Pilgrim - My first short story contest entry
I was nervous, but certainly very excited when I decided to submit an entry into a 55+ Short Story Contest being run by the Ottawa Public Library.
I have enjoyed considerable success with my non-fiction writing. But, like so many people, I've harboured a not-so-secret, not quite burning, let's say ... smouldering desire to write fiction. Yes, I want to write a novel. Maybe. Someday.
I have never been a fan of short stories. After this contest entry writing experience, I've gained a whole new appreciation for the art form.
I learned a lot about writing mechanics. It's so important to winnow out the unnecessary words to meet the strict 2,000 word limits while preserving the essential elements of my characters, their actions, the surroundings and the storyline.
I did not win this contest. Well, first time; what did I expect? I was a little bummed out. Yet, I enjoyed the process, learned a lot and a little like my beloved dog Elliott, hunting for crumbs around the dinner table, 'it's the 'thrill of the chase' that mattered.
So enough hand-wringing. Here is my first short story, 'Pilgrim.' Enjoy!
God damn! What a colossal screw-up. How did I ever get myself into this mess?
The sweat ran down Josh’s back. His cotton shirt clung to him like a second clammy skin. His legs stuck to the seat of his old Ford pick-up. He squirmed. Inside his boot, a single bead of perspiration tickled his ankle.
The blazing sun seared his eyes when he looked down the empty road. The wavy heat lines rising from the black-top made the horizon shimmer.
His destination, Payson, Arizona, couldn’t be more than a few miles. Yet, as the steam rose in grey clouds from under the hood, it may as well have been on the far side of the moon.
The air was still. There was no sound, save for his own breathing and the soft hissing noise of his wounded engine.
An unsteady rumble grew from a whisper stirring him from his torpor. He looked up and saw a truck grill in his rear view mirror. The driver was invisible behind the reflected glare of the windshield. Tires crunched in the gravel. Dust swirled lazily in the air. The newcomer turned off his motor. Silence returned like a descending velvet curtain.
He exited his vehicle, approached Josh’s lowered window and drawled, “Son, appears like you’re in a prickly spot.” His gravelly voice ravaged by years of late nights smoking cheap cigarettes and drinking rough whiskey.
Josh squinted and appraised the stranger.
Who is this character?
He was older for sure. Hard to guess his real age. Leathery skin on wiry arms and legs. He was built tough from a lifetime of hard work in the outdoors. He was too proud to be stooped, but the years were weighing on his shoulders.
Taking his last lanky step, he paused, head cocked and waited for an answer.
One Month Earlier
I am sick of this! I can’t take any more.
His friends were spiralling out of control. These were the kids he grew up with. They had played together all through grade school. His favourite pastime had always been playing cowboy. He loved how as a little boy he felt alive, the prairie wind in his hair as the hooves of his horse thundered across the open plain.
Now in their teens, the same kids. The games were no longer innocent. Last night things had gotten out of hand.
A couple of smokes, a sip of sweet wine. Some swallows, followed by a few long slugs. Where did the grass come from anyways? Who brought that? He remembered feeling woozy as the world began tilting at crazy angles, then spinning like a top.
Like waking from a nightmare; he realized that he was in a stolen car. Radio blasting. The music drowned out the bellowing roar of the revving motor. The tires squealed. They raced along the back streets of the projects where they lived. The car sideswiped a guard rail and spun crazily to a halt. The punks abandoned the joy ride, laughing, scattering into the night.
It was late when he stumbled into the small apartment he shared with his mother. Josh was scared and exhausted. He swore this was the last straw. He was not going down this road.
He was good looking. He knew that the girls at school thought so. But he was too shy to respond to their flirting. He was tall for a senior, not varsity ball calibre, but not boyish either. He worked hard enough in class to get by. But as in everything: school, sport, his part-time job and with the girls, Josh’s greatest need was to blend in.
Nobody ever seemed to move into, or out of the neighbourhood. Josh could not imagine escape. He had no positive role models. He had never sat down and thought about what he wanted to be. What choices did he have?
He slept in late. He showered and brushed his teeth. He drank instant coffee to wash down several aspirin. He felt lousy when he left home. He wandered aimlessly down the main drag; a sad stretch of half empty strip malls, fast food joints, second hand stores and used car lots.
What am I going to do?
Looking up, a 1973 F100 pick-up with a camper on the back blocked his way. The paint was faded, a turquoise that might have been sharp when new. He took in it’s classic lines. Some vague notion flitted deep in the back of his mind. His heart rate picked up a beat.
Dimly, he recalled watching the PBS screening of ‘Colorado Cowboy: The Bruce Ford Story’. The Sundance Festival winning film which popularized the romance of modern cowboys. Since that day, Josh had admired the heroic wild West life.
He was startled from his reverie. He hadn’t heard the salesman ease up. “You’ve found the perfect ride. This baby has travelled far and wide. It’s old, sure, but it’s in great shape.” He finished, “I envy you. A young guy like you, why, you could just jump in and go anywhere.”
Josh surprised himself as the question popped out “How much do you want for this hunk of junk?”
He had $1,700 in a bank account. It had taken forever to save. There had been a notion of college. Now he was asking about a truck on its last legs. He held his breath.
“I couldn’t possibly let it go for less than $1,900. I’d be losing my shirt, a great deal for you.”
Josh haggled him down to $1,500 including tax and plates. He closed his bank account and paid cash for the truck. He folded his last $200 into his pocket.
Today, the Arizona Desert
“Yeah, prickly! This piece of junk overheated. I guess it’s worn out.”
“Well Son, seems to me, nothing lasts forever. I reckon you gotta look after things proper if you don’t want ‘em letting you down. Let’s take a look-see under the hood.”
Buck pulled on his deer skin work gloves, spotted the split radiator hose and wrapped it with a few turns of duct tape. “That’ll get you to where you can put in a new one. Where you headed anyways?”
“I’m on my way to Payson. That’s the home of the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo.” Summoning up a tone of bravado that he really didn’t feel, Josh added, “I’m a bronco rider.”
“That’s where I’m goin’ too. Suppose I’ll see you there. Don’t push that truck too hard. You’ll bust the tape.”
Josh pulled into the camping area reserved for rodeo contestants.
I’ve made it! I can hardly believe it.
The lady at the registration tent had assigned him his spot. She told him to be at the Fairground on time. As a novice rider, he would be given an early draw.
He instantly recognized Buck and his pick-up. As he pulled up, Josh was amazed to be flooded with a sense of relief from seeing the one familiar face in this strange and exciting new place.
But that was not all.
His eyes kept moving. Standing in Buck’s shadow was a heart-achingly, pretty young woman. Her curly, dark brown hair cascaded easily over her shoulders. Her sparkling green eyes flashed with a hint of the fiery spirit that lay just beneath the surface. As she glanced over and caught Josh’s undisguised staring, she broke into easy smile. The young man was instantly and hopelessly captivated.
She thrust out her hand with friendly enthusiasm, “Hi, I’m Rose. Buck’s granddaughter.” She had a husky voice. “You must be Josh!” She chuckled. Her laughter tinkled like ice in a tall glass.
Her plaid shirt sleeves were rolled up displaying sturdy forearms. Josh was startled by the firmness of her grip. Her palms were calloused. This was the handshake of someone comfortable in their own skin. She wore no make-up or jewelry. Rose exuded confidence from the pores of her skin. She had hard-earned this right. She is the reigning rodeo champion. In Payson to defend her crown.
Swirling around their feet was a Bluetick Coonhound who greeted Josh with a signature baying howl and sniffed him until he was satisfied. Josh suspected that he passed some kind of test.
“You ready cowboy?”
Josh’s face was pale. His gut was churning. With all the courage he could muster, he admitted, “I've never done anything like this. Maybe I’ve made a horrible mistake. This might be a disaster. I’m not sure if I can go through with it.”
Seems to me son,” Buck drawled laconically, “it’s kinda like, as Will Rogers used to tell it ... “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is”.”
Rose gently added, “Josh, you need to choose. You’ve come to a fork in your road. You have to pick the path that’s gonna take you forward; or hang up your spurs, and head back to where you came from.”
Okay. Gut check time! I’m committed. No matter what.
From the loudspeakers high above the grandstand, the words barely registering in Josh’s buzzing brain, the announcer’s voice echoed across the arena, “Folks, let’s all give a big hand for Josh. He’s from back East and he’s riding in his first rodeo. Josh is riding Diamond-Back; a well-known horse in these parts, a real arm jerker!”
Josh climbed the fence and could sense the pent-up energy of the bronc as it quivered with anticipation. The jet black horse vibrated like a tightly-wound steel spring. He dropped into the bucking chute. Firmly in the saddle he wrapped the reins around his gloved wrist. Josh’s heart was beating like a caged wild bird.
He knew that to score points his ride had to last eight seconds. Josh nodded. The gate flung open!
Here I go! Hang on!
Diamondback leaped from the chute like a violent force of nature. His back arched high in the air. Legs stiff, he hit the ground with a spine-jarring crash. His nostrils flared, eyes wide with fury, he danced. He gyrated left, right, a relentlessly spinning out-of-control whirlwind.
Josh hung on with grim determination. He felt as if he was being swept along a raging white- water rapid; crashing repeatedly into giant rocks with body-crushing force. Without knowing what happened, he was thrown from the saddle. His arms and legs were flung wide like a rag doll. Coming back to earth, he landed with a thud. It sounded a bag of cement dust hitting the sidewalk.
He lay still. The crowd was hushed.
Josh shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He raised up onto one elbow. The sound of a distant murmur entered his consciousness.
He slowly rose from the ground. Josh stretched stiffly and held himself as tall and fully erect as possible. He beamed a wide and easy grin. He picked up his cowboy hat and used it to dust off his shirt and jeans. He became aware of the wildly cheering crowd. They clapped and whistled with joy.
The announcer’s voice rang out above the pandemonium “Rodeo fans, how about this cowboy? Can’t wait to see him back in the arena soon!”
As Josh’s eyes began to focus, he could see Buck, his arm around Rose. Both of them smiling and waving. As he got closer, he was pretty sure he could see Rose crying tears of joy. Deep inside, Josh was filled with an unfamiliar, warm afterglow.
The arena, the crowd, all the noise faded into the background. The entire world dropped away, soft and blurry at the furthest edges of his awareness.
Buck’s arm was outstretched. They exchanged no words. Only a firm handshake.
Their eyes locked. For the first time in his life, Josh saw promise. He felt like he belonged.
I may not know what the future holds in store. I don’t even know what’s next. But I know for sure that I’m never going back!