I had mixed feelings about this whole Fiction 84 contest thing.
Why? Well, on one hand, short-writing contests are undeniably a hoot. Readers clearly enjoy them—more than 320 of you sent in a total of 400 or so stories—and the results are a whole lot of fun to read. Plus, it seemed like a cool way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Tucson Weekly's birth in 1984.
But on the other hand ... writing contests are so subjective. They aren't like, say, a baseball game, where the team that gets the most runs wins, period.
What makes one 84-word story better than another? Beats me.
That's what I was thinking when I sat down to pour over the 400 entries, and whittle them down to 100 or so to send to our kind and talented volunteer judges.
First, I eliminated several that were longer than 84 words. Next, I tossed the entries that, well, weren't fiction. All of that was fairly easy. Then came the hard part: Determining which stories were better than others.
This, folks, is a silly task.
I'll be frank: I almost didn't send one of the top 3 stories to the judges. (I won't say which one, no matter how much liquor you ply me with. Don't even bother asking.) I was this close to tossing it out. But, for whatever reason, I kept it in the batch to send along to our volunteer judges ... and they liked it enough that the writer now gets a really spiffy prize.
I wound up sending the judges 109 stories, and asked them each to send me a list of their top 12. I decided that we'd use a point system to determine the winners: A story ranked first by a judge would get 12 points; a story ranked second would get 11, etc., down to the 12th-ranked story getting one point. Whichever story got the most points would win.
Simple, right? Well, here is what happened:
• Not a single story was listed in the top 12 by all three judges.
• Only five stories were listed on even two judges' top 12 lists.
• Only one of the stories ranked first by any of the judges finished in the top three. The winner, "Jack Nicholson and Jesus," got the most points after being ranked second on two of the lists. The second-place story, "84," was ranked second by one judge, and third by another. The third-place story, "A Story for All Time, or, DiGiovanna Hated It," was ranked first by one judge, and ninth by another.
The four stories that earned honorable mentions did so by either being ranked first on a judges' ballot, or by being listed on two judges' ballots.
The other 24 stories printed here were listed in the top 12 by one of our judges. You can read the rest of the stories sent to the judges by yours truly here.
As for the 300 or so entries that didn't make the initial cut ... well, unless you're one of the folks who can't count words or figure out what the word "fiction" means, it's my fault.
Who knows? Thanks to the subjective nature of these contests, there's a good chance I eliminated an entry that could have wound up winning Fiction 84 if it had gotten to the judges.
If that is indeed the case ... my bad.
Jesus was laughing and waving a glass of wine, "Man, we watch that one all the time. John does the best imitation of you. Sit here and play me in the last supper scene. They won't cast me in the part. Too short, and they suspect my sexual preferences. Hey, I don't mind. Drink up. Life is short, and those crosses are real."
A number of Fiction 84 entrants bemoaned the difficulties of cramming an entire story into just 84 words.
Well, Jeremiah Teague used a mere 63—and he wound up winning the whole contest.
How'd he do it?
"I write what I call 'fucknettes,' instead of vignettes," says the 58-year-old land surveyor who lives in central Tucson. "They're just short thoughts, usually in poetry form. ... This (contest) fit me to a T."
How did he come up with the idea for this tale of Jesus drinking with one of the more, well, interesting actors of our time?
"Probably (just by) drinking late at night, just sitting there, thinking," he says.
For his efforts, Teague wins two tickets to the opening night of Spamalot, compliments of Broadway in Tucson, and a $25 restaurant gift card.
Didn't think I'd make it this far, given how badly I took care of myself. I already felt old at 40, misplaced at 50, and 60 seemed like borrowed time. When 70 rolled around, I realized that napping was better than fucking or sleeping, and when I turned 80, I actually thought I'd make triple digits. Then the old woman passed, followed by the dog; all is loneliness and morphine and bad TV, and I'm 84. Time for one last walk in the desert.
A number of folks decided to work the "84" theme into their entries—but according to our judges, nobody did it better than Mike Tully.
Tully's voice and writing are familiar to some locals; he used to appear on Emil Franzi's Inside Track radio show on KVOI AM 690, and wrote a column for the Inside Track Web site. However, the journalist-turned-lawyer decided to put those duties aside and keep a lower profile after taking a job as an employment-rights compliance officer with Pima County.
But that doesn't mean he's put writing aside entirely.
"I write a lot of columns in my head," he admits.
Tully says "84" came to him, in part, because he recently turned 60, and he felt the need to "probably recalibrate at that point." (However, he assures us that this piece is not autobiographical, and is merely a character study.)
How hard did Tully find it to write a story with such a small word limit?
'"Piece of cake," he says. "It just sort of happened."
Tully wins a $25 restaurant gift card for finishing second in Fiction 84.
Once there lived ...who ...
But then ...
It was the most ...
He felt ...
But then he saw ... even worse off.
He realized he had to ...
No one believed he could. But he believed. He had to believe.
He kept trying.
He kept failing.
He grew angry.
But then he met ...
She believes in him.
(They fuck.) But she misinterprets ... leaves ...
He realizes the only way he can ... is to ...
He tries again, but this time ... Overcomes ... Saves the ...
Steve Barancik has lived a life full of creativity. He wrote the screenplay that became The Last Seduction, a 1994 film starring Linda Fiorentino. He created Monolog Cabin, an on-again, off-again show series featuring writers delivering humorous essays. Now, the 47-year-old can take satisfaction in knowing he's one of the top three 84-word-fiction writers in Tucson.
Unlike the first-place and second-place winners, Barancik says he found the 84-word limit somewhat vexing.
"First, I was challenged by your notion of an 84-word story. It took me back to the screenplay world, which is a place I don't like to go," he says, with just a hint of a laugh.
Back in that screenplay world, Barancik found motivation in the stereotypical Hollywood movie.
"It's the template for a fill-in-the-blank story that's very familiar to us," he says about his story.
These days, Barancik is dedicating much of his attention to—of all things—a children's-book Web site, www.best-childrens-books.com.
"I am trying to prove to myself, and others, that down the road, they can be their own boss on the Internet," he explains.
In the meantime, Barancik can treat himself to a meal at a fine restaurant with his third-place prize: a $25 gift card.
In her nail shop, my mother files down my bitten fingernails. She asks me if I can remember anything from the two years we spent in the refugee camp after the Vietnam War. I tell her colorful toddler flashes: a mid-autumn festival, a butterfly lantern, a scratchy blue dress. She tells me sometimes she awakens and doesn't know if she is dead or alive, whether she is back in the camp. She draws perfect tiny white daisies on my nails and smiles, brightly.
Nhu Tien Lu
I'm thinking about the White Stripes, thinkin' about my doorbell, when you gonna ring it.
Fortuitously, I spot a skillfully concealed notice—I'm to pick him up.
The postmaster returns with the small heavy box. "Confusion—just three weeks late," he crows.
I glare. He smirks. I blurt: "HAVE YOU ANY IDEA WHAT'S IN THIS BOX!"
He shrugs. I tell him, tuck the box firmly under my arm and head eastbound, where both my father and I will be late for his funeral.
The bus left the federal prison for the border. Roberto was in shock. Fifteen years in Tucson without incident. The city was losing an all-city basketball star. The resort would give the chef's scholarship to someone else.
His deceased mother successfully crossed when he was 2. Secrets had kept her from seeking legalization. Fear had kept her from teaching Roberto his native tongue. There was no one in Mexico. The rising moon edged above the Rincon Mountains appearing barren and desolate.
Vaya con dios.
Her hair is a little greasy. She's a little controlling. She gives me a sort of slap every time I'm mean. I feel like a dog sometimes. Her nail polish seems to be at a constant chip. I can't wear shoes around her, or on the bed. Hospitable OCD. I have a communication problem according to her. I don't know about that. She lives to pop pimples. She prefers a nap to a shower. She smells like breakfast sometimes. She's the best.
On our first date, she seized my hat and declared, "Don't wear it like that; it's goofy," obviously a controlling woman, but that cellulite kept me interested.
I tried to negotiate some role-play. I said, "There's the classics: the secretary, the maid, the nurse. Those are fun. Then there's the controversial fantasies." She looked disappointed and said, "You are a man after all."
I wanted a non-monogamous relationship, but she said, "I don't do that; I'm jealous—like God."
I woke up next to my girl's sister,
Ate Cheerios and Coke for breakfast.
I didn't answer.
I cut off a school bus,
Didn't show up at work,
Snorted some lines, and
Went out to eat with my girl.
She told me she sent me something.
I drank eight shots and
Let my girl pay and
Puked in her car.
I woke up next to a package from my girl.
I opened it and found
A box of shit.
The veins stopped flowing. Their blood froze; no heart was left to pump the life fluid. Coldness ruled the once-vibrant flesh; lungs stopped drawing the precious air; eyes froze forever on their last sight, the back of the lids. The finality of a mortal existence found abruptly. Cardiac arrest? Stroke?
"No!!" he screamed without sound. "Not like this. I'm not ready."
Suddenly consciousness returned, a nightmare! Reaching over, he touched his wife's arm to tell her of his dream, and found cold flesh.
Mo worked the graveyard shift in billing at the hospital. I'd call at midnight for advice on the latest injustice from That Man I'd endured while she entered codes. Like all mothers, she'd regularly do at least two things at once. Discussing what to use our tax refunds on, I'd said, "A crown." Always giving me grief for being "hoity-toity," now she hissed, "Who do you think you are, the Queen of Sheba?" to which I blinked and stated, "For my tooth ..."
Patricia M. Jund
"As a courtesy, this is an allergen-free flight, so we will be serving pretzels instead of nuts."
"I have to do everything myself," muttered J, feigning perturbation. Locating some trail mix in his carry-on, he began flinging peanuts across the aisle—furtively at first, then at anyone who noticed. Two businessmen buried their faces in SkyMall. A peanut plopped into a woman's ginger ale.
The Gulf of Mexico yawned below. When they landed, marshals awaited at the gate, handcuffs removed from their belts.
And then I said, "In retrospect, my life has been a blue blur of contradiction ... a rolling juggernaut of misjudgment charging headlong through the rain and pissing into the wind ... a constellation of calamity chasing dust-devil dreams down a star-speckled highway in a last-ditch attempt to catch the champagne night flight to nirvana."
She said, "Here's my phone number."
I stared. It was almost impolite not to. Steve stood proudly, pulling his shirt above his flank, pale and rolling over his jeans. The flesh was puckered and rosy dark, terribly unimpressive as far as scars go.
"Darn bull got me here."
Steve still looked like a clown. Overlarge nose, grinning, clothed in polka dots. Probably wore big shoes. A bell dinged loudly.
"Switcheroo. Bye, Steve."
A man with cropped hair and a tie sidled into Steve's seat. Maybe a lawyer. Or a dentist.
He invited her outside, as he wanted to have a smoke and let the dog out to pee. She agreed even while thinking of her disgust for cigarettes and stepped out into the cold night. He jabbed the air with his fingers, cigarette in hand, smoke curling in gentle ribbons around them as he described how he watched the sun make its journey across the sky. She shivered. He offered his sweater but she declined, already fearing the possible meanings behind a loaned cardigan.
She sat at the table where she had fed her six children. Hamburger gravy (goop) on mashed potatoes, hamburger tacos, tuna salad with cottage cheese, and cold pork and beans from a can. She never really liked cooking, and still didn't. But once, when she was young, a photographer from a national magazine photographed her making a pie. It was perfect.
Penny C. Johnson
Alfred Hubring had recently been eaten by a black bear. That is to say, most of him had been eaten by a black bear. The bear itself was actually not accustomed to eating people and really preferred berries, but, as it had been a despicable season, had resorted to eating the barely palatable Alfred. As it had been an unsavory meal, the bear had abandoned it around the torso. The whole dining affair had really been quite lousy.
Eighteen-year-olds are not allowed to date 14-year-olds. "Our love is unending," I pleaded like Romeo. "We were meant for each other!" But my verses were embraced by two granite-chiseled, Mount Rushmore-replica heads, blinking fiercely into puppy-dog eyes.
So I threw a vase.
In time, we three settled on a pact, initialed in blood and contingent upon my getting a driver's license, and I stumbled out of the room. And in the night, Juliet and I stole away and found ourselves in Vegas.
History does not record the 1770 birth of a child born to a young native woman on the island of Ni'ihau, Hawai'i, sired upon her by George Washington, a guest of Captain Cook's during his first journey. The boy's mother managed to keep the child's provenance secret from her cuckolded husband, but it caused her great anxiety. She knocked out his teeth as soon as they came in, fearing they would be wooden like his father's, giving him away as a bastard.
"Hello? Hi, Daddy, it's me. Sorry I haven't phoned in a while, but I just wanted to tell you Andrew and I are getting a divorce, but you don't have to worry about me, because Jimmy, you remember Jimmy don't you, and I are getting married the day after my divorce becomes final, and you won't believe it, but Jimmy's Elizabeth is dating Andrew, sort of a mercy thing, and so I think everybody will be better off in the long run. Hello? Hello?"
The electrical insulators cost 10 cents. It cost a nickel to use tape instead. "Why not?" the businessmen said. "Most of these TVs will be in the garbage in three years." The 5-year-old television started the fire that killed the young boy.
The parents eulogized their "priceless" son. The child's life insurance paid $10,000. The lawyers said sue for $9 million. The television manufacturer offered a million dollars.
They settled out of court without disclosing the amount.
It was nice to see him smile for a change. Aside from the occasional "spilling a Jackson Pollock" joke, he never said anything jocular. I had an exit plan from house-painting. He was trapped into his life, always fighting with his wife. He really seemed to hate her. Today, he was joking around and laughing it up, and I noticed he had a streak of red paint on his overalls. And then it occurred to me: Where are we painting red today?
Little boy says to little girl, "Show me what you got in your pants."
She says, "If you show me what you got."
He says, "Let's go behind the bushes so no one will see us."
They go there. He says, "You first."
She takes a little doll from her pocket.
He examines it and says, "Is that all you got?"
He empties his pocket—a knife, three marbles and a dead frog.
"Ugh!" she says. "Boys are disgusting."
Time 10:07:02. Sound of rattle. Loud alarm. Frozen step. Have to look. Big old diamondback. Fluffy dog runs well ahead. Stupid dog. Pink ponytail person close behind me. Have to stop her. Stop her. Stop her. Stop her. Take the hit. Stop her NOW. Twirled and lunged. Touched her chest. Flaming baseball hits my leg. Run run go go get help. One shriek and tearing off. Fourth grader on a mission. Good girl. Proud dad. Leg on fire. Stupid snake. Time 10:07:05.
Mother says this about women, because father left her to fuck someone else.
No confidence in being alone.
I admit to being like father.
I'm guilty to giving pleasure.
I'm guilty of vindictiveness.
Some women leave impressions like pressed flowers; they're the hard ones to leave.
Father is dead.
Broken heart, mother says.
Fucked someone he didn't love.
Same old shit, she says.
You know the end.
His family had talked. They would have to take his keys, get someone for the days. Please understand. He walked then to the creek at the end of the bay.
The tide was out, and there was a long stretch of squishy, fetid mud and eelgrass amid shallow pools and rivulets teeming with tidal life. A man could be swallowed in this. And when he stopped, the viscid muck oozed over his ankles. He would wait there for the water, for a rising tide.
Mark S. Woodhams
We had no warning when we were sent in. We were a cohesive unit when the journey began, and we were all there for the same purpose. Our battles are purely instinctive and thoughtless, and they have been replayed hundreds of billions of times over the centuries. When we started, we numbered in the millions, but only I made it in. To see how the story ends, check back in nine months.
When they were both 5, Abel destroyed Cain's sandcastle. At age 16, Abel kicked sand in Cain's face. At the lusty age of 22, Abel stole Cain's chick—the one in the string bikini. Finally, at the company picnic, Cain pummeled Abel to death with a marshmallow-roasting stick. Cain, marked for life (but otherwise tanned and relevant), became the first beach bum. But all was not lost. Calvin Klein, Izod and Speedo are contacting Cain's agent about a fashion shoot for Vogue.
1963—Lynne and I were talking on our quiet suburban street. The excavation for a neighbor's house had just been dug. As we stood there, an oval-shaped lighted sphere landed in the hole. Filled with fear, I ran inside my house, kicking my bedroom slippers off, my feet being cut by the driveway's gravel. To this day, I wonder if I missed the experience of a lifetime, wishing I had the courage to have seen what that was.
"Don't you just love the accordion?" She sat cross-legged, with torn tights and boots too big for her. "Yeah," he replied, but he was lying. He didn't care one way or the other, but he could see how much was wrapped up in his answer. They were on a bench in a park covered in concrete. "Sometimes," she said. "I wish I could be that loud. You know it's just motion and air that makes the sound?" He thought for a second. "And pressure."
Emma first noticed the Mexican fruit cart's bright colors, but behind the stand, a young woman, also about 17, sat on the ground in front of a chess board. She played both sides. The chess player looked up, smiled and gestured, "Play?" Emma nodded.
The woman rearranged the board, opened her hand and offered, "Blanco?"
Emma sat behind white. She closed her eyes for a moment, opened them, and pushed her queen's pawn two spaces. For Emma, this was a daring first move.
Holly Schaffer has worked for the University of Arizona Press, a local publisher, since 2002. In her current role as publicity manager, she works closely with local and national media to promote the press' nearly 900 books in print and 50 to 60 new titles released each year. She also coordinates more than 125 book events annually. Holly honed her book promoting skills at Borders Books and Music, and by earning a bachelor's degree in English literature at the UA. She played an active role in the inaugural Tucson Festival of Books, and is currently the chair of the Southwest Author Committee for the 2010 Tucson Festival of Books.
Stacey Richter is the author of two short story-collections, My Date With Satan and Twin Study.
Jeff Yanc is the program director at the Loft Cinema. Prior to that, he was a co-owner of Reader's Oasis bookstore in Tucson.