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CONTEST WINNER, as featured on page 7 in the Spring edition of Matters Magazine.
Three judges bore the weight of having to select a winner of the South Orange Maplewood Adult School Short Story Contest. There were 34 submissions in all and, according to Judy James of SOMAS, "there were so many good entries that it was decided to award an Honorable Mention to Dug Nevius of Maplewood, for his story, Little Jelly.
The grand prize winner, who was awarded a prize of $200, is Maplewood resident, James McHugh.
"I thought someone was pulling my leg," McHugh joked when told of his win. An adjunct lecturer at Columbia University’s law school, and resident for 22 years, this is McHugh’s first short story. After taking Lori Bryant Woolridge’s short story writing class at SOMAS, McHugh was inspired. The contest challenged him to revise and submit work from that class. He’s never fancied himself a writer but reading his story one would disagree.
His impressive short story, Valediction, was featured in MATTERS MAGAZINE. Here is the story in its entirety.
by James McHugh
I crouched behind the toppled lifeguard stand, waiting as the birds returned-wheeling, shrieking and finally alighting on the sand. They rushed back and forth with the waves, pecking at what came in. I counted to three and leapt out, flapping my arms wildly and cawing (I hoped) like a bird of prey. As I raced towards the birds, they glared at me for a moment and disdainfully flew a little farther down the beach. Digby and I used to chase birds together on that beach at Loveladies; he'd race ahead of me and pursue them into the surf before I called him back, spraying me with salt water as he shook his fur dry. Chasing birds wasn't as much fun without Digby.
I'd driven down from New York City that April morning to say goodbye to the house. This had been my year for farewells. Adios to the three-bedroom co-op in Battery Park. Ciao to the credit card at Bergdorf's. Tomorrow hasta la vista to the beach house. Since Jake left last year with the twenty-year old bimbo-sorry, "intern"-my life had become, how shall I say it, more circumscribed.
The hardest goodbye had been to Digby. Like most everything else we had, Jake had chosen him, after reading in the Times that Portuguese water dogs were the "breed of the moment." But Jake's enthusiasm had waned, and I soon became Digby's walker, feeder, scooper and playmate. Post-Jake, I could only afford a studio apartment in a no- dog building, so I sent Digby to live with my brother and his family in Connecticut. I'd given up running in the city; seeing dogs and owners jogging together was too much to take.
Well, at least I still had the Mini. Jake had preferred a grander automotive statement, but for once I'd insisted. And even if the slightly oversized chili red tinker toy couldn't assure happiness, it was still mine.
I took a final look down the length of the beach, untenanted but for the elusive birds. I picked up my straw bag from behind the lifeguard stand and headed up the rough wooden stairs toward the house.
I thought of the summers I spent as a child at the cottage on Nantucket. Mom, my two brothers, three sisters, the dogs, the rest of the menagerie and I were packed off in early June to spend glorious days among the rock pools and salt marshes. Dad was always there on Saturday morning. The house really had been just a cottage--small, weather-beaten, with the garden run riot --but I had spent my happiest days there.
I reached the top of the steps, brushed the sand and strands of seaweed off my feet and slipped on the sandals I'd left there. The house was now fully in view, standing out sharply in the intense, flat light. It had been Jake's surprise for our anniversary five years ago. When he said it was on the Jersey shore, I'd imagined the worst-blue-collar bungalows packed hard against each other. Long Beach Island, uncrowded and unpretentious, had been a revelation; I especially liked the peculiar town names: Barnegat Light (sounds like a low-calorie beer), Harvey Cedars (a podiatrist) and Loveladies (well, the less said about that the better).
The house itself was a Cape Cod with elephantitis, far too large for the two of us. Against my instincts, I had grown to love it, especially at this time of year, before the summer crowds. I passed by the covered pool, looking like a badly-executed Christo installation. I rounded the corner of the house, walking toward my car, parked on the gravel drive at the front. A man was attaching a tow truck hook to the front bumper.
"What are you doing?" I shouted.
He turned slowly toward me, as if unsurprised I was there. He was a bear of a man, with a wild black beard, strongly muscled arms and a fat belly, like a weightlifter gone to seed. He was wearing greasy jeans and a red T-shirt with "Riley's Repos" printed on the back.
"You're six months behind in your payments, so the tin can's going bye-bye."
Apparently exhausted from this witticism, Bigfoot (or whatever his name was) sat down on the hood of the Mini, threatening to crush it. He stared placidly at my chest. I could feel myself blushing, not so much from his stare as from the sense of somehow being captured.
"The house is being sold tomorrow." I nodded my head toward the realtor's "Sold" sign, "You'll get your money." I knew I sounded pathetic.
Bigfoot grunted as he rose off the hood. I wasn't sure the Mini's suspension would ever recover.
"That's not my department, lady. The car's going. If you want 'er back, call the office." He handed me a dog-eared card.
He waddled back to his truck, pulled some levers and lifted my beloved Mini off its front wheels. He slammed the cab door and drove off, spewing gravel. I stood there stupidly, with my mouth open and fists clenched. I glanced around; good, no dog walkers or twitching curtains. At least one of my Top Ten Humiliating Moments was just between Bigfoot and me.
As I moved toward the house, I suddenly felt the stiff breeze off the ocean and shivered. I fished my keys out of the straw bag and unlocked the front door. I hesitated in the foyer. I knew the house still "belonged" to me (well, mostly to the bank) until tomorrow, but it no longer seemed like mine, and I felt like a trespasser. I wished Digby were with me.
As I stepped inside, the air was stale and warm with the sickly smell of paint and varnish. The realtor insisted that the house be redecorated before we put it up for sale. But the irrationally exuberant real estate market had barely kept pace with our refinancings and Jake's bad investments. There would be little money left once the bank was repaid. Well, it was one less thing to worry about. Thoreau would have been so proud.
I walked to the kitchen for a drink and opened a cabinet for a glass. Empty, of course. Like Mother Hubbard, I thought, and smiled. I splashed water on my face from the faucet and twisted my neck to get a drink, wiping the water off on my sleeve. I felt like I was back in second grade.
When I had first seen the kitchen with its high-end appliances, granite-topped island and the rest, I'd laughed; neither Jake nor I could cook worth a damn. A menu for the Chinese take-away was still on the counter.
I walked into the great room. The refinished floors glared up at me; the freshly painted walls were unnaturally white and bare. The furniture was covered with sheets, giving the place a ghostly and abandoned air. For reassurance, I lifted the corner of the closest sheet, revealing the arm of a leather sofa. It had been the realtor's idea to keep some furniture in the house while it was shown for sale. "It sets the stage," she said. I had no room for the couch in my studio apartment in any case and was glad that the new owners had bought it and the rest of the great room's furniture.
I decided to take one last look around. I randomly opened drawers and cupboards in the great room and kitchen, finding at the back of one drawer the cork from a bottle of Veuve Cliquot-I remember Jake opening it on our first weekend here. He had been at his most spontaneous and romantic then; it was what made him so attractive. He'd even insisted on carrying me over the threshold. But the novelty of the house, just like the novelty of Digby and me, eventually wore off for Jake. His job made it hard for him to get away (or so he said), and, as his indifference toward me grew, I came down without him.
I entered the master bedroom. The weak sun shining through the curtainless windows caught the drifting dust which whirled and danced in the still air. When Jake did make it down to the beach house, we had still shared a bed, but it had become less an amorous retreat than a place to crash after we both drank too much wine while watching DVDs. Was that Jake's choice or mine? It wound up in the same place either way.
The bathroom off the master bedroom had been the builder's idea of the Last Days of Pompeii: sunken tub, lots of marble and decorative columns; I was glad he'd left out the cascading fountain. The medicine cabinets were empty, but I couldn't ignore the reflection in the unforgiving mirror. What looked back wasn't this year's model and, judging from the lack of male interest since Jake left (unless you counted Bigfoot), prior- owned merchandise wasn't much in demand. I shut off the light.
I stepped into the walk-in closet. The smell of cedar lingered in the air. A few coat hangers still hung forlornly from the rods, but it was otherwise empty. I stooped to fumble with the lock on the small safe Jake had insisted we get. In a moment of sentimentality, he had made the combination our anniversary date. When I swung the safe's door open, I hadn't expected to find anything; what little jewelry I had was in my sock drawer at the apartment. Inside the safe was the revolver Jake bought after watching one too many cop shows. The gun was, of course, the biggest he could find-a .44 Magnum. I hated it and made Jake keep it in the safe; whether it would have been much use there when the Dalton gang burst through the bedroom door, I secretly doubted. I picked up the gun and put it in my beach bag, thinking I'd throw it in the sea before I left.
Which was, I realized, a good point; just how was I going to leave with the car gone? I decided to call a taxi to take me to the train station on the mainland. I picked up the receiver on the phone sitting on the bedroom floor. Nothing. I remembered I'd had the service disconnected last fall. I reached into my bag for the cell phone. Perfect, I left the phone in the car. Might as well continue the tour.
I climbed up the open-plan stairs and looked through the guest bedrooms; no surprises there. We'd had few visitors in the last year; most of "our" friends were really his and, with Jake staying in the city, there didn't seem much point. Truthfully, I'd preferred Digby's company.
My studio had been a small room on the ocean-facing side of the house. I'd spent most of my time here with Digby, listening to the waves and wind and trying to capture the beauty and elemental force in my paintings. From my job at the gallery, I knew my work wasn't commercial, but I loved painting and became lost in the work, continuing until the light failed, and Digby reminded me that we both needed to be fed. My canvases, easels and the rest were now in storage. My throat began to tighten as I thought that what I'd miss most about losing the house-about losing my old life-was Digby, this room and my painting.
My reverie was broken by a noise outside the window, as if someone had stumbled. Without thinking, I reached into the bag and pulled out the Magnum. Quietly, I slid open the door to the deck and stepped out, holding the gun uncertainly in front of me. The sting of the salty air and the roar of the surf startled me after the closeness inside. The balcony wound around the house; I quickly turned the corner. There was my intruder-fallen deck chairs, knocking against each other in the wind. I stood motionless, still clutching the gun, wondering what had possessed me to take it out or step out onto the balcony. I looked down at the revolver, feeling ridiculous. The weapon suddenly felt heavy in my hand; I jammed it back in my bag.
I completed the circuit outside the house. The realtor had called the balcony a widow's walk, from which a captain's wife would look out to sea for a husband who might not return. No sense searching the horizon for signs of Jake.
I stepped back into the studio and slid the door shut. I felt very alone, and the unexpected noises and the sound of my footsteps in the empty rooms were getting on my nerves. I climbed slowly back down the stairs to the great room. A paint-spattered radio was on the mantelpiece; the workmen must have left it. I switched it on, hoping for some music, but it was a talk radio station. I couldn't be bothered to change it.
A woman was speaking, her voice a hoarse whisper: "But I loved Bob, and I thought he loved me. I gave up everything for him, and now he's gone…."
A man's voice, self assured, interrupted her: "And how do you feel now, Annie?"
The woman spoke more haltingly: "I can't bear the thought of being pitied by our friends. I don't go out. I'm afraid when the phone rings…."
The conversation was repulsive and compelling, like a car accident. Still listening, I went over to the French doors to the deck and sat down on the floor facing the sea. The sun was now low in the sky, and the sounds of the waves and wind were muffled through the windows. I reached into my bag, found my Marlboros and lit one. Jake had disapproved, so I used to smoke furtively, like a teenager, sucking Certs to mask the smell. When he left, I started smoking with a vengeance.
The man's voice was back: "When did you find out Bob was seeing someone else?"
"I thought he might be, but I wasn't sure. When I first asked him, he denied it. But later, he didn't even try to hide it." The woman seemed to be holding back tears, her breaths coming in gulps.
I began crying softly, I think for both her and me. So here I was, after ten years of marriage: broke, alone and living in the same type of tiny apartment I had when I first left college. Was I going to be one of those desperate females running personals in the back of New York magazine or, worse, spilling my guts on the radio? I glanced at my bag and the gun nestled within. Or was I becoming a frightened recluse, hearing a burglar in every odd sound? The prospects weren't appealing.
His voice was back, probing for more details.
I stubbed out a cigarette and lit another.
The woman seemed more self conscious. Her answers were shorter. The interview began to sound like an interrogation.
The man's voice was harsher this time: "Well, Annie, that was some tale of woe. Who can blame Bob for leaving? Really, who'd want to be around a sad sack like you? Folks, we'll be back in a moment to sort out Annie. This is Doctor Rick Gottmann, radio's tough love psychiatrist. Now a word from our sponsors."
A jingle began. I turned toward the radio in amazement as if I expected the good doctor to be there. This really was too much; it felt as if somebody were staging a wretched parody of my life for public ridicule. I fished the gun out of the bag and held it without thinking, feeling the grip cold and hard in my hand. The man's voice came back. "Let's see whether we can stop Annie from moping around, shall we?"
I said aloud: "You'll be doing it without me, Ricky."
The sound was shattering. My arm was knocked back, and the radio exploded, smashing against the wall and scattering into a hundred pieces. I scooped up my stuff into the bag and got up. I put the gun on the mantelpiece, opened the door and started my long journey home.
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