Winner: “Dear Lorraine” by Michael Creger
Honorable Mention: “Natural Consequences” by Avesa Rockwell
By Michael Creger
Winner, Creative Nonfiction
There is a bird flitting, in the perfect sense of the word, at your patio window. Daily, for the past week. Floating there, wings battering the pane. And it pecks the glass. As if perfect flies were there, trapped in amber.
There are no flies, encased or not. No stray insects caught in a spider’s web. And yet this bird continues to flit, and peck.
Flit and peck.
Perhaps it is young, new to the confusion of reflection, and feeling a bit like Narcissus, in love with itself. Or maybe it just wants to play with its twin.
Then again, maybe Rocky is right. It’s you knocking, now eight days after leaving the living. Could you have possibly been turned into a bird? It would make sense. There was your hatred of flying in planes, controlled by so many others from concourse to concourse. Under your own wings would be the only way you’d want to fly.
Winters here in Florida. Summers in your old Minnesota haunts.
I haven’t yet identified which type of bird you may have chosen. You have identification books to do that, all within reach near the binoculars as the flitting and pecking continues.
And you so loved to travel. Unconventionally. Finding the hidden worlds, the real people and sights to see.
You loved those widow walks on the old houses. The thought of losing your sailor and staring out to sea. You did have a morbid side, a curiosity in the tragic.
As a bird, you can visit any cupola you wish, undetected. You no longer have to sneak off from a house tour and ply creaking attic steps.
Sure. OK. You’re a bird. And you want us to know it.
You’re a bird. That bird.
Neither I nor Rocky, who knew you best as husbands should, believe you are here to rescue us from the sorrow of losing you. No, this is your mischievous, winking grin on having pulled off the metamorphosis.
It’s yet another mystery I’ll never solve. Not unlike the mysteries I myself hold close. Puzzles and false leads attach to me as well. Such is the curse of genetics.
Does this help? You being a bird. Yes, in a sense. I’m afraid I’ve always feared that one day you would just disappear, not be here. Your bird self is a bit of a buffer from such a hard break.
It happened before, of course, on the day I was born. I never harbored any lingering bitterness about that first time. I always figured I’d find you, and that there’d be good reason why you couldn’t care for me as a 19-year-old.
For 30 years I have been amazed that we found each other. It’s always been the backbone of our story. And I never really thought that it might end.
I sit now with Rocky and remind him how strange it all was since that first time we three met in California. It seems a million mind melds away, that journey of a 20-year-old. The first trip on a plane.
I came out of the jetway, bewildered in what I would learn is that “just off the plane” way. You get lulled into an in-flight stupor and then are suddenly thrust into the gathering of belongings and the humanity of the terminal.
Suddenly, there she was. The woman who bore a 10-pound baby 20 years ago was coming toward the now adult with open arms. In the three months since we first talked, we had exchanged photographs. Here she was.
It was a quick embrace and then just whisking. I’m a creature of observance. I like to look around a place, get some bearing, and then shuffle along. The whir of meeting Lorraine and Rocky didn’t allow for any grounding. Rocky was a travel expert and we were out of the terminal and into their car in minutes.
I kept looking out the window, straining to see anything that looked like San Francisco or California from my mind’s eye. It was early evening, getting dark, and I was simultaneously trying to keep up with the odd, in-person conversation to the back of the heads in the front seat.
In cold reality, I was in a strange car with strangers in a strange place. They were about to invite me into their suburban bungalow with an orange tree out front. Then they would light a cake and sing happy birthday. I would sleep here and drink fresh smoothies out on the lanai.
Those first 10 hours in California contain the oddest of moments in my life.
I was floating a bit, trying to put everything into context. I wanted a touch of Minnesota calm, a moment to just breathe, feel like my old life. Nothing would be the same now.
Later that night, Lorraine and I talked in the living room. She casually plopped her bare feet onto the coffee table.
I finally touched down.
Look at those feet. They look like mine. Look at those toes. They look like mine.
I thought of the barefoot days on the farm, when my siblings would compare their fencepost second toes that came from Mom. They would see whose stuck out the most even had Mom bare her own feet to offer context. It was a small part of growing up, but I remember it for its exclusion, knowing my genes were different.
The whir of this first night with Lorraine is summed up in that small moment, when I finally had some comparing of my own, proof that this was all very real — and happening now. Moments like these would trickle through me throughout the trip, the familiarity of the toes and other connections knifing through the surrealistic nature of meeting Lorraine.
You turned 70 in December. I wrote to you and jokingly thanked you for remaining among the living long enough to meet my newly adopted daughter last fall. Now a bad joke. But there was that circle of sorts completed. A precious few weeks of family bonding. And, upon parting in late September, glad thoughts of you watching her grow and a future of more meaningful visits to your oddball Florida.
Your mortality never occurred to me. You disappearing so suddenly, carving out my insides, leaving me so bereft I can’t catalogue my shuffling emotions. A numbing plane trip down, a numbing few weeks haunting your familiar space without you in it.
Yes, there was no drawn out illness and cloying mortal knowing. No holding your hand in a generic room filled with life-extension devices and cure-alls.
Only a poof, and you’re gone. Not your exact design, maybe, but certainly your destiny, your way. I find you in the book. An eastern bluebird.
You got those last kicks, holding your grandbaby. Perhaps this was the ejection button you’d always sought after so many questions about just when I would become a dad. Here was this child of closure, of ribbons tied, fate turned to our side for once.
I may have held a notion all along that your mind was on escape in dribs and drabs the past few years. You slowed down. You told me things you once held back on. We had such a trippingly revealing time in Key West last spring.
We were a bit hung over from rumrunners that bright, steamy Saturday afternoon on the porch of the guesthouse. I’d just come back from the bookstore, where I’d talked with Judy Blume — Judy Blume! — about our story. Her enthusiasm inspired what I had incredulously not once asked in 30 years. What happened right after I was born?
She left the hospital alone on a dark Sunday evening. Snowing gently, the sidewalks covered. It was quiet, except for a piercing voice singing. It was coming from a barred window in the psych ward.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.”
She stopped, listened. “He sang beautifully.”
She continued the sodden walk to the bus stop. Somewhere in the world was her baby, born the week before. She’d had a roommate. A woman whose baby had died. Trudy.
As she walked and listened, she hoped that the county had placed her child somewhere safe. What she didn’t know was that there had been an effort, if not a bit of a mad scramble. People weren’t adopting babies of color. They found a couple that had done fostering and were willing to add him to their family of four.
It was a typical wet March night in downtown Minneapolis. Snowbanks still high. The now slushy snowfall hiding the grime but providing no solace as she reached the bus stop.
She returned to the back room of the duplex. She would need to make a plan for new digs in a few weeks’ time. No one felt sorry for this 19-year-old anymore. She wasn’t pregnant. She remained estranged from her family.
That she made it to the county hospital was a miracle in itself. She’d bounced around from place to place. Took odd jobs. Only weeks before, huge and uncomfortable, she was tied up with a gun to her head and robbed at the drugstore where she worked. Her future baby’s father ran into her and made a scene. She ended up being thrown from a moving car. It was just some of the many indignities suffered since leaving the confines of home.
She at one time lived on the north side with a prostitute. She babysat the neighbor kids since pregnancy made it impossible for her to go out on the town. Her charges included an 8-year-old on Halloween who would later be known as Prince. That night, she met Robert, and he walked her home. This poet became her rock. He read to her, got her to appointments. Cared. On her 19th birthday, he had cupcakes and frozen lobster. Robert got to see her in the hospital, pretending to be the father.
A few other friends came and went. The baby’s father showed up with his girlfriend. She chased them out despite prescribed bed rest. Her mother came surreptitiously. The baby’s paternal grandmother came, telling her “now you know what it’s like to be a woman.” It was peak crassness in a time of bewilderment and pain.
For a mother with no child and a child with no biological mother, it would be the beginning of post-birth wandering filled with serendipity and longing. For now, for her, it was heartbreak.
Come Monday, the baby boy was brought to a home in a suburb northwest of the hospital. He was safe. He was loved.
She would wait 20 years to know these facts for sure. Years filled with wanderlust and seers, regret and forgetting. But never in whole. He was out there, as sure as the wet chill of a snowy March night in Minneapolis.
And now you’re a bird. Flitting and pecking at my amalgam of memory and pain. If only I had known immediately that your spirit would live on in another shape and being. It might all have been easier. If I had only paid close attention to the painting of the bird adorning a wall in the room where you slept, where I sleep raggedly these days while sorting through the remnants of your life.
An eastern bluebird.
By Avesa Rockwell
Honorable Mention, Creative Nonfiction
Note: Avesa plans to continue working on her entry, and has decided not to publish her piece at this time.