Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Offering

There wasn’t a lot left of my grandmother’s mind by that summer, but my grandfather still felt strongly about taking her to church. On that first Sunday in August, when the collection plate came down our row, my grandmother dropped a balled up tissue in as it went past, then smiled in pride from the act of doing something good—the giving. We were so caught off guard by it that we didn’t act fast enough, and the plate was handed to Ray Price, who stood in the aisle waiting for it. Ray’s belly sat like a pumpkin and pushed against his blue short-sleeve shirt; his gray hair was swept up into an s-pattern with some thick cream. We looked to him for understanding, but he leaned in and said in a whisper, “Thank you, Miss Lally.” And for the rest of the service we just sat there and considered such grace.

By dinnertime we had heard the news: Ray had fallen off his tractor that afternoon and gotten pinned underneath, somehow. It was his wife who went out and found him like that. We all shook our heads, not comprehending such a tragedy. My mother, who had been thinking about Ray’s kindness all day, pulled her chair directly in front of her mother and said, “Mama, Ray Price died today. Ray Price. You know him from church.”

My grandmother just smiled and hummed a little phrase over and over, her lips pushing in and out.

“Ray Price died today after church, Mama,” my mother said again, the tears welling up.

My grandmother kept up her little tune as the evening breeze pushed through the screen window, and my grandfather’s dog, Jack, barked at whatever he thought he saw.

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Motors

Skeet’s the one that stole the equipment. At least, that’s what Dad thinks, and I guess it make sense. Skeet hasn’t shown up for work all week, and he hasn’t called in. Plus, Skeet’s been complaining a lot lately, even around me. “What you going do, boss man’s son, fire me?” he said just last week, then laughed. “Hell, I wish you would. Then I’d be done with this shit for real.”

My dad figures Skeet’s going to try and sell it all quick—the push mowers, the blowers, the chainsaws, the riding mower, the rest. So after work, Dad says we should drive around Skeet’s neighborhood and see what we can see: Skeet’s old truck, maybe, or a sign taped to a telephone poll that says, “Landscape equipment, best price offered.” We know the neighborhood where Skeet lives, but we don’t know the street. The guys at work get paid in cash every Friday, and Dad says he doesn’t want to know the rest of it.

After we close up, I get into the passenger’s seat of the truck, and Dad reaches into the glove compartment and retrieves his pistol, puts it under his seat. That’s the first time I’ve ever even seen it, though I’ve always known it was right there. I’m 15, but I don’t care if I ever hold a gun.

In Skeet’s neighborhood cars are missing tires, or a door; the broken windshields look like spider webs. Toddlers run around in the front yard in diapers with no adults in sight.

“This is something else,” my dad says in a low voice. He reaches across me and locks my door.

After a while I say, “It’s too bad because I like Skeet.”

My father nods.

“And the customers like him,” I say. “He’s very friendly.” Part of me thinks that maybe we’re wrong about Skeet. Lots of people could have broken into the storage house. Lots of people have trucks.

“Oh, Skeet loves to talk,” my Dad says, not unkindly. “He’d talk all day if you let him. And that’s the problem.”

We keep driving up and down these streets, and the people who are sitting on the front porch and swatting at the heat glare harder every time we pass.

Nearly an hour goes by, and when we drive by the same rusty fan without its cover at the edge of a driveway, Dad says we should get on over to the hospital to see my mother. She’s been there two months now. When we step into her room Dad pulls up his chair next to her bed and holds her hand, and I do the same with the other hand. The machines she’s hooked up to fill the silence with their beeps. In those first few weeks, Dad liked to tell her about our day—the jobs we were on, the people we saw—but he doesn’t do that much anymore. In fact, mostly he keeps his head down as he sits there. And now I’m the one that kisses her on the forehead when we leave.

After we cruise another few blocks, Dad lets out a sigh that sounds like a valve’s been released, then says, “Well, I guess we should go on home and get cleaned up first.”

As we turn down the street with all the holes, I look out the passenger window, and that’s when I see, three houses down, Skeet’s white truck. He is standing in the cab amid all the mowers, and his arms are gesturing above his head. There’s a guy standing on the curb, and maybe he is wondering if anything Skeet is telling him is true. But my Dad is looking straight ahead and hits the accelerator. And so that I don’t do anything to draw his attention, I look straight, too.

The engine churns louder and fills my ears. All day long my ears burn from the crude roar of gasoline motors, but at night, the soft chirps of my mother’s monitors are almost soothing. It’s like being in a room of hungry baby birds, crying out to be fed.

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Daredevil

When I was in fifth grade, I dressed up like Evil Knievil for Halloween. That is, I bought the Evil Knievil costume at Woolco—a pale, nondescript face under  a partial helmet and staring through the clear box cover. With the white coveralls folded underneath, and the white helmet with a blue banner of stars, at quick glance it looked like I had picked up a birthday cake.

At home I stood in front of the mirror, the long, striped pants pooling over my feet. What was clear was that just walking around as Evil Knievel wouldn’t work. I’d have to be on my bicycle—Evil’s motorcycle. I had a red Schwinn Stingray with a banana seat, with handlebars that jutted out like a Harley’s. On my bike, everyone would know who I was.

The school’s Halloween carnival was that Saturday night, two days before Halloween. That evening I rode my bicycle over; it was a little hard to see out of the mask’s eye holes, but after a few blocks I got used to it. The parking lot was filled with parents dropping off their kids—Popeyes, pirates, witches, fairies, a Fred Flintsone. A Holly Hobbie. And Eric Spencer, who with a long black wig, fake mustache, and silky pants was supposed to be Doug Henning.

I pedaled my bike to the gym’s main entrance, where Mr. Howie was taking tickets.

“No bikes,” he said.

“But it’s part of my costume,” I said at last.

“Sorry. Someone could get hurt.”

Behind him I could see they had a cake walk going, and there was a rigged up jail, where for fifty cents you’d hire the “jailers”—eighth graders—to go and put someone in the jail for ten minutes. All week I had looked forwarding to having eighth graders chasing me around the gym as I stood up on my pedals and tried to pop a wheelie. Only I wasn’t very good at wheelies.

I didn’t have a lock, and I didn’t want to go inside without my bike and just be Evil Knievil standing around. People might have thought I was just an astronaut. And I didn’t want to go home, since it was still so early. So instead I decided I’d ride around the gym, just do laps all night. People would maybe see me from the windows. They’d say, “There goes Davis. He’s Evil Knievil.”

For forty-five minutes I rode my laps. It was clear everyone was having a good time inside, and sometimes I’d slow down and steal a glimpse. I saw they had Chuck Moon in jail; he was dressed like Paul Bunyon, and I could see under his arms he had one of his sister’s blue stuffed animals. Babe the blue ox. I saw the gym teacher, Ms. Pruitt, step out the rear exit for a cigarette. “Let’s keep it off the sidewalk,” she said in her hoarse voice as I rode past. Everyone called her Hoarsie because she had been yelling for so many years.

Is that the hardest you can run?!

            Quit standing around!

            That’s not hustling!

After a while I got tired. I put the kickstand up and leaned to the right, trying to balance. I pushed the mask to the top of face. That’s when I saw Meredith Landers.

Before she came into the light streaming from the gym, I couldn’t figure out what she was dressed as. And then when I could see her more clearly I still couldn’t tell. She was wearing what look liked a beige body stocking. She was carrying a long stick with a stuffed horse’s head on the end.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” I said.

We listened to some kids screaming because they didn’t want to be put in jail, then she said. “So what are you supposed to be?”

“Evil Knievil,” I said.

“So why are you out here?”

“They won’t let me take my bike in,” I said.

She nodded. “They wouldn’t let you take your horse in?” I said.

“What?”

“Your horse,” I said. I saw that on her chest she had two colored red spots.

“No,” she said with some irritation. “It’s because I’m supposed to be nude. I’m Lady Godiva riding on my horse, but they said I couldn’t come in like that.”

That was when I noticed the black triangle of fabric below her waist.

“Do you even know who that is?” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Yeah, right,” she said. “Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Conventry so that her husband would stop taxing people so much.”

All I knew about Miriam was that her father had long hair and wore it in a braid—I had seen him drop her off in front of the school in his van a few times. She was supposed to be smart, and she was always eating in the cafeteria by herself, holding a book in front of her face. I remembered she still used a lunch box–“Little House on the Prairie.”

My eyes were still on the triangle, and after she said something about protesting this ridiculous school, she said, “You can stop staring now.”

I looked up with a start. “Anyway,” she said, “my mother is going to pick me up in thirty minutes. I didn’t really want to come anyway, but she said she didn’t want me staying home reading every Saturday night. So I put on this.”

We stayed there for a time. I could hear some announcements being made over the intercom, and down the way I could see that Ms. Pruitt had stepped out for another cigarette break.

“Well, I guess I should get going,” I said.

“All right,” she said, and as I pulled my mask down again, turned my bike around and pedaled way, I turned back to see if she was still watching. She was. I pulled as hard as I could on the front wheel, but I couldn’t get it off the ground.

It had turned cold, and as I rode faster, the sharp air pressed against my chest. I was imagining riding right past Mr. Howie at the door, with Miriam holding on tightly, and Mr. Howie signaling to those eighth grade jailers to chase us down, with Miriam cheering our defiance. “Faster, faster!” And I was thinking about every stupid stunt Evil Knievil had ever attempted.

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The Shell

A man brings home a seashell for his son.

“I found it on the beach,” says the man, who has just come back from a business trip in Florida. “Put it to your ear and you can hear the ocean.” The boy takes the shell, which is as wide across as a coffee cup, and puts it to his ear.

“Oh my God, we are getting so burned,” a high-pitched voice says. The boy takes the shell quickly away and examines it.

“Did you hear it?” the man asks. The boy tries it again.

“That’s no kind of moat,” a heavy voice says. “Donovan, look. Look how Daddy made his moat. You have to really dig.”

“See?” the father says, and bends to down to run his hand through the boy’s hair.

In the hour before dinner the boy keeps the shell pressed to his ear.

“I could really go for clams tonight,” a voice says.

“If Kenny calls me tonight, I’m going to totally tell him to go to Hell. Totally.”

“Now those, gentlemen, are some jugs.”

After the boy is tucked in and he hears his parents go downstairs, he turns on his light and retrieves the shell. He hears someone talking about being sick of a song, a woman’s voice wondering if her bathing suit is really chartreuse, and the happy babbling of a baby. Someone says the lifeguard is never paying attention, and that’s why he had to repeat his senior year, and someone else says the ocean looks dirty. “Like muck. Wait, is muck an actual word?”

Then the boys hears his father’s voice in the shell.

“I’m looking for a shell for my kid,” he says. “Or I guess I could buy one in shop.”

“He’s so cute in those picture,” a woman says. “I wish I could just meet him one time.”

“Yeah, well, you know that can’t happen,” his father says. “”That’s nothing but an invitation for trouble. Serious trouble. Hey, there’s a shell. That one is not bad. Baby, look at this one a minute.”

The boy removes the shell and studies the flecks of brown on the outer edge. He examines it from every angle, holding it over his head, then turns off the light.

The next morning, after his mother has left for breakfast and his father is finishing his coffee, the boy pulls the shell out of his pocket.

“We need to go in five minutes,” the father says while attending to his cell phone.

The boy puts the shell squarely on the table, causing a loud whack. The father takes a minute to looks up and sees that his son’s mouth is twisted slightly, his eyes wide, expectant.

“You like that shell, buddy?” his father says. “You like that?”

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Reunion

I get an invitation in the mail to my high school reunion.  I get my one suit pressed for the occasion. When I arrive at the hotel, an eager woman with frosted hair pins a tag on my lapel that says, “Once a Husky, Always a Husky.” I fill my plate with shrimp and crackers and weave in and out of conversations. After a while it’s pretty clear that no recognizes me, and I don’t recognize anyone, either. I realize that I’ve shown up at the wrong hotel–this is some other high school reunion. But since I’m here I decide to make the most of it. I go up to a guy with patches on his elbows who is gesturing wildly to a couple that that keeps straining to smile.  I cup my hands behind his eyes.

“Guess who,” I say. As if he has been waiting for this all night, he starts rattling off names. He seems to go through the whole graduating class, increasingly baffled but determined. I get bored, though, and cut him off. I tell him who I am.

“Oh right, right,” he says. He turns around and greets me with a vacant stare. “So hey, well, so how have you been?”

I tell him prison was good for me, that I learned some important things in ways that were none too pleasant. I muter something about legal loopholes and tell him he’ll have to read my book to get the whole story. When I’m done he starts to tell me about his twin daughters and the symphony they have written. “See you around,” I say and slap him hard on the back.

After refreshing my glass at the punch bowl, I spot a woman decked out all in gold, with hips that swing like a wrecking ball. I sneak up behind her and pick her off the ground, but I get an awkward grip, and after a few wobbly steps I drop her. An uneasy silence falls between us. “You used to wear a retainer, didn’t you?” I think to say.

When the band takes a breather, I jump on stage and take the microphone. I tell everybody about how great it is to be back, to see old friends. I say I now realize that everything I was taught in my history classes was just a pack of lies, but that this is no occasion to hold a grudge.  “Not counting all the stuff I’ve blocked out,” I say, “those were the best days of my life.” Tepid, scattered applause follows. “Let’s all have a good time,” I say, “and forget, if just for this one night, all the misery we inflicted on each other.” By now the musicians have sauntered back on stage and picked up their instruments. I count off and the band leaps into overdrive. I jump down and grab the first lady that walks by. She is startled, but I move her into a fancy two-step, and after a minute or so she settles in.

“I’ve been wondering whatever happened to you,” she says. She bats her long eye lashes.

“I was never one to hang around,” I say.

“Don’t I remember,” she says.

We dance a little more, then slip outside for some fresh air. There are things she clearly wants to say, but she seems unsure where to start. So she asks me if I remember our old Geometry teacher, the one with the nasalish voice.

“Remember her?” I say. “I’m still trying to forget her.” Just for measure I talk out of my nose, and we both bend over laughing.

We catch our breath, then get comfortable on the hood of a car.

“You were always a loner,” she says, now serious and even. The moon just catches her face.

“And you were always a dreamer,” I say. I reach out for her hand and slide my fingers in between hers.

“Would you have believed it?” she says. “The two of us, back here again like this?”

She is misty eyed. Her lips quiver. We let the rest go unspoken. We lean against the windshield of the car and watch a guy get sick at the other end of the parking lot. A friend of his is with him, trying to help out.

“Oh, man, are you all right buddy?” the friend says.  “Are you going to make it or what?”

After a while the drunk guy staggers back inside, weaving all over the place. The friend tries to steady him.

“Now that’s a page right out of yesterday,” I say.

A light autumn breeze nudges some dogwoods. We turn to each other.

“You and I have a lot of catching up to do,” she says. She reaches over and plants one on me, lingering a while before she pulls back.

“Hey, how about doing that little cheer you used to do?” I say. “You know the one.”

She offers me a mischievous, knowing smile, then looks around to see if anybody is watching. She gets up, takes a few paces back, and tests the loose gravel under her feet. Then, as if a switch had been turned on, she starts to shout “Huskies Huskies High, Huskies Huskies Low!” Her voices gets louder and louder, bouncing off the glass windows around us. She kicks her legs out with a frenzied, almost violent motion, and her arms, sleeved in white satin, twirl through the night air like propellers.

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X-Ray

A man finishes reading a Green Lantern comic book to his son. When the story is over, the father studies the ad for bubble gum on the last page and says, “When I was a kid and read comics, they had all this stuff you could order on the back page. These amazing-sounding gizmos.”

“Like what?” his son asked.

“Oh, ray guns, X-Ray glasses, little eggs that were supposed to produced these space creatures. I used to order that stuff, and I’d just wait and wait for the mail to come.”

“Cool. Did those things really work?”

“Oh, no,” the father said and let out a chuckle. “It was all junk. Worthless stuff. The real fun was the anticipation of it, really.”

His face fell into a dreamy arrangement. 
Later that night, he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a slender velvet case. He removed a pair of dark, plastic glasses with white spirals painted on the front of each lens. Then he reached over and turned the lights off and gently closed the door. He moved to the window and got into a crouching position and eased the blinds up until they were just above his head, then slid the glasses on. He wiggled the bridge over his nose until he had it just right. 
“All right, Mrs. Remington,” he whispered to himself. “What are you up to tonight?”

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Hole

A man dreams he is falling down a manhole. He has had this dream once before, but when he wakes up this time it is Stephanie Plunkett that he thinks about. Stephanie went to his high school, and her notable trait was that she had one large nostril instead of two. Despite this rarity, her teenage years weren’t marked by the unkindness of others; kids did not call her Hoover or ask if she always scored a hole-in-one when playing Putt-Putt. She was in her Biology class, and once, when she dropped her test, he picked it up for her; she smiled sweetly at him. But sitting up in bed now, he is not sure they ever spoke. At least, he cannot recall the sound of her voice.

That morning he does some Internet research, and it seems that she lives in the next town over. He spies her picture in a PTA newsletter. After typing in a few more pieces of information, he is pleased to learn that she is divorced. 
That evening, he discovers there are three Stephanie Plunketts in the area. He calls the first, but there is no answer. When he tries the second, a whisper of a voice comes through—so quietly he is not sure she said anything at all. “Hello, I’m looking for Stephanie Plunkett,” he says. And then he cannot think what else to say. There is only silence.

“The one with the nose,” he says, and then winces. 
“Who’s calling?” the voice says, a little louder. 
“Oh, this is Ned McArdle. I’m looking for the Stephanie Plunkett from Waynewright High. Is this she?”

There is a loud sniffing sound. He had forgotten this from his days in Biology class. It comes through over the line like a strong wind whipping through a barren street. He presses his ear harder to the phone, waiting.

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