Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three Minutes

My friend Amy Ballinger-Cole sent me an e-mail a while back to suggest I enter NPR's Three-Minute Fiction contest. It's a writing contest in which you look at a provided photograph and write a story of no more than 600 words inspired by that photo. The winner was to have their story read on the air.

Here is the photo:

At first I just laughed at the notion of writing for free. HAHAHA! And then I thought, "Well, I do dabble in fiction" and then, "It's short, so it will be easy and quick, and then I can get back to watching The Oprah."

So the next morning, somewhere between sleep and waking, when it seems some of my best ideas come to me, I wrote most of this story in my head. When I first saw the photo, I immediately thought of a racing form. I also figured that 98% of the other entrants would see it as the interior of a coffee shop, so I eschewed that location. In the reflection of the glass, you can just make out a BA, which led to the title, which came out of I don't know where. Probably more sleep than awake.

I like this quick little story. I managed to touch on four generations, at least two states and a couple of countries. I referenced war, death, fear and gambling, and yet got in just a hint of humor. All of this came together to win me naught. Not even in the top 10 or so, although there is the slim, outside chance that my story is referenced in the story about the contest and winner:
"Stories poured in from all over the country — stories about cafes and trains from London to Maine. There were lost loves and lost newspapers, detectives on stakeout, and racetrack bums looking to make one last big score."
Win or lose, I still like the story and it was a fun exercise. And it became like a writer's workshop around here for a day or two with the other writers living in our house entering the contest as well (read the entries from the rest of our round table here: Sassy and SAM).

So here's my story, Basil's Baby, inspired by that photo. It's the sort of thing I do when no one is paying me to write. Enjoy.

Basil's Baby

I knew which horse to bet on as soon as I opened the racing form. Even before I looked at records or jockeys or lineage, I knew I would bet on Basil’s Baby in the fifth. Betting on a name is probably the worst way to gamble next to horse color, but how could I not? I’d woken my daughter every morning of her two years by calling her Basil. I’m not even sure why or how it started. As a prep cook, I was usually getting home when it was time for her to wake up. Leaning over her, smelling of spice and root, I’d whisper in her tiny ear, “Basil, come on, baby, daddy’s home.”

The truth is, I could have sat at that little red pushpin of a table all day long eating chicken nuggets and staring out the window at people walking past. If that 12-piece box of nuggets I’d gotten had never run out, I never would have complained. But I needed to get to the OTB to get this bet off so I could get back to the hospital. I had to be there when she woke up, the IV clinging to her arm like a parasite, and her so scared.

And I needed Basil’s Baby to come in at those odds so I could pay for it all.

My great-grandmother taught me how to bet on horses. I must have been 7 years old. Her husband had passed away and she decided she needed an escort when going out, so she taught me to look at track conditions and blood lineage. She explained the art of handicapping and how to pick a sure thing. And that there is no such thing as a sure thing. She taught me to never, ever bet on a horse’s name.

Grandma also shared lessons of family and need, and the risk of letting someone close. Love and loss traveled hand in hand for the old woman, losing a son in Korea and a husband so near retirement to an unnamed cancer. The Ballingers moved from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to Memphis to work for the International Harvester plant and it was an envelope with a red IH imprinted on it that grandma would show me when we went back to Arkansas to visit family and the track.

Grandpa’s pension check was sizeable. “Don’t risk it, can’t win it,” she’d say, sitting in a club seat and sipping Crème de Menthe.

Basil’s Baby was slow out of the gate but came on strong on the outside for the last quarter mile. She was beautiful, all silver muscle and mane, even on the little monitor in the dirty corner of the OTB.

I stood in line at the window to collect my winnings and thought how I’d still rather be sitting at that small table pouring over the racing forms, losing myself in statistics and breeders names, and eating chicken nuggets slowly through the afternoon.

My daughter was waiting in that big, white bed, though. Just a little sprig of a girl, my sweet Basil.

I went back to the hospital with enough cash in my pocket for the medicine she’d need. I silently thanked my great-grandmother and the horse I’d just chosen by name only.