WriterHouse Fiction Contest Winner

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Author Ann Beattie picks Gail South's "Home," as this year's fiction contest winner. Photo: File photo Author Ann Beattie picks Gail South’s “Home,” as this year’s fiction contest winner. Photo: File photo

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C-VILLE Weekly and WriterHouse partnered again this year for our fiction contest, in which readers submitted works to be judged by author Ann Beattie, who was the Edgar Allan Poe professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Virginia. Forty-seven entries were received, and they revolved around a variety of subjects, including an intergalactic voyage, pizza night and a high school reunion. The winning author, Gail South, receives $500 and a one-year WriterHouse membership; the runner-up, Claire Rann, gets $250 and a one-year WriterHouse membership. You can read Rann’s story, “Aim,” here.

Home

By Gail South

Eric curbed the old Chevy next to the sidewalk. He glanced around to make sure no one was close, then tugged off his T-shirt—gritty with sweat and muck from digging in orange dirt—swabbed it under his arms, and snatched a brown one off the passenger seat. He sniffed it, shrugged, and pulled it on.

He slipped off his shoes, removed the damp insoles and pulled out the money. He tied his shoes back on, shoved the money into his sagging jeans pocket, and headed down the pedestrian street where people sat around outdoor tables with cold beers and plates of food.

He pulled open the post office door, conscious of his filth and smell. He asked a man in a crisp uniform for the smallest mailbox available. He would probably never use it, but he needed an address for job applications. Plus, an address made you feel a little more civilized. Like you really did belong someplace. Though if you gave a P.O. box, prospective employers often asked for a street address. Especially if they thought you didn’t have one.

He pulled the folded money from his pocket, peeled off two 20s, and shoved them back into his pocket. He bought a money order made out to his daughter, Liz, with the rest. He wrote her name, then his ex-wife’s address. He hoped it was still correct.

Liz hadn’t responded to his e-mails, though they hadn’t bounced back. He had the same e-mail as always, but in his last post he asked if she would respond if he changed his address to sorryIfuckedup yourlife@gmail.com. She didn’t respond to that e-mail either, but he hoped she at least got a chuckle.

He drove to Food Lion and grabbed a cart. He tossed in two gallons of water, bananas, bread, carrots, onions, potatoes, and a hefty package of beef stew meat. He got some peanut butter, grape jelly, and chocolate chip cookies. He added it up in his head then picked up a 12-pack of Pabst.

He headed down Arno Road, turned onto the gravel trail, then the dirt path, then into the secluded spot where everyone with a car—five now—parked. Sheila, a young black woman who was living at the camp when Eric arrived, had a big pot that she kept beside her tent. He pulled out his camp stove, grabbed her pot, and went about making soup. Right on time, Sheila returned with her kids.

“Got some stew on,” Eric nodded at the blue plastic bags. “There’s bananas and stuff in those bags. Take what you want.”

“That’s awfully nice of you,” Sheila said. The boy eyed the bag.

“How’s it hanging, dude?” Eric held out his hand and Jamil high-fived him. “There’s cookies in there, and assuming it’s okay with your mama you can have some after you do your homework.”

Eric leaned over and put his hand on the little girl’s head. “You too, Punkin. But you just gotta help your mama watch this soup.” He nodded toward the river. “I’m going to go clean up.” He glanced at Sheila. “There’s beer in the cooler.”

He took his soap and towel and made his way through the woods, across the City Circuit Trail, and down to the secluded swimming hole. He glanced around then stripped down to his blue flip-flops and stepped into the water. People complained about it being cold, but compared to lakes in Michigan, where he was from, this was tepid. He quickly moved to a depth that covered his privates, careful to hug the thong of his sandals with his toes. There were sharp rocks and glass and who knew what all on the bottom of the river. The water was too murky to see through, but he had cut his feet here before.

He scrubbed his body with a bar of soap tied up in a hand towel, then dunked his head and scrubbed his wiry gray hair. The muscles in his arms and legs stiffened with pain in the cool water. He was getting too old for this kind of life.

He pressed his body against the force of the water and made his way to shore. He quickly dried off and pulled on his least dirty pair of jeans. He rolled them up to his knees, grabbed the work clothes that he’d been wearing for several days, then waded back into the river with the bar of soap. He squatted down and scrubbed the clothes against the rocks.

He twisted the waterlogged jeans through his cold red hands, then laid them dripping on a large boulder. He did the same with his shirt and socks, then wrung the jeans again. He hung everything from the line he had strung between two trees next to his tent.

He opened a beer and stashed another in his tent. He made sure Sheila got one, then stuck a couple in Brad’s tent. Brad was probably out hustling, but he’d be in soon. The earthy smell of stew drifted through the campground. Eric spread the word that stew would be ready in a while, and if anybody wanted a cold one they better hurry. The beer disappeared almost instantly.

Sheila dished out steaming bowls for her and the kids and they sat on the ground and ate soup and slices of wheat bread. Eric filled a big green Tupperware bowl, then he walked through the woods by the tents and shanties calling out that soup was ready. Brad showed up just in time—he was good at that.

“I’ll take this down and wash it,” Brad said when the pot was empty. “Give me your bowls and I’ll take them too.”

At dusk Eric sat in the green canvas chair to read. Roger Rowe cranked his generator to run his TV. He had a shanty on the other end of the camp filled with all kinds of shit people said he had brought in on a trailer behind his SUV. Even inside the shanty, you could hardly hear the TV for the noise of the generator, but Roger said it was the last vestige of a normal home. He usually just ran it long enough for one sitcom a night. Otherwise people complained vigorously. Eric was glad to be on the other end of camp. The noise of the generator didn’t bother him as much as people arguing about it—he’d already heard enough arguing for several lifetimes.

“Man, you got anymore beer?” Brad handed Eric his clean bowl and spoon.

Eric shook his head. “Sorry dude. Don’t you have any of that rocket fuel you usually drink?”

“Yeah. I was hoping for another cold one—don’t get those too often. Hard to carry beer and ice walking two miles.” Brad pulled off his baseball cap and scratched his head. His dark locks fell into his face. “It’s supposed to get stinking hot this week. I’ll try to get some money for beer tomorrow.” He pushed his hair back and slid his cap over it.

The next day was a scorcher, and all day Eric’s muscles burned from brutal labor and a fiery sun. All he thought about was how good that river would feel at the end of the day. When work was done, he drove straight to camp.

He saw the sign posted on the big oak as soon as he turned onto the dirt trail. He didn’t stop to read it, he knew there would be more—there were always more. He parked in the grass. Another sign was posted just beyond his car. It was the same message as always—camping here was illegal and people had to move.

A few people were gathered at the fire pit, though it was too early and too hot for a fire. They were having a bitch session about how they weren’t hurting anybody and where the hell were they supposed to go when there was nowhere to go. He didn’t bother to join—he knew how it would play out. People would gripe until there was nothing else to say, then they’d start talking about where they might go. Another spot in the woods, another town, crash on somebody’s couch until they wore out their welcome.

Just like the other camps. The first was that great place in Michigan where he stayed almost a year. It had been there for 10 years. They had a mess hall, an area for families, a place for games; they even had an infirmary. Every night after dinner people played euchre. It was a good bunch of people. They didn’t tolerate drunkenness or even meanness at that camp.

Then a couple teenagers—kids who lived in warm houses with soft beds and parents who loved them—thought it would be a whole bunch of fun to beat the living shit out of a couple of 60-year-old women. The city closed the camp after that. Then there was the place in Jackson, then one in Detroit. One was an old farm that had been fallow for years, but it was on a lake and authorities said they were worried about water contamination. The truth was, people with fancy vacation homes didn’t want to see a camp of derelicts while they were buzzing up and down the lake in their boats and Jet Skis. He couldn’t blame them. There was a time in his life—a time not so long ago that now seemed like a dream—when he would have felt the same way. Another camp closed because business owners said having homeless people nearby was bad for business. They were probably right.

Eric wished he had picked up some more beer. He could go back out, but he was filthy and exhausted and this news just made his body ache that much more. He took an extra-long bath in the river, then pulled out the pint of whiskey. He plopped down in his chair and took a hefty swig. He didn’t usually drink this early in the day, but it wasn’t every day he got evicted.

The notice said anything left here would be “cleaned up” a week from today at 9am. That meant men in hazmat suits would show up with a bulldozer and a dumpster. It’d take some extra man hours because the tents were spread through the woods. It’d be hard to doze—they’d either have to take out some trees or clean up a lot by hand. It’d take a dumpster or two just for the trash pile behind the camp. Then the 23 tents and shanties packed to the hilt inside and out. Three plywood shanties with couches and chairs and camp stoves. John and his generator. The antenna on top of his shack that picked up two or three channels, depending on the weather.

Those with cars—like him—could haul some of people’s belongings to another place, except people didn’t have another place. They’d be wandering now. Nomads. You go somewhere for a night, then you get up in the morning and carry every single item with you to another place. If you stayed in a shelter, you were only allowed two trash bags full. People learned to leave things behind, start all over. If you had a good tent and the possibility of pitching it someplace, you’d carry it. And a sleeping bag. A few clothes. Food. Water. Maybe one small item of purely sentimental value. Nothing else.

He took another swig of whiskey. The burn felt good in his throat. It was a good thing he only had half a pint, because he’d probably drink every drop even if he had a whole quart.

He picked up his book. A used bookstore across from the library had a small table outside marked “FREE.” There was usually something or other on it and Eric had picked up several books over the last few weeks. This was Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators. He’d read pretty much anything. Like every other person on the street, he hung out at the library a lot—to get warm, get cool, stay dry. To sit in a real chair. He read magazines and newspapers, short stories. Novels were hard because you started one and then had to put it back without finishing it. You had to have a local photo ID and a street address to check out books. He didn’t have either.

“Hey man!”

Eric looked up to see Brad sauntering over. He nodded.

“Looks like they’re kicking us out of here. Shit. Where the fuck they think we’re going to go?” He sat down in Eric’s second chair. “Least you got a car to sleep in.”

Eric nodded.

“Though back in the day, I would of called it a piece of shit junker. Man, I used to have me a shiny black Toyota Highlander. Bought it brand spanking new—V6, all-wheel drive. And the sound system—like you’s at a concert or something. Now that’s a car I could’ve slept in.”

“But you went bankrupt trying to pay for it.”

“Got laid off. Just like you, I guess.” He picked up Eric’s whiskey bottle and shook it. “Looks like you need some spirits.”

“Got any?”

“Not much.” Brad prowled around his tent for a minute and brought back a bottle that had just a few swigs. The men quickly finished off both bottles.

“I got some money today. Let’s go get some booze. Or beer. A few cold ones would go down real smooth about now.”

“Too tired. I don’t care enough to move.”

“Gimme your keys, I’ll go.” Brad pulled two 20s out of his pocket. “I’ll buy.”

Eric eyed him warily. “Can I trust you? Straight to the store and back?”

Brad grinned. “Sure man. I’ll get us a case of cold ones. And ice.”

Eric pulled out his keys. “Come straight back.” He tossed the key ring to Brad who caught it easily in his left hand. Eric had a sinking feeling as he watched his car disappear up the path.

He thought about walking over to the fire pit where people were still hanging out, but he could hear enough to know that folks were angry. And resigned. Hell, he was resigned too. Resigned past the point of getting angry. If any one of these people—including him—owned a fancy house in town and brought their kids to that fancy paved trail, they’d be screaming about the derelicts too. And those people doing the screaming—put them on the street for a couple days and they’d change their tune so fast it’d make their heads spin. He picked up his bottle, then remembered it was empty. People gathered like this up north would at least be playing a round of euchre while they contemplated their fate.

He read until his eyes strained in the fading light, then pulled out his small flashlight. He shined it on the aerodynamics handbook. It lasted about 10 minutes before it went dark. He had bought batteries the other day, but they were in his car.

Fuck! Brad should have been back by now.

Eric picked up his whiskey bottle and felt the emptiness. He slung it in the woods and leaned back in his camp chair with his fingers laced behind his neck. If he tilted his head in just the right way, he could see a single star through the tree cover.

He closed his eyes. If he had been a praying man he would have prayed for some way through this. But he wasn’t a praying man, and so he picked up his chair and carried it to the circle and sat beside Sheila.

“Where’s the kids?”

She nodded toward her tent. “Eshe’s sleeping and Jamil’s doing homework. I ought to be in there with them.” She sighed. “I came out here because if I stayed in there, I was going to cry. I can’t do that, I gotta be strong.”

Eric nodded. “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. We could go back to Mama’s, but that man living with her is such bad news.” She shook her head again. “I got to figure out something and then go tell those kids what that something is.”

“What do you tell kids?” Eric said, as much to himself as to her. “My daughter’s grown and she still doesn’t understand. Hell, I don’t understand.”

“Jamil read the notice. He’s heard people talking. Eshe doesn’t know what’s going on, but she understands anger. And fear. Kids pick up on that stuff real quick. Even babies. Jamil said, ‘Where will we go now?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to go out and talk to people and you do your homework and watch your sister. They’ll be a plan.’” She shook her head. “I don’t like lying to my children that way. Too much lying in the world. I want my babies to believe in Jesus and do right, but it’s hard. I know we’re all gonna find salvation in the next life, but my children’s got a long time till then. The street ain’t an easy place to instill the kind of values kids need to be ready when they meet their maker.” Her voice was low and confidential.

Eric had been watching the small fire while he listened and when she stopped talking, he turned to look at her. She had been pretty once but life on the street had taken its toll. Still, she obviously took pains to look nice. Her hair was straight and shiny, her body still almost plump. Sometimes she even wore makeup though he couldn’t tell in the firelight if she was wearing it now. What he could see was a stream of tears shining on her dark cheeks. He reached over and took her hand, interlocking her fingers with his. She grasped his hand and they sat there quiet like that, steadfastly holding on to each other.

Author’s bio

Photo: Dave Metcalf

Gail South says the first time she tried to write a short story it turned into a novel. To date she has written three novels and says they generally take on issues of social justice. “Home” is part of Lana, a novel that South has begun submitting to agents, which centers on Eric, a homeless man, and Lana, a widowed elderly lady whom he befriends.

“We’re so separate in society socially and racially,” South says. “I like to take different parts of our society and put them together and see what would happen.”

One of South’s novels, “The Solitude of Memory,” was a 2012 finalist for the PEN/Bellwether prize for socially engaged fiction, founded by Virginia author Barbara Kingsolver. The novel was about desegregation and tells the story of a black teacher, a white teacher aid and their families.

“My favorite part is just discovering these characters and what makes them work,” she says. South is “fascinated with people” and says she loves hearing snippets of conversations while dining at a restaurant, and often sees someone and makes up a story about them in her head—what their background is, what motivates them.

About the writing process, she generally has characters in mind as well as an outline, but she just starts writing and “things come together.” The majority of the first draft of Lana was written during an artist’s retreat at northern Michigan’s ISLAND Hill House, where she was awarded a fellowship. And much of the editing of the novel was done during three separate fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

South has loved writing since she was young (her first and only play was written in fifth grade), but says she made a conscious decision in high school that she would not be a starving artist. She got her degree in marketing from Steed College, and worked as an account executive in Tennessee for 14 years. She moved 20 years ago to Charlottesville after marrying her husband, Dave Metcalf, and a few years ago received her MFA from Goddard College, in Vermont.

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