Thursday, December 31, 2009

Spaghetti

He kept dialing a phone number no one answered. It was one of three he uncovered searching for someone, a job-associated chore. The number fascinated him, since it kept ringing with no person or message system answering. It was like a reality wrinkle, a pocket of nothingness. He would dial at work, allowing prolonged ringing each time. Any moment, he thought, someone will answer.

At home, he dialed the number, used the speaker phone, the entrancing echo-on-echo sound it produced—like time travel—continuing as he made spaghetti, polished his shoes, dusted long neglected clothing. He wondered, how long before the phone company intervened? Just before bed, he stopped it, but slept restlessly, feeling an unnamed discomfort, like mental tearing.

The next night, he called, let it ring quietly through the night, through the next day. The discomfort continued, morphing into an intensifying cranial echo. Trying to alleviate this feeling, he went out for sushi, beer, the night air biting cold. On the street, he thought he heard a phone ringing. An open window, a door ajar. He entered, decided to answer the phone. Hello, and there’s no one, his voice reverberating, a sound that would mount in his ears for days after, rewriting his dreams as ringing phones he couldn’t answer.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

This Blog's Still Alive

Posts are just lighter because of the Christmas holiday season. 

Keep checking Thinly Sliced Raw Fish for new stuff every other day for the time being.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Santa's Last Stand

The year he resumed gift delivery, Santa was shot down by an F-111 fighter plane. He saw the missile coming and knew he couldn't evade it. The reindeer bucked and brayed and threw howling fits, and both sleigh and beasts went into a dive after the missile's impact. Since magic, though now undeniably diminished, was on his side, Santa's sleigh was not destroyed by the blast, but he crashed hard into the Canadian tundra, and his sleigh was rendered inoperable. The reindeer, dusted in snow, gathered in a misshapen circle and hung their heads in dismay. They knew the score--shot down before visiting one house. The situation seemed hopeless.

Santa had been watching the pilots since infanthood--Gus Rodriguez from San Antonio, Texas, Jimmy Seevant from Brooklyn, New York--and, though he had been on hiatus during their childhood, knew that he would've put presents under their trees, the little troublemakers, as he had done for most children. Gus, who couldn't help himself when it came to firecrackers and armadillos, and Jimmy, who never saw a street fight he didn't start. Until age seven, both of them believed in a Santa who didn't actually bring their gifts. After someone stopped believing, whether or not Santa was active, the belief could never be restored.

For the world's children, Santa had always overlooked youthful transgressions and put something under the tree as long as they believed in him. It was the holiday's promise of hope. For hundreds of years, he was the deliverer of hope and the fulfiller of dreams and wishes.

That ended in 1951, when Santa quit. That year was the other time he had been shot down. Television, advanced weaponry, swelling paranoia--he saw the coming trend. The world's population was growing exponentially. He could handle that. But the new technologies, and the new ways of thinking that accompanied them, had squeezed him and his magic out. He had embraced a cynical thought he had never known--let the people of the world get their own gifts. And he refused the wishes of Bertram Wingberry, his former elfin Chief Officer of Toy Weaponry and Combat, who, in a letter written to Santa once a year, stated he should've made the holiday more Lethal Weapon than Miracle on 34th Street by fitting the sleigh with a guided missile system. On Donner, on Busey, on Glover and Gibson, he wrote. This was not what Christmas was about, Santa thought. It's better I bowed out, left the world alone.

In the snow, Santa tried to encourage his reindeer. The night's still young, he said. Somehow, we'll get airborne again. Hope is on our side.

But how? After Santa nixed Christmas, the elves quit. They had nowhere to go, and ever since have wandered the world hiding in shadows. They couldn't bear Santa's abandonment of the world and left. It was just the reindeer and Santa now, alone in the cold night. Neither reindeer nor Santa, unlike the elves, was a sleigh mechanic.

Restarting Christmas giving was a venture that welcomed failure. There were many questions. Since Santa had been gone so long, parents had been buying their children toys--what would he do about gifts already under trees? He could enter homes without notice, but seemingly couldn't fly without being tracked on radar--how would he counteract that? He knew that his magical abilities were diminishing--how would he adapt? And since the elves were gone, how was he going to build all those toys?

Despite the questions, Santa decided this year was the time to return. From the North Pole, he had watched the world the last fifty-eight years. It had become an unforgiving place, especially for children. In the last few years, the deterioration has accelerated. The world--the children--needed hope once again.

So, he worked feverishly making toys himself, deciding not to worry about the rest, and, on Christmas Eve, suited up and hopped in the sleigh. It felt great. The cold air washing his cheeks, the stars painting the night sky in twinkling white light. He could already taste milk and cookies, the warmth of lived-in homes. He had been thinking of stockings embroidered with children's names when he heard the sear of the missile approaching.

On the ground, Santa saw Gus and Jimmy returning for the kill. The reindeer scurried behind him, as he stood firm, red clothed belly extended toward Asia. There was still hope, he thought, as the plane, like an angry shark, moved feverishly closer. There's always hope.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Based on Real Life Events

Today's Thinly Sliced Raw Fish installment, here, is based on something that actually happened.  Some details added to fill in memory lapses, smooth out reality bumps, as usual.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas in Latvia

Argo Kingsland didn’t count on being stuck in traffic in the Baltics on Christmas Eve. The cab driver told him, traffic in Riga was always bad but on Christmas Eve, everyone plays then prays. The cab smelled like cheeseburgers. The driver spoke Latvian, his head bouncing up and down, into a squawking radio. The car's stereo played a throbbing techno version of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," sung in Russian.

He was trying to return to his hotel to call his brother Tim in Baltimore, where it was close to 5:00 in the afternoon. The sun just setting, Tim, his wife and two girls were probably just finishing dinner, readying to have dessert and hot chocolate, watch a Christmas movie. All decked out in red and green, sweaters with tree and reindeer patterns, posing for a Norman Rockwell painting entitled simply, "Family Christmas." Firm-footed Tim waiting for world-wandering Argo to call was not part of this picture. The phone call would be a disruption, jarring the scene and its participants loose. Argo's Christmas scene would have a name too long, be painted by Picasso in a "Guernica" state of mind, colored in browns and grays, installed in a circular gallery where its end would just fall short of meeting its start.

He told the driver he could just walk. The driver said, no, you don't want to walk. Pickpockets, even on Christmas. The car would roll a few feet to a squeaky stop then roll again.

Riga was domes and spires. Barren trees, snow-covered parks. New skyscrapers competing with churches in touching heaven.

Last year it was Paris. Previous years were Portland, Berlin, Tokyo. This year, he thought he’d go some place completely off the mark, so he went with Latvia. The dream of world traveling—he had fulfilled it. But with each passing year, he felt more and more that he was just spinning—going everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Revellers dancing between stopped cars, singing Christmas carols. They weaved through traffic, disappeared into churches and apartments. Church bells rang in the distance.

The song in the cab, just as it seemed to end, started again. The perpetual carol, with a dance beat. The cab seemed to have become stationary. Maybe, Argo thought, he had died and gone to hell.

"Somehow," Argo said. "Christmas ends up like this. A traffic jam. In a foreign country."

"Never where you want to be," the driver said, turning his head. His eyes were wide whites, beard patchy, skin doughy—Argo figured he was probably in his mid-forties. "Yes, I know this feeling. My brother watches my little girl while I drive. Dead mama—God rest her soul—gone papa, yet she still believes in Santa Claus. When I get home I will kiss her on the cheek, move her hair off her face while she sleeps. Tomorrow we will have Christmas for a few hours."

"Sounds familiar," Argo said. He had no children but only his nieces. Right now, they were probably counting the minutes until Christmas, bouncing up and down at the thought of the bounty that would await them under the tree. "You, me—we seem to be everywhere but home, hanging stockings and sitting by the fire. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?"

"I don’t know,” the driver said, his right hand in the air as his left clutched the steering wheel. “I don't have a fireplace anyway."

Argo smiled, felt his pockets for a cigarette. Nothing. He smoked his last one an hour ago. The driver reached back, handed him one.

"Eggnog?" The driver held up a metal thermos with a thick-fingered hand. "Strong and bold, fuel for a Baltic winter!"

“Sounds good. I could use a stiff drink.”

He poured Argo some in a paper cup. It was harsh with vodka, had mere hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. The driver appeared to be drinking an innocuous soda out of a can.

"Just look around you." The driver turned around and faced Argo. "Snow on the ground, red brake lights, Christmas songs. I'm here, my family is there, but Christmas--it's all around us. Wherever you are, I say."

The driver answered a radio call, his voice re-descending into Latvian.

Argo looked ahead. A stick-like clock advertising chocolates indicated it was past midnight. He'd crawled into Christmas.

The song morphed into a slow, ethereal version of "Joy to the World." His cigarette and drink vanished. The traffic, though, was the same song.

He thought about Tim and his family, their Rockwell painting life. He closed his eyes and saw himself slipping into the picture. Wrapped and ribboned gifts surrounding him. Kids climbing on Uncle Argo’s lap. Tim handing him a glass of eggnog, a plate of snowflake cookies. Christmas songs playing on the stereo.

Maybe next year.

But now, here was Christmas. Imperfect as it was. He opened his eyes. All around. Wherever you are.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

34%

Thinly Sliced Raw Fish is more than one-third complete. Post #17 (of 50) is now up. Where has the time gone?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Five Minute Fiction

One of my favorite books on writing is Fast Fiction: Creating Fiction in Five Minutes by Roberta Allen. The book is essentially a workshop in a book on creating flash fiction (what was more commonly referred to as short-short stories in 1997, when this book was published), and also provides guidance on how to take the pieces you create and turn them into even longer works. The early chapters of the book focus primarily on the short-short/flash fiction, what makes them work, and how they compare to traditional, longer stories.

The part of this book that you keep coming back is the section of writing exercises. She gives you hundreds of writing prompts. For each prompt, you get five minutes to write a story (a sample prompt—Write a story about stairs). Since it’s an exercise in spontaneity, it’ll be rough, but you’ll have written something that can later be refined into something better.

I have used these exercises to get me writing, and I’ve reworked the material from many of these five minute pieces into works that have more definite shapes. Multiple works from my 212 series started out as five minute exercises. I have a store of old exercises that haven’t been reworked yet, but this accumulation of raw material will be quite useful in writing future stories.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Icewine

My friend Jack was going to Niagara so I gave him $50 to buy me a bottle of icewine. But I knew I’d never see the $50 again. Or the icewine. He’d stay at an American side dive, drink his way through the town’s bleak watering holes, probably never see the Falls. He’d never go to Canada because who knows if he has a passport, it’d be too much effort, and he’d say, what’s the big deal, anyway. That $50 would buy himself entertainment: cheap bottled beer, shots of Wild Turkey, a bottle of Thunderbird. He’d eat greasy pizza, chain fast food. Maybe he’d go so far as to buy the icewine but look at it with a curious watery drunken eye, say what the hell, and crack it open, wonder what the big deal was, deeming it an overpriced wine cooler, while squeezing out the last drop. Why he was going was a mystery—he could do all of that at home. He’d return, I’d probably not say anything, a great enabling failure, I know, and neither would he. I might say to him, how was Niagara, and he, drunk, would quickly change the subject, at least for a few months, until he just had to tell me of his exploits.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bedrock

Fred awakens from a dream of bowling with Garry Granite and Ann-Margrock, in mid-twinkletoes approach. Stomach growling, already hungry for Brontosaurus burgers. But there's a silence he's never experienced before. He calls out, Wilmaaaaaaaa!, but no answer. He jumps up, looks out the window toward Barney's house. Baaaaarney!, he calls. Nothing. Dino, old boy? Nothing.

Gazoo?, he whispers. The green imp pops before him. He floats in the air, tossing a glass orb.

They're all gone, dum-dum. And they're not coming back.

Now, Gazoo, quit playing around. I haven't had breakfast yet and Mr. Slate'll fire me if I'm late again.

You don't get it, do you, dum-dum? Getting your simple Stone Age brain to evolve is going to be burdensome. This charade--all of this, is over. It's just you now.

Does this mean I don't have to go work, Fred asks.

Gazoo nods. Fred grows a tyranosaurus-sized smile, thinks of unlimited bowling, burgers, and cactus cola.

I know what you're thinking, dum-dum, yes, it's all there for you to have, but you're leaving too. And what good would it all be by your lonesome?

Thanks for ruining my fun, Fred shouts.

Fred looks back and forth, up and down, then back at Gazoo, who now has the orb floating before him.

Now, Gazoo, when you say it's over, and I'm going too, just what do you mean?

It means that everyone else is dead.

Dead? What do you mean?

Finito.

I don't get it.

Sayonara, hasta la vista, dum-dum. Let's just say the Water Buffalo Lodge is down to just one brother...

Fred looks at his three-toed feet and then back at Gazoo, a pensive look on his face.

When's Wilma coming back? Pebbles? Barney?

They're not. No one is, ever.

But why? Why now?

Why not now? Any day is as good as the next, and, here in Bedrock, today is yesterday is tomorrow, so it's all the same day. Have you ever noticed, you never get older? Neither does Wilma? That everyone here wears the same clothes everyday? That everything is always the same?

Fred sits on the bed's edge, looks at his clothes, feels his face.

I don't get what you're saying, Gazoo.

Of course you don't. But I'm here to help. You're the center of this little universe, so you must figure it out so we can close and move on. Once you do, you'll be dead too. And you'll see Wilma again. And everyone else. They're waiting for you, champ.

Fred puts his head between his hands.

I feel as thick as a stegosaurus.

Gazoo floats to him, pats him on the head and smiles.

Don't worry, my sweet, sweet dum-dum. I have faith in you. You will figure it out.

They sat quiet for a few minutes, Fred thinking, Gazoo tossing his orb.

Gazoo, can we go bowling? One last time? It'll help me think.

Gazoo looks into his black eyes. Sad and dense, unaware.

Sure we can, Fred. Sure we can.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Horseradish

The guys nicknamed me Horseradish because I turned bitter once outside. I was the jovial cigar-smoking whiskey-swilling character at the interrogation-lighting card table, a table-turning, scowling, madman cartoon once I was performing Company work. As I aged, it got difficult separating the two, maintaining two lives. I acquired a family. I stopped sleeping as well despite fewer nights out, fewer cigars and drinks. My family wasn’t sure who I was. I’d get home and work life mixed up, brandishing my gun at the dinner table, stopping just before clonking arguing heads together. I went to my boss, nicknamed Pecan, who said, this is a common problem. You either ditch your family or this job, he said. I told him the job. He said, okay but we need to have a funeral. We say sayonara to Horseradish, you go back to who you were. So this happened. A secluded section in a graveyard, a tombstone marked simply “Horseradish,” a hole in the ground. Nearby there were other markers: Pistachio, Wasabi, Jicama. The gang was gathered in suits. Pecan said, adios, Horseradish, and tossed in a jar of horseradish. The other guys did the same then broke out in laughter. Some slaps on the back, handshakes. Something lifted from me. I felt one again.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Watermelon @ The NOT

My story “Watermelon” is up today as the Guest Write at Not From Here, Are You? (also referred to as The NOT), the blog of writer Michael Solender, here.

Thanks to Michael for posting for my work on his excellent blog, and I’m humbled at his introductory write-up.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Eggnog

I’m alone at a Christmas party, wearing a bad sweater, sporting windblown hair, drinking some hearty eggnog ladled from a punch bowl and there’s some guy I don’t know trying to tell me how it’s made. Separate the egg yolks, he says, and I nod, sipping a rich mixture that brings back memories of Christmases past. Rising in the dark dawn for action figures and bikes. Carefree eves of parties, ice cold walks to midnight mass with friends. I move to the cheese table, stuff cheddar into my mouth. This guy goes on: whip the cream, not too much, then fold it in. To the stereo, other guests in loose huddles talking tv shows and retirement planning. The folding’s important, he says. Don’t I know, I say. I’m making the circuit and eventually, I end up on the porch, no coat, a cold bite in the air. He’s there. Rum, brandy, and whiskey are essential, he says. You got that, I say, my glass now empty. It’s silent except for a whistling breeze, bells in the distance. I admire your acumen, I say, but my interest is in drinking. He nods, shuffles back inside. Snowflakes trickle to the ground. I stand at the porch’s edge, alone, looking at the starry sky.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Echolalia

“What did you dream about?”

“What did you dream about? A mathematician pondering the Devil’s staircase—“

[Here there is some shuffling in seats, the flatulent sounds of limbs moving in leather chairs. Voyeuristic eyes would see a therapist and patient. Shelves of books, mild soft lighting, an antique feel to the raw umber floor coverings infused with Aztec designs.]

“The Devil’s staircase?”

“The Devil’s staircase? A mathematical function that is continuous but not absolutely continuous. It’s also called the Cantor function. If you looked at a graph you’d understand. It looks like a staircase hence—“

[Zooming in on the patient, the casual observer might think, here’s someone who has mathematical aptitude, who would spend his livelihood working numbers at a university. Short-sleeve pale blue shirt with thin graph lines, black-rimmed glasses too large for his face, etc. The therapist would fit into a college psychology department—straight black hair with streaks of white, gray blazer and slacks and white blouse. No glasses (but contacts). Wrinkles of age at the corners of her eyes, lips.]

“All right I get it. Now, the dream…”

“All right I get it. Now, the dream… Does my condition bother you? You appear somewhat flustered. Those lines on your face. The redness that’s showing on your cheeks. Your eyes are what could be described as, beady. Pinpoint stars from another galaxy—those suns so far away that can’t be dark suns any longer, they’re just like a light bulb shining through the gossamer curtains of someone’s living room window, the—“

[The therapist has been diagnosed correctly here as slightly flustered—a condition she takes great pains to avoid. It’s the headache pounding since daybreak. It’s the cancelled appointments, the bounced checks. In her mind the word “flagellation” keeps playing over and over. She doesn’t know why. Her mind keeps playing it, dissecting the word into the sound “fladge” and the double l’s after.]

"Please, it’s the explanation, really, that’s the problem here. It’s the dream I want to hear about. As your therapist, I’m fully aware of your condition. Your echolalia, as it’s been diagnosed, branded, stamped on your forehead, penciled onto your passport, all that good stuff.”

[Her hand over his mouth, she’s muffling the echolalist’s repeating of these words, not allowing this tic to be expressed in decipherable language, so it comes out of his mouth, into his hand, garbled, suppressed, a vomit of nonsense sound. The therapist is somewhat taken aback at herself, as she doesn’t usually make contact with her patients unless it’s a bland handshake. The patient is undeterred, still talking as if the hand weren’t there.]

“Now on to the dream. I promise not to stop you.”

“Now on to the dream. I promise not to stop you. Oh, yes, right. A mathematician pondering the Devil’s staircase. Who is then dreaming about another mathematician, a woman, who is in a city-sized grocery store perusing cheeses and popcorn and a produce section that’s like an art gallery. So she’s loading up her cart, gouda on top of manchego on top of Orville Redenbacher on top of watermelon-sized papaya, and it’s a dream so things just appear and disappear and she looks at her list and it’s a Cesàro summation.”

[The therapist puts a hand to her forehead, shielding her eyes like a visor, lets out a sigh. Fighting the urge to ask the question. The patient is silent, waiting on her, as he can see that she is fighting her verbal cue. Fladge, uh, lay, shun. Double l, not single l. She swallows, removes her hand, turns her mouth into a smile.]

"Please continue.”

“Please continue. You’re probably wondering about a Cesàro summation.” [She nods, shrugs her shoulders.] “It’s a way in math to assign a sum to an infinite series. If you have paper, I can illustrate for you.”

[Fladge, uh, lay--]

“That won’t be necessary.”

“That won’t be necessary. So she has this list that has this mathematical expression and the next thing you know she’s dreaming about a game show. She’s a contestant and the host is wearing a thrift shop sportcoat and motor oil hair and the questions involve the Devil’s staircase and she’s flummoxed, she doesn’t know the answer and feels bad because here she is, a mathematician, and she doesn’t know this standard if advanced mathematical idea and there’s money to be won and a trip to Iceland and people are watching. That’s the end of the dream. It’s recurring, like three or four times a week.”

[That ends the session. When the echolalist visits, the therapist is more likely to listen than to give advice or diagnosis, so that she’s not subject to having it regurgitated to her. Often, she’ll type it on her computer, read it aloud twice, print and mail it to his home.]

“Let’s meet next in three weeks. Remember to check on your medication.”

“Let’s meet next in three weeks. Remember to check on your medication.”

[Driving home, her mind drifts. Flagellation. Fladge, uh. Double l. She should call her husband, say, I’m on my way, in case she suddenly isn’t, ask about dinner, connect to a known mind, her husband’s sensible flat-line thoughts. The radio station goes from classical to a test of the Emergency Broadcasting System. The droning signal stops. She expects that monotone male voice to come on, as it always has, but there’s a pause, filled with blank seconds, the dread that there has been an actual emergency. She fills it not with nuclear fire or the skies splitting open but rather the Devil’s staircase, Cesàro summation, fladge-uh-lay-double l. The voice speaks. This has been a test… She exhales.]

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Vermouth

Carpano, faced with an empty bottle of vermouth, braved the snow for more. Hoping to dissuade him, his wife offered margaritas over martinis, but he could not be deterred. Outside was much rougher than he’d anticipated. The snow had mixed with ice, a thick blanket encasing cars and trees. A bitter wind, needles of ice. Halfway there, he realized he’d made a poor decision, should’ve listened to his wife, the one with sense. Hands frozen, face tingling, feet struggling to gain traction on icy inclines. No cars or people moving on the streets. When he reached the store, it was closed. His heart sank, as vermouth and chance for brief warmth were gone. Briefly he pondered breaking in, but saw another figure cloaked in coat and hood approaching. A man, disappointed the store was closed. They looked at each other. Vermouth, said Carpano. Pimm’s, the man said, his face puffy and red. The man held his hands under his arms, stamped his feet for warmth. This stuff should end tomorrow; until then, cold turkey, I suppose. In the distance, a crash, as tree-covering ice shattered like glass, sprinkled to the ground. Carpano thought about his wife, at home, warm, awaiting his return. Plenty to drink there. He walked home, seeking familiar footprints.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nachos

You want to eat nachos and cheese at the ballgame, but every time you buy them, someone knocks them out of your hand, leaving you covered in hot cheese. This started when you were eleven, when your mother let you buy them, and you were walking up the ramp back into the stand, the daylight emerging as if you’re exiting a spaceship, when it happened. You turn around and there’s a blur wearing a baseball cap, the culprit running through time, as you hold an empty container. He’s on his way to your teenage years, to adulthood where he gets your beer too. Eventually you give up, just watch the games. You sit quietly as the team loses over and over again, the same bitterness repeated through the years, long gone the victories of childhood. One August evening you reach your limit. You run out, unable to listen to that certain pop from the other team’s bat, homerun yet again. Like Lot’s wife you turn, looking at the soaring ball, still walking forward and run into a child, his nachos flying like confetti, cheese covering his jersey. A statue, he follows your blur of tracer light, speeding away. You think, I’ll see you again someday, kid, as you speed into his future.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you're having a great Thanksgiving, spending time with friends and family, eating lots of great food, and considering the many things to be thankful for. 

If you're here because you've got nothing else to do, the football games are blowouts, or you've had about enough of friends and family, may I recommend something from the archives?  Check out something my 212-word, food/drink related stories.    

If that's leaving you with indigestion, please try one of the various wonderful blogs I follow listed on my profile, here.  You can't go wrong with any of them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Number Six

No, not a reference to The Prisoner, but the sixth work of Thinly Sliced Raw Fish, here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dates

Bad dates killed the monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but bad dates were killing Z drip by drip, woman by woman. Martinis splashed in his face, heel toes to the crotch, brick-like purses to the head. Everyone’s a Marion or Willie, with him saying the wrong words, looking at the wrong things. Once he was at Bistro de Belloq and, while he was in the restroom, the maitre d’ absconded with his date, even taking his seat at the table, drinking his whiskey. He could use a trusty sidekick like Sallah to squeeze him out of jams. But he was alone. Once he told a woman, over Turkish coffee and good dates, I would brave a pit of vipers and rotting corpses with you, and she walked away, no explanation. Perhaps if he’d had a bullwhip, he could’ve yanked her back for a word, lectured her on the archaeology of Z. He wasn’t the type—rather, he’d more likely have a belt to match his shoes, roll of string for tying packages. Life and time, though, ticked away. There was no Holy Grail to cling to youth. Every date was a test of blind faith, of choosing wisely. Every toast was to eternal life, hoping to fend off creeping dust.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

NaNoWriMo Update

No, not really. But this requires much less commitment than a novel.

49 words.  Some book titles are longer. 

Friday, November 20, 2009

Birthday Cake

On his 39th birthday he found a dead body in a cave. A day hike, beyond the wire towers that extend forever into the horizon. Tracing steps from boyhood, remembering specific dinosaur-tooth-like rocks, the hill he’d could see from home. From the base looking up, a scale too daunting in childhood. He and his friends would dare each other to climb up, no one brave enough. On a ledge, surveying trees and fields he’d conquered, marking the years. Behind him, a dark cave opening.

Inside, graffiti-covered walls, remnants of fires and partiers. Burnt rubber smell, power generator hum of flies, a distant echoing water drip. His flashlight shines down, reveals a decimated face, skull as prominent feature. He stumbles backward, drops the flashlight. Retrieves it, uses it to reveal an adult-length body in tattered clothes, skeletal fingers clutching a party noisemaker, party hat positioned on the chest. A lightning shock chill through his body. The corpse partier—a cosmic joke.

Back home, friends and family throw a party. He thought about the dead body—who, how, should he call the police? His toddler son jumps on his lap. Cake, cards, jokes about aging, death encroaching. That night, he sat by the bedroom window, looked to the hill, thought he saw flickering light.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nothing to See Here

I’ve got nothing here today. But there’s something here.

90 words long, though it feels like 88.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Talking Heads: Severance by Robert Olen Butler

There aren’t many single-author collections of flash fiction readily available. As it’s mostly new in terms of being a recognized form, and one that has also come of age along with the Internet, most of the collections I’ve seen are available solely online in electronic form or available in very limited print runs, and I imagine that most people, even those who are regular readers of books, don’t know they exist. Even more, single-author collections of flash fiction that focus on a particular theme--be it subject matter or particular word length--are even more difficult to find.

Robert Olen Butler’s 2006 book, Severance, is one of those rare instances of a single-author collection of flash fiction stories based on a particular theme and prescribed word length. It’s a collection of 62 works, each of which is 240 words in length. Each story follows the thoughts of a person who has just been decapitated, a rather morbid premise that lends itself to a rambling, stream of consciousness, almost poetic narration. For Mr. Butler, these stories were unlike any he had done and perhaps unlike any that have been seen.

The characters in these works range from actual historical figures to fictional ones and span the time from primitive humanity to the present. There are stories based on Medusa, John the Baptist and other biblical figures, a dragon, Anne Boleyn, Sir Walter Raleigh, a chicken, various unknown, average people throughout history, victims of more current events, and, the final, morbidly comic swing, the author himself at the end. Each story is prefaced by a brief description containing the decapitated’s name, who they were, when they died, and the circumstances behind their unfortunate end. A representative story can be found here (this one is of Dioscorus, a companion to the apostle Paul--there are some other samples at the Google Books link, if you care to wade through the slightly tedious preview function). 

It would be easy to look at these works and say, these aren’t stories. Perhaps, though I dislike most discussions on whether or not certain works of flash fiction can be considered stories in terms of what we know makes a traditional story. I think one of the freeing things of the genre is that it opens up a wide range of possibilities for fiction. Sometimes, flash fiction resembles a prose poem, or a character sketch, or a list, or straight dialogue, or even a recipe or set of instructions.

One of the limitations of Mr. Butler’s premise is that the stories ultimately end up taking a similar form from one to the next. If each character has been decapitated, and the words represent the stream of consciousness of a dead person (something resembling an almost dreamlike state of narration) who’s involuntarily expending his/her last bit of thought, it’s unavoidable that you might end up with some repetition in terms of style. Robert Olen Butler, though, is a gifted writer who in all of his works displays a sense of humanity for each of his characters (even if they aren’t human); he can make the repetitious fresh, something not easily done.

I think it’s admirable and even to some extent essential that he went experimental and wrote these stories. It’s admirable to try something completely out of sorts when you have an established identity as a literary writer (Mr. Butler is the author of 11 novels and a handful of short story collections, including A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize). It’s essential in that I think it helps fiction grow when our best writers are taking chances and doing something different and not just rehashing what initially brought them acclaim. 

Severance is not Mr. Butler's greatest work, but it is definitely his most experimental and unexpected.  If you're fond of flash fiction or like to write it, it's an interesting study on how someone else has approached the form.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

Taking Hostages

Here’s another story originally published elsewhere. “Taking Hostages” originally appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of JMWW Quarterly, and the link to it appears to no longer work. This story represents a continuation of sorts of my story “The Writing Life.”  It's always a fun exercise to not only use writers as characters in stories, but to poke fun at the writing process as well. 



He peeked out the window, his fist gripping the shotgun, saw the line of police and news crew vehicles and wondered, how was he going to finish the novella he was writing? The flashing lights, the hourly phone calls from Detective Hanshaw, the building intensity outside. An ambulance was parked a block up, a perimeter of yellow tape and road barriers had been created and ordinary people lined themselves around it, standing shivering in the cold and snow, waiting for resolution.

He looked at his hostage on the couch, a woman in her late thirties named Lois, who had dark hair and dark circles under her eyes—she looked dishevelled, obviously from the experience, but he imagined most of her days were like this. She had cried briefly but had a hardened aspect to her, as if she had spent other parts of her life as a hostage, as if she wasn't even really concerned what her resolution was going to be. She sat in a reclined pose, her arms and legs bound with cord, smoking a cigarette with both hands.

Before taking a hostage, he had tried to write a novel—he had a plot idea about two young lovers who steal a car, travel across country, get into frequent trouble, and keep moving from town to town—but it wasn't working. The strain of being a clerk at the paper mill's dank, wood-paneled office and finding free time when he wasn't exhausted beyond belief or out drinking beer was too much for him. In order to write, someone had once told him, you must live as a writer. To him, this meant desperation, existing on the fringe—what better way to do this then to take a hostage? Sure, a longer work would have been unsustainable under such circumstances, especially in this rushed age when crimes such as hostage situations had a short news lifespan; but why not something shorter?

His mother had always accused him of being short-sighted. He'd spend his weekly allowance no sooner than it touched his hand on baseball cards and Swedish fish, not saving for bigger items, like a Huffy bike, or Commodore 64 video games. His mother would shake her head every time she saw him with cards and candy, until he would sneak them in the house in his pants to avoid her disapproval.

If she were alive, his mother would admonish him for what he'd done. Sure, you can write the novella if the standoff goes seventy-two hours. Maybe it would reach ninety-six and you could do a reasonable rewrite. But what was your plan after that? Had you devised a getaway to Mexico? Where would you settle? How would you live? You don't even speak Spanish. Or, were you resigned to being a prison author, hammering out works by hand or on a rusting manual typewriter if you were lucky (oddly enough, what he had been using, in case the cops cut the power) between scrubbing the cold floors and keeping yourself incognito while doing twenty-five to life? And, most importantly, where were you going to submit this novella?

After thirty-six hours, he'd had thirty-four pages. His protagonists had just eluded the police, slept in a barn and had a whimsical encounter with a pig.

Hanshaw called, after he'd just started a fresh page. She asked him again for demands. He told her, leave me alone, that's what I want. But how can we do that if we don't know what you want?, she said. If you just let Lois go free, we can talk about this, figure out what it is you want.

He would've told her, I'm trying to write a mid-size piece of fiction, something with little market in journals or on a bookstore shelf, but maybe the start of a collection, but that would've been absurd, and she wouldn't have understood. She would've laughed, and in minutes, helmeted cops would've ran the door down and pinned him on the ground.

Leave me alone, I'll let you know when I'm ready for demands, he told her, as he had done each time she called. But she kept calling back. He wanted to tell her another piece of writing wisdom he'd heard: in order to be a writer, one must write. He couldn't do that if she was going to keep interrupting. But, hey, she wanted resolution, just like everyone save Lois.

He'd told Lois about his story after he pulled the duct tape off her mouth. She said, it sounds kind of pedestrian, isn't that what every other book out there's about? He swallowed her criticism, then vowed not to tell her anymore about the project.

He was finishing page fifty when, with the whoosh of a circling helicopter fading away outside, Lois said, breathing smoke through her nose, I prefer nonfiction myself. You know, biographies, gossip about celebrities, real life kinds of stuff. Fiction is just so made up.

Lois. In another time and situation, perhaps someone like Lois would have been a suitable lover for him. But not now. The kidnapping aside, the divide between them had grown chasmic.

He'd entered the sixty-fifth hour and hammered past page seventy—enduring Hanshaw phone calls, the rhythmic chants of "surrender now!" from the crowd outside, and various failed attempts to end the story after his two protagonists engaged in long-awaited intercourse—when Lois said, nobody's going to read your story, I don't even know why you bother, it won't ever get published.

He heard this and his head collapsed on the typewriter. She was right. Who was he kidding? The phone rang. He felt like crying.

He told Hanshaw, I give up. He said he would walk out with his hands up and he did, with the news cameras rolling, photo flash decorating the air, and hundreds of people applauding as he was handcuffed and escorted to a police car.

All of this commotion, he could hear his mother say, and you didn't even finish the story.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

The 101st Scorpion

Helio would play like a corpse while his assistant covered his naked body with scorpions. Wherever they were, people traveled long distances to see skin and bones, frizzy-haired Helio be covered in scorpions. Spectators would fill with money the open violin case left nearby. The giving would grow furious as the stunned silence from the covering spectacle subsided. The spectators would form a snaking line, drop money then leave. Everyone marveled at the amazing Helio, who, miraculously, had never been stung.

Helio claimed he knew each scorpion. Each had its own personality, he said, and he had developed individual bond with each. This, he claimed, was how he was able to avoid being stung. Sometimes, he would proclaim, I am the 101st scorpion. In the evenings, he and his assistant, along with the members of his entourage, would sit around a fire, eat roasted fish, ingest mushrooms, and he would speak about how he and the scorpions formed a continual circle that represented the oneness of all life. His stoned onlookers marveled at his words and moving lips, the philosophy he’d cultivated after a decade of performances.

Breaking the life circle, he said, could be disastrous.

He had known scorpions all his life, finding them in the wild as a kid. His life’s defining moment was when his younger brother Casimiro was stung by one that had made its way inside their house, crawled into his bed. Their village was too remote for assistance, and the boy died within hours, his helpless father holding him as his mother was on her knees, head bowed in continual prayer. Helio watched, in horror and morbid fascination, as his life's purpose was planted in his mind, emerging years later in his teen years.

Occasionally, a scorpion would die or escape. Helio would suspend shows until he found a replacement, as he insisted upon exactly 100. He would browse available specimens, both wild and captive, an often weeks-long process, studying and handling each one. The circle was perfect, he would say, and only suitable for perfect specimens.

Not long after Casimiro's death, Helio’s father left. Before their split, his mother often cried and his father often yelled. Once his father left, Helio never saw him again. His mother had various male lovers over the years—sneaking inside once Helio was thought to be asleep—but none lasted. When he was sixteen, his mother developed cancer and soon died. A week later, knowing his purpose, he hit the road. For him, it was rebirth, an erasure of his old life.

He and his entourage were headed to a town played before to big crowds and money. Halfway there, they stopped to camp. Come dawn, as they gathered for breakfast, his assistant was gone. Helio and the other five travelers searched nearby, but he was gone. His belongings, gathered in a small canvas sack, remained, and the scorpions were all in their cages. Helio asked the others if they knew anything. Buy they didn’t. They ate breakfast and, nearing departure time, his assistant still had not appeared.

So, just before leaving, Helio said: I need a new assistant. Who wants this job?

They huddled briefly. Soon after, four of them declined in unison, fearing the black beasts. The other, the youngest at sixteen, said, I will do it. Helio looked at the thin, mouse-like boy and smiled. As they traveled, Helio gave him instructions, detailing the delicate processes of covering and removal, making him repeat his words. Helio wondered about the boy’s abilities, but told himself, it’ll be okay.

At the town, people had already gathered. Entrepreneurs were selling roasted meats and cold drinks from rickety wooden carts along with handmade pottery and knickknacks. Before the show, Helio coached his new assistant who, at one point, said, maybe they should cancel. Helio said, you are in the circle now. All will be okay. Just think—I'm the one who’s getting covered with scorpions. Just before show time, Helio looked at the scorpions skittering about in their cages, their tails feverish scythes, an army awaiting his call to battle. For the first time in years, he felt fear.

He recalled his former assistant’s words: one day, these creatures will get you. You will not be talking circles but death. This is the true nature of life. You are lucky but cannot be so forever. Helio blocked these thoughts. The former assistant had disappeared—now out of the circle, his words were meaningless. The kid was the one now.

The crowd was the largest ever—people fifteen to twenty deep. Helio was flat on his back, naked, and saw his assistant step hesitantly toward him with several scorpions, as the crowd hushed. Don't be afraid, Helio told him, you're doing fine. Helio closed his eyes as he felt those familiar points on his skin. Once he was covered, the crowd murmured, occasionally gasping. He heard coins clinking in the violin case. He opened his eyes, saw clouds in the sky shifting quickly.

Then, suddenly, he was stung over and over. He let out a small cry, went silent as he was hit with overwhelming pain. His assistant saw what was happening and screamed, confused as to what to do, standing at a distance as the beasts held firm on Helio’s twitching body. The crowd screamed; some came to help but stopped in a short circle around Helio. Two boys stole the violin case, coins trickling to the ground as they ran.

Eventually, his assistant was able to remove the scorpions. Some remaining spectators demanded killing the scorpions but kept their distance.

Helio's lifeless body was black and purple. Paralyzed, he felt cold rushing numbness course through him, poised to erase his mind. He thought about Casimiro, how he now knew what his dead brother had endured. His assistant knelt next to him. Helio wanted to say something about circles, but couldn’t speak. Instead, he stared into the sky, watched clouds sailing away like trails of smoke.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thinly Sliced Raw Fish Reminder

Thinly Sliced Raw Fish, my new project, will be starting in four days. It has its own blog space here.

The concept is fiction under 100 words, 50 works total, with a new one published every other day. The blog ends after the 50th work is posted.

Things will continue here as usual.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Story Published @ Every Day Fiction

"The Art of Stealing Sharks" has been published at Every Day Fiction.  It's today's story.

The permanent link for this story is here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

1: The Thirst

The establishing shot is a close-up of a glass of water, filmed in black and white, the image disturbed by periodic ripples. The effect is multiplied when the shot pulls away, shows the protagonist in a state of distress, the world he’s in rocked by earthquake. He grabs a phone and heads outside, the sound a low rumbling mixed with sonic distortion. There are people outside. The world shakes and rattles. Suddenly it stops. But then it rains. Rains. Rains. Opening credits, then the world born in color.

Griffin, the director, answers questions after the film’s initial festival screening. The world premiere of his first film. Light applause when the credits appeared. Murmurs and whispers through the crowd. A new talent. Where did you come from? What’s your inspiration? He sits at a table, outside, the day overcast and cool, the festival a collection of noise and people. Somewhere there are horns, a saxophone, drumstick hitting cymbal. Before him flavored waters and roasted almonds. The red beret tilting to his right. He’s feeling a cold coming on. Withholds chills, tries to keep himself upright with his chin planted in his palm. The room starting to float, swirl.

In the crowd, someone asking a question about why 16 mm film, and the use of a blue tint effect, when he sees her walk the perimeter of a crowd, red clad figure in long shot. In later years, when he’ll have trouble remembering this festival and the questions about his film The Thirst, when his assistant will call him every morning to see if he’s still alive, he’ll remember this woman as Helena, even though they didn’t meet until three years later, even though he stood and walked away from the question session, the crowd murmuring and confused and someone calling his name, and he walked after her following the image of her painted in red, until she was lost, leaving him with a stop-motion crowd that marked random spots around his still figure. He stores the image of her in his head, holding it until the day he finds Helena, his only love.

He returns to the interview but the crowd is gone. Moved on to the next showing. On the table is a bottle of water. The liquid disturbed by periodic ripples. In the distance the rumble of drums. There’s a sprinkle of rain. He thinks of the woman, this ghost, wants to give her a name.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Cornstarch

The boy the kids called Magpie had an unstoppable appetite for chalk. At school he’d be particularly attracted to the colorful varieties—neon pink, yellow, and orange—that looked like candy but tasted like plain chalk. He’d get caught with multi-colored powder on his lips, crunching with his mouth closed even after getting caught, the teacher yelling, your blood’s probably cornstarch! Some days, the kids applauded Magpie’s efforts, as the teacher, chalkless and lesson thrown into disarray, would throw up his hands, let the kids play. But as punishment Magpie would have to sit in the corner, hands on chin, eyes downcast. Some said his parents were poor and he didn’t eat anything nutritious beyond free school lunch; others insisted he was insane, he was conceived by insane parents, that he suffered brain damage being attacked by ravenous birds. Eventually the teacher hid the chalk. Magpie turned to other things: glue, paper, pencil erasers. One day, in a darkened classroom after school, he was found eating desk parts. A screwdriver and saw nearby. The sound of metal on teeth. That was the last of Magpie. The kids joked he’d one day be in the circus. Maybe he’d return as a 50-foot monster that devours the city. Maybe he’d come kill them all.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Candy Corn

One Halloween some guy gave me stale candy corn. My mother would say, forget it, but the day after—my plastic Superman mask with dead coal eyes, doll slit mouth already bent, cracked—I returned to the house, feet crunching over leaf-covered lawn. The man had lived alone forever; always balding, always early 40s. He would spend Saturdays washing his vintage cream-colored Ford Falcon—his wife and child wrapped into one. Unshaven, he wore a rumpled flannel shirt—what do you want, kid? You gave me rock hard stale candy corn last night. He grabbed the package, looked at the remaining pieces at eye level and said, you can back here for that? I nodded, reached for the package that he pulled closer to his chest. Does your mother know you’re here? I shrugged my shoulders—what’s it to him? Look, kid, it’s just candy. On sale at the dime store. I want something fresh, or money in return. He laughed, stuffed the package in his front pocket. How about nothing? Go away. The windows rattled as he shut the door. I stood there a minute, walked off the porch, looked at the polished Falcon. I thought, a pointy key and a dozen eggs, walking home slapping street signs along the way.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fata Morgana 4

A boy, caked in dust with a mangy black dog by his side, stands outside the village, watches the approaching vehicle, the lazy dust devil it’s created a looming shadow. His parents regard him as a dreamer, his dead stares and wild stories the symptoms of some desert sickness. The vehicle slows down. He can see inside: foreigners with cameras, focusing on him, as he, unmoving, locks gazes with their machinery. The vehicle accelerates upon passing, trailed by the dust cloud, disappearing into the horizon. He’ll tell his parents about this. They’ll look at each other, not smiling, saying nothing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New Project: Thinly Sliced Raw Fish

I have a new project coming called Thinly Sliced Raw Fish. It’ll have a separate space found here. Posts will begin on 11/15/09.

The concept is fiction under 100 words, 50 works total, with a new one published every other day. Follow publicly or privately if you wish. Feel free to comment. The blog ends after the 50th work posted.

This blog will continue as usual.

Hey, look, this announcement is under 100 words!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Pet Rhino

How did I get a pet rhinoceros? I could tell you a novel. Consider this: you wake up one morning and there’s a huge horned beast in your backyard. A hulking grey leather couch with feet. Over coffee you decide, this is something for the grandkids, just go with the flow. Look up at the sky. It doesn’t get any bluer than this.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Invoice, 6/28/84

Dear A—, The following invoice is for the pizza and soda I bought you after seeing The Karate Kid on June 28, 1984. The total owed is $3.15. I haven’t adjusted for present day value or reasonable accumulated interest. If you’ll recall, you promised to repay me while playing the video game Mr. Do’s Castle, which you seemed to have quarters for. I badgered you for weeks and months afterward back then until we were no longer friends. I regret this, particularly after learning your dad drank too much and your family didn’t even have a car, but still, a deal is a deal. That pizza shop and the mall that contained it are now a Home Depot and a Best Buy but by some miracle the Radio Shack still stands. Mr. Miyagi is dead and the kids scuffed my movie DVD using it as a Frisbee. Please remit in cash. Best, Z—

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hors d'Oeuvres

He heard the voice again just before he was to go downstairs and remind everyone gathered of his parents’ legacy, the foundation’s mission. He smelled shrimp seared in fire, heard the hum of chatter and the baby grand’s cascading notes, glasses clinking. Someone there will destroy your life, take what’s yours, then kill you. Feet shuffled, people positioned themselves to see him. How will I know who it is? Can I stop them? But the voice, his unseen friend since childhood, comforting him in his family's refurbished castle, didn’t answer. Silence as he descended, his legs like cinder blocks, a musical note still ringing, his eyes scanning for a killer as lips, noses, eyes came into view.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Muenster Cheese

Frankenstein’s monster walked into Hal’s diner, sat at the counter, ordered the No. 5 sandwich. Roast beef, avocado, muenster cheese, Dijon, bacon—the diner’s most popular sandwich. Known affectionately as the Herman Munster, a sandwich that, much like Frankenstein’s monster, had been patched together with various incongruous parts.

Hal saw the monster, stood before him. He had various questions—are you real?, how are you alive?—settling on, like the sandwich? The monster, looking at his soda, growled, nodded.

You know, it’s funny, Hal said, this sandwich, it’s called the Herman Munster, you know, that character like you from that show?

Heard good things. The monster’s voice deep, stilted. Had to see what fuss about.

The other diners looked up, curious. Outside, Hal heard a swelling commotion. A mob, dozens gathered on the street, pitchforks and torches.

They here for me. They angry.

Hal walked outside. The seething crowd’s one voice: we want the monster!

Folks, calm down, he’s having lunch inside—our famous No. 5 sandwich, the Herman Munster.

They stormed past, enraged.

He’s a paying customer, he shouted, but it went unheard.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the monster finish the sandwich, stand, wipe his mouth with a napkin, extend his long arms in zombie stance.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fata Morgana 1

Driving on the Arctic ice, he sees a city on the horizon where one shouldn’t be. He emerges from the vehicle, bitter air and silent moonscape, to admire the sight. Twinkling lights, bustling streets, a parade of flower-covered floats. Don’t look too close, he thinks, else the illusion will be destroyed; instead maintain a favorable myopia, a likeable distortion. The rest of the world below him—he’s buried its false promises, its broken streets, its burnt dusted graves. He thinks of a corresponding soul standing on the same longitude, looking north toward the same point, dreaming of a new life.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The City Where I Live

If you’re reading this message, it’s because it has been successfully delivered to the world outside the city where I live. For years, I have been writing by hand messages about my city. I fold up the paper, hand it to someone on the street, who in turn hands it to someone else. It keeps going and, in theory, makes it to wherever this city ends and reaches you on the outside. If I or the relayers are caught, we will be killed. But we must try and hope that someone will liberate us.

Where I live, the question you’re not allowed to ask is, what city do we live in. As a responsible citizen, if someone asks you this question, you are expected to pull out your issued gun and shoot them directly between the eyes. Even if it’s right out in the open, on a city street amongst crowds of people, or in an eatery, with people face down in tasteless meals of rice and gray chicken. Occasionally, if you’re outside on the streets walking in the shadow of tall beige buildings, or inside your apartment reading issued literature, watching issued television or sleeping, you will hear a gunshot. It will echo. Then you will hear silence or scared birds flapping their wings. Someone whose curiosity has gotten the best of him, or has tired of living, has been killed. Once, I was close to an execution but didn’t realize how close until I arrived home and found my right cheek and ear had specks of someone’s blood.

You must understand that, if you’re asked the question, and don’t shoot the asker, you may be shot by a fellow citizen for not fulfilling your civic duties. Sometimes, you will hear double gunshots indicating that this has happened—one shot for the person who didn’t shoot, one for the asker.

In this city, I live alone and work as a wire cutter. I sit alongside other men my age at a long white table and cut wires into halves. What happens to the wires after we do this is uncertain. We get fifteen minutes to eat a somber, issued lunch that is always a gray, tasteless mush in a plastic cup. Then, after ten hours of work, we leave and return to our apartments, alone.

There are rumors that there are some people living amongst us who know the city’s name. They know the name, but are not allowed to repeat it under penalty of death. Supposedly, they are guardians of the name. This seems like a terrible burden.

You might wonder why, since everyone has a gun, why we don’t just rebel. It’s not that simple. If we are caught rebelling, we are imprisoned for life, and our families are executed. We are continually reminded by issued television broadcasts that the police have powerful weapons—automatic guns, helicopters, missiles.

Lucky for me, I had spent my thirty years of life walking the streets with my head down and not being asked this question. That is, until today. Walking home from work, an old man with scant gray hair and heavily wrinkled face stopped before me and asked. His eyes were a sad blue. I clenched a fist and held it at my chest. There was no way I could take this man’s life. I stared at him briefly and walked away without answering. My heart jumped as I waited for that gunshot that would end my life. But it never came. I defied the law, more directly so than with the written messages, and survived.

Since we don’t know where we live, it is hard for me to tell you how to find us. I have not seen the city’s limits. Where I live, there are many identical tall buildings. On a summer day, the sun will move between them at dusk and illuminate many windows, creating a blinding streak of light. There is a small lake that is three blocks from where some of these tall buildings are. There are police officers walking the streets carrying rifles and eyeing up the normal people, nudging us along when we pause.

We hear rumors of your outside world. Where everyone is free and there are amazing things like open grass fields, loud rock concerts where people dance and sing, and beaches where the sun toasts your skin and salty waves roar against the sand.

I hope that your world exists. I feel that with each passing day, I am closer to it. Someday soon, I will be there.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Great Flash Fiction: "The Wig" by Brady Udall

Brady Udall's story, "The Wig," originally appeared in the Summer 1994 issue of Story magazine; it’s now available as part of his Letting Loose the Hounds short story collection and is available for viewing at Google Books here.

I read "The Wig" back in the 1990s when it first appeared in the superb but now sadly defunct Story magazine. The story won the magazine’s annual Short Short Story competition. In announcing the contest results in that issue, editor Lois Rosenthal said, "'The Wig' by Brady Udall, the first-place winner, is what we were looking for, an exemplar of a short short story. In three hundred words, Udall’s deft tale of an enormous loss swiftly reduced most of our contest judges to tears."

This story, barely a printed page long, was probably the first flash/very short fiction story I read that blew me away and planted an early seed in my mind that one could write such works. Not only could you tell you a story in about one page, you could also tell a powerful one. Indeed, this story is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read of any length.

For me, “The Wig” still represents the gold standard of this form. The details in this are genuine. The opening shot of the child sitting at the table wearing a wig from the garbage is an odd and compelling image that pulls you into the story. Soon after, you learn the narrator is the father, as you learn about his ordeals tying a tie, and you can quickly deduce that the mother is absent. The father is in some sort of distress, then you get to the gist of it—the mother died in an accident, and the wig is reminiscent of her and the family of three that used to be. The child is aware of the absent mother, even if he doesn't say so, which is why you would figure he’s attached to the wig, wears it at the table, and doesn’t take it off. The father holding his son, smelling the wig, and the end moment of him imagining the three of them together again is what floored me and I’m sure many other readers.

Dissecting the work like I just did does it an injustice for appreciating its beauty. On a technical level, the combination of the opening sentence;the pacing of excellent, original details that establish characters and flesh out their situation;word economy that doesn't leave you feeling as if something's missing;and the unforced, heartbreaking conclusion are instructional in how to build a superb flash fiction piece (or any fiction story, really).

Flash fiction and its various iterations are wonderful in that they present various ways to go about telling a story, and some stories are told by untraditional narratives. Udall’s work, though, is fairly traditional in its telling. I’d say it’s deceivingly simplistic. 

While it's not necessary to reduce people to tears in flash fiction, as Rosenthal said about this work, it can't hurt to have this ability in reserve and use it occasionally to some degree.  If you can use it to the effect Udall does in this story, you will have accomplished something special.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Anemia

She lived unending through wars and dead children, dictators and three hundred thousand cigarettes, jobs of washing dead bodies before burial and massaging barren women to conception, but what still upset her was her arranged marriage decades ago. To a farmer, old already when she was just a child, a skeleton the last sixty years of her life. Over milking a cow one snow-covered winter morning, her father said, you will marry the farmer, the barn night-dark and smelly, his head hidden behind flank and sirloin, stubby fingers squeezing udders. Windblown frozen sprinkles hit her bare legs. Her heart sank into manure, deep through the ground, wishing her father dead. They married, and she couldn’t look at his leathered face, his rotting teeth, his coal-colored eyes. No love, but children that led to grandchildren that led to great-grandchildren and in between he was dead and buried, she standing upright at his graveside, dry eyes and soundless, as prayers were read and others cried.

One day Petra, her last living child, never married, near 90 and hunched over, came to her and said, the circus is in the village, there’s a white tiger, we can wheel you there. But she refused, feeling weak and tired, waving away her daughter. In the silent house, she pulled her burial shroud from a cracked wooden case, stitched by her now useless hands many years before, and pressed it to her face, thinking, this won’t be the day, though she’s long been ready, like so many days before.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Anchovies

1. My date walked out when I threw a fit over an anchovy on my pizza. You don’t understand, I said. Finger pointing in her face. Luckily, no beer over my head.

2. Are there any other foods that anger you? My therapist, in full serious voice. Spinach—I got that from my grandfather. Perhaps we can talk more about him? No, we can’t.

3. When I was five, my mother tucked a shopping list in my front pocket along with $10, sent me shopping. Ask for help, she said. Instead I returned with Twinkies, soda, and gum, got spanked.


4. I didn’t mention tuna. Ten years old, opening a can of tuna, split my thumb open on the edge. Three stitches to close. Hated tuna ever since.

5. Mom claims she sent me shopping at three but I don’t remember. Excuses: it was just 1,000 feet away, hauling the kids such a production. My initial run: bread, pickles, Tab.

6. I relent: grandfather was surly. Everything angered him. He’d play solitaire at his table, blow cigarette smoke, eat canned anchovies, complain about grandkids drinking his bottled Coke.

7. I called that date, left desperate messages. I’m so sorry. I won’t complain about anchovies. Please call. I’m so alone. She didn’t understand.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Incompletion

I’ve found it’s impossible to complete anything. It’s not that I have an attention-deficit issue, but rather I just suddenly stop in the middle of doing something—could be anything—and walk away, like a robot who’s just received a new directive. This is a serious problem. Try holding down a job with this condition, or having friends. Bosses aren’t too thrilled when you’ve ended your day at 11:30 AM. Friends don’t stay friends when you’re laughing and having fun, and suddenly, you abandon them to take a nap or read a book or go skiing. I’ve tried psychiatrists, but my 30 minute hour is quicker than their 50 minute one.

Sometimes, even a sentence is a problem. I have a thought, and I become determined to write it down, but just as I get started…

I’ve gone grocery shopping and abandoned the cart in the store. I needed the bananas, the toilet paper, the tuna fillets that were in my cart, but that wasn’t enough for me to finish. I’ve been pushing a cart down an aisle and just let go of it and turned away. I could hear the screaming of an old lady, cans crashing to the floor. Later, I’ll look in my refrigerator at the stuff I’ll never touch again—the half-cooked and half-eaten meals, the beer bottles three-quarters full—and wonder why I couldn’t have just breezed through the express checkout.

Once, I was getting married and, while reciting my vows, I just stopped and walked out of the church. Gasps of shock and a verbal threat from the almost-bride’s father didn’t keep me from leaving. I felt bad later, of course, since it takes time to meet someone you like, get to know her, ask her to marry you, plan the wedding. How come my instinct for incompletion didn’t step in sooner, to save all involved the trouble?

One day, I sat down and figured out why. This was one thing I took to completion. I wrote extensively in a journal, explaining my personal history and feelings. I even consulted some psychology books. I pulled it all together, and the conclusion I came to was…

I’ve abandoned functioning cars on the highway and on city streets. I’ve walked away from bank tellers as they were counting out cash from a transaction. I’ve not caught my connecting flight and instead booked passage elsewhere. I’ve had procedures involving local anesthetics where, in the middle, I’ve stood, fighting off the doctor and assistants, walking away from the operation, sporting open wounds and not fully clothed.

The worst thing is when I suffer spastic incompletion. When I go back and forth between activities I’ve abandoned in simultaneous moments. This has happened before going to work. I’ve walked toward my car, then halfway there, turned around and headed toward my front door. A few steps later, there I was. turning back toward the car. I kept doing this, the intervals becoming shorter to where I was just spinning around in circles. Eventually, I became dizzy and collapsed on my half-mowed lawn.


When I’m telling a story, I often just stop. I get to the juicy part, and just…

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hamburgers

Years later, he still heard the gunshots, the chaos of people. He roamed LA for weeks, months, years, went from law school and campaigns to film school to odd jobs to taking orders, flipping burgers. Ironic, working in a kitchen, but this was his penance, circling a reality he couldn’t confront. His old life hazy photos burnt at the edges. The pictures of RFK lying on the ground, head bleeding, the darkness punctuated by bleached light. One day, his father appeared. Both were stunned—it had been years. Son, I paid for you to go to law school. Like he was 10 again, he nodded his head, listening to his father, silent. He wanted to say, I’m a ghost, I was shot and killed that day too. I saw you on tv, pleading for a doctor, and we just knew. Sizzling burgers shrinking, cheese bubbling, the beeping of cooked fries. Things changed, Dad, I’m…this…it’s okay. You have to leave the wilderness some time, son. And he’s back at the podium, anyone that’s a doctor, please, and that young busboy, kneeling in jazzman’s lighting, arm cradling the dying senator’s body, looking to anyone wondering, what. His eyes for years staring at this fractured mirror, seeking a way back inside, just before the gunshots.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

New work @ JMWW

Yellowfin Tuna has been published in the Fall 2009 issue of JMWW, here.

The rest of the Fall 2009 issue, featuring a cool new design for the site, is also worth checking out.  Start here

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Celebrity Writers

This post title doesn’t refer to writers who have become celebrities—Stephen King, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, and the like—nor does it refer to celebrities who have books that come out under their own name but were actually written by someone else—those books with celebrities’ names printed in big type on the cover, often autobiographies, motivational-type books, or even novels, and the smaller type “With” someone else who actually wrote the book. No, this is more about celebrities who are truly writers in their own right, such as Steve Martin and Ethan Hawke.

I have not read the books of Steve Martin and Ethan Hawke, but I have read some of Martin’s writings in the New Yorker, and they were pretty good and definitely worthy of being in a major publication. I remember when I first read them back in the 1990s, I had to double check to make sure this was the Steve Martin, that wild and crazy guy, and not someone else with the same name. I think I groaned a bit when I heard that Ethan Hawke published a novel, but I later learned it seemed like a genuine effort of his, and he published a second one a few years after that. I imagine Hawke’s novels are probably decent if undistinguished reads, similar in quality and subject matter to a lot of stuff that’s out there and probably better than the standard fiction bestsellers. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the case.

Of course, those of us struggling to make a name for ourselves as writers have to wonder, what do published writers Steve Martin and Ethan Hawke have that I don’t have? They have their names, for one, as well as access to the best agents and connections. All right, sure. Do they possess superior writing ability? Not necessarily. If both were unknowns, they might be in the same boat as the rest of us who write. We’re all fighting to get our names recognized, but it’s a difficult task with so many unknowns out there. I think most of us would like to hit the big time on our own writing merits, certainly, but we also wouldn’t mind if we had some other legitimate angle that gave us that extra nudge.

For me, I’m not concerned about the seemingly great injustice of celebrities getting book deals while the rest of us toiling writers collect piles of rejections and live unrecognized. I can live with that and the capitalist notion that recognizable names on covers sell books. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. Actually, it’s kind of fun to think that someone like Steve Martin might be sitting in front of a computer right now, doing what I’m doing, thinking of the right way to phrase an idea, wondering if he’s using the right word. At such a moment, we’re equals.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lasagna

Don’t ask me why we eat lasagna for Christmas. We have no Italian heritage, just the normal tasteless American variety. My mother heard once that some people have it as tradition, so, devoid of our own, she debased herself, stole it, called it ours. Just like Mom—she often scavenged to cobble together our family life. Like a street person pushing a cart, collecting sellable scraps. Right by the front door is a big mirror with steel flowers filigreed around the perimeter. This was lifted from an evicted neighbor’s belongings. Always look before you go out, she reminded us, to make sure you’re together. This became the family’s unwritten creed. Christmas arrives and I walk in, look at that timeless mirror that needs a shine, see the peeling wallpaper around it. The smell of lasagna—oregano and sausage—was strong. Ciao!, she says, hands up, suddenly Italian. Perhaps we could watch a Godfather marathon, maybe act out scenes from Moonstruck. My brother lives far away and never comes. No one else, often it’s just mom, dad, and me. Sitting at the table, eating a reserved meal that wasn’t ours. Those boisterous large Italian families—fiction for us. In the mirror there’s the three of us, holding hands tightly if only we could.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Common Cold

He sneezes 30 times straight, each a staccato blast in his bare apartment, calls his older brother, says, remember when we would count how many times we’d sneeze in a row?

Yeah, what’s the record, like 68?

I forget, he says, thinking it probably only seemed like so many when they were kids. I got a cold, he says, sick voice flubbing words, as he rattles off three sneezes.

Through the phone he hears an electric guitar, sounding live not recorded; a train rattling, symptom of congested city living.

Sorry to hear that, his brother says, the baby just got over one. You have to come up, see us some time.

In the mirror he sees bloodshot eyes, thinks, I need sleep. Says, remember when dad’s eyes would get bloodshot—I thought maybe he sneaked shots of whiskey upstairs when he was supposedly working the crossword.

No, you’re wrong, it was because he slept five hours a night. Like Edison. Right up to when he died.

You think dad was a genius?, he says, hearing that guitar again, thinking where his brother lives, with his luck, it could be some virtuosic player like Petrucci or Satriani shredding in a bare brick-walled tenement.

What do you think, his brother says. A pause, silence. Gotta go, bro, work to do.

They hang up, and just before falling asleep, he remembers as a kid waking in the night, throat scratchy, going to the kitchen for some water. There was dad sitting at the table, wide awake, reading glasses on nose, pen in hand above a Doppler graph of numbers on paper, one of many now-lost theorems, looking up as he walked into the room.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Problem with Umbrellas

The author has trouble keeping track of umbrellas. He buys them and loses them, leaving them behind at friends’ houses, on public buses, in Asian restaurants. He often finds himself in a situation where it’s raining and he has no protection, running from place to place as his clothes, shoes, and hair get soaked, pondering if one gets wet the same amount whether walking or running through the rain. He hopes that perhaps you, dear reader, have once been the beneficiary of his forgetfulness, that one of his lost umbrellas has protected your suede, your irreplaceable documents and photos, your health. He wants you to know that, yes, he’s concerned about this condition being a symptom of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and thanks you if you have shared this concern, but wants you to know that this has always been a problem, ever since he lost his Sesame Street umbrella during a trip to the zoo in kindergarten. He requests that if you see him out in the rain, running for cover and getting soaked, do not laugh or feel sorry, but rather, contemplate his dilemma for a moment—man against nature, the continual replay of the same situation, etc.—pretend there’s some meaning in it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lemons

Thinking it was the dentist’s office, I walked into a taxidermist’s shop. Workers glanced at me, intense stares as if caught doing something wrong, then back to work. I was about to leave when I realized the place smelled of lemons. Intrigued, I asked the closest person—a balding man, thick glasses, decked in clean-room white—about the aroma.

The skins are treated with lemon juice, he said. We use lemon air fresheners to further mask odors.

The shop was one large working area. A Smithsonian exhibit, animals frozen in various poses. Dogs and cats. Turkeys and deer. An attacking bear, a falcon grasping prey. Frozen, dead eyes staring back. Like a cemetery, a place of still nightmares.

Can I help you, sir, the man asked. I mentioned my mistake. He made a standard pain-dentist joke.

This seems like arcane stuff, I said, like alchemy, phrenology. Don’t know anyone who’s employed a taxidermist.

The man was working on a hawk. Fierce talons forever poised for strike.

You’d be surprised, he said. It’s regaining popularity. People want memories, preservations.

I left pondering that, found the dentist. Afterward, the smell of lemons—air freshener, disinfectant, lemonade—returned my thoughts to that shop. A view suspended in liquid, watching that man stuff a dead bird.