Short Story Contest
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About Emily Risberg
Though Emily Risberg is proud that "The Tumbler" was her best story idea to date, she was surprised when it won the first writing competition she'd ever entered.
"It's so validating for other people to like my work," she said.
Though Risberg has been doing technical writing for many years, she's always been drawn to fiction and began participating in writing workshops two years ago. She said the workshops overcame her fear of writing and helped her learn the nuts and bolts necessary to bring her imagination to life.
"The fact is, if you can tell a story, technique can be learned," Risberg said.
She's fascinated by her children's understanding of the genre. Recently, her 7-year-old daughter asked what the "problem" of a new story plot was. "She cuts right to the conflict," said Risberg. "They weren't teaching that when I was in grade school." Risberg is also the mother of a 9-year-old boy.
At 40, Risberg feels changed by her writing. "I have a whole different perspective--things that used to annoy me are now of great interest. I want to figure out what makes people tick," she said.
Risberg is interested in the parts of people hidden from others. She was especially fascinated by the ethical dilemma of "The Tumbler." What do you do when you find out something a spouse has done is utterly out of character?
"It's ironic, because I'm the coffee drinker in the family," Risberg said, referring to the story's main prop, a coffee mug that could help explain a traffic accident.
"You can write a long story about what happens in a split second of inattention," she said.
Her writing process has also changed with the workshops. "Much of what you write you discover as you go," she said. "I'm a technical, scientifically oriented person, but I've stopped outlining and started letting the tales unfold on their own."
"As a fiction writer, you've got to keep them in the dream you're creating," Risberg said.
--Blair Tindall

The Tumbler

by Emily D. Risberg

My husband sits across the table twirling spaghetti around his fork, pressed white doctor sleeves rolled up to his forearms, starched collar unbuttoned. He doesn't look at me. He takes a bite, chews slowly, then dabs his chin with a napkin. He sips his cabernet. Something has come between us and he wishes I would let it go.
The doorbell rings. "We're eating," he says. "They can come back."
"It might be something important," I say. "About the accident."
I answer the door. It's the paperboy. I pay him and walk back to the kitchen.
"See?" he says. "Not important. Now let's finish eating." He bites his garlic bread.
By evening the styling gel Dan uses has loosened its hold on his combed-back hair and several locks of black hair curl in "C" shapes across his forehead. His stubbly chin is a flesh-colored magnet with tiny iron filings clinging to it. I notice a faint lavender aura wavering fitfully around his head and realize the candlelight is flickering on the lilacs on the counter behind him.
"You're obsessing about this," he says. "She ran a stop sign. I'm really sorry for her, sorry it happened, but we can't change anything. We need to get on with our lives." He starts to put his wine glass down, pauses before the crystal touches the table, and moves it back to his lips. He takes a long drink then he says, "I see people die all the time. It's hard, Beth. I know that. But you have to move on."
"What about their lives?" I say. "She had two children, Dan. Have you thought about their lives?"
"Of course I have. Don't you think I would undo all of this if I could?"
He gulps his wine now. "What are you after, Beth. Damn it!"
I pull in breath and look down at the napkin in my lap.
"The cup, right?" he says and stuffs his napkin under the plate rim. "We've been through this." He pushes his chair away from the table, picks up his wine glass and goes into his office.
I put my elbows on the table and lock my fingers under my chin. I stare into the candlelight. He's right, it's over. I need to put it out of my mind. ...
Four days ago the Taurus was in the muffler shop for repairs so Dan drove me to work in his Volvo. He brought his coffee in a tall cup--an insulated tumbler with a design of cartoonish coffee beans dancing on the outside--and placed it in the cupholder that springs out of the dash. We drove, laughed, chatted about the weekend.
As we came to a four-way stop, Dan reached to turn up the radio. He bumped the cup with his hand and the lid jerked loose. A wave of coffee splashed over the side and streamed down along the stick shift. Dan flipped open the glove compartment, grabbed a couple of napkins and sponged coffee from the accordion rubber around the stick shift. He tried to snap the lid on and fumbled, so I leaned over to help. A car pulled up behind us and honked. Still trying to snap the lid on, Dan accelerated into the intersection. I heard a scream, a deafening thud, sudden silence.
Dan grabbed a first aid kit from under the seat and jumped out of the car. I followed him. A young woman lay on her back, groceries scattered around her, blood streaming from behind her head, arms and legs unnaturally bent. Resting next to her, a mangled bicycle, clunky tires spinning wildly like a rodent's wheel. I stood, staring, but I could not feel my shoes pressing down against the pavement. For a moment I thought I was floating, hovering between the reality of what I saw and the hope that it was a dream.
Dan began CPR. "The blanket," he said to me. "In the trunk."
Minutes later an ambulance rushed her to the hospital. A police officer came up to me and began asking questions. I told him I was distracted, by spilled coffee, looking down when she was hit. We stood there a while. He kept writing on his notepad. Finally, he asked me to show him the cup of coffee. I led him toward the Volvo where Dan was placing the folded blanket back into the trunk. I tugged open the driver's door and reached toward the radio to grab the cup. It was gone, the cupholder closed.
The officer busily scratched notes on his pad. He didn't seem to care about coffee. He looked like a Marine captain, with his straight-up posture and polished black shoes. He said, "So your husband did make a full stop at the intersection, is that right?" I nodded. He continued writing. He seemed to be in a hurry, like he was late for shore leave.
I watched the officer walk over to Dan. The men shook hands and then Dan started talking. His slacks were dark with blood, wet, as if he had knelt in a crate of blackberries.
Soon we got back into our dented Volvo and Dan drove me to work. We bounced along the road and didn't say anything. The hazy sun began to warm the inside of the car but my teeth chattered. I pulled the cardigan tight at my throat.
Finally Dan spoke, "She ran the stop sign." He checked the rearview mirror and continued, "The guy behind us saw it too. Any driver would have expected her to stop."
"How did you see her?" I said. "You mentioned the coffee, didn't you?" Somehow I knew he hadn't. He was sitting next to me but it felt like he was on the other end of a long distance phone call, a continent between us.
"Of course not," he said. "Coffee had nothing to do with it. She went through a stop sign."
"Where is it? What did you do with it?"
"What? The coffee?" He glared at me. "It got cold. I threw it out."
"But the cup? What happened to--"
"What is this? What's wrong with you? Who gives a flying f------ about a cup." I'd never heard that word come out of his controlled New England Methodist mouth in nine years of marriage. "Jesus," he said, brushing at his slacks with the back of his fingers as if he could swat away the blood.
I did not know how to comprehend what was happening. As we drove, I rummaged through memories of our courtship, our marriage, searching for past occurrences of cavalier behavior. I should have seen hints, I thought, a pattern of behavior I chose to overlook because I loved him. Then I could say: I expected this, I've seen this before, I know how to feel. But I found no clues.
Gradually a thin film seemed to envelop my eyes, my perceptions. I squinted, straining to see, as if the windshield iced over. I glanced at Dan expecting him to push the DEFROST button but he continued to look straight ahead ignoring the obscured view. What is wrong with you, I thought. Push the button!
"God" I said and punched the button forcefully with my knuckle.
Dan started. "What are you doing?" he said, letting out breath.
I looked forward, the windshield clear. "I don't know," I said.
"Nothing," I crossed my arms "I'm cold, I guess."
"Here's the heat," said Dan. He reached for a black lever and flipped it to the right toward the red mark. "This one's the heat. ..."

After a time I reach for the candle, cup my hand behind it, and blow forcefully. The flame disappears and a stream of gray smoke curls away from the wick. I walk down the long hall to Dan's office. He is sitting at the computer with his back to the door, fingers tapping now and then on the keyboard.
"Dan, can we go to bed now?" I say. "I'm so tired."
He stops typing, turns around in his chair, and nods. "Come on, sweetheart," he whispers as he takes my hand and leads me upstairs to our bedroom. "I know you're upset. We both are. We need each other now." I feel better as he grips tighter around my hand.
Soon we are on the bed undressing each other. We kiss and he moves his hands over my body but they don't feel like his hands. His arms are cold stumps. I want to lock my fingers in his, we need to lock our fingers together, but where are his hands? He climbs on top of me, kissing me harder, burying me. I want to kiss him back but I am startled by the feeling of losing my breath under his weight. My eyes are wide open. In the darkness of our bedroom all I see is in my mind--a tumbler of coffee, a bicycle, a woman, fruits, vegetables. It's all spilling out of a grocery bag and burying me.
"I can't do this," I say, pulling away from him. "I'm sorry. I just can't. I need more time."
"Time?" he says. "For what? What is the matter with you?"
"I don't know," I say and head for the bathroom. This makes no sense. I love him. I should go to him, hold him, let him hold me. What has really changed for us? It was an accident. Tomorrow I will get up, make breakfast, eat with Dan, run the dishwasher, go to work. Nothing will be different. We are the same people we were the day before the accident, and the day before that, and the day before that. Anyone will say that, looking at us.
I flick on the bathroom light, turn on the faucet, close the door and cry.
The next evening when Dan comes home it's past 10 o'clock and I'm watching the news. He comes in the door, loosens his tie, and heads straight for the kitchen. He looks tired. "Long day," he mumbles as he passes the sofa. He doesn't look at me. I get up and follow him into the kitchen. He opens the refrigerator, pushes a few things around, closes it. Finally he says, "Coming up soon? I really need some company."
Has he forgotten already? "Soon," I say and nod to him. "Not tired I guess."
"That's what I mean. Honey. Please. I can take care of you if you'll let me."
He wants to make love like after a quarrel--to fix everything, to be the people we were.
"I've got things to finish up," I say looking down at the floor.
Dan runs his tongue over his front teeth. He turns, "Forget it then," he says flipping his wrist dismissively across the counter. He doesn't remember the lilacs. His fingers tangle in the green stems and lavender-blue clusters; water spills, flowers tumble, glass shatters on the tiled floor.
I stare, shoulders raised to my ears, hands covering my mouth and nose, too startled to move. Dan turns and looks at me, "Oh God, Beth." He kneels down in the clear shards of glass ignoring the sharp edges cutting into his knees. "I put it in the trunk," he says. "In the blanket. So it wouldn't look like my fault." He shakes his head as if in disbelief. "Then it was her fault ... but it was too late. I tried to make it not matter. But it does. ..."
My heart moves in my chest. All along I thought what I feared most was learning that Dan is capable of hiding the cup, of lying about it. More than that, I realize now, I feared I would not find a way to forgive him. His admission tells me he wants to share the pain of his mistake. He trusts me to find a way to forgive him.
I rush to his side, cradle his elbow in my hand, and help him to his feet. It's a place to begin.


I applaud the writer's willingness to tackle the big issues--love, guilt, responsibility, forgiveness. This is a well-constructed story that explores tough emotional terrain. The characters are real, time situation is terrifyingly possible. And the writing is as charged as the events it describes.
--Ellen Sussman

This story takes on a difficult subject and handles it sensitively. I like the way the author uses the accident to explore the fragile nature of the characters' marriage, and also how the story suggests the equally fragile possibility of redemption.
--Tom Parker

A well-paced tale with a clear narrative structure.
--Kim Silviera Wolterbeek