Over the last four months, The L Magazine has conducted a competitive reading series called Literary Upstart: The Search For Pocket Fiction. Stories were limited to 1,000 words or less, and selected writers read their work in front of a panel of judges. These are the three finalists.
by Olivia Cortina
She lived in a barely habitable building. All of the other buildings on her block were covered in ivy, trees growing through the foundation and roof. Several cats kept the pest population under control.
She didn’t pay rent anymore. She’d paid the first month’s to the man who gave her the key, but his phone number had since been disconnected, and the first check she mailed came back. For a year she’d lived there without a landlord. Her utilities stayed on, and no one ever bothered her. There were no other tenants in the building.
Surrounding her block was an industrial wasteland. She explored it. Several blocks to the east, and slightly south, was an Arab neighborhood. She discovered that she could eat there cheaply, and did so. She was friendly with the restaurant and shop owners, though their eyes never warmed to hers. Her presence attracted people to the cafes, so if customers weren’t purchasing drinks for her the owners were. Soon she found herself frequenting a cafe, and generally in the company of Mehmet, a Turk, and Abdul, a Saudi. They knew she liked champagne and strong coffee. Abdul would drink tea while she sipped champagne and they would talk about literature, philosophy, women and men. Mehmet would drink scotch and they would talk about sports, adventure, travel and love.
A week into their friendship and nightly meetings at the cafe, the men began taking turns escorting her home. Mehmet had asked where she lived and how she got home from the cafe.
“I walk,” she replied. “I live by the waterfront, next to the bridge.”, who lived above the cafe, and Mehmet, who lived two blocks away in a brownstone, were confused.
“I didn’t know people lived there,” Mehmet finally said.
“I think I am the only one.”
“You walk there alone? From here?” Abdul looked upset, worried.
“How else would I go home?”
Abdul volunteered to walk her home. When they arrived she invited Abdul in for a cup of tea. He sat in a threadbare armchair and watched her put the kettle on. She disappeared for a few moments and came back, changed into her pajamas.
She gave him tea the way he drank it in the cafe and sat down. They didn’t speak. He left when he finished his tea.
“Thank you for walking me home,” she said as she shut the door behind him.
The next day she was back at the cafe, drinking coffee and writing in a notebook when Mehmet arrived. He was there earlier than usual. They normally conversed late at night, right before closing time.
He stepped behind her and read over her shoulder as she wrote:
‘Today I walked east. I passed the paper factory and the city tow pound.Then I walked along a residential street, tree-lined. Above me blooming tulip trees created a canopy. The houses were surrounded by intricate wrought iron ...’
She snapped the notebook closed before he could read any more, so he sat down beside her.
“Tonight I will walk you home,” he said.
She smiled at him and finished her coffee. The older of the two men who owned the cafe brought her a glass of champagne. She and Mehmet sat close together at the bar, talking quietly. He was telling her about a night he’d spent in Sultanameht wandering around, fog so thick he was lost for hours. Coming upon the Blue Mosque, he finally knew where he was.
She invited him in for tea when they got to her house and, just like Abdul, Mehmet accepted and sat in the armchair. After putting on the kettle, she changed into her pajamas and asked him how he wanted his tea. He took his tea like Abdul, and when he finished his tea, he crossed the room and pulled her out of her chair. He kissed her and held her tightly.
Once every couple of weeks, she wouldn’t be at the cafe. The first time it happened, Mehmet sat alone for awhile, and then went home, shrugging off the event. The second time it happened, Abdul was afraid she was hurt, and went to her home to find her. She wasn’t there. He finally found her sitting on a dock by the bridge.
After he tucked her into bed, he visited Mehmet and told him about the incident.
The next day, Abdul and Mehmet moved into her house. Sometimes, though less often than they assumed, one or both would find himself in her room, seeking comfort in her arms. She didn’t allow them sex, but gave them warmth. Mehmet took what he could get and was happy for it. Abdul wasn’t sure if it was enough, and hated to share.
She was lost in Galata. The streets were narrow and ran at bizarre angles. Houses and buildings were so densely packed against each other she couldn’t see what lay beyond the street she was on, though she could see the tower. It looked the same to her from all angles. When she awoke, she was outside, in her pajamas. She was cold and hungry and ended up in a shop, drinking tea with the proprietor. He didn’t speak English, and she didn’t know his language. Mehmet found her there later that morning. He hugged her and kissed her cheeks.
“Why do you keep wandering away and getting lost? You should tell us when you want to go out! We can keep you from getting lost.”