We are what is left when everything from the accident is carried away – the driver, the smashed car, the branches from the bush that crumpled thin metal. We are the detritus, the pieces, the bits – the piece of reflector, the broken glass of the windshield, the broken cross dangling from the rearview. The bush the car crashed into was as crushed as the frame. The conclusion of the police was that the young man was drunk. But we know it was a deer. He swerved to avoid a deer. But he died. The deer lived.
The mother who came to collect pieces of us the day after had it right. This is what she told the police, that her son had swerved to hit an animal, but his intoxication level had been a more solid forensic indicator. It was a deer, or a cat, or a squirrel. The boy loved animals, she said. She told it to the ground, she told it to the bits of debris.
We are a reflection of stars and lost dreams and yet should we be able to tell the story of that lonely boy riding through the night in the city of lakes at Christmas we would tell the truth only a mother’s heart knows: The purity of her son’s heart, that, drunk though he was, was responsive to the natural world even in a city like ours where people careen around lakes without their licenses because of last year’s DUI, believing they can save the world despite themselves. The law does not allow for the best of what someone could possibly be but more often what is the worst.
A mother’s heart is not law. We are testament.
For my brother
Fall was Ms. Myska’s favorite Little League baseball season. Her son used to play in the neighborhood league. He had long since graduated and moved to another city and yet there she was, working the concession stand, having kept a key. Not only that, she tidied the field and toilet, picked up the trash, wiped down the metal bleachers. The city janitor assigned to the park had been shooed away by a smiling Ms. Myska and the young mothers were also summarily dismissed when they tried to insist that she should be sitting outside, enjoying the weather. She merely smiled and turned the oil on for the fries, made the coffee. For all they knew, she kept a cot in there, they said to themselves.
By the end of each season the players and their parents had always developed a strange fondness for the rodent-like woman who scurried from task to task, never speaking much, never making much eye contact. They would have been surprised to know she remembered their concession preferences, knew their faces and voices, knew whether they were confident, shy, slow, smart, funny, knew who their friends were, knew their family members, beloved and otherwise.
Little did they know that each summer, when they were vacationing, she was scurrying to the store for the secret ingredients to her chili. Making the chili every year made fall her favorite season for baseball. Who could resist a good chili on a cool evening? No one, and certainly no one who had tasted her version, contained as it was in a tiny bag of corn chips, the corn chips serving in lieu of pasta, the small bag a portable meal, ready to eat with a spork.
Nor did they know of her harvest moon night when she turned cartwheels in the field and tilted her head back and sang her full-throated songs. Other mysterious women, bodies worn from giving life and sustaining it, joined her, dancing, singing, drinking wine, running the bases and laughing until they ran up into the night sky and they transformed into other beings entirely, birds and butterflies and delicate moths. At daybreak, they became human again.
The season after she died, a young mother found a chili recipe in the cash box. “Make it with love,” the instructions said, “and you will be blessed.”
He stood at the foot of her son’s bunkbed. She had slept there the night before, her son being grown and in college. He had been dating her for about six months, but had not succeeded in getting her to sleep the entire night with him. She slept alone.
She reached out and touched the name stitched on his shirt. He kissed her lips. She wore only gloss. He liked that.
“I want to make you some coffee,” she said.
Her hair was mussed up. He wanted to forget his scruples, drop his pants, and climb right into her child’s bed, but he was running late.
“I don’t have time.” It was cold outside. He had to get the truck started. “OK, make me coffee, would ya? And chop, chop.” He patted her bottom.
She would pour him a steaming pint in his big thermos with cream and sugar and he would drink from it slowly to make it last. He would make sure everyone noticed its presence too, clinking it down here or there.
When he came back into the house, she was on the kitchen counter, kneeling, stretching for a bag of sugar.
“Watch it now, baby,” he said, trying to scold her, though he had caught a glimpse of her dimpled thigh under her nightshirt. He knew he would remember it all day. He pulled her down and retrieved the sugar. She took it from him with her icy, thin fingers.
“Let’s get married,” he said.
She didn’t look up to meet his gaze. She held the bag over the mouth of the thermos. As he watched a seemingly endless white stream fall into his coffee, he felt a pressure on his chest.
“Yes,” she said. When he looked up, he saw that she was watching his face, was not watching the sugar, was smiling in that way she saved for things that secretly pleased her.
A couple of months ago, my son noticed a change in me. He said, “Hey Mom, what’s wrong with your eyes?”
I was no longer able to hide it from him, the full throttle visitation of my manic depressive illness, the illness I secretly called my black bitch, a nod to Winston Churchill’s “black dog.” This time, my bitch was frustrating my concentration and numbing my senses. The last time she pounced on me this hard my son was a baby.
I didn’t answer him but he knew. He was a smart boy and knew about me taking the medications, knew how much the illness had cost me and his father, knew it was the kind of thing that could become dangerous.
When I got up from the sofa, he followed me into the kitchen. I opened the fridge and poured him a Coke. He was staring at the knife block. When I first told him why I was on meds, he started asking me and his dad about all the ways a person could kill himself.
I knew it was vital I get ahold of myself right away, that I send that slathering hound back to a dark corner with a bone. So I took his chin in my fingers and moved his face gently to mine. “Hey,” I said. His eyes slild away. He didn’t want me to read him. “Hey,” I repeated softly and when I caught his gaze, I looked at him as steadily as I could manage, right into those light blue eyes and said, “I would never do that, son. Never.” And then I took him in my arms and I held him for a minute.
And then he went off to play.
“Bitch,” I said, under my breath. And for a moment, I was free.
First appeared in A-Minor Magazine under the title “Needful Words”
Back when the sky stayed the blood red all day, when the beasts in the undergrowth ate gardeners and sunbathers, when workers came to hotels rising up from the scrub from which they had always lain and slit the throats of sleeping tourists, when the rumbling of the hurricanes did not stop but shook the earth in constant tremors, when we held our infants tight for fear, when we cried in the dark and ran from falling trees, when live wires threatened our walk to stores bereft of goods, when our computers were good for nothing but as paperweights and a place to drape our soaked clothes, when rumor had it our president was in an underground facility at his vacation address, when gas generators poisoned families because people didn’t know how to use them and there was no one to take them to hospitals, when it hailed afternoons in summer, when our children went to bed crying and woke up in terror, when there were no more leaders, when there were skirmishes and death among us over food, candles, matches, the dead walked out of the sea and dwelt among us and made it their course to banish the divide.
He jumped off the train and went into the station, the conductor in the gray cap. He was shriveled and hunched, like a shrimp. It didn’t seem to Julie he’d be capable of doing much more than riding up and down the rails, taking tickets, but he always had a coin for Buddy, a penny the train had squashed between Mt. Dora and Winter Park. Buddy fingered the oblong copper and put it to his lips as if it were a thick shaving of chocolate. Julie slapped his hand. The heat rising up from the pavement made her short.
On Wednesdays, she and Buddy came down to the station. They stood on the tracks and waited for the rails to vibrate with the motion of the oncoming train. It made Buddy coo to feel the shimmying metal tickle the soles of his feet and he put his face next to the track, his baby flesh on the forged steel. Julie tested herself to see how long she could wait before she pulled him off, how long she could stand it. She knew it was wrong to tempt fate this way but it felt as if the palm trees and the bushes and the sun itself held her. And then one time she saw the light of the train and she quickly, with a pounding chest, snatched him by the waist.
After the train stopped, the shrimp man came to where they were standing. He had eyes with uneven patches and he seemed to be watching her through a pool of opaque pebbles. She thought he was going to say something, but then he gave Buddy a coin and brushed his cheek with a curved finger.
Julie liked wearing clothes from the thirties and forties. She shopped online and found dresses with flouncy sleeves and slingback shoes with open toes and platforms. She liked vintage hats and wore them to the station when she brought Buddy. It was not a place she was likely to see anyone from the Country Club or anyone her husband Frank knew. Frank asked her why she didn’t go to Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdale’s. She liked looking like ladies from old movies, she told him. Her mother died when she was thirteen. Though sometimes her husband Frank wished she were like other women, he liked the way she wore things only dead people had worn. People didn’t invite them to many parties and if they did, they kept their distance and talked about them behind their highball glasses. Her mother died in a boating accident. Her father had been driving the boat. This was what happened and this was what people knew. That and the fact that her mother was from money and had lots of it. Now her father drove all over town in a restored Model T.
Julie took Buddy to the roses when the train wasn’t due. He pricked his baby fingers on the thorns. She read the signs which told them their names: Louis Philippe, Belinda’s Dream, Old Blush, China Doll, Clotilde. Sometimes he grabbed a fistful of petals and she slapped his knuckles. An old man usually watched her from the bench. He watched the seam on the back of her hose and he smiled when she bent to slap the baby and her rear jiggled. He wanted to reach out and grab her but he knew she was too fine for him, too fine, that much he knew, though he wore his Agua Brava and a linen suit, crumpled as a napkin. She knew he watched her. She didn’t care. It was better than the college boys who whistled at her under their breath and told her what they’d like to do with her right there in front of Buddy, his pie face intent on the pink petals in his sweaty palm. She watched the boys, her eyes following them while her body stayed still. She stood in the rose garden until they were well past.
Last Wednesday Julie wore her hat that was open at the top. It showed the hair she had dyed a bright auburn. Buddy wore the coveralls with the choo choo. The suitcase was hidden in the bushes. It was vintage with straps like belt buckles. After the train pulled up, Julie scooped something into the suitcase. At that time of day, Julie had the privacy to do whatever she wanted. There was no one at the station. The train ran by the provision of the federal government. When the pebble-eyed man died, someone else would replace him, someone equally infirm. It didn’t matter who took the tickets. No one was there to buy them. There were no bags to lift or arrange in the rack over the seat, no ladies to hoist up the stairs.
Julie expected to ride that day. She had come from a different time, before Buddy, before Frank even, before modern clothes made women look like men, like whores. She wanted to take the train to Hollywood. She wanted to be in the movies. She wanted to be a star.
The shrimp man tore her ticket. “Where’s the boy?”
“Resting,” she said, as she lifted her bag into the overhead rack.
He gave her the pressed coin. She put it to her lips, blotting her lipstick. “You keep it,” she said. He turned. The back of his neck was a hollowed out place.
She closed her eyes and felt an ache in her belly. She drifted between the pain and her dreams. She was walking in a warm rain on a California beach. She stood in the shower. She would not think of the boy. She would not think of Frank.
They got her in Mt. Dora. The shrimp man had seen the first red drop fall from her bag onto her hat brim and blossom into a dark peony. He stood in the back and watched the incessant dripping of blood, like rain falling from trees. They would have to replace the seats. He called ahead to the next station to alert them as he slumped on his bench in the caboose. He felt for the paperwork for his retirement in his jacket. It was in there somewhere.
First published in Colored Chalk
When they marry, they have a double. It is her box-spring and mattress. She bought it with her mother who taught her how to shop scratch and dent, to decorate with little.
They take it with them to Vermont where he teaches college and she works in the library. A river runs by their window. Birds perch in the tree outside. She makes stir fries and soufflés and stews. She writes thank you letters. She smoothes the wedding ring quilt over the small expanse of their mattress and straightens the dust ruffle. There is no money for paint but she hangs sheers on the windows. At night she lies in bed and wonders how she will sleep while – she finds out years later when she knows more about men, knows about her man – he dreams of other women. While his dreaming goes on unabated, she thinks of their next meal, how she will shop for it, and when she finally can’t sleep, she gets up, empties trash cans, has a beer. They are young; their bodies are thin, almost pubescent, though they are in their twenties. Their love is small. It is more on the surface. It has little depth. But in the double they make do. They are lithe.
Things are different in the next town. This is where it gets rough. She is not interested in a baby and they are very, very busy. He is getting his PhD. She is chasing an ambition to know God. She is getting a Master’s at the seminary. When he protests, she reminds him of their first date and what he said he liked about her: She had goals. They live in the seedier parts of Denver, in the only available apartment they can afford. She cries for the simple beauty of their place in Vermont, and maybe something else, but it seems the narrow bed accommodates only so much, either visions of beautiful girls and delicious meals or visions of beautiful girls and delicious texts she devours whole. At this stage, she is not much of a housekeeper or cook. As if in rebellion, the plumbing under the sink breaks several times, the halls stink with boiled cabbage, the twisted vine on the balcony yields only one flower. Yet they see Leadville, fly fish in the South Platte, make it over icy passes in their tiny Japanese cars, camp in the desolate Rockies under the stars, ride through mountains on bikes.
They are more tired and yet she makes sure they celebrate holidays, makes sure they have parties. They are around more people with children who don’t always understand the delay in what is supposed to come next and why she would sit in classrooms of men training for something most women don’t do. When she is not full of energy and stress, he finds her on the double, stretched out in an inexplicable bout of near catatonia. When he finds her there after a day’s work he is filled with fear and talks her out of it, away from it, whatever brink she’s on. Eventually she gets on meds, he takes care of her, and she gets moving again and she doesn’t need him as much. But he has no one either, not really, he’s on his own, but she doesn’t see that. Thin love and depression causes her to see him in only one way — how he can help her or how he can hinder.
In a wooded college town in Florida, he’s up for tenure. The women there are more beautiful than ever, than any other town in which they’ve lived, yet he feels a sense of peace about it somehow, as if he’s not so tempted, as if his dreams are not so wayward. He’s going to have a baby, a son, and he lives in a beautiful house, an old wrap around clapboard house with a yard big as a lake, a “piece of land”,” he brags. “Every man’s got to have his piece of land.” By now, she’s convinced she’s not a theologian, but she knows she’s something. How could she not be something? She makes peanut butter cookies with honey and vegetarian noodle dishes. She watches deer outside her window and a new flock of sheep down the road. Before the pregnancy, she drinks scotch on the porch, sometimes in her nightgown. No one is watching, there is so much land and that gives her freedom. When she knows she’s having a baby, she switches to iced tea. She watches the birds on the telephone wire. She walks to the pecan orchard across the street and down winding roads of broken down shacks and grocery stores. When she returns, she sees a black snake crawl out from the bushes beside the house and slither down to the foundation. It is mesmerizing, beautiful.
An interior designer helps her find a scratch and dent queen size that will follow them for years. She admits it fills a space with a presence, though it is too ostentatious for her husband’s taste, but now they are making separate decisions. She sees him almost never and she must do what she must.
He gets used to it, though, as a necessary evil, but also simply as a necessity. The bed is big enough for their baby and eventually, she buys the baby a little bed adjoining theirs and she can nurse him in the middle of the night. She spends hours on the bed, looking at their child. Their big bed is big enough for a big dog that loves to lounge and although it is not big enough for the four of them at once — dog, baby, father, mother — it’s big enough for failed plans and forgotten dreams, for tears and bitter fights, for cold refusals and private physical love, for family times in front of the television, for random naps during the day, for a scared child seeking the comfort of his parents, for a sick child seeking to watch cartoons and fall asleep. When the big dog must be put down, a smaller dog takes its place. It crawls on their backs while they sleep and on their pillows and there is not much worry or fuss about this. When there’s been a bad night of too little sleep or restlessness, they chalk it up to the needs of their child, and, later, when the child is grown and doesn’t wake them in the night, to the pressures of the day or to the pressures of the times in which they are living.
They are planning for a king size. The pool of worries and unmet desires and fears and depths of their prayers has widened. The unspoken desires and unmet needs pass between them. Their child, coming in to say goodnight, makes them forget for a while. So does an early nodding off so that the other must pull off their glasses, make them roll over, turn off the television and lights. They want one of those beds that will accommodate the late night movements of the other without disturbance of the sleeper’s sleep, the dreamer’s dream. They no longer have to dream the same dream, or fill the same space as in the early thin love days. There is no worry about this. Is this good or is this bad? There is no consensus.
First published in The Dos Passos Review
My father is a birdman. By instinct the birds know him as a living man and not a statue and so they hover near his still, sitting frame, standing on their little bird legs, perching on his shoulders and knees, poking their heads into his pockets looking for seed.
My mother declared him petrified, useless. That was before she left him, she a bird herself flown from our little yellow kitchen of continuous spaghetti dinners and fried bologna sandwiches.
My father is quite an active man though as I grew I came to understand just not active in the direction desired by my mother. “Son,” he says to me, “Every bird in the city will be fed by sundown, he says, every bird will get their taste of my cones.” At night he coats pinecones with peanut butter and rolls them through birdseed.
He teaches me what to do so I can help him after school. Rather than show me how to play ball or take me fishing, my father teaches me the ways of his art.
“When you are with the birds their feathers become your wings,” he says, “their cooing the secret stirrings of your heart.”
His oddity never occurred to me though kids at school laugh at us saying my father shampoos himself in bird shit, my father would one day be taken up into space by a huge flock, my father was about to sprout wings and strut around like a pigeon, my father was CEO of birddom, my father was Bird Jesus and some birds were going to be saved from the birdpocalypse in which there would be a birdbath lake of fire and the 666 bird.
My father lost his job when he came back from the fighting. His eyes were torn away he said. His heart was in the gutter. At work he kept his jaws locked when he was supposed to speak and he kept getting lost and not able to find his way to meetings and conferences. That’s what he told me the first night we smeared the pinecones with peanut butter then rolled them through the seed spread out on the newspaper on the basement floor.
“A man is not meant to see another man’s bone, the skin torn from muscle, another man’s guts, his brains,” he says. “It is not meant for man to see man disassembled for at the sight, you lose yourself. Both you and the man so disassembled lose the dignity it is meant for a man to have. Without dignity many things are not possible.” As he says this, he slides one of mama’s silver knives over a pinecone. He doesn’t specify exactly what he means by this and I didn’t ask.
That first night we do a few practice pinecones for the backyard. We hang them from the trees with the yarn Mama left in her sewing basket. My father has me climb up among the branches and tie them around the limbs.
Then we sit on the porch and drink sun tea.
“When I got back,’ he says, ‘your Mama was the only one I wanted to see, well, besides you and your sister. I felt guilty because what have I done to earn her, Lord. That’s what I said to the Lord. Nothing, said the Lord. But she’s yours, love her.
“I did love her but I couldn’t love your Mama well enough. That’s a lot of pressure on a man, to love an angel. No matter, son, you have to try, when you have the chance, when God sees fit to bless.”
Nights we hang lanterns from the tree, lanterns we make ourselves with mason jars and candles. They were the jars Ma had collected over the years for canning and since she hadn’t come back to can strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, corn, okra, beans, by fall it seemed she was not coming back. On these nights we take our pinecone operation to the picnic table out back and work by the light of our homemade lanterns.
“We’re gonna roll these pinecones for peace right out there to those birds.”
I thought what use my classmates could make of such a line.
“Once I rolled grenades into enemy zones,” he said. “I saw what no man should see if he expects to stand come judgment. I am paying for grenades with eyes that don’t stay shut at night.”
“It’s ok, Dad. You are doing better now. You take care of things.”
“Don’t hurt another man, son. Let them lock you up before you take another life. Promise.”
“Ok, I promise,” I said and put my hand out to shake and he hugs me with what I recognized as a man’s dignity.
First published in Still Crazy: A Literary Magazine
At the posh Mexican restaurant where her writer friend would be lecturing Ms. Myska ordered a margarita but in “not too crazy a glass, please.” The other women in attendance thought that amusing. Ms. Myska thought the likelihood of accidents quite strong especially since attendees were sitting in rows of chairs and not around tables and she only imagined herself tipping a top heavy vessel. Besides, she had grown, she suspected, somewhat queer in her manners, having sequestered herself for so long, and probably rather queer in speech too, hence the laughter.
And yet, there was the long lost friend, acquaintance really, that despite Ms. Myska’s hesitation to get out again and risk embarrassment, she was determined to see and show support for her friend’s literary efforts. Ms. Myska felt, after the sickness that nearly took her life, she had become a bit of an animal, a rodent, really. She had also grown depressed. She had also developed deep worries for her son. Many days she was speeding to catch up after all that had felled her. She was amazed someone could come out with a book, was a bit jealous perhaps, her own efforts having spun into tiny stories of which she was proud, but her attention on more meditative projects had proved itself to be as brief as a turn of the second hand.
A powerful woman stood as master of ceremonies, someone Ms. Myska had known in what felt a former life, a woman who, having been exposed to a Ms. Myska story, let her have it when asked for a critique. “There is so much static in your story,” the woman had said, “that when you read it out loud, I just want to plug up my ears with my fingers like this,” and she demonstrated what she meant by plugging up her ears and squishing her eyes together. It made Ms. Myska sorry and yet she revised the story and gave it to a small journal who quietly published it, having found it acceptable to the eyes at least. Still, the rift was beginning to form between Ms. Myska and her city, and that was one of the points of contention. Of course she wanted to belong and was moved very deeply in a way that negatively affected her mood after that point. Was she fooling herself? Ms. Myska would always ask that question. And yet she wrote anyway and rarely asked anyone what they thought after she read her work out loud.
“Energy vampires” the lady master of ceremonies, the representative of establishment literature “are people we want to avoid. “People who complain, people who are passive aggressive, people who drag us down.” The margarita was just the right balance of sweet and tart and salt, which Ms. Myska didn’t mind flicking her tongue to the edge of the glass to taste. She didn’t even mind if someone saw. The lady was thin and wiry, a fairly attractive person for about seventy whereas middle aged Ms. Myska had become a bit more plump and matronly, something the MC hinted at when Ms. Myska re-introduced herself to her secret long lasting nemesis: “You look so different,” the wiry lady said, “I hardly recognized you.”
The MC woman had apparently moved on from teaching writing to some kind of coaching which taught every moment was a chance to live up to one’s fullest potential. As part of the introduction she was giving a snapshot of how she could help everyone move to the light, which was what, apparently, Ms. Myska’s novelist friend had done under the tutelage of the grand MC.
It would always be thus, thought Ms. Myska, thinking of the chips and salsa she had seen someone order at the bar. It had looked so delicious she had wanted to place her own order for the conference room but then she would have to juggle too many things without a table and then people would really look.
The sweet face of her friend made her happy she had come. At last she spoke of her twenty five year effort to produce her successful work.
When Ms. Myska got home she found she had forgotten to take the dog out and so she had had an accident and so she took her out and gave her a snack. The sink was full and her son had called, wondering if he could speak to her on the phone before he went to bed. Clothes were strewn everywhere, old projects still waiting. She was home.
Along the shore of his lake in the city of lakes, he fashions boats from waxed paper, affixes huge tissue heats to the corners, sets candles inside and lights them so that the miniature craft are drawn along on the dark water. Lovers pay fifty cents to see their hearts set on fire and set adrift only to witness their incineration somewhere near the opposite bank, the cinder and ash ascending into the grey twilight, the smell of burnt paper, like kindling that flames and is quickly gone, filling the air, an acrid, comforting smell of home fires and warmth.
No one asks him any questions about the meaning of all of this or how or why he started, nor does he think of it too much. He thinks only of the delicate feel of the tissue, the lightness of the string, the slippery paper smoothed and sealed by wax, the fire on the water, the lovers’ faces as they stare at what they have paid for, prompted by who knows what, fascinated to see what becomes of their boat though they all must know what will be so why do they stay to watch? It is a mystery. Are they sad or satisfied somehow in the justification about their beliefs about tissue and hearts and fire, or had they hoped to see their boat, of all others, land on the other side?
Every night a woman who brings him a snack of rice and vegetables wrapped in a tortilla pays him fifty cents to place something small in her boat – tiny babies from Mardi Gras cakes, bodkins she wore in her hair when she was a girl, pieces of wool from her sewing basket in which she kept materials to make socks for soldiers, crosses she buys in packets of ten, pieces of kibble. She always has a prayer and dedication which she asks the man to recite though every night he protests he does not have his glasses and every night she gives him her late husband’s readers from the nightstand, and as the boat floats out, he says her prayers for the soldiers, the young life, the married couple, the single women, the woman herself and her cat and her grandchildren.
He found himself saying a prayer for himself one night as he set a boat in the water containing a gold heart. He snatched the boat back, soaking his trousers. He retrieved the heart. This is my gig, he said gruffly, as if she had affronted him with something. She asked for his blessing upon the heart. She asked him to kiss it. Instead, he chucked it out into the lake with all of his force where it plunked into the dark center and disappeared. They stood for a moment, the frogs screeching in judgment. It’s time to get a move on, he said. People are waiting. Indeed, a line had formed and that was the last night he saw her.
Every night he was hungry for the food she gave him and every night he had nothing to wonder about, what she would put into her boat, how she would ask him to pray, the feel of her late husband’s glasses upon his nose. How he missed that feel, strangely enough, and the strange prayers she had written, not like the coherent prayers he knew, but her erratic thoughts upon a subject, not a petition, but a statement as if she were telling someone how things were. He missed it.
And so he collected things for her, things he thought she would like, things he liked too, things forgotten and dusty in closets, things from childhood and a career and family from another life, and he put them in boats and watched the hearts burn and the boats sink with prayers on his lips uttered in a strange tongue, her way of speaking and thinking that had infused him and he believed himself capable of finding that gold heart had only there been money for proper equipment and younger lungs. In its depths the dark lake held his gift and he did not mourn but for the first time understood why couples waited until they saw what they knew would come to pass, and that in the waiting they anticipated what was most beautiful, a beginning and an end, all at once.
Now Ms. Myska lives on the edge of her city, her townhome overlooking a small forest, more like a stand of trees, where once she had found an old dollhouse, where once she had found a muddy salsa CD without a case, where once she had seen a Florida black bear wandering through the scrub oak and pine. It was the place of meeting between Ms. Myska and people who also lived on these outskirts or who dumped their things here, people she had never met but got to know through the objects they discarded. It was also the place of meeting between her and animals, her and trees, her and the moon which peeped first through the trees on inky nights and then rose overhead, attended by a smattering of stars still visible in her relatively undeveloped part of town. Her home extended out onto the woods and she welcomed whatever came to her through her doors and windows.
The son of Ms. Myska had made it clear to her he did not want doors and windows open when they had any of their noisy electronics on and this out of respect for their neighbors. Though she was normally compliant with this line of thinking, when he left for school on the morning of the eve of the inauguration, she opened her door and let the forest and the bears and the folk who may be sleeping among the trees hear her winter music: pieces by Liszt, Vivaldi, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, thoughtful pieces, pieces reminiscent of snow, pieces reminiscent of the holiday just passed, pieces reminiscent of the silence of space on a cool evening, pieces reminiscent of the majesty of the Florida black bear, pieces reminiscent of the hope of trees. On this eve, she played for trees that they may have what they need through a cold winter, or longer, through a holocaust of trees. She played that their seeds would burrow deep into the earth to be kept for a time not quite possible to imagine but the fulfillment of which was the fervent desire of Ms. Myska.
One of my favorite forms of the short story is “flash fiction.” This is variously interpreted, length being one defining element. Though I prefer working in the longer end of this, it is a challenge to see if I can convey something of a shapely story in 250 words, a word limit of some flash fiction journals and slam competitions. Though I leave the competition to the competitors, it is still satisfying when something feels finished. I don’t always know why, something clicks inside and says: “Done!” And then I am just pleased I somehow pulled it off. Alex Pruteanu, prolific writer and this month’s co-editor of Flash Frontier says this of flash fiction and the rationale behind his editorial choices:
“Something I always look for in flash fiction is urgency: the urgency of the writer, but also the situation that I, as a reader, am being presented with. I want to be thrown into a scene and left there for me to figure out how to get out. I like that. And so I made sure that a complete story wasn’t being spoon-fed to me, even severely compressed as it must be when the word limit is 250 words. I also enjoy controlled chaos and have a visceral reaction when I read well-constructed flash that seems out of control and about to explode in my face. And finally, I just like things that come at me from obtuse angles. It’s hard to somehow verbalize this but…flash fiction for me reads like Thelonious Monk’s piano playing. Something hits you from a never-before-seen angle. And you think: holy moly, this actually works.”
The theme for this month’s Flash Frontier is “Motels.” It is interesting to note the variety a well chosen, concrete theme can inspire, especially one that makes us think of travel, or even waywardness, an on-the-fringes existence. It doesn’t always have to suggest these things but a built-in opportunity exists for the writer who will grasp it: Tension. This is the torque of any story. The best stories employ multiple layers of human anguish and difficulty, not a melodramatic presentation of course, but a visceral one so that by the end we are so close to what is happening as to feel we are inside a world that is not our own. Good stories humanize us by letting us experience the lives of more people we can ever know in a lifetime. In this sentence about the function of stories, I am roughly paraphrasing Harold Bloom, one of our most erudite literary critics.
The Old Woman from Ipanema
Coastal processes assessment, Brevard County, Florida
The night we met at The Red Fox Lounge at the Mount Vernon Inn, I started to lose my vision. Lorna Lombey was singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and handing out tambourines and maracas and castanets and suddenly there were two Lornas and two of you and two of everything else. After that weekend, the historic Florida inn would be destroyed by land developers and Lorna would no longer play where she and her late husband of thirty years had a Vegas lounge act.
I held your hand, tears in my eyes, and watched the room double.
“Let’s get a drink,” you said, knowing nothing. I had not been open about my health. Dating at fifty was one long sales pitch.
We checked into a room. You laid me onto the bed and hovered over me in twos. “I’ll never leave you,” you said. When I was twenty-five and newly married my husband said the same thing though I left him first.
In the morning, I woke to a note: Goodbye Angeline. My double vision had fled, long enough for me to drive home and watch the news that night, including news of the destruction of a Winter Park landmark, yet another link to our past, this David Lynchian concatenation.
My dog rolled over and I thought: This is the one true thing.
I scratched her belly.
“Our city will be lonelier without strange things such as these,” I said.
First published in Flash Frontier, September 2016
There is a murderer staying in the ice hotel. He sleeps on his ice bed which is covered in reindeer fur. He drinks Absolut vodka from a frozen shot glass. He cries to the walls made of the clear, pure, bubble-free ice harvested from the nearby Torne River. The snow cementing the ice block muffles his grief. It absorbs what he cannot bring himself to say: he killed his girlfriend when he caught her with another man.
The ice in his room shifts, sighs, drips. It is April 6, the end of the season. A dripping snow column beside his bed pulses with multi-colored LED lights, He is calmed by this, this lifelike column a beating heart, a gentle mother watching over him as he lies upon his bed. He finally falls asleep in a room that is twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit.
The next morning, the murderer goes on a tour to meet the indigenous people, the Sami or “reindeer people.” A group of men taking the tour are hung over and worried about getting to Heathrow. They make fun of the guide who fries reindeer meet before the fire in his ancestral tent. The guide tells them about his culture and the men ask him where he gets his clothes and the guide says his mother sews them. “Oh,” says one of them. “I would have said Saks.”
There is a woman with them too but she watches the fire intently. After they have eaten, they ride in sledges behind reindeer. The men are thrilled with the bull who is so fast, pulling each of them, they are tossed into the snow. The woman quietly rides in her sledge behind a cow. The murderer takes over her sledge when she is finished and doesn’t mind the pace.
He wonders if he could escape to this place, ingratiate himself among the people, learn the language, tend the herds. He wants to live among the reindeer with their large brown, wet eyes. Could he escape into the wilds of Lapland, where in winter the temperatures hover around zero and snow would not be shared with another for miles? He could change his name, adopt their belief in an animated world, exact his own punishment or wait for it to come.
As it stands, the ice hotel is melting. Soon it will no longer be structurally sound. He buys equipment in Jukkasjärvi and a pack of dogs using the remaining money in his account. The trees stand around him like thickly frosted decorations on a thickly frosted cake. He sets out on his sled, making his mark upon the snow, a mark that will be gone when the snow falls again that night, a wet spring snow but a blanketing one. Even the hotel will melt into the Torne River and be resurrected the next winter with no traces of anyone having slept there before.
* Some of the details regarding the hotel and tour are loosely based on Barbara Sjholm’s beautifully written travelogue, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland.
First published in Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series under the title “Melting”