The Contest: A Novel
Are gambled at high cost
To gain something beyond
No easy answers or smooth rules
To insure the risks
At winning something special,
Unknown when the game begins
--The author, Petals 1962-1974 Collected Poems
Shelly bundles warmly against the unexpected chill falling swiftly over San Francisco as the sky darkens. She walks quickly along the familiar streets of North Beach. From Columbus Avenue, she turns left on Vallejo and stops on the corner of Grant at the door of her favorite respite; The Caffť Trieste.
Entering the warm, noisy cafe, she happily greets friends while unwrapping the bright red wool scarf from around her neck. Then Shelly hurries to stand in line to order a latte.
A quiet, winter night settles softly over the narrow streets of North Beach. The holiday shopping frenzy has passed into oblivion. Now, the storied streets are still.
With only a few days left until the end of a decade, Shelly thinks about saying goodbye to a difficult year, full of challenges. Come to think of it, most of her years seem to be difficult and full of challenges.
Balancing the tall, hot, foam-topped glass, wrapped in a napkin, she sees her good friend, Mona sitting at a table near the door. Taking a seat facing outside, she takes a sip to relax and warm her body against the chill as the cold, dark evening deepens.
Remembering the many good times theyíve had together, Shelly smiles at Mona, and asks, "What are you doing New Yearís Eve?"
Mona laughs, showing the laugh lines around her bright blue eyes that match the soft, blue sweater she is wearing. She says, "Who wants to go out? Iím happy to celebrate at home. Besides, whoís around thatís sexy, satisfying, and safe?"
Shelly nods her agreement, recalling vivid pictures of the past. How many years ago had she watched the glowing ball on the New York Times building falling slowly down as the crowd shouted the "countdown" in unison...10, 9, 8, 7...?
She remembers all too well the chill of the night, and the "klutz" who had made her body feel even colder. A big wet tongue kiss had broken the warm romance of the moment.
Then she recalls a party in Washington D.C. Close to midnight she had been given a cold glass of champagne, accompanied with a crisp toast wedge of caviar, and a light kiss on the hand. There among beautiful, bright and powerful people. She had felt some expression of passion -- but not much.
Mona quickly brings her back to the moment by asking, "What do you want in the New Year?"
Shelly makes a wry face, throws up her hands, and laughs.
Turning idly to her right, she suddenly spots a vaguely familiar face, but it does not quite register. She stares quizzically into very familiar eyes.
"Hello," says the silver-haired, handsome man smiling back from the next table.
She looks again, not seeing him. She is puzzled. Then, as she recognizes him, she tries to shield her feelings. How could he be here at this very moment?
No, He canít be here. Not this ghost from years past. The Prince of the years she had lived in Camelot and eagerly waited for the dragon slayer.
The Prince had come to her on his white horse, but instead of slaying dragons, his sword had deeply pierced her heart. Never again would the world of Camelot exist. She would not ride away on the back of his white horse or live in his castle. Cinderellaís slipper had fit too tightly and shattered, along with her dreams of a fairytale existence in a magical land where dreams really do come true.
As memories of the past fly in like bats released from a cave, casting a chill over the already frosty night, Shelly resolutely gathers her courage.
"Donít you recognize me?" asks the silver haired man, noting her puzzled look. He had always been able to read the truth in her face, if he only he took the time to look.
She catches herself, holding back a tidal wave of feeling, not wanting him to see any of it.
"Oh! Hello. I was just not expecting ... to see you here. How are you, Doug?"
"Fine," he replies. "I was just out taking a long walk, and decided to come in. I havenít been here for years. Itís a good place to sit and people watch, but I hardly have much time to do that anymore."
"No, I guess you donít."
She gathers herself internally into a smooth ball, wanting to remain calm and cool on the outside, but her stomach is churning so much, her mind is blank for a moment.
As he gets up for coffee he asks, "Can I get you something?" ...
As they leave the cafe Shelly throws her scarf around her neck wanting to create a soft shield of protective armor, but it is bogus.
Across the street at the Ace Hardware store Doug searches for an apple cutter. The store does not have one, so they continue down the street to Figoni, the oldest hardware store in the City. They find many household treasures, including the last two apple cutters to be had in North Beach that night. She decides she also needs one, because she just might want to cut an apple into nine even wedges.
He does not offer to buy her the apple cutter, so she pulls $2 from her pocket.
She thinks to herself, "This must be the modern version of the consolation prize Eve wins after losing Adam and Paradise. Yes! Even Eve is liberated today. The tempting apple will now be cut into perfectly even pieces, but itís too late because we have already lost the Garden of Eden."
Shelly just wonders where this curious unexpected synchronicity of their meeting again will lead. He was the last person she had expected or wanted to see.
They continue up Grant Avenue past familiar, now-closed shops, and quaint, quiet restaurants, going into the French-Italian bakery, where Doug buys a loaf of warm, fresh, sweet bread. He breaks off a piece and offers it to her.
She thinks, "How 'civilized' we both are! How 'generous' he is with offerings of bread and water after all the years, all the tears, all the time lost in a dark, painful prison of shattered illusions, empty feelings, loneliness and struggle!"
Shelly mutters her thanks and takes a bite of bread, but it sticks in her throat. As the clerk hands her a cup of water she smiles and sips weakly.
How odd was this chance meeting after all these years, an unplanned coincidence coming just at the end of the year, and the start of a new decade? Perhaps this was a sign, an omen, or finally a chance to let go of old memories, and gaping wounds that had been festering for more than ten years. Precious time was still needed to heal the still tender cuts not at all visible to the naked eye.
Now, Doug calmly offers her a ride home. He opens the door to his late-model dark-gray BMW, and continues chatting ... As they pull up in front of her apartment, Shelly turns full face to Doug and asks him quietly,
"Is it true you and Beryl are separating?"
"Yes, we will be divorced in a few months." Doug replies, closing his eyes for a moment. Shelly actually detects a nanosecond of discomfort.
"Iím sorry to hear it." Shelly responds trying to be civil, but feeling satisfied inside. The woman she has hated for years was finally getting what she deserved!
As she gets out of the car, Shelly murmurs in a barely audible voice "Well, a very happy New Year!" Then trying to be flippant, she reaches out to shake his always sure, steady, cool doctorís hand. "May acquaintance never be forgotten or never brought to mind?"
He says, "Happy New Year to you, too!" and adds, "Take care of yourself!"
Then she hurries to get inside before he can see her wet eyes streaming tears.
Shelly sits quietly in her dark apartment for a long while, trying to regain her composure. She needs to think, to feel, and to remember. She feels as if ten years had simply dissolved into a recently released feature length full-color film.
Mentally, she rewinds the reel back to the beginning. She wants to replay everything, all the frames, as if now, after seeing Doug again, she could finally make some sense of the whole challenging saga.
The past comes swiftly flowing into her 'projector of the mind,' full-flooding her abundant mental reservoir, and overflowing the fragile container. The details are still deeply etched into her memory. Years fall away, as she listens to her mental radio as if hearing her story told by the "Letís Pretend" radio show narrator. It was, after all, her strongest childhood memories involved living out the lives of princesses in days gone by. The make-believe adventures had always been complete with sound effects, galloping horses, and the excitement of being swept off her feet by Prince Charming.
When did it all begin? How could anything have been different? Could she have somehow saved herself? Could she have known in advance how it would turn out? Why didnít she listen to her "all-knowing mother" who foretold her well in advance how it was all going to end? Why, if she knew from childhood about wicked spells, dangerous witches, and evil villains, did she not protect her most prized possession, her hopeful and trusting heart, from being broken? How could she have saved her precious dreams from being consumed by fire?
Shelly watches the film in her mind, but this time, for the first time, without any tears. The "Letís Pretend" narratorís voice, the flashes of stored images from the projector, and lack of resistance to recall are flowing into her mind, all running simultaneously. The drama is rewinding, but this time it is shown in surround sound, with the full cast of characters and in full-blown color...
Shelly decides she has to live it all again, this time from his point of view as well as hers, so she can better and more fully understand what might have been different. Had she made a lifetime mistake or was this merely a life lesson?
Doug had never said he was sorry for anything, but that was only one of the problems. Shelly was not sorry they had met. If only he had stopped the destruction before it was too late! If only he had not broken her heart! If only she had known critical answers before it was too late!
This time she wants a new, clearer perspective. Maybe this time something will be different. "What could have been different?" Could she have stopped before burning her dreams?
She sits back, closes her eyes, and listens as her pretend-narrator takes her into the past...
"America, put down your rattles, pick up your building blocks and put your children to bed. It's time to choose your favorite nook and get to reading for pure enjoyment this time, no educational value intended. Stevanne Auerbach, known to millions affectionately as "Dr. Toy" has gone against type in this, her first foray into fiction and she hits it out of the Golden Gate Park. As one of the world's great authorities on all things children and education Ms. Auerbach has at long last decided to try her hand in the world of fiction. "The Contest" takes you from the corridors of Washington D.C. to the streets of San Francisco and into the lives of many memorable characters, and does so with a broad sweep that will have you hooked from the first page to the last. If you are looking for a book that is as grown up as you are, then "The Contest" really isn't a contest at all. It's a surefire winner!"
James Metzner, New York City