Bess Streeter Aldrich Foundation 2022 Short Story Contest
Nebraska writer Bess Streeter Aldrich’s books and short stories still inspire readers more than six decades after her death. Aldrich fans of all ages can harness their own creativity and enter the Bess Streeter Aldrich Foundation’s annual short story contest. The winner of the 2021 contest is Jeff Johnston of Elmwood for his story “Convergence.” To learn more or to submit to next year’s contest, visit Bess Streeter Aldrich - Student Contest
On rare occasions, seemingly random actions sometimes converge like the alignment of the planets in our solar system. One such event transpired in the sleepy farming community of Cottonwood, Nebraska on an otherwise nondescript fall day.
“A halo round the moon means it’ll rain or snow soon.” - Farmer’s Almanac
Tom Simmons may or may not have read that bit of folklore. Like many families in the small town of Cottonwood, his parents had a complimentary copy provided by the Jameson Seed Company on the parlor table. The dog-eared pages testified to its practical use by his mother in planting her garden. Tom’s only concern was that the moon, halo or not, would provide him with enough light. Like most boys in high school he was more interested in other celestial bodies closer to the ground. And like most boys was shy around ladies in his class. One in particular left him tongue-tied and gibbering nonsense, often turning his face beet red with embarrassment. He was now diligently engaged in a solution to this problem.
Just after midnight, Tom opened his bedroom window and silently crept down the porch roof before jumping to the ground. Gathering a burlap bag hidden behind hay bales in their carriage house, Tom made his way through back alleys to the premier landmark downtown. Rising a majestic fifty feet above the small community, the water tower could be seen from all directions. Tom, however, was only concerned about the northwest view.
Ignoring the splinters, Tom climbed the weathered wooden rungs of the ladder. His teeth clenched on the bag. He paused to catch his breath on the narrow platform circling the wooden tank. Extracting a brush and paint can from the bag, he carefully pried open the lid with his pocketknife. Tom applied the glossy scarlet #2 paint with broad strokes to the tank’s thick oak slats and six-inch wide steel bands. Finishing with a flourish, he stepped back to admire his artwork losing his balance. Fortunately, the platform’s railing prevented a fatal mishap. The brush and can, conversely, disappeared into the darkness. A loud clang almost caused Tom’s heart to stop. Straining his ears, only a gentle wind rustling the leaves below was heard. Tom released his breath with a gush of relief and descended to the alley. A bounce in his step, he headed home, joyfully anticipating the reaction his handiwork would create with the dawn.
Unlike the predictable cycles of the moon and stars, Tom’s main interest did not always appear as expected. This uncertainty caused an adjustment at the breakfast table to glimpse through the white floral lace curtains of the kitchen window. His gaze would drift for a few seconds towards the black walnut heirloom clock on the far wall. Its polished brass pendulum slowly swung back and forth in perfect rhythm. Each tic seemed unusually loud after a restless few hours of sleep.
His father, Jerome Simmons, sat opposite Tom absorbed in the Cottonwood Clarian. His mother, Constance, successfully hid a smirk and silently sipped her coffee. A flash of blue gingham crowned by a ponytail bobbing past the window rewarded his vigilance.
“Gotta go!” Tom leapt out of his chair. His bowl, milk glass, and spoon flew into the sink. Small soapy waves rippled and crashed against the white enameled edges from the impact. A blur resembling a young man was followed by the slamming of the screen door. The far-off echo of “Bye, Ma, bye Pa!” left the kitchen in comparative silence. Jerome looked inquiringly at his wife.
“Susie Taylor.” Jerome sighed and rolled his eyes.
The owner of the chestnut ponytail was enroute to school but had stopped short of Tom’s block to straighten her dress. She ensured the wayward strands of her curly hair were tucked properly in place. Taking a deep calming breath, she resumed walking at a more sedate pace past the small white clapboard home. A smile grew on her face as she heard the slamming of the screen door and hurried footsteps behind her.
“Hey Susie, mind if I walk with you to school?”
“Sure, if you want to.” She successfully suppressed an urge to grin, affecting what she hoped was a friendly demure smile.
“Okay…ah…thanks.” Tom caught himself staring open mouthed like an idiot and jerked his head to the front. Susie pretended not to notice.
“Ah, notice anything…uhm…different this morning?” Tom stuttered, staring at the ground and rubbing the back of his head.
“Not really. What’s different?” Susie couldn’t figure out why Tom was acting more nervous than ever.
“Nothing, I guess.” He sighed sheepishly. His eyes strayed upward and noticed the trees lining the sidewalk. The thick blanket of autumn splendor blocked the water tower. The next intersection would give them a perfect view, only one block away. Both walked on in silence, Tom wondering what she would say and Susie wondering what was going on?
“What are you staring at? Spying on the neighbors?” teased Jerome over his paper. Constance was standing slightly to the left of the kitchen window, peeping past the lace curtains to observe the two teens.
“Just checking on the weather.”
“Warm with a chance of sweating palms,” replied her husband looking over her shoulder. “Don’t let Tom see you peeking.”
“Chaperoning dear. Someone has to with your nose stuck in that rag.”
“Rag?” Jerome sputtered. “As editor I take umbrage at that slur, madam. I’ll have you know the Clarion is a beacon shining the light of truth and justice to the good citizens of Cottonwood.” Jerome tried to maintain a look of righteous indignation but failed miserably. Both broke out laughing. “Unfortunately, I have to print both sides. Listen to this tripe from Constable Silas Marne.” Jerome fluffed the pages with his ink-stained fingers and began reading in a pompous bass voice. “I don’t want the job of constable, but several prominent citizens cornered me, and I just couldn’t say no. I would never ask another man to vote for me and if there was a worthy man running agin me, I wouldn’t even vote for myself.”
“Everyone knows Silas is a blowhard, dear. No one has a higher opinion of Silas, than Silas himself.” agreed his wife.
“He goes on. Claimed it is no coincidence that during his tenure, harvests are breaking records, the weather is the best since the pioneers broke ground, and the country hoisted the flag in the Philippine Islands and Cuba. Then to top it off, he said, ‘if you are for prosperity, vote for me. If not, vote for the other guy.’ God help us.”
“He will dear.” Jerome folded up his paper, gave his wife a peck on the cheek and headed out the door to work on the next edition. Constance took a last peek out the window and began her daily chores.
The object of Jerome’s ire, Constable Marne, had just replenished his coffee from the rusty potbellied stove in his office. Propping his scuffed boots up on the battered pine desk, he blew off the steam rising from the cup. He was admiring his interview in the Clarian.
“Not bad. Wish he would have included my comment about Cecil being a reptile though.” His opponent, Cecil Dermont, was quoted below deriding Silas’s general incompetence serving papers and alleged malfeasance of funds.
“Good luck proving that! You need two fists, not two dollar words to enforce the law! Say…I should use that next time.” His guffaw at his own wit was eclipsed by a loud scream as scalding hot coffee slopped down his shirt front. Cup and constable went flying off the desk into the open jail cells behind. Silas rolled around on the floor cursing and wailing. His legs thrashed wildly before coming into contact with the cell door. The loud clang as the hardened steel door locked shut temporarily drove away the pain. His eyes widened as his predicament became abundantly clear.
Meanwhile Candidate Cecil Dermont was walking towards main street to his city clerk’s office at the town hall. Reading Marne’s interview for the tenth time, Cecil sighed inwardly at the nonsense. Speaking at the Grange meeting the previous evening, he was frustrated by the looks of disinterest by its members. No one cared about “lost” legal documents and court summons for Silas’s friends. Nor was there concern that funds were awarded for dubious repairs and supplies to these same cronies. Cecil’s biggest handicap wasn’t trust. Many folks just didn’t believe his lanky frame at six feet two inches and one hundred sixty-five pounds was up to the job. Not that the job required muscle. A dry town, there were no bar fights to break up. Mischief and petty theft were committed by youngsters and taken care of by parents. The only shots fired by the constable were to start the annual three-legged sack race on July 4th. Crime was absent from Cottonwood. That was about to change.
“Ed, come quick, I think we’ve been robbed!” Susie’s mom, Alice Taylor, stared in shock. Her husband materialized quickly by her side in the backroom of their jewelry store. She pointed at the broken glass from a windowpane, the muddy footprint of a toothpick shoe and back door slightly ajar. Galvanized, Ed bolted outside, spotted the thief’s tracks and frantically ran off in pursuit.
The wearer of the extremely pointed shoes, Claude Jones, had turned the corner and slowed down to avoid suspicion. He crossed the street and ducked into a small opening between the dry goods store and millinery shop. Checking that the alley was clear, he quickly headed south towards his horse.
It was at this point that fate positioned our characters within a block of each other. Tom was about to point at the water tower with cautious trepidation when the sound of groaning wood and shrieking metal brought all to a standstill. Built ten years before, rust had corroded the rivets and steel bands of the water tower. The weakened tank burst with a roar reported over a mile and a half away. Thirty thousand gallons of water emptied within a minute cascading to the ground like Niagara Falls. The adjacent alley was now a raging flood surging between wooden fences and buildings in an unstoppable race north.
Claude’s jaw dropping was the only part of his body that wasn’t frozen as the liquid juggernaut arrived. Swept off his feet, he was picked up and carried along like a rag doll. The torrent mercifully ebbed after a block. The unconscious thief was deposited at the feet of Cecil Dermont. Cecil pulled the man to dry ground and was joined shortly thereafter by Jerome and a breathless Ed Taylor. Stooping over the stranger, Cecil was thankful to see he was still breathing. Ed’s eyes, however, gravitated to his distinctive footwear. A quick search resulted in the discovery of a bag containing rings, necklaces, and a shiny gold watch with “Taylor’s Fine Jewelry” emblazoned on the back. Roused awake, Claude was escorted unceremoniously to the jail by the three men. Jerome and Ed congratulated Cecil on his capture.
Surprise erupted into laughter upon entering the jail. Locking Claude in the adjourning cell, Ed and Cecil inexplicably could not locate the cell keys in the desk drawer. Jerome exited quickly to fetch his photographer. “We need a picture for page one!” he shouted over Silas’s threats and curses.
“Mom? When did you know Dad was the one?” asked Connie, years later in a rare moment of shared confidences.
A smile crossed Susan’s lips recalling that day. The deluge had subsided at their feet. Oak slats held together by rusted steel bands settled on the sidewalk as the water drained away. Painted in glossy scarlet #2 were the words Tom & Sue enclosed within an enormous heart.
“Well…I remember it was a bright sunny day, the leaves just beginning to show their fall colors after a halo moon.”