Winner of the 14th Annual Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition

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Here is the winning story of WD's 14th Annual Short Short Story Competition: "Poetry by Keats," by Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz. 

I.

Nick handles his truck like he handles life, with a lot of cocky bravado and dumbass luck. He drives with one wrist on the steering wheel and only checks the mirrors when he hears something out of the ordinary.

I watch his free hand move from the air conditioning, which hasn’t worked since last summer, to the radio tuner and then into his shirt pocket. He takes out a cigarette, glances at me, and tucks it behind his ear instead of lighting it. “Sorry.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

He puts his hand on my knee. “What color ring you want?”

Really, again? “Whatever you can afford.”

“No, for real. I’ll figure something out.”

I give him a sidelong look, and he shakes his head. “Ray owes me two hundred, for some work a while back.”

I don’t ask what kind of work. “I could wear your class ring. It’s okay with me.”

He takes his hand back. “Ray told me he saw you at the café last week.”

“There’s a surprise.”

“He said it was late, Wednesday or Thursday night. After ten.”

I look out the passenger side window at rows of tasseled corn and feel sweat collect along my hair. “Mindy’s out of town. I worked late all last week to cover.”

“I thought the café closed at nine.”

“If I’m still up to my ass in customers after nine o’clock, I keep serving.”

“Ray said you were the only one there, except for that McGregor kid.” Nick sounds like he’s talking through his teeth.

Goddamn it. “That was Wednesday night. He just wanted a drink.” I swallow. “If Ray had come by on Thursday night, he would’ve seen just me and Mr. Miller, who ordered coffee until I kicked him out near midnight.”

“Mr. Miller is sixty-eight years old if he’s a day, Marianne. It’s hell and away not the same thing.”

“The same thing as what?”

Nick makes a left turn without signaling and says, “Ray said you and the McGregor kid looked pretty close.”

“Ray’s got horse shit for brain. I was a whole counter away from Jarrett McGregor. Who are you going to believe, Nick, Ray or me?”

“Well…you, I guess.” He pulls up in front of my house and puts on the brakes. He turns toward me. “Do I get a kiss or not?”

Sure, I’m ready for him to feel me up after this conversation. I feel like I got backstabbed. “Not tonight. I’ve got to get changed and get to the café.”

“Need a ride?” He’s looking out the windshield, at my parents’ sprawling farmhouse and the half-assed fence around the property.

“No thanks.” I let myself out of the cab of the truck. “See you later.”

“Marianne—”

I slam the door and jog to the side of the driveway. Nick throws the truck in gear and muscles it around and away, out of sight.

II.

The thing about Jarrett McGregor is that he isn’t what I thought. Hell, I don’t know what I expected, I think, as I study him later that night. “What’s that you’re reading?” I ask on my way to table six, in the corner, with their check.

Jarrett leans over a mug of hot coffee—“Just black’s fine, ma’am”—and the steam makes his eyes glassy when he looks up at me over an open book with small print. “Poetry.”

Table six leaves me a dollar for a tip, after I brought extra napkins and didn’t say anything when the baby dumped his plate all over the rug. I heave the tray of smeared dishes onto my shoulder and trudge it back to the kitchen.

Jarrett’s hand reaches out and snags my sleeve on my way past the counter. “Need help?” I think about it. It’s just him and me here, and it’s past ten o’clock. If I lock the front door and turn out the lights, maybe nobody driving by will see inside. “You’re a paying customer.”

He slants me a look, and the fog in his green eyes clears. “I’m not better than you just because I’m drinking coffee you made and served.”

“You’re not?”

He closes the book of poetry, gets up, and takes the tray. “Where does this go?”

“Back there,” I say stupidly, with a vague gesture to the kitchen. “I didn’t mean—”

“Lock up.” He smiles. “I’ll wash.”

The deadbolt turns with a creak of protest. I lower the shades all over the place and snap off the overhead lights in the windows.

III.

Reverend Wilkes looks right at me as he concludes his sermon on Sunday morning. “Repent, ye sinners, for our God is a jealous God.” He wags his head the other direction. “Let us pray.”

I’m an upstanding citizen, so it wouldn’t look right for me to slide down in my chair. I fold my hands and stare at my fingers. Do I need to repent spending another Wednesday night with Jarrett McGregor, when he washed and I dried and he talked to me about Keats and poems like songs, and we never touched, not even accidentally as we passed the dishes between us?

Nick finds me after service and pulls me around the corner of the building. He has dark circles under his eyes, and his hands tremble. “Ray says you were out late again this week.”

“Mindy’s still gone.” I stare over his shoulder as people file out of the sanctuary.

“Ray told me—”

“Maybe you shouldn’t talk to Ray so much.”

Nick grabs my arm. “Listen, Marianne, when Ray talks, I listen. He tells me what to watch out for.”

“What, like me?”

“Like that McGregor kid.”

“Jarrett’s got nothing to do with this. You’re jealous. Nick, let go of me—!”

He steps back, his eyes dark black. “So it’s Jarrett now, is that it? What about my getting you a ring?”

“Did you get it yet?”

“I’m going to tell that McGregor kid to stay away from you.”

“Did you get me a ring, or didn’t you?”

“Are you marrying me, or aren’t you?”

“Leave Jarrett alone. There’s nothing going on.” A handful of conversations doesn’t guarantee me anything. I push past Nick. “I have to get to work.”

“Café’s closed on Sundays!” he calls after me, and everybody turns to look.

IV.

Another Wednesday night, I send Mindy home early. “I can handle closing after doing it for two weeks. Nobody else is coming tonight. Go home and sleep.”

“I look that awful?” She wavers, pushing damp hair out of her face. “I didn’t think I’d be so tired.”

“Funerals suck life out of everybody.” I scrub yellow mustard, dried crisp and dark, off the counter. “Go home.”

She rinses the coffee pot, apologizes again, and finally leaves. Ten minutes later, Mr. Miller wads up his newspaper and leaves his mug on the counter for me.

It’s twenty minutes to ten o’clock.

I wipe fourteen tables and both counters. It takes me five minutes. I sweep the floor, front and back, and that takes six minutes. A wad of pale pink gum on the underside of table nine kills a butter knife and another three minutes.

Six minutes left.

Is it sinful to manufacture chores to keep me here?

I turn out the lights but leave the shades up and go to the kitchen, where I wipe the flat- top with paper towels. Grease soaks through like motor oil and slicks my hands.

Nobody comes.

By half after, I’m reorganizing the jars and cans of food on the shelves in the back. There’s no way I can see the front door from where I’m working.

What if he doesn’t come?

At quarter to eleven, I dump the rest of the coffee. It oozes into the sink like a thick black slug. It smells scorched. It probably would’ve tasted like tar.

I wish I’d saved it, in case he comes after all. Second time in two weeks I’ve felt this way. I’m in the back, storing the coffee pot for tomorrow, when the bell on the front door jingles.

I wish I’d locked the damn thing.

V.

Jarrett slides onto a stool at the counter and lays a book down in front of him. His knuckles are bruised, and there’s dried blood in a streak under his nose. “Sorry I’m late.”

“It’s not like we agreed to meet.”

He stares at the counter. “Somebody told me I shouldn’t come here anymore.”

That explains the bruises. “Was it Nick?”

“He didn’t say his name.”

Probably just started swinging. I push away from the door frame. “Want some coffee?”

He glances up and holds my gaze with clear eyes. “Any left?”

I swallow. “For you, yeah.”

He puts one hand on the book. “Want me to read something?”

“Yeah, but . . . lock the door first.”

VI.

Next morning, Nick has a shiner, and a bruise on his jaw the shape of Jarrett’s knuckles.

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