During the summer of 1985, my life was changed. Twice. The first time, when I was waylaid by a slimy gray frog. The second, when I entered a writing contest.
The two incidents were not entirely disconnected.
That summer had begun in typical Florida fashion. It was 8 weeks of 95-degree sunshine. It was daily thunderstorms. It was wandering from house to house along Marston Road looking for the latest adventure and adventurer. It was hoping for an invitation to swim in a backyard pool, because my house didn’t have one. It was frequent trips to the coast and time with my grandmother. It would not have been summer without those things. But my path took a sharp left turn the day my mom dropped the Tallahassee Democrat on the kitchen counter for me to see. It was early one weekday morning and I was standing up eating a bowl of instant grits. She had circled in pencil what she wanted me to see.
“Teenage Writing Contest: Enter now! Amazing prizes!”
There were guidelines and age categories in the fine print below. I skimmed the ad and looked up. My mom was waiting for me to finish reading.
“I think you should enter this,” she said. My mother was not in any way an artsy person, but she supported me in being one. They had me at ‘writing’ and sealed the deal with ‘amazing prizes.’
“Ok,” I replied. “I’ll give it a shot.”
The deadline was in 3 weeks. I would enter the Short Story category for middle school grades 6-8.
“Maybe you can write it at the beach,” she countered. “I need you packed by 2. We’re going to try to get to the Oaks for an early dinner. I looked down at my bowl of grits and no longer wanted them. My mouth was watering for a ceramic boat filled with triangular shaped Wheat Thins and garlic butter. The thought of an early dinner of fried flounder at the Oaks made my instant grits instantly subpar.
Two days later, after a full day of seafood and beachcombing, I picked up the legal pad I had brought with me for writing and sat down in a vinyl-cushioned lounge chair at the edge of the screened porch. Every afternoon we had rest time. It was a thing from my earliest memories until we sold that shanty in 1996. The times for resting shifted daily like a curfew, but we always rested. Sometimes I was told to lay down. Sometimes, I took a legal pad to the lounge chair.
Ballpoint pen and a yellow pad on my lap, I rested my head against the neck cushion and tried to channel my inner storyteller. With my eyes closed, the entire story unfolded in color behind my eyelids. All I really had to do was obey and write it down. It took me two hours to finish. I wrote my opening line as rest time was beginning and wrote the final one as I was given my freedom to go wander the beach. One neat rewrite later, I handed it to my mom and told her she could mail it in.
That was the last I expected to hear of that. I wasn’t going to win.
A month later, in the middle of July, I was housesitting for my friend, Kara, who was traveling with her family. My routine was to bike over, which was less than a mile, take the mail inside the house, and then care for her gerbils. The gerbils were a religion in that family. Their names were Jimbo and Homer and they were the family puppy. On my third day of doing that job, I pedaled up the hill toward her house until the heat began to push back against me like an unseen forcefield. When I couldn’t pedal through it anymore, I hopped off my bike and walked it the rest of the way. I dropped the bike at the edge of her driveway and gathered the mail to take inside. It was a bunch of dumb stuff like insurance and bank statements. I didn’t think it looked like much fun to be an adult. They always got bad mail.
The front door was 6 steps up from the front walk. I climbed them with effort, still out of breath from biking, and stood there for a minute thinking about the routine. Maybe the gerbils would be in plain sight and I wouldn’t have to spend 10 minutes digging around for them. You couldn’t assume they were in there. I tucked the mail under my arm and fished the spare key out of my jeans shorts. I was unsuspecting of anything more than little tomfoolery in the gerbil cage.
When you are most unsuspecting, that’s when you should suspect. That’s precisely when you need to be wearing a beekeeper’s suit and wielding a baseball bat. Standing there with their mail dampening into my armpit like an extension of myself, I reached for the doorknob and was hit in the forehead by a force powerful enough to be a point blank paintball. I had no idea what it was, since I couldn’t see my own forehead and I hadn’t seen it coming.
I knew that it had hurled itself from the door jam above the
I knew that its landing on my forehead sounded like a bar room slap.
I knew that it was slimy.
And I knew that I did not want it there.
I dropped my key and the mail and began whirling and flapping and swiping at my own face. It took too long, but my friend jumped off my forehead and onto the railing that bordered the square porch. At that point, as I allowed my heart rate to level out into a safer range, I got a look at him. He was one of those slimy, sticky, tree frogs, the color of my small intestine, and representative of everything appalling. If there’s any consolation in this story, it’s that I surely shocked him as much as he shocked me. We came at each other like a day of reckoning. I used a piece of mail to launch him off the porch rail and silently declared war on frogs for the rest of my life.
I have stayed true to my word.
There’s a reason God chose frogs as one of the ten plagues.
I shut the door behind me and went straight upstairs to check on and feed the gerbils. I was hanging the water bottle on the side of the cage when the phone rang downstairs. I skipped down the stairs and stood there at the kitchen table for a minute while I decided what to do. Do I answer it? Is this part of housesitting? What do I tell a person when they ask for the Pearsons?
I picked up the phone tentatively and said, “Hello? Pearson residence…”
“Missy, it’s me,” my mother said, breathlessly. I had only been gone 30 minutes. I had no idea why she would be calling me.
“Mom? Is everything ok?” I asked. Somebody was dead. They had to be dead.
“Yes, yes,” she said. “You got a letter and I wanted to tell you about it.”
“I got a letter? Who from?” Don’t even get me started on the grammar.
“It’s from the Tallahassee Democrat,” she answered.
The contest. I hadn’t thought about it since she mailed in the submission.
“Open it! Open it and read it to me!” I was practically shouting. And she was as excited as I was. She ripped into the letter and the phone went silent for a few seconds. Oh no.
“YOU WON!” She shouted. “You won FIRST PLACE!”
“What?! Are you kidding? I can’t believe it!” The frog was now long in my past. My future included ‘amazing prizes.’ “What did I win?” I asked. It was a fair question.
“Well, let’s read on here…they are going to print your story on the front page of the Lifestyle section of the paper.”
“OK, that’s cool…what else?” Where was the money? There had to be money.
“And you get to eat dinner one night at the Governor’s Club with all the other winners.”
What? Dinner at the Governor’s Club? With strangers? My face fell and suddenly I could again feel the imprint of the frog as he’d suctioned to my skin. Dinner at a fancy restaurant. Did the prize patrol remember this was a contest for people under 60?
But still, I told myself, getting published would be cool.
Getting published, even if only in the local paper, was cool. But I had made an egregious, unrecoverable error that still haunts me to this day. It haunts me more than frogs.
I had neglected to title my story.
They did not call me to ask me what I wanted it called. They titled it for me.
Sinkhole Sadness. The world’s worst title for a short story in the history of the written word. The words were mine. The title was not. The title was so bone-chillingly bad that I couldn’t get past it. It lodged in my throat like boiled turnip greens.
I was pretty famous at church for about a week. People I didn’t want to talk to at all came out of the pews and the woodwork to tell me they had read my story. My story, Sinkhole Sadness. There were only about 2 of them I cared to hear from.
By the time the “prize” came due, the story and its printing was a black speck in my rearview mirror. I put on church clothes and ugly burgundy flats from Etienne Aigner and was dropped in front of the Governor’s Club for the most awkward dinner of my life. My prize turned out to be a steak so bloody I began to listen for mooing. We grilled our steaks until they bounced in my family. I didn’t know rich people and politicians ate them rare.
The only bright spot in that evening, and it wasn’t bright enough, was the man who served that steak to me. He was nice to look at. His name was Ben.
Other than that, it was all just a frog to the forehead to me.
Sinkhole Sadness to follow tomorrow.