Palo Alto Weekly 15th Annual Short Story Contest
Rules (the sixth of July)
by Jane Renaud
1. Because a story should open with, above all else, a strong atmosphere. Character and action are secondary; the overall essence of the story is crucial. The audience should not enter the pool through the shallow end, but rather take a flying leap, plunging into the story with no goggles, earplugs, or flippers.
Below the cherry blossom tree (it was wilting and not so pink) and above the pavement (it was colored orange and red and green by chalk and not so new) was Miriam (she was crying). Miriam had a large nose and a run in her panty hose, but her tears had long run dry for these sorts of problems; today was the sixth of July and seemed to Miriam as good a day as any other to cry on a sidewalk for no apparent reason at all.
It was hard, however, to cry on the corner of Orange and Cardenas. The air was thick with moisture and cilantro and strains of Vivaldi and Enrique Iglesias wafting from windows. In fact, all of the windows on Cardenas were open, except one, which was stuck, and Miriam tried to cry for that tenant.
2. Because a story should follow with some action (guns, grief, and giggling are favorites). If you are writing about nature, tree sap caressing a young green twig is action enough. It should be noted that action and plot are not synonymous, although the two are related.
Four people walked by Miriam the first half hour that she sat under the cherry blossom tree, crosslegged and quivering. The fifth stopped. She had red frizzy hair and creamy cocoa skin, clear brown eyes and a funny little smile. She squatted in front of Miriam and squinted, left hand fanning the flies with an accordion-folded tabloid newspaper and right hand shielding her eyes from the sun. Miriam was transfixed, never having been looked at in quite this way before, as if the girl could see right through her on this, the sixth of July. Suddenly the girl leaned forward, almost birdlike, and kissed Miriam's left cheek, leaving a trace of cinnamon sugar atop Miriam's white skin. And then, she was gone.
3. Because a story should revolve around a character with a strong voice. If multiple characters have strong voices, and they talk amongst themselves (also known as dialogue), this is better.
So the girl was gone and Miriam was left sitting there, a little bit in love. And so, as Miriam always did when she was a little bit in love, she hummed. "Oooh, baby, I love your ways.. .," she crooned.
"I wanna be with you night and day...," continued a voice, higher and slightly more on key. And since Miriam was a little bit in love, the second voice, coming from directly above her head, was not strange on this, the sixth of July.
"You know," said Miriam, "I came here to cry."
"And I came here to pick cherries like I always do, but the cherries are gone, yes they are. They been gone since Thursday, but I still come, I still come."
"Do you want to know," said Miriam, "why I was crying?"
"You were crying because there are no more cherries, and I understand, you don't have to explain anything. I would cry too, but that isn't my nature, I just keep looking, since Thursday I've been looking. This tree is comfortable and I could just stay here looking for more cherries forever, I could."
"How did you know?" said Miriam. "I suppose that is why I was crying, no more cherries. And I didn't even know it. Do you want to know why I stopped crying?"
"Her name's Karen and I don't blame you, but she can't bring no cherries back. She told me to use fertilizer and I been fertilizing. I listened because everyone says she's the smart one, she's the smart one on Cardenas, she's the one that's in school, in a school with the riches. But she can't bring no cherries back. So I just sit in my tree and leave the kissing to Karen."
And so Miriam sat on the sidewalk and stared straight ahead, left hand fanning the flies and right hand shielding her eyes from the sun, and talked with this voice from the cherry tree, wondering whether it was possible to be a little bit in love with two people at once on this, the sixth of July.
4. Because a story should, sadly, have a plot. This requires a middle. A beginning may take on many forms, but the middle must be solid. It is Act II, the meat, the backbone, the time when the audience decides whether or not to stay or go buy more peanuts. In the best possible scenario, no decision is made, no choice, and a trip to the concession stand is inconceivable. The audience and the story are one, inseparable.
The Orange Street bus came at one o'clock and Miriam remembered her life. She was due on Dove Boulevard at one-thirty, and she could not be late. But the voice from the tree spoke on and Miriam longed for a cherry and another kiss from Karen. The bus paused for fifteen seconds and in the sixteenth, as exhaust puffed onto the street corner and the wheels gripped the blacktop, Miriam's life beat Cardenas Street and she pulled herself onto the bus.
What Miriam faced, of course, on Dove Boulevard, was more than just her life, but her death. Miriam laughed to herself, as she always did when she was a little bit crazy. Melodramatic thoughts like this one always made her laugh. The hospital on Dove Boulevard specialized in oncology, and Miriam's left breast was lumpy, like Mama's mashed potatoes.
Miriam stared out the window and sighed. She couldn't really cry about her breasts, she hated her breasts, and she didn't mind losing them; it was just that she knew she should be sad or she would be branded crazy again. She imagined the stuck window and tried to make her mascara run, for fear of frightening the doctor.
5. Because a story should, at some point, make use of the flashback. If not an actual scene from the past, an allusion to a prior event or stage in a character's life is necessary. Omitted, your character is simply that, and not a real person. Ambiguity is both acceptable and a useful device.
"Feliz Navidad, Miriam! Feliz Navidad!" The bra was a big size, big enough to fit a cantaloupe in each of the cups. "Feliz Navidad!" Miriam squinted.
"Miriam can't see past her nose!" yelled Carly. "Her nose is too big!" Miriam stopped squinting, and instead stared wide-eyed at the bra. The music was too loud, and the tree was too small, and this bra was too big.
"Don't worry, Miriam, you'll grow into it! Come on, take it! It's your present." Aunt Bea thrust it in Miriam's face.
"Hang it on her nose! Hang it on her nose!" Carly began the chant and Tommy picked it up. Aunt Bea giggled and hung the pink strap across Miriam's face.
Miriam screamed and the music turned off.
Aunt Claudia came to Miriam's room ten minutes later to talk and Miriam cried. "Don't be silly, Miriam. It was only a joke. Do you know why you're crying? You're crying because of your hormones. You have a lot of them now, and as soon as that bra fits you won't cry as much. Now don't be silly." So Miriam cried some more and Aunt Claudia talked some more and ten minutes later she said, "You know, Miriam, you're crazy."
6. Because a story must have a turning point, a twist, an unexpected shock. Above all, do not cheat. Unexpected in no way means illogical or impossible. For the turning point to be fair, enough clues must have been scattered for the audience to at least have a chance at guessing the surprise. Cheating results not in a delighted audience, but a disgruntled one.
The Orange Street bus arrived at the hospital at one-twenty and Miriam stood in front of the revolving doors and tried, for the last time, to be frightened and teary-eyed. But Cardenas Street had left her with cinnamon on her cheek, and the receptionist was wary of Miriam and her Peter Frampton warbling.
When the doctor came, at one-thirty, Miriam had been sitting in the exam room for twenty minutes in a paper gown. He examined her breast, performed a mammogram, and arranged for a biopsy. When the psych consult (a med student) from the fourth floor arrived, he advised Miriam to talk freely with her.
Before the psychiatrist met with Miriam, however, the doctor spoke with her behind a curtain. "This is a good learning case for you, Karen. Diagnosed schizophrenic, gender issues, cancer." So Karen smoothed her frizzy red hair and walked past the curtain.
7. Because a story must have a climax.
So Cardenas Street met Dove Boulevard in exam room four. Karen stood frozen as the girl who kissed strangers ran headlong into the woman who practiced medicine, and Miriam's grin spread wide across her face. Cinnamon left from the kiss burrowed into Miriam's dimples and Karen began to cry.
"Do you know," said Miriam, "why you're crying?" Karen nodded and Miriam held out her arms. "I know," she said. "Love is hard." Karen screamed as the grasp grew tighter, but the noise was muffled and absorbed by Miriam's breast. Karen gasped and tried to breathe, tears catching in her throat.
Miriam stroked the frizzy red curls and sighed. "Don't be crazy, Karen," she whispered. "It's okay."
8. Because a story must end. Do not, under any circumstances, cheat (see # 6). A choice as to whether or not a sequel is in order must be made. Sad endings are overrated; happy endings are underrated. Both can be awful; both can be sublime. And never, never, never reveal your entire story to be a dream. You will never be trusted again.
"You know you shouldn't do this here, you should make a date. That's what I always did, make a date, this is the wrong place, wrong time for this loving," said a voice.
"Yes," said Miriam. Because she was a little bit in love, she didn't think anything much of the voice, a little bit higher and a little bit sensible, coming from straight above her head in the light fixture. "I know this is the wrong time. But I just can't help it today."
"You should let Karen go now, you should let her go or else who knows, who knows."
"Do you," said Miriam, "know what will happen if I don't let go?"
"Yes." The doctor wore white and he burst through the curtain, and Miriam cried as her first love was pried away from her arms.
From the judges
"The writer shows great creativity and invention by both writing
a story and playing with the rules of writing a story. I love to
see young writers challenge the form of the story--this writer knows
how to have fun while writing."
"A well-crafted work of experimental fiction whose major concern
is the nature of fiction itself."
"It's one thing to write intelligently about craft, quite another
to write craftily. The writer of "Rules (the sixth of July)" manages
to combine both in this intelligent and well-constructed story that
at once instructs us in the rules of fiction and moves us
as a piece of fiction. Good work!"
One more week to vote!
Don't forget to cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 29th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 21st issue of the Palo Alto Weekly.