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Fiction Winners

"The Smoke Room"

Third Place

Mel Guapo

Fiction & Poetry Contest 2008

No Loss For Words City Paper Fiction & Poetry Contest 2008

"My Brother, The Whale" First Place | By Benjamin Beast

"Snow" Second Place | By Sarah Perry

"The Smoke Room" Third Place | By Penny Zang

"Breakfast Triolet" First Place | By Maggie Beetz

"A Poem For When You Are Older" Second Place | By Elizabeth Bastos

"Our Beloved Charles Willoughby" Third Place | By Christopher Adams

By Penny Zang | Posted 11/26/2008

Half drunk, half dazed, I wake up in the back of a car heading north on I-95, away from Baltimore. Two men whisper in the front seat and beneath the hum of the highway, their voices sound like static. I bring a strand of hair to my nose and inhale the stale popcorn smell of my favorite bar. It's night or morning--I can't tell which.

I press my palm against the cold window and sit up straight, trying to wake myself out of nausea. The sound of tires scraping the asphalt reminds me of a horror movie and for a moment I let myself feel scared.

"You guys aren't axe murderers, are you?" My voice cracks, clogged with winter and too much whiskey.

The two men look at each other and laugh, a good sign, I think, and I try to laugh with them. One look at the driver's clean, smooth hands and I know we won't go a mile over the speed limit unless I ask them. When my cell phone begins to ring, muffled by the weight of three winter coats, the men don't notice. I toss the coats onto the floor to answer it.

"I've been calling you for an hour!" Serena yells. "Are you OK?"

I press my forehead against the seat in front of me. "I'm OK," I say, not bothering to sound sober.

"Where are you? Are you with those guys?"

The two men are quiet now, listening to my side of the conversation. Serena's voice lingers.

"Just on a little road trip," I say.

Serena reminds me that I have my history exam at 8 a.m. and I have to be at work by noon. She doesn't mention the rent money I owe her. I hang up, promising to call her back in a few minutes. She tells me she'll leave the balcony door unlocked in case I lose my key again.

There is no specific memory of the night before, but it's easy to piece together the details because at night, after work, it's always the same--too many people, too much alcohol, and never enough night to keep it going.

Serena and I work at two different restaurants, but we always meet up afterwards in the parking lot of Ted's Liquor Store. We reapply eyeliner and spritz cheap perfume; we sip dark rum from a plastic kid's meal cup, while waiting to hear where everyone else is going for the night. I keep mouthwash under the seat. Later, when we're both drunk, I climb on tables; I spread my tips across the bar and Serena writes in her spiral notebook. My coins spin, curling and coiling away from me into the shadows of the bar top, the spaces that never get cleaned. And at last call, we forget how much our feet hurt, how greasy our skin smells.

The apartment where Serena and I live is in Annapolis and is too expensive, but sometimes we invite everyone over when the bars close. It has a dishwasher and stain resistant carpet and a closet so big we can fit a whole mattress in it. We call it the Smoke Room, where everyone gets high, stinks up the mattress, and writes their name on the wall. On our few quiet nights we sit in the Smoke Room and drink vodka straight from its cheap, plastic jug. We stare up at the yellowed ceiling and say, isn't our life beautiful? Sometimes I wake up and wonder if the world has ended; it's that quiet.

The guy on the passenger side turns around in his seat and smiles. His eyes are bright and even in the dark I can tell he's attractive. He has dimples and dark hair. A square jaw. I figure he's already told me his name and where he works, maybe even his zodiac sign, though I can't remember any of it. I wonder how much he knows about me.

"We were getting worried that you'd sleep through the whole ride," he says, chuckling, lowering his face like he's embarrassed. I'm leaning forward to see him better when I notice the green sign on the highway that reads, "New York," an arrow pointing down to the lane we're driving in. I blink, blink, blink, but can't seem to swallow.

"New York? This is a joke, right?" I say. "I've got to be at Severn Community College by 8 a.m."

The driver eyes me in the rearview. "Are you on crack?"

"Breakfast in New York," the cute one says. "This was your idea."

I don't say a word. I don't explain to these strangers how I've failed History 121 twice already, or that this was supposed to be my final semester. Although, I might be failing my math class too. There's a deer waiting on the side of the highway and its eyes look like black holes. I bite my lip and grip the door handle, thinking that if they don't offer to turn the car around, I could always jump and roll out.

I picture my mother, how she will rub her temples for a moment when she finds out, then wave her arms, jangling her bracelets between us like she's far from surprised. She'll wait until after the holidays to announce that she's going to stop paying for me to take classes, like she's been threatening for the last year. Mostly, though, I wonder what Serena will say.

Serena never stays mad long, always saying what a good story our lives will make one day. Yoga in the rain, greasy hangover food, potatoes rotting in the pantry. All of it, she says, is worth recording. And I'm ecstatic each time she wants to write about it, like our life is worth noticing. At least once a night, I push a pen and paper into her hands and say, "Write it. You have to write it now."

If I were the writer, I'd write about how Serena and I wear homemade shirts made of shoelaces. They're the hit of every party, the way they criss-cross over our breasts, barely covering our nipples. Pieced together as if by miracle. People--girls and boys and co-workers--ask where they can get one, too. We promise shirts for everyone, and I imagine the whole world dressed only in shoelaces.

But Serena says that none of that is as poetic as how after work, sometimes, we fall asleep holding hands.

My phone rings again and of course, it's her.

"Beth, if you aren't coming home, just tell me now." She sounds tired. I know she's sleeping on the couch, waking up every few minutes to check the clock, to look out the window when she hears a passing car.

"I don't think I'll make it back in time," I say, hoping she can hear the desperation in my voice.

She starts to whisper in her most practical voice. "Well, you can't miss any more work--you just can't. That's not an option. You told me last week your manager threatened to fire you if you miss any more time," she pauses to clear her throat. "I know the exam is important, too, but were you going to pass that class anyway?"

The line is silent except for our breathing.

She continues. "Try to find someone to take your shift--that's your first concern. Rent was due a week ago."

The guy in the passenger seat leans back so that his head is almost in my lap. "So, you've been to Manhattan before, right?" he asks. His lips look chapped. I wonder if I've already kissed him and if I did, if it was good enough to make me want to get breakfast in New York. Then he smiles again and I forget all about my conversation with Serena.

As we continue to drive, I learn Randy, the driver, is an accountant and Chad, the cute one, works in the cubicle next to him. They were out last night to celebrate some type of promotion. Also, Randy is in love with his boss, a woman who's seen Billy Joel in concert five times. Chad wears contacts. He once broke his wrist snowboarding and has never drank Sangria.

"Is this the craziest thing you've ever done? Driving a girl you don't know to Manhattan for pancakes?" I ask them both, knowing the answer has to be yes.

Randy slides in a Billy Joel CD and Chad laughs. "What about you? You probably do stuff like this all the time, huh?"

I tell them I once met a guy at a bar, then drove to Asheville, North Carolina, the next weekend just because he invited me to see his indoor swimming pool. I once drove from Annapolis to Ocean City without my shirt on. And also, I can play "Just the Way You Are"" on a Casio keyboard, which isn't true, but seems to impress them more than the other stories.

"I once won a Scrabble tournament," Randy says. "I cheated on my last girlfriend with her cousin.""

"I punched a guy in the face while waiting in line for a roller coaster once," Chad says. He doesn't offer an explanation and we don't ask for one.

It's easy to imagine introducing Chad to my mother, her hands finding mine under the dinner table to say she approves. She'd probably imagine him on one knee, in a tux, holding messy pink babies before he even got through the door. With one good choice like Chad I could erase all the bad ones.

I could stay in this car forever, warm and insulated. And, somehow, I feel remarkably sober, which I realize later, means that I'm not.

I started waiting tables a year ago even though I didn't think I had enough coordination. I wanted to find a job that rewarded me for having charm and a good smile instead of my work ethic. I'm not ashamed to admit that. It isn't wrong to want to enjoy your youth; it's only wrong to have regret so thick it clumps up under your nails and grows up your arms like a bad blanket of second skin.

Serena, I think, thrives on regret. It's what she's always writing about in her notebook, what I can sometimes hear her praying over. There are only a few things I regret so far: starting to smoke when I was 14, wearing bunny ears on Halloween and earning the nickname "Tits McRabbit," telling Serena she'd make a bad mother, and fucking my ex-boyfriend even after he threw a pitcher of beer at me.

At our last party, that's when someone stole my rent money. Right out of my underwear drawer, like they knew I'd be the kind of girl who hides things there. We haven't had a party since, and I know Serena is mad about that, too.

"So, I have to ask," Chad starts. "What happens after this? We drive to New York, maybe check out Ground Zero and wallow some more in all of our personal tragedies, but then what?"

Randy turns down the CD player and we all listen to the highway sing.

"I'm not sure what you mean," I say.

"Let's be honest, Beth. We're not just going to New York just to get breakfast, are we?" Chad's face is so close to mine, his body contorted so that he's practically beside me in the backseat. And his breath is sweet and sour and my name sounds so soft on his tongue.

"Are you asking if I'm going to blow you?"

The car swerves as we hit a speed bump, Randy coughs, and Chad is back in the front seat before I can register what has happened. They look at each other like they've just woken up and realized what a bad idea this whole trip was.

"Jesus. I just wanted to give you a kiss," Chad says.

When my cell phone rings again, I don't have the energy to pick it up.

I stare out the window, shivering now as the sun rises. None of us speak. I wish I were at the apartment, sprawled out in the Smoke Room, listening to Serena's crazy flamenco party CD just low enough to sound like a lullaby. But I know that's not where tonight will take me. We'll go to my restaurant, or Serena's, or one of the bars in between. They smile when they see us coming, even if it's a whole group of us, because we're good tippers. Because we're patient and exhausted, and friendly by default. We'll forget about my history exam and laugh about all of our bad intentions. We'll drink until we're foolish, until we're touching our co-workers like their skin is made of suede. And when it's last call, I'll empty my apron on the bar and spread out my tips until I'm clean.

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Fiction Winners archives

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And the winners are... (12/2/2009)
City Paper's 11th annual Fiction and 10th annual Poetry Contest

An Airline Ticket to Romantic Places (12/2/2009)
First Place

What Was Janie Looking At? (12/2/2009)
Second Place

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