What is it? Thanks to the efforts of Lisa Rentz, founder of the Iodine Literary Project, the Piccolo Fiction Open has been celebrating local and not-so-local authorship since 2000. This year, five short stories have been selected as winners, and they will be read at the reception. To sweeten the deal, local authors Jonathan Sanchez (Blue Bicycle Books' owner) and Kevin Murphy (Dark Sky Magazine founder) also plan to read new work.
Why see it? Authors like Rosa Shand, Starkey Flythe, Charlie Geer, and Mindy Friddle have taken first place in the past. But, big names or not, the stories selected, while short, always manage to pack quite a punch (in a good way).
Who should go? Literate, illiterate, semiliterate — it doesn't matter. It would take a pretty big Scrooge not to enjoy this evening of storytelling, wine-sipping, and conversation-making.
PICCOLO SPOLETO • Free • 1 hour 30 min. • May 31 at 5 p.m. • Blue Bicycle Books, 420 King St. • (888) 374-2656
'Bird's-Eye View': Introduction by Lisa Annelouise Rentz
The Piccolo Fiction Open chose four winning stories this year, making it the coziest group of winning writers in the competition's nine years; 2008 is also probably the priziest, with the first place winner, Lisa Kerr, receiving an $800 "total design freedom" publishing package from BookSurge. Additional cash prizes, as offered by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, are awarded to Audrey Brown of Summerville for "Your Father, Fredrick;" to Debra Daniels of Columbia for "Limits;" and to Wilma Reitz of Greenville for "Lost in Murphy's."
"Bird's-Eye View" was chosen by all four judges — Mary Kelly Wilson, pastry chef at Cypress and past PFO-winner; Kevin Murphy of Dark Sky Magazine; and Jonathan Sanchez, proprietor of Blue Bicycle Books (which hosts the PFO reading on May 31) and past PFO-winner as well; and me, Lisa Annelouise Rentz of Iodine Literary Projects, which archives the PFO at www.eatgoodbread.com.
I liked "Bird's-Eye View" and knew it was a winner before I finished my first read-through. I put a big star next to the title and spent the rest of my PFO time trying to find something as good. Lisa Kerr captured high school in the '80s without being cliché, and she also successfully used the second person — "you." I have never before now enjoyed one single essay, story, or poem written in second person. Kerr also mentioned to me that she wrote her story specifically for the PFO, and after reading many stories over many years, that kind of freshness and focus stands out.
First Place Winner: 'Bird's-Eye View' by Lisa Kerr
By Lisa Kerr
Tina George is not supposed to be in your biology class. She is a junior and should be taking chemistry. But there she is, glaring at you across her frog. She has silvery-sparkled finger nails, sky high bangs, and black mascara — all pushing the limits of the school's dress code. Your worst offense is that your socks are constantly sagging into your shoes and the back of your shirt refuses to stay tucked, problems that don't plague your other friends who focus their energies more effectively on personal grooming.
It is 1987. You have just started your second year of high school, and although you have observed girls like Tina over the last year, somehow they remain foreign, inscrutable. They drive El Caminos and smoke menthols in the bathroom during English. Their boyfriends go to public schools and stare at you straight on, not out the corners of their eyes. You kissed one of these boys recently at a party, and his lips were like a strong tide, pulling and pulling you. His arms were like tree limbs, rough and reaching. Your parents would never approve of him. Your friends have forgiven you only because you were drunk. These friends' boyfriends, when they have them, wear cotton plaid shirts and their skin is as smooth as apples.
Tina jabs her tiny scalpel into the frog like it's a pin cushion.
"You hooked up with my boyfriend. I oughta kick your ass."
Your lab partner is a boy with wire-framed glasses. He slides the aluminum pan holding your frog closer to him, as if to protect it. Tina's partner is absent; she hovers alone over her frog, waiting. Your eyes flick toward Mrs. Benson, who is across the room, oblivious.
"Who's your boyfriend?" you ask, knowing immediately this is the wrong response.
"Matt Parker. Last weekend. Dave Boyd's party."
His name sounds like a cracked bell in your brain, and you feel possessive of him, this stranger you kissed to whom Tina is laying claim.
"Well ... where were you?"
She leans back on her stool so far that she has to grab the edge of the black table to stop herself from tipping backwards.
"Where was I?"
"I mean ... you weren't there. I didn't know he was your boyfriend."
"I didn't have to be there," she insists.
Years later, you will remember how casually you shrugged. This is not your personality. You are a faithful friend, a peacemaker, a soft touch. But something is different in you this day; you hold steady, fearlessly defiant.
"Girl," Tina warns you. "I am so going to kick your ass."
You are not sure what the details surrounding this fight will be. These things are simply not part of your world. Your best friends huddle around you like a flock of birds, chirping and covering their lips with their hands.
"Girls don't fight."
You tip back your Diet Coke. Detachment, unexpectedly, has become your default.
"You didn't know it was her boyfriend. Nobody knew who he was," one friend argues. "I mean, we were so buzzed."
Your friends tend to emphasize the last word of every sentence. These are the girls who have risen through the ranks with you, from St. Mary's Elementary to here. They move like leaves in the wind. Their voices are high and soft. They cluck their tongues and toss their heads when Tina takes a seat across the lunch yard, alone.
"No wonder she's looking for trouble. She's a loser. Why doesn't she go back to the '70s where they still feather their hair. What a slut."
You study Tina in a series of glimpses. She crosses her legs like only older women know how. The wind lifts her bangs up like one broken wing and then sets them back, unruffled. Does she love him, this boy she is willing to fight for? Is he the friend that would be sitting at her side if he went here? You wonder what a boy like that sees in her, sees in you. You are like the frog in a pan, pinned and waiting.
Now when Tina is standing by your car after school, you see that boy in your head but feel nothing except that this is the end of something that, strangely, you are eager to see go. Tina is leaned on the trunk with one hand slung down along her hip. Her book bag rests by her feet. The lot where you park is a block from school, all dirt and grass.
You drop your bag and almost say Sorry. This is not who I am. Instead, you hear your voice saying, "Well?" You feel your hip jutting out.
Tina unbends herself. "I can't believe you kissed my boyfriend. He told me, you know. He confessed."
You are poised like a gunfighter, fingers twitching at your sides. "Why would he tell you that?"
"Because he loves me. Why do you think?" Her fingers curl into fists and uncurl again over and over.
You squint into the green light reflecting off the hood of your car. "That's weird."
"I mean, it's like hurting you twice, telling you."
You hear it as you say it, and the beautiful boy who kisses like the ocean loses his mystery. He had tasted like clove cigarettes, sweet and smoky. Now, he is like everyone else you have ever known.
Tina stares at you as if you are the first person who has ever spoken a language she understands. Her eyes fill with bewildered tears.
"You think you're so pretty and perfect. I'm Miss Perfect Pretty and I have a million friends," she mocks you.
When your shoulder lands at her center, you hear a muffled, Uumph. Then fingernails and breath and slaps are all around you. It's an awkward dance with lots of twirling and scratches and no one getting a hand free to strike a true blow; your arms — both sets — are intertwined and holding. You cling to what you can and feel the burn up the backs of your legs, a cramp behind one shoulder blade.
Then, for a brief second, you see the scuffle from above, a bird's-eye view: you imagine the both of you as frogs, leaping and groping with fat funny green limbs. The sight of it makes you giggle, and somehow the giggling catches. Tina snorts, then laughs and keeps laughing. No one has landed the first real punch, no one is winning. You are both laughing and trembling and almost hugging and wondering what happens when you let go.
Lisa Kerr is a writing consultant at the Writing Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, where she also co-teaches a course on health care and the humanities. In recent years, she was a winner in the South Carolina Fiction Project (2006) as well as a finalist in South Carolina Poetry Initiative's Chapbook Contest (2008). She has published in a number of journals including Calyx, Phoebe, and Quarterly West.