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First Place: "Clothes lines"



Grady waits in his Buick outside the JC Penney's, waits for the rain to stop. If he goes inside soaking wet, his gray beard dripping water dripdrop on the linoleum – well, he supposes, the less attention he attracts, the better.

Patience. He must be inconspicuous.

"In-con-spic-you-us," he mumbles to himself. The habit of saying the last of his thoughts out loud with a near obscene pleasure in drawing out, then clipping, the syllables was one of the many reasons his wife left him last year. If she caught him doing it she'd always say, God, Grady. You're a simple one. So dumb, talking out your thoughts like a child. With a quick glance to the passenger seat to make sure she's not actually there mocking him, he switches on the radio to fill the car with something other than the lonely sound of rain on his windshield.

He passes the time imagining the silk and how it will feel on his bare skin. The thought stirs him so that his foot twitches involuntarily, and a fragile sound from the floorboard draws his attention downward. Craning his neck and pressing his beard to his belly so he can see, Grady makes out the silvery glint of plastic packaging: a fortune cookie. The prophetic slip of paper peaks through the folds. He remembers being pissed that Hunan House forgot it the last time he got takeout, but it must have fallen out of the bag. He pockets it and gets out. The rain has slowed to a light drizzle.

In the cold night the store lights look inviting. As he hobbles toward them he grimaces. The pain from his foot triggers the humiliating memory of the night before. Drunk, he fell and twisted his ankle outside his trailer. In an alcohol-fueled haze he had scrambled up the embankment that separated his back yard from the quarry. Howling with the dogs across the night air, bottle in hand, he stepped out where he thought there was earth (there was none) and slid back down, crashing into the rusted corrugated metal of his mobile home.

Inside the JC Penney's that memory evaporates. The mannequins look past him with their painted-on eyes and he takes a deep breath. The smell of the store is comforting and familiar, a musty combination of perfume and leather goods. It's a small store and he can see his distorted reflection in the black security cameras that hang from the ceiling like single grapes. He pulls the brim of his camouflage hunting cap to cover his eyes, to look less suspicious.

First, he must grab the decoy. With military precision, straight lines and head down, he heads to the Men's section where he grabs an extra-large Oxford shirt, the kind that button at the cuffs and have a stiff collar. He takes a tie that hangs noose-like on a clearance rack. Long wasted hours at church services and divorce proceedings, that's what starched collars and ties mean to Grady. His last phone conversation with his wife before the divorce, the last thing she said to him not through a lawyer, between deep, angry drags off her cigarette, she said: Pull a comb through that rat's nest before you come to court.

"Rat's nest," he says while smoothing out his beard against the wide expanse of his belly. He crinkles his nose in disgust at the love he had felt for her, before he opened up to her the way she'd always asked. Passing a mirror he stops; the store lights have given a sickly yellow tint to his skin. He looks older than he remembers. The janitor outfit isn't helping. Stains from sloshed mop-water creep up his faded blue coveralls, his nametag gone from white to a dingy ivory. He shakes his head and walks toward what he came for.

The anticipation starts building in his gut, shivering his insides with what feels like electricity. Just beyond the ladies' shoes he spies them: the slips. In Grady's mind they're the classy and sophisticated ladies' undergarment. Not dowdy like the puritanical nightgown and not trashy like a teddy and certainly not one of those beige Maidenform bras that his aunts wore. No, Grady goes straight for the slips. They hang so sweetly on the racks, descending down the metal arms. There is no breeze, just stale department store air, but he imagines them swaying ever so gently, as if they are hanging from a line in the summer sun. He can almost smell the scent of clean clothes, of safety. He takes one and flutters his fingers against the fabric like he's tickling it. The material must be buttery soft against his skin – the rough calluses on his hands demand it.

They shake as he takes one, a golden silk full length, and its hanger clinks against the metal arm of the rack. Grady looks around in a panic, sweat breaking out at the small of his back. He catches the eye of the woman working the counter, a stout brunette, but she looks back down at the register. She's engrossed in counting down her drawer. Closing time is in 15 minutes.

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