"Why shouldn't things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together."
--George Santayana

“Last Man to Die” and “Presence”

Channillo is a subscription-based digital site for serialized fiction and nonfiction writing. Two of my short stories, “Last Man to Die,” and “Presence,” were selected for the 2017 Channillo Short Story Contest Finalists volume, which will appear through late 2017 and early 2018. “Last Man to Die” appeared on November 3 and “Presence” will go live on April 1, 2018. To see the table of contents of the volume, go here. I include below Robert Capa’s extraordinary photo of an American GI killed by a German sniper in Leipzig on  April 18, 1945, the basis for “Last Man to Die.”

 

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The Tree and the Bark

Blood & Bourbon, a Toronto-based literary magazine, has just published its Fall 2017 issue on the theme of “Death.” I’m proud to have my short story “The Tree and the Bark” included. The volume is available for purchase at Amazon.com. Go here for Blood & Bourbon’s web site: 

Henry watched the old man negotiate the icy sidewalk. He thought of crossing the street to help, but soon the man had made it through his gate and up a cracked walkway to his front steps.

It wasn’t the first time Henry had seen the old man. His grandmother told him he was a loner, “sharp with kids,” and Henry didn’t want to be yelled at. He’d had enough of that when his parents were alive.

The old man’s name was Jonas Blank. People said something had happened to him. A son had died, in Iraq, or so Henry had heard from his Uncle Paul. “He ain’t that old either,” said Paul. “Sixty at most. Just talks and walks old.” Paul said Blank had once been a nice guy. He would come into Paul’s gun and ammo shop and shoot the breeze. No more. Uncle Paul hadn’t talked to Blank for a decade at least, almost as long as Henry had been alive.

A twelve-year-old with no close friends and a grandmother with a two-pack-a-day habit and a weakness for whisky sours has a lot of time on his hands. Henry didn’t like computer games, and in any case his grandma’s old desktop barely ran the newest software. He spent time at the public library, and some days hung out at Paul’s. School was just school, nothing much, and sometimes he fell asleep in class because he’d had to keep watch all night for his grandmother in case she fell on her way to bed. Once when that happened he’d had to call 911 because he’d found her moaning at the bottom of the stairway and had to be taken to the emergency room.

It was an April day when Henry had his idea. He’d asked Paul to give him one of the extra gun catalogues he had laying around the store. Jonas Blank had once liked guns, so why not bring the catalogue around? Most of his days must be as stale as Henry’s, so maybe this would brighten things up for him. Paul said Blank was the saddest, loneliest man in town, and Henry understood how that must be.

He imagined it felt a little like he did two years ago when it had sunk in that his parents weren’t coming back from an auto trip they’d made out West. His mother had said they’d drive from Michigan to Oregon, camp out, do things they did when they first fell in love. His mother had said she wanted to fall in love again on the road trip. “Your dad and I need something, that’s for sure,” she’d said. Henry always wondered if that had happened. If his parents had fallen in love again.

Henry paced back and forth in his room after school. He had to work up the courage to do what he’d planned. Sharp with kids. The words had echoed through his mind most of the day. But he believed his uncle when he said, “If you believe in something, then you do it.”

Henry took a deep breath, fed his grandma’s old gray cat Charlie, and walked out of the house. He didn’t hesitate when he opened the gate to Jonas Blank’s place. Didn’t care that the rusty hinges announced his approach. He switched the thin catalogue from his right to his left hand and noticed the cover had already begun to ripple from his sweaty palm. He walked up the steps, which creaked as loudly as the front gate had. He had planned to ring the doorbell, but now wasn’t sure. He could put the catalogue in the mailbox and leave it at that. Or go back home, write a note, and then leave the catalogue.

The note would say:

Hi Mr. Blank,

I was sorry to hear about your son. I know it was a long time ago, and I think I was only about two when it happened. If you are lonely and maybe still angry, I understand. I brought you some reading from my Uncle Paul’s gun shop. Remember him?

Your neighbor,

Henry Mortinsen

Finally he decided just to ring the doorbell. No answer. He rang again, wondering how long he should wait. He knew Mr. Blank needed a little time to get around. Henry shifted from one foot to the other, the way he did on cold mornings when he waited for the school bus. Still no answer.

Henry heard the next-door neighbor’s pit bull bark, then the whine of a chain saw from a few yards over. Not a sound from Jonas Blank’s house. Henry opened the screen door and put his ear to the windowless wooden door. Nothing. He could knock, or ring again. He let out a deep breath and placed the catalogue in the rusty mailbox to the right of the door.

From the picture window of his grandmother’s house Henry checked the mailbox several times that day. Each time he saw the catalogue’s bright blue cover peeking above the mailbox lid. When night came, Henry saw a dim light in one of Blank’s upstairs rooms. It was no longer light enough to see the mailbox.

Henry walked past the gray house on the way to school the next day and smiled when he saw the catalogue was gone. He imagined Mr. Blank was reading it over breakfast. Most of the morning he thought about other things he could bring the man. By lunchtime he’d decided he wouldn’t do anything more right away. When you’ve been alone a long time and you’re angry, you may not be ready to have someone bother you with gifts or messages. You’re between the tree and the bark. You should get over your sadness, but sadness has become your close friend.

Henry waited three days, after which he firmed up an idea about what to do next. A drawing. Drawing was one of the few things Henry felt he was good at. He’d enjoyed art classes at school, but a year ago all art and music classes had been cut from the curriculum because of budget problems. Henry continued to draw on his own, and sometimes gave colored pencil drawings to his grandmother as gifts. “They’re real purdy, Hank,” she’d say from inside a haze of cigarette smoke. Then he’d find them on the floor the next morning in front of her easy chair where she often passed out for the night. Henry had decided to draw a picture of Jonas Blank’s house.

That afternoon he sat on the front steps of his grandmother’s house and studied Blank’s place. Blistered gray paint, faded burgundy window frames, a white fence in need of repair. Henry figured he could add sunlight and a brilliant blue sky and maybe even some flowers or a budding tree for more color. He didn’t want to portray the house in its present glumness, but how it might look if Mr. Blank overcame his sadness.

It took him two days to draw it, and it was ready for delivery on Saturday. He waited until after lunch. He’d washed dishes and taken out the garbage and recyclables, which usually consisted of empty bottles of Jack Daniels. The sky was a bright springtime blue, exactly as Henry had drawn it in his picture. Again Henry made his way through the complaining gate and strode up the crumbling concrete walkway to the wooden stairs. He rang the doorbell once. Then again. Still no answer.

He didn’t want to fold the picture and put it in the mailbox, which in any case was stuffed with glossy color advertisements from takeout pizzerias and payday loan joints. He decided to place it upright between the screen door and wooden door, hoping that Mr. Blank wouldn’t step on it. He rang the doorbell once more for good measure, waited for a few more minutes, then left. He looked over his shoulder as he approached the gate, hoping for a sign of Jonas Blank, but the house stood mute and alone.

*

Flashing lights illuminated the neighborhood that evening. There was a huge fire truck, Ladder Number 7, outside Blank’s house. In a few minutes, a police car drove up, then an ambulance, which after a long time backed into the gravel driveway. Henry wanted to go outside to get a better view, but his grandmother shook her head and said, “Ain’t none of our business.” So he watched from the picture window.

“It’s a stretcher, grandma,” he said after a quarter hour. “Coming from the side entrance. You think Mr. Blank’s been in an accident?”

“Could be. Old coot like that. Livin’ alone. That’s why I’m lucky to have you around, Hank.”

Henry nodded as the ambulance pulled away and the fire truck rumbled down the street. A little later the police car was gone as well. Blank’s house had returned to its normal abandoned state.

Word got around the next day that Jonas Blank had put a bullet through his head while seated at his kitchen table. A neighbor had heard the shot and walked over to investigate. Just before dinner that night, Henry crossed the street to the old gray house, opened the front screen door, and found that his drawing was gone.

*

Weeks later, well after the excitement caused in the neighborhood by the sudden death of Jonas Blank had passed, Henry had a dream. He and Mr. Blank were in the backyard of Henry’s house. His grandmother had served lemonade. Mr. Blank and Henry’s grandmother talked, but Henry couldn’t make out the words. Mr. Blank was saying something, maybe telling a joke, he was very animated, and Henry’s grandmother laughed heartily. Henry had never seen her laugh so much, not even when she was stone cold drunk. The dream recurred several times. It was always in different contexts—his grandmother’s living room, the front porch, Mr. Blank’s backyard, even the small park down the street—but the same scenario: Mr. Blank, his face and hands alive, Henry’s bubbly grandmother, and Henry, a silent, smiling witness.

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Intersection

I was glad to see Issue #3 of Riggwelter appear yesterday, with my “Intersection” among the stories. 

I pulled up a to a light in my pickup, which sputtered and coughed like a two-pack-a-day smoker. I never knew if the old green Chevy was going to stall. I always felt anxious at a red light because anything could happen there.

It was after my divorce, and between alimony and child support and rent and groceries, there wasn’t much cash left for car repairs. So you could say the Chevy was a casualty of my inability to form lasting relationships, if you want to use that kind of psychobabble.

That light seemed to last for years. It was the middle of the day, a busy intersection bounded by gas stations and stores and offices, with traffic lights timed to maximize drivers’ frustrations as they waited in their air-conditioned metal coffins. Except that my pickup’s air conditioning had gone the way of all sinners.

So I waited and I looked across a traffic island toward a shopping center on the other side of the road. I saw this poor guy on the corner, all ragged and dirty, not doing anything really, he looked to be in a stupor of some kind. I stared at him for a while and then I realized I recognized him through his scruffy beard and wild ginger hair sticking out from underneath a stocking cap he had no business of wearing on a humid overcast day in August. He was sitting with his legs splayed on the sidewalk and his back resting against one of two thick wooden stakes supporting a sign that read Now Hiring. I recall laughing about the sign. It wasn’t clear who was hiring and what they were hiring for, but there it was, Now Hiring.

Frank Bidwell was the ragged guy’s name. He and I had worked construction some years before and I remember I didn’t like him. He showed up drunk a lot and I knew from second hand talk he was into cocaine and other stuff. He was a wife-beater too, and I knew that partly through rumor and partly because I saw his wife Rosie one day at a Walmart. I’d known Rosie in high school, and I noticed she had a bruise under her eye. I looked at her, she looked at me, and without a word passing between us, I knew what the bruise meant and she knew I knew.

So, Frank Bidwell, a nasty piece of work who now sat, apparently homeless and gorked out, watching nothing in particular as my Chevy idled at a red light that had overlooked a simple fact of life, namely that it had to turn green at some point. I remember not feeling all that bad about Frank. Some people get their comeuppance, and I guessed Frank was among them. Still, my conscience stammered like an engine with two-hundred thousand miles on it, and I remembered something my mother used to say, There but for the grace of God go I.

Next thing I knew Frank was surrounded by a group of guys, three or four of them in their twenties maybe, completely normal looking if my recollection serves me, like they worked in one of the nearby insurance companies or real estate offices. I saw polo shirts and khaki pants and black loafers and regular incomes and savings accounts.

They started beating on Frank. One of them had a truncheon or something and the other a baseball bat. I had my window open and even with traffic noise I could hear the blows make sickening thwacks on Bidwell’s body. They were beating and kicking him, not saying a thing but going about their business calmly and professionally, like satellite-TV repairmen. Soon Frank’s face ran red, and still the men didn’t stop, not even when the Now Hiring sign was splattered with blood. One of the men picked up an old shopping bag Frank had with him and scattered stuff about. There were crushed tin cans and some clothes and a few yellowed newspapers.

I don’t believe I thought much about what I did next. I may or may not have looked at the light. I may or may not have turned off the ignition, but then I didn’t have to because once left unattended, that old engine did pretty much what it pleased anyway. I reached behind me and took my rifle off its window rack. I got out of the truck, walked to the traffic island, and aimed it across the street and at the guys. I told ‘em to get lost, or something like that, and leave the guy alone, you got no business beatin’ up on him.

The guys didn’t even look at me, they were still staring at Frank, maybe considering what further damage they could do. Next I heard a siren and then screeching tires. A police car pulls up right in front of me as I lower my rifle from my shoulder. So between me and the guys and bleeding Frank there’s a white and blue SUV with rotating blue lights on the roof. Two policemen explode out of the car, point their service revolvers at my heart. They yell drop it and get down, and next thing I know I’m cuffed with my face smashed against cool grass on the traffic island and the cop is calling in the incident on his shoulder microphone.

I couldn’t see Frank and I couldn’t see his attackers. I remember a lot of police chatter on a radio. But what I remember most at just that moment was that people were honking and yelling. The light had turned green and my pickup was sitting there and I could see a line of Hondas and Buicks and Volvos behind it.

Some words stick with you even when they’re buried in a heap of unwashed memory. Hey, jerkoff, we got jobs to get to, someone yelled. A woman rolled down her window—I think she had two kids in the back seat, mind you—and she yelled, Serves you right, asshole, keep your nose out of other people’s business.

I sat at the police station for hours. They questioned me and wanted to know what I planned to do with the rifle and if I had suicidal thoughts and whether I was an Islamic terrorist, and I said Jesus Christ at one point, and so they made me stay the night and then released me and told me they came this close to charging me with assault. Instead they ticketed me for disturbing the peace and let me know where my Chevy had been towed. I seriously considered not retrieving the truck, but finally I got an ex-girlfriend to give me a ride to the auto yard where it was impounded because what other transportation did I have?

I heard later that Frank Bidwell died in a hospital, and the Polo Shirts and Khakis were never even brought to trial. Sometimes I think that a dark cloud of cruelty descended on that intersection for a short time that day and Frank and me and the police and the murderers and the people who shouted from their cars were caught up in it. It was like some perverse reality lasting no more than a few minutes had intruded on the everyday world, which then switched back to normal mode. But then I glance at a newspaper and I say, no, that’s how it is everywhere now.

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Architectures of Trauma

My short story, “Architectures of Trauma,” just appeared in The Breakroom Stories, an audio magazine that “evokes the eerie familiarity we all feel with the region between wakefulness and dream.” It’s read by the editor, Carl Fuerst. Below is the introduction and a link to the magazine.

My sleep is a turbulent burst of being, and then I’m awake, then I have to do something, act, live. So many times I have wished my sleep were not like a dash but a marathon. A steady unfolding, and then morning, and illumination of what was dark and hidden. My sleep is not that. In Hypnos’s realm, I am more sinned against than sinning. So I am on the go. Even in the dead of night, which is not dead but roaring and alive, and so too is it for those people I encounter in darkness—a serious problem for them.

A few weeks ago my sleep was a rushing stream pounding over rocks and carrying everything with it until it was damned up with a suddenness so breathtaking it left me gasping. I awoke and an image came to mind: a balloon touching a hot burner on the stove. Bang!

Midnight, wired, geared for action. I fixed a beautiful omelet. Creamy cheddar cheese, delicate fresh scallions, jalapeño peppers. Then I slathered so much salsa on it that it was inedible.

I love beautiful things ruined.

Read more here.

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The Emotional Life of Electrical Wires

My thanks to decomP magazinE for publishing my short story, “The Emotional Life of Electrical Wires.” I excerpt the introduction here along with a link to the magazine, which, with the April 2017 issue, celebrates its 13th anniversary.

Matthew was a wood carver, homeless and a full-blooded Anishinaabe, whom everyone knew in the downtown neighborhood of a big city where I once had a pointless cubicle job. As I gained knowledge of my surroundings, I became aware of Matthew, who would strike up a conversation with anyone willing to listen. He always carried several small blocks of wood with him, which, as I learned later, he picked up here and there from people who had learned of his considerable skill as a carver. He carved with a three-blade pocketknife, which he’d inherited from his grandfather. Matthew would carve something interesting, an animal figurine or a human face, and return the block of wood to the person who’d given it to him. People paid him money, and he always made a show of refusing payment until, with a theatrical gesture, he threw up his hands in concession and pocketed the bills. That’s what he lived on, and what allowed him to get gloriously drunk whenever it suited him.

Several weeks before I got to know him well, Matthew sat next to me at a public fountain near my office. I was in the habit of having my lunch outside when the weather was nice. At first I thought Matthew was going to ask for spare change, and I looked around to see if there was a more suitable spot. But it was a beautiful May day and the square was quite crowded with people who had escaped their cubicles and shops, thirsty for sunshine after winter’s parched darkness. So I remained at my spot as Matthew talked to me.

“Too bubbly, ain’t she?” he said.

I was new to big city life—I was raised in a small town and educated at a small Midwestern liberal arts college in the heart of nowhere—and friends had warned me not to look directly at street people or engage them in conversation. But there was something about Matthew’s voice I found inviting, so against my better judgment, I responded. “Pardon me?”

“The fountain. A little too bubbly, ain’t she? Too blonde and bouncy and cheery. Like a homecoming queen who’s addicted to exuberance. Makes you tired just bein’ around her, huh?”

I learned from our ensuing conversation that Matthew not only made lovely detailed figurines out of wood, but he also had a special relationship with ordinary objects on the street. I’d once taken a sociology class and remembered Max Weber’s concept of “elective affinity.” That’s what Matthew had, an elective affinity, or resonance, with things. In short: he talked to them, and they talked back. The fire hydrant, a lamppost, a shop window—he engaged them all in conversation.

My first thought was that the man should be on medication or even institutionalized. I asked around in the office about Matthew, wondering if he was a little “off.” Newcomers shrugged with disinterest. But the old-timers took umbrage at my suggestion. They’d developed a deep affection for Matthew, and wouldn’t hear of his being mentally unbalanced. Instead they insisted he had an insight into the world of material objects that was uncanny. Several colleagues with whom I’d discussed Matthew had a number of his wood figurines on their desks.

I became curious about Matthew, the wood carver who talked with the material world. I began seeking him out at lunchtime. Most days I found him in the vicinity, and if he wasn’t already chattering away with someone, I made a point of striking up a conversation. Soon I began bringing him small blocks of wood, which I’d bought at a local woodworking shop, and after a few months I had several of his figurines on my desk. There was a Labrador retriever’s face, which Matthew carved after I’d told him I still missed a Labrador I’d had as a kid. There was a gnome, which I thought was so artfully done I sent it to my mother, who I knew would find a place for it with her other figurines and knickknacks on the mantel at home. At times, it was frightening to watch Matthew wield his small carving knife. There was alcohol on his breath and his eyes were glassy. His speech didn’t slur—he was always quite articulate—but there was nonetheless something about him that made him both present and distant, there but not there. Still, his cuts were perfect, his dirty fingers moved with grace, and as he described what he was doing, a small elegant figure would emerge from a rectangle of maple or pine.

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Fortress

Artificium, Issue 5, is now out with my “Fortress.” See below for the introduction and a link to purchase the volume.

The black phone in the cramped back office of Novak’s filling station rang as it always did. The office was windowless and lined with shelves on which there were stacked blue and yellow oil cans, containers of brake fluid and anti-freeze, and other toxic fluids automobiles needed to keep life and limb together. Squat and menacing, the phone sat on a small desk illuminated by a single lamp. The phone smelled of oil and gasoline and the handgrip had a greasy feel no matter how often Karl Novak wiped it with a clean shop rag. It was the summer of 1966, Laurentide, Michigan, and he was learning the gas station business. He was a junior in high school and his father, who owned the station, thought it was time he spent his summer vacations working rather than water skiing, hanging out with friends, and reading mysteries and science fiction. So he serviced cars and changed tires. He waited on customers on the hot asphalt drive and pumped six grades of gasoline (from economy to premium), checked tire pressures, cleaned windshields. It wasn’t bad work, and at times it was enjoyable, but most often Karl Novak looked forward to having his workday over.

On a still cool August morning Karl was helping Al the mechanic change the oil of a black ‘62 Mercury with turquoise trim. Al was stocky, round-faced, rosy-cheeked, and the most foul-mouthed person Karl had ever met. Karl’s father said he was “the best damned mechanic there is,” but also said he was a “dirty Pollock” and “a crook if you let him get away with stuff.” Karl couldn’t decide if he disliked Al intensely or if he thought he was an exotic figure, like a spy or bank robber, and a welcome break from the nice boring people he’d come to know at the Lutheran church his mother insisted he attend. When Al spoke, a well-chewed cigar dangled from the right side of his mouth. Once he put his still lit cigar on the end of the workbench and Karl examined it closely. Its brown color had changed to an ugly black slime at the tip where Al gnawed on it. Many times Karl had thought of asking Al to let him smoke one of his cigars. The most propitious moment would have been when Al showed up at work with alcohol on his breath, which was often, and he was pliable and more willing to take reckless chances. But Karl didn’t want Al to get into hot water for leading the boss’s son astray—that’s how Karl’s father would see it—so he never asked.

When the phone rang, Karl hurried into the office, which was just off the garage bay where they worked on the Mercury, but he hesitated to pick up. He didn’t know why. When he first started working at the station, he liked answering the phone. It had made him feel like a grownup. He wrote down messages and gave people what information he could. This time he hesitated. He sensed he had a good reason, but it was more like a shadow in his mind than a well-formed idea. He looked around the shelves and noticed that an oilcan had been turned around. He straightened it so that its label faced out. He heard Al yell, “Hey, Karl, you gonna wait all day to answer the fuckin’ thing?” Still he didn’t reach for the phone. He wasn’t sure how many times it had rung. He hoped it would stop, but he knew it would not. Something in the ring gnawed and was unyielding.

His cheeks puffed out in an exaggerated motion. He raised his shoulders and inhaled deeply. His nostrils filled with smells from the garage. He exhaled, and, as if it were detached from the rest of his body, his hand reached for the phone and brought the handset to his head. The phone felt cold and hard against his ear. He said, “Novak’s Service,” with a slight interrogative curve that made it sound like an arguable point.

“May I speak to Zachary?” said the voice.

It was a woman with a slow humid southern drawl. Her voice had a searing effect, like a long forgotten pain suddenly returned. He’d never heard the voice before, and yet he had. It was known, yet unknown. His stomach ground stones and his blood-drenched ears burned. He looked down at his black work shoes, which he’d shined that morning. They felt as is they were welded to the concrete. What the hell was wrong with him?

“Hon, are you there?” said the voice, a mix of honey and vinegar.

“Yes, oh, sorry, I’ll get him,” said Karl.

He left the office to look for his father. The queasiness in his stomach rose up through his chest and back behind his eyes. He surveyed the drive, checked the customer waiting area at the front of the station, walked around to the back alley where they kept dumpsters. Zach Novak was nowhere to be found. “He’s out test driving the silver Impala. We gotta brake job on it this afternoon, I think,” said Al after Karl had come back into the garage. “Coulda told you that first thing, boy, if you’d asked.”

Karl returned to the back office hoping the voice had hung up. He’d been out looking for his father several minutes. “Sorry, ma’am, but he’s not here at the moment. Can I take a message?”

“Tell him Luella called,” said the drawl. “I’m an old friend. He knows where to reach me. You make sure you tell him, child, and thank you.”

Karl put down the phone and steadied himself with both hands on the desk. After a few minutes, his hands and wrists ached and his arms felt leaden.

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King Dramilo

My thanks to Disclaimer Magazine for publishing “King Dramilo” today in their Weekend Fiction feature. Below is the introduction and a link to read more:

The dog showed up one day out of nowhere, and everyone said it wouldn’t hang around long. It was old and mangy, blind in one eye and half-blind in the other, brown and black with patches of whitish skin that made it look like it had undergone chemotherapy. People fed the dog scraps or gave it water, and it got to know almost everyone in the neighborhood after going house to house several times. All the kids got along well with the old hound, who wagged his tail and licked their faces when they petted him. Some kids called the dog “Buck,” others “Spike,” and one knock-kneed, thirteen-year-old girl, Ina, called it “King Dramilo,” because it reminded her of a Slovenian fairy tale her mother once read her. In the fairy tale an old peasant couple found a baby floating in a basket on a river. They named the baby Dramilo, or “a pick-me-up,” not only because he’d been picked up out of the river, but also because he was so cheery and made everyone around him feel good. Dramilo grew into an ugly little gnome of a man, but he had a loving heart, and when he died bravely fighting the evil monster Avar, he became king of a mystical land as big as the heavens. Ina’s name made the rounds once or twice and then it stuck. Soon everyone called the dog King Dramilo, never just Dramilo, never just King.

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Showing White

Here’s my “Showing White,” just out with Flash Fiction Magazine (21 January 2017):

A man with a red baseball cap and green leather apron led a cow into a pen. The cow was black and white and had big brown eyes, glistening with comprehension.

A thin boy watched the animal, and for a moment he thought the cow focused on him. Maybe it was his flannel shirt, a blue-and-red-checked affair his mother had picked out. You wear your nicest shirt on a class outing, she’d said. Of course, he thought, a cow would recognize a mother’s choice.

It was three in the afternoon, and the boy looked around at his classmates, 20 third graders from Trinity Lutheran School. They were so quiet it made him nervous. Why wasn’t Karl making wisecracks? Everyone stared at a single pair of huge bovine eyes, which just then flashed a large amount of white.

The man held a rifle.

The boy looked at his teacher, a stocky man with a large chin and red hair. He’d told them they were going to see where hamburger came from. The boy thought of the last time his father had grilled a batch of juicy burgers and sang as he put cheese slices on them.

No one was smiling as the man aimed the rifle at the cow’s head.

The cow let out a long, loud moan—a plea, or maybe a question. The boy thought of the Bible passage they’d just memorized in religion class, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But cows had no idea of the Bible, right?

The boy was frightened. His teacher’s chin jutted out, the cow’s eyes showed even more white than before, and his classmates stood on the edge of a cliff, as if they were about to plunge into some dark abyss from which they would never escape.

The shot made the world shudder.

The cow fell with a thud, its eyes wide and staring but not seeing.

Nerdy David fainted and had to be held up by one of the mothers who’d accompanied the class. The boy now knew why his mother hadn’t volunteered.

Soon the man in the green apron used a squeaking chain to hoist the cow up by its back legs. With a shining blade too quick to follow he slit the cow’s neck. With another long slice, gray, red, and pink matter hit the cement floor with a mournful slop that made Doris, the girl with a port-wine stain on her forehead, spew her bologna-sandwich lunch on her new white shoes.

The man worked quickly. He talked as he wielded his blade, said the cow had once given milk, she’d been used up.

The boy wasn’t listening. He felt his knees go jellylike. He thought of the time his mother told him his hamster Nellie had died. Some of his classmates were crying. His teacher told everyone to calm down, watch and listen, this is important, not everyone has a chance to see this process.

When they filed out, the boy’s friend Tony looked green.

The boy thought he should comfort Tony, say something, but the rifle shot still sang in his ears and words felt blocky and thick.

 

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Million Writers Award: Notable Stories of 2016

I was happy to hear that my short story, “Saving Hermann Hesse,” Eclectica (April/May 2015) made the 2016 storySouth Million Writers Award list of notable stories. The goal of the competition is to honor and promote the best fiction published in online literary journals and magazines during 2015. Thanks to Eclectica editor Tom Dooley for nominating me. For stories and links, see below.

“The Brooklyn Tolstoy” by Doug Berverole

“Where Do You Think You’re Going” by Daphne Buter

“Tasneem” by Ahsan Butt

“The Clean Rooms” by J’Lyn Chapman

“The Vishakanya’s Choice” by Roshani Chockshi

“Giver of Life” by Dawn S. Davies

“Soup” by Chikodili Emelumadu

“The Salt Wedding” by Gemma Files

“Shueyville” by Kate Folk

“All That We Loved, All That We Burned” by Laura Haugen

“Saving Hermann Hesse” by Rudy Koshar

“The Son of Summer and Eli” by Lee L. Krecklow

“The Parable of Nick Burns” by Danny Judge

“Tiny Dancer” by Lisa Lang

“Leftovers by Kiare Ladner”

“Half in the Truth” by Gariot Louima

“Devildoms” by Saytchyn Maddux-Creech

“A Series of Accidents & Punctuation Marks” by Ilana Masad

“Act 1 of That Football Story, or: The Tragedy of Mack Bethlehem” by JD Mitchell

“The Battle” by David Naimon

“On A Wild, Red Dawn” by Billy O’Callaghan

“The Glass Girl” by Wendy Oleson

“The Orange Line by Cantrice J. Penn”

“Father Fox” by Martin Pousson

“Last Song” by Annie Reid

“The Boy Wonder” by Robert Roman

“The Android’s Prehistoric Menagerie” by A. Merc Rustas

“A Famous Man” by Kathryn Scanlan

“On the Moon” by Amy Scharmann

“Hot Lesbian Vampire Magic School” by Julia Ridley Smith

“From Within” by Richard Thomas

“Bethlehem” by Chika Unigwe

“A Primer on Separation” by Debbie Urbanski

“Do You Hear What I’m Saying?” by Kori Waring

“Big Joy Family” by Jude Whelchel

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northwoods

My thanks to Crack the Spine and editor Kerri Farrell Foley for publishing my flash fiction piece, “northwoods” (Issue 206, January 4, 2017). Here’s the piece, and a link to read more.

Scraping, you’re up on a ladder in the northwoods working on this cabin, thoughts scattering. You’ve already put in hours on the job but there’s more, more, more, to quote a disco hit, do you remember Andrea True Connection? Things go through the mind when you’re a little bit shaky up on that ladder, sixty some years old, you, not the ladder.

Your northwoods wife, Andrea, comes around the side of the house, she’s been scraping too, though she’s on the ground, because no way, she says, I’m not going up there, and she asks if you’d like some tea, we have some Mei Ji. You say, I’m feeling lightheaded.

Down on the ground, you realize you’ve been airborne too long, ten, twelve feet, inhaling, paint chips like snow on eyebrows, beard, hands, arms. Looking radioactive.

Chinese tea scrapes up against northwoods air and tastes fine, like Andrea’s earlobe.

Back up the ladder, and thoughts tend toward death, scraping will do that, and there is a moment, you lean back and your knees remind you of a Psalmist’s words—“my shadow declinith”—and you’re like, is this it?

More tea? calls Andrea, and you know there will be more, more, more, and you whistle, how do you like it? how do you like it?

And you know the answer.

To read the magazine, go here.

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