Carolina Woman received a flood of entries in the Writing Contest this year, and the caliber of the work was inspiring. We would like to extend a huge thank you to everyone who participated.
The diverse selection of short stories, essays and poetry demonstrates the wealth of talent that can be found in the Triangle. Our editors had a tough time narrowing the entries down to just a few winners, but after many days of reading your thoughtful pieces we were able to choose some favorites.
Enjoy the champs printed below and discover more winning ways as we continue to publish pieces in upcoming issues.
Heather Marshall Dixon, of Knightdale, for her essay "Love, Over All Things"
Prize: Dermatech MD Facial Peel & Mask followed by Jane Iredale Makeup Application + $100 Gift Certificate - $300 Value
Heather Bell Adams, of Raleigh, for her story "New Moon"
Prize: NC Writers' Network 2-year membership - $130 Value
Ellyn Bache, of Greer, S.C., for her story "Cow"
Prize: Penguin Classics Cotton Tote Bags - $75 Value
Michele Tracy Berger, of Pittsboro, for "The Invisible Son"
Sheryl Cornett, of Chapel Hill, for "You Scan"
Janice Mack Guess, of Durham, for "The Burning Cross"
Alice Osborn, of Raleigh, for "Nolan, the Split Foyer, Is Under Stress"
Susan Thomas, of Raleigh, for "Recital"
Prize: Carolina Woman Tote Bag
By Denise Smith Cline of Raleigh
Mother's yeast rolls. Once again I gather what I need to make them. Now that she is gone, I worry over the enigma of her recipes – for rolls, for child-rearing, for patience and kindness. The ingredients for rolls are simple enough. Warm water, flour, yeast, oil, an egg, a bit of salt and a touch of sugar for the rising. That's what it says in my own handwriting on the recipe card.
She dictated the recipe to me while she was stirring something else, her then-steady voice hinting at the first grade teacher she had been.
Even though the handwriting is mine, it baffles me now. I can barely recall what my life was like when it looked as my handwriting does on the card. Neat, confident, legible and suggesting the hope of a new wife, eager to learn and please, to master old, hard things like marriage and yeast rolls. But now the recipe card is stained from my many efforts, partial successes, utter failures.
Like the ingredients, some measurements are straightforward:
Two packages of dry yeast.
And then the clarity disappears.
"How much flour?" I'm sure I asked. And the answer on the card reads as it always has, "Enough so that the spoon doesn't stick."
As a young woman writing on the card, I didn't understand how narrow the path is between the soft dough of the right consistency and the dough of too dry, too much.
What does that mean, "doesn't stick?" Doesn't stick at all? What kind of spoon? A wooden spoon seems a good guess but there is a big difference between a wooden spoon and a silver one.
"Don't worry about those small things," she would say, a lesson in her tone. "Just add it till it seems right."
When I could still call her and ask these questions, I did. But she often offered more ambiguity: "Well, when it's wet, you need more flour, and when it's not, you need less." Once, covered in flour and flushed with frustration, I called in a panic. She could not look through the phone line and figure out what I had done or failed to do. But I knew she understood my predicament.
Then she told me that as a young wife who could not even boil an egg, she tried to make Daddy a batch of biscuits for his birthday.
"I don't know what got into me, thinking I could go from nothing to biscuits, but I was young and dumb," she laughed.
She told me she had used her own mother-in-law's recipe, but put in a quarter cup of soda instead of a quarter teaspoon.
After tasting the dough, she rushed to bury it in the back yard before he came home. By late afternoon, the biscuits had risen so much Daddy found them peeping out of their shallow grave when he went out to feed the dog.
We both laughed at that baking story, and now I think she was trying to tell me: Sometimes there is too little. Sometimes there is too much. Sometimes when we try to bury our mistakes they rise up from the grave. And sometimes we can laugh at that.
A mother to five, she had the same gentle ease raising children. "Let them play," she would say when I tried to enforce strict schedules with my own children. I despaired at mothering when my own 13-year old daughter did what she was supposed to do and suddenly became my most devastating critic. Mother listened and offered advice for bakers and mothers alike: "Honey," she said, "It's not personal and it's not permanent."
Other times, she tried to soften that most difficult answer - that there is not one. But how do I go forward when the yeast is stale, the water won't warm?
Must I stay in this dry job?
Do I leave this sometimes kind man?
Most essentially, how will I know?
I remember her frail, thin hand tightly clasping my own, her nails polished a rosy pink even to the end of her days. Her answer: "I don't know. But you do."
And yet I don't, and the boxes I brought back when we cleared out her house are still stacked in my own attic. I held out hope that in those boxes, filled with paper and drying relics of her full life, there would be further guidance, her own handwritten recipe. Instead I find clippings of us all, Daddy's successes, our school plays, printed programs from decades of garden club and Circle meetings, letters from her sisters.
So many things I failed to ask. How to forgive, to dissolve years-old lumps of betrayal and arrogance I've held onto, mine and others? How to move beyond big and little failures and exhaustion and keep rising as she did? "This is the day the Lord hath made, rejoice and be glad in it" she would say as we groaned awake on Saturday mornings.
I weep to remember the times I made her cry - I was sassy, selfish, and now, it seems to me, young and cold. Perhaps she knew it wasn't personal, wasn't permanent.
And so today, I pour in the flour - a lot because it's damp - and stir, enough so that on the third or fourth try, the spoon, wooden this time, mostly doesn't stick. The result is yeasty and warm and the smell calls up memories of her and all that she did to try to explain the unexplainable.
I set the bowl on the back of the stove and watch it rise.
"Love, Over All Things"
By Heather Marshall Dixon of Knightdale
"She was comfort. She was rest. She was home."
This was the response from my grandfather when asked how he fell in love with my grandmother. He said he knew he would love her forever because, from the very moment he met her, he found rest in her eyes. He was comforted by her presence and she made him feel like coming home even when they were far from it. He was also quick to remind me of the goodness of her cornbread and chili on a cold night, the way she tucked her chin when he complimented her, and the joy in her belly laughs.
"He knew me and loved me still. He was gentle and steady, light-hearted, but wise. He saw me not for who I was, but for who I wanted to be. And he made me better and not so messy."
This was the response from my grandmother when asked how she fell in love with my grandfather. By her own admission, she was a "passionate woman, with as many dreams as she had broken pieces." But, she said he made her feel whole. She was also quick to remind me of the kindness in his eyes, the strength in his hands, and the evenness in his voice as he read aloud each night in their den.
My grandparents were married on February 12, 1949. He was a twenty-six-year-old mailman from Martin County, North Carolina. She was a twenty-one-year-old nursing student from Buies Creek. They recently celebrated their sixty-fifth wedding anniversary this year. He still holds her hand in his and her eyes still twinkle when she winks at him. If you ask them the secret to their marriage they will tell you things like this:
- Choose love, all the time. Love is a choice we make, not an emotion we feel.
- Serve each other. You will not always get as much as you give and this is okay.
- Argue naked.
- If you do find yourself arguing, at the moment when tears erupt from either person, stop talking, wrap your arms around each other and breathe in and out until you cannot tell your breath from the other person's breath. At that point, you can begin the discussion again, although you will likely find that you don't remember what the argument was about in the first place.
- Forgiveness is mandatory and you will give it as many times as you receive it.
- Life is sweetest in the simple moments. Be present for all of them. Celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary.
I want what they have...sixty-five years of solidly knowing that someone else on this planet sees your heart and chooses to protect it. Sixty-five years of loving someone who speaks your name and simultaneously knows all the moments in your life that have made you who you are. Sixty-five years of memories filled with heartache and blessings and richness and the beauty of two souls breathing together. And they didn't get there by simply falling in love and hanging in there all these years. They got there by choosing love over all things, even over themselves.
They got there by choosing to heal each other every single morning of every single day of every single year.
And if I want that kind of love, these are the things I must resolve myself to:
I will choose love. Even after the mistakes. Even after the hurt feelings. Even after the poor decisions. Even after sleeping in a different room. Even after the tears spill into the dishwater and I have to run in the rain to catch my breath from anger or disappointment or disbelief. Even after all the moments that I want out, I will choose love.
I will remember to forgive. I will remember that the act of forgiveness heals my heart as much as it does the person whom I am forgiving. And that our sweet lives are too brief to waste time on anything other than reconciliation.
I will remember to serve. I will not always get this one right, but I will start my day thinking how I can make his day easier. And then I will do it.
I will find joy in the simple moments. This is where love exists. This is where love is real. I will remember that it is within these simple moments in which you are making another person whole. When you think you are merely holding a hand, refilling a glass of iced tea, folding the laundry, fixing a flat tire, inspiring a laugh, packing a lunch with a hot thermos full of coffee, filling up a gas tank, quietly listening, stocking the fridge, wiping away a tear, walking the dog, bathing the children, cleaning the shower, scratching a back, taking out the trash, or stirring the soup...you are choosing love. It is in these quiet moments that we restore each other.
My grandfather would tell me that this is a great responsibility and to hold it with care. You are making another person whole. You are filling their empty spaces. If you take the time to notice where the spaces are, you will know exactly what to do. My grandmother would tell me that it is in these empty spaces that you find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Loving people is not always easy. We may move forward, we may move back, but we do move. And I hope we always take time to celebrate the miracle that we are moving together and not alone. Perhaps we would celebrate this simple miracle by indulging in a lavish dinner at our favorite restaurant. Perhaps, in honor of my grandparents, we would enjoy a screening of "South Pacific," which opened on Broadway the year in which they were married. We would listen to "Some Enchanted Evening" until we knew it by heart and we wouldn't know and wouldn't care if it was the song or the wine that actually made the evening enchanted. Perhaps we would stay in our pajamas and eat our favorite takeout food and laugh until the sun comes up.
Either way, we would take the time to listen, to notice the empty spaces, and to fill them with care. To choose love, to heal, and to be healed. To find the joy in the quiet moments and to celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary. This is where true love exists. This year, may we choose love over all things and may we all be restored.
By Heather Bell Adams of Raleigh
Owen Beckett's aunt picks him up from school in her Buick. She has the heat on and there's the almost-burning smell of hot fabric. He puts his backpack on the seat next to him.
"How was your day? Did you get your science test back?"
Owen nods, thinking of matter and mass. Condensation. Density. Gravity. The ways things change and how to measure them.
"How'd you do?"
He remembers the question he missed. "If you weigh sixty pounds on Earth, how much would you weigh on the moon?" He'd been confused and multiplied sixty by six, answering three hundred and sixty. Now he knew that he'd gotten it backwards. The answer was ten pounds.
"The moon is smaller than the Earth and has one-sixth the gravitational pull," his teacher had said, drawing a small circle for the moon at the top of the white board and a larger one for the Earth.
"I got a ninety-five," he tells Aunt Serena.
"Wow, a ninety-five, huh? Great job, Owen." She checks for traffic and turns right onto Dixon Road. "That's very, very good."
There's something different about her today. He can't place what it is. From what he can see in the backseat, she looks the same. Her short brown hair is combed smooth and when she turns to the side, he can see the small pearl earrings that she always wears.
"Did you make any new friends today?"
"Not really." Owen shrugs. He thinks about the way Darcy holds her lunchbox under the table when she opens it, the ripping sound when she pushes the zipper around. Trying to hide it doesn't work. He doesn't know why she thinks it would.
"I picked up some special things for dinner," his aunt says and she tilts her head toward the front passenger seat. There are two plastic grocery bags, but he can't see what's inside.
He remembers last night after dinner. He wanted to watch the football game with Uncle Ron, but she made him stay in the kitchen, calling out questions to him and raising her eyebrows when he got one wrong.
"We'll stay here as long as it takes," she said. "You need to know these backwards and forwards so you don't get tripped up."
She's going to lose it when she sees the one I missed, Owen thinks. He knows what she'll say. "We worked on that one, didn't we?"
At home, Owen's aunt puts away the groceries and he takes everything out of his backpack. He pulls the science test out of the folder, bends it in half and straightens it again.
Aunt Serena is standing at the kitchen counter cutting apple slices. He's watched her before. She holds the red apple steady with one hand and pushes the knife through with the other, each slice the same width as the one before it. His mother hadn't done it that way. She would have handed him one slice at a time, a thick chunk one time and a sliver the next, so thin he could almost see through it. She would have stared out of the window and put a piece in her mouth, chewing it slowly. That's what his mother would have done.
When his aunt brings the saucer over to the table, Owen shows her the science test, pointing to the question marked with a red x. She leans down to read it and nods.
"That was a tricky one. I'm sure you did your best." She squeezes his shoulder. Owen stares at her and wonders what has happened to make her this loose, stretched out way. It reminds him of his running shoes when the laces aren't pulled tight enough.
"How much homework do you have?"
"Not much, just grammar." He points to the workbook on the table.
"Over, around, on, behind, they're all prepositions," he remembers her saying a few nights ago. "Just imagine there's a box in the middle of the floor. You could stand on the box or climb under it or hide behind it."
Today she leaves him alone. "I'm going to sit down on the couch for a minute. Come get me if you need any help."
After he finishes his homework, Owen leaves it on the kitchen counter and goes into the living room. It's beginning to get dark, but she hasn't turned on any lights. Uncle Ron's car pulls into the driveway and the headlights shine through the living room window before blinking off.
"I should go see about dinner." She sighs and gets up from the couch.
As Uncle Ron comes in the back door, Owen asks if they can play football.
"Just a little bit and get your coat," Aunt Serena says, opening the refrigerator.
Owen's uncle turns on the outside lights. "We need to practice, don't we Owen? You're definitely one of the biggest and strongest kids in your class - and fast too. They'll want you for the team next year."
Sometimes when he jumps to catch the ball or when he leans back to throw it, Owen can see his aunt through the kitchen window. Running water at the sink, carrying a pot to the stove. She taps on the window when dinner is ready.
At the table Owen is surprised to see that she's made his favorite dinner, the one his mother used to make. Fried chicken with gravy – the white kind – and corn cut off the cob, shiny with butter. Last night they ate boiled asparagus and baked white fish that didn't taste like anything except the black pepper sprinkled on top. And the night before that it was plain grilled chicken and white rice with carrots and peas.
"This is so good," Owen says, reaching for another bite of chicken. "It's amazing."
Aunt Serena smiles. "I'm so glad you like it."
"I sure am glad you've come to live with us," Owen's uncle says, patting him on the back. "Otherwise I'd never get dinners like this."
"Ron." Owen's aunt shakes her head and Uncle Ron holds up his hands, like the criminals on TV when they're surrendering to the police.
When his uncle starts to clean off the table, Aunt Serena holds up her finger. "One more thing," she says, getting up from her chair. Owen and
Uncle Ron look at each other. Even though he's only lived with them for a few months, Owen knows they don't have dessert except on birthdays. Aunt Serena comes over carrying three bowls and spoons.
"Ice cream?" Uncle Ron asks. "Wow, what's the occasion?"
She shrugs. "Life's short."
Owen's uncle frowns, but she doesn't say anything else. She dips her spoon into the ice cream carefully, like it might break.
"Hey, it's mint chocolate chip, buddy," Uncle Ron says. "Remember me telling you how good it is?"
Owen nods. "It's awesome. The mint makes it even colder."
"It does, doesn't it?" His uncle laughs, nodding like Owen has discovered something.
That night Owen is getting ready for bed when he hears them talking.
"They'll get the results back next week," Aunt Serena is saying and she starts crying. "Probably Tuesday."
"I'm sure it's nothing," Uncle Ron says.
"I've got a bad feeling about it. And here he is, he's already lost--"
"Shhhh, you worry too much. You can't think that way."
When he's in bed, Owen thinks about the day his parents died. He remembers waiting for them at their neighbor's house.
"We'll just be an hour or so," his mom had said. "Please don't let him eat too much candy."
His dad had picked something out of his mom's hair - a flower petal or a leaf. He remembers once it started to get dark how he sat backwards on Mrs. Tucker's couch, watching the driveway through the window. Rubbing his chin over the scratchy fabric. Pushing down the cushion with his hand and watching it grow back to its original size. Mrs. Tucker switching the TV channel to a singing show and saying, "I'm sure they just got caught in traffic." The orange taffy and the way it pulled on his back teeth. The waxed paper wrappers in his pocket from all the pieces he took when Mrs. Tucker wasn't looking.
Now lying in bed, he pulls the shade away from the window and looks for the moon. It's in the crescent phase, but he doesn't remember whether it's waxing or waning. Tomorrow he'll ask his teacher when it will be a new moon. "A time of new beginnings," she had said in class. He imagines himself lying on the moon, stretched out and still six times smaller than he is now.
Over the next few days, Owen watches Aunt Serena, but she looks the same. When he gets up in the morning, she's already in the kitchen with her hair combed and her shirt tucked in. But she keeps giving them dessert. Chocolate cake one day and lemon squares the next. On
Monday she lets him have a leftover lemon square for his after-school snack. He presses his lips into it, letting the lemon sting a tiny cut in his mouth, and he wishes for the awake chilliness of apple breaking on his tongue.
On Tuesday morning, Owen asks his aunt if she's going to pick him up from school that afternoon.
"Of course. Why wouldn't I?"
He shrugs. "I don't know."
"I have some things to do today, but I'll be finished by early afternoon. Plenty of time to pick you up. Now hop in the car or we'll be late."
Owen touches the money in his pocket, the allowance he's been saving up for a skateboard, and he climbs into the backseat.
They have snack time in the morning, right after current events. Owen pulls out his lunch box and instead of carrot sticks or raisins, there's a cookie fat with chocolate chips. He puts it down and slides it across the desk to Darcy. Her mouth drops open.
"Well, do you want it or not?" Owen asks.
"But I don't have anything –"
Owen shakes his head. "It's not like that." He wants to say he's sorry for all the days before, but he doesn't.
He raises his hand and asks for a bathroom pass. In the hallway, he finds the lockers assigned to Darcy, Riley, Sam, and Mason. He's thinking about all the things he's gotten out of them. Brownie, cookie, doughnut, cupcake. He slides a dollar through the metal slats of each of their lockers. "I'm sorry," he whispers. He has money left over and he keeps putting dollar bills in the lockers until he runs out. He figures he owes them each one dollar, but he's given them much more. He does the math, nodding when he realizes that he's given them each six dollars.
When she picks him up from school, his aunt asks again if he made any new friends.
"Maybe." Owen stares at the back of her head, the way she leans forward after the light turns green, checking to make sure it's clear to go.
At home he puts his backpack on the kitchen table and Aunt Serena drops the car keys in the bowl on the counter. "After you eat something, let's take a look at your homework."
"Okay." He keeps pulling on the zipper of his backpack, back and forth, just for the sound it makes.
"You mean yes, ma'am," she says and Owen tries to swallow but he can't. "Yes, ma'am," he whispers and waits to see what she will bring him. She's standing at the kitchen counter with her back turned to him. He hears the knife sliding through and the dull thud as it hits the cutting board. When she turns around and hands him a plate of apple slices, he sees for the first time how each piece is shaped like the moon.
By Ellyn Bache of Greer, S.C.
Not until many years later did Melba reflect on her marriage.
By then she was living a narrow, white-haired life in a retirement home, independent living but if she keeled over they could haul her off to the next level of care.
She and Kenneth had married young, raised two children, spent thirty years in insurance (him), forty in retail (her). He was so handsome, she was still in love with his looks years later. About once a month they fought. Loud, bitter fights late at night, always over money. They had a joint account but she also kept one in her own name. "Why is the money I earn our money but your money is yours?" She said, "It's for when you leave me and run off with some other woman!"
The children, roused by their racket, huddled together discussing who they would go with after the divorce.
By then Melba and Kenneth had made up and made love.
His annual Christmas party usually broke up by ten. One year when her phone rang at eleven, she expected police, bad news, the worst. It was Jack McNulty, whose wife worked for the firm. "Do you know your husband and my wife are alone in that office, and that everyone else has left and the door is locked?"
Jack's wife, Linda, was pretty. Prettier than Melba. A new-ish employee who followed Kenneth with her eyes.
He stumbled in an hour later. "What a night. Everyone went for a nightcap at Bailey's, and Linda's husband barreled in and dragged her out. I think I've lost an employee."
That jokey tone of voice, he only used it when he lied. She picked up a manicure scissors and lashed out at him, insides boiling. She caught his left earlobe, a ragged slice. He bled like a pig. Later in bed (truce declared, first aid applied), he said, "You're my only sweetie, Melba. My only love."
She snuggled closer but didn't say she loved him. Not then, not ever again, though she did.
The roil, the tumble of the marriage. Linda didn't come back to work. Never even called.
Melba earned more than Kenneth did, most years. Then she got laid off. She'd thought her whole tight knot of ego was wrapped up in that job. It wasn't after all. She got another job, less pay, but quit when Kenneth got sick.
His pain. His yellow skin. Her revulsion. She hid it well. Life always turns away from death, she told herself. No excuse. He was only sixty.
One day she saw Linda McNulty entering the hospital as she was leaving.
Was it Linda?
She felt the slash of sharp scissors, shredding an earlobe. Felt herself bleeding like a pig. Inwardly, of course. He'd been sleeping with her all these years.
Maybe it wasn't Linda.
A private funeral. Acres of flowers. A terrible time. After a while, not so terrible. All that hot passion, draining little by little. She was glad to be rid of it. She missed him, though.
One day she looked in the mirror and saw her middle had grown thick. Years ago she would have starved it off. Old women used to remind her of cows, their slow bodies, their incurious gaze, seeing and not seeing. Kenneth had been wonderful, but he'd exhausted her. He loves me, he loves me not. In the retirement home she had people to eat with. A van to take her shopping. No painful illness, not yet, just this thin glaze of serenity. Soothing, really. She'd always liked cows.
By Michele Tracy Berger of Pittsboro
No one suspects you're a dealer when you're in a limo," Brian said to Cara, his school's social worker. When he talks with her, Brian feels time slow down, melt, and thicken, allowing him to think and recently that loosened his tongue. She appears now in his mind's eye for a moment – a brown giantess, who wears spectacularly large gold hoop earrings, loud orange vests, and sometimes even a jumpsuit. She looks kind of hip for an old black lady, especially when she wears combat boots. Not like the others over the years.
Now, he closes his eyes for a moment and leans against the leather headrest that fits him perfectly, letting the music of Marvin Gaye reach through him. His dad's favorite. He likes it, too.
"Three stops." His father turns down the music.
Brian nods. They've already done five stops (three girls' night out trips, and two anniversaries), all legit rides and when Brian looks out the window, he sees late night, the stars are out.
He has his father's mop of dark blonde hair and at fifteen is almost as tall as him. His dad is bulky, he fills out a suit; Brian is wiry, he can live on protein shakes like his dad, lift weights constantly and maybe put on five pounds.
When did you start working with your father?
Since I was twelve, after mom died he wants to say out loud, but swallows instead. Stupid, you're letting her creep in. He wants the social worker's voice to be quiet. Cara's not here with him in the night.
The Lincoln Mega stretch limo eases to a stop behind a row of apartment buildings. A man emerges from the shadows. His father makes the tinted passenger side window slide slow, just enough so it's level with Brian's eyes. Dad looks out for me just fine. Brian reaches down and carefully peels away a small white packet that's taped behind his belt buckle. He knows his father's right hand rests on a Glock 17, but there won't be trouble here.
The man slips in several neatly folded hundred dollar bills. Brian uses just the barest touch of his thumb and forefinger to take it. Sometimes folks are so jittery, they fling the money in Brian's lap and it takes him forever to count it. Their eyes are the ones he remembers when he's tired, too tired to eat his dad's undercooked oatmeal and runny eggs.
Hardest job there is. One wrong move and you're gone. But it's a good job, you know? And, I'm inside most of the time. Cara's large brown face, dotted with nubby moles, stayed open when he told her more. No arching eyebrows even. Had he ever gotten this far with the others? No, they believed he fell asleep in his classes because he was dumb, lazy, maybe even retarded. He wonders if high school will be different. Is there is a point to keep coming to classes, sitting in the back and listening to teachers who know nothing about his nights?
They round a corner near a warehouse district and park. His father gets out and smokes a cigarette leaning against the limo. This is Brian's cue.
He's got to cut the rest of the stuff up. Never at home, always around some corner. Worst part of the job. He opens a compartment next to his seat and reaches for the mirror. A small plastic bag of brownish powder is underneath. He dumps out a little on the mirror. This is heroin, and unlike coke, it needs to be cut some so it's not too strong, so that his father can make it last longer and make more money. From under his seat,
Brian grabs a small bag of powdered sugar. He unsheathes the razor blade in his wallet and moves the blade into the thick powder dividing it into columns. He adds a bit of sugar, divides them further. He is deft with the blade. Brian looks to his left and makes sure his father is still taking a break. Then, a quick taste. Pinky finger to nose, and a deep inhale. Only way he can stay calm now. His secret. Besides, Brian learned in his economics class about the importance of quality control in running a business.
This stop always makes Brian tense. He opens the glove compartment and chomps on his stash of Reese's Peanut Buttercups. One after the other. His father pulls behind a Hummer limo and a black Audi.
His whole body shakes to the beat of the music from the club. He's got to be on now. These are the classy buyers, dopers and addicts. They will run in and out of the club to buy and then some will want to hang out in the limo. He will soon turn into clean-up boy, watching to make sure no one scratches the upholstery, breaks the champagne glasses, leaves lipstick tubes or keys behind, or takes stuff out of the limo that doesn't belong to them. Sometimes, his father tells him to get in the main cabin and serve them drinks. Usually he's tending to rowdy fuckers who spit, curse and spill everything, sometimes on purpose, he thinks. Some like to see me scurry.
Later tonight, if he's lucky, he might see rich women's legs straddling their guys. Tiny sparkly dresses hiked up around their butts and their backs undulating to secret rhythms. You haven't told me about that perk, Cara says. He ignores her. What would she know about anything sexy like that? He has to be careful though not to remind those in the back that although a screen divides, it does not fully conceal. He is supposed to be invisible. The invisible son. He has not told Cara about how invisible he could be as a pretend chauffer apprentice. 'A chauffer apprentice' is what his dad says to people when they look at him in that 'What's your kid doing here?' kind of way.
"My son can work in Vegas or LA. He's had the best training," his dad would say.
The chocolate and heroin surges through Brian's body and everything feels RIGHT NOW – the stars coming at him from far away, the crimson stockings that girl wears as she goes into the club, the feeling that he knows all about the night. He holds on to that delicious moment knowing it will fade in just a few more seconds. There it goes.
His dad stretches, loosens his tie and reaches into his pocket to light up his usual at this hour – an atom bomb – marijuana mixed with heroin. In a moment he gets out, opens the back door of the limo and changes out of his formal black jacket and hat to an electric blue double-breasted jacket. It's a ritual Brian knows well. Although his dad will sell and score, he knows that now is his dad's time for fun. To party with other limo drivers who deal. He watches his father walk and wonders what it will be like to fill that electric blue suit someday.
Throughout the night, Brian takes money with his two-finger touch. Good colognes and perfumes waft past his nose – he imagines they have names like Destiny, Mysterious Pleasure, and Seductive Nights. He's not supposed to keep the engine on, but he does so to listen to music. To stay awake. He's not allowed to listen to his iPod; his dad's quick right hook against his face made sure that mistake wouldn't be repeated. He is supposed to look out for the police or rival dealers.
A giggle erupts at the edge of Brian's consciousness, jerks him awake. The screen is down because no one has come into the limo for any additional fun. He turns and sees a woman in a red skirt and black low-cut top kissing his dad's chest.
"What you got for me tonight? Hey, hey, hey," the woman says. Her lips are pouty and for a moment Brian wonders what it would be like to be next to those lips. Or, any female lips. He never gets to meet girls.
"Calm down," his father says to the woman Brian recognizes now as 'Pris,' a local gal who likes to hang with the high rollers. Sometimes she asks how school is going and what music he listens to. No big deal.
Pris turns, leans forward and Brian sees how lit up her dusty brown eyes look, like a character in a video game, how her usually put-together face looks lopsided, as if someone had come and wiped half her makeup off.
"You OK?" Brian asks her.
His father jerks his face up from Pris's ample cleavage, "Of course she's OK."
Is there anyone special in your father's life?
No. Not like my mom. He sometimes brings girls to the limo. Party girls, you know.
What do you do when he's with them?
I walk around. Dad's dates are always OK with him.
Brian gets out of the limo before his father gives him another look. He didn't know that Pris was one of his father's regular dates, but whatever they were doing, he leaves them to it. Not a show worth watching. But, he lingers near the limo, a jittery feeling coming over him, as if he might vomit up his congealed peanut butter cups right there.
He walks the length of the block and back twice. A bouncer he doesn't know gives him the once over, so soon Brian heads back to the limo. He knows something is wrong when he sees his father, disheveled and looking around for him. Brian knows that look. He's seen it before. Once when his mother died in a car accident, and last year when they were stopped by the police after finishing a drug run. His father's hazel eyes seem to go flat gray for a moment then as he breathes in, Brian sees them spark awake. Brian wants to retreat, feels the ball of his right foot, housed in a black sneaker, lift up slow. He knows this anger is a rope waiting to choke him.
Brian obeys and moves to the passenger side.
"Idiot! In the back, on the other side," his father explodes, stabbing the air with his forefinger several times.
Brian hustles over and opens the door. Pris is stretched out on the beige couch, face down, bleeding from a gash on the side of her head.
"That stupid bitch tried to steal from me," his father yells, starts up the limo.
"She's bleeding," Brian says into the cold night. Brian looks around searching for what she might have hit her head on.
"We can't take her back into the club," his father says.
What are you going to do if your dad really hurts someone? Cara had saved that question for last.
In all our years in the limo, my father hasn't ever hurt anyone.
"We have to take her somewhere. To a hospital," Brian says. He dabs at the gash with a wad of cocktail napkins.
"Right." His father looks at him in the rearview mirror. Brian pretends he does not know that the direction they are heading is not in the direction of any hospital. He wonders what he will do when they arrive.
Brian can't hear Cara's voice anymore.
By Sheryl Cornett of Chapel Hill
I'm in the first checkout slot, where I keep an eye on the new computerized U-Scan machines, when in walk these three dudes in nothing but bathing suits. It's the slow time of day, mid-July afternoon and the heat index is one hundred ten. At first, since I'm wishing I'd done my nails last night and thinking about tomorrow's eight o'clock world lit test, I don't see them. Instead of heading straight away for our produce section like most customers coming here to the Ridge Food Liner, these dudes swing by the pharmacy-health-beauty-aids section. The tallest dude, I see on the security camera, puts a blue-green box of Trojans in his carry basket. Then I see them, alongside the cola products, the chips-dips-nuts-snacks aisle. The one that catches my eye first wears surfer swim trunks, the kind with big tropical flowers. He's the next tallest, medium height, catches my eye quicker than quick – not just because he's got that beach-boy-blond hair and peach fuzz-colored hairy barrel chest, either – but because I'm always on the watch for the boys who aren't too tall, since I'm a flat five feet. People say my name matches my size: Pia, after my Swedish grandmom – I have her blue eyes and white blond hair, too – who came over on the boat inside her momma. It happens: you can be conceived in the old homeland, born in the new one.
The U-Scan alarm jolts me out of my head. The daydream zone, my boss Rouge calls it. Its blue light blinks on-off indicating some product slipped by the scanner, bar code unread. A space-age voice comes out of the machines and says: unknown item in bagging area. It happens all the time. I look up to see a leftover hippy of, say, age fifty-five, a gray pony tail snaking down his back. Did he really think I wouldn't notice him sneaking a frozen pizza? Not a cheap store brand either, but a gourmet four-cheese. I walk over from my register perch between the two U-Scanners, and run his pizza through again – I'm doing him a favor! – and he starts giving me hell, cussing me out as if I'd been the one stealing it. I cuss right back at him, tell him to get a life.
At this point Rouge our assistant manager comes out of her glass cubicle to smooth the hippy-feathers. But first she reminds me of my mission as head cashier: Customer Service. "Pia," she says to me quietly. "You know the drill." Before she can say anything to the hippy, he's got his pizza-Slimfast-prune juice in paper bags, not plastic, and is out the automatic sliding doors. Every time these open they let in an oven-blast of heat from the parking lot.
By now the dudes in bathing suits are over in the beer-wine-light bulbs aisle. That's when I really notice Stud, leader of the pack, shortest of the three and therefore also just my type. Probably only five-five or so, he's got this gold-tan hairless chest. Clearly, he's the pretty boy in charge. He's used to it, being in charge. Confident. Shoulder length hair that flips back in just the right Owen Wilson way.
He's cool-smooth, alright. He's the center of everything, walking with that straight ahead look in his brown sugar eyes. Hairy Barrel Chest and Tall-Dude walk behind Stud a little to the right and left of him like body guards forming a "V." You have to wonder what a stud like that is thinking, walking along behind his leader, in formation. Do studs have brains? Or just a mini, unfeeling PC clone on auto-pilot humming inside their heads?
Anyway, Stud must've felt me and Rouge looking him over as he's selecting beer. European-style domestic.
I know she's thinking "born-after-1991" questions, but what she says shocks me: "Oh sister. Oh sister Pia. I'm drooling. I'm drooling all over everywhere." She tucks her arm into mine. You know, its one thing to have these dudes-in-bathing-suits at the pool or over at the lake-beach and quite another to have them in here bare-chested, au natural as God made them. Even clueless househusbands in their sweats and Durham Bulls baseball caps perk up and stare at them.
"Oh sister," Rouge says again. "Hold me up here. I feel so faint."
"You bet," I say. "That's some sweet-daddy."
"You can say that again."
I'm happy to prop up Rouge. She knows what's what when it comes to guys, and I take notes. Rouge has had three husbands already, and three hell-raising little boys – one by each hubby – and she's only twenty-five. I'm already twenty and still get antsy after three months with the same guy, and she's three-for-three when it comes to husbands. But since the last one was went to jail, Rouge got religion instead of a new man. She's always asking me to go with her to The Church of the Wayfaring Stranger, and I admit I've been a time or two. It's kinda exciting; revs you up and all.
All of a sudden Rouge pulls herself up and says, as if she were talking to these dudes and not to me: "No shoes, no shirt, no service. We must enforce store policy."
"Ah come on, Rouge –" I say.
"I'll handle this, Pia." She smoothes her curly red hair and says again: "We have to enforce store policy." Now she's got on her preacher voice, her hazel eyes flaming as if reflecting her hair. "Gentleman," she says to me, practicing, "we are ten miles from the lake-beach, and three hours from the ocean." She breathes deep, stands up straight, un-tucks her arm from mine and marches up to my guys.
I call after her before she gets to them. "Yeah, we're ten miles from the lake, but we did have a full scale hurricane blow inland here to Ridge, all the way from Cape Hatteras. Back in '96, remember?"
"Oh, Lord, yes." Rouge stops and looks for a sec like she might let them off the hook, but bucks up and goes on with it. When she turns back to find them, they've disappeared down the gourmet-ethnic-couscous-pasta-rice aisle and I start to feel sorry for them.
Now here comes the sad part of this whole brou-ha-ha. At least my momma thinks it's sad for a girl trying to put herself through college by working the Food Liner U-Scan. "You'll never find a better boss than Rouge. She's pulling for you to do things she never did," momma's always telling me.
Out of nowhere, in a flash, the dudes rendezvous at the U-Scan. Rouge walks right up to them. "Excuse me." She talks directly to Stud, leader-of-the-pack. "Store policy states no shoes, no shirt, no service." She's got this high and mighty voice going, her freckled face uplifted, her chin thrust out to wait for their response.
Stud doesn't miss a beat, flashing his pearly whites. "We just stopped in for some – unexpected essentials." I see Rouge eyeing the contents of the carry basket: the Trojans, the six-pack of Carolina Pale-Ale, some blue corn tortilla chips.
"Be that as it may," Rouge preaches, "no shoes, no shirt, no service." She turns sharply and heads into her glass-walled cubicle, where the phone is ringing. As she goes, she's giving me the nod: you take it from here. Rouge wants me to have her job someday, after she moves onto the corporate office. I'm left here, up close, with these three dudes in nothing but bathing suits.
They look right at me and I feel taller than I ever have, though my knees may give out any minute what with all this heat running through my joints. I'm sweating all over when I say, "May I see your ID?" No sooner do I say this than I'm wondering where the hell he's going to get ID from or, for that matter, money? No pockets in that swim suit, no wallet in sight.
Stud reaches slowly down to loosen his lace-up fly and, oh-my-oh-my, you can see the line of white skin where the sun has not tanned his bikini area and he pulls out a twenty wrapped around a driver's license, hands it over to Tall-Dude without taking his eyes off mine. Then he hands me – our palms brushing – his ID: born in 1987. Praise the Lord! He's of age. His hands have got to be as smooth as that chest of shiny pectorals. Now he's giving me one of those half smiles that guys smile when they're letting you in on a secret, like they're doing you a favor.
I'm thinking, oh sister, oh Rouge, I feel so faint.
Meanwhile, Barrel Chest scans the condoms, beer, and chips. Pretty Boy waits for me to hand back his ID which I almost forget to do. Tall-Dude gets the items bagged – plastic, not paper – in no time. Stud winks at me, white lights go off in my head, and they're gone, out the automatic sliding doors, into the summer glare-off-asphalt. I stand there behind the u-scan watch-post, sweat sliding down my legs and I feel so lost. Oh Rouge, where are you now? I need your shoulder to lean on.
I told you Rouge doesn't miss much. Before I know it, she's slipping out of her cubicle, right beside me and in my face. Before I've even got my eyes off those sweet-daddy-backsides.
I can hear the flowery fabric of their swim trucks swishing back and forth as they walk away. I believe I will hear this for the rest of my life.
"Pia." Rouge stares me down. "Pia." Her curly hair and hazel eyes don't feel sisterly anymore.
"Pia, I feel about you as if you were my own baby sister," she says, putting her arm around me. I smell her peppermint gum. "Let this serve as a warning. If you ever disregard store policy again–"
"I won't, Rouge," I say, standing on tiptoes. "I quit."
Rouge's eyes – so recently flaming – go watery. "You'll be sorry if you do that."
"I truly hope not," I say. I don't say: maybe this is my chance; I'll take what I can get. Strike while the iron's hot, my grandmom used to say. I say:
"Thank you for everything you've done for me schedule-wise and all."
"You'll regret this for the rest of your life," Rouge says as I hand her my name-badge. "Don't do it, sister," she lunges to hug me, but I turn to get my bag.
"You'll be sorry," she says again. I let her hug me this time. "You'll never do better for working your way through college. I give you first pick of the shifts."
"I know it," I say and mean it. "But I have to go."
I hit the parking lot – which is so hot it shimmers like a mirage – just in time to see my dudes pulling out in their Jeep, windows down. "Brown Eyed Girl" pulses from the CD player's trunk speakers.
"Wait, wait!" I holler. But they can't hear me over the bass.
The Jeep rounds the corner to leave the shopping center, and I feel a hot white stab in the middle of my forehead, a stab that's telling me just how hard my life could be from here on out.
By Janice Mack Guess of Durham
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light and the burdens of my heart rolled away," The Inspirational Gospel Choir was singing sweetly, "it was there by faith I received my sight..." Daddy had finished preaching and was now appealing to all believers to come to the altar for prayer.
I sat on the back pew in St. Paul AME Zion Church, weary from a long day of church services and activities. This was our second service and as
I slumped back into the pew, Mama shot me a warning eye from the choir to sit up in my seat.
My daddy was a Methodist minister who pastored four churches in the Pittsboro-Sanford Circuit of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. He rotated morning and evening services at two churches each Sunday; this was the third Sunday in July of 1964 and we were in the evening service at St Paul.
Later, after receiving the "pounding" (food from the congregation, oftentimes given in lieu of money), we piled into our car, eager for the one hour ride back to Durham. I could see the full moon, big and yellow against the darkened sky as we were leaving Bear Creek, a little sleepy village outside Sanford, North Carolina. For some reason, a slight shiver ran down my spine.
The winding country road was dark and long as we hunched in the back seat while Mama and Daddy were busy in conversation reliving the day's events.
"Daddy," Mama was saying as she unwrapped a chicken leg from the straw "pounding" basket given to her by Mrs. Flack. "Here, eat this, you haven't had anything since dinner and you didn't eat much then."
Our parents referred to each other as "Mama and Daddy" when we were toddlers so that we would do the same. It was a habit they continued even though we were old enough now to know better.
"Deacon Jones sure did sing that song and the choir was good too," Daddy was saying as he munched on the chicken thigh. "That man should have been a professional singer. It sure does help when you have some good singing right after a sermon, it helps to keep the spirit alive. "
"Yes it does," Mama chimed in, "and I thought Mrs. Brunson was never gonna stop shouting," both nodding their heads in agreement. You could hear the pride in Mama's voice. She was so proud of Daddy after his sermons and was always his loudest and most enthusiastic supporter when he was preaching.
I just sat back feeling really content. I loved our Sundays because the folks at my daddy's churches were so nice. We were always invited to Sunday dinner and treated like royalty. Back then, country people took pride in having the preacher's family for dinner after church: fried chicken, potato salad, green beans, cakes, pies, homemade hot rolls, sweet lemonade from a wooden barrel – you name it, and they had it, and plenty, too! And best of all, they always packed us a basket to go.
"Move your foot off me," Jerry was saying through his clenched teeth to Jennifer, his twin sister. "You just scratched me with your shoe."
Jennifer threw him a menacing look as she slowly moved her foot.
"I cannot help it, we are packed in here like sardines so shut your pie hole."
"OK, one more word and I'm gonna stop this car and take care of business," Daddy warned. Daddy always talked about whooping us but he never did. It was Mama we feared; when she talked we knew she meant business.
Joyce Ann was beginning to snore so I nudged her in the side to quiet her down. As we rounded the curve, I noticed the road was lined with cars on both sides.
Just as I lturned to look out the back right window, Daddy yelled, "Y'all get on the floor and cover your heads, that's a Klu Klux Klan rally over there...Mama, you get down too, I'm gonna drive on thru this crowd."
I could hear the fear in his voice even though he was trying not to show it.
"Get down on the floor and stay like your daddy said," Mama repeated in a shaking voice, "it's gonna be alright." I could tell she was trying to sound braver than she felt.
I raised my head and stole a look out the side window as Daddy sped up. I could see a huge burning cross in the clearing and people in white robes and hoods standing around the cross. The white folks standing along the road were not wearing robes or hoods. They were laughing and joking like they were at a party. I was amazed and probably too young and ignorant to be scared. Why in the world did all those people have on white hoods, I wondered. At first, I thought they were having a night baptism because the cross had always been a symbol of goodness and holiness, and the white garments reminded me of the white robes Daddy and his deacons wore when they baptized new Christians in the river.
But the tall, white hoods with the two holes for the eyes, looked sinister, like something the devil would wear!
By now it dawned on me that this was not something holy and sacred; this was evil and I shook with fear. I could feel the sweat in the palms of my hands and my heart was beating so fast I could hear it in my ears.
Mama was beginning to cry and Daddy was talking very quietly to calm her down. "Mama, we gonna be alright, they will just think I am a white man and will not bother us".
Daddy was a light skinned black man with black straight hair but I never thought anything about his color until then. His daddy was a white man and his mother was a Negro. I guess Daddy knew that if they were to look in our car and see us, they would know we were Negroes because we were all different shades of brown. I could not see the faces of my brother and sisters, but I could taste fear as thick as molasses in the heat of our car.
Daddy just kept driving and finally, after what seemed an eternity, we left the burning cross and all those angry looking faces and hooded folks behind us. When I buried my head in my lap, I noticed my dress was soaking wet with the water from my tears as I cried with relief.
We slowly climbed back into the back seat and sat quietly digesting the last few minutes that seemed to last a lifetime. Mama was in the front seat praying and thanking God for our safety. From the rear view window, I continued to watch the bright orange flames licking the black sky of that burning cross until it was out of my sight. Finally, we reached the safety of the main highway leaving the nightmare behind. We didn't talk again until we reached home.
I did not know it then, but that Klan rally followed the signing of the Civil Rights Act of July 2, 1964. Mama and Daddy told us that some white people were very angry about the passing of that historic bill.
By Alice Osborn of Raleigh
Spawn of Satan!
Up and down house, fall risk.
Bad duct work, damp, moldy, effing ugly.
Come on, aluminum siding has its merits. OK, had.
I'm a good house for the money,
try finding a better deal inside the Beltway.
I'll guarantee you exercise –
open the front door to six steps
to the kitchen and bedrooms,
and six to the rec room.
You can see everything from the front door,
good when it's a party, bad
when Grandpa is wearing his holey boxers.
I'm open, friendly,
just don't call me white trash with new paint.
They don't build my kind anymore;
everyone wants to live in a manor.
Good God, eight months on the market,
when will I get my new family?
The split levels, colonials, contemporaries, Tudors,
and cute little Dutch styles think they got it
going on with their cathedral ceilings,
kitchen islands, free-standing tubs.
I've got new beige carpets, a tile shower
and granite countertops in the kitchen.
But pregnant mom groans when she climbs
the stairs, worried about the baby falling.
Fat dad refuses to leave the foyer.
The five-year-old twins scamper
up and down twenty-five times,
hanging on my banister.
Gaze beyond my entry-way, why don't ya?
Between husbands and wives,
teenagers and parents,
mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.
No divorces. No estrangements.
I've kept the peace for 52 years.
How about you?
By Susan Thomas of Raleigh
impatience waits in a serpent line
winding down the hallways awaiting the opening of doors
while dancers primp backstage
doors open to a low cheer
tickets then the rush for seats
bargaining for better
compromising for more
the crowd stills for the show
knowing they will enjoy
but tolerate the truly talented
to celebrate the truly loved
sweat trickles down sequined backs
exhausted fairies on the floor
constant migration of tulle
stirs the stifling humid air
backstage shushes whispers
the clatter of tiny tappers
en pointe angels stomp their toes
in a sawdust box then fly
the swell of loving hearts
heard in the roar of applause
appreciation of stage magic
acknowledgement of hard work