Next Line, Please

Tara’s Theme

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By David Lehman

November 4, 2014


 

First place in our “shortest story” contest—in which competitors were asked to limit themselves to 25 words—goes to Tara for the following:

Ghost

Eugenia shook her head. “No excuses. Jim Crow gave me a hard time; I never stooped to white powder.” It was ivory foundation

The very name of the author, conjuring the theme of Gone with the Wind, is one clue, and the title is another. “Jim Crow” laws, which enforced racial segregation in the postbellum South, make it pretty plain where we are. When we get to “white powder,” the ambiguities multiply: cocaine? But though “ivory foundation” could be taken in a sinister light—if, for example, encountered in the immediate afterglow of reading Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”—it most likely refers to a makeup product made by Maybelline or L’Oreal. “No excuses” may be the message of a story that at its base resembles a parody of a TV commercial. But the situation of a black woman who resists passing for white is most subtly invoked. Twenty-four words, including the title; exactly 25, including the author’s name. Brava, Tara.

The contestant bearing the pseudonym Someone with a Clue comes in second with “Medusa never had a mirror before.” The line impresses with its sheer brevity, and it obliges the reader to get acquainted or re-acquainted with this compelling figure of Greek myth.

Lisa Mecham gets the bronze medal for “The train jerks forward, windows frosted with the other children’s shrieks, wails. On the platform, my mother is the only one without her back turned.” There is mystery here, and pathos.

Nor would I overlook Diana’s “People’s Heroin(e),” which (leaving gender aside) may be read as either a clever scoping of the last six presidential years or a bold prediction of what may well befall us starting on Election Day two years from today:

She wanted to save her country. People believed her. She won the election. The country sank lower. People couldn’t believe it. She was reelected.

MD gets honorable mention for this story broken into four lines:

“Savor reminiscing about the best years of your lives.”
A message sent to my high school reunion.
Written on a napkin.
From the Oscars.

The last seven words, spaced as they are, provide a nice twist and double-twist, although high school reunions as a source of pathos, nostalgia, or reflection are not as fresh as one would like.

A new contest designed to test wits and stimulate the imagination will greet readers of this column next Tuesday.

 


David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.

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