1965: The Birth Control Revolution

It would be hard to define the precise beginning of the sexual revolution in the United States. Some believe it started in 1960, when the FDA approved the use of oral contraceptives, popularly called “the pill.” Presumably, the availability of a reliable, convenient birth-control method started a widespread shift away from traditional attitudes toward sex, relationships, and women’s rights.

But you could make the case that it didn’t really start until five years later, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Griswold v. Connecticut. The result of that decision made distribution of birth control pills or devices, and the dissemination of birth-control information, legal in all 50 states.

Prior to the 1965 ruling, it was technically illegal in many states to distribute contraceptives or even information about birth control. These laws were a legacy of the 1800s, when a national movement to improve public morals led to statutes that branded birth control materials as “obscene and immoral.”

Connecticut had some of the most stringent laws banning birth control. Anyone found guilty of distributing or using contraceptives could be sentenced to a year in jail. By 1965, however, the law was often overlooked. The state didn’t prosecute doctors in private clinics who provided contraceptives to married women. But the law could still be applied to doctors at public clinics.

In 1961, Estelle Griswold, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, challenged the law. She opened a birth control clinic in New Haven, and was soon arrested, tried, convicted, and fined. She appealed her case to the Supreme Court, which handed down a landmark decision in 1965.

In Griswold, the Court ruled that people had a constitutional “right to marital privacy,” which was violated when state laws prohibited the use of “any drug, medicinal article, or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception.”

Within days of the Griswold decision, several states changed their laws, despite a hue and cry from some quarters that access to the pill would encourage promiscuity. New York removed all restrictions to birth-control information and contraceptive sales to anyone over the age of 16. Massachusetts followed, then Ohio and Minnesota. Seven other states went so far as to encourage family-planning services.

It should be noted that Griswold only applied to married couples. It would be another seven years before the Court extended the same right to contraceptives to unmarried couples.
Within months of the decision, The Saturday Evening Post published an article by Steven M. Spencer (below) that, in hindsight, brilliantly framed the impact of the Court’s decision. He wrote that legalized birth control was producing a “revolution” that was “transforming laws and love in America.”


Originally published on January 15, 1966
By Steven M. Spencer
Photos by Bill Binzen

Parents holding child's hand

Barriers fell in the year just ended, and birth control became a national policy. Here is how the ‘pill’ and the ‘loop’ are transforming laws and love in America and offering women new freedom and new responsibilities.

“Oh, I know I’ve put on a little weight since I started on the pill,” said a Chicago housewife in her late 20s, “but I think it’s just from contentment. I used to worry a lot about having another baby, and that kept me thinner, but I never have to worry anymore. We have three children, from three years to six months, but with two still in diapers I’d prefer to wait for the next until the youngest is at least two years old. And now I know I can wait.” This young mother is typical of the millions of American women who today are leading a new kind of life, for they have gained what for eons was denied the daughters of Eve—a secure means of planning the birth of their children. They are the beneficiaries of one of the most dramatic sociomedical revolutions the world has ever known.

The revolutionaries are the small band of determined men and women who for more than half a century have promoted planned parenthood. Scorned and despised at first, they gradually caught up doctors and lawmakers, millionaires and presidents in their endeavor, until their goals be-came socially acceptable and almost the entire nation changed its mind.

The implements of the revolution are “the pill” — the oral contraceptive tablet the woman of 1966 takes 20 days of each month — and the increasingly popular intra-uterine device, a coil or loop of plastic or metal worn in the womb for as long as a woman wishes to avoid pregnancy. With the pill and the loop, in spite of possible side effects and rare hazards, the science of birth control has now reached a degree of effectiveness and convenience undreamed of even a decade ago.

These technical advances, combined with a growing concern about the world population crisis, brought the birth-control revolution to a historic turning point in the year just closed, for 1965 marked the fall of most of the last important barriers against general distribution of family-planning information and services.

It was the year that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out as an unconstitutional violation of privacy the 86-year-old Connecticut law that had forbidden the use of contraceptives and forced the closing of birth-control clinics.

Positive legislative steps were taken in 10 other states, including New York.

It was the year the Federal Government, taking its cue from President Johnson, became more directly involved in birth-control activities than ever before. Early in the year the President had pledged he would seek new ways “to help deal with the explosion in world population,” a problem he rated second in importance only to achieving peace. In his June address to the United Nations he urged that we “act on the fact that less than five dollars invested in population control is worth $100 invested in economic growth.” Appropriately, as the year closed, the Ford Foundation announced it was granting $14.5 million for research on human reproduction and fertility control. “Only birth control on a massive scale,” Gen. William Draper Jr., national chairman of the Population Crisis Committee, said in December, the day after the Ford Foundation announcement, “coupled with rapidly increased food production in the developing countries, can prevent the greatest catastrophe of modern times.”

As Draper spoke, the Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church was drafting a text on birth control. The traditional foe of all contraceptive techniques except periodic abstinence, the church during the past several years was shaken from parish to Papacy by disagreement and debate on the topic. Many Catholic couples, including the estimated 35 percent in America who use methods not approved by their church, hoped the Ecumenical Council would modify the ban, but no such change was forthcoming. According to some observers, however, including Dr. John T. Noonan Jr., an American professor of law at Notre Dame University who is a consultant to the Pope’s commission on marriage problems, the council’s final document lays the groundwork for eventual change. If so, 1965 will indeed be remembered as a revolutionary turning point.

One cannot be sure that the birth-control revolution will move fast enough for the nations to avert the starvation and overcrowding of runaway population growth. Hundreds of millions of human beings are already on the brink of famine. Recently a special panel for the White House Conference on International Cooperation declared that “the rate of growth of world population is so great — and its consequences so grave — that this may be the last generation which has the opportunity to cope with the problem on the basis of free choice.” But although the effect of the birth-control revolution upon the nations remains in doubt, there is no question that it will have an enormous impact upon marriage in America and the American family. Birth-control advocates speak of a strengthening of love between husband and wife once the fear of unwanted pregnancy disappears from sexual relations; they predict an easing of family financial strain and warmer relationships between parents and children as other stresses are removed. Already many of the five million American women taking the pill are enjoying at least partial relief from the menstrual tensions and pains that have always been considered their inescapable lot. Scientists are perfecting an injection that not only prevents conception but suppresses menstruation for months. This and other prospective developments reported here‑including a “morning-after” pill-promise the American woman, already the freest in the world, still vaster freedom.

The freedom, however, extends not only to wives but to unmarried girls, and the choices that the latter make can mean a widening of the rift between the generations. There are indications that a majority of unmarried young women still observe the standards of sexual behavior taught by their parents or their religion. But many seek in sexual activity the confirmation of their “identity” as free adults, and, whether by legitimate or underground routes, the pill has found its way to the college campuses and even to the high-school hallways. Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone, an eminent planned-parenthood expert, tells of an encounter with a girl in a New York City junior high school during a break between classes. The girl had dropped her handbag in the crowded corridor, and its contents spilled on the floor. “I stopped to help her pick the things up,” Doctor Calderone said, “and was astonished to see a package of birth-control pills. I asked the child, ‘Do you really know about these things?” ‘Oh, yes,’ she replied, ‘I take them every Saturday night when I go on a date.’ She had gotten the pills from her married sister — apparently without benefit of instructions. If it weren’t so funny, it would be tragic.” In fact, it probably will be tragic. One pill alone is quite ineffective. They must be taken daily for five to seven days before any protection is built up.

Many of birth control’s most ardent supporters candidly admit that the new freedom provided by the better methods carries with it — as does any freedom — corresponding dangers. While for the first time in history men and women have the ability to make an absolute and free choice as to the purpose and result of their sexual actions, good choices still require intelligence. “We now have the means of separating our sexual and our reproductive lives,” says Doctor Calderone, “and we have a great responsibility to make proper use of both of them.”


Birth control pills and globe
In her efforts to control the number and spacing of her children, woman down through the centuries has resorted to many recipes, often more strange than effective. She was advised in an Egyptian papyrus of 1500 BC to use a concoction of acacia tips, bitter cucumber and dates, mixed with honey. Dioscorides, the famous Greek medical scientist of the first century, prescribed willow leaves in water (willow because it was thought to have no seeds) or the leaves of barrenwort finely ground and taken in wine. Other Greek medical writers offered a choice of powerful amulets, including one made of henbane seed diluted in mare’s milk and carried around the neck in a piece of stag’s skin.

The woman of today takes nothing more exotic than a pink pill (or a white or peach-colored one). Or she wears a small device within the womb, a hidden amulet, so to speak. Although these intra-uterine devices are fast gaining acceptance in foreign countries, they are far less used than are the pills. In addition to the five million American women taking the pills on doctors’ prescriptions, there are some 2.5 million abroad, mostly in Latin America, Europe and Australia. And the market continues to expand.

Not since the sulfa tablets emerged in the 1930’s to conquer pneumonia and a host of other infections, has a little tablet exerted such far-reaching influence upon the world’s people. It may, in fact, be the most popular pill since aspirin. It is certainly relieving bigger headaches—both family and global. And all at a cost of about $1.75 for a month’s supply. The pill is big business, produced by seven firms, advertised in the medical journals in two- and three-page spreads with lace-and-roses borders and sold in “feminine and fashionable” dispensers. Some resemble powder compacts, others, telephone dials, marked off to help the woman keep track of the days she should take them.

From the very outset the pill’s ability to prevent ovulation, and therefore pregnancy, has been virtually 100 percent when taken faithfully as directed. This is usually for 20 days beginning with the fifth day of menstruation. Only total abstinence or surgical sterilization can equal or surpass their record. When pregnancies have occurred, it has been because the woman was unknowingly pregnant before she started taking pills, or because she forgot them for one or more days.

The “mother” of the pill is Mrs. Margaret Sanger, the famous founder of the birth-control movement in America who today at 87 is living in Tucson, Ariz. Physically infirm, she is still sharp of mind and can look back on a half century of hard-won achievements and a life struggle marked by arrests, jailings, and verbal abuse. Many years ago Mrs. Sanger recognized the limitations of the principal methods offered by the birth-control clinics — diaphragms and spermicidal jellies — and she suggested to Dr. Gregory Pincus of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, in Massachusetts, that he try to develop something better.

“Then one day in 1951,” Doctor Pincus recalls, “Mrs. Sanger approached me again. She was especially disappointed by the failure of conventional methods in India. She said, ‘Gregory, can’t you devise some sort of pill for this purpose?’ I said I’d try.” With a grant of $2,500 from Mrs. Sanger’s Planned Parenthood Federation, he and his associates went to work on it.

Pincus was not starting blind. Scientists had known since 1900 the fundamental bodily chemistry that the birth-control pill exploits. They knew that chemicals called hormones, secreted by a woman’s pituitary gland, cause her ovary to release a ripened egg each month-the process is called ovulation. They also knew that if the egg becomes fertilized and attaches itself to the lining of her uterus (the beginning of pregnancy), still another hormone cancels out the pituitary hormones and prevents ovulation, keeping her ovary from secreting more eggs during the nine months that the fertilized egg is growing into an infant. It was this anti-ovulation hormone, identified in 1934 as progesterone, that Doctor Pincus sought to imitate in an oral birth-control tablet.

Researchers at the University of Rochester had used progesterone in 1937 to prevent ovulation in rabbits, but efforts to apply the rabbit findings to humans had been discouraging until Doctor Pincus and his associate, Dr. Min Chueh Chang, took up the problem. Dr. John Rock, then clinical professor of gynecology at Harvard, independently tackled the same problem, and soon he and Pincus’s group joined forces.

As director of the Reproductive Study Center in Brookline, Doctor Rock was originally trying to induce ovulation in women unable to have babies. Pincus and Chang were seeking an oral method of preventing ovulation. By a curious physiological paradox, both goals were achieved, in differing degrees, with the same hormones. When Doctor Rock gave progesterone and another sex hormone, estrogen, to 80 previously infertile women daily for three months, and then stopped, 13 of the women became pregnant within the next four months, apparently because the hormones had improved the condition of the uterus and tubes. This became known as the “Rock rebound effect.” At almost the same time the Pincus-Rock team demonstrated the value of the hormones in preventing ovulation, when taken for 20 days.

But since the natural hormones had to be given in large oral doses or by painful injections, Doctor Pincus’ group sought a more convenient synthetic substitute. They screened some 200 chemical relatives of progesterone and found three that looked promising. The first medical use of the synthetic hormones was in the treatment of menstrual irregularities. Then, in December 1954, Doctor Rock began administering them as a contraceptive to a group of women in Brookline. In April 1956, large-scale tests began in Puerto Rico and later in Haiti and a number of United States cities.

At first the Food and Drug Administration approved the pills for only two years of continuous use. But under careful observation by research doctors, many women continued them without harm for much longer periods. Some have taken them for as long as 10 years, and certain of the pills are now approved for four years of use. When women have stopped the pills to have a baby, there has been no impairment of their fertility.

Tests over the years have shown that the amount of hormone in each pill need not be as large as originally believed. On the principle that the less hormone you take the better, so long as the effect is achieved, manufacturers have steadily reduced the concentration. One company’s pill, which began as a 10-milligram tablet several years ago, is now down to 2.5 milligrams, and a new one-milligram tablet may soon be introduced to the market. In addition to the pill’s clear superiority in effectiveness, women like its neatness and its complete dissociation from the sexual act. “I simply take a pill every evening,” one young suburban mother remarked, “and, my God, it’s wonderful not to have to worry.” Another plus for the pill is that it has brought into the birth-control clinics thousands of women who would not otherwise have come, or who, discouraged by less easy and reliable methods, would have dropped out. Dr. Richard Frank, medical director of the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Chicago, says that up through 1961 not more than 30 or 40 percent of the women stayed with the methods then offered-usually the diaphragm. But a recent count showed that 75 percent of those introduced to the pills were still using them after several years.

No one claims, in spite of the generally favorable experience, that the pill is perfect. There are side effects, most of which resemble the familiar symptoms of early pregnancy — nausea, some swelling and tenderness of the breasts, headache or fatigue. There is often some weight gain and occasional “spotting” during the month. But only a small minority of women experience the side effects — figures range from 2 to 15 percent, depending on the specific symptom. The problems tend to disappear after the first two or three months, especially with the newer low-concentration pills. And if one variety of pill is troublesome, the doctor may prescribe another. Although weight gain is a frequent complaint, doctors believe it may be only a physical reflection of the pill’s psychological benefits — the freedom from worry that it brings to many women.

Of graver concern are the still unsettled questions about whether or not, in rare instances, the pills produce serious illnesses. Cancer, for example, has caused moments of alarm. Here a key point is the difference between causing a new cancer and stimulating the growth of an already existing one. The estrogen component of the pills is believed capable of causing the enlargement of an existing cancer of the breast or pelvic area, and if the doctor suspects such a malignancy, he will not prescribe the pills. “For this reason it is important for women taking the pills to have periodic breast and pelvic examinations,” says Dr. Robert W. Kistner, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard.” “I think that they should be examined as often as every six months.”

There is absolutely no evidence, however, that the oral contraceptives will initiate cancer. Early uneasiness on this point was stirred up by research on inbred strains of laboratory rats already prone to breast cancer. Careful analysis of the medical histories of thousands of women on the pills has revealed nothing to indicate the pills can produce a cancer that was not already there.

As a matter of fact, there is now well-founded opinion that the pills may actually prevent cancer of the uterus. Doctor Pincus and his associates discovered a definitely lower rate of positive “Pap smears” among women taking the pills in Haiti and Puerto Rico. And at Harvard Doctor Kistner was able to protect rats from the known cancer-inducing effect of certain chemicals by feeding them contraceptive pills. “It may well be that cancer of the uterus is a preventable disease,” he says.

Another illness that some have linked to birth-control pills is thrombophlebitis. This is an inflammatory and sometimes fatal clotting in the veins. A number of cases, and a few deaths, have been re-ported among women taking the pills, in both the United States and England. The reports have received wide publicity, but the cause-and-effect relationship has been clouded by the fact that thrombophlebitis has always been rather common among women of childbearing age, the very group now taking the pill. Among millions on the pill is would not be surprising if a few women coincidentally suffered from blood-clotting complications. The verdict at present: neither proven nor unproven. But to be safe the Food and Drug Administration requires the manufacturers to advise the doctors not to prescribe the pills for women with a history of thrombophlebitis, pulmonary embolism, stroke, or liver disease.

Just last November the FDA added one more precautionary note, a warning to watch for any blurring or loss of vision among women on the pill. Here again, the cause-and-effect has not been established, as the FDA points out. But a Johns Hopkins eye specialist, noting a few suspicious cases of eye trouble and other neurological complications, asked for reports from other doctors and received 73. Many of the women affected had histories of high blood pressure or other conditions that might have accounted for the eye symptoms.

For women who have medical difficulty with the pill, the answer may be the intrauterine devices, particularly the Lippes loop, named for its designer, Dr. Jack Lippes of Buffalo, N.Y. Originally hailed mainly as a method for those who couldn’t afford the pills or who were too ignorant to count the days, the intra-uterine devices (IUDs) are now gaining favor among wealthy women on Park Avenue and in fashionable suburbs.

“Members of some of our most prominent families have been using IUDs for as long as three years,” a New York obstetrician revealed, “and are very well satisfied.” A Boston doctor had to install a second telephone to help handle calls from women wanting IUDs. More than 200,000 women in the U.S. have been fitted with them.

Family-planning experts have repeatedly emphasized that the effectiveness of any method depends to a large extent on the motivation of the woman, or the couple. To have a free choice is one thing. To exercise it through deliberate decisions is another. With the pill, the need to make the decision is at least removed in time from the moments of rushing passion. But as Dr. Sheldon J. Segal of the Population Council points out, “Once a woman has the IUD successfully installed, she makes her next decision only when she wants to have a baby; then she goes to her doctor and has the device removed.”

The loop, coil or bow is soft and elastic enough to be squeezed into a hollow plastic tube for insertion into the uterus, where it springs back into its original shape. To avoid infection or accidental perforation of the uterine wall (which has occurred a few times), the device must be inserted with care by a physician, preferably one with some training in gynecology. Most doctors insert the IUD for a reasonable fee—that for a regular office visit. But some have charged as high as $100, $200 or even $400, reports a New York obstetrician who has been speaking out against such exorbitant prices. Last September the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists cracked down on the high-fee practice and suggested in its news-letter that the charge be “not in excess of $25.” The devices themselves, as sold to the doctors, range in price from $1 for the loop to $1.80 for the steel ring, with a small additional charge for the instruments needed for insertion and removal. In large quantities, for use in clinics, the cost is only a few cents apiece.

No one is yet certain just how the intra-uterine device interferes with conception. The currently favored theory is based on meticulous research carried out at the University of California at Los Angeles. Investigators there, after artificially inducing ovulation in monkeys and then artificially inseminating them, found that the IUD causes the egg to hurry down the Fallopian tubes before it is mature enough to be fertilized.

Doctors do not usually advise IUDs for women who have never had a baby. The devices have the added disadvantage that only about 75 percent of women who do try them find them acceptable. An estimated 15 percent must have them removed because of pain, excessive bleeding or other medical reasons, and 10 percent accidentally expel them, sometimes without knowing it. But about 97 percent of those who can retain the IUD are protected against pregnancy, a lower score than the pill’s but still better than that of older methods.

Even with its imperfections the IUD is regarded as one of the most practical methods of coping with the world-population crisis. The Population Council, supported mainly by Rockefeller and Ford money, has sponsored extensive worldwide trials, focusing especially on India, Taiwan and Korea. India, now launched on a $400 million birth-control program, has received 1.2 million IUDs from the Population Council. And last summer it started a factory to turn out 14,000 loops a day, distributing small gold-plated loops as souvenirs of the opening-day ceremonies.

In the IUD and the pill, the birth-control revolution has formidable weapons against the world-population explosion. The science of birth control, however, is pushing on toward new techniques that may make birth control even easier. Several drug companies, for example, are developing an injection that will prevent ovulation for one to three months, depending on the formula. One compound produces its effect so gradually yet so powerfully that a single shot will suppress both ovulation and menstruation for six months to a year.

The injectables are still in the trial stage and won’t be on the market until completion of tests on more than 5,000 women in several states, but preliminary reports are promising. Menstruation occurs normally with the once-a-month injection, as it does with the daily pills. But it can be suppressed by the longer-acting injectables or by taking certain types of contraceptive pills through the full month, without interruption. Dr. Charles Flowers, professor of obstetrics at the University of North Carolina, finds that women suffering from painful or excessive menses, or from the irritability and “witchiness” of premenstrual tension, are delighted to be relieved of these troubles for several months at a time.

But the injection is just the beginning. Among the new advances promised for the future is a vaccine against pregnancy, now being worked on by several groups. One approach involves extracts from the egg and the sperm. Dr. Albert Tyler of the California Institute of Technology has found that a sperm extract injected into the female rabbit will coat the rabbit ova so that a live sperm from the male rabbit cannot attach itself to fertilize the egg. Anti-conception vaccines suitable for human use have not yet been perfected, however. Doctor Tyler, though optimistic about the future, points out that such vaccines “must not make wives allergic to their husbands.”

Such allergic tragedies would be avoided by a vaccine for the husband, which would work by suppressing his own sperm production. Dr. Kenneth Laurence, of the Population Council’s research unit at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, thinks this goal may be reached in three or four years. He and his associates have been injecting male guinea pigs with extracts of guinea-pig testes or sperm, and within six or seven weeks the animals become sterile. Their sperm production comes to a stop. While a single injection renders the animal sterile for 4 to 11 months, his sex-hormone output is not interfered with. He retains a normal sex drive and will mate if allowed to.

When the effect of the vaccine wears off, the glands resume the manufacture of sperm, at first with minor variations in sperm size. Eventually the sperm are normal in size and number, and the guinea pigs are able to father normal offspring. They have also had normal “grandchildren.” There has been one drawback, however, to the practical application of the male-vaccine method of birth control. The vaccine must contain an oil ingredient (called an adjuvant) for it to work efficiently. And the adjuvant makes such a sore at the point of injection that Doctor Laurence doubts most men would want to put up with that much discomfort. “But we are now working with another adjuvant that doesn’t produce a lesion,” he said. “Two injections would be necessary with this material, instead of one, and we haven’t yet tried it on humans, but we think we’ll be ready for this in a few years.”

A number of efforts are being made to produce something a woman could swallow following intercourse — the so-called “morning-after pill.” Dr. M.C. Shelesnyak, of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovoth, Israel, has found that a single dose of an alkaloid known as ergocornine, given to rats within six days after intercourse, will prevent the implantation of the fertilized ovum on the wall of the uterus. Doctor Shelesnyak has made preliminary studies with women patients, giving them 2-mg. tablets of ergocornine. The results were encouraging, but more work is necessary, he re-ported, to determine whether the method will prevent pregnancy without toxic side effects.

An American pharmaceutical firm has been experimenting with another morning-after pill that appears to destroy the fertilized ovum. But on one of the first field trials, women who had taken the pill unexpectedly became photosensitive. As soon as they went out in the sun, they got a sunburn. If these difficulties can be solved, the “morning-after pill” may become the ideal contraceptive.


Birth control pill behind two people holding each other

As the scientific revolution in birth control continues, solving human problems of many sorts, it also creates problems in morality. The new techniques eliminate fears that formerly deterred men and women from sex outside of marriage. With the deterrents reduced or gone, many people believe that the foundations of contemporary sexual morality may be threatened, especially the morals of the young. Newspaper headlines and book titles have cited “the new promiscuity’ facilitated by the pill. “Sex on the campus” has been a popular topic on television discussion programs, and college health officers have shocked parents across the country by publicly reporting that coeds come to them for prescriptions for pills. One said that when a girl at a Midwestern college recently made such a request, she was asked, “How old are you?”

“Twenty-one,” the girl replied.

“You have a particular man in mind?”

“Well, yes, I do.”

“Have you ever stopped to think that you might someday want to marry a man who holds virginity in high regard?” the doctor then asked.

“Yes,” she said, candidly. “But I’m not at all sure I want to marry a man like that.”

Indisputably, the revolution is making an impact on the lives and sex standards of the young, from teen-agers on up. Some authorities hope that the pill, prescribed for “the girl in trouble,” the youngster whose sex impulses cannot be controlled, will at least prevent the tragedy of the illegitimate, unwanted child. Dr. Edward Tyler, president of the American Association of Planned Parenthood Physicians, says his clinic in Los Angeles follows the principle of giving birth-control help to girls who have had a baby or who are brought in by mothers saying they are afraid the daughters will become pregnant. In New York the Planned Parenthood clinics follow a similar rule, and if parents or guardians are not available, the girls are accepted for help on referral by a social or health agency, a clergyman or a physician.

As for the controversial issue of sex on the college campus, some college officials doubt the pill is really encouraging freer sex activity there. Though ministers and moralists are highly vocal about “the rapid breakdown of sexual moral standards” among the young, many administrators insist that the situation today is no different from what it has always been.

“We have about five percent whom I would call sexually active,” observes Dr. Richard Moy, young head of the Student Health Service at the University of Chicago. “But that’s the same five percent we’ve always had. As for the pills, many girls have them when they come to school. Their family doctors at home have prescribed them. Or they borrow from each other or use the prescription of a married sister. Or they put on an engagement ring and get them as part of preparation for marriage. It’s not a very formidable task to obtain the pills.” A doctor on the West Coast says, “I’m sure many are sold in the drugstores without prescriptions, and there is certainly a lot of pill swapping, like sugar or eggs.”

Some investigators and many students insist that promiscuity is no more acceptable today than it was 40 years ago. Nevitt Sanford, professor of education and psychology at Stanford University, reports in the National Education Association Journal that on the basis of 12 years of studies at three schools-an eastern women’s college, a west-ern state university and a private college in the West, “there has been no revolutionary change in the status of premarital intercourse since the 1920’s.” He finds that between 20 and 30 percent of the women in his samples were not virgins at the time of graduation, and he thinks this is about the same percentage that existed in the 1920’s.

A number of college girls interviewed on these questions believe there has been an increase in pre-marital intercourse, but not in the direction of promiscuity. “There is a more sensible assessment of the problem than our parents used to make,” one girl explained. “I don’t think that promiscuity is condoned any more today than it ever was. But sex between people in love, people who hope or expect their relationship to grow into marriage, is much more common.” Nor do the girls think the rise in premarital sex is due to the pill.

Mrs. Mary-jane Snyder, of the Chicago Planned Parenthood staff, had a discussion on several topics with girls from a half-dozen colleges. On the subject of the pills, one of them said, “A lot of girls who were using other precautions have changed to the pills, I think-in fact, I know. But that’s just like changing from the horse and buggy to the automobile-it’s progress.” Another agreed. “No.  I don’t think the pill has changed campus morals. The change was there. The pills just make it easier.” A third girl remarked, “Just think what the automobile did to increase sex activity. Don’t forget, though, there are still a lot of girls left with strong old moral fiber!”

“I wish it didn’t seem so old-fashioned to have high moral values,” one coed commented. “So many girls would just love to be able to say out loud that they think too much is being made of the importance of sex. The silly thing is that it’s sort of embarrassing to admit that you disapprove. It’s ‘the thing’ to sound modern and blasé even if you aren’t. For this reason, one can get a false impression of the percentage of girls who indulge.”

A faculty member at a big eastern university also doubts the pill has been a factor in changing campus morals, although he notes that “a great many girls are taking the pills, girls whose mothers send them to school all informed and ready.”

“It seems to me that the changed circumstances between the sexes is the crucial factor,” observes John Munro, dean of Harvard University. “The independence of women, for example. Going steady — the steady companionship of individual couples — is another aspect. Boys and girls are so much more companionable than ever before. Girls can do so much more, too. Families will send a couple of girls to Europe unchaperoned, for example. Or boys and girls start off together on some idealistic mission. But the young people, depending much on each other, become sexually entangled. Then one of them gets tired of the situation and the other suffers emotionally, and what you have is divorce before marriage, which can be pretty hard on these people.” But one girl asks:

“So long as we have no child — thanks to the pill — our relationship affects only ourselves. Why is this so wrong, when no one else gets hurt?”

A controversy over birth-control pills recently A flared on the campus of Pembroke College, the women’s division of Brown University, in Providence, R.I. A 19-year-old reporter for the Pembroke Record, a campus paper, called on Dr. Roswell D. Johnson, the Pembroke College health director, without identifying herself as a reporter, and asked for a prescription for the pills. In her article she wrote that she had “obtained a tentative prescription,” though she went on to say she was “refused a prescription for the time being on the grounds that she was under age.” Her story claimed Doctor Johnson did not mention any need for parental permission.

Doctor Johnson flatly contradicted the reporter on this point, saying he couldn’t even begin to talk to her about prescribing pills for her because she was under 21. “I also told her the only way she could get them was for her parents to write and request me to prescribe them,” he said, “and when I added, ‘I assume you’re not in the mood to write to them?’ she replied, ‘Oh-h-h, no-o-o!’

“Anyone over 21, however, is a free agent,” Doctor Johnson remarked, although he said he had actually prescribed the pills for only two unmarried students, and both of them were planning to be married. He added that if a girl asked him for a pill prescription he wanted to know why she wanted it. “I want to feel I’m contributing to a good solid relationship and not to promiscuity,” he said.

Mrs. Annabelle Cooper, executive director of the Washtenaw County League for Planned Parenthood, in Ann Arbor, Mich., finds no perceptible increase in the number of unmarried college girls under 21 applying to the clinic for contraceptives. “Those who want contraceptives can get them so easily at the corner drugstore,” she says, “that they usually don’t come to us. The pills aren’t available there without prescription, of course, nor the intra-uterine devices nor the diaphragms. But foams and condoms are.”

The Washtenaw Clinic’s policy statement on services to unmarried women is clear and decisive: Contraceptive services are given to all women 21 years or older, all married women under 21, and all unmarried mothers 21 or under “upon consideration.” “All women under 21 who are definitely engaged are given contraceptive service prior to marriage,” the statement continues. “All others are counseled, but given contraceptive service only with their parents’ permission.”

The premarital counseling and examination will be given as long as three months before marriage. “We have trained social workers who try to determine if a young girl is really going to be married,” Mrs. Cooper explained. “Occasionally we see a girl who is ‘premarital’ for as long as two years.”

Among young couples who have premarital intercourse, many actually refuse to use contraceptives. In addition to those who observe a religious prohibition, there are couples who believe that the use of any contraceptive is “too premeditated,” or is “not sincere.” “Some felt ‘planned intercourse’ was not romantic, and was too great a transgression of standards,” says Dr. Joseph Katz of Stanford. “I believe this is one of the biggest factors in unwanted pregnancies.”

Occasionally one finds a lonely, unloved girl who wants to become pregnant, even though she has no hope of marrying the baby’s father. And there is always the girl who tries to snare a boy by this means. In contrast with these girls is the one whose story a university official said he had every reason to believe. Even though she was not having intercourse, she still was taking the pills, she told him, because when she turned down a man she wanted it to be a matter of her own free choice and not because she was scared.

With her bewildering reasoning, the girl had touched upon what may be the only inarguable conclusion that can be drawn about the impact of the birth-control revolution on sex behavior: In cases where fear of pregnancy was the sole deterrent, the reliability of the new contraceptives has removed that fear.


Birth control pill behind church steeple
Nearly all religious denominations opposed birth control until a few decades ago, when one after another began to modify their positions. The Roman Catholic Church, almost alone, remained firm in its opposition. What the Church is now involved in is a struggle to extricate itself — without confusing the faithful — from a thick doctrinal web spun around the subject of marriage and sex in the early centuries of the Christian era.

Neither the Old Testament nor the New specifically forbade contraception. The web of prohibition was purely an interpretation, woven by Popes and bishops and strengthened by the authoritarian tradition of the Church.

A penetrating study of this process — Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists — has been written by John T. Noonan Jr. of Notre Dame. Professor Noonan notes that contraception had been permitted by the Greek, Roman and early Jewish cultures and that the Christian teaching against it was mainly a reaction to the excesses of the Romans, who added to their licentiousness not only contraception but abortion. The Christian doctrine also reflected a new emphasis on the sanctity of all human life, including the seeds of life to be.

But there was a peculiar ambivalence toward sex in marriage, even in the Old Testament, and this, says Professor Noonan, is basic to an understanding of the development of the Christian ethic. On the one hand is the familiar glorification of procreation: “… and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.” Yet over against this are such strange verses as that in the Psalms, in which David, though the child of a lawful marriage, cries: “In guilt was I born and in sin my mother conceived me.” This and other passages, says Noonan, “furnish support to one stand of Christian thought, mistrustful of sex.”

Puritanical hostility to pleasure in sex, and to contraception, reached its peak with Augustine, in the fourth century. A former believer in Manichaeanism, he bitterly attacked the sex practices of that group, including its use of the sterile period. Ironically this was the original rhythm method, the only one now approved by the Catholic Church. As Noonan observes, “History has made doctrine take a topsy-turvy course.”

The pill was, of course, the catalyst that started the ferment of rethinking in the Catholic Churh, for it was obviously less “artificial” than jellies, foams and mechanical contraceptives. And in mimicking the action of nature’s hormones, the pill could be said to “regularize” the cycle and thus make the rhythm method more acceptable.

One of the first Catholic scholars to argue that the pill was licit on the basis that it did simulate normal physiology was the Rev. Louis Janssens, of the University of Louvain, Belgium. But within three months after his article appeared, in 1958, the late Pope Pius XII rejected this view. While Pius condemned the use of the pills to prevent conception, he nevertheless approved them when used for therapeutic purposes, even if “temporary sterility” was an indirect result.

This opened the door to more debate, a torrent of spoken and written words from priests and laymen alike, representing all shades of opinion and discussing female physiology and marital love with amazing frankness. Seldom in the history of the Church, which now claims a world membership of about half a billion, has an issue produced such sharp and vocal division among its leaders.

At the heart of most of the liberal argument was a pastoral concern for the dilemma of married parishioners. The Belgian cardinal, Leon Joseph Suenens, was moved to declare before the Ecumenical Council in Rome: “We are faced with the problem, not because the Christian faithful are attempting to satisfy their passions and their egoism, but because the best among them are attempting with anguish to live a double loyalty, to the Church’s doctrines and to the needs of conjugal and parental love.”

The cleavage among the priests left millions of Catholic couples confused. Many made their own decisions and chose the pills, with or without a twinge of conscience or a confession. Others had a tougher struggle. There was the girl of 18 who knocked one evening on the door of the Chicago Planned Parenthood headquarters. Mrs. Snyder, a warm and understanding staff member, let her in.

“The poor girl was in tears,” Mrs. Snyder recalls. “She told me she and her fiancé were to be married during his three-week leave from the Navy, and since both were Catholics she had asked her parish priest for a dispensation to permit them to use a contraceptive. She had a job and didn’t want to become pregnant until her husband came home again in a year. But her priest had refused, although, as she said. a friend’s priest in the next parish would have given the dispensation.

This girl said she didn’t mind if they had twelve children, once her husband was home to stay, but right now she didn’t want to take a chance because it was so necessary for her to keep her job. I really felt sorry for her. I was in tears myself before she left. But I didn’t want to advise her to go against her priest when she so plainly thought it would be the wrong thing to do.”

For another Midwestern woman, an accountant’s wife with three children under three years of age. there was a different outcome. Mrs. Jarvis, as we shall call her, had met her husband at a Catholic college, they had been married in the church and were “the best Catholics you ever saw until our babies began to come along so close together. Then we felt we had to do something.

“Our house has five bedrooms, but my husband said he didn’t want me to fill them up right away,” she said. “And when I’m pregnant, I’m in a bad mood most of the time. However, he didn’t think we could receive communion if we used ordinary contraceptives, because we’d have to confess each time as a sin.” Mrs. Jarvis, a young woman with delicate, sensitive features, leaned forward in her chair. “But for a thing to be a sin,” she said, “there are three things about it: First, you must think it’s a sin; second, it must be a grievous thing against God; and third, you must have done it voluntarily. Well, we don’t think the pills are a sin, and our young priest said he saw nothing wrong with them either. So we don’t confess them, and we can go to church and take communion. We didn’t learn about this until just a few weeks ago when the young priest told us. Young priests seem to be more understanding.

“The best time to be a Catholic,” Mrs. Jarvis concluded, “is when you’re very young or very old. In between is this problem. They say the Catholic Church is hard to live in and easy to die in, and it’s true. But the pills, which so many in the Church are beginning to approve, will be a great help.”

Hopes for liberalization of the Church’s position appeared to suffer a setback last October, when Pope Paul spoke to the United Nations in New York. Three quarters of the way through his eloquent plea for world peace, he sounded what to many seemed a discordant and disappointing note. “You must strive to multiply bread so that it suffices for the tables of mankind,” he said, “and not rather favor an artificial control of birth, which would be irrational, in order to diminish the number of guests at the banquet of life.”

The Pontiff’s remark was open to instant and differing interpretations, as papal utterances often are. Some observers said its import hinged on the Pope’s own definition of “artificial.” Others thought he simply wanted to discourage an international campaign for contraception.

One of the official bodies studying the problem is a special papal commission on problems of marriage set up by Pope John XXIII. Pope Paul enlarged the commission to 56 members, including clergymen, scientists, doctors and a few married couples. The commission failed to agree on a recommendation during the Ecumenical Council, but the council’s final declaration on marriage, which reflected intervention by the Pope, indicated that he had asked the commission to continue its study of the birth-control question.

The pertinent passages in the council’s report on “The Church in the Modern World” were ambiguous, however. They said the faithful “may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.” At present this rules out all but abstinence and rhythm. At the same time they made a significant change by placing conjugal love for its own sake on an equal plane with procreation. Some observers think this opens the way to eventual approval of many forms of birth control.


While the Catholic Church has not significantly modified its official stand on the birth-control issue, the fact that the Pope and his advisers have been considering changes has had an effect. For one thing, the possibility of future change has served to inhibit many of the Catholic politicians who have traditionally fought the operation of birth-control clinics. “The Catholic Church found what the Pope was going to decide,” said Dr. Alan F. Guttmacher, the eminent obstetrician, gynecologist and president of the Planned Parenthood Federation. “They didn’t want to hold the line against birth control and then discover that the Pope will say the sky’s the limit.” Several states repealed their anti-birth-control laws last year, and Connecticut’s law was declared unconstitutional, with almost no opposition from church groups. Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, whose autographed photo hangs in Guttmacher’s office, has actually said he favors the legalizing of birth control. He reflects the new attitude of many Catholic prelates in saying that “Catholics do not need the support of civil law to be faithful to their religious convictions, and they do not seek to impose by law their moral views on other members of society.”

The revolution in birth control is far more, of course, than a rebellion against rigid church teachings. It is a wave of human thought and emotion which was channeled into worldwide action by a group of what might be called “benevolent conspirators.” They are industrialists, physicians, scholars, publishers, retired generals—men and women who are convinced of the urgency of the cause and are highly persuasive in advancing it.

Doctor Guttmacher recalls a routine mail appeal of several years ago which brought a $100 check from the president of a large corporation. “We followed this up with a personal contact,” he said, “and now this man contributes $100,000 a year to the Planned Parenthood funds and is one of our most effective leaders. The movement also gained much momentum when Cass Canfield of Harper’ s became chairman of our executive committee six years ago. He is one of the most respected publishers in the United States, and his influence has been great.”

Some years ago Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. became interested. She enlisted her husband, and their son, John D. III, continued the family’s involvement. Doctor Guttmacher recalls that John D. III was distressed by the poverty and acute overcrowding he saw during a trip to the Far East in 1952. “He conceived the idea of the Population Council, and with Gen. Fred Osborn, then one of his advisers, set it up. It is now one of the strongest forces we have, especially for carrying on research.”

Although the birth-control organizations operate no lobbies, their officers often inspire important moves by other groups, and they make frequent calls on members of state and federal governments. Last spring a large group of Nobel Prize winners of America and Europe addressed a statement to the Pope, urging him to “give due weight to the ever-growing opinion” in the world that unwanted children are a source of unhappiness and distress and that parents should be able to limit their families to the number of children “which can be cared for and cherished.” Dr. Edward L. Tatum, a biologist of the Rockefeller Institute, and Dr. Peter B. Medawar, a British biologist, were the two Nobel laureates who moved the idea ahead and got 81 signers to the letter.

Doctor Guttmacher, when not touring the world on behalf of foreign birth-control programs, gets to Washington once or twice a month. There he may confer about family-planning services for the wives of military personnel or American Indians (both groups are entitled to such services under current government policies), or push for wider use of anti-poverty funds for birth control. (A total of $766,000 has gone to 13 birth-control projects.)

A change in government attitude at the White House level has had much to do with speeding up the anti-poverty clinics, Doctor Guttmacher believes. “President Johnson sent up a trial balloon early last year, saying he would ‘seek new ways to use our knowledge to help deal with the explosion of world population.’ I guess the balloon didn’t burst because he sent up an even bigger one six months later when he said at the United Nations in June that five dollars spent on population control is worth one hundred in economic aid. What else do you need for a green light?”

The turnaround in government policy can be credited in large part to Gen. William H. Draper Jr., now a vice-chairman of Planned Parenthood, and a famous report he wrote in 1959. He was then chairman of the President’s Committee to Study the United States Military Assistance Program.

General Draper had first come into contact with a major population problem during a trip to Japan in 1948, where he saw the tremendous congestion caused by the repatriation of millions of Japanese from Manchuria and the Chinese mainland. “In 1958, members of our committee — a high-level group of responsible citizens — visited all the countries receiving aid from us,” General Draper recalled recently, “and in some we found the standard of living was actually going down because of the high birth rate. We agreed unanimously in our recommendation, that ‘the United States should assist those countries with which it is cooperating in economic-aid programs, on request, in the formulation of their plans designed to deal with the problem of rapid population growth.’

“Of course, the recommendation was carefully worded.” General Draper pointed out, “and there were two words — ‘on request’ — which saved it.”

But at the time the Draper report was submitted, even those two words didn’t save it, a fact that shocked its authors. “We never thought the recommendations would not be accepted,” General Draper said, “and then I picked up the paper one morning and read that President Eisenhower had said that the last thing he wanted our Government to do was to give birth-control advice to foreign countries.” Even before Eisenhower spoke, Draper said, “the Catholic bishops blasted the report, and that was the worst thing they could have done, because it did become a big issue, and all the candidates were asked how they stood on it, Kennedy coming off very well.”

The idea had been planted, and it took root. Though Eisenhower refused to involve the Government in foreign birth-control programs, he approved of private organizations in this field. Later he changed his mind on government participation. In a Saturday Evening Post article of October 26, 1963, he explained he had rejected the Draper recommendations because he felt that using federal funds on population-control problems abroad “would violate the deepest religious convictions of large groups of taxpayers.” But, he wrote, “As I now look back, it may be that I was carrying that conviction too far.” In 1964 General Draper persuaded Mr. Eisenhower and another former President, Harry S Truman, to be honorary co-chairmen of Planned Parenthood-World Population, thus lending their influence to foreign as well as American phases of the program. All this made it easier for President Lyndon Johnson to make birth control a national policy.


birth control pill and gavel
While the “benevolent conspirators” were slowly changing our attitudes toward birth control, there remained a vast network of restrictive laws, the principal effect of which has been to deprive low-income families of birth-control information and services. This legislation began with the federal law of 1873, instigated by the busy New England anti-vice crusader, Anthony Comstock. Some 30 states soon passed “little Comstock laws,” most calling birth control “obscene and immoral.”

These were the statutes under which Mrs. Sanger’s pioneer meetings were raided, her clinics closed and she herself jailed. In 1936 another famous birth-control figure, the late Dr. Hannah Stone of New York, was involved in a case known as “The United States vs. One Package.” The package contained diaphragms sent to her from Japan and seized by U.S. Customs. Mrs. Harriet Pilpel, a New York lawyer, argued the “package”case for Doctor Stone and won. In the fall of 1963 Mrs. Pilpel was called again when the St. Louis postmaster held up the mailing of 50,000 samples of an aerosol foam contraceptive on the grounds that they were not addressed to doctors. The product, Emko, is made as a crusading and semi-philanthropic sideline by a gregarious white-haired St. Louis manufacturer, Joseph Sunnen.

Sunnen, who has donated thousands of bottles of Emko and hundreds of thousands of dollars to birth-control programs, always carries a few Emko packages in his pocket, passing them out to friends and casual acquaintances after asking them how many children they have. The samples were being sent to women who had clipped coupons from Emko ads appearing in 19 magazines. Again Mrs. Pilpel obtained a favorable ruling. one that said unless the postmaster could prove the packages were being mailed for unlawful purposes, they could go through.

The toughest Comstock Law in the land was Connecticut’s 1879 statute making the use of any drug, medical article or instrument to prevent conception an offense punishable by a fine and up to a year in prison. Anyone who “assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offense” could be similarly prosecuted.

The law was enacted by a Protestant Puritan legislature and was kept on the books, in the face of 28 legislative repeal efforts in the past 40 years, by what has been described as “a small but very articulate and well-organized group of Roman Catholic extremists.” Connecticut doctors were not barred from giving birth-control advice to private patients in their offices, but the state law blocked welfare clinics from giving such advice to their clients. Eight or nine birth-control clinics were closed under the law in 1939 and many of the doctors and nurses in attendance were arrested.

When Dr. C. Lee Buxton arrived from New York in 1954 to head the department of obstetrics at Yale’s School of Medicine, he was both amused by the law’s silliness and distressed by its social injustice. To prohibit individual couples from using contraceptives would, he observed, “require police power as a third party on the connubial couch,” a thought whose “farcical implications have all kinds of possibilities.”

But what sharpened his determination to do something about the law was the death of several women patients and the permanent incapacitation of another from medical problems seriously aggravated by unwanted pregnancies. All these women had sought contraceptive advice and been unable to get it. “I was brooding about these patients at a cocktail party one evening,” Doctor Buxton recalls, “when I met Fowler Harper, then professor of law at Yale. I asked what he thought about the Connecticut law, which was actually preventing us from giving birth-control information to ward patients in the hospital. He said he thought it was a hell of a law. So I got some cases worked up for legal trial, and Harper filed suit to challenge the law’s constitutionality, on the ground that it violated the 14th Amendment assuring citizens the basic civil and human rights of personal liberty. Professor Harper died last year, but Miss Catherine Roraback, one of his former students, masterminded the case for us.”

This case was lost in the lower courts, and the Supreme Court refused to consider the constitutionality on the grounds that the law was in fact a dead issue and was not enforced. Well, if the law was a dead issue, the thing to do was to open a contraceptive clinic at once, and Mrs. Estelle Griswold. executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, in cooperation with Doctor Buxton as director, prepared to do so. On November 1, 1961, the clinic opened its doors to the public. On November 10 it was closed, by order of the prosecutor, Julius Maretz.

In closing the clinic, New Haven authorities had to contend with a small, white-haired woman in her 60’s with a lively sense of humor and a relish for a good fight. The shutting down of Mrs. Griswold’s clinic on that November day was a challenge she met with delight.

“My real concern had been that we were only fighting feathers,” she said, “that no one might oppose us. This bothered me because birth-control services would still have been illegal. But when we announced the clinic was open, we were swamped with phone calls, and our appointments were soon set up for two or three months ahead.”

What forced the legal move against the New Haven clinic was a series of accusations by a man who went to one official after the other demanding that the clinic be closed. “He made a lot of wild statements about me on the radio,” said Mrs. Griswold, “and said that every minute the clinic was open a baby wasn’t being born. Shortly after one of his radio broadcasts he went to the prosecutor with what was almost an accusation, and there was nothing for the prosecutor to do but send the detectives over to the clinic to see what was going on.”

In the course of appealing the case from the lower courts, where he and Mrs. Griswold were fined $100 each and released on $250 bond, Doctor Buxton wrote to experts at every medical college in the country, asking for written support. He got it, even from many Catholic medical schools. Finally, on June 7, 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic 7-to-2 decision. Justice William 0. Douglas, in writing the majority opinion, declared the case concerned “a relationship lying within the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees” and said the Connecticut law “in forbidding the use of contraceptives rather than regulating their manufacture or sale, seeks to achieve its goals by means having a maximum destructive impact upon that relationship.

“We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights‑older than our political parties, older than our school system,” he concluded. “Marriage is a coming together for better or worse, hopefully enduring and intimate to the degree of being sacred.”

The two dissenting justices, Stewart and Black, both thought the Connecticut law offensive but constitutional.

Within days after the Supreme Court decision the New York legislature modified its 84-year-old “Comstock law” to remove all restrictions on the dissemination of birth-control information and to permit sale of contraceptives to everyone over the age of 16. Although the law had not been enforced for years, it had been resurrected by the Catholic Welfare Conference in an effort to stop birth-control activities by the State Board of Social Welfare.

Later in the summer the Massachusetts legislature defeated a similar repeal move, but this was the one exception to last year’s general easing of legal and administrative restraints. Ohio and Minnesota joined New York in clearing away restrictions from their statutes.

Seven states — California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan and Nevada — adopted positive legislation to authorize or encourage public family-planning services. And according to a Planned Parenthood survey more than 40 states have made administrative decisions favorable to such programs over the past four or five years.

The long and bitter political battle in Chicago and Illinois ended last June when the state legislature passed a resolution authorizing state agencies to provide birth-control services. And the Chicago Board of Health, under the adroit persuasion of its president, Dr. Eric Oldberg, a prominent neurosurgeon, cautiously began family planning services in nine of its 39 city health centers. His viewpoint conflicts sharply with that of Dr. Karl A. Meyer, 79-year-old medical superintendent of the huge Cook County Hospital, which still has no birth-control clinics even though its annual delivery of 18,000 babies is the largest of any hospital in the country. “Birth control,” Meyer has remarked, “is a socio-economic problem, not a medical one.”

However you define it, birth-control information has been denied to the many women who have sought it at Cook County. In an interview on CBS-TV, one woman said she asked a doctor at Cook County if he could help her stop having children. “He told me no, I was too young,” she said, “and was good for twenty more.”


Spectacular and incisive as its 1965 battles have been, the birth-control revolution has just begun on those troubled frontiers of the world where the population has outraced the supply of food, housing and jobs. Humanity, now numbering almost three and a half billion and expected to reach over 6 billion by the end of the century, has not yet filled up all the earth’s living space. But in many countries the conquest of diseases that used to hold the population in check has been so rapid that the economy has not been able to keep up, and living standards have steadily fallen. “The world-population crisis is no longer a future fear — it is already with us,” General Draper warned last month. “One half of the world’s population and two thirds of its children do not have enough to eat. The stark fact is that if the population continues to increase faster than food production, hundreds of millions will starve in the next decade.”

India, her chronic food shortages worsened by the lack of normal monsoon rains, “is experiencing semi-starvation today,” General Draper commented, “and may see full-scale famine this coming year.” Prime Minister Shastri has asked his people to observe “ supperless Mondays” and food rationing has been ordered in New Delhi. Reports from Orissa, a state in eastern India on the Bay of Bengal, say that some farmers, unable to feed their families, are selling not only their possessions but their children as well.

Latin America’s living standards have declined as its swelling population crowds from the country into the cities. Less food is produced and eaten there per capita than before World War says General Draper, and there has been a shocking 10 percent decline since 1960.

Dr. Alberto Lleras, a former president of Colombia, told Sen. Ernest Gruening’s committee on population control that South America’s problem has been greatly aggravated by mechanization on the farms and automation in industry. “Millions of peasants, thrown out of work in the country, become a bedraggled army of nomads,” he said, “flocking to the cities and finding no work, or grossly inadequate employment there.

“Worse yet,” Lleras added, “economic development is not achieving its purpose — to create jobs. … Latin America is breeding misery, revolutionary pressures, famine and many other potentially disastrous problems in proportions that exceed our imagination.”

Both Lleras and General Draper insist that population problems in Latin America and other crowded parts of the world cannot be solved without birth control. Unfortunately, the revolution has not yet touched the great majority of the world’s people. According to George N. Lindsay Jr., brother of New York’s mayor and the new chairman of the board of Planned Parenthood, “Modern contraceptives are still largely unavailable among three fourths of the world’s people. Even in the U.S., where family planning is now a deep-rooted tradition among the more fortunate, nine out of ten impoverished women still lack birth-control information and assistance.”

Where the new weapons of the birth-control revolution have been given a fair test, the signs are encouraging. Under the Korean National Health program, doctors have been fitting women with intra-uterine devices at the rate of 15,000 a month. Their aim is to cut the birth rate in half in the next three years, and in one test area a 20 percent reduction was achieved in just one year. In Taiwan the program is under non-government sponsorship, with Population Council assistance. The goal is to install 600.000 loops by 1969 and slow the island’s population growth rate from 3.2 to 1.8 percent. In selected areas the birth rate has already declined 60 percent.

U.S. Ambassador to India Chester Bowles has said that India expects to reduce its annual birth rate from the present 42 per 1,000 of population to 25 over the next decade. Mr. Bowles displayed a New Delhi newspaper with a Ministry of Health ad that read: “A small family is a happy family. Plan your family the loop way.”

At this point no one can say what the ultimate in conception control will be — a loop, a better pill, a longer-lasting injectable, a safe vaccine. What is important is that the human family and the human race have at last a means for determining, with unprecedented re-liability, their increase. “By placing the creation of life under the guidance of man’s ethics and intellect,” says Donald B. Straus, former chairman of Planned Parenthood, “we can achieve a reverence for life which assures that every baby shall be a wanted baby and shall have room in the family for love.”

We live in a finite world, with finite resources. Yet we are endowed with a brain of almost infinite inventiveness and capacity, and it has given us the birth-control revolution. We can reasonably expect that in time we shall be able to occupy our world without crowding and exhausting it.

Letting Go

Remember how, in old movies, when someone is dying, the family all gathers around the sick bed and the ailing family member summons his energy to sit up and tell everyone he loves them, then pitches over and goes to his reward? Well, if it was ever like that in real life, it’s not anymore.

In the past 10 years or so, I’ve sat at the bedsides of several friends and family members who have passed on. One week before my mother died at 88, she was ailing but communicative — even cracking jokes — in her hospital bed. But five days later she’d entered “transition,” that purgatory-like state when the body is still alive but the brain has begun shutting down. She was breathing, but unconscious. The nursing staff, knowing the end was near, asked what we wanted to do if her heart stopped. Would we want them to take heroic measures to restart it, very likely breaking her ribs in the process?

No, we said. She was tiny and frail with an intractable condition, and we knew she would not have wanted it. So we sat at her bedside, whispering to her, holding her hand, saying goodbye.

In recent years, the very definition of death has changed, from a precise endpoint to a fuzzy continuum of decline that can be extended artificially for quite some time. And for this, we can thank, or blame, science. My mother got off easy. Some elderly people, well past the point of having even a slender chance of returning to a robust life, become medical pincushions as doctors and nurses see how long they can keep the heart beating.

In “Final Independence,” Jeanne Erdmann describes science’s Faustian bargain unsparingly: “Antibiotics, defibrillators, feeding tubes, and ventilators are lifesaving tools that sometimes become weapons to prolong life against our will.”

How much suffering should a person have to put up with at life’s end? There are advance directives that are supposed to protect you from needless suffering, but as Erdmann points out, it’s all too easy for those wishes to be ignored. We should never forget that medical professionals are trained to cure, not to ease their patients’ passage. Moreover, in today’s litigious world, many doctors are fearful of being sued for negligence. All it takes is one family member arguing that a life-saving procedure was inappropriately withheld.

It’s time for courts to protect doctors who, with family support, agree to mercifully withhold treatment. It’s time for medical schools to develop curricula to help the next generation of doctors learn how to say “this is the end” when the outlook is hopeless. It’s time to help dying patients and their families get through this most difficult part of life’s journey with the least amount of suffering.

More related stories in the Post archive:

Doctors Die, DNR

How Doctors Die


Final Independence

Final Independence


Antibiotics, defibrillators, feeding tubes, and ventilators are lifesaving tools that sometimes become weapons to prolong life against our will. None of us wants to live for years in a nursing home rendered unconscious by late-stage dementia; or brain-damaged by strokes; or on and off ventilators with recurring pneumonia, growing so frail we lose the choice of an unfettered death at home. We grow determined in our wishes. We formalize end-of-life plans asking for comfort care only, no heroic, invasive, or futile medical procedures, no artificial food or hydration, minimal feeding. We assemble and legalize these plans. We calm our fears.

It sounds rational and safe. But in reality, the faith we place in legalized directives, or in the medical professionals charged with enforcing them, has proven unwise. Medical professionals ignore such directives, no matter how carefully we’ve crafted them, particularly if we end up in a hospital or nursing facility.

I’m not talking about assisted suicide. I’m talking about plans that specify withholding treatment, such as a ventilator, a feeding tube, or antibiotics for pneumonia, for a person who won’t recover, prolonging death even over fierce objections from family members. This situation results, in part, because directives go against the culture of medicine, which focuses on healing, on doing everything possible even if what’s possible proves futile. …

This article was originally published by Aeon Media (Aeon.co, Twitter: @AeonMag).

To read the entire article, pick up the January/February 2016 issue of The Saturday Evening Post on newsstands or …

Purchase the digital edition for your iPad, Nook, or Android tablet:

To purchase a subscription to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post: subscribe

Five in the Fifth

Jerry stuffed a tray of dirty dishes onto an overcrowded utility cart then rounded the corner to Mildred’s room.

“Hi, gorgeous,” he sang cheerfully. “How’s my girl today?”

Millie lifted her head a fraction as guttural sounds erupted from her throat.

Jerry turned abruptly. She was making an attempt to reply. “Millie, you’ve finally decided to speak to me.”

The old woman’s body jerked toward him causing her hand to flail over the side of the wheelchair. Jerry looked down at a green-shaded Abraham Lincoln peaking through gnarled fingers.

“What’s this?” he asked. “We’re not allowed tips, Mill. But thanks just the same.”

Agitation took over as Millie’s head began to shake. With great effort, she opened her mouth to have “Santa” escape from her lips.

“Santa! You’ve got the wrong holiday, Mill. Christmas is past. We’re coming on Easter.”

Millie waved her hand in frustration. “Santa,” she repeated again. “Five, five ’n fifth.”

“I can’t take your money, Mill. I’d be fired tomorrow. I think you’re a little confused. The nurse will be in shortly. You need a good night’s sleep.”

The television was rolling but Jerry never looked up. Televisions played continuously in every room of the nursing home. His shift was almost over and he was anxious to get to the locker room. He’d been at the Evergreen Nursing Home so long that the odors were second nature to him, but his buddies would puke if he showed up at Zingers before showering. Cleaning vomit from the patients came with the job; dealing with their crap was another issue entirely.

At 7 o’clock, he stepped through the door of Wing Zingers. His friends had their Buds in hand and were sucking them up. He grabbed a Saranac at the bar, then slid into a booth beside Mike.

“So my good men, tell me what’s happening.”

Canyon lifted an eyebrow. “Same ole, same ole.”

The “same ole” was just as boring with the beer bottles emptied. Jerry stretched to catch a glance at the television anchored on a wall high above them. A sports commentator caught his attention. He turned to his buddies with eyes popping.

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what,” Mike asked dryly.

“Santa Anita! The fifth horse in the fifth race had the biggest payout in the track’s history.”

“Didn’t know you were playing the horses,” Canyon remarked with mild surprise.

“I don’t. It’s just that an old woman at the home tried to give me a fin today. She said Santa, five in the fifth.”

The other men roared in laughter.

Canyon wiped tears from his face. “You’re telling us some old bat at the nursing home knew that horse was gonna win. You gotta be kidding.”

“I don’t know.” Jerry was clearly puzzled. “She had the five in her hand.” He lifted a shoulder expressing doubt. “She said five in the fifth.”

Mike gave him a patronizing look. “Listen to yourself, man. You say she had a five in her hand. Five, fifth, it’s all the same. She was getting mixed up, probably wanted change. You’ve been at that place too long, Jer. I think you’re losing it.”

Canyon shook his head. “I never knew why you took that job in the first place.”

“My unemployment was running out. So many of us were out of work when the dealership shut down, I didn’t have a whole lot of choices. You know what they say, plenty of jobs in the service industry.”

Mike gave him a wiry smile. “I’d flip burgers before I’d wipe butts.”

“It’s not so bad when you get used to it. The poor souls need someone to help them out. And Evergreen has a good benefits plan.”

“Benefits! You thinking of getting married or somethin’?”

Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest



Jerry didn’t respond. Mike and Canyon knew very well he hadn’t had a girlfriend since the breakup over a year ago. In fact, he had little to say through the rest of the evening. His mind was on Mildred Johnson.

The following morning, he was annoyed to find a reassignment had put him in a wing far removed from the patient he wanted to see. When the hands of a clock pointed to lunch, he zigzagged through corridors to the old lady’s room.

“Hey Millie, how’s my girl today?”

The woman jerked in her chair but was unable to turn around. Experience at the nursing home had taught him there was no affliction worse than the destruction of a stroke. He positioned himself in front of her chair, then squatted.

“Millie, I’ve got to ask you something. Yesterday, when you tried to press that five on me, were you asking me to bet on a horse?”

The woman’s mouth spread to a crooked smile. She nodded her head ever so slightly as her eyes began to sparkle.

“The five horse in the fifth race at Santa Anita?”

Millie nodded again.

Jerry’s eyes veered toward the television. It was tuned to HRTV. The implications were startling.

“Millie, in your earlier life, were you involved with horses?”

Another nod.

“Mill, we’ve got to come up with some means of communication here. Can you say yes?”

Though slightly garbled, she did produce a yes.

“How about no?”

Millie’s “no” rang clear as a bell.

“Okay.” Jerry took a deep breath, his merry gray eyes suddenly intense. “Did you work with horses?”


Jerry’s questions would be stabs in the dark. “Did you work with thoroughbred race horses?”


“Did you work for yourself or someone else? Let me rephrase that; did you work for someone?”


Jerry scratched his head. “Professional or family?”

Consternation grabbed him as Millie grunted both. Did she mean she had worked with professionals and family or that someone in her family was a professional? She seemed amused at his befuddlement. He took another shot.

“Was someone in your family a professional?”

Millie glowed as she answered in the affirmative.

“Your husband, father? Was one of them a trainer or something?”

Millie was nodding her head with that lopsided smile.

“Was he good? Big-time race horses?”

As Millie nodded, Jerry leaned back on his haunches. With a wide grin, he skipped the questions to make a statement. “I bet you rode some of those broncos.”

“Yes,” Millie gushed and her tale was nearly complete.

Jerry turned his head to find one of the nurses standing in the doorway.

Astonishment held Amy Rush’s tongue. Mildred Johnson had been a resident at Evergreen for over a year. Therapy had failed. It was generally thought that her cerebral capability had been ravaged beyond stimulation. Yet, here she sat animatedly answering each of Jerry’s questions. She couldn’t believe it. Jeremy Keller was a charmer. But even so …

Amy’s reaction had Jerry unnerved. “Is there a problem with my visiting Millie? I’m on lunch break.”

Amy shook her head. “Of course not. I’m just surprised at Millie’s ability to communicate.”

Jerry stood to leave, but not before making a promise. “I’ll be back, Mill. We have a date for 12, noon, tomorrow.”

True to his word, he appeared the next day with coffee and a sandwich in hand. If they were going to lunch together, he had to eat. Skipping the subject of horses, he took a more personal line of questioning.

“You don’t have to answer, but I wondered. Were you ever married?”

Millie nodded then mustered the effort of a short reply. “Died young.”

“Your husband?” Jerry inquired trying to keep the picture straight. At Millie’s nod he ruminated. “I’m sorry to hear that. Did you have children?”

“Boy,” she answered. The blue eyes drifted as her thoughts ran back to another place in time. With words separated by the strain of remembering, she continued her explanation. “Boy-died-in-crash-with-his-Dad.”

Jerry swallowed hard. “You’ve had quite a life haven’t you?”

She looked at him pointedly. “Ery-one-does.” Her hand rose slightly with the index finger pointing toward him.

“Me? You want to know about me?”

Millie nodded.

“There isn’t much to tell. My mom took off when I was 2. I have no memory of her at all. My father liked to drink.”

Millie nodded encouragingly.

“He went into the hospital two weeks before my high school graduation. He died two weeks after I received my diploma. I used to work at a car dealership. I wasn’t a mechanic; I did odd jobs like washing cars. I live alone. Once thought about getting a dog, but my landlord wouldn’t like it.

“You know, Mill, I can’t take your money even to place a bet. But if you give me a tip, I can wager my own. We win; we split.”

The visits continued on a daily basis. Once or twice a week, Millie would handicap a horse. If they won, and most often they did, Jerry would place half of the earnings in Millie’s nightstand.

He arrived one day to find Amy Rush puttering about the room. She looked up upon his arrival giving the distinct impression that she had been waiting for him.

“I’ve noticed,” Amy said slowly, “that money has been accumulating in Millie’s drawer.”

“Is there anything wrong in that?” Jerry inquired.

“Not directly, but you know residents are discouraged from having money in their rooms. It encourages theft.”

Disappointment clouded Millie’s expression. It wasn’t that she had any place or any need to spend her money, but it had become a symbol of Jerry’s friendship and a reminder of things past.

Amy looked down at the tissue box sitting in the drawer. If the money were placed in the box with a tissue on top, no one would know of its existence. On the other hand, if something happened to Mildred, the tissue box would be tossed with the money still inside.

Millie and Jerry were stock still and watching. Amy let out a sigh. Far be it from her to interrupt this relationship.

“Why don’t you hide the money in the tissue box?”

The two smiled; the issue was settled, and Amy made her departure.

Jerry stuffed money beneath the tissues then turned to Millie with a question. “Why is it that all of our bets are made on West Coast tracks?”

“Time,” she answered.

It took a moment before the facts dawned on him. “I get it. By the time I’m through work it’s too late for East Coast races.”

Millie twisted her mouth in a smile.

“There’s nothing dumb about you, ma’mam.”

Jerry did a bit of research and found that Red Gorman, Millie’s father, had been a highly successful trainer in the ’30s and ’40s racking up over 1,000 wins. As the window of the old lady’s life expanded, Jerry’s affection for her grew. He surprised her with a visit on a Sunday morning. The delight it brought was evident as he wheeled her to the elevator then out to the pavilion where she could get a breath of fresh air.

“Figgie Lakes,” she remarked as they sat in the garden. “Four in eighth.”

For a minute or two, Jerry’s face remained blank. “Oh, that’s right, Finger Lakes runs on Sunday. You got a good one Mill?”

“Oh, yes.” she said with quiet sincerity.

On leaving Evergreen, Jerry made a snap decision winding his way over to Route 96 heading southeast toward Farmington. To understand a sport, one had to witness it live. He entered the Finger Lakes parking lot without a fee. Surprises never cease. Then he entered the building free of charge. As he looked around, reality hit him. The bulk of the patrons at Finger Lakes were racino fans gambling at the slots. Well, he thought, they can have their machines. I’m here to watch horses.

He walked to the fence, soaking in every aspect of this new environment. The melodic sound of a bugle call brought the soft thud of hooves out onto the track. Sleek and beautiful, the horses were as different from each other as one human to another. Some appeared nervous, snorting and dancing. Others walked quietly with no affectations.

Six horses had been loaded in the gate when a rambunctious colt reared on his powerful legs striking the air six feet above ground. The horse fought viciously forcing his jockey to dismount. Gate workers in flak jackets maneuvered this bad boy back to the gate. The jockey climbed into the gate to mount from inside like a bronc rider.

The bell rang, the gate flew open, and “bad boy” took the lead. Well, thought Jerry, it seems that fellow was anxious to run. The colt led the pack until the final turn when challengers passed him as if he were standing still. Bad boy finished last.

How does Millie do it? he wondered. How does she know which horse to pick? He went back to the mezzanine to buy a program. For an hour and a half, he studied what looked like hieroglyphics, then went to the window to place Millie’s bet. A few minutes later, he cashed his ticket.

Monday noon he placed Millie’s earning in the tissue box. “You know, Mill, I really enjoyed my trip to the track. In fact, I loved it. I’m thinking about working there.”

Millie jerked. “No!” She was nearly shouting.

“Millie, Millie, don’t worry. I’m not going to give up my day job. A security guard introduced me to a trainer, Rio Smith. I can work as a hot walker from 5 till 7, six mornings a week.” He smiled ruefully. “You don’t see a career for me in racing?”

Millie shook her head. “Doctor,” was her reply.

“Doctor! You think I should be a doctor! Whatever gave you such an idea?“

“Com-pas-sion,” she answered with a halt between syllables.

“Compassion? It takes more than compassion to become a doctor. I’ve never taken a college course. I barely got out of high school.”

Millie made an effort to tap her skull.

“You think I’m smart?” Jerry asked incredulously.

Millie nodded.

“Well, you’re the first. No one ever thought I was smart.”

Throughout the summer Jerry walked horses. He met Millie at noon each day, and went to bed early every night. Mike and Canyon were of the opinion that he’d totally lost his mind. But Jerry loved every aspect of racing: rubbing the horse’s soft coat after a morning workout, the rippling of muscles as they galloped the track, and the welcome nickers he received when walking the shed row. Hope followed every post parade, and he learned to read the program.

When fall rolled around, he made another surprise decision.

“Mill, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’ve enrolled in an evening class at the University of Rochester. I’ll probably flunk out, but I’m going to give it a try.”

Millie smiled her crooked smile. She seemed tired of late. While her speech had been improving, the progress had stopped. As Jerry knelt close, she put a hand to his face, her expression both sweet and sad. “I proud Jer-lie.”

The track closing in November came just in time, as finals were right around the corner. An A in English encouraged him to double his course load for the spring semester.

He spent every noon sitting with an old woman discussing horses and his progress at the college.

Who would have believed it? When the grades for his second semester came back he had a 3.7 average, and he couldn’t wait for morning to report the news. Thoughts tumbled through his head as he drove toward the home. If he took just one summer course, he’d have a whole semester of college under his belt. If he started full time in the fall and continued with a single course every summer, he could finish a degree in three years. He’d give up his day job and keep the hot walks. They didn’t teach anything at 5 in the morning.

Visiting hours were over when he arrived at Evergreen. With the flash of his badge, security passed him through. The bright lights of day hours had dimmed. It was funny; in all the time he’d worked at Evergreen he’d never been there at night. As he neared Millie’s room, he broke out in a sweat. Lights were bright where they should have been dark. He rushed to the door to find the room empty.

His throat constricted as he ran to the nurse’s station. “Mildred Johnson,” he blurted.

“Are you a relative?” the nurse inquired.

“Yeah, yeah I am. Where is she?”

“I’m sorry. If we’d known she had relatives, we would have been in contact. Mildred passed away several hours ago.”

Jerry stepped back shaking his head. “No! I don’t understand. I was with her this noon.”

“Mildred had been failing. Her heart couldn’t keep pace with her spirit. If it’s any comfort, she passed away peacefully. I don’t know if you had plans for any arrangements, but her written request was to be cremated.”

“Arrangements!” Jerry wanted to puke. “What the hell? Make arrangements!” His voice was rising with frustration and anger. He wadded his transcript into a ball and fired it across the hall. Hurt and helpless, he retreated from the catacombs of Evergreen as fast as his legs would take him.

The following morning, he called in sick. Thoughts of the nursing home turned his stomach. The phone rang midmorning, forcing him out of bed.


He recognized the voice, but couldn’t place it.

“This is Amy Rush. I’m a nurse at Evergreen.”

“Oh, yes. I remember. How are you?”

“I’m fine, but I began to worry about you when they said you were sick. I worked extra hours yesterday. I was with Mildred when she died.”

A lump formed in Jerry’s throat forcing a sob he couldn’t control. “I loved that old lady.”

“I know you did. I don’t think she had anyone else.”

Nor did I, thought Jerry.

“I’m not quite sure how to put this, but I can give you the name of the funeral service that took her remains … if you wanted to take the ashes. I’m sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t have called about this.”

“No, it’s all right.”

“Why don’t you stop by the home tomorrow? No one will fault you. One of the benefits of working here is grievance time. I’ll give you the information and a couple of other things I think you might want.”

Jerry slammed the door of his Jeep and looked toward the nursing home as he crossed the parking lot the following morning. His view of things had changed. He found Amy Rush at her station.

“Jerry, I’m so sorry. She suffered for such a long time. Her passing was expected.”

“Not by me.”

“I know.” She pulled an envelope from the drawer. “Information on the funeral home is in here along with Millie’s small cache of mementos. Alan Rice, director of patient services, signed a statement referencing you as the only person of contact. You might need that to get her ashes.”

Jerry looked more closely at Nurse Rush. She was a pretty woman with dark hair and soft brown eyes.

“I appreciate your thoughtfulness,” he said. Then with nothing to add, he nodded and left.

Amy sighed, wondering if he’d bothered to notice the third finger of her left hand. She wore no rings and had no ties.

Jerry held the sealed envelope until he reached the Jeep then dumped its contents onto the seat. The first thing he saw was the money. Four hundred and fifty dollars. Amy had emptied the tissue box. He set the money aside.

Read 30 of the best short stories from the 2016 contest

The photographs were old. One of the images was of a man in a fedora holding the reins of a rangy thoroughbred. The suit placed him somewhere around the 1930s. Probably Millie’s father. A threesome gazed from the second photo: a smiling woman and a handsome young man holding a child in his arms. There was a tattered card dated 1941, Red Gorman’s trainer’s license. All that remained of the life Millie loved had been horse racing, and she’d given that to him.

He owed the old lady. On reaching his apartment, he dialed Finger Lakes and asked for the track manager. A brief discussion left him satisfied. He had three more calls to make: Rio Smith, the trainer; an exercise girl who did morning workouts; and the last unfortunate call rang through to Nigel’s Funeral Service.

The ashes were in a pretty container. Jerry was pleased at that. Millie deserved better, but this was the best he could do. Rio and Pattie were waiting at the track. Rio eyed him carefully.

“You okay, kid?”

Jerry nodded. “Are we ready?”

“Guess so,” Pattie replied climbing onto Rio’s pony.

Jerry handed her the pink container. Holding it carefully, she walked the horse out onto the track with Jerry and Rio following. Along the way heads turned. Nothing was secret at a race track. A security guard opened the gate to the infield and Pattie rode quietly forward.

“I want you to gallop, Pattie. I want those ashes to fly with the wind.”

“Gotcha, Jer.”

Pattie guided Rio’s horse to the far end of the oval, then turned and picked up a trot. In a matter of seconds, she was at a full gallop, one arm extended out to her side was trailed by a plume of gray.

“God speed, dear Millie. God speed.”

Though Jerry murmured the wish under his breath, it wasn’t lost on Rio.

“You really loved the old dame, didn’t you?”

“She changed my life.”

Pattie returned with the empty container. “Never done anything like that before, yet somehow it felt right.”

They were returning the pony to his stall when a groom passed by. The big bay colt on the end of his shank gave Jerry a start. The animal moved with a sort of majesty as if waiting for bystanders to bow.

“Who’s that?” Jerry asked.

Rio laughed. “He’s a stand-out colt. Had some issues in his first few starts. They brought him here to work things out. You know, away from the eyes of the big guys. If he runs well today, I expect they’ll ship him to Saratoga.”

“What’s his name?”

Rio laughed again, his paunch bouncing rhythmically at what he saw to be a joke. “Compassion. His name is Compassion.”

“See you later,” Jerry called.

“Where you going?”

“I’ve got $450 and a tip on a horse. Where do you think I’m going? It takes a lot of money to get through med school.”

“You coming back?” the trainer yelled.

Jerry had rounded the corner of the shed row to disappear from sight, but his answer floated back. “Always, Rio. Always.”

The 2017 Fiction Contest is underway! Click here to enter.

Welcoming Death

Perry had always believed that after death, there was only infinite blackness; to find himself, then, in what appeared to be a sleazy cash advance storefront was somewhat surprising.

“Next,” droned the secretary behind the counter, and Perry realized she meant him. “Name, date of birth, and geographical coordinates of your exiting.” Her hair was sprayed and hardened into a style depictive of the 1950s.

Perry glanced behind him; the line snarled out and into a vacant parking lot farther than he could determine. “Excuse me,” he coughed, blinking dramatically, “but … where am I?”

The secretary peeked up then grumbled, “So you saw a line and thought you should cut, huh?” And in a loud voice she called, “We got a breather!” Immediately, two burly women burst from one of the doors behind the secretary and grabbed Perry by the biceps, towing him through another door on the opposite side. There, a terrific gray light blinded him, and the next thing he knew he was sitting across from a man in a windowless office.

“Just a minute,” said the balding man, his wire-rimmed glasses halfway down his nose. He scribbled on a form, before he pitched the folder over his shoulder and toward one of the impossibly balanced piles behind him. It landed perfectly on top. “Now, how can I help you?”

Perry pulled at the loose fabric of his pants. “What’s … happening?”

The squat man flashed a brusque smile and flicked through a tower of folders. He stopped on one that looked the same as every other. “Perry J. Costa,” he read. “Forty-eight years old. Two children. One ex-wife. Heart attack while browsing the Internet at work. Sound right?”

The memories came to Perry like a nail gun to his skull. “I’m” — he panted — “Am I dead?”

The other man cleared his throat then jazzily danced his hands and sung, “They call me Death.” From somewhere, a tinkling sound effect played, but upon its conclusion, Death resumed his sober disposition.

“But you …” Perry began to have difficulty breathing.

“I know. I look like a tax lawyer. Stupid joke.”

All around Perry, the colors of the room seemed to turn soupy, his thoughts like the music of a merry-go-round getting faster and faster, the melody becoming shriller, distorted; the world ingesting him like —

Death snapped his fingers, and suddenly, everything popped into focus, Perry abruptly feeling as though he had taken a couple of his ex-wife’s anxiety pills. “You’re just dying,” said Death. “You haven’t died.” He dragged a finger down Perry’s folder. “Right now, the EMT’s are entering your building. You have until they try to resuscitate you to convince me.”

“To convince you?” said Perry. Though his mind had somehow surrendered to this reality, he could still discern something monumental was approaching.

“Yes,” said Death, “as to whether I put you back in that line or process your paperwork right now.” Perry squinted, confused. “Look,” said Death, and he pulled down a string hanging above his desk. A white screen unrolled from the ceiling like a map kept above a chalkboard. “There’s you,” said Death, pointing to a stick figure with Xs for eyes. “And there’s me.” He pointed to a magnificent drawing of a body builder in judicial robes. “You convince me, got it?”

Death yanked the string and the screen clattered upward. “Persuade me to either relocate you to that line you stood in a couple minutes ago, or to send you on to the next stage in the process.”

Before … whatever this was, Perry had been an insurance adjuster, where he had been the one needing the convincing. “And how exactly” — he wet his lips — “do I do that?”

Death smiled with all of his teeth. “Why, you pass the test.” Pulling open a drawer, Death retrieved a pack of cigarettes and smacked one out. “You mind?” Without waiting for a response, he lit it. “Typically, the test is a three-step process,” wheezed Death, who began coughing after his first drag. “First, there’s the first part. Next, comes the next part. And you’ll conclude with the conclusion. Are you ready?”

“Wait, what? That didn’t —”

“Fantastic!” said Death, and he reached forward for Perry’s wrist, pinned it to the table, then took the cherry end of his cigarette and buried it into the flesh on the back of Perry’s hand.

Screaming. Lots of screaming.

Then blackness.

Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest



Not a complete sort of blackness, but the kind that comes when you first turn the lights out and your eyes have yet to adjust. And a few moments later, Perry was able to blink some shapes back into vision. He was treading water — a black and milky type of water — inside of a cylinder that extended upward as far as Perry could see. “Hello!” he shouted. The burn on the back of his hand tingled. “Is anyone —”

“Please, stop yelling,” said Death. He was doing the backstroke in circles around their encasement. “More is always accomplished with quieter voices.”

“What’s going on? What’d you do to me?”

“What’d you do to yourself, Perry J. Costa?” Death rolled over and began doing the breaststroke. For such a squat man, he was remarkably lithe. “You’re now on” — he dipped underwater — “of the test. This here is” — he went under again — “bottom to escape. My best advice” — down he went — “no do-over. Best to save” — he submerged — “drowning isn’t all that pleasant.” He paused his circuit, treading with only his legs.

Perry’s eyes bulged. “I didn’t get any of that!” Death motioned at him to lower his voice, and Perry hissed, “What am I doing here? Where are we?”

Death scrunched his face as though it were obvious. “We’re inside a pen.”

“A pen?”

“And you have until —” suddenly, the whole pool slammed to the right, Perry knocked beneath a swell of ink “— until she finishes writing her sentence.” Perry clawed to stay above the liquid. “That means” — and Death mimed writing the sentence: boredom is the absence of a good idea “— you have about 17 seconds.” He grinned. “Good luck, Perry.” Then he slid straight under as though reeled downward by his feet.

Perry groped about the ink (briefly wondering why it wasn’t more viscous) as he scrabbled through his memory of everything Death had said. He was in a pen?! A pen? What kind of ludicrous test was this? The walls jumped forward again, and ink splashed madly.

Escape at the bottom. That Death had said.

With a choppy gulp of air, Perry dove. Beneath the surface, opening his eyes was useless, while the scratch of the nib reverberated monstrously. Again, the pen jostled, and one of the walls smacked Perry, losing his breath and tumbling him in the endless blackness. And once recovered, he had no idea which way was down; however, his body’s reckless need for breath concerned him more. The bobbing of his esophagus. The scraping of his lungs. His jaw pleaded to open, and finally, Perry, thrashing hopelessly, yielded.

Ink guzzled inside his mouth and plunged into his lungs. Spasms across his chest tried to push it out, find air, breathe, breathe, but the horror was resolute. Perry was drowning. And as the blackness outside became blackness inside, Perry became indistinguishable from that infinite darkness.

Until he wasn’t.

When he blinked, there was only blue sky — beautiful, robin egg blue sky — the drowning moments ago, nothing more than a sweaty nightmare. And he was swinging — on a playground swing. His hands around the chains. His hips pinched atop the concave seat. And pumping his legs, the gaiety inside of him thickened into laughter. Until he looked down. For there beneath him was lots and lots of air, the distant ground hundreds of feet away.

Perry shrieked.

“You failed,” came Death’s voice from behind. And when Perry peeped backward, he found his swing set attached and extended from a cliff.

Perry’s hands gnarled around the chains. “Am I … am I dead then?”

Death huffed. “What’s with all the concern about whether or not you’re dead? You failed. That should be your grievance.”

Not knowing why, Perry felt tears coming. “Are you — are you going to process my papers?” He thought about his two children, then, in a way he hadn’t in decades.

“I warned you not to be so careless with it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t claim it.” Perry shot a puzzled glance backward. “Your one do-over,” said Death. “Most people need it for the second part of the test, and that’s why I told you to save it. But technically, you could use it whenever.” Death scratched at his bald scalp. Behind him, a prairie stretched out atop the cliff with a modern cottage a hundred feet back. Above it, there was a large billboard that read: EAT HERE. NOT THERE.

“So … I’m still taking the test?” asked Perry. “I can still convince you?”

Death started doing elegant cartwheels near the edge of the cliff. “Yes. You can.”

“What do I have to do, then?” Hope warmed Perry’s chest.

Pausing his cartwheel, his legs in the air, Death said, “Do a full loop on that swing.”

“What?” Perry peered upward at the bar to which the chains attached. “But that’s … that’s impossible!” he said.

“You asked me what you had to do, and I told you,” said Death, who had begun doing handstand pushups. “Pump your legs, flap your arms, do what you need to make you and your seat flip over that bar.” Death popped back to his feet.

“And … and …” Perry tightened his clasp around the chains. “What if I don’t?”

Death sighed. “Asking yourself why and telling yourself why are the same expressions with different punctuation. Take some advice, Perry: Don’t get so caught up in grammar, all right?” Death stepped toward the edge of the cliff.

“Wait!” cried Perry, and Death did. “How long do I have?”

Death glanced at his wrist where a watch could have been. “As many hours in a day as any man. And don’t worry about the prior life.” Death glanced at his other naked wrist. “Back there, the EMTs are just arriving on your floor. Time’s a bit dilated here.” He pursed his lips as if to say more but instead uttered, “Good luck, Perry.” Then he jumped off the edge of the cliff and rocketed downward beyond sight.

The wind buffeted Perry in the squat man’s absence, and he clutched desperately to the chains. He couldn’t be sure if he was more afraid of falling or failing, but either way he was scared. And for a while, his hips beginning to hurt, his hands smelling like metal, he just sat there. Although the burn on the back of his hand still stung (and this staggering height was most unappealing), everything around him was really quite lovely. The soft glow of the sun, the swish of the grasses behind. And before he realized it, Perry was casually rocking forward and back. He still didn’t understand the purpose of the cottage and billboard, but then again, he really didn’t understand anything that was happening.

Overhead, the sun ticked through the sky, and in time (Perry having swung no higher than 45 degrees) dusk shaded the world pink. Not until now, then, did the anxiety bubble inside of his stomach. Every other minute, he had promised he would attempt the up-and-over. But every time he began, he convinced himself he still had more time.

But the day was almost over. And that was all the time Death had allotted.

Clenching his eyes, Perry began to work his legs outward, inward, outward, inward. But as he rose higher, there came an instant where he lifted out of his seat, and immediately, he slowed his pace. This was absurd! A silly dream children harbored. But the sun was weakening in its fight against the horizon, and soon, darkness would invade.

For some reason, Perry suddenly thought of his childhood dog. His parents had named her Daisy, but Perry always called her Madeline in secret. And because he was the one who spent the most time with her, eventually, she only responded to that.

Slapped back into his seat, Perry realized he had started pumping again. Vigorously. He kept thinking about Madeline — how she loved rides through the automated car wash; how she always looked at you before sneezing. And soon, Perry felt the blast of adrenaline, his body hovering parallel to the ground, his grip fierce around the chains, as he swung backward, ascending, rising until he stared nearly upside down at the cliff behind.

It was now.

With all the velocity he could charge, Perry gunned forward. He closed his eyes as he passed under the bar, soaring forward, upward. And as he felt himself become weightless, he peeked through his eyelids. He was above the bar. Thrill numbed his chest. He had —

Suddenly, his momentum collapsed, and instead of swinging back around, he fell from his seat. The wind gushed by his ears. His eyes rippled with water. He tried to scream, but the surging air smothered his voice. Twisting, rolling, he was helpless to do anything but continue falling. And falling. And falling.

Until he wasn’t.

When he blinked, he was standing on a colorfully lit game show stage.

“Now, who’s ready to play —” The host, Death, dressed in a tuxedo, turned the microphone toward the live studio audience who chanted: “Is. He. Living!”

Perry raised a hand to shield his eyes from the stabbing lights. He couldn’t be certain, but he believed the audience was a collection of literal ducks. And as they opened their beaks to quack, the sound of applause emanated.

“Today’s contestant is Perry J. Costa,” said Death. “Let’s give him a warm welcome, shall we?” All the ducks quacked their claps. “So Perry” — Death turned toward him — “are you ready to play Is He Living?” Still stunned, Perry just blinked stupidly. “Fantastic!” boomed Death. “Let’s get this started by ” — and his voice turned mysterious — “spinning the wheel.”

“W-what’s going on?” mumbled Perry, letting Death guide him toward the back of the stage. Multitudes of colorful light bulbs, like those outlining the featured attractions at old movie theaters, covered the wall. And in the middle of everything was a giant wheel divided in fifths, the numeric spans 0 – 10, 11 – 20, and so forth up to 41 – 50 emblazoned on the sections.

Perry repeated his confusion, but Death ignored him. “As you all know,” said Death, beaming at the audience, “Perry, here, will spin the wheel to select a particular decade of his life. When one’s been chosen, he will then list as many life achievements during that decade as he can. Each event will be awarded points by our three expert judges, and if Perry can score more than a hundred points for that decade, he gets a checkmark.” Above the wheel, there were five empty neon squares. “And if he can pass at least three out of five, he’ll be our grand winner!” The ducks applauded vociferously. “Are you ready?”

Perry gawked around the stage. “But I failed,” he said. “I fell.”

From the corner of his mouth, Death muttered, “You just had to make it over the bar, remember? I didn’t say you couldn’t fall.” Death resumed his persona. “Now it’s time to spin … the … wheel.”

Shakily, Perry raised his hands, the burn there still tingly, and he gave a pull. As it rattled, Perry appraised his reality — drowning in a pen? falling through the sky? a game show contestant? — but before any conclusion was reached, the wheel clicked slowly onto 21 – 30.

“One of my favorite decades!” announced Death. “Now are you ready, Perry?” The 48-year-old began to assemble those years in his memory. “And begin!” Above the wheel and neon squares, the number “15” appeared, counting down the seconds.

Read 30 of the best short stories from the 2016 contest

“Uh … I got married,” said Perry, his thoughts still a bit sticky. “I had two children. Donny and Mindy.” On the left side of the stage, a brawny woman, the co-hostess, hung slats on a board that listed Perry’s achievements as well as the points each received; right now, he had a total of 46. “I passed the insurance exam and started my career. I bought my first house. I bought my first car.” Those last two only received a combined 12 points. “I … I …” What else had he done? “My business trip in Canada. I graduated college. I —”

“And time!” said Death. “Let’s see what he got!”

The muscular hostess hung a panel with his total score, 103, and above the stage, a checkmark appeared in one of the neon boxes.

“Sneaked by with that one didn’t you, Perry?” The ducks quacked chuckles.

Perry strained to understand the scoring system as the woman emptied the board. A hundred and three points? That was it? At Death’s instruction, however, he gave the wheel another spin, and when it stopped, the audience oohed nervously.

“Ah,” said Death. “The dark years …” The wheel was on 11 – 20.

“The dark years?” said Perry. “That was —”

“And begin!”

Immediately, Perry clambered through his memory. There was his first kiss. His first dance. Graduation from high school. Honorable mention in the spelling bee. Perry tried to drag out more memories. Achievements! Think, think! But he kept returning to all the video games he had played, the Internet becoming prolific during that decade. And then of course, this was the era when Perry made his shower-time discovery of “self-stimulation.”

“And time!” said Death. Across the stage, the woman displayed the total: 74. “So close!” And a large X buzzed into one of the neon squares. “Two down, three to go. Give it another spin!” Perry wanted to protest — about what he didn’t know — but instead, simply did as directed and pulled the wheel. It landed on 0 – 10. Anxiously, he tugged on the ripples in his pants. What life achievements could he possibly have from that decade? And when Death commanded him to begin, he froze.

For a few moments, Perry said nothing. That was elementary school. Preschool. When he was a baby. But what life achievements could a baby possibly — “I learned to walk!” shouted Perry suddenly. “I learned to speak! I — I learned to write and play sports and run and read — I loved to read!” The audience cheered on his enthusiasm. “I created the game Lava Hop. In first grade, I climbed that tree no one else could. I got Madeline! I had my first ice cream. I kicked my first goal. I collected bugs and rocks and —”

“Time!” declared Death, grinning.

Perry’s score: 617.

“Wowza!” said Death. “What a round!” The swell of applause from the ducks agreed. “Though maybe you should’ve spread some of those points out, huh, Perry?” But Perry was so enraptured by the glow of those recollections that he didn’t hear Death, and without directive, he went ahead and spun the wheel again.

This time, it stopped on 31 – 40, and all the novel elation that had moments before magnetized Perry, dissipated. Thirty-three. That’s how old he’d been when Kayla left. Sitting on their living room sofa, their children visiting her sister, he’d watched her lips move, say things, make sounds. He only nodded. A menial employee agreeing to whatever his superior said.

“Are you ready, Perry?” This time, Death waited a moment. “We’ll start the clock when you begin.”

Perry stood there, running his lower lip between his teeth. “The divorce,” he said. “There was the divorce.” At the time, he had discounted her withdrawal. Her lessening. Everyone went through phases. “I started working more,” said Perry. Death looked to his co-hostess, but she only shrugged. “I sold my car,” said Perry. Really, though, it was just too frequent a reminder. “I ate out a lot.” On that couch, Kayla had said one thing that still barbed his thoughts before sleep: It’s like you’ve forgotten. Ironically, he couldn’t recall what she was referencing, but every day he’d ask himself, What if I’d just remembered?

“And time,” Death softly said. Beside the empty scoreboard, the woman stood with her hands in her pockets. “Well, ladies and gentlemen,” said Death, “that evens the count at two-two, only the final decade left.” The ducks shifted atop their seats. “Hey,” whispered Death, putting a hand in the middle of Perry’s back. “Even those who try to lay in the sun forever still get burnt.” Perry looked up. “You’ve got another round, you know; might as well make the best of it. Besides, when’s the next time you’ll get to play this game?”

Steeling himself, Perry nodded.

“All right,” said Death, resuming character. “Are we ready, audience?” The ducks cheered. “Are you ready, Perry?” He nodded. “Then let’s begin!”

Perry closed his eyes and began thinking. The most recent decade, these memories were the most plentiful, which also made them the most cumbersome to filter. “I got that gold watch from my company.” This co-hostess awarded meager points. “I — I started writing poetry. A little.” This one earned him more. “I joined that dating website. I bought a bike … though I haven’t really used it. Oh! I started learning French.” The audience’s energy was growing. “I … started cooking for myself. I joined that email thread for ballroom dancing. I went to the symphony and —”

“Time!” said Death. “What a round, what a round.” The audience chattered anxiously as the brawny hostess hung Perry’s total score. “Did he make it, folks?” And when the woman stepped back, she revealed the final tally: 82. “Oh, so close!” Death patted Perry on the shoulder. “You gave it a good run, friend, but in the end —”

“Wait!” said Perry, and the ducks’ consolatory applause trailed off. “Wait. I — I’m not 50 yet. This decade isn’t over.” Death gave him a curious look. “In two years, I learned to walk, speak, and dress myself. What’s to say I couldn’t do something similar with these next two?”

“Well, your trajectory indicates —”

“You don’t know that,” said Perry, finding himself out of breath. “You don’t.”

Death pondered these words. “I’ll have to consult with the judges.” He pressed a finger to his empty ear, nodding and mumbling. After a moment, however, he looked up. “The judges say we still have to count this decade.” The audience groaned. “However, because there are another two years left, they agreed that you could only be judged on what you’ve experienced. So as that’s 8 of the 10 years, you only have to reach 8/10 of the necessary 100 points, which in this case means you passed.”

Death grinned. Perry grinned. The crowd erupted with ovation. Taking Perry’s hand, Death raised it in the air; though, as he did, he pressed his thumb into the burn on the back of Perry’s hand. A fiery pain jagged through his arm, and immediately, the world went silent.

The ducks continued their clamor. Death voiced more congratulations. But to Perry, everything was infinitely mute. A soundproof door shut between him and the world. Death mouthed something to him, and Perry tried to express his inexplicable deafness, but his own vocal cords didn’t even rattle in his throat. Again, Death patted him on the shoulder, smiled, and then hopped down from the stage, walking around it and through a door beneath an illuminated EXIT sign. Alone now, even the voice inside of Perry’s head felt muffled, a heavy curtain severing his consciousness.

He staggered off the stage in the direction of Death. And as he lurched through that door, he caught himself on what seemed to be a bathroom sink.

His bathroom sink.

In front of him was that familiar, large mirror, his ghastly reflection looking more nauseated than he felt.

“Welcome to the third and final part,” said Death. He stood inside the mirror, a mahogany door on his left and right. But behind Perry there was just the olive green wall, the room’s only doors reflected in the mirror in front of him.

“The conclusion to this test may seem simple, but it’s not,” said Death. His voice sounded like it reverberated from every corner. “On my left” — he pulled open the door — “you can return to my office, and we’ll process your paperwork. On my right” — he closed the previous door and opened the other — “I can return you back to the line in front of my store.”

Perry forced himself to stand upright. On the counter was his frazzled toothbrush, while the soap had slipped into the sink. He scooped it back into its holder. The world on the other side of the mirror seemed brighter than the bathroom he stood in. “I don’t want to go back to your office,” said Perry.

Death nodded.

“But I don’t want to go back to that line either.” Perry pulled at his pants and Death waited for him to say more. “I mean, do I have to stand in line? Or can I — I don’t know, run around that parking lot or something till it’s my turn?”

Death wet his lips. The faintest smile escaped them. “Congratulations, Perry. You passed the final test.” At those words, it wasn’t simply relief that Perry felt. It was triumph.

“Unfortunately,” said Death, averting his gaze, “the EMTs have already tried to resuscitate you. I’m sorry, Perry. But … but you’re too late.”

Perry clenched the sides of his pants. “But you said …” he mumbled. “You said if I passed, I could—”

“If you passed in time.” Death straightened his glasses. “I am sorry.”

“You’re a liar,” uttered Perry. “You’re a cheat!”

“I respond to many names.”

“No,” said Perry. “No. I passed. You said I passed.”

“And you did.”

“Then put me back!” demanded Perry. “Please put me back.” There was an echo to his voice, those same tones used with Kayla. Anger. Pleading. “Please put me back there,” he said.

Death removed his glasses and pulled a cloth from his pocket. He took his time, wiping every contour of the lenses, before he slipped them back on. “I am never an answer,” said Death. “Only a reminder.” Then he tapped the outside of his pants pocket.

Perry paused. Then stuck his own hand into his pocket. A lighter and a lone cigarette. The two men exchanged gazes as Perry raised the roll of tobacco. Rasped the lighter. Pressed the flame to the end. After a moment, it crinkled red.

“Not everyone gets this opportunity,” said Death.

Perry stared at the lit end of the cigarette and shrugged. “Not everyone wants it.” Then he buried the smoldering tip onto his previous burn.

Screaming. Lots of screaming.

Then blackness.

Unlike before, Perry was immobile, the darkness implacable. Had Death tricked him? Was this the infinite blackness Perry had always imagined after dying? He tried to thrash, to move and kick and bite, but every part of him felt so weak.

Then he heard it. Voices.

A zipper undid loudly above him and the interior lights of an ambulance flooded his eyes.

“Oh my God,” said one of the paramedics. “He’s breathing.”

The 2017 Fiction Contest is underway! Click here to enter.

Zelda, Burning

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Shutterstock)

How is it that she’s come to this? From flapper to frump, sitting here in an oversized sweater, the color of cerulean blue, her hair a frowsy tangle — though just now she doesn’t care about that. There’s sun in her chest that’s pushing out through her limbs. She’s still. Warm.

She knows this place, this white windowless office, is not where she belongs. But she’s not sure where it is that she does.

From behind his desk, Dr. Carroll is asking her another question, as Zelda, stretched out on the couch, gazes out the window, seeing sunlight slice through gray.

Scott is there, but Dr. Carroll doesn’t see him — isn’t it strange, with his presence so clear? He’s to her right, slouched in a chair, squinting from the light. He’s silent but she can tell he’s judging her thoughts.

She stares over at him, questions in her eyes, but his face is a wall she keeps coming up against.

Dr. Carroll never quits, prodding and poking.

“Excuse me?” Zelda asks.

“I was asking if you’d care to talk more about your childhood — your parents, for example?”

“Not particularly, doctor. But if you insist, I’ll do my best.” She bats her eyes at the good doctor. Such a proud and puffy little man.

“Yes, Zelda. Tell me about your father.”

She lights a cigarette. “My father was a judge, Old Dick we all called him. He never really approved of me.” She rushes on, breathlessly, “Scott always remembers him chasing me around the table with a carving knife that time at dinner. But really he wasn’t as bad as all that.”

Scott is still slouched in the chair to her right, his hand curved toward him, inspecting his nails. So strange how the doctor never even glances his way.
The doctor’s face flushes in alarm. “Your father chased you with a carving knife? Why do you think that was, Zelda?”

Zelda laughs, waving her hand in dismissal. “Oh, who knows? I was probably being sassy. It was right after Scott and I were married, so I ’spect we were all getting used to things. Don’t worry, Doctor. Father knew I was a fast runner.”

She can tell that sometimes the doctor doesn’t know whether she is fibbing or not. Honestly, there are moments when she isn’t sure herself.

“I suppose you want to know about how he was when I was growing up, that sort of thing?” She flicks the ash from her cigarette into the brass tray.

“Yes, Zelda. That would be fine.” Dr. Carroll runs his fingers through the little hair he has left, then adjusts his glasses and straightens in his chair.

“Well, he mostly stayed out of the way, too busy with work, you know, which was fine by Mother and me.”

She closes her eyes and she is there again: a small child in a white sundress, golden hair glinting in the sun, running through the field of yellow daisies. She smells the bright new grass and onion weeds blended with clover. Her mother sits in the shade on a white, paint-chipped bench, fanning herself and reading Harper’s.

“Look how fast I can run, Mother.”

“Yes, darling. You certainly can.”

Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest


  • “Zelda, Burning”
    by Celeste McMaster


“I can beat the boys.” She runs and runs straight through the field, faster and faster until she tastes the sweat on her upper lip and the wind cuts deep down in her throat. Throwing herself into the tall weeds, she rests for a minute. Her mother, used to toting Zelda home covered in grass stains and bruises, never minds in the least if she gets dirty. Zelda’s days consist of doing exactly what she wants, when she wants. Swimming and diving, those she adores — darting into the water like a tiny exotic fish racing through the blue of the pool, water pulsing in and out of her ears. And then some days, after she’s beaten the boys in that, too, they bicycle or roller skate home and Mother has warm cookies and lemonade for all. At night she catches fireflies with the boys and falls asleep to the smell of the pear trees in their yard.

“Zelda.” A voice like her father’s calls to her, but she’s not ready to go back home yet.

“No. I’m with Mother now. I still want to pick flowers.”

“Zelda.” It is Dr. Carroll. “You are drifting away again. Remember how we discussed the importance of focusing, of staying in the world of the real?”

Scott is sitting straight up in the chair now, staring across at her, as if he is waiting too.

“But Doctor, the fantasy world is so much nicer.”

She has been a good girl, even helping those patients who need assistance in exercise and dance, and so has earned a hike in the steamy late afternoon near Sunset Mountain with Dr. Carroll’s assistant Landon. The rain begins to thump down on her head, but Zelda does not mind; she is thrilled to be outdoors, comforted by the dank, dark woods.

“Let’s make a fire,” she suggests, and begins rifling through the bark and briar patches, choosing pieces of kindling.

Hypnotized by this fire, Zelda thinks of others. There were the sharp smells of burning eucalyptus from fires behind the beaches on the Riviera. Those were happy times, with her French aviator — his strong body lying next to hers as they watched the sun set, smelling the cool breeze from the ocean, the smoky sharp scent that made her feel so alive … then there were the fires that she had set in rage, whenever Scott had hurt her, or whenever she simply needed the closure that comes with flames — igniting her clothes in an old fireplace (nearly burning down the house in La Paix in the process), or in an old bathtub when Scott was on the prowl.

Walking back home in the dusk, Zelda looks ahead to the moon glowering over the mountain trees in the direction of the Grove Park Inn. She thinks for an instant of when she stayed there with Scott for their wild honeymoon and all the other times they stayed there as lovers and partners in fun. They were excitement eaters in those days — riding around on the tops of taxicabs, coming in at 3 a.m. They made a picture, the two of them — better than movie stars.

As the hospital comes into view, Zelda notices something she hasn’t before — a gray stone well on her right. There’s something mysterious about it, spooky. As she approaches, from deep down below, a voice calls to her.

“Zelda.” It’s Scott’s voice, muffled. “Zelda, it’s me. I’ve come to see you. I’m down here. Come, jump. Dive like you used to.”

“Scott, what are you doing down there?”

“This way we can have some privacy, baby. Come on and jump. There’s a golden kingdom that goes through from here — all to way to China!”

Zelda moves closer to his voice, but just as suddenly, arms grab at her, pulling her back, back, back. She struggles and screams, lashing out against them, but they still carry her, fighting, away.

She’s not altogether sure how she came to be here, sitting on the sofa in this bright white room. Dr. Carroll looks at her from over his glasses.

pullquote“Tell me, Zelda: What do you remember about your hiking trip yesterday?”

Zelda sits dazed. A couple of minutes pass. “I had the chance to be with him, Doctor. That man pulled me away. You’re all trying to keep us apart.”

Dr. Carroll draws his eyebrows together, making one long caterpillar of them. “Trying to keep whom apart, Zelda?”

“Me and Scott.”

Dr. Carroll looks weary. “Zelda, you know Scott died a few years ago.”

But Scott will never die, she knows. Why just the other day, when she was out visiting friends, he sat right beside her at the dinner table and told her the train would depart late, and sure enough, it was a good 30 minutes behind schedule. Her Princeton man. The King of Roses. He’d pursued her when she was just a girl, just a beautiful girl in a frothy tulle dress. How jealous the other girls were of her, how envious her boyfriends were of him. Right up until the very last minute she’d kept them all guessing whom she’d choose. She recalls standing around at the pool, the evening before her marriage to Scott, dressed in her flesh-colored swimsuit (rumors quickly spread that she’d been naked). Spinning around, eyes closed, arm outstretched and finger pointing, she’d taunted, “Whoever I stop on, that’s who I’ll marry.” The boys scrambled around to have a better chance of being chosen.

Dr. Carroll clears his throat, pulling her back. Zelda has noticed that he has an annoying little habit of doing this when she drifts.

“Let’s talk about your paintings, Zelda. They’re very impressive. Tell me about this one.” He holds up a watercolor of a naked woman lying fallen on stone steps. Underneath her hips and legs are gold coins. Ornate gold pots stand tall beside her. In the shadowed corner, a gray phantom figure dressed in brown holds a jar containing large white moths that exit and fly into the space. An amber city gleams through the archway in the background.

“Oh, that’s from a parable Jesus taught his followers: ‘Do not store up treasures on earth.’”

“I see. Zelda, why is it that the hands in all of your paintings, this one included, are so large in proportion to the bodies? They seem slightly disfigured — overpowering and grasping.”

Zelda turns her head, considering the painting for a few seconds.

“Well, I’ll tell you, Doctor. I’m just not that good with hands.”

She believes that the things she sees in the clouds are hers alone — no one else can pinpoint the Degas dancers tying their point shoes, or see the faces of zinnias, the tufts of the beard of Moses, the snowsuit-padded child zooming down the hill on a sled, and other scenes — the backs of knees, for instance, or the intertwined bodies of lovers — that are not polite to mention, but that she mentions nonetheless, whenever she has the chance to leave listeners in stunned and open-mouthed silence. Zelda knows, by intuition, that, say what they may, no one can give life to these shapes better than she.

Earlier that afternoon she lay alone in the grass just beyond the hospital, staring up at the clouds. Scott had been there briefly, sitting to her right, arms wrapped around his knees. Writing in his leather-bound journal — the one she smelled even when he wasn’t around. He’d look up from time to time, but his thoughts were on his work, not on the sky. Finally, he’d gotten up and wandered dreamily up the hill, journal in his back pocket, leaving her alone.

Now, in the spacious wooden-floored room devoted to arts and exercise, Zelda works at her easel. She always chooses to set up in front of the window that has the best light, and today it is the one in the left-hand corner, where the sun’s rays stream down like warm honey from behind the clouds and through the large glass panes. On her palette, she mixes the different shades of browns and pinks. The smell of the oil paint stings her nose and provokes in her a heightened sense of awareness. As she mixes, Zelda sees from out of the corner of her eye a patient meandering towards her. The woman appears to be, like Zelda, in her 40s. She has left the group of men and women at the craft table at the far end of the room and comes to stand beside Zelda. The patient’s hair is unkempt and she sucks her thumb, drool running from the corners of her mouth. Her clothes sag and hang, and she stares blankly at the canvas.

The woman takes her thumb out of her mouth. “Whatcha gonna paint there?”

“Ballet dancers.” It is a painting of two Picasso-esque figures, male and female, and Zelda, ignoring the intrusion, turns to her canvas and blends brown paint, shadowing the woman figure’s outstretched arm. Both dancers are naked, with the exception of the pink ballet slippers the female wears. In her hands are the tutus she has discarded — a white one in the outstretched hand, a pink one in the left. The woman stands over the man who is facing backwards with arm curved over his head, crouched under the female’s arm as if being banished. The two figures’ features blur together and the legs, arms, and hands are stretched out of all proportion, for this is how dancers feel after dancing.

Celeste McMaster

Meet the Winner: Author Celeste McMaster
Her fascination with Zelda began with a research paper.

Click here to enter the 2017 Great American Fiction Contest now.

As Zelda uses her fine-point brush to outline and shade the female dancer’s limbs, she reflects back to her days of intense training at Madame Egorova’s studio. How Madame’s presence infused life — that luminous chandelier-brilliance of beauty and hope — into Zelda! How her manic days of practice at home — her work at the barre and mirror she had installed into her and Scott’s apartment at which she worked nonstop, even talking to friends who came to visit them as she rehearsed — were well-worth a single word of praise from the tall, dark-haired, brilliant Madame Egorova with whom she was a little bit in love. And dancing itself stretched her muscles, her mind, her soul. It seemed to her then that only through daily disciplined movement could she beat back the demons.


Zelda whips around, startled that the voice is not the patient’s, but Scott’s. He is dressed in a relaxed suit and tie and wears his hat at an angle. Leaning, one leg crossed over the other, on a wooden column, he smokes a cigarette and observes her painting.

“You’re a third-rate artist, Zelda, just like you were a third-rate dancer, and writer, for that matter.” He blows the smoke through his mouth and nose, his eyes boring into hers.

“Scott, please. You’re not supposed to be here. You’ll get me into trouble again, and then they won’t let me out to see Mother. Let me paint. This is all I have left.” Hands trembling, she returns to the dark brown floors of the stage, a space that does not require particular steadiness.

He sneers, “Save Me the Waltz. I can’t believe you had the audacity to publish it. Taking my material like that.”

Zelda spins around to face him. “Your material? It was both of our lives, wasn’t it? You talk about audacity after rifling my journal, after lifting my own words from my letters to you and you alone for your stories and novels? Go away!”

He disappears and in his place stands the female patient, still sucking her thumb. But now her eyes are large and she moans as if she might break out in frightened sobs. The nurse in charge of the crafts table hurries to the scene. “Zelda, is something the matter?”

The patient runs forward, turning away from Zelda and clinging to the nurse.

“No ma’am, but this woman is disturbing my concentration. Would you please escort her back to the table?”

As the nurse shepherds the patient back to her fold, Zelda cleans her brush and dips it into the dark pink paint, refocusing her attention on the creases of the tutu and the ballerina slippers.

She wants to stick out her tongue at the world. She’s always had the impulse, ever since she was a child, and that’s how she feels at this moment, at age 47, now that she’s out of that wretched hospital at last, puttering away in her mother’s garden, digging up clods of dirt with her trowel. Raking her fingers through the earth, breathing in the rich dark soil, she feels the sun’s rays begin to heal her tired body. When she first came there was one lonely jonquil outside her bedroom window, but now, she looks proudly at all she has planted — crocus, jasmine, lilies, larkspur, phlox, marguerites. Lifting her face to the sky, she sees dark, menacing clouds moving closer and she smells the oncoming rain.

Though it is March and springtime, the evenings are cool and she and Mother still make fires in the hearth. Zelda can sit for hours, just staring into the fire, imagining in the orange and blue flames the shapes and faces that meld together in her dreams.

The next day, after a lunch of fried chicken and mashed potatoes with her mother, Zelda, in unusually good spirits, decides to walk to town to see a painting in a gallery she read about in the paper.

“Be careful, Zelda,” her mother calls to her as she heads out the door.

“Really, Mother, it’s fine. I believe I’m finally getting better.” Dressed in a dark green velvet gown, purple scarf, and black bucket hat, Zelda sets off. The air is crisp and clean after last night’s rain, and the wind refreshes and lifts her spirit.

Rounding the corner a couple of blocks from her house, she spots two young boys sitting on their bicycles talking. Zelda thinks how adorable they are in their coats and caps and remembers how she would dress little Scottie in her jacket and boots before she went out to play.

As she passes by the pair, she overhears one say to the other, “Hey, Jack. Look! That’s the woman my ma said was talking to herself and yelling at imaginary folks in the street the other day.”

Zelda increases her pace until she is safely out of earshot and then slumps onto the steps of a vacant apartment, her eyes stinging. She didn’t know she had been yelling, only communicating. How many people had seen her? Did her mother know? Wrapping her scarf tighter around her face, she returns home by a different route.

Back she goes to Highland Hospital, in spite of her good intentions to be well. Although the stone walls and antiseptic smells oppress her, she has come to look on this place as a refuge from the world’s expectations of sanity. In a tiny white room on the wing of the first floor, the nurse, a girl — young, lovely, but with a bit of the pinched, hassled look about her — is giving her an injection. Zelda is not sure what it is, but silently submits, desirous to be left alone with her thoughts.

“Goodnight, Mrs. Fitzgerald,” the girl says.

Zelda simply looks at her.

Left alone, she feels restless. Flopping like a fish in her bed, she wonders abstractly if anyone is surprised she is back here. She certainly isn’t. Zelda remembers telling her mother, just before she got in the car to be taken back to the cool air of Asheville, “Don’t worry, Mother. I’m not afraid to die.” And she is not. She thinks of death as all pure and white and golden, where she eats honeydew melon and drinks dope with boys who once again adore her.

Out of the darkness she sees a section of light under her door and a voice calls to her, “Zelda. Zelda!” He has come for her at last. They told her he was gone, but she knew he would come for her.

“I’m coming, Scott! Hang on.” Just like him, when he was tight — yelling like that, loud enough to wake up the whole place. This time, she determines to appear very glamorous when she meets him. No more crazy old woman. Oh, no. Searching through her closet, she finds a short black dress with a fringe at the bottom. She pulls out her string of beads and straps on her black heels. Oh, where is all this coming from? But she doesn’t care, she is happy. Finding a mirror under her bed (somehow she knows just where to look) and some mascara and rouge and red lipstick too, she puts on her Elizabeth Arden face. That nurse has more gumption than she’d imagined, leaving all these tokens behind for Zelda to find. And now she sees that some kind soul (Dr. Carroll?) has tucked away a small gift for her, and opening the box she takes out the most adorable little black cap, just what the outfit needs. Pulling it on, she rushes out the door.

And then she hears the music — Ivie Anderson singing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. She would have to talk to Scott about them. And God and other important things that he might not have considered. But no time for that now. She must go and meet him, and then he is there — just like the first time she met him back in Montgomery, Alabama, when she was 18. He is beautiful in his tawny golden suit, white shirt, and black-with-gold-striped tie underneath, his hair combed back and his gray eyes holding hers, and she runs right up and throws her arms around him and kisses him. Duke and Ivie are swinging to “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

“Hey, Baby. I sure have missed you.” Zelda lowers her chin and cuts her eyes up at him, her lips curling in a sultry smile. It’s smoky in here. The horns blare loudly, but it is just how they like it. The lights and music don’t faze two lovers who want to shine for one another. And they do sparkle, swinging to the syncopation of the sound.

Doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah, wah-wah.

Magically, Scott has improved since their last dance so long ago. He knows all the steps, but it’s Zelda who causes everyone to turn and stare. They can’t keep their eyes off her stylish flair, her sense of rhythm. Scott pulls her close to him, closer than ever before, cheeks touching, one body, then swings her over and around, then turning for them to Charleston with the group and then back to Zelda.

Wa da da do,  Wa da da do, da doh, Whup de dittle ittle up, Dat dat dat doh.

And then Zelda breaks away. She feels the beat of the drums way down in her body, and she wants a solo. Pulling up her dress to her hips, she shakes her fanny in perfect double-time rhythm. Everyone stands back to watch, amazed, as always, by her verve and courage. She doesn’t care what they think — she knows that every inch of her is moving in time to the music — that she is the music and the energy and the pulse of nighttime. The spotlight is on her and she twirls, her skirt swinging out, and she comes to one corner of the room where she sees Dr. Carroll sitting on a stool snapping his fingers and bobbing his head from side to side. He smiles up at her and tries to tell her something, some word of admiration, but she can’t be bothered with anyone else’s rhythm; she has her own.

Read 30 of the best short stories from the 2016 contest

Fingers stretched tight, hands flittering, legs hopping and kicking first front and back and out and turn. She spins and spins until she comes to the next corner, where sits a man in a chair. But instead of looking at her like a loon as he usually does, he, too, is smiling and nodding along. She sees him pull out a notebook, look back up at her in approval, then glance down again and write a line or two. Let him write — let him tell Scott ugly things about her — she doesn’t care this night. This is her dance. She is not Nicole Diver or Daisy Buchanan or any other girl in Scott’s stories — or maybe she’s all of them, yes, she’s all of them, but more, more more, because she’s Zelda Sayre.

One hand on hip and swinging her beads with the other, she scissor-steps a little ways across and finds another familiar face.

“Do you remember me, my southern beauty? We had such fun on the Riviera!” He is still in tip-top shape, young and bronze, with the same jet-black hair. They had been quite cozy that summer when Scott was too busy to be with her. At the time it had broken her little heart, but now all she can concentrate on is the blissfulness of her dance. And then, as she nears the next corner, there sits her father, the judge. She gives her best smile and dances harder and harder, faster and faster. Shimmy-shimmy-push-pull, back together front. The steps come to her automatically — her body dictates and throbs with the slightest nuance of the singer’s voice, or the trumpet or sax. Zelda jumps up on a chair, then onto the nearby table. Her entire body vibrates and all the spectators blur together.

The song is nearly over. In need of a grand finale, Zelda jumps off the table and onto the floor. Once she hits, she crouches in a frozen pose for a couple of beats, then spins around on one leg, then raises her arms above her head and clasps her hands.

Doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah, wah-wah.

Arms fanning out, legs kicking behind, she twirls towards Scott, stopping arm’s length away from him. With hip jerked to one side, Zelda reaches into his pocket, where she knows she’ll find cigarettes. Taking one from the case, and dramatically placing it between her lips, she thrusts her chin out for him to light it. With a grin, he obliges, and tapping her foot to the rhythm, Zelda puffs brilliant circles of smoke and then tosses her cigarette into the frenzied crowd.

And then this is the most spectacular effect she has ever had. Scott, the darling, must have ordered it for her. The fire starts just beside Scott, close to Dr. Carroll’s seat, and then spreads slowly slowly around the room, around the room, as she dances and swirls and smiles. She feels the heat, but it just makes her dance faster and faster, the fire creeping up the walls, the flames licking and beating down the cabinets and tables. And no one seems much to mind, for Zelda is dancing her heart out, she’s never danced like this before, and soon the two hands of fire join together and the circle is complete. She’s dancing in a ring of fire and twirling and twirling and twirling and rushing around and around and round. And she thinks as she dances, This is the end. Scott will love this ending. Something in her pauses, and she wonders, Will he? Will he love this ending? Will it be the ending he wants? And then the notion quivers and snaps, for she thinks, It’s my own ending this time, and a damn good one.

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900. She married writer F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920. In 1930 she suffered her first mental breakdown and was shortly after diagnosed with schizophrenia. Not only was Zelda a gifted writer, publishing her autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, in 1932, she was also a talented dancer and painter. In 1948, she, along with eight other patients, died in a fire at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.

The 2017 Fiction Contest is underway! Click here to enter.

The Magic Circle

Peering out at the view through the cracked eye, I see Water Street in all its glory. It may be 2 a.m. but cars still cruise to and from the river, their meeting place, the bushes at Curry Corner, where everything from drugs and bodies to stolen TVs can be exchanged for cash. I hear Spanish music blaring from the Mofongo Bar & Grill a few doors down. A car horn blasts — two long, two short. Someone screams, “I see you, don’t think you can hide!” A fall night in 1963 in Darktown, the armpit of Winterville, the armpit of New Jersey, the armpit of America. And here we are, all the way from Morocco to the corner of Water and Limestone, the Elmalehs and their restaurant, the Couscous Caboose. Fourteen succulent varieties of couscous cooked by Lili Elmaleh, and jazz performed by Danny Elmaleh and The Magic Circle.


I turn from the window. My daughter, Sophie — 13 going on 30 — weary, shadowed eyes, and a permanent question mark etched in her forehead. She approaches, hugging herself in red flannel pajamas. Like me, always cold. “What is it, baby? Bad dreams?”

She shakes her head, a cloud of soft dark curls. Like me, can’t sleep. “Tell me a story, Daddy.”

I set down my trumpet on the stand on the small stage and follow her upstairs. I confess: Sophie can maneuver me wherever she wants me. Far shrewder, smarter, prettier than any adult I know, she wants to be a detective and singer for my band. “That will be my cover,” she tells me solemnly. “While I’m singing, I’ll watch people and no one will know that I’m solving mysteries.”

Solving me, baby. I know.

Last night I drove her and Memphis to the Winterville Autumn Fair and left them alone for an hour. One hour, that’s all. I gave them money to buy snacks and to play games. I knew Memphis would go right for the funnel cake — something like Lili’s beignets, smothered in powdered sugar — and Sophie for the fried-potato-and-cheese pierogies. Lili had made me swear I wouldn’t leave them alone, but I knew in my gut they’d be okay.

When I met them an hour later in front of 4-H Hall, where proud farmers displayed huge prize-winning pigs and pumpkins, Sophie was grim, eyebrows raised high and lips tight — a miniature Lili — and Memphis was in 11-year-old boy heaven, mouth smeared with chocolate and powdered sugar. I couldn’t figure out why Sophie was so mad. She couldn’t have seen anything. I let her grab my hand in her small firm grip and lead me and Memphis back into the fair.

“Sophie, we have to go home.”

“I want to show you something first.”

Memphis’s sticky hand nestled trustingly in mine. “Did you have a good time?” I asked him.

He nodded, golden-brown corkscrew curls bouncing. “Except for Sophie bossing me and not letting me play the birthday guessing game and calling me Ned. I hate when she calls me that!”

I grinned at his woeful face. Not only did Sophie insist we call her “Nancy,” but she called Lili “Hannah,” Memphis “Ned Nickerson,” and me “Carson.” I often felt her critical eye on me. “If you’d only cut your hair, wear shoes, and get a job as a lawyer, you’d be just like Carson Drew.”

It was a fall night, and the moon shone orange, bright as one of the prize-winning giant pumpkins. Sullen teens walked by in the fiery light, mothers wheeled strollers. We passed farmers with mottled skin and chin beards, and enormous women, hair tightly pulled back in hairnets, who sold rounds of pale farm cheese, twisted pretzels, and foaming blue birch beer. Bikers in sleeveless black leather swaggered. The smells tempted me, and I suddenly realized I was hungry. Burnt sugar, dark molasses shoofly pie, frying pierogies, sweet apple dumplings, hot corn pies, and funnel cakes.

Sophie stopped hard in front of an enclosed area illuminated with spotlights. A sign announced:

Amish Wedding!
See How the Plain People Get Hitched!
Shows Every Hour on the Hour!

About 20 people had gathered in front of a huge green chair that rose 10 feet in the air on long stilt legs. A young couple, about 20 or so, mounted the stepladder to the chair. They turned and smiled down at the small crowd. The guy recited something, but people’s shouts drowned out his words. I stared from his scuffed work boots to the round black hat tilted back on his head. The girl, a pale redhead with a dimpled smile, wore a white bonnet and apron over an ankle-length blue-and-white checked dress, dirty sneakers peeking from under the hem.

Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest



She yelled, “I, Sarah, promise to honor and obey you, Samuel! I promise to work for you! To keep your house clean, to cook for you and raise your children! To mend your clothes when they’re torn! To be true to you and to God! Not to think wicked thoughts about other men, and to be satisfied with my life with you! For as long as I shall live!”

Oh, so that’s what this was about. Sophie watched me ferociously, willing me to absorb the vows. People clapped and whistled. Someone cried, “Show us how the Amish do it!” Sophie squeezed my hand until I finally looked down and met her enormous eyes — so much like Lili’s — black-and-silver swirls, like rain. I used to call Lili my rain girl.

We stared at each other silently. Dissected, judged, and found wanting by my daughter. The Amish boy shouted out his vows. Memphis’ hand was warm and sweet in mine. She knows, I thought. I have no idea how, but she knows. I broke away from the staring contest first.

The newly married couple climbed down the stepladder to ride away in a black horse and buggy. As the girl entered the buggy, she glanced back over her shoulder and smiled faintly. She could have been smiling at Sophie as well as at me, but Sophie shot me an accusing look. “Okay,” I said brightly. “Who wants ice cream?”

Memphis raised his hand as if he were in school. We stopped at the ice cream stand, and I ordered three soft vanilla-and-chocolate swirled cones, with orange and black sprinkles for Halloween. I sensed Sophie’s moral dilemma. She struggled mightily at my side, not wanting to accept a bribe from one she considered a sinner. I held her cone in one hand while licking my own. I did not glance at her, but I suffered with her, and when she held out her hand in defeat, I immediately gave her the cone. We ate the ice cream as we walked back to the hill where the cars were parked. I marveled each time I saw the silver-and-white ’57 Chevy, its silver fins like wings. The first car I’d ever owned. If business at the Couscous Caboose didn’t pick up, it would be the last.

“You parked in a different place,” said Sophie. Her voice was resigned. Memphis licked his ice cream in painstakingly exact circles to ensure that some remained in the cone for a final triumphant bite.

Instead of fighting Memphis to sit in the front seat next to me, she got in back. I turned on the radio. My luck, it was the Singing Nun, shrilling “Dominique, nique, nique.” Sophie’s eyes in the rearview, twin flames of righteousness, held the Nun’s song as further proof of my lowness. I turned off the radio, and we drove home without saying a word. I parked in the alley next to the dumpster. Memphis said shyly, “Thanks, Dad,” and ran inside to tell Lili about his adventures.

Sophie didn’t move. I glanced at her glittering eyes in rearview before quickly looking away. “The car smells funny,” she said.

“Does it?” My voice was strangely high. I coughed.

“Smells like perfume.”

“Must be your mother’s.”

“No. It smells like Millie. Was she in the car?”

I thought briefly of lying, and then figured it would be less trouble to tell the truth. “Yes.”


We’d hit the heart. She’d been playing with me till now. “I saw her at the fair, and she needed a ride home.”


Saints Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, help me improvise a way out of this. “She was feeling sick.”

“Why did she ask you?”

Good question. I cleared my throat. “We ran into each other.”

“How did she get to the fair if she needed a ride home?”

“She had her car, but she didn’t feel well enough to drive home. She’ll pick up her car tomorrow.”

She considered. My heart was beating fast. The absurdity of being cross-examined by a 13-year-old did not strike me. Sophie was no ordinary 13-year-old. When she announced one morning, “I’m going to solve the world,” I believed her. “Why did Millie sit in the backseat?” she asked.

“Why did you?” It was weak, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

I felt her contempt. A long silence followed. Long enough to make me feel like the lowest of the low, and to wish I could rewind the night, and backtrack to Lili kissing me good-bye and making me promise to stay with the kids and not get distracted, and herding them outside, and not stopping to look in the dining room where Millie sat alone at a table, curling a glossy strand around her finger, and smiling when she saw me, smiling as if she’d been waiting for me.

Let me backtrack. It began a few nights ago. After a hot set, I lowered the trumpet, wiped the sweat from my face and blinked, returning to the real world. The Darktown-world, where clocks ticked, Lili scolded, kids needed winter clothes and dentist appointments, I punched in my timecard at the A&P and hung up on bill collectors, or most shameful of all, let Sophie and Memphis answer, with their smooth American accents. The opposite of the song-world, where instead of running from the dark, I ran towards it, blowing back and forth between Morocco and America, Jewish kid to father, musician to husband, crashing sea to stinking brown river, all merging inside me, pulsing through my throat and fingers. The song I played had no end.

As soon as I left the stage, Millie cornered me. “I have to have you now. This minute.”

Still dazed, I shook my head. She gestured towards the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. “I’ve been coming here for weeks, watching you. I know you’re married. I don’t care. That’s forever-time. I have a husband in forever-time too. But this is now. Like the music. You and me. This minute. That’s all that really matters.”

She saw in my eyes that I understood. This was one of the main lessons I learned during the war: the difference between forever-time and now-time. I learned to live in the now. On stage, blowing, communing with my musicians. Asking questions with my horn that they slammed back at me with the piano, bass, drums, and trumpet. The rest of life — eating, sleeping, drinking, talking — was what I had to get through to return to the now, when the clock stopped ticking, and life became its promise, and I did what I was meant to do. My dream was to live in an eternity of now. A dream that was dying a fast death in Darktown. But I had never followed the dream out of the song.

Until now.

The clock ticked, ticked through the car, harder and faster than a heart. Sophie opened the car door but didn’t get out. The river smelled like ripe black olives, pungent as argan oil from Mogador.

“Don’t do it again, Daddy. It will hurt Mommy.” She closed the car door quietly behind her.

I come to with a jerk and sit up. The sun is gone. My trumpet teacher, Prosper’s voice is gruff in my ear, You’ve lost the beat, my boy, you’ve lost the beat. My feet are icy. I lie on my stomach and creep forward like an alligator, until my face hovers over the water. My city is reflected below. Glittering and wavering towers and castles, the street of blue torches, pink cobblestones, vivid sardine boats shaking with the force of the waves, the white roof I ran across to escape my father’s belt, the one I toppled from and broke my nose. I search the city till I find him. Standing on the fortress wall, trembling with rage. He points his finger at the sea and screams. The sound ripples like a stone, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. I lean over farther until my nose touches the cold, dark water. He sees me and spits in my face.

That old song, “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” could have been written for Halloween night. Lili and I sit on the front step, the basket of candy bars between us. She slaps my hand when I steal one, but I feed her half. Hershey bars are still a marvel to me, brown-and-silver packets tossed at us from smiling American soldiers on Liberation Day in Casablanca. We watch the parade of ghosts, goblins, witches, horned devils trailed by parents … the three old men on Chico’s bench in front of the barbershop across the street, handing out lollipops between guzzles from their paper bags … the drunks out in full force, huddling in doorways and sitting on the stoop of the No Name Bar … shouts of laughter and eerie cries.

Next door, Mrs. Krapp hands out Hall’s cough drops, one by one. Last year she kept her house dark. Rumor is she hides razor blades in apples. I believe it — her razor eyes slice me when I walk up and down the street.

At the foot of the street is Curry Corner, edging to the river. In Mahendroo Wash & Dry, Naveen and his cousin, Mr. Singh, play backgammon while waiting for clothes to dry. Sheets and towels come out smelling faintly of curry. Chico told me, “We’ve got the whole world here: India at the foot, Africa at the head, Puerto Rican hips, and a few Polacks and Russians — Anna Bolotovsky’s bra — in the chest.”

The first Halloween Lili baked walnut cookies, marzipan sweets, and delicate flaky fadzwellos dripping orange syrup. The masked and costumed kids looked puzzled, shook their heads, and withdrew. Later, the manager of the Mofongo Bar & Grill explained to a hurt Lili: “Too many crazy people, like Mrs. Krapp and the old lady on the corner of Ridge who bakes poisoned cookies. Parents warn their kids not to accept anything that’s not sealed.”

Read 30 of the best short stories from the 2016 contest

Like the A&P. Aisle after aisle of sterile sealed cans and boxes, no smell — except in Meats and Produce. Peas, beets, corn, beans identified only by the pictures glued to the cans. A food hospital. No vendors shouting the glories of their wares, no customers tasting and bargaining, no music. Only the ringing of the cash register, the stacking and sorting and sweeping to get rid of any crumb, any clue that there is food in this place. I do my best to rearrange the produce and fruit, creating tapestries of color and texture … until Sid, the manager, sees what I’ve done and yells, “What are you doing, Frenchie? You outa your mind?”

Lili’s mad at me tonight. Again. I came home late, forgot I was supposed to take Memphis to the dentist. She had to send Carlos, my drummer, with him. And wasn’t I supposed to pay the electric bill? We got another call threatening to shut off the lights and heat. And if I think this heater is going to survive another winter, I’ve lost my mind. Instead of waiting until the middle of a snowstorm when it will surely break down, wouldn’t it make sense to take care of it now?

I don’t answer, don’t talk. I sit next to her, holding up the basket while fairy princesses and cowboys trip up the steps to us. The night air is still warm, a gift of summer spilling over. The moon, an orange pumpkin, perfect for Halloween. I smell chocolate and spilled beer. Curry wafting up Water Street, and cilantro and cinnamon coming from inside. And fumes shooting from the factories in Elizabeth across the bridge to us. The train whistles, like a foghorn, blowing a warning. No, I didn’t write this song, but tonight it sings to me. Tonight I feel part of it. Or it feels part of me. I have lost the beat. I know I have. My trumpet sits on its stand in the music corner in the dining room. Waiting. For what? For me to wake up, grab it and run out of here. If I do, where will I go? The city, of course. A phone number burns through my pocket to my thigh. Woody the piano player told me to call him when I move to New York. “It’s only a matter of time,” he said. “A player with your ear and your sound.”

My ear. My sound. I don’t trust my ear anymore. And what is my sound? If I still have one, I don’t recognize it.

“Trick or treat!” A group of suspiciously tall kids march up the steps. A hard voice demands, “Treats!”

“Who’s that?” I ask. “Aren’t you a little old?”

A masked cowboy with distinct whiskey breath leans in my face. “Aren’t you a little old?”

“Hey! Who the hell are you?”

“Relax, Danny. It’s just me. Tommy Garello.”

A year older than Sophie, but the kid looks 18, and as sullen as his father, Mike. Lili mutely holds out the basket. Tommy and his gang grab half the candies. With a yelp, they leap down the steps. On the sidewalk, Tommy turns back. “Hey Danny, next time get the ones with almonds. Haha!”

Haha, Garello. I know Lili is remembering when we first arrived in America, and Tommy asked her if Memphis could go out with him and shoot streetlights with BB guns. Four years ago. That year I took Sophie and Memphis door to door. She was a ballerina, shivering in her pink tutu and tights, but too stubborn to wear a coat. Memphis was a doctor, in a white coat, a plastic stethoscope around his neck. I wore a jeweled caftan that had belonged to Lili’s brother, maroon tasseled fez on my head, and pointed yellow babouches on my feet. Sophie thought I was the Black Sultan, the bandit hero of the tales I tell them.

From the cracked sidewalk I watched them climb the concrete steps and go to each redbrick apartment building and ring the doorbell. When the door opened, they held out their bags. Sometimes they were invited inside, and I watched them through the lighted window as if they were on TV. Standing in the dark, looking into the gold-lit windows, brought me back to 1943, when I ran away to Casablanca. I wandered the streets, staring hungrily into illuminated windows and open doorways, melting into the shadows whenever an officer or policeman appeared.

Eventually I made my way to the beach and slept on the sand. I did something strange, that I’ve never told anyone. A holdover from the days of listening to my cousin the Kabbalist who wore dark glasses, even indoors. He always handed me sweets — palm to palm — so my father wouldn’t see. One day he told me about the magic circle. No harm can come to you when you’re inside the circle, and you can ask God for anything you want, and he will listen. Each night I found a stick and drew a circle in the sand, and curled up inside.

But since our first year in America I loved Halloween. This was how life should be: all the evil spirits and djnoun sidling next to you on the street, and every house open, no locked doors keeping out the stranger, the wanderer. Since that first Halloween our door is never locked. I don’t care what Lili or anyone says. If you’re a djinn after me, or a Hitler-ghost after Lili’s sister, Zizou, a locked door is not going to keep you out. Come and get me. I don’t draw with a stick anymore. With my finger I trace a magic circle around me and Lili in bed, praying to keep us safe and together. She thinks I’m gesturing to music only I hear.

“This is what you don’t get,” says Lili. I must have missed something. I have no idea what it is I don’t get. I murmur something, and she says, “That’s right. This is your life. Our life. Us, here, now. This is it, Danny.”

“I know that.” I clear my throat. Her eyes are silver in moonlight. The street song fades for a moment, and all I see is her face — sad and luminous. “I’m sorry, Loulou.” Always a safe thing to say.

“Stop saying you’re sorry.”

Apparently not tonight.

“I’m sorry,” I say again without thinking.

Her eyebrows meet, eyes glare, lips purse tight. She’s fighting a smile. I’m not sure why she’s mad — besides the usual — or why she’s smiling inside, behind her mouth, behind her eyes. I hear the faint sweet question, the way I did the first time we met, and say impulsively, “Let’s go to bed.”

It’s ridiculously easy to make her blush. “Now? It’s Halloween! We’re in the middle of a … the trick or treaters … the kids …”

I bring her hand to my mouth, try to ignore how chapped and rough it feels, and suck her index finger with its short chopped nail. “Come to bed with me, Loulou.”

“No! I’m mad at you. You’re a little boy who will never grow up. You leave every worry and problem to me. Even the smallest thing I ask you to do. Take your son to the dentist, pay the bill, do —”

I lean over and kiss her on the mouth. She’s struggling inside, the smile still fluttering like a little bird trying to escape. “What if I die tonight?” I ask.

“Oh my God, Danny! What a baby you are. What a child I married. You’re not going to die.”

“But if I do. And you turn me away. How will you feel tomorrow? And the rest of your life?” I’m kissing her ear now, lifting her hair, and rubbing against the back of her neck, her melting spot.

“You won’t,” she begins.

“Shhh. No more words. Let’s go in.”

Later, I follow Sophie up the creaking steps to the second floor, where Lili sleeps in our bed, and Memphis dreams in his room, and Lili’s sister, Zizou, lands wherever her nightmares lead her, and to the third floor, where my drummer and bass player, Carlos and Billy Black, share a room, and Memphis’s guitar teacher, Lucius Green, curls on a cot on the landing, next to Keith, the young sax player visiting from Newark, and tiptoe up the seven narrow stairs to the attic, where I fixed Sophie her own room. Once we got rid of the bats, it was cozy and warm, and she didn’t mind that she could only stand straight in the middle of the room, where the wood rafters crisscrossed to form a pointed ceiling.

She gets in bed and lies back, her dark curls covering the pillow, hands folded neatly on the stubby pink blanket, the one Zizou drapes around her shoulders when she’s in the grip of la folie. Sophie’s cheeks are flushed and rosy, her eyes bright and dark. So beautiful she steals my breath. Mine. My blood. My girl.

“A story, Daddy,” she says calmly, and I know she forgives me.

I don’t deserve her forgiveness, don’t deserve her, or Memphis or Lili. Looking down at my daughter, I wonder if my father ever felt this dizzying rush of love, a wave that almost knocks me back. Suddenly I can’t meet her eyes. I sit on the edge of her bed and turn toward the round porthole window over her bed, always smeared gray, as if it’s storming outside and we’re sailing away in a ship. A sort of magic circle, I never noticed before. The smudges turn into Prosper’s tousled gray hair, the forest-green beret and wobbly teeth, his endlessly generous smile, If the war taught me anything, it’s that we must learn to become human.

Help me, Prosper, please. Help me become the man they need. Help me be strong.

Sophie reaches for my hand and tucks it between hers. Cold cold hands. Like mine. She rubs my hand with all her strength.

“I love you madly,” I tell her, the way Duke Ellington does, though it’s just words, and words can’t touch what I’m feeling right now, this instant, looking at my little girl, wishing I could be the father she deserves.

She sighs. “I love you too, Carson.”

I’ll make it up to you, baby, I swear, I’ll make it up to all of you. Prosper is gone from the window, but I feel him here, looking over my shoulder. Louis and Duke, too. Watching over me. After all, I survived my father and the war, and made it all the way to America, where every man has an equal voice and the right to be heard. I can do this. I can make up a new story, one that hasn’t been told yet because it’s waiting for me to tell it. I clear my throat and begin, “Once upon a time …”

The 2017 Fiction Contest is underway! Click here to enter.

A Short Ride to Mercy

From the day Sam was born, I was the one who raised him, but by the time he was a month old he loved Marlene, and in his mind he was her dog, not mine. Even as a puppy his greatest pleasure was stretching out on the shag rug in the den, resting his chin on his front paws and fixing his eyes on her while she read a magazine or listened to the radio. He was totally fascinated, and I began to think the little mutt was a reincarnation of one of Marlene’s old boyfriends. She had exhausted a good supply of boyfriends, but I knew of one good candidate who might have assumed Sam’s body — a biker from Alabama who died in a traffic accident. Sometimes I even wondered how the biker might feel about spending his afterlife as Marlene’s dog. Was it his reward, or a bizarre form of punishment?

Whichever it was, Marlene ignored him. She didn’t like dogs.

She didn’t like me either, and eventually I concluded she had married me because I had a steady day job and spent most of my spare time with my friend John Bee, so she had freedom to polish her nails, do her hair, and watch soaps — whenever she pleased. When she finally left us, I had the consoling company of dear old John, while Sam had only me, and that wasn’t much comfort at all.

He took her absence far harder than I did, spending fitful nights under her empty bed and long days of watching the front door, obviously in hopes it would swing open and she’d be there. But I knew that was never going to happen, and in order to make the transition as easy as possible, John Bee and I went on the longest continual party we had ever thrown. However, the celebration soon turned into a wake, and one evening, while John was taking a sabbatical in the cabinet and I was semi-conscious before the TV, I found that I was scratching Sam’s ears. And for the first time since Marlene left, Sam made a friendly overture to me. He licked my hand and wagged his tail.

I squinted suspiciously at him and said, “So now all of a sudden you’re my dog, is that it?” He looked back with his head cocked to one side and curiosity in his eyes, as if waiting to hear something a bit more profound, and I said the only thing that seemed to be an actual truth: “Well, we got to face facts, Sam. She’s gone now, and it’s my fault.”

He made a sound from deep in his throat that sounded very much like, “Yeah.”

“I guess she had a right to be mad,” I said. “She did warn me. She told me, ‘Harold Fletcher, if you ever put your hands on me like that again, I’m leaving you.’ Those were her exact words. And the whole thing was about nothing — just that she spent a little money at a jewelry party, and for that I shoved her into a wall.” I patted his head. “You remember, don’t you?”

Sam’s only outward response was to lower his head, but I had the eerie feeling that he was re-imaging the whole scene start to finish. He’d seen it all, watched me push her roughly back against the den wall and then stalk away to find my old pal John. And only two weeks later, on a night when I couldn’t find John in his usual hangout, I accused her of holding him prisoner in solitary confinement and demanded his immediate release. She laughed at me, and I felt my face grow hot, and I shoved her again, harder this time. What’s worse, I balled up a fist and shook it at her.

“Go ahead, Harold!” she screamed. “Hit me, you bum!”

I did not hit her, or at least I don’t think I did, but in the morning she was gone, silent as a cat, but I wouldn’t have heard her anyway because it was Saturday and I was sleeping it off. She took the ’68 Pontiac and all her clothes, withdrew half the money in the bank account and left Sam and me to grow old together.

The older we got, the more we came to depend on each other. Sam had a dubious pedigree, to put it kindly, but after a couple of years I knew that he was by far the most obedient and affectionate dog I’d ever had, and much better company than John Bee. And I knew, too, that he was smart, and not just dog-smart. He showed some very human qualities, like his innate sense of knowing when I was sick, or lonely, or disgusted, all of which seemed to happen more often since Marlene and I parted company. Sam would come to where I sat, place his chin on my knee and simply look at me as if to say, Buck up, Harold. It’ll get better. He was right, too, about things getting better, although there were plenty of days when I thought I wouldn’t make it.

Then, during the first week of autumn 1985, while thermometers still showed in the high 80s, I noticed a swelling on Sam’s left hind leg, and at first I figured he had an infected insect bite, a tick maybe, and I wasn’t much concerned until a few days later when he began to limp. I set up a makeshift pen on the back porch, and I picked him up and placed him on an old quilt inside the pen. He yelped in pain as I put him down, and right away I could tell that the swelling on the leg hadn’t receded; it had moved a good two inches upward toward his hip.

In my usual bumbling way, I tried doctoring him myself. I kept him corralled in the pen and applied hot and cold compresses twice a day for a week. He’d had minor ailments before, and he recovered under my care, but this was different. The ugly bulge grew larger, and Sam began giving me plaintive looks as if asking, What’s happening here, Harold?

Finally, for only the second time in his life, I decided to take Sam to the vet, which wasn’t an easy decision for me, because I could still hear the voice of my long-dead old man ranting about vet bills. He had grown up in the Depression when money was almost non-existent, and any spending on a sick or injured dog deprived the family. But I could never abide seeing an animal suffer, Sam especially, and while Doc Sanders’ Veterinary Clinic was only a couple of miles down the road, I had taken Sam there only once, five years ago, and we hadn’t been back. And in my mind we never would be.

There wasn’t any question about Doc Sanders’ skill. He was and is a good vet. The truth is that, at that time, and very publicly, I’d been confronted with all my shortcomings, and I knew I must give up my friend John Bee or die, and I favored neither prospect. It simply seemed that I never got a break, and I became a bad-tempered, self-pitying grump. Sam was about the only creature on Earth who could tolerate me.

Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest



The first time I took Sam to the vet, he was in a lot of pain with a bloated belly, and Doc Sanders handled it in less than an hour. He syringed off the fluid in Sam’s gut and told me to feed my dog more dog food and fewer table scraps. When we left in the truck to go home, Sam rode with his head out the window, his ears flapping in the wind. He was right as rain.

Then the disagreement with Doc started a few weeks later when I got his bill. Of course I knew that Doc couldn’t lowball a fee just to accommodate somebody’s poverty, but I still argued for an adjustment on moral grounds. Doc stood firm on the facts alone and prevailed in the end. The only satisfaction I received was taking nearly a year to pay off the bill.
Now I’m 71 years old, and I carry the unhappy incident with Doc Sanders as an embarrassment in my memory. Sam and I are in the waiting room of the vet’s office, and snippets of that first visit still cycle through my head. But I’m hoping that Doc has forgotten about it altogether. One thing for certain: I know I will never bring it up again.

Sam lies curled on the tile floor, his head on my shoe. Now and then he whines in pain, turning one way and then another in an effort to find relief, and all I can do is reach down and pat his head. He licks my hand, and that display of affection despite his pain touches some old and distant memories of my other dogs. I have had several, and the one I think of now is Penny, Sam’s mother. She lost two of the three pups in her last litter and then died herself a month later, leaving Sam an orphan, and I am mulling over the irony that Sam is the nearest thing to a child Marlene and I had together. Then, as Sam whimpers again, the door to the examination room opens and Doc Sanders, older and balder, emerges. He doesn’t smile as he approaches me, but his voice is quietly sympathetic.

“Let’s take him to the back, Mr. Fletcher,” Doc says. “Can you manage him?”

“I can carry him okay. It hurts him, though.”

Doc casts an unhappy look at the swelling on Sam’s leg. “I’m sure it does.”

Sam yelps as I lift him from the floor, and then again as he is eased lengthwise onto the plastic-covered pad of the examining table. “He’s in a bad way, Doc,” I say. “Can you help him?”

“I don’t know.” The vet rubs Sam gently on the shoulder. “I can help his pain, but I won’t lie to you. It may be serious.”

I stand with my hand on Sam’s back and wait as Doc Sanders scrubs. He tosses the paper towel into a waste basket and picks up some latex gloves.

“How old is Sam now?” he asks.

“He’s 12. No, 13.”

He nods. “Well, that’s a long life for a dog. Before he got sick, was he eating okay?”

“Not like he used to. Especially the last couple of months.”

“Okay,” says Doc, rubbing his chin. “I’m going to give him a shot for his pain. You take a seat in the waiting room while I check him out. I’ll come out to see you as quick as I can.”

“Whatever you say, Doc.”

Inwardly I wince a little, wondering if the jaunty reply suggests that I just handed Doc a blank check. But he seems not to have noticed what I said. He is at the cabinet carefully filling a syringe.

I wait outside for another half-hour. A few other pet owners, all women, have gathered in the waiting room while I was in with Sam, and they look up hopefully as the inner door opens and Doc waves for me to come back into the office. On the way, as we pass the examining room, I see that Sam is still on the table, lying stretched out on his side.

“He ain’t dead, is he, Doc?”

“No,” he says. “He’s sleeping from the shot I gave him.” He points to a chair beside his desk and says, “Take a seat, Mr. Fletcher.” I sit down, and Doc leans forward on his desk, his hands clasped together.

“I examined him,” he says, “and I’m 99 percent sure your dog has cancer.” He grimaces, adding, “In fact, I’m a hundred percent sure. We’ve seen a lot of it lately in dogs Sam’s age.” Doc Sanders pauses, looking closely at me as if gauging my reaction to what I am about to hear, and then adds quietly, “There’s nothing to be done, Mr. Fletcher. It’s best to just go ahead and put him down.”

Doc’s words produce a moment of shock during which I have a ridiculous thought: If a dog dies while under a vet’s care, does that eliminate the bill? But instantly I’m ashamed for having such a thought, and I wonder what kind of ridiculous old man I’ve become. “I never thought it would be that bad,” I say. “I thought it was probably something you could fix.”

“It’s nothing like what he had before, Mr. Fletcher,” the vet says, and I know for certain now he still remembers Sam’s first visit. “This is going to kill him.”

The words sting, and suddenly I’m holding back an old man’s tears, and when I can look again at Doc, I see that he is genuinely sorry about Sam, and that is comforting. Finally I ask him, “How long do you reckon he’s got?”

Doc considers for a few seconds. “Maybe three weeks. But he’ll be in terrible pain the whole time.”

“Couldn’t you keep him doped up?”

Doc shakes his head. “That’s just delaying the inevitable. And soon the drugs won’t work anymore.” He leans forward, looking earnestly at me. “Believe me, Mr. Fletcher, it’s the best thing you can do for him.”

I remain silent, but I’m thinking Doc is right, and I can tell he doesn’t want Sam to suffer. But it suddenly seems to me that if I approve the dog’s euthanasia here and now, I will have short-changed Sam and lost something valuable in my own life. I can’t explain it, but my feeling is that something important in the situation isn’t being considered, and in that moment at least, I can’t bring myself to give Doc the okay.

The office door is open, and I can see Sam on the table in the examination room, sleeping peacefully. As I watch, one of Sam’s ears flicks as if a horsefly had landed there, and I feel myself smiling. I think: Old Sam’s dreaming.

“How long will he stay asleep?” I ask Doc.

“Several hours. He’ll probably sleep through the night, and the residual effect of the drug should work through the morning. But by tomorrow evening he’ll be in more pain than ever.”

“Could I take him home for one last day and bring him back tomorrow?”

Doc looks thoughtful. “If that’s what you want to do,” he says, and after a quick pause adds with a nod, “Maybe that’s a good idea. He won’t have much pain, at least for a while. He’ll probably enjoy being home.” He stands up, reaches across the desk, and shakes my hand firmly. “I’m sorry about your dog, Mr. Fletcher. I wish there was something more we could do.”

“It’s okay,” I say. “Things happen.”

“If you’re interested in adoption, I know several prospects.”

I shake my head. “No, thanks, Doc.”

“All right. Be sure to bring Sam back here tomorrow before five.”

Doc helps me get Sam cradled into my arms and then shows us out through the clinic’s back door. The dog weighs a good 30 pounds, maybe more, and it’s a struggle to ease him onto the passenger side of the truck’s bench seat. When he’s settled I haul myself up behind the steering wheel and sit there looking at him. He is breathing quietly, and I begin to think about other dogs I’ve had. I’d lost them one at a time, and each loss produced a little siege of sorrow. But Sam is a different story.

Read 30 of the best short stories from the 2016 contest

He’s smart — really too smart to be a reincarnated Harley driver with GO TIDE tattooed along the length of his forearm. Sam had shown how smart he was after that first trip to Doc’s, but I was so stupid then I hadn’t recognized it. And it was also the time when I was told, without tact, sympathy, or respect for my feelings, that I must stay away from John Bee forever or be subjected to long-term unhappiness. In simpler terms, just as I was finally getting over Marlene, and just as Sam was showing a little affection for me, I was ordered to stay completely away from booze. As it turned out, it was easy enough to stay away. And it was also very hard.

I had to spend the next 30 days in jail.

Back at home now, I fold an old down comforter to make a pallet in a corner of the bedroom, and Sam never moves when I place him on it. I wash and fill Sam’s water bowl, then open a can of dog food and spoon half of it into his food bowl. Sam has very nearly stopped eating at all, but the food will be there in case he wakes up hungry.

I stand for a moment watching him sleep and wondering why I feel so connected to him. Maybe it’s because Sam is the end of the line, without a doubt the last dog I will ever have. Raising a dog requires time, money, and patience, and I am lacking in all three now.

After a few minutes I tiptoe to the living room and turn on the TV, snooze through an old John Wayne movie, then go back to the bedroom and ease into bed. I lie listening to Sam’s breathing, and once during the night I awake to listen again and he is snoring softly. Then in the morning the first thing I see is Sam waiting at my bedside, his smart dog stare riveted on my face. He seems to be saying, Harold, old boy, you are sleeping away the morning.

I lever myself up on one elbow and say, “Well, look at you. Doing better, huh?” But it’s a ridiculous thing to say because I know it’s the shot’s residual effect and the improvement won’t last for long. Sam doesn’t seem inclined to move, but he watches intently as I get slowly out of bed and start to dress, and he gives a weak wag of his tail as I sit down on the bed to put on my shoes. All the time I am watching him out of the corner of my eye, and I see in his rapt expression a behavior I’ve seen many times, although now there is no excited barking or tail chasing as there was before. Still I can see in Sam’s eyes what he wants.

“Old dog,” I say, “do you want to take a ride? Just get in the truck and go like we used to?” At the word truck Sam’s body gives a quick jerk and his tail switches twice, but still he doesn’t move. I finish tying my shoes and reach over to pat him and he gives me a lick in return.

“You remember,” I say, smoothing the fur on his back, “I’m driving, and you’ve got your head stuck through the window. I never knew why dogs like that, but it seemed to suit you just fine.”

Sam whines, looking up at me. His eyes are rimmed in bright red, and I’m thinking: If this is your last day, old dog, you should do whatever you please.

“How about it?” I ask him. “Take a little ride in the truck?”

Sam lifts his head and looks at the door in the kitchen that opens onto the concrete pad where the truck is parked. Then he pulls himself carefully onto his three functioning legs and begins limping awkwardly toward it. When he reaches the door, he stops and looks back at me.

With a shrug I say, “You want to go right now? Okay. We’ll go right now.”

Sam turns his eyes from me and fixes them on the doorknob, waiting patiently as I button my cardigan sweater. It is the kind of early fall morning when the air starts out cool but by afternoon it is summer again. The coolness, when I open the door, seems to energize the dog, and he moves in a lurching walk across the back porch to the steps and there he stops. He looks up at me again.

“Okay,” I say. “I got you.” Again I lift him as gently as I can and negotiate the three steps to the concrete and put him down. He didn’t yelp when I picked him up, which tells me the pain shot is still working, and that’s a good thing.

Sam limps his way toward the truck, and I follow. I open the passenger door and lift him to the seat, waiting until he settles himself, and then I crank the window partly down and close the door. Sam lifts his head, but only to watch the driver’s door until I get behind the wheel. As I start the engine, he lets his chin fall to rest on his paws.

“You ready?” I say to him. “Okay, let’s go.”

We pulled out slowly onto the main road through town, stopping only to get five gallons of gas and a sausage biscuit at the Gulf station. Back on the road I offer Sam a bit of the sausage and he takes it so quickly that it surprises me, and with unwise generosity I give him the whole patty. As he eats it, I think, Maybe his appetite’s coming back, and we can call it off for a while.

“What about a run out to Logan’s Lake?” I say. “Maybe you can’t chase ducks like you used to, but we can walk out on the dock. What do you think?”

Sam’s tail thumps the seat a couple of times. “I’ll take that as a yes,” I say.

It only takes 20 minutes down a side road to reach Logan’s Lake, which is little more than a pond at the edge of the state park. In better days Sam always enjoyed going there, and now he lifts his head higher to look at the water as I pull into the parking area near the dock. I step from the running board onto the ground and circle around to open Sam’s door.

“Come on, dog,” I say. “Let’s go look for ducks.”

I pick Sam up again and carry him down the slope to the lakeshore and onto the dock, and when we reach the wide platform at the end, I set him gently down onto the planking. He whimpers a little as I release him, and then he drops his chin onto his forepaws and lies quietly looking out at the water.

I can tell he’s starting to hurt again.

We wait on the dock for nearly 10 minutes before three of the resident greenheads come swimming toward us, and to my surprise Sam comes instantly alert, head quickly lifting and his eyes suddenly bright and alive and fixed on the ducks, all his instincts awake. I see the old dog’s body twitch with excitement, and I know his launch mechanism is wound tight and ready to propel him like a slingshot if those ducks come out of the water. But in the end Sam never moves. The ducks come close to the dock and tarry, dabbling and quacking, but when no food is thrown, they lose interest and swim back the way they came.

If a dog can show disappointment, I see it in Sam’s eyes as he looks at me, and I say, “Listen, dog, if you weren’t sick, you’d give ’em a good run for their money and they know it.” We both look out at the water for a few more minutes, and I feel the sun beginning to heat the plank floor, so I ask, “You want to go back to the truck now?”

The word truck again touches a nerve in Sam, and the muscles of his body make a tiny ripple along his back. He pushes himself up on his front legs, but can only go so far, and he looks again at me. “All right,” I say. “I got you.”

I settle Sam again on the truck’s seat, and we drive back toward the highway. He makes no effort to lift his head to see through the windshield, and I am sure now that the painkiller has worn off completely. I reach over and pat his head again, but there is no reaction, as if he cannot feel my hand. For a dreadful moment, because his eyes are closed, I think he is already dead. But when I place my hand on his side I can feel that he’s still breathing.

I say to him, “I hate this, old dog. You deserve better than you got. I am sorry.”

He still doesn’t respond to my voice. Then when I stop at the highway intersection, I say to him, “I’d better take you to see Doc now.”

He does react to the word Doc. His eyes open and his head swings upward as though he’s making an effort to get to his feet. His tail twitches once, and then he lies still again.

“That’ll be a mercy, won’t it, Sam?”

Sam doesn’t make a sound. But he turns his eyes to the windshield, steadily looking at it, and to me he’s clearly saying: Drive, Harold.

The clinic is 30 minutes away. Sam lies very still on the bench seat, and as I keep a glancing eye on him, I think: Mercy’s a short commodity anymore. My old drunk of a father never showed mercy to anyone. And look at me now: I hurt my wife, and she hurt me in return, and neither of us had any thought about mercy for the other.

I remember also Doc’s advice in his office about putting Sam down, and the feeling I had of missing something important, and finally it comes to me. Yesterday I wasn’t sure, and I couldn’t make a decision without knowing what Sam wanted. But on this little trip, which I realize was for my benefit, not Sam’s, he has informed me. He wants a merciful end to the agony, something only Doc can deliver, and my part of the process is simply to get him there because he can’t go by himself now. It’s as if he’s saying: It was a nice ride, Harold, but it’s over now.

Then in my mind it is five years ago, right after the time Doc drained the fluid from Sam. Marlene has gone, and John Bee and I are still exploring the concept of permanent inebriation when a trooper pulls me over simply for weaving on the road and being unable to walk a straight line. I serve the 30-day minimum sentence, and Sam survives on whatever leftovers the neighbors bring him.

After they release me, I go straight home, find John Bee still in the cabinet, and drink myself into a semi-stupor. Then the telephone rings, and when I finally find it, a woman’s voice says, “Oh, Mr. Fletcher, I’m glad I reached you. This is Dr. Sander’s office. Your dog is here.”

“Whose dog?”

“Your dog, Sam. The doctor drained the fluid off his tummy again. Did you want pick him up?”

“It’s a mistake,” I say. “Sam’s out back somewhere.”

She says something else just as I hang up, and then the phone rings again, and this time it’s Doc himself.

“Rita wasn’t mistaken, Mr. Fletcher. Sam has come in by himself three times in the last month. His belly’s still swelling and giving him pain, so he barks at the back door until somebody lets him in, and then he goes straight to the OR and jumps on the table; I drain off the fluid, and he gets down and heads for the door. We’ve been trying to reach you.”

I listen, but so far nothing Doc says makes sense.

He gives a little laugh. “That’s some smart dog you’ve got. He knows what to do when he needs help. Don’t think I ever saw one with that much initiative.”

There’s a silence. Doc says, “Are you there, Mr. Fletcher?”

Even I can tell my words are slurred. “I’ve been pretty sick, Doc.”

“Oh? I’m sorry,” he says. “I guess that’s why the dog came in by himself. We’ve got Sam’s fluid problems settled now, but watch his diet, okay? I’ll send you a bill for the treatments. Do you want me to let him go home on his own?”

“Sure,” I mumble. “That’ll be fine.”
I park near the back door of Doc’s clinic and help Sam carefully to the ground. To my surprise he heads straight for the door, literally dragging his leg now, but moving faster than at any time that day, even lurching up two steps to the porch landing where he stops and stares at the door. He doesn’t bark, but he doesn’t need to. A well-dressed woman holding a toy poodle opens the door and steps out, and Sam slips quickly past her and disappears inside.

Startled, the woman gasps, “Well, for heaven’s sake.” Then she spies me standing by the truck. “Was that your dog that just went in?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She is obviously miffed. “Can’t you control him?” she asks. “He seems to have a mind of his own.”

“Yes, ma’am. He does for a fact.”

I wait in the hallway outside the OR. I see Sam standing by the table, waiting for help. He looks at me over his shoulder, but I can tell I’m not the person he wants to see. He turns away, and I mutter softly, “So long, Sam,” just as Doc appears, nods to me and says, “This takes only a few minutes, Mr. Fletcher. Would you like to come in?”

I shake my head.

Doc goes into the OR and closes the door.

The 2017 Fiction Contest is underway! Click here to enter.

Soup’s On!

It’s officially cold outside. And when it’s cold, there’s nothing better than a soul-warming bowl of soup. This soup season, we invited Danielle Walker, author of The New York Times best-selling cookbook Against All Grain, to share fresh ideas guaranteed to help you through the winter months.

“I grew up in Colorado, so whenever the cooler months come around, I crave rich meals and soups,” Walker says. “My mom used to make chili, stews, and soups in the crockpot — familiar and welcome guests at our table.”

One of the chef’s most popular recipes is a budget-friendly, fuss-free take on leftovers.

“People love my Leftover Roast Chicken and Vegetable Soup,” says the popular food blogger (againstallgrain.com). “I think the recipe resonates because it is so easy. Say you had a roasted chicken last night. With this recipe, you reinvent chicken leftovers by adding roasted vegetables and creating a hearty, delicious soup that brings people around the table.”

Another crowd pleaser calls for butternut squash: “Low in calories and rich in vitamins and nutrients, butternut squash is the quintessential comfort food,” says the author. “I love its silky texture, rich flavor, and vibrant orange hue. Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Sausage packs such a warm flavor that it beckons you to cozy up by the fireplace. While this recipe calls for mild Italian sausage, you can substitute a low-fat chicken or turkey sausage — both work.”

For Danielle Walker’s recipes, pick up the January/February 2016 issue of The Saturday Evening Post on newsstands or …

Purchase the digital edition for your iPad, Nook, or Android tablet:


To purchase a subscription to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post:

Sway to Go!

When I first met Jim Wood in January 2007, I didn’t know what to make of him. We were on the Crystal Serenity, a luxury cruise ship bound from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires. I was a guest lecturer, invited to speak on books I’d written. He sought me out because we both hailed from Allentown, Pennsylvania. While shaking hands, I noticed a name badge on his left lapel. It read: “James Wood, Ambassador Host.” Since he was older, well dressed, and quite mannerly, I assumed he was an ambassador, since cruise lines often hire them as speakers.

We chatted about our hometown, immediately hitting it off, and then I pointed to his badge, expecting an update on embassy affairs. Turns out Jim was on a much more sensitive diplomatic mission. His job was to dance with the unescorted ladies on board, and ambassador was the title the cruise line preferred.

Well now.

Here was a real-life Richard Gere (American Gigolo) or Walter Matthau (Out to Sea) depending on how you viewed him. This gave new meaning to the term “sea legs.” …

James Wood’s memoir about dance hosting at sea is available at Amazon.com.

To read the entire article, pick up the January/February 2016 issue of The Saturday Evening Post on newsstands or …

Purchase the digital edition for your iPad, Nook, or Android tablet:


To purchase a subscription to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post:

A Ring, Some Pearls, Perhaps a Watch

His tiny fingertips skimmed the iPad. The hands of a surgeon, thought his mother. So graceful, so confident. Or maybe the piano. They’ll fly on piano keys. Yes. They were the hands of someone who’ll play Carnegie Hall.

“Simon, which face looks mean?” They made it a game.

Not as much mean as recalcitrant, he thought. Perhaps refractory, mulish, pig-headed. Lines from a dictionary flashed on the ceiling. He lifted his head and read.

She cupped his chin and gently steered him back to work. “Watch the computer screen, Simon. The eyebrows are arched, the mouth corners are up, the eyes are twinkling. I think that’s a happy face. Do you think that’s a happy face?”

They raced through the program like they did every night and stuck gold stars to a chart. Then came the hard part. Making stories out of pages in a magazine. Serena had cut out the pictures ahead of time and pasted them on notebook paper. Simon had to fill in the bubbles.

“The man has shirts. Lots of shirts,” said Simon.

“What do you think he’s doing? There’s a bull’s-eye, right? A red bull’s-eye under the picture. There’s a cash register, too.”

“Target, Target, Target,” the child responded.

“Words, Simon. Use your words. What do you think the man could be saying?”

“Expect more, pay less.” Tilting his head, he hummed.

They both heard the glass break at the same time. It sounded like the noise came from downstairs. A dozen presents sat underneath a Christmas tree by a large window. “Hide,” whispered Serena. There was no phone in Simon’s bedroom. The ringing startled him, anything sudden startled him. Serena would have to walk down the hall to call the police. Be quiet, be good were her last words as she shut his door.

It was a typical home in West Miami. Houses lined the block like concrete bunkers, each separated by a few yards of grass. People were close enough to hear Serena’s screams. Almost three hours passed until they found Simon. His mother’s body was long gone. The crime scene — the family room couch bathed in blood, the upended lamps — were taped off. The neighbors had almost forgotten about the boy, the strange boy nobody played with.

“He probably run off,” said an elderly man. “He always run off. She find him blocks away like a stray dog.”

A woman stepped out of the shadows. Slim, pale, already dressed in black. “I work with Serena at the school. Sometimes when she needs to go to the store, I watch him.”

The policeman wrote in his clipboard. The woman spoke and waited, spoke and waited. Breathing. When he glanced up, she started talking again. “I’m Amy. Amy Ritter. Simon’s 10 … did you find him? He likes to hide. He ends up in the oddest places. Behind sofas, inside cabinets.”

They found him behind the curtains, sleeping in the window seat. Serena had taken one of the sheets that matched his bedding and hung it floor-to-ceiling. No one scrutinizing the room would have guessed there was anything but wall behind it. It was his favorite hiding place. “Are you hiding in your fortress again?” his mother would say. “Or today is it a castle?”

Curled like a fetus, the child was too still. “Son, are you all right?” The policeman knelt at eye level. Even when he poked him, there was no response. Amy had to rub his arm and shout his name three times to wake him up. The boy opened his eyes and blinked.

“Simon,” said Amy, this is Officer Martinez.”

The man spoke slowly, over-enunciating each word, the way some people speak to the deaf. “You … feeling … okay?”

Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest



Simon stared at the face that loomed inches from his own. It was a jumble of eyes and ears and teeth. Only the nose caught his attention. There were huge holes on the man’s nose. Holes bigger than the La Brea Tar Pits. Larger than the Grand Canyon. The holes were like craters on the moon.

“I bet you’re Simon.” When the man tried to steer him away from the curtains, Simon pulled away. Then he tucked in his arms and legs and lowered his head. That’s how hermit crabs defend themselves from predators, he remembered. He pretended his back was a shell.

“I think it’s time to come out, buddy. You must be hungry. My kids are always hungry.”

Simon thought about his stomach and realized yes, it did feel empty. He stood up. The nose with all the holes belonged to a head that was attached to a very tall man in his bedroom. He was in a policeman’s uniform. Maybe he was a policeman.

“I’m Officer Martinez.”

A computer screen lit up in Simon’s head. Eyebrows straight, mouth down. A sad face, maybe a worried face. Then the screen quickly linked to another site.

“Ramon Martinez,” blurted Simon. “Earned run average 3.67. Win/loss 135-88. Born March 22, 1968, in the Dominican Republic.” His voice found a rhythm, rising and falling like an elevator. He swayed from side to side, standing on one foot then the other. Like the radio announcers, full of vinegar and pep. “With a lifetime strikeout record of 1,427, Martinez was one of this decade’s most outstanding pitchers.”

“You don’t say.” Martinez cocked an eyebrow and glanced at Amy, the two of them standing by a bed shaped like a race car, the comforter covered in cars, the curtains covered in cars.

She nodded.

“So you like baseball,” Martinez continued, “and you like cars.”

Simon studied the policeman’s face. Now he seemed quizzical. Though perhaps he was unsure or undecided. It was hard to tell. The faces never matched the ones on the computer. It was like the computer was frozen and real life moved. Pages of his favorite book leafed through his mind An Anthology of Scientific Facts published by Harcourt Brace, copyright 2010. He loved the heaviness, the heft, the way it felt when he lay down on this bed and put it on his tummy. Did you know that insects can be trapped in amber for centuries? Their wings locked, their very breaths trapped forever. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep, they don’t die. Real life moved.

“Is my mother dead?” he asked.

When he told the policeman that the man had been inside his room, at first he didn’t believe him. It appeared untouched. Clothes were carefully folded in drawers. The closet doors were closed. Even the toys were put away. The man simply took his father’s watch off his dresser and left.

“What did he look like?” asked Officer Martinez. “Do you remember what he looked like?”

Simon scrunched his eyes and gazed at the ceiling. “A red hat. Kitchen gloves. Black sneakers.” He slashed the air with his finger. “A Nike’s swoosh.”

But the face was a blur. He could not remember the face. Serena’s cries had long stopped. The house was eerily quiet. Simon sat on the window seat, peeked through the curtains, and watched the man, the man who hurt his mother, then he lay down and slept.

Amy stayed with him the next week. Simon liked Amy. Her hair smelled like soap. Her voice sounded like Christmas carols, and she used funny words. gosh darn whatchamacallit jeepers. But when they found his grandfather, the grandfather his mother never spoke about, the grandfather he never even knew, she went home.

It was up to her to break the news. They were baking chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen. Simon was pounding the dough on the kitchen table, kneading until his knuckles gave out. “Serena never told me about your grandfather. Did she talk about your daddy’s daddy?”

Simon read Amy’s face like brail. She was easy. Furrows rutted her forehead when she worried, furrows like tire tracks. He didn’t have to look at her to see them. He could squish the dough, squeeze it out though his fingers, and listen to her all at the same time. Serena would be proud. Yes, that is worried.

“Did they tell you he made cars? He worked on the line in Flint. He’s coming all the way from Michigan to stay with you, Simon.”

He was making a mud pie. If he used the flat of his palm it could be huge. Perhaps the world’s biggest. He tilted his head and started humming, humming loud enough to drown out the thump thump thump of the overhead fan, the buzz of the refrigerator, Amy.

“And I’m just three blocks away if you need me, right?” She sounded funny, like she was hiccuping. Simon hummed louder. Soon he could no longer hear the words.

The Grandfather came the next day.

“You Simon?”

He nodded.

“I’m George.”

They stared at each other for five minutes taking a head-to-toe inventory. George spoke first. “I could use a nap. Where can I take my nap?”

His two battered suitcases were slid into Serena’s closet. Then the stranger who called himself George lay down in her bed. His mother’s aura, the scent of gardenias, was displaced by something unfamiliar. Foresty odors like wood chips and pine needles. Even though it was September, his grandfather wore a flannel shirt. The temperature outside was a sticky 85 degrees, but he kept the shirt on right through supper.

Streams of sweat ran down George’s neck while he boiled a can of chicken noodle soup. Together they foraged the pantry, opening and closing doors. Simon found saltines. On the highest shelf, the one above the refrigerator, George found the Scotch.

“You mind if I indulge?” A shaky hand poured the brown liquor into a glass. Then they both sat down at the kitchen table. Simon shoved one cracker after another into his mouth, working his way through the box. His grandfather drank.

“I got the Parkinson’s. GM gave me early retirement. Disability pay.”

Simon watched him slowly sip, the booze splashing on the table now, almost as much landing outside the glass as staying in. The more George drank, the more his hand shook. His tongue got looser, too. Soon he was talking nonstop, a stream of words flowing out, the sounds liquid. They carried Simon like an ocean wave.

“You know what it’s like? It’s like my brain is stuck in second gear. I can’t shave no more, I can’t even put on my socks. So I say to my hand. Okay, this is the plan. You’re going pick up that razor and get this stubble off my face. Just like you’ve been doing for the last 60 years. Only all of a sudden there’s a breakdown in communication.”

He glimpsed at Simon, his hands in a frenzy as he poured himself another glass. “You don’t talk much do you?”

“I’m stuck, too.”

That night, like every night since the incident, Simon had a nightmare. Like most of Simon’s dreams, they were so vivid and lifelike that he had trouble telling they were over when he woke up. He dreamt about the watch. He was on the school playground when numbers suddenly flew at him like hailstones. He scurried in circles, trying to find someplace safe, dodging and ducking. Still they kept on coming.

“He wanted you to have it,” said Serena. “It’s your legacy.” Serena didn’t believe in using baby talk when speaking to children. “It’s your inheritance,” said Serena. “For posterity.” The car accident had happened a month before his third birthday. One minute his father went out for a quart of orange juice and the next minute he was dead.

The watch wasn’t a toy like his miniature Millennium Falcon or as interesting as his goldfish. But each night he touched it like a talisman before he went to bed. Now it wasn’t there. Like the hole in his mouth where a baby tooth fell out, something was missing. And when the nightmares came, when he heard his mother’s screams, a ticking metronome always lurked in the background. The watch in his dreams never failed to remind him of what was gone.

Martinez called. Could they come to the police station? There was another robbery and this time a silent alarm alerted the police. A block away from the house they found a pillowcase filled with jewelry. Two blocks away they found the thief. He was high, they said, and had a rap sheet. If someone made a positive identification, they could lock him up.

The room was bigger than the school gym. Simon held his grandfather’s hand as they walked from one policeman’s desk to another. Phones rang and pencil sharpeners churned. Simon rubbed his ears. People were screeching in Spanish, English, Creole. They sound like cicadas, he thought. Like a tornado of cicadas.

“Which one is Martinez?” George had a cataract in his right eye. He walked with his head at a tilt.

Simon slowly inched up the aisles, scanning the faces. Finally he spotted a man almost as tall as the doorframe. He got close enough to inspect his nose. The holes were even larger today.

Martinez glanced up from his paperwork and sighed. “I’m gonna show you a lineup.” When he looked Simon in the eye, the boy looked away. “Remember it’s one-way glass. You can see them but they can’t see you.”

There were five men standing in a row with numbers on their chests. But no matter how hard Simon stared at their faces, they resembled out-of-focus snapshots. Blurred. His hands got sweaty and he wiped them on his shirt. Up down. Up down. Up down. He could swear he heard laughing, but when he turned around to confront his classmates, to see if Bobby or Emmanuel or any other of the mean boys had followed him into the police station, no one was there.

Martinez ushered them into the hall. He spoke quickly like he was busy, like other people were studying lineups who didn’t stumble, who without hesitation remembered the face of the man who killed their mother. When he said Don’t worry son, I knew it was a long shot, he sounded like Simon’s PE coach after he struck out or threw a basketball into the wrong hoop. Overhead lights crackled. Cicadas screeched. Flapping his hands, Simon opened his mouth as wide as he could and screamed.

Fifty heads craned to glare. While Martinez jumped backwards, George closed in. He wrapped his arms around the boy and squeezed. “Remember when we read your book about the boa constrictors?” They started rocking, shifting their weight like a ship at sea, the grandfather all the while counting. One two three four five. One two three four five. One two three four five. Soon Simon’s heartbeat fell in with the rhythm. One two three four five. One two three four five.

“Those men all look alike to me, too,” said George.

Read 30 of the best short stories from the 2016 contest

On the way home, they stopped at a restaurant and had pancakes for dinner. It was the one food they agreed upon. In many ways, George was as picky an eater as his grandson. Every morning he had oatmeal, every lunch was soup, and every dinner macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile Simon preferred things crunchy. Granola, carrot sticks, little crispy fish sticks shaped like fish.

That night, George let him stay up past his bedtime. When Simon went to sleep late, he was too tired to have nightmares. Instead they watched football on TV. The old man had a pudding cup while the boy microwaved popcorn. Together they poured the last of the Scotch down the kitchen sink.

When his eyelids were fluttery and his feet seemed too heavy to lift, Simon let George carry him into Serena’s bathroom and set him on the edge of the tub. There was nothing that calmed Simon down more than watching his grandfather get ready for bed. He was soldierly and neat, and Simon loved soldierly and neat. A row of brand new toothbrushes was lined up along the sink and each night George unwrapped a new one, brushed his teeth, then threw the used one away. He did the same thing with soap. He’d use a bar once then toss it in the garbage. Sometimes, thought Simon, you just can’t get clean enough.

Next it was his turn. He counted 10 brushstrokes on each side of his mouth and spurted the toothpaste out into the water glass 10 times. He took the fresh pajamas that he laid out on his bed that morning then carefully inserted his legs into the pants and his arms into the top. Then he slipped under the sheets and pulled three blankets up to his chin. Tuck tuck tuck tuck tuck. While his grandfather sat in a chair by his bed (his mother had sat by his feet), Simon read 20 pages (not 9 not 11) of one of his top 10 favorite books. This week they were rereading The Hobbit (Houghton Mifflin Books, January 1, 1966, edition). Simon had read the trilogy at least a dozen times.

“There is nothing like looking if you want to find something.”

Simon pronounced the passages loudly and clearly. Every few minutes he glanced at George to see if his chin was resting on his chest. His grandfather was a never-ending source of amazement. Like a horse, he could sleep standing up.

“You usually find something if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” He had read 10 pages. Tuck tuck tuck tuck tuck. And then he fell asleep.

Six weeks later, Martinez called them again. George answered the phone. There was noise in the background. People were shouting in strange languages. The officer got straight to the point. “It’s time to hit the pawnshops. Bring a list of the jewelry you’re missing, photos, whatever you have as proof of ownership.”

“Hold on. Hold on. Let me get a pen.” George combed through the kitchen drawers for something to write with. By the time he lifted the receiver again he was out of breath.

“They sit on goods for 60 days. Then they release them.”

“Where do we go? Is there an address?” George got lost driving to the supermarket.

“Start with Homestead and work your way up. Cutler Ridge, Liberty City, Overtown.”

George straightened his back, hitched up his trousers, and cracked his neck. For years, his life consisted of driving to the VA Hospital and the Veteran’s lodge. Loop after loop like a skein of yarn. He liked the predictability, the safeness of it. Now things were unraveling.

“Homestead? Where’s Homestead?”

“FYI. The brokers are supposed to fingerprint and register their clientele. Comprende? Sometimes we get lucky.”

They sat down at the kitchen table and unfolded a map of South Florida. Serena’s absence was still palpable, like a chunk of unswallowed food in their throats. Her lipsticked coffee mug, the handwritten notes she left on the refrigerator.

“Did I tell you I met your mom once?”

Simon’s eyebrows jumped.

“I was into the sauce then. Your grandmother had just died. I don’t think I made a positive impression.”

His wife had suffered a long lingering death from cancer. If there were five stages of mourning, George wallowed in step two. Anger. He hated when they couched disease in military terms, when they called the treatment a battle, or the victim a casualty. George served two tours in Vietnam. There at least you had a fighting chance.

“Everyone loved Gloria. Never forgot a birthday. Swapped recipes with strangers on the bus.”

As soon as his wife died, his world spun apart. She was his center of gravity. The one who chatted with the neighbors, sweet-talked bill collectors, smiled through pain. You knew what you were getting with George. There was no sugarcoating with George.

“We have to make up a list. There’s a ring, a watch. You think anything else’s missing?”

They opened every drawer in Serena’s bureau, handling her panties and bras like they were tissue. They peeked under the bed and in the closet. Her scent was everywhere. Simon held her dresses to his face and buried his nose. Gardenias. They still smelled like gardenias. It wasn’t until he worked up the courage to search the photo albums that his synapses clicked. Yes, there she was in her wedding picture wearing pearls. He had never thought about his mother’s pearls. They were hidden in a small jewelry box, the red leather one she kept on her bureau. That was gone, too.

They treated their job like a reconnaissance mission. George wore his old army jacket even though it clenched his armpits. Simon carried a backpack with supplies: pudding cups, granola bars, water, his Swiss army knife.

“Take photos,” said Martinez. “Everything starts to look alike.”

The trek down US 1 in Serena’s Camry seemed endless that first Saturday. George didn’t care for the radio (You call that music!!), so he talked while he drove. Simon decided his grandfather was an automotive genius. He knew as much about vehicles as Simon knew about dinosaurs, about the animal kingdom, about crystal formation, about the constellations. If someone wanted to publish The Anthology of Vehicular Facts, his grandfather could write it.

“The 1971 Camaro was a beauty. A-arm front suspension. Leaf springs on the rear axles. An air induction hood scoop that opened when you hit full throttle. That Z28 was one of the 10 best cars in the world.” On and on he rambled until Simon closed his eyes, the words droning like a lullaby, lulling him to sleep.

The farther south they went the more dilapidated the neighborhoods became. There were bars on all the storefront windows, a spindly palm tree the only sign of green. It seemed that every other block was either a pawnshop or a fast food establishment. They pulled onto the curb in front of Al’s Pawn. First one metal door, then they were buzzed through another. A dark brown man with a wooly head sat on a stool behind a counter. He waved at them and offered a half smile. One of his front teeth was gold.

“We’re on the hunt for a diamond ring, some pearls, perhaps a watch,” said George.

“Looking’s free,” the clerk replied. In a corner was a TV. The announcer was calling football plays.

Simon scanned a shelf of watches and shook his head. Nothing was familiar.

“You don’t have too much in the way of fancy jewelry,” said George.

“Just what you see.” Someone ran through the goalposts and the crowd went wild. The clerk threw up his arms and yelled Touchdown!

They had no better luck in the next three stores. Instead of asking for help, they quietly sifted through the merchandise. George perused the tables with military paraphernalia. Simon liked the old clocks. It was like crawling through someone’s attic. Most of the stuff had been there for ages. Broken. Abandoned.

The fifth store, the one in Goulds, was the start of their education. They were making their way past bins of garage sale leftovers when a man with a long bushy beard, a black fedora, and a black suit walked into the shop. The salesclerk made a phone call and five minutes later an elderly man appeared from a back office. He was bent like a question mark, his face rutted with age. He shook the hand of the man in the suit, took a key out from his pocket, and disappeared behind another door. Minutes later, a dozen trays of rings, necklaces, and watches were laid on top of the counter. Gems sparkled. Gold glinted like sun.

Simon slowly walked over. The men were too busy talking to notice him, the one in the fedora swooping his arms, gesturing, the old man nodding. His mother’s ring was a simple round diamond on a silver band. One entire tray was filled with them. To Simon they were all alike. The watches had the words Rolex on their faces. None said Bulova, like his father’s.

They almost met success at a store in Hialeah. Half the shelves were stocked with swastikas. Ashtrays with swastikas. Helmets with swastikas. Posters with swastikas. George’s Purple Heart worked like a password. The owner put his arm around his shoulder and the glass doors in his cabinets flew open.

Still the diamond solitaires and ropes of pearls all seemed identical to Simon while the watches all looked unfamiliar. Simon stared and stared. And when a slice of sun cut its way through the blinds and onto the countertop, he covered his eyes in pain. Metal gleamed like shards of glass and diamonds burned like ice. “Hot! Hot! Hot!” he screamed. He flapped his hands and spun like a top to make the burning stop.

“Can you close the shutters?” George bellowed. “Turn off some lights for Christ’s sake!”

Then they counted. One two three four five. One two three four five. George wrapped the child in his jacket, stroked his back, and massaged his arms. When Simon finally calmed down, they walked back to the car. Words weren’t necessary. The boy and his grandfather knew each other’s shorthand. The shrug of a shoulder was enough.

Slowly their lives were finding a groove, the knots loosening. They drove to the pawnshops every Saturday, making their way as far north as Orlando then turning around. The lives settled into a routine. George met with Simon’s teachers and helped him with his homework. And after school, they threw baseballs in the backyard and tinkered under the hood of the Camry. Together they grew.

At the supermarket one day, Simon pointed out to George the rows of soaps that came in bottles. “You can pump them,” explained Simon. “Each time it’s like new.” George narrowed his eyes then dumped a bottle in the cart. And when they started reading The Fellowship of the Rings, Simon forgot to count the pages. Sometimes they read 20 even 30 at a sitting. Together they made a chart of Middle Earth so George could keep the names right. His grandfather even stopped falling asleep.

They both dreaded the approach of Mother’s Day. Like they did every Sunday they went to their favorite restaurant for pancakes. But the booths were teeming with families that day. Babies were crying, kids were running up and down the aisles, the tables overflowing with gifts. George cleared his throat.

“Next month school ends. Right?”

Simon nodded.

“I thought we’d take a little road trip.”

He took a box out of his pocket and held it out. “Here, open it.”

“A compass, it’s a compass, Grandpa.” Simon traced the round surface with his finger. It reminded him of his father’s watch. He’d keep it on his dresser.

“I figure we’ll hit Jacksonville and work our way west. We have family in Michigan. And I believe Gloria had some cousins in California as well.”

“Can we visit the pawnshops?” asked Simon.

“Of course, of course. That’s part and parcel of the expedition.”

The boy smeared the maple syrup around his plate with his spoon. Then he stared at the mess like it had all the answers. “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” His lips kept moving, silently repeating Tolkien’s words. He didn’t know if he was saying them or thinking them. If they were quiet or if they were loud. But they were always there.

“And we can bring your books. We can read every night if you want. I believe The Return of the King comes next.”

Simon dipped his thumb into the syrup and traced the edge of this plate.

“Poor Frodo,” said his grandfather.

Simon glanced up. His thumb was midair, his mouth, open.

“All that trouble just to rid himself a ring.”

They bought maps from every state and that night spread them out on the linoleum from the kitchen down the hall to the family room.

“This is the fun part.” With a shaky hand George held up a red marker. “We start with Miami.”

Simon nodded. He would collect postcards from every city. There would be rocks from the Rocky Mountains and salt from the Great Salt Flats. A cap from Dodger Stadium and a lobster bib from Maine. He could see it.

With his fingers guiding his grandfather’s, his small hand cupped over the larger one, they drew the first small circle. They made lists of provisions and researched motels. They packed a stack of old books and bought some new ones, too. They gathered names and addresses of friends and relatives from the east coast to the west and together they plotted their future.

The 2017 Fiction Contest is underway! Click here to enter.

Meet the 2016 Great American Fiction Contest Prize Winners

We’re pleased to announce Celeste McMaster the winner of our 2016 Great American Fiction Contest! Read her prize-winning story “Zelda, Burning” and the stories from our five runners-up below.


Meet the Winner!

Celeste McMaster

Celeste McMaster

“I screamed and stomped around so much my husband thought I’d seen a mouse,” says McMaster on learning “Zelda, Burning” took first place in the 2016 Great American Fiction Contest, winning publication in the Post and online, and a prize of $500.

The story evolved over an eight-year period. “My American literature professor suggested I write on Zelda Fitzgerald, so she planted the seed, but I didn’t follow her advice until I went to graduate school,” she says. “I started the story in a creative writing class imagining what Zelda must have felt in her last years.”

After completing her Ph.D., McMaster took a position as English professor at Charleston Southern University. Attending the Appalachian Writers Workshop, she returned home and felt “reinvigorated to revise the story.”

Zelda, Burning” revolves around actual historic events. “It is true that Zelda died in a fire in the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, and that she danced, painted, and wrote,” says the author. “But I took creative liberties as to Scott and others haunting her while she was in the hospital.”

Guest judge and author Michael Knight found the winning entry a beautifully written account of Zelda’s time in the mental institution and her troubled romance with F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Scene by scene, line by lovely line, Celeste McMasters breathes life into a version of Zelda Fitzgerald that is as complex and compelling as you will find.”

Zelda, Burning” is McMaster’s first story for a national magazine, though she has published in literary journals, including New Delta Review, Dos Passos Review, and Arkansas Review.

Meet the Runners-Up!

Each runner-up receives $100 and publication of his or her work on our website. (To read the prize-winning stories, click the titles or images below.) We salute these fine writers and the more than 330 others who entered our 2016 contest.

Ruth Knafo Setton

Ruth Knafo Setton

Title:The Magic Circle

Story Line: On a fall night in 1963, a young immigrant struggles to support his family and hold on to a dream.

Bio: Published essays and stories in The Jerusalem Post, Literary Traveler, and North American Review, as well as a novel, The Road to Fez (2011).

Marlene Olin

Marlene Olin

Title:A Ring, Some Pearls, Perhaps a Watch

Story Line: Where was the boy nobody played with, and what did he see?

Bio: Published stories in Edge, The Maine Review, among other literary journals, as well as in the Post‘s online series #NewFictionFriday.

Jake Teeny

Jake Teeny

Title:Welcoming Death

Story Line: Was Perry really face to face with Death, or was it all just an elaborate dream?

Bio: First short story published by a national consumer publication; short stories published in Easy Street, Gemini, and other literary magazines.

Eileen M Hopsicker

Eileen M. Hopsicker

Title:Five in the Fifth

Story Line: Working at the Evergreen Nursing Home, young Jerry Keller didn’t think much about the future until he met Millie.

Bio: First short story published by a national consumer publication; first novel The Balance of Justice will be released in spring 2017.

Jim Gray

Jim Gray

Title:A Short Ride to Mercy

Story Line: Sam didn’t become his dog until Marlene left. The older they got, the more they depended on each other — more so than ever.

Bio: Published mysteries in Woman’s World magazine, as well as stories in leterary magazines; runner-up in 2015 Great American Fiction Contest.

Cover for The Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest 2016
Read ’Em All
Post editors are delighted by the amazing storytelling and fine writing of this year’s entrants. We’ve compiled 30 of the best stories — our winner, runners-up, and semifinalists — in an e-book, available on your favorite platforms for $3.99. Order now at saturdayeveningpost.com/fiction-books.

Noah Webster Would Have Loved Urban Dictionary

An open book

In the late 18th century, as the recently independent states were working to define what America was — after fighting with England about what it wasn’t — grammar books were still teaching American children to speak like proper Englishmen and women. The books taught such formal, outdated usages as the correct verb forms for thou (thou goest, thou wilt) and proper uses of shall (used with I and we for simple future, with you, he, she, and they to imply insistence or a threat). They spelled words like flavour, musick, and centre the British way. They also introduced some new restrictions on the language, such as banning prepositions at the end of a sentence, in favor of phrases like To whom did she speak? And they insisted on using subject pronouns after forms of the verb to beIt is I, It was she.

The approach of the English — and therefore Americans at the time — was to model their tongue after Latin, a high-status language typically taught only to boys attending elite private schools. Unfortunately, Latin and English aren’t a good fit — their structures are very different. Forcing English into a Latin template led to sentences that felt artificial. Noah Webster, in many ways the father of American English, rejected these rules. A true revolutionary, Webster thought Americans should break free from the old country and build a new standard from the ground up — one that reflected the way most of his countrymen actually talked. “As an independent nation,” he declared in his 1789 book Dissertations on the English Language, “our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.”

As a linguist and former librarian, I had long pictured Webster as the stuffy 19th-century figure who gave his name to the ponderous dictionary displayed on a stand in the library. But, as I delved into his story, I realized that Webster was a visionary — even a radical — so far ahead of his time, in fact, that grammar and style guides are only now catching up with him. …

Originally published at Zócalo Public Square (zocalopublicsquare.org).

To read the entire article, pick up the January/February 2016 issue of The Saturday Evening Post on newsstands or …

Purchase the digital edition for your iPad, Nook, or Android tablet:


To purchase a subscription to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post:


Authentic Beauty

Marilyn Monroe
Unattainable idea? In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe was the reigning icon of beauty.

For the past couple of years, a pixieish photographer named Mihaela Noroc has been traveling the world to create what she calls The Atlas of Beauty. The 30-year-old Romanian’s project is intended to record femininity in all its vibrant shapes and colors. It has earned a sizable international following online.

Wherever she travels, Noroc’s routine is the same: She approaches her subjects on neighborhood streets and invites their cooperation. Just ordinary, albeit “beautiful,” women spotted strolling about — who, when invited, stare dispassionately into the photographer’s camera. Some subjects demur, of course. But not here. “American women are really open,” Noroc told me. “And the U.S. is where I had the fewest refusals.” Anyone surprised by that?

In the U.S., where advertising and marketing often drive trends, we are not bashful about beauty. At the same time, we had better acknowledge that the way we talk about it is frequently just plain ugly.

Blame the media, sure, but the cruel fact is that our culture has created progressively less attainable (and desirable) ideals for women — and there’s nothing pretty about that.

Let none of us be stupid about this topic. Our perceptions of what defines a homeland goddess are insanely, even foolishly, subjective (among adult men like me, needless to say, but among women too) and they cannot be addressed without first also asking, “What’s even ‘American’ these days?” We’re a tossed-salad nation: All sorts of DNA has mixed into our bloodlines. The once celebrated “California girl” — so blonde, leggy, and blue-eyed — is not a myth, but she’s not representative of anything anymore except maybe Venice Beach. It’s the Kardashians, in all their weirdly callipygian splendor, who are maybe more the norm. It seems we’re shifting toward ambiguous national origin as a preferred standard, especially in advertising.

So, what does all of this portend?

I asked Jimmy Jellinek for his thoughts. Jellinek is a former editorial director of Playboy. If anyone would have a handle on what tomorrow’s grown men will regard as the “ideal woman,” it’s him. pullquote“Look,” he said, “the idea of beauty has evolved culturally.” Under his helm, Playboy was focused on finding “that sense of realness in women. We looked for something pure. It’s no longer a matter of plastic perfection.”

It’s a point I heard repeatedly: Today, authenticity is what matters, being natural. Surgical augmentation, troweled-on makeup, Photoshopped selfies — all that artificial enhancement — is still a thing among women of nearly every age. But the tide may be turning.

Among the reasons: effort and money. Barbara Lippert, a well-known commentator on the advertising industry, told me, “Women are beginning to realize that it takes a whole team to look anything like their favorite models. Because of social media, the truth [about how celebs are prepped] always comes out. People are much more savvy.”

Mihaela Noroc, she of The Atlas of Beauty, sums it up splendidly. In her view, the most stunning women display “sincere looks.” They are open, she told me. “And they don’t try to be somebody else.”

All of that may signal a better trend underway, particularly here in the narcissistically united States. Women, it seems, increasingly see the appeal of being themselves — lovely in their own skin. And that is an indisputably beautiful development.

Reaching for the Stars

I remember hearing about the launches of the twin Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft on the evening news in 1977. I was 12 then, and in love with the dark skies and glittering stars that surrounded me in rural Rhode Island. The newscaster — probably John Chancellor since we were an NBC Nightly News household — talked about the Voyagers’ mission to explore the outer solar system and how Voyager 2 would reach its final planetary destination, Neptune, in 1989. That was the whole of my lifetime into the future — it gave me a sense of how vast space really was.

I was in high school when the two Voyagers swung by Jupiter and Saturn. Along with the rest of the world, I gazed in awe as the spacecraft revealed glorious images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, violent volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io, Saturn’s stunningly thin and fragile rings, and the thick orange haze shrouding Saturn’s moon Titan. These weren’t the first images of these giant planets, but the ones before Voyager — from spacecraft that were designed to demonstrate that NASA could navigate in deep space and send scientific data back — were very poor. With Voyager, we suddenly had striking images that made even an amateur like me feel as if I were there, riding shotgun on these robots.

Voyager is the reason I got into planetary science, a career that has enabled me to participate in other robotic space missions and to serve as the current president of The Planetary Society, which educates the public about space and advocates for our continued exploration of it. It is a uniquely important mission in humankind’s history of exploration — as a colleague once put it, “You only explore the solar system for the first time once.”

The two Voyager spacecraft, meanwhile, are still hurtling ever farther out into outer space, a testament to the ingenuity of the people who built them. When I heard that Voyager 1 — the faster of the two spacecraft — had become the first human-made object to travel into interstellar space (the space between stars) a few years ago, I thought it was time to revisit this mission and see what made it so extraordinary.

pg22-jf2016-pullquoteLuck, of course, is part of Voyagers’ special recipe. The sun’s family of planets travel in their orbits like the hands of a giant cosmic clock. Once every 176 years, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune align in a spiral that provides the opportunity to send a single spacecraft past all four giant planets, using the gravity of one to slingshot on to the next. Of course, that occasional “Grand Tour” alignment had to be discovered — and celestial navigators from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab noticed it in the 1960s and were able to exploit it in 1977 for Voyager 2. The last time such an alignment occurred, back in the early 1800s, the frontier of exploration was defined by European wooden sailing ships.

It was lucky, too, that the direction of this alignment sent the Voyagers on the shortest path to interstellar space. After about 35 years in transit, Voyager 1 still had enough power left to run instruments that could detect the changes in its environment. Getting to interstellar space the long way could have taken decades longer, with no guarantee it could still run its science instruments.

But the key to Voyager’s success has really been the people. I began to meet them around 1984, when I was a freshman at Caltech in Pasadena. I was lucky enough to get a work-study job with Ed Danielson, a member of Voyager’s camera team. Back then waiting for images to load on computer screens was like watching pain drip down a wall. So processing images was great grunt work for students. When I started, we were still processing images from the Saturn encounters of 1980 and 1981.

When the imaging team started gearing up for Voyager 2’s encounter with Uranus, Ed asked me if I wanted to get a pass to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a few miles away from Caltech. That’s where the spacecraft had been built, where they were being operated, and where all the scientists were going to be gathering during the encounter. I had no real expertise yet, so I didn’t expect to be doing technical analysis; I was just happy to be there in the middle of the action and see how “real” scientists worked. If you needed a cup of coffee, a copy made, or a pizza delivery picked up at the main gate, I was your man.

Almost all of what scientists know about Uranus comes from that encounter in 1986. I remember seeing the puzzled looks on the scientists’ faces when they saw the crazy geology and 10-mile-high cliffs of ice on the moon Miranda. I thought, You’re the world’s experts—how can you have no idea what’s going on? Then I realized not even they had ever seen anything like this before. Many of the scientists had thought Uranus’ moons would be boring ice balls.

So there lay the challenge to figure Miranda out. And the scientists were incredibly open-minded about the hypotheses they were throwing out: Were there plates moving under the icy surface? Were there volcanoes spewing icy lava? Of course, there were egos — every scientist wants to be the first one to come up with the answer to a difficult question. But under the guiding hand of the project scientist Ed Stone, the discussions were thoughtful even when there was disagreement, and they were always enthusiastic.

With all the back and forth, it took years to work out the leading hypothesis about why Miranda looks the way it does, and it was something no self-respecting scientist would have suggested before Voyager 2’s visit: Miranda was probably hit by some other moon or slow-speed space rock in just the right direction to fracture it, but not blow it apart. Miranda’s own gravity reassembled the jumbled pieces and kept them from flying off into space.

Curiosities like this were the beauty — and the frustration — of Voyager. Each of the planetary encounters was a flyby. By the time we saw that Jupiter’s moon Europa had a surface that resembled cracked sea ice on Earth, it was already in the rearview mirror. And we only got good views of the sunlit halves of the planets or moons — what features were lurking on their dark sides? It took decades to send orbiters back to Jupiter and Saturn, and we still haven’t yet returned to Uranus or Neptune. And we might not do so soon enough for many original Voyager team members, who are in their 70s and 80s and still have burning questions about that planet.

The Voyagers themselves are aging, too. Though their 23-watt transmitters and 8-track tape recorders are still going strong, the two Voyagers only have enough power to send back scientific data into the late 2020s and only crude “I am here” signals maybe into the 2030s.

Still, the machines themselves — and the Golden Record on each one that contains Earth’s greatest hits — will remain intact for millions, perhaps even billions of years. I don’t personally think that any other intelligent species will find the spacecraft any time soon (and sorry, Star Trek fans, I don’t see it turning into V’ger). But I am optimistic about our own space-faring future. I believe that the Voyagers will become moving museum pieces that we may be able to visit some day on interstellar cruises. It’s possible that in the far future we won’t remember Madonna or Watergate, but we will remember the two Voyagers as among the most ingenious objects human beings ever created, and their mission as one of the most ambitious journeys that humans have ever conducted.

Originally published at Zócalo Public Square (zocalopublic square.org).

News of the Week: Miss Universe, Miss Betty White, and The Most Uninteresting Story of the Week

There She Is … No Wait, THERE She Is …

You’ve probably seen the video of Miss Universe pageant host Steve Harvey mistakenly naming Miss Colombia as the winner of the crown instead of the real winner Miss Philippines. It’s cringe-inducing live television at its best, and it certainly livened up a show that a lot of people probably don’t care about anymore. Here’s the moment if you missed it:

The latest? There are people who actually think the whole thing was staged, for ratings and attention. I don’t doubt things like that happen — especially in this day of viral videos and hashtags — but I really don’t think that’s the case here.

What I would like to know is why did Harvey add that line about the audience not blaming the contestants? Why would anyone blame them for Harvey’s mistake? Sounds like he was trying to deflect blame a little there.

Donald Trump says that if he were still in charge of the pageant this wouldn’t have happened (because when he had the pageant he personally typed up the cards the host used, or something), and many say they should let both women share the title. I think that’s a terrible idea, but I think we can expect to see a TV commercial soon with one or both of the women spoofing what happened.

A Betty White Christmas

Betty White at The 2005 Writers Guild Awards, February 19, 2005 Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com
Betty White at The 2005 Writers Guild Awards, February 19, 2005
Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com

For the past week or so, the game show channel Buzzr has had a marathon of Betty White game show episodes, showing everything from black-and-white episodes of What’s My Line? in the ’50s to later shows like Match Game and Super Password. Today they’re doing a full-blown Betty White Christmas 24-hour marathon. Instead of watching basketball or that A Christmas Story marathon for the 9,000th time, how about teaching the kids about this incredible woman Betty White?

It’s amazing the longevity White has had, isn’t it? Someone who had her own TV show in 1952 is still on the air. Wow.

James Burrows Hits 1,000

Speaking of amazing TV achievements, director James Burrows just directed his 1,000th episode of television, an episode of NBC’s new sitcom Crowded. You may remember seeing Burrows’s name in the credits of many TV shows because he has directed, well, practically every TV show you could name. Besides directing almost every episode of Cheers, Taxi and Will & Grace and many episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, he directed the pilot episodes of Friends and Newsradio and The Big Bang Theory and Mike and Molly and …

You know what? I could list all of the shows Burrows has directed but there’s not enough room on this site. Check out his IMDb page.

The Most Uninteresting Story of the Week

I think we’re all impressed that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has made so much money, breaking records left and right. It made $248 million in the U.S. opening weekend and $529 million worldwide. It also broke several single-day and preview-day records. But is this really an interesting story?

Is there anyone who predicted that the movie would fail or not break records? This is Star Wars we’re talking about, not Sisters or Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip. We’re talking about a franchise that’s been massively popular for decades. Sure, pop culture websites and magazines have to report the news that the movie did so well, but the coverage has been so breathless and filled with exciting, over-the-top phrasing that they’re making it sound like this is a case of man-bites-dog instead of dog-bites-man. Now, if Star Wars: The Force Awakens had bombed at the box office or was universally panned, that would have justified 50,000 social media posts.

Here’s a prediction I’ll make a few years in advance and you can quote me: The next Star Wars movie is going to make a ton of money.

Sarah Palin’s Revenge

Tina Fey brought back her Sarah Palin impersonation on last week’s Saturday Night Live and now Palin has her revenge, starring in a 30 Rock spoof titled 31 Rock. She even got John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and 30 Rock’s Kevin Brown to appear in the fake trailer. It really is uncanny how Fey can play Palin and Palin can play Fey and you actually believe it for a few moments.

And while we’re posting SNL holiday clips, this sketch from last week made me laugh out loud (or LOL, as they say).

The Meaning of Words

My friend Ken Levine has a post on his blog about words and phrases we still use even though their use doesn’t make sense anymore. For example, people still use the phrase “don’t touch that dial!” even though your TV probably hasn’t had a dial in years.

Sometimes I wonder if younger people know what the hell people are talking about when they hear certain words and phrases. Do they know what “half-past the hour” means or even what “hands” are on an analog clock if they’re used to a digital readout on their computers and phones? I still use the word “tape” when I talk about recording a TV show, even though I now use a DVR instead of a VCR. I just can’t seem to make myself use the word “record.”

Can you think of any others? I agree with most of what he says, but I think kids do know what albums are because so many live disc jockeys still use them and so many ads still play that record album “scratchy” sound.

The Great American Novel Map

What novel is your state famous for? Check out the Great American Novel Map, a chart that lists several famous American novels and puts them inside a map of the United States so we can see it visually. This is one of those Web things that is equal parts “cool” and “irritating.” You know that people in New York are going to be upset that their favorite novel doesn’t represent their state. The same with California and Florida.

The map is incomplete. I mean, I’m from Massachusetts and could list other Massachusetts novels besides Moby Dick, but even beyond that, if you’re going to do a fun map like this and want everyone to be interested in it, wouldn’t you make sure every state is represented at least once? What, no classic novels have been set in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, the Dakotas, Montana, or Iowa?

Christmas Leftovers


You’re probably reading this on Christmas night or maybe even a day or two after Christmas. That’s okay. I know you’re busy and have things to do and places to go and things to eat. But by this time you probably have a lot of leftover turkey and you want to do something with it besides make the usual sandwich (though there’s nothing at all wrong with a good turkey sandwich). Here are a few different things you can try.

This Turkey Pumpkin Chili is probably something you never thought of making, and great for a winter’s night. Or how about a Turkey Noodle Casserole? I might make this Next Day Turkey Primavera, because I don’t make enough things with the word “primavera” in them.

Or maybe you’d like a turkey dessert? And I don’t mean a dessert that happens to be shaped like a turkey. This Thanksgiving Turkey Cake looks like a typical cake with frosting, but it’s actually made out of turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and gravy. Put it on the table next to the pumpkin pie and cookies and brownies and see if anyone freaks out.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from everyone here at The Saturday Evening Post.

Upcoming Events and Anniversaries

Radio City Music Hall opens (December 27, 1932)
There’s still time to see this year’s Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes (it ends on December 31).

President Woodrow Wilson born (December 28, 1856)
The 28th president brought back the spoken State of the Union Address in 1913. It had started as a speech in 1790 but between 1801 and 1912 it was written and delivered to Congress.

President Andrew Johnson born (December 29, 1808)
Johnson became the 17th President after President Lincoln’s assassination.

Roberto Clemente dies in plane crash (December 31, 1972)
The baseball great was on a small plane headed to Nicaragua to help with earthquake relief when the plane crashed into the water.

Ricky Nelson dies in plane crash (December 31, 1985)
The accident that killed the singer and five others was probably caused by a heater on board the plane.

New Year’s Eve (December 31)
If you’re like me and hate going out on New Year’s Eve, you can watch the ball drop in Times Square on ABC, NBC, or CBS. Or you can head on over to CNN to see how Kathy Griffin will embarrass Anderson Cooper this year.