Category: literary fiction

Canyon (flash fiction)

Then there was the whole Grand Canyon thing.

On the way back from California, the long, dust-bitten journey slouching toward Pennsylvania, my parents decided we should stop at some natural wonders along the way. Death Valley.  Joshua Tree.  The Painted Desert. My mother maintained a hawk-like vigilance as she continually scanned the landmark scenery through the car window.  She wore sunglasses, very dark green ones. Wearing glasses always caused her to hold her mouth funny, as if that were completely essential to keeping the glasses in place.  Every so often her hand shot out and grazed my father’s arm. “Stop the car!”

The words came out with palpable enthusiasm; but it was, nonetheless, a command. The second the car came to a full stop – amid a great spray of gravel and dust – my mother leapt out the door. She stood by the car, with her hands planted on her hips and her feet wide apart, surveying the scene. Around her neck hung her still camera; wrapped tightly around her wrist was the thin, worn shoelace cord of her wind-up 8mm movie camera.

It seemed to take her a minute to remember that the other three of us were there. She swung the top half of her body around and looked at my brother and me still sitting in the back seat as if our folly could not be grasped. We shuffled along behind her dutifully, slowly, willful in our disinterest.

My father stayed by the car. He lit a cigarette, and smoked it as if it was a great chore, but one that must be done.

My mother knew a lot about a lot, which of course made me suspicious. How can you go to all these different places, and the same one person knows so much stuff about all the trees, and the flowers, and the cactuseses, and the birds, and on and on, every single place you go.  Plus, my father staying by the car and not even coming along to see these great sights added considerably to my suspicion.  If this stuff was so wondrous and important, why would he want to stay by the car and miss it!

Way before we got to the Grand Canyon, I was pretty sure my mother was just making stuff up. So by the time she was making exuberant wide gestures while talking about time, and a river, and layers of rock, and millions of years, millions and millions of years — I just felt sad and confused.  My neighbor Patsy had already told me about the whole world being made in just seven short days, well six really, cause God took

closeup photo of person s foot near mountain
Photo by Samuel Silitonga on Pexels.com

one day off to rest. She had learned this at church, and this story was from God himself.  They said so at church, a Presbyterian one, but my other neighbor Carrie was an actual Catholic; and Carrie confirmed

man standing on green mini van
Photo by Nicholas James Singh on Pexels.com

this was, without question, the truth.

I felt a little better when my brother and I were allowed to feed some peanuts to the chipmunks that were running around everywhere. I was scared they would bite me, but they didn’t, and their teeny little claws felt creepy and good all at the same time when they crawled into my hand to get the nut.  I had to keep very, very still.  I felt like there were my personal friends.

But back in the car, as we drove away from the Grand Canyon, there was a whirl going on inside of me.  Kind of like when you make those whirly paintings at carnivals, the ones where you squirt bright, beautiful colors from ketchup bottles, and then the whole thing spins around, and you think it’s going to be so so pretty; but it’s a mess. An ugly, dark mess.

Why would my own mother tell such whoppers?

 

 

 

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Dangers of Reality (flash fiction)

birds

3:48 am.  I am not certain if I was already awake.  It is possible that I was, as I sleep lightly and wake up many times each night.  Perhaps I was in the middle of a dream.  Perhaps the sound injected itself into the dream, becoming a part of it. This happens often as well; the real and the imagined blur and blend and intermingle themselves.

My nighttime wakings are often accompanied by the sound of my refrigerator, as my bedroom lies right off the kitchen, and it is most certainly one of the loudest refrigerators in the history of the appliance.  Of course I could close my bedroom door; but I prefer it open.  I look forward to hearing the sounds of my apartment, and noting the different levels of quiet, for the few seconds before I fall back asleep.  Besides, the phenomenon of my refrigerator never ceases to fascinate me.  I can hardly believe how invasive the sound seems when I read in my bed before sleep.  But when I awaken in the night, it is a lullaby hum that soothes me.

Anyway, at 3:48 am there is a bird singing.  One bird.  I check the luminous red numbers on the clock again and do a broad calculation. The sun will not rise until 5:16 am, so this bird is, indeed, very, very early.  I concentrate on his song, blasting loud and strong into the darkness.  I imagine, in my sleepy state, that he must be bursting with song; he must possess a need to hail the day with an immense bounty of hopefulness.

I listen.

His song does not sound joyful.  He sounds stretched, strained.  If he were a person, he would be just at the point of his voice breaking, or giving out entirely.  The veins would be standing out on his neck. This bird is trying way too hard.  This bird is a wreck.

It’s hard to know what’s real when noises blend into dreams, and the same exact sound can be either a clatter or a hum, and a one should be able to count on a bird’s song being joyful, and it turns out the bird is a fucking disaster.

bird

Boat (new flash fiction)

chris.schenkelWhile we were in California, my aunt and uncle took us out on their boat to fish for yellowtail.  The grown-ups talked about this for DAYS beforehand —  how we were going out into the open ocean, on our very own boat.  They would look at one another every so often and shout out “Yellowtail!” which was invariably followed by raucous laughter, back-slapping, and a big giant gulp from their glass.

When the much-vaunted day came, we set out for the place where their boat was docked. My aunt’s car was so big that the accumulated seven of us had no trouble whatsoever fitting in, and the three kids and one adult still bounced around the back seat with tons of space to spare.  It was like being in a room in someone’s house that up and moved from place to place. Riding in it didn’t feel like any car I’d ever been in.  Usually, when you drove over a bump, you’d feel a bump.  In this behemoth, when you went over a bump, the entire car seemed to take it personally, and became intent on minimizing the blow by rolling from side to side a whole lot of times instead of just hitting the bump and getting it over with.  When I looked over at my brother, the freckles across his nose had taken on a greenish tinge.

The seats were made out of a weird material that felt slippery and a little greasy all at the same time.  I couldn’t stop running my index finger back and forth across the seat beside me.  My mother turned around from her spot in the middle of the front seat and caught me doing this.  “It’s a brand new synthetic!” she chirped.  “It’ll last forever!” Being four years old, I heard it as “SIN-thetic.”  And since I had a limited but wholly terrifying idea of “sin,” and since my mother seemed unreasonably gleeful about the whole car upholstery topic, I thought I better not say any more.

When we climbed on to the actual boat, the adults were in such unfettered good spirits that I felt immediately suspicious and bewildered and like I’d been invited to some party that was celebrating something I couldn’t understand.  It turned out that you have to spend a whole lot of time on a boat, doing one thing and another that was also incomprehensible to me, way before the boat ever moves away from its place at the dock.  But that whole time, the boat sits in the ocean heaving up and down and back and forth.  Somebody decided that we children would be more comfortable “below;” so we – my aunt and the baby, my brother, and me — were relegated to the little enclosed room below the part of the boat that was outside and open to the air.  The minute the door closed behind us, my brother did a quick look around, spotted a tiny little bench alongside a tiny little table, curled up, and went immediately to sleep.

I didn’t know what to do – where to sit, or stand, or look at, or anything.  My aunt was holding the baby and cooing at her.  That baby looked right at me, staring a hole.  And without so much as a fuss or wiggle or even slight change of expression, she just opened up her mouth and spewed a gigantic amount of puke that ran all the way down her body and my aunt’s as well.

My aunt had a mess on her hands, and she got very wrapped up in wiping at the baby and herself with whatever she found at hand, all the while cooing and comforting her.  Then the baby upchucked again.

I looked at my shoes.  Partly because I still couldn’t figure out what to do, and partly because I thought the puke probably splattered onto them; and I was very proud of my saddle shoes.

What the heck were my parents up to?  I stared at the door to make sure I’d see them coming, whenever they did.

alex.scott

Painting are by: Chris Schenkel (top) and Alex Scott.  Chris and Alex participate in Chicago’s Arts of Life program. “Arts of Life advances the creative arts community by providing artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities a collective space to expand their practice and strengthen their leadership.”

Ice: A flash fiction homage to pneumonia and the unreliable narrator

yves trevedy

I’m not really sure if I’m here.

Every so often, someone comes into the room.  The person always says, “how are you doing, Mr. ______.”  I usually say, “I’m not really sure if I’m here.” Not once have I gotten a reasonable response to this.  Sometimes the other person seems to ignore the question altogether, so you can see where this would be extremely unhelpful in determining whether I’m really here, or not.  Sometimes the other person gives a faint, indecipherable smile while they go about their business.  They examine the machines that surround me.  They make notes – sometimes on a computer they roll in and out of the room with them, sometimes on a little scrap of paper, once in a while on their wrist or hand or some other part of their own body.

Frequently the other person says, “I’d say you’re getting better.”  I used to ask: “Better than what?”  I had no idea what standard of comparison the person was using, and the statement confused me a great deal.  Once again, I never got a response that I could make any use of, so I thought it best to stop asking.  The people seemed quite well-meaning, and very dedicated to their various tasks as they moved around my room.  Sometimes I wondered if it was the tasks themselves, or the movements associated with those tasks, that were supposed to be helpful to me.  Perhaps it was a carefully choreographed dance, an incantation, perhaps designed to allow for my return, if I was, in fact, gone somewhere in the first place.

laurits Tuxen

Before the person leaves my room, they invariably grab a device that looks like an exceptionally outdated remote control and place it directly in my hand.  “Press the button if you need anything.”  I nod.  I am pretty sure that I nod.  “The button,” the person says, pointing to a bright red circle in the middle of the outdated remote.  I lay the remote right next to my hand and contemplate what I might need, in the future, so I could push the button and summon the people.  I’m not sure if they’re disappointed in me for not thinking of something.  I’ll try to work on this.

I’m very high up.  In a bed.  I am so high up that the floor seems miles away.  I can have as many pillows as I want, and they are the fluffy but firm ones that are just the way I like them.  They blankets are laughably thin, but I can have as many of these as I want, also.  I think this is a memory: I was shaking with chills, shaking way up high in my bed miles above the floor, and some people brought me blankets that had been warmed up.  They wrapped one entire blanket around my feet, and a second one around my torso, and a third they used to wrap me all the way up to my chin, making me into a mummy.

There are always two pitchers of ice cold water within my reach.  They are always completely full to the top, and the ice never melts.  The ice is the very best part.  People come and go from the room.  I don’t know where they go, because I don’t know what’s on the other side of the door to my room.  I don’t know for sure that they continue to exist.  But there are always the perfectly-formed, small, rectangular ice cubes.  They are immensely satisfying to crunch.  My hand gets colder and colder with each handful of ice that I take from the pitcher, and my mouth gets colder and colder as I crunch.  It is at these times that I most believe that I may be real.

rembrandt

Paintings, top to bottom: Yves Trevedy, Laurits Tuxen, Rembrandt

Little Burro – FLASH fiction*

66hotel

I was pretty sure my parents were tricksters.  From an early age, I was watching them out of the corners of my eyes.

Like when we took a road trip all the way across the country when I was four years old, driving west across old Route 66 from Pennsylvania to California, where my aunt and uncle lived.  Days and days of endless barren landscapes, our brand new station wagon throwing up a dust storm that followed in our wake.  No air conditioning.  The windows were wide open, making any kind of talking sort of impossible.  It was dry, and dusty, with a hot wind blowing in your face all day long.  My brother and I bounced and blew around in the back seat in a woozy stupor.  Every so often, one of us would come out of our haze long enough to let out a plaintive whine of “How much longer?” or, even more important, “Are you sure there’s a POOL?”

I got to eat pancakes every morning.

At one of the pancake places, I got a little stuffed burro with a bell in his ear for my souvenir of the trip.  Except I wasn’t allowed to make the bell ring because it drove everyone nuts, so mostly I just held him in my lap and stared at him.

My aunt and uncle had a new baby.  I’d pretty much never seen a baby before, and I wasn’t at all sure she was real.  She just sat there doing absolutely nothing most of the time.  Every so often I would pinch her, to see if she was real after all.  She would scream or cry or something, but somehow I still wasn’t entirely convinced.

I was pretty sure the people next store were really, really bad and would snatch me up or hurt me if I got too close to them.  They were always trying to get me to come over to their gate to talk to them, or to show me something.  They didn’t speak English, and they wore clothes that covered them all up from head to toe, and they were older than even my grandparents.  I made sure never to get too close to that gate, even if I didn’t see them in their yard.  But that meant that I had to stay in my aunt and uncle’s garage, and that was terrifying, too, as my aunt had shown me a bottle that she swore had a genie inside.  It was hard to find a place that was far enough from the gate and from the bottle, both.  But at least I could stand there and shake my burro’s bell.

My parents seemed to think that everything was funny.  They laughed all the time in California, and I was pretty sure they were laughing at me.  But I was watching them.  They just seemed like people with a lot of secrets.  Mean people.  With secrets.

roadtrip

 

*The blog has been silent for a spell, while I have labored over the re-re-re-writes of my upcoming novel Pushing the River.  In the interim, I have become fascinated with the concept of the unreliable narrator. And I continue to be taken with the idea of flash fiction.  Hence, a little piece that utilizes both.

Pushing the River: FLASH flash

It was not her first foray into the parallel universe of online dating. Madeline had been divorced for more than ten years. She had braved a string of relationships that progressed from interest, to the first tingle of excitement, to the exhilaration of genuine possibility, to the frightening, heady, joyful moment when the roller coaster passed the peak of its climb and in that split second, there was no going back: momentum had taken over; it was utterly and completely out of anyone’s control, because at that moment, there was love. There was real love.

And then there wasn’t.

Madeline took time to lick the wounds of disappointment. She allowed the lesions of dashed hopes to scab over. She understood that persevering was an ongoing matter of keeping one’s optimism just enough ahead of the injury of experience to keep going.

After a time, she would go back online, pouring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage. As crazy a universe as online dating was – she recalled a friend aptly calling it The Wild West – it was essentially the only path to meet people. Since Madeline worked alone, had never buddied up to a man in a bar, and didn’t attend church, she reconciled herself to the necessary methodology.

Madeline worked hard to extinguish the flame she had carried for Jeff. But the feeling of being part of something larger than herself – everything from the ongoing sense that life was bigger and mattered more, to the immeasurable joy of small, everyday moments – was a living spirit inside of her.

cropped-winogrand-mirror.jpg

I am up to my eyeballs in re-writing/editing my novel Pushing the River.  The above snippet is excerpted from an early chapter. The first paragraph remains from the original draft; the remainder was written yesterday.  It struck me that it could stand on its own as a Flash.  It also struck me as being remarkably similar to the Flash I wrote entitled “January 2,” which suggests that I still endeavor to get it right.  WATCH FOR THE RELEASE OF PUSHING THE RIVER THIS SUMMER!!!

photo by Garry Winogrand

Smoke: Flash Fiction

It was the way she held her cigarette that I would remember. Her hands were always so small, the fingers so thin. You could not see from one end of the kitchen to the other , the density of smoke from cigarette after cigarette had nowhere to go. It choked the room. It obscured the cabinets, the floor of the room she had waited so long to redo.

It was very nearly the hand of a child.

I don’t want you to come anymore, she said. I want this to be the last time.

Was there gray in her hair when we first met? I was trying to recall. But always the pale, slender hands , the plain gold wedding band, the narrow silver watch whose face she could no longer read without her glasses, which she detested and never wore.

But I want to come, I said.

She could no longer see the cabinets, nor even the beloved built-in breakfast nook where the two of us sat. It was not the smoke. She had not seen much of anything around her for a number of years. Not since Jeff jumped.

I mean it, she said. Please don’t.

 

giphy

As I work on the final draft of my novel, I have been playing 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 recently 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. The piece above is the latest flash.