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Fiction Winners

What is Gravity?

Fiction - First Place

John Malloy

Fiction & Poetry Contest 1999

Here's to the Winners City Paper's Short Fiction Contest Winners

What is Gravity? Fiction - First Place | By Adam Schwartz

Wallis Simpson at the Palomino Hotel Fiction - Second Place | By Annie Hawkins

Bees Fiction - Third Place | By Meri Robie

Rigging It Poetry - First Place | By L. Maynard

A Salad Song Poetry - Second Place | By Brenda Barrie

To Ward Off Loss Poetry - Third Place | By Shelley Puhak

Honorable Mentions "While Chopping Red Peppers," Ingrid M. Ankerson; "The Anorexic Necklace," Jennifer Errick; "Scene F...

By Adam Schwartz | Posted 10/20/1999

Colors make loops inside of loops. I listen to the clothes in falling circles, losing their weight. Laundry soap sweetens the air. I'm trying to see Cara's face, but she's all over, doing her work. She trails a mesh cart to the washers. Her arms are full of strangers' clothes. She always looks good: red tights, a little skirt, silk vest. Her eyes get brighter little by little if you watch them.

"You know I don't have a lot of time," I say. "He's gonna be up there waiting on me."

"I'll be off soon," Cara says. "An hour at most."

"You make me late."

A dryer stops. She goes to it. "I wish we had the night together."

"We'd walk over to the park. Find a bench near the fountain. Tilt back. You don't have to live here to know that."

"We could bring the radio."

"I'd tell you a story. And hope for a breeze."

"I'd make you feel at home."

"You're the prettiest girl I know around here, Cara."

"I'm the only girl you know around here, James."

"Maybe I've met some others. 'Cause I'm girl crazy. And you've seen me make friends."

"Better not."

"All right. You're the prettiest girl anywhere."

She rubs her shoulder under her shirt. "That's more like it."

"Do you think I'm floating? I feel like I'm floating. It must be the heat."

"You do all that crazy walking. There's a subway. Buses too."

"I know where I'm going now."

If you walked past me and Cara you might think I live in this city. Maybe you've seen me here before and that's what you think, that this is where I clean my clothes, in a neighborhood that's always been mine. I've got a ticket stub in my pocket from a movie I went to with Cara because I visit here three days a week and I always see Cara, but if you asked who put me on this blind errand it wouldn't have anything to do with Cara or laundry or this neighborhood either.

Momma gave me a wristwatch to keep time. Then they excused me early for the school year and I started hearing things harder to sort out than the International Date Line or isosceles triangles or anything else from school. I never forget any of what's said about my brother Kitson but I lose track sometimes and ask questions to stay with it.

First thing in the morning Momma was flapping our covers with a prayer under her breath and I didn't know if I was supposed to get up or kneel and in no time me and Kitson were on that train from 30th Street Philadelphia to Washington D.C., blinking away the sun between the shadows. While Momma went on to work, I took little Kitson where I was told. I've been on a Philly local before, but I never rode a train all the way to Washington D.C. At first, before we learned our way, I'd be on that train still hearing Momma's directions and names and appointments and times all spilling together—Dr. Nyquist on Springdale? Or Dr. Springdale on Nyquist?

Inside the National Institutes of Health everybody's a doctor. Glassed-in labs, with a guard that stays to one side of the door too—like I'd want anything with his germy beakers. I hold my breath when I pass that lab. The buildings go on forever, everything shut-in under fluorescent bulbs that shine the same day or night—makes the plaster hallways and scrubbed tile floors start looking newer and newer.

Take this elevator to that corridor to get this test. Different doctor behind every wall. There. Not there. Some kind of gameland. Door flies open, three more pop out. Started thinking these sluggers don't go home. Doctors got their own beds. Underground somewhere. Sleep in white coats. Wake up. Pump up one those stills. See who's here. See what's what. See who we can snatch up and plug into what's called an infusion pump. Kitson could show you the bruise the needle spreads over the top of his chest.

Kitson's their research. That's why he doesn't have one doctor but a room full. The doctors pay for our train and, if Kitson's got his appetite, we eat three-dollar Danishes. The doctors get to try their medicine on Kitson and solve everything. They hold files in their laps. These doctors have the perfectest teeth and cabbage-white faces like they've all been gassed by the same crazy dream.

First week me and Kitson were in a little examining room with so many doctors at once there was hardly room for any of us. One of the doctors tapped up and down on Kitson's spine and said something I didn't catch to another doctor. I said, "It seems like you've got a lot of it figured out."

Doctor said, "Medicine? Yes sir, James. We give 'em hell here. I wish I understood my pension half as good. Tax man takes all those tamales and I can't even call him a cheat."

Pretty soon doctors were talking to us from all directions so I said, "Kitson looks fine to me."

Doctor said, "We'll probably end up spoiling most of Kitson's summer."

Doctor said, "We'll administer a combination of drugs."

Doctor said, "You really can't finesse a disease like this."

Doctor said, "The girls will be falling all over Kitson again soon enough."

I said, "It must be nice being able to, you know, fix people up."

They take all day with Kitson. After the first few days I didn't feel bad about not waiting through the morning and afternoon because I can't keep still all that time. I didn't know this place so I was out in the watery heat with my shirt balled up in my hand and I was walking and walking and walking. Walked so far I got a rash on my thigh. At first all of Washington D.C. looked green and white. Marble. Grass. Like pictures I've seen at school. People were crossing streets in church clothes. Men with cuffed slacks and women in heels, but no children. Then the blocks ran out of museums and monuments and sprinklers flicking over red and yellow flower beds, and Washington D.C. looked just like Philly. In some places you can tell how the streets were a long time ago.

Those first days I walked all the way from Bethesda to Dupont Circle, where people thought I was queer or strung-out and I watched the pigeons and let them wonder. I rested in a Laundromat where there was no one to yap at me but people with clothes baskets and they were busy matching socks or squinting at the game show on TV. I sat there in the Laundromat, glad to be out from under that flame-thrower up in the sky, arms perched up on the seat backs, thinking about my neighborhood at home: The girls on the corner that don't want me to leave them alone and hot nights when the sidewalks are their loudest, and in the schoolyard I dribble out of reach and hide myself with my speed to reappear in flight. I had all these things on my mind when this girl snapped her fingers in my eyes and said, "You're so quiet. Dryers coax you into a trance?" I looked up and she seemed to smile to herself. "It's too hot to move," I said and I was talking to Cara.

Then it was time I start back for Kitson so we can make our train. Me and Kitson looking out the window, feeling the train's weight riding that line, rolling back home to Philly, and outside the dark factories with their spidered panes of glass, chrome-rusted bumpers piled in ditch water and beyond the swept-back brush a man sits on a rear porch, elbows on his knees. Empty boxcar freights in a train yard, a boarded-up savings and loan, people at a lunch counter so close to us we can see the gas jet rising off the stove. A woman holds up a child while he feeds a coin into a parking meter, giggling like he won something. Near a heap of oil drums a yellow dog stretches out on his belly. The blue neon of a dancer's hips tips one way and then the other, the sign flashing, live bait. refreshments. leather and more, it's all coming and going, slipping off like a long mural. And Kitson would be chewing his gum, headphones on over his Phillies baseball cap, turning the pages of his Guinness Book of World Records, and after a bit he shivered into sleep, the side of his head pressed onto the window, the book in his lap. Lots of times I stretched out my legs and thought about the doctor that said we're going to be optimists. When we came to Philly I gave Kitson a little shake.

Last week on a rainy morning, Kitson climbed onto my back and we made a breakaway tear down a ramp for the grounds outside. The drizzle pulled the gray sky with it and we stomped up the puddles on a deserted patio. Later that day, after the rain was gone and the sun was a hard dot yellow rushing through the blue and after the nurse had let her machine fly and clocked Kitson's pulse and wrote it into his file and moved off, I asked Kitson if he was ready for another chicken run and Kitson eased back into his pillows and kept real still and said, "James, what is gravity?" And so, using the moon and astronauts and how they jump higher than anyone at the playground if they want, I explained what I thought was gravity, because I wasn't exactly sure myself, and Kitson said it felt like he might have fallen through his gravity.

At the public swimming pool I follow Cara's bare feet over the pavement. Her toes are long and angular, like segments of twig. She wears a gold ankle bracelet into the pool. I'm standing in water up to my waist. Cara's got powerful legs. She swims out to the deep end, kicking her way across the top of the water, back and forth, like she can't help that she's got water wings. When she comes back to me I tell her.

"I can't swim, Cara."

She brushes water off her face. "You're making it up."

I shake my head.

"I'll teach you. It's easy. You'll see."

"I'm happy to watch you."

"That's not what swimming pools are for. We paid a dollar seventy-five. You can't just stand here. Besides, I'll splash you if you do." She smacks water at my head. The water stings my eyes and I turn away.

"I'm telling you, you'll pick it right up. It's cinchy. Ready? On three."

She pulls my wrists. I like the bouncy lightness of my feet in the water, the drag on my knees. We inch in deeper and I'm holding Cara's wet hands for dear life.

When I get back up there, Kitson's been moved to a different ward where he can stay overnight. I have to look at Time magazine before I can see him. They won't let Kitson come home and he's not ready for any more medicine right now so they're giving him time to rest. In his room I finish the magazine. Then I get right up to the TV and drop the volume real low. When Kitson wakes up I tell him no train ride for him tonight. He's not awake too long before he dozes off again. I almost go back down to see Cara but I'll be late tonight and Momma will worry so instead I take my transportation voucher for Union Station. On the train I hold onto the seat tops as I pass through the cars.

I smell my arm. Momma's going to ask why I smell like chlorine, especially my hair. She wouldn't believe her eyes if she saw me kicking through the water the way Cara showed me. In a field older kids play baseball under lights. The outfielders seem caught in place under the yellow beams, like lifting their feet might splinter the light they're in. I watch the uniforms before they pass out of view. The glow from the baseball field drifts into the sky.

The conductor told me about how the train goes all the way to New England where the Red Sox play in Fenway Park. A map in the car lays out the route, right along the coast. I'm sure there is a lot to see up there and I don't think we'd have any trouble finding our way. Maybe call Cara, get her to come with us. I know Kitson would like her.

Adam Schwartz lives in Charles Village and teaches English in the city school system. He holds an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis.

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

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