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Round 1 finalist: “All That’s Left of Cuba” by Jacquelyn Bengfort
All that’s left of Cuba, North Dakota, is one abandoned grain elevator standing stark against the flat horizon.
I’d seen the sign all my life, on my way to Valley City or Jamestown for cross country meets or driving my grandma to the thrift stores in those cities to buy the old suits she weaves into wagon wheel rugs. White letters on a field of highway-sign green: CUBA 6. The left arrow points down a gravel road on which I’d never seen a car or combine.
Finding Cuba, I’d decided, would be my final act before I left the state for good after high school.
On a day in June I turned down the gravel road and drove along slowly in the little red car my parents had on lease from the dealership. Back then I didn’t know what was left of Cuba, just that I’d never known anyone who listed it as their address. I passed it twice in searching before I realized what I’d done.
The house sat in the afternoon shade cast by the elevator. As I pulled into the empty lot, the two people rocking on the porch stood in unison to look at me, heads cocked at identical angles; heads so ancient I could not judge, at first, whether they belonged to male or female bodies.
“Is this Cuba?” I asked.
“Such as it is,” one replied.
“Come have a glass of lemonade. It’s hot,” said the other.
The prairie hummed the way it does on days the sun burns in the sky. I found myself accepting without even deciding to.
The women were sisters, “come from out East on our civilizing mission when we were just about your age,” said the elder.
They brought with them plans to build an opera house and money enough to do it properly. They obtained on lot on Main in the county seat, hired builders, purchased supplies, found just exactly the right sort of manager to bring just exactly the right sort of thing to the most lavish stage on the Great Plains. Together they sat in their reserved velvet seats and watched show after show, thirty years of them, before a new motion picture house put in next door drove the whole enterprise out of business.
After two glasses of lemonade they showed me the house, stuffed full of their mother’s crystal ashtrays (she had died from lung cancer), their father’s Marine Corps uniforms (dead in a warzone, they didn’t say which), and the playbills and reviews from every show.
“Sometimes it’s as though these things tether us here,” the younger said.
“Sometimes I’d like to see it all burn,” said the elder.
I helped them set the fire. Last I saw, they stood holding hands, watching the blaze, years sloughing from them like snake skins. By the time I was back on the highway, the sun had set and the smoke was only a smudge against the stars.
Jacquelyn Bengfort grew up in a library on the prairie and drove warships for a living. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle, Broad!, Storm Cellar, District Lines, Luna Luna, and CHEAP POP, among other places. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Oxford, she lives in the District of Columbia and can be found online at www.JaciB.com and on Twitter @jacib.