[I am writing this sitting outside a car dealership where I am having an expensive engine diagnostic which could lead to an expensive repair. There are sirens going off, lots of exhaust. This major road is considered a kind of East coast vice alley. And I have never written a story on my phone before. I am determined to have Flashnano adventures. Happy Flashnano day 2 fellow scribes.]
Frankie stroked his pussy, the ginger, while Greta fixed her eyeliner before the gold antique mirror in his retro-styled apartment. She always stopped by before dates to make sure she didn’t look crazy. Or desperate.
He was always cool as a stone sphinx. “You be the judge, not the other way around, honey.” He said, extending his drink out to her, a skinny ‘Rita, and she tripped over the calicos. How did cats always know she hated them? They loved her more for it and wanted to be as physically close as possible.
She slurped down the boozy lime coolness.
“Come back here after,” Frankie said. Actually, that was usually the best part of her night.
When the evening was over and her date had walked her to her car, he wouldn’t allow her to open the door and get inside. Something in his eyes had alarmed her, something dark.
‘Goodbye, Frankie,’ she said quietly.
One thing I enjoy about flash fiction writing is that it often involves community.
A few years ago, I joined an online platform for poets and writers. We frequently posted new short pieces and received encouragement and feedback. It was my first time interacting with other writers who, like me, were writing small, concentrated work.
I have also been involved in a flash fiction competition that was held in a public space. Let’s just say, I didn’t win and the handling of the competition was humiliating. In general, writing can be competitive for certain people and in certain settings. That just isn’t me.
But having a short piece to read at a creative event is a great way to participate in sharing with others. Participants often read for five minutes and flash writing fits into this (I use a shorter 250-word piece for a five-minute reading and a one thousand word piece if I have 20-30 minutes.). A meaningful night organized by a friend had some of us reading our stories in an outdoor museum setting. At the end of the night, I got to read a piece with a band playing in the background.
This month, I have been participating in the NYC Midnight 250 word flash fiction competition. Although “competition” is part of the title, the meaningful part for me has been interacting with others—reading their work, giving feedback, receiving feedback.
Next month, I will be involved with Nancy Stohlman’s Flashnano. Some are meeting on social media to share their short pieces and interact. I often meet new people and this has taken on a whole new meaning for me during this season of pandemic.
While public spaces are shuttered to creative gatherings, it has been a relief to find solace among fellow writers online.
My ghost is wearing my red sweater. After papers were signed and locks were changed, I realized I left behind the sweater as well as a French cookbook. Would she try to cook from it? I’m telling you now she will suck. She doesn’t have the finesse that comes only with age. And a lot of cooking.
She is straddling the stadium seat and laughing hard at something my ex is saying. Her hair falls down beneath the hem of the sweater, something I’m sure pleases him. Men pass by and stare at her backside.
She attends a funeral of a family member of my ex’s, someone I knew for over twenty years. We were close. But I was not invited. I text my ex, force my way in. She is there beside him.
“What is she wearing?” I hiss to my sister. She wears a short strapless dress and summer sandals. I have gone full-on Jackie O.
“You are just like Mom,” she says.
I bring a flowering rose bush over to my ex’s Christmas Eve. I feel a little guilty for the grief I may have caused.
My son is there. I say hi.
My ghost takes the bush and doesn’t thank me. She’s wearing my red sweater.
The moon kisses my head through the open sunroof on my way to midnight mass.
I don’t care anymore.
I just had to see my sweater one more time.
Here is a test to determine readiness for achieving competency as a literary fiction writer in the United States of America in the 21st century. The method to test the margin between competence and popularity and/or critical success has yet to be determined. Again, the parameters of this test are merely to determine potential competency in the field of creative fiction writing.
This test is based on the anecdotal experiences of the author of this test and could be deemed less than scientifically rigorous. But given the popularity of readers and test takers who self select tests in magazines and online, we decided to put together a series of tests based on varying demographics and experiences each with the goal of helping the readers determine for themselves answers to the mysterious questions often googled such as: What does it take to be a literary fiction writer? Google, we realize, is the much more interactive cousin of the Magic 8 ball, and so we thought: Why not help the reader be more interactive with himself/herself as he/she goes alongside a mentor of sorts, a working writer, as he/she interrogates the soul regarding one’s capacity for literary endeavors?
In addition to this, we offered to pay the book allowance of each test creator for one month, a small sum which many writers cannot afford given the cost of rent, food, and helping other writers and artists who themselves are hungry and without shelter.
Further, we must disclose we are supported by advertising dollars – big pharma, chain retail, political candidates – but do not endorse ads and links that appear on the site.
We want to do our best to help you decide whether you can be an artist. Please let us know your score below and what you thought of this experience.
Test for Artistic Competency: The Middle Aged Divorced Housewife, given certain conditions listed below
This test may be relevant for you if: You are a woman in her 50s, divorced after 20 years of marriage more or less, were married to a conservative who threatened to leave you if you try to work outside the home and were raised by religious conservatives who have always hated that you are a writer and discourage rather than encourage you. You make no money from your literary endeavors but are living on a wing and a prayer.
- Imagine this future scenario and ask yourself if, repeated over and over in a host of variations, you can handle it without becoming an alcoholic, or at least a nonfunctional one: You go to a bar to hang out with “really fun people” according to the social meet up site on the internet, all of them highly successful working professionals. You begin talking to a seemingly pleasant man who is about your age. He has come to several group meetings, has salt and pepper hair and beard and a Phd, and teaches history at a local private boarding school. You stand at the bar and talk while you enjoy your drinks. When he asks what you do and you say you are a writer he says: Are you successful? If you make no money from your writing but you are published in literary journals, how do you respond? If you defensively argue bullshit about how art has no monetary measure because its worth is in the non-monetized value to humanity, you are a romantic but also a fool in America. Trust me he will walk away and tell the rest of his monetarily wealthy friends you are a real loser. This is a no win situation, so don’t feel sorry, sister. Have more booze and take your credit card away from where it is sitting on the bar then later hoodwink the bartender into believing he’s got a tab going for you. Order another G & T. It’s so busy he’ll get too flustered and forget. Order as many as you can get away with. In so many ways, you can’t afford to be at this gig, but you were trying to be Dorothy Parker. Give yourself 0 points. It’s a wash.
- Add up the number of friends you have now, before you seriously start writing, friends you have now before you even begin posting your writing, publishing it, friends who want to go out with you, aren’t jealous of you or who treat you strangely, friends who like you because they understand you, or at least able to “handle” you. Now take that number and subtract an equal number less one from that. That’s how many real friends you will have left when you start publishing as a literary fiction writer, friends who believe you don’t have anything to say, who don’t believe you suck, who don’t believe you to be full of shit. (This perhaps assumes you will be relatively “unknown” which applies to almost all working writers in the United States today. However, if circumstances change and you develop groupies, friends won because of fame don’t really count in this equation unless their loyalty is proven through ups and downs. This is not part of the current equation because the test does not solve for virtual improbabilities.) I hope you were paying attention in grade school because now we will deal with the addition of a negative number. The one will be added to a negative 10 which is the number of writing friends that will be won and lost over the course of your training and development, friends lost through petty arguments, jealousies, and competitions. However, add 30 to this negative number if you are able to pull off going to a low residency or full residency writing program. Add the same number if you can’t afford it but get involved in the local writing and artistic community as well as the writing community online. If you do both and your attention is divided, the final total number of writing friends and acquaintances of this equation is still a solid 21. If you indulge in unrelated social media arguments and rants – political or otherwise – take away at least 5 friends.
- Repeat the steps in #2 but solve for the number of supportive family members, with some variations added: Add up the supportive number of friendly adult family members you have now, before you seriously start writing, posting your writing, and publishing in literary journals and magazines, adult family members who want to hang out with you, don’t treat you strangely, adult family members who like you because they understand you, or feel they are at least able to “handle” you. Now take that number and subtract an equal number minus one from that. That’s how many supportive adult family members you will have left when you begin publishing as a literary writer. Again, it is good you were paying attention in grade school because now we will deal with the addition of a negative number. The one friendly member remaining will be added to a negative 1 which is a retroactive situation in which a previously divorced spouse left you, partly because he hated your writing, so it is a wash, darling. When your child grows up to be an adult and if he/she feels proud you are a writer, consider yourself a diva. If you have more than one child, and/or nieces and nephews who grow up to become adults and proud of your writing, you are blessed.
- If you plan on compromising your writing to please your friends and your family, take away all points in 2 and 3. It is not looking good for you, sister. But if you say: Come what may, I will write according to my voice, I will follow what it tells me, I live in a free country and no matter what, I will say what I believe through my stories, you may keep whatever gains you have made in equations 2 and 3. If a few of these gains drop off because of your exercise of freedom, you will not have lost anything, in fact you may gain which leads to the next test question.
- If you exercise your voice and speak regardless of risk to career opportunities, dating opportunities, marital status, social life, family approval, religious sanction, legal protection, your soul may be crushed down so that you feel you are operating in the negative numbers for soul vitality but you may – at that point – begin reaching the ground floor of your artistic competency. It is a subjective judgement how much one has sacrificed to reach this ground level competency, but nothing less than total sacrifice in at least a few areas most citizens believe are critical for well being and stability is what is necessary. The only way to know for sure if you will become a competent literary writer in the United States of America in the 21st century is to start writing. If your effort and passion equal infinity, the chances are good you will become a competent writer. You may at least learn how to spell a few words and meet a few nifty people.
- Actually, since you are a woman and mostly likely by now have experienced a phenomenon wherein no one cares about your words written or spoken, you have to learn to deal in extreme invisibility scores. You will see a huge downward spiral into the abyss of negative soul points. Give yourself at least negative 30. That said, you are your own most powerful weapon for in your invisibility and absence of indulgence from others you stand the highest chance of all demographic groups of achieving a greater than normal levels of competence. In fact it is surmised by the test creator that you are likely on the edge of a kind of an invisible greatness as contradictory as that may sound. Nonmonetary value you have in spades my friend. Wear it as a laurel on your head. Know this: It is very unlikely the male colleague, the husband, the boyfriend will even notice. In fact your written words will be invisible to them or obscured. Soul crushing is your effectual pen. Bleed it and speak.
She had come late to making biscuits. Divorce. Cancer. A child left for college. She had come late to keeping flour on hand. Buttermilk. Cold butter. She had cooked a lot of gourmet in her married years, and been on too many fad diets. And now it was just her and the dog. And later this weekend a stranger who wants to meet her, sleep with her, the last of his kind, she imagines.
She turns on youtube music starting with her midlife music crush John Prine singing with Kacey Musgraves on a cruise ship. “Mind your own biscuits,” is the heart of the song. She smiles at Kacey and John singing and strumming and gives her dog a treat she keeps in the crystal biscuit barrel, a very expensive gift from her marriage.
She doesn’t make the biscuits fancy, cutting butter through the flour, rolling the dough out and creating a round with a cutter. She melts the butter into the buttermilk, mixes this all in with the dry ingredients and plops a spoonful of dough onto the parchment.
She doesn’t know how it happened to her, her life like this. She couldn’t even afford to fix her oven. She baked her biscuits in a small oven on the counter. What had happened to her dreams of hosting her family around dinner tables. She wasn’t sure. She didn’t even clean her house anymore, a place not even associated with her former life except for the occasional visitation of her son.
She slept with the strange men for free. She wasn’t even sure why. It occurred to her one day she was cheating herself, risking herself, and for what. Not even for a little compensation. All so she could pretend to feel better, pretend to forget. She should have charged them. For that she would put grape jelly on her biscuits when they were done. To take an edge off. Pretend she was special, she was love.
She knew how to take the pictures so she looked better, thinner. She would send the pictures to them to satisfy them, entice them, and hear them say they were interested. There had been a time she didn’t have to pretend and she wanted that feeling back, of having power. One of them had become so convinced she had tricked him into her beauty, he had brought a gun to the hotel where they met.
She had once polished her silver. Brought her whole silver tea seat and dishes passed down from gradmothers to a tea party at her son’s school. There had been enough silver to hold all the cookies and biscuits and scones.
What was she doing now, she didn’t know. Ruined, said Mama. Indeed, her younger self knew so many things. Thought she knew love which now she realized was only approval.
The biscuits looked done. She pulled them out, put a couple on a plate, a chipped plate with palm trees from a set she had purchased from a department store one Christmas to decorate her Mama’s table handed down to her, the antique purchased in Texas before she was born. How much perfection there was then, and the Murano glass candle holders containing the white tea lights.
Only briefly she had earned a living before she married and that not too much higher than the minimum needed to get by in her town. Now no work experience, and her looks faded, her age telling. What was there but biscuits. And on good days chili with good meat. On other good days, casseroles.
She holds a chunk of biscuit down for her little white dog who sits on the floor beneath the little makeshift oven. She feels her little mouth grabbing for the bread. There is just this, then. And she marvels she is still alive. Her dog’s little tongue, licking up the butter, feels good on her skin.
She had taken to calling her dog Biscuit, which was not her name. It didn’t seem to matter.
Here is the scene that has informed my romantic imagination since girlhood: Father and Mother, in the living room, dancing to Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” Father still in police uniform, his hand upholding Mama’s delicate hand in his as if cradling something delicate and pure, his other hand enclosing her waist.
He sings the words directly to her and she smiles at him as if this is the first time he has ever sung words about two lovers dancing until the night became a brand new day. The soaring orchestra, Neil Diamond’s gravely voice, the poignant, wistful tune. Most of the time, Father in all his uniform trappings – the loaded police duty belt, his heavy shoes – produced a cacophony of squeaks, but I never noticed this during “September Morn.” It was like the two of them were born of air.
This is how they ended every day when Father came home after work. Before dinner. Before he said hi to me, my sister, or my brother, before he took the dog out, before he tasted what was on the stove.
Mother dressed for his arrival too, a full skirted dress, heels, makeup, smoothed down hair.
My parents have been married for forty six years. When I was young and used to watch them dance I thought I would want a husband like Father.
I still want a husband like my father. But it has not happened for me. Or maybe I could never figure out to be more like my mother to get a man like my father.
These days it gets to be demoralizing to eat every single meal alone, something I would never have envisioned for myself when I was young. Of course, I eat watching movies or the news. But sometimes I try to eat at my table without turning on the television or checking social media. However, by the time the next meal rolls around, I have given in.
This morning I decided to go to a restaurant close to me I had never tried before called The Breakfast Club. It’s a diner that only serves breakfast all day long.
After situating myself in a booth, I saw a man sitting by himself at a table in the middle of the restaurant, the only other person who was there alone. The room was noisy with couples, people from work, families.
I watched his face. He seemed to be the kind of man to be embarrassed for not many reasons at all, just something I felt I picked up in his demeanor. And his face was red. But that could have been because he worked in the sun. He was wearing work boots like many of the men there.
I caught his eye. He had a not unfriendly face, white hair, fairly athletic build. He broke eye contact but I knew he caught me looking at him.
I myself am middle aged, not bad looking, though no longer young.
He never came by my table. Nor did I pluck up the courage to go say hi to him.
I left the restaurant, but interestingly, he walked out not far behind me.
I yearned for the courage to turn around and simply say something but I felt I couldn’t.
When I was inside my car, I knew I must listen to “September Morn.”
I opened sunroof and let the music flow out into the sunny, cool day.
I saw him glance at me on the way to his car. But I still couldn’t bring myself to introduce myself.
On the way home, past trees and neighborhoods as my car took me further away from that spot where I noticed another’s loneliness that was equal to mine, a place I could not reach out to be vulnerable, I felt my sense of failure, of feeling trapped.
As I listened to Neil Diamond’s “September Morn,” over and over and over, I felt I would always live in memory of my father, in a bubble, a dream, I would keep recalling those moments of watching them dance as if I were caught in a loop, observing their young glory, their victories, their dignity.
I took note of how messy and chaotic my house had become, the telltale signs of an insomniac, a depressive.
I should clean up, I thought.
And I thought to make note of the time and the day I had eaten at the restaurant so I may return next week, just in case.
In the Valley of the Kings, the two women, one older, mild aged but well preserved, and the other younger, pretty, blond, yet with a slightly sad face, rode in the tram to the tomb of Seti I. In front of the tomb, they sat in an appointed dining area – a little stall with small metal tables and collapsible chairs – to await the tour. Rene tried, for the hundredth time in this country to get them to put something in her coke to make it cold, but it was handed to her tepid, the bubbles scratching at her throat. She sipped the liquid through a straw, watching the whirls of sand and dust spiral up into the air and brush against the limestone banks.
Her much younger companion, Chloe Bruce, pulled her glass bottle of water from her backpack. The top of her head was decoratively banded with a wide headscarf and her neat dark blond hair tucked into a low ponytail. She was travel chic, a Talbots model look, though Rene was sure whatever the child wore this is the impression she would make. Also, there was the coolness in her eyes, the pert mouth that almost never said anything.
How unlikely it was Chloe had pursued morturary science though the young lady did have a kind of remove with which she gazed upon the world, a sort of mask. Maybe that attitude and demeanor was well suited. And maybe something about the keep of the dead had fascinated her because her parents had passed in a car accident when she was in college. Rene took her in during summers and holidays and gave her a place to be when she was home.
Rene didn’t have children of her own. She had helped watch Chloe when she was a child, she had been good friends with Chloe’s parents. She had taken her to see the opera Hansel and Gretel when it was playing downtown. She bought the child a record player and a vinyl recording of the classic Englebert Humperdink masterpiece. Rene remembered fondly the lullaby from her childhood: “When at night I go to sleep, fourteen angels watch do keep.” She hoped the lullaby and the rest of the recording may come to mean something to the young woman one day.
“I want something to eat,” said Chloe, “I’m starving.” She pulled out a 5 pound Egyption note from her Channel bag and ordered a falafel sandwich from the little cart. Apparently the man who worked the cart kept the warm sandwiches from the drinks, in their own compartment, though Rene doubted her coke had been insulated at all. Nothing seemed to matter here. You could order all you wanted and there would be smiling and nodding and you would get exactly what they wanted to give you.
Chloe ate hurriedly, shoveling stray bits of cucumber and tomato into her mouth and licking the excess tahini from her fingers. At least the camels were not here like they were at the pyramids, their handlers pressing hard to sell rides around the ancient structures, flattering, wheedling, offering to take “American dollar.” And the Valley of the Kings was fairly quiet and clean because of this, and had probably been an ideal place for the ancient people to hide the riches their pharaohs would need in the afterlife. The tombs were tucked into the folds of the white and pink cliffs where the earth held the ancient secrets of a civilization and a deep faith their leaders would meet with the eternal.
How crass we are now, thought Rene, enjoying a cigarette while Chloe threw away her sandwich wrapping and reapplied her lipstick. We no longer give the same care and attention to our lives, much less our deaths. Groups of tourists passed, desperate figures, some wearing socks with sandals, mounds of white flesh, fanny packs.
When David was alive, he used to hold her hand when they sat out on their back patio every evening, drinking wine. “My queen,” he would say. And they gazed upon the opulent garden they had built within a budget, but still, there was a fountain and tall swaying bamboo, tropical flowers. They took turns making dinner. Maybe it was not having had children that made their devotion and relaxation possible, she wasn’t entirely sure, but she didn’t understand when her other married friends complained. They had only been through one bout of desperate fighting and despair, when he had wanted children but she had not. She could not explain her feelings and he had left her alone one night, enraged, aggrieved. He returned the next morning, held her, and they never breathed another word about it.
She and Chloe descended the stairs of Seti’s tomb, the elaborately decorated walls with carved figures and mythological creatures paralleling their descent down further and further beneath the ground. In the huge room where Seti’s sarcophagus would have lain was a deep blue star filled domed roof. The artists, said the tour guide, had provided Seti with a view of the gorgeous night sky, while the many workers preparing his tomb filled his rooms with furniture, gold, food, wine, linens, jewelry, statues, furniture. The deep blue of the domed ceiling inspired Rene to think of Hansel and Gretel’s evening prayer. To think these ancient people really believed they needed to give their dead kings something to gaze upon.
The guide also said that a raid on the tomb orchestrated by the priests seeking money to gain political power stripped the pharaohs of their sacred and eternal powers.
In the cool ride back to the motel, in the nice car they had hired to treat themselves, Chloe said, taking off her scarf and rubber band and shaking her hair: “I’ve stolen from a dead person before.” The comment jarred Rene, as if the car had suddenly ridden over a sharp dip in the road.
“I was starting my internship at the morgue. This girl no one had claimed was being handed over to the city. She was wearing a necklace with a ruby.” Chloe pulled her hair back and secured it again with the rubber band. “I wasn’t sure how she could have afforded it. It looked like she stole it so I slipped it off of her and wore it out that night.”
The tour guide had said it wasn’t just the priests who had stolen from the pharaohs with their organized raid. Little by little, the common people, the ones who supported the afterlife preparation industry, took from the tombs in order to make enough money to support their families. They worked themselves to the bone and often were paid an insulting amount. Resentment had built up given the disparity.
Rene observed her young friend. She seriously doubted she was committing Hansel and Gretel’s evening prayer to memory if she ever listened to the record at all. What was death to her. What was life. What was dignity. She wasn’t quite sure. She had always wondered what it would have been like for Chloe to deal with death so much having lost her own parents but her mentors said she always handled the loved ones of the deceased with such poise and grace. And yet, the coldness of an act like this, although on the other hand it had a strange logic too, like that of a child.
As the car bumped along, Rene ran her fingers through Chloe’s long ponytail, something the young woman still allowed her to do. She was not her child, and yet, in some strange way Rene had been a kind of mother. She was not sure she had guided her or made any contribution. Then again she thought, what are we but masses of colliding particles, even to our own offspring.
That night she closed her eyes and imagined the faith of the Egyptians and their ceremonies.
She heard the crinkling of a chocolate bar wrapper. Chloe, getting into the candy they had collected at the market. “Would you like a piece of chocolate, Rene?”
There once was a man who lived in a pine forest. Every evening, he laid a woman’s nightgown beside him in his big iron bed. Every evening, he set two extra places at his broad table. Every week, he bought food and clothing for the family he did not yet have. He bought toys for the child, jewelry for his wife.
Every night he prayed to his god fervently: “God, please give me a wife I can love and cherish, please give me a child. I am prepared to be your humble servant in all things related to these matters. I am a man, full of love. I will love my wife as my own flesh, my child as the flesh from my wife’s womb.”
One morning, the man woke to two tiny feet pressing against his shoulder. A baby! The man praised his god. He clothed the baby in the garments already bought for the child and gave him the milk stored in his home.
But he was puzzled how to present the child to the town since he was unmarried. He knew he should trust god and bravely and simply said, when anyone asked: “This is my new baby, praise god! I was alone in the world and god has seen fit to grant me a son.”
Adoption laws being what they were, everyone shrugged, congratulated the man, and went on about their own hectic lives. The man would know soon enough how hard it was to be a father and if he had strength enough for it he deserved the fulfillment of his prayers, for good or ill.
One night after the child had gone to sleep, the man sat on his porch. The pines creaked and the sound of the wind soughing in the bows amplified his loneliness and he prayed: “God, you brought me a miracle. You see how I have handled what you have seen fit to give me. If a bad father gives a stone to the son who asks for bread, how much more will you give?”
Carried along on the wind was a sound barely distinguishable from the soughing of the pines. It was a woman crying. The man searched his porch, but he could not find the source. He went out into the woods and there among the shadows was a woman, dressed in a white gown, shivering.
“Where have you come from?” said the man, putting his heavy wool coat around her shoulders and lifting her from the forest floor so she would not further damage her tender feet.
“I have given you a child,” said the woman, “a child I had no means of supporting. And now please sir, I wish to hold my son.”
The man’s heart filled with pity and with something else besides for the woman was very beautiful and young.
“You may hold your son for as long as you wish. I will make it possible for you. I will give to you whatever you require.”
And seeing there was no ring on the young woman’s finger, he made her the bride of his heart and did not question anything, only praised his god for his good fortune. When the woman slept in his bed, holding her son, the two the image of peace and warmth, he knelt all night in the wood in wonder.
There once was a man who was tired of his wife. It was well known how many errors she had committed, and the number of errors was well past her ability to make up for them, even if she began engaging in acts of contrition the first moment he expressed his discontent and worked continuously, around the clock.
His wrath had built up. Number of laundry baskets not completed per day. Number of times the dishes were stacked in the sink. Number of times she was with her foolish friends rather than at the market. Number of times she was late getting the children to school. Number of pounds she had gained since their marriage. Number of times she did not attend worship services. Number of times he had come home from work to see her face and hair in their natural state. Number of times she had indulged in her projects and made cold meals rather than cook. Number of times she expected him to help her while she pursued her education. Number of times she disappointed his extended family.
And so, she became a terrible wife among those who worshiped his god, became an outcast and despised.
He prayed: “Oh god, why have you given me such a terrible wife? As a young man growing up, I tried to do the right thing, and yet you did not see that I was worthy of your favor?”
He prayed this at night, on his knees, in the living room, so that his wife heard, though their children slept the sleep of the innocent. It frustrated him how much they forgave her.
Being a man of ambition and righteousness, he knew the ways of the unrighteous and what would eventually befall her. Here is what he knew: The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.
Frustrated with his god, he existed in the house with his wife, neither praising nor belittling her, pouring his love and attention onto his children so that even if she became an angel to them, he would be even more perfect.
As it happened, she became wayward and ruined and he was enabled to be rid of her in all good conscience in the sight of his community.
“Thank you, God,” he said, “for this opportunity to start again.” And all the man’s wishes were granted, according to the dictates of his god.
It was Monday night at the art gallery downtown. Mel Jenkins, fat, manic depressive, weird fiction writer, had brought Lollie Kyle to be her friend at the event.
Rarely did anyone accompany her to her own readings, neither her former husband or current nonwriting friends or dates, though she had made some friends in the arts community whom she greeted when she was out.
Sometimes she was jealous of husband and wife teams who sat together and sold books, usually the husband’s, and as much as she had wanted something like this when she was married, it was simply beyond the parameters of the marriage. Her ex hated her writing for one, and well, that was a problem. And her psychiatrist blamed her fat on their divorce. Luckily someone else was now dispensing her med scripts.
It was highly unlikely someone like Lollie would hang around Mel voluntarily. Lollie was skinny, tiny, social, wore gorgeous clothes, had long, straight dark hair, bright eyes, an infectious laugh.
At the art gallery when Mel introduced the sprite of a woman to her friends, she was grateful to Lollie for not saying the real reason they were hanging out together: Mel had hired Lollie to take her to an outpatient procedure, had hired her off of a caregiver website. Mel had to hire her because she had no one to take her – friend or family – to the embarrassing procedure, a colonoscopy, something she had to take care of earlier than usual having survived breast cancer a few years before.
She knew her friends and contacts at the gallery were surprised she was with someone so apparently beautiful and together like Lollie. Mel experienced a certain power, like the kind she had when she was younger and more beautiful and skinnier, married to a doctor, before she had been diagnosed and put on drugs that made her fat. She had thought herself beyond such artificialities. But maybe not. People seemed to notice her more and she glowed a bit in the attention.
As it turns out, Lollie lived in her neighborhood, so all Mel needed to do to pick Lollie up for their night out together was drive around the block to her door. Lollie was drinking, had put something strong in her thermos, the smell of it filled the car. Lollie was giddy and laughing. She was wearing the same ballet shoes she had worn at the outpatient clinic the day they met, the ones with wide ribbons crisscrossing on her delicate feet and ankles, displayed with jeans rolled up and cuffed. The doctor had noticed the shoes and stared at Lollie in the pre-procedure interview when Lollie was sitting with her in the prep area and not letting on she was hired, pretending she was Mel’s friend.
Mel had thought the doctor cute. Oh well, she also thought. So much for that. It was the downside of having a beautiful caregiver.
Mel had made some unfortunate choices in what to read that evening at the gallery. It happened sometimes. It was the moodiness and lack of judgement. She sometimes wondered if she didn’t have other things wrong with her, something that affected social abilities, the abilities to read others. Though often as a writer and a writer of weird fiction she almost always told others she didn’t care what anyone thought of her work. She had been tired of defending it to such people like her conservative ex and her family.
But then, that Monday night, having read her one piece about an alien who seduces a man – a piece that actually reads as a disturbing, serious story about mental illness – she wondered: Had she gone too far? Most definitely, yes. Her reading was met with a strange kind of complete, withdrawn silence.
Afterwards, when the crowd was mingling and talking, Mel returned to a table where Lollie was sitting with an organizer of literary readings. Lollie was flirting with him and they were laughing. Lollie laughed at her, said she hated the story, that it definitely was not the kind of thing she reads. “Aliens!” she said. The event organizer laughed.
Mel and Lollie walked to the Irish bar next door to the gallery. Lollie kept drinking til she got pretty stone drunk. They sat in chairs outside the bar. Lollie hit on a much younger guy standing outside smoking and she bummed cigarettes off of him. One drink was enough for Mel. She was driving and hadn’t eaten all evening and her stomach was sour from nerves from the reading.
The young man eventually went away and Mel managed to talk Lollie out of yet another round. In the parking lot, Lollie smoked and pulled down the front of her jeans to show Mel a tattoo on her belly. Lollie may have well been the alien. Mel had not seen a body so small like that since she was in grade school.
She managed to get Lollie home. When she pulled up to the curb of Lollie’s townhome, Lollie said: “Do you have any oxy?” Mel managed a shocked response: “I don’t know,” she said. “Good night.” And luckily Lollie got out and got inside without involving Mel’s assistance.
Mel had time to think of this the next day. Had this been a kind of unspoken pact between them? The reason why Lollie hadn’t blown the cover of the real nature of the relationship?
It occurred to Mel that there was kind of an unspoken quid pro quo Lollie had orchestrated: She knew Mel’s desperation and she knew the flattery necessary to score free oxycontin. She knew Mel would perhaps have leftovers from cancer treatments and surgeries. Lollie probably did this kind of thing all the time as a caregiver.
Mel put one bottle of expired oxy in a bag and included a note: “This is it. I will not give you more, so don’t ask again. Don’t tell anyone I gave you this.” She hung it on Lollie’s front door
A couple of days later she received a text from Lollie complaining the strength of it wasn’t enough. She ignored the text and hoped she never saw Lollie again.
One afternoon when Mel was taking her dog outside her townhome, an hour which saw her unkempt, unshowered, her hair pulled up on her head and wild as an over-risen round loaf of mountain bread, Lollie pulled up next to her in her red SUV, smoking, calling her name.
Mel almost didn’t know who it was the inside of the truck was so dark and the day so bright. “Mel! Melanie Jenkins!” Lollie called out from behind the wheel. “I’m moving today, Mel! Going to Texas, wish me luck!”
Mel acquiesced and wished her well.
“I need you to review my caregiving on the site, so I can get more jobs,” said Lollie.
“Ok,” said Mel, though the thought of having to be so dishonest sickened her. She wasn’t sure if she would really do it.
And then Lollie was off, barreling down the narrow road between the houses and the woods.
It was perceptively quiet without Lollie and with the new thought that she was leaving. Lollie didn’t seem to be happy in Mel’s hometown anyway.
Mel’s little white dog sat down on the warm pavement, stretching her neck and sniffing. The trees seemed to move a little, as if taking a breath.
I am entering rougher terrain in order to try to finish the writing prompts for flashnano, almost a month after the event. The quality of stories will vary, some being more cohesive than others, some more developed in terms of concept and voice than others, some more exciting and gripping than others. I am thinking of some of these as being sketches for later characters and stories or even nonfiction pieces I’d like to develop. Some may never see the light of day again. Thank you for reading.
I had never seen a woman use a mud mask until my sister and I slept over at a friend’s house. That was when we lived in Arkansas where our father was a minister. My mother didn’t use masks, or at least not around me and my sister and brother.
My friend’s mother was a kind woman, civic minded, political, intense. She was married to a wealthy successful man though there was often something silent and dark about him. He hunted and my father didn’t like to hunt. He drank, my preacher father did not.
I wish I could remember more about why my friend’s mother came into the room where all the girls were sleeping. Were we being loud? I don’t remember. Was she upset about something? I don’t recall. I only remember the shock of seeing her transformed, standing in the doorway the light behind her, her face obscured behind the mud mask, her gaze now alien and removed.
She was always kind to me when I was young and in the years after, even after my family moved from Arkansas and lived in another state, even through my college and married years. For birthdays and holidays, I always received a card scribbled in her tiny, almost indecipherable script.
She was nice to me too when she came to eat lunch with my family when we lived in Florida. I can’t remember the infraction I had committed as an adult child to inspire my parent’s silence toward me at that table on that day, but my friend’s mother was most visibly distressed over the disparity of attention lavished on the adult children. I felt it in her darting eyes and the shifting in her seat. For her it had been an experience of unnaturalism.
I think of her as a little darting bird like the kind you find who distracts you mercifully when you look out into the trees seeking solace or praying for relief.
I don’t know how a mud mask fits into this little story other than to perhaps point to the reality that she was always only ever herself.
But maybe the compulsion to make neat and tidy those elements of a story which rightfully exist randomly is undertaken by the same type who seek a too ready oneness with romantic partners and peers, those who are the pleasers and the insecurely attached.
No matter, what my friend’s mother shows is that there are people who exist for you even if you have not asked for them and even if you think you scarcely deserve them but there they are, seeing you. And sometimes that is all you want: a witness.
Misha had thought to kill herself only hours before, lying in the deep bath of what a wealthy friend derisively called a “tract home.” She had been preparing for the well heeled event, a cocktail party with her husband’s colleagues, partners in the medical practice. Every year, around the time of her birthday, she felt herself slipping below the rim of reality as if she had slipped beneath the skin of the surface of a warm bath and was looking up at the world and its players, distorted and menacing. She thought she was screaming, but no one could hear anything. In a moment she would have to relinquish her soaking when the water turned cold. Then there would be the fixing of her hair, the straightening of her dress, the application of makeup, and the selection of jewelry.
What would she talk to these people about? And the women were all so stark and regal, proper doctor’s wives. She never lost the baby weight. That feeling of her self consciousness oppressed her. Planning on ways to kill herself did not help either, as if she were her own judge and jury, and sided with the sophisticated medical crowd regarding her value as a human.
At the party, things were as anticipated. But she found her solace in the locked bathroom where she let the water run from the faucet long and in a soothing little torrent. She used the brass stopper to close the drain and watched as the sink filled and the excess water spilled into the overflow holes. When she turned off the sink, she played with the water with little twirls of her hands. Maybe she should die in the bathtub, slashes deep and long in her flesh, the blood red and warming her as her body cooled. What if her child found her though. No, maybe there was something not so jarring in appearance.
What she didn’t realize was that there was someone in the toilet stall. A young yellow haired woman emerged, thin, a before pregnancy body, a black spaghetti strap halter dress hanging off of her like a dress hanging on a hangar. Her eyes were blotched with errant mascara and her hair mussed a bit as if she had been sitting on the toilet holding her head in her hands.
Misha remembered the night of her marriage. It had not been quite what she had anticipated. All the build up, the move from Minsk, the ceremony arranged by Rob’s parents in the United States. Misha so concerned to be beautiful, according to her advertisement on the Russian bride site, her parents and brothers and sisters and whole family crying before her trip overseas but wishing her well. The vodka, wine, cranberry juice, black bread, the gift of salt, the old sad songs for the loss of a daughter to her groom. After the ceremony in an empty white church devoid of the embellishments of her country’s faith, she remembered the lightweight veil on her head and realized what she had always wanted as a girl: To feel the orthodox bridal crown. She sat in the hotel bathroom, the first night of her married life and felt the sting of tears. What was wrong with her? She chastised herself. She thought of her parents, how happy they were, she tried to be happy too.
“How can I help you?” Misha said to the sniffling young woman, but the girl ignored her and dabbed at her eyes with a linen napkin from the stack provided by the sink. “Here, dear one, let me give you a hug.” The girl acquiesced and Misha felt the racking of her sniffles against her chest and her birdlike shoulders in the folds of her motherly arms. Where had she come from? She hadn’t even noticed anyone slightly under the age of thirty. The youngest couples were not that young, all of them having survived medical school and residencies and made it into partnership.
“I have to go,” said the girl, and twisted out of her grasp and slipped through the door.
Misha, who herself had only, hours before, been crying silently as she lay in the deep water of the tub, could not find the child among the mix of people when she emerged from the bathroom. At least she had been given the chance to be of comfort and she did feel a little lighter.
That night, she slipped out of her dress, took off her jewelry and lit candles around her tub.
Rob kidded her she would turn into a prune. She kissed him on the mouth. His eyes registered surprise. She had been withdrawn from him some weeks.
She slipped into the warm water all encompassing and primordial. How beautiful to hold herself in this way, suspended, and know she would come up for air.