You don't need a lot of words to say a lot. For proof, check out these finalists for the short-short fiction contest sponsored by the Aspen Writers Foundation and Esquire. Entries were limited to 78 words, in honor of Esquire's seventy-eighth birthday; they're called "Aspens," in honor of the other partner.
And the finalists are:
"In Pursuit of Lost Time," by Adrienne Celt:
The horses were always given playful names - today The Future ran against The Past. We pressed against the rail between the track and stands. Dan wore a jacket tailored before he met his wife; it held the memory of his body, then. He tugged the curl that fell just above my left eyebrow, pulling it straight to the middle of my cheek. Look, he said. I can change you.
The Past and The Future ran neck and neck.
"The Next Plane Home," by Jacob Cutler:
News of a new war widow travels fast in a small town -- whispers of his courage, her sacrifice, their future. "She's shocked, numb," they agreed. But they knew nothing of the shouting, boot heel bruises, bowie knife scar. They knew nothing of her threat to leave or his promise to kill her if she did.
And then, they knew nothing of her nascent hope. Or that the second visit crushed it. "Misinformation, a terrible mistake," the sergeant apologized.
"Letters in War Time," by CJ Hauser:
Back then you knew which girls had husbands in the war because when you kissed them they tasted of envelope glue.
Marjorie said, I can't. It aint right. How could she resist a flat-footed fool like myself? She couldn't behind the gazebo. Couldn't by the dry bed crick. Couldn't in The Marquis, twice.
Then he came home to a ticker-tape parade. The war was over.
Marjorie doesn't answer any of my letters. My war stories taste like glue.
"Baby Envy," by Rob Jacklosky:
My friends, Dave and Tania, had a baby in April. She's called Mila. Never seen such a cute infant. I wanted to steal her. My wife would like that: dress her up, play doll. It wasn't easy. I had to learn the nanny's habits, watch her routine in Seton Park. Poor frantic nanny: hands in air, screaming. But it's here now. I called Dave, consoled him. Gave him hope. I hope my wife gets home soon. It's hungry.
"How to Build a Shed," by Robin Meister:
Build the floor and call it quits. After winter, discover the lawnmower won't start. Notice your teenage son's bike has rusted. Watch him paint it black to match his mood.
When your wife says, "Build the damn walls," paint them yellow.
Lose your son to silence. Keep the ceiling beams loose and put a window in the roof. Later, when he's on his back with rope burns around his neck, hear him say, "Shit. The stars are amazing."
"The only thing I have that belongs in the Smithsonian," by Emily Nemens:
There was a day, during Yankee Stadium's 1974 renovation, when original seats were available for five dollars and the boxtop of a carton of cigarettes. Hearing that, an enterprising boy learned to smoke, and received two splintered, wooden foldings. Over the next decades, the chairs saw six apartments, three wives, four states. No children. Now the chairs live at a weekly motel in Oceanside. They sit on a balcony, facing west. The salty wind cuts into their cracks.
"The Fresh-Faced Girl," by Dale Rappaneau:
Tongue him in a motel room. Feel fingers suck shame beneath bright lights. Meet tomorrow, and the day after. Hell, meet forever. Get knocked up too soon, hitched as quickly. Birth twins. Buy a small house. Paint walls together, and dream of matching tombstones.
Watch your children grow as large as your waistline. Watch his eyes take long strolls to another woman. When you awake alone, apply makeup over mistakes, foundation over infidelity, and turn the lights off.
"Simmering," by S.G. Redling:
Get a restraining order, my mother said after my arm was set. Move, the cop told me after my jaw was wired shut. After he burned down my place in Florida, I had nowhere to go. They were ashamed for me when I returned. Let the police handle it, my sister said. She saw the empty Drano on the counter. They'll know, she said. Do you want to spend your life in prison?
He likes his chili hot.
"Some Cars Drive Themselves," by Robert V.S. Redick:
You're the whole kit. Tenured at thirty, laughably bookish, buff. Your past a little saga, boys run wild in the South. Good looks, early heartbreak. Then Peace Corps, what a great deal it meant. Now spaniels, persimmons, port; Ondaatje by the bedside, good technique but nothing raunchy, amber specks in your eyes.
Your car just kept going. One minute, two minutes, two states, dawn. Hairs on the grille. No one the wiser, including, as the years collected, you.
The January issue of Esquire will include the prize-winning story, by Nate Ochs. Find out more about the contest and the Aspen Writers Foundation here.