Posts Tagged 'short story'

Fundamentally splendid

Prose generally starts with a definitive statement, such as:

She was splendid, fundamentally.

In this case, however, the prose was shot through with poetical brick-a-brack. For example: They were going to the sun for his sake. For his sake, they were going to the sun. Nothing useful, just evocative.

Which immediately brings up for the reader of Prose the image of He and She sitting in a travel agency in a cool dank climate somewhere – let’s call it Vancouver, just for the sake of calling it something – pouring over travel brochures for tours to the Sun.

Not A Sun, The Sun. The Sun around which we dance and flirt, around which we write over and over and over again articles about sun dogs, meteor showers, and the gradual destruction of life on this particular planet via the unavoidably catastrophic cataclysmic collision of Earth, our Mother, and Sun, our Father, in a conflagration often predicted and yet utterly unexpected when it finally turns us all into hot molten lava sundaes in a dish of planet flambé. With sprinkles.

 However. She was splendid, fundamentally. What does fundament mean, exactly? Or  splendid?

Fundament: late 13c., “buttocks, anus,” from O.Fr. fondement “foundation, bottom; anus” (12c.), from L. fundamentum “a foundation,” from fundare “to found”. So called because it is where one sits. Fundamental: The “primary principles or rules” of anything, from 1630s.

 Alle þe filþ of his magh [‘maw’] salle breste out atte his fondament for drede. [“Cursor Mundi,” early 14c.]

Splendid: 1620s, from splendere “be bright, shine, gleam, glisten,” from PIE *(s)plend- “bright” (cf, Lith. splendziu “I shine,” M.Ir. lainn “bright”). An earlier form was splendent (late 15c.).

To reiterate:

She was fundamentally splendid. She was the seat of good or moral principles from the 1650s. She circled the sun, the same sun about which we write over and over. She sat watching on the screen as the Earth and Sun collided, inevitably. She dissolved into the melting sprinkles, licked the molten lava off her burning fingertips, and she smiled. She was fundamentally splendid.



If he had been a painter, there might have been some excuse. Some excuse in his sitting, day after day, staring at the corner where the girl had been standing one morning. What girl? What day? He was not a painter. There was no girl standing there the many days when he was staring. He was not a painter, there was no paint on his fingertips, no stains visible to the naked eye.

The naked eye is capable of perceiving over 700 colors on a good day. This may or may not be true. It is true that on a good day and with a guide to full color printing printed on a wheel he could turn a dial and find shades of green gold lavender shale rose and ecru that he could not find without the wheel. Magic colors. He imagined himself as a painter and holding the wheel up he waved it like a fan, the full spectrum of colors washing over him as he sat in the café staring at the corner where a girl had been standing one day.

He was smoking. He loved to smoke, loved to watch the smoke spiral up and fade over his head, mingling with the colors he’d conjured from his color wheel. He watched the smoke dissipate and curl up into the corners near the south facing windows, which looked out onto the small green patch of grass that was a park where a girl might have been sitting, reading a novel in Russian, holding the cover up and he could see it but he could not read the title. If only he’d been able to read the title, he thought, and he imagined the girl looking up at him with her eyes with the flecks of some color, not aquamarine, not teal, some color, what was it? He took out his color wheel and sat there, smoking, looking for the color of the girl’s eyes who was not standing there and maybe never had been standing there.

He lit a cigarette and pretended that he had only been pretending bitterness. He saw the outline of the smoke where the girl had been standing so long that the outline stood there like a shadow, not going away. Watching him.

One day, at another café in another city the shadow appeared in the corner of his eye and when he turned to look at it he saw the girl slipping around the corner, the loose ends of her scarf twisting like the tail of a cat and he jumped up, leaving 3 dollars and his color wheel on the table. Would he go back for it? What color were her eyes? Did she smoke?


My mother ran the kitchen like clockwork and there was nothing that made her happier than preparing the annual summer family feast. Out of doors appetites are apt to be huge, and mother never let anyone go away hungry.

The year I turned seven was the first year I was allowed to help. While mother washed potatoes, got out bottles of pickles and okra and complained about the cost of flour, I ran to-ing and fro-ing, getting her the things she hadn’t known she’d want until just that moment.

“Tell Edwin to sharpen that axe,” she’d say, and I’d run outdoors and tell him quick as that.

“Take the buttermilk out of the cellar,” she’d say, and I’d bring it up, thick and chilled in a crockery pitcher.

“There’s elderberry wine for your uncle William,” she’d say. “Just leave it there for now, I don’t want to be giving it out to the whole family.” I went down there anyway and tasted it. Not very good. Kinda sour and bitter, not near as good as cough syrup.

The week went by fast, multiple preparations, pies to make, chickens to kill. Old chickens are stringy and tough, but bake them long enough in buttermilk in a deep casserole with a lot of potatoes and they come out okay. It was a hard year, I guess, but a feast is a feast, even if it’s spread a little thin.

Fortunately for us, there was a salesman came by in a wagon passing by on his way from Kansas to California. He had what he called crudités in his wagon, which looked like picked cauliflower and carrots to me, but it had a good sound to it. He talked to mother about how to handle chicken to keep it tender. Resist the temptation to toss, he said, while showing her how to handle those scrawny wrung out birds like they were made of silk, turning them gently in the flour then dunking in egg and browning them like they were royal damn peacocks or something.

What you need is some bigger meat for your feast, he said. And some fresh greens. I got a friend in Lawrence been raising lettuce and cucumber. Mother didn’t know about that. They sounded French to her. She’d also figured out that this salesman was probably going to hang around long enough to get himself invited. Father said go get it, then. He always did want to have the biggest best newest of everything, French or not, and especially so at the annual feast. So the salesman went, and came back with slabs of ribs lying on ice, with lettuce and cucumbers wrapped in soft cloths and tucked in between. 

Sweet tooth

My father is a dentist and he loves you more than Jesus, because your father owns the candy store. The candy store is always between the cigar store and the liquor store, that’s what my cousin Lily Marie said when she was sixteen and went to the cigar store to buy cigarettes and ask old Ben Murphy, who was janitor at the City of Cocola Elementary School from 1954 til 1997, to buy her some Annie Greensprings Apple Wine. He died of sugar diabetes, old age, and pesticide accumulation, according to Lily Marie’s uncle Ed Loughlin, who was the only doctor in the City of Cocola.

I myself am glad your father owns the candy store, because it means that every kid in Cocola will eventually come into my father’s business, and I get to hand out the lollipops and the troll dolls that my dad the dentist gives out to any kid that doesn’t bite him or kick. There are a surprising number of kids who won’t bite or kick if they think they might get something for not doing it. My dad says that proves  they can control their heathen impulses and if it was up to him he’d beat every last one of them for their cowardly ways and it was just proof that the City of Cocola was founded by fools.

The City of Co-cola was founded in 1896 by Jebediah Wright, a candy and whisky maker who moved from Sioux City Iowa to Flagstaff just in time to not freeze to death that year and with enough provisions to make a good living for himself when he set up the next spring.


 (15 minutes, just a scrap of an idea)


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.


“We will leave you with your corkscrew and your friends,” Minnow said. Apparently it was the royal We who was leaving, as she’d arrived alone and left alone not ten minutes later. There was a flounce in the way she said it. She shuffled out the door though, a girl who’d never really learned how to flounce.

There’s one sort of fool as dense as a donkey. Minnow was that sort of fool. Accepted every invitation, declined every opportunity, made a sad, sorry fool of herself simply by being eager. Eagerness does not breed respect.

So when a crime was committed in their small northwestern town, there was a brief lag time between when the criminals settled down to enjoy their booty and when they realized that Minnow had been there, invited but invisible, through some very incriminating discussions.

Of course, you’d have to be a fool to believe you could commit a crime involving banks, money and small towns and think no one would recognize you. These boys were cousins to half the people in Sedro Wooley. Maybe they thought they’d be mistaken for another set of cousins. Or maybe they thought they’d be so unfamiliar in their ski masks that they’d just not be recognized at all.

In truth, though, the two of them stood out like a pair of turtles on an ox cart.

“In’t that Jimmy?” said the security guard as he sat watching the video with Dee, the lone afternoon teller, immediately after the heist. He’d missed the moment himself, having excused himself to go to the men’s room. Dee nodded, screwing up her face to look at the grainy video.

“Jimmy, yeah, I think so. Looks like Larry standing right behind him.” Dee was a cousin, a cousin who’d run with a different crowd. She was the more churchy type of cousin. Larry’d split her lip pushing her down on the playground in third grade. She might have forgotten that before, but it came back to her now as she watched him and Jimmy playing big bad bank robbers on video.  Dee and Ed, the security guard, were uncomfortable about busting their own cousins, third or by marriage or whatever. It was that small of a town. After a short, awkward pause, they overshot the video at just the point where it was obvious which set of village idiots had pulled this stunt. They’d talk to the boys’ dads, they figured, work things out in private. Might even turn out to be good for Dee and Ed, come to think of it.

Meanwhile, Minnow was being her usual, fish-out-of-water self. Hanging around at the video store near the mini mart, she was drinking a big gulp and eating corn nuts. She was a loud, unselfconscious snacker, crunching and slurping, and several people in the video store changed aisles to avoid contact. Down around the M section of action and adventure, she ran into Jimmy and Larry. Head on. Looking up from her bag of corn-nuts, she eyeballed the loot they’d put in their cart. Who gets a cart at the video store? She thought.  

“Hey,” she said. “What’d you do, finally rob that bank like you’re always saying?”

“Fuck,” said Larry.

“Shit,” said Jimmy.

They grabbed her by her skinny stick arms and dragged her out of the store, and such was the power of her invisibility that no one thought a thing about it. Went on a road trip that ended in a cabin that belonged to another cousin, and by the time Minnow was found,  the next spring, it took a couple days to thaw her out, that’s how iced she truly was.

Bodily fluids

It was a hot day in the city. A bead of sweat trickled down her neck, and she thought to herself I really have had enough of bodily fluids for one day. She took a tissue out of her bag and wiped at the back of her neck. The tissue, sodden, shredded immediately, and she looked at it in disgust.

The man at the falafel cart made a sudden hooting sound at her, “Hey miss Lady,” he said, “here you go, here you go.” He held a handful of napkins out to her. Her first impulse was to throw her soggy, sweaty Kleenex in his face and curse his children, but she did realize it was just her bad day speaking. She calmed herself, set her face in a civilized gracious neutral, and accepted the handful of napkins, sopping at her neck, her forehead, even down the front of her shirt (turning slightly aside as she did this).

“Thank you,” she said, stiffly, but sincerely.

“No problem, Miss,” the falafel man said. “You want a drink, I got Orange Fanta and Root Beer, nice and cold?” She admitted that an Orange Fanta would be pleasant, and he fished one out of his cooler.

“I’d give it to you for nothing, you know, only I work hard for the money,” said the vendor, with a look that suggested he’d been watching her cross the plaza every day as she left the labs.

“That’s okay, but thank you so much,” she said. She paid for the Fanta and left a tip that was too large, just to put that distance between them. The falafel man’s face fell just a little, but he smiled and waved, bravely, as she left, crossing the plaza to the bus stop. The number 17, as always, he noted.

When she arrived on the scene this morning, the day was already hotter than anyone expected this early in the year. The university, with its hardwood floors and wide open windows, seemed foreign to her, accustomed as she was to grey walls, formaldehyde, fluorescent lights and the chilly certainty of dead flesh in drawers lining the walls on three sides.

There was a pool of blood still oozing from his head when she got there, reaching into the pile of student papers on his desk. If only the campus police had responded immediately to his call – his hand was still on the phone – they might have gotten there before this final student assessment. As it was, she put on gloves, gathered the papers, lined lightly in spilled blood, and put them in plastic bags for later examination.

(Writing activity: Group member Andy brought a handful of incomplete sentences with him to group. Everyone wrote the partials down, then we wrote for 20 minutes, using as many of the incomplete sentences as we wanted to create a fresh narrative. Here are the sentences Andy contributed – But I work hard for the money, said
– A pool of blood still oozing from his head reached into the pile of student papers on his desk. If only
– The ship had reached warp speed, and soon the distance between them would eliminate their love, unless
– Pat was in seventh grade with only a hint of facial hair beginning to appear, and dreams that were
– It was a hot day in the city, a bead of sweat trickled down her neck, and)


Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1928.

This year she is solitary and she looks ill. You know, you’ve seen it before. Maybe it’s even been you.

We are a pretty clever set, I fancy, but we have a good many advantages. Being solitary is not one of our advantages. We are joiners, we support, we advocate, we are featured in our local papers. We are social and cultural, we contribute to our communities. You know us.

The people I love the best jump into work head first. This was a surprise to me at first, but in retrospect, I can see that this was, I don’t know, predictable or inevitable. Predictable or inevitable – how are those words alike, how are they different?

When I met Ginger 20 years ago, she went by Jinx. She was a red-headed girl, newly married and boisterous in her outlook. “Is marriage a constraint or a comfort?” She asked during gin nights in our newly married club in the Silicon Valley. This was a very good question at the time, much discussed, and support groups supported questioning and affirmed affirming. Her eyes were often red.  She does not go by Jinx anymore. Or by Ginger. She goes by her birth name, Elizabeth, or Betty, and that suits the person she is now.

This year she is solitary and she looks ill. When I realized she was ill I was transported suddenly and unexpectedly into those years before, when our advantages were both meta-analyzed and taken for granted. She looks ill, like a charcoal sketch of herself drawn by a weak hand, smudged and only recognizable to me who watched the sketch being made.

 The past is a zesty remembrance some days, and a muddy sack cloth clinging, dragging me down on others. She never knew how robustly her love defended me against the collapse of my pride. Or maybe she knew. Maybe we talked about it endlessly, that spiraling rondele of confessional friendship that is as reassuring as a nursery rhyme. Fri Felipe Fri Felipe duermes tu duermes tu. Toca la campana toca la campana, tan tan tan, tan tan tan.

I hear the church bells ringing this morning. The birds sing non-denominational songs. The Ginger-that-was left her husband and that predictability to marry a king of an exotic country, the UAE or Morocco or some such. I won’t say which one, and I should say that Ginger, Jinx and Elizabeth are not her real names. The king has had his revenge, and Ginger is home again, here in the cool foggy land on the west coast of the great experiment.

She is living with me, secretly, in hiding, and she is ill. When I answered her call, it was late for now, but early for then. Around midnight. Meet me in the Mission District, I will be wearing a mud cloth jacket that hangs below my knees. I took her home to my second divorce apartment in the Haight – little remnants of that early assumed privilege. She is feverish and talks a lot. I know too much – I suppose she will have to kill me, but that is a joke not to be repeated.

“I have someone else’s eyes in my head” she says, she moans, repeatedly, for hours until the fever has broken and then she looks pale again and docile as a china doll.

The king does not know yet that she still lives, and it will be a challenge to keep it that way.

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.

Simila says what she knows

The king knows my heart.

In the distance, I hear the wistful baying of the dag-vark, calling their prey out of safe dens. Strange, isn’t it, how the innocent, helpless creatures of every world are so easily seduced? It has always been so, though, and so it was for me.

The king knows my heart, and I, I know something of his mind, and thus am able to control certain small things without his knowing exactly what I do. His heart, though, is still a mystery to me. It is a mystery that keeps me alive, at his discretion.

How did I get to this point, 3.6 light years from my youth, hurled through space in the great lemming-like panic of year 7147? All of us, every light haired, mossy green one of us was thrown by giants from one world to another. Then a sudden, heavy silence, and then the suns came up, one, two, three. Number four was Varg-ner, my king.

The king knows my heart. What I know is that, alone, I made horrifying mistakes that I never would have made in community.

Community. There is a word that sticks in my throat. I am the only one of my kind on this world. We, all of us, all of us communal and bound to one another through something that is not blood, not exactly, but is the closest I can come to naming it, were tagged and shipped with our various talents to the planets of my king. One of us per planet. My king’s fear is that two of us, together on a single planet, might link through blood and an unrelenting passion for the secrets of our home planet, and turn it all back. 3.6 light years back. Back to the time before this, or forward to the time after.


“Hold on,” he said softly to the woman, and they took the last step. She turned her face to his, and as the lights came on around them, she watched as his face broke and spread and shot away from her, trails of light, a comet of remembrance, a path that would lead her back to him again some day. However many light years it took.

Brimnook stood in the open spaces of his designated planetary assignment. Trees proliferated here, multivariate trees, branches reaching and writing, word trees spinning words to be harvested and fed to the CGS farms, where words generated and regenerated in a tightly controlled process that Brimnook oversaw, he being the migrant editor of the 7th planet occupied by Varg-ner when the troubles came. The sick trees Brimnook beat, or cut down, or burned. Or hid. For his eventual return, following the path left by his home-mate, his moss green woman, the woman who fed him words to sustain him through all of this time, travel, travail and now, through the secret door that would take them all back home.



When I finally got home, I nosed around hesitantly, as if I were an intruder in a forbidden kingdom. This, though, was my kingdom – no, our kingdom. Where we’d been there was no word for “we,” or “us”. My job had been to cut all such words out of the bleeding trees and to destroy them. The king, though, although he knew my heart, did not know my mind, and it was a bittersweet task to betray him by taking those words, us, ours, yours and mine, we, and using them to collapse his interplanetary kingdom, as gently as pulling a string, as tipping over a single tile, as tossing one small stone down a steep mountainside.

(30 minutes, Monday writing group. Genre fiction – romance and sci-fi standard terminology blended.)


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July 2020