Longer version of my Writer’s Digest My Story #23 First Date Bizarreness submission

This is a longer version of the story I sent to Writer’s Digest for its Your Story #23 contest. As you can see below, I had to say goodbye to some background on the story. The trick to the 750-word contest is to keep the action to a few snapshots of storyline and then give your reader a vivid image of what’s happening. My creative writing teacher at Pensacola Christian College, Ms. Raymond, used to preach “Show, Don’t Tell.” Hopefully, I’ve picked up on that.

As is the case with the shorter version, Janet is based on a girl I knew at PCC.

The Russian Miracle

By Richard Zowie

I sat at the dinner table, nervously taking sips of water, oblivious of how horrible the tap water tasted. Across from me sat Janet. She wore a blue dress. I never pictured her as the makeup type, but now she wore bright red lipstick. She smiled, but seemed nervous, as if late for an urgent appointment. Her long, curly, dark-blond hair, normally pulled up, cascaded down well past her shoulders. Every so often, Janet would absently brush away the locks when they’d get too close to her face.

My attempts at conversation resulted in short answers:

“What does your Dad do for a living?” I asked.

“He’s a pastor.” Hearing her say this made me cringe. My Dad’s a mechanic whose last visit into a church was when my older sister, Kimberly, got married back in 1984. No pastor would ever consider me fit to marry his daughter.

Janet didn’t ask me what my Dad did.

“Where did you grow up?”

“Pennsylvania,” she replied, her bright sapphire blue eyes darting briefly at mine and then away, as though she’d rather be back in the Keystone State.

“I grew up in Los Patos,” I said. Los Patos, where South Texas University is located, was built around a large lake. They say the settlers who first came there called their new town “Los Patos” because of all the ducks swimming in the lake. Duck, in Spanish, is pato.

Even long before our food arrived (she ordered a Cobb salad while I ordered spaghetti and meatballs), I could see this was going to be a “mercy date.” A beautiful girl goes out with a geeky guy out of pity, hoping he’ll get the hint and not ask again. Most of the time it works but some friends of mine are as oblivious as they are intelligent, so it takes a friendly-but-terse “I just want to be friends” for the guy to get the message. And then the guy spends a month or so acting depressed unless one his friends talks him into guzzling a few Tequila Sunrises at a local bar.

As I asked her a few more casual questions, I sighed and tried to hide my disappointment. The problem was, I really thought Janet was The One. Janet was beautiful. Very beautiful. Janet also wasn’t too heavy or too thin. When she smiled, dimples appeared on her cheeks. She was about 5’3″ with those blue eyes that were so easy to get hypnotized by. I had to work hard not to stare into those caring eyes too long or I’d get real nervous and start acting goofy–something I often do when I’m around a pretty girl.

I first met Janet three years ago at the Baptist Student Union. She was a Christian and a Baptist, like me, which wasn’t very easy to find at STU. I’d often see her in the student union reading her Bible, praying and talking with others as she shared her faith. With her smile and with her godly ways it was easy to fall in love with her even without getting to know her very well.

A few months after meeting Janet, I asked her out. “I like somebody else,” she replied, putting me into a depression that lasted the rest of that month. I tried to avoid going to the BSU during that time. I let things go for a while, only to see her a year later wearing a large gold class ring on her right index finger. Its ruby stone seemed to mock me, as if saying, “HA ha! This girl’s mine! Get someone else.”

Finally, a few months ago, I noticed the ring gone from Janet’s finger. A quick glance on her left hand showed no engagement ring. A friend of mine, Monica, happened to be Janet’s acquaintance. Good news, Kevin! Monica told me. Janet broke up with her boyfriend from back home and isn’t dating anyone!

I waited those two months to ask Janet out, worried she’d realize I’d had Monica act as my private detective and be turned off. Janet accepted my invitation for a date, and we went to the Los Patos Diner, a restaurant on the north side of town where the rich families lived. It has an upscale feel but serves many types of cuisine. You don’t have to wear a tie to get in, but other patrons there look down on you if you don’t. So, to be on the safe side, I wore one despite the hot, dry South Texas climate.

As I sipped more water and tried to think of another question to ask, a young girl at the table next to us started groaning and holding her stomach. She started to cry and grabbed onto the table cloth, yanking at it as some painful spasm shot through her body. Her father’s glass of red wine tipped over, spilling onto his steak and forming a scarlet island around it. It also sprayed onto the white table cloth. Everyone in the restaurant gasped and turned towards them. After all, public commotions couldn’t possibly happen at such a nice restaurant.

The girl, who blond hair and blue eyes, was around 12 while her parents looked to be in their forties. She spoke to them, and I recognized the language as Russian (having remembered Mikhail Baryshnikov in the movie White Nights) but didn’t understand anything. The girl kept crying, this time louder, as if someone had turned up the volume on the pain.

I looked at Janet, bewildered. That distant, vacant look was gone and was replaced by deep concern. “Do you know what’s going on?” she gasped, turning towards me.

“I don’t know, but it sounds like they’re speaking Russian,” I replied.

The father, mother and daughter all continued speaking frantic Russian. The daughter’s cries turned into thin, squeaky shrieks as she writhed in her chair and clutched her abdomen. The father looked around the restaurant and screamed something like, “Pa mosh nam! My-ya doch bolna!” over and over again.

Everybody stared, but nobody moved. Everyone looked concerned, but there was the language barrier. Even in the college town of Los Patos, you don’t find a lot of Russian speakers in South Texas. I wondered if these were tourists or visiting relatives of one of the Russian professors at STU.

Janet was about to get up, but before she could I was already over at the table, wondering if I could be of any help. “Can I help you, sir?” I asked, speaking slowly.

He looked at me, his eyes a pale blue, a smile of gratitude spreading across his round face. His sweaty bald head shined in the overhead lights. “Yes, yes, you can!” he said, speaking English in a Russian accent. “My daughter very sick. She said she have pain near her stomach but just to the right of it. She also say it hurt very badly.”

“It sounds like her appendix might be infected,” I said, remembering my nephew, when he was nine, had those exact same symptoms and needed an emergency appendectomy.

I pulled out my cell phone and dialled 911. “Would you like to call for an ambulance?”

“No, my friend,” he said. “Nobody else seem to understand me tonight.”

So I called and explained where I was and that a little girl needed to be rushed to the hospital. In five minutes an ambulance arrived, emergency medical technicians took the little girl (whom I learned was named Svetlana) to the hospital. The father and mother, named Vladimir and Zhanna, thanked me continuously, their Russian accents growing thicker. The mother hugged me and briefly cut off my air supply. As they left, she said to me, “Doe svee don ya!”

Which, I guessed meant “goodbye.”

I went back to the dinner table where Janet was, sat in the chair and exhaled a deep sigh of relief. “That was a close one!” I said, shuddering and trying to make a joke out of it.

Janet stared at me, her mouth locked into a wide, shiny red O of surprise. “That was amazing, Kevin!” she said, a smile growing on her face. Her eyes were locked on mine. The minute she spent staring and smiling at me equaled the amount of attention she’d given me in the past few years, it seemed.

“I know,” I replied. “The little girl apparently has appendicitis, and they got her to a hospital. What amazes me is that nobody else in the restaurant seemed to understand–”

“I didn’t know you spoke Russian!” Janet interrupted. “Where did you learn it?”

“Learn it? What are you talking about?”

“You spoke a few minutes with that couple and it sounded to me like you were speaking Russian.”

“You’re joking, right?” I asked. “I don’t speak Russian. I grew up in Los Patos, and about the only foreign language you hear here–outside the college’s foreign language departments– is Spanish.”

“You’ve never been to Russia?”

“Never.” The only time I’d ever been outside America was to Matamoros, Mexico, to the markets. And there, it’s easy to find people who speak English.

“But I just heard you speaking Russian to that couple,” she said, smiling and pulling out a handkerchief from her purse to wipe away a few tears that had formed.

I started at her as she finished with her her handkerchief, looking for signs that maybe she was teasing me. “You said you heard me speak Russian?”

“Yes,” Janet said.

“Janet, the only foreign language I’ve ever studied in my life is Spanish. I don’t speak Russian. In fact, I couldn’t understand why everybody else in the restaurant seemed to be ignoring the father as he kept saying ‘Help us! My daughter is sick!’ over and over again.”

She shook her head. “Kevin, all I could hear is you speaking Russian. When you first spoke, I heard you say something like ‘Pa-moch’ and ‘doch’ and ‘bolna’.”

I later learned those words meant help, daughter and sick.

I shook my head. “Janet, I spoke English to them. As God as my witness, I don’t speak Russian.”

She stared me for a long time, a smile on her face. Monica told me once that Janet had this uncanny ability to read people and tell when they’re lying. But instead of getting nervous from her smile, I just stared back at her.

Finally, Janet said, “Well, it sounds like I just witnessed something out of the second chapter of Acts.”

“When Peter speaks in one language and people from many other countries hear him in their own language?”

“Yes,” she laughed. “I can’t wait to tell my atheist roommate about this. She probably won’t believe me, but this could help to plant a seed.”

It turned into a nice date that night. I’m thinking of asking her out again.

© Copyright 2010 by Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. May not be republished without permission.

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Richard Zowie’s Writer’s Digest Your Story #19 submission: From M.R.S. to Master’s Degree

The prompt was to write 750 words about a woman who’s allowed to travel through time to correct a mistake. This is what I came up with.

While the story focuses on my alma mater, Pensacola Christian College, it is safe to say PCC is not the only Christian college where young women and men go to find future spouses. Perhaps this even goes on at state colleges to an extent. An associate pastor who attended another Christian college told me once of a roommate of his who flat-out told him: “I’m here to find a wife.”

I will say, though, this story is very loosely based on a couple I knew of at PCC. They shall remain unidentified.

And, of course, Los Patos, Texas is as fictional as the story itself. In Spanish, it means “The Ducks”.

From M.R.S. to Master’s Degree

By Richard Zowie

KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!

Elizabeth McCandless, 29, moaned as she slowly woke from a foggy dream. 3:30 a.m., according to her digital clock’s bright red numbers. She yawned, threw on a bathrobe, slid her feet into slippers and trudged toward the front door. It was probably Jake, her husband and pastor of Los Patos Baptist Church. He was returning from a San Antonio hospital where one of his parishioners was hospitalized.

But instead of seeing Jake’s gangly, six-foot, three-inch frame through the peephole, she saw Steven Martinez (her husband’s associate pastor and best friend) along with two police officers.

She stared for a moment, now wide awake, her heart galloping as she opened the door.

The officers were grim. Steven’s eyes were red and his face tearstained.

“Ma’am, I’m Officer Applegate and this is Officer Garcia of the Los Patos Police Department,” the older one said in a slow Texas drawl. “This, of course, is Pastor Martinez of Los Patos Baptist Church. Are you Elizabeth McCandless?”

“Yes,” she said. “Is everything ok?”

“You are the wife of Jacob McCandless, correct?”

She nodded and swallowed a big lump in her throat.

“Ma’am, there’s been a terrible auto accident on Highway 181 near Karnes City involving your husband and another driver,” Applegate said, his quiet voice calm and emotionless. “Your husband was killed instantly. We’re terribly sorry.”

Dead?…an, uh… accident?” she sputtered.

Applegate nodded. “The other driver, who had veered into your husband’s lane, is hospitalized in stable condition. He probably will be charged with DWI and vehicular homicide.”

Her mind raced, trying desperately to process this. Dear God, this can’t be happening!

“Beth,” Steven said gently, his voice soft and hoarse. “We’re here for you if you need anything.”

Tears flooded down Beth’s face as the future, a frightening black abyss, glared mercilessly at her. She hadn’t worked since college, where she’d majored in home economics (or, as many jokingly called it, an “M.R.S.” degree), a formality since she’d attended college to find a husband. How would she get a job with that background? How would she take care of their two daughters? And there was no life insurance, since Jake didn’t believe in it and insisted it showed a lack of faith in God.

She sobbed, the tears soaking her bathrobe sleeves.

Dear God, how I wish I could go back and—

Immediately, as fast as an eye blink, she was again a freshman at Pensacola Christian College. Beth found herself in a room, the night before registration, where counselors helped students make sure they were taking the right classes. Startled, she looked around and recognized a few students who were English and commercial writing majors: Jane, Sammy, Andrea and Neal.

Maybe she’d passed out and the police would soon wake her. Her dreams always were foggy with muffled, distant sounds and without smell. But now, everything was bright and clear. She could hear the students’ chat about what Freshman English teachers to avoid; Sammy’s brash laugh echoed in the room. She could smell Chaps, worn by another male student who, still developing social skills, failed to grasp that overusing cologne didn’t equal a shower.

A few moments ago, she’d sobbed inconsolably. Now, she was calm, confused.

Maybe God’s allowing me to right a wrong so my girls and I will be prepared for the future, she thought, looking at her class schedule. From here she’d get a bachelor’s in English, a master’s in English from the University of West Florida and then pick up a teaching certificate. It would take about six years, unless she took 18-hour semesters and post-term classes. Teaching wasn’t necessarily a high-paying job, but it was in demand and would provide some sort of financial security. Maybe she could even run a tutorial business out of her home.

She remembered she’d meet Jake in a few weeks, and he would simply have to understand her need for her education. She’d tell him the tragedies she’d heard in Christianity over the years, such as the woman who became a widow with four children when her evangelist husband died unexpectedly in a plane crash. Or the respected church deacon who left his wife for his secretary; college-aged girl was younger than his own daughter.

Jake, though, was the abrupt, assertive type who never understood life’s what happens when you’re making plans.

She wondered, What if Jake tells me he won’t wait for me to finish my education?

But the answer came back quickly: Then he isn’t Mr. Right.

© Copyright 2009 by Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. May not be republished without permission.*