Arts & Life

2017 Central PA Magazine Writing Contest Winners

Written by Tom Downing, Senior Motion/Interactive Designer | Aug 16, 2017 11:06 AM

The 2017 Central PA Writing Contest announced its winners earlier this year at a York College event. Two winners were selected from qualifying entries consisting of original, unpublished work.

First place went to Elizabeth Burns for her work "Perfect Present." 

The runner-up prize went to Abbie James for her work "Salt & Pepper." 

Central PA Writing Contest Winner:

Perfect Present

by Elizabeth Burns

I drive home from my parents' house this afternoon under a cloudless sky.  Today, I count exactly seven kitschy lawn ornaments between Ackermans Lane and Saucon Valley Road, finish singing two refrains of Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone just as I realize I left my sweater on the sofa.  I debate whether to go back.  I find myself in a state of suspension.  Singing the Dylan song takes me back twenty years when I studied in Florence for a semester.  I remember listening to it on my headphones, sitting in the Piazza di Santa Croce, recklessly devouring Belgium chocolates as I watched tourists gather.  "How does it feel?  To be on your own, no direction home," Dylan's voice sang in my ears, words from a song already thirty years old.  I did this instead of studying the Botticelli and Caravaggio paintings at the Uffizi.  Despite living in the Renaissance capital of the world as a twenty-year old, I somehow longed for elsewhere.  I somehow desired another time.

Stop.  Return to being present.  This is my focus lately, the business of living in the moment.  After all, that is what they all say.  All those theys who surely lead more fulfilling lives.  This edict hangs in the forefront of my thoughts, "be present."  But the Dylan song turns me twenty years back.  Back to mistakes, back to regrets, back to fuzzy Florentine memories.

Between contemplating whether to turn around for the forgotten sweater and the Florence flashback, I end up at my parents' house again.  My subconscious must have decided that being less than five minutes from home justified the return.  I chat briefly with my mom.  I tell her how much I enjoyed her concert the night before, the Bernstein piece in particular.  She, as she always does, escorts me back out to the driveway.  And, as she always does, tells me to drive carefully.  Her right eyebrow flattens, the left one curves like a question mark.  Her words "drive carefully" are always so heavy, shrouded with an anxious agony.

I repeat the drive down Limeport Pike, pondering, once again, time.  I think about Dan's trick, turning the alarm clock around on our nightstand to face the wall.  He believes it staves off the desire to check the time throughout the night should he wake up.  I find those digits provoking, casting little fiery red marks, tallying the number of minutes I have been awake or the tasks I better not forget to complete the next day, onto a sleepless wall.  I wake and imagine what time it might be rather than roll over feeling at peace with the present.

Present.  Am I present?  Is one so very present, one does not recall the last twenty minutes of the drive?  I wonder, is it necessary to be completely present even while driving between an August Saturday at 3:00 and an August Saturday at 5:00, transporting the sweater, the car, myself to Lancaster?  Could this not just be an intermission, a suspension, between two acts?  Must I really focus on this moment?  And now this one?  The sticky, dusty coffee stain in the cup holder that I keep meaning to clean, the tasteless bumper stickers of passing cars, the compression of the gas peddle under my flip-flopped foot?  Would that really make my life fuller, the business of complete awareness of the present, even the very mundane now?

Now it is 11:55 am on December 11, 1965.  Susan is driving her sister Joan to the jewelry store where she works in Huntingdon.  The store sells fine china, elegant watches, and diamond engagement rings.  Joan enjoys the simplicity of helping someone find the perfect present.

Susan will soon come around a curve on Warm Springs Road.  An unlicensed driver of a stolen 1964 Chevrolet will strike their car.  Joan will be thrown from the passenger's seat, hit the dash, and be catapulted through the windshield and onto the cold concrete.  She will not recall the moments before, during, or after the tragedy.  She will be told later about the farmer who wrapped a blanket around her to keep her arms from flailing.

Joan will wake in a dim hospital room, her nose filled with splints, unable to smell the antiseptic, the Clorox, the coffee in the corridor.  Drifting in and out of consciousness, she will hear a muddled voice behind the thin cotton curtain.  Someone praying?  Crying? 

Headaches, the clock ticking, and three separate roommates will keep Joan company during her seven-week recovery in the hospital.  To distract her from the tug of her stitches healing and her sore muscles getting sorer, Joan will reflect back.  As her broken body will settle into the springs and padding of her hospital bed, her mind will sink into the cushy memories of a simpler time.  Joan was the Huntingdon High School Prom Queen, sang in the choir, played in the marching band, and spent weekends laughing over milkshakes with her pals at Grubb's Diner.  She had recently dropped out of West Chester University where she was studying music.  She will think about why she left college.  Her thoughts will project forward.  What next?  Should she go back to college and complete her degree?  Could she?

With special permission, Joan's mother and daddy will bring a small Christmas tree into her room.  Joan will recuperate in the hospital for seven weeks.  She will count exactly seventy-eight rings on her construction paper chain.  One red, one green, one red, one green.  Counting.  Seven weeks, twenty-eight stitches, three reconstructive surgeries, seventy-eight paper rings.

78.  No, I am not on I-78 anymore.  My Florence regrets, the coffee stain, mom's concert last night, the humidity on my skin, every one of these thoughts and sensations together - they stack inside my head like blankets on a bed.  Or, no, spin.  Spinning together like a hundred threads of a single fabric, might all these memories and sensations existing together, the very stuff I am stitched of, embody living in the present?  Might I spend the bulk of my time knitting nostalgia, now, and next year together and maybe the fringe on the fabric actually living it?  And, is it not true that memory is a mechanism, a way to protect us from repeating mistakes and prevent future accidents?

Accident.  I am stopped on 222, the first car in a long line behind a crash that occurred just minutes ago.

My heart hammers.  My gaze, my thoughts, my entire being is directed onto another's extremely unfortunate present.  Her car is flipped over on its top.  I smell rubber and gasoline.  No, I actually taste rubber and gasoline.  The ambulance lights seem to throb in synchronicity with my blood pressure.  Shaken, I remind myself to breathe as I watch the paramedics cut through steel and remove the body.  I have to look beyond the mess, above it, around it, anywhere but at it.  I watch the smoke curl up and gather under the graffiti-covered overpass.  I manage to hold myself together during the fifty-two minute detour under an unreal ultramarine sky, reminding me that it is early August, and I am still alive, still taking breaths in and out, still young.

So young, she is twenty-one, but the newspaper article about her accident will read she is twenty-two.  She will not have the courage to face a mirror for seven more weeks.  She will forever remember the crash as the incident that did not cut her life short, but rather broke her life into two distinct parts.  Two acts separated by one terribly painful intermission, a troubling state of suspension.  She will spend much of the second act recalling, reliving, and relishing the first.  She will frequently, each day recovering in the hospital and days and years thereafter, turn around and retrieve memories from the before in an effort to cushion the after.

I arrive home after 5:30.  Afraid and undamaged, I cling tightly to Dan, his thin tee shirt absorbing my tears.  As I recuperate in his arms, I do not recall the last hour, what happened last night, or contemplate the time I surely squandered twenty years ago.  I am absolutely unaware of the minutes passing or the hours to come.  But before I can completely be right here, right now, in the kitchen's comfort and out of my car - in this perfect present - I turn back to a time that was not even my own.  I go back to a time when a milkshake costed ten cents, Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone was number two on the top forty pop chart, and my mom was twenty-one.  I am sitting in the backseat of a Ford Galaxy on a dismal December morning, desperately wishing I could hear my mom turn to my aunt and say, "turn around, I forgot my sweater."

About the Author 

Elizabeth Burns

Elizabeth Burns is the first-place winner of the 2017 Central PA Magazine Writing Contest.

Elizabeth Burns is a writer, artist, and teacher.  Her poems and short stories respond to physical and spiritual worlds, experience, or memory.  Her art blends visual and tactile elements with words and sentence fragments.  Liz earned her Bachelor of Science in Art Education from Millersville University and her Masters of Humanities from Penn State University. She completed three teacher residencies at Fallingwater in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, where she composed a collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece and the paintings and sculptures in and around the house.  She teaches art in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband, Dan, and daughter, Rose.


Central PA Writing Contest Runner-up:

Salt & Pepper

by Abbie James

Chicken between my teeth makes that sticky clicking sound when I chew--and now I hear that in my knees when I go upstairs, each step like glue attaching and releasing. My wife glides silently like a silk scarf falling off a mannequin in the twilight hours before stores open, when people aren't bustling about. I'd hoped for more years of quiet.

My old man said his joints seized up because of injuries playing football with friends, dreaming of playing college ball, and because of a lifetime of putting his knees and elbows to the cold cement floors of buildings to paint the lowest spots. He told my daughters just before he died, still able to raise his warped arm slightly when he wanted to say something of importance, that he had so many white hairs because of paint splatters that fell when others were painting above him--that if they wanted to keep their dark hair, they needed to do something more with their lives than idly play sports and paint.

 "You work smarter to get ahead," he'd said.

I was never brave enough to wear a football jersey, and I'd spent my career in an ergonomically correct leather chair on wheels. Now, I fear I am listening to my body follow the same path, soon to be restrained in the shackles of my own helplessness.

My daughter sees me staring into the hall mirror on her way out the door to one of her final high school track practices. She smirks and turns around, the same look on her face when she'd caught me pausing before the boxes of hair dye at the grocery store a few days earlier.

"You're not old, Daddy. Here, try this on those silver stripes," she says, rummaging through her backpack and then handing me the permanent marker she keeps to label the tags of all her uniforms.

"This marker is navy blue, not black," I reply, shaking my head. "It's ok. I know I'm not old." I smile and tell her a meteor was about to crash to the ground but that just a few feet above my head, it burned up into ash, those fragments of outer space landing in my hair.

"How come it disappeared instead of knocking you out?" she jokes, as she swings open the door.

"Just luck...that's all," I say, knowing she's already three feet out the door. "That's all any of this is."

Her older sister is preparing to interview at only small law firms outside a calculated radius from mine; she emphasizes every chance she gets that she doesn't want special connections to sway anyone. At my first job interview so long ago, a man greeted me, his black shoes so glossy that in them I could see the reflection of his outstretched pale hand.

"Lee Samuelson. your father Gary Samuelson?" he asked, looking through my papers.

"Yes sir, he is."

"Ah, what a turkey." He chuckled heartily. "Salt of the Earth," he said, emphasizing each word, before getting back to his queries for me.

I knew that it wasn't my newly acquired degrees in the same shiny plastic frames as everyone else's or anything I'd said, other than confirming, "he is," that landed me that job. It was a huge firm, so I only saw the man two or three times in the elevator or hall before he soon retired. I never felt comfortable asking him how he knew my father, and my old man denied knowing him. I tried to thank my father for somehow polishing my status before anyone knew me, but he waved his hand and turned his head away with a terse chuckle, refusing to accept the credit.  I'd give anything to show him now that even without playing football and painting high-rises--one of the only honest jobs available to him during those times--body-betrayal was inevitable. He'd done everything right.    

My wife opens the kitchen door into the hall and stops abruptly.

"You're still standing there? In that time I already have two dozen cupcakes baked for Sara's last team picnic. I'm going to smash up that mirror into tiny shards and spread them in my flowerbeds. I hear the remnants of vanity are especially beneficial for roses," she says with that sly grin I can't live without.

"I'm just contemplative," I retort. "Besides, you love baking. You wouldn't have to do it. I'd write a check to the chicest bakery in town. "

I pull her to my side and kiss the top of her head; my elbow cracks to highlight the first movement, and my neck audibly punctuates the second. I notice some specks of white against her shadowy hair. She takes her turn with the mirror and notices, too. She flips her hair in smooth silence. Her white spots are just flour; they brush right off. 

About the Author 

Abbie James

Abigail James is the runner-up in the 2017 Central PA Magazine Writing Contest.

Abigail (Abbie) James is a Licensed Behavior Specialist with 12 years' experience working with children on the autism spectrum at Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. She has a B.A. in Human Development and Family Science from Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and an M.A . in Human Sciences from Hood College in Frederick, MD. Her book Autism and Appropriate Touch: A Photocopiable Resource for Helping Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum Understand the Complexities of Physical Interaction was published in 2015.

Abbie is inspired daily by her husband, Eric, and two children. She enjoys attempting to garden all year, playing the piano with mediocrity, trying a variety of creative endeavors, advocating for social justice, and overanalyzing virtually everything. 


The 2017 Central PA Writing Contest is a partnership of WITF and PA Media Group and with additional support from York College of Pennsylvania. Central PA magazine is published by PA Media Group.



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