Charlotte County Florida Weekly

In a year of records, the 10th annual Florida Weekly Writing Challenge… sets some of its own



 

We all know 2020 will go down in the record books as a year like no other for reasons too many to count. In this final edition of Florida Weekly for a year we’re all glad to see come to its end, I am happy to report on one of the better records of a crazy 365 days: the 10th annual Florida Weekly Writing Challenge, the winners of which we celebrate this week.

Here they are: first place, Nancy Murvine of Marco Island; and runners-up Bob Ellis of Port Charlotte, Cece Daratany of Lake Worth Beach and Joseph Bonasia of Cape Coral.

The 2020 challenge started earlier and lasted longer than ever. In previous years it has served as a distraction during hurricane season, June-November. This year, we started things up the last week in April when it became all too clear that COVID-19 wasn’t going to blow over anytime soon.

In the course of 15 rounds through the end of November, 196 writers from across Florida and more than a dozen other states submitted almost 600 short stories inspired by photographs selected by our editors. Each round went for two weeks and had two photo prompts; contestants could write to one or both photos but could submit only one story per photo. Word count could not exceed 750 per story.

 

We received stories about mistaken identities, serial killers, time traveling, scaredy-cat drivers, the afterlife, miserable marriages, peace offerings, practical jokes, war memories and, of course, mysterious plagues and viruses. There was an ode to flight attendants, a salute to garbage haulers and a sweet tribute to “I Love Lucy.” Two stories had characters named after Florida Weekly editors. One entry consisted of just one sentence, 552 words long.

A few writers sent us 30 submissions, one for every photo prompt we presented. One of them, Bob Ellis, is one of our three runners-up; another, Ed White, has a story that finished in the Top 10. Mr. Ellis and Mr. White are fellow members of the Suncoast Writers Guild, which meets in Englewood. Like many people who sent us their stories this year, both men say the challenge provided welcome relief during the isolation of the pandemic.

 

“Every two weeks we would race to find the paper and look for the new prompts,” Mr. Ellis says. “Ed would fire off his first draft to me within about 15 minutes. It would take me a day or two to send him mine.” With every entry he sent, Mr. White offered a pithy observation or a few words of appreciation for the challenge. “I love this challenge,” he wrote early on in the contest. “It’s like a trail mix bar for the brain.”

In first place

Nine of this year’s photo prompts inspired first-place winner Ms. Murvine, a retired middle school English teacher, to take up our challenge. “I love having a physical prompt to get me started,” she says, adding she often used the prompt technique with students in her classroom.

Photography and writing “have always been in my blood,” Ms. Murvine says. She once wrote a series of poems to the works of American pioneer photojournalist Margaret Bourke White. One of her favorite writers is Canadian Michael Ondaatje (“The English Patient,” “All the Light there Was”), whose poetic style is marked by vivid detail and whimsy.

The real story behind the photo: Florida Weekly Senior Editor Cindy Pierce took this picture of her daughter, Jane, shortly after Jane married Reid Carroll in a civil ceremony in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 6, 2019. They were at Jane’s Carousel at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. CINDY PIERCE / FLOIRDA WEEKLY

The real story behind the photo: Florida Weekly Senior Editor Cindy Pierce took this picture of her daughter, Jane, shortly after Jane married Reid Carroll in a civil ceremony in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 6, 2019. They were at Jane’s Carousel at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. CINDY PIERCE / FLOIRDA WEEKLY

She spent about four hours writing her winning entry — “but that was only after I had written most of it in my head, thinking about what the woman in the picture wanted me to say about her story. Once she made it clear, I sat down at my computer and actually wrote.”

Some of Ms. Murvine’s poems and short stories have been published in small, independent journals, and several publishers expressed interested in a novel she wrote. “They asked to see the full manuscript, but nothing happened after that,” she says about the book she describes as a story of “magic realism, where things happen behind the scenes that we never know.”

 

As the Writing Challenge winner for 2020, Ms. Murvine receives tuition for a Gotham Writers Workshop class.

The runners-up

Mr. Ellis has had a few pieces of “short, fanciful fiction” published under a pseudonym. During a long career as a financial services advisor and a business consultant, most of his writing has consisted of research reports. Semi-retired since moving to Florida three years ago, he belongs to writing groups in New York and Connecticut as well as the Suncoast Writers Guild.

“I wish I could say I write every day,” Mr. Ellis says. “But without prompts and things like flash fiction contests, I don’t get as many story ideas as I would like.”

He describes a five-step process that helped him complete his entries for all 30 of this year’s challenge prompts: “First, I’d really study the picture to get a sense of where it might be. Then I’d imagine the people who might populate the scene. Third, I wrote — usually about 100 words over the limit. Then I sent it to my editor (fellow Suncoast Writers Group member Gloria Arthur). After she returned it, I’d polish and keep polishing until a couple of days before the deadline.”

The real story behind the photo: Editor Cindy Pierce took this picture at an antiques store on Cape Ann, Mass., in July 2018. CINDY PIERCE / FLOIRDA WEEKLY

The real story behind the photo: Editor Cindy Pierce took this picture at an antiques store on Cape Ann, Mass., in July 2018. CINDY PIERCE / FLORIDA WEEKLY

The Writing Challenge, he concludes, was a welcome bright spot in “this crazy, crazy year.”

A first-time participant in the challenge this year, Ms. Daratany entered three stories and is thrilled that “J’accuse” is her first story ever published (although as a curriculum writer for the Kravis Center, she wrote study guides that were read by countless people).

“I tried to think of something my late husband would have laughed over,” she says about the story inspired by a photo of cat resting on the stoop in front of a bright red door. “It would need humor and mild horror.”

Although she has taken some online writing classes, her Writing Challenge entries are the first stories Ms. Daratany has written to a photo prompt. And if the prompt didn’t contain a living creature of some kind, she says, she felt no inspiration whatsoever.

 

She’s working on some young adult fiction now, including an “environmental horror” story.

And she’s reading Jimmy Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks at Fifty.”

“My favorite authors are Ursula Hegi (‘Stones from the River,’ ‘The Vision of Emma Blau’) and James McBride (‘The Good Lord Bird,’ ‘The Color of Water,’ ‘Miracle at St. Anna’),” she says. “They’re both rather grim, especially when compared with Jimmy Buffett. But at this point, I just need some chill reading.”

Like Ms. Daratany, Mr. Bonasia, a retired English teacher, was immediately inspired by the photo prompt of the cat at the red door. “The door just presented so many avenues to pursue,” he says.

His runner-up entry was one of 10 stories Mr. Bonasia submitted in this year’s challenge. Most of his writing consists of op-ed pieces focusing on climate change and related issues for the Florida Rights of Nature Network.

 

“Most everything I write is expository, so I know where everything is leading,” he says. Before the Writing Challenge, he adds, “I hadn’t written fiction in decades. I found it very pleasant to start with a character or two and just let the situation develop.”

For their winning stories, Mr. Ellis, Ms. Daratany and Mr. Bonasia received Amazon gift cards.

Over the next six weeks starting next week, we’ll print the remaining stories that make up the Writing Challenge Top 10 for 2020. ¦

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

By Nancy Murvine

Matilda liked names and she especially liked hers. Not Mattie or Tilly (which was plain silly). Matilda. With stringent politeness, she would remind anyone who tried to solidify a friendship with such a nickname that Matilda suited her just fine, thank you very much.

The real story behind the photo: Palm Beach Editor Scott Simmons took this picture. It’s his front door, but it’s not his cat. “The tabby tomcat began sleeping on the sidewalk and in the shrubbery near the door early this year,” Mr. Simmons says. “He’s a timid guy, but clearly he’s well-fed and looks well-tended. The photograph is a bit of a miracle, as the cat retreats as soon as he sees me.” SCOTT SIMMONS/ FLOIRDA WEEKLY

The real story behind the photo: Palm Beach Editor Scott Simmons took this picture. It’s his front door, but it’s not his cat. “The tabby tomcat began sleeping on the sidewalk and in the shrubbery near the door early this year,” Mr. Simmons says. “He’s a timid guy, but clearly he’s well-fed and looks well-tended. The photograph is a bit of a miracle, as the cat retreats as soon as he sees me.” SCOTT SIMMONS/ FLORIDA WEEKLY

And so Matilda cultivated a very small group of friends through the years, which made her parents begin to question giving their daughter such an adult name, a name their child was now suffering the burden of growing into. They saw the name’s liability in every invitation their daughter never received. No surprise birthdays, sleepovers, dances, parties.

Their guilt led them to make an appointment with a counselor for Matilda in her senior year. One session later, the counselor asked Matilda to relax in the waiting room while she had a chat with her parents.

“Your daughter’s name is not her problem, but yours. Do you know the meaning of her name? She does. It stands for strength. She called it a motto for how she wants to live her life. Did you know that?”

The slump of their heads gave the answer.

“Matilda is perfectly happy with her life. She admits to being — in her words, ‘a little quirky’ — and is definitely an introvert, but happily so on both counts.” She completed her analysis of Matilda and then gently suggested they might consider counseling for themselves.

They found Matilda in the waiting room talking quietly in a corner to someone. Her body shielded the stranger until they called her name and she turned. Matilda’s mother clutched her husband’s hand and dug her fingers into flesh. She willed herself not to gasp. Was this a boy or a man? It was impossible to tell because of the scars on his face and neck that reappeared down his right arm below his short sleeve.

“Mom, Dad, this is Ethan. He goes to my school.”

Ethan stood.

Nothing weak about that handshake, Matilda’s father registered after awkwardly retracting his right hand to accommodate Ethan’s outstretched left one.

“Sorry, no right hand,” Ethan’s apology offered where a greeting would have been.

“Nice to meet you, Ethan. Sorry we have to rush,” her father’s reply replacing courteous small talk that was impossible to muster. Ethan nodded, used to the response.

“See you tomorrow.” Matilda waved as they left.

“Tomorrow.”

Matilda’s parents managed to get the bones of Ethan’s tragic story from Matilda. A housefire. Multiple surgeries and more to come. But that was secondary to why she liked him: his name and how it fit him. First, she liked that he had name that couldn’t be shortened. “A name should stand on its own.” Second, like hers, it meant strong. “Actually, his full name is Tristan Ethan MacNaughton. Tristan means sorrow. He’s had a lot of that, but he grew out of that name. Ethan is the perfect fit.”

After Matilda went to bed, her parents’ conversation roller-coastered from marveling at how much they had learned about their daughter in a single car ride to chastising themselves for not seeing beyond their own discomfort to admitting affectionately what an amazing and, yes, even quirky daughter they had.

Weeks later, when Matilda announced that Ethan had invited her to the prom, they were not surprised.

They were not surprised when she bucked the trends of silk and spaghetti straps for a modest white dress and black coat so “Ethan and I can be our own raft of penguins in a sea of dancers.”

They were not surprised when she asked for a bouquet rather than a wrist corsage. Ethan picked roses. He handed her an envelope with a beautiful sketch of Matilda and a small note that made her blush. Inside was a handmade card with a cartoon drawing of Shakespeare and the words Matilda read aloud: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

The surprise came as Matilda’s father was taking his final picture of the couple. “Just one of my daughter alone. OK, Ethan?”

“Sure, Mr. Jeffries. Do you mind if I take one too?” He pulled out his phone. “Smile, Joy.”

The name. Joy. Matilda Joy. Startled, Matilda’s father’s phone slipped and his picture captured his daughter, headless, in her penguin finery, roses in one hand, and the card and envelope in the other. Later he would enlarge it to read the message: To Joy. I am glad you have grown into your middle name just like me.” ¦

WHERE THE BODIES ARE BURIED

By Bob Ellis

She nervously poked her head above the second-story floor, still standing on the staircase to the street. She swiveled her head left and right, looking through the layers of debris, until she saw my feet under the desk to her right.

“Oziamus Otios?”

“Come on up, dahling.” She was a pretty thang, about twenty-five, soft brown hair with reddish highlights. More than that I couldn’t see; she coulda weighed three hundred pounds and been bowlegged.

She climbed the rest of way up and surveyed my second-floor office, littered with junk that was priced like antiques and that provided cover for my real business. I am a specialist; I dispose of murder victims’ earthly remains so the authorities don’t get wise.

Hence the signs on the staircase, which clients only laugh at on their second visit. I hide bodies in “attics, cellars, barns or country estates.”

“Single items:” imagine a leftover foot or finger after you’ve done the deed.

“1/2 Off” indicates two substantial portions left for disposal.

Once in my office, I could see she was the real deal, pretty from top to bottom in her summery dress and high-heeled sandals, with a sheen of perspiration on her face. New Orleans gets mighty hot in the summer.

“Are you open for business?” she asked hesitantly.

“Sure are. You know my line of business, do ya?”

“Well, Mrs. Carmichael spoke highly of you.”

Carmichael, Carmichael? Ah, I remembered. “The next-door neighbors and their dog, right. I didn’t charge full price for the dog. You going to have something you want disposed of soon?”

“My mother-in-law, well, my mother-in-law to be, she lives in a big old house on St. Charles. She has to come downstairs every morning, and I’m thinking that if she fell and hurt herself, she wouldn’t be able to stop me from marrying her son, Beauregard.”

I sighed at the old story. “You’re in love with the young scion and the old bat objects. She thinks you’re a golddigger?”

She stiffened. “Beauregard ain’t young, and he ain’t handsome, but he will come into quite a few millions. That old house on St. Charles has an attic, a cellar and a carriage house. I figure you’re the man to help out after the old lady has her ‘slip and fall.’”

“My, you’re a cold-blooded beauty, ain’t ya?”

“I’ll make it worth your while.”

“One-hundred K, half in advance.”

Her pretty lower lip came out. “I ain’t got that kind of money. How about a thousand in advance, I’ll ‘borrow’ it from Beauregard, and the remainder upon completion?” She flashed her beatific smile upon me. I felt my blood run cold, but trapped in her gaze, I foolishly agreed.

I got my grand, and three weeks later, a phone call. “Mr. Otios, this is the person who wanted a house on St. Charles. You remember me, don’tcha?”

“Yep, are you ready for that disposal issue to be fixed?”

“Sure am.” She gave me the address and I went right over. The old lady lay crumpled in a heap at the foot of the stairs, her neck at an unusual angle.

“Nice clean work,” I told her. I buried the old girl in the carriage house beneath an old horse stall, which I then filled with bits and pieces of old furniture from the attic and cellar.

“Now, about my money?”

“Beauregard and I will be married at City Hall next Friday. I should have your money right after that.”

I never agree to wait that long, but it was no use trying to get blood out of a determined turnip.

“Listen up; if’n I don’t have my money by next Saturday, I’ll drop a dime to police headquarters.”

“Oh, you’ll get paid. I’ll see you at your office Saturday afternoon.”

She was good to her word. She brought the rest of the dough in a Depression-era cake tin. After I got paid, she requested, in an offhand manner, “I’d like you to meet Beauregard. He is waiting in his Mercedes convertible at the foot of your stairs.”

I was feeling expansive; a pretty girl smiling at me and ninety-nine grand in my pocket. I unwisely stepped in front of her at the top of the stairs. I felt a strong shove from behind, then tumbled, reading “1/2 Off,” “Attics,” “Cellars,” “Barns,” “Estates,” before I hit the sidewalk outside, hard.

Her delicate little hand went through my pockets and relieved me of the ninety-nine grand as I passed out, permanently. ¦

J’ACCUSE
By Cece Daratany

Daryl mopped sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve. The car’s air conditioner was running full blast, but his body felt broiling hot. All except for his feet. No, his feet felt like ice, the circulating blood that should warm them having rushed to Daryl’s heart, now pounding loudly in his chest. He stopped the car, stiff with fear.

Annoyed with himself, Daryl gripped the steering wheel and tried to breathe. He was imagining things. This was no time to panic; not when his scheme was close to being realized. That very afternoon, he and Harriet would be married at the courthouse. Tomorrow, they would go to the bank and set up a joint account. Within days, the will drawn up by Harriet’s late aunt would be settled, and her inheritance transferred into that account. After that, Daryl would buy a one-way plane ticket and be on his way. Without Harriet, of course. He’d have all that money to keep him company; so much money. Now, he just needed to stay calm and focus on the plan.

Daryl had conceived it soon after meeting Harriet. Lonely, needy, trusting, gullible Harriet. Eager to be married, and the sole heir of a wealthy, aging, feeble relative. His anxiety gone for a moment, Daryl chuckled, remembering. The crazy hag wanted all her money left to her cat! Daryl had laughed out loud when Harriet told him and couldn’t believe his luck when the old lady died one month later. By then, Daryl had persuaded Harriet to have her aunt declared mentally incompetent.

There had been just one snag. Shortly after Daryl moved into Harriet’s apartment, and with her aunt fading away in the hospital, Harriet had insisted on taking charge of her kitty. Daryl hated cats, especially this one, and the feeling was mutual. The gray tabby, named Bob, hissed whenever Daryl came near and disdainfully scrutinized his every move. For his part, Daryl found Bob’s inscrutable stare unnerving and determined to get rid of him.

First, he tried simply opening the apartment door and depositing Bob in the stairwell, hoping the cat would go off in search of its original owner. No dice. Bob meowed loudly and scratched at the door until Harriet heard him and let him in. Next, Daryl offered to take Bob to get his nails clipped, but Bob never made it to the groomer. Instead, Daryl dumped him off on a deserted street corner five miles away. Back at the apartment, Daryl had told a distressed Harriet that Bob had freaked out at the groomer’s and leapt from the car in the parking lot, running off into traffic.

Bob appeared at the apartment door the next day, none the worse for wear. Daryl had feigned relief, but privately decided upon a permanent solution. Early the next morning, before Harriet awoke, he grabbed Bob by the scruff of his neck and wrestled him into his bowling bag. Ensuring it was zipped tight, he lugged the bowling bag with the enclosed feline to a neighboring canal and heaved it in. After watching it sink into the murky depths, Daryl strolled home, fabricating yet another story to explain Bob’s latest absence to Harriet. Predictably, she’d been sad that Bob was missing, and Daryl had taken it upon himself to cheer her up. He went so far as to propose to her that morning, ensuring their future happiness. Well, his future happiness. Auntie’s money, all $101,800,000.00, would make him very happy.

Two weeks had passed, and Daryl wasn’t happy anymore. In fact, he was consumed with a growing sense of dread. Impossible as it seemed, he believed he had seen Bob, not once but several times. Worse, Daryl was convinced that Bob was stalking him.

Now, sitting in his car, Daryl heard something: a cat’s meow. He glanced in the rearview mirror and froze. Bob stared back, through the rear window glass. Shrieking, Daryl threw the car in gear and sped down the street. Bob disappeared, but when Daryl lurched to a stop blocks later and looked around, there he was again, reclining calmly on a doorstep. There were gold numbers on the door, and when Daryl saw those numbers he stiffened again. It wasn’t just an address. The numbers … meant something. Daryl looked at the numbers, and Bob looked at him. Their eyes met, and Daryl suddenly understood. Dollars. They represent dollars.

Daryl hit the accelerator, looking back at Bob as he raced away. Too late, he saw the canal. ¦

The Red Door

By Joseph Bonasia

Robert stood before the bright red door.

In the early years of his 34-year marriage, he and Lily were, of course, husband and wife. But with the passing years and thousands of meals, the early heat and later softness of thousands of love-makings, of rearing a son and a daughter, of jobs and bills and the passing of parents, they had become husband-and-wife, two truly made one.

On their 25th anniversary, Robert had given Lily a card in which he quoted ee cummings: “we are so both and oneful…I am through you so I.” He didn’t know of a more profound statement about love.

By that time, those uncanny instances were already occurring when they would be thinking the same thought at the exact same time, as if they somehow shared the same neural passageways.

After one gave the thought utterance, the other would say, “I put that thought in your head.”

“No, dear, I put it into yours.”

They had become a union of souls.

But Lily’s end had taken two terrible years during which time he tended to her lovingly, wretched as he watched her body fail her and the life in her diminish and finally give way, like a flower too long in darkness and starved of sunlight.

She was buried on the stereotypically gray, overcast day, and his life had been overcast with a gray and abiding sorrow since.

“Dad, you have to start to live again,” his daughter told him on the fourth anniversary of Lily’s death. “Mom would want you to marry again.”

“I can’t, Honey,” and for those four years he couldn’t.

He couldn’t envision himself with another woman sitting in Lily’s seat as they drove to visit the kids, or under their umbrella at the beach, or tending to the garden with him. He couldn’t envision himself lying in bed with a woman whose voice and shape and skin were not Lily’s.

Honest with himself, he knew fear was a factor, too: He hadn’t dated in decades.

Then one day when he was at the poetry section in Barnes and Noble, the woman with the different voice, shape and skin was buying five copies of Mary Oliver’s “Collected Poems.”

“Five of the same book?” he heard himself blurt out.

“Of this book, yes,” she said. She looked him over, peered into his eyes a moment, and formed a quick judgment.

“You look like a nice man. Let’s get coffee and you’ll learn why.”

“Oh, I couldn’t”

“Of course, you can.”

They talked for hours. Robert told Elizabeth about Lily, and Elizabeth told Robert about Peter. Upon parting, they exchanged phone numbers and she gifted him a copy of “Collected Poems.”

That night the texts came.

“Robert, see page 177.” He did.

Every year everything I have ever learned in my lifetime leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss… To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal;

to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.

Fifteen minutes later: “Robert, page 94.”

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“Page 108.”

When it’s over, I want to say: all my

life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, takin g the world into my arms.”

Many more came into the late hours of the evening, the last reference being “Page 10.”

It’s okay If, after all, I’m not a lily, But only grass Waving in the wind, Staring sunward: one of those Sweet, abrasive blades.

Lastly, “Robert, dinner at my place tomorrow at six. Bring some bubbly. We’ll take it from there.”

And now he stood with more than a bit of trepidation and self-surprise, before this bright red door with brass house numbers catching the early evening sunlight.

He knocked.

The door opened wide. ¦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *