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


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


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


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…