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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

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RAZ: T.S. Eliot once wrote that in a minute, there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse. So thankfully, we're talking about three minutes because we have a winner for Round Three of our Three-Minute Fiction contest.

More than 3,000 original short stories poured in for this round, stories about trains and cafes in London and Maine, all inspired by a photograph we posted at our Web site, npr.org/threeminutefiction.

Well, today, our judge for this round, author and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED book critic Alan Cheuse has made a decision. And Alan, as T.S. Eliot said, in a minute there is time for both decision and revision.

ALAN CHEUSE: But I promise I'm not going to change my mind in the next minute.

RAZ: Okay. Now, Alan, before we find out the winning story who you picked, can you read a few lines from stories that almost won?

CHEUSE: Yes. This is from Garvin Gaston, who lives in Houston. And he took on the photograph immediately. His story opens this way:

(Reading) To be honest with you, I don't like the picture. I'd never go to that coffee shop, and I'd never leave my paper on the table to let someone else clean it up. So he fought that photograph.

RAZ: Yeah, that's an interesting way to do it.

CHEUSE: And this is a story that I liked a lot from Peggy Hansen from Boulder Creek, California:

(Reading) Lately, I am obsessed with surfaces, doorknobs, tabletops, faucet handles, telephones, light switches - all the daily objects, touched a dozen, a hundred times a day by unwashed hands, fingering everything and leaving a film of microbes.

RAZ: What great, great writing. They're just absolutely brilliant stories. But unfortunately, we have to pick one, or you have to pick one, Alan, which is a tough job. And I gather we are now at the moment we have been waiting for. Who is our winner of this round?

CHEUSE: The winner is Rhonda Strickland of Raleigh, North Carolina, with her story called "Please Read."

RAZ: And Alan, I understand that coincidentally, it turns out that when our producer called Rhonda, she actually said that she once took a writing class with you more than 20 years ago. Do you remember anything about her?

CHEUSE: I remember what she looked like. I can honestly say that I don't remember a line that she wrote, and that would be horrible if she hadn't written these wonderful lines in the story.

RAZ: Well, let's find out if Rhonda Strickland is, indeed, the same Rhonda Strickland that you remember.

Rhonda, are you there?

Ms. RHONDA STRICKLAND (Winner, Three-Minute Fiction Contest): Yeah, I'm here. Hi.

RAZ: Hi, congratulations.

Ms. STRICKLAND: Thank you.

CHEUSE: Hi, Rhonda.

Ms. STRICKLAND: Hi, Alan. It's been a long time.

CHEUSE: Many, many decades, yes.

RAZ: Rhonda, what do you do out there in Raleigh?

Ms. STRICKLAND: Well, I'm an artist. I work (unintelligible) class, and I'm also a writer.

RAZ: Well, you must have learned something from our judge Alan Cheuse, you know, all those years back.

Ms. STRICKLAND: I did.

RAZ: Because all the stories we have received were first read by students at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and then they picked just a few, you know, dozen to pass along to Alan.

Now, Alan, what made Rhonda's story stand out?

CHEUSE: A couple of things. First of all, it's in a man's voice. So she's daring herself to do that. And second of all, it moved toward the coffee shop window rather than away from it, easy enough to depart from it but difficult to position the narrative to move toward the objects of the photograph.

And it suggests, or as my dear old friend Bernard Malamud used to say, it predicates a life. You can just feel the life boiling up out of these lines.

RAZ: Rhonda, before we hear the story, this is about - roughly, it's about teenage train hoppers in Tucson, Arizona. How did you get from the photo we posted to the story you wrote?

Ms. STRICKLAND: Well, it was someone looking through a window into a place that had a table with a newspaper open on it. I just think it's a beautiful picture, but it immediately made me feel like an outsider, and I just had no impulse to put myself inside the shop, like reading the paper or the person who left the paper.

And also, I'm getting ready to go to Tucson.

CHEUSE: By train?

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Ms. STRICKLAND: Oh, no, I wish, but...

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CHEUSE: You're not going to hop the train?

Ms. STRICKLAND: I'm not going to hop the train. The last time I was out there, and there's this whole train-hopping community out there, and I was always intrigued by the few details that I learned when I was out there about underground culture.

RAZ: It's just amazing to hear how that photograph inspired all of these different stories and led to your story, Rhonda. And as you know, because you're the winner, you'll receive a signed copy of Alan's book "To Catch the Lightning." And, of course, Alan, I'm going to pull out my stopwatch here because I want to time Rhonda's story. You're going to read it. It has to be under three minutes. So let's hear it. The story is called "Please Read."

CHEUSE: (Reading) In Tucson, we found the train-hopping kids, and went with them to New York City. I was 15 and had never been out of Arizona. That summer, I'd learned to eat from Dumpsters, carry a knife in my pocket and sleep with my backpack chained to my waist. My girlfriend Sarah was scared to try, but when she saw I'd go without her, she came.

New Mexico and Texas floated past, framed in the open rail car door. We slept under a Baton Rouge bridge, partied in New Orleans, changed trains in Atlanta. Sarah was liking this now. At Penn Station, we stepped outside, and the cold stung our skin. We stood there and blinked. The other kids headed round back of a coffee shop to Dumpster dive. Sarah called to me. I shook my head, and she went. I knew she'd bring back something - a stale doughnut, a still warm half-cup of coffee.

In the shop window, I studied my reflection. Wild, red hair stuck out from knots Sarah couldn't untangle with her broken comb. My eyes seemed too large and staring. My beard still looked strange. I thought of Phoenix. I'd left home over a month ago, telling no one. I hugged myself, shivering. We'd have to find coats, sweaters. I stopped seeing myself, and looked through the glass, at a warm table with a spread-open newspaper, carelessly left behind. The pages fluttered each time a customer opened the door and went in.

Sarah came up beside me, handed over a half-eaten apple. She said, no coffee. Her hands were blue. She followed my gaze. We'll get newspapers tonight. She meant for sleeping. Old papers were everywhere, littering the ground under bridges, inside doorways, beside creeks and riverbeds. We stuffed our clothes and covered ourselves when it rained.

She said, come on, Ben, but I couldn't stop looking at the newspaper, how people walked past, ruffling the pages, not noticing. The paper danced in the draft they created, and inched across the table, moving close to the edge. Sarah tugged my arm and I looked anxiously at the Tucson kids rounding a corner, searching for food. I didn't know how to explain to Sarah I wanted this paper.

I wasn't thinking of Phoenix anymore, of my home and my parents. I wanted to fold this newspaper shut with a crease, protect it from the gray sooty day, keep it from falling to the floor, where it would soon get covered in black shoe prints. But I couldn't get myself to go in, take it from the table. In its perfect frame of polished wood and gleaming glass, lit by lamps and the glowing smiles of people sipping coffee from steaming china cups, I knew the paper wasn't mine.

RAZ: What a wonderful story. And Alan, we timed that at two minutes, 38 seconds. That's Alan Cheuse, reading "Please Read," which is a story by Rhonda Strickland. She's the winner of Round Three of our Three-Minute Fiction Contest, and congratulations to you.

Ms. STRICKLAND: Thank you very much, Guy. And thank you, Alan. It was wonderful to hear it read.

CHEUSE: It's a wonderful coincidence but not such a coincidence. You wrote a wonderful story.

RAZ: And Alan, thank you so much for your stewardship this round.

CHEUSE: Great pleasure, Guy.

RAZ: And this is just a reminder that Round Four of Three-Minute Fiction will begin next weekend. We'll have a new challenge and a new judge, author Ann Patchett.

Thanks to all the folks who helped with this round of Three-Minute Fiction: Rob Hill(ph) who graciously provided his wonderful photograph, and our talented readers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Abbey Palmer, Andy Graff, Annie Sloniker, April Seiffer(ph), Charity Stebbins(ph), Chelsea Dappin(ph), Jeannella Oak Paranta(ph), Emily Ruskavitch(ph), Erica Jo Brown(ph), Gabrielle Zanoni(ph), Jill Bodak(ph), Jonathan Raley(ph), Kaila Sawyer Stein(ph), Laura Martin(ph), Lucy Seilag(ph), Michael Fauver(ph), Montreaux Rotholtz(ph), Ryan Lenz(ph), Samuel McFee(ph), Scott Butterfield(ph) and Ted Kehoe(ph). And thanks to our producer Petra Mayer for this round.

And to see the winning story and to read some of our readers' picks, visit our Web site. That's npr.org/threeminutefiction. And that's threeminutefiction all spelled out, no spaces.

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