The Winner's Circle


Flagstaff Writers Connection Personal Essay/Short Story Contest Winners will read their pieces in tune with music around the theme of Grit, Grief, Gratitude in the Time of COVID. Please tune in, and be amazed!

APRIL 25TH 5-7 P.M.

1st Place Winner: "Inside the Maze" by Mark Ford
2nd Place Winner: "Observations from Death's Doorstep" by Terryl (T) Warnock
3rd Place Winner: "What's in a Mask?" by Anita Howard (read by Nancy Brehm)
Honorable Mentions:
    "Books and Bras in the Time of COVID" by Violeta Armour
    "Wounded Landscapes" by Naomi Morrison
    "Bread of Life" by Valerie Foster

Introduction by Barbara Shovers
DJ: Tim Aydelott


"Inside the Maze"

. by Mark Ford

Inside the Maze

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief.

“There’s so much confusion now, I can’t get no relief.”

He hides in the dead ends and corners of the maze. He drifts down, a sickly miasma, Angel of Death. COVID-19 lurking, waiting. Waiting for me to make a false move. Keep moving, keep moving, I can’t let him catch me. Where is the door? There must be some way out of here.

On the maze of sidewalks people approach wearing surgical masks, eyes looking out, cautious, fearful. No greetings, no smiles. The masks are mostly black or white. Some are colorful, one has large teeth where a mouth should be. Day of the Dead? I feel a chill. People move away. They leave a wide berth. Not everyone has a mask. Those who don’t sometimes walk very close as they pass. I can smell them. College girls with perfume. Grumpy men with bad cologne. Danger, danger, I try to avoid these people. Homeless men with dirty jeans and backpacks don’t crowd. Masks pulled up; they are used to keeping their distance.

In the forest, out among the pines there is someone without a mask, a yellow dog pulling her forward. She sees me and stops. She pulls up her mask and walks forward. Both of us leave the path to avoid each other. She passes quickly. The dog looks back.

On the golf course we social distance. One at a time on the tee. One at a time on the green. No rakes in the bunkers, don’t touch the flagpoles, whatever you do, don’t shake hands. Etiquette is gone. I pull up my mask and go to the sterilized club house, then home to a Zoom meeting.

Zoom. Zoom has taken over everything. People without masks staring back from computer screens waiting their turn to talk. Who are these people? Some I know, most I have seen only inside the computer. I think they are real. How can I be sure? They talk back. A.I. talks back. Where am I? Is that really me in the box on the Zoom screen? Zoom is safe.

Pods are safe. Pods are everything. Who is in your pod? Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa. We’re all very careful. We shop correctly. Curbside pickup. No going in stores. We used to go in stores with arrows on the floor telling us which way to go. Too dangerous now. People might breathe on us or touch the food we eat.

Are we doing everything right? I think we do it to protect the kids. Kids? Kids don’t get sick. Or do they? Maybe we do it for Grandma and Grandpa. Sometimes Kylie cheats. Can we kick her out? Out into the cold where she has only Zoom friends. No, she’s a little sister. We just worry.

Kids Zoom to school. Distracted kindergarteners, eyes wandering around a room the teacher can’t see. They seek approval. Teacher affirms through the computer screen. The child wants more. The child is distracted again. Some kids learn by touch – no touching in Zoom school.

The high school kids pretend to watch the teacher, texting on cell phones held just below the laptop camera. Do they eye each other through the Zoom? Virtual dates? Virtual longing. Virtual loneliness.

Who’s watching? Who’s checking? Someone must be watching, monitoring. Do they use A.I. to make sure we do things right. Do they know if I cheat?

Cash is good for cheating. On the paper money it says, “Legal tender for all debts, public and private.” Some places won’t take it now. Mario’s Taco Drive-Up takes cash. The liquor store takes cash. Liquor stores are important. Who is watching? Is COVID real?

People die from COVID-19. People I know – knew when they were alive. It must be real. I’m sure it’s real. What if I get sick? I heard it was like the flu. But Gary had a ventilator tube put down his throat. People on ventilators don’t recover – most don’t. Gary recovered. He said he wanted to die but he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t tell anyone to let him die. Merciful Angel of Death didn’t show up. He’s glad now.

So I wear a mask, don’t go in crowded stores, social distance, don’t go to gatherings – especially indoor gatherings. Politics, politics. If I were a far-right conservative, I would know the whole thing is a hoax. I wouldn’t have wear a mask, I wouldn’t have to follow rules. But I’m a liberal so I follow the rules. Who is watching?

Vaccine? Is vaccine the way out of the maze, the way past the angel? Will it work? Where do I find it? Is this a trick?

There must be some way out of here.


"Observations from Death's Doorstep"

.     by Terryl Warnock

Observations from
Death’s Doorstep

When someone was recovering from a serious illness, my mother would say that they had been to death’s doorstep and back. I thought about that mom-ism a lot while the Coronavirus and I spent two desperate, miserable weeks camped out on Death’s doorstep. I lay there, beached. Stuck on the threshold between this world and the next, gasping for air. Too sick to live, surely, but apparently not sick enough for the Grim Reaper to grant me the quick, merciful passage I prayed for.

His Elusive Majesty’s doorstep reeks of bad breath and body odor, of vomit and terror. This is no portal to the fragrant shimmering garden beyond; it is a place to be waylaid by despair. A place to die alone and unnoticed.

~ ~ ~

I wake in the smallest, meanest hours of the early October night, breathless. I am dizzy and my heart rate is hummingbird fast. More of a buzz than a beat. I am coughing so hard I fear my body will turn itself inside out, so hard I retch bile. I have never been this sick before. I am desperate for air and can’t get it. I try Yogic breathing to deepen my breath, center my awareness, and calm my frantic heart, but it does not help. This is what it’s like to suffocate. To drown. To hang by the neck until dead.

I tell myself it can’t be Coronavirus. I’ve been so careful. I’ve been so good, but a part of me knows, even before diagnosis, it is Coronavirus that has reduced my world four steps in size. I can go no further than that without having to stop and catch what breath I can. My sister brings a walker with a seat so I can go my four steps, sit down to recover, and then go four more.

The first few days I sleep fitfully round the clock. During brief semi-lucid moments of consciousness, I pray to the Grim Reaper for release. I bargain with Him. I beg Him to review my lifetime and be reasonable. “I am not afraid of you!” I shout as I pound his door, “I am not the stuff of which martyrs are made! I do not deserve to suffer like this!” He remains mute and withholds His favor. The prick.

By the fourth day I am delirious. I needed to bathe. I can no longer stand the sticky, greasy clothes clinging to me like a funeral shroud, or the stench of my own body. Mine is an acrid, falsetto reek and although I can’t manage even a spit bath, my sister helps me into clean jammies. I have never been so grateful and happy for clean skivvies and socks. It is a whole new lesson in powerlessness.

On the fifth day I call my sister and beg for permission to die at home.

People come and go. Even when my eyes are open my brain doesn’t have enough oxygen to process information. I must be nagging and pestering about care of my critters because I am reassured over and over they’re being taken care of. Short of the death I pray for, it is enough.

Someone presses a glass of orange juice into my hand. It doesn’t taste good but my body responds so I am thankful for it. When asked, I can’t say how long it’s been since I ate real food. My niece goes to the grocery store and comes home with a mountain of canned soups and protein shakes.

Time stretches long and the nights last an eternity.

I spend inordinate amounts of time staring into space, just trying to breathe. I’ve always spent time staring into space, but these are not the gentle daydreams of yore, soft with warmth and curiosity. I glare into the Great Beyond, fists clenched, sucking at air I can’t get like a beached fish. My reptilian brain mandates the continuation of the autonomic effort. This is primal, savage survival mode. It is an exercise in futility, but so powerful is the reptile’s mandate to breathe, so complete and undeniable is the ancient brain’s sovereignty, that I reach for it anyway. I stare into infinity at the distant past of my species, glassy-eyed and helpless, unwashed and stinking, as I wait on Death’s doorstep, and strain and pant.

I reach out to my inner reptile to inform her that she is keeping me alive against my wishes. When she answers, I come to understand whence came the mythic fire-breathing dragon. She is lizard greenish-brown, but her tongue is bright red, licking my fevered mind like flame as she says, “I am sub even to your subconscious. Your precious mind is not in charge here now. It was I who allowed—commanded—your ancestors to survive, to reproduce preferentially. To take over the world. Now. You. BREATHE. And you reach for it with everything you’ve got.”

I counter weakly “You remember we’re post-menopausal, right?” but, having no choice, I reach for it with everything I’ve got.

By late October, I gradually begin to realize I’m not quite so pissed off that the sun is coming up and that His Elusive Majesty has disappointed me again. I begin to remember conversations with people. I see my Dragon Lady less and less. Sometimes I take a couple of steps away from the walker and have to turn back for it.

By the beginning of the new year I am flotsam in the wreckage of the Coronavirus’s wake along with so many others. The disease has taken much from me. It has taken my business, my hair, my beloved book club, my appetite, and my ability to read all but the most superficial of life’s words: signs, labels, instructions, mail. I still get winded after four steps and Doc says the damage to my lungs may be permanent. We won’t know for a year. Meanwhile this is the new normal. My ability to find healing sleep has vanished. This is the worst of it. I pull all-nighter after all-nighter, jumpy and agitated. There is no relief. Without sleep I become paranoid and irrational. Angry.

The Coronavirus has cost me dear, but mine is a mild case. It has cost hundreds of thousands so much more. I’m one of the lucky ones and I know it. I grieve with, and for, the dead and their families.

~ ~ ~

For all it took though, there are blessings to be found floating out here amongst the wreckage in the Coronavirus’s wake. My time on Death’s doorstep put me in touch with both my mortality and my immortality. I live on in this world, but have a different perspective now that I have spent time on that reeking doorstep pondering the Great Beyond. I have looked into the unimaginably ancient history of my species to touch my inner Dragon Lady. She, at least, is not willing to give up without a fight. The Coronavirus took much, but left me with my life. Life is good, even as a Coronavirus long-hauler. Although I know much more about Him now for camping on His doorstep, the Grim Reaper, having denied my request for passage, remains His Elusive Majesty, aloof and unknown. We are still mere distant acquaintances and for this, for my life, I am truly grateful.


"What's in a Mask?"

.    by Anita Howard

What’s in a Mask

I walked through the San Diego airport with my husband. We had expected temperature checks, health questionnaires-something! After the constant intrusion of Covid into our itinerary in Vietnam and Thailand, it felt oddly discordant, this normal. When we left on our trip, we had barely heard the term Covid. It had been pleasant in great part because of the dearth of Chinese tourists who make up the bulk of normal year tourism in Asia. Usually crowded restaurants, beaches and attractions were at half capacity. The locals had an air of desperation as their businesses struggled. Our van driver asked us to record a short video, reassuring hesitant American tourists that we felt quite safe here. By good luck the audio was unusable.

When we got home, our daughter and her family were at our house. She was working from home and her husband was doing a remodel of a condo in town. We were going to watch the twins several days a week. The virus was but a backdrop still. The first sign it had flipped a page was that the babysitter they had hired quit suddenly to care for her parents in Kayenta. She tearfully told us of relatives becoming severely ill. Then we heard of a father-in-law of a cousin dying. And others. We decided to forego a babysitter.

We held a family meeting and set out guidelines. We agreed we needed to be “very careful”. However, the parameters of “careful” varied from person to person. Our son-in-law had the greatest exposure and showered each afternoon in the basement before coming into the house proper. We sterilized his clothes. We washed all our groceries before the risk of transmission by objects was found to be minimal. We limited trips to the store.

The ebb and flow of this pandemic awareness has sometimes been jarring. Our younger daughter’s job moved to remote in March; after quarantining, she came to join us. At first, there was an excitement akin to summer break when the kids all come home. We watched more movies and walked more. In the woods, the girls swung buckets filling them with pinecones. We devised activities to keep them entertained when the house became confining. We grabbed all the musical toys, threw the doors open and drummed, jingled and tooted through the house, the girls singing “parade, parade, parade.” Through the eyes of children, the pandemic looked very different.

At first, finding recipes on Pinterest and cooking elaborate meals was fun. We baked sour dough bread and made stock using every scrap of vegetables, pleased with our thrift. A whole new community of stock-boilers and bread-bakers burgeoned online. We put little jars of sour dough starter Flagstaff Marketplace and were excited how many were snapped up.

But after a time, what had felt like summer camp turned to mandatory study hall.

“Is it your turn to cook tonight?”

“No, I thought it was yours. I cooked two nights in a row last week.”

And it became clear there was no answer as to how bad this would get and how long it would last. One day I stood in the aisle at Safeway looking at the empty shelves. I walked out empty-handed and sat in my car. I watched young and old, masked and unmasked just out for a trip to the store. How many are hit with tragedy, being unaware of the fragility of normalcy before the unthinkable happens?

In July, our kids went back to their homes. The withdrawal of two-year-old twins from a space is an adjustment you can’t prepare for. The quiet was enjoyable at first but left us with too much time to observe, to reflect. Nationally, the initial energy of this novel shared experience was replaced by Pandemic fatigue. Politicization and divisiveness swelled. The skill with which some manipulated the American psyche was disturbing. For what purpose? We had not expected political hay to be made from the magnitude of this suffering. It was hard to stay off the rollercoaster of “it’s just like the flu” trivialization or “half a million will die” alarm.

Having kids who could all work from home allowed us to feel our bubble was safe. We also had one couple we saw. They were just as careful as we were, having grandkids, even a pandemic baby. They were in our bubble as well, until one slip-up. My nephews, whom I hadn’t seen in years, came through and stopped for a quick hello. They’d been out camping—no hotels, no restaurants. We masked. We kept distance. Two days later, I was in the car with my friend driving, when my nephew called to let me know that one of his camping-mates, had tested positive. The guilt at having exposed my friend was overwhelming. Disproportionate middle-of-the-night fear led me to question if our friendship would survive this. They and I tested negative, but it left a trail of unease. Now we aren’t in each other’s bubble. We can only meet outside. In winter.

It’s just my husband and I now. We don’t go anywhere. The holidays carry a sense of vacuity as festiveness just brings guilt. Excessive Christmas cookie consumption fails to bring the usual pleasure. Exchanging treats has logistical issues and we question whether we should eat the few that friends drop off. The rare trips to the store are sprints in and out. Jetting through the grocery aisle the day before Christmas, I passed a lady in a calf-length skirt, long hair pulled back in a bun. She was unmasked and talking on her phone, laughing loudly. “Wear a mask”, I said, probably not loud enough for her to hear. Resentment flared replaced by embarrassment as I realized I knew her.

Some sense of aloneness is inevitable. Melancholy uses distance as a buffer, yet also brings a yearning for closeness. Constant togetherness can obscure those chance opportunities for intimacy. Irritability and weariness diminish the energy for it. Being “in pandemia” condones putting off habits of better health and indulging in less wholesome ones; forgoing things that truly bring joy for those that bring only enjoyment. But it also exposes the rawness of the need for family and those few friends held close. It brings a sense of community with those who share a moment, an interest or a passion.

I am so grateful that my parents passed before I had to negotiate this pandemic with them in the nursing home; before I saw the faces of the elderly trapped in their rooms, frail hands pressed on windowpanes. I watch their suffering and can’t help suffering with them on my parent’s behalf. Our common humanity rises above this as it’s unavoidably clear how “in this together” we are.

Processing the consequence of this on us all will be better done from some distance. From this vantage point, I can’t say whether I will look back on this with more gratitude for trivialities discarded and bedrock reclaimed than with sorrow at what we have all lost.