Archive for the 'short fiction' Category

Camp

The tribe named me, so in courage I shall live. That’s what I said, and that’s what I meant. The grandmother said stop, stop, stop child, whatever the tribe named you is silent now. No language left, no names allowed in missionary schools and turning back on her I left like sand blown across dry miles to where I could keep my name without caution, without whisper, without fear.

Where I moved, west coast, Oregon near the Washington state line, there’s some Lakota, some Puyallup, some stragglers from the dry lands like me.  Dine. We got the same hello for each other, though, reaching the lips and turning the eyes away, yata-hey brother. Quiet people, some of us, out there silent with the clams and strong runners upstream or down, don’t matter. When I moved there, I won’t say the name of the town, cause history is full of shame, it was a settlement, just new built, for Japanese families, those same families that came across from who-knows-where on iron rails, iron horses, iron and blood carrying loss and history all across the country or all across the sea from where the sun is wide. Planting berries, flowers, gardens like poems. All pulled up or left behind. I can’t make a phone call; the switchboard is always closed. I am lonely with these lonely people, their language not mine and not the common language of outside the camp either.

Unless they get dented or rusted, tracks last a long time. Story tellers last a long time too. In the rounded huts of the Japanese settlement, I learned new words, genke desu, konichiwa, hottoitenka. They learned new words, too. The word for interment – camp;  food – chow; a meeting point for noses – spam, shit on a shingle, hash. Ugly words, yes – we could agree on these when we met in the open yard after meals, before lights out, all of us there for the interim. Interred for the interim, high fences, hard lights. Hiragana, good night, my temporary friend. Yá’át’ééh hiiłchi’į’ Good night, stranger, good night friend.

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Atlas rolls his own

I lifted the world off his shoulders and said “Sit. Sit awhile.”

He sighed, he stretched, he said, “What? Now? Sit?”

“Yes, now.” I handed him a bag of tobacco and some zigzags and he sat down to roll.

“Stiff,” he said, stretching his neck and shoulders.

“Reap what you sew,” I said, sotto voce.  I am a font of wisdom.

“Uh? What’s that?” He was looking at me from under his eyebrows. Eyebrows that hadn’t been groomed since the azure seas of the Mediterranean were 15 degrees cooler than they are now. I handed him a ginger soda. He took a swig.

“Zippy,” he observed. Smacking his lips, he raised the bottle to his lips again.

“Wait, hang on,” He pulled his smart phone out of his cargo pocket and looked at it. Texting. Even the gods can’t get a break, I thought.

“Tales of woe. Harbingers of doom. Falsely attributed quotes. I have to go,” he told me. He handed me a cigarette and quickly rolled another one for himself. Lit it, smoked it down in two deep sucks, stood up, twisted his back, did a couple of squats.

“Sure you won’t just quit?” I asked. No answer. I lifted the world and set it on his waiting shoulders.

Crumbled

It was just about time. I came apart like a toy watch when it hit. I’d pictured myself with both feet planted firmly, standing up to the tsunami, standing up to the raging fire, standing up to the oil spill, standing up to the pandemic, standing up to the last wisp of smoke at the end of all of everything.

When it came, though, I crumbled like cornmeal. Outside of my window I saw that things were going wrong, but when I looked for my backbone, I found it hidden in the warm, smoggy day. The smell of burning oil, the smell of old cooking grease, the grey spongy matter washing up against the shore – these sat just outside of my small sanctuary, and I sat looking at the calendar. When will I go home, when will I go home, when will I go home?  rolled through the circle cage in my brain. I thought this was the Peace Corps; this is not the Peace Corps, this is the Piece Corpse, hunks of former bodies, bayonets, screams of animals and people. Next thing is a series of flashing lights and darkness, and hunching under a blanket in an open truck that smokes, and staying silent as a sack of potatoes. The day approaches and shortly before it arrives another man comes, short and soft spoken, to take us to the airport. Already I am picturing myself sending postcards, buying stamps, writing letters, soaking in the long deep tub at the quiet old hotel. I picture the postcards when I sleep, placing the stamp, opening the mail box, the little worried thrill that I’ve dropped the wrong letter, the one I never meant to send, the one you should only open if you hear that I died in that jungle.

Reader

As a certified paranormal mind reader, I can sense more than you can imagine. Imagine that. You are sitting in your kitchen nook eating bagels with pickled herring, while I sit right next to you, too distracted by ghostly tap dancing, whirling fogs where no dry ice can be found, and the ululating wails of the permanently grieved. I haven’t had a decent bagel in years.

Once in a while, I sit one out, but it’s not up to me. It’s the spirits. I can leave my ghost-hunting equipment packed in a trunk in the attic of a distant relative’s home, but if they want to find me, the oscilloscope mysteriously turns up in my laundry basket, the night goggles are set on the nightstand next to the novel I won’t get to finish. The tape measure, slide rule, light net and safety goggle pack themselves in my suitcase, and whether I fly to Toronto, Rome or Little Rock, I know they will pursue me until I see them. Ready or not, here they come.

I’ve tried to decline, believe me. But the dead have time on their side, and they are both persistent and relentless. After a period of zig-zagging from city to city, trying to get away from the call, I get visions, reminders that I work for them, not the other way around. As a certified paranormal mind reader, I not only sense ghosts, feel and see and hear ghosts, I also read their minds and they love this. Ghosts love to be read more than anything else in the world.

Turn them down, if you dare. You will find blood spouting from your water-saver shower head. You will see glistening eyeballs staring at you from a plate of chicken livers, you will find spiders’ nests and trip wires lining the hall when you try to walk to the bathroom at 3 a.m. Feathers and whispers will tickle your ears, waking you incessantly. The teakettle won’t whistle, it’ll shriek like a pressure valve about to blow, the whipped cream will gasp and sob, and your bass guitar will tweedle like it’s been given a dose of helium. You cannot be cool with ghosts who are after your mind-reading abilities. They want to hear themselves think. You will read their minds, damn you, or they will claim yours, utterly and completely.

Omelette

Omelette

 

“Abshtinence led me ashtray,” was the first thing I heard her say. She was raising her glass high over her head. “Shalud,” she said to the glass, tossing it back and then keeling over onto the bed. She is going to feel awful tomorrow, I thought. I put on her camisole – why is it that women’s underwear are so much friendlier than men’s? I wondered, not for the first time. I carried my glass and her cigarettes into the living room and poured myself a glass of milk. It was late, not that late, but I was quiet, careful not to clatter around in this thin-walled apartment. I could hear her neighbor’s TV blaring, loud aggressive anti-everything propaganda with flag-waving and Jesus-invoking, and thought how that neighbor must drive Ginger up the wall. I sat on the couch and watched a movie about a crazed carnivorous eggplant-like alien zombie creature that decapitated unsuspecting teens for 90 minutes and was eventually destroyed by good old American ingenuity and a can of chilled whipped cream. Then, not sure whether to stay or go, I started to read her mail. None of it was addressed to Ginger. Hmm. Zuzu. Zuzu deGraib is her name. I wrote it down on a business card and put it in my wallet. Then I fell asleep on the couch.

When I woke up, the TV voice next door was still jackhammering. Light filtered in through the pale yellow curtains.  I took off her camisole and put on my shirt and slacks. In the kitchen I found coffee, eggs, oranges and some honey whole wheat bread. The coffee woke her up – Ginger or Zuzu or whoever she was – and she came into the kitchen in camisole and slippers just as the omelette was ready to serve.

“Good morning, anonymous omelette goddess,” I said, back turned toward the stove as I slid the omelette onto the plate.

Turning around, I caught her leaving, with cigarettes, coffee and omelette in hand, out the back door, to the landing just outside the apartment.

Wuxi to Wuhan

The smashed banana plant in China made banana mash for smoothies manufactured and bottled in Cleveland, Illinois. The mash machine, a banana macerator, took in up to 1500 pounds of banana in a single open mouth gulp, emitting banana burps that hovered over the ancient city on the Yang-tse River. The banana peels were spit into a vat 20 feet high, which gradually came to a very high heat, releasing a continuous vapor. The banana peels eventually became a viscous substance that was compressed into long flat sheets, cooled and then cut into panels, which were sold to kitchen remodelers in Portland Oregon, who repurposed them into environmentally sound faux marble countertops with customizable colors.

The shaking of the banana macerator made an awesome sound, one that flavored the dreams of every small child and old man from Wuxi to Wuhan. The sound of squids walking, the sound of tree roots squelching through mud, the sound of moths wiggling out of their cocoons, amplified 100,000 times. The sleep of the people from Wuxi from Wuhan was both sweet and uneasy, and when they woke, they wiped banana vapor out of their eyes and had rice for breakfast, with dried fish and salty plum. The smashed banana plant on the Yang-tse River gave jobs to the people from Wuxi to Wuhan, but after the first generation, no citizen of either city ate bananas, and after two generations, many of them left, unable to stand the smell of bananas for even one more minute.

Lina Jean

This is the true story of the spontaneous combustion of Lina Jean Morrow. She was the type of girl who was all legs and buck teeth at seven, all blonde glamour at thirteen, and all ashes and crispy burnt skin before she was 19.

Lina Jean Morrow’s life was short and bright and hard. There were few things Lina enjoyed more than sunning herself like a lizard in the spring air, which made the family laugh when she was their baby girl but made them mad and maddened as she grew into those teeth. She was a tall girl, a tall girl with a habit of looking over the shoulder of whoever she was talking to, causing many people to turn around and look behind themselves to see who she was addressing.  It was just Lina Jean’s way. The way she talked was slightly foreign, an accent that was not exactly refined or delicate, but satisfying and exotic, the way other people’s family dinners can be. Familiar but not family. That’s what Lina’s cousins said, when they talked about the conbustion.

Before she combusted, the cousins had a regular comedy routine of walking behind Lina, walking her runway walk, sticking out their teeth to imitate her bucktooth pouty lip ways. Most of the time, Lina ignored them, but once in a while one of them would pull on her hands, throw themselves at her feet and beg her to marry them, while the others punched each other, laughing til they fell down in the dirt. Lina kicked a cousin or two, and once announced, over her cousin Ned’s shoulder, that if he was her husband, she’d shoot his dick off, which should have been funny but instead caused a whole lot of cousins to stay away from her for a few weeks. Ned said he had dreams about that, the way she looked over his shoulder, like she was looking for the knife, he said.

One day, Lina was sunning herself like a lizard on a warm rock on a spring day and her baby toe caught on fire. A little trickle of smoke appeared and she looked at it, like she was admiring a pedicure or thinking about what color of polish to put on. The smoke turned to a bright red flame and traveled up the top of her foot and along her thin shin bones and from there spread suddenly, and the cousins said the heat could be felt two counties away. Ned, who was across the state line looking for work, turned his head and looked back over his shoulder. He could see the line of smoke turn oily and black, and he felt Lina Jean burn white hot, watched her skeleton soften and emit a fragile ghostly crunch. He has blisters on his face to this day to prove that he witnessed her last moments, and no one in Stitch County has ever doubted him.


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