The 2014 Central PA Writing Contest announced its winners earlier this year at a York College event. Two winners were selected from 109 qualifying entries consisting of original, unpublished work.
First place went to Kim Daly Nobbs of Lancaster for her work titles “Cracks of Gray in Black and White.” The runner-up prize went to Kirsten Crawford of Carlisle for her work titled “The Loneliest Number.”
Each piece was reviewed by one of the preliminary judges – York College professors Vito Grippi, Jaleasha Ruth or Dr. Travis Kurowski, and by final judges – Ted Sickles editor of Central PA Magazine; Thomas Sayers Ellis, author and writer-in-residence; Dr. Travis Kurowski of York College; and WITF President Kathleen Pavelko.
Lola felt sick as she walked up to the casket to pay her respects to the man she had left 15 years before. Frank looked so different, so dead, his too-pink lips stretched into an eerie half smile. His dark hair, always so wild and lively, now with streaks of gray, was neatly parted and tamed into a ponytail. She noticed that the suit he wore was too big, and she felt a slow but persistent veil of sadness descending over her.
Lola had thought Frank would live forever. He was that kind of man. Too mean to die—at least at the end. She wasn’t exactly sure why she was here, but she had felt compelled.
She turned from Frank after just a few moments, left without being seen and drove the familiar drive from the church to The Bunker.
“The Bunker”—that’s what everyone in town had called the place where she and Frank had settled when they moved here. They did what they could to make it their own. Gus, always sunshine, had called it “Home Sweet Home,” despite its many faults. The three of them had made a sign one Saturday and placed it out front. “Home Sweet Bunker,” it said.
Kim Daly Nobbs is a writer and chief marketing officer for Willow Valley Communities, a senior living organization in Lancaster Country. Nobbs is studying with Melissa Greene of Write from the Heart in Lancaster. She is originally from New York City and now lives in Lancaster with her son, Patrick, and their black lab, Calypso.
And now Lola sat in her Prius in front of the old sign, in front of this place where so much had happened and not happened. Lola reached into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out the letter Frank had sent. The letter she had read and reread since she’d received it via FedEx three days ago.
The content was clear, concise and far more eloquent than she could imagine Frank managing. “Dear Delores,” it began, in his unmistakable handwriting. Frank had been the only person to ever call her Delores. Lola had liked the way her given name sounded on Frank’s lips, when he whispered it in her ear.
Lola snapped herself back from her memory. She hadn’t thought of Frank as anything more than an angry drunk since she left this sad little town years ago.
But this letter was from another kind of person, a man who had “done his work,” as her therapist liked to say. In the letter, he talked about regrets, about not being present to her (he actually used the word “present”) when Gus had died. About the fact that, though there had been women since, none ever understood him or penetrated his heart like she had. He asked for forgiveness. He said that it had been 10 years since he moved from the home that they had shared. But somehow he just couldn’t let it go. “Even though it’s no showplace, it was ours,“ Frank had written finally. And then: “I’m not going to make it, Delores. You should have the house or figure out who should have it. You’re still in it.”
Lola felt a dull ache in the back of her head. It had taken her years to undo the damage of her former life. Frank had been dead to her for years, and now, here he was, actually dead but prying his way back consciousness.
The Bunker was below grade, with three steps down to the front door. Corrugated sheet metal had been placed over a wood frame structure that resembled a windowed 18-wheeler that had lost its wheels. By the time she had left, the place was a mess. Frank had piled garbage and recycling everywhere, almost blocking the entrance. But all that was gone now.
The dead Dodge Dart sat where it last stalled and had become part of the landscape design—easily the most colorful thing in the place. Its apple red paint had dulled to a weathered watermelon. Now, in the spring, dandelions grew up all around it. Splashes of yellow against the watermelon, the black tires. She walked over to it. If it had been in an avant garde sculpture garden, some might have thought it beautiful. To Lola, it was just a sad monument to a life gone wrong.
The hand-me-down couch from Frank’s sister was in the same place, in all its burgundy and tan woven glory. She ran her hand over the coarse fabric, remembering how she always made sure there was a blanket between the “itchy” couch and Gus’s sweet skin. The kitchen was clean, except for the dust. There were even two places set at the counter, as if she and Frank were about to share breakfast together.
She surveyed the rooms. They all looked pretty much the same, only neater. When she had left, she had pulled out all of her clothes, taking only her favorite ones. Someone had taken that pile and carefully put the clothes away. She hadn’t really thought about life going on for Frank here after she left. But of course life did, such as his life was.
When they married, Lola was 18 and pregnant. She loved Frank then, and they loved the baby. But then Gus got sick, and Frank changed. He became distant and lazy and arrogant. And huge. Not all of him, he was a wiry man in most respects. Just his beer belly and his oppressive spirit. Those became huge.
She sat on the itchy couch and thought she smelled Gus somewhere beyond the mustiness. She thought about the boy and the first time she had left this place.
Gus was three when they found out he wouldn’t likely make it to four. He hadn’t been right all summer before the diagnosis. Lola would wake to his soft crying and find him with his wavy brown hair plastered to his sweaty forehead. “My legs feel ouchy, Mama,” he’d say softly. Three months of trips to the doctor with no one seeming to pay attention to the fact that her boy was fading away.
One day, when Lola got home from work, she found Frank on the couch with Gus. The TV was blaring. Sesame Street. One of Gus’s nostrils was stuffed with a tissue full with bright red blood. His light blue shirt and little hands were dotted with speckles of brown. Frank was in a deep, drooling sleep with the remote in his hand, three emptied Genesee cans on the table and one on the floor.
That was the first time she left. To his credit, Frank showed up at her parents’ house in Philly the next day. After a week at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they had a verdict. Leukemia—not the good kind. Lola and Gus stayed with her parents, close to the pediatric oncologist that had given them only a needle’s eye of hope. Frank drove down on the weekends. And after nine excruciating months, Gus’s suffering ended.
Frank and Lola found each other again, momentarily, in their broken-heartedness, and when he had begged Lola to come back upstate with him, she had agreed. As she began to accept that Gus was really gone, though, Lola’s entered the endless mind-blowing purgatory of childless motherhood. The thought of looking for work exhausted her, and her parents kept sending checks. She’d spend whole days expertly thumbing across photos on her phone, looking at pictures of the boy. Sometimes she sat with the laptop, a heavy, antiquated hand-me-down from her father, so she could really see his eyes, be transported by his smile.
Lola fell in love with her grief. It was what sustained her. She loved to roll it around in her mouth like a pineapple lifesaver, sweet but with that tinge of sharpness. It went on that way for six more years. Frank became a meaner drunk, life got worse. It was her best high school friend Maggie who had convinced her to leave. “You have one life,” Maggie was fond of saying. “And this is not how you want to spend it.”
When Lola left, it had felt like she could leave her grief there, too, peeling it off like the Elmer’s glue she used to peel off Gus’s fingers after they’d done a craft project. She intended to take only the sweet memories with her. And as far as Frank was concerned, Lola began the process of revising their life together, so that it went from messy gray to clean black and white.
Now, sitting on their couch, she felt the heavy, unresolved grief of her denial of the delicious complexity of her relationship with Frank. And somehow Lola felt more at home than she had in years. More than in her parents sprawling home, in her beautiful condo with her second ex-husband, in the Philadelphia brownstone she now lived in. Lola let the heaviness overtake her, as she sunk into the couch. Suddenly she knew, as surely as she had ever known anything, that Frank was right. She was still in this place and she wanted to take back the pieces of herself she had left here. She needed to.
Weeping softly, Lola’s heart broke open again, and life began to seep back into the cracks.
He dings the bell. The spiked collar looks ridiculous on his lanky frame. What a tough boy, she thinks with an acerbity she can taste. He looks askance at her from the corner of one brown eye as if sensing that he strikes a wrong note. The collar’s allusion tires her; but Craig will put it on again if she removes it.
She wants to go back to bed. He looks at her, this time with insistence, and dings again, making the bell sound more loudly. All right. He needs it. She has no choice but to accommodate him even at this ungodly hour. She exhales, noting her visible breath in the dim room as she cracks the door just wide enough to let him pass.
She feels the involuntary contraction of each follicle on her skin’s surface as she steps outside. The flesh beneath the hair on his spine shivers too, and his low groan sounds almost human. Too late, she snaps fully awake as she realizes they removed the doorstop to keep him safe. She forgot and let the handle bump against the wall as she shut the door.
Shit. She always pays for her caustic little observations, she thinks. Now they are locked out and she is stuck, dressed like a teenager in only a T-shirt and clogs. The forecast was correct: it is snowing. She watches the driving flakes turn the yard into a saccharine confection as she holds herself and shifts from foot to foot. The contrast between the patio’s glittering surface and her backyard purpose adds another layer of irony as she waits for the dog. She calls him, air jetting from her lips with the impatience of a chain smoker’s exhalation.
He can warm her legs while she figures out how to solve their dilemma. With sympathetic prescience, he positions himself between her body and the door and leans heavily against her as if his energy has suddenly left him. She returns his pressure with her shins as they both yawn.
The sleep deprivation is starting to get to her. How can her husband possibly sleep through the dog’s imperative rings? She awakens immediately. With the trips down to a single nightly excursion, however, they normally would be inside by now. She would be hugging the puppy against her chest to take the edge off of the chilly air as they go back to bed. Craig would roll over and drape a leg over one of her icy ones as she slides between the sheets. The dog would circle twice before dropping solidly at her feet.
She checks the small window near the door; also locked. She climbed through a similar one to unlock the back door many times after her father misplaced his keys when she was a child. At the thought, she can almost feel the propelling thrust of his shove; and she catches a whiff of a rank and tangy odor like the one that was always on his breath, a rotten-leaf mixture of tobacco and beer.
She shakes her head and notices the snowflakes come together into large clusters as if they are magnetic. They spiral downward with an inevitable, yet lazy slowness. Watching their hypnotic descent, she feels a tingling, responsive pull that signals her body’s settlement into sleep. Shaking her head, she fights the feeling. No sleep for the weary when your toes feel like chunks of quartz.
Why didn't she think to grab a robe before coming downstairs? Better yet, why doesn't she own a bullhorn? She could leave it on the back stoop. The neighbors would hear something that loud. Craig, in contrast, is completely immovable, especially in sleep. During his Desert Storm command, he did not even awaken to his sergeant’s panicked yells when pieces of an exploded Humvee hit his tent. She could have warned the man about how deeply Craig slept; waking him had been impossible when the kids were little.
The worst was with their youngest. The pediatrician insisted that she stop nursing, so Craig had to put their son back to sleep every night. She remembers insistently shaking him, leaking milk and tears all over the sheets, wondering how the denial of comfort could address the problem of an underweight baby. She had bitten her tongue and deferred to the doctor; and Craig always agreed with him anyway, so the nights fell into a predictable pattern of delayed response to their son’s distress. Once his cries reached a certain frantic pitch, she forced Craig out of bed with a well-placed kick, aware that her perverse pleasure in the act measured the depths of their trouble.
To this day, Craig does not recall their nightly struggle. He comments on being exhausted by childrearing, which galls her a little; but, even when considering those awful nights, she knows their home was filled with a kind of happiness and a shared sense of purpose. Now she wishes they were still living in that house because its doorbell could give you a heart attack. She remembers how, at age five, their son would ring its bell and run away, peeking around the corner with a cheeky grin when she answered it.
What a circular accumulation of karma life is, she thinks ruefully, especially my particular assemblage of door-related frustrations. Maybe she can jimmy the lock. She scans the ground for a tool and riffles half-heartedly through her hair for a bobby pin. Nothing. The dog licks a flake from her slipper as she checks his paws for discoloration. He then moves off the step, nuzzling deeply in the snow as he searches for bunny pellets, a disgusting habit she cannot break. Her eyes trace the looping cursive of rabbit tracks. Does it say “Best wishes?” she wonders for a surreal moment before shaking her head. They need to get inside.
She also needs that bullhorn, or a noisier pup. The neighbor had suggested the bell; but if the dumb dog was normal, he would make a racket at the door and rouse the neighbors. Then she could stay at their house until Craig awakens at five o’clock. She briefly envisions the alternative: two bodies curled in permanently passive attitudes beneath a thick layer of snow.
She gives the door a hard whack, knowing its futility. Curse Craig’s love of old houses with thick plaster walls. Curse their bedroom’s location and how her knuckles smart with each rap. Her hands feel like they are wrapped in oddly prickly cotton. The beginnings of frostbite? She adds forearms to curled fists, thumping emphatically as a gust of wind whooshes under her shirt and flames against her skin. The searing sensation travels upward and envelops her torso, reminiscent of the blasted hot flashes that helped get her into this mess. She ignores the pulsing ache and pounds harder, throwing her whole body into the effort.
The jarring screech of metal against solid rock makes her stop. For a millisecond, she thinks the sound comes from her half-frozen limbs. Then she realizes it is a snowplow working the street below the house. The leafless woods cannot muffle its powerful rumble as it nears their long driveway. She will have to descend the hill.
She hastily wipes her cheek, catching the slight sway of window curtains out of the corner of her eye. Thank God! She hooks a snowflake on the curve of her tongue, its airy lightness a celebration; but then a pink nose appears, pushing further through the gap between the curtains’ panels. Her heart falls. It is only the cat, alerted by the commotion. She wants to kill it.
She is wasting time on emotion. She needs to take action. A woman emerging from the thick stand of trees will give the driver a real start at this hour. Her slim, barely concealed form might give him a little jolt of something else too. Until he notices the wrinkles, she thinks wryly. She shivers and imagines the cab’s heady heat. She will ignore how the driver cannot meet her eyes, but she will not hesitate to make use of his guilt. She might even ask him to take her somewhere.
It will be several hours before Craig awakens to a home devoid of wife and dog. She thinks of him, asleep with a foot dangling beyond the comforter’s edge, his big toe like the head of a turtle that has curled too far out of its shell. If she had the energy, this thought would irritate her, help her make other decisions. She sighs. The dog returns, plodding heavily through the snow as if coming home after hours of impossibly dreary work. The shock of his wet nose as he nudges her calf galvanizes her. She scoops him into the crook of her arm, pressing his artlessly convivial face against her cheek as she turns her back on the door.
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The 2014 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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