The Tucson Weekly proudly presents the winner of our Words & Images competition.
First place in our fiction contest went to Romi Carrell for "Crazy Half Dreams," a heartwrenching tale of a doomed couple seeking a glimmer of hope on a long drive. The 25-year-old Tucsonan, who is currently working as an editor for an international trade magazine, has always had a love for fiction, but this is her first published short story. She will receive a $500 prize.
Becky Hagenston captured second place with "Close Enough," another sad tale of lost souls searching for a semblance of happiness. Hagenston, a 28-year-old graduate student in the University of Arizona MFA creative writing program, also recently won the prestigious O. Henry Award for a story that will appear in an anthology this spring. Hagenston wins $250 for "Close Enough."
Our third-place winner was Kristine P. Tobin, for her story "Borderline," a stream-of-consciousness study of the sweaty pleasures of the flesh. A 26-year-old student at Pima Community College studying dance, theatre and politics, Tobin wins a $50 gift certificate at Bookman's Used Books.
A special thanks to acclaimed writer Leslie Marmon Silko (Almanac of the Dead, Ceremony), who took time away from work on her new book to judge our contest. Silko says she was distressed to realize so many of the finalists wrote about death and decay.
"It's what they say fiction can do," Silko says. "Whether the writer is conscious of it or not, he or she reflects some kind of really strong emanation from the culture."
In the color photography contest, Scott Simpson won first prize for "Sasco," which is reproduced on our cover this week.
"What he's done is paint that entire scene with light over a very long period of time, so it's a performance photograph in a way," says Terry Etherton, owner of Etherton Gallery, who was gracious enough to take some time to judge the photos. Simpson will receive $200 cash and a $300 gift certificate at Photographic Works Lab.
In the black-and-white photography competition, Stephanie Townsend won first prize for "Newly Married," which Etherton described as "a compelling image, almost like a still from a Hitchcock movie." Townsend will receive a $200 prize and a $300 gift certificate at Photographic Works.
Second place went to Omer V. Clairborne for "Tucson Meet Yourself." Etherton found the work to be "a really nice portrait of probably a father and his new daughter or son." Clairborne wins a $100 certificate for photo processing at Photographic Works.
Marilyn Szabo picked up third-place honors for "Mermaid." Says Etherton, "When I first looked at this picture, I thought it was an aquarium, but it's one of those places in Florida where an actual person goes down in a tank.... The thing I like about it is it's so weird and it's so hard to read the scale on this. I found myself coming back to it and saying, 'That's a really funny picture.' " Szabo wins a $50 certificate for film.
A final thanks to our contest sponsors, Bookman's Used Books and Photographic Works Lab.
THE AIR CONDITIONING of the Ford Escort quit on the outskirts of Vegas. Sutter remembered because it had quit about the time he saw the first sparkling sign for Caesar's Palace. It might have been a loose connection, or maybe the compressor; these things had broken before. Air conditioning had never really been much of an issue during the brief Seattle summers, but, now, as Sutter and Rachel drove through Arizona on a late August afternoon, it was all they talked about.
Rachel folded her legs up into the seat Indian-style. She lifted the hem of her white T-shirt and fanned herself, exposing her milky white stomach in quick, strobe-like flashes.
"Turn on the damn air conditioner," she said. She flipped through the pages of an old Glamour magazine, fanning them over and over.
He shrugged. "It's making a funny noise. Like it's blown a belt or something. It might be the compressor."
"Christ." Rachel slumped into her seat and folded her arms like a punished child. She pulled the neck of her T-shirt over her head, wiped her face and pulled the shirt back down. She absently combed through her hair with her fingers. "So no air conditioning."
Sutter ignored her and focused on the drive, his hands gripped tight around the wheel. He was pleased with their time and found himself enjoying the trip more and more. He especially liked Las Vegas, with all that electricity, a Disneyland Main Street Parade for grown-ups. Just as tacky and outrageous as he had ever imagined.
He looked at his watch. Five more hours to Phoenix. Then two to Tucson. From there, only an hour to Nogales for the day trips to buy medicine. It didn't seem so bad when he broke it into sections. Rachel rolled down the window, leaned her head out, and used her bent arm as a headrest. Hot breaths of air gusted into the car, carrying a film of dirt and dust. She stared face on at the road until the wind blew tears down her face. She pulled her head back in and asked for a Kleenex.
"I needed some air."
"Outside is just as hot as the inside." Sutter shook his head. "But, it's a dry heat."
She folded her arms and offered him a grim little smile. "An oven is dry heat. So is fire."
"You're from here. You're supposed to be used to it."
"My grandmother used to live in Scottsdale. We lived in Spokane. Two places not geographically similar."
"But you visited."
"Only in the winter."
"It's nice then?"
"Yes. Warm and it hardly ever rains."
"That will be nice."
Rachel rolled the window up and leaned her head against it. She fell asleep quickly, her head pressed heavily against the glass, her neck bent in a sharp angle. The afternoon sunlight shimmered through her red-brown hair and cast a golden crown around her head.
He looked in the rear-view mirror. They had packed their things deep and tight and high, preventing him from seeing out the hatch window. Some bags had shifted making the pile list to the right, but, for the most part, everything looked intact.
He took a deep breath, stretched his legs and pointed his toes. The stretch pulled all the way through his spine and he exhaled with labored relief. He looked out Rachel's window to the west, held his fingers up and aligned them horizontally between the sun and the horizon, a trick his father had taught him on one of their many hunting trips. Each finger counts for one hour until sunset. As a boy, Sutter had never been able to get it quite right, but he'd been younger then, smaller. He held his hand out. Two fingers. He knew he would have to wake Rachel soon to make her eat and take the medicine that made her so sick.
He thought about Mexico, of the many trips they would take there, and wondered how they would know where to go, which pharmacies would have the medicines. He had read that the medicine was available there much cheaper than in the U.S., but he hadn't thought further ahead as to how to find it. Surely a doctor would know and tell them what to do.
Sutter hated their dependency on the medication, the treatments, the doctors. When his grandmother had died of cancer she had been taking seven pills each day to fight off the things that were invading her body. He remembered this, the reason she took the pills, for the same reason someone applies cosmetics--for hope, for the promise of something that is not naturally their own. He hated that he was only 28 years old and buying hope.
Rachel stirred. She pulled her head up groggily and with the slow precision of someone in a great deal of pain. Her hair was flat on one side, heat pressed by the window and the late afternoon sun. She looked over at Sutter and blinked heavily through swollen lids. She rubbed her eyes with the balls of her hands and blinked.
"What time is it?" she asked, her voice thick and strained.
Sutter reached across his body with his left hand and showed her his watch. "Little after six."
She groaned. Sutter took this as an acknowledgment.
"No." She raised her arms above her head and locked her fingers. The fading sun backlit her petite body. She gave a stretch with her arms and twisted at the waist. Something cracked loudly. "Where's a comb?" She pulled the rubber band from her hair.
"Packed in your bag."
"Shit." She bent forward and her long, mossy hair fell in wisps until her face was obscured. She ran her fingers along her scalp then flung her hair back over her shoulders .
"You need to do your roots."
She parted her hair with her fingers and looked up. "Fuck you."
"Very nice." He paused. "Just let it go back. You have pretty hair. I don't know why you ever dyed it that horrible burgundy color."
"And you look like a movie star these days?" She scowled at him.
Sutter shifted in his seat and said nothing though he agreed with her. His blond hair had turned dirty brown lately. And he'd lost weight, lost all the runner's muscle tone he had worked so hard for, for so long. He hated looking like a skinny old man.
"Let's get something to eat," he said. "You've got to take your pills." Sutter spoke with the authority of a parent.
She sighed and closed the magazine. "Do you think it's working?" She stared out the window blankly, eyes wide.
Sutter looked past her to the dim mountains in the distant west and the purple feathers of night creeping across the sky. With a sharp indrawing of breath he said, "Yes."
"Do you think those doctors will be able to help us?" Her voice was like a child's, not someone approaching 30.
"Yes." He held out his hand to her, palm up the same way he had that first night he met her, at a college party where they'd all been drunk and young. She danced with all the guys and spoke to Sutter last, stumbling and stinking of beer on her approach. She said that she liked shy guys, she thought them to be a great challenge.
Sutter heard the wild tales about her and the infamous exploits around campus. When the keg dried up and people began to leave the party, he asked if she needed a ride home. When they arrived at her apartment, she seemed confused when he didn't follow her in, when he remained in the car and said he would wait until she was safely inside. She called him the next day to thank him and Sutter realized that they were already good friends.
"We should stop and get something to eat."
She took a slow breath. "Sutter, you know you've got more time than me."
"God, no, Rachel." He squeezed her hand. "Let's just see what the doctors in Tucson have to say."
She fanned her fingers out between his. "Yeah," she said. She folded her arms and stared out into the fresh night.
"I saw a sign for a Denny's. It's supposed to be a few miles up the road. Let's stop."
She nodded, fell back into her seat and shut her eyes. "I just want to be there."
"Only a few more hours."
Sutter pulled off at the exit marked with the Denny's logo. Rachel had already fallen asleep again by the time he parked the car in the lot, and when he stopped the car and cut the engine, she jolted awake.
"Where are we?" She folded her arms and walked slowly, her thin legs picking along like a spider.
"Kingman." He held the door open.
The shock of refrigerated air inside in the restaurant gave him a chill and his skin turned goose pimply. A heavyset waitress approached them and seated them at a noisy booth in the back near the kitchen. Sutter swept the green vinyl seat with his hand before he sat down.
Rachel sat opposite him. She hunched over with her elbows on the table and her face cradled in her palms. Her makeshift pony tail was falling out again and Sutter thought he could see every single hair on her head standing out individually.
"What are you going to have?"
"I don't know."
"How about the sourdough burger?" He held the menu out so she could see the picture.
"Fine, then. And some tea?"
She rose up and leaned back into the seat.
Sutter reached into his backpack and took out a couple of bottles. He pushed down hard and pulled up, damn child safety caps, then shook two capsules out. They clung to his damp palm.
"Here." He held his hand out to her and she delicately picked one of them
She laid it next to her water glass on the yellow and green napkin. "It'll be nice to buy this stuff so much cheaper."
Sutter put his capsule on the table next to the Sugar Twin dispenser and took a long drink of water. He tossed a couple of ice cubes around in his mouth.
"You say it's only an hour from Tucson?" She made figure eights with her fingertips on the sticky tabletop.
"Yes." Sutter stared out the plate glass window at the cars passing by, moving, coming, going. He watched the red lights get smaller and smaller and the white lights get larger and larger, until they zoomed off out of view.
"You're so much better at maps and directions. You'll have to show me around there or I'll get lost."
The same thick waitress came to the table and looked to Sutter for the order, two burgers and two iced teas. How odd we must look, Sutter thought. Like an old married couple who happen to be very young.
"If we keep going we can be in Tucson late tonight." Sutter wiped his mouth with a rough paper napkin.
Rachel exhaled slowly. "Can't we just spend the night here?" She folded her hands like she was in church.
"Yeah, I guess we could. But I thought you wanted to get there."
"I'm tired." She took her napkin out from under her silverware, pulled it apart and laid it across her lap. She relocated the capsule to another napkin next to her water glass.
"I saw a sign for a Best Western up the road. We can stay there."
"That sounds good." She smiled as she kicked the capsule around the table with her index finger.
"Where did you put your résumé in?" Rachel stared past him and into some unseen distance.
"A few places. Tucson has a lot of software companies."
Rachel nodded with the empty look of disinterest. She paused then said, "I think I can get some freelance work. I updated my book and I think it looks pretty good. I just hope they don't expect me to have a computer. To know all those graphics programs."
"You can work as an illustrator. People still need that." Sutter tried to sound enthusiastic, but he had been through this conversation before.
The thick waitress returned with their food. She set the plates down. "Plates are hot," she said as she turned up the aisle toward the waitresses' station.
"Freelancing will be fun. No more nine to five. And, when I get enough money I can go on that Europe trip for as long as I like. Not cram it into two weeks." She picked up a pickle from her plate and laid it on Sutter's.
"You better eat." He pointed to her food and began to wonder when the words "Don't waste that" and "Eat your vegetables" would fall out of his mouth. He wondered if this is what his mother had felt like.
She nodded and pulled a piece of crust from the bun. She put it in her mouth as solemnly as if she were taking communion.
"I'm really tired." She dipped a French fry in ketchup and licked the ketchup from the fry.
"I've been pushing you too hard."
She shook her head. "I feel like I'm in limbo on this trip."
"Well, we'll be there tomorrow noon if we get on the road at a decent time."
They ate the rest of the meal in silence. When they finished, Sutter put the capsule on the back of his tongue. He pushed the other one toward Rachel, who took it and reluctantly swallowed it with a gulp of iced tea.
They got back in the car and drove until they found a motel with a vacancy. Rachel stayed in the car while Sutter went to the office to get the room key. When he emerged, he held the key up for her to see.
They found the room, bottom floor, last one on the right. Sutter unlocked the door and flicked on the light. The first thing he noticed was the brown shag carpeting and the musty smell of old cigarettes, like a nightclub in the daytime.
"I'll go get the bags," he said as Rachel crawled up into the middle of the bed. She lay back and swung her arms and legs the way a child would make a snow angel.
Sutter carefully opened the Escort's hatch, secretly fearing a luggage explosion. He grabbed Rachel's overnight bag, which had become wedged between two overstuffed duffel bags, took his backpack and locked the car. As he walked away, the car's fan kicked in so loud that the car sounded like it was still running.
When he reached the room, he found Rachel asleep in the middle of the bed, her mouth slack. He locked the door and set the bags down against the wall. He found the air conditioner nestled just under the window, behind the curtains. He turned it on and it rattled ominously before it clicked into gear. He turned on the television, careful to keep the volume low, and sat down at the table. He watched Rachel, deep in sleep, each breath rising and falling rhythmically inside her chest.
It had not been so long ago that things were normal for him. Rachel had found out first. She was tested after she heard about an old boyfriend who was sick, one that Sutter had always thought was an asshole. The first test was positive, and, six months later, so was the second. Sutter had thought he was safe; too much time had passed since his wild days, since the all-night parties and the drugs. It was after his insurance company made blood testing mandatory that Sutter found out about his illness, with an unceremonious phone call asking that he make an appointment to see a health-care representative from Health and Human Services. He knew without even having to ask.
Rachel kicked her legs out and sat up. She looked around the room for a moment as if unsure where she was. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat with her head hung low.
"You OK?" Sutter stood up and approached her.
"Yes," she said. "Where's my bag?"
Sutter walked over, picked it up and dropped it on the bed. She unzipped it and pulled out an oversize T-shirt and pair of underwear. "I'm taking a bath," she said.
She emerged a half hour later, her hair wrapped in a towel, her skin sun burnt red. She was surrounded by puffs of steam that seemed to radiate from her skin. She sat on the end of the bed and folded up her legs in her lap yoga-style.
"You better go back in there. You don't look done yet." Sutter pointed to her cherry-colored legs and smiled.
"Shut up." She fished out a bottle of lotion from her bag and shook it upside down. It sputtered out in wheezy, wet clumps and she rubbed it on her legs.
"Your hair is sopping wet."
"I'm too tired to comb it."
"Where's your comb?"
"In my bag."
Sutter found the comb then took a couple of pillows and tossed them on the floor at the foot of the bed. "Sit," he said.
"What are you going to do?"
"Comb your hair." He scooted to the edge of the bed and draped his legs along either side of her. She bent her head back and he combed gently, forehead to nape.
"That feels so good," she said. She shut her eyes. "My mother used to comb my hair like this when I was little."
Her hair was thin and it dried quickly.
"How much longer to Tucson?" She didn't open her eyes.
"About six hours, I think. Something like that."
"Not too much farther, then." She smiled.
"No. Not too much." He held a piece of hair tight, so that he wouldn't hurt her as he picked at a large snarl.
"This feels so good," she said as she placed her hand on his foot.
"Sutter, how come you and me..." She paused mid-sentence as if calculating her words. "How come we never dated?"
He had expected this, had expected that one day she would ask, probably when she thought she had nothing left to lose.
"Bad timing, I guess."
She laughed. "That's a very political answer."
"I used to think that you thought I was ugly. Because you asked everybody else out but me."
"Come on, Rachel." Sutter combed faster. "I did not ask everybody out."
"You did." She patted his knee as if this would help him share the joke. "So you did think I was ugly? I was fat then."
He shook his head. "God, no, Rachel." He paused. "And you weren't fat."
"Then why?" She pulled away and turned to face him.
"Because everybody else did."
She looked down, neither surprised nor angry.
"All the guys...they made jokes. Asked you out because..." He did not look her in the face. "I didn't want to be a part of it."
She stood up. "You didn't ask me because you thought I wasn't good enough."
"No," he said. "I didn't ask you out because...you didn't think you were good enough."
She picked the comb up and ran her fingers across the teeth, picking out a strange tinny tune. "Why did you want to only be my friend? When it would've been so easy. You never even tried. You never made a move."
"Because of all those guys...none of them ever wanted to be your friend."
"It could be easy now," she said.
Sutter looked up at her. "What?"
"Now. Right now." She leaned her head on his shoulder then slipped it into the bend of his neck. "You know, you were the only guy that was ever there for me. You know, without me having to be somebody else."
Sutter wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "That's why, Rachel. That's why I never...."
She reached over and placed her hand on his face, framing it. She pulled his face closer and pressed her lips to his.
"Sutter," she said. "Please."
Sutter wanted to please her, to make her happy and that had been easy when all the other men had just wanted her for the body, for the simplicity. All he had to do was be her friend, her confidante. All he had to be was different. But now the body was gone and the illness had taken its place and no one wanted the body anymore.
"Sutter...Why was it so easy with everybody else?" She pulled at him, her face contorting in frustration.
Sutter didn't say what he wanted to say--that there is comfort in obscurity, security in anonymity. It's always easier when no one knows your name, he thought. He knew he and Rachel had moved past that point the first night they met, when he'd driven her home and waited in the car as she let herself inside. And as they came to know each other, as they grew closer, the comfort and security became less and less until Sutter felt best looking after her, as a mother would a child. Sexless and helpless, a celibate lover.
His heart pounded against his ribs like a drumbeat as Rachel pulled her T-shirt over her head. Her pale thin body looked no stronger than a china doll and Sutter was careful as he laid his weight down upon her body. He kissed her with an open mouth.
Neither spoke and the room was nearly quiet except for the low rasps of their breathing. He pushed hard against her, inside her, and she raised up against him, wrapping her legs around his waist. He dropped down against her and pulled her tight until her body was surrounded by his. They held each other, frozen as if by fear, a fear that once they let go, they might disappear. When Sutter pulled back from her, he kept his arm around her, still within reach.
Rachel stared at the ceiling and drew in a long, exaggerated breath. "What are we going to do first when we get to Tucson?"
"Find someplace to live."
"With a pool?"
"With a pool."
"Maybe we could get a little dog. I've wanted a dog for so long." Sutter nodded in the darkness and Rachel reached for his hand.
"And I could start looking for a car."
"Uh-huh." Sutter nodded again and pressed his face into the base of her neck. He breathed deeply, breathed hard until his lungs were full and the memory was burned into his mind. "We can do that," he said, knowing that they wouldn't.
Rachel's breathing became slow and precise, indicating sleep. Sutter loosened his grip, but remained very close.
He planned the next day's events, breakfast, packing, getting on the road. He plotted everything out by the hour, before he scrapped it all and decided they would leave whenever they got around to it. Time had lost its value for him.
He thought about the doctors and the AZT and the Nogales trips. He thought of the house with a pool and the little dog they would never have and combed her hair with his fingers, like his mother used to do on the nights he couldn't sleep.
Lying in the dark, Sutter listened to the rattle of the air conditioner as it kicked in and out. Through the loud rattles and coughs, he could hear the whine of the trucks out on the interstate, red lights getting smaller, white lights getting bigger.
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