I’ve never entered a writing contest before, mostly because usually they charge a fee (which makes the whole thing seem like a racket) but also because I am a really, really lousy loser. My husband won’t play pool with me anymore, not since I spanked him with a cue for trouncing me. For me, there is no such thing as a “friendly game,” a term as oxymoronic as “constructive criticism,” “good grief,” or “routine surgery.” See, if I don’t win, I want to argue about it, I want to get up in your face and shake my fist and change your mind with my bare hands if I have to. I’m that ballplayer who goes to fisticuffs with the ump or that sad politician whining for a recount.
Losing brings out the absolute worst in me.
But for this contest, there was no entry fee and the prize was a Kindle—the perfect birthday gift for my daughter, a kid who reads faster than any pharmaceutical disclaimer, a girl who falls asleep pinned under a heavy book every night, so I thought of her and ignored my better judgment when I entered the contest. The rules were that the story had to be exactly 500 words long and had to start with the sentence “the poor bastard never saw it coming.” What the hell, I thought. I have nothing to lose.
Except my pride, of course. I forgot about that. That’s right. I “almost won.” My story was “awfully good” and you might call it a “partial success,” but I lost, goddamnit. Now, what can I punch?
So, while I’m off in the corner head-butting the wall and beating myself up (picture that office scene in Fight Club when the main character beats himself bloody), here’s the story I wrote. I call it Happiness Is.
“The poor bastard never saw it coming.”
He spoke these words sitting on the curb with his head in his hands. I didn’t know what to tell him.
I’d been watching all along. I was at the sink rinsing my coffee cup when he left at 7:30, as usual. And as soon as the garage door closed, I saw their curtains disappear.
Well, that caught my eye. She was ripping them down. I knew then something was wrong, this being mid-December and no time for spring cleaning. I stood for awhile, peering between the blinds. I like to know what’s going on in my neighborhood.
She stood at the bare window for a minute or two, staring wide-eyed at the neglected lawn, naked trees, and the cement-colored sky. I raised my hand up just in case she looked but she didn’t–she saw the dog, his dog, big stupid thing licking himself on the front lawn like it was the only thing to do.
She took the things he never liked: the pillow she’d embroidered with the words “Happiness Is…”, the gloomy family portrait from the mantel, the one they had taken at the mall just after the baby was born. He said only morons say cheese, and why do we need a picture when we own a camera? She never answered. I saw her throw her clothes and the boy’s into bags. She packed up the blankets and pillows but she left the sheets looking gray and wrinkled, strangely flat.
In the kitchen, she grabbed the coffee maker and the frying pan and threw the ivy-patterned china into a box. I saw her put the food from the refrigerator into a cooler and drag it to the garage. She left the dog food, though. The boy sat at the kitchen table eating cereal. When she ripped the clock off the wall he even didn’t look up, just kept lifting the spoon to his mouth like it was the meaning of life. A lot like his dad, that one.
I made myself a sandwich and ate over the sink, remembering when they moved in seven years ago. I brought them a casserole: tuna surprise. I was the welcome wagon, figured I might as well get acquainted, seeing as our houses were so close. Nobody else minding things around here; somebody’s got to do it.
That in mind, I pulled up the blinds just in time to wave as the loaded minivan took off, but they didn’t notice. I stood for a long time watching those windows like empty sockets, hours before he pulled in. He stood in the dark kitchen like he didn’t know how to turn on the light. And when his car tore out of the garage, the dog yelped once and flew.
I opened the door. He bent over his dog. He said, “The poor bastard never saw it coming!” He covered his eyes.
Maybe it’s easier seeing things through windows. Maybe it’s better not to see.
So there it is. Now that I’m done slapping some sense into myself, I realize several things:
#1: Contests are just not my thing. My ego is a delicate flower, a delicate bloodthirsty flower with teeth, and it’s better just not to go there.
#2: People like funny. This story is a bit of a downer; I should have written something funny. The fellow blogger who put on the contest is a very funny guy and I probably should have taken his style into consideration before I submitted. The story that won was one about a guy who gets his finger bitten off by a moray eel and takes his revenge at a sushi bar. It was very funny, very catchy.
#3: The exercise was not a complete waste of time. It was quite a challenge to pare what began as a much longer story down to bare bones. While I was writing, my brain felt the same way it does when I play scrabble or chess: it took extraordinary amount of control and concentration to tell a complicated tale (with backstory, multiple characters, and depth) and stay true to my own style but make short and snappy. Every ounce of fat and fluff had to be discarded. I think this practice makes for a better story, so it’s something I’ll try to remember.
So, friends, if I ever talk about entering a contest again, would you please punch me in the stomach and get it over with? Thanks!