Literary Awards

2015 Best Unpublished Novel Contest

Robin won the Richmond magazine and James River Writers' 2015 Best Unpublished Novel contest with her novel, "The Key to the Quarter Pole."

The opening chapter is available on the Home page at robintwilliams.com.

2014 Golden Pen Award

Robin won third in the Virginia Writers' Club Golden Pen 2014 Award for Non-Fiction for a blog post that appears as a chapter in The Last Romantic War. The blog post is available here: http://burmaroadblues.tumblr.com/post/93212961331/what-he-knew-when-he-wrote-the-letter

2008 Golden Pen Award

Robin won the Virginia Writers’ Club Golden Pen 2008 Award for Fiction for a chapter from her novel-in-progress about the racetrack.

Award-winning excerpt from The Key to the Quarter Pole

Louisa helped Mike tighten the overgirth on the last of five horses he had running that day. Amazingly, the mess that morning had not involved any of Mike’s string. It had been a long day and she was tired, but she wasn’t quite done yet. When the groom led the horse out of the saddling stall and walked him around the paddock, Mike went to the grassy oval in the middle and talked with the horse’s owners. Louisa turned to watch the professional handicappers give their preview of the race.

Mike’s horse was the Three, and Hank tabbed him as a prohibitive favorite. “He’s the winner, but there’s no value there, unless you key him over an exacta wheel,” said Hank. “What do you say, Lawrence?”

“It’s been a good night for Mike Lucci. He’s already won three tonight, but I’m seeing an upset in this race. Gloucester Genie looks ready to run big. Number Six wins and pays forty bucks.”

“Well, folks, Lawrence goes with another long shot. Is he good or is he crazy?”

“Hey, the Six horse has been winning all night,” joked Lawrence. “Why not one more time?”

Boyd “Wick” Keswick extricated himself from the circle around the owners of the Two horse, a small syndicate of graduates of St. Christopher’s School in Richmond that went by the name Six Saints Stable. With so many local connections, they did not need his personal attention the way out-of-state owners often did. He’d had a busy day with the usual complications of weekend racing: not enough tables, not enough mutuel tellers, too many wacko patrons. One woman had brought her dog, a sort of golden retriever-looking thing, and when she was refused entry, she had tied knots in the leash to form a harness and claimed the mutt was a seeing-eye dog.

On the other hand, some good friends from Florida, where he worked as general manager of Calder before he came to Colonial Downs, were passing through, and he spent some time with them. The reunion was happy until they began to reminisce about Laura. “We had some good times, then, when the children were small, didn’t we?”

Wick had to agree.

“I was miserable when you all moved to Virginia. Laura and I had our babies together and everything. I didn’t think I could raise Karen and Scotty without her.”

“Yeah, Shirley moped around like she’d lost her sister.” “She was better than a sister.”

Wick nodded. “Are you being taken care of?” He signaled a waiter. “I’m sorry but I have to get to the paddock. Michael, please get Mr. and Mrs. Himmel a drink and put it on my tab.”

“Tell Laura… Give her a hug for us.”

“I will.”

When Wick got to the paddock, he saw Louisa watching that boy give his handicapping analysis. After exchanging pleasantries with the principals in Six Saints Stable, he joined her. When Lawrence and Hank finished their commentary, Louisa turned to him and said, “Wick, I need your help. It’s important.” There was hardly anything Louisa could have said that would have made Wick feel any better. He puffed up and smiled. “What?”

“I have to find a swimming pool.”

“All right,” he said.

Wick did not know, right off, how he was going construct an equine exercise pool nearby in the next twenty-four hours, but he was committed to fulfilling Louisa’s desire for one. It was tough being a woman in this business, and Louisa had managed to be strong without becoming hard, which Wick found amazing. He had always admired her, and he liked doing little favors for her when he could. Finding a swimming pool for a fourteen-year-old claimer was somewhat more than “a little favor” but something in the way that Louisa sought his help made him think it was within the realm of possibility. Although now, as they drove out of the racetrack, Wick did not even know which way he was going to turn when he got to the highway.

“How far is the river?” Louisa asked, and Wick turned south, towards the James River.

“Route 5 runs along the river, and it’s ten or fifteen miles over there,” he said.

“We need a boat landing,” she said.

“And a boat,” he added.

“First we’ve got to find some water we can get him into, then we’ll figure out how to make him swim,” she said.

They crossed a small bridge over a rivulet with a sign announcing this was the Chickahominy River.

“You could walk along the banks of the Chickahominy and lead him,” Wick said. “Don’t think that would cover his ankles.”

Wick laughed and kept going. At Route 5, he turned west and drove parallel to the James River, which was screened from view – and accessibility – by acres of corn and hardwood forests. Signs indicated the waterfront was laced together in the privately-owned colonial plantations: Evelynton, Shirley, Berkeley. They did not see anything resembling a public boat ramp.

“Let’s see what’s back here,” Wick said. He turned the car into a dirt road by a sign for Riverside Park. The road skirted a field and entered a small woods with signs for a nature trail on either side. As they emerged from the woods into a small parking lot, they saw the river spread out before them, three hundred yards wide and forty-five feet deep there, a few miles below the fall line at Richmond. “That’ll cover his fetlocks,” said Wick.

“I wonder if it’s always this crowded?” Louisa asked.

A middle-aged man was using the boat ramp to load a jon boat onto his trailer, and a young couple waited nearby to ship their canoe. Another car with a boat and trailer was parked on the side, and a couple of men sat on a picnic table drinking something out of a cooler. On the dock several people were fishing. Prominent signs posted on the dock and by the boat ramp read, “No Swimming.”

“You start canoeing here with Alice and it’ll be on the front page of the New Kent County Gazette, then you will have a crowd.”

They stared at the scene in silence.

“Let’s go back up and explore the Chickahominy,” Louisa suggested. “Maybe it gets deeper if you go east.”

“Louisa.”

“Now Wick, don’t say ‘Louisa’ to me in that tone of voice.”

Wick looked at his friend, who sat forward scanning the landscape as though she believed a suitable body of water lurked behind the pine brush. He wanted to find something that would work, for her sake, but the whole thing seemed impossible to him. Finding some water they could get the horse into. Getting permission to use the body of water. Getting the horse to swim around. Trailering him back and forth. It was overwhelming. “This isn’t the old days and I’m not Croaker Norge,” he said.

“Thank goodness for that!” said Louisa without taking her eyes off the passing view.

“And Alice ain’t Kelso.”

She ignored that and said, “Look. There’s a sign for a public boat ramp.”

They turned off the highway and followed a narrow road that wound between small farms and old gingerbread houses set close to the road. Other small roads intersected but, in the way of rural areas, where locals know where they are going and strangers are unexpected, there was little in the way of directional signage. Periodically they saw yet another small brown sign announcing the existence of a public boat ramp some undisclosed distance ahead.

“This damn boat ramp must be on the Atlantic Ocean.”

Louisa laughed.

At the next intersection, he turned around. She didn’t protest.

“Here. Turn down this little road.”

They drove a mile or so between cultivated fields, passing a small house with several outbuildings and farm equipment neatly parked around it. Then the pavement ended. “Louisa,” he said, in that tone of voice again, “this is somebody’s farm. We might get shot for trespassing.”

“No it isn’t. Look. There’s a state route sign.”

They followed the gravel road through some woods and emerged in a clearing. Directly ahead was a large body of water, large enough to swim most of the racehorses in Virginia in. They had found a place where the Chickahominy languorously spreads over the flat coastal plain and loops back on itself. Fringed with marine grasses and dotted with floating islands of lily pads, the marshy area contained secret channels for the river that were easily deep enough for a horse to swim and a man to drown.

“That looks perfect!” Louisa said. “Pull over and let’s go look.”

Wick drove as near to the water as he dared. Louisa got out and began exploring the shoreline for a firm place to lead a horse into the water. Wick followed, wondering why he had not anticipated hiking through a marsh and worn something more suitable than the tassled loafers of his Turf Club attire. The ground was soft and the bank poorly-defined, but Louisa pressed on, pushing tall marsh grass aside and searching optimistically in the fading light for a paved ramp at a thirty-degree angle into the water.

“Louisa, I don’t think this is the place.”

She walked a few more yards then stopped. “I guess you’re right.”

“You’re damn straight I’m right. It’s nothing but a bog. You’ve got about as much business leading a horse through here as a kitten in Sunday school.”

Louisa returned to the car dejected.

As it turned out, driving a car along the bank made as much sense as a kitten in Sunday school, too. Wick tried forward and reverse, but the wheels spun in deeper. It was nearly dark as they gathered some pine branches and laid them behind the wheels to provide traction.

“All right, see if you can back it out easy. I’ll push,” said Wick. “If it gets moving, don’t stop till you’re on the road, even if I fall down and have a heart attack.”

“Oh Wick, I’m so sorry. You’re such a good sport. You were so nice to take me on this wild goose chase and now I’ve ruined your shoes and gotten your car stuck. I feel terrible.”

“Well, you ought to.”

They both laughed.

The pine boughs failed to get the car out.

“Come on,” Wick said after Louisa spun mud on his trousers. “Let’s go see if that farmer back there wants to fire up his tractor tonight. I don’t think triple-A covers this situation.”

The farmer was surprised to find a muddy, middle-aged couple knocking at the door seeking assistance. He had, on occasion, been approached by worried teenagers who had parked too close to the marsh on a Friday night, but these folks seemed a little old for that sort of thing. Although who could say these days. The man’s tie had been loosened and the woman’s gray hair was falling down from where it had been pinned on top of her head. Definitely hanky panky, he decided. The man wore a tie but the woman had on jeans. Somebody, maybe both of them, was slipping around.

For twenty bucks, though, he was happy to get the tractor and pull their car out of the marsh. Besides, he sort of liked showing off his shiny new Massey Ferguson with the enclosed cab, air conditioning and CD player. With the car on firm ground, the axle chain stowed in the tractor’s tool box and a fresh Andy Jackson in his billfold, the farmer couldn’t resist asking what they were doing.

“We’re trying to find a place to swim a horse,” Wick began, aware this explanation would make them appear even more foolish.

“Alice is handicapped and needs the exercise,” Louisa said.

“Alice? Your horse’s name is ‘Alice’?” the farmer said.

“Yes. ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.”

“Oh,” said the farmer, “like that Arlo Guthrie song: ‘You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.’”

“You know Arlo Guthrie?” Louisa asked with delight.

“Well, not personally,” said the farmer. “I’ve got a CD of old folksongs that I play a lot in the tractor. I really like ‘The City of New Orleans’.”

“That is a great song,” said Louisa.

“Thank you for helping us,” Wick said, taking Louisa’s arm and guiding her towards the car.

“What about your horse?” the farmer asked.

“We’ll figure out something.”

“What are you trying to do?”

“It’s a racehorse,” Wick said, “and he’s got a bad knee. Back home they’ve got a pool they swim him in to keep him fit between races. We’ve got to find a place to swim him around here.” He shrugged. “We thought maybe we could swim him in the river. Sorry to bother you.”

“He’s got a regular pool he swims in back home?”

“It’s a pool for horses. It’s got a ramp to walk down, and it’s got a walkway around the edge for a man to lead the horse. You know somebody who’s got one like that?” Wick said with a smile.

The farmer looked thoughtful. “I don’t know if it’s still there or not, but there used to be a pool like that down there.” He nodded towards the east.

Wick and Louisa looked at each other.

“They used to have this camp for handicapped children. It’s seven or eight miles from here. My wife used to work there. They had a ramp in the pool because some of the kids were in wheelchairs, and it was easier to get them in the water that way. That what you need?”

Later that night, after a clandestine tour of the defunct handicapped children’s camp and the discovery of a small but serviceable swimming pool with a ramp, the two explorers stopped at a country store for beer and nabs.

“Oh Wick, isn’t it great we’ve found a pool for Alice? You are such a great friend. Thank you.”

“I just hope it’ll work. You’ve got a few more hurdles to get over.”

“The pool was the hardest. You found me a pool, I can make the rest work.”

As they drove through the barn area to the camper park, they were enveloped in the aroma of drying marsh mud.

“Will you ever be able to get your shoes clean?” she asked.

“I’ve been thinking of setting up a shoeshine stand in the grandstand,” he said. “In the old days, all the tracks had them.”

“You said this wasn’t the old days.”

He smiled.

“Bring them to me in the morning and I’ll soap them for you.”

“I’ve got saddle soap at the house.”

“Yes, but it’s the least I can do for you.”

He sat a moment, contemplating the thought of a woman doing something for him. “I hate to go home,” he said at last. “The house is so empty.”

Louisa nodded. “It’s hard, I’m sure.”

“The boys don’t… I was…mad for awhile because they didn’t go see her, but Boyd Junior said he wanted to remember her the way she was. I guess it’s better for them to go on with their lives. They’ve got children of their own to look after.”

“If they are trying to be good parents, isn’t that a tribute to Laura and you?”

He shrugged. “Maybe that’s the best thing they can do for her now.”

“I guess.”

“But what about you?”

“What about me?”

“You’ve been very loyal.”

He looked surprised. “I love her.”

“I know. And it’s hard to let go.”

“Is that what I’m supposed to do?”

“One day,” she said and opened the car door.

“Gracias, Madre.”

“Buenos noches, Senor Wick.”

 

Library of Virginia Literary Award

Robin’s latest book, “Bush Hogs and Other Swine,” was nominated for the 14th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards in the category of nonfiction.