Watching. Waiting. (Another Take) | Flash Fiction

Note: Last week I posted a quick piece called “Watching. Waiting.” I didn’t particularly like it at the time. I’m coming to actually hate it. A friend pointed out that the core element of an old man watching cable news to help loosen his connection to life was wrong-headed. It was also ungenerous and mean.

This is another take. I hope it is more generous and more kind.

 

Ronny Hulsing woke early. At his age, there was no luxury or prize for staying in bed until the sun came up. The days were short enough and any one of them could be his last.

He struggled to free his legs from the tangle of blanket, trying to ignore the ripe bloom of stink that came out when he lifted the covers. The indignities of old age, so much harder to bear than the myriad aches and pains that settled into every joint and fissure.

Getting himself moving took a bit of work but it had become his life’s work and he wasn’t going to give up yet.

In the far corner of his bedroom, the shadowy figure of a man stood waiting. Always waiting.

Ronny put on his glasses.

“Ah. You’re still there, then? Didn’t sneak off in the middle of the night? No place you’d rather be?”

The shape watched him, unsmiling, unsympathetic.

“Well, you might as well make yourself useful. Come give me a hand. I’m not moving as free and easy as I used to.”

The man-shaped shadow came to Ronny’s bedside, offering his hand.

Ronny batted the hand away. He knew better than to take that offered hand. He knew instinctively that he wanted no part of that icy grip.

“I can manage. I can manage,” Ronny grumbled. And he pushed himself out of bed with a good goddammit. “Gotta whiz. Then breakfast.”

Ronny shuffled to the bathroom door, gripping his walker tight for fear of tripping over his own mutinous feet. His heart was good. His mind clear. His vitals all in order. His mutinous feet were the problem. Always getting tangled up, threatening to topple him like an old growth tree.

Ronny entered the bathroom. The shadow followed. “A little privacy, please.”

The shadow waited outside the bathroom door.

The indignities multiply.

After managing his morning pee, Ronny makes the slow, shuffling trek to the kitchen. Making breakfast was the hardest chore of the day. His unsteady hands found it difficult to measure the proper amount of coffee grounds. Some nights the home health nurse filled the basket and tank before leaving so it would be ready for him just to switch on in the morning. Ashley, the last girl, had been good for that. And Kimberly, the girl before that. But now there was a new girl and she didn’t know the details of how he liked things done. Home health was brutal business. They never stayed long enough to get properly acquainted and properly trained.

Ronny’s hands shook bad today and he had to focus extra careful to get the grounds into the filter. He nearly spilled the whole thing dropping the filter into the basket. Ronny carried the carafe to the sink to fill it with water. He saw the shadow figure from the corner of his eye. Standing. Watching. Somehow mocking with his humorless stare.

“I see you there. You could help a man out. Make enough coffee for the both of us.”

The figure just stared with those patient, lidless, unblinking eyes.

Ronny sighed. “No? Okay. But you don’t get any coffee.”

Ronny filled the carafe, then shuffled to pour the water into the coffee maker to percolate.

“Toast neither,” Ronny told him. He pressed two slices of bread into the toaster and pressed to brown.

“Don’t you never say anything? Its very rude. Just standing in a man’s house like that, watching him do all the work. Just waiting for him to —“

Ronny didn’t finish the thought. He had the sudden memory of his wife, Abigail, standing in that very same spot in the kitchen, watching him make breakfast. Except she had been smiling. Her tired, worn cancer treatment smile. The smile she had worn to keep herself living on the outside while she was busy dying on the inside.

Ronny nearly lost his legs. He had ventured too far from his walker and had to catch himself against the sink. Breathing was hard work. A bit like mountain climbing. He felt weak from too much exertion and the air seemed unhelpfully thin.

“Not yet, you bastard.” Ronny panted.

The toast leapt up but he wasn’t as much in the mood anymore.

He waited a while to catch his breath. Truth be told, his breath caught him.

Either way, Ronny settled down and his strength returned enough to attempt the morning coffee pour. He splashed a bit out of the mug but that couldn’t be helped. He was mostly just glad he hadn’t burned himself. Yet. He still had to make the trip from kitchen to the arm chair in the living room where he liked to take his coffee.

Ronny balanced one hand on his walker, balanced the coffee in the other and went on his way.

“Out of my way. No fair standing in the middle of the kitchen, trying to trip me up. Make me fall.”

The figure stepped out of Ronny’s way. Ronny walked by, trying not to notice the chill that bloomed in his bones as he passed. He would need the entire cup of coffee and maybe another to take that graveyard chill away.

Ronny found his chair, careful to set his coffee down on the side table before sitting himself.

“Busy day planned today?” Ronny laughed to himself. “Feel free to leave anytime you like. I’ll be right here for you when you get back. No rush. No worries.”

The absurdity pained Ronny but he tried to push it back with humor. “You never laugh,” Ronny observed. “You stand there, oh so serious. But its all actually quite funny.”

If the shadow figure agreed, it gave no sign.

“I miss my Abigail. Miss her so much it hurts. There’s a lot of me that’s ready to go be with her and yet there’s a lot that isn’t in any hurry at all.”

Ronny studied the figure. “That’s funny, right?”

The apparition shrugged.

Ronny took a long draught of his coffee. Enjoyed the warm spread of it filling his chest and stomach. He reached for the TV remote. Turned on the morning cable news show. His morning dose of calamity, political chicanery and general inhumanity. Interrupted occasionally by commercials for term life insurance, reverse mortgages and Metamucil.

“You may as well have a seat, friend. I’m telling you. I’m not going anywhere until I am good and ready.”

Watching. Waiting. | Flash Fiction

Death was taking its sweet, slow time finding Archie Wheeler. Archie waits, impatient, sitting his living room, his dinning room, his toilet, his porch, like a man sitting a bus stop bench waiting for a bus that is running hours, days, years too late. A man with somewhere else to be, anywhere other than wherever he was. A man forgotten by time and circumstance. A man who has stopped changing calendars or noticing the batteries in his clocks have all expired.

Ninety-eight was an indecent age to reach. As a younger man, Archie had imagined life to be a slippery, fleeting quicksilver moment like a fish you could never quite get your hands around. As a husband and father and employee and club member, he had felt the passage of time barreling fast.

But now he knew the filthy secret of life. Time isn’t short. Time excruciates.

His life has become a waiting room. He has read all the books on the shelves, all the magazines. He has seen all the shows he cares to see, the black and white oldies replay on mute. He doesn’t need the sound. He knows all the dialogue by memory. He has lost his enthusiasm for music, playing only the one opera on record player, letting it dig a deep, angry welt in the vinyl.

Doris died 30 years ago. At the time, it had felt too soon. She had passed too young. She had lived a good, happy life. She had been spared 30 years of cable news updates. She didn’t have to lose their daughter.

Helen was lost 14 years ago. Sixteen years after her mother. Sixteen years in which Helen had her father and her family, children of her own, to look after and help keep her grief at bay. But the grief gets us all, every one. Some call it depression. Some call it cancer. The name doesn’t matter. The malignancy catches us, each one, in the end.

Archie was impatient for his turn. And on occasion, he flips the channels, flipping past the Such and Such Headline News. The bloviating President. The forest fires. The stock market’s endless arrows. Zigzagging up in green. Zigzagging down in red. The panic. The turmoil. The same problems each year dressed in different clothes. He watches with detached interest, a fatal fascination. Each dispatch he imagines Death taking its step closer. So close, surely, Archie expects to see Death grinning out at him through the screen, asking to be invited into his home.

But no. And still he watches, to bear witness. His life with Doris and Helen has been his true life, not this shriveled, forgotten, useless thing. And if he were really honest with himself, he would say he watched the news as a way of letting go of his life. The world was burning. He was swimming out to sea.

More Thoughts on Chekhov as the Father of Flash Fiction

Yesterday, it seems I made too much of the difficulty of reading Anton Chekhov, too much of the opacity of his text, too much of his Russianess. I called him the father of flash fiction. That’s a statement worth explaining.

First, I should say that I love writing flash fiction but don’t alway love reading it. In the wrong hands, perhaps my own hands, flash fiction can feel lazy, an abbreviated form of story telling for the internet age where everything connects to everything and so nothing really ever stands entirely on its own. Flash fiction is often heavy on the flash and sparing on the fiction. There is a temptation to catch characters in the middle of doing something interesting without the need to define or understand how what they are doing affects or changes them. It is easy to introduce a quick character, punch the reader in the stomach with some powerful detail or twist and then take your leave. If the reader is aching from the well-placed punch, you must have told an impactful story.

Successful flash fiction should haunt a reader. The quickness of action, the spareness and specificity of detail should unsettle the reader and leave them wanting to glimpse a bit more. Successful flash fiction is like haiku. It should guide a reader through a specific, concrete physical reality, bring them to the edge of epiphany and then push them over with both hands. The reader of flash fiction, like the reader of haiku, tumbles headlong into a realization that is not contained or expressed in the story. It is a realization or understanding that does not belong to the writer.

This, it seems, is the mystery and wonder of Chekhov. I don’t understand most of his stories, but I don’t understand them in the way I don’t understand haiku or a zen koan. I know there’s something there. I just cannot always apprehend it. Most of this has to do with narrative choice. Chekhov explores moments that other writers tend to ignore. My favorite, and most accessible, of Chekhov’s stories is “The Lady with the Dog” in which he tells of an adulterous affair. At its center, a young married woman takes a vacation without her husband and meets an older, womanizing rake. His predatory nature draws him to the mysterious woman on the beach, the lady with the dog. He approaches her for conquest, but, quite accidentally, falls in love.

In other hands, the story would be a tawdry account of passions whetted and cooled, followed by the inevitable weighing of moral and ethical cost. Their impermissible love would set a trap and the story would be the trap closing, ensnaring them in its crushing, moral jaws. Instead, Chekhov offers the story of a man who wakes up to his own life and finds the simplest pleasures and joys offer complication and challenge. Their joy and sorry are not the price or reward. Their joy and sorry are just life. Nothing really special after all.

Spoiler alert. We leave the lovers with nothing resolved but a deep recognition that they will forever complicate one another’s lives. The last sentence: “And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most difficult part of it was only just beginning.” (337)

That’s it. The end. Do they escape their not unhappy lives and make a different life together? Are their families destroyed? Are they rewarded or punished? Do they live happily ever after?

Don’t know. Don’t care.

I am haunted. The story cannot resolve and so, in a weird way, the story becomes a thing that belongs to me. My insight. My understanding. It is a narrative leap, not toward a moral lesson, but an imagined next thing.

This is a thing Chekhov does remarkably well. I stand by my original thoughts that Chekhov is difficult, opaque and very Russian. I also stand by Francine Prose’s assertion that Chekhov is writer for writers to read.

Haiku. Zen koan. Flash fiction. You should probably read Chekov.

Source text: Chekhov, Anton. “The Essential Tales of Chekhov.” Richard Ford, ed. Constance Garnett, trans. Ecco Press: New Jersey. 1998. [Find it in a library]

Last Smoke | Flash Fiction

“Hand me a cigarette, will ya?”

“I don’t smoke anymore,” he tells her, that inscrutable smile of his. Mocking her.

“Bullshit. Hand over.”

“For real. Not joking.” He turns away from the view to show her his serious, not-joking face. Cars and buses and bikes and people walking dogs bustle below. They stand alone at the rooftop, the roofline of the world, not drinking, not smoking. Contemplating the end of the world.

It wouldn’t be much more than one step to it all now. One committed step and the quick tug of gravity. Not smoking. Not drinking. Contemplating the end of the world.

“Since when did you give up smoking?”

“Since last year. Those things will kill you.”

It was a stupid thing to say but now it was said and he couldn’t keep the inscrutable smile from breaking into ironic parody. All of the TVs in the apartments beneath them tuned to the Fox News, the CNN, the MSNBC. All counting down the missile exchange with hysterical enthusiasm. It was the last day on earth but it would be the best ratings day ever. Everyone watching. No one able to look away. Except the two alone on the roof of the midtown apartment building surrounded by the midtown apartment buildings and banks and restaurants and coffee shops. The restaurants and coffee shops were full. It was, at last, to be the end of the world, but no one could be bothered to interrupt their meal, their last lingering cup of joe. The people below ate and drank and laughed with the languid leisure of another age. They did not belong to this time, this place. These people were already dead. They just did not know it. They couldn’t see. Or seeing, they could not care.

She nods. “Yeah. Those things will kill you. Not fast enough.”

He laughed. “Yeah. A slow motion execution. One puff at a time.”

“How much time you think we’ve got?”

He watches the far horizon. The city spreads in every direction. He cannot look and find a place that is not the city. Hard to imagine the fiery stitch of missile reaching in like fingers. But they were on their way.

“Minutes.”

She nods again. “Not even one cigarette?” she says, watching him with those steady, eager eyes. He had fallen in love with that look of hers before, that expression of naked need, that bald hunger. She catches his gaze and, for a moment, he can’t remember why they aren’t together anymore.

“Why did we break up?” he asks her.

“You said you needed space.”

“Ah yes. That’s right. Space,” he recalls.

“Was it worth it?”

He shrugs. Is anything really worth it? But instead he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a single, crooked cigarette. “My last,” he tells her, handing it over. “For emergencies.”

She takes the cigarette, pushes it between her lips. “I think this qualifies.”

She tries to light the cigarette with trembling hands but the flame is restless and will not catch.

“Me too,” he says, taking the lighter from her to steady her hands. The cigarette catches and releases its small bitter breath.

She drags a few and offers the rest to back to him. “One last time?” she asks.

He studies her face for a hint of mockery or shame or uncertainty. There’s only that look of need, that hunger which is life.

“I’d like that very much.”

He takes the cigarette. Pulls a few drags. Coughs a little. It is a vice his body has almost forgotten but quickly remembers.

He surveys the city one last time. It is mid afternoon but in his mind the sun is already sinking low.

He smokes it down, hands it back to her. She takes the last drag, flicks the butt off the roof. They don’t watch it fall.

“Let’s go inside,” he says and takes her hand.

“One last time.” She smiles and lets herself be guided to the stairs.

They walk unhurried though there is so little time to waste. So little time for their bodies to remember all those things they thought had been forgotten.

 

Inspired by Daily Prompt: Talisman

It Is What It Is | Flash Fiction

Aubrey. I’m dead. It is what it is.

It sucks.

I raised you to live your life with no regrets but I’m realizing too late that any thinking person who gives a damn is going to have his regrets. We make choices. Some of them hard. Forget what I said about no regrets. People who care are going to have regrets. I have them, too.

I am trying to imagine how you must feel, watching this message. Me on a screen telling you things I could have easily told you in person. We talked every night. Sometimes I called you. Most times you called me. I need you to know how good it felt to get those calls or the texts and emails. It felt good to know you were thinking of me, making room for me in your life even when you lived so far away. That room was my world. It was everything.

But now, I’m dead and you are wondering why I didn’t tell you I was dying. It isn’t easy to explain. I wanted you to know, but I didn’t want to bring that into our special space. I just wanted to be what I was for as long as I could be.

And I had work to do. Important work that I couldn’t share. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust you. I just didn’t want it to swallow your life until it had too.

When your mother died, I promised I would raise you to be brave and strong and curious. I raised you to be kind. To take care of others. And I am so proud of the person you are. It is my sweetest reward.

I always told you not to worry yourself with whether or not there is a God. A God who needs you to believe so much without seeing isn’t a God worth knowing.

I was wrong. There is a God. He just doesn’t like us all that much.

Sorry. I’m rambling. Its the medication. They’ve got me on these pills that mix my head up, make it hard to think. Everything I used to do easy comes much harder now.

When you see this, I’m already dead. But I want to tell you things about my life I never took the time to tell you. I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy. Its bullshit, mostly. But useful bullshit. It puts your life in perspective. It teaches you to think about yourself realistically. Most people walk around clutching their religion to help themselves feel important or they spend their lives angrily pushing it away to help themselves feel important.

We aren’t important. But we have importance. We can do important things.

This isn’t what I want to tell you. I’m getting tired and I’m afraid I’ll leave something out. Something you will need to know. You’re so smart. You’ll figure it out.

None of them are alike. Each of them has a different story, a different need. Treat them individually. Get to know them. They won’t always tell you what they need. They won’t usually know. Take the time to figure it out.

Every one of them has fallen such a long way. Every one of them has been marked by that fall. Just be the kind person you already are. The rest will be okay.

I’m getting tired. I need to rest. I’ve written a lot of notes to help you figure it out. It is powerful, terrifying work. It is necessary.

I wish I could see you. Tell you these things.

How we used to sit on the porch and watch the night sky. All those shooting stars you tried to wish magic out of. So many times you wanted them to be ghost angel of your mother. I told you they weren’t actually stars or your mother but leftover bits of iron from the leftover universe, which was something even better than magic. We were both wrong.

Regrets.

Now I’m dead, and it is what it is. I just need to say it again.

Every day you made a special place for me and I made a special place for you. Keep carrying me there. But don’t stop with me. Open yourself up. Break yourself open.

It doesn’t matter if there’s a God. There are miracles. I know there are. Let them come in. Feed them. Clothe them. Set them on their way.

Okay. That’s all kiddo. Time to go now.

It is what it is.

Eyes Front | Flash Fiction

There is nothing you can do. No time. When Daddy says get in the car, you get in the car. You don’t make him wait. You don’t talk back. You don’t ask questions. You sit in your seat, eyes front, buckle your seat belt and be ready for the ride.

You won’t know where the two of you are going. It does not matter. Where Daddy goes, you go.

Sometimes it is scary because it happens so quick. One minute you are eating Cheerios together in the living room, watching late night TV and you are laughing together about the stupid things people tell Johnny Carson and everything is great and happy and fun and then, with exactly no warning, Daddy goes all still, listening for something you cannot hear. And he leans forward in his chair, suddenly tense and ready to spring, like he is waiting for something to happen and then he is yelling and grabbing for his keys. Pulling at your arm, telling you to hurry. Yelling for you to be quiet. And there is urgency in him. There is precision. And you reach for your favorite toys because there is no telling where you will be going this time, for how long. You manage to grab Dolly which is good because Dolly is the only important doll anyway. She’s the one your momma gave you when you were too young to remember. And it would be awful to leave Dolly behind since you don’t really remember your momma except for a few pictures but you like to think that Dolly remembers her and leaving Dolly would be the same as forgetting, except forgetting forever, which would be another kind of dying for your momma who is dead already. At least that it what Daddy says but you can’t be sure because sometimes you look behind you to try and find the person driving the car that is following you in the abysmal dark and it is a woman so you think it might be your momma but you don’t dare ask your Daddy about that because he just tells you to shut up about that and keep eyes front.

Eyes front is the family rule. Look ahead. Be ready to move. Go when Daddy says go.

And you are in the car and you are trying to be brave even though you are really scared, which is not the same thing, Daddy sometimes tells you when you are safe and quiet at the hotel or truck stop or wherever the two of you will be sleeping tonight. Even when you are scared, you can always be brave. Actually, when you are scared is the only time you can be brave. And it is good to see him smile when he tells you this but it isn’t his good smile. It is his eyes front smile. The smile that isn’t happy or glad about anything. The smile that doesn’t want questions.

It would be nice not to have to be brave so much all the time. But even that doesn’t matter after a few hours on the road when Daddy is playing the radio and singing along and he isn’t driving the car so fast and there’s time to watch the night time world pass by. The way the world seems to emerge into the headlights. Like the trees are stretching out to touch you. And the yellow dashy lines from the narrow, country highway strobe in the dark. There are no gas stations out here and Daddy is keeping his eye on the gas needle and also an eye on the speed needle but mostly he is practicing what he has told you. Eyes front. Looking forward.

He drives until you fall asleep. You wake up in a strange, different place. Dolly is with you so maybe momma is with you too. You don’t tell Daddy this. It would just stress him out. He looks sweet and peaceful, sleeping in the hotel room lounge chair. He needs to shave. He needs to brush his hair.

You should brush your teeth but you can’t because you left too fast and didn’t bring your toothbrush. You lay on the bed in the dark room and look up at the hotel ceiling, an unfamiliar sky. There’s nothing to see there. You look anyway. Eyes front.

After a while you will be sleeping and then there will be the dreams. Momma and daddy and kiddo. All one happy, smiling family.

Prompt: “No Daddy No” by Pretty & Twisted.

Snippet | Flash Fiction

He wakes up in the litter of last night’s bender. His head pounding, eyes swimming in and out of focus. Sheaves of crumpled paper. Too many empty bottles.

There is something he is trying to remember.

The bed sheets are all twisted up on her side of the bed.

He scratches himself impolitely, listening for sounds of her elsewhere in the apartment. It would be like her to wake up early to get in her morning yoga. Or to be in the kitchen, brewing coffee and buttering their morning toast.

He listens. The apartment is silent. There is something he is trying to remember.

Morning garbage truck passes outside, malevolent, insensitive.

He calls her name and listens patiently. Expectant.

He sits up, calls her name again. Impatiently.

The spreading emptiness of the apartment swallows him. She is gone.

He gets out of bed. Puts on wrinkled pants and shirt from the floor.

He stands there in the middle of his disheveled bedroom, trying not to notice the sight of himself in the dresser mirror. Paunchy. Unkempt. The morning after look he has adopted now for weeks or months.

He stumbles to the bathroom for a long, heavy piss. Interrupting every time he hears a sound at the front door. Imagined. He finishes his business, which takes more concentration than it probably should.

There is something he is trying to remember. Standing at the bathroom sink, staring at his morning breath face, wondering what she ever saw in him in the first place. He was disgusting. His apartment was disgusting. His whole miserable life was disgusting.

He brushes his teeth, having squeezed the last life from the toothpaste tube. It doesn’t help. He has morning breath face. He is a morning breath man living a morning breath life.

And there is something he is trying to remember. Something she told him last night. Something she wanted him to write down. But he didn’t. He never did. He couldn’t be bothered. Always trusting that she would be there the morning after to wake him with sweet kisses, to caress him back to life, to remind him.

But she was gone now. He had known it would happen. Still, it hurt and surprised. He hadn’t heard her go. She hadn’t even said goodbye.

He tried to remember the details of their last night together but even that was fading now. Even that was becoming far away.

In the bedroom, the piles of pages scratched out and empty. False starts and hesitations. His laptop still open on the desk but the screen dark. The battery died. A post-it note on the screen, written in her neat, efficient hand. Goodbye. I tried. With a fancy, little heart at the end.

He held the note. Pondered its meaning. The familiar fear seeping up. The silent apartment wrapping him. Even the garbage truck taking its leave.

There was something he was trying to remember but she was gone.

A writer’s life.

 

via Daily Prompt: Snippet

Roadside | Flash Fiction

The only thing left is a photograph. Lilian holds it carefully, taking pains not to wrinkle or smudge. She studies the image, trying to imagine what the girl pictured of 28 years ago might possibly be thinking. Ten years old, she stands, smiling into the camera where her mother and father are watching her and she is still believing that life is fair and orderly and kind. That good things happen to good people. That there is meaning and purpose to everything. She is standing roadside in the desert. The front end of the family station wagon peaking to the left. This is quick stop lunch break on a family vacation. The sun is bright and happy. The family is happy and smiling. They are going somewhere. Together. They are laughing. Life is still good.

The girl is ten and Lilian desperately wants to tell the girl to be careful, not to let herself feel too happy. That feeling of easy contentment, of thoughtless confidence and ease. That feeling soon leaves and there is a crushing pain in the vacuum it has left behind.

This picture from that afternoon 28 years ago. She threw all the other photographs away. Let them go to rot. This was the only picture that mattered. This one was the only truth. Ten year old smiling into the unseen future self, that unseen future self staring back. And the emptiness that 38 year old Lillian feels, the gulf that separates them. One is a child who still has parents. The other is 28 years orphaned, which is a way of saying 28 years lost, 28 years bewildered.

The picture girl stands beside the car like she has all the time in the world. She doesn’t realize that all of the time has run out. That life is about to skid and careen, brakeless, into a deep ravine. The body of the car split by guardrail. The bodies of her parents pushed to paste. That girl doesn’t realize how fleeting these moments really are, even the good one, especially the good ones fixed on paper for the future self to see, to remember. She doesn’t yet realize how fearfully long, how interminable the days that pass from them to now. Life is short. Life is long.

And yet, as Lilian studies the photograph taken on the last day of her parents’ lives, she realizes that the girl has something to tell her. Something urgent. What is it? Lilian leans in, watching and listening. As if the girl can speak. As if the scene itself can escape the neat, well-ordered frame.

The girl is holding a half-eaten sandwich. A thing made for her no doubt by her mother. Some quick-made tasteless potted meat on white. What she wouldn’t do to enjoy that sandwich right now. A sandwich made by a mother for long summer car ride between somewhere and somewhere. Enjoy. Chew slowly.

I love you, too.

From the Sea | Flash Fiction

Note: This is a piece of flash fiction I wrote at Campbell Folk School last weekend. I had the opportunity to read it and really bummed some people out. They were much relieved when I told them this is all made up. It didn’t happen. My grandmother is doing well. We have never stood in the surf together. That would be an amazing thing.

***

I am thinking of the time my grandmother and I stood together at the shoreline, the swirling, salty surf winding between our feet. How the ocean waves rose and fell with the steady, rhythmic tones of a vast, healthy heart. Measureless. We stood there, listening to the entire world breathe, both of us filling our separate lungs with the breath of shared life.

I stared into the waves. The casual press of constant breeze that glides on top. The hushed pulse of unseen lives beneath.

“We tend to ignore those things that crawl from the sea,”  she once told me. “We forget that we ourselves once crawled out from that very same sea.”

And now, I am wanting to cry but the nurses come by too often, peaking their clinical noses into the room, forever pressing buttons, turning knobs, muting alarms that find voice when someone begins to die. The nurses won’t look at me. They know what will happen next. But the orderly comes by, pushing his mop across the already clean linoleum. He looks up from his work, pulling his mop handle like an emergency break. He sees me. I see him. We breathe together, he and I. For just that moment, we share a life. He smiles, nods and gets back to work.

He is gone and I am alone with my grandmother, this fantastic refugee from the sea. And I see the ocean’s work in the soft puddles of her wrinkled face. The soft seaweed of her hair. The thin perch of her teeth pulling away from gum line. Everything about her is pulling away, receding.

I take her hand in mine, cold, frail. I feel the bones of her hand slide together under my careful grasp.

I watch her, wondering what thoughts, what memories, might drift inside that inner tide. And then I feel selfish, petty. Wanting to keep her here, like this, with me in this room, a place she never hoped to be. I set her hand down gently, softly. Let her bones drift back into place.

I try hard not to count the breaths. Counting instead the growing space between the breaths, the place where time seeps in. Trying hard not panic as the space widens and the breaths themselves grow more and more shallow.

I am not ready, but I will never be ready. Knowing full well that everything which once escaped must one day return to that sea. Hoping that everything I have learned from watching is true. That same tide which pulls things away soon returns. Life takes. Life gives. And all I can do for now is stand watch and notice.

Early Bloomer | Flash Fiction

After the screams fade and the blood has cooled, there is a uncomfortable moment of moral uncertainty. He is wiping off the knives, trying not to let himself fascinate too long with the rigid stares on their stiffening faces. Doubts crowd. And then the flies. He is always surprised by how quickly the flies are drawn. They live inside, he once read, burgeoning, always just ready to burst out.

That is what he does. The media calls him the Butcher but he is nothing so mean or savage. His study is the careful art of release. First the pleadings. Then the sobs. Then whatever secrets need to be shared. And only finally, the blood.

The news people get it wrong. He is not depraved. He doesn’t act only for the blood and terror. People carry secrets, things they need to confess but don’t know how to begin. He shows them the way. The inspiration of steel and a cruelly sharp blade.

Once they start, they often do not know how to stop. Unburdening themselves of every petty crime, every mean thought, every venal act. Some of these are saints, compulsively lamenting ridiculously small sins. Unbecoming thoughts, moments of uncharitable, unsavory decisions. But more than a few are genuine monsters — molesters, abusers, thieves, perverters of truth. These kinds of people beg the loudest and hardest for mercy. These he opens deeper and wider, letting the blood spill faster.

He works quickly, cleaning up the mess with bottles of bleach bought by the case. He has three wholesale club memberships and twelve deep freezers. He does not eat the bodies. That would be monstrous but one does not always have the time to clean up and bury the bodies. Freezers are a necessity. They are a public health amenity. He is always thinking of the safety of others. How the neighbors would want to know he had taken great precautions to avoid a public health emergency.

The news people were the worst. Always sensationalizing. Always conjecturing on identity and motive. The FBI had the wrong profile and the news people couldn’t keep themselves from sharing it out. A middle aged white man with long white hair and narrow set eyes. Hilarious, really. He was in his late twenties. An early bloomer.

The motives they ascribed. A profound psychological disfunction. A obsessive tendency toward neatness and order. An intolerance for disorder. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

It made him want to laugh except he wanted to cry. And he would scream at the TV when they showed his computer generated face which looked nothing like him. He had written two dozen letters to the local papers explaining how far off they had been and why they so desperately needed him to be a middle-age white man. But he did not mail the letters. That would have been folly. That’s how men like Gaussier and Grundy messed up. They told somebody. They wanted to be caught. Not him. He was doing a great service but he did not seek the credit. The world was improved by the working of his art, which was the careful application of selective release. The world could not understand, indeed, would not need to understand his work to benefit from it.

That is the true nature of real art. It changes the world even when the world does not see it. It changes the artist. It changes the canvas.

And the secrets that are confessed in those hurried, anguished minutes of exsanguation are carried with him as a special burden. A tax he carries for his work. He will carry those last whispers with him to his grave, knowing the world is better for having each part of the story revealed.