Erica Trabold’s “A List of Concerns” was selected by Thomas Page McBee as the winner of the third annual Payton Prize, which seeks to honor one excellent nonfiction essay each year in memory of Payton James Freeman, taken too young by SMA. Previous winners are Stephanie Anderson, whose “Greyhound” was selected by Emily Rapp, and Tammy Delatorre, whose “Out of the Swollen Sea” was selected by Cheryl Strayed.
This year’s theme was “Change.” Of the winning essay, Thomas Page McBee writes:
A List of Concerns” utilizes the brevity, directness, and thematic structure of a numbered list to unpack a complex story about friendship, tragedy, and the failure inherent to being human. I was moved by the unflinching spareness of the piece, and the way the list held a certain depth of character. There is a kind of person who can only tell a story sideways, like this narrator, and that type of person is more vulnerable in a different kind of way than just about anyone else. I marvel at all that’s held here.
1. The size of a paper cut compared to its sting.
2. A bandage run under the tap—the soggy reminder.
3. Glue left behind on wrinkled skin.
4. The ways I was told to behave.
5. “Don’t pick the flowers.”
6. “Don’t walk in the grass.”
7. “Wear black to a funeral.”
8. “In lieu of flowers, send money.”
9. The apologies I can’t remember if I’ve made.
10. When we were kids, my friends and I had a habit of making long lists: lists of things we wanted for our birthdays and for Christmas, gifts we thought our parents should buy; lists of cities we found beautiful, the places we wanted to go, the beaches we wanted to see; lists of qualities—physical and of character—we wanted in our husbands; lists of qualities we wanted to preserve in ourselves. We considered the girls we wanted to stay and the women we wanted to become. Our lists were demanding; the requirements, exhaustive.
11. That our framework was inflexible.
12. That we didn’t allow for change.
13. Alie, Kerry, and I sat at our kitchen tables with notebooks, markers spilling out of our mothers’ old Tupperware containers. All of us marked on the table by accident. All of us made a mess. All of us wrote our futures and continued playing the game as if it could keep us in the room forever. As if we could know what forever would be like.
14. We marked up dozens of ruled pages, a new color announcing the arrival of a new idea, numbers and line breaks separating that idea from those previous. At the end of each line, I left my mark—a single exclamation point—and formed its stem into the shape of a triangle. Simple punctuation could not communicate my conviction, my certainty. I shaded my exclamations thick. Sometimes, I drew two or three for affect—louder shouts into the void!
15. The logic of permanent marker.
16. The logic of the list, a form concerned with the failure of memory, a recipe broken down into its parts for the practical purpose of navigating the store. Of getting home with exactly what you need and not having to return.
17. The struggle to remember what I wrote in those lists, where I’ve kept them, or if.
18. That I’ve forgotten the paper.
19. That I remember the game.
20. That I remember how it felt to be friends.
21. When we were kids, I probably didn’t write that, someday, I hoped to be driving a minivan down a rural highway in Nebraska just to see where it ends. And I probably didn’t prioritize my desire to wander the fields thirty-five miles from the rural hospital where I was born. I didn’t know that in those fields, a few acres of native prairie grasses remained.
22. This is the situation in which I find myself—the borrowed van, the grass, the highway ending as it does. Driving in the direction of the prairie reserve, a place I’ve never been, I come to a sign that signals a dead end. I’m forced to make a U-turn at the end of the gravel road.
23. I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve ventured beyond what I came to see. The end of the road, the limitless sky—I still haven’t found our prairie.
24. The illusion that, along with our families, we lived on the prairie. In school, we studied pictures and drawings, watched movies and read first-hand accounts. Books about little houses made their way from backpack to backpack and girl to girl. The land, we believed, had never really changed. What we didn’t understand was that the prairie couldn’t have been further from our experience—by the time we were born, a mere memory.
25. Instead of bluestem, needlegrass, or dropseed, we grew up in a little town surrounded by cornfields, bean fields, and once every few summers, fields of golden sunflowers. The prairie had been, but it was not in Nebraska anymore.
26. The fact that adventure used to be my favorite word.
27. The fact that it means something different to me now.
28. The fact that the first time I saw a goldenrod flower, my grandfather was pointing to the plant. He stopped driving and rolled down the window on the passenger side of the pickup. “This is our state flower,” he said. “Now that you know what it looks like, I don’t want you to ever pick it.”
29. The childish temptation to break every rule.
30. Goldenrod blooming in every ditch, every meadow.
31. The selfish act of claiming anything as your own.
32. When we were kids, I remember picking a handful of goldenrod and other prairie flowers to fill out the bouquet. I walked home. I watched pieces of flower fall to the ground, plucking every pod and petal, tossing them into the wind. I threw the still-green stems into the grass. No one would ever catch me holding them.
33. When we were kids, I probably wrote myself an escape.
34. In our hometown, older folks remembered when things were quieter, more wild. The past hung around us like a fog. Though invisible on drier days, it was never really gone, water always raining down or cycling the air or seeping through cracks in the pavement.
35. I felt I had been cutting through it, waving my arms for the exit, for too long.
36. That we maintained our lists well into high school.
37. That our rootlessness began to show.
38. That our senior class picture was taken in a field of blooming sunflowers. None of us had ever seen them like that, planted in rows. And yet, we chose that field to mark our experience together and to symbolize its end. We asked the farmer for permission.
39. That the settlers said to themselves nothing could grow here but grass. They encountered the grass in every way, ankle-high, knee-high, chin-high, and as it often seemed, grass all the way to the sky. The flowers were just as tall. Opposite their gaze, the root system beneath the prairie was an even deeper thing, complex and vast. But most of them could only see the land as absence, lacking something to be desired.
40. The logic of the return.
41. To the prairie, we are always returning, as if from exile. And likewise, we are charged with returning the prairie to itself, attempting to regrow what we know should have been there in the first place.
42. Now that I’m standing inside one, I see for the first time the prairie’s real and total color. I knew the shades of green and yellow would vary, each blade of grass a slight contradiction to the next, but I didn’t realize there would be so many flowers, that there would be so many shapes.
43. Goldenrod. Sunflower. Coneflower. Vervain.
44. Or that the prairie flowers, taller than I could have imagined, would thrill me most.
45. Prairie sunflowers once coexisted with our native grasses, though smaller than those farmed for seed, wild and unruly. During the years when it rains enough to flood every roadside and riverbank, wildflowers spring from the earth by the handful. But anymore, I only see them along the sides of the highways and county roads, little flowers of the ditch.
46. When we were kids, we planned our weddings. Alie planned most. She picked out the colors and the dresses, the groom and the flowers. She wrote a list describing the man she would marry. He would own a farm. He would like to read. He wouldn’t believe in divorce.
47. When Alie married for the first time, we were nineteen. The three of us spent a whole night making bouquets. Kerry taught us how. At the wedding, we each carried a small handful, three flowers, real flowers, bright orange daisies I thought looked fake.
48. I whispered to Kerry, “When I get married, I’m going to pay for everything. I’m going to hire a florist, and I’m going to pay for all the dresses.”
49. No one told me the flowers growing on the side of the road were survivors, the native species with the will to cling on despite all efforts to eradicate them from the landscape.
50. That Alie married a second time. She posed for pictures on the old town square and danced in slow circles, palms lightly touching her husband’s waist, in our high school gymnasium.
51. That I didn’t go to her wedding, politely declined the invitation—the cost of a plane ticket too high.
52. That I didn’t give her the real reason.
54. When I got married, Kerry asked Alie, “Do you remember what she said?”
55. I hired a florist, but the flowers were incinerated at Customs, carriers of an invasive species that would harm our natural environment. The florist called shops all over the country, but nobody had the flowers I wanted.
56. I didn’t pay for the dresses.
57. I didn’t realize what a wedding would cost.
58. I couldn’t take back the words, the certainty they held at nineteen, at twenty-two, at eight or nine.
59. I carried bright tulips instead.
60. It’s like that. When I see them now, my friends have a habit of reminding me who I used to be. The last time, we were sitting on old stools at the American Legion Club, the only bar left in town. Alie had a few dollar bills in her pocket. She played a few songs on the jukebox, songs we used to love when we were kids. We sang along. After a few hard lemonades, we started to remember what it was like to be young together.
61. Alie remembered most. She echoed back jokes, remarks I once made at Kerry’s expense. She remembered my rationale, but Kerry wasn’t there to verify the impact of my words or their ruthlessness.
62. I remember bullying Kerry on more than one occasion, probably because someone had already made her a target. We made fun of her glasses and her hair, her grammar and her clothes.
63. I am sure what Alie said about me is true.
64. That I said this.
65. That I said that.
66. That I said a lot of awful things.
67. I don’t find it difficult to believe in my own cruelty.
68. That restoring the prairie requires commitment, a return from exile.
69. I said to Alie, “I’m sorry. I used to be such a jerk,” and filled a bowl with popcorn from the machine at the other end of the bar.
70. Until I had a landscape to compare it to, I never saw so clearly the green of my home, how the cottonwoods hug the river, how big the sun sets over crop and pivot and pasture. Today, the wind is bright, pushing puffs of cloud fast over swaying grass and flowers. Though the path through the prairie is mown ankle-high, I don’t know where, exactly, it will lead. I plan to walk until I feel sufficiently drowned, until I am insignificant, small.
71. The logic of the return. My friends say home is where they’ll go.
72. The time I accused Kerry of stealing my favorite pen, which I later discovered I had carelessly misplaced. Kerry was writing with a pen that looked like mine. She had even broken its stem in the same place I had broken my own, a detail I now recognize as coincidence or a fault of manufacturing. After school, Kerry’s mom called mine to tell her how mean I’d been. Kerry, she said, was in her room, crying.
73. The next day, I told Kerry to stop letting her mom fight her battles.
74. I don’t know if I ever apologized.
75. After the third drink I said, “The thing I hate most about this town is that nobody taught us how to be good friends to each other. You know what I mean?”
76. I walk through the prairie in silence. The occasional car, passing too slowly and creating a cloud of dust, makes me uneasy. I don’t know if I should be alone, if someone will spot the van I’ve parked on the side of the road, or if it’s obvious I’m without company and vulnerable. When I see a white pickup approaching, I duck behind the grass. Only then do I realize why I’ve come, how badly I don’t want to be seen.
77. That I’m tired of talking about the prairie, about things I wish I had known.
78. When a pheasant flies out from the cover of grass, I’m startled. She looks brown and dull, and though she lacks the colorful markings of a male, the sound of her flight is loud, violent, and sudden. With nothing other than my presence, I seem to have first startled the bird. She took off in a hurry, beating her face and wings into the grass as she cut an angled line through the native growth, out and up into the clouds.
79. That a year ago today, not far from our hometown, Kerry found her mother dead in the bathroom. She had moved out into the country. Kerry called an ambulance and waited as the paramedics raced over the gravel roads.
80. That my mom called from work to tell me about the death of Kerry’s mother, to describe the panic the town briefly entertained before gossip overcame it. Was there a note? Were there signs? Had someone helped her do it?
81. That I wanted to call Kerry, say something reassuring or sincere. And yet, I didn’t want her to have to hear my voice.
82. That Kerry had the kind of mother who defended her feelings, and I had the kind who never told me to stop and consider how my words might cause another person pain.
83. The card on which I wrote “I’m sorry” below the printed greeting. I stuffed a check inside the envelope.
84. That money now seems a hollow gesture.
85. That the grass is taller and sharper than it looks from a distance, and the prairie is not a place I’ve ever known. If I had, I would have remembered. I would have taken precautions.
86. The predictable way the blades slice at my skin and leave behind a stinging rash.
87. That I might have come differently, with reverence. But dressed as I am, in shorts and old tennis shoes, blood runs brightly down my shins.
88. The logic of the return.
89. The logic of all I want is to pick one, a small, wild sunflower, a compromise for the bouquet I have the better sense to assemble. The flower I’ve chosen is rooted deep, its stem strong enough to make me struggle for several minutes to free it. When it finally gives, I lay the flower inside the van and drive back toward the highway. This road will take me to the country cemetery. I will place a single flower on the headstone.
90. How quickly a wildflower wilts when severed from its root.
91. I’ve read that Native Americans used to make soothing treatments from the stems and leaves of prairie flowers. They used the mixture to heal snakebites and ease the itch of ivy rashes. They used what they could find on the prairie—beauty in abundance—to relieve most the most basic kinds of pain.
Rumpus original art by Zea Barker.