The 2011 RRofihe Trophy Short Story Contest

2011 RRofihe Trophy Winner: JL Schneider

There were almost 140 entries in the 2011 Open City RRofihe Trophy Short Story Contest; the Winner is JL Schneider of Ellenville, New York for "A Pair of Soup". The story is published below; he will receive $500 plus a trophy.

The Runner-Up Story is "Monologue" by Juliet Grames
        of Brooklyn, New York.

Finalist Stories (2) were:
"Anatomy of a Geode" by Venita Blackburn of Avondale,
        Arizona; and
"Dos Equis" by Don Downey of New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Semi-Finalist Stories (9) were:
"The Snowbird" by Anna Ingwersen of Houston, Texas
"Literacy" by Kathleen Spivack of Watertown, Massachusetts
"Pipework" by Dwight Holing of Orinda, California
"Like Cindy" by Lynn Vande Stouwe of New York, New York
"Color-in Medusa" by Louisa Peck of Seattle, Washington
"The Flight" by Mia Farinelli of New York, New York
"Da Capo" by Amy Meyerson of Los Angeles, California
"Snowstorm" by David Englander of New York, New York
"Angles" by Heather Sappenfield of Vail, Colorado

For RRofihe Trophy Contest Assistant Carolyn Wilsey,

Sincere thanks to all who entered,
Rick Rofihe

JL Schneider

His fingernail smoldered in the ashtray, a candy dish she’d asked him not to use as an ashtray. He let his cigarette die out next to the clipping, just because he liked to waste things. The involuntary turn of the nose toward the smell, as toward an accident, watching the slow burn. The smell, so much like death, like hair burning, but denser, closer to bone than cilia. Caustic, its thin, acidic ability to penetrate the Febrezed fabric of the couch and vacuumed drapes more acute than the blunt odors of burnt fish, boiled cabbage, and…

“He likes to waste things?” the Adjunct asked, looking up at him.

“Yes, he does.”

He was the same age as the Adjunct who sat across from him. Heinke’s Shakespeare class—three, four years ago? They should have been teaching side by side by now, or at least gloating (or bitching) about their career tracks by e-mail from separate universities. Instead, she was already filling in for the great Dr. Placke, away on Sabbatical, pursuing her Ph.D. and on an inside track for Associate Professor, and he was groveling for three more credits so he could graduate seven years after he started.

She was willing to accommodate a tutorial for Placke’s 400-level Creative Writing class she was subbing, an audit with credits, but they agreed that he shouldn’t attend the class. They knew why, but only she felt the need to state the obvious.

“The workshop can get ugly,” she said. “As blind as writers are to their own faults, they devour the weaknesses of others like wolves.”

She was looking at him calmly from behind the barge-like, walnut desk, almost diffidently. It was late afternoon, the September sun slanting through the long, three-over-twelve windows in Placke’s office on the second floor of Hanson Hall. There was a jade plant and a German ivy and an aloe sitting in the window recess, receiving the sunshine robustly, triumphantly. He wondered if these were her additions or Placke’s.

He would read a few short stories from the text, critique the other students’ stories as they came in (she’d make copies for him), and hand in one of his own, revising as they went, for one-half of his final grade. He’d be deprived of the give-and-take, the “ugliness” of the workshop, but it was a small sacrifice. They would act professionally, and would, after each session in the office, part with a handshake and, because he knew her, and because he felt it also, there would be invisible, self-congratulatory pats on their backs.

The second draft was due by the end of October. He was having trouble with it. There was too much distance between the characters. Too much coldness. A mordancy, a stiffness, of style. He worked it and reworked it, changed the verb tense, changed the point of view, got drunk, burned one version of it, started again, and only when he removed himself completely from the overwrought, obvious mess it had become (he took off and slept in his car for three days) did he finally realize that the distance was intentional. That’s what she’d like—hauteur, reticence, emotional stealth. He was sucking up, appealing to her intellect, the conduit through which her world was funneled. But it was wrong for the story. It was wrong for him.

She wouldn’t agree. She’d say you have to write for an audience, not yourself. Then she’d use the Shakespeare argument—writing can be great art and successful—against which he was powerless. His story was neither. Every time he returned to it his stomach churned, as if he were being forced to lie, as if each word he wrote was laughing at him. It wasn’t until he finally named the protagonists that he thought he could detect a glimmer of hope.

“Why didn’t you name them at the beginning?” she asked.

An obvious fault. He’d fix it. What he thought she might have asked instead, what he would have asked if the roles were reversed, was, Why were the man and the woman so distant with each other, when they obviously had been lovers? Why the charade? Questions which should have led to the real question: What was it, eventually, that broke them apart? But she didn’t ask, and he knew that if he played What if?, if he let himself drift too far down into those murky layers—even as a little voice told him that’s exactly what he needed to do—he’d drive himself crazy.

Dustin was thin and angular, a condition of metabolism rather than diet. He ate whatever he wanted. He revered food. One of his great passions was cooking, which he especially liked to do for her. During their time together his black hair, iron-straight but with some wave at his forehead, had been alternately short, shoulder-length, then short again, depending on his mood and sometimes the job he had. He was what his mother would have called slovenly, what he preferred to call adaptive. Too much cleanliness made him ill, and if he was around too much of it for too long he felt a creeping ivy of sterility begin to choke him. There were times when he purposely left grease-filled pans on the stove, or broccoli juice in the steamer pot, or a used toothpick in the candy dish cum ashtray, though he knew this particularly irked her. Messiness reminded him of hearth, of function, of life.

Lindsey had the same haircut the entire time he knew her, a shoulder-length cut of bronzed-blonde hair parted on the left, a coif that appeared to be loose and flung randomly over her head, yet which was carefully set each morning with hairspray and several types of combs. Her green eyes betrayed the depth of her race, Irish, which is what made him shiver when he first saw her. An Irish writer—her eyes actually glowed, like emeralds hit by the sun, when she talked about literature. She had what he called, though she wasn’t overweight, a baby-fat body, pale white skin from the northern tribes which, when he touched it, took several seconds to yield bone. She ate sparingly, sometimes not at all if they were fighting. He sometimes suspected she left a plate of his patiently-prepared food uneaten on purpose—either to provoke the fight or feign loss before it even began.

Now the Adjunct shifted in her seat and crossed her hosed thighs—luxurious trophies of muscle and flesh—beneath the half-lowered curtain of a blue rayon dress.

“Why are you here?” she’d asked him one day, surprising him, after the Comp 101 class they were taking, which he’d already taken years before at a community college in another state before returning home to live with his parents. The way she said it, it was as if she were asking for only the narratable part of his life. He didn’t know how to answer, because it wasn’t the way he looked at the world, at himself. Life was episodic. After he mumbled something about needing the credits because they weren’t transferable from where he’d gone to school before, she ignored him for the rest of the semester.

In the relativistic culture of college, honed to excruciating absurdity in the English department, he never would have said out loud what he thought about her privately when, later, she gushed about the Epistemology of Structure or the Disunity of Meaning: that theory was nothing more than noeticly-forged armor, flimsy as onionskin, used to mask a fear of the unknown, a fear of dirt. And he never would have thought to write down—even in his journal, which he was going to cremate with his corpse—his feeling that she’d bray like a mule when fucked.

“This seems a little… off,” she said.

“It’s possible,” he retorted.

“Yes, anything is possible. But is it true?”

“I’m not supposed to tell the truth. I’m supposed to make up the truth.”

She took a moment to look out the window. She actually stroked her chin, as if she had a beard, and he thought, in a hallucinatory moment of juxtaposition, that, despite her luxuriant sensuality, she could have been a fatherly Freudian, brilliant and aware of it. If he would have been thinking, I want you, she would have responded, I know you want me.

By the time they met again in Heinke’s class, and they started talking seriously, she seemed to have changed. She was more open, more confident, though he couldn’t tell if she’d merely girded the mask or had found some organic source of élan. Élan. Hardly the word to describe her tongue pushing down his throat at McBaird’s just as his girlfriend walked through the door. She pulled away from him, seeing the fear in his eyes, feeling the tenseness in his body. Yet she seemed almost pleased, the green eyes twinkling. He tried to push out of their booth, to go after her, but his girlfriend was already walking out the door. He turned on her.

“I’ve been going out with her for two years!”

More loss. They were tearing down McBaird’s in a week, and she didn’t understand. She didn’t understand why he’d rather busk on the street than get a regular job. She didn’t understand why he didn’t just finish his degree instead of constantly engaging in academic brinkmanship, and losing…. But that deep, pliable mouth. Fragility and green eyes and remarkable thighs which walked him home after he’d shamelessly whiskied the loss of his girlfriend in front of her, tucked him into bed, then crawled in beside him.

“I seem to remember,” the Adjunct now said, standing behind the desk, her stiff back then moving like a surveyor’s stick around the desk’s corner to stand in front of him, “that in the earlier draft, he kissed her.”­

“Yes, that’s true,” he admitted. He’d kissed her. He’d leaned over the table and pulled the back of her head to him, drawing her pale skin and emerald eyes and strictly wild hair­—the tongue and pathos of the Irish—to his open lips. “It was her response that seemed important. It had so much power. She wanted to show him something, her dexterity, her sexuality. She was hiding, and I needed to bring her forward.”

“An unreliable narrator?”

“I changed it, that’s all. It’s not some lit-crit feint. ‘Trust the writing, not the writer.’” It was her favorite D. H. Lawrence quote.

She stood over him, the power of her position evident in her silence. She would not, he knew, allow him to see the professional rigging moved by any wind. But she must be thinking, This is unfair, an end-run, a cowardly attempt to circumvent the revenge story, the most boring of all stories. The whole thing was nothing but self-righteous pity vomited on the page, not for the reader’s but for his pleasure. And he suddenly realized he had become a cliché. His palms were sweating, not because of what she now clearly knew, but because of what he didn’t know.

The blue rayon rustled as she turned and walked back around the desk to her chair. She turned on the brass lamp with the green shade, which exploded on their faces, the dusk having been left on too long.

On the day Lindsey graduated, Dustin didn’t go to the ceremony. He detested false rituals, he told her. Instead, he went to the blonde-wood-and-fern bar that had replaced McBaird’s and thought about Lindsey entering graduate school in the fall, while he still needed two full semesters to get his undergraduate degree. And who knew how long that would take? “It’s a story about love!” he remembered screaming to no one after a half dozen VO boilermakers, bringing his fist down hard on the bar. He thought he was still at McBaird’s, where his explosion would have been shrugged off, laughed at, liquored through with any number of strangers who’d been there since noon. But in the unfamiliar, dense, low-pressure silence of this theme-bar his eyes swam up into stares of condemnation from the Society of Lethally Unoriginal Gobs, his new local.

She came home from the ceremony upset. She started telling him something from her past, something she said she’d never told anyone and which she’d never allow him to repeat. The graduation had triggered ancient hurt, something familial. He remembered being attentive, alert, thinking that every word she said made sense, even holding her whenever she cried. It was a story, however, upon waking, he only remembered the color of—a tar and sunshine tale of impeccable, beautiful irony which could be appreciated by any adult, except the one whom irony had ground underfoot. Other than that, he didn’t remember a word she’d said. He saw how she looked at him in the morning, knowing, now that he knew, that she had relieved herself of a burden to someone she trusted. Through his hangover he faked a sympathetic, eye-sagging face, then cooked her a Western omelet. The power was in the telling, he reminded himself. Remembering was irrelevant.

The Adjunct stood up and excused herself

When the door closed behind him he reached over to the folder on the desk—his folder—to see what she’d been writing about him. It was her job to assess him, to evaluate him, to give him a grade, and that, despite the obvious statutes of the situation, really went up his ass. His fingers were on the edge of the folder when he stopped himself.

A ploy to get him to do this very thing? To see both sides? OK, he wasn’t an adult. That was certain. He didn’t want to be an adult. Everywhere he looked, his friends—all those people he’d graduated high school with and were now firmly entrenched in their jobs and marriages—they were adults. The Adjunct was an adult. But it was just a game. They were playing at being grown-ups. And while he could be petty, he wasn’t cynical, as so many of his “adult” friends proudly seemed to be in their line-of-credit lives. As far as he was concerned, he was still doing it, the ineffable It. Getting dirty. Telling the stories. That was the forest and the trees.

The Adjunct returned. She’d washed her face, the small, fine hairs at her temples still matted with moisture. When she sat down she closed his folder, slowly, and looked up at him when the manila lips met.

What did she want from him? A question, toward the end, he kept asking her, sometimes screamed at her. Each time he could see her body folding into itself on the couch like an origami bird, after which she’d say, “I don’t want you to change anything about yourself.” He’d then remove the toothpick from his mouth and drop it into the ashtray.

He escalated the baiting to get her to step out from under the stiff, pedagogical hair. She didn’t take it. As she read more critical theory, which she was required to do for her degree, she had an answer for everything. “But those aren’t reparative theories,” he’d remind her. “There’s a real human being in front of you.”

“Some of them are,” she replied. “Some of them do apply to us. And as human beings, we’re all fiction writers, carving out our mythologies, our stories, from an objective world which has no intrinsic meaning, and no need for it, other that what we give it.”

Layers upon layers, until he felt like a character rather than a real person dancing at the end of post-modernist, trans-historical, gyno-critical strings. He was a rhetorical trope in—whose did she say, Harold Doom’s?—“anxiety of influence.”

“Exactly,” the Adjunct said absently, flipping a page.

“But it’s not—real,” he insisted. “This isn’t some misreading of a story. These are two human beings. They’re going to hurt each other.”

“We’ll see.”

On the day it ended he’d cooked her a lemon-thyme, chicken Marsala casserole with wild rice, an herbed zucchini au gratin, and a red leaf salad. And soup—vegetable watercress. He simmered it all day, used fresh herbs, and made the mirepoix by roasting the vegetables first, an unnecessary step except for the care. She took one bite of each dish and pushed her plate away. She didn’t touch the soup.

“You don’t like the soup?” he asked.

“I don’t feel like soup.”

“You have to have some.”

“I told you, I don’t feel like it.”

“No, you don’t understand. You have to have some. Soup is never for one person. They like you to think it is, with their little cans lined up on the shelves. Soup for one. But it’s wrong. They’re not selling convenience. They’re selling the alienation of affections. You only get one-and-a-half bowls out of one of those cans, a couple of cups. But cups of soup are for singular people eating alone. Real soup is for big bowls from a big pot, for two, three, a half dozen people. At the very least, two.”

“Interesting theory,” she said.

“You won’t have any?”


“Fuck you.” He was surprised by how calmly he said it.

She took her napkin and dabbed at her lips, even though there was no food to wipe away. Her response was equally calm.

“There are some lines you don’t cross,” she said, putting her napkin down and pushing out her chair. She stood up. “You just crossed one.”

“They’re just words. You can put whatever meaning you want to them.”

“OK. It means the end.”

The dim December light, thick and gray as concrete, pressed against the long windows. She read the ending about the man and the woman sitting across from each other, and there was nothing more to say. Soup?

He had failed. He especially didn’t like how dispassionately they acted, though they were true to who they were. Yes, they had acted honestly, but looking at them from the Godhead they seemed inhuman, so caught up in divine intellect and dictatorial image that there wasn’t anything truly deeper to them. They wanted to be deeper, yes. They wanted to scream and love and remember every dark cell of their greatest and darkest intent. But as soon as they had the thought, it was beatified by doctrine, aligned to some cultural reference point, reduced to an image neither of them could claim as their own. All they had left was some nameless referee alluding to them in the third person.

She was looking out the window, her face turned to him in profile. As he studied it he saw, though he had to squint to be sure, a small, barely-visible tear leak from the corner of her eye and drift down her cheek. He hesitated, then reached out and touched it before she blinked her eyes clear. Maybe he didn’t. He probably just sat there, having no idea what she was thinking. And at that moment, just for an instant and caught by surprise, I can see. I can see a single, lush boil of jade leaf—as rich and ardent as love—suddenly fall, still healthy, from its branch. I can see each millimeter of its descent through space, falling as slowly as a plump, green feather. And there’s a smell, not possible in this room, burnt and acrid, as if irony could be singed at both ends of its airy, brittle lesson. And I hear a tremendous booming thud when the leaf hits the sun shelf.

They looked at each other across the desk.

JL Schneider is a carpenter and an adjunct professor of English at a small community college in upstate New York. His fiction has appeared in Snake Nation, The MacGuffin, International Quarterly, The Newport Review, and Onion River Review, among others. His essays have appeared in Studies in Contemporary Satire, Literal Latté, Trajectory, and New Millennium Writings, and have been anthologized in Ghosts in the Classroom (Camel’s Back Books) and Voices from the Couch (America House).

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