The winners of RN&R’s more or less 95-word fiction contest
Every year, as the editors at the Reno News & Review pour over the submissions for our 95-Word Fiction contest, certain themes emerge. Sure, there’re always the love stories and the jokes pretending to be stories, and the essays pretending to be stories, and the tellings of murder, crime and general wrongdoing. But each new year brings specific topics that point to some sort of collective thought floating around in the Reno air. Last year, it was all about the Apocalypse; the world was going to end. This year, it’s breakups and zombies. Man, there were a ton of zombies. (Sorry, none made the cut.)
As we editors vary in our individual tastes, we think you’ll find an assortment of stories here. One thing we were all looking for is a beginning, a middle and an end with a bit of character development in between.
You may notice that not all of the stories are exactly 95 words. We’re letting that slide this year because some of our advertisements promoting the contest included that requirement, while others didn’t. Our bad. But just wait until next year: We’ll return to being as strict as grammar school nuns.
FIRST PLACE WINNER
In the first long summer after their divorce, Jim and Grace don’t know how to end the marriage. They go for walks in the birch trees. Lovers carved their declarations into various trunks so long ago the carvings look like old tattoos, impossible to read. A bleeding heart, a date, maybe 1917, maybe not. “Jim,” Grace says, “If neither of us remarry, let’s be buried side by side.” Jim knows she’s serious; she likes graveyards. “That seems a long time to wait to lie down next to you,” Jim softly replies in the birdsong grove.
—Laura Boren Newman
Laura Boren Newman says her story “The End” came from real life. She was thinking about a walk she and her ex-husband took after they’d gotten divorced, and the story grew from there. A frequent contributor to the 95-word fiction contest, Boren Newman says, “You kind of get a feel for how long they’re supposed to be, and then I start cutting words.” Newman recommends that short-story lovers read John Cheever.
SECOND PLACE WINNER
Buffy hastily left the boutique, gripping her Gucci bag. She looked upward to avoid eye contact with the ragged couple by the river, but saw instead the condo her husband had leased for his almost-legal mistress. She sighed with resignation and prepared to ignore the request for money that never came. Curious, she looked back to see why: The couple was holding hands, clearly in love, deep in conversation. Buffy hesitated for a moment, then discreetly put her Gucci on the ground behind them and strode purposefully across the street to take over that condo.
Debbie Albright is a case manager at Children’s Cabinet. She saw a woman exit a salon along the Truckee River who tried to avoid a couple like that described in Albright’s story. “I get the impression that a lot of people whose goal is to have a lot of money and appear that way are not really very happy,” says Albright. She’s says writing a 95-word story is “easy because the parameters are there. You can be creative—kind of like a school assignment.”
THIRD PLACE WINNER (tie)
End of Chapter 1
Last night’s argument still lingered in his mind like dirty soap scum in the bathtub. The same old problems every time, sex and money and feelings. He was small enough to still be angry, big enough to rehearse apologies, but the front door was standing open when he got home. He called out, ready for a new truce, but this time even their manic labrador would not meet him in the hallway. The house smelled empty, dishes in the sink and the radio on. Suddenly the dream was temporary. She even took the dog.
Robert Keith is an IT project manager for the Nevada Department of Public Safety. “I started writing as a teenager,” says Keith. “I’ve started and stopped writing a few novels. I haven’t finished any of them, but I’ve started a few.” He also writes poetry. “Because it’s shorter!” he says, with a laugh. He likes the rhythms and meters of language, maybe because he’s also a musician; he plays bass in a blues and hard rock band, Axehandle.
THIRD PLACE WINNER (tie)
No two people ever smelled the same thing when they smelled Benny’s breath. His foreman on the road crew swore that it smelled like he’d been eating handy wipes, while the cashier at the Doughnut Hut said his breath took her back to her childhood, but exactly how her grandmother’s house got in his mouth she couldn’t say.
Benny Bach is originally from Boulder, Colo., and is entering his second year as a physics professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. How does writing fiction compare to studying physics? “It’s observation,” says Bach. “You have to be observant, whether you’re doing physics, or drawing a picture, or writing a story.”Satisfying the Urge
The sun clawed his eyes, heating the Pontiac like a forest fire. The steering wheel was sticky with blood. He bared his teeth at the rearview mirror—blood sparkled. He jammed on the brakes, and the car slid to a stop in a cloud of dirt.
He got out. Silence: blue sky, hazy desert, isolation. He went to the trunk, opened it. The bag inside groaned when he lifted it out. He left it to bake.
At home, later, he celebrated pain with it, burning its name slowly, deliberately, into his thigh with the others.
The strange man strokes my face and mumbles something about grandchildren. He’s always around, this one. Then there’s the chubby girl, so bossy.
“Eat your soup,” she demands.
I know better. “Where’s Muriel?” I shout.
I must find Muriel to spring me from this prison with its disgusting smells and poisonous food. Everyone insists Muriel is dead but I saw her doing cartwheels in the hallway.
What nerve! It’s my ex-husband with his little bastards. Chubby and the man keep touching them.
“Go away, Martin,” I scream.
What a baby. He’s crying for his mother.
A nascent joy a new puppy. The light yellow-fur smell of spoiled mustard. A stop-less propeller tail. Nose moist like a peeled orange, an infinity of sniffing—roller coaster up-and-down—everywhere goes nose.
A joy as uncontained as a health care debate.
She had to tell everyone
Upon returning, no movement. Eyes stale and the nose now Saharan—immobile. It’d been several days since it licked the last water from the red bowl.
She had to tell, everyone…
—Matija KoraciEscucha a Tu Madre
She lay in bed. He held her hand. He was 12.
“Hijito, would you like to go with me?”
“Then grant me three wishes? Never be a thief, or a gambler, or a
He became a drunk instead.
Begged. Whored. Fought a war.
One day, saw a light from above.
A silver saucer.
Drifted to Reno with $130. Ended up with five restaurants. Painted his mother on the back of one.
He died, and they named a city park for him.
The gangsters don’t listen to their mothers.
—Michael SionBus Stop Diaries #1
I’m waiting at the bus stop. A man is arguing with another over Obama. The argumentative one is dressed in tattered jeans. He has wild hair. He is complaining about the president.
Then the wild man looks at me. He says, “You look just like Nick Nolte!” Stunned, I sarcastically thank him. Of course, the image that comes to my mind is the mug shot of Nolte when his hair was long and crazy looking.
He then corrects himself. “Wait, not Nick Nolte.”
“You look like Gary Busey!”
Great googly moogly!
—Paul GeorgeThe Arrival
She checks her reflection in the mirror, just a touch more of lipstick. Make-up looks good, though it is harder to erase the ravages of time.
She has put on her best summer dress, with a new push-up bra, matching panties and new nylons, the kind that hold everything in place.
She arrives early at her destination. The nice young woman escorts her to the back.
Anxiously, she awaits his arrival. She has waited six months to see him. She hopes he notices her new hairdo.
Finally, the doctor enters the room.
April’s rotund laugh distracts me from her apple cheeks, dyed hair and greasy skin. When I get her clothes off for first-date sex, her oversized boobs force her nipples outward like the eyes of a flounder, and her rolls of fat blend into a singular triangle of female power. Again and again our bodies smoosh together in loud, greasy and glorious congress. The next day, my friends all laugh. I feel shame that I shouldn’t.
“It’s over,” I say, and watch her overstuffed polyester sashay away forever. I cry when no one watches.
—Edwin LyngarThe Bump
The light was still red as bus number 122 raced downhill toward the intersection of University Boulevard and Menaul. The kids of Citadel Apartment complex, sitting on their knees at the back of the school bus, gripped the Pleather seats in front of them with one hand and pumped their fists in the air, shouting, “Green! Green! Green!” Three-quarters downhill the light changed.
The kids cheered, and we were all sent flying as bus number 122 hit the dip at the bottom of the hill.
As she leaned over to tie her shoe, he caught a glimpse, a full-frontal intrusion, into the under of her underwear. He looked away caught in the great debate between what he should see and what he wanted to see more of. A hand-in-the-cookie-jar moment when he became the little boy peaking from behind locked fingers to remember every R-rated frame, a Polaroid of a Polaroid tossed into the shoe box of things he will never forget. A perfect and beautiful second that will never exist for anyone but him.
—Michael MoberlySummer in the City
In the summer, the bar has sidewalk tables, and the friends sit outside, feeling like they are in The Village. On a busy night Clara sits alone, but not alone because there’s Rachel talking to that Republican, and Mary’s dancing on the bar. A man whom Clara has not met but knows to be both a musician and a junkie comes and says two fascinating words: “How much?” Clara is not insulted because, really, how much simpler would life be if you could answer that question up front? She does, however, rethink her outfit.
—Laura Boren NewmanThe Price of Fame
Bernard stared at the woman across the table. She had a huge head but, as his sister emphasized, a nice personality. Bernard was sick of women with nice personalities. He wanted Angelina Jolie.
“You’ll never meet anyone famous,” his sister would say and shove another Miss Congeniality his way.
His date pointed to his nose. “Sauce.”
“My nose is … big.”
“You could get a nose job.”
“If only I could get lypo on my head.”
“Your head isn’t …”
“Please,” she said. “I’m famous, though. Listed in The Guinness Book of World Records.”
—Kathy WelchMy Walk
I took my two dogs for a walk up Peavine Mountain. I encountered two snakes, a covey of quail with golf ball sized babies that ran amazingly fast. I watched a hawk follow my dogs and swoop down and capture a cottontail they had flushed out of a bush. I spied strips of rain from a distant thundercloud and wondered whether or not the water reached the ground. I smelled smoke from a forest fire somewhere. I came upon a pile of trash, found an envelope with a name and address and had them arrested.
—Dan DraganThe Whole Truth
“Do you know what color grass is?”
I am a penalty phase witness in a serial killer’s trial.
“People usually say ‘green;’ the correct answer is ‘yes.’”
“But . . .”
* * *
“Yes,” I lie, swearing to tell the truth that they don’t want and I don’t know.
“Was your mother a good cook?” the defense cross-examines.
I remember a pressure cooker exploding, green beans dripping brown from the ceiling.
“Compared to … ? Do I know what a good cook is? Do I know what sound torture makes? Is my brother a monster?”
—Bev Kling-HesseLast Conversation
“I haven’t had a bowel movement since I got to Reno,” says my mother-in-law as we’re leaving the buffet. “I always get bound up here.”
That was our last conversation. Three weeks later she was dead.
Just like Elvis she died trying to take a dump.
Her colon weighed almost 37 pounds. “Super impacted,” said the autopsy report.
Now I make sure I talk about other things when people complain about their bowels.
Don’t want bowel movements to be the last conversation I ever have with that person.
An empty colon is a happy colon.
—Lauren M. GiffordPictures of Suzanne
The sunlight dims, and the vagabond winds breathe calm over him. He sits alone listening to the leaves whisper and sips from a cold glass of beer, all the time thinking of his sister.
A flash of memory. Her smile. The picture on the mantle. Just shy a year, and already she’s not as clear as he always thought she’d be. A blue glow that stretches from over the outlying mountains gives way to the clear night’s sky. He stands overwhelmed in the now still air, glad to know he’ll always have pictures of Suzanne.
—John KratkyWaiting For Bunny to Harden
The passing seasons and the summers of unrelenting heat had instilled a certain … special wisdom on the hard candies; there in the window of the Lovelock Texaco the sour balls and butterscotch had achieved oneness … a wisdom that had escaped the dusty nut rolls, weeping licorice and the collapsed chocolate bunny.
— Benny BachFreedom Fries
Over dinner we learned the rules. We practiced playing on a bumpy lane where unexpected bounces of the cochonette were only hilarious. Our French was awful. I embarrassed myself by stylelessly hacking up a leg of lamb. We’d never even heard of foie gras. But at a weekend in a country house, we found a level playing field. For hours the Americans battled the French in boules. Every French curse word I know I learned that day. We would have been happy to lose. By sheer perversity and some backspin we won every game.
—Jane AddingtonKing Henry
He touched St. Christopher beneath his worn gray cardigan for luck. In a blur, the Brazilian busted his hand with the suicide king.
“It’s not your night, old man,” the Rat smirked.
When was it my winning streak ended? Was it last month? Was it last year? Henry couldn’t remember. His streak, was gone and he knew it. Goddamn it, it was gone. The damn king of hearts.
—John MolezzoTonsorial Closing Time
At first the ambient sound of the giggles and sneezes had gone unnoticed. But as Dominic began the silent, reflective closing time ritual—dipping the combs in the sacred blue bath, the sweeping of the last customers clippings—he became acutely aware that the neighborhood kids were frolicking in the hair dumpster again.
—Benny BachMindy’s Research Blog
This is the first post to my blog. Here goes:
My boyfriend Jared cheated on me. It’s OK. I’m cool with it.
Does anyone know anything about arsenic? Just wondering. I’m not going to poison anyone.
Has anyone ever heard of strychnine? Is it tasteless? Just doing research. I’m not going to murder anyone.
Made beef stew. Jared ate lots. I wasn’t hungry.
Jared is writhing on the floor. I really love him.
Anyone have an anecdote for strychnine? For a research paper I’m doing.
George shot a wad of spit at the sidewalk; it hit its mark. Lacy, behind George, stepped on the slimy ball of mucus. A dab of George’s saliva found its way from her shoe to a butt. Dirk, desperately seeking a smoke, picked up the spittle-stained stub, lit it and took the one drag it afforded. Dirk, a touch of the goo on his lips, walked home and kissed his wife, Lois, who did not expect to die in two years. Distracted by an abandoned shoe, Lois mindlessly stepped off a curb into heavy traffic.