If you are a listener of NPR, you may know of the occasional short-story contest ‘Three-Minute Fiction”, sponsored by Weekend All Things Considered. For each round, a celebrated author is brought in to offer a writing challenge and words of encouragement, and then the race is on. Stories can be no more than 600 words (what can be read in three minutes, get it?!).
For the current contest, which ends this Sunday at midnight, author Luis Alberto Urrea, Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction in 2005 and author of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” among many other novels, is the final judge.
Instead of a theme, which is the usual author challenge, Urrea asks that each story start with this sentence:
“She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.”
For the first time, I have submitted a story. Here she goes:
She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.
Fifteen minutes earlier, Jess had returned to the property after her shift waiting tables at Pioneer Café. She was still getting used to the job. Her wrists ached from the heavy plates heaped with enchiladas and refried beans; her feet throbbed from the concrete floor. When she closed her eyes at night, she saw tickets scribbled with “B GR, EX SALSA, NO SC” and heard Russ, the cook, shouting “’B space GR is for Burrito Grande. B-G-R is for Burger. Can you handle that?”
Patsy was waiting for her in the shed Darcy had converted into a kitchen and common room. She sat in the recliner, pushing her toe against the wood planks to rock the chair. The cats used the sides and the back of the recliner as a scratching post, raking its plaid upholstery to shreds.
Jess could see Patsy’s breath in the small circle of hollow light cast by a kerosene lantern. Darcy wouldn’t allow Patsy and Jess to feed the wood stove after sunset. They were meant to bed down in the tipi when the light failed. No one took into account that Jess’s shifts ended after midnight, when the last table was reset for breakfast and the floors mopped to the door.
Jess had met Patsy and Darcy at a canning class in Delta in September. After she came to class one Saturday with a split lip, the women offered her shelter in their large tipi outside of Cedaredge. Free of charge, just help with groceries and cooking. She confessed a couple of weeks ago she was two months pregnant; they told her they wanted to adopt the baby. When Jess laughed, she saw Darcy’s hazel eyes fade to dull mud.
Jess set her purse and car keys on the wooden cable spindle turned on one end to make a round table. “Patsy, you all right? Why are you up so late?” As Jess approached, she could see a small book in Patsy’s lap.
Patsy picked up the book and held it to the light. Jess recognized the purple cover printed with pink and white flowers. It was her journal.
“Darcy was cleaning the tipi,” Patsy said in flat voice. “This fell off your cot and opened up. We saw our names, so we read what you wrote about us. I know it wasn’t right what we did. But you shouldn’t have said those things. We want you to leave in the morning.”
Patsy rose and walked toward her with the journal. Jess extended her hand and Patsy set the book in her palm. It opened like a hymnal. Patsy shoved aside the sliding wood door and walked away, leaving it ajar. The cold air felt solid. It braced Jess upright when it seemed her knees would give way.
She stood trembling for a few minutes, thinking of the shoebox beneath her bed where she had hid her journal that morning, as she did every morning.
Outside, a mist had settled into Surface Creek Valley. It smelled of frost and wood smoke and of the oil from her leaking Datsun. Jess imagined the mist slipping down the slopes of Grand Mesa, hiding Cedaredge from the moon that tipped light onto the San Juan Mountains.
She turned her key in the ignition. A deer bolted in front of the car and leapt to the scrub oak beyond. Jess felt as frightened as the deer. And as free. The car rolled down the gravel driveway.