Welcome to Lisa H. Owens who won second place in our latest creative nonfiction essay contest! Her essay is titled, "What You Can Do in 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds." You can read it here, and you don't want to miss it. It's powerful, and we discuss below why she was motivated to write an essay about George Floyd and his treatment by the police officers who were arresting him. But first here's a bit more about Lisa:
"Growing up, my family moved around—a lot. I attended a total of nine schools-in six cities-in four states before my first year of college. My first attempts at writing became a series of short stories inspired by the antics involved in making those numerous moves—from north to south and east to west—with my oddball family. Two local newspapers picked them up; running one story per month in a humorous memoirs column for a couple of years and that had me hooked. I continued to write, entering contests and submitting a piece periodically to The New Yorker magazine and am quite proud of receiving a few rejection emails, which was a step up from the old, 'If you haven’t heard from us in three months, we won’t be using your story...' scenario."
"Most recently, I have completed my first book, a compilation of letters to my sister-in-law describing my first year as a new-hire flight attendant in the magical city of Boston called, Dear Melinda, How I Met Your Brother. Now the hard part, finding a publisher. I have two wonderful children (now in their 30s) and reside in North Texas with three rescue dogs and a WFH job as an environmental compliance manager. I am continuing to write part two of my book, Dear Melinda, How I Married Your Brother. You can read a variety of my pieces (poetry, humorous memoirs, and stories dealing with more serious subject matter) at lisahowens.com."
WOW: Welcome, Lisa! Congratulations on your second place win. Why did you want to write a piece specifically about what happened to George Floyd?
Lisa: The idea of writing a piece about George Floyd came to me, as I stood in my living room bowing my head to observe the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence—the length of time Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck—called for by Al Sharpton on the televised memorial service of George Floyd on June 4th. As I stood up (from the comfort of my sofa) with my eyes closed, my mind began to wander. I opened my eyes. Only one minute and thirty seconds had passed. I closed my eyes again. I began to fidget. I had laundry in the dryer to fold. I opened my eyes. We were at three minutes now. I walked out to the garage, retrieved my basket of clean clothes, and sat down to fold. The clock continued to creep along toward the eight-minute mark. I couldn't wrap my brain around what an eternity nearly nine minutes must have felt like to George, as he begged for mercy. Next, I found myself thinking about how much a person could really accomplish in that time-frame. Once upon a time, I used to run a mile in around eight minutes.
WOW: Thank you for describing that to us. Honoring Mr. Floyd's life in that way was very powerful. Why did you decide to write the piece in a list form?
Lisa: The list formatting was born out of the thought process: What are some things we can do in around nine minutes? This piece really called for the bullet point formatting. I wanted to keep it simple and to the point.
WOW: It definitely works. The bullet point list is extremely powerful and makes your point well. Did you research all those different points, such as how many times you can hand-write I love you?
Lisa: Yes! I did research every point on the list. I used Google mostly, googling things like: 9 minute Guinness Book world records and picked the most outrageous one I found (2013 eating 141 hard-boiled eggs). At one point, I was going to cook Totino’s Pizza Rolls and read the baking instructions. One serving (10 rolls) in 9 minutes at 425º. I thought the list should start with light, fun facts and slowly become more serious in nature. I was absolutely blown away when I connected the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center Tower on 9/11 (0846 am EST) with the amount of time George was denied a breath of air. As far as the specific points like heartbeats, typing, handwriting, and reading, I needed a range so researched the high and low of each category using a one-minute time-frame (example: the lowest number of human heartbeats in one minute; then the highest number of human heartbeats in one-minute; then used the average for each). I had to ask for help with the math involved to calculate the totals at 8 minutes and 46 seconds. There is a weird formula involved when converting base ten numbers to time, and I didn’t know what that formula was! I wanted the numbers to be accurate, and math was not my strongest subject in school.
After I completed the cerebral parts of my story, it was time to do the one thing I dreaded. It was time to watch the video filmed by Darnella Frazier. I’m not going to lie. It was hard, and like everyone else in the world with a soul, I cried and asked, “Why?” I was shocked to see Chauvin with his hand in his pocket...at least that is how I interpreted it. Nonchalance. Nothing out of the ordinary for him. A normal day on the job.
WOW: Just hearing you describe it is extremely heartbreaking. I think the order you put the items in really makes your point. Let's switch gears a little: It sounds like you have a very interesting book and that you are looking for a publisher. Tell us more about that book and your process.
Lisa: It is my first book titled, Dear Melinda, How I Met Your Brother. It is an epistolary memoir; a series of letters written to my sister-in-law when my husband (her brother) and I separated after being together for thirty-four years. It mainly highlights (in hilarious detail) navigating a new job and a new city (Boston) as a naive new-hire flight attendant from the Deep South and a series of fated events that ultimately led up to the night I met Melinda’s older brother for the very first time. When I began the first letter, I had no idea it was going to turn into a book. I was literally going “old school,” writing a physical letter to Melinda telling her I still love her and all of my in-laws whether her brother and I are together or not—but it turned into something else. A letter almost every day for several months talking about my life before meeting the man of my dreams—in the past; but then I began to throw in a letter here and there to talk about what was happening currently in my life with the pandemic, the George Floyd marches, the Confederate Monument standoffs, and the challenges of being alone after thirty-four years. I sent the completed book to Melinda because if she wasn’t on board, it was dead in the water.
She loved it and said, “I laughed and cried about a million times, as I read it.” So, I am excited about how it came together (with the help of Chelsey Clammer’s professional editing) and can’t wait to see where it goes from here. I have promised myself that I will submit to one publisher or literary agent every day and not get overwhelmed.
WOW: That book sounds fantastic! And we know that if Chelsey helped you with it and it is also coming from you, it is going to find the perfect home! What is next for you? What are you working on now?
Lisa: I am getting ready to begin the continuation of the book because there are so many crazy stories and situations that occurred once Melinda’s brother and I began dating! I may call it, Dear Melinda, How I Married Your Brother. We’ll see!
WOW: We can't wait to see what the future holds for you! We are so glad you decided to enter the contest, and best of luck with your writing!
CREATIVE NONFICTION ESSAY WINNER, SOCIAL JUSTICE ESSAY
Interview with Lisa H. Owens conducted by Margo L. Dill for "The Muffin"
November 7, 2020
Sticky droplets cascaded down my chin. I looked up to find liquid brown eyes—eyes I wanted to swim in, would joyfully drown in—angled toward the warmth of the afternoon sun. I recognized the hint of his smile, lip curling up on the right side. The side with the tiny scar that I kissed every night as I drifted off to sleep, before his mouth burst wide in the sensual grin I was so familiar with.
"Tell me what it tastes like," he whispered into my ear. "Every detail, my love."
It was a game we played. I reclined on the blanket, arms behind my head—a knobby pillow, deep in thought and gazed at the sky. Clouds drifted by at a startling rate. A big fluffy dog, running, now morphing into a dragon with wings just before turning into wisps of nothing.
How do you describe the anticipation of that first bite? How do you describe the tiny shiver that runs down your spine as your teeth sink into flesh? The taunt skin bursting as each tooth enters the inner sanctum where the juices are waiting, the juices sweet and sticky, and overflowing. How do you describe the sensation of your tongue flooded with a deliciousness only rivaled by a lover's kiss? Chewing slowly, savoring, then swallowing the pulpy mix of skin and flesh, continuing the process until you hold only the brittle pitted remains in your hand.
"It is a peach, darling. You have one in your hand," words wouldn't—couldn't do it justice.
He held the fuzzy fruit to his lips, "Tickles," he chuckled then took a bite. Slowly chewed and swallowed. Then his face grew contemplative, his finger settling on the scar, tapping, an endearing habit.
"Mmmmm, lovely. Now describe it," his voice growing husky as he lay down beside me.
I cocooned deeper into the blanket and gazed at the fluff of white above. A hand reaching from a mighty arm morphing into a rocket ship, a bear, then finally, a face with hollows where eyes should be.
How do I explain the soft hues—pinks and beiges deepening into blushes of red—to eyes that have never seen? How can I tell him about clouds when he cannot hold the sky?
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by a Theme Thursday “Taste” Reddit writing prompt.
A finalist in the WOW (Women on Writing) Spring Fiction 2020 Contest.
Sitting at the bar closest to my house during happy hour on a Friday night, alone, should make me cringe. In the past, I would have never been able to pull it off. The term "loser" would have washed over me like a tidal wave but somehow it feels different now. Sure, I am alone but I was always alone. I just never realized it until some trust shattering events occurred several months ago on February 28th, the anti-versary of my husband's and my first marriage.
Apparently, I didn't learn my lesson the first time. Getting mentally gut-punched for 18 years just wasn't enough. A sucker for punishment, I willingly climbed back into the ring for round two. We remarried after being divorced-but-never-really-separated for nine years. I still saw all the red flags but chose to ignore them because who am I if I am not one-half of a couple, with him by my side? We had been together since we were 23 years old. I never realized how young that was until I had children of my...
Wait, the bartender has asked if I want another house margarita. Frozen without salt. Sure, why not? This is why I chose the bar closest to my house to drink. I can drive home or even walk...if I have had more than one...on the back roads. They are super curvy and filled with potholes but that makes them less traveled. Less likely to get randomly pulled over by a curious police officer; and if the cop happens to be my neighbor, he will likely just escort me home. This is a perk of living in suburbia in a middle-class neighborhood. The cops are your neighbors.
The margarita just arrived, and I find myself giving the bartender a thumbs-up for the second time. What the actual fuck? Have I never had a social outing in my life? Well of course I have. I did more than my fair share of partying when I was a flight attendant for 25 years until I was injured and took early retirement. I contemplate why it is that I make lame gestures now such as winks and thumbs-ups...reminiscent of a creepy old man.
I am a woman. I am 58 years old. I still look pretty good despite 34 years of gaslighting and narcissistic abuse. I did have that one spell—when my husband had a freak accident on vacation and almost died—where my hair was falling out in clumps with the roots still attached. At first, when I noticed the clumps of hair lying on the floor after a quick blow-dry, I thought they looked like doll hair and my first thought was Ka-burp-ee...the doll Santa brought me when I was in third grade. Her real name, in the Sears and Roebuck Catalog, was Diddee Darling; but once her hair became lumpy and threadbare, she became Ka-burp-ee. If you woke up with Ka-burp-ee in your bed in the morning, you were the big loser for the day.
Since the four of us kids all slept in one tiny bedroom, it was easy to slip her into the oversized crib with my four-year-old sister. It didn't just end there either. My brother and I piled Lincoln Logs and a Slinky and even an Easy Bake Oven on top of Ka-burp-ee and; therefore, my sister by default. We couldn't risk that monster-like-doll-creature getting out and ending up under one of our pillows.
Well, my baby brother couldn't have a pillow. He was a year old and had some kind of disorder where he projectile vomited any time he was fed. He almost died but was admitted to Duke University Hospital where they performed a cutting-edge esophageal stretch surgery. It didn't work and the surgeon gave my mom and dad "the speech" preparing them for his upcoming death. When they checked him out one more time before sending him home to basically starve to death—since he couldn't keep anything down—lo and behold, the doctors said a miracle had occurred. His esophagus was completely normal.
I thought that was probably a pretty good thing but was too busy feeling nauseous from looking into the backseat of a taxicab parked by the emergency room at the hospital. A kid told me that someone had gotten shot in the course of a robbery in that cab. I being skeptical snuck down while my parents were preoccupied with my baby brother's impending death and had a closer look. The front seat and Plexiglas partition that separated the driver from the paying passenger looked pristine and I was about to tell that kid that he was a big fat liar until I gazed into the backseat. The vinyl seat cushion had a massive rust-colored stain and there was something that reminded me of my grandmother's chicken and dumplings on the floorboard. A mental image of the flesh-colored gore invades my mind and…
Wait, the bartender just asked if I was finished with my plate, and I said yes. My appetite is sort of ruined thinking about the chicken and dumpling thing. He whisked my half-eaten order of beef fajita nachos away.
Anyway, the margaritas and scrambled thoughts have me kind of reeling, and I think about my childhood—not the funny stuff—and how completely fucked up it was, and it somehow puts it all in perspective. Everything I went through gave me strength and fortitude, preparing me mentally for this moment of realization...I don't need him. I am finally ready to make my way on my own.
I am at a bar all by myself on a Friday night but I feel less lonely than I ever did when I was with my husband.
I catch the bartender's attention; give him a thumbs-up and a wink and say, "Check, please."
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events
An entry in the WOW (Women on Writing) Q3 -2020 Nonfiction Essay Contest,
and a Carve Magazine 2020-Nonfiction Essay Contest [pending announcement of winners].
*Disclaimer: Use of harsh language and triggering subject matter*
"Hon, I think I'll check on Bea and then go sit on the porch a bit."
"Quit your yammering, bitch, and bring me another beer."
"I just want a little fresh air, is all."
"What'd I say? Don't make me come in there and black and blue your ass."
This was pretty much the way the conversation in Theehouse went night after night after night.
Sometimes Theeman made good on his promise to "black and blue" Theewoman but mostly he just passed out in his La-Z-Boy-knockoff recliner, legs sprawled wide, mouth open emitting sour breath and jarring sporadic snores. His beer bottles were stacked off to one side, drained perfectly dry, except that final one. The one that could make or break the situation.
If Theewoman "mouthed-off," the bottle would likely wind up shattered on the increasingly sticky linoleum floor after smacking the wall. Hard. The wall with the brown watermark—well technically beer-mark—and chunks of paint and plaster chipped away, highlighted the sheetrock in stark contrast to the Daffodil Yellow paint. These were the areas the bottle hit "just right" and "next time it would be her head" if she "provoked him again."
If Theewoman "kept her big trap shut," that last beer would sit half-empty wafting its dank, yeasty smell long after Theeman passed out in his worn chair. It was a good night if the wall with its yellow paint and Theewoman went unscathed.
I remember the happy day Theewoman, well technically Theebaby, chose the paint color. She was young and so lovely. Full of youthful passion. An idealist. Poor soul thought she could change the world. That was before Theeman had "knocked some sense" into her one too many times and it wasn't his fault, "she made him do it." It was "for her own good."
It was always a happy time when the big-red-truck was not in the driveway—sometimes for a lot of days in a row—because I was allowed inside Theehouse the whole time with my person. When Theeman was home, I was allowed to be inside as long as I didn't "get under his fucking feet" or make Theehouse "smell like a fucking dog."
During better times when Theeman was "feeling generous," he gave Theewoman some money to "fix up this shit-hole of a place" as long as she didn't "waste the money on junk like that fancy baby formula" and she promised to "come straight home from the Walmart" and she better not get "all dolled up like a whore like she did the last time" he let her "take the truck." He would keep Bea home, WITH HIM, so she didn't get any "funny ideas" about "pulling a disappearing act."
Theewoman made the promises like she always did and then left in the big-red-truck for a while. She never left Theebaby home with Theeman for very long because it would make him angry that "Bea cried the whole fucking time," and "What took so long?" and was she "flirting with that fancy faggot at the cash register again?" because she "knew what happened last time," as he unbuckled his belt.
On the happy day when the paint was chosen, I was cuddled against Theebaby on the pristine (the nightly beer had been mopped clean, hours earlier) linoleum floor. She was "goo-goo-ing" and "gaa-gaa-ing," like babies do, while Theewoman shuffled through a stack of those cards—vaguely resembling the color of the paint each represented—she brought home from the Sherwin Williams. She spread a few out, poker-hand-style, in front of Theebaby and asked which one she liked. Theebaby dotted a sticky finger on one with a determined, "Dah!"
"Daffodil Yellow," Theewoman said, and she smiled; "Just like your hair, little one."
Things went downhill fast after Theeman lost his job, all because "that candy-assed college boy had it in for him from the start" and "who did he think he was with his la-dee-da suit and tie?" The drinking got worse and I was banished to Theeyard forever while the yelling got louder, and the slaps got harder.
I would sit in Theeyard night after night after night. Watching. Waiting for my cue to make my move. When the light upstairs would turn off, Theeman was down for the count. And so I would creep, stealthy like a thief in the night, to the porch to lie and wait for my person.
Theewoman always came out when Theehouse was dark to sit and get the fresh air her body craved; her nightly reprieve from the hellhole that her life had become.
She would sit down beside me—quiet for a while—rubbing the top of my nubby head, dampened by her tears. Then she would talk, telling me of her dreams. Dreams of a better life for Bea. Dreams of escaping with Bea and her kind and gentle friend, Shadow—that was me—the three of us finally being free.
I hear her light footsteps as she tentatively, so as not to wake Theemonster, turns the doorknob, softly pulling the door inward, to step down into the moonlit night. In her arms is a bundle that is Theebaby, fast asleep; on her shoulder hangs an overstuffed backpack, and in her hand, the keys to the big-red-truck...and my purple leash.
It is never too late to change your world.
By Lisa H. Owens
Winner of Round-One in a Reddit June 2020 Picture Prompt Contest
The Handyman gets up early; the Texas sun just peeking above the horizon. It is going to be another scorcher. Well into the 90’s and possibly hitting 100 or more by mid-afternoon. His “to do" list is long. He has a lot on his plate. Best to get started early. His black truck is not air-conditioned and the last thing he wants is to make his trip to Ace Hardware during peak heat-stroke time; any time the sun is up in August.
He dresses quickly, grabbing shorts and a wrinkled t-shirt from a rumpled pile of clean-ish laundry, before tip-toeing to the bathroom (mindful of his sleeping girlfriend) to splash water on his face and brush his teeth. Single-mindedly on a mission, he shuffles through the house, out the side door, and into the garage. The knob is loose and shifts away from the door as he pulls inward to open. One more thing to add to the list. He reaches into his shorts’ cargo pocket and extracts a crumpled sheet of paper, spins, and heads back inside to the kitchen. He knows there is a pen in here somewhere and begins cracking drawers to peek inside. Silverware...nope. Dish towels and potholders...nope. Mismatched silverware, ladles, spatulas, and a can-opener...nope. Double-A batteries, extra bread twist-ties—his mind briefly wonders about what purpose they could possibly serve—and finally buried beneath a plethora of odds and ends…BINGO!...a Bic ballpoint pen. Extracting it from the drawer, he jots “tighten garage doorknob" at the bottom of the list just under “replace nails around back door frame”. This pen is old. The ink blobs and smears and then quits altogether leaving the last word an inkless etching in the crumpled notebook paper. He tosses it back into the drawer then rethinking, picks it up again, etching an inkless *BUY PENS at the top of his list next to a tiny etched asterisk. First things first.
This handyman thing is new to him and wanting to make an impression on the homeowner, his girlfriend’s brother and family; is his goal. Although they have a little money saved up, the handyman and his girl will crash here until they find an apartment of their own so repairing broken stuff will be his repayment to them for their hospitality.
He has zero experience fixing anything other than his morning slice of toast (oftentimes ending with him standing at the sink—butter knife in hand—scraping away the burnt part) but has a pretty good feeling about it. He has a good head on his shoulders, having recently graduated from college as a mechanical engineer, and is always willing to try new things.
He marches out of the kitchen and through the den with purpose. Carefully opening the loose and jiggling doorknob, he steps down one step into the garage where his faithful black truck is waiting to take him wherever he wants to go. Ace Hardware for tools, Walmart for pens, or even his previous hometown in Massachusetts where cooler air surely awaits him. He rolls all the windows down then thinks for a moment before turning over the key. Scenarios run quickly through his mind, the possibilities endless. The cooler air is tempting and his entire family would joyfully welcome him home with open arms.
Making up his mind, he turns the key and Old Black’s engine roars to life. Backing slowly out of the driveway and into the quiet street, he throws the truck into drive and begins the journey to Walmart and a brand new package of Bic Pens. He will give this handyman thing and the sweltering Texas heat a try. Barring burning the house down, what could possibly go wrong?
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events.
Entered in a WOW (Women On Writing) Winter Flash Fiction 2020 Fiction Contest.