Coming Next Month: Staff Favorites


Powerful Storytellers

Champs in the annual
Carolina Woman Writing Contest


Chalk up another exceptional year for the Carolina Woman Writing Contest. We received nearly 100 outstanding entries, many dealing astutely with the lives of women and girls in all their complexity. Powerful narratives displayed their characters' audacity and fortitude as well as passion and joy.


As I devoured the entries, I experienced many strong emotions, chief among them pride. I'm proud that, year after year, Carolina Woman publishes the writing of women in our state. And I'm proud of the deep well of talent displayed by those who submit their fiction, nonfiction and poetry. My respect goes out to everyone who has the courage to tell her story.


– Debra Simon, Editor & Publisher




Grand Prize


"What I Learned About Romance, Love and Clowning Around Under the Big Top"


Personal essay by Lucinda Trew of Weddington, N.C.


Everyone claims to have dated a clown. I actually came pretty close to sealing the banana-peel deal.


I was a feature writer for a small southern newspaper and it was my first job out of college. I was green enough to be thrilled with every assignment that came my way, and especially pleased to be assigned circus-duty.


And I wouldn't just be covering the show: I was going to be part of the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College – an abbreviated, pass-fail, press-pass kind of deal. I was going to learn how to juggle, pratfall, and do my makeup in a way that would horrify the ladies at the Estee Lauder counter back home.


This was in the early 1980s, decades before animal rights activism made traveling circuses and nomadic troupes of acrobats, lion tamers and jesters obsolete. This was pre-PETA and pre-political correctness, when chimps in short pants and donkeys doctored to look like unicorns charmed rather than alarmed. It was magic, and I was drawn in by the wispy spun-sugar clouds.


The arena looked decidedly different during the day: A bevy of activity – still being assembled and arrayed with high wires, colorful silk awning, cages and lights. Horses were cantering, led by trainers in jeans and sweatshirts, not spangly costumes. Performers were bantering, teasing one another, drinking from Styrofoam cups of coffee.


No one was in character or showtime "ON!" mode.


Until the clowns rolled in. Our faculty arrived in a parade of honking small cars, falling all over themselves as they piled out.


We, on the other hand, a geeky gaggle of reporters were neatly assembled, notepads and cameras at the ready. We may have been standing in sawdust, surrounded by elephant turds, awaiting orders from a motley lot of clowns in baggy britches – but we were alert, ready for the above-the-fold scoop.


We were offered bouquets of bright plastic flowers and, you guessed it, a squirt in the face.


We were put through the goofball paces: somersaults and pratfalls, oversized gestures, silk scarves up our sleeves, skits, gags, and extremely large shoes.


It was surprisingly, disconcertingly intense, made more so when I realized that Stilton was flirting with me. His cheesy clown name seemed to suit: He was tall and gangly thin, in tattered trousers, brightly patched jacket, and a daisy wilting from his lapel. It was hard to discern much else.


I thought he was about my age. I thought he might be cute behind the charcoal chin stubble and grease paint. And I thought – no I knew – that I could dry that giant teardrop from his cheek and turn his exaggerated frown upside down. We all want to save forlorn souls, don't we? And melancholy clowns are heart-meltingly likable.
I flirted back.


The day flew by as acrobats flew overhead, warming up for the show. Stilton and I warmed to one another as well. He doffed his porkpie hat at me, bowed genteelly, and moseyed sheepishly over during breaks.


Our flirtation was mostly pantomimed, which had its own quiet charm. He steadied me when it was my turn to stilt-walk and gave me a thumbs-up from his fingerless gloves when I finally tumbled more than stumbled.


And then the bell rang on clown college and it was time to matriculate and file stories.


He asked for my number, and suggested dinner after the show. I told him I'd think about it.


We all fantasize about love and liaisons, and what's more fantasy-like than running away with the circus – and a devoted clown?


It was so sublimely, mime-ly mysterious. What would he look like without the makeup and costume? What would we (finally!) talk about? And don't all women want someone who can make them laugh? Pull tricks from his sleeve? Fall, literally and laughably, head over heels for you?


But I rubber chickened out.


I got home, thought about the day ... and John Wayne Gacy and Ronald McDonald.


I thought back to a time in college when I was on a first date with a cute, quirky guy. We were strolling, enjoying scoops of Ben & Jerry's, when he handed me his cone, sprung into a handstand, and commenced to walk on his hands, clearing the Saturday night sidewalk. I recalled mint chocolate chip dripping down my blouse and a strawberry blush rising in my cheeks.


I was pretty sure I wasn't up to clown courtship.


Do I have regrets? Of course! We tend to regret the risks and romances we steer clear of, and the ones who get away – even if the get-away vehicle is a garish, honking VW bug carrying your clown crush and 26 of his closest pals.


But there is also something lovely about having a regret not fully revealed. A Mystery Date undivulged ... a masked suitor who will never disappoint or fall short. The three rings of a circus are all about fantasy, caprice, and trading pinstripes for polka dots – at least for a day.


Here's another lesson from my circus tutelage: The art of clowning is drama without the fourth wall. Jesters and jokers need an audience's reaction – our gasps and guffaws, our readiness to play sidekick in a sidecar. And isn't that what romance is all about, too? You have to be all in – willing to take a pie to the face or a kick in the pants.


It's messy. Over-the-Big Top-silly. Love, and whatever enchanting nonsense leads to it, is totally unscripted and unrehearsed. And unlike the acrobatic portion of the show, there's no net to catch you. You improvise. Ad-lib. Flirt back with a wink and a toss of your rainbow wig.


I hope that Stilton is happy, living somewhere sunny and funny, married to a girl named Brie with a houseful of rascally sprites following in his enormous footsteps.


As for me, I keep my red foam nose tucked away in a Whitman's Chocolate box of mementos.


And I'm still a sucker for a good old kazoo serenade.






First Prize


"Good Night, Irene"


Short story by Patsy Pridgen of Rocky Mount, N.C.

Irene was worn out. She didn't tell the girls, though. Before her daughters came for their weekly visit, she'd spend the half hour it took to ease herself from bed, put on a house dress and lipstick, and drag a comb through her thin hair. She'd be sitting in that geezer lift recliner in the den when they arrived, trying to pretend they weren't looking her over from head to toe. 


It was a game they all played. "How're you feeling, Mama?" they'd ask. "Are you getting along okay?" 

"I'm doing all right," Irene would answer, being careful not to let them see the tremor in her hand, the fear in her eyes. "Nothing to complain about."


But the charade had ended. Anna was there on a Sunday afternoon when Irene had one of her coughing spells that took her very breath away. "Mama, how long have you been hacking like that?" she asked in an accusing voice. 


"Oh, it comes and goes." Irene tried to sound casual, as if they were discussing the red-breasted hummingbird often spotted at the feeder right outside the den window. 


"Well, I don't like the sound of that. We'd better get you in for a visit with Dr. Martin."  Anna called her sister Susan, who agreed. "Oh, yes, Mama needs to see the doctor. No one is going to say we didn't take care of our mother in her old age." An appointment was made, and Dr. Martin, with his probing, thorough ways, had discovered just how sick she was. 


"Your mother needs to be examined by an oncologist," he told the girls with Irene sitting right there with them in his office. "And although it's probably too late, she needs to quit smoking." 


"An oncologist?" Anna exclaimed.   


"Mama gave up cigarettes years ago," Susan declared. "Right after Daddy died." 


"Your mother shows signs of being a heavy smoker," Dr. Martin replied. Later he would tell his nurse he wondered how these daughters could have missed the symptoms: Irene's raspy voice, her shortness of breath, that chronic cough. 


"Mama, are you still smoking?" Anna glared at her mother.   


"I have a cigarette every now and then," Irene lied. In fact, she wanted to go home right then and smoke a whole pack. She especially wanted everybody out of her business.  


But Dr. Martin was still addressing the girls. "Her white blood cell count is extremely high. The oncologist can tell you more." 


It was lung cancer, stage four, they all learned once the girls made her visit the oncologist. Irene wanted to die at home but now she was in the hospital, where she'd been given a room and a morphine drip.


"It could be a day, or it could be a week," Irene heard the doctor say. "The only thing we can do now is make her comfortable. Be careful what you say around her. She may appear to be sleeping, but patients at this point are often more aware than we think."


Doesn't that jackass doctor know I can hear him now?  Irene thought. She was surprised at the bitterness she felt toward this man, a stranger just trying to do his job. She'd been a little sharp with the girls too, showing up at the house the way they had, dragging her to the hospital.


The truth was, Irene realized, she was scared. Not about dying but about seeing Henry again. Henry, who'd dropped dead thirty years ago on what had been a fine Saturday afternoon. Irene was a lapsed Baptist, but she felt sure there was a heaven—there just had to be—and she'd be reunited with her husband.


That is, if he wanted her. Henry had died while he was fairly young and handsome, and Irene was now an old woman with sparse grey hair and a wrinkled face. Henry had been active, working in the garden the day he collapsed, and Irene could hardly move. Would Henry look at her and turn away?


The doctor left the room and the girls stood around her bed. "Looks like she's sleeping," Anna whispered. "There's no need for both of us to be here all the time. We need to conserve our strength."


Irene wasn't asleep. She heard her daughters' excuses as to why each couldn't stay longer than a couple of hours at a time: appointments, car pool responsibilities, husbands out of town on business.


"Mama looks funny," Anna said. "I think we need to call for a nurse."


"Push the button," Susan said. "I don't think she's breathing."


"I'm going for help." Anna ran out the door.


"Mama, Mama, can you hear me?" Susan leaned over the bed. "Anna's gone for the nurse."


Irene opened her eyes and peered at Susan, who had taken one of her hands and was crying. The hand-holding, the tears didn't matter. Beyond her daughter she saw Henry, not the fifty-year-old Henry from thirty years ago, but the Henry she'd first known.


This Henry was just back from Korea, dressed in his uniform with his Army cap at a rakish angle. He was giving her that mischievous smile she loved. She heard the words to their song, "Good Night, Irene." Henry was singing along with a radio the way he used to when they were first dating: "Good night Irene, good night Irene, I'll see you in my dreams."


Irene glimpsed herself at a sassy eighteen, with her dark wavy hair and flouncy skirt. Why, she even had on her black, patent leather, peep-toe pumps. She looked up at Henry with bright, expectant eyes, waiting for him to ask her to dance. He nodded at her ever so slightly, and Irene reached for his outstretched hand.





Second Prize


"A Love Letter to Oysters"


Nonfiction by Jessi Waugh of Pine Knoll Shores, N.C.


This is a love letter to oysters. But you should just read it to yourself. Oysters have mouths but no ears; they won't hear a thing.


We hosted an oyster roast recently, one in a long string of oyster roasts I've hosted, attended, or crashed. Once, I hovered over a table of steaming bivalves and did not know a single person there. I don't know whose house it was; I'd just heard there was a big roast, invited myself, and brought a knife. Those oysters were delicious.


They've all been delicious. I like tiny ones, like last year when a friend emptied out his beds in the sound near us, bringing the last few bushels of the season - singles with deep cups - each a sweet bite of the beach. I like big juicy ones, too, ones as long as my middle finger (or my husband's pinky - I have tiny hands). I stab them with an oyster knife to let the excess saltwater drain then dip them in cocktail sauce (extra horseradish, please), dangling them shamelessly over my mouth before letting them slide down in one gulp. My favorites, though, are mid-sized, midway done, jiggly but not oozing, firm but not chewy. I'll eat those without any cocktail sauce, butter, hot vinegar, hot sauce, or whatever other abomination you're putting on yours, thank you. And with dark beer - it's winter, after all.


We eat oysters in the "R" months around here, both because there's less chance of contamination or bacterial growth in cooler waters, and because the randy little bivalves mate in the warmer months. They turn gamey when they mate, lean and focused on the continuation of generations, releasing seed and eggs into the water. The resultant babies, or "spat," settle on hard surfaces (preferably other oysters), and everyone plumps up for my winter eating pleasure.


Oysters don't appeal to everyone. They're filter-feeders that eat the plankton (tiny floating critters) in the water. I suppose, during mating season, they eat their own babies. They clean the water as they filter - they can clean around a gallon of water an hour, which is not what one generally wants out of their food. No one's trying to chew my humidifier filter.


But they'll line up and pay good money for a taste of an oyster's salty, unique merroir. That's a real word, and it's fun to say, if fancy-sounding for a snotty little ocean scrubber. Merroir is the flavor of the sea; it changes depending on the oyster's source. Oysters from Stump Sound (just north of Wilmington, NC) are much saltier than Rappahannock river oysters (in the Northern Neck of Virginia), for example. If you suck down a VA river oyster after having been raised on NC salty sounders, you might accidentally "act ugly." It's not polite to insult someone else's oysters, but geez - what is there to taste in Virginia?


Now that's Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster, native to the southeast coast of the US. Sure, it has "virginica" in the name, but Virginia's doing it wrong. I guess the pilgrims once guzzled down some Virginia bags of bacteria, and the name stuck. But once they tried NC oysters, they knew they'd tasted saline superiority. They've been jealous ever since.


They're not the only species of oyster. There are five species harvested commercially worldwide and hundreds more out there. I wish I could say that I've tasted them all, or even one more than Crassotrea shouldbecarolina, but no, I've only sampled my own geographically limited merroir. If you have an oyster to send me, I'll eat it. I learned a lot about oysters from reading A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen (also, I cheated - I was a marine science teacher). Rowan ate all the oyster species, lucky fella. Before reading his book, I was content with my gnarly gray goobers. Now, I will spend my life wondering what I could be missing.


I was missing their potential for ecological art, that's for sure, but others found it. In the North River of Carteret County, Carolyn Henne created a 3D art installation from a special material made to grow oysters; you can see it from the air or a boat. She colored and sculpted the material to create an octopus and several large sea stars. As oysters grow, the structures will be altered - like those art-that-interacts-with-its-environment projects you learned about during "Intro to Art" class.


Oysters are surprisingly hard to grow - they need just the right salinity, intertidal range, wave action, water quality, temperatures, and then, if you want to eat them, about two years of waiting time. A storm or any disruption in their needs can ruin the harvest - not that harvesting them is easy. They're sharp, muddy, heavy, and cemented to each other and their substrate.


Still, people do it anyways, because oysters sell ($60-100/bushel - about 100 oysters depending on size). Oysters are good for water quality, they protect shorelines, and they create habitat. Oysters are sexy. Living shorelines, oyster farming, and name-brand oysters are trending. Plus, they're supposed to make you feel sexy. But that could be the beer talking.


If you want to host a roast, invite whoever you want, but jot down how many oysters they will eat. There's a big difference in preparing for a 1/2-busheler like myself versus a "maybe 6 or so" saltine sampler. Get your oysters, ice them, keep the raccoons and possums out, then spray them off with the hose before cooking, so your hands and mouth don't get so muddy.


You have several options. One option is not to cook at all and crack those calcified fortresses open with sheer willpower (and maybe throwing them onto a hard surface; I think it disorients them and makes them easier to crack. Also, it's fun.). They will be cold and extra snotty, but you won't lose any flavor or texture to the fire.


If you're just feeding a few pigeons, throw them in a deep pan (not your favorite pan) in the oven with a half-inch of water or so in the bottom. Cook them until they open, adding water if it dries out and turning on the exhaust fan.


Don't want them in the house? Do the same thing but on the grill. Benefit: you can put wet oyster rags on the grill top to dry while they cook.


Because you need rags, a big pile of cut-up old towels, to lay across one hand while the other hand wields the knife. The rags will protect you (from the oyster but more importantly from your own knife), catch some of the leftover marsh muck, and allow you to handle the shells hot off the grill. If you wait any longer, I'll eat them all first.


More people? Get a steam pot. We got a 53qt one this time; your ability to lift it while full of oysters is your limiting factor here. Rags can also dry on the pot lid.


About a hundred people? Invite me. Might as well; I'll show up anyways.


You need a pit (and a keg). Stack cinder blocks to make a rectangle or square, leaving spaces between them for airflow. It doesn't have to be very high.


Steal a large metal street sign or wait for a hurricane to knock one down. Have a teenager stab holes in it with his/her unfocused rage. Put your oysters on that, over a low fire in the pit (again, wait for a hurricane for firewood). Throw a few wet burlap sacks over the oysters (you can get these at the feed store) until they open Pour out your oysters onto a table, break out the knives (I'll bring my own), and dig in.


They may have better oysters in France. But at my house last weekend, I got tiny plump pea crabs in at least one out of every ten I opened. I love their quick crunch. I got three half-inch long cuts on my right hand, four dark craft beers, a half-bushel of friends, and I got to laugh loudly over a table full of Carolina's finest. Lucky gal.






Third Prize


"Suffering in Five Dimensions"


Poetry by Anne Kissel of Pittsboro, N.C.


Miz Williams renewed her magazines, convinced
if Readers Digest and Good Housekeeping
kept arriving her subscription to life would not expire
Once those slick pages were her world; she no longer
read them but liked seeing the reassuring pile grow each week
The dark angled shapes on


Elder Rupert's right shoulder
whispered slippery lies into his hardly hearing ear
Why, he asked, why these demon guides now,
smelling of bile, pricking his cheek, mincing his soul
Why not the shining spirits his flock so often saw


Morning sun bleached the pain bruises under Raynell's eyes
while it ignited her child's copper hair, the rainbow color
same as hers, when she had hair, when she had hope
Why did you have to pick today for me to die
she wept, as the nurse came in bearing dark towels


Judge Bentley typed furiously on his phantom keyboard
His dry cracked lips dictating word rivers to himself
There was no off switch for his motor, his blue striped pajamas
crisp as his old starched shirts and stiff serge suits of legal armor
He could not would not should not stop working, even for death


Sweet Belinda could not yet talk, she had not yet sprouted teeth
Her tiny life was short as a mayfly, bright as a butterfly
She, they hoped, kept half her new heart and all her old spirit
to fearlessly swim her back to the mists she so recently left
to share her short story here for a short while


So many tricks to hold back death, soften its greedy grab
The evil eye
The last bet
The rage against
The guilt confessed
The crossed chest
The plaintive prayer
The drainpipe of denial
The welcome at last








Fourth Prize


"Forever Young"


Fiction by Teri M. Brown of Calabash, N.C.


"Good morning doctor! I've been waiting so long for this day. You can't imagine how excited I am," gushed Bernice as she pushed her way into the "doctor's only" lounge without fanfare.


Bernice was nearing seventy years old. She had always been beautiful with dancing green eyes and a wisp-like figure. But in recent years, her shoulders drooped like a flower thirsting for water and deep creases crisscrossed her leathery skin. Others might have chalked up the changes to age, but Bernice refused to concede the victory.


Dr. Mikos put down his fork and wiped his mouth, breakfast forgotten. "Good morning, Bernice. You are the eager beaver this morning," he said as his eyes traveled down the length of her body.


Bernice's high cheekbones flushed raspberry. Certainly, he couldn't know of the illicit dreams that titillated her by night. Or the images of his muscled body pressed to hers lingering on the sidelines throughout her days.


She quickly began talking to hide the heat that was no longer limited to her face. "I'm ready to get started, Dr. Mikos...Kai," she said softly at his look of reprimand, enjoying the shivers of anticipation as his given name slipped from her lips.


Talking in a low rumble, meant for her ears only, he said, "Soon, you will look 30 again – 30 forever." Then, taking her arm in his with a smile, he glided toward the operating theater.


His smile deepened as he thought about turning Bernice into someone young and beautiful. Just as he had done to all the others. His heart thrummed in his chest, his breathing becoming ragged, as they neared the door. The moment was coming when she would know the truth but would be helpless to do anything about it.


"After you, Bernice," he said as he flung open the double doors with a flourish. There, lining the walls were fourteen women, all of whom appeared to be in their thirties. Although smiling, their eyes stared unseeing. Death hung in the air.


Bernice struggled ineffectively to get free, realizing, too late, that his dreams trumped her own. Laughing maniacally, he jabbed a needle into her chest. As her world turned dark, she heard him whisper, "Forever thirty, Bernice. Forever thirty."







Fifth Prize


"Old Paths"


Poetry by Camille McCarthy of Asheville, N.C.

The past is learned
in faded scraps, the shape
of the land deceptive
once the earth-movers
have sunk their pincers into it.
My home is built upon
a displaced, dried
creekbed. When it rains
water flows down the driveway,
dragging smooth stones down the hill,
retracing old paths.
At the library there are photographs
one hundred years old
showing a narrow Merrimon Avenue
with Model-Ts and beast-drawn carts,
and Beaucatcher Mountain
green and undynamited.
There was a laundromat
where the church on Edgewood
now stands, its stain
of chemical leachate
reshuffled by construction
under an expanded parking lot.
The old man down on Sevier Street
tells me of when farms
surrounded the university, and cows
wandered the campus quad,
leering into classrooms in the afternoon.
A handful of years later, I see his house
has been sold, then the next week it has
vanished, nothing left but straw and mud
where its foundation stood.


On a hot summer day, a Black woman,
hair wiry gray, voice generous,
invites me to sit and drink water
on her porch a few blocks from
Charlotte Street. She tells me
she was one of the first to integrate
Vanderbilt University,
that her street
used to be home
to a vibrant Black
first Black policeman,
first Black fireman,
before gentrification
banished them.
She tells me a story
she laughed at as a child
until she realized it wasn't funny,
the story of how
the residents of East Valley Street
came home from school and work one day
to find empty lots where their houses
had stood just that morning,
notices of eminent domain still in the mail
addressed to places that no longer existed,
the largest "urban renewal"
project in the Southeast.
The residents dispersed, distance severing
families and relationships, and
the street was renamed
for the daughter
of a slave-owner.


Last summer, rags of hurricanes
swelled our rivers and buried the roads
in mudslides, sent whole trailer parks
down the river. It was easy
to imagine the creek reborn, all that I knew
like a dream, washed away.





Honorable Mention


"After Vacation"


Poetry by Joyce Compton Brown of Troutman, N.C.

There were palms and music and cool night breezes.
Dolphins jumped through boat wakes, it seemed,
just for joy —there were wide-spanned wings,
long legged birds, dancing, leaping, sharing
marsh-minnows and crabs, sea snails, and worms.


The palms were waving their fronds,
though some had been beheaded by storms.
Two or three boats lay tossed upon green banks,
A ripple of people flowed slowly by the sea,
sat on lawn chairs, strolled the green lawn.


The magic of the sea pulls deep, deep—
even to those who've hovered inland
all these years— the kiss of steady breeze,
the sweet soft hum of water's quiet song.
And the glowing twilights, the flowing moss


on limbs, the salty taste of shore!
So much togetherness—chatting
in the low light of pleasure— the magic
of soft jazz in a lanterned village, it's easy
to linger in the darkening twilight.


Here at home, we feel life's rougher edge.
We're caught in the bramble of day to day,
the drear dark rain of December winter.
The gray, the endless gray—weary shoppers
push cold wet carts before heading home.


This is a small town—we gather
our necessities, drive home in our Subarus,
and Fords, watch a little tv, maybe have a beer,
a glass of wine, a mug of steaming milk.
It's warm inside our insular cube.


The cat chooses one lap or another,
It's all the same in these rolling hills,
familiar streets, a lesser paradise, conducive
to patterned days, cozy nights here
where roots run deep, tap into rivers and hills.





Staff Favorites


"Weighing In"

Poetry by Molly Hanna of Boone, N.C.


"Whale Tales"

Poetry by Janet Joyner of Winston-Salem, N.C.


"Purple Lights"

Short fiction by Sarz Savage of Chapel Hill, N.C.


"Sí Lo Soy"

Poetry by Maria Solorzano of Carrboro, N.C.


"September Awakening"

Fiction by Nancy Werking Poling of Black Mountain, N.C.


"Road Food for Thought"

Nonfiction essay by Kathryn Louise Wood of Edenton, N.C.