Contest 1 Winners
First Place $500
The Next Brendalee
Mama’d been after Daddy to paint over the letters on the house since we moved in, but he didn’t seem any more inclined to it now than he did three years ago. It didn’t bother him the way it did her, ‘cause he wasn’t around when strangers pulled into the driveway and rattled the door, wanting lunch. He wasn’t around much at all.
Inside was same as it was, too, only the napkin holders were out of napkins and the straw holders were out of straws. The four of us kids reckoned it made us special at first, like living inside a TV show, but the fun wore out ‘bout as quick as the fancy machines. There wasn’t any ice cream for milkshakes anyway.
The only thing that never broke were those red chairs. We’d spin each other ‘round and ‘round, and make us so dizzy we couldn’t hang on any more. Fly off those seats like mud off a tire. Jess sailed clear across the room once and split his head open on the corner of a booth. When Daddy came home he fetched him one on the other side of his head. “Now you’re evened-out,” he said. Next day, we were at it again.
Brendalee, being eleven and a girl, was keen to speculate about the California side of it. She dreamed up all manner of nonsense concerning the fellow Daddy bought it from, a fellow we never saw nor knew a sparrow’s fart about. Daddy, not being the curious sort, never thought to ask the man, but facts would’ve made no impression on Brendalee. Hear her tell it, a movie star fell in love with a good-lookin’ hick from Granger, with this establishment the result. She died carrying their lovechild. Beside himself, the hick took off for California so his memory of her wouldn’t fade the same as the posters of beaches and palms on the walls.
It was as good a story as any. And it got me wondering what people’d think of us, after we’d moved on ‘cause Daddy took his knife to the wrong man or drove his truck into a ditch and lost his job. We hadn’t changed the place so much as worn it out. Weather and time’d done much the same. There’d be nothin’ for the next Brendalee to work with, nothin’ that was us, ‘cept that bloodstain on the booth and another layer of grease in the kitchen.
Judge's Comments: It was interesting and not unexpected to see how many of the stories fell into a few main categories – the older person reminiscing, the real-estate transaction with someone buying (and their spouse/children often very skeptical), general descriptions of what goes on at the lunch counter, people living there and it’s no longer a lunch room. “The Next Brenadlee” was the best of these.
second PLACE $200
Another night begins with broken headlights. Glass pools along the bottom of the lamp’s dull silver bowl, its sharp ice chips cascading across a pocked chrome bumper, and disappearing into the tall grass. Randle has to test out his newly stolen shit-kickers on every parked car he sees, particularly the rusted out beaters. It seems appropriate, somehow, for the cars to be as blind as they are old.
At the small sound of the next popping headlight lens, a small laugh escapes the throat of the little girl standing behind him. He looks left, in the way folks trying to hide themselves want to leave an eyeball in one place, then turns back over his shoulder and glowers at her in the shadows of trees blowing through the moonlight.
“Shush,” Randle scrapes out in a hoarse whisper. “Can’t have you cuttin’ up behind me, Marlene,” he says to his little sister, then turns his head again to catch up with the eyeball he left behind him.
From the noisy rattle of piling plates and diner prattle, the muffled voices of happy lovers cross the creaking screen door and tumble into the quiet night like coal pouring down a chute. They take their trickling river of conversation to the passenger side of an old white cruiser. He frowns unwittingly, as he opens the door for her, out of instinct, out of something not quite right. The breeze seems to be carrying more than the night air, but it’s not unusual to smell odd things from the back of a restaurant at the end of a hot summer day. He secures his white Panama hat to his head, and moves around the trunk to the driver’s side.
Looking squarely at him rounding the car, Randle’s arm presses Marlene hard against the building, into a shadow, between the peeling, black paint and a leafy tree, two sets of eyeballs trying not to be seen.
The boy smiles nervously, when he sees the driver’s arm gyrating around the dashboard. The repeated clicking of the headlight knob, the dome light going on and off, makes both the kids giggle, until they see the door open and the dome light snap on. Mouths snap closed around their held breath, as hat man walks to the front of the car.
The light in the cab is just bright enough for his date to touch up her lipstick in the rearview mirror. She laughs, seeing him with his fingers under his hat brim, scratching his shaved head. When he bends over the grill, the tree behind him shakes, like a cannonball went through it.
When hat man stands back up, a scratched up cowboy boot in his hand, the woman starts laughing. Through the square space of the driver’s open door, she sees the silhouettes of two children running across the field in the moonlight, the boy, wearing only one shoe, humping along over the dusty grassland.
by Shannon Huse, Galveston, TX
thiRd PLACE $100
Your name flickers on my screen. A sharp intake of breath and then that instant chemical reaction, a frisson of lust jolts from eye through brain to groin with the simple incantation of your name.
Funny you want to be friends now. Were we ever friends?
There’s an attachment. And your bland message – “Remember this place?”
It's a weathered bungalow peeling paint in black and white with the legend California Lunch Room writ large across the top.
The name’s a joke in scrubby, suffocating small-town New Zealand. A wish to transverse the Pacific and head home. Ruby slippers that didn’t work. Your mum’s place. A genuine American diner and general store here at the bottom of the world.
Sit in a booth and have eggs over easy or sunny side up, try a short stack with syrup, pick anything from the laminated menu. It’s all good, especially the home-made black bean salsa. On the way out choose from a shelf of boxed candy. Milk Duds, Mike & Ike, Red Hots, Swedish Fish, and Sugar Babies. Ordinary at home, exotic in exile. We were easily impressed.
A summer job with a side order of churned up emotion. You are golden and beguiling. A young prince with a banished queen for a mother.
She incites wanderlust with tales of Point Dume, Haight Ashbury, Chaing Mai, Marrakesh, and Goa. It’s better to keep moving, don’t look back. She’s right, you know. Her silver and turquoise jewelry rattles and you jump. A one-way ticket to adventure, you leave in a month.
The store room is in the front of the building – a quiet, dark sanctuary with blacked out windows. Out of our polyester uniforms we explore foreign lands.
Your mother told me you have a coyote spirit and in the store room’s half-light I believe it. Shaggy golden hair and pointy teeth. You lick and bite, rip and tear. Leave blood on the floor. Cardboard smells like musk and even now it’s still a turn-on.
On the last night you whispered in my ear “Come with me.” We both knew I wouldn’t but we cried anyway. The potency of impending tragedy makes us deaf and blind. The store room door opens and mama coyote attacks. She said she loved me like a daughter but her bucket of dirty water drenches me with the cold reality I’m no longer welcome at the California Lunch Room.
Maybe she’s dead? Is that why you’re reaching back for me after all this time? I take another look at your profile picture. A wild dog howling at the moon. That can’t still be you. We’re old dogs now. You’ll be labrador chubby, domesticated and tamed by three storeys, a double garage, and a stainless steel refrigerator freezer. Maybe you’re still wild and free but why risk it?
My finger wavers for a moment, the flesh is always weak, but in the end I don’t want to lose you again. I click “not now” locking you in the store room.