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.