In an effort to be fair to all of our four winners, I’ve made a change in prize designations. Here’s what happened: When I read Karen’s piece, I was concerned about whether she had gone through this or not, so I asked if it was memoir or fiction. She told me it was fiction, and I forgot to mark it that way and remove it.
Because this was my mistake and I cannot guarantee that she’ll win the current flash fiction contest, I’ve decided to name her piece as a flash fiction winner and Christine Hill’s story as first place in flash memoir. Each of them is a first place winner. Mistakes happen.
I’ve moved the third place tie up to a second place tie, so we have two ties and no third place. I consider this a win-win, as well as a one-shot deal, and I hope you feel the same way.
The Winners of Writer Advice’s 2020 Flash Memoir Contest are
First Place (Flash Fiction–see note above):
By Karen Ott Mayer
Like any mother’s words, each shouting syllable fell sharp. “Clare, put your shoes on! We’re going to be late.”
A willowy pre-teen, Clare tended towards distraction, or some may say, daydreaming. She could end up in her closet playing dress up instead of in the bathroom brushing her teeth. Since her parent’s divorce, she spent time floating among adults, some known, some unknown. A new boyfriend or her dad’s new dinner date. They all looked down on her with the same sympathy, which she didn’t need nor want.
“Clare!” This time her mother Ella appeared in the bedroom doorway. “I’m not going to tell you again. Get your things together now.” While talking, she walked over to Clare and brushed the bangs from her eyes.
“I promise we won’t always live like this. We all have to make sacrifices. We’re doing the best we can. Understand?”
Clare nodded, adjusting the new red shirt her mom bought her. Nothing felt right inside or out.
They left the house and climbed into the car. In divorce, they all lived in half-worlds. Half time here, half time there. Split holidays, split vacations. Everything became a trade off. If someone worked late, another picked up. It wasn’t always easy and the periodic screaming matches between her parents proved the point. As an only child, she never quite understood how two people could fight more apart than together. Turmoil usually resulted from money talk. With no formal education, her mother found odd jobs and part-time work to supplement the child support.
Her dad had plenty of money but wouldn’t help beyond the required amount. He lived in a big house across town and traveled. A lot. Ever since he stumbled upon his wife in bed with a stranger, the emotional door slammed and never re-opened. He spent time with Clare yet knew little about her life. He didn’t ask her. He just showed up with plans assuming what she might like. She craved only honesty. Someone to listen.
Ella pulled the car into a grocery store parking lot, easing into the back of the lot where vast empty spaces surrounded them. She spoke low into the phone and Clare caught every few words.
“….appreciate it….yes, that’s fine this time…..no, I need the money….no, he doesn’t know anything about it….”
Clare stared at the gray skies hanging large behind the mountains. School was starting about now and she would miss another day.
A truck pulled in alongside their car and a man with sunglasses waved to her mom. Her mom turned around and smiled at her.
“You’ll be OK. Remember everything I told you.”
Clare nodded silently, afraid to do anything different. She pushed her cold hands into her pockets and climbed out of the car, carrying her backpack.
Her mom followed behind her as the man climbed from the truck. Clare looked into his face, recognizing the fairly attractive eyes and thick beard. He was at least a calm soul who at times seemed filled with a heavy sadness. Ella approached him.
“Clare, this is Wayne. He’ll take care of you.” She hesitated until asking one final question. “Did you bring the money?”
He handed her a brown envelope and she opened it, quickly rifling through the bills to get a total. She tucked it inside her coat pocket and turned to Clare.
She grabbed her and hugged her tightly again. Ella loved her mom and they only had each other left to trust. If she didn’t believe her words, the despair would overtake her. She hugged her mom in return, trying hard to comfort her.
“It’ll be OK, mom. Like you told me, you did this in life and it all worked out. Right?” Her mom turned and walked quickly around the car, climbing in with no reply.
The man opened the door for her and she climbed in the truck. She didn’t worry about where they were going or if there were others. The fear remained the same and would lessen once they gave her something to smoke or drink. In a day or so, she’d return home. And ask her mom the same question again.
“Is that the last time?”
And she knew, her mom’s clouded eyes would turn away from her, just like her innocence that had faded into each stranger’s arms.
Karen Ott Mayer produces content for media and business. For more than 20 years, her work has spanned a wide breadth from creative non-fiction to technical white papers, earning multiple awards. An entrepreneur and artist at heart, Karen works from Moon Hollow Farm where she lives with her husband Kole.
First Place (Flash Memoir–See Note Above):
By Christina Hill
The waiting room fills up quickly. There is water damage on the soundproof panels scattered across the ceiling between fluorescent light fixtures. The chairs are sturdy with vinyl covers peeling. There are rust spots around the hinges. An anxious weight in my stomach pins me to the seat.
At ten minutes a woman comes in with her preschool-age daughter in tow. The little girl sits still in her chair without kicking her feet. I am jealous, because neither of my children can do that. Not even the big one who has her own chores to do and can ride a bike without training wheels.
At twenty minutes a girl, maybe 15, follows her parents inside. The father wears denim overalls with no shirt underneath. The mother has a large pile of curly blonde hair. She’s holding a 64oz soda cup from a gas station. They stare intently at a cooking show that blares from the TV hung across from them. The daughter curls her hands into the cuffs of her sweater sleeves and looks at the ground. Her parents talk to her without looking up from the screen.
At 30 minutes, a defiant-looking woman in a hijab walks in, accompanied by a man who I suspect is her brother. I am captivated by her. She doesn’t belong here. I stare too long at her headscarf, which is the most extraordinary shade of blue. It is my favorite thing in the room.
Down the hall, an ultrasound. Another hall, a blood test. I warn her about my difficult veins, but she finds it on the first try. She’s been doing this a long time.
Another nurse takes me downstairs. There is an underground dungeon of hospital beds with long periwinkle curtains to separate them. I tuck my clothes into a locker and slip into the hospital gown. The non-skid socks are not optional. I tiptoe back to my blanket fort. The nurse will come for me soon.
Several other women are led down into the dungeon after me. I am among the first to lay down and the last to leave. Eventually a tall, thin woman with a brunette pixie cut appears beside my bed. She takes my arm and leads me to The Procedure Room. She has a kind voice. She takes my vitals. Her hands are warm. She is a gentle lioness and I trust her without question. She is here to take care of me.
When the doctor comes in, the lioness takes my hand and she doesn’t let go. The doctor examines me in the most intimate places, but I’ve had two children and nearly died both times. I’m not afraid of this much older maan or his tiny whirring machine. The lioness speaks quietly to me. She distracts with questions I don’t remember. Suddenly that familiar pressure in my stomach, the brick that held me here, evaporates. I breathe in and keep breathing. My body feels whole again.
The lioness returns me to the periwinkle blanket fort. From my bed I can see all the women who came before me. Someone has left a bottle of water and some crackers on the table bedside table. I thank the lord because I am ravenously hungry. I tear open the corner and hear footsteps to the left of me. The lioness appears with her arm around the girl with the hijab. Her headscarf is even more extraordinary down here. Her head is down, and she leans on the lioness for support as she is guided to the bathroom. The lioness doesn’t look at me when she leaves. It is a reminder to respect the privacy of others.
The room is so quiet. Then, from behind the bathroom door I can hear someone weeping. I want to whisper through the door to her, but I don’t have any right things to say. All I can do is listen. She has a right toher sadness, and it is hers alone.
The weeping fades to a low sob. My heart settles. I wonder if I’ll have complications, but my body just feels whole. I know I should have a sense of shame. This is a solemn place, and I am surrounded by many grieving women lamenting the same secret.
I take out my phone and text my husband that I can leave soon. Somewhere inside me, a tiny worm of truth wiggles free from its cocoon.
I’m not ashamed.
I feel amazing.
I eat my crackers.
Christina Hill lives with her partner near the exact center of the U.S. with a dog, a cat, two loud children, and small garden. Her other work can still be found online at pastelninja.wordpress.com.
Dressing the Part
By Susan Cushman
It’s not unusual for a girl raised in the South to be obsessed with clothing. Growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s was difficult enough for the girl whose self-esteem was intact. But for one whose innocence was stolen by someone she should have been able to trust, the devastation is swift and the damage remains throughout her life. The betrayal inherent in incest causes the child to go into such distress that she ends up using methods of rescue for herself that are as damaging as the abuse itself. Self-contempt. Eating disorders. Substance abuse. Obsession with body image and clothes.
My first efforts at reclaiming my lost sense of beauty were thwarted by my third grade teacher. Another piece of my heart died the day Mrs. Tennyson announced the parts for our class play. I was desperate to be the princess.
Jan McMillan was perfect for that role, with her long, blond hair and pre-pubescent Barbie doll smile. Her only flaw was that her teeth were slightly too large for her mouth. An eight-year-old Farrah Fawcett dressed in a beautiful taffeta gown with sparkly sequins. But she’s not the star.
That’s what I kept telling myself as I walked the short half-block home from school, trying to dry my tears before facing my mother with the news.
“Jan McMillan is the princess.”
“Well, I’m sure Mamaw can make a witch costume for you that will be beautiful. And you know, black is very slimming.”
Her efforts to soothe my disappointment were lost on my skinny eight-year-old self. My mother was a beautiful, petite, woman, even when she died at eighty-eight. She was stunning in her thirties, when she was dressing me for school plays and piano recitals.
I rode the bus to my grandmother’s home for my final costume fitting. Mamaw made almost all my clothes. Standing in front of the mirror in her sewing room, as she pinned up the hem for my witch’s costume, I visualized the princess gown she would have made for me. I wiggled my hips and waved my imaginary wand.
“Stand still, Susan. I’m almost finished.”
“But I hafta’ go to the bathroom!”
She stood up and gently pulled the black dress over my head, careful not to let the pins scratch my bare tummy and chest. I ran into the bathroom, wearing only my little girl panties, and lifted the cover on the toilet. It was the same spot where my grandfather had stood, four years earlier, when I walked in without knocking.
A strange mix of embarrassment and curiosity held me in the doorway, staring at Granddaddy. I started to turn and leave, but he grabbed my arm and closed the door. He pulled me over to his side and placed my hand on his penis, and moved it up and down the shaft. I looked away just as he made a groaning sound.
Families filled the auditorium as sixty third-graders scurried around behind the curtain. Court jesters in bright striped tunics practiced twirling ribbons in the air. Maids-in-waiting compared their colorful, satiny dresses and giggled at the boys in their tights and bloomers. I took one look at my reflection in the mirror, covered from head to toe in black, and knew that if I was going to be the star, somehow I would have to be the color.
The only palette available to me on that stage was my voice. Standing front and center, I spoke my lines with intensity and abandon. The rush I got from the audience’s applause almost made me forget what I was wearing. Until the Princess entered from stage right. Her brightness stung my heart, like a target-seeking missile, locking onto the hole that hid beneath my black witch’s robe. The hole that had been put there by my grandfather.
I would try to fill that hole with substitutes for decades to come. With food. With vodka martinis. With clothes.
There is lots of power in the beauty of a woman. But as amazingly good and valuable as the artistry of a lovely woman is, it’s not enough to take care of darkness of this magnitude. I may never get over the landslide of betrayal set up for me by this patriarch in my life, no matter how hard I try to cover it with beautiful clothes. I will always wish I was the Princess.
Susan Cushman is author of three books: Friends of the Library (short stories),
Cherry Bomb (novel), and Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face
Alzheimer’s (memoir). She edited three anthologies: Southern Writers on
Writing, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, and The
Pulpwood Queens Celebrate 20 Years!
Co-Second Place (a tie):
The Importance of Wearing a Flotation Device in An Abundant Silence
By Kiki Day
I rang the doorbell, smiled at the gargoyle on the front porch. Jeff, my college writing teacher, had invited some of us over to his house to workshop after the class ended. I accepted — my ego, his inclusivity — but now, standing on the front porch, I regretted it. I never should have been in a fiction writing class to begin with. I wrote memoir, or tried to. It was problematic. “I don’t like this part. However, this is good,” Jeff would say, calling me up to the front to talk privately about a story. “But why is there a flotation device in it? Do you think the hero would wear one under these circumstances?” Jeff told me huge parts of my stories sounded fake. I couldn’t tell him it was mostly true, except for a thing or two. I couldn’t admit that to myself yet.
The first week he assigned each of us a classical author to read, to mimic — a good way to learn how to write, he said. We all worked diligently. After class, he wanted to talk to me. “Do you drink when you write?” he asked. “No, not really,” I said. “Well, sometimes, I do. If it’s nighttime.” “Don’t,” he said, “it doesn’t help. Have you read Ulysses?” he asked. “No, but I’ve tried,” I said. “Well, I matched you up with James Joyce,” he said. “You’re writing reminds me of his.”
James Joyce? It was easier to read Foster Wallace backwards, wasn’t it? Drinking worked for Joyce though, right? Until it killed him? Apparently, it didn’t work for me. When I drank, a structure beyond recognition surfaced, danced around a plot that didn’t exist, became a series of loosely formed connections between characters that didn’t spark. At least I’m Irish on my mother’s side.
“Revise, rewrite. Edit, edit, edit,” Jeff said in the weeks to come.
Sometimes I whittled my story down to a single paragraph or, once, to a single word: “Float.” It was all I had to read aloud when my turn came in class. No one said anything, as you might expect. What did it mean? I had no idea. Rorschach writing, that was my style. What classical author wrote Rorschach, I wondered?
Filling with abundant doubts, I rang the doorbell again.
My first writing teacher in high school, Ms. W., a large, generous woman with a quick wit and delicate edge, gave us a prompt one day. “Synthetic,” she said, “Just write whatever comes to mind. Keep it real.” I wrote about my boyfriend, a recent breakup. Love is synthetic, it began, a fake, like polyester threads, a false emotion, unreliable… It was dramatic. Also, I worked in a boutique. Clothing spoke to me. Ms. W. gave me an “A” even though she hated the ending. That’s what synthetic means to me, I summarized. “TRITE” she wrote, all caps, red ink. That’s what stuck, of course. Writer’s block can take decades to unload. I still can’t write an ending.
BAM. A door swung shut at the back of the house. A man came down the hallway. Features blurred through frosted glass, shoes thumping the hardwood, he yanked open the front door. It was Jeff, of course, black jeans, white t, Converses. A child’s voice floated down from upstairs. “Hey! You came!” he said, “the others are out back. Help yourself to a beer. I gotta put my kid to bed first, then I’ll be out.”
A child’s voice. Floated. A child’s voice.
Entering the house, I suddenly felt better, like I’d solved a crime. The narrator in my memoir was supposed to be a child, the story written from a child’s point of view. Grabbing a beer in the kitchen, I opened it, took a long gulp and shuddered at the after taste. Moose piss is what beer means to me (TRITE) but tonight it didn’t matter. I had a narrator for my memoir.
I stepped outside. Five guys sat around a fire pit grinning like gargoyles. Confidently, I pulled up a plaid strapped chair, spilled beer down my inflatable vest and smiled back, the six of us waiting together in abundant silence.
Kiki Day, an essayist living with her husband and slow moving Coonhound Lab in the suburbs of Chicago, has written for The Chicago Tribune, NPR, and others. A former grad student in fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago she’s currently home hand washing, hand wringing and writing nonfiction.