The winner of the Annie Menebroker Poetry Prize is “Astro Turf” by Wendy Rainey. Sue Menebroker McElligott, Annie’s daughter, was this year’s final judge.
I was living in the middle of nowhere.
By nowhere I mean
a trailer park in the desert:
plastic flowers in the yard.
The old lady living next-door to me
kept a pistol in a Wonder Bread bag
near the eggs in the refrigerator.
Her trailer was plastered with posters
of the movies she had appeared in.
Her young, insolent face
stared at me through prison bars
whenever I came over for coffee.
Through her window
I could see her six inch crimson nails
in CLAWS OF A TIGRESS
while I fed the mocking birds
There was a photo of her son
in a wheelchair
on her nightstand,
his nurse kneeling beside him,
his tiny fingers squeezing her arm.
She kept his ashes
in a Folger’s coffee jar
in the kitchen
by the stove.
I could hear her talking to him
while she fried Spam and eggs.
I was a waitress at Kay’s Diner
off Highway 89A,
in the middle of nowhere.
By nowhere I mean
the young cook working there
made pancake faces
of demonic possession
and empty-eyed madness.
He spent his lunch breaks sketching old-timers
cracking wise at the counter,
their bodies disintegrating
into their stools,
their ancient faces
falling into a vortex
of steaming coffee.
I saw him changing out of his uniform
one day in the locker room.
His spine slithered left
There were scars on his shoulders,
looked like cigarette burns.
His boots were held together
with duct tape and staples.
When Kay found
his meat sculpture
suspended from the ceiling
of the the walk-in freezer
she screeched at him,
Clean out your locker
and don’t ever come back!
The geezers at the counter
all told Kay to give the kid another chance.
But he was already out the door.
Ripping off my polyester apron,
I ran outside to the gravel lot,
hopped on the back of his Norton,
my arms encircling his waist.
As he peeled out Kay hollered,
Where the hell do you think you’re going
with that little freak?
Nowhere, I whispered.
And by nowhere
I mean there was nothing
but the highway
and the fossils of beasts
that had crawled the sandy beaches
of a now extinct ocean
stretching out ahead of us
into the dwindling light.
I found them lying together in their bedroom,
the old couple I had been caring for.
He had shot her in the back of the head with his Colt revolver,
then pulled the trigger on himself.
A few weeks ago
I had asked her why she was taking in her wedding dress.
She didn’t answer,
working the needle with expertise,
smiling like she had a secret.
“Oldies,” I thought,
“you never know what the hell they’re thinking.”
There she lay amid the satin and the blood.
I could smell the orange blossoms pinned to her bodice.
Her 90-pound body in the only dress that mattered.
And he, beside her in his Sunday best,
cowboy hat resting on the nightstand,
boots still on.
I called their son in Los Angeles.
While I waited for him in their living room
I poured myself a brandy
and looked at a photo of the two of them
standing in front of their house,
their street, then a dirt road.
The orchard in the background,
bulldozed, converted into condos.
And the horses in the stable, gone,
the cows, goats, and chickens, all gone.
I remembered that Scout, their Labrador,
had been buried under an orange tree in their front yard.
I went outside to Scout’s grave.
Reaching up to grab an orange blossom branch, I heard her voice,
“Take a whiff, child.
It used to be all you could smell on a summer night.”
I buried my face in a handful of orange blossoms.
“Isn’t it the most delicious aroma?”
Wendy Rainey is the author of two books: Hollywood Church: Short Stories and Poems and Girl On The Highway. She is a contributing poetry editor on Chiron Review. Her work has appeared in Nerve Cowboy, Rusty Truck, Misfit Magazine and beyond. She studied poetry with Jack Grapes in Los Angeles and creative writing with Gerald Locklin at California State University, Long Beach.