"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."
These are the first words of the Bible, and they were also one of 50 "great beginnings" that we offered our readers as opening lines for our 2013 short-fiction contest. (See the full list at RCReader.com/y/fiction.) We had lots of submission rules, but the other main criterion was a 250-word limit beyond the chosen prompt.
We received 134 entries, and we're printing prize-winners and other favorites here.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Don't drag your feet."
Perhaps Dad was worried I'd wear out my new shoes prematurely. If so, at age seven, his worry was lost on me. Shoes? I preferred going barefoot. Anyhow, when Dad issued his proclamation, I had other things on my mind. I was climbing the church steps toward my grandfather's funeral.
My grandpa. He ate peas by balancing them on a knife. Forever critical of the delivery rate of salt to his plate, he dubbed salt shakers "Salt Savers." He wore hearing aids that might as well have been earplugs, so he read lips. In his estimation, any activity I'd dream up was worthwhile. Coloring books. Doll hospital. Hairstylist. His pants pockets always held a peppermint candy that he'd fish out and press neatly into my small hand.
Walking with me one autumn afternoon he stopped, and - gazing into the distance while holding one index finger aloft - announced, "Breathe fresh air deeply, at least once every day." I still do.
At 94, Grandpa took his final breath.
I like to imagine Dad's admonition not to drag my feet referred to stepping lively through life, as Grandpa had. Or, perhaps Dad was referring to my slow-paced approach to that church door. Even my seven-year-old brain understood that when that funeral ended, I'd have to deal with Grandpa's death. I wasn't in any hurry to do that.
I don't like to imagine my dad was concerned with shoe leather that gray day.
- Maureen McGreevey, LeClaire, Iowa
The Little Things
For sale: baby shoes, never worn. He examined the white leather shoes with the perfectly clean laces. These would do fine. Hank was shopping in Myrna's Antique Mall, a warehouse space charmingly converted into a mid-sized consignment shop.
He liked having people over to the house, he thought as he eased through the oriental-vase aisle; it was too quiet in his place. Never had kids of his own but was always fascinated with babies - the odd wrinkle under a newborn's nose or how they learn their father's voice. He considered approaching expecting mothers to ask questions, but his conversation-starters were far too awkward.
Hank didn't have any family himself. At 22 his father died; the only memory he had of his mother was in the quiet hospital, holding a plush panda bear and wondering why even the cafeteria was silent. People dream of being stars. Hank dreamed only of a family, someone's shoe to tie, a sandwich to make or eat, a television to fix so she wouldn't miss her favorite show.
Arriving home, he unwrapped his bitty package from the plain brown wax sack. He placed the booties on the fireplace mantle between the yellowed picture of the woman in the pea coat and the WWII medal. Jenny from the church would be coming over soon and he wanted the story to be perfect. The baby girl completed his new family history and, for a moment, he felt the bright warmth of love.
- Christina Patramanis, Iowa City, Iowa
Hot for Soda Pop
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, "I drank too much last night."
I couldn't believe I'd put away seven cans of Diet-Rite, and Macy was not far behind: a plastic two-liter of Tab, what a gal, and one left open in the morning. She agreed that pouring it over ice and waiting about 15 seconds is the key to can't stop. We finished the leftover Tab with choco-crisps, and headed off to Sunday School, all gussied up in our party dresses.
Church was all velveteen cushions - Febreze and floor-wax smelling. Our Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Maddox, was just as gussied up as we were, her girdle turning those mighty buns into hardboard. Mrs. Maddox had assured us years before that if we were perfect, we would find the perfect men to run our lives, men who did not drink, or smoke, or swim on Sundays, who avoided pinball machines and jazzy music. The focus today was on the perfection of Christ the Redeemer, who made wine from water, and how he died for the sins of people not smart enough to avoid drinking liquor.
After Sunday School, we went to church. All I could think about for most of the service was being baptized in sweet bubbling fountains of carbonated cola. We stopped at the store on the way back and picked up a couple six-packs of RC. I got a banana moon pie, and Macy got chocolate.
- Dave Hill, Columbia, South Carolina
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. However, we all have a mother.
It was she who reached into the heavens and took a handful of stars and dust, and breathed her own breath into it, creating legs and teeth from his galaxies.
Filthy, her people were, from the second they were born, cleaved from blood and dirt and fidelity. They brought His world as many aches as they were brought into it with, cement skeletons acclaimed to touch the sky, bare feet crunching leaves that had strained to grow at all, sanding down the mountains that had been drawn in the desert. The unclean, her people could be known as.
But they were the purest that she'd ever seen. And lo, she bore them.
"Let there be," He said as He witnessed her creation, and then He liked the sound of it, so He wrote it down.
But it was she who watched as they ran out of money, and killed off the rainforests, and raised men into gods. She was there, as they became lonely, walked away, fell disappointed, and saw their bones ache when they thought that they didn't have their creator near them.
Their Father abandoned them, but she never could. She stole the prayers He received but wouldn't answer, and held them to her mouth, inhaling their words as blood came from her lips, unable to respond in the voice they wanted to hear, but her body gnawing to protect them.
A mother could never abandon her children. She wrote it down.
- Susan Dircks, Davenport
I am an invisible man. I'm married to an amazing invisible woman and we have two beautiful invisible children.
Perhaps it's my age, but lately, I've found myself assessing my life more. As I sit here at the kitchen table watching my family go about their morning rituals, I'm thinking that living in our invisible world has some distinct advantages. We have never had a "You are not wearing that to school" argument with our children, having a bad hair day doesn't ruin my wife's mood, and I've never once had the embarrassment of forgetting to zip up after visiting the restroom. On the other hand, there are plenty of challenges. Getting a waiter's attention is nearly impossible.
However, things have vastly improved for the invisible community. With the explosion of technology, we now have a way to communicate. A person no longer needs to be seen to have a voice. You can speak your mind and never have to show your face. It truly is glorious!
Some people in the non-invisible community (visibles) actually prefer to be part of the invisible world. They've discovered that they can talk, play games, share their deepest insights, and even become intimate with others without ever having to actually see them. Visibles are able to experience all the advantages of being invisible, but they never know exactly what it's like. Just once, I'd like someone to say to my son who now sits next to me eating his toast, "He looks just like you."
- Carol Foster, Davenport
"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. Texting you, obviously. Situation desperate, Amy. Don your Beetle-Safe Armor and come armed with my garden hose, ASAP. Snake hose thru the back door. Imperative you hurry."
When I spied the first ranks of flesh-eating beetles scuttling under my front door, I had no time to retreat to the bathtub. Except for being more comfortable, a water-filled tub probably would be as ineffective a sanctuary as this water-filled sink. I should have heeded Amy's advice and bought a Safe Suit for myself. Why do I always wait for a sale?
Enquirer and Inside Edition, those bastions of journalistic integrity, reported accurately. These beetles are fast on their feet, efficient with their jaws, and frightened of water. Squirting the little devils with the sink sprayer deters them. Even so, a number have evaded my maneuvers and have drawn blood. Just my luck to be Type AB, their preferred flavor. My scent creates beetle frenzy. I see murder in their tiny eyes.
I was sorry to learn all the Kardashians are feared dead. I wonder which pair of his 100 shoes little North was wearing when he succumbed. I feel guilty, wondering. I should be swelling with empathy, given my circumstances.
And Chris Brown. I'll bet he's beating his way to safety.
Why hasn't Amy arrived?
"Please hurry! Situation critical. Beetles crawling up sprayer hose, closing ranks. Can't shake 'em off!"
Ironic. I always feared Big Foot.
- Maureen McGreevey, LeClaire, Iowa
It was a pleasure to burn. The curling iron called to me. My body yearned for the pain, the pleasure. Eventually I was giving myself at least one burn a day, up to six, depending on how bad school had been that day. The iron was my friend. It took my loneliness and my despair. I knew I shouldn't be doing it. I knew I needed to tell someone, but I didn't. I knew they would judge me. I couldn't bear to let them see me fail, to not be the perfect kid for once. Since I was little, I had always been the kid in class who shushed people, who sat right up front, who got good grades, the teacher's pet. How could I ruin that? So I covered my burns with makeup, or put them on my belly or thighs, where no one could see them. Except me. I knew they were there. Some days, they felt like battle scars. Other times, they felt like disappointment. Finally, someone found out. My mom went to put away my curling iron, as I hadn't actually curled my hair in months. When she saw that I got it out again, but my hair was up, she questioned me. I couldn't answer her. How could I tell her that her daughter is a failure? She took it and threw it away. I am free, but my body aches for the heat.
- Heather Van Itallie, Davenport
I'd never given much thought to how I would die - though I'd had reason enough in the last few months - but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.
It was the night of the biggest party of the year, the Mifflin Street Block Party. To call it a block party was to call a tiger a kitten. In its calmest year, the party had 225 arrests and 317 citations. I had, what I had thought at the time, this great idea.
Earlier that day, my grandpa, an avid gun collector, had called me from a farm auction somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin.
"Franklin?" he asked when I picked up the phone.
"Yes, grandpa," I smiled. He only called me when he was up to something.
"I've got a surprise for you. I'll bring it over later tonight," he said and quickly hung up the phone. He couldn't come close to going over on his minutes. He paid for those minutes.
Later that night, there it was. A Civil War era cannon.
"Wow," I gasped. "Where in the hell did you get that?"
"Oh, at a gun auction. They said it was used by the 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery Regiment. You want to see if it works? Could be a hell of a bang out at that there party going on."
We wheeled it outside and proceeded to pack it with gunpowder and tried to light it. No luck. I grabbed a two-by-four to try and pack the powder in better. Grandpa heard an explosion.
- Andrew Evans, Rock Island
Outta the Park
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Or perhaps more - we'd never actually seen more than one at a time, but they ate their way through our garden like a whole - what? A herd? Whatever. The little scumbags had wiped out the lettuce and yellow squash, and taken one bite out of each unripe tomato. We hadn't eaten a single one of our own eggplants, but they wouldn't touch the chard or the Serrano peppers. Go figure.
This was war. We set live traps. They ate the bait without tripping them. We tried poison. No luck. Well, some - we did kill the neighbor's dachshund. We found the hole, in among the hostas, and set snares. The bastards braided them, draped them neatly over the doorknob.
Then Katy hit on the idea of gas warfare. Early on a Sunday morning we made our move. I crept up on the hole, Bic lighter ready. I lit the Gopher Smoker and lobbed it down the hole. We heard a hiss, then little racking coughs. The, in a sulfurous cloud, out burst our choking nemesis, stumbling on hairy feet.
Katy was ready. She roared out of the hydrangeas brandishing her Louisville Slugger. Her swing was gleeful and true, its impact unforgettable. The little head sailed into the hedge. The body collapsed, twitching. Two more were as quickly dispatched. Katy danced a victory dance while I skinned and dressed them.
And you know, they really do taste like chicken.
- Mary Cartter, Davenport
None of them knew the color of the sky. I tried to describe it - many times - after I got back. Words have always failed, but I'll try again, for you.
The whole thing started on an August day when I was 15. I was sunbathing, alone, on a warm rock by Surprise Pond when a man dressed in motley appeared in the sky above me. He was dangling from a red, three-tiered kite. As I rubbed my eyes, he circled and then landed on my rock. (Silver bells tied to kerchiefs at his waist jingled.)
He had to be attentive to the kite but he looked away from it long enough to meet my eyes. "I crave your pardon," he said, "but I have a pressing need to which I must attend. Would you hold my lines a moment?" He held the jumping handles in my direction. His blue eyes were pleading. I stood up from my damp towel, terrified, but too Midwestern to say "no." Like a fool, I took those handles.
Up I went.
In a breath, the pond became a pocket mirror beneath my dangling white feet.
And the sky changed.
It went from Wedgwood blue to witch-skin green. A huge bank of bruised-colored clouds appeared above me. As I watched, one of the dark curves on its face bloomed into a black circle. The circle then lengthened into a tunnel of swirling purple black clouds, lit down its incredible length by lightning flashes. Of course, I was drawn to its center.
- Kim Velk, Stowe, Vermont
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
She realized this truth unexpectedly as she pulled up her stockings and glanced in the mirror. Suddenly she recalled how he used to tell her she was beautiful, how he had been enthralled with her, until the day he wasn't.
The smell of that autumn afternoon, when he had said he was leaving, came tumbling back. A touch of burning leaves in the distance. One last mowing of the season. The whisper of his cologne in the breeze.
She had blinked when he'd said it. Pushed it away. Smiled. Her response had been unstructured. A free fall into nothing. She had imagined all of the things she should have said.
The the hurried words had come, laid bare in the late afternoon sun, a place where they couldn't be taken back.
"Go ... . I don't love you anymore ... ."
Abruptly, she pushed the memory away and blinked back hot tears. This wasn't where she had envisioned herself all those years ago. Smoothing her skirt, she smiled, looked at her watch, and walked out the door.
- Chandra McDonald, Davenport
Suffer the Invisible No More!
I am an invisible man
My troubles are ignored
By the gilded moneyed masters
Whom own the shackled horde.
The hordes of men and women
Who struggle just like me
To make ourselves seem visible
In this supposed "land of the free."
I am a native of this land
But now I feel a stranger
An invisible cog in a machine
Whilst the rulers feel no danger!
The America promised I worked to find
I struggled hour after hour
Yet now I have no work at all
Whilst so few have so much power.
Who will see a man like me?
The president they say?
That bloated cow McKinley
Won't show me the time of day!
In a nation flushed with money
Glittering with gold
I starve like all the unseen
I shiver in the cold.
I am invisible to the king
Who rules from his house of white
To strike him down will make me seen
And set the world to right.
The anarchists will welcome me
When they see what I have done.
As I wrap a cloth around my hand
To hide away the gun.
At the temple of music the king holds court
Many bow down at his throne.
The invisible hordes, at heel to this lord,
Will soon see they are not alone!
An invisible gun strikes down the king.
Now he bends in subservient bow
With one blast the words have been clearly said:
"Who is invisible now?"
- Danielle Baresel, Davenport
None of them knew the color of the sky.
Of course, she couldn't blame them. They were young. They hadn't really lived, had they? Then again, they were in the class to write, to describe what they saw around them. She wanted to teach them to see the world. Was it possible to do that? She wasn't sure, but what she did know was that the color of this particular evening sky might be beyond words.
Driving along the ocean on a winding highway, she was on her way to board a ship that would take her on a voyage she couldn't quite imagine. She had planned and packed. Her young son sat next to her and thousands of miles away, her family carried on with their lives.
As the sun sank in the sky, she pulled the car to the side of the road. A soft breeze touched her face and she thought to herself that the beauty of that place, that very spot, might be enough for her. She could stay there and make a life and never need anything but the color of the sky and the water. It would be enough.
So many years later, as those fresh, young faces watched her, did she know the color of the sky? It was longing and loss and the promise of a different life. It was "goodbye" and "I love you" and "don't go." It was heartbreak and homesickness and freedom. It was a thousand shades of blue.
- Jean Zaputil, Davenport
The Last Laugh
"The drought had lasted now for 10 million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended." He put the book aside, and looked at the audience. "Don't believe that Clarke guy because he never met my mother-in-law." He paused, waiting for the laughter. Which did not come. In fact, there hadn't been any since he started his set. He usually performed at clubs, not sci-fi conventions, but a job's a job, and they were becoming as rare as tonight's laughter.
What's wrong with these assholes? he wondered. They sat there, silent, in their goofy costumes. Damn nerds, he thought. Did they have any idea how hard it was to write a funny joke? Let alone funny sci-fi crap? What the hell's so funny about space ships? I'll tell you what's funny, he continued to himself, a bunch of jerks walking around pretending to be aliens. And he'd seen over a dozen Captain Kirk wannabes since lunch. The blinking red light in the back caught his eye, signaling the end of his set. Thank God.
"You've been a great audience," he lied as he waved, fighting the urge to give them the one-finger salute. He walked over to the end of the stage and started down the makeshift stairs. As he turned to wave one more time, his slipped and fell backwards, his head slamming down on the edge of the stage, snapping his neck. And then, as his final curtain descended, he heard it: laughter.
- Mel Piff, Moline
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
In the end, God destroyed the heaven and the earth.
In the middle, God sat in heaven and watched the earth.
The earth was all there was. The universe was an illusion to make the population of the earth feel small and insignificant. God did not have the time or patience to create something so infinite. It was only when the people wanted to leave the earth that God had to scramble to make the solar system.
"They won't bother leaving the immediate vicinity," He thought to Himself, "Besides, once they figure out that none of these planets are as hospitable as their own, they'll give up and go home."
But the people persisted, sending their little robots to planets farther away, peering into telescopes, trying to contact life on other planets, even though there obviously wasn't any. God was fed up.
"If they can't appreciate what I give them, then they don't deserve to keep it."
In the end, God destroyed the heaven and the earth.
- Tori Nelson, East Moline
None of them knew the color of the sky. They had heard rumors of it once being blue. Before the greed of the few led to one final disagreement, and a gift of perennial winter.
He had been prepared for this; perhaps even wanted this. The storage of canned foods and water, with a mastery of fire in a remote setting, had given him a sense of calm. Days filled with repetition. The constant check of supplies. Eating the same foods. The devotion towards time to bide his time.
A den once filled with numerous clocks, now down to two. One that worked and one that forever marked society's decay. Any possible piece of paper was used for making future calendars. When the paper was gone, he moved on to writing on the walls. Occasionally he would have to paint over a spot; curse Caesar as he waited for it to dry.
Panic set in when he woke up with a pounding headache; result of a rye whiskey binge that caused the output on the walls to appear erratic, and a long slumber in which his last remaining clock had died. The uncertainty of time would gnaw at him. He paced the room with a slight fascination that someone out there could help and he would either survive or his screams would fall in with the rest. His heart raced as he gathered up supplies. With no second thoughts, he opened the door and slipped into the grey.
- Jason Cross, Bettendorf
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I'm talking about last Saturday night, when Aaron Finch said he'd show me how to play the beginning of "Stairway" on his guitar, so we sat in the bed of his truck and then all of a sudden he kissed me and started putting his hand up my shirt.
It was the best summer ever because Lyndsey and I finally got our licenses, and could sometimes get Ardin Baker at the Amaco to let us buy beer on Lyndsey's aunt's ID, and then we'd drive out to the old P&K Kampground, drink, and goof around with whoever else was out there, and one night Aaron Finch showed up. But this was also when Mom and Dad started arguing over my brother's treatment. Dad had slammed the door and disappeared, probably on one of his 12-hour motorcycle rides, and I could still hear Mom sobbing in the bathroom when I left.
Aaron was kissing me and all of a sudden I started crying and I don't even really remember how he reacted because I'd drunk a ton of that gross sweet wine that somebody had brought from their grandpa's farm, and the sky was kind of spinning, and now I have to start senior year not knowing what he thinks of me or if he thinks of me at all - or what, when I see him, I will say.
- Alison McGaughey, Bettendorf
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. It floats, you see, and that's important when piranhas are swimming down your hall and crocodiles are lounging on your waterlogged sofas. I'm setting sail on the USS Enameled Iron, the tugboat in charge of the cargo ship Bathtub and the destroyer Utility Sink, the former captained by my mother, the latter under the iron paw of Captain Snuffles. The beagle flaps his ears and whines at the bobbing motion of his boat, while my mother soothes him with doggie biscuits. I'll start rowing again in a minute, Mom on crocodile patrol, ready to whack the overly curious with her umbrella.
It's been a crazy week, but everyone's determined to make the best of it. We've weathered the floods before, and I'll mind you that this is a bit of a twist, what with the exotic wildlife and all, but we'll make it as a family.
All the proper boats are long since taken, but my cousin Amber has gone and waterproofed her minivan. She says there's room for us; it'll be good to stretch my legs again. I must remember to find more oars; minivans are notoriously hard to paddle. I hear the floating market has some for sale, if I can catch the place before it floats downstream.
Ah well, back into the breach! This tug isn't going to paddle itself. If I'm lucky, maybe Snuffles will catch us dinner along the rapids on Main Street. Wouldn't that be a treat?
- Holly Cook, Davenport
The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.
I'd felt like an Iowa boy, awhile.
Yet if I drifted east, I'd find sanctity. Leaving the group off Morocco had been less on account of the others, more due to my own need for anonymity.
"Space" was how I'd spoken to Matrissa on Formentera in late summer of '72 - as if the barn we'd occupied, with its gabled air, owl feathers floating to its stone floor, and whiff of manure ghosts - as though all that bucolic charm had managed to oppress, stifle.
We'd scrubbed down an overwhelming stench. Wafts of lingering Moorish atavism vanished.
Our barn, a glimmer of Grandpa's in Story County. Latticed rafters, choking hay dust, the stacked rows of harvest corn a maze of tunnels.
"Move on," I'd countered, when Matty pleaded again, her left iris dilating.
"Judd, just a month longer? We'll go back to school, you can write. It'll work, love. No 'Nam worries."
Her voice trailed, resigned already.
The acknowledged fulcrum of The Barn - we'd come to say "barn" casually, without pretense, nodding to normality of communal life - our "guruette" as one Brit sister member offered, her sororal twin echoing "furette," for Meaza's hair. An alert ebony with strains of fuchsia and henna, a mane to be reckoned with, inductive.
Collectively we'd been recruited as much through the hypnotic effect her grand halo generated, as from her multilingual talent, warmth, worldliness.
None of us could claim anything as remotely rare as her Afghani background, Daddy a distant Kabul potentate.
- Judd Beck, Davenport
In the beginning god created the heaven and the earth.
He meant to create a sandwich but he sneezed and it messed up his concentration. He really wanted the kind of sandwich you would find in a New York deli. Pastrami and cheese stacked so high it would beg the question: Could god create a sandwich so big even he couldn't eat it?
God was having a bad day. A really bad day. In fact it was such a bad day that he was going to do the unthinkable - sleep in late - but who could blame him? It was one of those late summer days where the days were nice and warm and the nights and mornings had a dry chill.
Snuggled up in his bed he felt so comfortable, so right with the universe. He would dream of creating the most amazing lands. Utopias where the creatures that inhabited them were civil, peaceful in fact, to others. Lands where people didn't argue about him.
But unfortunately, that didn't happen but he couldn't really help it. His allergies were really acting up. Not to mention, the night before, he got into an argument with one of his friends about the concept of nothing and was unable to give a good example.
Wiping his nose, god took a look at what he had created. And with his infinite knowledge, he saw what would happen so he crawled back into bed. Sad, hungry, and alone.
- Andrew Evans, Rock Island
The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there. I revisit memories like scrolling through vacation slides; once miniscule details pronounce themselves over time. Novel cultures flourish in old photographs. I recognize myself as a tourist, attempting to decipher a language I wasn't prepared to understand. Warning signs flash as bright as a Kodak, leaving me blinded with a rehearsed smile on my face while reality mocks me with bunny ears. (I know what to look for after reading the pamphlet, a souvenir.) The out-of-focus stranger in the background stands up and straightens her skirt. Equipped with the Rosetta Stone that is wisdom, her muted noises are now distinguishable words: "I am a symptom."
As the doctor delivers her diagnosis, our itinerary, I realize we took the wrong exit somewhere along the way.
- Ashley Allen, Davenport
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. Almost at once, She began to have second thoughts. She could see where it would all lead, of course. She was already missing the dinosaurs, particularly parasaurolophus, and the earth was still without form, and void. She sighed an incorporeal sigh. This was the downside of a million centuries being as but a second. Nothing lasted long enough. The evening and the morning were not yet the first day, and already the grisly specter of Adam Sandler tainted the edges of Her omniscience. She wished there were another way, but that was the problem with evolution. It was all or nothing. If only it would all just stop at some idyllic point - not end, just reach some nice epoch and sort of stabilize there. Like Africa before the bloody primates, or even North America before human interference pissed in the porridge of perfection. Now that She considered it, alliteration wasn't her hottest idea, either. Intelligence was the real problem, She knew that well enough. All this "In Her own image" bojive. The big marine mammals would work out nicely on that front, and the idiot primates would find ways to eat them, for pity's sake! And really, that would be Her fault as well. She'd flood them out and the blighters would learn to make boats. The fire next time couldn't come soon enough for her. And after that, ahh! Then the cockroaches would make it all worthwhile. At last, a civilization!
- Mary Cartter, Davenport
Call me Ishmael. I was in the restroom at Walmart, washing my hands, luxuriating in warm water. It was my day off. I was not required to demonstrate acumen or diligence or people skills. In this Mecca of American capitalism, I was feeling happy. Then the door opened and in stepped - a woman.
Confused and embarrassed she halted. I felt a surge of compassion. I smiled a wide smile to say that I would not mock her error or hold her up to ridicule, her faux pas a no pas in my book. She was off the hook. She needn't have worried even had I been standing at the urinal. "I'm so sorry," she stammered. "De nada," I replied.
In some sense I was a hero, above being a petty enforcer of social codes. She had barged into the right restroom on the right day. She might gain, from my easy absolution, new faith in her fellow man, perhaps even a new faith in men. I discerned that she had not always been treated well by the male of the species. She was used to cowering, masking shame with nervous laughter and hidden tears. "But not here, not in my restroom," I thought, "contrition is not wanted, my lady." She blushed.
"Be not troubled," I said, gesturing toward the door. I launched my paper towel in a long graceful arc - nothing but air. I pushed open the door for her and together we walked out of the ladies' room.
- Dustin Joy, Illinois City, Illinois
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
They did it again. They bathed me. I hate it when they bathe me. And it always seems to happen when I start smelling good. I mean really good. Do they not realize that I have to work to smell this good?
I mean, it's not every day that you find a dead worm. Or a fallen bird's nest. Or squirrel poop. I just love the smell of squirrel poop, and it's not every day you can find it. Most of the time, those damned squirrels poop on the other side of the fence. The fence the humans put up.
But their inferior, primitive noses would never understand. They have a bad smell for everything. I always know when they are going to be gone all day because ... they stink. They put bad-smelling stuff on their hair, on their bodies, under their arms. And sometimes they use this really bad-smelling stuff if they are trying to impress someone.
I mean, come on, what did I ever do to deserve this? I never bathe them when they smell bad. What makes them think they are so much better than me? But I guess that's life. Little do they know that once they're done drying me off, I've got a new glorious smell in the backyard that I've discovered. They'll be in for a real surprise.
- Andrew Evans, Rock Island
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And such a beautiful earth it was. I've seen a lot of it.
I've ridden a train across Canada and marveled at the Rockies. I've felt the spray from Victoria Falls in Zambia. I've tasted grapes fresh from the vines in Tuscany Italy.
I've stood enthralled at the Taj Mahal in India. I've been at Petra, Jordan, and felt the history surround me.
I've stood at Mount Rushmore and felt a rush of patriotic pride. I've been dwarfed by the Sequoia Trees in California. I've been fascinated by the Tulip Fields in the Netherlands.
I've ridden a camel across the Sahara Desert to the Pyramids of Giza.
I've been chilled by the Mendenhall Ice Caves in Alaska. I've stood amazed at the Bamboo Forest in Japan. I've spent hours in the Wisteria Flower Tunnel in Japan.
I've sailed down the canals in Venice. I've walked the Great Wall of China. I've stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
All of these things are in my memory now. I was so sure that I would never see anything more beautiful than the sights I remember from my travels.
But I was wrong - so very, very wrong.
Now as I cross the threshold into Heaven I see before me sights that make everything from my past seem dim and washed out. Oh, what a glorious adventure I have ahead of me.
- Phyllis Kenney, Rock Island
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, "I drank too much last night." Of course, such acknowledgment of failure wasn't uttered by me as I drank markedly more than everyone and at a pace that I thought was rather casual. You see, I'm a robust imbiber, in stark contrast to the wimpy weekend warriors who form the sissy brigade that passes for my neighbors.
It was 11 a.m. My living room was a battlefield of bottles - a bottlefield? - as my bedraggled companions munched aspirins to ease their throbbing headaches and debated whether to risk absolution in church. I prepared a Bloody Mary pitcher to recharge my batteries. My concoction was liberal with Grey Goose and sparse with the tomato juice, garnished with celery and spiced with Tabasco sauce. The Cubs/Cardinals game was two hours away. That was my church ... Our Lady of the Ivy. The Cubs' sermon preached patience as virtue ... a patience of 105 years that would make Job yell, "Enough already!!!" Amid the groans and vows of "I'll never drink again!!!," I read the sports page. "Stop the blubbering," I screamed, "Either go to church and pray for our noodle-armed pitcher and flailing lineup or save your anguished cries for the game, when they would be more appropriate."
Four hours later, the Cubs lost 16-3 while I watched and chugged, getting further depressed with each swig. The next day I sat around and said, "I drank too much yesterday."
- Tom Legge, Forest Park, Illinois
The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.
"Let's look in here!" Will called to his brother, C.J., as he opened the mysterious door near the end of the upstairs hallway.
Both stared up the steep, narrow stairs and climbed hesitantly to the attic of the old Victorian. The planks were unpainted and creaked with the weight of their sneakers. The walls on both sides were covered with faded white paper decorated by bronze vases and ribbons. The railing was the same finely spun mahogany on the grand stairway.
As they reached the top, the afternoon light splashed through the tall, wavy windows revealing the spooled wiring and high-beamed ceiling. With curiosity, the brothers stared at the scattered contents on the dusty floor, a metal hot water tank, assorted trunks with leather straps, rolled burgundy Persian carpets, and a gold-framed oil painting of a man wearing a mustached grin and the topcoat of a Southern gentleman. Will observed he might have been somehow related to the uniformed Union major downstairs in the living room.
"Do you suppose there's a treasure up here?" C.J. exclaimed.
The pair peeked inside the long-forgotten boxes revealing century-old issues of The Atlantic Monthly, books on philosophy and botany, bound maps of the counties in Illinois, old quilts made from pieces of cast-off calico, and an ecru handmade lace wedding dress of a bride buried long ago.
In the far corner, they found an unlabeled box and opened it expectantly for a treasure. Inside was a white hooded robe.
- Susan E. Hanford, Geneseo, Illinois
And to show that we are willing to subject ourselves to the same cruel tests we give to our readers, a contribution from the staff ... .
"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
The first drafts were full of details - handmade, white lace, cream ribbons, tiny pink flowers - but I chose brevity. This would not be about infant footwear.
Most people, I knew, would breeze over the ad, giving it not a thought.
Others would pause immediately - or stop dead four classifieds down. Even those with little ones on the way but not enough money to buy shoes from the store (with so many purchases actually necessary) would be paralyzed. Because the phone conversation couldn't go anywhere but wrong: Not mentioning it would feel cold, and dipping a toe in that water would surely mean being pulled under by a stranger's misfortune.
But somebody did call, and we quickly dispensed with the particulars. Then - after a measured pause - she inquired (with smooth, practiced sensitivity) what had happened. I tried to deflect her curiosity with vagueness: "Just one of those things ... ." I didn't want her to feel like a grief counselor, even though her purposeful delicacy made clear that our transaction would be an act of charity.
When she stopped by, I invited her in. (Nobody else was home.) She politely declined but tried to discreetly look past me into the house.
She told me the shoes were for her grandchild.
She gave me five dollars more than we had agreed upon.
She didn't even open the box.
I neither wrote nor said anything untrue. But sometimes I feel it stirring in my gut, gnawing, as I watch my daughter tie her sneakers.
- Jeff Ignatius, River Cities' Reader managing editor