Picking the best of all the exciting entries in the Jezebel (Very) Short Fiction Contest was difficult indeed — but at long last, we have a winner! Well, two winners, to be precise.
Rockstar guest judge Emma Straub and I selected the following two from the many awesome stories we received. The first, in alphabetical order, is by Sara Gilliam:
I am taking my Aunt June to dinner tonight. She is Korean and very fat. Her hair hangs thinning and long, black clasped in a shiny blue bow. She wears a flowered cotton dress, from the Salvation Army, she says, and white tennis shoes with no laces. She shows me her room before we leave. She owns a coffee pot, a portable TV, a mattress on the floor. There's a poster on the wall of an oiled naked man signed by Troy from the "Ladies Only Revue." A mobile of painted wooden birds floats above the steam heater. I tell her it's pretty. I like to go through trash cans, she says. I found that last summer. Isn't it amazing what some people throw away?
Over crab rangoon, I ask her to tell me about herself. It has been eight years since I last saw her, and I hardly know her. She says she still enjoys working at the group home, where she cooks meals for six
middle-aged schizophrenic men. Her boss, Tom, drives her to chapel services at the mission once a week. She tried a dating service, but no one ever called after the first date. She thinks it's her appearance. She walks painfully on wide feet, and only has five teeth. June tells me about her favorite talk shows and her pen pal Steve, a widowed truck driver in Virginia. He promises to stop in Wichita and see her sometime.
Our main course arrives. June eats loudly, sucks the Mongolian beef into her mouth and swallows it whole. She asks, did your mom ever tell you what I was like as a little girl? I was a tiny little thing, and I only liked to eat mashed bananas. I tell her I saw some old family films of her. Was I dancing? she asks. I used to love to dance. I nod. She had been dancing, deliberately sliding her feet across my grandparents' front lawn. Someone behind the lens was waving at her, trying to coax a smile for the camera, but she was absorbed in her dancing, her lips silently counting the beat. Perhaps she learned the jerky, cautious steps in the orphanage. Maybe it was her dancing that caught my grandmother's eye.
We crack our fortune cookies. I smile and read my fortune aloud: You are talented in many ways. June reads hers: The only true love comes from within. I wonder if she has ever been in love. I wonder if Steve, her pen pal, could love a woman like her. June sets the broken halves on her plate and sips her tea. She looks happy. I eat mine quickly. I relish its crunch between my teeth.
And, by Kayla Hammond:
The animals move fast and weird. The chickadees in the grass, and the men, pulling in empty trash barrels and nodding at each other.
I've come out on my father's stoop to smoke what's worth smoking, while I balance an antique rifle on my shoulder. My father's been restoring it for a friend, but I don't know if he's giving it back. It was lying on the same shelf in the garage the last time I was here.
I see the three little boys across the street, standing on their own front steps and looking at me. I aim at them and shake the rifle.
"Puh-kew, puh-kew!" I yell. They don't react much. One calls out, "You're holding it wrong."
We live on a dead end, but there's more traffic than you'd think. The library is one street over, and people come here by mistake. There was a time a carload of boys stopped beside me at the curb. The boy riding shotgun laughed and shouted out the window, "Excuse me! Do you know where the closest library is?"
"The library's one street over," I said.
He pointed at our house. "This isn't the library?"
"This is a house," I said.
"Well," he said, "that ruins the punchline."
Inside, in the living room, my father takes off his glasses with one hand. He looks away, as though he's trying to remember some special intention. But whatever it was has dissolved like drugstore receipts in the wash. He looks at his book and then at me. "Charity," he reads, "cannot be considered a civic duty. Neither social custom nor the American legal tradition supports it."
He took me to lunch two days ago. Or whenever Friday was. I twirled my French toast sticks, which he ordered and did not want. And I decided to say, brightly, "I like that they gave us wine glasses for our water. I feel like we're at a hotel."
He said, "Don't bite your nails, Cosette."
We went quiet in a noisy place. "Well, go on," said his jumping eyebrow, the only moving thing at our table. He wanted me to tell him all the stuff about us – everything that's a little too long and a little too obvious to bear repeating. It would be easier to devastate him, but I told him everything anyway. And that's charity, and it's necessary. And that's something most people understand.
But my father, for example, will tell me that he didn't believe in God until my brother was born. He won't explain beyond that, but he doesn't need to. My brother's younger than me.
And my mother, as she lay dying. Her last words? Not something about guilt, or cirrhosis. She said, "Well, at least I won't have to bury my children, like my mother did." So instead of silence, there's this, now. A punchline.
The winners will receive a collection of books by women from Little, Brown. Thanks to everyone for entering, and look out for more contests in the future!
Image via karen roach/Shutterstock.com