|Student Writing Awards Showcase Talent
Contact: Rachel Andoga, 704-894-2241
(l-r) Vereen Bell award winners Julia Leventhal '09, Marshall Worsham '09, Kendra Chapman '09.
The Vereen Bell Memorial Award in Creative Writing is given annually to a member of the senior, junior, or sophomore class who has done the best work in fiction, poetry, or drama. The award memorializes Vereen Bell of the Class of 1932, a promising and successful young novelist and short story writer who gave his life for his country in the second battle of the Philippine Sea during World War II.
This year, writer Pablo Medina chose three award winners and three honorable mentions (for a full listing of all creative writing award winners, click here). Below, you can enjoy an excerpt from first-place winner Kendra Chapman's collection of poems titled The Bathtub as well as the full text of short stories by Marshall Worsham and Julia Leventhal.
Kendra Chapman '09, "The Bathtub," "Rereading Persuasion"
Marshall Worsham '09, "The Library of Gosslin County Catastrophe"
Julia Leventhal '09, "Gambling Man"
by Kendra Chapman '09
Somehow, I keep thinking
it will be different today
when I pull open the kitchen window
tree blossoms will tumble
to the lawn in heaped apostrophes
the blank staff of power lines
will snap from the pole, each thread spitting
iced white sparks to the sky
when I pour a cup of tea
and hold it in my hands, the steam
will blur with the cup's smooth green lip
and lure me out of my body
even then, when I drink, hot water
will prick my tongue, and the world is relentless
with sensation, my backyard will collapse
into spring, the dandelions flinging themselves
to the wind, the sky exhaustingly clear and blue
and I'll think of my dream last night, how I dragged
a bathtub to the edge of the ocean
and spread myself out in the cool hollow marble
waiting for the waves to pull me away
but when I propped myself up again
I was still on the shore, the tub's lion feet
caught in the tug of sand
and I wanted to burst out crying for
the tub's senseless swaying, the writhing inertia
of stars wheeling their silvered gases
against the same inscrutable sky
and when my alarm shrieked me awake
I sprang up, looking desperately for a toppled book
a painting askew on the wall
but the world was in its merciless order
light still slipping sweetly through the blinds.
by Kendra Chapman '09
She's dredging up the old love-dribble, the relentless pen
knifing Wentworth, Wentworth, each incision
another tug at her fish-hooked guts; and I wallow
in solace once more, thrash pages
to reach the instant of eye-lock,
their unified thrombosis of recognition
more dreadful after all these years - and Anne still
kicking herself for that jolt of hope, the same
jolt I feel when I look
to the bird-flurried sky, each whirling wing tipped blue,
inking curlicues that hurtle me back to you
that night at the carnival, the lights around us blurring
to one continuous aquarium of color
as the car zipped loop-the-loops, and when
we clacked to a halt you leaned in to kiss me, the city's
fluorescent thrum surging from your lips
to mine, the sudden voltage cutting
my breath as birds slash the sky
again while I sit on the porch's edge
rereading Persuasion, wind whispering
the pages aflutter in a motion so tender
it bruises, as the iris clamoring by the garage invokes
that lackadaisical lack, the inamorata's invective,
so sick sick sick am I of spring.
The Library of Gosslin County Catastrophe
by Marshall Worsham '09
For at least a hundred years, maybe more, people have said that there is no place in all the United States that calamity has visited more often than Gosslin County, Georgia. Six shoot-outs (1902-1907) left twenty-nine people dead, and that in a county which boasted no more than three or four hundred residents at the time. In not one, but two world wars, Gosslin suffered more casualties than any other county in the country (per capita, of course). Two whole generations of amputee boys returned - or worse. There have been fires, floods, heart attacks, car wrecks, shotguns, children who played too close to open windows. Ask any of the old women sitting on their porches, and they will shake their heads and say, "Law, this place." Or something to that effect. "Law, this place is troubling." "Uh-huh. I seen more terrible things in this county than Death himself."
One might think it a matter of pride for those who have lived in Gosslin County long enough to know, and in some sense it is. When you have lived in a place, you come to love it. You love it in a way that makes you shake your head and clench your fists until you can feel your heartbeat in your knuckles.
By the late '30s, enough terrible things had happened in Gosslin County that some people began legitimately to fear that they too would disappear, and their memories with them. The river would rise, and the water would rush past and carry them out, and what had happened in that place would be lost to the world without record of its being there. The immediate problem facing the survivors of Gosslin County, then, was not how to mourn, but simply how to preserve a record of the disasters.
They began collecting.
One Sunday in 1944 or perhaps 1935, John Reeves left at home the fifteen cents he usually brought for offering. Instead he brought a hat and placed it on top of the collection plate. The hat had belonged to his son, who had driven the family car into the river the week before. The next week there were scarves, photographs, old records, baby shoes. By the end of the month, people had stopped bringing money to church altogether and instead boxes were passed around for people to fill with memories. Newspaper clippings, photographs, handwritten testimonies. The back building of Avery First Baptist Church became a storehouse, and within a couple of years there was no room there for anyone to move.
They had to have more space.
But it could have just as easily happened like this: The library first began as a private collection. Marianne Hurst (whose husband was the seventh heart attack) emptied out a room in her house and filled it with memories of her husband's death.
Likely theirs was not the happiest marriage.
(Otherwise, why would she have kept memories of his death, and not of his life?)
She made a notebook of his deathly things: his medical records, his prescriptions, his death certificate, funeral expenses, pressed flowers from the wreath that the funeral home had donated for the visitation. And around the room, in different corners or hung up on the wall, the clothes he had been wearing the evening he passed. The hat that had tumbled off his head and rolled in a wide arc across the room while he lay on his face and his heart muttered out its last, weak palpitations.
Where was she when it happened? No one in Gosslin County knew, except Marianne Hurst. She had found the hat on its side beneath the desk, but not until the funeral home people had arrived.
In time the residents of Gosslin County learned of her collection and began sending her mementos of other disasters: photographs, obituaries, newspaper clippings, personal statements, court testimonies. She arranged them in boxes in that same room where her husband had died, first thematically and then chronologically.
In 1952 the Avery First Baptist Church raised a new building and donated the old chapel to Marianne Hurst's library.
"In memory of the Gosslin County catastrophes."
It was just in time. In the fifteen years that had passed since Marianne Hurst began collecting, her house had become so full of the relics of tragedy that she had almost no space to live. So she was glad when the offer came, and happier still when people from all over the county drove over to help her move the library out.
Just the same, this way might be closer to the truth:
If you visit the library of Gosslin County catastrophes today, you'll enter through the double doors of what used to be Avery First Baptist Church. Shelves line the walls, full of notebooks and bound books, which are themselves full of photographs, obituaries, hand-written accounts, drawings, interviews and courtroom testimonies. There are several sections in the library, marked out in bold text painted above the shelves.
Accidents happen to Gosslin County's innocent.
There is a notebook for Janie Hurst, the girl who, at nine years old, was swinging on a rope out over the river. The tree branch snapped, and Janie fell in the river and drowned. In the notebook there are two photographs of the tree, one with the swing and one without.
There is a notebook for Nora Thompson. She was riding her bicycle to catch the bus early one morning. It was winter and still dark.
John Reeves, Jr. drove the family car into the river.
Ricky Burnstadt found a bottle of antifreeze in the garage while his mother was out pulling weeds. The label from the bottle is there in the notebook, three or four pages back.
Incidents are like accidents, but they involve those less innocent.
Or perhaps, those who deserve it. The Reverend Will Watson, from across the river, has a notebook in incidents. He fell in love with Elizabeth Mayes, who was eleven years old. He would paint his face (which is well documented in the notebook) and she would laugh (which is not in the notebook but is still widely known). He knew that when his wife found out they would have to cut him down from the rafters.
Jim Allen Morrison had a moonshine still on his land up the river on the backside of the county. He used to fight. His son cornered him one night behind the shack, surprised him really, with a knife, and Jim Allen grabbed the boy by the throat and shook him forward and back. His neck gave. A few nights later the still blew while Jim Allen was sleeping beside it.
ACTS OF GOD
Acts of God affect Gosslin County deeply and on a large scale.
The Flood of 1931 takes up several inches of shelf in this section. There are thousands of photographs in those pages, and even more testimonies. There are even several books of very private financial records. Likely some people decided, after almost losing everything to the river, that it made sense to put valuables in a safe place. The library is, one would imagine, the safest place of all.
One photograph used to be in the flood notebooks under Acts of God. Now it's here.
Most of the war section contains condolence letters from the army.
One letter from World War I begins: "Dear Mrs. Biviny, We are taking care of your son, W.B. Biviny, at the casualty clearing station..."
One from World War II begins: "Dear Mrs. Hurst, It is with deep and heartfelt condolence that I write to inform you that your husband, Pfc. Lance Hurst..."
From Vietnam: "Dear Mrs. Gillespie, With profound regret, I must inform you ..."
From Afghanistan: "Dear Mrs. Andersen..."
It may indeed be the case that illness is what broke the ground, as it were, for the library in the first place. Or it might have been something else.
Here are the heart attacks, the choleras, the strokes, the cancers, the turberculoses. The otherwise inexplicables.
Marianne Hurst's husband has a notebook here. The original, in fact, complete with death certificate, funeral home bills, old prescriptions, pressed flowers. Mr. Hurst's hat serves as a bookend on the second shelf from the top.
There have been thirty-seven heart attacks in Gosslin County's recorded history.
Around four o'clock in the afternoon, depending somewhat on the season, the sunlight comes through the stained glass window in the back wall of the library and plays complicated shadows on the floor. This reminds one that the library used to be a chapel and that the chapel faced west.
Or perhaps it goes like this:
Perhaps there isn't a library at all, in the way that one typically thinks of libraries. There is a river. There is a river, and each year at a set time - in the winter, perhaps, when it is just beginning to frost - there is a ceremony. The preacher offers a prayer, and the residents, the survivors of Gosslin County stand alongside the riverbank holding memories of death in their hands. At the appointed time, they throw their memories up and the air is clouded with newspaper clippings, photographs, handwritten accounts and typed stories, courtroom testimonies, the relics of catastrophe. One by one they settle on the water, and in the silence the current carries them out.
by Julia Leventhal '09
Cletus Townsend was a walking man. No, Cletus Townsend was a gambling man who liked to walk. He walked all through his Southern-leveed town, from his house on Sewanee Street to the donut store to the liquor store, the guitar store, all the way to the levee with its casino boats. Yessir, Cletus Townsend loved to walk, to drink and to gamble. Only, Cletus had no money left to gamble with, and in his last twenty-four hours, he spent all day trying to get some money, just to go gambling. Some say he knew he was going to die and that's why he chose to gamble one more time.
The day Cletus Townsend died was the day he reached his wrinkled brown hand deep into the pockets, first the front then the back, of his dark turquoise suit pants, somewhere between corduroy and crushed velvet. Next he burrowed into the inner pocket of his matching jacket. When that turned up nothing, he checked the brim of his brown cap where he usually kept his emergency booze money. Empty.
The funny thing about Cletus walking everywhere is that he used to own the old used car lot in town. He spent his days surrounded by a hundred of the shiniest Cadillacs and Buicks you ever seen. Red (or "Burnt Umber" as it was advertised), gray ("Stone"), leather, cloth, green-blue interiors to match Cletus' suits even. You name it, Townsend's Car dealership had it, and if you didn't buy from Townsend, well then, "you paid toooo much!" Well that's what his newspaper ad said anyway. He made his money by finding cheap cars in good shape and sellin'em off for one-and-a-half, sometimes two times as much as he paid. Then he'd take his money and celebrate by heading down to the river boats. He'd have himself a bourbon on ice and sit down to gambling, sometimes it was dice, sometimes the slots, and every now and then he preferred the company of the dealer at a card table. He never married, his family had all passed on some time ago, and his only real interaction was with the people he sold cars to and the ones who dealt him his cards and sold him his liquor.
Well one day, Cletus' gambling habits got so bad, like I said, he didn't have any more money. He sold off all of the cars and the dealership to pay off the bills he owed all over town. And one day, when the money from that was gone, he had nothing to do and nowhere to go, so he went for a walk. All of a sudden his toe rammed into something cold and hard. The old man looked up and saw the peeling yellow paint, faded now to an okra-white, and the underneath rotting wood of the old depot. He had reached the train tracks that led out of town.
"Evenin'," a voice rasped the bench across the way. A man in a weathered brown woolen suit hunched there, legs crossed like he was waiting. You couldn't see his eyes because his hat was turned down so low, as if he didn't have a face.
Cletus hesitated a minute then walked over and slumped down on the other side of the bench. "You mind?" he asked.
"Not at all. Not at all," the old hat moved slowly up and down with the breath of the words. "You like a good game?"
"Sure, sure. I always liked a good gamble."
The stranger nodded and stretched a boney hand down to the ground. Where his fingertips touched the ground, pebbles trembled and seemed to scatter away. It was as though a ghost train had shook the ground. Probably just an old freight train passing through the next town over. He scooped up some dirt and let it trickle through the cracks between his fingers. The sight was nothing out of the ordinary, but it was something about it made Cletus' spine curl and tongue go dry. "Well then, let's us make a wager. What do you have?" It was getting dark by now and a breeze was blowing. Cletus' shoulders dropped. He had nothing left to offer. "Alright," replied the man in the hat. "You go find yourself some money tomorra and meet me back. We'll play then. Maybe you'll wind your way out of some of your money problems that way."
"Don't matter. You just come on by. I'll know. I'll be here." And then they sat back for awhile, all quiet. For once Cletus' old bones were too tired to walk anywhere, and not having a home to go home to, the tired bench seemed like a good place to spend the night. His knees creaked as he stretched them, so he folded his legs back, dropped his head and began to doze.
Morning came and the sun. Cletus woke and remembered his meeting from the night before, but sometime while he was dreaming, the stranger had gone. Eager to get started on his money hunt, he tried to move his legs, but they were stiff and his stomach burned for food and liquor. He braced himself with his hands on the bench and sat there for a minute, trying to wait away the pain. This is how every morning starts when you've spent all your money on gambling and drinking, and the walls of your stomach are raw and your belly empty. But if you wait, it starts to feel normal and you can get on. After a minute, he was ready for a walk again. Cletus looked down as he started to push himself off. Mixed in with the dust of the ground was something shiny. A few nickels, forty cents. "Enough for a donut at Shipley's," he muttered (fast forgetting his need to earn and save money) and headed for downtown.
* * *
A bell chortled as Cletus unstuck the warped metal door from its frame. His eyes were filled with yellow light, and the smell of baked sugar and frying oil radiated in through his nostrils and down to his belly. It ached again. A t-shirt hung from the ceiling above the racks of fresh (and not-so-fresh) donuts with red letters proclaiming "Atkins is for losers."
"If only I had enough money to be able to diet," the old man grumbled and let his eyes mentally graze the racks of donuts. Cake, old-fashioned, blueberry, powdered sugar, chocolate.
"Can I help you?" drawled a lanky cashier covered in sweat.
"I'll take a old fashioned."
"I got forty."
"That's alright, grandpa." And the cashier pulled out a penny cup for customers' spare change and tossed two coins extra coins into the register. Cletus nodded a thank you and sat at a table. In the middle of bites he noticed an unopened pack of Salem Lights. He smirked, pocketed them, finished his donut and walked to the corner where the homeless usually stood, trying to make a living.
Two men stood in there, one in faded brown Carhartt coveralls and a torn white t-shirt and the other in a grey sweatshirt and a pair of khaki shorts with the right leg hole frayed at the bottom. Cletus cleared his throat and the men turned toward him. He had always had that effect in big crowds. Even rooms full of people would turn quick to attention when Cletus Townsend walked in. Guess that's why he was a good salesman.
Then he opened his mouth, "anyone interested in buying some cigarettes?
Take your best offer. Brand new, unopened."
"I give you ten bucks," the main in the Carhartts offered.
"That's more than it costs at a drug store, fool. Now why would you do that?"
"Aint gonna sell me nothing at the drug store. Don't like my looks, they say." Cletus shrugged and handed over the pack. Up ten bucks, but it was afternoon now and he hadn't had a drink yet and his stomach was telling him so. So he turned the corner onto the highway and walked over to Dodge's Fried Chicken and Gas Stop. Spent all his ten dollars on mini bottles and a cup of coffee. Tut tut tut. He finished his coffee off first, coating for the stomach before the hard stuff, you know? Then he stood outside the station thinking of where to get money next. A lady came out from the door from paying for gas and buying some fried chicken. She scrambled past Cletus and threw her change in his cup. Guess that was the answer to his question. Hot dog. So he pocketed his change and walked down the highway, careful of the cars that screeched by, most of whom he'd sold himself from the dealership.
As he passed Shipley's again, he popped open one of his bottles and stopped to think about what he could do for a little extra green. His fingers were teasing at the bills when, all of a sudden, he felt a stiff punch in his lower back. "I'll take that money." The old man turned around to see a familiar pair of shorts, frayed at the bottom of the right leg. "Take your jacket too," the man snatched the coffee-money cup away, pulled hard at the velour coat and walked off. Wasn't nothing the old drunk could do. The day was getting on and there weren't any more hours to go looking for money. It was time to head back to the tracks to tell the stranger there'd be no gambling.
On his way back to the depot, the evening winds picked up again, same as the night before, and sure enough, sitting next to the peeling yellow paint on the same bench, was the man in the hat, this time with a guitar on his lap. Strangest and prettiest guitar you ever saw. Dark dark wood and ten mother-of-pearl inlays in the shape of dancing figures, each one a little different from the last. They danced around the curves and seemed to really move when the light hit right. One space was left where an eleventh little spirit seemed to have gone missing.
"Where'd you get that old guitar?"
"Sure, boss. Sure," but the word play reminded Cletus he didn't have any money. He reached into his front pockets and his back, hoping that something might turn up. See, Cletus never did like to be empty-handed. Then he checked the inside of his hat for something hidden, but there wasn't anything there either. "No gambling tonight, boss. No money to come by today."
"I know. What you say we wager something a little different tonight?"
"What you got in mind?"
"If I win, you gotta come with me," the man grinned and let out a deep and syncopated laugh that started from the bottom of his belly.
"Ok. Don't have any more attachments here. Don't have a coat though."
"No problem. No need for a coat where we're going."
"And if I win?"
"Anything you could possibly want," the man grinned again, this time exposing a solid gold false tooth with a small ruby at the middle.
"Sounds good, Jack. Name the game."
"Tell you what. Let's put the odds in your favor." The stranger pulled out a pair of dice from his pocket. "You roll anything but a snake eyes and you win. You roll snake eyes and I win." Cletus laughed. The odds really were in his favor, so he took the dice from the man. He curled his old and achy fingers around them and gave a sure shake before letting them fall in the dust. As he let go, he clenched his eyes tight. When plastic hit rock, he opened them again and looked down. Two little black dots stared up at him.
Cletus was darn near stunned. "Guess I'm going with you."
"Sure. Not quite ready to go yet though. You said you play, the guitar, I mean. Why don't you set yourself down here and play for me. We can enjoy the evening and the breeze." No more words, the man passed his guitar over and Cletus sat and slowly strummed.
No one's heard from Cletus Townsend since. It's as if he sat down on the bench and the wind carried away the rich notes of the guitar and the man that made them. The old stranger don't come through town so often now, but they say he filled in the space on his guitar with one more little dancing man, this one with a hat and no coat.