Short story contest winner: Gargoyles and Stars

Meet Lydia, a cheerful woman on the hunt in New York City for her parked car. Despite vibrant memories, her loyalty to the past is trumped only by the fact that it doesn’t exist outside of her imagination.
By Caroline Bock | Published: January 27, 2016


FROM OUR EDITOR
In the short story “Gargoyles and Stars,” we meet Lydia who is searching for the car she parked at her alma mater in New York City. She’s a cheerful woman with a sense of humor and a commitment to purpose. She has many vibrant memories. Indeed, her loyalty to the past is trumped only by the fact that it doesn’t exist in the present except in her imagination. Her lively inner life is central to understanding both plot and character in Caroline Bock’s tale of a woman on an adventure in old age.

Novelist and short story writer Colum McCann chose Bock’s piece as the first-place winner of The Writer Two Roads Diverge short story contest. McCann read the top 10 entries, and placed Bock’s at the top of the list for its exploration of memory, regret, madness, sorrow and loss. That’s a lot to pack into a story, but of course that was the challenge: How can you create a universe in 2,000 words?

Bock’s story follows, and we hope you enjoy reading it. Three other stories placed in our contest. Second prize went to Barbara Stark-Nemon’s “A Wolf with Patience.” Third prize went to Brenda Sinclair Sutton’s “Good for the Soul.” And honorable mention went to John Philipp’s “White Rice.”

You can also read an interview with Colum McCann in our March issue. His thoughtful explanations of his craft are truly inspiring.

Our short story contests are ongoing because we believe in creating opportunities for writers to find their way to publication and to success. We hope Bock’s tale spurs you to tell your own stories and to watch for more opportunities to get them into print and in front of the eyes of readers.
—Alicia Anstead

gargoyles and stars caroline bockAT THE CORNER where Lydia thought she left her car was a lake of crushed glass. She was sure she had parked the car, directly behind the “no parking from here to corner sign” and “no parking construction sign,” which since there wasn’t any construction that she could see, she assumed it was fine. She was three blocks from the campus and a pair of slender, ephemeral students hurried by her. She remembered this for them: “The City College of New York, founded as the Free Academy and opened in 1849 began as an educational and political experiment. It was the first public college in New York and it soon became known as ‘The Poor Man’s Harvard.’”

As she stood in the gutter, where she was sure she had parked her car – she had even written the address down since she was prone to misplacing her parked cars these days – and she had this vision of herself in a mini-skirt and boots in front of prospective freshmen and their parents, a half-remembered self. “But I can’t stand here forever, can I?” she said, digging her phone out of the bottom of her purse; it was dead. So no car, no phone. Now if she had a phone she could call one of those Uber cars, even though she had never done that before. Of course, she’d call her husband first.

She could make her way back to the university, her alma mater; there must be a security guard somewhere that could help her. She had driven in for a special evening lecture, and had quite enjoyed it, even though it ran late, and she stayed even later, admiring the Gothic architecture of Shepard Hall. So she wasn’t going to have the night ruined. If only there were still pay phones on corners, she thought, and then, a police car wound its way up the block. She flagged it down. “I think my car was stolen,” she said in an even tone to the stony-eyed officer. She didn’t want to jump to conclusions. She wasn’t going to panic.

“You need to go down to the precinct,” he said. “On 125th Street.” His radio beeped and flashed, and he waited a minute until she repeated “125th Street,” and left her tracing the burning whir of sirens and lights into the air. She hesitated, studying the Gothic peaks of the university against the sky with its crowds of stars over the campus heights. She recited, not a poem, though she certainly knew some poetry:

“The campus as it now stands was designed by George B. Post in 1898. Post’s Collegiate Gothic design was associated with the medieval images of Oxford and Cambridge. See the many grotesque sculptures decorating the building and notice that they are engaged in activities reflecting academic pursuits. Above, a creature reads a book, another pours a substance into a flask during an experiment.”

She looked up as if expecting a gargoyle to fly past her.

Ahead of her the line of parked cars snaked down the curbs of Convent Avenue. Across the street: a new school of architecture, a white, windowless cube, half underground, wedged outside the campus gates. She couldn’t bear to look at it. No gargoyles guarded that building. “Well, I’m going to have to get myself to that precinct.” However, in addition to there being no phone booths, there were no taxicabs at this time of night in this part of Harlem.

Nevertheless, she was quite capable of walking from 130th to 125th Street, no matter that it was late and the way ahead of her now deserted, canyons of locked doors and shut tight windows. But Harlem was safer now than in her day when squeegee men would gather around flaming garbage cans, passing a bottle, eyeing girls like her. They’re all gone. And she had on her comfortable shoes, didn’t she? She didn’t wear mini-skirts or high-heeled suede boots anymore – she joked with herself before double-checking. Her shoes were black and thick-soled and she wore dark pants with a stretch waist. The night was chilly but she had forgotten a coat. No use waiting here, she was good to go.

finialLydia arrived about twenty minutes later at the police precinct and climbed the short flight of stairs. She sniffed. The air smelled of old colognes and lingering mildew. She wished she could be back on the street. Her legs and hips ached. Her purse had twisted under her armpit. Her hand clutched a scrap of paper.

“You know this address,” she thought. “Of course, you’re a university student. English lit major. Dating a nice guy. Lyddie and Moe, that’s what everyone calls you.

His full name is Maurice and yours is Lydia. Moe has silky shoulder-length hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, and your mother doesn’t like either, yet she is very proud that you’re the first in the family to go to college. That’s it, isn’t it? Cool. Groovy. Dig it. Right on.” She wanted to pump her fist in the air.

When the officer on duty finally showed up at the front desk, grey and hooked-faced, he gurgled down sips of coffee from one those quart-size containers of coffee, one filled with cream and extra sugars, a dizzy steam rising from its core. “I’m here because of my car,” said Lydia, pleased at knowing what to say to him even though she was a little muddled. “My car is missing.”

“License and registration.”

Lydia felt compelled to explain further that she had been at a lecture at City College. She wouldn’t want him to think she was in the neighborhood for anything involving drugs. In the past, men and their wet whispers of smoke, smoke, smoke, followed her from the subway to the campus. She had smoked a little pot in her day, didn’t she? She sucked in her breath. She was sure she did and that she liked it.

The officer gazed down on her. She would have loved a cup of the sweet coffee, to jolt her memory, but instead she said, “At City College, you should know that Dr. Noah Webster, our first president, a graduate of West Point, said that the school was an experiment. ‘Whether an institution of the highest grade can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.’”

“License and registration, and we’ll get you out of here.”

Lydia wished there was somewhere to sit, but there were no chairs in sight. She paced, planning on how she’d share this with Moe. He was always protective of her, not that he had to be. She’d make it a funny story; tell him about the gargoyles and stars.

When the officer finally returned he said, “Your car was towed to the pound. Parking at a construction site.”

“But I wasn’t, was I?”

Lydia turned to leave. She had been here long enough. “Wait just one minute, you’ll need these.” He pressed toward her a scroll of tickets printed out from some computer along with her license and registration. “You think you should call and tell somebody to come get you?”

Lydia’s back bristled. She wasn’t going to worry Moe. “What’s the address?”

“Pier 76. West 38th Street and 12th Avenue.”

“Open now?”

“Open twenty-four hours.”

On 125th Street, she hailed a yellow taxicab.
finial
At the City of New York tow pound, she found herself in a waiting room that could be anywhere – no windows, the stink of cigarettes, even with the No Smoking sign, every seat filled – but at the same time, nowhere but Manhattan. The clock over the service windows read: eleven o’clock. It would be one o’clock in the morning before it was her turn, before she’d discover that she had no more cash on her, not even have a credit card. One thing the room did have was a bank of pay phones, and one worked. Luckily quarters always speckled the bottom of her purse. She dialed the phone number inside her address book marked smartly: In Case of Emergency.

finial

Someone ashen and unshaven in sweatpants approached her spot among the pay phones – he wasn’t Moe, who liked bell-bottomed jeans and wide-collared shirts and for all that beautiful hair had a neat appearance.

“Ma!” he said. “Come on.”

She covered up her surprise with, “This is how you catch a cold,” pointing to his bare feet in sneakers.

“You’re killing me, Ma. It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I get a call that you’re at the pound.”

Of course, this was her son. Gabriel. “Where’s your father?”

“Give me the tickets.” He went up to window number three and paid the fines, two-hundred-and-fifty dollars, and then he was shuffling out ahead of her, out the doors, through the maze of towed cars slick with the dank dew of the Hudson River. “Is Moe okay?” she called after him. “Why isn’t he here?”

“Because he’s dead,” Gabriel said, turning left and right, confused amid the rows of cars down in the wait of dawn.

She wanted to make a joke, to say, “That’s the reason?” but she could see that he was haggard and fretful.

“We have to talk about what’s next, Ma.”

“We’re going home.”

“I don’t live with you anymore, Ma. I’m a fifty-year-old guy.”

“Then I’m glad you don’t live with me.”

“I’m going to drive you back to your house.”

“How will you get home?”

“Don’t worry about me.”

“I’m your Mother, aren’t I?”

He slammed his fist onto the roof of a car. She hoped it wasn’t hers. Tears cracked from his eyes. “There must be a thousand fucking cars here!”

“I’m sorry I called you. I’ll find my own car.”

He hitched up his sweatpants, and huffed around her, sinking in behind the wheel of a vehicle three down from where they had been standing.

“I’ll drive,” she said, tapping the window.

“Are you kidding me? Get in.”

She wanted to say, “Yes, Moe,” but remembered that this man wasn’t Moe. She climbed into the passenger seat anyway; it felt good to sit.

“For once you’re going to listen to me. You got to stop driving back to that campus up in Harlem. It isn’t safe.”

“Nothing but good things ever happened to me there,” she said quietly.

He clutched the dashboard. “I know. You met Dad there. You were campus guides.”

“I was pretty good at it too. Better than Moe. More outgoing. Don’t get me wrong, Moe is brilliant, a physics major, but I always say to him don’t hide your face in a crowd of stars. I’ll always love you.” Her thoughts trailed off before shooting back. “When did he die? When did Moe die?”

“A long time ago. I was a kid. He was murdered, buying heroin.”

“On campus?”

“No, in Yonkers, not far from the house.” He sighed. “You always told me he went straight to heaven.”

“Did you know that ten graduates of the City University of New York went on to win Nobel Prizes? They were the children of the working class and often the first of their families to go to College, like many of the students here today.”

“You remember all of that, don’t you?”

He jammed the key into the ignition. “We’re getting out of here,” he said, but didn’t start the engine.

The sun edged up over the rows of towed cars, over the pilings of the old pier and out toward the Hudson River and the state of New Jersey. The stars faded, they always do, at the same time, she knew they were always there. The Gothic spires and the gargoyles and the entire campus rose over Harlem and in her sights, a place of hope and possibility – and with all respect to home or heaven, she was fine waiting here.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR, CAROLINE BOCK

1st place Caroline Bock

 

 

CAROLINE BOCK is the author of two young adult novels, Lie and Before My Eyes. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in such journals as Ploughshares and Zero Dark-Thirty. Bock has a MFA in fiction from The City College of New York. Prior to focusing on her writing, she led the marketing and public relations departments at Bravo cable network, IFC and IFC Films. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and works as freelance bookseller with the independent bookstore Politics & Prose.

 


Comments from Colum McCann, guest judge

“The story is active and sharp. It moves swiftly from its opening line. It concerns the myriad ways of memory and regret. It also confronts the madness and sorrow of loss. As for craft, it is well put together and the writer has style. One thing I would suggest to the writer that she try to inhabit the thoughts of the character by avoiding phrases like ‘she remembered’ or ‘she thought’ in order to truly inhabit the pulse of the moment. But it’s a brave story with many different strands nicely helixed together.”


MORE TWO ROADS DIVERGE WINNERS

Read our interview with “Gargoyles and Stars” author Caroline Bock.

Click here to read the 2nd place story, “A Wolf with Patience” by Barbara Stark-Nemon.

Click here to read the 3rd place story, “Good for the Soul” by Brenda Sinclair Sutton.

Click here to read the honorable mention story, “White Rice” by John Philipp.