Every year, we like to challenge Chattanooga writers to come up with their best story in 500 words or less.
This year, we had a record number of entries, and a daunting task at hand for our judges to determine the best of the best.
And without further ado, here are the top three for your enjoyment, along with a pair of honorable mentions (we told you it was tough to pick the best of all the great submissions).
An Old Man Learns to Stand Up For Himself
by Clifton Patty
We met at a bar on a weekday and she laughed at me because I couldn’t get the bartender’s attention and my hair was Brylcreem’d and she was wearing heels so I felt like a little boy but that was okay because I’d been searching for someone to carry my juvenescence.
A few weeks later on our first date she told me that she watched too much Discovery channel as a kid so she refused to burp audibly and didn’t like eating in public so she made me cook a lot and we would fall asleep together but I’d always wake up alone.
We moved onto her father’s farmland in Georgia which was tucked between two sloped bluffs that pissed creeks down through the forest up north and one night we got drunk together and she pushed me down the stairs and it cut my forehead up pretty badly so I went to a creek in the woods and watched my blood pluck at the water and bloom into funny faces.
On our last date she gave me the flu but I didn’t take any medicine because I wasn’t ready to be alone again. I sat on the porch after that because it’s what people old people did in the movies and I liked listening to the bugs fighting and barking and flirting in the sugarcane. I decided I should leave the house so I walked to some little diner and ordered a burger.
They brought me chicken fingers but I ate them anyway.
The Girl With the Silken Sepals
by Robin Ford Wallace
The Flowerbed was not my regular habitat but that’s not to say there was anything wrong with it. It seemed a nice enough joint, well-drained, just a quiet little place where your working-slob photosynthesizer could kick back with a cup of something cool after 12 hours in the hot sun. You know. Vegetate.
There was a rose tending bar, heavily perfumed, maybe a little past full bloom but not going to seed just yet, thank you very much. Zinnias perched on toadstools looking fresh as daisies, big heads bent toward their drinks like that was all in the world they cared about. But guys would flash a stamen at them across the room and though they pretended not to see it was safe to bet there’d be some cross-pollination later on.
Not for me. I was here on business. I sat there in my brown-stripe trifoliate, spadix tucked discreetly into spathe, trying not to do anything that screamed UNDERCOVER.
Then I looked up and saw: Her.
She wilted, sobbing, over an iced mimosa. She was lovely, slender and long-stemmed, a rich purple-blue flecked delicately with gold. I moved from the bar to her table as naturally as a heliotrope turning toward the sun.
“Cheer up,” I said. “What are you, a weeping willow?”
“Don’t be ranunculus.” She gave me a drop-dead look. “Anyone can see I’m an iris.”
“I know. You’re practically waving a blue flag.”
That made her laugh, a low sweet sound from deep in her pedicels. “All right, Jack, I like your styles.” She gave me a smile that made my stamens turgid. “Mind if I call you that? You can tuck your spadix tucked into your spathe all day long, I can spot a jack-in-the-pulpit from 100 yards. It’s that holy look. What are you, an undercover cop?”
I managed not to flinch. “OK. Call me Jack. What do I call you?”
“I’m Angie O’Sperm.”
“An Irish iris?”
“No,” she said bitterly. “I’m just an all-American garden variety. Wanted to be a flower showgirl but I was a late bloomer and missed my chance. Instead I ended up in this lousy joint hustling hostas for the Nightshade Family.”
“The Nightshades own this place?” My anthers perked up, lobes cocked.
“Oh, yes. Their roots run deep here.”
I leaned forward. “Listen, Angie, I can help you get away from those stinkweeds.”
“Would you, Jack? Yes, I believe you would.” She smiled. “God, look at me. I’d better go fix my face.”
She disappeared into the back and I sat there grinning foolishly until a familiar voice said behind me: “Considering the lilies, Jack?”
It was my partner, “Sweet” William Bloom. “Not just any lily. Bill. Wait till you see her. There she comes now!”
Bang! Bill shot. Angie dropped like a whacked weed.
“No!” I shouted.
“It was you or her.” He rolled her over so I could see: She had a pistil.
“The Nightshades were on to you,” he said. “Sorry, Jack...”
“She was a plant.”
Confessions of A White-Collar Scab
by Mary Petruska
I was a white-collar scab for Lehman Brothers in the late nineties. I’m not proud of it but I needed to pay off an $18,000 debt from a failed fashion business. A friend slid me in, when she just couldn’t take it anymore.
I knew my soul was on the line but so was my life and home… and I went for it.
They hired me through a temp agency so they could fire me at any time, keep my hours below 30 to avoid paying any benefits and cut their cost per hour in half. It was the most money I had ever made in my life and all I had to do was make invitations for closing dinners and weekend junkets to rape second and third world countries.
Derivatives were BIG back then. I didn’t fully understand what they were but I knew they were messing with whole countries. I told myself It was only 30 hours a week, and that I owed friends and family a lot of money.
I got into it.
When they wanted to rape a South American country, I chose aggressive type. The woman who was my boss always wanted “flowery type” for invitations—but I KNEW the boys making the DEAL were more aggressive and they would like the type I chose. I’d do both—to please my boss—but the boys were the bottom line and I knew who they were. A good graphic designer understands her client.
From the get-go I thought of myself as a white-collar scab. It was way before people were talking about how corporations were bypassing laws to protect the worker. I was living it...and happy to be making a steady income to pay back my debt for a failed dream.
I worked 2.5 years and made my last debt payment the very week they “downsized” me to hire the kid I had trained. I was up to $45/hour. She had just graduated college and they could get her for $18/hour full time with benefits.
She and I are friends to this day. We went through 9/11 together. It was my day off. She came out of the subway to see people jumping out of windows. She called me hours later from her mother’s office in Midtown to ask me if I thought we were supposed to show up for work tomorrow.
We both worked from home after that and delivered work to hotel rooms and had no “trauma counseling” because… we were both white-collar scabs. The isolation was intense and we became each other’s support.
So… now, just about everyone is a white-collar scab. It’s no big thing anymore—just the way it is. Corporations owe nothing to their employees. You’re lucky to have a job. Period.
And…I don’t at the moment—have a job. I’m available. I can read your soul and I can package it. Call me.
By Inza Hagins-Dyer
“ No need to get psycho. Here is your precious magazine,” my husband says. He pulls the January 2009 edition of Vogue magazine from the trash. Michelle Obama is on the cover. I am a huge fan and he thinks that this historical first caused my hysteria when the book went missing. He is wrong.
Flashback: 1965. Five year old me walking with Mother down the segregated streets of Montgomery, Alabama. I was learning that I was “colored.” A gentle tug from Mother here and there was all it took. “Colored people can’t go there,” was all she said. It only took a few times for this to sink in After a while she no longer had to tug. I learned to ask before entering. Eventually I could just tell. The better-looking places were off limits.
I also learned that there were some nicer areas you could go as long as you went around the back. Mother knocked on a back door in a quiet alley. A woman answered and handed her a mysterious brown bundle. She waited until we were home to show me what was inside.
Surely this was a gift from heaven, a satin dress dotted with pearlescent discs, icy blue, pretty enough to eat! I later learned that the store was the only designer dress shop for miles. Sales were made to coloreds through the back door. Purchases came in plain bags so that no one knew the store sold such finery to coloreds. I had witnessed the underground railroad of fashion, a secret market that allowed us access to nicer things. Eventually my mother and her friends would trade their insatiable desire for beautiful well-made clothes, for a simple thing called justice. Mother joined the civil right movement and boycotted that store until the day that we could walk in the front door.
Today I am a lawyer, wearily juggling work and motherhood. That segregated world seems like a ludicrous faded nightmare. To my mother’s despair I have also lost touch with fashion, having neither time nor interest in such things. I wear washable suits for work, and jeans everywhere else. She shakes her head and reminds me that she dodged fire hoses and police dogs so that I could have the right to shop “Even an old lady like me reads Vogue to keep up with fashion,” she said. Soon after that conversation I received my first issue in the mail—a gift.
And then she was gone, murdered, by some thug who grew up caring nothing about the civil rights movement, and thought that the well-dressed old lady was rich.
My husband does not know this story. He meant no harm in throwing the magazine away. I hug the book to my chest, suddenly remembering all the sacrifices that were made so that I can be who and whatever I am today. Thanks, Mom. I am forever grateful.
Waiting for Her to Surface
By Mason Gallaway
Dev ’ s girlfriend dove out of the argument as if it were a doomed vessel. Dev had just been forming his comeback when Aerie crouched into position and propelled herself into the lake in an arch of movement that was as bewitching to Dev as it was maddening.
For a moment Dev stood on the swim raft, staring at the water and gnawing his words as the ripples Aerie created rocked him. The lake was suddenly too quiet. The afternoon was suddenly too hot. The beer at his feet grew warmer by the second. Even the party house across the lake was quiet now. Burt Reynolds owned that place in the 70s, Dev had heard.
Dev couldn ’ t even remember what the fight was about, and his words began to sour on his breath along with the beer. But he couldn ’ t just stand there. He had to deal with this. So, Dev paced and he thought—about how impulsive Aerie was. How she always eluded him. How she never let him finish his thoughts. And how did she ever learn to dive like that?
He thought of walking away and letting her resurface to find him gone. Then she ’ d be alone. He thought of her never coming up. She ’ d find some underwater portal and escape from his life forever. Then he ’ d be alone. He thought of her never coming up. She ’ d tangle with the thick vegetation below and roll herself into a slimy tomb. She ’ d be dead and he ’ d be alone. He thought of her never coming up. She ’ d hover just below, watching his wavering, worried form as
he stared at the water waiting for her to surface. He thought of her never coming up and how he ’ d never understand why part of him was relieved.
And she didn’t come up, though she should have by now. Dev stopped pacing and fixed his gaze on the water. Why wasn ’ t she coming up? Where was she? Hadn ’ t it been just a bit too long? Was she all-star at diving and holding her breath? Dammit, why wasn’t she coming up?
She broke the surface hard, slinging a few stinging droplets into Dev ’ s face. She tilted her head back and let the water roll away as the sun glinted off her tanned skin. She cocked a smile up at Dev.
“ Coming in or what? ” she said.
Dev wiped his face and looked away. A boat passed by the cove. An unseen jet ski whined in the distance. The lake was alive again. And Dev saw someone at the party house across the water. Someone like Burt Reynolds— shirtless, healthy lines just setting in at the eyes, hair and mustache as dark and full as ever. He was watering flowers and waving in Dev ’ s direction.
In his mind, Dev waved back to Burt. But in reality, he cocked a smile at Aerie. Then he knelt down, sipped his warm beer, and dove into the water.