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Illustration by Kelly Doren

Past Imperfect

Java Jive 7 winners give angst for the memories

Edited by Patrick Sullivan

DOES THE PAST burn away like a lit fuse? Or does it pile up behind us like unwashed laundry? Does it haunt us like a vengeful spirit? Or does it just irritate, like a popcorn kernel stuck in a molar? Speak, memory, we urged--and it roared like a lion in Java Jive 7, the seventh edition of the Bohemian's annual coffeehouse writing contest.

This year, we asked local scribes to demonstrate their talent by delivering 500 words or fewer on this year's theme: "Angst for the Memories." The result was a deluge of prose and poetry about personal histories real and imagined. There was pathos. There was parody. There was a letter from a cow.

Somehow, with the aid of our esteemed judges, we picked three winning pieces and two honorable mentions. You'll find these visions of the past imperfect below. And you'll get a chance to see the winning writers read their work in person on Sunday, Oct. 28, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Copperfield's Books, 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma. That's also where we'll award this year's prizes: Copperfield's gift certificates, big bags of coffee, and even a copy of Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground.

Admission is free.

At this reading, you'll also meet our able Java Jive judges: Guy Biederman, a local writing instructor; Susan Bono, editor of Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essays; and Jonah Raskin, a professor of communications at Sonoma State University. Our thanks to them. And thanks, also, to every writer who entered this year's contest.


First Place

Bus Stop
By Jim Arnold

I still think about it, years later. I was in back of a Golden Gate bus, riding down 101 to the city. It was that eerie blackness before sunrise, everybody either sleeping or fitful. Except me and one other guy reading our newspapers. He'd open his arms wide, turning pages and slapping creases under those rude little lights. I did it much quieter.

There was a woman sitting on the aisle, about half way up. All of a sudden, she threw off her neck pillow and just started singing in this big deep voice, a gospel sound with silly words. Then she stood up in the aisle, singing, swaying, and laughing loud. Pretty soon everyone else was up too, just as if it was natural. Singing and swaying, and somehow they all knew the words.

No way was I getting up. I was the only one who didn't, and it was actually embarrassing just sitting there. I'm not much of a singer or dancer. And I was wearing a suit. I didn't know the song anyway.

People were laughing like crazy. The lady who started it was loudest, and she'd pitch a high note the way big ladies do. They started rocking the bus, their arms pulling on the overhead racks, swaying in time with the song. I can't remember the tune now. Just something about "bluebirds and blueberries," and the chorus had "who cares about the kitchen."

The driver was laughing too hard to sing. Big belly laughs, his head thrown back as if somebody else was driving. Then he stopped the bus on the shoulder, turned on the inside lights, and opened the door.

Everybody oohed and ahhed when they saw the door open, and they started dancing to the front. They looked a little silly, singing, giggling, and wiggling their bottoms in time. That's the image that's stuck with me most. Each one grabbed the hips of the next person in line, dancing out the door, then on up the ravine in the dark. You probably know the spot. On the west side of 101, down the hill toward the bridge. Pretty soon they'd disappeared into the fog, still dancing, holding the next person's hips, wiggling and shuffling as if they knew where they were going.

I sat there for a long time. The traffic kept passing by, so I got up and turned off the lights. The transit people came, then the CHP. I didn't mind all their questions, really. But they weren't very nice, and they made me miss my meeting.

The 7:32 bus was canceled after that, and I heard there's a new fence at the ravine. I haven't actually been on the bus again. I've been trying some "make money in the privacy of your home" thing.

I think about it. I'd had some chili the night before. I wasn't feeling too good, so maybe that's why I didn't catch on. I'm not much of a follower, anyway.


Second Place

In Sight of Land
By Judith Stephenson

With me, it's Venus envy. Just look at her--if

Botticelli was right, she floated to shore on the smallest, curling waves, standing on her pearled half-shell, glorious, unafraid, self-aware--symbol of the new woman, drawn in by evolution's tide from that black water farther out. I'm only a human, just hoping to walk on dry land some day. Seems like I've been swimming hard, weathering storms, coughing up salt water for too long. I'm weary of these leaky dinghies, of fishing boats that never reach the pier. My yachts turn into Flying Dutchmen; my yawls founder; my surfboards wipe out. I can't get to shore. So maybe this deep place is my home. Maybe here's where I learn to stand up and walk.


Third Place

Fourth of July
By Leonore Wilson

I'm out on the lawn, Veterans Home. Families wait, anticipating the routine in heaven-- wad of sparks: red blue white yellow blue white red, bop bop bop and the shirr-rr of whistles. One little Green Beret, dead drunk, asks for a part of my blanket. How can I refuse as the bombs begin while his head rests on my shoulder? He looks up at me with that big smile, tells me he fought in four wars. Ah ah another cracker hits the stars.

Name's Cricket, he says. What's yours? Cricket's four-eleven in a tidy suit; fat wine stain on the crotch. He's drunk too much, he knows that, apologizes, tells me, You have a beautiful face. Can I touch it? Yes, I say, and he starts to sob, tells me the story of the sheets, how his mother couldn't tolerate his bed wetting so she hung his soiled sheets up on the front porch for the entire town to see. He begins to weep, Why'd she do that? he asks. Why? And I shake my head. I don't know either, he says. I ran away, joined the army at 16, becoming the best damn Green Beret in the entire fuckin' nation, and he sobs again saying, How could my mama be so cruel? You wouldn't do something like that, would you? Would you? Cricket Cricket? the voice of another vet chimes in. Did you see that? See what? A burst of yellow crosses the sky followed by red white and blue.

Cricket tells me he got his name for jumping out of airplanes invisible behind the enemy lines and before I know it the show's over and Cricket has his head in my lap saying he'll leave me everything that he's a rich man really and could I escort him back to his room, he's afraid, ready to fall. I'm a millionaire, lady, really a millionaire. He takes my hand in his, says. Can I kiss you please, can I?

Out of pity or duty, I let him and we hold hands across the lawn in front of all the families. Why am I doing this, I think. Why? And he takes me to his room where his deaf-mute roommate looks up from the TV and starts to laugh, a boisterous laugh and Cricket shows me old photographs stuck to his wall, all three of his brothers, each one perishing in a different war, and the deaf-mute is still laughing while Cricket tells me he got the man to speak the other day only one word--water--but he knows he'll get more. All he needs is a little nurturing, the guy is shell-shocked. Will you sit on my bed?

Cricket says, I'll get you a cold one, I say No, that's OK, some other time. My heart says, other time? And he says, Ma'am, thank you thank you, and he weeps.


Honorable Mention

Us
By Brandina C. Ely

Yeah, I remember you. I remember us and that is what makes me chuckle real soft. Real slow, I'm so very aware of that foreign sound coming from my own throat. Bet you never thought of me and yourself put together like that. Because if you did, that sound from your throat would come out just as odd and unbalanced as my chuckle and that would scare you.

Us. It wasn't something we chose, so I don't blame you so much anymore. It was a need fulfilled on your part, and my part? I was there, so it couldn't have very well been anybody else, could it? Us. You know I used to feel special lying beneath you. Up close, your brown sideburns reminded me of your tightly kinked pubic hair. I could always smell the salt and driveway's dust in your hair. Thick, delicious hair I would have loved to drink, had there been more time. When it was us, there was always that urgency to our lovemaking. Our lips pressed closed in determination to get the job done quick. To this day I still don't know what your breath smells like, only what it sounds like. Our nostrils flared as the farm's acres and acres of dead grass formed a crackling sea around us. Our breathing labored as the manure beneath your knee gave way to dust and you'd scramble for a better foothold in which to jut into me.

God, we were so young. You were so fierce and you burned so strong in your pride. Your anger made my skin sear against yours and nothing hollow was ever carved from between us. I smelled your masculinity before you entered me and I took sweet secure solace watching your muscles harden every thrust you bore upon me. I never once looked toward your eyes as you recklessly drove yourself up inside me. The slap, slap of your wet belly against mine always made me blush, as you worked above and within me. Your buttocks so taut and concave in their furious rhythm. Your hips so slim they barely held up a pair of low-slung Levis. Your skin so arrogant in its unblemished youth while you drilled my very spine into unheeded rock and hot dirt.

When it was just you and I, my mind would drift beside us and make shapes of the scars we burned together. My soul always remained beneath you, bruised and pinpricked until bitterly consumed by your seed. Now, I think of us and wonder what I would have seen had I looked into your eyes just once? My selfish lover's eyes, born from the same womb as mine.


Honorable Mention

A Millennium Cow Ruminates
By Lucy Aron

Dear Mr. Spielberg:

Have you heard about the Maglev? It's a train that runs on a magnetic field and can top 250 mph. One of your senators rode a Maglev in Germany and wants to buy one for his state. He said everything goes by in a blur, but it's exhilarating. Yikes! Does that sound like life nowadays or what?

Cows aren't known for their smarts--most of us are going to wind up as some guy's hamburger for God's sake--and we don't read the New York Times or Vanity Fair, so how hip can we be, right? But we've been watching you, and it's scary out there.

Everything's going faster--cars and catamarans and the Concorde and computers, then there's Jiffy Lube, Insta-Soup, Quick Smog (don't ask). I'm not suggesting they ought to slip Nembutal into the cornflakes, and this probably sounds retro what with the speed gods they worship every morning at Starbucks, but instead of the Yellow Brick Road doesn't all that bustle make you think Twister meets Titanic? And we haven't even talked road rage, fossil fuel, bovine growth hormone (if it makes us grow faster, what's it doing to you?).

I know movies won't change the world, but what about a movie with a cow hero? You're into critters--that over-the-top-grumpy guy with all the teeth in Jaws, and that ET who looks like a turtle. Anyway, people would see creatures who don't whine if the bus is 10 minutes late or fight over who got there first--or over anything for that matter, but that's another movie--and take time to smell the weeds and aren't stressed out and maybe there's a connection.

Not a message movie where you bludgeon people over the head with some Universal Truth, but a subliminal feel-good ride that eases overwrought brains down to a civilized alpha. By the time people amble out of the theater they'll look at each other and go, "Whoa, I think I've just had a Zen moment. Maybe those cows are on to something."

Instead of another clichéd couple of hours watching Bruce or Keanu chase bad guys around the place and all that gloom and mayhem, there'd be Guernseys, Jerseys, Dutch Belteds! Isn't that refreshing? We dawdle and plod incomparably. Pretty scenery, too. We're green freaks, so you could even bill the movie as an eco-flick. The studio's promo department would love that. Appeal to the environmentalists. And while we're talking demographics, the movie would be a natural for the ranchers. Get the tree-huggers and cowboys together for a change.

I wouldn't dream of telling you how to do your job, but I see fading in on some cows grazing on a hill, while on the soundtrack the Eagles are singing "Peaceful, Easy Feelin'," maybe dissolve to a two-shot of cows contemplating a field of daisies. . . . The mind reels.

Yours udderly,
A. Holstein

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From the October 25-31, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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