawl, tells softly the story of the small dacha, the summer cottage, which she and her husband had built on a piece of land in the country, some years before his death. They loved this cottage, and visited as often as they could, until her husband's failing health prevented them from travel. They were away for two years. When he finally rallied with a brief reprieve from weakness, they returned to find that someone had stolen the hand-tiled roof, and that snow and rain had destroyed the furnishings within. All that was left was a four-sided facade. They did not rebuild. Eventually, the little house simply collapsed. Pani Iwanda looks at me and smiles gently. Part of a mushroom pierogy sticks in my throat.
I listen as my mother tells of retrieving the old medical books she'd discovered in the trash and debris of a ruined home, not far from her own new, squalid apartment. My grandmother, characteristically, objected. ''Po co?'' she cried. ''Why?'' She argued that the books were germ-ridden, filthy; maybe the person who had owned them had been sick. But my mother, all of eight years old, was immune. ''I told her, 'I am keeping them,''' she remembers, pressing her small fist onto the dining room table. ''I said, 'I am going to learn German and read them, and then I am going to go to medical school.''' She frowns at each of us in turn. The women nod silently. My mother is, in fact, a doctor, only recently retired. I have always been proud that she studied medicine in Poland, then passed her boards in the United States. She is a doctor in two languages, I say. Now I try to picture her, my brilliant, gentle, socially awkward mother, scrabbling among the ruins of her adopted city, pilfering from the dead. The image does not come.
I look around the table and try to imagine each of these women as they were then. It is a macabre image, these ragged girls hunting, resourceful and determined, fiercely and defiantly alive. They crowd around a dining room table sixty years later, giggling, smiling, matrons all, plump and largely unfashionable, while our hostess plies us with homemade pierogy, five kinds, and sałatka, and brown bread. There are pierogies stuffed with mushrooms and meat; with carmelized onions; with cheese. There are pierogies fried, or boiled and ladled carefully into steaming bowls of clear barszcz. I am too full for dessert, which is laid before me anyway, a slice of dense, homemade orzechy> torte with an intense coffee glaze and a chewy crust of dried cherries too heavy to remain suspended in the batter.
I wish I could say that the evening ended with a bout of drinking and excess, further revelation, a vow to renew old bonds. With cries of sto lat!: a hundred years. A toast to long life, to resilience, to success.
Here, though, is the truth. We finish our tea, and what we can of the torte, and my mother passes out copies of a photo of my grandmother, one for each of us. The picture is several years old, taken when she was still plump, still filling out the inevitable beige knit cardigan. She hunches forward in her lumpy armchair, making a pleasant face at the camera, which is to say, she is not scowling. Her face wears a small, pained smile. I wonder what my tablemates will do with these glossy images of a woman who meant little to them, and who is now dead. I balance mine on my own unused camera. I would like to take a picture now, of these women, at this moment, but I am crammed in too tightly even to squirm.
Pani Romana drives us back to my grandmother’s flat. Addresses have not been exchanged. There are no plans to meet again, not even to see Sonja, who will remain in Wrocław for a few days, before returning to her home in Warsaw. ''She has no car,'' my mother shrugs, hunting in her purse for her keys; ''It is difficult.''
We climb the steps to my grandmother's flat and my mother complains that we would have been more comfortable in a restaurant. ''I would pay,'' she insists again, after the fact, her voice echoing in the empty stairwell.
At least my mother and I do share a drink. I find a dusty bottle of 86 proof wódka in the living room cabinet, behind a dented box of stale butter cookies and an empty tin of Folgers. I rout two mismatched kieliszki from a high kitchen shelf. We sit at the wooden table in my late grandmother's white kitchen and raise the brimming glass thimbles to our lips. ''Sto lat,'' I say. My mother sips hers but I toss mine back. It burns in my throat, until it feels as though there is nothing left to swallow.
A writer and first generation American, Agnieszka Stachura refers to a stack of spiral-bound journals for her themes. The weekly support of a talented writers' group, and the constant encouragement of a loving husband keep her motivated to constantly improve. Her work is also forthcoming in Funny Times.
Third Prize of $200
Dog Years by Deborah Thompson
“Eeww, this one’s old,” a kindergarten-aged girl in the dog park shrieks into my dog’s face. Pretzel, my 12-year-old black border collie/spaniel/who-knows-what mutt has just trotted into a cluster of people gushing over a puppy, in hopes of collecting some of the run-off love. Pretzel is a strangely disproportionate dog, as if made out of leftover parts. A Dr. Seuss creature, his head is too small for his body, his legs too long, while his jaw sets in a crooked underbite, pushing his blackberry nose off-center. When he was young, his flaws were cute. But no more, apparently.
“It’s old, it’s old,” the girl shrieks again, and pulls away. Pretzel, who loves children, is clearly crestfallen. His tail dips, with just a tad of hopeful wag still animating the white tip, and his black head, fully framed by a white muzzle below and white half-moon eyebrows over his cloudy eyes, slumps between his shoulders. He looks up with once irresistible Spaniel eyes at the woman next to her, but no one today, it seems, wants to pet an old dog when there are so many puppies around.
Pretzel was once a puppy, too, and I was once a young woman, and we once lived as a family with our man Rajiv, who was the love of my life, and also the love of Pretzel’s. This pissed me off because I was also the one who had wanted—-no, needed, with maternal rabidity—-a dog in the first place, the one who walked him and cleaned up his poop and took him to the vet. But from the moment Rajiv leaned over the skinny black dog’s cage at the Humane Society and said, “How about this one?” (to which I’d answered, “Too big.”) Pretzel was fixed on his master. I learned to accept second place status, which was not too bad, since both Pretzel and Rajiv had a lot of love to spare. For six years, Pretzel stayed a puppy.
Rajiv never cried at the hospital when he received his terminal colon cancer diagnosis. Once released after five days in-patient, he kept his eyes closed the whole ride home, and still seemed narcotized when I pulled into the garage. But when I opened the house door and Pretzel scrambled out, Rajiv roused. Pretzel’s whole back—-not just his tail—-was wagging, making half-circle arcs. He jumped into Rajiv’s lap as soon as Rajiv opened the car door. Rajiv staggered out of the car and onto the doorstep into the hallway. Pretzel jumped back and forth over Rajiv and pushed his head up from under Rajiv’s armpit so he could lick Rajiv’s left ear (a special ritual between them) until his body unleashed into more leaps. That’s when Rajiv lost it, crying into Pretzel’s black fur as Pretzel’s tail wound around like a propeller.
Pretzel lost his puppyhood at age six while Rajiv aged in dog years. At age 37, Rajiv became an old man in ten months, and then a dying man, his cinnamon skin stained yellow with bilirubin as his liver tumors bred. Pretzel lost his bounce and settled into Rajiv’s rhythms. Photos from Rajiv’s last year always show Pretzel at his side, curled into the deepening hollow of his stomach. To the very end. Rajiv died at home, with me by his side, and Pretzel at the foot of the hospice-supplied bed I’d set up downstairs, curled into his pretzel figure, his rounded back touching Rajiv’s ankle, his paws not overlapping pretzel-style as usual, but pressed together as if in prayer. He lay in vigil at his master’s feet until the last breath.
After Rajiv’s death, Pretzel whitened almost overnight. For days he refused to eat—-or if he did eat, he threw up. For weeks Pretzel laid low. He crouched. He stayed uncharacteristically aloof from the strangers who streamed through the house. He took little interest in the outside noises that he used to monitor from the window. Most inconveniently, he became temporarily incontinent, or perhaps strategically so, since, after years of being perfectly housetrained, he began to pee in the same spot in the living room over and over. Then one day I realized what that spot meant: it was where the hospice bed had been set up, the spot where Rajiv died. Pretzel was marking his loss.
I, too, aged in dog years as I mourned. Rajiv died five days after I turned 39. Overnight I joined the ranks of geriatric widows with whom I now identified. I became part of a sect whose members dwelled in truths our culture anxiously denies: that death is everywhere, that a lifetime goes by so quickly, that we all age in dog years.
“Thank God you live in a culture that doesn’t make you wear black,” friends told me, but it wasn’t until Rajiv’s death that I understood black’s mercy. It could have marked me as a member of the sect, and made me visible to the other members whose company I craved, whose secrets we kept together. I should have been dressed like Pretzel, with a black coat setting off a shock of white at the chest.
Like Pretzel, I had physical symptoms too. At first, all food sat in my mouth like sand, and I couldn’t swallow. Like Pretzel’s, my grief lodged in my digestive tract. Slowly, as my body remembered hunger, I learned how to chew again. Slowly my digestive tract began to recover, organ by organ: the esophagus loosened, the stomach widened, the gut forgave.
But my bladder, like Pretzel’s, acted out in place of my heart, physicalizing its uncontainability. My incontinence issues had already started when Rajiv was alive. The unexpected sneeze, the too-hearty laugh, even a sob could produce a slight trickle. “Will you still love me when I pee in my pants?”
He’d laugh. “I’ll even help you change your adult diapers.”
After he died the floodgates opened, as if even my bladder muscles lacked the will to hold up.
Sitting in the doctor’s waiting room recently for a consultation about a “bladder tuck,” I observed the men in their “prostate years.” A geriatric woman next to me watched the door even when her eyes seemed to rest on the glossy magazine in her lap. When a man stumbled out groggily, I knew it was her husband, not only because he was also in his eighties but because they matched in the way couples grown old together do. They didn’t need to talk: her look to him was a question, his to her an answer. It must have been a good one, because her face relaxed. She rose to meet him. “Here,” she offered. “Lean on me. Let me take your arm.”
“Why?” the man grumbled gently. “If I start to fall, will you be able to hold me up?”
“No, but at least we’ll go down together.”
Side by side, they patted each other on the back, almost but not quite a hug.
I felt the sob all the way down in my bladder. Once upon a time that was going to be my future. Now I grow old and incontinent by myself. Just me and Pretzel.
Back home with Pretzel, I collapsed on the carpet stain in the living room, and howled into his fur until I had only the energy left to whimper, “Where’s Daddy?”
It was a routine from way back. Once upon a time, when I was home from work, Pretzel would wait on the couch, his nose pressed to the window, for Rajiv to come home and complete the pack. If Pretzel strayed from his post, I’d say, “Where’s Daddy?” and he’d run back to the window. Even after Rajiv died, Pretzel would wait by the window, staring with border collie intensity on into the evening.
I don’t remember when this ritual waned, or when I stopped Windexing the smudges off the living room window. But now when I whined, “Where’s Daddy?” Pretzel didn’t run to the window. I kept trying. “Where’s Daddy, Pretzel? When’s Daddy coming back?” He stayed directly in front of me, on alert, waiting to please me, slight wag of the tail. “Don’t you even remember Daddy any more, Pretzel?” His tail drooped, knowing from my voice that he’d disappointed me.
But I was the one in error, prematurely geriatric and stuck in the past, when Pretzel was determined to live. He was straining at the leash to pull me out of the timeless nevermore and into the now. So I put on a happy tone to get his tail wagging again. “It’s Pretzelmania!” He jumped into a play-bow, the tail fanning back to life.
Does Pretzel remember Rajiv at all? If Rajiv walked in the door right now, Pretzel would be ecstatic, jumping outside his skin, like in the old days when Rajiv came back after a conference or field trip and Pretzel leapt over himself in circles. But as he ages, Pretzel moves through grief, too, in dog years, and he’s now on the other side.
At his recent check-up, Dr. Foster said Pretzel seemed to be doing well “for his age.” When she asked about arthritis, I said, “No sign of it,” with perhaps a touch of pride. But when she manipulated his back legs he jumped and started. “Early arthritis,” she pronounced.” I bought a $60 tub of glucosamine treats, which, she said, “should make him feel a whole lot better. You’ll notice a difference in just a few days.”
How did I miss it? In the days that followed, I noticed that Pretzel doesn’t much like his butt petted anymore, and he doesn’t jump on and off the furniture as much. He hasn’t been scampering up and down the stairs every time I do, but waits to see if I’m going to stay. He’s been in pain, and I’ve been blind to it. I’ve only seen his whitening face. Pretzel is officially old, and aging more every day. In his rear years. For a while after that veterinary visit, every time I caught his eye I apologized to him.
Now at the dog park Pretzel moves deeper into the crowd of humans, looking for love. He pursues the 20-something woman shielding the girl and wags his tail across her knees. He waits. He searches her face earnestly to see what’s causing the delay. She notices him, bends her head, and says with over-enunciation, “You’re old.” Pretzel looks to her even more earnestly and wags even more energetically. She tries again. “You’re an old dog,” she pronounces, then looks away. Pretzel keeps wagging his tail even as it droops.
“Hey, Old-Timer!” a man’s voice croaks from the sidelines. He’s been observing Pretzel’s rejections from the park bench and decides it’s time to intervene. I wonder if this sixty-something man hoisting himself from the bench, then fumbling in his pockets to dig out a treat, is a member of the sect, if he knows what I know.
Perhaps he knows more. Pretzel jumps back to life, reborn, and flings himself into a hug on the man. When he was a puppy, I’d tried to teach Pretzel not to jump on people, but his exuberance so overflowed that I allowed him to “hug, not jump” by splaying his legs to the side. Now he is hugging this familiar stranger with concentrated dogjoy. With his head alternately buried in the man’s thighs and licking his ear, and his old faithful tail unfurled and waving, I’m tempted to believe for just a moment that Pretzel will stay a puppy forever.
Deborah Thompson is an Associate Professor of English at Colorado State University and a member of the Slow Sand Writers Society. Living in the foothills of Colorado, she now shares her home with three dogs and a cat.
In alphabetical order
Contestants received $
"Dad Joins the Circus" by Tina Barry
"Mind if I Smoke?" by Nancy Colvin
FLASH PRIZES (3) $100
"Stark” by DeAnn Campbell
"Elliot Comes to Play” by Cynthia Patton
"Where I am From” by Nancy Wilson
In no particular order
Standard Category (up to 1,000-2,000 words): “Dad Joins the Circus” by Tina Barry, “Sto Lat” by Agnieszka Stachura, “Minding Peas and Cues” by Monica Bhide, “Mind if I Smoke?” by Nancy Colvin, “Drawing From Life” by Margaret Frey, "Stale Tobacco" by Terri Kent-Enborg, "Dog Years" by Deborah Thompson, "The King and I" by Alex Myers, "U-Turn" by Tania Pryputniewicz, "Separation" by Colleen Haggerty
FLASH Category(1-,1000 words): “Stark” by DeAnn Campbell, “Lindsay Plays Dead” by Mathilda Reading Wheeler, “Elliot Comes to Play” by Cynthia Patton, “Kitty, A Gray Bird” by Margaret Mary Monahan, “Where I am From” by Nancy Wilson
Entries of Note
And Comments from Susan
The judges have spoken, the editor has agonized, the prize winners have been selected. Soon we'll all move on. But on this, the day contest results are posted, the fine work that didn't make it to the spotlight clamors in my head. I am thrilled for the winners and look forward to sharing their work with you. But being a poor loser myself, you can guess where my heart is.
Your work gets finer as the years go by, so this day gets harder and harder. I'm trying to learn to be truly thankful for this annual phenomenon. Please, don't let up on me. Keep writing.
Susan Bono, Editor
April 10, 2008
ENTRIES OF NOTE:
“Owl” by Kathleen McClung, “What We Need” by Contessa L. Riggs, “My Best Christmas Ever” by Susan Starbird, “The Bird and the Tiger” by Betsy Burns Westing, “My Father’s Heart” by Stephen S. Howie, “Summer Storm” by Bill Sherwonit, “Sparkle & Fade” by Anna Roth, “Second Pulse” by Megan Shaffer, “Seat 21E” by Dorothy Hansen, “Death’s Resurrection” by Hyla Bolsta,"Wildfire-Hellfire" by Ralph Ryan, “Little Yellow Flowers” by Willie Colón Reyes, “A Place in the World” by Alexandra Lehmann, "Summer Camp" by Gary L. Lark, "Lucky at Cards" by Emily Stone, "Cussing Without Vowels" by Cheryl Hicks
"Wherefore Art Thou…Romeo?" by Catherine Crawford, "Surely" by M.J. Iuppa, "Another Me" by Cary Holladay, "His Heartbeat" by Suzanne Sherman, "The Senior Picture" by Catherine Montague, "Town Owl" by Kevin Holdsworth, "An Extra Star" by Cameo Archer, "The Colors of My Hair" by L. L. Babb, “Psoriasis Psalm” by Terri Kent-Enborg, "The Princess Who Told the Truth" by Donna Emerson, “Stacking the Deck” by Lynn Watson, “Word of the Day” by Dana McGahee, “Change of View” by Leslie Askwith, “After Hours” by Louise Kantro, “Summer Ritual” by Sindee Ernst, “Every Morning” by Patricia Pomerleau, "Stripes" by Michael Hemery
As shorter "flash" essays continue to insinuate themselves into our little literary empire, we will choose a selection from these notables for the Fall 2008 Flashpoints print issue. Stay tuned!
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