The Contest

A short story

Charles Gullung

The radio station was KLOF, number 570 on the AM dial, and the building was set in what we called Grassland, an isolated area of weedy fields that extended from the edge of the city for about a mile to the industrial side of town. Its tall, skinny tower was right behind it, anchored by four long cables, and at night the red lights blinked from the top. We thought it was sort of magical, that there was an actual place where Wild Johnny Hateras would play records all day and Bobby Barberi all night, and whenever we drove on Surplus Avenue, we looked for the orange call letters, KLOF, standing lit on the roofline. How could there be so much in that one place? The radio station shared the building with Apocalypse Carpets, and once a month or so I would see KLOF on my way to Anvil Bridge and Iron, the shop where my dad was a welder. I was eleven that year, the year of the contests. The year they gave away the house.

My mother listened to KLOF all afternoon, when it was country-western—the old country-western, which had a definite honky-tonk whine and wasn’t big, bold, or shiny the way country became later. These were plaintive songs that sounded like they’d been recorded in somebody’s kitchen right after everyone had stopped crying. My mother had an unending garden that circled the backyard in a loop, and she worked on her hands and knees in pedal pushers that year, 1958, in her garden gloves, with her trowel. I remember so many afternoons with the radio on our patio beating out, “Dream on, dream on, teenage queen, prettiest girl we’ve ever seen,” while I halfheartedly weeded the fence line and reeled from the wild metaphors in the music, though I didn’t know that word that summer. I saw that a lot of unlikely stories held together, given the muscle of a melody. “Get them out by the roots, my dear,” my mother would say, and I would hurry on pulling the tops off the weeds so I could get to the next fence post and be free.

Eldon Backman and Lanny Loper were always waiting for me in the park to play some Strikeout or Off the Step, which are perfect games for three guys. Sometimes we would ditch our mitts in the hedge by the fountain and ride down to the river, where we were not supposed to be, and throw rocks at everything. We all had good arms.

“Did you guys call in for the Big Pop Please on KLOF?,” Eldon asked. We’d left our bikes and were down the bank of the river under the scrawny half-dead willow tree, waiting for something to float by. There were clumps of hollow reed husks we called tubes, and if you broke off a piece you could pretend to smoke it. Lanny had lit a tube one time with his stolen matches and sucked on it. He said the smoke cut him like a knife.

“You called in?,” I asked.

“Yeah,” Eldon said. We all knew the contest. You called in and a girl put you through to the recorder and when you heard the bell you said “Big Pop Please.” They recorded your voice, then once an hour the station played five people saying the phrase, and if you heard your voice, you called and won a case of lime or strawberry Big Pop sodas.

“No,” Lanny said. “No one wins that. They just get you to listen to the radio. Wild Johnny Hateras is full of it.”

“Jeez, I think he’s cool.”

Cool was a new word that year. It had been out, but we were just starting to use it.

“He’s better than that cowboy crap they play all day. I do like Elvis and those other guys.”

“The Everly Brothers,” Eldon said. We’d had a long talk about “Wake Up Little Susie” the week before: what we would say if we came home late like that. Lanny kept saying that the kids in the song had done it, and he kept quoting the “Ooh la la” in it, and Eldon and I were with the guy: they’d just fallen asleep at the movies.

I felt something when I rode down Orchard Street, where Cordelia Level lived. What is that feeling? It doesn’t have a name.

“That’s not going to happen,” Lanny said. “You don’t fall asleep on a date. You fall asleep in social studies with Mrs. LeBride.”

He had a point, but it didn’t sway us.

We were eleven and yet we felt the pull of romance and intrigue, and if there is a time when things are ineffable, it was that time; it was that year. I felt something when I rode down Orchard Street, where Cordelia Level lived, though I made a point never to look at her house—I just pedaled like a man with a noble mission. What is that feeling? It doesn’t have a name.

“Eldon,” I asked my friend, “did your mom get the second house clue?” I had tossed my handful of rocks. Nothing was coming down the river today.

“I think she did. What was it?”

“It was something like ‘It all starts in the middle of nowhere.’ It makes no sense.”

“They won’t give away a house,” Lanny said. “They are full of it.”

“Yeah, they will,” Eldon said. “You can’t say it on the radio and not do it. It’s the law.”

“Which house? A dollhouse?”

I knew the answer because I’d seen the radio station’s brochure, which my mother had driven out to KLOF to retrieve. “It’s one of the model homes in Holiday Hills.”

“Way out on the hills?”

“Where they’re building all those new houses.”

“They’re big houses,” Eldon said.

We, all three of us, slept in the finished basements of the little houses in Poplar Grove, our neighborhood west of the river.

“The picture shows a room with a pool table in it,” I said.

“Do you win it too? The pool table?,” Lanny asked. “This is all crap.”

“Oh,” Eldon said and pointed upriver to where the two orange canoes from the Girls Summer Recreation Camp were steering toward us, four girls in each.

“Soak ’em,” Lanny said.

“Don’t,” I said.

“It’s Mrs. Keppner and them,” Lanny said. “Soak ’em. She’s not going to stop and chase us. This is going to be great.”

“I can hear you boys,” Mrs. Keppner said. Riding first in the second canoe was Cordelia Level. As soon as I saw her orange canoe, the entire river changed for me the way her street changed. The word for that change is still waiting to be invented. The miserable willow tree now seemed a magnificent giant trailing its limbs in the water and the canoe trip itself, which would have gone from the school boathouse to the junior high, about four blocks, seemed an adventure.

“We’re going to soak you,” Lanny said.

“No we’re not,” I said.

“I know your parents,” Mrs. Keppner said.

“You don’t know mine,” Lanny said.

“I know your mother, Lanny.”

Eldon and I took our yellow reeds and sat in the long June grass, big shots smoking. Two girls in each canoe were paddling carefully, none of them paying us any attention. I watched Cordelia Level paddle as they all turned and headed for the Seventh South bridge. The bridge changed while I watched. Cordelia Level was lighting up the neighborhood. It was hard to sit still. I wanted to grab my bike and ride down to the junior high.

“Your mom is going to win that house,” Eldon told me. “My mom said so. Your mom wins things. She’s a brain.” My mother did win things. She wrote jingles and phrases and had won our hi-fi and my bicycle and a ton of records and our washing machine and even some money. When she wasn’t gardening, she had a pencil in her hand.

Lanny waited a minute. Then, with the canoes out of range, he threw a rock. It splashed way behind the girls, and no one turned around. “Man,” he said. “We’ve been robbed. When is that going to happen again?”

“I don’t know,” I told Eldon. “I don’t think so. The clues are hard; they’re all tricks, backwards, clues in clues. I don’t even get what they’re asking.”

“She’ll get it,” he said, pointing at me with his mock cigarette. “They all add up to make a map to where you find the key, and she’s going to do it.”

“The key to what?,” Lanny asked, coming over. He had thrown the rest of his rocks in a spray out into the river and was brushing his hands off.

“The house.”

“Where is the key?”

“It’s buried.”

“Just buried? Around?”

“It’s buried somewhere within the city limits and the clues—they give two every day, one from Wild Johnny Hateras and one from Bobby Barberi—make a map. Like directions. They said it could be in the middle of nowhere.”

Lanny was thinking it over. “Middle of nowhere? That’s like right here. You mean the key to the big house could be buried right now at the park under second base?”

Eldon stood up. “Let’s go see.”

My dad came home every day from work in khakis, shirt and pants, dirty from a day making pressure vessels for trucks and railcars. I had no idea what those were, but when I went to his shop some Saturdays, I saw steel tanks as big as the dugouts in the ballpark. There was always a bar of Lava soap on the bathroom sink at home, and my father would roll his sleeves and lather up his arms and wrists and hands before dinner, washing his face and combing his hair back. These were the days when after dinner the two of them, my mother and father, would spread the table with sheets of my mother’s notebook paper, written over with notes and clues. I listened to them whispering, my mother pointing with her pencil, writing things, sometimes saying, “Oh, it’s this. It doesn’t mean baking flour; it’s garden flower,” and then so many phrases that just seemed like puzzles: “Nine times three is twenty-seven, that’s part of it” and “the last word of the phrase is time or thyme. I’ll put it here.”

All the while the radio was on, with Big Bobby Barberi playing “Get a Job,” or “Poor Little Fool,” by Ricky Nelson, or a song I was nuts for, “Lollipop.” I was listening for the Big Pop Please session, and one night when it came on my mother called out, “Dial the number, Glen,” and I quickly dialed the radio station’s phone number, which was pinned to the letter holder above the telephone table in the hall. I’d done it six nights in a row, and this time when I told the girl my name she said I had won.

“You won,” she said. “We’ll be sending a case of Big Pop to your house. What is your address, Mr. Lanahan?” As she said the words, I felt chills go up my legs, because I knew my mother was going to solve the puzzle of the buried key and win the new house and we would move to Holiday Hills, where there was no river or railroad tracks, no Orchard Street or Riverside Junior High where we would all be in the seventh grade come fall, no park, no hedge by the fountain, where I suddenly realized I’d left my mitt that day, and I told the girl on the telephone our address very slowly, as if to forestall all the events to come.

This time, when I gave the girl my name, she said I had won.

The shine was on my face when I went in the kitchen and saw my parents over their paperwork. My mother had a large hand-drawn map, and I could see streets on there. Eldon and I had traced maps from the Encyclopedia Britannica all through fourth grade, especially Africa. We wanted to go someplace wild. My father put his hand on my shoulder. He was a handsome man and he had the top of his khaki shirt unbuttoned so I could see his white undershirt; he was grinning and pleased with my mother’s calculations. “You won the pop, Glen,” he said, mussing my hair.

“Yeah,” I said. And it was unusual. We didn’t have that much pop in our house. I mean, we never had it. At Christmas there would be some Kings Court mixer, which I loved, and my parents bought me pops when we were out, like for a drive at the fair, but it was never something we had as groceries. A case of pop was astonishing. And I had won it. The radio was now playing “26 Miles,” a song so pretty it gave me a feeling, even standing in the lighted kitchen with my parents, and it is that feeling for which there is still not a word.

Eldon came by the next morning and we rode bikes over to Lanny’s and then back to Eldon’s, where the Apocalypse Carpet truck was backed into Mr. Nettles’s driveway. Two guys were pulling Mr. Nettles’s weird carpets out onto the front lawn in sheets. They had flowers on them and great trails where all the Nettles had worn them out. We’d watched a lot of workmen in our day, and anytime something was loaded or delivered or taken away, we saw it. We had captured a lot of good stuff from such operations, including the dials from Mrs. Heltrin’s washer, the rabbit ears from Mr. Aiker’s old Admiral television, and some white construction stakes left over from Ozzie Dale’s driveway pour. We’d come down to nab a square of Mr. Nettles’s carpet, but we could see right away that we would never use it in a clubhouse.

“That’s some nasty floor covering,” Lanny said.

One of the carpet guys came around the front of the truck and lit a cigarette; he was a young guy, and his skimpy mustache looked like a mistake.

“You ever see Wild Johnny Hateras there at KLOF?,” Eldon asked him.

“What?” the guy said. “Yeah, we know John.”

Eldon turned to us, his smile lit up. These guys knew Wild Johnny Hateras.

“You know where the key is buried?”

“I wish,” he said. “You should see the cars. He’s got the traffic all screwed up, on Surplus, all through Grassland, everybody coming to get the written clues and the rules. I had some lady follow me home. There’s two guys in a pickup parked across by the railroad tracks with binoculars.” He stubbed out his smoke on the bottom of his shoe. We’d all been watching him smoke pretty closely, but there wasn’t much to learn. “They been there three days solid. This town is going nuts.”

“That’s Johnny Hateras,” Eldon said. “He’s wild.”

“He’s huge,” the carpet guy said. He held his arms out to make a round man. “He’s the biggest guy you’ll ever see. Sits on a bench in the studio.”

We stood there astride our bikes and didn’t know what to do with that information.

“Hey,” Lanny said, standing on his pedals and starting to ride off. “He doesn’t sit on a bench, and you never saw him.” He’d talk to people that way.

That night on the radio, I heard Lanny’s voice saying “Big Pop Please,” and I yanked at the hall phone to alert him to call in, but his line was busy. My mother’s papers were growing; she had narrowed her search down to the edge of town, where they were building the new post office. I looked at my folks and they looked like two big kids doing their homework. “What was on that corner?” she asked my father.

“Wasn’t it the Esso station?”

“Oh my god, S-O. Edwin,” she said. “Let’s just drive over there.”


When my father, the welder, said that, the two of them grinned.

It wasn’t like my dad to miss Maverick, but those were weird days in Poplar Grove. After Maverick was Cheyenne, with Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie. That was a great show because he was strong and always misunderstood, and too polite to force the right thing to happen. He was a big guy in a buckskin shirt when he came to town and got involved, and then he had his feelings hurt. And mine. It was the age when I felt if I stood to the side and didn’t make a fuss, eventually my wonder would be discovered. Halfway through Cheyenne, I heard the car arrive. My folks came in and my mother sorted her papers into files and cleared the kitchen table and told me it was time for bed.

“What happened?”

My father was looking out the kitchen window. “Is he still there?” my mother said.

“No, he saw us pull in.” He was smiling and shaking his head. “People. He knows where you live, Verna. We’ll see him again.”

“Who?,” I asked.

“The guy in the pink Fairlane who followed us from downtown.”


“He knows your mother’s getting close.”

My father told me that there were five or six people digging holes in the field where they were building the new post office and the police came and shooed them all away.

The next day, Lanny led Eldon and me on our bicycles past the junior high and over the footbridge two blocks to the old Chapman Library. “Check it out,” he said. We could see three holes dug under the bay window in the old brick building.

“They think the key is in the library lawn?”

Lanny pointed up to the bust of Andrew Carnegie. We could see the back of his bronze head in the huge paned window. “The clue must have been something about him. Like: ‘Just ten feet behind the brass head’ or something.”

“Or his initials or this address or something about books. The clues are nuts.”

Eldon said, “Don’t worry. Your mom will get it. We’re going to have to ride our bikes out to Holiday Hills and play pool with all your new friends.”

We decided to go and tell Mrs. Verlinken about the holes but she already knew, and the city truck arrived and a guy in a blue shirt filled the holes in. The old library was one of my favorite places, but I’d never been there in the summer before. This was the room where I’d read four of the Jack Ralston books and when I asked for the fifth, Mrs. Verlinken asked me whether I shouldn’t move on, and she gave me an H. G. Wells book, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and so I admired her and this place tremendously. I just knew it was full of secrets. I feared there wouldn’t be a library in Holiday Hills. There might not be any books at all. In the picture with the pool table, there was a bullfighting poster on the wall, but no bookshelves.

Eldon had pulled the maps of South America, a big flat book, and was looking at Brazil. Lanny sat down with Life magazine, so I wandered toward the voices in the activity center and found four of the Summer Recreation girls sitting on the tiny chairs, all reading aloud from the same book, a little play. I heard Cordelia Level say her line, “I don’t think that Jack was even there on the night in question,” and then her friend Gail tapped her, and she looked up at me and stood right up.

“Sorry,” I said.

Cordelia came over to me. She was wearing a dark-blue shirt with no sleeves and light-blue Bermuda shorts. Her shoulders were rosy from canoeing in the sun. I felt like she took my arm but maybe she just led me back into the stacks of books. When we were between biographies and sports, she stopped and made a serious face. “You shouldn’t smoke, Glen.”

“Okay,” I said automatically.

“Don’t say ‘okay’ to me. Say you’ll stop smoking.”

“I don’t smoke,” I told her. We were whispering.

“Say it.”

“I’ll stop smoking.”

“Good. Thank you.” That wasn’t what she wanted to say. There was something else. I had already loved this room and now it was double. She’d also changed biographies and sports books. Then she did take my arm, touched my elbow, and let it go. She said quietly, while keeping her eyes right on mine, “I don’t want you to move to Holiday Hills.” The light now went crazy, and it was because I saw water skim her eyes, and then some must have come up in mine. Cordelia Level turned and went back to the play. I was eleven and I knew that I now had a moment in my life where I had heard exactly what I had hoped to hear.

That afternoon I made the mistake of swinging by my house to get my mitt. I rode through the open gate of the backyard and there was my mother, on her knees, gardening. She was in the shade of a huge castor-bean plant she’d fostered. It was a beauty for a while, with its big tropical leaves, and now it looked like something I’d read about in H. G. Wells. The radio was loud on “Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On,” another crazy sentence that made perfect sense to me after my interview with Cordelia Level in the library.

“Oh, Glen,” my mother said, and I was captured. “Crawl under here and get the cucumbers. They’re all this big”—she opened her hand wide, pinky to thumb—“and I don’t want them to go too big for pickles. Be careful, don’t smash anything.”

If I did this right, I might be able to get away before she asked me to weed to another fence post, but it was unlikely. I lay down and crawled in like Audie Murphy did in Hell and Back, using my elbows until my nose was in the dusty vines. I started picking cucumbers and avoiding enemy gunfire. Even from there, I could hear Wild Johnny Hateras reeling his jokey patter, and then I heard the mystery music, which meant it was 2 o’clock and there’d be another house clue. The clue was a man’s voice saying something like “I’m not lonely, but I’m in the middle of nowhere and at the end of my wits. I never told a lie, lady, just the opposite.” And then Wild Johnny came back on and yelled—he always yelled—into the reverberation chamber: “One more clue, you detectives. Doesn’t anybody want a free house in Holiday Hills—the newest, most modern development in the city? Put on your thinking caps and grab your shovels! There’s just one more clue, and we’re saving it for tomorrow!”

“Mom,” I called from the jungle. “How many do you want?” I had stashed about a dozen perfect cucumbers by my knee. “Mom?” I lay for a minute in the leafy dark. My mother was coming out of the house. She said, “I had to call your father. I solved the puzzle. I know where the key is.”

I looked up through the giant leaves of the castor-bean plant at the blue sky over Poplar Grove. I’d seen the sky this way a lot the previous fall, when we’d played Army in the vacant lots past the church. After getting shot, I’d lie in the clumps of grass there, dead, flat on my back with my rifle, a stick I’d had for four years, waiting for Eldon or Lanny, whoever was the medic, to come and kneel by me and call out the bad news. Can you love the sky? Can you lose it?

When I met Lanny and Eldon later at the park for Five Hundred, there was a big scar out by second base, and Eldon pointed. “What’d you do?”

“You see the way everybody’s digging everywhere in this town?,” Lanny said. “I just thought I’d better check. It was a hunch. Second base. Sometimes these mysteries are solved by hunches. Haven’t you ever heard of a hunch?”

“How deep did you dig?,” I asked him.

“About a foot,” he said. He and Eldon were walking out into center field. I was up first. “Do you think I went deep enough?”

“What’s your hunch?,” Eldon said. “Hit the ball, Glen.”

That night I heard Eldon say “Big Pop Please” on the radio. Bobby Barberi was playing the really nifty stuff. He played “Great Balls of Fire,” and he played “At the Hop” three times in a row. My dad got home late. He was working overtime on a tank that was so long, it fit on two railcars. I watched him wash up and wondered whether I would ever get that dirty. It was amazing watching the sooty lather rinse down the sink. Mom had waited because she didn’t want to go out alone. When they asked if I wanted to go with them, I said yes.

There might have been a car behind us; it was hard to tell. We crossed the magical bridge at Seventh South and drove over the railroad yards and into the city. On the far side, near the hills, a new installation of municipal buildings was going up. They were building a new courthouse and a civic-administration building and a post office. Most of this huge area was raw ground. They had one crane installed. It was a dark summer night a long time ago. Cars were parked thickly along State Street, and the fields that in a year would be government offices were full of dozens of men and women bent over shovels, dark silhouettes, silently digging. It was a scene for which there wasn’t a word until the great zombie films were made in the ’70s. Across the street, under the towering elms that surrounded the antique city and county buildings, my father said, “There he is,” and I saw the statue; it was a new one, and I’d never known who it was. He was set way back in the grove of trees next to the old stone building.

“Who?,” I said.

“President Truman,” my father said. He reached over the seatback, and I remember his khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He put his hand on my shoulder for a moment and smiled, then turned to my mother. “What do you want to do, Verna?”

My parents were strange and interesting people. I miss them every day. My mother was a character all her life. Their presence in my current life is best described by a word I’m still working on. The moment we had in the car that night, driving around the big beautiful park of the city and county buildings across from the lone figures digging in the clay, was a moment for which there is no word, nor will there ever be. I remember my parents in the front seat of that 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, a car I own now, smiling and making the little noises that are the edges of laughter.

On the way home my mother explained the puzzle to me, that H is in the middle of nowhere and S is at the end of my wits, and the opposite of lie, lady was, of course, truth, man, or Truman, and then I knew that his statue, alone in the park, was pointing at the key. She held up her finger to make the prediction that the last clue would be about Harry, the president’s first name, because it is an easy pun, and she was right. The next day, as I weeded the fence line in a garden that would be in bloom all that summer and on the day I graduated from high school and left home, the radio clue was read as: “I am totally not his suit and why is everybody mad about me?” She explained that to me also, and we heard later that same night that a man from the east side of town, a high-school history teacher, had found the key and was moving in a month to Holiday Hills.

My case of Big Pop arrived the following week, as did Lanny’s and Eldon’s. For a while, there was a lot of pop. I gave one to Cordelia Level and we drank pop in the park the week before Riverside Junior High brought us in and made us reach for the next thing.