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Winners of the 2006 River Cities’ Reader Short-Fiction Contest PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Literature
Written by Administrator   
Tuesday, 30 May 2006 23:02
Issue 583 Cover We’ve tortured you with tiny word limits before, but this year we were in a really foul mood. So we decided to have some fun at your expense and see how many suckers would try to put “llama” and “ramekin” in a 200-word story dealing with an odoriferous canine abode and lumpy breakfast food.

Surprisingly, we received 120 entries.


Some entrants chose the prompt requiring seven specific words: asphalt, llama, murmur, oblique, porthole, ramekin, raspberry. Some chose to start their stories with "The smell was coming from the doghouse." Others chose to end their tales with "Angela ordered oatmeal." Masochists chose all three.


Unfortunately, we had to disqualify three stories we wanted to publish because they exceeded the 200-word limit. Advice for future entrants: Give yourself a few words to spare to allow for the vagaries of software word counts and picky editors.


That still left us with 14 submitted stories we wanted to share with our readers. And to prove that we're masochistic along with being mean, several Reader staff members tried their hands at this exercise, as well.


Enjoy! And hope that we're in better spirits next year.


First Place

The Surreal Ruminant


The smell was coming from The Doghouse. It smelled like heaven and sausages.


Day three of the diet.


She pressed her face against the front window with her hands cupped around her eyes. Looking through this porthole she saw breakfast the way it should be. Grease and fat to start the day right.


No. Willpower, Angie, willpower. Remember the fitting-room incident.


She crossed the street focusing on feet and asphalt. The smell drew her back and through the door.


The murmur of freshmen; oblique references to Nietzsche and Darwin, the latest philosophy to skim their brains. To be young. Young and thin.


Last night she actually dreamt about crème brûlée. A giant ramekin garnished with fruit sang "Ain't it time we said goodbye?" A shriveled raspberry gently strummed Keith's guitar.


"Welcome to The Doghouse, I'll be right back with a menu." The perky blonde skeleton jolted her back to reality.


She had papers to grade spread out on the table before her. The assignment: personal spiritual influences. One, simply titled "The Dali Llama," literally caused her to snort.


Holy Christ. Young, thin, and dumb.


The peppy toothpick returned with a menu. Angela ordered oatmeal.


- John Crownover, Davenport, Iowa


Second Place

The Ritual


"Oh please baby. I'm almost certain to get it this time!"


"No, you don't understand what it's doing to me."


"I do understand, but don't you see? It's the only way I can picture it in my mind."


"I'm telling you - it's turning my skin gray."


"Please honey. I swear to God that this is the last time. I just know this is made for us."


"Well I don't want you swearing. I'll do it one more time, but just because I have the same name doesn't mean you'll ever figure it out by watching me."


So Jack sat with pen and paper watching her, waiting for the action that would spark his imagination. For the umpteenth time in two weeks, all for a ridiculous short-story contest, she performed the same ritual. Angela ordered oatmeal.


- Dave Layton, Clinton, Iowa


Third Place

The Housewarming Present


The smell was coming from the doghouse. Katie sighed, standing at the sink. The ramekin which last night had held casserole floated in a sea of bubbles while she ate a raspberry picked from the vines in the backyard. She climbed the stairs, peering out of the porthole window on the landing. As if the llama-skin rug in the attic which held the decaying pot roast hadn't been enough, the previous owner had left little surprises around the house that she had not seen, or smelled, at closing. "Schizophrenia," the realtor confided in a voice barely above a murmur. "Don't tell anyone I told you why they have to unload the house; she's being committed." A squirrel was perched on the peak of the oblique roof as the realtor spoke, he dropped a nut, and she watched it roll down onto the asphalt driveway. At the time, for reasons only known to Katie, she had considered the squirrel a good omen. Her sister Angela helped her clear the 12 heads of rotting cabbage out of the doghouse; in return, Katie took her to breakfast. Angela ordered oatmeal.


- Tiffany Anderson, Walcott, Iowa


Third Place

Man and Wife


The smell was coming from the doghouse. It wasn't the dog, who'd been dead for three years. It was her husband. He'd stopped shaving in December. By February he refused to change clothes for a week at a time. Come May he quit getting dressed altogether, and wore only his bathrobe and socks. By June he doffed the bathrobe and socks in favor of a pair of jockey shorts, which had long ceased to be white. Remnants of meals long past still lingered on his face and mustache, while his breath could have killed a cat.


In July he moved to a tent in the yard, announcing, "You just don't get the new me!" The tent developed a hole in September and he took up residence in the doghouse, declaring it "surprisingly watertight and comfortable." He whistled as he dragged the old black-and-white portable from the basement and hooked it up with a series of electrical cords. She had taken to leaving his dinner on a tray in the yard. Yesterday he stood beneath her window and yelled, "Honey, I love retirement!" She looked down at him and sighed.


- Teresa Mesich, Rock Island, Illinois


House Recipe


The kitchen was disgusting. Willis, the mullet-sporting cook at The Sunshine Café, wore a sweat-laden undershirt. He nodded as Angie passed, his left foot plopping in a shallow pool of partially cooked egg.


Angie nearly retched. She had never witnessed a place so horrid. The walls were caked with grease from years past. The room blazed with the sharp, angry smell of rot. A mountain of raw, oozing meat was heaped on a broken card table behind Willis.


Flies buzzed about. A moth fluttered against Angie's cheek. Was that a cockroach on the bathroom door?


Angie wished she didn't have to pee so bad. She wished the only working restroom wasn't buried in this horrible obelisk. She wished Willis would put more clothes on.


After an awkward dance within the postage-stamp-sized restroom, she prepared for the trek back to the table.


"Thought you got lost!" teased Dan upon her return. "I'm starved!"


Dan ordered the Lumberjack Special, with double sausage and a side of gravy.


Angela ordered oatmeal.


- Jesse Wright, Park View, Iowa


No Use in Fighting


It was daytime TV she loved the most. She mainly watched courtroom programs where people argue over borrowed money, or the ones where couples that were once deeply in love were now fighting over who gets to keep the living-room rug. She refused to watch anything else. Even now as the nurse was asking her what she wanted for breakfast, Angela never took her eyes off the television. She was planning a hunger strike until her social worker took her out of this place. The nursing-home worker was starting to get angry with her; she kept asking what she wanted to eat and all Angela could say was, "I would rather starve than take charity." If only her paper had come on time that day. The social worker would visit once a week and would ask her, "What day is it today Angela?" The social worker never noticed that Angela always kept the paper on her lap so she could look down to see the date. Angela felt a pain in her stomach and thought to herself that maybe she could start her hunger strike at lunch. Angela ordered oatmeal.


- Joe Bergren, Moline, Illinois




The smell was coming from the doghouse. Rick was upset. Before he had gone to bed early last night Rick had given strict orders for Kurt not to have any friends over.


As he entered, Rick saw a cigar smoldering in an ashtray. Beer bottles were lying all around. Poker chips were scattered on the table and the floor.


Kurt the sheep dog was passed out in a pile of poker chips. Thad the bulldog was passed out under one of the chairs. John the collie was sprawled out on the couch. John's friend John the terrier was sleeping in a chair.


Dogs playing poker, Rick thought to himself. He muttered. I never should have built the game room on to the doghouse.


- John F. Zabloudil, Coal Valley, Illinois


The Corner Café


Jay slid into the booth across from Angela. The corner café was bustling, which is typical for Saturday mornings. Angela sniffed her hair; it reeked of stale cigarettes from the night before. The waitress brought the regulars two mugs of coffee without asking, black for Angela and mostly cream with extra packets of sugar for Jay. It was a ritual for the two, Saturday mornings at the café for a greasy breakfast and to recap the events of their Friday night.


"Last night was fun," Jay said, reaching for his napkin. "Don't you think?"


"Same as any other Friday night."


"You don't like Blue's Tavern any more?"


"It's not that I don't like it; I'm just tired of it. I'd like to mix things up a little." Angela sighed. She turned to watch the people passing by the window outside.


"You're right. We've fallen into a rut. Let's work on trying new and exciting things more often."


The waitress returned to take their order. "The usual, two Denver omelets?" she prompted.


"Not today my good woman! I will try the Eggs Benedict," Jay boasted. The waitress nodded with a smile.


"And for you?" Angela ordered oatmeal.


- K. McGee, Bettendorf, Iowa


The Misetti Special


The smell was coming from the doghouse. "Doghouse"; the nickname for my restaurant's kitchen, due to barking and growling during meals, located in Toasted Parmesan, my four-star jewel on Chicago's north side. Kitchen staff could be seen through porthole-style windows, cleaning up after another successful Saturday, back door open, asphalt glistening with rain. Kitchen conversations at a murmur, as I finished my ramekin of raspberry crustada.


The front door burst open and Mic Misetti entered, wearing a gray fedora at an oblique angle, crushing his cigar underfoot, and demanding "the best meal in the house, now!" He's strong-armed other restaurants, and we weren't going down without a fight.


I seated Mic at our best table and informed the staff of our ultimate challenge. We all agreed; Mic would have a meal to remember, but we would finish this city's bully once and for all, possibly at the risk of all four stars. A taxidermist next door, the obvious source.


An hour later, Mic sopped up roasted garlic sauce, brushed crusty bread crumbs from his satin shirt, and remarked, "It was fantastic, but what was it?"


The words that finished Mic Misetti? "Llama parmigiana."


- Marty Reger, Moline, Illinois


Happy Faces


We had tired of grandpa's oblique stories. His voice was no more than a murmur. His stories ... nothing more than an old man's memories as seen through the porthole of time.


"Did I tell you about the time ... ," he'd begin. We'd jump and run out of the room. Maybe I was too slow. Maybe I wanted to hear his stories.


While his other grandchildren were out on the drive drawing happy faces on his freshly sealed asphalt, I'd dip a finger in an antique ramekin and scoop up a finger full of raspberry jam. Grandpa knew - he'd seen me do it - but was known to indulge in a similar way from time to time himself.


"When I was a kid," he'd begin, "the circus came to town one summer. Your great uncle came running in yelling, ‘I saw a llama, I saw a llama.'" Then grandpa would digress. "Your great uncle fought at Guadalcanal, you know."


"Did he? What happened?"


My grandfather would become quiet, dip his finger in the jam, listen to the kids on his once pristine driveway, and begin to tell me about his brother, the one I never knew.


- Rodger Wilming, Davenport, Iowa


Kevin's and Angela's Big Night on the Town


"Our specials today include a thinly sliced veal du beurre with capers and a soupçon of lemon crème freche.


"Salmon en croute with a ginger and mango chutney.


"Exquisitely marbled sweetbreads in a fragrant array of hone lavender foam with tendrils of baby radicchio and chive."


After serious consideration of all the options given, Kevin decided to go with the salmon.


Angela ordered oatmeal.


- Chris Gulley, Rock Island, Illinois


The Smell


The smell was coming from the doghouse. A hot, rancid smell that filled the lungs and roiled the stomach.


"Damn dog must've killed another rabbit," Lindsey thought. "I guess I'll have to bury it," she muttered. David wasn't due home for another three days and she couldn't just let it sit, not with the 90-degree temps they'd been having.


Lindsey pulled on gloves and grabbed a shovel. Peering into the dark interior of the doghouse, she spotted a darker mass toward the back. Lindsey aimed the shovel and, with a scooping motion, pulled the thing toward her. It landed in the dusty sunshine with a thud.


David's vacant blue eyes stared up at her, the blond curls of his severed head matted with blood and dirt. Lindsey dropped to the ground, laughing hysterically. "Gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘in the doghouse,'" she thought, remembering.


- Wendy Bonilla, Silvis, Illinois


Here's to You


"She died this morning," said her brother. "Dad's a wreck. Angela, are you there?"


Angela said nothing. Her companions chattered on about the Barely Legal Chocolate Cheesecake. Without saying goodbye, Angela folded the phone closed and tucked it in her purse. The phone was dead plastic and out of sight. She scrubbed her fingertips on her dress slacks.


"What was that about?" asked Micah, the new cutie from Human Resources.


"Hmm? Oh, it's nothing," she said. Her mother was dead flesh and out of sight. Angela's stepfather found her face-down in a bowl of oatmeal. An absolutely perfect stroke. The last time Angela saw her was at Thanksgiving. They fought, like usual. About nothing, like usual.


The cell vibrated and buzzed in her purse like a trapped insect, something nasty, like a roach.


Angela smiled at Micah, and she popped the battery off of her phone. It was dead plastic again.


"Are we ready to order?" asked the waitress. The others ordered sweets and things bathed in chocolate.


"And you?" asked the waitress. "Honey, you ready?" Her smile was slick as glass.


"I'm sorry," said Angela. Here's to you mom, she thought.


Angela ordered oatmeal.


- Eric Mains, Davenport, Iowa


The End


The smell was coming from the doghouse. And once she realized that, she was free to go. For months now, she had worked her way through all the rooms of his house, cleaning and dusting and organizing the piles of items he had collected, and all the while he sat in the dark makeshift den, searching eBay for more: old model kits, magazines, video tapes, record albums, car parts ... bidding, bidding, and every day the mailman bringing more boxes - ding- dong, sign here, ding-dong, here you go; only then would he get up from the computer.


Now she stood, her hand on the door, staring at the doghouse.


Still in the den, as useless and ugly and smelly as the day he had pried open its oversized shipping crate. He had liked the color of it, he said, the shape, the style, something about it had caught his eye, someday he would build one like it, sell it, get back to working again, get a haircut, pay attention to her again, appreciate her ... with each item it was the same, this one was the ticket, this one would change his life.


This time he was right.


- Janet Gleason, Davenport, Iowa


Staff Contributions



Below the porthole, I see two huge boxes. One peeling gray; the other - raspberry, grass, and faded salmon.


A boy appears on a plastic ATV, riding the asphalt walk between the boxes, the yards. Dead gray sky, but the ATV glows like a seizure. He has focus. When he wants to move, he kicks both feet, rolls a foot forward, stops, repeats. No hurry. I like that.


I like the song behind me. It's pensive and delicate, but there's strength in it, like a wave breaking. If he looked up, he could see me watching.


I refill my ramekin with salsa. I watch. He rolls over a toy camel. The beautiful child - six or seven. Clumsy. I eat a chip. He snaps back. I hear it, but through the glass it's a murmur. He bows his head. They can't see us. We can't see them. People storm.


But he just goes on down the walk. To the end. Stands up, turn around, starts back. The front door explodes on the frame. Someone peels out into the afternoon.


I stand still, breathing, nervous. He goes on. Kick, roll, stop. Kick. Roll. The glass fogs under my breath. It clears.


- Lars Rehnberg




The smell was coming from the doghouse. My corporeal structure is incapable of producing such a stench, I pleaded.


"Please. Quietly," Angela said, tilting her head toward the other patrons while gazing at her coffee.


It's true, I said, that I don't bathe with the frequency of a normal person, but that malodor has the character of a burlap sack of llama carrion left three days in rain on asphalt and then awakened by the sun.


"Vivid," she said, staring at her cup. Her manner was a porthole, and it was evident they had infected her. I concede that their methods, although oblique, are effective. But my own blood!


I had foreseen this moment. Logic was superfluous.


I produced the ramekin that contained my offering. I had carefully stowed it in my undergarments.


But so aroused with anticipation was I that my simple word - Raspberry! - was transmogrified into mere murmur.


Recovering, I lifted it toward the ceiling with both hands, but she did not raise her eyes to see. I laid it on the table, and then gently pushed aside her coffee cup with it.


Take! Eat! This is my body!


Alas, she did not partake. Angela ordered oatmeal.


- Jeff Ignatius


22 Words


"The smell was coming from the doghouse."


"Angela, the smell was coming from the dog. She was old, honey, she was sick ... ."


Douglas interrupted. "And the smell was bad, sweetie."






They each looked at their menus.


"Smelled like a llama ... ."


"Douglas." Monica tried to hide her smile. "We didn't want to, honey. So please stop with the silent treatment."


"Right. Let's cheer up. What are you having, Angela?"


"I'm not hungry, Mr. Porthole."


"Porter, honey. And call him Douglas. You should be friends."


"That's okay."


"Angela, Douglas wants to talk to you." Monica sighed. "Your father never did."


"I like Dad."


"He never talked. He was so ... ."


The silence lingered.




Monica smiled at her fiancé. "Exactly. Oblique."


They looked at their menus.


"Sweetie, order the puff pastry. Baked in its own ramekin, topped with raspberry meringue. Delicious. It makes that strawberry torte you tried yesterday taste like asphalt."


Monica cackled. "Asphalt! Oh, darling, that's priceless!"


They leaned across the table and kissed.


Neither heard Angela murmur, "You killed my dog."


Monica sat back in her chair, flushed, then turned to her daughter. "So, honey, what are you having?"


Angela ordered oatmeal.

- Mike Schulz

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