You know the drill: pull the pile out of your mailbox, rifle through it, toss most of it in the recycling bin. And, if you're like us, sigh a wistful reminder of when getting the mail used to mean actual surprises. Hey, we get it. There's email, texting, Skype, Gchat, Facebook—none of this is new. But in the bulk-rate world of the physical mailbox, a genuine hand-addressed envelope or package inspires a special kind of wonder.
That's what we were counting on when we announced this year's writing contest, in which readers sent us their mailing addresses and we, in turn, sent them random objects on which to base a 400-word piece of creative fiction. The response was overwhelming, and 146 people signed up, a new record for our annual writing contest. Turns out people love getting free stuff in the mail.
Due to the huge response, shipping was delayed slightly, and then affected by a postage error—sorry, our fault—but eventually most everyone received a manila envelope with an object of inspiration inside. No two objects were the same, and contestants had only two rules: (1) to work the object into the story somehow, and (2) to use, in some way, the phrase "it showed up on my doorstep."
You, dear readers, did not disappoint.
How could we forget the tales of "Nevermore and the Golden Coin," of "magic sperm," of "beloved Cheerios"? How could we forget the submission that was, uh, the same story submitted the year before? How could we forget phrases such as "Like an emblem for Liberace's cat, it was sparkly and gay as all hell"?
In the end, five stories out of 146 had to be chosen as winners, and believe us when we say it was not an easy decision. That's why we've picked five honorable mention entries: Andy Covert, Thea Rhiannon, Brian Gellman, Lois Pearlman and Noah Hallett, thank you. Virtual silver medals to you all.
Printed below are the five winning stories, by Don Stoddard, Amy Robinson, Diane Swan, Gabriella Buonassisi and Aloysius Beerheart. Each of the winners will receive a gift certificate to Copperfield's Books. Please join them, and us, in a public reading and celebration on Thursday, Oct. 17, at Acre Coffee in Santa Rosa's Montgomery Village. The whole soiree goes from 6pm to 7:30pm, all winning entries will be read and discussed, and it's completely free. We'd love to see you.
Without further ado, the winning stories!
THE BLACK PANTHER
By Don Stoddard
The fuse is lit, soon it will be over.
I've never forgotten that night all those years ago. He had been gone so long, decades. I was sure he was dead. He was a likable guy, the kind of person you would do anything for. A smooth talker with a mesmerizing voice with so much to say about the world, and how it could be better. We were young, times were different. Things were wild, free, dangerous, radical. We were a small, inseparable group of social misfits. This is how we spent that summer.
The talks started innocently enough, over coffee, listening as he spoke of the world and the things that weren't working. He never said how, but we would fix it. We would know when it was time to act, time to make it right. Late that summer, we were gathered at his place, a small unadorned room. He served us his special tea, a deliciously bitter elixir with some definite side effects. He could always come up with a great story, but this night was going to be different.
As the elixir kicked in, he removed his shirt to reveal a tattooed body like none I'd seen before or since. It was 3-D. He was covered in animals of all kinds, snakes, apes—yes, there were lions, tigers and bears—and creatures no man has ever seen or would hope to see.
The animals were interwoven with geometric symbols, strange alien writings with colors so bright and vivid they could light up a room. Everything was dancing, pulsating hypnotically, as he told his tale and laughed. I saw a black panther begin to pace back and forth, becoming larger and larger until it leapt full-size from his chest right at me. I screamed, and woke alone in my room.
I never saw him or any of the others again. Life went on. I worked, loved, grew older. Then it showed up on my doorstep: a package. In it was a beautiful, porcelain, black panther, crouched and ready to leap. I knew it was from him. He was alive. I broke it open to get my instructions. I knew the others would be getting theirs, too. We would be in sync, no matter how long it been. Things haven't changed, maybe gotten worse. He was right. It was time. Hypnotized? Perhaps, for here I am watching the sparkle of the fuse waiting, waiting for the end.
By Amy Elizabeth Robinson
I want a manicure. I want a new car. I want a chocolate caramel each time I check out at the grocery store. I want my life to be orderly. I want a garden with clipped hedges and bordered beds. I want a better shoe organizer.
What I don't want is to stand on my doorstep holding this goddamned blood-colored envelope, still damp with the feel of the priest's fingers pressing it into my hand. I don't want the feel of his fingers. I don't want the feel of anyone's fingers. I want dry bone-colored china in my cabinet and a polyester blanket to wrap around myself at the end of the day.
The priest showed up at my doorstep. He wants me to remember. I don't want to. Remember the men in your life, he says, a hiss at the back of his words. Remember God the Father above, His Son who came to save us. He pauses, snaking his neck to get a look into my eyes. Remember your father, dear, your very own, God rest his soul.
The sky is flat-gray above us. A candy wrapper rustles by. I want a wrapped-up candy. What I don't want is the stew of remembrance, mass or otherwise. I don't want to pay these priests so they can store my rotten memories away in a gilded box, or burn them away to heaven.
Wait . . .
I want my life to be orderly.
Wait, I say, just as he sighs and turns away.
He has one foot still on the doorstep. I hold up a finger, rush into the dark hall, find my purse, dig out some bills, stuff them in the envelope. I hunch over, sticky flap brushing my cheek, and whisper. Fiercely. I give that envelope as many memories as I think it can hold.
I straighten up, smooth my hair, seal the envelope and return to the door. The priest waits, eyes bright and greedy. I hold out the envelope. When he nods and tucks it into his robes, I am washed by the form and certainty he offers the world. I watch as he makes his way down the sidewalk for a while.
Wait . . .
I forgot to write my father's name on there. The priest never gave me a pen. How will God know those memories are mine? I want to start over again. Wait, I call. It's too late. He's already gone.
MS. LILY BROACH
By Diane Swan
I was extruded from a plastic vacuform machine in Hong Kong in MCMLXXXIV. I was affixed to my first bosom in 'LXXXV; that of an eccentric Chinese grandmother, voted out of the mahjong club for taking up chewing tobacco when the group agreed to quit smoking during games. She was so distraught that, even though I was a gift from her eldest daughter, any reminders of that fateful day were put on the curb.
Fortunately, my sidewalk stay lasted all of 10 minutes, when Patricia picked me up as a lucky token. She wore me everyday to her first job as dishwasher at Denny's. I was the only piece of jewelry that held up in the steamy room, never fading, scratching or rusting. I was as persistent as she proved to be, until she got promoted to server and tossed the dishwashing apron in the trash with me pinned to it.
Eric/a, sever at Denny's by day, drag queen by night, greedily rescued me. I was just what she needed to keep her left bra strap from showing when she wore the one-shoulder sarong in the ever-popular Hawaiian encore she performed at the Moose Lodge on alternating Saturday nights. One night, in a fit of passion, Eric/a flung her arms wide for her final curtsey, popping me off her shoulder into the lap of Cecilia.
Blinking twice, looking left then right, Cilly, as she called herself, clasped the broach to her chest in delight. Providence was shining on her in the entity of me, a lily broach, just what Cilly needed to adorn her sweater for piano lessons with Wilber tomorrow. He might pay attention to her instead of the piano lesson with me adorning her flat bosom.
It was Wilber who disappointed her, not me. But she unpinned me from the gray cotton sweater, putting me in the CVS bag along with other discards, to donate to the shelter for its monthly jumble sale.
I don't honestly remember how I showed up at your doorstep. My hunch is, I got rejected from the costume-jewelry section, tossed in the not-sure-how-to-price pile and ended up in the $5 grab bag with a seed necklace with a broken clasp, a saggy bracelet whose elastic was stretched out, and a plastic watch with no battery. But I assure you, my dear, you will enjoy me. I'm eternal, plastic.
By Aloysius Beerheart
A Tiny Archer showed up at my doorstep the other day. With nary a word he drew an arrow from his quiver and promptly put it through the thick head of a partially articulated Schwarzenegger action figure, leaving a sharp point protruding from the back of Arnold's prematurely orange scalp.
"Tiny Archer!" I exclaimed. "You have just dispatched a former governor of California and beloved B-movie star!"
"I'm off to Chico to star in The Adventures of Robin Hood, calmly replied the archer, "and I have to eliminate any possible competition."
I correctly pointed out to the archer that while he was indeed in Technicolor, he was a bit late to star in a movie that wrapped up in 1938. This didn't seem to bother him at all. I asked him if he also planned to eliminate Errol Flynn, but he said that his next target was Olivia de Havilland, since he intended to play Maid Marian.
It became apparent that the archer was off his meds, so I offered to brew him some Tiger Tea, which he gladly accepted. By the third cup, he had settled down a bit, so we discussed the motion picture arts and archers in popular media. I asked him if he was familiar with the comic book character the Green Arrow. With a disgusted look he said that he would never associate with anyone whose secret identity was Oliver Queen. I had to agree with him there. It would be like creating a hockey team for San Francisco and naming them the Spiders.
It grew late, and the Tiny Archer was running out of topics of conversation. He was beginning to repeat stories from earlier in the evening, and it was decided that he should be on his way. I offered to give him bus fare to Chico, but he said that a ticket to Oroville would be enough, and that he would take public transit from there to his eventual destination in Bidwell Park. He wanted to make the detour so that he could visit the Oroville sites where O. J. Simpson starred in his very first movie. I found this to be a strange request, but knowing the archer, it probably made perfect sense to him. He packed some extra Tiger Tea into his quiver for later use at various stops during the long journey. And with that he found himself Gone with the Wind.
YOU BETTER WATCH OUT, YOU BETTER NOT CRY, YOU BETTER NOT POUT
By Gabriella Buonassisi
I demand to be seen. I will not hesitate to pound my fists on this door until they are bruised and bloody, or shout until my voice is hoarse. Do you know how much it costs to come up here? Do you even realize how far it is? I am not as fortunate as yourself to have magical beasts of burden to transport me across the globe.
I am here to discuss my son, Stanley. Stanley Wellington.
My Stanley has been exceptionally good this year. I assure you I keep precise track of these sorts of things. How can you, Sir, in good conscience not reward:
• All A's on his report card
• First place in the science fair
• Lead in the school musical
• Winner of the regional under-12 chess tournament
• Starting third baseman in Little League
• Leading rebounder for the school basketball team
• Church choir soloist
• Eagle Scout
• Senior citizen center volunteer
• Junior Recycler of the Year Award winner
And then this . . . this thing shows up on my doorstep. Well, chimneystep or treestep I suppose would be more accurate, but I am not in the business of making up words.
Why on earth would you think a wind-up, pastel purple bunny would be appropriate for a 12-year-old boy? And at this time of year? Was this some kind of cruel joke or bizarre statement? No, this I can only chalk up to a very real, very large lapse in mental capacity. Did you even read the letter he wrote you asking for a mountain bike?
Maybe this is a wake-up call for you to slow down. I am sure your job is extremely stressful. Could you not delegate more responsibility to your, ah, diminutive associates? Listen, none of us is getting any younger, and it is well documented that as one ages, the brain simply does not function as it used to. Perhaps a holiday would be in order. The Caymans really are lovely in January.
Yet the fact remains that you cheated my Stanley, and I will not tolerate it.
I am prepared to stay here for as long as it takes you to make this right. I have hot cider and am covered from head to toe in Versatech gear. I can wait all night. I can wait until next year's list is prepared if I have to.