Flash Fiction 2

Suicide was just a word, a vague concept. Something whispered, read about in books. Nothing that had ever come near my own world, but rather a specter keeping itself hidden and far away. I had not even read The Bell Jar, hadn’t thought of Sylvia Plath turning on the stove in the apartment where she lived every day. Had not been stuck with the picture of her putting her head into the oven with the gas jet running, her two young children sleeping in their beds on the other side of the wall.

Daddy Daddy, I said. Daddy, I don’t know what Tim is going to do. I’m scared. I think he’s going to do something to himself. Help me, Daddy. I need your help, Daddy. I said.

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As I work on getting my third completed novel Out There, I have been playing around with several new ideas, and it’s possible that one has taken hold!  I have long been intrigued by writing a full-length work that takes place within a time frame that is less than 24 hours (think Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, etc.).  I have become intrigued by the possibility of telling the entire story in separate pieces of flash fiction — each of which would be entirely free standing, but all of which together would tell the tale.  Stay tuned!

photos of Sylvia Plath

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First Flash Fiction

Sick. She felt sick, fucking sick, when the telephone rang. She wanted to snatch the old 20-pound, rotary dial behemoth of a phone right out of the wall and fling it through the window. She wanted glass to shatter and fly in a million directions and create rainbows of light in mid-air. She wanted the shards to rain down razors and cut the room into little ribbons. I’m too young for this, she thought. I’m fourteen years old and I am too young for this. For this shit, for this utter shit.

“Hello,” she said into the receiver.

“I’m pointing a knife at my stomach,” he said. “Tell me why you broke up with me.”

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First Party

It all began with that party. The first one she had ever been to, well, a party that was anything like that one. She didn’t even know the girl– the one whose parents were away that night– but she knew that Samantha had legendary status somehow. For Madeline, it was a rare chance to be out with her new boyfriend– her first– without any grown-ups around. They held hands. They wandered from one dark candle-lit room to the next in the little house with no adults. Intoxicated, awed, and tamping down her trepidation all at once, Madeline thought to herself: so this is what people do, when they can do whatever they like.

She thought she may faint when Tim introduced her to Chad Howe, whose grandfather had founded a military academy. Chad had parlayed that heritage, together with his skinny-boy looks, Buddy Holly horn rims, and shockingly deep, authoritative voice into a high school persona that shot him into the stratosphere of Hippies Who Mattered. It felt like Chad looked straight into her soul as he said a quick hello before helping his girlfriend – who had a plaster cast from her toes to her mid-thigh – into the back of a friend’s van. He ceremoniously closed the door, leaving a number of hangers-on standing around, staring at the ground.

Oh my god, Madeline thought: He’s having sex in that van! I am thirteen years old, and I am at a party where Chad Howe is fucking his girlfriend in a van! How totally cool is that?!

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Tim wrapped his arm around her shoulder and whispered in her ear, “I’ll be right back. Gonna go talk to a friend.”

“Oh, I’ll go with you,” Madeline said. “Want me to?”

“Nah, something I got to talk to him about. Be right back.”

The time that Tim was gone blurred. Samantha sitting in an old arm chair, by herself in a dark corner, head hanging down so her long, deep brunette waves fell completely across her face, nodding ever so slightly in time to the music. Madeline wondered if Samantha was ok, thought perhaps she should ask her, but then got worried that she might be bothering her, interrupting something Madeline didn’t understand. Plumes of incense twirled madly whenever someone moved. A guy wore round blue sunglasses in a night black house.

When Tim wandered back beside her, he was different. Woozy-seeming. He chuckled a little, to himself, and mumbled something she couldn’t understand.

“Sorry, what?” she asked him.

“What the hell were you doing talking to that guy?”

“What guy?” she said.

“Don’t fuck with me. You were definitely talking to him.” Tim held up his hand, his palm facing her. In the dark of the room, it was hard for Madeline to tell what she was looking at. A circle. A perfect circle, faintly reddish-brown, traced the periphery of his entire palm. “It’s from a candle. I put my hand right on the candle and held it there.”

“What?” Madeline said, grabbing his hand to look at it more closely.

“I did it to prove my love for you,” Tim said.

“Hey, is there somebody here named Madeline?” said a guy who was standing at the front door.

“Your dad’s here. To take you home, I guess.”

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As I work on getting my third completed novel Out There, I am playing around with several new ideas — such as the one above.  Perhaps one or more of them will come together into the next long[er] work.  Stay tuned!

How I Met Anne

Anne bounded through the door of the second-grade classroom like the Connecticut-bred thoroughbred that she’d been born. A giant-eyed toddler moppet trailed well after her, a baby bottle filled with Pepto Bismol-pink liquid gripped between her teeth as she strangled a blankie with both hands.

“I’m a little early!” Anne announced to the room in general, raising her arm as if to hail a cab.

“I hope that’s OK!” Only after she said this did her eyes cast around to land on the two people – the teacher and me – who stood at the front of the classroom.

“That’s ok, we were just finishing up. I think,” I said. She saw that my eyes had been drawn to the freakish pink inside the bottle.

“Strawberry Quik!” she said. “It’s the only way I can get her to drink any milk!”

She was loud. Every sentence had an exclamation point at the end. She wore Doc Martens and a long skirt on an airless, sweltering summer day. I liked her immediately. Even before she parted her lips into a mischievous smile and belly-laughed.

“Do you have a kid in this class?” she asked me. “Any chance it’s a boy? My son’s gonna be in this class!” Before I could answer, she laughed again. “Or am I talking to the wrong person? Which one of you is the teacher and which one is the other parent?”

I introduced myself. I always introduce myself as “Barbara.” I don’t believe Anne ever called me “Barbara.” Not even once.

“OK, Barb! Great to meet you!” she said. “So you must be Ms. Mahoney,” she announced to the teacher. “Hey, Barb, if you have time, is there any chance you could keep an eye on the baby while I talk to Ms. Mahoney? She’s kind of at that age…”

Until then, I had been under the impression that Anne was oblivious to her daughter’s careening destruction of every single thing in her path. But she wasn’t oblivious. She saw it all, and let it happen anyway.  Not out of neglect, but rather, by design.

2ndgrade.JPGAs I work on getting my third completed novel Out There, I am playing around with several new ideas — such as the one above.  Perhaps one or more of them will come together into the next long[er] work.  Stay tuned!

Optimus

He sat on my lap, the curve of the back of his skull nestled right under the tip of my nose and reaching to my bottom lip. He rested his hands on my thighs, lightly, occasionally entwining his fingers together, or scratching, before resting them on my thighs again. My nose was buried deep in his impossibly soft wavy hair. I breathed it in. I wanted to do nothing but breathe it in for the rest of my life. I breathed a steamy vapor of exhale into his scalp. I could feel the warmth of it spread. The damp. I thought the feeling might bother him, might make him unconsciously move away. I slowly, silently adjusted so my nose, my breathing, would not be quite so hotly released onto him. He immediately adjusted his own head, so that my nose was once again swallowed in his hair, my warm breath pouring in. He leaned into it just a bit harder.

Every so often, he would remark on some plot point of the show we watched. “That’s because when Optimus Prime goes back in time, he becomes Optimus Primus.”

“Really?” I would remark. “Optimus Primus.”

“Exactly,” he would say.

Rescue Bots. His latest four-and-a-half-year-old fascination. A show about a family of Transformers forever needing to save feckless humans from plight and disaster. The whole world for him. For me, a chance to have our two bodies this close. To feel him dance the dance of the subtle movements that keep us touching.

“I’m ready, Mom,” my son said as he walked into the room. “Well, as ready as I’m ever going to be.”

I embraced my grandson, tightened my arms around his tiny frame, rocked him side to side. “You’ll have to tell me all about the rest of the show when we get back, OK?” I said to him.

I stood up, let myself sigh out loud. “I can’t tell you how much I don’t want to do this,” I said.

“I know,” my son replied.

We were heading to the memorial celebration for Anne, who had been one of my very best friends for many years. But that was a long time ago. That was before her son David jumped. And she never recovered.

I mean, who would?

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My life according to me

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D-Day. June 6.

D-Day marks the anniversary of the Normandy landings during World War II. Twenty-four thousand U.S., British and Canadian troops landed on five separate beaches across a 50-mile-wide stretch of northern France. The largest seaborne invasion in history, the operation began the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control, and contributed to the Allied victory on the Western Front. But, “victory” took months, and Allied casualties numbered greater than 10,000, with more than 4,100 confirmed dead.

On the anniversary of D-Day this year, I officially outlived every member of my family of origin. I woke up to my 22,481st day, overtaking my father, who put his cigarette down and slid off his chair into a quick and peaceful death on his 22,480th day. I had long surpassed my mother (20,792 days) and my brother, the one most gypped of the additional days I so wish he could have seen (17,590 days).

I originally began this blog as a vehicle to post sections of my third novel as it was being written, and I titled it “My books My writing My life according to me.” With my third novel completed (at least I hope that it is completed. I would like it to be completed, not because I shirk from doing further work that might make it a better piece of fiction, but because I believe it accomplishes what I ardently wanted it to accomplish – to capture an instant in time. Altering it seems almost like doctoring pictures of the D-Day invasion. They may be more captivating, or graphic, or even more beautiful photographs, but that’s just not what happened); I am switching my blog more to the “My life according to me” thing. I have redesigned it!

Is this a grateful-to-be-alive every single day kind of blog? A bluebirds-on-both-shoulders-singing-in-my-ears sort of thing? Um, no. Well, partly. I chose the wonderful photograph above by Annemiek van der Kuil as the perfect “emblem” for this blog, as it mirrors the world that I see, where juxtapositions and ironies exist everywhere: a world that is at once beautiful and messy, where there is loneliness and separation as well as jubilant connection, peacefulness and chaos, profound pain, but always, always possibility.

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Conversational Vortex

It’s June, it’s Friday, and it’s time for another chapter excerpt from my novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  In the two weeks since I last posted, and with the help of dedicated readers/friends, I conceived of a new way to structure the book and have been hard at work.  I say with hope and fear, it’s possible that I am within striking distance of a completed new draft!!

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Conversational Vortex

Claire, along with every other member of the family, had an irrational but intense distaste for Madeline’s coffee maker. Claire’s very first job had been in the coffee house directly across the street from her apartment, a place she had such a deep and abiding affection for that she still found any reason to drive past it more than ten years later. In the years and the motley assortment of coffee joints in the time since then, she had babied and cajoled her fair share of finicky machinery in order to produce the sumptuously rich shots of espresso and foam flourishes that kept customers standing in line for her creations.

She would not even go near Madeline’s useless behemoth.

The thing had been a gift from a long-gone beau and held no particular sentimental place in Madeline’s heart. Still, it was there; and Madeline had been raised by a woman who said “I’m too Scotch to throw it away and get a new one” enough times that it had stuck, especially considering that her mother had no Scotch ancestry whatsoever.

Each and every part of the coffeemaker required precise handling and placement – the handle of the filter basket needed to be facing forward for brewing; the lid of the basket assembly then had to be positioned just so; likewise, the lid of the coffee pot itself had to be screwed on to an exact point and then placed meticulously under the filter assembly. This so struck Madeline as an apt metaphor for nearly all aspects of her life – that great effort and painstaking care were requirements—that she never questioned the coffeemaker, nor felt put upon in carrying out the steps each morning that resulted in an excellent and deeply satisfying pot of coffee. After all, wasn’t it her own daughter who had said, “Not everything that’s really hard is also good; but everything that’s really good is also hard.”

No one could ever figure out whether it was one specific thing, or a compounding of smaller things that tipped the scales for the old coffee pot. Every so often, the scoundrel would simply refuse to allow the brewed coffee to flow smoothly into the carafe below, but would erupt like a volcano, spewing a scalding muck of boiling water and coffee grounds across the entire kitchen counter, sending rivulets down the cabinet doors and dark streams across the floor.

It had happened to everyone in the family at one time or another, and each of the family members had their own unique response: it happened to Madeline only once. When it happened to Kate, she practiced putting the various parts and pieces together over and over and over, until she was certain that she had mastered it. But once satisfied that mastery had been achieved, she promptly forgot every step of the procedure and needed a refresher course each time she started anew. John managed to be someplace else, nearly always, when a pot of coffee needed to be made — he so relished the cared-for feeling that came from someone placing a freshly-made, wonderfully warm, aromatic cup in his hand. On the other hand, if elected, he held no rancor nor possessed any fear about the crusty old pot; he approached it with an even, calm attitude, expecting that everything would turn out just fine.

Claire gave it a very wide berth. She snarled at it, scowled in its direction when she went about the business of her cooking. Truth be told, she preferred to not even pour herself a cup from a fully-finished batch, so convinced was she that the diabolical device could not be trusted under any circumstances whatsoever and was, in fact, capable of genuine Evil.

Claire’s distaste of the wicked pot was so great that she did not budge from her treetop, arty nest until she heard Madeline’s feet hit the floor of her bedroom below at approximately 6:58. Even then, Claire did not move a muscle until a safe period of time had passed, and she could descend the stairs with certainty that the morning’s fresh pot of coffee awaited. Which she generally did not drink, although she usually agreed to have Madeline pour her a cup, noting the obvious pleasure it gave her mother-in-law; but Madeline would later find the stone-cold, untouched mug squirreled away in a corner of the kitchen.

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After years of managing the opening shift in coffee joints, Claire had long ago lost the ability to sleep in. She awakened each day sometime between four am. and five, and having her life spread out before her in one large room enabled her to accomplish a great deal in the hours before Madeline opened her eyes to the new day. By the time “good morning’s” passed from each of them to the other, Claire had: read passages from a variety of books that recent events brought to mind; corresponded, both on paper and via email, with people across the world who had stirred her soul into a permanent, unmovable, ferocious loyalty; written in her journal; scanned vintage anatomical drawings; continued the eternal process of organizing her thousands and thousands of photographs taken from world travels; jotted down ideas for a new children’s book she was writing; and curled up in the corner of the room so she could manage a long, impassioned, whispered conversation with her husband in a voice so hushed that Madeline would not even have the barest murmur invade her dreams.

“I have so much I need to get done today.” Claire squeezed herself into a small corner of the sofa that was closest to the door, as if the proximity to an exit and the sheer discomfort of her position would magically propel her. She cradled the cup of untouched coffee between her two hands and blew across the steaming surface.

Claire alternated between two mood states that Madeline thought of as more or less “off” and “on.” In the “off” times, Claire walked with her eyes cast on the floor. She moved with such stealth that it was nearly impossible to know where she may be in the house, or if she was even there at all. She shrugged in response to any communication directed at her. She gave the ardent impression of wishing to be invisible, or perhaps to disappear entirely. During the “on” times, she could be stunningly talkative. The shifts came as a bit of a jolt to Madeline, when the same young woman who had slunk around in the deep shadows for a time suddenly plopped down on the sofa and became downright chatty, mustering an astonishing string of words, sentences, paragraphs, ideas that were not only exceptionally articulate, but were also delivered so blindingly goddamn fast that Madeline had to concentrate especially hard on the content lest she get carried away by the breathtaking delivery itself.

She had an assortment of expressions that she peppered frequently through any and every subject she happened to be addressing, a trait Madeline found so utterly charming she waited for each new occurrence and was brought very nearly to tears by them. These included:

At all whatsoever
Nonsense
I mean, I feel like
Incomparable boob
I mean, are you fucking kidding me?
Ninnyhammer

and Madeline’s personal favorite:
conversational vortex

“Did you hear my big fight with John last night?” Claire asked.

“What!? No!” Madeline responded.

“Nonsense. I can’t believe you didn’t hear it. I was seriously screaming at him. Because
he was being a complete ninnyhammer, I mean, I feel like he started it because he was actually screaming into the phone at me, I don’t even remember a time when he’s yelled at me like that, ever, before, when he was that mad and yelling so loud I actually had to hold the receiver away from my ear a couple of times, I mean, are you fucking kidding me? Seriously, Madeline, it’s a little hard to believe you when you say that you didn’t hear any of this.”

“I seriously didn’t. Are you OK? Is everything OK?”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. We talked again this morning. For a long time. That’s why I’m running so late and I can’t do this, I can’t do this right now. I can’t sit down on this spot on this couch and next thing I know some sort of thing has taken possession of me, hours of our lives have passed, and I realize that once again I have fallen into the conversational vortex that exists in this room! I do not have time for this today at all whatsoever.” She paused. She shifted just slightly from her previous position of being bashed against the arm of the sofa.

“Possibly, it’s already too late,” Madeline said.

“Nonsense,” said Claire.

George Brassaï - Girls at a Café

bottom photo: Brassai