First Place: West Avenue 

It's too windy to read outside, so I sit on the counter and eat straight from a bag of those chocolate morsels that bake in cookies. I wouldn't feel right shading them under the three-fold lawn chair anyways -- they were made for the kitchen. They're not wrapped up like other candies.

I slurp my coffee even though it's cooled.

The brunette on page two models the bikini that's under my T-shirt. The difference is that mine's red — I'm too far south for polka dots. I flip, and the article I land on says there are 10 lists I can make to jump-start success. It says if I post these lists on my refrigerator door, I can lean back and watch success roll in today.

I smear a chocolate fingerprint on the ruled paper where I'm to write a title. It's supposed to be catchy and personal: "Go Johnny Go" and "Debby Does Success" are examples.

I begin with list three, since lists one and two are made aloud in the bathroom mirror before bed.  The instructions say to write down every person I've met in the past year. When I hit 10, I wad the paper and shoot at the trash can. I miss.

Instead of leaving my counter seat, I make another list — people I'd like to meet next year. I easily write 20 names and almost write 10 more, but the article doesn't say this is a promising list. In the margin, I double-ink: List the names or occupations of people you'd like to meet in the next year, indicating with a heavy asterisk that it was skipped, it should have been number eight.

I tear out the article and crease it five times before sliding it in my back pocket.

When I head outside to trim the front hedge, I stuff the magazine back in the neighbor's mailbox. The neighbor's youngest, Garth, spots me through the upstairs window and waves. I wave back. My front hedge is drowning his mother's hydrangeas, but when Garth isn't looking, I trim her flowers back instead.

It's my birthday, and I keep doing things I'm not supposed to do.

Henry made reservations for dinner. I've never been to Al Tuna, although people say it's a golden spot. The menu lists pasta and fish served family-style. Henry says it's like a fancy buffet where people sit down and use one oblong plate.

The wind dulls the heat as we walk to the restaurant. Henry asks the same question as every day, but asks it this way,  "And how was your day?" He winks and I pull from my pocket a list of movies that are based on novels. I tell him how we could read the novels together, curled on the sofa with two Big Gulps and a bag of popcorn. It's a good way, I say, to cut down on movies.

"Sure thing," Henry says. "We can do novels just after those flowering seeds make it to the front planter."

"We need mulch before we plant," I say.

"Almost forgot. We'll have to borrow a truck. Do you know anyone with a pickup?"

I tell him no, I don't know anyone with a pickup.

The wind lifts our words and drops them behind us, leaving a trail for others to pick apart. Henry links my arm with his, and I lean into him. "Garth was home today," I say.  "He helped me trim the hedge."

"Oh," Henry says. "You trimmed the hedge?"

I don't answer, but what comes out is this: I tell Henry that there's more to life than a pruned yard. I tell him how people don't have to own a car, either, how I enjoy walking more than driving. He won't believe me until I prove it. "Fine," I say,  "I'll tell you what truth I know -- that it's more likely I'm being followed on foot." Henry looks confused, and I explain: "It's nice to think someone's watching. It takes both actor and audience to make a successful one-man show."

"Ah," he says, but that is all he says.

Park Avenue leads us most of the way to Al Tuna. With six blocks to go, we cut over to West Avenue, where a Pogo-Roo and two tricycles and a red Cozy Coupe block the sidewalk. We could move the toys, but don't.

Once, Henry and I counted 27 toys abandoned on the concrete-bordered grass, lined between parked cars and leaned against public trees. The small, fenced-in front yards couldn't house the toys if they tried. The sky was dark, and the children of West Avenue never came outside to retrieve their metal and plastic pastimes. They were confident that nothing would be stolen.

Nothing was ever stolen from West Avenue.

If it were any other street, I wouldn't let Henry drag me down its vein — but I've never actually seen a car drive down this narrow, one-way path. We walk slower, and I count four neighborhood watch signs on the first block.

The street lasts only four blocks, and we're still on the first when Henry says,  "Maybe today really is your day."  What he means is, maybe today West will give me a sign.

He says,  "Maybe West is about to reprimand us, convince us it's not the anomaly of the city." He studies the sky like it's the combined roof of the row houses. "Being in the middle, we might be asking for it."

I slow further, careful to notice the color and fabric of each flag that waves over each undersized front porch. At the second block I decide: "I think West is telling us something. I think West likes us to see it this way."

In truth, Henry and I need to remind ourselves that this serenity exists. We take West Avenue as much as we can. I always hoped we'd catch it off-guard, just once, to prove the street was a hoax like a set in the movies. If we swayed one block north or south, we'd be somewhere else. We'd be back on a city street not as well-lit by what is here on West, not as well-layered with things that seem left behind.

But I don't want West to prove me wrong today.

When we get to the third block I say,  "If today was my day, then that tricycle would be hanging from that tree by a noose."

Henry's mouth opens wide as he laughs, but he knows that I'd change if I could. I'd live here if it would have me.

Before we order, Henry tells the waiter it's my 30th birthday. When our drinks arrive, so does my horoscope, neatly torn out of today's paper. Henry reads aloud in a menacing, overdramatic voice. The last line rings more like a fortune cookie: "A great meeting is in store." It doesn't say what it's a meeting of or about.

"Who am I meeting?" I spread the cloth napkin across my lap and knees.

Henry drinks his water more than halfway down. He says, "I think it's figurative — a meeting of the minds."

"But is it a person I'm meeting?" I ask. "Someone who wants to meet me, too?"

I wait for Henry to reassure me, to say what he always says. I want him to tell me that it's coming — that a baby's on the way if we just keep trying. In past years, Henry's reassurances did soothe and distract me — just like a walk on West Avenue. But Al Tuna is filling up, and I'm tired of hoping that Henry knows more than the doctors know.

"What if you meet Rick Blaine, straight out of 'Casablanca'?"

He knew I was crazy about "Casablanca."

"I mean, don't you think the waiter sort of looks like him?" Our wine stems rattle when he leans in. "Rick Blaine of the 21st century?"

I peer above Henry's whispers and spot him -- the waiter who maybe looks like Rick Blaine. When he fills my goblet with water, I forget for one good, long moment that today is my day. But then it hits me — and I know that I can ride this topic for all it's worth.

I tell Henry I made another list.

"List of what?" Henry asks.

"Baby names," I say, and hold tight a mouthful of chardonnay before swallowing.

All day I've heard sirens.

Tonight is no different. Two fire trucks park in front of our window seat and overpower our candlelight dinner.

The waiter tells us that Chamberlayne's Pizza — near West Avenue but not on it — caught fire.  A woman smoked half a cigarette in the bathroom and dropped it still wild in the wastebasket.

"A case of second nature," the waiter-Blaine says.  "Rumor is she keeps a standing ashtray in her bathroom."

I laugh as Blaine bows and bids us goodnight. Henry takes my wrists from across the table. We sit this way and say nothing.

We sit longer than we should.

Outside, the wind has softened.

The closest we can get is two blocks away. Smoke overtakes the trees, buildings, sky and moon. I wait and wait for the moon's glory to return. Henry swears there is a man in the moon. I've never seen the moon that way, and this night is no different. Smoke just keeps piling, soaring higher and higher, and getting denser by the minute.

I've never seen a shooting star either. Last month I saw a solar eclipse for the first time.

The air is terribly dry and smoke won't stop rising. The last time it rained was in April. This is June. But no one would know about our dry spell if they walked down West Avenue. There are sprinklers in every yard, and no one seems to mind watering the sidewalk until it's dark gray and slick.

Henry wants to stay and watch the commotion, but it's my birthday and I've seen a building burn to the dry earth before. S

About the Writer

Michelle Dove, a native of Christiansburg, received her bachelor's degree in English from Virginia Tech in 2004. At 25, she's the executive assistant to Jo Kennedy, president of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, but Dove will be leaving in the fall to pursue her master's in creative writing at American University.

When Dove first came to Richmond, she was overwhelmed by the big city, she says, but she found what she was looking for in the Fan. "I wanted to create a little Blacksburg where I could walk everywhere," she says — and she did.

An advocate of the workshop setting, Dove began writing poetry before becoming interested in short-short stories. "Right now," she says, "I'm definitely hooked on the short story format." With her evolution toward longer prose, Dove envisions herself writing a novel someday. Her main characters tend to be quirky young women. Are they autobiographical? "No," Dove says. "She may start out like me, but she definitely always takes on her own form." -— Valley Haggard

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