A Short Short Story Winner

Previously, I questioned whether I could produce a story that develops a viable arc from complication, to conflict, to climax, and to resolution within 1300 words. I included some of my efforts in this experiment in The Cat Who Would Be a Woman, which I published last year. Since then I have written another story within these perimeters for a small literary magazine that featured a contest, particularly attractive because there was no entry fee. Other than the limitation on length, the entry had to relate somehow to the theme of frost.

I thought what the heck. There’s nothing to lose by trying my hand at a made-to-order story.  I enjoyed the exercise and sent my entry off with a fond adieu.

Surprisingly, the summer issue of the magazine arrived.  Featured in it was my piece, one of the winners in the frost contest.  I’ll take advantage of its brevity and make it available on my blog–a quick read with cooling thoughts on perhaps a hot August day:

Out in the Cold

A touch of frost settled on my left cheek bone as I escaped the house. Had the nippy December air created this chilly filament on my sallow skin? I smelled snow but no snow had fallen yet this season. I prayed the snow would stay away long enough for me to flee the noise of holiday merrymakers.

I had not expected to be out in the cold alone this of all nights. I had set out with every expectation that this would be an unparalleled evening, the inauguration of a career and the advent of a marriage. Within the span of a few minutes, joy to the world collapsed and the warmth of the Yule log in the Appleton’s great room fireplace had smoldered into frigidity. Grabbing my coat and averting my tear-stained face from the guests baffled by my hasty departure, I hurried toward the door.

“The party’s just getting started, Liz,” the hostess called after me.

“Sorry. I feel sick,” and pushed past her.

I inhaled deeply on the front sidewalk. Eliot had just broken off our engagement. The sequence of events culminating with his bombshell announcement fast-forwarded in my brain. I recalled him guiding me into the den presumably for a quiet tête-à-tête away from party chatter. He had gently pushed me onto the loveseat, and then positioned himself beside me. His somber expression had frightened me, but nothing could have prepared me for his next words.

“I don’t want to get married—not now.”

“But why. . . we’ve both finished our degrees. You’ve applied for that position at the law firm and I have the fellowship for doctoral studies at Columbia. We’re going to start a family.”

“Liz, I need space.”

“Space? You have all the space you need. I’m not a ball and chain around your neck.”

“No, it’s not that. You’re great. You’re wonderful, but—”

“But, what?”

“I want to play the field.”

“What the hell does that mean? I’m not enough woman for you?”

He lowered his head like a boy caught with his hand in a candy jar.

“You’re the only real girlfriend I’ve ever had. I want to date other women.”

“You said you wanted to marry and to start a family before you’re thirty.”

“I realize that I’m not ready for fatherhood yet.”

That’s the point at which my spirit sank and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth like it was fixed there with epoxy. I dropped into a pit of profound dolor. I felt like I would pass out from lack of oxygen. I was powerless to deliver my own surprise announcement, which I had carefully rehearsed. Later in the afterglow of the party I would tell him that I was pregnant, expecting our first child and expecting that, of course, he would suggest that we move up the wedding date.

Even if I hadn’t been speechless, I realized I couldn’t grovel or plead; I couldn’t play for sympathy or use that age-old card of pregnancy to trap him into a marriage he did not want. Reality smacked me, smothering me, and I ran from the horror of confrontation, leaving him as dumbstruck on the loveseat as he had left me a minute earlier.

I moved robotically toward my parked VW bug and got in. I turned the key in the ignition and was about to drive away when I emerged sufficiently from my stupor to realize that a thin layer of frost covered the windshield. I didn’t feel like stepping outside to scrape, so I waited for the heat to defrost the window, watching the line of hot air rising from the dashboard slowly melt the frost. The process mesmerized me, easing my heartache, leaving a dull mist in my brain. As I stared, emotion was emptying from my system.

When the window cleared, I shifted into drive.  On the way to my apartment building, the car drove as if on automatic pilot. By the time I pulled into my parking space at the rear of my apartment, my mind had started to clear. Options began to formulate in my brain. The dullness was now a full-blown headache, but it did not prevent my attempt to analyze coherently my situation for the first time after the shock.

I could see one course clearly. Marriage to Eliot was off the table. I was on my own. That left two courses: either terminate the pregnancy or carry the child to term. Carrying the child to term left me two courses: either raise the child alone or give it up for adoption. Thank God, my university education had given me some vestige of power to grapple with dilemmas. I stepped out of the car. The cold nipped my cheeks and nose again, but I welcomed it. I’d have to coat my heart with ice if I were to look starkly at my predicament and make a choice devoid of emotion.

Before going into my apartment, I stood in the open air, leaning against the hood of the car and inviting the cold. If I were chilled to the bone, I wouldn’t care. I was glad I wore no hat or gloves. I invited the cold to freeze my ear lobes and fingertips. I’d get deathly sick and lose the baby in the process. Then this horrible wish abashed me and I banished it from further consideration, thinking of my own childhood. My mother had raised me alone. My father was killed in the Vietnam War before I was born. It was no fun not having a father in the household. My mother did the best that she could, especially in my teenage years. We fought our own war during that time, eventually declaring an uneasy peace until she died of breast cancer five years ago. No, raising a child alone was not an option, especially if the child turned out to be a boy. Far worse for him growing up without a father than it had been for me. Of that I was certain.

That left one option—the rational one.  Astounding, how rapidly I had deduced my course of action. Could I attribute it to the crystalline air of the winter night? I still ached, but I felt resolve now and an interior strength. I turned toward the apartment building.

As soon as I entered the foyer, the warmth hit that sturdy resolve. I heard a male voice greeting me. My neighbor Joe Quigley was emerging from the elevator door. Unexpectedly, I broke down and burst into tears. Joe rushed toward me and held me in his bear-like arms. Joe was built like a boxer, short and stout, a rugged face and Neanderthal look; but he was good-natured and helpful whenever I needed anything fixed in my apartment.

I blubbered the news of my broken engagement. He wiped my eyes, comforting me.

“Come up to my apartment and I’ll make you a cup of hot chocolate.”

I let him lead me to his apartment where I found it easy to sit and cry my eyes out on his sofa, relating every detail of my quandary.

“A child needs a mother and a father. I will not raise this child alone,” I concluded firmly, blowing my nose one last time and thinking that I had my cry at Joe’s expense. “Thanks for listening,” I meekly said.

“No problem. What if I marry you, Liz?”

I looked at him agog for a moment, initially feeling the absurdity of his suggestion. I refocused my eyes. My vision cleared even more. The throbbing of my head faded. He was smiling at me, waiting for a response.

I saw him as he was—ugly as sin, but a man capable of being one of the best fathers in America.


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