Thursday, December 31, 2009


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


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


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


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?


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


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


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


“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


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.