America’s Got Stories, Volume 1
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America’s Got Stories, Volume One, is an anthology of 37 hand-picked short stories written by 32 all-American Writers. James Lough won first place for his story, Christine, an engaging tale about two friends, and the drug-induced history that comes back to haunt them. Rondaniel Case won second place for These Fine, Finite Things, the story of a soldier who helps shape a new world, and now questions it all. J. Lee McKenzie won third place for her story, Forgotten, about an old woman who gets lost during a snowstorm, and the strange little girl she meets.
A Japanese son in a feudal village tries to save his mother from death. A crime victim gets a new identity, but worries she’s been discovered. A young Jewish woman is forced to commit unspeakable acts to survive the Holocaust.
These are just some of the stories that await you within the pages of this book. You will be swept away by titillating love stories, endearing drama, and characters so real you can touch them. Fiction and non-fiction, all mixed into one wonderful book, bringing together the best of American writing, sure to provide you with hours of reading pleasure.
Nine judges considered 113 submitted stories, and chose the stories in this book. Each story is, with a few exceptions, between 1,000 and 2,500 words, so the reading is easy, the flavors varied. 37 stories to delight your mind and soul, written by soulful American writers from all across this great land.
In November of 2010, after starting Koehler Books two months before, in a moment of complete craziness, I decided to start a writing contest. I knew next to nothing about writing contests but what I did know was that writers needed a chance to be seen and read amongst their peers. I knew we needed good judges and good prizes.
I had a strong sense of solidarity with writers—being one myself—and I was tired of hearing stories about writers being ripped off by publishing companies. I wanted them to be lifted up versus being put down. Treated with respect versus disrespect. A very noble goal, no doubt, but little did I know the complexities of such a contest.
The biggest single thing I wanted to do for writers was to publish the winning stories into a book, the very same book you are now reading. Getting published is still the big Kahuna for writers, and few contests publish the winners in a book; so we dared to be different.
At first we charged an entry fee like the rest, but that didn’t work; we were too new and writers are inherently cheap! So we waived the submissions fee and instead charged the winning writers $100 to be published in the book. This went over much better than I thought, though we did get some hecklers, may their hair never curl!
We also quickly figured out that paying royalties to nearly 40 writers would be a nightmare, so we instead opted for donating the 30% author’s royalties to Tidewater Literacy Council and the Muse Writer’s Center. This also went over very well.
In the end my dream of helping writers by showcasing their talent on the website, and in a book, has come true. Working with the writers has been amazing and rewarding, and I am happy to say some good books will be forthcoming from some of my new friends.
And now, without further adieu, good luck, keep writing and—more importantly—keep reading! May the stories please you as much as they have pleased me.
John Koehler, July 2011
By James Lough
Grand Prize Winner and Judges’ Choice Award
$500 Cash Prize and Apple iPad
There was so much imagination flying around, it’s hard to tell which parts of this story are true because they happened and which are true because we wanted them to be. But I’ll tell you how I experienced it, which is all any of us can do. It all started at Elswood’s ground-floor apartment in San Francisco. It was a long, dark flat with an awkward bay window that allowed just enough light in to keep you confused about whether it was day or night. I had just arrived and was still wearing my jacket. From here on, things get less clear.
“We have a surprise,” Elswood said with a sly smile. “From Dr. Drugs.”
Dr. Drugs was the only name I ever knew Elswood’s roommate by. He was a reticent, mild man, slight of build, with a Ben Franklin fringe of long hair around his bald pate. He was also a research physician up the hill at the University of California San Francisco. Dr. Drugs had legal access to the fat pharmaceutical catalogues where you ordered any kind of drug you needed. He would occasionally help himself to treats like pure pharmaceutical-grade cocaine. And once in a while he would come down the hill with a surprise in his briefcase.
So when Elswood said we had a surprise, this was code.
“What is it?” I asked, “Codeine? Ativan?” I was always up for a quick change of consciousness.
“After Gothic,” Elswood said, enjoying the power of withholding. “I’ll tell you after Gothic.”
This was satisfactory. With a matinee to absorb my imagination, I could tolerate the wait.
It’s hard to imagine taking that movie seriously, basically a bunch of Romantic poets quaffing Dr. Polidori’s laudanum from crystal goblets and running around a scary mansion to escape each others’ hallucinations. All to Thomas Dolby’s screeching soundtrack. But Gothic had everything we longed for in spades – freethinking and free love, exotic drugs, blood, big snakes wrapped around any bedpost or candlestick available, nipples with eyes, and the pervading promise that some people’s lives were a lot more interesting than ours. As Gabriel Byrne’s Byron said, “Terror has an irresistible beauty.”
Elswood and I were romantics almost two centuries too late. Shelley, Keats and Byron would have seen it and welcomed us into their brood. But Elswood wanted more than just to hang out with Byron – he wanted to be Bryon. Elswood hated poetry – he couldn’t get through the stuff – but he worshipped Byron.
“The life is what matters,” he insisted. “Not the work. The life.”
He had read every biography, every article, every collection of letters written by the club-footed poet aristocrat with enormous appetites for everything, including disaster.
After Gothic’s closing credits, we took a walk. As we squinted in the afternoon light, our minds swam with images of lightning bolts illuminating mountain chalets and black tree boughs clawing out in the wind. It was jacket weather, a brisk, breezy autumn day, slate skies in the cool gray city of love, as one poet described it. We walked over to the Palace of Fine Arts near the Presidio. It’s a giant, ornate pleasure dome of concrete confectionary built in 1915 for a sort of artist’s world fair. As we lounged on the stone steps, dwarfed by a giant salmon-tinted pillar, Elswood spoke.
“Conjure up all your ghosts,” he said, quoting Byron.
Just then a swarm of dried leaves skittered like frantic insects across the street.
“Conjure up your deepest, darkest fear,” I said, also quoting. “Call that fear to form, to life!”
This is what we did when we were young and ambitious and had time on our hands instead of the grime of full-time jobs. We longed for Mystery in a life that so far hadn’t lived up. Sitting on the stone steps, we longed for something big to come and transform us in a big way. When our fears are big, so are our desires. I desired success as a writer, I desired fame, I desired life in richer hues. Elswood desired me.
We had met in a writing class at a San Francisco State. I was the new kid from Colorado, questing for life on a bigger playing field. I was twitchy, willing, and more frightened than I would ever admit, especially to myself. He was the dark, handsome older man with the strong English nose, the baritone voice and bombardier’s jacket. He wore musk cologne. We were graduate students living off student loans, confident that when our first books were published, the loans would vaporize like snowballs hurled at the sun. We shared this belief in our literary destinies, but one thing we didn’t share – the burr in our friendship – was our sexuality. Elswood was gay, I was straight, and he desired it otherwise. We had tried a couple of times – it was part of my period of experimentation. It just didn’t do it for me.
He blamed himself for not delivering my peak experience. He was not sexually confident, which is probably why he idolized Byron. He felt his ineptitude in bed had deprived me of my moment of truth, when I was supposed to realize, Aha!, that I was a closet case. Granted, for Elswood it was about more than just sex. He was so idealistic, especially about the mutual plight of sensitive souls. Whether or not we shared a bed, we were spiritual kin. We would, as he put it, “burn like twin stars in space, revolving around each other for warmth in a cold, cold universe.”
There were rare moments when he almost conceded I was straight.
“We’ll find a woman to share,” he would announce with largesse, imagining the ideal menage a trois, like Byron with Percy and Mary Shelley. At least in the movie.
Despite his mission to mold me in his image, I loved Elswood in a selfish kind of way. He was brilliant, and I hung on his words. It was fun being around someone who had an answer for everything. His theory of how AIDS leapt from monkeys to humans appeared in Rolling Stone and later in a tome of a book called The River. He discovered an alternative treatment for AIDS. He toiled away in underground guerilla clinics and ranted about the big drug companies conspiring to extort huge sums from his “dying gay brothers.”
“Don’t you see?” he would ask before launching into a new theory. Then I could turn around and parrot his theories to my benighted friends. I felt like an insider in a Big Secret. Plus if, in his scandalous, contrarian way, Elswood was right about so many things – he might just be right about me. Maybe there was a way to find myself through his keen gaze.
Combine that with his rich voice and Byronic good looks, and I felt grateful to be around him. His friendship promised life in richer hues.
But brilliance rarely ensures happiness. Elswood had a history of trauma. He spent his Mormon youth in the tiny backwater of Mt. Pleasant, Utah, chafing against the Church of Latter Day Saints, which planted his distrust of all institutions. When Mormons didn’t dominate him, schoolmates did. A troop of older girls used to chase him on their bicycles down a country road until they caught him, dragged him into a dry irrigation ditch, pulled his pants down and smeared scarlet lipstick all over his privates. This same sadistic routine happened so regularly that Elswood, when he saw them coming, took to jumping in the ditch, pulling down his own pants and waiting for the cosmetic carnage to end.
This image of a panty-waisted Elswood bullied by girls was hard for me to reconcile with the image of mad, bad Byron. I’m sure it was even harder for him.
It was our shared unhappy childhoods that made us prone to Romantic melancholy and longing, the sense that in our lives something vital was missing, something we had seen in art, something we had read in books – a magic that was true and real and in the present tense. And when the magic wouldn’t show itself, there was only ennui. It was Elswood’s favorite word.
He pronounced it as if uttering a prayer, “My close cousin Ennui.”
It’s a cruel gift, imagination, which allows us to envision a perfect world. Our ordinary lives can’t compete with our lovely mental concoctions. Real life never measures up. Neither do we.
We left the cool steps of the pleasure dome and started back to Elswood’s flat, where Dr. Drugs’ mysterious surprise awaited us.
Maybe for a few hours it would turn our dreary lives into something rich and strange.
As we walked, he looked at me playfully. “Conjure your deepest fear.”
I responded eagerly. “Bring it to life.”
It was around four when we got to his place. He led me back to his kitchen, a dim little afterthought of a room dominated by a potted bamboo. It wasn’t Byron’s vast neoclassical villa, but maybe our expanded minds would outshine the cramped setting. He produced something out of the pocket of his bombardier jacket and held it in front of my face.
A little glass vial filled with whitish powder.