Editor's Note: For the first time in the history of the San Mateo County Fair, a 300-page anthology has been published that includes more than 100 stories, poems and essays from writers who submitted award-winning work for the fair's literary contest. The idea was the brainchild of Bardi Rosman Koodrin, a San Bruno resident who runs the fair's literary contest, and the anthology, titled "Carry the Light," features work from many Peninsula writers.
In this short story, which won first prize in the senior mystery fiction category for the San Mateo County Fair literary contest, a woman with no name and no memory of her past abandons her therapy in a Los Angeles hospital, travels north to a sun drenched mesa on the California Central Coast to start a new life, and comes face to face with her identity.
From p. 90, "Mistaken Identity"
Later, near the end of my therapy session, I stop pressuring myself to remember and decide to give Macias what she wants. Poor thing, she’s tried for weeks to restore my memory and failed miserably. I guess I feel sorry for her.
The doctor clasps her hands, drops them in her lap and leans forward. “You’ve got to do better, Diane.” Macias loves my new name. I thought she would. “Don’t you want to get well?” she asks me.
“Of course I do.” I hope I sound sincere.
“Then try a little harder, Diane. You have to trust me.”
Selma had failed the trust test. We were sitting in the solarium one day having a cup of coffee, and she just opened up, told me about her surgery, the double mastectomy, and the middle-aged technician with the stringy blond hair who took her blood. Selma watched the woman pump red fluid from her veins and listened to her go on about the hopelessness of her situation. “They always drop some cells, Selma,” she said, “no matter how small. Microscopic traces that continue to grow. Nothing you can do about it.”
Selma became my friend, and I trusted her until the morning I opened the bathroom door and saw her sitting naked on the john, applying a foamy cream to her sagging breasts, rubbing it over them, unaware of my presence. I think trust doesn’t mean much to me anymore.
So today I give Macias what she wants. I look up at the painting, the one hanging on the wall behind her, the one she said she bought on a trip north to Santa Maria. I study the brown mountains Macias calls the Santa Lucias and the mesa below, something you’d expect to see in New Mexico or Arizona but not in California. I learned all this from Macias who seems to know everything.
Like the detective in Laura, I dive into the painting and begin my daydream. “I see a windswept plain dotted with oak trees. High sandy mountains rise above a dry riverbed. An arroyo, I think it’s called.”
“Yes, Diane, this is a good start.”
I continue on. “There’s a white stucco house with a red tile roof, kind of Spanish looking. A woman is working in a garden.” I pause here for effect. “No, she’s not in her garden. She’s inside the small cottage watching me from a window.”
Macias gives me a smile of beautiful white-capped teeth, then a nod of approval. “Go on, Diane.”
“I think it could be my mother or maybe a sister.” I take a deep breath and smile triumphantly. Macias might remember the painting when she goes over her notes, but for now I’m safe from the endless questions.
“Wonderful! I think we’ve had a breakthrough, Diane.” Macias looks at her watch. “Same time tomorrow?”
At least one of us is happy.
* * * *
On my last day at the hospital, I stroll to the solarium. On the road below, a bus rounds a bend, and people with maps and cameras angle for the best photos. I think only in Southern California could a mental hospital or a cemetery be a tourist attraction. Not much difference between the two that I can see. I pour myself a cup of coffee from an urn set out for visitors. I check my mood, a little exercise Macias has taught me, and decide I feel like someone who’s just seen the Prize Patrol stop at her driveway, note the address and accelerate on down the street.
I sit in my usual spot, a comfortable, rattan chair opposite a flowery painting. A few ferns and a creeping Charlie dangle from pots on either side of a large bay window. A neglected palm dies quietly in a corner. I walk over to the tree, run my fingers over a brown-edged frond, and snap it off, then drop it into a pink plastic wastebasket. It’s the dead weight that kills you. It has to go.
Macias is late this morning, and I wonder what’s keeping her. Would she miss me if I split?
Excerpted from "Carry the Light" with the permission of Sand Hill Review Press, the publisher. The book is available for purchase for $12 on Amazon.com.
Paul Alan Fahey's writing has appeared in Byline, Palo Alto Review, Long Story Short, African American Review, The MacGuffin, Thema, Gertrude and Kaleidoscope, and in several other literary journals and anthologies such as A Cup of Comfort, Sisters in Crime, My Mom is My Hero and Writing on Walls. Paul is a six-time winner of the Lillian Dean Writing Award for short stories and nonfiction at the California Central Coast Writer¹s Conference. He is
currently editing an anthology of gay writers titled THE OTHER MAN for JMS
Publishing, due Spring 2013.